Rain fell onto the moss-covered rooftops, pouring down like miniature waterfalls onto the ground, forming small streams on the dirt road through several tussocks of grass. Just above, trees waved their lush branches between ruined houses, their leaves rustled and sang as winds and rain blew through them while roots and vines covered and stilled the crumbling skeletons of what used to be houses of steel and cements. A shrew ran from one ruined wall to another between the bushes of the undergrowth, trying to avoid the pouring rain. A fallen banyan tree provided the small rodent with a temporary shelter, enough for it to dry it fur at least. Secured underneath its rotting wooden sanctuary, the shrew shook its body, splashing tiny droplets of water around, trying to dry itself, oblivious of the danger as the wall supporting the rotting giant started to crack.
A bolt of lightning lit the sky ablaze with a thunderous roar, making the shrew raised its head, surveying its surrounding. The cracking sounds were loud and close, signaling that the wall could hold no longer, but as the shrew put its front legs down to run. But it was too late. The concrete wall collapsed, crushed by the weight of the dead tree, the thing that the rodent thought would aid it. The unfortunate creature screeched, terrified of what has just happened, the banyan tree’s rotting, hollowed trunk has trapped it underneath it, its left leg caught under a large chunk of masonry, causing the distressed animal to cried out in agony as it tried to claw its way out of stones and wood. Before long, the shrew was exhausted, as it was trying to catch its breaths, its eyes looked around frantically in the dark as it felt the rising rainwater threatening to drown it in the crater created by the collapsing wall.
Suddenly the footsteps of something large stilled the shrew, accompanied by a faint smell of rotting leaves and fungi. The sound and smell approached, closer and closer, until the footsteps stopped, directly in front of the fallen tree where the shrew is trapped underneath. The rodent tried laying motionless, save for the frantic movements of its ribs and its eyes looking around, trying to search for any way to escape. Then, all of the sudden, the rotting trunk shook and splintered, ripped apart by powerful claws, making the insects that have made their home inside its corpse fell out or scattered into the air. The shrew looked on, as if bedazzled by its rescuer’s peculiar appearance, unaware of its trapped limb.
What stood in front of the rodent now could only be described as a walking bush, branches, feathers and other materials all weaved and bound together with vines, making it looked like the shaggy coat of a weasel in the midst of winter. Underneath all of that, the shrew could make out patches of leathery brown skins stitched together in a hideous parody of a hide, puncturing holes and cuts littered what it thought was the creature’s chest. Small, lichens covered branches and vines hung loosely from its shrouded head, mimicking the mane of a very old bison, as it moved, so too did the vines and branches, swaying with every motion the creature made. After a while, as if assessing the situation, “the Bush” reached out to the shrew with its long, grey arm, covered with strange patterns resembling vines with sharp turns from its forearm presumably up to its shoulder. Long, clawed fingers touched the chunk of cement, pushing it away with effortless ease while another hand caught the rodent in its gentle grab.
The shrew struggled with its remaining three good limbs as “the Bush” brought it nearer to its face. The strange creature tilted its head slightly, seemingly amused by the struggling rodent as another flash of lightning lit the sky, illuminating the human-like face underneath, its amber eyes glowed for a second before fading into the darkness of its cloak. The rodent’s breathing slowed, its small nose sniffed the air, reaching nearer to the creature’s face, it could see under the shadow were a maw lined with daggers like teeth, slowing opening with trails of drools falling down from the slits. The poor animal didn’t even have the chance to react as “the Bush” opened its maw and tossed the rodent in, sinking its teeth down to the squeaking animal before tilting its head back to swallow its whole.
Wiping bits of blood and flesh from its lips, the strange creature turned around and walked back into the deep forest, loosely hung branches from its cloak plowed through three-fingered footprints and the trail left behind by its long tail. Continuing its lonely patrol, the creature’s shape slowly faded into the shadow of the canopies, soon only faint footsteps can be heard traveling further and further until that too melded into the sounds of rains.
The undergrowth was disturbed as the young boy ran for his life through the ruins, intertwining branches and his leather cloak were the only things that have been keeping him from being wet. Well, at least not soaking anyway. Clutching at the small, leather-bound journal into his chest with his pale, skinny arms, he stopped at a crossroad, unsure of which way to go as his pursuers were fast on his trail. Stomping frantically on the same spot as he looked around, his mind was tied to a knot with messy memories of the way back to his village. This time he has gone too far inland, too far from the trails and even from the familiar hunting grounds where he’s forbidden to go to. The spine-chilling howl echoed from behind the boy, followed by a barrage of clicks and growls, along with hasty footsteps pounding onto the soaked forest floor.
– They’re coming! They’re coming! – He hissed under his breath. – What to do? What to do? Think Haru. Think!
A large patch of purple moss caught his sparkling eyes of the same color, the elders have specifically forbidden people coming near those kinds of mosses, not only for their foul smell but also because of the illness they may cause. But what choice does Haru have? Either suffer through a minor fever or torn apart by vicious beasts, it’s rather obvious at this point. Closing his eyes tightly, the boy rushed toward the patch of moss growing from the tangling roots of large banyan trees. The trees hung above the rivers, mossed covered, wooden serpents dug deep into the cracked concretes, overlapping and entangling each other over the ruins riverbank, leaving behind large hollows perfect for hiding in. But the rain has filled the river, and the lowers hovels have been submerged under the murky water, leaving only small entrances into the network of cracks and root tunnels.
