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Chapter 27.3

“Today is gonna be the day
That they’re gonna throw it back to you
By now you should’ve somehow
Realized what you gotta do
I don’t believe that anybody
Feels the way I do about you now

Backbeat the word was on the street
That the fire in your heart is out
I’m sure you’ve heard it all before
But you never really had a doubt
I don’t believe that anybody feels
The way I do about you now

And all the roads we have to walk along are winding
And all the lights that lead us there are blinding
There are many things that I would
Like to say to you
I don’t know how

Because maybe
You’re gonna be the one who saves me ?
And after all
You’re my wonderwall”1

 

QUINCY____________________________

Quincy awoke with a taste akin to leather on her tongue.  With mussed hair and squinted eyes, she sat up on her cot and saw through the haze of smoky incense a large bowed back, draped in gray furs.  The person was sitting on a low stool, elbows out, occupied with something at the table they sat at.  Their skin was a leathery brown, the skin tight and wrinkling from the lack of elasticity.  From the broadness of the shoulders, she was certain this was a man.  Peppery hair came down his back in long trailing locks.  Glass beads on leather strings tied into the hair, the green, white, and black pattern illuminated in the candlelight.

She thought, “This must be the village healer.  I didn’t see him when Hakeem came in earlier…”

He was silent as he worked.

Other cots were crammed up close to hers, the people laying asleep or unconscious under thick fur blankets.  The medicine hut was easily the biggest in all the village, but it could hardly fit ten adults.  No doubt there were more injured that the medicine man had to see personally at their homes.

Suddenly, Quincy felt a surge of energy course through her.  She had no business taking up a cot from someone who really needed it.  She was just a silly woman who became faint from lack of fortitude.  With red cheeks, the woman rose, the cot squeaking.  Spots came into her eyes, but she managed to keep from swaying too much.

The medicine man turned and regarded her with gray eyes flecked with honey.  His lips were sunken in, his long face fuzzy with gray stubble.  His jaw worked as he chewed his tongue, his owlish brows furrowed deep.

“Kwin-se.” He lisped.  She could see that, save for a snaggletooth or two in the front top of his jaw, the man lacked teeth.

The woman frowned, coming closer, the incense smoke stirring in whorls about her.  “I’m sorry?”

“Kwin-se.  Y’aw nem, o’ no?”  His Lycan accent was thick, and his voice a deep bass that made the woman’s hairs stand on end.

Quincy blinked at him, making as if to brush her hair back with her hand, then scratching her head partway through.  “Uh…yes.  Yes, that’s my name.”

The medicine man turned his back on her, returning his gaze to his work.  “Ha-kim seh yoo gud with de art o’ rootsh.”

The woman squinted one eye.  “The art of what?”

“Yoo ‘oomans…yoo seh…ul-kemy.”

“Ulkemy? …Oh!  You mean, alchemy!”

“Mmm hmm.”

The wizard nodded slowly,  “Yes, I’m good with alchemy.  You um…” she shifted her weight to one foot and placed a hand on her hip.  “Were you…I mean…do you need help?”

A rumble came from the man, and the woman wasn’t sure if he was growling at her or laughing. “Ha-kim seh yoo was smaht.”

She wrinkled her nose.  “Is that a yes?”

The man sighed and turned to fix her with a stare that made her feel as if she were twelve-years-old again, standing before Tobias covered in black feathers and green blood, with a cauldron of “surprise stew” overflowing into the out-of-control fire behind her…

…Which may or may not have happened.

Fiercely blushing, the woman undid her bracers and tossed them onto the bed.  She approached the table, rolling up her sleeves, and mumbled, “What do you want me to do…?”

He pointed a thick finger at an open clay pot filled with what looked like dried calendula stems, then at a spare mortar and pestle on the other end of the table.  The medicine man had a mortar in front of him as well, and in it was a white substance that looked like thin powder.

“Grine et so is tin,” he ordered.

“Thin?”

Tin.

“Uh…Okay…”

With lips pressed together, the woman set to work.  They worked in silence for several moments, the only sound being the light snores from some of the patients, and the sounds of stone working against stone.

Then the man grunted, “Eidan.”

Quincy looked at him, startled.  “Pardon?”

“Nem.  Eidan.”

The woman’s hands stilled as she squinted one eye at him.  The man looked at her as if she were an idiot.  He pointed at her.  “Kwin-se.”  He pointed at himself.  “Eidan.”

Her eyes widened.  “Oh!  Eidan is your name!

The man grunted and shook his head, his eyes returning to his work.  “Ha-kim seh yoo was smaht…”

NYX____________________________

Out of the warmth…and into the cold.

I was kneeling in the snow, lost under a frame of time that had been taken out of order—a single shard moment of tangible emotions balled up into a disparate scene.

I was dressed in my mother’s feldgrau gambeson, the top button undone so that my collar hung loose from my neck.  My hair was once more long, reaching down my back in messy curls and twists.  Tears ran from my puffy red eyes, hands clutching around the limp body of Atalo.  His young face was pale, staring glassily up at the sky, blood staining his skin from his throat being entirely ripped out.

Surrounding us in a circle, were pretas, like the ones I’d killed before.

They all sat attentively, with backs straight, mouths closed, and ears swiveled forward.  I gazed around at each of them, my short breath a fog that dissipated into the white.

Then Atalo stirred in my arms.

I gave a start, a gasp escaping my lips as a shiver rippled through me.  My little brother’s tawny gaze flickered my way, and he smiled.

“Koah…” he whispered.

His hand slowly reached up and I grabbed it, my gaze nearly clouding from my tears.  I couldn’t stop shaking.  A smile spread my lips.

“Koen, you were just sleeping, weren’t you?” I whispered.

He laughed, blood bubbling from the wound in his throat.  I laughed with him, my hands coursing through his mane of dark hair.  The pretas threw their heads back, and their horizontal mouths split to let out their unnerving child-like laughter.  Somewhere beneath the joy—deep, deep, down—I felt a sense of absolute horror at this scene.

Atalo leaned in close.  Closer than was appropriate.  The demon spirits still yipped and giggled around us.

My brother hissed, “My hunger woke me up…”

Then he grabbed me and bit into my neck, tearing out my flesh with beastly teeth.

————————-

That was about the time I woke up with a scream.

Sweat drenched my skin, leaving a great chill when the cool air breezed into the hut.  I sat panting, having kicked off the blanket in my sudden panic.

Elmiryn was up in an instant.  Sleepy-eyed and muttering curses, she made as if to reach for her sword, but we’d left her sword belt next to the bed.  She patted around for it for another second before she realized there was no immediate danger.  Once she saw this, she relaxed, slouching with a sigh.  The warrior squeezed my shoulder with one hand, her other hand rubbing at her eyes.  “Nyx…wassamatter?” she mumbled.

I wiped at my face, still trying to catch my breath.  I felt foolish and couldn’t meet the woman’s gaze.  “I’m sorry…it was…I just had a bad dream, Elle.”

The woman let out a low hum in her throat and wrapped her arms around me. She kissed my ear, and I shyly turned my head a quarter her way.  She kissed away a tear from the corner of my eye next, and whispered, “Would it helped if I held you?”

I swallowed and nodded.

Without a word, we lay back down onto the blankets, this time with Elmiryn encircling both arms around me.  She laid onto her back, and me atop her, my head tucked in just underneath her chin.

“I’m not too heavy?” I asked.

The  woman let out a short laugh.  “Hell, no.”

I smiled weakly, but the vision of Atalo’s gruesome face smiling at me lingered—the blood staining his teeth, the torn remains of his throat, the hunger in his eyes as he killed me…

Then Elmiryn started to sing.

It was very soft, and yet the sound hummed through me, making my eyes flutter.  The melody was slow and had a note of melancholy to it.  I listened with rapt attention as the warrior came to the words:

O’ chance, dear sir,

Have ye caught word?  

Of my love, so gold an’ true?  

Says I, “It’s nigh a turn,

Since that ol’ thief has stolen through.”

He’s long in step,

But short of strike,

His hands not knowin’ blood.  

He’s stardust in his hair

From all the heavens up above.

With careful grace,

He sought the place

Where I did keep my heart.

My love in hand,

That braggart fled

An’ left me torn apart.

O’ chance, dear sir,

Have ye caught word?  

Of my love, so gold an’ true?  

Says I, “It’s nigh a turn,

Since that ol’ thief has stolen through…”

The song wasn’t done, but my eyes slipped closed at some point, and the words were caught in the net of my sleepy mind, not quite making it to memory.  I don’t know when I fell asleep, but my next dream was something warm, and I vaguely recall it having something to do with the stars.

QUINCY____________________________

Quincy finished tying the bandage on the young girl, her face sour as she thought in her head, “These Lycans are letting children take to the spear…At this rate, they’ll die out!”

She patted the girl’s shoulder, then turned and beckoned at the next person in line.  “Next!”

Eidan worked behind her, preparing more medicinal paste for the bandages.  Since they’d started, they had sent word around the village requesting the injured who could still walk to report to the medicinal hut for treatment.  A long line had formed, winding around the village trails.  Quincy had to admit, she was astonished.  She hadn’t known this many injured needed attention.

She was just getting through with her current patient when Hakeem’s young form slipped past the line at the door.  He gazed behind him, blinking, then at Quincy.  “Eidan has put you to work, I see.”

Quincy scowled.  “Yes.  Yes, he has.”  She sighed and the look softened.  “But I suppose it’s what I owe.  They spared a bed for me, despite all these people…”

Hakeem sat down next to her on the floor, watching as the next person came to her for aid.  Her next patient was a teenage boy with a bad cut on his face that ran from the left side of his nose, across his cheek to his jaw.  The wound had a white pus in it, the skin around it puckered and turning purple.  There was a definitely a pungent smell coming from the gash.

“I don’t understand!” the woman said, huffing at the sight.  She reached for the water jug and echinacea cream to clean the wound with.  “These are therians, they ought to be healing themselves!”

“Lycan not god.”

Quincy jumped, dropping the jug and spilling its contents onto the dirt floor.  She and Hakeem turned to look at Eidan.  The medicine man didn’t lift his eyes from his work.

“Lycan paht o’ neshure.  The wo’k yoo see, not paht o’ neshure.  Is bad, bad magic done tish.  Stron’ magic.  Owr bodies no heal a’cos still bein’ tacked.” Eidan rumbled.

The woman looked to her husband, and the man-boy explained readily.  “He basically said that whatever is out there is not natural, and the wounds it leaves keeps attacking the skin so that the Lycans can’t heal completely.”

“I speak five different languages, and yet I can’t make out a single word this man says…” the brunette mumbled.

“Yoo no lissen gud,” Eidan said with a look over his shoulder.

The woman blushed.  “I ‘lissen’ just fine!” she shot back.

“Ah!  Yoo un’erstan’ den wen Eidan seh, ‘No talk.  Wohk’.”

Quincy went red, ready to jump to her feet when Hakeem grabbed her arm and gave a firm shake of the head.  The brunette grit her teeth and settled back down.  With a sigh she plucked the water jug up from the floor.  She swished the container and made a face at the small splash she heard.  “I’m not even sure this is enough for this boy…”  She made as if to stand, but Hakeem hopped up with such eagerness, the woman nearly dropped the jug again in her surprise.

“I’ll get more water for you.  I have to tell the others it’s supper time anyway,” he said.

Flustered, the woman just managed a nod before her husband zipped back out of the medicine hut.  She stared after him for a moment before she returned her attention to the patient with a muttered apology.

It was going to take a lot of getting used to seeing her Hakeem in such a bizarre state.  In the subtlest ways, he even…behaved differently.  Was his age all that he had lost?  Just where did the Other Place (as Elmiryn took to calling it) draw the line?

“Ha-kim.  Gud man.”

Quincy turned her head a fraction, still dabbing at her patient’s wound with the cream.  She figured the cream was enough to clean the wound with.  It certainly helped the sponge glide better.

Eidan went on.  “He pro’tek ush.  We pro’tek him.  Ha-kim gud man.  He be nawr-mal soon.  No worry.”

“I’m not worried…” she mumbled reflexively.  Hadn’t the old man said not to talk?  Why was everyone such a hypocrite?

Eidan let out a rumble, and this time the woman was sure he was laughing at her.

Her patient was doing a good job of remaining passive, but he was clearly unaccustomed to such pain, and up close she saw him flinch a few times.  The woman pretended not to notice, but adjusted her treatment as she saw him react.  Warriors craved to be seen as strong, and the woman knew it was an important role for the healer to be able to handle this psychology with care, lest she lose the cooperation of her patient entirely.

