“Triss…” Colette peered into the living room, leaning against the wall of the corridor leading to the front door. “Alvin’s here.”
I wrapped my blanket tighter around myself, curling upon the sofa as small as I could.
“Are you sure you don’t want to talk to him?” she asked, her face fraught with worry.
I wished I could have talked to him earlier. I wished he would have talked to me about his plans before, so I could have sent him off with a smile as he left the village to fulfil his dreams. But he’d left it until the last minute.
My eyes stung with tears as I covered my face with my blanket, and masses of conflicting feelings swirled around inside my head. With the state I was in right now… was I even able to face him, and properly say goodbye?
I flinched as a loud creak echoed down the corridor, the distinctive creak of the front door opening. A familiar set of clomping footsteps followed shortly after, heading towards the room I was in.
“I don’t have much time before the mercs leave, so…” Alvin’s voice reverberated against the walls, sounding almost deafening. “I need to make this— Quick.”
His footsteps halted just a short distance away from the couch I was curled up on. I nervously peeked my head out from underneath my shell of blankets, peering at him.
“I’ll give you two a moment,” Colette said, glancing between Alvin and I for a moment before heading off into another room.
And then we stared at each other awkwardly, neither of us finding words to say. I wanted to hide under the blanket again. Maybe I would hide under the blanket again.
“Triss, I—” Alvin finally began, his voice shaking. “I’m sorry I didn’t… talk to you about this before.”
I tried to speak, but my voice barely came out as more than a hoarse croak. I wished that everything could’ve been done differently, that he could’ve talked to me about his plans to leave the village earlier, and… that I could’ve wished him well upon his journey.
“I thought you’d… be okay if you knew how to fight, so… that’s why I asked Karla to train you up.” Alvin ran a hand through his hair, taking a deep breath. “I thought I’d get a chance to talk to you, while we were trainin’ or somethin’, but…”
Tears began to well up in the corners of my eyes once more. This was the last chance I had to speak with him, and I…
“Are you…” Alvin started again, the hesitation clear in his voice. “Will you be okay?
“I…” My words caught in my throat as I tried to respond. The emotions that had been building up inside me were about to overflow, and as I looked up at my brother, seeing the concern in his eyes, they finally bubbled forth.
“I-I don’t know — I don’t know if I’ll be okay. Once you’re gone… once Karla’s gone… I won’t have anyone left.” The more I spoke, the more my voice was broken up with sobs. “I can’t go home… I can’t go outside… What am I supposed to do?”
“Colette is… here for you,” Alvin responded haltingly. “You’re safe here, you’ll be okay in this house.”
“So… a-am I just supposed to stay here forever? Not even just the village, but a single house? I... I thought... we w-would explore the world together...”
He looked away, fidgeting with the scabbard at his belt as a worried frown crossed over his face.
The two of us stayed in silence for a few moments, a silence only broken by the occasional sniffle that I couldn’t push down.
“Maybe I… should stay,” Alvin finally said. “Maybe I shouldn’t go with the mercenaries. I can stay here, and—”
“N-No—” I interrupted, my voice coming out as more of a squeak. “Y-You can’t! You’ve been working towards this for so long, I couldn’t…”
I couldn’t take this from him. I couldn’t take away his dreams. That would just be… selfish.
“If you gave up on your goals, if I made you give up on your goals, I…” I looked away, rubbing my damp eyes on the blanket. “I couldn’t live with myself.”
“O-Okay,” Alvin mumbled.
“And besides,” I went on, “it’s not like you’ll be gone forever, is it? You’ll be here every time the mercenaries visit.”
The sounds of a small commotion just outside faintly filtered through the front door. Were the mercenaries calling for Alvin? I suddenly found myself wishing for just a little bit more time.
More time to talk to him, before he left.
More time to say goodbye to Karla, and to properly thank her for all the training she gave me.
More time to… spend with the people who truly cared for me.
Alvin turned and looked towards the door for a moment, before kneeling down next to me. “If you’ll... if you’ll really be okay... I should get goin’. Otherwise the mercs will leave without me.” He reached out, gently ruffling my hair in the same way he’d often done when I was younger. “Hopefully I’ll see you the next time we visit the village.”
I took a deep, laboured breath, trying to push through the tears to make my voice work.
“G… Goodbye, A-Alvin,” I choked out.
“See ya… Triss,” he replied.
Without another glanced back, he walked towards the door, and out into the wider world.
The sound of the door echoed behind him, the loud creaking making me flinch. I curled my tail forward, hugging it close to my chest and almost burying the flask of black liquid that I held inside the fur. That was it. He was leaving. My only ally other than Colette was leaving the village. The only person who knew what happened to me had left me behind. And… I had pushed him to do it.
