Disclaimer: I do not own Digimon or any of its characters. I do not have permission from its owners to write this work of fiction, or permission from Dido to reprint her lyrics herein. This story was written purely for enjoyment.
Thank you so much to any and all still reading for your patience. I beg your forgiveness thousands of times over. My excuses for the horribly long delay, as well as liner notes and author's comments, can be found on my LiveJournal. The URL is on my bio page.
Dedicated to anyone who has ever been abused or neglected by the ones who are supposed to care the most; also to anyone like Kouji and myself who has ever wanted to just end it. Don't give up—you're not alone; there's still hope.
Chapter Two: Run Away
No moon had the power to pierce the heavy shawl of clouds wrapping the grey crescent-orb in its suffocating folds. Stars flickered bleakly, insubstantially through what few gaps in that stifling blanket could be rent. Aunue was just as dark and brooding this night; the waves muttered sullenly as they licked the coarse gravel that constituted the shore.
Even the landscape he'd looked to for hope for the past fourteen years could give him no solace. The veiled, dying pinpricks seemed very representative of his soul at the moment, and he wondered not for the first time just why the gods saw fit to torment him so. Maybe he wasn't the only one that Gorothin had turned the others against, but in his present mood, such information was insignificant.
He was wasted. Even after all his vows, all the oaths and curses he'd flung at himself, he could go no further. His chest heaved, his lungs threatening to burst as his muscles withered from overexertion. His right ankle—the damned thing that had brought him down to begin with—pulsed and throbbed with hot, stabbing agony.
Loose dirt and sand wasn't the most comfortable resting spot, but it served for the moment. But he knew that if he were to keep going, soon the dunes would turn altogether into sand, forcing him lower, closer to more solid terrain near the shore. Not that running over all the pebbles and gritty sand would bother his toughened soles terribly, but he was all too aware of what hell they would be on his ankle in its present condition.
Yet again, he called himself five kinds of idiot for not watching his path more closely. He'd nearly twisted his ankle and fallen on that weed a hundred paces back or so. He could have done much worse—namely, broken his ankle or otherwise incapacitated himself. He couldn't afford to delay, especially not now. There was only so much canvas he could have filched from the house, but he still had about three days' worth of dried fish left in the little impromptu sack now lying in a crumpled lump beside him. The water in his canteen had sloshed around with every step, and he breathed a prayer of gratefulness to Aunue when he checked the cap and realized that it was still firmly closed. The precious liquid could have easily leaked out, dooming him for certain.
The waterskin was pitifully small, however. He'd been making a point to eat that pestilent fish only when it was a choice between that or passing out from fatigue. Curse whatever demigod handled food that the only way to preserve it was to lather it in salt! Between the pace he was trying to set and his loathsome provisions, the fresh water wouldn't last five hours.
Fresh water… For the first time, he wondered if he should have pilfered a couple skins of ale instead. Upon first trying that beastly concoction years ago, he hadn't been able to get up on his feet or keep anything down for days. Suddenly his back prickled at the memory of large, hard knuckles making impact, right between his shoulder blades. And another blow, just as forceful.
"Gods damn you, boy!" roared a hoarse male voice above him as he pushed himself up on his palms—the strength behind the hit had knocked him face-first into the dirt floor. "By Aunue, getcherself up! Men don't wail and whine about a dancing stomach! You'll get used to it. Get up an' make yerself useful, else I'll bind ye up in a net an' offer ye to Gorothin meself!"
He snapped his eyes wide open, unaware that he'd shut them against the memory. That had been years before. It was also one of the few out of the many beatings that stood out in his mind. The rest were so numerous that they were all muddled together in a lump of a miserable history.
The waterskin next to him made what he could have sworn was a questioning shloop. His thoughts strayed back to the issue of drink. As a rule his mother never performed the arduous task of boiling ocean water to drink for more than was necessary for one day. That had meant secretly rationing his meager share in his own waterskin, and then surreptitiously filling the rest with some of that one day's water in the pot when Larani had her back turned. She was easy enough to get past once he was assured that she wasn't suspicious. It was his father that always haunted him, looking for a reason to punish him, almost. Rustef had preferred to drink ale, under the pretense of saving Larani some work each day. His son seriously doubted that that was the sole reason.
What he knew, however, was that whether this canteen contained water that left him empty, or beer that emptied him further, there wasn't enough to get him farther than a few more days. The sun had already come and go once since his flight; even as he imposed such ascetic limits on his rations, he was greatly disturbed by how depleted his supplies seemed after just a single day on the run.