Left with no choice, Haru rushed toward an iron bridge across a river. The heavy rains caused the water level to rise, threatening to overflow at any moment. Choosing an entrance that’s just big enough for him, Haru snuck his way deep into the darkness peppered with faint rays of light. The boy crawled through roots, avoiding chunks of broken cement, heart pounding loudly when the footsteps and hissing from before stopped at the river. Three shadows appeared just above him, from the middle of the gaps, he could see the soaking wet black fur with a long, reptilian tail wagged slowly from side to side as the creature sniffed the air. A three-fingered hand curved into a tree root in front of Haru, making him held his breath as the long, slender muzzle of the animal pressed against the moss and began to sniff. It has the body frame of a dog, yet its features were unlike any dog the boy has ever seen. Slender yet muscular long limps pressed firmly onto the roots, making the smell of moss even more unbearable. Each of its feet was three, bird-like fingers, long and scaly, tipped with curved, sharp talons that would rip apart any kind of protection. Their heads were devoid of fur, white and smooth except for two black patches of skin around the eyes that gave them their skull-like appearance which gave them their name, the skull hounds. Two long ears resemble those of rabbits’ perched upward, catching every little sound of their would-be prey that they knew were hiding somewhere.
Closing his violet eyes, Haru listened to his heart pounding, so loudly that he almost thought that it was readied to jump out of his chest. He began to recite the prayers in his head, secretly hoping the water and the smells of the moss have disguised his owns. The stench was putrid, bitter like a tar pit, searing his eyes and nose, making them watery, but Haru kept silent, staying motionless, hoping against hope that those creatures would go away soon.
After a few more heartbeats, as if couldn’t bear the smell of moss any longer, the beast gagged and turned away, tail whipping to signal the other two to follow, back into the forest. Inside his hiding place, Haru froze, eyes still glued to where the beast has poked its snout through. With his heart still thumping loudly, the boy peeked out from a hole, trying to survey his surrounding, making sure that the beasts have gone. One minute, two minutes, nothing, aside from the overflowing river, the rustling of leaves and his breathing, there was no sound but he has to make sure. A good half an hour passed before Haru decided to get out of the tunnel, the front pages of his journal now soaking wet despite his best attempt to keep it from hitting the water. There was nothing he could do, the boy told himself as he looked at the tunnel, now beginning to flood with the overflowing of the river. Letting out a sigh, half of relief and half of regret, Haru looked up, searching for the sun to navigate his way back. Although the rain has not stopped, it wasn’t as much as a downpour as before anymore, a weak ray of sunlight pierced through the dark clouds just a few minutes before being obscured.
– Oh, it’s midday already. – Haru shrugged in defeat, he has planned to use the sun to navigate, but now he was left with no choice. – Guess I have no choice but to use “it”.
He reached into his coat’s pocket and took out a well-wrapped leather pouch, inside the pouch was black, ground box the size of his paw. With his slender fingers, the boy gently opened the lid of the box and miraculously, it stood still without a stick or anything holding it from collapsing. Inside the box is a layer of transparent stone with two straight lines superimposed on each other horizontally, each ends of the line marked with a precise drawing, the top of which were two parallel sticks connected by another sharply angled one, the head of a trident lied on the right, a curved snake guarded the left and the bottom was a pair of dog canines. Slightly moving under the glass was an arrow, while in the village, it always points to the drawing of three sticks and he just needs to follow.
Taking a lung full of dampened air mixed with the smell of moss, Haru closed his eyes to offer some prayers to the ancestors, asking them to bless him before walking in the direction of the arrow. As it moved, joy and hope overtook the small body, almost making him jump and yelp out of excitement, but he knew better than to make loud sounds here. Taking back whatever amount of courage he’s gathered, the boy began to walk in the direction of the arrow, into the forest, not noticing the six pairs of eyes watching him from far away from their concealed ambush.
Pushing away some vines with slender wrists, the teen stepped through the forest floor, his grass sandals soaked with water, rubbing at his feet and made them itch. Ignoring the annoying sensations, Haru continued walking deeper and deeper into the forest, somewhat sheltered from the rain by the high foliage. Centuries of continuous rains punctured by harsh winters have transformed these ruins, the “cities” of the Old Ones, into a graveyard filled with new life, making it hard for one not to move without touching a leave of a vine from low hanging branches. The thickness of the forest makes him feel cramped, as if the air itself was cramped, suffocating, muffling everything under the canopies. Thousands of sounds poured into his ears like invisible rivers, even the sounds of his own footsteps could not be heard anymore. So stagnated was the air that everything seemed melded into one, messy mass of sounds and smells that threatens to devour anything and everything that dared to enter the forest’s dark bowel.