Quincy sighed as she finished cleaning out the pus and evenly spread the echinacea cream.  She reached for the gauze and bandages, but paused, her eyes flickering to Eidan’s back.  With bit lip, she took up the cloth strips and gauze sponge, then turned back to the boy in front of her.

“Hakeem seems happy here.”  The wizard carefully pressed the gauze to the boy’s cut.  She saw his dark eyes lock onto hers, and she gazed back into them without blinking.  With gentle, but sure hands, she wrapped the bandage around his head so that the gauze would stay.  She’d had plenty of practice healing young apprentices back at Crysen and found the skill easy to recall.  “I think it reminds him of better times.  Times I took away from him.”

“Yoo know what shimá means?”

The wizard shook her head as she finished tying the bandages.  She patted the teenager on the shoulder, and he gave her a nod before standing up and leaving.  “No.  I don’t.”

Quincy beckoned for the next person to come forward.  This time, a man close to her age sat in front of her.  He undid the old bandages across his chest to reveal open sores on his left breast and shoulder.  With a sigh, the brunette knew she’d need the bowl of buckthorn and calendula oil.  First, as always, she had to clean the wound.  Even the patients that tried to treat themselves did so improperly or with inferior herbs.  Thankfully, she didn’t need water for this either.

“Shimá mean wah-man o’ joy.”

The wizard’s hand paused on its way to her patient’s chest.  “Woman of joy?”

“Mm hmm.  Wen Ha-kim learn’ dat, shimá all he call yoo.  Kwin-se Ha-kim’s shimá.”

Quincy opened her mouth, her brow furrowing.

“Wat Eidan seh?  No talk.  Wohk.”

The wizard snapped her mouth shut with a huff, but when she returned her attention to her patient, her lips twitched at the corners.

ELMIRYN________________________

The warrior didn’t know how long she slept.  Since Nyx had woken her, she hadn’t been able to fall back to sleep.  A small throb of pain was blossoming in her head, and an unsteady feeling was creeping into her hands, but for the moment, the discomfort was muted and easily ignored.

Her cerulean eyes watched as the animal hide, which spanned the hut’s ceiling in a conical shape, breathed with the passing wind.  The opening in the center was a smoky black from the last inhabitant’s cooking.  The sparse furnishings of the hut felt like pieces of another time that didn’t belong to her, and yet she didn’t feel unwelcome.  As her mother would put it, the spirit here was a good one.

Her arms held Nyx, and she felt an ache go through her at the feel of the girl’s body, soft and light and relaxed.  The girl’s even breath graced the woman’s shoulder in feathery touches.

Elmiryn recalled the sound of Nyx calling out in pleasure, and wished desperately that she could hear it again.

Sleep was no longer an option for the warrior, but she didn’t mind.  She didn’t feel tired at all, and she liked laying with the girl in her arms.  She didn’t want to wake her companion, so she quietly hummed, hoping that her song would weave a better dream for Nyx.  She wanted to protect the girl, even in her sleep.

…Elmiryn wondered if she could undo the threads of bad dreams.

Apart from this single question, her thoughts were remarkably simple.  It was true that the redhead didn’t know what to make of her feelings at the moment.  It was all new to her.  This was all new to her—never had any of her previous partners remained after the carnal fun was had, and never had she ever got the impression of there being more than just…

But the thoughts stopped there.

There was what was, and there would be what would.  It ruined the moment to pick everything apart and analyze the motives behind something so pure.  There were no ulterior motives, no obligations, no fears or qualms that got in the way.  Elmiryn didn’t want to lose it all.  She realized with a start, that she’d kill just to keep it.

With a sigh, she placed a hand on Nyx’s head and closed her eyes.

That was when she heard a low cough.

Her eyes flew open, and Elmiryn looked toward the doorway.  Hakeem was pulling back out of sight, his eyes on the ground.  He didn’t look embarrassed so much as just trying to be respectful.  “Apologies.  I just came to tell you that dinner will be served shortly at the central tree.  If you miss it, you miss out.  I wanted to make sure you knew.”

“Thanks,” Elmiryn said, smirking.  How far had he come in?  Surely he saw the clothes all over the floor?

If he did, he made no sign.  The man-boy simply nodded and let the curtain slip back over the doorway.  She heard him walk away.

With a sigh, the redhead gently shook Nyx by the shoulders and tried to shift her head to the side enough that she could raise it.  “Kitten…hey kitten, wake up.  We have to get dressed.”

The girl groaned, turning her face into Elmiryn’s neck.  She felt Nyx’s arms latch around her and let out a low laugh.  “Oh hell.  You aren’t going to be like that are you?”

When the Ailuran still didn’t move, the woman poked her in the side.  “Oh Ny-x!  Foo-oods waiting!” She said this in a sing-song voice.  If there was one big motivation for Nyx, it was food.  This was something the warrior had learned quickly.

But Nyx whined and her body shifted over the woman, setting Elmiryn’s skin alight with desire all anew.  The warrior let out a low hum, her eyes turning hooded as her hands roved down the girl’s sides to her butt, where she squeezed and ground her hips up into the girl.  The Ailuran let out a small gasp, her lips brushing along the sensitive skin of the woman’s neck.  “Elle,” she shuddered out.

Elmiryn turned to whisper into the girl’s ear.  “Could it be that my kitten still wants to play with me?”

When Nyx raised her head to gaze at the woman, it was with the same lustful gaze in her eyes.

————————-

They were not a little late to dinner.

Even so, they walked at a leisurely pace, sneaking glances at each other and smiling whenever their eyes met.  Elmiryn wasn’t sure why she felt so hyper-attentive to Nyx’s behavior all of a sudden.  The degree of her smile, the twinkle in her eyes, the rosiness that graced her snowy skin…  She felt self-conscious in a way that almost frightened her, because the woman was used to knowing her path and walking it without hesitation.  But then she heard the girl laugh, the sound open and genuine, and the woman decided she’d stick with her original plan of just letting things unfold as they would.

With a small smile, she held out her hand, aware that it was under different contexts than before.

Nyx slowed to a stop as she saw it, her smile waning a bit as her eyes flickered to Elmiryn’s.

The warrior raised both eyebrows and her smile widened.  Stepping closer, she gently took the girl’s hands in hers and jerked her head onward.  Nyx stared at her with what looked like awe before the expression melted away to a giant smile.  Elmiryn’s heart gave a stir, and she returned it.

Together they returned to the great central tree, and were greeted with the sight of the village all gathered together in one place.  There were some rowdy conversations taking place, the custom of drinking having already started.  The warrior felt something in her chest give a pull at the familiar drinking games, and she forced her eyes elsewhere.  Children ran screaming through the sea of people, the adults laughing and shouting to be heard.  Nyx’s smile wiped from her face at the sight, and Elmiryn threw her arm over the girl’s shoulder, giving her a reassuring squeeze.

Over the heads of Lycans seated and around those standing, they saw Quincy, Sedwick, and Hakeem sitting together, each with a wooden bowl in their hands near the great tree at the edge of the gathering.  With her arm guiding her companion along, Elmiryn picked their way through the crowd.  They greeted the others as they approached.

“And where have you two been?”  Quincy asked, her eyebrow quirked as they took a seat on the ground next to her.

“Waking up,” Elmiryn said readily.

Nyx said nothing, her cheeks turning rosy in that endearing way.  The warrior was certain, given the wizard’s eye for detail, that she didn’t miss it.  She only cared to the extent that Nyx did, and so she shrugged.  “We were tired.”

The seriousness of her expression must’ve been what did it, because the wizard gave a shrug and returned to her bowl.  She slurped up the contents from the edge, lacking a spoon.  It seemed no one had one.

“I tried to get bowls for you two, but they said you had to go there yourself,” Sedwick said after wiping his mouth.  “It’s some sort of soup made with artichokes.  They call it jektu.”

Elmiryn nodded and turned to Nyx.  “Shall we?”

The girl stood in response and the warrior followed her.  The youth didn’t look too pleased by the prospect of reentering the throng of people, and the warrior was starting to suspect that big crowds wasn’t really her thing, Lycan or no.  But as most had all ready received their meals, it was a simple matter of getting into the short line to the giant cauldron kept hot over the fire pit.  They received their bowls in short order, and were soon back to sitting with the others.  Nyx looked relieved to be out of the crowd.

Upon returning, they came into Quincy mid-rant about her experiences at the medicine man’s hut.

“…boy tried to heal himself using raw garlic of all things.  Halward knows who told him something so stupid, but I had to deal with inflamed skin on top of a possible infection.  Seeing all these injuries, I’m sort of glad that Eidan has recruited me.  We’ll be busy gathering supplies to heal everyone after the hunt, so I won’t be able to participate.”  The wizard’s azure eyes turned Elmiryn’s way as the woman slurped up her soup.  With some of it dribbling out of the corner or her mouth, she lowered her bowl enough to look at Quincy inquisitively.

“Well?” The brunette asked.

Elmiryn swallowed and wiped at her mouth as she blinked.  “…Well, what?”

“Aren’t you going to say something rude and deprecating?”

The warrior’s eyebrows rose high.  “Quincy, do you…want me to?”

The wizard scowled.  “Of course not!”

“Then why should I?”

“I…” Quincy blinked.  She turned and looked at Sedwick, who sat on the other side of Hakeem.  “Sedwick, did you hear that?”

The man nodded, feigning a grim expression.  “I certainly did.”

The wizard turned her head again, but this time, her eyes were on Nyx.  “And I think I know why!”

The elemental let out a rumble, his pale eyes also falling on the Ailuran.  “Mmm…I think so too.”

“It’s settled then.”

“We’re keeping her.”

“Yes, we simple can-not survive without her.”

Nyx looked between them, mouth full of food.  Her face flared red and her shoulders hunched around her ears as she swallowed audibly.

Elmiryn tried to cover her smile with her hand, but Quincy let out a sudden laugh, making her giggle in surprise.  It was rare to hear the wizard laugh so openly.  Sedwick let out his rough chuckle, and Hakeem smiled softly.

Finally, Nyx smiled shyly into her bowl.

The warrior felt good, and decided she liked this scene very much.  It was uncomplicated, just as she’d hoped for.  But lingering ever present in the background was that damned throb of pain.  The quake in her hands was building, even as she tensed her grip to keep them still.  Her eyes flickered to the gourds of liquor the Lycans threw back with little reserve, and she felt her mouth water…

Quincy swished a waterskin in her face.  Startled, Elmiryn looked at the wizard with furrowed brows.

“Let’s keep things from going south, now shall we?” the brunette said pointedly.

Nyx gave her a look of concern, and the warrior cursed herself for interrupting the gaiety.  Snatching the waterskin out of Quincy’s hands, she unscrewed the top and was about to take a drink when a voice boomed out over her.

“Tkelechog, the time has come!”

The woman froze, her eyes squeezing shut.  “Aww…damn it.”

“Halian!” Hakeem.  She heard the man-boy rise to his feet.  “What do you want?”

“I have challenged this woman to owak,” Halian said loudly.  The people around them grew quiet, and Elmiryn could feel all eyes turn their way. “Either she faces me now, or she’s a coward!

Inwardly, the warrior rolled her eyes.  “I really need to stop making bets with therians when I’m drunk…” she muttered.

“This is a habit of yours, I take it?” Quincy replied dryly.

Elmiryn opened her eyes and turned her head.  Standing behind her was Halian, once more flanked by his men, his body painted in what looked like war colors—a greasy mix of white, green, and black stripes.  Her eyes flickered to Nyx, who stared at the woman, her skin pale in the emerald light.  The woman spared her friend what she hoped to be a reassuring smile, then moved to her feet.

With a roll of her shoulders, Elmiryn straightened her spine, tilted her head back, and met Halian’s dark eyes.

…She squeezed her hands into fists to hide the quakes she could feel coming into them.

“I’m ready to face you, Halian,” she said loudly.


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  1. ‘Wonderwall’ by Oasis, from the album ‘(What’s the Story) Morning Glory?’. Creation, 1995. []

Chapter 27.2

 

NSFW Warning!

 

A/N: I’ll be frank.  Up ahead, is some pretty graphic sex.  In the past, I’ve only ever done a few lime scenes. (where lime = characters graphically fooling around, but not actually having sex)  If you’re not interested in reading that, then skip this update and wait for the next—because that’s all I got right now.  But if you don’t mind, then feel free to click the spoiler link below.  I’ll trust that you’re of age and it’s legal for you to read this, wherever you are…and if not, then that’s on you.  It’s my first time writing erotica, so feel free to let me know what you think!

