They were outside of his borrowed hut, sitting on overturned baskets with their forms hunched toward each other as they conversed in secret. There were enough bilingual Lycans in the village to warrant caution, and given what he’d just heard, it was not without reason. Hakeem stared at Quincy to Sedwick and back. He’d heard and seen a lot of things in his years (or, at the moment, lack thereof), and yet this seemed almost too much.
“Nyx is a champion?” he repeated quietly.
Quincy and Sedwick nodded mutely.
“And Elmiryn is turning into a…fae?”
Again, they nodded.
He rubbed at his face and thought. After a moment, he leaned back and said, “The timing seems curious.”
Quincy and Sedwick exchanged confused looks.
“Taika, what do you mean?” his wife asked.
He shrugged and thumbed over his shoulder at Nyx. “I mean, doesn’t it seem a bit coincidental that both of these women seem to be ascending the average mortal station at the same time?”
They pondered on this.
“Nyx said she was the champion of Lacertli, the god of natural order. I’m afraid I’m unfamiliar with him,” Sedwick said.
“The Lizard King.” Hakeem scratched at his knee, leaving the dark skin ashy. His companions stared at him, and he looked at them both, his finger stilling. “What?”
“You know who Lacertli is?” Quincy asked, sounding not a little surprised.
He frowned at her. “You aren’t the only one who reads, Mweze.”
She blushed and gave him a pout. “I’m not trying to remark on your intelligence! It just seems that no one knows who this god actually is!”
“Well, as Sedwick said, he’s the god of natural order. Fanaeans were some of his last followers before the rise of civilization saw them doing away with the old ways. With the advance of medicine and weapons and complex architecture, a god whose primary domain was survivability in the wild seemed less relevant. These days, it’s easy to survive so long as you live a quiet life. Unlike us, most people do.”
“Is there anything else you know about him?”
“Well, he’s also known as the Dreamwalker. It’s said that survivability comes with wisdom, and wisdom is the ability to be creative and see the truth in things from different angles. In Fanaean culture, the shadows are said to be the borders of dreams, and controlling these can lead to new realities.”
Quincy nudged Sedwick. “I thought I saw some strange shadows across the ground when we were fighting Tonatiuh. I couldn’t make out what they belonged to. Was that Nyx’s doing?”
The elemental held up his hands. “I didn’t really see either.”
Hakeem raised an eyebrow. “You two don’t know what her powers are?”
His wife screwed up her mouth. “There was a massive battle we had not long ago. So much was going on that it was hard to keep track of.”
The man-boy held out his hands. “That aside, the things I’ve read about Lacertli were contained within a footnote. But from that small paragraph, I know that he was seen as arbiter in nature’s harmony. The fae were creatures who bit their thumbs at harmony, choosing to create their own rules out of whimsy. If Elmiryn is truly becoming a fae, then he will want to keep a close eye on her.”
“So he chose Nyx as his champion to better position himself against Elmiryn?”
Hakeem held up a finger. “Or the one who cursed Elmiryn.”
“Meznik,” Sedwick said with a frown.
“There’s lots of possibilities, but all this conjecture hardly gives us the means to seek out the truth.” Quincy stood with a rough sigh. “It wouldn’t hurt to talk to Nyx about her new station. Maybe learning about one thing will give insight to the other? I’ve tried asking Elmiryn for answers, and yet I still feel like she isn’t being entirely forthcoming.”
“I feel the same way,” Sedwick said. “But to be fair, maybe she doesn’t understand it entirely herself? Her main source of information is the one who caused her misfortune to begin with. That’s shaky grounds to trust, no matter how you look at it.”
“I hardly think he’s the cause of all of her misfortune…” Quincy muttered.
She squinted her eyes as something caught her attention down the trail. They widened as her face went slack. “Speaking of which…”
Hakeem and Sedwick followed her gaze to see a certain redhead being carried into Eidan’s hut.
“You don’t think Artemis…did anything to her, did she?” Sedwick asked, looking at them all.
“Only if Elmiryn kept her mouth from escaping her,” Hakeem murmured.
They all exchanged grave looks.
Just then, the war horn sounded. It echoed throughout the village.
Hakeem shook his head. “Tai’undu…that’s the call for the hunt. Everyone is going to gather at the northern part of the village.”
“What about Nyx?” Sedwick said, looking into the hut. “She’s still out.”
Quincy rummaged through her pouch and pulled out a small vial of white smelling salts. “These should wake her.”
“Maybe we should leave her?” Hakeem said with a frown.
