Tributaries Cover In Sight, In Mind Cover Blackwood Cover

Chapter 19.2

“I’m digging my way
I’m digging my way to something
I’m digging my way to something better
I’m pushing to stay
I’m pushing to stay with something
I’m pushing to stay with something better
I’m sowing the seeds
I’m sowing the seeds I’ve taken
I’m sowing the seeds I take for granted
This thorn in my side
This thorn in my side is from the tree
This thorn in my side is from the tree I’ve planted
It tears me and I bleed
And I bleed”1

NYX____________________________

Oh look, oh look, oh look…

I could hear a sad song on a harp that made me think of winter.  The music filled me, and my eyes opened, crusted and still leaking tears from the stress of my ordeal.  As I tried to find the source of the sound, more messages came to me, lacking words but not lacking my understanding of them.

I have a something that is somehow somewhere sideways.

Oh dear.

I have a something that is somewhat somewhere sacrilegious.

Ah, me.

I have a something that is someone somewhere slain.

Goodbye, my little sum of some’s.

Then the music was gone.

I blinked and tried to sit up, pushing at the ground.  Over me, I saw dead bare branches, claws against a white sky like wicked god’s hands–making me fear the moment that hold would give and the world as I knew it was lost.

It seemed I was lost already.

Wincing, I managed to push myself upright all the way and gazed around me.  I was in a dark wood, the ground and bark covered in soot and ash.  My heart clenched and I stood to my feet.  “No…” I breathed.  “Why–Why am I here!?”

The Kreut Forest.

My hands rose to tangle in my hair.  “No, gods, how did I get here!?”

Then I heard laughter.  Children’s laughter, coming from all around.  My heart started to thump and with short breath I crouched down, head swiveling to try and see what it was.

I wish I hadn’t.

Dogs–or creatures that looked like dogs, came padding toward me, grotesque and horrific.  Their mouths, instead of parting up and down, parted right and left, splitting their long snouts up to the forehead.  At the end of each slimy jaw was a large fang to create something that resembled mandibles.  Four crusted, lopsided eyes strained to see me as they circled around and around.  They had short black fur, patchy and covered in grime and odd growths like moss or fungi.  Their bodies were muscular and wide at the shoulders and hips, like rottweilers.  And when they opened their mouths, instead of the usual growling and barking–they giggled.  Like small human children playing a game.

I whimpered and started to tremble.  Something warm trickled down my leg, but I was too terrified to be embarrassed.

One of the terrible beasts snapped his mandible-like jaws and screamed before charging at me.  The others followed suit, and I squeezed my eyes shut.

 

ELMIRYN________________________

She felt baffled in the way a theater actor would feel when a colleague on stage suddenly decided to jump off script.  Her cheeks flared and her eyes took on the edge and glint usually found on knives.  This couldn’t be right, as she was certain she had all the details–she’d fought with Quincy, felt her body heat, seen the wizard’s glow cut a swath into her mind forever.  This…could not be Quincy.  Once this thought took hold, Elmiryn’s initial assumption–shaky to begin with–was lost.  As the russet-haired stranger moved to rejoin them, stiff and slow like someone unaccustomed to their body, Elmiryn turned to Sedwick and gesticulated her demand for introductions.

The man blinked at her, his hand rising up to rub the side of his face again.  “You don’t know her?” he said, frowning.

“She knows me.  She has to.” Quincy finally met them at the crest, her breath shallow as she doubled over to pant.

Elmiryn shook her head, the wrinkle on her brow becoming more pronounced as she scowled down at the cloaked head.  “No,” she mouthed at Sedwick.  She pointed at the brunette and held up her hands.  “I don’t know her at all.”

“What is wrong with her?” Quincy asked Sedwick as she straightened.

“She lost her voice to a traveling spirit.  I think it is still on this shard, so we should be able to get it back if we hurry and find Nadī.”  He started walking, the women following suit.

“Oh, I’m not complaining.  But if I may ask, who’s Nadī?”

Sedwick glanced at the wizard over his shoulder.  “The Medwin river guardian.”

Elmiryn frowned and tapped the man’s other shoulder.  “She had a name?” she mouthed, exaggerating the words so that he could lip read.

The man let loose a deep chuckle.  “Elmiryn, did you ever stop to ask her?”

The woman blinked.  That sounded ridiculously reasonable.  Why hadn’t she ever asked?  She pointed at the brunette.  “Still doesn’t change the fact that I don’t know her.”  She didn’t know if he understood her, so she shrugged exaggeratedly for added effect.

Sedwick cleared his throat and slowed to a stop, facing her.  “Ah…Elmiryn, if I may, I recall you having a problem with your memory…  Listen to this woman’s voice.  Doesn’t she sound familiar to you?  It’s just too unlikely that you both ended up here without knowing one another in some way.”

The brunette straightened and pulled back her hood just enough to peer at the warrior with narrowed eyes.  “Elmiryn, enough with this.  We have fought, we have even fought together–you can’t honestly say you don’t remember me?”

Elmiryn crossed her arms and sucked at her teeth.  The woman sounded like Quincy, but…

“Quincy, are you in some way different than what you looked like before coming here?” Sedwick asked the stranger.

Elmiryn glowered and pointed at her head.  “Her hair,” she took a lock of her own and pointed.  “Her fucking hair!  She’s not blond!”  She pouted.

“I am not a doll whose appearance is to be quibbled over,” The other woman snapped, her voice taking on a note of anger.  “I am the wizard known as Quincy and have always been this.  My identity does not ride on the poor ability of your addled mind to recognize and compartmentalize what it sees.”

Elmiryn, suddenly feeling peevish, let a smirk curl onto her face.  “You’re not a doll?  ‘Cos you’re about as cute as one.”  She winked.  “I’ll let your treachery slide if you’ll play dress up with me…”

The brunette’s grip on her sword turned white at the knuckles.  “What did you just say!?”  So much emotion.  So little control.  This could not be Quincy.

“You can understand her?” Sedwick asked, pausing as he turned a quarter of the way around, his hands going to his hips.  He looked between the two women as though at a loss.

“I can lip read in five different languages.” The other woman said, barely taking her eyes off Elmiryn.  She held up a finger.  “Fiamman, you are walking on thin ice.”

Sedwick cut between them, his mouth a downward curved line.  “Stop it, the both of you. Nadī awaits us.”

Elmiryn crossed her arms and looked off to the side.  The brunette snorted next to her.

The issue paused for the time being, the trio set out with Sedwick in the lead, his back straight and his gaze locked forward.  Elmiryn and the stranger trailed side by side, neither one willing to fall behind the other.  It was a muted game of pride, and hardly one to turn down a challenge, the redhead met the stranger’s silent challenge with nary a pause.

They came to a small cliffside, where the trees cleared as the slope climbed upward, ending at the vertical wall of eroded earth and rock.  The cliff extended farther than they could see.  Sedwick stated that Nadī was at the top.  He bid the two women to meet him there, and without further ado, turned into vapor and drifted up and out of sight.

The other woman turned to Elmiryn.  “Youve met him before?  You know that…man?” she asked in a quiet voice, pointing.

Elmiryn nodded once mutely.  “We both got swallowed by the Medwin river guardian,” she mouthed–not really bothering to face Quincy as she said this.

As a result, the wizard was left asking, “What?” while the warrior set into the climb.

She glanced back a second later to see that the brunette was hurrying to catch up.  Her lip curling in amusement, the redhead doubled her efforts, grunting as she pulled up footholds and bare roots.  At the top, she pulled herself up and tried to control her breathing so as to seem unfazed.  She turned and stood at the edge, smirking, her arms crossed over her chest as the other woman looked up at her in surprise.

Elmiryn, containing a laugh, held out her hand.  “Wanna lift?” she said offered mutely.

The brunette ignored the hand, her look souring, and pulled herself up.

The game over, Elmiryn turned with a satisfied grin to see Sedwick waiting for them.  Next to him was a woman–or atleast it seemed as a woman.  She had blue skin and white hair, her eyes a pale iris color.  She was nude, similar to Sedwick.  The warrior squinted, her grin turning a little fixed as she took in the lack of a belly button and nipples.

Elmiryn,” said the white-haired woman.  Her voice was layered, on one level sounding like a soft and gentle mother, on another level sounding like a quiet and trickling river.  “It is good to see you in good health, though I confess this is most irregular.  I hardly would have expected to meet you like this.  Nor would I have expected to see you on the Sibesona at all.  You should be halfway to the Indabe by now!

Elmiryn’s eyes widened, and she pointed as the brunette came up at her side.  “You’re the river guardian!?” She mouthed. “You’re Nadī?”

The blue-skinned beauty batted her eyes, then turned to Sedwick.  The man chuckled.  “She lost her voice to a bad trade.”

“Normally, I’d laugh too, only–y’know.  Still lacking a voice,” the redhead tried to say, her look dry as she pointed at herself.

“I told you, we can get it back Elmiryn.” Sedwick turned to the river guardian.  “Nadī, I know who the spirit is.  I don’t believe he’s moved on yet.”

Nadī nodded, her pearly tresses brushing the sides of her petite face.  “Yes, it’ll be too bothersome to try to speak to her like this.” But she paused and placed a hand on her chest.  “First, this other woman here.  I would not seek to be rude.  Elmiryn and I have already met.  But I have not had the pleasure of meeting you…?

“I am Quincy, bounty hunter and wizard master,” the brunette said, bowing low.  Elmiryn rolled her eyes next to her.

Nadī gave a slight bow.  “Greetings.  I am sorry to meet under these circumstances.  Sedwick told me some of your troubles…

The other woman straightened.  Her voice sounded stiff, like someone trying to keep their voice level.  “If you can help, I would be grateful.”  Her hands clenched at her sides.

We shall discuss the matter in detail after we seek out the spirit that has taken Elmiryn’s voice.

The air around them turned heady as steam appeared from nothing, then collected into beads of water.  These beads collected into greater orbs that lumped together until the water shifted into an approximately seven foot long square, some four feet wide.  Sedwick and Nadī stepped onto this, but Elmiryn and the Woman-Claiming-To-Be-Quincy remained where they were.

Sedwick gestured for them to get on.  “Let’s go.  We waste time!”

The two women exchanged looks.

“Well, you’re the one who knows them,” the brunette said, gesturing.

Elmiryn sucked at her teeth, but got onto the strange craft, behind Sedwick.  The other woman followed suit, standing behind her.  When the two elementals sat, so did they.  Elmiryn wore leather pants, and so the water did not soak in–but it still shifted beneath her, feeling strange.  Without much warning they took off, flowing away from the cliff where the land rolled downward back to sea level.

Elmiryn tapped Sedwick on the shoulder, and the man had to twist almost completely around to see her mouth.  “I thought she could only flow downhill?” she said carefully.

The man shook his head.  “Haven’t you seen yet?  The bonds that hold spirits in the physical realm are weaker here.  Nadī can go uphill, but it still takes her a great amount of time.  Weeks, at the least.  Nowadays, I just carry her.”

The woman quirked a brow at the word ‘nowadays’.  Sedwick had really adapted to life as an elemental it seemed.  And with someone like ‘Nadī’ to keep him company, she imagined the transition was made a great deal ‘easier’.  She didn’t miss the way his face brightened at the guardians name, or how his cheeks flushed at her attention.  Still…no nipples was just weird

You must find this strange, Elmiryn, judging by the look on your face.  Strange, even to you,” Nadī said, hands held out as she navigated their train of water.  “My form is different here.  In this realm, us spirits have the luxury of choosing our forms.  The physical world sees many limitations on this.  What many fail to understand is that this is a place that resists all forms, all complex energies, and therefor all order. Upon entering here, if one is not prepared, one is picked apart.  This can be on a spiritual level or a physical one…but what is lost can be found, as you shall soon see.

Elmiryn nodded, immediately understanding.  Upon first entering the Other Place, she had been left as a weak and undefined consciousness floating lost in a sea of nothing.  It took great effort to bring herself to any sort of weight–be that in thought or in flesh–and it was with Meznik’s help that she was able to solidify in whole.

“My sword, had a spirit living in it.” The brunette said suddenly, pressing forward so that her voice sounded close to the warrior’s ear.  Elmiryn leaned to the side with a wince.  This was not Quincy…  “Tonatiuh.  I never knew his exact origins, save that he was in some way related to the suns.  He’s gone, and he took his power with him.  Are you telling me it’s possible to get him back?”

…Tonatiuh?” Nadī turned to stare at the brunette.  “I’ve heard of this name.  It is a name drenched in blood.  Whatever would you want him back for?

Elmiryn turned to glance at the woman.  The brunette’s mouth was set in a thin line.  Her eyes seared, bright as the sky.  “Because he is mine,” she said.

Something of her voice made the warrior blink and stare as though seeing her for the first time.  “…Quincy?” she mouthed.

The wizard, the golden ray, the chosen rival, pulled back her hood just enough to lock her azure eyes onto Elmiryn’s cerulean gaze.  “Fiamman, you’re quite slow.  You know that?” Quincy said.

The warrior grinned uncertainly.  “So…you’re really not blond?”

“No.  But I’m starting to suspect you are.”

NYX____________________________

While I had always been wary of dogs since I was young, my paralyzing, almost irrational fear had not come to fruition until a little over a year ago when a trio of hunting dogs had chased me through the forests.  I was a different person then.  But things carried over, I supposed, like a storm passing a kingdom that toiled beneath its dark blanket.

There I was as then.  Nyx was a coward shocked back into infantile weakness–unable to help herself in any capacity.

How shameful!

But as luck would have it, I was spared, and by all people…

Argos.

There was a crash and tumble, snarling and barking.  My eyes creaked open to see the dog had rolled the leader of this wayward pack of creatures, his teeth bared, his fur ruffled and raised along the spine.  Strange to be saved by the very same animal I was cowering from, but in my head I had raised the loyal dog to a state of higher being.  Argos was not an ‘it’, but a ‘he’, and his personification waived all the usual fears I had towards his kind.

As the monsters attention was turned onto Argos, I saw him struggle against their horrible attacks.  His size afforded him a great advantage as he was easily head and shoulders taller than all of them, but he was still outnumbered.  Red stained his white fur.

I will state, abashedly, that the idea of fleeing came to me.  It wasn’t my Twin who had proffered the idea, but me, and I hate that this is so.  For a split second, I considered abandoning Argos.  But then my lip stiffened and my hands flexed to claws against the dirt.  My trembling grew worse, but I stood, the dampness on my pant leg now making me feel very awkward.  I wanted to run, I didn’t want to be there–

–But I couldn’t stomach the idea of leaving Argos.

I took up a rock from the ground, one edge of it round and covered in dry moss, the other side clean and sharp like it had been broken off a larger rock.  With a scream I entered the fray, the rock held in both hands, sharp side pointed away from myself as I bludgeoned the first monster I saw.

I noted a weakness in my limbs that I was not accustomed to.  I had to strain to swing the rock.  But the blows struck true, cutting one beast in his eyes, another his teeth smashed, another his shoulder cut.  But the leader was clearly of a higher mind, for as soon as he was free of Argos, he came at me, his wicked mouth parting to snap over my hand.  I screamed as the monster’s fangs sank into my wrist, slicing through flesh and veins where it pressed intimate with my bones.  He wouldn’t let go.  I dropped the rock in my struggles.

Argos, turning, saw the situation and leaped onto the monster’s back, his jaws clamping over the creature’s neck.  He pinned the thing down, and this took me down with it for it still wouldn’t let go, and he placed a paw on the dog’s head and pulled–like he were trying to rip out his spine.  But the demonic beasts seemed of sturdier make than we gave them credit for, because the damned thing still would not let go of me.

I sobbed and yelled as the other dogs set on Argos and myself.  Fangs and claws dragged across our backs and limbs.  One dog kept trying to clamp his jaws around my neck, much like Argos was doing, but I fended him off with my free hand as best I could.

Then I heard something spit from the back of the throat, and through the violent cluster of clamored bodies I saw a pair of golden eyes meet mine.

Vermagus.  Thou must sacrifice.

“Wha–” I said, voice but a breath.  The eyes were gone, swallowed by the dark bodies that jockeyed for a piece of myself and Argos.  We would die, torn apart by these things.  Another one had locked onto my left shoulder, worrying me.  I was becoming lost in the pain…I was going to die…the blood was getting everywhere…

Thou must sacrifice.  Thou must pay.  Give them the weight they seek.  It is within thine power to do so.

My eyes fluttered, blood now staining the whole of me. My tunic was ripped to shreds.  Argos was suffering an equally brutal fate, his yelps piercing my mind.

Lethia will be so sad to know he’s gone.  I couldn’t save him.”  I was on the ground, trampled upon, blood now in my eyes and coming up from my throat in weakly ejected bile.  My neck was so tight from the agony and horror.  “Elmiryn will be…”  My eyes widened, and I gurgled.  “Elmiryn!

Thou must sacrifice.  Miss nothing of your weight.  They are but chains.  Undo these, and thou art free.

I closed my eyes.  Understanding filled me, but could I do it?

Shifting hurt. It always hurt. Payment to the One for use of her gifts.  Healing was much the same.  A change in the body, radical and fast by the standards of other sentient species. It led me to wonder…was my ability really inherent and unavoidable? Or just a privilege? If the latter was the case, could I renounce what I had? Would that make life easier?

…And could I reverse healing, as I could reverse the manner of my form?

Time to find out.

Baring stained teeth, I thought of my shoulder rotting at the cuff.  I thought of my wrist vanishing, the tissue receding like acid had eaten it away.  I rejected this flesh.  Willed my spirit to sever these.

The pain doubled, turned white and beyond measure.  I was aware that I was screaming again–long and wet squelching noises that rose above the monstrous noises of the dogs.  I felt my left arm fall away.  Then my right hand.

Through blurred vision, I saw the dogs take to these, fighting, delighted at their prize.  Normal predators wouldn’t have ceased their onslaught until their quarry was dead.  But these were spiritual monstrosities, and they seemed quite satisfied to have those pieces of me.  It likely satisfied some terrible spiritual ban.

They dashed away, yipping and fighting amongst one another.  The leader managed to get ahold of the hand while another the arm and they ran off into the woods, the others giving chase.

My breath was choked and uneven, blood and vomit in my throat making me cough as I saw the dogs make off with my body parts.  It was sickening and horrific and I wanted the sight gone, so I closed my eyes.  Argos whined next to me, his body shifting a little on the ground but he seemed equally hurt.

I felt something flicker across my cheek.  My eyes creaked open again.  The demonic beasts were gone.  Now a fiery lizard sat inches from my face. It had blotched skin that alternated between black, brown, and orange.  Its dark tongue flickered as his head twisted to the side so that his golden gaze could fix on me dead on.

When it opened its mouth, it spoke–impossibly, incredibly, it spoke,  “Night Child, Lost Daughter, Thee Lover of Ghosts, thou hast earned sanctuary for thyself and thine companion.  Rest now.

I could hardly argue.

My eyes fell shut once more and they didn’t open again for what felt like a long time.

ELMIRYN________________________

Elmiryn chuckled mutely, her eyes over her shoulder, her previous indignation at the situation sloughing away to reveal amusement.  It wasn’t quite right to say that she now believed the Quincy she knew to be the “Quincy” that was before her.  Blond Quincy was cold and calculating with never a hair out of place.  Her mind was hard to rattle, but all the more satisfying when it was.  This Quincy however…she was different.  It was degrees of separation but Elmiryn could see these like a keen observer noting the zipper on a good costume.  This Quincy was not as in control, not as mindful, and certainly not as graceful.  Elmiryn’s frustration seemed to have some root.

The Quincy in her memories looked one way, and therefor behaved one way.  This person, this “Quincy”, looked different, and behaved different.

But once she was able to afford the brunette the name “Quincy” to begin with, Elmiryn was growing to like her for what she was.  It was like getting a wrapped present or a new sparring partner.  Mysteries were begging to be revealed.  Not that she knew much of the wizard in her previous state, but still–it was interesting to her.

Who was this person…really?

The wizard’s eyes narrowed to slits. “Stop leering at me, Fiamman.  Now.”

Elmiryn faced forward again, but her smirk remained.

They had moved away from the wilderness and were now slipping through the streets of Gamath.  Here, the streets were empty, save for the occasional phantom drifting here or there.  These were faint beings of smoke resembling ordinary people.

“These must be sensitives–humans who can sense spirits and lingering emotional energy,” Quincy said quietly.  “They have the potential to become enchanters, but likely will never know of their power, or never seek to develop this.  Some see it as a curse.  Odd.  Gamath has a great number of these here.”

Sedwick replied, “It was after Gamath was restored.  Some of the first here were affected by the lingering spiritual energy brought on by the death and taint.  Most of that is gone now, but the effect carries on.  Things didn’t start picking up until we found the tree–”

Elmiryn sat up straight, her eyes turning sharp.  She grabbed Sedwick by the shoulder, forcing him to turn around.  “What tree?

Nadī turned her head some.  “Sedwick.

Sedwick’s pale eyes gazed at her, his brows bunched up so that they wrinkled his foreahed.  “Ah sorry…we wanted to tell you when you could speak again.  You see, to the south, we found a tree laced with foreign magic.  Much of the spell, whatever it was, had weakened and turned inactive, but it wasn’t until we ripped it out by the roots that the land returned to full health.”

