If he traced the ways of his life with a finger, he was certain it would be as a river, branching off in wild directions, untamed save for the pull of the universe. At the beginning, the line would be straight and singular and bold, entertaining no splits in motive or consequence. But upon the moment he became a true wizard, upon the moment he gained his temporal chain mail, that all changed. Suddenly it was a series of decisions and resets that cut across his existence like claws, telling him he was never going to get it right the first time.
…And yet, amidst the struggle, there was always that glow. That pull of light that kept things going.
He could feel his wife’s presence at his side.
But this wasn’t the time for inward musing. The wizard returned his attention to the matters at hand.
They took Nyx back to the hut Hakeem had been using. Sedwick carried the young Ailuran, her head lolling in the crook of his arm. Her eyes were shut and her expression lax, void of that fury that had so gripped her not long ago. Void of that need to save her friend. No…her lover. He could hear it in the girl’s voice, as if she were clearly saying it herself. His ears had turned warm, tickled by a knowing that spoke of something…lacedwith power.
Given all this, he could understand the girl’s reaction upon seeing Halian shapeshift. If it were Quincy in the ring, left with nothing but her fists and her wits, he’d be running in there himself, Lycan tradition or no. But Elmiryn had managed to defend herself until the last. She seemed to use a sort of force to keep Halian back. Whatever the warrior had done, Hakeem sensed no magic…or at least, none that he had been trained to notice.
More and more, Nyx and Elmiryn were proving quite a strange pair.
The man-boy led them through the village with his wife at his side, the elemental trailing behind them. The Lycans were slow to disperse, but there were some that had taken to following them at a distance. They whispered excitedly, their eyes wide. It was Elmiryn who had won the battle, but it was the group of outsiders who had collectively rocked the village. The news would no doubt spread to the neighboring villages of the redheaded warrior who stood toe-to-toe with one of their best, and her bizarre group of comrades.
Comrades…was that what they were now?
Hakeem had in fact noticed an odd sort of connection, particularly between Elmiryn, Quincy, and Sedwick. It wasn’t perfect and by no means smooth, but it followed a pattern of exchange that gave each person a defined role. The clash he’d seen was not new to them. But Nyx was not yet a part of this dynamic, and her presence seemed to add a new level of complication to the dynamic.
It was no secret that the Ailuran didn’t like Quincy. While he would have defended his wife to the death, the wizard also knew when the woman stuck her foot in her mouth. It was an old trait from her youth, and seeing it again had, in a bizarre turn, made him even more grateful to the others. They were reawakening the woman he had originally fallen in love with.
If only he could turn back time enough to undo his loss in age.
In his new state of youth, Hakeem found that he could not use his arcane armor. In order to go back in time, he had to be able to assume that particular place in time. If he was restrained, if he was missing limbs, if he was in a drastically different state of health—then that place in time would reject him. The wizard didn’t just go back to that time period as a future self versus his past self. He became his past self, preserving the continuum of time whilst accomplishing what many only dreamed of doing. As a child, he could not assume the role of a man. He was a different person, and felt that acutely.
His time with the Lycans had given him something, and he was hard pressed to give it back. People could be trusted, even the thorniest and the wild of them, and he meant to show his gratitude in as many ways as he could.
And yet there were present obstacles that still needed addressing.
“I worry for your friend. Artemis’s attention does not come lightly,” Hakeem said.
“She’s a thick skin,” Sedwick said from behind. “If she just keeps her tongue from escaping her, then she’ll be fine.”
“I wouldn’t bet on it,” Quincy muttered.
“There’s not much we can do, anyway…” The elemental sighed.
It was true, so Hakeem moved on.
The wizard looked at his wife and said in Fanaean, “You seem out of sorts.”
Quincy looked dolefully at the sky. “I miss the suns,” she said in his native tongue. “This Other Place keeps them hidden from us.”
“Maybe we just need to look harder.”
“My eyes are tired from searching.”
Hakeem reached out and brushed the back of his hand against hers. She looked at him, her azure eyes alight, and he smiled. “You have their brilliance inside you, Mweze.”
“Then perhaps I should remove myself, lest I scorch the goodwill about us.”
“You’re talking of the little spat you had?”
The wizard sucked at her teeth, a sour look coming over her features. “I’ll not apologize. It was something that needed saying.”
“I was not going to ask for that. I’d just like to know how you feel about it. It seems to have upset you in ways beyond the issue at hand.”
