Of course, things didn’t take off right then and there. As much as Elmiryn would have liked to go marching straight into the forest to enact her half-baked plan, there was still the present to deal with–namely the wounded. It appeared that the Lycans had been quicker than the warrior in finding Nyx, a point that annoyed her for unknown reasons, but she paid this little mind. Of the wolfish party, at least half had been cut down in very little time by the beast. This fact did not surprise Elmiryn in the slightest, and though she did not laugh at their demise, she did not feel sorry for them either. Encounters of this nature were a crucible of sorts that burned away those who could not stand the test. She had seen it dozens of time in war, and given her life as it was now, she expected to see it dozens of times more. These men and women were more than just warriors–they were tough spiritual beings. They would either get over this, or die trying.
…But this road of tribulation was not a lonely one, something the redhead was eternally grateful for. Always were there a chosen few who just had a knack for surviving. The wizards, Quincy and Hakeem, were clearly possessed with this extraordinary mettle. Sedwick as well. The man in question had been slashed in the gut by a stray swipe by the beast, yet he still stood on his own two feet, hands seeping with blue blood as he gripped his abdomen. Quincy argued with him at length to lay down and stop moving, but the ex-blacksmith fended off her attempts at first aid.
“Damn it, woman! These therians aren’t the only fast healers!” he ground out, leaning against a tree with a scowl.
Quincy threw her hands up into the air. “Oh! Fine! Well when your body heals shut with your guts at your feet, don’t come looking for me to put you right again!” She stomped away, muttering about, “Arrogant magic-types and their confounded masochism…”
Elmiryn approached the man as they both watched the brunette move to help the other wounded. With little to nothing to work with, Quincy was determined to do what she could. The warrior didn’t say anything, but she thought she saw a sort of fervor there, fueled by something unquenchable. It reminded her of her newfound addiction, so she averted her eyes. Did the wizard blame herself for what happened to Nyx? Elmiryn was tempted to do the same, but deep inside, she knew that sometimes seconds were all a person had to act on.
It was one of the trials of an adventurer. And who was to say they weren’t just that? Adventurers. The warrior had always wanted to be the hero of a story. Meznik had called her out on the old dream–but that was all it was. An old dream. Elmiryn had seen enough on the battlefield to know that one man’s hero was another man’s villain, and even then, the lines were indefinite.
“You should’ve let her look at it, at least,” Elmiryn admonished Sedwick lightly.
The man glanced at her sideways. “I may not heal as quickly as Nyx or the Lycans, but I will heal, and I will live. What about you? How do you feel?” His breath was slow. Labored.
“I want to get moving,” the woman said. “I may not even wait for the others. I’m not sure how much time I have.”
Sedwick chuckled darkly. “We always seem to be running…” but the man winced, a gasp slipping his pale lips. His white eyes fluttered as he stared at his wound. His hands came away, and the woman grimaced to see the elemental’s fatty flesh gushing with blood.
Elmiryn let her dead arm hang at her side and placed a firm hand on the man’s shoulder. “Sedwick, sit.”
As she guided the man down with strong suggestion, Sedwick offered little fight, the will he’d wielded against Quincy waning in the face of his fleeing strength. Swallowing audibly, he looked at Elmiryn with brows pressed together.
“See? Look where your bravado’s gotten you now, Sed,” Elmiryn scolded. “Don’t you remember what Quincy told us about her time in the medicine hut? All those people she treated? An injury from the beast isn’t like a normal injury. I think you’re going to have to sit this one out.”
“To hell with that,” the man snarled, starting to sit up, “Nyx is–” but he broke off with a grunt, his head rocking back into the soil.
Elmiryn turned her head, her eyes wide. “Hey! Someone get over here, quick!”
