Nothing made sense to me as I was blasted off my feet, tree branches clawing at my clothes and skin. The sharp pain was numbed by the sudden surprise. I cartwheeled through the air, limbs and senses in a disarray as I felt the cold high winds whip around me. I caught flashes of the earth below and found myself stories high. As I fell, I screamed out, my voice shrill, and I saw the beast flinch back.
When I hit the ground, I had a crazy moment where I believed that the world had broken beneath me–but then I realized it was the sound of my own bones breaking. I’d fallen at a bad angle with my legs bending in places they shouldn’t have been. My back twisted to the side and I slumped backwards onto the ground. In hindsight, the pain was not the worst I’d ever felt–but I wouldn’t have guessed it at the time! I thought I was dying. I couldn’t move–could hardly breathe even. Blood gurgled up my throat and my eyes rolled up for an upside down view of what was happening.
The beast had been stunned somehow, its head bowed, its body lowered to the ground. Taking advantage of its vulnerability, I saw Makka daringly spearing the beast from the front. Sedwick had gone completely watery, and using his amorphous form, he catapulted Gudahi up onto the beast’s back. The Lycan flipped once and landed with some difficulty. Once his balance was gained, he proceeded to stab at the back of the beast’s massive head.
I heard the crunch of leaves and my eyes rolled to the side to see Hakeem approaching.
Behind him was Quincy.
She was gripping a boomerang with her right hand, and in the crook of that arm, she cradled the left hand, which was bandaged up from cloth.
“Tai’undu, I overdid it again…” she muttered, hurrying to kneel at my side. Up closer, I could see that her left hand was bleeding through the fabric. “Gods, Ailuran. You’re lucky you’re a champion now–I don’t think even one of your kind could survive damage this extensive!”
Hakeem came to my other side, his young face bunched. “Nyx, if we move you into a proper position, will your healing ability kick in?”
Grimacing, I struggled to raise a hand. “S-Sit…sit me up!”
At this, the married couple’s eyes met over me, their faces tense.
I could hear the air tremble as the beast let out a warble that signaled our reprieve was ending. “Hurry!” I gurgled.
All hesitation gone, both wizards took a hold of my hands and my shoulders and lifted me up. I couldn’t help it. I screamed, the sound hoarse and drawn out, my blood slipping past my trembling lips and staining my clothes. But even as the pain sought to undo me, I could feel my ribs and spine begin to heal, torn muscles regaining their strength and vitality at a speed I’d never known before. Was it as Quincy said? Was I only alive because I was a champion?
If it weren’t for the sounds of the beast rousing from its stupor, I’m certain we would have heard my bones snapping and fusing back together.
Weakly, I gestured at my legs. “Now these!”
Quincy and Hakeem did as I asked them, and I could feel my legs begin to right themselves, the crooked bends vanishing. It wasn’t moving fast enough for me, and without thinking I clung to Quincy, my fingers digging into her skin, tears streaming down my face.
“Gods!” I choked out.
She braced herself as my weight began to shift onto her, my body feeling cold. I closed my eyes and felt everything become heavier.
“Nyx, you have to get a grip!” I could hear her say from far off.
My eyelids reluctantly slid open, eyes still rolling in their sockets. My vision was blurry. I could hear a strange voice scream, hear the death of the forest trees as they were uprooted from their only homes, feel the earth trembling in fear beneath us. The wizards’ faces swam over me, blending into the black smear of the sky. I could hear more voices–hoots and hollers. Had others come? Was I just hallucinating? The beast’s roar was like thunder in my head, the intensity once more striking me in pain. My ears would ring for days after this…if I survived, that is.
And as I considered passing out, I saw His golden gaze from the reaches of an ash tree not far from us.
My heart gave a stir, my eyes widening as I tried to get a better look. My tongue pressed into the roof of my mouth, the alkaline taste of my own blood sharpening my senses somehow. My throat moved in a swallow.
“Sir?” I breathed.
Quincy started pulling me up by the arms. “Ailuran, get it together, we have to run!” she shouted.
“Run?” I murmured with a frown. My gaze swiveled back onto the brunette’s face. “Where…where are we gonna go?”
