Elmiryn stood staring into the cave, her body seized by emotions too numerous to name.
“And you’re sure?” she whispered.
“Don’t be stupid,” Kali snapped. “Of course I’m not sure.”
“Given the intense atmosphere of malice here, I’m guessing we’re at the right spot,” Quincy whispered next.
“Oh come, come,” Gudahi murmured. “Maybe the air just woke up in a bad mood.”
“You’re still assuming the air is alive enough to wake up. All I can smell is death…” Hakeem muttered.
Quincy covered her nose and mouth with her hand. “This could also simply be the passing attack of the beast’s morning gas!”
Sanuye wrinkled her nose. “I’m confused. The air does not do these things!”
Gudahi bit his lower lip and gave three slow deliberate pats to her shoulder.
Kali shook her head, her ears flapping as she let out a low growl. “Arr! Are we pressing forward or not?”
“Forward,” Elmiryn said firmly, but her stomach was boxing with her insides, and her throat was constricting to the point that she was certain she’d either toss up her meager breakfast or scream for the want of drink. Her hands were shaking terribly. They had followed Kali’s guidance through the forest, watching with grimness as the trees became darker and the wildlife seemed to fade. Quincy dug into her with an, “I told you so,” but Elmiryn only snarled at her like an animal, because honestly, the tonic the wizard gave her barely gave any release from her withdrawals as it was. What did it matter?
Before them was a short cliff face, the gnarled roots of the trees at the cliff’s lip tangling down toward them like thick and earthly fingers. The stone and soil was dark and tinged crimson, the grass shrinking from the mouth of the cave that sat looming at the base of the landmark. There were no bones, no leavings of food or scat here to tell them they had found what they were looking for. There was just the aura of foreboding and the oddly electric feel of something unnatural in the air.
Elmiryn swallowed and clenched her quivering hands. She took one step, then another, and another…and soon she was marching, with great determination, the fear enveloping her and somehow inciting her anger—because she was Elmiryn Manard, damn it, and she wasn’t supposed to be afraid of anything.
The others followed quietly behind. She heard them draw their weapons, but she did not pull out her sword. They were here to find Nyx, and no matter what they found, she was not going to approach her friend hostile.
The darkness swallowed them. Soon even the feeble unnatural lighting of the Other Place was beyond their reach.
“Wait a moment!” Quincy called, and everyone stopped. Elmiryn heard rustling, and a moment later, she heard something strike—like a match. There was a hiss like something was lit, but no light came. She could hear the wizard curse, and again the sounds came, but still no light. Quincy tried and tried, but after almost a full minute passed, Hakeem quietly spoke.
“Mweze, I do not think this darkness is natural.”
And she replied with resignation, “Taika, I think you’re right.”
Elmiryn had already started walking on ahead. Their voices grew smaller in her ears, but as far as she was concerned, their importance was little. The only thing that mattered to her was finding Nyx again, and she couldn’t take the separation anymore. The ground beneath her was level–smooth. It were as if the darkness wanted her to go forward, and she could feel her body steadily move into a quicker gait, like something were pulling at her.
Something winked in her eyes. A light. Fire.
Elmiryn started to run, her heart hammering in her chest. She couldn’t hear the others now. They were lost, like she was lost, like Nyx was lost. But soon that would be corrected. Soon, soon, soon…
The fire brightened, then flared, and with a roar it engulfed her…
“They’re here,” Syria said, a note of satisfaction to her voice. Lethia stared down at her plate of roasted meat and rice with gloom.
They were seated at the dinner table, a long and lonely stretch of dark wood that was decorated with a tasseled mauve runner and two silver candelabras to bring more natural light to their unnatural home. Syria sat at the head of the table, though she had no plate, only a silver goblet of some mysterious amber liquid that she refused to explain. Lethia sat adjacent to her on the right, a fork loosely held in her right hand.
“What will happen when they find her?” She whispered.
“She will kill them,” Syria said simply. “And if she does not kill them, she will damage their spirits enough for us to kill them.”
“Why do they have to die?” Lethia said, her voice growing hoarse. “Why must they suffer?”
She could feel her mistress’s unnatural gaze fix on her, and the teenager shrank, setting her fork down onto the table.
