The night was cold enough to have the clear air of winter. Clouds were scarce, only sometimes appearing and covering the sky filled with scars or the bright, full moon.
The ivory mask reflected the moonlight unnaturally much, giving it the appearance of glowing slightly.
From where it had been shoved up a bit, a pair of red lips could be seen, leisurely sucking away at a weird-looking pipe and exhaling white smoke that twirled up to the sky. The hand moving the pipe away from the lips paused slightly, then resumed its movement as the man sighed.
“Nie”, someone called out in a whiny note, the voice echoing far considering they were in a forest.
The man, Nie, tilted his head and turned it to the right. The mask had no open place for eyes and covered them completely, but the man behaved just like he could see. The white fur that was attached to the mask spread all over his head, covering it. When one didn’t look closely enough, he looked like a faceless monster with wavy white hair.
The body below, too, was covered completely. White gloves were pulled over the hands, vanishing between what looked like several layers of clothes - a wider, dark brown robe over a tighter, long-sleeved top. The loose pants ended in a pair of high boots with white fur. All in all, not a single patch of skin could be seen except for the bit of skin that was showing below the mask.
With a light swipe, the mask moved in place, hiding the last patch of skin just as something jumped out of the forest.
The huge, wolf-like beast shook its grey and black fur, leaves falling off. Curved horns surrounded its head like a crown and a scorpion-tail was moving at its back. The beast was nothing but muscle below the long fur. It had a coarse structure looking like spikes, making the overall appearance no less threatening.
The turquoise eyes were shining in the moonlight as the beast changed, until a man was standing in its place instead. With dark skin and a head of messy hair, he didn’t look half as intimidating as before. He was tall and lean, with his strong muscular arms peeking out from under his clothes.
The man stumbled forward, his steps insecure. When he reached Nie, he let himself fall to the ground and placed his head on Nie’s knees.
Nie raised the hand that didn’t hold the still burning pipe and tried to push the head away - but the person resisted and wrapped his strong arms around the legs instead. Their hold tightened strongly; strong enough to snap a human's bones, but Nie showed no reaction other than continuing to push stubbornly.
“Nie, I’m not feeling well”, the man complained loudly. “I’m dizzy. I’ve got a headache.”
“I do hope you are aware that coming here is going to do nothing but make it worse”, Nie responded quietly. His voice was like a fleeting whisper, cold and chilling. There was a hypnotic sound to it, just like hearing a fairy sing.
The man whined again, his much rougher voice having something like a wolf’s growl to it. “No, I have to stay here. There’s something weird with my head, but that’s why I have to know even more.”
“It’s forbidden, child”, Nie insisted, but his hand stopped trying to push him away. He pulled it back after a moment of stillness, resting it against his stomach. The pipe glowed lightly as he tapped on it with his gloved finger.
“Don’t call me a child. I told you to call me ‘Wu’.” Wu raised his head, placing his chin on Nie’s knees and looking at the empty mask. Actually, calling him 'child' wasn’t surprising. Who knew how old Nie was? Everyone was probably a child in his eyes. Everyone in this world, at least.
Nie was always here, right at this place. Leaning against the huge tree with golden-brown bark that never bore any blossoms or fruit and had leaves all year long. Nie never moved away - he just sat and smoked his pipe and listened to Wu complain about this and that. Actually, Wu hadn't ever seen him smoke it - he only ever saw Nie wear that mask of his - but it was always lit, so he probably used it when no one was watching. Nie was like the wise old man of the woods. And he was right to say that Wu shouldn’t come here - this wasn’t a place he should approach. He should avoid it like every other living being in this forest did, but truthfully, Nie was the only one he could go to.
“Nie”, he called out softly, eyebrows scrunching as if he was going to cry.
“Hmm”, the hum sounded in response after several seconds of silence.
