When the dark came over them, whole and impenetrable, Hakeem ceased moving. When he looked back behind him, he saw no light. In their home world, this would be impossible—they hadn’t traveled far from the edge of the forest. But this was the Other Place, and it was a half-world, fraught with magic. This was a supernatural darkness.
He opened his mouth to mention this when—
“I can’t see!” That was Nyx. Her voice was tight with sudden panic. She sounded far away.
“Nyx?” Elmiryn. She was behind him.
“Get off my foot, idiot!” Quincy. She was to his right. Perhaps a few steps.
“Stay calm,” he said, reaching toward his wife. His hand swiped through air.
“Elle!?” Nyx again. Her voice traveled and he heard brush being disturbed. “Elle, where’d you—ah!” There was a thud.
“Cajeck!” Kali, now. “Stop stumbling around like that!”
“Nyx, you’re going the wrong way!” Elmiryn called. Now she was on Hakeem’s immediate left.
“In case you haven’t noticed, Kali, we can’t see anything. Historically this has never been a good thing!” Nyx snapped.
“Elmiryn, gods damn it, get off my foot!” Quincy snarled.
The warrior’s response was tight with laughter. “Wizard, I’m not even touching you!”
“ELMIRYN!!” It was Nyx again. Hakeem heard sharp snapping sounds, like threads breaking.
“Nyx!? Nyx!” Hakeem felt Elmiryn shove past him.
The Fanaean covered his face with both his hands, a groan coming up his throat. “Everyone just calm down…”
A scuffle. It sounded like snapping wood. Hakeem couldn’t pinpoint the source.
“Nyx? Where the hell—?”
“R-Right here, Elle.” Nyx’s voice was small. “I just…it was moss. Just…uh…moss.”
Kali’s voice was a disgruntled grind. “A Champion of Survival, and she still can’t stand the feel of hanging vegetation.”
“It was scary vegetation! Okay!?”
“Kitten…” Elmiryn’s relief was apparent even amidst layers of exasperation.
Hakeem spoke loudly. “If you women are finished being silly—”
“Hey, midget.” The warrior’s voice steeled. “I don’t care how little you are, I will kick you in the cod piece.”
He cleared his throat, clasping his hands in front of him. “Noted. I just wanted to let you all know that I recognize what’s happening.”
“And what is happening exactly?” Kali asked.
“We’re deep inside a magical edge effect.”
“Are you familiar with the legend of the blackwood?”
“I am.” That was Elmiryn. Her voice had turned somber. “It was the forest of devils.”
Hakeem smiled in the dark. “Yes. The forest was famous for its ability to separate the color spectrum.”
“Aesutan used it to clothe himself in the ways of the universe.” Elmiryn’s voice was virtually a whisper now.
Hakeem frowned at this as he resumed. Was that a note of realization in her voice? “Yes…Meaning color can be manually manipulated.”
“Someone made a barrier of the color black!” Nyx exclaimed.
“Actually, black is the absence of color, and as color simply makes up the spectrum of light then it’s absence means—”
“We can’t see,” the Ailuran finished. “Fascinating! And…troublesome.”
“Very good, ikati. You’re correct. We should–” Hakeem broke off as his body tensed. Something just occurred to him.
“Hakeem? Is something the matter?”
The Fanaean waved his hands through the dark, trying to feel his way. “Mweze? Are you there? Mweze?”
“Oh. Oh no! That’s right, Quincy hasn’t said anything for nearly a minute,” Nyx murmured.
“What’s the problem?” Elmiryn asked. “She does that all the time!”
“Yes, but she does that with a level of menace that usually tells of a desire to hit you. That feeling’s noticeably absent.”
“When you say ‘you’—”
“I’m referring to you, Elmiryn.”
“I…you know, for once I have nothing to say to that.”
Hakeem’s palms grew sweaty as he cupped his hands around his mouth. “Quincy! Quincy!! Bwa-Mweze zi gua-quli!”
“We have to find her!” He bit out.
“Hey, hey, little man! Now who’s acting up?”
“No, you don’t understand—”
“What? You going to tell me Quincy is afraid of the dark?”