Quincy glanced back at Sedwick, and Hakeem did the same. The elemental locked eyes with them and spared a small smile before looking away. His wife returned her gaze to him, her lips turned down at the corners. “I always thought queer folk to be…strange, in a discomforting way,” she muttered out of the corner of her mouth. She shrugged. “In the end, I find it doesn’t bother me quite as much as I’d thought. I don’t feel like shouting them down, anyway. But…it still isn’t normal, is it? It seems the thorniest way to love.” Now she blushed, crossing her arms and pouting a lip. She debated what to say next, then started in suddenly with, “Elmiryn is a mama’s girl, like any other Sibesonan. But say one foul thing against her mother, and she doesn’t just get mad, she gets practically murderous.”
When the woman didn’t continue, Hakeem prodded her gently. “Mweze?”
Quincy released a breath of air she’d been holding. She rubbed her brow and looked at Hakeem sidelong. “That anger? I felt it again after speaking to Nyx as I did. Either the warrior is just really infatuated, or I’ve misread things.”
Hakeem chuckled. “Quincy, you can only garner so much watching others from afar. I’ve been trying to tell you that for years.”
The woman’s pout increased. “I’m pretty good at it…” she mumbled.
The man-boy shrugged. “Your insight has afforded you a view that others so close may not have seen, but now that you yourself are close to the people you observe, maybe you should consider switching your tactics?” He looked at her, a glint of mischief in his eyes. “Perhaps by first gaining some.”
She huffed, swatting at his shoulder. “I have tact! I have all the tact in the world!”
Hakeem just laughed, letting the sound go unrestrained so that it reached up into the skies.
Quincy pointed a punitive finger his way. “I think this new state has warped your senses!”
The wizard just smirked at her. “You mean, I’m acting like a child.”
The woman blushed a deep red. “Th-That wasn’t what–”
“Mweze. Please. For the love of the gods. Relax.”
They were nearly there. Perhaps they could have walked faster than the leisurely stroll they moved by, but Sedwick didn’t seem to mind. Quincy chewed on her tongue, her gaze holding fire as she looked around at everything but Hakeem.
Suddenly, she blurt out, “I don’t hate that they’re together.”
The man-boy looked at her with brow raised, but kept silent.
The brunette continued, looking increasingly flustered. “It’s just…it’s…it’s been so long since we’ve had that. Why should they, with their backwards love, have it better than us? I guess I just wanted to start some waves.”
“Mweze, as Sedwick said, your point was valid. It was your motive and approach that was wrong. If you know now that you were speaking out of envy, then perhaps that is something to look out for in the future.”
She sighed and nodded. “You’re right. I’ve been having trouble getting too emotional about things, and now I’m letting those feelings rule me.” Quincy rubbed at her face. “After Tonatiuh went, it was like…a fire had been growing inside me, and I hadn’t even been aware of it.”
“Then I will battle the flames with you, Mweze.”
She said nothing to this, and the wizard left her to her musings.
They came to the hut, and Sedwick laid Nyx down on the blankets. The elemental turned to them as he straightened.
“She won’t be happy when she wakes,” he said quietly.
Quincy rolled her eyes. “She’ll get over it. Elmiryn isn’t dead, that lucky idiot.”
As they exited the hut, Hakeem asked, “Can someone please explain to me what’s going on with those two women? Nyx has something strange in her voice, and Elmiryn can apparently create barriers out of nothing.”
The others exchanged looks. Quincy looked at him tiredly. “Do you want the long, or the short version?”
“Short version, I suppose.”
“Too bad,” The woman said with a dry laugh. “There is no such thing!”
Divine intervention was one of the things Elmiryn never thought she’d see…and yet, wasn’t that exactly what had happened?
There, in her billowy shroud, standing tall and ethereal with a fury too beautiful to name, was Artemis, holding back the beast that would have brought about an early death if only the incense sticks burned a little slower…
It sounded so poetic that way. But as the warrior was scooped up like a child in the arms of the goddess, she decided that things weren’t quite so rosy. Rolling off of the Huntress were thick waves of power, hot and disconcerting in their intensity, and flashing in the woman’s silver eyes was anything but kindness. Elmiryn met this terrible fierceness with an ignorance she was aware of, and had no idea how to overcome. It was as a child who met something so alien in its gravity that all one could do was wonder at the why and how of it.
With barely any effort, Artemis leapt up into the sky, and in a fashion that didn’t seem in keeping with gravity, she managed to slip in through the window of the tree house with barely a startled hair. Elmiryn’s stomach lurched in her gut.
They are alien.
The gods, I mean.
Meznik’s melodic voice came in softer than usual, and the warrior thought it had something to do with caution. Could the demon really avoid the attention of an almighty god?
That is why you feel as you do.
To understand them, is to be them.
Artemis set her down on the floor and resumed her perch gazing out at the forests. Her eyes were narrowed now, her hand concealing half her face as she thought.
