Chapter 24 – The Fire Within
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Spoiler

heavy deadnaming and misgendering

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I pounded on Colette’s door, half-collapsing against the railing just next to it.

“Colette?” I croaked, trying to call out to her. My mouth felt drier than the dust I’d kicked up in my mad dash to her house, and I felt just about ready to pass out. “A-Are you there?”

Thankfully, the door opened only a few moments later, revealing a shocked Colette.

“…Triss?” she asked breathlessly. “Are you okay?”

I staggered inside, my legs about to collapse as I hurried past her towards the main room. The mob hadn’t followed me, had they? My father was blocking their way when he protected me from them, and I made sure to weave through all the other nearby houses so they couldn’t see where I went, but still…

I wasn’t in my Dissonant form, so I couldn’t listen for whether they’d followed me or not. 

As I flopped down on Colette’s couch, the same couch I had been sleeping on for the past few nights, I glanced down at myself. It wasn’t only that I couldn’t hear as well as usual — I also felt… wrong. Like something was… missing from me. Something substantial. 

But maybe that made sense. I’d spent so long with my fox ears and tail, and now… without them, my body just didn’t feel right anymore. 

And the more I thought about how much I was missing, the more I realised the source of my discomfort… the worse it seemed to become. I’d never been comfortable like this, but now it made me feel wrong to an entirely different degree. I felt… dissonant.

Ironic, wasn’t it? That I would only be called a Dissonant when I was… me. And for the rest of my life, for all the years I’d spent like this, for all the time I’d actually felt dissonant… I was seen as normal.

Why couldn’t I be accepted as me?

While I was still focused on myself, a pouch of water suddenly entered my vision. I looked up, finding Colette staring down at me, her face full of worry.

“You look absolutely parched,” she said, gesturing for me to take the leather waterskin.

I gratefully received it, pulling the cork out and greedily gulping down as much water as I could handle. And slowly but surely, I began to feel alive again.

“When I woke up this morning, you weren’t here,” she said, her voice laced with concern. “Are you okay? Where did you go?”

“I…” I gurgled, coughing as I tried to speak through the waterskin.

“Easy now,” she said, hand on my shoulder. “Don’t drink too fast.”

“I had to… had to hide from the fog,” I murmured.

Colette paused for a moment, staring at me as if confused. “That’s… like your mother. She would always hide when the fog rolled in…”

Right… of course she would hide. Assuming that I was right about the fog taking away her illusion… she would have to hide from my father — from the whole village — until it passed.

“Are you okay?” she went on, her voice thankfully shifting back to the caring and worried tone I was more used to hearing from her. “If you’ve been out until now, have you not eaten?”

I shook my head, my untied hair falling in front of my face. 

“Let me grab you something to eat.” Colette carefully walked off towards the kitchen, her worried mumbling gradually growing quieter. “I heard a commotion outside, too… I hope everything’s okay.”

I curled up on the couch, bringing my knees close to my chest as I sipped on the water from the pouch.

‘Okay.’ Things weren’t okay, and they hadn’t been since last night, hours and hours ago. Ever since the mercenaries had left, things had gotten worse and worse…

And what was I supposed to do now? I’d spent so long trying to hide the fact that I was a Dissonant. So long trying to hide the changes I’d gone through. So long trying to hide… who I really was.

I’d learned more about myself. I’d learned more about my mother. I’d made friends, I’d learned the basics of fighting, and I’d learned more about the outside world; what lay beyond the bounds of the village.

But in the past day, everything had come crashing down.

Alvin, my brother, was gone. Karla, the only friend I’d managed to make, was gone. I’d nearly lost myself to the fog. I’d nearly gotten everyone in the village killed by a monster. Everyone had survived, but now they all knew that I was a Dissonant. My father had tried to defend me, but it didn’t seem like anyone had listened to him. They all thought… that I was a monster. Maybe they were right.

Would I even be able to stay in the village any longer? Did I even have a home anymore?

