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Chapter 32.4

“For the first time he had felt fear about life, for the first time he had truly understood that when life had sentenced you to suffer, this sentence was neither a pretense nor a threat. How meaningless it was, empty, empty, empty. This hunting for yourself, slyly observing your own tracks — in a circle, of course; this pretending to throw yourself into the stream of life and then at the same time sitting and angling for your yourself and fishing yourself up in some peculiar disguise! If only it would seize him: life, love, passion — so that he wouldn’t be able to invent it, but so that it would invent him…. it was sweet to dream himself so bitterly insignificant.”

–J.P. Jacobsen, from the novel “Niels Lyhne”

LETHIA_________________________

Lethia Artaud was in a place of irrefutable oppression. It lined her lungs with every maligned breath, the curse and cultivation of nightmares stirring her spirit to paranoia and incredible self-loathing. The walls shimmered incandescent with a prism of colorful energy that stirred creatures outside the castle keep to hoot and howl and holler. She lay in a bed of silken sheets, her slip of a gown feeling foreign on her skin. She pulled the thick blanket up to her chin and stared up at the ceiling–a swirl of cauldron blacks, candy reds, and bruised purples. The doorway to her small quarters lacked a door. She was not allowed to have any privacy after her last attempt at release. The girl touched her left wrist under the blanket.

She’d have to change the bandage again soon. The wound was beginning to pucker.

In the months since she’d come to this hell, Lethia had seen her friends suffer, find hope, then suffer even more. It was like a vicious cycle, spiraling downward to the inevitable end they were all facing. The guilt she felt kept her from sleeping. She missed Argos so much she laughed at the irony of the fact that he was a dog. The days were a relentless parade of lectures, cleaning, cooking, and studying. In summary, it was almost normal, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. The castle keep was lost deep within a dark forest, surrounded by a swarm of monsters and evil spirits. It was a place of nightmares, and the teenager was trapped in it.

Syria gave her a potion to help her rest, and Lethia found she liked the dreamless coma she’d slip into upon drinking the concoctions. Only she didn’t drink her dose that night. Something kept her from it. Maybe the sudden realization that Syria was poisoning her somehow.

She understood that time in the Other Place was different than other dimensions. For Elmiryn and Quincy, Holzoff’s was a week in the past. For Argos, nearly two. Hakeem and Nyx’s “Twin” had been there a month. And Lethia? Eight months. Eight. She’d watched everyone’s journey in real time, and yet she had been there the longest. This paradox was beyond Lethia’s comprehension, but she also understood that the Other Place was not a place to be understood. It was a place to divide, to diverge, and to deny.

“What have I lost then? Besides Argos?” she had asked Syria some time ago. “Everyone else has lost something here…what have I lost?”

“I cannot know that, my dear. Perhaps you did not lose anything?” Her mistress was a mystery, because though she was usually in perfect view and good light, her face always seemed obscured somehow. In all the eight months Lethia had been there, even when up close, she had not seen Syria’s face. It was disturbing–a sign of the corruption that had taken her. Of the mark that now branded her the pet of–

“Lethia.” The young enchantress was snapped out of thoughts to see the very object of her attention standing in the doorway. “Come. Another lesson for you.”

The girl sighed and sat up. “Yes, mistress.” Her words were hollow. She had learned to stop bothering to resist, though her thoughts were still harder to regulate. Syria could hear all, sense all. It was probably why she still insisted on these “lessons” of hers. Lethia had never known true loathing, but the feelings she held toward the woman could only be described as much. Yet even this was not more than the loathing that Lethia felt for herself.

Vicious cycles, and all that.

It didn’t take long to pull on a robe and slippers. Normal amenities were somehow in easy reach in this place. Or maybe they were just an illusion…like her life had been.

When she emerged from her quarters, the teenager entered what was the central study. Here, volumes of old books were stacked on thick slabs of marble. The lighting orbs brought a surreal aura about the space as the cobwebs shifted with personality and the shadows flickered into life. Great thick reams of paper towered up from the floor in teetering heights, each and every one of them scrawled with some esoteric knowledge in a dead language. There was a giant plum-colored sofa chair in the eye of this storm, and Syria sank into it like a butterfly did a flower.

The master enchantress wore a sequined dress, the color of light ink, the fabric cut scandalously down the front so that it resembled a coat of sorts. Her generous bosom was visible, the fabric mysteriously form fitting, and her long graceful legs were displayed. All that kept it together was a golden clasp at the center of her chest, and a slim obsidian belt at her waist. Her feet were bare. They had to be.

No shoe could fit in the tangle of roots that had become Syria’s feet.

Lethia seated herself next to these, her eyes downcast as she folded her hands before her. Listlessly, she took in how her mistress’s flesh transmorphed into live wood from mid-calf down.

“Elmiryn is reflecting on her attack against the Twin,” she heard Syria say.

At this, the girl’s eyes flickered up. She’d been hoping for more clarification on this issue. Now it seemed that moment had finally come. Moments between ‘scenes’ (as Lethia was coming to understand them) was different for them. It had been at least a week since she had seen Elmiryn part with the others to be alone.

Syria held up her hand, and Lethia tried to focus on it, because looking at the woman’s face (or lack thereof) brought about nasty headaches, as though the universe were trying to punish her for seeking what could not be sought. Over Syria’s hand, a white window opened, and the teenager sat up to peer through. When Elmiryn had been hiding inside of her own head after her encounter with Artemis, she’d gained an odd ability to see what shouldn’t have been seen. Lethia was the woman in the window. When the warrior had tried to talk to her, the teenager had tried vainly to respond. But the spell did not work this way. Syria wouldn’t have allowed it even if it did.

In the window, she could see Elmiryn, sitting alone. She was talking to herself, a habit she had picked up when the others slept and she remained awake. Her fae nature was growing stronger, and the things that humans needed were becoming less and less relevant. The fae did not sleep. They did not dream. Their very lives were dreams, populated by their insane and whimsical natures.

Lethia blinked as she saw the warrior throw a rock at the ground. She looked sullen, her cerulean eyes emptied of their usual alacrity and warmth. “What was I thinking…” Elmiryn asked herself.

That’s what I’d like to know… Lethia thought. Having seen everything there was to see about the people she had come to this realm with, she knew and understood the strange circumstances surrounding Nyx and her “Twin” persona. If the Twin, now known as Kali, were to be destroyed, then Nyx would die. If Nyx were destroyed, then Kali would die. While the two personas battled for supremacy within the same body, they were still not strong enough to exist independently of one another. The Other Place, as a spiritual alter-dimension, was capable of sustaining this separation—but for a short period of time. Syria had explained that both sides had already shown signs of decay in their actions. Their time was drawing to a close.

So with so much at stake, why on earth, would Elmiryn try to harm Kali?

As if to answer Lethia’s question, the warrior spoke. “Atalo isn’t my brother. Hell. I don’t even remember what he looks like.” The teenager pressed in closer, her nose touching the magical window so that it tingled. “But god, when that stupid animal said that…when Kali said that…I wanted to…” Elmiryn sat roughly onto the forest floor, her spine slumped in uncharacteristic defeat. With her leg half-bent, she leaned onto it, her arms lax at her sides. “What’s the point?” she sighed. “There…is none, is there?” She didn’t move for a long time, seemingly lost within her own thoughts.

Then suddenly the warrior slammed her fist into the ground and screamed, “Fuck! FUCK!”

What came next broke Lethia’s heart.

Elmiryn started crying. Crying. Real tears streamed down her face, blotching it. Her nose started to run. Her chest heaved with sobs and there was that undeniably broken sound of someone who had had enough. She pulled at the scarf Quincy had lent her till it unwrapped, revealing fully what it had barely managed to cover. The bruises on Elmiryn’s back had darkened considerably, and the long cuts in her skin still looked very raw and painful.

Lethia’s chin crumpled and she looked away. She felt ashamed, like a voyeur seeing something she should not have. She had felt this many times before, but something about this was so much more acute. This was someone’s personal pain, something she knew they would never let themselves show anyone. She even understood the why of it. Elmiryn wasn’t mad about Kali, or Quincy, or even the fact that they still had yet to find Nyx (though that certainly didn’t help)…It was because the warrior had been made to feel something she had never truly felt.

…Powerless.

She stayed there for a long time, just weeping. Then she went silent. The darkness had intensified, signifying that night had come. This shard did not have a sky, nor were the nymphs offering their magic this far from the Lycan village, so Lethia could only assume this was what it meant. With time, Elmiryn raised herself from the ground. She had not fallen asleep at all in that time of stillness. It was becoming less that she didn’t want to, and more that she didn’t need to.

After wiping her face clear, the warrior took some time to fix her hair into the iconic braid that Lethia had become so familiar with. After that, she took the itchy scarf and once more wrapped it around herself. Taking a rock, she marked trees as she went until she came to the stream. There she washed her face and drank some water. Her hands shook visibly. When she was done, she followed her markings to return to the place she had cried, which was not all that far from her companions’ camp. Upon returning to the others, she found they were all asleep, with the exception of Gudahi, who kept watch with a small fire. He did not act surprised or confused by her sudden appearance. Not surprising. As a Lycan, he probably sensed her coming.

What Lethia did not expect, nor Elmiryn too, it seemed, was the man offering the woman a small branch of leaves. They were light green and shaped like tear drops.

The warrior stared at it. Then at the man. “What’s this for?”

Gudahi gestured at his eyes. “To help with the swelling,” he said quietly.