“You don’t understand! Quincy isn’t who she used to be!”
Nyx tried to be placating. “Hakeem, this darkness is impenetrable. Anyone could get lost here.”
“No, there’s something out here.”
“MWEZE!! BWA-MWEZE JA NGOLE!!”
“Shut up with your monkey gibberish, for fuck’s sake,” Elmiryn snapped.
Nyx’s voice was dry. “Elle, somehow I doubt that’s—“
Not long after Hakeem cried out did something curl around his feet and pull. With a yell, the man-boy was thrown to his feet, and when he hit the ground, his breath fled from him. Unable to talk, he reached out, his fingers clawing for something to hold onto, but they only raked through soft soil and dead leaves.
He didn’t get a chance to answer. With a force of strength that made him feel as though his leg were being yanked from its socket, Hakeem was dragged away, along the uneven forest floor. Barely any noise was made save that soft rustle of leaves parting around his body like waves. Elmiryn and Nyx would assume he had just rushed off to look for Quincy unless he could say otherwise. And he tried…
Something is stopping me! He thought with alarm.
He grit his teeth and shielded his head as best he could, the pain of being dragged reminding him of the time he’d been tortured by desert raiders. They had tried dragging him to death by camel, but the man had made use of a magical charm that lessened the damage he suffered until Quincy could intervene.
Quincy…I’m a fool! Why am I struggling? This thing will lead me right to her!
Hakeem relaxed his body. A less rigid form would suffer less damage. Keeping his breathing fast and shallow, the wizard closed his eyes and waited for the ride to be over. When he felt himself come to a sudden halt, he dared to open his eyes.
Light. It was weak–so weak that it had barely pierced his eyelids–but it was more than enough after the sort of pitch black world he’d been in. The light was a warm, a pensive sort of gold, and he could see the way the trees breathed it in like it were air.
In and out. In and out.
When he adjusted to the soft glow, Hakeem could make out a tall, hunched figure, stoking what appeared to be fire in a lamp. The being wore only a brown skirt, and had long hair with a beard. Something was off about this, and the man-boy sat up slowly, so as not to attract attention to himself. Then his eyes widened.
A leshy…a being that protects the trees and animals!
“Spirit…” He said as he cautiously stood to his feet. “Whatever wrong we have brought upon your home, please know that we did not mean it. We are lost and simply wish to be on our way.” Hakeem swallowed. “I would be most appreciative if you released my wife.”
“Your wife crushed a budding daisy. The sweet child had only just known the grace of the suns when that fat human squashed it.” The leshy turned, his hair and beard swaying so that they better caught the light. Grass. Long grass, just as Hakeem had thought.
The nature spirit plucked up the lamp off the ground and labored toward Hakeem, his weight shifting onto a wooden cane with each step. Even hunched over, he was easily teen feet tall.
“Spirit, you are tired…” Hakeem said with a frown. “Does it have to do with this darkness around us?”
The leshy laughed as he neared, the sound like a drum. “This is the blackwood. Light is the peculiarity here, man child.”
“You see the way of things,” Hakeem said as he peered up.
The leshy had a long, teardrop-shaped face, with his chin ending in a point and his forehead widening to allow room for his ample brow. His ears were large and pointed, with the lobes hanging long and low. With a hooked nose, bushy eyebrows, and fiery-green eyes, the leshy did not look pleased. Even his cheeks, which were supposed to be blue according to legend, were tinting purple instead.
“I see intruders who have caused a mess,” the leshy growled.
“You…are the keeper of these woods?” Hakeem breathed, his eyes narrowing. “I thought this place was said to be a place of devils?”
As soon as the words left his mouth, the wizard knew he’d spoken ill. The leshy roared, and with a short swipe of his cane, he struck Hakeem along the face with it. The man-boy hit the ground, his head split with the sharp agony of the blow.
“Devils!?” the leshy roared, cane raised for another blow. “Does Bronislav the Peaceable sound like the name of a devil to you boy!?”
“No!” Hakeem exclaimed, holding up his hands. He struggled to focus on Bronislav’s faint form. “I was only…confused! I was raised on stories that seem to be untrue. I see that now.”
