Elmiryn rose, her cerulean eyes piercing into mine. She was mostly-naked and barefoot, lacking pants and even her chest wraps. Her sword belt was gone, but gripped tight in her hands were her captain’s sword and Graziano’s pistol. Her hair was loose about her shoulders and filthy, dirt and leaves clumping the red locks so that they looked like matted tendrils.
That wasn’t even the worst of it. Most disturbing of all was the fact that Elmiryn stared at me as if she had no idea who, or what, I was.
Without taking her eyes off me, she growled hoarsely, “Grab it.”
The two daesce moved toward me, grabbing my arms and forcing me down into a kneel. I was too stunned by this to even fight back.
She’s controlling them? But how?
Elmiryn slinked toward me, her eyes flashing with a predatory edge that made my hairs stand on end. I could see her grip on her sword tighten.
Finally, I found my voice, “Elmiryn! I-It’s me!”
She stopped cold. Her eyes narrowed, but she didn’t say anything. I could see the indecision darken her face like a storm cloud.
“Elle, it’s Nyx!” I said more firmly. “I’ve traveled with you for months now! Listen to my voice! You know who I am!” It was just as I feared. Elmiryn’s transformation into becoming a fae had progressed to the point that her ability to function in our world had been severely damaged. There was no telling how much she could even process now. Were her senses completely compromised? Had she lost all of her memories? I could only hope that her auditory memory still held.
Long tense moments passed as Elmiryn searched my face, the distress growing increasingly evident as the seconds ticked by. Finally, she barked at the daesce, “Let her go!”
They did so, but reluctantly.
I didn’t rise from my kneeling position. I didn’t entirely trust my legs to work. I stared at the daesce and whispered, “Elmiryn, what have you done? Did you…did you alter them?”
She crouched next to me, her eyes hungrily taking me in. Sweet Aelurus, the woman reeked.
After a long time, she whispered, “Yes.”
“But why?” I blurted, locking my wide eyes on her. “They are monsters! How could you–?” but I broke off when Elmiryn suddenly pulled me to her body. Startled, I started to hug her, but then I realized that hadn’t been her intention. She was fighting to open my backpack.
“Where is it?” she asked gruffly. “The drink! I can smell the drink!”
I craned my neck, awkwardly pointing over my shoulder. “I-It’s there–!”
When Elmiryn found her prize, she pulled away from me and stood, ripping the cork off the wine bottle and tipping its contents down her throat. She drank without stopping until the bottle was drained, dropping it on the ground and belching loudly with a look of relief on her face. I just stared at her, agog.
This hadn’t quite been the reunion I’d imagined.
Wiping at her mouth, the wild mania that had haunted the woman’s gaze gradually slipped away, and she sat roughly on the ground in front of me. Her daesce companions wandered off, out of sight. They were clearly bored.
When Elmiryn looked at me, I could already see the effects of the wine taking hold, but in an odd way, she looked so much more composed.
Her head was turned to the side, her hair curtaining half her face. This was one of the few times I’d ever seen shame in the warrior, and it made my heart ache.
“Nyx,” she murmured, looking at me obliquely. “I…” she trailed off and lowered her gaze.
I didn’t speak. I didn’t know what to say. I’m sorry? How are you feeling? Does preserving your human side mean anything to you anymore?
When she looked up again, she gestured vaguely in the direction the daesce had wandered off to. “They aren’t important to me, if that’s what you’re thinking. They aren’t pets. I don’t even have full control of them! I just…I needed something to guide me through the land while I was here. The only thing I could manipulate were them.” Her voice sounded rough, and I wondered if it was from lack of use, or because she was feeling upset.
“Because they’re abominations, Elmiryn,” I said harshly. “The daesce are outside of Harmony! Doing things that are not in our natural right, like giving things that are not ours to give, is exactly the kind of behavior that got the Spider of the West into trouble! It’s hubris.”
She had the good sense to wince before glaring at me. “I wasn’t trying to flout the gods, all right? I was just trying to survive!”
I deflated, covering my face with my hands. “I know,” I mumbled into my palms. “But I’m scared for you!” I peeked at her over my fingers. “I’m still glad you’re safe.”
She smiled at me humorlessly. “In a manner of speaking.”
“When did you return? What’s it been like?”
Elmiryn sighed heavily. When her silence stretched on, I was about to tell her she didn’t need to tell me anything when she started to speak. I could already hear the lisp entering into her words as the wine started to take effect. Likewise, I could hear the woman fighting it, speaking slowly and carefully, struggling to remain coherent long enough to tell her tale to me.
