The cold and oppressive corruption was like ghostly palms pushing against her.
Her eyes shifted to the side to gaze briefly at her petite companion, whose mess of dark locks shielded her expression from view. The wind was a nefarious agent, breathing death on their skin. It chased ash around their ankles and the scent of carrion to their noses.
Beneath their feet, the grass crunched and crumbled to dust. …So maybe it wasn’t ash? The blades were chalk white versus the fading yellow of your typical dead grass. The alder trees that sprinkled the fields were much the same, brittle clumps of leaves on their gray branches. How could anything be reduced to such a dismal state? There was stark line where this unnatural decay began, separating the green life that spilled from the sides of the Torreth Mountains from the gray death that affected the lands of Gamath.
The city could be seen in the distance.
Elmiryn’s eyes again shifted to look at Nyx. It were as if she were afraid the youth would drift away like a stray boat, out into a cold ocean that would surely swallow her whole. She felt like grabbing the girl’s hand and never letting go. And why the neediness? Why the fear?
The warrior thought of the moment back at the foot of the mountains and her body tensed. The girl’s face to the ground, her chest not moving…
She had looked like the dead deer.
Even as the details of the scene faded, leaving only the horror that shocked Elmiryn’s senses, this one picture stubbornly remained–golden–frayed at the edges and lit from behind by intensity of the woman’s feelings.
And the Ailuran had no idea what the problem was. Didn’t she feel the life leaving her? The cold that swept her skin? Did her lungs not scream for air, her mind scream for freedom, her soul scream from the molestation from evil? Elmiryn hadn’t understood immediately what the issue was. The girl had simply stopped talking, gone still on the ground. When she realized what was going on, it had threatened to throw her into hysterics.
Nyx had been like that for fifteen minutes.
But Elmiryn didn’t mention this. She didn’t tell Nyx of the illusory death that had overcome her for so long a time–too long for any living creature to know. She was certain the girl would completely shut her mind if this fact was mentioned to her. It would be too terrible.
And it was too terrible.
How long before the pestilence stole the freshness from her skin?
Elmiryn stirred from her thoughts. “Huh?”
“I said did you feel that.” Nyx was looking at her now, her brows pressed together. She had rather striking expressions, this girl. Elmiryn was beginning to recognize when she was annoyed, when she was genuinely angry, when she was amused or sad. It was all guesswork, of course–her curse made it difficult to judge on appearances alone. But this girl made it…fun. Like it were a game.
Right now, Nyx was feeling afraid.
“It’s what he does,” Elmiryn said, looking back toward Gamath. “Meznik has spent a lot of time here. It’s deteriorated the natural order. You’re feeling that push on your eyeballs and the knotted stomach, right?”
The Ailuran gave a mute nod.
“Yeah…it means something isn’t right. It means HE was here.”
“Do you know what he looks like?” the girl asked quietly. She was hugging herself.
Elmiryn began to answer tentatively. “Honestly…I don’t really know. He takes many forms.” She shrugged. “It isn’t even entirely correct to call Meznik a ‘he’. In this language, it’d be more correct to refer to him as ‘it’.”
“Do you know why he cursed you?”
“…Again, I don’t really know.”
Nyx kicked at a rock on the ground, her bag of trinkets jingling from the harsh action. “Y’know, I’ve only read about two other astral demons in history. No one knew what they looked like or why they came either.” The girl continued to speak, though her voice was subdued. “There was Izma, who was accused with genocide and the disruption of many royal lineages. Then there was Bao-Gar, who raped noble women and stole riches from Kings…” her voice trailed away.
Elmiryn looked at her sideways. “You’re skeptical.”
The girl glanced at her, then shook her head. “I don’t doubt your sincerity. I don’t even doubt the fact that you’ve been cursed. But astral demons have been laughed out of magical studies due to people’s inability to prove their existence–and when you stop to think about it–don’t all the stories of Izma and Bao-Gar sound like caste-related paranoia? The kind whispered between the rich and those of noble class? The fact that all these occurrences could be explained away by spiritual hauntings, shape-shifters, enchantment…” Nyx gave a shrug and looked at Elmiryn nervously. “I mean, don’t you think it’s plausible?”
The warrior looked down at her, her cerulean eyes lidded. “And the sensations you are feeling now…what can you explain that away with?”
“I…I don’t know.”