Elmiryn’s face reddened. With a snatch, she took the leaves from him, and for a second she looked as though she were about to throw it into the meager flames. Then she paused. Her body was still tensed, the muscles of her athletic form like coiled springs ready to explode in a burst of energy. Gradually, she relaxed. She lowered the hand holding the leaves and sat down on the other side of the camp fire.

“What do I do?” she muttered.

Gudahi mimed with his hands, his eyes on the flames. “You tear the leaves and crush them in your hands. Then you take your fingertips and lightly dab the juice around your eyelids.”

Lethia watched, fascinated, as Elmiryn began to do as instructed. When she came to the part of dabbing the eyes, she asked, “How do you know this stuff?”

Gudahi smiled wanly. “My sister cries all the time for our dead brother.”

This was met with silence.

Elmiryn carefully set the leaves aside, grimacing as she wiped the sticky leaf juice onto her pants. Lethia didn’t know what they were called, and she wished the warrior were curious enough to ask, but she made a point to remember the look of the leaves in case she ever needed them. Which she suspected she would.

“So did things go to hell while I was away?”

Gudahi shrugged. “Kali was not pleased, but I get the feeling she is used to that. Quincy was her same ornery self. Sanuye was unshakeable as ever. And Hakeem was simply beautiful. Does that answer your question?”

The warrior narrowed her eyes at the man. “Why do you pant after Hakeem like that? He’s a kid.”

“I do not pant after him, as you say. And I wouldn’t dream of touching him as he is now…but I know what he was. Isn’t that enough?”

“It’s still weird.”

“You just dislike it because you dislike me on principle.”

“You’re right. I do dislike you.”

Lethia frowned, though this behavior had become the norm for Elmiryn as of late. The warrior was known for her candor, but also for her inexhaustible sense of humor. Even when angry, she seemed to try and make things a joke. That energy seemed gone now.

“You mustn’t worry,” The man sighed delicately. “Nyx shall be all yours…and I? I shall be alone.” He touched his heart with an exaggerated look of pain. “Oh so alone.”

Elmiryn’s head lolled back and she stared up at the forest canopy. “And not a single fuck was given that day…”

Ohuff! You are so mean.”

The redhead smirked. “You should see me when I’m on my period.” Lethia snorted into a laugh. So her humor wasn’t all gone. That was reassuring.

Gudahi chuckled as well. “There it is.”

Elmiryn gave him a curious glance. “There what is?”

He looked at her with a kind smile, his fingers idly twirling one of the teardrop leaves. “That part of you that made Nyx fall in love. You bring levity to an otherwise heavy life.”

The woman blinked, but said nothing. She seemed oddly surprised. Gudahi looked at her when her silence assured no response. “Oh? Surely you must’ve known. I hope you did. Please, say you did! I cannot stand the thought of my pet being cross with me!”

She frowned softly. “I’ve known. I can…hear it. When she spoke to me, it was there.”

“So what is wrong? You should be happy.”

Elmiryn’s frown deepened and she gazed into the fire. After a moment, she whispered, “I wonder if I’m being selfish.” Lethia barely caught it. She bit her lip as Gudahi took a deep breath.

But all he said was, “Ahhhh…I see.”

“I mean, when we met, I had to press her to come with me. And then? She got tossed into all of my crazy, is what. Gamath, Albias, the Other Place…none of this would’ve happened if I’d have just—”

“This is where I’m going to stop you and go to sleep.”

The woman sputtered. Clearly, she wasn’t used to being brushed off, and this made Lethia smirk a little. “What the fuck? I’m opening up, which, if you haven’t noticed, is like finding a midget’s pot of gold up your granny’s snatch—and you’re just going to fucking sleep?

Gudahi gave her a dry look. “You’re still missing the point.”

“That you’re an insensitive twat?”

“No. That Nyx, despite all she’s gone through, still fought to be by your side.” He raised an eyebrow at the woman. “After all, isn’t she always telling people about how she was, ‘Literally torn apart!’ trying to find you again?” Gudahi managed to mimic the Ailuran in what Lethia thought was an eerily accurate voice. “If you can’t understand the sort of resolve that takes, then perhaps you really aren’t meant for her.”

Elmiryn blinked after the man as he went to sleep. She didn’t move for a time. Then, just as she seemed to come out of her shock, Syria closed the window to the scene. Lethia looked at her mistress in surprise. The way she always sat so silently, the girl almost forgot about her. The woman, with her hair curtaining her face, reclined in her sofa chair and steepled her fingers on the arm rests.

“What have you learned?” her voice was a soft murmur.

Lethia closed her eyes wearily. She hated these sessions. She never knew what the woman’s exact point was. Since coming to the Other Place, it were as though her sense of teaching had taken a turn for the abstruse.

“I have learned…” As such, the girl usually just listed off whatever she could possibly think of. “That Elmiryn can be broken. That she both craves, yet fails to understand Nyx’s love. That she may be incapable of reciprocating that love, no matter how much she wishes to. That she is very fearful, probably more so than anyone she has ever met. She is also lonely beyond words due to her own need to safeguard herself. Artemis is getting to her more than she wants to admit. But her fae nature has given her a power to resist the way of the gods, and thus, she is even more alone than she knows. It eats away at her, in her subconscious, because she can’t put it into words anymore than the people around her can. Elmiryn is alone because she lives outside of the world, and the one person who can reach her is missing from her life.”

Syria let out a pleased murmur, her long black tresses shifting as she tilted her head. “Now why can we understand these things?”

Lethia swallowed hard. With a trembling voice she whispered, “Because we are outside of heaven’s will too.” Only she felt ill as she said this. Maybe that was why she couldn’t see Syria’s face. Maybe that was why Syria insisted on these ‘lessons’. To make Lethia truly free of the gods…

…Even if she didn’t want to be.

“Good. Good, my dear!” Syria leaned forward to stroke Lethia’s hair, but the girl flinched, and her mistress pulled back her hand. The woman sighed. “Ahh…Lethia, my sweet girl…you will understand someday.”

Syria floated to her feet. “I have business to attend to with our host. If you could please see to it that She is fed?”

Lethia paled. She clasped her hands before her and shook her head emphatically. “Mistress! Oh mistress, please! Don’t make me!”

“Come now, what’s with all this?” The enchantress managed to sound mildly vexed.

Lethia sobbed, her eyes clouding with tears. “No! No! Please! Don’t make me go down there! I won’t try and kill myself again, I promise!

Lethia!

The amount of force in Syria’s voice shook the teenager down to the bone. She froze and looked up slowly. Her mistress bore down on her, and through the black curtain of her hair, the girl could see a shifting, flesh-colored storm of features, searing amongst which glared a single eye. The predictable pain came, slicing through Lethia’s head like a knife. She hissed and groaned, her eyes squeezing shut as she bowed her head.

Then the touch came, and Lethia felt drops of something wet fall onto the back of her neck. Her head raised a fraction. Her ears perked to the sound of hitched breathing—like when someone was trying their hardest to keep their tears in check.

“Lethia, you are precious to me. Can’t you see that? I have gone to great lengths to keep you safe! You are…you are everything to me, despite how things may appear. Just as Nyx has shown her resolve for Elmiryn, so is my resolve for you! And I won’t give up! I won’t. But I cannot protect you if you fail to heed my words. This is just for the one time, Lethia. Feed her, and I swear I will find a suitable cohort to take that duty. In the meantime, this must be done!”

Lethia closed her eyes. There were moments like these when Syria seemed almost like her old self. But that person was dead and gone, much like the Lethia of yesteryear.

“Yes, mistress,” was all that she could say.

 

————————————-

 

Dressed in her old traveling clothes, the girl carried a picnic basket weighed down with raw meat. The blood dripped through the wicker. Not for the last time, she wished Argos were with her.

Lethia hated leaving the keep. One good reason was for the horde of terrible creatures that seemed to cavort about the castle keep’s grounds. They were in a perpetual party, celebrating their master’s rise to power. Not Syria. The girl’s mistress was just a pawn, and the woman had even admitted as such. No, the spirits and demons that came here all worshipped the ruler of the keep. Just at the thought, the girl shivered in revulsion.

Just stepping down the keep’s path was like trying to wade through a garish orgy. Lethia covered her mouth and nose with a handkerchief, her old brown traveling boots stepping gingerly over rivers of blood, alcohol, and rotting food. She thought she felt Syria’s eyes watching from a window in the keep, but when she turned to look, she saw no one. She was effectively alone. Thankfully, the spirits didn’t pay her any mind. It was as though a silent word from their master had been all that was needed to give the girl safe passage through their cabal.

Another reason Lethia hated leaving the keep was because of the woods that surrounded it. The blackwood. As she left the throes of the party, she came upon the edge of the strange forest and swallowed hard. Here, the trees seemed to be voids of color, their forms simple black shapes in a sea of colorful spectrums. Lethia shivered as she passed them, for they hummed whenever she ventured too near, and coldness entered her bones.

Doing her best to travel carefully so as not to touch any of the trees, or run into the wandering spirits that had somehow drifted from the endless party, Lethia made her way deep into the blackwood until the keep was a small sight on the horizon. As she made her way through a clearing of hummocks, she came to the mouth of a large den. The stench there was thick with death and blood. Lethia gagged behind her handkerchief, her body trembling.

Slowly, she lowered her hand from her face, and she managed to call out.

“…Hello?”