I wished I could’ve asked him to stay.
Now, the only safe place for me was in Colette’s house, and that was only as long as no one else visited. I couldn’t go out and help with the harvests, I couldn’t tend to Colette’s garden like I had used to… I couldn’t go back home, even.
Not unless I changed back, which… I never wanted to do again.
And that left me trapped here, inside a small house, sleeping on someone else’s couch. Even with a blanket wrapped tightly around me, even with the heat from hugging my tail, I still shivered. My skin felt clammy, and a constant prickling sensation scratched away at my neck.
Even as tired as I was, I still couldn’t shake the tension that clung to me, feeling like it was weighing me down.
I was left alone with my thoughts, and in my tears, for another few minutes, before I heard Colette’s quiet footsteps return to the room. Her voice followed a moment after.
“They’ve left,” she said simply. “And… the fog has finally reached the village.”
That was it. Alvin was gone. He wouldn’t be around at home anymore. He wouldn’t go out on hunts, he wouldn’t tell stories of what his friends were up to that day… and he wouldn’t be around to help me hide from my father.
I’d only get to see him when the mercenaries visited the village… if they still visited at all.
My closest friend, my closest ally… gone.
Colette sat back down in her chair, which creaked loudly and painfully, much louder and more painful than normal. I folded my ears down flat, trying to block out whatever noise I could... even if the noise had already ended.
I felt like... like I was falling apart. Or my life was, at least. Even if I felt comfortable in this form, more comfortable than I had before... everything else was just going awry. And now, without Alvin and Karla here, there… just wasn’t a place for me in the village.
I wished I could have gone with them.
There was no way they would have brought along someone like me, though. Not someone terrified of people. Not someone terrified of even being seen. Let alone that I wasn’t actually that great at fighting, even if Karla had been confident in my abilities… And she really had been, while we were training… She had gone on and on about how quickly I was picking things up, and how she thought I’d do so well in the tournament.
And, in the end, I had barely even lasted one match. So even if she liked me, and at one point would have wanted me to come along… I’d probably let her down. Not even she would want me along anymore.
The mercs wouldn’t take someone that couldn’t pull their own weight.
I wanted to run away from it all. I wanted to leave the village and run off into the surrounding forest… or through the mountain pass that led to the other villages, through the thick forest that separated us from other settlements.
Maybe then I’d find a place that accepted me for who I was, with my tail and ears.
No, I knew I shouldn’t think like that. I was still safe here, in Colette’s house. She had promised that her home would always be open to me, and… it was because of that that I had somewhere safe to stay.
As I glanced out from my cocoon of blankets, I found her staring at me, concern evident in her expression.
What was I even supposed to do? Could I… tell anyone about what had happened to me? Was there anywhere else in the village that would be safe for me… aside from here?
My eyelids began to droop as the exhaustion from the tournament caught up to me. I felt… empty, somehow. Like it was harder to breathe, or that I couldn’t quite move as I wanted to. I had felt like that while I was watching the tournament, but… even as I had picked up the flask and transformed back, that feeling still stayed.
Why did I feel this way? It had to have been because Alvin had left the village… right?
Even with all these feelings swirling around inside of me, it felt like I couldn’t escape the clutches of sleep. It was still early, and the sun hadn’t yet gone down — though the sky outside was beginning to turn orange. Orange… and a strange pink colour too, just barely visible through the open window.
I curled up tighter, wrapping the blanket around myself so that it covered my tail and ears. Holding the flask tightly against my chest, and with my arms wrapped around my tail, I let myself drift off to sleep.
* * * * *
“How much of this have I got in storage?” an unfamiliar voice asked.
Right, I… I fell asleep, didn’t I? So this was a dream, then. I glanced around, seeing the recognisable clean walls of the crypt surrounding me, along with the same table and shelves that had been there when Alvin and I first visited.
It had been a while since I dreamt of the crypt.
The same researcher as in my previous dream was digging through cupboards mounted on the wall in the back of the room. He opened up one of them, taking a moment to look at what was inside, before quickly closing it and moving on to the next.
“That’s all the old sets…” he mumbled, scratching the back of his head.
I moved towards him, trying to peer over his shoulder at what was being stored inside the cupboards.
In the second one, rows upon rows of glass tubes full of black liquid were placed all along the shelves, filling up the cupboard completely. Labels were plastered along the front of each of them, and they were capped off with a small cork. As I tried to read the labels, however, the door abruptly closed in front of me.
