In the twilight hours of the day, when glowing embers danced and flew to a paper sky, Elmiryn would hold her breath. The watercolor shades and the cut-out stars would not burn, would not burn–no matter how much she wished to see heaven; and it would be between the spaces of wishes such as those where she rediscovered common sense. It always skulked in the fading light, bent over and sullen without the glare of the suns to illuminate its homesteads. Those places were decrepit, but they still stood, and it was with a self-deprecating snort that she remembered:
People only have one set of eyes.
No gaze could be switched or swapped for another, not even in magic. Not as far as she knew. (and she questioned what she knew frequently these days)
But at the time, it didn’t occur to her. At the time, Nyx stared, or half-stared, along with all the rest in the room. Elmiryn looked back at them and smiled unapologetically. “Well, it’s obvious isn’t it?”
Den put his hand on his hips, a queer action the warrior thought, and squinted at her. “What do you mean?” His mouth was a little open as if breathing through it would bring words to him quicker. It seemed an annoying habit of men to breathe more harshly either through the nose or mouth when agitated.
Nyx went to sit on the bed…no…could that constitute as sitting? More like falling. Yes, she fell on the bed and managed to land upright. Mismatched eyes stared across the room to the window, where outside they could see water still fell. And what did the Animal think, in her dark place of unbeing…?
…Did the walls breathe, where she lived, as they did for Elmiryn?
Things switched, just like a picture, to a new image with a snap. When had the sight of a mouth-breather changed to begin with? She couldn’t remember. Didn’t bother. There was a memory in her neck of motion, and she was quick to learn that in her state, it was the body that remembered things best.
“What are you all doing here, anyway?” The woman asked with a bite in her voice. There was something beyond concern, beyond fear or worry that rooted these gawkers to the spot. It bothered her that the heat of her lips burned hotter than the fire, and that these fools kept staring in blatant disrespect just because…all because…
“You all need to leave.”
The turnip was buried, and would not come out. Not for the suns, not for the rain. These people would not dig it out with their ignorant horror.
They stared at her. “We heard screaming!” Den exclaimed. He seemed defensive. Defensive of their hovering, their whispering, of the crowd that grew at the door to try and peep at the bodily freakshow that could be found.
“Thanks for your concern,” She stood to her feet. Steady. This world was hers, she reasoned, and the floor would not shift without her permission. Her turnip would not be stirred. Elmiryn gave a curt nod. “You can all go now.”
Den, with his jaw hung open, scowled at her, then turned and gestured for all to leave. The warrior could see the tenseness of his back, the red heat that stained his neck and shoulders. Good intentions led them there. Poor conduct led them out. Elmiryn wasn’t sorry.
Her lips still burned.
When the door was shut and the only sounds that could be heard was of the gawkers leaving, the rain pouring, and the wood cracking in heat, Elmiryn turned to Nyx. “You can’t lose control here.”
“I know that,” Nyx snapped. She looked, as much as the Animal looked, and glared with quivering lips. “I’m…I’m trying to-to-to do something, but typically there’s a…um…” She squeezed her eyes shut and grit her teeth. “It’s hard to explain to a human. In our minds, its being able to consciously access a different part of ourselves. At a young age, we learn to control how we shift down to the body part. We train until the process is clean and even. If it isn’t, then bad things happen…like…” she gestured feebly at her face and opened her eyes again. “This.”
“Does She…speak to you?”
Nyx, pale-faced, shook her head. “No. I can’t hear Her at all…and it scares me.”
“We can sit here and wait a while. The rain hasn’t stopped yet anyway.” The woman stepped forward with the intention of sitting next to Nyx, but the girl jumped up as if the bed expelled her.
“Elmiryn, I think…well, I don’t know why, but I think this happened because you touched my Mark.” Nyx spoke in a hurried voice, one that was tense and had a note of something else, something Elmiryn couldn’t name outright.
The woman’s eyebrow tilted. “You didn’t say anything the first time I did it.”
