We slept inland, amid a sparse collection of trees, the first seen for at least two miles. The area around Tiesmire was cleared for matters of security. It was easier to spot a threat in the open.
I curled into Elmiryn’s back–for the cold, I’d said–but my fingers were against her, and my knees lightly touched the back of her thighs. This gave me a different sort of comfort. In this closeness, I trembled, unused to the contact, made timid by it, but welcoming it all the same. I was grateful that Elmiryn sought no more, though her eyes flashed in the dark, and I could hear her swallow hard. It was a peek of humanity, beneath her slippery exterior of haunted laughter and distant looks.
Feeling faint, and with a headache blossoming throughout my head, I slept, and wondered if Elmiryn would still be there in the morning, both in body…and in mind.
The morning was quiet, and a mist carried over us. I felt it trace my exposed ears and nose. Confused with sleep, I opened my eyes to see my surroundings, and the light of the morning tore into my retinas, sending a pain like my nerves were being shaved by a razor. I hissed and turned my face into Elmiryn’s back, and relished her warmth. Then my mind stirred, bothered by an observation.
Elmiryn was still there.
Normally, she would wake me with impatient hands. Today, I could hear her snore a little, a light growl that signaled she would not rise soon.
I came up from the ground, stiff, and with a damp side sprinkled with dirt, and tree bits. I stretched and groaned, inhaling deeply. Something in my mind said I didn’t breathe in right, so I took a breath in through my nose again, faster this time. Confused, I swiped at my nose and took another breath, one that left me feeling light headed. Then I realized what was missing.
My sense of smell had dulled.
I could certainly smell the campfire smoke, the damp soil, the dew on the plants and trees…but now that I stood, I could no longer sense the signature smell that I had attributed to Elmiryn–untamed nature, sweat, sometimes wine or other drink, and oiled metal. I could not sense the bluebirds chirping in contest with the crows and the siskins. I could not sense the trace markings of local wildlife–deer, mountain lions, foxes, or raccoons, usually apparent in the moisture. I could not even sense the rotting trunk yards away, its broken insides alive with bugs and moss and fungi.
And how had I come to see this now? How had I noticed that which wasn’t mine?
For it was Hers, all of it, the strong sight, smell, and hearing. I was just the creature that played at being human, the one who knew society and language like second nature. I could no more take back what she had taken than erase my own memory. It made me think of Elmiryn’s attempt to protect me from Her, my Twin, and I scoffed derisively–not at the intent of the action, but at the reality of it.
There was nothing either of us could do. Locked together as quarreling sisters, we would always trespass on the other’s most personal thoughts. But my hands were mine, my voice mine, my smooth skin mine. In her world, she knew fang and talon and fur–and could sense far more than I could, even with good health, utter silence, and utmost concentration on my part.
It made me feel inadequate.
But I pushed these things away, and let my base needs take precedence. I had to go to the bathroom–which surprised me. I’d thought all the poison and water in me had been pissed and vomited away. But the burn I felt, and the pinch of my bladder told me I was terribly wrong.
Being upright was a terrible feeling, one made worse with the pain the light offered my squinted and resentful eyes. I felt like an unsteady pole on a swaying ship. My limbs, as I walked, were sluggish and my head felt stuffed in cotton. My mouth was dry, and the light frayed my nerves. I could almost swear, my brain was a swollen organ that battered the inside of my skull with every clumsy move of my body. I leaned on my knees, occasionally finding a close enough tree to hold on to while I tried to catch my breath. Snaking roots and mischievous rocks were my bane.
From our place, one could see the Tiesmire road and the ambling mass of bodies and vehicles, thicker here than towards Gamath. Around us, others also camped, sprinkled on the sloped hillside. Light smoke trails and shifting forms made the land seem alive. Each resting traveler sought meager privacy, and so tried to keep their camps spread apart. None were near us, but eyes followed me as I made my clumsy way.
Then an unwelcome voice resounded in my head.
“Quite possibly the dumbest thing you have done, second only to agreeing to follow Elle the Idiot–”
“Shut up, ingratious animal!” I snapped aloud. Her voice echoed in my head, and it hammered my senses painfully. Didn’t this hurt her too? I wondered. Or was the venom in her voice because she felt as I did?
My Twin went on rambling, “–Let me in control for a while, your sense are shot–”
“–I’m asking this purely out of necessity. You’re straying from camp–”
“I have to relieve myself! You aren’t supposed to–”
“–And you’ll be more vulnerable with your pants down–”
“–You think shifting before all these strangers won’t make me vulnerable–?”
