She could see the dog’s incredible mass quiver beneath its fur with every bone-crushing drop of its paws. It lifted its head a brief moment, and the wind blew its lips back enough to reveal massive, yellow canines that Elmiryn swore were as long as her middle finger. Then again, her ability to judge things by sight was hampered, so maybe it wasn’t so bad. Maybe the ground shaking was just in her head, and the dark eyes weren’t really imagining her as dinner, and maybe it actually liked tea parties, and didn’t chase squirrels, and thought elven history was a good read–
Who was she kidding? Elmiryn was fucked.
“Nyx,” she turned, only to find her companion…gone. Alarmed, the woman’s head swiveled around and her eyes found the girl up a pine tree. She smirked sardonically.
Not that she could blame her…
Then her breath left her. The sky and earth tumbled. Pain crashed over her like a wave, and for a moment she could only see dark ripples. Her back was on the ground, and a great weight pressed on her. She blinked, fighting to see, and her vision returned to her just in time to see the dog lean down and–
The tongue covered the entire right side of her face and left a horrible smelling slime to drip down her neck and chin. Then came another long lick, and a whine, before the dog barked in her ear. The sound tore through her head like tissue paper. Elmiryn wretched once, twice–
Third time’s a charm.
She managed to turn her head just in time to keep the foul sick from flowing over her face and neck. It wasn’t much. A mouthful, maybe. She’d done much of the work the night before. Groaning, she shifted to keep her shoulder from dipping into the new puddle.
The dog sniffed at her face, tongue testing the vomit that had just managed to get on her cheek. It was all rather disgusting, and the animal felt like a ton on her, but despite it all…
Elmiryn started to laugh.
The scholarly, tea-loving, earth-quaking dog just wanted to say hello.
“Ger’off, you big mutt,” she managed to say through her chuckles. Elmiryn shoved it back with both arms. They were weak, and quaked with the effort. The dog moved more from suggestion than actual brute force.
“Ouch…” Elmiryn hissed as she sat up. She touched her side and winced. She glared at the dog, which had taken to sitting on her shins. “I think you broke something…and I thought I said to get off!” She gave it another weak push, and when her legs were free, she made to stand. Her vision fuzzed again, her skull swirling in pain, and she felt her limbs go cold. “Gods damn it.”
As the dog took to sniffing at her legs, Elmiryn looked up at Nyx in the tree. The girl had climbed up in a great hurry, judging by the way she barely clung to the low branch with both arms and legs. She gestured at her friend. “Get down you pansy.”
“No,” came the strangled reply. She couldn’t see the girl’s face, the way she held the branch. “I hate dogs.”
“Well lucky for you, the dog doesn’t hate you.” Elmiryn leaned down and scratched at the dogs head. “Isn’t that right you mangy beast?”
The dog whined and licked at the woman’s hand. She grimaced and wiped her hand on her pants. “Really, Nyx. Get the hell down here. It’s alright.”
The warrior rolled her eyes and knelt next to the dog. Down on her knee, was it her imagination, or was the dog taller than she was now? She felt around its neck, her arms making an effort to reach around. She frowned and sat back when she felt nothing. “Hmm, no collar. But then again, you’re not hard to miss, are you?”
“Elmiryn, make it go away!”
“Quit being a scaredy cat and get down!”
The girl cursed something in her native language. Elmiryn’s mind still held some of Nyx’s memories, and by that token, portions of her Ailuran vocabulary. She caught something about an idiot catching a falling anvil…Probably some sort of saying or proverb.
“Alright, well you can stay there while I find this dog’s owner.”
The girl craned her head back, her face pink from the way her blood drained into her cheeks. “You’re going to what?”
The woman patted the dog’s shoulder. “I bet I can get a reward for returning this dog. It’s clearly someone’s pet.”
“So if you want to sit there all morning, by all means–”
“I mean, after the way other people have treated you, you’d think you could spare a bit of compassion for–”
Nyx let out a frustrated yell. She banged her head on the tree branch, muttering fast under her breath, before she unwrapped her legs and (with a whimper) let herself fall to the ground.