“I think it’s been a little under a week. I dunno. The days smeared together for me.” The redhead set aside her weapons and drew her knees up into a hug. Her eyes glazed over. “I couldn’t see. When I stumbled out of the portal back to our world, everything just assaulted my senses. I’ve been to another realm, one that wasn’t mine, so…so I know what it feels like to be rejected by the environment. That feeling, Nyx? Of sensing things that I wasn’t supposed to know or understand?” She touched her chest emphatically as she swallowed hard. “I felt that here. I didn’t expect that. I’d been hoping coming home wouldn’t…wouldn’t be quite so bad. The daesce were my way to break through that. Through them, I could sense the world again.
“And before you ask: no. I didn’t make them more intelligent so that they wouldn’t attack me. They ignored me, actually. Just about everything out here ignores me. I can walk right up to a bird and it won’t know I’m there till I touch it. It made hunting easy. Too easy. But once I created a link between the daesce and I, and once I gave them awareness, I could sense the world so much better. Nothing hurts anymore. The wrongness was still there, though. Is still there.” Her voice tightened and I could see her staring around us as if the wilderness itself was preparing to attack her. “I don’t know how to put it into words, Nyx. Everything is just…wrong. I don’t even know when I’m hallucinating anymore. Before I could at least guess that I was, but now it’s like the rest of the world is crazy! Not me! The world has it wrong!”
I listened to her intently, feeling both sad and alarmed at the same time. Before we had been transported to the Other Place, Elmiryn had hallucinated quite badly. Now she was saying it was worse? And the only way she could tell was because she was processing the sensory information the daesce were giving her?
To borrow a phrase from her: That was incredibly fucked up.
“Where are the others?” Elmiryn asked, staring at her knees.
I cleared my throat and shrugged. “They’re safe. We’re all staying at Syria’s tower. It’s been abandoned so we’re hiding there until we can move on.” Then I remembered Paulo and added, “Oh! And Paulo is alive. We found him before we left.”
“Thas’ good,” she said without enthusiasm. “I can finally give ‘im his brother’s gun, then.” Then Elmiryn cleared her throat and asked, “I don’ suppose Hakeem made it out with you all?”
I blinked. “Hakeem? Yes, he’s with us.” Then I added with a grumble, “Mind you, he was unconscious the whole time. It wasn’t easy dragging him all that way.”
Now Elmiryn was frowning. “He still hasn’ woken up?”
I shook my head solemnly. “I’m afraid not.”
I stood and crossed my arms. “Elmiryn, we’ve got to destroy your familiars.”
She made a face. “Don’t call ’em that!”
“What does it matter what I call them? They can’t exist anymore!”
“Are ya under Lacertli’s command or somethin? They’re still jes’ dumb beasts! What harm are they gonna do?”
“I thought you said they weren’t important to you?” I snapped. “And for your information, I don’t need Lacertli to tell me that their existence is wrong! The daesce weren’t meant to be that intelligent! Imagine if they breed and suddenly all the daesce became that way? It’d be utter chaos!”
Elmiryn rolled her eyes and rose up from the ground. “All right, all right! I’ll take care o’ them now–” she raised an arm, as if preparing to do some strange trick, but I quickly grabbed it and wrenched it back down.
“Don’t!” I hissed. “Your fae powers were what got you into this in the first place! We’ll dispatch them the normal way.”
The woman scoffed. “The ‘normal’ way! As if yer champion powers aren’ weird enough….”
With a shake of my head, I pointed at the ground. “Wait here! I’ll take care of this. Then afterwards, we’ll find a creek or a pond to clean you up in!”
Elmiryn pouted but sat back down.
With a deep breath, I reigned in my frustration and set of after the daesce. They weren’t that hard to follow. From where we had been, I could see their trail clearly in the moonlight, even when they had pierced into the thicket.
As it turned out, they hadn’t gone far. The two monsters were squat down on the ground, their backs to me. They were eating a mountain fox they’d caught, its blood and insides just a dark mess over the grassy dirt. I hadn’t even heard the fox cry out. No sounds of struggle, either. Given their distance, I should have. Were these two so deadly now that they could catch such quick and wily prey as they had without any effort?
They must’ve smelled my scent on the wind, for they both looked in unison over their shoulders at me. My look must have given me away. I should have known. Elmiryn had made these monsters smarter, I should’ve snuck up on them. Their lips peeled back and their hackles rose.
All I could do was deal with the choice I had made. Taking a breath, I let my champion sense expand, feeling the shadows around us. In the Other Place, most times the darkness had been fluid and easy to reach. Here, in our realm, however, they were hard, solid, and distant. I hadn’t attempted to manipulate the shadows since our return, so I hadn’t expected my attainment of control to take so long.
The daesce didn’t even hesitate to strike.
With sharp roaring screams, they charged me. I braced, grim determination on my face. It looked like I was going to have to fight them the old fashioned way–
Then their heads jerked to the side with an audible snap, and they crashed into the dirt, sliding up to my feet. Both were dead. Judging by the funny angle of their heads, the cause were broken necks.
Stunned, I stared down at them.