The warrior sat back, her eyes falling to her lap.  “Meznik…” she thought, her face turning dark.

They left the city and entered the southern plains.

After a time of traveling, Nadī pointed.  “There!

At a lone elm sapling, Elmiryn saw the twig creature hopping up and down as it tried to grab at a low branch.  She didn’t even wait for the water craft to stop.  She jumped off, landing on all fours, her eyes flashing as she stalked toward the odd being.

The spirit sensed her approach, its grotesque eyes swiveling one at a time to stare at her before it shrieked and started to run away.

Elmiryn pushed to give chase.  “Hey–!” she tried to shout.

A tendril of water lashed out and caught her by the ankle, tripping her.  The woman fell onto the grass hard.

Nadī came up at her side, her left arm rippling as she retracted the water whip back to form her hand again.  “That is not how we handle things here, Elmiryn.  You should know better.

The warrior grunted as she raised herself up.  She coughed, rubbing her chest.  “Point taken!”

Nadī pointed at the twig creature, who stopped to watch the exchange at a safe distance.  “Spirit!  Hear me!  I lord these lands.  I call on thee to resolve this altercation.  Thou hast dishonored this heroine of Gamath, the very land you pass through.  Your trade was unjust.  I would ask that you return her voice and take a more reasonable payment.

“That is quite unfair!” The twig creature squealed…in Elmiryn’s voice.  It stomped a foot.  “The transaction was made elsewhere, away from Gamath.  Thou cannot compell me!”

I can and I shall, impudent thing!” Nadī boomed, her pretty face turning a darker shade of blue.  “I compell thee.  Thou must return this woman’s voice or face my wrath!

Elmiryn froze, her eyes rolling up to gaze at Nadī warily.  When she said ‘compell’ she thought she heard a hum, a buzz, or some muted static–like something were being activated.  Was there magic in these words?

The twig creature screamed and fell to its thin knees, its body creaking and groaning.  “Ahh!  Okay, okay!  My apologies, fair guardian, I have been compelled!  I would return this voice–” here it panted, its disgusting eyes knocking together as its stick fingers dug into the ground.  “But first I would be promised my new prize!  What would the heroine trade anew?”

Here Nadī looked at her as Sedwick and Quincy joined them.  “Well?” the river guardian asked.  “What would you give, Elmiryn?

The warrior blinked.  She raised herself up so that she was on her knees.  “What do you mean?”

Something.  You must give it something.

“What about her ability to turn to the left?” Sedwick offered with shrug.

Nadī shook her head, scowling.  “No! Heavens no, that’s almost worse than losing her voice.

“Her ability to hit C notes when singing?”

No, that’s not enough…what about her next dream?

Elmiryn made a negative slash with her hand.  “Who on Halward’s Plane would give up something like that!?”

Nadī shrugged.  “It could be a bad dream.  You never know…

“Hmmm,” Quincy said with a nod.  Her lips had a suspicious quirk to them.  “Why not give the Fiamman’s brutishness?”

Elmiryn flipped her off with a caustic smile.

But Nadī rubbed her chin in thought.  “Mmm.” After a moment she said, “No.  That’s too little. We must be fair.”  Then her face brightened and she looked at the twig creature.  “What about the heroine’s ability to wink?

The spirit jumped to its feet dancing.  “Yes, yes!” it giggled in Elmiryn’s voice.

Elmiryn stood to her feet waving her arms, her face drawn hard in incredulity.  “WOAH!  Hey, wait a minute!” She pointed at herself and mouthed at Nadī, “I wink!  I’m a winker!” She pointed at the creature.  “Furthermore what’s that little shit going to do with something like that, hmm!?  He has no eyelids!!

“Her wink!  I want her wink!”  The creature said, coming forward.

Nadī gestured between the spirit and Elmiryn.  “This is the prize he’d like.  I think it’s a fair one.

Elmiryn shook her head and crossed her arms.  She pouted again.

Quincy let out a hiss of breath as she reached a hand to rub at her brow.  “Wikan a-lo kuele pon golj mkundu Fiamman…”

“Elmiryn, we haven’t got much time.  It’s just a wink,” Sedwick said, mirroring her stance.  “Lay out your priorities.  Here and now.  Do you want to continue arguing over this until a year passes by?  Because in this realm that could very well happen!  Time is precious commodity.  Don’t squander it over something you don’t find dreadfully important!”

The warrior bowed her head, rubbing the back of her neck.

“What about Nyx?

Elmiryn winced and closed her eyes.  Her shoulders sagged.

“I want to wink!  With both eyes!”  The spirit cried, clapping its twig hands.

The warrior smiled, but it was fairly close to gritted teeth.  “Well I’m sorry to disappoint you, but I can only wink with my right.”  She looked at Nadī.  She held out her hands, silently asking, “How does this work?”

Nadī looked at her amused.  “Will you give this spirit your ability to wink in exchange for him returning your voice?

“Yes,” Elmiryn said, sounding sullen.  Her eyes widened and a hand flew to her throat.  She looked at the others.  “Hey, my voice is–!”

Nadī and Sedwick smiled at her.  “There,” the man said.  “It’s done.”

Before them the twig creature didn’t seem any different.  That was until a flap of flesh appeared out of nowhere to cover the right eye, then it slipped back.

Elmiryn shuddered.  “That’s…not right.”

The twig creature danced away, its body creaking.

Nadī touched Elmiryn’s arm gently, her touch wet and cool.  “Now that you are capable of it, we shall speak.

“Yes.  Thank you for getting my voice back,” Elmiryn said with a nod and a somber frown.  “Because I’ve many questions about this tree you found…”

NYX____________________________

When I awoke again, it was in a cave.  Outside the sky was still light, but there were harsh divides between the shadows and the world outside.  Fire danced across the rock.  Argos was awake and panting next to me, the blood washed from his fur–leaving him looking brighter and cleaner than when I’d met him.  His tongue lolled from his mouth, a great paw resting on my stomach as he lay facing the direction of the back of the cave.  I shifted to look down at myself.  I was similarly cleansed, the blood and grime gone.  The ruined tunic had been discarded, and my bandages appeared as new.

I even had my arm and hand back.

It wasn’t that I was healed that surprised me.  Healing was a natural part of my life, and given the level of danger I usually faced, I was injured often.  I took a grim satisfaction in knowing my tolerance for pain was greater than most.  What did surprise me was the fact that I had been moved at all.  Who had come and found us?

I sat up, slowly, flashes of gore flying past my mind’s eye like bullets.  Tears clouded my vision, and I curled forward, toward my legs, hot tears falling from my eyes.

Argos butted his head against my arm, and I turned and stared at him.

I tried to sniffle back my tears, but in the end I lunged toward the dog, my arms going around his neck as I wailed loudly.  I tried to make the images, the phantom sensation stop.  But the inhuman laughter of those beasts would not leave me, and I shuddered, fearing the day I’d have to see them again–because I was certain I’d see them again.

…Was this my hell?

I was anathema.  Funny how a wild and near-suicidal mission can make one forget the wrongness seeped into one’s life.  Would I become as those monsters, tainting nature, preying on innocents?

“Thou art not in hell, Lost Daughter.”

I twisted and peered from over Argos’ massive shoulder towards the back of the cave.  Seated there, on a low rock beside the fire, was…

My breath caught in my throat, and I raised myself.  “Marquis?” I whispered.

The man bowed his head and shook it.  Marquis was the merchant elf that once visited my village.  I had bought all my books from him.  He’d…died, less than a year ago, when my own cowardice prevented me from helping him against those that would have killed him.  They had wanted me dead as well, but Marq had sacrificed himself, earning my safe escape.  Gratitude came slowly to me, for at the time, I had wished for death and it was Marq who had kept me from it, when grief over the recent loss of my family would have taken me over the edge.

I was lachrymose once more.

Face crumpling I let my chin fall to my chest.  “Spirit, why do you taunt me?  Why…why must you puppet his image before me?  Hasn’t he earned his rest?”

“His debt was great, young one.” The stranger said.  I thought I saw sharp teeth beneath those pale lips.  He raised his head and leveled a stare at me across the fire–his gaze was a golden yellow, the flesh of his eyes a bright crimson.  “To compensate, I now use his form as my avatar.  Makes for more amiable conversation.”  He stood, cotton shirt rustling, his canvas pants smoothing out.  Bare feet wiggled on the stone, toes poking with thick black talons.  “Thou art in a half-world.  A limbo.  A place where the spirits of your world may travel unburdened.  Previously, I was unable to be so forthcoming with you.  But this Place affords me the means to speak, and you the ability to listen.”

I stood, shivering.  I couldn’t decide how to feel.  Terror wasn’t out of place here.  “Wh-What do you want from me?  Why have you followed me all this time?”

The man circled around the fire, his talons clicking on the rock.

I backed up into the partial light.  Up until that moment, Argos had been watchful, but calm.  Now he stood, as he gave the man a small warning growl.  It seemed to ask the silent question, “What are you doing?  And it better not be bad.”

The man stopped, the fire tracing his form, embers on his shoulder like they’d come from his pale hair.  This was not Marquis.  His eyes turned to slits, and when he opened his mouth, a long forked tongue darted out past large triangular teeth, all the same size.  He tilted his head and leaned forward, a breath hissing from the back of his throat.

“Night Child.  Lost Daughter.  Thee Lover of Ghosts.  Hear me.  I am not the Pathfinder.  I am the path; the way; the bridge.  I am not the Weaver.  I am the art; the design; the creation.  I am the dreamwalker and the harmony of Life, the inexorable cycle, the first inhale, and the last exhale.  I am not death, nor birth, nor light, nor dark.  I am the crucible.  I am the Given.  I am the Taken.  I am sacrifice.  I am survival.  I am Lacertli.” Dust fell from the ceiling as all around me shuddered and trembled.  I cried out, ducking.

He went on without a pause.  “Vermagus, I would have thee take up my standard.  Thou must.  For the evils here have hungered for thee since you first stepped into their domain.”

I shook my head, falling to my knees.  My eyes were wide and damp.  “What…are you saying?  What are you saying really?

Lacertli, draped in the skin of a dead man, leaned forward with a homodont smile, making Argos jerk back with ears flattened and teeth bared.  The spirit’s mask turned macabre, sinking in at the cheeks and eyes, the skin turning sallow as he crossed into the partial light, out of the stark shadows.  “Vermagus, the spirits here hurt and ache and seek a way to release themselves from their pain.  They would have thine Words.  Thine Meaning.  Thine Expression.  They wouldst tear the very fabric of your soul to have the power that rests in you.”  His skin started to crack and fall away, like clay, revealing warm scaly skin underneath.  I sobbed and covered my eyes. I couldn’t see Marquis’ crumble away from me again, even if this wasn’t really him.  But I still heard the spirit, even as Argos shielded me with his body.  “I can save you…can make you stronger…if you promise thine power to me.  Arise!”

There was a giant hiss and Argos snarled, though I felt him tremble against me.

Nyx.  Night Child.  Lost Daughter.  Thee Lover of Ghosts!  I, Lacertli, would have none other as my champion!


Back to Chapter 19.1 | Forward to Chapter 19.3

  1. ‘Bleeding Me’ by Metallica, from the album ‘Load’. Elektra, 1996. []

Chapter 19.1

Part 3: Blackwood

“We know this apodictic rock beneath our feet. That dogmatic sun above our heads. The world of dreams, the agony of love and the foresight of death. That is all we know. And all we need to know? Challenge that statement.” — Edward Abbey

ELMIRYN________________________

Her lips were against hers and there was the knowing of warmth, the dulcet rings of a world shattered moving them away, moving them apart, moving them, moving them, moving them

The portal–a tentative word, because Elmiryn would have been just as satisfied to call it a wound in the sky–swallowed them whole, white reaches filling her ears with a static roar as all throughout her came the painful sensation of needles.

That was when it started to become too much.

She unraveled at the seams as breath came cutting and choking on panicked laughter, barring out the haphazard delineations that took her attention off to memories of bloody sunsets and cool nights and flowing drinks that fizzed and tickled her–back to the pins and needles and screaming and howling and rippling in and out of what of what of–what could be conceived as a bad idea as the cannon smoke and wet soil fornicated far up her nostrils where her niggling desire for sex contended with the spiky need to survive–back to the pins and needles and screaming where her grip was weakening, and she was ashamed of it, because she wanted Nyx to be with her and nowhere else nowhere else nowhere–else had she ever seen the glass serpents and snarling behemoths with eyes of light that bared metal teeth at her in rage as they spewed black smoke in a train along the sky–BACK to the pins and needles and screaming where she thought she saw phantoms in mist, phantoms in kind, who fell through space just as uncertain as she was of everything

Except–y’know–the fact that they were FALLING.

There was no wind, and therefor no air to speak of.  They seemed to be hurtling through open white space.  Sometimes the edges of her vision would ripple to different colors, like hundreds of little rainbows.

“Nyx!” Elmiryn screamed, her voice small at first before a sonic slingshot sent the words echoing back in a way that made her feel as if she’d taken a right hook in the ear.  Despite the pain in her limited reaches–her shoulder twinging sharply, her forearm making her scream even more–the warrior fought with all her might to keep the girl in her arms.

Nyx was grabbing onto her in kind, her tawny eyes vibrant discs as her terror weaved into the din of static.  “Elmiryn, hold onto me!”

But inertia was the divergent evil that made their separation ever more certain.  The woman felt her friend slip from her arms, and when she tried to grab on with her hands, the forces spinning them as they fell made her injuries too painful to ignore.  Her hands spasmed, and her fingers clawed desperate as Nyx fell away in a gasp.

NYX!” she screamed, legs kicking back as she tried to move herself forward.  But she couldn’t change the direction of her fall.  She couldn’t even go into a spin.

Elmiryn kept soaring on, alone.  She watched until Nyx and the others turned to dark dots against the glaring background.  Then the white swallowed them.

…Then the white swallowed her.

———————–

She was on and on and on until she forgot to remember to forget that she wasn’t seeing things right.  She was lacking in containment, lacking the corporal chains that so many took for granted.  She was floating, weightless, a consciousness lost in a nothing world with nothing to occupy herself with.  How fitting.  In this void, she didn’t know who she was, what she was doing.  She didn’t know how long she’d been drifting when…

Something familiar nestled in her ear.  It sounded distended, like the thump of a full stomach.  It nettled her.  It was…music.  A song.  A jig, with a fiddle and a panpipe.  Had she sung it before…?

…You…are an idiot.

No, truly.  You are a fool.

huhwhat

I’m insulting you.  Quite spiritedly, in honor of this untimely arrival.

This UNWANTED arrival.

What did you REALLY think you’d achieve, coming here?

what did i want to achieve

good question

What?

good question like as in i liked it

only the problem is

i have no answer other than the one i just gave you right now

to the question you didnt even ask

Elle the Idiot. The Twins were right to call you this.

Elle the Idiot, have you lost your boundaries?

Is this why you are speaking out of bounds?

what

You never cease to amaze me.

If you’re to lack Endings, then atleast give me a Beginning.

Start girl.  Go on.

i have no beginnings

You’re being lazy.  I haven’t got all day.

I get no fulfillment from this and it leaves me feeling cross.

i

Yes?

i i

Go on…

I Think I Remember You

…Close.  That was…close.

Except it wasn’t.  At all.

Don’t Begin at every word, you daft human.  Just the first.

Like this right

Yes.  Like that.

It’s as good as it gets at this point.

The entry left you rather disjointed, didn’t it?

Im pretty sure i remember you

I should hope so.  Because it seemed for a while there, you’d forgotten.

Your romp in Albias left me feeling piqued.

What

Piqued.  As in annoyed, vexed, bothered, upset–

Oh okay

Displeased, indignant, disgruntled–

Okay okay i get it

Pissed, livid, ANGRY.

Am I getting through to you?

Is Elle the Idiot reading this?

Make sure to stop at the periods, dear.

Lest you get LOST again.

Ah wait, you already are.

Half crazy, all wrong, no clue.

You sound like a twit.  A real twit right now.  I hate it.

If you don’t get back into boundaries you will spread apart until you are gone.

Do you understand this much?

You will DIE.

That’s perhaps the closest understanding of it.

And I will…

Well.  Let’s just say, I’ll be stuck without supper.

Why

Because you can’t tell my work apart from another, that’s why.

Clearly, I have to violate the deepest reaches of your mind just to get your feeble intellect to recall me.

Destroying your reputation?

Alienating you from everyone you ever cared for?

Making an elemental spirit poison her own river?

No, not enough for the likes of YOU.

Oh yes, Elle.  I don’t mind, I have NO problems when you go chasing off in the wrong direction.

I’ll just adlib, alone on stage, whilst you go gallivanting off to steal someone else’s spotlight…

AGAIN.

I remember you

I remember

I

Rage brought about a fire that shuddered and startled things she had become unaware of.  She felt veins.  Muscles.  The woman–for she was a woman, a human, ALIVE–tried to draw herself together.  She forced boundaries back into place, pulling at them, wrenching them up from nothing.  She still lacked the penultimate markings, the divisors between the background and herself, but what she had was enough.

I remember you!

Meznik!

She wants to say all the usual things:  I hate you, I’m going to kill you.  The feelings are acid, and they don’t feel pleasant or arousing in the usual manner that such things tease and encourage her desire for intimacy.  All she wants is release.  Catharsis.  She wants the anger purged from her, because it is painful the way it swings on her heart and claws under her skin.  But she stops long enough to mull over something.

…You weren’t behind the taint in Albias?

NO.  I wasn’t.  Of course not.

How could you confuse me with something so plebeian?

It makes me ill.

If it wasn’t you then…

Elle the Idiot still hasn’t gathered that I’m not the only one?

Shit…you mean…?

NOW, she gets it…

Feh.  You know what?

It doesn’t matter.

Either way, your still getting intimate with my sword–

…As soon as I figure out how to stab you…

I’m afraid your homicidal wishes will have to wait.

You see, we are now both trespassers.

I am at risk…and so are you.

But more importantly I am at risk.

What the fuck are you going on about?

You are a part of a greater scheme, my precious little fool.

You are mine.

Up until now, we have weaved our own tale.

Yet somehow, you’ve managed to invade someone else’s territory.

You’ve moved out of bounds in more ways than one.

We are now in the court of another player, and if we do not remove ourselves soon, this player will seek to destroy us.

Irregardless of my artistic superiority, my power is HALVED here.

This is not my stage.

Should vengeance come, I cannot stop it.

Fuck you.

I won’t listen.

Your games are your own.

I have my own way, and it cuts right through you–

To what?

Don’t wave that hero archetype in my face, it doesn’t suit you.

I’ve taken away your castles, I’ve taken away your princess, and I’ve taken away your war.

Don’t delude yourself from the truth.

You are a demon’s toy now.

You are MY toy.

All around her was white.  She sees flashes of her ghostly limbs–sometimes just the veins, sometimes just the muscles, sometimes just the bones–but she knows herself to be an entity apart from the nothingness around her.  All she needed was to block out the music, block out the wordless dialogue that trickled in with the notes.  She needed to focus on returning to something fully corporal.  Or something close to it.

Elmiryn, are you listening to me?

The woman grunted, holding up phantom hands, straining the core of herself to solidify, even as she felt the painful needle sensation returning to her.  She tried to see it as a good thing.  If she hurt, then she could feel.  If she could feel, then she was real…and then she could–

–Find Nyx.

I need to find her.

Her mind flickers to vague images, details lost in fuzz and smear.  She knows them in a sense, only because Nyx’s voice is associated with them in some way–calling to them, conversing with them.

The others…

No she comes first…Nyx comes first.

I have to find Nyx.

She feels the angry tension bleed away, to be replaced with a growing anxiety, a growing need to be reunited with her special friend–the girl with the tawny eyes who made her care.  Who made her want.  Who made her…

Nyx?  The Marked Ailuran?

Your poorly spun thread?

Did Elle the Idiot understand when I said we are trespassers?

Did she understand me when I said we are at risk and must leave NOW?

I’m not leaving without her.

And definitely not without killing you.

I’d kill you right now if I could.

You are so dogged.  It’s charming in a way.

That doesn’t make this any less idiotic.

It’s idiotic to want you dead?

No, it’s idiotic to carry on like this when we should be fleeing.

Speaking of all talk and no action, have you come up with an adequate reason for hating me?

You mean besides all the stuff you said before?

Cursing me, destroying my reputation, alienating me from everything, generally being an ass for no reason?

Yes.  Though I protest to the phrasing of that last point–

You’re a fucking ego-maniac and you talk too gods damned much.

How’s THAT?

Then Elmiryn was back–full and whole with blood and organs and weight and color and vulgarity and determination.

…And then she was falling again, too.

Fucking–Gods–Bitch–Cunt–Damn it–SHIT–

NOT AGAIN!

Well, as they say…

An object in motion tends to stay in motion.

You’re solid again, so it’d make sense that you’d just resume your free fall from before, yes?

No.  No it doesn’t fucking make any sense.  I wasn’t falling just a second ago!

And a tricky thing, that Time–especially here.

Why is it that it sounds like you’re right next to me?

Are you falling too?

Of course not.  I–

Hmm.

What?

As you’re being so stubborn, I see no other use in it.