The dog woofed and stared at her with ears perked, every muscle in its body still. Nyx eyed it apprehensively.
“It…won’t hurt me? You won’t let it hurt me?” She took cautious steps toward them, as if expecting her next step to be her last.
Elmiryn smacked the dog on the nose and it gave a surprised yelp. Ears folded back, it hunched over and stared up at her with a scandalized look. The woman pointed at Nyx. “You be nice. You’ll crush her if you aren’t careful.”
Nyx moaned. “Elmiryn, that isn’t funny!”
Elmiryn blinked back at her, hand still pointing. “I wasn’t trying to crack a joke.”
This only made the girl look greener, and it seemed for a moment that illness was going to visit her as it had the woman. But then the girl took another trembling step forward, then two. She made certain to keep the warrior between herself and the shaggy dog, her eyes wide. When she pressed against Elmiryn’s arm, she could feel the girl’s heart beating like a hummingbird’s.
“Sweet Aelurus, why does it have to be so big?” The girl breathed into Elmiryn’s shoulder.
The woman laughed. The dog reached Elmiryn’s elbows when it sat. With Nyx, it reached a little under her bosom.
“Maybe someone experimented on it? An alchemist or something?” Elmiryn hypothesized as she began to walk. She kept a hand on the dog, ready to grab at its fur–not the best of restraints, but it was so big and had no collar. Fortunately the animal seemed content to keep pace with her of its own volition. “I’ve seen chickens hatched from eggs that casters had magicked–they were the size of a human toddler.”
“Whatever the reason, it seems unusually agreeable, doesn’t it?” Nyx said, her voice flecked with mistrust.
Elmiryn looked down at the dog. It eyed the camps as they passed, but made no sign of recognition. Its owner was not there, and none came forward to claim it–though plenty stared. One minute the monster-looking creature was charging past, the next it was coming back the way it came, two strange women in tow. The woman winked at an old artisan wrapped in cloths who had been staring too long. The stranger hurriedly tried to busy herself with her jewelry making.
“I don’t know, Nyx,” Elmiryn replied, looking forward again. “There have been stranger things in this world than a friendly dog.”
“But one that picks us out of the hundreds of people camping out here?”
The woman shrugged. Given recent events, the girl’s paranoid musing was not out of place. She looked down at the dog and cooed. “Have you got a surprise for us, mangy beast?”
Mangy Beast woofed and danced out of Elmiryn’s touch. It stopped before the two women and canted a bit, pawing at the air. It let an anxious bark, tail low but wagging, ears folded back. Turning its back on them, it stared over its shoulder, tongue lolling. Elmiryn and Nyx exchanged looks.
“That…isn’t normal, is it? Could it just be that smart?” The woman said with a shrug.
Nyx shook her head slowly, her eyes on the whining dog. “I haven’t the slightest idea.”
The dog gave a sharp bark, and with a shaky of its thick mane, snorted and took off into a run, bits of dirt and grass startled from their homes. Elmiryn gave a start, one hand extended. “Hey–shit–Hey wait a second!”
She pushed with the ball of her foot and gave chase.
She heard Nyx sputter behind her. “Elmiryn! Where do you think you’re going?”
“After the dog! Where else?”
There was a groan, and when Elmiryn glanced back, she saw Nyx sprinting to catch up. Her expression was scrunched in what appeared to be agony. Elmiryn felt no better, but she was certain the dog was their way out of sudden poverty.
“But where is IT going!?” Nyx managed to wheeze.
“No idea!” she answered. She managed a breathless laugh. “Here, gimme a sec. Lemme ask the fucking thing.”
“Oh, very funny!”
They moved through a dense collection of camps–a traveling company. Elmiryn leaped over a startled couple on a quilted mauve blanket whilst they were mid-lip-lock, and she waved at them with a grin over her shoulder. They blinked at her in confusion. Nyx ran around them, all apologies.
The dog, once the women were following, seemed to slow down to a pace where they both could keep up. It would sprint forward, then pause to look back at them, ears perked and dark eyes shining from beneath its mane. Elmiryn wiped the sweat from her eyes, her breathing hoarse. Was the dog grinning at them?
