A Fox's Goodbye
A collab of Athulwin and Fumiko (@Antediluvixen)
Shortly before the departure of the caravan from the Emerald Forest…
Fumiko stood over the body of her copilot for what would be the last time. Shortly before the caravan of… unusual individuals she had joined was due to leave this place, she had excused herself as best she could with the few words she’d learned so far. None of them knew her copilot, or her, and she set off into the forest alone save for Nesora, ready to bid farewell to a friend they’d both known for years in the empty solitude of a strange forest and a strange song. They both wondered about his future. Would his spirit be alright in these lands? Would he dream well before he reincarnated? Where would he reincarnate? She didn’t know. Neither of them knew. They were alone in an alien world, looking down at the lifeless expression of the only one who would have known them or the things they’d seen. The only other one of their kind in a strange land.
Neither were particularly open with their emotions, and yet in this moment tears flowed from both. Fumiko tilted her head back, trying to stem the flow. It was all too much in this moment. There were supposed to be friends and family standing here with her and with him. He wasn’t supposed to depart this life like this. Alone. Far from home. He would be the first Yatovinan citizen laid to rest in a semi traditional manner in… centuries, easily. And yet she found only small comfort in that. Laid to rest in a foreign wood under foreign stars. There was no welcoming presence of aeons old spirits past stirring in their slumber to welcome one of their own back to the fold. Just the press of this unfamiliar forest. She was out of place, here, she knew. He was out of place here, too - but what else could she do?
She choked back a sob, hunching down beside him as her hands clutched around the thin sheet draped around his body. She couldn’t just say goodbye like… like this. She didn’t want to do this on her own. This wasn’t right, it wasn’t proper.
While she thought, there was the rustling sound-off of movement from the underbrush behind her.
It wasn’t graceful, like a deer, trying to make as small of a sound as it could while it slipped its way through the forest. It wasn’t firm and unafraid, either, like the great bear that pushes through with confidence and makes the rest of nature move around her by her sheer size and ferocity. It was a sound as loud as the bear would make and as un-confident as the deer. This is because it was an unsteady old human, unused to the woods.
Athulwin shook off the thorns clinging to the trail of his robe. He frowned at the sight in front of him. It was an all-too-familiar one. He knew what the woman was feeling, because he's felt it, because he's seen others feeling it. Whatever Curse may hang over his soul, however he may have broken his vows by coming out here to this far land and leading the Caravan, Athulwin was still an Uttering Monk at heart.
It was ancient tradition. Uttering Monks must appear for the funerals of those who have too few to mourn them. Someone should mark the ending of a life. If this were happening nearer to a Monastery, Athulwin would have called to his brothers and brought down a flock of hooded and gray-robed men of the cloth to attend this service, for this traveler from beyond the stars whose body is so far from home.
Athulwin could not speak the dearly departed’s language, or that of his friend. For all the tongues he knows, he could never tell this fox-woman why he came. Not in words. So, as he shuffled to her side, he just gently put his hand on her shoulder. He was here to put this other man of her kind to rest with her.
Fumiko did not respond at first. She stared at the empty form of her copilot, mind adrift in the recent past…
Fumiko turned back to the wreckage. She couldn’t simply walk away with this group. Not yet, anyway. She turned, Nesora behind her raising a hand in a gesture of peace, and watching her back as Fumiko walked back towards the crashed spaceship from which she’d come.
She hated the sight that awaited her - it was the same sight she’d awoken to, of course. But still. Perhaps some part of her had silently hoped that he might awake while she was outside. That she wouldn’t have to say goodbye to her crewmate and be alone in this strange world. But he was still there. Head still slumped to the side. She whispered a small prayer for him, and gently rested her hand on his head for a moment, mourning in silence. She’d need to find a place to lay him to rest. She was in a forest, at least - the first forest she’d ever seen with her own eyes. Old pictures from before the winter had set in, yes. Before her home had turned into a mass grave. But never seen a forest with her own eyes - even a tree. She’d never seen a sun before. Only the dimly glowing remnants lurking beyond her world, or the wan light from the southern gods. But the sun hanging overhead now? It was so bright. So unfathomably bright, even filtered by the trees. She’d been in bright light before - harsh interior lighting that hurt the eyes and seemed to bring the winter’s chill air inside. But it wasn’t anything like that light - it was warm too.