“Nyx, come on!” Hakeem said, pulling on my hand.
My frown deepened and I started to fight them. “No. No!”
Quincy grabbed me around the chest and hefted me up, pain pressing down on me from the suddenness of the motion, the sensations dull but suffocating. I tried to pry the woman’s hands off me. Sound started to come in clearer, despite the ringing in my ears, and I could better hear the cries of many battling the beast. More had come to risk their lives. People were suffering.
“NO!” I shouted.
What was the use? I thought wildly. How could we run from this creature, who could so easily catch us like the prey we were? There was no helping it. We had to stand our ground. And if the others were brave enough to do it…no. No, I would not let myself run away again. Even if I wanted to. Even if every inch of me screamed for it. People we hardly knew were risking their lives to help us, I’d be damned if I cut out on them. I had a responsibility, didn’t I? I was a champion.
This is my path, isn’t it, sir?
“This battle cannot be won! We have to regroup!” Quincy argued in my ear.
I squeezed her wounded left hand, and the woman cried out, releasing me. Hakeem tried to snatch at my legs, but I danced away from him. “I can stop this!”
“Nyx, don’t be a fool!” He shouted, his face drawn in wild incredulity.
“Trust me, Hakeem!”
The wizard hesitated at this, and I took this moment to stumble off into an awkward run toward the beast. My limbs protested all of these heroics, but I ignored them. I could take a beating better than anyone there. I heard Hakeem shout after me, but didn’t stop to look back.
In all the time it took me to heal, so many things had happened. Sanuye was there now with at least four others. Her teeth were bared in ferocity as she rained the beast with arrows from her long bow. There were crushed and mangled corpses littering the newly created clearing—meaning that our reinforcements had been cut down in short time. Off to the side, I saw Makka dragging Sedwick out of danger, the elemental clutching at what looked like a serious wound in his gut. It looked as if Gudahi had managed to cut off some of the beast’s fan-like ears, but now he was on the ground, trying to find an opening for a fatal blow. The beast itself had shifted from its original position to better tower over its prey. Now that its body was no longer concealed by the forest canopy, it was easier to see the magnitude of the danger we faced.
I could see Gudahi flit through the monster’s hind legs, his spear striking for its back tendon. But with one timely kick, he was sent flying into the woods.
“Gudahi!” I screamed.
The beast let out a sharp cry, flinching, its ears turning flat on its massive head.
Startled, I slowed to watch as the creature shook its ears out, its long tongue flashing out to lick its chops. Everyone stopped and turned to look at me, and I gazed back at them with equal bemusement.
Hesitantly, I cupped my hands, and screamed out as loud as I could, “Hey!”
The creature let out another cry, this time going so far as to slink close to the ground and step back. Its ears quivered on its head as they flattened once more. Feeling my heart lift. I pressed in, screaming more at it.
“You ugly bastard! Begone! Abomination! Horrible BEAST!”
Each time I screamed, the creature stepped back, more and more. The Lycans pressed in, trying to take advantage of the situation, but they couldn’t seem to find that killing blow that would end the beast. Its breast seemed too thick, its neck devoid of any vital veins or nerves that would incapacitate it.
Then things turned.
The creature stopped retreating, stopped flinching. Instead, it seemed to become angrier and angrier. It slammed its paws onto the ground, its claws gouging out pounds and pounds of earth. Great stones rained on the few Lycan warriors left standing, and they were forced to retreat.
Alarmed, I tried screaming louder, pushing my diaphragm and expanding my throat muscles. “DIE, DAMN YOU!”
A muted boom could be heard, and I saw the force of my voice carve a way through the churned earth…
But the creature roared, and the force of it seemed to swallow my sonic attack as if it weren’t even there. It came rushing at me like a great wind, and I was blasted back, a sharp pain in my ears like someone had stabbed my ear drums with a knife. I could feel the blood trickle from my ear canals, my eyes rolling once more as I lay flat on my back, stunned. Whereas before my hearing had simply been lessened, this time all I could hear was that infernal ringing. I could feel the earth tremble as the beast came near.
