A bolt embedded itself into the splintered wood of a tree, the line it cut through the air slicing the place where Nyx’s head used to be.
The weight of her knife was an assurance as she turned, dropping her bag and bow onto the ground. Already the heart quickened with the promise of action. Elmiryn slid her right foot to the left and heard, rather than saw, the second shot coming. With an instinctual swipe of her blade, she felt the projectile knock away–but the sound that entered her ears and the shock that traveled up her arm made her pause and blink. The attackers were firing heavy steel bolts.
Elmiryn’s cerulean eyes turned, glinting toward the spot she suspected her assailants were hiding. A little further back the way they had come, where the clean break from juniper branch had been. Somewhere there. There were other small spaces between the rocks, little crevices, and just enough shadow from the rising suns to conceal someone. So many places to hide here.
“One more. Go on!” she barked. Elmiryn’s enemies seemed to pause at her bravado.
Quickly, the woman assessed the situation. She didn’t know how many of them were out there, but their hesitation brought up a number of possibilities: the men (assuming they were men) were few in number–small strike teams, though experienced, were typically more cautious; they were inexperienced and so were easily spooked by her lack of hesitation; or they had heard of her by reputation. It was also possible for a variant combination of those.
Whatever the case, Elmiryn sensed she had some sort of an advantage. The next step was just exploiting it once it became absolutely clear.
Nyx scuttled on the ground behind her, dirt clinging to her chin and nose as her breath came in harsh gasps. “Oh nine hells…Sweet Aelurus, please…ah…” Her voice trailed away as she tried to gather herself. “Elle, where–”
The girl’s words were cut off as Elmiryn leaned back far, and with her free hand, snatched out at the next crossbow bolt that was fired. She felt a sharp sear of pain. Hot blood trickled down her bracer and her elbow through a slash in her gloved palm. The woman’s gaze sharpened and without even pausing to look at the projectile or her cut, she bowed her head and stalked toward the place she now was certain the shot had been fired. There was a curse. “Fool!” someone said, before the sharp ring of swords being drawn could be heard.
Two men came out from their hiding places–one from where the juniper tree had been, the other from down atop a jagged rock near it. Elmiryn blinked at them.
They weren’t ‘men’.
They were ‘boys’.
Perhaps in their late teens yes, but still too young to be attempting something this dangerous on their own. The warrior’s eyes widened when she heard a scuffle and a squeak behind her, and mentally kicking herself, she whirled around.
Another man, much older with a leathery face and short dark hair that seemed stuck in a puffy state of shock had Nyx held close to him with a knife to her throat. Elmiryn tongued her cheek. She had always been told that ‘fighting’ and ‘protecting’ were two different things. Offense and defense. Offense was only employed in the instance that all parties could reasonably be expected to keep from failing. Nyx, though she was a therian, was hardly a warrior. She’d really have to remember that from now on.
“Drop your weapons, Elmiryn,” the man commanded firmly.
The warrior didn’t move, her mind trying to find a way out of the situation.
That was when one of the boys behind her cried out in a voice that cracked, “Father! FATHER! It’s a therian!”
The man stared at who was apparently his son. He took Nyx’s hair and yanked her head far back to get a proper look at her eyes. The girl in question stared up at him fearfully. Without even hesitating, the man raised his knife with the intent of stabbing her exposed neck, fear flashing across his face. Nyx screamed and thrashed, like an animal caught in a trap. Her compromised position afforded her no leverage to utilize her natural strength. The girl’s voice didn’t sound right to Elmiryn, but it occurred to her later that it was because she was trying to attribute the noise to a human, not a therian. An Ailuran no less.
The next few moments Elmiryn found hard to tell anyone in any certain terms. Fighting, at its most heatest, was always a visceral activity. The pull and shock of limbs, the guttural cries, the smell of sweat and dirt mingled…In truth, much of the details of the fight had to be procured from Nyx later, who recounted it with ashen expression and a voice so meek that it felt entirely appropriate to call her a kitten. When asked why it was she could not recall the exact details of the event, Elmiryn explained in ironic tones that the images of the battle had already faded and the only thing left was an aftertaste of emotions and sensations that tingled her body.
She could recall, for instance, the instantaneous pull of her stomach at the sound of Nyx’s inhuman screech. She remembered the thrill of the risk she took, turning her back on the two armed boys behind her and flinging the steel bolt at the father like it were a throwing knife. Pain–which shot down her arm from the deep cut she had received. She remembered the sound of crunching dirt as one of the brothers behind her started forward, a growl rumbling in his throat.
When she saw Nyx dodge the man’s knife through a timely twist of her body, Elmiryn felt a brief moment of relief warming her otherwise cold skin. The girl, finally in a proper stance, knocked her captor’s hand away and evaded his attempts at grabbing her again. Seeing this, the woman remembered feeling impatient with herself. She had to remind herself that her companion was still in danger.
This fact in the forefront of her mind, with adrenaline pumping hot through her veins and a vicious grin spreading across her long lips, Elmiryn drew her knife. She ducked low, then launched herself backward into the charging boy, stabbing back with both hands.