And despite all of that, she simply felt empty. Her copilot was dead. Her people were… who knew how many light years away. She would never see her children again - who knew what was happening to them right now? Perhaps she’d experienced extreme time dilation and they were already dead and the war long over? Perhaps she really had violated causality - what did that mean? What would happen? Evne if she knew, that still left the initial problem - she was alone. She was fucking alone. Alone on an alien world. Alone surrounded by- by humans. Humans. Here. On this world. She still couldn’t get over it.
Robotically, she moved over to her copilot’s console, picking up his own crash gear and strapping it to herself - he wouldn’t be needing it anymore. His sword. His own sidearm. There were unfortunately no rifles in the bridge - she sorely missed that presence, now. She looped her arms under his, pulling him out of his chair. She hefted him up, slinging her left arm under his legs - she didn’t know where she’d go. But she couldn’t simply leave him there. She emerged from the ship again - more things strapped to her body and carrying the body of her copilot. She did not speak anyone’s language, but the expression on her face was unmistakable as she looked at the humans helplessly.
The sound of Athulwin’s arrival finally jolted her back to the present. She turned to the sound, her hand dropping down to the weapons on her hip - but she relaxed after a moment, seeing who the new arrival was. It was the same old man who had… ‘greeted’ her on her arrival to this world. She quirked an eyebrow at his arrival, wondering what his purpose was. Had something happened back at his group? For what other purpose might he follow her? She stood protectively over the body of her dead comrade, wary of what the human might try to do. She was still unfamiliar with them. Still didn’t trust them.
Her grasp of their language was not sufficient to truly ask him the question she wanted - but she did know one word at least. “Vhat?” She asked, the sound unnatural on her tongue and the word thickly accented. Her generally puzzled facial expression, she hoped, would do the rest.
Athulwin gestured out towards the body- ‘corpse’ was too harsh a word- as his only answer. He had no language to tell her that it was his oath to be here. And he was tired of worrying about it. Fundamentally, he was here, doing this, for Eld Frowen. And for the spirit of the departed, if such beings have spirits.
As things went on, fireflies started filling the air. Flown in from some other part of this Living Forest. One’s eyes caught them as a little glimmer of orange light over here, and then over there, like torches suddenly lit. The fox and the monk were standing in a sprinkling of flickering lights. Athulwin lifted out his hand towards one of them, not very sure of why he was doing it. It just felt natural. The bug landed on the tip of his fingers as if it had known him. And the second it touched him, he felt something fuzzy, a sensation running down through the skin of his hand and into his spirit- the feeling of Connection. The Emerald Forest was working its magic again. He doesn’t know how he knew it, but he did.
“Do you feel that?” said Athulwin, aloud. The question was rhetorical.
Fumiko blinked in visible confusion. The tenor of the forest's song had shifted, the melody slowing, harmonizing with her, gradually becoming coherent in its own way. She looked around in awe as she felt… not the press of familiar spirits, but of a different type of presence not wholly unfamiliar.
And then the human spoke. She whirled on him, eyes wide. Those words she had understood. Those words had come as clear as day - or rather… their meaning. The words themselves remained as unintelligible as ever, but as they harmonized and mixed with the forest's own song they filtered through to her in a pattern she recognized and understood. She stared open mouthed, before finally speaking, “You… I understand you. By the ten great spirits, what is this? I've never beheld something like this before. D- do you understand me?”
“There is but One Great Spirit,” said Athulwin, who knew by a long-ingrained monastic instinct that the first words out of his mouth should be the words of Eld Frowen. He had stared as wide-eyed and full of shock as she had when her words began first to carry a meaning, but now, ever calm, the monk was already accepting this new reality. He raised one hand up. The air felt charged, changed- charmed.
“This forest is a Living Forest, and it has been under a heavy curse for a long, long time.” Athulwin understood how that felt. “Some of my Caravan put down the source of the curse, a wraith, not very long ago. I think… this moment is the Forest saying ‘Thank you.’”
A long pause elapsed as the alien woman looked around at the forest around her, seemingly swaying almost imperceptibly in tune to some unheard melody. She closed her eyes, the long foxlike ears twitching around to noises utterly imperceptible to Athulwin or any others except the ship’s spirit who watched by her.
