I stared into Elmiryn’s eyes, my mouth falling open.
“What do you mean!?” I asked, feeling my panic spike. “You said you were ready to face him!”
The woman looked at me, her long lips quirked in that wry smile that said she thought I was being cute. “Yeah, Nyx. I said that.”
With all the commotion that had commenced, we had shifted so that we were no longer on the ground, and instead, amidst the great tree roots. We watched the proceedings in a semi-circle with me on Elmiryn’s left side, Sedwick on her other, and Quincy and Hakeem across from us.
I gestured before us where the Lycans were preparing a large fighting circle. “Then call this off! You’re going to get hurt!”
She chuckled. “Of course I am. It’s a fight.”
“No, I mean–really hurt! Maybe worse than you were outside of Holzoff’s Tower!”
Sedwick leaned in, rubbing the side of his face. “Halian will probably kill you.”
“Really kill you,” Quincy added, smirking.
I spared them a glare, but I gestured emphatically at the pair of them with eyebrows raised, my eyes fastening onto Elmiryn’s. See! I’m not the only one who thinks this!
In the past, the redhead had shown a love for the danger in the unknown. She loved the risk where the outcome could go either way, where her chances were no better than those of her opponent. It thrilled her, gambling her life like that. I had seen it in her eyes, that hungry look for battle. I didn’t understand it then, and in many ways, I still don’t.
So it was like a slap in the face to hear the woman, this eager warrior, express doubt. It told me that she didn’t see a chance in winning. This wasn’t a gamble to her, but an exercise in defeat. This was something any of us could’ve guessed, but to hear it from the warrior was staggering.
The woman shook her head. “Look, I’m not backing out. It’s happening, all right? So what constructive advice can you offer me?”
“Run away,” I said flatly. If she thought she couldn’t win, then why bother trying? Was it about honor? Was it stubborn pride?
Sedwick squinted his eyes. “But don’t Lycans feel a need to chase things that run?”
“Those are dogs, not Lycans,” Elmiryn pointed out, her voice hinting at a thinning patience.
“Then why not try lying face down on the ground and hoping Halian forgets about you?” Quincy said, her smirk widening.
The warrior threw her hands up into the air, her head lolling back onto the roots.
Hakeem cleared his throat, and her eyes rolled to fasten onto his face. The boy thumbed over his shoulder. “I’ve seen Halian train. I can tell you a few things right now.” He stood up and stepped closer, his voice dropping low. Elmiryn sat up to listen to him, and we all leaned in to hear.
Hakeem patted his right knee. “Halian had his leg injured by the dark beast they’re hunting now. The injury is mostly healed, but you see how slowly some of the others have recovered from the monster’s attacks? I’m sure it’s still weak in some way. Go for this, and you might have a chance of ending this quickly.”
Elmiryn nodded, her smile broadening. “Thanks.”
He held up a finger. “Another thing.” Hakeem patted his biceps one at a time. “Halian is ambidextrous. He can easily switch stance, and a strike from the right is as bad as the left. Lastly… Don’t. Let. Him. Grapple you. If he does, it’s done. A therian is a hard enough wrestling opponent, but Halian happens to be the best in the village. If he gets you in a lock, there’s no hope for you. I doubt he’d hold back enough to keep from killing you, even.”
The warrior’s eyebrows rose high. “…Thank you.”
Elmiryn leaned forward onto her knees, her hand going to hold the lower half of her face. It was a rare expression on the woman–not even when she was upset did I ever see her cover her face in any way. Somehow it made me a great deal nervous.
Quincy’s smirk was gone from her face when she asked, “Are you really sure about this, Elmiryn?”
After a minute, the warrior lowered her hands and sat back, her lips pressed together as she took in a deep breath through her nostrils. She didn’t look any of us in the eye.
“I need a drink,” she said quietly.
The reactions varied.
Sedwick’s face hardened and his hands curled to fists. Quincy’s lips turned down at the corners, her brow tensing just enough to create a shadow of disappointment on her face. Hakeem looked at everyone with an uncertain expression, unaware of the gravity of this request.
My lips puckered, my brow furrowing as I looked at the woman with pity. I didn’t want to feel it, but I did.
“Where’s the logic in that?” Sedwick asked in a voice that was a lot calmer than he looked.
Elmiryn held up her hands, and I could see the way they trembled, the palms blotchy and with deep nail impressions from where the woman had clenched her fists tight.
“How about this?” she said.
I stared at her hands, then at her. Sedwick’s expression softened. Quincy murmured a curse. Elmiryn finally looked at us all.
“The chills are starting to creep in, and my headache is getting worse.” She paused to swallow with a grimace. “And I think…I ate way too fast.”
