“Our realities do not end in ourselves, but in the hearts of others.” – Tobias
Light feet dashed through grass. Moisture laid cold kisses on her bare skin, where the breeze chilled in its envy. She held the book close to her chest. Her heart hammered against the thick cover, the tome so large it knocked her chin and pressed into her waist. Petite hands desperately clung to it, trying to find a firm grip. Her little arms could barely encircle the book all the way, and the edges of it pressed into her muscles, cutting off circulation, and making the veins in her wrist and hands burn with want of blood. Still she didn’t stop.
Overhead, great misty giants from the north draped across a star studded sky. The moon was not to be seen. She crashed through growths of mountain grass, the tufts as whips to her bare legs. A field opened onto her, alive and aglow with fireflies and the hum of crickets. Her excited heart calmed. The electricity in her eyes slipped away. She spared one glance behind her before she walked to the center of the field, and sat down.
With her behind turned damp, and a mosquito buzzing in her ear, the girl opened the tome and began to read aloud. Her voice and the symphony of spring became one, and a smile finally appeared on her face.
But she was interrupted when a heavy something collided into her from behind. She yelped, but the sound was cut short as breathe left her. With the edges of her vision rippling, she shoved at whatever had draped itself across her back. She recognized the smell, her acute little nose wrinkling at the scents of sweat, taffy, and warm milk.
A laugh. A young face peered into hers, a monkey’s grin plastered there. “Koah,” Sister, “You’re in big trouble if they find out!”
Angry, she shrugged him off. He fell to the grass next to her, giggling. “Cajeck!” Idiot! She cried. “What are you doing, spying on me?”
“I’m not spying.” Her brother said, his face aglow. The dancing lights of the fireflies made it seem like he was still moving. “Thad told me to look for you. He wants to talk to you.”
She groaned and snapped the book shut with reluctant hands. She pressed her forehead to the cover and muttered, “Where is he? When did he get back?”
“He’s at the tavern, speaking with the nation leaders. He and his men arrived three hours ago at the central grounds. Leander told him about the things you’ve been saying in his lessons. He even mentioned the elf trader.” Her little brother sat up and patted her back in mock sympathy, “Aww…He might not whip you that bad, Nyx.”
“He won’t whip me!” She snapped, looking up to bump her shoulder roughly against his. “He isn’t like Leander.”
“He was still mad, though,” Atalo returned, digging in his right ear with his pinky. “You know he told you to behave while he was away!”
She bit her lip and looked at the tome in her lap. ‘A Detailed Look at Elven Culture’. “I traded all my gold pieces for this. I’ve been saving for months…” She sighed, eyes tearing up. “How am I going to hide this? Thad will take it and burn it!”
Atalo fell quiet next to her, his little body slumping at the sight of his older sister’s tears. He scratched at a rosy cheek and looked around. Then his face lit up. “I know where we can hide it!” he cried, shaking her with both hands.
She looked at him sullenly. She wiped at her nose with her bare arm. “What are you talking about, you little fool? There’s not a safe place here or in the village to hide this great fat book! Especially not with Thad looking for me. He knows all my hiding spots!”
“No, no! Not all of them! Remember that great old tree we found not long ago? We can hide it there, in the trunk! All we’d have to do is cover the book with leaves. Hardly anyone goes there, because of the ticks and spiders!!”
“But that’s so far away! He’ll know I was up to something.”
“I’ll do it for you!” Atalo cried. He went for the book, but she shifted to keep it away from him, her expression incredulous.
“You’ve got to be kidding!?” She was barely able to keep from laughing. “I had trouble carrying this book, how can you carry it all that way and not drop it? What if you tear it, or let it fall into mud?”
Atalo looked hurt, his brows crashing together over his eyes. “I can do it, Koah!”
She bit her lip, then slowly handed the book over. “Don’t you drop it. That took me a lot to save for!”
He immediately brightened up and with a grunt, hefted the book into his lap. “Don’t worry, I won’t!” Struggling, he stood to his feet with her help. Her eyes flashed with worry.
“Are you sure you’ll be okay, Atalo?” She asked.
“…Yes!” He grunted, his face pink.
She gave him one long, fearful look, before she took off running, back toward their village. As concerned as she was, she couldn’t keep Thad waiting. He was an impatient soldier.
As her form took a shortcut through the forests, pupils widening to adjust to the dark, a shadow watched her flee past. It was a large cat, tawny eyes turned low at the sight of the young girl’s retreating back. Its maned head turned to look back the way she came, toward the field, where Atalo took slow, shaky steps northward. Furry chops pulled back in a smile.
Atalo would drop that book at least five times, once even in a dirty puddle, before reaching his destination. Nyx would not speak to him for days, until he gave her a handmade book–sloppy but sincere–and as he gave it to her, he would sheepishly say, “I made this so that maybe you can make your own book…” She never wrote in it. She preferred reading. But she forgave him all the same.
That was seven years ago.
“Why are you here?” A new voice, strangled and low. The great cat, whirled around, lips pulled back in a snarl.
Nyx, of the present day, had the animal fixed with a hateful gaze. “You’re dredging up what isn’t yours. …And for what? To cause me pain?” Her eyes were like bleeding cuts. They overflowed with tears, and the creature half-wished the bitch would die from the grief.
The cat lifted its head. Inhaled, and exhaled slowly. It approached Nyx on quiet paws.
The young woman tensed, fists clenched.
…But the great cat just brushed past her with a growl.
