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Morning came. Light didn’t come till the sun had conquered the mountains.
Elmiryn was laid out in an oak tree a few feet from the little dirt clearing. The trunk was thick and wide, so much so that the woman could rest on top of it as though it were a makeshift chair. Her body ached in places she couldn’t readily name, yet the contours of her seat relieved some of the discomfort. The branches fanned out around her, and while her bottom had been turned soggy from the way moisture collected in the tree’s self-created bowl, she began to realize, in the deepest sense, why it was Nyx preferred to sleep in lofty places. Half-awake, she turned her head and didn’t see the ground, only the glow of high leaves wet with morning dew. They were daytime starlets that illuminated misty ideas in her head. Dreams of crimson, dreams of tooth and claw. And a terrible doubt…a terrible, terrible doubt…
The branches twisted up and out of her view toward the lit canopy. A sound came up her throat, but it was weak and unintelligible. Elmiryn reached out her arm, and felt gravity pull at it through the air. The world could move her, if only she weren’t propped up by material things.
“I can move,” she breathed.
Down below, the woman heard something stir. Then someone started to hack and cough. A rustle of sound, like fabric being disturbed, then a rough tear of the vocal chords, as though they were so determined to make a sound they were not beyond pulling themselves inside out to do so. Elmiryn didn’t move. Didn’t raise her head. Only took to staring at the canopy. She didn’t truly see it as just focused on the new sounds that entered her ears. She was waiting for it. Waiting for that moment when she could be sure…
The woman was up, twisted around and propped by her elbows, all at once feeling wide awake–though the burn of her eyes suggested her body had yet to catch up to her mind. “Up here,” she called, straining to look down at the ground. Framed by the reaches of elms and aspens, she had a clear view of the ground.
Below, on the dirt, Nyx stumbled backwards as she made to look up. She had on only her tunic and underpants. Her eyes were like fogged bits of glass, their beautiful shade duller than Elmiryn ever remembered them. The girl blinked with mouth agape. “Why are you–”
“It was the smell. No offense, but I had to get away from it. Your Twin’s a messy eater.”
“Oh…” The girl gripped the front of her tunic in an anxious bundle and moved her eyes to her toes, where they wiggled in the dirt.
Even as Elmiryn said these things, she saw the blood that stained the Ailuran’s skin as certainly as bright paint thrown on a white canvas. It was like a sign to her. The Twin had lived there. The Twin had taken residence and made a mess with her unbeing, her uncaring, her selfishness. The woman wanted to wash away this taint herself, but knew her hands were also guilty of this sad curse.
Nyx had sunken eyes. Her hair, if possible, seemed wilder. It knotted itself in startling directions, little bits of grass and dust making it seem a lighter shade beneath the filth. She trembled, like she were cold.
“This is the…the worst I’ve ever felt,” Nyx croaked. The Ailuran let herself fall to the ground, with her arms wrapped around her body. “She didn’t let me see much…and…and I confess I didn’t want to see much. Was…did everything go okay?” Voice so frail. Was that the same girl Elmiryn had sparred with? The same girl who had left a light bruise on her cheek?
The woman moved to sit so that her legs dangled over the ground. She leaned on her palms and swiped at her right ear with her shoulder. “…Fine. I talked to her. Or talked AT her. However you want to see it. She understands. She’s sworn to respect your space until the next full moon.”
Nyx’s face flashed through several expressions at this news. First, she went blank, her dull eyes cool beneath her morning stupor. Then she lit up with jubilation, the corners of her lips turning upwards as a warmth took home to her gaze. Then this look was gone, replaced quickly with a doubtful frown. “She swore?”
Elmiryn nodded. Believed herself more after she felt her head settle back into place. An illusion? “She couldn’t speak, but she did.” No, no. She was sure.
“…Did you define what my space was?” The woman paused, mind tripping over this wrinkle. “Sorry?”
