Tributaries Cover In Sight, In Mind Cover Blackwood Cover

Chapter 28.2

HAKEEM_________________________

They were outside of his borrowed hut, sitting on overturned baskets with their forms hunched toward each other as they conversed in secret.  There were enough bilingual Lycans in the village to warrant caution, and given what he’d just heard, it was not without reason.  Hakeem stared at Quincy to Sedwick and back.  He’d heard and seen a lot of things in his years (or, at the moment, lack thereof), and yet this seemed almost too much.

“Nyx is a champion?” he repeated quietly.

Quincy and Sedwick nodded mutely.

“And Elmiryn is turning into a…fae?”

Again, they nodded.

He rubbed at his face and thought.  After a moment, he leaned back and said, “The timing seems curious.”

Quincy and Sedwick exchanged confused looks.

Taika, what do you mean?” his wife asked.

He shrugged and thumbed over his shoulder at Nyx.  “I mean, doesn’t it seem a bit coincidental that both of these women seem to be ascending the average mortal station at the same time?”

They pondered on this.

“Nyx said she was the champion of Lacertli, the god of natural order.  I’m afraid I’m unfamiliar with him,” Sedwick said.

“The Lizard King.” Hakeem scratched at his knee, leaving the dark skin ashy.  His companions stared at him, and he looked at them both, his finger stilling.  “What?”

You know who Lacertli is?” Quincy asked, sounding not a little surprised.

He frowned at her.  “You aren’t the only one who reads, Mweze.”

She blushed and gave him a pout. “I’m not trying to remark on your intelligence!  It just seems that no one knows who this god actually is!”

“Well, as Sedwick said, he’s the god of natural order.  Fanaeans were some of his last followers before the rise of civilization saw them doing away with the old ways.  With the advance of medicine and weapons and complex architecture, a god whose primary domain was survivability in the wild seemed less relevant.  These days, it’s easy to survive so long as you live a quiet life.  Unlike us, most people do.”

“Is there anything else you know about him?”

“Well, he’s also known as the Dreamwalker.  It’s said that survivability comes with wisdom, and wisdom is the ability to be creative and see the truth in things from different angles.  In Fanaean culture, the shadows are said to be the borders of dreams, and controlling these can lead to new realities.”

Quincy nudged Sedwick.  “I thought I saw some strange shadows across the ground when we were fighting Tonatiuh.  I couldn’t make out what they belonged to.  Was that Nyx’s doing?”

The elemental held up his hands.  “I didn’t really see either.”

Hakeem raised an eyebrow. “You two don’t know what her powers are?”

His wife screwed up her mouth.  “There was a massive battle we had not long ago.  So much was going on that it was hard to keep track of.”

The man-boy held out his hands.  “That aside, the things I’ve read about Lacertli were contained within a footnote.  But from that small paragraph, I know that he was seen as arbiter in nature’s harmony.  The fae were creatures who bit their thumbs at harmony, choosing to create their own rules out of whimsy.  If Elmiryn is truly becoming a fae, then he will want to keep a close eye on her.”

“So he chose Nyx as his champion to better position himself against Elmiryn?”

Hakeem held up a finger. “Or the one who cursed Elmiryn.”

“Meznik,” Sedwick said with a frown.

“Possibly.”

“There’s lots of possibilities, but all this conjecture hardly gives us the means to seek out the truth.”  Quincy stood with a rough sigh.  “It wouldn’t hurt to talk to Nyx about her new station.  Maybe learning about one thing will give insight to the other?  I’ve tried asking Elmiryn for answers, and yet I still feel like she isn’t being entirely forthcoming.”

“I feel the same way,” Sedwick said.  “But to be fair, maybe she doesn’t understand it entirely herself?  Her main source of information is the one who caused her misfortune to begin with.  That’s shaky grounds to trust, no matter how you look at it.”

“I hardly think he’s the cause of all of her misfortune…” Quincy muttered.

She squinted her eyes as something caught her attention down the trail.  They widened as her face went slack.  “Speaking of which…”

Hakeem and Sedwick followed her gaze to see a certain redhead being carried into Eidan’s hut.

“You don’t think Artemis…did anything to her, did she?”  Sedwick asked, looking at them all.

“Only if Elmiryn kept her mouth from escaping her,” Hakeem murmured.

They all exchanged grave looks.

Just then, the war horn sounded.  It echoed throughout the village.

Hakeem shook his head.  “Tai’undu…that’s the call for the hunt.  Everyone is going to gather at the northern part of the village.”

“What about Nyx?” Sedwick said, looking into the hut.  “She’s still out.”

Quincy rummaged through her pouch and pulled out a small vial of white smelling salts.  “These should wake her.”

“Maybe we should leave her?” Hakeem said with a frown.

His wife shook her head. “Artemis said that she’d help us leave this shard only if all of us participate in the hunt.  I’ve been given pardon as Eidan requires my assistance.  Elmiryn clearly can’t participate.  Nyx, however, has no valid reason to stay here.”

Sedwick’s brows pressed up to wrinkle his forehead. “She might not see things so reasonably, especially if she hears where Elmiryn is…”

“What if I was the one to wake her?” Hakeem said.

They both looked at him, surprised.

Quincy fidgeted uncomfortably.  “But…Taika.  If she really wanted to, she could blow right past you.”  She gestured weakly at his small form.

Hakeem shook his head. “Not if I reason with her.”

“No offense, but you don’t even know her that well,” Sedwick argued gently.  He crossed his arms.  “She’ll have only one thing on her mind.”

Hakeem nodded.  “I know.  But I’m counting on all those things.”  He jabbed his thumb at himself.  “I’m the most impartial out of all of you, and I have the least reason to want to deceive her.  If she’s really going to be so singleminded, then I can use that logic to turn her determination toward the hunt.”

A group of Lycans rushed past them, streaks of white on their faces and spears in their hands.  They bared their teeth as they passed, growling and howling.  The village became a different thing once the warriors were on the move.  The aggression that had so bubbled near the surface rose for all to see, bearing forth their ferocity.

They watched as the warriors passed.  Then Quincy sighed and tossed Hakeem the salts.  He caught them with one hand.

“I suppose you’d better get to it, Taika.  They’ll be arranging the hunting parties soon.”  She turned to Sedwick.  “Let’s get going.”

Sedwick gave a nod.  “I’ll see you when we get back.  I wanna see how Elmiryn’s doing.”

Hakeem watched as his companions went off to their respective destinations.  When they were no longer visible amidst the surge of Lycans, he looked at the salts in his hand, then the hut.

Gripping the vial, Hakeem pulled back the curtain and peeked inside.  Nyx hadn’t moved since Sedwick had first laid her down, but her chest rose in small increments.  In a way she looked almost peaceful.  It seemed cruel to launch her back into anxiety and struggle.

The wizard sat on the edge of the bed and sighed.  He fingered the vial’s cork a moment before he pulled it out.  Turning, he held the salts under the Ailuran’s nose.

Her eyelids fluttered, and in the next instant she sat up with a loud gulping breath.  She nearly knocked the vial out of Hakeem’s hands, her legs kicking as if resuming their previous struggle.  Hakeem had read that therians reacted strongly to salts because of their sensitive smell.  But given the way she clocked his ear, the texts really understated it, in his opinion.

Nyx looked wildly around her, still gasping and clutching at her chest.  Hakeem jumped away and held out his hands.

“You’re okay,” he said in what he hoped to be a soothing voice.  It occurred to him that he didn’t have much practice in that regard.  “You’re back in my hut.”

“Wh-What? But–I–” Nyx stared at him, then down at her legs.  Her hands bunched the fur blankets in white grips.  “I was…”

“The fight,” Hakeem supplied.

Fear flashed across her face.  “Elle!” she clumsily made to stand.

Hakeem grabbed her by the shoulders, pulling her back to eye level.  “Nyx, listen to me.  She’s fine.  The match ended in a stalemate.  She’s being tended to now.”

Her eyes lit up with relief, and she grabbed him by the shoulders in kind, her grip tight with the release of all her stress.  Then this look slowly melted into a hard determination.  “Well then I’ve got to see her!”

Hakeem shook his head.  “The hunt has started.  As I understand it, you have an obligation to particpate.”

“I promised her I’d always be at her side!” Nyx knocked his hands away and stood.  She managed to step off the bed, before Hakeem danced in her way.

“You have an obligation, Nyx!  Elmiryn used her new fae powers to keep from getting killed, and it has earned Artemis’s fury.  By denying the goddess your promise, you endanger Elmiryn.”  He pointed up at the girl’s face.  “Also, I know what you are.  As a champion of Lacertli, don’t you think you ought to be upholding your patron’s values?  The beast that stalks these forests disrupts Harmony.  He won’t be happy to hear of your negligence.”

Nyx glared down at him, her face twitching.  The real sign of his victory, however, came in the way frustration welled in her gaze.  Common sense and duty were in conflict with the very thing her heart wished for.  He knew the feeling.

Lowering his eyes, he sighed and said, “Nyx, I don’t like saying these things.  But you know they are true.”

They stood silent, the hut curtain stirred by those rushing outside.  Shadows flashed about their ankles where the emerald light laid its mark upon the ground.  The Ailuran’s eyes narrowed, and she wiped furiously to catch the tears before they could fall.  She shifted her weight onto the ball of her right foot, digging it into the soil.  Her hands tensed to claws at her sides as her expression turned tight.  Hakeem braced himself in case she decided to lunge at him…

Finally, Nyx whispered, “I don’t understand you at all.”

Hakeem shrugged one shoulder, shifting his weight from one foot to the other.  He spared a glance over his shoulder before fixing the girl with a sideways gaze.  He said out of the corner of his mouth. “Do you really want to understand?”

The girl’s eyebrows rose high.

The wizard planted his feet beneath his shoulders and crossed his arms.  He felt almost like himself—the dark, broad-shouldered sentinel, spiced with just a little arrogance and a great deal of indifference.  “Understanding…goes both ways, ikati.  I’ve already told you why I show you my generosity…but if you wish to understand me, you would have to earn something else.”