Quincy slashed the air with her hand. “That’s it then. Jokes aside, you shouldn’t fight.”
“I’m gonna fight. I already said.”
“Then you’re an idiot!” The wizard snapped. “Having more alcohol won’t make things better! How much have you already had in the last 24 hours? You could suffer poisoning!”
“It’s not my body that’s addicted, it’s my spirit. This is a spiritual addiction.”
“Isn’t that all the more reason not to indulge?” Sedwick asked.
The warrior laughed but the sound was harsh and low. “What is this, an intervention? My head could get smashed in because I’m too sick to defend myself properly…but hey! At least my ass won’t be drunk.” She tapped the place over her heart. “You guys aren’t fucking listening to me. This. Addiction. Isn’t. Normal.” She gestured at Quincy with her chin, “Since you’re so good at healing people, you should know what happens when someone in my condition denies drink for too long.”
The wizard rolled her eyes. “Oh gods. Are you really going to argue that you need to drink to stay alive?”
When I spoke, it was with a quiet voice, my eyes still on Elmiryn, “Well, this isn’t exactly the best place for rehabilitation, is it?”
Everyone stared at me, and I let my shoulders hunch around my ears.
“You’re serious?” Sedwick asked slowly. He was frowning, but he seemed too surprised to speak angrily.
Quincy snorted. “Just as I thought. With your crotch acting as your guide, you’re just going to enable her recklessness…”
That did it.
I let out a sharp hiss, my hands tensing to claws as I stood to glare at the wizard. She stood up as well, her face tensing as her hands went to a sword that wasn’t there. This made her pause.
“Look around us!” I half-yelled, taking a step forward. Elmiryn stood to grab me around the shoulders from behind, and I strained against her, wanting to scream in the wizard’s face. “Look around us, right now! If you tell me this is a safe and supportive environment where we can rest and shed such burdens, then you’re a bigger fool than I thought!” I pointed at the ring. “Whether or not Elmiryn participates is irrelevant. There’s the bigger issue–like how we can expect to deny what her body so craves for, and still expect her to function as we fight to get back to our home world! That sort of healing requires time, a luxury we don’t have!”
Quincy bared her teeth at me, her azure eyes flashing with fiery indignation. “And I suppose Elmiryn’s tongue boxing with your tonsils has nothing to do with your decision?”
“Keep saying shit like that, Quincy, and that won’t be the only thing I’ll box!” Elmiryn shot over my shoulder, her voice strained as she held me back.
The balls of my feet dug into the dirt as I shouted, “You are a narrow-sighted domineering witch–”
The wizard’s eyes flashed, something intent in her eyes that made my heart skip a beat. “And what has the little kitten lost that makes her so afraid to say ‘no’ to the people she cares about, hmm?” she asked.
Hakeem grabbed the woman’s arm, his look severe. “Mweze, enough.”
The brunette ignored him and dug in deeper. “Well, Nyx? What traumatizing experience did you suffer in your no doubt torrid past that makes you so blind to the risks you’re opening us all to?”
The fight went out of me. I stared at the wizard, a chill going over my skin. Did she know about my past? She talked as if she knew. Or was she just trying to catch me out? The wizard had stalked us for a short period of time, back before she kidnapped Lethia.
When Elmiryn saw that I had ceased my struggles, she let me go.
She stepped around me, and I could feel the taut muscles of her body as she brushed past. “Quincy, you really have a big fucking mouth.” Her voice was steely.
Sedwick stood between the women, his shoulders bunched. His face was hard as he looked into Elmiryn’s eyes.
“Do. Not,” The elemental growled.
I couldn’t see her eyes, but Elmiryn’s neck was flushed and her shoulders hitched up higher than usual.
Sedwick looked back at Quincy. “I see your point, but that doesn’t change the fact that you were out of line.”
The wizard crossed her arms and looked away. “Well someone had to say it…” she muttered.
“No one had to say shit,” Elmiryn said, her voice tight. “You don’t get to fucking talk to her like that. You have no gods damn business putting her down for trying to help me.”
Quincy snorted. “And she can’t speak for herself? Are you her knight in shining armor?”
Elmiryn moved forward again, but Sedwick held her back at arm’s length. “I’ll be whatever she wants me to be if it means making you shut your hole.”
“Enough!” Sedwick barked, shoving the woman back. He turned and pointed at Quincy just as she was about to open her mouth. “Say nothing!”
I reached forward and touched Elmiryn’s arm, my face bunched with anxiety. I felt ashamed. All of this hostility…it was my fault. If I’d only kept myself under control…
The warrior looked at me, her lips pursed, some of that volatile energy still in her cerulean eyes before these things faded away, and she hugged me with one arm. “I got you, Nyx…” she murmured into my hair.
