I wanted to kill Sedwick.
The pain drove my fury.
I ripped out his spear.
This made my vision go white.
I stopped for a moment. Caught my breath.
Then Sedwick attacked Elmiryn.
Everything in me bunched.
I charged toward them.
There was no fear.
Elle the Idiot stood in my way.
I got close and snarled.
She stayed her ground.
Her stare…bothered me.
But Sedwick was behind her.
Curled on the ground like a bug.
Pain in my shoulder, blood on my second skin–
Used to be mother’s.
Blacksmith made mother’s skin red.
My lip pulled back.
I wanted to taste his death.
But Elle wouldn’t move.
Turned her back on me.
Talked to the man and wouldn’t move.
I paced and tried to see if I could get around.
Couldn’t, without hurting Elle.
She wouldn’t move.
…She still smelled close to death.
But she didn’t act like it…?
I sat and licked at my wound.
The question bothered me.
Beneath the fabric, skin knitted together.
Hurt less, but still stung.
There was a loud, scary sound.
Heard it before.
The crimson monster from before–the guardian.
I twisted around and yowled.
Saw the thing come into the light.
Slimed through a space across the room.
Where Sedwick came from?
Did he lead it here?
I turn and look at him.
–Elmiryn moved toward the guardian.
Dropped her sword.
Looked back at her with tail twitching.
…Then I’m shocked.
The monster swallowed Elle.
Couldn’t even see her.
My muscles bunched again.
(No, no, no…)
I pushed with all my strength into a run.
Got there in two bounds.
I tore at the monster with my claws.
Hissed and spat.
(My gods, no.)
Flesh wrapped around my arms and legs.
Tendrils burrowed into me.
Sedwick yelled behind me.
Felt him jump onto my back.
Plunged something sharp through my chest.
Arched my back as I fell.
Monster swallowed me.
Satisfied to hear the man scream too.
He didn’t get away.
Sight left me.
I wished I could stop feeling too.
I heard her.
I heard them all.
To call it pain would’ve been…incorrect. It transcended that base definition, that shallow understanding. It was intense, it was debilitating, yes. But pain? No. More like…
Her veins were the guardian’s veins; her thoughts, the guardian’s thoughts.
The spiritual creature’s flesh was not immediately invasive. They first canvased her skin. Then they pushed past the muscles–split them, pierced them–to get to the organs inside. Elmiryn felt the tendrils in her chest, knew they wrapped and mingled with her heart, her lungs, her stomach, her spine. She gave a violent spasm. Tried to scream and failed for the guardian had filled her mouth, throat, and lungs.
Was this rape? Was this murder?
Elmiryn’s sensations became unquantifiable. For with the euphoric domination of her body, came also the parting of her mind. Things that were not hers, bits and pieces, like the shining trinkets of Nyx’s bag, came spilling in.
As her sense of self-being evaporated, she realized with a start that it was not a 2-dimensional life she was entering. There was a third dimension. There was a fourth.
Things garbled together before segments pushed their way to the fore–
A new beginning. It was the parting of a land drowned by rain and hail. A place was carved in the Earth, and with it, a duty to sustain life. Her sisters, the clouds, said unto her, “You are the veins of this land,” and she gushed.
Fleeing through snow, breath a ghost, a dark form ahead of her as angry cries chased at her back. The one before her was not running from her, but with her.
Barely old enough. None of it was fair. She knew it wasn’t, knew it in her soul.
So they ran.
Those war mongers wouldn’t take another brother away from her.
In a warm cabin, with pipe in hand. He looked out his window to see a familiar, round-faced youth playing tag in the rain. A robust lad. Belonged to a family of five–father a retired soldier who helped with the smithing, mother a beautiful and dignified woman, and a small baby girl just learning to walk. A respectable lot. The boy was fortunate to have such a beautiful family. Pretty fortunate…
What was it like?
They made a semicircle around her and leered like starved mongrels. “Time to bond,” they said, “Time to break-in the new recruit,” they said.
She didn’t spend years training just to allow this to happen. She started to giggle, and the soldiers around her scowled.
…Wouldn’t her father find it amusing to hear, that her first kill was before she even left the barracks?
Illness. Her river had become poisoned, tainted. She felt it affect her like a disease–twisting her flesh, marring it. Bastards, ungrateful heathens. Who did this to her? After all she had done, who would harm her river?
The clouds, her sisters, scorned her. They passed with heavy shadows and denied her land water. But it wasn’t her doing!
It wasn’t her doing!!
Arms strung up. Heady smell of incense makes her dizzy. She is naked, and her manacles bite into her painfully. They built a hut of straw and mud, just for this occasion, because her presence could no longer be suffered in any structure built by her people. She didn’t bother struggling. Tears streaked her dirty face but she made no sound.
She closed her eyes at the young priest’s voice.