They like to pretend they know everything,
But omnipotence is overrated.
So let’s keep our little mysteries, hmm?
Let’s not be understood.
Elmiryn’s brow tightened, and she wanted to respond, but the opportunity slipped by like quicksilver.
“I’ve been aware of thy…troubles.” Artemis said, her voice low. She still didn’t turn her gaze. “I know thy mind has always been a bizarre font of ideas, and likewise, thy spirit has always been a thing of curiosity…” Finally the goddess turned, her gaze searing. “Yet what I have just seen is outside of the Way that governs the world.”
Elmiryn moved to raise herself from the floor, intent on looking the deity in the face, but found the weakness in her arms was too great. The action seemed to disagree with her new intake of wine, the drink turning rotten in her veins and stomach. Her left eye had swollen more, forcing it into a squint, and her lower lip was cut and swelling now as well. Her head throbbed in a dull ache, the previous pain having washed away like an ebbing tide.
The warrior crossed her arms and looked into the goddess’s eyes. “Halian came at me with all he had. I did the same. I don’t see the problem.”
Within the next instant, the woman’s vision tunneled so much she was blind, pain slicing into her head, down her spine, and into her limbs. She was on the wall, Artemis holding her up on her feet by the shoulders. “The problem, Elmiryn, is that thou seems to have a power that was not meant for thee, and yet thou uses it with little thought to consequence!”
“Little thought…to consequence…huh?” The woman panted, feeling her adrenaline kick in. Firing under her skin was a deep animal instinct to curl up and hide, and she fought this with everything she had. She would not curl up. She would not apologize. “I thought about it…plenty, Arty. I thought about dying…before I could get the person I care about…out of here alive.” Elmiryn spared the briefest grimace before a smile blossomed across her lips. Her vision still had yet to clear, so she stared with eyes wide, hoping some sight would tell her what to expect. She went on, her breath returning to her, “I thought about the bitch enchantress that got us into all this mess, and how I’d like to get her head on a fucking pike. And ya wanna know what else I thought about, when all those stupid concerns over undoing a reality I can’t even buy into anymore was bleating off in the distance?” Elmiryn grabbed Artemis’s wrists, her body shaking. “I thought about all those assholes sitting up in heaven who let a little girl fall to the mercy of a greedy idiot and an insane demon!”
The goddess’s face finally appeared amidst the snowy tunnel of her vision, and the warrior could see the Huntress was more than a little surprised by her audacity. It wasn’t shock or rage that illustrated this to her. It was the deity’s non-reaction, her blank expression, her cooled gaze. The fire and fury had fled from her all at once.
Artemis slowly let Elmiryn go, and the warrior slid down the wall to the floor, her heart doing a marathon in her chest.
“You think so little of us…” the goddess breathed, frowning.
“I think shit of you,” Elmiryn spat. She was surprised to find her eyes welling with tears. Her body wracked with shivers as the need to run increased ten-fold. The anxiety was foreign to her. She had never known this much fear.
Artemis crouched down, her gaze now intent. “I see thy mortal soul is still intact. Dost thou know why thee weep? Why thy heart palpitates with such fear?”
The warrior, still shaking, wanted to say something snide. A rage, one she hadn’t even felt whilst facing Halian, was fighting its way up, and upon realizing she was not immediately dead, it was getting hard to stop. She was like a child throwing a tantrum. She hated that she kept drawing those parallels. I’d be a terrible writer.
Yet for all the foul insults she could conjure, they all lodged in her throat. Instead, the woman shook her head jerkily to the goddess’s question.
Artemis smiled for the first time. “Thou art out of Harmony, and thy soul mourns the lost connection. In fighting me as you are now, you are causing your spirit great stress. Stop fighting nature, and thou shalt know peace again.”
“And what? Just accept you’re always gonna rule the world?”
The goddess shook her head. “We do not ‘rule’ the world as you say. We are the world. The very air you breathe. Everything you taste, feel, touch, and see is in communion with us. Why rail against that which provides structure in a universe of chaos?”
“Why not? Maybe chaos is better. At least we could build from scratch,” Elmiryn snarled, feeling the tears course down her face. Her cheeks turned hot and her head started to pulsate with a new breed of pain from the way her sinuses strained to produce more tears. She wiped at her face and said, “You haven’t exactly given me many reasons to feel nice.”
Artemis only raised an eyebrow. “And by that token, neither have you.”
“So what? Do you break out the tea and we sit and talk about our feelings? Do you tell me what it’s like to sit on top of a world and not care about it, and I tell you what it’s like to be crushed under your fat ass?”
The goddess let out a sudden laugh. “Oh, what sharp tongue! Thou art fortunate I am the one to hear this tantrum. Many of my brethren might not be so forgiving!”
