"Are you satisfied now?"
Shouo lay in bed, trembling feverishly.
"No wonder the damn Lanyonin came after her!" Haki huffed, dumping a cloth in cool water and slapping it onto Shouo's forehead.
"You just let her! I can't believe that you just let her - ugh!" Haki stood up, brushing his hair away from his face, annoyed as all hell. "If you wanted to die so badly, you should've told me. I'd gladly have obliged."
Shouo chuckled weakly.
"Don't laugh, damn you."
"I did not mean to worry you." He smiled up at Haki. "Forgive me."
Haki looked away, hiding his face.
I had a dream of home, of the old days.
It was summer, and I lay on a patch of grass under a bunch of gnarly old trees. Somewhere nearby there was a playground, and the sounds of playing children reached my ears, ebbing and flowing like the tide.
I got up, drawn towards the children.
When I got there, the playground was empty except for one child. He sat on a bench that encircled a large oak tree, picking at a hole in the right leg of his pants.
I came and sat next to him, noticing that I was much older than he was. I don't know why, but it made me feel sad. Like I'd lost out on something precious. We said nothing for a while, just sat next to each other, watching the empty playground.
The little boy looked awfully familiar, with a head of soft, raven hair and gently tanned skin; he was wearing jeans and an old 'Sonic the Hedgehog' T-shirt. He looked like a kid I used to know.
Realization struck my mind like a sledgehammer.
He looked like…!
'Don't tell me you've forgotten me already.'
I jumped at the sound of a young man's voice emerging from the throat of a kid no older than 6.
'Rude as ever, I see.'
I stared at him, but his face bore no hint of what was inside. The kid smiled at me, bounced off the bench and ran for the sandbox.
When I reached him, he had already piled two buckets of sand on top of each other and was patting them into a solid tower. I guess he slapped it one too many times, because suddenly the whole thing crumbled and fell. I sat down next to him and began to pile sand into a small, blood-red bucket.
'Geez, how many times have I told you–!' I stopped, surprised by how much it sounded like I was talking to an old friend.
'Now you remember,' he said, his voice contradicting his face.
I shook my head in disbelief. 'You're gone.'
'No, I'm not – I'll never be gone.'
Sorrow sloshed around in my gut like liquid lead, the heavy weight of memories almost suffocating me. There'd been something he'd wanted me to do for him, something way too hard for me to deal with. 'I couldn't do it,' I confessed.
The kid came towards me, patting my face with his tiny hands. I felt the rough caress of sand on my face, felt the force of time within the grains.
'Why?' I asked. 'Why bother if you knew you were gonna leave? Why force me to make such a promise?'
The little boy smiled. 'I wonder.'
'I'm trapped. Trapped in some god-forsaken hole, and there's no going back. I can't even…' I swallowed hard, trying not to cry. 'I can't even help myself.'
'Layla, my queen.' The child gave me a kiss on the forehead. 'There is no limit to what you can do. Everybody knows it and so should you.'
'Yeah, right – if I believed that, then I'd have believed it when you were…' Pain ate at my chest, making the tiny void grow a little wider.
'Who else brought me here – you dense, lovely girl?' he whispered tenderly. His voice sent spikes of fire down my throat; I hugged the boy, crying into his shirt. I missed him – much more than I believed possible; far more than I can ever explain, or even attempt to say.
It was too late anyway.
'Before you awaken,' I heard him say, his deep voice rumbling within the small child's body, 'there's something I need to tell you.'
'Don't lose it.'
I let the boy go, and he stared at me with owlish, painfully familiar eyes. Overhead, the clouds began to swirl into a thick, soupy grey mix, and crows stalked the indigo sky. Their cries were disturbing, piercing straight through my ears and into my brain, making it difficult for me to hear anything at all.
'There's something important they want you to forget, to misplace. Do not, under any circumstances, let them get their way!'
'What thing? Who are you talking about?'
I strained to hear him, but somehow he had already vanished from me. I stood alone, in the empty sandbox beneath a stormy sky, the crows glaring down at me from above.
