Tributaries Cover In Sight, In Mind Cover Blackwood Cover

Chapter 5.1

ELMIRYN________________________

In a flash of heat and scarlet, something smashed out of the canvas of black before her.  It tore through like a parasite engorged on her misconceptions.  She jerked her head to the side and backpedaled away.  Her feet tripped on the uneven ground as a monster came sliming forth into the emerald light.  Veins and angry dark flesh, riddled with cancerous tumors that pussed and bubbled, crept along the cavern floor.  When the thing stopped a few yards from her, Elmiryn found herself staring at a thing that drew itself up nearly ten feet tall…and had no head or mouth to speak of.

Her head tilted to the side and she squinted at it, her previous frustration replaced simply by confusion.  The thing reminded her of a slug, but she didn’t believe it were a slug anymore than she believed it were Meznik.  She wasn’t sure…but was it posing itself in some semblance of haughty pride?  Or was it simply trying to seem as intimidating as possible by pulling itself up to its full height?

From where she stood it reeked…it smelled like…

…Raw uncooked meat, cut from a diseased animal, left to rot in the hot summer sun.  Her mouth watered.

Elmiryn decided she was hungry.

So it was startling to hear the giggle of a stream in her ear.  There were little whispers within the noise that begged and asked for clarification on mysteries she knew nothing about.  She began to shake her head with a frown as she looked around her.  Where was that noise coming from–?

The melancholy sweep of water on land.  The sound came much like the other, but this echoed and reverberated within her bones.  For a brief moment she thought she were drowning…only to realize that this was the pain and torment of the raw meat before her.

“My gods…” Elmiryn rose to her feet, a surprised grin spreading across her face. “You…you’re not uncooked meat!  You’re the river guardian!”  She went to clap a hand to her head when she realized the one she lifted up was the injured one.  Her cerulean eyes fell to it, and the grin vanished.  The blood flowed thicker.  It came down her forearm to drip at her elbow, where she saw her life splatter onto the ground like sloshed drink.

She looked slowly up again.  “I don’t suppose you know what’s going on?”  Furtively, the warrior allowed her eyes to leave the creature before her to search for her missing glove and bracer.  She spotted them a few feet away, the discarded bandages next to them.  Tentatively she took a step in that direction.

The moment her foot touched the ground, there was a sharp screech, and she jumped back with a wince. The guardian’s body, grotesque and amorphous, rippled violently.  Limbs branched out from its upper body, like plants, and curved upwards. It seemed to suck in its trunk, letting its base slither and root themselves into the floor in thick tentacles. Elmiryn stared. “A tree?”

In her ear, she heard the splash of water and startled bubbles. The woman blinked again and touched a hand to her ear. She frowned and shook her head. “What? No. It isn’t me. I’m not the one to ask about that.”

A low hiss.

Elmiryn took a step back and held up her gloved hand, the other she cradled to her chest, in a vain attempt to keep more blood from flowing.  The guardian’s body was turning darker, and steam now emitted from the tumors that ruptured on its putrid skin.

“Now hold on a minute…I have no fucking idea what you’re talking about!” The woman shouted. She couldn’t explain why, but she suddenly felt angry. “I didn’t put that slime on your skin! I didn’t do it!

The branched limbs collected together. They formed two sets of arms and hands, and between them something like a head sprouted. The guardian leaned forward, and its head spread apart in an angry maw of veins and pulsing muscles. Its body coiled.

She didn’t pause to stop and wonder if the thing would attack her or not.  Elmiryn only knew she wanted her glove and bracer back.

The chamber’s light shifted to crimson.

When the roiling flesh leapt toward her, its body a single stream of movement that stretched a good sixteen feet, she dived to the right.    The warrior rolled to a stop, close to her things, and picked them up hurriedly with one hand.  Behind her, she could hear the river guardian slime along the cavern floor.  She stood to her feet as her mind raced.

“Rivers, rivers, rivers…wait…this thing’s a river?  No, no!  It’s a guardian! What are guardians?  Immortal!  But it answers to a higher being–so that means…shit, what does that mean!?”

She began to backpedal toward the dark space where she had seen the creature emerge, when she saw a large “B” shaped passage lit in an indigo glow just across the chamber.  Then Elmiryn realized she backed herself into a corner.  She cursed.

The river guardian surged toward her again with a roar that shook dust from the stalactites above.  The redhead jumped to the side as she frantically tried to wrap the bandage back onto her bleeding hand.  When she managed to wrap a few layers, the fabric was already drenched.  She next went to put on her glove.  Her head began to feel light, and her excited movements caused spots to dance before her eyes.

