We were sitting on the ground outside of the medicine man’s hut, and Elmiryn was grinning like an imp.
“This is almost too much!” she giggled.
“Elmiryn…” Sedwick rubbed at his face and sighed.
“There’s something poetic about this. I’m sure if I think hard enough on it…”
I gave her a look. ”The woman just passed out from shock!”
“I know!” Elmiryn squealed delightedly. ”C’mon, didn’t you find it a little bit funny?”
I’m sure there was some cosmic joke tucked away in all of this, and perhaps hindsight would grant me access to it, but at the moment I wasn’t amused. ”Elle, please. Please. For heaven’s sakes! Just leave it alone!”
The redhead’s smile remained firmly in place, but she said no more of the matter.
Outside the hut across from us was a family in mourning. Their hair was singed short, they wore gray animal fur over their shoulders, and their faces were smeared in charcoal. What got me was their red, grief-stricken eyes, which blinked slowly at us.
Tonight my children drink to their fallen brothers.
The sight touched close to home for me, and I hastened to look away.
Without our escorts hurrying us by, we were able to see more of the secretive Lycan tribe. I was on edge, my hands curled on my knees, back straight, eyes darting. Even without the heightened senses of my Twin, I could still smell the must of fur all about me, that antagonizing smell of foreign beasts.
After the commotion outside of the giant tree, the crowd had largely dispersed, save for a few curious onlookers–mostly the young free of chores or duties–all interested in the strange outsiders that were now amidst them. I squirmed under the attention, pulling out my snacks to nibble on while we waited. I handed Sedwick and Elmiryn pieces, and they murmured their thanks. The food was a small comfort.
Children hovered near us, down the village trail, round faces a little dirty, but full and rosy. They squealed whenever we looked their way and scampered out of sight.
Then Hakeem stepped out from behind the curtained doorway of the medicine hut.
He looked at each of us, his boyish face holding a severity to it that seemed incongruous. How could this be that sentinel of a man I had met before? He was so slim, so small…
Then again, Hakeem hadn’t been very tall, had he?
“Tonatiuh,” the wizard said. It sounded like a demand.
Elmiryn shook her head. ”Gone.”
His young face frowned. ”Forever?”
“Seems that way.”
Hakeem sat down next to Elle. He stretched out his legs, his dark eyes sweeping over their surroundings before settling on his bare toes. His skin was ashy all over, and he looked to have quite a few fresh scrapes and bruises on his slim legs, but otherwise he looked fine. He was no prisoner here. When he nodded to villagers as they passed, they even nodded back.
“How is she?” the warrior asked. She managed not to smile when she said this, and I let out a little sigh of relief.
“She hasn’t opened her eyes yet, but the healer suspects she’ll be all right.”
“That’s good,” Sedwick said with a nod. He reached over us to shake hands with Hakeem. ”I’m Sedwick, by the way. I’ve been traveling with your wife for a short time.”
Hakeem gave a polite nod, and we sat silent for a time.
Then Elmiryn burst out with a laugh. “Gods! I can’t take it anymore! What the fuck happened to you, wizard?!”
I rolled my eyes shut and waited for Hakeem’s angry response.
Instead, the man–or rather–the boy, said mildly, “I’ve lost my age. Artemis tells me that to lose things is a common side effect of entering this dimension. Especially for mortals.”
“That’ll be a hard thing to get back,” Sedwick murmured. ”How do you reclaim years? Piece by piece or as a whole?”
Hakeem shook his head. ”I don’t know.” He sounded tired when he said this.
I bit my lip at the pause that came. Then I said, with a tentative glance, “I lost my Twin. My animal counterpart, I mean. She…um…she…we…are kind of like separate personalities…only…only we live in the same head.” As soon as the words left my mouth, I felt like a fool. How could Hakeem understand this without suspecting I was a lunatic?
But he didn’t give me a weird look. He just put on a thoughtful expression and said, “That’s interesting.”
Elmiryn put an arm around my shoulders. I felt a pleasant feeling rush through me and nestled deeper into her side. Her voice echoed through me when she spoke and my insecurity faded. ”I lost my definition. Y’know. That thing that keeps us in a single, solid form. I didn’t remember who or what I was. Then I got my definition back.” She gave me a squeeze.
“If only you could have lost that crudeness of yours instead…” Sedwick grumbled.
The woman just laughed, and at the sight of Sedwick’s wry smile, I couldn’t help but grin. It felt good, feeling her laughter go through me…
When Elmiryn’s laughter faded, I looked at Hakeem as something occurred to me. “You said that the loss of things in this dimension is common for mortals. So other mortals have been here before?”