The wind haunted the trees around me, and I felt as if the end of the world had come for everybody else, leaving me behind in a lonely limbo.
'Remember, Layla -' he whispered in my ear, unseen.
'- I love only you.'
I opened my eyes… but couldn't escape the terrible ache in my heart.
I stood near the window, looking at Haki. There seemed to be no hint of anger on his face, not even annoyance. I couldn't hide my surprise.
"Please, come and eat with us," he repeated.
I didn't know what to say, so I simply nodded and followed him.
We walked through a long, quiet hall, its walls penetrated in intervals by impossibly tall windows that let the sea breeze flow through the house. His footsteps echoed loudly through the hall; I didn't wear any shoes, so my feet didn't make much noise. Thin white curtains danced near the roof of the hallway, brushing the tops of our heads every once in a while.
I wondered what I could say to ease the strain between us.
He turned towards me, wearing that strangely off-key smile.
"I'm so sorry."
He nodded, and I felt relieved.
"I forgot that this isn't easy for you," he said, reaching out and putting his hand on the top of my head. "We all make mistakes, so…"
"Is he okay?"
"Yes, he's alright."
It still felt a little awkward.
We turned a corner and reached the end of the hallway. There was a door there, beyond which, he informed me, lay the kitchen. Haki opened the door and, without a word, pushed me through.
The first impression I had of this room was its size: it was big, but comfortable at the same time, almost cozy. The walls were of a warm, light-colored wood that was almost white. Herbs and flowers hung from the rafters, and an aroma of fresh-baked bread and honey permeated the air.
I walked into the room, surprised by its simple beauty.
"This house is so…" I turned to Haki. "My mother always dreamed of a kitchen like this, you know?"
The walls were decorated with cooking utensils of all forms, and a small black iron stove stood hidden away in a corner of the room, next to some old-fashioned shelves and cupboards. Everything looked so familiar that it made me wonder if I had really left Earth. The middle of the kitchen was occupied by an almost ridiculously long table, made of a rough dark wood. It was odd, how much I enjoyed the absence of plastic and cold metal corners. This kitchen, this house… it was a living thing.
I felt like I'd gone back in time – several centuries' worth of it.
"Take a walk," he said, holding something that looked like a vase in one hand and a wooden spatula in the other. "Shouo may be outside in the garden."
He nodded towards the far end of the kitchen.
I walked towards it, seeing that there was a doorway leading outside. I could hear Haki messing around behind me, and smiled to myself.
The grass tickled my ankles as I waded, still shoeless, out into the garden beyond the doorway. It was strange how tall the grass was, reaching up to my hips. I had barely left the kitchen, but it was as if I had stepped out into another world. Plants were everywhere, forming a green cocoon around me and shutting out the sunlight. I guessed I was in a space the size of a football field, hedged by wild, overgrown bushes and dotted with trees of varying sizes and species. Everything was heavily laden with fruit; bulbous, apple-like purple things hung from many of the branches, as well as other weirdly spiny fruits.
Here and there attempts at order had been made and abandoned. I could see regular patches, where things like cabbages and carrots and potatoes might be grown, totally overrun with weeds and odd, blood-red flowers.
It was a beautiful oasis, something they'd perhaps made together. It made me wonder how much my presence was disrupting their normal routine. I could hear the quiet roar of the ocean nearby, reminding me of what I had almost done yesterday. Although he had brought me here against my will and essentially destroyed my old life, it was thanks to him that I was alive right now.
I smiled, thinking: 'Alive to bitch about it.'
His actions did not give me the excuse or the right to want him dead. I smiled at my thoughts, knowing somewhere deeper that I didn't hate him.
Something in me refused to hate Shouo.
I decided to follow the hedge, walking all the way around the garden and back here. I wouldn't think about anything, just walk and enjoy the view, the faint sun and the gentle breeze.
I was halfway around when I heard an odd humming sound.
It was Shouo, sitting on the ground and hidden by the grass, dressed in a simple pale green shirt and brown trousers. He hadn't seen me yet, totally absorbed in his work. I approached as quietly as possible.