There was that satisfying dig, the jolt at the hilt of her blade as Elmiryn felt the blade sink into flesh. She wasn’t certain where she had got the boy. Perhaps his hip? His stomach? His thigh? Wherever the place, he screamed. Not accustomed to pain. Not accustomed to battle. Elmiryn rocked against him to shift forward, aware of how the knife wiggled and dug in further from the motion.
“Phillip?” the boy’s brother said in a querulous voice.
The woman drew her sword next, a hiss escaping her throat as she held the weapon in her uninjured hand. Rather than holding it out in the customary fashion, the warrior instead turned the sword the other way, so that the blade rested against her bracer. Crouching, she held out her sword arm like it were a shield, while near her chest she held her knife in her bleeding hand, ready to fence with it. She smiled viciously, her cerulean eyes locking onto the other brother, who took a step back at the sight of her.
Without hesitation he threw down his sword and held up his hands. “Please,” he begged, “Let me just get my brother and leave! I didn’t even want to do this!”
Elmiryn quirked an eyebrow at him. She waited a beat, as if weighing her options. Then she heard Nyx scream again, but this time her voice had gravel and weight to it. The sound was feral, and there was anger in it, one that threatened to spill over if not contained. Without looking at the boy again, the warrior took off at a run towards her friend.
Nyx and the mercenary had managed to migrate from their previous position further up the trail, so that the warrior had to struggle to reach them quickly. Given her recent assessment, she was surprised to discover what she did. Surprised, but not displeased. Looking back with her limited memory, Elmiryn recalled the Ailuran had been doing a fine job of evading the skilled swordplay of the older mercenary. There was the whistle of Nyx’s limbs as she did a backflip over a rock, the sharp twang as the man’s sword came down and missed. His frustrations colored the air with curses, and every successive swipe of his blade only made them worse.
Elmiryn had been ten paces from them when the man managed to land a blow, however insubstantial, over Nyx’s brow. From where she was, the woman couldn’t tell if the cut was deep, but it did begin to bleed profusely. The girl gasped, stumbling back as the blood trickled into her right eye. She squeezed her eyes shut with a groan. The man raised his sword, prepared to deliver a fatal blow.
This particular moment Elmiryn remembered feeling the pull in her stomach again as she readied her knife to throw it. It wasn’t a throwing knife, but she wouldn’t reach the man in time otherwise. She set her sights on the back of the man’s skull, but then something happened.
Nyx opened her eyes, and they had changed. Slits where round pupils should have been narrowed against the glare of morning light, and the rich tawny color had turned a brighter and more vibrant shade.
The girl took a deep breath…and roared. Really roared. Or screeched. Or something along those ferocious lines. The sound rattled the warrior’s head so much that she actually dropped her knife. Hours later, when recalling the noise, it would make her body tingle and the hair on her arms raise, something scintillating but frightening about how such a sound could come from someone so small. The mercenary stopped too, actually taking a step back when the savage noise hit him full force. That was when Nyx lashed out, her voice spitting from the back of her throat, her hand swinging up from low at her side as she put all her body into the motion.
The blow connected, striking the man on the side of his face. The mercenary was hit so hard, not only did his head snap, but his body spun once before crashing gracelessly into the dirt.
Elmiryn blinked, uncertain of what she saw.
This was when the trance of battle had gone, and the warrior was better able to recall the details of the events afterward. Like the panicked look on Nyx’s face in the moments of quiet that fell.
“Oh gods…” she breathed, her hand, still tensed like a claw as blood dripped from the tips of her fingers. She blinked rapidly, eyes reverting back to normal. She held her bloodied hand close to her chest and looked at it. Then her eyes flitted to the man again, her face scrunching up as tears welled in her eyes. “Oh I’ve killed him!” she wailed.
Elmiryn stooped to reclaim her knife and went to the prone mercenary. He was lying face down in the dirt. She laid her sword down momentarily and turned the man over, eyes narrowed and with her knife at the ready in case he pulled something. Nothing. His eyes were rolled into the back of his head, and at the side of his face were four bloody gashes. The warrior put her ear to his nose and mouth. She pressed her fingers to his neck, feeling his pulse. He was breathing and his pulse was a bit fast. She looked back at Nyx. “He’s alive, and he’ll stay that way. The cuts you gave him are deep. They’ll leave scars, but that’s hardly fatal.”
Nyx didn’t seem convinced. She held her hand at the wrist as if afraid to let it go anywhere else. “I could’ve killed him,” she breathed shakily. “I used all the strength I had. I could’ve killed him.” She looked to the ground, and muttered something in her native tongue, then grit her teeth, as if furious. “You loathsome beast…” Nyx hissed lowly.