Tears ran down my cheeks. I reached around to try to grab my tail, only to be reminded that it wasn’t there anymore. The parts of me that I’d come so used to having, and they were… gone, until I had enough energy to change back.

The only thing about this situation that I liked, and I couldn’t even have that.

The door to the kitchen creaked open, and Colette walked in carrying a wooden bowl with a spoon sitting in it. She halted as she saw me curled up crying on the couch, before wordlessly handing me the bowl and sitting in the chair just across from me.

Porridge… My hand shook as I held the spoon. I was so grateful to Colette… she’d given me somewhere to stay while all this had happened, she’d let me stay on her couch, and she’d… accepted me, without any question.

The porridge was warm, and sweet.

Colette and I sat in silence for a while, a silence only broken by the spoon softly hitting the side of the bowl as I ate.

“Oh…” Colette began, her voice quiet. “I have something for you, Triss.”

“Hmm?” I placed the now-empty bowl down on the table, looking up at her.

She wandered off to the side of the room, crouching down in front of a large wooden box. Lifting the lid open with a creak, she picked up a bundle of fabric out of it, bringing it over towards me.

“It’s… it’s the summer solstice today,” she began, “and… I wanted to get you something, before…”

Colette looked away, a single tear running down her cheek.

“Happy Birthday, Triss.”

I took the bundle she held out to me.

This was… the cloak that I had left behind. Karla’s cloak. I’d left it on the couch when I had to run away from the fog, and it wasn’t there when I’d come back. And… something was inside it? Something heavy.

“The edges of your cloak were torn,” Colette explained, “so I cleaned it and patched it up for you. And… there’s something else in there.”

Unwrapping the bundle, I found two short swords, just a little bit longer than the wooden daggers I had been practicing with. They were slipped inside decorative scabbards, adorned with reddish-orange patterns that matched the fur on my tail.

“Fenne… your mother left these here, when she left the village.” Colette wiped her eyes, her voice shaking as she spoke. “These were her second pair of blades. I figured… it was time to pass them on to you.”

I slowly stood up off the couch, slipping the two wooden practice daggers out of my belt and laying them down. These daggers… I’d kept them with me ever since Alvin first took me out into the forest for training. And in that time… I’d grown somewhat attached to them.

As much as I didn’t want to learn to fight at first, as much as I’d fought against it for years… I’d finally done it. These daggers proved that I was finally capable of taking care of myself.

I’d become attached to them, but now it was time for me to move on. 

I picked up one of the metal blades… the blades my mother once called her own. Pulling it ever so slightly out of its sheath, I breathed out when I saw the sharp, polished edge, glittering and shining as it caught the sunlight from the window.

These were nothing like the training daggers. They weren’t for learning to fight, they weren’t for sparring or for practice.

These blades were meant for self defense, yes, but they were also meant for… killing. Would I… would I be able to do that, if it came to it? I… didn’t know.

Taking a deep breath, I undid my front belt buckle, laying the flask of black liquid down and wrapping it up in the cloak. Slipping my belt through the loops in the scabbard, I tightened it back up, feeling how the blades hung at my hips.

They were comfortable. Despite being made of metal, the daggers didn’t seem to weigh me down at all, even as I spun around a little.

My eyes began to mist as I looked down at the orange scabbards. These were… the only traces of my mother that I had left. 

I wished I could’ve known her. I wished she was still around… to teach me about being a Dissonant.

“Oh,” Colette began, looking back towards the box she’d fetched the bundled up cloak from. “There’s something else that… I wanted to give you. I—”

She halted as loud, thunderous knocking rang out from the front door. My heart jumped at the noise, and without thinking, I reached for the handle of my right blade. Had the crowd found me? 

Before Colette could move towards the entrance, the door opened with a loud creak, and my father’s voice echoed down the hallway.

“Colette, it’s me,” he called out, his loud, thumping footsteps slowly approaching down the corridor. “Have you seen…” 

As he rounded the corner into the main room, he came to a stop, the floorboards creaking under his weight. His eyes roved around for a few moments until they landed on me, and he sighed, his shoulders drooping relievedly. “There you are. I was terrified that… like… like your mother. Like Alvin.”