“Ampelos, don’t hold back,” she whispered. “It’s okay.”
Then she felt the knife at her back and saw white–
The first, they had been the first. His family had gone down to the river for a picnic–the boy didn’t want to go, wanted to be with friends–and they all just died. Blue faces, still in the grass, like they drowned on the inside. The boy, left alone, had no one to care for him. And the horror of it was that his family had only been the first. Soon, hundreds in the city began to die.
There was no one for the boy.
“…Baldwin, you can live with me a while…”
It was a little annoying. She wasn’t a fucking babysitter. She ambushed by horseback, squatted in the mud, and conquered hillocks for heavens sake. Guarding doors wasn’t utilizing her raw strength at all. It only tested her patience.
She could hear the princess pacing inside. Since her wedding engagement, the girl hadn’t stopped.
At least the warrior wasn’t the only one with an itch under the collar.
A tree that sang. She saw it in her mind’s eye. Mortals would have identified it as a vision, or a dream–but no, it was her reality. She saw this in the soil, in the water’s currents, in her own shifting body. It was a great tree that’s roots sucked and sucked away at her land.
It was related. Had to be. Who knew of the tree? Would this loud-mouthed adventurer barreling through her new sanctuary know?
…He wasn’t answering her. How dare he. Just on and on about his duty, and his reputation, and what he wanted. But he wasn’t answering her question.
Well she had roots of her own to burrow with, and she’d suck away the answers if need be.
Mother had died. Shame, they’d told her. She didn’t know. She stood at her grave with a white flower in hand…but she crushed it and threw it away. It would be better just to fade away. They had said to her she was too much trouble. Maybe they were right.
She’d learn control. Learn restraint.
Better to try and be quiet, cautious, and unassuming.
She had already lost everything being the contrary…
She giggles beneath the sheets. The princess can’t help it whenever her neck is kissed, and squeals when the moist petal between her legs is stirred. The warrior, in the twilight, couldn’t really call this refined, but it had a grace to it that made her hungry. It was a beauty unaware of itself–bashful and sweet and humble. She was far too used to the soldiers in her unit puffing out their chests, behaving as Halward’s gift to women; or worse yet, the aristocrats of the courts, posturing and squinting their eyes at everything.
What a bunch of fools.
The princess was a far better thing to pass the time with.
She hummed into the girl’s back a song she could not recall the name to, and smiled…
The river guardian writhed.
It all came amid confusion. The memories of three others meshed with her own, and she struggled to make sense of it all. There was one whose recollections were so powerful they felt like they were stabbing into her; then another whose images hummed in pale color in the background; and lastly, the one whose memories were as faint as an aftertaste. The frustrating thing was, that the latter’s thoughts were the most relevant. In them, the immortal being tasted the same corruption that had affected her river; Heard the haunting, leeching music that sapped away at her; felt the cold and the distance that began to grow between her and the world at large.
Elmiryn, her name was Elmiryn.
And in this warrior’s thoughts, she saw her answers.
They made her weep.
Trickery! Foul, terrible deception! The being thought.
How could she not have seen? How could her soul–born by gods–been so easily manipulated? Was it really true, this so-called revelation? Her river had never been poisoned…only her mind, and because her belief was so strong…
No, no! It was too horrendous!
But the warrior’s thoughts were her thoughts…and her curse, now the guardian’s curse. At least that filtered view. At least that understanding. It was true. Oh, how perverse this self-proclaimed demon was. He had meant for all of this–must have. Why else did he give this one wayward soul the only means with which to see past his lies?
Things had to be mended. Quickly. The land’s recovery was not impossible, but only if the guardian set to work immediately.
Her amorphous form swirled and bubbled in a slow and confused circle. Despite her knowledge, she needed time to orient herself, to shake off her madness and begin to replace her sentiments with more sensible ones. When she finally stirred out of her rote motion, it was like one coming out of a deep sleep.
Ah, but those three braves. She could not leave them here.
The river guardian carried the unconscious bodies in her flesh, like a pregnant mother, as she flowed back the way she came. Her familiars, watery golems that felt only as she felt and acted only as she desired them to, gurgled as she passed, and soon followed her steady trail. One separated from the herd to slither further into the caverns, a silent order from its mistress compelling it there.
The guardian exited from the caves from a back entrance that came out downhill. Over the brittle grass that crumbled to ash, she went until she came back to her river.
At the sight of it, she paused. For a moment, doubt nettled her. But then she pressed forward eagerly.
It was frothing with the anger and torment that had plagued her.
“Quiet now…” she said in her language of sounds and sensations. She dipped into the waters and cooed happily. “All is well…all is well…”
And the river quieted.
It was time to cleanse the three braves of their burdens. A rite of healing to start. Not as complicated as it sounded. In her curious tongue, the guardian chanted an archaic spell. Her body bubbled and wavered, and from it emerged a grotesque-looking body.