A willowy voice spoke into her ear, “You’re late.”

Lethia dropped the basket and screamed. In her haste to get away, she tripped and fell, scraping her knee. Her breath caught as a shadow fell over her. With tears in her eyes, the girl looked up.

Nyx stood there, head cocked to the side. But this was not the Nyx Lethia had once known. This Nyx was covered in black fur, except for her face. She had pointy black ears on either side of her head, and her wild mane of hair seemed longer. Her eyes were cold cat eyes, her nose pink and heart shaped, her upper lip thin and split. Beneath those lips peeked sharp fangs. Her features were stained and dirty. Her legs were long and thick, with her toes ending in sharp claws, and her foot extending to a hock like an animal’s. Her hands were furry, clawed, and padded, the digits stouter than when the Ailuran was in her sapien form. Swinging behind her was a long thick tail. And yet, though shocking, these details weren’t what made Nyx so frightening.

No, it had more to do with the gaping chest cavity that displayed an impossibly empty void.

Lethia flinched away as black ooze from an exposed rib dripped near her boot, sizzling the soil where it fell.

Beyond Nyx’s horrific appearance, there was her intimidating aura—which was eerily similar to her naturally put upon state of existence, save for the underlying sense of darkness, hatred, and murderous intent. With a sulky expression, Nyx held out her hand.

“Lethia…the food, please?”

The teenager swallowed hard and blindly reached for the picnic basket. After missing twice, she managed to catch the handle and dragged it closer to her. With a deep breath, she held the basket out to Nyx, and flinched when the Ailuran took it.

Peering with squinted eyes, she watched sidelong as Nyx went to eat. She crouched some feet away, her back to the girl, and when she began her meal, it were as if her whole body was involved in the process of feeding. It was a loud and disgusting process. All sense of courtesy and etiquette were forgotten for a sort of rabid hunger that even animals would be embarrassed to display, Lethia was sure of it. (“Argos would, at any rate!”) The girl tried not to imagine what meat Nyx was eating with little success.

As she thought, Nyx spoke without turning around. “You need to change your bandage.” Her voice was flat and apathetic. Lethia detected a note of scorn hidden within it.

Nervously, she rubbed the bandage on her wrist. “Uh, yes. Y-yes, I was meaning to, but—”

“Did you go down or across?”

Lethia jerked with the straightforwardness of the question. Quietly she whispered, “Across.”

Nyx snorted, tossing a bone over her shoulder. “You did it wrong.”

Inexplicably, the enchantress felt offended. “I cut in pretty deep,” she snapped. “I went unconscious.”

“But you’re not dead,” Nyx pointed out.

“Not for lack of trying, okay?”

The Ailuran stopped eating, her head slowly craning to peer at Lethia. The girl’s blood froze, and she hurried to her feet. Nyx slowly ripped the head off of whatever it was she was eating—it looked sickeningly like a fetus—and just chewed her food for a while. The way she kept looking at Lethia was making the girl ill.

Finally, Nyx asked around the food in her mouth, “If you want to die so bad, then why are you scared?”

“…Uh…I—I—don’t—”

She swallowed her food and paused in her meal to stare a while longer. Then she whispered. “Lethia, you’re a coward.”

The teenager flinched again, this time her face crumpling for a new onslaught of tears.

“You want to know why you’re a coward?”

Lethia shook her head, her hands going to her ears. “No…please…”

“You’re a coward, because you can’t hold yourself accountable. Oh yes. You cry. I can smell the tears on you. But you secretly wish for people to forget you had anything to do with all the bad things that has happened since Holzoff’s.”

“Stop it…”

“You stay curled up in a ball, hoping that the Syria you once loved will return. You hold everyone else accountable for lofty morals no one even understands anymore, and yet you don’t follow through. Even in hating yourself, you can’t destroy yourself completely.”

Stop it.”

“Does it make you feel better? Saying that Syria is holding you up in that keep against your will, while she grooms me into her new pet monster?”

Lethia shook her head wildly, the tears dripping from her chin as she pressed her palms harder into her ears. “NO! Stop it, please!”

Nyx just laughed, and it sounded just like the old Nyx, except…it wasn’t. It was black. It was cold and hollow and empty. A shadow of her former self. Just like Elmiryn was. Just like Syria was. Just like Lethia was. “You don’t know dedication. Responsibility. Honor. You don’t have the resolve, for it, and so you are a coward, Lethia Artaud, and I have no desire to feast on a coward’s flesh…so if you were looking for some sort of ‘accident of nature’ to happen here, you will be sorely disappointed. I’m not going to relieve you of the pain you deserve.” Nyx turned her head away and took another bite of her meal. “Now get out of here before I break your arms.”

Lethia was only all to eager to comply. She ran through the blackwood, bursting through prisms of taffy orange and hard candy pink. Her clothes snagged on darkness—the infinite ink trying to undo her in her mad escape. She stumbled and tripped and fell. She cried and cried until she could barely breathe. The spirits, in their deviancy, laughed at her as she passed. And as she entered through the keep’s doors and fled to her room, she thought only one thing as she collapsed onto her bed.

Hope is just the universe’s way of lying to you. Identity is just your way of lying to yourself. Love is our way of lying to each other.

So if there’s nothing to do about any of this, do I do nothing? Isn’t that ‘nothing’ something in of itself?

Lethia listened to the mad laughter of the monsters outside, wondering if she already had her answer.


Back to Chapter 32.3 | Forward to Chapter 33.1

Chapter 32.3

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Everything is my fault. Everything. I’ve hurt so many people. Maybe it’s good that I disappear. Maybe it’s good. Is this why my family left me alone?

 

Hope is just the universe’s way of lying to you.

 

All that pain and struggle…and for what? There isn’t any point when we become the thing we fear most. Honestly, how do you come back from that? You don’t…you just don’t…

 

If I’m going to be a monster, then please…someone slay me.

 

QUINCY____________________________

When Gudahi managed to wrestle the Twin off of Elmiryn, two things immediately became clear. Firstly, it didn’t matter how much charm and wit the redhead had, she just wasn’t very good at keeping her mysgaji tongue in check. Secondly, the Twin may have been angry…but she wasn’t murderous.

 

Quincy watched, shocked and alarmed like the rest of them as the giant cat roared and knocked Elmiryn to the ground. It was almost a certainty that before any of them could get the beast off her, the warrior was likely going to be missing her throat. But aside from a few harmless cuts and bruises, the woman was fine. The wizard felt her optimism rise. If the Twin wasn’t willing to kill Elmiryn after an insult like that, then there was still a chance to salvage the situation.

 

The Twin had already ceased fighting against Gudahi when he released her. She made no further attempts to attack. The warrior, meanwhile, was cursing up a storm. The past three days had seen her good humor turn thin, and though she had not ceased with her quips and provocations, there was a note of ire and bitterness to it that just didn’t feel like the Elmiryn Quincy had come to know. The wizard was amazed to say it, but she wished the old Elmiryn would come back.

 

As she thought this, she had to hold the redhead back whilst she screamed. “You stupid fucking piece of shit mangy animal—I gave you what you wanted didn’t you!? It was a perfect joke of a name for a FUCKING joke like you! Now where is it? WHERE IS THE BEAST!?”

 

Quincy had enough. Without a word, she drew the woman’s magic dagger from its sheathe.

 

There was a muted hum as all sound was sucked out of the air around them, blanketing them in an unnatural silence…

 

Except for Quincy.

 

“I think that’s enough of that,” she said dryly.

 

Elmiryn whirled around to glare at her. She tried to snatch the dagger back, but Quincy skipped back and pointed the weapon at her. “Ah, ah!” Tutted the wizard. “Do you really want to try and grab at the blade like that?” Backing away slowly, the brunette smirked. “Mmmm…it’s really nice not hearing your obnoxiousness for even a few seconds. But I promise Elmiryn, this will be quick.”

 

Not taking her eyes off the warrior, Quincy turned her head in the direction of the Twin and said, “You want a name, Cat? Then what about Kali?” Elmiryn’s face, so tight with insult and outrage, started to ease. The wizard continued her explanation at the insistence of her gut. She couldn’t see or hear the Twin, but she felt she was on to something. “The name means ‘sister of shadow’. There is a legend told in Crysen of twin sisters named Tali and Kali. None knew where they came from, but they were very talented with magic. It was discovered that Tali’s power became stronger during the day, while Kali’s power became stronger at night. They were polar opposites of one another, but they lived in tandem. They did that because they needed each other.” Quincy finally dared to take her eyes off Elmiryn to look at the Twin. Just as her instinct had told her, the beast was giving her full attention, and nothing of her demeanor seemed to suggest rejection.

 

The wizard nodded toward her. “As I understand it, you need Nyx to exist.  Well she needs you too. In fact, we all need you, but none more so than her. We can’t have light without shadow, Twin. So will you accept this name and help us?” As Quincy said this, she flipped the dagger over, catching it delicately by the blade, then carefully offered it to Elmiryn. The warrior took it with a grumpy look.

 

When the dagger was returned to its sheathe, the sound returned to them in a rush of air.

 

Still, no one spoke for a time.

 

Finally, the Twin stepped forward.  “Kali…” she bowed her head and closed her eyes. When she lifted her gaze again, it was with a fierceness and pride that Quincy hadn’t seen before. “This name is acceptable. You shall all refer to me henceforth as that. I will answer to nothing else. Now…as Nyx’s sister…” the beast squared its paws and tilted its head back. “I will help you find what you seek.”

