It was hard, not wondering if Tonatiuh would have helped her spot the Lycans. A mixture of feelings squirmed in her chest like worms. She had walked away from the sword without looking back. Was that brave?
…Or had she just been too afraid?
Though the temptation of power was still fresh in her mind, she still heard Nyx’s voice like a bright pulse in her dark thoughts. It had illuminated Elmiryn and Sedwick’s pleas like a bright star.
…But what had really done it, was how the Ailuran’s piercing voice had cut to the woman’s innermost doubts.
Tonatiuh was a parasitoid–a being that fed on its host to the point of ultimate death. Saerth, her wizard master from Crysen, had warned her of the dangers of prolonged contact.
“It is better to leave some things alone, Quincy…” he had said.
Finally, after years of use, the spirit was gone. The wizard wondered if there was a hole in her soul where Tonatiuh had lived. She wondered if a soul could repair itself.
Somehow, everything seemed more frightening, knowing now that her greatest strength was lost. Elmiryn had challenged her to find a strength beyond her magic. Quincy fought to dredge up that strength now.
They moved in a group, surrounded by their Lycan escorts. The grass at their feet came up to their ankles, but no higher. It hissed and shushed beneath their feet. They went down the hill they had stood upon, struggling to keep their footing. It was very steep. Dips and holes were like traps to make them fall. The men around them stepped around these with deft steps, unfazed by the steep decline.
Quincy wanted to appear calm. She wrestled her features into one of apathy and walked with as steady a step she could manage, head held high. She wanted to think, that if one were not privy to the situation, they wouldn’t suspect her as a prisoner. And maybe they weren’t? Though their lives had been threatened, they were not under bonds and their weapons had not been taken. And as Elmiryn had said, wasn’t this what they wanted? To find the Lycans and seek whatever wisdom or aid they could bestow?
And what lost thing, if each shard were to hold such a thing, had fallen here?
Once clear of the steep hills, the fourteen of them–the Lycans and their small group of four–moved at a quick gait. As they entered the dark of the forest, a heaviness seemed to press on them all. Quincy wondered if it were mortal magic or a strong spiritual presence. Whatever the source, it felt like a thick cloak over her shoulders. It didn’t feel malignant or foreboding. It was just…there.
The darkness seemed denser here as well. Details were swallowed in shadow, leaving only vague forms. The wizard tried to recognize the trees they passed, tried to get an understanding of where they were going, but it was in vain. The shadows about them were all similarly dendroid in shape and size, leaving nothing distinctive for her to pick out. They did not walk a road. There were no markings on the trees or the ground that she could see. The Lycans just seemed to know the way.
Quincy took a deep breath, filling her lungs with the fresh scents of their surroundings–tree sap, damp soil…but also the sweat from the men around them. One could practically smell their hostility.
From what the wizard had seen before the dark of the forest diminished everything in her eyes, Nyx seemed a veritable bundle of agitation. She was in front with Elmiryn, who of course, appeared amused by the entire ordeal. Sedwick, on the wizard’s left, was doing a good job of appearing unassuming, Quincy thought.
She had dealt with Lycans in the past, and she had found their staunchness could be used against them…but never had she faced so many of them at once, and caught unaware, no less. Any chance at guile was lost with such a disadvantage.
Then Elmiryn started chuckling.
This didn’t incite any sort of reaction from their guards, and yet Quincy felt a great deal of dread flood into her chest. The warrior’s laughter appeared mild at first before it began to gain in strength, piercing the thick silence about them in a way that almost felt blasphemous. The wizard saw Nyx turn to look at her, and thought she was going to quiet the woman, but then Elmiryn giggled out, “Guard dogs!”
Quincy didn’t understand the joke, but then, to her surprise, Nyx returned the giggle. It sounded hysterical compared to Elmiryn, but within a moment, the girl was also clutching her sides, and the forest echoed from their peals of laughter.
