There She was before me, my sister, my animal counterpart…but this meeting wasn’t taking place in my head. She was apart from me, like a separate being, only she was no more whole than I was. Here we both were, just two broken pieces crumbling into ether as the sand trickled down the hourglass. Lacertli had said that the Other Place would undo us. How much more time did we have?
…And how could we possibly come together again?
The Beast was as a large black panther, but in her feline face there was a sort of sapien nuance that was not a little disturbing. Her tawny eyes cut through the dark, holding anger.
I took to pacing, my Twin mirroring my tense movements with her head low and her tail lashing like a whip.
“My, my! What seems to be the problem, sister? I thought you’d be happy to see me?” The animal’s voice held false goodwill. Her fleshy chops pulled back every time she spoke, revealing her fangs. I was certain she didn’t have to bare her teeth at me, but chose to.
“A meeting with you outside my mind is liable to give me as bad a headache with you in my mind, so pardon me if I’m not doing cartwheels,” I snarled back.
“But why not rejoice? After all, I’ve spent two weeks crawling around this hellish place, the least you could do is show relief that your better half yet lives!”
“I didn’t know you were here that long! Don’t you think I would’ve wanted to find you sooner!? You do know what will happen if one of us dies like this, don’t you?”
“A great and wondrous peace? A happy ending?”
I clenched my fists. “We are not whole as we are! We’ll die! Are you so blind that you cannot see that!?”
She roared at me, her hackles raising, her claws gouging into the dirt. Behind me, I heard the others shift, and I turned to shout at them, “Don’t!”
“Blind, am I?” My Twin screamed–the sound blending into a roar. “Tell me what misery awaits me while I sit, a happy shard, free of your burden!”
I chuckled darkly. “And you don’t think I haven’t enjoyed your absence, you mindless creature?”
Suddenly, I was pushed roughly to the side, but pulled back by the front of my doublet. Sanuye’s livid face pressed into mine. “Ailuran, what is this!?” she bit out.
I grabbed her arm tightly, my teeth bared. “None of your affair!”
She let out a bestial snarl, lifting me off the ground with one hand. My feet barely skimmed the dirt. “I say it is mine!” she pointed at my Twin. “Why can that beast speak? Is she the one we hunt? Are you in league with the monster!?”
I felt my blood turn hot and my eyes narrowed. That alien part of me, that otherness I’d only felt once before, came clawing out of my mouth with a vengeance, “Child of Artemis, thou will remove thine hand, lest the darkness swallow thee in thine impertinence…”
I could feel the shadows around us…feel them deepen in hunger. Sanuye looked down in confusion just as my feet touched the floor. Hakeem whispered something and I heard one of the Lycan men let out something between a sputter and a snarl. The woman looked back at me, fear in her eyes.
She had sunk knee deep into the shadows.
I could feel her shivering as her hand came away from my doublet and she fell back with a cry. Scrambling, she pulled her legs free and scuttled back to Gudahi and Makka, who pulled her to her feet. They were all staring at me now with wide eyes.
Hakeem stood apart from them, his gaze piercing as we briefly locked eyes. Somehow, he didn’t seem as surprised.
My expression softened as I looked back at the Lycans. “I wish no harm, Sanuye. Only to protect thee from my own nightmares.”
Then I took a deep reflexive breath, feeling as though I’d been plunged into cold water. My knees gave out and I fell to the earth, shivering and trying to regain control of my breathing.
“What things have you been up to while I’ve been gone…?” My Twin asked slowly, her voice full of wariness and resentment. Her eyes searched my face, wide and penetrating. Her features twitched in their shocked mask.
I clutched at the stitch in my chest, and glared at her through the curtain of my hair. “I–hah–sh-should be asking that–hah–question!”
“Stupid bitch. What trickery was that? What new taint have you brought on us??”
“Shut up! If anything is a taint, it’s you!”
Her furry face bunched as she padded near me. I could see her muscles rolling beneath the fur, her body like a line of dark intent over the earth. She opened her mouth, about to say something when she paused, her brow bunching. “You…” I saw her nose twitch and she leaned in closer, like I were some unpleasant thing to inspect. “You…smell different. Up close. You…” I could hear a growl enter her voice as she circled around me. “She’s all over you!”