Elmiryn shook her head, “No, Nyx. An Ailuran at their fittest could kill a human with one well-placed strike. No offense, but you aren’t at your fittest. You didn’t even hit him in the right place. Warriors typically strike their opponents at the temple, to better shatter the skull and destroy the brain. If that doesn’t work, then the damaged temple vein would be enough to kill them later if not treated,” she gripped the man’s chin, and gave it a harsh jerk to the side, eliciting a squeak from her friend, “The other place they would’ve struck would’ve been the jaw. Hit it right and either the jaw is dislocated or broken.”
Elmiryn looked at Nyx and shrugged, her hand resting on the man’s arm. “You don’t have to worry. You hit nothing vital, and your attack was all claw–you went through him like butter, but that doesn’t provide the force necessary to snap the neck.”
Beneath her touch, the woman felt the mercenary stir. It wasn’t quite shifting, more like a jerk. Eyes flashing, the woman turned lighting quick and with a steadying hand on the man’s armored chest, she raised her knife for a fatal strike.
As her hand came down, she felt Nyx’s hand stop her. The girl may not have been at her fittest, but she was still incredibly strong. Despite Elmiryn’s protesting pull, she didn’t let go. Bewildered and somewhat angry, the warrior turned to glare at her. “What are you doing!?”
“What are you!?” Nyx shouted back incredulously.
Elmiryn looked at her as if she were stupid. “I was going to kill him. What does it look like?” Beneath her, the man gasped, shifting under her hand. The woman turned her attention back to him, striking quick, and gripped the man by the throat with her fingers pressed in around the esophagus. She could feel his heartbeat, quick, under her fingertips. He gripped her arm, but he was weak and under her control. Her lips curled into a sneer.
Nyx’s grip tightened painfully. “Stop it.” she hissed.
Elmiryn looked at her again, teeth bared. “Why are you protecting him!? He was trying to kill you!”
“But the fight is over! Let him go back to find his sons!”
“And let this snake try another fast one on us!?”
“What the HELL are you talking about?”
“He just tried to pull some stunt just now. I swear, he has a knife hidden somewhere.” Elmiryn looked at the man, her eyes like blades themselves. “You do, don’t you?” she growled, increasing the pressure on his throat. The man gurgled, his face turning a deep red.
Then Nyx punched her in the ear. The blow hurt, but not much. It was enough, however, to send Elmiryn off the man and onto her side on the ground. Flabbergasted, the warrior held her ear and looked at the Ailuran as if she had gone mad. “You’ve really lost it, haven’t you!?”
Nyx stood over her, shaking her head. Her eyes held in them a bewilderment to match Elmiryn’s, but in them was also a strange combination of fear and resolution. “I can’t let you kill him, Elmiryn,” the words barely seemed to make it out of her mouth. She was shaking so much.
The warrior blinked up at her. Odd how tall the girl seemed all of a sudden.
The Ailuran turned her gaze away from her and looked to the mercenary, who was coughing and blubbering pitifully. Slowly she went to him, and he let out a yelp as she knelt by him. “Sit still, unless you want me to hit you again,” her voice was grave as she said this. Any other time this threat would’ve been laughed away, but the man blanched and sat frozen as he looked fearfully at Nyx.
The girl patted him down, even taking off the man’s armor to check beneath it. Elmiryn realized that she was searching for the hidden weapon she had claimed was there.
“His boots,” she said, pointing.
Her mind pulsed with the absurdity of this–if the man had taken the blade from his boots, he would’ve had to sit up to reach it. She had kept him down the whole time. Still, she felt like she had to argue her point to the ends of the earth. Otherwise…
Nyx gave her a brief look, then took off the man’s boots. It was such a weird scene, this small girl stripping this grown man of his things while he looked at her in terror. It was easy to disconnect from, and Elmiryn did just that. The feelings she had been experiencing slowly faded into nothing, and she watched the events unfold with better clarity, like a person at a play. It was only when Nyx spoke to her that she made a concentrated effort to reconnect to what was happening.
“There’s nothing Elle.” The girl looked at her and Elmiryn stared back.
“Nothing?” she asked.
“Nothing.” Nyx looked at the man. “Go.”
The man fled, haphazardly collecting as much of his things as he could. Elmiryn frowned and looked down at the ground. “But…I was certain…”
“What evidence did you really have? I mean really?” There was an edge to Nyx’s voice.
Elmiryn looked up at her in confusion. The moment the man had stirred was already becoming hard to visually recall. The images in her head were blurred and bland. She touched a hand to her ear again, which was throbbing. “It just…seemed that way,” she muttered.
“It seemed?” Nyx echoed. “You were just working off an assumption then!?”
The woman clenched a fist. “In such situations sometimes that’s all a person has! I couldn’t sit and debate whether or not I was right when–”
“But that’s the problem Elmiryn! It didn’t even SEEM like he was going to kill us! I was watching him, same as you were! How could you read the situation in such a dangerous way? You’re a skilled fighter, can’t you tell the difference!?”
“But he really looked like he was going to do it!” Elmiryn argued stubbornly. She shook her head. “It…it really did look like he was...trying to…”
A pause. Neither of them moved.
Then Elmiryn gave a derisive snort. “Fuck, Nyx. Who on Halward’s Plane strikes a person in the ear like that!?”