“Fuck you,” Elmiryn bit out just before her face crumpled and she turned to the wall. Damn it, why can’t I stop?
“I already told you why.”
“Get out of my head!”
“I am not in your head. You just happen to think loudly.”
“Well pardon me…” Elmiryn covered her head with her arms. “I…I feel like I’m six again,” she whispered, sniffling back snot.
She felt Artemis hand on her hair and peeked through her arms to see the goddess gazing at her with the same look of intent as before. “Perhaps, thou should have been my child, instead of Halward’s. I would not dare speak against the god king, but I cannot fathom why he would neglect such a willful thing such as yourself.”
“Luck I guess…” Elmiryn muttered.
“There is fortune, in being deemed worthy enough for challenge.”
The warrior looked at her suddenly, her good eye wide open.
Artemis tilted her head to the side, a lock of her curly dark hair slipping forward near her temple. Her brow tightened. “I have every reason to kill thee…” she murmured. The goddess shook her head. “Thou art not of my blood…and thy mouth runs a fool’s marathon.” The goddess pressed closer, and Elmiryn swallowed reflexively, feeling herself…out of herself. She was not this person. Or perhaps, she was not the person she imagined. Quiet things, quiet ways, quiet realities were surfacing here, and the ignorance she had found shelter behind was crumbling.
“Yet more and more I only wish to see how much farther you would seek to run from me…” Artemis breathed, her lips brushing the woman’s ear. “I have missed thine offerings…have ye something else to offer perhaps? It would kill thine ails. Free thee of the suffering you feel…”
Elmiryn’s breath caught. She was a mortal. Artemis was a god.
“…A song stuck in my head,” she whispered. Elmiryn looked at the goddess sideways. “That’s all…I have. Everything else…is spoken for.”
“You would deny me?”
“I would deny you what isn’t yours to take.”
Artemis scowled. “If you continue this defiance, your soul will come apart, and you will cease to be. You cannot go against heaven.”
Elmiryn leaned in close, two more tears slipping down her face as she felt a rush of cold go over her. “I am not of heaven. I have been torn apart and left in chaos, and I have found my way back, through no help of yours.” She could feel the fabric of her being shudder, feel the weave strain and pull. She dared another inch, pressing in so close that her sweaty forehead touched Artemis’s. Her hairs stood on end from the contact, but if there was anything more to feel, her mortal senses were at their limit. “I am not of you. I am not beholden to you. I just am.”
“Your power is a stolen thing.”
“And where did your power come from, Arty?”
Artemis stood, glaring down at the woman. Then her expression melted into a smile. “Do you want to know a secret, Elmiryn?”
The warrior blinked and tried to sit up properly. Her eyes rolled from the effort, and she settled for slumping to the floor. “Oh. Sure.”
“I don’t know.”
“…Dunno what?” A weight started to press on the woman’s chest and it became harder to breathe. Elmiryn’s eyes fell closed to the sight of Artemis’s bare feet.
“Where my power comes from.”
“How’kin ya not know?” Words slurred, but it wasn’t from drink. The woman pressed a hand to her head and said. “I’m not…not followin’.”
Artemis’s voice started to move away from her, and when the warrior cracked her eyes open, she saw the goddess back at the window. “My consciousness lays across worlds. In many ways, I do not know the whole of myself–just this particular shard. That isn’t to say I am incomplete. I am connected with the core of my being in a place far away…but my soul is so large that it cannot reside in a single place. So here, I rule as the Huntress, whilst elsewhere, I may be a goddess of the sea. I have dreams of my other selves sometimes—really just flashes past my eyes because I never sleep unless I feel like it. I am so Vast that I cannot be understood save for My permission, and the veil that holds my soul is thick indeed. I dream…I dream of my other selves, and yet I know not of who they truly are or from whence they truly came. So…where does my power come from, you ask? I am Great, and Knowing, but these things I do not know. I do not know, and that is my humblest answer.”
“Huh? Whe…nd…ga…” the words failed to form, and Elmiryn forgot what she was trying to say. She couldn’t feel her face, her left arm, her left leg. Her head screamed at her, and the parts she could feel tingled. “Nngh…”
She heard the sound of the trap door opening and footsteps along the wood floor. Artemis’s voice sounded far away.
“What I have just told you would kill an ordinary man. An extraordinary one would be driven completely insane. Mortals cannot bear such knowledge…so if you are truly free of the domain of gods, then we shall see if you live tomorrow, let alone remember what I’ve said.” Someone picked her up. The goddesses’s voice became a whisper in her ear as Elmiryn was carted away.
“Live. For I will treasure this hunt, as you are a prize like no other…”