When he didn’t continue, the Ailuran scratched her head, her eyes flickering elsewhere a moment before she looked at him again, almost shyly, and asked, “What’s that?”

“My complete and absolute trust.  As much as I appreciate what you and you’re friends have done to restore Quincy, that still doesn’t speak of who you are as individuals.  In strange ways, I have an idea of what to expect from the Fiamman.  But what can I expect from you?  I have no idea where you come from…though I may have a few guesses as to how you got here.”  His head tilted back and his eyes narrowed a fraction.  “You’re an outcast, aren’t you?  I can think of no other reason an Ailuran may be able to stomach the company of their hated enemy.”

Hakeem could see Nyx’s skin go pale, even in the dim lighting.

He held up a placating hand.  “Stay at ease, Nyx.  I have no right to judge.  I only need to know if you’re past is a distant thing…or a present reality.”  He took a step back toward the curtain, then another.  “I cannot trust those that are led solely by their heads or their hearts.  I am open to understanding you.  Hunt with us tonight, and survive.  If a bridge can be built, than I say we shall build it.  Otherwise, my kindness will remain a distant thing, and you will be left to your confusion.”

With an abrupt turn of his body, he marched out of the hut.  He had said what he could, and now he couldn’t entertain the girl’s plight any longer.  There were other more important things to deal with…

…Which was why Hakeem smirked to hear Nyx hurrying after him.

NYX____________________________

Sweet Aelurus, the positions I find myself in!

All I wanted was to see Elmiryn with my own eyes, to feel her heartbeat, to know that she wasn’t going to wake from a nightmare and not find me there, waiting.  But Hakeem was right.  There were other things to attend to first…like my promise to Artemis.

I felt a chill, thinking of how the goddess may have looked upon seeing Elmiryn use her strange new powers.

Listen to me!  Elmiryn?  Powers?  Gods!

Wasn’t it just a little under a month ago when we first met?  Things were so much simpler then!  These days, I felt like we couldn’t take a step without the threat of powerful beings snapping us in half.  It was enough to drive a person insane, and in the cases of some, we were quite far along that road already.

As I followed Hakeem through the thickening crowds, I finally saw where everyone was gathering.

Clumped together in hunting parties, with many more waiting to be assigned, were powerful Lycan warriors.  Men–and women–of all different shapes and sizes gathered with their traditional weapons.  Many were painted in colored grease paint, the colors of war that marked their tribe.  It seemed like so much for just one beast, but seeing how this creature had hurt these people so, perhaps I just couldn’t fathom the truth of what I was getting into.

I stopped just a little behind Hakeem, who was looking around the area.  I felt timid and vexed by him at the same time.

“Where do I go?” I mumbled.

“Follow me.”  He didn’t look at me, his eyes intent as he searched the crowds.

As he tried to spot whatever it was he was looking for, I did my best to look inconspicuous.  In my favor, the heightened energy served to drown out my presence, as everyone present was more concerned with forming their hunting parties.  For the most part, I went unnoticed, but those that did see me paused to fix me with a curious look.  I mirrored it, but for only an instant.  Prolonged staring was one of the things I was supposed to be avoiding.

Hakeem seemed to see what he wanted, and with a jerk of his head, he led me to a small group of Lycans preparing near the forest’s edge.  There were three of them.  Two men and a woman.  The men milled about near the trees, while the woman sat on a rock sharpening a spear closer toward the village.

The wizard greeted them in their Lycan tongue, then turned to me. “This is Nyx, one of the newcomers.  She needs to be placed.”

The Lycan woman stood and stepped forward.  I was surprised to find that I recognized her.  She was the one who had told me to fetch Elmiryn from the ring after the first round of the fight.  Now that all the hysteria of that time was gone, I took in her whole appearance.

She was not much taller than me—perhaps an inch or so—and had wavy, shoulder-length dark hair.  Her narrow face now had on streaks of green and black paint that made her green eyes seem even brighter.  Her arms were exposed, revealing the lean muscles of her body.  She wore a dark leather vest with a v-neck and a pair of suede pants stopping mid-calf.  Her feet were bare, but around her right ankle was a small strip where a rabbit’s foot dangled.

She looked me up and down, then looked at Hakeem.  In the same thick accent as before, she said, “I am lead while Halian out.  I say she may run with us tonight.” She pulled a sheathed dagger from behind her, and tossed it to Hakeem.  With that, she went back to her place, resuming her spear sharpening without lifting her eyes.  She seemed upset about something and didn’t look like she wanted to be bothered by anything silly.  Like me, for instance.

Hakeem checked the dagger before giving a nod at me.  “So you’re with our party.”

I held up my hands, an anxious look on my face.  “I don’t know what I’m doing!”

“Ailurans don’t hunt in groups?”

“We did, but…not like this.  It was always more for sport, then.”

The man gave me a penetrating look.  Then asked, “And when you left your people?”

I immediately tensed, my shoulders coming up around my ears.  Then I remembered my surroundings and took a deep breath.  My shoulders eased back down.  With difficulty, I answered him.  “It was…for survival.  Even then I…was never very good at it.”

Hakeem waved the issue away.  “We’ll explain the hunting formations to you.  They aren’t all that difficult.” He nodded at each of the Lycans in our group.  “The tall one with the short spiky hair is Makka.  He doesn’t speak any Common, but he doesn’t say much to begin with.  His brother was one of the first to die at the hands of the beast.  The long-haired fellow next to him is Gudahi.  He’s very fluent in Common as he’s often visited Gamath and the Fiamman trading posts for outside goods.  Our leader tonight is Sanuye.”  He beckoned for me to come closer, and I bowed low to hear.  Hakeem leaned in to whisper, “Sanuye is displeased, so just stay close to me, or Gudahi, okay?  He’s a goodnatured man, and will probably take delight in thinking he’s ‘protecting’ an Ailuran.  Don’t take offense if he flirts with you a bit.  He flirts with everyone, and doesn’t mean half the things he says.”  

The last comment made me blink, but I nodded anyway. “Okay.  But why is Sanuye mad?  Do you know?”

Hakeem shrugged.  “My guess is that she’s unhappy with Halian’s absence.”

“Why is he gone?  He didn’t get hurt like Elmiryn did, and he would have healed those wounds by now anyway!”

“Nyx, you didn’t see because you were unconscious.”  Hakeem’s voice dropped even lower, and I frowned as I strained to hear him.  “Halian was going to kill Elmiryn after the final horn was blown.  Artemis had to step in.  That sort of intervention takes its toll on the mortal soul, no matter the species.  The man is just a shivering mute right now.  He’s in Eidan’s hut along with Elmiryn.”

I frowned as I recalled the goddess’s words…

I would gladly take to arms for my children.  But there is no way I can fight without harming them all.

Hakeem turned and called Gudahi over.  The man looked up from his conversation with Makka, then grinned right at me, making me blush and look away.  He sauntered over, Makka in tow.

Gudahi was much taller than his companion, and his long dark hair was silky and had one braided bang.  His face had less war paint then his companions, and rather than taking all the village colors, he only painted on thin lines of white, with dots around his eyes.  The designs made him less fierce, and more…beautiful, I suppose is the best word.  That isn’t to say he was androgynous, but he was clearly the sort that young girls would fawn over without end.

Makka looked a great deal more somber, his chin bold and with a small cleft. His face was a dark mask of black and green with a white X crossing from temple to jaw.  He slouched around Gudahi, but stared intently into my face.  Just as with the other man, I tried to keep from looking at him too long.

Gudahi lightly touched a fist to his breast.  “Hakeem.  Ua-kita!  Look at the present you have brought me!  I’ve always wanted a kitten.”  I tried not to tense at that.  I knew it was just the age-old rivalry at work, and if Hakeem’s words were true, then there was likely going to be some innuendo from this man as well.

He reached over and took a lock of my hair, then traced my jaw with his finger.  My face flinched, but I fought not to move away.  Dominant behavior involved a lot of touching, and from the looks of things, Gudahi was Sanuye’s second in command.  That meant denying him this small contact could be misinterpreted.

…This was all conjecture, of course.  I only had one night’s worth of observation to go off of.  Perhaps there was a line that even dominant Lycans were not meant to cross, giving submissives certain rights?  I didn’t know.

“She’s pretty.  I’ll keep her,” Gudahi announced jovially.  He had a light accent, but his words flowed along more fluently than Sanuye’s.

Hakeem sounded weary, but like me, he kept his shoulders relaxed and his eyes from staring too long into the Lycan’s face.  “Please, Gudahi.  I just wanted to ask you for help in explaining our formations to Nyx.”

The man laughed.  “I can show her a few positions!”

I blushed deeper, and despite my best efforts, my shoulders hitched up half-an-inch.

Formations.” Hakeem corrected firmly.

The Lycan was unfazed.  “Well, when the little prince becomes a big prince, will he promise to leave his shimá for me?”

Hakeem only sighed heavily, his eyes rolling at his feet.

Gudahi laughed and rubbed the wizard’s head.  “Hmmm…I’m a patient hunter.  Very well.  I will do this thing for you, akis.  But I expect a reward!” He took my chin and lifted my gaze, then he winked at me.  “From the both of you!”

Now I wanted to roll my eyes.  This man wasn’t just a flirt…he was a whore.

He clapped his hands together.  “Okay!  First, Nyx, you must understand our purpose.  We are the ta’ia, or the first runners.  Our purpose is to scout ahead, then call to the other parties once we have found our mark.  We do this through a series of howls that tell the others how to position themselves.  Since the beast moves ceaselessly, our job is the hardest.  We have to attack without aid, just to keep the creature still long enough for help to arrive.”

I felt a chill go over my skin.  Somehow I knew it’d be something like this.

Gudahi squatted down and motioned for us to follow him.  We did so, and using his thumb, he began to draw things into the dirt. “Now, here is how our formation works…”

Some minutes passed as things were explained to me.  I was still nervous about it all, but with practice I had a feeling I’d learn it better.  But could we afford that tonight?  Would Sanuye get angry with me if I messed up?

