introductory chapter of demons of their heart. long lost friends reunite under devastating circumstances. both have changed so much over the years, and so too have their feelings for the other.
Among the flames and the first rains of ash, among screams and their subsequent silence, all Reinagaurd could think of was the growing hunger in her stomach.
The fire and the cries of devastating bedlam were far from her now, but in the silence and darkness of the night, they echoed and shook within the rolling land–they pierced the cloth of black sleep. The bark of the tree she clung to made Reinagaurd’s pale fingers bleed, red dripping off her skin like raindrops inching down white glass. She shook in fear yet could not actualize it.
Behind her, leaves crunched. She turned her head, whispering, “Hello? Hello?” The night was good for concealing figures of dubious intention. In the forest void of light, illuminated only by the growing flames swallowing the city, there was a lighter patch of darkness that she could scantily make out: a cloaked figure, an outline of a body, a large gleaming weapon.
Reinagaurd’s eyes widened. She dug her fingers deeper into the wood. “Oh, p-please–”
Suddenly, she slammed her eyelids closed as a bright blue beam of light flashed behind the cloaked figure. A harsh scream overtook the forest, and her stomach howled back. When she opened her eyes once more, the stranger behind her had turned their back to face the glowing eyes of a being– a beast of blinding white eyes and ragged blue fur and fangs that could tear through a human in a matter of seconds. The thing was too close for the stranger to pull out their weapon; when they tried, fumbling, they were knocked to the ground with a single lethal blow of a clawed paw. Without hesitation, Reinagaurd released herself from the safety of the tree, rummaged her hands through the ground for the first thing she could find, and threw it at the beast. The stone hit its eye, not enough force to stop it, but enough for it to growl and give Reinagaurd time to pull the stranger by their shoulders to their feet.
“Come now,” she ushered breathlessly, already too weak to speak. “Run!”
The stranger obliged for a second, the pairs’ arms enjoined, before pushing her away. In several smooth motions–the removal from their belt and the quick, successive cocking–the stranger shot the beast three times in the head–first the smoke of yellow left in the air, then orange, finished by a bloody and brilliant red. The bullets paralyzed the beast, and the smokes entrapped it in an ascending, spiraling black sphere that Reinagaurd could not fathom, draining it of its brilliance, its ferocity, its existence. In a matter of moments, the beast was gone, and the only things remaining in the forest were herself, the stranger, and the now fading colors of the smoke.
The stranger sighed in ecstatic relief. They spun around to face Reinagaurd, whose heart was thumping madly, her every thought enwrapped in awe. “Oh, oh…” was all she could manage, her hands pressed into the deep hollows of her chest.
The stranger cackled, rifle in right hand, left hand ripping their hood off their head. “Love taking those fuckers out!”
Dark skin, hair cropped and silver, eyes large and light brown, the muscles and deep curves of their body accentuated by a short, white dress that tied about their neck, sapphire and gold bodice cinched about the soft waist and upraised the ample chest–the stranger was a gorgeous woman shorter than her, but with all the passionate intensity in her face and stance to make Reinagaurd feel as though she was being towered over by some fantastical presence. She was rendered uselessly speechless. She could barely swallow.
“Thank God I found you, Reinagaurd,” the stranger said in a quieter, more sincere voice.
She gasped, snapping out of her stupor and brushing a lifeless hair behind her ear. “I… I’m sorry! We must have met before, but I don’t remember you.” Reinagaurd knew she was lying, as she knew she would have remembered someone like this upon meeting them. Still, she had to be sure, as there was no reason this person would be seeking her out…
“Oh, we definitely have,” she laughed before turning their attention to the spreading flames. “If you want to talk, we should probably stay alive.” She turned away from her and began walking deeper into the forest.
It took Reinagaurd a few seconds to realize she should probably follow her. “Oh!”
The stranger-who-was-not led them down a narrow pathway, with every step guiding them deeper into darkness. Reinagaurd stuck out her hands to try to feel around for any obstacles, even though she still ended slamming her face into a tall tree stump. She groaned from the pain and staggered up. The not-stranger heard her cry of pain and cursed loudly.
“Sorry, Reina! I completely forgot–” she said as she fired five long shots into the distance. Clouds of long smoke, all differing shades of green, lit up and wound themselves like pretty ghosts about the trees. “–most people can’t see in the dark.”
Reina… Reinagaurd thought as she trudged along.
No one has called me that since I was a child…
She peered at the back of her head. There was some semblance of familiarity to this woman but… only fragments of the face remained in her memory.
It was as if this not-stranger could read her thoughts. “You haven’t heard that in a while have you? I keep forgetting that it’s been so many years, that the world has undergone so many changes.” Sticks and leaves crunched beneath the pairs’ feet. The cool wind blew through their clothes, but left the iridescent, winding smoke trails alone in their place. “That I’ve undergone so many changes.”
She turned to Reinagaurd, which made her come to a stop. “If you believe in what I say, and understand that I act with only my best intentions, that I want nothing but your safety, please stay beside me. If you don’t, I will continue alone.”