My head snapped up at that.
Her eyes held disgust. “You expect me to return when–when you–”
“When I what? Find someone who actually cares for me!? That’s it, isn’t it? You just want us to live our lives alone and hated!” My hands dug into the earth like claws as I screamed, “I don’t have to answer to you!”
She started for me, spitting from the back of her throat. I flinched, pulling back, my heart beating. Could I fight Her? Was it even wise to, considering what it could result in?
“I see, then, I see! So all that is yours is mine, then is it? This new fancy of yours, might I share in the pleasures?” Her voice was mocking, but in her eyes a light glinted…
My face drew up in disgust. “What? No! Never!”
She snapped her jaws and snarled, saliva dripping from her fangs. I had a horrible recall of the pretas and felt the blood drain from my face. “But I’m hungry!” she bit out. “Hungry for that same acceptance, affection, and love that you so craved for! Why am I to be denied this and given only the shame, the heartache, the pain–!?” As she said this last thing, she lashed out at me with her paw, catching me along the face with her claws.
I screamed and reared back, my hands going to my cheek where the blood flowed between my fingers.
“Nyx!” Hakeem came to my side, and I was surprised to see Gudahi there, his spear held out at my Twin in case she pressed the attack.
But my animal counterpart only sat on her haunches, her head bowed low, her tail whipping behind her. “I would rather live in pieces, then suffer under the wholeness of your tyranny…I would rather…live in pieces…” she said quietly. Her voice was thick with emotion–rage, resentment…but was there grief there, too?
My Twin raised her head, her eyes narrowed. “I only have one more question for you…what of your promise to me?”
Panting, I struggled to stand up with one hand, the other still clutching at my face. “Promise? What promise?”
“A stupid…empty question…for a stupid…vapid creature like you…” The beast muttered, turning her head. Cat language. I was insignificant. I was unimportant. A worm.
I bared my teeth, indignation driving me to my feet faster than my companions could help me. “Look at me! What nonsense are you on about?”
“A name!” She screamed at me, still not turning her head.
My eyes widened, and I took a step back. Oh no…
My Twin’s tail stilled behind her, and her nose dipped to the ground where she made as if to sniff the earth, but then she raised her head just enough to fix her gaze on me. “You promised me…a name. Yet you have nothing…so clearly, I am nothing to you.” She moved to stand on all her paws. “So is it not in keeping, that I should vanish? Perhaps perish and make your perceived reality come true?”
I shook my head. “Damn it! Damn you! You’re blaming me for things beyond my control! I didn’t want you hurt or lost! It isn’t my fault this dimension has a warped sense of time, or that it separated us to begin with!”
“But it’s for selfish reasons that you wish the things that you do! I am nothing to you! Nothing! You have changed Us. You have allowed another to touch you, without so much as a thought to me! How I may feel! And what of your new nature? Something is in you, sister, and I’d not have that darkness on me, not after freeing myself from–”
A deep and echoing sound struck through the forest, stirring the trees and sleepy wildlife. It was filled with rage, but was unlike any animal I’ve ever heard. It was an almost slimy, wet sound, contrasted with a harsh metal ring that spoke of weapons striking. Under it all was a deep bass, tying it together. All froze, eyes wide as we looked around at each other and for the source of the disturbance.
My Twin started to back away. Even in her furry face, I could see the terror there. “The beast…the beast, it strikes!” she panted.
I looked at her. “Do you know of it? Tell us, what is it!”
She stepped forward, then backward again, her eyes flashing up to us with something akin to appeal. “Nyx–the dark things, they never truly leave us. You ask for unity, but you know not of what you ask–!”
A streak of hysteria cut through me. “What do you mean!?”
The great feline gave a shake of her head. “I cannot! I cannot!” and she turned and fled, dirt and brush kicked up by her powerful claws.
I gave a shout and started after her. “Wait! Wait!”
But I didn’t run far. It was clear there was no way I could catch her. She was too far away now for me to get a fix on her shadow, and in all the dark, it would’ve been hard to pick out anyway. I watched her go until she was lost in the ink of our surroundings.
Another great call came, and soon following it were a short series of howls.
“Someone has made contact…” Hakeem breathed.