The rage from the leshy’s face drained. If possible, he hunched even more, his head hanging as he lowered his cane. “It is true. My forest has become the haven for creatures of darkness ever since Nathric’s rise.”
Hakeem rubbed at his face, working his jaw. When he was certain it wasn’t too damaged, he returned to his feet, dusting his legs. Peering up at Bronislav, he said, “But Nathric fell hundreds of years ago…?”
“But his followers did not,” the leshy sighed. He glared upward with contempt. “The God King saw no reason to have Aesutan aid his other subjects of Harmony. Damned rot, that was.”
Hakeem thought a moment. “So…if my companions and I can cure your forest of its infestation, you will free my wife?”
The leshy frowned at him, his grass eyebrows knitting.
“Who said I was in possession of your wife, man child?”
“How can that be?” The wizard’s hands clenched as his chest grew tight. “She was taken in the dark! She was–”
His head snapped around at the voice that came from the dark behind them. A moment later, he saw a slim figure enter the sphere of light. The leshy raised his lamp to illuminate the stranger, and Hakeem let out a cheer.
“Mweze, you’re all right!”
Quincy was covered in mud and looking sour but was otherwise fine. She wiped muck off her shoulder and gave her husband a strange look.
“Of course I am! Why do you keep assuming I’m in trouble lately?”
Hakeem smiled sheepishly, his hand rubbing his bald head. “Perhaps because you keep vanishing, then reappearing covered in muck?”
His wife squinted her eyes at him, her mouth open.
“I don’t like what you’re implying…” she said slowly. When she continued, her tone was snappish. “It was a forest imp, all right? He was standing on my foot because the little bastard was trying to reach my pouch! He almost made off with it before I zapped him…” She grumbled, gripping her magic pouch possessively.
“And the mud?”
Quincy’s face flared. “It’s dark out here, Taika. Don’t you start!”
“This is your wife, man child?” Bronislav asked, pointing a chipped nail.
Hakeem nodded absently. “Yes, she’s–” he did a double-take, “No, wait!”
With one great swipe, the leshy grabbed Quincy around the waist, then hefted her over his shoulder as though she weighed no more than a feather. The woman tried to defend herself, but her reaction came late, with her lightning staff flashing in her hands only after the spirit guardian had lain hands on her. Shouting out curses, she tried to strike the leshy in the back with her weapon, ungainly as it were in that position, but the spirit’s grassy hair came to life, and as though she were a child with a toy, it took the staff and held it out of her reach.
Quincy screamed with rage. “GIVE THAT BACK! Damn you, ko galani chudopek! I should’ve killed you when I had the chance!”
“Mweze, quiet!” Hakeem snapped, his face pale. He clasped his hands before him, then gave a bow. “Bronislav, please! Do not harm my wife. She did not mean to harm your flowers!”
“But she has!” Bronislav thundered. “I will flay her skin and use her to liven the soil.”
“You wish to strengthen your forest, do you not?” Hakeem said quickly, raising his head. His voice rose. “Then do not attack the unintended symptoms of the problem. Attack the problem itself!”
The wizard straightened, pointing off into the forest. “There is a balance that keeps all nature within Harmony! But a parasite has descended upon your home, sundering whatever peace you had left since Nathric’s downfall!”
Hakeem slammed his fist into his chest three times, shouting. “Bronislav, lay your trust in me, and this threat shall be removed! But my wife cannot be harmed, you must swear it!”
The leshy scowled down at Hakeem, almost looking annoyed by his offer. He looked at his lamp, with its strange fire-less glow, then back at the wizard. His mouth opened to speak–
There was a flash of light, and without warning, the clearing was intensely illuminated.
A twig cracked. Hakeem and the leshy turned in the direction of the sound to see Elmiryn and Nyx standing before them.
Nyx appeared nonplussed, even as she retracted her foot from the black twig she had crushed. Her tawny eyes, still flickering between states, alternated between Hakeem, Bronislav, and Quincy. Standing near her was Elmiryn, and she did not look right.
Striped all along the woman’s skin were…colors.
Candy pinks and bruised purples, sunny oranges and hazardous greens.