 

—Illise M.

 

 

 

Advisory: NC-17 content. Click to expand. »

 

NYX____________________________

 

My blood felt hot and thick in my veins, my heart working hard to channel it through my body.  My emotions felt tangible, something I could shape and mold at will.  I was folding cleanly under some unfathomable concept, one that managed to reach past all the hurdles that guarded that central place within me.

 

…But it was a conscious choice, to fold.

 

I was suspended in my desire, feeling the burn of a hundred different wants all competing with each other over who would be realized first.  I’d shown so much restraint before…but then again, restraint came easy for me.  I was used to telling myself that I just couldn’t have what I wanted—because I didn’t deserve it, because it’d cause too much trouble, because it wouldn’t work out.

 

And to say there weren’t reasons to argue against my current snogging partner was laughable.  There were dozens of reasons I could tell myself that said getting involved with Elmiryn, in any capacity, was a foolhardy idea.

 

Yet picked apart and far apart, I saw the sweet spaces that existed between us, and I basked in this.

 

Maybe I was looking at it from a bit too morbid a perspective.  Coming near to death so much in such a short period of time made prudence feel cheap and stupid.  What about now?  What about that precious present, where everything feels at its greatest?

 

Then something occurred to me as I gasped into Elmiryn’s mouth, her soft sweet lips brushing over mine.

 

How much of me…was here?

 

In that single hot second, when Elmiryn’s hips ground into mine, sending out a firework of sensations that tickled down my thighs and up my chest; when her groan tickled a response from my own throat, the sounds mixing together in a pulse of breaths; when the tension and heat knotted itself in the pit of my stomach as her fingers raked down my hip and thigh, threatening to rip my stockings and self-control apart–

 

How much of me was in the moment?

 

I was a person divided, individual pieces belonging to a freak show of epic proportions.  There lay my eyes, whose vision was short and whose gaze coveted backward things.  There lay my lips, who moved to deny everything I wanted when it was within reach of me.  There lay my heart, who bled out dreams onto the flagstones…

 

But my soul?  Where was that ethereal part of me that made me who I was?

 

There!

 

Divided and cut, who was Nyx but just a piece of something too afraid to be whole?  Where was the rest of me?  Did that missing piece have my inhibitions too?  Was that why all I could think of were wants, with little thought as to what it would result in?

 

…And was it so bad, to celebrate that empty space?

 

My Twin was still missing, but I felt none of her complaints, none of her qualms, none of her demands in my head or my heart.  Yet the void was just that—a void, and a cold one that gave me goosebumps every time I dwelled upon it.  I wanted to smother it with this heat.  I wanted to forget that I ever had a Twin.  I wanted to pretend that I was all there, and that every wisp of my soul wanted this—which was technically true.

 

Elmiryn’s kisses were deep and sensuous. They took my breath away, leaving me dizzy and still hungering for more.  I felt brazen.  Intoxicated.  My tongue sought hers, and she met it, leading in a swirling dance that incited me to tighten my grip around her.  She tasted divine.

 

This close, the woman’s scent filled me.  The forest scents were gone from her, leaving only a curious combination of dust, a mellow fruity perfume, and a whiff of alcohol.  It was different from what I was accustomed to sensing from her—the trees, the cleaning oil, the leather—but like a subtle note, there was that undeniable scent of wildness, that heady musk that spoke of impetuous desire and a lust for life.

 

Elmiryn started to finger the jeweled buttons of my doublet, and she pulled back with a smack of the lips to gaze at me questioningly.  We seem to hang there, lost in the intensity of the moment, both panting in unison as we gazed at each other for the answer.  My fingers flexed against the fur blanket, my palms sweaty.  I shifted up a little higher on the bed, half-raised on my elbows as my nose brushed hers.  Elmiryn’s breath was warm against my swollen lips.

 

I had talked about consequences.

 

…Was this one I could deal with?

 

Then I thought…

 

…Would I be alive after tonight’s hunt to have a chance to deal with it?

 

I gave a slight jerk of a nod.

 

Elmiryn smiled and started to undo my doublet, and I, her vest.  She beat me to it, and I tried not to think of how practiced she may have been at removing clothing quickly.  With impatient hands, the warrior pulled my doublet open, and I gasped at the cold air that graced my sweaty skin.  She went to kiss my neck as her hands fought with my chest wraps.  Meanwhile I’d just managed to finish undoing her vest and started work on her shirt.  Our actions were clumsy—desperate almost.  But the struggle only seemed to encourage us.

 

For a brief moment, my ability to think returned to me in a flurry of fears–

 

This is crazy.  There’s Lycan’s everywhere.  This is a dead man’s home.  Hakeem will be calling on us soon.

 

And…

 

What if this means nothing?  What if I’m just another conquest?

 

Then those thoughts fell away, and all I could think was:

 

Sweet Aelurus, I want Elmiryn so badly.

 

My heart beat loudly in my ears as the last of my wraps were pulled away.  Elmiryn was raking her teeth down my neck, sucking and nipping me.  I hadn’t noticed when she’d started doing this, but her hips kept rocking up rhythmically into my own, touching that place between my legs so that my breath caught in my throat.  My sex was pulsing, my body reacting in a way I hadn’t known before.  To feel the warrior’s sinuous body moving with accordance to mine, to feel the power of her muscles through the fabric, to feel her heat mingling with my own–

 

Finally, I managed to speak.

 

“Elle,”  I gasped, and my hands clutched at her hips.  She didn’t stop right away, so I tried again, a whine coming into my voice.  “Elle–”

 

Elmiryn froze, her lips still against my neck.  It was startling how suddenly she could wrestle her body into such control.  She’d seemed completely lost in the passion.  I felt a thrill go through me to think I could cause such behavior.

 

She sat up, her shirt open, her skin glistening from the low light that managed to creep in through the spaces of the entrance curtain.  The curves of her body were highlighted, beaded sweat like little jewels on her sun-kissed skin.  My mouth watered and I swallowed, propping myself up onto my elbows to stare up at her.

 

…Dear gods…what was I supposed to do with such a wonderful creature?

 

The warrior was just as beautiful as she was when I’d first dressed her back in Fiamma—not that it was all that long ago, but in some ways that time in the wash room had felt like a dream.  I wondered, if I were to reach out, would this beautiful image smear?  Would the colors weep and run, the sight to be robbed from me forever?

 

…How much of me was here?

 

…How much of this moment was real?

 

The questions didn’t frighten me, as they normally would have.  After all…

 

If everything were somehow a fantasy, then it was a good thing I was a dreamwalker.

 

ELMIRYN________________________

 

Hungry and harsh, she was undoing things she knew could never be regained—but there she was, hands fumbling with buttons and wraps—quick and impatient to claim that precious prize that said she was the first and the only.

 

The first.

 

The only.

 

She didn’t need to ask to know this was true.

 

Hot blood. Hot. Burning, practically. Elmiryn buried her face into Nyx’s neck, her lips kissing that place where she knew the Meaning came rising from–but then she was biting too, because gods, the taste of the girl’s sweat was quite an accelerant to her flames–

 

“Elle–Elle–”

 

Stop…

 

The woman froze, her lips quivering against the Ailuran’s skin. Her cerulean eyes snapped open wide and she raised herself, once more straddling the girl at the hips.  She felt her her sex give a throb. Nyx lay beneath her, straw in her hair, her nose and cheeks pink as she panted quickly.  The warm pools of her tawny eyes made the warrior swallow.  It was hard to tear her eyes away from that captivating gaze, but there was so much more to take in, and Elmiryn wanted to treasure everything.

 

Unlike some of the shy partners the redhead had known in the past, Nyx did not move to cover herself. Her chest was humble in size, but the shape of her breasts was what made the warrior stifle down an appreciative purr. They appeared full and soft, with light burgundy nipples that had turned hard. The girl’s ribs lightly showed with every inhale she took, and all along her snow white skin, there were goosebumps appearing. Finally, the youth gave a violent shiver and moved to warm herself.

 

“Gods!” She hissed, writhing. Elmiryn bit her lip and squeezed the girl still with her thighs.

 

“I’m surprised,” the woman said.  “I’d have taken ya t’be more bashful. You were so…private, before.”

 

The girl shrugged, her teeth chattering a little.  It wasn’t that cold, was it? “Different contexts.  It isn’t as if I haven’t been naked in front of other people before.”

 

“But not like this?”

 

The girl pouted as if the question bothered her, then slowly shook her head. Her pout deepened as she locked eyes with the warrior. “Why’d you have to pull back so far? I’m freezing!

 

Elmiryn grinned and pulled in close. “Better?” she murmured.

 

Nyx’s tawny eyes fluttered and the woman could hear her swallow. “Yes…that’s…yes that’s better.”

 

And to think, they were just meaning to fall asleep!  The drowsiness had left the woman, even if her words still cut and mashed and drawled here and there.  She was too keyed up to even contemplate resting her head.

 

The redhead brushed back a lock of the girl’s hair.  “Yer so beautiful, Nyx. Did I ever tell you?”

 

“Not in those exact words, no.” The girl turned her face to the side. Elmiryn gently turned her head forward again at the chin.  She stroked Nyx’s jaw with a light touch.

 

“Well, I’m tellin’ you now. I’ll tell you a thousand times till you believe me. I’ll say it in my sleep, and I’ll whisper it in yer ear when I hold you. Yer beautiful.

 

“Elmiryn, come on.” The girl sounded exasperated, but Elmiryn knew the truth in her voice. She was just embarrassed. Nyx’s brow wrinkled and her eyes squinted a fraction as the warrior chuckled over her.

 

“You say this to everyone you’ve ever been with, I bet you,” The Ailuran said with lightly puckered lips. “I bet you tell them so many other things, their heads spin. You just won’t with me because I’ll see right through it.”

 

Elmiryn raised an eyebrow.  “Oh? Is zat’so?”

 

“Yes.” Elmiryn’s ear tweaked to the sound of jealousy. Nyx didn’t like thinking of the woman’s past exploits. She doubted many would, given the girl’s current position.

 

“And how many stars do you think I promised them, hmm?” The woman smirked as the girl blushed a deeper crimson.  She leaned in for a kiss.  Their chests pressed intimately, but the fabric of the warrior’s chest wraps felt in the way.  Impatiently, she growled and pulled at these, and Nyx helped her with eager hands.  When the cloth hung loose in long trails about them, they both stopped.

 

Nyx let out a low groan, a look of pure desire passing her face as she reached up with both hands and touched the woman, kneading gently.  The warrior closed her eyes at the touch, one hand going over the girl’s to guide her into a squeeze.  Her thighs pressed tight around her partner, her sex feeling slick and warm.  The redhead moved in for a kiss, and their lips met with a hungry passion that felt raw and uninhibited.  Nyx’s hands raked along the woman’s back as their breasts brushed together, the cool air chilling the sweat that mingled on their flushed skin.

 

Elmiryn’s arm weaved up from beneath the girl’s arm, along her back, to snake into her hair. The other hand rest at the girl’s hip, where it slid along the girl‘s buttock and up the back of her thigh.

 

…But Elmiryn could feel Nyx shivering still. She pulled away a moment to ask into Nyx’s open mouth, “Are you still cold?”

 

“Yes,” the girl said a little quickly. Then… “No.” She swallowed. “No, I’m…”

 

Ah. Accustomed to nudity, perhaps, but not for such carnal activities. Elmiryn smiled and leaned down to kiss the girl’s cheek, then whispered in her ear. “I’m going to try something…are you ready?”

 

Nyx nodded mutely.

 

Elmiryn started to pull back, and the girl protested, grabbing her around the chest. The warrior laughed, and shook her head.

 

“Relax. Look.” She raised a finger. “I’m gonna plant a seed…right…here,” and the woman placed her finger against Nyx’s left breast, where she could feel her heartbeat. “The seed is gonna grow…and spread…all throughout you.”

 

Elmiryn took her hand, and with her fingers gliding along the girl’s skin, she trailed them down her chest, over her left breast, over her stomach, then down to her hip. She trailed her hand back up the girl’s side with the back of her fingers where she brushed the inside of the girl’s left arm. Then Elmiryn pulled Nyx’s arm to her and kissed her bicep.

 

She turned her cool gaze onto the girl’s face.  “It’ll take root just under the skin, spanning your whole body. Most importantly, though, it’ll find root…” she tapped the girl’s forehead.  “Here.” Next she moved to place a hand at the pit of the Ailuran’s abdomen. “And here.”

