In a flash of heat and scarlet, something smashed out of the canvas of black before her. It tore through like a parasite engorged on her misconceptions. She jerked her head to the side and backpedaled away. Her feet tripped on the uneven ground as a monster came sliming forth into the emerald light. Veins and angry dark flesh, riddled with cancerous tumors that pussed and bubbled, crept along the cavern floor. When the thing stopped a few yards from her, Elmiryn found herself staring at a thing that drew itself up nearly ten feet tall…and had no head or mouth to speak of.
Her head tilted to the side and she squinted at it, her previous frustration replaced simply by confusion. The thing reminded her of a slug, but she didn’t believe it were a slug anymore than she believed it were Meznik. She wasn’t sure…but was it posing itself in some semblance of haughty pride? Or was it simply trying to seem as intimidating as possible by pulling itself up to its full height?
From where she stood it reeked…it smelled like…
…Raw uncooked meat, cut from a diseased animal, left to rot in the hot summer sun. Her mouth watered.
Elmiryn decided she was hungry.
So it was startling to hear the giggle of a stream in her ear. There were little whispers within the noise that begged and asked for clarification on mysteries she knew nothing about. She began to shake her head with a frown as she looked around her. Where was that noise coming from–?
The melancholy sweep of water on land. The sound came much like the other, but this echoed and reverberated within her bones. For a brief moment she thought she were drowning…only to realize that this was the pain and torment of the raw meat before her.
“My gods…” Elmiryn rose to her feet, a surprised grin spreading across her face. “You…you’re not uncooked meat! You’re the river guardian!” She went to clap a hand to her head when she realized the one she lifted up was the injured one. Her cerulean eyes fell to it, and the grin vanished. The blood flowed thicker. It came down her forearm to drip at her elbow, where she saw her life splatter onto the ground like sloshed drink.
She looked slowly up again. “I don’t suppose you know what’s going on?” Furtively, the warrior allowed her eyes to leave the creature before her to search for her missing glove and bracer. She spotted them a few feet away, the discarded bandages next to them. Tentatively she took a step in that direction.
The moment her foot touched the ground, there was a sharp screech, and she jumped back with a wince. The guardian’s body, grotesque and amorphous, rippled violently. Limbs branched out from its upper body, like plants, and curved upwards. It seemed to suck in its trunk, letting its base slither and root themselves into the floor in thick tentacles. Elmiryn stared. “A tree?”
In her ear, she heard the splash of water and startled bubbles. The woman blinked again and touched a hand to her ear. She frowned and shook her head. “What? No. It isn’t me. I’m not the one to ask about that.”
A low hiss.
Elmiryn took a step back and held up her gloved hand, the other she cradled to her chest, in a vain attempt to keep more blood from flowing. The guardian’s body was turning darker, and steam now emitted from the tumors that ruptured on its putrid skin.
“Now hold on a minute…I have no fucking idea what you’re talking about!” The woman shouted. She couldn’t explain why, but she suddenly felt angry. “I didn’t put that slime on your skin! I didn’t do it!”
The branched limbs collected together. They formed two sets of arms and hands, and between them something like a head sprouted. The guardian leaned forward, and its head spread apart in an angry maw of veins and pulsing muscles. Its body coiled.
She didn’t pause to stop and wonder if the thing would attack her or not. Elmiryn only knew she wanted her glove and bracer back.
The chamber’s light shifted to crimson.
When the roiling flesh leapt toward her, its body a single stream of movement that stretched a good sixteen feet, she dived to the right. The warrior rolled to a stop, close to her things, and picked them up hurriedly with one hand. Behind her, she could hear the river guardian slime along the cavern floor. She stood to her feet as her mind raced.
“Rivers, rivers, rivers…wait…this thing’s a river? No, no! It’s a guardian! What are guardians? Immortal! But it answers to a higher being–so that means…shit, what does that mean!?”
She began to backpedal toward the dark space where she had seen the creature emerge, when she saw a large “B” shaped passage lit in an indigo glow just across the chamber. Then Elmiryn realized she backed herself into a corner. She cursed.