A horn was blown, this one deeper and louder than the one used for the fight.  Gudahi stopped mid-sentence and looked up.  Sanuye was on her feet and approached us, a frown on her face.

“The hunt has begun,” she growled.  “We move now!”

Gudahi patted my shoulder, his eyes fixing onto mine before I turned my gaze downward.  “Now my pet, get into form as I showed you!”

I nodded, falling in behind the man as our group moved into the forest.  Other ta’ia‘s were moving out as well, though they were spread apart to cover more ground.  Our group began to fan out in a wide V-shaped formation, and I did my best to keep my position as I was shown.  Starting with me on the right, the order going left was Gudahi, Hakeem, Sanuye, and Makka.

As we moved out into the forest, the emerald light left us, and the shadows seemed to take us whole.  I stepped carefully over the uneven terrain, my eyes adjusting to the dark but my feet still unaccustomed to the lay of the land.  Now and again, I saw eyes peering at us from the branches, and wondered what aid the nymphs could provide here.  I’d never seen healthy nymphs before, my only experience being with those of the Kreut Forest.

The hunt was very quiet at first, and I recalled my hunt of the pretas, knowing that somehow this uneventfulness could not last.

Sanuye would call for our halt now and again, and like my Lycan companions, I crouched low and put nose to the wind, trying to pick up a scent that could belong to the dark beast.  I sensed nothing.

Soon minutes turned to hours.

I was getting tired from the lack of action.  My nap with Elmiryn was not nearly enough rest for me after all the time that had passed.  When one stopped to think on it, I had been awake nearly three days with hardly any rest.  It was astonishing what fear and adrenaline could do for you.

And it was fear that I felt, when I heard something padding over the ground at a quick pace.

I let out a low hiss, and Gudahi looked my way.  With a stiff nod from me, he turned and called to the others in his native tongue.  All paused and crouched low.  Again, the sound of movement came, closer this time, and I knew the others heard it.

“The beast…” I whispered fearfully.

Gudahi asked Sanuye something in Lycan, and she responded to him tersely in what seemed to be a negative.  The sound grew closer still.  I could make out claws cutting over wood and rock now.  I lifted my nose to the air and tried to catch a scent.  Something entered my senses…

…And my insides turned cold.

Sanuye growled low. “That scent–!”

“It’s familiar,” Gudahi said.  “It…it belongs to…”

Ahead of us, a dark shape appeared, and it charged for us.  It was the size of a very large dog, and its form loped over the earth with grace.

Sanuye bared her teeth and stood, brandishing her spear.  Makka already had his hands shifted to claws, his look fierce.  Hakeem held out his dagger, his body taking on a fighting stance.  Gudahi brandished his own spear as he stood to his feet.

I jumped in front of them all.  “No! Don’t!”

Hakeem stared at me.  “Nyx, what are you doing!?”

“Get out of the way!” Sanuye barked.

“No!  You don’t understand!  The scent is mine!” I screamed.

Everyone stared at me.  Gudahi’s spear tip slowly lowered.  “Artemis ika lena!  She speaks the truth!” his face was long with shock.

I heard the beast slide to a stop behind me, and with eyes closed, I slowly turned.  I breathed in deep through my nose, trying to calm my rambunctious heart.  History saw fit to repeat itself, as the confusion of my life had led me to forget my greatest obstacle yet again…

A dark voice spoke to me.  “Ah.  Nyx.  I could smell your fear from a long ways off.  I just had to come see.”

I opened my eyes and greeted my Twin, my voice reflecting her lack of warmth.

“Hello…sister.”


Back to Chapter 28.1 | Forward to Chapter 28.3

Chapter 28.1

HAKEEM_________________________

If he traced the ways of his life with a finger, he was certain it would be as a river, branching off in wild directions, untamed save for the pull of the universe.  At the beginning, the line would be straight and singular and bold, entertaining no splits in motive or consequence.  But upon the moment he became a true wizard, upon the moment he gained his temporal chain mail, that all changed.  Suddenly it was a series of decisions and resets that cut across his existence like claws, telling him he was never going to get it right the first time.

…And yet, amidst the struggle, there was always that glow.  That pull of light that kept things going.

He could feel his wife’s presence at his side.

But this wasn’t the time for inward musing.  The wizard returned his attention to the matters at hand.

They took Nyx back to the hut Hakeem had been using.  Sedwick carried the young Ailuran, her head lolling in the crook of his arm.  Her eyes were shut and her expression lax, void of that fury that had so gripped her not long ago.  Void of that need to save her friend.  No…her lover.  He could hear it in the girl’s voice, as if she were clearly saying it herself. His ears had turned warm, tickled by a knowing that spoke of something…lacedwith power.

Given all this, he could understand the girl’s reaction upon seeing Halian shapeshift.  If it were Quincy in the ring, left with nothing but her fists and her wits, he’d be running in there himself, Lycan tradition or no.  But Elmiryn had managed to defend herself until the last.  She seemed to use a sort of force to keep Halian back.  Whatever the warrior had done, Hakeem sensed no magic…or at least, none that he had been trained to notice.

More and more, Nyx and Elmiryn were proving quite a strange pair.

The man-boy led them through the village with his wife at his side, the elemental trailing behind them.  The Lycans were slow to disperse, but there were some that had taken to following them at a distance.  They whispered excitedly, their eyes wide.  It was Elmiryn who had won the battle, but it was the group of outsiders who had collectively rocked the village.  The news would no doubt spread to the neighboring villages of the redheaded warrior who stood toe-to-toe with one of their best, and her bizarre group of comrades.

Comrades…was that what they were now?

Hakeem had in fact noticed an odd sort of connection, particularly between Elmiryn, Quincy, and Sedwick.  It wasn’t perfect and by no means smooth, but it followed a pattern of exchange that gave each person a defined role.  The clash he’d seen was not new to them.  But Nyx was not yet a part of this dynamic, and her presence seemed to add a new level of complication to the dynamic.

It was no secret that the Ailuran didn’t like Quincy.  While he would have defended his wife to the death, the wizard also knew when the woman stuck her foot in her mouth.  It was an old trait from her youth, and seeing it again had, in a bizarre turn, made him even more grateful to the others.  They were reawakening the woman he had originally fallen in love with.

If only he could turn back time enough to undo his loss in age.

In his new state of youth, Hakeem found that he could not use his arcane armor.  In order to go back in time, he had to be able to assume that particular place in time. If he was restrained, if he was missing limbs, if he was in a drastically different state of health—then that place in time would reject him.  The wizard didn’t just go back to that time period as a future self versus his past self.  He became his past self, preserving the continuum of time whilst accomplishing what many only dreamed of doing.  As a child, he could not assume the role of a man.  He was a different person, and felt that acutely.

His time with the Lycans had given him something, and he was hard pressed to give it back.  People could be trusted, even the thorniest and the wild of them, and he meant to show his gratitude in as many ways as he could.

And yet there were present obstacles that still needed addressing.

“I worry for your friend.  Artemis’s attention does not come lightly,” Hakeem said.

“She’s a thick skin,” Sedwick said from behind.  “If she just keeps her tongue from escaping her, then she’ll be fine.”

“I wouldn’t bet on it,” Quincy muttered.

“There’s not much we can do, anyway…” The elemental sighed.

It was true, so Hakeem moved on.

The wizard looked at his wife and said in Fanaean, “You seem out of sorts.”

Quincy looked dolefully at the sky.  “I miss the suns,” she said in his native tongue. “This Other Place keeps them hidden from us.”

“Maybe we just need to look harder.”

“My eyes are tired from searching.”

Hakeem reached out and brushed the back of his hand against hers.  She looked at him, her azure eyes alight, and he smiled.  “You have their brilliance inside you, Mweze.”

“Then perhaps I should remove myself, lest I scorch the goodwill about us.”

“You’re talking of the little spat you had?”

The wizard sucked at her teeth, a sour look coming over her features. “I’ll not apologize.  It was something that needed saying.”

“I was not going to ask for that.  I’d just like to know how you feel about it.  It seems to have upset you in ways beyond the issue at hand.”

Quincy glanced back at Sedwick, and Hakeem did the same.  The elemental locked eyes with them and spared a small smile before looking away.  His wife returned her gaze to him, her lips turned down at the corners.  “I always thought queer folk to be…strange, in a discomforting way,” she muttered out of the corner of her mouth.  She shrugged.  “In the end, I find it doesn’t bother me quite as much as I’d thought.  I don’t feel like shouting them down, anyway.  But…it still isn’t normal, is it?  It seems the thorniest way to love.” Now she blushed, crossing her arms and pouting a lip.  She debated what to say next, then started in suddenly with, “Elmiryn is a mama’s girl, like any other Sibesonan.  But say one foul thing against her mother, and she doesn’t just get mad, she gets practically murderous.”

When the woman didn’t continue, Hakeem prodded her gently.  “Mweze?”

Quincy released a breath of air she’d been holding.  She rubbed her brow and looked at Hakeem sidelong.  “That anger?  I felt it again after speaking to Nyx as I did.  Either the warrior is just really infatuated, or I’ve misread things.”

Hakeem chuckled.  “Quincy, you can only garner so much watching others from afar.  I’ve been trying to tell you that for years.”

The woman’s pout increased.  “I’m pretty good at it…” she mumbled.

The man-boy shrugged.  “Your insight has afforded you a view that others so close may not have seen, but now that you yourself are close to the people you observe, maybe you should consider switching your tactics?”  He looked at her, a glint of mischief in his eyes. “Perhaps by first gaining some.”

She huffed, swatting at his shoulder.  “I have tact!  I have all the tact in the world!”

Hakeem just laughed, letting the sound go unrestrained so that it reached up into the skies.

Quincy pointed a punitive finger his way.  “I think this new state has warped your senses!”

The wizard just smirked at her.  “You mean, I’m acting like a child.”

The woman blushed a deep red. “Th-That wasn’t what–”

“Mweze.  Please.  For the love of the gods.  Relax.”

