XXXVIII.

And the darkness spoke to Lyra in a bodiless voice, an apparition whose language was feelings. So it said,The thing came from his shadow. Specifically his shadow that got cut off from him as he slammed the door too hard and fast. Mother opened the windows in the usual mighty struggle, coaxing the roses’ sweet scent to alleviate the fumes Father left behind. But the fumes were only gone since we breathed it in, my share of chopped shadow already enough to choke me.

Knowing that I already have the smallest serving I rushed to my room and vomit there. Found a page and spilled some ink, then from boiling my blood it mauled the pages instead, simmering scripts to tell the tale of how a doctor broke someone’s back. His wife’s back.

She was the envy of the township and beyond, her grace and poise and intellect and beauty supposedly worthy of a man as educated as him. People whispered in general good will, wishing that she would be dumber, and him a little handsomer, but otherwise ‘tis a good pair.

So? He wasn’t thinking all that, though, for as long as his wife’s father’s trade continue “love” was well fed.

Of course. This world is not ruled by the Divine. Trade fails. “Love” fails.

The pages grew more numerous at each door slammed, each piece of shadow curtailed from its often drunken source then stuffed down our throats.

“Silence,” He hissed. “Get yourself educated so you can be more reasonable.” A mumbled contradiction: why would he grimace at the tutors should he truly wish his daughters educated?

From the pages the thing grew, a dark shadow came from each bent of my pen.

I’ve done a terrible thing, I realized too late, to infect the pages with such spite. They were not even cheap, these flimsy old things, and their potential was priceless, now ruined. But from there I found my beast, my demon, whose sole purpose was to soar for me on clipped wings.

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Panic Attack

This is the first time I had a panic attack.

It started as a simple attempt at relaxation during AP Computer Science class. I accepted an ear bud offered to me from a project partner of mine. As soon as the little thing was snuggled into my ear the nostalgic mumbles of Jay Chou occupied a good half of my mind. Absent-mindedly I was typing out lines of code, trying to remember that I’m not sitting in the back of an old Toyota driving through a typhoon storm, and my mother was not pretending to be annoyed by my sister and my attempts at imitating the loose jaw and nasal voice characteristic of Chou.

Then the strangest thing occurred: some of my classmates conversed or sang off-key as per usual while they work on their own projects. For the longest time I listened to each syllable pronounced. For the longest time I knew not what they meant.

What year is it? Why are Taiwanese people so good at English all the sudden?

Why did I think I’m surrounded by Taiwanese people?

I stopped coding and attempted to convince myself that I’m in America. A shaking hand ran across the laptop before me. Right, a school laptop. That was not a thing in my elementary school eight years ago. But, still. The syllables ran on, a flood of syllables clicked against my ears, and I listened, drowned, only with a fixed eye upon the light at the surface of the water knowing full well all is but an illusion. My heart’s pounding was another chaotic noise that I failed to comprehend.

I pulled out the ear bud, thanked the person giving me the music, wondered and continued coding.

XXXVII.

How would that even be fair? Lyra just got here. Athlem told herself that as she approached the lifeless body, ignoring the traveling cloak that was always draped over her shoulders at her faintest shiver. She heard the stir at the stairwell but cared not: ‘tis only natural the rest of the household would rush at the sound of such a crash. Her shaking hand wrenched the dark blue fabric from the corpse and found, to her pleasant surprise, a body unmarred and most importantly, with two arms. Irritated by her own stupidity and confusion, she turned the body over to find the face of the patriarch frozen in a scream of silent horror. She had the urge to kick the villain for such a fright: why on earth does he donne her beloved’s cloak? No matter, the man’s heart beats not, his warmth escaped the house alongside the shadow of a monster.

At that point, Athlem’s grasp of the earth steadied enough for her to hear her own voice as she stated, officiating the obvious, “He’s gone.”

From the corner of her eyes she saw the newly widowed stopping Lyra’s explanation, for all of them witnessed that shadowy beast. The only explanation needed, she realized, was when and where on earth Lyra and this Nokshan came from. A brief spin of a tale, a few convincing words from “the messenger of the Creator,” and the gracious hostess merely nodded, her children thoroughly confused by the concept of a Nokshan in real life and the idea of freedom from their dictator as they peeked from the stairs. The woman went to the cold corpse and inspected, untouched.

“I…don’t know,” Confusion was no mask of grief in this case. “What was that beast? Where did it…” They could pretend that the shadow was but a figment of collective hallucination, but the sparse furnitures wasted astray, tables overturned, ruined like the beauty of a reunion too long deferred. “I apologize deeply for the disturbance, I…am at a lost myself.”

