The feelings of comfort and warmth are the first ones I register, as I begin to regain consciousness. I don’t really want to wake up yet, but my brain is awake already starting to collect information about my current situation. My sense of touch says that my body is surrounded by a soft fleece blanket, my usual when “camping” downstairs on the couch instead of sleeping in my bedroom. I shuffle a bit, trying to wrap the blanket tighter against my body, enhancing the feeling of security it provides me. I also get the feeling of a much silkier and softer fabric rubbing against my body.
Next, my sense of hearing tells me that I must have gone to sleep with my white noise generator running on “Fire”. Probably set to the frequencies of Pine or Fir tree, my favourite sleep-aid. After all, I live in Canada, and we mostly get evergreens this far up north, and the hundreds of needles add a very pleasing snapping, cracking and popping (Yes, just like Rice Krispies cereals!) to the sound of wood burning. For me, this is far more effective than Melatonin ever was. (But still nowhere near the efficiency of coma-inducing nyQuil!)
My sense of smell is next, providing me with two very distinct aromas. The first is the smell of slow cooked beef stew, but I detect some extra spices -- lemongrass, star anise and cinnamon? Those are hallmarks of Vietnamese cuisine, so is that the smell of Bò Kho? This is a meal that each and every time I find they serve in a restaurant, I have to order and try it. It simply fills me with that reminiscence of having mom’s home cooking. I don’t know if it’s due to the simplicity of it, or the familiar ingredients, but it is my ideal comfort food.
The second aroma is that of Christmas. Or more specifically, burning fir logs, carrying that distinct piney smell that is so reminiscent of Christmas Trees. This is about the time where my mind decided to blue screen on me -- A total “0xDEADBEEF Error”. Every little weird bug that just got processed all popped up in my head. I didn’t put any food in the slow cooker. I don’t even have a slow cooker. I didn’t go to bed on the couch, I’m fairly sure I went up to my bedroom. I don’t own silky bed sheets. I don’t actually have a fireplace, so I shouldn’t be able to smell those fir needles that the noise-generator is pretending to burn. I didn’t turn on a noise generator, I was so tired I didn’t need any help falling asleep after going to bed so late.
Wait…! There was an entire day between those events…! I didn’t even go to bed last night, I… lost consciousness while flying on a robot-arm, in an arctic storm, in the middle of nowhere, because I totally forgot that I was hurt from fighting this crazy doll-robot thing. As I recalled the last vision before losing consciousness, that freezing, bruised and bleeding left arm, pain started growing from a dull, barely noticeable feeling and rapidly reached Holy-hell-what-is-this levels. “Aw-tatatatata~~” I wince through gritted teeth, my right arm instinctively reaching for the center of that explosion of pain. Touching there IS NOT HELPING, NEVA.
Because of the pain, my eyes are closed and filled with tears. A sound I didn’t quite pick up earlier stops -- a very light sound of metal on metal followed by a series of rapid ticking… The noise a ratchet makes? From the same direction and distance, a sound of wood against wood. Somebody standing up, pushing a stool behind as they do? “Naja? The cat wakes up.”, a soft- and noble-sounding voice announces. Footsteps are getting closer. First, one set, but I can hear another one echoing from farther, making its way. The first set seems to be barefooted, or wearing soft soles. The second is definitely wearing some heels. Needle heels, from the click that echoes out from the small point's contact with the ground.
“Doing better, now, Eirwen?” The soft voice that I associate with the nearest set of footprints asks. I can tell she’s very close. Close enough that I can feel the heat from her body radiating to me. One hand grabs my right arm’s wrist gently “You put no pressure on injury like that. Gadewch iddo fynd -- Let it go,” she instructs me quietly but with maternal authority. I relent, but mostly because of the sheer size of her hand… it must be twice as big as my own!
“Eir...wen?” I stutter through the pain, as I let her pull my right hand away. “Ie. You are snow-scratching-cat, onid ydych chi?” Another voice, stronger, and definitely richer, more queenly than the first, continues “You’ll have to forgive Aileen, she struggles a bit with the common tongue. She is asking if you are a ‘scratching-cat’ -- Cath Palug -- the name we use for Agrarian, up here in Llanfair.”