Then the memory faded out of focus, and drained away–leaving the physical world free to remind all of its presence.
I awoke, mewling in pain, anything more excited or forceful beyond my capabilities. My muscles, my guts, my bones were in mutiny. I felt as though knives were hacking at my skin, whittling away my cartilage, and leaving bare my bones to pinch and grind my nerves and veins. My neck had swelled, making breathing difficult, and desperate gasps punctuated my pitiful bleats of agony. I was paralyzed, my hands rigorously frozen to fetal paws held close to my chest. Across from me, Elmiryn remained asleep.
When my mind came into full function and I understood the situation at hand, I tried to smother my own voice and fight away whatever was happening. I pressed my eyes shut, hard enough that they seemed to push at my eyeballs. With practiced focus, I sought to reclaim control of my body. Gradually the pain faded. The swelling of my neck receded. My hands unclenched and I could once again move my arms freely. My ears rang. I wiped at my eyes, where tears had leaked from the corners, and made to sit up.
That’s when Elmiryn stirred. Her eyes were shining slivers, where I could only assume she looked my way. Then they blinked and labored to open them in full. I trembled a little. My body was spent from the effort of returning to normal. With my back to her, I looked at her over my shoulder.
“Good morning,” I croaked. My throat was still raw. Elmiryn reached out slowly, and ran her hand down my back in a lazy paw. She let her hand rest on the blanket and closed her eyes again.
“Nyx…” she murmured.
“This is a bad habit you’re forming, Elmiryn.” I tried to smile, but my lips shook unwillingly. A laugh, high and tense, reverberated through my chest. It made my trembling worse. “If I keep waking up before you, we’ll lose so much daylight!” Even as I said that, I knew it was very early. Birds still chirped sleepily in the trees.
Elmiryn rolled onto her back and stared up at the sweet, persimmon sky. Her lips were parted slightly and her eyes lidded. “It’s morning…you’re right.” She sighed and sat up, head in hands. “I had a bad dream.”
She looked at me through parted fingers. “You were hurting, and I didn’t help you.” My faux smile fell away. I turned my face.
“It was just a dream.” I could feel her eyes on me.
She let her hands fall to her lap. Her face drew long and a wrinkle appeared on her brow. “Now I know…it wasn’t.”
“Elle, just cast it out of your head.”
“Your voice tells me the truth even when you aren’t trying to.” I closed my eyes to that and sighed heavily. She continued, voice flat. “It wasn’t that I saw you, my eyes were closed. But I heard you. Only, I didn’t know where I was. I wasn’t sure why I wasn’t moving.”
“It’s normal to be confused when you’re half-asleep.”
Elmiryn shook her head and stared at her hands. “I don’t like it.” She chortled, but it sounded sardonic. “I thought for a second…”
I turned to look back at her. “…Elle?”
She wiped at her mouth as her eyes unfocused. Then she stood to her feet, shaking her head emphatically. “Nevermind.”
Elmiryn set about packing, and I followed suit.
I didn’t try to press the issue. Pressing the issue would’ve meant returning to what happened to me, and I didn’t want to discuss it. The Beast had gotten too close–dug so far deep into my memories as to usurp my dreamscape in favor of viewing what wasn’t hers. In gaining this control, my body had become confused in sleep. If I had not stopped her, I would have shifted.
“You’re paranoid. That wasn’t my intention at all.”
I cried out, dropping the blankets I held in my arms. Elmiryn looked at me, blinking. “Nyx, you okay?”
I looked around me. My mouth felt dry. “I…I thought I heard–”
“Me. You heard ME.”
In my head. A gravelly voice, much like mine, but deeper and with an accent that suggested the speaker was unaccustomed to the language.
I was speechless. I touched both hands to either side of my head and felt faint. “No…”
“Your precious Expression is mine now too. Does it bother you, tyrant?”
Elmiryn came towards me, hands held out in caution. “…Nyx, look at me.”
“But you’ve no USE for it!” I screamed, stepping back, as if that could distance us. Elmiryn froze, her eyebrows going high. I didn’t pay her much attention. I clawed at my head. “You thief! You vile monster, get out of my head!”
“Nyx, that’s enough.”
Two hands grabbed my wrists and I became limp, falling to my knees. Elmiryn knelt with me. “I can hear her…” I breathed. “She’s speaking to me. I can hear her.”
“It was bound to happen.” Elmiryn said, stroking my hair. “She’s your Twin, remember?”
I leaned into her touch. “I don’t want to hear her at all.”
“I dislike being talked about as if I’m not here.”
I tensed. “Stop it.”
Elmiryn stopped and started to pull away. “All right.”
I grab at her. “No! Not you, Her!”
The warrior’s eyebrow quirked and she took a finger to tap at my head. “Maybe you should talk to her in your head. It’s confusing, otherwise.”
“She means you sound like a crazy person.”
My fingers curled and my teeth found themselves grinding. I felt flames burn at the edges of my face, and a growl tensed my throat.
“Be quiet!” I thought.
My animal counterpart purred at me, amused, and sat on her haunches. Her den, her prison, had become larger. With my Expression, she had made it larger.
“Has she stopped?” Elmiryn asked me, still partly turned as if about to stand.
I wait, my eyes on the ground. Then I nod. “I think she’s done.”
Elmiryn patted my arm. “Then let’s go. We’ll need to find a good place for you to shift tonight, farther from the roads.”
This made me feel ill.
The Beast only chuckled.
“You see? I have no reason to play games. Tonight is already MINE…”