Soon it was looming over me, its maggoty eye raining its putrid bugs on my face. The beast bared its teeth at me, and with a low snarl, it raised its paw and slammed it down…
After following the arnica petals, Quincy had been aware that things were not right even before the pugot appeared. She hadn’t immediately known what it was, or even that its intent was to eat her, but she did know that it was a predatory spirit. Still, her curiosity got the better of her when the slimy devil revealed itself.
“You’re a brave one to go stalking these forests with the beast lurking about,” she’d said.
The spirit giggled. “And you’re a tasty meal that was silly enough to do the same!”
It attacked her, and while she was able to fend it off and escape, the damned thing bit off her left hand’s pinky and ring finger at the second knuckle. It would have had more, if it hadn’t been for her boots. She hadn’t told the others what they did when she’d picked them back at the dwarven settlement, but after a quick identification ritual, she learned her new boots brought misfortune to those who tried to eat her. But as was the case with most wizardry items, there was a catch—the boots did in fact bring misfortune to any who would try to eat Quincy, as was evidenced by what occurred to Tonatiuh and the pugot. What it failed to mention was that any creature was allowed one bite before this came into effect. So the pugot had a bite of the woman’s fingers, but at least she was able to get away.
But surviving was the point, wasn’t it? Live to fight another day, and all that. Elmiryn would consider it giving up, but the brunette saw it more as a tactical retreat.
That said, Quincy didn’t understand Nyx’s sudden drive. The battle was clearly hopeless at this point–the beast was unmoved by the Lycans’ skills or her magic. They sought its weak points only to realize it had none. Its great size and reach reduced all advantages to nothing. Given what she’d learned from the Lycans she’d treated, she wasn’t even sure how they’d managed to survive for so long. What else could the Ailuran do? What else could any of them do?
It’s more important that we survive this than die fighting—we need to formulate a new strategy, gather a bigger fighting force. We cannot win like this! The woman thought.
But as the Ailuran fought against Quincy and Hakeem’s grip, the woman saw that this logic was clearly not on the girl’s mind.
“NO!” she shouted.
“This battle cannot be won! We have to regroup!” Quincy snarled, struggling to keep a hold.
Absently, the woman thought, Elmiryn will try to kill me if something happens to this little idiot.
The struggle was decided when Nyx purposefully squeezed Quincy’s injured hand. She cried out, releasing the Ailuran. Hakeem tried to stop the girl, but off she went, stumbling to her doom. Afterwards, the woman told herself she tried. She said it over and over and fought to keep the vision of Graziano’s corpse out of her head.
She tried. She tried.
Then she saw why it was they hadn’t been destroyed yet. Nyx’s voice seemed to have an effect on the beast, much like it did in the battle against Tonatiuh. In retrospect, the wizard saw that each time the girl had screamed, whether in pain or out of fear, the beast had been staggered, buying them all more time. Against all odds, it seemed they could win this battle, and Quincy’s hopes began to lift.
Of course, it wasn’t to last.
Somehow, the monster fought against the girl’s powerful voice, and in a cruel twist, it proved to have a sonic force of its own. With one strong blast, it had Nyx on her back. The sound had affected them all, and Quincy was on the ground with Hakeem, yelling and clutching at her ears. She was aware of the beast moving toward Nyx, but couldn’t move herself to intervene. She just watched, a cold feeling entering her gut, as the monster raised its massive claw and slammed it down on the girl.
Everything fell silent after that. No one moved. The beast seemed content to linger there, to better savor its victory.
The force of the slam sent Nyx into the ground a good few inches. One of its claws buried itself in the girl’s gut, her blood mixing with the black ichor that stained the beast’s paws. Her entire lower body was swallowed beneath the creature’s great palm.
This didn’t last either.
A blackness started to sweep beneath them both, like a vast shadow, but nothing loomed overhead. A dark smoke emanated from the ground, and Quincy could see the veins in the beast’s naked paw bulge out. The creature let out a low cry and tried to pull its paw away, but it seemed stuck. Its struggles grew more frantic as it fought with all its might to become free. The Lycans yelled as they avoided the sweep of its massive tail. Nyx stared up at the beast with glazed eyes, her face stained with her own blood spray. An expression of anguish was frozen there. Quincy thought it was a look haunted with understanding…but of what?