 

She leaned down and kissed the side of the girl’s right breast, where whispered against the damp skin, “You can feel it, can’t you?”

 

Nyx’s breath was a harsh whisper. “Yes.”

 

“It’ll possess you.” Elmiryn trailed her tongue along Nyx’s flesh to her nipple where she flicked the tender flesh and the girl took a sharp intake of breath.

 

“Like your love has possessed me…” the woman whispered, before taking the girl’s breast into her mouth. Nyx gasped and squirmed before a low moan slipped her lips and she was arching her chest into the woman’s mouth. The redhead clutched at her, sliding her thigh between the girl’s so that it pressed up against her core, and she felt the girl squeeze and grind up, stirring Elmiryn in kind. She let out an appreciative sound and gently skimmed her teeth over the soft nipple, teasing the peaked flesh with another flick of the tongue as her other hand came round to knead the girl’s other breast.

 

After a moment of this, the girl tried to speak.

 

“E-Elmiryn,” Nyx managed to say. “You’re…gods, I don’t think I—I can…last like that!”

 

Ah.

 

Elmiryn came up, chuckling, her smile fully in place. “My! But you do get excited!”

 

“Don’t tease,” the girl pleaded. She was completely out of breath and her face was flushed pink.

 

“Awww…”

 

“Elle, please!

 

The woman laughed, reaching back for her hair tie.  “I’m not even doin‘ anything!”

 

“You were thinking it!  And I swear by the heavens, Elmiryn I will–”  Elmiryn pulled out her ponytail, letting her hair slip forward and tickle the girl’s skin.  The hair had still been damp where it was tied, but the rest of the locks were mostly dry now.  Nyx’s voice cut off with a sigh and she fluttered her eyes at the woman.  The warrior smirked.  She’d always felt the girl staring whenever she brushed her hair.

 

“You’ll what, Nyx?” Elmiryn purred.  She pecked the girl’s lips and tilted her head to the side.  “You’ll bite me?”

 

Nyx’s voice was just a breath.  “It crossed my mind…”

 

Elmiryn grinned and pulled her hair and collar back to reveal the hicky on her neck.  “You already did that, remember?”

 

The girl’s eyes twinkled and a sudden smile spread her lips.  In a tone of voice that sounded eerily familiar, the girl said haughtily, “Well! I didn’t know I was being judged on creativity!

 

The woman narrowed her eyes.  “Yer makin’ fun o’ me, aren’t ya?”

 

Nyx’s poorly concealed laugh was all the answer she needed.

 

The warrior’s lips gained a wicked curve as she took a hand and forced it down the back of the girl’s pants.  The Ailuran squealed, her eyes popping as she started to sit up.  Elmiryn could feel the girl’s butt, smooth and warm, and with a short giggle, she pinched the skin.

 

Nyx bucked, and with the warrior’s position compromised, she was able to knock the woman off in a quick reversal.  Now she was the one straddling the warrior.

 

The girl grinned victoriously over her.  “Hah!”

 

But Elmiryn just smiled wider.  “Don’t be so quick to call victory!”  Taking her fingers, the warrior pulled at the back of the girl’s shorts, revealing her butt in full.  She took this moment to squeeze both cheeks.

 

“How nice!” the redhead giggled.

 

Nyx let out a squeak and straightened onto her knees, but this just made it easier for the woman to pull her shorts down even further.

 

With a well-placed shove, Elmiryn had Nyx on her back once more, and pulled her shorts, stockings, and shoes off in one long miraculous pull.  Now the girl was mostly bare, save for the open doublet she still kept on her back.  She stared, agape, down at herself, then at the woman, entirely surprised at the ease with which she was undressed.  The warrior allowed herself a moment to take in this new sight, her gaze hungrily trailing up the girl’s slim graceful legs, to the dark curls of her sex, to the perfection of her breasts.  Her flushed skin looked so sweet…

 

Tossing the hated clothing away, Elmiryn smirked.  “Gotcha!”

 

Their legs were open like V’s, with Nyx’s legs over Elmiryn’s.  The woman moved fast, taking up one of the girl’s legs at the back of the knee and folding it up as she repositioned herself on top.  Nyx’s leg was now over Elmiryn’s shoulder, and the woman started to lean down when the look on Nyx’s face stopped her.  The girl was wide eyed, with brows pressed up and together to wrinkle her forehead.

 

“Sorry, was I goin’ a lil’ too fast?” the woman asked quietly.  She sat back a little, both hands on the Ailuran’s leg in preparation to slide it off her shoulder.

 

Even so, she couldn’t help but caress the girl a little.  Her skin felt so nice.  Like rose petals.

 

Nyx pressed her lips together, then turned her head, and Elmiryn saw with relief that the girl was trying to hide a smile.

 

When the Ailuran returned her gaze to the woman’s, she said, “I’m okay.”

 

“Okay, as in, okay?  Or okay as in, not okay?”

 

The girl giggled, her smile finally appearing in full.  Elmiryn’s heart fluttered a little at the sight, and she felt another wave of warmth go all through her.

 

Nyx reached up and touched the woman’s cheek with light fingers.  “I’m okay…” she breathed.  She laid a hand over heart.  “You planted a seed, remember?”

 

The redhead let out a giggle.  “I did, didn’t I?”

 

“Yes.  You did.”

 

“Well, here,” the woman leaned down, shifting around the girl’s leg to lay a quick kiss on her lips.  “I’ll just ask you what I’d like ta try and you jes’ lemme know if you don’t want to…’kay?  I don’t wanna startle you.”

 

The girl took a breath and nodded her head.

 

Elmiryn turned and kissed the Ailuran’s knee, adjusting her leg so that it was more securely over her shoulder.  Her hand made a light trail down the inside of the girl’s thigh, and the youth shivered underneath her.  The warrior fastened her gaze on to Nyx’s and said in a low voice, “Nyx…I wanna taste you.  Down there.  Is that okay?”

 

The girl’s cheeks flared and she swallowed audibly.  “I’m…not…” she swallowed again and took a breath.  “I mean…I–I don’t know if you’ll like it.”

 

The warrior let loose a wolfish grin.  “I’m pretty sure I’ll love it.”

 

Nyx let out a harsh exhale, her eyes squeezing closed as she laid her head back to think.

 

Elmiryn was just about to suggest something else when the girl raised her head and said huskily, “Then do it.”

 

The need in the girl’s voice brought such a surge of desire that the warrior could hardly respond save to slide down along the bed, laying a wet trail with her tongue along the girl’s thigh.  When Elmiryn’s head was near the girl’s waist, she shifted Nyx’s other leg over her shoulder and brushed her hair back.  With one last look up at her companion’s anxious face, the woman turned her attention to the girl’s dark sex.

 

The curls were tight but fair, some of the locks clearly wet from Nyx’s arousal.  With fingers trembling from excitement (when had that last been the case?) the woman gently stroked the spot, her eyes turning hooded and her nose flaring at the heady scent of sex.  With her arm snaking around Nyx’s hip and over the girl’s lower abdomen, Elmiryn gently began to massage the area where she knew the clitoris to be.

 

Her eyes flickered up to see Nyx’s head rock back, her chest rising as she took in a breath.  The soft mounds of her breasts seemed to invite touch, and the woman was only too happy to oblige, her other hand just managing to reach around from under the girl’s leg to take a gentle hold.  Elmiryn loved how sweet and honest Nyx’s lust was.  The girl felt soft and precious in her care.  The desire to claim this sprang forth like a beast from the shadows.  The redhead wanted to be the only one the girl could think of,  the only one she would want, the only one she would ever turn to in need

 

Elmiryn pulled back her hand from Nyx’s breast, tucking it underneath her so that she could take her fingers and spread the lips of the girl’s sex, affording her that beautiful sight of pink wet flesh.  Feeling as though a threshold was being crossed, the woman leaned slowly in for a taste of the girl’s essence.  She was…

 

Warm.

 

Salty.

 

Wonderful.

 

NYX____________________________

 

Madness was finding me in the throes of heat, my body aching for something that felt beyond understanding.  Did I want to be touched?  But I was already being touched, and so lovingly so!  Did I want this to end?  The thought couldn’t have met with more resistance.  Was it just a desire for release?  Well that was certainly there too, but this other feeling was bigger than that.  Stronger.

 

As Elmiryn’s tongue sent my mind into a dizzying spiral, I had to clamp a hand on my mouth to contain my moans.  Oddly enough, a dull burn had started along the lines of my Mark, but in a strange way, it lent to the intense pleasure that I was feeling.  The pleasure was buoyed by the pain.

 

Without thinking, I tried to press myself further into the woman’s touch, and she grabbed my hips with her strong arms, forcing me still, her tongue thrusting into me.

 

It was really hard trying not to cry out at that point.

 

She returned her attention to my clitoris, her tongue moving fast in a practiced swirl.  Elmiryn had clearly mastered her technique.  My eyes rolled into the back of my head, and my back arched as I clutched at the woman’s hair and the blankets we lay on.  Her long, cool locks brushed against my thighs and it felt heavenly.

 

Then the woman paused to ask me in a heady voice, “Nyx…I wanna finger you.  Can I?”

 

It drove me mad that she bothered to stop at all, but I swallowed through a thick throat and managed to say hoarsely, “Yes!”

 

The warrior shifted between my legs, and I just managed to raise my head when I felt something slip inside me.  Her finger was slim and tentative, and I could feel its touch gently massaging the walls inside.  I shuddered, my sex aching as I arched my hips into her touch.

 

Elmiryn paused once more to kiss the inside of my thigh and ask, “Is one fine?”

 

I recalled all the times I’d ever touched myself, surprised that those sad moments of solitude turned out to have some sort of use.  I gasped out, “Twotry two!”

 

The woman quirked an eyebrow at me, a surprised smile on her face, but she obliged, slipping in another finger.  Elmiryn returned to using her tongue, but it was in a playful way, like she knew that I was on the brink and she just wanted to play with me.  I whimpered and sat up, hands balling at my sides.  Then the warrior took pity on me and ceased her teasing.  Without word or warning, she sucked my hard clitoris, her head moving in a rhythm.  All the while, Elmiryn’s fingers never stopped, and I had to resist bucking my hips.

 

My sex was throbbing with pleasure, all of my body responding to the sensations that kept building on me, like a weight that squeezed out all else.  My head lolled back and my eyes fell closed, hair clinging to my skin as I all but forgot about the chill in the air.  All that was in me now was fire, and I wanted it to burn me, from the inside out.

 

Elmiryn’s touch made me aware of just how wet I was, the way her fingers worked in and out, caressing me, coaxing out my desire until—

 

I inhaled sharply, my entire body going rigid as a jolt of pleasure hit my brain like a hammer.  A choked cry escaped my lips, and I bit on my hand, trying to stifle the noises that came rushing up my throat.  This was followed by a huge wave of warmth and tingles.  Then my entire body shuddered as the knot in the pit of my stomach released itself in a rush of pleasure.  With a sigh, I settled back onto the blankets.  Distantly, I was aware of Elmiryn making a sound too, but I assumed it to be a sound of encouragement.  I felt faint, but thoroughly satisfied.  I could feel Elmiryn’s head resting against my thigh.  She’d continued her ministrations up until the end and was now still, having taken her fingers out of me.

 

After a moment, I started to feel embarrassed, thinking I had climaxed too early, but when I raised myself onto my elbows to apologize, I saw the warrior still hadn’t moved.

 

Nervously, I touched her head.

 

She wasn’t mad at me, was she…?

 

Then I saw Elmiryn’s body shake and heard a muffled sound, and quickly recognized it as her laughing.  My cheeks colored and I brushed my fingers through the woman’s hair.

 

“Elle, what is it?” I was almost certain she was laughing at me, and could feel my wickedness stirring.  If she hadn’t had done that thing with her mouth then–!

 

But the woman raised her face, and I saw that she had rosy cheeks.

 

“I came,” she said with a giggle.

 

I blinked at her. “You…what?”

 

“I came!

 

“But how?  I didn’t even touch you!”

 

The woman raised herself onto all fours, a dreamy look on her face.  “It was yer voice.”

 

My eyes went wide.  “You mean…”

 

“Yeah.  When ya cried out, it was like…sendin’ everything you were feeling ta me.  Sooo…I came!”

 

I pouted.  What a ridiculous way for my vermagus ability to interfere!  “That…That isn’t fair!

 

The warrior laughed as she rolled onto her back. “How isn’t that fair?”

