Tributaries Cover In Sight, In Mind Cover Blackwood Cover

Chapter 30.2

ELMIRYN________________________

Back arched.  She clawed, legs kicking as her suffering dragged out a deep primal scream.

Shouts, far away.

Far.

Away.

Hands.  On her.

Fire was in her veins, hot and purifying, but she didn’t want to be purified.  She wanted poison.  She wanted corrosion in all its destructive beauty.  She sought to move her arms, trying to find that sundering, but instead she knew a greater prison in her body–her left arm was like a reluctant child.  It moved with great difficulty, a ghost of pain filtering up the nerves to scramble her thoughts.  In all the confusion, Elmiryn forgot the where and the how of it, but she knew one thing–things were not right, and she blamed the Hands.  Those wretched, foul Hands that gripped her.

Get off me!” she screamed.

Her tormentors spoke in tongues, their faces gradually coming through the warm haze like ghoulish masks.  Her vision was one-sided, her right eye swollen to the point that she could hardly see in her daze.  In a sudden surge of strength, the woman ripped her right arm free and struck in a wide swing.  She felt her swing strike true and someone cried out.  She battled through the waves of dizziness and nausea that wracked her and sat up, placing her bare feet on the ground.  Her breath was ragged over her parched tongue, and the air chilled the sweat on her skin.  Wildly she swiped at her other captor.  She missed, but they look go of her, leaving her free to move.  The pain was like a vice on her mind, squeezing.  Tight.  She was going to explode from the pressure, and her body knew it, from the way it trembled, right down to the hands.  Hands.  Her hands.

Elmiryn’s eye blinked rapidly as she tried to clear her vision of the fog.  She recognized that she was in a hut of some sort, and there were rows of small cots all occupied.  A great push of her will clarified her reality.  She was in the medicine hut.  But this bit of knowledge did nothing to quell her anxiety, and the woman growled as she stood swaying to her feet.  Her legs bumped into her cot, and infuriated, she flipped it over with one hand, hearing the crash and clatter of things falling to the floor.

All eyes were on her–strange, unfriendly eyes that wept accusations, and she hated them hated them hated them–

“Stop it!”

The woman’s eyes snapped onto the speaker, and she saw that it was a tall man with long white hair and gray eyes.  One of the healers.  Had she seen him before?

He held up his hands in a placating manner, his voice gentle.  “Please, calm down!  We only want to help you!”

She snarled at him, her spine curling, her right hand clawing at her shirt.  When had she been given a shirt?

“What did you do to me?” she hissed.

“It–the pain you feel may be the venom, but–”

The man’s voice became a distant, squeaky thing, overshadowed by the new focus that caught her attention.  Elmiryn lurched around the other cots, and the man trailed off.  She brushed past him roughly, her mouth salivating, her hands already reaching desperately for the table of bottled liquids on the other side of the hut.  Snatching up a wide, jug, the woman opened it and raised it to her lips.

Thirsty…” she croaked.

Hands grabbed her from behind.  “No, don’t!  That’ll kill you!”

Elmiryn yelled, shoving backward with her body, but she tripped, and without both arms to steady herself, she fell, the bottle slipping from her grip.  Her nose flared as she disentangled from the healer, and from some innate sense she didn’t know she had, she knew the liquid was not what she sought.  Baring her teeth, the warrior half-rose, half-stumbled, her clumsy attempt at standing sending her careening out through hut entrance to the village trail outside.  She crashed into a pair of women carrying jugs–sense and feeling a debilitating jumble for a moment before she mustered enough strength to claw at the confused Lycans belongings.  The women fended her off, yelling, and the warrior gnashed her teeth as they fled.

Slamming her fist onto the ground, she screamed, “I’m fucking dying of thirst you mangy savages!

Blackness billowed from her thoughts, making murder seem charitable.  Her fingers, bleeding from the way she scraped them into the dirt and rocks, pulsed with a need to find satisfaction.  Yet she knew this need would be the end of her.  It would turn her inside out and violate her.  She had to fulfill it–had to–because her body could hardly move without the shivering desire coming flush through the skin and bones.  She was effectively a puppet of this addiction, but Elmiryn would dance gladly to its tune, if only–

“A drink…” she panted, hands held out to the crowd that gathered around her.  “Just a drop, just a drink, anything, please–”

She started to weep…

…And then she caught it.  That special something, that delicious aroma, that thing she so needed.  Her nose worked, and she tilted her head back like an animal, her right hand out before her like she were blind.  Finally, her search lead her to the wineskin of an older man.  Roaring, she leapt for it, tearing it off his belt and knocking him to the ground.  The Lycans around her let out infuriated shouts, moving to capture her, but Elmiryn dodged them long enough to uncork the mouthpiece and get a good three gulpfuls before she was tackled to the ground…

……….

……..

……

.

……

……..

……….

…Sometime later, she found herself laying face down on the dirt floor, the taste of wine and vomit on her tongue.  Her hands were tied behind her back, and she found that she was in a hut once again–not the medicine hut, but a smaller one of simple comforts.  Groaning, the woman rolled to her side and felt her whistle pop over her arm and lightly against the side of her breast.  She craned her head up, struggling to see it with her one good eye.

“Hey,” she grunted.  Then louder, she called, “Hey!  Where am I!?”

The hut flap opened, and two men stepped in.  One was Halian, though he looked paler than she’d last seen him.  The other was the white-haired healer from before.  Neither looked pleased to see her.

“You’re awake.  Do you remember, then?”

She squinted at him.  “Remember what?”

“You struck my father,” the healer growled.  “And you attacked other innocent people of our village!”

“I was thirsty,” she mumbled, looking away.

“We should skin this stupid tkelechog,” Halian bit out, his teeth bared.  “We cared for her, and she turned on us!”

“I didn’t mean to, all right?” Elmiryn snapped back.  She swung upright with her legs and glared at the two men.  “It’s hard to explain to you, but I wasn’t myself!”

The Lycan warrior sneered.  “So it was your evil twin, then?”

Elmiryn’s glare softened.  “Twin…?”  Her eyes snapped wide.  “Fuck!  Nyx!  She’s in trouble!”

The healer’s frown deepened. “What do you mean?”

The woman struggled to sit up on her knees.  “While I was out, I…had a vision.”  That was simpler than what actually happened, anyway.

The healer crossed his arms, his expression skeptical.  “A vision?  You?”

The woman fumbled to come up with a good explanation, her mind still foggy.  “Nyx, she…I think she might be fighting the beast!”

Halian snorted.  “She lies!  The hunt hasn’t started yet, and that Ailuran was too much of a coward to go alone.”

“She is not a coward,” The woman hissed through grit teeth.  She looked back at the healer.  “I swear on Artemis’s head.  Nyx is out there and she needs help!”

Silence followed.

The healer sucked on his teeth.  Then he turned and laid a hand on his companion’s arm.  “Get Sanuye and gather a team.  Find Nyx.  Check the village first, and if she isn’t here then you have my permission to head into the forest.”

Halian’s pale face started to color as he clenched his fists, “But–”

Now.”

The Lycan warrior glared for a moment longer before dropping his gaze to the ground and storming out of the hut.

…Clearly the healing arts was more valued than the way of the warrior in Lycan culture.

“Checking the village will take too long!  I’m telling you, she’s out there,” the woman argued.  “I can find her.  Just untie me.”