Maybe I did this wrong, he found himself thinking, gazing between the indistinguishable sea and clouds while absently rubbing his ankle. Maybe I should've thought all this through a little while longer.
But he knew in his heart that he would have died or gone mad, had he done so. For eternity uncounted, it seemed, he had wanted out. There had to be something better out there, there just had to be. From dragging his feet to the tiny market that formed the hub of the hamlet, he knew that the outskirts of Neklara weren't the ends of the world. They had been the ends of his world. Now he was going to change that.
He had been no better than a slave within his own family. Or what wasn't his family. They had really been just a man, woman and boy living and bickering under one roof. He had little notion of what a real family was supposed to be, but whatever family truly meant, his had most certainly not felt like it.
A sudden pop in his other ankle as he stretched it brought him back to the present. He shook himself—as a youngling he had loved to simply sit and wonder; that had earned him countless beatings until he'd finally stopped. Now he would try not to lose track of the issues before him—not for fear of some hairy, sweaty fisherman striking him to the ground, but because his own survival counted on it.
He had to find some place that would replenish him. Some other source of food, or some freshwater spring, though from his limited knowledge of local cartography he knew there was little chance of that. Curse the gods! All he knew from market gossip about Aepia's location was that it was quite a few leagues south. He'd brought as much as he could get away with carrying… but was it enough? Gods, was he even going in the right direction? No, he knew the positions of the stars, which one pointed north. He couldn't have gotten it wrong. Everything depended on doing this right. He didn't want to die here on the beach, stranded between slavery and the life he chose for himself…
Or did he?
For quite some time, he'd thought it would have been better to just lie down and let darkness consume him. Although he would quickly banish the thought, disgusted at the idea of such pathetic submission, some days it had been very tempting to do so. In the weeks leading up to his escape, such days dawned with increasing frequency. Sometimes, the struggle to live seemed just pointless. The gods had forsaken his family. They had forsaken Neklara from the start. Every day, it was just get out on that boat, praying Aunue not to sink it; waiting for witless little fish to tangle and thrash themselves to death in the net; wearing his arms out rowing back to shore and hauling the meager catch ashore every sundown; sipping brackish water, nibbling on disgusting oily fishmeat and then holding it down in his stomach as he flung himself onto the softest spot on the dirt floor he could find; thinking of the sky outside as he closed his eyes, only to open them again a couple of hours later and starting all over. It wasn't like any improvement would come out of that endless, wearisome cycle.
He sighed from his soul, visually trying and failing to catch a blurry star through a rip in the clouds. Who was he kidding? Years ago he'd learned that trying to shut out reality only sharpened its fangs for the moment that it finally bit. There had been much more than that to his former life. Namely, his father striking him to the ground when he so much as asked a question, or for no other reason than he'd drank far more distilled ale from the market than was good for him. Or his mother, glaring at him before shuffling her back to him, turning him away. Gone were the days that she slapped his face and snapped at him, gone right with the days when he'd a mind to come to her for help.
Old woman didn't give a damn about me. Neither did he, and I don't give a sorry damn about them.
To think that that could have been his whole world, for the rest of his life. His father had growled from time to time about finding the boy a wife and getting him out of the house. Aye, bet the old crank wanted me out. Forget him. I wanted out myself, and that's all that matters. It's my life, and I'm alone. Forget it all.
Forget it all…
If he forgot, there would be no way for anyone in Aepia to tell him that he wasn't good enough; that a craven young Neklaran fisherman had no chance to make something of himself. If he left his past behind, the future might be open to him. He could start over, and forget that he was the wretched son of Rustef and Larani of Neklara. He was surprised that he remembered their names; to him they were just 'him' and 'her'. Yes, how dearly he wanted to forget. Forget who he was and where he'd come from.
Not like I would lose anything valuable by forgetting everything. Even my name doesn't matter… who cares if my name is… is…
Gods, he couldn't even remember his own name now! The boy felt his stomach twist as a chilling sense of void crept into his mind: this could be either a good omen in that he was already leaving his old self behind, or an ill sign in that he was too stupid to remember his own identity.
"Stupid little bastard!" The openhanded slap sent him staggering back, nearly falling into the shoddy wall behind him. Underestimation of the raw strength in that man's arms, hard-gained from years upon years of toil, could be fatal. "Stupid, stupid, stupid! If I tol' ye once, I tol' ye till yer deaf ears fall off: Never drop the net! You got that thro' 'em deaf ears o' yours, boy? I don' care if ye drown; I don' give a damn so long's ye save the cetch: ye never drop the godsdamn net!"