Nyx shook her head, looking forlorn. “Oh, Elle…I appreciate your effort,” The girl sighed and rubbed her brow. She seemed much older, all of a sudden. “Unless you were absolutely clear on what She could not trespass on, then She’ll just find ways to get around her promise–and she’s be better at it now that she has my knowledge.” The next sentence seemed to fight its way to her lips, and Nyx’s face soured at its birthing. “Even I’m not sure what’s solely mine and what’s solely hers.”
Elmiryn rubbed the back of her neck. She replayed the night, her voice, in her head. Tried to find a point to argue with. Found none. The warrior cursed under her breath.
Nyx added hurriedly, her voice cracking back to what the woman was used to. “But really, I appreciate it! I’m surprised She even listened to you.”
“It took some coercion–but half the work had already been done by the time the sun set.”
Nyx wiped at her mouth. Her head turned to look at the line still visible in the dirt. Her eyes squinted. “Elmiryn, why didn’t you ever tell me you knew that spell? Whatever it was?”
The woman shrugged. She gestured at the ground carelessly. “It’s just a containment spell. I’ve done it a few times. Sometimes, me and my men would come across a powerful enemy, and the only way we could hold them was with this spell. We’d hold them there until a trained caster came to take them away.”
“When you say powerful enemy, you mean a therian, right? That’s what the spell is for.”
The woman smiled. Chuckled a little, though she wasn’t sure what was funny. “…Yeah.”
“How does the spell work?”
“Prep an area by clearing it and churning the ground. The soil has to be fresh. Then draw a circle and place four objects from the environment at the circle’s boundaries. Then bind the individual to the space by sprinkling their sweat and blood within the circle. After that, someone outside of it activates the spell.”
“The words you said that night.”
“What were they?”
Nyx’s shoulders bunched, but her face held no sign of anger. Instead, her eyes had become downcast. “Initially, I would’ve guessed the spell to be alchemy, but at this point, it sounds like animancy. A paladin taught you this?”
“No. A wizard. Paladins aren’t fans of Fiamman war campaigns.”
The girl laughed. The sound was dry and low. She looked up at Elmiryn with a weak smile. “How many Ailurans have you used this on?”
Elmiryn didn’t answer right away. She rubbed at her eyes and frowned at Nyx. The girl didn’t seem so far away. If the woman closed her eyes, she was certain she would feel the girl’s breath brush her lips. Elmiryn’s chest gave a clench, and she answered quietly. “Three.”
“Are any of them alive now?”
Nyx knew the answer. Elmiryn knew the girl knew, she had to. Still she answered. She followed that voice, that tease of breath, foolishly, like it were a certain path.
“No…” Elmiryn heard herself say.
Nyx didn’t say anything. She turned away and went to her things, to her weaved appearances and pieces of life. The warrior watched her from the tree for a time before she jumped down.
Elmiryn had realized, in the deepest sense, why it was Nyx preferred to sleep in lofty places. Up there, the world held no more importance than the duty to hold her…and who would ever expect the earth to fall away?
Elmiryn was dead set on removing the feel of the night from their skin, and would have gone marching all the way back to the Medwin river to find respite, had they not found a small brook trickling through the forest. It was a slow process without a proper container to catch the trickling water in, but their goal was accomplished. Happy to be clean, Elmiryn ate cheese and crackers while Nyx watched. The girl mumbled she was still full from the night before. Then, the two women were once again on the move.
Conversation was scarce. Elmiryn felt the ellipses like stab wounds, and her ire was stirred. It bored her. Impatient, she gave Nyx a nudge. “Let’s jog some of the way,” the woman said.
Nyx stared at her like she’d grown a third head. “Elle…after last night and all that ridiculous sparring you put me through yesterday, you want to go running!?”
“Not running. Jogging.” Elmiryn stopped to drop her bag and cross her arms. “What are you complaining about? I know you can’t be sore.”
“No–but I’m not half-crazed with the impending moon anymore either! Why DID you try and push me so hard yesterday?”
“To get you to focus on something else. Like gaining control.”
“You mean lose control.”
