Tributaries Cover In Sight, In Mind Cover Blackwood Cover

Chapter 9.1


Part 2: In Sight, In Mind

“Our realities do not end in ourselves, but in the hearts of others.”  – Tobias


Light feet dashed through grass.  Moisture laid cold kisses on her bare skin, where the breeze chilled in its envy.  She held the book close to her chest.  Her heart hammered against the thick cover, the tome so large it knocked her chin and pressed into her waist.  Petite hands desperately clung to it, trying to find a firm grip.  Her little arms could barely encircle the book all the way, and the edges of it pressed into her muscles, cutting off circulation, and making the veins in her wrist and hands burn with want of blood. Still she didn’t stop.

Overhead, great misty giants from the north draped across a star studded sky.  The moon was not to be seen.  She crashed through growths of mountain grass, the tufts as whips to her bare legs.  A field opened onto her, alive and aglow with fireflies and the hum of crickets.  Her excited heart calmed.  The electricity in her eyes slipped away.  She spared one glance behind her before she walked to the center of the field, and sat down.

With her behind turned damp, and a mosquito buzzing in her ear, the girl opened the tome and began to read aloud.  Her voice and the symphony of spring became one, and a smile finally appeared on her face.

But she was interrupted when a heavy something collided into her from behind.  She yelped, but the sound was cut short as breathe left her.  With the edges of her vision rippling, she shoved at whatever had draped itself across her back.  She recognized the smell, her acute little nose wrinkling at the scents of sweat, taffy, and warm milk.

“Koen!?” Brother!?

A laugh.  A young face peered into hers, a monkey’s grin plastered there.  “Koah,” Sister, “You’re in big trouble if they find out!”

Angry, she shrugged him off.  He fell to the grass next to her, giggling.  “Cajeck!”  Idiot! She cried. “What are you doing, spying on me?”

“I’m not spying.” Her brother said, his face aglow. The dancing lights of the fireflies made it seem like he was still moving.  “Thad told me to look for you.  He wants to talk to you.”

She groaned and snapped the book shut with reluctant hands.  She pressed her forehead to the cover and muttered, “Where is he?  When did he get back?”

“He’s at the tavern, speaking with the nation leaders.  He and his men arrived three hours ago at the central grounds.  Leander told him about the things you’ve been saying in his lessons.  He even mentioned the elf trader.”  Her little brother sat up and patted her back in mock sympathy, “Aww…He might not whip you that bad, Nyx.”

“He won’t whip me!” She snapped, looking up to bump her shoulder roughly against his.  “He isn’t like Leander.”

“He was still mad, though,” Atalo returned, digging in his right ear with his pinky.  “You know he told you to behave while he was away!”

She bit her lip and looked at the tome in her lap.  ‘A Detailed Look at Elven Culture’.  “I traded all my gold pieces for this. I’ve been saving for months…” She sighed, eyes tearing up. “How am I going to hide this?  Thad will take it and burn it!”

Atalo fell quiet next to her, his little body slumping at the sight of his older sister’s tears.  He scratched at a rosy cheek and looked around.  Then his face lit up.  “I know where we can hide it!” he cried, shaking her with both hands.

She looked at him sullenly.  She wiped at her nose with her bare arm.  “What are you talking about, you little fool?  There’s not a safe place here or in the village to hide this great fat book!  Especially not with Thad looking for me.  He knows all my hiding spots!”

“No, no!  Not all of them!  Remember that great old tree we found not long ago?  We can hide it there, in the trunk!  All we’d have to do is cover the book with leaves.  Hardly anyone goes there, because of the ticks and spiders!!”

“But that’s so far away!  He’ll know I was up to something.”

“I’ll do it for you!”  Atalo cried.  He went for the book, but she shifted to keep it away from him, her expression incredulous.

“You’ve got to be kidding!?” She was barely able to keep from laughing.  “I had trouble carrying this book, how can you carry it all that way and not drop it?  What if you tear it, or let it fall into mud?”

Atalo looked hurt, his brows crashing together over his eyes.  “I can do it, Koah!”

She bit her lip, then slowly handed the book over.  “Don’t you drop it.  That took me a lot to save for!”

He immediately brightened up and with a grunt, hefted the book into his lap.  “Don’t worry, I won’t!”  Struggling, he stood to his feet with her help.  Her eyes flashed with worry.

“Are you sure you’ll be okay, Atalo?” She asked.

“…Yes!” He grunted, his face pink.

She gave him one long, fearful look, before she took off running, back toward their village.  As concerned as she was, she couldn’t keep Thad waiting.  He was an impatient soldier.

As her form took a shortcut through the forests, pupils widening to adjust to the dark, a shadow watched her flee past.  It was a large cat, tawny eyes turned low at the sight of the young girl’s retreating back.  Its maned head turned to look back the way she came, toward the field, where Atalo took slow, shaky steps northward.  Furry chops pulled back in a smile.

Atalo would drop that book at least five times, once even in a dirty puddle, before reaching his destination.  Nyx would not speak to him for days, until he gave her a handmade book–sloppy but sincere–and as he gave it to her, he would sheepishly say, “I made this so that maybe you can make your own book…”  She never wrote in it.  She preferred reading.  But she forgave him all the same.

That was seven years ago.

“Why are you here?” A new voice, strangled and low.  The great cat, whirled around, lips pulled back in a snarl.

Nyx, of the present day, had the animal fixed with a hateful gaze.  “You’re dredging up what isn’t yours.  …And for what? To cause me pain?”  Her eyes were like bleeding cuts.  They overflowed with tears, and the creature half-wished the bitch would die from the grief.

The cat lifted its head.  Inhaled, and exhaled slowly.  It approached Nyx on quiet paws.

The young woman tensed, fists clenched.

…But the great cat just brushed past her with a growl.

Then the memory faded out of focus, and drained away–leaving the physical world free to remind all of its presence.

NYX____________________________

I awoke, mewling in pain, anything more excited or forceful beyond my capabilities.  My muscles, my guts, my bones were in mutiny.  I felt as though knives were hacking at my skin, whittling away my cartilage, and leaving bare my bones to pinch and grind my nerves and veins.  My neck had swelled, making breathing difficult, and desperate gasps punctuated my pitiful bleats of agony.  I was paralyzed, my hands rigorously frozen to fetal paws held close to my chest. Across from me, Elmiryn remained asleep.

When my mind came into full function and I understood the situation at hand, I tried to smother my own voice and fight away whatever was happening.  I pressed my eyes shut, hard enough that they seemed to push at my eyeballs.  With practiced focus, I sought to reclaim control of my body.  Gradually the pain faded.  The swelling of my neck receded.  My hands unclenched and I could once again move my arms freely. My ears rang.  I wiped at my eyes, where tears had leaked from the corners, and made to sit up.

That’s when Elmiryn stirred. Her eyes were shining slivers, where I could only assume she looked my way.  Then they blinked and labored to open them in full.  I trembled a little.  My body was spent from the effort of returning to normal.  With my back to her, I looked at her over my shoulder.

“Good morning,” I croaked. My throat was still raw. Elmiryn reached out slowly, and ran her hand down my back in a lazy paw.  She let her hand rest on the blanket and closed her eyes again.

“Nyx…” she murmured.

“This is a bad habit you’re forming, Elmiryn.” I tried to smile, but my lips shook unwillingly.  A laugh, high and tense, reverberated through my chest.  It made my trembling worse.  “If I keep waking up before you, we’ll lose so much daylight!” Even as I said that, I knew it was very early. Birds still chirped sleepily in the trees.

Elmiryn rolled onto her back and stared up at the sweet, persimmon sky.  Her lips were parted slightly and her eyes lidded. “It’s morning…you’re right.” She sighed and sat up, head in hands.  “I had a bad dream.”

“What about?”

She looked at me through parted fingers. “You were hurting, and I didn’t help you.” My faux smile fell away.  I turned my face.

“It was just a dream.” I could feel her eyes on me.

She let her hands fall to her lap.  Her face drew long and a wrinkle appeared on her brow.  “Now I know…it wasn’t.”

“Elle, just cast it out of your head.”

“Your voice tells me the truth even when you aren’t trying to.” I closed my eyes to that and sighed heavily. She continued, voice flat. “It wasn’t that I saw you, my eyes were closed.  But I heard you.  Only, I didn’t know where I was.  I wasn’t sure why I wasn’t moving.”

“It’s normal to be confused when you’re half-asleep.”

Elmiryn shook her head and stared at her hands.  “I don’t like it.” She chortled, but it sounded sardonic. “I thought for a second…”

I turned to look back at her.  “…Elle?”

She wiped at her mouth as her eyes unfocused.  Then she stood to her feet, shaking her head emphatically.  “Nevermind.”

Elmiryn set about packing, and I followed suit.

I didn’t try to press the issue.  Pressing the issue would’ve meant returning to what happened to me, and I didn’t want to discuss it.  The Beast had gotten too close–dug so far deep into my memories as to usurp my dreamscape in favor of viewing what wasn’t hers.  In gaining this control, my body had become confused in sleep.  If I had not stopped her, I would have shifted.

You’re paranoid. That wasn’t my intention at all.

I cried out, dropping the blankets I held in my arms. Elmiryn looked at me, blinking. “Nyx, you okay?”

I looked around me. My mouth felt dry. “I…I thought I heard–”

Me. You heard ME.

In my head. A gravelly voice, much like mine, but deeper and with an accent that suggested the speaker was unaccustomed to the language.

I was speechless. I touched both hands to either side of my head and felt faint. “No…”

Your precious Expression is mine now too. Does it bother you, tyrant?

Elmiryn came towards me, hands held out in caution. “…Nyx, look at me.”

“But you’ve no USE for it!” I screamed, stepping back, as if that could distance us. Elmiryn froze, her eyebrows going high. I didn’t pay her much attention. I clawed at my head. “You thief! You vile monster, get out of my head!

“Nyx, that’s enough.”

Two hands grabbed my wrists and I became limp, falling to my knees. Elmiryn knelt with me. “I can hear her…” I breathed. “She’s speaking to me. I can hear her.”

“It was bound to happen.” Elmiryn said, stroking my hair. “She’s your Twin, remember?”

I leaned into her touch. “I don’t want to hear her at all.”

I dislike being talked about as if I’m not here.

I tensed. “Stop it.”

Elmiryn stopped and started to pull away. “All right.”

