She felt something wet and cold push against her face. Elmiryn’s eyes creaked open. She was met with a furry visage. The woman grinned and lifted her head.
“Am I dead yet?” she asked the creature next to her.
Whatever it was growled. Before she registered what it was doing, it clamped its teeth around her ear and began to pull and tug. Elmiryn yelped as she felt a canine fang dig into her ear lobe, and incisors uncomfortably press her cartilage. Her bright eyes flew open wide, and she tried to keep up with the beast as it forced her to follow it. It gave an impatient yank every time she slowed. When she crawled rather than dragged, the creature let her go. It turned and fled onward, and the redhead watched its retreating form with a look of scandalized bewilderment. That’s when she saw the gambeson, and the baggy brown pants.
Her mind unfolded with odd considerations. Her first immediate impression was that Nyx was a trendsetter in animal couture, but then this idea was discarded when she remembered that her companion had a crappy haircut and hand-me down clothes. …Unless it was some new trend she hadn’t heard of.
…No, of course not.
Elmiryn stumbled forward into a run after the animal, and she moved to sweep up her lost sword as she went by. As she did so, spots erupted in her vision and she fell to her knees, where they scraped painfully. Her brow still hurt, and she could feel blood drip down the side of her face. Her ear throbbed and she was certain the large panther (a term she used lightly) had managed to make her bleed a bit there too.
“Hey!” She shouted after it.
Her voice parted and echoed around her.
She was aware the guardian was still in pursuit. She spared it a glance when she took off again. Its inhuman voice reverberated around the oddly lit chamber, lacing with hers in some unholy matrimony, and its body stretched out in bloody rivulets of tendons and flesh. But she felt unconcerned with it. Even with the gain it had managed, the guardian still seemed to lag. Perhaps it was due to exhaustion, or illness, or it could even have been its spiritual ban at work. Regardless, the animal took precedence because Elmiryn couldn’t get her mind over it.
Adrenaline sang through her, and her heart pumped hard in her chest. Her glove felt wet and sticky. The warm moisture actually made her skin itch, but she fought to ignore it. She just couldn’t get over the animal.
…Animal. It was an animal. It was a four-legged…well, wait a moment. It could be a two-legged creature simply running on all fours. It certainly appeared that way.
As the panther ran, it had an awkward motion of the body that rolled, then bumped, rolled, then bumped. First it would push forward with its back legs and stretch its front legs out a bit too wide. Then it would land with an uncomfortable jolt, because it would not bend its forelegs enough. The rear paws would swing forward and tuck in, then the process repeated. It was like a demented leap frog.
Elmiryn got the sense that the creature was holding back so that she could catch up. She thought this awfully obliging, but it was a bizarre consideration coming from a panther…or a cat…or…whatever.
The warrior ran no more gracefully than the creature before her, with her face turned ashen and drenched in sweat–but her abdomen tensed and her throat constricted in barely contained laughter at the absurdity of her situation. Then she got an idea.
They entered a new chamber, but this space still glowed with the same color of light as the last. The rocks here seemed bulbous and undulated in blossoming formations that layered and dipped. As they jumped down from a small plateau-like rock, the woman leaned down (and nearly fell head over heels before she steadied herself) and through harsh pants said, “Hey, did I ever mention to you that I’ve got a thing for hairy women?”
The panther did a curious cross between a growl and a squeak as it turned its broad head toward the woman with jaw hung low and its eyes opened wide. Then its great paws tripped on the uneven ground and it face-planted, rump in the air. Elmiryn beamed and stumbled to a stop before she rounded back and picked the dazed creature up by the back of its clothes. She had to use both hands to do this and leaned back with all her weight to effectively help the creature, who was quite large for a feline. She took note of the damp clothing, and the familiar smell of rusted copper. Belatedly, she wondered where Sedwick was.
When the animal was up again, they took off through a set of limestone columns that reminded Elmiryn of tapioca pudding, and scaled up a rocky wall about ten feet tall that had few footholds. At the top, they went through a small crawl space that could only accommodate one of them at a time. The beast went first. Then Elmiryn followed. She smiled at the being before her, whose ears had been turned flat against its head. Beyond it, she could see nothing but darkness. Still, she felt a warmth in her heart, knowing that she was not alone.
“I’m really glad you’re back, Nyx,” Elmiryn said.
My snout hurt.
I tasted blood in my mouth, and it made me want to snarl. One of my fangs, it seemed, had pierced the inside of my upper lip in that embarrassing misstep. The bleeding had already stopped, but the taste remained just as a ghost haunting me. It didn’t help that I could smell Elmiryn’s blood on her skin. She reeked of it. I suspected that somewhere she was seriously hurt, because the amount I could smell did not match the bit that trickled down the side of her face. My clothes, too, stunk of stale life. It made me crazy.
I scaled the rock wall with a great jump and my claws scraped at the top before they found a crack to grip into. I pulled myself up and slunk through the narrow crawl space that led into darkness. No light illuminated the way. I didn’t pause to consider this as behind me I could hear the creature enter into the chamber. It screeched, and I could hear it slop and slosh against the wall Elmiryn and I had climbed.
