Warm sunlight hits my face. It’s quite comfortable.
I yawn widely and open my eyes. Nerys is in the bed with me, using my body as a hugging pillow. She’s halfway on top of me, her leg thrown carelessly over my waist.
I sigh inwardly.
She says she comes here for my sake so that I won’t feel lonely during the night, but I’m starting to think that she’s the one who can’t sleep without holding onto me.
I stay quiet and wait for her to wake up.
She’s not waking up anytime soon, is she?
Instead, her embrace gets tighter and tighter. She lets out a few indistinct groans, and I suddenly feel her mouth clamp onto one of my ears.
The taste apparently isn’t to Nerys’s liking. She wakes up, vague, bleary surprise in her voice, spitting hairs out of her mouth. Her arms loosen, so I take the opportunity to push her onto her back while she’s still half-asleep and sit down on top of her, straddling her belly.
I rub the ear she bit.
Ew… I have drool in my hair.
Nerys looks at me through narrowed, half-opened eyes, as if wondering what kind of prank I played on her.
As if this is my fault…
“My ears aren’t food, you know?”
“Eh? Oh? Ah… Is that what it was? I see.” She removes another hair from her tongue and throws a smirk at me. She remains on the bed, lying leisurely as if she doesn’t even notice my weight pressing down on her. “My breath is going to smell like wet dog.”
I scowl at her. “I’m not a dog.”
“Dog. Wolf. What’s the difference?”
“Wolves are much cooler. Obviously.”
“Really? Hahaha! What an honest answer!”
A good adult would not dignify her insolence with a response.
Fortunately, I’m only twelve, so I don’t need to restrain myself.
Which is why I immediately flick my tail onto her face and give her another mouthful of fur.
Nerys shakes her head from side to side, trying to escape, but I move my tail in time with her and keeps drowning her into it. She makes a token effort to slip out from under my body, but she’d have to fling me off before she could, and she would never act so roughly with me.
Which is why my victory is assured!
When I decide she’s paid enough for her outrageous behavior, I flick my tail back onto my lap and start to comb its fur. I remain on top of Nerys while I do in order to assert my moral superiority, but that doesn’t seem to bother her much, unfortunately. She just lies on the bed with her arms under her head, a picture in laziness, and watches me with a smile on her face.
Nerys always enjoys seeing me play with my tail and my ears, or playing with them herself – actually, more the latter than the former, it seems to me.
She probably wishes she had them too, but she has only a single set of ears on the sides of her head, and they’re not covered in fur. They’re long and pointy and narrow, and she can’t move them to hear things more clearly, either. I too have ears like that, same as hers, but mine are purely decorative. They don’t work at all; I simply can’t hear anything through them. Only the wolf ears on top of my head have any actual use.
I’m not sure why Nerys and I are of different species – although, I don’t even know what I am, exactly; half-elf, half-werewolf, maybe? – but I have no doubt that we’re related, at least. If Nerys wasn’t a few years older than I am, we would be twins. People would mistake us for each other. That’s how much we look alike – apart from the aforementioned ears and tail, of course.
And then, there is Father, who has no non-human traits at all.
A human, an elf, and… something else – me.
Definitely a complicated family history, there.
I don’t really care, though.
Once the fur of my tail is properly groomed, I let my tail out of my hands. I don’t bother brushing my hair. It’s always looked messy, no matter how much effort I expend to tidy it up, so I’ve long since given it up as pointless. Nerys is the same, of course.
“Done?” Nerys asks.
“Good. Then I’ll go prepare breakfast.”
Nerys grasps my waist, lifts me off herself without apparent effort, and drops me on top of the bed. She stands up, ruffles my hair as she passes by me – she chuckles when I wiggle my ears to shoo her hand away – and swaggers out of the room.