 

Quincy gave a satisfied nod. “Excellent. Then it’s settled.” She shot Elmiryn a look, before asking next, “What can you tell us then…?”

 

The Twin—Kali—Sat on her haunches and her ears drooped. “I cannot speak of the monster without confessing.”

 

The wizard frowned. “Confessing?” She looked to Elmiryn and found a similar look of confusion.

 

“Yes.” Kali inhaled deeply. Her exhale came out as a low growl. “Back at Holzoff’s Tower, you all know that Syria had used her power to bewitch everyone.  Well as an observer who saw the present like a dream, I was the only one between Nyx and I, who was aware that anything was amiss. I tried to tell her that something was wrong, but my counterpart never did like hearing me, even before I gained the use of Words. Syria sensed my attempts and, with her power, she cast me deep into the darkest parts of Nyx’s subconscious.”

 

Quincy crouched, fascinated as she saw the feline’s face tense. Such emotion…it was hard to believe that such a creature could be the embodiment of Nyx’s animal nature. But perhaps that wasn’t true? Perhaps Kali wasn’t just some manifestation of basic instincts. But if not that, then what?

 

“None of you understand this, because none of you have ever been in the position I have. Being in that place…it is hell. It is cold. It is abstraction. Everything you are is just so much noise in a black vacuum. Being in that place…you could go mad. And maybe I did, a little. But I came across something, in that darkness…something that was strong, but unguided. That was powerful, but mindless. I had told Nyx that there was another shard in our mind, but now I don’t think it was right to call it that. It was just…an aspect of ourselves, something ugly that neither of us wanted to acknowledge so we locked it away and forgot about it. I took its essence, and I used it.” Kali looked straight at Elmiryn, whose face had gone completely slack. Quincy’s heart started to beat faster, and she looked to Hakeem. Her husband’s young face was sporting a look of resignation. The Twin continued, “What I found was rage, pure and undiluted. It was pain, it was suffering, it was hate and fear. I used that power to return to the conscience world and to break Nyx free of her stupor. And when we were sent here…we were split apart, and that essence of suffering…it became the beast.”

 

“You let out the thing that killed Atalo,” Elmiryn whispered. Quincy was surprised to see her eyes had gone teary. “You let out the monster that was inside of Nyx. The part of her she didn’t know how to control…that you didn’t know how to control!”

 

Kali hissed at her, her ears turning flat. “In the end, it was what saved us all. What would have happened had Nyx not inspired your heart to break free of Syria’s spell!? How would we even be alive today if I had not done what I did!”

 

Sanuye growled ominously. Gudahi bared his teeth, his hands fists at his sides. “Countless of my brothers and sisters have fallen for your mistake! Why is their lives worth less than yours!?”

 

“I did not know the beast would part from my control,” Kali spat. “It wasn’t my intention to kill so many, but tell me, when one has a choice between surviving or protecting indifferent strangers—no—racial rivals—what would you choose? And do not speak to me about the weight of my decision when you do not even understand the situation in full! Syria was a powerful woman whose designs were to destroy the world as we know it! Do I know how that would have worked out? No. You want to know why? Because I made a decision, and that led to her being stopped. So do not speak to me that way, puerile pup, until you have to make a choice that not only determines your life, but that of an unimaginable number of others!”

 

“Cut the bullshit!” Elmiryn shouted. “None of us knew what would have really happened! None of us knew what was going on! We could have figured something out! We could have beaten Syria without that thing, so don’t go making yourself out like a hero when you didn’t even understand the consequences at the time you fucking pulled this crap!”

 

“The decision was made, and there’s no changing it! The sooner you can accept that, the sooner we can deal with the present!” Kali snapped.  “Whatever you may think, that beast is out now. It is a part of me…and it is a part of Nyx. Killing it would only result in our deaths!”

 

Elmiryn gripped her sword handle tightly. “So what are we supposed to do, hmm?”

 

Kali snorted at her, then turned to Quincy. “What happened the last time you saw Nyx. How did the beast come into possession of her?”

 

Quincy cleared her throat. “Well. We encountered the monster three days ago, and Nyx tried to stop it using her bardic abilities—”

 

“Her what?”

 

Hakeem spoke next. “Nyx has an old power, and I suppose you do too.  It is one that allows her to turn her voice into kinetic force, among other things. She tried using it to fight the beast.”

 

Kali’s eyes widened. “But if we all share the same power…”

 

Quincy nodded gravely. “In the end, it was able to resist and fight back. When Nyx was down, the monster impaled her with its claws…but then its shadow grew beneath it, and they both sank out of sight.”

 

“From the way the monster struggled to free its claw,” Hakeem said. “It appeared surprised and unwilling. That, and finding you still alive has led us to believe that Nyx is also still alive.”

 

Kali nodded. “If that is so, then I may have an idea where she is. I have not gone there, mind you, but I have known spirits and animals to fear that region, so naturally I steered clear of it as well. If there is ever a place for the beast to lurk, it would be there.”

 

Quincy gave a sigh of relief and started to walk away. “Well, now that that’s settled, I’m going to find something to eat and pretend I have all my fingers. I find this ordeal rather taxing, and any moment spent not thinking about it is a good moment…”

???________________________________

If I am truly so clever, none of this would have happened. I would have seen where the stars were leading me. I would have figured out her motives before we got sucked into this hell. She leaves me to watch them struggle, and at first I thought she was punishing me. Trying to break me.

 

And then I realized she was trying to teach me.

 

I hate her for still trying.

 

I hate myself for still wanting her to try.

 

ELMIRYN___________________________

Elmiryn fisted her cheek as she glowered down at her roasted rabbit. Everyone was quiet at camp. After a brief rest and a small meal, they had resumed their journey with the Twin at the lead. Or wait. She wasn’t supposed to call it that anymore. Now it was Kali…the bitter, self-preserving beast that had visited torment onto the Lycans and started them all on this bizarre search for her better half.

 

Kali.

 

Kali.

 

The woman’s hand shook as she brought the meat to her lips and took a disinterested bite.

 

The large cat was up in a tree, just outside the reach of the campfire, her eyes aglow in the shadows as she silently watched them below. Elmiryn narrowed her eyes at her.

 

“Something is clearly on your mind, so why not just say it, instead of staring rudely?” Kali growled. The others looked up with a start.

 

“Wow. I never thought I’d see the day when an animal talks to me about etiquette.” Elmiryn tossed her rabbit leg onto the ground. She wasn’t hungry anyway. “All right.” The woman stood and approached the tree, moving past Quincy, Hakeem, Sanuye, and Gudahi. Placing her hands on her hips, she regarded the cat above her with a raised eyebrow. “Now that you have your own name, what else do you want?”

 

Kali blinked down at her. “What?”

 

Elmiryn sneered. “It’s a simple question, Kali. You have a name. What do you want now?”

 

The cat turned her head, her ears flicking. “What I want, I will no longer need to beg for.”

 

“But what do you want?”

 

“My own life. I thought that was obvious.”

 

Elmiryn rubbed her forehead. “You mind telling me how that’s gonna work without a body of your own?”

 

“Must you constantly remind me of my plight?”

 

The warrior shrugged. “I just want to make sure we’re clear on the issue here. We both know that Nyx is the real one—”

 

Kali hissed and leaned down, her dark features slipping into the glow of the fire. “And what constitutes real for you, when you see faces in smoke and think the sky is made out of paper? What makes me less important when Nyx needs me to survive?”

 

“She doesn’t need you.”

 

“She is a shell without me! Our survival has been entirely my doing since the day we were born! When she tried to starve herself to death, I kept us alive. When others cornered us, I fought back. When she needed strength to help her friends, I gave her that. Me!

 

“And yet you couldn’t save Atalo for all your gods damned strength!”

 

Atalo would be alive today if that stupid whore hadn’t taken him away!”

 

Elmiryn hardly thought about what she was doing. One moment she was gazing into the haunting depths of Kali’s eyes, the next the cat was pinned down beneath her over the fire pit, the bright embers of the fire scattered and singing her arms and face. The beast screamed, claws out, struggling, but a strength that the woman hadn’t felt in a long time appeared in her limbs. She held the beast down, her vision tunneling as she hissed over and over.

 

“Die, die, die, die, die…”

 

“Elmiryn, get OFF her!” Arms wrapped around the woman’s throat and pulled her back. She could smell that wild musk of fur and sweat and forest. Phantom memories of hands holding her down and teeth raking her skin sent a jolt of panic down her spine. She let go of Kali and let out a strangled yell, her eyes wide, her hands reaching up to scratch at her assailants face. She was lifted bodily into the air and she started kicking her legs wildly.

 

“For heaven’s sake, stop! Stop it! Let her go!” That was Quincy.

 

Elmiryn was released. Without pausing, she turned and launched her fist. She caught Sanuye across the face. The woman stumbled back, but only appeared mildly surprised. Her lip started to bleed.

 

Heaving, the redhead pointed a quaking finger at her. “Don’t touch me. Do you hear me?” Sanuye said nothing. Her eyes flickered to Quincy and Hakeem, but the warrior aggressively held her gaze. “Do you FUCKING hear me!? I said—DO. NOT. TOUCH. ME.”

 

Quincy appeared at her side, and Elmiryn flinched away from her, her gaze wild. The wizard was looking at her like one did a bridge jumper: clearly alarmed, all caution. “Elmiryn, you’ve been on edge since we’ve found Kali. Something happened, didn’t it?”