She turned, after a moment, looking to Athulwin, and gave him a deferential bow. “I believe you. This forest’s song is… strange. Not simply unfamiliar… by unnatural forces marred. You have done a great service. This I can feel.”
“Not I,” said Athulwin, “Pilgrims in the Caravan, yes. Galaxor, Ivraan, Nemeia, and others. You will learn the faces that go with those names in time, if you stay with us. Something unnatural had taken root in this soil, and they burned it out. They are more heroic than I.”
She paused again, closing her eyes, and nodding. “Then please, my thanks, would you give them to those you have named?” She lapsed into silence for a moment more, “It is a strange song. But not unwelcoming. For my… violent entrance I wish to apologize. But I must ask - for what is it that here you have come?”
"For duty," said Athulwin. "I am a Brother of the Uttering Monks, of the Monastery of Queensrock, of the Old Marshes. I have taken many vows in my life there, and to my shame I have broken many. But one rule I've never defiled is that old law: that an Uttering Monk must arrive for the funerals of those who have too few to mourn them. Someone should mark the passing of a life. So, when I knew what you were doing, I came."
Fumiko nodded. “My intent was evident, I suppose. For this kindness my thanks you have.” She turned back toward her fallen comrade. “You are… not wrong. More. There should be more.” Her clawed fingers clenched in a fist, her glove of strange material doing a poor job of hiding the tension that simmered in every inch of her body. “There should be family. Friends. Spirits he knew. And…” She nodded towards Nesora, who stood some small distance back, his head inclined, “Us two. For him that is all there is. A copilot, the spirit of the ship on which he died, and a human.” The word slithered from her lips slick with bitter bile and well suppressed anger.
She paused, then turned, looking mildly alarmed as she shrank back slightly, ears flattening on reflex, “Er- not that I- I-” She stood openmouthed a second longer before she gave a slight bow. “Please. I hope you can forgive me. I just… one of your own cannot… a human…” She sputtered a moment longer, “To grasp the significance of this a human soul cannot do.”
Athulwin merely looked at her passively. “I can go, if you wish.”
Again the fox woman looked as though stricken. “No! No. I… there is… much you do not understand.” She bowed again, lower this time, “Please. I was in error. There is much I have been through. I simply…” she turned away, attempting to hide a tear that rolled down her cheek as she brought her hand up to wipe it away. “On this world there is one other like me - and there he lies. Athulwin, your presence is appreciated, even if expressing it as I ought is beyond me at this time.”
Athulwin held up a hand and shook his grayed head. "There is no need. I only meant respect by offering to leave. You speak truthfully, your culture is not known to me. I did not know if a human would be welcomed. But if I am, I am here, as my Order would have me to be." He watched her make that motion with her hand, the universal wiping of a tear that he couldn't see but guessed had to be there, and his eyes softened. "I'm sorry, pilgrim. I cannot fathom what you have been through or what strange notes in the Song have brought you here. You have all my sympathy. But this is a bright and full world that you have come to, and as for my part in it, I will ensure that you have a place in our Caravan. No traveler flung far from home is turned away."
Fumiko looked back up, and, slowly, stood upright. “Culture… a part of it culture is, yes. But moreso than that - a spiritual difference is what it is. That around us permitting, all this I can later explain, if so desired.” She paused, “It is just… all this way for him to have come. Under foreign stars he now lies, amidst foreign spirits - where will he go? My own trials are great, certainly, but I am alive. And him…?” She sighed, “If a bright world this is, then for darkening this day I once again must beg your forgiveness. I suppose… I suppose I shall begin. And all your questions I will then answer. Does this please you?”
Now it was Athulwin's chance to bow, in the more Old Marshes style. "There's no need to concern yourself with what pleases me. I have come here tonight to assist you. Perhaps the spirit of your friend will find peace in the embrace of the Forest, now that the heart of this land has healed and it has found again its place in the natural way." He shook his head. "But, please, tell me if in any way I can be of aid."
Fumiko nodded. “There is little you can do yourself, but your company is worth much. It should not take long.”
She stepped forward, pulling a small bar from a pouch on her side - a small amount of synthetic chocolate. Part of dessert rations aboard the ship. It was supposed to be his favorite food in life - or even rice. But she had neither to hand. But he had liked this chocolate, at least. She hoped he would be pleased. She stepped forward, crouching beside him as she looked into his features - arranged as he was, he could almost have been sleeping.