I shook my head. “N-no, I wouldn’t leave, Dad. I… this is my home…”

But would it be for much longer? They were all terrified of me, they …thought I was a monster. Maybe they’d accept me again if I lost my normal form, and I went back to… this, the way things used to be. But… I didn’t want that. I didn’t want to give that up for their acceptance. I wanted to be Triss. 

The only problem was that my father intended to stand up for me, and I was putting all of this on him as well.

For what it was worth, though, I was so thankful for what he’d done earlier. Without him, there was no way I’d have made it to Colette’s. I might’ve even been… driven out the same way as the monster, based on what everyone had been saying.

“Thank you,” I said, my voice a little hoarse. “For… standing up for me.”

“Of course, Matty,” he said. “You’re my son.”

My blood ran cold.

“I want you to be safe. I’ll protect you, just like I did when you were a little boy.”

Trying so, so hard not to let the name get to me, and fighting back a terrible crawling feeling from my gut, I swallowed. Things… things really hadn’t changed, had they? I thought they had, but… I’d been wrong…

If he still saw me as... how I had been, then did he not consider me a Dissonant now? Or did he just not care? “You’re protecting me even if I’m…?” I trailed off.

“I already knew,” my father said. “When you… the last time you came to the house. You looked just like Fenne… and I thought you were Fenne, for a moment. But later I realised. I realised it could only be you. That the monster had gotten to you — that you’d become a Dissonant.”

So he did know. He knew what had happened to me, and yet… he still talked as if I was someone… something else. Even now, even when I so clearly was not that, not anymore.

But he’d called me a girl in front of the crowd. Was that… just because he hadn’t wanted to admit to them that I was… his kid? 

“I don’t know what to do, Matty,” my father said, scratching at his scalp. 

“My name is Triss,” I mumbled, but probably not loud enough for him to hear.

He continued, “Everyone’s all in a frenzy lookin’ for you. God, how am I even supposed to get them to back off?”

I couldn’t figure out what to do either. Everyone was… scared of me, and wanted to drive me out of the village, out of my… home.

“You know… things would’ve been okay,” my father said. “If not for that monster…”

As he leaned against the wall and rubbed his temples, I curled up on the couch, hugging my knees close to my chest. It was my fault all this was happening. It was my fault that everyone was in such a frenzy. It was my fault that we had to… hide like this.

I hated it.

“I had a feelin’ the monster would still be here after the mercenaries left — that it would show up again. There’s only one way out of the village, after all. It wouldn’t be driven off by the fog, not unless we got very lucky. And there’s no way it's makin’ it up the cliffs. Where did it even come from?”

“…I know where it came from.”

My father’s eyes landed on me, his voice sharp as he asked, “What?”

“I…” I blanched. 

“You and Alvin found it, but Alvin never did tell me how… How do you know where it came from?”

“I…” I took a deep breath. We never did admit what we’d found, did we? And that had nearly gotten us killed. “Alvin… Alvin found this… cave. He brought me down with him one night, and… we started exploring it.”

“And neither of you thought to tell anyone?” my father asked, raising an eyebrow.

“No–I thought… I thought Alvin had told someone,” I replied. “I thought he’d talked to the adults first, but… he only told me he hadn’t once we were down there.”

I took a deep breath, wiping my slightly misting eyes.

“In the cave,” I continued,  “down at the end of this really long tunnel… we found a door.”

“…A door?”

“Yeah, and… inside the door was this weird… crypt or study or something — I’ve never seen anything like it before. It was all… ruined, it looked really old, and…”

I paused for a moment to catch my breath.

“And in the crypt… this weird liquid dripped on me, and it felt like it was burning or something, but… right after that, the monster showed up.”

A shiver ran down my spine as I recalled my first encounter with the monster.

“Alvin tried to fight it off, but… he took a really bad hit — I thought we were done for.” I choked up, my voice beginning to crack. “That’s when I… shot a fireball, like I did to that monster before, and that pushed it back enough that we could escape. It looked like it was too big to get through the tunnel, so we thought we were safe.”

