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Dragon’s Night

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As promised, here’s a moment of Elmiryn’s past…

-Illise M.

ELMIRYN________________________

The Fiamman kingdom covered the entire south-west of the Sibesona continent.  Kingdom of metal and glass–they were the sun-lovers, with warm hair and light skin.  Halward’s fist.  Feared by the heartlands, and resented by the frosty north.  It was divided into four provinces.  Ebinus, home to the farmers and the largest military forts and training camps; Ethea, where the merchants and artisans outlook the Maelic Bay; Eurevius, the province of the scholars and magic users; and Engus, home to the royal family and the noble community.

It was good to be back, good to find reprieve from war life.  Not that she couldn’t handle it.  There was something delightful in the mud, the cold, the death–and she meant that entirely without irony.  All her life she had trained to be a warrior.  Discomfort and stark reality was hers to keep.  As was the thrill, the freedom, the wine, the–

–smooth rose lips, balmed so that they caught the candle light.  Seated on a plush couch, somewhere in the city of Malvene, Ethea.  She was vaguely aware of shouting, but she was in a bar.  That was to be expected.  She paid it no mind.

“They say you’re a silken warrior.  Never touched by a blade,” the youth whispered.

Elmiryn’s fist rested near her temple.  She brushed back a honey lock of hair.  “Where’d you hear that?”

“Captain, you know that everyone talks!”

Everyone!”  Elmiryn touched a hand to her chest.  Her face pulled into a look of shock.  “I had no idea!”

A playful shove.  The young girl laughed.  “Stop teasing!”

“…Then would you like to see?” Elmiryn’s lip curled into a smirk.  She pulled at the girl’s wrist, and wide-eyed, the youth did not fight.  Her other hand snaked around the girl’s back.  Soon she was over Elmiryn’s lap, leaning onto her chest.  No name–that was lost already.  No conversation, so the woman didn’t bother.  Instead, she savored the softness of the girl’s body, the smell of light powder on her baby skin.  She took the girl’s hand and pressed it to her breast as she kissed her…

“Captain!”  A fly in her ear.

The woman broke the kiss, at the protest of the girl, and leaned in so that their cheeks touched.  “…Yes…Lieutenant?” Elmiryn’s head turned to stare over the back of the love couch with enough ire to kill a man.

Saelin, her second-in-command, batted his mint eyes at her in fear through the metal posts.  He stood, plumed helmet in one hand, on the stairs leading down to the first level of the bar.  “Sir, there’s a situation outside,” he said in a quiet murmur.

The woman scowled.  Saelin wasn’t incapable of handling a rowdy soldier.  How bad was it that her help was required? She turned to her company.  “I’m sorry, little thing.  I’ve got to take care of this.” When the girl was off her lap, the woman stood, her eyes as blades.  “What the fuck is going on?” She seethed.

“Just loudmouths sir.  Only…the villagers are getting really riled, and our men won’t back down.  Some feel it’s an issue of pride.”

“My ass it is…” Elmiryn grumbled as she sidled past the maiden to join Saelin at the stairs.  “How did this get started?”

Saelin spoke quickly, easily keeping up with her quick steps as they went down.  He was used to it.  He could keep up with her in the middle of an active battlefield.  “Lake had gone out for a breather when a man came up and started harassing him.” He gestured vaguely, his eyes rolling.  “First he laid into Lake for his foreign looks and dark hair.  Then he started to put down the army in general.  Said we didn’t know what we were doing, that the Fleabiters should have been squashed already.  He worked up into a rage, and started blaming us for the death of his brother.  Said Lake wasn’t half the soldier he was, because of his foreign blood.”

Elmiryn blasted through the entrance door with a bang. Outside, the heat sweltered in the breathless city.  The high lanterns, through clear glass, shone brightly down onto the paved streets.  Curved mirror bowls with the centers cut out reflected the enchanted candle light.  The created effect made the evenings a warm world–a place to blister in.  The men in her unit were truly of the solar kingdom, but she wished they had better sense.  Their passion was meant to burn others, not themselves.

“You’re cowards!  Swine!”

“I’ll have you come here and say that, peasant!”

“Look’it ’em!  Lined up like a bunch of prisses!  Are you going to dance, ladies?”

“On your face?  Gladly.”

In front of the posh watering hole, a small mob had gathered.  From the size, she guessed the number at twenty to thirty men.  They faced off with her dragoons, about forty of them, who stood collected in off-set lines, shoulder to shoulder, with rabbles of supporters about them.  This formation was done perhaps in instinct or conscious defense.  Weapons had not been drawn yet, but the men held their sword hilts.  Some, the rowdy ones, Elmiryn could recognize by voice.  They argued irascibly with the commoners.  Others stood as stoics, but their eyes held a murderous fury, usually only reserved for battle.  A push, a pointed insult, a tossed rock–that was all that was needed.

They were the sons of the suns, her dragoons, but Elmiryn could not let this escalate.

“So after that, this happened?” She looked at Saelin, arms crossed over her chest.

“Oh no, sir!” Her Lieutenant shook his head, his eyes clearly saying, “Give us more credit than that!”  But then he tugged at his ear and turned his gaze elsewhere.  “You see, that just caught our attention.  Everyone was fit to drag Lake away when…” Saelin faltered.

She looked at him, a light frown on her face.  “Well?  What else, Saelin?”

He sighed and pointed at the man with the unshaven face and overgrown brown hair at the front of the mob.  He had a near-empty bottle of rum in one hand.

“That drunkard, the one who started this all, started to mock you.  After that, people started taking sides.”

Elmiryn bit on her tongue.  Looked from Saelin, to the drunk, and back.  Some part of her wanted to laugh, but the greater issue still demanded attention.  Loudly.  “Where the hell are the guards?”

Saelin snorted.  “The guards are just commoners with swords.  When they saw the moron baiting Lake, they figured it would have been taken care of.  They didn’t count on this.”

“In other words, it’s my problem now.”

The Lieutenant looked at his boots, hands clasped behind his back.  Elmiryn chuckled with a sardonic grin, her head shaking.  She looked skyward.  “Halward, I give you five acres of Ailuran land, and you give me eighty angry drunks!”  She laughed again, and kneaded her brow.  “Ugh…Forget it.  Let’s just get this over with.”

As she moved forward, her polished leather boots made sharp clicks on the stone paved road.  From her gut, the woman let out a loud kai that stopped the shouting matches.  Her men snapped straight with their arms at their sides, eyes forward. The commoners sneered, “Mutts scramble at the howl of the queen bitch!”

Elmiryn looked to the mob.  They quieted as the leader, the one who had started it all, came forward.  He brandished his bottle of rum at her, and the stench that hit her was an offense in of itself.

“You…the…the fuggin’ lapdog of Lord Westley.  Daddy Warner’s lil’ girl.  Yer…juss…juss a curs-ed gimmick.  A sh-show for them nobles…ta…laugh at!  Meanwhile, g’men get killed.”  He took a quick swig of his drink and spat it in her face.  There were cheers.

The drink felt warm, and stung her eye.

Elmiryn, without much thought, snatched the bottle from his hand and smashed it over his head.  Then she took him by the front of his clothes, and with the broken end of the glass, stabbed at his face.  Once, twice, three times, as hard as she could.  There went an eyebrow, the lips were split, a chunk of the chin gone, the nose slashed, the cheek now a tattered hole that wept blood.  The man screamed, and the sound squelched into a disturbing wet wail.  It was like he was drowning in himself.  The brave commoners started forward in outrage, but the unified drawing of swords from her dragoons stopped them.  Many of the folk were unarmed.  Simultaneously, they all reared back at the sight of possible death, faces drawn and white.  The commoners on the side of the dragoons had all fled out of sight.

Elmiryn threw the bottle to the ground, where it shattered in crimson pieces.  The drunkard’s body started to go slack, but the woman pulled him close, the strain of her muscles hardly the worst she had felt.  The man must’ve weighed less than a hundred pounds. “And what would you know about good men, poison sucker?” she hissed.  His face was a mask of red that hardly resembled a human being.  She let him drop, and he fell to the ground, still with the shock.

She eyed the crowd before her, her lips a displeased line.  “My men and I fought, and will continue to fight, for the benefit of bottom feeders like you.  We’ve seen friends torn apart, had family die while we were struggling to make them proud, had our limbs snapped, skin torn, hearts made black.”  She marched before the crowd.  Some tried to flee the other way, but more soldiers blocked them.  The group was surrounded now.

Elmiryn resumed speaking.  The snare of her pacing boots was louder than everything now. “The punishment for disrespect toward a soldier of any rank is typically death, but I find that’s far too kind.  Not when the insult is this great.  You wish to lay shame on us, today? Our first day of rest?  Fine.  I’ll make your life a living shame.  I’ll forever mark you, as I did this man…assuming he lives to see tomorrow.”  She gestured at her dragoons.  “Grovel before these soldiers, and you fuckin’ hope to all of heaven that they leave you unscathed!”

Some were quick to oblige.  The older men, the infirm, the drunk, and persuadable.  They kissed the boots of the front line dragoons and wept, shaking.  The younger ones, the prideful ones, stood, hackles raised, at the back.  The soldiers that blocked their escape, closed in, swords up.  This last intimidation worked.  The youngsters scurried to make amends.

Elmiryn looked to her dragoons.  “Satisfied, men?  Have they earned your mercy?” The dragoons looked at each other, smirking.  Mischief danced in their eyes.  When they looked back at Elmiryn, however, they saw her face dark and humorless.  The smiles fell away.  As one, they answered.  “Yes, sir!”

The woman waved the commoners away, not even looking at them.  “Fuck off.”  Before the last could sprint away, she shouted and pointed at the man at her feet.  “And take this shit eater with you!”  Two teenagers came running, and with one frightened look at Elmiryn, lifted the drunkard by the arms and dragged him away.

Saelin handed her a handkerchief, which she used to wipe away the blood and rum.  She licked at the drops on her lips.  It made her thirsty.

None moved.  The soldiers knew better than to leave formation when no had excused them.  She waited for the commoners to be out of sight before she turned to regard her men.  Her hands clenched to fists.  Her cheeks were a bright pink.  “You idiots!

Elmiryn paced before them, rubbing her face.  Then she gave an impatient wave.  “Demerits.  ALL of you!”

Lake, the dark-haired youth who was in the center of the front line, gave a start.  He was younger than she and Saelin, but had a profound chin and cheek bones that made him seem much older.  “Sir–!”

The warrior fixed him with a look of pure murder. “Answer me just one thing, Lake.  What the fuck were you thinking, getting into an argument with that man?”

“He was disrespecting me, sir.”

So correct him.  FAST.  In the only way these people understand! They’re gods damned Fiammans, same as you.  If you argue with them, they’ll argue back!  But are they in the position to argue with you about fuck all?”

“…N-No, sir.”