His wife shook her head. “Artemis said that she’d help us leave this shard only if all of us participate in the hunt. I’ve been given pardon as Eidan requires my assistance. Elmiryn clearly can’t participate. Nyx, however, has no valid reason to stay here.”
Sedwick’s brows pressed up to wrinkle his forehead. “She might not see things so reasonably, especially if she hears where Elmiryn is…”
“What if I was the one to wake her?” Hakeem said.
They both looked at him, surprised.
Quincy fidgeted uncomfortably. “But…Taika. If she really wanted to, she could blow right past you.” She gestured weakly at his small form.
Hakeem shook his head. “Not if I reason with her.”
“No offense, but you don’t even know her that well,” Sedwick argued gently. He crossed his arms. “She’ll have only one thing on her mind.”
Hakeem nodded. “I know. But I’m counting on all those things.” He jabbed his thumb at himself. “I’m the most impartial out of all of you, and I have the least reason to want to deceive her. If she’s really going to be so singleminded, then I can use that logic to turn her determination toward the hunt.”
A group of Lycans rushed past them, streaks of white on their faces and spears in their hands. They bared their teeth as they passed, growling and howling. The village became a different thing once the warriors were on the move. The aggression that had so bubbled near the surface rose for all to see, bearing forth their ferocity.
They watched as the warriors passed. Then Quincy sighed and tossed Hakeem the salts. He caught them with one hand.
“I suppose you’d better get to it, Taika. They’ll be arranging the hunting parties soon.” She turned to Sedwick. “Let’s get going.”
Sedwick gave a nod. “I’ll see you when we get back. I wanna see how Elmiryn’s doing.”
Hakeem watched as his companions went off to their respective destinations. When they were no longer visible amidst the surge of Lycans, he looked at the salts in his hand, then the hut.
Gripping the vial, Hakeem pulled back the curtain and peeked inside. Nyx hadn’t moved since Sedwick had first laid her down, but her chest rose in small increments. In a way she looked almost peaceful. It seemed cruel to launch her back into anxiety and struggle.
The wizard sat on the edge of the bed and sighed. He fingered the vial’s cork a moment before he pulled it out. Turning, he held the salts under the Ailuran’s nose.
Her eyelids fluttered, and in the next instant she sat up with a loud gulping breath. She nearly knocked the vial out of Hakeem’s hands, her legs kicking as if resuming their previous struggle. Hakeem had read that therians reacted strongly to salts because of their sensitive smell. But given the way she clocked his ear, the texts really understated it, in his opinion.
Nyx looked wildly around her, still gasping and clutching at her chest. Hakeem jumped away and held out his hands.
“You’re okay,” he said in what he hoped to be a soothing voice. It occurred to him that he didn’t have much practice in that regard. “You’re back in my hut.”
“Wh-What? But–I–” Nyx stared at him, then down at her legs. Her hands bunched the fur blankets in white grips. “I was…”
“The fight,” Hakeem supplied.
Fear flashed across her face. “Elle!” she clumsily made to stand.
Hakeem grabbed her by the shoulders, pulling her back to eye level. “Nyx, listen to me. She’s fine. The match ended in a stalemate. She’s being tended to now.”
Her eyes lit up with relief, and she grabbed him by the shoulders in kind, her grip tight with the release of all her stress. Then this look slowly melted into a hard determination. “Well then I’ve got to see her!”
Hakeem shook his head. “The hunt has started. As I understand it, you have an obligation to particpate.”
“I promised her I’d always be at her side!” Nyx knocked his hands away and stood. She managed to step off the bed, before Hakeem danced in her way.
“You have an obligation, Nyx! Elmiryn used her new fae powers to keep from getting killed, and it has earned Artemis’s fury. By denying the goddess your promise, you endanger Elmiryn.” He pointed up at the girl’s face. “Also, I know what you are. As a champion of Lacertli, don’t you think you ought to be upholding your patron’s values? The beast that stalks these forests disrupts Harmony. He won’t be happy to hear of your negligence.”
Nyx glared down at him, her face twitching. The real sign of his victory, however, came in the way frustration welled in her gaze. Common sense and duty were in conflict with the very thing her heart wished for. He knew the feeling.
Lowering his eyes, he sighed and said, “Nyx, I don’t like saying these things. But you know they are true.”
They stood silent, the hut curtain stirred by those rushing outside. Shadows flashed about their ankles where the emerald light laid its mark upon the ground. The Ailuran’s eyes narrowed, and she wiped furiously to catch the tears before they could fall. She shifted her weight onto the ball of her right foot, digging it into the soil. Her hands tensed to claws at her sides as her expression turned tight. Hakeem braced himself in case she decided to lunge at him…
Finally, Nyx whispered, “I don’t understand you at all.”