The healer’s response was quick.  “No.”

Elmiryn stared.  “…What?”

“I said, no.”

The woman took a moment to breathe through her nose before asking tightly, “Why not?”

The man looked at her with stern eyes.  “Because you still have to answer for what you did.  Even if you were pardoned, I doubt my father would allow you to go.  So you’re staying.”

“Now you listen to–” As Elmiryn spoke, she made to stand, but as soon as she tried to rise out of a kneeling position, she found her bonds pull on something.  Blinking, she looked over her shoulder to find that she was tied to a thick stake in the ground with a large curved stone cap on the top of it.  Looking it over, the woman knew that simply pulling it out would be quite a feat, if at all possible.  Slowly, she looked back at the healer.

“I have…to save…my friend,” she said slowly.

The healer looked away.  “We’ll find Nyx.  Have faith.”  And without looking back, the man left.

Elmiryn lunged after him, feeling her binds cut into her skin.  “Hey!  HEY!

“Thou swears on my head, hmm?”

The warrior jumped and turned her head to see Artemis leaning on the stake, an amused smirk on her lips.

“I only said that to get them to listen to me,” the warrior snapped.  Then Elmiryn let out a rough sigh.  “You knew this would happen…didn’t you?”

The goddess feigned surprise.  “Knew?  Why, that would imply that I have some sort of command over these events.  Certainly, thou doesn’t believe that?”

The warrior glared.  “No.  I don’t.  Anyone with half a brain can make a deduction from a collection of information.  Namely, you knew more than I did about the situation and let me walk right into a burning building.”

Artemis shook her head.  “When good fortune comes, thou wish to claim it as thine own, but when misfortune comes, suddenly it is the fault of the gods.”  The goddess tsked.  “Long the yellow rain when a man drinks deep.”

Elmiryn gave the goddess a weird look.  “That’s a pub saying.”

“I thought I’d try speaking at your level.”

“You couldn’t get at my level if you tried.”

“Is that a dare?”

“Oh heavens no, because we all know what happened the last time I dared.”

Artemis considered the stake with puckered lips.  “I could help thee.”

Elmiryn closed her eyes with another sigh.  “Still not interested.”

“May I ask what your plan is, then?”

“You mean you can’t read my mind?”

The goddess considered her for a moment.  “That’d be boring,” She said finally.

The warrior shook her head and tried to think, and though she knew it didn’t help, she found herself at the conclusion that waking from the dream was the nightmare…

NYX____________________________

I feel that, at this point, it is safe to say that I am something of an expert on scary.  Being chased by giggling demons?  Scary.  Facing down a giant necromantic abomination? Scary.  Being chased by an angry lust spirit?  Scary.

But this?  This was terrifying.

The sky knew a sort of blackness–imitating the dark of night in an empty sort of attempt at the reality–but this beast was the very essence of black, its thick coat contrasting so sharply to our surroundings that at first I thought I was looking at a shadow.  Its massive head was easily larger than any of us combined, and its long lupine snout quivered at our scent.  Its limbs were taller than all the trees, its hulking shoulders the size of four carriages lined up in a row.  Its paws were humanoid in nature–with opposable thumbs and long digits, but the pads of its paws were thick, I saw, and its talons set in deep in the digits, nearly constituting for the tips entirely.

As far as size went, the beast was topped only by Tonatiuh in the sun spirit’s greatest state.  But from where we stood, the treeline managed to conceal the rest of the beast, and somehow I knew it must be much larger.  In a wet crunch, the beast swallowed the pugot, its thick tunnel of a neck moving, muscles like beasts themselves.  It seemed to have one eye socket, but this was lidless and lacking any sort of eyeball, instead playing host to hundreds of thousands of maggots, which weeped from the orifice in a thick slime like corruptive tears.  Large, bat-like ears could be seen sprouting randomly from atop its head like a grotesque mane, the protrusions twisting and turning to catch the sounds of the forest.  These quivered and faced us, a faint hissing sound simmering the air, and the monster’s lips pulled back as it raised its head.

Hakeem was frozen where he stood, too shocked to react to the thing before him.  Sedwick’s breath had quickened, gaining a small whine I’d never heard from him before.  Behind us, I could hear Gudahi and Makka crashing through the brush–all attempts at subtlety gone as they came to our aid.  With my hands like claws about my mouth, I was trapped between the desire to run and the knowledge that there was no getting away from this thing.

A growl began to rumble in the beast’s throat, and I could feel it in my bones, spreading cracks through my resolve.

I can’t do this, I can’t do this

I took a trembling step back, then another.

The beast dug its claws into the earth, gouging out deep marks, and with a deep breath, it roared.  The sound was painful, stunning me so that I fell over, clutching my ears.  They rang, pain pulsing in my eardrums.  I tried to tell my legs to move, but they just kicked futilely at the ground, too shocked to be of any use.  It was at this point that Gudahi appeared over me, his spear pulled back with one hand, Hakeem’s spear in the other, his teeth bared in a warrior’s snarl.

Bia tsimbic da-sasua!” he screamed, sounding far away, just as he threw his spear.

It connected, the tip burying into the creature’s maggoty eye.

The beast reared back with a thunderous cry of pain, and as it stood on its hind-quarters, I got to see just how tall it was.

I felt hands on me, and looked up to see Makka dragging me to my feet, his usually stoic-face tight with emotions I couldn’t readily name.  Half-way on my feet, and I was already scrambling to run with him, the idea of putting distance between us and that thing a single great drive.  But as we moved to retreat from the beast’s no doubt devastating return to the earth, I looked over my shoulder.  Sedwick was fast following us, and Gudahi was striding to snatch up Hakeem.  The Lycan reached the wizard, and without a word, grabbed him by the waist, lifted him up, and swung around to follow…but the beast was already coming down, fast.  Sedwick was turning into water, and so would no doubt be able to escape being crushed by the monster or a felled tree through his shifting form, and Makka and I were well out of harm’s way.  But Gudahi and Hakeem…there was no way they’d get away in time…

With a yell, I pulled out of Makka’s hands, and sprinted back the way we’d come.  Sedwick stopped and yelled after me, “What are you doing!?”

Everything slowed down, my heart loud in my ears and my lungs burning.  I dove forward, hands outstretched.  Gudahi held a hand out to me, one arm wrapped around Hakeem’s small body.  Our fingertips met.  The earth shook and cracked, the thick ancient trees groaning as they started to come down around us, hundreds of pounds of weight, of life, all ending in a sudden blast.

We watched it all happen from the Umbralands.

Gudahi’s hand was sweaty as he gripped mine tightly.  His eyes were wide as he stared around at the dark dimension, then he stumbled as he moved to take a step back.  “Pet?” he squeaked.  “Where are we?”

Hakeem slipped from his grasp, and the glaze was gone from his eyes, though his dark skin had turned pale.  “The shadow realm?”

“The Umbralands,” I panted, but my attention was already elsewhere.  In the shifting environment, it was possible that we could still come to harm.  “Hakeem, grab onto Gudahi.  We still aren’t safe here!”

Instead of the protests, Gudahi and Hakeem quickly held hands.  I felt a twinge, wondering if I were really fit to be among such brave people.  Then I shook the thought away.  This wasn’t the time for self-pity.