I’m getting a little tired of asking you to explain yourself.

What I’m getting at is…

Your my investment.

My toy–

Stop calling me that!

–I don’t want my toy to break.

She fell and fell.  Elmiryn would  have been afraid of hitting something if only she saw something to hit.  There was no up, no down.  For all she knew, she was flying parallel with the ground.

There was a whistle, like steam escaping a tea-kettle.  The music wrinkled and became lighter.  Less ominous.

Here, give me a moment.  I’ve decided.

The fiddle’s cry and the panpipe’s toot faded to nothing.

…Meznik?

The music fades back in, surrounding her.

Here, open your mouth.

Why?

As she said the word, something large and invisible plopped into her mouth.  It was thick and cold, sticking to her teeth as it gummed along the inside flesh of her cheeks and to the farthest reaches of her tongue.  It tasted harsh and bitter, like when one bit into a grape stem.  She gagged and tried to spit it out–and she managed to rid herself of some of it–but most of the mess slipped further down to the back of her throat, and as it did, it picked up speed, like a marathoner sprinting to the finish.  The slime, the goo, whatever it really was, seemed to have a mind of its own–even after reaching her stomach it kept moving.

It was pressing against the edges of her stomach, seeping through tissue, entering her system, making her blood thick.  The woman screamed, her nerves now stabbing sharply at this invasion from within.  The broken bones of her forearm, the swollen muscle of her shoulder–they shuddered, they swelled, they shifted

The static din vanished along with the horrible pins and needles.  They were replaced with a howling wind.

Her clothes rustled and her hair flew forward.  Elmiryn’s limbs, by gentle suggestion of the air she fell through, drifted upward.  She gasped, her cerulean eyes turning to circles as she realized she was staring at the sky, leaving her to be falling toward–

The warrior slammed into the ground with a muted boom.

Dust and dirt and debris flew into the air before it settled down, slower than when it first rose.  As the soil and rocks and grass fell over her in a thin layer, Elmiryn gulped in air through her mouth.  She felt starved of it–and it was technically true.  Though it hadn’t killed her, she’d just been falling through airless space for what felt like ages.  Her heart was beating fast, making a percussion instrument out of her ribcage.  Around her, she heard the wind gust over the lips of the crater she’d created.  It sounded surprised and grief-stricken.

Elmiryn let loose a weak cough.  Her eyes fluttering.

“I felt…like I just walked backwards into a wall–not like I just fell towards solid ground at top speed,” she thought.  “And I’m not hallucinating.”  Then her eyebrows rose and she glanced sideways.  “Oh, hey, those dashy boundaries are back.  Now I don’t have to fight to sound apart from the background anymore.  That was getting tiring.”

The woman breathed slowly through her nose, then out through her mouth.

“Breathe in, then out.  In, out…” she closed her eyes for a moment before opening them again, her brows furrowing.  Her heartbeat slowed and it no longer fought against the confines of her chest.  “Alright, now slowly…” The woman shifted her elbows, digging them into the dirt.  She pushed herself upright.  “No pain.”  Elmiryn blinked at her arms.  Planting her hands into the wet soil, she pushed herself up onto her feet.

Blinking dust out of her eyes, Elmiryn slowly drank in her new surroundings.

She was in a forest.  All around her were trees of different types.  Oaks, birches, poplars, pines, buckeyes, maples…the interesting thing was that there were no ferns, no bushes, no grass, no great stones, no flowers, or even fallen leaves.  The forest floor was clear save for the occasional tangle of bare roots.  The grass here was a curiously dark shade, an emerald just skimming black–the blades so shiny as to appear waxy.  The sky bestowed partial light, though she doubted the suns were present in this place.  Sometimes she saw gray shapes flash through the white overhead–but she could hardly make sense of the images.  They were too brief and disparate.

Elmiryn looked down at herself.

Either through luck or sheer tenacity, the woman had managed to keep hold of her sword and dagger.  Her quilted doublet was torn and dirty–the fabric crusted with daesce blood and puss.  What once was caramel now was a warm dark mustard, with blotches of dark gray where the monster taint swallowed the fabric so as to appear as scabbed wounds.  She was missing chunks of the doublet from when Nyx had used some of it for first aid purposes.  Her leather pants were cracked and worn out at the knees, and her shoes were scuffed and creased severely near the tips.

The woman grimaced and pulled her top off with a grunt.  She was left bare safe for the wrappings around her breasts.  Even then, her skin was caked with grime and dirt.  Dropping the forsaken clothing to the ground, the woman frowned at her hands, then her arms.

“Meznik…” she breathed.  “What did you give me?”

No answer.  The demon and his music were gone.  Her jaw clenched and she stared as her hands curled to fists.  Her injuries seemed to have all but vanished…yet it left her feeling wrong.  Not violated so much, she decided, as…trespassed.  Disrespected.  The woman spat on the ground and bared her teeth.  Tears came unbidden.  Meznik’s sudden departure was like a prized kill that had slipped away–though she didn’t understand it.  Her chest and abdomen clenched tight, her shoulders knotted.  She hadn’t been able to kill him, what reason would she want him around?

Keep your friends close…and so on.

The woman quickly wiped her vision clear.  What a stupid thing to get upset over.

A sound, something sharp and filled with fury, screamed across the sky.  Elmiryn’s head snapped up to it, but when she scanned above her, she saw nothing but more of the white void she was becoming so familiar with.

Elmiryn took one step, then another.  The ground beneath her seemed to buoy her forward, encouraging her movement.  The woman blinked and crouched to glare at the grass.  They brushed intimately with her boots, running over the edges of her foot and flicking the laces.

Slowly, she grinned.  “Hey now, don’t think I don’t see you down there! Unlike you, I’ve got eyes.” The grass shuddered and leaned away from her boots.  Her grin widened.  “Who on Halward’s Plane would ever dream of perverse plants!  Keep off the grass?” The woman dug her foot into the ground, to happy squeals.  “What happens if the grass doesn’t keep off you?”  She waved.  “Bye lil’ buggers.  Maybe we can have fun later?” The woman winked and walked to where the grass stopped abruptly at the forest line.

Then Elmiryn thought about it for a moment and slowed to a stop.  She rubbed her neck.  “Wait, did I just flirt with grass?”  The woman snickered.  “Gods, I did!”  She resumed her trek through the forest, her boisterous laughter gripping her.  Here, the light was dim and it was hard to make out the roots.  She stumbled in the carelessness of her amusement, roots and uneven terrain snagging her boots and the swing of her legs.  The woman wiped a tear from her eye and straightened.

Up ahead there was a break in the trees.

Elmiryn picked up her pace, her humor dead on the chance that she’d be afforded some insight on her situation.  She reached the break at a jog, light hitting her from all sides.  She was blinded but saw just enough to know that the ground dropped to a sudden cliff just feet away.  The warrior stumbled to a stop, arms raising to cover her face.  When her eyes had adjusted to the light, the woman swallowed and let her arms drop.

Before her was nothing and everything, her foot along the edge of a great and expansive reach of stars and darkness and lights and warmth where dreams did flicker like candles in the wind and worlds not her own buzzed in and out of the window that was her eye.

And Elmiryn knew at once, without knowing how or why she knew, that she was at a window.  A fantastic view that zoomed and froze and burned and darkened.  It could go on and on, and the woman could hardly hope to explain it any better save for to make it far too simple than it truly was.

“It’s a window, and there’s paintings, and colors, and places, and lives seen all at once.”

And that was all there was to it, as far as she could say.

“Yeah, and that’s all there is to it.”

Elmiryn rubbed her chin, her skin flushed and vibrant with the brilliant display of the window.  “I wonder if I can control this?”

There was a snap of a twig.

The warrior jumped back and turned, her hand going to her sword.

A being, no taller than four feet stood near her.  It’s body was of entirely comprised of twigs–not a bundle of them, but long thin lines that bowed and creaked and splintered as it moved to pluck a caterpillar of its leg.  It had one twig for each arm, its torso, shoulders, feet…  Elmiryn had to crouch and squint, to see it straight on as the dark of the forest made the thin creature hard to make out.

That was, it’s body was hard to make out.  Not its eyes, which were stabbed onto two little nubs where the eye stalks dangled and bled.  One eye turned her way.  Than the other.  Both were crooked.

It creaked, like a laden tree branch before giving a slight flourish and a bow.

Elmiryn frowned at it.  Then slowly returned the gesture.

The stick creature, with its little legs and little arms swinging, moved toward the window as though ready to walk through it.

The redhead called to it.  “Um, s’cuse me!”

The creature paused, grotesque gaze turning her way again.  It grumbled, as though mildly vexed at this interruption.

Elmiryn rubbed the back of her neck.  “Ah, sorry.  But I have no idea how to work this window.  Any tips?”

The creature sighed (though she wondered how) and pointed toward it.  It creaked, the sound feeling assertive.

“I’m supposed to…go in?  It’s not a window, then?  It’s a door?”

This was answered with a negative slash of a hand.

“No?”

The creature beckoned for her to follow.  Elmiryn frowned and covered her mouth as she debated this.  Could she trust…whatever this fucking thing was?  And didn’t these things usually ask for favors in return?

But the stick being was already moving toward the window/door/thing and the woman found her only real hope of moving forward relatively unscathed hinged on this frail looking guide.

With a backward glance over her shoulder, the warrior followed it into the mist.

.

..

….

…..

She was moving slow, her eyes casting about her as she caught glimpses of otherworldly things.  Some were beautiful, and some were–

bloodencryptedsecretsofdarkness
withthousandsofrazorsharpteeth
thatpromisedtorapeherafterthe
starsandtheplanetsandtheworlds
inbetweenweredevouredandreduced
tosmokeandsulliedfantasies
justbepatientjustbepatientjustbepatient

She’s pulled free just in time before…there wasn’t really a word for it.  She was just glad she was saved.

The twig creature scolds her, a thin finger wagging as it tells her of the dangers of not moving quickly enough whilst in Travel.  She understands it because while it isn’t the thin near-nothingness she had experienced before, it is still thinner than what she’d just come from.  Meaning was garnered easier without the veils that otherwise forced her mind into ignorance.  They march at a brisk pace toward a glow on the horizon.

They reach it.

It’s a crossroads, and there’s five paths to choose from.  A sign points down the different ways.  The creature said she must start at the last before reaching the first, where her true desire could be found.  It pointed toward what she’d decided was the south-westerly direction.  As the creature kept putting it, this was the Fifth Path.  Then it held out a twigged hand dripping eyes knocking together.

Now I’ll have my compensation, the thing cooed.

…..

….

..

.

Someone rapped on her forehead.

“Elmiryn.”

A deep voice.  Raspy.  Familiar.

The woman frowned and turned her head.

Someone took her by the shoulders and shook her.  “Elmiryn, wake up please.”

She had just had the thought that the voice should not be requesting such things of her as, since she was not asleep.  But this argument died when she noted the fact that she was in fact, lying recumbent, with eyes closed.

Her eyes batted open fully to fix on the face before her.  A pair of pale white eyes fixed onto hers, shining from a wide smooth face.  A slow smile spread her lips.  “…Sedwick?  Hey, is that you?”

Atleast, that’s what she should’ve said.

Except that her voice was gone.

The warrior’s smile died and she shot upright, a hand going to her throat.  “Fuck!” she mouthed, her cerulean eyes snapping wide.

“…Elmiryn what’re you doing here?”  the man asked elbows on his knees as he squatted naked near her.  Apparently, becoming part elemental meant you didn’t give two shits about clothes anymore.

The woman pointed at her throat and opened her mouth with a shrug.

“No, I know about that.  You should be more careful who you ask favors of here.  Some spirits like to use this Place as a way to shorten their travels and not all of them are fair in their demands for compensation.” The man turned his head and sneezed, his form going watery for a moment before he looked back at the woman, his white eyes narrowing. “Do you know where you are?  You’ve come back to Gamath.  Where’s Nyx?  What happened to Reg’Amen?  And why am I speaking to you–” the woman’s look shriveled, and the man hastily corrected himself, “I mean, why are you in this realm?”

The woman blinked.  Then her eyes widened.  She twisted her head around, staring.  They were out in a meadow, sparse trees sprinkled over the hillsides to the west.  She held up her hands, face screwing up as she mouthed, “Well this is just great.  NOW what in the nine hells am I supposed to do?”

“So you don’t know?  About this place?”

Elmiryn shook her head.

Sedwick sighed and held out a hand for her.  Her eyebrow rose as she took it, and the man helped her up.  She couldn’t help it.  Her eyes as she came up (she was passing it after all) fixed on his waist.  She snickered.

He ‘harumphed’ and glared at her.  “Apparently losing your voice hasn’t done anything to make you less of a brute.”  His hands clenched and unclenched as he glanced down at himself, then back up.  She thought his pale cheeks had tinged pink a little, but she couldn’t be sure.  “And for your information, the cold water still has an affect on size.”

Elmiryn raised a hand to her face and flicked her tongue over the stretch of flesh between her middle and ring finger.  Then she pointed at herself, and next at the man’s…length.  She shrugged as if she didn’t know what it was for.  “I don’t care either way, so don’t feel too bad,” she wished she could say.

…But Elmiryn admitted this miming thing was getting to be fun.

Sedwick’s face hardened and he gestured for her to follow him.  “Enough.  You’re in a parallel realm.  A go-between for spirits.  Theoretically, you aren’t in your world anymore, but you aren’t far from it either.”

Elmiryn nodded, her memories returning to her in a rush of whispered voices.  Inwardly she thought,  “Ohh…yeah.  The Other Place.  Syria opened a portal to it.  I’ve peeked into this place before.  So this is what it’s like to be all the way in.” Her eyes turned to stare around her with wonder.  Their surroundings seemed normal enough–things seemed a few shades darker here, and it lacked the usual presence of wildlife–the chirping birds, the dashing squirrels, the shy rabbits, the padding coyotes.  And of course, there was also the unnatural sky and the fuzzy mist that occupied the space the ocean was supposed to.

As they walked, Elmiryn tugged at Sedwick’s elbow and pointed.  The man followed her finger and gave a nod.  “Ah.  Yeah, the Hellas Ocean isn’t a part of this particular shard.”

Elmiryn wrinkled her nose.  Shard?

At her questioning look, he explained.  “This realm, as I said, is just a go-between.  It isn’t a complete universe, just particles and pieces of nearby universes.  Locations pulsing with strong enough energies tend to imprint a ghostly image here.  This image, though a copy, takes on a life of its own.  Perhaps someday, it will truly become a parallel universe…but for now, it’s just a gate.  Here, the Medwin is still present, but not in the way you think.  The essence of the river is here, and it covers this whole region, up until Tiesmire.  That place is spiritually dead, so you won’t be able to get there from this realm.  Are you trying to get somewhere?”

Elmiryn mimed a hissing cat, managing to create the sound with a sharp exhale from the back of her throat.  She held up her hands, tensed like claws.

Sedwick didn’t need much more than that.  “Nyx is here too, then?  What in the nine hells did you two get into?”  He shook his head, “No, no…nevermind.  I don’t want to know.  I’ve spent the last four months helping Nadī clean up this region.  You wouldn’t believe how many angry nature spirits there were–”

Elmiryn frowned, her hand darting to grab the man by the shoulder.  He stared at her with his pale eyes as she fixed him with a look.  “What?  What is it?”

“How much time has passed?” the woman mouthed, making a circle in the air going clockwise.

Sedwick blinked, then he chuckled, a hand reaching up to sweep over his bald head.  “Oh, I’m sorry.  Yes, this realm has a tendency to compress things.  That’s why so many spirits use it for travel.  Not only do they cross greater distances, they pass through time faster as well.  Nadī can explain it to the both of you in a bit.  I was just on my way back to get the other one.”  The man resumed walking and Elmiryn followed him, eyes fluttering.

“Who’s Nadi?” She thought.  “And what ‘other one’ is he–”

They started up a hillock, the tall grass swaying with the wind.  As they crested the slope, Elmiryn saw a familiar cloaked figure sitting on a rock, a rusty sword in their hands.  They were muttering under their breath.

Sedwick started to speak, though Elmiryn tried to say the same name.

“Quincy–”

The wizard gave a start, surprised out of whatever trance or reverie she had been swept up in, and she rose to her feet with a pop.  But her foot stepped on the hem of her cloak and she cried out as she stumbled toward Elmiryn and Sedwick with surprising speed.

The warrior stepped aside, as did the man.  Quincy didn’t right herself as Elmiryn expected.  Instead, inertia carried her right over the slope, where she fell head over heels until she skidded to the bottom.  It looked painful.  Sedwick rubbed the side of his face, where his scar had once been.  “Oh…I…sorry, I thought you’d catch yourself,” he said apologetically.

Elmiryn, even if she’d had her voice, wouldn’t have said a word.  She was too stunned.

Quincy straightened, her azure eyes fixing onto the warrior amidst a burning face.  Her hair was no longer blond.  It was now a russet brown, and the unnatural glow that surrounded her was also gone.  The wizard’s pretty bow lips curved together tightly, and she flipped up her hood with a snap, leaving only her mouth visible.  She reached down and picked the rusty sword off the ground.

“Tai’undu!  Of all the people to meet…” she muttered.

Elmiryn pouted and crossed her arms.  She wanted to shout indignantly at the wizard…

You mean you’re NOT blond!?”


Back to In Good Company | Forward to Chapter 19.2

In Good Company

????__________________________

He was the only one with a collar.  It had a silver plate on it where a name was stamped–“Five”–and the body of the collar was made of genuine dragon hide leather.  The satyr had said it was a gift in confidence from his client.  The puppy didn’t understand the implication of it, naturally.  Just that the others didn’t have a collar and he did and that was that.  He DID note that he had grown bigger than all of his siblings, and he took advantage of this when he could.  It was nice being big.

The puppy at the bottom of the dog pile felt his brothers and sisters roll and nip at him and he nipped back, a tumble of comforting smells and warmth found amidst the cold of the cellar.  He was with his mother and his siblings and it didn’t matter that bars fell over them in shadows.  Such things were beyond his animal mind, his young and spirited attention.  It was play-time.  Then it would be nap-time.  Then it would feeding-time, then play-time, then nap-time.  Such was Life.

His mother was a beautiful dog with long shimmering white hair and a large brown wet nose speckled pink around the edges.  She was grooming one of his siblings, trapping the puppy beneath her wide paw as her purple tongue swept over short fur.  A lantern next to the cage was all the light they had.  The cage was in a cramped room of damp stone.  It smelled of alcohol and spice and old wood.  A rat squeaked from the corner and he forgot his game long enough to canter to the bars and woof at it.  Across from the cage was a staircase leading Up.

The door at the top of the stairs opened, showering the light from the UpWorld.  The old satyr’s silhouette was there, as always.

“Mmm…Number 5?  Come on now, Number 5,” his old voice croaked, the sound like crickets under water.  The man hobbled down the stairs, nearly taking a full minute.  The stub and clack of his cane and his hooves made the puppies and their mother stop and sit up.  The man was a graying satyr with short horns and large round glasses.  Behind him flicked a short brown tail.  He wriggled his nose as he appraised the cage full of dogs.  “Dotti, old man Polichus needs Number 5 now.  You be good, you be a very good girl.”

Dotti, the puppy’s mother, growled at the satyr.  The young dog didn’t understand everything the man was saying, but he knew that he was ‘Number 5’.  He also knew that when his mother growled that way, it meant get behind her.  So he did, his rump against the bars in the back of the cage.

Polichus sighed, his olive colored eyes glowering from baggy, moled lids.

“Dotti…” the man’s voice was low.  Tired.

Then in a flash, he jabbed at the mother with his cane through the bars, knocking her hard against the cage.  Dotti snarled and cried out, scattering her pups as they tried to avoid being crushed be her.  Then the mother fell silent and still, her body slumping.  Polichus sniffed delicately and jerked his cane back.  From the blunt tip, a long needle dripped.  There was a click and it shot back, out of sight.

Polichus pulled a key from his vest’s pocket and unlocked the cage door.  “Stupid bitch.  It’s the same thing every week.  She fights, then I knock her out.  Aren’t these things capable of pattern recognition?”  He opened the door with a squeak and poked his head in, one finger shoving his glasses up his nose.  “Oh well.  C’mon Number 5.  You’ll be capable of it soon enough.”

The puppy growled and barked at the satyr, dodging.  His brothers and sisters were hyper with anxiety.  They yipped and tried to lick and nip the satyrs hand.  The man shooed them away.  “No, no, not you!  Number 5!”  He plucked him up with his gnarled hand and pulled back quickly, locking the cage door.  “There, finally!”

Polichus raised the little dog to his face and glowered.  “Troublesome!  That’s what this is!  The moment you’re old enough, Dotti goes!  Hmm?  You must be good for the old man when she does, my little Number 5.”  The dog bared his teeth, but the man just rapped his nose, making him squeak. “None of that!”

Then they were going Up, and the young dog fell quiet, his tail between his legs and his body shivering.  He didn’t like going Up.  He didn’t like it at all.

LETHIA_________________________

Her quill froze over the paper, and the nine-year-old stared forward, her green eyes blinking.  “Ummm…”

Below her paper was a bit of parchment where a question had been written in beautiful calligraphy. “Name three reasons a subject has nightmares.”