“Dragons, giant spirits, undead, demons–!” Nyx gasped between her fits of humor.
“–Guard dogs!” Elmiryn repeated breathlessly, her laughter having turned into silent convulsions. By the sounds of it, something was supposed to come before that, but the warrior seemed incapable of more than a few words at a time, leaving her meaning clipped.
Quincy still didn’t get it, but she didn’t need to. Her eyes were finally starting to adjust to the dark, and she could see the looks the guards were now giving them.
Sedwick beat her to it. ”Quiet, the both of you!” he rumbled.
Nyx shut up quickly, her hysterical humor lighting out in the sea of her fear. With bowed head, she mumbled an apology. Elmiryn, with effort, calmed down, and they resumed their walk in silence.
With time, the wizard saw a glow up ahead…but not a campfire glow, or the burn of torches. This light was a soft green. She squinted her eyes and murmured, “What is that?”
“Dryads,” Sedwick murmured back.
The woman frowned, wanting to ask more, but a look from one of the Lycans silenced them.
As they neared, the sounds of people talking came their way. Quincy could see what looked like huts, and the forms of villagers flitting between them.
The men paused as something small leapt from the dark bushes to block their path. Nyx gave a great start, inciting the wizard to jump herself. What she saw made her roll her eyes.
“For heavens sakes, it’s just a scout,” she snapped.
The scout was, in fact, a small wolf, with light fur and glowing eyes. It peered at them all, ears perked forward, mouth panting, tail low.
The leader knelt down and spoke to it in a strange growling language that Quincy had only heard once before. Maicoh. The language of the wolves.
When the man finished speaking, the wolf turned and bolted toward the village.
The dark haired leader stood, and for a moment, he seemed to look her way. Quincy scowled at him. With a silent jerk of his head, they resumed their jaunt. Elmiryn glanced back at the wizard with arched eyebrow. So she’d noticed too.
The smell of cooking food wafted toward them. The sounds of village life were everywhere–children laughing, the sound of stone being pounded, hens clucking. Quincy’s eyes had to adjust as they entered the clearing where the village resided. The green light came from the trees. The bark, the leaves, even the soil it was grounded into. Dryad magic? Was that what Sedwick had meant?
She squinted around at the huts–made of animal hide and thick lumber. Waxing crescents were painted on the sides of the huts in what appeared to be a dripping blue paint. Some of the taller huts had high ropes strung between them, where small metal and glass pieces were hung. Outside, older women weaved baskets, mended weapons, and cooked food. The younger women pounded herbs and grain in mortars with big pestles, and tended to the children. Children played a strange game with brightly colored beads on a sort of diagram scratched into the dirt. The men did a lot of heavy work–carrying water and materials to the women, and repairing their homes.
There was still no road to speak of, but the array of huts and the trampled grass alluded to a trail, and this they followed.
The Lycan folk, aside from their primitive garb of animal hide and beaded hair…seemed very much normal. Other therians exhibited beast-like qualities. Nyx, for instance, had very feline eyes. These people, however, were deceptively human-like. What gave them away were their unusual gazes. No human had naturally yellow eyes.
Lycans peered curiously from doorways as they passed, and children hopped and skipped around them, trying to peer past their escorts to stare at Quincy and the others. Some of the villagers hurried ahead of them, calling excitedly in their Lycan tongue.
They rounded a close cluster of huts which opened up onto a wide area. A great large tree, as thick as a house and nearly five stories high, sprouted up the center of the area. A large house had been built amidst its branches. Quincy frowned, thinking this odd for the Lycans to have centered their settlement on, though she hardly believed this to be their only village. Surrounding the tree was a large group of people, and they all whispered as they came near. Trailing down from the tree house was a simple rope.
The Lycan folk cleared as their escorts finally reached the tree.
The leader of their escort pointed at the rope. ”Go up,” he ordered.
Elmiryn glanced around at them, and with a shrug, she started to climb. Following her went Nyx, then Sedwick, and finally Quincy.
