Tributaries Cover In Sight, In Mind Cover Blackwood Cover

Chapter 29.3

NYX____________________________

Increasingly, my life was becoming a strange thing.  It felt like a different breed of animal, and I could see my hand on its coarse neck, feeling its pulse, wondering when it would wake from its slumber to devour me.  People like me were not supposed to be extraordinary.  People like me were supposed to fade into dust, to be nothing more than a hated memory.  Now all of a sudden, I had things to fight for, and to my eternal surprise, someone who would fight for me.

There were things greater than I could understand.  Mystical battles between unfathomable beings, spiritual demons, and tyrannical beasts were becoming typical fare.  Amidst these things, the physical pain was always acute, and I was almost grateful for it.  It kept me grounded, kept me from losing touch with reality.  Elmiryn said she couldn’t understand it.  She even shied from it.  For me, it was all I had to know I wasn’t in some bizarre dream.

This surreal outlook was magnified tenfold upon returning from the Somnium.

Back in the place I had been before, I found that Quincy had taken to tending a Lycan whilst waiting for my return.  She looked at me in surprise.  It didn’t take long for that look to quickly melt into ire.

“Ailuran…word of advice.  Warn people before you do your vanishing act,” she snapped, her hands stilling on her patient.

I gave her a frigid glance.  “Thank you.”

I gazed at Elmiryn.  In my mind’s eye, I still saw that white void filled with tumbling kittens and sparrows.  Now all I saw was the warrior’s body, bruised and battered and bereft of her spirit.  I felt the push of unreality threaten my comprehension and turned to leave.

Quincy’s voice stopped me.  “Hey!”

I looked over my shoulder.  The woman was outright glaring at me now.

“Well?” she snapped.

“Well what?” I returned hotly.

“How is Elmiryn?  Did you even find her?”

“She’s fine,” I said, my eyes narrowing.  “But she can’t return to her body because it’s in too much pain.”

Quincy’s brow tightened.  “That…doesn’t sound good.”

The wizard returned her attention to her patient, wetting a cloth with a solution and pressing it to a man’s wounded arm.  “I’ll do what I can for her,” she said somberly.

I hesitated a moment before nodding.  “…Thank you.”

When I exited the medicine hut, I paused to look up at the great tree.  I could not see Artemis from where I stood, but wondered what the goddess was doing.  I didn’t understand what had happened, and it turned my stomach into knots.  I liked having my insides well and ordered…but I couldn’t leave the matter alone.  Just what would I do if it turned out that Elmiryn had been in the wrong?

…Just what would I do if it turned out that Elmiryn had been in the right?

Then I did away with the questions.  I had faith in her.  I knew the warrior wasn’t perfect, but I knew she wasn’t stupid, either.  There had to be a good reason for her to behave as she did.  Artemis wasn’t smiting her, at any rate, which I thought doubly odd.  If Elmiryn had defied her–truly defied her–then wouldn’t the goddess have seen fit to tear the woman asunder?  The situation was clearly a complicated one, and my exhaustion was making a poor audience of me.

Turning away I started to make my way back to the edge of the village where the hut Hakeem had given us appeared to me as a welcome sight.  But drifting along the village trail, I could not escape the feeling of unreality.  The deconstruction of all the expectations I had ever held for myself seemed complete, but in their place was just this question.  Just what could an abomination like myself do?  What else could I be?  I could bend shadows, could traverse the layers of reality, could command the attention of spirits…but in the end I still had the taint of my family’s death on my splintered soul, my other self still running off in the wilds and harboring nothing but loathing for me.  I was living some other life, and yet I didn’t know what role I was supposed to play.  My footsteps felt heavy with my questions, and for once I did not care for the eyes that turned my way.  I stared at the ground, the low spirit of the village filtering through my strange miasma.

It was about the time when I arrived at my new place of stay and crawled under the fur blankets, that I realized just what was really wrong.

Elmiryn wasn’t there.

———————————–

When I woke, it was to Hakeem’s voice drifting in through the hut curtain.

“Nyx, it is time to wake.”

I whined and turned my face away.  Even in my sudden loneliness, sleep had stolen me in a quick, but restless sleep.  All through the night I was plagued with bad dreams.  I saw a world filled with bloody battlefields, saw the horrible nymph giant attacking my village, saw myself as a little girl being hunted by a pack of pretas…  After each dream I would wake, dazed and confused only to find myself alone.  I wanted to hide away, to return to Elmiryn in her strange pocket of reality…but somehow I knew I had to be reachable to the others.  I couldn’t be ready to help, to act, to contribute if I were gone in some unfathomable domain.  So with a sense of dread, I closed my eyes and slipped into the next black nightmare.

Sleep?  One could say I did that, but rest was another matter entirely…

The low light coming through the spaces of the hut curtain seemed offensive to me.  I could hear the sounds of village life outside, hear foreign voices speaking, hear unfamiliar birds chirping in the trees.  I curled away from it all.

“Nyx.”  Hakeem’s young voice sounded clearer.  He must have poked his head through the entrance.  “Tai’unduikati are you really going to be like this?”

I growled and squeezed my eyes shut harder, feeling my ire rise.

Hakeem sighed, arms slapping at his sides.  I had a brief mental image of him doing this and immediately thought it strange.  The adult Hakeem I had first met wasn’t the type for such expressions.  Then again, it had been established I knew nothing of him.  His voice sounded over me, impatient.  “I just wanted to let you know that breakfast is being served.  Just like last night, if you aren’t there, you aren’t getting any.”  I heard him turn to leave.

At the thought of food, I perked my head up, my eyes squinting.

The wizard paused and looked back at me.  His young face broke into a smirk.  “Too predictable.”

It took a moment for me to get my shoes back on, but with hands shielding my eyes, we emerged outside.  I was surprised to see that the sky had changed to match something akin to day.  Not literally, of course.  There was no sun, not even clouds, and the sky lacked that beautiful blue hue, and was instead just a glaring white.  It was like a bright canvas, waiting for some mode of expression.  Light seemed to flood everywhere, despite the lack of a source, and the village stirred with all the activity one might expect in the morning–chickens were being tended to, rugs being beat, and daily devotion was being offered.  The latter was directed toward the great tree, with Lycans kneeling on the dirt with a fist over their heart, heads bowed, lips murmuring in a sort of prayer.

I blinked at them, then turned away, feeling it was rude to stare at those in worship.  My eyes eventually adjusted as we came to the village center where, just as last night, a station had been set up where people were being served.  This communal service was foreign to me, as back in my home village, people cooked for themselves.  Granted, Tosmai was a much bigger than this settlement, but the Lycans seemed to have a greater sense of unity and brotherhood.  I found myself envious.

The line for food stretched all the way around the great tree, back to the village trail we were emerging from.  Hakeem stood in line, and with a groan, I stood in after him.

“The line is so long,” I groused.  “I may as well have stayed asleep!”

“You do look quite tired,” Hakeem observed.  I had a feeling he was trying to be generous.

My jaw clenched and I glared at the ground.  “I had a rough night.”

“Your friend isn’t all that far, you know.”

I glanced at the wizard sharply, and he looked at me sideways.  “The day is free.  You can visit her whenever you like.”

“Quincy told you about last night?”

“Yes.”

“Where is your wife, anyway?”

“Still asleep.  She was up late tending to the wounded.”  Hakeem shook his head.  “As far as hunts go, this was the worse.  We had less injured, but more dead.  Two Lycans died in the medicine hut upon being returned.”

I bit my lip and turned away.

Hakeem nudged me.  “Ikati.  We would not have reached those men in time.  It wasn’t your fault.”

I clenched my fists.  “Seconds count.  If we hadn’t been distracted by my Twin, then–”

“You never did tell me what that was all about.”

I broke off, startled.  With a swallow, I shrugged.  “It’s…” I sighed. “Complicated.”

“And how many people have you managed to deter with that line?”

I rolled my eyes.  “None.”

“So?”

I rubbed at my face, then gestured for him to come closer.  When he did, I hissed, “All right, all right.  I may as well tell you.  I’ve already told Sanuye–”

“By no gentle means, I imagine.”

My brow tightened.  “No.”  Then my expression relaxed.  “I was…surprised, though.”

The wizard raised an eyebrow at me.  “By her reaction?”

“Well, yes.  But moreso by her decision.”

“Which was…?”

I ran my hand through my hair.  “She wants to help me.”

Hakeem smiled at me wryly.  “Lycans are known to do that from time to time y’know.”

I bit my lip and looked around us.  “I’m…nervous to talk about this around so many.  There’s more Common speakers than I’d first thought, and I’d like to keep my business my own.”

The wizard shrugged his hands.  “Then we shall wait until later.  Perhaps once we get our food?”

“All right.”

We resumed our wait in silence, and I found myself peering at Hakeem in curiosity.  I wondered if his change in demeanor had anything to do with his youthful form, and if so, would he once again be the hard-nosed, taciturn man I’d first met?

My thoughts were cut short as Sedwick joined us.

He held out a hand to the people behind us, “I’m not in line,” before he greeted us.  “Good morning!”

“Morning,” we said simultaneously.

The elemental crossed his arms as he looked at me.  “I missed you last night.  How did things go?”

“I have a few things to tell you…” I said, glancing at Hakeem.  “I was going to fill Hakeem in on a few details too, once we get settled.”

Sedwick nodded.  “That’s fine, I understand.”

A pause.

I gestured awkwardly at the man.  “Sooo…how did your hunt go?”

He shrugged, his mouth screwing up.  “We were fine.  Had to deal with a rogue growth spirit.  The taint going on has been affecting the balance.  The Lycans have been doing a superb job of keeping the situation from getting out of hand, but with time, this monster that is stalking their forest is going to turn everything on its head.”  He rubbed his scar, his brow pressing up.  “I…went to see Elmiryn.”

I smiled sardonically.  “Yes, she looks quite bad, doesn’t she?”

“Nyx, I’m sorry I held you back at the fight, but I had to.  Lycan tradition is something these people take seriously, and if you’d have interfered, there would have been serious–”

I held up a hand, and locked eyes with the man. “You did what you thought was right.  What came after was beyond everyone’s control.”

“So you know about what happened at the end of the fight?”

Hakeem cleared his throat.  “I filled her in on those details.”

I puckered my lips, my nose tickling in displeasure.  “Yes.”

Sedwick looked at me uncomfortably.  “Quincy tells me Elmiryn is still in there somewhere.”

“That’s because I told her that.  I visited Elmiryn using my abilities as a champion.  She’s in a strange little pocket of reality.  Her body is in too much pain for her to return…for her to want to return.”

Sedwick held his chin, the other arm crossing over his chest.  “And you can visit her whenever you like?”