“Wait, so,” my father interjected, “if you managed to get out the first time without lettin’ the monster out, how did it get out later?”

“I… I went back to the crypt.”

His eyes bugged out. “What? Why did you do that?

“I…” I was crying now. “Alvin had just left, and… I had nowhere I felt safe but Colette’s… and I was trying to not be too upset about things, trying to feel better, but… that was also the night of the f-fog.”

He groaned. “The fog. Right. You’re just like all the other Dissonants, aren’t you?”

“I… what?”

“Dissonants are all afraid of the fog… think it’s alive, think it’s out to get them or something. So you ran away, didn’t you? You ran away… But to the crypt?

“It was pulling the… magic, or whatever it is, right out of me!” I wailed, pushing through the tears. “I had to run! I was terrified of losing—”

He scoffed. “A little pink mist isn’t gonna kill you, Matty. A monster will, though. And you chose that over the fog.” He let that sink in for a moment, rubbing his temples. “Y’know, I couldn’t have come up with a dumber plan if I’d tried."

“But… i-it worked…” I mumbled.

He let out a stupefied snort. “It worked… Right. Until you managed to let the monster out, that is?”

I nodded, burying my head in my hands.

“Well at the very least no one got hurt,” he relented. “It was close, though. I thought I was a goner for a minute there. Don’t have the speed I used to.”

He went silent for a moment, before pushing himself away from the wall and starting to pace. “Y’know, none of this even matters if the village is going to drive you out anyway. We can have our little man-to-man heart-to-heart but it’s not gonna change what they wanna do. They’ll still drive you out if they wanna. Or both of us, for that matter,” his voice went low, turning into a growl. “I swear, the past sixteen years… all pointless. I just wanted to retire, y’know? Have a family? Settle down?”

The tension pushed me further down in my seat, and he just stared at me, a disappointed half-glare that terrified me down to my bones.

“I guess I was naïve,” he sneered. “I guess I shouldn’t have let myself get excited about my new life. I guess—”

He stopped, freezing mid-step as the three of us began to hear the sounds of people outside. In less than a moment my anxiety shifted to terror, ice filling my veins. 

A few knocks resounded on the door. 

They’d found us. The crowd had found us. My gut clenched painfully, and I shrunk down even lower in my chair.

“Damn! Everything’s gone wrong!” my father shouted, kicking the wall.

“Elias!” Colette scolded. My father huffed. 

“My family really is completely and totally broken, now. Everything I built… lost,” he said, turning back towards me. “Matty, this isn’t a place that would accept Dissonants. You should’ve known that. Couldn’t you have hidden that you were… that? Fenne did!”

My mind was spinning, my thoughts aimless. I had already been terrified, even more so when everyone arrived, but now… 

My father’s glare was stifling even without his words. Memories of him dragging me around surfaced, memories I truly wished I could forget. Memories that I thought I had forgotten.

But still he stood in front of me, still he glared, still he waited for me to reply. A reply I didn’t even have an answer to. How could I… how could I hide this? I… I tried… 

Fenne… my mother. She could hide it, but… I couldn’t use illusions. I couldn’t— Wait.

“You… knew that Mum was…?” I asked in a small voice.

“Of course I knew!” he said, letting out an exasperated, ill-tempered chuckle. “I knew long before we were together. But she wanted to keep it hidden, and… I don’t blame her, honestly. It’s what I would’ve done.”

But… in my dream, my mother had said that she kept the fact that she was a Dissonant hidden from him… that she wanted to tell him at some point. But he was saying that he already knew?

I wasn't going to be the one to bring it up,” my father said. “She kept it hidden. That she was a Dissonant. That she had those… fox ears and tail.”  Then he leaned down towards me, giving me a hard look with fierce eyes. Enunciating clearly, he asked, "Why. Didn't. You?"

“I…” I stammered. “I don't know how!”

“You’re doing it right now!

“Elias, stop scaring her!” Colette warned.

