Chapter 9 – A Stray In The Flowered Day.
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“Ma’am, you wanted to see me-yah!” I jumped as she threw her arms around me.

“Ziel, it’s so nice to finally see you!” She squealed, squeezing me so tightly my organs were prepared to burst. This woman, I swear. How is it that she harbors the spirit of an architect?

“Miss!” I squirmed, desperate for an escape. “Your demeanor is highly inappropriate for someone of your status!”

Seizing my hands, she yanked me out into the blinding light, giggling, “come on! Don’t be so uptight! I picked you for a reason! You gotta have some fun every once and a while!”

My eyes adjusted to the scene, my blood icing over at the sight of the horrid concept. She d-dragged me along to a festival? S-she knows I loathe them.

The upper trees... this is very much an event. People were leaping from tree to tree, the tail of golden flame racing after them, desperate to keep up. I can hear the instruments playing as well—Pan flutes, drums that sounded off with a deafening crash, marimbas, hoshos, and the melodious tongue of a language unbeknownst to I.

At first, they appeared to be a disorganized mess. Upon further listen, however, they couldn’t be more organized. All of them cycled in a relaxing yet exhilarating symphony.

“You knooooww,” she grinned, poking my nose as delight filled her honey yellow eyes. “You’ve been working hard lately, so I thought you could use a break for today.” She brushed a strand of curly silver hair aside.

“W-we...” I stammered as the aroma of roasted birchnuts infiltrated my nostrils. “We’ll b-be late if we dally here.”

Giving my hand a gentle squeeze, she stood on the tips of her toes, whispering into my ear, “is that really an issue?”

I could hear the pounding of my heart in my ears. Why did she select me of all creatures? We couldn’t be more diametrically opposed to each other personality-wise. Yet... we work well together.

“Well?” She pried, fluttering her eyelashes as she dragged a long fingernail down my chest.

“I... I...” I trailed, shaking myself away from those detestable thoughts. “No! We’ll be late! We can’t afford that!”

Backing away, she sighed as she puffed up her cheeks, retorting, “you’re no fun.” I’ll never comprehend her species.

“Not today.” I nodded astutely, smiling at my perseverance. I withdrew my artifact, an ancient emerald pendant with a clock embedded in its center shortly thereafter. She’s such a handful nowadays, but we should arrive on time if we pick up our pace. The clock’s hands rest on the time 11:37. That leaves us a remaining twenty-three minutes.

“What are you doing?!” My voice cracked as she snatched the clock from my hands, stuffing it into my bag with a devious grin.

“Making you have fun,” she shrugged as she seized my hand, dragging me toward a distant stand. I can smell the birchnuts from here. Wait, that fire? Are they roasting them right now? They are! They’re even juggling them while they do so! I wonder what seasonings they have to offer... focus, Ziel! Focus!

“B-but we ca-” I stuttered as she cut through my words with a glare.

“No, buts!” She huffed with a finger pointed in the birchnut stand’s direction. “I am ordering you to have fun tonight, Ziel!”

“P-please,” I pleaded as we melted into the crowd. “Myrrah, think about what you’re saying!”

- - - - -

Ashe

“Ow...” I winced, placing a hand briefly against my temple. I can still feel it? Why is pain like this in the game? I can’t think of a single thing that could come from allowing people to get a damn headache in this game, either. I'm starting to suspect the developers have a very special relationship with sadism.

“You okay?” Riley pried, resting a hand on my shoulder as she started studying me for some show of pain.

“Just a headache,” I assured her as a bolt of pain shot through me. Okay, so far, this is really killing my enjoyment of Viicirne.

“You wanna lay down? We’re paying for a cart to get us to that crypt.” She questioned as she handed me an iron dagger. Right, weapons. I can’t forget about that.

I would’ve loved to pick something out myself. My head was practically throbbing, though, so I sat down and waited on Riley while Jordan headed inside after her and Connor. Well, that and we aren’t rolling in funds right now. When Riley saw me, she yanked me into a hug, one so tight a boa constrictor would be ashamed.

Afterward, she gently took my hand and started escorting me through the streets to our destination.

