“What are we going to do?”
“…And what would you propose to do? Sit and have a talk about how she’s NOT a two-legged creature and should quit behaving as such?” Elmiryn looked my way. “Nyx, get on all fours. Sedwick doesn’t appreciate your silly human antics.”
I scooted to the edge of my seat, ready to follow her orders when she reached over quick to pat my hand. She had bit down on her lip so hard the skin turned white. “I was being sarcastic, kitten.”
I frowned at her bemusedly and sat back. I was NOT a kitten. I had been alive for over two-hundred and forty-seven moons. I would have had a mate by now if it hadn’t been for…
But then it occurred to me that Elmiryn was perhaps not being serious again.
I gazed, glassy-eyed, across the round table where Sedwick and Baldwin had joined us, mind mulling over the idea of saying things one did not mean. I got the concept–had even found myself doing it without thinking, as if some aftertaste of my other persona still clung to the newfound sapien faculties that had been dropped into my paws…er, hands (wait, i’m supposed to say ‘lap’ right?)
Belabored thoughts, lined with mead, tittered here and there. Meanwhile, the discussion between Sedwick and Elmiryn grew more heated.
I felt spent. My outburst had rippled through me–and I found it so confusing. There had been an odd pull at the back of my head, and my thoughts had turned fuzzy and dim. Then all at once, things were clear for me again. (clear in what sense? i feel lanky and weak, with ears that don’t hear, and a nose that can hardly smell.) Now I sat, wishing I could go to sleep, wondering why I didn’t get a better chair, and cursing the stench of this place and these people.
Across from me, Baldwin stared, like he were waiting for me to lunge across the table and chomp off his head. I peered at him with heavy lids, and couldn’t help but giggle at the idea. (he probably wouldn’t even taste good)
This seemed to set the boy on edge, and I could see his hand twitch as if he wanted to reach for his sword again, but a look from Elmiryn kept him still.
Sedwick sucked loudly at his teeth. “Elmiryn, you are taking one of our young ones into the company of an unstable therian. I can’t just ignore that!”
Funny. From where I was sitting, it seemed he was ignoring me pretty well.
“You’re the one who gave him the okay!”
“But the girl has no grasp of herself! One second she’s raging on her feet, hissing and roaring like a beast–the next, she’s as daffy as an estranged aunt from over seas, gazing with avid interest at the floorboards!”
I was looking for my mead jug, you pontificating poop…
“Where are his parents? Talk to them if you are so uncomfortable about it all.”
“They’re dead, Elmiryn.” Baldwin interjected.
The warrior blinked at him. “Oh. Sorry.” She gave a shrug and looked back at Sedwick. “Look, if it bothers YOU so much, then just come with us.”
Oh sure. The more the merrier.
“And who will protect the people here?”
“You forget that if this doesn’t get fixed soon, there won’t BE people here to protect.” Elmiryn barked. “You’ll be the guardian of a graveyard. Do you understand, Sedwick? A fucking graveyard.” She stood to her feet, as did the blacksmith and the boy. I looked at them all sullenly.
This was stupid.
“Look outside. The city is EMPTY. These people here are at their wits end. You’ve no water and your food is dwindling. Merchants refuse to come here. Anyone who would’ve helped would’ve done so by now. You. Are. Alone. If it doesn’t get done now, this never gets done.”
“But why does SHE have to go?” Sedwick pressed stubbornly.
…I was kinda wondering that myself.
“Because. I won’t help you unless she’s there. Is that enough for you?”
“You’d let these people suffer just because–”
“I’ll let your people suffer if they can’t abide the way I work. I’m doing this at no cost to you, I really don’t see how you’re in the position to demand anything of me.”
Well, see if he got on his KNEES–“They can’t hear anything, you stuck up witch,” I snapped back.
Everyone stopped and stared at me. Heat crawled up my skin, and I ducked low, peering over the edge of the table. I wasn’t sure why, but I felt like an idiot.“Uh…” Elmiryn wiped at her mouth and shifted her eyes as if not certain she wanted to say what was coming next. Then she seemed to think better of it and waved her bandaged hand through the air. “No. Never mind.” The woman rapped the table with her knuckles and made as if to leave. “Come on, Nyx. If you’ve got everything, we should get going.”
Sedwick stared at her. “After that, you’re just going to take her with you?”