I nodded.  “As far as I know, yes.  So long as the way to her is open, I can.”

In all this time, the line had steadily moved up.  We were closer to the great tree now.

Hakeem frowned up at me, his arms crossing.  “What could close the way?”

I blinked and thought about it a moment.  “I suppose if her body died, or if she ventured too far into the unknown.”  I gave a shudder.  “I’d rather not think on it too hard.”

The conversation, if one could call it that, dried up.  We were served our food, and with me leading, we found a comfortable spot away from any wandering ears.  Sedwick and Hakeem sat at either side of me, bowls of mixed rice, stewed deer meat, and egg in their hands.  I took a few hungry bites of my meal, the words sorting about in my head.  Once I decided on how I wanted to explain things, I set in.  The story of my Twin was nothing new to Sedwick, but nevertheless I had an attentive audience in him.  Hakeem was equally interested, if not, moreso.  He stopped eating as soon as I started, his eyes fastened onto my face–and it was with great discomfort that I recognized that hawkish attention I’d already seen in Quincy.  He was weighing my words, my priorities, my emotions.

Once my tale was done, I gave Sedwick a brief update on my recent encounter with my Twin.  He leaned forward onto his watery legs, his brow furrowed deeply.  Hakeem, meanwhile, was still looking at me.

“So that beast was a part of you…” he murmured.

I looked at him warily.  “Yes.  She is a part of my soul.”

“But she has her own will.”

“Yes.”

He shook his head gravely.  “That is against all laws of nature.”  He held up both hands as if testing the weight of two different things.  “There is mental malady in which a person’s mind becomes so broken that their interactions with the world are similarly broken.  But what you are saying is something else entirely.  Your mind is in tact.  Your soul however…”

“I am against nature.  I am something that isn’t supposed to exist.”

Hakeem frowned at me.  “To have two separate souls in one body is impossible.  Either one of you assimilates the other or you’ll perish.  The tug of war on your body would surely tear it apart in time!”

“I know that!” I snapped.  I closed my eyes and swallowed.  “I know that…” I said more gently.  “Elmiryn and I had a plan.  Well…more of a lead.”

“What kind of lead?”

I opened my mouth, then hesitated.  Hakeem was a bounty hunter.  So was Quincy.  It was true they were working with us now, but what about later?  Could I trust them not to turn on us?

At the prolonged pause, the young wizard held up a hand.  “Ah.  I see.  Do not worry then.”

I felt a pang in my gut.  “Hakeem–”

He looked at me, brows raised.  “Ikati, you have plenty of reasons to feel as you do.  Think nothing of it.”

My mouth closed, but I felt guilty all the same.  Sedwick glanced at me sidelong, and I couldn’t be sure if he was disappointed in me or sympathetic.  Feeling low, I finished my food.

It was about around my last bites that someone descended on me from behind, their weight neatly folding me over my legs.  Sputtering, I tried to look at my assailant.  I heard a voice before I saw a face, and immediately knew who it was.

Ahoj!  My pet I’ve missed you!”

“Get off me Gudahi!” I snapped, beating at him with my shoulders.

The man pulled back, laughing.  I glared at him over my shoulder as Hakeem sighed next to me.  “Ahoj, Gudahi,” he said.

Gudahi settled back onto his feet, Makka just a little behind him.  He bowed his head at me in greeting, and I nodded at him in return before my eyes flickered onto his taller companion.

The handsome man flipped his long dark hair over his shoulder, then winked at me. “Now, now!  I was only playing, little one.”

I looked away from him, remembering Lycan etiquette, but my patience was not very tolerant that morning.  I stood abruptly and looked at Hakeem and Sedwick.  “Thank you for eating with me.  I’m going to check on Elmiryn.”

“I’ll see you tonight, Nyx,” Hakeem said.

Sedwick gave a small wave.  “Tell her I said to get better, fast.  I’m sort of missing her harassment.”

I gave a wry smile.  With a glance at Makka and Gudahi, I left.

HAKEEM_________________________

Hakeem watched the girl leave, then turned to spare a quick glare Gudahi’s way.  “You should not tease her so.  She is in love.”

The Lycan slapped a hand to his heart, a dreamy look on his face.  “With me?  All ready?  Spirits preserve me!”

Despite himself, the wizard smiled.  Turning his eyes to his empty bowl, he said,  “Not this time, I’m afraid.  She loves another.”

Gudahi clicked his tongue as he slid smoothly into Nyx’s spot.  “Damn!  Can’t have them all, I suppose.”

“You really aren’t bothered by her show of power last night?”

“Bothered?” The man looked at the wizard with an amused grin.  “My friend, the goddess I worship currently occupies the central tree of my village, and a beast of unknown origin and shape is ravaging my land.  There are stranger things to consider!”

Hakeem let out a short laugh.  “Ah.  You are right, of course.”

Gudahi leaned over to Sedwick, his smile curling.  “And who is your peculiar friend?”

The elemental held out a hand.  “Sedwick.  I work with Nadi, guardian of the Medwin River.”

The Lycan’s brows rose high.  “Nadi’s personal thrall?  Here?” He turned his head slowly back to Hakeem.  “Let me say again…there are stranger things to consider!”

Hakeem shook his head at the man.  “Are you going to train today?”

Gudahi nodded, his face turning more somber.  “Of course.  We return to the fields to practice forms.”

“I think I’ll be joining you again today.”

“You do not have another session with Eidan?”

Hakeem sighed and stood.  “I think it’s clear that whatever way there is to change myself back to normal cannot be found in a healer’s hut.  As my companions tell it, I have to move forward to find what is lost…”

ELMIRYN________________________

“1023…1024…1025…”

She was counting kittens when Nyx came.  The woman felt her presence like a warm breeze, and she perked up like an excited puppy at the sight of her beloved friend.

Grinning, Elmiryn rushed forward for a hug.  “Nyx!”

The girl was clothed this time around, as there wasn’t a nude Doll for her to occupy.  Her eyes shone as she returned the woman’s grin.  The void rang with her laughter, and the shadows overhead shivered.

“Elle!  Sweet Aelurus, you’re behaving as if I’ve been gone an age!”

The woman laughed, pulling back, strands of her hair falling into her eyes.  “It feels that way!  Did you know I’ve been counting these critters since you left?  It was the only way I could make my thoughts behave.”

Nyx smiled teasingly.  “I heard you just now.  I believe you were at 1025?”

Elmiryn shook her head, her eyes rolling.  “Naw.  I lost count like four times.  I got up to 3000 last time.”

The girl squinted her eyes, her head tilting to the side. “Have…I been gone that long?  Really?”

The woman shrugged.  “I didn’t sleep.  I mean.  I can’t.  I’m not in a body to sleep in, after all.”

“Oh!”  Nyx bit her lip. “I’m sorry you were left alone for so long!  I didn’t even consider that you’d be forced to sit here like that…”

Elmiryn traced a finger over the girl’s cheek.  Nyx’s face shone with something bright, and the warrior wondered if she were really the reason for it.  She took her hand and gently buried it in the girl’s dark locks.  Again, she could feel nothing of it, but a pleasure rose in her.

“I want…” the woman started.  Her eyes settled on Nyx’s tawny gaze, and she stepped closer.  “I want to try and come back.”

Nyx bit her lip and reached up to the woman’s face.  “Only if you think it’ll be safe, Elle.  I want you well.”

“And I want to feel you.  I want to be there.” Elmiryn returned, her eyes burning.  She made no attempt to explain to the girl how hellish it had been, sitting in an empty space with only illusions as company.  She made no attempt to explain how a single night had felt like a year, or how the shadows had rebelled against her too many times to count.  The alien being in her white box never moved, the falling animals never ceased coming, and the ways of light seemed forever on the cusp of defeat.

The warrior stepped back and closed her eyes.  She sought her body, knew the way as intuitively as one knew their own limbs.

The black heavy curtain was thick with pain.  Darkness lapped at the edges of her consciousness and she gasped, struggling to pull away in time before the trappings of mortality found her.

Elmiryn screamed and fell backward, her voice echoing all around them.

Nyx was at her side in an instant, her face drawn long in fear as she held the woman by the shoulders.  “Elle!  Gods!  Are you okay!?”

“Too much,” the woman gasped, clutching at her heart with her right hand. She shook her head frantically.  “I can’t.”

The woman tried to sit up with both her arms but found only her right arm to respond.  Her left lay dead next to her.  She stared at it, a sudden roaring in her ears as she felt herself turn cold.  Her eyes slowly moved to meet Nyx’s.  The Ailuran blinked at her, nonplussed.

“Elle?” she whispered.

The woman moved her tongue against the roof of her mouth, then sucked at her teeth.  With a contemplative frown, she considered her arm.  The feelings of her body were not entirely gone this time, just muted.  The pain became a low buzz in the distant background, and she felt heavier…more real.

The only reason I’m keeping myself together is because I know my pattern.

Elmiryn looked at her companion, a slow smile creeping across her lips.  “…Y’know what, Nyx?  I take that back.  Maybe I can.


Back to Chapter 29.2 | Forward to Chapter 29.4

Chapter 29.2

what if a dawn of a doom of a dream
bites this universe in two,
peels forever out of his grave
and sprinkles nowhere with me and you?

– Excerpt from e.e. cummings  “what if a much of a which of a wind”.

 

ELMIRYN________________________

When strings of darkness bunched into a knot thicker than her worse hair tangle, the woman was about to throw her hands into the air (and was even upon the point of detaching them at the wrists) when she heard Nyx’s voice behind her.

Elmiryn shoulders hunched, her gut twisting as if she’d been caught with her hand in the cookie jar.  She looked over her shoulder, and sure enough, Nyx had sat up, her tawny eyes blinking.  She had a lock of her long dark hair between her fingers, her brow knitted as she wobbled in the void for a moment, like she were on an unsteady raft.  Her arms flashed out at her sides, a small cry slipping her lips before her body steadied.

“Oh!” the warrior said.  She grinned sheepishly just as she felt her hand firmly reattach itself, then turned and regarded the girl.  “I was beginning to think you’d just stay a doll!  So you came here through…the what?  The world’s dream?  It starts with an ‘s’, but I can’t remember the–”

“No clothes?” Nyx interjected, looking down at herself.

No hello.  The woman wondered if the girl were angry or just in shock.

Elmiryn chuckled and rubbed the back of her neck.  “I…guess not.”

Nyx looked at her just with her eyes. “You guess?” Her tone was dry.

The redhead flinched.  She started to lean toward “angry”.

She started to explain.  “Well I’m not in complete control of everything yet.  Things just sort of showed up and–” the woman broke off as she felt the shadows shift her definition.  She turned to them in irritation, shoving them back into place with her spirit.  Looking back at the girl, she said in a simple voice, “It’s–uh–a work in progress.”