Haru sighed, all he wanted was to draw the ruins of an ancient world and submerge himself the fantasy realm that his mind has made up, and in that daydream, he has gone too far. Now he’s trapped in the campiness, the similarity of each tree and the sounds of beasts and he has no way to get help. His wide, violet eyes glanced around as he picked up the pace in a vain attempt, he wanted to see the sky, not the leaf-covered arms of the forest that shrouded all that were above. The warm, moist atmosphere of undergrowth littered with puddles choked his lungs and drown his minds with horrible visions of his own death. After running non-stop for what seemed like half an eternity between wet trunks and vines, Haru collapsed against the side of an old tree, catching his breaths while cursing himself for his foolishness.
He suddenly felt the hair on his neck stood up, the low growling and slow footsteps on the puddles were coming from behind. Haru immediately fell back, dodging a snap of one of the animals earlier, its bald, lizard-like jaws snapping only inches for his ear. The predator staggered from its missed attack, three-fingered hands clung to the ground as it shook its black fur covered body, throwing water of its fur and hissed, signaling the other two to engage.
One of the other two growled, letting out a barrage of clicking sounds, it crouched down and prepared to pounce. The beast recoiled, powerful muscles writhed under wet fur as it prepared before springing at Haru. The boy closed his eyes shut, preparing for the sensation of claws hooking into his flesh. The powerful screeched was cut short, transformed into a surprised and painful yelp as if caught by another animal. Silence befell the scene, not a sound was made except the echoing flaps of panicked birds from the distance and the dropping of water from the high canopies onto the soaked forest floor.
What has happened? Haru asked himself as he waited for something to touch his skin, but it never came, the air around him was still, serene, devoid of all motions, as if time itself has stopped for all but himself. After what seemed like a solid ten minutes, the boy decided to take a risk and opened his eyes. The first thing he saw that the gaping maw of his pursuer, filled to the brim with needle-like teeth, stuck to a bald white head that resembled that of a stork but with a nose of a dog. Haru jumped backward, but quickly realized that it was unnecessary, the beast was pinned down at its shoulder and neck by a scaled, three digit raptorial foot of what could only be described as a walking bush. The second hound chirped and rushed to “the Bush”, just to be grabbed by its neck by a grey arm covered in strange, vine-like tattoos and thrown at the remaining hound. The teenager watched while the hounds yelped and retreated in the dense forest, leaving their comrade under the talons of the creature.
The beast groaned in defeat and laid still, only responded when white talons hooked to its skin making it bleed, flowing down into the damp fur and dying a puddle of water. The creature tilted its head, bloodied talons dug deeper, causing the creature under its feet to struggle and hiss. The hound raised its head, snapping the air with its toothy maw, trying to bite its attacker, only to get punished with talons digging deeper.
– Stop! – Haru finally found his courage to speak up.
“The Bush” stopped and turned to look at him, so confidence was the beast that it didn’t even bother to hide its puzzled expression in every gesture it makes. Tilting its head curiously, it pressed its talons deeper into the bloody hide of the hound.
– Stop! I said stop it! – Haru screamed again, much to the creature’s delight.
As if aware of his feelings, and quite amused by them, “the Bush” pressed on the animal with its talons, causing it to scream again. The human kept screaming, “the Bush” kept on torturing while the poor animal stayed still in pain and exhaustion, its fur was all but torn off, revealing a layer of brown skin underneath with blood pouring from gaping wounds. Haru began to feel frustrated, he felt like his lungs would burst from the shouting. With his hands on his knees, he gasped for air, trying to regain his strength, sweats dripping down his face and falling onto the puddles below.
Khu. Khu. Khu.
Deep laughter rumbled from “the Bush”, its shoulders shook slightly while its head drooped down a bit lower. Haru glued his attention to the strange creature in front of him, a series of thoughts flashed through his head as the creature laughed. He did not know what it was, nor did he know if it understood what he was talking, but he was sure it was amused. The laughter stopped as suddenly as it’s began, what followed was a voice belonging to a man in his twenties coming from under the cloak of stitched up branches and vines:
– Hey kid, what’s your name?
– W-Wh-Wha… – The stuttering escaped Haru’s shaking mouth. Trying to swallow down his fear with a gulp, he replied in a trembling tone: – W-what?
– “What”? – “The Bush” tilted his head in amusement as he replied. – That’s a rather strange name.
– N-no! – Haru shook his head. – M-m-my n-na-nam-name i-i-is H-Ha-Ha…Haru!
– Haru eh? – The creature turned his attention down to his prey and stomped with his clawed foot.
– Stop! I said stop! – Haru screeched, his leg automatically took a step, causing low branches to tear at his already worn cloak.
– Why? – “The Bush” asked with an amused tone as he kept his raptorial foot on the poor skull hound half driven mad with pain.
– Let it go! It’s endured enough! – Haru said again, his violet eyes became teary. He clenched his lips, trying to keep his composure but his voice grew louder with every word escaping his lips. – I don’t want to see it in pain like that!
As if the boy’s voice has touched his heart, “the Bush” lifted his foot, letting the hound slip away, blood dripping from the wounds on its side as it skulked into the dense undergrowth, letting out painful grunts. The bush’s shoulders began to shake as the laughter began again, this time louder, making insects that have used the cloaked of stitched up materials to take off or fall to the forest floor. The laughter became louder and louder, sending chills down Haru’s spines and animals fleeing from nearby trees.