Closing my eyes, I willed the shadows to take us, and there was a cold rush as we appeared back in the Real World just as the beast raised its paw to strike.

“Move!” Hakeem yelled.

We vaulted over the felled trees, the shadow of the beast’s paw growing starker over us.  With a whine, I knew I’d have to stop and do something about it, or the beast would have us crushed.  Skidding to a halt, I focused on the shadow over us and held out my hands.  It fought me, the shadow wiggling against my will, but with a concentrated shout, I threw it aside.  The ground rattled, and I tumbled backward onto my backside.  Opening my eyes, I felt my blood drain to realize how close I’d come to being flattened like a pancake. The beast’s paw landed just past my outstretched foot.

I wasn’t in the clear yet.  The beast’s hot breath rushed over me, its thick, slimy saliva dripping into my hair from large rancid teeth.  Trembling I twisted around to stare up at it, mouth agape, the feeling of shocked numbness returning to me.

Then the wind kicked up, and I was flying.

MERID__________________________

In the medicine hut.

Merid checked the cut on his father’s cheek one last time, making sure his medicinal paste had been properly applied.

“How are you feeling?” he asked in his native tongue.

“Boy, I sed m’fine,” Eidan snapped.  “I’m ol’, not fragile.”

Merid pursed his lips.  “Father, I know you’re a tough one, but living for three centuries tends to take its toll, all right?”

“An’ what do you know about livin’ for three centuries?”

The younger man held up his hands, his eyes rolling.  “Fine.  I’ve already checked up on your patients, but go ahead and make your rounds if you want to so badly.”

Eidan was about to reply when a young girl came bursting through the hut entrance, her face flushed and her eyes wide with panic.  “Fire!” she gasped out.

Merid straightened, his eyes widening.  Fire was a danger they took very seriously after the Great Fire hundreds of years ago.  The last thing they’re people needed was to be burned out of their homes for the beast to find.

“Show me!” The man said.  With one last glance back at his father, he followed the young girl outside, running after her along the village trail.

Then he saw it.  The flames, the heat, the smoke.  It was his hut.

The one where he’d placed Elmiryn.

Lycans were sprinting in from the great tree with jugs and bowls of water–but it wouldn’t be enough.  Merid buried his hands in his white hair, then remembered himself and looked around.

Grabbing the girl, he barked, “Did anyone pull out the human woman!?”

The girl frowned.  “Who–?”

Growling, the man let the girl go and turned on the spot, his eyes searching wildly.  He spotted a thick blanket hung out on a line across from the burning hut.  He grabbed it, draped it across his shoulders, and with a deep breath, rushed in through the entrance.

Elmiryn was laying face down in the dirt, her eyes closed and her body limp.  Coughing from the smoke, the man squinted in the face of the heat as he knelt beside her.  Taking out the small knife in his boot, Merid cut the warrior’s bonds, and gathered her into his arms.  Not stopping to lament his lost effects, the Lycan rushed back out of the fire, his lungs burning from the smoke, his eyes tearing up badly.

His fellow villagers rushed to his aid, pulling the cloak off his shoulders and taking Elmiryn from him.  He was given water and drank just a sip before setting into his coughing fit again.  Holding up a hand, the others left him alone.  The man sat at the edge of the trail and buried his face into his hands, trying to calm the nerves that sought to undo him.  He was not a warrior, and though he had a steady nerves for medicine, actual danger was a different matter.

Then he heard his brothers and sisters shout and holler.  His head shot up, and Merid turned to see what the commotion was about.

…His hut wasn’t burning anymore.  In fact, it looked as though it hadn’t been on fire at all.

Dumbfounded, the Lycan leapt to his feet and looked to his fellows for answers.

“What happened?  How can this be?  You saw it, right?” he asked shakily.  He looked into each of the faces around him, young and old alike.  His voice started to rise.  “You saw it, didn’t you!?  The fire, the smoke?  You felt it, right?”

“Yes! Plain as the full moon!” one answered.

“Could it be our Great Mother’s doing?” another wondered.

“It’s a sign!” another whispered.

“An ill omen!”

“Gods, what does it mean?  Is it the beast?”

The man scratched his head, his eyes sweeping over those around him.  Then his face drew blank.

“…Where’s the woman I just carried out?”  When none answered him, Merid’s face went white with rage and he yelled.  “Where is Elmiryn?  WHERE IS SHE!?


Back to Chapter 30.1 | Forward to Chapter 30.3

Chapter 30.1

HAKEEM_________________________

Tick.

Tick.

Tick.

Hakeem’s eyes were on the dark of the forest, its shadows pregnant with all the possibilities of what became of his wife.  His lips pursed and it was only a thin thread of common sense that kept him from barreling into the woods alone.  When Nyx and Sedwick first fixed him with those eyes, he knew that something had happened to Quincy.  It was an instinct, kicking in from years of worrying and fear.  The brunette had a tendency of getting into trouble, and Hakeem was used to having to chase her, if not bail her out.  But he was in the body of a child, and with the foreign surge of anxiety that frothed inside of him, Hakeem wondered if this time around, he would be his greatest obstacle.

A soft touch on the shoulder made the man-boy’s head snap to the side, a look of deep intensity tightening his youthful features into something akin to a snarl.  Nyx looked down at him in surprise, pulling back as though he were a wild animal about to bite off her hand.

“The others are ready!” she blurted, pointing nervously over her shoulder.

“Good,” Hakeem muttered, returning his stare to the forest.

He felt Nyx drift away from him and was glad for the space.  He wasn’t sure he could manage any level of civility, considering the matter at hand.  Another moment went by where the others murmured quietly behind him.  He felt eyes on his back, but didn’t turn to look.

A few seconds later and a spear was held out in front of him.  Hakeem looked up to see it was Gudahi offering the weapon.  Makka, his usual shadow, was there just a little behind him.  Gudahi looked him in the eyes, but the wizard gazed steadily back into the gaze, forgetting momentarily just what it meant.  Then he remembered himself and looked away.

“Thank you,” he said.

The Lycan clapped him heartily on the shoulder. “We will find her, do not worry.”

“So?” Sedwick said behind them.  “Who leads?”

The wizard was tempted to say, “Me,” but knew that one of the therians would be ideal to take point.  On that note, he gestured at Gudahi.

“You should lead,” he said.  “You know these forests better than anyone in the village.”

The Lycan nodded and looked to the others.  None offered any arguments, and so without another word, they crossed the tree line into the enigmatic woods.  The twisted boughs of the black willows creaked overhead as they went at a light run, the ghostly eyes of a forest creature following their path from the bosom of a magnolia tree in full blossom.  The wizard’s nose flared as the fragrant scent of the flowers wafted to him through the dark.  They fell into V formation, with Nyx and Sedwick at rear, and Hakeem and Makka flanking Gudahi.

The Lycan’s footsteps were light and swift over the uneven forest floor, but Hakeem was used to following Gudahi’s lead by now, and managed to keep pace.  He didn’t hear the others behind him, which didn’t really surprise him.  Sedwick was an elemental and could easily manipulate his form to soften the sound of his footfalls.  Nyx was clearly one who lived on the outskirts of society, and as a therian, had a natural inclination toward dark and natural settings such as this.  Wild landscapes were second nature to Hakeem, and with his time spent at the village, he had become familiar with the local terrain–not as well as Gudahi, but well enough to keep from stumbling like most humans would at this pace.

