“The transformation is invested
With the mysterious and the shameful
While the thing I am becomes something else
Part character part sensation
The shadow is cast”1
Elmiryn didn’t feel bad, or guilty. Not really. Not truly. The way Nyx had to squint at the line she had drawn told her how much the girl’s senses had diminished–a side effect of her new “condition”. If the girl didn’t see her, then there was no harm. Nyx would soon be gone, replaced by her Twin, and Elmiryn’s memory would become a foggy dream. What did it matter?
She felt almost unreal, cut up by differing shades. Her hand was a spider’s reach that teased into the light’s view. Her eyes were wide, swallowing, trying to get in as much as they could.
Damn human sight. Damn her curse that brought a mystifying smoke to her eyes. She wiped at them, with her free hand, and tried to squeeze out the gray that mingled in the black, indigo, and milk. Elmiryn looked again, and balked.
Where’d Nyx go?
She placed a hand on the ground, where pine needles and torn leaves were crushed in her curled grip.
Elmiryn strained her eyes, felt her eye stalks ache like they were on the verge of pushing her eyeballs out of her skull. What were those pitiful sounds she was hearing? Was Nyx already changing? The moonlight spilled over the mountains, and came down in broken shafts through the canopy. Not direct light, nothing that lit the earth brightly, but enough to bring about some sort of idea in Elmiryn’s head of what was before her. There was a trembling mass on the ground, spined along its backside, and at one end of it, pale arachnids tangled in a mass of black snakes–writhing, pulling, scraping.
…There she was.
The shadows still served as a frustrating veil to those finer details, but a warmth took home in Elmiryn’s skin. The delicate slopes and curves of Nyx’s body, the light skin slick with sweat, the labored breath and the low cries that stretched and died out in hisses and moans. The situation had quickly turned voyeuristic, but Elmiryn dared to creep closer.
The redhead wasn’t certain what brought the change. In her experience, it seemed to depend on the therian in question. Sometimes it happened only when the moonlight touched their skin. Other times, when the sun set, or the moon first came into view. She thought of the hundreds of thousands of therians that would shift this night–the fear that would grip their enemies. It tickled her throat. Made her limbs suffer a dull ache. Screams filled her head.
Elmiryn’s eyes peered through the leaves of a robust bracken fern, and they widened to take in the sight of Nyx’s flesh, changing. Finally changing. (Or forever changing…which was like never changing. Static, like a fundamental principle. …What a pain in the ass! How can you “be” and “not be” at the same time?)
A gurgle brought Elmiryn’s attention back to the spectacle before her. She had seen shifts before. But those had been fluid and graceful–more like a person changing position than a person’s flesh and bone twisting and reconstructing to fit another form. This, however, was drawn out agony, pure and unabashed pain. In her lapse of attention, the confused mass that had once occupied the center of the circle had been replaced with some horrible looking creature. Nyx was…gone. The thing in her place had a narrow chest, a sunken stomach, and a powerful back with a large spine. A tail had sprouted, where it lashed, naked. The thing’s head was turned to the ground. Elmiryn crawled, past the fern, over the roots and tall grass, felt some of the light swathe her skin and it made her shiver. Was the face still human? Was there anything left of Nyx in those eyes?
Then the shoulders shuddered, and there was a sickening pop as the bones were forced to fit into their new sockets. The hips too, which had seemed connected only by skin and muscle, appeared to snap into place. The skin rippled, fingers and toes gave way to stout digits fixed with claws, and the soles and palms to tough pads. It was a gruesome, choppy process, but it was like an inexorable wave that hit everything at once. As the limbs changed, so then did the head.
Elmiryn, who had come near the line, eyes squinted in foggy discernment, reared back, dirt and sand still clinging to her bare stomach where it had dragged. Her expression became stern, her mouth a thin line. She went to her things, carefully set against an alder’s base, and took up her bow and quiver. Notching an arrow, she aimed it at the new being before her.
Quiet, like a wind’s whisper, fur sprouted along the skin. It swept over the stilled body, covered it in a thick coat of black that made even the shadows envious. The creature stirred. It trembled as it moved its legs, tucked them underneath it, and pushed. Head still bowed, its wet nose quivered before its lips pulled back to reveal white fangs.
In a fraction of a second, the thing leapt forward, toward Elmiryn, its jaws spread wide. The woman could imagine how her whole neck could fit neatly in there–tender, fragile, and delicate. But she didn’t give, didn’t twitch. When the beast came to the circle’s boundary, there was a crack, a small white flash, and the creature was blasted back. The air smelled of singed fur. It yowled, and its tawny eyes fixed Elmiryn with a look of astonishment. True astonishment. One of comprehension. The warrior gave a whistle.
“You weren’t paying attention,” Elmiryn said. She smirked a little. “Nyx didn’t get it. It’s alright, all that fighting still did something for her. Made her determined, made her stop worrying about the night. But you? You stopped focusing. I bet you wanted to hurt me–kill me even. But you see that line? It means you can’t cross it. You can’t leave until I say so. So fucking sit down. We need to talk.”
