Increasingly, my life was becoming a strange thing. It felt like a different breed of animal, and I could see my hand on its coarse neck, feeling its pulse, wondering when it would wake from its slumber to devour me. People like me were not supposed to be extraordinary. People like me were supposed to fade into dust, to be nothing more than a hated memory. Now all of a sudden, I had things to fight for, and to my eternal surprise, someone who would fight for me.
There were things greater than I could understand. Mystical battles between unfathomable beings, spiritual demons, and tyrannical beasts were becoming typical fare. Amidst these things, the physical pain was always acute, and I was almost grateful for it. It kept me grounded, kept me from losing touch with reality. Elmiryn said she couldn’t understand it. She even shied from it. For me, it was all I had to know I wasn’t in some bizarre dream.
This surreal outlook was magnified tenfold upon returning from the Somnium.
Back in the place I had been before, I found that Quincy had taken to tending a Lycan whilst waiting for my return. She looked at me in surprise. It didn’t take long for that look to quickly melt into ire.
“Ailuran…word of advice. Warn people before you do your vanishing act,” she snapped, her hands stilling on her patient.
I gave her a frigid glance. “Thank you.”
I gazed at Elmiryn. In my mind’s eye, I still saw that white void filled with tumbling kittens and sparrows. Now all I saw was the warrior’s body, bruised and battered and bereft of her spirit. I felt the push of unreality threaten my comprehension and turned to leave.
Quincy’s voice stopped me. “Hey!”
I looked over my shoulder. The woman was outright glaring at me now.
“Well?” she snapped.
“Well what?” I returned hotly.
“How is Elmiryn? Did you even find her?”
“She’s fine,” I said, my eyes narrowing. “But she can’t return to her body because it’s in too much pain.”
Quincy’s brow tightened. “That…doesn’t sound good.”
The wizard returned her attention to her patient, wetting a cloth with a solution and pressing it to a man’s wounded arm. “I’ll do what I can for her,” she said somberly.
I hesitated a moment before nodding. “…Thank you.”
When I exited the medicine hut, I paused to look up at the great tree. I could not see Artemis from where I stood, but wondered what the goddess was doing. I didn’t understand what had happened, and it turned my stomach into knots. I liked having my insides well and ordered…but I couldn’t leave the matter alone. Just what would I do if it turned out that Elmiryn had been in the wrong?
…Just what would I do if it turned out that Elmiryn had been in the right?
Then I did away with the questions. I had faith in her. I knew the warrior wasn’t perfect, but I knew she wasn’t stupid, either. There had to be a good reason for her to behave as she did. Artemis wasn’t smiting her, at any rate, which I thought doubly odd. If Elmiryn had defied her–truly defied her–then wouldn’t the goddess have seen fit to tear the woman asunder? The situation was clearly a complicated one, and my exhaustion was making a poor audience of me.
Turning away I started to make my way back to the edge of the village where the hut Hakeem had given us appeared to me as a welcome sight. But drifting along the village trail, I could not escape the feeling of unreality. The deconstruction of all the expectations I had ever held for myself seemed complete, but in their place was just this question. Just what could an abomination like myself do? What else could I be? I could bend shadows, could traverse the layers of reality, could command the attention of spirits…but in the end I still had the taint of my family’s death on my splintered soul, my other self still running off in the wilds and harboring nothing but loathing for me. I was living some other life, and yet I didn’t know what role I was supposed to play. My footsteps felt heavy with my questions, and for once I did not care for the eyes that turned my way. I stared at the ground, the low spirit of the village filtering through my strange miasma.
It was about the time when I arrived at my new place of stay and crawled under the fur blankets, that I realized just what was really wrong.
Elmiryn wasn’t there.
When I woke, it was to Hakeem’s voice drifting in through the hut curtain.
“Nyx, it is time to wake.”
I whined and turned my face away. Even in my sudden loneliness, sleep had stolen me in a quick, but restless sleep. All through the night I was plagued with bad dreams. I saw a world filled with bloody battlefields, saw the horrible nymph giant attacking my village, saw myself as a little girl being hunted by a pack of pretas… After each dream I would wake, dazed and confused only to find myself alone. I wanted to hide away, to return to Elmiryn in her strange pocket of reality…but somehow I knew I had to be reachable to the others. I couldn’t be ready to help, to act, to contribute if I were gone in some unfathomable domain. So with a sense of dread, I closed my eyes and slipped into the next black nightmare.
Sleep? One could say I did that, but rest was another matter entirely…
The low light coming through the spaces of the hut curtain seemed offensive to me. I could hear the sounds of village life outside, hear foreign voices speaking, hear unfamiliar birds chirping in the trees. I curled away from it all.
“Nyx.” Hakeem’s young voice sounded clearer. He must have poked his head through the entrance. “Tai’undu…ikati are you really going to be like this?”