Silence reigned among us, and the moments slipped by.
Sedwick was the one to break it. “Nyx, about your idea…you can’t mean to let Elmiryn drink to her heart’s content?” His pale eyes squinted in my direction.
I shook my head, “No.” I looked at Elmiryn, and gave her a wry smile. “Under the influence, she shows a remarkable amount of control.”
She raised an eyebrow at me, her grin widening. “And aren’t I cute as well?”
I rolled my eyes at her in response and returned my gaze to Sedwick. “But I know that too much drink can also make her…difficult.”
“No kidding…” Sedwick grumbled.
Elmiryn put on her best angel face. Seeing her ability to switch to humor with such ease after all of that shouting undid some of the knots in my stomach.
“That’s why I figure we could find a balance,” I said, continuing. “At least for the time being. Elmiryn can have just enough to stave off some of the worse effects of withdrawal.” I looked at her apologetically. “That said, you’d still experience some discomfort.”
“I can function under discomfort. I just need to be able to keep a steady grip on my sword and not feel my heart drumming in my chest,” Elmiryn replied.
I nodded and looked to the others. “This is just a temporary solution. We can deal with this properly once we’re back in our world. So is it settled then?”
Sedwick sighed and gave a shrug. “You also make a good point. But I fear we may not find the ‘balance’ you’re talking about.”
I looked at Quincy, my gaze frigid. She tongued her cheek and held up her hand. “You know what? I don’t even know why you’re both acting like you need our permission. Just do as you see fit.” There was a note of disgust in her voice.
I pulled away from Elmiryn and took her hand. “Then we just need to find you some drink.”
“I’ll get it for you,” Hakeem offered, standing. “The Lycans don’t know you two well, but they’ll give some to me if I ask.”
I smiled at him uncertainly. Again, he was being so helpful to us, and without any real reason. If anything, he had more of a reason to dislike us, after that horrible exchange. I didn’t know what to make of it, so I settled for being polite.
“Thank you,” I said.
Hakeem nodded and hurried off into the throng of villagers. I followed his small dark form until he vanished from sight. Elmiryn and I sat back down, the woman looking a little sweaty and a glassiness coming over her eyes as she stared at her boots. That clash had taken a lot out of her. To see her so inward and lacking in energy seemed unnatural, and I wished that she would return to normal. I rubbed her back and let my gaze wander over the changing scenery.
The fighting circle was now finished and I could see that the villagers had taken up all the weeds and grass from the soil, smoothing the earth to an even plane that was bereft of footprints. I guessed the circle to have more than twenty-five feet in circumference, seeing as how five grown men could lay across it. A table had been brought out, where a horn and a wooden bowl of something white was set out, along with a large stone carved wolf where three incense sticks could be seen poking from its back. The fact that they had to clear a space at all, coupled by the excitement in the air, told me that these fights did not happen often. I wondered as to why—these Lycans seemed like such a physical bunch.
I could not speak for all therians, but I could say that the Ailuran language did not stop in words. It continued through signals of the body. Here, I saw much of the same, but the Lycans seemed to place greater value on body language than anything else. I could see it in the way that more submissive villagers would keep their gazes about shoulder level, never looking into a face for longer than a few seconds, their shoulders slumped and heads ducked. The more dominant ones kept their heads high, eyes peering into faces intently, hands always reaching out to touch in some way, teeth showing whenever they spoke.
For a brief moment, I pondered my relations with these strange people, and felt a sense of realization come over me. As Elmiryn had stated before, Quincy was given protection through Hakeem because of his good standing with the Lycans. He had perhaps gained enough respect to even look some in the face. Looking over at Sedwick, I wondered if the only reason he wasn’t seeing the same hostility I did was because he kept to himself.
Meanwhile, I was an Ailuran. Practically a natural born enemy of these proud creatures. By waltzing through their village without escort, I had asked for trouble. I looked people in the eyes. I didn’t slouch or duck my head. Instead I skulked about with tensed shoulders and a tight expression.
…Of course, there was still the matter of my Mark, which I was certain could be sensed by the Lycans in some way. Still, I didn’t exactly help my case by behaving as I did.
I made a mental note to be less obtrusive in the future. It shouldn’t have been a hard thing to do, honestly. After my exile, just before I’d met Elmiryn, that was all I did. Yet with so much at stake in this fight, and over something so stupid, it felt hard to keep myself contained. It seemed my time with the warrior had made me more of an extrovert than I’d thought. Considering her provocative nature, it was inevitable, really.