“I’m feeling dizzy…kinda funny…like…like…”

Her limbs felt immaterial.  They shook and disagreed with her as she struggled to avoid the guardian’s advances.  It streamed, it snaked, it followed through in a clear line of force and wrath that–with each successive attempt–narrowed their separation.  The chamber they were in was mostly circular, the edges of it lined with thousands of little stalagmites on ascending rock beds.

“I’m running around in a ball of death!” Elmiryn thought with a snicker as she nearly face planted onto the ground.  On hands and knees, she glanced behind her.  Not once in this evasive dance was she able to find an opportunity to leave the chamber.

The guardian too, appeared tired.  It warbled, before it slithered slowly toward her.  It seemed to sense its impending victory.

She looked at it and grinned lazily as she snapped on her bracer over her gloved arm, and scooted so that the small of her back was pressed against the edge where the floor began to curve upwards.

“This is as good a hell as any to die in…” Elmiryn thought.  She blinked as the guardian drew itself up again, and spread its body so that it seemed like a large river with many tributaries.

In her head, she heard Nyx break down the word that had become all that mattered in the world.  “Death.  To die.  To cease to exist.  To lack life.”

The last thought caused her pause.

…Life?  She had life.  She had it.  It was slipping away from her, yes, through this cursed hand of hers, but it was still there.  She was not dead yet.  She was not in hell.  She had not been defeated by Meznik yet…technically.

So what was she doing?

“Surrender.  To give up.  To quit.  To yield to a greater power.”

Elmiryn sucked in breath, her eyes flashing.  “I’m doing what!?

Just as the guardian crashed downward, ready to tear her apart, or swallow her, or…whatever it would do, the woman scuttled backwards and up, onto the rocks that lead her up and away from danger.  The little stalagmites poked like a bitch, but it was as she found herself several yards up, and in what appeared to be a spiny bed of dogtooth spar, that she noticed something.

“…The guardian isn’t following.”

It roared at her, and circled around the chamber floor once before it rushed toward her direction.  It crashed ineffectually against the base of the chambers edge like water against a cliff side.

Elmiryn’s mind toiled over this curious observation.  “This thing’s a river guardian.  It’s immortal, but it still answers to a higher being.  That means…it means…” her eyes widened.  “It works under a spiritual ban!”  Gingerly, she drew her sword and tried to stand on her feet only to find herself much too wobbly to do so.  Instead, she sat crouched as she grinned down at the livid immortal.  “Since you oversee the rivers of the East, you must behave as a river yourself!  Fuck, how brilliant!”

Carefully, the warrior began to make her way toward the other end of the chamber, toward the indigo passage.  She was careful to remain high up, where the guardian could not reach her.  “Rivers move in one direction,” she thought to herself, with tongue caught between her teeth.  “They can branch off, but unless they meet again in some body of water, they can only go so far.  Rivers never flow uphill…is that why it hasn’t left the cavern?  Because the entrance to this place was a slope that lead downward?”

Elmiryn looked at the guardian, then shook her head.  “No.  It thinks I poisoned the river.  It wants to go back, but sounds less like a prisoner so much as someone just homesick…So there must be another way out.”

She finally reached the other end.  All the while the guardian had followed her, bubbling and gurgling violently.  The warrior looked down at it as it drew itself up again in a wavering pillar.

“Okay, here’s the deal,” Elmiryn began, brandishing her sword.  “You need to pull it together.  Madness doesn’t suit you.”

A screech.

“Look.  I told you I didn’t do it…in fact.  I think you’re failing to grasp the exact reasons for your behavior.  You think you’re protecting your river?”  Elmiryn tsked and wagged a finger.  “You’ve REALLY gotta learn the difference between fighting and protecting–”

Then, without warning, she jumped, her sword slashing as the guardian moved to meet her mid air.  The blade connected, splitting the being in two.  It felt as if she were cutting through water, resistance there but no real sense of permanent division.  The split allowed her space to slip by, and she turned her head slightly to see that the creature did not turn mid-air, but simply continued going, as she’d expected.

“Unless something forces it, it cannot make that sharp a turn so quickly,” Elmiryn thought.

The woman landed harsh and fell to her knees with a grunt.  Her vision tunneled and she remained there panting before she forced her body forward with an unsteady lurch, through the indigo passage to what could only be freedom.  Behind her, she heard the river guardian roar.  It sounded like it had made a pass at her while she was on the ground.  If that were the case, it would have to circle around before being able to follow her.

