Bassi stopped outside the old inn and turned to me with a subdued smile. “Sorry about that, I am not used to being around so many that I don’t… well, control.”
“It’s okay,” I said, shrugging and glancing around the area.
This region was all rolling hills and lazy streams of filthy water. Once upon a time, it would have been fertile and bustling with life. I could see entire nations rising and falling on this land, its once nutrient rich soil feeding their armies.
“Did you actually want to scout the area, or did you have something else in mind?” she asked after a few moments of companionable silence.
“Honestly, I’m down for anything,” I shrugged. I’d just wanted to get her alone, away from everyone else.
“We should run ahead along our intended path tomorrow,” she decided after a few moment’s thought. “Kill anything we find. The scent of death is a powerful ward out in the wastes.”
I frowned and glanced down the road. “It won’t attract the attention of predators?”
“Not out here, no,” she said with a humourless smile. “There are no predators out here, at least none that would be drawn in by blood, in the hopes of a free meal.”
“That seems unlikely,” I said neutrally, stepping over to take her hand. “Shall we get moving, then?”
“The predators that are left out here are the kind that can think,” she shrugged, staring down at our intertwined fingers. “It’s going to be hard to run if we’re holding hands.”
“Let’s just walk for a bit,” I told her, leaning in against her side.
She seemed to get what I wanted then, and pressed an affectionate kiss to my temple. It was funny how back on Earth I would have been paralyzed by the idea of being like this. It was always the girl who cuddled up to the guy and insisted they hold hands. Guys didn’t do that, it wasn’t masculine.
Well, fuck masculinity. It could burn for all I cared, I was just me, Mist. Feminine, strong, happy. Earlier though, Bassi had said that I was a woman, and that also didn’t feel… it was right, but it wasn’t the whole equation.
“Bassi,” I asked quietly, glancing up at her. “You said I was a woman earlier, but you also mentioned that I was halwan…”
Her expression went from inquisitive and curious, to soft and affectionate. “Yes, I did. Have you thought about it some more?”
“I… I think you’re right,” I said shyly. “I don’t mind being a woman, I sort of like it, actually, but it feels like a… like a shoe that’s too big for my feet. It’s the right general shape, but it’s missing something. Sometimes I just don’t feel like I want to be attached to the concepts of man or woman at all, and then other days I love the way you make me feel so damned feminine and beautiful.”
“Why must you be a woman to be feminine and beautiful?” she asked, tilting her head in confusion, snake pupils so wide they were almost circular. “Even if humans struggle with the concept of ah… I am not sure of the word for it in the human tongue, but it is yonbinran. Humans are notoriously closed and ignorant when it comes to the nature of the spirit, but we all have a… a shape. Sometimes, when we are born, that shape will fit with the body we are given and the role our society places on us. Sometimes, it will not, and we must fight to remake ourselves and our place in the world to match what our soul desires.”
“So… what, my shape doesn’t match how I was made manifest in uh… reality, I guess?” I mused, breaking the eye contact between us to look around at the slowly passing road. “How do I know what my shape is then?”
“You keep iterating on yourself, you keep shifting and changing what you can until you feel it slot into place,” she said, then grinned. “It is like picking a lock. You cannot see how the pins line up from the outside. You must instead carefully inspect and tease out the combination through trial and error. Each time you think you have a pin in place, you turn the tension wrench to see if it will bind.”
I snorted and looked back up at her smiling face, wishing that we could stop so I could sneak a kiss onto her lips. “That’s a really good explanation, actually.”
“I thought you would like it,” she whispered, voice going all low and sensual. Unlike me, she chanced a bashing of teeth together in order to lay a warm, soft kiss onto my lips. Her eyes sparkled as she pulled away. “My little halwan.”
“I still like a woman’s pronouns, though,” I said, perhaps a little breathlessly. “I like being called she, or maybe they, or… well yeah just those, actually. He is too close to what I used to be.”
“Then I will use those when describing you, and make everyone else use them too,” she told me, like it was nothing. It wasn’t nothing to me though, and I stayed silent for several minutes, fighting to keep my heart beating at a regular rhythm. Where would I be without this amazing woman by my side?