More than a few Lycans looked our way, their eyes falling on Elmiryn…then me. I avoided looking at them, trying to put into practice what I’d just learned, but my Ailuran nature told me to puff up, to hiss, to seem more threatening than I really was. I felt cornered by these strangers, and wished it all to end.
Hakeem came jogging back to us, a small wineskin in his hand. “I have it,” he said, holding it out to me—not Elmiryn.
The warrior snapped out of her reverie, her eyes tracking the wineskin hungrily as it passed hands. Both of us glanced at the woman, than each other as I unscrewed the cap. If the wizard somehow didn’t understand the seriousness of the situation before, he did now.
I stood and turned to Elmiryn, holding the wineskin up. “Just a taste then,” I said as I held the mouthpiece to her.
Nyx tipped the jug into Elmiryn’s eager mouth. The woman was allowed three good mouthfuls of the wine–which was red, by the taste of it, and a good vintage. She swallowed it all gratefully, the tension in her shoulders and chest releasing to a state of immense pleasure. But then the feeling was gone, taken away all too soon as the girl quickly pulled the jug away, her eyes wary as the woman’s feverish eyes flashed in her direction. Was it enough? The warm feeling had yet to spread, but she could feel it pooled in her stomach like a hot promise.
With a deep breath, Elmiryn stood. She looked at the others. Sedwick gave her a nod. Quincy pursed her lips again upon meeting eyes. Hakeem gazed at her passively, his expression revealing nothing.
The warrior looked to Nyx.
Her companion seemed to be fighting very hard to keep a brave face, but at the edges of her mask peeked an intense anxiety. Elmiryn gripped her shoulder, bending her knees a little so that she could gaze level into the girl’s eyes. She heard Nyx swallow, her eyes wide and a little shiny, but they held no threat of tears.
“Trust in me,” Elmiryn said with a quiet smile.
The Ailuran returned the smile shakily. “I trust you…” her eyes flickered toward Halian, who already waited in the ring. “I don’t trust him.”
The woman leaned in and pressed her lips to the girl’s, her eyes falling shut at the soft feel of Nyx’s mouth. She willed the kiss to take away the girl’s fears, to leave instead a wealth of comfort. But when she pulled back, the girl’s mask had fallen away, revealing her anxiety in full.
“Elle,” the girl breathed. She took the warrior by the shoulders, her hands squeezing. “This isn’t a game.”
Elmiryn nodded somberly. “I know that now.”
“Then please be careful.”
A Lycan approached them. His eyes fastened onto her face and she knew he was one of Halian’s men. He regarded Elmiryn imperiously and said in a gruff, clipped voice, “Halian waits. Enter ring now, or lose.”
Elmiryn smiled at him. “Well then, I’d better get in there, huh?”
She undid her sword belt and passed it off to Nyx, but when she moved to take a step, the man stopped her with a hand on her shoulder.
“No coat. No shirt. No boots,” he said.
The woman raised an eyebrow, but slowly started to peel off her coat. When everything was off, the Lycan stood aside and jerked his head for her to move.
As she approached the ring, the spectators grew quiet. They parted for her, some whispering. She saw a few smirks, some glares, but some wide-eyed looks as well. Was it fear or fascination? She imagined this was quite the event for them. When had a human ever dared challenge a Lycan warrior to hand-to-hand combat?
She stepped over the deeply carved line of the fighting ring, and found Halian waiting on the other side.
The man smiled at her, his teeth sharply contrasting with his tribal paint. “You are either very brave, or very stupid, tkelechog.”
“I’m just crazy,” Elmiryn giggled, beginning to feel the warmth of the wine spreading into the tips of her fingers. The nausea and headache was still there, but either they were lessened, or she didn’t care about them as much. Perhaps she should have told the others that she didn’t need much to get drunk anymore…?
Halian shook his head at her. “In that, there is no doubt.”
A weight pressed on them, and they looked up.
Artemis was gazing down on the scene from above, her piercing gaze bright in the darkness of her shelter.
Halian pumped a fist and cried, “Kita! Bamegizegak eh itome kiona!” There were some yips and hoots from the crowd upon hearing this.
The goddess nodded in response, then let her eyes flicker over to Elmiryn. Her lips moved, and the warrior’s hair stood on end as she felt a voice tickle her ear.
Go forth with caution.
The warrior blinked, but gave a slight nod of the head.
The crowd fell silent again as a wizened man entered the ring, a small teenage boy following him with a large leaf. The man held in his hands the bowl that had been on the special table set next to the fighting circle. His gray eyes had slivers of warm honey in them, and his head seemed smushed from the lack of teeth in his mouth.