Sedwick grabbed her arm, pulling at her. “I’m fine!” and after he stilled his body, the look on his face seemed to confirm this. The man was pale and shivering, but he wasn’t racked with pain, and his voice was strong and steady. “But maybe…you’re right, Elle.” He sighed, covering his face with one bloody hand. “I don’t know if I can be of any help anymore.”
Elmiryn patted Sedwick’s shoulder. “We’ve only got one more Road to take before we find what we need, Sed. Don’t worry about it. You helped us a great deal. Nadi will be proud.”
He smiled weakly, the scar on the side of his face wrinkling. “What’s your plan from here? I thought I heard you mentioning something before, with Quincy and Hakeem.”
The warrior puckered her lips and exhaled through her nose. Looking back over her shoulder, she saw Quincy talking with one of the walking injured. Hakeem was rushing to the aid of the Lycan archer woman, who had the arm of another over her shoulders. A long-haired man, fair of face. He looked shocked but otherwise whole.
Elmiryn looked back at Sedwick. “I want to find Nyx’s Twin.”
Sedwick’s eyebrows rose high. “Her? Why?”
“She’s been in the forest about as long as Hakeem stayed in the village. She’s a survivor. Having had to live with that threat for that long with nowhere else to go, she would need to know where to avoid the beast. Plus…” the woman trailed off.
The man frowned. “What is it?”
Elmiryn shook her head. “This all seems too convenient. These obstacles we’ve come across. I’m starting to feel like they were set there just for us. All of us. We’re related to the beast somehow, and I gotta find out what that connection is. The Twin is the only one I’m not sure about, so I gotta find her. Ask her questions.”
“Oh, I’m sure she’ll be happy to answer them.”
They shared a dark chuckle.
A glance over her shoulder told the warrior that her time for departure was nearing. A messenger had already been sent to the village, and all that could be done for the injured had been covered. Clothes torn for bandages, herbal roots dug up and chewed, bones set, cuts stopped…Quincy toiled at the heart of this, sweat on her brow, the exhaustion bringing her age about her in ways unexpected–the dullness of her gaze, the weary rote motions of her hands, the slightest slump of her shoulders…
Their eyes met, and Elmiryn lingered there…and found sentiments reflected. Again, she looked away.
“Sedwick, I don’t think I’ll be seeing you again after this. Not for a long time.”
The man gazed up at her, his face tightening in confusion. “What do you mean? You aren’t coming back to the village? Ever?”
The woman shook her head. “When you go back, you’ll probably hear things. Just know that I didn’t intend for anyone to get hurt. All I wanted was to help Nyx. The Lycans either understand that, or they don’t.”
She gave his shoulder a gentle squeeze. “It…was an honor fighting at your side, Sedwick of Gamath.”
Sedwick stared at her. Then his face screwed up. “Oh sod off with that formal bullshit, Elle. We both know that isn’t you.”
The woman burst out in a hearty laugh, her lips spreading wide to show her full smile. “Yeah. Yeah, okay, you’re right.” She gazed at him meaningfully, then gave a nod. “I’ll see ya soon, Sed.”
The man returned the nod. “Safe travels, you. Even if you can’t visit, send a letter. One of the townspeople will bring it to me.”
Elmiryn stood, and with one last grin, she turned and approached Quincy from behind. The wizard was currently checking the fair-faced Lycan’s eyes using a lit match. The female archer still supported him, her face hard but telling of worry by the lines around her eyes and the deep wrinkle in her brow. Behind them stood Hakeem and another dark-haired Lycan man, with short spiky hair and a stoic face.
“I’m going,” she said, to no one in particular.
All stopped to look at her.
Quincy narrowed an eye at her as she blew out the match. “Just like that? You’re just going to ‘go’?”
Elmiryn shrugged. “Sure. Why not?”
The brunette snorted, turning her eyes back to the long-haired Lycan. “Gudahi, I think you may have a slight concussion, but there’s no way for me to be sure. And judging by the tenderness of your ribs, some of them may be dislocated or worse. Just stay and wait until help arrives.”