I grab at her. “No! Not you, Her!”

The warrior’s eyebrow quirked and she took a finger to tap at my head. “Maybe you should talk to her in your head. It’s confusing, otherwise.”

“She means you sound like a crazy person.

My fingers curled and my teeth found themselves grinding. I felt flames burn at the edges of my face, and a growl tensed my throat.

“Be quiet!” I thought.

My animal counterpart purred at me, amused, and sat on her haunches. Her den, her prison, had become larger. With my Expression, she had made it larger.

“Has she stopped?” Elmiryn asked me, still partly turned as if about to stand.

I wait, my eyes on the ground. Then I nod. “I think she’s done.”

Elmiryn patted my arm. “Then let’s go. We’ll need to find a good place for you to shift tonight, farther from the roads.”

This made me feel ill.

The Beast only chuckled.

You see? I have no reason to play games. Tonight is already MINE…


Back to Inter. III | Forward to Chapter 9.2

Intermission III: The Wind and the Web (concl.)

In a speared blast of air, Wind dashed forward, sword tip eager to taste the mischievous weaver. The Spider sprung upwards, and the canopy seemed to part, opening onto the sky with trees splintering in their haste to abide. There were flashes of luminescent threads, long thin lines that waved and winked in the great dark space overhead. All around us, the air whipped and howled, spitting splinters into our faces.  As the conflict escalated higher into the heavens, tired breaths circulated to us far below.

My eyes were caught, like a feather to a grate, to the sky.  Wind was an unfriendly shadow, whose face in the brief flashes of illuminated truths, revealed a bloodthirsty demon.  No more was the comrade I had known and loved present.  That man had come undone under the wily hands of my precious Spider.  From the ground I felt the displeasure of my god and patron, Tellus.  I had failed to uphold her highest principle of steadfastness.  I closed my eyes to the violence and whispered a prayer, begging forgiveness.

Then the familiar hiss and sputter of my dearest Flame brought my attention back to the matter at hand, and I hurried to her side. She sat up from the moss covered ground and rubbed her head, her countenance rumpled in blurry pain and bewildered anger. Her eyes flickered to me, and her person came to glow with the promise of a true fire. I felt the heat hit me like a wall, and I moved back with hands held before me.

In my deepest voice, I tried to placate my companion.  ”Flame, please.  Let not your anger rule you!”

She hissed and I leapt to my feet and took a step away as her arms became swathed in flames.  The moss and grass blades screeched as they curled on themselves from the fire, black and pitiful.  On the cool dirt, the fire stopped.  ”Fool!” She spat.  ”Mongrel! Look where thy bleeding heart has taken us!”

I refrained from offering my hand.  The daughter of the sands was too prideful for such a gesture.  Instead, I gestured behind me, where the rest of our hunting party began to rise yet again.  ”Hope is not lost! The Spider shall yield if we can best her in combat. Look skyward, and thou will see that Wind already endeavors toward this end.”

“Yes, Strong Earth,” Arlés the Sweet Blossom said with lilted tongue.  “But the Spider has shown herself to be of unsound mind. In her eyes, what constitutes victory?” She, in the light of Flame’s anger, gazed with sullen eyes at me, her face pallid and glistening. “I fear the witch has taken something vital from me.  I care not how it is returned, but it SHALL be returned!”

“And me,” said Toshihiro, from his place near the Blossom. His dark eyes were narrowed, and his breath heaved over dry lips. “This battle must be quick.”

All eyes turned to the sky, where the raucous of combat faded. I frowned, my grip on my staff tightening. “Where are they?”

Toshihiro shook his head. “Their battle is beyond us, lest they return to the earth. But we cannot sit idly by.” He looked at me, with back straightened. “If thou art truly on our side, you will clear these plant creatures with thy power. They are abominations and must be destroyed.” The jungle rustled and shifted, dark phantoms beyond the warmth of Flame’s glow.

My eyes were as jagged rocks. “You would seek me to kill these innocents!?”

“It would be a merciful fate, considering the alternative. And it is not without reason. The Sweet Blossom can replace the lost life with that of proper origin–a necessary preparation when the Spider is to be sealed.”

From the soil, Tellus spoke, in her quiet language of intuition.  My lips thinned.  Trapped beneath the order of my patron, I could do nothing.  I raised my hands, and the earth took to quaking.

The soil cracked and parted in a circle around us.  The jungle seemed to screech in terror, the leaves and the branches and the bushes alive with panic.  The earth ruptured, and around us, gaping maws of rock and sand split wide open to swallow all.  Trees were felled, stupefied at the sudden removal of their foundation.  They were great groaning giants of cracked bark and upped roots that fell top first into the splits of the land, where the compacted soil and rock shifted to the swallowing sands beneath.  The noise was deafening.  When all had been up-ended, I pulled my hands down close to my person, and with palms outward, pushed away from myself.  The ground exploded in a high rolling wave that blasted all away.  There were great cracks as trees collided with trees at high speed.  The dust was so high, it seemed to hang over us.  The air rang as all around us, things settled.

I turned to Arlés.  ”It is done, Blossom.  Proceed before the battle returns to us.”

She gave a curt nod.  With a flourished hand, she called forth creeping vines from the churned soil, and the new plants grew rapidly. They curled about the fallen tree that lay between us, the one thing I had not removed, and with a flick of her wrist the strong plants tossed the trunk away.  The Sweet Blossom then, with both arms extended caused all around us to sprout and flower in green.  The ground beneath my feet hummed from this magic, and though it was natural and void of the consciousness that once permeated through the soil, something of it felt different and offensive to my senses.

Toshihiro murmured to the Sweet Blossom, advising her in the arrangement of the new plant life.  Their plans were beyond me.  Moss and ferns covered the clearing.  At the center, a tree sprouted, its growth accelerated by Arlés’ suggestion.

Then Flame gripped my arm, and her hand stung me from the heat.  ”Earth, the air shifts!” She whispered, one saber drawn. The daughter of the sands had always been sensitive to Wind’s approach.  With staff before me, I eyed the trees in wariness.

Sure enough, a strong whip of wind beat us from the south.  Toshihiro appeared at our side, his fists clenched.  ”They return!  We must keep the Spider busy as the Sweet Blossom works!”

“Dost the Champion of Tenjin know of a plan?”

Toshihiro, quiet son of the Far East, said unto me, “At the first available opportunity, thou must create a deep hole. So deep as to beg for light.”

“…A hole?”

“Yes.  The reason for this shall be revealed.”

“And what would you have me do?” Said Flame.

Toshihiro glanced at her coolly.  ”What you normally do, Fiery Flame.”

Never one to let a quiet insult lie, Flame made as if to argue, but the sudden strengthening of the winds robbed all words from her lips.  The jungle to the south rustled, then erupted in a dance of leaves.  The shadows, as curtains, parted in surprise to reveal the fast approaching Spider.  She came at us, arms extended before her with fists clenched around things unseen.  Then with a vicious pull that set her hands behind her, she rocketed forward through the air, feet first.  The others were forced to part, but I, steady son of the earth, stayed my ground.

With my staff quickly raised and my right foot slid back to offer support, I blocked the Spider’s incoming knee.  I did not give an inch, but my supporting foot sank into the soil, and my upper body was forced to lean back from the impact.

The Spider seemed to hang there, suspended in the air, her shin resting against my staff as though that were all she needed to remain aloft.  Her lion’s smile, no longer obscured in the pitch black of the jungle, seemed to glisten through the dim of night.  ”All must dance,” Said she.  Her arms extended at either side of her, and her eyes widened from behind her long bangs.  ”The Spider wills it!”

Her hands clenched to fists and she pulled them quickly to her chest, just as she pushed away from me.  These eyes, perhaps slow in their growing age, took note of the glimpses of glowing thread that slipped between her fingers, but did not register their purpose.  When the bodies of Toshihiro and Flame collided into either side of me, the purpose became all too clear.

The breath rushed from my lungs, and I fell to a knee with Toshihiro and Flame at either side of me.  Through the Spider’s legs, I saw Wind charge from behind, his approach quiet as his feet did not touch the ground.  I leaned forward and braced myself, willing my body to be as a rock.  With my head covered under one arm, I heard rather than saw the collision.  Spider and Wind were sent toppling over my person.

Bewildered, I raised my head to look, and saw that Wind had once again engaged the Spider.  Toshihiro and Flame, though dazed, were already rising to their feet.  I followed suit, a weary sigh slipping past my lips.

I recalled Toshihiro’s task for me, and without a word I stepped aside to accomplish it.  The ground rumbled once again, and the newly created plant life fell into a deepening hole.  I pressed, with the force of my mind, the soil downward, and bid the earth to widen at my command.  Soon the hole requested of me was created.  I turned in time to see Arlés the Sweet Blossom finish in her task as well.  The tree was done.  It was thick–perhaps thicker than the mammoths I had seen prior.  The bark was white and smooth, and it curved like a dollop of cream on the soil.  It’s surface was blanketed by curious vines, thicker and darker than those of the jungle.  My eyes flickered next to see that Toshihiro and Flame had joined the battle against the Spider.  Marvelous as they were, the girl’s power and unfathomable style were more than enough to keep them at bay.  I moved toward them, grim faced but intent on ending this quickly, but as I came near, the battle turned.

The Spider had simultaneously parried the attacks of Wind and Toshihiro, and as she rebounded past Flame, I saw her hand make an ominous gesture at the chest of my companion.  The daughter of the sands went still,  her saber raised for an offensive.  As Wind came forward, unaware, the woman lashed out at him with her saber, her face void of emotion.  Wind, fast and fluid, avoided her slash, and gazed at her with eyes wide.

Toshihiro did not pause, when he moved to engage her.  As his fists, strong and tempered by the mastery of pugilism, struck out at Flame, he said onto Wind, “You must not falter, Son of Njord!  Nevermind that she is faster than you.  Of us all, thou art the only one that the Spider cannot control!”  Wind, with a resolute nod, went on to resume his fight.  As he ducked beneath the swinging blade of the ensorcelled Flame, Toshihiro managed to glance at me, and all at once I understood.

“Brother!” I shouted, staff pointed at my dark trap.  ”Let the heaven and earth meet!”