“Should I even keep these?” the researcher asked, seemingly to no one in particular. “They’re all the failed sets, so I don’t have any use for them, but…”
The researcher sighed, scratching at the back of his head again, though more aggressively this time.
“I wish I had a way to properly test these formulas!” he complained, moving on to the third cupboard. “There’s only so much I can do by checking the contents of the mixture. I can’t see how it reacts… unless I have someone I can test it on.”
What did he mean? I looked into the third cupboard, seeing more glass tubes just like the previous ones. From the looks of them, they seemed to contain the same black liquid as the monster blood that was in my flask. Did he… make that liquid?
“If only it wasn’t a one-time thing like it is now,” he continued. “If I could undo the effects, I’d test it on myself, but…”
He sighed, closing the doors to the third wall-mounted cupboard.
“Once it finalises, there’s no going back. Not even with the fog.”
I froze, my mind working quickly as I pieced together what the researcher had said. If he was creating this black liquid, then… did he create the liquid that dripped onto me back when I first visited the crypt? That liquid caused my transformations into this form, with fluffy ears and tail. If that was the case, then would I eventually stop transforming back into my old form?
Or… did finalising refer to something else?
I had to assume it wasn’t something bad, since… if it was, then the researcher would never be willing to test it on himself. If the result of getting splashed in this liquid was… turning into a monster, then there was no way he would put himself through that.
Would the same be true for turning into an animal? Would the “finalisation” of my transformation result in me… turning into a fox?
“Besides,” the researcher started again, “I didn’t go through much of anything myself... I’m not a Dissonant, after all.”
Both him and I flinched as a bell suddenly rang out through the crypt, the chimes deafening as they echoed around the enclosed room.
The researcher sprung into action, running over to the desk on the other side of the room and scooping up the piles of notes that lay on top.
“Speak of the devil… This is the worst time for the fog to show up!” he exclaimed, running towards the door that led further into the crypt. “I was so close... and now it’s going to ruin half my research material!”
The fog was here? I followed behind him, watching as he darted through the winding maze of rooms that made up the crypt. Occasionally he would pause for a moment, scooping up a few sealed glass tubes that lay loose on one of the tables, and slipping them into his pocket.
“Well, I guess I won’t need to decide whether to throw out all those old formulas,” the researcher said as we reached a long, empty room. “It’ll be a good test of whether they keep even through the fog.”
Was this the same fog that was in the village? And he’d mentioned the fog ‘ruining his research material’ — probably the inky liquids in the tubes and my flask — and that his formulas might not ‘keep through’ it... What was the fog? And why would it have the potential to ruin those formulas?
Maybe I’d get that answer yet, though.
In the middle of this rectangular room along the floor lay a sheet of thick metal, sticking up slightly out of the floor. The researcher slowly stepped over it, making his way to the other side of the room where a long, thin lever was mounted on the wall.
“Hopefully this thing still works,” he muttered, before pulling the lever down with a grunt. “I relit the boiler yesterday, so it should still be running.”
A loud hissing sound began to reverberate behind the nearby walls, and then underneath the floor.
“Good,” he said. “If that hadn’t worked... if the fog had drained me... I’d be out of it for a week! That’s so much lost time... time I can’t afford to lose.”
The sheet of metal in the middle of the floor slowly began to rise, small spurts of steam escaping from the gaps in the mechanism. On the other side of the room, the researcher stood, watching as the rising wall blocked him off from the rest of the room.
A prickle began to scratch at the back of my neck.
I spun around, the scratching sensation getting stronger and stronger as it crawled up and down my spine.
The fog was here.
It slowly crawled towards me, pouring through the previous room like a tidal wave. The pink tendrils flowed along with the white cloud, inching ever closer as the fur on my tail stood on end.
I chanced a glance back at the wall that was slowly rising between the researcher and I.
There was no way I was escaping the fog. The wall had now reached as high as my head, inching ever closer to the ceiling. It was strange, that barrier — in the centre, a large glass container was embedded, pipes spiralling off of it and weaving their way along the wall in a maze-like structure.
The glass container was slowly filling with a thick, viscous black liquid, which gradually spread throughout each of the pipes attached to it.
More of the monster fluid. The monster fluid…
The researcher was acting as though the fog would hurt his research, and potentially himself as well. So… could the fluid act as protection from it? Would it repel it? No… that didn’t make any sense. If the fluid was related to monsters, and my father had told me that the fog drove off monsters, then the fluid repelling the fog instead seemed backwards. But on the other hand… what else could it be? Was it there to… catch the fog? To… soak it up, almost?
The chamber in the centre of the wall continued to fill with liquid, and through the gap in the top, I saw the researcher turn away, heading through a door and closing it behind him.