He was bent over something, his dreads tied back and away from his face with something that looked like twine. I noticed he wasn't wearing shoes either. Shouo continued to hum, his hands cupping something on the ground.
I leaned forward to look at it.
"Be careful," he whispered, startling me.
A wavering, blue-tinged light melted out of his fingers. He pushed his hands together the way kids do when they're making a mud ball, and then suddenly opened them. A small globe the size of a big marble floated slowly down, landing in a hole in the ground.
After a few seconds, something green emerged from the dirt, raising its head towards the sky. Then it burst open, sprinkling tiny glittering things all over the ground nearby. It stopped glowing, and I saw that it was a tiny, brilliantly purple flower, shaped like a star.
I straightened up and looked out over the field where the sparkling seeds had been strewn – and was surprised at the sight of purple flowers popping up everywhere, even under my feet! They burst open all over the place, sparkling almost brighter than the sun.
"Oh my God!" I cried, amazed at such a sight.
He stood up too, brushing the dirt off of his trousers. There was a small smile on his face which he struggled to hide.
"I can't believe you made them grow!" I lifted my foot, making way for yet another one of the little flowers that decided it just had to pop up there.
"I cannot 'make' them grow – I only… encourage them." Shouo scratched his head modestly. "I'm just quietly waking them up, suggesting that they grow."
I stared at him. "Flowers have minds?"
"No, of course not." He thought a little. "They have… the closest description would be a 'spirit'. They have a spirit, which is what allows them to grow."
I thought about it a little. "So can you get them to grow in winter?"
He gave me an odd look. "…'Winter'?"
"Uh," I scratched my head. "You know, the time of year when the air and everything becomes cold."
"Ah, no," he said, finally getting it. "No, I cannot – it goes against their nature. It is wrong to keep something alive any longer than it should be." I noticed an odd expression on his face – too fleeting for me to be sure I'd even seen it.
"Well, this place is beautiful," I told him. "It's almost like the plants back home don't even compare…" The plants in his field seemed an awful lot greener than the ones I remembered from back home. Hell, even the earth was fragrant; and the sky was an absurdly bright blue. This small difference between my home and Shouo's home filled me with an embarrassing sense of nostalgia; I forced my mind onto other things. Like the reason I had come out here in the first place.
I looked at him, wondering if this was the right time to speak.
I shrugged, figuring I might as well get it over with.
"I'm sorry, Shouo. I shouldn't have… hurt you yesterday." I stared at the ground, embarrassed to death. "It was terrible of me."
I felt him take my hands; it startled me, how rough his palms were… and warm. "You are no more at fault than I am. I too have done something terrible to you; it is I who has hurt you more."
We gazed at each other, each occupied with our own thoughts.
"Can you trust me, Layla?" he asked. "I will tell you absolutely everything, but I need some time. Can you wait for me?"
His eyes were doing odds things to my heart-rate, and I smiled uncertainly.
"I'll wait," I told him, "But I won't wait forever."
After our confrontation, I sensed a change in Shouo's manner, as if a tightly wound knot had eased up a little. Consequently, Haki's eyes too lost their cold look. It made me happy that they had forgiven me. I really felt bad about what I'd done, and their acceptance eased my burden.
After all, they were pretty much my caretakers now. My… 'family'.
The days flowed smoothly; we spent them eating, drinking, tending to the garden and talking about the differences between our worlds. I grew stronger, slowly casting off my old life. I grew resigned to the strong possibility that I'd never see my parents again, and mourned the loss of my world – though not as much as I thought I would. Maybe I hadn't been all that attached to it in the first place…
It was odd – I trusted these two men, the very same ones who brought me here and ended my old life, and at the same time I was wary of them. I caught myself occasionally glaring suspiciously at them, dwelling on paranoid fantasies. What guarantee did I have that they wouldn't eventually kill me off or whatever? Still, it was amazing how easily I let my guard down – not so much with Haki as with Shouo. Maybe it was just hormones or idiocy, but there was something calming, or reassuring, about the way he carried himself. Something in his dark brown eyes invited my trust.
