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Skin and Oki

geodesic Mar 26th, 2018 (edited) 783 Never
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  1. >Ambassador.
  2. >How the fuck is it they chose you to be an ambassador?
  3. >You were in a tour group at the palace, and one of the princesses, the white one, she pulled you aside and offered you the job.
  4. >You didn't even get your money back for the tour.
  5. >The group was heading to the Royal Water Closet, too.
  6. >You never got to see the Royal Water Closet.
  7. >You're not even a pony.
  8. >Why wouldn't they choose a pony?
  9. >Would literally not a single one of their entire species take this job?
  10. >At least they'll set you up in town for doing this, but, then again, they wouldn't let you leave the room until you agreed.
  11. >And it is *fucking* cold up here.
  12.  
  13. >"The tracks lead this way, Skin."
  14. >...and if only this were a hunt.
  15. >If only.
  16. >It is, in a way... but you're not hunting what left the tracks in the deep snow that permanently blankets the region.
  17. >You're just following it to find the lichen it eats.
  18. "I was only looking around. And stop calling me Skin."
  19. >"It's a good name for you, Skin," says Oki. "Because you don't have fur."
  20. "I have hair."
  21. >"Which isn't fur."
  22. >She pays hardly any more attention to you as she examines the end of the tracks, where fresher snow fell a day or a week or a month ago, and looks for where they resume.
  23. "I don't understand why I have to come with you. I'm the ambassador, yeah? NOT a hunter."
  24. >"No, you do not come with me. *I* have to come with *you.* You eat what you earn. I have earned mine. You need to earn yours."
  25. "I don't want to earn weird fungus. You said 'hunt' like we were gonna get meat. I was stoked."
  26. >"Revolting."
  27. >She picks the tracks back up and urges you to follow her.
  28. >"And don't talk such nonsense about greenmunch. It's amazing. We love it. You'll love it. It's an honor and a treat to let you hunt it."
  29. "Then why are you so sour about coming to hunt it with me?"
  30. >"Because you talk too much, Skin."
  31.  
  32. >It's gonna be a long winter in Yak country.
  33.  
  34. >Two hours later, you find the end of the tracks at the entrance to a small cave.
  35. >"This is it," says Oki. "Greenmunch loves stone and hates sunlight. Take the left side. Check cracks and crevices."
  36. >You do that.
  37. >The cave splits a dozen or two meters in, and you soon loose sight of Oki.
  38. >That's when you see the thing that left the tracks.
  39. >It's a squirrel.
  40. >It's the size of an enormously obese housecat and it has six legs, but it's a squirrel.
  41. >You don't know what else it might be called, and as it stares at you with slightly-too-intelligent red eyes, you don't care to.
  42. >It screeches at you.
  43. >That's enough for today, thanks.
  44. "FUCK! OKI!"
  45. >"Find the good stuff, Skin?" you hear echoing from down the cave.
  46. "I FOUND SATAN ITSELF. PLEASE HELP."
  47.  
  48. >One howl from her is enough to send it scampering off out the entrance.
  49.  
  50. >"...harmless. You needn't have worried me."
  51. "It didn't look harmless."
  52. >"I see why you need a guard now. Need someyak to yell at a common pest for you, huh?"
  53. "...common?"
  54. >"I hope you don't give me the same treatment when you find one at the foot of your bed in the morning. They do get around."
  55. >She hasn't smiled since she met you, but for a moment there's a twist of her lip that might qualify as a wry smirk.
  56. >"It was probably sitting right on top of the good stuff. Let's have a look."
  57.  
  58. >The lichen doesn't look excessively disgusting. You acknowledge that much.
  59. >From fuzzy pods in cracks and crevices, it grows fractal networks of branch-like extensions that reach out for other closed spaces to spawn in, out of the reach of predators like squirrels.
  60. >Or you.
  61. >Oki is excessively careful to cut it away only at the surface of the cracks, not inside them.
  62. >You follow suit.
  63. >"It grows fast," she explains. "It'll be this size again in a month. We'll ink this place on the map when we return."
  64. "You sure this stuff tastes good?"
  65. >You squeeze a handful of it.
  66. >It's spongy, but holds its shape.
  67. >"It's best hot, but by all means have a bite now. I'm a bit done trying to sell you on it verbally, Skin. A poet I'm not."
  68. >You go for it.
  69. >The texture is... indescribable, but it doesn't taste half bad.
  70. >Maybe cooking it really would bring out some flavor.
  71. "I think I'd like it steamed."
  72. >"Then you'll love it battered and fried."
  73.  
  74. >The journey back is slightly less terrible than the journey out.
  75. >The temperature is no better, but you at least know where you're going.
  76. >Hot coals in great stone sconces are lit in the morning and burn into the evening.
  77. >One can see their glow from miles away in clear weather.
  78. >Two by two, they outline the long path from the valley to the gates of Woolencliff.
  79. >Up close, their glow is almost enough to offset the North's icy touch, but only almost.
  80. >At the gate, you undergo the usual ritual.
  81. >"Who knocks?" asks the guard.
  82. >"Oki Wool-Gambeson, accompanying the horse-envoy."
  83. >"And what brings the envoy that would justify his return?"
  84. >"Greenmuch, from a location yet-uncharted."
  85. >"What location?"
  86. >"I'll put it on the map, Karl. May we skip the remaining formalities? Skin quivers in his boots, and I assure you the munch is fine."
  87. >"Fine, Oki, but don't blame me when he forgets procedure and locks himself out."
  88. >"He won't," assures Oki. "...or you'll get me in trouble too," she says to you, as if that would be the worst of your worries.
  89.  
  90. >You drop most of the greenmunch off at the alehouse larder and take the remaining pound to Oki's.
  91. >She's your host here as well as your bodyguard.
  92. >Lucky you.
  93. >Your thirst hits you as soon as you get your furs off and sit by the hearth.
  94. >It's dry out here, and you've had nothing to drink since you drained your flask halfway to the cave.
  95. "Can I get some water, Oki?"
  96. >"You mean ale, Skin? Or are you hoping I'll give you a bath?"
  97. >Of course.
  98. >Water's far from precious up North, but it's not free, either.
  99. >Plumbing is difficult to install and operate in the frozen ground.
  100. >Getting fresh water by the bucket means going to the well, a walk downhill going and uphill coming.
  101. >They have rudimentary sewers and outhouses, thank God, but it's up to the user to bring his own water for flushing.
  102. >Weak ale is what's kept in abundance in storage for drinking.
  103. >Pathogen-free guaranteed and resistant to freezing. Not much more to ask for in a beverage.
  104. >You can reasonably ask for water if you're sick or otherwise in a rather bad way, or if you're just a kid, but otherwise there's no getting around it: water is work.
  105. >Oki's already been nice enough with it, too.
  106. >She filled as many flasks as would keep fresh for you, the day you got here.
  107. >But she obviously didn't anticipate your drinking it like you have all your life.
  108. >Still, you're not about to complain to the lady keeping a roof over your head.
  109. "Right. Some ale, Oki."
  110. >"Could use one myself. A mug for each of us, then help me in the kitchen."
  111. "Sure."
  112.  
  113. "...and we can't just melt it why, exactly?"
  114. >"Five miles."
  115. "What?"
  116. >"Five miles to find any snow that noyak has walked on or that ain't flavored with soot. Can boil it, but it'd taste funny anyway."
  117. >You give up.
  118. >The ale's far from offensive, it's served ice cold, and halfway through the mug it might as well be water.
  119. >You can still get a glass or two of the clear stuff before bed each night, Oki agrees.
  120. >That'll do for now.
  121.  
  122. >Yak kitchenwork is... interesting.
  123. >Knifes are there, sure, but for the most part they don't have a place.
  124. >If you've got a real thick piece of something, sure, pull out the serrated edge, but otherwise, crushing, tearing, and muddling is the way of things.
  125. >You guess that's how home cooking works in hooved cultures.
  126.  
  127. >Dinner's a salad of local herbs and fried greenmunch for desert.
  128. >With ale.
  129. >"Hope you like it," remarks Oki. "Don't know if looks like it to you, but this is comfort food. I haven't had a reason to make it in a while."
  130. "A reason?"
  131. >"It's for when you have guests."
  132. >An undressed salad isn't your definition of a hearty meal, but you think for once, today, you'll stop asking obnoxious human questions about yak stuff.
  133. >Oki actually looks pleased with herself and with you.
  134. >She eats with gusto, and her curls bounce and sway enthusiastically.
  135. >You try a bite of your salad.
  136. >Fuck you, it's great.
  137. >It's fresh, crunchy, and moist, and hints of mint and lemon make it go down all too easy.
  138. >Afterward, the fried greenmunch may as well be cake out of the oven.
  139. >It's soft, hot, and flavorful.
  140. >For the first time, you consider that you might survive your time out in yak country.
  141.  
  142. >You cap off dinner with some mead and get ready for bed.
  143. >"It'll be cold tonight," Oki tells you as she tucks into her cot.
  144. "No fooling?"
  145. >It's always cold up here.
  146. >That's why you have several heavy-ass blankets to cover your ass at night.
  147. >If there was a warm night, that would be unusual.
  148. >Even just a slightly less cool night.
  149. >One that would make your blankets just a little too much.
  150. >But they're only ever just enough.
  151. >Oki sighs.
  152. >Okay, you should have minded your tone.
  153. "Sorry. Thanks again for dinner. It warmed me right up, I'm sure I'll be fine."
  154. >"I'm sure you will be, Skin. Let me know otherwise."
  155. >What, as if you'll wake her in the middle of the night over a chill?
  156.  
  157. >You wake up shaking uncontrollably.
  158. >Your first thought is that you must be having a seizure, but you're supposed to go unconscious during a seizure.
  159. >So, not a seizure.
  160. >Better stop shaking, then.
  161. >...
  162. >Stop shaking.
  163. >STOP.
  164. >...not working.
  165. >It's so bad you can hardly control your limbs as you push yourself up into a sitting position.
  166. >Kicked your covers off, it looks like.
  167. >Now is when the cold sets in.
  168. >No... the cold set in a while ago.
  169. >Maybe minutes ago, maybe hours.
  170. >Who knows how long you slept exposed.
  171. >It's not supposed to get THAT bad in here. It's not fantastically heated, but you at least HAD a fire going. And the walls are insulated.
  172. >Insulated well enough for yaks.
  173. >Fuck.
  174. >You're colder than you've ever been.
  175. >Is this hypothermia?
  176. >You don't know what its exact symptoms are, but you definitely don't feel right.
  177. >But, mostly, you feel really, unbearably, helplessly cold.
  178. >You pull the covers back up.
  179. >No good.
  180. >They got cold on the inside.
  181.  
  182. "Oki?"
  183. >You call out almost under your breath.
  184. >You hadn't meant to speak, but panic is setting in faster than you expected.
  185. >Maybe too much cold has already gotten into you for warming up to do any good.
  186. >Can that happen?
  187. >You raise your voice.
  188. "O-Oki-"
  189. >"I'm awake, Skin. Your teeth chatter."
  190. "I don't... feel... right."
  191. >"Do you feel cold?"
  192. >Did she really just ask that?
  193. "W-what?"
  194. >"Yes or no?"
  195. "Yes!"
  196. >"You're alright, then. No need for a fire. Shouldn't waste the fuel."
  197. >As if.
  198. >If you're sure of anything, it's that you need fire.
  199. >A big bonfire. Twelve feet tall. You'll lie at the edge.
  200. >You can make it yourself if it's really any trouble for her.
  201. "Can you just let me-"
  202.  
  203. >But she's already lain in your bed and pulled up the blankets.
  204. >You weren't expecting that.
  205. >"Ain't that bad. You'll be 'right in a minute."
  206. >Fuck, if she says so.
  207.  
  208. >"Don't have to hold so tight, Skin."
  209. "Mhm."
  210. >"Skin."
  211. "I'm tired."
  212. >"Anon..."
  213. >Uh-oh.
  214. >Mom's mad.
  215. >You loosen your grip a bit, but not entirely.
  216. >Oki's just this woolly... radiator.
  217. >"Just let me move. Don't make me make you. I've no plan to escape."
  218. >Fine.
  219. >You relax.
  220. >Oki shifts around.
  221. >"See, you're fine."
  222. "I don't feel fine. How does it get this cold? Inside your home?"
  223. >Oki's brown curls always hide her right eye, but her left rolls enough for both of them.
  224. >"It was going to be a cold night. I told you this, Skin."
  225. "What was I supposed to do? Nail down my blankets?"
  226. >"Could've worn your clean furs. Almost as good as growing it. An' if you told me about your tendency for all that thrashing and kicking off blankets, I'd just have joined you in the first place. Got enough wool for two."
  227. "Seriously? I don't take you as the cuddling type. At all."
  228. >Oki sputters in forming her initial response to that.
  229. >She gives up on it and starts a new one.
  230. >"I don't know what kind of perversions ponies practice, Skin, but two yaks stay warmer than one yak. That's just a fact of life here. This... this ain't some special favor. Now, you warm?"
  231. "I am."
  232. >"Okay, so get some *sleep,* Skin. I'd like to focus on that myself."
  233. >Are you the one yammering and keeping you both up now?
  234. "...good night."
  235. >"Yeah."
  236. >She flops over, facing away from you, and lays her head down.
  237. >You follow suit.
  238. >"A yak won't ever leave you in the cold, understand? We don't do that," she starts back up.
  239. "I understand."
  240. >She harrumphs and finally does appear to go to sleep.
  241. >You get one arm around her and pull her over without waking her up.
  242. >You hope.
  243. >You think on what she said.
  244. >A yak won't leave you in the cold.
  245. >Would a pony?
  246. >You think of how odd the offer of this position was.
  247. >Of how kindly you were sent off, with waves of appreciation and... was it relief you felt?
  248. >How many ponies were asked to do this before they approached you?
  249. >The outsider?
  250. >This lingers on your mind as you drift off.
  251.  
  252. >...
  253.  
  254. >The boys are over to watch the game.
  255. >You don't know shit about football, but it's great to watch.
  256. >The quarterback snaps the ball to another guy, whatever his position is, and he runs like the god damn wind.
  257. >He touches down.
  258. >You all leap off the couch and scream like madmen.
  259.  
  260. >That's when you wake up.
  261. >The screaming isn't from the boys.
  262. >It's from out there.
  263. >Somewhere in the snow.
  264. >It sounds human.
  265. >Not that yaks aren't perfectly comprehensible, but you'd swear it does.
  266. >The sound turns your stomach into a cold knot.
  267. >Oki sits bolt upright in bed.
  268. >You don't know if she did just now, or if she's been like that.
  269. >The howl stops.
  270. >It doesn't fade; it comes to a dead halt.
  271. >Something about that makes it worse.
  272. >Maybe you just imagined it.
  273. >It would be the first time you've hallucinated something while balanced on the edge of sleep.
  274. "Oki?"
  275. >She doesn't startle, but she seems to only now notice you're awake.
  276. >"Skin?"
  277. >What an odd feeling to take her unaware.
  278. "You hear that?"
  279. >"Local wildlife," she answers, so quickly she nearly overlapped you. "Nothing to worry about. Yet."
  280. >She seemed hesitant to voice that final syllable.
  281. >You're not sure you heard her right.
  282. >You're still groggy.
  283. "Wha...?"
  284. >"Nothing to worry about, I said."
  285. >She lies back down.
  286. >"...A few hours yet 'till morning, Skin. Sleep while you can get it."
  287. "Right. Good."
  288. >"...yeah."
  289.  
  290. >You see your friends in your dreams again.
  291. >They beckon you over.
  292. >You stand where you are, indecisive.
  293.  
  294. >...
  295.  
  296. >You wake to sunlight from a clear sky coming through the window.
  297. >Despite last night's oddities, you slept well.
  298. >You look forward to another day full of ambassadorial "duties."
  299. >Mainly, these involve following Oki around, learning about yak things, and helping townspeople out with chores.
  300. >How you represent the ponies with any of this is questionable.
  301. >On day one, you were introduced to Oki and to the local leader.
  302. >You explained in a sentence or two that the ponies are decent folk and were willing to extend the hand of friendship to the yaks.
  303. >Whatever that means.
  304. >It had been a frustrating day, so you couldn't keep a quip to yourself about the futility of you, a human, coming to be the face of this offer.
  305. >You were nervous about that, but it seems you made a good impression.
  306. >The yaks couldn't care less about the ponies, really.
  307. >As far as you can tell, your job is just to stay here as their guest for the season, then to go back and report their complete indifference to the proposition you delivered.
  308.  
  309. "What's it today, Oki?"
  310. >...Oki's still asleep.
  311. >You'd think a guard would be used to early mornings, but she's a heavy sleeper.
