TWILIGHT’S DREAMING, CHAPTER 2

CHAPTER 2

Speaking without words

A night of laughter and fear

Divine punishment

“Many a lonely year passed as Hayaoh wandered the world with only his sword for company. His heart of stone was hard and cold and heavy within his chest for so long that he grew to used to its burden; its weight became as much a part of him as his breath, as his soul. Young and hopeful bucks often dared themselves to cross his path as tales of him spread, hoping to challenge and defeat the samurai of legend. These he slew, one and all, and the countless faces of those that he cut down ran together in his mind like spilled paint, becoming indistinguishable from one another…”

[Excerpt from The Legend of Hayaoh, a collection of squirrel folklore, circa Year 500]

 

“All right,” said Naole. The doe’s bush-like tail twitched back and forth, and her hazel eyes shone with anticipation. “One more time.” She pointed to herself.

Less than a second went by before the hybrid’s large hands and long, spindly fingers began to move. <Na-o-re.> His gestures were delivered with impressive skill and accuracy… save for that last syllable, which was the closest equivalent. Rendering her name in Old Standard had always been a tricky prospect.

“Good. And her?” Naole indicated their new companion, who sat tending the fire as she watched. The flames made contrasting patterns of shadow in her deep blue fur, and danced in the cloudy grey of her eyes.

<A-ri-a!> he signed.

“Good! What about you?”

Beaming, he pointed at himself and signed: <Re-gi-o-n!>

“Perfect!” Naole pounced and seized Legion in a hug, unable to restrain herself. She felt his fur bristle, and wondered if she had startled him… but then his long arms wrapped around her in return, and she laughed, delighted to hear the wheezing barks that meant Legion was laughing along with her.

“Your way with him is astonishing, Sister Takaishi. You make an excellent teacher,” said Aria, basking in the glow of shared triumph. An outsider would have found it difficult to believe that only a few weeks ago, Naole Takaishi and her bizarre new friend could only communicate in the vaguest of terms, through scent and body language. One might suspect that there was a kind of magic at work, for now Legion could not only communicate, but ask questions, express his feelings, and ponder new ideas. He proved himself to be a fast learner with an excellent memory; truth be told, these reminder exercises were quickly becoming unnecessary. Every word in Old Standard was composed of one or more of the same forty-nine syllables, so it was only a matter of remembering those forty-nine and learning the vocabulary. Still they continued, because Legion enjoyed doing them and Naole enjoyed teaching them.

How strange, thought Aria, that the multitude of possibilities led her here, to these two remarkable people. Up until she met them, her life had been a largely solitary one. Even among the wolfoxes, who integrated the mystic arts into their culture to an extent only rivaled by the ferrets, the average sentient tended to treat seers with caution, if not outright distrust. Most folk did not care for the thought of strangers being aware of their futures. Aria was given a humble upbringing among her kind, provided with the resources she needed, and politely encouraged to make her living elsewhere, apart from the wandering tribes. She accepted this without complaint; and why not? She saw the possibility well beforehand, and had time to prepare for it coming to pass.

Perhaps it was different for other seers, Aria did not know. In her experience, there were certainly enough differing ideas as to whether life was a rigid, predetermined path or an endless branching series of choices. For her, it was the latter: every possible event, every possible outcome lead to a new path, and she saw glimpses of them all. It was her gift… or her curse, some would say.

Aria did not mind. For the most part, she enjoyed her solitude out here in Tasakeru, where there were far fewer people and far less noise. Since she was not technically an Outcast, she was free to visit Unify when she needed to. She had made peace with all the ugly glances and mistrustful stares that she attracted inside the city walls; those were part of being a wolfox. It hardly mattered, for the people who did feel comfortable in her presence to ask for readings generally paid well. Not much, but well enough.

Still, how strange it was, these past few weeks, to have such lasting company… and to enjoy it. And from a Sister of the Silver Order, no less! Unlike most Order devotees, Naole bore her no malice. From her, there was only deep gratitude… gratitude for saving them, for inviting them into their home, for giving Legion his first real food and first real clothing…

As if he could hear the word in her thoughts, Legion’s long ears perked. He knew he had done well, and he knew what came after doing well. <Food?> he signed, grinning.

“You’re shameless.” Naole put her hands on her hips, as if dealing with a rebellious kit. Which she was, in a way. “Yes, you can have some food. What would you like, as if I didn’t know?”