One day, maybe a month and a half after I arrived, they showed me a map of their world, and it shocked me how different it looked compared to Earth. I was left with absolutely no doubts about the foreignness of this world I was now stuck in (maybe for the rest of my life).
I spread the old piece of parchment on a low table in the living room, moving the table closer to the sunlight streaming in from the window. "You guys need electricity," I muttered, annoyed at the way the bright light hurt my eyes. An annoyance soon forgotten as I noticed the large differences between what I expected to see and what was actually on the map.
It was an odd world, to say the least. Although my geographical knowledge was limited, at best, something about this map gave me a strange feeling. Too much sea, maybe…?
There were only a few continents; 3 to be exact, with the second-largest one far to the east; it looked like Russia and China squashed into one. Then came the smallest continent, sort of in the middle and slightly distanced from the other continents; it was surrounded by a chain of little islands the way a flower's heart is surrounded by petals. Its shape reminded me of South America, but with the tapering end cut off.
The largest land-mass lay in the west, and the map's author had colored it an ominous, uniform dark-grey. Its shape was unlike any I had ever seen – almost like an upside-down diamond; its southern edge was unnaturally blunt, as though somebody had sliced off all unevenness. The rest of the land-masses were not colored in, simply outlined with ink that had aged into a dull black along with the browned parchment. I couldn't read the swirling characters used for the names of these lands, which was slightly depressing.
"Why's this place colored like this?" I asked. Something bothered me about the map, something different from the color given to one particular part of it. Something I knew was supposed to be there but was missing.
"Is your world similar to ours?" Haki asked, and I shook my head, trying to figure out what was bothering me. "No…" I muttered. "No, there's more land."
There were an awful lot of islands clustered around the landmasses, but near the top and bottom there was a curious lack of detail. Everywhere else on the map was filled to bursting with islands and peninsulas and inscriptions and notes, but near the top and the bottom there was nothing. Almost nothing, anyway.
"Are these the only lands in your entire world?" I asked, pouring over the map. I pointed at the single character at the northernmost point. "What's that?"
Shouo bent over the paper, raising his eyebrows.
"What's the matter?" I asked.
Haki shrugged. "He's impressed you noticed," he told me, pulling a hand through his blond hair and sighing. "Most beginners can't see that particular mark."
I looked at them both, wondering what the hell they were talking about.
"The mark says; 'Here Lay Land, Once'. The land it speaks of was mostly ice, but parts of it were habitable," Haki said, changing the subject. "It was like a belt, stretched from the top to the bottom and encompassing the western continent – a terribly cold land."
"There's ice like that in my world, but it's not connected to anywhere." I pointed out where the two polar caps would be on the map, and he nodded.
"A long, long…" he took a deep breath, "Terribly long time ago, there was a war between two races of people." I watched Haki move his hand, forming a shape above the central continent and another above the western continent. "A terrible, legendary war that spanned three centuries. To all purposes and intents, it was a war over territory."
Suddenly, two stick-figures appeared out of the air where Haki's hands had just been, sparkling and fizzing like fireworks. I stared at them, a little freaked out. They were about two centimeters tall, falling slowly down onto the faded surface of the map.
"Oh, my God, it'll burn!" I cried, swatting at the little figures when they landed. The little light-things ran here and there, narrowly avoiding my fingers. Haki caught my wrists, laughing at me. While he restrained me, I swear I could hear the little things squeaking at me. They didn't sound pleased.
"What the hell are they?" I asked him.
"What do you think?" he replied, laughing, "They're just harmless specters."
I heard a quiet chuckle, and turned to see Shouo quickly hide his mouth with his hand. "Even you're laughing at me," I sulked.
"Forgive me," Shouo said, bowing his head most seriously.
I glared at him a little.
"They won't burn the paper," Haki said, patting my hand.
Just as I started to turn away, I noticed Shouo's mouth quirking itself into a smile, and I felt a wave of embarrassment and irritation. "Come ON!" I cried, and he started to laugh outright. A deep, rumbling laugh that tumbled heedlessly out of him, and which, irritating as it felt, made me smile too. It was nice to see him so cheerful, even if he was mocking me.
