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Skin and Oki

geodesic Mar 26th, 2018 (edited) 259 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. >In a rare reversal of your schedules, you wake up before Oki.
  647. >You decide to spend the hour in bed.
  648. >Fuck getting a head start on the day.
  649. >It's warmer here.
  650.  
  651. >You don't really see Oki asleep a lot.
  652. >She's pretty peaceful, considering how feisty she is every hour of her waking life.
  653. >She cuddled up close to you while she slept.
  654. >Her fur... wool... whatever, it's warm, clean, and fluffy.
  655. >You think she conditions, not that's she'd ever admit to it.
  656. >Basically, she is a large stuffed animal that's going to wake up in an hour and call you names.
  657. >...and you're okay with that.
  658. >For now, you savor your comfort, wrapping an arm around her, raising the blankets back up to your chin, and-
  659. >Oki's looking at you.
  660. >Must have just woken up.
  661. >You meet her gaze awkwardly.
  662. >She's clearly still half-asleep, but you don't know whether or not that means you should expect a kick to the shin.
  663. >She rolls her eyes at you, closes them, and resumes sleeping.
  664. >You feel a tinge of something for her.
  665. >As much as she... is like she is, you think she actually would not hesitate to put herself in harm's way for you.
  666. >You know that's in her job description, but knowing that and believing it are two different things.
  667. >'Trust' might be the right word.
  668. >So much for waking up before her: as you absentmindedly stroke her head, you feel yourself nodding off again.
  669.  
  670. ...
  671.  
  672. >"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-"
  673. "-THANK you, Oki."
  674. >"You've been fondling that quill for ten minutes. You always this slow writing letters?"
  675. "No. I... I just..."
  676. >You don't care to explain yourself.
  677. >She's right.
  678. >You're taking this long to write a letter to the only pony you believe you properly know.
  679. >You don't tend to misread social cues, but, then again, you're not a pony.
  680. >Could all her conversation with you have only been simple decency?
  681. >Maybe she doesn't even remember you among other library regulars.
  682. >Maybe she'd be downright disgusted if you reached out.
  683. >Something must be showing on your face, because Oki finally pipes down.
  684. >"You only have to say 'hello,' Skin. She'll probably like hearing from you..."
  685. "How can I know that?"
  686. >She sighs.
  687. >The silence is more than slightly awkward for a minute.
  688. >Finally, she breaks it.
  689. >"Okay, look. If I were this girl, I wouldn't mind at all getting an unexpected letter. You can say something like..."
  690.  
  691. Dear Ribbon,
  692.  
  693. 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.
  694.  
  695. 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.
  696.  
  697. 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.
  698.  
  699. I hope the library still has that nice old-book smell. Please make sure to keep it in order! (I know you will.)
  700.  
  701. Best wishes,
  702. Anon
  703.  
  704. >"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.
  705. "I appreciate it, but I think I could have managed."
  706. >"Nonsense. You'd be lost in life without me."
  707. "I made it here just fine before I met you."
  708. >"A miracle!"
  709. >She seems in a particularly good mood, so you'll say no more to deflate that.
  710. >You've decided to go work out.
  711. >Yak free-weights are made to loop over horns, but they fit in a hand nicely enough.
  712. >It's usually a good time.
  713. >You get to burn calories and Oki gets to show off.
  714. >She always demands your attention before hoisting up more than you could ever lift without dislocating something.
  715. >She's always pleased to receive praise for her talents, though sometimes you make her work for it.
  716. >You find this endearing as hell, though you'd never let her know.
  717. "I acknowledge you may have been of help."
  718. >"Hm," she grunts, satisfied.
  719. >That's when you round the corner and see the shaman and his wife.
  720. >You know it's bad news before you even hear it.
  721. >Oki hears what they have to say and regards it solemnly.
  722. >You only muster up the courage to ask further on.
  723. "What is it?"
  724. >"No signs of it outside the walls last night."
  725. "So it's gone?"
  726. >"That or it's inside."
  727. "You... you heard it last night."
  728. >"Fairly sure I did."
  729. >She stops, takes a breath, and keeps walking.
  730. >"Let's lift, Skin. Talk about this after."
  731. "Sure."
  732.  
  733. ...
  734.  
  735. >CRAK.
  736. >Oki's hits echo through the gymnasium like thunderclaps.
  737. >WHAP.
  738. >You take a rest between sets to watch her.
  739. >That sandbag is a hell of a thing not to turn to scraps.
  740. >Her approach is deft and unpredictable.
  741. >She steps in one direction then another, always closing in but never establishing a clear enough position for one to take a footing against.
  742. >Then she hits.
  743. >The hit is always earlier than you expect it to be. You've no doubt that's deliberate.
  744. >You wish you had a high-speed camera to watch it.
  745. >One moment she's closing in, a step too far to reach her target.
  746. >Or so it looks.
  747. >Then she... blurs... for an instant, as well as you can describe it.
  748. >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.
  749. >It accentuates her movement like a meteorite's fiery tail on landfall.
  750. >All this only in that instant.
  751. >A ripple propagates across the bag like a high-explosive shockwave.