The climb took little time, and as they crawled up into the circular opening of the building’s floor, Quincy immediately understood its purpose. There was a great circular hole in the ceiling where the branches parted and allowed for an unlimited view of the sky. An observation platform. Of course. While the Lycans could see the stars from down below, to get an unlimited view of the heavens (and of their surroundings) required some height. The house was equipped with astronomy tools, charts and measuring instruments, all of which could be found on a table against the wall. This aside, this seemed to be the building’s only room, and it was largely empty.
That was, except for the one standing within it.
A tall woman with pale skin and silver eyes peered at them from a low window on the far side of the room. Unlike the other Lycans, she was solid, like they were, indicating that she was fully within their dimension. She had curly dark hair pinned back in a low bun and a tiara of branches on her head. Like the leader below, her nose was aquiline in nature, but with a smaller tip and a lower nose bridge. She wore an animal hide tunic with twine tied about her waist, much like the villagers, except that hers was cut in a low V at the front, showing a loose white garb beneath. Strung across her back was a bow and a quiver of arrows. On the back of her right hand, a crescent had been tattooed in black ink. Her feet were bare.
She gestured for them to come near.
Elmiryn started to take a step, but then Nyx grabbed her arm and jerked her back. When the warrior looked at her in confusion, the girl did not return her gaze. Her eyes were on the woman, her body trembling worse than before.
Behind them, their male escorts began to climb up into the tree house.
The silver-eyed woman appeared amused by Nyx’s reaction. She sat on the windowsill and smirked. ”What wouldst thy patron say, to see thee trembling so, little one?”
Nyx swallowed audibly and fell to her knees. She pulled at Elmiryn. “Down!” she hissed. ”Elle, get down!”
Elmiryn resisted, squinting at the silver-eyed woman. ”What? Why? What is…” but then her voice trailed away. She looked sharply from Nyx to the woman and back.
Quincy’s eyes started to widen. She looked to Sedwick, “Is that–?” but she cut herself off when she realized the man wasn’t there. She twisted her head around, alarmed, then looked down near her feet. Sedwick was down on his knees, his head pressed to the floor. Startled, the woman’s mouth fell open. She tried to say something…anything.
She wanted to appear calm.
…But who could remain calm in this situation?
The wizard fell to her knees but did not bow her head. She didn’t want to miss a thing.
“Who are you?” Elmiryn asked, her voice guarded. She was still on her feet, but now her fists were balled up at her sides.
The silver-eyed woman looked at her mildly. ”Me?” She let out a throaty chuckle. “The Lycans call me Mother…but you can call me Artemis.”
Elmiryn blinked slowly.
“Artemis?” she echoed.
“Artemis,” the woman said with a nod.
“You’re trying to tell me you’re the Artemis? The Goddess of the Hunt? Mother wolf? Are you joking?” This managed to illicit a growl from one of the Lycan men behind them, but Elmiryn didn’t care.
Gods were supposed to be out of reach. Other-wordly. Omnipotent. This woman looked so…ordinary. Except for maybe her eyes. Her eyes were stark and shrewd.
‘Artemis’ crossed her arms, her wry smirk still in place. ”And thou art the Elmiryn Manard, daughter of Warner and Brianna Manard. Thou were once captain of a company of dragoons, loved and respected by her men. So much so that they forswore their king to help thee escape. Your best friend was your Lieutenant Saelin, who shared in your queerness and tolerated your controversial nature. He once asked you to marry him, out of convenience, and you gave him a black eye. It was the first and last time you had ever truly been angry with him. It was also the last time you’d seen him. Though you knew you could not accept his offer, you regret your reaction.”
Elmiryn bowed her head, her shoulders bunching. Unbidden, the memory came wafting in, carrying Saelin’s voice as if she were just then hearing it.
