My breath was startled from me, banished like an evil agent from my lungs. I felt the brand on my back burn with severe agitation, and my blood turned hot in my veins. I had to crane back far to look up at the guardian’s head. I involuntarily shivered.
Neither I, nor Elmiryn, said a word. Some water came down on us, clear fat drops of diamonds, as the guardian’s amorphous body bowed over. She was a brilliant blue giant that emanated a sense of gentleness and power at the same time. Her trunk rippled a little from the strain of her spiritual ban. I heard a sigh come from her like water sweeping sand.
Her head, bulbous and darker than the rest of her body, dropped to me like a suggestive drop still clinging to its brethren. “My sisters told me of your troubles, dear Nyx. I’m sorry to see that my concerns proved right.” And amid her river hiss, I found she did sound sorry. So much so that I could feel it by the pull of my veins. I cried out a little and held my wrists up to my one good eye. The veins in my wrists showed dark through my pale skin. The ache broached on outright pain. Tears filled my eye.
I swallowed, and felt my watery spit trickle down my throat.
The guardian, meanwhile, turned her head to Elmiryn. I hadn’t noticed, but the woman was almost as pale as I was, and her jaw had gone tense. “Elmiryn. Do not fret,” The river guardian gurgled. “What you feel is natural in my presence. Your body is yours, and the blood that surges is a sign of life strengthening–not fleeing.”
The woman quirked a smile, her eyes glassy. She shook her head and muttered something to the mud that I couldn’t hear.
The guardian turned back to me. “I am sorry for your discomfort, Nyx. I will try to keep our meeting brief.” Her head bobbed a little. I bit back a hiss of pain as I felt my veins throb again. “As you know, when I restored you, I returned all to its rightful places–including returning your beast nature to the dark. But there are further complications of which you must be made aware of.”
I swallowed again, and tried not to gag at how my spit seemed to slime so eagerly. I pawed at my neck, where my jugular vein felt as though it were fighting to rip out of my skin. “Why do I…feel this way?” I bit out. My joints ached. My nose started to run, and chagrined, I wiped at it with my sleeve. “You told Elmiryn it’s natural. What I’m feeling isn’t natural at all!”
The guardian murmured as she gave her head an agitated toss back. “Then I’ll tell you outright–in the cave, you thought you had shifted to Ekilluos. This is not true.”
My eyes squinted and my brow wrinkled. “But I’ve known no other form like it!” I objected feebly. My heart started to beat hard. I couldn’t take another horrifying revelation. I just couldn’t. I squeezed my eye shut and felt the last of my tears slip down the side of my sweaty face. The wind breezed by, and I felt the sweat chill my scalp. When I opened my right eye again, it felt dry. I rubbed at it with my hand. I took several clumsy steps back and cried in a shrill voice, “What’s happening to me!?”
The river guardian sighed. “I’ve consulted my sisters of the sky. They told me this…” I lowered my hand and blinked. With my one gaze, I saw the guardian’s skin turn darker–so dark she appeared almost purple. “Nyx, in the basest explanation I can give: you are splitting apart. Your soul heaves in opposite directions to find a clean break–to find freedom. I’m sorry to say this, little one, but what was only your queer reference to the self has now become quite literal. You are You, and she is She. With such instability, the vessel you know as your body cannot help but feel attracted to the harmony of my being. That is the reason your skin, your sweat, your blood seems to rebel against you.”
I felt my heart sink to my feet. I tried to keep myself drawn upright, to keep my breathing steady and even. “My Mark–”
“No.” The guardian cut me off, her voice a splash. “This was before your curse. You’ve known it to some degree–haven’t you? The way your other self fought you, the way it seemed to think independently of you. It was perhaps a form of psychosis, then. You had learned to control it. But I tell you, young therian, your discipline will no longer do you any good. The strength of your other self has become much more, and your union has turned tenuous. The madness that had taken this land served as a sort of…catalyst.”