They were nearly there.  Perhaps they could have walked faster than the leisurely stroll they moved by, but Sedwick didn’t seem to mind.  Quincy chewed on her tongue, her gaze holding fire as she looked around at everything but Hakeem.

Suddenly, she blurt out, “I don’t hate that they’re together.”

The man-boy looked at her with brow raised, but kept silent.

The brunette continued, looking increasingly flustered. “It’s just…it’s…it’s been so long since we’ve had that.  Why should they, with their backwards love, have it better than us?  I guess I just wanted to start some waves.”

“Mweze, as Sedwick said, your point was valid.  It was your motive and approach that was wrong.  If you know now that you were speaking out of envy, then perhaps that is something to look out for in the future.”

She sighed and nodded.  “You’re right.  I’ve been having trouble getting too emotional about things, and now I’m letting those feelings rule me.”  Quincy rubbed at her face.  “After Tonatiuh went, it was like…a fire had been growing inside me, and I hadn’t even been aware of it.”

“Then I will battle the flames with you, Mweze.”

She said nothing to this, and the wizard left her to her musings.

They came to the hut, and Sedwick laid Nyx down on the blankets.  The elemental turned to them as he straightened.

“She won’t be happy when she wakes,” he said quietly.

Quincy rolled her eyes. “She’ll get over it.  Elmiryn isn’t dead, that lucky idiot.”

As they exited the hut, Hakeem asked, “Can someone please explain to me what’s going on with those two women?  Nyx has something strange in her voice, and Elmiryn can apparently create barriers out of nothing.”

The others exchanged looks.  Quincy looked at him tiredly.  “Do you want the long, or the short version?”

“Short version, I suppose.”

“Too bad,” The woman said with a dry laugh. “There is no such thing!”

ELMIRYN________________________

Divine intervention was one of the things Elmiryn never thought she’d see…and yet, wasn’t that exactly what had happened?

There, in her billowy shroud, standing tall and ethereal with a fury too beautiful to name, was Artemis, holding back the beast that would have brought about an early death if only the incense sticks burned a little slower…

It sounded so poetic that way.  But as the warrior was scooped up like a child in the arms of the goddess, she decided that things weren’t quite so rosy.  Rolling off of the Huntress were thick waves of power, hot and disconcerting in their intensity, and flashing in the woman’s silver eyes was anything but kindness.  Elmiryn met this terrible fierceness with an ignorance she was aware of, and had no idea how to overcome.  It was as a child who met something so alien in its gravity that all one could do was wonder at the why and how of it.

With barely any effort, Artemis leapt up into the sky, and in a fashion that didn’t seem in keeping with gravity, she managed to slip in through the window of the tree house with barely a startled hair.  Elmiryn’s stomach lurched in her gut.

They are alien.

The gods, I mean.

Meznik’s melodic voice came in softer than usual, and the warrior thought it had something to do with caution.  Could the demon really avoid the attention of an almighty god?

That is why you feel as you do.

To understand them, is to be them.

Artemis set her down on the floor and resumed her perch gazing out at the forests.  Her eyes were narrowed now, her hand concealing half her face as she thought.

They like to pretend they know everything,

But omnipotence is overrated.

So let’s keep our little mysteries, hmm?

Let’s not be understood.

Elmiryn’s brow tightened, and she wanted to respond, but the opportunity slipped by like quicksilver.

“I’ve been aware of thy…troubles.”  Artemis said, her voice low.  She still didn’t turn her gaze.  “I know thy mind has always been a bizarre font of ideas, and likewise, thy spirit has always been a thing of curiosity…” Finally the goddess turned, her gaze searing.  “Yet what I have just seen is outside of the Way that governs the world.”

Elmiryn moved to raise herself from the floor, intent on looking the deity in the face, but found the weakness in her arms was too great.  The action seemed to disagree with her new intake of wine, the drink turning rotten in her veins and stomach.  Her left eye had swollen more, forcing it into a squint, and her lower lip was cut and swelling now as well.  Her head throbbed in a dull ache, the previous pain having washed away like an ebbing tide.

The warrior crossed her arms and looked into the goddess’s eyes.  “Halian came at me with all he had.  I did the same.  I don’t see the problem.”

Within the next instant, the woman’s vision tunneled so much she was blind, pain slicing into her head, down her spine, and into her limbs.  She was on the wall, Artemis holding her up on her feet by the shoulders. “The problem, Elmiryn, is that thou seems to have a power that was not meant for thee, and yet thou uses it with little thought to consequence!”

“Little thought…to consequence…huh?” The woman panted, feeling her adrenaline kick in.  Firing under her skin was a deep animal instinct to curl up and hide, and she fought this with everything she had.  She would not curl up.  She would not apologize.  “I thought about it…plenty, Arty.  I thought about dying…before I could get the person I care about…out of here alive.” Elmiryn spared the briefest grimace before a smile blossomed across her lips.  Her vision still had yet to clear, so she stared with eyes wide, hoping some sight would tell her what to expect.  She went on, her breath returning to her, “I thought about the bitch enchantress that got us into all this mess, and how I’d like to get her head on a fucking pike.  And ya wanna know what else I thought about, when all those stupid concerns over undoing a reality I can’t even buy into anymore was bleating off in the distance?”  Elmiryn grabbed Artemis’s wrists, her body shaking.  “I thought about all those assholes sitting up in heaven who let a little girl fall to the mercy of a greedy idiot and an insane demon!”

The goddess’s face finally appeared amidst the snowy tunnel of her vision, and the warrior could see the Huntress was more than a little surprised by her audacity.  It wasn’t shock or rage that illustrated this to her.  It was the deity’s non-reaction, her blank expression, her cooled gaze.  The fire and fury had fled from her all at once.

Artemis slowly let Elmiryn go, and the warrior slid down the wall to the floor, her heart doing a marathon in her chest.

“You think so little of us…” the goddess breathed, frowning.

“I think shit of you,” Elmiryn spat.  She was surprised to find her eyes welling with tears.  Her body wracked with shivers as the need to run increased ten-fold.  The anxiety was foreign to her.  She had never known this much fear.

Artemis crouched down, her gaze now intent.  “I see thy mortal soul is still intact.  Dost thou know why thee weep?  Why thy heart palpitates with such fear?”

The warrior, still shaking, wanted to say something snide.  A rage, one she hadn’t even felt whilst facing Halian, was fighting its way up, and upon realizing she was not immediately dead, it was getting hard to stop.  She was like a child throwing a tantrum.  She hated that she kept drawing those parallels.  I’d be a terrible writer.

Yet for all the foul insults she could conjure, they all lodged in her throat.  Instead, the woman shook her head jerkily to the goddess’s question.

Artemis smiled for the first time.  “Thou art out of Harmony, and thy soul mourns the lost connection.  In fighting me as you are now, you are causing your spirit great stress.  Stop fighting nature, and thou shalt know peace again.”

“And what?  Just accept you’re always gonna rule the world?”

The goddess shook her head.  “We do not ‘rule’ the world as you say.  We are the world.  The very air you breathe.  Everything you taste, feel, touch, and see is in communion with us.  Why rail against that which provides structure in a universe of chaos?”

“Why not?  Maybe chaos is better.  At least we could build from scratch,” Elmiryn snarled, feeling the tears course down her face.  Her cheeks turned hot and her head started to pulsate with a new breed of pain from the way her sinuses strained to produce more tears.  She wiped at her face and said, “You haven’t exactly given me many reasons to feel nice.”

Artemis only raised an eyebrow.  “And by that token, neither have you.”

“So what?  Do you break out the tea and we sit and talk about our feelings?  Do you tell me what it’s like to sit on top of a world and not care about it, and I tell you what it’s like to be crushed under your fat ass?

The goddess let out a sudden laugh. “Oh, what sharp tongue!  Thou art fortunate I am the one to hear this tantrum.  Many of my brethren might not be so forgiving!”

“Fuck you,” Elmiryn bit out just before her face crumpled and she turned to the wall.  Damn it, why can’t I stop?

“I already told you why.”

Get out of my head!

“I am not in your head.  You just happen to think loudly.”

“Well pardon me…” Elmiryn covered her head with her arms.  “I…I feel like I’m six again,” she whispered, sniffling back snot.

She felt Artemis hand on her hair and peeked through her arms to see the goddess gazing at her with the same look of intent as before.  “Perhaps, thou should have been my child, instead of Halward’s.  I would not dare speak against the god king, but I cannot fathom why he would neglect such a willful thing such as yourself.”

“Luck I guess…” Elmiryn muttered.

“There is fortune, in being deemed worthy enough for challenge.”

The warrior looked at her suddenly, her good eye wide open.

Artemis tilted her head to the side, a lock of her curly dark hair slipping forward near her temple.  Her brow tightened.  “I have every reason to kill thee…” she murmured.  The goddess shook her head.  “Thou art not of my blood…and thy mouth runs a fool’s marathon.” The goddess pressed closer, and Elmiryn swallowed reflexively, feeling herself…out of herself.  She was not this person.  Or perhaps, she was not the person she imagined.  Quiet things, quiet ways, quiet realities were surfacing here, and the ignorance she had found shelter behind was crumbling.

“Yet more and more I only wish to see how much farther you would seek to run from me…” Artemis breathed, her lips brushing the woman’s ear.  “I have missed thine offerings…have ye something else to offer perhaps?  It would kill thine ails.  Free thee of the suffering you feel…”

Elmiryn’s breath caught.  She was a mortal.  Artemis was a god.

She had…

“…A song stuck in my head,” she whispered.  Elmiryn looked at the goddess sideways.  “That’s all…I have.  Everything else…is spoken for.

“You would deny me?”

“I would deny you what isn’t yours to take.”

Artemis scowled.  “If you continue this defiance, your soul will come apart, and you will cease to be.  You cannot go against heaven.”

Elmiryn leaned in close, two more tears slipping down her face as she felt a rush of cold go over her.  “I am not of heaven.  I have been torn apart and left in chaos, and I have found my way back, through no help of yours.”  She could feel the fabric of her being shudder, feel the weave strain and pull.  She dared another inch, pressing in so close that her sweaty forehead touched Artemis’s.  Her hairs stood on end from the contact, but if there was anything more to feel, her mortal senses were at their limit.  “I am not of you.  I am not beholden to you.  I just am.