"Forgive me, please," Shouo said, leaving the room. "It's just that it has been a long while since… ah, never mind. Excuse me."
I turned to Haki, exasperated. "Anyway."
"Uh, yes," he said, turning to the table again.
With a light tap, he changed the color of the little figures, making one of them blue and one red. He placed the red figure on the middle continent and the blue figure in the west. "Ahem, to continue the story… These two different people weren't aware of each other at first; then, as their numbers increased and they began to spread, both races suddenly realized they weren't alone." Haki nudged the little figures - they turned towards each other, squeaking furiously.
I leaned closer, amazed at how the sparks were flying.
"So they did what all people do when faced with a threat;" he intoned, causing the little figures to pull two long spears each out of their stomachs. They waved their new weapons around, glowering at each other across the seas. "They went to war."
"Where'd they fight, above the ocean?" I asked, caught up in the story. I watched the red figure stomping over the ocean and raging towards the blue figure.
"No – the people of the middle continent invaded the western lands. Both people were very advanced, skilled in ways we will never know. It was no trouble for them to cross the seas and dash headlong into foreign country."
"So the war began, after vain attempts at communication by both sides. It was pretty terrible; countless innocent people lost their lives. The climate was affected, the balance of the world's forces was upset… they say that even the moon became split into two, although to me that seems like pure hearsay. As far as I'm concerned, no mere man could be gifted with enough power to be able to mess with the heavens."
"Wait," I said, something in his words catching my interest. "What do you mean, the moon was 'split into two'?"
The two figures suddenly stabbed each other with their spears near the top of the map, causing a small explosion that made the little table vibrate slightly. Nothing remained of them except a mushroom cloud of little sparks, descending quietly here and there all over the map like snow and disappearing. I gazed at the tiny, desperate filaments of light, feeling sorry for them.
"Well… it's just a saying that people quote to explain away the fact that we have two moons." Haki leaned backwards, stretching his endlessly long arms upwards.
"WHAT?!" I stared at him, awestruck. "Your planet has two moons?"
"Why, doesn't yours?" he asked with a smirk.
"Damn! How come I haven't seen it?"
"Because you're not outside at the right moments."
I glared at him. "You're bullshitting me."
I shook my head, grinning at Haki. "Never you mind."
"Anyway," he continued, "In the end, nobody knows what happened to those people. Some say they died out, others say they still exist, living somewhere on an isolated land… like maybe Yamuo-Ru."
I imagined they were this planet's version of the extinction of dinosaurs. "There's no way to know for sure?" I wondered out loud, human and T-Rex fossils stampeding simultaneously through my mind.
"No!" Haki exclaimed. "It happened thousands of years ago! Besides, nobody likes to go to Koonan-Bak-Ru – it's a cursed place."
"What's Koonan-Bak… err… whatever?"
Haki pointed at the western continent. "That there is Koonan-Bak-Ru."
"Oh… and these other continents?"
"That one in the east is Yamuo-Ru; and this continent in the middle with all the islands is Abaru-Shoo-Ru."
I nodded, completely engrossed. "So where are we?"
He pointed at a small island to the east of Abaru-Shoo-Ru, positioned somewhere around… well, I guess at the 4 o'clock spot on a watch-face (is the best I can describe it). "It's tiny," I remarked, marveling at how small it was compared to the other islands and Abaru-Shoo-Ru itself; barely larger than a full-stop mark.
"Our little island is called Clayeer," he sighed. "Backwater, dull, lonely little Clayeer. Devoid of any form of excitement whatsoever."
I wondered how long it would take me to walk around the island if it was so small on the map. "I want to see Clayeer!" I declared, making up my mind. "I didn't really travel a lot back home, because…" I stopped, wondering how to explain my 'atypical epilepsy' to him, and how incompatible it was with air travel. "Well, I'd like to see your world. Even that, uh… what's it called, Koonan-Bak-Ru?"
Haki snorted. "That shows you don't have any sense."
"Hey!" I punched his arm. "What does that word mean, anyway?"
He scratched his head as though digging for the answer. "It means… uh, I forget. SHOUO!" he yelled. "What does Koonan-Bak-Ru stand for again?!"