– Young Haru, I like you! – The creature said between laughter. – I can’t believe there are still people like you here! “Don’t want to see it in pain”? Ridiculous! Absolutely ridiculous! Oi kid, these skull hounds are experts as hunting human you know! If it wasn’t for the smell of those damn mosses you’d be eaten alive in those roots!
The laughter kept getting louder and louder, echoing across the forest, sending every single animal in a kilometer radius scurrying in terror. Haru’s fear quickly disappeared, replaced by shame as the laughter cut into his fragile confidence. “What’s wrong with not wanting anything to be in pain?” He wondered, his face red from nose to mouth. Seeing that scene, the other creature burst out another laughter that made the boy just wants to crawl into the nearest pit and bury himself there.
– Stop it! What’s wrong with being kind?! – Haru yelled, hands tightened into fists as he walked toward the bush. – Only inhuman things like you would…
Haru felled to the wet ground after receiving a slap from the creature, it was lucky that he used the back of his hand, otherwise Haru’s face would have been torn by the sharp claws at the tip of each finger. He crawled backward until hitting a tree, rubbing his reddened cheek while sobbing silently with only small yelped escaping his shut lips. But much to his terror, “the Bush” advanced, raptorial feet covered in grey scales appeared and disappeared simultaneously under his cloak of branches and leaves. His quick and violent movements caused the vines to unravel, sending bits of material to the ground before being crushed under the creature’s furious footsteps. They tangled into low hanging branches, ripping apart the layer of rotting woods and leaves, revealing underneath a cloak of stitched up leather. Tattoos covered arms reached out, grabbing Haru by his arms before lifting him up to where the creature’s face should be, the motion was so quick and violent that the boy’s leather hood fell off, freeing his snow-white hair to droop down the back of his neck.
There was a human face underneath the shadow of the creature’s hood, the face of the young man, hardly over twenty-five, though grey and slightly sunken, he’s still quite…attractive, if not handsome. The same could not be said about his teeth however, for as his lips curved up, Haru could see white, blade-like fangs glistening, reflecting whatever light that was able to reach down through the thick canopies. His amber eyes sparkled, possibly glowing in the dimmed lighting, almost hypnotizing if it was for the fact that they were filled with anger. As the creature, the man, moved his face closer to Haru’s, he could see there was something akin to a snake moving underneath the cloak when he asked with a quiet yet threatening voice:
– What do you know about “kindness”, you little brat?
– I-I… – Haru stuttered, confused and terrified by the man’s aggressive behaviors.
– You know nothing! – The man hissed. – You don’t know how it feels like when your home and everything you knew were destroyed in front of your eyes. You humans only know how to stuff your pocket and guts with loots and food even after I’ve given you everything you asked for. So Haru, don’t you dare talk about kindness to m…
He suddenly stopped when the sun shined onto Haru’s box, the smooth transparent stone reflected the light onto his face. As if mesmerized by the box, the monster dropped Haru down and walked toward it. He sat down, lowering his entire body around Haru’s level, his grey hands lifted the box, long, slender fingers caressed the lid and the transparent material. The boy rubbed his shoulder and looked at the monster still holding the box in his hand, low rumbles burst from his throat as he tilted slightly as if sucked into another world.
– That… – Haru said quietly.
– Where did you get this? – The older man asked with a low tone.
– I…found it in the forest. – Haru managed to push out an answer.
– Hm… – The other man scratched his chin before standing up to an incredible height, taller than even the tallest person in Haru’s village. – Hey kid, you live in the human village near the sea, right? The one near the old dam?
– Y-yes? So what? – Haru asked cautiously, his heart wrenched a bit as the stranger acknowledges his village.
– I’ll take you there. – The older male replied before started walking into the dense forest, as if knowing it like the back of his hand.
Stopping for a single heartbeat just for his young “companion” to catch up, the cloaked stranger led them both through the forested ruins, remnants of what must have been a glorious civilization. The elders of Haru’s village tell stories of those who came before, the Old Ones. The world of the Old Ones was so different than theirs, with incredible constructs and towers that reached to the stars. But darkness fell onto their civilization, and their once great citadels turned to silent graves. But with their disappearing, the lands started to change. Their citadels faded away, overtaken by new life that flourished with the absence of human.
Over time, one by one, the tribes came to these lands, some small and humble, some powerful and fierce. They say that Haru’s tribe, the Ayari, was the first to hunt on these lands, the first to raise their bows. Yet they always have to keep a fragile balance with nature, for beside human, there are others that dwell in places even the fiercest of hunters could not go. The stories don’t tell where the Old Ones have gone, nor do they explain why such strange creatures exist. But one thing is certain, the balance won’t last forever.
– Um… – Haru looked at the stranger who was keeping a reasonable pace for him, occasionally stopping to wait just for the boy to cross an obstacle.
– What? – He asked without stopping on a trail leaves.
– Can I have my magic box ba…
– Compass. – The older male interrupted Haru’s words.
– What? – Haru tilted his head in confusion.
– This thing. – The man brought up his grey hand, holding Haru’s box in slender, claw-tipped fingers. – It’s called a compass.
– “Com…pass”? – Confusion befell the young boy with an unmistakable look of confusion and dumbfounded on his face.