Lethia Artaud bit her lip and swung her feet under the table.  “Um, um, um…”  Her brow wrinkled and she sat back in her chair.  She squeezed her eyes shut and made the sound again, louder, as though this could bring the answer to her.  “Ummm–!!

“My sweet girl, you’re making quite a bit of noise for someone who should be studying!”

The girl’s eyes flew open and she slouched in her seat.  Outside her bedroom door stood Syria, her mistress, her pretty face free of the usual make-up and her hair pulled up into a messy bun.  She had a broom in her hands and small spectacles on the end of her nose.  She tucked one strand behind her ears before placing a hand on her hip.  “Well?” she said, her eyebrow raised in criticism.

Lethia blushed and looked back at her paper.  “I’m sorry mistress!”

Syria came to stand next to her, one hand resting on the back of the girl’s chair.  “What are you stuck on?”

“I just started on nightmares.”

“Mmm…” the woman leaned down, her eyes narrowing as she read through the narrow scope of her glasses.  “We went over this last night.”

Lethia’s blush turned worse and she fixed her eyes on the edge of the table.  “I know…” she mumbled.

Syria smiled gently and stroked the girl’s wheat blonde hair. “Don’t worry, dear.  Just look at your notes.  Where are they?”

The girl frowned as she tried to recall.  Her feet swung back and forth a few more times.  Then her eyes brightened.  “On the new scroll you gave me!”

“Which is most likely to be…?”

“On the shelf!” Lethia said, a proud smile spreading across her face for remembering.

Syria nodded and patted her head.  “There you are.”  She turned and walked toward the door.  “I’ll be cleaning in the kitchen if you need my help.  Try and do your best!”

“Yes, mistress!” Lethia cried as she slipped from her chair to receive the scroll from its mentioned place.  The scroll was a small one, but with four ornate handles made of polished cherry wood, with large discs that was a mix of both copper and wood.  Stamped into the copper, the words “Nightmares, Dreams, and Imaginings,” could be seen.  The girl pulled this from the shelf and rolled the parchment open, rolling the other end so as to take up the slack.  The parchment was mostly bare as Syria hadn’t finished her lectures.  But when she was done, Lethia was supposed to have a complete scroll of notes.

The girl read to herself out loud, slowly, as the words and the sentence structures were hard for her to say.  “Many confuse dreams with nightmares.  Dreams are simply mirrors reflecting an indy…indy-vid-ual’s life as-is.  A nightmare, however, is a fig…fig…” Lethia let out a frustrated sigh as she struggled with the word.  She started to migrate back to her chair as she sounded it out.  “Fig-yur-ra-tive tool used by the animus to catch the attention of the inty–intill–urgh…in-tel-lect.  People have nightmares for many reasons.  Though the nightmare may frighten or disturb–this does not mean its only purpose is to warn of immediate or future danger.  It could simply be an attempt on the part of the animus to bring about a fundy…fundy-mental change in the intellect.  It could also be an attempt by the animus’ to answer what the in-tel-lect cannot.”

The girl set the scroll down and picked up her quill, a dark feather from a wild turkey making whimsical shapes through the air.  She had garnered two reasons for nightmares from that paragraph, and copied the notes word for word.  “Bringing about a fundamental change in the intellect, and attempting to answer what the intellect cannot.”  In many ways, the concepts still eluded her, but Syria had said that recognition was the first step in learning, so Lethia didn’t fret over implicit understanding.  She was more concerned about making ink blots on her paper, and also wondered what the final reason for nightmares were.

The nine-year-old brushed the tip of her quill over the ridge of her large ear.  Her feet swung under the table.  Her attention started to wander, eyes sweeping about her small room.

The stone room had a wooden ceiling as above Lethia’s room was Syria’s.  Heavy rafters bowed over her with steel reinforcements.  The girl’s room overlooked the East, with a window that opened to afford her a beautiful view of the distant ocean.  Her bed was a warm wood frame with a tall headrest that resembled a rising sun.  At the foot of her bed was a chest where her toys were kept.  The bed and chest were adjacent to the door and window.  On the wall to the right of it, towards the far wall, were the shelves where her notes and books were kept.  Further down the wall, on the other side of the window, was her wardrobe where her dresses and coats and shoes could be found.  Across from her bed, just out of the doorway’s direct path, was her work desk.  Over this another shelf had been put up, holding yet more books.

The minutes stretched by, and Lethia felt herself clench up in frustration.

Taking her paper, the girl hopped off her chair and left her room, entering the winding staircase outside.  Her shoes pattered down the stone steps as she carefully descended to the bottom floor, where things were quiet.  Lethia frowned, her green eyes fluttering as she stood in the foyer, glancing left then right.  To her right, through the arched entryway was the den.  To her left, the kitchen.  Syria had said she’d be in the latter, so the youth tiptoed that way.

“Mistress Syria?” she called, beginning to feel nervous.

The girl stepped through the entryway, into the small kitchen, where herbs tied with twine hung drying over the counter.  Yesterday’s pick from the garden.  The pots were cold and the windows covered with simple curtains.  Sitting at the table with her head in her hands was Syria.  Black locks feathered out between her tense fingers.  Her glasses were on the table.  With the sunlight blocked, the back of the kitchen looked…dark.  Impenetrable.  Lethia couldn’t make out the woman’s face.

“But I’ve already planted it…” she heard the woman murmur.  “I’ve already planted it…wasn’t that enough?  You’re condemning her to–”

Lethia froze on the spot, holding the paper close to her like it were a shield from the disturbing sight.  “Mistress?”

Syria shifted, her hands relaxing some and moving to cover only her face.  She sat back in her chair and let out a shuddering sigh.  When she dropped her hands, a tired smile was on her face, dark eyes squinted as she took in the sight of the girl.

“Hmmm?  Yes, child?” she said, like she’d just been sleeping.

Lethia looked at the windows.  “Why did you close the curtains?”

The woman chuckled, a deep throaty sound.  She stood from her seat, smoothing out her teal cotton dress with one hand as she reached and grabbed the broom with the other.  “Just another migraine, dear.”

Lethia frowned.  “You’ve been having those alot lately!”  The girl opened her mouth to say something else, but she shut it with a snap and looked at the ground.

Syria came closer and leaned down, a soft hand touching the side of the girl’s face.  “Hmm?  Lethia, what is it, dear?”

Lethia rolled the weight on her foot to her ankle and back again.  “It’s just…that you said Isleen the Indomitable had lots of migraines before she died from a brain fever…”

The woman’s smile turned wry.  “Now I’m certain that wasn’t what I said!”

The girl pouted and looked at her shoes.  “But I remembered right!” she mumbled.

Syria placed a finger beneath her chin, forcing the child to look up.  Her look was chiding.  “Don’t mumble, dear.  And stop looking so sullen.  I wasn’t saying you remembered incorrectly–I’m saying you misunderstood me.”

“Yes, mistress.” Lethia said, struggling to wrestle her expression to something neutral.  She didn’t like displeasing Syria.

“Now what was it you needed help with?”

The girl held up her paper.  “I need one more reason for nightmares.”

Syria squinted at the paper.  Then she clicked her tongue.  “Give me a moment Lethia dear.  I can hardly see.”

She took the paper and went to the window near the table.  With a quick swipe, she threw back the small curtain and frowned at Lethia’s answers.  The youth bit her lip and rolled her weight onto her ankle again.

Syria glanced at her with a smile.  “Ah, my dear,” she sighed, the words warm and pulsing with affection.  Lethia ducked her head a little, but a grin spread her lips–though she wasn’t entirely sure what her mistress was smiling about per se.  The enchantress held the paper out to her pupil, shaking her head.  “You are so odd!  You have everything except the most famous reason of all!”

Lethia blinked, her green eyes squinting as Syria shifted to the side, allowing for more light to filter in through the window.  With the light in her eyes, the girl couldn’t see Syria’s face anymore–she was just a silhouette, lined hot by the glare, but no less striking for the loss of her features.

“Nightmares are most commonly known as warnings against impending dangers,” the enchantress said, a smile in her voice.

NUMBER FIVE__________________________

He urinated on the third shock.

He had been in the UpWorld for six hours.  He knew it to be this because Polichus had taught him to read a clock, and the clock said so.  Clocks had Numbers and Lines.  These were easier than the other things the man tried to teach him because the meaning for the numbers and the lines were unchanging and could easily be illustrated.  Pictures were still his primary form of thought–though he sometimes thought of letters as images alone–floating in a white sea.

Polichus gave him Special Water that tasted like dust and bacon.  The Special Water made him feel funny.  Polichus said the Special Water was important for the dog to understand the UpWorld.  The puppy still didn’t get a lot of things.  The UpWorld consisted of lots of bookcases sagging with books and papers and scrolls of parchment that seemed to spill out onto the flagstone floor.  There was a table across the room that held menacing tools and bizarre looking bottles and instruments.  The puppy knew that those things were for the satyr’s Work.  He never knew the man not to be Working.  An entryway led into a sort of living room, of which he’d been carried through many times, but had never actually been left much time in.  Next to the entry way, was a door that led to a place he’d never been before.  The door to his Home and his mother and siblings was in the living room.

Polichus sighed, setting down his wand.  He reached for the towel on the floor with a gloved hand.  “It’s a good thing we’re not on the kitchen table…”  The satyr started to mop up the piss, the puppy shivering and unable to make his legs move.  The man shoved him to the side, making the dog roll over onto its back in its weakness.  “Move over!”  Then he paused noting the semi-catatonic state the puppy was in.  The satyr cursed, throwing the towel onto the table.  “At this rate, I’ll have worked through another one…” he muttered.

He stood from his seat and with a stub and clack moved to the door behind them.  “Stay there, Number 5.  Old man Polichus is going to give you something to make you feel better…”

The puppy let out the tiniest whine, his limbs twitching as he struggled to regain control of his muscles.  There was a small rope on his collar tied to a metal rung on the table.  Just above his head was a thick card whose corner kept poking him.  It was one of The Cards.  Polichus had been quizzing him with those.  He would show a card and ask the puppy which was Bad and which was Good.  The greater reasoning behind the test still eluded him, but the puppy understood enough to know that if he didn’t choose correctly, he would be shocked with the wand.  If he got it right, he received a treat.

He had yet to get it right.

The dog, though still quivering, felt control return to him.  He flopped and twisted until he was on his paws again.  He sniffed the cards, then growled at them.  One was a picture of a short dwarf with a crown on his head.  Beneath it were the words, “King Brice.”  Another card near it depicted a mean-looking human with a hood over his head and a knife pointed at the viewer.  Beneath this picture was the word, “Enemy.”  He knew what they said because Polichus kept pointing at them and saying them over and over.  The dog couldn’t read, but thanks to the Special Water, he finally understood that the Squiggles meant things.

The puppy swiped at them, knocking them off the table.  He hated The Cards and their Squiggles.

He looked to the door where Polichus had vanished through.  With perked ears, he could hear the old satyr sifting through things.  There was the chink and clink of bottles and ceramics.  The dog snorted.

He wasn’t going to wait.

He went to the metal rung and began to gnaw at the rope.  It was a simple enough knot.  The dog managed to get a tooth beneath one of the threads and pulled, snarling under his breath.

There was a crash, and the puppy froze.  “Gods damnit!” Polichus voice.  He’d broken something…which meant he’d take a long time cleaning it up.

The dog finished pulling at the rope until it came from.  He gave a shake of his fur and panted happily.  Trotting to the edge of the table, the puppy jumped down onto the chair Polichus had been using.  When he jumped down onto the floor, he tumbled, yipping.  Despite his size, he was still only five weeks old, and he lacked good coordination.  There was another crash from the behind the door.

“Number 5!?” Polichus cawed.

Now trembling in fear, the dog ran as fast as he could to the living room.  Whimpering, he went to the door that led Home and scratched at the wood.  But he heard the stub and clack of Polichus hooves and cane and he dropped to the floor, his ears drawing back and his tail tucking between his legs.  He thought of his mother and how he would hide behind her body.  When he hid behind her, he couldn’t see Polichus.  The puppy didn’t want to see the satyr, but his mother wasn’t around.  He went for the next best thing–a large high back chair near the fireplace.

Stumbling over his own paws, the dog went to hide.

He heard Polichus enter the room.  The satyr seemed to be on the verge of panic.  “Number 5?  Come now, little pup, old man Polichus has just the thing to make up for those nasty shocks!”  The man went around the room, grunting.  He was likely trying to look around the furniture.  The puppy trembled, certain he was going to be found again.  Something Inside was hurting and he didn’t know why.

There was a scratching behind him.  The puppy’s ears twitched to it, but his attention was dominated by the slow approach of Polichus who was working his way around the room.

“Number 5…” the man snarled, rage suddenly tainting his words.  “You worthless mongrel–after all I put into you I won’t let you–!!”

The man was cut off by a screech.  The puppy dropped to the ground, his head and ears tweaking toward the fireplace.  There was a scritching and scratching, like claws along brick.  Soot tumbled down the chimney.

Then without warning a horrible looking monster tumbled down onto the ashes.  It hopped up, on its hands and feet, wings shaking the ash and soot from the feathers.  Black eyes blinked amidst a blue face.

Polichus shouted, his cane dropping and his hands going to his head.  “I forgot to close the damper last night!” he croaked.

The batreng bared its teeth, its voice like a marble rolling along thin wood as it contemplated its situation.  Then a noise came at the windows, rattling them and sending shadows along the floors.  Polichus cursed.  More of them, outside–they were calling to their fellow, who screeched and hooted back at them.

Then the Batreng’s eyes turned the puppy’s way.  The young dog backed into the chair, a whimper building in his throat.  The batreng hopped up once, sending soot and ash into the puppy’s eyes, and before he knew it, the monkey monster had him by the collar and was hefting him up, and he squelched at the pressure on his windpipe.  His claws skimmed the floor.

“Number 5!”  Polichus.  There was the scrape as the man picked up his cane from the floor.

The puppy’s eyes teared and carried away the ash that had blinded him.  His vision was still blurred, but now he could open his eyes somewhat.  He felt the impish creature jerk him up, so that his paws no longer touched the floor, and for a moment he was granted a feeling of weightlessness as he found himself staring parallel with the uneven ceiling.  Then the ceiling was falling away from him just as he started to feel gravity’s grips on him, his fur ruffling, the sound of wings beating the air, and the dog wheezed, his neck giving a painful twinge as he swatted against the batreng’s leg.

Polichus’ stick narrowly missed him.  The man was having a fit as the batreng flew, across the room, the puppy in its grip.

“Get back here, get back here you little demon!” he squawked.

The puppy pedaled his paws in the air, and with the motions of flying swinging him side to side, the dog could hardly twist around to bite at the batreng that held him captive.  The creature whooped, sounding like a crone, as it called to its brothers through the windows.  With a whoosh the monster evaded Polichus’ cane swipes and entered the study that the puppy had originally fled from.  The young dog whined, its eyes clear enough now to see that the stupid imp was landing much too fast amidst the table filled with odd glasses and sharp instruments–

The dog cried out as its hindleg was cut on a menacing star-like cutting tool.  The batreng, fascinated with the shiny things–started to shift through the items, eventually settling on a polished blunted tool that the puppy had once seen Polichus use to crush minerals for his potions.

The satyr in question came hobbling into the study, his weak knees knocking together as he gripped onto the entryway for support.  “Beast!  Cretin!  Out with you!”  he brandished his cane at the batreng, who just screeched back at him, its tail lashing and knocking over bottles.  “Beast!  You filthy beast!”  The old man lurched forward.  For all the strength that remained in his arms, his legs were his undoing.  The batreng dodged him easily, wings batting at the air in slow, unconcerned flaps.  The puppy let out another squelch, blood dripping from its hind leg as the batreng flew across the other end of the room to the high circular window.

Polichus face drew long as he slammed into the corner of the instrument table.  His cane fell from his hands as his legs stuttered beneath him, hooves scraping along the floor through broken glass and spilled potions.  “No!  Please!” He bleated, not ironically.  His right hoof caught on a snag on the floor and he fell to his knees, glass cutting into him.  He peered around his work table, his glasses having slid far down his nose.  The batreng narrowed its black eyes at him, its lips spreading to bare teeth in what could be interpreted as a fiendish smile.

The impish monster then raised the blunt instrument, cawing and hooting with triumph, before he swung it at the window.  The glass shattered, the falling shards catching sunlight and ringing onto the floor like a song that heralded freedom.  The puppy didn’t understand.  The puppy was finding it hard to stay conscious, after all.

Polichus screamed as the batreng flew out, and in his place, his brothers clammered about the open window, cutting themselves on the jagged edges as they fluttered in, excited and eager by the sight of all the shiny things that they could snatch and break…

LETHIA_________________________

The girl was in a panic.  She was still in her thin cotton dress, her long wheat blonde hair drawn up in a sweaty tail, house shoes still on her feet.  Her mistress had said they would have a trip to Belcliff today if she managed to finish her assignments, but she hadn’t.  She had the list of questions Syria had written her, so she set about starting.  But she was near to tears.  Trips outside of their small home were special.  Lethia had missed out on a chance like this only once before, and she’d cried herself to sleep thinking she’d have to wait ages to see the world outside.  The simulations Syria created for the sake of their lessons were in no way as satisfying as actually seeing it all in the flesh.

Lethia’s legs swung hard under her table, as though the excited fidgeting would make her brain work faster.

“Name three reasons a subject has nightmares.”

The girl bit her lip and rubbed her brow.  With her fresh piece of paper, she set to writing… “Subjects have nightmares for three reasons.  1)  As warnings against danger;  2)  To answer a question the intellect can’t;  3) To–” Lethia paused, her eyes widening.  She lifted her quill before the ink started to feather and tried to resist the urge to beat her head.  Syria said that hurting herself would not make problems easier.

The woman was perhaps right–but the girl didn’t know any other way to get out her frustrations.

“Lethia, dear?”

The nine-year-old jumped with a whimper.  She looked to the doorway and saw Syria there, in her heavy winter cloak and a fine burgundy dress with a cream blouse.  A small wicker basket was held in her hands.  The enchantress frowned at the girl, her arching brows nearly meeting.  “Child, did I not say to get ready?  We waste daylight!”

Lethia’s chin crumpled and she set her quill down.  “I know, mistress.  I’m sorry, mistress.”  She swallowed the lump in her throat and bowed her head.  Her face turned hot as tears blurred her vision.  “I didn’t…I didn’t…finish…” the girl couldn’t go on.  She let out a small sob before she bit her lip and tried to swallow it down.

The woman sighed and swept into the small room, her clothes swishing as she switched her basket to one arm and looked over the girl’s shoulder.  She blinked, and an exasperated smile spread over her rubious lips.  She stroked the girl’s hair.

“Lethia.”

The girl sniffed and looked up.  She tried not to slouch, even though she really wanted to.  “Yes, mistress?”

The woman’s smile broadened and she pointed at the girl’s paper.  “Child, you’ve already finished your assignment.  And you did an excellent job, I might add!”

Lethia stared up at her, then she wiped at her face and beamed.  “Really!?”

Syria laughed, the sound deep and warm.  “Yes, yes!  This is why we’re going out today!”  The woman set her basket onto the desk and floated to the wardrobe.  “Now that’s straightened out…what would my dearest like to wear today?”

NUMBER FIVE__________________________

The batreng landed on a cliff face not far from Polichus’ cottage, grumbling as it fingered the puppy’s collar.  The satyr’s home was nestled down in a small valley, and swirling over it was a swarm of the flying imps, all cawing all hooting all screeching.  They could’ve come for the magical fumes that Polichus polluted the air with, or perhaps–through some twisted form of word-of-mouth, the monsters (with their limited intelligence) had heard of the shiny things the satyr kept so poorly guarded.  But these possibilities were beyond the puppy who had much more pressing matters to deal with.

The batreng set the dog down, the wide pad of its thumb scraping over the silver plate of his collar.  The pup, dizzy and panting, tried to writhe out of the creature’s grip, but the batreng just screeched at him and wrestled him still.

At one point the monster leaned down to bite at the puppy’s collar, and the dog cried out as it felt its fangs scrape against his neck.  Before the batreng pulled away, the dog managed to twist around and bite him on the shoulder.  The batreng jerked back with a shriek, the blunt tool that it had stolen from Polichus rising in the air for a strike–

But the instrument caught the light, drawing the attention of its fellows.

Another batreng swooped down at top speed, knocking into the first.  They tumbled over the puppy, off the cliff face, hooting and shrieking as their wings beat at each other.  The dog lay there shivering, its watery eyes peering over the cliff to see its captor go.  Then he whined.

His peace was not to last.

A shadow fell over him, and the dog tensed up just before yet another flying imp grabbed him around the middle.  This one seemed smarter than the puppy’s previous captor.  Rather than tempt his brethren with his new prize, the imp flew into the air, warbling as it traveled away from the growing chaos that befell Polichus.  It soared over the mountains and hills, and the puppy trembled in its hands, deciding it was perhaps a better idea not to try and fight his captor at such an altitude.  If he hadn’t already emptied his bladder, he would’ve done so now.

A city came within sight.