“Because, Lethia,” the woman said quietly. “They are not where they ought to be.”
“And where should they be, if not for us?”
“Us? And what did we do to lead to their misfortunes?”
Lethia balled her dress in her hands. “We brought them here. They never wanted to come.”
“They never wanted us to come either, darling.”
“And maybe they were right!” Lethia shouted shrilly. Her voice echoed far and long in the castle keep, scoring in further the audacity of her outburst. The girl squeezed her eyes shut, hot tears leaking down her face, but then she raised her head. Though her body trembled and her head began to ache, she forced herself to look into Syria’s face. The enchantress was, as always, obscured by her curtain of hair and some inexplicable magic. Yet through the part of the curtain, the teenager saw a single eye, and she held it, her headache turning to outright pain. “All these months you have tried to show me how evil the mortal world is! How people are lost and misguided! How we are but wretches under the tyranny of the gods! But these people—my friends—they have fought tirelessly for one single goal! EACH OTHER! Whatever agendas they may have had in the beginning have been washed in light of their bonds, and I know it is true even if they don’t, because when I look into each of their faces, I can see there is still light there! And what have you done? Killed, and murdered, and manipulated everything so that it came to the satisfaction of some unfathomable monster that doesn’t belong in our world! Your soul is empty! Your heart is black!”
Lethia shook her head, trembling fiercely now, her face red and her eyes bulging, a fever rushing through her body the longer she held Syria’s gaze. But she refused to look away. She was tired. She was done. “Was the woman who raised me just a lie? What happened to that kindness and wisdom I once knew? I looked up to you. You were my world, and I would’ve died for you…but now I see that it was never really my decision. You isolated me…Syria. You hid me from the world and controlled me for your sick schemes, and now my hands are awash with your blood debts! There’s only ONE way I know I can atone for any of this!”
Syria set down her drink and sat forward slowly, her hands gripping the armrests of her high back chair with a white-knuckled grip. Suddenly Lethia’s vision went black, and all she could see was her own abstract Fear, a twisted and maniacal thing, that constricted about her body like a snake and tightened until she found it hard to breathe. Syria’s voice came to her, echoing as though she were some omnipotent god.
“My Lethia…my sweet, sweet Lethia…I tried. I did. But now I shall spare you what my master would do a thousandfold. It is the only mercy I can spare, and for all my love, it is not enough…”
Lethia gagged, struggling in the dark space as the spiny Fear tightened and tightened. The teenager’s eyes rolled. She tried to breathe in, but could not. Distantly, she recognized that this was all an illusion. Syria was making her mind believe in a lie. But the conscious mind was inferior to the subconscious mind, for that was the part of a person that had a direct link to the animus, and so her awareness came to nothing when prefaced by her reptilian beliefs.
Her eyes rolled. She could feel herself falling away…death coming to her like sleep did a young child.
She heard barking through the ether.
Dazed, Lethia forced her eyes to blink open. She saw something large and white bounding toward her. At first she thought it were a monster. Then she thought it was some sort of albino bear. And then…
Her eyes widened.
The dog came close enough that his furry face came into focus, and that was when Lethia noticed a dark mottled lizard atop his head. She blinked drunkenly at it, her will to stay awake just a while longer losing out to her lack of oxygen.
Then Lethia wondered if this were just another illusion, for the lizard spoke and said in a hissing voice, “Argos, thou wimpled sheep-biting scut! Forget thy simpering and give the girl what she needs!”
Argos whined and pressed his face against Lethia’s just as she started to pass out. As her thoughts and the illusions fell away, something light and warm and invigorating settled into her chest. It pulsed once before exploding.
Lethia’s eyes snapped open as she gasped for air, like a fish starved. She could see the dining room again—the colored walls, the lonely table, the high ceiling.
More importantly, she could see Syria, who had half-risen from her seat, her face drawn in shock.
The girl’s eyes blinked.
Wait…her face? Oh my gods! I can see her face!
Syria looked much as she had before this nightmare had started, except for a few key details. Her eyes were pitch black, even the scleras, and spidering about them were dark and wicked veins that vanished into her hairline. Two wooden horns sprouted from either side of her forehead, their branches bearing green tear-dropped leaves like they were saplings just beginning to grow. Small fangs could be seen from the woman’s open mouth as she stared in shock at the girl who should have died under her spell.