– Yes, at least that’s what She said. – The older male nodded his head.
– “She”? Who is “She”? – Haru asked, avoiding puddles and fallen, rotten branches as he did.
– None of your business. – The other grunted annoyingly, glaring behind his shrouded shoulder to give the human brat a threatening glare.
“Pss, freak.” Haru cursed in his head, keeping silent throughout the rest of the way while still hoping that something would give this weirdo a nip in the butt, after he has led him back to the village, of course.
Light dimmed as afternoon fell, ancient trees and soaked earth were quickly replaced with grass covered sandy terrain of the beach. Amongst the thick grass, Haru could see small animals dashing around large ruins and rubbles that littered the shorelines, protruding from the tall grass or half submerged under the waves. So great were the buildings of the Old Ones that not even the sea can swallow them all as many still standing proudly above the water’s silvery nudges. Large schools of fish and other sea life dwell there, a fisherman paradise but even they dare not venture into them, for fearing monstrous predators and dead spirits that may haunt these ruins.
Despite the ominous dangers, the stranger decided…to sit down on a large patch of sand near the shore, still completely shrouded from head to toes with his cloak of leathers and trash he’s gathered from the forest, much to Haru’s worries and to his own amusement.
– Get some rest. – He said with an obviously relaxed, almost nonchalant tone that annoyed his young companion to no end.
– Rest? Here? – Haru hissed, trying not to make loud noises, less he invokes any resting, spiteful spirit. – Do you even know where this is?
– Um…a beach? – The older male replied, oblivious to why his companion was so worked up.
– A ruined beach! – The boy accidentally raised his voice only to quickly cover his mouth and whispered to the older man: – We shouldn’t be here, there might be resting spirits.
– Spirits?! – The stranger asked and burst into laughter before standing up to full height and yelled loudly into the air. – Oi! If there are any spirits here, why don’t you come out and fight me, you spineless sods?! Oh that’s right. You don’t even have spines! So why don’t you let us rest our asses a bit?! Not like you need to rest them anyway!
His bold declaration made all the animals screeched in terror as they dashed back into the protection of their lairs, flying beasts took off and scattered into the sky of grey clouds lined with brilliant red and gold. Much to the older male’s amusement, Haru ducked down, arms covering his white head while he was shaking in terror, waiting for ghostly skeletal arms to pull him under the sand, a faint, glowing silhouette to appears and grabs him, anything. But after what seemed like an eternity of speculation and fear, nothing happened, no skeletal arm, no glowing shape, nothing, not even a mournful cry. There were only the waves and the sounds of flying animals returning to their nests, either from their hunt far from shore or from his companion’s yelling. It was serene, when the sun slowly but steadily lowers closer and closer to the sea, just another normal afternoon, like those back at his village.
– See? – The stranger said quietly with a shrug, for quick moment Haru could swear that he saw a warm, cheerful smile underneath his hood. – There’s nothing to fear. Now rest here a bit, I’ll catch us dinner before we continue.
– Oh…um…alright. – Haru replied, nodding a bit as he felt his heart jolted a bit, someone from outside his family actually smiled at him.
Softly, quietly, he breathed in the clean, salty smell of the sea, the air was clear, unlike in the village where there were always the smells livestock, dried fish, herbs and smoke. Between the waves he could see slender yet powerful forms moving gracefully between the rubbles, hunting for schools of sea-dwellers that called these ruins home. Haru shivered, if not for his urgent need to get home and the dangerous world that is the unknown wild outside the boundaries of his village, he would’ve come here every day and sat for hours, transferring this into his large journal and drowning himself in the wonders that was the world of the Old Ones. Golden sand faded into silvery, foamy reaches of the waves, pulling back into the sea in sluggish motions, glistening in the fleeting lights of the sun behind storm clouds. Despite the oncoming calamity, the sea seemed transfixed in its dance of waves and winds, rising and falling in the calming atmosphere of sunset.
Yet something was not normal, something was not supposed to be there as Haru’s ear caught glimpses of what sounded like a soft moaning coming from afar. Rushing toward the water edge, the boy narrowed his eyes to where he thought the moaning was originated from. There, on a rooftop not that far away, a man was lying on his stomach, his clothes worn and tattered.
Haru took off his cloak without hesitation, it’s not that far, and he could probably use the rubbles to his advantages, given his light clothing and small stature. But just as he was about to run headlong into the water, his companion’s hand grabbed him by his shoulder firmly, holding him in place.
– What are you doing?! – Haru asked, struggling to get free from the other’s vice-like grip. – We have to help him!
– Wait. – The older male said quietly, raising to his eyes two black tubes connected to each other. – It’s a trap.
– Let me go! This is not the time to talk about kindness and stuff! – Haru kept struggling but no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t break free of the older male’s grip.
– Look. – The other said commandingly, lowering his bizarre just enough so Haru could easily look through.
– Just. Look.
The firm voice, along with the serious gaze from those amber eyes made every intention of back talking quickly disappear from Haru’s mind. Reluctantly, he put his hand on one side of the tubes before putting his eyes in the opening. Through the tubes, everything seemed much bigger than they were, as if he was somehow transported closer to the sea. With a loud yelp, the boy sprung backward, falling down onto the sand while the other male shook his head.