He stood there with both cheeks burning and ears ringing, shoulders slumped in shame, unable to face the irate man in his fear and humiliation. He stared at the scratched, sun-darkened tops of his feet instead, and a fearful thought crept into him: suppose his father cut or lamed him for his latest mistake? Thanks to him, they would now go hungry for—
Suddenly his blood shot cold spikes into his skin as he felt Rustef approach him. He could smell the man's foul aura of sweat, fish, salt and ale very sharply—he was too close. Knowing what was coming, the boy shrank back against all hope of escape, raising his arms to shield his face. The uselessness of the move was affirmed when his father seized him by the front of his ragged tunic.
Squeezing his eyes shut in terror, he felt himself dragged by his shirt to another part of their wretched hut, then spun around and grabbed by his father's meaty, grit-soiled hand. It clamped down on the scruff of his neck, stronger than the jaw of the most fearsome turtle; he was sure Rustef wanted to snap his neck right there.
"Look, woman! Look on this wretch'd whelp spawned and sent to us by Gorothin hisself to leech the very life from us! We was used, Larani." Even as his voice lowered to a vengeful hiss, Rustef's breath—laden with wafts of bad ale from the market—blasted hot, heavy and foul on the back of his head. "We was used by Gorothin," the fisherman continued, "to take his own whoreson tadpole and bring him into this thrice-damned world! The King of Slime used you, consuming our first child as it came into bein', then takin' our last after squeezin' ye in yer agony to deliver this—this li'l demon!
Rustef cursed him vehemently, calling his son all manner of degrading names that he had by now been desensitized to. The boy braced himself slightly, so that he was mercifully able to catch himself and stumble only slightly when his father inevitably shoved him forward. He couldn't help opening his eyes momentarily, his heart sinking despite all as he first saw the weathered, bitter skin-and-bones of his mother, her dark rheumy eyes glaring balefully at him. The shadows in those eyes held nothing but apathetic hatred for him.
"…an' 'e can put t'gether a new net, p'raps bind it to his wrists so's 'e don't drop it and our lives wi' it again!" he heard Rustef continue behind him. His breath caught in fear as he was yanked back and around again, his vision suddenly filled with his father's haggard face. He instinctively recoiled from the disgusting odor of stale alcohol riding on Rustef's ragged breath.
The older man's bloodshot eyes, dull though they looked, pierced into his own with the fearsome power of hate. "Ye'll be startin' on that new net now, boy," he snarled in the boy's face. "An' I'll have it done by t'morrow's morn—an' ye know whud'll hafta be done if it ain't!" He gave a bitter laugh, another cloud of foul alcoholic breath billowing from his mouth, and shoved the boy away, stumbling off to where the aleskins were kept.
The boy stood numb. The sun had just vanished from the horizon behind the clouds; one look at the blackness waiting outside confirmed that. The air hung even heavier than usual, foreboding of a coming storm. Merciful Mistel, he'd only begun to master the dreary craft of net-weaving; how did Rustef possibly expect him to finish an entire net by sunrise?
He bit the inside of his cheek until he tasted blood. She had been making and repairing strong nets for practically all her life. He had a dreadful feeling that he knew what response he would get, but it was still worth a try… wasn't it?
From the corner of his eye, he warily watched Rustef unscrew the rough cap from an aleskin and throw his head back to chug the ruinous stuff. Good, he wasn't paying attention. He shifted his view to the other side of his peripheral vision, straining his eyeballs to catch sight of the hovel's single female inhabitant. As far as he could tell, Larani turned back to the wall and resumed sewing—or brooding, whatever she had been doing; he couldn't tell.
That night's scant provisions threatened to erupt, but he swallowed hard and—checking once more that Rustef wasn't looking—turned, approaching and squatting before his mother. The expulsion of food from his stomach was a very real threat now.
"Eh—" He was forced to pause, coercing his body to calm down long enough to get this over with. Larani didn't even look up.
The boy was very much out of his element; he truly couldn't remember the last time his mother had acknowledged him. He didn't even know what to call her, how to address her. Pleasantries had no meaning here; it was best to come straight out.