“–US vulnerable. And I’m only asking for a moment–”
“NO, gods damn you!”
“FINE.” She snarled, and then she fell quiet, slamming the proverbial door shut and locking it.
I snorted and let Her have her tantrum. Now that she was sealed away in her unnameable home, she didn’t make my head hurt as much.
When my business was done, I returned to our little camp. We couldn’t find a proper space, but our exhaustion robbed us of any care for absolute perfection. I knelt down by Elmiryn, and my heart palpitated in my chest a healthy rhythm. The sight of her cheeks, turned a fair rose, with her hair as hot searing locks tangled in the cracked leaves and dark dirt… She was quiet and still, her face devoid of her typical restlessness. But this was only her exterior, her shell, and I knew with an ache in my throat that she was lost to something unseen. I raised a cold hand, and contemplated brushing back the rebellious locks that trailed her cheeks. My hand curled back and I chewed my lip. I thought, “I’d rather not be burned.”
I went to my bag and pulled out my gambeson. The bag deflated like a hollowed out corpse. The clothing was rolled tightly and smelled of soap. I held it up in the sleepy light and frowned unfavorably at the darkened fabric. The blood didn’t wash out completely.
My grip tightened as my mind flashed–bringing the sight of a pale man with spiky dark hair and wild eyes. Aidan’s pale face, once handsome, was dominated by thick purplish veins and cancerous red skin. His hands at my Twin’s throat, sick laughter echoing in our mind, Sedwick screaming at Her to stop, me pushing forward to force her to do just that–
My eyes teared, and I bit my tongue to anchor myself. I pressed the gambeson to my nose and tried to find the scent of my mother.
…I sensed nothing of her.
I stared forward, feeling as though someone had just ripped the breath from my lungs. One small tear leaked out the side of my eye, but I didn’t bother wiping at it. I let my hands fall to my lap, where the gambeson draped my thighs like a dead skin. With slow hands, I pulled the item on, tying it at the front. Underneath, my tunic bunched and wadded, but the warmth my gambeson afforded me in this morning chill was worth more than the slight awkwardness this caused. Even if I could no longer smell my mother in the fabric, I tried to find consolation in the fact that, no matter what, it was once hers.
I repeated this to myself as I rubbed my arms, fingers stinging after a while from the brush of the cloth.
Partly selfish, partly sympathetic–my motives for letting Elmiryn sleep on was met with no irritated questions.
Her eventual rising was slow, and she greeted the late morning like a corpse in the sun–stark and morbidly beautiful. It were as if she were an artistic portrait that no one knew the meaning to anymore. I was afraid for a moment, the way her eyes seemed so glassy…
“Elmiryn…good morning.” My breath was a fog. There was still a chill about us, even with the sun over the Torreth.
I shifted nervously from my place sitting next to her. “Maybe we should get going?” I asked.
She remained quiet, some flicker of recognition coming over her eyes as she gazed my way. Then she pulled her knees up to her chest and braced her hands on the ground. Her lips parted to let out a rattle of breath.
“Meznik…?” she narrowed her eyes. “Do you feel this, Nyx?”
I shook my head and lightly touched her shoulder. “Elmiryn, it isn’t Meznik.”
Elmiryn scowled. “Then what–?”
“We were drinking last night. You’re hung over, like me.”
The odd turn of this conversation wasn’t lost on me. I gave a tentative nod of my head. “Yes…you are.”
Elmiryn’s eyes lit up. “That’s right. That’s right!” She broke into a laugh. The sound was off to my ears, like she forgot what key her humor was supposed to be in. “Let’s look for some water and something to eat,” she said, standing with her newly acquired sword. She still had a jocular smile on her face.
As we walked, passing camps and wary stares, her smile faded. She spoke and her tone was uncertain. “I had a dream.”
I looked at her, trying not to appear concerned. I didn’t want her to feel doubt regarding her summation. “What about?” I asked.
“I was fighting. Lots of people.” She shook her head and rubbed at her temples, closing her eyes. “My head hurts…”
“Who were you fighting?”
She blinked. Elmiryn scratched the back of her neck and rolled her shoulders. “Everyone. I think. My hands sting like it, anyway.”
I frowned and gazed at her sidelong. “Huh?”
She held up her hands to show me. “Look, aren’t they swollen? The knuckles? The palms?”
“No, they aren’t. Save for the scar in your right hand, they look normal.”
“Scar?” She frowned and looked at her palm. “Oh, right.”