I tried to keep my knees locked in place. I gripped my fists as my eye strained to bring forth tears that would not come. “How can what you’re telling me be possible? How can what you’re saying make any sense? There ARE no other forms beyond the Sacred Five of the Lunar Hall!!” I took deep, slow breaths. Saw the spots before my eyes and fought against the urge to collapse. “And I know I’ve been at odds with my animal nature, but what you’re suggesting is…is…completely impossible!! If She is a part of me, than I should be able to control her! I mean–gods DAMN it–I should be able to control me!! I just need to…” I wiped at my nose again, furious, but shaking with fright.
Elmiryn spoke for the first time. She reached over and placed a heavy hand on my shoulder. At that moment, I hated the weight it pressed on me. In my mind, I flashed to the thought of biting it, tearing away the skin and muscle to reveal the frail bones beneath…but then the image fled me, and I bit my tongue to keep from screaming.
“Nyx…remember your eye.” Elmiryn’s voice sounded far away. I had to turn my head fully just to be able to see her properly with my right eye. “If all it took was concentration, then you’d have it back to normal, wouldn’t you? That time in the cave, you wouldn’t have switched places either.” She squeezed her grip. My fingernails dug into my palms and my spine curled. “Think about it…you ‘switched’ places! If you and She are one in the same, then why the hell did that happen? Why consider it a ‘switch’ at all?” Her expression was neutral, and her voice didn’t sound right, given the situation. She seemed to regard it more like a philosophical puzzle. Elmiryn didn’t strike me as the type of person to bother with that kind of thought.
But I was learning quick not to trust all I had surmised about her.
“Your companion speaks the truth.” The guardian bubbled. “The paradox is this–if you and your other nature create a whole, then how can one’s control be replaced? Just because one self is more apparent than the other, that does not mean the other traits are gone. An angry man can still hold sadness, and a lunatic can still know something of truth. You, Nyx, as a therian, SHOULD be a girl who also happens to be a cat. But the reality is different, as was seen that day. You are not a girl who is a cat. You are a girl who inhabits the same body as a cat…and this is an abberration of nature, as decided by the gods in heaven.”
My knees finally failed me. I sank to the mud, felt the sword knock my legs like a useless appendage, and didn’t care that my newly acquired clothes were soiled. I felt like curling into a ball, away from the truth, away from the logic that made a hole in my gut. I wasn’t just an outcast or a rare exception to the rule anymore. I was abnormal. I was against nature. To be cast out by the forests, the seas, the animals, the magic, the common intellect–
I. Was. Anathema.
My fingers tingled. I retched and fought my stress-induced nausea. Vomiting was becoming too common in this new life of mine. When the illness faded, I slipped into a numb shock. With my mouth slightly parted to allow the slivers of breath to pass in and out, I fixed a stare downward.
“No two souls can inhabit the same body,” the guardian resumed. “But unless the other can be assimilated, the dominating soul cannot survive should the other die. In your good fortune, the process of separation is still not complete… Nyx, raise yourself.”
I couldn’t move. I remained huddled in the mud, my arms crossed over my chest as I folded over onto my legs. I felt Elmiryn’s hands take my sides, and with strong suggestion, she pulled me upwards. She had to support me as I numbly stared up into the guardian’s inhuman head.
“You should not despair, young therian… No, I forbid it. You cannot, for hope is not lost. My sisters’ tell me of a place across the Hellas Ocean, on the Indabe Continent. There, in the heart of it, lives a sage of considerable power. He is much older than I, and he will be able to help you. To get to the Indabe Continent, you will have to head North, to the port known as Reg’Amen. My sisters tell me that Njord and Atargatis quarrel fiercely. The safest way to cross the ocean is to sail along the Northern islands, where their conflict does not churn the waters so. Be wary in who you trust–the islands are plagued by pirates. Once you’ve reached the Eastern lands, your greatest challenge will be seeking audience with the reigning Queen of the region where the sage dwells. You will need her permission before you can speak with him.”
“Thank you. We’ll head there right away.” I heard Elmiryn say.
“Regarding the enemy you seek…I have been unable to ascertain his whereabouts. This disturbs me. I fear that you may be fighting a force far more insidious than any here can imagine.”
“…Do you believe in astral demons?”