Nyx sighed and began to unwrap the bandage from her right hand. “When you touch my Mark it does something to me. I don’t understand it, but it’s like my body is being forced to transform.” The girl wrapped the bandage around her head. It covered her left eye completely. Elmiryn thought of the Animal, and how her world would go dark.
How it would go small and quiet.
“…Are you sure you’re up to traveling today?” The woman asked. Her shoulders had tensed, and she tried to remember the vast sky, the free circulating air, the far stretched plains that were open to her.
The Ailuran said nothing. She went to fetch her bag at the foot of the bed, and when she moved to do so she turned her body the long way around. Elmiryn noted that it was a purposeful, conscious act, but wasn’t sure what its goal was. She could see, from the side, that the girl glared as she took up her bag. “Elmiryn, I understand why you have to ask, but really, the concern isn’t necessary.” She muttered this through tight lips. “The guardian expects us. We’ve had our days to rest, so….”
“If we leave, I don’t want to stop. Can you keep it together until we make camp tonight?”
“I’ll be fine.” Nyx picked up Tobias’s book from where it had fallen on the floor the night previous, and shoved it forcefully into her bag. Elmiryn could hear her breathing had turned thin and uneven–desperate little gasps that shuddered from the concentrated effort of pushing forward. She mulled over the noise. Closed her eyes to it. Felt it in her head and breathed it a little herself. It was within that small moment of analysis that the warrior knew it wasn’t fear or sadness. Those were emotions that spoke of defeat. This sound was harsher. The purpose of Nyx’s wide turn became clear.
The girl was angry.
“…Nyx, look at me.”
“What is it?” The girl’s face was turned to the floor. She seemed dead set on faking activity as she rummaged through her useless belongings.
“Kitten, do you see me in that bag of yours?”
“No, no, no–do not call me that!!” Nyx shrieked. She turned and threw her bag with an overhand sweep, and its contents skittered across the floor. Elmiryn watched them bounce away, and she completely believed in that moment that they were pieces of a life lost. Shiny fragments that had no place. The redhead looked up again to see her companion glaring at her, her single eye ablaze with some other element that she didn’t recognize. It wasn’t a color that belonged in Nyx’s composition, and Elmiryn wondered if it were the same girl.
The Ailuran breathed hard, her face angrily blotched and her hair more tussled than usual. She brandished a finger–the one hand that wasn’t bandaged. (A bare hand, Elmiryn thought. A free hand.) “Don’t call me ‘kitten’,” Nyx seethed through her teeth. “Or ‘turnip’, or any other diminutive epithet that can jump into your bewildered mind, because I am not yours to…to…” she faltered. Her brows pressed together and her hand lowered.
There she was. Nyx was back. The disquiet, the anxiety, the ever-lasting guilt that congealed to form the pale slip of a girl.
“Why did you save me that night in the forest?” Nyx asked in a feeble voice. Her eyes threatened to drown. “What reason did you really have? And don’t tell me it was because you thought I was ‘interesting’.”
Elmiryn gazed across at her, affected by the distance between them. Nyx was once again before her, untainted and unvisited by fury, and yet she seemed a straight arrow’s shot away…
The woman turned her eyes to the floor, and after a moment she stood and knelt down to pluck up a life fragment. She recognized it as a presence that had been there throughout her life. Did Nyx take a piece of her, and slip it into her bag? The battles, the dead, the blood spent? The warrior squinted at it. Felt the fragment with her fingers. She called on logic to fill the gap that memory left, and her eyebrows rose high. “The arrowhead,” She breathed. Her lips pulled up at the corners. “The one I shot you with…You kept it.”
“I did.” Nyx knelt down and began to slip her things back into her bag. “It was so close to killing me, yet it saved my life.”
“Kind of like how you think of me.”
“I…” the girl paused and looked at her. “No, that’s not…”
Elmiryn’s grin grew wider. “It is. You’ve already told me I frighten you sometimes. But you call me your friend.” The woman held out the arrowhead. “After this morning, can you still say that?”