A small cup of water sat in her hand, taken from a nearby creek. It sparkled in the wan light that pushed its way through the forest canopy above. She stared at it for some time. How many others of her home country would ever see this? The simple sight of fresh water, taken from a cool - not frozen - stream. Uncontaminated by fallout and the chemical byproducts of a centuries-past, decades long war. She shut her eyes tight, trying to maintain her composure - lifting the small cup to the copilot’s lips as she whispered a silent prayer. She dipped her fingers in the water, then touched them to his lips, setting the cup to the side. The chocolate followed next - touching it to his lips, and then set by his side.
She shivered. She had partaken in these ceremonies before - but never had she conducted one herself. On her own. Accompanied only by a spirit who could not help carry his body, and by a frail old human who understood none of what was going on.
She raised her hands. She knew traditional things to say. Back home. But here? What might the alien spirits of a whole different world say? Would they be some anathema to her and her own? Did the spirits of the land here harbor ill will toward intruders, especially with what had only recently been cleansed? She opened her mouth to speak. “Oh…” Oh what? What was she to say? She felt a wave of panic rise up within her - but forced it back down. She would speak from her heart. As best she could. “Oh foreign kindred of distant stars and unknown glades… please. My comrade - I beseech you to accept among your ranks one of my own just as refuge you would find among ourselves. Your names, I know them not. Your faces, I know them not. But your song - though I too know this not, that it is kind and warm I feel in my heart. Please, pity and mercy upon a lost one among us I beg of you.”
She continued, “On the second of Dawn Flowers Greet the Gentle Sky, 4167, he was born. His life was one well lived. Though the time to experience the world’s beauties and hardships in their full measure he was not given, the most of his time he made. No doubt of his courage and tenacity can there be. Volunteering the day the war began, his courage time and time again he proved. Unlike I, for into service by the sacrifice of my mother I was shamed.” She looked up, clearing her throat. “Izhunan Takaya for only three years I knew, but in those years as a close comrade and a good person I knew him.” She paused, “His friends and family… to speak here they ought be present. But only myself, our vessel Nesora, and he himself are here before you.”
Gingerly, she pulled away the thin sheet that substituted for a silk cloth - or a substitute silk cloth. She stood, making no effort to hide the tears that now flowed down her cheeks. What else was there to do in such circumstances? What else could she do? She bowed her head, paying whatever last respects she could in such a moment. Trying to make up for the lack of the… dozens upon dozens who would have come to be with him at the end of this turn of the wheel. Whatever she could do - it was not enough.
Nesora floated up behind her, and she stepped aside. The spirit stood with his head bowed low - whatever it was he was thinking, or whatever it was he might have been saying she knew not.
She turned to Athulwin. “You may… if respects you wish to pay. This is the time.”
At first the monk bowed, seeming ready to demure. But then he took a few old and cursedly unsteady steps forward to the body, and spoke over it. The words were not like his own, in the Common tongue he normally spoke, but were in a language strange, arhythmic and full of distant emotion. It made images of the cold lights of the night sky flash through a hearer’s mind. It was the Language of the Stars. A rarely used one, sacred. In a hollow and ringing voice that almost wasn't his own, Athulwin said:
"For one who came from the stars,
To the stars I speak and beseech
To his frame, rest
To his spirit, peace."
Fumiko watched in curiosity despite herself - the tongue he spoke, for even the by these woods it was clearly a tongue wholly separate from that he had been speaking prior… It was strange. Something about it tingled in her spine, the faintest hint of belonging.
She knelt beside his body once more, pouring some of the water she had collected from the stream into the soil. Mud formed quickly, and she dabbed it on his brow and his chest. A stalk of grain - bartered for with the reluctant aid of one of the caravan folk - now sat clutched in her left hand. And a simple facsimile of a small blade fashioned from deadwood in her right. Gently, she placed both of these in his hands and raised her own once more. “Thank you, kindred of another world, for your kindness. Please, allow him safe passage into our dream - whatever there may be of it here. And to welcome him back when he is ready, I beseech you to allow us.”
Fumiko stood. She bundled up the sheet in her hands robotically - that was it. It was a short ceremony. There were no crowds of mourners to wish him goodbye. There were no clusters of friendly familiar spirits bringing their warmth to proceedings. Though these woods seemed friendly they were still alien. She could feel something pressing in around them - but for now the spirits of this world remained unseen to her eye.