“Exactly.  But you’ve disgraced yourself.  ‘A wise man who argues with a fool, is a fool himself.'”  She looked at the others.  “And this applies to all of you.  This shouldn’t have gotten to the point it did.”

Elmiryn took a deep breath.  She looked at Saelin who gazed back at her with a thin mouth.  The woman rubbed the back of her neck and placed a fist hand on her hip.  “You’re dragoons. Act like it.  If a peasant wrongs you, give him your sword or your fist, but never spare time for words.  Leave that nonsense to the politicians.”

“We couldn’t abide their slanderous talk, sir…” someone muttered.

The woman’s shoulders bunched and the scowl returned to her face.  “I don’t need anyone to fight for my honor.”  She glared into as many faces as she could.  “If anything, fight for your own.” She turned and began to walk back toward the bar.  Onlookers gasped and hurried out of the doorway, retreating back inside.

“Ah…sir?”

Elmiryn turned to look at Saelin.

He shuffled and glanced back at the men, still at attention.  “Are we to return to the barracks?”

“What the hell are you talking about?” Elmiryn gestured toward the bar.  “This is our first night back in over a year.  If all of you go back, I have to go back…but I’m not going anywhere until my rubyfruit’s been taken care of.”

Saelin smiled, clearing his throat.  “Ah…Y-Yes, sir. Of course, sir.”

Elmiryn re-entered the bar, finally letting out the laugh she had been fighting down that entire speech.  All hell nearly broke loose over something as abstract as her ‘honor’.  Before she was up the stairs, she heard her Lieutenant bark at her men.

“You heard the Captain.  Dismissed!


Back to Chapter 10.2 | Forward to Chapter 10.3

Chapter 10.2

ELMIRYN________________________

The road was little more than compacted dirt strewn with pebbles.  Sometimes, Elmiryn’s feet would lose an inch or two when she pushed forward in her haste.  Hodge-podge buildings–some done in brick and mortar, others cemented wood logs.  It was a mecca city, a location that expanded over decades of settling merchants and families from all walks of life.  They were unwilling to give up their cultural backgrounds, and instead, brought it with them.  She passed taverns of different sorts, different sizes, different sounds and smells.  Wished she could recall the name and place of the last she had been to in her past visit to Tiesmire, but that had been so long ago.

Elmiryn stopped before “The Cannon’s Punch”, a two-story tavern whose facade was painted an odd mauve.  Outside, a signpost held a heavy wooden sign featuring an exploding cannon that resembled a bottle. Through the wavy windows, she saw a promising arrangement.  The building was large–larger than the previous she’d seen.  Enough so that its main floor could house at least ten large round tables.  There was a loft where more tables were hidden in shadow.  The bar was of decent length, and had spaces available.  From the ceiling hung a large candle wheel, which lit the establishment dimly.

“This is it,” the woman announced happily.

Inside, Elmiryn felt her initial impressions affirmed.  There were squeaky chairs, and the air raked smoky fingers down her insides.  That smell–pleasant but horrid at the same time, of gas, good food, a prostitute’s perfume, and a captain’s overpowering cologne.

“This is it, Nyx!” Elmiryn repeated with a grin.

“You’ll excuse me my lack of enthusiasm, Elle,” Nyx grumbled at her side.

The contract guards blocked them from going further.  Told them their bags needed to be checked.  Nyx’s bag got a pass, but Elmiryn had to put all of her belongings in the item storage near the bar, where two more guards stood watch.  She did so without much complaint.  She knew–drunkards plus weapons were normally a bad combination, even in her case.

They ventured further, and Elmiryn drank it all in.  That was when she noticed.  In the cacophony of boisterous laughter and music, through smoke smiles and spirals of streamers that seared fluorescent in her retinas, she saw the ribs of the tavern expand.  They were great, beautiful stained bones along a dark hide.

She paused, her grin freezing on her face.  “Hey, whose is that?”

“Whose is what?”  Nyx asked beside her.

That, up there!”

“…Huh?”

Elmiryn blinked.  Rubbed at her mouth to contain the explosion of nonsense, because something wasn’t right, and when she looked at her companion, she tried to tell Nyx’s eyes, through concentrated telepathy, to stay put in the paint.  “Don’t splash around,” she eventually exclaimed, “I’m telling you, you’ll drown!”

“Elle what in the nine hells are you talking about?”  The girl’s brows crashed together.  Her face bunched and little dimples appeared in her cheeks.  Elmiryn felt something brush her arm.  She gave a start, fists clenched to punch, when she looked down to see a petite hand recoil.  She followed along its [stem(arm)root] to find that it was Nyx’s–AKA, Twin One, the Turnip, her instrument, her Kitten.

Elmiryn closed her eyes.  She whacked the side of her head with the heel of her palm, to see if that would shake the cobwebs and chase out the mist.  In her head, a flute bled all over her ideas, and while she knew it was day, she still saw the dark insides of a deer’s carcass steaming in the night.

Quickly, under breath, over tongue, she ran down the certain facts:  They were in Tiesmire–the city, the mesh–and Nyx was not a cat; The three suns (one two three) were still burning over the horizon; and the building she was in, was not made of bone–couldn’t be, as that would be against city law.  Unsanitary. Unsound.

So maybe the owner just wanted to make it look that way.

“I need a drink,” Elmiryn asserted with a gruff voice.  She wiped her forearm over her forehead, felt sweat kiss the skin, and consciously told her body to relax.  She led Nyx past the bodies and tables toward the main bar.

“How long are we going to be here?” she heard Nyx ask.

When her hand touched polished wood, cool and like a tether to a room that had a disconcerting feeling of instability, Elmiryn turned to reply when her breath caught in her throat.  She was face to face with a wall of inconsequential metaphors (“Fuck”) facades (“Gods damnit”) trees of life rooted in greater meanings (“Not now”) but still esoteric.

Elmiryn tried to keep her eyes from crossing.  Fought to grasp the fact that free flowing sound and a hand extended meant that the space she occupied was, indeed, wider than what she perceived.  Elmiryn extended her arm before her, eyes unfocused, fingers grasping.  Felt the tips touch rough cloth.  The corners of her lips twitched upwards as she felt her sense of the world expand.  But then a rough sound, like it were fighting through the walls of a box, hit her ears, “Leggo a’ my jacket you priss!”  The touch was gone, torn away.  She felt further trapped.  Let her arm fall as she felt something invisible press it down.

That wasn’t right.

She tried to say, “Nyx, where’d you go?”  Heard it, but was certain that it wasn’t her voice.  So Elmiryn tried again.  “Nyx, where–

“I’m right in front of you!  Right here!”

There she was!  That voice, that beautiful little voice of reason!  Now all Elmiryn had to do, was attach sound to image.  She scrambled inwardly, tried to connect the dots before her brief moment of clarity was lost.  Something warm and petite enclosed around her hand.  Her body relaxed, her eyes fluttered, and the room came into focus (but when did it blur away?)

At her side, Nyx looked at her, her face bunched with worry.  “Elle…I’m so sorry, I wasn’t paying proper attention,” she leaned forward and dropped her voice.  “It’s happening to you again, isn’t it?”

Elmiryn gazed back at her blankly.  Told her face muscles to show relief, to show joy, to show love, but she felt tired.  “All I need is a drink.”

“But if–”

“And so do you.  I need a drinking partner.”

“Elmiryn.” Nyx used a firmer voice.  Frowned in light scorn, even.  It was a tempting note to submit to, but the woman knew what she wanted.  Until a better way was discovered, it was all she had.

Elmiryn pounded on the counter, cutting through the chatter and music around them.  “I’ve still got coin and a dry tongue.  Why?!”

A moment later they had a nice sturdy table, sequestered from the others in a dark nook lit only by a single candle.  The tavern master took one look at Elmiryn’s ashen face, and seemed to decide it best.  The warrior didn’t care.  Just enough drinks, and she wasn’t going to stay hidden for long.  How much gold did they have?  Not much.  She didn’t tell Nyx that their funds were close to being entirely spent.  Elmiryn made a note to ask for some compensation next time she did some heroic deed.  She was a human being, not a fucking Legend.  Charity was not required in her book.

Time for the first round.

Elmiryn turned to Nyx.  “You’ll need something with extra kick.  Something that’ll burn right through your throat.”

Nyx was rubbing her temples like she were suffering from a massive headache.  “Are we just relaxing or are we intending on staying here tonight?”

Fourth round.

“Nyx, I know we’re supposed to hide who we are, but I think we ought to try and build up some reputation.  Something to precede us when we travel.  It can help us get some coin.”

“And what if we get a bad reputation?”

“Fuck it.  We’ll charge extra.”

Sixth.

“Why…why can’t I lift my body?  Elle, is there something wrong with me?”

“Don’t think so.”

“…I–I really need to go to the bathroom.”

“No one’s stopping you.”

Ninth.

“Uh oh.”

Nyx brandished a finger, one eye squinted.  “I dun wanna hear ‘uh oh’.  That issin even proper ver-nack-ular.  Explain yourself Elly!  Why…why…” A burp.  “Why ‘uh oh’?”

Elmiryn swayed in her seat.  Her eyes on the eight shiny coins in her money pouch.  Her eyes lifted to the room.  The people were only halfway to being people.  After all, they weren’t supposed to slither and squawk like that…right?

“Wasn’t nothin’.  I thought I saw a fly.” She took out two coins.  “Oi!  Another round!”

Thirteenth round.

“Hey!  Hey! Yesh you!  …C’mere!  No, no!  C’mere! Oh damn it all you beautiful lil’ bacon, dun look so confused, we just wanna tell ya somethin’.”

“Elle, leave ’em ‘lone…”

“No, no…I need help with this ‘un.  In fact…HEY!” Elmiryn whistled to the room using her pinkies.  Large men, around the edges of the tavern, began to move.  The contracted guards.  One came up from behind, likely stationed there with the expectation of trouble.  She smiled winningly at him and he paused, his bold eyebrows quirking upwards.  Elmiryn settled back into her chair.  No, she would not start trouble.  Finish it maybe, but she wasn’t seeking trouble.

Weight, weight, weight, glorious weight, glorious feeling, with vibrant colors, and boundaries dispelled.  Ah yes, now Elmiryn would be okay.

To those whose attention she had, she spoke to in a clear voice.  “Men, boys, ladies, an’ lap toys–drop the dull convershation and len’ an ear to my frien’ here.”  Elmiryn snickered.  “That rhymed…!”

Nyx looked at her in alarm, her head coming up off her arms. “S’cuse me??”

“Tell ’em about yer book.”  Elmiryn turned back to the onlookers.  “You all’ve heard tales of Legends, right?”

“Elle.”  Nyx pulled at her sleeve, her face green.

“Bet ya haven’t heard ’bout…Earth, Wind, and…wuzzit Water, kitten?”