– W-what was that? – The boy asked in disbelief, his whole body shaking from the experience.
– A binocular scope. – The older male explained as he helped Haru up and handed him the thing again. – Now look.
Haru gulped, holding the “binocular scope” again, preparing himself for the experience before putting his eyes near the opening again. Through the slightly dusted, transparent stones like that in his “compass”, the world was magnified, giving him a clearer view of what was happening to the man on the rooftop. His clothes looked even more tattered up close, whatever skin that was exposed was also covered in bruises and cuts that must have been caused when he was tossed around in these ruins. But what intriguing was that he hasn’t been eaten yet. Haru was about to look up and ask his companion, but the other held the binocular scope firm on his face, urging him to look at the man’s ankle. A thin, almost transparent tentacle was wrapping around his leg, leading all the way under the deep, dark water.
A hungry looking amphibian the size of a large crocodile climbed onto the rooftop from the opposite direction of the man, its black, smooth wet skin reflected the light of the setting sun as its finned tail wagged around. At the sight of the beast, the man groaned and tried to crawl away, but with a quick action, the amphibian opened its mouth and chomped down onto his head, forcing Haru to close his eyes in terror. Curiosity won over as he wanted to see what else could have set his strange companion on edge like this. He opened his eyes and continued watching, as the amphibian was trying to drag the man off, the tentacle swung into life. It yanked upward, hurling both the human and the poor animal into the air before a colossal maw filled with jagged teeth opened up from beneath the waves and swallow both man and beast effortlessly like they were bite-sized snacks.
As the giant disappeared into the dark water, Haru was left speechless and frozen in place, if not for the constant, shivering breathing, one would have thought he was a very detailed statue. So shocked was Haru that he didn’t even notice that his companion has retracted his bizarre tool and returned it back into his cloak, only when his cloak was dropped on his head did the boy sprung into life again, with a yelp.
– You’re welcome. – His companion chuckled as Haru was mumbling what sounded like a “thank you”. – Now let’s go, we’ve wasted enough sunlight for this debacle already.
Haru nodded shakily and stood up, brushing sand off his clothes before putting on his cloak, he couldn’t help but notice several small animals laying lifeless near his companion’s unseen feet, all with chunks of flesh torn from them by blade-like fangs. Looking up, the boy could see that the older male was losing patience, swiftly, he reached for his preys and started walking just as Haru has finished putting on his cloak. And he was right, Haru thought, the sun has touched the water and slowly descending, winged creatures of all shapes and sizes were returning to their nests, carrying bounties from the sea to feed their family. “The fishermen must have returned by now.” Haru thought to himself as he followed his strange companion through the shorelines. “I wonder what Rai is doing now.”
Darkness soon fell on all things, making the dense forest looked even more intimidating and dangerous. Strangely, walking side by side with his companion, Haru wasn’t afraid, at least not as much as before, for some reasons, he knew that if something was to happen, this man would spring into action to protect him. With the shrouds of the night, the stranger seemed to feel comfortable enough to remove his hood, causing the rest of his camouflage to fall off. “He must have thought that I wouldn’t see him.” Haru thought to himself and smiled. The fleeting silvery light of the waning moon piercing through the thick canopies shone on patches of silvery, long hair and a pair of two long, pointy ears with several V-shaped rips, remnants of battles long fought. The moonlight occasionally shone on his eyes, even when they’re slightly shrouded under the stranger’s hair, they gleamed not unlike those of nighttime predators.
Despite his fearsome appearance, Haru was surprised when his companion offered to hold his hand, giving the explanation that it’s easier for both of them to walk through the forest at night. Haru has held others’ hands before, but only with his one friend and adoptive sister, other people in the village wouldn’t even come near him, so a total stranger offering to hold his head was a bit awkward at first. But when he saw how dark the forest actually was, his fear of the unknown overwhelmed his sense of cautiousness. Holding onto his companion’s hand and wrist, the boy couldn’t help but feel how smooth and warm his skin was, almost like his own but with the slight hints of powerful muscles underneath.
– Wait. – The older male suddenly stopped, in the darkness, Haru could see his head turning frantically as he sniffed the air like a hound. – Something’s near. – He whispered, just enough for Haru to hear.
– What is it? – The boy asked with his own whispers, feeling his companion’s hand slowly slipping from his own was a bit unnerving.
He could hear it though, whatever made his companion so tensed up was circling them. It was faint at first, but as the time went by the sounds of footsteps became louder, almost drowning off every other sounds with it phantom rhythms. Haru couldn’t tell how many there were, but based on the sounds, he could guess that there were three pairs of legs, an unusual number, what could…
– Move, now.
Before Haru could understand anything, he felt his hand grabbed by the older male’s, pulling him through twisted trees, avoiding shrouded obstacles as if he had some kind of night vision. But they were not alone, swift footsteps were following them, again there were only three pairs of legs, but this time Haru could make out the elongated body of something the length of two grown men, with six legs protruding from its sides. His companion stopped as suddenly as he started running, just long enough to push him into a hollowed out tree trunk and gestured him to keep silent by pressing a finger onto the younger male’s lips, making him blush a bit in the process.