“Closer,” the old man grunted, gesturing for them to meet him in the center. They did as they were told, eyes on each other the whole way.
Brushing back a stray lock of peppery hair, the old man took a pinch of the white substance in his bowl and began to say something low and fast in Lycan. Then he took the powder and sprinkled it over Halian’s head. He turned to Elmiryn and did the same.
This done, he regard the both of them and said in a strong, lisping accent, “Yoo no use wep’nsh. Canneh leave de ring. Ef yoo leave ring, yoo lose.” He turned and gestured at the table behind him. “Fight till in-sensh run out. Then, horn blown. No stop when horn blown, yoo lose. Dere tree roun’s. No wan dies, steps out ring, or go un-con-shuss when all tree in-sensh burned, den is tie. Un’erstan’?” He looked at them both sternly.
Halian nodded, his eyes on Elmiryn. The warrior had to fight to understand the man, but she got the gist of it, and nodded.
The old man held up a bony finger. “Wait for de horn. Den start.” With that, he turned and marched back out of the ring, the youth following more slowly behind him, using the leaf to smooth out their tracks.
Elmiryn and Halian backed away from each other, stopping close to the ring’s edge.
“I’ll try not to kill you,” the man said loudly, his eyes flashing at her.
The woman just smiled at him, her hands flexing at her sides.
Then the horn blew.
With Elmiryn’s entrance into the ring, a way was cleared to the front, and we took advantage of this by moving forward to better see the fight. Sedwick and Hakeem sat between me and Quincy, the elemental being on my left. They seemed intent on keeping us separated after our recent clash, and I found myself grateful. If I had to listen to the wizard’s snide remarks the whole time, I’d likely try to claw out her eyes.
…And I used to be so peaceful.
If I’d given it any amount of thought at the time, I’m certain the source of my animosity would have had to do with a certain redheaded warrior. That wasn’t to say that Quincy was pleasant to deal with on her own. It was true that I had seem glimpses of her being polite, even cordial, and some of her attitude could be chalked up to the warrior perpetually provoking her…but the wizard was a manipulator, I could feel it, and for all her talk, she was perhaps no less reckless than Elmiryn was. She was a snobby, caustic hypocrite, and to hear her talk about my feelings as if she understood me had set loose a fire I hadn’t even realized I’d had. Yet it was her comments following that which snuffed out that fire. She touched on my past, and deep down, I wondered if she were right. Was I blinded by my affection for Elmiryn? Was I so afraid of losing her that I didn’t want to take the harder road?
Whatever the truth of it, I didn’t want to have anything to do with Quincy. Being around her brought up feelings I never had—feelings that went against my principles and core values. I didn’t want to get dragged down by her negativity.
…I also didn’t want to feel spikes of jealousy whenever she and Elmiryn played their stupid verbal sparring games.
“There’s Eidan,” the brunette remarked, and I returned my attention to the fighting circle before me to see an elderly man followed by a young boy enter the ring. He sprinkled the white powder on Elmiryn and Halian’s heads, his lips moving in what looked like a prayer. Then I could hear his deep voice as he explained the rules to them both. When he was done, he turned and left the ring. No flourish, no flare.
At the table, a man lifted the horn to his lips. Another lit one of the incense sticks, and I wondered as to the purpose.
The horn sounded, and Halian raised his hands, unclenched, and held them before him, his body turned to the side with his right foot leading. Elmiryn did the same, but her form seemed a lot more reserved in comparison. Her fists were clenched, her arms tucked close to the body as she moved to meet the man in the center of the ring.
They danced around each other, eyes locked, their feet light as they tested each other’s defense and readiness. All at once, the things that Elmiryn and I had drilled over together seemed to flood in, and the truth of the scene before me opened like a book. Halian threw a few jabs, but none seemed to show any sort of dedication. Elmiryn met these, blocking them with her hands, relinquishing little ground. She wasn’t going to be easily spooked. They had equal reach in arms, which was in the woman’s favor, because it made it easier to defend against the man’s strikes. Their footwork was quick and loose, ready to change at any given moment.
The time seemed to stretch on. Halian was clearly not taking the fight seriously at all. The woman, meanwhile, was playing it safe, her eyes focused as she threw a few defensive punches and kept her guard up.
Now and again, she lashed out with a few low kicks at the man’s right leg, and I knew she was going for the tip Hakeem had given her earlier.
A few of them landed. It was her last kick that brought her trouble.
Elmiryn kicked out fast, just as before, but Halian was ready for her. He did a curious shift on his left foot, a sort of hop and slide that was lead by his thigh and hip. The smooth dirt seemed accepting of his tactic, as he slid to the side just enough to allow room to hook his foot behind the woman’s leg and throw off her balance.
