Back arched. She clawed, legs kicking as her suffering dragged out a deep primal scream.
Shouts, 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–
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!”
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–”
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…
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.
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!?”