Haru froze as his companion rushed off, leading whatever it was that was following them away from him, possibly to either lose it in the maze that is the dense forest or just outright killing it, to make sure that the blood stench would be far enough from him. But for how long? The boy wondered as he sat in the hollowed tree trunk for what seemed like half an eternity, half an eternity of darkness and who knows what else. Gulping down his fear, he slowly made his way out, just to look around, he told himself although he knew that it’s a lie, the thought of something would find him helpless in that tree was unbearable, he has to be ready to run for it.
With only the moonlight falling through the now sparsely knitted branches to shine his way, Haru began his walk on the more stabled forest floor. It didn’t feel as loose and soaked as before, not since a while ago, and the trees were smaller with less intertwining branches that blotted all the light. He could see large patches of light on the ground and on the tree, revealing every secret that has been hidden in the darkness. And there on one of the moonlit tree, he could see it, a carving of what seemed like an upward pointing arrow, the symbol of the Ayari. He’s found one! This one was still new, which mean there’s a fresh game trail somewhere, he just needs to find it.
The sounds of fallen branches breaking under something big made Haru turn around in a quick and frantic motion. Slowly backing into the tree, he narrowed his violet eyes, looking for any motion in the darkness. A gust of wind blew by, pushing a large cloud over the moon and plunged the world around him into total darkness again. In that darkness, something moved, and he could hear it, he could see glimpses of its movements as it moved closer in a zigzag pattern, its footsteps were so faint he almost didn’t notice the dried leaves crunching beneath its six feet. It’s close now, really close, close enough for Haru to think that if he reached out with his hand, he would touch it.
The cloud was blown away again, moonlight poured down onto an object that looked like a red flower bud that was just inches away from Haru’s face. With a series of clicking sounds, the flower’s six petals slowly opened. Inside the petals, pointing toward the round mouth were rows upon rows of needle-like teeth. Though it they were hidden in the forest’s shadow, Haru could see its six long, slender legs whenever it moves to position itself for the strike. The beast slowly backed away a bit before lunging forward, missing the boy by a strand of hair as he ducked down as fast as he can before scrambling to get away.
It ripped off a chunk of wood and spat it out, six powerful legs propelled it through the dense forest with ease while its prey struggled with every step in darkness. Tears streamed down Haru’s face as he envisioned the beast catching up with him, shredding him up as it did with the piece of wood, his heart pounded loudly with every clumsy step he took. Though knowing that it would do little help, the boy raised his hand and wiped away his tears to see clearer in the forest dotted with moonlight. It all looks the same, every damn tree, every cursed root he stumbled upon, it almost seemed like he was running around in a circle.
Suddenly, Haru’s foot stepped onto thin air, his entire body fell forward and rolled down a steep hill. He laid there for a while, head spinning nonstop, but the rustling noises and occasional rattling warned him that if he stops now, he won’t be able to continue again. With shaky, scratched up legs, Haru stood up, still a bit dizzy from the fall, his entire small frame staggered just a few steps before he collapses again with a loud ‘thud’.
– Come on…you can do it… – He told himself as he reached for a root protruding from the ground and pulled himself forward.
The clicking and rattling started again, this time clearer, closer, as if the creature was right behind him. Haru froze, his lips clenched tight, stopping the soft whimpering of both fear and pain from escaping. He buried his face into his folded right arm, sobbing quietly as the creature’s legs stomped around him, trapping him like a cage, it was right on top of him now. He could hear something parting, slimes dripped down onto his back as he imagined the beast drooling over a good meal. With all his mustered strength, the boy pushed forward, hoping against hope for the slightest chance to escape this nightmare. But just as soon as his body left the ground, it fell back down as the monster grabbed him by his ankles and yanked backward. Looking back, Haru saw the lowest pair of petals has opened ever more, revealing a meaty chamber of slime, teeth and writhing muscles but not bone. It pulled its helpless, struggling prey back into its cage of legs and started spinning a cocoon around it quarry with said limbs.
Inside his green slimy coffin, Haru cried out and struggled to get free, but the thickened slime was too much for him, the more he struggle, the more he felt himself being weakened. It was an airtight cocoon, the creature was waiting for him to suffocate himself, just as he began to lose consciousness, Haru felt thin tentacles wrapped around him, lifting him upward to his demise. But as the cocoon was hoisted only half way or so, a sharp sound of metal pierced into flesh echoed from outside the slimy wrapping, the boy heard the creature roared in anguish, its black blood spilled out onto the ground and the cocoon as he fell down. Gasping for what little air that was left, he caught glimpses of a tall shadow pulling what looked like a knife out from the beast and quickly walked to him before he blacked out.
The small body curled up into a ball in his companion’s cloak, sobbing and gagging quietly, traumatized by his experience. If the older male hasn’t realized that the carnivorous flower has stopped following him and backtracked to where he’s hid him, Haru would have been eaten and digested alive inside that creature’s cavernous stomach. Right behind him, the dugout fire pit burned brightly, roasting skinned animals that the older male has caught earlier while he sat on a log facing the cliffing, watching the large village below.