A hand was outstretched to Reinagaurd, one in which seemed to stretch for infinity and somehow ended at her. There was a look of true human kindness in the woman’s eyes, and that genuine feeling could not be regarded by Reinagaurd as some small thing–not to her. With her face warming, she rested her fingertips on her palm before pulling the two of them together, nodding with all the confidence she could muster. “I am with you, stranger.”
“I am Laileah, woman of the woodlands,” she said with a smile. “And… I hope you still like mud.” The green smoke was starting to dim, so she fired her rifle only once, and a powerful beam of pink light rocketed out. Before them was several hundred feet of thick, dirty waters, and beyond that, a tree of golden bark with a doorway and windows.
Still hand in hand, Reinagaurd plunged her left boot into it, the mud swallowing up her thighs as she sank. “Ahh!” she yelped, eliciting a laugh from Laileah.
The mud came up to the hips of the taller woman and nearly to the waist of the shorter. If Reinagaurd was one to curse, she would have done it now. With both of their hands now free, they slowly waded their way through it, the soft squelches and slurps of the moist dirt louder than their sighs. By the time they reached the grass again, Reinagaurd’s arms were throbbing in so much pain that Laileah had to pull her up.
“Thank you,” she laughed breathlessly, putting all her weight onto Laileah’s shoulders. “Is that–is that place…” She was too weak, too out of her right mind, to ask if it belonged to Laileah.
“Yes, that’s my home. Almost there.” A turn of a doorknob, the flicker of a switch, the joyous laugh of Laileah.
Reinagaurd collapsed to the hard ground, not a single ounce of strength remaining to carry her through the night.
Morning never came for Reinagaurd as she slept through it without remorse. In the few moments she realized she was alive, she could hear the shuffle of footsteps trying their hardest to be quiet, and she could feel the softness of a blanket beneath her fingers and on top of her, and she could smell the burning wood just some feet before her, and she could see the delicate flame that danced atop it. Flames of violence, flames of peace, crackles of homes falling to the ground, the comfortable crackle of a fireplace …
She would shut her eyes before any other sensation arose.
It was early evening of the next day when she finally woke, and even then she stayed still beneath the blanket, head atop a cushion and sore body on a soft mat, too tired to move, too tired to wonder if Laileah was about. She stayed that way for hours, staring at the flames, scarcely blinking her half-lidded eyes, until they slowly twirled themselves to death–vanished.
I wonder what I would have done if she had not come.
She glanced at the room.
Messy bookshelves touched the low ceiling. Half-drawn paintings of the forest were hung with hast along the tree’s walls. Small animals and bugs crawled and pranced about the earthen floor, snatching acorns and smaller living things than themselves as they went about. Reinagaurd laughed when a red avian perched atop her blanketed leg, looking at her inquisitively with its omnipotent and commanding stare.
“What is it, little one?” she said to it. “Do I offend you?”
It turned its head so its other eye faced her. It pecked her knee, then it flew out the window into the now darkening evening. In the same moment, the door opened slowly, and in came Laileah with those same little footsteps. She held a wicker basket and had a cloth full of items tied around her strong shoulders.
“Reina? Reinagaurd?” she whispered as she shut the door. “Sleeping still? Are you hungry?”
Reinagaurd finally had enough strength to sit up. She turned to face Laileah and replied with a soft, “If it’s no trouble to you.”
“Don’t be silly–it’s vital for women to eat!” she said with a wink and funny wag of her finger. “When did you get so silly? ‘If it’s no trouble.’ Ha!”
Reinagaurd moved to her feet, stumbling a bit. “I’ve… That’s the way I’ve always been.” She followed Laileah to a room with a long table covered in pellets and chipped, black kettles and rotting squashes and red-topped mushrooms. There was only one chair, so she grabbed hold of the back of it. “How… do we know each other?”
Laileah placed her rifle on a counter and began to untie the cloth from herself. “When we played as children, I was the youngest child in my family and your closest neighbor. We kind of spent a lot of time together. Do you remember the Meilin boys?”
Her eyes lit up. “Yes, yes! Oh, I haven’t thought of them in years! I loved them! And you do look so similar to them! But… boys… are you–well surely you can’t be the youngest son, Rhaugha?”
Reinagaurd could only see her back, but the other woman grinned at the floor. “Surely I am.”
“Oh,” she gasped, “Why did you conceal your identity as a child?”
This time Reinagaurd could see that grin of hers as she spun slowly around. Her hands were gripping the counter behind her. “I never hid anything. When we were children, I was a Meilin boy. And after the destruction of Zeben, and an answered prayer granted by a Warrior, I am now woman of the woodlands. Sometimes I’m the ‘woman of any empty cave she comes across,’ or ‘woman of the closest gutter’ or ‘woman of whoever’s home that would let her in for the night after she begged for a fucking hour.’”
She shrugged with eyes closed and a wide smile. “No big fuss.”
“A Warrior?” Reinagaurd gasped. “But they hardly exist! I-I thought they had gone extinct! Not to say they are like animals, but… oh my! This is too fantastical!” Reinagaurd was overwhelmed with so much confusion and excitement that she forgot all about the blades of hunger in her stomach. “Oh, Laileah! What a beautiful name, and a beautiful face, and a beautiful body–did you seek out a person of such rare rank and ability just to be the envy of the universe?”