“Y--Yes, I am,” I barely manage to answer through the pain. “The cat does have name?,” Aileen inquires, and I barely manage to whisper an answer “Neva…” The other voice bursts out laughing. “Well, isn’t that something! A Naja, Neva and Nera in the same room. I am that Naja, by the way -- Naja Elynn. It means little sister, but don’t let that affect your opinion of me.” “Aileen Nera is my full name. Nera means Ysgafn -- Light.”
“White.. Snow. That is what Neva means,” I manage to answer meekly. “Ie, Eirwen -- From Eira and Gwen. Snow, White, Blessed,” Aileen explains the name she had given me earlier, and continues “Bendigedig -- Blessed, to survive this cold, in those clothes. Mamau Halone and Menphina both look after you, certain.”
I can hear Naja moving around the house. My eyes may still be closed, but my ears are honing in on her movements, and I feel like I have a extremly good idea of the direction and distance between us. “You must be hungry, we found you almost two Firesdays ago.”
Hmm. Firesday is the equivalent of Sunday, or the first day of the week. And of the month. Every week has eight days in this world, each named after one element. In order, Fire, Earth, Water, Wind, Ice, Lightning, Light, Darkness. Elements associated with the current day are more effective, and weather also follows a similar pattern -- Sure, it snows more in the 3 Moons (The term for a month, which lasts 32 days, or 4 weeks) of Winter than Summer, but Iceday will have the most snow, Firesday will be the warmest day, and so on.
“Firesdays… but it was a terrible snow storm when I..?,” I can’t finish my sentence that she is already finishing my thoughts “Aye, you were at death’s door when we found you. Honestly, it’s like Aileen says. You have some crazy luck, or the protection of some of the Twelve, because the last really big storm was on Iceday -- the 5th, and we found you on the 9th. Today is Iceday again, but the 29th.”
During this talk, Naja is rummaging through plates, cupboards and drawers. “We have some Cawl that’s been cooking for a few hours now. You should try to eat some. It should help you with healing and getting some strength back into those tiny arms and legs of yours.” I try to answer, but only manage to nod weakly. Thinking about food reminds me of something... “Rune? Have you seen Rune…? I told him to wait for me…” Aileen interrupts “What is Rune?”
“He’s. my baby cat...”, I answer, crying as I think of what happened to him. I have been sleeping for 24 days, could he be okay? “Is your children? Or husband?,” she continues, clearly concerned, but following a logic that seems very unique to her own mind.. “No, Yes.. a bit. Small. Pet. Friend,” I answer, trying to explain to her through the physical pain and emotional one. “Oh, Cydymaith anifeiliaid. Beastmaster? Hmm. Companion?” “The term they use is ‘Familiar’ for those, I believe,” Naja interrupts, after she finishes scooping some of the stew into a bowl.
Rune, I hope you’re okay.. You can’t leave me alone in this world... I hurt all over and need you, please come back to mommy…! I hear both Naja and Aileen gasp, followed by the sound of a wooden bowl being dropped on the floor. “Pwca…!” “By the Twelve...” Following a familiar sound of chimes and bells, I am surprised by a familiar, yet most unexpected sound “Mrrwror?”. “Is this a baby coeurl…?,” Naja wonders aloud.
I manage to open my eyes, just enough to see my cat, in perfect health, slowly walking towards me, between two of the longest and prettiest pairs of legs I have ever seen. I extend my right arm towards him, beckoning him forward “Hey, baby cat, come over here to mommy~”. Rune jumps easily up on the bed and curls himself protectively on my chest, purring the whole time. As I begin to pet him slowly, I notice that his gaze keeps bouncing protectively between Naja and Aileen before I allow my eyes to rest closed again.
As their surprise faded, Naja swears as she realizes the mess she made with the Cawl. (Which I find highly ironic, since the expression “to make a cawl of something” means to mess something up, in Welsh). She sighs loudly and returns to the cupboards to, I suppose, get a clean bowl. I must admit that the constant smell has slowly been driving me nuts, and my stomach is crying for attention! “I fix this floor, then,” Aileen declares, starting to walk away from me. “Just don’t push yourself, those wounds of yours are still pretty deep,” Naja comments, clearly not approving too much of Aileen’s decision, but knowing better than to try and stop her.