Once she’s left, I wait for the sound of her footsteps to fade away, then get off the bed as well and head to the wooden chest standing next to the door. I open the top drawer and take the amethyst cylinder resting inside it. I remove the stopper sealing one end of it. The smell of orchid and blisterwort and other reagents I don’t know wafts through the air. I upend the canister and let one of the pills inside roll into my palm. It’s a small round pellet, iridescent blue and purple blending together over its surface. It feels warm on my skin.
Before the efficacy of the medicine has time to dissipate into the air, I throw the pill into my mouth and swallow it whole, then quickly close the canister again and place it back inside the drawer, the remaining pills clicking against each other as I turn it right-side up again.
I walk back and sit cross-legged on the bed, closing my eyes.
Soon, a warm current of qi spreads from my stomach into my empty meridians. It courses through my body for a few minutes, slowly seeping into my internal organs with each revolution, until its power has been completely expended.
Nerys comes back the exact moment I open my eyes, almost as if she’s timed her entry. She’s holding a plate-laden tray one-handed, like an experienced waitress in a restaurant. When she sees me sitting in this position, her smile becomes a little strained, and her eyes flick to the closed drawer for an instant, but I pretend not to notice.
“What are you waiting for, errand girl?” I ask in a ridiculously loud voice. “Serve me already!”
Nerys’s smile relaxes. “Of course, your gloriousness.”
And then she bends down over one of the plates and pretends to spit into it.
Contrary to what her beautiful appearance may suggest, this sister of mine is quite coarse, isn’t she? My books said that elves were supposed to be a refined people, too, full of old-fashioned dignity. What a big lie…
“Errand girl, you are disgusting,” I say, pointing an accusing finger at her face and scowling in perfectly justified disapproval.
“Whatever could you mean, your fabulousness?”
“I mean that I’m going to take the other plate, thank you very much.”
Nerys laughs and hands me the wrong plate, keeping the clean one for herself.
I examine its contents suspiciously, but I don’t see anything too revolting in there – except for the food itself, of course; Nerys is quite a proficient cook, but she’s never managed to make her dishes actually look nice. I suppose it does taste quite good, despite everything else, which is the most important thing, probably.
We eat together, chatting idly.
Nerys piles up our empty plates on top of the tray.
“So, what do we do today?” I ask.
Nerys considers for a moment before replying, “We’re running out of salt. And honey. I’ll need to visit the village and order some from the trader down there.”
“Sorry. You’ll have to play on your own for today.”
“That’s fine. I still haven’t finished the book I’ve been reading.”
“Oh, that’s right. Books. I’ll try to find some new ones for you, too. Don’t keep your hopes up, though. I wouldn’t be surprised if those dumbass peasants were all illiterate. They sure look like it, in any case.”
“Don’t say that where they can hear you.”
Nerys laughs at my concern and points a thumb at herself, an insufferably smug look on her face. “You may not realize it, little girl, but your sister is an amazing person. Even if every one of them came at me at the same time, I could beat them all up while wearing a blindfold and with one hand tied behind my back.”
I quirk an eyebrow at her. “‘Beat them all up’, is it? I may be a wolf, but you are a gorilla.”
Nerys’s shoulders droop exaggeratedly. “You could at least pick something a bit more attractive. Haven’t you noticed how beautiful I am? A gorilla obviously doesn’t fit me at all. Hmm, I suppose it is strong, though.” She abruptly seems to regain her confidence. “That’s right! I am as strong as a Redthorn Gorilla! That’s a 6th-rank beast, you know?”
“…I see. Congratulations. I’m glad you’re happy about it. Where’s Father?”
“Who knows? Somewhere in the forest, maybe. Picking materials or something. Bah! Who cares? At least, he’s not in the house. Nor in the lab.” Nerys suddenly grasps my shoulders and looks at me with a deadly serious look in her eyes. “You’ll have to guard the place carefully until I come back, all right? Be sure to exterminate every intruder you discover. Show no mercy! Take no prisoners!”
“Oooh. I’ll be sure to do my very best,” I reply as blandly and unenthusiastically as I can.