"I—I need ta finish the net, just like… just like 'e said, but I…" He scrambled to cobble a plausible excuse together. "…I need ta make the net strong 'nuff, and I—I think—I mean, I don't think I been… um… makin' nets long 'nuff so's they're all strong-like, yanno? Not like yours. I don' wanna lose the catch again, really I don', but I ain't gonna have it slipping through me net either… so… p'raps ye can—"
His timid mumbling was sharply abbreviated as the woman suddenly whirled and a skeletal weathered hand struck the still-tender side of his face. The boy overbalanced and rocked off of his perch on his feet, landing heavily sideways. He felt his heart plummet; he'd had a strong inkling that that was coming, but he'd still hoped…
"Donchee dare speak to me, damn you!" snarled Larani, baring cracked yellowed teeth in terrible hatred—stronger, purer, far worse than her husband's alcohol-induced ill will. Her hate for her son came not from drink, but from the bile of bitterness in her heart. Her black eyes now glittered in fury as she stared down at the boy she had brought into the suffering world. "Ye don' dare come a-grovellin' ta me fer help, understand ye? Quit wastin' yer breath an' my life, whelp! You are nothing to me. Nothing! Ye get me?! Ye don' matter. The name Kouji don' have no damn meanin' in me ears no more!"
With a sharp gasp that knifed deep into his lungs, his body jerked and his eyes flew wide open. Larani, her claw-like fingers raised over him to deliver the finishing blow, her hate-filled eyes boring through him… they had all disappeared, replaced—yet somehow not cleansed away—by the dark, lumpy clouds and dim moonlight frowning down upon him. He hadn't even been aware that he'd lost consciousness. It must have been the day's journey wearing down on his stamina, but…
Kouji. That's—that was my name. Kouji.
He mentally clutched the name to himself, half afraid to lose it again, and only reluctantly summoned the will and apathy to push it back away. No, he wasn't Kouji. Not anymore. He was a new person…
Or I will be, just if I get there…
Kouji stiffly pushed himself back up into a sitting position, sighed and rubbed his forehead, strangely aware of his calloused fingers brushing the weathered skin above his unusually delicate eyebrows. One glance at the misshapen knapsack plopped next to him and he wanted to groan. Curse that he could never have expected much better fare all his life; how could he survive on that stuff with such limited water? As much as he wanted to cut back even further, the fact that he'd just passed out proved that he wouldn't make it to Aepia with any less. In fact…
…he was starting to seriously doubt he'd make it at all.
Scowling images of his parents filled his mind, resurrected by the dark memory that had caught him off guard just moments before. Kouji felt all his innards sink at the very thought of them. That was years ago… I can't remember how long. He faintly recollected that the next morning, when his father was a bit more sober, he'd refused to apologize—admitting a mistake to his son was below what little dignity was left to him—but extended his impossible ultimatum and gave Kouji until the afternoon to finish the net.
Somewhere deep inside, Kouji could somewhat acknowledge that Rustef, for all that he was gruff and sometimes violent, did not fully loathe him like Larani did; he just had a hard life and drunken irrationality was his way of dealing with it. As a youngling, Kouji had seen Rustef take out his bitterness on Larani on a nearly regular basis. Some time after he was old enough to begin learning the fisherman's craft, the target had slowly shifted to him. But even if his father was a scruffy, sometimes violent parent, even if Kouji had long convinced himself of his father's hatred to harden himself to the deep sting and give himself an excuse to hate him back; he knew deep down that Rustef did not truly hate his son. That was Larani's job.
Larani… Kouji swore and clutched his head hard, squeezing his eyes shut against the pain. At times, his mother's neglect was somehow worse than Rustef's on again, off again abuse. At least Rustef took note of his existence, though Kouji often wished he didn't. But the few times Larani acknowledged him, it was always to curse him before turning right back around and retreating within herself. That was her way of dealing with the ill fate Mistel had dealt them all. Strangely enough, it was this maternal apathy that festered deeper within Kouji. He wished he could ignore her as she consistently ignored him, but lately he was of the opinion that she was actually a cruelly cunning method by which the gods reminded him of his own worthlessness: it was a waste to speak to him, to look at him, to acknowledge him. Larani's message was quite clear—he and everything he possessed meant nothing, weren't worth protecting. In all those times as a little boy that Kouji had run to her for shelter from Rustef, he couldn't remember ever feeling so alone as when she ignored him and turned him away.
Alone. Alone, alone, alone…
"SHUT UP!" Kouji screamed to the sky without even realizing it. "So what if I'm all 'lone, I's s'posed ta be alone! I'll get there, I'm gonna, an' I'll be a-doin' it alone! Ain' nobody who ever gave a damn enough ta help, an' I don' need no help! See, I been alone all me life an' I's still 'live…"
His voice faltered. I'm still alive… but for how long?