“N-no I’m not!” I pleaded. “I don't—”

Elias groaned again, pulling me roughly up from the chair and to the door. “Well, whatever you’re doing, then, keep doing it. This is how we’ll convince them to leave it.”

Jolts of fire ran through my arms, my skin crawling as he dragged me along in the same way he always had. Was I never going to escape from him… from the things he’d always expected of me?

“Elias!” Colette called out, her voice sounding more dull and distant the further my father pulled me away.

The door slammed against the side of the house with a loud crash as my father shoved it open. I looked up through the open doorway, and saw the sight that I was dreading the most.

The mob.

The same crowd as before had gathered, all standing just outside Colette’s house. A few of them had their swords drawn, and others that were previously unequipped now held pitchforks in their hands. They really thought… that I was a monster, didn’t they? All the people I thought I’d known…

I squirmed under their gaze, trying and failing to pull away from my father’s grasp.

“What’ll it take to get y’all to lay off?” my father yelled.

“The other monster was driven off, why not him?” someone shouted back, pointing towards me with a pitchfork.

“Matty is my son,” he retorted, shaking my arm a little. “Do y’all really think you can parent him better than I can?”

Parent me… parent me? Like all of those memories I wished I could forget? Flashes of them ran through my mind, all the times that I’d spent running from my father. Constantly trying to escape from his expectations, escape from everything he wanted me to be.

“Let it go!” My father went on. “The real monster is gone! There won’t be any of this nonsense anymore, you have my word. We'll be a normal, little family again.”

No more of this nonsense? Matty? Son? A normal little family? My heart sank, imagining the possibility. Imagining not getting to be… Triss, anymore. Would he really force me to be… that again?

Would I really never get to be me?

“And can you guarantee that there won’t be any more monsters showing up?” one of them questioned, staring at me with an angry glare.

“I guarantee you won’t have to deal with them anymore,” my father replied, his grip on my arm loosening ever so slightly. “If any monsters do ever show up, we’ll take care of them. I used to be a mercenary, y’know. You saw that I almost dealt with that one on my own. With Matty’s help it will be easy — we’ll protect the whole village, just the two of us, father and son.”

I… couldn’t take it anymore.

Part of me missed when life was simpler, but still, even now, I wouldn't choose to lose being Triss. How could my father try to make that decision for me? How could any of these people? 

“So then Matty will just be a normal kid now? He won’t be… a monster anymore?”

My father pushed his arm forward, dragging me closer to the crowd.

“Look at ‘im! Looks like a normal boy to me! And he’s not gonna be a monster ever again. You have my word.”

How could he give them his word? It wasn’t his decision to make.

A spark lit in my core. I wouldn’t give this up, I couldn’t give it up. There was no way I could be happy, not without being myself. Not without being… Triss.

I shoved his hand away, tears in my eyes.

“No!” I screamed, and the world around me snapped back into focus as the spark in my core burst into flames.

“You…” my father said, staring at me in shock. “Why?!” he shouted. “Matty, you—”

“My name is Triss!” I shouted back. Gesturing to my body, to my ears, and to my tail, I cried, “This is what I am! You really think I want what I had for the rest of my life? You really think I was satisfied with the life we had?”

He froze as the crowd stared on, their pitchforks raised.

“I wasn't! I was never happy! I never had real friends! You always fought me whenever I wanted something! I had to hide my interests from you! Dad, I was afraid of you. I still am!” 

Heat coursed through my body as I spoke, familiar, comfortable heat that made me feel alive. I choked on sobs, wiping my eyes for a moment before I continued.

“Your fantasy of having a perfect, normal, little family was never real. It was lost as soon as Mum left, probably because she was as afraid of your reaction as I am!”

He staggered back at my words, almost even more than a blow from the monster. But that made sense, since that was what I was, right? 

“If you all want me gone, then fine,” I said, turning back towards the crowd, tears soaking my cheeks. “I never had a family here anyway.”

And then I ran away, towards the mountain pass, towards the direction the other monster had gone.

It was where I belonged.

 

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