“I see,” but judging by the expression on Nyx’s face, she was more confused than ever.  The girl wrinkled her nose at all the animals floating through the air, and asked, “Why kittens and sparrows?”

Elmiryn shrugged.  “Why not?”

Next, the Ailuran looked up, and she gave a start, a hand flying to her mouth.  “Sweet Aelurus, who’s that?

“Who?”

“Her, of course!” Nyx pointed up her expression drawn in incredulity.

Elmiryn looked, then sighed and placed her hands on her hips.  “Yee-ah…’bout that…I have no idea.  She won’t go away.  Or it won’t go away.  However you want to say it.”

Nyx ran a hand through her hair, giving her surroundings another sweep.  “Elmiryn, I don’t know if I’ve said this already, but this is really strange!” She sounded out of breath.

“No, you haven’t said it already, but yes, it is.”

Nyx blushed suddenly and hugged her legs to her chest.  “Were you…w-were you…touching me before?”

Elmiryn frowned.  “No.  I said I’d wait for you to become real.”

“Real?”

“Never mind.  I wasn’t touching you.”

“But…I felt you.”

“…Oh.  Well.  I was touching you earlier, but–”

“You mean your tongue wasn’t–” Nyx broke off, unable to continue.

Elmiryn gave her a confused look before her eyebrows rose and her mouth made a big circle.  “Ooooh.” The woman’s cheeks flushed and she stubbed a toe in the imaginary ground.  “Umm…sorry.  I was…thinking.  I didn’t actually do any of that.”  She kneaded her brow.  “Fuck.  I’m really sorry.”

The girl gazed at her for a moment before she offered a shy smile.  “It’s okay.  You didn’t know.”

“It didn’t cause you trouble, I hope?”

“Oh, no!  Thank goodness.  It happened after the hunt was over and I was able to hide my reactions.”

The woman smiled wolfishly.  “Reactions, huh?”

Nyx pouted at her.  “It isn’t funny!  I nearly had an…and in front of Quincy of all people!” The girl gave a shudder.

The woman giggled, greatly tickled by the mental image.  “I can see that how that can be awkward!”

“Hush!” Nyx chided, but she was smiling as she made to stand. “It was horrific!”

Elmiryn raised an eyebrow.  Within a moment, Nyx had become within arm’s reach when before she’d been yards away.  “My, but someone is wanting!” The woman teased.

The girl was startled by her sudden shift in space and stared behind her.  “I–but–I didn’t take a step!”

The warrior closed the space between them, a smirk on her lips.  “You’re right.  You didn’t have to.  I did.”

Nyx stared up into the woman’s eyes, the blush on her cheeks deepening.  “How does that work?” she breathed.

Elmiryn caressed her cheek, then brushed back a lock of hair from the girl’s forehead.  Touch did not work here, as she was not in her body, but the idea of being in contact with the girl flushed the woman with pleasure.  “Intent.  Intent moves things here.  Must’ve been why you felt my thoughts when I hadn’t been touching your doll.”

“Then don’t you have the intent to go back to your body?”

The warrior’s hand stilled against the girl’s cheek.  She pulled back.  “It hurts there.”

“But if you stay out of your body too long–”

“My body needs time to heal.” Elmiryn turned and walked away.  Walking was unnecessary to create space, but the action made her feel better.  She sat and gazed upward.  “Every time I try to connect with it, I feel pain.  Too much pain.  I’m…not like you, Nyx.  I’m not used to that kind of suffering.” The words came slowly, quietly.  But for all her whispering, she may as well have been shouting it.  The warrior pursed her lips and glared over her shoulder, as if daring the girl to say she needed to be stronger.

But Nyx just looked at her somberly, her hands clasped before her.  “I didn’t even think about that.”  She looked down at her feet.  “I’m sorry.  I was just thinking of myself.”  The girl’s hands tightened and she frowned.  “I just didn’t want to be away from you like this.”

Elmiryn chuckled.  “Away from me?” She twisted around fully to smile at the girl.  “Nyx, you just chased me into my own mindfuck.  I’d say that distance is not a problem.”

The girl smiled wryly.  “Especially given that all we need is a step.”

The warrior nodded, her smile softening.  “Just a step.”  She looked forward again, her stomach clenching as she wondered what Nyx’s next move would be.

“Can I tell you something?” Elmiryn said, to hide her anticipation.

“What?” Nyx still sounded far off.

The woman bit her thumb and looked up at the strange alien woman, whose skin flushed red, then royal blue, then electric yellow.  The shift in hues and tones were mesmerizing, and for a moment she forgot her ire toward the odd fixture.  “Back in Fiamma, they used to call me the Silken Warrior.  A stupid name, really…but they called me that because I never got more than a few scratches in battle.  People said I was hand chosen by Halward.  To them, it explained how a woman like me could serve in a man’s army.”  The woman snorted into a laugh.  “The kingdom has no laws preventing women from serving, but they were so rare that protocol demanded that every serving officer be referred to as ‘sir’.  It was really awkward when I made First Lieutenant because of the stupid honorific.  ‘Yes, sir.  No, sir.’  The first week after my promotion I had to fight my hardest to keep from laughing.  The looks on everyone’s faces when they abided that rule was more than enough to take the edge off my day!”

Elmiryn hugged her knee, her eyes misting in memories whose images had already become foggy and white-washed, but whose voices stayed bright and true.  “After a while, of course, everyone got used to it. Even me.  And then, after I came out of my fourth major battle unscathed, it became a given.  I could see the switch in people’s eyes…a small dose of awe mixed in with whatever other emotion you can imagine.  Jealousy.  Disgust.  Lust.  Admiration.  I don’t know who started calling me the Silken Warrior, but if I ever met them I’d have to fight not to kill them.  Really fight.”

“Why did you hate the name so much?” Nyx sounded a little closer.

Elmiryn shrugged.  “Because.  I didn’t know what real pain was.  I mean, sure.  I got hurt.  Bruises and sprains and all that.  But never a broken bone.  Never a lost limb.  Never so much as a gash.  After a while, it makes the fighting feel surreal.  Like you aren’t really there.  Like you’re…” she gave a huff.  “Like you’re a ghost.

The woman pressed her fingers into her eyes, stars tunneling behind her eyelids.  “I liked being a dragoon because we got the riskiest missions.  Leading the charge across enemy lines.  Attacking a heavily fortified garrison whilst outnumbered.  Hunting down an Ailuran leader through enemy lands.  We got it all, and I loved it because it gave me a chance to feel alive.  I got bored with anything else.  I was arrogant, thinking I was somehow invincible.  Halward never spoke to me, despite what everyone said, so I started to get it into my head that it wasn’t godly intervention, just my own fucking brilliance that saw me through.”

The woman dropped her hands, her eyelids stinging.  She spat and wiped at her mouth.  “I was a fool.”

“What happened…” Nyx asked quietly.  She was closer still.

Elmiryn smiled and shook her head.  “It wasn’t the gods that were protecting me.”  She looked over her shoulder to see Nyx was standing right behind her, her brow tight as she looked down at the woman.  The woman held the girl’s gaze for a moment before she said, “It was Meznik.”

Now Nyx’s face screwed up in that recognizable fashion of disgust before it quickly melted into confusion.  “Why would he do that?”

“I already told you.  He thinks I’m his toy.”

“Meznik isn’t a god.”

The woman laughed harshly.  “I know that.”

“But wouldn’t you have noticed something?”

Elmiryn turned away, her eyes sweeping over the sea of spiraling animals.  “Look around us,” she said.  She held out her hands.  “This isn’t a world.  Just theatrical backdrops still in need of painting for use in some dramatic play.  Like empty canvasses.  I can do what I want with them.  That’s why there’s no sky, no ground, no gravity, no true space.  Everything here is imagined.  Everything here is just shaped by intent.”  She looked back at Nyx.  “Remember when we first helped Nadi?  Meznik drove her insane not because he did anything to her, but because he shifted about her perception.  He changed her backdrops.  Who is to say he didn’t do the same to me?  To my enemies?”

The woman chuckled again and bit her knuckle.  She felt Nyx sit next to her, but did not shift.  The redhead had been afforded plenty of time to think about things.  The answers had come hard.  They had required her to pull away the trappings of mortal thinking, and though it was so alien, she found that such boundaries were much easier to slip by these days.

“He got mad at me,” Elmiryn breathed, her eyes narrowing.  “He got mad because I got arrogant and thought all my good fortune was my own doing.  It makes sense now, all the things he’s ever told me.  I could hear the limp in his ego every now and again, but I didn’t get it.  I thought he was just being evil and crazy.  But it makes sense doesn’t it?  Meznik’s done more for me than all the gods combined and–”

“He hasn’t done anything for you,” Nyx snarled.  She grabbed the woman’s hand, and Elmiryn looked at her sideways.

Nyx’s tawny eyes flashed as she spoke through her teeth.  “Elmiryn, please.  I know you’re frustrated with the gods, but Meznik is our enemy not our ally, not even our provisional ally!  He’s hurt and killed hundreds of people because of what he’s done, and it doesn’t matter that it was directly or indirectly!  He has to be stopped!”

“I know that…” Elmiryn breathed, still looking at the girl sideways.  “I never said I liked the guy, and I still fully intend on running him through…but I have to get close enough to kill him.  I have to play along.”

“Until when?” Nyx hissed.  “Until he’s telling you to kill your friends!?”

Elmiryn’s face tightened and she ripped her hand away from Nyx.  “Don’t.  You know I wouldn’t do that.”

The girl took a deep breath and closed her eyes, turning her head away.  “Elmiryn, you’re changing.”

“So are you.  It’s the nature of life to change.  If you’re static, you’re either dead or nonexistent.”

“No.  I mean–You’re starting to get horns.”

This made the woman pause.  “I’m…what?”

Nyx looked at her, her eyes dry but her face still shifting as if she were about to break down.  “I can see the seed that Meznik planted in you.  It’s grown and spread throughout you, and there are these…horns, like new branches, coming out of either side of your forehead.  Just at the hairline.”  The girl pointed out the spots weakly.

Elmiryn swallowed.  “That’s what you see?  Because of your–”

“Yes.  That’s what the Somnium shows me.  I don’t know if it’s literal.  Lacertli said the Somnium is the world’s dream, and therefor what we see is representative of the truth, but…” the girl’s voice trailed away.

The woman felt cold.  “I’m not human anymore,” she whispered.

“Elle, I don’t think the change is complete–”

“It doesn’t matter if it’s complete.  I’m not really human anymore.”