Sanuye barked something in Lycan, then her eyes fixed on me, as if daring me to show insubordination. They needed every man to help, and if I refused to do so, it would likely be seen as being sympathetic with the beast. Despite my show of power, this proud clan could not stomach such a sentiment, especially considering what they had already lost. Would they all fight me to the death?
…But I had made Sanuye behave submissive around me. She had retreated from me, on the ground, her belly up, clearly showing fear. So…perhaps her stare was more of a question than a dare. If I wished, I could probably do as Elmiryn did, and take a firm place in the village as someone deserving of respect. Did I want the position?
I’d read somewhere that inciting a power struggle during a time of crisis was the act of fools. At any rate, I was no leader. While I had a sneaking suspicion that Sanuye hated the role herself, she was a lot better at it than I was. All I had was a sliver of heavenly power, and I hardly knew the full extent of my abilities.
What had I been possessed by when I made Sanuye seek into the shadows? A spirit? Another personality? Some remnant of Lacertli’s spirit?
Sweet Aelurus, as if my head wasn’t crowded enough!
Not even needing time to make my decision, I slouched my shoulders and lowered my gaze. I was certain the matter wasn’t done with, but there were more important things needing our attention.
Sanuye didn’t even pause to revel in my submission. “Get in formation! We go to our brothers!” She barked.
Quincy came into the hut, her eyes adjusting to the low candle light. She saw Eidan hunched over Elmiryn, his weathered face more lined than usual. His younger attendant brushed back his long white hair and turned his smooth face toward Quincy. The woman didn’t know his name, but knew he made his rounds around the village while Eidan kept his work near his tools and supplies.
“Quincy, bring the vial with the red stopper,” he said, his bushy brows knitted together. Eidan didn’t even look up at her.
She went to the table holding all the serums and herbs. At first she couldn’t find the vial right away, but then, hidden amidst a tall set of bottles filled with green potion, she saw it. She plucked it up and stared at what swished inside. The vial held a small amount of yellow liquid.
Pursing her lips, Quincy brought it to them, and Eidan took it from her without a word.
“What’s wrong with her?” The woman asked.
She pulled up a stool and sat on the other side of the bed, her eyes flickering between Eidan and the white-haired attendant. Neither looked at her as they unstopped the vial and poured the contents into a bowl. Eidan sprinkled a brown substance into it, murmuring in his Lycan tongue.
Finally, the attendant fastened his gray eyes on the wizard’s. “Mortality.” He lacked an accent.
Quincy’s eyebrows rose high at this. “Pardon?”
“Mortality. Her heart, it struggles because of it.”
The woman’s face grew somber. “She tried to defy Artemis.”
“Halian only suffered from the goddess’s intervention, and see how he fares.” The man pointed over the woman’s shoulder. She looked and saw Halian halfway down the row of cots, his naked back to her and his body shivering and twitching. Sweat made his body paint run into the sheets. Quincy looked back at the man. “What could happen to Elmiryn, then?”
“Death or permanent paralysis. She’s lucky she didn’t die outright. Her spirit is a willful thing.”
Eidan lifted her head and held the bowl to Elmiryn’s lips, forcing her to drink. Some of it dribbled out, but most of it went in.
Quincy frowned. “And what is she being given?”
“A mixture,” the attendant answered distractedly.
“Ginger, crushed periwinkle, and viper venom.”
“Hol’ her.” Eidan ordered.
The attendant stood and took hold of Elmiryn’s ankles. Quincy, still bewildered, took hold of the woman’s arms. Eidan held her head, his rough thumb brushing her cheek. “She will wake. Wun be pretty. Ge’ready.”
Minutes passed. Elmiryn’s face twitched, sweat beading on her skin. Then, without warning, she gasped, her body spasming on the table. Her struggles became more and more violent. Quincy grit her teeth as she fought to keep the warrior’s arms still. Eidan stood and leaned over the woman, his elbows pinning down her shoulders as he continued to grip her head. The attendant grunted, his teeth bared as the wizard saw his forearms cord from the effort of keeping the woman’s legs still.
Elmiryn wheezed, her eyes snapping open deliriously.
“Elmiryn–!” Quincy shouted, but she stopped there, because it hit her that the warrior was lost in some sort of hallucination. Was it the venom? Was it her ailment?