 

“Nothing happened.” Elmiryn snapped, perhaps too quickly. She stormed away from camp, recklessly smashing through the undergrowth. To her frustration, she heard the wizard follow her.

 

“So then why do you have those scratches on you?” Quincy asked doggedly.

 

“The Twin—”

 

“That’s a lie, Elmiryn. The marks on your back couldn’t possibly have been made by Kali.”

 

The warrior rounded on her, her teeth bared. “And why the hell not?” They were far enough away from the camp that the other’s voices had become indistinct.

 

Quincy shrugged carefully. “Well, for one thing, the fact that the shape and angle of the injuries don’t make any sense for a quadruped to make. But to make things simpler, I’m just going to point out the bruises shaped like fingers on your back.”

 

Elmiryn stiffened.

 

The wizard placed her hands on her hips. “Now that we’re out of earshot, do you mind telling me what’s going on?”

 

The warrior gazed at Quincy for a long time. When she spoke, her voice was strained. “No.”

 

Elmiryn heard the other woman sigh heavily as she walked away.

 

???________________________________

The sphere before her sat on a billowing geyser of smoke, and within its watery depths, the girl could see the two women split–Quincy returning to camp, and Elmiryn wandering off to be alone. The trials of the Other Place were deepening the cracks in their resolve. The more their problems fissured, the less likely any of them would survive.

 

“Elmiryn’s suffering comes from her failure to understand that she is simply a toy. Toys do not have goals or ambitions, and never do they act independently. They are containers of the imagination, to be filled with the dreams of whoever handles them. Her world does not know free will, though she is given the illusion of such. In reality, her existence is determined by causality.”

 

“But she resists. Her ability to resist should denote a capacity for free will, shouldn’t it?”

 

“She is an actor refusing to play her part. But the show must go on, as they say, even if the play must carry on without her.”

 

“In denying participation, she holds herself ransom against the world. That is indicative of a spirit capable of controlling the outcome to her liking.”

 

“But you’re assuming that she is a key component to the issue at hand.”

 

“…Isn’t she?”

 

“That’s what she would like to think.”

 

Then what does that make you, Mistress?  Lethia thought, her eyes tearing with despair.

 


Back to Chapter 32.2 | Forward to Chapter 32.4

Chapter 32.2

ELMIRYN________________________

The blood came fast, seeping into her mouth and almost choking her. It dribbled out the corners of lips, along her tensed cheeks into her ears, where the world became a muted beast. The blood in her mouth was hot and sour. Her vision rippled. A wail of sound came to her, screeching in violin–

No, no, NO!

You idiot, don’t swallow–

But with a muted pop, the violin voice was gone, and Elmiryn felt her spirit being pulled through her scalp. She felt out of body, up high, like a specter happily shivering in the ferocity of the scene. Her pounding headache, shakes, nausea, and weakness gradually receded. She felt fierce and indomitable. The warrior felt like a predator.

Artemis’s strangled scream encouraged her to bite harder, to the point that the flesh in her mouth was severed.

With a great wrench, Elmiryn twisted her hips and torso, and lifted her arms, overthrowing her attacker as though she were a pillow. The warrior spat out the severed piece of tongue, her eyes fogged in her bloodlust. Her body trembled, excited, fueled by an anger so pure it burned her from within. With a roar, Elmiryn raised her fist, but before she could attack, Artemis swung her arm and caught her with the back of the hand. The blow was powerful, setting Elmiryn on her back.

Her spirit returned to her, and the feeling of invulnerability petered out in the face of her reality. She felt ill, her stomach doing turns as a dull ache came to her head. Her lips tingled. She felt feverish and wondered why her ears were ringing.

Then she heard Artemis laugh.

It was gurgling and thick, but there was no doubt that Artemis was actually laughing. Elmiryn lurched onto her side, her chest heaving as she stared at the goddess. The deity was holding herself up by the arms, blood still dribbling from her mouth to give her a rabid, demonic look. Indeed, her manic gaze seemed unholy, and the warrior tensed.

“Houu has-shh hurr me…” Artemis chuckled, the sound wet and squelching. Her head lolled to the side and she smiled.

When the goddess didn’t continue, Elmiryn made to sit up, dragging her body just a little further away. “What?” She asked breathlessly. The blood was drying on her face, but her lips were still sticky from it. Disgusted, she wiped at her mouth with her arm.

The goddess held up a finger and turned her head. Within the next instant, there was a strange and muted noise like flesh sizzling. Then, the warrior realized with a start that Artemis was growing her tongue back.

Giving her new tongue a quick click, Artemis returned her eyes to Elmiryn, grinning smugly. “Ah! Much better! Now, as I said before…thou hast hurt me…truly…but not verily.” She raised a hand. “Still. As the infinite sky above us, this truth cannot be changed. Thou were able to remove a piece of mine person. And that is commendable enough. I am not surprised, but I am pleased.”

Elmiryn stared at her in disbelief. “So this was a game to you?”

Artemis’s eyes rolled upwards as she absently wiped her face. Though she didn’t get all of her face, the blood seemed to vanish all the same. “Well, I would have said ‘test’, but a game? I suppose that is fair to say.”

The woman’s face grew red. “Fuck you! Fuck you!! Who do you think you are?”

Artemis raised an eyebrow. “A goddess.”

Elmiryn scrambled to her feet, her knees weak and her illness swelling like an angry balloon. “You’re a fucking monster!”

The deity laughed as she stood, her graceful body practically glowing in the dark. “Oh come! You speak as one proper-false. It was not so bad. Look. Thine ambrosia goes unstirred…” And the goddess gestured at Elmiryn’s pants, her lips curling in a leer.

The warrior bared her teeth, her face flaring as the situation stared her down once again. The helplessness. The bewitching aura that had steered her mind clear of all rationale. The cold and listless feeling as things spiraled out of her control. Artemis had nearly…

Elmiryn’s hand drew her sword and she dared a step forward.

Artemis’s eyes dropped a fraction. “Mmm…this is more like it!”

With a yell, Elmiryn swung her sword at a diagonal cross, her back stinging from the cuts the Wolf Mother had raked down her spine. She felt her hate magnified by Artemis’s smirking lips–her sharp gray eyes taunting the woman mercilessly. But her target moved faster than she could comprehend. With a strike to the chin, Elmiryn flew backwards, her vision erupting in stars as her jaw stung. When she landed, she found it was more than pain that kept her down. She couldn’t move. She tried lifting her arms, her head, but they just twitched pitifully. She opened her mouth to speak and found she couldn’t.

This is it, then. Elmiryn thought with disgust. I manage to literally fend off an army of men, and in the end, a woman has me on my back. This is just great. I bet Halward’s laughing at me.

But with these thoughts, she felt fear, and it gripped her stronger than anything she had ever felt before. It was worms in her stomach, a cold flash over her skin. Her throat tightened and the woman’s eyes clouded with tears.

Fuck Fuck Fuck Fuck–

She could hear Artemis chuckle over her. Elmiryn closed her eyes tight. She could feel the goddess’s new tongue flick her nipple, making her jerk and her skin break out in gooseflesh. She could feel the deity’s hands on her thighs, squeezing, caressing the sensitive inner region near her sex. Then the hands traveled higher and–

Elmiryn felt something bite her left ear.

She gave a yell, her fist launching in an upward punch. She felt it connect something furry.

Her eyes snapped open.

Wait, furry…?

“RAARGH!! IDIOT! THAT HURT!!”

Elmiryn gave a shout and sat up, her eyes fluttering. “…Cat?

Before the woman was the Twin, it’s rump in the air as it covered its snout with both paws. The creature’s tail lashed behind it, and it growled in great displeasure before raising its head to glare at the woman with its glowing tawny eyes.

“Next time I find Elle the Idiot passed out and bloody, I will leave her there! No doubt, you were doing something unpleasant,” she snapped.

“Wh-Where is she?” Elmiryn sat up straighter, her head whipping about frantically.

“Where is who?” the animal grumbled.

Artemis!

“…Artemis? Who are you talking about?”

Elmiryn stared at the Twin, her brows furrowing. With concentrated effort, she breathed in deep through her nose and out through her mouth. Gradually, her heartbeat slowed and she rubbed at the place over her heart. “I…n-nevermind.”

What happened? Where’d she go?

Then the warrior recalled why she was out in the forest to begin with. Grabbing the Twin around the shoulders, she cried, “Hey! We’ve been looking for you!”

The Twin snapped at her arms, making her let go. “Well stop looking. You’re noisy and annoying.”

“Stupid animal–this is important. Nyx needs you.”

“Well I don’t need her!” The Twin returned to all four paws. She narrowed her eyes and turned as if to leave. “Leave me alone.”

Elmiryn glared. “LOOK you fucking flea-brain–” but distant voices caught her attention, effectively stopping her.

“Elmiryn! Elmiryn!! Where are you?”

“Fiamman! Hey!”

“Elmiryn! Are you all right!?”

“Hey blockhead, quit wasting our time!”

The others. Just how long had she been gone? Was everything just a dream?

…Then why was she half-naked and still covered in blood?

“I’m over here!” She hollered, getting to her feet. She felt a mild dizzy spell and closed her eyes, her hand going to her head. Turning with her eyes still closed, Elmiryn said, “Anyway, as I was saying Cat, Nyx is in–” She dropped her hand and opened her eyes.

The Twin was gone.