Wind’s attention flickered my way briefly.  Tense, I watched him and the Spider battle.  It was blow for blow, attacks countered and blocked, a dizzying dance of skill and combined magic that to any mortal man, would have been too much.  I feared that Wind did not understand my suggestion, that perhaps his anger toward me blinded him.  But then, faith was restored when his intentions became clear.  His attacks, though convoluted, were to a positive end, and after tireless effort, Wind had managed to press the Spider backwards–toward the trap.

In truth, I cannot say for certain whether Spider was unaware of our intentions.  The girl was just the sort that would play along with a scheme, so as to draw greater satisfaction when she managed to best her competitor.  Regardless, the Spider was beat back, bit by bit, toward the waiting hole.  When only a few yards away, Wind leapt into the air, and with a great shout, called on all his strength to push at the girl with the breath of the world.  She was blown back, her body sent flying as if she were a fly at the mercy of a storm.  The Spider first crashed at the lip of the hole before the wind married her to the dark space.  I saw her ricochet off the far wall before hitting the bottom hard.  There was a crunch, and from the walls, unnaturally thick vines burst forth and anchored themselves into the soil opposite.  I looked to see the Sweet Blossom, who had been watching all this time, with her hand extended, working her magic.  Within a second, hundreds of vines crossed the hole, effectively trapping the Spider below.

The girl, given room only to crawl, circled the bottom like a shark in water.  Her eyes glowed from the dark, where little windows gave us view of her displeased face.  She shouted with a deep and sullen voice, “Fools!  This is no prison!”

The Sweet Blossom looked at us, her beautiful face marred by tension.  ”She speaks the truth.  I have made the spells of these vines complex, but she can undo my work, given time.”

Wind spoke.  ”Nay, Arlés.  For you have given me the first opportunity to do this,” and the Son of Njord raised his hand.  There was a rush of air from the hole, some dust rising with it.  Then quiet.  I looked at Wind, then down at the Spider below.  The girl made a choking sound and clutched at her throat.  Her eyes were bulged in fear.  Behind us, the sounds of Flame and Toshihiro in combat ended.  I looked to see Flame staring at her hands, dazed, and Toshihiro staring with solemn expression toward us.

“Before,” said Wind, “The Spider moved far too much and had the primal materials of the world to keep her free.  Trapped beneath the makings of your magic, she must first undo what is yours before she can use it.  But she moves no more, and the air she took advantage of now flees from her.  She can hardly say a word than escape our prison.”  He leaned forward, eyes dark.  ”Dost thou understand, Spider?  Wouldst thou yield?”

The girl choked, and tears streamed from her eyes.  She grabbed at the vines and scraped at the walls.

Tense, I turned to Wind, “Thou cannot kill her, Wind!”

“She must yield,” he snapped back.  He shouted down into the hole.  ”Yield, damn you!”

Finally, the girl, face contorted, gave a desperate nod just as she collapsed onto the ground.  Wind dropped his hand and the air hurried to refill the space denied it.  Arlés with a wave of her hand, chased away the imprisoning vines.

Toshihiro and Flame joined us at the edge of the hole.  ”Good work,” he said.  ”It was sloppy, but there was no other way.  You have done your patrons proud.”  He looked down at the Spider with lip curled.  ”The Spider manipulates some unseen fabric of this reality.  As we are, she could easily anticipate our movements.  Wind, as a master of a free flowing element, was her true match.  The breath of the world is too whimsical and vast to control and counter against, unless you have that attributed power.  When the Spider had the gall to take control of Flame, she put herself in a disadvantage.  To keep control of Flame, she had to relinquish a level of power and concentration.  That was our opportunity.”

“You knew she would do that to me.” Growled Flame, her spine curled and blood streaming from a cut near her ear.

Toshihiro bowed.  ”My apologies, but of us all, your passion made you the most susceptible.  Please, do not take offense.  You are an exemplary warrior who serves her patron well.  If I would have given prior warning, thou wouldst have fought the Spider’s control, and we would not have the chance we did to overwhelm her into our trap.”

“Thou truly art the champion of Tenjin,” The Sweet Blossom said with a nod.

“And thou truly are a harlot!” Flame spat.  To this the Sweet Blossom only smiled.

“I would have you meet my eyes and say that, Fiery Flame.”

“Do not push me, Arlés.”

“Enough.” Toshihiro looked to the Spider.  ”Now she must rise up, as she has sworn to do.”

The Spider sneered at him as she wiped the dirt from her face.  ”Would obey!  But only my conqueror!”

“And your conqueror commands that you rise up, petulant welp!” Wind rumbled.

The Spider leapt up, one hand pulling at an unseen rope.  She landed near us, and all but I tensed in preparation for a surprise attack.

Said I softly, “Stand down, you braves.  The Spider seeks no battle.”

To correlate this, the Spider crossed her arms and glared, but made no other movement.  The others eased once again.

Wind looked to the Sweet Blossom. “Art thou prepared?  Where must the demon go?”

The woman pointed at the tree she had created.  ”There, where the bark carries a slit.  Let her climb up the roots and rest her back against it.”

Wind looked at the Spider.  ”I would have you do just that.  And quickly!”

Together, we walked to the tree, all eyes on the girl with tussled hair.   She did just as commanded, climbing up the massive roots to that high place at the trees trunk.  Then with narrowed eyes, she turned and rested her back against the mentioned slit.

“I am fain to see this finished, but first I would have what was taken returned to me,” The Sweet Blossom snipped.  Wind pointed at her and Toshihiro.  ”Spider, thou have stolen from these braves.  Return what is theirs!”

The girl sighed and flicked her hand.  Both Toshihiro and the Blossom gasped, hands flying to the stitch in their chests.  I held the champion of Tenjin upright, as Wind held Arlés by the shoulders.  Then they each straightened, and something I hadn’t realized had been missing before seemed restored.  The Sweet Blossom somehow appeared more radiant, and Toshihiro stronger.

With a laugh, the Blossom made a grand flourish with her hands, and the vines of the tree stirred to life.  They snaked toward the Spider, and the girl eyed them warily.  Wind shouted, “Do not move!  You will allow the Sweet Blossom to do her work!”

“My conqueror, Spider wishes to speak.” The Spider said loudly.  ”The web.  It trembles.”

“Quiet!  For the mass murder of countless innocents, you shall remain sealed beneath the Sweet Blossom’s magic.”

“Until when?”

Wind turned his back.  ”Until heaven may judge thee.” He began to walk away.  He spared no glance or word my way.

The vines, golems under the command of Arlés, snatched at the Spider’s limbs.  The girl did not gasp or squeak, but bared her teeth as the plants wrapped around both her legs, pinning them together.  The vines pulled at her arms, raising them up and pinned them to the trunk of the tree.

As the plants crept across her shoulders onto her chest, the Spider cried out. “A feather!”

I tensed.  Wind stopped.  The Spider smiled.  ”A feather.  Caught.  On my web.”  She grunted as the vines seemed to tighten around her.  ”It trembles…from thy distant breath.”

Wind turned and stepped forward.  He held a hand out to the Sweet Blossom, who frowned and made a halting gesture that stopped the progress of the vines.  “What dost thou speak of, demon?” he asked in a voice that threatened to be a growl.

The Spider smiled her lion’s smile.  ”Your fledgeling.  Her nest falls.”

“Spider, child, what nonsense slips your teeth?” Cried I.

“Father Stone.  The Spider knows.  Events, long and far.  Enemies descend on your fledgeling.”

“What trickery is this!?” Barked Wind.  He grabbed me and pointed at the girl.  ”She lies!  Tell me she lies!”

I looked at him, my face drained of blood.  ”Brother Wind…thou knows that it was this exact power of intuition that led Spider to find those she murdered.  Perhaps…perhaps the event has already occurred.  Her knowledge comes from echoes.  It must have…already occurred.”

No!

“Brother, I swear, if I had known, I would never have–”

Wind let out a deep hoarse scream that tore the heart from my sturdy chest.  The air around us swirled and stung us as it circled around the Son of Njord.  Toshihiro shouted at him through the din.  ”Enough!”

“Spider moves…toward tangled prey.  My conqueror.  I have it.  I have your grief!” The girl laughed.  It was a terrible sound, like a monster birthed upon my ear.  Never had I known the girl, in all her passion and mischief, to ever make such a sound.

Wind advanced toward her, sword drawn, murder in his light eyes. “Thou knew the whole time!  Thou knew!”

Toshihiro stopped him.  He crossed his arms and gazed down his nose.  ”We cannot judge her.  Her fate is for the heavens to decide.”  Wind, finding an immovable object in Toshihiro’s logic, let out a yell.  He turned and took three thunderous steps before he kicked away from the earth, riding on the wind that had saved him time and again from the problems of the material world.  But he could not flee this.  I called after him, my heart torn.

“Brother Wind, wait!”  But he was gone.

With eyes burning, I returned my attention to the Spider.  The process had already resumed, and in my gut anger weakened my sympathy.  My brow was furrowed dark as the girl locked gazes with me.  ”Why?” I wished to scream.  My Spider was young and susceptible to her own emotions, but never had I seen this cruelty in her before.

What happened next haunts me to this day, and left me stunned at its occurrence.  Angry as I was, my heart still harbored the bloodstained child, and I could accept no justification for what she suffered.

The smaller tendrils of vines dug beneath the Spider’s skin, and the girl’s face contorted in pain.  Perhaps it was too much, for the girl did not scream, even as the vines canvased her body.

“Stop it!” I thundered at Arlés.  ”You said she would not be harmed!”  Flame and Toshihiro came before me, faces grim and pinched in the dim night.

Toshihiro said unto me, “The process will not kill her, Noble Earth.  This is the only way.”

His words were a horror to my ears.  I looked to Flame, who could not meet my eyes, her form like cold black coal.

Tears, of which I could no longer contain, streamed silent down my dusty face.  With pained expression, I looked up at the Spider.

When this horror finished, I heard the tree groan, and I knew that the slit in the trunk had a purpose.  There was a wet crunch, and the Spider arched her back, her pale face stretched by emotions too strong for her to grasp.  Tears overflowed from her wide eyes.  Through her chest, ripping through her shirt, came out a thick and bloody flower bud.  It was as large as my head, and its stem as thick as my arm.

Though it was night, the flower blossomed, a great white star-shaped flower with six petals that curved and pointed outward.  The Spider let out some strangled cry, one that died out to a cough as blood sprayed from her lips.  Her eyes rolled shut, and she hung there limp.