Slowly his mind had begun to acknowledge that however far Aepia was, his current supplies definitely would not get him there. In his paranoia of being pursued and having full knowledge that Aunue liked to brew ferocious storms around this time of year, combined with some illogical sentimentality—he just wanted out, he didn't really want them to starve—Kouji had opted to head out by foot rather than on their ratty little fishing coracle. After all, his own feet were a bit more reliable for going exactly where he wanted to go; he'd figured that he could save the seafaring for when he'd gained sufficient experience in Aepia.
Now Kouji was starting to realize his folly—he hadn't brought nearly enough supplies to get him to wherever Aepia was at this rate. The throbbing in his ankle had now subsided; but the hazy, slightly foggy shoreline before him was already beginning to swirl in his vision. The exhaustion of the journey was already beginning to take its toll on him, little-traveled hamlet rat as he was. He could press on—and I will, sure as the Hells of Gorothin—but his chances of getting to Aepia alive were waning with every passing moment.
Then why wait? Getcherself going, boy!
Feeling the fire of determination flicker fitfully in his heart again, Kouji decided to make the most of it as he grabbed his canteen and knapsack and got somewhat unsteadily to his feet, not bothering to test his ankle. He'd already begun to realize the possibility that he would not get much farther alive. Maybe it was hopeless, but that wasn't an excuse to lie down and die like the beaten dog he'd been treated as in his former life. He could go down fighting—no. He would go down fighting. He would fall clutching what little pride was left to him. He couldn't die here without at least trying, he just couldn't…
Kouji hazarded a step forward and immediately realized his mistake as white-hot fire shot through his ankle. He just managed to stifle a cry of pain, still unable to hold back a growl as his searing foot gave way.
He stumbled and nearly regained his balance when his ankle jolted again, and with a yelp and a curse he lurched forward to collapse face-first into the yielding, but gritty dirt surface—only to have Mistel tease him all the more as he tumbled head-over-heels down the slope of the dunes.
Kouji shut his eyes, forced to submit to complete humiliation as he flipped over his back and rolled off the top of his head… and again… and again… and again. At last he landed with quite a hefty thud on what felt like the beach itself, judging by the way the grains poked mercilessly into his face.
For several moments he simply remained sprawled facedown on the sand, motionless in his incredible shame with Mistel and the laughing stars as witnesses. His hands before him spasmed, curling into fists and uncurling. His mind was wiped clean but for one infernal mantra of a thought: What in the hell is happening to me?!
What the bloody hell do you think is happening to you? You know there's a reason you fell.
No. It can't be—
It is. You're not destined to make it. Give up, son of Aunue. You're destined to fail.
Kouji opened his mouth to curse Gorothin's snakelike voice out of his brain and back into the Realms of the Damned where it belonged; he was rewarded with an invasion of dusty grit in his mouth. Retching, the boy hurled himself to his knees as he hacked and spat furiously. Damn, damn, damn everything! Bastard Gorothin by some devilry must have turned Soprotae against him…
His expulsions of sandy saliva and muffled expletives dropped off. Kouji felt something drain from his chest, leaving a yawning cavity of wretchedness in its wake. So it was true; he wasn't meant to make it. The gods and the whole world had turned against him—
His chest contracted inexorably. They'd all turned against him, they all hated him, they all wanted him to die! And for what? What had he ever done to them?!
A fist smashed into the hard, compacted sand beneath the dry dust. He opened his mouth, but no profanities he knew of could be summoned to sufficiently mete out his rage. They hated him, and he hated them back; he hated the whole world back! He'd been the one leading the sorry existence, the one oppressed from night to day and back again. Up until now he'd taken all this cruelty without complaint; he'd done nothing to garner the sufferings of sinners—
Eventually his heart slowed and his hitching breath began to ease, though the chasm of despair only widened. His thoughts raced round and past him, leaping from star to star of their own volition. He had done nothing, and this was what condemned him. There was nothing he could have done. He was simply too weak, too stupid; no matter what he tried, there was no way he would make it.
Yes there would be! he thought furiously, only to realize that whether there had been a plausible way to escape or not, it was too late.
But reason be damned. Fate be damned. For a moment despair was consumed by the roaring fire of anger. He'd get as far as he could, he'd crawl all the way to Aepia purely to spite Mistel and the fate she'd laid out for him. And then he would fall, fall laughing to the Realms of the Damned; he would die laughing in the faces of the gods and the dreary, pathetic world and all their pointless wrath.
With that the Neklaran scrambled unsteadily to his feet, feeling the last vestiges of his sanity flee him as he began to run. He carried nothing but the rags hanging off his spare frame, but his hunger and thirst and pain were utterly forgotten in a trice. He stumbled several times only to scrabble back upright and keep on going. He just wanted to keep running and running, whether his feet led him to Aepia or the Realms of the Damned or nowhere at all. His breath came loud and harsh, like a hound moving in for the kill.