I growled and squeezed my eyes shut harder, feeling my ire rise.
Hakeem sighed, arms slapping at his sides. I had a brief mental image of him doing this and immediately thought it strange. The adult Hakeem I had first met wasn’t the type for such expressions. Then again, it had been established I knew nothing of him. His voice sounded over me, impatient. “I just wanted to let you know that breakfast is being served. Just like last night, if you aren’t there, you aren’t getting any.” I heard him turn to leave.
At the thought of food, I perked my head up, my eyes squinting.
The wizard paused and looked back at me. His young face broke into a smirk. “Too predictable.”
It took a moment for me to get my shoes back on, but with hands shielding my eyes, we emerged outside. I was surprised to see that the sky had changed to match something akin to day. Not literally, of course. There was no sun, not even clouds, and the sky lacked that beautiful blue hue, and was instead just a glaring white. It was like a bright canvas, waiting for some mode of expression. Light seemed to flood everywhere, despite the lack of a source, and the village stirred with all the activity one might expect in the morning–chickens were being tended to, rugs being beat, and daily devotion was being offered. The latter was directed toward the great tree, with Lycans kneeling on the dirt with a fist over their heart, heads bowed, lips murmuring in a sort of prayer.
I blinked at them, then turned away, feeling it was rude to stare at those in worship. My eyes eventually adjusted as we came to the village center where, just as last night, a station had been set up where people were being served. This communal service was foreign to me, as back in my home village, people cooked for themselves. Granted, Tosmai was a much bigger than this settlement, but the Lycans seemed to have a greater sense of unity and brotherhood. I found myself envious.
The line for food stretched all the way around the great tree, back to the village trail we were emerging from. Hakeem stood in line, and with a groan, I stood in after him.
“The line is so long,” I groused. “I may as well have stayed asleep!”
“You do look quite tired,” Hakeem observed. I had a feeling he was trying to be generous.
My jaw clenched and I glared at the ground. “I had a rough night.”
“Your friend isn’t all that far, you know.”
I glanced at the wizard sharply, and he looked at me sideways. “The day is free. You can visit her whenever you like.”
“Quincy told you about last night?”
“Where is your wife, anyway?”
“Still asleep. She was up late tending to the wounded.” Hakeem shook his head. “As far as hunts go, this was the worse. We had less injured, but more dead. Two Lycans died in the medicine hut upon being returned.”
I bit my lip and turned away.
Hakeem nudged me. “Ikati. We would not have reached those men in time. It wasn’t your fault.”
I clenched my fists. “Seconds count. If we hadn’t been distracted by my Twin, then–”
“You never did tell me what that was all about.”
I broke off, startled. With a swallow, I shrugged. “It’s…” I sighed. “Complicated.”
“And how many people have you managed to deter with that line?”
I rolled my eyes. “None.”
I rubbed at my face, then gestured for him to come closer. When he did, I hissed, “All right, all right. I may as well tell you. I’ve already told Sanuye–”
“By no gentle means, I imagine.”
My brow tightened. “No.” Then my expression relaxed. “I was…surprised, though.”
The wizard raised an eyebrow at me. “By her reaction?”
“Well, yes. But moreso by her decision.”
I ran my hand through my hair. “She wants to help me.”
Hakeem smiled at me wryly. “Lycans are known to do that from time to time y’know.”
I bit my lip and looked around us. “I’m…nervous to talk about this around so many. There’s more Common speakers than I’d first thought, and I’d like to keep my business my own.”
The wizard shrugged his hands. “Then we shall wait until later. Perhaps once we get our food?”
We resumed our wait in silence, and I found myself peering at Hakeem in curiosity. I wondered if his change in demeanor had anything to do with his youthful form, and if so, would he once again be the hard-nosed, taciturn man I’d first met?
My thoughts were cut short as Sedwick joined us.
He held out a hand to the people behind us, “I’m not in line,” before he greeted us. “Good morning!”
“Morning,” we said simultaneously.
The elemental crossed his arms as he looked at me. “I missed you last night. How did things go?”
“I have a few things to tell you…” I said, glancing at Hakeem. “I was going to fill Hakeem in on a few details too, once we get settled.”
Sedwick nodded. “That’s fine, I understand.”
I gestured awkwardly at the man. “Sooo…how did your hunt go?”
He shrugged, his mouth screwing up. “We were fine. Had to deal with a rogue growth spirit. The taint going on has been affecting the balance. The Lycans have been doing a superb job of keeping the situation from getting out of hand, but with time, this monster that is stalking their forest is going to turn everything on its head.” He rubbed his scar, his brow pressing up. “I…went to see Elmiryn.”
I smiled sardonically. “Yes, she looks quite bad, doesn’t she?”