“Oh sweet Aelurus…I’m gonna throw up!”

“Here.  Drink up.  Enough o’ that, and you won’t care if ya do.”

NYX____________________________

Spiced wine, sweet, but strong.  I had one, thinking I’d tell the waitress to bring me water next…only Elmiryn was quite attentive to me, so I was afraid.  In truth I greatly liked the drink.  In sad fashion, one became two and so on, and so forth.  By the thirteenth drink, I knew, more by illness than common sense, that I had to stop.

“Here.  Drink up.  Enough o’ that, and you won’t care if ya do.”  Elmiryn pushed her drink my way, and some of it sloshed on the wood table, the beverage flowing to dampen my sleeve.

My stomach lurched. I hugged it with both arms, and shrank so that I barely peeked over the edge of the table.  “Elle, we have’ta stop, or else we wun’ be able t’leave of our own v-vol-ish-on!”  A burp fought its way up my chest, bringing tears to my eyes.  Acid burned my throat.  I turned and leaned my forehead against Elmiryn’s arm with a groan, “Les’ go!”

“Aww…but looky, we got a’ audience!  They wanna hear ’bout yer book.  Go on, tell ’em!”  Elmiryn gave me a nudge, a giggle coming up her throat.  She leaned forward to whisper not-so-confidentially to the patrons, “She’s shy!”

One middle-aged man with caramel hair that receded far on his head, smiled wrinkly at me.  “What story have you got, little one?”

I stared at him, unable to move.  It seemed this attention was turning infectious.  Even the music seemed to fade away.  The young man that Elmiryn had first called to, leaned on the table to our left and smiled at me, a little intently.  “I think I’d like to hear, too.”

There were murmurs.  Then Elmiryn stood up with a bang.  “There were three Legends, two men an’ a woman, all ve-ry good friends.  They went out an’ had very…adventure-y…es-peer-riences ta’gether…If ya know what I mean!”  There were laughs as the woman made loopy gestures with her hands.  She started to speak in a nasally voice.  “These t’ree braves o’ the earth, wind, and water, discovered the Valley of Eso-me-chanical-whats-its, and single-handedly…no, triple-handedly sealed the Spider of the Weaste!”

“It was fire, not water!  Fire! And the girl’sh name was the Sh…sss—Spider, the…yes…the Spider of the West!  Not ‘weaste!'”  I snapped, giving Elmiryn a reproachful glare. “And it wasn’ the Valley of…whatever da blazes you said!  It was the Valley of Eso–ess—ESSS–Es-so-ter-ic Proofs!

I stood and looked at the room.  I swayed a little and tried to steady myself by placing my hands on the table.  More wine sloshed as I fought to keep balance.  “An’ they weren’ the only ones who fought the Spider!  There was Toshi…osh…toshi-hiro, champion of Tenjin, an’ Arlés the Sweet Blossom, the world’s mos’ powerful sorceresh!”  I was aware of how stupid I sounded, and it bothered me beyond measure.

“I know of the last one!” The young man said.

I glowered at him.  “I bet.”

“But who is this Spider?” the caramel-haired man asked.

“Arachne.” Elmiryn said, with a wide smile.  Excited whispers.  People in bars and taverns don’t need much to get worked up over when all they’ve got to do is drink, I’ve come to learn.

I gave her another look, displeased that she would offer such information without actual confirmation.  But I shrugged.  “S’possible.”  I placed a hand on my head as the room gave a nasty lurch.  I turned to look at Elmiryn, but nearly fell.  I clasped onto her to keep from going down.  “Elle, really!  I think…I think–I–”  I burped again, but it was so strong that it turned into wretch.  I could feel my insides swirl up.  Some of it splashed my tongue, and I felt faint.  It was sheer will that I kept from spilling everything onto the table and floor.

Elmiryn held me up as I started to slip, her arm winding around my back and beneath my left arm.  The placement of her hand was a bit…dubious, but I was too far gone to care.

“Woah!”  She laughed, and the sound seemed deafening to me.  She looked to the patrons.  “Ah, sorry fellows.  Looks like we hit our limit!  In more ways than one!”  Laughs.  I closed my eyes to the sound and whimpered as I felt the world tumble in my head.  The room was spinning so fast.

“Elle, this is scary!” I cried, tightening my grip around her mid-riff.  “Nothing is staying put!”

“Isn’t it great?” The woman replied, chuckling.  “Open your eyes, kitten.  We’ll find a trough to dunk your head in.”  As she said this, the woman began to kneel to pick me up better when something made her stop cold.

This was awkward for me, as her bent body didn’t offer as much support.  The effort of holding on soon became too much, and I found myself plopped onto the ground.  Beneath the table, I saw a sea of boots and dress hems.  My eyes squinted when I took note of a curious trail of smoke.  It was faint, but still distinctive enough from the haze of the room.  When I followed it with my eyes, I realized it led to Elmiryn.

She shook her arm violently, and her eyes were alight with anger.  The trail of smoke vanished to nothing.

“Whose rope was that?” The woman asked as she straightened to address the room.  Her voice was quiet, but dangerous.

The guard near us came forward and took hold of her shoulder.  “If you’re going, then go quietly.”

What occurred next happened so quickly, that in my poor state hidden beneath the table, I can hardly recount it.  All I know is that when I looked up from beneath the lip of the table, I saw Elmiryn had managed to get behind the guard, where she twisted his arm.  “You fucker.  You silly bastard.  You think jes’ because I’m drunk I can’ get the drop on you?” she snarled.

The man sputtered, “Wh-what d’you think yer doing!?” His face was tensed with discomfort, but I suspected the red of his face to be more from embarrassment.

The tavern went deathly quiet.  I shifted further under the table, swept up in the belief that by hiding, I could somehow stay out of the violence that might ensue.

Elmiryn boomed, “Who’s the smart ass that tried ta’ get a rope on me?” She jerked the man’s arm, and he growled in pain.  “Was it you, ape?”

“Agh!  What the fuck’re you talking about you ditzy–yaaah!” the man’s words trailed into a scream as the warrior gave his arm another twist.

The young man looked at the ground near our feet.  Looking at Elmiryn, he frowned.  “What rope?”

Elmiryn’s head whipped his way, and he quailed.  “THE rope, moron.  The one that twisted up my arm.”

The caramel-haired man shook his head. “But woman, there is no rope.  Look, you’ll see your arm is free.”

“I know what I saw.”

I heard the ring of swords.  My heart took an agitated turn.  I could feel it fight in my chest.

“You’re making a huge mistake,” the tavern master said from behind the bar.  I could see part of his gray beard.  He stroked it, calm and slow.  The act itself seemed ridiculously forced, but the message was still apparent.  He was unconcerned.  Either we’d be arrested, or killed.

Unable to contain it anymore, I threw up all over the paneled floor.

“What isn’t a good idea is thinkin’ that I’m someone to trifle with.”  I could hear the smile in Elmiryn’s voice.  From where I was, I saw some of the tavern goers shift.  One even took a step back.  I didn’t want to know the look she was giving them now.  “Ya see, I’m the Ghost.  I can’t die.”  Elmiryn pulled roughly at the guard.  This time he screamed and fell to his knee.  The woman fell with him, arm going around his neck, purposefully keeping his body between her and the rest of the tavern.

I looked around with weak turns of my head.  Was there someone armed with a crossbow?

I shifted to join Elmiryn, and she grabbed me by the bag on my back, pulling me the rest of the way.  Quietly she whispered, “Hold on to me,”

“What are you thinking?” I hissed as I hugged her around the waist.

“Jes’, shh!” She turned her cerulean eyes back to the room, batting them over the guard’s shoulder.  I looked and saw his arm was limp and twisted at a funny angle.  …Broken?  Dislocated?  Whatever it was, the man’s only interest was in cradling it.  His wide muddy eyes blinked, unfocused, but his face dripped with sweat.

“Up, you big ape,” Elmiryn hissed.

“Even if you get out, they’ll put out a warrant for you,” the wounded guard said in a hateful tone.

“Shut up.”

“They’ll shoot you dead before you even leave this block!”

“I said quiet, or I’ll break your other arm!”

Awkwardly, we stood, like some cripped animal. I looked over and saw her things at the item check.  “Wait, what about–”

“Shh!  Jes’ hold on.”  The woman turned back to call to the room, her voice loud.  Ringing.  Steady.  Where did this control come from?  Against all odds, I started to believe her when she said that drinking helped her gain her bearings…

This situation aside.

“I’m gonna fade away.  I’m gonna walk out an’ vanish, and there isn’t a thing any of you can do about it.  I make men into ghosts, and bring misery to any living person that crosses me.”  We started to shuffle forward.  I thought I was going to throw up again.  Most of the tavern goers just eyed us blankly.  But I saw some show fear.  Others aggression.  The guards looked like they wanted to grind our bones.  “My friend here is the Twin.  She’ll switch on you, if you’re not careful, and you can meet her sister.  She isn’t nice.”

We passed some of the first few tables.  One man took a menacing step forward, but Elmiryn jerked the guard’s throat, her fist curling around his jaw and her other hand taking hold of the back of his head.  She fixed the man with a stare.  He faltered and stepped back.

“It was our doing that Gamath is okay again.  We want no trouble, really.  But we’ll meet it.  And end it.”  The room seemed to shift.  Fast whispers broke out like snakes.  Eyes widened, and realization took a hold of many gazes.  Some scowled at us, skeptical of her claim.  Our deeds had preceded us, but many failed to attach description to face.  How much longer before that changed?

“You’re a liar,” A heavy man shouted.  He stood from his seat and flexed his arms.  “I heard there was only one person who saved Gamath, and that was a man.  Named Aidan.”

“Aidan was a cocky idiot that got himself killed,” Elmiryn shot back.

I buried my face into her side.  I didn’t feel the added attention was a good idea.

“I know a friend in Gamath.” A waitress with curly dark hair chimed.  “She sent me a letter telling me everything.  If you were at least there, then you can tell me the names of the two men who also went to the cave!”

Elmiryn snorted at this quiz, but she answered the question anyway. “First of all, there was only one man.  A blacksmith named Sedwick. He isn’t human anymore.  He’s become an agent of the river guardian, or some nonsense like that.  The other that went with us was a boy.  Baldwin.  I didn’t want him to go, but he insisted.  …He died in that cave.”  My grip tightened around her.  “The river guardian swallowed me and my friend whole.  It was in spiritual union that our knowledge brought her out of her madness.  I woke up, days later, half-crazy–thinking I was being fed blood and ants.  Now I’m here.  Does that get any more detailed for you?  Who is this friend o’ yours, anyway?”

“O-Opal.”

I peeked my head out, unable to resist.  “…Um…Does she have mousy hair an’ a boxy face?”

“Yes!”

I smiled weakly, glad for something nice to recount.  “She gave me the boots and clothes I’m wearing now.  Please, when ya write to her, tell her thank you for me.  I never did get a chance.”