“How did.. you get hurt, Aileen?” I manage to ask. “You are scratching-cat. Wear her name strongly. Even with her unconscious, and my best armor, removing your claws, not easy task! Very stubborn arms and legs,” she answers. “And that’s with both of us combining our healing abilities together. Neither of us are fully-fledged Gridanian White Mages, but we’re no strangers to field medicine.”
Oh. I didn’t even realize it, because of how light they are, but it’s true that I’m not wearing my gauntlets and greaves at the moment. Come to think of it, I didn’t feel my half-gloves either.. Or my clothes--. OH! So it’s not some silk bed sheet, then. I’m wearing a nightgown? I can’t honestly complain, though. Other than the broken left arm, this is the most comfortable and safe I’ve felt in all my life. And possibly true for all of Neva’s short life too. I'm just rather self-conscious about the fact these women saw me naked before I did...
“Oh. This feels odd...?,” Aileen declares, interrupting me out of those thoughts. “My wounds feel funny. Itchy.” “Take those bandages off while I hand Neva her long overdue meal,” Naja said as she sat next to me. She started bringing spoonfuls of that super tasty-smelling and slightly spicier version of one of my favourite meals to my mouth. It didn’t take much convincing for me to eat whatever she was bringing. The meat had been cooked for so long that it was effortless to chew, and the flavour was exquisite, even without considering how hungry I felt and how long it had been since my last meal .
“So I take it you don’t hate the taste of Dhalmel and Rarab meat, huh?” she chuckled. Rarabs are wild rabbits -- Hare meat, essentially. Dhalmels are similar to Giraffes with tougher leathery skin, and are probably rather gamey as well. Between bites, I managed to answer “Whatever it is, this is the best!” Aileen explained, with some curiosity “Strangers normally not like this cuisine. Acquired taste. Happy you can enjoy my cooking.” “It’s good! It’s really good! Teach me, someday, how to make my own, please?” “I will, with taking of great pleasure too.”
I realize that I can see Aileen’s smile. She looks genuinely pleased, and not simply polite. My eyes have been opened for a bit now, probably focusing exclusively on the Cawl-delivery-device. But I can finally spend some clock cycles to take stock of the entire scene surrounding me. First, is those two ladies. It’s hard to judge due to my new height, but I am fairly sure they are both over six foot tall, and it looks like a good part of that height is Gams. Legs for days.
Ailleen’s broken English made me assume she would look severe, but it couldn’t be farther from the truth. She has silvery long white hair, with a small but stylish curve to it. Her skin tone is darker than mine, and she has light sapphire blue eyes. She wears a pair of red aviator goggles on her forehead, and dark navy blue tank top with knee-length baggy shorts. At her hips, she is wrapped in a rough artisan’s half-apron filled with tools -- chisels, ball-peen hammers, ratchets, screwdrivers. So she was the one ratcheting something earlier. Her overall disposition and stance makes me think of a Warrior or Knight-Princess, and certainly exudes an aura of calm confidence. Her forearms are covered by thick and dirtied bandages, that she is slowly unwrapping, revealing a multitude of almost foot-long red scars all over her arms.
Naja couldn’t be more different from her colleague. Long heels, fishnet leggings, flowing clothes with extreme contrasts between its red and blacks. And a bustier that probably is even more showy than most underwear would legally be. She has short, fiery-red hair that goes very well with her striking red makeup and rather dark, well-tanned skin tone. She has the look of an exotic flamenco dancer, and totally feels out of place in this northern and cold climate. Both of them have tall bunny ears on top of their heads, although Naja’s ears are significantly longer than Aileen’s. Not quite twice as long, but not very far from it. They are both rather sexy looking. Shapely, with obvious muscle definition, and pretty curvaceous figure, to say the least. Even Aileen, who hid it behind her practical clothing, was a total babe.