My heart skipped a beat as I saw her arms instinctively go out to catch herself, leaving her open. Halian cut in with a fast one-two punch to the chin that sent the woman crashing to the ground.
“Elmiryn!” I shouted through the cries of the crowd.
The Lycan was on her in an instant, his blows fast and devastating. My heart was in my throat, and I got to my knees, my muscles quivering with a need to act.
Sedwick grabbed my shoulder, his grip tight, and hissed, “Don’t! This is a sacred fight! If you intervene, there’ll be hell to pay!”
I stared at him, then back at Elmiryn, who was doing her best to keep her head covered from the relentless assault.
The horn was blown.
Halian stopped, fists halting in the air as he clambered off the redhead with a cocky grin on his face. He moved back to his side of the ring, where his comrades greeted him with cheers.
Elmiryn didn’t get up. My heart stilled in my chest.
A Lycan woman next to me nudged my shoulder, and I looked at her, startled. She had a narrow face and bright green eyes that seemed to glow in the emerald light. She pointed at Elmiryn, and said with a thick accent, “Go. Help.”
I hadn’t been sure if it was okay for me to enter the ring, but if this woman said it was all right, then I wasn’t going to hesitate. I hurried out and heard Sedwick follow me. When we came to Elmiryn, I could see that her left brow was cut wide and was bleeding profusely. Her eyes rolled as she tried to focus on us.
“Oh…hi guys,” she breathed.
“This is barbaric!” I hissed as I took up one arm, and Sedwick the other. “I can’t believe they’d allow this!”
“In their eyes, it’s all within their code of honor,” Sedwick said. There was a brief struggle as we both took up a shoulder and stood. Elmiryn was completely dead weight. “She agreed to this, and has refused to forfeit. She wasn’t forced to fight in any way.”
“Wasn’t forced to fight?” I grunted as we dragged her back out of the ring. “Challenge is like candy to her. Dangle it in her face, I’m not sure she could refuse!”
“Maybe that’s what we need to rehabilitate her of…”
“I think the reality of the situation hit her just before the fight. She wasn’t as excited as she usually is.”
“Then why did she agree to this!?”
“Because she’s Elmiryn,” I grumbled.
The two of us laid the woman down, and Quincy came over, her eyes squinting as she looked at the cut on the warrior’s brow. “Tai’undu,” she muttered, reaching for her magic pouch.
She pulled out a handkerchief and a small glass jar filled with a translucent yellow paste. Hakeem appeared at her side with a jug of water. I hadn’t noticed when he’d left to fetch it, but I was glad all the same. Quincy took to cleaning the blood from Elmiryn’s face, using splashes of water, quickly wiping with her handkerchief. Her husband took the jar and opened it, holding it out to her. When she was done, she took up a scoop of the paste with two fingers and smeared it across the woman’s brow.
Elmiryn’s eyes, which had fallen shut through all this, peeled open.
Quincy grabbed her face and forced the woman’s gaze onto her. “How many fingers am I holding up?” She didn’t hold up a hand.
The warrior’s brow tightened and she grunted as she made to sit up. “None. Tha’s a dumb question…” she mumbled.
“Elmiryn, take it easy,” I said, holding her upper arm.
“I fucked up. My ‘proach was all…one dimensional…Halian saw right through me,” she sighed, gazing at her knees. “He’s fresh. I’m just runnin’ on fumes. I know it. He knows it.”
“You can’t beat him,” Quincy said flatly. “So don’t try.”
Elmiryn looked at her, frowning. “I can’t…beat him?” she repeated slowly.
“No. You can’t.”
“Elmiryn you–” the wizard broke off, her eyes fluttering. “I’m…I’m sorry, I’m what?”
“You’re right!” Elmiryn said, looking at her with a wild grin. She started to stand up, reeled, and nearly fell back down. It took me, Sedwick, and Quincy to keep her from keeling over.
The woman started laughing, and it was at that moment that I saw that missing look return to her eye—that love of risk, that love of gambling.
Now I was beside myself, eyes burning with unshed tears. “Elmiryn, no! Don’t go back in there! Just forfeit, there’s no shame in that!”
“No,” she said fiercely. Her eyes were on Halian, across the ring. “I’ve got this.”
“But you just said–!”
The horn blew again, and Elmiryn danced back into the ring, her body swaying a bit, but a grin on her face. I wiped the tears from my eyes and tried to still my heart, but my hands wadded my doublet as I saw the familiar play start over again.
The ring had been smoothed out again since their last round, and they made tracks anew. They returned to the familiar dance, circling each other, testing each other’s boundaries, etc….