I could almost feel her eyes sweep past me and onto the man’s face. He made an odd noise from the back of his throat, but didn’t move.
“The discussion is over, Sedwick.”
I made to get off my chair quickly, not wanting that tone of voice directed toward me, but I forgot myself and ended up falling backwards off my stool. Elmiryn barely broke stride as she picked me up by the front of my gambeson and continued walking. Like a doll, my feet dragged, but I got my footing. My companion then let go of my top and instead kept me steady by gripping my shoulder as we marched out the inn’s main doors. Baldwin followed us shortly, the sound of his armor a terrible racket in my ear.
Outside, the peasants stared at us. As we passed, the adults pulled their children close and I felt a mingling of pity and shame toward them.
The dumb fools…didn’t they know they had more to fear from Elmiryn than I?
Though my nose wasn’t as I was used to, it could still pick up some scents. Drawn close to my companion, I could smell the wilderness on her. With only my eyes, I peered up at her through my bangs and leaned into her touch. This woman was strong.
She was strong, and she was my new guardian.
(funny how meeting her has increased my potential in getting killed then.)
I had no use for aesthetic pleasantries, or poetic lengths of expression. Complex communication? Tempered thinking and voices of self-restraint? It was all just silly fluff. What words could possibly convey the mind-biting horror that tore my nerves asunder? What had been experienced before, the unnaturalness and the illness and the wind-rushed scent of carrion, paled in comparison to what could be found out in those dead, ugly fields. The brittle grass turned to ash at our feet and the sound of a terrible monster roared in the distance, the sound of its voice a blade that cut across the gray cold canvas of Gamath’s lands.
We were almost to the river.
And yet I found a comfort in my words, (her words) that eloquent locution… for to let loose the wail that built up in my throat would leave me open–I was certain–to whatever evil that infested this place. To save myself from that fate, I bit down hard on my tongue, and buried my face into Elmiryn’s side.
The warrior stood rigid, her strong body like a rock that defied the atmosphere that pressed against us. Glancing at her, I could see the veins in her neck, the tenseness of her jaw, the glassiness of her eyes. “We’re close,” she said tersely, her voice deep and rough. I missed the lyrical playfulness.
Behind us, there was the wet sound of slop hitting the ground. Coughing. Though the wind was blowing against us, a brief circulation of the air brought the acrid smell of vomit to my nose. I placed a hand over my mouth in an attempt to stop the bile from coming up my own throat.
Baldwin appeared at our side a second later, his young face now ashen and drawn. He had pulled out his sword. “Someone’s coming behind us,” he said weakly.
“Sedwick.” Elmiryn said, without turning around. “I figured he would join us.”
“Should we wait for him?”
“He’ll catch up.” Then she started walking again, her grip on me pushing me forward with her. I quickly tried to keep step with her long legs.
Ahead, white, grotesque-looking things and dark lumps riddled the grass. As we neared, I saw that they were skeletons and decomposing animal corpses. The bones were of varying sizes and shapes–belonging to such creatures as gophers, birds, cows, and deer–and were bleached white. The corpses were animals that had died in the recent days. These were fewer. But as I looked at the body of a dead dog, I realized something unsettling.
“No flies…no maggots,” I whispered. Elmiryn’s grip tightened.
We came up on a hillock. At the top of it, we saw the Medwin river bend toward us, then away again. It was wide and dark, and though the land appeared low and largely flat, the water turned white and swirled in places from little dips and the rocks that peeked beyond the surface.
Together, we ventured near the river’s edge, our gaits slow. Once close, Elmiryn let go of me, and without thinking I slumped to the ground, ash and dust coming up in a startled cloud. She went to the water and knelt down, where she dipped her hand into the current.
“What are you doing?!” Baldwin squeaked.
“Relax, Baldwin,” the woman said. “Nothing happens to a person who touches the water. It matters only if you drink it.” Elmiryn withdrew her hand and sniffed her wet fingers. Her eyes slipped closed and she clenched her fist.
“Would you drink it if you believed it were harmless, despite evidence to the contrary?” a new voice called.
We all looked to see Sedwick coming over the hillock, his helmet back on and his spear firmly gripped in both hands. His pace was quick, and though I couldn’t see much of his face, it seemed the most the atmosphere did to him was set him on edge.
Elmiryn stood and I could see her lips twitching. “Sedwick. Good to see you decided to join us.”