"YOU'RE PITIFUL!" Shouo replied from somewhere deep inside the house.
"Just TELL ME WHAT IT MEANS, FOOL!"
Shouo came in, frowning. "Is senility finally setting in?"
"Like you're any younger!" Haki cried mockingly, brushing his hand through his hair. "Besides, you've been acting like a self-important old fart ever since you turned fifty. Who knows how long ago that was?"
Shouo set down the tray he was carrying, handing me a steaming cup of tea. I thanked him, grimacing at the bitter taste of the drink and trying to hide my expression behind the cup. Whenever these two started bickering, it could take hours for them to shut up – so I contemplated my tea instead.
I called it tea, but the correct local name for this drink was 'bardu'. It was brewed from the leaves of a weird, ivy-like plant, called a 'Tamia' plant, which grew in a shadowy part of Shouo's garden. He kept telling me to drink it because it was supposed to be good for my body. The bardu was bitter, slightly sweet and deep red in color; every time after I downed a few mouthfuls it made me feel better. Energetic, almost.
Maybe it was like coffee?
I hadn't had any coffee for years.
"Layla!" Haki cried, knocking me out of my thoughts.
"Do you know this guy is 76 years old?!"
Shouo glared at his friend, looking embarrassed. "Control yourself, Haki. You're nearing the end of your life, old man – 650 years tends to be the limit of your people, and you have almost passed that."
For a moment it didn't sink in. When it finally did, I almost choked on the bardu. "What the fuck?! Don't tell me you people live longer than…?"
"Than what?" Haki asked, his blue eyes sparkling with mirth. "How long do your people live?"
"Ergh." I turned back to my cup, mortified and a little disgusted.
Haki was 650 and Shouo was 76?
Was this a bad joke?
If it was true, then Haki ought to have been mummified by now – and Shouo should've been a senile old man! I eyed them again; they didn't look like they were any older than 25, if that.
"How old are you?" Haki asked with much interest.
"Err, well," I stalled, wondering if I should lie and deciding against it. "I'm 21."
They were quiet for a minute, staring at me in disbelief.
"You're just a baby!" Haki cried, earning a slap on the head from Shouo.
"At least she's more mature than you," Shouo mumbled, looking a little uncomfortable.
"Whatever. I'll bet she's still-!"
I never got to hear what he was about to say next, because Shouo, in a display of frightening efficiency, waved his hands quickly in the air, causing Haki to suddenly be bound and gagged by invisible ropes. He toppled over onto the floor, struggling and kicking and roaring behind his gag, causing a tiny smirk of satisfaction to appear on Shouo's face. He came over to me, totally unfazed by his actions, and asked me what it was that I had I wanted to know.
"Um," I mumbled, feeling slightly nervous. It hadn't taken him ten seconds to restrain Haki, and I was forced to wonder what he was truly capable of.
"Don't worry," he told me, seeing my anxiety. "He's not hurt."
'Just pissed,' I thought, watching Haki rolling around and kicking at the air. It was funny in a pitiful sort of way.
"Hmm, in that case…" I said, feeling my heart beating somewhere near the top of my head. "I guess I just wanted to know what the names of these places meant."
He sat down next to me by the table, and I pointed to the grey blotch of Koonan-Bak-Ru. "Ah," he said, leaning towards the paper. "Koonan-Bak-Ru… Well, the Ru stands for 'country'. Koonan-Bak means 'Hollow Fields'."
"Then it's 'the Country of Hollow Fields'?"
He looked at me, nodding his approval. "It's called Hollow Fields because the land is bare, disfigured by the cold and by showers of nuuram every 24 years."
"What are 'nuuram'?"
"I suppose… they are pieces of stone that fall from the sky like rain."
"You mean meteorites."
I laughed, waving my hand. "They're the same thing. What about these other places? Um, Yamuo… Yamuo-Ru, right?"
