Emiko groaned softly as something warm and bright hit her face. Hugging the warm and fluffy bed she slept on, she tried to brush it away, but it persisted in annoying her wonderful sleep. Turning away from the source, she sighed in relief as the nuisance became a warm embrace instead.
Her eyes shot open as she remembered why exactly she was asleep in the first place. The first thing Emiko notices is that her bed isn’t a bed at all, it’s the back of a moving tiger. The warmth was the daybreak of the sun as it crested over the mountains, and she blinked as she realized she was in the countryside now.
The most pressing concern for Emiko, however, was the fact that she had been sleeping on top of a tiger. Said tiger turned out to be Atsui, the cat from the zoo (though she realized it was really the opposite, and that she was shocked Atsui was actually a tiger, or even a tigress) and that said tigress was completely docile and loyal to her. So it was, that Atsui was even pulling her wagon with her tail.
“A-Atsui?” She rasped, her voice still feeling like it’s been through hell’s flames and back five times over. “Th-this is you, right, Atsui? You’re okay with this?”
The tigress in question cocks her head to the side, bared her fangs as if she were smiling, and nodded. At the smart and simple gesture, Emiko felt a little more at ease, before another thought caused her to freeze. Did… she just understand me?
The thought was boggling to Emiko, and she didn’t know what to think after that. Even more, she was surprised by how well rested she felt. As she thought back to what happened before she passed out, she began to curl in and hug herself, realizing just how close she had come to dying.
Emiko shivered at the feelings she was recalling. The desperation she had felt to continue living even at the verge of death. Being choked, being crushed by roots that were controlled by some sort of force; what she could only call ‘magic.’ Emiko shut her eyes as she thought of the terrifying creature with glowing horns, eyes, and a body that was more plant than animal.
Her body began to shake as she buried her face into her sleeves. I… I don’t want to die… She sniffled. I need… I need to live… I need to find out how everyone disappeared, and how to bring everyone back…
Emiko is interrupted by a soft whine and a warm nudge on her head. She brought her head up and realized that Atsui had stopped their journey, and was now curled around her protectively. The feeling felt familiar, and she realized quickly why. It was the same position she had been in when she had lost consciousness.
“Thank you,” Emiko said quietly. “I’m… not okay…”
Atsui meowed in response, a surprisingly gentle sound despite her current size, and rested her head on Emiko’s lap. Instinctively moving to stroke the tigress, Emiko smiled sadly. I’ll figure this out, she thought. I won’t quit!
As if sensing her resolve, Atsui began to purr and nuzzled into Emiko’s stomach. Emiko sighed. “We… have to keep moving,” she said, her voice still cracking with pain and misuse. “Find out… why we were attacked… Why the world is moving so fast…”
With a mewl of agreement, Atsui continued to comfort Emiko as she watched the sun rise on a new day. She noticed that the mountains were a lot closer to the city than she realized, but Emiko also remembered that Atsui had been moving with her on Atsui’s back, which made it hard to gauge how far away she was from the city. If the barely-visible towers and city skyline in the distance was any indication, it must’ve been quite a while since she had passed out.
With nothing to go off of but sight lines and intuition, she marvelled at how far she had already travelled. As much as she wanted to leave, the notion still scared her. Hell, she barely reached the edge of the city before she had nearly died. It wasn’t even a natural cause, because there was nothing natural about what had happened back there. Emiko knew that it must be connected to Kodoku, and she would find out what that connection was.
A glimmer in the distance brought Emiko out of her reverie. Gently patting Atsui, the tigress rolled to all fours and Emiko made to stand. As much as she wanted to avoid any more incidents like the one with the monster, she knew she needed to expand her view. If she wanted to figure anything out, she would have to step outside of her comfort zone.
Even if that meant putting herself in danger. Even if, at that very moment, her legs shook and her hands trembled. Even when every instinct in her body told her to keep moving and to ignore things outside of the ordinary.
Leaning on Atsui, Emiko was comforted to know that she had the tigress as company. Alone, she would have already died. That much was sure. Stepping over to her wagon, Emiko ruffled through the things she had brought with her and pulled out a lighter and bug spray. It was the tried-and-true method of a mobile flamethrower, and doubled as her own protection from the tiny pests of nature. A win-win, in Emiko’s mind.