The firs, oaks, and poplars parallaxed by, just dark cuts in the corner of his eyes.  The shadowy earth, the light mist that shrouded the distance, the teeth of the forest canopy–they encapsulated everything he had ever heard about the dangers of the unknown.  His mother, Nguele, or Ma’Nguele as he was taught to call her, warned of evil spirits that brought misfortune to those foolhardy souls that underestimated nature.

Ya kabur aiju maiti juena adhab.

The flower may yet find the breast.

The trail of arnica petals they followed seemed strangely lit, not in brightness, but in color, their teardrop shapes standing out in the indefinite forest floor.  Owl hoots and distant wolf calls blanketed their surroundings in a loneliness that only served to prick at Hakeem’s tension.  He felt his young body shiver, its bodily control not at the maturity he was used to.  It left him open to thoughts of Quincy lost, hurt…dead.

The trail was excruciatingly long, giving ample room to build upon his fears.

At one point, they passed a clearing the great beast had cleared in one of its vicious attacks, and Hakeem felt his gut churn as his eyes searched the dark for Quincy.  But the trail continued on, and so they went until they came onto a small wetland.  The muddy ground sucked at their boots, flies buzzing in their ears as they came together in a line.  Mangroves, with their gapped, web-like roots, seemed to yawn silently at their plight, their thin trunks swaying.  The trail had ended, and the party exchanged looks.

“This cannot be the beast,” Gudahi said, crouched at the trail’s end.

The reeds rustled as a breeze swept through, chilling Hakeem’s sweat.  He swallowed and wiped at his brow.  He could see Nyx look at him from the corner of his eye and turned his head away.

The long-haired Lycan called Makka over, and they both leaned down toward the ground, sniffing.  They conversed quietly for a moment before Gudahi straightened with narrowed eyes.

“The smell of taint isn’t here,” he said.

“This didn’t seem the beast’s style,” Sedwick agreed.  He crossed his arms and looked around them, his brows bunching.  “My guess is a rogue spirit.”

Gudahi squinted an eye as he tugged on one ear.  “That’s also a problem.”

The elemental frowned at him.  “Why?”

The Lycan shrugged.  “There is no taint.  There is also nothing…”  His eyes flickered to Hakeem’s face.  “Nothing but your wife.”

Nyx crouched down and inspected the trail.  Hakeem could see her nostrils flare as she leaned down for a whiff.  When she straightened, she was also frowning.  “He’s right…but then why would Quincy just leave?”

Gudahi shrugged as he stood to his feet.  “Even a spirit will leave a scent.  Since I sense nothing, then perhaps Quincy came out of here of her own free will?  Maybe to look for more herbs and other reagents?”

Nyx wrinkled her nose at the thought.  “And she left a blatant trail of petals as she went?”

“It doesn’t matter the reason!” Hakeem snapped, throwing his spear down.

Everyone stopped to stare at him.  He glared back at them all.  “All I care about are the facts that will help me find my wife.”  He gestured at the trail.  “You say her scent is the only thing you can sense?  Then we know she has come this way, but that trail ends at this wetland.  We have to pick up a new trail again and keep moving!”

Nyx nodded, her gaze the first to fall away.  “All right, Hakeem.”

She turned, and with eyes turned downward, proceeded to search for clues.  Awkwardly, the other three men followed suit.  Hakeem sighed and took a moment to rub at his face before returning to the task at hand.

The wetland wasn’t very large, perhaps half the size of a typical lake, and the trees, though sparser, still found reach enough that the forest canopy still branched overhead.  A frog croaked somewhere off to his left as a mosquito tried to land on his forearm. He swatted at it as his eyes squinted in the dark.  He tried to make out footprints, smashed plants, or a torn piece of clothing, any sort of sign that someone had been through the area before they had.

He saw nothing.

With time providing no fruit for his labor, the wizard was about to ask the others if they had seen anything when a twig snapped behind them.

Everyone froze.  Nyx’s tawny eyes could be seen peering widely from a set of tall ferns.  Sedwick was crouched near a low rock, his form having turned watery.  Makka and Gudahi had ventured out into the wetlands proper, feet sunk deep in the mud and their flanks brushing through tall grass.  The two men looked at each other, then readied their weapons.

Together, they let out low hoots–an identifying call between their people.  The call was not returned.

Instead, they heard a voice.

“Fuck this chingali forest!”

Hakeem gave a start, his heart doing a somersault. “Mweze?”  He straightened and ventured toward the source.  “Mweze, is that you?”

Quincy emerged from a cluster of tulip trees, twigs and leaves in her hair and an irate look on her face.

“Damn those brats!” she bit out.

Hakeem hesitated, his eyes flickering to the therians.  Sedwick let out a chuckle.  Nyx looked relieved.  Makka’s look of indifference remained unchanging.  Gudahi smiled.

“You see my prince?  She is well and whole,” the Lycan said.  Then his smile turned wry.  “Well…she’s whole at least.”

“Which is more than I can say for those boys when I find them,” Quincy snarled.  She managed to free her clothes from the snatching branches, but her feet tangled and she fell backward, where she landed into the mud with a loud splat.  For a moment, time seemed to hang, uncertain of whether to go forward or to go back.  The brunette blinked, hands raised, her face frozen in horror as she looked down at herself.  As the reality set in, her face contorted as if she wanted to scream, but instead she clamped her jaw tight and let out a high pitched growl.  Hakeem hurried forward to help her out of the mud as the others broke out laughing.

“Are you all right?” He asked as she stood up.  He couldn’t help it–he was grinning, too.

The woman grimaced as she shook the mud from her hands.  “Some children took the flowers we needed, and I came chasing them.  I lost them halfway along and followed the trail of petals, but as you can see, that trail ends.  I was just poking around to see if I could pick up a new trail somewhere nearby.”  She threw up her hands.  “None of this makes any sense!”

Hakeem shook his head at her.  “You should have asked for help!  Running out into the forests is dangerous by yourself!”

“I didn’t think I’d gone far,” Quincy muttered with a shrug.  She looked around at them all.  “Wait…you all came looking for me?”  Her eyes fell on Nyx in particular.

Gudahi threw his hair back and made a show of sticking his nose up into the air. “And help my rival in love?  Nonsense!”

Hakeem knuckled his eyes.  “Gudahi…You’ve been picking up on Fiamman behavior, I see…”

The man grinned, examining his nails at length.  “Who’s to say they didn’t steal it from me?”

“My guess is the children returned to the village.  Can we go back now?” Quincy groused.

Hakeem had to keep from laughing in joy and relief.  “Yes, Mweze.  We can go back now.”

They turned and started to walk, the wizard reaching for his wife’s hand, and she seeking his, when a voice stopped them just before their skin touched.

“No, we can’t go back.”

Everyone turned to gaze at Sedwick.  He was glaring at Quincy.  Hakeem frowned at him over his shoulder, his hand falling back to his side.

“What’s wrong?” he asked.

The elemental pointed at the brunette’s face, his face turning dark with anger.  “That thing isn’t Quincy.”

Nyx squinted her eyes.  “But her scent–”

Sedwick gestured at the ground and spoke quickly, “Tell me.  Where are the footprints Quincy just made?”