“Oh yes, I will!” The woman breathily exclaimed, her face going flush.  A greater stir spread through the room.

Something dawned on me.  All this time, we had been moving.  The tavern was so fascinated by the prospect of us being Gamath’s saviors, that we faced no trouble in traveling the room.

The tavern master gestured at us angrily.  “They’re criminals!  They hurt one of my guards!”

“I didn’t like him anyway!” Someone said loudly.  The room burst into laughter.  I looked around, stunned.  Not all had joined in, but most had.  The atmosphere of the room had changed drastically.  I eyed the caramel-haired man, who didn’t smile, but his expression was light.  The “lil’ bacon” was grinning in a sort of goofy awe.  The large dissenter sat again, sullen, but his fists had unclenched.  A short old man held up a goblet to us, and others matched him murmuring in positive tones.  Through the forest of people now standing, movement caught my eye.  A man with skin like chocolate, dressed in chainmail sleeves and a black doublet, put something away in his side pouch.  He eyed us with a narrowed gaze, but my sight of him was lost as we neared the front of the room.

We reached the guards.  Elmiryn smiled at them, a hint of smugness in her expression.  “If you’re smart, you’ll let us pass.  I’ve faced down a nature spirit, fought therians twice your size, and escaped the fury of an entire fucking kingdom.  I have no problem taking on all of you.”

The room jeered insults at the guards.

The two thick men, fitted with leather armor, iron shields, and longswords, glanced at each other.  Some silent communication passed between their flat faces.  One’s eye twitched.  Then, they glared at us for a moment, before stepping aside.

My legs were weak at that point.  I dragged along Elmiryn’s side, struggling to keep my grip.  We sidled past until our backs were to the door.  The woman fiddled with her captive’s sword belt.  She managed to unbuckle it.

“You won’t get away,” one of the guards grunted.

Elmiryn smiled at him.  “I bet you one man’s life ya can’t catch a ghost!”

Then she shoved her hostage away, swept me up, and we were out the door.  The tavern exploded behind us, in what I made out to be a roar of applause.


Back to Chapter 10.1Forward to Dragon's Night

Chapter 10.1

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-Illise M.

ELMIRYN________________________

Morning came. Light didn’t come till the sun had conquered the mountains.

Elmiryn was laid out in an oak tree a few feet from the little dirt clearing.  The trunk was thick and wide, so much so that the woman could rest on top of it as though it were a makeshift chair.  Her body ached in places she couldn’t readily name, yet the contours of her seat relieved some of the discomfort. The branches fanned out around her, and while her bottom had been turned soggy from the way moisture collected in the tree’s self-created bowl, she began to realize, in the deepest sense, why it was Nyx preferred to sleep in lofty places.  Half-awake, she turned her head and didn’t see the ground, only the glow of high leaves wet with morning dew.  They were daytime starlets that illuminated misty ideas in her head.  Dreams of crimson, dreams of tooth and claw.  And a terrible doubt…a terrible, terrible doubt…

The branches twisted up and out of her view toward the lit canopy. A sound came up her throat, but it was weak and unintelligible.  Elmiryn reached out her arm, and felt gravity pull at it through the air. The world could move her, if only she weren’t propped up by material things.

“I can move,” she breathed.

Down below, the woman heard something stir.  Then someone started to hack and cough.  A rustle of sound, like fabric being disturbed, then a rough tear of the vocal chords, as though they were so determined to make a sound they were not beyond pulling themselves inside out to do so. Elmiryn didn’t move. Didn’t raise her head. Only took to staring at the canopy.  She didn’t truly see it as just focused on the new sounds that entered her ears. She was waiting for it. Waiting for that moment when she could be sure…

“…Elle?”

The woman was up, twisted around and propped by her elbows, all at once feeling wide awake–though the burn of her eyes suggested her body had yet to catch up to her mind. “Up here,” she called, straining to look down at the ground.  Framed by the reaches of elms and aspens, she had a clear view of the ground.

Below, on the dirt, Nyx stumbled backwards as she made to look up.  She had on only her tunic and underpants. Her eyes were like fogged bits of glass, their beautiful shade duller than Elmiryn ever remembered them. The girl blinked with mouth agape. “Why are you–”

“It was the smell. No offense, but I had to get away from it.  Your Twin’s a messy eater.”

“Oh…”  The girl gripped the front of her tunic in an anxious bundle and moved her eyes to her toes, where they wiggled in the dirt.

Even as Elmiryn said these things, she saw the blood that stained the Ailuran’s skin as certainly as bright paint thrown on a white canvas. It was like a sign to her. The Twin had lived there. The Twin had taken residence and made a mess with her unbeing, her uncaring, her selfishness. The woman wanted to wash away this taint herself, but knew her hands were also guilty of this sad curse.

Nyx had sunken eyes. Her hair, if possible, seemed wilder. It knotted itself in startling directions, little bits of grass and dust making it seem a lighter shade beneath the filth. She trembled, like she were cold.

“This is the…the worst I’ve ever felt,” Nyx croaked.  The Ailuran let herself fall to the ground, with her arms wrapped around her body. “She didn’t let me see much…and…and I confess I didn’t want to see much. Was…did everything go okay?”  Voice so frail.  Was that the same girl Elmiryn had sparred with?  The same girl who had left a light bruise on her cheek?

The woman moved to sit so that her legs dangled over the ground.  She leaned on her palms and swiped at her right ear with her shoulder. “…Fine. I talked to her. Or talked AT her. However you want to see it. She understands. She’s sworn to respect your space until the next full moon.”

Nyx’s face flashed through several expressions at this news.  First, she went blank, her dull eyes cool beneath her morning stupor.  Then she lit up with jubilation, the corners of her lips turning upwards as a warmth took home to her gaze.  Then this look was gone, replaced quickly with a doubtful frown.  “She swore?

Elmiryn nodded.  Believed herself more after she felt her head settle back into place.  An illusion?  “She couldn’t speak, but she did.”  No, no.  She was sure.

“…Did you define what my space was?” The woman paused, mind tripping over this wrinkle.  “Sorry?”

Nyx shook her head, looking forlorn. “Oh, Elle…I appreciate your effort,” The girl sighed and rubbed her brow.  She seemed much older, all of a sudden. “Unless you were absolutely clear on what She could not trespass on, then She’ll just find ways to get around her promise–and she’s be better at it now that she has my knowledge.” The next sentence seemed to fight its way to her lips, and Nyx’s face soured at its birthing. “Even I’m not sure what’s solely mine and what’s solely hers.”

Elmiryn rubbed the back of her neck.  She replayed the night, her voice, in her head.  Tried to find a point to argue with.  Found none.  The warrior cursed under her breath.

Nyx added hurriedly, her voice cracking back to what the woman was used to. “But really, I appreciate it! I’m surprised She even listened to you.”

“It took some coercion–but half the work had already been done by the time the sun set.”

Nyx wiped at her mouth.  Her head turned to look at the line still visible in the dirt.  Her eyes squinted.  “Elmiryn, why didn’t you ever tell me you knew that spell? Whatever it was?”

The woman shrugged.  She gestured at the ground carelessly.  “It’s just a containment spell.  I’ve done it a few times.  Sometimes, me and my men would come across a powerful enemy, and the only way we could hold them was with this spell.  We’d hold them there until a trained caster came to take them away.”

“When you say powerful enemy, you mean a therian, right?  That’s what the spell is for.”

The woman smiled.  Chuckled a little, though she wasn’t sure what was funny.  “…Yeah.”

“How does the spell work?”

“Prep an area by clearing it and churning the ground.  The soil has to be fresh.  Then draw a circle and place four objects from the environment at the circle’s boundaries.  Then bind the individual to the space by sprinkling their sweat and blood within the circle.  After that, someone outside of it activates the spell.”

“The words you said that night.”

“Yes.”

“What were they?”

Forca bestia.”

Nyx’s shoulders bunched, but her face held no sign of anger.  Instead, her eyes had become downcast.  “Initially, I would’ve guessed the spell to be alchemy, but at this point, it sounds like animancy.  A paladin taught you this?”

“No.  A wizard.  Paladins aren’t fans of Fiamman war campaigns.”

The girl laughed.  The sound was dry and low.  She looked up at Elmiryn with a weak smile.  “How many Ailurans have you used this on?”

Elmiryn didn’t answer right away.  She rubbed at her eyes and frowned at Nyx.  The girl didn’t seem so far away.  If the woman closed her eyes, she was certain she would feel the girl’s breath brush her lips.  Elmiryn’s chest gave a clench, and she answered quietly.  “Three.”

“Are any of them alive now?”

Nyx knew the answer.  Elmiryn knew the girl knew, she had to. Still she answered.  She followed that voice, that tease of breath, foolishly, like it were a certain path.

“No…” Elmiryn heard herself say.

Nyx didn’t say anything. She turned away and went to her things, to her weaved appearances and pieces of life. The warrior watched her from the tree for a time before she jumped down.

Elmiryn had realized, in the deepest sense, why it was Nyx preferred to sleep in lofty places.  Up there, the world held no more importance than the duty to hold her…and who would ever expect the earth to fall away?

——-

Elmiryn was dead set on removing the feel of the night from their skin, and would have gone marching all the way back to the Medwin river to find respite, had they not found a small brook trickling through the forest. It was a slow process without a proper container to catch the trickling water in, but their goal was accomplished. Happy to be clean, Elmiryn ate cheese and crackers while Nyx watched.  The girl mumbled she was still full from the night before.  Then, the two women were once again on the move.

Conversation was scarce. Elmiryn felt the ellipses like stab wounds, and her ire was stirred. It bored her. Impatient, she gave Nyx a nudge. “Let’s jog some of the way,” the woman said.

Nyx stared at her like she’d grown a third head. “Elle…after last night and all that ridiculous sparring you put me through yesterday, you want to go running!?”

“Not running.  Jogging.”  Elmiryn stopped to drop her bag and cross her arms. “What are you complaining about? I know you can’t be sore.”

“No–but I’m not half-crazed with the impending moon anymore either! Why DID you try and push me so hard yesterday?”

“To get you to focus on something else. Like gaining control.”

“You mean lose control.”

“No. Gain it. A berserker only goes so far before a smarter person comes and puts them in their place. You ended up figuring that out when the Twin pushed at your skin. But you fought her, just to keep fighting me.  You needed control to make a dent in me.  That was your goal.” Elmiryn gestured at the red bruise on her cheek and smirked. “And you achieved it.”

Then without another word, the woman picked up her bag and pushed into a jog, turning to flash a smile at Nyx. “And now that you know you can do it, even under those conditions, the real trick will be in getting you to stick with it.”  The woman looked forward again.  Even at a jog, she’d need all her concentration not to drop any of her things, or break her ankle in a fall.