She stumbled through a tunnel before she came to another large chamber.  Ahead of her were three passages.  The one on the far left was lit crimson, and echoed with suspicious wails.  The one in the center was emerald, just as the room before her had been before the color shifted.  The passageway next to it was a pale yellow.

Elmiryn blinked and scratched her head as she tried to think.  “These lights must mean something.  The room behind me turned crimson when the guardian attacked.  So, what…does it mean danger?  Okay, that works…but the room was emerald before that.  The one in the center is the same…only, the room behind me had only one way out.  Maybe it means a dead end?  The passage on the end…what the hell does that mean?”  Elmiryn looked behind her and cursed.

The guardian was surging toward her again.

“To hell with it…three’s my lucky number anyways!”

The warrior charged toward the large passage.  She felt ready to give out.  Her limbs were weak, her head hurt, and her skin felt cold.

“To surrender, or die.”  As she came into the new chamber, her feet tripped and she fell to the floor, panting.  Her brow seared with pain where her head slammed into the rock, her hip ached, and her sword–which had slipped from her grip–lay a few feet away.

She gave a sigh and closed her eyes.  “I’m still not sure I have the option of choosing…”

NYX____________________________

I was mortified.

My clothes had shifted with me, thanks to the enchantment cast on them, but this was wrong…this was…

Sedwick bore down on me, the sharp end of his spear pointed in my furry face.

“You…” he started in a querulous voice.  His scarred countenance was drawn as he blinked rapidly at me.  “…You’re completely unstable…you killed that man, and now…”

I could smell the fear on him.  Through the pestilence of this place, I could practically taste it.  But that did nothing for my nerves.  I was up against a thin column.  I could see past his legs where Aidan’s corpse lay, and thought to myself, “I don’t want to be here.”

Sedwick’s eyes narrowed and he jabbed the spear at me threateningly.  “You were with Baldwin, weren’t you?”

My muscles bunched and I panted anxiously.  Some form of expression must have passed my face as the blacksmith’s lips grew thin and his brows pressed together in an angry scowl.

“You tell me where he is!  What happened to him!?” he shouted.

I growled as he jabbed the spear at me again.  I found it hard to think as…

[Her mind slips to base emotions.  Fear curdles.  She wishes to flee.  She wishes to run.  But this man…stops her.  She could escape if she–]

I stopped those thoughts before they can go any further. “No!  I am not like her!  I have to think properly!  I need to–!”

Sedwick howled and stabbed at my head.  I shifted to the side, the spear’s blade tearing through my clothes and scraping down my right shoulder and foreleg.  I limped away with a low yowl.  I was no longer pinned against the column, but it hurt so much to move.  I looked behind me.  Another passage seemed to suddenly appear, and it was lit indigo.

“You killed him didn’t you!” Sedwick shouted as he advanced on me.  He raised his spear again.  “Just like Aidan!  You killed him!”

I looked back at him and shook my furry head.  The action felt awkward because my neck was much thicker than the form I was used to.  I tried to form words with my mouth only to find a silly chittering sound escaped my lips.

Sedwick sneered.  “You’re not human…you’re not even an Ailuran…you’re just a monster.”  He pulled back his arm, ready to throw his spear.

I turned and loped with pathetic stride toward the indigo light.  Then, I heard a clatter and a scream, and I stopped.

I looked backward again to see, to my horror, that unbeknowest to either of us, veins had proceeded to spread from Aidan’s body along the cavern floor.  They latched onto Sedwick’s leg and crept up his pants, and I could hear the parasitic flesh merge with the blacksmith’s skin.  He reached down, screaming in pain and terror, and I slowly backed away as he pulled back his pants to reveal the veins migrating upward.  Sedwick tugged and pulled in an attempt to break free only to fall to his side, where beneath his armor, the alien flesh blossomed forth to consume the rest of his body.

I fled–through the indigo passage and onward to a place that I hoped would be safer.

…Instead I found Elmiryn.


Back to Chapter 4.5 | Forward to Chapter 5.2

Chapter 5.2

ELMIRYN________________________

She felt something wet and cold push against her face. Elmiryn’s eyes creaked open. She was met with a furry visage. The woman grinned and lifted her head.

“Am I dead yet?” she asked the creature next to her.