“I...” I trailed as the familiar wooden gate came into view. “Yeah, rest my eyes for a bit.” I nodded. I’m not sure if you can sleep while in the game since you’re technically already sleeping, but I’m going for it. I’ll take anything. The grass isn’t doing shit, I already (to the dismay of my tastebuds) tried more crescent moon grass and got nowhere.

“Let me know if you need anything then.” She smiled as I stowed the dagger in my inventory, making a mental note of checking over all my items. I have to inspect what that box Elija gave us does. That, and my Crimson Widow’s Lotus. Based on previous trends, starter gifts were generally finite but potent items.

We passed through the gate, noticing our ride almost immediately — a wooden cart with a small roof residing over it. Two horses composed of what appeared to be darkness stared at us with piercing red eyes full of intrigue. Our driver, a smiling elderly man with a cowl partway draped over his wrinkled forehead.

“How many more?” The old man wheezed, the frailty in his voice drawing worry from me. He sounds sick. He ain’t exactly a shining example of good health either. His emerald green eyes too, they’re bloodshot.

Honestly? It won’t surprise me if this guy keels over on the way there. I don’t think I can resurrect people yet either. Unless they changed that too.

“Are you sure you can take us?” Queried Riley as she gestured for me to sit down. I obliged, her following shortly after as the man let out an amused chuckle.

“Appearances can be deceiving, wayfarer.” He shook his head, casually waving her concern away. “I appreciate the gesture, however.”

“Just let us know if you need to stop or something, okay?” Riley beamed as she scooted down, providing me ample space.

I was half-determined to try and gamble with my throbbing head. Unfortunately, my gambling career lasted about as long as a mayfly. Right as the thought sprouted, I was “blessed” with the worst bolt of pain yet.

“So far,” I looked to Riley to be given a nod of encouragement. “This session sucks.” She provided me a sympathetic smile.

No longer in the mood for words, I laid down on my side of the cart and sprawled out. I grabbed my necklace and held it close, praying it would influence my dreams in some way. I’m getting sleep regardless right now, so worrying about Ruby is a nonissue for once.

“Sweet dreams?” Riley suggested, her tone implying she was roughly as knowledgable about sleeping in this game as I was.

“Please, no headache for Ashe.” I whimpered as my eyes fell shut.

“How long do you think it’ll take to get there, by the way?” Riley asked, followed by the rhythmic hymns of rain walking on wood.

“By the crack of dawn.” The man replied as a roaring blast of thunder sounded off.

- - - - -

“What about a cover of Royal Beggars?” A soft masculine voice full of excitement spoke up as my vision cleared. I’m in Ryan’s room? Oh, I'm a boy again too... okay, I guess. That makes sense. I'm not sure why I'd think otherwise.

“Is he?” My question stopped short as I noted the plethora of guitars and posters lining the walls. His arms? They’re perfectly clean. That means at most he’s seventeen or eighteen right now. Plus, his hair. It’s in the process of being grown out.

“No,” another guy, quickly revealed to be Kyle, sighed followed by the bored strummings of his instrument, “How about we fin-”

“When Everything Means Nothing?” Ryan suggested, swiftly clapping his hands together, adding, “Oh wait, Crooked Path?”

“I was gonna,” Kyle trailed, unbelief dragging his hesitant words into the void momentarily. “Suggest we actually write something original. Stray away from covers, you know?”

“I don’t know, man,” Sighed Ryan in frustration as he began massaging the bridge of his nose, the enthusiasm in his eyes dimming somewhat. “I feel like I won’t be pleased with anything we make.”

Kyle snorted, nearly dropping his brown acoustic guitar as he brushed a strand of his shoulder-length brown hair from his green eyes. “Oh, come on. You gotta start somewhere. The worst-case scenario is we compose something we all get to roast in ten years.” He laughed a bit more as he turned his gaze to a purple cage, asking, “what’s with the?”

“Oh, that?” Ryan briefly pointed a finger its way, unquestionably grateful for the topic change. “That is a rabbit. Her name is Ruby.”

“You’re into rabbits?” Kyle questioned as he scanned the room for any further surprises.