“Hardly that. Really it’s much less superficial.” She dug the toe of her boot into the floor and graced Reinagaurd’s enthusiastic self with a sidelong glance, her silhouette obscured and elevated beneath the fallen streams of moonlight.
“The morning Zeben was destroyed, when it was only me watching in that forest, I knew I had to maximize the potential of this existence. If I truly were to die, then I had to live as close to truth as I could, even if is fleeting. I was fixated on maximizing this–the series of this’s that make up a lifetime… which meant holding my happiness above all else. Even at the cost of my life to reach it. I only asked for the Warrior to give me the form that suited me most properly, the one most fit for my soul, heart, and mind–it’s a bit ridiculous to say out loud, but you have to be specific when dealing with Warriors and their strange ways. He saw into my soul, fished out my deepest desire, and, well, here I am. If I’m going to live in a world of destruction and unwavering darkness, then I will die exactly as I am meant to be.”
Reinagaurd stayed silent, lips parted and attention completely captivated by Laileah’s words. Her eyes pleaded the other to say more.
“Hmm… I guess… It was the quiet strength in the women and girls that I loved so fondly. Even… even when they would scream with pride as they climbed to the tallest branch… or killed an avian dead with the single throw of a rock, there was a silent courage and pride in their every move. You… they didn’t have to brag and talk so highly of themselves before failing to achieve it, like my brothers and their friends had. It was one of those unspoken things, you understand that. An unspoken affinity, and that was how I felt even then, when we were children. All the girls were so different from one another, but all of them were so ruthless, painfully so, that it was honest and right to me. All of you were so inspiring. I wanted to be just like them… just like you, Reina.”
Still no reply. Laileah’s grip on the counter tightened.
“I-I didn’t ask the Warrior to turn me into this. Not this exactly. But what I was given wasn’t wrong. This was how I was meant to perceive and be perceived by the world. So please… don’t hate me for it. Don’t hate me for not being the same way you remember me. You were the one that told me to take advantage of having a voice and speak the hell up for what I really wanted.”
Reinagaurd’s entire body felt hot, entranced by the words spoken to her, and her face broke into a smile.
“Oh, Laileah,” she whispered through a gentle breath, “you have far more now of whatever you saw in me then.”
The other woman frowned, and she released her arms to her side. “How do you mean?”
“Pride, courage… I haven’t had any of that since those days. I’ve made friends with cowardice, and that is something I feel I will never shake. I don’t even remember saying that to you, and I can’t believe I would ever say something like that. I couldn’t have inspired someone so wondrous as you.”
Laileah laughed. “Ah! You really have gone silly! Do you not remember yesterday night?
“You did all the fine shooting,” she replied with a quiet voice and little smile, the call of night hushing her.
She walked up to Reinagaurd and rested her hands lightly on the arms of the chair so their hands touched. “Reinagaurd, you saved what you believed was a stranger from a beast hardly any human survives to remember. You were far enough away from the thing, you could have ran, left me for it to feast upon. But instead you fought without hesitation, and you saved me–lifted me to my stupid feet and really saved me. Don’t you see how beautiful that is?”
“Well… I think many would have done the same.”
Laileah shook her head, the soft waves of ivory flowing down from the sky and dancing across her silver hair. “I’ve lived through countless tragedies and massacres–ones just as horrible as what you saw last night. Ones almost as bad as Zeben. Many people I thought I could trust forever left me the moment things went wrong. Or the moment I was no longer valuable to them because I didn’t give them what they wanted. Or as soon as they saw flame. And they left me so fast, too, faster than I thought they could. I don’t blame them for leaving me behind, how could I? But I can’t forgive them for making empty promises, making me feel so small and stupid. So when you… you came to me without the ability to even make a promise–another one of those unspoken things, I guess. You know we’re exceptional members of our species, and you can’t let the… shadows of time…shadows of–um…”
Laileah made a confused face, as if the words she had just said were complete nonsense, and it made Reinagaurd, and soon both of them, snicker like immature children.
“Eh, words!” Laileah snorted. “I’m losing my eloquence. Give me a second, I haven’t talked this much in months. But you know what I’m saying! You know you’re wonderful.” She began to step away, waving her hand at the taller woman. “Let’s eat something before I pass away on this table.” She began to unpack the foodstuffs from the cloth.
Reinagaurd sat before her wobbly legs gave out. “I really do love how you are. And I’m glad I can be a part of your life again.” She beamed at her earnestly, her face warm and reddening, as it had been for the past several minutes. Her tongue felt numb and light as she spoke. “I promise you everything I can. I give you all the courage I can find in myself, even if it’s not enough. I hope I’m worth protecting.”
“You don’t have to promise me anything other than being by my side. In these times, we need people to resist this destruction in any way they can. If you can muster enough courage to do that, then you’ve already done more than a person could ever ask of another. Oh, I’ve missed you too much. Can I please hug you now?”
A cool wind came in through the window, and a yawn bloomed out from her chest. “Of course, but I might fall asleep again if you don’t hurry.”