The river guardian surged toward her again with a roar that shook dust from the stalactites above. The redhead jumped to the side as she frantically tried to wrap the bandage back onto her bleeding hand. When she managed to wrap a few layers, the fabric was already drenched. She next went to put on her glove. Her head began to feel light, and her excited movements caused spots to dance before her eyes.
“I’m feeling dizzy…kinda funny…like…like…”
Her limbs felt immaterial. They shook and disagreed with her as she struggled to avoid the guardian’s advances. It streamed, it snaked, it followed through in a clear line of force and wrath that–with each successive attempt–narrowed their separation. The chamber they were in was mostly circular, the edges of it lined with thousands of little stalagmites on ascending rock beds.
“I’m running around in a ball of death!” Elmiryn thought with a snicker as she nearly face planted onto the ground. On hands and knees, she glanced behind her. Not once in this evasive dance was she able to find an opportunity to leave the chamber.
The guardian too, appeared tired. It warbled, before it slithered slowly toward her. It seemed to sense its impending victory.
She looked at it and grinned lazily as she snapped on her bracer over her gloved arm, and scooted so that the small of her back was pressed against the edge where the floor began to curve upwards.
“This is as good a hell as any to die in…” Elmiryn thought. She blinked as the guardian drew itself up again, and spread its body so that it seemed like a large river with many tributaries.
In her head, she heard Nyx break down the word that had become all that mattered in the world. “Death. To die. To cease to exist. To lack life.”
The last thought caused her pause.
…Life? She had life. She had it. It was slipping away from her, yes, through this cursed hand of hers, but it was still there. She was not dead yet. She was not in hell. She had not been defeated by Meznik yet…technically.
So what was she doing?
“Surrender. To give up. To quit. To yield to a greater power.”
Elmiryn sucked in breath, her eyes flashing. “I’m doing what!?”
Just as the guardian crashed downward, ready to tear her apart, or swallow her, or…whatever it would do, the woman scuttled backwards and up, onto the rocks that lead her up and away from danger. The little stalagmites poked like a bitch, but it was as she found herself several yards up, and in what appeared to be a spiny bed of dogtooth spar, that she noticed something.
“…The guardian isn’t following.”
It roared at her, and circled around the chamber floor once before it rushed toward her direction. It crashed ineffectually against the base of the chambers edge like water against a cliff side.
Elmiryn’s mind toiled over this curious observation. “This thing’s a river guardian. It’s immortal, but it still answers to a higher being. That means…it means…” her eyes widened. “It works under a spiritual ban!” Gingerly, she drew her sword and tried to stand on her feet only to find herself much too wobbly to do so. Instead, she sat crouched as she grinned down at the livid immortal. “Since you oversee the rivers of the East, you must behave as a river yourself! Fuck, how brilliant!”
Carefully, the warrior began to make her way toward the other end of the chamber, toward the indigo passage. She was careful to remain high up, where the guardian could not reach her. “Rivers move in one direction,” she thought to herself, with tongue caught between her teeth. “They can branch off, but unless they meet again in some body of water, they can only go so far. Rivers never flow uphill…is that why it hasn’t left the cavern? Because the entrance to this place was a slope that lead downward?”
Elmiryn looked at the guardian, then shook her head. “No. It thinks I poisoned the river. It wants to go back, but sounds less like a prisoner so much as someone just homesick…So there must be another way out.”
She finally reached the other end. All the while the guardian had followed her, bubbling and gurgling violently. The warrior looked down at it as it drew itself up again in a wavering pillar.
“Okay, here’s the deal,” Elmiryn began, brandishing her sword. “You need to pull it together. Madness doesn’t suit you.”
“Look. I told you I didn’t do it…in fact. I think you’re failing to grasp the exact reasons for your behavior. You think you’re protecting your river?” Elmiryn tsked and wagged a finger. “You’ve REALLY gotta learn the difference between fighting and protecting–”
Then, without warning, she jumped, her sword slashing as the guardian moved to meet her mid air. The blade connected, splitting the being in two. It felt as if she were cutting through water, resistance there but no real sense of permanent division. The split allowed her space to slip by, and she turned her head slightly to see that the creature did not turn mid-air, but simply continued going, as she’d expected.