Nyx reached for the trinket slowly. When she touched it, her fingers brushed Elmiryn’s and she paused. She hurriedly pulled her hand away and dropped the arrowhead into her open bag. Her face was red.
“Elmiryn, please answer my question.”
The woman bowed her head. “I saved you,” Elmiryn started. “Because,” she closed her eyes for a brief moment, then opened them again. Her gaze was softened by a sense of nostalgia. “You…moved the shadows.” She said slowly. She touched a hand to her head, and her eyes unfocused. “You had claws when you had none, and yet you refused to use them. You had a means to escape, but you didn’t take it. I remember…how excited it made me feel. There were no more trees, there was no more darkness, and the men who wanted to kill you had become this single thing that…that…didn’t even distinguish itself. In my head, I just remember this inhuman blob, and even with the torches they held…they were black compared to you.”
When Nyx spoke next, she sounded anguished. “You must have had some motive, Elmiryn. Something other than what you saw.”
Elmiryn frowned at her. “…You aren’t listening to me.”
“I am. Of course I am! For the second time, perhaps a little more long-windedly, but nevertheless, for the second time, you’re telling me you just found me superficially interesting! I called you my friend, Elmiryn! I called you my friend!” Nyx took a deep breath. Her next words she blurted out in a rush. “You just want me around to toy with!”
“That isn’t true. You’re hearing me, but you aren’t listening!” Elmiryn felt anger clench her fists. “Nyx, I saw you! I heard you! And there wasn’t a doubt in my mind that you existed. You begged for your life, and I believed you had life. I wanted to save it! I wanted to have you and your life and your voice with me!” Elmiryn slammed her fist into the floor and leaned forward on it, her eyes wide and challenging. “You want me to admit that I only wanted you along as a servant? You want me to admit that I only wanted you along so that I could fuck you raw? You want me to admit that I don’t care about you? Well I won’t, because that isn’t true–and as for what happened earlier, I won’t apologize for that.” The woman shifted closer and hissed. “I can still taste you in my mouth.”
Nyx leaned back and sucked in air sharply. “Elmiryn–!!”
Elmiryn didn’t give her a chance to speak. She stood to her feet and paced the floor twice, before growling and going for her things. The woman was aware there wasn’t even a need for them as they weren’t leaving yet, but she felt she had to move. Busy herself, as the girl had. Nyx remained quiet behind her. The redhead took up her bow and quiver with forceful hands, then finally slowed. The emotion that fueled her was now like gray coals. Elmiryn bit her tongue and pursed her lips to keep the spontaneous giggle that ripped up her throat from joining the air. She covered her mouth with her hand, and thought, “I got angry.”
Then she couldn’t keep it in anymore.
She doubled over, and the sound of her mirth occupied everything. She felt it in her head, her chest, her limbs. It started sloppy, like an animal that had broken free of its restraints and stumbled clumsy into a frantic run. It steadied into a rhythm, clear and almost like a composed song. Tears sprang up in Elmiryn’s eyes and she threw her head back to send the sound up to the ceiling.
“I got angry! I was pissed! I was furious! And–And–” and she had to pause because her humor felt the need to interject. When she had enough breath to speak, she continued, “And it was all because you–” Elmiryn turned, expecting to see Nyx, but she realized with a cold sink of her gut that she was alone in the room.
The woman’s laughter died instantly.
“All because you…make me care, Nyx.” Elmiryn whispered.
The rain died.
Elmiryn didn’t mourn it.
She stood in the drowned streets, with her arms crossed on her chest, and noted a sense of kinship with the quietness that existed around her. Was it because, abandoned out here, these complicated structures lacked purpose? Was it because the wind sang through the cracks, or because the puddles of water lay still?
Was it because these streets were inhabited by ghosts?
Elmiryn hadn’t seen Nyx since that morning. The girl had slipped away. At first, it bothered Elmiryn. What about the girl’s promise? But then, she recalled the movements of her mouth, and the sound of her voice in her head. “Stay with me. As much as you can. Please.”