"Yes. That's far to the east. The name means 'Silken Leaf Country'; it is a very mysterious place, quite beautiful. I particularly like the ancient woods of that land, despite their dangers." He pulled up the sleeve of his left arm, showing me three deep parallel scars that zigzagged over the skin near his shoulder. I stared, mildly horrified – the pale sheen of those scars reminded me of nothing so much as the marks I once saw on a tree trunk that had been made by a bear's claws. Shouo laughed at my expression, letting go of his sleeve. "I barely escaped with my life that day, even though I'd only taken three steps into the forest."
"This last place, near our island, is where our, uh, Council is located. It is also where 65% of Coora's people live – Abaru-Shoo-Ru, meaning 'Cloud's Heart'." He smiled, looking thoughtful. "You know, I went to school there a long time ago. I'd like you to see it someday, if possible."
I could feel my face growing hot, and concentrated the map. "What about the island where we live?"
"Clayeer? That means 'Defiant Shores'." He looked at me for a moment, and then shook his head. "Come to think of it, we've kept you cooped up in here for nearly two moons. You must be tired of just the two of us all the time." Shouo nudged Haki with his foot. "I'm sorry we don't make for much civilized conversation."
"Oh, no, it's okay." I smiled nervously. "Where would I go, anyway?"
"No, I insist; it's unhealthy for you to stay indoors this long. After all, you're not a prisoner, Layla."
"Well…" I couldn't tell him that for the longest time, a prisoner was exactly what I'd felt like. Guilt squirmed around inside my gut, and I sighed.
"I have to leave soon, to go to a city in Abaru-Shoo-Ru. I wish I could take you around Clayeer myself, but you will have to go with Haki, I'm afraid."
He scratched the side of his face, and I watched him, slightly unable to believe in the sheer beauty of this guy. His skin was ridiculously smooth, like dark chocolate (incidentally my most favorite thing in the world), and his eyes were totally beyond description. Unearthly, was all I could think to myself, even with the insane dreads. I looked at my own hands, feeling a familiar sensation of disgust in my gut.
I'd really lost my face for good.
I felt like I'd contracted some horrible form of insanity. Maybe the hallucinations had finally taken over my mind, and my body lay in some drab hospital room somewhere with the 'VACANCY' sign tacked onto my forehead. I mean, every morning, when I changed into the flowing, soft pastel dresses they'd given me to wear, I would look into the mirror and get a little shock.
Was this really me?
Was my old familiar face hiding somewhere below this light brown porcelain mask, or had it melted off? Maybe deep down I really was this creepy/pretty, and it took my flipping over into another dimension to see it.
"Shouo, do-?" I began to ask, but was interrupted by a wild roar that made the windows (and my brain) rattle.
It was Haki; he'd broken out of his bonds and stood glaring down at Shouo, absolutely livid. "You… LITTLE-!" he gasped, curling his hands into fists.
I took this as my cue to leave, and removed the map, the tray and the pot containing the left-over bardu from the living room. Just as I reached the kitchen, I heard them shout and howl at each other, accompanied by various crashes and bangs. After a while, I heard Haki's laughter and sighed, feeling a little relieved.
They hadn't killed each other.
I leaned against the kitchen table, gazing out of the large window at the sky and Shouo's garden; the quiet rushing of wind through the leaves filled the kitchen with a deep tranquility. It made me feel a little sleepy, actually. I reflexively glanced at my wrist to find out what time it was; only to realize I no longer wore a watch.
"What an idiot I am," I whispered to no one, my words swallowed up into the vacuum. If there's no one in the forest to hear the tree falling…
Judging by the strength of the light and the length of the shadows of the trees outside, I guessed it was probably around six in the evening, with sunset just around the corner.
I decided to go outside and sit in the garden, watch the sun go down the way I used to do back home. I spread a table cloth over the ground and stretched myself out, my surroundings hidden from me by the tall grass. All I could see was a patch of sky above me; Shouo's impossibly tall hedges blocked out the horizon.
Still, I stayed outdoors, lost in the patch of sky directly overhead. I lay there for the longest time – until the stars came out, twinkling occasionally behind dark, massive clouds. My thoughts wandered between Coora and Earth, between my past and my confusing, uncertain future.