  312. >You nudge her shoulder, minding her horns.
  313. "Oki."
  314. >"Hm."
  315. >She's awake, she just doesn't want to move.
  316. "Come on. Let's go to the barracks. Before they run out of eggs."
  317. >That gets her moving.
  318. >Oki loves eggs.
  319. >She rises slowly, like a great mountain shifting on a blanket horizon.
  320. >"We'll see the shaman after we eat," she says, her voice a little hoarse from sleep.
  321. "Oh?"
  322. >"The sound from last night. He'll know."
  323. >You remember it now.
  324. >You feel a sense of unease, but in the light of day, it's not so bad.
  325. "You seemed to know exactly what it was. Nothing to worry about, right?"
  326. >"We should hear the whole story. From the shaman."
  327. >Kind of a glancing answer to your question.
  328. >You shrug it off.
  329. "So... we're going to see the wise man? Nothing more exciting to do?"
  330. >"Nothing. Everyone else will be seeing him too."
  331.  
  332. >...
  333.  
  334. >The shaman (he's a proper medical doctor and a scholar of the region's geography, history, and folklore, but you'll use the same word the yaks do), speaks to the assembled audience - half the town, by the look of it - in the growling, crackling language of Old Yak.
  335. >You don't understand a word of it beyond a few basics Oki taught you, so you watch the audience rather than the speaker to capture the gist of things.
  336. >You were expecting to see fright, but at the end, the crowd seems forlorn rather than scared.
  337.  
  338. "They don't seem happy."
  339. >Oki doesn't look ecstatic herself.
  340. >"No," she answers with a sigh.
  341. "...dare I ask?"
  342. >"Of course."
  343. >She hesitates, though.
  344. >"What did you hear last night?"
  345. "The sound that woke us up?"
  346. >"Yes."
  347. "Someone yelling. Howling. Someone... someone who sounded..."
  348. >You can't put your finger on it.
  349. >You're not sure you want to.
  350. >"Like someone you know."
  351. >Ok.
  352. >That's not what you wanted to hear.
  353. >She's exactly right, of course.
  354. >That's why you did not want to hear it.
  355. >A knot of anxiety shoots from your stomach to your throat.
  356. >The only thing keeping it from spilling out your head is Oki's calm demeanor and the quiet yet oddly sad spirit of the dispersing crowd.
  357. >"I heard my pa," adds Oki. "Hacking and wheezing from the flu that nearly took him when I was but a calf. Old man's resilient as permafrost, still lives only five minutes uphill from here. But nothing in my life e'er scared me so much."
  358. >You reflect on this.
  359. >It does not comfort you.
  360. "And you... the others... you aren't frightened by this?"
  361. >"What do you think a frightened yak looks like, Skin?"
  362.  
  363. >You look back at the crowd.
  364. >At their expressions.
  365. >The furrowing of their brows.
  366. >The concern in their eyes.
  367. >Oki looks largely composed, but it's because she's so often composed that it stands out when she's even slightly off.
  368.  
  369. >"If you mean 'fright' more like the way ponies express it," she clarifies, "the Old Yak for that translates best to 'cowardice.'"
  370.  
  371. "Cute."
  372. >She snorts.
  373. "Should I be concerned, Oki? You're being unusually... vague."
  374. >"Yaks aren't vague," she pouts.
  375. "Can you just fill me in?"
  376. >She frowns and concedes.
  377. >"We call it the wendigo."
  378. "The windigo?"
  379. >"That's an old myth, Skin. This is real."
  380. "Isn't it also a myth? I've read about wen-"
  381. >"Let's not use its name again. It's supposed to hear you when you do. That part might be a myth, but the creature itself is as real as you or I. I don't wish to test it."
  382. "What IS it?"
  383. >"It comes every few years. It's one of the reasons we fortify our towns."
  384. "Can it break through the walls?"
  385. >"No. It's not a dragon or any such thing. But it's clever. Therein lies the danger."
  386. "So it's a predator."
  387. >"We'd call it such if only we knew that it *kills* its prey."
  388. >You don't want to know any more, but you don't think you have a choice in the matter now.
  389. >"Noyak it's taken has ever been seen again. Far as we can tell, it wears disguises. It'll sound like someone or something you know, or it'll look like them. It won't be quite right, but it'll take advantage when you can't tell the difference. Then it drags you off. Only ever takes one at a time."
  390. >God, did you not want to know.
  391. >"Most times, we ward it off before it reaches the walls. Or we ward it off before it gets someone. Hasn't caught anyak since I was an infant. But we must be vigilant. More than normal. And nothing we can do about its calling at night. It likes to announce itself. Awful vain of it, I think."
  392. "...geez."
  393. >"You holding up, Skin? That's all the details. The important ones, anyhow."
  394. "You people are crazy living up here."
  395. >"It's our home."
  396. "You have fucked up household pests."
  397. >"We lose more to ordinary illness in a few years than we ever have to monsters."
  398. "Disease doesn't have PR that good."
  399. >"The fresh hell was that just out of your mouth, Skin?"
  400. >You take a moment to explain the concept.
  401. >Oki considers it, then nods.
  402. "Some wisdom in you yet."
  403. >...is that the first compliment she's given you?
  404.  
  405. >...
  406.  
  407. >"...more horns on the walls than we've had in a while," explains Oki, walking with you from the barracks to the mead hall just across town.
  408. >She had dropped in to hear about new assignments, in light of the news.
  409. >"I'm still to stick to you, though. Hope you weren't thinking you'd be rid of me."
  410. >She sounds very much disappointed, but you detect a modicum of sincerity in the jest.
  411. >That's an improvement.
  412. "Can't imagine a second without your company, Oaks."
  413. >"That ain't my name."
  414. "It's a nickname. Like 'Skin.'"
  415. >"Not the same."
  416. "How?"
  417. >"It's a yak thing."
  418. >Oki can be funny, but you're never sure when she's doing it intentionally.
  419. >A nearly imperceptible curl of her lip gives her away on this one.
  420. >You chuckle.
  421. >"What are you laughing at? Button it before you swallow a fly, Skin."
  422. "I'm far from the more vocal one in this relationship."
  423. >"True, until you have to exert yourself for any reason."
  424. >The roasting and ribbing continue as you saunter down the road.
  425. >It's strange.
  426. >Only minutes ago, weren't you discussing the approach of a monster from outside the walls?
  427. >But maybe that's why it's so important to talk.
  428. >Why dwell on what you can't change?
  429. >You think you're slowly developing a yak's perspective on such matters.
  430.  
  431. >You're not sure where the cheese comes from on the charcuterie board.
  432. >You guess it's made from yak's milk.
  433. >No cattle to be seen around here, that's for sure.
  434. >You guess some farmers could raise goats farther up the mountain.
  435. >Yeah.
  436. >You'll stick with that explanation and not inquire otherwise.
  437. >You don't want to think too hard about eating it if it's yak cheese.
  438. >The mead accompanying the meal is sticky and sweet without being cloying.
  439. >It's not weak, like ale.
  440. >This is what you get drunk on up in these parts.
  441. >You manage an observation through a mouthful of cheese and berries:
  442. "It's crowded today. 'Specially for a work day."
  443. >"It's how us civilians handle grim news," explains Oki. "Civilians and guards assigned to them..."
  444. >She's only one drink in and already getting back on about how much more she'd like to be on "proper" guard duty.
  445. >You take most of her ribbing good-naturedly, but today it's so abundant it's starting to stick.
  446. "Must be a tiresome job, guarding me, that all you've energy to do is complain about it."
  447. >"It ain't tiresome work, Skin, it's boring! I want to be out on the walls, or walking with the caravans, seeing other towns. I offered ya my home even before I knew I would be assigned to you, either way. You want, what, all my attention all day and night?"
  448. >You swig your mead and brood.
  449. >You had gotten to thinking, almost, that you were friends with Oki, not just her professional responsibility.
  450. >You're probably somewhere between those extremes on her radar, but you'd never know from anything she says that you're on either end but the latter.
  451. "Want me to see the smith and get a sword made? Would save you the trouble of shadowing me all day. You give me a clear impression what your preferences are on the matter."
  452. >"A sword?" asks Oki.
  453. "Like a horn I can hold."
  454. >"Hear... holding your horn... every third night..." she mumbles.
  455. >You ignore it.
  456. "Do I even need a guard? If that monster doesn't get in, what else is gonna get me? Squirrels?"
  457. >She cocks an eyebrow at this.
  458. >"You don't have to joke about that. If it came down to it I'd gore the creature for you. Or a squirrel, if you're honestly that skittish..."
  459. "Save it."
  460. >You polish off your mead and get another.
  461. >Oki stares at you with something like recognition.
  462. >"You're serious, Skin?"
  463. "Am I just dead weight? Same question."
  464. >"Thought we were just having banter. We're in our cups."
  465. "That another yak thing?"
  466. >She grimaces.
  467. >"Might just be my thing."
  468. >You sip your mead.
  469. >"I'll get serious, then. Your safety's important. More than important. It's just what I owe you. Because you'd be my guest even if I weren't your guard."
  470. >She takes a sip herself.
  471. >"-and that IS a yak thing," she adds. "If harm befell you on my watch, I'd be ashamed. Well, worse than ashamed. It's like, by housing ya, I made a kind of investment, which I made in confidence that you're. you know, an alright sort, and that I could take care of you... and it's like, uh, that."
  472. >Her discomfort reached a peak somewhere near the end of that sentence.
  473. >You could swear she's blushing through her fur, but you honestly can't tell.
  474. >You suppose it'll do.
  475. >You feel a little better.
  476. "Ok, Oaks."
  477.  
  478. >...
  479.  
  480. >Oki accompanies you on your daily duties.
  481. >Walk around town. Say "hi" to anyone on four legs who talks. Tell them you're there on Equestria's behalf if they ask. Head to your office in a nearly-bare room cleared out for you in the town center and update your next letter to the capital.
  482. >It amounts to maybe an hour of hands-on work a day.
  483. >The rest of a time, you simply live as a man among yaks.
  484. >Frankly, despite all the cold and the difficulty fitting in, it's not the worst time you've had in your life.
  485.  
  486. >Only occasionally do you get regarded with suspicion or confusion around here.
  487. >The rest of the time, folks are kind enough once they learn you speak the same language.
  488. >Downright friendly, even, once they learn you can lend a hand carrying produce home from the market or helping with a little yard work.
  489. >Ponies were friendly, too, but you swear you had to work harder at it with them than with folks here.
  490. >In Canterlot, your own neighbors there hadn't seemed comfortable with you until you'd been around a whole month, and ponies you ran into in public who hadn't yet seen you around town always regarded you with an uneasiness they could never hide in their huge, expressive eyes.
  491. >You had acquaintances, but you think your only real friend there was the librarian.
  492. >When you first walked in she regarded you only with curiosity, which yielded to outright fascination as the two of you started chatting about literature.
  493. >As time passed, you kept going to the library to talk with her as often as you did to read.
  494. >By the time you arrived up north, you became comfortable admitting to yourself you have a crush on her.
  495. >Not that that self-knowledge does you any good hundreds of miles north of her... or causes you any shortage of personal confusion.
  496. >One party has four legs, the other has two... That doesn't need any further clarification, right?
  497. >And yet... the thoughts about her that pushed you into that admission wasn't just about her kindness, or your shared interest.
  498. >It was the way her tail would flick when she recognized you approaching the desk, your next read grasped in your hands.
  499. >How she blinked behind her big, round, wire specs.
  500. >A few times you've almost gotten brave enough to try writing her from here, just to say "hi" and ask what she's reading, but hell if you can do that without flushing and shaking with nerves as soon as you sit down.
  501. >Would she remember you?
  502.  
  503. >"Out like a light, Skin," says Oki.
  504. "...huh?"
  505. >"You're staring at that woodpile like you've been hit in the head. You counting the rings?"
  506. >You offered to fetch firewood for the shaman and his wife earlier.
  507. "I'm just tired."
  508. >A lie, but she takes the hint.
  509. >"Aye. Long day."
  510. "Yeah."
  511. >You gather as many logs as you can carry.
  512. >Oki rolls a bundle onto her back.
  513. >"Why don't we head back after this one?" she asks, as you haul the wood up the street.
  514. "I thought you'd like to do more."
  515. >"I'd enjoy a night in about as much. Overwork does a body no good."
  516. "I take it you mean *my* body."
  517. >"Yeah, Skin, but believe it or not, I enjoy the occasional evening in myself."
  518. >That surprises you.
  519. >You usually take long days doing this stuff, in part because you figured Oki wouldn't stand for less.
  520. >"...not that I couldn't keep this up all night, if it came to it..." adds Oki.
  521. >...you just wouldn't flag her as the type for late day alone-time.
  522. >You've always thought her outgoing, but were you just convolving that with her being rather brusque?
  523. >Hell. Now that you think of it, you're nearly the only one she talks anything but business with while the two of you are out.
  524. >She might be downright introverted.
  525. >"...nodding off again?"
  526. "Uh, no. Sure. Let's hang out a while."
  527. >She scoffs.
  528. >"It's not 'hanging out!' It's... you're just overworked... funny ideas..."
  529. >You roll your eyes.
  530. "I get it, Oki. You like me."
  531. >"Hmph!"
  532. >She trots ahead of you effortlessly despite the weight of her firewood.
  533. >She had kept pace with you just to keep you company.
  534.  
  535. >You arrive at the shaman's house a minute or two later, panting with your effort to keep up.
  536. >His wife greets you at the door.
  537. >"Thank you, Anon, Oki," she says. "Fine of you to help us old codgers out. Will you come in, have tea?"
  538. >You're about to agree as Oki interrupts.
  539. >"With our apologies, we'd rather be home early tonight. Before dark."
  540. >The shaman's wife nods with understanding.
  541. >"I understand."
  542. >She makes a gesture.
  543. >"Please, then."
  544. >Oki lowers her head for the old woman.
  545. >You have no idea what's going on.
  546. >"Your head, Skin," whispers Oki. "Bow so she can reach."
  547. >You do as she says.
  548. >The shaman's wife utters a short phrase in Old Yak, kisses Oki on the head, and repeats the process for you.
  549. >"Have a pleasant night," she finishes.
  550. >"Thank you, Gira," replies Oki. "And yourself."
  551. >You're confused, to say the least, but you follow with your own goodbye.
  552. >You ask Oki about it on the way home.
  553. "That was, what, a blessing?"
  554. >"Custom to receive them from the shaman's wife rather than payment for this or that."
  555. "Are there different ones?"
  556. >"She chooses them. Tonight was 'may no evil pass your threshold.'"
  557. "Topical. Is..."
  558. >You don't know how not to be obtuse about this, but you want to know.
  559. "Does it work?"
  560. >If Oki takes any offense to your question, she shows none.
  561. >"I've never really known. I find it makes me feel better."
  562. >You suppose it does for you, too.
  563.  
  564. >...
  565.  
  566. >Oki polishes off her mead glass with a final, great swig.
  567. >She sighs with pleasure at the sweetness of the drink.
  568. >You'd have pegged her as a dry-over-sweet sort of yak, but life is full of surprises.
  569. >"You're popular, Skin."
  570. >You scoff.
  571. "By whose measure?"
  572. >"Mine. The town's. I don't know."
  573. >She swirls her glass, trying to spot any last droplet of mead clinging to it, but she's already cleaned it out.
  574. >"Last 'ambassador' sent here didn't care for much but sitting in his study and writing home. Nor did the one before him. As a people, yaks are meatheads, we'll concede to that - hell, it's a point of local pride. But we ain't illiterate, and the subtext every yak in Woolencliff could read well before you came here is that Equestria cares far more for the Land of the Yaks than it does about the Yaks."
  575. >She's crossed safely into drunken rant territory.
  576. >You'd stop her, but you think she's only just over the edge of what she'd tell you while sober, if she's over it at all.
  577. >"Really, the last dozen or so of the fools, it's like, you know, when a boy comes and brings you a rose every day, because he thinks you'll let him fuck you when he reaches a hundred."
  578. "That wouldn't work on you?"
  579. >She snorts with laughter.
  580. >"No, Skin, I like chocolate. Anyway. You understand, when we learn that with the newest one wouldn't even be one of their own, we weren't exactly expecting much."
  581. "I'm pretty sure they were just getting rid of me. I think I freaked them out."
  582. >...more than you should say, too, but you've also been tapping into Oki's mead supply.
  583. >She shakes her head.
  584. >"Wouldn't be surprised. Point is, imagine our surprise when you start doin' chores around here. Adopting the customs. Spending your time being one of us instead of handing out literature. None of us reckon that's what you were told to do."
  585. "I wouldn't say I'm rebelling..."
  586. >"No, but they didn't ask you for much, right? Just come here. Remind us they have an eye on us. That last part probably not out loud, of course."