Perhaps, the warrior reasoned, Nyx had done just that. It wasn’t necessarily breaking a promise. Nor could she begrudge that sometimes, a person needed to be alone. She had known that feeling once. Surrounded by so many, and yet with no one at all, she had wished all the strangers to leave. All the problematic buffoons and the sycophantic sluts to just leave. Funny how such a wish was fulfilled, only to carry on longer than she wished it.
The real question was, would Nyx come back?
The feel of new cotton beneath a caramel quilted doublet was a delight to Elmiryn. She felt new. The old bustier was something of an annoyance–didn’t allow for much breathing room and made it difficult to twist around in combat. The shoulder guards, she admitted, were useless without the rest of the armor to go with them, so she rid herself of those too. They went into a trade bargain–compensation for the items Nyx received, as well as for Elmiryn’s new clothes and some needed supplies. She contemplated ridding herself of the sword–it was a heavy item that attracted attention due to its design–but she reasoned that she could use it in training Nyx. This was a matter she would not let alone. The girl had to become self-sufficient to some degree, or she would meet a gruesome fate.
These thoughts occupied her mind. Kept it busy as the suns warmed her face and lit Gamath in patches. The shafts of light were like translucent glass that came down through the spent clouds, and the woman watched quietly to see if the wind could break the illumination.
The woman turned to see Opal approach quietly on light feet, her hands behind her back and her square face flushed. Elmiryn knew the girl must have followed her. A lock of brown hair danced before her lowered eyes as she gave a small bow. “I’ve…I’ve already spoken to Nyx and apologized for my poor behavior. I…we shouldn’t have behaved as we did. It was intrusive. It was insensitive and rude. You’ve done so much for us and yet we just stood there like–”
“It isn’t your fault.” Elmiryn said. She uncrossed her arms and touched a hand to Opal’s chin, forcing her head up. The woman grinned. “You can’t be ashamed for working off your prejudices–everyone on this planet needs a way to react to something new and mysterious if they wanna keep from getting overwhelmed. You’re already a cut above everyone else.”
Opal blinked. “How?”
Elmiryn tapped the girl’s forehead. “Because you’ve had your prejudiced reaction, and now you’re trying to move past it.” The redhead shrugged, her eyes shining with a sudden glee. She giggled and gave Opal a hearty clap on the shoulder. The young girl looked at her, utterly bewildered.
“You can’t expect to get that completely right on the first try,” Elmiryn finished as she brushed past, back the way she had come.
She had wandered along the cobbled paths, up alleys and down thoroughfares, past old buildings that seemed like new, and new residents who were in fact old. The deeper toward the center she traveled, the more populated it became, until it seemed she was back in an average town, filled with average people, doing average things. There were hammers banging, dogs barking, wheel carts squeaking, children laughing all around.
Yet the feeling of kinship faded. Elmiryn didn’t understand it. Her good humor gave way to annoyance as she watched the pasty faces of little boys quiver and twist under the excitement of pretend battle, their grubby hands gripped tight around wooden swords, and their voices like whips at the little girls who got in their way of adventure. Whereas, in the prior days, Elmiryn could differentiate sentences, pick out particular persons, and even pinpoint the locations of speakers around her–now she could not. There was just a wave of din, of busy busy nonsense that filled the spaces of the rain-washed buildings. They prattled and prattled, making their noise, and within seconds of standing outside the entrance to the nameless tavern, Elmiryn realized she was no longer in the company of sentient creatures. They were odd caricatures, burned and painted into the sides of a box of din, one that enclosed her on all sides. She stopped moving, felt a wall come up before her, felt the sky turn to deceitful art, and the ground become a shaky concept.
Elmiryn sucked in breath, felt sweat break out over her skin. She thought to reach out to the walls that pressed on her and push them back, but with a cold feeling, she wondered what, if anything, she could push back with.