That’s when I heard Elmiryn approaching from behind me. “Yeeeah…” she sighed. “I figured I coulda let ya do it, but then I’d be sittin’ there for ages twiddlin’ my thumbs. This way’s faster.”
I turned and glared at her.
And we’re supposed to keep this one from violating Harmony? Oh this ought to be fun… Kali grumbled.
Nyx was mad at her. Elmiryn could tell as much, despite her inebriation.
Still, the question tumbled from her mouth, because she wanted to hear the girl say it, just to know it was real.
“Are ya mad at me?”
Was she supposed to be sorry? The question came without malice, a simple thing a young child might ask. Is this the appropriate response? She felt buoyed on that heavy, unstable feeling. The wine went straight to her head. It had been so long since she’d had a proper drink. Elmiryn had almost told Nyx, but refrained out of shame, that she had gotten by so long because she’d been eating rotten fruit. Mostly grapes and sour cherries. The fermented juice never sated her thirst, but it did keep the shakiness from her hands. She could just imagine the look of revulsion on Nyx’s face should she impart this one detail of her time lost in the Albian wilds. Perhaps she could tell Nyx still, despite the pity this might lead to. It would make her feel horrible, like a weaker being, like her father even, but at least…
At least it wouldn’t be the look of horror that Nyx would no doubt show should Elmiryn reveal what she was like before she’d figured out to eat the rotten fruit.
But this! It had felt like ages since Elmiryn had felt so good. She wanted to laugh again, and she couldn’t even remember the last time she laughed. It was interesting how something so simple could so define a person. It seemed the warrior had based a great deal of her approach to life on laughter, made it a core part of who she was, and then just like that, the sound was gone, taking with it a healthy chunk of her identity. What was she without the jokes and the giggles to mask everything?
But these were sobering thoughts, and Elmiryn didn’t care much for becoming sober yet.
Nyx led Elmiryn to a mountain spring she had found, then ordered her curtly to strip.
The redhead knew it wasn’t the time for a joke, knew it was perhaps her just dodging the real issue, but she just wanted a reason to hear Nyx laugh so bad (because, let’s face it, Elmiryn could laugh right now without a reason, but then she’d look insane)–
“Nyx, have ya ever had sex while campin’?” the redhead managed to snigger.
The Ailuran paused at the water bank to stare at her. “Huh?”
Elmiryn couldn’t hold it in. She was already leaning on her knees and giggling hard. “It’s ‘in tents!’ Get it?”
Nyx didn’t say anything. She only watched as the older woman collapsed onto her knees, lost in her intense amusement.
“In tents!” she sputtered. After a time, she realized Nyx was still quiet and pushed herself up with her hands. “Do ya get it, Nyx? ‘In tents’? Intense?”
“I got it, Elmiryn,” Nyx said flatly.
The warrior’s laughter died swiftly. The girl wasn’t laughing. Not only that, but her voice sounded hard. Cold, even.
“Nyx are…are ya that mad about what I did?” Elmiryn asked with a mild frown.
The girl only shook her head. “We’ll deal with things in time, Elmiryn,” the Ailuran sighed. “Right now, my only concern is cleaning you up and making sure you’re all right!”
The redhead’s frown deepened, but she proceeded to strip naked just the same. The connection she had made through the daesce hadn’t severed her connection to the world, as she had feared, but their utterly primal minds were of no use in processing complex sapien expression anyway. Elmiryn wished desperately that she could understand the look on her friend’s face. Depending on auditory clues alone didn’t help much when the other party was so reticent.
Nyx also undressed, but not all the way, much to the warrior’s disappointment. She guided Elmiryn into the frigid water, silent as the woman shivered and leaned on her. Gripped in her hand was a large bunch of dried moss to act as a scrub.
“All right, Elle. Dunk,” Nyx ordered primly.
Elmiryn stared at her, horrified. “Dunk?”
“Yes! Up to your head, please.”
“But it’s freezing!”
“Oh don’t be a child! It’ll be no better if I splash you! Just dunk into the water, and then we can be done with this faster.”
“Fine,” Elmiryn groused, before letting herself slip down into the water.
Her body seized up as the water reached up over her head, and for a frightening moment, as she looked up and saw the moonlight filtering in through the billowing air bubbles, she thought she could see claws appearing overhead to keep her below the surface…
Elmiryn burst back up, whipping her head back and flailing.
Nyx, alarmed, yelled and grabbed the woman from behind. When this didn’t calm her, the Ailuran dragged them back to the water bank, allowing the Fiamman to lay on the mud and catch her breath.
“Claws,” she gasped. “Halward! He’s angry! I made ‘im angry!”
“Elmiryn, shh! I’m here!”
The woman felt the girl’s hand on her shoulder as she lay on her side, and she clutched at it, staring at the shifting treeline as wolfish silver gaze pierced at her from the dark.