“Excellent! Well then, I’m off!”
Without further ado, Nerys turns around and leaves my room, taking the tray with her and waving her hand over her shoulder in farewell. I hear her footsteps go down the corridor, then enter her own bedroom, presumably so she can get ready for her trip.
Sighing to myself at my sister’s exuberance, I walk to the shortest of the piles of books erected all over the floor of my room. There must be a dozen of them, all in all, some of them even taller than I am. After I filled to the brim all my bookcases and they started overflowing, I had to resort to such a measure as leaving my books lying around on the floor. Even then, they kept on accumulating until the situation evolved into this. I suppose I’ll have to do a bit of cleaning up, sometime, and give the boring ones to Nerys to sell in the village.
I take up the book standing atop the pile, then walk to my armchair, strategically placed in front of the room’s only window. I leave the book on a small table next to the chair, then walk to the window and open it to take a deep breath of the fresh, morning air.
This high up the mountain, the wind is always cool.
I like that.
My room is on the second floor of the house, so I have a pretty good view down the mountain. Beautiful cherry trees covered in small pink flowers grow all over its slopes. Some kilometers down from where our house is built, trails of smoke rise up above the treetops and betray the presence of Fushia Village, Nerys’s destination. Even lower than that, the mountain gradually turns into a plain. Sometimes, I can see black trains running across it, like fast ships in a sea of grass. The train tracks don’t lead close to the mountain, though. There is only one road leading to and from Fushia Village through the plain, and it doesn’t seem to see much use.
I do find it a bit strange that no one comes to admire the view here, but maybe the people from outside don’t find it as pretty as I do.
I turn away from the window and settle comfortably in the padded armchair.
Then I open the book to the marked page and start reading.
I close the book with a snap.
Well, that’s done.
The sun hangs high in the sky. It should be around midday.
I dump the finished book on the low table and head for the door.
Nerys should have left something for me to eat before leaving. Otherwise, that would be a dereliction of duty, and I’d have to find some new and inventive way to punish her. Maybe sort my books by alphabetical order. That might be amusing to watch.
I’m about to go out when my ears twitch. I stop, frowning. I turn back to my room, my hand still on the doorknob, and angle my ears toward the open window. A high whistling sound is coming from outside, quickly growing louder, quickly growing closer.
“What is this?”
Before I can walk back to the window and take a look, an enormous gale of wind comes through it and crashes into the room. Most of my furniture shatters under the impact. All my books are knocked off their shelves and piles and sent flying around, bouncing off the walls. I have to duck under one before it clobbers me over the head with its spine.
The entire building is shaking. I have to lean against the door me to avoid losing my balance.
Half an instant later, with a thunderous sound, the gale of wind seems to actually explode, destroying the ceiling and tearing the very stone walls apart. My body is flung through the air by the shockwave. I crash into the door behind me, ripping it out of its frame, and land heavily on my back, sliding backward through the hallway, until the floor collapses beneath me.
I think I scream, but I can’t hear my own voice through the deafening noise. I close my eyes and curl my body into a ball, cradling my head in my arms. After a few moments of weightlessness, I land on something hard, driving the air out of my lungs. Debris pelt down on and around me.
I don’t move.
I wait for the sounds of destruction to stop.
My senses gradually come back.
I raise my head and open my eyes. I’m sitting in the wreckage of my house, a thick cloud of dust impeding my view of my surroundings. I cough when it gets into my lungs.
What was that?
One of Father’s experiments?
No… The explosion would have come from the lab in the basement, had that been the case.
That thing came from outside.
I stand up and take a look at myself. My dress is scuffed and dirty, but I myself don’t seem to have been injured, apart from a few scrapes and bruises. My knees are bleeding a little; it stings, but I’m pretty sure I’ll survive.
Hey, now that I think about it, isn’t this the first time in my whole life that I’ve left the house?
…Who would’ve imagined it would be under such circumstances?