Whatever it was growled. Before she registered what it was doing, it clamped its teeth around her ear and began to pull and tug. Elmiryn yelped as she felt a canine fang dig into her ear lobe, and incisors uncomfortably press her cartilage. Her bright eyes flew open wide, and she tried to keep up with the beast as it forced her to follow it. It gave an impatient yank every time she slowed. When she crawled rather than dragged, the creature let her go. It turned and fled onward, and the redhead watched its retreating form with a look of scandalized bewilderment. That’s when she saw the gambeson, and the baggy brown pants.

Her mind unfolded with odd considerations. Her first immediate impression was that Nyx was a trendsetter in animal couture, but then this idea was discarded when she remembered that her companion had a crappy haircut and hand-me down clothes. …Unless it was some new trend she hadn’t heard of.

…No, of course not.

Elmiryn stumbled forward into a run after the animal, and she moved to sweep up her lost sword as she went by. As she did so, spots erupted in her vision and she fell to her knees, where they scraped painfully. Her brow still hurt, and she could feel blood drip down the side of her face. Her ear throbbed and she was certain the large panther (a term she used lightly) had managed to make her bleed a bit there too.

“Hey!” She shouted after it.

Her voice parted and echoed around her.

She was aware the guardian was still in pursuit. She spared it a glance when she took off again. Its inhuman voice reverberated around the oddly lit chamber, lacing with hers in some unholy matrimony, and its body stretched out in bloody rivulets of tendons and flesh. But she felt unconcerned with it. Even with the gain it had managed, the guardian still seemed to lag. Perhaps it was due to exhaustion, or illness, or it could even have been its spiritual ban at work. Regardless, the animal took precedence because Elmiryn couldn’t get her mind over it.

Adrenaline sang through her, and her heart pumped hard in her chest. Her glove felt wet and sticky. The warm moisture actually made her skin itch, but she fought to ignore it. She just couldn’t get over the animal.

…Animal. It was an animal. It was a four-legged…well, wait a moment. It could be a two-legged creature simply running on all fours. It certainly appeared that way.

As the panther ran, it had an awkward motion of the body that rolled, then bumped, rolled, then bumped. First it would push forward with its back legs and stretch its front legs out a bit too wide.  Then it would land with an uncomfortable jolt, because it would not bend its forelegs enough. The rear paws would swing forward and tuck in, then the process repeated. It was like a demented leap frog.

Elmiryn got the sense that the creature was holding back so that she could catch up. She thought this awfully obliging, but it was a bizarre consideration coming from a panther…or a cat…or…whatever.

The warrior ran no more gracefully than the creature before her, with her face turned ashen and drenched in sweat–but her abdomen tensed and her throat constricted in barely contained laughter at the absurdity of her situation. Then she got an idea.

They entered a new chamber, but this space still glowed with the same color of light as the last. The rocks here seemed bulbous and undulated in blossoming formations that layered and dipped. As they jumped down from a small plateau-like rock, the woman leaned down (and nearly fell head over heels before she steadied herself) and through harsh pants said, “Hey, did I ever mention to you that I’ve got a thing for hairy women?”

The panther did a curious cross between a growl and a squeak as it turned its broad head toward the woman with jaw hung low and its eyes opened wide. Then its great paws tripped on the uneven ground and it face-planted, rump in the air. Elmiryn beamed and stumbled to a stop before she rounded back and picked the dazed creature up by the back of its clothes. She had to use both hands to do this and leaned back with all her weight to effectively help the creature, who was quite large for a feline. She took note of the damp clothing, and the familiar smell of rusted copper.  Belatedly, she wondered where Sedwick was.

When the animal was up again, they took off through a set of limestone columns that reminded Elmiryn of tapioca pudding, and scaled up a rocky wall about ten feet tall that had few footholds. At the top, they went through a small crawl space that could only accommodate one of them at a time. The beast went first. Then Elmiryn followed. She smiled at the being before her, whose ears had been turned flat against its head. Beyond it, she could see nothing but darkness. Still, she felt a warmth in her heart, knowing that she was not alone.

“I’m really glad you’re back, Nyx,” Elmiryn said.

NYX____________________________

My snout hurt.

I tasted blood in my mouth, and it made me want to snarl. One of my fangs, it seemed, had pierced the inside of my upper lip in that embarrassing misstep. The bleeding had already stopped, but the taste remained just as a ghost haunting me. It didn’t help that I could smell Elmiryn’s blood on her skin. She reeked of it. I suspected that somewhere she was seriously hurt, because the amount I could smell did not match the bit that trickled down the side of her face. My clothes, too, stunk of stale life. It made me crazy.