Now his ears stood straight up. There were no secrets with this one; anyone who knew what to look for in his body language could read him like a book. <Jerky!> His hands moved in a wild blur. <Jerky jerky jerky jerky jerky!>

“All right, all right!” said Naole over a fresh fit of laughter. An outside observer might think he was having some kind of seizure. She reached into a drawstring goatskin pouch that hung at her side, the same material as the loincloth that was currently Legion’s only item of clothing. His proportions weren’t exactly right for standard tunics and trousers; his limbs were too long and gangly, and he disliked the way that fabric felt against the slight hunch between his shoulders. At least part of the aversion was his wolf blood, Naole suspected. Wolves seldom if ever wore clothes. The fondness for meat was most likely from his wolf blood, too. “Here,” she said, drawing out a strip of salted, cured pork with deliberate slowness. Teasing Legion was fun, but only to a point. “Enjoy your meal!”

It was a good thing she had learned by now to toss jerky strips his way rather than attempt to hand them over. After his first taste of pigboar jerky, he developed a ravenous addiction, and it took an entire day for him to learn to stop lunging for the strips whenever Naole’s hand went near the bag.

Aria chuckled and stoked the fire. “You have certainly done it now, Sister. Heavens help anyone in the city who stands between him and his favorite meal.”

In the midst of much noise of gnawing and gnashing of teeth, Legion grunted what sounded like his general approval.

Naole shook her head and closed the bag… tightly, with a quadruple knot. Legion had very agile fingers. “By the time we’re ready to go to the city, he’ll be all right, I’m sure. They may look at him funny at first, but they’ll see that he has a good heart.”

Aria said nothing. No need to trouble the child with harsh realities, that would spoil her mood.

<Heart?> Having finished his jerky, Legion tilted his head and mouthed the word as best he could.

“Oh, sorry. This.” Naole patted her chest just below her ribcage. “The thing in your chest that goes doki-doki.”

<Doki-doki!> That he knew. For emphasis, he tapped his spindly fingers on the surface of the log he sat on, one after the other, in a fair approximation of a heartbeat. That was another gift they had discovered… those long rabbit ears made him a natural at picking up a rhythm.

Aria’s influence likely helped with that. The corner of her lip turned up in a sly smile as she reached for the ornate brass miniature harp at her side, the harp that was never far from her grasp. As it happened, the rhythm of a typical sentient heartbeat meshed almost flawlessly with iambic pentameter, the old form that most wolfoxes preferred. Her fingers strummed the taut strings, keeping in time with Legion’s tapping. There was no melody just yet, only wandering notes. A melody would come to her… one almost always did, for it was in music, in song that her visions were the clearest. One-two, one-two, one-two, one-two, one-two… slowly, gradually, the notes wove together and coalesced into chords, following the beat. Aria began to sing, her voice soft but strong:

 

“See how she flees, the maiden runaway

For whom approaches soon her darkest day

And surely as the evening turns to night

Her many buried truths will come to light…”

 

That was all for now. A simple song, a simple prophecy. Nothing more. Aria placed the harp down, sighed, and shook her head. “Not a happy vision, I am afraid. Not many are.”

Naole felt a chill that had nothing to do with the rising dusk, a chill that made all her tail fur stand on end.

By contrast, Legion’s yellow eyes shone with happiness. He loved music, whether or not he could understand the lyrics. When his nose picked up the change in Naole’s scent, though, his ears drooped. <Na-o-re- sad? Why?>

“It’s… complicated,” she admitted. To Aria: “If most of your visions aren’t happy ones… isn’t that exhausting?”

Aria sighed and leaned backward on her log, gazing up at the stars just beginning to wink in the velvet sky. “More exhausting than you know, Sister. More exhausting than you know.”

 


 

At twilight, she walks down the dusty dirt path. It is a road she has not tread in many years, but her feet still know it well… they advance toward her destination of their own accord. She would try to stop herself, but there is a disconnect between her mind and body, one ignoring the wishes of the other. Vaguely, she senses that she should be more alarmed about this, but cool fog dampens her thoughts.

As the hill crests gently up ahead, she knows what she will see. Tendrils of cold dread creep through the fog of unfeeling, and the thought echoes within her once again: I should not be here.

There are no trees here, no steep rocky hills like in the forest she now calls her home. The land is gently rolling fields of grass, as far as her eyes can see. Far behind her to the north-east is the shape of Unify, ensconced within its great circular walls, the branches of the Shinju spread out over it like fingers. It looks so small from here, barely the size of her hand. From here, all the memories associated with the city are distant and fleeting… but the memories of the place ahead grow sharper and clearer with every step.