The one called Nyx. Marked Ailuran, whose memories were powerful, but whose mind was in disarray.
The being began to pull her flesh away, and thick veins and quivering muscles separated like liquid. But she felt resistance, like she were hooked. Determined, she pulled harder–and concern rose over whether or not she could safely extricate herself at all.
But the guardian made progress. Beneath the bunched gambeson, blood and puss were washed away by the currents as the two creatures pulled apart. With each millimeter gain, Nyx’s body gradually transformed.
The visceral process brought the girl out of her coma, and her body arched as her mouth parted in a silent scream. Her bones shifted and snapped. Flesh sculpted itself in a memory of human-likeness. Hair receded to reveal smooth pale skin. Sympathetic, the guardian tried to move faster.
When Nyx’s body was restored, and they were both completely free of one another, she held the therian tightly, above the water. “Speak,” the being gurgled.
At first, the girl still appeared caught in some stupor. Glassy eyes stared up at the sky and she rasped like a fish out of water. Then her gaze shifted to the guardian.
Nyx’s face crumpled and she whispered. “I’m…I’m back…”
The guardian bubbled in relief. The Animal she had recalled in her memories would never have reacted in such a way. She set the girl aside on the shore and whispered. “Stay there. Do not be afraid. I will help your friend next.”
I crashed back into the fore of my mind, torn out of my primal fire to re-emerge restored to my rightful state. Things that had been lost to me, little things but things that inherently defined me, were once again at my disposal.
I was Nyx. I was light. I was the finite definition.
My words. These sentences that spilled into my head were mine alone, and never again would that dirt-sniffing heathen sully them again. I felt relieved and ashamed at the same time.
When I remembered which way was up and which way was down, I tried to see what was around me. My mind still suffered under a hailstorm of confusing images–memories that weren’t mine, things that had a different taste in my mouth, a foreign feeling to my skin, an almost repulsive effect on my consciousness.
“Speak,” something gurgled at me.
The guardian had its amorphous body wrapped about me. It had one long, thick bit of flesh above the water and craned towards me like a grotesque head. I could smell its flesh–hot with blood and affected by a faint illness that the water failed to wash away completely. I felt the urge to cry.
“I’m…I’m back…” I managed to say.
The guardian bubbled and set me aside on the river shore. It told me to stay put, and to not be afraid, because it would help Elmiryn.
The thought of the warrior made me want to cry even more. I felt like I had failed her, in every sense. She had nearly died, more than once, and even had to save me from making a grave mistake. I imagined her being angry with me, disgusted with me. Would she forsake our partnership in light of what had just happened?
I began to shiver.
The guardian had almost completely submerged in the water. A whirlpool started in the center of the river where the creature crept to. The water frothed and giggled.
I stared around, trying to keep calm. Then I noticed that I didn’t see Elmiryn’s body anywhere. Nor Sedwick’s.
It was about that time that the water began to glow and an almost painful humming sound filled the air. It was like a bee–a steady drone that made me clap my bandaged hands over my ears and curl in on myself.
Then the water exploded. It rose several yards in the air, and the sound nearly blew out my ears. I was blown back by the force. I shook even harder than before, breath coming in uneven gasps as I pushed myself up onto my feet. My back muscles bunched, and my throat tightened.
The guardian rose out of the water, and in its embrace was Elmiryn, eyes still closed, body limp, her skin as pale as mine–perhaps even worse. My heart sank. I thought the worst. But then the guardian spoke to me.
“Young therian. Your friend is still alive. She is weak and will need someone to care for her. You will travel back to Gamath, and when she awakes, I would like for you both to return here.” It turned its head and seemed to give a nod. “Further up the river, you will find one of my familiars waiting for you. They will have your missing belongings.”
She then slithered close with Elmiryn held out, moving against the river current as though it weren’t there. Startled, I came closer and took the woman into my arms. I felt them strain a bit with the weight, but I would make it. I would force myself to.
“Be sure to send someone to claim the bodies in the caverns,” the guardian continued. “I fear there are more than just the adventurer and the youth you had entered with.”
I shook my head. “They won’t believe me when I tell them what’s happened. They’re…afraid of me.”
The guardian reached down and scooped something from the river bed. She then dropped them into my right hand, which I opened after shifting Elmiryn’s head enough that it was free. “Take these three pebbles,” it said. “Drop them into a bucket. Make sure all are around to see it.”
I frowned, but knew better than to ask.
The guardian then sat back. “Hurry, therian. The sooner the news is spread, the sooner this land may restore itself.”
“But what of Sedwick?” Just saying the man’s name made my stomach give a twist.
The being seemed to sigh. “Do not fret for him. You will see him when you next return. Go now.”
I nodded and hurried off. I dreaded the consequences should I fail.