From her mouth came a small drop of crimson.  It landed on the white flower, a terrible stain.

Silence gripped all there.  I shook my head.  My body trembled.  ”Sleep, my dear.  I will return.”

With heavy feet, I turned and began to walk away.  I heard someone approach and within the next moment, Flame fell in step with me. “Noble Earth…where will you go?”

“I must return to the fledgeling’s nest to begin my search…Wind will arrive there in a matter of hours, but if I wish to get there in a matter of days, I must leave now.”

“But…forgive me, did the Spider not state that the fledgeling was no more?”

“Nay, my friend.  The Spider stated she was lost…and what is lost, can be found.  Even if would take me all my life to find her, I shall.”

“Let me aid you.”

I gazed upon her, startled.  Flame’s countenance was aglow with determination.  ”And your people?”

“Fear not, they are cared for.”  She grabbed my hand and pulled me along.  ”Come, Noble Earth, there are still agents of heaven that await our word!  Many of this number have contract with the skies, and of them all, there must be one that can aid us in reaching your fledgeling faster!”

As I was lead away by Flame, my head turned to look back at the Spider’s new resting place.  Toshihiro and the Sweet Blossom spoke quietly to one another.  The earth whispered that their conversation would be of interest to me, but the nature of it was concealed–perhaps by the magic of Arlés.  My eyes slipped onto the Spider, my wiry girl of bobbed plum hair and sharp emerald eyes.  This man’s heart gave a lurch in knowing that the spirited young slave girl I had rescued years ago had been reduced to such a state.  Self-loathing was a weed in my chest, as tragedy was a flower in hers.

And what thief had crept in, and snatched the joy from Earth’s life?  What scoundrel toppled nests and pulled at webs?  Was it Fate or Chaos that had made these horrors of death and abandonment true in the eyes of youths?  I had come, determined, to save all that I treasured.  Instead, I had lost all.  The Spider was tangled in the knot of her own life.  The fledgeling, the little girl with light eyes that was truly her father’s daughter, was lost in the storm of things beyond her.  Only time would tell me of her fate.  Only time would tell me of mine.

I prayed, fervently, to a goddess that lay quiet, that the fledgeling be spared a violent existence.  I prayed that the sword her father had given to her as a gift would be lost in a happier life.  I prayed, that on the rumbling earth and in the whistling wind, evil never visit upon her pure soul as it had the petals of my sleeping Spider.

With a fire to keep my heart from cold death, I traversed into the unknown.


The End


Back to Inter. II | Forward to Chapter 9.1

Intermission II: The Wind and the Web (cont.)

Unto the audience of champions, Wind spoke, his voice carried by the world’s breath to each ear.  ”Brothers and Sisters,” said he, “Admiration is due for your swift answer to thine patron’s call–but there need be only one party to this hunt.  It is in no way a reflection on yourselves, but simply a practical matter.  The Spider has strewn her web along all paths.  Disaster lies waiting for the overzealous tramp of an army’s feet.  Let us, in guile, slip along her web, with steps unburdened.”

“You would ask us to turn away from our duty?” One boisterous brave shouted, a suit of gleaming armor on his person, and a mace as large as his head.

Toshihiro, calculating son, said unto him, “I know not your patron, but champion, perpend on the purpose of our meeting.  All present seek the same goal.  Should the preliminary party fail, another will rise in vengeance.  Your coming here need not be in vain.  A perimeter may be set about the jungle.  The Spider may be tempted to flee, and your watch will be of most value.”

“And who shall be of the first party?” Called another brave.

Wind gestured at himself.  ”I, Champion of Njord, have right to this hunt, being the first to arrive.  Next, I call on Flame, for her light and ferocity in these dwindling hours. Also, the Sweet Blossom, whose skill is specially required, as well as Toshihiro, the wise and intelligent.”

“And I shall go,” I rumbled.  Taking my strength from the earth at my feet, I rose, and bore my eyes into Wind.  ”I claim the right to witness this act.”

“Thou cannot interfere,” Wind said to me.  His gaze was chilled.

I faced him, unrattled. “And I’ve sworn to correct any who would harm the Spider.  I mean to keep this vow.”

Wind sighed and turned his back to me. “Very well.”

There was a clatter as all turned to fulfill their role.  Left alone in the rubble, we five convened near the fountain–the only thing left untouched in all the mayhem.  ”We remain together,” Flame said as she held up her hand.  It ignited, dancing licks of fire rolling from her fingertips.  ”My light is somehow weaker here.  Danger lies for any who fade from its glow.  The dark of this jungle may very well swallow thee.”

“The Spider has weaved enchantments throughout,” said the Sweet Blossom. She eyed the dark jungle with disdain. “Tis sloppy work, but still effective.  Other traps likely rest for us.  Our pace must be gradual if I am to give ample warning of any malicious threads of magic.”

“How can we seek to find her quickly if we must travel as sloths?” Flame asked, her brows knitted.

Toshihiro answered.  ”Flame, of the tales I’ve gathered of the Spider, she is the prideful sort.  I confess that our brethren wait in vain for the rogue to dash into their midst.  She would much rather sit at the center of her web and meet all threats.”

“Nay, brother, that was good of you,” Spoke Wind.  ”To have so many agents thrashing about the jungle would never do.  The Spider would take hold of that confusion, and use it to her advantage.”

“It will not be a satisfying hunt, for you all, I fear,” Said I, in my bitterness.  ”The Spider would take initiative, should she feel it to her advantage.”

“There will be no complaints from this man, if that would be her wish,” Said Wind.

We moved as a line–Flame at the helm, with the Sweet Blossom behind.  After her came Toshihiro, than I, than Wind.  Night fell, and the jungle turned to utter darkness.  Only Flame’s torched fist, held high over head, undid the mysteries about us.  But as she had said prior, the power of her light seemed weaker here, and did not penetrate far into the dark.  Now and again, Arlés would whisper to Flame of some danger we could not see, and in turn, Toshihiro gave further advisement as to the Spider’s likely whereabouts given the traps laid and the terrain of the land.  Wind was a chilly breeze behind me, and my shoulders were as rocks against his resenting stare.  I did not look back upon his face, for fear of seeing the wraith that had taken my Brother.

Our discordian cinq passed roots that were as high as our waists, and cut through ferns taller than Flame’s reaching light.  Closed buds quivered at our passing.  It were as if they sensed the alienness of our persons.  From the red soil at my feet, I drew up an understanding.  I was the chosen son of the earth, and from the land intuitions came quietly.  With darkened eyes, I kept my knowledge to myself.

As we passed the broad trunk of an unnameable tree, the fallen vines at our feet gave a stir.  The Sweet Blossom gave a start, and leapt to the side, crying out that we should follow–but Toshihiro, man of keen mind, saw from the dying reaches of light, the unnatural weave of the hanging vines behind her.

Too late came his warning.  With a shriek, the emerald tendrils snatched at the Blossom’s limbs, and pulled her into the void.  Wind howled, some remnants of his love for the sorceress ripped out of his throat.  Flame ignited, all of her form turning bright and brilliant–an instinctual reaction, but one with dire effects.

Toshihiro, too close to her fiery body, stumbled away with arms held up to shield his face.  The vines at their feet lay forgotten.  Startled to life, they tripped the Son of the East in his lack of care, and away he went, dragged by the jungle to the unknown.

Wind shouted, “Arlés!  Toshihiro!  Speak to me, brothers!” but no answer came.

Flame’s sabers were drawn.  Her brilliant body burned bright, but still her light failed to illuminate our comrades whereabouts.  ”She is here!” Cried the daughter of the sands.  ”The Spider leers at us from the dark!  Arlés saw nothing of the danger that lay at our feet!”

“But where!?” Cried Wind, his teeth grit.

“All around Brother,” Said I in quiet.

Both my companions eyed me beadily.  ”What dost thou speak of?” Flame spat.  ”You speak as a man who knows!”

I eyed her, face as smooth as a river’s rock.  ”Flame, douse thy anger.   If I believed there to be danger, my voice would have been yours.”

“I call on it now, damn you!  What dost thou speak of, when you say the Spider is all around us!?  Why does she not strike?”

I smiled at her.  ”Because she knows I love you both, as life does the suns.”  I gestured at the dark trees.  ”The forest is alive, Flame.”

Flame scoffed, the fires over her body reaching higher into the dark.  ”Of course it is!”

I shook my head, and my smile faded.  ”Nay.  I mean, the forest is alive, my friend.  Aware.  These leaves stir with the whispers of beings sentient.”

Wind took a step toward me, his face dark.  ”Dost thou meanst to say that the Spider has given ‘agnitio’ against the will of the gods?”

“Her patron may have charged her with the task.”

“Task of what, Earth!?” Wind bellowed.  The trees and fauna rustled.  He paid no mind, and even in the thick of the jungle, a gust swept through.  ”To forsake the threads of creation for whimsical fantasies bred in a bastard mind!?”

“Speak not of bastards, lest your fledgeling suffer from your curses!” I growled.

Wind took me by the front, his face tight with murder.  Flame shouted at us something unintelligible to our fury-driven minds.  She made for us, one saber gone and a hand outreached in its place.

Then a light brighter than even her brilliance broke through, and all attention was drawn to the canopy, where glowing threads, the shade of mint, weaved in a confusing cross that sometimes condensed to form patches against a black backdrop.  Small beads traveled along the threads, where they vanished into the pale trunks of the tall trees.

And there hung Spider, upside down, held in the cradle of a design still a mystery to me and my fellows.  Her eyes were small beacons that challenged the mettle of all they laid gaze to.  Her long blunt bangs swayed, as she rocked from side to side, emerald threads about her shoulders and legs.  With each swing, the corners of her mouth spread wider into a grin.  At either side of her, tangled in her web, were the Sweet Blossom and Toshihiro.  They hung like rag dolls.  From their chests erupted similar threads as the ones that spanned the canopy–but these lines pulsed periwinkle, and tangled with the weave of emerald.  Beads flowed from their chests.

My heart chilled.  ”Nay, Spider!” I cried, “Thou mustn’t harm them!  Let the braves free, so that I may speak with thee.”

“Speak–Father Stone.” She said in an accent clipped and lisping.  ”The Spider listens.”

Flame brandished her saber.  ”Demon!  Thou art a plague on life!”