“If the goddess says it is so…”
“Gods can’t lie?” Elmiryn said.
We all stared at her.
She wasn’t looking at anyone, but had on an inward look. When she felt everyone’s gazes, she glanced at us all. ”What? Believe it or not, I was just asking a question.”
“What reason would they have to lie to us?” I asked, frowning.
The warrior held up her hand but said nothing further.
Sedwick was outright glaring at her. Hakeem didn’t seem to care either way.
I cleared my throat. ”W-Well I suppose mortals must have been here, if Syria found a spell that opened a gateway to this dimension. It was a silly question, I suppose.”
“But her spell went wrong.” Hakeem pointed out. ”When a complex spell of that sort is weaved, there is only so much time before it begins to deteriorate. We managed to stall her long enough that the structure of her spell was changed. On top of that, Paulo was to be her original sacrifice. Since Graziano was killed in his stead, that means that the results could have been drastically altered.”
Elmiryn frowned. ”Soo…Syria wasn’t trying to get here?”
“This is a half-way world. A confusing mix of crossroads and backroads. This could have been between whatever it was that the witch was trying to get to.”
“But what exists beyond this place and our world?” I wondered aloud. Even as I said this, I knew there were dozens of worlds. Strange places that I’d seen in the fog as we’d Traveled. Were any of those Syria’s true destination?
“That’s the question, isn’t it?” Hakeem muttered.
The doorway curtain parted and a man with a smooth face but bushy brows looked down at Hakeem. ”Your Shimá has awoken.”
Hakeem was on his feet in an instant. Without sparing us a backward glance, he went inside the hut.
We sat there for another minute, before Elmiryn rose to her feet. She took in a deep breath, her eyes drifting toward the center of the village before they fixed back on us. ”Well. Quincy’s not dead. I’m going to find some place where I can relieve myself without being stared at by wolves. Nyx, you want to meet up in a bit?”
I stood. ”Yes. Maybe at the base of the big tree?”
We looked at Sedwick.
He waved at us. ”You two go on. I’ll wait here.”
Elmiryn gave a nod and looked at me as she began to backpedal down the trail which lead away from the village center. There was something eager about her behavior that caught me off guard. Maybe she just really had to go? ”See you in a few?”
I nodded with a smile. The woman turned and trotted off.
With a sigh, I hugged myself. I looked toward the giant tree where I knew Artemis was watching over her children from above. I felt a twinge of envy. The Lycans were so blessed to have their Mother so close at hand. Ailurans begged and scraped just for the briefest word from their goddess. Why did Aelurus find us so undeserving of such attention? Why wasn’t she more like Artemis?
But then I felt a chill and my hairs stood on end. Blasphemous thoughts. What the gods did and didn’t do was not for me to say. I was an abomination, after all.
I started to feel trembly, and when I told myself to walk, my feet remained planted. The Lycan scent seemed to grow thicker about me. I bit my lip and looked at Sedwick.
He looked up, a bemused smile on his face.
I smiled at him anxiously. ”Y-You sure you don’t want to come with me?”
It was hot in this place. The heat came up over her head, drowning her thoughts in a dizzying swirl. Quincy lay in her bed, only a shift on. Tobias didn’t yell at her for it. In the village of Kimbia, the young girls wore small cloth skirts with beaded necklaces around their necks, and nothing more. The girl had only been there for four days and she already felt like it had been a year. Her father, Jack, had left yesterday, promising to bring her back a special gift. Meanwhile, she was to stay with her uncle Tobias. The man in question stirred the iguana stew. He hummed, his back to her as he sat hunched near the fire.
The Fanaean language was still strange to her ears, and she felt like crying whenever someone tried to speak to her in the alien tongue. The other children would point at her and laugh, pinching her white skin and calling her ‘dubwana’ over and over. Quincy refused to go outside.
Outside of their hut, she heard Ma’Nguele barking at her son. The woman lived in the hut next to theirs, and it was much bigger, fitting a family of seven–soon to be eight. Tobias and Jack were friends with the family, and she was often dragged over whenever they visited.
A moment later, a sullen voice drifted in through their open doorway. ”Habari-kuz.”
Tobias looked over his shoulder and smiled crookedly. ”Habari, Hakeem.”
“Je, Quincy kuja nje ya kucheza?”
“Ndiyo,” Tobias said with a nod. He looked at Quincy. ”Hakeem wants to play, little bird.”
She shook her head and turned her face away. Hakeem was Ma’Nguele’s middle son. He was older than her by a year, and unlike the other children, he was very serious. He was also one of the few who didn’t tease her.