Hakeem clenched his fists.  “But we just saw her fall into the–”

“It’s gone,” Gudahi breathed, pointing at the spot Quincy had fallen.  “Her footprints, the mark where she fell…all gone!”

Makka already had his spear pointed at Quincy.  He said something gruffly in Lycan, and Hakeem’s wife stared at him blankly as she turned and took a step back.

Nyx let out a hiss, her eyes wide.  She gestured at Hakeem frantically.  “Sedwick’s right!  Hakeem, get away from it!”

Hakeem’s eyes strained to see what the others claimed to, but he wasn’t close enough to make anything out in the dark.  As he felt something slimy and cold warp about his throat, however, he found he didn’t need to.

With a yell, the man-boy struck at his assailant only to find his small reach wasn’t long enough.  He was lifted, choking, and came to see what Sedwick had been trying to warn him about.  Quincy’s form was gone, leaving only a black oily creature with bulky shoulders, a disproportionately slim waist, and no head.  Despite its lacking mouth, the being let out a gurgling chuckle.

Mmm…more meat!” it exclaimed.

Makka let out a yell and stabbed forward with his spear.  The creature let out a grunt as it made to dodge the attack, and without warning, he began to fall.  Hakeem and the monster hit the ground, the wizard on his side, the creature on its back.  When Hakeem sat up, he thought he saw a strange play of light across the ground–then he realized it was Nyx’s doing.  She’d tripped up the monster’s using its shadow.

“He’s slipping from me!” the Ailuran cried, her hands up and her face strained. “Get it! Quick!”

Makka didn’t hesitate.  He stepped forward and thrust into the monster’s chest, digging the spear tip in with a fierce look in his eyes.  Gudahi joined him, driving his spear into the monster’s gut.  The creature screeched, hands gripping the spear shafts as it writhed, but in time, it turned still.  Hakeem clumsily rose to his feet, his body covered in mud, some of it even in his ears and mouth.  The wet ground threatened to take his shoes from his feet and send him over, and he had to struggle to move away from the creature.

Both Lycans removed their spears with wet squelches, panting.

Spitting the mud out, Hakeem grimaced and asked,”Did you kill it?”

Gudahi turned his head to speak when a black ichor splashed into his face.  Screaming the man reared back, hands clawing at himself.  The creature sat up and threw its sludge at Makka, and the warrior tried to block his eyes, only to have the slime enter his open mouth instead.  He gagged, stumbling to his knees, his partner still clawing at his face.

Sedwick let out a yell, his body spinning as his arms turned to watery whips that lashed toward the strange being.  The creature let out a wet scream, its body turning into a ball that rolled away at high speed through the thick brush.

“After it!”  Hakeem yelled, already running.

The creature’s form barreled through a collection of briar bushes, and the wizard let out a shout as the thorny branches tore at his skin and clothes.  Gritting his teeth, he pushed through just in time to see his quarry quickly roll around a large sweetgum tree.  Now that they had moved away from the wetlands, his feet pounded over solid earth.  Hakeem sharply rounded the tree, filled with a sickening need to exact revenge against the monster who brought harm to his wife, only to find himself clotheslined by a black slimy arm.

He fell back onto the ground with a nasty thump.  Dazed, he watched as the creature reached for him, giggling blackly.  “Eee, hee, hee!  A meal!  A meal!  QUITE a meal!”

But the monster froze just as its claw-like hands neared Hakeem’s face.  The creature strained, sounds of frustration gurgling from its stump of a neck.  It couldn’t move.

Nyx stepped around the tree, her hand help up and a wide look in her eyes.

“You won’t have him!” she hissed.  “I have your shadow, you filthy creature, and if you so much as touch him I will end you!”

Sedwick appeared just behind her.  He touched the girl’s shoulder.  “You have it?” The Ailuran nodded mutely, and his lips pursed.  The elemental took a moment to look over his shoulder before returning his eyes to the black creature.  “Gudahi and Makka are still back there.  They’re hurt, but they’ll catch up.  The slime isn’t fatal or even permanent.”

The man stepped closer and extended a hand to Hakeem, who gladly took it.  “This thing is called a pugot,” Sedwick said with a sneer at the creature. “It’s a type of spirit from Talmor that can assume the identity of whomever it tastes, imitating that thing’s voice, movement, and even its smell.  That’s why it was able to fool you and the others, Nyx.”

“What’s it doing here, though?” Nyx asked, her voice sounding tight.

The elemental glanced at her.  “Here, if you’re getting tired, I’ve got it.”

Sedwick raised both arms, and Hakeem watched with interest as the limbs turned clear and watery.  They grew, defying physics as water gushed from the man’s form like he were a tireless font.  The streams of liquid drifted to the pugot, where they wrapped around the creature totally.  Lifting his arms, Sedwick lifted the being bodily into the air.

He looked at Nyx.  “You can let it go, now.”

The girl nodded and with a rushing exhale, let her arms fall to her sides.

Sedwick looked back at the spirit, his eyes squinting as he watched the pugot struggle. “Sometimes foreign spirits come to visit, but I imagine what happened in the North with Syria attracted even more.  With the beast wrecking havoc, this one was drawn here in particular.”

“I want to ask it where Quincy is,” Hakeem said firmly.

The man nodded at him, and he moved the water away from the spirit’s neck so that it could speak.

The first things out of its disgusting neck was, “Fiends!  Monsters!  Brigands!

“Shut up,” Sedwick barked.

Hakeem watched as the elementals watery bind constricted, causing the pugot to gasp.

“Where is my wife?” Hakeem asked, his brow knitted.

The pugot didn’t answer–couldn’t.  Its tense body only trembled, hands clawing in the water.  The wizard laid a hand on Sedwick’s arm, and the elemental eased his bind reluctantly.  The pugot let out a sigh of relief.

Wiiife…” it hissed.  “Mmm…tasty wife, yes.  Tasty fingers.”

Hakeem tensed.  “Where is she?”

The pugot grumbled something unintelligible.  Sedwick growled and tightened his bind again.  The spirit began to squeal.

Ah!  Ah!  Okay!”  It gurgled. “She got away!

Hakeem blinked.  He looked at the others, and they returned his quizzical looks.  Returning his gaze, the wizard crossed his arms.  “What do you mean, ‘she got away?'”

The pugot let out an infuriated shout.  “Urgh!  Human!  DUMB human!  The wife is gone!  Pugot tried to eat her, and she hurt pugot!”

Hakeem let out a relieved laugh, his hands going to his hips.  “She must have used one of her wizardry tricks!”  Then his smile waned.  “But then where is she?”

“Maybe she’s gone back to camp already?” Nyx said uncertainly.

“When was the last time you saw Quincy?” Hakeem demanded, his hands clenching and unclenching.

The pugot gargled angrily.  “Pugot tell you what it know!  Let pugot go!

Hakeem bared his teeth.  “Not until you tell all that you know!”

Pugot knows it will kill you!  It will kill your dreams!  Your tomorrow!  Your–

But they never did get to learn what else the pugot would kill, because a giant pair of jaws the size of Hakeem’s old hut burst through the forest canopy with a great crack and swallowed the spirit whole.