 

“Because I wanted to–” but I couldn’t bring myself to finish, and looked down demurely.

 

“Kitten…hey kitten, c’mere.” Elmiryn brushed my arm, her cerulean eyes half-closed as she gazed at me.  I let out a slow exhale, appreciating the sight of her beautiful breasts and her fiery hair fanning out over the dark fur blankets.

 

…I wanted her all over again.

 

With bitten lip I scooted closer, and the woman shifted her arm so that I could nestle against her side with my head on her shoulder.  She kissed me on the forehead, then hugged me with one arm.  My hand traced her round breasts, admiring the bloom of her pink nipples and the way the soft light highlighted their shape.

 

“Nyx, I wan’ ya to know…That ya don’ need t’feel like ya have ta do anythin’ for me…” her words were mumbled and low, her voice just a breath that barely managed to get past her lips.  “I like makin’ ya feel good, so don’ worry too much ’bout the how or the why of it…jes do what ya’d like…”

 

After her voice trailed away, she lay still and said nothing for a long time, and then I realized she had fallen asleep.  My eyes peered up at her through my bangs, and they drank in the sight of Elmiryn in repose.  I always feared that she left me in those moments.  In the past it had felt as though she’d crossed some frightening threshold into another world, one where I could not follow.

 

Yet the woman was here with me, as I was there with her, and it felt real.  Very real.

 

I shifted as gently as I could to kiss the woman’s jaw, then turned to grab the edge of the blanket and pull it over us.  She stirred, but stayed asleep.

 

As I settled back against the woman, I tried to sort out the great waft of affection that now circulated throughout me.  I felt safe and warm.  Contentment hummed in my body.  All I wanted was to know Elmiryn, to feel her, to care for her.  I wished things could always be like this.  It made me ache, as if having the woman lying here with me wasn’t enough.  I wanted forever.

 

And through my head echoed the very words I had denied her.  Denied, because I felt like there had to be one thing I could keep in case this didn’t work out.

 

…I love you.

 

I frowned and trailed my fingers down the valley of Elmiryn’s breasts, then down her smooth abs before I draped my arm across chest and sighed.  When I closed my eyes, I found that sleep wasn’t all that far away for me either.

 

As I drifted off, a single thought rose to the surface.

 

I had chosen my path.

 

…But could my heart survive it?

 



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Chapter 27.1

ELMIRYN________________________

Her seat was an uncomfortable piece of lumpy root from the great central tree.  The roots were at their most tangled here, making it an unideal place to set up a merchant spot.  This left the area clear for the two women to talk in peace.  Elmiryn would have preferred the forest, where there was no one but the nymphs, but she was certain the dryads wouldn’t take kindly to her presence.  Her forehead was still throbbing from their last encounter.

Nyx was pacing before her, her arms crossed over her chest and her head bowed.  Her steps weren’t hurried, but there was a tension in her movements, like the muscles were seized up and refused to move.  Elmiryn sat and watched her, her cerulean eyes tracking back and forth, back and forth.  Her elbows dug into her knees.  Her palms felt sweaty.  The giddy feeling was…gone.

She felt caught in a circle song, certain that this was a tune of life she’d played before.  Where?  When?

Nyx stopped, raising her eyes to peer at the woman through her bangs.  Elmiryn’s brows pressed up and together, wrinkling her forehead.  “I’ve told ya everything.” She lowered her eyes.  “I even told ya ’bout how Meznik spoke to me.  I…couldn’ tell the others.”  She spread her hands.  “There’s nothin’ else…”

The girl didn’t say anything for a time.  She sniffled, making the woman think she was crying, but when Nyx turned her face fully to her, Elmiryn saw no tears.

The Ailuran shrugged and looked down.  “I appreciate that you’d trust me, Elle.  I feel honored, even.  But it doesn’t make me feel better about the matter.”

Elmiryn sighed.  “Yeah.  I know.”

“It isn’t as much of a surprise as you’d think.” The girl said, smiling ironically.  “The way your hands have been shaking all of this time.  The way you deflected the blast from Tonatiuh’s fall.  The way you looked in the Somnium…it all makes sense.  I’ve already known you were changing into something.”  Nyx sighed and rubbed at her forehead.  “I just didn’t think it was this…”

“What do you know of the fae?”

“Probably no more than Quincy does, and I’m certain the wizard knows more.  I may read a lot, but that’s still a layman’s knowledge.”  Nyx stepped close, brushing her fingertips over the warrior’s forehead, as if trying to smooth out the worry lines.  “Fae aren’t inherently evil, Elle.  They’re just…different.  They see things in a different perspective, live life at a different rhythm.  You can still survive this with your mind intact if you just try.”

“And trying’s the thing, isn’t it?” Elmiryn snapped, grabbing Nyx’s wrist.  “You have to have the will of a fucking god to get over this, and…” the woman sighed and released the girl.  She hung her head.  “An’ I’m not a god.  I’m not.”

The silence stretched on between them.  The redhead saw her friend crouch before her and glanced up at her face.  Tears were in the girl’s eyes, but they had yet to fall.  They glistened like emerald’s from the glow of the trees.

Elmiryn’s first thought was, “She’s beautiful.”

Then… “I’m upsetting her.”

The girl took hold of the woman’s face.  “You’re right.  You aren’t a god.  Yet you have conquered all obstacles that have come your way.  There is no reason…no reason for you to think that this problem will not meet the same end.  So don’t you talk like that…okay?”  Nyx smiled shakily.  “You are Elmiryn Manard, the Demon Hunter, famed Dragoon Captain, and much-loved Savior of Gamath.”

“Much loved by who?” Elmiryn asked quietly, touching the girl’s hand.

Nyx bit her lip and stood.  Her fingers left the woman’s skin tingling in their wake.

“Let’s…find a place to rest before supper,” the Ailuran said, pulling at the warrior’s hand.

Elmiryn slowly stood, following the girl down the tree roots and back onto the dirt.

Nyx seemed intent on returning to the medicine man’s hut, which was understandable as he was one of the few who could speak Common and the only Lycan in the entire village who had showed her any amount of civility.  But Elmiryn’s heart was loud in her ears as she stared with wide eyes at the back of her friend’s head.

That warm sound in your voice…

“Nyx.” The warrior tugged the girl’s hand, bringing her to a stop.  The girl didn’t turn around.  “Nyx, say it to me.”

The Ailuran bowed her head.  “Elle, I’m tired.”

“Kitten, please?”

Nyx’s shoulders hunched around her shoulders.  “I won’t.  I won’t…” she hissed.  She turned and looked at the woman with anguish on her face.  “I am a vermagus, and you may hear what you will, but the Words are still mine and I shall keep them, do you understand?”  The girl looked away.  “I’m…not a fool, Elle.  I know your nature, and I wouldn’t dream to change you.  But it’s for that reason that I say the words are mine…”

Elmiryn stepped forward and gently hugged the girl around the shoulders.  “Are ya so afraid that I’d hurt you?” she whispered.

Nyx laughed and shook her head.  “It’s not about whether or not someone gets hurt.  It’s about accepting the consequences.”

“And what consequences are ya ready to accept?”

The girl bit her lip and started to backpedal away.  “Share my bed and I might tell you…”

Elmiryn’s eyebrows went high at that.

HAKEEM_________________________

Hakeem emerged from the medicine man’s hut with a sigh.  He had been counting the seconds as they passed, waiting for that precious moment when he and Quincy would be reunited.  Truth be told, his vision had been much less spectacular than the reality.

Was it right to say that Quincy was different?

…Or that Quincy had been restored?

How ironic that she seemed a ghost to him, and he, a ghost to her.  What happened to them that they could become such shadows of themselves?

Hakeem blinked and looked down at his hands.  They lacked the callouses of years, the scars of time.  He flexed the fingers and marveled at how small they seemed to him.  It was like awakening in his new body all over again.

“Can’t quite get used to it?” Sedwick said from his seat.

Hakeem looked up at him in surprise.  He’d forgotten the elemental was there.

He recovered with a shrug.  “As the years have gone by, I’ve learned that things happen, and sometimes all you can do is go with it.”

“Like water.”

The wizard looked at him curiously as he took a seat beside him.

Sedwick elaborated with eyes looking into a past unseen.  “Water flows to the basest places, slowly carving its way through the earth.  It can take the shape of whatever container it is in.  You go with this flow.  I can already tell.  Any other person would be raging against their circumstances, screaming about how it isn’t fair.  Maybe even hiding in shame of it.  Yet you live as if nothing has changed.” Then the man glanced at Hakeem.  “I hope you don’t think I’m being too presumptuous.”

“I’m a hard person to offend.”

The elemental chuckled.  “As expected!”

Hakeem smirked.

They sat in silence, and the wizard was grateful for the chance to mediate on all that had happened.

When he’d woken up in the Lycan forests, it had been a shock.  That had been…

336 hours—20,160 minutes—1,209,600 seconds ago…

Hakeem awoke with a start, his heart beating so hard in his chest that it almost hurt.  He wheezed and shot upright, his skin sweat drenched.  All around him was dark.  It took him a while for his eyes to adjust.  Even before they did, he knew something was wrong.  He felt heavy things blanketing him.  His hands and feet were covered.  The wizard lifted his right hand to see that it was swallowed in his chain mail sleeve.  His eyes widened and he looked at his legs next.  His pants were more than a foot longer than his legs.

From that point, Hakeem had realized he had somehow been made smaller, though it wasn’t until he stumbled across a Lycan hunting party that he realized he’d also been made physically younger.  He’d been forced to abandon all of his clothes, except for his enchanted chain mail of course.  Walking through the forest naked with a piece of armor that weighed close to twenty pounds was hard.  Not an incredible feat for an adult, but more-so for a boy moving through dark and unfamiliar territory.  The Lycan’s had nearly killed him for collapsing in their path.  They’d thought he was the monster they’d been hunting.  Luckily for him, they had refrained.

The hunting party had been led by Halian, one of the hunting captains that lead the men and women into the forest.  Just as the Lycan had done with Quincy and the others, so he did with Hakeem, bringing him before Artemis herself.  The goddess had not been a little surprised to find him, and had quizzed him at length about why he was there.

At first, being in such intimacy with an immortal had been unsettling for Hakeem.  But after a while, he became used to it, and could even understand how the Lycans were so familiar with the goddess.  She didn’t put on airs, didn’t seek to awe.  She was just a mother who loved her children, and wanted to keep them safe.

Hakeem told her about the events that led up to his arrival in the strange other dimension, and she was satisfied.  She offered him a temporary home in one of the huts near the village edge.  It was once the home of a young warrior who had died in the hunt for the evil beast.  Back in Fanaea, the people would find such a home to be cursed with bad luck.

Hakeem went to sleep peacefully in it.

The next few days was spent trying to puzzle out the nature of his condition with the medicine man, Eidan; getting the Lycan children to realize he was a man on the inside, and so could beat any of them senseless with his skills alone; and learning what his limits were in his young body by training with the Lycan warriors.  They’d laughed when he picked up a spear.  After a week, they clapped him on the back.  On the eighth day, he sought to join the hunt.  After beating back all who would disrespect him, none tried to stop him.

The other members of his hunting party were nervous.  As coincidence would have it, Halian was his hunting captain.  Hakeem had been careful not to cross the man before.  He was a hotheaded Lycan who was skilled in combat and unafraid to challenge anyone that would dare question his authority.  The captain’s eyes looked out at them all and he growled something in their native tongue.  Then he looked at Hakeem.  “We’re moving in hunting formation…do you know it?”

Hakeem nodded.

The man scowled.  “Then keep up!”

And the boy did.

The night had been uneventful, but his ability to keep pace impressed Halian enough that he requested Hakeem be assigned to his party a second time.  The second night had seen more action in the form of a rogue rage spirit, but they saw nothing of their intended target.  Some parties would suffer casualties and report not seeing the beast at all.  Other parties had to be found in the morning, torn to pieces out in the woods…

That Quincy managed to come through the forests unharmed made the wizard glad.  He’d seen what the beast did, and it was a horrible thing.

His thoughts simmered as they roved over the memory of Quincy’s azure eyes filled with such emotion, the sweep of her russet brown hair, the sound of her voice choked with anguish.  It had pained him to see her so hurt…but how long had it been since he’d last seen her shed a tear?  How long since she’d last said that she loved him?  Fanaean or no?

He hadn’t been lying when he told Quincy that he didn’t mourn his condition.  In a way, it was nice to feel so young again.  It reminded him of so many good things…but at the same time, its timing was unfortunate.  The woman he loved had come back to him, truly come back to him…

And Hakeem was not a man to greet her.  To hold her.  To love her.