The man was already shaking his head. “I’m fine. I’m whole. I can fight.”
“I really think you should–”
“The beast is it dead?”
Quincy faltered at that. With a glance at Elmiryn, she cleared her throat and said, “Ah. We’re…not sure.”
The man squinted at her. “How can you not be sure?”
The archer woman shook her head. “Gudahi, you did not see. The shadows took the beast, and Nyx as well. It seemed trapped by its fate.”
“Yet you cannot say for certain if it is dead or not!?”
“It was alive when it vanished, but it was…how do you say? Hutkukli.”
The man’s features sucked in as his lips pressed together and his nostrils flared. With a glint in his eye, he said, “I am a warrior. I have sworn to see the beast slain. If it has not been laid to waste, then I will not rest!”
Quincy held up her hands, the frustration clear on her face. “But why tempt fate?”
Elmiryn snorted. “Fate?”
Again, everyone turned to look at her. The warrior grinned sardonically as she gestured at the destruction around them. “This isn’t fate! This is someone else’s plan! There’s a link here, and we’re just not seeing it!”
“And your answer is to go looking for something called a Twin?”
“Nyx’s animal counterpart,” Hakeem explained.
Elmiryn raised an eyebrow at him, and the man-boy held up his hands. “The girl explained things to me. She didn’t want everyone to know,” and here his eyes flickered in the direction of Quincy–not on her–but enough for the warrior to understand who was to be excluded to this knowledge, “But given the nature of the situation, I can see no other way.”
“What are you all talking about?” Quincy snapped impatiently.
“Nyx’s soul is split,” Elmiryn said. “The animal part of her spirit–because every therian has one–has a will of its own. It feels and thinks differently from Nyx, and yet they’ve been stuck in the same body. It’s not madness, its a spiritual thing.” She added the last part with a measure of bite, as if daring anyone to say anything.
Naturally, the wizard took her up on that offer. “As if that’s any better.”
“When we came here, the animal, or the Twin, as we’ve taken to calling her, became separated and lost. Nyx only discovered the damn thing recently, and it’s our only lead to getting her back.”
“Yes. I was there when she found the animal,” the archer woman said solemnly. She looked into Elmiryn’s eyes. “I swore to the dreamwalker my aid, and she shall have it.”
“Well!” Gudahi pulled away from the archer. “How can I abandon my pet at such a time of need?”
The man attempted a heroic pose, but started to keel backwards, and Makka, with a roll of his eyes, pushed him back. Sanuye caught him as he pitched forward, and Gudahi spared her a sheepish grin.
Quincy placed her hands on her hips. “You’re all still riding on the possibility that Nyx isn’t dead! I was the closest! I saw! She had a claw the size of a cannon in her stomach! You therians are tough, and with her as a champion, she’s even tougher, but she wasn’t invincible! If a therian’s heart or brain is destroyed, if enough damage done to the body, or even enough damage done to the spinal cord, they…are…dead.” She looked around at them all. “Or is this scene of death and absolute annihilation not impressive enough for you!?”
Elmiryn spat at the wizard’s feet. “It’s fine, Quincy. It’s fucking fine. Don’t worry about it. I guess our deal is done. You got back your sword–sort of–and you got back your husband–sort of–no offense,” she added to Hakeem. The wizard shrugged in response. The warrior fastened her cool gaze back onto her rival and spared a harsh smile. “I even got Nyx back…for a short while. You want to do what you want to do? I understand that. My plan’s not fully cooked, I’m running on very little wine, my arm is apparently dead, I have no weapons, and I’ve got no idea where to start looking for the Twin. I just know I gotta do something because I gave a promise, and I’m not stopping until I have Nyx back–alive or dead.” After a pause she added. “I’d prefer to have her very alive, though. Thus my haste. Thus my not giving a frosty fuck what you think.”
The woman turned and started walking.