My eyes adjusted to the lack of light in this new space, and my whiskers quivered at the slight change of air current…that is to say, I sensed there WAS an air current. I hadn’t even realized it, but where I had been before had lacked any true circulation of air. The environment seemed only to move as I moved, startled out of its complacent drifting as something alive and harried barreled through it. Perhaps that was what contributed to the stench of the caverns. It made me panic for a moment, to think how deep those caverns went, and how far we were lost in them.
My mind was in a flurry, and I thought about all these things. I didn’t glance back to see if Elmiryn was okay. Her breath came in harsh gasps behind me, but her exhaustion didn’t earn much sympathy from me. I couldn’t believe that she was still capable of tomfoolery when we were being accosted by possible death. (doubly so, for my ability to still be bothered by such things, given the situation)
“I’m really glad you’re back, Nyx.”
This, however, made me pause. I turned my head, not quite ready to look at her full on yet. Did Elmiryn know that it was ME, the civilized Nyx, that resided in this bestial body?
I reached the other side of the rock wall. I stepped down onto a slim bit of rock that dropped off clean on one side, as if something had broken it in half, and which sloped gracefully on the other.
Elmiryn sighed. “Nyx, you’ll have to help me. I can’t see shit.” Then she added, like it were just an afterthought, “Oh, by the way. That thing that’s following us? It’s the river guardian. Doesn’t it remind you of that deer we had the other day? It kind of made me hungry.”
I had this overwhelming urge to bite her again. Hard.
“Anyways,” Elmiryn continued, sitting on the little ledge with a sigh as she caught her breath. “I think we can relax for a second. The guardian can’t follow us up here.” She paused and I could hear her shift as she looked back. “Yep. There it goes, back the way it came. It’s bound by a spiritual ban, so that means it has to behave as a river. Rivers don’t flow uphill.”
This was a small comfort. These caverns had proven to be quite confusing. I didn’t doubt the guardian would find us again.
My eyes caught what little light there was, and I saw that this chamber, unlike the others, did not have a clear path to walk. The floor had no even surface, and was littered with sharp broken bits of rock. There was also a lot of water, which I could only sense because of the stagnant smell that came up to my sensitive nose. This made my back bunch, but I could not tell, from where I was, how much water there was exactly, or if a reflection could be seen. There just wasn’t enough light. Overhead, stalactites of great sizes hung from the ceiling. Some came down so low they obscured my view of the other side of the chamber completely.
Despite these daunting obstacles, I made out some flat surfaces that I and Elmiryn could safely use to reach the other side. There were two huge outcroppings on the left, as well as some stalactites that seemed to have been broken off that trailed out of sight. It made me think someone else had been here before, but whatever the reason, it gave us a way to move forward.
I looked at Elmiryn and without thinking I attempted to speak. I tried to tell her, “Grab my tail and follow carefully. Use your hands and feet to feel around.” What came out instead sounded like a small moose calling out as it licked its teeth.
She gave me a bemused look. “Sorry, I don’t speak…whatever that was.”
I growled and whacked her side with my tail as hard as I could. Elmiryn gave a start and stared at it for a moment before she sheathed her sword and grabbed the tail gingerly with her left hand. “Um…” she scratched her head, “Isn’t this kind of a big deal in your culture?”
I looked forward again with a ducked head. In my culture, an Ailuran’s tail, despite widespread misconceptions, was not so much a sexual object, but rather, a means of intimacy. My brothers pulled my tail whenever I bothered them, and my mother used to brush her tail along my side in a show of affection. I did not let myself dwell on the fact that Elmiryn was holding it. I tried to think of it in a practical sense. Like keeping balance or marking a trail.
I carefully padded down the smooth slope of the rock I stood on, and resisted the urge to yank myself out of Elmiryn’s grip when I felt her caress my fur a bit.
My companion followed well enough, but her breath was shallow. We had to move slowly so that she could see where to go. I was lucky that we didn’t need to jump any huge spaces. I wasn’t sure how to get the warrior to follow me safely if we did.
I gave a little hop to the outcrop and I felt Elmiryn’s grip on my tail tighten. “I can kind of see…what is that? A boulder? Nyx, is that a boulder?” She asked.
My only answer was to jerk my tail. She hesitated. I wondered how well she could make out her surroundings, given her curse. We had been together for so little time when you thought about it. How much faith did the warrior have in me to trust my judgment, especially given the state I was in?
Elmiryn stretched and crawled onto the outcrop with me.
“Hey, why are we crawling around up on these things for, anyway? What’s down below on the cave floor?” the woman asked. It wasn’t as if I could give her a real answer. The way she spoke though, made me hesitate.
In the few days I had known her, I had heard Elmiryn’s voice take on many dimensions. This was one I had not yet encountered. It was a voice not weak in spirit, but in body. My mind returned to the heavy stench of blood that emanated from her, and I realized with a great spike of anxiety that she had lost a lot more than I thought. So much, that I was no longer certain we would even be able to safely cross the room together.