“Elmiryn–”

What!?” The woman shouted, glaring at Nyx.  The tenderness in the girl’s voice was going to drive her insane. “Don’t sugarcoat things, Nyx, gods damn it, I’m not fucking human anymore!  Just say it!  Don’t coddle me!  Say it!

When Nyx spoke, it was in a whisper.  “I don’t care what you are.  I don’t.  I really don’t.  I just…I care for you, and I want you…and I don’t want Meznik to destroy you.  Who you are.”

“What if who I am is something that can’t exist in the world of the gods?  What if who I am is cruel, mercurial, and demented?”

“If you can’t exist in the world of the gods, then we’ll find a world you can exist in.  And I know you aren’t cruel, mercurial, and demented…you’re just scared.”

“I’m not scared,” Elmiryn said automatically, her voice tight.

Nyx’s voice choked.  “Than I am for you!”

The redhead’s throat tightened and she turned to the girl, seeing the tears coursing down her face.  “Gods damn it, Nyx,” she hissed, before pulling the Ailuran to her in a tight hug.

“You cry too much,” the woman murmured into the girl’s hair.

“And you’re hardheaded,” the girl returned, her voice muffled by the woman’s shoulder.  She sniffled and wiped at her eyes.

“You defied Artemis, Elle.”

“I know.”

“Why?”

“I can’t remember.”

“Somehow, I’m not surprised…”

Elmiryn blinked the moisture from her eyes and swallowed the lump in her throat, her hand petting the girl’s head.  “Before…when you were talking about finding a new world…you said we.  Did you mean that?”

The girl smacked her lightly in the ribs.  “Cajeck!  Of course I did!”

Nyx lifted her eyes and the woman held her face, her lips quivering.  “I…” she shook her head slowly. “I don’t want to hurt you.  There are consequences beyond either of us can imagine right now, and I don’t want to hurt you, Nyx.”

The girl smiled and kissed Elmiryn’s wrist.  “I know you don’t.”

“I mean it, Nyx.  I’m…with everything that’s going on, it’s getting a little harder to keep it together, nice as my clarity is in the Other Place.  I’m fucking changing, and I don’t think it’s even true to say I’m half-human anymore.  I’ve already lashed out at you and the others.  More and more, I don’t feel like there’s an ounce of charity in me.  I just push things to the limit, all just so that I can feel something close to normal, and it never comes out nice for the people around me.  Ask my family.  Ask my old friends.  Ask Quincy and Sedwick for fuck’s sake!”

“I wouldn’t ask the wizard for directions to a pot of gold,” the girl snorted.

“Then just take my word for it!”

“Do you want me to leave you?” Nyx asked, her eyes flashing in worry.

Elmiryn shook her head slowly.  “No…”

“Then shut up.”

“Nyx–”

“Fuck you, Elmiryn.”

The woman blinked.

Nyx was glaring up at her.  “Don’t you think I know what it’s like to sit in a dark place and feel the despair creeping into you?  Don’t you think I understand?  When my family died, I wanted to kill myself.  I almost did, too.  But Marq, an old friend of mine, saved me.”  The girl smiled sardonically.  “You think you’re lashing out at us now?  You should have seen me with Marq!  I wanted nothing of his help, and told him, too, in no uncertain words.  He sacrificed himself for me.  He fought to keep me alive, and I didn’t understand why at the time, but in the end, he succeeded.  I decided to keep on living and to go East to find a new life.  That’s when I met you, Elle.”

Nyx traced the lizard mark on her breast.  “I know you dislike the gods.  Maybe it has to do with your fae nature.  Maybe it’s all to do with your experiences.  But my experiences with them led me to you, and I believe more and more that maybe this was all supposed to happen.  If there is a cure for what’s happening to you, Elle, we’ll find it.  And if not?  We’ll deal with it, then!  But I’m not going anywhere, and certainly not because you’re afraid of hurting me.  So just shut the hell up!”

Elmiryn’s eyes had slipped to half-mast as she listened to the girl’s small rant.  Nyx remained firm for about a minute before the tension in her brow softened and her lip started to pout.

“What?” she mumbled.

The warrior grinned and touched the girl’s nose.  “You’re starting to get a dirty mouth.”

The girl closed her eyes and shook her head.  “Take me serious!  I’ve made my decision, Elle.  Come what may, I’m there with you.”

“Okay.”  Elmiryn’s grin widened and she tried not  to laugh from the joy.  “Okay!”  The woman enveloped the girl in another hug, her hands roving the girl’s back.  Here, their usual barriers were absent, and Nyx made no sign of feeling discomfort.

As the woman’s hands lighted over the girl’s skin, she found that she didn’t feel deterred by her lack of feeling.  Somehow, it made her hungrier, her soul feeling hot as the shadows shivered and the light scorched, highlighting a single true fact–

Elmiryn couldn’t get enough of Nyx.

The girl’s eyes slipped shut, stealing away that warm gaze, and the woman exhaled in mild frustration.  Her hands buried into the girl’s hair, tilting her head back, and Elmiryn kissed her, softly, before tracing her tongue along the Ailuran’s bottom lip.  Nyx’s hands were on the woman’s hips and they tightened as she stood on her toes to better taste the woman with her own tongue.  The warm impetuous desire made Elmiryn sigh, and with a gentle suggestion, she guided the girl down and laid over her.  Her hands did not behave, but Nyx didn’t seem to mind…

The heated play went on for some time before Nyx pushed the woman back, panting. “Elle, I–gods damn it–I left Quincy back at the medicine hut!”

Elmiryn frowned, already disappointed by the interruption.  “So?”

“So she’s watching over your body so that I can go back!  I don’t much like the woman, but she’s helping to heal people, and with the Lycans returning from their hunt, well…” the girl trailed off with a pout.

The warrior rolled over to sit next to the girl, and Nyx sat up, her face red.

The girl made as if to move, but paused, a look of befuddlement on her face.

“What is it?” the woman asked, leaning back onto her hands.

Nyx glanced at her.  “Elle…I sensed you were touching me, but I didn’t feel you.  Does that make sense?”

The woman nodded, a lazy grin on her face.  “Yes.  You may have come here, body and whole, but I’m just here in spirit.” Elmiryn chuckled.  “I really am a ghost!”

“And I am the Twin…” Nyx murmured.

Elmiryn looked at her friend sharply.  Her ears had perked to anxiety in the girl’s voice.  “Kitten?”

Her companion bit her lip and looked away.  “I…found Her.”

“Who?”

Her.”

The woman’s eyebrows rose high as it clicked.  “Oh!”

The girl nodded miserably.  “You can just imagine how that went.”

“Not well?”

Nyx groaned and buried her face into the woman’s shoulder. “It was a disaster.  She hates me.  I mean, she was never fond of me before, but…but when we tried to help Lethia free Syria, we managed a sort of…alliance.  It wasn’t perfect, but we had started working together. Now she’s furious with me because she’s been stuck in these forests, fleeing the monster and avoiding the Lycans.  I also forgot my promise to her.”

“Promise?”

“I said I’d give her a name.”

The warrior fixed her with a scowl.  “You said you’d give her a name?

“I realize the implications, but at the time there was nothing I could do!” Nyx said with a sigh.  “She was being obstinate and time was of the essence.”

“So now what?”

The girl held up her hands.  “I don’t know.” She glanced around her one last time, her lip between her teeth, before she stood.  “I have to go.”

Elmiryn tried to ignore the twist of her gut at those words and failed miserably.  She rubbed at her face with one hand, before letting it cover her eyes.  “All right.”

Nyx touched her shoulder.  “Elle?”

The woman looked up at the girl.  “Yes?”

“You’re just as real as I am…remember that, okay?”

Elmiryn blinked, then nodded slowly, her brow wrinkling slightly.  “…Sure.”

And with that, the girl was gone.  No puff of smoke.  No ring in the air.  Just gone.

The redhead stared at the place where her friend had been, then challenged the word ‘friend’, and wondered if it were more appropriate to say ‘lover’ at this point.  She sighed and felt annoyed by the Words, so she left them alone.  Nyx was better at handling those things.

Elmiryn looked around at all the kittens and sparrows, then looked up at the alien being in its white box.  Without moving her lips, she spoke, “I’m not scared…I’m not.”


Back to Chapter 29.1 | Forward to Chapter 29.3

Chapter 29.1

ELMIRYN________________________

She sat in her center and looked up through the surface, the wavering light like the sunlit crests of the ocean.  The shadows danced about her features, shifting her, and she, combating to shift them.  She knew herself to be whole, but just, and knew herself to be alive, but just.  She tried to think of how she’d gotten there, and felt a pain sweep over her, both sickening and freeing at the same time.  She decided big steps were not for little toddlers, and left well enough alone.

Above her was a glowing white box where she saw a woman with thick frame glasses and skin that changed colors (–red, blue, green–) staring blankly at her.  Around her tumbled little sparrows and black kittens, their bodies moving slowly, dreamlike, as if time had been drugged and they were falling horizontally through the world.  Far down below where she hovered, lay Nyx, naked.  The Ailuran’s hair was longer, her eyes shut, her body shifting as though she were floating along a gentle current.  She was a beautiful lure that Elmiryn would have very much like to have bitten into, but first she had to find a way to make the shadows stop pushing her around.

Soon came the music, and she felt indifferent to it.

Well THAT went well.

I suppose I cannot blame you.

Part of your attitude is what made me

Choose you as a toy to begin with.

…But really.

Couldn’t we have thought up a smarter plan

Than antagonizing the Goddess of the HUNT?

She blinked.

Did I do that?

Really?

Yes, my little lummox.

Yes you did.

What’ll happen now?

Oh believe me.  

You’ll see soon enough.

Why can’t you give me

A straight answer?

Why can’t you ask a crooked question?

Well.  

Since you’re fucking here,

Can you tell that person

Staring through her little box

To go away?

And I suppose the floating animals

Aren’t enough to raise your choler?

Um…no?

Look, if you won’t help me,

Then I’ll figure something out myself.

Elmiryn.

Quick tip.

You aren’t entirely hallucinating.

So take care in what you do.

Oh.

Um…good to know?

…Meznik?

As was usually the case, Meznik was gone, and so were his insights.  Grumbling, the woman returned her efforts to the shadows.  She’d never see the true depths of the situations around her she decided, because behind everyone and everything was a mystery of being–a symbology too complex to pick apart, even if afforded all the days in existence to do so.  So she wanted her environment to be hers, and her life to be hers, and her desires to be hers.  Because in knowing, there was control, and from there simplicity could be created.

So when the darkness stilled and the light ceased to dance, Elmiryn smiled and turned her gaze to the dark haired beauty that lay in wait for her.