LETHIA_________________________

She held Syria’s hand as she looked around the local jeweler’s.  They had stopped there for an errand, but Lethia didn’t know what.  She didn’t mind, she liked looking at the jewelry.  There were diamonds, pearls, rubies, garnets, sapphires…such pretty things.  Such bright and precious metals.  The nine-year-old gazed through the cases in wonder, her breath fogging up the glass.

“Hello Beryl,” Syria said to the woman behind the counter.  “I was wondering if I could speak with Daedalus a moment?  Is he in?”

“Yes, Lady Syria,” the round, gingery woman said.  She bowed slightly.  “Allow me to get him for you.  It’ll be just a moment!”

Syria smiled pleasantly as Lethia glanced at her.

“Mistress, may I ask a question?” The girl said.

The woman nodded at her.  “You may, dear.”

“Where do these jewels come from?”

“From the dwarves, dear.”

The girl frowned.  “But I’ve never seen any in town!”

Syria pressed a finger to her lips as Daedalus came through the door.  He was a tall elf with long, smooth ears, short-cropped black hair, and electric blue eyes.  He had the faintest lines about his mouth and eyes, and his throat was beginning to sag.  He bowed deeply. “Lady Syria!  How nice to see you!  I don’t think I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing you in my shop.  What can I do for you today?”

Syria curtsied with a slight bow of her head.  “Greetings Daedalus!  It pleases me to see you in good health.  Your shop is delightful.”

“Thank you, Lady.”

“I come to you today in the hopes that you may fulfill a need of mine?”

The man nodded, his hands folding behind his back.  Beryl, his assistant, sidled past him, bowing.  “Yes?” the man said, his eyes appraising. “What would you ask of this elf?  I would meet your request to the best of my ability.”

Syria smiled.  “Thank you, sir.  I was wondering if you could fashion a pair of wire frame glasses…” then the woman placed a gentle hand on Lethia’s shoulder, making her look up in surprise.  “For my apprentice if you’d please.”

Daedalus nodded, looking at the girl.  Lethia blushed and looked down at the floor.  “Mmm…well, we’d need to get some measurements–but that will only take a moment.  Bring her around the counter.  Let’s see how we can make this work.”

Lethia felt Syria press her shoulder gently.  “Come, dear.”

As they turned to go around the counter, the nine-year-old glanced out the front windows to the streets outside.  The roads had been cleared of the snow, leaving clear pathways for citizens to walk.  People went by, bundled up.  They kept to themselves.  Belcliff wasn’t very boisterous–even Lethia knew this at her age.  She was just about to look away, the sight failing to hold her attention, when a large shadow crossed the street toward the building.  The girl paused, her eyes widening.

Lethia had spent a great deal of time looking out her window back home at the tower, and she could recognize the local birds by shadow alone without trouble.  That was not a bird.  That was a–

“Mistress!” the girl said, tugging on the woman’s hand.

Syria glanced down at her as she steered the girl through the doorway leading to the back of the store.  “Yes, dear?”

“Outside just now!  I saw something!”

“Oh?”  They followed Daedalus past the messy desk which held records and designs and notes.  Together they went up the winding stairs to the second floor, where the man’s work station was located.  The sturdy table was brimming with various tools and spools of metal, boxes of jewels and various crafting materials organized by type and color.  Over the desk, a large window filtered in light from outside.  The elf sat down in his cushioned chair, and it groaned beneath his weight.  He pulled on a pair of magnifying goggles, carefully pulling it behind his long ears where the contraption rested on his forehead.

The man gestured for Lethia to come near and Syria urged her forward.  The youth bit her lip, wishing to press the matter further, but being overly persistent about something usually made Syria cross.

As soon as she was before him, he took a measuring tape and held it before her eyes.  It took her a moment before she realized the man was measuring the width of her head.  “Hmm,” he said before taking the tape and wrapping it all the way around.  He nodded, turning to his materials.  “Let me see, here…”

As the man scribbled on a scrap of paper, the girl’s ears perked to the sound of chittering.  She frowned and glanced at the window.  “Mistress…” she said slowly.

“Shh…” the woman said behind her.

Lethia’s frown deepened as she heard something whimper.  The girl went around the desk, to the right, standing on her tiptoes as she tried to peer out the window along the building’s ledge.  Her eyes bugged.  “Mistress Syria!” she cried loudly.

Both adults looked at her, startled.  Syria crossed her arms, her eyes narrowing.  “Child, what has gotten into you!?”

The girl pointed frantically at the window, hopping on the spot.  “Outside!  There’s a batreng and it’s killing a puppy!

“What?”  Daedalus stood as Syria came closer.  They leaned over the work table as far as they could go, heads craning to look out the window–but Lethia was already running for the staircase.

Her mistress turned, dark eyes blinking.  “Lethia?”

The nine-year-old ran as fast as her legs could take her, bounding down the steep staircase two at a time and slamming into the wall.  Beryl cried out in surprise, throwing papers up into the air as Lethia pushed past her through the door.  “Pardon me, ma’am!” the girl cried over her shoulder as she pushed through the front door out into the snowy street.

She squinted her green eyes against the glare of the white world, cringing as she slogged clumsily through the growing snow bank on the side of the road.  Before she even stopped moving, Lethia twisted around to look up the building face.  Sure enough, there was a batreng there, pawing and grumbling at the collar of a large puppy.  Within that instant, the collar came away, and a silver plate glinted on it–likely the prize it had truly been seeking all this time.  The batreng warbled at it, pleased.

…The puppy wasn’t moving.

Clenching her fists, the girl squeezed her eyes shut.

All around shut out quiet as she reached with things unseen to the intellect of the batreng.  It pulsed with bright images of food, and treasure, and violence.  The girl could see the thoughts of Beryl and Daedalus–but not Syria.  The woman kept her mind protected at all times.

With a psychic spear of thoughts (“Go away!  Leave it alone!  Shoo!”), the girl attacked the batreng’s mind.  Her thoughts were puissant white words, searing through the dark sea that bore them through the static dark space of their world.  It lanced through the batreng’s mind, and the imp’s thoughts faded, turning smoky and lost.  She heard as it fell to the snow.  Her heart dropped.  She had only meant to scare the monster away–did the puppy get knocked down too?

Then she felt a hot presence scalding her from the front.  Her power was forcefully pushed back, causing a dull ache in her head.  The girl withdrew the rest of the way, shuddering.  Her eyes snapped open, and there stood Syria, her eyes narrow slits, arms crossed high over her chest.

The girl bowed immediately, trembling.  “M’sorry mistress!  The puppy needed help!”

Syria’s voice was hard.  “You risked tainting the greater intellectual cluster.  You risked harming your own mind.  You weren’t dealing with a sentient–you were dealing with a monster.  Nevermind that I haven’t trained you in dealing with the matrices of normal animals.”

Lethia swallowed hard.  She dared to raise her gaze enough to stare at Syria’s knees.

The woman sighed and brought the girl upright by the shoulders.  The child looked into her mistress face with wide eyes.  Syria gazed at her, stoic.  “Well?  You risked so much for this poor thing, you may as well take to it!”

Lethia blinked up at her.  Then her mouth set into a somber line, and she gave a nod.  Together they went to the snow bank where the batreng had fallen.  Daedalus had already slit its throat, his dagger in his hand.  The creature’s blue face was a navy blue, like it’d been choking.  Neither of its hands held the collar.  It must have fallen from its grip as it fell.  The nine-year-old paled at the sight of the monster corpse, but the elf was quick to stuff it into the burlap sack he had brought from inside.

“Damn these things!” the elf panted as though he’d run from the second floor all the way down.  “There’s more of them this year!  And they keep coming to my shop of ‘shiny things’!”  He stood and went around to the alley to dispose of it properly.

With the harrowing sight taken away, the girl turned next to Beryl who had just come from the building.  She knelt carefully in the snow, gathering up her dress as she inspected the puppy that lay still.  Lethia knelt by it, gathering her dress up in similar fashion.  Her eyes started to burn.

“Did it die…?” she breathed.

“No, child,” Syria said over her.  She was frowning.  “I can…hear it.”

The girl turned and frowned at her.  “…Mistress?”

The enchantress looked to Beryl, her eyes suddenly wide and sharp.  “Beryl, dear, might we borrow a blanket of some sort?”

“Gods, of course!”  The woman rose to her feet with a small grunt, her round body hurrying to the door.  “Halward help the poor creature!  It’ll need more than a blanket,” the woman muttered as she went through the doorway.

Lethia’s lip trembled as she scooted closer–her empathy leading her to forget to care about whether or not her dress touched the dirty snow.  She reached forward and touched a hand to the puppy’s hind leg, where blood and puss crusted in the soft fur.  The dog’s ears perked, and it turned its head to fix one watery eye on the girl, but it took no other action other than to settle its head back down and closed its eyes.

Beryl came back with a wool scarf.  Her chubby cheeks pink.  “I hope this’ll do!  It was all I could find.”

Lethia took it from the woman’s hands eagerly.  “Thank you!”

The woman looked at her, eyebrows raised high.  She looked at Syria as though to ask silently if it were okay for the child to handle the task, and the enchantress only held up a lax finger.

The nine-year-old, oblivious, pinched her tongue between her lips as she gathered the puppy up into a bundle with the wool scarf.  The dog whimpered some, but its eyes slipped shut.  They took it inside.  Once there, Daedalus checked the dog’s hind leg.

“Flesh wound,” he said, wiping at the fur with a wet cloth.  “I’ll wrap it, to keep it clean once I wipe away this dirt, but once you’re home you’ll have to remove it.  I’m spreading some medicine over it–to prevent fever, so there shouldn’t be any trouble.”

At the mention of taking the puppy home, Lethia turned and gazed at Syria imploringly.  The woman arched an eyebrow at her.  “My dear, of course we’re taking it home.  You chose to save it.  It is now your responsibility.  But do not think I’m forgetting about what you attempted!  We’ll discuss your punishment once this matter is dealt with in full.”

Lethia had started to grin, but at Syria’s last words, she tried to smother her joy with not a lot of success.

They were taking a puppy home…

—————-

The next few days, the girl cared for the puppy as best she could.  There were no trained animal doctors in the region as there was no great amount of livestock, and as such all owners were expected to treat their own.  This didn’t seem a problem as Syria owned a book on animals that covered a wide variety of species.  Though the information wasn’t very specific, there was enough there about dogs that they were able to figure out a proper diet for the puppy.  They tried to feed the puppy a mixture of milk, and ground up meat.  They kept it warm and checked its wound.

Still, it didn’t seem to get stronger.  It didn’t play, it didn’t even move its head.  It refused food and refused drink.

Lethia lay in her bed on the third night, weeping.  The dog lay in a makeshift bed on the floor near her.  “Puppy…puppy, what’s wrong?” she whispered in a dry whine.  “Why won’t you let me help?”

The dog didn’t move or make a sound.  The girl curled into a ball and after a while, she fell asleep.

…Whilst in repose she came across a way of sound that begged her to dance, so she did.

Her feet touched upon stars, skimming belts of light as though she were a weightless feather soaring on the currents of the wind.  She was–she was–she was–

Free.

Then, suddenly her parents were there–faceless beautiful voiceless loving lifeless golems that kept ahead of her always in the dark plum skies–their definitions were the offspring of expectations threaded carefully through the eyes of children’s hopes and dreams.  Speaking was not allowed here, so she uttered not a cry or a greeting to the phantoms that drifted at a fixed distance before her.  She would not speak, would not speak.  Would not dare to ask, “Why are you here?  Why do you have me chasing you?”  The girl only wished the way of sound went faster, and tried to move along the stars and belts of light so as to catch up with her faceless beautiful voiceless loving lifeless parents–but ah the wicked reaches of space and time left the tips of her hopeful branches still all too short.  Her parents were gone.

The girl wept tears of sticky yellow sap, and her feet burrowed into the stars and the belts of light as she ceased her fervent dancing, swallowing the way of sound so as to end the path forever more.

Lethia Artaud rooted herself in the heavens and her world turned dark.

Then she woke up, gasping.

Lethia swallowed, mouth dry, blinking away tears as she stared down at her hands half-curled in her lap, the heavy blanket over her legs feeling too stifling.  She kicked it away and moved to sit at the edge of her bed.  The puppy still hadn’t moved from its place.  The girl carefully slid to the floor and leaned down over the small dog, her breath bated as she tried to focus in the clandestine darkness.

“Puppy?” she breathed, thinking of her dream.  No…her nightmare.  She thought of her lessons on the subject and pressed even closer, pressing her forehead to the dog’s.  “…Tell me what’s wrong.”

Syria had said that the girl had taken a great risk in stunning the batreng.  She had said that such enchantment required special training, for monsters were even more difficult and dangerous to read than animals.  …But if Lethia could see and affect the batreng’s mind–what challenge did a puppy’s mind present?

Nevermind that she’d knocked it out versus shooing it away.

Lethia’s eyes slipped shut.

It took a moment, but in her mind’s eye, she saw the glow of the puppy’s thoughts.  This alone wasn’t very shocking.  Each animal, however simple-minded, was capable of some form of thought.  What made Lethia gasp and draw back was that–

The puppy was thinking of words.  Human language.

The girl swallowed and closed her eyes again.

The puppy’s thoughts were a cloud, much like most minds were.  As such, she knew the most pressing or currently focused thoughts were near the center of the cluster.  Gently, so as to not harm his mindscape, the girl probed gently into the cloud, using low amounts of her power–what Syria called “ishin”.  Ishin was measurable, but invisible to the human eye.  It was not incorrect to call it a sixth sense, but this implied that it was a passive trait that could not be actively utilized.  As an enchantress, Lethia had to learn early what ishin was, and how to turn it into a tool she could utilize whenever she wanted to.  She didn’t have much experience piercing other mindscapes on her own, so the girl moved forth slowly.

As she did, she marveled at what she saw.

On the glow of the puppy’s outer thoughts, the girl garnished finer understandings of what the images meant.  What truly awed her was that the images of words weren’t just disconnected memories of odd symbols.  They had understanding, they had definition…much of it being incorrect or overly-simplistic (“Squiggles?  Does he mean words?  …UpWorld? What?”) but they meant something to the dog.

There were more images than words, of course.  There were thoughts of his siblings, thoughts of a dark place that looked like a cellar, thoughts of a cage, thoughts of food and sleep and play.  Thoughts of a large dog–likely his mother.  She got a name from the latter–Dotti.

Lethia stopped her advancement as a large dark phrase hovered before her, like a wall blocking her path.

Polichus.

It was a name, she knew from the manner of its use–and there were images too–an old satyr living alone in the frosty region of the Torreth.  It was also a name drenched in loathing.  All around it pulsed negative emotions.

Polichus, bad.  Polichus, hurt.  Polichus, bad.  Polichus, hurt.

Swallowing, Lethia went around this thought.  She’d have to tell her mistress about this person.  He didn’t sound like a good man at all.

Finally she came to the center of the cluster, and the nine-year-old felt a pressure on her head.  Going in this deeply often caused the mindscape to resist against the foreign intellect.  The matrices of the puppy’s animus were closing in around Lethia, and she took a deep breath.

Vibrating and buzzing and pulsing were the puppy’s most pressing thoughts and concerns and desires.  Lethia was surprised to find many of them were the word-images she encountered before.  Towering above the other thoughts were the words:  Home, Pain, and Family.  Surrounding these were smaller images, like flies around fruit, zipping and flashing in and out of sight, fuzzy at the edges and sometimes transparent.  Lethia focused on the puppy’s concern with Pain, and bared her teeth as she tried to hold onto her connection long enough to see something useful in all the confusing mess that surrounded the thought.

There.  His neck and throat.  The puppy was finding it painful to swallow.  Of course!

Lethia withdrew, the ghostly images flashing by her in a rush as the puppy’s mind shut her out completely.  She felt something snag on her, but she couldn’t stop.  Being engrossed in another mind took effort, and her ishin still wasn’t strong enough to stay connected that long.

The girl opened her eyes, feeling excited.  She considered waiting till morning, but she figured as there was a life at stake, her mistress wouldn’t get too upset over her intrusion.

She was partially right.

“My dear, you have gotten quite audacious these past few days!  Never have you been this impetuous.  This whole matter vexes me!” Syria cried as they traveled down to the kitchen.  The woman slammed and banged things as she gathered what she needed.  She was barefoot and dressed in her sleeping gown, hair messy and pinned back, her face a bit ghoulish from the poor light and the shock of suddenly being roused from deep sleep.  Lethia had told her of the puppy’s problem, and her mistress seemed to know just what was needed, though she didn’t impart this to her apprentice.  The woman was too busy ranting.  “Did I not tell you that training was needed when dealing with mindscapes that aren’t sentient?!  Yet you deliberately disobeyed me!”  The enchantress slammed the mortar and pestle onto the counter next to the astragalus root, sphinx bezoar, and white chalk. “Clearly your new chores and writing assignments haven’t been enough for you!  Perhaps I’ll have you clean the cow’s stable as well?”

Lethia paled.  She bowed deep with hands at her sides.  “M-Mistress!  I’ll never do it again!  I–” but the girl paused and bit her lip.

Syria stopped, crossing her arms.  “What, child?” she asked flatly, her baggy eyes narrowing.

Lethia raised herself enough to blink at Syria’s knees.  “The puppy thinks…in words.  I saw a name in his head.  Polichus.  I think…I think he was the puppy’s owner.” The girl waited to hear Syria’s reaction.

“Go on,” the woman said, her voice reserved.

Lethia resumed in a rush.  “Polichus is an old satyr who lives in the area.  The puppy hates him, mistress.  He hurt him.  And he’s got the puppy’s family still–locked in a cellar in a cage!”  The girl’s fists clenched.  “It isn’t right!”

Syria said nothing for a moment.  Then she shook her head and returned her attention to the items on the counter.  “Very well…we shall see about this satyr.  I promise you nothing, however.  We may even be required by the marshal to return the dog to its owner.”

“But he hurt him!” Lethia cried, straightening.  Her little body trembled.  She wouldn’t let the puppy go back to that terrible man.

“Do not shout at me, girl.” Syria said, pausing with an air of danger as she turned her head just so.

Lethia quailed, bowing again.  “My apologies, mistress…” the girl mumbled.

Syria sighed as she chopped up the astragalus root.  “My dear…focus on helping your little friend first.  These things will come in time.”

————————–

A week later.  In her bedroom.  On the floor between the bed and her work desk.

Lethia watched in delight as the puppy carefully chewed up the ground meat.  They had to shave away the fur around its neck–something it greatly protested–but after Syria had applied the salve she had made, the dog immediately started to show improvement.  It was still experiencing discomfort, but now the dog was eating again, and the nine-year-old couldn’t be happier.

“It’s good isn’t it, puppy?” the youth giggled as she gently scratched its back.

The dog gazed up at her with eyes blinking.  Then it thought:  Good?  Food!  GOOD food!

Lethia’s hand froze against the puppy’s back.  Her green eyes widened.  “…Puppy?” she breathed.

The puppy perked its ears, its tail wagging.  Girl?

The girl shivered, touching her head, then her large ears, then her mouth.  “I–but I’m not–my ishin isn’t–”

The dog resumed its meal, small jaws taking up pieces of the ground up meat.  GirlSquigglesNumber 5 hate Squiggles.  But Number 5 love Girl.  …But Number 5 HUNGRY.  Stop Squiggles now.  Good food!

Lethia’s young mind thought of several possible actions.  She could panic.  She could panic and start crying.  She could panic and start crying and run to find Syria.  OR…

The girl started laughing, her face turning red.  “I can hear you!  And you understand me!”  Lethia jumped to her feet, her hands clapping as she hopped up and down.  “I can talk to animals!”  The girl paused, a frown coming over her features.  “Wait…you call yourself ‘Number 5’?”  She scrunched up her nose.  “That’s a stinky name!  Let me get the mythology book from downstairs.  We’ll pick something better for you!”

As the girl fled the room, the puppy grumbled after her.

Girl…LOUD.

Lethia jumped down the stairs, her entire body shocked and jittering with excitement.  Syria was in her sanctuary, meditating.  As she entered the foyer, she tried to contain her bubbling giggles.

But her concern didn’t seem to matter.  The woman emerged from the room, her cheeks flushed, and her eyes bright.  Syria brushed a stray lock behind her ear as she fixed her eyes on Lethia.  “Child, what are you up to?”

The girl froze, feeling oddly guilty.  “I was getting a book…” she said, pointing.

“Did you finish your assignments?”

“Yes!”

“And your chores?”

“Yes!  I swept and mopped and did the dishes.”

“…And the stable?”

Lethia looked down at her shoes.  “I was feeding the puppy.”

Syria pursed her lips, one hand resting on her hip.  “Very well.  But afterwards you take care of that stable!”

The girls shoulders sagged.  “Yes, mistress…”

The woman drifted to the door, her brows knitting.  “And don’t slouch!”  She beckoned for Lethia to come near.  “Here…is the puppy still eating?  Will he be okay?  You really ought to choose a name for him, dear.”

Lethia pouted.

Syria went on, oblivious. “Come with me a moment, we’ve a visitor at the gates.  I sensed their approach just now.”