Then Halian bull-rushed her, all intensity, all power and muscle, his shoulders low and squared, his head ducked as though he were looking to gore her with horns. He grabbed her about the thighs, and Elmiryn grunted as she managed to slip an arm between herself and the Lycan’s shoulder. I saw her legs lock and sprawl out as she leaned forward onto the man’s back. For a moment my inexperience in wrestling made their motives unclear. Then I saw.
Halian was trying to take Elmiryn down by pulling at the back of her knees and compromising her stance. The warrior was defending herself by digging her feet in and locking her legs. By keeping her weight forward, she had the leverage to keep from being thrown down—a position that was dangerous for her, if the last round was any indication.
But the more they struggled, the more they slid along the dirt, and the closer they got to the edge of the circle. If she were cast out of the ring, the fight would be over.
It was at this point that I realized why the woman had seemed so energized going back into the fight. She didn’t have to beat Halian. She just had to outlast him. My voice tight with my fear and excitement, I shrieked, “Elmiryn, get out of it! Get out of it!”
Elmiryn didn’t seem to hear me, which wasn’t surprising considering the din the crowd was making. She sent a few quick jabs at Halian’s sides, and the man tried vainly to knee her thighs a few times, but they seemed locked in a stalemate. Simple physics was keeping the woman safe from the Lycan’s brute strength, but how long would that last?
“Elmiryn, come on!” Sedwick bellowed, slamming a fist into the ground.
Then she did something that stunned everyone.
With quick hands, she wrapped an arm around Halian’s head and twisted them to the side in a vicious pull. They fell, and the woman wrapped her legs around the man’s trunk, her muscles straining as she yelled up at the sky. I could hear Halian let out a strained shout, the places where his tribal paint flaked away revealing flushed skin. I recognized it as a choke hold, from my training.
“That’s it!” Sedwick shouted, his face split wide in a surprised grin.
“Hold on!” I yelled. Beyond all reason, hope started to spring in my chest. Perhaps Elmiryn could get out of this in one piece?
But Halian was stubborn, and he refused to yield. They struggled on the ground, but the woman managed to hold on until the horn blew.
When they parted, Halian’s eyes were wide with rage, his teeth bared and his chest heaving. Elmiryn smiled up at him, a new cut on her lip, and her left eye now a bit swollen. She smacked her lips in mock kiss. The man growled and stormed away.
The woman managed to stand on her own feet this time, but it was clear that the struggle on the ground had taken even more from her. She was sluggish as she walked back to us, and the sweat cut through the dust and dirt on her skin.
“That was fun!” she said, a little breathless.
Quincy took a moment to silently check her brow, then her lip.
Hakeem smirked up at her. “That was an impressive counter. Halian was quite surprised.”
Elmiryn grinned, her head tilted to the side as the brunette reapplied her paste to the cut on the warrior’s brow. “When I first joined the military, there were these mandatory wrestling matches all new recruits had to participate in. Because I was a woman, men always tried to take me down onto the ground for an excuse to grope me. I got really good at defending myself that way. Halian let his guard down around me because he thought I’d be easy. He’s just a cocky idiot.”
“Don’t taunt him, Elle,” I warned.
When the wizard was done, the warrior took a sip from the water jug, her eyes flickering to the wineskin for a second before snapping back onto me. “If he starts fighting with his anger, then I can outsmart him,” she responded after a moment.
I shook my head. “But his raw power–”
“Is shit if he can’t use it right.”
“The logic of your statement hinges on an ‘if’,” Sedwick pointed out, his arms crossed. “You only have one more round. Just play it safe.”
Elmiryn opened her mouth to reply, but the horn blew.
The woman spared a glance over her shoulder as she re-entered the ring. My eyes pleaded with her for caution, and she seemed to acknowledge my wish with a nod. Whether or not she’d heed my request remained to be seen.
Elmiryn raised her fists as her feet lightly danced over the soil. She came out to the ring’s center, her eyes on Halian. He didn’t fall into his stance, didn’t move to meet her.
With a sinking realization, I knew something was wrong.
Her body stilled, fists freezing in the air. The man’s eyes were hot coals, searing into her, bearing forth a wealth of frustration that perhaps had nothing to do with her, but was certainly finding an outlet in their fight.
“Halian?” The woman called.
The man pointed at her. “It’s just our flesh and our spirits, tkelechog,” he shouted. He struck his chest, more of his tribal paint flaking away. “I haven’t been treating you with the proper respect. That changes now!”
As he spoke, despite the distance, I could see his canines elongate, his nails morphing to claws.
He was going to Change.
“No!” I screamed, moving to run into the ring.