Elmiryn kicked at the ground. “Shit!”

“There you a–aaaah!!”

The woman turned to see Quincy standing rock still amidst the trees, her face slack in shock for the second time that day. The wizard slapped her hands to her eyes and turned around. Sanuye and Gudahi appeared from behind her, their eyes inquisitive. Hakeem appeared soon after, and with a short cough, he looked away. Elmiryn looked down at her naked chest and grinned humorlessly. Any other time and this would have been hilarious, only…

“Sorry,” she mumbled, covering herself. “Has someone got something I can use?”

One itchy scarf later, and Elmiryn found herself facing down four expectant faces. She spared them a brief glare before turning her eyes in search of the Twin’s tracks. “What?”

“We’re waiting for you to tell us why you’re half naked and covered in blood,” Hakeem said patiently.

“I found the Twin. Now can you guys help me pick up her trail before we lose her for good?”

“Did she attack you?” Sanuye asked next.

Elmiryn moved to check the last place she had seen the cat, her eyes squinting. “No.” Then she froze, realizing her mistake. Her eyes flickered to the side. “Yes.” Her voice was quieter.

“Tell the truth,” Quincy snapped.

The warrior heard her approach and looked up. The wizard’s face was tense and her eyes were hard. She knew Elmiryn had been less than forthcoming with them before, and now she was fed up with it. That was plain to see. The redhead’s eyes flickered to the other woman’s pearl earring, still dangling from her ear.

That stupid artifact must be giving me away, too…what did Quincy say it does? Let her know what’s relevant, or something? If she isn’t getting any tips, then she must know what I’m saying is bullshit. What truth can I give them without saying I was nearly–

Elmiryn’s face went blank. She adjusted the scarf wrapped around her. It was dark wool. Quincy had tried to give it to her days ago so that the woman wasn’t only wearing her chest wraps, but Elmiryn had refused because of the uncomfortable material. It was itchy and hot. She hoped the others would see this as the reason for her sudden sweat.

“Artemis.” The word barely made it out of her mouth.

Quincy’s eyes narrowed and Elmiryn could see the Lycans exchange looks from the corner of her eyes.

The woman returned to the task at hand. Her voice was tight when she spoke. “Anyway, she’s gone now. The Twin showed up right after her. If we hurry, we might catch up.”

“Leave that to us.” Gudahi and Sanuye appeared at Elmiryn’s sides and knelt to the ground. Putting their faces close to the soil, they sniffed and sniffed.

Both stiffened and exchanged looks once again.

Gihli?” Gudahi asked Sanuye.

She gave a terse nod. “Rothen ron-kwe.” Then without another word, she quickly began to strip.

Quincy gave an exasperated sigh. “Again with the nudity?”

“Get over it,” Elmiryn snapped. She looked to Gudahi. “So I take it you’ve got her?”

The Lycan nodded. “Sanuye is going to run ahead to make sure we do not lose her. We shall follow as quickly as we can.” He turned to Hakeem as Sanuye, now naked, stepped further into the bush, her skin darkening. “Prince of my heart! Would it hurt your pride too much if you rode upon my back?”

“Only if you don’t say it in such a lewd way…” Hakeem muttered.

Elmiryn looked away from them to watch Sanuye shift. Unlike Nyx, whose transformation was slow and painful, the Lycan’s form seemed to shift like water.  Her skin rippled with a full coat of fur, her limbs shifting smoothly and quickly to that of an animal’s. Within seconds, Sanuye no longer stood in her sapien form, but rather, as a wolf, her gaze glowing in the dark. She glanced over at the others, her dark tongue appearing to lick her chops once, before she put nose to ground. Within the next moment, she was off at a full gallop, her slim form vanishing in the dark of the forest.

Elmiryn turned to see Hakeem on Gudahi’s back, and Quincy eyeing him suspiciously. “Ready, Elmiryn?” The Lycan asked.

The woman gave a silent nod.

For once, something is going to go as planned. I fucking swear it.


HER_____________________________

Since coming to this sweltering cesspit of hot weather and torpid beasts, I have known something of freedom for the first time in my (arguably) short existence. Since knowing awareness, I had felt trapped and stifled by my other half’s constant hatred and fear of me. But I was free. Finally. Free.

…And freedom brought its own onslaught of miseries, I quickly learned. Suddenly, that extra layer of insight was gone and lost, to where I knew not, but there it was. My lacking experience and my basic animal instinct was all I had to survive and find pleasure with in my new phantom world. The survival came easily. Before my sense of self appeared, I was the very spirit of survival after all. But pleasure…? I realized with a sinking sense of depression that I had no idea how to find joy or happiness for myself. In fact, I seemed to have every reason to feel sorrow and regret. Stalking the forests, I heard the monster, heard the havoc and carnage it wreaked upon the land. In its wake, it would leave nothing save for that miasma of death and despair, but hidden in the scent was a lace of something I knew. I shied away from the truth, feeling ill and frightened beyond comprehension. On my own, I do not think I could have parceled out my emotions any better than an infant would an alchemical formula. With this misery over me, suddenly my basic sense of survival seemed so cruel and terrible that my hunts for spirit flesh led me closer and closer to the Lycan tribe. Though I knew they would see me as a threat, still I ventured near, because I had nothing. No one.

Naturally, I had to find Her.

My other half, my Twin, my sapien counterpart split free of me as I was her, and there we sat staring at each other for the first time in separate states of existence. Finally, that small sliver of doubt that had haunted me was answered. I was not a figment of her imagination. I was real, and none could deny my existence.

But like all things between Nyx and I, the meeting was painful and infuriating. As I had suffered, alone and dodging the spectre of my own mistake, so had she been living her dream of singularity, and with that freedom, the joy of love.

Joy.

In my solitude, I had become better practiced at the verse of sentient minds, but nothing could adequately explain the depth of rage and jealousy that I felt toward Nyx upon sensing Elmiryn’s scent intimately weaved into hers. That heady scent of sex. That spice of attraction.

Villain! That you would know a thing apart from me, and still demand that I yield to your desires! What of me!? Am I not allowed to know my own brand of joy?

…And there I was, still nameless and shunned when the return of the despicable monster broke our unhappy reunion short. I fled, seeking my refuge, and I did not know what became of Nyx.

But Elmiryn’s sudden appearance just now gave me an idea. If only I cared.

Certain that I had no reason to fear being followed, I moved as carefully as I could through the woods, mindful of my trail. I sensed, however, a presence behind me. Spurred on, I tried to shake the feeling only to find that it was doggedly keeping pace with me. Now alarmed by what I knew to be a pursuer, I took haste through the forest, taking all the ways familiar to me in the hopes of losing them. But with each clever twist and deceitful turn, never did I lose them. My alarm rising to all-out panic, I did the only thing I could think of–

I climbed up a tree.

It was a beast of an oak, with thick tangles of branches that supported my weight without trouble. I peered down into the dark, and soon I saw my pursuer. They peered up at me with eyes fierce amidst a warm face of fur. A wolf. A Lycan, by the scent of them. Now my embarrassing tactic seemed less silly. There was no hope for me to lose this creature. The Lycans were as one with the land, and understood every inch of it intimately. Really, it was a small comfort, knowing that I had practically resorted to fleeing up a cliche just to deal with my racial rival. Just to make matters worse, I could’ve sworn the mongrel down below was smirking up at me.

Not long after, Elmiryn and her comrades appeared. Nyx was notably absent. My suspicions were confirmed. The warrior approached my tree, her eyes squinting up at me. Then she grinned suddenly.

“Cat. Tree. Funny!” She said with a chortle.

I just narrowed my eyes at her. “Human. Idiot. Unsurprising.

Quincy raised her eyebrows. “Well. She’s observant, at least.”

Elmiryn spared a moment to shoot the wizard a glare. Her demeanor became grave. “Twin. Get down here. We need to talk.”

“We are talking, you ungodly sack of refuse.”

“This is just as much fun as that time I got stabbed in the shoulder…and had my arm dislocated…and had my head beat in by a Lycan…Quincy, am I missing anything?”

The wizard thought seriously for a moment before answering. “Vicarious nipple tear.”

Elmiryn pointed in Quincy’s direction. “And that. Multiplied by ten. That’s how much I fucking enjoy this skit right now, Cat.”

“So let’s end the charade and go our separate ways,” I spat. “Whatever you have to say, I am not interested!”

The woman kicked the tree. “Will you listen to me!? Nyx is GONE. The beast has her! You’re the only one who seems to know anything about that thing! We need you to find her!”

“Maybe she wants to be GONE? Maybe I want her to be GONE? Why is it always about what Nyx needs and not Me?

“And who the fuck are you?”

“A mere shadow. Clearly,” I growled, turning my back.

There was a heavy sigh.

“What can we offer you that would persuade you to help us?” This was a voice I had not heard before. My ears perking, I turned to look over my shoulder. Ah. It was the little dark skinned boy. When I didn’t answer, he continued. “There must be something you want. From our last meeting, it was plain to see you were less than pleased with your life as it was. What can we do to improve it?”

“Hakeem–” Elmiryn started, but Quincy held up a hand and gave a terse shake of her head. I saw all of this out of my peripheral vision. My eyes were on the boy. This was Hakeem? I remembered only a strong and confident man. This child certainly resembled him, but…

“And how can you give me what I seek?” I asked suspiciously.

It was the tall dark haired man who spoke next. “We can only know once you tell us what you want, of course.”