  752. >It should be too fast to see, but it's too intense to miss.
  753. >And the sound... you wonder if hearing protection would actually be prudent.
  754. >Who knows. Maybe yaks don't get tinnitus.
  755. >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.
  756. >"Get an eyeful. This is impressive, even among yaks."
  757. >That's what you get from his expression, not that it's impossible you misread him.
  758. >You've never asked Oki directly about being a guard, or her training, or her experience.
  759. >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.
  760. >But you see none of that side of her right now.
  761. >As she strikes her target with nothing short of killing blows, she looks absolutely serene.
  762.  
  763. >You're winded after your workout.
  764. >Oki is nonplussed.
  765. >Her curls bounce as carelessly as usual as the two of you head downtown (to the extent Woolencliff has a downtown) for sandwiches.
  766. >That's where you can get imported stuff: Equestrian fruits and vegetables, cheese that isn't suspect, stuff like that.
  767. >You're partial to a pickled onion and cheese and onion on rye, yourself.
  768. >Oki likes to get a bunch of celery, carrots, tomatoes, hot sauce, and something fried and make faces at your plate, whatever you order.
  769. >As afternoon drags on toward evening, though, she's not as animated as normal.
  770. >Not that she's miserable or anything.
  771. >She's just not talking your ear off.
  772. >Which is new.
  773. >You crunch into an onion.
  774. "Something on your mind?"
  775. >"Eh?"
  776. "You're, uh..."
  777. >"I'm on duty."
  778. "Aren't you always? Technically?"
  779. >"Sure. Technically."
  780. >She has tea with her meal tonight, not ale.
  781. >"I'm keeping an eye out now, though. Just in case."
  782. "Right."
  783. >A question nearly escapes you, but it's impolite, you think.
  784. >You barely catch it.
  785. >"Yeah, Skin?"
  786. >Nothing gets past her.
  787. "It's just... could you really do anything?"
  788. >"Whatever it is, it has a body. Means it can be hit. Maybe hurt."
  789. "Think so?"
  790. >"If any yak can, it would be me. Maybe a few others. But you ain't their responsibility."
  791. >You finish your onion.
  792. "Guess it would be."
  793. >You finish your meals and start home before the sun sets.
  794.  
  795. >Yaks were still lined up in pairs outside the shaman's place on your way back.
  796. >You guess you're lucky you got your blessings early.
  797. >"Everyone's staying in twos. Good," Oki had observed, though she hadn't exactly sounded hopeful at the prospect.
  798.  
  799. >"Dude," says your brother.
  800.  
  801. "Again?"
  802.  
  803. >"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."
  804. "It's the middle of the night. You woke me up. I'm not freezing my ass off."
  805. >"It'll only take a second. Please. I've been calling people all night. Just let me in."
  806. >You sigh, resting your phone hand on your knee.
  807. >The display lights up from the motion, casting your room in a blue glow.
  808. >Your brother's protests continue to stream through the earpiece.
  809. >You're so goddamn tired.
  810. >"...guess I'll try someone else..." you hear, then a click.
  811. >You nod back off.
  812.  
  813. >"Anon!"
  814. >It's Ribbon Bookmark.
  815. >At your door.
  816. >That's a hell of a quick response.
  817. >"Hi!"
  818. "Ribbon? How did you... wow, it's good to see you. Did you get-"
  819. >"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..."
  820. "Cold out there, huh?"
  821. >"Sure is."
  822.  
  823. >"Anon," says Oki.
  824.  
  825. >You turn to her.
  826. >She's standing in the hallway to the bedroom.
  827. >"Close. The door. Walk. To me," she says, slowly, clearly, and deliberately.
  828. "Oki, Ribbon actually came-!"
  829. >"Anon, listen."
  830. >She holds steady eye contact and repeats her order.
  831. "Close. The. Door."
  832. "But Ribbon-"
  833. >"That's not Ribbon."
  834. >Something clicks.
  835. >You're not asleep.
  836. >This isn't a dream... and you don't remember how you got to the door.
  837. >Something drops inside you like a penny in a wishing well.
  838. >Your bowels turn to ice.
  839. >"Anon," she pleads.
  840.  
  841. >Some thing is behind you.
  842.  
  843. >"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."
  844. >"It's lying, Anon. Don't listen," warns Oki.
  845. >"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!"
  846. >"Think! I didn't tell it my name. It can't know."
  847. >"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!"
  848. >"That's horseshit. You know what you wrote."
  849. >"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..."
  850. >"An--Skin, even you aren't THAT stupid."
  851. >"How's the temperature inside? Maybe we can cuddle..."
  852. >"CLOSE. THE. DOOR."
  853. >"Let. Me. In."
  854.  
  855. >You turn to Ribbon.
  856.  
  857. >Something's... off... with her.
  858. >You see it in her eyes first.
  859. >Her smile doesn't reach them.
  860. >At best, she's smiling the way one would for a picture.
  861. >At worst, her eyes betray something she's trying to hide with the smile.
  862. >She looks hungry.
  863. >Hungry the way a man looks offering a little girl candy on an empty street.
  864. >"It's easier if you let me in. But an open door will do."