“No. Gain it. A berserker only goes so far before a smarter person comes and puts them in their place. You ended up figuring that out when the Twin pushed at your skin. But you fought her, just to keep fighting me. You needed control to make a dent in me. That was your goal.” Elmiryn gestured at the red bruise on her cheek and smirked. “And you achieved it.”
Then without another word, the woman picked up her bag and pushed into a jog, turning to flash a smile at Nyx. “And now that you know you can do it, even under those conditions, the real trick will be in getting you to stick with it.” The woman looked forward again. Even at a jog, she’d need all her concentration not to drop any of her things, or break her ankle in a fall.
Elmiryn could hear Nyx behind her. The jingle of her trinkets lit a smile on the woman’s face.
Nyx made it three miles before she complained she needed a rest. Elmiryn let her have it, and they had a fast lunch eating deer jerky. Again, Nyx didn’t eat much. Before they set off again, the warrior decided it was a good idea to review the previous day’s lessons.
Her companion balked at the announcement, but Elmiryn didn’t give her a chance to set into whining. Her fist was too fast. The first time, she caught Nyx in the shoulder with a straight punch because the girl wouldn’t focus. Then Nyx, with a sour expression, managed to block Elmiryn’s second advance–she side stepped and pulled at Elmiryn’s wrist, pulling the woman off balance.
“That’s good!” Elmiryn said with a grin.
Nyx crossed her arms, and her lips seemed thin. “Can we stop these plays of violence? I’ll jog if you want–fine–but I just had to wash my skin clean of some other creature’s blood. I can’t even entertain the idea of doing this!”
The warrior gave a nod. “Okay. I’ll be nice. But you have to get this in your head…you have to be prepared to defened yourself at any moment. I’m going to sound like an idiot, but this saying is true, ‘Danger doesn’t wait for you to be at your best’.”
Nyx turned her face, her throat moving a little as she swallowed.
They traveled on.
Three more days they traveled through the country side. Elmiryn caught a rabbit, and later a fowl, so that they wouldn’t go without meat. Though the crackers were gone, there was still some bread left.
The warrior knew that technique would not be an issue with Nyx. Not considering her natural skill and her background. The problem would be in bringing the girl to optimal physique. As a human being, it didn’t take as much to get Elmiryn to her most fit. Not when compared to the natural strength of an Ailuran, who needed a great deal more conditioning before any physical training mattered. That was why the Ailuran army was so powerful, despite their small numbers. If the Lycan tribes decided to align themselves with the Ailuran Nation, Fiamma would be doomed.
That was why the kingdom made a peace treaty with the werewolves, first thing.
The regenerative trait Nyx had was also something of a problem. Unless Elmiryn could push the girl hard enough and fast enough, the body would only revert back to what it was previously. But this was a challenge Elmiryn was eager to meet. Could she keep up with a trained Ailuran?
Every morning she would wake with aches and sores. Every morning, she was hungry to do more.
A pattern came quickly. The warrior would wake and rouse Nyx from sleep. Then they would jog three miles before stretching. Afterward, they did push-ups, pull-ups, and combat drills–practicing kicks, punches, and knee lunges. Then they would rest and jog for at least another three miles. In the evenings, they would review blocks and counter attacks.
It was all basic and at times unorthodox, but it was a routine cannibalized from Elmiryn’s days as a foot soldier. By the third day, Nyx was at her surliest, but the training was having its intended effect. The girl’s technique was becoming sharper, and her stamina was showing an improvement.
By the fourth day, Tiesmire was well in view.
Elmiryn wasn’t all that glad to see it.
It would be a disruption to their newly formed routine, a problem the woman had quietly puzzled over since they had begun their joint training. That, and Elmiryn could already hear the ants of noise marching over her ear drums–invasive, perverse, and unpleasant. The option of going around Tiesmire was too silly to entertain. The city-state was so wide that doing so would cost them at least an additional two days. That was time wasted not moving toward a solution for Nyx’s condition, time wasted not fighting Meznik.
Elmiryn sighed, “We have no choice. We have to go through.”
“What’s so bad about it?” Nyx panted. They had just stopped from their usual jog. Her eyes squinted at the city.