“Your power is a stolen thing.”

“And where did your power come from, Arty?”

Artemis stood, glaring down at the woman.  Then her expression melted into a smile.  “Do you want to know a secret, Elmiryn?”

The warrior blinked and tried to sit up properly.  Her eyes rolled from the effort, and she settled for slumping to the floor.  “Oh.  Sure.”

“I don’t know.”

“…Dunno what?” A weight started to press on the woman’s chest and it became harder to breathe.  Elmiryn’s eyes fell closed to the sight of Artemis’s bare feet.

“Where my power comes from.”

“How’kin ya not know?” Words slurred, but it wasn’t from drink.  The woman pressed a hand to her head and said.  “I’m not…not followin’.”

Artemis’s voice started to move away from her, and when the warrior cracked her eyes open, she saw the goddess back at the window.  “My consciousness lays across worlds.  In many ways, I do not know the whole of myself–just this particular shard.  That isn’t to say I am incomplete.  I am connected with the core of my being in a place far away…but my soul is so large that it cannot reside in a single place.  So here, I rule as the Huntress, whilst elsewhere, I may be a goddess of the sea.  I have dreams of my other selves sometimes—really just flashes past my eyes because I never sleep unless I feel like it.  I am so Vast that I cannot be understood save for My permission, and the veil that holds my soul is thick indeed.  I dream…I dream of my other selves, and yet I know not of who they truly are or from whence they truly came.  So…where does my power come from, you ask?  I am Great, and Knowing, but these things I do not know.  I do not know, and that is my humblest answer.”

“Huh? Whe…nd…ga…” the words failed to form, and Elmiryn forgot what she was trying to say.  She couldn’t feel her face, her left arm, her left leg.  Her head screamed at her, and the parts she could feel tingled. “Nngh…”

She heard the sound of the trap door opening and footsteps along the wood floor.  Artemis’s voice sounded far away.

“What I have just told you would kill an ordinary man.  An extraordinary one would be driven completely insane.  Mortals cannot bear such knowledge…so if you are truly free of the domain of gods, then we shall see if you live tomorrow, let alone remember what I’ve said.” Someone picked her up.  The goddesses’s voice became a whisper in her ear as Elmiryn was carted away.

Live.  For I will treasure this hunt, as you are a prize like no other…


Back to Chapter 27.4 | Forward to Chapter 28.2

Chapter 27.4

NYX____________________________

“I’m fucked.”

I stared into Elmiryn’s eyes, my mouth falling open.

“What do you mean!?” I asked, feeling my panic spike.  “You said you were ready to face him!”

The woman looked at me, her long lips quirked in that wry smile that said she thought I was being cute.  “Yeah, Nyx.  I said that.”

With all the commotion that had commenced, we had shifted so that we were no longer on the ground, and instead, amidst the great tree roots.  We watched the proceedings in a semi-circle with me on Elmiryn’s left side, Sedwick on her other, and Quincy and Hakeem across from us.

I gestured before us where the Lycans were preparing a large fighting circle.  “Then call this off!  You’re going to get hurt!”

She chuckled.  “Of course I am.  It’s a fight.”

“No, I mean–really hurt!  Maybe worse than you were outside of Holzoff’s Tower!”

Sedwick leaned in, rubbing the side of his face.  “Halian will probably kill you.”

Really kill you,” Quincy added, smirking.

I spared them a glare, but I gestured emphatically at the pair of them with eyebrows raised, my eyes fastening onto Elmiryn’s.  See!  I’m not the only one who thinks this!

In the past, the redhead had shown a love for the danger in the unknown.  She loved the risk where the outcome could go either way, where her chances were no better than those of her opponent.  It thrilled her, gambling her life like that.  I had seen it in her eyes, that hungry look for battle.  I didn’t understand it then, and in many ways, I still don’t.

So it was like a slap in the face to hear the woman, this eager warrior, express doubt.  It told me that she didn’t see a chance in winning.  This wasn’t a gamble to her, but an exercise in defeat.  This was something any of us could’ve guessed, but to hear it from the warrior was staggering.

The woman shook her head.  “Look, I’m not backing out.  It’s happening, all right?  So what constructive advice can you offer me?”

“Run away,” I said flatly.  If she thought she couldn’t win, then why bother trying?  Was it about honor?  Was it stubborn pride?

Sedwick squinted his eyes.  “But don’t Lycans feel a need to chase things that run?”

“Those are dogs, not Lycans,” Elmiryn pointed out, her voice hinting at a thinning patience.

“Then why not try lying face down on the ground and hoping Halian forgets about you?” Quincy said, her smirk widening.

The warrior threw her hands up into the air, her head lolling back onto the roots.

Hakeem cleared his throat, and her eyes rolled to fasten onto his face.  The boy thumbed over his shoulder.  “I’ve seen Halian train.  I can tell you a few things right now.”  He stood up and stepped closer, his voice dropping low.  Elmiryn sat up to listen to him, and we all leaned in to hear.

Hakeem patted his right knee.  “Halian had his leg injured by the dark beast they’re hunting now.  The injury is mostly healed, but you see how slowly some of the others have recovered from the monster’s attacks?  I’m sure it’s still weak in some way.  Go for this, and you might have a chance of ending this quickly.”

Elmiryn nodded, her smile broadening.  “Thanks.”

He held up a finger.  “Another thing.”  Hakeem patted his biceps one at a time.  “Halian is ambidextrous.  He can easily switch stance, and a strike from the right is as bad as the left.  Lastly… Don’t.  Let.  Him.  Grapple you.  If he does, it’s done.  A therian is a hard enough wrestling opponent, but Halian happens to be the best in the village.  If he gets you in a lock, there’s no hope for you.  I doubt he’d hold back enough to keep from killing you, even.”

The warrior’s eyebrows rose high.  “…Thank you.”

Elmiryn leaned forward onto her knees, her hand going to hold the lower half of her face.  It was a rare expression on the woman–not even when she was upset did I ever see her cover her face in any way.  Somehow it made me a great deal nervous.

Quincy’s smirk was gone from her face when she asked, “Are you really sure about this, Elmiryn?”

After a minute, the warrior lowered her hands and sat back, her lips pressed together as she took in a deep breath through her nostrils.  She didn’t look any of us in the eye.

“I need a drink,” she said quietly.

The reactions varied.

Sedwick’s face hardened and his hands curled to fists.  Quincy’s lips turned down at the corners, her brow tensing just enough to create a shadow of disappointment on her face.  Hakeem looked at everyone with an uncertain expression, unaware of the gravity of this request.

My lips puckered, my brow furrowing as I looked at the woman with pity.  I didn’t want to feel it, but I did.

“Where’s the logic in that?” Sedwick asked in a voice that was a lot calmer than he looked.

Elmiryn held up her hands, and I could see the way they trembled, the palms blotchy and with deep nail impressions from where the woman had clenched her fists tight.

“How about this?” she said.

I stared at her hands, then at her.  Sedwick’s expression softened.  Quincy murmured a curse.  Elmiryn finally looked at us all.

“The chills are starting to creep in, and my headache is getting worse.” She paused to swallow with a grimace.  “And I think…I ate way too fast.”

Quincy slashed the air with her hand.  “That’s it then.  Jokes aside, you shouldn’t fight.”

“I’m gonna fight. I already said.”

“Then you’re an idiot!” The wizard snapped.  “Having more alcohol won’t make things better!  How much have you already had in the last 24 hours?  You could suffer poisoning!”

“It’s not my body that’s addicted, it’s my spirit.  This is a spiritual addiction.”

“Isn’t that all the more reason not to indulge?” Sedwick asked.

The warrior laughed but the sound was harsh and low.  “What is this, an intervention?  My head could get smashed in because I’m too sick to defend myself properly…but hey!  At least my ass won’t be drunk.”  She tapped the place over her heart.  “You guys aren’t fucking listening to me.  This. Addiction.  Isn’t.  Normal.”  She gestured at Quincy with her chin, “Since you’re so good at healing people, you should know what happens when someone in my condition denies drink for too long.”

The wizard rolled her eyes.  “Oh gods.  Are you really going to argue that you need to drink to stay alive?”

When I spoke, it was with a quiet voice, my eyes still on Elmiryn, “Well, this isn’t exactly the best place for rehabilitation, is it?”

Everyone stared at me, and I let my shoulders hunch around my ears.

“You’re serious?” Sedwick asked slowly.  He was frowning, but he seemed too surprised to speak angrily.

Quincy snorted.  “Just as I thought.  With your crotch acting as your guide, you’re just going to enable her recklessness…”

That did it.

I let out a sharp hiss, my hands tensing to claws as I stood to glare at the wizard.  She stood up as well, her face tensing as her hands went to a sword that wasn’t there.  This made her pause.

I didn’t.

“Look around us!” I half-yelled, taking a step forward.  Elmiryn stood to grab me around the shoulders from behind, and I strained against her, wanting to scream in the wizard’s face.  “Look around us, right now!  If you tell me this is a safe and supportive environment where we can rest and shed such burdens, then you’re a bigger fool than I thought!”  I pointed at the ring.  “Whether or not Elmiryn participates is irrelevant.  There’s the bigger issue–like how we can expect to deny what her body so craves for, and still expect her to function as we fight to get back to our home world!  That sort of healing requires time, a luxury we don’t have!

Quincy bared her teeth at me, her azure eyes flashing with fiery indignation.  “And I suppose Elmiryn’s tongue boxing with your tonsils has nothing to do with your decision?”

“Keep saying shit like that, Quincy, and that won’t be the only thing I’ll box!” Elmiryn shot over my shoulder, her voice strained as she held me back.

The balls of my feet dug into the dirt as I shouted, “You are a narrow-sighted domineering witch–

The wizard’s eyes flashed, something intent in her eyes that made my heart skip a beat. “And what has the little kitten lost that makes her so afraid to say ‘no’ to the people she cares about, hmm?” she asked.