Nyx’s complexity was underlined by her simplicity.  Sorrow rooted through her life, but a sincere desire for redemption was there, even if the girl hadn’t seen it right away.  It made it easy to build a bridge of contact–to make something that was purely theirs.  None could trespass unless they chose it, but that didn’t stop that knot of tension in Elmiryn’s shoulders at the thought of foreign hands, and worse, foreign hearts, taking what she had helped to create.

The warrior descended through the space, existent only by its purpose of separation.  Above the white box did not move, nor did the slow falling animals.  It almost felt as though Nyx were the one who came up, rather than the woman going down, but she knew this was not the case.  Her intent had pulled her to the girl, and the existence of separation vanished.  Things were not entirely relative here.

Elmiryn stopped when the girl’s body was at her waist, and leaned forward, her hand reaching up to trail a finger along Nyx’s cheekbone.  Her breath slipped through parted lips as her cerulean gaze fastened onto the Ailuran’s face.  “You aren’t really here…are you?” she asked quietly.  “What a rotten deal.  I don’t know how I got here, but I do know that you aren’t with me.  Isn’t it funny how the truth treats us?”

The woman’s smiled wryly and she turned away, her legs tucking up under her as she assumed a sitting position next to the girl.

“The last thing I remember was Halian charging at me as a wolfman.  I can’t even remember if I won or lost that fight.” She shrugged.  “It doesn’t matter.  If I’m here, then that meant something went wrong, and I’m the one who caused it.  I must’ve been out of it if I pushed a confrontation with Artemis.  Or maybe I had no choice?”  Her eyes turned back to Nyx.  They were filled with apology.  “Och oeni.  I keep biting off more than I can chew.  I think I’m just too used to getting a pass on things.  Does that have to do with luck?  I’ll have to ask Tristi next time, assuming I don’t want to knock the guy’s head off.  I doubt that’ll do my fortune any favors…” the warrior allowed for a dry chuckle at the thought.

After a moment’s thought, she pulled Nyx into her arms, and let her right hand trace the lizard-shaped mark on her friend’s breast before moving down the valley of her chest to the soft of her belly.  There she laced her hands together and rocked back, the girl’s legs gently knocking into hers as they slowly cartwheeled through the free space.  Elmiryn nuzzled past the Nyx’s long locks to kiss her neck, her tongue moving to taste the girl’s skin.

In this place, the warrior’s body did not react in the usual way, but her mind still blossomed with the warm desire she was so familiar with.

“Damn it, kitten, I need you here,” the woman whispered, her lungs filling with the earthy, musky scent that haunted her memories.  “Or maybe I need to be there?  Gods, my life could use with simplification…”

She trailed a finger along the inside of Nyx’s thigh, then pulled back enough to brush aside the girl’s long hair and kiss the nape of her neck.

Elmiryn rested her forehead there.  “Look at me!  I’m given a moment of freedom from all the bullshit, and all I can do is cry and whine and fondle a doll…”

Then Elmiryn froze.  “A moment of freedom?”  An excited smile spread her lips. “Shit, that’s right!”  She released Nyx and drifted free.  She brushed aside a chubby black cat that was moving toward her face, her eyes hungrily taking in her void surroundings.  The kitten bumped into a young sparrow and they both let out drawn out squeaks of surprise.  The woman ignored them.  “This place is mine!”

She turned to the Nyx doll, who drifted along just as she’d been left.  “It could be ours!

Elmiryn looked up and shielded her eyes from the glare of the white box above her, the strange woman still peering at her.  “Only, I dunno how to get rid of that fixture.” She looked around.  “In fact…this whole place could use with redecorating.  Too bad mother isn’t here.  She’s better at that sort of thing than I am.  Oh sure, I can tell you the difference between an Akhsan rug from a low end doormat, but you try sticking your enemy’s gut with that knowledge?  Even then, I doubt I could tell the difference from a really good copy cat.  Yep…appraisal just wasn’t for me.”  She held up a finger.  “But!  Ask me the difference between a halbred forged by dwarves and one forged by elves, and we start to get somewhere!  Halward’s tits, if I could just master all the basic elements, I bet I could make things from scratch!”

Elmiryn glanced at the Nyx doll, then did a double take.  “What?” she said, slowly frowning.  “This is the Other Place!  There’s plenty of chaotic pockets to go around!  I can make a little island for us, can’t I?”  The woman stared at the doll for a few moments, then turned her eyes downward, her foot scuffing the imaginary ground.  “Aww…even when you aren’t really doing it, you’re giving me a proverbial knock on my conscience.”

The woman let out a long sigh as she lay next to the imaginary Nyx.  She turned her head to face the girl and whispered.  “Hey.  Do you think…you’d want to come?  If I lived out of the boundaries, would you go with me?”

Moments stretched by.  A cat tail tickled her ear.

Elmiryn’s brow tightened, and she rolled away, propping herself up onto her elbow.  “No.  Never mind.  Don’t answer that.”  She shook her head emphatically.  “I–” she broke off, and felt the hollow ring of silence press in on her.

What were the others doing?  Did they find the beast yet?

…How was Nyx?  How did she look?  Who was she with?

Elmiryn licked her lips and swiped at her nose, her eyes flickering up to the white box and the stranger that peered down into her thoughts.  She glared up at the voyeur, feeling almost defiant.  She rolled back over, and with a brief look at the Nyx doll’s face, she leaned down and pressed her lip’s to the girl’s in a kiss.

“I’ll be here when you become real…” Elmiryn whispered, before drifting away.

It was about this time that the shadows started to push her again.

NYX____________________________

To say that I was tired would have been an understatement.  I was dead on my feet.

The way to the village was lost in fog as I felt my muscles moving of their own accord toward the emerald light breaking through the forest of trees.  The roots of the dark willows and rigid poplars were swallowed by the hungry jaws of the briar bushes and wild ferns.  Mournful wolf calls signaled through the night that the nightly blood-work was done.  Lycan scouts.  I could see their low forms slinking through the underbrush, their eyes glowing in the darkness.  Their heraldry marked our arrival, and carried our defeat through the air, pressing our shoulders and heads down as we came into the village proper.

None cheered as we came.  Even without the forward call, the villagers could see it in our faces.  The beast had killed and had escaped again.  The grief that I saw in the eyes of the families rendered my heart.  They were afraid.  Afraid their loved ones were among the dead.  I knew that look well from my own war ravaged people.

In my naturally guilty state, I wondered…could I have done something to stop this?  Did I hold my party back because of my argument with my Twin?  I was a champion.  Wasn’t I supposed to be helping these people?

My head sunk lower and I could meet no more gazes.

I made to part with the others but felt a hand grab my upper arm and begin to direct me to a more secluded spot, near the line of the trees.  Behind the shadow of huts, I looked into the person’s face and saw it was Sanuye.

“Tonight you showed me great disrespect when I honored you with my trust, tkelechog!” She growled as she pushed me up against a fir tree.  “No hunting parties would have taken you, and now I see maybe I was a fool to think different!  I should kill you for the trouble you caused!”  Her fingers felt more like claws as they dug into my skin.  I swallowed and closed my eyes.

After a long agonizing moment, Sanuye let me go.  She spoke over me, her voice filled with reproach.  “If you wish to run in my group, then you must be plain.  No secrets.  No lies.  You must speak, Ailuran.  What was that talking beast?”

I shook my head emphatically.  “It’s too hard to explain!  You won’t believe me!”

“I said speak.  What devil was that in the forest?”

I swallowed.  Sweet Aelurus, this was not a conversation I’d envisioned myself having with a Lycan!  “It…she…is my animal counterpart.”

“Keh!  I said be plain!  That makes no sense!”

“Didn’t I just say it’s hard to explain!?” I snapped, opening my eyes to fasten her with a glare before I quickly looked away.

I swallowed, eyes on the ground.  “That animal is a part of my soul.  She is the beast inside me, the thing I become when I shift under the full moon.  I am not in the same dimension as you are.  This place that I have come to divides things, and it has divided my soul into two.  Even before that, we have always been divergent—apart, I mean.  The animal is my other half, but is more like a twin sister, one that just so happens to live in my head.  If she dies…I…I perish as well.  It goes both ways.”

“And that meeting out in the forest.  That was the first you saw of her?” She asked.

I winced, and wadded my doublet in my hands.  “Y-Yes.  That was the first time since I’ve come to this dimension that I’ve seen Her.”

“Back there.  You spoke as the Old Ones did.  What…are you?”  Sanuye’s voice tensed here, and I realized that light growl in her words didn’t necessarily mean just aggression.  She was anxious.

This made it a little easier for me to speak.  I swallowed and tried to draw myself up.  “I-I’m a pr…a p-proclaimer.”

“A what?”  The woman’s eyes narrowed at me.

“I…am the champion of Lacertli, g-god of natural order.”

Sanuye let go of me suddenly, a new look in her eye.  It was not fear alone, but something mixed with it.  “The Dreamwalker…?” she breathed.

I brightened.  “You know of him?”

“I pay tribute to him daily!”

I was surprised by this.  “I didn’t know Lycans worshipped Lacertli!”

The woman snorted, shaking her head with a wry curl of her lip.  “They do not.  But I do.  He is a mystery to us.  But I hear he is the god of natural order.  So I said, what harm in praying to him then?”  She narrowed her eyes at me.  “Still.  That you should come into my party seems odd.”

A shaky smile spread my lips.  “I know a person who would say it was more an act of Fortuna.”

“You think this fortunate?” The hardness in Sanuye’s voice made me wince.

“I’m only saying…never mind.”

The woman crossed her arms high on her chest, her look appraising.  “You say you are Lacertli’s champion?  Then he must have marked you!  Let me see!”

I pursed my lips but undid my doublet, pulling at the cloth to better show the lizard mark over my left breast.  Sanuye inhaled sharply at the sight of it, then whispered something in her native tongue.  She looked back at me.  “I answer first to Artemis, but should Lacertli’s will be known, than my spear will see it done!”

I shook my head.  “You’re already pursuing that, I’m sure!”

She frowned at my choice of words.  “The Dreamwalker does not speak to you?”

“He…uh…no.  It’s been a short time since I’ve heard from him.  But I know what he’d want, and that’s Harmony.  The dark beast destroys this.  I want as your people do, to end the suffering and to restore order!”

Sanuye looked me in the face, and I looked away, down at my shoes.  She growled and grabbed my chin, forcing my eyes back to her.  “Ailuran, you are not of us.  You have powers beyond all here!  Why do you yield to me?”

I gave her a weak smile.  “Because that is the way I choose.”

The woman’s brow tightened a bit more before easing completely.  She gave a small, incredulous laugh.  “Than perhaps you are the greater of us all!”