He sighed heavily once again.  “I don’t suppose you have any idea how I could be returned to normal?” he asked Sedwick.  It was an offhand question, one that he wouldn’t have even bothered asking two weeks ago, but he couldn’t help it.

The elemental looked at him. “I…don’t rightly know.  I can tell you that getting off this shard is likely the right step.  Elmiryn and Quincy both had to travel to other places to find what had been lost.  So you probably have to do the same.”

Hakeem rubbed at his head.  “Mmm…well, I suppose things worked out for the best.  If I’d left two weeks ago, Quincy and I may not have found each other.”

Sedwick gave a nod.  Then his head turned and he smiled at someone coming down the trail.  “Back so soon?”

Hakeem turned his head as well.  It was Elmiryn and Nyx.

NYX____________________________

I waved at Sedwick and gave a slight nod to Hakeem as we neared the medicine man’s hut.  Elmiryn and I were still holding hands.  When had this become a habit?

“We were hoping to find a place to rest.  Do you think the medicine man would let us use a bed?”  I fought to keep the blush out of my cheeks.  I just realized I’d said ‘bed’ in the singular.  Gods, why did I have to be so transparent?

Hakeem stood, and I blinked at him.  My mind was still trying to wrap around his child-like form.  Remembering the broad-shouldered man from before, it was hard.

He gestured for us to follow him.  “Come.  Eidan doesn’t have the room to spare right now, but I have a hut that you two can use.”

My eyebrows rose and I looked at Elmiryn.  She looked at me and shrugged, her eyes at half-mast.  She was starting to sway a bit and the fear of her passing out on her feet seemed very valid.  With a sigh, I threw her arm over my shoulders and grabbed her by the waist.

“Come on, Elle.  You  need to lie down.”

“M’not sick…” she mumbled.

We started to walk, but Sedwick was on his feet and in our path within a moment.  He grabbed Elmiryn’s chin, forcing her eyes onto his.

“Sedwick!” I exclaimed, giving him a glare.  “What are you doing?”

The elemental’s eyes narrowed and he leaned in with a sniff.  He recoiled and let the woman go.  “Where did you get it?” he growled.

“Fairies,” Elmiryn giggled.  She pointed at the bump she had on her forehead.  “They gave me this too.”

“One of the Lycan’s must have given it to her.  Now Sedwick, can you please move?” The warrior was starting to lean on me, and she wasn’t light.

The elemental’s pale eyes snapped my way.  “Nyx, has she told you?”

I frowned, glancing at Hakeem down the way.  The wizard seemed aware of the personal nature of this conversation and was respectfully keeping his distance.  I was very grateful.  “Yes.  She told me everything.”

“Then you know she can’t be doing such things!”

“I know that!” I snapped.  “Now please!  We’d just like to get some rest!”

I tried to guide Elmiryn around him, but Sedwick just blocked our way.  He held up his hands, his expression softening.  “I’m sorry.  I’m just…I’m worried.”

I sighed and adjusted my grip on Elmiryn, her eyes had fallen shut and her head lolled onto mine.  “I know, Sedwick.  I’m worried too.”

“Then please, keep this in mind.” He leaned in close, his voice dropping to a whisper.  “Elmiryn is changing…but she isn’t a full fae yet.  She can still fight this.  The spiritual addiction isn’t as strong now…but the more fae she becomes, the hard it’ll be.”

I looked at him, my brows pressed together.  “Okay, Sedwick.  Alright.”  Was this really the time?

He held up his hands again and stepped away.  Awkwardly we started to shuffle past him.

“Do you want me to help you?” the man asked as we went.

I shook my head mutely and I heard nothing more from Sedwick as we followed Hakeem down the trail.  It wasn’t all that far off.  A minute or two later we were at a small animal hide hut, and the wizard was holding back the doorway curtain for us.  With a thanks, I guided us both through.

Hakeem poked his head in through the door.  “The latrine is out in the woods.  There’s a ribbon over it to mark it.  The dryads can point the way too, if you’re lost.  Don’t be afraid to talk to them.  They’re more likely to throw rocks at you for relieving yourself in the wrong spot than for you asking for their help.  Also, feel free to use whatever you find in here.  Nothing here belongs to anyone.  The owner died sometime ago, and the villagers use it as a sort of in-between home for visiting Lycans.”

I nodded, already eyeing the blanket of furs and hay I saw against the side wall.  “Thank you.”

“I’ll come get you when it’s time for dinner.”

As I laid Elmiryn down onto the makeshift bed, I turned and called out, “Wait!”

Hakeem poked his head back in.

I bit my lip and wondered if I was looking a gift horse in the mouth, but I had to ask.  “Why are you being so nice to us?”

The wizard smirked and looked at the ground, seeming to gather the words.  When he looked up, he was smiling openly.  My eyebrows went high.  He had a nice smile.

“Because,” he said. “You gave me back the real Quincy.”

When he turned and left, I was still blinking after him.  “The…real Quincy?”

“Nyx?”

I turned as I felt Elmiryn touch my hand.  Her cerulean eyes rolled open and she frowned up at me.  “Who ya talkin’ to…?”

I sat on the edge of the bed and stroked her cheek.  “Hakeem.”

“The…mud man?”

I hissed, giving her a shove.  “Don’t call him that!  It’s offensive!”

The woman giggled, her eyes falling shut again.  “Mmmm…sorry…meant mud boy…”

“Elmiryn!”

“Hey, hey!” With eyes still closed, she held up her hands.  “I like ’em folks jes fine!  Warner…my non-existin’ father, he owned a few Fa…Fanay…fa…aw, fuck it.  Those darkies from the South.”

My brow knitted.  “Owned?

“Yeh.  Owned.” Elmiryn rolled onto her side. “Nobles tend ta own things, Nyx.  Cludin’ people.”

“That’s horrible!”

“If it’s any con-sol-ashion, I never owned any slaves.”  The woman yawned and started to struggle out of her coat.  With pursed lips I helped her.  “Mother never liked it either…she use’ta give ’em money so’s they could buy their freedom, but tha’ jes made ’em stay.  Where tha hell else were they gonna find someone to treat ’em so nice?  Turn ’em loose in the kingdom, and they’d jes get caught an’ sold again…and prob’ly to a master that’d beat and rape ’em…”

Elmiryn freed her arms, her face turning into the cotton pillow with a satisfied groan.  She rolled back onto her back and was gazing off at something I couldn’t see.  “Ya gotta un’erstan’.  We didn’ have ’em cuz they were what they were.  We had other kinds too.  But they were the ‘least ‘spensive, so we had more of ’em than the others…”

“The lighter the slave, the greater the cost?” I growled.

The woman shrugged, her expression unapologetic. “I didn’ make the world, Nyx.  I grew up with this stuff, and that was jes how it went.”

“And when you were an adult?”

“Look…maybe I coulda done more once I got older.  Wha’dya want from me?  I was more concerned with gettin’ my military pro-mo-shions than freein’ a buncha slaves.  The people who fought against that sorta thing…they were pariahs.  Nobody wanted ta have anythin’ ta do with ’em.  You can’t get ahead that way.”

“That was all that mattered to you?  Getting ahead?”

Elmiryn’s eyes narrowed at me.  “Yeah.  It was.”  She rolled away from me.  “Not ever’body has a bleedin’ heart, Nyx.  The way I saw it, those people let ’emselves get caught, and they let ’emselves stay slaves.  I didn’ think it was my pro’lem.”

Her voice was turning low and her words more and more obscured, but I didn’t care.  I was too insulted to let this conversation die out.

“Those people couldn’t help themselves, Elmiryn!  Do you know how slavers catch their product?  They raid towns and villages late at night, when people are sleeping!  They overwhelm people, then break them so that they have no will to fight back!”  I shook the woman’s shoulder, my anger rising at the thought of her not hearing me.  “Elmiryn!  Elmiryn!  Gods damnit, not all slaves were like the ones your family owned!  If given that gold, they would’ve run at the first opportunity!”

The warrior sat up fast, startling me so bad I flinched and cried out.  She grabbed me by the shoulders, her grip tight, and hissed, “What…do…you…want…from…me?”

I stared at her, my mouth falling open.

The woman let me go, her cerulean eyes half-narrowed and her brow bunched so that the little wrinkle appeared once more on her forehead.  “Gods Nyx.  All I can tell ya is that I was a shitty person.  ‘Kay?  I didn’ know how slavers got their…their fuckin’ product, till jes’ a lil before I was cursed.  I guess I was stuck with the things I assumed as a kid.  That slaves jes’ walked onto slave ships.  That they fought the slavers in broad daylight, then jes’ gave up.”

The woman lay back down, and I started to feel an anxious guilt begin to tighten up my chest and abdomen.

…What had I been looking for?  An apology?  Why couldn’t I separate my anger at slavery from Elmiryn?  To stand up for slaves would have been difficult for her as a noble.  There was a lot of pressure to be a certain way.  I only understood that in a superficial sense.  After all, wasn’t I always outside of the norm?  I had grown up an outsider, already hated and despised.  I had nothing to lose but my family, but even then, I lost everything…

I turned my face, feeling suddenly lower than a worm.

Elmiryn continued, unaware of my disquiet.  “Things changed for me durin’ the war.  The Fiamman army was gonna launch a new attack on yer people, called the Nu-ran-ian Offensive.  We were gonna use a new long-ranged cannon.  My dragoons were ta lead the infantry inta battle on horseback.  I was sure this was my final test ‘fore I was ta be promoted ta Major.  But things went wrong.  The cannons were out of alignment, an’ when they fired, they hit our men instead.  I lost halfa my dragoons, and I was forced ta call a retreat.  As we were ridin’ back, I saw who had been mannin’ the cannons…” here the woman trailed away.  I still couldn’t bring myself to look at her.

After a breath, the woman continued, but her voice sounded tight.  “They were all Higashans.  They’d been chained ta the cannon carriages, but the wheels had been taken off.  Turns out, the cannons were made by them.  The cannonballs ’emselves were meant’ta explode on impact, and handlin’ ’em was dangerous.  Rather than risk losin’ some of our men, the generals ordered the slaves to be the handlers.  Problem was…the Higashans made the gun, that didn’ mean they were good at firin’ it.”

“Were you angry at them?” I asked, still looking at the other side of the room.

“Naw… Some of my men wanted to resume the retreat, but I decided ta help the slaves out of their chains.  They didn’ have any weapons, and were weak from abuse.  I didn’ think it was right that they couldn’ even run away.  My men helped me, and we got the slaves free.  By that point, we had no chance of outrunnin’ the Ailurans and were gearin’ up fer a las’ stand.  But then one o’ the older slaves hobbled up ta me with the help of one o’ the younger men.  The man started ta speak to me, and the boy translated for ‘im.  He said that the cannonballs could be made to s’plode with enough heat and ki-net-ic force.  So my men and I, along with some of the healthier slaves, rolled the cannonballs out all along the field and fixed ’em close to the barrels o’ gunpowder.  When the Ailurans came to attack, we lit arrows on fire and fired them at the barrels.  The big s’plosion they caused made the cannonballs nearby fire, and it set off’a chain reaction.  The Ailurans were devastated.  With my men, we beat ’em back.  The Higashans ran away in the confu-shion.  People called us heroes.  The generals called us deviants.”

“Why?”

“Cause we set the slaves free, and destroyed all their shiny new cannons.  Turns out, those Higashans were gee-niuses, and we’d just cost the army one of its prized resources.”  Elmiryn sighed and I turned just in time to see her finish a stretch.  She batted her eyes and looked at me.  “When I go an’ say it all like that…s’no wonder I never made Major.”  She closed her eyes and grinned.  “Guess I do gotta bleedin’ heart.”

“But if you hadn’t set those men free, then they would have died!”  I couldn’t feel happiness over what the warrior had done to my people, but she’d done it to survive, and freed innocent men in the process.  That, I could get behind, and it made me mad that she’d been prosecuted for it.

The woman held up her hands and chuckled.  “S’politics, Nyx.  The generals’d been lookin’ for a reason ta stop my a’vancement fer ages.  It really riled ’em that a woman could make it in the military at all.”

I grit my teeth.  “It isn’t right!”

“Lotsa things aren’ right, kitten.”

And I blinked at that.  Wasn’t that what we’d been essentially discussing this whole time?