“Nyx, I’m sorry I held you back at the fight, but I had to. Lycan tradition is something these people take seriously, and if you’d have interfered, there would have been serious–”
I held up a hand, and locked eyes with the man. “You did what you thought was right. What came after was beyond everyone’s control.”
“So you know about what happened at the end of the fight?”
Hakeem cleared his throat. “I filled her in on those details.”
I puckered my lips, my nose tickling in displeasure. “Yes.”
Sedwick looked at me uncomfortably. “Quincy tells me Elmiryn is still in there somewhere.”
“That’s because I told her that. I visited Elmiryn using my abilities as a champion. She’s in a strange little pocket of reality. Her body is in too much pain for her to return…for her to want to return.”
Sedwick held his chin, the other arm crossing over his chest. “And you can visit her whenever you like?”
I nodded. “As far as I know, yes. So long as the way to her is open, I can.”
In all this time, the line had steadily moved up. We were closer to the great tree now.
Hakeem frowned up at me, his arms crossing. “What could close the way?”
I blinked and thought about it a moment. “I suppose if her body died, or if she ventured too far into the unknown.” I gave a shudder. “I’d rather not think on it too hard.”
The conversation, if one could call it that, dried up. We were served our food, and with me leading, we found a comfortable spot away from any wandering ears. Sedwick and Hakeem sat at either side of me, bowls of mixed rice, stewed deer meat, and egg in their hands. I took a few hungry bites of my meal, the words sorting about in my head. Once I decided on how I wanted to explain things, I set in. The story of my Twin was nothing new to Sedwick, but nevertheless I had an attentive audience in him. Hakeem was equally interested, if not, moreso. He stopped eating as soon as I started, his eyes fastened onto my face–and it was with great discomfort that I recognized that hawkish attention I’d already seen in Quincy. He was weighing my words, my priorities, my emotions.
Once my tale was done, I gave Sedwick a brief update on my recent encounter with my Twin. He leaned forward onto his watery legs, his brow furrowed deeply. Hakeem, meanwhile, was still looking at me.
“So that beast was a part of you…” he murmured.
I looked at him warily. “Yes. She is a part of my soul.”
“But she has her own will.”
He shook his head gravely. “That is against all laws of nature.” He held up both hands as if testing the weight of two different things. “There is mental malady in which a person’s mind becomes so broken that their interactions with the world are similarly broken. But what you are saying is something else entirely. Your mind is in tact. Your soul however…”
“I am against nature. I am something that isn’t supposed to exist.”
Hakeem frowned at me. “To have two separate souls in one body is impossible. Either one of you assimilates the other or you’ll perish. The tug of war on your body would surely tear it apart in time!”
“I know that!” I snapped. I closed my eyes and swallowed. “I know that…” I said more gently. “Elmiryn and I had a plan. Well…more of a lead.”
“What kind of lead?”
I opened my mouth, then hesitated. Hakeem was a bounty hunter. So was Quincy. It was true they were working with us now, but what about later? Could I trust them not to turn on us?
At the prolonged pause, the young wizard held up a hand. “Ah. I see. Do not worry then.”
I felt a pang in my gut. “Hakeem–”
He looked at me, brows raised. “Ikati, you have plenty of reasons to feel as you do. Think nothing of it.”
My mouth closed, but I felt guilty all the same. Sedwick glanced at me sidelong, and I couldn’t be sure if he was disappointed in me or sympathetic. Feeling low, I finished my food.
It was about around my last bites that someone descended on me from behind, their weight neatly folding me over my legs. Sputtering, I tried to look at my assailant. I heard a voice before I saw a face, and immediately knew who it was.
“Ahoj! My pet I’ve missed you!”
“Get off me Gudahi!” I snapped, beating at him with my shoulders.
The man pulled back, laughing. I glared at him over my shoulder as Hakeem sighed next to me. “Ahoj, Gudahi,” he said.
Gudahi settled back onto his feet, Makka just a little behind him. He bowed his head at me in greeting, and I nodded at him in return before my eyes flickered onto his taller companion.
The handsome man flipped his long dark hair over his shoulder, then winked at me. “Now, now! I was only playing, little one.”
I looked away from him, remembering Lycan etiquette, but my patience was not very tolerant that morning. I stood abruptly and looked at Hakeem and Sedwick. “Thank you for eating with me. I’m going to check on Elmiryn.”
“I’ll see you tonight, Nyx,” Hakeem said.
Sedwick gave a small wave. “Tell her I said to get better, fast. I’m sort of missing her harassment.”
I gave a wry smile. With a glance at Makka and Gudahi, I left.
Hakeem watched the girl leave, then turned to spare a quick glare Gudahi’s way. “You should not tease her so. She is in love.”