The room I find myself in is roughly a square with walls of 15 feet on each side. The walls are made of wood, and have a nice greenish paint color on it, making it feel more natural than artificial. Not too far from my bed/couch is a big fireplace. The stew is cooking in a cauldron reminding me of those witches and alchemists use. There’s an incredible amount of clutter in the room -- small shelves on the walls, hooks from the roof, plant pots hanging wherever there’s room. All sorts of fruits -- oranges, apples -- held in nets and almost floating in the air above me. Flowers with all sorts of colors and fragrance are strewn about, seemingly at chaos. Piles of books on the ground, little bookshelves that are overfull. Small- and medium-sized aquarium each with unique looking colourful fishes.
I see now the stool on which Aileen must have been sitting when I woke up, it rested in front of a workbench on which a number of metal objects are left, once again, seemingly randomly. Bullet casing. Powder bags. My armored gauntlets and greaves. A large, rather advanced-looking hunting rifle, as well as a weird-looking sword with a pistol grip and trigger. So a rifle and a gunblade. I assume those are Aileen’s, from the look of her outfit, toolbelt and goggles.
“Sorry for the mess, we don’t usually let many people in the backstore,” Naja stands up once she notices I’m done scanning the room, and waves her arm around. “Backstore?” “Ie. This is Aileen gweithdy. Atelier. The best place to go for.. Well, a lot of things. Food. Potions. Jewelry. Weapons, Armors, Repairs. Monster Trouble. Love Trouble. We fix problems, and sometimes find or create new ones too,” she laughs at that last bit and continues “Like finding near-dead scratching-cat.” Naja chuckles, and continues with some sarcastic tone “Not just a plain Agrarian, though. No. That would already be a rare thing, but one that survived four days in sub-zero temperatures, learned how to fly, can summon Coeurl-Pookas, and wears Ideamorphist gear, of all things.”
“Naja. Wrong time and wrong WAY,” Aileen rebounds. She approaches my position, and sitting next to me, starts petting my head with her right hand. “Do not worry, little cat. Naja still do not approve of the injuries paid when I carry you here. But I do not mind. We will help.” It’s very hard not to freak out, with how close her forearm injuries are to my face, right now. Those scars are ridiculous. But as I stare, I notice they are rather rapidly closing and healing “I… is that normal?,” I ask, pointing at her wounds with my right hand peeking out from my blankets.
“Nage. It is not,” Aileen answers, stopping petting me as she observes her scars closing at a visible pace. She turns to look at me… or inside of me? BEYOND me? “Are you healing-cat, little Neva?” Putting her goggles over her eyes, she seems surprised “Oh! I see. You are not healing-cat. But also are. Fascinating.”
Naja puts a hand on her hips, oh my, that is such a sexy pose, and she’s just standing like that naturally... “Care to fill us in and explain what you see there?,” Naja asks, and Aileen begins “Ie. Little Neva is slowly pouring Mana into Rune. Rune does not need much mana to be here; is very efficient summoning. All excess mana spills out into aura. When near aura, a lot of available energy for Rune to use spells. But also, mana in the aura get used slowly --Stolen? Taken?-- to heal people who are close enough.”
Naja approaches and also stares at me, apparently trying to see the same kind of things Aileen can. “How long can her own mana sustain the summoning, then?” Aileen turns again towards me, and laughs “As long as she wants it. Her reserves are staying unmoved. Regeneration greater than cost?” Naja scoffs “That’s ridiculous. This is even more paradoxal than a perpetual motion engine -- no cost, but doesn’t only keep enough energy to keep going, but actually accumulates leftovers?”
“So.. I’m special?,” I ask timidly. Naja bursts out laughing “Girl, you were already SPECIAL yesterday. This is a whole new level of unique snowflake, if you’ll pardon the pun.” Aileen clears her throat “I tinker a bit with your armor, little cat,” and she waits a bit to judge my reaction before continuing. “Your armor is very unique too. Very sturdy. Also sharp metal claws. Can change its shape, with your mind -- What Naja called IdeaMorphism. What powers that ability is called.. Infinity Cores. Things that can only be found when visiting Diablos realm. Dynamis. Realm of sleep and nightmares. Have you been to Dynamis before?”