I should not be here.

At the top of the hill, she sees it at last: a clumsy, uneven little red clay cottage with a thatched straw roof, in the center of a field overgrown with weeds. The cottage is a ruin, long since abandoned, a skeleton of its former self. The straw thatching has been largely blown away, leaving great bald patches, and many of the roof’s eaves have collapsed into the upper floor. The walls and supports are crumbling, with great swathes of the structure collapsing in on themselves… from thirty meters away, she can hear the eerie creaking and sighing that accompanies a place left to rot.

Tears well in her eyes. She can remember when the cottage was surrounded by an explosion of life and greenery, of flowers in every color and vegetables of every variety, arranged in neat planting rows that took five minutes to cross from one end to the other. She remembers the heady bouquet of all that life surging back from its slumber every spring, how all those wonderful smells would be the first thing she woke to in the mornings: irises, lilies, roses, and daisies, but also fennel, sage, thyme, and rosemary… and out in the fields there would be vines of great, red, ripe tomatoes. Bumpy white clouds of cauliflower. Giant, starchy tubers buried deep in fertile soil. Rows upon rose of sweet and succulent berries hidden in hedges…

All of that was gone now. Now, only weeds grew in this place, choking the life out of its sad, forgotten remains. And, she knows, it is all her fault.

All her fault.

I should not be here.

As the phrase drifts through her mind once again, something stirs within the corpse of the cottage. She panics and wishes to run, but her feet are frozen to the path, her body is paralyzed. She cannot even blink; she watches as sinister black branches crawl from the ruins of the cottage like snakes, each one bristling with thorns. They wrap themselves around what little of the cottage is still standing, burying it in themselves, strangling it…

Stop! She attempts to cry, but no sound comes from her mouth. Stop it, please! I know it’s my fault, I’m sorry! Stop it!

Somehow, the thorned branches still hear her. They race along the dirt path in black streams, crawling over her frozen form, thorns digging deep into her flesh. They grasp, and they pull… she is dragged down the familiar dirt path to the cottage, scraped against the dry stones, her fur dotted with blood in a hundred places from the thorns’ embrace. They pull her inexorably toward the cottage’s door, still standing closed and impassable as it was on that awful night, through the walls supporting it are gone…

She is three meters from the door when the cottage bursts into flames. Fire consumes the ruin in moments, clouds of acrid black smoke blot out the evening sky. Everything is burning, withering away, crumbling to ash. Only the thorned branches branches are spared from the blaze; they pull her through the door and into the very heart of the inferno, still paralyzed, unable to resist, unable to scream, unable to blink as her fur and hair begin to burn…

 


 

“No!” The word was on Hanami’s lips as she jolted awake. Again, it happened again. The last thing she remembered was sitting down on her couch, desperately needing to rest her eyes… the nightmares refused to let her have any proper sleep, and she was so tired… She thought she would take just a short little nap, a quick rest of her weary eyes. Now this…

Hanami curled herself into a miserable little ball, wrapping her tail around herself as she shivered. No rest, no sleep, no mercy. Every nightmare was worse than the last, and they all felt so real… too real. Too real, and too specific to be the kind of random, surreal nightmares she was used to.

Why is this happening? Drawing herself tighter into her ball, she bit her lip to stop herself from sobbing aloud. What’s happening to me? She thought she knew the answer, it was something she long suspected, but… but the thought that it might be true after all this time dismissing it as a baseless worry…

But the nightmares refused to let her sleep. They would not let her rest, not even for a few moments, and she was so tired… There was only one conclusion that made sense, a sobering realization that carried with it both dread and an awful sense of calmness, of acceptance. It was with resigned, bitter sadness that she uncurled herself and took the Mage Flower from its perch behind her left ear. As it lay there in her palms, the fading glow from Haven Grove’s round windows cast her flower in a light that looked… almost sinister.

I’m being punished.

The thought was horrible, but accepting it at last… it gave her a strange sense of peace.

I’m being punished.

I should not be here.

 

END OF CHAPTER 2

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NEXT CHAPTER ->

Aside

4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: TWILIGHT’S DREAMING, CHAPTER 1 | Tasakeru
  2. TechUnadept
    Jul 02, 2018 @ 12:31:07

    Hurrah, it’s back!

    Like

    Reply

  3. Trackback: TWILIGHT’S DREAMING, CHAPTER 3 | Tasakeru

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