“How…” she whispered.
Lethia touched her head, then her heart, and felt her soul lift. “That power…that power you used in me to do those rituals in Albias…the one you tried to hide from me all my life…” The girl looked at her mistress with a new fire in her eyes. “It has come back!”
Elmiryn tried to control her breathing, her heart still doing a marathon in her chest. Slowly, she lowered her arms from around her head and looked around her. She was out of the darkness, out of the cave, and around her was much like the other cave entrance had been…only all those missing signs of habitation were present here. Blood stained the soil, bones large and small strewn about. The woman heard someone take a step behind her and slowly turned around.
“Nyx,” she whispered.
It was the Ailuran. There was no doubt in Elmiryn’s mind. But she was different. This wasn’t entirely unexpected for the warrior. From what Kali had explained, if Nyx had survived at all, it was to become one with the beast. Yet nothing could prepare her for the horrible sight before her. The one she cared for the most looked like a demon—her chest open to bare some impossible void, her body furry and clawed, her eyes holding the deepest contempt, her lips and chin stained with blood.
“What took you so long?” Nyx asked quietly, her pawed feet careful stepping over the bones on the ground as she began to circle around.
Elmiryn followed her with her eyes, her hands clenching and unclenching. “I tried. I tried really hard, Nyx, you have no idea—”
“I might have some,” the Ailuran interjected. Her voice did not rise, did not seem harsher, or more animal-like. She sounded like Nyx. But something was off. Her voice…was chillingly incongruent with her form.
The warrior shook her head. “I’m sorry I let myself get in the way of…us. If I hadn’t have–”
Nyx interjected again. “Us?” she chuckled softly. “What do you mean, ‘us’?”
Elmiryn blinked and stared at her, her body now turning on the spot to keep Nyx in front of her. “Nyx, you’re all that matters to me. You have to believe that.”
“Is that why you can’t help but go chasing after death and glory like a bitch in heat?”
The woman blinked at how much that cut into her. “Aside from you, it’s all that I have. You know that. You understand that, I know you do!”
“What I understand, Elle,” Nyx spat, pausing in her circling. “Is that you are a self-absorbed detestation who would still be suckling at her mother’s teat if only her father hadn’t shoved his dick into her fate.”
Elmiryn’s eyes fluttered. “Wha-What?”
Nyx approached her slowly, and the warrior backed away, her eyes squinting in disgust as she saw the Ailuran’s ribs move back and forth like the teeth of a beast. The girl quickened her step to close the gap, making the woman flinch, but she only ran her clawed fingers down Elmiryn’s cheek and whispered, “Don’t act is if you don’t understand my Words. I know you do. You eat them up like a fat boy does candy. I have so many Words for you, Elmiryn. Do you want to hear?”
Elmiryn’s face lengthened in despair. “No…”
Nyx smiled emptily, her cat eyes turning wide. “Here’s a few descriptors for you. First word: Liar.”
“Nyx, this isn’t you.”
“Nyx, stop it.”
“STOP IT!” Elmiryn shoved the Ailuran away from her, her gaze wild. “This isn’t you, Nyx! This anger, this hatred! It doesn’t mean anything! You can’t even call it darkness because there is no light left inside of you to contrast it!”
Nyx hissed and slashed at the warrior with her claws. The woman dodged it, but the Ailuran didn’t press her attack. She only crouched low to the ground and growled out, “You’re right. As I am now, I am not darkness, I am me! This is the truth, Elmiryn! LOOK at me! This is what you and your fucking murderous kingdom created! All the years I spent fighting to keep my family together, only to lose it all for my hatred of YOU! Fiammans! Warriors! Soldiers! You may as well have killed Thaddeus. You may as well have killed Atalo and my mother! All the shit between us is a lie! THIS is real. This. Look at me, Elle, and see what you’re death and glory have created!”
Elmiryn felt like she was going to cry again, but she fought against it. Now was not the time for silly emotions. She was better than that. Trained. She knew better than to let her head get muddled with distractions. So when Nyx charged her, claws slashing, she was ready. She dodged and ducked. Blocked and parried. But she did not attack. She couldn’t bring herself to. This wasn’t like their sparring sessions all those weeks ago. This was life or death, and Elmiryn would rather die than raise a hand against her friend…
In the end, the others made it so that she didn’t have to.