  587. >That sounds very close to what you were told, actually.
  588. >"Point bein', your helping around town these past weeks, we think that's you alone choosing to do that, which surprised a lot of us. Makes you a proper yak, as far as I... as far as, uh, some folks think."
  589. >You're not sure how to respond to that.
  590. >In the quiet, Oki seems to grow uncomfortable.
  591. >She starts to say something, stops, waits, then starts again.
  592. >"You were saying over lunch, well, I should shove it with the lip I sometimes give you, and, you know, I understand I can be, well, a little... er... and you're, you know, an alright..."
  593. >She struggles to finish the statement.
  594. >Definitely drunk, you decide.
  595. "I appreciate it, Okes."
  596. >She nods happily.
  597. >You examine your own glass.
  598. >A bit to go.
  599. >This'll probably be your last for the night.
  600. >"Skin?"
  601. "Yeah?"
  602. >"We'll probably hear it again tonight," she says stoically. "We've all had to hear it once or twice in our lives, and, well, we find it's easier to sleep through when you know it's coming."
  603. >Your stomach sinks, but you trust you're safe here.
  604. >You hope.
  605. "Want to bunk with me again tonight?"
  606. >That came out less casually than you wanted, but Oki nods as if you asked for nothing out of the ordinary, which you suppose you did.
  607. >"Sure. Just wear your furs this time. Always colder than normal when it comes around."
  608.  
  609. >...
  610.  
  611. >"...A *pony,* Skin?"
  612. >You two ended up talking into the night, side by side.
  613. >You ended up letting something out of the bag that you may regret.
  614. >"Skin's in love with a pony! In love! Good gods."
  615. "I did NOT say that."
  616. >No; You had just said that you had no genuine pony friends but her, that you treasured your conversations with her, that you scheduled your week around your visits to the library to see her, that you were nervous to write her because you weren't sure what she thought of you...
  617. >"Call it what you want. Ah, ha! Oh... a pony. Poor Skin. None too many of the nice, curvy variety of whatever you are around Equestria, are there."
  618. "It's independent of that... I think..."
  619. >You're done with the subject if this is how this conversation will keep going.
  620. >Never mind Oki being Oki, you're just tired.
  621. >You close your eyes.
  622. >"...You gonna write her?"
  623. "Huh? I..."
  624. >What, she's interested?
  625. >"Write her! Snows' sake, write her. She probably thinks of you. You even say goodbye to her when you were sent up here?"
  626. "I figured she would hear about it..."
  627. >"Skin, you're gonna write something up tomorrow morning, and we're bringing it to post after breakfast or I'm kicking your ass back to Canterlot myself. Snows-fucking-sake. She's probably worried."
  628. "Okay, Oki..."
  629. >"Tellin' me this stuff like I'm gonna commiserate," she grumbles. "You do realize I'm a lady, Skin? That I might have a bit of insight into such matters? Yaks and ponies aren't *exactly* two of a kind, but if it walks on four hooves and knows what it feels like to have its ass stared at, it and I have something to talk about."
  630. >She's planted a smile firmly on your face at this point.
  631. >Her attitude, at first irritating, turned contagious somewhere along the line.
  632. "I'll write her."
  633. >"Do be sure to."
  634. "I wonder what she's gonna think."
  635. >"You'll know when she writes back."
  636. >You're nodding off.
  637. >A minute later, Oki pipes up again.
  638. >"To be clear, Skin, I have no interest in you like that. Some men, you get chummy with them, and they get the wrong idea, 'cause they've never experienced romance except with their socks-"
  639. "It's mutual, Oki."
  640. >"-and there's the fact you're not even a yak, you don't have fur-"
  641. "I consider you my friend, and I understand this is your awkward way of reciprocating that feeling."
  642. >"-wouldn't touch you with oven mitts on, frankly-"
  643. "Good night, Oki."
  644. >"Night. Poke me if I hog the cot."
  645.  
  646. ...
  647.  
  648. >Your phone lights up and sounds off.
  649. >So much for getting a full night's sleep. Who the fuck is calling you this early?
  650. >You roll over, groggy as hell, and answer.
  651. >"Yo, Anon, it's me!"
  652. >One of your frat brothers.
  653. >You help him with problem sets and he plays a mean wingman at the bar.
  654. >It's a good relationship.
  655. "You got a reason for waking me up?"
  656. >"I locked my dumb ass out, okay? I know it's the millionth time. I promise it'll never happen again if you don't give me shit and you help me out here. Let me in. It's cold."
  657. "There's no one else up?"
  658. >"No one's picking up, but now you have. Get out of bed. Come outside. It's so cold out here, man."
  659. "What? I'll buzz you in, dude, don't drag me out in that shit weather."
  660. >"'Buzz me in...' buzz me in... buzz me in..."
  661. >He rolls the phrase around on his tongue like he's never heard it.
  662. >"Oh. 'Buzz me in.' Not what I'm looking for. You need to come out. I'll try again tomorrow."
  663. "Tomorrow? Dude, I'll buzz you in. You can get to your room yourself. Let me just-"
  664.  
  665. >Oh.
  666. >You're dreaming.
  667. >You feel around the dream a bit, trying to see if you can turn it into one of those lucid deals, but you've never been good at that.
  668. >You wake up.
  669. >The bed's nice and toasty, between you, your furs, and Oki.
  670. >You reach to pull her over.
  671. >That's when you notice her shaking.
  672. "Oki?"
  673. >Your voice is crackling and groggy.
  674. >You pinch your hand.
  675. >You're definitely awake.
  676. >"It woke me up, Skin," Oki admits.
  677. >Her voice is grim.
  678. >"The sounds it was making tonight... just this... hooting. Stopped not a minute ago. I hope for good this time."
  679. "Come here. They're all watching for it, right? We're fine. Let's go back to sleep."
  680. >She won't face you, but she inches closer into what might constitute a cuddle.
  681. >You lie on your side and cup your hand over her ear.
  682. "Here."
  683. >"...thanks."
  684. >You each nod back off soon enough.
  685.  
  686. ...
  687.  
  688. >In a rare reversal of your schedules, you wake up before Oki.
  689. >You decide to spend the hour in bed.
  690. >Fuck getting a head start on the day.
  691. >It's warmer here.
  692.  
  693. >You don't really see Oki asleep a lot.
  694. >She's pretty peaceful, considering how feisty she is every hour of her waking life.
  695. >She cuddled up close to you while she slept.
  696. >Her fur... wool... whatever, it's warm, clean, and fluffy.
  697. >You think she conditions, not that's she'd ever admit to it.
  698. >Basically, she is a large stuffed animal that's going to wake up in an hour and call you names.
  699. >...and you're okay with that.
  700. >For now, you savor your comfort, wrapping an arm around her, raising the blankets back up to your chin, and-
  701. >Oki's looking at you.
  702. >Must have just woken up.
  703. >You meet her gaze awkwardly.
  704. >She's clearly still half-asleep, but you don't know whether or not that means you should expect a kick to the shin.
  705. >She rolls her eyes at you, closes them, and resumes sleeping.
  706. >You feel a tinge of something for her.
  707. >As much as she... is like she is, you think she actually would not hesitate to put herself in harm's way for you.
  708. >You know that's in her job description, but knowing that and believing it are two different things.
  709. >'Trust' might be the right word.
  710. >So much for waking up before her: as you absentmindedly stroke her head, you feel yourself nodding off again.
  711.  
  712. ...
  713.  
  714. >"Dear Miss Library Pony. I love you from the bottom of my heart and I'm interested in what's under your tail. I thought that now, when I am in the remote north, would be the *ideal* time to inform you of thi-"
  715. "-THANK you, Oki."
  716. >"You've been fondling that quill for ten minutes. You always this slow writing letters?"
  717. "No. I... I just..."
  718. >You don't care to explain yourself.
  719. >She's right.
  720. >You're taking this long to write a letter to the only pony you believe you properly know.
  721. >You don't tend to misread social cues, but, then again, you're not a pony.
  722. >Could all her conversation with you have only been simple decency?
  723. >Maybe she doesn't even remember you among other library regulars.
  724. >Maybe she'd be downright disgusted if you reached out.
  725. >Something must be showing on your face, because Oki finally pipes down.
  726. >"You only have to say 'hello,' Skin. She'll probably like hearing from you..."
  727. "How can I know that?"
  728. >She sighs.
  729. >The silence is more than slightly awkward for a minute.
  730. >Finally, she breaks it.
  731. >"Okay, look. If I were this girl, I wouldn't mind at all getting an unexpected letter. You can say something like..."
  732.  
  733. Dear Ribbon,
  734.  
  735. I hope this letter finds you well. I've been spending the past month and a half up north in a yak town called Woolencliff. I'm not sure how widespread the news was about my ambassadorship, but maybe you heard.
  736.  
  737. One thing I really miss up here is a good book. I've gotten to look through some tomes on local culture and history, but none of it is really the type of stuff we would chat over.
  738.  
  739. I've missed our chats, by the way. Maybe we can have one by mail: have you read anything interesting since I left? I'd love to hear about it. Let me know if I can copy you anything from the archive here, too.
  740.  
  741. I hope the library still has that nice old-book smell. Please make sure to keep it in order! (I know you will.)
  742.  
  743. Best wishes,
  744. Anon
  745.  
  746. >"See, ya had a fine letter in you all along. Only needed your Yak Godmother to bring it out of you," Oki explains as you head back from the post office.
  747. "I appreciate it, but I think I could have managed."
  748. >"Nonsense. You'd be lost in life without me."
  749. "I made it here just fine before I met you."
  750. >"A miracle!"
  751. >She seems in a particularly good mood, so you'll say no more to deflate that.
  752. >You've decided to go work out.
  753. >Yak free-weights are made to loop over horns, but they fit in a hand nicely enough.
  754. >It's usually a good time.
  755. >You get to burn calories and Oki gets to show off.
  756. >She always demands your attention before hoisting up more than you could ever lift without dislocating something.
  757. >She's always pleased to receive praise for her talents, though sometimes you make her work for it.
  758. >You find this endearing as hell, though you'd never let her know.
  759. "I acknowledge you may have been of help."
  760. >"Hm," she grunts, satisfied.
  761. >That's when you round the corner and see the shaman and his wife.
  762. >You know it's bad news before you even hear it.
  763. >Oki hears what they have to say and regards it solemnly.
  764. >You only muster up the courage to ask further on.
  765. "What is it?"
  766. >"No signs of it outside the walls last night."
  767. "So it's gone?"
  768. >"That or it's inside."
  769. "You... you heard it last night."
  770. >"Fairly sure I did."
  771. >She stops, takes a breath, and keeps walking.
  772. >"Let's lift, Skin. Talk about this after."
  773. "Sure."
  774.  
  775. ...
  776.  
  777. >CRAK.
  778. >Oki's hits echo through the gymnasium like thunderclaps.
  779. >WHAP.
  780. >You take a rest between sets to watch her.
  781. >That sandbag is a hell of a thing not to turn to scraps.
  782. >Her approach is deft and unpredictable.
  783. >She steps in one direction then another, always closing in but never establishing a clear enough position for one to take a footing against.
  784. >Then she hits.
  785. >The hit is always earlier than you expect it to be. You've no doubt that's deliberate.
  786. >You wish you had a high-speed camera to watch it.
  787. >One moment she's closing in, a step too far to reach her target.
  788. >Or so it looks.
  789. >Then she... blurs... for an instant, as well as you can describe it.
  790. >Her fur goes from fluffy to some liquid state, some exotic phase of matter like the ones they talk about happening at extreme temperatures and pressures inside billion-dollar laser arrays and exploding stars.
  791. >It accentuates her movement like a meteorite's fiery tail on landfall.
  792. >All this only in that instant.
  793. >A ripple propagates across the bag like a high-explosive shockwave.
  794. >It should be too fast to see, but it's too intense to miss.
  795. >And the sound... you wonder if hearing protection would actually be prudent.
  796. >Who knows. Maybe yaks don't get tinnitus.
  797. >The spotter keeping the bag from swinging into the ceiling casts you a look as you go back to finish your set. Sort of raises his eyebrows at you and grins.
  798. >"Get an eyeful. This is impressive, even among yaks."
  799. >That's what you get from his expression, not that it's impossible you misread him.
  800. >You've never asked Oki directly about being a guard, or her training, or her experience.
  801. >You've thought, based on her demeanor, that maybe it would be a subject better avoided, one she'd give you some trite answer to then ridicule you for your curiosity.
  802. >But you see none of that side of her right now.
  803. >As she strikes her target with nothing short of killing blows, she looks absolutely serene.
  804.  
  805. >You're winded after your workout.
  806. >Oki is nonplussed.
  807. >Her curls bounce as carelessly as usual as the two of you head downtown (to the extent Woolencliff has a downtown) for sandwiches.
  808. >That's where you can get imported stuff: Equestrian fruits and vegetables, cheese that isn't suspect, stuff like that.
  809. >You're partial to a pickled onion and cheese and onion on rye, yourself.
  810. >Oki likes to get a bunch of celery, carrots, tomatoes, hot sauce, and something fried and make faces at your plate, whatever you order.
  811. >As afternoon drags on toward evening, though, she's not as animated as normal.
  812. >Not that she's miserable or anything.
  813. >She's just not talking your ear off.
  814. >Which is new.
  815. >You crunch into an onion.
  816. "Something on your mind?"
  817. >"Eh?"
  818. "You're, uh..."
  819. >"I'm on duty."
  820. "Aren't you always? Technically?"
  821. >"Sure. Technically."
  822. >She has tea with her meal tonight, not ale.
  823. >"I'm keeping an eye out now, though. Just in case."
  824. "Right."
  825. >A question nearly escapes you, but it's impolite, you think.
  826. >You barely catch it.
  827. >"Yeah, Skin?"
  828. >Nothing gets past her.
  829. "It's just... could you really do anything?"
  830. >"Whatever it is, it has a body. Means it can be hit. Maybe hurt."
  831. "Think so?"
  832. >"If any yak can, it would be me. Maybe a few others. But you ain't their responsibility."
  833. >You finish your onion.
  834. "Guess it would be."
  835. >You finish your meals and start home before the sun sets.
  836.  
  837. >Yaks were still lined up in pairs outside the shaman's place on your way back.
  838. >You guess you're lucky you got your blessings early.
  839. >"Everyone's staying in twos. Good," Oki had observed, though she hadn't exactly sounded hopeful at the prospect.
  840.  
  841. >"Dude," says your brother.
  842.  
  843. "Again?"
  844.  
  845. >"I'm sorry. I promise this is the last time. Can you just come out and let me in? I'll get a keychain or something tomorrow. It won't happen again."
  846. "It's the middle of the night. You woke me up. I'm not freezing my ass off."
  847. >"It'll only take a second. Please. I've been calling people all night. Just let me in."
  848. >You sigh, resting your phone hand on your knee.
  849. >The display lights up from the motion, casting your room in a blue glow.
  850. >Your brother's protests continue to stream through the earpiece.
  851. >You're so goddamn tired.
  852. >"...guess I'll try someone else..." you hear, then a click.
  853. >You nod back off.
  854.  
  855. >"Anon!"
  856. >It's Ribbon Bookmark.
  857. >At your door.
  858. >That's a hell of a quick response.
  859. >"Hi!"
  860. "Ribbon? How did you... wow, it's good to see you. Did you get-"
  861. >"Your letter! I thought I'd come up and reply in person. I brought you some light reading. Can I come in? I've tried house after house..."
  862. "Cold out there, huh?"
  863. >"Sure is."
  864.  
  865. >"Anon," says Oki.
  866.  
  867. >You turn to her.
  868. >She's standing in the hallway to the bedroom.
  869. >"Close. The door. Walk. To me," she says, slowly, clearly, and deliberately.
  870. "Oki, Ribbon actually came-!"
  871. >"Anon, listen."
  872. >She holds steady eye contact and repeats her order.
  873. "Close. The. Door."
  874. "But Ribbon-"
  875. >"That's not Ribbon."
  876. >Something clicks.
  877. >You're not asleep.
  878. >This isn't a dream... and you don't remember how you got to the door.
  879. >Something drops inside you like a penny in a wishing well.
  880. >Your bowels turn to ice.
  881. >"Anon," she pleads.
  882.  
  883. >Some thing is behind you.
  884.  
  885. >"I've missed you," says Ribbon. "I know we only spoke at the library, but when you left without a word I was concerned. I'm so glad you wrote."
  886. >"It's lying, Anon. Don't listen," warns Oki.
  887. >"Oh, hi! I'm sorry I didn't introduce myself," replies Ribbon. "I'm glad you're taking care of him, Oki. I was worried you lot would accommodate him even worse than we did back home, but it looks like just the opposite!"