The fury-laden spike of adrenaline or the absence of reasonability, however, in no way exonerated him from the physical consequences he had amassed. After what felt like hours, though from the faintly visible moon's position it could only have been a few minutes, he felt fire licking his chest deep inside—the kind that burned. He desperately wanted to stop, and yet for some reason that eluded his conscious thought (if indeed it still existed) he was mortally afraid of slowing even for a step. So he kept pushing, wanting to scream with every exhalation, but he had no breath for it. The sinews in his ankle burned from the strain, though he tried to pay them no mind.
Then they gave out. A blazing swath cut through his ankle in midstride and his overbalanced with a cry of pain. He landed heavily on all fours, the crazy urge to yell clawing at him as he fought for breath, the cold air stinging his dry throat. The world seemed to spin beneath him in every direction, taking him with it.
The very moment he had enough air in his lungs, he screamed.
It cost him dearly, but he wanted—needed to do it again. And he did, over and over. He sat up, threw his head back and kept screaming. Who knew that such a simple act left him so empty, and yet felt so relieving… so good?
He kept doing it until his throat rasped like sand and his tortured cries had been reduced to strangled whimpers. By then he had no energy to yell anymore. Tiny black sprites danced before his eyes, the world still crazily tilting to and fro, and his heart was on the brink of exploding. Moreover, he no longer had anything to scream about. He reached inside himself only to grasp emptiness. There was nothing left.
Even as he thought this, misery suddenly erupted from his chest. The struggle to fight the tears only served to hasten their arrival, and minutes later he was in parts horrified, disgusted and relieved as he began to sob in earnest. In a way, it was deliverance to let the shame, anger, self-loathing and sheer hopelessness spill forth from his eyes and sink beneath the sand. To his credit, Kouji did make a few half-hearted attempts to calm down, but the peace would last no longer than a moment before melancholy pulled him back under. He had no reason to cry, and yet that in itself was the reason. He wanted someone to hold him, to comfort him like a babe and murmur tender words in his ear; but no one would.
He had no one. He was truly alone.
Through his sobs an ironic, bitter laugh escaped his lips. The sky taunted Kouji, flinging his own words back at him to ring snidely in his skull. So what if I'm all 'lone, I's s'posed ta be alone… Ain' nobody who ever gave a damn enough… I been alone all me life…
"Listen t' yerself," he growled aloud, a mad grin pulling at his lips even as tears rolled past them. Intermittent sobs chopped his words like fish under Larani's rusted blade. "Ye're all alone now…"
But now I hate being alone! he wailed silently as a fresh flow of tears killed his ability to speak. So this was what it was like to be truly alone, and he wanted no part in it. He was becoming more and more assured that this journey would kill him; and even if it didn't, how could he be so sure he'd make it in Aepia? He had only rudimentary experience at best. He would be given the lowliest of posts if anyone bothered to take him, or otherwise starve to death as a street urchin.
Whether you enjoy the aloneness or not, lad, you're stuck with it now. You can never go back.
Kouji bent his head to bury it in his arms when nausea caught him unawares and sent his senses into a sickening tailspin. He managed to lunge forward just in time to keep from soiling his rags, but he was all too aware that his dignity and had deserted him as he spit up what little mush had occupied his stomach.
Retching until he had been quite thoroughly emptied of all food, Kouji sat back and wiped a thread of sick from his chin, altogether disgusted and miserable.
Craving to rinse his mouth of the filth before taking a long, much-needed drink, Kouji fished around for his waterskin—and felt his blood freeze when he failed to find it. He had left it, he belatedly recollected, he had left both the waterskin and pitiful sack of food behind when he'd gone off on his mad sprint. Damn, how far had he gone? Too far, judging by the fact that he was well beyond familiar territory now and his gear was nowhere in sight.
Swallowing the urge to wail even though he knew the tears would no longer come, Kouji let out a few savage oaths as he ground the sand beneath his palms, picking it up and letting it sift through trembling fists. There was no way he was turning back to retrieve them, wherever they were; not when hunger and thirst were already eating up his innards and he knew that even if Aunue hadn't claimed his supplies already, there wouldn't be enough to satisfy him or keep him alive. He wasn't going back.
So that was it, then. He was dying right here.