Sedwick let out a shout, his watery arms disintegrating before filling back into normal.  Hakeem stood rooted at the spot, too stunned to react.  Off in the distance, he could hear Gudahi and Makka shouting.  Were they running to help them?  Telling them to run?  Running themselves?  The trees fell over with heartbreaking groans, their roots snapping and snarling out of the earth.  The sky opened up to them, black and indifferent, and Hakeem saw the dark ending Ma’Nguele had warned him of so long ago…

ELMIRYN________________________

In the time since Nyx had left, Elmiryn had turned her arm into a tentacle, a sword, a banana, and a general misconception.  The game got old fast, however, and so the woman endeavored to restore her arm, and was still in the process of doing so when she felt her spine stiffen with an alien feeling.  Her eyes rolled up to the strange being in its white box high above her.

“Hey,” the warrior said, brushing by a frozen kitten.  The small animals may have stopped moving all together, but they hadn’t vanished either.

When the alien being didn’t answer her, the woman’s mouth screwed up, and in the next instant she wasn’t Here, but There, glaring into the alien’s featureless face.

“Hey!  You know something don’t you?  What was that feeling I just had?”

“That would be me.”

Later on, Elmiryn would find it very difficult to explain the level of shock and fear she felt at that moment to anyone–not only because she disliked admitting to such things, but because it was so deep and visceral and debilitating, that the only way a person could understand it would be to experience it.  Trapped in this intense emotion, the woman felt her spirit pulse closer to her body, and she nearly felt herself sucked back into reality until she fought this end savagely.  She was not ready.  She would not go.

“Oh?  Thou wouldn’t miss the tender flesh of thy kitten, so sweet and ready for you?”

As the effects of her shock ebbed, Elmiryn turned slowly.  “Artemis, what are you doing here?” she breathed.

The goddess was dressed in a more Western-styled outfit this time, her animal hide tunic gone, replaced instead with a black leather vest, dark leggings, a heavy green cloak, and grey boots.  Her arms were sleeved in white cotton, a Lycan necklace of teeth, beads, and feathers hanging over her bosom.  Her curly dark hair had been freed to fall about her shoulders, contrasting with the pearly complexion of her face.  Her tiara of branches still adorned her head, and her bow and arrows could still be seen on her back.  Her grey eyes were as sharp as ever, yet they held nothing but mirth as they looked Elmiryn up and down.

“I came to see how you were doing,” the goddess said simply.

The warrior screwed up her face.  “You came to visit me in my head?

Artemis nodded, smiling fully now.  “Yes.”

Elmiryn gestured around her, a sarcastic grin on her face.  “And is this everything you ever imagined?”

The goddess tilted her head left to right, her lower lip pushing up as she regarded the shifting light and shadows, the frozen sea of animals, the strange alien being and her window.  “It’s…interesting,” she said finally.

“Glad you think so.  Now please leave.”

Artemis laughed, the sound echoing through the void and making Elmiryn’s head hurt.

“Thou have survived, and are in such high spirits to boot!  How wonderful,” the goddess chuckled.  “Do you remember the secret I told you, by any chance?”

“The what?”

“Ah, I see.”

Elmiryn made a show of spitting.  “Arty, you’re a real poor guest, y’know?”  She tapped her temple.  “This?”  She made a slash with her arms. “Is not where you’re supposed to be!”

Artemis shrugged.  “Then make me leave, if it so pleases you.”

The warrior bared her teeth as her cerulean eyes cut what she hoped was a menacing look, but the goddess just folded her hands, her right hand displaying her crescent moon tattoo.

Elmiryn held out her hands.  “You want me to try?  Fine.  I’ll try.”

“You’ll try?” Artemis laughed.

The warrior glared.  “I just said I’ll try!”

“You remember what happened the last time you tried to defy me?”

“I heard it landed me here, which really isn’t all so bad in my opinion.”

And within the next instant, Artemis wasn’t in front of Elmiryn anymore, but a hot whisper in her ear.  The woman gasped and tried to turn to see where the goddess had gone, but she saw nothing.

Ah…you put on such a brave show.  But thou should know that I can see into thine heart of hearts.  I can see thy loneliness, see thy fears.  

“Get out!” Elmiryn shouted.  “Leave me be, I want nothing of your world!”

Why not?  My world has the one you so adore…the one who faces a threat she is not yet prepared for.

The warrior froze.  “Nyx?  What’s happened?  Where is she?”

The trap has sprung, Elmiryn.  Now to free thy kitten, thou must find the one who set it in the first place…but thou cannot do that in thy state of detached reality.  You have survived what others could not.  Now put that strength to good use, tackle this inconvenience, and my hunt may then continue.

Elmiryn let her shoulders drop, her eyes squeezing shut as the goddess’s words sunk in.

“So are you going to help me then?” she asked quietly.

A laugh echoed around her.

Would thou even accept my help?

Elmiryn smirked, her spirit already seeking her body.  “No.”

And when she next opened her eyes, it was to find herself back in the medicine hut, screaming with pain.


Back to Chapter 29.4 | Forward to Chapter 30.2


Chapter 29.4

NYX____________________________

Elmiryn got that fevered look in her eyes, and I knew her intention was frolicking straight into yet another thorny bush of risk and danger.

That place, her little pocket of reality, was like nothing I’d seen before.  It was…raw.  My skin tingled, the whole of my body feeling both light as a feather and heavier than a boulder.  The light here flickered, always at odds with the shadows, and I glanced at them, wondering if I could use my power to make them still.  The “ground” was an imagined thing, as was “space”, and if I ceased to think of either, then they would no longer be there.

In horrifying turns, if we ceased to think of ourselves as separate beings, we could perhaps melt into one another.

All the while, the constant rain of kittens and sparrows came, and I wondered at their meaning.  Elmiryn was becoming a fae, and the fae had almost inconceivable powers over perception and meaning.  I heard tales of people making deals with the creatures to learn what a color tasted like, or to see music flowing through the air.  They were beings that thrived in their own enigmatic definitions, and in this sparse world I recognized some hidden truth in Elmiryn’s imaginings, but failed to gleam any sort understanding from them.  Though I was visiting through the Somnium, my understanding was diminished by Elmiryn’s will, much like in Volo’s realm.  As such, I did not see her unsettling form as I had before.  She looked normal here, her fair face, sun kissed skin, and piercing stare umarred…that was until the shadows grew starker, making her form flicker.  Peeking through her self-image was the reality–the seed, the roots, the horns.

I kept this to myself.

Elmiryn looked to me, her cerulean eyes hot with intent, her tongue between her teeth as a trail of sweat came down the inside of her nose.  She was breathing as if short-winded, and her right eye was swelling.  The Real World was bleeding through.

“All right, Nyx.  Okay,” she puffed.  “So…I told you I know my own pattern, right?  I think I can heal myself.  I’ve put myself back together before.  But this…this is a really bad knot.  I have no idea what will happen if I try to undo it,” she shrugged, a shaky smirk on her lips.  “Maybe I’ll unravel!”

I touched her shoulder, feeling my spine stiffen.  “Elmiryn, I want you back in the real world, but if the risk is too great, maybe we shouldn’t!”  Silently, I added, Please don’t add to the debt you owe Harmony!

She looked at me sharply.  “And let the reality of the gods heal me?”

I huffed, throwing my hand up into the air.  “What’s so wrong with that?  That’s normal!

“And is normal good?”