The animal snorted, paced back and forth, its paws trailing little lines of dirt from where it collected between its toes and claws.
The bow lowered a fraction. Then Elmiryn chuckled and brought it up again. “…Okay, fine. So maybe it won’t be a conversation, really. But I don’t fucking care. You aren’t really the most admirable cunt-licker this side of the Torreth.” Elmiryn ventured closer. “So just to be absolutely certain…you understand me, right? Give a shake or a nod.”
The cat just spat at her, ears flat on its head.
Elmiryn’s face hardened. “I can just leave you here all night, if you’d like.”
The cat growled, looked all around it as if to try and confirm the existence of the circle. Then with a short sigh, it shook its head.
“No?” The warrior grinned. “So when I tell you I want to have a contest, you’d understand me?”
The cat nodded, but its face bunched, eyes narrowing.
“Then here’s my challenge: I bet I can kill a deer before you can…without my bow and arrows. If I win, then you have to respect Nyx’s space between each full moon, and respect our…uh…partnership. Even when control is in your hands. But if you win…then you get to do as you please, without my stopping you. The contest doesn’t begin until I’ve named a target. The kill has to be made where the other can plainly see. Anything else, doesn’t count… I’ll only let you out if you agree to this–and by agreeing to it, you can’t kill me or run away. You have to swear it. Even a coward like you can’t break a direct promise like that.”
The cat blinked and its tail lashed behind it.
Elmiryn pulled the arrow farther back, her eyes flashing. “Do you agree to these terms? Do you agree to this contest?”
The cat nodded once, stiffly.
The woman licked her thumb, then quickly stepped forward and broke the line with it. A breeze picked up, as the freed air circulated. Elmiryn stepped back and jerked her head. “Go on, you can get out now.”
The cat took cautious steps forward. Its body crept low to the ground. It took one tentative paw and with squinted eyes and attentive ears, lightly touched the earth beyond the circle’s boundaries.
“See?” Elmiryn said, her bow and arrow put away, replaced by a short blade. “The spell is broken. Now come on. The field Nyx and I crossed was riddled with deer dung. Nearly stepped in it a few times. I’m certain they graze near the forest at night.”
They left the little opening, and the feline was swallowed in the shadows beneath the trees. Elmiryn paused to look for it again, when she saw its surly eyes shine at her. Certain the creature would honor its promise, the woman went on, leading through the forest. “What am I supposed to call you?” the woman asked in a low voice. “Nyx and I have kind of started calling you ‘the Twin’, but that isn’t a proper name.” Her steps were slow and careful. She didn’t have the sight of her inhuman companion.
The cat let out a noise, like a weak growl and a yowl mixed together. Elmiryn heard it lick its chops and grinned. “It’s a serious question! What if we’re in the thick of a fight, and you don’t realize I’m trying to get your attention?”
No answer. Elmiryn suspected it was less because the cat couldn’t speak, and more because it just didn’t want to.
“Is a name so bad to have?” The woman shook her head. “Don’t tell me it didn’t make you upset to realize Nyx’s name didn’t belong to you. You know that, right? That it isn’t yours? I mean…that’d be accepting clothes, literature, and walking upright. And you can’t. You two aren’t in sync, but I heard and felt some of your feelings too, back in that cave. They echoed of her, the way they echoed of you–”
The cat hissed, loud, the sound dying out to a rumbling growl. Elmiryn stopped where she was, balancing on the ball of her left foot on a fat alder root, as her other foot hovered over a dark drop off where buried roots snaked out of an eroded dirt wall. Narrowed cat eyes glinted at her, like the edge of a knife.
“Don’t be a fucking idiot,” the woman scorned, though her voice lacked the fire. “You’re cut from the same cloth, whether you like it or not. That’s why you’re the Twin.” Then a thought occurred to her, and she rubbed the back of her neck. “Actually, since you’re here now, then I guess Nyx’d be the Twin…which brings me back to my first question–what in the nine hells do I call you?”
The minutes slipped by. Though the conversation–if one could call it that–seemed finished, the woman still thought about it. It bothered her, the idea of something so determined to be someone, but lacking a true name. If there was anything in the world that was important, it was something to go by. Even animals did it…right? There were signature smells and unique calls, so that even those creatures that did not use spoken language could recognize one another. In therian cultures, it wasn’t an issue. After all, the animal within was just a part of a greater whole. But in the Twin’s case…she was not whole. Not truly. And without Nyx’s name, she was nothing.
“If your goddess doesn’t think you’re fit for a name, then there’s no reason to fuss. You aren’t worth it.” Elmiryn went on, quiet, each step dropping her voice till it was barely a breath past her lips. “You can’t talk, you can’t sustain yourself, and you can’t stay in control past a single night. Maybe that’s why Nyx has trouble facing her problems…” Elmiryn looked over her shoulder, where the wraith that was the feline drifted behind her. “You hold her back.”
She didn’t know if the beast heard her or not. Perhaps it did, with those great ears that swiveled to catch all the world in its canals. In many ways she didn’t care. The creature was a selfish being, too focused on its present reality to ever consider the far reaching effects of its actions. Nyx suffered for it. She had nearly been left for dead because of it. Elmiryn hadn’t intended for cruelty, but she had to admit…she felt good seeing the beast singed by the containment spell.