He stopped near Baldwin and patted the boy on the back. “I came to make sure this was finished once and for all.” He nodded at the boy. “And to make sure he came home all right.”
The warrior woman gave a shrug. “Fair enough.” She gestured toward the river. “You said to come to this place, where the hillock overlooks a horseshoe bend in the river. Well, we’re here. Now what?”
“This used to be where the guardian would hold audience to any who would wish to speak to it. It’s abandoned this place for some reason. But the adventurer before you mentioned a cave entrance not far from here. He seemed to believe the guardian had retreated there.”
“It’s on the other side, isn’t it?”
“I’m afraid so.”
Elmiryn sighed. She looked down at me, and I slunk low to the ground, certain I would not like what she would say next. “Nyx, you aren’t afraid of water, are you?”
Soon, we were all standing on the edge of the river. Sedwick stood to my right, and he kept staring out of the corner of his eye at me. Baldwin stood on his other side, gripping his arm. He looked like he was about to throw up again. Elmiryn was on my left. Her bow and quiver were discarded on the ground behind her. “Rain, it can handle. Being dunked into a river–not so much,” she said with a wry grin.
The warrior shook out her limbs and said, “Try and keep calm, Nyx. This is just like any other swim.” She then looked at Sedwick. “I trust both of you have swam across a river before, and the current isn’t particularly treacherous here. The threat mostly lies in accidentally taking a swig of water. Keep your mouths shut, no matter what.” She took a deep breath. “Ready?”
“Let’s go,” Sedwick said solemnly.
“Yeah. All right…one, two–”
In unison, we all jumped into the water. There was a brief moment where I didn’t move and let the water carry me. Panic had set into my limbs at the feel of the water streaming past my lips. It…was terrible. In all my days, I could not recall a time when water had ever felt so abhorrent to me. But I saw Elmiryn’s kicking legs and I set forth, pushing against a rock in the river bed to propel me forward. Even as I broke the surface, I didn’t trust opening my mouth and taking a breath of air. By the time I reached the other side, my lungs and head felt ready to burst.
Sedwick and Baldwin made it a second after I did, crawling onto the land and panting. I wiped at my mouth, mindful not to let any of the water fall into my mouth, and looked up. Elmiryn was separate from us, all ready on her feet, with her head bowed and her hand to her lips. Dread set into my stomach. I crawled on all fours toward her and swiped softly at her leg as an odd, inquisitive noise came from the back of my throat.
She looked down at me, blinking. The edges of her mouth twitched again before she smiled a long curling smile. “It’s okay, Nyx.” The warrior reached down and pulled me to my feet. “It’s all right.”
Sedwick and Baldwin came to us. The woman looked at the blacksmith. “Will you lead the way? You know the land better than I.”
The man nodded. “As I said, it isn’t far from here.” He brushed past her, and Baldwin followed close, sparing a wide-eyed glance in my direction as he passed.
Elmiryn chuckled, though I didn’t know what was so funny, and we followed.
Just as Baldwin said, it wasn’t very far. After following the river northward, we came to a point where a wide, uneven trail of dry mud led into the mouth of a cave set into a little hillock some yards from the river. We stood at the jagged mouth of it, where pitch darkness barred our sight from seeing too far into its depths.
“It-It looks like it goes s-straight down…” Baldwin breathed shakily. He took a step backward. “I wo-won’t do it. I wo-won’t go in there!”
I hissed at the boy. After all his blustering, now his courage fled him? Damn him.
“Sedwick,” Elmiryn said, not taking her eyes off the mouth of the cave. Her eyes were wide and glassy again, and her voice seemed brittle and faint. “Take Baldwin and leave. Now.”
“What’s wrong?” But even as the blacksmith asked this, he and Baldwin were all ready backing away.
My ears tickled as I realized that the river had gone quiet behind us, like it were holding its breath. I looked back and my face fell. The two men behind us saw this and looked back as well.
The river had swelled into an impossible wave, one that grew and loomed over us until we were lost in its shadow. I felt my stomach drop, and I would’ve fallen to a heap on the ground if Elmiryn hadn’t grabbed me by the armpit. Baldwin screamed, and Sedwick muttered some sort of prayer. But all was lost when the water came crashing down on us, its frigid arms carrying us into a world of ink and confusion.
(…i feel cold…)
[Bones reconnect, bruises fade…]
…And I was aware again.