“My thoughts are weird. My memory is weird. Nie, do I have a right to be happy? There are images in my head - images where I was happy. Even as I am. I don’t know what I have to do, but I want it to be that way”, he whispered, uncertain. His words were as messy as his thoughts, without any context. For years he had cut off contact to anyone else other than Nie, just living in the forest surrounding this tree.
There had been a time when he was carefree and happy, but there was no keeping that state. It was too dangerous for anyone else. Only Nie would never be influenced by whatever bad luck he’d bring.
Because Nie was a deity.
That was why he couldn’t show himself to anyone either - Wu had heard that you couldn’t look directly at deities or they’d burn your eyes. They also weren’t allowed to just randomly roam the planet, as far as he knew. There were rules to how they could behave, set by whatever higher powers existed on this planet that simple mortals like him couldn't understand.
It was questionable why Nie was just sitting under the huge tree like this, but Nie had never been one to talk about himself. There was bound to be some grand reason.
They had met when Wu had fled, appearing in the forest and mindlessly dragging his bleeding body. He had ripped his horns out, knowing fully well that they’d just regrow - they always did. It wasn't about completely getting rid of them. It was just about wanting to punish himself for being what he was. He was a sobbing mess when he reached the tree, seeing that suspicious person standing under the high branches.
The fur of the mask was waving in the wind as was the robe. He didn't have a face, but Wu could imagine the serene eyes and expressionless face hiding under it as the man looked up at the rustling leaves.
Suspicious, but at the same time, just like a safe haven.
Wu had approached with eyes blurry from crying, stopping a few metres away from that tall back. What had he wanted to do? He didn't know.
“There is nothing that could ever be a reason to hurt yourself”, the man had said with that voice that seemed to freeze everything around him, as if he knew that Wu had pulled his horns out himself.
“Yes there is”, Wu had denied with his voice hoarse. “If you do nothing but hurt those that are precious to you, then you should suffer as punishment.”
The person had turned around, looking at him with that empty, ivory mask - but it felt like there was a gaze on him.
“You’re not hurting anyone. Even if you stayed around me, nothing would happen.”
The words were spoken without emotion, but they sounded like the gentlest promise. Wu had hiccuped. “Can I stay?”
“Do whatever you wish.”
...Just like that, the years had passed. In time, he had told Nie everything. The man knew his whole life. He had never judged Wu for any of it. He had just listened and sometimes commented, but most of the time, Wu would just talk and fall asleep at some point. There were days when he'd train in the area around the tree and sometimes Nie would speak up, giving him short, cryptic tips to make Wu realize where he had to correct his movements to get better. Sometimes they'd just quietly sit together.
The tree wasn’t a place he should be at, but he felt home around it.
Wu shook his head to get rid of the memories, looking up at Nie again. The pipe continued to emit white smoke, a thin trail upwards.
“You have all right to be happy”, Nie whispered, his tone decisive.
Wu smiled, a bit shakily, but his eyes were glowing. If Nie said it, he could believe it. If someone as powerful as a deity said that things would turn out alright, then it was fine to cling to it.
Unknown to him, Nie wished for it to happen even more than the beast himself.
If things were developing like that, then Wu would leave to find his happiness. It was a good thing. The child had suffered enough and had suffered unnecessarily. He deserved to go out and finally live his life.
The gloved hand around the pipe clenched just the tiniest bit before relaxing as if nothing had happened.
His heart was tearing. Did he want Wu to go? He didn’t want that to happen. He was worried. Here, he was safe and far away from anything troubling him. But he wasn’t genuinely happy, either. It was more like sitting in a bubble in a dazed state. Alive and healthy, but nothing beyond that.
Out of all people, he himself was the one who had the least right to stop Wu from having a chance at a good life.
Nie slightly turned his head away from the hopeful pair of eyes, unable to take them. They always looked at him with such admiration, but it painful for Nie to see.
Even now, this son of his was still suffering from the decisions Nie had made so long ago.
That was a truth he couldn’t help but hope that his child would never find out.