There was a sigh from her uncle. ”Yeye ni aibu,” he said to Hakeem.
Quincy felt a tap on her shoulder, and looked up. The tears that had been slipping from her eyes trailed down her cheek.
Hakeem’s dark eyes fixed on hers. He was frowning a little, but there was something intent in his gaze that made the girl blush.
Slowly, he extended his hand. ”Njoo, Quincy. Usiogope.”
…Come, Quincy. Don’t be afraid.
Quincy stared up at the hut’s ceiling, the lingering smoke of unconsciousness still clouding her awakening. Her eyes misted with the memory of that day back in Kimbia, the day Hakeem first took her hand and made her less afraid. It had been very awkward at first, and the boy had gotten more than a little frustrated with Quincy’s inability to keep up. The girl was tender-footed and had tired easily. Partway through the day, Quincy had tripped and fell into a flower bed, scraping her knee, and she couldn’t stop crying.
But instead of getting mad, like she thought he would, Hakeem had stood over her, his cheeks red, uncertain of what to do. He seemed to stare for longer than was necessary, his eyes going from Quincy’s blubbering face, to her mussed up hair, to her knobby shoulders, and her pale chicken legs. Then he sat down next to her and started to make her a crown of white flowers. She watched, red eyed and red nosed, still sniffling.
When he was finished, he gently placed it on her head. “Yako nzuri,” he said, smiling at her for the first time. She hadn’t known what it meant at the time, or what she had done exactly to get the boy to stop frowning at her, but with time, she came to understand.
Quincy wasn’t sure if she was still dreaming. She lay prone on the bed, which was lumpy but soft. She feared moving, afraid some part of her reality would break should she do so.
The hut’s curtain pulled back as Hakeem entered with the healer. Her eyes widened, and a chill ran up her spine. It was like being taken to the past.
Quincy’s face crumpled and she covered her face with her hands, rolling onto her side so that her back was to the boy. The tears came faster than she could hide them.
She felt a hand on her shoulder. The woman couldn’t bring herself to look up. ”I’m sorry!” she whispered between her palms. ”Hakeem, I’m so sorry…”
“For what?” she heard him say, but his voice was young and light, as it once had been. She flinched to hear it, and curled up into a ball.
“I’m sorry…I’m sorry about everything.”
“This is all my fault.”
“No. It isn’t.”
The wizard let out a bitter laugh and lowered her hands to twist around and look at him. ”You stand there, and all I can see is the boy I hurt. I want to warn him. To tell him to run away from me, before his family dies and his world is ripped apart, but I can’t. Those things are still in the past, even as the past stares me in the face.” She choked on these last words and looked away again.
“Quincy.” His voice held a shadow of its former self, and the woman was startled enough to peek at him out of the corner of her eye. Hakeem sat on the edge of the bed, but his back was to her. His head hung between his shoulders. ”It was hard at first. Seeing myself as I once was. But…it doesn’t bother me like you think. I don’t wish for things lost. I wish for what could be. The good things, the things I used to hope for as a boy but somehow stopped believing in along the way.” He looked at her, his young face pressed into a solemn look. ”So don’t apologize.”
Quincy’s breath caught, and she rolled onto her back, her hip touching Hakeem’s back. She reached out a hand, and the boy took it with both of his. They were still rough, but not as large or as calloused as they had been when he was an adult. They were slim and still yet retained some of their gentleness, moving over her fingers and palm with a knowing that came only with age.
…But Hakeem was a boy, and the woman was acutely aware of that fact.
She sat up and sighed. ”How can we return you to normal?”
The boy shrugged. ”I’ve been searching for a way here, and the Lycans have been kind enough to help, despite their hardships.”
“Will you hunt with them tonight?”
Hakeem nodded. ”I have been since before you arrived. The Lycans found me and took me in. It’s been almost two weeks now. With all they’ve been through, and all they’ve done for me, I couldn’t just sit back, child or no. I owe them a lot.”
“You’ve been doing this for two weeks!?”
“Yes. How long has it been for you?”
“It’s felt like no more than two days. I haven’t slept since we’ve started this journey.”
“Then perhaps this is the time to rest, Mweze. If you’re to participate in the hunt, you will need all your strength.”
Quincy shook her head, looking at him with brows pressed up. She felt worried at the thought of Hakeem, stuck in the body of a child, joining in the hunt, but she didn’t wish to insult him by saying so. He’d been at it all this time all ready, hadn’t he?
It didn’t matter. He could read the look on her face clearly. And she used to be so impassive.
“I’m fine,” he said. Her husband stood and struck a hand over his heart. ”I may be younger, but I am still Hakeem.”