“Nope,” Ryan shook his head as a grin was carved into his face. “She is a gift for Ashe. It’s his birthday today. He was bugging about a rabbit, and our mom was on the fence about it.” Shrugged Ryan as he trotted over to the cage, scooping it up. “So... I said fuck it and bought her myself.” Wait, bought Ruby? This is... this is my dream. The one that’s robbing me of countless hours of slumber. Why did it begin here, though? I always start in my room and wait for him to come in.

Aiming a thumb at the doorway, Kyle asked cautiously, “you sure she won’t kick your ass for that?”

Shuddering, Ryan forced a laugh as he made his way to the door, “I’m praying she’ll relent when she sees how elated Ashe is.”

“You don’t sound all that confident.” Kyle saluted him in a show of reverence for his soon-to-be fallen comrade.

“I've n-never been more confident,” Ryan timorously mumbled as he twisted the handle.

“Oh wait,” Kyle jumped up, hand outstretched. “What should I tell Ashe if he asks?”

Letting the door fall shut, Ryan’s joy melted faster than snow in hell’s depths. “You mean if he asks about that?”

“Yeah,” Nodded Kyle, curiosity conquering his gaze.

“N-nothing,” Ryan stuttered as he looked to be fighting off the chills. “I don’t want to scare him or anything.”

“Dude,” Kyle chuckled as if his best friend was unbelievable. “You’re never gonna tell him?”

Slowly, Ryan turned back to Kyle with a sluggish shake of his head. “Never. All of us think it’s for the best.” What’s up with him? I’ve never seen him act like this. He’s always so carefree and relaxed. It’s clear as day where Ella draws influence from.

“Don’t you think he has a right to know?” Questioned Kyle as he set his guitar aside, rising to his feet.

“No,” Ryan curtly replied, his tone growing deader by the second. “As far as he knows, he popped up on our doorstep asking where his parents were. We offered him shelter while he waited for them, and the rest is... as you know.” What is he talking about? Did they... not find me ringing their doorbell like they said?

That’s what I was always told. I ended up on their doorstep one frozen foggy night, asking where my mother and father were. I can’t really remember much back then, so I have nothing to reference aside from their word.

And thinking back on it... I can’t really recall much about my old family, either. I just wonder if Taylor was right about them. I suppose it doesn’t matter anymore anyway. It’s been what? Almost fourteen years since I would’ve last talked to them. I don’t even have a voice to go off of.

Holding his hands up in surrender, Kyle responded, “all right. I guess you know best.”

“Fantastic.” Ryan mumbled as he signaled Kyle out into the hall, “do me a favor next time, too, will ya?”

Pushing his hands into his pockets, Kyle shot back, “And what’s that?” 

“Shut the hell up about that. You do it every year.” Ryan exhaled with the tune of exhaustion behind it. “I just wanna forget already.”

“You insist,” Kyle grumbled, looking as if he was ready to give Ryan a verbal lashing. “I still think he should know, though.”

“Quite frankly,” Responded Ryan, seemingly never more disinterested in a conversation. “I don’t give a damn.”

Is everyone actually lying to me? Ryan’s completely serious right now. His demeanor too, it’s almost as if he’s uncomfortable at the prospect of recollecting when we first met.

Maybe I can get something out of him now. It’s been five years since I last asked about that day. Why would they lie to me, though? They have nothing to gain from it.

“Ask him when I see him next.” I thought to myself as I tailed them down to my bedroom. I met them at my door to witness firsthand what they were planning.

“You go in and distract him,” Ryan nodded, throwing up three fingers. “On the count of three. I’ll follow shortly after.”

“Got it,” Kyle grinned with a newfound fire in his eyes.

“One,” whispered Ryan, amusement encompassing his tone. “Two and three.” His hand caved into the shape of a fist as he shoved Kyle inside.

“What’s up, Ashe?” I heard Kyle cheerfully greet me in his typical manner. Shockingly, Ryan’s friends never found me annoying whenever I’d watch Ryan play. In all actuality, it felt as if they were going out of their way to make me feel welcome.

“Oh, hey, Kyle.” Younger Ashe responded, clearly too absorbed in the world he was crafting on paper.