I scaled the rock wall with a great jump and my claws scraped at the top before they found a crack to grip into. I pulled myself up and slunk through the narrow crawl space that led into darkness. No light illuminated the way. I didn’t pause to consider this as behind me I could hear the creature enter into the chamber. It screeched, and I could hear it slop and slosh against the wall Elmiryn and I had climbed.

My eyes adjusted to the lack of light in this new space, and my whiskers quivered at the slight change of air current…that is to say, I sensed there WAS an air current. I hadn’t even realized it, but where I had been before had lacked any true circulation of air. The environment seemed only to move as I moved, startled out of its complacent drifting as something alive and harried barreled through it. Perhaps that was what contributed to the stench of the caverns. It made me panic for a moment, to think how deep those caverns went, and how far we were lost in them.

My mind was in a flurry, and I thought about all these things. I didn’t glance back to see if Elmiryn was okay.  Her breath came in harsh gasps behind me, but her exhaustion didn’t earn much sympathy from me.  I couldn’t believe that she was still capable of tomfoolery when we were being accosted by possible death. (doubly so, for my ability to still be bothered by such things, given the situation)

“I’m really glad you’re back, Nyx.”

This, however, made me pause. I turned my head, not quite ready to look at her full on yet. Did Elmiryn know that it was ME, the civilized Nyx, that resided in this bestial body?

I reached the other side of the rock wall. I stepped down onto a slim bit of rock that dropped off clean on one side, as if something had broken it in half, and which sloped gracefully on the other.

Elmiryn sighed. “Nyx, you’ll have to help me. I can’t see shit.” Then she added, like it were just an afterthought, “Oh, by the way. That thing that’s following us? It’s the river guardian. Doesn’t it remind you of that deer we had the other day? It kind of made me hungry.”

I had this overwhelming urge to bite her again. Hard.

“Anyways,” Elmiryn continued, sitting on the little ledge with a sigh as she caught her breath. “I think we can relax for a second. The guardian can’t follow us up here.” She paused and I could hear her shift as she looked back. “Yep. There it goes, back the way it came. It’s bound by a spiritual ban, so that means it has to behave as a river. Rivers don’t flow uphill.”

This was a small comfort. These caverns had proven to be quite confusing. I didn’t doubt the guardian would find us again.

My eyes caught what little light there was, and I saw that this chamber, unlike the others, did not have a clear path to walk. The floor had no even surface, and was littered with sharp broken bits of rock.  There was also a lot of water, which I could only sense because of the stagnant smell that came up to my sensitive nose. This made my back bunch, but I could not tell, from where I was, how much water there was exactly, or if a reflection could be seen.  There just wasn’t enough light. Overhead, stalactites of great sizes hung from the ceiling. Some came down so low they obscured my view of the other side of the chamber completely.

Despite these daunting obstacles, I made out some flat surfaces that I and Elmiryn could safely use to reach the other side. There were two huge outcroppings on the left, as well as some stalactites that seemed to have been broken off that trailed out of sight. It made me think someone else had been here before, but whatever the reason, it gave us a way to move forward.

I looked at Elmiryn and without thinking I attempted to speak. I tried to tell her, “Grab my tail and follow carefully. Use your hands and feet to feel around.” What came out instead sounded like a small moose calling out as it licked its teeth.

She gave me a bemused look. “Sorry, I don’t speak…whatever that was.”

I growled and whacked her side with my tail as hard as I could. Elmiryn gave a start and stared at it for a moment before she sheathed her sword and grabbed the tail gingerly with her left hand. “Um…” she scratched her head, “Isn’t this kind of a big deal in your culture?”

I looked forward again with a ducked head. In my culture, an Ailuran’s tail, despite widespread misconceptions, was not so much a sexual object, but rather, a means of intimacy. My brothers pulled my tail whenever I bothered them, and my mother used to brush her tail along my side in a show of affection. I did not let myself dwell on the fact that Elmiryn was holding it. I tried to think of it in a practical sense. Like keeping balance or marking a trail.

I carefully padded down the smooth slope of the rock I stood on, and resisted the urge to yank myself out of Elmiryn’s grip when I felt her caress my fur a bit.

My companion followed well enough, but her breath was shallow. We had to move slowly so that she could see where to go. I was lucky that we didn’t need to jump any huge spaces. I wasn’t sure how to get the warrior to follow me safely if we did.

I gave a little hop to the outcrop and I felt Elmiryn’s grip on my tail tighten. “I can kind of see…what is that? A boulder? Nyx, is that a boulder?” She asked.