Quincy’s voice was sharp. “Tai’undu, you don’t have to use the same guilt trick! I never said I wasn’t going to go, moron.”
Elmiryn paused and looked over her shoulder, nonplussed. “Oh.”
Makka offered to stay. Quincy had only been introduced to him in a passing second, and had required a reintroduction before his name stuck, but she was ever grateful that there was at least one able bodied person left behind with the wounded. Given the time since they’d sent their messenger, she’d guess it would be less than half an hour before help arrived with better supplies. After emergency medicine was applied, it was a long and careful trek back home for those poor men. Sedwick was going with them, and she resisted the urge to say, “I told you so,” and gave the elemental a goodbye peck on the cheek instead.
Ah, but her night was far from over.
Elmiryn’s plan so far had support from Hakeem, Sanuye, Gudahi, and Quincy herself. Five people. Like the five roads they’d been traveling. The wizard wondered idly if it was a coincidence, or someone else’s design, as the warrior saw it. Whatever the situation, she felt a creeping sense of foreboding about the whole ordeal.
They stood in a circle at the edge of the clearing, discussing their next move.
“We need to know where to start looking first. If we waste time in an unlikely spot, this will have been for nothing.” Elmiryn held a hand out to Sanuye and Gudahi. “You’ve been hunting the beast a long time. From the places its attacked, can you think of anywhere a creature like the Twin might take to hiding?”
The two looked at each other.
The woman spoke first. “The beast attacked many places…”
Gudahi started to cross his arms, but when this weight pressed on his upper ribs, he winced and relaxed them back at his sides. Quincy gave him a sharp look, her lips pursing. “Well,” he began, his look still tender. “She’ll need a source of water, and plenty of game to hunt. With the beast ranging about, a lot of game has been scared off–”
“Except for spirits,” Hakeem said.
Sanuye grinned wolfishly. “Ah! Ohtak! The spirit gates!”
Elmiryn squinted her eyes, and felt her swollen eye tighten. “I’m guessing those are the same as the ones we’ve been using?”
Gudahi held up a finger. “There is but one here that you could use. The other paths are special to those spirits, for the way they take is dangerous.”
“But if we narrow it down to what gates are close to water…” Hakeem mused aloud.
The Lycan man smirked. “I know just the one.”
Quincy stared around at them all. “And how far away is this place?”
The Lycans’ smiles faded. “Ah. There’s the inconvenient part,” Gudahi said.
“For a beast such as we hunt, it is a day’s full run. Us Lycan’s can get there in a day and a half without pausing for rest. With three humans, one of which is a child? It will take nearly three days.”
“Shit,” Elmiryn muttered. “I’ll need a drink somehow, or…” she trailed off.
Quincy narrowed her eyes at her. Or what…?
Reluctantly, the wizard patted her magic pouch. “I have a small tonic with me…for emergencies. You can sip that as we go.”
Elmiryn gave a terse nod. The brunette couldn’t tell if the other woman was concealing relief or a sense of dismay. “Good,” she said.
Gudahi clapped his hands, rubbing them eagerly. “It is settled then! Now let us be off! I am eager to find this Twin and be reunited with my precious Nyx!”
Quincy tried to stifle a grin as Elmiryn spared the man a look that would slay a dragon. It was nice not being the target for once.
They were watching from their place of observance, shrouded in aeons of celestial clusters, thickly woven continuity, and the relativity of an age unseen. They watched through lenses, so tiny in comparison to their station, that their view angled to a single plane of existence, where one continuance branched and splintered into a hundred different possibilities, looped and played over in simultaneity. The punchlines for jokes came in the spread of hundreds of thousands of years. A blink of an eye. No. Less than that. The act of being, of existing, was a complicated one for them. They were not fractured or divided amongst themselves, the core of their spirit always remaining–but they had their incarnations. Their avatars. Their greater minds, who in their ascendancy, influenced their lower minds in such subtle ways as to create a unity of motive that could not be mistaken for another spirit. In one world, they may be rulers of the skies, while in others they may lurk beneath the soil. In one mortal plane, they may be merciful, in another, vengeful. To say that they were not mercurial creatures would be something of a lie. Worlds die. Civilizations rise and fall.