Sedwick grabbed me around the waist, his voice a hot breath in my ear. “Nyx, don’t! Didn’t you hear what I said before!?”
“He can’t do that!” I said wildly, fighting against him. “He can’t! He’ll kill her!”
Sedwick was a strong man, but despite the absence of my Twin, I still retained my Ailuran strength. He growled as I managed to move forward a few inches. Than his arms turned to water, and I was lifted bodily into the air. I yelled, my body thrashing, and the Lycans around us were distracted enough to stare as the elemental slammed me onto the ground.
“Quincy!” he shouted. “Have you got something to calm her!?”
“Let me go!” I screamed, tears of frustration leaking from my eyes.
Within a moment, the wizard appeared over me, a new handkerchief in her hand. “This is for your own good, Ailuran.” She pressed the cloth to my mouth and nose, and when I breathed in the caustic smell, my eyes rolled into the back of my head and the world went black.
“Oh shit,” Elmiryn breathed. She was only dimly aware of Nyx screaming, but all her focus was on the shifting Lycan before her.
Dark fur began to sprout over Halian’s skin, his skin rippling as he bent over, and she could see the bones in his spine shifting.
Halian’s transformation was much smoother, much faster than Nyx’s had been. Elmiryn knew she only had a small window to rush the man while he was rendered prone by his transformation.
With a yell, she charged him, meaning to push him out of the ring and end the fight before it could progress any further. But Halian wasn’t as vulnerable as she’d thought. He dodged her with a parting swipe at her shoulder, and the woman nearly stumbled out of the ring herself, her face wincing in pain. His claws had dug in deep.
The warrior managed to right herself, and turned just in time to see Halian’s newly shifted paws come slashing at her once more.
She lurched back, her feet stumbling as she fought to return to the ring’s center.
Halian paused as his face elongated, his nose a shiny black, his ears gaining tips and shifting higher on the side of his head. A brush-like tail swept behind him, and his feet were long and clawed. Elmiryn felt her heart race. She had never seen a therian shift so quickly, and never had she seen one who was capable of moving whilst doing so. Was this what really made Lycans such dangerous warriors?
Her thoughts were scattered as the Lycan rushed her, his fanged jaws spreading wide. The world seemed a rough, wild thing of sound and color as she practically felt Halian’s presence clash with her own. All around her, the villagers yelled and screamed. She became suddenly aware of Nyx’s voice being absent.
The woman let out a deep yell, her hands raising to take hold of the threads of reality she saw before her. She called on the air, tightening the weave to form a solid wall—
And Halian’s charge was halted.
He hung suspended, his body still at the angle of a charge but not moving forward so much as an inch. His jaw snapped and he growled in confusion. His fierce dark gaze fastened onto Elmiryn’s. His muscles quivered as he tried to break through the invisible barrier, but the warrior grunted, her face turning red as her body fought to keep her hold on the tight weave of air. Blood dripped from her nose down her lips, and she felt as if her head were being split into two, her vision of the world rippling.
She dug her soles into the dirt, her feet sliding as if she herself were pushing up against a wall.
The crowd had fallen into stunned silence, and the warrior found she liked the quiet.
“H-Hey guard dog.” She smiled shakily, her tongue tasting the blood that came into her mouth. “You said…our flesh…and our spirits, right?”
Halian snarled, his hackles raised, his claws flexing in the air as his hind foot slid further in the dirt in his attempts to advance.
The woman groaned, feeling him strain against the barrier she’d made. Nausea wracked her in intense rolls, the feeling rocking up from her stomach to her head and back. Her throat tensed and sweat dripped into her eyes. She didn’t know how much longer she could hold it.
Then Halian broke through…
…Just as the horn was blown.
He didn’t stop or slow down, and Elmiryn closed her eyes as she fell to her knees and felt his shadow pass over her.
There was a growl, a scuffle in the dirt, and a loud cry.
With effort, the woman opened her eyes again.
Artemis stood over her, one hand casually holding Halian by the back of his scruffy neck. The muscular wolf-man was whining with each breath, his ears flat and his tail tucked between his legs. The goddess’s silver eyes pierced into the warrior, her lips a thin line and her nostrils flared.
Elmiryn opened her mouth to say something, but a strong gag reflex had her turning her head just in time to throw up over the soil, the liquid blood-red and runny. Elmiryn wasn’t sure if it were the wine, the brandy, or her own blood.
She heard Artemis speak over her. “Fiamman, we have things to discuss.”
The woman grinned and peered up at her, a long rope of bloody saliva still swinging from her lips. Her arms shook as she tried to keep from face planting into her own vomit. “Oh Arty, you have no idea.”