Hakeem shrugged one shoulder, shifting his weight from one foot to the other. He spared a glance over his shoulder before fixing the girl with a sideways gaze. He said out of the corner of his mouth. “Do you really want to understand?”
The girl’s eyebrows rose high.
The wizard planted his feet beneath his shoulders and crossed his arms. He felt almost like himself—the dark, broad-shouldered sentinel, spiced with just a little arrogance and a great deal of indifference. “Understanding…goes both ways, ikati. I’ve already told you why I show you my generosity…but if you wish to understand me, you would have to earn something else.”
When he didn’t continue, the Ailuran scratched her head, her eyes flickering elsewhere a moment before she looked at him again, almost shyly, and asked, “What’s that?”
“My complete and absolute trust. As much as I appreciate what you and you’re friends have done to restore Quincy, that still doesn’t speak of who you are as individuals. In strange ways, I have an idea of what to expect from the Fiamman. But what can I expect from you? I have no idea where you come from…though I may have a few guesses as to how you got here.” His head tilted back and his eyes narrowed a fraction. “You’re an outcast, aren’t you? I can think of no other reason an Ailuran may be able to stomach the company of their hated enemy.”
Hakeem could see Nyx’s skin go pale, even in the dim lighting.
He held up a placating hand. “Stay at ease, Nyx. I have no right to judge. I only need to know if you’re past is a distant thing…or a present reality.” He took a step back toward the curtain, then another. “I cannot trust those that are led solely by their heads or their hearts. I am open to understanding you. Hunt with us tonight, and survive. If a bridge can be built, than I say we shall build it. Otherwise, my kindness will remain a distant thing, and you will be left to your confusion.”
With an abrupt turn of his body, he marched out of the hut. He had said what he could, and now he couldn’t entertain the girl’s plight any longer. There were other more important things to deal with…
…Which was why Hakeem smirked to hear Nyx hurrying after him.
Sweet Aelurus, the positions I find myself in!
All I wanted was to see Elmiryn with my own eyes, to feel her heartbeat, to know that she wasn’t going to wake from a nightmare and not find me there, waiting. But Hakeem was right. There were other things to attend to first…like my promise to Artemis.
I felt a chill, thinking of how the goddess may have looked upon seeing Elmiryn use her strange new powers.
Listen to me! Elmiryn? Powers? Gods!
Wasn’t it just a little under a month ago when we first met? Things were so much simpler then! These days, I felt like we couldn’t take a step without the threat of powerful beings snapping us in half. It was enough to drive a person insane, and in the cases of some, we were quite far along that road already.
As I followed Hakeem through the thickening crowds, I finally saw where everyone was gathering.
Clumped together in hunting parties, with many more waiting to be assigned, were powerful Lycan warriors. Men–and women–of all different shapes and sizes gathered with their traditional weapons. Many were painted in colored grease paint, the colors of war that marked their tribe. It seemed like so much for just one beast, but seeing how this creature had hurt these people so, perhaps I just couldn’t fathom the truth of what I was getting into.
I stopped just a little behind Hakeem, who was looking around the area. I felt timid and vexed by him at the same time.
“Where do I go?” I mumbled.
“Follow me.” He didn’t look at me, his eyes intent as he searched the crowds.
As he tried to spot whatever it was he was looking for, I did my best to look inconspicuous. In my favor, the heightened energy served to drown out my presence, as everyone present was more concerned with forming their hunting parties. For the most part, I went unnoticed, but those that did see me paused to fix me with a curious look. I mirrored it, but for only an instant. Prolonged staring was one of the things I was supposed to be avoiding.
Hakeem seemed to see what he wanted, and with a jerk of his head, he led me to a small group of Lycans preparing near the forest’s edge. There were three of them. Two men and a woman. The men milled about near the trees, while the woman sat on a rock sharpening a spear closer toward the village.
The wizard greeted them in their Lycan tongue, then turned to me. “This is Nyx, one of the newcomers. She needs to be placed.”
The Lycan woman stood and stepped forward. I was surprised to find that I recognized her. She was the one who had told me to fetch Elmiryn from the ring after the first round of the fight. Now that all the hysteria of that time was gone, I took in her whole appearance.
She was not much taller than me—perhaps an inch or so—and had wavy, shoulder-length dark hair. Her narrow face now had on streaks of green and black paint that made her green eyes seem even brighter. Her arms were exposed, revealing the lean muscles of her body. She wore a dark leather vest with a v-neck and a pair of suede pants stopping mid-calf. Her feet were bare, but around her right ankle was a small strip where a rabbit’s foot dangled.