My only answer was to jerk my tail. She hesitated. I wondered how well she could make out her surroundings, given her curse. We had been together for so little time when you thought about it. How much faith did the warrior have in me to trust my judgment, especially given the state I was in?

Elmiryn stretched and crawled onto the outcrop with me.

“Hey, why are we crawling around up on these things for, anyway? What’s down below on the cave floor?” the woman asked. It wasn’t as if I could give her a real answer. The way she spoke though, made me hesitate.

In the few days I had known her, I had heard Elmiryn’s voice take on many dimensions. This was one I had not yet encountered. It was a voice not weak in spirit, but in body. My mind returned to the heavy stench of blood that emanated from her, and I realized with a great spike of anxiety that she had lost a lot more than I thought. So much, that I was no longer certain we would even be able to safely cross the room together.

Not together, you won't.

On the second outcrop, I stopped and looked back at the woman. Perhaps it was the fact that we weren’t running anymore, that the monster wasn’t bearing down on us, or that our concentrated efforts were no longer focused on just running fast, but moving carefully…whatever the reason, Elmiryn’s adrenaline and energy seemed to be giving out. I could see her body shake, even as she sat crouched like a gargoyle against the backdrop of dark shadows.

I looked toward our destination. From where I was, with my view no longer impeded by the stalactites that seemed to plague the center of the area, I realized that the chamber actually continued further than I thought. Through a jagged arch, I could see many passages yards away, and they stood out in the sea of ink with natural light. I know it was natural, because it did not glare in sharp contrast as the other routes had…instead, the light seemed feeble, like it spilled from a more open source further on.

…I looked back at Elmiryn with a long face.

She smelled so close to death…so much so that the unnaturalness of the caves seemed to eagerly become one with her.

I wasn’t even sure about the pools of water I saw down below. I peered down at them, leaning over the edge of the outcrop as much as I dared. There still wasn’t enough light on this side to offer a proper reflection. Were the river guardian’s familiars lurking below, waiting for us?

I felt Elmiryn’s grip on my tail disappear and gazed at her in alarm.

She had sat back onto her rump, one knee bent, the other leg tucked beneath it. She rested her head on her bent knee and I couldn’t see her face. “Nyx…” she said quietly. “I think…I know…what you’re thinking.” Elmiryn looked at me, and though her eyes landed on me, they didn’t focus. This was hardly surprising–it was so dark I imagine her human eyes could barely make out a thing–but in them was a distance I found disturbing.

“I want you to go. I decided…” then she smiled a smile that spread far across her face. “I decided I’m going to die.”

My guts turned to ice.

“Hey.  No look, really.  It’s fine.  I’ve got it all worked out.  I’m not surrendering, or anything.  That definition is different.  It’s completely different, so it’s all fine.”

Inside, I could hear the other hissing.

She says to go, so GO!

I shook my head and my eyes burned. I turned around fully and pawed at Elmiryn’s knee as a mewl came from the back of my throat. She reached up to pat my head, then seemed to think better of it and brushed the side of my face with her right hand instead. Tears matted my fur, and the warrior wiped these away, tsking.

“Cut that crap out. I don’t appreciate your silly human antics. Cats don’t cry, remember?” Then she grumbled in a darker tone when I butted her hand with my head, “Seriously. Quit it. You’ve no fucking reason to get upset. Just run.” She gave me a little shove.

I’m not sure which hurt more. The fact that she was speaking in such fatalistic tones, or the fact that I wanted to do exactly as she asked. Inside, I could feel my other self pace anxiously. As far as she was concerned, Elmiryn was of no more use to us.

She failed her promise!

We tried to save her, so

our debt is done. We've no

reason to stay!

I hesitated. Elmiryn seemed so beyond me, which must sound odd, but I find it difficult to put into words. …Given my state, I suppose that would’ve been appropriate. But the heaviness that seemed to weigh down on her, like life was threatening to crush her…I became afraid. I stared at her, nose flaring, trying to find a scent that would tell me there was a chance for her.

All I could perceive was my own end.

I took one step back and felt my chest pull. I could feel baser instincts urge my legs to move, but I wasn’t sure in what direction. Elmiryn had turned her face away from me. It wasn’t shame really. Her face had turned to the cavern floor in what appeared to be a lazy interest, and she leaned forward to get a better view. It was like I didn’t matter anymore.

…Which wasn’t fair at all.

I turned, claws scraping on the rock, and bounded away to the broken stalactites where I balanced on them awkwardly like little stepping stones. I then leaped up onto a rocky bed, which was some five feet from the ground.