Sir…Elmiryn. We’re both different. You know that. Why not…why can’t we just…get married? That way our families will stop badgering us, and we can live our lives as we see fit! I…um…Elmiryn? ….Sir?
“Your first love was at the age of seven, and it was with a Higashan acrobat girl whom you had helped run away from home. That experience really shaped you. Though not picky about your partners, you tend to be attracted to the strange, the exotic, and the foreign,” here, the woman’s silver eyes cut to Nyx, who pressed her head to the floor. The girl’s hands and the back of her exposed neck flushed pink. The woman resumed. “Whether out of habit or true belief, thou have on occasion presented offerings to my altar. Your last offering was a fox you’d shot on a new moon night at 500 strides. You bragged so much, you got into a fight with another commanding officer. He’d called you a liar and drew sword whilst your back was turned. You cut his stomach open, letting his entrails tumble over your new boots, which you had to toss away. It was the last time you’d ever sought my blessing.”
The woman sucked at her teeth and looked off to the side. When she looked back at Artemis, she muttered, “I liked those boots…”
“I assure thee, their ruining was not my doing,” Artemis chortled. She shrugged. ”I liked the fox. I was sorry to see your devotion wane.”
“You didn’t feel all that close to me. None of your kind did. After awhile, it felt more like I was talking to myself.”
“And do you not fear the retribution I could bring? You have a lot of cheek, for a mortal.”
“Yeah? Well you look really fucking plain for a god.”
…It happened faster than Elmiryn could even compute.
One moment, she was standing and looking Artemis in the eye–knowing that a god of wolf people would likely interpret that as a challenge–and the next moment, she was up in the air by her throat, her feet not even skimming the floor. When had the goddess moved? Were those claws digging into Elmiryn’s neck?
The warrior’s eyes rolled down to meet the goddess’s, and Artemis regarded her coolly. “Cease behaving like an insolent pup, and I’ll not treat thee as such. I am not your chief god. Your quarrels with Halward are not my concern. Understood?”
The building shook and Elmiryn felt the hairs on her skin stand on end. She gave the best nod she could, which turned out to be a slight twitch of her head.
Artemis dropped her.
The warrior crumpled to the floor, her body shaking. Her throat throbbed. She coughed, red in the face, as she shifted to her hands and knees.
The goddess took a moment to gaze at them all, allowing the weight of the situation to settle in. Yes, she was a god. Yes, she could fuck them up if she wanted to.
…But she wasn’t.
“If we’re to talk of concerns, I have a few I’d like to share with you all,” Artemis said. ”Please. Will you all rise and join me at the window?”
She turned and walked back across the room, and one by one, the others followed. Elmiryn was the last to rise. She stared at the floor, her coughing having quieted to heavy breathing. She felt like hitting something. She hated feeling vulnerable.
She wanted a drink.
Nyx paused to help her up. As she took the warrior’s arm, she leaned in and whispered, “Elle, my gods, are you okay?”
“M’fine…” the woman mumbled as they both straightened.
“Your hands are shaking.”
The warrior cursed and clenched her fists. ”It’s nothing,” she snapped. Then with a wince, she said more gently. ”Just…a little shaken up is all.”
“In the future, can we avoid insulting gods?”
“Duly noted,” the woman muttered.
They joined the others at the window. They all gathered around Artemis, who had taken to sitting on the windowsill again.
The goddess pointed out at the spanning forests around them. ”These forests are sacred. Not just to me, but to any spirit or creature that values life and harmony. My children protect this land from evil, both spiritual and mortal. With my blessing and with the aid of countless spirits, we have turned away a great many threats. But a new taint has entered our lives, and with each passing night, we lose more and more of my children to this wickedness.” She nodded to each of them in turn. ”It is my understanding that each of you are pursuing a way back to your world.”
“Among other things,” Elmiryn said. Her voice was still a little rough.