I gave her an uneasy smile. “Elmiryn, you weren’t really fighting. That’s why it was a dream.”
“Uh-huh. That’s what I said, right?”
I forced a smile and looked to the ground, my arms still around me. My grip tightened. I felt like crying again.
“Yes…of course, Elle.”
Quincy was drawn in the cool reaches of groaning buckeyes. A shadow beneath her cloak, unmoving, she watched from her lofty place as the young therian wandered from camp and hid behind a large shrub.
On her way there, she heard the girl snap at something. She appeared agitated and unsteady. Hung over? Likely.
When she returned, there was a curious moment where the girl paused to gaze at her friend. It was with admiration and warmth, but her expression was somewhat strained by a sort of fear that Quincy didn’t quite understand. Concern. For her friend. Beyond the typical companionship. How long had they traveled together?
The therian reached toward the older woman’s face before curling it back.
Having reconsidered her previous action, the girl turned to her bag and took out a feldgrau gambeson, its shade uneven as though it suffered some large stain. She then pressed the item to her face and inhaled, and her eyes opened with some haunted realization. She went slack, letting the gambeson fall to her lap and remained there for a time, staring into space, before she pulled the clothing on with shaking hands.
A precious item–but it had lost something. Something important.
When the other woke, she could hear their words, even with the cool wind in her ears that swept eastward from the ocean. Her fingernails gripped into the grain of bark as Quincy shifted just ever slightly, enough to see beneath the spined reach of the buckeye to catch the bewildered expression of the therian.
She was particularly intrigued by the very human-like mannerisms that draped the girl, as if her other self was just a different coat, to be tucked away, unseen, until the right time.
Her companion was another curiosity. At first she spoke slow and quiet–like a hollow instrument–but then as alertness set into her the woman revealed to have a melodic voice that lifted and jumped on the ear drums–pulled along by some hidden observation that colored her words with humor. Her eyes were perhaps her most intriguing feature. Whereas her therian friend’s gaze spoke of the otherness that essentially completed her, the woman’s eyes were devoid of something.
They slipped, flickered, rolled, found something distant and far to watch, before they were back to her friend, perhaps the only thing she could fully focus on for any stretch of time before the world danced with her attention again. She was restless in her gaze, and yet she still laughed, fascinated by the things she saw.
Not inattentive. Just searching. For what?
Quincy did not know what to make of this person or her companion. She was an expert of observation, a master of detail, yet these two presented only more questions with every revelation. Her azure eyes narrowed as they began to pass her, hidden, farther inland.
Carefully, she slipped out of the old buckeye, her choice for the all-night watch she had endured. With confident steps, she followed the two women, eyes trained on them. She did not feel exhaustion weigh her down, did not feel thirsty, or hungry. She was honed in on her targets, her new interests.
…How did they know of the chronicles? How could they possibly know?
Nyx. The small dark-haired girl. Elmiryn. The taller, red-haired woman. Perhaps the latter was her age? A little younger?
She’d heard tell of the saviors of Gamath. The stories varied from person to person, but she had gathered enough accounts from eavesdropping at the rooftops to have an idea of the truth. Two women, one taller than the other, with beautiful eyes and more danger than either had ever intended on. They came from the West on a mission, still a mystery to the general gossiper.
Heroes? Fame chasers? …Victims of circumstance?
Quincy’s eyes were sharp beneath the lip of her head, and they pierced through smoke and trees to the two women. For her intended gamble, it was enough. She could survive circumstances of dubious outcome, could defeat a person of greater reputation, could hold her own when outnumbered–this challenge would be no different. She would make sure. True, it would take more work, but Quincy was certain she could have her answers, have her reward, and be unscathed in the end. With Hakeem, she was doubly sure.
Since she could recall, she had always encountered some unexpected variable in the equation. She had gathered information that had led her here, and she knew the one she searched for was near. The city had barred her original quarry from entering due to inexplicable incidents that occurred within its walls. Cast out and with supplies dwindling, they wandered along the Tiesmire road, searching.
Quincy did not believe in fate, but she believed in resilience and preparation.
She slowed as the two women before her slowed, instinctually keeping a measured distance. The smaller one was red in the face, and her voice had become shrill. The taller one looked sheepish.
“You spent all the gold!?”
“I wasn’t thinking!”
“No! You were drunk. And gods damn it, so was I!” The girl gripped her head and teetered. “Sweet Aelurus, my head…”
An Ailuran. Quincy figured she was a therian of the moon, but she’d hoped for a Lycan. Easier to manipulate.