On the other side, I was met with a floor that seemed to be made of glass.  There were many smooth and reflective surfaces, lit by a light that came to the chamber to die.

Nervously, I touched down to a dry spot on the ground and leaned over to gaze in one of the many pools that stood between me and freedom. I gave a start for a moment, before I realized that the face I saw in the water was indeed mine. I blinked and straightened. The uneven ground separated the little bodies of water. I moved cautiously forward through the spaces in between, head low as I glanced into each pool to see my dark face stare back at me. The minutes ticked by, and they felt like forever. My paws tread on lit rock, and my heart lifted in bittersweet joy.

I was almost there.

Then I heard a splash behind me and a giggle that faded into some drawn out alien sound. I stopped and looked back with a whip of my head, my ears perked and strained in the direction of the noise.  It unraveled in the air around me, and I didn’t hear a person, but an animal lost.

Before I could stop to consider what it was I was doing, I began to run back the way I came.  Haste and worry dispelled my consideration for the waters I had been so fearful of, and my bandaged paws splashed through them.  The thought of Elmiryn dying put me in such a state that–

[Her words became nebulous and distant.  Inside, she was in conflict.  She wished to live and wished to be rid of that nightmarish place…but to go on alone in a world eager to swallow her was just as terrifying.  She sought out her only friend.]

Friend.

I grasped at the word and clumsily made a return to myself as I come again to the jagged arch.

I didn’t understand the woman who hid a lover in her voice, a child in the gleam of an intoxicated gaze, and an unflinching soldier by the sweep of her sword.  But she was sincere, even in her risky attempt to save me, and beyond our conflicts in character, there was one thing I was certain of.

Elmiryn was my friend, and I didn’t want to see her die…

…by any definition of the word.


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Chapter 5.3

NYX____________________________

She laid quiet on her side.  I knew the fall must have hurt–should have–but I didn’t know if she had any broken bones.  She was conscious, I knew that.  Knew it, because she just kept humming.  Elmiryn was smiling…and humming.

When I looked down at her in that pool of shadow, I could hear her voice.  It was a swirl of surrealism, and perhaps, to a human, it would’ve been inaudible, but I could hear her.  Elmiryn’s knees were curled to her chest, and she hugged them to her curled lips.  Her eyes were closed, and the blood that stained her skin had been washed away by the water she lay in…no, rolled in.  I’m certain she had been rolling in it.  I became afraid that she had drank some of it, but her behavior was more reminiscent of a child drained from hours of play then a person close to death.

I jumped down to a small spot where the rocks that littered the floor didn’t seem so menacing, but water pooled in large amounts.  I only suffered a sharp poke for my trouble, and the startled water splashed my muzzle, leaving it to drip as I hovered over Elmiryn’s prone form.

I recognized the song she was humming.  The one she had forbade me from even thinking of.  Just as before, no adverse effects came from hearing the melody from her.  This confusion only lasted a moment though, as I found myself confronted by another problem.

The wall that I had jumped down from was approximately five feet high.  Elmiryn was taller than that, and when I stood on my hind legs, so was I, but there was that bothersome detail of how to get an unconscious woman over such an obstacle without opposable thumbs.  I sat on my haunch, furry face scrunched in anxiety as I looked from my companion to the wall and back.  I then tried to paw at her, to see if that would rouse her out of her stupor.  I shook her a bit, but she didn’t respond other than smiling a little wider.  I then tried to nuzzle her arm, but she only hugged herself tighter.  For a brief second, and without a hint of malice or irony I might add, I thought about biting her ear–but I was pretty sure I nicked her last time doing that, so I decided against it.

She had lost a lot of blood.  Despite the water I could still smell it.  So I wondered…Why wasn’t she completely unconscious?  She was out of it, yes…but still lucid.

…But even going beyond that, why wasn’t Elmiryn dead?

These mysteries aside, my thoughts turned to an unsavory idea.  My heartbeat quickened just to think it, but I was at a loss as to what to do.  How much time had been wasted in this space?  How much longer before the river guardian cut off our escape?  How much longer before Elmiryn…before she…

I clenched my jaw.

“There’s no way around it,” I thought.

Ailurans and Lycans were the only two therian races to have five shifting forms.  On the spiritual spectrum, it ranged from the two forms closest to anthroporthic thought to bestial instinct.  Then there was the full form–the one in perfect harmony both with the man and beast in all of us.  In my native tongue, we call it, “Ekilluos” and it is reserved for special ceremonies and times of war, due to the great strength and heightened sense of passion one feels.