But there was nothing else she could do.
She turned back to Athulwin, heaving a weary sigh. “It is done. Let us give them privacy. Your questions, I will answer them.”
Athulwin gazed out at the forestal funerary scene for a long moment. "I have attended dozens of funerals," he said. "Almost all of them for strangers. To spend your life mourning those you do not know comes with the burdens of being a devotee of Eld Frowen. But I have never witnessed a rite such as this one. Thank you for letting me be a part of it."
Fumiko nodded to him in turn. “Thank you, Athulwin, for helping see off one who has traveled so far. The rite… It is… of the customs of the humans of my own world and my own nation I know little. But I would be surprised if you yourself had seen anything of its like.” She paused, “The customs of you soul bearers are to me just as strange. If you have questions - please, ask. As many as those around us permit I will answer. But...” she trailed off, “I must ask one in turn, if the impropriety bothers you not - what was that language you spoke?” she cocked her head to the side - much like a fox angling its head as it studied something of interest. “It felt… strangely familiar.”
"Indeed,” said Athulwin. “Few have ever heard it, even among the Caravan. That was the Language of the Stars. I-" he sighed just slightly, a small gust of wind coming from his mouth as he did. "I am what is called in my homeland a Sayer. One who attunes himself to nature, to the raw and primal elements of the universe, to learn to speak to them as you and I are speaking now. A rare magic, but true. I speak Fire, Wind and Stars. There are some who speak to thunder and death, ice and sunlight. I knew a Sister of the Deep Earth so potent once that her voice made the earth quake if she did not keep always to a whisper." He caught himself. “But I ramble. I spoke to the stars then because that is where you fell from, is it not?”
Fumiko frowned, her head cocked at a steeper angle now. “Fascinating…” she murmured, “So much alike and yet… what would they think, I wonder?” she trailed off, before nodding her assent. “After a fashion you are not wholly incorrect. I - and he - amongst the stars we indeed were. For… three years. Of our years - how long your own are, I know not. I– at risk of a great lecture, I became in a way of the stars. But from a world… both alike and wholly different from this one I hail - and within, a nation upon that world. I…” She trailed off, staring through him - once again the gravity of what had occurred weighed on her. “How I am here I know not. It is not– should not be possible.”
“Impossible things happen daily,” said Athulwin. “A morning has never dawned which will not see a million impossibilities before it turns to evening. I should not be surprised you are of the stars. I thought I could feel their light on you. You are…” he looked at her, a beautiful young woman but for the feet and ears of a fox, and more tails than any animal there’s ever been. “If I can ask- what are you? Your kind are not seen here.”
Fumiko pinched the bridge of her nose, searching for the words to explain it - but what good would it do? Explaining causality - and her violation of it? What would it do except possibly give this old man more to worry about? He was already aged and withered - clearly he did not have long left. There was no purpose in burdening him further.
At his question however, she raised an eyebrow, and then began to laugh. Not the mad barely restrained howling laughter at the sheer absurdity of her situation - but in a manner more mirthful than anything. As though Athulwin had just told her a clever joke. “Upon how much time you've to spend here the answer to that question depends.” She finally squeaked out at last, “Though are not wrong. Completely new here my kind almost certainly are.”
"And from another world, like and unlike this one?” asked Athulwin. “The scriptures hint of many foreign planes, some hidden away behind the stars and the sun... strange notes indeed. I wish that I knew how you came to be here. My Utterance lets me know many things other men do not, but only those that the Stars can tell me or the Wind can carry. But I wonder. You were listening to the Forest earlier, were you not? Is there no magic similar in your plane?"
Fumiko chuckled, “It is of planes you ask? Of these I cannot speak, however planets I can. Above my world the sun shines not. Over four thousand years ago, to unknown, dark forces it perished. But we persevered. Works of science and technology far greater than anything this world can imagine we constructed. Under the artificial suns of the living gods of the southern lands, or under those of our own artifice, we not only survived but thrived. But a planet it is all the same. A world just like this one, of rock and iron constructed. It is from there that I come. How, I too know not.”