The warrior shook her head, a derisive sound slipping her lips.
Tiesmire was a city-state built on an elevation of land that overlooked the Eastern plains and forests. Its perimeter was guarded by two sets of high walls, which housed the city’s militia. From their point atop a knoll, the two women could see to the heart of the city, where a three-story manor loomed over all other buildings. Its height was only matched by the towers dispersed throughout Tiesmire, where armed guards stood lookout for any misconduct. Past the manor, the city fell prey to trailing mist. Elmiryn couldn’t even see the northern boundaries. To walk across the city would take more than a day, and she knew this because she had once visited Tiesmire as a guard to a royal envoy. If she had to sum up the city-state in one word, it would be…
“Obscene. That’s what this place is.” Elmiryn spat in memory of the atmosphere. In her head, she held no memories of the architecture or the people, but the loud voices and the feel of disrespect was enough to make her lip curl. “Tiesmire is full of arses. The faster we’re past it, the better.”
Nyx said nothing.
They came to the southern entry gate, where guards watched the two-lanes of people entering and exiting. Traffic was heavier leading out of the city, toward Gamath. The moving crowd consisted of people light and dark, tall and small, large and skinny. There were even some dressed in colorful foreign garbs. Southern Islanders, Indabans, Westerners, and many others that Elmiryn couldn’t name.
“They aren’t checking our things?” Nyx muttered as they passed the first archway.
“Too many people,” Elmiryn replied. “This place isn’t like Dame. Have you ever been to a city this size before?”
The girl shook her head. She was slouched, and she did nothing to push aside the bangs concealing her eyes. Elmiryn reached a hand and brushed them back. She smiled. “You don’t need to worry, Nyx. You didn’t get to see it because Gamath was empty, but cities like these are filled with people of all kinds. It’s true, there aren’t many therians of the moon here, but there’s plenty therians of the sun.”
Nyx gazed at her in surprise. “Really?”
“In my last visit here, I got into a drinking contest with an Arktan.”
“…You tried to out-drink an Arktan?”
The woman smiled sheepishly as they passed the second archway. “I was already tipsy, so I got ‘Avians’ and ‘Arktans’ mixed up in my head. I didn’t realize I was competing against a fucking bear.” The woman chuckled at the memory, her recalling drink-induced illness and unsteady limbs. Then Elmiryn’s eyes lit up. “That’s it!” she cried. She gripped Nyx’s shoulder and pointed ahead of them. “This main road is lined with taverns. We have to stop in one!”
Nyx’s eyes grew wide and she shook her head vehemently. “Elle, no!”
The warrior didn’t let the girl’s lack of enthusiasm faze her. Her tongue could already taste sweet wine. “It’s the only way I’ll be able to get through all this bullshit and not want to shank someone. Come on, don’t you want to relax a bit after these past few days?”
“I thought you wanted to get through Tiesmire fast!” Nyx returned hotly. A traveling merchant bumped past her, sparing an irritated glance over his shoulder.
Elmiryn watched him go, his form becoming an inconsequential smear in the bustling crowd. Voices washed over them in a relentless wave. She recalled the architecture as mismatched throughout the city, and they lent to the feeling of falseness. But now, as her eyes roved the facades, the signs, the flashes of scenes from open doorways–no criticism could come to her mind other than how banal it all seemed. The noise took dominance of her attention. The noise, the jostling, the smoke, the heat–
“Believe me, Nyx. I wanna get the hell out of this ridiculous place. But if I have the chance to take the edge off, I want to take it.”
“So you want me to babysit you the entire way? I don’t feel like playing the role of caretaker, thank you very much.” The girl crossed her arms. Pouted even.
“Who said you weren’t going to drink with me?” Elmiryn grabbed Nyx by the hand and began to pull her through the crowd. Nyx protested behind her, but the woman took a moment to smile at her, the warmth of those around them breeding mischief in her heart and spurring her forth.
“Tonight, Nyx, we’re going to make a tavern master very happy!” Elmiryn crowed.