Ahead of them, illuminated, was the field. It was a cool wave of tall grass. Some short distance away, a family of deer grazed silently. One deer was apart from the others, trailing away. Elmiryn, who was crouched, tapped Her shoulder and pointed at it. The wind was stronger here, but the gust carried Westward, to their advantage. The feline, with its quarry marked, stalked forward, low to the ground. Elmiryn didn’t budge or say a word. She watched as the cat vanished into the tall grass, its movement concealed by the shifts of the field. The cat seemed to make good progress–good at sneaking, which was no surprise–but its shortcoming soon revealed itself.
When the feline was several yards away, the deer raised its head, rock still. Elmiryn guessed it was only acting on a gut feeling, but the feline didn’t seem to think so. Almost in a panic, the creature lunged forth, paws scratching desperately in an attempt to catch its prey in anyway. The deer quickly skittered away, its family bounding to the safety of the forest, but as Elmiryn sprinted forth, she saw it wasn’t a complete miss.
The cat had caught the deer clear along its left rear calf. The wound was severe enough that blood stained the grass in fat dark splotches. Sloppy, terribly sloppy. Elmiryn held up her knife, the blade in her hands. She felt her eyes burn, her heart pounding in her ears. She was an instrument, a deadly tool, and she was faster than the clumsy kitten that scraped to its feet. The Twin, snarling, snapping, smelling blood, perhaps tasting it already, went for the wounded deer. But the creature was not down yet. It made a painful spring to the side where its weight leaned on its hurt leg. The deer stumbled, nearly fell, but righted itself. Cut off from the forest, it headed east.
No, no! It wasn’t supposed to move away like that! Elmiryn would’ve applauded the Twin for steering their prey away from her…if she actually believed the thing had done it on purpose. But it hadn’t. Perhaps didn’t even have a greater plan other than running straight at it, tackling. No method, no idea of what it took to anticipate a desperate animal’s moves. Stupid creature. Fucking moronic, mangy four-legged–
Never mind that now.
Elmiryn sprinted, after the feline, after the wounded deer. In truth, it wasn’t so bad. The deer would soon be fatigued. But Elmiryn was already there, already seeing tunnels of rippling white and wondering why her breath was so short. The cost of her earlier activities, of her skimpy meal. Her muscles and bones rattled with every footfall. She tried to keep the image of the hunt alive in her. “Remember who you are, remember what you’re doing,” she thought. Elmiryn blinked the sweat from her eyes and focused on the cool air on her bare skin.
A surge of black barreled toward the deer. Their prey bleated, but the sound was cut away as the Twin took its hind leg in its mouth and pushed upward. The deer fell over, into the grass, out of Elmiryn’s view. She cursed. Did the Twin do it? No, no, if she couldn’t see it then it wouldn’t count. But if the stupid cat had thought about it even halfway, it would know, that Elmiryn couldn’t do this again and hope to keep up. She’d have the advantage. It had to end now, or else it was all over.
The woman stumbled to a stop, where a surprise sight made her relieved, yet wary at the same time.
The Twin was tugging at the deer’s leg, seemingly determined to tear it off. The deer warbled low, its struggles weak and the life fading from its eyes. Elmiryn looked at the feline, and turned the knife in her hand so that she gripped it by the handle. Its eyes were glazed over, in a bloodlust. Did it even remember what they were doing?
She moved sideways as quickly and as carefully as she could, keeping a certain distance from the deer. Elmiryn wasn’t certain how the cat would react to her coming so near to the wounded animal. When the deer’s body was between her and the cat, she crouched slowly, one hand held out, the other with the blade. “Hey, kitten…are you paying attention?”
The cat paused and looked at her, brow bunched in what could be called a frown.
Then Elmiryn struck. The knife plunged into the deer’s throat, killing all sound. The deer’s weak struggles ended. The woman didn’t even try to pull the blade out, only stepped back quickly, with hands held up. The cat roared and advanced on her, teeth bared and its tail a whip behind it. The warrior smiled down at it.
“The contest was to see who killed it first, not who brought the deer down.” Elmiryn shrugged. “So I win. You’re bound to your word.”
The cat looked at her, then back at the deer. It licked its wet muzzle, where blood dripped in dark droplets to the ground. It snorted and glared at her one final time before it returned to its meal.
The woman shook her head. Turned her face as the cat began to tear at the fresh corpse. What a simple creature. Did it truly understand what she had just said? Or had it simply gotten mad that she had laid hand on its prey? It didn’t care that the kill was sloppy, or that the deer was of small size. But to its credit, it was a show of self-restraint that it didn’t kill her immediately for getting so near. It really had become smarter.
Elmiryn’s eyes narrowed as the sickening noises of the Twin’s dinner violated her ears.
“You’re smarter, Cat, but you aren’t any wiser.”
‘Mask’ by Bauhaus, from the album ‘Mask’. Beggars Banquet, 1981. [↩]