Elmiryn could hear Nyx behind her.  The jingle of her trinkets lit a smile on the woman’s face.

Nyx made it three miles before she complained she needed a rest.  Elmiryn let her have it, and they had a fast lunch eating deer jerky.  Again, Nyx didn’t eat much.  Before they set off again, the warrior decided it was a good idea to review the previous day’s lessons.

Her companion balked at the announcement, but Elmiryn didn’t give her a chance to set into whining.  Her fist was too fast.  The first time, she caught Nyx in the shoulder with a straight punch because the girl wouldn’t focus.  Then Nyx, with a sour expression, managed to block Elmiryn’s second advance–she side stepped and pulled at Elmiryn’s wrist, pulling the woman off balance.

“That’s good!” Elmiryn said with a grin.

Nyx crossed her arms, and her lips seemed thin.  “Can we stop these plays of violence?  I’ll jog if you want–fine–but I just had to wash my skin clean of some other creature’s blood.  I can’t even entertain the idea of doing this!”

The warrior gave a nod.  “Okay.  I’ll be nice.  But you have to get this in your head…you have to be prepared to defened yourself at any moment.  I’m going to sound like an idiot, but this saying is true, ‘Danger doesn’t wait for you to be at your best’.”

Nyx turned her face, her throat moving a little as she swallowed.

They traveled on.

Three more days they traveled through the country side.  Elmiryn caught a rabbit, and later a fowl, so that they wouldn’t go without meat.  Though the crackers were gone, there was still some bread left.

The warrior knew that technique would not be an issue with Nyx.  Not considering her natural skill and her background.  The problem would be in bringing the girl to optimal physique.  As a human being, it didn’t take as much to get Elmiryn to her most fit.  Not when compared to the natural strength of an Ailuran, who needed a great deal more conditioning before any physical training mattered.  That was why the Ailuran army was so powerful, despite their small numbers.  If the Lycan tribes decided to align themselves with the Ailuran Nation, Fiamma would be doomed.

That was why the kingdom made a peace treaty with the werewolves, first thing.

The regenerative trait Nyx had was also something of a problem.  Unless Elmiryn could push the girl hard enough and fast enough, the body would only revert back to what it was previously.  But this was a challenge Elmiryn was eager to meet.  Could she keep up with a trained Ailuran?

Every morning she would wake with aches and sores.  Every morning, she was hungry to do more.

A pattern came quickly.  The warrior would wake and rouse Nyx from sleep.  Then they would jog three miles before stretching.  Afterward, they did push-ups, pull-ups, and combat drills–practicing kicks, punches, and knee lunges.  Then they would rest and jog for at least another three miles. In the evenings, they would review blocks and counter attacks.

It was all basic and at times unorthodox, but it was a routine cannibalized from Elmiryn’s days as a foot soldier.  By the third day, Nyx was at her surliest, but the training was having its intended effect.  The girl’s technique was becoming sharper, and her stamina was showing an improvement.

By the fourth day, Tiesmire was well in view.

Elmiryn wasn’t all that glad to see it.

It would be a disruption to their newly formed routine, a problem the woman had quietly puzzled over since they had begun their joint training.  That, and Elmiryn could already hear the ants of noise marching over her ear drums–invasive, perverse, and unpleasant.  The option of going around Tiesmire was too silly to entertain.  The city-state was so wide that doing so would cost them at least an additional two days.  That was time wasted not moving toward a solution for Nyx’s condition, time wasted not fighting Meznik.

Elmiryn sighed, “We have no choice.  We have to go through.”

“What’s so bad about it?” Nyx panted.  They had just stopped from their usual jog.  Her eyes squinted at the city.

The warrior shook her head, a derisive sound slipping her lips.

Tiesmire was a city-state built on an elevation of land that overlooked the Eastern plains and forests.  Its perimeter was guarded by two sets of high walls, which housed the city’s militia.  From their point atop a knoll, the two women could see to the heart of the city, where a three-story manor loomed over all other buildings.  Its height was only matched by the towers dispersed throughout Tiesmire, where armed guards stood lookout for any misconduct.  Past the manor, the city fell prey to trailing mist.  Elmiryn couldn’t even see the northern boundaries.  To walk across the city would take more than a day, and she knew this because she had once visited Tiesmire as a guard to a royal envoy.  If she had to sum up the city-state in one word, it would be…

“Obscene.   That’s what this place is.”  Elmiryn spat in memory of the atmosphere.  In her head, she held no memories of the architecture or the people, but the loud voices and the feel of disrespect was enough to make her lip curl.  “Tiesmire is full of arses.  The faster we’re past it, the better.”

Nyx said nothing.

They came to the southern entry gate, where guards watched the two-lanes of people entering and exiting.  Traffic was heavier leading out of the city, toward Gamath.  The moving crowd consisted of people light and dark, tall and small, large and skinny.  There were even some dressed in colorful foreign garbs.  Southern Islanders, Indabans, Westerners, and many others that Elmiryn couldn’t name.

“They aren’t checking our things?” Nyx muttered as they passed the first archway.

“Too many people,” Elmiryn replied.  “This place isn’t like Dame.  Have you ever been to a city this size before?”

The girl shook her head.  She was slouched, and she did nothing to push aside the bangs concealing her eyes.  Elmiryn reached a hand and brushed them back.  She smiled.  “You don’t need to worry, Nyx.  You didn’t get to see it because Gamath was empty, but cities like these are filled with people of all kinds.  It’s true, there aren’t many therians of the moon here, but there’s plenty therians of the sun.”

Nyx gazed at her in surprise.  “Really?”

“In my last visit here, I got into a drinking contest with an Arktan.”

“…You tried to out-drink an Arktan?

The woman smiled sheepishly as they passed the second archway.  “I was already tipsy, so I got ‘Avians’ and ‘Arktans’ mixed up in my head.  I didn’t realize I was competing against a fucking bear.”  The woman chuckled at the memory, her recalling drink-induced illness and unsteady limbs.  Then Elmiryn’s eyes lit up.  “That’s it!” she cried.  She gripped Nyx’s shoulder and pointed ahead of them.  “This main road is lined with taverns.  We have to stop in one!”

Nyx’s eyes grew wide and she shook her head vehemently.  “Elle, no!

The warrior didn’t let the girl’s lack of enthusiasm faze her.  Her tongue could already taste sweet wine.  “It’s the only way I’ll be able to get through all this bullshit and not want to shank someone.  Come on, don’t you want to relax a bit after these past few days?”

“I thought you wanted to get through Tiesmire fast!”  Nyx returned hotly.  A traveling merchant bumped past her, sparing an irritated glance over his shoulder.

Elmiryn watched him go, his form becoming an inconsequential smear in the bustling crowd.  Voices washed over them in a relentless wave.  She recalled the architecture as mismatched throughout the city, and they lent to the feeling of falseness.  But now, as her eyes roved the facades, the signs, the flashes of scenes from open doorways–no criticism could come to her mind other than how banal it all seemed.  The noise took dominance of her attention.  The noise, the jostling, the smoke, the heat–

“Believe me, Nyx. I wanna get the hell out of this ridiculous place.  But if I have the chance to take the edge off, I want to take it.”

“So you want me to babysit you the entire way?  I don’t feel like playing the role of caretaker, thank you very much.”  The girl crossed her arms.  Pouted even.

“Who said you weren’t going to drink with me?”  Elmiryn grabbed Nyx by the hand and began to pull her through the crowd.  Nyx protested behind her, but the woman took a moment to smile at her, the warmth of those around them breeding mischief in her heart and spurring her forth.

“Tonight, Nyx, we’re going to make a tavern master very happy!” Elmiryn crowed.


Back to Chapter 9.3 | Forward to Chapter 10.2

Chapter 9.3

“The transformation is invested
With the mysterious and the shameful
While the thing I am becomes something else
Part character part sensation
The shadow is cast”1

ELMIRYN________________________

Elmiryn didn’t feel bad, or guilty. Not really. Not truly. The way Nyx had to squint at the line she had drawn told her how much the girl’s senses had diminished–a side effect of her new “condition”. If the girl didn’t see her, then there was no harm. Nyx would soon be gone, replaced by her Twin, and Elmiryn’s memory would become a foggy dream. What did it matter?

She felt almost unreal, cut up by differing shades. Her hand was a spider’s reach that teased into the light’s view. Her eyes were wide, swallowing, trying to get in as much as they could.

Damn human sight. Damn her curse that brought a mystifying smoke to her eyes. She wiped at them, with her free hand, and tried to squeeze out the gray that mingled in the black, indigo, and milk. Elmiryn looked again, and balked.

Where’d Nyx go?

She placed a hand on the ground, where pine needles and torn leaves were crushed in her curled grip.

Elmiryn strained her eyes, felt her eye stalks ache like they were on the verge of pushing her eyeballs out of her skull. What were those pitiful sounds she was hearing? Was Nyx already changing? The moonlight spilled over the mountains, and came down in broken shafts through the canopy. Not direct light, nothing that lit the earth brightly, but enough to bring about some sort of idea in Elmiryn’s head of what was before her.  There was a trembling mass on the ground, spined along its backside, and at one end of it, pale arachnids tangled in a mass of black snakes–writhing, pulling, scraping.

…There she was.

The shadows still served as a frustrating veil to those finer details, but a warmth took home in Elmiryn’s skin. The delicate slopes and curves of Nyx’s body, the light skin slick with sweat, the labored breath and the low cries that stretched and died out in hisses and moans. The situation had quickly turned voyeuristic, but Elmiryn dared to creep closer.

The redhead wasn’t certain what brought the change. In her experience, it seemed to depend on the therian in question. Sometimes it happened only when the moonlight touched their skin. Other times, when the sun set, or the moon first came into view.  She thought of the hundreds of thousands of therians that would shift this night–the fear that would grip their enemies.  It tickled her throat.  Made her limbs suffer a dull ache.  Screams filled her head.

Elmiryn’s eyes peered through the leaves of a robust bracken fern, and they widened to take in the sight of Nyx’s flesh, changing.  Finally changing.  (Or forever changing…which was like never changing.  Static, like a fundamental principle.  …What a pain in the ass!  How can you “be” and “not be” at the same time?)

A gurgle brought Elmiryn’s attention back to the spectacle before her.  She had seen shifts before. But those had been fluid and graceful–more like a person changing position than a person’s flesh and bone twisting and reconstructing to fit another form. This, however, was drawn out agony, pure and unabashed pain. In her lapse of attention, the confused mass that had once occupied the center of the circle had been replaced with some horrible looking creature.  Nyx was…gone.  The thing in her place had a narrow chest, a sunken stomach, and a powerful back with a large spine.  A tail had sprouted, where it lashed, naked.  The thing’s head was turned to the ground.  Elmiryn crawled, past the fern, over the roots and tall grass, felt some of the light swathe her skin and it made her shiver.  Was the face still human?  Was there anything left of Nyx in those eyes?