“What’s on the canvas for today?” Kyle asked casually, followed by the sound of someone kicking wood.

Chuckling to himself, Ryan carefully nudged open the door as he crept in.

“Ugh... you couldn’t have just given me Ruby normally?” I sighed as a flood of my memories began drowning my shitty mood. This day... it was, without a doubt, one of the best days of my life.

“An abandoned build-” Younger Ashe attempted to answer... attempted.

“How’s my little brother doing today?!” Ryan called out with a laugh so stereotypically evil I can picture him twirling a mustache already.

“Would you stop doing that, Ryan!?” Younger Ashe whined as I rounded the corner to see him ensnared in the heated wrath of Ryan’s Hugs. Escape was an impossibility. Even Riley pales in comparison to their fervor.

“Really?” Ryan tilted his head to the side, setting Ruby’s cage in front of Ashe. “I guess you don’t want my gift then, huh?”

“Why’d you get me a cag...” Ashe trailed as the situation unmasked itself, Ruby pressing her face against the cage.

“You...” He mumbled as disbelief kicked his words aside. He tore himself out of Ryan’s grasp and fell to his knees at the sight of the hare. “Mom said yes?” He turned back to Ryan, euphoric tears welling in his eyes.

“Not exactly.” Ryan laughed awkwardly, scratching the back of his head. “I kinda did it without her permiss-” Ryan didn’t get a chance to finish his sentence.

Ashe was so quick he literally tackled Ryan into the ground. Tears were dripping off his face, but he didn’t care. He just buried his face into Ryan’s chest, the only sound emitted being that of his sobs.

“H-hey,” Ryan winced as they crashed into the wall, denting it in the process. Dad wasn’t pleased about that. I remember his face vividly... especially the shade of red.

Patting him on the back, Ryan assured him, “calm down. You got what you want, no need to cry.” He aimed a finger straight at a smiling Kyle. “Get your phone and record this, so I live to see the sunrise.” He hissed.

Throwing his hands up in the air, Kyle took a seat on my bed, gesturing them on, “oh, I wouldn’t want to ruin a moment.”

As soon as Ryan opened his mouth, the scene froze.

“Huh?” I arched an eyebrow, glancing around at everyone stuck in place. Wait, I always woke up at this part. Why am I still here if that’s the case?

“Ruby?!” I jumped as she phased through her cage, darting straight by me. Was she glowing? Things have never played out like this before, what’s going on?

I bolted out to the hallway and stopped dead in my tracks. She was glowing... her footprints. They’re glowing crimson, almost the same shade as my mark. The difference here being that it seems someone spilled a few drops of blue into it.

“Just keep up,” I told myself, taking a deep breath as I broke into a jog after her.

I rounded the corner leading to the stairs and slid down the banister in an effort to shave seconds.

“Mom would kill me if she saw me do that,” I quivered, narrowly catching a glimpse of Ruby as she passed through the front door. How is that rabbit doing that? Yes, she was a total badass. Just not enough to defy matter.

I sprinted to the door and ripped it open to the outside world. Seemingly in kind, the world ripped my breath from me with the sheer force of awe.

“Woah,” I mumbled as I glanced up to the flowered sky. The sky, a sunset that matched the shade of my character’s eyes. The difference? Stars flew high, each twinkling as if they were waving down at the earth below.

That wasn’t the impressive part. What was, were the flower petals twirling in the air. They were so numerous it was as if the entire town got together and threw them out their windows simultaneously. Every single one, without exception, twirling lightly through the air as it sparkled. The dominant colors, ones potent enough to blot out their friends: light blue, pink, and sparkling white petals, each of them gliding around each other in an intoxicating sight.

The ground: a small flood covering the floor, ankle-high water. The same petals resided within its watery confines, glimmering just as vibrantly. All of that, perfected by the tracings of a light fog hovering just above the water.

“This dream just got way better.” I inhaled through my nose, catching a full blast of the floral redolence.

I took a step through the doorway, stumbling forward and straight into the water.

“What did I even trip over?” I asked myself right as I fell into the cold liquid, barely landing on my hands and knees.

“O-okay?” I stumbled over my words as the view of my reflection was cleared. I’m me again... er female Ashe rather.