I felt like the nerves of my body had been frayed and grated, the muscles sliced apart. My limbs were in bizarre positions, like I were a doll that had been dropped unceremoniously on some child’s floor. I registered blood in my mouth as I lay face down on a damp and uncomfortable surface. My fingers flexed, scraping. It was rock, and it dug into my ribs. I shifted and groaned as my eyes blinked open. Wherever I was, there was a dim light coming from all over, causing a pale glow. I couldn’t say for certain what the source of the light was–there seemed to be patches on the rocky walls that produced it. Sight was still poor here, and much of everything seemed like vague shapes, even after my eyes focused.
Suddenly, something came toward me and I clumsily pulled my right arm out from underneath me and pushed myself onto all fours. An unintelligible sound slipped from my lips as I pressed against what appeared to be a stalagmite.
“I thought you were dead!” A familiar voice exclaimed.
I squinted. It was Baldwin.
He was bleeding somewhere on his head as blood dripped down his neck. He had black circles around his eyes, and his skin seemed to visibly sag, making his young face seem old. He limped closer and knelt down, his silly armor making noise the whole time. I tensed and looked around to see if anything would come investigate the racket.
“I don’t know where the others are,” the boy started. His lip trembled and he rocked back and forth. “Sedwick tried to grab me but the water…it pushed us apart. I woke up here after my head hit the rocks.” He bit his thumb and then looked at me. “We should find the others, don’t you think? We have to get out of here!”
I stared right back, my lip curling. Moron…why did he want to come at all if he were going to fall to pieces?
I carefully got to my feet with a grunt, and looked around. We were in some sort of chamber. The ceiling was high, stalactites baring down on us like fangs. From where Baldwin had come toward me, I could make out what appeared to be a passage that lead into another chamber, one lit differently than this one. In the center of the chamber we were in, there was a puddle of water. I ventured near it.
Why was this the only trace of water left here? Didn’t a huge wave just wash us down into the this hellish place? I peered into it, holding my wet hair back with both hands, and I realized–
I couldn’t see my own reflection.
Behind me, Baldwin stumbled forward, the sound of his mismatched armor like a death knell. “Hey! You dumb animal, I’m talkin’ to you!!”
I turn and hissed loudly at him, my hands clenched like claws, but it was too late. I saw a small rock fly past my face, saw Baldwin’s arm follow through with his throw, his face contorted in anger and frustration.
The rock hit the water with a loud splash.
Horrified, I looked back at it. The ripples were so strong they caused the small puddle to flood onto the area surrounding it. Slowly, I walk backwards, my heart thumping.
“What are you doing? What’s the matter?” Baldwin asks, a little panicked at my sudden behavior.
“You’re an idiot,” I say shortly.
The water bubbled and frothed, rising higher and higher until it became clear it was taking the form of some creature. Its rippling body was tall and rotund, little bubbles swirling around inside of it. It seemed like a man with no arms, and its head, faceless, sprouted barbed tentacles. The tentacles were long and lashed about angrily. The thing’s torso twisted and writhed, and from it a gurgled wailing echoed off the rocky walls.
At the terrible sound, Baldwin and I were snapped out of our trance and took off running toward the only exit from the chamber. Naturally, the boy made it to the passage before me, but as the red glow of the other room painted his face, something hit him in the back with a ‘shlop’, and he fell to the ground with a nasty crash.
As I passed Baldwin, I reached down and grabbed him by the back of his armor, dragging him from the chamber entrance. I didn’t pause to look back this time, but I heard what sounded like water splashing against the rocks. I stopped some yards away to inspect him. I saw no wound in his back. Confused, I rolled him over. He was conscious and breathing, and he looked at me, his eyes wide and teary and his nose running with snot. I shook him, growling.
…But then his back arched and his mouth parted open. He gurgled once before his eyes bulged. The moisture I had previously thought to be tears turned out to be just water, and it streamed down the sides of his face profusely. I let him go, as if bitten, and when his head rolled to the side, more water gushed out of his mouth and nose, and I saw that in his ears it also pooled and trickled down onto his bloated face. Blood appeared like a dark plume in the water.
The gurgled wail echoed around me again and I felt it rattle in my skull. Trembling, I looked around for a way out. There were other passages behind me on a higher level, and my only obstacles were a collection of thick stalagmites. Without pause, I began to climb.
I had to find Elmiryn and get out of there.