On the second outcrop, I stopped and looked back at the woman. Perhaps it was the fact that we weren’t running anymore, that the monster wasn’t bearing down on us, or that our concentrated efforts were no longer focused on just running fast, but moving carefully…whatever the reason, Elmiryn’s adrenaline and energy seemed to be giving out. I could see her body shake, even as she sat crouched like a gargoyle against the backdrop of dark shadows.
I looked toward our destination. From where I was, with my view no longer impeded by the stalactites that seemed to plague the center of the area, I realized that the chamber actually continued further than I thought. Through a jagged arch, I could see many passages yards away, and they stood out in the sea of ink with natural light. I know it was natural, because it did not glare in sharp contrast as the other routes had…instead, the light seemed feeble, like it spilled from a more open source further on.
…I looked back at Elmiryn with a long face.
She smelled so close to death…so much so that the unnaturalness of the caves seemed to eagerly become one with her.
I wasn’t even sure about the pools of water I saw down below. I peered down at them, leaning over the edge of the outcrop as much as I dared. There still wasn’t enough light on this side to offer a proper reflection. Were the river guardian’s familiars lurking below, waiting for us?
I felt Elmiryn’s grip on my tail disappear and gazed at her in alarm.
She had sat back onto her rump, one knee bent, the other leg tucked beneath it. She rested her head on her bent knee and I couldn’t see her face. “Nyx…” she said quietly. “I think…I know…what you’re thinking.” Elmiryn looked at me, and though her eyes landed on me, they didn’t focus. This was hardly surprising–it was so dark I imagine her human eyes could barely make out a thing–but in them was a distance I found disturbing.
“I want you to go. I decided…” then she smiled a smile that spread far across her face. “I decided I’m going to die.”
My guts turned to ice.“Hey. No look, really. It’s fine. I’ve got it all worked out. I’m not surrendering, or anything. That definition is different. It’s completely different, so it’s all fine.”
Inside, I could hear the other hissing.
I shook my head and my eyes burned. I turned around fully and pawed at Elmiryn’s knee as a mewl came from the back of my throat. She reached up to pat my head, then seemed to think better of it and brushed the side of my face with her right hand instead. Tears matted my fur, and the warrior wiped these away, tsking.
“Cut that crap out. I don’t appreciate your silly human antics. Cats don’t cry, remember?” Then she grumbled in a darker tone when I butted her hand with my head, “Seriously. Quit it. You’ve no fucking reason to get upset. Just run.” She gave me a little shove.
I’m not sure which hurt more. The fact that she was speaking in such fatalistic tones, or the fact that I wanted to do exactly as she asked. Inside, I could feel my other self pace anxiously. As far as she was concerned, Elmiryn was of no more use to us.
I hesitated. Elmiryn seemed so beyond me, which must sound odd, but I find it difficult to put into words. …Given my state, I suppose that would’ve been appropriate. But the heaviness that seemed to weigh down on her, like life was threatening to crush her…I became afraid. I stared at her, nose flaring, trying to find a scent that would tell me there was a chance for her.
All I could perceive was my own end.I took one step back and felt my chest pull. I could feel baser instincts urge my legs to move, but I wasn’t sure in what direction. Elmiryn had turned her face away from me. It wasn’t shame really. Her face had turned to the cavern floor in what appeared to be a lazy interest, and she leaned forward to get a better view. It was like I didn’t matter anymore.
…Which wasn’t fair at all.I turned, claws scraping on the rock, and bounded away to the broken stalactites where I balanced on them awkwardly like little stepping stones. I then leaped up onto a rocky bed, which was some five feet from the ground.
On the other side, I was met with a floor that seemed to be made of glass. There were many smooth and reflective surfaces, lit by a light that came to the chamber to die.
Nervously, I touched down to a dry spot on the ground and leaned over to gaze in one of the many pools that stood between me and freedom. I gave a start for a moment, before I realized that the face I saw in the water was indeed mine. I blinked and straightened. The uneven ground separated the little bodies of water. I moved cautiously forward through the spaces in between, head low as I glanced into each pool to see my dark face stare back at me. The minutes ticked by, and they felt like forever. My paws tread on lit rock, and my heart lifted in bittersweet joy.
I was almost there.
Then I heard a splash behind me and a giggle that faded into some drawn out alien sound. I stopped and looked back with a whip of my head, my ears perked and strained in the direction of the noise. It unraveled in the air around me, and I didn’t hear a person, but an animal lost.
Before I could stop to consider what it was I was doing, I began to run back the way I came. Haste and worry dispelled my consideration for the waters I had been so fearful of, and my bandaged paws splashed through them. The thought of Elmiryn dying put me in such a state that–
[Her words became nebulous and distant. Inside, she was in conflict. She wished to live and wished to be rid of that nightmarish place…but to go on alone in a world eager to swallow her was just as terrifying. She sought out her only friend.]
I grasped at the word and clumsily made a return to myself as I come again to the jagged arch.
I didn’t understand the woman who hid a lover in her voice, a child in the gleam of an intoxicated gaze, and an unflinching soldier by the sweep of her sword. But she was sincere, even in her risky attempt to save me, and beyond our conflicts in character, there was one thing I was certain of.
Elmiryn was my friend, and I didn’t want to see her die…
…by any definition of the word.