She paused, her ear twitching at his mention of her listening to something. “Ah, that is right. The song. It cannot be heard by your kind - even with these magics you profess. The forest is alive in a sense altogether different from how you may normally conceive of such things. Spirits - or whatever term your people might find more suited - represent aspects of this forest. And of the world at large - at least, where I am from. Perhaps for the rest of this land it is silent, and from even the song of the land I will be alone.”
She stroked her chin, looking back from whence they had come. “Do you remember what I said to a moment ago? That the customs of you soul bearers to me are just as strange? What by that do you think I meant?”
Athulwin thought. His mind rummaged through remembered scriptures, books, scrolls from different cultures and faiths- he was well-read, and usually he would find a connection for any question of this kind. “‘Soul-bearers,’” he ruminated on the word. “I can only think of the words of Eruk the Believer, a half-orc poet from some few centuries ago. 'The duty of mortals, given by the gods, is to bear our souls unspotted through this world.' But I suspect that isn't what you meant."
Another light chuckle followed in response. “Correctly you suspect. Far, far more literal than that is my meaning - you, Athulwin, as a human being possess a soul, yes?”
"Thankfully," said Athulwin, thinking of Alder and his offer, a lifetime and so many gray hairs ago. "There was a time when I nearly lost it. I would have gained immortality, but what is that if you lose eternity thereafter? But I ramble again- yes, I have a soul."
“Oh? Immortality?” Fumiko asked, raising an eyebrow, “A… nice thing to have it is, yes. But yes, a soul you possess - and I do not. At least… it is complicated. Soulless husks, most of my people are, empty human corpses - but animated by spirits. Spirits of the world around them. Of this forest. Of the bustle of a city. Of the living land beneath our feet that with every step we take draws breath. Empty corpses with life filled, we are an unusual people. I myself in addition to this spirit posses a…” she frowned, “I know you and your people not. Before I continue, I seek your word that panic or flee you will not.”
"You have no soul?" Athulwin looked her up and down in the soft light. "I have to wonder then how you live. You make yourself sound like an undead, but you do not look like any creature of the crypt that I have seen or read of- you look still like the living, but in the usual wisdom, a person without a soul has ceased to be a person." He shook his head. "Yes, I promise I will not flee. You have my word. Complete this mystery for me."
The woman frowned, “But this I have explained - I, and my people, by spirits of the land we are animated and given life. We in every literal sense of the word are alive - simply in a… different manner than you. As for myself…” She cleared her throat. “I, like those specifically like me,” She paused, gesturing to the eight extra tails she possessed, “Am a half-demon. That is the best word, I believe. And immortal - at least, immortal to age, or to the randomness of death that otherwise plagues my people.”
Athulwin smiled, though it was not a very joyous one. And then he chuckled in an equally low, just as unhappy way. “That’s a familiar story to me, though you could not have known it. Yes, the chance I had at immortality was almost similar. Not one to stop me from being killed by a man with a stake or the morning sun, but the kind to stop the years from taking me, as they take all humans. You’re fortunate in that way. To have an everlasting life without having to pay up a soul to cover it.”
Fumiko shook her head. “Age takes us not. Those of my kind nine hundred years I age I have known - without the extra tails. Without the half-demonic nature. And yet from other mothers I heard of their children dying in their sleep. It is normal for us. Randomness defines our lives. That which I am was… devised as a remedy. I do not know what chance it is you speak of - and I myself was simply born into this blessing. The process however is… what do you know of demons, Athulwin, assuming such beings are here as they are on my own home?”
“Well,” the gray monk answered, “I will hardly know if they are the same unless you tell me what you mean by the word.”
“The degree of knowledge of these matters your own world holds I am not privy to, but what my own people know I will share. A demon is… well, it is a being formed from the soul of someone like yourself, is it not? The soul of a mortal without the protection of a god or of another greater entity - a vulnerable thing. It can decay. It can be consumed. It can be merely by the entropic nature of our universe dissipated into a lower ordered state. Something with the infinite potential for change and for expression a soul is - but because of this it is volatile, yes? To escape this… either reincarnate, under the protection of a higher power be taken, or become something more stable are their options. As gods are, in their various forms, domains unto their own, so too are demons a tiny Realm unto their own, by Task or by Purpose bound and defined. A more powerful soul retains its identity through this - but those weaker… consumed they can become. So named they are for the havoc they can, and will wreak if impeded in this task. Greed, gluttony, wrath - associated with demonhood here these doubtless all are. But of a god’s attendant? A soul in service to their patron deity molded? Is that not the same kind of entity? What of the harm such a being can bring if obstructed? Different names they hold only from their purpose more often than not benefitting their worshippers.” She paused, watching.