A spear whistled and caught Nyx in the shoulder. The girl screamed, gripping the shaft and falling to a knee. It had gone completely through. Elmiryn’s head snapped around to see Quincy, Hakeem, Kali, Gudahi, and Sanuye emerge from the darkness of the cave. Gudahi lacked a spear, his face hard as he beheld Nyx.
“Don’t!” Elmiryn shouted at them.
Sanuye and Gudahi didn’t listen. They charged forward, Sanuye bringing her weapon to bare, Gudahi raising his fists to strike. Elmiryn ran to intercept them, but she was too slow. Nyx broke off the spear from her shoulder with one powerful wrench, her bestial scream alien and terrifying. As the Lycans neared, she parried Sanuye’s spear so that the tip jammed into the dirt before Gudahi’s feet, making the man trip.
Then, in one sure strike, Nyx stabbed Sanuye in her exposed neck with the broken spear shaft. The Lycan’s face went slack and blood gurgled from her mouth. But the Ailuran wasn’t done. She kept pushing forward, making the taller woman stumble back until she tripped on a skull and crashed to the ground. There Nyx ground the shaft in further, her face twisted with monstrous rage. Sanuye struggled feebly beneath her. Then her arms went limp.
Elmiryn, Quincy, and Hakeem, who had each been moving to intervene, slowed their steps, shock evident on their faces. The only one who didn’t stop moving was Kali. Her dark furry face seemed enlivened by something–some sort of awareness that spurred her forward just as Nyx pulled the broken shaft from the Lycan’s neck, then pulled the spear tip from her back. They collided and rolled. Both shrieked and roared in anger and pain. Elmiryn watched in horror and fascination as Kali tore at Nyx’s throat, whilst Nyx’s rib cage seemed to bite into the feline on top of her, her claws raking down the animal’s back.
Simultaneously, as this all happened, Gudahi righted himself from his frantic stumbling, and he turned just in time to see Sanuye’s arms flop to the dirt. A number of emotions flashed across his face. Shock, disbelief, grief…
“Kuhkle! Ey-hote, KUHKLE!” he shouted in Lycan. He charged the two fighting personas, and this time Elmiryn did not hesitate. She tackled him, bringing him up into the air briefly before slamming him down onto a pile of small animal bones.
“Gudahi, Gudahi! NO!” she shouted. But he was in a rage. Perhaps all he could see now was his dead alpha and younger brother, the warriors he had called brothers and sisters left strewn about in bloody pieces around the forest he had called home. Perhaps he had lost his mind.
It didn’t matter. Elmiryn knew somehow, that this was between Kali and Nyx, and she couldn’t allow him to interfere. She couldn’t interfere. It was both crushing and uplifting to know that for once, it was not about what she had to do. This wasn’t about her or her feelings. It was about Nyx. It was all about Nyx.
Sadly, Gudahi didn’t seem to see that.
With his prodigious therian strength, he flipped Elmiryn over him bodily with one foot, then rolled over onto his feet. The warrior scrambled to raise herself when she saw small black arms wrap around Gudahi’s neck. Hakeem appeared over the man’s shoulder, and he shouted into his ear. “My friend! I know you suffer, but you must not do this!”
Gudahi only screamed in response and pried the wizard’s hands from his throat. With one might swing, he threw Hakeem at Elmiryn and the two tumbled back to the ground, winded.
“Something’s happening!” the woman heard Quincy shout.
She raised her head and managed to see beyond Gudahi’s striding legs enough to see the grotesque event that the wizard was referring to. Kali was being…devoured, by Nyx. But not through her mouth. Through her gaping chest. The large feline howled as her body bowed and snapped to fit in through the void that was in Nyx’s body. The girl, in turn, was stiff, her back arched and her mouth open as her eyes rolled up into her head, veins bulging from her neck.
They’re becoming one again… Elmiryn thought.
Her eyes widened as she fought to disentangle herself from Hakeem.
Shit, and Gudahi’s about to ruin it all!