Pumping her fists, she breathed in deeply and took the first step. Then, another, and another, until she was walking at a steady, albeit sedate pace. Atsui followed beside her, content with brushing up against Emiko every now and then. Emiko herself was able to relax knowing she had a form of guardian protecting her as well.
The short journey was filled with the soft cracks of twigs, needles, and thorns. Emiko winced with every sound she made, whereas Atsui seemed to fare just fine, though that really didn’t surprise Emiko. It was the fact that the glimmering in the air seemed to be intensifying with every step she took, and she couldn’t tell if it was because of her lack of stealth, or because she was getting close.
The air itself felt thick with something. It was flooding through every part of her body, and she swore she could almost hear a million tiny voices flittering around her. As the glowing lights in the air grew more frequent, so too did the voices, and she slowly brought her wrists up to her ears, trying to block out the sound. It didn’t really help at all. Gripping her lighter and bug spray tighter, she continued to squeeze her head and crested the hill to see something she was, frankly, amazed by.
The lights she had seen seemed to be gathering around an abandoned shrine. At the centre of the shrine, a kaleidoscopic fire burned. As a whole, it looked to be in disrepair, and yet, the world itself seemed to still around it, and the lights took on an even stranger hue. A warm wind, contrasting against the cool spring breeze she knew should have been prevailing, swam through her, warming her down to the bones.
“Wow…” Emiko whispered. Atsui’s ears twitched and she meowed with a soft edge. Emiko looked at Atsui curiously. “What… is it?”
Emiko grew alarmed as Atsui’s hair stood on end, and the tigress tensed. Trusting her animal-friend’s instincts more than her own, she held out the bug spray and lighter in front of her, ready to incinerate anything in her path. She wouldn’t be caught off guard again!
…And yet, she relaxed and her lips parted in awe as all the lights began to gather and waltz in all shapes and patterns. A symphony that seemed to pierce her soul with great joy and terrible despair rang through the air like an orchestra. It was like a choir of the sounds of nature itself, with the roar of water, the rush of wind, rustling grass, and crackling thunder. It all sang together in a bittersweet melody that only the heart could truly perceive.
A few of those lights bobbed their way over to Emiko, and she held out her hand as she felt one rest there. With an idle curiosity, she brought her hand closer to her face and widened her eyes at the tiny creature that glowed cheerfully back at her. The creature seemed to laugh in amusement and waved its minuscule arm energetically before flying off again to join the other lights.
Was that… a fairy? Emiko thought in shock. Those are real!?
Though she supposed she shouldn’t be surprised, it still didn’t make sense. Here Emiko was, figuring out from one little excursion that a race of mythical beings once only found in literature was as real as she was, but where did they come from? On top of that, what connection would they have with Kodoku, and the monster encounter in the suburbs of the city? While she truly was captivated by the beautiful display of other-worldly magic, she couldn’t help but keep returning to her doubts. The feeling in her chest of elation was warring with her unease, and it was tearing her apart.
“Are you… can you speak…?”
Emiko jumped at the sound her name being called. Atsui started to growl as she stepped in front of Emiko protectively. The lights start to flash brighter and brighter until, without warning, a gentle pulse emanated from the shrine, and Emiko tried her best to brace herself. As the wind calmed and the chaotic symphony ended, she peeked through her arms to look at what had caused the wave of energy.
A female figure stood quietly near the foot of the shrine, still radiating with a soft light. The fairies all around the small clearing stilled as if in anticipation. Emiko tensed and took a step back as the figure opened it’s eyes.
“Emiko,” the figure said, it’s voice ringing in harmonies that Emiko couldn’t begin to describe. “Do not be afraid.”
It’s kinda hard not to be! Emiko thought with a panic. This might be a trap!
“I assure you, I mean you no harm.”
Emiko froze and stumbled back. Did it just hear my thoughts?! Atsui took a step forward and growled, sensing Emiko’s fear.
“Yes, I did,” the personage affirmed. “Because you and I are connected to this world.”
“H-huh?” Emiko finally stuttered. “What… do you mean?”