“My people, myself - ironically for originating from spirits of the land, natural we are not. Unstable we are. Volatile. Die at nine hundred years, or nine we may - a spirit and a living mortal body a natural combination are not. However a demon? Surely within this world occurs possession by such entities. And so… over a thousand years, through a mentally and spiritually grueling process, one to this world and to this life binds themself. From thin aether fashioning a soul - a demonic soul, bound to this same purpose. It is an anchor. At the end of these thousand years? A being of two halves. Greatly empowered. Fraught with peril is the process, but no destruction of the self is there, no cheap shortcut. And then…” she trailed off, coughing awkwardly, “There are those like me. Lucky enough to be born to it by those who have undertaken this process themselves… bound in the same way I am not truly, but… fixations you might say? Many would find themselves unable to study a specific field of science for… a hundred and forty years straight without boredom, I believe.”
Athulwin's eyebrows chirped up slightly. "An impressive time. I do not know all that you speak of, I can admit, but I think I understand what you're saying on the whole. I suppose forming a demonic attachment of such kind must have seemed a worthwhile risk to your mother, but I could not agree. Under my faith, in my scriptures, a demon is a tainted being. An incorrect note in the song that is the world. A Task or a Purpose they may have, but it is too often something bent and broken.”
Fumiko smiled, “But, my dear Athulwin - by another name a demon is as a god’s servant. Or a gods servant is as a demon. The same fundamental energy and nature defines them. A name of our own, my people have for those ‘demonic souls’ like mine - kyukazhe. On calling us demons those of other nations will continue to insist upon. Why? They do not like us. My nation.” She frowned, “It is not an attachment. The creation of a facet of your own identity from whole cloth it instead is. Civil service is that which my mother chose - and what she died performing. But…” She sighed, “It is difficult to comprehend. Hold ill will towards you for this I cannot.”
“I am glad,” Athulwin said. “People will risk much to live forever. Would you believe I once knew a man five centuries old? I try not to become envious. But- you have been honest with me, newfound Pilgrim, so I will be honest with you. Few in the Caravan know this, and you will not be able to tell them I suppose after the Forest's magic here ends, but I am Cursed. I am not as old as I look. I am but thirty-seven; my hair should not be very gray yet, my face should not be wrinkled, I should…" he sighed wind again. "I should not be so tired. But the Curse drains me. I expect I will be dead by this season next year."
At his second set of words, however, her eyes widened in visible shock. She took a step back, raising her hand to her mouth in horror - then, taking two steps closer, she looked closer at him, as if trying to see the curse. “I…” she opened her mouth to speak. “Of studies of the arcane I never partook in depth. There is…” She paused, “Of what manner is this curse?”
"Of a kind that has been destroying me for years, and will make my bones dust soon," said Athulwin. He knew the words were dramatic; but this was the first he had spoken of it out loud since the very night it came down on him.
"I... I stole my monastery's only two books on curses and dark magics when I abandoned it,” he admitted, in a quiet voice. “They have not been able to teach me any way to rid myself of it, nor any I have found across this wide world that I've traveled since. But to answer your question: it is the curse of an Old Marsh's Vampire, spoken in a moment of passionate hate, and I believe it draws its power from that vampire's hate. And- it draws its power also from me. Alder, the one who cursed me, said to me 'The sorrow that is within you will work its way out, graying you and rotting you until you age far before your time.' I have always been melancholic. It feeds on that, like a leech, as it feeds on Alder's hate, and as long as those two things exist, I don't know if anything will rid my soul of it."
A long pause elapsed as the fox woman watched Athulwin. At last she blurted out, “There is something! Something I could do-” She caught herself, cutting her words off midsentence. “I- my apologies. Impulsive and reckless that was of me to say- but…” She trailed off, frowning again, evidently greatly troubled. “Only a year…”
"Less, I think," Athulwin mumbled. And then, back straightening in an almost proud way and speaking more clearly, he says: "I have consigned myself to my fate. It has taken many years, but the truth of what is happening to me, and of what will happen, has sunk into my heart. I have no expectation of living; I no longer count it as a right that I have. Please, do not tease me with a false hope."