Lethia perked up at this, her eyebrows going high.  It was always exciting when someone from the outside came to their tower, but the youth knew all of Syria’s patients and none were scheduled to make an appearance now.  The enchantress pulled on her heavy cloak and when the youth came near, she plucked the girl’s cloak off the hook and did the same for her.  Together they went outside, trudging through the snow hand in hand.

Surrounding their tower were high walls meant to keep out most animals and monsters.  Syria’s power was such that she needed only the power of her mind to sense the presence of a visitor at the outer gates.

As they neared, they saw a familiar elf waving at them from the other side.

“Hail, Daedalus!”  Syria called.

“Hail my Lady!”  He held up a package.  “I have finally finished them.  I hoped you received my messenger pigeon?”

“Yes, yes, I’ve been expecting you.  Please allow me to open this.”  Syria pulled a lever at the side of the gate and the mechanism shuddered and creaked as the gates pushed through the snow, swinging inward.  Daedalus bowed and stepped through.

“Hullo, Lethia.  How’re you this fine day?”

The girl blushed and curtsied.  “Very well, sir!  Thank you for asking!”

Syria smiled and placed a hand on her shoulder as the gates swung close again.  She gestured toward the tower.  “Please sir, this way.  I’ll make you some tea.”

“Thank you, Lady Syria.  I would be very grateful,” the man said with another slight bow.

Once back at the tower, Syria made the tea as promised.  They were in the kitchen, Lethia sitting at one end of the table as Daedalus did the other.  Normally she was to tend to any additional needs of guests, but the man was content to wait for his tea in peace.  The enchantress handed Daedalus a cup, and the man accepted it gratefully.  She took another, smaller cup, and served Lethia some as well.  The girl accepted it with a grin and a quiet, “Thank you!”

The elf closed his eyes as he tasted the drink.  Ginger with lemon and honey.  “Mmm!”  He set the cup down and nodded with a broad smile.  “I see you are quite talented!  Tea making is sullied by the crass.  There are few left today who understand the art of it!”

Syria bowed her head.  “I am honored you would think me worthy.  You must have sampled some of the best teas in the world.  Lekeid is quite famous for it.”

Daedalus chuckled.  “Yes, the Higashans, try as they might, still cannot match the Elven ways,” he pulled the package on the table to his lap.  It was a box covered in parcel paper and bound with twine.  “So, onto the business of those glasses you had me make for you.”  The man stood and presented the package to Syria, who took it with both hands.  “I hope they are to your specifications.  The lenses were what took the most time–I had to scrap a pair and start over as they weren’t good enough.”

Syria unwrapped the package carefully.  Lethia craned her neck, the steam from her tea curling around her face.

The woman pulled from the box a pair of glasses with dark, round lenses.  Lethia couldn’t see her face as the woman spoke.  “Ah…good.  I was getting worried.”

Daedalus frowned, tilting his head to the side.  “Worried?  Whatever for?”

Syria turned and drifted to Lethia.  Carefully, she leaned down and held up the glasses.  “Oh, you see…my dearest Lethia has a condition.  It’s quite unfortunate.  We’re still working on a solution.”

Lethia blinked, a small frown coming over her face.  She took the glasses from the woman and slowly put them on.

“Remember, dear?” the enchantress said to the girl, tilting her head to one side.  Her eyes were wide and dark. “You have a condition.  You can’t look directly into other people’s eyes or you’ll steal their thoughts!”

The nine-year-old started to feel a crawling sensation along her skull.  Her eye stalks started to hurt, and sound began to feel like it filtered through thick cotton.

Lethia nodded, feeling numb.  “Oh…yes, I remember now…”

SYRIA__________________________

The satyr was dead.

She had known this after Lethia had first mentioned the man.  Upon returning to bed, she’d swept through the region, combing the the greater intellectual cluster to discover his thoughts were still present but feeble.  By the time help would arrive, he’d perish from his injuries.  Still, the woman sent a messenger bird as soon as she could to the local authorities.

The records stated that he was killed by a swarm of batrengs that had invaded his home. Syria felt there was something greater at work.  She didn’t know the cause for the population spike, but told Marshal Sanders of the trouble and requested that a team be sent to handle the beasts.  The colony was likely near the satyr’s home.

She liked Marshal Sanders, but he was set to leave office soon.  There was a soldier from the militia campaigning for the future position.  He was a brash and greedy man.  What was his name again…?

Daedalus had been right–there were too many of the monsters lately.  She’d recently had to chase a gaggle of them off herself.  The puppy had nearly re-injured his neck barking at them all.  He’d always hold a hatred for them, it seemed, as she was sure he would always hate satyrs for as long as he lived.  Lethia had been the first kind person to him.  Syria saw his idolization of the girl begin, much like Lethia’s had begun years ago toward the woman.

Ah, but she had to ask Marshal Sanders what became of the dogs.  It seemed the satyr, Polichus, had been using them for alchemical research.  He didn’t have a permit for it, and as such his work was illegal.  Much of what he did was morally reprehensible, but Syria confessed a curiosity over his findings.  It certainly seemed to have an affect on his primary subject, “Number 5”, newly named “Argos” by her apprentice.  The dog was exhibiting unnaturally rapid growth and development, and his ability to comprehend and learn complex concepts were astounding.  But Syria’s interest was purely for sport–as she concerned herself with sentient minds, not animal minds.  Lethia seemed to have quite an affinity for it, but she would have to learn such things elsewhere when she got older.

Polichus’ research was burned and the dogs he kept–spared from the wrath of the batrengs by their entrapment in the cellar–were to be given away.  The mother had been quite over protective, she recalled the Marshal telling her in his last letter.  “I fear,” he wrote, “We may have to put her down.  It’s quite sad.”

But Argos seemed to forget the plight of its...his family as he grew closer to Lethia.  The days had gone by, and though she lacked the connection the two shared, she sometimes caught whispers of their conversations.  (“They’re not squiggles, they’re words.  And my name’s Lethia.  LE-THI-A.“)  Syria wasn’t much for pets, but she confessed a sort of affection growing at the sight of Argos and Lethia studying together–an absurdity not lost on the woman.  When the enchantress asked her apprentice what the dog thought of their tower, the girl giggled and said, “He calls it Home now!”

…But after last week, she had to make sure Argos wasn’t in the room during tests.  The dog, in an attempt to help the girl at a hard question, had tried projecting the answers to her.  Lethia hadn’t asked him to, the woman knew the girl’s integrity was far greater than that, but Syria wasn’t beyond chasing the dog away with a broom–intelligent or not.  Now he always cowered whenever she did the cleaning.

These were the things Syria thought of as she sat alone in the darkness.

She was in her sanctuary, a room beneath the spiral staircase with the entrance adjacent to the kitchen entryway.  The location didn’t seem very ideal–but in truth it was fixed in a position of power, lined up perfectly with the constellation of Seer, the goddess of sight and mind.  Sweat rolled down her neck, and her eyes rolled beneath their closed lids as she pressed the boundaries of her ishin outward.  Lethia was still young, so she couldn’t do this and wouldn’t be able to for years to come.  But Syria was a master, and could cast about a net of awareness that told her of all the goings on in her land.

Currently, Lethia was playing with Argos.  The woman’s hand turned to a claw on her knee.  They were playing around her linden tree.  She had planted it exactly nine years ago, away from the tower and just to the side of the stables.  That was when she’d first adopted Lethia into her life.

…She hated the thing.

The tree grows.  It feeds.  The girl grows…and she blossoms.  Keep her tended and pruned and she’ll not overrun you.

Syria swallowed as the wordless melody carried forth these thoughts.  Her eyes opened to slits in the dark, and she stared at the light coming in from beneath the door.  “My dearest Lethia…will be isolated after what I’ve done,” a tear fell from her eye as a pained smile spread her lips.  “But I will let her keep this strange new friend.  That way…she’ll always have someone to keep her company…in the dark.


Back to The Lizard's Toll | Forward to Chapter 19.1

The Lizard’s Toll

“Oh, Great Spirit, whose voice I hear in the winds
Whose breath gives life to the world, hear me
I come to you as one of your many children
I am small and weak
I need your strength and wisdom

May I walk in beauty
Make my eyes ever behold the red and purple sunset.
Make my hands respect the things you have made
And my ears sharp to your voice.
Make me wise so that I may know the things you have taught your children.

The lessons you have written in every leaf and rock
Make me strong——–!
Not to be superior to my brothers, but to fight my greatest enemy….myself

Make me ever ready to come to you with straight eyes,
So that when life fades as the fading sunset,
May my spirit come to you without shame.”

— A Sioux prayer translated by Chief Yellow Lark – 1887

NYX____________________________

Heavy was the world upon her.

The wind muttered something, whisking away her reservations as she garnered a scent reminiscent to freedom.  Fingertips spread, head tilted back, tongue parched–she let out a breath and asked the universe to take what it would of her.  The sunlight lanced into her sensitive eyes and she closed them, seeing their warmth through her eyelids.

It was late afternoon.  Winter had passed, as did Spring.  Summer had just started.

She could see that the northern hills tended shadows amidst their parsed greenery.  But her surroundings were cold and grey, the environment not harboring darkness but being the essence of darkness itself–undivided, unconquered, and stifling.  The Kreut Forest drew harsh divides between the thriving life of the northern lands and its black corruption.

Nyx had just risen from sleep.  She’d crawled out of the den she’d found to answer some of the baser calls to life…but her intention was lost as she became aware of herself.  The creaks of the dead oaks and elms were like accusations.  Her thoughts turned to her past and the decisions she’d made.  The long and twisted road that had led her to this accursed place.  How misguided she had been!  How short-sighted!  She should’ve known the true cost of her actions.  It wasn’t wealth, or comfort, or even honor that had been at stake…

What tethers did she have now, without her family?

Nyx sucked in breath, aware that she’d stopped breathing.  She registered the burn in her lungs and the ache along her throat, as though she’d been running for ages.  It certainly seemed that way.

The girl, feeling the bite of the earth as she rocked forward onto her knees, slammed the edges of her fists into the soil and screamed with all her might.

The sound echoed from the dark reaches of the forest, over the rippling emerald hills, and across the vast valley until the wind snatched it up in its wispy fingers.

—————————-

Two months ago.  In a small and drafty daikut.

“You’re…different now.”

Nyx froze mid-motion at the unexpected voice, her bag in one hand, her figurine of Aelurus in the other.  The girl turned her head, her heart in her ears.  Winter was coming to a close in sleepy Tosmai.  The night was warming, but it still held a frosty bite.  She risked death from the Cerrite just for returning–but she knew their patrol routes.  Had memorized them prior to her mission in Himitahl.  She was able to infiltrate the highest offices of the nation, she could certainly manage to slip into a few homes to take back the things that had been auctioned away.

She’d first retrieved the list of assets from the local auctioneer–who wasn’t supposed to have taken it from the village center, but the man was well known for bending the rules whenever it suited him.  It was a simple quibble–what could possibly happen to the documents in the hands of someone so meticulous and shrewd?  Well…

Nyx located the winners of the auction without trouble.  She already had the few things she wanted.  Her mother’s gambeson, the amulet of the three suns she bought in Himitahl, her Atalo’s ring.

The last thing was her jade figurine of the Blessed Mother.  The problem…?

Taila had been the auction winner.

“I knew you’d come for it,” her friend said quietly, her voice like an extended hand.  It came from the doorway behind Nyx.  “I would’ve gotten it all…but you always knew what my situation was like with money.”

“I know…” Nyx said as she put the figurine into her bag and let her head fall against her chest.  Her entire body was tensed.

Neither said anything for a moment.

Then she heard Taila sniffle, and when she spoke again, her voice was choked with tears.  “Yeah, I knew you’d come for those gods damned things…you were always…you were always the sort’ve person to risk everything for something so sentimental.  I always said you had fleas in your brain.”

“You did,” the girl affirmed with a nod and a weak smile.

Silence again.

Nyx debated on whether or not she could turn around.  Whether or not she could turn and look her friend in the face.  Her body locked up and she stared at the wall instead.

“I’m sorry, Nyx…this is…it’s hard for me.  You’re my friend, but I can…” Taila broke off as she sucked in air with a shudder.  “…Sweet Aelurus, I can feel the Mark on you!  It makes me nervous!  It’s like everything in me is saying you’re wrong…”

“It’s the magic…” Nyx said.  Her voice was hollow and quiet.  “It tells the spirit in you that I’m…” her voice trailed away.

“The strange thing?  I still can’t–I can’t bring myself to hate you like everyone else does.  I know what they say–but I can’t believe it.  You loved Atalo.  How could you ever…?  And–And it’s not just me, it’s Ampelos too!  He feels the same way!” Taila sucked in air sharply.  “Ah!!  I’m sorry–I didn’t mean to–”

Nyx closed her eyes, tears leaking down her face.  Ampelos had been the one assigned the task of carving the Mark in her.  His hesitance had made the process longer

“It’s true, it’s true!  Ampelos can’t sleep, he didn’t want to do it–” She broke off with a sob.  “Nyx,” and then, suddenly, the steel was back in her voice, “Nyx turn around and fucking look at me–!

Nyx finally turned around.

Taila was standing in the doorway wearing cream white pajamas, her round face already damp and blotchy from her silent weeping.  She didn’t look right.  Her spine was curved, her shoulder-length hair mussed and frizzy, her amethyst eyes red and puffy.  Her hands were tensed like claws at her sides.  Frustration?  Or the Animal in her demanding blood from the spirit traitor?

Hejka et Ool.  Hejka et Juek.  Hejka et Lunés.

Kill the monster.

Nyx took a step toward her friend before she stopped.  She took one slow step back, then another.

In all her life, she had never known Taila to look as she did now.  She had been strong and forceful.  She had been tough and determined.  Now…?  It was because of what Nyx did, it was because of what she was that the older girl was made to seem so torn.  Her blighted hands could not comfort Taila.  She had to leave, before she hurt anyone else.  She had to leave now.

“Taila,” Nyx swallowed through a tight throat. “I have to…go.  Gods, please forgive me…”  She held up her hand, fingers curled lightly, palm facing up as though pleading.  “I can’t do this!  Please forgive me!”

“Nyx–”

Nyx took another step back, toward the window she had come through.  “Take care of yourself.  You won’t…see me again, okay?  I can’t come back.  I won’t.”

“Nyx!”

“I know you loved him!” Nyx blurted out suddenly.  She was trembling.  She stopped, one hand on the windowsill, the other gripping her bag like it was the only thing she had left in the world.  And it was.  “Thaddeus.  I know you loved him.  I know you…you became friends with me so that you could become closer to him.  I appreciate…that even after he died you didn’t leave me alone.  It helped me, knowing I wasn’t completely hated.  But…I don’t want you getting in trouble because of me.  I don’t want you hurting because of me.  So I have to leave now, Taila.  Do you understand?”

Taila stared at Nyx, her brows crashing together.  “That’s what you thought?” she breathed.  “You thought I was only friends with you because…?”

“Goodbye, Taila!” the younger girl turned and jumped through the window in one smooth motion.

She heard her friend hiss from behind her as she sprinted away.  “Nyx…Nyx, stop!

Since they had become friends, Nyx had always listened to Taila.  She listened to her because the girl was charismatic and kind. While the older girl could be pushy, she never asked Nyx to do something she wouldn’t do herself, even if it took a bit of encouragement.  As the years went by, it had gotten to the point that the younger girl wondered if there was ever anything she really wouldn’t do for her friend…

Except now.

Nyx of the night was lost in the shadows, and Taila stared forlornly into the hungry darkness that stole her friend to a future uncertain.

—————————-

She lay on the stone, on her side, dust tickling her nasal passages until mucus filled these and she was forced to breathe through her mouth.  She was naked, her belongings tossed somewhere nearby.  There was something evil in offering any sort of special care to folding her clothing, to protecting her trinkets.  Broken, worn out things like so much that had come to her hands.  She was feverish, and the boots and pants felt stifling.  Her undershirt and gambeson were equally offensive, as they irritated the raw Mark on her back.

It had been months since she’d received it, but the arcane brand had only stopped bleeding some two weeks ago.  The brand itself was like a continuous attack on the skin.  The natural regenerative ability all therians possessed made any permanent change to the body very difficult.  Because of this, soldiers had to train ceaselessly in order to increase their base strength.  As the Mark was essentially damage to the tissue, the magic lingered for atleast half a year to ingrain itself into the therian’s body.  The regenerative magic would take it as the new norm, and once a body was deformed, it was impossible to turn back.

Nyx was at the final stages.

The constant pain made her ill and weak.  Her first full-moon after receiving the Mark had been…traumatic.  Neither she nor the Beast within her could walk after the transformation, and it was all the teenager could do but drag herself somewhere safe.  Out of mourning, the girl had fasted the first month…but then a deepening depression made eating seem a disgusting prospect altogether.  It was perhaps only because of her animal counterpart that she was still alive.  The creature, since their first full moon, seemed overtaken by some mindless drive to keep going. It was a long slow decline that took her to the brink each month. Sometimes, she thought the animal cursed her from the shadows, but she wasn’t sure. She heard lots of things whilst in the grips of fever and hunger.

Like small claws scuttling over rock.

Nyx’s eyes rolled to see a lizard the size of her hand peer at her from a few feet away.  Dead in thought and will, the girl chose to focus on the sight of the small creature, as it was so apart from all that she felt.  She watched as it crept forward, inch by inch, black tongue flickering.  It had blotched skin that alternated between black, brown, and orange.  The soft flesh of its eye was a crimson red, but the pupil itself was a golden yellow.  It tweaked its head to the side as it took in Nyx’s face.

The girl stared at it for a moment longer before her eyes slipped shut.  She fell asleep.

When she awoke hours later, she was aware that the lizard had scuttled even nearer, pressing against her side. She hadn’t moved at all in her sleep, it seemed. Still, she thought the reptile rather bold. It rested beneath her rib cage, its scales cold against her bare skin.  The creature was using her to harvest warmth.

Her body hurt from the lack of movement.  Her tongue was parched and her stomach eating away at her.

Nyx’s hand twitched once against the rock, but this was her only reaction before she fell asleep again. Fell asleep or lost consciousness–it was hard telling the difference anymore.

—————————-

Two months ago.

The girl fought her way up a hill, the village of Tosmai a lonely burn on the horizon.  Her hands snatched at tufts of grass as she crested the steep incline to appreciate her view.  It was early morning.  She wanted to be somewhere safe, and daylight was anything but.  The area surrounding the village was still crawling with Ailurans.

Where could she go?  If she went too far North, she’d arrive at the halfling settlements, and they’d chase her away surely.  The halflings couldn’t sense the Mark, but the full-blooded elves that lived there could.  They were beings of spirit as much as therians were and while the effect wasn’t quite the same, they still knew better than to let an outcast into their midst.  Farther North it was too cold–the land an ever-wintery place where dwarves toiled deep in the mountains.  If she could even survive the treacherous land, who was to say that the dwarves wouldn’t attack her on sight–never mind that she had the Mark?  They weren’t reputed to be very friendly.

South was clearly not an option.  The Ailuran Nation controlled half the heartlands, and Fiamma the other half.  Between the two nations stretched acres of battlefields.  If the Ailurans didn’t kill her, the Fiammans would.

East?  …It was possible, but the way was treacherous on her own, and she’d heard of severe prejudice on the East coast.  Ailurans were hated even more than Draconians or the lowest human criminal.  It was also a land ruled by money–of which she had none, and she doubted she could earn any through legitimate means.  She wasn’t keen on starting a life of crime.

…There was no place for her but the Kreut Forest.  Ailurans and travelers with sense avoided it like the plague.  It was said to be haunted by lost souls, and even guarded by angry nymph spirits who attacked any bearing signs of civilization on their person.  The forest had been covered in soot which had drifted down from the mountains where the dwarves had once worked.  The trees there were dead or twisted.  Ailuran priests worked to restore the land, but they only ventured as far as the outskirts.  It was a black place for wild spirits and dead souls, and even their holy work was overwhelmed by the forest’s suffering.

She’d feel right at home there, she was certain.

—————————-

The girl started awake, screaming.  The lizard sprinted away, hissing as it vanished into the shadows of the den.  Outside, the suns heralded the coming of Night by the sensuous glow that streaked her limited view of the sky. Her vision was blurred and the girl’s cries died out to feeble whimpers in her throat. She winced and shifted to her other side, limbs barely able to keep her upright.

“How much longer will I do this?” she wondered–her first coherent thought in…she couldn’t even remember when. “I don’t want this anymore.”

Words came trickling back to her slowly as she attributed phrases to her feelings. It was like sweeping cobwebs out of corners–

…I failed.  I failed…

…I don’t deserve to exist…

…I’m dying slowly...

Fragmented thoughts for a fragmented monster.  She chuckled emptily into the dark.  Then the quiet came again and the girl stared at the wall.

Nyx let the tears slip down her face. “What’s the point of this? Who am I doing this for? My family or myself?”  She tried to run a hand through her hair, but the long tangled mane caught on her fingers. “A-ma, Thad, Atalo…They’re in the Lunamare.  Their spirits will go on.  Meanwhile…I’m just living in vain, aren’t I?” Her hands curled to fists. The words echoed painfully in her heart.  “I’m living in vain, I’m living in vain, I’m living in vain…”

A new thought hit her, and her eyes shocked wide, more tears spilling forth.  “Is it a sin? …To want to stop the pain? Aelurus, do you hate me that much–or am I bowing to the judgment of mortals? Is this…is this the real sin?  To puppet myself at the satisfaction of society whilst you would have me wiped from life completely?”