Shakily Kouji got to his feet, distractedly combing his fingers through the tail of hair at the back of his head as he struggled to stare reality in the face. For all that he'd entertained the fear that it would end this way, he hadn't really considered that it would happen, save for the past few hours. But whether he willed it or not, all of his wild dreams and schemes, all his plans and efforts had come to naught. The moon was still rising, having yet to reach its loftiest perch behind the dimly lit glares of clouds, but he knew that he could probably expect to live until this time tomorrow at the longest.
An unexpected prickle and shiver on his skin halved that estimate. Somehow he had previously failed to notice how just how cold it had become. How could he have forgotten so quickly? Last night had been unseasonably warm, but the bitter winds were blowing back in from the ocean's vast expanse. October was never known for its warmth, especially not on the coast at nightfall.
Kouji convulsively clutched at his thin hemp tunic, shredded from years of wear, and gazed out to sea—or tried to as his stomach roared and he was attacked by the dizziness of hunger. What now? Did he just lie down and wait for death to claim him?
He didn't know what to think about the death part—he tried not to think of it at all—but the rest of the suggestion sounded like a very good idea right about now. Not knowing what else to do, he stumbled well away from the thin, rank puddle of sick before falling heavily to his knees and lying on his left side, tightly hugging his shoulders.
Kouji tried to blank his mind and stop thinking altogether. But as he cast about for any alternative to mulling over how miserable his life had been from start to finish, he ended up fantasizing about what he might've done in the port city itself, futilely denying how unattainable it had now become. He would've asked around, maybe, to find some captain to take him on as a hand or an apprentice or something… but first he would've bought some decent food—
Kouji's eyes shot open, then closed tight in sheer anguish. Only now did he realize that he'd neglected to bring any amount of money, even a fraction of what precious little his parents possessed. Only now did he realize he hadn't even had a solid plan for surviving in Aepia itself. Even if he weren't consigned to death right now, even if he'd fulfilled his plans and arrived in the city, he probably would have ended his short days as a starving beggar in Aepia's streets.
So much for plans and dreams! Even if he'd succeeded, he would have failed. He had sealed his doom simply by walking out the door. There was truly no escape. And why? Because he hadn't thought things through, he hadn't planned right, he'd been so utterly, unforgivably stupid…
The boy thrashed in the sand, feebly pummeling the ground with every reminder of failure, every self-damnation until he could take no more and broke into tears once again. He curled in on himself and wept, his heart tearing with self-hatred, misery and complete, utter loneliness. Damn it all, why wouldn't the gods just let it end?
I want to die…
He jerked awake with a gasp. He hadn't known he'd been unconscious, or for how long. The darkness that greeted him left him confused for a moment before he realized it was still dusk.
Memory found its way back to him in instants. He must have cried himself to sleep; it was the last thing he could remember doing. Kouji felt the blood crawl about halfway up his cheeks before it halted and drained. He was torn between shame at his abysmal callowness and utter apathy for anything and everything that might transpire now. Nothing was below him now that he'd sunk so far, not even tears. After all, in a few hours it wouldn't matter anyway.
But even as he lay shivering on the sand, waiting to fall into black unending sleep, before long his pride was rankled. Kouji was slightly surprised that it was still there to begin with, but now he was becoming far more annoyed, ashamed… and angry. Angry that out of all the miserable wretches the gods could have picked to toy around with like this, it had to be him. Angry that he had been reduced to this unforgivable weakness. Angry that he now had no choice but to submit to the humiliating doom they had now laid before him.
Just as he heard the faint roar of a small wave tearing itself apart on the shore at his feet, a queer thought entered his mind:
Kouji shivered against the gentle breeze whistling over and through him like death's cold fingers. Oh, how he could hear the gods cackle, Gorothin loudest of all, and the rest joining him in their cruel sport. His ragged fingernails dug into his palms until they drew blood. They dared laugh at him in his last misery? He'd show them—he'd spoil their fun and strike the sneers from their faces.
By Aunue, getcherself up! Rustef's hoarse, slurry voice echoed in his head. Get up an' make yerself useful, else I'll bind ye up in a net an' offer ye to Gorothin meself!
Rustef had always muttered about sacrificing his son to the gods. And from the crude banter of the fishmongers, Kouji was faintly aware that in dark days long past, the gods had demanded their own sacrifices—he couldn't remember very well how Mistel and Soprotae had wanted theirs, but Gorothin preferred the flesh set aflame—and Aunue took her offerings herself… in the sea.
Slowly he sat up, bracing himself and taking deep biting breaths of chill ocean air as his stomach roared and his head spun. Thinking literally hurt. It was with an odd sense of finality that, once his senses had settled enough, he decided that firstly, he wasn't going to last more than a few hours in this state; and two, that he could revenge himself upon the gods, have the last bitter laugh and end his own suffering in one fell stroke. Kouji's head pounded mercilessly, and yet everything was becoming so clear now. So simple.