About several miles away, no less than five hundreds tall, wooden houses littered a large cove, many of them were built on water inside a coral ring that covers the entrance of a huge lagoon. Outside the ruined stone walls and natural rocky outcrops that protected the village itself, fields of crops overlapped bits and pieces of the forest, making it looks like a mosaic of greenery from afar. Even now when the moon has reached its zenith, the gatehouse and several towers near the fields were still lit with torches’ light as if anticipating for something to come.
– Oi, wake up and eat something, will you? – The stranger asked, turning his head slightly to look at the boy.
– I’m not hungry… – Haru mumbled, curling up even more as he heard the other footsteps coming near him before jolting a bit when he felt the other male’s hand on his shoulder.
– If you don’t eat you won’t have enough strength to walk tomorrow. – His companion said, waiting for a reply. When he received none, he shrugged and sat down near the fire pit and sniffed at the perfectly roasted rabbit. – Mm… – He smiled with an exasperated expression before biting a huge chunk off the rabbit. – These are good, too bad I’ll have to finish them by myself.
Finally, after his stomach’s growling has been heard loud and clear, Haru turned around with an annoyed expression but didn’t sit up. He simply laid there, looking at his strange companion, trying to take in all of it when he’s having a close up view. He was slender, but still muscular enough to be considered above average, his legs were longs and raptorial like with only four fingers on each foot, the presumably big toes curves backward, their talon was longer than the rest. Behind him, what Haru thought was a serpent was actually a long tail covered in a layer of soft, pure white fur with blue markings shaped like arrows pointing toward his back. It’s hard to get a precise estimate of its length since it’s always moving, but Haru was quite sure that it’s somewhere between eight foot two and nine foot one.
– If I eat, will you tell me your name? – He asked his companion shyly, hiding half of his embarrass face under the blanket.
– My name? – The older male tilted his head. – Why didn’t you just ask in the first place?
– I…um… – Haru stuttered, not having a good excuse to why he didn’t. – I forgot. – He sighed in defeat.
– Silly boy. – His companion chuckled and started putting the meat onto a large banana leave the put it nearer to Haru. – Here, eat. My name, by the way, is Quetz, Quetz Xolotl.
– K-Ketsu R-Rot-to-ru? – Haru struggled to pronounce the foreign name as it as so bizarre for him.
– Just call me Keto, that’s what many of your kind called me when they can’t say my name. – Quetz replied, chuckling a bit at the sight and sounds.
– Keto? – The boy sat up, blinking a bit.
– Yes, now eat. – Quetz nodded and handed him a roasted rabbit leg on a banana leave.
– Um…thanks. – Haru replied, holding the leave with his hand before eating, after a night full of terrors and running nonstop, the sweet taste of meat was just enough to lighten his face with a happy smile.
– Heh…adorable. – Quetz whispered, poking the fire with his stick, making it burn just a bit brighter.
– What was that? – Haru lifted his head and said with a mouthful of meat, forcing the older male to cover his mouth in order to hide his laughter.
– Oh nothing. – He replied, wiping a tear from his eye. Quetz stretched his entire body backward, tail beating unconsciously on the ground before continuing: – You should sleep soon, we still have a long way to go and it’s way over midnight already.
– Y-yes. – Haru nodded, finishing his meal before lying down and wrapping himself in Quetz’s cloak again. Peeking from under the leathery blanket, he looked at his companion and asked: – Ne Keto…where did you come from?
– Hm? Why did you ask that question? – Quetz cocked his head sideway, more curious than confused.
– You seem…weird, not like anyone I’ve seen. – Haru said quietly, eyes heavy from sleepiness.
– Weird? What kind of weird? – The older male blinked his amber eyes, head still tilted a bit like a curious dog, reflecting the dancing flame.
– I don’t know… – Haru replied, his filled with water as he let out a long, quiet yawn. – You’re just…weird. You don’t…seem to fit…just like me…
The older male waited for more questions and statements to come out, but nothing did. What did follow was quiet, peaceful breathing as Haru’s body rose and collapsed slightly with each breath he took in his sleep. “Poor kid, he must have been drained.” Quetz thought and crept forward, adjusting his young companion’s blanket before turning away and kicking some dirt into the fire pit. The fire dimmed, letting the silvery blue light of the moon and countless stars on the dark night sky to overtake the landscape below. Curling into a ball near the cliff, the older male yawned and laid his head onto folded arms, preparing to rest for tomorrow’s journey.
– Goodnight Haru. – He mumbled, a habit he took on to cope with his endless solitude, he usually has to say that to himself or any animal that happened to get near him in his sleep. It felt much better to say it to another…human, not that he considers himself to be one anyway.
To his companion’s surprise, Haru smiled in his sleep, a sheepish, happy smile as he nuzzled his face into the blanket and uttered quietly:
Quetz’s long ears perched upward, his eyes widened in surprise, he didn’t expect any human to say it back to him, but there Haru was, bidding him a good sleep in his own dreamland, has the boy grown attached to him? After several minutes of only quiet breathing coming from Haru, the older male lowered his head back onto his arms, disregarding the incident as just…an incident, no human could like something like him, not anymore. Letting his exhaustion take over, Quetz slowly closed his sleepy eyes, before long his own breathing melded with Haru’s as the two drifted further and further into their dreams.