The redhead gnashed her teeth, her eyes seeing through the hut ceiling. “Nngh! Raaagh, hah…no…shuzz…no…noooo…myne…MYne!” Spittle flew from her mouth as she continued to gargle and slur. Quincy was aware that the left side of the woman’s face seemed slack, whilst her right side seemed quite normal. It was in her limbs too. The left did not pose as much of a fight as the right did.
Would she really be crippled?
Is this what becomes of a person who fights against the gods? Quincy thought, horror a creeping emotion that came up her chest and chilled the sweat on her skin.
After a time, the warrior’s struggles grew feebler. Eidan spared a moment to reach down and hold up another, smaller bowl than the first. He forced the contents of this down Elmiryn’s throat, and this time more of it dribbled out then went in. Quincy could see it was the green potion she had spied earlier.
They held her for a while longer, and with time they saw Elmiryn’s eyes rolling into her head. Her struggles quieted, then ceased entirely. Eidan released her, and Quincy and the attendant did the same.
“The venom…will it harm her?” the brunette asked quietly.
Eidan finally looked at her. “If she suh-vive wrath o’ goddess, than venom no worry t’her.” With that, he stood and went outside.
Quincy watched him go, and the attendant sighed, rubbing the back of his neck. He looked at the woman sidelong. “I am Merid. Eidan is my father. He…” the man smiled sheepishly, and lots of lines appeared about his eyes revealing the age his smooth face kept hidden. “He isn’t given to nonsense.”
The woman screwed up her mouth and crossed her arms. “So I’ve seen.”
Merid nodded at Elmiryn. “My father has only seen this twice before. Most who deny the gods have their hearts explode in their chests upon the first denial. To survive in defiance of heaven is the mark of someone…otherworldy.”
“What others have done this?”
“A young boy–stupid and arrogant. He thought the world didn’t need the gods. He thought he could live free of their will and be his own man. Upon the first declaration of this feeling, he died outright. Then there was the Legend, Kati. He was once Artemis’s champion. He…was my father’s great grandfather.”
Quincy’s eyebrows rose. “And what became of him?”
“He survived…but ceased to be a champion. He left our village in exile and shame.”
“But isn’t it a sign of someone strong to be able to live through such an ordeal?”
Merid scowled. “Just because one is strong does not mean he is entitled to everything. Many of our leaders could be beat through brute strength alone. It is the mind and spirit we cherish, and the body comes after that.”
Quincy held up her hands. “I didn’t mean offense.”
The man stared at her long and hard for a moment, before he smiled gently. “No. I suppose not.” He thumbed over his shoulder. “My father goes to gather more supplies. Would you help him? I’ll stay and watch your friend.”
“What’ll happen to her now? What can we expect?”
Merid shrugged, his gray eyes turned down. “There’s no telling. Kati was a champion, and walked away fine. But your friend? I cannot say for certain whether or not she will come out of this whole.”
Quincy nodded, her grim expression returning. With one last look at Elmiryn, she followed Eidan outside.
Stupid Fiamman…why couldn’t you just keep your big fat mouth shut for once!?
I had some practice running quickly through wooded areas, but I was unfamiliar with the lay of this land, and even in my low-light vision, details did not come readily enough for me to keep from stumbling now and again. I only just managed to keep up with the others. Hakeem, even in his young state, was remarkably fast.
My guess is that we ran for a quarter of a mile before the sounds of screaming and horror reached us. Even before we came upon the break in the trees, I knew that we had come too late.
Before us, trees had been felled, the earth churned as the roots had been torn out. Nymphs in the trees wailed at the sight of their fallen brethren. Those on the ground stared numbly at their destroyed homes, their faces pale as their life force slowly dissipated from them in a rise of small glowing emerald orbs.
Blood sprayed everything. The color was dark in the night, but its nature was unmistakable. Mangled bodies were strewn about the destruction, deathly pieces that screamed and gurgled up at the sky. I counted five people total, one of which was torn in half, his entrails trailing from his mangled torso. I wasn’t sure if there were more, if the beast had stolen them away into the night to feast in private. There certainly was a crowd gathering of those who had answered the call. Many broke off to pursue the monster. Many more remained still.