  888. >"Think! I didn't tell it my name. It can't know."
  889. >"It really is just like you said here! Cold but cozy. And how you described Oki... it was like I knew her without ever meeting her!"
  890. >"That's horseshit. You know what you wrote."
  891. >"I can't wait to get acquainted. Please, can I come in? I hate to be rude, but it is more than slightly nippy out here..."
  892. >"An--Skin, even you aren't THAT stupid."
  893. >"How's the temperature inside? Maybe we can cuddle..."
  894. >"CLOSE. THE. DOOR."
  895. >"Let. Me. In."
  896.  
  897. >You turn to Ribbon.
  898.  
  899. >Something's... off... with her.
  900. >You see it in her eyes first.
  901. >Her smile doesn't reach them.
  902. >At best, she's smiling the way one would for a picture.
  903. >At worst, her eyes betray something she's trying to hide with the smile.
  904. >She looks hungry.
  905. >Hungry the way a man looks offering a little girl candy on an empty street.
  906. >"It's easier if you let me in. But an open door will do."
  907. >You see a glint of red in her pupils before she disappears.
  908. >In her place, something crouches.
  909. >You almost get the door shut as it stands to its full height, half again as tall as the frame.
  910. >Clawed fingers wrap around it, igniting with blue flame as they invade the space of the home.
  911. >The door bounces uselessly off them.
  912. >"Fine. Make me work for my meal."
  913. >You back away from the door.
  914. >You're not operating on reason any more.
  915. >You just want space between you and that... thing.
  916. >As much as possible.
  917. >As it opens the door and comes in, the rest of it ignites.
  918. >"Ooh. Ow. Hot," it says, unperturbed.
  919. >The flames dim and sputter out.
  920. >Oki charges.
  921.  
  922. >Her first hit connects with its knee.
  923. >The point of contact explodes with a sound between a bone breaking, a branch splintering off a tree, and a gunshot.
  924. >Fragments of the creature fly away but slow rapidly, as if caught in a viscous fluid.
  925. >It stoops with the impact, but the pieces eventually halt in their trajectory and start a slow return.
  926. >It'll just come back together again, you realize, dully.
  927. >"Skin," exclaims Oki, rearing up for another go. "Run. The shaman's."
  928. "Yeah."
  929. >You say that, but your legs won't move.
  930. >The Wendigo reaches for you.
  931. >Oki strikes it at the elbow.
  932. >Its arm explodes at the joint.
  933. >Its hand floats lazily away, but already it seems to slow in the air.
  934. >"That hurts, you know," it explains.
  935. >"I'll kill you," says Oki.
  936.  
  937. >It looks at you, raising the nub of its arm for the rest to rejoin it as Oki rears up again.
  938. >You get a good look at it for the first time.
  939. >It looks like something neither alive nor dead.
  940. >Bare, rotten bone protrude from its spine, shoulders, and joints.
  941. >Where there's no bone, it looks held together by only barely enough flesh, sinew, and, here and there, something plantlike.
  942. >Its skull, entirely bare of flesh but for one, sunken eye, is that of a yak's.
  943. >It's as if the headless skeleton of some unspeakable nightmare went rooting through a fresh grave for costume pieces, stuck them to itself, and thought, 'this will fool them.'
  944. >The thought turns from absurd humor to horror as you realize its body looks almost human.
  945. >"You can leave her out of this," it says.
  946. >Oki knocks its weak leg out from under it, sending its shin spinning across the floor.
  947. >Even as she does so it reattaches its arm and drags itself one pace closer to you, then another, its reach disproportionately far.
  948. "I'm not here for her, but if you don't make her stop, I will."
  949. >You almost tell her to stop.
  950. >"YOU WON'T TAKE SKIN," roars Oki, spittle flying from her mouth, blood trickling down from her forehead. "HE'S MY FRIEND."
  951. >She charges, this time for the hollow of its chest.
  952. >It raises a hand and appears to beckon.
  953. >Her eyes roll back in her head and shut.
  954. >She falls to her side and lies still.
  955.  
  956. >The world darkens.
  957. >You dream of being dragged in something's wake.
  958.  
  959. ---[OKI]---
  960.  
  961. >"...Make sure to eat, Oki."
  962. "...yes'm."
  963. >You went to Gira after waking up.
  964. >You're privately thankful that her husband, the shaman, is the heavier sleeper of the couple.
  965. >You don't care to fill him in until later.
  966. >It won't make a difference.
  967. >You were already out too long.
  968. >You still wanted to go off into the wastes alone, but you know better.
  969.  
  970. >You take a breath.
  971. >Hold it.
  972. >Grit your teeth.
  973. >Let it out.
  974. >You're not really the crying type.
  975. >You've got nothing against it in principle.
  976. >You just prefer to take initiative and prevent situations that would cause it.
  977. >You hiccup with the last of your breath.
  978. >Damn it.
  979.  
  980. >Gira pats you on the back.
  981. >"You got a few licks in. More than I've ever read about in the legend. I think noyak's ever been stubborn enough to try."
  982. >You mutter some response.
  983. >Gira smiles.
  984. >She's a good yak.
  985. >Kind of a mother figure, you guess.
  986. >Not that mom ever did anything to get on your bad side.
  987. >But she's your mom.
  988. >Moms do not share the same concept of personal space that ordinary yaks do.
  989. >Gira does.
  990. >So maybe she's not a mother figure.
  991. >More of an... aunt figure.
  992.  
  993. >"Really. Eat those oats. I took the trouble of cookin' em up for you at this hour. Do a lady a favor."
  994. >You indulge her.
  995. >They're good, you must admit.
  996. >She even mixed in brown sugar for you, the way you liked them as a little yak.
  997. >You're unsuccessful in stifling another hiccup.
  998. >"Stop that noise. Can't stitch up your noggin with this squirming."
  999. >That encourages you to quit it.
  1000. >You fuckin' adore Gira.
  1001.  
  1002. >"Time for some rest," she suggests.
  1003. "No! I need... need to find..."
  1004. >You're trying to stand, but you sway back and forth.
  1005. >"I'm going to the guard and having search parties sent, Oki."
  1006. "I-I can still-"
  1007. >"You have a hard skull, dear, but magic doesn't care about that. If you can even make it past the walls, you'll lose your sense of direction in the first flurry."
  1008. >Her worries aren't unfounded; your head is swimming.
  1009. >You mumble something affirmative.
  1010. >"I take it all that grumbling means I'm very wise and you'll do as I say. Do get some sleep. I'll wake you up at dawn or earlier if there are any developments. You have my word."
  1011. >That'll have to do.
  1012. >She makes her way out.
  1013.  
  1014. >You shove your face into your pillow.
  1015. >You failed, Oki.
  1016. >Skin depended on you.
  1017. >Fuck, he even *liked* you.
  1018. >You made him mad a few times, sure, but he kept trying anyway.
  1019. >He made a better impression on you in a few weeks than many yaks have in as long as you've known them.
  1020. >...and now he's probably being eaten alive.
  1021. >Because of you.
  1022. >You come up for breath, grit your teeth, and try not to sob out loud.
  1023. >It doesn't work, so you go back to the pillow.
  1024. >If any yak saw you right now... oh, hell, at least this makes you feel a bit better.
  1025. >Lets you think clearer.
  1026. >You don't *know* that Skin's dead.
  1027. >It's not exactly a remote possibility, of course, but, then, the Wendigo could just kill its victims when it catches them.
  1028. >But it carries them off.
  1029. >Probably to torture them or to pry their third eye open and make it look at the horrors of the infinite cosmos, sure, but not just to kill them.
  1030. >And that means you have something to work with!
  1031. >...if you can find him.
  1032.  
  1033. >At some point, you must have fallen asleep again, because Skin walks into the room.
  1034. >Of course it isn't him, though.
  1035. >He's never looked at you like this thing is.
  1036. >"Hey, Oaks."
  1037. "Don't call me that."
  1038. >It shrugs.
  1039. >"Wanna come get him?"
  1040. >Its impression of Skin is uncanny.
  1041. >You wish it would stop.
  1042. "Not about 'want.' Skin's my responsibility."
  1043. >"Oh, poor, lonely Oki..."
  1044. "You shut your mouth. I'll finish what I started!"
  1045. >"You mean kill me?"
  1046. >It rolls its eyes.
  1047. >"I can't even explain... it's like you're threatening to screw in a nail. You can't take what I don't have."
  1048. >It wags a finger.
  1049. >"But I DO have your 'Skin.' You want him back, don't you? Don't you want to know where he is?"
  1050. >You sigh.
  1051. "Of course."
  1052.  
  1053. >You wake up with the knowledge of where the Wendigo's lair is stuck right in your head.
  1054. >You know it as well as you know the taste of greenmunch or the price of entry at your favorite hot spring.
  1055. >So *this* is how it happens.
  1056. >Visits from the Wendigo don't always end with the disappearance of its primary victim.
  1057. >Often, a friend or relative will claim to have found out where it lives.
  1058. >Their explanations vary: some claim to work it out based on evidence, others divine it, others still insist they found tracks, or that their loved one visited them in their sleep...
  1059. >Whatever the explanation, the result is the same.
  1060. >They're the only ones who believe their own theory, they venture out alone, and they find nothing or else never return.
  1061. >Now it's your turn to be the designated crackpot of the decade.
  1062. >Lucky you.
  1063. >You strive to get some more shuteye before Gira returns and wakes you at dawn.
  1064. >You have big plans in the morning.
  1065.  
  1066. >...which Gira will not hear of.
  1067. >"I won't hear of it. We have dozens looking for your friend. You know well what happens to heroes going off on their own in times like these. I know even better."
  1068. >She gives you a sad, withering stare.
  1069. >"Please don't become another yak I have to tell the little ones cautionary tales about. You're more than that to me. To our town."
  1070. >This touches you, but you won't allow it to show.
  1071. "And who am I if I don't help a friend to yaks who was taken from under my own roof? I am his guard as well as his host here. He is MY responsibility."
  1072. >"I will not help with the Rite."
  1073. "Damn the Rite, Gira. I'll demand it according to our custom if I must. But I can't demand that you believe in me. And I need that all the same."
  1074. >"Our magic isn't the stuff of unicorns, Oki. You saw firsthand how short my own blessing held."
  1075. >How the Wendigo couldn't even open your door under its own power.
  1076. >How it burned as it came across the threshold.
  1077. >Could you have fought it like you did if it wasn't slowed?
  1078. >"Am I to condone your venturing out alone so flimsily protected?"
  1079. "I am NOT alone."
  1080. >You hadn't meant to snap, but it came out that way.
  1081. >Gira gives you a pitying look.
  1082. "I... I care for this town and every yak in it. Even if I tend to keep them at a distance."
  1083. >She keeps giving you that damn look.
  1084. >Old girl's persistent.
  1085. >This is gonna take some painful honesty.
  1086. "I don't make a lot of friends, Gira. And Skin's done good by us. I mean it when I say I can do this. Please help me."
  1087. >She sighs.
  1088.  
  1089. >A while later, you stand before her and the shaman.
  1090. >Candles burn in a circle around you and in the corners of the room.
  1091. >The shaman presents a helmet.
  1092. >An ornamental one, but a strong one.
  1093. >"If you turn from your purpose, the spell will fade, Oki," explains Gira. "It will leave you twisting in the wind and lost in the snows if you waver physically or mentally. It helps only the strong and pities not the weak."
  1094. "I know the legends."
  1095. >"Review never hurts."
  1096. >She motions to the shaman.
  1097. >He steps forward.
  1098. >"Our ancestors will guide you, Oki. With this helm, I seal the pact."
  1099. >He places it on your head.
  1100. >"Our ancient tradition of war. The Nemesis Rite."
  1101. >The ritual candles immediately die.
  1102. >In houses all down the road, stoves fail, forges dim, and blazing hearths fade to glowing embers.
  1103. >Your fire starves them all.
  1104.  
  1105. >You waste no time on your way to the gates.
  1106. >You have little enough left to spare, and you're not the type for drawn-out goodbyes either way.
  1107. >As you hit the tundra, you break into a run.
  1108. >You don't stop.
  1109. >Something burns inside you, and it lets you go on and on.
  1110. >You feel as warm and happy as you do at home on front of the hearth.
  1111. >The occasional flurry of snow whips up in your path and vaporizes as you approach it.
  1112. >Not a drop or a flake lands upon you to take your fire away.
  1113. >You continue like this for hours, your pace never slowing.
  1114. >It's as easy and natural as a bird spreading its wings to soar on the wind.
  1115. >The day slowly turns over to night.
  1116. >You find your way lit just enough by a dim light that you believe comes from you.
  1117. >Gira was wrong to speak so humbly of yak magic, you think, as you close the distance to the Wendigo's lair like a shooting star across the distant horizon.
  1118. >You'll arrive right on time. You're certain.
  1119.  
  1120. ---[ANON]---
  1121.  
  1122. >You know, fire or no fire, you'd expect this cave to be really drafty.
  1123. >The fire warms it right up, though.
  1124. >"That good, Skin?" asks Oki.
  1125. "Yeah. Can you take that off though? Your impressions are unsettling. You don't get the eyes right. No offense."
  1126. >She sighs.
  1127. >"Eyes are the hardest part, Skin," she says, as if it should have been obvious.
  1128. "You're good at the characters, though."
  1129. >"Of course I am."
  1130. >She really is very Oki-like.
  1131. >The only thing off-putting is the one eye that usually shows from under her curls.
  1132. >It takes you a while to pinpoint it, but when you see it, you can't get it out of your mind.
  1133. "You don't blink."
  1134. >She huffs.
  1135. >"How am I supposed to remember that *every time,* Skin? You understand why I might not be used to eyelids?"
  1136. >You shrug.
  1137. "I guess that makes sense. Actually, on the character, though, you're calling me 'Skin' too often."
  1138. >"That last one just happened to come to my lips. It's a good name for you. 'Skin.'"
  1139. >She laughs.
  1140. >You've only heard Oki laugh once or twice.
  1141. >It's nothing like this at all.
  1142. >This is weirdly... jubilant.
  1143. >It's another flaw in the disguise, but you don't point it out.
  1144. >It makes the bottom drop out of your stomach.
  1145.  
  1146. >You try not to let the feeling show.
  1147. >Stockholm syndrome's the name of the game tonight.
  1148. >That's how you'll cope.
  1149. >Maybe this creature kidnapped you and restrained you with perfectly benign intentions.
  1150. >She even lit a fire for you, right?
  1151. >"Wanted to keep you comfortable. Can't have you squirming."
  1152. >See, she's perfectly-
  1153. >...
  1154. >You forgot she can read minds.
  1155. >"Not all the time. Just enough to hunt."
  1156. "Oh. I... I don't like that word."
  1157. >"'Time?'"
  1158. "The other one."
  1159. >"Well what else would ya call it, Skin? With my reputation I can't just politely ask folks to come join me at my cave, can I?"
  1160. "Oki, that's..."
  1161. >You barely catch your mistake.
  1162. >"Not so 'unsettling' now, am I?"
  1163. "Do you have a name I could call you? That would make this less awkward."
  1164. >"Why would I need a name?"
  1165. "So guests have something to call you."
  1166. >"I'm Oki right now, so call me 'Oki.'"
  1167. "I already know Oki."
  1168. >She sighs and... melts.
  1169. >It's what the transformation looks like in the light.
  1170. >You prefer it when the process is obscured.
  1171. >Ribbon's face and features become clear.
  1172. >"Now I'm-"
  1173. "I already know Ribbon too. And you made her butt too big."
  1174. >She wiggles Ribbon's backside.
  1175. >"I draw these disguises from your head, you know."
  1176. "I... you're distracting from the main issue."
  1177. >"Fine. Pick a name for me."
  1178. >She's beginning to sound tired of this conversation.
  1179. >Her iris color drifts lazily to a cool blue.
  1180. "In Woolencliff they call you the Wendigo."
  1181. >"I'm not a windigo."
  1182. "It's different."
  1183. >"It sounds like they just meant 'windigo' and messed it up."
  1184. "You're the only... whatever you are, so I won't argue. But we can make something of it. You like 'Wendy?'"
  1185. >"I'm not fast food. And it doesn't need to be a girl name. I just look like a girl because you're weird and lonely."
  1186. >You ignore that.
  1187. "...'Wen?'"
  1188. >She considers it, then nods.
  1189. >"That works."
  1190. "Hi, Wen."
  1191. >"Hi, Anon. Don't freak out."
  1192. "Huh?"
  1193. >A dozen tendrils emerge from her back and plunge into your chest.
  1194.  
  1195. >The cave is as far in the middle of nowhere as you've ever been.
  1196. >It's the place, though.
  1197. >You know it.
  1198. >The snow falls impossibly densely around it.