Hakeem grabbed the woman’s arm, his look severe. “Mweze, enough.”

The brunette ignored him and dug in deeper.  “Well, Nyx?  What traumatizing experience did you suffer in your no doubt torrid past that makes you so blind to the risks you’re opening us all to?”

The fight went out of me.  I stared at the wizard, a chill going over my skin.  Did she know about my past?  She talked as if she knew.  Or was she just trying to catch me out?  The wizard had stalked us for a short period of time, back before she kidnapped Lethia.

When Elmiryn saw that I had ceased my struggles, she let me go.

She stepped around me, and I could feel the taut muscles of her body as she brushed past.  “Quincy, you really have a big fucking mouth.”  Her voice was steely.

Sedwick stood between the women, his shoulders bunched.  His face was hard as he looked into Elmiryn’s eyes.

“Do.  Not,” The elemental growled.

I couldn’t see her eyes, but Elmiryn’s neck was flushed and her shoulders hitched up higher than usual.

Sedwick looked back at Quincy.  “I see your point, but that doesn’t change the fact that you were out of line.”

The wizard crossed her arms and looked away.  “Well someone had to say it…” she muttered.

“No one had to say shit,” Elmiryn said, her voice tight.  “You don’t get to fucking talk to her like that.  You have no gods damn business putting her down for trying to help me.”

Quincy snorted.  “And she can’t speak for herself?  Are you her knight in shining armor?”

Elmiryn moved forward again, but Sedwick held her back at arm’s length.  “I’ll be whatever she wants me to be if it means making you shut your hole.”

Enough!” Sedwick barked, shoving the woman back.  He turned and pointed at Quincy just as she was about to open her mouth.  “Say nothing!”

I reached forward and touched Elmiryn’s arm, my face bunched with anxiety.  I felt ashamed.  All of this hostility…it was my fault.  If I’d only kept myself under control…

The warrior looked at me, her lips pursed, some of that volatile energy still in her cerulean eyes before these things faded away, and she hugged me with one arm.  “I got you, Nyx…” she murmured into my hair.

Silence reigned among us, and the moments slipped by.

Sedwick was the one to break it. “Nyx, about your idea…you can’t mean to let Elmiryn drink to her heart’s content?” His pale eyes squinted in my direction.

I shook my head, “No.”  I looked at Elmiryn, and gave her a wry smile.  “Under the influence, she shows a remarkable amount of control.”

She raised an eyebrow at me, her grin widening.  “And aren’t I cute as well?”

I rolled my eyes at her in response and returned my gaze to Sedwick.  “But I know that too much drink can also make her…difficult.”

“No kidding…” Sedwick grumbled.

Elmiryn put on her best angel face.  Seeing her ability to switch to humor with such ease after all of that shouting undid some of the knots in my stomach.

“That’s why I figure we could find a balance,” I said, continuing.  “At least for the time being.  Elmiryn can have just enough to stave off some of the worse effects of withdrawal.”  I looked at her apologetically.  “That said, you’d still experience some discomfort.”

“I can function under discomfort.  I just need to be able to keep a steady grip on my sword and not feel my heart drumming in my chest,” Elmiryn replied.

I nodded and looked to the others.  “This is just a temporary solution.  We can deal with this properly once we’re back in our world.  So is it settled then?”

Sedwick sighed and gave a shrug.  “You also make a good point.  But I fear we may not find the ‘balance’ you’re talking about.”

I looked at Quincy, my gaze frigid.  She tongued her cheek and held up her hand. “You know what?  I don’t even know why you’re both acting like you need our permission.  Just do as you see fit.”  There was a note of disgust in her voice.

I pulled away from Elmiryn and took her hand.  “Then we just need to find you some drink.”

“I’ll get it for you,” Hakeem offered, standing.  “The Lycans don’t know you two well, but they’ll give some to me if I ask.”

I smiled at him uncertainly.  Again, he was being so helpful to us, and without any real reason.  If anything, he had more of a reason to dislike us, after that horrible exchange.  I didn’t know what to make of it, so I settled for being polite.

“Thank you,” I said.

Hakeem nodded and hurried off into the throng of villagers.  I followed his small dark form until he vanished from sight.  Elmiryn and I sat back down, the woman looking a little sweaty and a glassiness coming over her eyes as she stared at her boots.  That clash had taken a lot out of her.  To see her so inward and lacking in energy seemed unnatural, and I wished that she would return to normal.  I rubbed her back and let my gaze wander over the changing scenery.

The fighting circle was now finished and I could see that the villagers had taken up all the weeds and grass from the soil, smoothing the earth to an even plane that was bereft of footprints.  I guessed the circle to have more than twenty-five feet in circumference, seeing as how five grown men could lay across it.  A table had been brought out, where a horn and a wooden bowl of something white was set out, along with a large stone carved wolf where three incense sticks could be seen poking from its back.  The fact that they had to clear a space at all, coupled by the excitement in the air, told me that these fights did not happen often.  I wondered as to why—these Lycans seemed like such a physical bunch.

I could not speak for all therians, but I could say that the Ailuran language did not stop in words.  It continued through signals of the body.  Here, I saw much of the same, but the Lycans seemed to place greater value on body language than anything else.  I could see it in the way that more submissive villagers would keep their gazes about shoulder level, never looking into a face for longer than a few seconds, their shoulders slumped and heads ducked.  The more dominant ones kept their heads high, eyes peering into faces intently, hands always reaching out to touch in some way, teeth showing whenever they spoke.

For a brief moment, I pondered my relations with these strange people, and felt a sense of realization come over me.  As Elmiryn had stated before, Quincy was given protection through Hakeem because of his good standing with the Lycans.  He had perhaps gained enough respect to even look some in the face.  Looking over at Sedwick, I wondered if the only reason he wasn’t seeing the same hostility I did was because he kept to himself.

Meanwhile, I was an Ailuran.  Practically a natural born enemy of these proud creatures.  By waltzing through their village without escort, I had asked for trouble.  I looked people in the eyes.  I didn’t slouch or duck my head.  Instead I skulked about with tensed shoulders and a tight expression.

…Of course, there was still the matter of my Mark, which I was certain could be sensed by the Lycans in some way.  Still, I didn’t exactly help my case by behaving as I did.

I made a mental note to be less obtrusive in the future. It shouldn’t have been a hard thing to do, honestly.  After my exile, just before I’d met Elmiryn, that was all I did.  Yet with so much at stake in this fight, and over something so stupid, it felt hard to keep myself contained.  It seemed my time with the warrior had made me more of an extrovert than I’d thought.  Considering her provocative nature, it was inevitable, really.

More than a few Lycans looked our way, their eyes falling on Elmiryn…then me.  I avoided looking at them, trying to put into practice what I’d just learned, but my Ailuran nature told me to puff up, to hiss, to seem more threatening than I really was.  I felt cornered by these strangers, and wished it all to end.

Hakeem came jogging back to us, a small wineskin in his hand.  “I have it,” he said, holding it out to me—not Elmiryn.

The warrior snapped out of her reverie, her eyes tracking the wineskin hungrily as it passed hands.  Both of us glanced at the woman, than each other as I unscrewed the cap.  If the wizard somehow didn’t understand the seriousness of the situation before, he did now.

I stood and turned to Elmiryn, holding the wineskin up.  “Just a taste then,” I said as I held the mouthpiece to her.

ELMIRYN________________________

Nyx tipped the jug into Elmiryn’s eager mouth.  The woman was allowed three good mouthfuls of the wine–which was red, by the taste of it, and a good vintage.  She swallowed it all gratefully, the tension in her shoulders and chest releasing to a state of immense pleasure.  But then the feeling was gone, taken away all too soon as the girl quickly pulled the jug away, her eyes wary as the woman’s feverish eyes flashed in her direction.  Was it enough?  The warm feeling had yet to spread, but she could feel it pooled in her stomach like a hot promise.

With a deep breath, Elmiryn stood.  She looked at the others.  Sedwick gave her a nod.  Quincy pursed her lips again upon meeting eyes.  Hakeem gazed at her passively, his expression revealing nothing.

The warrior looked to Nyx.

Her companion seemed to be fighting very hard to keep a brave face, but at the edges of her mask peeked an intense anxiety.  Elmiryn gripped her shoulder, bending her knees a little so that she could gaze level into the girl’s eyes.  She heard Nyx swallow, her eyes wide and a little shiny, but they held no threat of tears.

“Trust in me,” Elmiryn said with a quiet smile.

The Ailuran returned the smile shakily.  “I trust you…” her eyes flickered toward Halian, who already waited in the ring.  “I don’t trust him.”

The woman leaned in and pressed her lips to the girl’s, her eyes falling shut at the soft feel of Nyx’s mouth.  She willed the kiss to take away the girl’s fears, to leave instead a wealth of comfort.  But when she pulled back, the girl’s mask had fallen away, revealing her anxiety in full.

“Elle,” the girl breathed.  She took the warrior by the shoulders, her hands squeezing. “This isn’t a game.”

Elmiryn nodded somberly.  “I know that now.”

“Then please be careful.”

“I’ll try.”

A Lycan approached them.  His eyes fastened onto her face and she knew he was one of Halian’s men.  He regarded Elmiryn imperiously and said in a gruff, clipped voice, “Halian waits.  Enter ring now, or lose.”

Elmiryn smiled at him.  “Well then, I’d better get in there, huh?”

She undid her sword belt and passed it off to Nyx, but when she moved to take a step, the man stopped her with a hand on her shoulder.

“No coat.  No shirt.  No boots,” he said.

The woman raised an eyebrow, but slowly started to peel off her coat.  When everything was off, the Lycan stood aside and jerked his head for her to move.

As she approached the ring, the spectators grew quiet.  They parted for her, some whispering.  She saw a few smirks, some glares, but some wide-eyed looks as well.  Was it fear or fascination?  She imagined this was quite the event for them.  When had a human ever dared challenge a Lycan warrior to hand-to-hand combat?