She didn’t keep track of how far they went. The time seemed to melt in pain and heat, even with the merciful ocean breeze lighting on their flushed skin. When the traveler camps thinned out, and the Torreth Mountains began to curve away from the ocean into a tight valley parallel with the northern mountains, the dog finally took to a stop. It sat back and panted, eyes unconcerned as they passed over Elmiryn.
The woman fell to her knees, wheezing. The edges of her vision was a blur. “Hey…ya…mangy beast…you wouldn’t be trying to kill us…would you?” She looked behind her, her entire body swinging as though it were on a swivel. “Nyx?”
“I’m down here.”
Elmiryn crawled over the grass on all fours to gaze down the low hill they had just scaled. Nyx was farther down, on her back, spread like a star in the green. Her eyes were closed and her chest rose up and down fast.
The woman managed a weak laugh. “Hey! If it weren’t for all that running we’ve been doing before, I don’t think we would’ve made it this far!”
Nyx scoffed, but didn’t open her eyes. “If you weren’t already in shape, and I wasn’t what I am, we wouldn’t have even made it at all. …Where in the nine hells are we, anyway?”
Elmiryn turned to look at the dog. “Okay, Mangy Beast. Where are we? Where have you brought us?” She went crawling to it, but even this took a great effort. The grass looked so welcoming. Elmiryn was tempted to pass out on it. “I hope this wasn’t a wild goose chase, because I hear some kingdoms see dogs as a delicacy…” Her ears perked as she neared the animal. The dog did not move, but just watched her with an air of indifference as she came nearer.
“That sound. It’s just like…” Elmiryn, dredging up some last reserve of energy, scrambled forward. Her vision swam, and she made no attempt to stand, but as she came next to the dog, she managed to see through her exhaustion. Her face lit up.
“Nyx! It’s water! The dog led us to the stream!” Not waiting, Elmiryn tumbled down the hill to it–a clear run of water six feet wide. It ran from the Torreth and collected into a muddy pond further on, but the stream was beautiful. The stream was enough. Elmiryn dipped down to take a long drink, the feel of the water like heaven down her throat. When she came up again, she found both Nyx and the Mangy Beast had joined her.
She reached over Nyx to pat the dog on the head. “Good job, boy. If we could afford it, we’d keep you!”
The dog whined, and turned its great head to face downstream. Elmiryn frowned and followed its line of sight. She saw nothing. “What is it?”
If there was anything of interest, the dog gave no further indication, but allowed Elmiryn and Nyx rest by the water and drink to their hearts content. The redhead understood the situation exactly in that context, though she couldn’t quite put her finger on why that was. The three suns crawled over the sky, and though hunger was now another issue, Elmiryn felt a great deal better. Nyx seemed well, too.
The woman sighed, content.
But as she watched the dog, belly-up, wiggle in the grass, she felt her sense of danger prickle. With narrowed eyes, she gazed at their surrounding landscape.
There were jagged ledges of exposed terrain, and small shrubs that rustled in dark contrast to the open fields of unchecked grass. No one, no animal, was in sight. The fields swept from the ocean wind, and all at once, Elmiryn felt exposed.
“We should get going. This spot isn’t good to dawdle at.” She stood to her feet, one hand on the hilt of the iron sword.
Nyx sighed and stood with her, hands at the straps of her bag. “Alright then…”
The dog brushed past Elmiryn’s legs, making her stumble. It was more like having a bear nudge her in the side. When she glared at it, annoyed, the dog gave a small growl, then began to trot through the stream, towards the northern cliffs.
“Well there it goes again…” The woman grumbled, arms crossed over her chest. They followed it, walking briskly.
As they came down a gentle slope that led into the heart of the valley, Nyx touched her elbow. Elmiryn looked at her and saw anxiety in her eyes. “You were right Elmiryn. This is odd. I don’t think it is a coincidence, what happened in the bar and what’s happening now.”
The woman frowned. “You don’t think we should follow the dog? It did lead us to water.”