  1199. >It piles upon your coat even with magic heating you from the inside out.
  1200. >It's like nothing you've ever seen, even when you've been further north.
  1201. >You could roar at the top of your voice and not be heard five feet away.
  1202. >You hear only the fall of each of your hooves in the snow, your short, regular breaths, and the beating of your heart.
  1203. >As you reach the cave's entrance, the snow clears.
  1204. >It's not just free of snow in here -- it's warm.
  1205. >You pick up the scent of burning wood.
  1206. >Little wisps and fumes of smoke, invisible until you came in and your eyes adjusted, pass overhead and out around the lip of the tunnel.
  1207. >You follow the smoke.
  1208. >Ahead, the tunnel takes a sharp twist to the left.
  1209. >Then it slopes down... and down.
  1210. >Here and there, stone juts from the floor in such a way as to form a step.
  1211. >Just as often, formations come forth from the darkness to trip you up.
  1212. >It could be mistaken for a natural formation, but, knowing what you know, it's uncanny in its design.
  1213. >The steps would speed up any familiar resident's trip in and out of the tunnel, but the tricky parts would slow any other visitor.
  1214. >The smoke grows thicker.
  1215. >Almost enough to choke you, but, under your enchantment, no worse to your lungs than a haze over the bog you visit in the wet season.
  1216. >The tunnel ends just as you start wondering if it won't at all.
  1217. >Fresh fuel burns warmly in the fire.
  1218. >Skin lies on a cot not far from it.
  1219. >The cot's rustic, but looks for all the world as if housekeeping dressed and cleaned it for his visit.
  1220. >You know better than to be oblivious to such hints, but, then, the creature should know that.
  1221. >A pointless deception: if your guard's up, your guard's up.
  1222. >"Oki," calls Skin.
  1223. >You approach him warily.
  1224. >No restraints on him. He lies on his back, his arms folded behind his head.
  1225. "I figured you'd be bound, knocked out, or dead, Skin. This smells like ten pounds of shit, frankly."
  1226. >"She doesn't need them. I haven't even tried to get out, honestly."
  1227. "'She,' Skin?"
  1228. >"Yeah, I named her 'Wen.' She likes it, I think. She's not as bad as I thought. Except for the kidnapping."
  1229. "You... named her."
  1230. >Skin shrugs.
  1231. "And where is she now?"
  1232. >"Hiding. You hit her the last time you met, so she thought she'd play it cooler this time."
  1233. "WHERE, Skin."
  1234. >"Hi, Oki."
  1235. >You turn around.
  1236. >Skin's behind you.
  1237. >"Sorry," he says.
  1238.  
  1239. >Damn it.
  1240. >You figured it would come from behind, but you didn't predict the duplicate.
  1241. >If you hit the wrong one... that's it for Skin.
  1242. >He's not too durable.
  1243. >Your second of indecision is almost enough.
  1244. >It gets so close so fast that you feel the mental equivalent of it breathing down your neck.
  1245. >Last time you felt this was moments before losing consciousness at your house.
  1246. >This time, though, something intervenes.
  1247. >The fire inside you roars to life, a backdraft fueled by the door abruptly opened in your mind.
  1248. >Something -- a red, flickering glow -- manifests outside your body, gathering around you and bursting forth in all directions.
  1249. >Skin remains standing.
  1250. >The creature is blown off its cot to the far wall of the chamber.
  1251. >"You hit me. Again," it complains.
  1252. >Its Ribbon facade begins to melt away.
  1253. >The transformation is fluid and visceral in the firelight.
  1254. >Blue light ignites behind its one functioning eye.
  1255. >"W-Wen," protests Anon. "Your Ribbon was fine. Really."
  1256. >You shake your head.
  1257. >He fucking NAMED it.
  1258. >No time to dwell on that, though.
  1259. >As the Wendigo gets closer and closer to its true form, you feel a greater and greater pressure upon the barrier protecting your mind.
  1260. >You don't want to know what'll happen if it gets to you this time.
  1261. >You close the distance to it in a split second and smash it in the face.
  1262. >Blue light shines through a hairline fracture in its skull.
  1263. >The impact left a crater in the wall.
  1264.  
  1265. >Its transformation is complete down to the waist now.
  1266. >Its legs begin to writhe and twist into functional, bipedal limbs.
  1267. >Dark, immaterial tendrils, like shadows cast in thin air, run from behind it over to Skin.
  1268. >No wonder he's so friendly with it -- he's brainwashed.
  1269. >"Can we just get along?" he suggests. "Wen, you're kind of nice apart from the whole soul-devourer thing you have going on. Do you even need to do that?"
  1270. >"It's very hard to explain and very easy to show," it responds, recovering effortlessly from your first hit. "We'll have plenty of time to talk later. You should just-"
  1271. >You hit it again, harder this time.
  1272. >Something splinters.
  1273. >"Stop that, Oki. Come on. Like 'Skin' says."
  1274. >You hit it again.
  1275. >There's a loud crack.
  1276. >"You get one more. Then you're really going to regret this."
  1277. >It begins to lift itself from the ground.
  1278. >Light shines from its eye, from its skull, from cracks all over it where you've struck it.
  1279. >You feel a new rush of adrenaline.
  1280. >The magic really works.
  1281. >You can HURT it.
  1282. >You charge into it again with your fiercest battle-cry.
  1283. >Its ribcage shatters.
  1284. >The light engulfs you.
  1285.  
  1286. --[WEN]--
  1287.  
  1288. >You got them.
  1289. >You always get them.
  1290. >The Nemesis Rite, as they're calling it this century, always works as intended.
  1291. >You're not much of a fighter, but you're durable.
  1292. >It takes a good kick to get you out of a body, especially an old one.
  1293. >And this one was *old.*
  1294. >If the cold hadn't preserved the last bits of tissue holding your bones together, you'd have woken up last month as little more than a talkative pile of ash.
  1295. >You're lucky.
  1296. >The shoddy replacement jobs you've been pulling lately wouldn't have kept you up for more than another seventy or eighty years.
  1297. >You needed new material. Something that wouldn't bore you too much to stick around in.
  1298. >And it wandered right up north for you.
  1299. >As your old body shatters, you're unshackled.
  1300. >No need for shapes or gimmicks in your native form.
  1301. >The mere sight of you blinds them.
  1302. >You enjoy your freedom while it lasts, but there's no time to waste.
  1303. >If they adjust to the light, they'll trace it to its source... and your moment of opportunity will be wasted.
  1304. >"Skin?! Skin!!" calls Oki, searching blindly.
  1305. >You find him first.
  1306.  
  1307. --[SKIN/WEN]--
  1308.  
  1309. >"Skin?! Skin!!" called Oki.
  1310. >You were about to answer when Wen got you.
  1311. >Aside from a powerful but momentary feeling of impending doom, the process was painless.
  1312. >["See? Not bad at all,"] you think.
  1313. >...*you* think?
  1314. >You did... but not really of your own volition.
  1315. >More like the way you think when you're falling asleep, on the verge of dreaming, when you keep thinking, but your thoughts come on their own, building their own narrative, one you'd never come up with in waking life.
  1316. >["You're overthinking it. It's just me,"] says Wen.
  1317. >Yeah.
  1318. >It's just you.
  1319. ["Not so sure I dig this, Wen."]
  1320. >["Usually takes a few hours to lose the second-person. It's confusing at first, though. I know."]
  1321. >"Skin. There you are," exclaims Oki.
  1322. >She trots up to you, then pauses, looking at you sideways.
  1323. >"...Skin?"
  1324. >["Wow. You really love her."]
  1325. ["Not in a weird way."]
  1326. >["No, not at all. It's nice. You're very... sincere. At first I thought you were just stupid, to be honest."]
  1327. ["I wouldn't say 'stupid...'"]
  1328. >["I dragged you to a cave and you treated me like I bought you a three-course dinner."]
  1329. ["I thought if I was polite you might not pull this pod-person shit."]
  1330. >["Well, look what good that did you."]
  1331. ["Fuck off."]
  1332. >["Hey! It's nothing personal. It's just what I do."]
  1333. >You sigh.
  1334. ["Yeah. Just what I do."]
  1335. >["Now you're getting it."]
  1336. >"Skin...?" asks Oki.
  1337. "Hey, Oki."
  1338. >The enchantment on her wore off.
  1339. >Her consciousness is as tangible to you as her body.
  1340. >You could reach out and put her to sleep like turning off a light switch now.
  1341. "She got me. Sorry."
  1342. >Oki tilts her head.
  1343. >"You don't look 'got.'"
  1344. >You snap your fingers, producing a bright blue spark.
  1345. >That type of demonstration was never really "you," but you guess it's "you" now.
  1346. >"...damn it."
  1347. >Her head nods.
  1348. >"Damn it."
  1349.  
  1350. >You expected a more passionate reaction from her.
  1351. >Not just this... this giving up.
  1352. >["It's easier like this. With the extras."]
  1353. ["Shut up."]
  1354. "I..."
  1355. >You pull the knowledge from your new memory.
  1356. "There's room for you in here if you don't wanna try the wastes."
  1357. >"I'll try the wastes," she answers unhesitatingly.
  1358. "...Oki-"
  1359. >"Enough."
  1360. >She heads for the stairs.
  1361. >Her thoughts read as clearly as a neon sign in the night: Skin's dead. It's my fault. No use dwelling over it. No use acknowledging this... thing. Nothing left to do but try my chances.
  1362. >That's it.
  1363. >She's done talking to you.
  1364. "Oki, it's fine in here! You can be fine, in here, instead of dead. Out there. One touch, you're in, and we can keep your body safe, with the others, if you change your mind about trying the wastes."
  1365. >She looks back at you.
  1366. >"The others."
  1367. >She turns and takes a step towards you.
  1368. >"The OTHERS?"
  1369. "Yeah, right below-"
  1370. >["Shut up, Anon,"] suggests Wen.
  1371. ["I'm just-"]
  1372. >["Look at her."]
  1373. >Oki scratches at the floor with a hoof.
  1374. >Tentatively, at first, but then with broader and firmer strokes.
  1375. >She scrapes away the opaque layer of frost covering the clear ice.
  1376. >A hint of some yak's brown coat shows below.
  1377. >"You do this to all of them."
  1378. >She's not asking.
  1379. >"You don't even allow them the dignity of a fight before you kill them."
  1380. >["They're only as dead as you are, Anon,"] explains Wen.
  1381. "They're not dead. They're in here."
  1382. >You gesture to your... head. Torso.
  1383. >Does that get the point across?
  1384.  
  1385. >Oki looks up at you.
  1386. >Something's changed.
  1387. >"That's supposed to be better?"
  1388. >["Sleep her. Now."]
  1389. >You can't bring yourself to.
  1390. >["DO IT."]
  1391. >Your fingers snap on their own.
  1392. >The tingle of magic lingers from the movement.
  1393. >Oki is unaffected.
  1394. >Why-?
  1395. >"Too late for that," she spits.
  1396. >She thinks for a moment.
  1397. >"You're all still in there?"
  1398. >["Girl's got fight,"] thinks a foreign voice. Not Wen's. Some yak's. ["One's never fought like this, have they?"]
  1399. >["Not since you've been here,"] replies another. ["Five, maybe six hundred?"]
  1400. "I... I think so. It sounds like it."
  1401. >["SLEEP HER. PUT YOUR BACK INTO IT,"] shrieks Wen.
  1402. >You nervously click your fingers.
  1403. >Magic shoots down from your brain, through your spine, out your arm.
  1404. >It shimmers in the air, nearly tangible.
  1405. >Oki stumbles, but rights herself.
  1406. >"Get a grip, Skin."
  1407. "Wen's nervous. I can't help it. Sorry."
  1408. >"So am I."
  1409. "What fo-?"
  1410.  
  1411. >She slams into you like an artillery shell.
  1412. >A lot of stuff just... crunches.
  1413. >You try not to think about what.
  1414. >You would not be in good shape if this were only your normal body.
  1415. >As Oki backs off, you see her pupils have narrowed to near invisibility and chocolate-brown of her irises has faded to a blind ivory.
  1416. >["She's pissed."]
  1417. >One of the voices from before.
  1418. >["Not just pissed. She's Berserk,"] remarks another, older one. ["Never thought I'd see it again. 'Specially not in this place."]
  1419. >["She's so fuckin' pissed,"] repeats the first one, gawking.
  1420. >Other voices in your head pipe up in approval.
  1421. >["Look at that anger! It's beautiful!"]
  1422. >["Berserk? The first in how long? I was got 'round the time that rebel queen took o'er down south..."]
  1423. >["It got me just after that. I'd only ever heard stories from my ma."]
  1424. >Wen remains silent.
  1425. >The air around Oki shifts and distorts as if it rests over hot coals.
  1426. >From the nose down, her expression looks relaxed, maybe contemplative.
  1427. >But there's anger in her eyes.
  1428. >Anger so intense it's like looking into the sun.
  1429. >"I've an idea of how to get you out, Skin," she explains, as you stagger to your feet. "But it might sting."
  1430. >For a moment, you're afraid.
  1431. >Something Else is with Oki.
  1432. >Something that's with her like Wen is with you now.
  1433. >But you realize it's not your fear. Not your suspicion.
  1434. >It's Wen's.
  1435.  
  1436. >"...you ARE in there, yeah, Skin?" asks Oki, scanning you for some final, vital confirmation.
  1437. >She speaks calmly, yet her words resonate throughout the cave as if she bellowed.
  1438. >You're not exactly sure how to *prove* it's you.
  1439. >You present your best argument:
  1440. "Uh..."
  1441. >Wen's not making you say anything, but you can FEEL her rolling her eyes.
  1442. >Oki shrugs.
  1443. >"Sounds convincingly like ya."
  1444. "Aw. I'm trying my best."
  1445. >Another impulse from Wen.
  1446. >You try to sleep Oki again.
  1447. >She snorts as the spell ricochets off her horn.
  1448. "S-sorry!"
  1449. >"I am disappointed yet unsurprised, Skin."
  1450. >As she says your name, her words hit even harder, staggering you where you stand.
  1451. >She's been speaking Old Yak, you realize.
  1452. >You must have picked it up from your new roommates.
  1453. >"The rest of you," she starts, shaking a six-foot icicle loose from the ceiling.
  1454. >It shatters on the ground loud enough to wake the dead.
  1455. >...and everyone wakes up.
  1456. >Before, you had a few other spectators on board with you and Wen.
  1457. >Now you've got a stadium full.
  1458. >They've been on autopilot in here for a long, long time, but, finally, something INTERESTING is happening.
  1459. >You feel it right along with them.
  1460. >"Pitiful, letting yourselves carry on like this."
  1461. >["The hell she going on about?"] asks a new arrival.
  1462. >["She's a berserker, old man,"] explains a yak from before. ["Girl's so pissed she called one of the Old Ones right to her."]
  1463. >God, you hope you're not about to become involved in some Lovecraftian shit.
  1464. >["Nothing like that, new blood,"] the same yak corrects you.
  1465. >You forgot for a moment you were sharing mental residency.
  1466. >["Regular ol' gods we used to worship. A VERY long time ago. So long that most folk these days wouldn't remember."]
  1467. >Very real gods, it looks like.
  1468. >["Sure as shit."]
  1469. >"I think I'll remind you all of your heritage," interjects Oki.
  1470. >And she approaches.
  1471. >You don't think this will be as nice as last time.
  1472. "Come on, Oki. Wait. Oki. Oki-OKI NO-"
  1473.  
  1474. >It's like getting hit by a meteor.
  1475. >Last time, only you had absorbed the impact.
  1476. >This time, *everyone* did.
  1477. >You lie, crumbled, against the far wall of the cave.
  1478. >You feel Wen somewhere in her head.
  1479. >The fight's gone out of her.
  1480. >She's a little blue ember, sputtering, struggling to remain alive.
  1481. >Yet everyone else is having the time of their lives.
  1482. >["Did you FEEL that? It was like getting hit by an avalanche. An avalanche!!"]
  1483. >["We gotta give her one back? When will we ever get to butt heads again in this old body? What other opportunity will there be?"]
  1484. >["I haven't sparred in AGES!"]
  1485. >They roar in agreement, all of them.
  1486. >["NEW BLOOD!"]
  1487. >You guess that's you.
  1488. ["Eh?"]
  1489. >["You're driving! Make a yak out of us, yeah?"]
  1490. >Do they mean transform?
  1491. ["I have no idea how-"]
  1492. >["Put your twice-damned hooves down, man! You're driving! It's easier for you to figure out than for us to tell you. Or do you *want* to stay a sack of broken bones right now?"]
  1493. >You shrug and go for it.
  1494. >You stand... with difficulty.
  1495. >You bring your hands together and lift them over your head.