The boy opened his eyes and found dark waves awaiting him.
Slowly he got to his feet, nearly collapsed, and regained his balance. He could barely see through the dark and dizziness, but with that same strange finality he mustered the strength to walk, slowly and steadily, to embrace the water and his death. He took another breath and tried to clear his thoughts as he walked. If he willingly offered himself to Aunue and appeased her, the gods would be obliged to offer him some form of recompense. Peace. Oblivion.
Kouji found himself having to battle away some emotion as he reached the water's edge and the frigid waves licked his bare toes: Regret. Trepidation. Relief. Sorrow. And maybe—maybe just a hint of pride. Pride that he had found a way to defy the gods and yet perhaps dodge their wrath. Pride that he, Kouji the wretched son of Rustef, was deciding his own fate.
He waded out into the shallows. The freezing water gave his legs a nasty jolt and his senses reeled. But he soldiered on, pointedly ignoring the icy pain shooting through his legs, drawn by the dark lure of eternal sleep until his body was submerged from the waist down, when he was too numb to go on. Kouji shook uncontrollably with the cold, feeling his teeth chatter violently and his bones rattle.
By rights I ought to be… Actually, he couldn't decide what he ought to be feeling right now—scared, depressed, anguished or whatever a man about to die was supposed to feel like. But now he felt… calm, and it didn't feel quite appropriate. But a wave rolled in, soaking him up to his midsection and nearly carrying him off his feet, and he decided, No time for that now, I guess.
The cold was so severe that he could barely breathe. Spikes of ice gouged away at his stomach, and a dull ache was all that seemed to remain of his legs. Kouji was paralyzed, and he could see nothing.
What am I doing here? part of his mind wondered stupidly, but a word echoed almost inexplicably in his head: Death. Death. Death.
There is no turning back.
His teeth chattering themselves to pieces, Kouji slowly lifted his head to find the thinning shreds of cloud backlit by eerily pale light. They glided over him, taking seconds and ages at once, to reveal a perfect ivory-crescent moon in the gaping tears of their knotted fabric.
The holy white sickle and glittering stars reeled out of view as Kouji collapsed sideways into the October waters.
The cold shock of the sea rammed through his heart and his eyes opened wide to nothing. Animal instinct and primal panic took over as his leaden limbs flailed haplessly. Breathe, breathe, can't breathe, need air! In desperation he opened his mouth—and gulped down brackish water. He couldn't see anything, didn't know which way was up… he reflexively imbibed liquid until his whole body felt waterlogged and his head whirled sickeningly. He was drifting, drifting… the resistance increased and his futile struggles gradually ceased.
O, gods deliver me! But as once more a chilling serenity settled over him, he knew he would never breathe ocean air or see the sky again. This was it.
You got what you wanted, was his last cynical thought as Aunue's saving darkness took him.
On a different day
If I was safe in my own skin
Then I wouldn't feel
Lost and so frightened
But this is today
And I am lost in my own skin
And I'm so lonely I don't even want to be with myself anymore.
—Dido, "Honestly Okay"
Gemmani Girl: (amused laughter) Has Kouji died? We shall see! Thanks for the review; it's a major confidence boost to see that people are still reading!
Akino Ame: Don't worry about it, your review and your sister I mean. Thanks for the reassurance; I did put months into the chapter but I still can't be sure how it turned out. As for the similarities between Kouji and Briar; Neklaran and Niklaren… I barely remember anything from Circle of Magic (what's Emelan again?), so those are completely coincidental and it kind of creeps me out. The whole sacrifice theme really isn't a theme; it's supposed to be a minor motif. The history and religion of the Drifters universe is still in progress, but I believe I've written somewhere that human sacrifice is a fairly archaic practice that people now refer to mainly as a rather vulgar figure of speech. (adds preceding sentence to liner notes in LJ) Funny, I kind of meant it to be depressed suicide (and in a way it is) but things changed a bit and got rather interesting when I threw anger into the mix. Glad to hear you enjoyed it despite the rather dreary subject matter, and thanks again for the high school reassurances!
Coming up: Unbeknownst to Kouji, there is another lost soul taking a walk on the shore that night. What becomes of that coincidence is detailed in the (fairly short) chapter of "In with the Tide"… COMING SOON to a computer screen near you!
And to you skeptics asking how soon is soon… no comment.
Thank you for reading!
P.S. Please think of me as I start freshman year next week. High school looms on the horizon. :-(