“Testing,” I spoke softly as a smile was stitched into my face. It was solely to hear my voice. Primarily because so far... I’m leaning on it over my male voice.

Getting to my feet, I felt my heart thrash in my chest at the reflection in the water, “Come again?!” I squeaked with a pitch so high a mouse would ask me for tips. Stumbling backward in shock, I slipped and landed right on my ass.

I’m wearing a dress? When did I put on a dress? I don't even own a dress. The article of clothing was clearly high quality. I could tell based on touch alone. I’m not terribly familiar with the ins and outs of fashion, so the material’s name was off the table, but it was so soft.

The design itself was really catching my eye—a light blue sundress with traces of silver throughout its body. Honestly, it was love at first sight. We were practically made for each other. I'd be somewhat bothered by people judging me, but I'm in my dreams so... I'm gonna have a little fun.

With a breath emboldened by the screaming fires of liberation, I spun around to take in the environment. The dress glistened and flowed with me as I twirled through the air.

I hit the water and spun off my heel, taking off once more. I feel so light... it's amazing. As if I just shattered a set of shackles bounding me to the ground.

“Dizzy...”A giggle escaped me as I staggered to a stop, shaking off my newfound dizziness. “But refreshing.” My eyes located Ruby mere moments after.

“There she is,” I beamed just as brightly as the shimmering petals when our eyes met. She was a fair distance down the street, but she was clearly waiting for me. Such a good rabbit...

“Hey, wait!” I called out, hand outstretched as she darted away, the water rippling in response to her.

Taking a deep breath, I jumped to my feet, fueled by raw determination. Is she still leaving a trail? Yeah, yeah, she is. It’s a bit tougher to see, but I can see the crimson glow beneath.

“I’m coming, wait up!” I cupped my hands to my mouth and shouted, bolting after her.

- - - - -

“Okay... breath... Ashe need.” I panted as I came to a stop, hands resting on my knees. Holy jumping Jesus on a pogo stick, she’s fast.

Wait, why did she lead me here? It’s that place with the twisted tree and houses. She’s at the base of that tree. She’s peering at me intently. It’s so intense I feel like she’s peeking into my soul. The fog inside, too. It's thicker but it looks like it moved aside just for Ruby.

Shaking my head, I called over to her as I approached the gate, you know I can't get in there, it's loc... The gate swung open? It's usually locked. I guess my dream doesn’t give the slightest beginnings of a shit. I have always been curious as to what rests within.

“Never mind, I'm coming," I assured her with a nod as I stepped inside.

Strangely enough, the water and fog parted for me. The fluid promptly evaporated wherever my foot fell, progressively moving outward to let its friends know it was time to go. Thankfully, the petals persisted.

“Hey girl,” I waved as I crept towards her, caution in toe. She was always a bit jumpy. Doubly so when she first met me. We warmed up to each other pretty quickly, though. “It’s me, Ashe.”

She’s not acting any different. Perfect, it’s like we already knew each other.

“It’s nice to see you,” I gave her a nod as I fell to my knees, throwing up a flurry of petals. “Did you miss me?” I asked, gingerly extending a hand toward her.

My hand made contact with her soft, warm fur. My worries got the hint and went to join the water in their oblivion.

Same as always... Her stare is just as affectionate as I remember. She's even purring.

“I’ve been waiting so long to do that,” I laughed, removing my hand as I gestured her to me.

“What?” I asked myself when I saw what now coated my hand. Flower petals? Ruby didn’t have any.

“Wait!” I shouted instinctively when I noticed the catch. Our reunion, fictional or otherwise, wasn't long for even my dreams. A harsh gust blew us by, and she joined it. It was instant. Her body dissolved into flower petals and was cast to the warm breeze.

My eyes following her flowered remains, I let out a mournful sigh, “I miss you.”

Nothing was extravagant or special about her petals. All they did was pelt a window on one of the faraway houses.

“Who’s?” I squinted my eyes, hoping I could get a better look at the window.

Is that a person?

Okay, this chapter ended up waaay longer than I expected. And because of that, I'm splitting it here. Next Chapter: Abracadavre.

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