The sight of the gore…the mayhem…the wailing Lycans…
My knees grew weak and I leaned on a tree for support, breathing harshly through my nose. Big mistake. The blood, the rancid taint of the beast–like rotten flesh and old bile–filled my senses. A wave of nausea surged through me, and I covered my mouth, trying to find that steeliness that Lacertli would no doubt demand of me.
My eyes clouded as I wretched over the ferns.
The earth beneath my feet was nothing but mud and blood. It seeped through my toes, staining my skin. I could see the maggots squirming around me. I felt numbed, time and space compressing into a thick fold that echoed with the muffled screams of the soldiers. Tears streamed down my cold face, my breath just a phantom that took my spirit with every exhale. Around me lay bodies, hacked and bloodied. Only the Fiammans screamed, clutching at bloody stumps and open wounds. The felled Ailurans were all dead, heads cut off, hearts blown away, or spines severed. I peered into these faces anxiously, trying to see if Thaddeus were among their number.
The numbness ebbed as panic began to set in.
“Koen!” I screamed, not thinking clear enough to realize that perhaps a proper name would have been more effective. For me, Thaddeus was Koen, nothing more. “Koen, where are you!?”
I cried out as I tripped and fell, my eyes fastening onto the face of a dying Fiamman. He bared bloody teeth at me, his eyes holding a delirious rage. He reached for me with clawing hands, and I scrambled away, only to find a rough pair of hands drag me up.
Thaddeus glared down at me, his face pulled long in shock and his brow knitted. “Gods! Koah what are you doing here!?”
I was a stuttering mess. “Ko-Koen! I–I–I wanted, wanted–” I broke off, sobbing. Why had I come? Because I hated saying goodbye to Thaddeus every year? Because I was tired of caring for our family alone? Because Killen had dared me to? “I don’t know!” I wailed, clutching at him. “I just want to go home!”
The battle was winding down. The Fiammans were calling for a retreat. The cannon blasts ceased, and there were fresh screams as those who tried to fall back were cut down. There was no cheer from the Ailurans left standing. Thaddeus held me, his face contorted in anger–for me being there, for me seeing it all–and his hands clutched at me as I did to him. Desperate. Trying to find some sort of solace.
But there was none.
“Koah, I’ll take you home.”
I had been eleven years old when I saw my first battlefield. The memory always haunted me. I knew better than perhaps anyone in my village what kind of ‘glory’ the children of Aelurus were finding in the war. In another three years, I lost Thaddeus to that horror. I vowed to keep Atalo from such a fate, only to find that…
…The dark things, they never truly leave us.
My eyes widened and my stomach stabbed with pain as my anxiety reached a new height. The Twin’s voice faded from my head, but the truth of her words felt taunting somehow. What did it have to do with everything I was seeing now?
Hakeem came at my side and laid a hand on my arm. I glanced at him sharply and he pulled back, his gaze on the dark scene before us.
“The hunt is done for tonight,” he said somberly. “The others have gone in the hopes of finding the beast again, but the chances of that are slim. It is only discovered when it wishes to be, and now that it has its daily prize, it will not be coaxed from hiding.”
I frowned a little at him. Upon meeting Hakeem, I found that he could be incredibly stoic. Then, I thought he was a cold man with only an interest in profit. Looking at him now, I saw…a warmth in his gaze. He felt connected to these Lycans. But more than that, right there and then, I saw his boundaries slip away long enough to recognize a familiar feeling.
I swallowed and swiped at my eyes, feeling a hollow pride at having kept my tears in check. “Are we going back?”
He nodded, his dark gaze returning to me. “I don’t think I have to tell you to step lightly around Sanuye.”
I chuckled darkly. “I will step lightly, while she will stomp heavily…onto me.”
“You really ought to give them more credit,” Hakeem admonished.
“Like the credit they give me?”
The wizard shrugged, walking away. “Your shadow reflects your position. Change your stance, and the shadow will shift.”
I stared after him as he made his way back to our party. Sanuye was talking with Gudahi and Makka. Her eyes flickered my way, and she motioned for me to join them. Other parties had taken up the task of helping the nymphs and retrieving the bodies. The rest began the return home.
Through sheer will, I managed to look on the scene once more. Hakeem talked of shifting shadows.
…But could you have shadows in utter darkness?