“I guess we’ll see then…”
“Elle, I’m not trying to insult you. I don’t even really think it’s that big an issue! The fact of the matter remains–I’m still in your debt, no matter what.”
The corners of Elmiryn’s lips hitched up into a fixed grin. “Thank you.”
The closer they came to Gamath, the heavier the world felt. The woman could feel her boots drag like they were lead, and her breath became labored as a cold disgust washed on the shores of her mind. Nyx fared no better–if anything, Elmiryn was certain she was doing worse. Sweat had slicked the girls ashen face and her shoulders sagged. The warrior remembered Nyx’s rule–about proximity–but in this case she found it necessary to offer the girl support by slipping her arm around her, and the youth offered no complaints.
At the limits of Gamath, they stopped.
Unlike Dame, Gamath was much more spacious, and their roads were wide for the passing of carts. The cobbled thoroughfare was strewn with dirt and hay. The pressure that fought against Elmiryn made her head throb, and Nyx had started to lean against her as if she couldn’t stand on her own. The warrior’s eyes darted between the dark two-story cottages and the abandoned merchants stands. Her eyes lingered on a large pile of animal droppings, dry and untrampled. The buildings were shut up and quiet.
“They’ve abandoned this place,” Elmiryn murmured. “…Good.”
Nyx trembled. She shook her head. “I can hear something.”
The older woman looked down at her with a frown. “What?”
The girl gazed forward, her brows pressing together over her watery eyes. “Claws,” she whispered.
Elmiryn heard it growl before she saw it. Several yards ahead, a large shaggy mountain dog with a black coat, a cream snout, and honey-colored paws stepped out from behind the shadow of an overturned cart. The rival suns had fled the sky, leaving the subtle light of the moon, but it was light enough that Elmiryn could see the foam dripping from the mongrel’s quivering lips, the madness that glinted in its eyes as its muscles bunched beneath its thick coat.
Slowly, the warrior disengaged from Nyx and set down her bag. She pulled an arrow from her quiver, her eyes trained on the dog, and readied her bow, pulling the bowstring as far back as her chin.
The dog started forward, its claws clicking against the cobbled road as a vicious bark tore from its throat. Nyx stumbled back, falling onto her rear. “Elmiryn!” she squeaked.
Before the woman fired her arrow, a large spear came sailing in a clear arc from further down the road. It struck the mammoth dog in the back, eliciting a short-lived cry before it crashed gracelessly into the ground. Elmiryn blinked, but kept her bow at the ready.
Footsteps echoed toward them. The woman shifted so that her weapon pointed that way. A man came into view, dressed in a noseguard helmet and studded leather armor. He held up his hands and slowed his steps. “Ho there,” he called.
Elmiryn took a moment before responding. “Who are you?”
His retort was quick. “Shouldn’t I be asking the questions?”
“Well if you told me who you are, then maybe I could answer you.”
The man stared at her, then chortled. He placed a careful hand on his chest. “I am Sedwick. The town blacksmith.”
“And what is a blacksmith doing here? With no business?” Elmiryn asked.
“I protect the last remaining residents of Gamath from the mad creatures that stumble through these streets.” He tilted his head to the side and his smile turned crooked. “I also protect the abandoned homes from would be looters.”
Elmiryn quirked an eyebrow. “I’m Elmiryn.” She slowly lowered her bow. “You say there are others here?”
The man nodded, once again starting forward now that the threat of being shot was gone. He reclaimed his spear from the dog’s back, placing a firm boot on the corpse and yanking the long weapon out without so much as a blink of his eyes. He turned to Elmiryn. “There’s a collection of us held up at the Dripping Cloak, an inn not far from here. Forgive me for being so forthcoming, but I get a sense that you understand what’s going on here.”
“Word travels fast. Hard to ignore one of the most important rivers of the East becoming poisoned. Why would anyone stay here?”
Sedwick shrugged. “These are the sick and poor. When faced with the option of braving the mountains or crossing the river to the next civilized town, there was no choice.” His eyes flitted to Nyx, who shrank beneath his gaze. “And your companion?”
Elmiryn glanced at her, then placed a firm hand on her shoulder. “This is my ward, Nyx.”
The girl mumbled something, then gave a cursory bow.
Sedwick shouldered his spear and held out his hand. “Alright then. Let me help you with your things.”
“No, I think we’ve got it.”
“Mmm…Fine. Follow me.”
Elmiryn gathered her things again. Nyx put a hand to her mouth, then leaned forward onto her knees. The woman placed a hand on her back. “You okay?” She asked.