“Unless something forces it, it cannot make that sharp a turn so quickly,” Elmiryn thought.
The woman landed harsh and fell to her knees with a grunt. Her vision tunneled and she remained there panting before she forced her body forward with an unsteady lurch, through the indigo passage to what could only be freedom. Behind her, she heard the river guardian roar. It sounded like it had made a pass at her while she was on the ground. If that were the case, it would have to circle around before being able to follow her.
She stumbled through a tunnel before she came to another large chamber. Ahead of her were three passages. The one on the far left was lit crimson, and echoed with suspicious wails. The one in the center was emerald, just as the room before her had been before the color shifted. The passageway next to it was a pale yellow.
Elmiryn blinked and scratched her head as she tried to think. “These lights must mean something. The room behind me turned crimson when the guardian attacked. So, what…does it mean danger? Okay, that works…but the room was emerald before that. The one in the center is the same…only, the room behind me had only one way out. Maybe it means a dead end? The passage on the end…what the hell does that mean?” Elmiryn looked behind her and cursed.
The guardian was surging toward her again.
“To hell with it…three’s my lucky number anyways!”
The warrior charged toward the large passage. She felt ready to give out. Her limbs were weak, her head hurt, and her skin felt cold.
“To surrender, or die.” As she came into the new chamber, her feet tripped and she fell to the floor, panting. Her brow seared with pain where her head slammed into the rock, her hip ached, and her sword–which had slipped from her grip–lay a few feet away.
She gave a sigh and closed her eyes. “I’m still not sure I have the option of choosing…”
I was mortified.
My clothes had shifted with me, thanks to the enchantment cast on them, but this was wrong…this was…
Sedwick bore down on me, the sharp end of his spear pointed in my furry face.
“You…” he started in a querulous voice. His scarred countenance was drawn as he blinked rapidly at me. “…You’re completely unstable…you killed that man, and now…”
I could smell the fear on him. Through the pestilence of this place, I could practically taste it. But that did nothing for my nerves. I was up against a thin column. I could see past his legs where Aidan’s corpse lay, and thought to myself, “I don’t want to be here.”
Sedwick’s eyes narrowed and he jabbed the spear at me threateningly. “You were with Baldwin, weren’t you?”
My muscles bunched and I panted anxiously. Some form of expression must have passed my face as the blacksmith’s lips grew thin and his brows pressed together in an angry scowl.
“You tell me where he is! What happened to him!?” he shouted.
I growled as he jabbed the spear at me again. I found it hard to think as…
[Her mind slips to base emotions. Fear curdles. She wishes to flee. She wishes to run. But this man…stops her. She could escape if she–]
I stopped those thoughts before they can go any further. “No! I am not like her! I have to think properly! I need to–!”
Sedwick howled and stabbed at my head. I shifted to the side, the spear’s blade tearing through my clothes and scraping down my right shoulder and foreleg. I limped away with a low yowl. I was no longer pinned against the column, but it hurt so much to move. I looked behind me. Another passage seemed to suddenly appear, and it was lit indigo.
“You killed him didn’t you!” Sedwick shouted as he advanced on me. He raised his spear again. “Just like Aidan! You killed him!”
I looked back at him and shook my furry head. The action felt awkward because my neck was much thicker than the form I was used to. I tried to form words with my mouth only to find a silly chittering sound escaped my lips.
Sedwick sneered. “You’re not human…you’re not even an Ailuran…you’re just a monster.” He pulled back his arm, ready to throw his spear.
I turned and loped with pathetic stride toward the indigo light. Then, I heard a clatter and a scream, and I stopped.
I looked backward again to see, to my horror, that unbeknowest to either of us, veins had proceeded to spread from Aidan’s body along the cavern floor. They latched onto Sedwick’s leg and crept up his pants, and I could hear the parasitic flesh merge with the blacksmith’s skin. He reached down, screaming in pain and terror, and I slowly backed away as he pulled back his pants to reveal the veins migrating upward. Sedwick tugged and pulled in an attempt to break free only to fall to his side, where beneath his armor, the alien flesh blossomed forth to consume the rest of his body.
I fled–through the indigo passage and onward to a place that I hoped would be safer.
…Instead I found Elmiryn.