As the wall reached the ceiling with a loud crash, the fog crawled ever closer, the white cloud carried along by the pink tendrils into the room where I was trapped. My hands began to shake, and it felt… harder and harder to breathe as the fog approached me.
Why did the fog seem so... terrifying? Wasn’t it supposed to be something that drove off monsters? Why did it fill me with such a feeling of dread? In a way it was even more terrifying than the monster had been.
It was okay, I tried to assure myself. This was just a dream. I would wake up, and…
Then what would I do? The fog was in the village. Would I be safe from it in Colette’s house? She didn’t have walls coated with monster fluid like the researcher did, after all.
The fog swirled along the floor, flowing like liquid as the tendrils wormed closer and closer towards me. The more I watched it, the more it seemed like the fog was… alive. Like it had a mind of its own, and a will it was trying to achieve.
My heart thumped in my chest, and my arms trembled as the fog flowed closer and closer. It began to swirl around my feet, one of the pink tendrils reaching up out of it, and then—
My eyes shot open, and I sat bolt upright, panting heavily. It was okay… it was just a dream. I clutched my tail tightly, hugging it against myself.
What time was it? I glanced around, trying to regain my bearings. The window was open a slight amount, just enough to let a cool breeze blow in through the dark gap.
So the sun had gone down. How long had I slept? The rest of the house was dark… though Colette didn’t often light candles to help her see, since she usually went to bed around sundown.
A strange glow seemed to be emitting from the corridor, originating from the front door. What was that? I slowly lifted myself off the couch, wandering over to the door to listen for what was going on. Was someone still awake, walking outside with a lit torch? If the sun had only just gone down, it wouldn’t be unusual for people to still be out and about.
But this light was… different. Instead of the orange glow of fire that shone out from torches, this light was… silver, with a slight pink tinge here and there.
Just like the fog.
I backed away as the glow from outside began to shine brighter and brighter. A small pink tendril poked its way through the gap underneath the door, pulling along with it a clump of the fog.
I wasn’t safe here.
The fur on my tail and ears stood on end as I backpedalled out of the corridor, and back into the main room. What could I do? Every sense in my body was telling me to run, to get away from this fog, but… the closer it got to me, the more my feet felt like they were rooted to the floor.
Even as the pink strands of the fog wormed along the floor, still my legs wouldn’t move. I hugged my tail tightly, the flask still in my hand as I watched the approaching cloud, unable to look away.
It seemed to lift up off the floor as it reached me, the pink tendril reaching out and caressing against one of my trembling hands. For a moment, it felt like it was… pulling at me, drawing me in closer to it, pulling something out from inside me, until—
The tail that I was hugging suddenly vanished, as did the loud sound of my laboured breathing that had been echoing in my ears, along with my pounding heart.
I’d transformed back.
It… it had forced a transformation.
Even though I was holding the flask of black liquid, the fog forced me to transform back. And it was still doing it, pulling at me, pulling at my... core. I felt as if all the energy inside me was being torn away, everything that I hadn’t even realised I’d gained over the past week. The fog had come and it wanted to take me with it.
I had to get out of here.
More fog had followed in through the gaps in the door, spilling throughout the front corridor. I couldn’t get out that way, and… Colette’s house didn’t have another door. My only option for escape was… the window.
My muscles finally kicked into gear as I spun around, frantically looking for my escape. It was smaller than the window in my room, but… I could still fit through it. And, thankfully, since the window faced away from the mountains where the fog had first rolled in, out the window was pitch dark — the glow that had heralded the fog at the front door was missing.
If I managed to get into the forest, I could find my way to the crypt — though we had only been there once, I still remembered the way. And if I could get there, I could get to the room the researcher had sealed himself inside.
So often I’d been annoyed at my dreams not giving me enough information, but this time they’d given me precisely what I’d needed. I had to get away from the fog, and if it was going to roll across the entire village, the researcher’s room was the only way I could.
I’d been incredibly lucky to dream of that room the exact night that I’d needed it.
Tucking the flask into my belt, I made for the window, clambering through it and tumbling outside. Getting back on my feet and hurrying away, I looked once back towards Colette’s, towards the quiet, familiar town I knew so well.
Behind me, the fog covered half of… everything, filling up the sky and bathing the village in a soft white glow, a glow dotted with tendrils of a dim pink. I couldn’t make out much further than the house I’d left… everything was vague and distorted and seemed so… small under the size and speed of the fog.
Stumbling backwards in fear, my stomach dropping out from under me, I spun around and sprinted off towards the forest; I sprinted as fast as my tired legs would take me.