“I–no, that’s not–” but I broke off, wondering just what it was I wanted to say.  Was normal good?  I didn’t believe that, and Elmiryn knew it, but she had the temerity of battling against everything we had ever known, anything anyone had ever known…

I shook my head, my eyes squeezing shut.  “I’m scared.  I’m scared where this might lead.”  I buried my face in my hands.  “Elle, I know it’s hard for you to sit still.”  I raised my face, my eyes imploring.  “But this need to push things will kill you!”

The woman sat back, exhaling through her nose.  Her eyes roved my face, and I could practically feel her gaze on me.  It made me self-conscious, made me wonder if I was being unsympathetic.  I didn’t know what it was like to be in her situation.  I’d read somewhere that time could be funny in dreams…just how long had Elmiryn been here, conscious and alone?

“I’ve got to, Nyx,” Elmiryn said finally.  Her voice was gentle, but I could hear the determination in her words.  The warrior thought she had no Meaning, but hearing her, one would think she had all the Meaning in the world…

I closed my eyes and turned my head, but said nothing.

ELMIRYN________________________

Elmiryn licked her lips and made to flex her arm.  She felt flares of pain go up her muscles and tendons, and she stopped with a hiss.  Her eyes widened as she saw the pain’s path–the way it crissed and crossed and dove and twined into her flesh.  She saw muscles she knew ought to be moving instead still and stubborn, the light of her will coming short to motivate.  Trailing her fingers over her skin, she bit her lip and started the process.

All around them, the kittens and sparrows stilled in the air, ending their endless descent.  She felt, rather than saw, Nyx grow distant.  Overhead the light turned searing, and an incessant buzzing entered her ears…but she was busy.

She expected to hear Meznik calling with some quip or insult, but the demon was absent, as was his way whenever she wanted him there.

“Want,” she murmured.  “To desire something.”

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Nyx turn her head.  “What?” the girl asked.

“Nothing.”

Wanting to be more, wanting to have more, wanting to know more, wanting to do more…perhaps Elmiryn wasn’t as different from her father as she’d initially thought.  Perhaps that avarice was a thing passed down from blood to blood.  In awe, she wondered just what else could have trickled into the cup of her being.  She imagined her soul as a muddied thing, dark and viscous and heated by her own desires…

The woman’s thoughts were cut off as she felt her arm spasm and launch to the side, the nerves spiking in pain as it struck something–though she didn’t know what.

“Ow!” Elmiryn cried, cradling her arm.

Nyx was there in front of her in the blink of an eye, crouched and peering into her face.

“What?” the girl asked, clearly startled.  “What happened?”

“I hit something,” the woman hissed through her teeth.  She gave a deep sigh.  “Ah, but the pain is going away now…”  Then she frowned and stared at her arm.  “Oh fuck, the pain is going away!”

Nyx scrunched up her nose.  “Isn’t that good?”

“No!” Elmiryn said, shaking her head slowly. “The pain was a good thing!  It meant my arm was responding!  Now I’m not getting anything at all!”

QUINCY_________________________

Quincy held her nose, the tears clouding her eyes as she jumped to her feet with a loud curse.  She’d been sitting next to Elmiryn’s cot, checking her temperature and the cut on her brow, when all of a sudden, the warrior’s arm flew up and whacked her in the face.  She could hear Eidan chuckling at her as she blinked the tears from her eyes.  Glaring, she kicked the redhead’s cot.

Gods damn it!  That hurt!”

“Aks-iden’,” Eidan grunted, his eyes already back on his patient.  A young woman lay with fever and he had a hand on her neck, the other holding a cup of mixture.

“That wasn’t an accident,” Quincy returned hotly, sniffling back what she suspected to be blood.  “If it were anyone else, yes.  Sure.  It was an accident.  But with her?  It never is!”

Despite getting up later than she’d meant to, the woman had managed a lot in the short afternoon.  But the evening still came by faster than she would have liked.  She and Eidan had searched for reagents much of the day, but instead of preparing them for use, the reest of their time was spent checking up on patients.  With the hunt drawing close, the woman feared they would be caught poorly prepared.

Merid appeared at her side with a handkerchief.  “You’re bleeding a little.”

Quincy checked her hand, then cursed again as she saw the red there.  “I suppose I am.”  She took the handkerchief from him with a fleeting smile.  “Thank you.”

“Not too fond of her, are you?” the man asked, his gray eyes squinted in mirth.

The wizard grit her teeth.  “If by fond, you mean walking arm in arm, then no.  I’m afraid not.”

“What is she like?”

“Boorish, arrogant, deviant…” Quincy shrugged as she checked her nose one last time.  “Oh, she’s a charmer.”

Merid chuckled.  “Well, I believe we’ve covered everyone in the village.  Let’s get started grinding up the herbs.  I’ve started boiling some bandages for tonight.  Would you mind fetching the basket of arnica outside?”

Quincy gave a nod, but not before awkwardly holding out the handkerchief.  The man laughed and shook his head, and with a small shrug, she pocketed the item and left the hut.

Outside the village was buzzing with activity.  The woman paused as she watched a pack of children race by, wielding sticks like they were spears and paint smeared on their faces.  Men and women alike made preparations for the night, sharpening weapons, readying armor, putting away tools.  The wizard sighed and shook her head.

“Looking at them, one would think they were at war,” she muttered as she turned for the basket of herbs.

Quincy paused as her eyes fell on the empty ground near the hut entrance.  Frowning, she searched the area with her eyes and saw nothing.  The woman went around the hut, wondering if Merid had found some odd reason to put it out of sight in case someone messed with their supplies.  Again, nothing.  Outright scowling now, the woman emerged back onto the village trail and her eyes fastened on a yellow petal down the road.

“The arnicas have yellow blossoms,” she breathed.

With quick steps, she approached it and plucked it from the dirt.  When her eyes lifted, she saw more petals down the way.  With a glance over her shoulder and pressed lips, the woman followed the trail through the village until it brought her to the forest line.  As she ventured near the trees, she heard giggling and saw a group of boys dancing around, tossing the petals into the air.  They were about Hakeem’s current age, bodies already hard from work, faces dirty from rough play and their hair in need of cutting.  Their dusky faces turned her way, eyes lit by the emerald light of the nymph’s magic.  Shrieking playfully at the sight of Quincy, they bolted further into the forest.

The wizard gave a start.  “No, no!  Where are you going!?”

For a moment, Quincy hesitated, her azure eyes stricken with annoyance and concern.

Finally, with one last look over her shoulder, she hurried after the children.

NYX____________________________

My eyes grew wide.  “Elle, tell me you didn’t.”

“Um…I didn’t?”

“Oh, Elle no!”

“Okay, okay!  I did!”

Despite my attempts at dissuading her, Elmiryn sought to heal herself once more.  She explained to me that it was seeing a sort of woven fabric, and all she had to do was mend a knot in the weave so that her essence could flow freely throughout her form.  It all sounded very alien and mystical to me, and I stared at the woman, suddenly struck by how…different she sounded.  Upon first meeting her, Elmiryn was about as mystical as a rock.  But given her newfound abilities, who was to say this wasn’t to be expected?  I didn’t need to look far for a supporting example–what with my talk of the Umbralands, and the Somnium, and Harmony.

But staring at the woman’s hand, I was thinking even then, there just had to be a line!