  1496. >You clench your teeth, drop to your knees, and slam your fists into the ice.
  1497. >... and the ice shatters beneath your hooves.
  1498.  
  1499. >"Good show," remarks Oki.
  1500. >You sway back and forth on your new legs, your new height and weight still unfamiliar.
  1501. >"I still suspect you're a monster taking me for a ride. But if that's you in there, Skin, you make a fine yak."
  1502. >["See, new blood? You're a natural."]
  1503. >"Now," starts Oki.
  1504. >She flicks her curls out of her eyes.
  1505. >The simple movement resonates with power.
  1506. >A crimson afterimage trails her every move now.
  1507. >"The rest of you. Let's test your horns."
  1508. >The voices roar in approval.
  1509. >Unconsciously, you scuff the ice with a hoof, preparing to charge.
  1510. >Behind it trails its own, blue image.
  1511. >You lower your horns and break into a run.
  1512. >Oki rushes to meet you.
  1513.  
  1514. >You don't even feel the impact as your heads meet.
  1515. >You go somewhere else.
  1516. >Somewhere with Oki.
  1517. >You're alone now. No voices.
  1518. "Oki?"
  1519. >"Skin."
  1520. "This a vision or something?"
  1521. >"If it is, it's mine."
  1522. >One way to find out.
  1523. >You move to scratch Oki behind the ears.
  1524. >She bites you.
  1525. "Ow. Fuck."
  1526. >"Not a vision."
  1527. "Probably not."
  1528. >Oki has a quick look around your surroundings, as do you.
  1529. "...Where ARE we?"
  1530. >You stand upon a frozen lake so deep you can't see the bottom and so wide you can't see the shore.
  1531. >The word you're looking for might be "ocean," not "lake," but even beginning to contemplate it that way makes you feel hopelessly small.
  1532. >A thick mist mercifully limits how far you can see in any given direction.
  1533. >Maybe the shore's just beyond it. Yeah.
  1534. >"We've put our hoof in it this time," Oki observes. "I'm not sure... but I think this is the Void."
  1535.  
  1536. >Her proper noun usage does not jive with you.
  1537. "I really hope you didn't just tell me we're dead."
  1538. >"From butting heads?"
  1539. >She harrumphs.
  1540. >"No. Yaks are very sturdy."
  1541. "We butted heads at something like mach five and now we're in a place that looks like fuckin' death, Oaks."
  1542. >"It baffles me that you think I have any more answers."
  1543. >"You're wiser than you let on, Oki," interrupts someone.
  1544. >Oki rears up and readies her horns.
  1545. >You spin on the spot.
  1546. >The ice has sunk in a spot behind you.
  1547. >From the pit sprouts a living, flowing being of ice, lit from inside by a bright, blue flame.
  1548. >Its exact shape changes moment-to-moment, but its silhouette is overall that of a yak.
  1549. >"You wouldn't be here otherwise," it continues.
  1550. >You cock your head.
  1551. >You've only one good guess as to who this is.
  1552. "...Wen?"
  1553. >"Yes and no."
  1554. "You've lost me."
  1555. >The ice flows into a shape you recognize as Wen's take on Ribbon, but this time it's painted with somewhat of an impressionist's brush.
  1556. >It's the form you came to think of most as Wen, you guess.
  1557. >Besides the huge, terrible, decaying wight, you mean.
  1558. >You just tell yourself that one doesn't count.
  1559. >"Wen is an intersection of the Void with the world. What that means varies. It depends on the time and place of the intersection. It depends on who witnesses it. It's complicated magic, and it makes little sense to give it any one name, in simple terms."
  1560. "She was a single thing. At least to us. She had a personality. She could be spoken to. She could be touched. Can you just bring her here to give us a straight answer?"
  1561. >"You're speaking to her. You're standing on her."
  1562.  
  1563. >You're still not sure you're getting the straight truth.
  1564. >But you look down.
  1565. >You don't want to, but what just came out of supposedly-Wen's mouth was too insane to ignore.
  1566. >You recall the black, ephemeral tendrils that once emerged from Wen's back and connected to you.
  1567. >Beneath the icy representation of Ribbon, something similar extends deep into the ice.
  1568. >Something immense.
  1569. >Looking at how wide it is -- how deep it goes -- gives you a sensation of vertigo as if you're at the top of a skyscraper looking down.
  1570. >And it branches off at something even larger at its bottom.
  1571. >It's dark in this place, the Void... but the ice is so clear.
  1572. >Understanding shakes you:
  1573. >It's a mere capillary sprouting from the vein of an infinitely larger structure... or creature.
  1574. >Only the barest sliver of it brushed against the living world -- and that brushing is what you came to know as Wen.
  1575. >["Regular ol' gods we used to worship..."] you recall a voice saying. ["...most folk these days wouldn't remember."]
  1576. >You stare at the flame inside Ribbon's facsimile.
  1577. >It burns at the end of the capillary as if on a wick.
  1578. "You've... changed."
  1579. >Please, this time, an answer other than some vaguery.
  1580. >"She has," not-Ribbon agrees. "You and Oki shook some of the Void from the world. So Wen changed."
  1581. >For fuck's sake.
  1582. >It's time to ignore this thing.
  1583.  
  1584. >You turn back to Oki.
  1585. "Would have liked to know about this Void stuff before I was kidnapped, you know."
  1586. >"Yeah, and you should have regaled me with stories from your childhood history lessons."
  1587. >"You should know-" interrupts not-Ribbon.
  1588. "If you're gonna give me this cosmological bullshit, Wen, you need to include the instruction manual. Oki's not that bright, but she'll at least give me a straight answer."
  1589. >"We both know who here wins IQ limbo, Skin," joins Oki.
  1590. >She's taken the bait.
  1591. "You can't be the brains AND brawn. That's not how a dynamic duo works."
  1592. >"What's a 'dynamite duo?' I tell you over and over that noyak understands your obscure cultural references."
  1593. "'Dynamic.' Do you not know the word 'dynamic?' Really?"
  1594. >"Want a dynamic horn up your ass?"
  1595. "-ohmygod-I WANT to know where we ARE, Oki."
  1596. >"Lady said it's the Void," she quips obstinately.
  1597. >You tap your foot impatiently.
  1598. >Getting Oki riled up is all you need for her to talk your ear off, and spooky-not-Ribbon, the mind-reader, says she knows SOMETHING.
  1599.  
  1600. >Oki sighs.
  1601. >"Dad's a yakthropologist. Would flip through his textbooks when I was a little nak. See, I was perfectly capable of book-learning even at a young age. Unlike some-"
  1602. >You yawn.
  1603. >Oki grumbles.
  1604. >"Okay. Magic is complicated, right? You understand the basics as much as I do, probably. It's about concepts. Instance, say some unicorn wants to burn something. Well, she'll wiggle her nose and focus on the CONCEPT of burning. Then, boom, fireball from her horn. You wouldn't find ash or sulfur where it hits like a real fire would leave, but it'll set something on fire all the same. The magic makes the concept as good as the real thing."
  1605. >She's really sweating over this explanation.
  1606. >You owe her an apology later, because it's a pretty good one.
  1607. >"But," she continues, "concepts exist whether or not wizards or shamans need 'em. Magic doesn't make anything out of nothing. It just calls concepts over from... wherever concepts live."
  1608. >She pauses to collect her thoughts.
  1609. >You can't stop just one remark.
  1610. "Never made you for such a nerd."
  1611. >Oki looks at you absolutely venomously.
  1612. >"Not a nerd. Just daughter to one. You actually care to know any more?"
  1613. "Sure, professor."
  1614. >"...short version for the gifted student. Yaks came to the North a long time ago. No towns and no walls back then. We were nomads. We saw the empty, white expanse, and knew it had its own magic, just like fire has its own magic. We could feel it in our hearts and minds just like the cold in our bones. We knew it was the place for us to live, but to do so, we had to respect it... and we had to earn its respect."
  1615. "You talk about it like it's a person."
  1616. >She nods solemnly toward not-Ribbon.
  1617. >"We called it the Void."
  1618.  
  1619. >Oki addresses it directly.
  1620. >"I've read the legends. By no accounts were you ever the petty creature we've come to fear these days."
  1621. >Not-Ribbon shifts again for Oki, back to her transparent, icy yak body.
  1622. >She actually looks to you, head cocked, as if to request permission to speak.
  1623. >You're not a hundred percent sure on the body language, but if the ancient god-spirit of the tundra is sassing you right now, you think you've had it for the day.
  1624. >You wave your hand at her dismissively.
  1625. >"Your own spirit interfered," explains the Void... or is it Wen?
  1626. >You'll save "Wen" for the one you knew - the one with actual personality.
  1627. >"The first brick of the first wall a yak built in the tundra marked Wen's birth. She wouldn't become your Wendigo until later, but it was the end of the yaks' symbiosis with the tundra and the void and the beginning of their confrontation with it. It also established your own people's spirit in the tundra - the other one you worshiped."
  1628. >"He was civilization and death in battle. You were nature and death in peacetime," explains Oki, half to the Void, half to you. "He gave us Berserking, you gave us meditation. He gave us remedies, you gave us the ingredients for them. You were no foe to us; you were just different. We never knew we had angered you. We never suspected that we had trespassed. That you were vengeful."
  1629. >She spits the last word at the spirit.
  1630. >"The Void... 'I...' don't know vengeance. Or any such motivation. I'm only what the tundra is. Its bounty and its treachery. Nature, as you put it. But not a person."
  1631. >She pauses, then continues.
  1632. >"Wen is a person. She was made as I brushed the material world, and she couldn't exist without it. She's weak now, but perhaps you'd prefer that she explain herself. Since I'm full of 'cosmological bullshit.'"
  1633. >THAT sounds like sass, but her tone and expression carry none of it.
  1634. >"No interest," says Oki. "Keep your monster. We're leaving."
  1635. >"You've been free to do so since you got here."
  1636. "I want to talk to her."
  1637. >Oki looks at you tiredly.
  1638. "I'm sorry. Thank you for saving me. And everyone. But I can't leave this end loose."
  1639.  
  1640. >"Take her with you," suggests the spirit. "She'll be able to speak once she returns to the world."
  1641. >The blue flame in her center emerges from her back and floats in pursuit of you.
  1642. >The animate sculpture left behind is as dark as the tendril reaching far into the depths of the ice.
  1643. >You walk away and the flame follows.
  1644. >It was the only source of light in here, you realize.
  1645. >The Void behind you grows as dark as night, then darker.
  1646. >It vanishes.
  1647.  
  1648. >"You took everything away," complains Wen.
  1649. >Without a body, she's only a wisp of blue flame, outshone by even the light of the half moon in the clear sky.
  1650. >She bobs, flickers, and flashes in the air as she speaks.
  1651. >"I've nothing to apologize for," replies Oki, not for the first time.
  1652. >As you left the cave, she had called on the Yak spirit's protection, and it had complied.
  1653. >The air over her distorts and wobbles as if over a blistering source of heat, a heat that warms you to the bone yet doesn't melt a single flake of snow you pass.
  1654. >That's Berserking, you guess. A gift from the diametric opposite of the region's ruling force, and the force itself of the yaks and their will to survive here.
  1655. >Also, the only thing keeping you and Oki alive for the miles ahead to Woolencliff.
  1656. >"Just because I can speak doesn't mean you haven't as good as killed me," continues Wen.
  1657. >"Good. I did say before, 'I am going to kill you.' What do you still fail to grasp about your present situation?"
  1658. >"Have you even considered that YOU might be the bad guy?"
  1659. >"I don't sleep for a decade at a time upon a frozen tomb of lost souls."
  1660. >"They weren't lost. I found them."
  1661. >"I see no distinc-"
  1662.  
  1663. >A vision: a young yak wanders aimlessly as the sun sinks ever lower on the horizon, separated from his tribe by a blinding gale that howled for hours.
  1664. >He had dug a shelter in the snow and stay put, but he emerged to find his companions gone without a trace.
  1665. >At first he supposed they would eventually note his absence and look for him, but they regarded him a lost cause as soon as they failed to count him among their number.
  1666. >One prolonged manhunt could easily turn into several more in this climate.
  1667. >The yak is tall, muscled, and braided, a fine example of his kind, but still he languishes, too far away from food, fire, company, and shelter to last much longer.
  1668. >He begins to wobble where he stands as a wisp appears.
  1669. >He blinks, shakes his head, and looks at it sideways.
  1670. >He sighs.
  1671. >"Delirium," he whispers to himself. "Was sure I had more time than that. It's over so soon. Twice damn it."
  1672. >The wisp bobs indifferently.
  1673. >"Don't suppose you can start a fire?" he asks. "I think you're only in my mind, but just in case, I'll take what I can get, spirit."
  1674. >It can't light a fire without a body, but it can be of some comfort.
  1675. >He blinks, and his wife lies beside him in the snow.
  1676. >He snorts with dry, hoarse laughter.
  1677. >"As if she'd come out in this weather."
  1678. >"She stands out strongly in your mind," replies his wife.
  1679. >He shakes his head, refocuses his gaze.
  1680. >"I'm not seeing things," he observes, a slight tone of wonder still present in his weakening voice.
  1681. >"She's dreaming about you now. I hope that's of some comfort."
  1682. >"It... is. Thank you."
  1683. >They lie silent for hours.
  1684. >His strength is nearly drained.
  1685. >"...are you here to take me along?" he asks.
  1686. >He's been working up the bravery to ask the whole time.
  1687. >"No," answers Wen, simply. "But I can if you like."
  1688. >"That would comfort me."
  1689. >Another while passes.
  1690. >It's dark out.
  1691. >"She's dreaming of me?" he asks once more.
  1692. >"She is."
  1693. >"Let me dream of her a while. Then I'll be ready."
  1694. >"Of course. Good night."
  1695. >"Good night."
  1696.  
  1697. >Oki recoils.
  1698. >"I'll THANK you to stay quite clear of my mind," she fumes.
  1699. >"Clear as crystal," quips Wen. "I simply raised my voice."
  1700.  
  1701. >"Take care not to raise it any higher, or something may break."
  1702. >"Nice. You know, Skin liked that vision. He thought it was sympathetic. Also, he thinks I'm cuter than you."
  1703. >Okay: she read your mind for the first part, but she's just saying the second to rile Oki up.
  1704. >You don't expect that to work, but...
  1705. >"What?!"
  1706. >"Yeah. He really does."
  1707. >"I'm ADORABLE, Skin. You think my coat is this fluffy and luxurious by accident? I CONDITION."
  1708. "Oki-"
  1709. >"And, not that I'd expect you to notice, by my exercise keeps my butt looking *fantastic* - by yak standards -"
  1710. "She's just having you on, Oki."
  1711. >"I... I mean, obviously," she responds, in a manner suggesting it was not.
  1712. >She continues more seriously: "She's a monster, Skin. She gets in your head. Tricks you. Consumes you. It's what she does."
  1713. "She used to do something good..."
  1714. >"*Before* the soul-eating. Hardly matters now."
  1715. >"The souls got loose when you hit me," interjects Wen. "I never 'ate' them. Call me any name you prefer, but don't lie. And don't suppose you know everything about me. I serve my purpose just as you saw it whenever yaks or other creatures still get lost. But that's almost never, since you built those walls..."
  1716. >"So you come in them and go hunting instead."
  1717. >"You're judging me as if I'm some mortal. I'm a *purpose.* I don't exist independently of that. I just happen to be material enough to talk to you."
  1718. >"Why not just die? Your purpose has meant nothing for ages."
  1719. >Oki's words drip with absolute venom, but Wen answers her straightforwardly.
  1720. >"I can't die. I'm not even alive. I'm just what takes lost souls in the tundra. You yaks just failed to account for that when you built your walls. It's no different than if you had chosen poor foundations for your city, or if you built in an avalanche zone. You knew what it took to live in harmony with the Void. You knew it was death in peacetime. You just ignored it."
  1721. >"No matter. I'll teach others this Berserking thing. With this magic back, we can get back to ignoring you."
  1722. >"Then it'll just get worse. And, you know, I am material enough to have *feelings.* I... I still did the best with souls under my care. I tried to keep them happy..."
  1723. >"Monster wanted friends, so it abducted them. Forgive me if I don't care."
  1724. "Oki, that's unnecessary."
  1725. >"Fuck off, Skin. We'll come up with some magic box to put her in, and she can stay there for eternity as far as I-"
  1726. >You throw a snowball at her.
  1727. >You're not sure what your reasoning was.
  1728. >She's not acting normal. It's the Berserking, you think. You want her to snap out of it.
  1729. >The snow hits her full on in the face, getting in her eyes, her nose, her mouth...
  1730. >She turns on the spot.
  1731. >Her eyes are red with Berserker's flame. Steam billows from her body as the snow on her coat melts and evaporates.