I tried to access this part of me, to actively shift the shape of my body to become that which I had become only once in my life before.  In my schooling, I was taught to recognize and respect that part of my soul.  It writhed, like a tangle of snakes in a burlap sack–and it was coarse on my mind.  On my thoughts.

…But just as I was about to submerge myself completely in this energy…

She blocked me.

You fool, what do you think you're doing!?

My back bunched and I felt my lip curl back to show my fangs. “I need to!  It’s the only way!”

Give control back to me. You know I'm the one--

“NO.”  I could already feel her intent.  My paws itched with her desire to run.  If I gave her control, she would abandon Elmiryn, I was certain of it.  “This isn’t a discussion.  Fade back into the darkness and sleep, cretin.”

Why do we play this game?

[She feels the beast pull on her body.  She pulls back and a dangerous growl rumbles from her throat.  The tug of war continues as they talk.]

Always dreaming, always pretending--you dress yourself up in your pretense and you expect the truth to wither away in the shadow that you sweep it under. But see what comes of it! It's all just folly! You KNOW you aren't real. Without me, you are nothing.

“Shut up.  You may have access to my Expression, but the words are still mine!  Do you hear me!?”

It's highly amusing then, that it'sMY arms and hands you ask for.

“Stop it, just stop it! I have to save Elmiryn before–”

I don't have to do anything! You should have--*I* should have kept on running!This is madness, even considering to shift to Ekilluos when weKNOW what happens--!

“YOU SELFISH MISCREANT, GIVE ME WHAT’S MINE!  YOU HAVE NO RIGHT, YOU HAVE NONE AT ALL!”

[The beast laughs, but it is a bitter sound that is devoid of any true satisfaction.]

Idiot. The only one stopping you, is you.

[She roars, and sediment is startled from the ceiling.  Elmiryn stirs, and her eyes creak open.  Nyx, the girl trapped in the animal’s body, curls in on herself.  Her muscles shake and she snarls and pants.  No more words, no more dressed up thoughts.  Just the present obstacle–the one inside her, that denies what she wants.  It makes her infuriated.  She backs up until she finds herself against cold damp rock, then falls to the side as something gives out.  Nyx’s eyes slip shut.  She is no longer aware of what’s around her.  She has retreated inside, to better deal with the usurper.  This coup of the body will stop, she swears it, even if it means losing a part of herself forever.

In her head, it is a ghostly cold place that stretches and warps with abstract reasoning and sensations.  They pierce and part her as she delves down deep to where She is hiding.  The animal, upright but still as a cat even on the inside, looks at Nyx startled.

She is shocked to see The Other has risked all just to gain control–and for what?  Here, Nyx–a name they quibble over, but by right belongs to the two-legged half–looks as a human does, but scuttles on the ground like an animal.  Her teeth gnash and she leaps with hands tensed like claws.  The two personas collide.

Disorientation rules as they tumble through a cascade of memories that leaves them without breath.  Cold winters.  Mourning.  Stumbling fear.  Unable to deal with the complexity that comes with these gray pictures, the animal faints, her lack of control over her newfound faculties proving to be Her downfall.  As a creature of nature, she knew pain, but it was never so vast and overwhelming as the concerns of a two-legger.  The Other, though, braces against these images and feelings.  She understands this pain already.  For many nights, it had been the only thing to put her to sleep.

No longer blocked, Nyx lopes to the place in her soul that is warmest.

Her hopes rest there.  In her eyes, she can perceive worse fates with inaction, than in the risk she takes.  In a sense it has all become relative.

To prove herself worthy of her Mark by fleeing, or to remain at the risk of horrible failure.  Those were her choices.

Her decision leads her to burn herself with her own passion.

Her muscles pull and expand first in the chest.  Because of her rash haste, her body is confused.  The skin stretches and tears from the flesh that pulls it apart, and the bones strain against her heart and lungs, which in turn become larger as well.  This pain is excruciating, and she can’t even manage breath to scream.  But the skin and the bones begin to shift with the rest of the body, as if pushed into action by an obnoxious parent.  Her clothes shift easily with the form that grows and changes beneath it.  Several minutes later, Nyx opens her eyes to find Elmiryn has rolled to her back and is gazing dreamily up at her.]

…So turnip’s can grow after you pluck ’em?  What a thought!

Lip pulled back.  I snarled.

Redhead.

Idiot.

…Friend.

I hated her for this trouble.  But she tried.  I owed her.

So now I would try.


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