  865. >You see a glint of red in her pupils before she disappears.
  866. >In her place, something crouches.
  867. >You almost get the door shut as it stands to its full height, half again as tall as the frame.
  868. >Clawed fingers wrap around it, igniting with blue flame as they invade the space of the home.
  869. >The door bounces uselessly off them.
  870. >"Fine. Make me work for my meal."
  871. >You back away from the door.
  872. >You're not operating on reason any more.
  873. >You just want space between you and that... thing.
  874. >As much as possible.
  875. >As it opens the door and comes in, the rest of it ignites.
  876. >"Ooh. Ow. Hot," it says, unperturbed.
  877. >The flames dim and sputter out.
  878. >Oki charges.
  879.  
  880. >Her first hit connects with its knee.
  881. >The point of contact explodes with a sound between a bone breaking, a branch splintering off a tree, and a gunshot.
  882. >Fragments of the creature fly away but slow rapidly, as if caught in a viscous fluid.
  883. >It stoops with the impact, but the pieces eventually halt in their trajectory and start a slow return.
  884. >It'll just come back together again, you realize, dully.
  885. >"Skin," exclaims Oki, rearing up for another go. "Run. The shaman's."
  886. "Yeah."
  887. >You say that, but your legs won't move.
  888. >The Wendigo reaches for you.
  889. >Oki strikes it at the elbow.
  890. >Its arm explodes at the joint.
  891. >Its hand floats lazily away, but already it seems to slow in the air.
  892. >"That hurts, you know," it explains.
  893. >"I'll kill you," says Oki.
  894.  
  895. >It looks at you, raising the nub of its arm for the rest to rejoin it as Oki rears up again.
  896. >You get a good look at it for the first time.
  897. >It looks like something neither alive nor dead.
  898. >Bare, rotten bone protrude from its spine, shoulders, and joints.
  899. >Where there's no bone, it looks held together by only barely enough flesh, sinew, and, here and there, something plantlike.
  900. >Its skull, entirely bare of flesh but for one, sunken eye, is that of a yak's.
  901. >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.'
  902. >The thought turns from absurd humor to horror as you realize its body looks almost human.
  903. >"You can leave her out of this," it says.
  904. >Oki knocks its weak leg out from under it, sending its shin spinning across the floor.
  905. >Even as she does so it reattaches its arm and drags itself one pace closer to you, then another, its reach disproportionately far.
  906. "I'm not here for her, but if you don't make her stop, I will."
  907. >You almost tell her to stop.
  908. >"YOU WON'T TAKE SKIN," roars Oki, spittle flying from her mouth, blood trickling down from her forehead. "HE'S MY FRIEND."
  909. >She charges, this time for the hollow of its chest.
  910. >It raises a hand and appears to beckon.
  911. >Her eyes roll back in her head and shut.
  912. >She falls to her side and lies still.
  913.  
  914. >The world darkens.
  915. >You dream of being dragged in something's wake.
  916.  
  917. ---[OKI]---
  918.  
  919. >"...Make sure to eat, Oki."
  920. "...yes'm."
  921. >You went to Gira after waking up.
  922. >You're privately thankful that her husband, the shaman, is the heavier sleeper of the couple.
  923. >You don't care to fill him in until later.
  924. >It won't make a difference.
  925. >You were already out too long.
  926. >You still wanted to go off into the wastes alone, but you know better.
  927.  
  928. >You take a breath.
  929. >Hold it.
  930. >Grit your teeth.
  931. >Let it out.
  932. >You're not really the crying type.
  933. >You've got nothing against it in principle.
  934. >You just prefer to take initiative and prevent situations that would cause it.
  935. >You hiccup with the last of your breath.
  936. >Damn it.
  937.  
  938. >Gira pats you on the back.
  939. >"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."
  940. >You mutter some response.
  941. >Gira smiles.
  942. >She's a good yak.
  943. >Kind of a mother figure, you guess.
  944. >Not that mom ever did anything to get on your bad side.
  945. >But she's your mom.
  946. >Moms do not share the same concept of personal space that ordinary yaks do.
  947. >Gira does.
  948. >So maybe she's not a mother figure.
  949. >More of an... aunt figure.
  950.  
  951. >"Really. Eat those oats. I took the trouble of cookin' em up for you at this hour. Do a lady a favor."
  952. >You indulge her.
  953. >They're good, you must admit.
  954. >She even mixed in brown sugar for you, the way you liked them as a little yak.
  955. >You're unsuccessful in stifling another hiccup.
  956. >"Stop that noise. Can't stitch up your noggin with this squirming."
  957. >That encourages you to quit it.
  958. >You fuckin' adore Gira.
  959.  
  960. >"Time for some rest," she suggests.
  961. "No! I need... need to find..."
  962. >You're trying to stand, but you sway back and forth.
  963. >"I'm going to the guard and having search parties sent, Oki."
  964. "I-I can still-"
  965. >"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."
  966. >Her worries aren't unfounded; your head is swimming.
  967. >You mumble something affirmative.
  968. >"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."
  969. >That'll have to do.
  970. >She makes her way out.
  971. >The light goes out.
  972. >The door to the guest room shuts.
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