The guardian’s voice frothed. “I believe there are ancient things in existence that I know nothing about. If you wish me to validate your theory, Elmiryn, I cannot. I will not, however, cast out your idea. My only suggestion is to look elsewhere for your answers. What the dreads of Fanaea call a ‘pamu’, the fair of O’kai call an ‘apple’.
“One final thing, before you resume your journey.” The guardian dipped low, so that she peered up into my face. “Nyx, there is something for you to see down by the river shore. Walk out far until my influence leaves you entirely. Then drink of the water. You will see what the Medwin has to bear.”
The guardian pulled back like a retreating current, and as she did so, I heard her whisper, “Thank you…and goodbye, my braves…”
Elmiryn and I stayed until she vanished into the river completely. Then the warrior, with a grunt, bumped and dragged me back down the hill where we came, and we went around the side. Together, we loped awkwardly, banging with our belongings, along the river’s edge. The further we went, the stronger I became. When I felt as though I could walk on my own, I pulled out of Elmiryn’s arms and knelt by the river to drink, just as the guardian had instructed. The water felt refreshing and a calm settled over me.
A moment later, the water where my hand had dipped into, bubbled and sloshed. Tendrils of it stretched up into the air. They weaved and thickened, making an elaborate framework, until they formed the shape of a man. This was different from the inhuman beings the guardian had at its beck and call. The watery golem had a human face–a very familiar one–and I felt my throat constrict when my mind made the connection.
Sedwick stepped towards us, his watery form turning very much to flesh as the formation of his naked body completed. The only thing left transparent were his shins, which faded back to water the closer it was to the river. He was completely hairless, with white eyes and his face free of the scar that had once distinguished him. He looked at Elmiryn, then held his gaze at me.
“Hullo,” he said quietly. Nothing of his voice seemed magical or peaceful in that way that ethereal beings tend to be stereotyped with. He sounded very much like an ordinary man. A sorrowful one. “It’s a surprise, isn’t it.” He continued, when neither Elmiryn nor I responded.
“You…had hair before…right?” Elmiryn asked, with a slight tilt of her head.
Sedwick looked at her. Then barked out a laugh. His clean-shaved face broke into a slash of a grin. “Yes, yes I did.”
“You’ve…you’re…different,” I noted lamely.
The man looked at me, his somber expression once again in place. “The guardian gave me a second chance.” He held up his arms. “Unlike you and Elmiryn, she could end your union by calling back what was hers. In my case however…the flesh was already separated, becoming a permanent part of me. In a sense, it was like she rewrote history and made me her son. I’m…not immortal, but she tells me I will live long, and can travel beyond the river as you do. But my well-being is forever tied to to the health of the Medwin.”
I covered my mouth with my hand. “Sweet Aelurus…I’m so sorry!”
He gave me a small smile. “It isn’t your fault. You couldn’t stop what Aidan had done. It’s my penance…for leaving him there.”
“You can’t be held accountable for that!” Elmiryn said in a firm voice. She had a stern look in her eyes. “It was his failing. Your obligation was to the people you protected.”
Sedwick nodded, but without any real conviction. “You’re right.”
My gut twisted. I stepped close to the river’s edge, nearly falling into the river on the mossy rock. “Baldwin was in…my care.” I strained the last two words out.
The man chuckled and shook his head. “Nyx, our memories were shared. I saw what happened and I know that…I was wrong in allowing Baldwin to come to the cave. But he would’ve done so anyway. The boy was stubborn. He never really listened to me. All he wanted was his family back.”
I opened my mouth to object further, but found I couldn’t think of anything to say without repeating myself.
“This new life will take getting used to…but I’m already looking forward to the possible good I can do,” Sedwick said, looking at us both. “I want to thank you. For all your efforts.”
My eyes, which had gone dry from my shock earlier, watered once more as my cold skin flushed warm.
I wanted to get away from that haunting gaze, that subdued voice, the battery of words, so bizarre to me that they felt almost entirely offensive.
With quivering lips, I forced a smile. “Sedwick, I’m just glad to see you’re alright.”