The Lycan slapped a hand to his heart, a dreamy look on his face. “With me? All ready? Spirits preserve me!”
Despite himself, the wizard smiled. Turning his eyes to his empty bowl, he said, “Not this time, I’m afraid. She loves another.”
Gudahi clicked his tongue as he slid smoothly into Nyx’s spot. “Damn! Can’t have them all, I suppose.”
“You really aren’t bothered by her show of power last night?”
“Bothered?” The man looked at the wizard with an amused grin. “My friend, the goddess I worship currently occupies the central tree of my village, and a beast of unknown origin and shape is ravaging my land. There are stranger things to consider!”
Hakeem let out a short laugh. “Ah. You are right, of course.”
Gudahi leaned over to Sedwick, his smile curling. “And who is your peculiar friend?”
The elemental held out a hand. “Sedwick. I work with Nadi, guardian of the Medwin River.”
The Lycan’s brows rose high. “Nadi’s personal thrall? Here?” He turned his head slowly back to Hakeem. “Let me say again…there are stranger things to consider!”
Hakeem shook his head at the man. “Are you going to train today?”
Gudahi nodded, his face turning more somber. “Of course. We return to the fields to practice forms.”
“I think I’ll be joining you again today.”
“You do not have another session with Eidan?”
Hakeem sighed and stood. “I think it’s clear that whatever way there is to change myself back to normal cannot be found in a healer’s hut. As my companions tell it, I have to move forward to find what is lost…”
She was counting kittens when Nyx came. The woman felt her presence like a warm breeze, and she perked up like an excited puppy at the sight of her beloved friend.
Grinning, Elmiryn rushed forward for a hug. “Nyx!”
The girl was clothed this time around, as there wasn’t a nude Doll for her to occupy. Her eyes shone as she returned the woman’s grin. The void rang with her laughter, and the shadows overhead shivered.
“Elle! Sweet Aelurus, you’re behaving as if I’ve been gone an age!”
The woman laughed, pulling back, strands of her hair falling into her eyes. “It feels that way! Did you know I’ve been counting these critters since you left? It was the only way I could make my thoughts behave.”
Nyx smiled teasingly. “I heard you just now. I believe you were at 1025?”
Elmiryn shook her head, her eyes rolling. “Naw. I lost count like four times. I got up to 3000 last time.”
The girl squinted her eyes, her head tilting to the side. “Have…I been gone that long? Really?”
The woman shrugged. “I didn’t sleep. I mean. I can’t. I’m not in a body to sleep in, after all.”
“Oh!” Nyx bit her lip. “I’m sorry you were left alone for so long! I didn’t even consider that you’d be forced to sit here like that…”
Elmiryn traced a finger over the girl’s cheek. Nyx’s face shone with something bright, and the warrior wondered if she were really the reason for it. She took her hand and gently buried it in the girl’s dark locks. Again, she could feel nothing of it, but a pleasure rose in her.
“I want…” the woman started. Her eyes settled on Nyx’s tawny gaze, and she stepped closer. “I want to try and come back.”
Nyx bit her lip and reached up to the woman’s face. “Only if you think it’ll be safe, Elle. I want you well.”
“And I want to feel you. I want to be there.” Elmiryn returned, her eyes burning. She made no attempt to explain to the girl how hellish it had been, sitting in an empty space with only illusions as company. She made no attempt to explain how a single night had felt like a year, or how the shadows had rebelled against her too many times to count. The alien being in her white box never moved, the falling animals never ceased coming, and the ways of light seemed forever on the cusp of defeat.
The warrior stepped back and closed her eyes. She sought her body, knew the way as intuitively as one knew their own limbs.
The black heavy curtain was thick with pain. Darkness lapped at the edges of her consciousness and she gasped, struggling to pull away in time before the trappings of mortality found her.
Elmiryn screamed and fell backward, her voice echoing all around them.
Nyx was at her side in an instant, her face drawn long in fear as she held the woman by the shoulders. “Elle! Gods! Are you okay!?”
“Too much,” the woman gasped, clutching at her heart with her right hand. She shook her head frantically. “I can’t.”
The woman tried to sit up with both her arms but found only her right arm to respond. Her left lay dead next to her. She stared at it, a sudden roaring in her ears as she felt herself turn cold. Her eyes slowly moved to meet Nyx’s. The Ailuran blinked at her, nonplussed.
“Elle?” she whispered.
The woman moved her tongue against the roof of her mouth, then sucked at her teeth. With a contemplative frown, she considered her arm. The feelings of her body were not entirely gone this time, just muted. The pain became a low buzz in the distant background, and she felt heavier…more real.
The only reason I’m keeping myself together is because I know my pattern.
Elmiryn looked at her companion, a slow smile creeping across her lips. “…Y’know what, Nyx? I take that back. Maybe I can.”