Holding it by the wrist, Elmiryn held up her limb, which had turned green and reptilian, talons, scales, and all.  “I didn’t mean to!  It was an accident!”

Ashen-faced, I pointed at it.  “How was that an accident!?” I cried.

“I was thinking, about lizards and how they can just lose their tails and be done with the matter!  I didn’t mean to–”  She broke off and covered her mouth, but I could see the mirth in her eyes.

I shook my head emphatically.  “Elle, this isn’t funny!”

“I–I’m not–” but she snorted, and her hand fell away to let loose her laughter. “Sorry!  I’m not trying to make this into a joke, it just happened that way!  There’s been plenty of other things I’ve been thinking and those haven’t happened so–”

I looked at her sharply.  “Just what other things?”

Elmiryn blinked at me, her smile fading.  “Silly things.  Like, wouldn’t it be funny if six was nine?  Or if green became blue?  And wouldn’t it be strange if…” she trailed off, her eyes going wide.  “Oh.”

My stomach sank.  “‘Oh’ what?”

The warrior sucked at her teeth and looked away.  “I should really listen to that bastard when he tells me things in the future,” She mumbled.

I grabbed her around the shoulders.  “Elle, what is it?

She looked at me somberly.  “I wondered why the beast always stayed away from the village.”

My eyes widened.  With a jump I stood.  “I have to go!”

Elmiryn grabbed at my ankle with her human hand.  “Nyx!”

I looked at her, startled and mildly vexed.  “Elle, I have to get back!”

She bit her lip and looked up at me through her eyelashes.  “I thought the timing was strange!  I wondered…Fuck–I wondered why do these things have to happen when we’re around?  And then you know what I thought?  It’s because it usually has to do with us…”

I narrowed my eyes, my mind working for some comprehension bought in my rising anxiety, that end was becoming increasingly distant.  I reached down and touched her shoulder.  “I have to go back.  Everything will be fine, okay?”

The woman said nothing, just stared as I stepped away from her and slipped out of the Somnium and back into the Real World.  Making that transition was getting exceedingly quicker, but I felt a fatigue enter my limbs that nearly had me toppling to the ground.

Merid, who had been tending to the patient next to Elmiryn, gave a jump.

I was the first to recover as I leaned over onto the edge of Elmiryn’s cot.  “Sorry!  It’s me.”

The gray-eyed man gave a nod, his eyes still misted over in wonder as he looked me up and down.  “Ah.  Hello, Nyx.”

I gestured weakly at him.  “Have you seen any of my companions?”

The man frowned and tapped a brown root against his jaw as he thought.  “Mmm…well, Hakeem is training with the warriors, last I heard.  I’m afraid I do not know where the elemental fellow is, and…” he trailed off with a frown.

Turning he asked Eidan something in his native tongue, to which the old man gave a shake of his head.  When Merid returned his gaze, it was troubled.  “That’s odd.”

My stomach clenching, I asked, “What is it?”

The man gave a small shrug.  “I asked Quincy to fetch the arnicas we had collected earlier from outside.  That was quite a while ago.  They should’ve been right next to the door.  One of our patients began vomiting blood, so it all slipped my mind!”

I was already turned and hurrying toward the hut entrance before the man finished.  At his final words, however, I paused and gazed at him somberly.  “Merid, if what I’m thinking is right, you’ll need to collect more of those flowers for tonight.”

With that I left, intent on finding Sedwick.  Just as I had feared, time had passed slower in Elmiryn’s sanctum than in reality, and it was already nearly time for the hunt.  I wasn’t sure what the warrior’s last words to me truly meant, or how it related to Quincy’s disappearance.  All I knew was that I had to fill in the blanks and act, fast.

Finding the ex-blacksmith wasn’t as hard as I’d originally thought.   He was providing water to some of the walking wounded, drawing a small crowd of on-lookers as he performed his water abilities.  Seeing me approach, he finished filling one more jug before excusing himself and greeting me.

“Nyx,” he said with a nod.

I returned it.  “Sedwick, have you seen Quincy?” I was out of breath from running.

The man frowned and shook his head.

“Damn!” I cursed, looking around.

Sedwick touched my shoulder.  “What is it?”

I looked at him, hands clenching at my sides.  “Quincy may have gone missing.  I haven’t finished searching the village yet.  Would you mind helping me?”

“Of course not!  Let’s meet back at the great tree.”

“All right.”

And so we split, each of us going in opposite directions.  Though it made my anxiety worse, I even went so far as to ask some of the Lycans if they’d seen the wizard.  Many of them didn’t understand my common, and I got more than a few bared teeth for my trouble, but all answers were the same–no one had seen Quincy.

When my rounds were finished, I returned to the great tree as promised, and a moment later, Sedwick joined me.  The look on his face confirmed my fears.

“She’s gone,” I said, shoulders tensing.

Sedwick threw up his hands, his face tensing in frustration.  “This doesn’t make any sense!  Why would she just vanish without telling anyone where she was off to?”

I rubbed my brow.  “We have to tell Hakeem.”

“Tell me what?”

The young voice made me jump, and I turned to see Hakeem standing before us, Gudahi, Makka, and a small group of other Lycan warriors in tow.  The man-boy took a step forward, his eyes flickering from my face to Sedwick’s

My brows pressed up as I held up my hands.  “Hakeem–”

With a yell, the wizard took off running, his roaring shouts belying his small form.  “Mweze?  Mweze!?

Sighing, I exchanged a brief look with Sedwick, and we quickly followed.  To my surprise, Gudahi and Makka were quick to fall in behind us.  Hakeem ran down the village trail, stopping occasionally to grab a passing villager and ask for his wife.  With each denial, he grew more frantic.  Finally, his wild search brought us to the western edge of the village where he collapsed to his knees and beat the ground with his fists.

My heart clenched at the sad sight of the wizard in such turmoil, his huddled form looking so lonely against the backdrop of the dark forest.

“Has something happened to his shimá?”  Gudahi asked, his eyes on Hakeem.

“She’s gone missing,” Sedwick explained.

The Lycan nodded his head gravely, then said something to Makka in Lycan.  The quiet hunter frowned and said something quietly, then touched a fist to his breast.

Gudahi explained upon seeing our inquisitive looks.  “He says he’ll help find her…or avenge her, whatever the case is.”

I smiled wanly, then approached Hakeem.  I didn’t like Quincy, but after seeing what the beast did to its victims, I didn’t want that fate to be anyone’s, not even hers.  Gingerly, I moved to touch the young wizard’s shoulder when something caught my eye.  Frowning, I went to it and carefully picked it up.

“Arnicas!” I exclaimed.

“What?” Hakeem was looking at me, his eyes watery but no tears falling free.  He sniffed and stood as I held out the yellow petal I’d found.

“Arnicas have yellow blossoms.  Quincy was supposed to be getting the arnicas outside of the medicine hut!”

Hakeem blinked the moisture from his eyes as he stared at me, to the petal, and back.  Next his eyes fell on the ground where a moment’s search produced another petal, and another.

“There’s a whole trail!” he breathed.

I gestured for the others to come closer.

“What does this mean?” Sedwick asked after having looked at the petal.

I pointed the trail out to him and the two Lycan men.  With pursed lips and a rapidly beating heart, I said, “This means our hunt starts a little early!”


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