The woman smiled, feeling proud at the fighting spirit she saw in her husband’s eyes. It made her tears feel silly, and she hurried to wipe the last of these away.
“I’m glad I found you, Taika.”
“And I am glad you came, Mweze.” He kissed her forehead. ”Sleep. We’ll talk more soon.” He turned and started to leave.
Quincy reached forward and grabbed his arm, “Wait!”
Her husband looked at her curiously, and the woman blushed. His eyes widened at this, and he turned to her fully. ”…Yes, Quincy?”
Suddenly shy, the woman looked up at him through her eyelashes. “Naku penda, Hakeem…”
The boy seemed taken aback, his mouth falling open. Then he slowly smiled, and squeezed her hand.
“I love you too, Quincy.”
Elmiryn stared at her hands as they shook. The wind swept through the trees and shifted the glowing branches, casting the green light over her in a dance of shadows that masked her distress. The woman had stumbled out into the forest proper, sweat dripping down her face as she felt her heart beating like a rabbit beneath her chest. With a shuddering breath, the woman rubbed at her face, then her neck. She took off her jacket and hung on it a nearby tree.
Closing her eyes, she leaned against the trunk and turned her thoughts inward, calling up that familiar melody…
His response was swift, but his musical voice was lazy and distant.
What is it?
What’s happening to me?
We’ve all ready gone over this.
No. Not that. This. This…problem, I keep having.
Oh. You mean your newfound addiction?
I’ve had men in my unit turn to the bottle before.
They didn’t suffer this way.
Of course they didn’t.
They suffered addictions of the body.
Yours is a spiritual addiction.
In becoming a fae,
You interact with the world in a way
That no mortal could dream of.
It has its repercussions.
You must drink often
To stave off your withdrawals,
For between sips,
They come back quick, and with a vengeance.
You’re now something of a lightweight, too,
No longer needing as much
To dance with the pink elephants.
Less tolerance, more misery.
There really isn’t much more to it.
But I can beat this?
Like a normal addiction,
I can stop?
Meznik laughed, that awful trilling sound, and Elmiryn’s lip curled.
If you had the will of a god.
Her eyes snapped open at that, and Meznik’s laughter echoed louder in her head, making it throb in pain. She hissed and pressed her palms into her temples, body curling from the assault. Eventually, the sound faded, and all that Elmiryn could hear was the Lycan village nearby.
“Meznik?” she whispered.
The woman cursed and snatched her coat off the tree, her eyes holding fire. She heard a whippoorwill chirping off in the distance. The trees rustled again, sending their haunting emerald glow to cast shadows over the woman’s face once more.
Elmiryn gripped her coat with both hands, felt her trembles fighting through her grip even as she tried to still her hands by clutching the fabric with all her might. The woman let out a breath through her mouth and it felt so dry.
“The will of a god,” she hissed. ”The will of a god.”
She tried saying this over and over, wondering if that would somehow ease the ache she felt in her chest. But the coat seemed heavier for its prize, and the woman felt a manic feeling begin to rise up in her.
“Fuck it!” she spat.
With clawing hands, Elmiryn produced the flask from her coat, and as soon as the cap was off, she drained the entire thing. It was only after the last drop slithered down her throat that she realized what she’d done, and the woman yelled and threw the flask at a tree.
But it didn’t strike.
A hand had caught it. A slim, small hand, connected to a slim, small creature, whose eyes glared at Elmiryn with impunity. It was like a tiny naked child, but with lanky limbs, and a big head. Its hair was white and swept back in soft spikes, defying gravity, and its eyes were large, dark, and watery. Its pointed ears gave a twitch, and within a moment, several others appeared in the trees around the woman.
Dryads. Tree nymphs.
The woman started to back up, but her coat, which had been discarded on the ground at her feet, tangled about her boots, making her fall onto her backside. Elmiryn winced and looked up just in time to see the flask flying back at her head.
It connected, hitting her forehead on a corner, and she let out a shout as she slapped both hands to the spot.
Still grimacing, the woman looked up at the branches. The nymphs still sat there, glaring at her. The one who had thrown the flask had even folded its arms across its chest. It tapped a long slim finger expectantly.
The woman she rose and started to gather her things. ”Sorry. Didn’t mean to…insult you. Or your…uh…tree.”
She put on her coat and slipped her now empty flask back into its inside pocket. The trembles were once more fading away, replaced with a warm, heavy feeling. With hands help up, she backpedaled toward the village. ”Forgive and forget?”
The dryad leader extended its middle finger and bared its sharp teeth.
Elmiryn’s eyebrows rose. ”Guess not.”