“It’s the air,” Nyx managed after a moment. “The smell here it’s…Elle, this place makes me feel so sick. I think I might throw up again.”
“Don’t you dare.” Elmiryn began to steer the girl forward, her eyes looking up to see that Sedwick was waiting for them. “Not after all that trouble I went to, vanquishing an animal in the name of your endless hunger!”
Nyx grinned, her head rolling back to look up at Elmiryn. “Okay. Just for you, I’ll swallow it down.”
“Good. Remember–only the girls who swallow it, get anywhere in life!” Elmiryn winked.
The Ailuran looked at her in surprise. Then, despite her clear misgiving, she snorted into laughter, her voice echoing down the street as much as through the warrior’s head. Elmiryn offered the young girl support again and they proceeded to follow Sedwick as he led them to the only building where lights could be seen. It looked like a tavern, but the sign was missing.
“It’s quiet,” She said, looking to Sedwick. “How many did you say were here?”
The blacksmith shrugged. “Perhaps only sixty. A few days ago, there were at least a 100 more, but they’ve all fled to Tiesmire, to the North.”
The man opened the heavy door that led inside, and as they entered, the two were met with more than a dozen baleful eyes. People seemed to be tucked into every possible nook and cranny, the heat from the collected body warmth like a wave of sweat and illness that rolled over them. Nyx, who had previously only been leaning, was now clutching to Elmiryn. The woman, meanwhile, felt her headache worsen, and pressed a hand to her head.
She felt a hand at her elbow, and she looked to see Sedwick gazing at her. “We’ve had a few like yourself pass through here recently. They fared much the same.”
“Why aren’t you affected?” Elmiryn asked, spots dancing past her eyes.
The man shrugged as he shut the door. “We’ve gotten used to it.”
The woman shook her head, then winced and touched her forehead again. She looked at Sedwick, then at everyone in the room. “This isn’t something to get used to,” she breathed, looking back at the blacksmith. “If this keeps on, you’ll be as good as damned. I mean to put a stop to this.”
This declaration made the man’s brows rise high. “Oh really?”
Elmiryn narrowed her gaze a fraction. “Yes. Really.”
Sedwick gave a dry laugh and clapped Elmiryn on the shoulder. “Don’t bother.”
He took off his helmet, and his overgrown sandy-gray hair flopped into his wide face, clumped and sweaty. Here in the candlelight, Elmiryn could see the color of his eyes–brown–and how stubble shadowed his jaw and upper lip. His eyebrows were uneven, one side looking as if it had been the victim of a knife. There was a deep cut across the left side of his face from the corner of his eye to his chin, and it wrinkled as he smiled at her and said again, “Don’t bother. Really.”
He gestured for them to follow him and they did, stepping carefully over the huddled bodies and limbs.
“The last man that tried to solve our problem never returned. Some upstart named Aidan. We gave him the last of our gold–but for all we know he made off with it. There were more that came, seeking payment for their services–but we can’t afford it now. Needless to say, that’s still the case. No…it’s best to just leave this to a Legend to take care of. It’s what they’re good for.” He began to climb the stairs to the second floor.
“Legends aren’t known for their punctuality,” Elmiryn said. She gripped the railing tightly as she tried to drag Nyx up with her. The girl seemed to be losing the use of her legs.
“Look.” Sedwick stopped at the top of the stairs and turned to look at Elmiryn with a tired expression. It looked like a tremendous weight was pressing down on him all over. “You wanna get turned inside out by the guardian? Fine. But don’t expect anyone to help you should anything happen. Like I said, we can’t pay you either…” and here he sighed. “IF you are so gods damned set on this, then my suggestion is to get some rest. A safe place to sleep is as much as we can offer you.”
“I intended to go during daylight anyway…Goddamn it Nyx!” But Elmiryn’s voice lacked any conviction. The Ailuran was slipping to the steps, her eyes going glassy. Her hair had turned to sweaty clumps, strands of it sticking to her face.
Elmiryn looked to Sedwick, holding out her bag. “Here take this for a moment.” He did, and she next handed him her bow. “Thanks.”
With a grunt, the warrior knelt down and scooped the girl up, much like she had the first night they had met. When she straightened, she groaned and squeezed her eyes shut. The world lurched, and pain split down the middle of her skull straight into her sinuses.