Then the beast and the Ailuran began to sink into the ground.
The monster shrieked and fought, but try as it might, it could not stop its descent into the shadows with Nyx.
All present watched, stunned, as the beast’s massive form sank into the earth, the shadow that took it receding as it went. Soon Nyx, the monster, and the shadow were gone.
Quincy was the first to rise to her feet. Swaying, she walked to the place where Nyx had lain. Then she turned her eyes on to the others. “She’s gone…” she said.
The brunette closed her eyes at the voice, but slowly she turned to face the speaker. When she opened her eyes, she saw Elmiryn standing there, cradling her arm, her face pale. Panting, she stepped closer.
“Quincy, who’s gone?” she demanded fiercely.
Words did not slip to her through the dark of the forest, no illuminating messages, no taunting thoughts. Meznik was absent, as was all sense of regret or remorse. She was barreling towards a fate shrouded in mystery and chaos, but she would happily meet this end if all it meant was keeping her friend safe. She had promised. The woman had promised to be there, and never had she cared so much to keep such a promise. Harmony be damned, the warrior would turn reality on its head before she found herself barred from being there for Nyx.
…And it felt good, to admit this sort of thing.
It was fuel for fighting, and Elmiryn willed her body to keep moving, because she knew time was of the essence—could feel it as assuredly as one felt a blade against their skin. She clutched at her limp arm, sweat dripping into her eyes as she tried to find her way through the dark. She didn’t know where she was going. She just knew she had to get away from the village before they realized what she’d done.
“Did your master teach you that?” Artemis asked, stepping out from behind a tree up ahead.
Elmiryn ran past her with out sparing a glance. “I have no master,” she panted.
Artemis appeared further on still, sitting on a rock with her head in her hands. “No. I have decided you must have a master. There is no way you could have done that trick without someone to have taught it to you.”
“I don’t have a fucking master!” Elmiryn snapped, charging on still.
Without a sound, the goddess appeared running alongside her. With great ease, she said, “I heard whispers of Nadi the River Guardian suffering from just such a trick as that. Making people believe what isn’t there? Thou art a clever one! And was it truly thine efforts that freed the city of Gamath, or was it all a ruse?”
Elmiryn bared her teeth but didn’t answer. Artemis knew the truth, she was just toying with the woman. But the redhead didn’t have time for games. She had to find Nyx.
At some point, the goddess vanished, and the warrior lost herself in the ways of the forest. The trees murmured over her, their interweaving branches like bastions against the looming void overhead. The world was stuck in a silent nightmare, fear permeating everything from the soil, to the bark, to the rocks, to the leaves, leaving the air to be repressed by anxiety. Elmiryn steeled herself as best she could.
Then she heard it. She heard the beast off in the distance. The woman tried to stop, but her body was clumsy with fatigue, and she tumbled to the forest floor. The roar was unmistakable—in all the time they had stayed with the Lycans, Elmiryn had never heard such a fierce roar. It echoed from far off, and with a curse, the warrior realized she was on the wrong side of the forest. With difficulty, the woman raised herself up again and resumed her run, this time in the direction of the beast’s cries.
The woman was beyond frustrated by the limitations of her body. She felt almost confined by it, and why not? After experiencing the speed of realization in her strange subconscious haven, who could stand the laborious reality of the real world? But her perseverance was rewarded as the sounds of battle grew closer. She heard Nyx scream out—she was using her voice to fight the beast by the sounds of it. The woman felt a rush, her hairs standing on end at the amount of power the young girl held in her Words.
But then there was that fierce roar that ended it all. Elmiryn screamed, falling onto her knees, her hand going to her ear. Shivering, she thought she felt something dripping down her ear lobe, and when she checked her hand, she found it was blood. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw something large and white, and she snapped her head to see.
Sitting on a small rise of earth, a white wolf with dark eyes peered at her impassively. Blinking in the darkness over the animal’s shoulder was a golden reptilian gaze. Elmiryn stared between them, then cocked her ear as something occurred to her.