The redhead gripped her companion’s shoulder. “We’ll be fine–”
Nyx brushed her hand away and glared. “And how will we be fine when these camps stretch on for several more miles? With so many people, the only water and food to be found out here is to be bought! All of our most important things were left in that filthy tavern you dragged me into! We can’t even trade!”
If they had set up a water catch, Quincy thought, then the clean morning dew would have been enough for them. The girl didn’t seem the sort to know this, but the redhead did. If her assumptions were correct, the woman should have remembered this even while sick from drink. The blond found herself disappointed by this.
“Maybe someone will be generous,” Elmiryn said with a shrug. The situation seemed lost on her.
“I’ve had my fair share of ‘generosity’. That’s why I never could make a living as a beggar.” The girl sat heavily onto the ground. “Go on, Elmiryn. Ask around. I see no point in walking until the matter is solved.” She fisted her cheek, then glared forward.
The woman threw up her hands and walked away, a loose smile on her lips and her eyes rolling.
Yes. Completely lost, that one.
Elmiryn approached a man fletching arrows.
Quincy reached for a small bag on her hip. It was limp and empty. With both hands, she rubbed the bag until she felt something grow beneath the suede leather. It was round and smooth. It grew and grew until it fit snug into her palms. Then she loosened the bag’s strings and let the ball fall into her waiting hand. It was a reflective orb.
The woman closed her eyes and held the orb to her lips. “I see, so you see. I hear, so you hear. I know, so you know. Illuminate this for the eyes of the blind. Reveal what is hidden, bring forth what is desired,” she whispered. Then she kissed it, and when she was certain none were looking her way, she tossed the ball high into the air. It caught the morning light in a brilliant shine.
The light seemed brighter than it should be, and it flashed onto everyone nearby. Quincy caught it as it came down and tucked it away again. She turned away, behind a plume of smoke, and was gone in the refracted light of someone’s shield.
I glared holes into the ground.
In truth, I wasn’t sure who I was angrier at. Elmiryn, for being foolish enough to spend the little money we had on something so stupid, or myself, for allowing her to. I wasn’t much of a drinker, and while the wine was child’s play compared to an Ailuran’s brew, I was a cheap drunk. A very cheap drunk. I made a note to never drink again–especially in Elmiryn’s company.
I watched sullenly, out of the corner of my eye, as Elmiryn went to speak to a man some yards away. I was a bit surprised she was actually asking around. Not begging–she was too proud for that.
I squinted my eyes and rubbed at my head. It still pulsed with pain, and I suspected my foul mood was due in part to my illness, but I didn’t care.
“Elle the Idiot” should never have spent all the fucking gold…
There was a flash that lit the ground. I frowned and sat up to look around. Then my ear prickled at the snatch of a nearby conversation.
“–Yeah, sure! A small stream up North, run-off from the mountain. Very refreshing–”
My eyes brightened, and I turned to look at Elmiryn. She was coming back towards me, an enthusiastic grin on her face. All around us broke out sounds of surprise and joy. Distantly, I found this odd, but didn’t pay it too much attention. I rose to greet her. We both started to speak.
“Elmiryn, did you hear–?”
“Hey Nyx, this man just told me–!”
A thundering sound, like heavy paws on the earth, made me stop. My expression caused Elmiryn to stop as well, and she placed her hands on her hips with a quirked eyebrow. Shouts of alarm came nearer and nearer. I looked past my companion, and my face drained in horror. Elmiryn turned to see what the ruckus was as well. “What–?” but then she saw.
A massive shaggy dog, the size of a small bear, came charging, its eyes fixed on us. With every great push of its incredible paws, clumps of dirt and grass flew, and a thick thread of drool trailed from its large pink tongue. Elmiryn whipped around, shoving me behind her, one hand on the sword hilt.
“Nyx, have I got this right? It’s coming our way, isn’t it?” She asked quickly.
My heart was pumping hard in my chest. “I-I’m not–”
As it neared, I saw just how huge the animal was. On all fours it nearly reached Elmiryn’s waist. There was no hope in out running it, and as I heard, that only made the dog want to chase you more, but the urge was hard to resist.
“Well is it, or isn’t it?” Elmiryn snapped.
“It–It looks like it! Yes! Oh Sweet Aelurus, yes it is!!”
The woman bent her knees in preparation, her grip on her sword tightening. I cowered behind her, feeling nauseous again.
“Shit,” the woman cursed.