Being a god made even the epic seem droll.
Lacertli was different, however. Artemis never really understood how he sympathized so with mortality, but then again, her existence was based in the conquering of such. Not direct opposites, per se, but they were certainly of a different cloth. The way of the predator, the game of life or death, it was all in her domain. She was the Huntress.
He was the Survivor.
Halward had once said the god was like a wayward son. Artemis just thought he was amusing.
Their lenses, the avatars they used, were concealed in the wilds of the forest. Before them was the drama of the battle against the beast, and the brave few who fought it. The goddess had been audience to every plight the Lycans experienced since their birth as a race, but these newcomers had their own story, their own struggle of which she was not as intimate with. As a god, there was a constant flood of knowledge from all reaches of the world, but it went without saying that certain events garnered more attention than others. But the struggles of these outsiders had her attention now, that was for sure.
“Why didst thou tell the warrior about us?” Lacertli asked, his reptilian face turning her way in the dark.
Artemis smirked at him. “Why didn’t thou tell me about her affliction?”
“It is not my business to steer thine attention, anymore than it is thy business to inquire about mine.”
“But isn’t it just so, brother? She is both our business now.”
“You’re playing games.”
Now her face tensed in a mild scowl. “The Hunt is a contest, to be sure, but do not mistake it for a thing of folly.”
“But you enjoy it,” Lacertli said, his pointed tongue slithering past his slim lips. “You take what you don’t need.”
“I do not endorse gluttony or zealousness, and I would have thee cease with such slander! I know the way of Harmony and honor it.”
The lizard king hissed. “Dost thou? And what of this new quarry you see fit to play with?”
Artemis pouted. “Of course. After a millenia left without worthy prey, thou wouldst see fit to ruin it. Very well.” She sighed dramatically and held up her hands. “I only wished to test the warrior. To see the depth of her potential.”
“And were you disappointed?”
At this the goddess smiled. “Nay, brother. She is perfect.”
“Good. Now whilst thou becomes encumbered by thy new obsession, the threat thy quarry poses will be diminished in the flames of thy mania.”
At this the woman laughed outright, stirring the forest in a great strong wind. “Lacertli. Surely you aren’t afraid of her?”
The god grunted. “Afraid? No. Never that. Unlike our brothers and sisters, should Gehenna come, I shall welcome it.”
Now the goddess’s smile waned, and she stepped closer to better peer into her brother’s eyes. “Thou thinks she will bring about our end?”
“I believe she is involved in something sinister. Something black and rotted. Something I warned Halward of, but–”
“Still thy tongue, brother,” Artemis snapped. “We are not the only ones whose senses stretch across universes.”
“A war is coming,” Lacertli growled. “It threatens all of Harmony and those under it!”
“And what is thine intention then?” Then Artemis eyebrows rose high. “Ah! Thy new champion! Of course. In utilizing her, you have your position of influence!”
“She is much more than a pawn, but aye, that is one advantage.”
“More than a pawn? Lacertli, she is the very extension of thy will! Is this why you’ve taken so long in choosing a champion? Because thou wanted to care for them first?”
Lacertli shook his head. “Caring? Try respecting the very foundations upon which our existences as gods are built. It marks the difference between being forgotten, being hated, and being loved.”
“And what would you rather be? Loved?”
The lizard king did not answer for a long time. Then he whispered, “Forgotten.”
He turned to leave, his form returning to his small lizard form. As he went, the goddess heard him say, “Be wary, Artemis. Thy prey is like nothing thou hast seen before. If thou underestimates Elmiryn and the circumstances she’s in, thou willst regret it.”