As if the giant forest spirit was not even there, the warrior flexed her arms and flashed an arrogant smile.
“I am brilliant!” She announced. She fanned out her hand and look at it at arms length. It was the only part of her body in a solid color–a bloody red. “I could feel traces of light deeper into the trees and ripped them out! Now I look just like my ancestor! Isn’t this fantastic?”
Hakeem closed his eyes and hung his head as he heard Bronislav begin to sputter with rage.
Why…why do I even bother?
The ground trembled, the soft soil churning as black vines surfaced. They seemed to strain around a large chunk of earth, raising it, before they succeeded in hurling it through the air. Elmiryn pressed the air and particles before her into an immovable force shield as she pressed Nyx behind her. It wasn’t that she had been unaware of the big spirit or the fact that Quincy was being held captive by it.
It was that she wanted the attention on her.
When the earth struck in an eruption of dirt and rock, the woman’s feet slid along the ground, and she had a sudden epiphany.
“Uh. This isn’t the arktan thing all over again, is it?” She mused with grit teeth. Her shield had lost integrity and she was trying to restore it.
“I think so, Elle!” Nyx breathed behind her.
Black vines sprang forth all around them, thick and tangled and creaking. Elmiryn’s eyes widened as she pulled out her sword. The shield fell away as her concentration on it vanished. Its protection wouldn’t help against a foe that could attack from all sides, and she wasn’t sure she could muster up the energy to maintain something more encompassing.
The kitten’s right! This thing isn’t a normal spirit. It has some sort of power over the forest, just like–
But the warrior’s thoughts were cut short when a vine grabbed her leg and pulled. With a nasty flop, she was thrown to the ground, then hoisted up into the air upside down. Elmiryn’s eyes widened when she saw Nyx fall, then vanish under a swarm of the black plants.
With a sharp roar, the warrior swung her sword, slicing the vine holding her captive. She hit the ground in a painful heap, her body just turning in the air in time to keep from breaking her neck. Feeling old wounds protest, Elmiryn raised herself to all fours, her eyes swerving to where she saw Nyx last.
The girl was gone.
Squinting, the warrior was about to call out for her when something crashing into the side of her stomach and sent her skidding along the ground. Vines sprang forth, holding her in place. The woman struggled to get a grip on her breathing. Pain wracked throughout her as she managed to look up.
The large spirit glared down at her, Quincy still on his shoulder, his other arm raising a long wooden cane.
His green eyes held fury as he bared long teeth at her.
“That I could repay the insult brought upon my home so long ago…I see now that this is providence!” the spirit roared. “Halward, I, Bronislav the Peaceable, thank thee for this offering, and know that I take it with great pleasure!”
The spirit swung his staff down…
Elmiryn could feel the heavy tip of the cane brush by her hair, where if it had found its mark she was certain it would have crushed her skull. The spirit was not a little surprised at this, but he did not dwell on the why of it as he brought his cane up for another swing. Down it came, whistling with all the force he put behind the blow–
Only to miss yet again.
Bronislav glared at his cane. “What trickery–!?”
Then without warning, he jerked to the side and fell. Elmiryn stared. The spirit hadn’t just tipped over…something had swiped his legs out from under him, whilst something invisible struck him in the upper body. Quincy let out a surprised squawk as she hit the ground just behind the spirit.
Her eyes flickered up to see Hakeem his wife up with a displeased look on his face.
“Well?” He said, glaring at her. “Do you need us to free you as well?”
Elmiryn didn’t need telling twice. With the spirit incapacitated, his black vines hung lifeless and still. She had to get the upper hand. With some difficulty, the woman managed to free herself just as Bronislav began to stir.
Using her fae power, the warrior brought down another wall of air and dust, but this time she pressed it down as hard as she could.
“How DARE you!” Bronislav raged.
Elmiryn grit her teeth, struggling to keep the magical field intact. Cracks grew along the threads of magic, her weave straining under the pressure.
Then the woman just about had it, and kicked the spirit in the head as hard as she could.
Bronislav’s head snapped to the side, and when he shook his eyes straight, it was to see Elmiryn’s sword pointed at his face.