Spider only blinked at her coolly.  Then her grin turned to a lion’s smile.

The probing threads that made nest in the bosoms of our brothers were severed, along with the other lines that kept them aloft.  They fell, and it was Wind’s quick gust that slowed their descent.  The world stirred by his powerful suggestion–the trees rocked, Flame’s light flickered, and the dead leaves and dust fluttered upward in a startled dance.  Even the emerald threads, alien to us, were made to shift and sway.

It was Flame’s voice, as gunpowder ignited, that alerted me to what came next.

Spider seemed to fall, a marionette doll tangled in her own strings.  To these eyes of burnt umber, I could call her descent nothing else.  But the humor that fell from her lips–a chitter more than a bubbling giggle–proved my error.  As she came near to the ground with limbs a disarray and her body twisted and toiled to disquieting dimensions, she seemed to spring to salvation.  It was at the last possible moment, when in my soles I felt her hair brush the soil, that the Spider came up again.  She went rolling, left knee the weight that lead the swing of her body, right arm extended, with her other leg tucked in.  I saw the flash of pale threads, caught in the light of Flame’s anger, caught in the glow of Spider’s mystery, pull from the girl’s clenched left fist.  The sight was lost to me in the coming moments.

In her spin, the Spider touched the earth once with her right foot, before she kicked away, up and over me, to my companions behind.  From above, she jerked to a stop mid-air, by the grace of her curious webbings, and it was this startling halt in motion that caused Flame a costly pause.  Her saber came rising too late, like a sleepy king against a dark assassin, before it was struck away to the shadows.  The next blow was swift to the head, and sent Flame spinning to the ground.

“Monster!  I would have your head!” Wind bellowed as he started forward.

I blocked him, my brows furrowed deep. “You will stay your anger, Brother Wind.  She will not be harmed.”

“You would have her slay us in our passivity!?”

“Nay, I would have you keep your word, Son of Njord.  Flame is not beyond being burned by her own passion, thou knows this to be true.  I beg thee, stay your anger.”

“You ask much of me, Earth.” Wind hissed.  But for his heated stare, he stepped down.

I turned, and struck my staff on the ground. “Spider!” I bellowed, urging all of my frustration into the name.  The care of my companions was not swallowed by my differing goals.  She stood, as a predator guarding her dinner, with Flame’s fire extinguished as she lay still on the ground.  “Restrain yourself, foolish girl!  They have given their word you shall not be harmed.”

“Must speak lightly, then.” Spider murmured, her lion’s smile now back to its original grin.  ”Words sting.  Poison to life.  My life…”  Her grin twitched.  ”…Hers.  They harm.  Verily.”

I shook my head and stepped near her, slowly.  My Spider, my child, was different.  Perhaps corrupted by whatever source of power she reveled in.  I extended my hand.  Fear was a demon in me…and it cackled that perhaps my companions had spoken the truth.  “Child.  Your life is in shambles.”

She flinched from my hand and glared at me through her overgrown bangs.  Her lip pouted.  ”You wound me.  Liar. You bring harm.”

“Nay, sweet Spider.  Thou knows my love for thee is everlasting…”

“Even with death?  My soiled hands,” And she held them to her face, tensed and curled like claws.  ”Will not clean.  I pull.  Pull many threads…But my own eludes.  Eternally, He says.  Rules, He says.  All folly.”  Her eyes, emerald stones, pierced me from their shadow.  ”Father Stone. Spider can undo…the knot in you.”

I clutched the stitch in my chest, and felt my legs tense with the desire to step back.  I fought for stalwartness.  ”Nay, sweet Spider.  I would keep this knot in me.  Not all in the world must be undone and rewoven.”

“But Spider must.”

“Child, you know not of the things you ask for!  You have taken and given things that are not yours to give!  Do these new lives–these quivering flowers and these hissing ferns–do they speak happiness unto thine ear?  And of the souls parted and sprinkled elsewhere from your punitive hands, does their evil demise vanish from thine heart?  Nay, sweet Spider, you seek to mend the world of perceived wrongs, but in doing so, you create wrong within you.  This most important aspect of your life–this most important weave of existence–is the one thing you cannot change.  Stop this!“

Tears, luminescent with her potent grief, trailed into the hollows of her cheeks.  Spider turned from me, and hung her head.  Behind me, I felt the stirrings of our other companions.  The Sweet Blossom sucked in breath as a desperate fish, and Toshihiro coughed roughly.  I did not turn my head, but instead tried to keep my focus.

“It is with pain that I ask this of thee…But Spider, perhaps thou should accept our solution to these troubles.  Rest your heart, rest these souls who scream of entrapment.  You need not fight anymore.”

“Aye…” Murmured the Spider, face still hidden.  ”Would accept. Will accept.  …But Father Stone…dost thou know?  Spider’s web trembles.  Events, Father Stone.  Long and far.  I must follow.  Toward tangled prey.”  She turned back to me, and her eyes were aglow.  Over head, the canopy dimmed to darkness once again.  All the jungle shivered and creaked.  ”I shall succumb…”  There was a crack, and Wind grunted as he pulled me back from the path of a fallen tree.  The behemoth swung from the shadows and laid itself between us and the Spider.

The girl smiled.  ”…But only to my conqueror!”


Back to Inter. I | Forward to Inter. III

Intermission I



The Wind and the Web

by Tobias Aretuli

“He came by a leap to the goal of purpose, not by the toilsome steps of reason. On the instant his headlong spirit declared his purpose: this was the one being for him in all the world: at this altar he would light a lamp of devotion, and keep it burning forever.” – Gilbert Parker


The sky, blanket to the soil I tread, had lead me away from the comforts of dandelion hair and lilac scented dresses.  But as an agent of heaven, I knew my peace was not to last.  I had tried my level best to prepare the fledgeling for my departure, but let no one say that the tears of one so high cannot crumble the ground below.  Weary was I of this capricious life, but it had been my choice, and with the earth rumbling beneath my disgruntled feet, I sought the one I had fought alongside–my brother of sweat and blood–Mighty Wind.

It was perhaps by the grace of Atargatis that Njord did not send me to an early grave.  That god of endless breath cursed my travels, and made every attempt to impede my efforts.  But with the protection of the sea goddess and the memory of a slave girl in my mind, I reached the red soil of the Indabe triumphant. Through an arid desert and along unforgiving cliffs traveled I.  Pleasantries could not be spared, yet I thought of dear Flame, with her scorching tongue and eyes brighter than the suns that blazed upon my back.  This was her homeland, and her kingdom was nearby–it winked on the horizon like a promise of food and drink.  Time had become a slow insect for this man.  In the span of a year, I already feared the stranger that would face me.  I lumbered on.

I moved southward, as a rolling wave of riled earth, to the emerald jungles of lost sons.  There, the deeper I traveled, the stronger Night became, till the suns were extinguished from my eyes.  Vines draped in languid trails along the thick branches of trees I could not name–with trunks so thick I was certain a hollowed one could serve as my home.  There were leaves as broad as my chest and twice as long that hung like shadows over my person.  Were I not attuned with the earth, this man would have been lost in the grips of foreign heat.

But my way broke to an open space where rested the ancient ruins of an unnamed people.  The masonry was conquered by fauna that snaked and twined too intuitively for what could be construed as normal.  These vines weaved in such a way as to form pictures–living hieroglyphs against a dead civilization.  I smiled humorlessly. Always the whimsical one, my sweet, sweet girl.  The Spider of the West was here, there was no doubt.

The wind whipped at me in a strong gust that swept up from my legs.  Unstartled, but now at the ready, I held my staff before me and gazed upward. Wind touched onto the arch of a stone hawk, and with his eyes bright beneath his bangs, the man held me fast in his gaze.  

”Friend Earth, what bringest thou here?” he asked, his voice weightless yet surging with power.

“Thou seeketh the Spider,” I said, twisting my staff with my dry hands.  “Brother Wind, you know I cannot allow this.”

The man’s brow snarled together. “Thou wouldst turn blade on one you call ‘brother’?”

“And thou wouldst turn blade on one I call ‘daughter’?”

“She was lost to you, Friend Earth.  Leave it be.  She is none of your concern.”

“I say thee nay!  Her actions weigh heavily on me, Brother, but I cannot turn away!”

“Friend, the Spider has earned the ire of my patron.  I am obliged to correct her.”

“You speak falsely, Brother!  Her patron lays silent–and she is but unguided!  She was my ward in the Battles of Hazmes, let me lead her back to the way of harmony!”

“Her power is unnatural.  She disrupts life.”  Wind exhaled and gazed upon me with sadness in his eyes.  ”Please, Friend Earth, it is not my wish to do this.”

“Nay,” growled I, “But it is your cowardice that allows it.”  The ground began to quake.  ”The Spider has a champion in me, Brother Wind.  I cannot allow this.”

“Thou art mad!” Cried Wind.  ”That abomination has ensnared you, Earth!  But I cannot fail my patron!  Njord’s word is all I answer to!”  He drew his blade, and were it not for my anchor to the soil, his furious gusts of power would have turned me away.

“Thou cannot fail your patron, but what of your flesh and blood, of which I have been left to care for!?  Who can the fledgeling look to–with your misguided heroics, and I, forever cleaning up after you!  What the Wind turns over, the Earth is left to bear, and I have grown weary of this!  I can hold no more, Brother!”

Wind let out a roar that collapsed weak walls and shook the dust and dirt from the mossy pillars.  He came at me in a swift arc, and we collided.  His sword was to my staff–but I would not yield, and he would not relent. “Everyday I think of my fledgeling!  Everyday!” He thundered.  ”How dare you say otherwise!?”

“I say otherwise–and more!” I rumbled back.  ”A poor trade, a father for a blade.  She is traveling a dark path and you know nothing of it!” We parted with a shove, and he came at me again.  Again, I blocked his blow and he pressed on me, the strength of his anger whipping the air around us into a great frenzy.

He shouted over the din, “And what is your intention then? To make a new home for yourself with the Spider and my fledgeling?  You delude yourself!  Why are you really here!?” I shifted my weight and let him pass me.  The end of my staff came up fast to strike at his legs.  He fell to the ground with a thud.