I spared him a look, then shifted so that my body was turned a quarter of the way around. My tail flicked idly at the tip. “Then this is what I want…” I leaned down, my chops pulling back in a sardonic grin of fangs and whiskers. “A name…”

No one said anything for a moment.

Elmiryn tapped her chin, her lips puckering as she gazed up at me. Then she pointed at my nose.

“Winky Woozerton.”


Back to Chapter 32.1 | Forward to Chapter 32.3

Chapter 32.1

“Dream me oh dreamer
down to the floor
open my hands and let them
weave onto yours

Feel me, completer
down to my core
open my heart and let it
bleed onto yours

Feeding on fever
down all fours
show you what all that
howl is for

Hey hey my playmate
let me lay waste to thee
burned down their hanging trees
it’s hot here hot here hot here hot here”‘Wolf Like Me’ by TV On The Radio, from the album ‘Return to Cookie Mountain’. 4AD; Interscope/Touch and Go, 2006.

ELMIRYN________________________

Elmiryn never slept, but always had sweet dreams from far away places. From worlds that didn’t exist and worlds that did. But the lives she imagined for herself in these foreign settings were all fabrications, fantasies of a lunatic who struggled with bleating thoughts to assuage the pain that blossomed in her chest like a fountain. The only tomorrow she wanted was coming all to slowly, time a slow deliverer of her desire. So the dreams came to haunt her ever waking world.

 

She wanted tawny eyes filled with want, soft and quivering lips, wild jet black hair, and flushed skin that at the lightest touch brought about her name in delicious bleats. She wanted to be enveloped in that wild musk, sweet and intoxicating and wonderful.

 

I haven’t slept in days and I just keep seeing these things. What’s wrong with me? I really am losing it

 

When the others lay sleeping, Elmiryn lay on the ground staring up at the shadows, her eyes a light with phantom visions and tantalizing sights.

 

Nyx, wrapped only in animal furs, hay in her hair, her smoky eyes squinted playfully as soft green light haloed her skin. Nyx, bending over and reaching for her pants, her panties fitting to the shape of her perky ass, the curve and flex of her back like some sculpture artist’s dream. Nyx, her shy laughter echoing through them both as the girl lay her head on the woman’s chest, one hand gently kneading her breast.

 

And the woman decided she was proud of herself–proud that her growing mania for the sharpest of drinks was being rivaled by her need to see Nyx again. But it was hard. To say that it wasn’t would have been a lie. Everyday was a battle to keep her addiction from growing more powerful than her desire to see Nyx. And though both tore at her, it was a pain that freed her of all falsities. Elmiryn didn’t need to pretend about anything anymore. She felt like an actress ending a long run of performances, the hot roar of a crowd simmering behind her in a great wave of judgment. It didn’t matter what anyone else thought anymore. For once, she felt absolutely free to marry desire with action.

 

That said, she kissed Quincy squarely on the lips.

 

Of course, Elmiryn wasn’t thinking of Quincy upon the act—she was thinking of Nyx. But in that in-between place of her dream-like illusions and the real world, the lines were blurred, and all that the woman saw was a pair of lips that looked inviting. With her arms around Quincy’s neck and their chests pressing together, she could feel the wizard tense up, a strangled cry coming up her throat. Choked sounds came from their companions and the world seemed to pause.

 

Elmiryn finally realized things were not right when she opened her eyes and saw them meet azure.

 

The warrior loosened her grip, ready to apologize when Quincy shoved her down and slapped her. It wasn’t like the wizard to hit open handed, but the shock must have been great, because Elmiryn had never seen her so taken aback.

 

The redhead stared up at her, one hand on her stinging cheek. She guessed the wizard had been trying to rouse her out of her stupor to give her daily dose of tonic. An apology was on her lips, but something told her to keep quiet for the moment. The brunette stared at her, mouth moving to speak, but nothing coming out. Her face was pale, then after a few moments, the tell-tale signs of a blush began to show.

 

…Then the blush turned to a full-on burn.

 

Mkundu msgaji!” Quincy screamed, and finally the rain of punches came. One hand was still injured, and the wizard could barely make a proper fist with it. But her other hand was completely fit for the task.

 

Elmiryn started laughing, her arms going up around her head as she choked out, “I’m sorry—fuck, I didn’t mean to—ha, ha, HA, HA!

 

“Idiot! Barbarian! THIS is what I get! This is what I get for trying to help you, you stupid crazy BITCH! Jinsi kuthubutu wexe!!

 

Suddenly small black arms encircled Quincy’s waist, and a voice could be heard struggling behind her. “Mweze, kuacha!

 

Elmiryn could see Sanuye and Gudahi rise, and in a moment her assault ended. Her laughter, however, did not.

 

“Elmiryn, please shut up.” Hakeem’s voice was colder than usual.

 

The redhead bit her tongue and looked up to see the young Fanaean’s face puckered in displeasure. Still snorting through her nose, the woman sat up and dusted herself off. “I was dreaming,” she giggled. “I didn’t mean to.”

 

“Then please stop laughing.”

 

“Why? It’s funny when she gets mad.” The woman wiggled her eyebrows at Quincy. “Or maybe she liked it a little?”

 

Gudahi had to hold the wizard back again. Sanuye narrowed her eyes at the warrior. “You make light of things you should not.”

 

Elmiryn shrugged and held out her hand, the smile fading from her face as her need surfaced like lava. “Yeah. Whatever. I’m an asshole. Tonic, please.”

 

Quincy let out a small shriek and threw the small vial at the warrior. “Here! Take it! Drink it all! I don’t care if you go crazy! At least when you’re drunk I don’t have to put up with you!” And with that the wizard turned and stormed off until the dark of the wood made it difficult to see her. Without a word, her husband followed her, leaving Elmiryn alone with the Lycans.

 

It had been nearly three days since they left the Lycan village. Gudahi had retrieved Elmiryn’s sword and Graziano’s gun in a quick sprint, Sedwick had been carted off to the medicine man’s hut, and Artemis had all but gone absent. The time passed in a funny way, stretched and condensed by Elmiryn’s yearnings and withdrawals. Of the whole group, she moved the slowest, her shakes and dehydration preventing her from moving at her usual speed. As Quincy had promised, the wizard gave Elmiryn a dose of tonic every day, but in small amounts to keep the vial from being emptied. Every sip made the warrior feel better, but it wasn’t enough to take away the headaches or the irritableness or the nausea or the aches in her body.

 

Now the warrior had the entire vial of tonic in her hands. There was at least half-a-vial’s worth left. Quincy had never given her that much before. How much pain would this take away? How good would this make her feel?

 

“Elmiryn. Let me see that tonic.” Sanuye’s accented voice broke the spell, and Elmiryn looked at her sharply.

 

“Why?” she snapped. “Aren’t we almost there? What difference does it make if I finish this now?”

 

“And you expect the Twin to have a stash of brandy ready and waiting for you upon our arrival?” The Lycan returned archly.

 

Elmiryn soured. Her grip tightened on the small vial. Sanuye took another step forward. “The tonic, Elmiryn. Please.”

 

The warrior cursed. After another full minute, she tossed the vial onto the ground and stomped away. She felt cold and her body trembled. She wanted a taste so badly.

 

…That was why she let the vial go.

 

Every day was a battle to keep her addiction from growing more powerful than her desire to see Nyx.

 

“Where are you going?” Sanuye said. “Come. You need your dose.”

 

“I don’t want it.” Elmiryn growled, keeping her back turned. She clenched her fist and glared at the trees.

 

“But you know what will happen if you do not have some.”

 

“I…do…not…want…it.”

 

The Lycan growled. “Now you’re just being a child–!”

 

Gudahi’s voice smoothly interjected. “Elmiryn, we know you do not want this. But you also know that we cannot move forward, if you cannot move forward. Think of Nyx. You wouldn’t want me to find her first…would you?”

 

His tone was lightly teasing, but it angered the redhead all the same. She turned on her heel and advanced on the man. He was a little taller than she was, but she didn’t care. That just made it easier should she want to punch him between the legs.

 

“Let’s just get one thing straight,” Elmiryn hissed. “I don’t like you, and I sure as shit don’t like the idea of you near Nyx. So when we do find her? Keep your distance.”

 

The man smiled at her, amused. “Oh? Are you saying you own her?”

 

“Don’t be stupid. I don’t believe in owning people. If I did, I’d have owned some slaves. But I never have and I never will. What you fail to understand is that Nyx and I have a bond, and I’ll cut down anyone who tries to get between that. Got that, puppy?

 

“Certainly,” Gudahi chirped. He reached over and took the vial from Sanuye’s hands. Removing the stopper, he held it up for Elmiryn. “Now, your medicine little warrior?”

 

The redhead glared at him before tilting her head back and opening her mouth. The Lycan let a small amount of tonic pour down her throat before closing the vial again and pocketing it. Her throat tickled in pleasure as she swallowed the tonic down. She could feel her stomach get warmer and some of her aggression melted with it.

 

“We should find the others and keep moving,” Sanuye said, handing Elmiryn her sword belt.

 

Without another word, they headed to where they saw Quincy and Hakeem venture off. Elmiryn still thought the Lycans to be a bit strange—they had habits and beliefs that she just couldn’t comprehend. Like when Sanuye sat praying to trees, or when Gudahi swallowed a small amount of dirt each day. They didn’t seem to know what to make of her either, but at this rate, the woman was getting used to that. She was crazy after all.