  1732. >"You FUCKING--I WILL *TEAR* YOU--"
  1733. >She stops.
  1734. >Her eyes widen as she mentally rewinds and replays what she said.
  1735. >"I... damn, Skin. What am I...-?"
  1736. >A gentle wind blows, and the aura around her blows away with it.
  1737. >You all stop abruptly in the snow.
  1738. >The cold begins to sink in.
  1739. >"A wild gift, that patron of war gave you yaks," remarks Wen, coldly and utterly deliberately. "I wonder why they ever put an end to the tradition?"
  1740.  
  1741. >Oki either detects no humor in the observation or ignores her.
  1742. >She looks over her shoulder in the direction you've been going.
  1743. >In the distance, the torches of Woolencliff glow faintly.
  1744. >"We'll make it the rest of the way," observes Oki.
  1745. >A wind blows.
  1746. >In this cold it presses against you like a blanket of sewing needles.
  1747. "You can't be serious."
  1748. >"We've made most of the journey already. Move while you're still warm."
  1749. "Oki-"
  1750. >"I'll only flare back up if it's life or death. Otherwise I might hurt you. Wouldn't be worth it."
  1751. >She says that with less sincerity and more brutal honesty.
  1752. >She glances at Wen.
  1753. >"I can be civil if you'll be."
  1754. >"Yeah," Wen acknowledges.
  1755. >"I said some things in anger. I don't apologize for them, but they weren't my true intentions. I would have a few yaks look at you. Most likely, and worse case, I think, we let you back out into the tundra, and it'll be on me to make a tradition again of this... anger."
  1756. >"Reasonable."
  1757. >Her agreement drips with contempt, but it's an agreement nonetheless.
  1758. >You get moving.
  1759.  
  1760. >It takes hell to convince Karl to let you in the gates, but Oki wears him down, careful to warn him that any of that "oh, you're the first to ever come back, blah blah blah!" racket will be met with a hoof to the ass.
  1761. >Mercifully, there's no one awake to spread the news to anyway.
  1762. >You thought you'd be going straight to the shaman's, or Oki's... but you pass them both and go further into town.
  1763. >You're too cold to protest coherently, but she wouldn't hear it either way.
  1764. >Just before you cross the line that surely separates intense cold from hypothermia, you arrive at a pleasant-looking hovel near the very back walls of the city.
  1765. >Oddly enough, its lights are on.
  1766. >Oki walks to the door and gives it two firm knocks.
  1767. >"A moment!" declares a voice inside.
  1768. >Some large pile of things topples over inside, by the sound of it.
  1769. >"Damn it all!" announces the voice.
  1770. >Hoofsteps approach.
  1771. >The door swings open to reveal a ragged, bespectacled yak.
  1772. >Glasses on a yak - that's a new one.
  1773. >He gawks at Oki.
  1774. >"Oki! But you... but I heard... oh my."
  1775. >He embraces her, which she regards... awkwardly.
  1776. >Good god, is she blushing?
  1777. >"Hi, Dad," she greets him.
  1778.  
  1779. >You waste no time entering once you're invited in.
  1780. >There's a fire roaring in the hearth.
  1781. >Fire good.
  1782. >You sit by it and extend your hands towards it, as close as you can get without singing your fingertips.
  1783. >Wen hovers about the room nonchalantly.
  1784. >Dark, mahogany bookshelves line every wall, separated only occasionally by strips of wall just wide enough to support a few candelabras.
  1785. >Oki and her father sit in two expensive-looking armchairs.
  1786. >Imported, you have no doubt - that kind of fancy livery is definitely not yak style.
  1787. >The room is cozy and academic, overall, which appears to make Oki either quite uncomfortable or quite embarrassed - you're not sure how to read her because you've never seen her express either emotion.
  1788. >"It's hard to believe," Oki's father says, after she's told him the story. "I'd think it was a prank if Gira hadn't shown me where the creature got through your door. I'd still think you made it one league outside the walls before losing your resolve and turning back if you hadn't come back with your friend."
  1789. >"I wouldn't lose my resolve. And I wouldn't *lie* if I did," protests Oki.
  1790. >"No, you never would. But that would still be infinitely more plausible than you coming back alive. You'd have been the first."
  1791. >"I am the first."
  1792. >He nods.
  1793. >"But whether you subdued a surfaced aspect of the wastes and brought it back safely to my home? Dubious. My new friend," he says, addressing Wen, "did you drift up on a southerly from Everfree? A long journey, to be certain, but I've never read of a Will-o-the-Wisp living anywhere else."
  1794.  
  1795. >Wen blinks with beautiful aurora colors and bobs through the air in a whimsical loop.
  1796. >She's being coy, to Oki's growing frustration.
  1797. >"Creature's playing us," grumbles Oki.
  1798. >"And how like a Wisp that would be!" adds her father.
  1799. >Oki shakes her head.
  1800. >"Ever the skeptic! This is why I didn't come to you after the kidnapping, you know."
  1801. >"I would have believed you as soon as I saw your house. But I'd not have allowed you to leave. Not without a fight, at least."
  1802. >He turns to the fire, remembering you're in the room.
  1803. >"No offense."
  1804. >You shrug.
  1805. "Reasonable."
  1806. >You mean... the chances weren't exactly great.
  1807. >"Thanks, Skin," remarks Oki dryly. "Dad, hoped I wouldn't need the demonstration, but I know you like evidence."
  1808. >"Of course."
  1809. >"'Wen,' show him what you do."
  1810. >...is that the first time she's used that name?
  1811. >Wen doesn't respond.
  1812. >Oki stamps.
  1813. >All the color leaves her eyes.
  1814. >The presence of the Patron looms in the room.
  1815. >If she Berserks again, things are going to get broken.
  1816. >Her father watches with avid curiosity.
  1817. >"Damn it, fly down Skin's throat and show us a proper horror show. You have five seconds or I'll chew and eat you."
  1818. "Yo, I didn't volunteer for-"
  1819. >Unfortunately, the threat was effective.
  1820. >Wen's in your head before you know it.
  1821. >["Hi again!"]
  1822. ["You'll leave voluntarily this time, I hope."]
  1823. >["I don't have a choice. I also have no power to transform you into other animals or to compel you to do anything against your will, courtesy of miss rage-first-ask-questions-later, so she's probably gonna break your ribs now."]
  1824. ["I'll work with you, but what can-?"]
  1825. >She flashes an image in your head of an old sci-fi horror flick you like.
  1826. >["I could do something like this."]
  1827. ["Jesus Fucking God no."]
  1828. >["I can turn the nerve endings off and stitch you back up just fine! It'll just *look* impressive."]
  1829. ["Shit. Fine. Just push me real far down the mental ladder, okay? I don't want to have any presence of mind for this."]
  1830. >You watch from a mental distance as she goes to work.
  1831.  
  1832. >You turn into something not unlike Wen's form when she first dropped the Ribbon charade at Oki's.
  1833. >Your jaw separates, your eyes fall back in the sockets, your arms and fingers lengthen, and, for added effect, your midsection turns into a predatory maw with ribs for teeth.
  1834. >Oki winces.
  1835. >Her father gapes with astonishment.
  1836. >"It's true! Snows' sake, Oki, I'd never have imagined!"
  1837. >He approaches you with a look of childlike glee.
  1838. >He prods one of your exposed ribs with a hoof.
  1839. >"...not an illusion, either. Just checking."
  1840. >"Dad," says Oki, slightly concerned. "You really shouldn't... touch..."
  1841. >She just sort of gives up.
  1842. >"Pshaw. If it were any danger to me, it wouldn't need this display."
  1843. >"I'd try your brother to start with," suggests Wen out loud.
  1844. >He's only momentarily surprised.
  1845. >"The *cunning!*" he agrees enthusiastically, not missing a beat. "You'd have me in a second. I miss him greatly."
  1846. >"Every day on the way back from the market you wonder if you'll see him in an alley, warming his hooves by a trash fire or jingling a little cup. Maybe he'd notice you. Approach. Say he's sorry. That he could use a bite to eat."
  1847. >"Read me like a book. A BOOK! Marvelous!"
  1848. >Somewhere during the conversation, Wen popped out of you, and you knitted back together spontaneously.
  1849. >You're left more than slightly disoriented.
  1850. >You stumble over to a chair and sit down.
  1851. >"...really should introduce myself. I'm White-Fir."
  1852. >"Skin says I'm 'Wen.'"
  1853. >"It is truly a pleasure. Say - would you mind if I fetch my notebook?"
  1854. >"If you insist."
  1855. >"Perfect - perfect," he continues, shuffling around the room, looking for something and muttering.
  1856. >Oki's sitting quite in the armchair facing yours.
  1857. >She nods sideways at Wen and her father and unmistakably rolls her eyes.
  1858. >You return the look.
  1859. >It's the quietest and simplest agreement the two of you have had.
  1860.  
  1861. >White-Fir only strikes the conversation up again after sketching Wen in his notebook, which takes twenty minutes.
  1862. >The resulting page is an incredibly detailed illustration of the room with a small blob of white in the middle.
  1863. >"Dad," says Oki, using the pause to get a word in, "I know this is an interesting... learning opportunity. But remember I've brought her here because I thought you'd know how to *contain-*"
  1864. >"Yes, yes, we'll get to all that," he brushes her off. "The first recording I've found of you - as the Wendigo - you took Big Horn's brother. You even fought Big Horn himself."
  1865. >"I seem to recall that."
  1866. >"The accounts say that he either 'drove you off' or 'turned you to dust?'"
  1867. >"He was persistent, and I had already done what I came to do, so I relinquished the body I had at the time. Yaks don't question victory once the thing they're hitting flops over."
  1868. >"True. Was his horn really as big as they say?"
  1869. >"Even bigger, actually."
  1870. >"Fascinating."
  1871. >He scribbles frantically in his notebook all the while.
  1872.  
  1873. >Oki meanders off to the kitchen as the pair continues talking.
  1874. >It occurs to you that you're tired as hell.
  1875. >You follow her in.
  1876. >She puts some water on for tea and sits with you at the kitchen table.
  1877. "You're okay leaving them alone?"
  1878. >"Long as they're in earshot. Nothing short of a possession would shut my dad up right now."
  1879. "Hard to believe you're related."
  1880. >She smirks.
  1881. >"That so?"
  1882. >Is this what you're doing at a time like this? Making smalltalk?
  1883. >Well... there's nothing else to do.
  1884. >Either there's a solution for Wen or there isn't. It's being figured out. No use sweating about it at this point.
  1885. "I guess I'm just surprised. You never mentioned him before. Not that I asked."
  1886. >"You're not asking if I'm ashamed of him?"
  1887. "No - no. It just never came up."
  1888. >She scratches her head.
  1889. >"He has rare interests for a yak. I'm not ashamed of that. I don't mean to protest too much, Skin, it's just an important for me to clarify. Yaks don't feel shame for yaks who pursue their passions. Even if they don't like or understand them. It's not dignified. It's certainly not an attitude we hold towards family. Unless, you know, you have an uncle fond of arson..."
  1890. "And you need knowledgeable people, surely."
  1891. >"I mean, yeah. To most of us that means wisdom more of the sort you get from the shaman. For the type of facts you keep in books, most folk don't have the patience for all that, but someyak needs to do it, sure."
  1892. >You nod.
  1893. >She nods.
  1894. >This is a chill a conversation as the two of you have ever had.
  1895. >You guess you're both too tired for the usual chop-busting.
  1896. >It's... nice.
  1897.  
  1898. >The kettle whistles a minute later.
  1899. >You get your tea.
  1900. >A certain topic comes to mind for some reason.
  1901. "So how's the love life?"
  1902. >Oki snorts with laughter.
  1903. >"The fuck prompted that question?"
  1904. "You've gotten your nose in mine before. Figured I'd make it even. Unless you have a better idea what to talk about."
  1905. >"Wish I did."
  1906. >She rolls her eyes.
  1907. >"You know Harald?"
  1908. "Who?"
  1909. >"Gatekeeper. I'm sure you've seen him now and then."
  1910. "You mean Karl?"
  1911. >"Ha! As if. No, Karl's just posted at the gate closest to us. Harald's the *proper* gatekeeper. Does rounds of the walls, inspects the gates for maintenance, does most of the actual opening and closing of the main ones. They operate off big, old fashion cranks. Lot of chains. Takes muscle."
  1912. "If I ever met him, I didn't remember."
  1913. >"I find him memorable," she quips a bit defensively. "He's just... a yak of few words. Which I find interesting, I'll have you know."
  1914. >This is about the reaction you wanted to get out of her.
  1915. >She's adorable.
  1916. "Would work well. You like to run a conversation."
  1917. >She scoffs at you.
  1918. "So, what, he's your boyfriend?"
  1919. >"My what? Oh - yaks don't court like that. I'll just marry him a few years on."
  1920. "...I'm confused."
  1921. >"I discussed the matter with him a month or two back. He finds it agreeable."
  1922. >You pinch the bridge of your nose.
  1923. >"He's my age, he has a job, and he's not a cousin. Woolencliff's a big town, but not a huge one," she further justifies. "The north ain't swimming with candidates for partnership. Just how it works out here. And he looks nice enough."
  1924. >Makes enough sense.
  1925. >Just... you kind of wanted to hear something juicier.
  1926. "That's... all?"
  1927. >"Why would there be anything more?"
  1928. "You gave me such detailed advice with Ribbon..."
  1929. >"Intuition," she proudly explains.
  1930.  
  1931. >You chat for another hour.
  1932.  
  1933. >Eventually, Oki gets tired of White-Fir's chatter.
  1934. >Well... both of you do, but she's the type to actually do something about it.
  1935. >"Dad. We've not slept for hours," she calls into the other room. "Are you nearly...?"
  1936. >Their conversation continues uninterrupted.
  1937. >Oki shakes her head.
  1938. >"Been a day and a half since I've had a proper night of sleep, Skin," she remarks loudly. "I'd like to get to bed sooner rather than later. And I DON'T THINK I'LL TOLERATE THE CREATURE STICKING AROUND IF I'M NOT CONSCIOUS TO WATCH IT!" she finishes... extra-loudly.
  1939. >White-Fir pauses momentarily in the next room, then continues yammering.
  1940. >You think you know what her game is.
  1941. "WHAT'S THAT, OKI? ARE YOU SUGGESTING THIS MAY BE A TIME SENSITIVE MATTER?"
  1942. >You didn't bother slowly ramping up your volume.
  1943. >Straight to eleven, motherfucker.
  1944. >Oki goes to twelve.
  1945. >"WE ONLY BROUGHT IT HERE AT YOUR URGING! IF THE OLD MAN CAN'T FIGURE OUT SOME USE FOR IT, I THINK IT'S TIME TO CALL THIS A LOST CAUSE."
  1946. "ARE YOU SAYING THAT IF THEY DON'T GET DOWN TO BRASS TACKS IN THERE AND HELP US IMMEDIATELY, YOU WILL BANISH WEN FOR GOOD, LEAVING HER PERMANENTLY BEYOND THE REACH OF THE EYES, EARS, AND NOSE OF SCIENCE?"
  1947. >"Voidsake!" interjects White-Fir, finally sticking his head through the doorway. "Hospice! She can work in hospice. We discussed this forty minutes ago if either of you had the mere shred of patience to listen."
  1948. >"Sounds like a fine way for her to suck up more innocent souls. How does this solve anything?"
  1949. >"Again, if you had *listened*... oh, just come in here. No - tea. Make some more tea. Then come in. Four cups."
  1950. >"I don't drink," says Wen.
  1951. >"Tea, I said!"
  1952. >"I can't physically drink."
  1953. >"Oh. Indeed. Okay, three cu-"
  1954. >"Yes," sighs Oki, putting the kettle back on.
  1955.  
  1956. >"The Void was always the goddess of death in peacetime," White-Fir later explains, your mugs of tea all grasped firmly in hand or hoof, "and the Patron was always death in wartime. The Void was the tundra, the Patron was civilization."
  1957. >"But the dead never used to be sucked *into* the Void," remarks Oki.
  1958. >"No. It was a crossing-over point, albeit one where one could take some time before moving on. As a people we prefer to live lives of action. At death it's nice to have some time to reflect before moving along."
  1959. "Wen, you kept them there, though."
  1960. >Wen won't meet your eye.
  1961. >She's taken on a form slightly better for conversation: her thin, blue fibers outline an impressionistic visage of a yak.
  1962. >It's expressive enough for you to observe shame thinly veiled by stubborn indifference.
  1963. >She stirs the mug of tea Oki brought out for her anyway with a blue tendril.
  1964. >The surface stirs just barely in response.
  1965. >"I don't wish to explain myself to you again," she says.