The ethereal being took a step forward with her hand on her chest, her head slightly bowed. “I am no mere personage or fairy. I am Terra; A spirit, the conscience of the earth without the city, and an extension of Mother Earth herself.”
“I understand it has grown difficult for you to speak normally,” the spirit observed. “You do not have to push yourself to converse aloud with me, Emiko.”
“H-how,” Emiko began, her throat dry, “How do you… know my name?”
“Like I said,” Terra whispered, though it still rang clear through the air, “We are both connected to this world.”
“…I don’t understand.”
Nodding softly, the spirit smiled gently. “Just as I am rooted as a spirit to the earth, you are rooted to the spirit of the world. You alone remain, because you alone have been blessed.”
Emiko stared at Terra incredulously, trying to understand what she had just been told. She stepped forward, a new urgency to her step, and Atsui whined beside her. “You..! What do… you know?”
“I cannot say, for I am bound by the ancient laws,” Terra whispered. “I appeared only to give you a warning.”
“W-wait,” Emiko began, “I… I need to know!”
“All things in due time, Emiko,” Terra said calmly. “I must deliver my message before this window of time is closed.” She inhales and looks Emiko gently in the eyes. “Creatures like the one you faced will only grow more frequent as you travel. You must learn how to face them, for they are blights upon this land. They may come in sizes big or small, but all are a danger to you and your familiar.”
The colour drained from Emiko’s face as she processed those words. “There’s… more?” She dropped to her knees, and Atsui yelped, moving in to support her. “I… have to face them…?”
Terra nodded sadly. “Our world has never had magic before, Emiko. After the Desolation, or what you call Kodoku, the world was once more bathed in the essence of creation, and with creation comes destruction.”
Emiko widened her eyes in confusion. “What are… you saying?”
Terra shook her head softly. “The message I was entrusted with is this: A wish was made, a price exacted, a broken world infused with magic. First to live and last to fall, a lonely soul to save them all.”
Emiko was dumbfounded by the words that now rang in her ears, and she shook her head out of her stupor. “Wait! I need… I need more!”
Terra shook her head again. “I have finished my task and I must return.” She stepped back as Emiko tried to grab for her, and Emiko stumbled to the ground as she did so. Terra sighed. “I’m sorry, Emiko, but remember those words. They will be your guide.”
“Wait! Please!” Emiko cried, her voice quickly growing hoarse as she forced herself to speak. Her eyes were wet as she grasped at Terra in vain. “Tell me why! Who sent you!”
“Forge your path, your way is clear,” Terra whispered, her voice slowly losing its harmonies and growing hollow as she faded. “The world lives on within you.”
“Wait! WAIT!” Emiko tried to run, but even as she did so she could make it in time. Terra faded fully with a blink of light, and Emiko kept pawing at the air as if it would bring her back. Breathing heavily, Emiko blinked away her foggy vision as her face twisted in wretched agony. With a choked back sob, she fell to her knees, bashed her arms into the ground, and screamed.
Emiko continued to scream as Atsui lay beside her and nudged her with a whine. She continued to scream as the fairies in the air swirled in worry around her, and she continued to try to scream when her throat failed and all she could produce were wheezes of air.
Why me? Emiko yelled in her head instead. What does she mean? She grit her teeth and rested her head against the cool forest floor. And where do I even start?
“I…don’t…know…” Emiko muttered bitterly.
She turned to look at Atsui who was watching her with pained-looking eyes. Emiko softened at the look and gently pet the tigress’ head sadly. “I’m…sorry, Atsui…”
Atsui rumbled in response and leaned into Emiko’s touch. Emiko could only sigh, staring at the shrine and the few remaining fairies that had decided to stick around.
Emiko watched one light curiously as it moved a little more frantically than the others, flitting about the entrance to the shrine before drooping as if in a sense of panic and resolve. Emiko then widened her eyes as the light floated slowly over to her, and the soft red shine diminished to reveal a cute little fairy in a dress the colour of roses at dusk.
With surprise written all over her face, Emiko cupped her hands, and the fairy descended into them.
“Hello,” the fairy greeted shyly. “I am Isla, and I have been commissioned to travel with you…” Isla curtsied and clasped her hands nervously. “Please take care of me.”