Artemis nodded, a teasing smile appearing on her face. ”As I’ve heard, you lot have been causing quite the stir with the traveling spirits. They’ve been saying all sorts of things.” The others must have looked alarmed for the goddess’s smile widened, and she added, “Don’t worry. They’re good things…mostly.”
She shifted so that her back leaned against the windowsill, one leg half bent on the ledge, the other tucked against the wall. ”Given all of your experiences, you must know by now that, to proceed, one must overcome obstacles. To seek help, one must help in return. It is no different here, braves.”
“You want our help in slaying this new evil,” Quincy said, her arms crossing.
Artemis gave another nod. ”Tonight my children drink to their fallen brothers. Then when the darkness is at its thickest yet, we hunt. I would ask that each of you join us.”
“What is this threat? What would we be facing?” The wizard asked next.
The goddess sighed. ”We cannot be certain. It is fast. Strong. Filled with hate and rage. It can turn my children against each other, and it causes the trees and the plants to wane and wither as it passes. As for how it looks, I cannot tell you. My children have never survived an encounter with it.”
And yet you keep sending them out to die in your stead. Elmiryn thought darkly.
Artemis looked at her, and the warrior seized up, expecting another attack. How could she be so stupid? Of course the goddess would hear her thoughts.
But the deity’s eyes only held sadness. ”I would gladly take to arms for my children. But there is no way I can fight without harming them all.”
The warrior looked away.
Clearing his throat, Sedwick said, “It’d be our honor to help.”
“Splendid.” The goddess stood and said something in Lycan to the men waiting at the back of the room. One by one they descended back down to the village below. The only one who remained was the male leader. He asked Artemis something, and the goddess gestured vaguely as she responded. He nodded, and started down the tree as well.
Artemis looked back at them. ”Anything you will need, my people can provide you. Rest. Prepare. Tonight, you will need it.”
The goddess turned away from them, looking out at the forests. It seemed their cue to leave. They returned to the floor opening and descended down the rope. First Quincy, then Sedwick, then Nyx. Elmiryn paused, crouched on the floor. She looked at Artemis with squinted eyes.
“I didn’t realize the gods had such a close relationship with mortals.”
Artemis barely turned her head. ”Not all gods like to sit up in heaven. You would do well to remember that.”
Elmiryn pursed her lips and nodded. She started down the rope.
As she descended, the woman heard a commotion going on below. Frowning, she paused to look down.
A group of children had surrounded Quincy, all jumping and cheering. They pulled on her arms and clapped their hands, chanting a single word over and over.
“Shimá! Shimá! Shimá!”
Curious, the warrior doubled her pace, jumping down the rest of the way as soon as it was safe. She found Nyx and Sedwick in the crowd that had gathered, and asked, “What are they saying?”
They gave her equally confused looks. ”We don’t know,” Nyx said. ”There was already a crowd here waiting for us as we came down.”
The people around them started to point, smiles on their faces. The three of them craned their heads to see who was coming through the crowd.
“Can you see who it is?” Nyx asked Elmiryn.
The warrior frowned as the people parted, letting something through. ”Not a fucking thing.”
The last of the villagers stepped aside, and they were finally able to see who was coming.
Nyx’s jaw dropped. ”Oh…my…gods…”
Elmiryn let out a surprised laugh.
Sedwick looked at them both, still confused. ”I’m sorry…do you two know that little boy?”
For the one who had come through the crowd, standing at no more than a full grown man’s chest, was a black boy, with dark brooding eyes and a close-shaved head. He wore animal hide clothes, just like the villagers.
Quincy stared at him, the blood draining from her face. ”Ha…Hakeem?”
The boy nodded. In a voice that still had yet to deepen, he said, “Habari, bwa-mweze.”
That was about the time that Quincy fainted, the children around her letting out cries of alarm as they tried to catch her without being crushed. Hakeem rushed forward, moving with a certainty that belied his small form. Some adults followed close behind.
Nyx and Sedwick stood speechless.
…Elmiryn, on the other hand, couldn’t stop laughing.