Then the shoulders shuddered, and there was a sickening pop as the bones were forced to fit into their new sockets.  The hips too, which had seemed connected only by skin and muscle, appeared to snap into place.  The skin rippled, fingers and toes gave way to stout digits fixed with claws, and the soles and palms to tough pads.  It was a gruesome, choppy process, but it was like an inexorable wave that hit everything at once.  As the limbs changed, so then did the head.

Elmiryn, who had come near the line, eyes squinted in foggy discernment, reared back, dirt and sand still clinging to her bare stomach where it had dragged.  Her expression became stern, her mouth a thin line.  She went to her things, carefully set against an alder’s base, and took up her bow and quiver.  Notching an arrow, she aimed it at the new being before her.

Quiet, like a wind’s whisper, fur sprouted along the skin.  It swept over the stilled body, covered it in a thick coat of black that made even the shadows envious.  The creature stirred.  It trembled as it moved its legs, tucked them underneath it, and pushed.  Head still bowed, its wet nose quivered before its lips pulled back to reveal white fangs.

In a fraction of a second, the thing leapt forward, toward Elmiryn, its jaws spread wide.  The woman could imagine how her whole neck could fit neatly in there–tender, fragile, and delicate.  But she didn’t give, didn’t twitch.  When the beast came to the circle’s boundary, there was a crack, a small white flash, and the creature was blasted back.  The air smelled of singed fur.  It yowled, and its tawny eyes fixed Elmiryn with a look of astonishment.  True astonishment.  One of comprehension.  The warrior gave a whistle.

“You weren’t paying attention,” Elmiryn said.  She smirked a little.  “Nyx didn’t get it.  It’s alright, all that fighting still did something for her.  Made her determined, made her stop worrying about the night.  But you?  You stopped focusing.  I bet you wanted to hurt me–kill me even.  But you see that line?  It means you can’t cross it.  You can’t leave until I say so.  So fucking sit down.  We need to talk.”

The animal snorted, paced back and forth, its paws trailing little lines of dirt from where it collected between its toes and claws.

The bow lowered a fraction.  Then Elmiryn chuckled and brought it up again.  “…Okay, fine.  So maybe it won’t be a conversation, really.  But I don’t fucking care.  You aren’t really the most admirable cunt-licker this side of the Torreth.”  Elmiryn ventured closer.  “So just to be absolutely certain…you understand me, right?  Give a shake or a nod.”

The cat just spat at her, ears flat on its head.

Elmiryn’s face hardened.  “I can just leave you here all night, if you’d like.”

The cat growled, looked all around it as if to try and confirm the existence of the circle.  Then with a short sigh, it shook its head.

“No?” The warrior grinned.  “So when I tell you I want to have a contest, you’d understand me?”

The cat nodded, but its face bunched, eyes narrowing.

“Then here’s my challenge:  I bet I can kill a deer before you can…without my bow and arrows.  If I win, then you have to respect Nyx’s space between each full moon, and respect our…uh…partnership.  Even when control is in your hands.  But if you win…then you get to do as you please, without my stopping you.  The contest doesn’t begin until I’ve named a target.  The kill has to be made where the other can plainly see.  Anything else, doesn’t count… I’ll only let you out if you agree to this–and by agreeing to it, you can’t kill me or run away.  You have to swear it.  Even a coward like you can’t break a direct promise like that.”

The cat blinked and its tail lashed behind it.

Elmiryn pulled the arrow farther back, her eyes flashing.  “Do you agree to these terms?  Do you agree to this contest?”

The cat nodded once, stiffly.

“Good.”

The woman licked her thumb, then quickly stepped forward and broke the line with it.  A breeze picked up, as the freed air circulated.  Elmiryn stepped back and jerked her head.  “Go on, you can get out now.”

The cat took cautious steps forward.  Its body crept low to the ground.  It took one tentative paw and with squinted eyes and attentive ears, lightly touched the earth beyond the circle’s boundaries.

“See?”  Elmiryn said, her bow and arrow put away, replaced by a short blade.  “The spell is broken.  Now come on.  The field Nyx and I crossed was riddled with deer dung.  Nearly stepped in it a few times.  I’m certain they graze near the forest at night.”

They left the little opening, and the feline was swallowed in the shadows beneath the trees.  Elmiryn paused to look for it again, when she saw its surly eyes shine at her.  Certain the creature would honor its promise, the woman went on, leading through the forest.  “What am I supposed to call you?” the woman asked in a low voice.  “Nyx and I have kind of started calling you ‘the Twin’, but that isn’t a proper name.”  Her steps were slow and careful.  She didn’t have the sight of her inhuman companion.

The cat let out a noise, like a weak growl and a yowl mixed together.  Elmiryn heard it lick its chops and grinned.  “It’s a serious question!  What if we’re in the thick of a fight, and you don’t realize I’m trying to get your attention?”

No answer.  Elmiryn suspected it was less because the cat couldn’t speak, and more because it just didn’t want to.

“Is a name so bad to have?” The woman shook her head.  “Don’t tell me it didn’t make you upset to realize Nyx’s name didn’t belong to you.  You know that, right?  That it isn’t yours?  I mean…that’d be accepting clothes, literature, and walking upright.  And you can’t.  You two aren’t in sync, but I heard and felt some of your feelings too, back in that cave.  They echoed of her, the way they echoed of you–”

The cat hissed, loud, the sound dying out to a rumbling growl.  Elmiryn stopped where she was, balancing on the ball of her left foot on a fat alder root, as her other foot hovered over a dark drop off where buried roots snaked out of an eroded dirt wall.  Narrowed cat eyes glinted at her, like the edge of a knife.

“Don’t be a fucking idiot,” the woman scorned, though her voice lacked the fire.  “You’re cut from the same cloth, whether you like it or not.  That’s why you’re the Twin.”  Then a thought occurred to her, and she rubbed the back of her neck.  “Actually, since you’re here now, then I guess Nyx’d be the Twin…which brings me back to my first question–what in the nine hells do I call you?”

The minutes slipped by.  Though the conversation–if one could call it that–seemed finished, the woman still thought about it.  It bothered her, the idea of something so determined to be someone, but lacking a true name.  If there was anything in the world that was important, it was something to go by.  Even animals did it…right?  There were signature smells and unique calls, so that even those creatures that did not use spoken language could recognize one another.  In therian cultures, it wasn’t an issue.  After all, the animal within was just a part of a greater whole.  But in the Twin’s case…she was not whole.  Not truly.  And without Nyx’s name, she was nothing.

“If your goddess doesn’t think you’re fit for a name, then there’s no reason to fuss.  You aren’t worth it.”  Elmiryn went on, quiet, each step dropping her voice till it was barely a breath past her lips.  “You can’t talk, you can’t sustain yourself, and you can’t stay in control past a single night.  Maybe that’s why Nyx has trouble facing her problems…” Elmiryn looked over her shoulder, where the wraith that was the feline drifted behind her.  “You hold her back.”

She didn’t know if the beast heard her or not.  Perhaps it did, with those great ears that swiveled to catch all the world in its canals.  In many ways she didn’t care.  The creature was a selfish being, too focused on its present reality to ever consider the far reaching effects of its actions.  Nyx suffered for it.  She had nearly been left for dead because of it.  Elmiryn hadn’t intended for cruelty, but she had to admit…she felt good seeing the beast singed by the containment spell.

Ahead of them, illuminated, was the field.  It was a cool wave of tall grass.  Some short distance away, a family of deer grazed silently.  One deer was apart from the others, trailing away.  Elmiryn, who was crouched, tapped Her shoulder and pointed at it.  The wind was stronger here, but the gust carried Westward, to their advantage.  The feline, with its quarry marked, stalked forward, low to the ground.  Elmiryn didn’t budge or say a word.  She watched as the cat vanished into the tall grass, its movement concealed by the shifts of the field.  The cat seemed to make good progress–good at sneaking, which was no surprise–but its shortcoming soon revealed itself.

When the feline was several yards away, the deer raised its head, rock still.  Elmiryn guessed it was only acting on a gut feeling, but the feline didn’t seem to think so.  Almost in a panic, the creature lunged forth, paws scratching desperately in an attempt to catch its prey in anyway.  The deer quickly skittered away, its family bounding to the safety of the forest, but as Elmiryn sprinted forth, she saw it wasn’t a complete miss.

The cat had caught the deer clear along its left rear calf.  The wound was severe enough that blood stained the grass in fat dark splotches.  Sloppy, terribly sloppy.  Elmiryn held up her knife, the blade in her hands.  She felt her eyes burn, her heart pounding in her ears.  She was an instrument, a deadly tool, and she was faster than the clumsy kitten that scraped to its feet.  The Twin, snarling, snapping, smelling blood, perhaps tasting it already, went for the wounded deer.  But the creature was not down yet.  It made a painful spring to the side where its weight leaned on its hurt leg.  The deer stumbled, nearly fell, but righted itself.  Cut off from the forest, it headed east.

No, no!  It wasn’t supposed to move away like that!  Elmiryn would’ve applauded the Twin for steering their prey away from her…if she actually believed the thing had done it on purpose.  But it hadn’t.  Perhaps didn’t even have a greater plan other than running straight at it, tackling.  No method, no idea of what it took to anticipate a desperate animal’s moves.  Stupid creature.  Fucking moronic, mangy four-legged–

Never mind that now.

Elmiryn sprinted, after the feline, after the wounded deer.  In truth, it wasn’t so bad.  The deer would soon be fatigued.  But Elmiryn was already there, already seeing tunnels of rippling white and wondering why her breath was so short.  The cost of her earlier activities, of her skimpy meal.  Her muscles and bones rattled with every footfall.  She tried to keep the image of the hunt alive in her. “Remember who you are, remember what you’re doing,” she thought.  Elmiryn blinked the sweat from her eyes and focused on the cool air on her bare skin.

A surge of black barreled toward the deer.  Their prey bleated, but the sound was cut away as the Twin took its hind leg in its mouth and pushed upward.  The deer fell over, into the grass, out of Elmiryn’s view.  She cursed.  Did the Twin do it?  No, no, if she couldn’t see it then it wouldn’t count.  But if the stupid cat had thought about it even halfway, it would know, that Elmiryn couldn’t do this again and hope to keep up.  She’d have the advantage.  It had to end now, or else it was all over.

The woman stumbled to a stop, where a surprise sight made her relieved, yet wary at the same time.

The Twin was tugging at the deer’s leg, seemingly determined to tear it off.  The deer warbled low, its struggles weak and the life fading from its eyes.  Elmiryn looked at the feline, and turned the knife in her hand so that she gripped it by the handle.  Its eyes were glazed over, in a bloodlust.  Did it even remember what they were doing?