Fumiko looked visibly pained as she warred with conflicting desires in her mind - but that same desire that had lead to her outburst won out, in the end. “I… please. Your language, speak it you know I cannot. This, here, is perhaps my only chance to explain. My only chance to… offer you something that could help. A false hope it is not. Of this I am sure.”
Athulwin's face twists bitterly. "Alright," he says. "I only don't want to be lead up the garden path. Go on, what do you think the cure is?"
“My people, spirits we are, yes? Empty of soul, but consciousness borne in the body and in a spirit of the land. I am… technically, a simple human body is mine. An empty human body, by the spirit that is me altered and transformed. I… from humans we originate. And the ability to… remake them as us we possess. I possess.” She bit her lip, “Of vampires I know…. vanishingly little. But it is not as though by different rules their magics work. Aging prematurely is the affliction that ails you from this curse, yes?”
Athulwin said nothing, and only nodded.
Fumiko took another step towards him, “What if aging there is not?”
Athulwin spoke slowly, even though the conclusion was clear; these words seemed to have much weight to them. "Then... the curse means nothing."
An emphatic nod followed in response. “A choice to make lightly it is not. A… touchy subject among my people, it very much is. But… whatever questions you have, of any nature - to the best of my ability these I will answer whilst we can communicate.”
“You're hinting that you could remake me into a thing like you,” said Athulwin, lingering in some nowhere between a question and a statement.
Fumiko shook her head. “I could make you into…” She paused, “Well. Something like him.” She nodded towards the direction from whence they had come. “If the ‘demonic’ nature is your concern - then at ease be. Such is a process you could, if you so chose, undergo yourself. Possess the mental fortitude you almost certainly do. A spirit of the land you would be. A spirit of this universe as a whole. As a foundational part of its being intrinsically tied to it rather than as a mortal soul existing merely within it. And… of the curse, you would be free. This curse - can it affect a spirit of the land? Can aging it accelerate where none exists? Can a premature death be brought - when your time to go is instead in permanent flux?”
"I doubt it," said Athulwin. "But what you're offering, the price- would I not be giving up my form?" Athulwin had never pictured himself with fox ears. "And, furthermore, my soul? If I become a spirit like you are, then my soul is no longer a soul but a spirit." His eyes looked across the forest, the fireflies in the air, this place of nature and magic. He whispered an old prayer in the language of the Wind- "May my soul fly free-" and then said to Fumiko, "There is one part of what you say that I wonder at. I have told you about my art of Utterance? Utterance is a form of druidism, some say. It's a way of connecting yourself to the natural world by speaking to it. To become a spirit of the world, I must say, sounds to be an expression of that goal in its ultimate. But I do not know. I wish to die no more than any man- but this is a weighty thing you've put on me."
Fumiko paused, stroking her chin as she thought for a moment, “Your form… yes and no. Your form would be… remade? You would still be you, however. As to the soul and the spirit… yes. Pretend to understand the minutiae I will not. But as best I do understand - they are still, fundamentally, comprise of the same… stuff?” She paused, clearly unused to not knowing something in detail. “Your soul, like your body, would be remade. I- well, something I myself have undergone it is not. But this is what I have been told. As of your Utterance… while understand it in its entirely I do not, from your description of it it certainly does seem to hold no small similarity.”
She fell silent again at his last words, nodding, and searching for the right thing to say. “A heavy choice I have given you, this is true. Of asking you to make a decision now I would dare not dream. A year it is you have, yes? During this time you can think upon it. Answer your questions outside of this… gift from the land I cannot - at least, not for the foreseeable future. But if you to decide you wish to take me up on my offer, tell me.” She paused, allowing a ghost of a smile to creep through, “And if accept you do, to have the company of another such as myself will do my mind good. It is lonely when none but myself and Nesora can hear the land singing under my feet. I would have much to teach you, too.”
“Thank you," said Athulwin. "For the hope, that is."
Around the space, the fireflies were drifting off, slow and one by one into the dark, out of the clearing. Their lights were becoming far away-little signal torches by the moment. The normal air of the wood was reasserting itself.
"I think the Forest's moment of magic might be ending," said Athulwin. "Again... I will think about it, and thank you."
But she didn't understand him.