She looked me up and down, then looked at Hakeem. In the same thick accent as before, she said, “I am lead while Halian out. I say she may run with us tonight.” She pulled a sheathed dagger from behind her, and tossed it to Hakeem. With that, she went back to her place, resuming her spear sharpening without lifting her eyes. She seemed upset about something and didn’t look like she wanted to be bothered by anything silly. Like me, for instance.
Hakeem checked the dagger before giving a nod at me. “So you’re with our party.”
I held up my hands, an anxious look on my face. “I don’t know what I’m doing!”
“Ailurans don’t hunt in groups?”
“We did, but…not like this. It was always more for sport, then.”
The man gave me a penetrating look. Then asked, “And when you left your people?”
I immediately tensed, my shoulders coming up around my ears. Then I remembered my surroundings and took a deep breath. My shoulders eased back down. With difficulty, I answered him. “It was…for survival. Even then I…was never very good at it.”
Hakeem waved the issue away. “We’ll explain the hunting formations to you. They aren’t all that difficult.” He nodded at each of the Lycans in our group. “The tall one with the short spiky hair is Makka. He doesn’t speak any Common, but he doesn’t say much to begin with. His brother was one of the first to die at the hands of the beast. The long-haired fellow next to him is Gudahi. He’s very fluent in Common as he’s often visited Gamath and the Fiamman trading posts for outside goods. Our leader tonight is Sanuye.” He beckoned for me to come closer, and I bowed low to hear. Hakeem leaned in to whisper, “Sanuye is displeased, so just stay close to me, or Gudahi, okay? He’s a goodnatured man, and will probably take delight in thinking he’s ‘protecting’ an Ailuran. Don’t take offense if he flirts with you a bit. He flirts with everyone, and doesn’t mean half the things he says.”
The last comment made me blink, but I nodded anyway. “Okay. But why is Sanuye mad? Do you know?”
Hakeem shrugged. “My guess is that she’s unhappy with Halian’s absence.”
“Why is he gone? He didn’t get hurt like Elmiryn did, and he would have healed those wounds by now anyway!”
“Nyx, you didn’t see because you were unconscious.” Hakeem’s voice dropped even lower, and I frowned as I strained to hear him. “Halian was going to kill Elmiryn after the final horn was blown. Artemis had to step in. That sort of intervention takes its toll on the mortal soul, no matter the species. The man is just a shivering mute right now. He’s in Eidan’s hut along with Elmiryn.”
I frowned as I recalled the goddess’s words…
I would gladly take to arms for my children. But there is no way I can fight without harming them all.
Hakeem turned and called Gudahi over. The man looked up from his conversation with Makka, then grinned right at me, making me blush and look away. He sauntered over, Makka in tow.
Gudahi was much taller than his companion, and his long dark hair was silky and had one braided bang. His face had less war paint then his companions, and rather than taking all the village colors, he only painted on thin lines of white, with dots around his eyes. The designs made him less fierce, and more…beautiful, I suppose is the best word. That isn’t to say he was androgynous, but he was clearly the sort that young girls would fawn over without end.
Makka looked a great deal more somber, his chin bold and with a small cleft. His face was a dark mask of black and green with a white X crossing from temple to jaw. He slouched around Gudahi, but stared intently into my face. Just as with the other man, I tried to keep from looking at him too long.
Gudahi lightly touched a fist to his breast. “Hakeem. Ua-kita! Look at the present you have brought me! I’ve always wanted a kitten.” I tried not to tense at that. I knew it was just the age-old rivalry at work, and if Hakeem’s words were true, then there was likely going to be some innuendo from this man as well.
He reached over and took a lock of my hair, then traced my jaw with his finger. My face flinched, but I fought not to move away. Dominant behavior involved a lot of touching, and from the looks of things, Gudahi was Sanuye’s second in command. That meant denying him this small contact could be misinterpreted.
…This was all conjecture, of course. I only had one night’s worth of observation to go off of. Perhaps there was a line that even dominant Lycans were not meant to cross, giving submissives certain rights? I didn’t know.
“She’s pretty. I’ll keep her,” Gudahi announced jovially. He had a light accent, but his words flowed along more fluently than Sanuye’s.
Hakeem sounded weary, but like me, he kept his shoulders relaxed and his eyes from staring too long into the Lycan’s face. “Please, Gudahi. I just wanted to ask you for help in explaining our formations to Nyx.”
The man laughed. “I can show her a few positions!”
I blushed deeper, and despite my best efforts, my shoulders hitched up half-an-inch.
“Formations.” Hakeem corrected firmly.
The Lycan was unfazed. “Well, when the little prince becomes a big prince, will he promise to leave his shimá for me?”