The sounds of battle had stopped.
Rising to her feet, the woman tried to clear her ears of the blood and the ringing. When this proved hopeless, she cradled her dead arm and cut through the thick brush. The woman skirted the wild reaches of a fallen tree, which opened a view of such destruction that Elmiryn was stopped in her tracks. It were as though the gods had reached down with great hands and churned the soil, overturning the life and order that had once existed there. Bodies were strewn about, mangled and dismembered, and off to the side she saw Sedwick, hurt but still alive by the looks of it. Quincy and Hakeem were also there, the brunette moving to a spot out in the messy clearing.
“She’s gone…” she said.
Elmiryn tensed as she stepped forward, breathing heavily. “Who’s gone?”
The wizard closed her eyes, and after a moment, turned and looked at the woman. Was that an apology in her eyes? Somehow, it incensed the warrior further, and the redhead snapped, “Quincy, who’s gone?”
The other woman sighed. “Nyx,” she said after a moment, looking away. “Nyx is gone.”
The Lycans seemed to come out of their stunned silence and moved to one another’s aid. One woman with a bow dashed back out into the woods, shouting, “Gudahi! Gudahi!”
Elmiryn kept her eyes on Quincy as she approached. “What happened?”
“We fought, we lost,” Quincy said, defensiveness beginning to creep into her voice.
The warrior snarled, cutting in front of the woman. “What. Happened?”
Azure met cerulean. Quincy did not look away. “Nyx tried to save us. She tried using her power of voice to subdue the beast but…but the beast fought back, almost as if it had the same power. She was beaten. She…” The wizard trailed off, her eyes fluttering.
Elmiryn heard Hakeem’s voice off to the side. “She sank into the shadows. With the beast.”
The redhead turned to look at the young-looking wizard, his dark face bunched in a deep scowl. “She sacrificed herself to save us all.”
“Sacrificed?” the woman repeated, squinting her eyes. Then her gaze widened and she turned to look back the way she’d come.
Stomping that way, she shouted, “Lacertli! You slimy fucking bastard, this is your fault, isn’t it!?”
A hand grabbed her shoulder and pulled her back roughly. The warrior found herself meeting Quincy’s infuriated gaze. “Watch your tongue! If Lacertli is a god, then we wouldn’t want to repeat the experience you had with Artemis, now would we!?”
Elmiryn’s jaw tensed, her eyes illuminated with her rage. “God of sacrifice? God of dreamwalking? He’s just a creep skulking in the shadows–!” the woman broke off with a sharp intake of breath. Eyes fluttering, she looked at Hakeem wildly. “Wizard, did you say Nyx sank into the shadows?”
Hakeem nodded. “Yes she–” his eyes brightened. “…She did.” He laughed. “She sank into the shadows!”
Quincy looked between them, her face screwed up. “Is there something I’m missing? The girl was simultaneously impaled and half-crushed. You two honestly think she would have survived that?”
The trap has sprung, Elmiryn. Now to free thy kitten, thou must find the one who set it in the first place.
Elmiryn nodded slowly. “That’s what I have to do. Artemis knew I wouldn’t get here in time to stop this. What I can do is get her back.” Then she paused and thought with a frown. “I wonder if that constitutes as accepting help from her?”
Quincy gave her a weird look. “What’re you babbling about?”
The warrior waved her question away. “Listen. We have to find the one who set the beast loose to begin with!”
The brunette placed her hands on her hips as her husband rubbed his chin in thought. “Who’s to say that the beast was ‘set loose’? What if it just came into being on its own?”
Elmiryn looked at her as if she were stupid. “Everything comes from something.” Then she added with a jerk of her chin. “By the way, what the fuck happened to your hand?”
The wizard crossed her arms, hiding her bandaged left hand in the folds of her arms–but the warrior saw the blood stains. “It’s nothing,” the wizard bit out.
The woman shrugged and said, “Fine. Anyway, I think I have an idea of where to start looking.”
“And where’s that?” Hakeem asked, though his eyes held knowing.
Elmiryn sucked at her teeth, then nodded her head at the woods. “I hope you guys are up for another hunt. We have a Twin to find!”