The woman went on to mumble some courtesies and after some obligatory declines between the two parties they arrived to the predetermined conclusion that the daughters would move to the master bedroom with their mother from their shared room to accommodate the new guests for any blink of rest the long night may offer them. Amidst the discussion the belated form of a man slunk down the stairs in his usual grace, found his usual place by Athlem’s side and whispered a “what is going on?” before he saw first the man in his cloak motionless on the cracked floor, then as he traced his eyes upon the lines of attention the two foreign yet most familiar forms there in the corner of the living room.

He opened his mouth to speak, rendered himself senseless and made out an, “Ah.”

The presence of the widow and her daughters delayed Lyra’s attack upon Horatio with the same strangulation of passion she gave Athlem, but their eyes communicated the same sentiment.

The nervous woman staunchly refused their help on restoring order to her household lest the shiver of pride persevering in her husband’s decades of oppression should be hurt. So the four guests bid the women as good of a night as this could be and ascended the ancient stairs. Before that, however, Lyra saw from the corner of her eyes the youngest daughter taking a strolling pace to see her father, peeking under the large rag that now occupied the man’s despicable facade. With a girlish flourish she set the rage back down, a hearty smile blushing her cheeks before she snapped about to face her mother and sister with her face a fresh leaf of counterfeit sorrow, one page of the volumes of mystery that Lyra had already collected about the girl since the little one crashed into her earlier this day with those badly-bounded leaves written all over.

“What is wrong with that girl?” The utterance was not aloud until the four of them were alone and after enough time was allocated for celebration. “Grinning like so at her own father’s death.”

Horatio chuckled, unwilling to leave the situational irony alone, “Says you who did nothing but smiled when the Emperor disappeared.”

“A tyrant cannot be missed,” Lyra insisted.

“Must a tyrant wear a crown?” Horatio continued. “Anyhow, the girl is still most strange.”

They wondered off to other things, retracing their treks, and amongst the conversation Athlem involuntarily dozed off with her head resting on Horatio’s shoulder, at which they took as indicator enough to agree to seize as much repose as the escaping night could spare. The physician was too fatigued to be mortified.

It was only when Horatio slipped the door shut after another gentle hug did Lyra notice the dilemma, that under some strange assumption the lady had only cleared out one room between her and Alde. He, too, noticed the crisis and indicated that he would gladly join Jiube in the night air. Lyra proposed dividing the room in some way, volunteered to take the outdoors herself, but was ignored as Alde deemed the nostalgia of sleeping under open night skies while contesting in a losing war against the silvery masses of the night more than a luxury. So it was settled, and they bid each other goodnight, while Lyra watched with an inexplicable melancholy the turn and darkness that swallowed him from her sight.

Could she have grown reliant to him from mere months of inseparable companionship of one who was an assassin after her life before?

Still she was exhausted, hardly mustering the strength to perform the rituals of propriety in dressing for sleep before sinking into the mats and blankets. There were no stars for her to compete against, for the only twinkling things were the scripts upon the pages blanketing the floor which shifted imperceptibly out of the corner of her eyes.

She yawned and succumbed to the calm of darkness.

XXXVI.

She wasted no breath to explain, rounding the shack and cut to the backyard without much difficulty, for the fence was just as hollow as the man claiming responsibility of mending them. Anyhow, she went to the center of the yard and looked up to the crooked windows, three squares of light succumbed to darkness.So, which of the three?

She debated between each one, then thought it only wise to confer with her little friend.

“Jiube,” She whispered, and the little owl needed no further prompting.

A hop, a scuttle, a subdued flurry of movement: the little fluff easily mounted the cracked sills and shuffled from one opening to another, poking its head in, its eyes wide and amber enough to be mistaken for a materialization of dreams or a messenger from the Creator. At its first target it hooted adamantly, hopped and made a trusting descent into the outstretched hands of Lyra.

Aldebaran might have grumbled something about his familiar’s utter domestication, but it didn’t matter. The disturbed room’s inhabitants lighted the recently killed candles and looked after the critter’s strange visitation.

In the sheer veil of moonlight and the pathetic attempt by candlelight Lyra made out the head looking out from the neglected windows, the muttered annoyance, then in a glint of bright reflections from the dancing flame from her light, the differing depth in thoughtful search. In that same spark she saw her, nearly dropped the torch before her senses stopped her from simply screaming her name.

Lyra’s senses stopped her not, “Athlem!”

Of course she was shushed, gestured to wait at the front of the shack. She obliged, Alde followed and they retraced their short journey back to the dim street, waited noiselessly.