I wonder if us humans from earth had figured out anything along the lines of halwan and yonbinran. If so, would anyone know? Probably either Beth or Joan, if I had to guess. None of the guys would know, guys were by and large pretty clueless about shit like this.
A sudden, almost violent wave of affection for Bassi caused me to stop in my tracks and close my eyes. Goddess, how far could you fall for someone? Was there a limit?
Bassi and I both jumped, startled as a small, whipping sound interrupted us.
Her swords were out in an instant, and I was all shadows, claws, and barbed tail. Who in the fuck dared to get in the way of a quiet moment with my lover?
Another disturbance in the air flicked past us again, where we had been just before we turned to face our foe. The projectile looked like blackened, diseased blood, and this time it hit a dead shrub, where it sizzled and burned like acid.
It took a moment to figure out where it was, but pinpointing its location just raised more questions than it answered. A miasma of scab-red dust swirled in a haze some thirty meters away, obscuring a sinuous shape within its reality-bending mass. Only two malevolent yellow eyes were clearly visible through the cloud.
“What the fuck is that?” I asked, poised to leap out of the way at the next sign of attack.
“Rotcrawler,” Bassi replied, eyeing our enemy up warily. “These things are normally way out in the far reaches of the wastes. What one is doing here… I don’t know.”
The monster’s eyes glowed brighter for a brief moment right as she finished talking, and a tiny piece of its disgusting cloud flickered out towards us. Bassi was ready, however, and with an artful twist of her blade, a dense gust of air deflected the projectile.
“The cloud is corrosive, as you can see,” she told me quickly. “It shouldn’t affect your shadow stuff though. We need to kill the worm that’s floating in the middle of that gunk. It’s reasonably vulnerable to magic, but physical attacks won’t do a whole lot. That means my swords are useless, so I’m going to use my wind to blow the cloud away, then you strike. It will reform the cloud quickly, so you’ll have to be fast.”
“Got it.” Bassi was in charge when it came to fighting, she was infinitely more experienced than me. She was in charge in the bedroom too, but that was beside the point.
I watched and waited as she eyed up our foe, sheathing one of her sabers so she could wield one with both hands. She looked almost like a samurai with it arched back and down, ready to strike when she figured the time was right.
Except, that’s not what happened. Around us, as if they had been waiting for us to square up, four more of the rotcrawlers slithered out from hiding places.
Alarm surged, and I instinctively turned to place my back towards Bassi, even as she did the same. The moment hung in the air, frozen in time like a movie director was pulling the strings of reality. Something sliced through my consciousness, a cold line that I could feel in my brain like something physical.
I stood there, breathing heavily, tense and ready for time to… for…
“What the fuck,” Bassi blurted, her voice high and tight, like a drawn crossbow.
Time… hadn’t restarted. This wasn’t some cinematic movie shot. It really had slowed to a crawl.
Carefully, I reached behind to touch her, placing a clawed hand around her bicep. “This isn’t your wind, is it?” I asked, sounding frustratingly scared and small.
“No, it is not,” she said, then shucked off my hand and stepped forward cautiously. “My magic allows me to control the flow of air, and to move at great speed. It does not afford me a swiftness of mind, not like this.”
I eyed the strange monsters that had ambushed us with a veritable mountain of suspicion. “What is it then? Was it them?”
“No,” she murmured, then began to move. “It doesn’t matter right now, though. I will see if my wind still works, and we will cut them down.”
She didn’t wait for me to finish, instead just slashing upwards in a blindingly fast cut that sent a wave of wind out in front of her. Dust shot up into the air along its trajectory, only to stay there, frozen as its permission to move within time was revoked again.
The disgusting cloud of rotting blood around the worm was the same, exploding out in all directions, where it stayed. I moved quickly, leaping forward and through the shadows to slice the spindly, skeletal monster clean in two. Hopefully it wouldn’t just grow into two more worms like that one earth species did.
We cut down three more of the worms in the following ten or so seconds of subjective time before the world began to move again. The last two were so startled by the sudden blindingly fast movement of their adversaries that they barely got off a shot each before they too had been bisected by blades of shadow.
The whole thing was quick, brutal, and methodical, but when we were done, Bassi and I stood there among the carnage and stared into each other’s eyes. What had just happened? Why had time just stopped?