She felt someone touch her skin gently. The most she could ascertain was that she was being touched somewhere on the left side. The woman also knew she was supposed to do something. But she didn’t know with what. She moved to speak and felt her voice tickle her closed lips.
“…What? Elmiryn, are you all right?”
Elmiryn chuckled, something she was still aware she could do.
“Elle, why are you keeping your mouth shut. Tell me what’s wrong!”
Mouth shut? That was right! She forced her lips to budge, and they did so grudgingly. “I thought I sounded funny.” Her lips still felt tight.
“What are you doing? You look like you just dived into a hot bath!”
“Nyx, could you do me a favor?”
“Ah, sure. Um…what do you want me to do?”
“I said push me. Hard. Go on.”
“I get stuck sometimes. Normally I can figure it out on my own–y’know, with depth perception or some intellectual crap like that…only it snuck up on me this time. I…gods damn it, I don’t know how else to say it. The only thing I know, is that I have my mouth, and a left side. …Can you just push me, please?”
A pause. It seemed to grow a little quiet. Were the caricatures watching? Elmiryn didn’t know. Her view had somehow got stuck at the tavern’s doors.
Then suddenly there was a shove, from the left–two petite hands pressed into Elmiryn’s side–and the woman fell to the ground where her limbs struck limp onto the ground in a painful flop. Her head had a nasty bounce, and at once the warrior became aware of her neck. She lifted her head. For a brief moment, she thought she saw the fragments of her broken cage fly threw the air…then she realized they were just spots dancing before her eyes. The woman made a clumsy effort to stand. Two pairs of hands grabbed her arms from the front and helped her. Her eyes lifted and she saw Nyx, her one eye still covered, staring at her with a bemused look.
“Are you okay?”
The woman gave her head a shake. She felt hypersensitive. Every strand of hair, every inch of her skin, even the saliva in her mouth had her mind’s attention. But not more than Nyx’s touch.
“Well that depends,” Elmiryn answered. “Are you still mad at me?”
Nyx immediately began to protest. “Elle, I wasn’t mad I was…” she faltered.
Elmiryn gave her a smirk. “Oh sure you weren’t mad. You were just, y’know, mad.”
The girl sighed and helped lead Elmiryn inside the inn, where the warrior’s eyesight seemed to go pale for a moment before adjusting to the dim lighting. “Yes. I was upset. I…wanted to blame you for my eye. But…” Her face turned a bright red as she guided Elmiryn into a seat. “Y-You were right. What happened was as much–as much my doing as it was…ah…yours…”
“Fuck, Nyx. Don’t dance around it. I kissed you, and you kissed me. There.”
The girl sighed. “Okay, fine.”
“You…wanna talk about it?” That seemed like the right thing to say. But it occurred to Elmiryn that she wasn’t sure how to explain the desire she’d had at the time. Why, of all the intimate moments they had managed to have in their short time together, this morning had been any different.
“No,” Nyx said with a bashful look to the side. “…I think I need to get back to normal, and think about everything more. Right now I’m a little–”
“Unbalanced?” The girl only sighed in response. Elmiryn sat forward, glad to feel substantial again. “Can you hear Her?”
“I’m afraid not. But I feel like there are times when I fade and she slips through. When I come back, it’s like I’m coming out of sleepwalking–only partially aware of what I did.”
The woman nodded. She made to stand, and Nyx held out her hands, a worried expression on her face. Elmiryn waved her hand dismissively. “I’ve got it. I’m better now.” She gestured for the girl to follow her. “Come on. We should leave while we still have plenty of daylight.”
Nyx nodded and stood.
They gathered their things. Elmiryn assigned Nyx the task of holding her longsword. The swordsman’s belt seemed out of place on the girl, and rested at a slant even when they buckled it to the last hole. By the time they were through, a crowd had gathered at the tavern. Neither she nor Nyx had told anyone that they were leaving, but anyone eavesdropping could’ve spread the word. When they came outside, there were cheers and whistles. Elmiryn tried to keep her face straight, but she disliked the clamor–if only because it made the crowd seem less like a collection of humans and more like some hideous inanimate blob that bred hate in her ears. She made a mental note to avoid such things in the future.