I pointed my staff at his face and snarled, “Perhaps you are right.  But I cannot abandon those I love simply because my life makes it difficult! I refuse to choose one child over the other.  My heart is as broad as this earth, and it can harbor whom I choose…which is more than I can say for you, fickle Wind!” I was swept back with an invisible punch to the gut.  The wind robbed me of my breath, and I crashed into an unsuspecting wall.  The stones fell about me, but I stood, a hardy man.  Wind had risen to his feet.  Without a twitch or utterance, I bid the earth to swallow him, but just as the ground beneath him cracked and split, just as the slabs of rock rose to snap about his form like a lion’s mouth, Wind took to the sky.

“Thou wouldst risk the welfare of my child for your repugnant idea of happiness!?” Wind spat from his lofty throne of gust.  ”I would spend the breath of this world a thousand times before any such horror would come to pass!”

Our battle raged until the high suns flirted with the tips of the trees.  What was a place of quiet disrepair was becoming one of heated destruction–basalt and mortar turned to dust in the air.  Crags were as claw marks from my livid struggles, and the air swirled with debris and vegetation.  It seemed an age since I had fought so ardently, and even Wind seemed to show signs of fatigue, but still we fought on.

It was at a critical point, when a misstep led me into one of the many streams of fast moving air Wind created, that the battle turned.  As anchored as this man was to the soil, there was no parallel to the force that barreled into my body.  By the grace of my heavenly blessings, I was left whole, and thus the whole of me was sent deep into the cold jagged embrace of a rotunda.  Its arms encircled me, yet through the mess I was afforded a small view of the rosy sky.  Outside, I heard a cry.  It was not Wind, yet a voice I knew well.

Grunting, I called upon the earth to free me, and the ground shifted, parting the heavy basalt blocks with the added suggestion of my arms and legs.  Covered in dust and shaking from my effort, I forced my tired body to rise from the rubble.

Spider, the willowy crack of youthful rebellion, met Wind in combat.  She flew through the sky, tugging at threads I could not see, but that nevertheless kept her aloft.  Wind, tired from our fight and unaccustomed to her startling evades was becoming sloppy in his advances.  Spider, mischievous Spider, with her plum-dark hair bobbing at every sharp turn, her bare feet kicking, her fists pulling at the way of the world…
I gripped my fists and cried out as loud as my voice could boom, “Spider, you foolish child!  You must flee!”

But I was soon distracted.

I noted flower petals that were not native to the region.  They drifted in capricious fashion along the strong breeze.  I cursed, and followed the trail of broken purity to the source.  On the edge of a cracked fountain, near the jungle forest, sat Arlés the Sweet Blossom, champion of Kupala and sorceress supreme.  Vines snaked to reach her, and flowers blossomed near her, despite the descent of night. She smiled at me alluringly, and I made all efforts to avoid her ensorcelling eyes.

She laughed.  ”Place not your fears on this sordid creature, Strong Earth.”  With a lazy hand that unfurled as an opening bud inviting a kiss, she gestured to her side, and I saw to my horror that more agents of heaven had come–and all were rushing forth, weapons eager to taste the blood of my Spider.

My chest tightened.  I could feel the slabs of rock beneath my feet quiver at my fury.  With a yell that threatened to tear out all that I was, I raised my arms.  A deafening noise cracked through the air.  The earth shook with such ferocity, that those on the ground were felled.  Those in the sky, unabated by my wordly displeasure, soon found that Earth was not easy to escape.  A chasm tore open across the ruins, and from its bowels erupted such a thick wall of dirt and rock that the pursuers were effectively stopped before they could reach their quarry.

Just as the curtain rose, Spider gazed upon me sullenly, her bold eyebrows furrowed deep over her pickled eyes.  She disliked being rescued.  I had a brief fear she would resume her fight without care.  When the curtain fell, I breathed a sigh of relief.

She had gone.

The wind quieted and the earth stilled, but there was still a roaring within my mind.  As I turned my head to gauge how many had come for this nefarious purpose, Wind came at my side and breathed quietly, “Friend Earth…you see now, I am not alone in my quest.”

Before me, amid weak foundations and destroyed walls, crumbled buildings and downed pillars, came men and women of the most illustrious cloth.  Just as I, they were servants of the gods.  They gazed upon me with virulence, and it was as if the entire universe had come to press on my heart.  Toshihiro, champion of Tenjin was present.  Once, we had fought side by side.  Now his dark eyes narrowed at me, colored with unsympathy.

And like a torch amid darkness, there stood my Flame.

My heart grew heavy.  Said I to Flame, “This is too cruel.  Not even your brilliance will survive to dance another day should this come to pass.”

The woman, with her twin blades, gazed at me levelly.  ”Noble Earth, you know it must be done.  Whether the intention was there, the Spider must account for the death she has caused. The gods demand it.”

“Brothers and Sisters,” cried I, “How can ye speak of harmony when you seek to unravel it?  The Spider has a patron!  His fury will undo our world should we seek to kill her!”

Wind sighed.  ”Friend Earth, your wisdom runs as deep as the soil.  Do not assume the basest of us.  What you speak of, we have anticipated.  We seek another solution.”

I gazed at him with tight jaw. “…What dost thou speak of?”

“The Spider, whether through folly or intention, has weaved herself into the jungle.  To destroy her would leave a void of hunger that would consume all.  Instead, we seek only to lay her to rest.”

“Thou speaks of entrapment.”  I looked at Arlés, who had hardly shifted from her spot.  My lip curled. “I was mystified as to the reason of your presence, but no more.”

Her rubious lips pouted. “Oh Earth, thou art a cullion…you always held me in such disdain.  Tisn’t fair.”

“My Spider holds greater sway in these jungles, Sweet Blossom.  All that lives here, answers to her.”

“Which is why she is dangerous,” Toshihiro, quiet son of the Far East, murmured.  ”She oversteps her station.  Twists existence and makes a mockery of it.”

“Is this an issue of pride, Toshihiro?”

“Noble Earth, you are wise, but stubborn, and bear far too much!” Flame cried passionately.  She stepped toward me, and her arms flickered away the harrowing sight of her sabers. “Shed your burden.  Let us deal with the child.  Thou knows that even should she come under your charge, she would not be exempt from destruction.”  Her hands held my face, and I felt myself weaken at the feel of her warmth.  Said Flame to me,  “She needs her patron above all else to understand her power and the discretion that should come with it.” She added in a low voice that burned me.  ”Perhaps she has been abandoned?  …And with reason?”

I looked around, hundreds of eyes on my person.  My eyes burned and I bit back my grief.  ”…Tis my fault, the tragedy this has become.  I can take no more.  I curse this life…I curse it!”  I fell to the earth.  I gripped my hand around my staff and bowed my head.  ”She cannot be harmed…Should she suffer, the perpetrator will never again walk this realm without the earth seeking to swallow him!”

“You have our word, Friend Earth.” Wind whispered over me, reduced to a shadow in the dusk.


Back to Chapter 8.4 | Forward to Inter. II

Chapter 8.4

NYX____________________________

Nighttime.

It was a silent consensus by the both of us, that the eyes of others weren’t quite what we desired.  We avoided the main roads that led to Gamath and made our own way, silent, each consumed by her own thoughts after our meeting with the river guardian and Sedwick.  We traveled until the mud turned to firm soil, and the firm soil to shy grass, and the shy grass to unchecked meadow–so tall that the fields teased my fingers.  The wind chilled us and made the earth sigh.  When the three suns peeked beneath the reign of clouds–their smoldering gazes hot and searing in the clandestine evening–Elmiryn and I cut the fields to the inland forest.  It sat dark in the shadow of the Torreth Mountains, and there was a mist in the air that clung to my skin and made me shiver.

But a part of me was glad.

We had returned to the wilderness, where insects made music beneath the bracken fern, and a nighthawk’s glowing eyes blinked at me from the high branches of an old whitebeam tree.  I was given a moment, finally apart from my revulsion, to appreciate this beauty.  I hadn’t realized how much Gamath had bothered me until I smelled the fresh soil and flowering fauna–heard the rustle of leaves and the shift of grass.  For more than a year, the wilderness had been my home.  No civilized place would have me.

“…And now,” I couldn’t help but think, “Not even nature will have me.”

“Feels better doesn’t it?” Elmiryn asked in a low voice.  She led me through the forest with careful steps, and spared me a glance to see if she could find a hint of me in the growing shadows.  I had to hold her elbow a little, as my lacking eyesight made grace difficult when busy roots sought to trip me.

“It does,” I answered, voice equally low.  In truth, I wasn’t sure if we were keeping quiet due to some precaution, or because the forest seemed far too peaceful to speak in a normal volume.

“Excellent.  I think I see a break in the trees.”  Elmiryn hurried her pace.  I tried my best to keep up.

We sidled past a set of young bushes and came into a man-made clearing.  The ground had clearly been swept and cleared of brush, and in the center was a simple pit circled by rocks.  The soil in the pit had turned black, and at the bottom was charred wood.  Elmiryn knelt by it, looked into the shallow pit, then around the clearing.  I looked around too, as well as I could with my one eye, but saw nothing of interest.  It was too dim to see tracks, bones, or seeds.  Finally the woman stood to her feet.

“I guess it’s fine. Whoever was here isn’t coming back or we would’ve found them.”  She set her things onto the ground.

I followed suit.  “Maybe it was a traveler from Dame?”

She shrugged.  “I don’t care so long as it doesn’t mean trouble.”

We set up camp.  Elmiryn managed to make a fire with the last glimpses of light.  I went about roasting the slices of seasoned sheep’s meat on a pan I found in the bag she brought.  She, meanwhile, prepared the bed rolls.  They were both laid out beneath the branches of the largest tree at the clearing’s edge, so as to protect against any possible rain.  She sat down and set about checking her things.  It didn’t take long before her eyes were on her modest collection of knives.

My eye watched the sheep’s meat turn brown over the heat of the flames.  Slowly, under some ghost of an idea, I raised my hand.  It felt heavy and weak.  I covered my eye and saw my world go dark.  The reality of my situation struck me again and a sob punched from within my chest.  I curled defensively against the sound.

Nyx!  You’re burning it!” I heard Elmiryn shout a few moments later.

I gasped and sat upright, my hand moving to reveal that the pan had dipped far into the flames.  “Why didn’t you tell me sooner!?” I yelped as I pulled the pan out of the fire and vainly tried to put out the fiery sheep’s meat.