I opened my eyes, suddenly aware that I'd fallen asleep.
I couldn't see anything at all.
'What's happening?' I wondered.
The sky had gone blank. Everything else was black and muffled.
I tried to speak, but it felt like something sweet, sticky and cold was stuffed into my mouth. There wasn't even room for me to move my tongue.
A rotten, decaying sweetness…
Panic swam around in my stomach, constricting my chest.
I tried to get up, but I couldn't feel my body.
'I'm HERE!' I screamed in my head. 'HEEEEEERE!'
"Where are you?!"
I heard their voices, felt sure they were getting closer.
'HELP ME!' I thought, sending out a mental mayday as hard as I could.
My chest grew tighter, my panic became worse and I felt the cold stickiness descending into my stomach and up my nose. What the hell was going on?!
I felt my thoughts slowing down, and gave a final, dying scream, sent it reverberating throughout my skull.
"She's here!" I heard Haki say, much closer than before.
A blue light grew stronger, flickering at the periphery of my vision.
The weird heaviness grew a little lighter, and the sweet, cold goop began to disappear from inside my body… or maybe I was swallowing it.
The last thing I saw before I passed out was a giant, black, cloudy hand wavering over my face and then dispersing suddenly like smoke.
Or a swarm of black particles.
"What the hell was that?!" Haki demanded, stomping after Shouo. He was carrying Layla's unconscious, frozen body, and not in the mood for Haki's questioning. "What the HELL was THAT?!"
"You saw what it was," he growled, placing her on her bed and drawing the sheets over her body.
"But here - within our house?! Didn't that worthless Association of yours guarantee safe passage?" Haki exhaled heavily, tearing both of his hands through his hair. "It can't possibly be safe if the Lanyonin are still after her!"
"I'll take care of it," Shouo said, glaring at Haki.
"Like hell you will – what can you do to something as powerful as that?"
He didn't answer, occupied with a healing spell that required him to cradle her neck with his hands. Besides, Shouo didn't really know what to do – not one of the ideas that popped into his head seemed viable. The Association really hadn't mentioned anything about the creature's apparent ability to cross dimensions without the use of a portal. Then again, the Association was known for its almost puritanical secrecy. They may have intentionally kept it from him to test him.
Or maybe they themselves had no idea what this was…
This dark form that had tried to peel her soul from her bones.
"Look, Haki – when she wakes up, she will not remember what happened. Don't you dare tell her, understood?!"
"What do you think I am?" he said, giving Shouo an irritated glance.
"I leave for Miinamo-kshu in two days' time. Distract her, take her around town and buy her some things, but don't leave her alone UNDER ANY CIRCUNSTANCES. Understand?"
"The shields around this house are getting old. I will renew them as carefully as I can before I leave." Shouo rubbed the back of his neck in irritation. "It beggars belief that that miasma managed to destroy my parents' shields in such short time."
"This isn't the work of any ordinary old mage – these are Lanyonin." Haki frowned, his thoughts heading in rather unpleasant directions.
"I think that… well, I've only ever heard of this entity, but it may be that Layla is being pursued by a Sei Neyun. A Dark Neyun."
They stared at each other, unutterably horrified by even the possibility of its existence. It was the foulest curse to be pursued by such a beast. They both glanced simultaneously at Layla's face, wondering what she could have done to deserve such a fate. "Don't they say…?" Haki said nervously, "That there's no barrier-?"
"Enough," Shouo interrupted him brusquely. "No more. After I've repaired our shields, I will go to the Association and have words with that old hag; hopefully I can persuade her to send Layla home. At the very least, she will send men with me to destroy that being before it… does whatever it is it wants to do to her."
Shouo headed for the basement to prepare for the ritual of protection for one's home, his words leaving the bitter taste of falsehood in his mouth. His hands trembled uncontrollably with both rage and fear – he knew that however many shields he used, they could only offer limited protection against that… thing. Would he have to unbind Haki's powers to ensure her protection?
Was there anything he could do at all?
His thoughts and fears ran around in circles inside his head as he descended the stairs to the basement, his body swallowed by the darkness.