Hakeem only sighed heavily, his eyes rolling at his feet.
Gudahi laughed and rubbed the wizard’s head. “Hmmm…I’m a patient hunter. Very well. I will do this thing for you, akis. But I expect a reward!” He took my chin and lifted my gaze, then he winked at me. “From the both of you!”
Now I wanted to roll my eyes. This man wasn’t just a flirt…he was a whore.
He clapped his hands together. “Okay! First, Nyx, you must understand our purpose. We are the ta’ia, or the first runners. Our purpose is to scout ahead, then call to the other parties once we have found our mark. We do this through a series of howls that tell the others how to position themselves. Since the beast moves ceaselessly, our job is the hardest. We have to attack without aid, just to keep the creature still long enough for help to arrive.”
I felt a chill go over my skin. Somehow I knew it’d be something like this.
Gudahi squatted down and motioned for us to follow him. We did so, and using his thumb, he began to draw things into the dirt. “Now, here is how our formation works…”
Some minutes passed as things were explained to me. I was still nervous about it all, but with practice I had a feeling I’d learn it better. But could we afford that tonight? Would Sanuye get angry with me if I messed up?
A horn was blown, this one deeper and louder than the one used for the fight. Gudahi stopped mid-sentence and looked up. Sanuye was on her feet and approached us, a frown on her face.
“The hunt has begun,” she growled. “We move now!”
Gudahi patted my shoulder, his eyes fixing onto mine before I turned my gaze downward. “Now my pet, get into form as I showed you!”
I nodded, falling in behind the man as our group moved into the forest. Other ta’ia‘s were moving out as well, though they were spread apart to cover more ground. Our group began to fan out in a wide V-shaped formation, and I did my best to keep my position as I was shown. Starting with me on the right, the order going left was Gudahi, Hakeem, Sanuye, and Makka.
As we moved out into the forest, the emerald light left us, and the shadows seemed to take us whole. I stepped carefully over the uneven terrain, my eyes adjusting to the dark but my feet still unaccustomed to the lay of the land. Now and again, I saw eyes peering at us from the branches, and wondered what aid the nymphs could provide here. I’d never seen healthy nymphs before, my only experience being with those of the Kreut Forest.
The hunt was very quiet at first, and I recalled my hunt of the pretas, knowing that somehow this uneventfulness could not last.
Sanuye would call for our halt now and again, and like my Lycan companions, I crouched low and put nose to the wind, trying to pick up a scent that could belong to the dark beast. I sensed nothing.
Soon minutes turned to hours.
I was getting tired from the lack of action. My nap with Elmiryn was not nearly enough rest for me after all the time that had passed. When one stopped to think on it, I had been awake nearly three days with hardly any rest. It was astonishing what fear and adrenaline could do for you.
And it was fear that I felt, when I heard something padding over the ground at a quick pace.
I let out a low hiss, and Gudahi looked my way. With a stiff nod from me, he turned and called to the others in his native tongue. All paused and crouched low. Again, the sound of movement came, closer this time, and I knew the others heard it.
“The beast…” I whispered fearfully.
Gudahi asked Sanuye something in Lycan, and she responded to him tersely in what seemed to be a negative. The sound grew closer still. I could make out claws cutting over wood and rock now. I lifted my nose to the air and tried to catch a scent. Something entered my senses…
…And my insides turned cold.
Sanuye growled low. “That scent–!”
“It’s familiar,” Gudahi said. “It…it belongs to…”
Ahead of us, a dark shape appeared, and it charged for us. It was the size of a very large dog, and its form loped over the earth with grace.
Sanuye bared her teeth and stood, brandishing her spear. Makka already had his hands shifted to claws, his look fierce. Hakeem held out his dagger, his body taking on a fighting stance. Gudahi brandished his own spear as he stood to his feet.
I jumped in front of them all. “No! Don’t!”
Hakeem stared at me. “Nyx, what are you doing!?”
“Get out of the way!” Sanuye barked.
“No! You don’t understand! The scent is mine!” I screamed.
Everyone stared at me. Gudahi’s spear tip slowly lowered. “Artemis ika lena! She speaks the truth!” his face was long with shock.
I heard the beast slide to a stop behind me, and with eyes closed, I slowly turned. I breathed in deep through my nose, trying to calm my rambunctious heart. History saw fit to repeat itself, as the confusion of my life had led me to forget my greatest obstacle yet again…
A dark voice spoke to me. “Ah. Nyx. I could smell your fear from a long ways off. I just had to come see.”
I opened my eyes and greeted my Twin, my voice reflecting her lack of warmth.