Nyx shook her head, her brow furrowed deep. “But that wasn’t the stream the travelers spoke of. I didn’t even see that one. This is an isolated area. The open valley begs for an ambush!”
“Look where the dog is going,” Elmiryn said, gesturing with a tilt of her chin. “Farther to the north, and out of the open. If there was some plot to get us, it would’ve happened by now. I just don’t like sitting and waiting for that to happen, which is why I’d like to get moving.”
“But you admit this is strange?”
“Admit it? I think I called it first, kitten.”
“I said not to call me that!” The girl snapped, walking faster.
Elmiryn smiled and rubbed the back of her neck with a chuckle. “Damn. Sorry.”
As they reached the foot of the northern mountains, the dog stopped and barked anxiously at the women, its tail wagging. Elmiryn jogged, because something in the dog’s behavior suggested impatience.
…Never mind that she was allowing herself to be hurried by a dog.
Nyx didn’t bother speeding up. She only grumbled something under her breath and trudged along at a sullen speed.
When Elmiryn caught up with the animal, it gave a shake of its fur, then took off again, as fast as it could toward a collection of rocks and exposed earth in the mountain side. The woman noted how the creature had no intention of waiting anymore. She sprinted after it, still faint in body, but rejuvenated after her rest at the stream.
As she neared, she saw a jagged crevice in the mountain side that revealed an opening. It was slim and blended in well with the dark surroundings, but Elmiryn saw it when the dog disappeared into its shadowy depths. The woman looked behind her to see Nyx still lagging behind. When the girl looked up and finally took note of her location, Elmiryn gave a wave before slipping in through the narrow entrance.
Light from the outside offered little reprieve once she was within the slim tunnel. The rocky walls felt smooth, and the ground was slippery with sediment and small stones. But as Elmiryn delved deeper, she began to see an orange glow dance along the tunnel walls. One hand on the hilt of her stolen sword, she crouched low and slowly made her way forward.
As Elmiryn rounded the corner, the tunnel widened and opened to a small chamber lit with a single lantern that glowed brighter than it should. Enchanted? The dog was there, but the chamber was empty. Its ears were drooped low on its shaggy head, and it whined when the woman came into view. Its spine curved to such a degree as to make the woman almost believe it were trying to make itself average-sized.
She scowled and straightened as she entered further. There was a bed roll and a half-eaten lunch of roasted meat and stewed carrots on a tin plate. A log had been dragged into the chamber, and draped over it was a cloak and what looked to be a night gown. Next to it were other curiosities, like odd crystals and vials that were laid out on a small silk blanket on the ground.
Elmiryn squinted at the half-eaten food, then at the whining dog, who was now attempting to conceal its face behind a paw. Her jaw clenched.
There was a yell. The woman ducked and saw a frying pan sail over her head. Her assailant was on the left. With little thought, she stepped to the side and let loose a right hook. Her fist buried into soft cloth. Blinking, she looked at the face of her attacker.
“…You’re just a kid!” She exclaimed, exasperated. She grabbed the youth by the shoulders as they doubled over, hugging their gut where Elmiryn had punched. It was a girl, a little taller than Nyx, with long wheat hair and large ears that peeked out from beneath the locks.
Her round, pearly face lifted to face Elmiryn. It was drawn in shock, pretty pink lips shaped like an “O” as green eyes met blue.
Immediately, the woman felt as though hooks had been jabbed just behind the irises. They pulled, and her mouth opened as though she wished to scream but the feeling came and left so fast. It was drowned out by a sickening numbness that rolled over her–that made her fall to her knees. But her eyes did not leave the girl’s. Pretty green eyes. Green. Green. Green. Green…
…Mint green eyes that shone beneath a plumed helmet. They called to her through the mist and dust, appealing to the true ferocity that demanded victory by the blood of foes.
“Rally the men, Saelin! We’ll break through their eastern flank!”
Then the moment was gone…Elmiryn slumped to the floor, her face against the ground, eyes burning, her spine on fire, her head feeling as though it were underwater. The moment was gone, the moment was…the…what?
Where was she?