Elmiryn had moved from her place to sit next to me, a jug of water in hand.  “Shit, shit…gods damn it, I only just smelled it now!”  She poured enough on the meat to stop the fire. Then she looked at me and started to snicker.  “Sorry…I was distracted.  I was focusing on sharpening a dull knife.” She chuckled and covered her mouth with her hand.

I blinked at her.  Then felt the corner of my lips pull upward.  I could feel my throat tighten.  “Elmiryn…what am I going to do?  What are we going to do?  …This’ll be like the blind leading the blind!”  These last words found themselves interjected by sudden fits of nervous giggles that came from some unknown place within me.  It built up, until I felt tears fall from the tip of my nose and my ribs ache from gasping out harsh laughter.

Elmiryn laughed too–even surpassed me, to the point that her humor turned to mute convulsions that had her bent over her crossed legs and her arms around her head.  Somehow, even sitting up as I was became a difficult task as some hysteria took me over.  I dropped the pan onto the ground and cried out into the night air through fast giggles,  “Look at us!  Two blighted fools knocked together out of poor luck, and we barrel onward towards complete chaos!  We make no sense!  None at all!” I leaned against Elmiryn’s body and shook her with both hands.  “Listen to me!  Oh, listen to me please!”  I paused to let another bout of giggles fade away.  “Sweet Aelurus…Elmiryn…my gods Elmiryn…it’s as if you’re a ghost and I’m just a twin hiding her sister!”

She managed to calm down enough to be able to speak.  When she did so, she sat up and peered at me.  “Hey…you’re right aren’t you?”  Her smile turned shy and I thought I saw her cheeks flush.  “That changes it a little, doesn’t it?”

I frowned at her, still chuckling.  “How do you mean?”

Elmiryn had fallen quiet.  She puckered her lips a little as she thought.  “Well,” she began slowly.  “They always say two eyes are better than one…” she snickered, a slip that almost set us both off again.  With light eyes, she glanced at me, “But in this case, what does it matter if you can’t see a ghost?”

I sobered and pulled away from her.  “Maybe…We…don’t count among the living?  Maybe We’re just unbeing?”

Elmiryn sighed and shook her head.  “Why do you do that?”

I shifted nervously.  “Do what?”

“What you just said.  Refer to yourself like you’re more than one.”

“You do it too, when you talk to me,” I returned, defensive.

“Well…isn’t it…isn’t it not supposed to make sense?” Elmiryn rubbed the back of her neck.  “When you stop and think about it, it does sound weird.  Isn’t something in our minds just supposed to reject saying things like that so casually?”

“I don’t know, Elmiryn.  When I was young, I always saw it that way.  It wasn’t that anyone told me to think that way…I just…did.

“…But it’s not the truth.”

“And when did a person’s belief require credibility to come to pass?  Whole societies have bought into more ludicrous ideas!”

“More ludicrous than a soul being ripped in half?  But…you’re right…and that’s what I don’t get.  How does that kind of gut feeling turn out to be wrong?  What does that say…about every other notion I’ve ever had?”

I gave her a severe look.  When I spoke, my voice was sharp.  “You can’t think that way.  You’ll completely come apart if you do, so don’t you dare think that way!  Why does this matter all of a sudden?  It’s my problem–you’re just taking it too personally.”

Elmiryn raised an eyebrow at me.  And I felt my face burn hot.  “I’m sorry,” I said hurriedly.  “I…I don’t know why I got so upset.”

“No, no,” she said.  A smile crept onto her face.  “I sorta like it when you get a little worked up.  At least it’s you being protective of me instead of the opposite.  …Sort of.”

I brushed my fingers over my bandaged eye.  I tried to imagine Her, trapped in the dark.  My lips pursed as I thought, with bitter satisfaction, “At least I can still control what she sees.”  I tried to envision how frustrated she would be, pacing as a caged animal, given only a window to a world still denied her.  But then the blood drained from my face, and my mouth hung open as I launched to my feet.  My heart pounded in my ears.  I looked skyward.  There was moonlight, but from our location I could not see the moon.  It was perhaps concealed behind a cloud.  Fervently I counted beneath my breath.

I reeled.

Elmiryn had gotten to her feet, and held me steady.  “Nyx, what’s wrong?”

I looked at her, my face screwed up with worry, my mouth dry.  I was such a fool!  How could I forget something so important?  “The full moon,” I said, breathless.  “It’s tomorrow!  Elmiryn, it’s the only time of the month she has full control.  What if I can’t come back!?”

The woman looked skyward, then at me.  “I’ll watch you.  I think your Twin is a little afraid of me.  If she tries anything, I’ll just trap her until you come back.”

“Oh gods, it won’t be that easy!”

“As far as I’m concerned, she’s taking you hostage that night.  I can’t stop it, but I can make sure you return to me.”  Elmiryn smiled and brushed my cheek.  “I can’t go losing the voice in my head.”

I felt my face burn and I turned away.  I gestured at the sheep’s meat.  “Sorry about the food…” I mumbled.

“Nyx.”

I closed my eye.  “Yes?”

“I have an idea on how to change your eye back to normal.”

I looked at her in surprise.  “You do?”

“Yeah.  Close your eye again.”

I gave her a wary look.  “What will you do?”

“Nothing really.  I just want to show you a trick of mine.”

“Elmiryn–”

“It won’t hurt you.  I promise.”  She smiled at me.

I sighed heavily.  The shadow of her smile barely hid its ulterior motive, and her eyes had a hint of mischief to them.

But my eye slipped shut.

I felt her pull away the bandage, and I held my breath.  The air felt cold against my left eyelid.  There was another brush against my cheek–slower this time.  “Nyx,” I heard Elmiryn say. “I’m going to show you what I do on those nights when my mind disconnects.”  Her touch trailed from my cheek to briefly brush back my hair.  She tucked the longer bangs behind my ear and blew softly at my face.  “When I start to doubt what’s mine and what isn’t,” She said, “All I do is focus on what that part of me is feeling…are you focusing?”

“Yes.”  Inwardly, I berated myself for sounding so meek.

I could hear the smile in Elmiryn’s voice.  “Good.”  She cupped the side of my face and lightly brushed her thumb over my eyelid.  “If you can feel this part of you, then it’s yours.  Believe that.”

I swallowed.  I wondered at the conflicting desire to step forward and step back at the same time.  I could feel the heat of the fire, displaced by the occasional breeze.  Elmiryn was standing perhaps closer than necessary.  I didn’t move.  I didn’t want to find out how close she was…or how far.  My body was becoming warm in a way entirely unrelated to the fire.

The logic of Elmiryn’s argument was sound.  What I felt, was mine, and the sensation spread throughout me.  A sort of possession.  Elmiryn blew softly against my eyelid, where her hand trailed down to hold my chin.  Her breath was warm…so warm that it left a light moisture where it fluttered.  I swallowed and felt my throat constrict.  Shortly after, her lips touched my skin lightly.  She kissed the corner of my eye, then my cheek, before she pressed her face against mine.  “Nyx, you know…I’m fond of you.”

I bowed my head a little.  “Is this really the best time?”

She gave a huff of a laugh, and her breath startled my mess of hair.  “When’s a good time?”

“I…um…”

Elmiryn pulled away.  My eyes slipped open and I looked at her sideways, brows pressed together.  She lifted my face with a finger under my chin and tsked.  “You try to hide, even when you’re in plain view.”

I gave a small shake of the head.  “We can’t do this.”

“Why not?  Is it because I’m missing a body part?”

I scowled and blinked.  “N-No…I mean…I confess, I’ve never thought about being with a woman before.  But it wasn’t unknown, where I came from.”

“Really?”

“It’s just our way of life.  The men often leave home–it was rare to find a constant fatherly presence.  The women stuck together and sometimes special relationships came out of it.  Society didn’t care so long as they answered the call to bear children. …But…but really, Elmiryn, the issue is more than that.”

She crossed her arms.  “Enlighten me.”

“There’s been so many surprises these past few days.  So many startling revelations.  It’s a lot to take.  Can you accept that it’s a lot for me to take?  I just got through calling you a friend, I’m…it leaves me a little breathless to think otherwise so soon.”

“…But you do.”  There was a dare in her cerulean eyes.

My breath caught and I leaned back a little.  “It’s inconceivable.  I can’t think of a time in history when a therian and a human ever–”

She snorted.  “What?  You think a propagandist culture like yours would ever fess to inter-species relationships as something remotely good?  As something that’s even physically possible?

I sighed and shook my head.  “No.  They wouldn’t.”  I gazed at Elmiryn somberly.  “But there’s the obvious complications.  Something of our curses adversely react when you touch my Mark.  And…and…you’re so passionate.”  I closed my eyes and ran my hands through my hair.  “It’s more than I can take.  Especially now.  Tomorrow, I shift.  I won’t be the same.”  I sat heavily on the ground and pulled the pan toward me gloomily.  “I might never be the same.”

Elmiryn squatted next to me.  She fisted her cheek and leaned on her right knee.  “You know, I wanted to ask.  When you were young, did they ever explain why you are the way you are?”

I looked at her in confusion.  “You mean why we transform?”

“Not just that.  I mean your relationship with the world.  I was taught that Halward was the father of the human race, and he created us to serve as channels for the energy of the universe.  Fair folk and elementals cultivate energy.  So what about therians?”

“In the case of Ailurans, we’re just descendants of Aelurus.  Where as your species channel life, and other species cultivate it, we simply conduct and regulate.  I don’t know what other therians say.  Likely something similar.”

Elmiryn squinted one eye.  “So does that make you more of a spiritual being?”

I bit my lip.  “I think so.”

“So you’re like the river guardian?  Is your spiritual ban to shift under the full moon?”

I gave her a startled look. “I–what?  No!  Of course not!”

“Then you’re telling me you have the choice to shift.”

I stared at her.  My mouth hung partially open.  Was that what I was saying?

“We have to change,” I whispered.  “We have to.  There’s no way we can’t.”

“But it’s a spiritual matter.  If you can control your spirit, you can control your body.  If you can control your body…can you still call yourself a therian?  As far as I can tell, that’s the only thing that sets you apart from me.”

My jaw tensed.  “Do you even hear yourself right now!?  You’re calling an entire species weak-minded!  If I never shifted again for the rest of my life, would that make me ‘better?’  Would that make me human?