I winced, but kept my smile.  I realized that Sanuye, for the first time since I’d met her, wasn’t frowning.  The small smile on her face did not quite reach the eyes, the luster there glazed by exhaustion and defeat, but I expected very little in the way of gaiety by the Lycans that night, and so took what comfort I could in the knowledge that I had perhaps made a new ally worth keeping.

Sanuye patted me on the back and gestured toward the village trail.  “Come.  As the beast can’t be slain without the sword, so the nightmares can’t be vanquished without the sleep to greet it!”

Frowning at the dark image, we returned to the open where I saw Hakeem waiting with Gudahi through the stream of weary warriors returning home.

“Nyx!” the young wizard called.

Sanuye gave me a small nod before going her way, and I watched her leave, her gait brisk but her shoulders not as tense as before.  I looked back toward Hakeem and moved to greet him, shying through the stream of people.  Why did Lycans have to be so tall?

When I reached the other side, I exhaled in relief. “Hullo,” I said.  I started to feel a light tickle around my champion’s mark.  Though it felt strange, I ignored it.

The wizard smiled gently at me.  “Gudahi here has one of the biggest huts in the village, and he’s willing to share it with me and Quincy.  You and Elmiryn can stay at the hut I’ve been using from now on.”

“And Sedwick?” Upon remembering the elemental, I turned my head in an attempt to spot him.  Surely he would have stood out, but I saw no sign of him.

The ticklish feeling moved down my chest to my abdomen where a warmth blossomed up my sides.  Frowning, I rubbed these places.

Hakeem didn’t notice my discomfort.  “As I understand it, he has no interest in sleeping in one of the huts.  I don’t even think that elementals require sleep.”

I blinked and stared, hands still rubbing.  “Oh.”

Gudahi reached out and brushed my uneven bangs aside.  “Nyx, you are a very odd girl!  A little scary, but with such an air of misplacement!” he grinned.  “I like this!  I’ve not seen Sanuye so taken aback since I was a pup!”

I blushed and opened my mouth, ready to politely ask that the event be forgotten, when a sudden feeling of vertigo hit me.  I swooned, swaying back a step before teetering forward into the wizard and the Lycan.  They caught me–or rather, Gudahi did.

“Nyx!?”

“What’s wrong, pet?”

My eyes batted and I struggled to right myself.  “I…sorry.  I don’t know what–what happened there.”  A sense of movement seized me, and my legs grew weak, making the vertigo return once more.  Gudahi grabbed me about the shoulders and held me up, and I couldn’t help but grab onto him.

“I think you should see Eidan,” the man said firmly, all humor gone from his voice.  “You look feverish!”

“I’m fine!” I insisted, feeling irritated at my sudden weakness.  I let the man go, fending off his attempts to hold onto me, and though I swayed a bit, the vertigo was gone, and so was the strange feeling of motion.

Instead what came next was a warm, wet feeling at my neck.  My eyes widened and my hand slapped to that place.

Hakeem was giving me a real look of concern now.  “Nyx, you’re acting strangely!”

“I–I keep feeling things!”  I said, stricken.  “It’s like–”  I felt the feeling again at the nape of my neck and felt realization pull my guts to my soles.  “It’s…it’s like someone’s touching me.”

Hakeem and Gudahi continued to stare at me in confusion, but I was already moving away from them, up the village trail.  “I can’t explain!  I just–I’m alright!  Good night!” The words came out in a rush and I nearly fell onto my back side from tripping on a rock.

As I turned, I felt a light brush go up the inside of my thigh, and despite the strangeness of the situation, a knot appeared in the pit of my stomach as I became wet.

Panicked now, I ran the whole way to the medicine hut.

It didn’t even take me a minute to get there.  I burst through the curtain, nearly bowling over the tall white haired attendant I’d seen earlier.  I helped him to his feet, sputtering apologies, and he just looked at me bemusedly as he gathered his spilled herbs and left the hut.  Quincy was seated at the table of herbs and potions, and stared at me.

“Ailuran, are you daft!?” she snapped.

I ignored her and went straight for Elmiryn’s cot, where I saw her laying still and quiet.  Her skin was covered in a light sheen of sweat, her left eye was swollen shut, and her cut lip was swollen as well.  She still lacked shoes and a proper shirt, and I wondered savagely why no one had at least thought to cover her in a blanket.

Kneeling at the cot, I could feel a ghostly brush across my lips and sighed.  My eyes closed as I touched the woman’s arm, relief coming over me like a warm breeze.  My eyes opened again, my gaze lidded as I leaned down to whisper into the woman’s ear.

“Elle…I’m here.”

The woman stirred, but it was a faint reaction.  A slight shift of her right shoulder, a twitch of the face, but nothing more.  I frowned and pulled back.

“She needs time to recover,” Quincy said from behind me.

I jumped and looked at her.  I’d already forgotten she was there.  “Did Halian knock her out?” I asked.

“You mean Hakeem didn’t tell you?”

I frowned, feeling dread encroach upon my heart.  “Tell me what?”

The brunette rolled her eyes shut as she pinched the bridge of her nose. “Taika, tai’undu!

With a sigh, the wizard grabbed a stool and sat near me.  I tensed, turning to her fully.  “Wizard, what happened?

Quincy scratched at her head, then rubbed at her neck, the strands of her russet brown hair tussled from her fidgeting.  “Nyx…Elmiryn’s really stuck her foot in it this time.”  She let those words sink in, her azure eyes fixing on my face as she bit her lip.  She spread her hands, then laced them back together, the action speaking of a weary helplessness.  “Ba–sically…Elmiryn’s body started to quit on her when she tried to defy Artemis.”

My voice was hollow when I spoke.  “What do you mean ‘quit’ on her?  And why would she try to defy Artemis!?”

“I don’t know why.  As for what ails her, Eidan says it was the heart.  If the heart ceases to work properly, even for a moment, then other things can go wrong…like in the brain.”  Quincy scratched at her brow with her pinky.  “Honestly, the idiot was lucky her heart didn’t just explode–”

“She isn’t an idiot!” I snapped angrily.  My eyes started to cloud and I looked back at Elmiryn, my hands gripping her arm perhaps a little too tightly.  “She knew there were consequences in defying the gods!  You saw how she backed off the first time we met Artemis!  Elmiryn isn’t the kind of person who takes delight in being outmatched.  The only reason she kept fighting Halian was because her pride preferred being beat down to backing out!  If she defied Artemis then…” My heart clenched and sweat broke out over my skin, but I let the words rush out of my mouth. “Then I’m sure she had justification!

Quincy hissed as she leaned in, looking around them nervously.  “Fool!  Do you want to end up like this too?”

I squeezed my eyes shut, the tears leaking out in big fat drops.  “I know Elmiryn makes mistakes, but I can’t believe that this didn’t happen without reason!”

“If she made poor choices, then she should have dealt with the consequences–especially if they would have let her live!  Now?  Even if she survives, I’m not sure what kind of life she’ll have!”

“How do you mean?”

“If she manages to wake, that’s just the first hurdle!  She could have brain damage, paralysis, severe amnesia…the list can go on!”

I wiped at my eyes and looked at the woman, my expression brightening.  “She’s there…”

Quincy gave me an odd look.  “Well of course she is.”

“No, I mean–she’s in there!  Conscious!”

“Ailuran, she’s completely out.  We gave her viper venom, and one of the side effects is coma.  We held a light to her eyes and they didn’t dilate–meaning she’s unresponsive.  There’s no telling when she’ll wake.”

I looked at her, incredulous. “Why did you give her venom!?”

The wizard glared at me.  “Keep.  Your.  Voice.  Down.”

I lowered my voice, but my words held no less bite.  “Quincy, why venom?

She gave me an impatient roll of the eyes.  “It’s a remedy the Lycan’s discovered for poor blood flow.  A small amount can help improve the flow of blood to the brain, which is what Elmiryn’s heart problem inevitably led to.  But my guess is that the alcohol in the woman’s blood didn’t take too well to the serum we administered and so–” she gestured at Elmiryn’s prone form.

I licked my lips and looked back at the woman.  “Then…then maybe she’s just not there.”

“…What?”

“Elmiryn.  She may not be in her body.”  I looked at the wizard, and she was still fixing me with a weird look.

“Ailuran, I’m not following.”

My brow twitched at being called an Ailuran again.  I was tempted to call Quincy ‘human’ just to be snide, but taking it from race to species felt far too low, and I did my best to ignore the peeve.

I took a breath and tried to explain my thoughts.  “The last time Elmiryn had an out-of-body experience, she was able to interact with the physical world.  She’s doing it again!”  I felt a ghostly touch over my chest and my nipples hardened, sending color into my face.  “Right now!”

“But with what?” Quincy asked skeptically.  “Last time she nearly caved in a giant chamber!  Nothing like that has–”

“Just take my word for it,” I bit out, turning my face away.  The ghostly touch was traveling lower.  If this kept up, I wasn’t going to be able to talk much.

I glanced back at Quincy.  “Make sure her body isn’t moved.  I’m going to try something.”

The wizard opened her mouth to respond, but I was already looking inward, time compressing tightly as I traversed the canyons of my mind to cross that familiar border between the Real World and the Somnium.  The world sighed over me.  Leaving the wilds of my mind, I returned to the scene at the medicine hut.

Quincy was on her feet, looking around wildly.  “Nyx!?”

Here, the Somnium revealed something interesting to me.  The wizard was not the thirty-something she looked to be…but younger.  She was closer to my age, her hair a little longer and her eyes holding a sort of quality that I’d once seen in Lethia.  I fished around my vocabulary, trying to pinpoint the trait.  Then the word hit me–

Naive.  The wizard looked naive.

Here Quincy did not look so guarded, so moody, so world-weary.  Her features seemed unburdened, her gaze was brighter, and her movements seemed less refined.

I would have been given to more staring if not for the white cut-out of Elmiryn’s body on the cot.  It was like a piece of art, where someone had simply come along and cut out the woman’s form, leaving a void space in her place.  Shivering, I peered down into it…

…And saw black kittens and tumbling sparrow chicks slowly falling through the air.  Bewildered, I reached a hand into the space and found that it went through.  Pulling my hand back, I bit my lip and spared a last look at the wizard.  With me gone, she had resumed sitting at the stool, now looking for all the world like an adolescent who’d been given an unfavorable chore from their mother.  The idea, strange as it was, made me giggle a bit.

Comforted by the fact that my way back was being dutifully watched, I sat on the edge of the void and slipped in one leg, then other.  With a deep breath, I pushed off and fell in.


Back to Chapter 28.3 | Forward to Chapter 29.2

Chapter 28.3

NYX____________________________

There She was before me, my sister, my animal counterpart…but this meeting wasn’t taking place in my head.  She was apart from me, like a separate being, only she was no more whole than I was.  Here we both were, just two broken pieces crumbling into ether as the sand trickled down the hourglass.  Lacertli had said that the Other Place would undo us.  How much more time did we have?