“This way. There’s a spot on the floor for the both of you.” She heard Sedwick say. “I’m afraid we’re reserving the beds for the sick and children.”
Elmiryn blinked her eyes open and followed him. When they came to the last door in the hallway, the woman asked quietly, “Have you any drink?”
The blacksmith looked at her. “What…you mean spirits?”
“Sure, we’ve lots of it down below. Why?”
“I was wondering if I could have a bit of wine.”
“You realize of course that we haven’t any water to give you should you make yourself ill, right? The same goes for food?”
“That’s fine. Oh, and I’ve some meat there, in that bag. Deer. Killed just this morning. Now the wine?”
The man let out a surprised grunt, pausing as he set the bag down to look through it. He came up with the wrapped meat. “Thank you!” He smiled, his scar wrinkling. “Okay, I’ll be back in a moment with your wine…There should be a space in the far-left corner for you in here.”
Elmiryn entered the room as he left and squinted in the darkness. She saw that, indeed, the far-left corner was empty, and gingerly made her way there. On a dresser next to their corner, a collection of candles flickered, offering a small bit of light. She rolled Nyx off her shoulder and laid her down gently in her arms. “Nyx?” she prompted.
The girl stirred, her tawny eyes rolling in their sockets before fixing on Elmiryn’s face. “Was’happenin’ ta me?” she mumbled.
The warrior brushed the hair from Nyx’s face, her gaze going soft. “The source of Meznik’s corruption. We’re closer to it. That’s why we have to take care of this quick. The longer we stay here…” Elmiryn’s voice died in her throat as Nyx began to look elsewhere, her tongue slipping out of her mouth, reptilian-like, to trace her teeth and lips. She was trailing her fingertips on the floor, her hand flexing occasionally. She took a sharp intake of breath and arched her back when Elmiryn placed a hand on her face and forced her attention back toward her.
“…The more we see what he wants us to.” The warrior finished quietly, sitting back.
A moment later, the door opened again, and Sedwick came, handing Elmiryn two bottles of red wine. “Maybe you should drink those downstairs,” He said, glancing at the sleeping forms around them.
“Don’t worry,” Elmiryn said before uncorking the bottle with her teeth. “I’m a good lil’ drunk.”
Sedwick looked skeptical. “Swear on Halward’s head that you’ll keep quiet?”
“Good.” He stepped out of the room.
Elmiryn didn’t stop to look at the wine’s seal, nor did she put into effect any of the typical customs associated with wine tasting. She simply took the bottle into her mouth and tipped it far back. Some of it dribbled out the corner of her mouth, but she managed to swallow most of it. The feel of the lukewarm drink cascading down her throat was a sort of comfort to her. She stopped to take some air, a little over a quarter of the bottle gone. Elmiryn then turned her attention to Nyx.
“Nyx…here, drink some of this.”
The girl’s eyes had fallen shut and she had her hands in her hair–she ran her fingers through the uneven strands and forced them through knots with startling force. Each time this happened, the girl would wince and whimper, but she didn’t stop. Elmiryn was reminded of a baby pulling its own hair.
She grabbed Nyx’s wrist. “Knock it off!” With a sigh, she pulled the Ailuran up into her lap and forced her mouth open with her free hand. “Open up, Nyx. You need to drink some of this.” she poured some of the wine into the girl’s mouth, and Nyx choked and let out a cry that was certain to wake someone up, but at the moment Elmiryn was too preoccupied to care. When the youth turned her face away, coughing, the warrior took another swig, then set the bottle down.
“I’m sorry, Nyx. You can scream at me later.” Elmiryn could feel the world shift and felt a warmth grow in her chest. Her headache had lessened. “But for now, you’ve got to drink…you’ve got to see this…as one big joke.” The girl didn’t seem to be listening. The woman took her thumb and wiped away a drop of wine from Nyx’s chin.
Surprisingly quick, the youth grabbed at Elmiryn’s retreating hand, her face turning to stare at it like it were a mouse. Then without warning, she took the warrior’s thumb into her mouth, biting a little, but mostly sucking. The woman breathed in sharply at the feel of Nyx’s swirling tongue, warm and wet–but just as quick as the moment had come, it was over, and the Ailuran nuzzled back into Elmiryn’s lap.
The woman blinked down at her, warmth spreading over her skin. Then she sighed and scooted over so that she could lean against the wall.
“…Y’know…I’d probably be of the mind to take advantage of this situation if I didn’t feel like it’d be one child molesting another.”