She stepped over the deeply carved line of the fighting ring, and found Halian waiting on the other side.

The man smiled at her, his teeth sharply contrasting with his tribal paint.  “You are either very brave, or very stupid, tkelechog.”

“I’m just crazy,” Elmiryn giggled, beginning to feel the warmth of the wine spreading into the tips of her fingers.  The nausea and headache was still there, but either they were lessened, or she didn’t care about them as much.  Perhaps she should have told the others that she didn’t need much to get drunk anymore…?

Oh well.

Halian shook his head at her.  “In that, there is no doubt.”

A weight pressed on them, and they looked up.

Artemis was gazing down on the scene from above, her piercing gaze bright in the darkness of her shelter.

Halian pumped a fist and cried, “Kita!  Bamegizegak eh itome kiona!”  There were some yips and hoots from the crowd upon hearing this.

The goddess nodded in response, then let her eyes flicker over to Elmiryn.  Her lips moved, and the warrior’s hair stood on end as she felt a voice tickle her ear.

Go forth with caution.

The warrior blinked, but gave a slight nod of the head.

The crowd fell silent again as a wizened man entered the ring, a small teenage boy following him with a large leaf.  The man held in his hands the bowl that had been on the special table set next to the fighting circle.  His gray eyes had slivers of warm honey in them, and his head seemed smushed from the lack of teeth in his mouth.

“Closer,” the old man grunted, gesturing for them to meet him in the center.  They did as they were told, eyes on each other the whole way.

Brushing back a stray lock of peppery hair, the old man took a pinch of the white substance in his bowl and began to say something low and fast in Lycan.  Then he took the powder and sprinkled it over Halian’s head.  He turned to Elmiryn and did the same.

This done, he regard the both of them and said in a strong, lisping accent, “Yoo no use wep’nsh.  Canneh leave de ring.  Ef yoo leave ring, yoo lose.”  He turned and gestured at the table behind him.  “Fight till in-sensh run out.  Then, horn blown.  No stop when horn blown, yoo lose.  Dere tree roun’s.  No wan dies, steps out ring, or go un-con-shuss when all tree in-sensh burned, den is tie.  Un’erstan’?” He looked at them both sternly.

Halian nodded, his eyes on Elmiryn.  The warrior had to fight to understand the man, but she got the gist of it, and nodded.

The old man held up a bony finger.  “Wait for de horn.  Den start.”  With that, he turned and marched back out of the ring, the youth following more slowly behind him, using the leaf to smooth out their tracks.

Elmiryn and Halian backed away from each other, stopping close to the ring’s edge.

“I’ll try not to kill you,” the man said loudly, his eyes flashing at her.

The woman just smiled at him, her hands flexing at her sides.

Then the horn blew.

NYX____________________________

With Elmiryn’s entrance into the ring, a way was cleared to the front, and we took advantage of this by moving forward to better see the fight.  Sedwick and Hakeem sat between me and Quincy, the elemental being on my left.  They seemed intent on keeping us separated after our recent clash, and I found myself grateful.  If I had to listen to the wizard’s snide remarks the whole time, I’d likely try to claw out her eyes.

…And I used to be so peaceful.

If I’d given it any amount of thought at the time, I’m certain the source of my animosity would have had to do with a certain redheaded warrior.  That wasn’t to say that Quincy was pleasant to deal with on her own.  It was true that I had seem glimpses of her being polite, even cordial, and some of her attitude could be chalked up to the warrior perpetually provoking her…but the wizard was a manipulator, I could feel it, and for all her talk, she was perhaps no less reckless than Elmiryn was.  She was a snobby, caustic hypocrite, and to hear her talk about my feelings as if she understood me had set loose a fire I hadn’t even realized I’d had.  Yet it was her comments following that which snuffed out that fire.  She touched on my past, and deep down, I wondered if she were right.  Was I blinded by my affection for Elmiryn?  Was I so afraid of losing her that I didn’t want to take the harder road?

Whatever the truth of it, I didn’t want to have anything to do with Quincy.  Being around her brought up feelings I never had—feelings that went against my principles and core values.  I didn’t want to get dragged down by her negativity.

…I also didn’t want to feel spikes of jealousy whenever she and Elmiryn played their stupid verbal sparring games.

“There’s Eidan,” the brunette remarked, and I returned my attention to the fighting circle before me to see an elderly man followed by a young boy enter the ring.  He sprinkled the white powder on Elmiryn and Halian’s heads, his lips moving in what looked like a prayer.  Then I could hear his deep voice as he explained the rules to them both.  When he was done, he turned and left the ring.  No flourish, no flare.

At the table, a man lifted the horn to his lips.  Another lit one of the incense sticks, and I wondered as to the purpose.

The horn sounded, and Halian raised his hands, unclenched, and held them before him, his body turned to the side with his right foot leading.  Elmiryn did the same, but her form seemed a lot more reserved in comparison.  Her fists were clenched, her arms tucked close to the body as she moved to meet the man in the center of the ring.

They danced around each other, eyes locked, their feet light as they tested each other’s defense and readiness.  All at once, the things that Elmiryn and I had drilled over together seemed to flood in, and the truth of the scene before me opened like a book.  Halian threw a few jabs, but none seemed to show any sort of dedication.  Elmiryn met these, blocking them with her hands, relinquishing little ground.  She wasn’t going to be easily spooked.  They had equal reach in arms, which was in the woman’s favor, because it made it easier to defend against the man’s strikes.  Their footwork was quick and loose, ready to change at any given moment.

The time seemed to stretch on.  Halian was clearly not taking the fight seriously at all.  The woman, meanwhile, was playing it safe, her eyes focused as she threw a few defensive punches and kept her guard up.

Now and again, she lashed out with a few low kicks at the man’s right leg, and I knew she was going for the tip Hakeem had given her earlier.

A few of them landed.  It was her last kick that brought her trouble.

Elmiryn kicked out fast, just as before, but Halian was ready for her.  He did a curious shift on his left foot, a sort of hop and slide that was lead by his thigh and hip.  The smooth dirt seemed accepting of his tactic, as he slid to the side just enough to allow room to hook his foot behind the woman’s leg and throw off her balance.

My heart skipped a beat as I saw her arms instinctively go out to catch herself, leaving her open.  Halian cut in with a fast one-two punch to the chin that sent the woman crashing to the ground.

“Elmiryn!” I shouted through the cries of the crowd.

The Lycan was on her in an instant, his blows fast and devastating.  My heart was in my throat, and I got to my knees, my muscles quivering with a need to act.

Sedwick grabbed my shoulder, his grip tight, and hissed, “Don’t!  This is a sacred fight!  If you intervene, there’ll be hell to pay!”

I stared at him, then back at Elmiryn, who was doing her best to keep her head covered from the relentless assault.

The horn was blown.

Halian stopped, fists halting in the air as he clambered off the redhead with a cocky grin on his face.  He moved back to his side of the ring, where his comrades greeted him with cheers.

Elmiryn didn’t get up.  My heart stilled in my chest.

A Lycan woman next to me nudged my shoulder, and I looked at her, startled.  She had a narrow face and bright green eyes that seemed to glow in the emerald light.  She pointed at Elmiryn, and said with a thick accent, “Go.  Help.”

I hadn’t been sure if it was okay for me to enter the ring, but if this woman said it was all right, then I wasn’t going to hesitate.  I hurried out and heard Sedwick follow me.  When we came to Elmiryn, I could see that her left brow was cut wide and was bleeding profusely.  Her eyes rolled as she tried to focus on us.

“Oh…hi guys,” she breathed.

“This is barbaric!” I hissed as I took up one arm, and Sedwick the other.  “I can’t believe they’d allow this!”

“In their eyes, it’s all within their code of honor,” Sedwick said. There was a brief struggle as we both took up a shoulder and stood.  Elmiryn was completely dead weight.  “She agreed to this, and has refused to forfeit.  She wasn’t forced to fight in any way.”

“Wasn’t forced to fight?” I grunted as we dragged her back out of the ring.  “Challenge is like candy to her.  Dangle it in her face, I’m not sure she could refuse!”

“Maybe that’s what we need to rehabilitate her of…”

“I think the reality of the situation hit her just before the fight.  She wasn’t as excited as she usually is.”

“Then why did she agree to this!?”

“Because she’s Elmiryn,” I grumbled.

The two of us laid the woman down, and Quincy came over, her eyes squinting as she looked at the cut on the warrior’s brow. “Tai’undu,” she muttered, reaching for her magic pouch.

She pulled out a handkerchief and a small glass jar filled with a translucent yellow paste.  Hakeem appeared at her side with a jug of water.  I hadn’t noticed when he’d left to fetch it, but I was glad all the same.  Quincy took to cleaning the blood from Elmiryn’s face, using splashes of water, quickly wiping with her handkerchief.  Her husband took the jar and opened it, holding it out to her.  When she was done, she took up a scoop of the paste with two fingers and smeared it across the woman’s brow.

Elmiryn’s eyes, which had fallen shut through all this, peeled open.

Quincy grabbed her face and forced the woman’s gaze onto her.  “How many fingers am I holding up?”  She didn’t hold up a hand.

The warrior’s brow tightened and she grunted as she made to sit up.  “None.  Tha’s a dumb question…” she mumbled.

“Elmiryn, take it easy,” I said, holding her upper arm.

“I fucked up.  My ‘proach was all…one dimensional…Halian saw right through me,” she sighed, gazing at her knees.  “He’s fresh.  I’m just runnin’ on fumes.  I know it.  He knows it.”

“You can’t beat him,” Quincy said flatly.  “So don’t try.”

Elmiryn looked at her, frowning.  “I can’t…beat him?” she repeated slowly.

“No.  You can’t.”

“…You’re right.”

“Elmiryn you–” the wizard broke off, her eyes fluttering.  “I’m…I’m sorry, I’m what?”

“You’re right!” Elmiryn said, looking at her with a wild grin.  She started to stand up, reeled, and nearly fell back down.  It took me, Sedwick, and Quincy to keep her from keeling over.