Again I felt foolish.  “I’m sorry, Elle.  I…I seem to get emotional over things without really looking at it from all angles.  I should just let you rest.”  I rubbed at my eye.  “Heaven knows, I need it too.”

“Jes’ shush and come over here, you.”

Elmiryn grabbed me around the waist and pulled me to her.  I laughed and settled in next to her, laying my head on her chest and my arm over her stomach.  My legs brushed intimately with hers and I closed my eyes.

Then a thought occurred to me, and I raised my head.  “Elle…?”

The woman’s eyebrow quirked up, and she let out a sound of acknowledgement.

“What did…the Fiamman people call…Ailurans?” I asked.

Elmiryn’s eyes opened at that.  She looked at me critically.  “Wha’dya wanna know that for?”

I bit my lip and looked down shyly.  I fiddled with the top button of Elmiryn’s vest.  “We called you…ginger weeds.”

The woman erupted into a hoarse laugh, sending the sound echoing through me.

“Ginger weeds?” she exclaimed.

I giggled and leaned over onto my elbow. “Fuchsig krut, in Ailuran.  It basically means ‘ginger weed’.”

Elmiryn smirked as if she couldn’t get over how silly it sounded.  “We called you guys fleabiters.  One word.”

I grinned and shook my head.  “By themselves those words sound so stupid…”

“But put them in the mouth of someone who hates you, and they take on a whole new meaning.”  We both sobered up at the thought.

I hugged the woman around the middle, my face nuzzling into her neck.  “Elmiryn, you don’t…you don’t mean it that way when you say those things, do you?”

The warrior didn’t answer me right away, and after a while, I thought she had finally gone to sleep.

Then she started talking, her voice a low, husky mumble. “I once had a wash maid.  Her name was Lunielle.  Real shy, but re-al pretty.”  I raised my head enough to look at the woman’s face.  Her expression was quiet and peaceful, and her eyes were closed.  Her lips barely moved as she spoke.  “I like teasin’ people now, but back then, you could say I was a real bully.  It wasn’ that I liked hurtin’ people.  It was that I liked gettin’ a reaction out of ’em, same as now…only back then, I had been stuck in my father’s trainin’ grounds and I didn’t get to see people a lot.  I was attention starved, I guess.  So tha’s why I was the way I was.  But Lunielle always ignored me.  It got on my nerves.

“She use’ta hide her hair under a han’kerchief cos’ otherwise it’d puff out into this big soft ball.  One day, when I was takin’ a bath and she was scrubbin’ my back, I pulled the han’kerchief off her head.  She got real mad, and her eyes went wide—wider’n I ever saw ’em—and she tried to get her han’kerchief back.  Her face got all red, making her skin even warmer than it was before.  She kept babblin’ at me in her language, and I started staring at her lips.  Next thing I knew, I kissed her.  After that…I wanted her.”

The woman smiled, and I frowned, feeling my wickedness stir.  Elmiryn resumed, oblivious.  “I didn’ force her.  I told her if she didn’ wanna be with me, than I wouldn’ say anythin’ and I’d leave ‘er alone.  I was gonna be leavin’ for home soon, anyway, an’ I wouldn’ see her again after that.  But Lunielle ended up kissing me back, and we ended up having sex in my room.  It was my first time.”

I sat up, still frowning.  “Why are you telling me this?”

Elmiryn’s eyes creaked open and they rolled to fix their light gaze on me.  “Partly jes ta answer yer question.”  Then she smiled crookedly.  “And partly jes ta see if you got jealous.”

I flared red and went so far as to punch the woman in the shoulder.  “You’re terrible!”

Ow!  That was close to the boob!”

“You deserved it!”

The woman laughed, grabbing me and pulling me over her body.  I struggled, but she straddled me, pinning my arms up over my head.  My breath caught as Elmiryn leaned in close.  “Got you!” she said in a sing song voice.  She kissed my cheek, then nuzzled my ear.  There, she whispered.  “When I say those things, I don’t say ’em in hate.  I don’t have anythin ‘gainst what’s different from me.  I like different.  Prefer it, even…an’ I prefer you, Nyx…over everyone and everything.”  Her tongue traced the edge of my ear and I shivered.  “I fear we may have started something, kitten…”

Elmiryn raised her head and her cerulean eyes pierced into mine.  My mouth parted, maybe with the intent of saying something, but then the woman leaned down and kissed me, and all my thoughts fled, including my desire for rest.  She freed my arms, and I wrapped them around her, body arching to meet hers as I eagerly returned her kiss.  There was that fruity taste in her mouth again, and it struck me as familiar, but with my mind clouded by the haze, the capacity for such concerns were lost.

All I wanted was for us to be lost in this feeling forever, because nothing felt as good, nothing felt as right, as when I held Elmiryn in my arms…

…And that was a consequence I could deal with.


Back to Chapter 26.4 | Forward to Chapter 27.2

Chapter 26.4

NYX____________________________

There was a darkness lingering in these Lycans, hidden beneath their purpose, tucked under their bravado and their pride.  I could see it peeking out from the edges of their masks when they gazed my way.  The strange Ailuran was on the move amidst them, and this sparked a new sort of attention…one I had dreaded.

Could they sense my Mark?  I knew Ailurans were highly sensitive to it, but did that apply to all therians?  Certainly, none of them were lunging or cringing from me…but their gazes weren’t exactly friendly either.

In my life, I have not encountered other races of therians, not even those numerous therians of the sun.  The Ailuran Nation wasn’t all that friendly to outsiders, which explains why I hadn’t met any others of my species before my banishment.  I can only say that luck served me the rest of the way after that.

Till now, that is.

I had once used the image of Lycans ripping me apart as a preferable route to death over having an axe in my brain.  Faced with that possibility (however unlikely whilst under Artemis’ protection), the idea no longer seemed as nice.

Mind you, there is no blood feud between Lycans and Ailurans.  We haven’t had the chance to, with our being cornered into our respective parts of the continent.  Perhaps if more of us traveled, if our peoples were allowed to expand, that would have eventually come due to cultural differences.  But no.  No blood feud.  Still, there are some tales of Ailuran warriors facing off with our distant wolf cousins…of the North defeating the South in a victory of wits and strength.  Just propaganda nonsense.  I never really paid it any mind.

Still, if this signified anything, it was that the age old rivalry between dogs and cats was not entirely alien between our people.  It seemed natural, and I could feel the Lycans around me taking to this idea with relish.  Maybe I would be their new outlet of frustration.  Maybe they felt genuinely threatened to have one such as me in their secret village.

…Or maybe they were just bored.

Whatever the reason, a rough shoulder bump told me just how things were about to go as I walked toward the village center.  I didn’t bother looking back at who did it.  I tried to ignore the smirks of some of the young men that leered at me from the shadows of their huts.  I wished, not for the first time, that Sedwick had come with me.  Perhaps he would have, if I had explained my fears to him…but something prevented the words from coming up my throat.  Was it pride?  Shame?  It didn’t matter anymore…

I fought to keep from curling away as another shoulder roughly hit me, this time nearly sending me into an elderly woman sewing clothes.  If I had fallen on her, it would have incited an incident, which I was certain was the goal.  The Lycans may have been blustering, but they were still aware of the fact that we were there as Artemis’ guests.  Still, I doubted even the goddess could intervene should the Lycans find fault in me.  It was not her station to protect those who could not protect themselves, if my knowledge of the patheon was correct.

I doubled my pace, now with hands tensed like claws.  I felt as though others were following, but I refused to look over my shoulder.  I saw another young man coming towards me, his path too intent to cross with my own.  I didn’t slow down, my heart loud in my ears and my throat tightening, and when he moved to trip me, I slid to the side and kicked at the back of his leg, making him stumble past.  I stopped and glared at him.  The young man looked at me, startled.  Then his face darkened.

A hiss built up in my throat, but he slowly walked away, his gaze flickering up toward the goddess’s perch.

I let out the breath I was holding.

With head hung low I trudged over to the giant central tree.

The great tree, with its twisted, gnarled bark, was the central focus of the village.  All around it were trade posts and artisans, all looking to trade or buy.  There were some Lycans doing just that, clearly visitors from a neighboring village, for their hair beads and their clothes were of a different color and make than the natives here.

If I weren’t so afraid, I would have been very interested in learning about the Lycan’s culture.  What were their beliefs?  What did they like to do for fun?  They were a secretive people who kept to themselves, and with their powerful alliances, no outsider had managed to pierce that veil for thousands of years.  This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Too bad these people looked more likely to bite off my nose than say hello to me.

The smell of spiced meat was in the air.  The emerald light from the enchanted trees made everything seem soft and gentle.  Sedwick had said the light came from the dryads.  He said that because they lived in harmony with the Lycans, they were able to harvest more life force than any other nymphs in the world.  They used the excess energy and converted it into a sort of light. That was why torches were scarce.  The villagers didn’t want to risk starting a forest fire.  Only a few artisans used them for need of clear light.  They kept the flames away from anything flammable.

I let out a sigh and sat on one of the large roots, hoping that Elmiryn would show up before I lost my nerve and went running back to Sedwick.  I didn’t want any trouble, but it seemed intent on finding me.

I didn’t have even a moment of peace before I heard the thunder of little feet and looked up just in time to see a boy rear his head back and spit in my eyes.  I shouted out an Ailuran curse as I jumped to my feet.  I wiped the spit from my eyes, flicking away the slime from my fingers.  I glared at the boy and his little friends.

…But I didn’t raise my hand.  Didn’t move to harm him.  It wasn’t that I didn’t want to.  My hand curled as if all it could think about was cuffing the little brat over the head.

Yet ingrained in me was the life of an outcast, and I’d faced enough situations like this in my time spent drifting through outposts and hamlets.  People like me weren’t allowed to defend themselves.  My time with Elmiryn and Lacertli had made standing up to men and women a possibility now.  But…I was anathema, and such abominations could do little more than shy in the wrath of a child.

And that was just what I did.

ELMIRYN________________________

The redhead was feeling good and tipsy, her gait unhurried and her smile firmly in place.  She swung her arms and wheeled her hips a little, feet trailing an odd gait over the earth–wide and whimsical crescent steps that crissed and crossed a little.  Her hands were steady and her head had stopped throbbing.  The ever present thirst was a little more muted.  The warrior felt good, and she didn’t want to think about what she’d do when a few hours time brought back the pain and the aches and the shakes.  At the moment…she had…

…Glorious weight…Glorious feeling

When Elmiryn found Nyx, the Ailuran was standing near the great tree, surrounded by children, all boys.  The look on her face belonged to someone eyeing rabid dogs.  Her bangs were plastered to her face on the right side from something slimy.  They giggled and poked at her with sticks, babbling in their Lycan tongue.  One boy even had the audacity to pretend he was a cat, and the others growled like dogs and chased him, making him yowl and feign fear.  The children laughed.  Some adults looked on in amusement.

It seemed there was no love lost between Ailurans and Lycans.

“No, no, no!  Thas’ not how an Ailuran behaves!” Elmiryn said loudly as she approached.

Nyx looked at her in relief.  The children gave a start, all turning to stare at Elmiryn with wide eyes.

Guilty lil’ buggers.

The warrior bared her teeth and let out a convincing hiss, her hands tensed like claws.  “They’re fierce!  Dangerous-sss!”  To drive her point home, Elmiryn let out a sharp roar, not unlike the one she once heard from Nyx.

She made as if to grab the children and they screamed, running away.

The woman doubled over laughing, her hands hugging around her chest.

“That was an admirable roar,” Nyx said, smiling weakly.

Elmiryn wiped a tear from her eye as she straightened.  “I’ve heard it ‘nough times t’get the gist of it.”

“My brother Thaddeus would be livid if he knew I’d been intimidated by a bunch of pups.”

“Those pups already know of a hundred different ways to kill a man, and just as many ways to deal with a rogue spirit,” a new voice said.

Elmiryn and Nyx turned to see the leader of their former escort coming toward them.  His eyes flickered between them, a smirk on his lips.  “They are true warriors.  Unlike some.”

“Mebbe in body, but not in spirit.  They hound a guest of yer village inna pack and think it makes ’em warriors?  Do ya lay siege to squirrels too?” Elmiryn returned.

Nyx grabbed her arm, giving it a pull.  “Elle, forget it!”

The man stepped closer, some of his men appearing behind them.  “And what would a tkelechog woman know of those things?”

“Yer goddess is a woman, you fuckin’ idiot.  Or have ya forgotten who lets yer people sit happy with the fairies whilst the world wars outside?”

“We are not afraid of you or your kingdom, woman.”  The man snarled, pressing his forehead into hers.  “I could kill you if I wished.”