She moved sideways as quickly and as carefully as she could, keeping a certain distance from the deer.  Elmiryn wasn’t certain how the cat would react to her coming so near to the wounded animal.  When the deer’s body was between her and the cat, she crouched slowly, one hand held out, the other with the blade.  “Hey, kitten…are you paying attention?”

The cat paused and looked at her, brow bunched in what could be called a frown.

Then Elmiryn struck.  The knife plunged into the deer’s throat, killing all sound.  The deer’s weak struggles ended.  The woman didn’t even try to pull the blade out, only stepped back quickly, with hands held up.  The cat roared and advanced on her, teeth bared and its tail a whip behind it.  The warrior smiled down at it.

“The contest was to see who killed it first, not who brought the deer down.” Elmiryn shrugged.  “So I win.  You’re bound to your word.”

The cat looked at her, then back at the deer.  It licked its wet muzzle, where blood dripped in dark droplets to the ground.  It snorted and glared at her one final time before it returned to its meal.

The woman shook her head.  Turned her face as the cat began to tear at the fresh corpse.  What a simple creature.  Did it truly understand what she had just said?  Or had it simply gotten mad that she had laid hand on its prey?  It didn’t care that the kill was sloppy, or that the deer was of small size.  But to its credit, it was a show of self-restraint that it didn’t kill her immediately for getting so near.  It really had become smarter.

Elmiryn’s eyes narrowed as the sickening noises of the Twin’s dinner violated her ears.

“You’re smarter, Cat, but you aren’t any wiser.”


Back to Chapter 9.2 | Forward to Chapter 10.1

  1. ‘Mask’ by Bauhaus, from the album ‘Mask’. Beggars Banquet, 1981. []

Chapter 9.2

NYX____________________________

A person can be embodied in a sentence, a phrase, a word.  There are the distinct smells associated with that person–the special expressions that flash across their face.  Do they feel like leather, or rose petal?  What is their laugh composed of?  What colors drape their back?  The bits and parcels of life we glue together, messily, account for a typical creature’s memory.  What did people remember of me, then? Was I truly considered, animal and all?  Or was my shadow a separate entity; my hidden self, a sister, too shy to show her face?

Elmiryn had already made that distinction in her mind, it seemed.

“She’s listening, isn’t she? Your Twin?” She asked, with eyes that peered over her shoulder.  “She sees?  She understands?”

“She…just hears.”  I felt her digging at the back of my eyeballs in the hope of reclaiming one of them as she had the day before.  “But her vision is secondhand, like a dream.  I only say this from my own experience.  I’m, um…not certain if her vision has become sharper, or if she has any access to my other senses.  I just know she’s pushing to see.”

My mouth became a displeased curve.  “How can we do this?  How can we hope to do anything if she’ll have all the means to undermine our efforts?”

“She won’t.”

“And how not?”

“She just won’t.”

It occurred to me that it was stupid to bother asking–for if She could hear and even partially see, then what was the use in explaining, then?  Still, I disliked not knowing.  I wanted Elmiryn to be as a book, right then.  To reveal her intentions, dark with mystery and possible danger.

We passed deciduous trees–my favorite sort–great large things with broad leaves that grew shorter and stouter the closer we ventured to the Torreth Mountains.  Our progress was labored and slow, as we fought against thick underbrush and uneven terrain.  There were places so thick with bushes and low-branched trees that we were forced to make great detours around, which, in my weariness, appeared to set us back at least a dozen yards.

Rest came to us in a small little spot devoid of foliage, where the forest canopy broke onto the clear blue sky.  I stared upward, stricken by the rich bright shade of the day.  Somehow, the wind seemed to breeze easier here, and I relished the cool air that took the heat from my neck and back.  I leaned against the trunk of a lean poplar and sighed.

My eyes slipped shut, and I wondered which of these trees I could climb up and nap in. Then the sound of things snapping brought me out of my haze, and my eyes flew open to see Elmiryn with her favorite dagger out.  She pulled at the grass and small ferns, leaves weeping onto the ground as roots growled and snapped out of their homes.  She looked at me, then gestured at the trees.  “Go ahead.  Rest a bit. Have some breakfast too.  This will take me a while.”

My brow wrinkled and I looked at Elmiryn warily from where I still leaned.  Her complacency didn’t match the eagerness with which she attacked the undergrowth.  Torn bits of grass sprinkled the churned, dark soil, and I took a step back as if daring Elmiryn to truly excuse me from her arduous task.  When no protest or sly trick came at me, I turned and vaulted up the nearest oak I could find.

I felt bad, leaving Elmiryn to work alone–but perhaps it was in preparation for the coming night.  I told myself that it would therefore be counter-productive to the night’s success should I aid her, let alone watch her.  Feeling better by this line of logic, I took Tobias’s book out of my bag and began to read.

I flipped back toward the front end, the sewn parchment cracking like old bones at my hurried fingers.   I had read all the complete tales there were to be found in the book.  Now all that was left was to read were Tobias’s thoughts, his essays, and what I hoped, were intimate accounts of his own life.

But the first page I came to confused me, and I had to read the starting paragraph twice:

“Dawn.  With relish.  Had a man speak about the tragedy of a dying sun, and countered his churlishness with the radiance of a child.  He spat on my robe.  Had to get a scrub.  The stain was of tobacco.  Naomi would’ve killed him, but I think my unconquered positiveness worked toward a better victory.”

I wrinkled my nose and scratched my head.  It indeed seemed a personal anecdote, as I’d hoped, but there was no greater explanation beyond that.  Much of the book seemed comprised of that. There were vague thoughts, interrupted sentences, and even single words, of which entire pages were dedicated to. My skimming found six of these.  “Patterns, Stars, Singed, Ink, and Breath.”  But the one that caught my eye was:

Lilies.

The period at the end caught my attention.  None of the other words had one.  I tried to imagine the sort of state Tobias was in, to write this word alone on a page, and feel so compelled to have bothered with a period.

Excited by this bit of mystery, I held my chin and tapped the page.

It didn’t take much for my mind to travel to the story I had told last night–the tale of the Spider of the West.   In it, a flower had erupted from her chest, a white, six-petaled flower that resembled a star.  Though it was never explicitly named, my bet was that it was a lily.  But again, I came to a wall.  Just because the flower had been used in Tobias’ story did not make it particularly significant.

Such items were always meant to stand for something in literature…but there were enough metaphors and concepts surrounding the lily that I wasn’t certain which one Tobias had meant.  The first, and most obvious possibility was of tarnished innocence or purity; the Spider’s blood had stained the beautiful white of the flower.  The other two seemed related to the cycle of life.  Having read a book or two on such things, I knew that lilies were related to the two most incredible stages of life:  Death and Reincarnation.  The latter I believed in, as Aelurus had been known to reward great individuals with a new, and harmonious life.  But did Tobias believe in it?  Where was he from?  Was he worldly enough to adopt the ideas of others despite his origins?

“Elmiryn,” I called, eyes still on the scrawled word.  “What did you think of the story last night?”

Her voice floated up to me.  “What?”

“I asked, ‘What did you think of the story last night’?”

“Oh.  I thought it was funny.”

My nose scrunched. “…Really?  That heartbreaking story amused you?”

“Heartbreaking?  Are you kidding?  Do you really think the gods would bother themselves with judging some other deity’s lesser?  Someone will wake her up. Just you wait and see.”

“Will?”

“Yeah.  Will.”

I had an incredulous little smile on my face as I looked up.  “…Elle, it was just a story.”

“But you told me it was about that man…Tobias, was it?”

I shook my head, hand tugging at my ear as my eyes squinted. “You’re right, but I was only guessing! I hardly believe he actually did all of these things.  It’s all just one big metaphor for events in his life…I think.

“I dunno, Nyx…I remember hearing stories when I was younger, about a slave girl that made people hang in mid-air.  My father used it as a way to scare me into behaving.  He’d tell me, ‘Arachne will string you up with her silk if you don’t listen to me!’  That trick always worked.”

“But…Why would a Legend just walk up to me and give me a book?  Why didn’t he go and help Gamath, if he’s supposed to be an agent of heaven?”

Elmiryn grunted, and I heard the snarl of roots freed. “He vowed to find his fledgeling.  Simple.  He didn’t sound like the sort of man to take that kind of vow lightly.” I heard her let out a huff.  Then she added, “And really…who the fuck gets Legends anyway?  When a god picks them to be their champion, it’s as if they become…I dunno.  Alien. They don’t think like a person of the earth would anymore–they think in terms of heaven.  It was that sort of thing that killed so many of them.  They got full of themselves, and the gods had to kill them–if the people hadn’t already.  I don’t even know of an active Legend left alive anymore.”

“…So you’re saying that maybe Tobias–IF he were a Legend–would want to hang low?  To not attract attention?”

“Yeah.  Imagine how the man must’ve felt, having lost so much, only to see his comrades all fall in a short span of time?  There used to be thousands of Legends, before they all died and disappeared within a decade.  It was a sign. There were too damn many of them.”

“Too many…” My eyes glazed over.

If what Elmiryn were saying were true…then the word “Lilies” likely represented death.  Perhaps Tobias had been depressed.  The period after the word made sense now. It wasn’t reincarnation, it was death. The ultimate end.

I traced my fingers over the page and frowned.  Even this revelation felt insufficient.  Elmiryn had uncovered another possibility–one almost too fantastic to accept.  I had no way of proving it or disproving it, and that made me frustrated.

“Hey, I’m done,”  Elmiryn called.

I looked over.  Frowned.  “Uh…doing what?

Elmiryn had made a circle of dirt.  It was lumpy in places, but she had clearly tried to smooth it out–possibly with a big leaf.  She placed her hands on her hips.  “It’s a fighting circle.”

I nearly fell out of the tree.  “Today?  You mean to do that today!?

She nodded, her eyes unblinking.

“Yes.”

“But today is the day I shift.”

“I know.”

I visibly sagged.  Of course she knew.  But she was still insane.  Still ridiculous for believing nothing bad would come of this.  I could already feel Her inside me, pacing.  The idea of fighting made her anxious.  “Are you asking for a premature change?” I snapped.

“No, I’m asking for you to fight me when you’ll be less likely to over think things.  Get down here.”

“I’m over thinking things right now.  Namely, the word, ‘NO’, over and over.”

“If you’d like, I can make this your first lesson.  Get down when I say to get down, or I’ll make it happen.”

The words slapped me. I leaned back from the force, felt my eyes burn with surprise and hurt. I hurried to climb down, my eyes on Elmiryn’s face all the while.  “I don’t appreciate threats…” I mumbled as I went to join Elmiryn on the damp dirt.

She shrugged one shoulder. “I don’t like making threats either, but if we’re going to do this, we’re going to do it right.  Your feelings can’t be coddled anymore than your body would.  And you’re going to be eating dirt today, make no mistake.”