…And how could we possibly come together again?

The Beast was as a large black panther, but in her feline face there was a sort of sapien nuance that was not a little disturbing.  Her tawny eyes cut through the dark, holding anger.

I took to pacing, my Twin mirroring my tense movements with her head low and her tail lashing like a whip.

“My, my!  What seems to be the problem, sister?  I thought you’d be happy to see me?” The animal’s voice held false goodwill.  Her fleshy chops pulled back every time she spoke, revealing her fangs.  I was certain she didn’t have to bare her teeth at me, but chose to.

“A meeting with you outside my mind is liable to give me as bad a headache with you in my mind, so pardon me if I’m not doing cartwheels,” I snarled back.

“But why not rejoice?  After all, I’ve spent two weeks crawling around this hellish place, the least you could do is show relief that your better half yet lives!”

“I didn’t know you were here that long!  Don’t you think I would’ve wanted to find you sooner!?  You do know what will happen if one of us dies like this, don’t you?”

“A great and wondrous peace?  A happy ending?”

I clenched my fists.  “We are not whole as we are!  We’ll die!  Are you so blind that you cannot see that!?”

She roared at me, her hackles raising, her claws gouging into the dirt.  Behind me, I heard the others shift, and I turned to shout at them, “Don’t!”

“Blind, am I?” My Twin screamed–the sound blending into a roar.  “Tell me what misery awaits me while I sit, a happy shard, free of your burden!”

I chuckled darkly.  “And you don’t think I haven’t enjoyed your absence, you mindless creature?”

Suddenly, I was pushed roughly to the side, but pulled back by the front of my doublet.  Sanuye’s livid face pressed into mine.  “Ailuran, what is this!?” she bit out.

I grabbed her arm tightly, my teeth bared. “None of your affair!”

She let out a bestial snarl, lifting me off the ground with one hand.  My feet barely skimmed the dirt. “I say it is mine!” she pointed at my Twin. “Why can that beast speak?  Is she the one we hunt?  Are you in league with the monster!?”

I felt my blood turn hot and my eyes narrowed.  That alien part of me, that otherness I’d only felt once before, came clawing out of my mouth with a vengeance, “Child of Artemis, thou will remove thine hand, lest the darkness swallow thee in thine impertinence…”

I could feel the shadows around us…feel them deepen in hunger.  Sanuye looked down in confusion just as my feet touched the floor.  Hakeem whispered something and I heard one of the Lycan men let out something between a sputter and a snarl.  The woman looked back at me, fear in her eyes.

She had sunk knee deep into the shadows.

I could feel her shivering as her hand came away from my doublet and she fell back with a cry.  Scrambling, she pulled her legs free and scuttled back to Gudahi and Makka, who pulled her to her feet.  They were all staring at me now with wide eyes.

Hakeem stood apart from them, his gaze piercing as we briefly locked eyes.  Somehow, he didn’t seem as surprised.

My expression softened as I looked back at the Lycans.  “I wish no harm, Sanuye.  Only to protect thee from my own nightmares.”

Then I took a deep reflexive breath, feeling as though I’d been plunged into cold water.  My knees gave out and I fell to the earth, shivering and trying to regain control of my breathing.

“What things have you been up to while I’ve been gone…?” My Twin asked slowly, her voice full of wariness and resentment.  Her eyes searched my face, wide and penetrating.  Her features twitched in their shocked mask.

I clutched at the stitch in my chest, and glared at her through the curtain of my hair.  “I–hah–sh-should be asking that–hah–question!”

“Stupid bitch.  What trickery was that?  What new taint have you brought on us??”

“Shut up!  If anything is a taint, it’s you!

Her furry face bunched as she padded near me.  I could see her muscles rolling beneath the fur, her body like a line of dark intent over the earth.  She opened her mouth, about to say something when she paused, her brow bunching.  “You…” I saw her nose twitch and she leaned in closer, like I were some unpleasant thing to inspect.  “You…smell different.  Up close.  You…”  I could hear a growl enter her voice as she circled around me.  “She’s all over you!”

My head snapped up at that.

Elmiryn.

Her eyes held disgust.  “You expect me to return when–when you–”

“When I what?  Find someone who actually cares for me!?  That’s it, isn’t it?  You just want us to live our lives alone and hated!”  My hands dug into the earth like claws as I screamed, “I don’t have to answer to you!

She started for me, spitting from the back of her throat.  I flinched, pulling back, my heart beating.  Could I fight Her?  Was it even wise to, considering what it could result in?

“I see, then, I see!  So all that is yours is mine, then is it?  This new fancy of yours, might I share in the pleasures?”  Her voice was mocking, but in her eyes a light glinted…

My face drew up in disgust.  “What?  No!  Never!”

She snapped her jaws and snarled, saliva dripping from her fangs.  I had a horrible recall of the pretas and felt the blood drain from my face. “But I’m hungry!” she bit out.  “Hungry for that same acceptance, affection, and love that you so craved for!  Why am I to be denied this and given only the shame, the heartache, the pain–!?”  As she said this last thing, she lashed out at me with her paw, catching me along the face with her claws.

I screamed and reared back, my hands going to my cheek where the blood flowed between my fingers.

“Nyx!”  Hakeem came to my side, and I was surprised to see Gudahi there, his spear held out at my Twin in case she pressed the attack.

But my animal counterpart only sat on her haunches, her head bowed low, her tail whipping behind her.  “I would rather live in pieces, then suffer under the wholeness of your tyranny…I would rather…live in pieces…” she said quietly.  Her voice was thick with emotion–rage, resentment…but was there grief there, too?

My Twin raised her head, her eyes narrowed. “I only have one more question for you…what of your promise to me?”

Panting, I struggled to stand up with one hand, the other still clutching at my face.  “Promise?  What promise?

“A stupid…empty question…for a stupid…vapid creature like you…” The beast muttered, turning her head.  Cat language.  I was insignificant.  I was unimportant.  A worm.

I bared my teeth, indignation driving me to my feet faster than my companions could help me.  “Look at me!  What nonsense are you on about?”

“A name!” She screamed at me, still not turning her head.

My eyes widened, and I took a step back.  Oh no…

My Twin’s tail stilled behind her, and her nose dipped to the ground where she made as if to sniff the earth, but then she raised her head just enough to fix her gaze on me.  “You promised me…a name.  Yet you have nothing…so clearly, I am nothing to you.”  She moved to stand on all her paws.  “So is it not in keeping, that I should vanish?  Perhaps perish and make your perceived reality come true?”

I shook my head.  “Damn it!  Damn you!  You’re blaming me for things beyond my control!  I didn’t want you hurt or lost!  It isn’t my fault this dimension has a warped sense of time, or that it separated us to begin with!”

“But it’s for selfish reasons that you wish the things that you do!  I am nothing to you!  Nothing!  You have changed Us.  You have allowed another to touch you, without so much as a thought to me!  How I may feel!  And what of your new nature?  Something is in you, sister, and I’d not have that darkness on me, not after freeing myself from–”

A deep and echoing sound struck through the forest, stirring the trees and sleepy wildlife.  It was filled with rage, but was unlike any animal I’ve ever heard.  It was an almost slimy, wet sound, contrasted with a harsh metal ring that spoke of weapons striking.  Under it all was a deep bass, tying it together.  All froze, eyes wide as we looked around at each other and for the source of the disturbance.

My Twin started to back away.  Even in her furry face, I could see the terror there.  “The beast…the beast, it strikes!” she panted.

I looked at her.  “Do you know of it?  Tell us, what is it!”

She stepped forward, then backward again, her eyes flashing up to us with something akin to appeal.  “Nyx–the dark things, they never truly leave us.  You ask for unity, but you know not of what you ask–!”

A streak of hysteria cut through me.  “What do you mean!?”

The great feline gave a shake of her head. “I cannot!  I cannot!” and she turned and fled, dirt and brush kicked up by her powerful claws.

I gave a shout and started after her.  “Wait!  Wait!

But I didn’t run far.  It was clear there was no way I could catch her.  She was too far away now for me to get a fix on her shadow, and in all the dark, it would’ve been hard to pick out anyway.  I watched her go until she was lost in the ink of our surroundings.

Another great call came, and soon following it were a short series of howls.

“Someone has made contact…” Hakeem breathed.

Sanuye barked something in Lycan, then her eyes fixed on me, as if daring me to show insubordination.  They needed every man to help, and if I refused to do so, it would likely be seen as being sympathetic with the beast.  Despite my show of power, this proud clan could not stomach such a sentiment, especially considering what they had already lost.  Would they all fight me to the death?

…But I had made Sanuye behave submissive around me.  She had retreated from me, on the ground, her belly up, clearly showing fear.  So…perhaps her stare was more of a question than a dare.  If I wished, I could probably do as Elmiryn did, and take a firm place in the village as someone deserving of respect.  Did I want the position?

I’d read somewhere that inciting a power struggle during a time of crisis was the act of fools.  At any rate, I was no leader.  While I had a sneaking suspicion that Sanuye hated the role herself, she was a lot better at it than I was.  All I had was a sliver of heavenly power, and I hardly knew the full extent of my abilities.

What had I been possessed by when I made Sanuye seek into the shadows?  A spirit?  Another personality?  Some remnant of Lacertli’s spirit?

Sweet Aelurus, as if my head wasn’t crowded enough!

Not even needing time to make my decision, I slouched my shoulders and lowered my gaze.  I was certain the matter wasn’t done with, but there were more important things needing our attention.

Sanuye didn’t even pause to revel in my submission.  “Get in formation!  We go to our brothers!” She barked.

 

QUINCY_________________________

Quincy came into the hut, her eyes adjusting to the low candle light.  She saw Eidan hunched over Elmiryn, his weathered face more lined than usual.  His younger attendant brushed back his long white hair and turned his smooth face toward Quincy.  The woman didn’t know his name, but knew he made his rounds around the village while Eidan kept his work near his tools and supplies.

“Quincy, bring the vial with the red stopper,” he said, his bushy brows knitted together.  Eidan didn’t even look up at her.

She went to the table holding all the serums and herbs.  At first she couldn’t find the vial right away, but then, hidden amidst a tall set of bottles filled with green potion, she saw it.  She plucked it up and stared at what swished inside.  The vial held a small amount of yellow liquid.

Pursing her lips, Quincy brought it to them, and Eidan took it from her without a word.

“What’s wrong with her?” The woman asked.

She pulled up a stool and sat on the other side of the bed, her eyes flickering between Eidan and the white-haired attendant.  Neither looked at her as they unstopped the vial and poured the contents into a bowl.  Eidan sprinkled a brown substance into it, murmuring in his Lycan tongue.