“If ya could.”  The woman replied, her smile having yet to falter.  “How does that leash feel, guard dog?  Careful Artemis don’t reign you in.”

The man shoved her, knocking her into Nyx.  The woman stumbled, but she had always been good in manipulating her drunkenness, and she stayed on her feet.  She thought she heard the girl fall, but she couldn’t be sure.  Her eyes were focused on the bully before her.

With a smirk, Elmiryn shoved the man back, harder.  “I’ve handled bigger and smarter beasts’n’you.  Don’t make the mistake of underestimatin’ me.”

She knew it was all a show, but it was still a test.  These men weren’t accustomed to outsiders joining their ranks.  If they were going to be accepted by these warriors in the hunt, they’d have to show they deserved respect, and that they were unafraid to fight for it if necessary.  Quincy was likely okay because Hakeem had already been accepted by the village.  Sedwick was surely clear, considering he was half-elemental and had a reputation as Nadi’s right hand man.

…But Elmiryn and Nyx were a different matter, and the warrior was more aware of it now than ever.

The man bared his teeth at her.  “If you truly think you can beat me, then face me in owak when the last ladle has made its rounds during supper.  I will make you taste the dirt at my feet!”

“Owak?”

“It is our honorable duel, though you’re hardly deserving of such a thing.  It will be just the two of us in the ring.  No weapons.  Just our flesh and our spirits in battle.”

The woman crossed her arms and chuckled.  “Spirits, huh?  Have ya ever fought a ghost before?”

The man frowned at her. “Eh?”

“Forget it.  I accept yer challenge, guard dog.”

“What is your name, woman?”

“Elmiryn.”

The dark haired man took a fist and patted it against the underside of his chin.  “I am Halian.  Be there at supper, or my men will find you and drag you to me.”

Elmiryn offered a jaunty salute. “Looking forward to it!” she chirped.

Halian spat at her feet and left, his eyes cutting at her like knives.  His men followed him, sparing their own glares as they went.  The villagers around them had all paused to watch the exchange, but with things done for now, they gradually returned to their business.

The woman shook her head as she watched Halian’s retreating back.  “He reminds me of my men, when I first took command as dragoon Captain.”  She sighed wistfully.  “Those were good times.”

The woman turned to find Nyx on the ground, glaring up at her.

“Oh.”  Elmiryn extended a hand to her, helping her up.  “Sorry.”

“It’s not that,” the girl snapped.  She gestured after Halian.  “It was that!

“What?”

Nyx started to dust the seat of her pants.  “Why are you picking fights with trained Lycans?”

The woman glanced off to the left, then the right.  She let her eyes flicker back onto Nyx.  “Is…this a trick question?”

Nyx inhaled sharply and pressed her mouth so tightly, the lips turned white.  With flared nostrils she finally exhaled and snapped,  “You’re hopeless!”

Elmiryn snorted.  “That guy won’t be a problem.  If I can beat ’em, then the hunters won’t look at us funny.”

“They won’t look at you funny.”

“Wha’dya mean?”

The Ailuran rubbed up at her face, then pulled her hair back just at the hairline, making the short bangs stick up.  The way her features pulled up made her look Higashan, and Elmiryn tried to bite her smile down.

“I’m an Ailuran, Elmiryn.  No matter what I do, they will look at me that way.”  The girl gestured around her.  “Plus…these are wolves.  At least in spirit.”  She tapped her temple.  “They think in terms of pack order.  Even if you somehow manage to beat Halian at hand-to-hand, I’m still at the bottom rung!”

Elmiryn shrugged.  “So you fight.”

The girl looked at her incredulously.  “I don’t want to!”

“Why not?  Ya could beat anyone one o’ these guys.”

“Just because I got lucky a few times in the past doesn’t mean–”

“A good warrior is a combination of luck and skill.  Ya got plenty o’ both.  You jes’ need to focus yer mind more.”

“Well I can’t,” the girl said flatly, crossing her arms.  “This place makes me nervous, and there’s no telling how long we’ll be here.  The Lycans have been hunting this strange beast for how long now?  We’ll be lucky if we can catch it tonight.  I’m not looking forward to staying here forever.  These people have suffered, and I’m the perfect target for them to let their frustrations out on!”

“We won’t be here long.”  Elmiryn took hold of the girl’s shoulders, rubbing them.  “C’mon.  Relax.  Yer stressin’ out too much.”

“Tell me my concerns aren’t valid, and I’ll shut up,” the girl challenged.

Elmiryn shook her head.  “No.  Yer right about some things.  There’s no tellin’ how long we’ll be here, huntin’ this ‘evil’.  And maybe the Lycans will treat you different no matter what…but when has that changed anythin’?  You’ve still got me, right?  Fuck them.  No one will hurt you, so long as I’m around, and I’ll do everythin’ I can to get us out o’ here, and fast.  Kay?”

Nyx looked down at her shoes and gave a sullen nod.

Elmiryn gave an exasperated smile before she enveloped her friend in a hug.  “Oh, kitten.  What’re we gonna do with ya?”

“Throw me down a well?”

“Only if there were a feathered mattress at the bottom.”

The girl pulled back to give her an odd look.  “You think that’d save me?”

The woman shrugged.  “I dunno.  I kinda like the idea of throwin’ ya onto a mattress, though.”  Elmiryn smiled devilishly.

Nyx blushed and pulled back.  “Speaking of a well, I’d like to rinse off.  One of those boys spat in my face and I think it had some phlegm in it…” she grimaced as she delicately pulled her slimy bangs from her cheek.

The warrior made a face.  “Ah.  Children.  Lil’ gifts from heaven.”

“They’re not all bad,” the girl argued, looking at the woman reproachfully.  “You don’t like children?”

They started walking, Nyx leading a little as she tried to find a water source she could make use of.  Elmiryn tried to keep her step from weaving, but she doubted she could hide the rosiness in her cheeks, even with all the emerald light.

“I don’ dislike children.  Who says I…diss-like children?” Even Elmiryn was aware of her slurring her words now, and for the first time, she found she didn’t like how she sounded.

Nyx looked at her sharply, her eyes gone shrewd.  “Honestly, I sort of assumed it,” the girl said slowly, her eyes searching.  “I’d imagine having to censor yourself around little ones would be enough to raise your ire…”

The warrior tried her hardest to look sober, then wondered why she was bothering so much.  Nyx was too perceptive for that.

“Censor myself?” The woman chuckled, trying to roll the knot out of her shoulders.  “Please!  I dunno the meaning of the word.”

“Censor,” Nyx said readily, a smirk on her face.  “To scrutinize and cut out unsavory parts of a work or thought.”

“Ha.  Ha.  Ha.  Real cute, kitten.” The woman feigned irritation, but her lips kept tilting up at the corners and by the sound of Nyx’s laugh, she’d caught it.  It made the woman’s heart warm to see that she could help the girl forget her anxiety, if even for a moment.  “But in all seriousness, I kinda like kids.  They’re funny.  It’s babies that weird me out.”

The girl looked at her, shocked.  “Really!?  But they’re so cute!”

After rounding the tree, they found a water pump on the other side.  They stood in line after a woman with a clay jug.  The woman eyed them over her shoulder, and Elmiryn waved coyly at her.  The Lycan’s eyes widened and she snapped her eyes forward again.

“The thing is…well…”  The warrior returned her gaze to her companion.  “S’how they drool and soil ’emselves, y’know?  And they sorta stare at everythin’ without knowin’ what it is.  It’s weird.

The girl gave her a dry look.  “They’re babies.  Of course they don’t know what anything is!”

“And they’re so dependent!  They can’t defend ’emselves from fuckin’ anythin’.”

They moved up in the line.  “Would it make more sense for a child to be able to pick up a sword upon birth?” Nyx asked ironically.

The warrior giggled and rubbed at her eyes with one hand.  “Okay, yeh.  I know I’m bein’ a lil silly.”

“A little?”

“Maybe what really gets me is where babies come from.”

Nyx let out a snort of a laugh.  “You talk about it like it’s some sort of horrible thing to be whispered of in dark corners!”

Elmiryn shoved her lightly in the shoulder.  “Hush!  Ya’d freak out too if ya ever saw childbirth!”

“I have,” the girl said with a note of condescension.  “I’ve been a midwife at least twice before meeting you.”

The woman shuddered.  “How can ya stand it!?”  She mimed something hideous crawling out of a tight space.  “The way those lil’ buggers come sliding out…!”

They moved up in the line again.  They were next to use the pump.  “It’s beautiful, Elle.  It’s life.

“One that I’ll gladly skip out on.”

“So no children for you?  No one to carry on the legacy?”

What flashed into the woman’s head was cracked mosaic.  It was a marble palace where a river of blood swathed over the alabaster stones, fetuses floating on the horrible currents.  Elmiryn’s face darkened.  “Legacy?  Am I a man to fret over such things?  If I really wanted kids, I wouldn’ have’ta turn into some fat fuckin’ breeder ta do it.  There’s plenty o’ children sittin’ n’ starvin’ on golden streets.”

Nyx flinched, and the woman realized just how cutting she’d sounded.  Her expression softened and she touched her friend’s shoulder.  “Shit…m’sorry.  I didn’ mean ta say it like that.  I was jes…” the woman’s voice trailed off.

…She was just what?  Where had that come from?

The girl shrugged her hand away, her eyes gaining a foreign steeliness to them.

“You’re right,” Nyx said, not looking at her.  “I shouldn’t have teased you like that.  There’s more than one way to be a mother and it’s none of my business whether or not you’d like to take that road.  I won’t be so presumptuous again.”

The finality in the girl’s voice alarmed the woman.

Elmiryn closed her eyes and rubbed at her neck.  “Aw, c’mon it isn’ like all that…”

The woman in front of them finished with her business and Nyx stepped up to take her place.  She bent near the pump, pushing down on the handle so that water came gushing out of the wooden spout.  She splashed her face vigorously with the running water.

When Nyx straightened with hair dripping, she turned and said, “Just do me a favor, Elle.”

The woman looked at her, eager to make things up. “What is it?”

“…Say specificity.”

The warrior blinked slowly.  “Spess…” she frowned.  “Spesss…spessy…fissy…spess-fissy-ity–”

“You’re drunk,”  Nyx grumbled, her expression darkening.

Elmiryn winced.  “Yes.”  She held up her hands.  “But in my defense, I know plenty o’ people who couldn’ say that shit sober!”

The girl walked away from the pump, and the woman followed her.  “I didn’t think the Lycans would be passing around their spirits quite so early,” the Ailuran said, still scowling.

The warrior kept her mouth shut on that one.  She felt the weight of her flask like a guilty press on her chest.

Nyx crossed her arms and shot Elmiryn an incendiary look.  The woman could practically feel it burning a hole into her skin.  “And by the sounds of it, you had quite a bit, even for you.  What will you do if you become ill at the hunt?  Why don’t you think these things through?” the girl chastised.

Any other time, and the warrior may have been fit to argue.  But somehow, she could not bring herself to excuse her actions.  “I couldn’ help it…” she whispered.  Her shoulders slumped.  “I couldn’, Nyx.”

The girl’s expression softened.  She sighed and rubbed at her face.  “What am I going to do with you?”

The warrior smiled sheepishly.  “Throw me down a well?”

Nyx shook her head with a weary smile, and the conversation trailed off.

In her head, Elmiryn’s thoughts whirled.  She considered telling Nyx everything.  From how the woman learned her new strange powers and how her sudden addiction was tied to her changing nature.  But she felt…afraid.  Afraid somehow that the girl would be disgusted…that the girl would be frightened…

…That maybe Nyx would actually want to help her.

If the woman kept quiet, then for a little while, she could evade the attentions of her friend and drink to her heart’s content.  But damn–why had she told Quincy and Sedwick anything?  Why had she mentioned her fae nature?  She could’ve explained away the shakes of her hands if she’d only thought about it for–

Elmiryn stopped walking.

Nyx trailed to a stop and looked back at her, confused.

“Elmiryn?” she said.

The woman couldn’t bring herself to look at her.  “Nyx…”

The girl stepped near her and took her hands.  “What is it, Elle?”

That warm, golden feeling was in the girl’s words again, and Elmiryn felt compelled enough to lift her gaze.  She felt her breath thin at the concern in Nyx’s eyes.  How could the girl turn around and show so much compassion to someone who had behaved so cruelly with her?

The woman took a breath.

“Nyx…I have ta tell ya somethings…and I’unno if yer gonna like it.”


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