Elmiryn shook her head, unfazed by my indignation.  “No.”  She grinned.  “It’d make you boring.”  I turned to her, indignant, and she held up a finger, effectively stopping me. “Joking, Nyx.  Joking.  I never meant to call your species weak-minded, I’m just thinking aloud, all right?”  She sat down on the ground and looked skyward.  “…Maybe I’m a therian.  I always did love the moon.”  She gave me a sideways look.  “That’d take care of at least one of your problems, wouldn’t it?”  I felt a heat blossom deep in my abdomen, and the anger I felt drained to an unnameable sort of discomfort.  The woman chuckled and idly wiped a hand across her brow.  “Gods…What if I were a cat, like you?”

A smile spread itself across my face, and I tried to hide it by ducking my head and letting my hair fall forward.  It was easy for me to envision Elmiryn as a cat.  A wide variety of breeds existed within the Ailuran race.  I tried to think what kind she would be.  A lion?  A tiger?  A cheetah?  My face grew hot, and my eyes spaced.  She’d have a sleek coat, a powerful body, and to hear her purr would be–

“Hey, Nyx?”

I jerked upright, and my eyes went wide.  I looked at Elmiryn and laughed nervously.  “Yes?” I squeaked.

Elmiryn raised an eyebrow at me.  “Could you turn your face a little more towards me?”

“Huh?” I shifted so that my I faced her fully.  “What is it?”

“You haven’t noticed?” The woman asked with a smirk.

“Noticed what?”  I touched a hand to my left eye. “Elle, tell me!”

“You’re drooling.”  Elmiryn snickered and bit a knuckle to keep from laughing outright.

I wished the ground would swallow me whole.  I wiped hurriedly at my chin, where sure enough, drool dampened my palm.

Elmiryn sighed and hugged her bent knee.  She leaned back and puckered her lips as if in thought.  Then she added casually.  “By the way, your eye is back to normal.”

I gave a start, my jaw dropping.  “Really!?”

“Yeah.  You’re seeing out of both eyes aren’t you?” I blinked.  I was, but hadn’t thought about it.  “Just check your reflection in one of my knives if you don’t believe me.”

I stood to do just that, my feet tripping over themselves in their haste.  I picked up the biggest knife and scooted near the fire so that I could catch some of the light.  I gasped.  My eye was indeed completely back to normal.

“Told you,” I heard Elmiryn say.  I looked at her just as she picked up one of the slices of sheep’s meat from the pan and took a bite.  She grimaced and set the meat back down.  “Really burnt,” she said around the food in her mouth.  She spat it out in the bushes behind her.

I swallowed and put the knife back.  I straightened slowly from setting the blade down, a little embarrassed to look back.  When had my eye changed back?  Why hadn’t it hurt?  Did Elmiryn know the whole time, or did she just notice it herself?

…And how distracting was the woman that I couldn’t even take note of sight returning to me?

“Elle…thank you,” I said quietly to the trees.

“What did I do?” She said behind me.

I turned and peered at her.  “You helped change my eye back.”

Her face drew long, like this statement surprised her.  Then, in the usual sudden fashion, Elmiryn started to giggle.  She covered her face with her hands.  Something about this made me smile shyly.  Once again, Elmiryn came across as strangely feminine, the way she pretended to conceal her amusement.

“Elle, why are you giggling?” I asked as a chuckle slipped into my words.  I drifted nearer to the fire and sat down, cross-legged.

Elmiryn peeked at me through her fingers and grinned.  “Nyx, I’ll be honest.  I just wanted to get close enough to give you a kiss on the cheek, that’s all.  Any other way, and you would’ve panicked on me.”

“Oh.  Was that all you wanted?” I muttered.  My collar felt hot.  I tugged at it, and glowered at the trees.

Elmiryn dropped her hands from her face and breathed in deeply.  “I wasn’t lying when I said I was fond of you,” she murmured.

I fiddled with the hem of my tunic.  “Fond how?”

“Fond as in…I want to wake up to you in the morning.” She fixed her attention on me.  I looked back at her, like a fish biting at a hook.  I expected the eyes of an architect–the focused and objectifying stare that had leveled me that day in Gamath.  My lips quivered, burning with the memory of her kiss.

…But to my surprise, those eyes were not there.  Not there in the way that I knew they were hidden, tucked beneath a separate persona, not unlike my own special set of bestial eyes.  What I was confronted with instead was softer.  This gaze–cool eyes swathed in heat–held simple sincerity.  My hand planted itself on the ground and I leaned my body in Elmiryn’s direction, my eyes widening in fascination.

This was a side of Elmiryn that had previously only revealed itself under the influence.

“I’ve seen you turned inside out…and you were good to me,” The woman continued, when my silence stretched on.  She paused, then turned her gaze to the fire with a shrug of her shoulder.  “Don’t read so much into it.  I’m only being honest.”

“And yet still vague,” I returned with a frown.  “Elmiryn, I won’t be one of your conquests.”

“No,” she said with a soft smile.  “…You’ll be the thread that holds me together.”

I snorted and looked away.  “And if the thread is poorly spun?”

I immediately regretted opening my mouth.  Elmiryn sat upright like a bolt, her eyes at the widest I’d seen them.  When she spoke it was a harsh whisper.  “What did you just say?”

I looked at her, taken aback.  “I–I–”

She crawled to me frantically, and I scrambled back in alarm.  She caught up to me quickly and moved over my body.  Elmiryn stopped when she hovered over my waist.  The fire lit her from behind, and her face was illuminated by the soft touches of the moonlight.  I blinked up at her, frozen in my anxiety.  She reached a hand toward me, but stopped partway.  The woman then shook her head and turned her face.  I heard her mutter, “It isn’t yours,” before she stood up and walked past me.  She didn’t pause to dust off her knees or hands, just sat on her bedroll and laid back.  I remained where I was, my breath quiet, but short.  I dared to move only when the fire started to die down.

I sat there and watched the weak flames lap at the black and disfigured wood.  In the quiet that was given me, I reflected on the recent conversation–my meekness against Elmiryn’s self-confidence, the pain versus the humor, my anger versus…

And I paused.

Feeling low, I turned where I sat and looked at Elmiryn’s still form.  She was under a blanket and on her side, feet towards me, with her arms tucked beneath her head.  Intuitively, I knew she wasn’t asleep.  I moved to her side and knelt.  “Elmiryn.”

“Mmm?” She didn’t move her body, but I saw her eyes blink.  Lightly I touched her shoulder.

“Elmiryn…I don’t know why you got upset, but I’m sorry.  I–”  My voice cracked.  I took a deep breath and tried to resume as steadily as possible.  “I’m just worried.  What if I come apart, and no one is left to help you?”  I wiped hurriedly at my eyes.  Tears slipped between my fingers.  “I don’t want to be the reason you…”  My words left me.  I bowed my head and tried to contain myself, and my body shook with the effort.

Elmiryn rolled onto her back, and her side brushed my knees.  She reached a hand up and brushed back my hair.  “Nyx…You forget.”

With a hiccup I looked at her and frowned.  “What do you mean?”

Her smile reached me, even in the indefinite darkness.  “It was my job to protect you, before it was your job to contain me.”

I looked at her, then laughed and buried my face in her stomach.  She patted the back of my head, and I peeked at her shyly from beneath my mane of hair.  She grinned at me through the valley of her breasts.  “You’re a little off the mark, as you can see.”

I poked her side.  “Oh, don’t start!”  But I had a grin to match hers.  The way the shadows draped us, and the privacy of the untamed forests protected us, I felt safe.  From this angle, Elmiryn didn’t seem like the fearsome warrior I had met a week ago.  It occurred to me then, that this was the first time since we had met that we spoke like this–in the dark.  But the difference then, was that a stretch of branch and preconceptions separated us.  I could hardly say that the mysteries surrounding our relationship were solved.  But the waters I had previously eyed with trepidation were now up to my waist…and it was a relief to know that despite the horrors faced, I didn’t drown.

I licked my lips and sat up a little, my left hand planted on the other side of Elmiryn’s body so that our sides pressed intimately.  The woman had laid her head back again, and her eyes had gone closed.  “Elmiryn…” I breathed.

Her eyes opened a sliver, and I thought I saw her smirk.  “Mmm?”

My heart pounded.  I leaned over slow, and my arms shook with the effort of supporting me.  I planted a light kiss on her brow and pulled back to whisper.  “Probably against my better judgment…Elmiryn, I’m…I’m fond of you too!”  I shook my head and let a wry smile spread across my face.  “It’s against all of my common sense, actually,” I added with a giggle.

Elmiryn tsked.  “Nyx, you know how to make a girl feel special.”

I just giggled again.  Carefully, I laid at her side, and Elmiryn shifted so that she faced me, one arm tucked beneath her head.

“Well how can I make it better?” I asked quietly.

The woman scooted closer, and brushed her nose against mine.  “You want to know what you can do?” she asked in a breath.  She draped her arm over my side.  “I can’t sleep.  Could you…tell me a story?”

I blinked.  “…Really?”

She snickered.  “You sound disappointed.”

I hoped she couldn’t see the way my face flushed in the dark.  “No, no…I…just don’t know any stories well enough to tell you.”

“Maybe you can tell me about that guy.  Wind.”

“Oh, right…”

“…What’s the matter?”

“I’m trying to remember what Tobias wrote.”

“Forget what he wrote.  Tell me in your own words.”

“…Okay.”

Beneath the branches of tall trees, I told Elmiryn in hushed tones of the time mighty Wind had trapped the godless Spider of the West.  Their conflict played out in the space between us, like a suspended breath, but rather than replace our dreams, it weaved into them.  Spider, a Legend without a master, and Wind, a man without a home.  Us beneath the arms of nature, hunted and hated, with the blessings of an immortal spirit and a compass that pointed northward.

The fate of a man, Sedwick, who lost so much to gain an opportunity beyond what anyone could have conceived, hovered in our minds…and who was to say it was a good or bad thing, what happened to him?  Who was to say I was a monster, doomed to be alone?  Who was to say Elmiryn was a ghost, doomed to fade away?  Didn’t all of our misfortunes return us to our hopes, in the end?  In stories of lives far apart, that echoed across lands and cultures, that whispered across hundreds of pages, and that haunted children’s dreams as much as our own…

Who was to say that a river, couldn’t have its tributaries?

 

…quietly…quietly…

we speak to fall.

but close at heart

are we

from the start:till death apart

are we

 


End of Part I


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