The thought brings a measure of amusement and excitement to me, but it quickly fades away, and I end up looking at the rubble all around me, feeling a bit lost.
What are we going to do?
Where are we going to sleep, tonight?
Is there some magic to rebuild houses quickly?
I guess I’ll just go and sit somewhere while I wait for Nerys and Father to come back. They should’ve seen the dust cloud, so they’ll probably be rushing back here as fast as they can.
My ears swivel to the front, quivering.
Am I just imagining thing?
People are approaching, their voices carried from afar by the wind.
Are they people from Fushia Village?
Did they come to see what happened?
Aren’t they too fast?
They should already have been close by…
My heartbeat quickens, and a quiet tension sinks into my shoulders.
I remember Father’s warnings not to let anyone see me.
…Should I leave?
R–Right. Let’s hide in the forest, for now. I can use the dust cloud as cover, so no one should be able to notice me, and I can return here when those people have left.
I dart in the opposite direction from where the voices are coming from, careful not to inadvertently step on any sharp debris and hurt my feet. I quickly reach the edge of the clearing in which our house was built, a line of cherry trees signaling the start of the forest itself, the pink of their flowers muted by the dust hanging in the air. Their white trunks are too slim to provide much cover, though. I’ll need to head deeper into the forest if I want to remain undetected.
A gentle gust of wind flies from behind me, rustling my hair. The cherry blossoms flutter on their branches. The dust cloud stirs and starts to clear up and dissipate.
I quicken my pace and head between the trees.
But I only walk for a minute before I bang my head against a wall.
Except there is no wall, there.
I stretch my arms out in front of me. My eyes tell me that my fingers aren’t touching anything at all, but I can feel an invisible surface stretching solidly before me.
An invisible wall? Made out of air?
I step to the side, running my palm against the air wall, but it seems to go on indefinitely. I can’t go any further. I strain against its surface, trying to push through it with brute strength, but the wall stays firm.
“Few people in the world can break my walls, child. You’re not one of them.”
A voice comes from behind me. Deep. Calm. Dignified. Male. I think I recognize it as the voice of one of the people who were coming toward the house earlier.
Damn it. I wasted too much time. They saw me.
I try to turn around and face the man, but I suddenly find that I can’t. Every time I try to move, something pushes back and forces me to stand still.
W–What’s going on?
After the man speaks, other voices rise up in response.
…Why didn’t I hear their footsteps approach behind me?
“My Lord, is she the one you – Emperor preserve us! Look at that tail! And those ears!”
“I–Is it a demon?”
“A wolf demon!”
“That man kept a demon in his house, unexpectedly! So close to the village, too. Putting us all at risk! Who knows what might’ve happened if you hadn’t come, my Lord! A thousand thanks heaped upon you, my Lord!”
Are those people idiots?
I’m not a demon!
What on earth are they saying?
People can’t become demons! Everyone knows that!
I try to speak out, but my jaw is kept tightly in place. I can do nothing more than blink.
A–Are they going to hurt me?
“My Lord! We have to burn her! And salt the land to purify it!”
“That’s right! Burn her!”
What?! They’re completely insane!
I have to get out of here. I have to escape.
I struggle with all my strength to free myself, but I meet the same lack of success as before. Fear and panic seep into my mind. My breathing grows disorderly, but I can’t even pant because my mouth can’t open. I can only take deep breaths through my nose and try to compose myself.
“That is not your decision to make,” the first man says in response to the others in his deep, calm voice.
“But, my Lord…”
“Your input is not required.” His voice becomes abruptly colder and deeper than before. “Do I make myself clear, Mr. Festus?”
“Of course, my Lord. My deepest apologies.”
Grass rustles as footsteps approach me, stopping right behind me. I feel the man loom over me and can see his shadow appear and occlude mine, but I still can’t turn my head to see what he actually looks like.
“I’m sorry for this, child.”
Fingers coil around my neck and squeeze gently.
The world goes dark.