The loneliness of the form that emerged from the creaking door only disappointed Lyra by a small degree. As she approached in measured steps, she could not measure her joy and cut her short of her passage to strangle her in an embrace that thankfully only killed etiquette.

“Oh my, Lyra –”

“Is Horatio with you? Is he alright?”

“Of course, he’s merely fatigued. All thanks to you and your” — at this a word-search for a title for the Nokshan, who was clueless of the attention spared for him as his familiar found a hole in a dying tree to lose both itself and its master’s patience in, commenced and ended — “Anyhow, the heart was the Creator’s saving grace, and I am forever indebted and grateful.”

Lyra elbowed her companion to elicit a stumbled acknowledgement before the latter resumed the difficult task of negotiating enough beetles for snacks to tempt the little owl off its new favorite branch.

“What are the odds, how are you here of all places…how have you been? You seem…weathered.”

“Ah, and to think I miss even your brutal honesty: that is no way to speak with your elder,” She scoffed, and Athlem continued. “Please, I was only stabbed, convicted of treason, may or may not have doomed the woman who raised me. Life is wonderful,” The physician brushed the sarcasm-coated bitterness aside. “Enough of me, what of you? How negligent was the Creator to you?”

Jiube finally left the tree, pecking contently at its master’s head to drill in the promise of food. Alde swatted.

“Well, me? It’s…” A hand shot to her gut and vaguely traced a scarring wound, a flood of woe dotted by sparks of hope from the blush of sun setting upon her brief captivity, the young boy in her nightmarish vision, the bright blue of the water nymph, her declaration in her father’s visage. “I…” She drew a shuddered breath, her aunt drew her into her arms.

“You’ve came so far.”

Lyra did not understand, for how had she grown if she still bawled like a child? The pretense was too much, the mask of indifference too heavy with the infinite injuries by sword or words or isolation or negligence; then there are the moments of false belief, false hope for power only to give her the false impression of freedom, only then realized that all was accomplished under her connections to her loathsome father: a predicament as cyclical and redundant as the words of this sentence.

Athlem understood, knew the inevitable failure of words and only gave silent companionship.

Amongst the subsiding sobs she choked out, “Thank you.”

“Huh?” Athlem sniffled.

“For…gah…” loving me, she meant. For being here.

Aldebaran attempted not to remember what he missed, a blue jay too far, their mother further, their father…the bright moon compared not to the snowy egret wings beyond the clouds now.

He turned away.

It was a moment to be treasured, silent and hushed as the night breeze, immeasurable except by the finest poets or bards. The moment too perfect to be, so was soon intruded by a loud bang from the shack.

Athlem sprang to attention, again clouded by fear as she imagined baseless scenarios of tragedy. Lyra followed her sprint though Alde beat them to it, his inhuman instincts and flight carried him to the porch first, pushed the door free from its pathetic hinge. A tangle of movement stirred within.

Lyra called a light, and behind the kitchen table a form of infinite darkness continued to maul its victim. Athlem saw the familiar cloak of dark blue beneath the form, was seized by anguish and Lyra as the latter wrestled her from losing her rationality and disguised voice, “Horatio!” At that call, the face of the beast turned to them, a face of menace. Athlem whimpered, Lyra flinched, and Alde rested a hand upon the hilt of his sword, uttering a simple command, “Zhow.”

Seized by the light of such a word it screeched, rushed at the three in a storm of ill intentions as Lyra enacted a shield just in time, the face collided with her sheer energy and dispersed into the night. And Athlem shrugged herself free and ran to the body.

Waves

She was there first, she beat the waves. Her hand brushed the rough, splintered wood of the beachside rails before the urge of Poseidon crashed against ragged, stubborn rocks tamed by weather. The conflict roared and tumbled into a froth of old selves in sediments. Her sentiments? Untouched, her hand merely smarted as she continued her faithful watch.

In a distance, the sky and sea felt obliged to fulfill clichés and merged together in song, a tune without words but could still be sang, stuck at the regular beats of water against earth like a catchy tune’s persistent grasp upon civilization. She felt obliged to be moved by the ocean’s persistence, but cynic’s eyes read only ignorance appeased temporarily by the justification of God’s design.

The next wave crashed; she did not realize how slow the wave was or how fast her mind raced. Only then did she notice the way the seas bury the sanded reefs with such deliberation. A deep draw of breath as though it finally understood the magnitude of the downward strike — should I? Can I? — before bringing it all down in a fatal bloom.

Drama, she scoffed, before lifting her chin off the wooden rails and tore herself from the scene, all in Gaia’s two heartbeats.