Finally, the attendant fastened his gray eyes on the wizard’s.  “Mortality.” He lacked an accent.

Quincy’s eyebrows rose high at this.  “Pardon?”

“Mortality.  Her heart, it struggles because of it.”

The woman’s face grew somber.  “She tried to defy Artemis.”

“Halian only suffered from the goddess’s intervention, and see how he fares.”  The man pointed over the woman’s shoulder.  She looked and saw Halian halfway down the row of cots, his naked back to her and his body shivering and twitching.  Sweat made his body paint run into the sheets.  Quincy looked back at the man.  “What could happen to Elmiryn, then?”

“Death or permanent paralysis.  She’s lucky she didn’t die outright.  Her spirit is a willful thing.”

Eidan lifted her head and held the bowl to Elmiryn’s lips, forcing her to drink.  Some of it dribbled out, but most of it went in.

Quincy frowned.  “And what is she being given?”

“A mixture,” the attendant answered distractedly.

“Of what?”

“Ginger, crushed periwinkle, and viper venom.”

“What!?”

“Hol’ her.”  Eidan ordered.

The attendant stood and took hold of Elmiryn’s ankles.  Quincy, still bewildered, took hold of the woman’s arms.  Eidan held her head, his rough thumb brushing her cheek.  “She will wake.  Wun be pretty.  Ge’ready.”

Minutes passed.  Elmiryn’s face twitched, sweat beading on her skin.  Then, without warning, she gasped, her body spasming on the table.  Her struggles became more and more violent.  Quincy grit her teeth as she fought to keep the warrior’s arms still.  Eidan stood and leaned over the woman, his elbows pinning down her shoulders as he continued to grip her head.  The attendant grunted, his teeth bared as the wizard saw his forearms cord from the effort of keeping the woman’s legs still.

Elmiryn wheezed, her eyes snapping open deliriously.

“Elmiryn–!” Quincy shouted, but she stopped there, because it hit her that the warrior was lost in some sort of hallucination.  Was it the venom?  Was it her ailment?

The redhead gnashed her teeth, her eyes seeing through the hut ceiling.  “Nngh!  Raaagh, hah…no…shuzz…no…noooo…myne…MYne!”  Spittle flew from her mouth as she continued to gargle and slur.  Quincy was aware that the left side of the woman’s face seemed slack, whilst her right side seemed quite normal.  It was in her limbs too.  The left did not pose as much of a fight as the right did.

Would she really be crippled?

Is this what becomes of a person who fights against the gods?  Quincy thought, horror a creeping emotion that came up her chest and chilled the sweat on her skin.

After a time, the warrior’s struggles grew feebler.  Eidan spared a moment to reach down and hold up another, smaller bowl than the first.  He forced the contents of this down Elmiryn’s throat, and this time more of it dribbled out then went in.  Quincy could see it was the green potion she had spied earlier.

They held her for a while longer, and with time they saw Elmiryn’s eyes rolling into her head.  Her struggles quieted, then ceased entirely.  Eidan released her, and Quincy and the attendant did the same.

“The venom…will it harm her?” the brunette asked quietly.

Eidan finally looked at her.  “If she suh-vive wrath o’ goddess, than venom no worry t’her.”  With that, he stood and went outside.

Quincy watched him go, and the attendant sighed, rubbing the back of his neck.  He looked at the woman sidelong.  “I am Merid.  Eidan is my father.  He…” the man smiled sheepishly, and lots of lines appeared about his eyes revealing the age his smooth face kept hidden.  “He isn’t given to nonsense.”

The woman screwed up her mouth and crossed her arms. “So I’ve seen.”

Merid nodded at Elmiryn.  “My father has only seen this twice before.  Most who deny the gods have their hearts explode in their chests upon the first denial.  To survive in defiance of heaven is the mark of someone…otherworldy.

“What others have done this?”

“A young boy–stupid and arrogant.  He thought the world didn’t need the gods.  He thought he could live free of their will and be his own man.  Upon the first declaration of this feeling, he died outright.  Then there was the Legend, Kati.  He was once Artemis’s champion.  He…was my father’s great grandfather.”

Quincy’s eyebrows rose.  “And what became of him?”

“He survived…but ceased to be a champion.  He left our village in exile and shame.”

“But isn’t it a sign of someone strong to be able to live through such an ordeal?”

Merid scowled.  “Just because one is strong does not mean he is entitled to everything.  Many of our leaders could be beat through brute strength alone.  It is the mind and spirit we cherish, and the body comes after that.”

Quincy held up her hands.  “I didn’t mean offense.”

The man stared at her long and hard for a moment, before he smiled gently.  “No.  I suppose not.”  He thumbed over his shoulder.  “My father goes to gather more supplies.  Would you help him?  I’ll stay and watch your friend.”

“What’ll happen to her now?  What can we expect?”

Merid shrugged, his gray eyes turned down.  “There’s no telling.  Kati was a champion, and walked away fine.  But your friend?  I cannot say for certain whether or not she will come out of this whole.”

Quincy nodded, her grim expression returning.  With one last look at Elmiryn, she followed Eidan outside.

Stupid Fiamman…why couldn’t you just keep your big fat mouth shut for once!?

NYX____________________________

I had some practice running quickly through wooded areas, but I was unfamiliar with the lay of this land, and even in my low-light vision, details did not come readily enough for me to keep from stumbling now and again.  I only just managed to keep up with the others.  Hakeem, even in his young state, was remarkably fast.

My guess is that we ran for a quarter of a mile before the sounds of screaming and horror reached us.  Even before we came upon the break in the trees, I knew that we had come too late.

Before us, trees had been felled, the earth churned as the roots had been torn out.  Nymphs in the trees wailed at the sight of their fallen brethren.  Those on the ground stared numbly at their destroyed homes, their faces pale as their life force slowly dissipated from them in a rise of small glowing emerald orbs.

Blood sprayed everything.  The color was dark in the night, but its nature was unmistakable.  Mangled bodies were strewn about the destruction, deathly pieces that screamed and gurgled up at the sky.  I counted five people total, one of which was torn in half, his entrails trailing from his mangled torso.  I wasn’t sure if there were more, if the beast had stolen them away into the night to feast in private.  There certainly was a crowd gathering of those who had answered the call.  Many broke off to pursue the monster.  Many more remained still.

The sight of the gore…the mayhem…the wailing Lycans…

My knees grew weak and I leaned on a tree for support, breathing harshly through my nose.  Big mistake.  The blood, the rancid taint of the beast–like rotten flesh and old bile–filled my senses.  A wave of nausea surged through me, and I covered my mouth, trying to find that steeliness that Lacertli would no doubt demand of me.

My eyes clouded as I wretched over the ferns.

The earth beneath my feet was nothing but mud and blood.  It seeped through my toes, staining my skin.  I could see the maggots squirming around me.  I felt numbed, time and space compressing into a thick fold that echoed with the muffled screams of the soldiers.  Tears streamed down my cold face, my breath just a phantom that took my spirit with every exhale.  Around me lay bodies, hacked and bloodied.  Only the Fiammans screamed, clutching at bloody stumps and open wounds.  The felled Ailurans were all dead, heads cut off, hearts blown away, or spines severed.  I peered into these faces anxiously, trying to see if Thaddeus were among their number.

The numbness ebbed as panic began to set in.

“Koen!” I screamed, not thinking clear enough to realize that perhaps a proper name would have been more effective.  For me, Thaddeus was Koen, nothing more. “Koen, where are you!?”

I cried out as I tripped and fell, my eyes fastening onto the face of a dying Fiamman.  He bared bloody teeth at me, his eyes holding a delirious rage.  He reached for me with clawing hands, and I scrambled away, only to find a rough pair of hands drag me up.

Thaddeus glared down at me, his face pulled long in shock and his brow knitted.  “Gods!  Koah what are you doing here!?”

I was a stuttering mess.  “Ko-Koen!  I–I–I wanted, wanted–” I broke off, sobbing.  Why had I come?  Because I hated saying goodbye to Thaddeus every year?  Because I was tired of caring for our family alone?  Because Killen had dared me to?  “I don’t know!” I wailed, clutching at him.  “I just want to go home!”

The battle was winding down.  The Fiammans were calling for a retreat.  The cannon blasts ceased, and there were fresh screams as those who tried to fall back were cut down.  There was no cheer from the Ailurans left standing.  Thaddeus held me, his face contorted in anger–for me being there, for me seeing it all–and his hands clutched at me as I did to him.  Desperate.  Trying to find some sort of solace.  

But there was none.

“Koah, I’ll take you home.”

I had been eleven years old when I saw my first battlefield.  The memory always haunted me.  I knew better than perhaps anyone in my village what kind of ‘glory’ the children of Aelurus were finding in the war.  In another three years, I lost Thaddeus to that horror.  I vowed to keep Atalo from such a fate, only to find that…

…The dark things, they never truly leave us.

My eyes widened and my stomach stabbed with pain as my anxiety reached a new height.  The Twin’s voice faded from my head, but the truth of her words felt taunting somehow.  What did it have to do with everything I was seeing now?

Hakeem came at my side and laid a hand on my arm.  I glanced at him sharply and he pulled back, his gaze on the dark scene before us.

“The hunt is done for tonight,” he said somberly.  “The others have gone in the hopes of finding the beast again, but the chances of that are slim.  It is only discovered when it wishes to be, and now that it has its daily prize, it will not be coaxed from hiding.”

I frowned a little at him.  Upon meeting Hakeem, I found that he could be incredibly stoic.  Then, I thought he was a cold man with only an interest in profit.  Looking at him now, I saw…a warmth in his gaze.  He felt connected to these Lycans.  But more than that, right there and then, I saw his boundaries slip away long enough to recognize a familiar feeling.

Pain…loss

I swallowed and swiped at my eyes, feeling a hollow pride at having kept my tears in check.  “Are we going back?”

He nodded, his dark gaze returning to me.  “I don’t think I have to tell you to step lightly around Sanuye.”

I chuckled darkly.  “I will step lightly, while she will stomp heavily…onto me.”

“You really ought to give them more credit,” Hakeem admonished.

“Like the credit they give me?”

The wizard shrugged, walking away.  “Your shadow reflects your position.  Change your stance, and the shadow will shift.”

I stared after him as he made his way back to our party.  Sanuye was talking with Gudahi and Makka.  Her eyes flickered my way, and she motioned for me to join them.  Other parties had taken up the task of helping the nymphs and retrieving the bodies.  The rest began the return home.

Through sheer will, I managed to look on the scene once more.  Hakeem talked of shifting shadows.

…But could you have shadows in utter darkness?


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