The yellow eyes of the lizard glinted at her from the dark.

—————————-

She sometimes had hallucinations.  Sometimes she smelled fire.  Sometimes she thought she were caught in a torrential rain when she was deep within the den.  Sometimes she saw people in the rocks and the dirt and the dead bark.  Sometimes she heard voices cursing her.  The latter could’ve been real–she was in the Kreut Forest after all.

The nymphs didn’t help.  She couldn’t venture far from the den without them throwing sticks and rocks at her.  The shriveled little creatures, with their black eyes, pale skin, and thinning gray hair would leer at her as they ate the skin that peeled from each other’s backs.  They had taken a special interest in this outsider, this Ailuran outcast who had made their hell her home.  She wondered if they were trying to kill her.  The thought didn’t frighten her that much.

She had alot of fever dreams.  She dreamed of giant reptiles swallowing her whole; of drowning her family members one by one in a tub of her own blood; of decaying rapidly into a ghoul at the touch of moonlight.  She’d claw at herself in her delerium, and then she’d weep over the healing wounds, repentant.  Self-harm was a sin against Aelurus.

…But was she a true Ailuran anymore?  Was she not condemned beyond help?

The days stretched to weeks, the weeks to months.  She stopped recognizing hallucinations for what they were.  She stopped weeping over her self-inflicted wounds, and instead, started seeing answers

—————————-

It was daylight.  She wasn’t sure how much time had passed since she’d crawled out of the den on all fours.  She was naked still, her hair a tangled mess, her eyes bloodshot and her skin the palest it had ever been.  She’d only had the presence of mind to grab her cotton bandages as they fit into the goal in her mind.

She moved with little thought to consequence.

Her bandages were around her neck and a high oak branch kept her body upright.  The branch was gray and dead, and it squeaked as her weight pulled it down.

Coldness swept over her.

Her vision started to blur.  She wasn’t sure if she was hallucinating, but the girl thought she saw something move down the trunk and peer at her.  It was gray and small, like a domestic cat, but had hands and feet.  A forest nymph.  It scuttled on the bark with all four limbs, and its large black eyes turned her way.  Then it shot up the tree and settled on the branch where her bandages were.  The thing smiled at her, rows of razor sharp teeth where moss and splinters of wood were caught between.  It giggled as it pulled at the bandage, increasing the pressure, and the girl let out a dry sound.  Her eyes rolled and she could see nothing for a moment.

There was a hiss, and without warning, the pull at the bandage was gone.  Nyx’s eyes fluttered open, vision rippling and blurred to the point that all she saw were smudges.  She saw enough however to see that the forest nymph was gone.

Yellow eyes flickered her way.

A voice entered her ears.  It sounded far away.

“Nyx?  …Öctér!”

The girl let out one final gasp before her eyes went black and she was lost to unconsciousness.

—————————-

She started coughing.  Her entire body seized up and her throat felt like it were being torn apart.  Her lungs felt starved.  Someone reared back, their breath a rush over her.  She thought of her mother’s feline face peering at her in the moonlight, greeting her with silent love.

The world tumbled as she felt hands on her.

“Hey, kitten!  Hey!

“Thad…?” she rasped, eyes opening blearily as she saw a shadow over her.

“Nyx?  Gods, ya lil’ idiot, what were you thinkin’!?”

“I…” she frowned, a hand going to her throat.  She started coughing again and didn’t stop for a while.  Her body started to feel tired from the effort.  Nyx felt something cold and wet fall onto her skin.  Like a rain drop.

The girl opened her eyes against the sunlight, and was visited by a surprising sight.

Marq, the merchant elf, was staring at her with eyes wide.  She hadn’t seen him in over a year.  Since her childhood, the man had aged, gaining wrinkles around the eyes and mouth.  His hair seemed paler too, and his face looked gaunter.  He no longer wore his poncho.  Instead he seemed to be using a long and dusty leather jacket, cracked and faded at the seams.  This he used to cover her naked body.  One more tear fell from his gray eyes before he wiped at them both quickly.  “Gods!” he said shakily, patting her on the cheek.  “You scared me good!

Nyx blinked at him.  “…Why are you here?” she asked.  Her voice was rough from lack of use.

The elf glared at her.  “Why’m I here!?  A fine question, kitten, considering I just saved yer life!  I was jes’ passin’ through when I saw you strung up like a fresh kill!”

The girl swallowed, staring at him.  “Let me go.” she said, pushing at him gently.

“Hey, hold on, now–”

“Lemme go, Marq!”  Her struggle turned fierce.

The man gasped as Nyx tumbled out of his arms.  She hit the ground and tried to raise herself, but found her vision ripple away from her in a surge of grey and white.  Her head felt light.  Deep within her, the Beast snarled.  It couldn’t seem to grasp the concept of suicide, such things didn’t exist in Her wild world, but she understood enough to know that they’d nearly died.

“I didn’t want to be cut down…” Nyx spat.  The Beast’s anger was fueling her.  She turned her head to glare at the man.  “And for your information you didn’t fucking save me.  Didn’t you see the Mark on me?  Üle cajeck!”  Nyx’s face crumpled and she hid behind her curtain of long hair, her head swinging down so that her forehead hovered near the ground. “Üle cajeck!She screamed with a hoarse voice.

She felt ashamed…and angry.  She hadn’t wanted anyone to see her that way.  She’d just wanted the pain to stop.  But faced with the eyes of another, even an outsider, the girl couldn’t lie to herself about what she’d just try to do.

Another sin, another crime–she was a despicable creature.

“No one can save me!” She screamed through her tears.  She slammed a fist onto the ground as her bones and muscles started to ache.  “No one!”

She felt a hand on her back and flinched away, her head snapping up to fix the merchant with a bestial hiss and a wild glare.

Marq pulled away quickly, his face drawn long in something akin to horror.  Then he settled back and pulled at his earlobe.  “I knew you were Marked before I even saw yer back.” The man’s voice became thick as he struggled through his next words.  His northwestern accent became even more pronounced. “But…I know ya, kitten!  I known ya for years.  An’…An’ tha’s enough fer me…alrigh’?  I couldn’ jes’ leave ya…”

Nyx couldn’t answer.  She turned her face away and focused on wrestling back her animal counterpart.  The creature fought her, causing sharp twinges of pain down her spine and limbs, but in the end she was victorious.  The Beast fell silent.  Nyx’s tears ebbed away, but a heaviness came over her.  She lay herself down and didn’t move.  Couldn’t.  The shock of what she’d nearly done, coupled with her shame and her effort to control her Animal’s reaction was too much.  She stared at the dirt ground, her thoughts turning disjointed as the gravity of the situation pressed on her in full.

They seemed to stay there a long time.

Then she heard Marq gather up her things from the den.  When he came and picked her up with his long arms, the girl still did not move or speak.  The sky passed overhead as her arm dangled free through the air.  After a time, her eyes fell shut.

—————————-

She smelled meat.

The Beast in her snarled, its paws heavy on her mind as it started to pace.

Food–!

Nyx opened her eyes, her body laid out on a soft bed roll and a fire painting her sleepy thoughts a hot burn.  The forest canopy was a warm halo that framed the starry sky.  By the healthy branches and green leaves, she knew immediately that they were no longer in the Kreut Forest.

She felt weak, she felt tired, she felt nauseous.

She decided she was feeling too much.

Marq had dressed her, so she now wore her pants and her mother’s gambeson.  The cloth stuck to her Mark, where the puss had dried to the clothing.  With both arms, the girl covered her head and curled up into a ball, her body protesting even this slight movement as she tried to hide herself from the world that had so craftily drawn her from the place of dark ether.

“Aaah…yer awake!”  Marq’s voice.  His boots crunched on the forest floor as he came near.  She heard him kneel and was aware of his nearness by the scent that tickled her nose–old leather and sweat, with…apple cider?  A hand on her shoulder shook her gently.

“C’mon, kitten…aren’ ya hungry?  I fried some bacon.”

Nyx shifted her arms just enough to allow one eye to glare squintily up at the elf.  The man shrugged and stood.

“Suit yer’self!” he said.

He went to the otherside of the small campfire where he carefully removed his frying pan with a thick cloth.  From his bag, he took out a tin plate and a fork and started to serve himself some of the bacon.  Nyx couldn’t help it.  She sat up, despite the waves of pain that churned her head, and gazed hungrily at the food.

Marq glanced at her with a smirk.  He held up the plate.  “You wan’ a bread roll too?”

Nyx turned her eyes downward and fiddled with the neck of her gambeson.  She nodded once.

Within the next few moments, she was sitting up and shoveling her food into her mouth with little pause.

Marq watched her in amazement.  “Wow, kitten.  Do you have’ta practice so that ya don’ choke when eatin’ that fast, or what?”

Nyx didn’t answer.  She finished her plate, licking up the grease and crumbs.

The elf chuckled.  “Yeah, y’know, when yer plate’s empty, that usually means ya gotta get more.”

The girl looked at him, her face burning.  “Can…can I have more?” she asked tentatively.

Marq nodded, taking her plate and going back to his frying pan.  “Sure ya can.  I already ate anyhow.”  He paused however as he returned to her.  The girl stared at the plate in anticipation.  “Hey…but we gotta talk.”

Nyx’s eyes snapped up to his face.  She looked away.  “I don’t want to,” she muttered.  Her face sagged and she felt her eyes start to burn.  “I just wish…you hadn’t seen me like that.”

“I’m glad I managed to find you,” Marq said without hesitation.

“What…?” the girl asked, thinking she’d heard wrong.

The elf shrugged and handed her the plate.  Nyx took it in her hands slowly.  “If I hadn’a gone by, I wouldn’ have been able to stop ya.”

Nyx blushed.  She held the plate close to her as her body curled, but she stared at the food like it were a plate of maggots.  Suddenly, she wasn’t hungry anymore.

“Hey,” Marq said, patting her on the arm as he sat near her.  “I’m not gonna make ya talk about how ya got to where ya did if you don’ wanna.  I jes’ wanna know what yer gonna do now?”

“Try again?” Nyx said with a weak chuckle.  But it didn’t sound right even to her, and she regretted it.

Marq didn’t laugh.  “Be serious, kitten.”

“Then take me serious, Marq!” The girl snapped.  She found it easy to make her shame and discomfort into anger.  “Stop calling me kitten!  I’m not a child anymore!”  She blinked down at the plate.  “I’m not…I…”

The elf frowned at her.  “What?”

Nyx’s face was green when she looked at him.  “I think I’m going to be sick!

When she was through tossing up the food she’d just ate, the girl tried to rise up and leave.  “M’sorry about the food, m’sorry.  I wasted it.  I shouldn’t…you shouldn’t…it’s…the food’s wasted on me.” Her head felt like it were filled with water, and her vision rippled.  The air felt cold against her skin.

“C’mon now, you know I can’ jes let ya go like that!”  Marq steered her back to camp and the youth found she could hardly resist.  That didn’t mean she didn’t try.

“No,” she ground out, fingers digging feebly into his arms.  She tried to kick him away, but the man seemed unfazed.  “Leggo!”

Her weakness was such that even as she put in all she could, Marq was still able to overpower her.  He swept her up and sat down onto the ground with a ‘fwop’.  His large hands tightened around her wrists and she couldn’t get free.  He pressed her legs between his arm and his thigh and she couldn’t kick.  The man was not a warrior, he was just an elf merchant.  It wasn’t supposed to be that easy.  It was pathetic and they were both aware of it.

Marq gazed at her with pity as he sat at the campfire, Nyx in his arms, snarling and writhing.

“Leggo! …Lemme go!”  She hiccuped, her eyes burning.  “Marq!  Please! I’m sorry about the food!  I’m sorry!

“Nyx,” the man said, his gray eyes watering.  “I don’ care about that.  Ya need help.”  His lips pressed together as his chin crumpled.  “Yer worse than I thought ya were.  Yer stomach can’t hold the food, and you can’t even…” his voice trailed away.

Nyx grew tired.  She let her head fall back against the elf’s arm, his scent filling her as she saw the heavens through her tears.  She swallowed and begged one more time.

“Please let me go.  Please let me disappear…

—————————-

The days went by.  Nyx tried to leave, and every time, Marq stopped her–even going so far as to sit on her once.

“Shiva’s breath!  Who would ever have come to think that chaining a person to a rock would be seen as an act of mercy!?” The man panted, trying to avoid Nyx’s flailing limbs.

The man tempted her with small cups of soup, and the girl refused at first, afraid she’d throw it up like before.  Then one day, when the pain was great and her fevers back to their peak, the girl took the soup with little thought.  Later, Marq would tell her he saw the Beast in her eyes, intent on survival.  “Some part of ya wants ta keep goin’.  Right now, that aspect of you is my ally.”

“Be careful what you wish for…” the girl muttered darkly.

“It isn’t like ya ta threaten a person, Nyx,” the man said with a critical frown.

The youth turned her face away.  “I’m not threatening you.  I’m trying to spare you.”

More days passed, and the girl’s portions increased.  She was still reluctant, but she was cooperating, much to Marq’s delight.  He gave her drops of a tonic every night, “To give back what ya been missin’,” he said.

Nyx started to feel stronger.  It felt…good.  But she felt guilty.  She wasn’t supposed to feel this way.  She was supposed to rot away, forgotten by the world.

“You shouldn’t be doing this,” she told the elf one day.

The man just snorted.  “Oh, an’ I’m supposed ta lose my most valued customer?”

Despite herself, Nyx grinned.  The expression was short lived and she wiped at her face.  “I’m getting stronger.  And when I’m strong enough, I’m going to leave you.  It’s…for the best.”

“Then what’ll you do, Nyx?” Marq asked quietly.

Nyx sighed, closing her eyes.  That accursed question again.  What did he want from her?

“I don’t know,” she said after a moment.  It was completely sincere.

The elf nodded, a note of satisfaction to his face.  “…Okay,” was all he said.

—————————-

Another day gone.  Night was upon them again.

Marq’s voice was a drone to her.  He’d been going on for the past hour, resigned to the fact that the girl was not going to reciprocate his desire to hold a conversation.  Nyx was more interested in splitting her ends.  The fire light made it hard to see what she was doing though, and she started to feel impatient.

“You have’ta think beyond right and wrongdoing.  You have’ta think how yer goin’ta exist for the tomorrow.  If ya gotta, look at nature around us.  You wanna know the real reason the Kreut Forest has yet ta be restored?  It’s because the nymphs have allowed themselves ta become all mixed up on the idea of morality.”

This made Nyx look up.

Marq was cutting meat from a rabbit he’d killed with his slingshot.  Without his bag and big coat on, he looked slim and lanky.  There were scars all over his arms, and the peak of his chest, just under the collar bone, revealed just a portion of what looked like burn scars.

Aware and enthused by her sudden attention, the man continued, speaking faster, “They don’t think of balance, only justice.  But does their justice come ridin’ on the waves of their anger and loathing?  The trees are black, and it’s their fault.  They suffer continuously.  I think that’s the real reason that place is so dead.  But nature knows death an’ its own form o’ destruction, doesn’it?  Yet it keeps goin’.  A hawk that kills a mouse for food don’t live in sin because it is seekin’ ta survive, and its survival returns to the world around it.  Kitten, ya have’ta think beyond right and wrongdoing.  Take what ya need, but nothing more, and give back to the life that sustains ya.”

Marq tore off a piece of raw meat and threw it onto the ground.  Nyx gasped as, from the shadows, the lizard scuttled forth, tongue flickering, its eyes on her and the elf.  Then with a mad dash it went to the meat, gobbled it up, then darted back out of sight.  The girl blinked in amazement, her eyes turning to Marq.  The man just smiled.  The fire danced in his eyes.

“That lil’ guy’s been followin’ ya for a while now!”

Nyx turned and gazed at the last place she’d seen the creature.  “It isn’t malefic?”

“…Uh, what?”

“Bad?  It isn’t bad?”

Marq laughed.  “Öctér! No, no, that’s good.”

“I can’t see how that’s a good thing.”  Nyx sighed and leaned on her knees.

The elf’s expression turned somber.  When he spoke, his voice was soft,  “If yer existence truly upsets the balance of life, then nature itself will destroy you and return ya to the basest aspects.  For now, ya gotta keep goin’.  I can’t speak for the gods, but the gods can certainly speak for themselves.  Our world is their instrument.  Death beyond our efforts is divinity, I think.”

“Was it divine then, that my entire family died?” Nyx bit out, her face turning red.

Marq held a sad smile instead of the look of shock or embarrassment she expected.  He gazed down at the ground, “Yes.”

“Fuck you,” the girl snarled, rising.  He rose with her, his face tightening.  He’d stop her if she tried to leave, just like all the other times.  Was this his idea of compassion?  Keeping her like a prisoner?  She was a little stronger now…could she take him?  “Am I fulfilling some sort of dream for you?  Easing some sort of guilt?  I’m sorry to ruin your fallacious fantasy, but I’m Marked, and I will be until the day I die.  One day I’ll leave–”

“To what!? Kreut Forest?  That graveyard?” The elf snapped, throwing his cooking knife to the ground.  “Destiny will find ya, whether you want it to or not, Nyx.  You think that jes’ driftin’ through the days like ya been is any better than tryin’ta kill yourself?  Do that and yer no different from those damned nymphs, sittin’ black an’ ugly in their dead trees–”

“And what about you!?” the girl returned shrilly.  “With your past of debts and crimes and poor choices?  Are you moving on?  Are you meeting your destiny?  You still live like a vagabond–no home and no one to answer to!  I know my place, Marq.  What about you?”

Marq turned his head, his eyes narrowed at the floor.

Nyx snorted and lay on the ground, her back to the man, ignoring the bedroll he’d laid out just for her.  It was petulant, but she didn’t want anything that came from him.

“Yeah…?” he said after a while.  She heard him spit.  “Well…maybe I’ll get it right someday.  The difference ‘tween you an’ me kitten is that I can still believe in tomorrow’s salvation…what kills me is that yer right there next to me, but yer jes’ facin’ the wrong way…lookin’ backwards…Ya have’ta…shed all that.”

There was a hiss as the man poured water over the fire.  He’d given up on dinner, it seemed.  “You have’ta shed yer past to see yer future.”

—————————-

The following day, they didn’t speak.  Nyx was already working out how to flee from the man.  It had been almost two weeks already.  She was done playing along.  She decided she’d try to slip away from him in the night, when he’d fallen asleep.  First, she wanted to catch some rest for what was certain to be a taxing ordeal.  After dinner, she laid down, and this was faced with no complaint from Marq who knew how easily her feeble body left her exhausted at the end of the day.

But that evening, to her bewilderment, Marq roused her from sleep.  It was dusk, and Marq’s face was drawn and pale.  The fire had recently been put out, sand kicked over it instead of the usual water.  His things were gathered up.

“Nyx, we have to go!” he hissed.

The girl blinked at him, irritated and confused.  “Wha–?”

“We have to go, we have to go!!” He snapped, dragging her to her feet and pulling the bed roll out from under her before she was completely steady.

Nyx, dizzy with drowsiness, let out a cry as the elf threw her bag of belongings at her.  She caught it to her chest, and her eyes blinked open wide and glassy.  “What’s the matter with you!?”

Marq opened his mouth to speak.  Then there was a sound that echoed throughout the forest.  It blared, warm and sharp–a hunter’s horn.  Birds startled from the trees as in the next instant, they heard barking.

The elf shoved the girl forward, his teeth bared.  “C’mon, we gotta run!”

Nyx didn’t need telling twice.  She turned and broke into a sprint, her limbs feeling shocked and electric as her heart went into overdrive.  She was still weak, and so she grew tired quickly, but Marq kept pulling and pushing her.  “C’mon, c’mon!

They were clumsy in their effort to escape.  They broke branches and burst through huckleberry bushes.  The forest floor was a treacherous way that shocked their soles.  Nyx knew better.  This wasn’t the way to lose their pursuers.

She tried to grab at Marq’s sleeve.  “Marq!” she panted.  She missed at first, the man apparently too intent on just putting distance between himself and the animals behind him.  Her second try however, she managed to grab him by the crook of the arm.  “Damn it, stop!

The elf did so, but only after stumbling forward a few more steps.  He danced on the spot, his bag jingling as he tried to peer through the trees.  “Nyx, they’re comin’!

“I know that, but the way we’re tumbling through, we may as well be spilling paint behind us!”  She doubled over as she pointed up a maple tree.  “We need to climb this tree!”

The elf gave her a dry look.  “Look, I know you Ailurans are cats an’ all–”

“Just do as I tell you!”  The girl turned and clawed up the tree, pulling herself up on the lowest branch.  The man snorted but followed suit.

Soon they were both nestled in the reaches of the maple tree.  Nyx pressed a finger to her lips as the dogs barking grew closer.  She judged their distance to be some half mile.  The thick forest, coupled with the dogs need to stop and rediscover their scent had given them time.  But that time was drawing to a close.  The girl froze, feeling the wind through the branches.  It was coming…from the South.