“Nyx,” Elmiryn breathed shakily. “Stay with me.”
“I’ve already promised you that I would.”
“No, I mean–right now. Just stay close.”
Nyx’s hand shifted from her shoulder to plant itself on the mud as the girl leaned over her to peer at the treeline as she did. “Do you…see something?”
That pause. As if whatever it was that Elmiryn was perceiving was automatically suspect. The woman closed her eyes.
It’s just in my head. Artemis can’t appear on the mortal plane without affecting the environment. It’s the entire reason the gods handpicked champions, wasn’t it? To act as their agents on the living world?
When she opened her eyes again, the silver gaze was gone.
“It was nothin’,” Elmiryn breathed. “Forget I said anythin’.”
Nyx brushed back a lock of the woman’s hair, making her turn her head to look up at the girl. “Are you sure you’re okay?”
Elmiryn relaxed further. There. That warm golden sound in the girl’s voice, the one that made the warrior feel at peace, was finally leaking through. But…it wasn’t as clear as it had been before. It was like it was struggling to get through something large and thick.
The warrior reached a hand up to touch the girl’s face. “I’m fine.”
Nyx helped her up, and together they returned to the water, where the Ailuran scrubbed away the dirt and grime. She tsked over the woman’s hair, pulling out the leaves and undoing what knots that she could. Ultimately Elmiryn’s nest-like head was going to have to wait for a brush to be truly returned to normal. The woman was fine with this. She didn’t expect to come out of the spring looking like polished royalty. Thankfully, neither did Nyx. Still, it was a definite improvement from before. As she was, the redhead smelled no better or worse than what they usually had when they were constantly on the road.
Nyx nodded with satisfaction as she pulled out yet another knot. They sat on the rocky shore, Elmiryn still drying out, naked between the girl’s legs. If there was one thing that the woman had been surprised by, it was how relaxed Nyx was. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that the woman had stank worse than a pig sty, but the Ailuran hadn’t so much as batted an eyelash when the warrior stripped naked. Was her companion just getting more comfortable with her?
Or was it perhaps that she was losing interest?
“Nyx?” Elmiryn said before she even knew what she was doing.
“Have ya… Did ya think about me while I was away?”
Elmiryn felt a light touch at her jaw before Nyx turned her head to better see her. The Ailuran kissed her cheek before whispering into her ear. “Since you left, all I ever did was think about you.”
The redhead pouted. She didn’t miss the note of rejection in Nyx’s words. “I didn’ leave cos’ I wanted to, Nyx. I left because I had to!”
Nyx nodded, her nose brushing Elmiryn’s ear. “I know. I wasn’t trying to accuse you.”
“You mean it?”
A pause. “Yes.”
“What can I do?” Elmiryn murmured, closing her eyes. “Tell me what it is that I can do to make you feel better about it all!”
Nyx pulled away, standing abruptly. “Again with the telling!” she snapped. “Why does everyone want me to spell things out for them! What if I don’t have the answers either? What if I don’t know what I want?”
Elmiryn turned to sit on her feet, bewildered. “Um. Come again?”
“Do you assume that just because I know all these useless big words that I am somehow better at commuicating than you are?”
“Well…then…you’d be correct! Because I’m not better at speaking than you are! And sometimes, even if I know what it is that’s bothering me, what if I’m not ready to talk about it?” Nyx pointed accusingly at the redhead. “How ready were you when you told me you were wanted for black magic by the Fiamman kingdom?”
Elmiryn shrugged, still nonplussed. “I didn’t care?”
“Oh that is bullshit!”
“Nyx what point are you trying to make? I don’t understand why you feel so threatened all of a sudden!”
Nyx stomped her foot and yelled. “I don’t feel threatened! I feel angry! There’s a fucking difference!”
Elmiryn threw her hands up into the air, feeling her own ire rise. “Wonderful! So you’re angry! That still doesn’t fucking give me a reason why!” She pointed at herself. “That night I had to tell you about the bounty on my head? I felt horrible! If I had told you what my situation was instead of just keeping it to myself like an idiot, then you might’ve been better prepared for when we had first been attacked! Except I hadn’t done that, so I just…I dunno…dealt with it! It wasn’t as if I could keep ignoring the issue!”
The Ailuran glared at her as she shrugged into her gambeson. “I’m sorry, Elmiryn. Just…let’s just get going. With all the daesce and bounty hunters around, we’d be better off traveling until sunrise.”
The warrior leveled a hard stare at the girl. Did she really think after all that they could just cut so short? Nyx paused to glance nervously at her.
“Elmiryn? Please? I just want to go back!” the girl pleaded.
Slowly, Elmiryn nodded, feeling a large pit form in her stomach. “All right. Let’s get going then.”
Nyx is afraid to talk to me…I can hear it in her voice! But why? What could I have possibly done to make her feel that way?