Den, who was at the front of the crowd, came forward. He extended his hand, his eyes fixed on Elmiryn’s with a stale sort of respect. The woman’s lips twitched as she took his hand. Men and their wounded prides…
“Thank you,” He said clearly, so that all could hear. Ah, a show. “Thank you for all that you’ve done. Both of you.” He added, with a look at Nyx. His eyes lingered for a moment on her bandaged face.
Elmiryn tightened her grip and clapped him on the shoulder, bringing his focus back to her. “Take care, Den.”
She let him go, letting her gaze sear for a moment longer, before she turned with a dismissive air to acknowledge the crowd. She smiled and gave a nod. They cheered again. Elmiryn touched a hand to Nyx’s shoulder and urged her forward with a brisk pace. The girl looked at her, a little startled, but didn’t stop or say a word.
“Elmiryn, why did you want to leave so quickly?”
“I thought you wanted to get out of there.”
“Well, I did. But why did you?”
“…They were starting to aggravate me. Those newcomers.” Behind them, Gamath had become an indefinite mass. Out in the fields, they still passed the abandoned corpses of various creatures. The difference this time around was in the maggots that squirmed inside them. “They make so much cursed noise,” Elmiryn continued. ”They were the reason I froze up. All the sounds…it just ceased to make sense to me. And since it was coming from them, they ceased to make sense. It snowballed until I felt like my world started at my ass and ended at my nose.”
“You said you only knew you had a left side and a mouth. What did you mean?”
Elmiryn sighed and squinted at the horizon. She recalled the directions given by the townsfolk and knew they were almost to the guardian’s meeting place. “I meant it literally. The noise overwhelmed me so much that I lost a sense of my limbs. It was like my mind got disconnected from them. I would’ve fallen…If I believed I had the room to do so. Since I didn’t, I guess that’s why my legs didn’t give out.”
“You said that this has happened to you before?”
“A few times. The last time I recall was back in Dame. It wasn’t as bad, then. If I focus hard enough, I can expand my idea of how large the world actually is.”
“That must be so unsettling.” Nyx’s voice was gentle. Elmiryn glanced over at her. She smiled at how her companion contrasted so starkly from the dismal looking mud.
“It happens the other way around too. Sometimes I think…I feel…that the world is so large. Too large. It makes me feel tiny and fragile, like I might be destroyed by a strong wind.” She looked forward again. The ground they walked began to incline upwards. “That’s one reason I find solace in drinking. It numbs me, and makes these ideas…smaller. So that I can deal with them easier.”
“Doesn’t it have an adverse effect too, though?” Nyx slipped on the mud as they crested the hill. Elmiryn grabbed her elbow and steadied her. The girl peered up into her face, her expression somber. “You’re more susceptible to wrong ideas,” she finished.
Elmiryn shrugged. “A miniature disaster. Those are easy to clean up when I’m sober.”
The girl shook her head and gave the woman a sidelong look. “I don’t like it.”
The warrior only shrugged again and said nothing. They stood at the top of the hillock and looked down at the river, which frothed below.
“They said all we had to do was stand here…” Nyx mumbled to herself. She looked up and down the river, confused. “Maybe the guardian is still at its cave?”
The water suddenly fell quiet. Elmiryn and Nyx exchanged looks and leaned over to stare. The water seemed completely still, and yet its clear depths revealed nothing.
The redhead frowned. “Shouldn’t we see it swimming around or something?”
Then the river bubbled, and from its peaceful surface stretched the guardian. Elmiryn and Nyx both hurried back from the edge as the immortal being grew to tower over them. No longer was its flesh an angry crimson canvas suffering from tumors and ulcers. Now it was a smooth, shimmering dark blue, as fluid and as graceful as the river it was tied to. It bubbled a greeting.
“Elmiryn, Nyx…I’ve been waiting for you.”