As I stepped onto the damp soil, I immediately felt stupid.  Somehow–despite its hurried creation–the circle managed to look neater than I did.  Me, with my muddied pants and boots, my wrinkled tunic, and my disheveled hair.  I didn’t belong in it.  I nearly took a step back when a look from Elmiryn froze me in place.  It was similar to the look she had given Sedwick back in Gamath, when they were arguing.  But this was more focused.  What was just a threat, now blossomed into a promise.

“If you don’t mind,” she began, circling around me with hands behind her back, “I’d like to get a better sense of what you can do.  So far, it seems you’re extremely good at dodging a punch.  You’re agile, flexible, and have good reflexes.  Before you met me, you stole food to stay alive.  Am I right?”

“Yes.”  I resisted the urge to add “Ma’am” to the end of that.

“But a girl who takes from peasants doesn’t get the level of skill you do.  How’d you get it?”

I clenched my fists and stared forward.  My mind rolled over memories so visceral, my body ached just bringing it up.  I finally settled on an answer.  “My older brother, Thad, was a warrior.  He tried to teach me the basics of self-defense when I was younger.”

“But that isn’t all.  It can’t be.”

I blinked and looked at her.

Elmiryn was adjacent to me, the side of her face a glow of sunlight.  “I can’t recall the specifics of that day–you know my memory is a joke.  But I still remember how well you moved when the mercenaries tried to kill you.  For someone who told me she didn’t fight, for someone who told me she stole just enough to survive, it didn’t make sense.  I don’t care that you’re an Ailuran–that you have 200 bones in your spine, heightened senses, and the strength of a fit wrestler even when at your weakest.  Your story doesn’t match your reality.  Tell me what else you did, how else you trained.  You know I can hear when you’re lying.”

My mouth went dry.  I didn’t want to talk about this.  At least not so soon.  Wasn’t it enough that she had seen my brother’s last moments?  Seen my terrible Mark?  I felt as though I’d been stripped of things so personal…and here, she demanded more.  What more of myself did I have to kick out into the suns before I could rest my heart?

Slowly I began to speak.  “I was part of…a rebel group.  Against the war.  It was spread out, over several villages, including my own.  I never did any fighting.  I never…never hurt anyone.  I just wanted our leaders to stop killing us all over their mad agendas.”

“What did you do?”

“I was a spy.  I’d listen in on important meetings, copy records and plans, and sometimes helped with the sabotage… This went on for some time.  It was how I found out they were going to take Atalo away.  He was on a list of young men to be collected for battle.”

“They never charged you for treason?”

“They never knew.”

Elmiryn nodded, then moved so that she stood in front of me.  “I’m going to say this once, and only once,” her voice had lost all the melody I had grown accustomed to.  All that was left was steel.  “I will not take ‘no’ for an answer.  You do as I say, and fast.  You pay attention, or you’re going to regret it.  We stop when I say we stop.  And finally…”  She smiled, “You will not leave this circle.”

Then we began.

Elmiryn started off by telling me I had no business carrying a weapon until I polished my evasive techniques and learned how to execute a proper counter-attack.  This annoyed me, because I didn’t want to carry her silly sword anymore if I wasn’t even going to use it, but any opportunity for derisive thought was dashed away in the hours that came.

Hours.

I thought there would be running, push-ups, me carrying most of the equipment; consistent, but paced, physical training. Not this. Not hours of avoiding pain, feeling it anyway, wondering if I’d made Elmiryn mad, getting mad at her, spitting sand from my mouth, and sweat-stung vision.

I was given only enough time to think: “It hurts; Here it comes,” or “I can’t do this.”

Then another thought came to me, when I was laid out on the ground, eyes lidded as they watched a wisp of a cloud trail by.

“Elmiryn is trying to break me.”

And she was. This realization, when I finally came to it, made my sinus’ ache and brought an itch to my limbs. She was trying to destroy my timidness, trying to kill the pacifist that had made a home in me.

As such, Elmiryn did not go easy on me, did not feel the need to curb her attacks or start off slowly.  We practiced high attacks aimed at the head, mid-range attacks aimed at the stomach and waist, and attacks from behind.  Three different counters to each, three different ways to evade.  I didn’t catch on right away.

But to her credit, Elmiryn was patient in showing me the proper stances and movements.  It was the only respite she offered, and I quickly learned to pay complete and utter attention at these moments…or else.  The first lesson seemed simple enough.

“Keep your left arm in front of you, and the other near your chest.  Look at your feet placement.  Do they make an L-shape?  Point the toe the other way–or else I can come in and just knock you over like a tree.  Good… Now, when I come at you, keep in mind my momentum.  When inertia takes me past you, strike that way. With it.  Never go against the flow of a traveling object–especially when doing a counter.  Too much resistance might cause you injury, and even lessen your attack.  Keep in mind, unless you can leave me open or pull me off balance, then you can’t counter.  You’re better off not letting your guard down and getting cocky.  We’ll start off with attacks aimed at the head.  Unless your opponent is skilled in hand-to-hand, chances are, he’ll aim for your body more.  Easier target.  But this–this is just to get you on your toes.”

When she felt satisfied with my positioning, she mirrored my stance and locked eyes with me.  No more forewarning than that.

Perhaps Elmiryn believed greatly in my ability to evade, for she never stuck to one way of attacking.  I never would’ve been able to imagine so many ways to throw a single punch.  The target was the same each time–she was aiming for my head.  But she came from the sides, from below, at one point even feinting with her knee.  That time, I barely managed to block her right hook with a timid turn of my shoulder.  She scolded me immediately, telling me that in turning my face and baring me her side, I was asking for a kidney blow.

“Again!” she barked.

I returned to my stance, my heart hammering.  I missed the tenderness of the night before.  This was my error.  In that lapse of focus, Elmiryn pushed forward with her back foot, and feinted a strike with her right fist that I reacted to.  I lifted my left arm to deflect it, my face contorting in sudden surprise.  In that fraction of a second, her left fist came swinging in a fast arc toward my face.  My vision was knocked askew, and my jaw screamed with pulsing pain.  I went down, my vision blanking for a moment before it fuzzed back into view, spots and ripples making it difficult to even see the rich brown of the earth.

I resented Elmiryn, greatly.

As I pushed myself up shakily onto my hands, I had to pause to steady my breathing.

My lungs shuddered in my chest, ribs expanding a fraction, like a predator’s mouth.  Sweat dripped from the tip of my nose, onto the soil, and I saw it mix with the blood that dripped from my lips.  My front teeth had cut into the inside of my mouth.  I gasped and pulled at my mind–away from the claws of my Twin, who thrashed and snarled.

After that, Elmiryn let me have one break, when the suns were high overhead, and their brilliance a spotlight through the canopy.  I made to leave the circle when she jerked me back by my tunic.  Her eyes flashed.  I stepped back, muscles tensed for a blow that didn’t come.  She brought me some water and some left over sheep’s meat from the other night.  It tasted terrible, but I said nothing as there wasn’t much else of substance to eat besides bread and some fruit.  Neither of us spoke for a time.

When I was down to my last bites of meat, Elmiryn spoke.  Her voice was quiet, but it was the first time in several hours that the steel had gone from her words.

“I just want you safe, Nyx.”  She didn’t look at me, just up at the sky.  “I know you hate this, but you know we have to do it.  And you have to get this fast–because I don’t know when the next danger will come.  I have no idea.”  She looked at me, her face blank.  “You can’t shut me out, or else this will be for nothing.  Are you mad?  Then focus that energy into what we’re doing.  Or else, this will be for nothing. Got it?”

I sighed.  Rubbed at my eyes and found tears there.  I swallowed and held them back.  I thought about Thad and fought to make my voice as strong as possible.  “Got it.”

And we resumed.

My momentary brush with danger aside, Elmiryn had perhaps been right in starting my training that day.   I did feel angry.  Angry for the pain Elmiryn made me feel, angry at my Twin for her brutish gibbering, angry at myself for not being stronger.  I felt it burn my skin and pull at my being.  It took away my exhaustion, my desire to hide, any possibility of pretense or civility.  The dirt circle had become my cage, and in it, I felt myself fight, passionately, to purge the anger that built up with every blow, every surge of embarrassment and fear.

In the early evening, I had finally managed a counter or two, and the red on Elmiryn’s cheek showed it.  She didn’t cry out or get angry.  She smiled at me and nodded once.  Then we kept at it.  I was exhausted, and I could see she was too.  Her skin was flushed, and sweat trailed through gleaming skin.  Wisps of her hair came out of her braid, and she had discarded her top, leaving her chest bare save for the strip of cloth she used to wrap around her breasts.  At that point, I wanted to do the same, but I remembered my Mark, and let out a low growl from the back of my throat.  If she touched it, we could see a repeat of the day before.

Elmiryn stared at me when I did that, pausing mid-movement, and I paused to look at her too.  She let me have another break, then.

Not long after, the forest became dark.  Overhead, the sky was a deep violet.  The birds had become quiet in the trees.

Heaving, Elmiryn and I stared at each other, feet away.  “Elmiryn, it’s almost time.”  I felt spent.  Spent of all anger, spent of all energy.  I fell to my knees and looked at her helplessly.  “It’s almost time.  Please tell me you had something in mind while we spent all day grunting and sweating.”

She nodded, and took a step back, out of the dirt circle.  She took her right hand and made three deliberate gestures–tracing a circle, a slash, then a fast squiggle, like she were making a character from a language. I didn’t recognize it.

All around me, I felt the air press in. My heart clenched.  “What did you do?” I squeaked.  My hair stood on end.  I went to the edge of the circle and she held out her hand, shaking her head.

“Relax,” Elmiryn breathed.  “You don’t want to cross the line now, believe me.”  She tapped her foot, and I had to lean down to see the line Elmiryn had drawn into the dirt.  All that time, and I hadn’t noticed it.

“I’m trapped in here?” I said, my voice little more than a breath.

“Until I let you out.”

I nodded grimly, then looked skyward.  The sky was almost completely dark.  I looked at Elmiryn.  “Could you do me a favor?”  My voice was turning hollow and faint.  Not by choice.  My body began to feel sore, and my eyes drooped to a sleepy fraction.

“Sure,” she said.

I let out a little sigh.  “Could you leave me alone for a bit?”

Elmiryn didn’t say anything.  I thought I saw the corners of her lips twitch, but she nodded and walked away, without looking back.  I waited for her to slip completely from my view before I proceeded to shed my clothes.  There was no use in staying dressed when it came to Her.  She didn’t like wearing clothes–not even clothes that shifted with her.  Shivering in the cool night air, I folded my belongings as neatly as I could, then lightly tossed them out of the circle.  I tried to swallow, and felt my throat constrict.  Overhead, I watched as the sky turned dark, and the teeth of the universe glinted at me.

Then my body seized, and I sank to the ground with a choked wail.


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