“No, no I haven’t? I don’t think I did. But I woke up in Pso’Xja.. Not-yesterday… I mean, the day of the snowstorm. I don’t remember anything before that, really. But I was covered in dried blood, and pretty deep in the ruins.”
Naja and Aileen nod a few times, apparently lost in thoughts. Aileen is the first to break the silence “Well. Thinking will not find answers. I was going to make you a Rubellite choker. Rubellite come from Drybone, hot, desertic place far from here. If mined properly, the rocks carry with them the heat of that place. Makes you stronger and sturdier too. But really good at fighting back the cold. So you can wear clothes like Naja in middle of snow storm. If you are not bothered by wind catching your skirts.”
“I’m not exactly the skirt-wearing-type,” I admit, and Aileen laughs as she makes her way to her stool and workbench, stopping by a chest of many many drawers, picking up things from different tiny drawers. “Ie, I saw. I got you out of those garments of yours. Good for Republic-work. Not too sure if meant to be running around Pso’Xja wearing this.”
“She may not have meant to visit Pso’Xja. What if she was simply asleep, and kidnapped to Dynamis. But like when we tried to bring her here, she fought back her captors, even asleep. She could have escaped Dynamis and stumbled into Pso’Xja -- it is the nearest location to Diablos’ realm.” I tug on Naja’s sleeves. I don’t like being talked about as if I’m not there, but mostly, I really need something to drink “Naja..? I’m thirsty. Can I get anything?” “Let me get you a glass of hot cider for now, and I’ll brew some chai for the three of us after? Try to get some rest now.”
As Naja leaves the backroom, Aileen turns her head around and asks me “While I am at it, I will make more jewelry for you. Do you have preferences?” “Huh? I’m not sure, what…?,” I stutter, taken by surprise. “Prefer Fast? Strong? Sturdy? Or just by color, or gemstone?,” she explains, and I immediately answer “Oh. Amethysts. I like amethysts. The birthstone of Pisces.” Aileen squints at me a moment “Pisces, I do not know. Amethysts, I do. Is fine choice; nice color and provides precision, reflexes and promotes health. Should be good match for you too.” She opens a few more drawers, once again almost at random, and sifting through with two fingers, gently moves items around in some of them, before grabbing the winning components.
Naja comes back into the backroom, holding in her hand a glass of sparkling apple juice. I can see smoke coming out of it, so it is indeed hot cider. “How did you heat that?” I ask, puzzled, as I take a sip. It’s good! I expected it to taste of alcohol, because she called it “cider”, but I know some people use that term for simple apple juice. Do they have microwaves or something? “Oh, we have a tiny oven at the register for clients who want to heat their food before they leave. It’s powered by fire crystals, we grow them in the garden. Very handy in this climate, you’ll have to agree.”
I quickly quaff the rest of the glass, even though it’s a bit too hot. Naja struggles to hold back a burst of laughter. “Woah there, little lady. I guess you better lie down, the kick might be a bit sudden.” Oh. Yeah. So I forgot about that -- some alcohols stop tasting like alcohol when hot or cold. Vodka and osake as examples. I’m not much of a drinker, and I probably lost 60% of my body weight, so I am starting to dread the kick. I hate when my body and mind become out of sync, which is why I generally drink very rarely and only a little.
“While you sleep, I will go have a word with Caller Kaestra. She might be able to help us understand some of the mysteries behind you and Rune.” Naja takes the empty glass from my hands, and runs her hand over my left arm, inspecting and commenting “Your left arm looks completely healed now. This is even beyond the kind of recovery speed that White Mages can brag about.” She bends downwards and stares into my eyes. “Oh my, you are starting to lose focus, aren’t you?” She bends even further, her forehead touching mine as she hugs me through the blankets, “Sleep well, Nev. Let Atelier Aileen handle your problems for now.” I feel like I am melting in a puddle.
“Jewelry should not be overly long,” Aileen states. She then adds “Then I will see about clothing the little cat in something more appropriate.” she chuckles, apparently looking forward to that..
WAIT. What? Jewelry is one thing, but bespoke clothing?! I’m SO not ready for this!