“I am no god’s offering,” She snarled. “I’ve killed plenty with this sword. But I think you’ll be a first!”
The woman jerked to see Nyx pulling herself out of the ground as though she had just jumped down into a hole. But all that was there beneath her when the girl had finished was her shadow.
She tripped the spirit in that shadow place! Elmiryn realized. She must’ve signaled Hakeem somehow!
Nyx’s face flickered with feline features, but no matter what the look of determination was the same.
“You can’t kill him!” she cried out.
The warrior raised an eyebrow at her. “Why not? He would’ve killed us!”
“He wouldn’t have, if you had treated his home with some modicum of respect!” Hakeem snapped. He gestured at her. “How did you take the light as you did? You realize that the blackwood relies on light, no matter how scant, to survive, don’t you!? That is why it is a black forest! The trees devour all the light!”
Quincy pointed at Bronislav, “Hakeem was just about to make a peaceful deal with this being before you showed up in all your huff and puff!”
Elmiryn scowled. “Huff and puff? He attacked me first! All I did was draw his attention!”
“Ha!” Everyone turned to look down at the captive spirit. His face was twisted with contempt. “Just like your clan, to abuse the powers given to you!”
“You mean humans?” Elmiryn asked with squinted eyes.
“Your family,” Bronislav spat. “Just like Aesutan before you, so do you come and bring destruction. Well I demand an end, do you hear!?” The spirit’s face became lined and weary as he turned his head. “I am tired of this universe’s neglect.”
Elmiryn’s sword lowered, but she kept the force field up, in case Bronislav tried to spring at them.
“Aesutan hurt you?”
“He abandoned him,” Hakeem said quietly. “When Nathric fell, the devils fled into the blackwood to escape the return of light. Its been a safe haven for evil spirits ever since.”
“But the legends say this place was their home to begin with!” Elmiryn said, her eyes widening.
Hakeem shook his head. “No, Elmiryn. The legends spoke false. Look at this creature. Have you never heard of his kind? He is a leshy, a high being–”
“A spirit guardian,” The warrior breathed. She sheathed her sword, her brow wrinkled as she looked Bronislav up and down. “His control over the environment reminded me of Nadi…but…he’s weaker! We shouldn’t have won so easily!”
“My strength is devoured by vermin like you,” Bronislav intoned, his peculiar eyes fixing on her sideways. “If I were half what I once was, then you would have been slain! Do not doubt this!”
“I don’t…” Elmiryn muttered, walking away. Her head hung low and her hands found her hips.
Stopping near the tree line, she heard Nyx follow and looked back. The girl was wringing her hands. Her form was less shifty than it was before–perhaps her and her Twin were getting a grip on their body.
“You’re upset about what they said…about Aesutan,” Nyx said quietly so the others couldn’t hear.
The Ailuran stepped in close, hugging the woman’s arm. Elmiryn’s tension eased at the feel of the girl’s bare skin on hers, her breasts soft and inviting. But even as she felt the stirrings of arousal, these things could not compete with her distress.
“He was my hero, Nyx,” Elmiryn murmured, fingering the jewel on her sword’s pommel. “But I know what the others are saying is true. Aesutan must have known that Bronislav needed his help, but he just took what he needed and left!”
“M-Maybe it wasn’t in his power to–”
“No!” Elmiryn bit out, her tension returning. “It was always in his power! He just took the easy way out and left a big fucking mess for me to find later!” She kicked at the dirt. “Argh! Why does my family always do this!?”
“If that’s the case, Elle…then…” Nyx’s eyes brightened and she gave a little jump.
Elmiryn’s eyes returned to her companion’s breasts, her desire suddenly surging.
The Ailuran’s voice only just managed to reach her. “Sweet Aelurus! Elmiryn, this is wonderful! Don’t you see? This is a chance for you to restore your family’s honor! You can make amends by restoring Harmony!”
“I see thou have come a long way since last we parted, to so eagerly fill your station,” a new voice hissed.
Nyx’s eyes widened and her head snapped to look into the trees. Elmiryn, confused at the new voice, looked as well. Her face reddened.
“You!” She bit out.