 

Quincy and Hakeem were found sitting together beneath a poplar tree, hands clasped as the husband whispered to his wife. Both looked up as the three of them approached. The brunette’s eyes turned frosty at the sight of Elmiryn, but the warrior didn’t care.  She didn’t matter.

 

None of them mattered.

 

“Now that everyone’s done nursing their pet problems, let’s get this over with,” Elmiryn said loudly. She turned to Gudahi and Sanuye. “Have you found a trail yet? We’re close aren’t we?”

 

“We are close, but we still have no trail. Given the commotion you humans made, I’m certain the Twin is more than aware of our presence now. She will be careful to conceal her movements.”

 

The warrior feigned disbelief. “Well that’s just great!” She turned and wagged a finger at Quincy. “You see what I put up with?” Elmiryn ducked the rock just in time, and turned to see the wizard stooping down for another one to throw.

 

“You are a plague, Elmiryn!” Quincy shouted.

 

“Enough!” Hakeem barked. Both women stopped. Never had they heard the man-boy so angry before.  He glared at them both, his body tensed and his face twisted. “Did Sanuye not just say that your ruckus is giving us away? Remember what we came for, and for the love of the gods, shut UP.”

 

Taika!” Quincy exclaimed, clearly scandalized.

 

Elmiryn just shrugged and crossed her arms.

 

The Fanaean turned his eyes on the Lycans. “We have no trail, but you know where we can find one, yes?”

 

“The brook is not far from here. There is an ohtak—or spirit gate—near it that would serve as the Twin’s game. If we search between those places, we may find her den.”

 

“Then let’s go,” Hakeem said, his eyes holding a storm. Since they’re departure from the village, the Fanaean had been on edge. Elmiryn suspected it had to do with her and Quincy’s bickering, but when everyone else was asleep, she also spied the boy gazing wistfully into the woods. After spending so much time there, maybe Hakeem missed the village?

 

Whatever the reason, his disposition made the atmosphere of the group all the more tense. No words were exchanged as the five traveled through the thick terrain. The Lycans were in the lead, their knowledge of the area the only protection the others had from being completely and utterly lost. With time, Elmiryn began to hear running water, and through the discomfort of her withdrawal, she began to get excited.

 

“Anything yet?” she asked Gudahi, who was closest.

 

The man silently shook his head. The woman grit her teeth but said nothing more. When the trees finally gave way to the sight of the brook, the group stopped and the Lycans turned to them.

 

“The ohtak is to the northwest.” Sanuye pointed. “If we search the area between, we should find clues to where the Twin is hiding.”

 

“What do we do if She doesn’t want to be found?” Quincy asked, her hands on her hips.

 

“Then we hunt her down,” Elmiryn said, already moving away.

 

They split up, their eyes carefully searching their surroundings for any signs of the Twin’s presence. Since her manic episode at the village, Elmiryn’s senses were more or less back to normal—at least when you ignored her vivid waking dreams and the fact that they were in some weird half-dimension that twisted aspects of true reality.

 

Stepping carefully over the banks of the stream, she moved further and further away from the others. A piece of moss here, a flowering weed there, and pebbles and pebbles and pebbles galore. The warrior crossed the brook, moving northwest, as Sanuye had instructed, but still kept her distance from the others. Closer to the tree line, she thought she saw something—a broken bush branch. Alone, it didn’t mean much. There were other animals in the forest after all. But as the warrior neared, she saw more—animal droppings behind the bush.

 

Given the size of the Twin, Elmiryn thought it possible that these were the cat’s leavings. But they were dry, and the soil surrounding it lacked any distinct tracks to corroborate her assumptions. This fact confused her. Usually when animals stopped to relieve themselves, they left a good impression in the dirt from their squatting. Even dry, compacted soil was likely to show some sign of passing. But the earth was clear of any marks, from the Twin or other creature.

 

Perplexed, Elmiryn moved on to find more signs of animal presence. Berry seeds and chewed up bush leaves. Half-eaten grasshoppers and the carcasses of small animals. The woman’s head began to hurt worse the more she found, her confusion mounting. There were no signs of tracks, resting spots, fur, or fresh scat, though plenty of signs of fresh kills, recent feeding, and disrupted plant life.

 

The sounds of the brook grew smaller. The warrior hardly noticed. The shadows about her thickened and sweat beaded on her forehead. Elmiryn stopped to lean against an oak, the long trails of moss hanging about her like hair as a sudden anxiety began to gnaw at her gut. Blinking, she turned her head to call for the others, but she froze.

 

Nestled in the underbrush from whence she came were the glowing eyes of an animal. It was not the Twin. The Twin’s eyes were tawny, like Nyx’s. These eyes were a familiar gray.

 

Her breath hitching, Elmiryn turned to flee, some animal instinct rising up in her before she could even register it, let alone stop it. As soon as her eyes broke contact, she heard a growl and the sound of something bursting forth through the ferns and bushes. The warrior took a breath, to scream for the others, but it was too late.

 

Something hit into her from behind and Elmiryn was rocked forward hard, her body slamming into the forest floor. Pain shot throughout her. The wind gone from her lungs, the woman wheezed and her hands scrabbled in the dirt.

 

Hands slammed onto her wrists, pinning them.

 

Stunned, Elmiryn stared at them as her attacker chuckled.

 

“Tut, tut! What easy prey you make!”

 

The warrior’s fear lessened enough to allow her anger to take hold. “Artemis!

 

She felt the goddess’s breath on her ear and recoiled. “Yes, Elmiryn?” Artemis whispered. “Is something the matter?”

 

“Get off me!” Elmiryn snarled.

 

Artemis playfully licked the woman’s ear. “But why? I like it here.”

 

“I said, get off–!” but the warrior’s words were cut short when Artemis grabbed her by the ponytail and pulled her head back hard, causing the woman to cry out.

 

“I can either win this hunt with thy love or thy blood,” the goddess hissed, her hand reaching around to roughly grope the woman’s breast, then her neck. “I prefer love, but I have been known to find satisfaction in blood all the same.” Following this, the warrior felt claws at her back. They cut down her spine, into the skin, and Elmiryn grunted in pain. The bandages around her chest loosened and fell away, leaving the blood to flow freely down her back. Next, Artemis ripped out the tie that fastened the woman’s hair back, and it fell about her in tangled waves.

 

Elmiryn felt Artemis move her hand away from her neck to her shoulder, and before she could react, the goddess flipped her over with little effort. The redhead felt her anger turn to rage, her fear all but vanishing. No one ever forced her like this. She was a fighter, a soldier—these things just didn’t happen.

 

Yelling, the woman tried to arch her back and twist her hips, to grab Artemis’s hands and to slip away from the goddess’s mounted position. But the wolfish deity was faster and stronger, and in a blink of an eye, Elmiryn was once more pinned down, her screams of frustration harsh and loud. Whipping her hair from her face, the redhead glared up at the goddess, who smirked down at her. Like Elmiryn, her dark hair was left to hang freely about her shoulders, but what was truly different about the goddess this time was the fact that she was completely naked.

 

As the horror of her situation settled on her, something fought to worm its way in. It was an idea—or perhaps a base bodily reaction—but Elmiryn resisted it all the same. She thought of what it would mean, to give into this notion, what it would cost her. In her struggle to resist, her hatred grew, but still the idea pierced in deeper and deeper…

 

Artemis is beautiful.

 

The tension grew in the pit of her stomach, warmth pooling within her even as she squeezed her eyes shut and tried to turn her head away. She felt Artemis grind into her, the action resulting in an eruption of pleasure that Elmiryn’s growling hitched and she could feel tears of shame welling up behind her eyelids.

 

The goddess laughed as she dipped down, her mouth on the woman’s neck, wet and warm and soft. Her breasts brushed Elmiryn’s breasts, making her nipples perk and her thoughts clouded. They were soft, almost satiny, and for a second the redhead forgot the real reason she was arching her back.

 

When she remembered, a shout tore up her throat and her eyes snapped open. Elmiryn’s struggles renewed and she turned her head in an attempt to push Artemis away. What happened instead made the warrior squirm. Artemis kissed her, first close mouthed, before lips parted and her tongue fought its way through to explore the redhead’s mouth.

 

Elmiryn thought, Bite it!  BITE!

 

But something kept her from doing so. Maybe it was the taste of Artemis—so sweet and fresh and like life itself that it was all the woman could do to keep from coming right then and there. Elmiryn’s eyes fell shut again, and she moaned—both in ecstasy and despair. Try as she might, she couldn’t stop this. Her head was hurting her—from the battle of wills, from her withdrawals. She wondered if she could have even put up a fight at her peak condition. Everything felt so hopeless…but as far as defeats went, was this so bad? Artemis was beautiful, and not many could say a deity had pursued them. Elmiryn was so wet, she had soaked through her undergarments—

 

“What? You thought I’d stay dry as a desert with your hands and mouth all over me?”

 

A flash of startled tawny eyes, unaware of the power they held, unaware of the effects they could bring. And then…a warm tongue, all along the inside of her thigh, tasting Elmiryn’s desire, to the place where her thigh connected to her hip—so close and yet so far.

 

“And the rest you’ll have to deal with.” Nyx’s voice, thick and husky with her passion.

 

Elmiryn’s eyes snapped open, her mind finally clear of its confusion.

 

Artemis may have been beautiful…but the woman did not want her.

 

And so with all the strength she could muster in her jaw, the warrior bit off the goddess’s tongue.


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