Nyx gestured for Marq to follow her.  An oak tree with long thick branches was at war with the maple for sunlight.  The oak’s branches were near enough that Nyx could lean over and crawl into its reach.  The branches squeaked and dipped frighteningly for a moment, but the girl cleared to the other side.  She didn’t pause to wait for Marq.  She moved quickly, slipping and stumbling only a few times as she crossed to the otherside of the tree.  From there, she crossed onto another oak.  She managed this one more time, making it to an elm tree.  She’d crossed twenty-five meters from where they’d started.  Marq was still on the oak behind her.  Unfortunately, the dogs caught up.

Her keen eyesight in the growing darkness granted her basic details.  The dogs were three large shepherds, with black faces, creamy bellies, and large ears.  Nyx held out a staying hand, her face paling.  Marq looked at her, trembling.  The girl shook her head and mouthed, “Don’t move!”  She wasn’t sure if the man could see her, but she didn’t dare do more.

The dogs paused, noses to the ground.  One growled and pawed up the oak tree, its nose quivering.  It whined, then barked.  The others did the same.  They spread out, sniffing the air.  Nyx held her breath.  Hopefully, they’d moved downwind enough that the dogs wouldn’t catch their scent.

To their fortune, the shepherds didn’t venture far from their last known scent trail.  Voices neared.

“Aw great…they lost ‘im again.”

“They didn’t lose him last time.  You just became frightened.

“Can ya blame me?  That damn Kreut gives me the creeps!”

“You have me.  You would’ve been safe.”

“Against them evil spirits?  No offense, but not even Ailuran priests can get in, and they specialize in–”

“Shh…”

Two men, one with a northwestern accent like Marq, the other with an accent she didn’t recognize.  Nyx tried to peer through the trees to get a look at them.  She only managed to see one.  He wore a poncho, like the one Marq used to wear, and he had shoulder-length blond hair.  By the looks of him, he seemed human.  At his far hip, the girl made out a wide sword.  On his nearest hip, she saw the horn he’d been using, made of an animal’s horn.

His partner, still out of view, spoke.  He sounded eerily calm, “He’s here somewhere.  He didn’t vanish.  The tracks stop at this tree.”  She heard the crunch of dirt as whoever it was walked slowly.  She also heard the chink of armor.  The girl’s mouth went dry and she stared at Marq, who was squeezing his eye shut.  Sweat was trailing down his slim face in thick rivulets.

…What had the man gotten himself into now?

As quiet as they could, the both of them huddled down, behind the cover of their respective trees.  More footsteps told them both that the second hunter was traveling ever closer.

“Winnamer.”  The first hunter.  He sounded impatient.  “Hey, it’s gettin’ ta night and I can hardly see.  Les’ jes’ go, huh?  We’ll get ‘im in the mornin’.”  It was true.  Since they’d started running, the stars had come out.

When ‘Winnamer’ spoke, it was with a gentle sigh, like a parent dealing with an impatient child.  “If we give up now, than I doubt we’ll catch them before the end of tomorrow.  Didn’t I already tell you my contract had a time limit?”

“Hey, we’ll get ‘im!  And you’ll get the other half of the gold once that happens!”

“And if not, then I keep the first half and continue on my way.  I have bigger things to deal with.”

“What’re you in such a hurry for?”

“This is where I ignore you and instead choose to answer your former, more reasonable request.”  Footsteps again.  Faster.  Heading away.  “I’m done for the day.”

Nyx’s fingers dug into the bark as she saw the man known as Winnamer walk into her view.  It was only for a brief second.  He had long black hair down to his waist and slate blue scale armor.  On his back was a heavy billhook, and on his hip a wicked black hook.

The first hunter cursed.  His face scrunched in frustration as he watched the other man walk away.  Then he turned his head and whistled for the dogs to follow, and they did so eagerly–already bored without a proper trail to follow.  They waited until the men and dogs were gone.  Then they waited some more.

—————————-

“Marq–”

“Nyx, look–”

“Gods damn it!”

“Nyx,” the elf rubbed his brow as he leaned back against the oak tree he’d just climbed down.  The darkness was heavy around them.  “Look, I didn’ think they’d follow me after the Kreut Forest, alright?”

“And you just forgot to mention that you were in trouble again?”

“I was a bit preoccupied, y’know?” the man snapped, gesturing at her.  “And don’ go judgin’ me kid, considerin you–” the man stopped with a hiss.

Nyx took a step from him, unable to keep the hurt from her face.  “Yeah…” she laughed but it was a humorless sound.  “I should know better.  I’m sorry.”

“Aw hell, Nyx m’sorry!  I just…Shiva’s breath!” the man kicked at the ground.

The girl had already turned and was walking away.  “Goodbye, Marq.”

—————————-

She didn’t welcome the solitude, but rather, accepted it.  It was where she was supposed to be.  The wind in her hair, the night on her back, the uncertainty of her path–it was all familiar.  Loathed, but it was familiar.

Nyx wiped away silent tears.

The next few days were spent trying to get a grasp of her new surroundings.  She was in unfamiliar territory, and it set her on edge.  She wanted to head westward again, but she didn’t want to run into the hunters.  Frustrated, she tried to find somewhere safe where she could hide until the trouble passed and she could…

But the girl paused, coming to a slow stop in the forest.  Around her, the forest was dim and sleepy–but light was beginning to filter down through the thick forest canopy.  She realized…she didn’t want to go back to the Kreut Forest.  She didn’t want to wander through the dead, black trees.  She didn’t want to be like the disgusting nymphs that crawled over the dry bark.

Nyx bowed her head, her body trembling.  “What’m I supposed to do now…?”

Then she heard the hunter’s horn, and her head snapped up.

She ran.

Nyx’s breaths were knives, and every long draw cut at her.  She blinked away sweat, beads collecting on her brow and nose, and droplets swooped over the hollow of her cheeks, which were sunken from her starvation.  Nyx clenched and unclenched her hands.  She heard the dogs and sobbed.  She was alone now.  Alone and tired, because she hadn’t slept.  The girl slowed to a jog, her eyes scanning for a good tree to climb.

She found one.

But the dogs found her.

One of the shepherds slammed into her from the side, knocking her to the ground in a flash of fur and fangs.  The animal clamped its mouth around her right forearm and worried it, spit making her gambeson sleeve wet as ropes of saliva fell from the creature’s mouth and landed on her face in light of the ferocious movement.  The other two dogs soon joined it, snarling and growling.  One took her by the ankle, the other her left wrist.  Nyx screamed and tried to defend herself, but the dogs were fierce.

“Release!” a familiar voice shouted.  The man from before.

As soon as the dogs let her go, the girl curled into a ball, sobbing so hard she could hardly breathe.

“There’s the other one!”  the man said, “You think you can use her?”

“We can’t use her.”  Winnamer.  She heard his armor chink as he came closer.  He drew a blade and she curled into an even tighter ball.

“Why not?  What’s wrong?”

“You don’t know.  You can’t feel it.”  Nyx felt a blade brush back her hair and she trembled.

There was a whistle as Winnamer drew back his weapon.  “This is a Marked Ailuran.  She’s too dangerous.  But her head will earn me prestige with my temple–”

Leave ‘er alone!”  Marq’s voice.

Nyx peeked from beneath her arms, her breathing fast and shallow.  Winnamer was wielding his billhook.  The human hunter had his sword drawn.  Both men turned, looks of puzzlement passing their faces as behind them, the elf merchant appeared.  He was without his pack and lacking his usual jacket.  The hunter turned and pointed his sword.

“Finally!” he crowed.  “The slimy bastard shows his rotten face!”

Marq was sweating profusely, and his skin was flushed.  He gazed at Nyx with knitted brows.  Then he turned to the hunter.  “Let the girl go, Oriel.  She has nothing to do with this.  I’ll…I’ll go with ya.”

“And my gold?”

The elf’s face turned hard.  “Ya know I don’t have it…”

Oriel clicked his tongue, brushing back his blond with an exaggerated swish of his hand.  He pointed at the ground with his sword.  “Down on your knees and hands behind your head.  Then I’ll let the Ailuran go.”

Marq pressed his lips together so that they turned white.  His cleft chin quivered, but he did as he was ordered to.  Nyx raised herself slowly.  The dogs growled as she moved, their muscles taut as they awaited any reason to attack her.  Her eyes flickered to Winnamer, who was gazing at her with cold black eyes.  His long black hair lifted with the breeze, and the girl saw that the strands were braided at the top.  There was a black mark tattooed on his neck, just over the jugular, showing a box-shaped design with a slash through the middle and horns at the sides.  Nyx felt sick.  She knew what that symbol meant.

Winnamer was a paladin, and part of a controversial order that specialized in very ‘offensive‘ magic.  The Order of Khnum.  They weren’t known for their mercy, and other temples accused them of committing evil in the pursuit of good.  They’re motto may as well have been “the ends justify the means”.  They were famous for the spell said to “return souls” unto the very world they took from, leaving the animus to unravel with every exhaled breath of the subject, turning them into clay statues.  She’d read about it a long time ago, and the information came rushing back without trouble.

As if to confirm her fears, Winnamer turned his head and said to Oriel, “Comrade.  You have promised to let this girl go.  I’d not make a liar of you.  But for the second half of my payment, I’d deny your gold and ask that you lend me your dogs today instead.”

Oriel was busy tying Marq up from behind.  The elf started to thrash at Winnamer’s words, but by this time he was securely bound.

“Hey!  I said let her go!” he shouted.  The hunter bashed him in the back of the head with the hilt of his sword, and Marq fell over, his eyes rolling into the back of his head.

Winnamer didn’t look at him.  “Oriel, the girl can go.  I’m asking for your dogs.  Atleast until tonight.”

“Shit, fine.  Take ’em.  You want me to tell ya how to–?”

“No need.”  Winnamer turned his head forward again.  Nyx scuttled backwards, her lips trembling.  The paladin pointed at her with his billhook.  His eyes started to glow and when he spoke again, it was…ethereal…layered as though there were more than one person speaking.  “Ailuran.  You will run now.  If I catch you, you will die.  If you refuse to go, I shall take it as your waiving your chance to freedom and have my prize now.

The dogs snarled, snapping their jaws.  They jockeyed one another, bumping shoulders and shifting position along an invisible line.  Their eyes started to glow, as Winnamer’s did.

Nyx stared wildly at them, then at the paladin, then at Marq–who lay face down on the forest floor.  She should save him, she shouldn’t leave him behind–

In her head, the Animal was yowling.

Run Run Run Run Run Run

The driving fear overtook her and the girl turned and ran, her body like a scythe that cut through the unknown forest.  She ran less than half a mile before her vision rippled the world away, and exhaustion made it so that even breathing took great effort.  The girl tripped and crashed onto the roots of an ancient bay fig.  Her eyes rolled and her gasps for breath were long and desperate.  Her hands crushed leaves and dirt in her hands as she tried to claw her way along the ground.

The tree groaned over her, as though protesting her clawing hands against its bark.  It stood nearly two hundred feet tall, and its trunk was as wide as five people.  The roots, where it had wrapped around and overwhelmed its host (a now dead elm tree) started around Nyx’s height, then buried into the ground.  Between some of the roots, there were small spaces where animals had taken shelter.  As she could barely raise herself up onto all fours let alone stand, the girl crawled up the tree and into one of these nooks.  She just managed to fit, but the space felt claustrophobic.

She waited there a few minutes longer, her eyes slipping shut against her will.  She was so tired…

The roots shuttered, and a loud growl rattled her as hot stinking breath rushed past her face.

Nyx screamed, jerking awake, her head snapping back against the tree.

All she could see in her daze and incoherent fear were glowing eyes amidst black faces and snapping jaws.  They had caught up with her–and this time they didn’t bark or howl to announce their presence.  They were driven by something else–some magic force that Nyx couldn’t understand in her terror.  The dogs couldn’t get in all the way, but they were still far too close for comfort.  The girl shifted, trying to scuttle to a place where they couldn’t get to, but even as she tried to move beneath the weave of thick tree roots, the dogs followed.

They stayed like that for ages it seemed.

The girl covered her eyes and curled into a fetal position, the hellish barking making her flinch every time.

If this is what you want, then why do you cower?

The voice seemed to come from nowhere, much like the loud screech that filled the air, effectively silencing the dogs.  There were yelps and whines as the dogs battled whatever it was that had appeared.  Nyx wasn’t sure if she should lift her eyes.  She wasn’t sure if she wanted to.

The world fell quiet.

She remained there a long time, unmoving.  Night came.

Finally, Nyx raised her head, her bloodshot eyes blinking.

The dogs were gone, and Winnamer was nowhere in sight.

—————————-

She started to walk, not really certain of where she was going.  Her feet hurt, and her stomach snarled at her from under her gambeson.

She heard someone sigh and raised her eyes from the floor.  She was back to the place she had fled from before.  The sight that met her didn’t surprise her, but her throat tightened and she fell to her knees.

Marq was tied to a tree, half naked, his body covered in blood.  His ears had been cut off, and his face was bruised.  His left shoulder seemed at a funny angle, and there were cuts all along his chest.  Now that he was bare chested, Nyx could see the burn marks he had in full.  From his collar bone a large twisted burn spanned down to his belly button.

Unable to take the sight anymore, the girl bowed her head.  “Marq…” she sobbed.

“Hmm?” The girl gasped and stared at the man as his swollen eyes open to slits.  “Ah…kitten.  There ya are…” the man mumbled, his swollen lips barely moving.

She scooted closer.  “I…I don’t know what to–” she glanced over her shoulder as a thought suddenly hit her.  She started to shiver and her tawny eyes went wide.  “Wait, are they still here? Those men!?”  Then she felt guilty as it occurred to her how selfish this was, and she looked back at the elf, pulling at the front of her gambeson.  “I mean…I…do you want me to cut you down?  Can you move?”  Despite her shame, she couldn’t discard the desire to run.  She didn’t want to be there.

“Kitten…” The man exhaled, then his face twitched into what could be called a smile.  “Hey…I’m dyin’, y’know?  Winnamer…cast Argilla on me…ya heard o’ that spell, m’sure.”  he let out another long sigh.  “…Don’ feel bad for wantin’ to run.  Yer right, I’d jes’ hold ya back…”  He coughed and groaned, and the action seemed so painful even Nyx winced.  “I wan’ ya to know…that I really didn’ do anythin’ this time…so please don’ think too badly of me.  Please?  Oriel got greedy…he…he went back on his word…wanted more for the merch I bought from ‘im.  Turns out, he was jes’ another thug.”

“But why!” Nyx sobbed, tugging harder at her gambeson.  “Why did you try to save me?  I’m not worth it!  If you were innocent then you should’ve just let them kill me!”

Marq shook his head softly.  “No, Nyx.  You was right.  I…I was livin’ like a vagabon’, not wantin’ ta answer for my past mistakes.  All those times…I jes’ got lucky.  Scraped by with the skin o’ my teeth.  I never really learned from my mistakes, never really knew what it meant ta wash my soul clean.  I think…I think the gods sent Oriel an’ Winnamer for a reason.  I have ta give back what I took.  Same as you did, when ya got that Mark.”

“You aren’t making any sense!” the girl screamed.  “Üle cajeck! Üle kinzcht nedret!  You gods damned miscreant, I can’t cry for you too!

“So don’, ya lil’ idiot.  Whose askin’ ya to?”  Marq coughed and Nyx let out a startled hiss as she saw his hair turn stiff, then crumble away into the breeze.  His chest started to take on a dull, muddy shade.

“Ah gods…no…no, no, no…”  she stood to her feet.  “Marq you’re turning into clay–”

“Nyx, hey.  Look’it me.”

The girl stared in horror as she saw his chest turn stiff, as parts of his flesh flaked away.

“Nyx!”

She snapped her eyes onto Marq’s gray ones, and she noted something fiery in their stare.

“Go East, kitten,” the man whispered.  The edges of his face started to turn dull.  Spidery cracks appeared along his cheeks and temples.  “Go find those incredible deserts and jungles and cities you been readin’ about.  You have’ta keep goin’.  Think beyond right and wrongdoin’ and jes give back to the life that sustains ya.  It doesn’ look it, but I’m doin’ that now.  I was long overdue, so don’ you mourn me.  Don’ya dare.  This was my choice, my destiny.  But if ya wait as long as I did ta give back to the world, you’ll end up payin’ the same price, one way or another…”

Nyx just shook her head.  “But…” her eyes lowered and she frowned.  With a shaking hand, she reached forward toward Marq’s left breast, where up close now, she saw beneath the crusted blood a faded tattoo.  It was shaped like a lizard.  Her fingertips brushed over it gently.  “Marq…are you the one who…?”

“Marquis.”

“What?”

“My full name,” he wheezed, barely audible.  “Is Marquis.  Take care in who ya trust yerself with, kitten.  Alot can be had…in jus’ta name…”

As soon as she removed her touch, the man seized up with a gasp.  He threw his head back against the tree, and there was a sick cracking noise as his body transformed completely into clay.  His last expression was that of great shock.  Nyx gasped and jumped back, her eyes spilling tears as the man’s body crumbled and fell to pieces.

“Marq!” She screamed, though she backpedaled away.  “Oh gods, why?

“He spoke to the truth.  It was his payment, for his past sins.  He had quite a bit.  Most of which I’m sure you were unaware of.”

The girl jumped and spun around.  Her legs grew weak as she found herself face to face with Winnamer.

The paladin narrowed his eyes at her.  “Something powerful killed Oriel’s dogs.  I felt their deaths in our connection.  They never saw what it was.”  He clenched his fists, his brows clashing together.  “What power did that elf use?  And why would he waste it on you?

Nyx couldn’t answer.  She swallowed through a tight throat and tried to think of how to get away.

Winnamer sighed and looked to the forest canopy.  “Oh, well…I can’t kill you, now.  So it doesn’t matter.”

The girl couldn’t help it.  “What?” she squeaked, twisting the hem of her gambeson.

The paladin raised an eyebrow at her, but didn’t lower his head.  He stared at her down the length of his nose, his hands relaxing at their sides.  “Marquis was a sinner, but he was repentant.  He gave his life for you.  I also learned that Oriel was as much a sinner as Marq had been.  Perhaps worse.  I made him pay.  I cannot be associated with such types.  As such, the manner of our meeting taints the honor I would receive in taking your head to my temple.  So I’m not going to kill you.”

Nyx blinked.  “You’re…letting me go?”

“Not necessarily.”  Winnamer folded his hands behind his back.  “I’ll give you till the rest of this year to leave this region.  If I ever find you again, you can be certain I will not hold back, regardless of how or where we meet.  That I can promise you.”

Nyx started to back away, her eyes on the paladin.  He belonged to a class of magic users who took oaths and promises very seriously, but somehow, she still feared betrayal through some insidious loophole.

“Ailuran,” he said.

The girl paused, tensing.  “…Yes?”

“What is your name?  For posterity’s sake.”

Nyx narrowed her eyes.  “I’d rather not say.  I mean,”  She glanced off to the side, then back at the man.  “Is Winnamer even your real name?”

Winnamer blinked at her, then he chuckled and bowed his head.  “Mmm…fine.  Until next time, little one.”

The girl hissed at him, feeling something of her animal self pushing at her skin.  She turned and ran, and the paladin’s eyes felt like weights on her back.

—————————-

Eight months later.

In a garden shed.

The girl sighed, fussing with her newly cut hair.  The shears she’d used had been too big.  She’d cut off large chunks, leaving the locks uneven.  To make matters worse, a fox in the garden had startled her, making her cut her bangs at a funny angle.  At that point, she’d given up.  Anymore attempts, and she was certain she’d behead herself.  The itch of hair was already driving her mad.

“By the four winds, that had to be one of my stupidest ideas to date,” the girl muttered to herself as she passed the garden and approached the humble thatched house that shadowed it.

Nyx peered in through the window of the dark little home, scratching absently at her neck.  Here, a family of three lived.  A mother, a father, and a little boy.  With her hands shifted to claws, the girl pulled open the window.  Earlier that day, she had slipped into the house when the trio had gone to the back of the home to admire their vegetable garden.  They had left the door open allowing her a quiet entry.  The problem was, she’d only had enough time to break the latch before she had to slip out again.  Now that the family were asleep, she could slip in and take what she needed with more leisure.

She slipped in through the window, her cat eyes adjusting easily to the darkness.  From her visit previously, she knew where they kept the grain and salted meat.  Within the next few minutes, she had a pound of raw beef, wrapped in white paper, and a small bag of grain.  She usually preferred to take from those who wouldn’t notice it–but the family was doing well, so she didn’t feel as bad.

Nyx started to go back the way she’d come, her bare feet making no noise on the stone floor, but a hiss stopped her.

Slowly she turned her head.

Yellow eyes peered at her from the dark of a wood stove.  A black tongue flickered into the light, tentative.

The girl blinked, not moving for a whole minute.  Then slowly she crouched down.  With careful hands, she unwrapped the meat and tore off a small piece.  Then with a light toss, she threw the morsel towards the creature in the shadows.  She turned her attention to wrapping the meat again.  When Nyx looked back, the piece of meat was gone, as was the creature.

Without another pause, the girl left the home, shutting the window after her.

In just a few more weeks, she’d reach the Torreth mountains…and from there…

Nyx didn’t know.

…But she’d paid a toll, and all she could do was keep moving.


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