The woman started laughing, and it was at that moment that I saw that missing look return to her eye—that love of risk, that love of gambling.

Now I was beside myself, eyes burning with unshed tears.  “Elmiryn, no!  Don’t go back in there!  Just forfeit, there’s no shame in that!”

“No,” she said fiercely.  Her eyes were on Halian, across the ring.  “I’ve got this.”

“But you just said–!”

The horn blew again, and Elmiryn danced back into the ring, her body swaying a bit, but a grin on her face.  I wiped the tears from my eyes and tried to still my heart, but my hands wadded my doublet as I saw the familiar play start over again.

The ring had been smoothed out again since their last round, and they made tracks anew.  They returned to the familiar dance, circling each other, testing each other’s boundaries, etc….

Then Halian bull-rushed her, all intensity, all power and muscle, his shoulders low and squared, his head ducked as though he were looking to gore her with horns.  He grabbed her about the thighs, and Elmiryn grunted as she managed to slip an arm between herself and the Lycan’s shoulder.  I saw her legs lock and sprawl out as she leaned forward onto the man’s back.  For a moment my inexperience in wrestling made their motives unclear.  Then I saw.

Halian was trying to take Elmiryn down by pulling at the back of her knees and compromising her stance.  The warrior was defending herself by digging her feet in and locking her legs.  By keeping her weight forward, she had the leverage to keep from being thrown down—a position that was dangerous for her, if the last round was any indication.

But the more they struggled, the more they slid along the dirt, and the closer they got to the edge of the circle.  If she were cast out of the ring, the fight would be over.

It was at this point that I realized why the woman had seemed so energized going back into the fight.  She didn’t have to beat Halian.  She just had to outlast him.  My voice tight with my fear and excitement, I shrieked, “Elmiryn, get out of it!  Get out of it!

Elmiryn didn’t seem to hear me, which wasn’t surprising considering the din the crowd was making.  She sent a few quick jabs at Halian’s sides, and the man tried vainly to knee her thighs a few times, but they seemed locked in a stalemate.  Simple physics was keeping the woman safe from the Lycan’s brute strength, but how long would that last?

“Elmiryn, come on!” Sedwick bellowed, slamming a fist into the ground.

Then she did something that stunned everyone.

With quick hands, she wrapped an arm around Halian’s head and twisted them to the side in a vicious pull.  They fell, and the woman wrapped her legs around the man’s trunk, her muscles straining as she yelled up at the sky.  I could hear Halian let out a strained shout, the places where his tribal paint flaked away revealing flushed skin.  I recognized it as a choke hold, from my training.

“That’s it!” Sedwick shouted, his face split wide in a surprised grin.

“Hold on!” I yelled.  Beyond all reason, hope started to spring in my chest.  Perhaps Elmiryn could get out of this in one piece?

But Halian was stubborn, and he refused to yield.  They struggled on the ground, but the woman managed to hold on until the horn blew.

When they parted, Halian’s eyes were wide with rage, his teeth bared and his chest heaving.  Elmiryn smiled up at him, a new cut on her lip, and her left eye now a bit swollen.  She smacked her lips in mock kiss.  The man growled and stormed away.

The woman managed to stand on her own feet this time, but it was clear that the struggle on the ground had taken even more from her.  She was sluggish as she walked back to us, and the sweat cut through the dust and dirt on her skin.

“That was fun!” she said, a little breathless.

Quincy took a moment to silently check her brow, then her lip.

Hakeem smirked up at her.  “That was an impressive counter.  Halian was quite surprised.”

Elmiryn grinned, her head tilted to the side as the brunette reapplied her paste to the cut on the warrior’s brow.  “When I first joined the military, there were these mandatory wrestling matches all new recruits had to participate in.  Because I was a woman, men always tried to take me down onto the ground for an excuse to grope me.  I got really good at defending myself that way.  Halian let his guard down around me because he thought I’d be easy.  He’s just a cocky idiot.”

“Don’t taunt him, Elle,” I warned.

When the wizard was done, the warrior took a sip from the water jug, her eyes flickering to the wineskin for a second before snapping back onto me.  “If he starts fighting with his anger, then I can outsmart him,” she responded after a moment.

I shook my head.  “But his raw power–”

“Is shit if he can’t use it right.”

“The logic of your statement hinges on an ‘if’,” Sedwick pointed out, his arms crossed. “You only have one more round.  Just play it safe.”

Elmiryn opened her mouth to reply, but the horn blew.

The woman spared a glance over her shoulder as she re-entered the ring.  My eyes pleaded with her for caution, and she seemed to acknowledge my wish with a nod.  Whether or not she’d heed my request remained to be seen.

Elmiryn raised her fists as her feet lightly danced over the soil.  She came out to the ring’s center, her eyes on Halian.  He didn’t fall into his stance, didn’t move to meet her.

With a sinking realization, I knew something was wrong.

Her body stilled, fists freezing in the air.  The man’s eyes were hot coals, searing into her, bearing forth a wealth of frustration that perhaps had nothing to do with her, but was certainly finding an outlet in their fight.

“Halian?” The woman called.

The man pointed at her.  “It’s just our flesh and our spirits, tkelechog,” he shouted.  He struck his chest, more of his tribal paint flaking away.  “I haven’t been treating you with the proper respect.  That changes now!

As he spoke, despite the distance, I could see his canines elongate, his nails morphing to claws.

He was going to Change.

No!” I screamed, moving to run into the ring.

Sedwick grabbed me around the waist, his voice a hot breath in my ear.  “Nyx, don’t!  Didn’t you hear what I said before!?”

“He can’t do that!” I said wildly, fighting against him.  “He can’t!  He’ll kill her!”

Sedwick was a strong man, but despite the absence of my Twin, I still retained my Ailuran strength.  He growled as I managed to move forward a few inches.  Than his arms turned to water, and I was lifted bodily into the air.  I yelled, my body thrashing, and the Lycans around us were distracted enough to stare as the elemental slammed me onto the ground.

“Quincy!” he shouted.  “Have you got something to calm her!?”

“Let me go!” I screamed, tears of frustration leaking from my eyes.

Within a moment, the wizard appeared over me, a new handkerchief in her hand.  “This is for your own good, Ailuran.” She pressed the cloth to my mouth and nose, and when I breathed in the caustic smell, my eyes rolled into the back of my head and the world went black.

ELMIRYN________________________

“Oh shit,” Elmiryn breathed.  She was only dimly aware of Nyx screaming, but all her focus was on the shifting Lycan before her.

Dark fur began to sprout over Halian’s skin, his skin rippling as he bent over, and she could see the bones in his spine shifting.

Halian’s transformation was much smoother, much faster than Nyx’s had been.  Elmiryn knew she only had a small window to rush the man while he was rendered prone by his transformation.

With a yell, she charged him, meaning to push him out of the ring and end the fight before it could progress any further.  But Halian wasn’t as vulnerable as she’d thought.  He dodged her with a parting swipe at her shoulder, and the woman nearly stumbled out of the ring herself, her face wincing in pain.  His claws had dug in deep.

The warrior managed to right herself, and turned just in time to see Halian’s newly shifted paws come slashing at her once more.

She lurched back, her feet stumbling as she fought to return to the ring’s center.

Halian paused as his face elongated, his nose a shiny black, his ears gaining tips and shifting higher on the side of his head.  A brush-like tail swept behind him, and his feet were long and clawed.  Elmiryn felt her heart race.  She had never seen a therian shift so quickly, and never had she seen one who was capable of moving whilst doing so.  Was this what really made Lycans such dangerous warriors?

Her thoughts were scattered as the Lycan rushed her, his fanged jaws spreading wide.  The world seemed a rough, wild thing of sound and color as she practically felt Halian’s presence clash with her own.  All around her, the villagers yelled and screamed.  She became suddenly aware of Nyx’s voice being absent.

Nyx…

The woman let out a deep yell, her hands raising to take hold of the threads of reality she saw before her.  She called on the air, tightening the weave to form a solid wall—

And Halian’s charge was halted.

He hung suspended, his body still at the angle of a charge but not moving forward so much as an inch.  His jaw snapped and he growled in confusion.  His fierce dark gaze fastened onto Elmiryn’s.  His muscles quivered as he tried to break through the invisible barrier, but the warrior grunted, her face turning red as her body fought to keep her hold on the tight weave of air.  Blood dripped from her nose down her lips, and she felt as if her head were being split into two, her vision of the world rippling.

She dug her soles into the dirt, her feet sliding as if she herself were pushing up against a wall.

The crowd had fallen into stunned silence, and the warrior found she liked the quiet.

“H-Hey guard dog.”  She smiled shakily, her tongue tasting the blood that came into her mouth.  “You said…our flesh…and our spirits, right?”

Halian snarled, his hackles raised, his claws flexing in the air as his hind foot slid further in the dirt in his attempts to advance.

The woman groaned, feeling him strain against the barrier she’d made.  Nausea wracked her in intense rolls, the feeling rocking up from her stomach to her head and back.  Her throat tensed and sweat dripped into her eyes.  She didn’t know how much longer she could hold it.

Then Halian broke through…

…Just as the horn was blown.

He didn’t stop or slow down, and Elmiryn closed her eyes as she fell to her knees and felt his shadow pass over her.

There was a growl, a scuffle in the dirt, and a loud cry.

With effort, the woman opened her eyes again.

Artemis stood over her, one hand casually holding Halian by the back of his scruffy neck.  The muscular wolf-man was whining with each breath, his ears flat and his tail tucked between his legs.  The goddess’s silver eyes pierced into the warrior, her lips a thin line and her nostrils flared.

Elmiryn opened her mouth to say something, but a strong gag reflex had her turning her head just in time to throw up over the soil, the liquid blood-red and runny.  Elmiryn wasn’t sure if it were the wine, the brandy, or her own blood.

She heard Artemis speak over her.  “Fiamman, we have things to discuss.”

The woman grinned and peered up at her, a long rope of bloody saliva still swinging from her lips.  Her arms shook as she tried to keep from face planting into her own vomit.  “Oh Arty, you have no idea.”


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