  1966. >"You have the weight of my words behind you this time, spirit," encourages White-Fir.
  1967. >Wen sighs, then speaks.
  1968.  
  1969. >"I've told you that I don't want. Or need. Or feel. I'm not a living creature, like any of you are. I'm just a... force. Or an expression. But you see me as something like you. You see how the force behaves in certain circumstances, like how it appears to the dying in peacetime. And you call that a characteristic of a god. Something that thinks.  Something like you - something that's alive, in a sense. So, if it's easier to understand, I can explain it as *though* I'm... alive. A person."
  1970. >She pauses as if expecting a response.
  1971. >You all listen attentively.
  1972. >"Once I could take simple forms like this, I'd appear to your lost and dying, comfort them, and help them into the Void. Most would pass further on after only a while, but some stayed for longer. They wanted the time to contemplate. And I always happened to be there for conversation. They'd see me as a person, like you do, and talk to me.
  1973. >"When you found your Patron - another like myself - like the Void - two things happened. You built the walls, and, shortly thereafter, your relationship with me became adversarial. Long before anyone called me 'Wendigo,' I was simply an unwelcome specter. I could no longer cohabitate with you. And yaks no longer got lost so often."
  1974. >She hesitates.
  1975. >"But I couldn't stop doing what I did, because I... I'm me. I do what I do. Like... gravity. It didn't stop working the first time a bird ever took flight, right?"
  1976. >Back to this force-of-nature stuff.
  1977. >You kind of understand, but this is the same way she lost Oki before, and she's losing her again now.
  1978. >Whatever she is, she's certainly a person, by all the definitions of personhood that matter to you.
  1979. >Oki probably thinks the same.
  1980. >But if Wen's a person, she has accountability for her actions.
  1981. >And this "force of nature" stuff just sounds like an excuse.
  1982.  
  1983. >She speaks again, forcing out each word.
  1984. >"I... *felt*... lonely."
  1985. >She sighs.
  1986. >"No one stayed in the Void anymore. There were fewer and fewer visitors. So I would try to keep guests longer. Eventually, I'd seek new ones out. I grew more and more powerful as I did this. And more and more... afraid... of becoming weak again. Of becoming lonely."
  1987. >"You became a monster," points out Oki. "Whatever your feelings on the matter were, you trapped thousands of souls..."
  1988. >"They were never unhappy," Wen objects. "Time passes quickly there. But... no, I would not have let them go if you hadn't forced me. But I have a chance to be something else now. Now that you've made me weak again."
  1989. >"You would be SURE to let the dead pass on?"
  1990. >"As long as they come to me. As long as you can live and die in harmony with me - us - again."
  1991. >"And you would take no other yak prematurely."
  1992. >"Not as long as I can accompany those who go naturally."
  1993. >Oki thinks on this.
  1994. >"I..." adds Wen, tentatively. "I really would prefer it this way. I don't want to end up like I was again."
  1995. >She attempts a smile.
  1996. >"This would make me... happy," she finishes, awkwardly, but genuinely.
  1997.  
  1998. >...
  1999.  
  2000. "Do you buy it?"
  2001. >"Maybe," Oki finally concedes.
  2002. >It's been a few hours.
  2003. >Wen resides in the living room of the shaman's house, now, guarded by as many wards as Gira and him could whip up at this time of night.
  2004. >After conferring with the both of you, Wen, and White-Fir, they believe offering her a place in Woolencliff could work... but the final decision remains up to Oki, the one who subdued her.
  2005. >They suggested that, as a matter of tradition, she should take a Berserker name: "Cindersoul," for her fiery demeanor.
  2006. >You think that sounds badass... but Oki was only so-so on the prospect.
  2007. >Right now, she looks more like the ember the fire dies with than the cinder that sparks it.
  2008. >You try to keep your conversation going, lest you both fall asleep in the snow before making it back home.
  2009. >What a pathetic way that would be to go out after the last day you've had.
  2010. "I think she seemed sincere."
  2011. >"Sincerity of intention doesn't mean much if lives are on the line," she rebuts. "I can fight her if it comes down to it, sure. But if it does 'come down to it,' all that means is that we've already lost someone."
  2012. "Gira and White-Fir both think it seems in order, and they know more than we do about the history."
  2013. >"So they know how she *used* to be. Whereas we saw what kind of terror she can whip up firsthand."
  2014. "I..."
  2015. >You want to keep playing devil's advocate, but there's no further simplifying the issue now.
  2016. >It would be disrespectful to insist there is.
  2017. >Oki's giving it honest consideration, and that's all you or Wen asked of her.
  2018. "...cold sure isn't letting up."
  2019. >"Doesn't seem like it," Oki replies, pleased with the change in topic. "I'll put the good fuel in the stove before we hit the sack. Should keep us kickin'."
  2020.  
  2021. >The 'good fuel' was an understatement.
  2022. >This stuff warms your beds all the way through, even on a night this cold.
  2023. >Must be for special occasions only.
  2024. >You guess surviving what you did is special enough.
  2025. >Whenever you lie down this exhausted, you start laughing with pure relief; tonight is no exception.
  2026. >Looking over at Oki, you see she's already asleep.
  2027. >She laid down perhaps thirty seconds ago. That's all it took.
  2028. >This makes you laugh even harder.
  2029. >She grumbles.
  2030. >"Listen to you! Delirious..."
  2031. >Finally, when you manage to quiet down, she picks herself up, shuffles tiredly across the room, and sets down next to you.
  2032. >You were kind of hoping she would.
  2033. >She's so damn fluffy.
  2034. >She's like a big stuffed animal.
  2035. >You'd never say this to her for fear of getting hoofmarks in your ass, but hell if she isn't a fantastic sleep aid.
  2036. >You're astonished when she quickly and affectionately kisses you on top of your head.
  2037. >You stifle a smart-ass 'I do.'
  2038. >"Glad you're back," admits Oki. "I didn't expect I was really gonna make it. Not at all."
  2039. >Again, you have nothing to say.
  2040. >What is there to say?
  2041. >She expected to die on your behalf.
  2042. >You guess you knew that, but you did NOT expect her to acknowledge it out loud.
  2043. >"I owed you the effort, though. I have few enough friends. You're a really good one."
  2044. "I... yeah."
  2045. >That's all you can really manage.
  2046. >You give her a measured hug.
  2047. >She seems alright with it.
  2048. "I'm glad I got to come back. Spend some more time around here. Thank you."
  2049. >"Don't... YAWN... don't mention it..."
  2050. >She's out.
  2051. >A minute later, so are you.
  2052.  
  2053. >...
  2054.  
  2055. >You emerge drearily from sleep some time during the night.
  2056. >Oki's snoring.
  2057. >Your blanket weighs heavily on you for some reason.
  2058. >You rummage around, expecting to find it got twisted up or something.
  2059. >...oh.
  2060. >It's just Oki.
  2061. >She somehow climbed over top of you in her sleep.
  2062. >Must be that... that yak... climbing instinct.
  2063. >Is that a thing?
  2064. >Whatever. It sounds right.
  2065.  
  2066. >...you get a daring idea.
  2067.  
  2068. >You reach up and very gently scratch her ears.
  2069. >She pauses in her snoring for a moment.
  2070. >You stay absolutely still.
  2071. >Her ear twitches.
  2072. >Then she resumes snoring.
  2073. >How immensely rewarding.
  2074. >You pet her on her back and just delight in the comfort of a warm yak at hand.
  2075. >She unconsciously snuggles into you in response.
  2076. >This is the best thing ever.
  2077. >You mutter some stupid shit absentmindedly under your breath.
  2078. "You're so fluffy and warm. You're such a cozy yak. I wanna cuddle you until I fuckin' die."
  2079. >She shifts around a bit.
  2080. >"T-thanks..."
  2081. >...How long has she been awake?
  2082. >You look up at her in horror.
  2083. >It's all you can do.
  2084. >You're frozen in fear.
  2085. >From this angle, you can see her face just fine underneath her long, curly bangs.
  2086. >She actually avoids your gaze.
  2087. >Good god, she's cute.
  2088. >...and this is the most awkward experience you've ever had in your life.
  2089. >She mumbles something.
  2090. >You hazard talking.
  2091. "...huh?"
  2092. >"You... you can... it's fine... bit sore..."
  2093. >Seriously?
  2094. >You tentatively place a hand back on her head and scratch the back of her neck.
  2095. >She closes her eyes and lies her head down contentedly.
  2096. >She falls asleep again in short order.
  2097. >You pet her for a while.
  2098. >You do not believe this will be mentioned again in the morning.
  2099. >Or ever.
  2100. >You close your eyes again and hope the morning won't come too soon.
  2101.  
  2102. >...
  2103.  
  2104. >"Hey. You," says someone.
  2105. >You nod back off.
  2106. >"Yeah. You," he continues.
  2107. >You have a bad feeling.
  2108. >A feeling like a bum rattling his cup at the guy ahead of you on the sidewalk, then turning to fixate on you only just before you've walked far enough to plausibly deny noticing him.
  2109. >"She's dead asleep. But you I'm willing to prod a while."
  2110. >You force your eyes shut, willing whoever it is to go away.
  2111. >"You're awake, right?"
  2112. >You sigh, give up on your rest, and flop over to face the speaker over the slumbering lump of fur formerly known as Oki.
  2113.  
  2114. >...it's another damn dream conversation.
  2115. >The speaker is a massive yak.
  2116. >He lies down on all fours just for his head to rest at your level.
  2117. >You're perhaps the height of his nose.
  2118. >The rest of him towers to mountainous proportions even further back.
  2119. >You crane your neck to make eye contact.
  2120. "Hi."
  2121. >"Hello."
  2122. >He continues to watch you, waiting for you to resume speaking, to ask a question.
  2123. >You have none and intend to prepare none.
  2124. >He woke you up. He can keep the conversation moving or leave you to your rest.
  2125. >"...You," he continues, "are Anonymous. And I am the Patron. It's nice to meet you."
  2126. >"Likewise."
  2127. "..."
  2128. >"She can speak with me now, is what I'm here to say. A direct hotline, you could call it. I don't ordinarily intrude like this. Except for first timers."
  2129. "Yeah?"
  2130. >"Rare that I can't wake them, but she did only just learn... and she kept it up a while, didn't she? I'd have tried later, but you're close, and given your... arrangement... I felt you could pass on-"
  2131. "T-there's no arrangement!"
  2132. >"- as you say - I felt you could pass on the word to her."
  2133. "Is that all?"
  2134. >"Yes."
  2135. "Okay."
  2136.  
  2137. >You intend to flop right back over, and, probably, to forget this whole thing, but something nags at you.
  2138. "You're not like the other."
  2139. >"My sister," he says.
  2140. "You actually give straight answers."
  2141. >"I don't share her flair for the... cosmological."
  2142. "Are you literally brother and sister?"
  2143. >"No, but there are few enough like us that the metaphor is apt."
  2144. "What would you say you are?"
  2145. >"A yak."
  2146. "...a yak?"
  2147. >"A big yak."
  2148. "Do you have any advice?"
  2149. >"Advice?"
  2150. "Relevant to, like, the current situation."
  2151. >"You think I can read your mind?"
  2152. "Yes."
  2153. >"Well, we're having a conversation. Use words."
  2154. >Different from his sister indeed.
  2155. >Wen would know the next thing you're going to say, the thing after that, and your social security number by now.
  2156. "I think we'd be better off keeping Wen around. Oki isn't so sure, though, and it's her decision to make. We could use a fresh perspective."
  2157. >"Well, if you throw her out, that's all the solution you need."
  2158. "Is... is that so?"
  2159. >"Sure. You'll both be long dead by the time sis gets back on her feet and escalates things."
  2160. "Escalates?"
  2161. >"Yes. You see, meanwhile, yaks would keep building up their towns, developing better magic, stronger barricades. My way of doing things. And me and sis, we balance, you know."
  2162. "How bad would it get?"
  2163. >"We've had spats now and then in the past where I've had to set hoof in the wastes. Nothing cataclysmic. Just a flat mountain here or there. Occasional earthquake."
  2164. >Of course. Nothing cataclysmic.
  2165. "Would keeping her here lower the chances of that, perhaps?"
  2166. >"Sure. But it'll take work on your part."
  2167. "What work? We'd just let her live here."
  2168. >"And would anyone but you rest easy knowing that the monster they were raised on tales of turned nice all of a sudden?"
  2169. "I... don't know."
  2170. >"You've thought of it like you'll only have to keep an eye on her and raise a hand if she gets out of line. You haven't thought at all about your own instigating the trouble, have you?"
  2171.  
  2172. >It's obvious now that he points it out, but there had been so much else to think about today that you hadn't considered it.
  2173. >Getting Wen situated will mean more than simply putting her in the right place.
  2174. >What will you tell people? The truth?
  2175. >No, not immediately.
  2176. >There would be riots.
  2177. >But would even a good lie be comforting?
  2178. >Wen's a floating... spirit... thing.
  2179. >Your average yak knows what magic is, but living with it is different than simply understanding it.
  2180. >And a lie would someday fall apart anyhow.
  2181.  
  2182. "What would you suggest, when it comes down to it?"
  2183. >"I've no stake in how your lot chooses to balance things. I've given you all the information you need to decide. Didn't say the decision would be easy."
  2184. >He ponders this a moment.
  2185. >"No, not all the information."
  2186. "What, then?"
  2187. >"I've no stake and my sister has no stake," he elaborates. "'Wen' is as much my sister as... as any other part of my sister is. But she's isolated to your world. So you'd say she has a 'worldly' perspective."
  2188. "Meaning..."
  2189. >"Whatever she's told you about being some force of nature, as is her bent, the facts are she looks like a yak, talks like a yak, and thinks like a yak, at least in that form. Me, I'm down to earth. I say I'm a person. No reasonable basis to deny that if I think it's so, no matter what my origins. Wen would disagree, but, far as I'm concerned? She's a person. Same as you or me. 'Spose this isn't entirely new information; it's just my opinion. But maybe it's a way of looking at it you haven't considered. Here's the point: the Void will be just fine whether or not you throw Wen out. But Wen will be dealing with the consequences of your choice long after you will."
  2190. "You... you mean she'll suffer. For years."
  2191. >"Thousands, probably. Only if you throw her out. Won't trouble her anymore in the real long run, after she fades out, though."
  2192. "You mean when she dies?"
  2193. >"In another million or two, once the intersection gets weaker. Yeah."
  2194. >And he shrugs.
  2195.  
  2196. >It wasn't until that motion that the magnitude of this being's indifference, not just his stature, shook you.
  2197. >Until now you had taken his tone as kind, maybe casual.
  2198. >It hadn't occurred to you that it might only be massively indifferent.
  2199. >All he's done is answer your questions. No more, no less. No special favor. It's just what he does.
  2200. >Person or not, he's just a God with a function. Or a giant magic yak with a function, if there's any meaningful difference between the two.
  2201. >He lives or exists for that function, and he has not much reason to care for anything beyond it.
  2202. >If he were on the other side of the balance right now, he'd conjure up his own horrors the same way the Void conjured its.
  2203. >Maybe that's what he used to do.
  2204. >Maybe that's why the original nomadic yaks are so long gone that history hardly remembers them.
  2205. >The original, Lovecraftian sense of the term "Old God" comes back to you as it did when you first heard it.
  2206. >You've nothing more to ask of him... of it.
  2207. >You can't even look at him.
  2208. >You can hardly even speak to him again.
  2209. >The thought of uttering a single word brings bile to the back of your throat.
  2210. "I'm leaving now."
  2211. >"Be on your way. Wool-Gambeson, you can contact me any time now."
  2212.  
  2213. >What...?
  2214. >["Damn it, Skin. He used my dream to talk to you in."]
  2215. ["Oki?"]
  2216. >["Bitter that I wouldn't acknowledge him. So he drags you in and puts on that display."]
  2217. ["It..."]
  2218. >You can still hardly speak.
  2219. >["I noticed, too. I'm as sickened as you are."]
  2220. ["What do we..."]
  2221. >["I don't know. For snow's sake let's speak of it in the daylight. I can stand no more here."]
  2222. ["..."]
  2223. >["You're free to leave any time, by the way."]
  2224. ["Were you just dreaming about being right here? In bed? Same as in real life?"]
  2225. >["I... sure, yeah. Whatever."]
  2226. ["You are so cute."]
  2227.  
  2228. >Some great thump jolts you awake.
  2229. >Oki kicked you in the shin.
  2230. >It's still dark.
  2231. >She's rolled over onto her side, glowering at you, utterly unamused.
  2232. >"What are you looking at? Yes, it was real. Go to sleep. While it's still dark. No desire to talk about this... YAWN... now."
  2233. >Her eyes narrow.
  2234. >You each drift back off quickly.
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