The Wind and the Moon
Noriko sat up quickly, shivering as a sudden breeze rushed around the tiny hollow. But this place is on the leeward side of a mountain, she reasoned; and the trees are so close together that they should make a windbreak-
The girl turned her eyes toward the fire to find Izark sitting cross-legged on the other side. He had been sitting up, as was his habit, to watch the fire. That was what he said, and Noriko chose to believe him. Now he looked at her over the flames, concerned. It was not normal for Noriko to wake from deep sleep so suddenly.
"What's wrong?" he asked, careful to keep his voice neutral. It wouldn't do to betray his own present nervousness, lest it effect her impressions for the worse.
"Nothing, I guess," she replied, but looked around at the shadows beyond the halo of firelight. "Just the wind, I think." Though it had not been the wind that first woke her, she realized as she spoke. The girl could not help but tremble a little as she remembered the feeling that had startled her: a cloying, hazy presence rolling like smoke into a peaceful dream. An entity, not a figment, and with a will of its own, prodding at her latent fears and doubts with what seemed to be fiendish delight, then scattering into a thousand wisps the moment she became conscious of it. Noriko looked back at Izark, who was still gazing at her intently. "I thought I felt something," she admitted to him.
The young man's whole aspect changed without his moving a muscle. His expression never wavered, yet somehow his countenance was growing sterner every second.
"Something," he repeated, his voice even. "What kind of something?"
But his tension did not escape Noriko, who instantly knew what he was thinking.
"Oh, nothing like the monster in the White Mist Woods," she said, flapping her hand a little to assure him that it was nothing serious. "Nothing really sinister, it was more- well- mischievous. Like someone breathing in your ear, (Brother used to do that to me all the time) or howling outside your window after telling you a scary story, something like that."
"Hmm," Izark mused, glancing up to the place where the trees met the dark sky, and where a full moon was just making itself visible from behind the leafy branches. Seeing that white rim, the warrior promptly smacked himself in the forehead. "I thought the birds were making less noise than they should. Noriko, come over here. Bring your things."
Very curious as to why he had hit himself, the young woman obeyed. She quickly wrapped the blanket around her shoulders, then carried her bag and pillow over to where he sat and knelt beside him, silently begging for an explanation. Staring at the fire, Izark absently put his arm around her waist.
"It's been a longtime since I paid attention to the Spirit Days," he said, pulling her closer until she had to scoot over in order to remain comfortable. "The last full moon of summer is what we call the SylphMoon. Some people say it's natures way of warning us to prepare for winters hardships, or that the elementals are reminding those who can't see them that the sylph and other spirits exist. Whatever the case, they will be very active tonight, the good and the bad, and they'll all be making mischief. Look." The fire dimmed, leaving them in darkness but for the glow of the red coals.
As her eyes adjusted, Noriko began to distinguish shapes in the night. Some were like sculpted moonlight, while others were figures of concentrated shadow. There were thousands of them, varying in distinctness from vague outlines to near solidity, covering the entire color spectrum, and running the gamut from luminous to completely obscure. There were those that could have passed for human, while many took the forms of fantastic beasts and still more took no form, but wove and coiled through the trees like living mist or many colored winds. She stared in awe at the phantasmal parade that swirled all around them, and cringed when a sprite, noting her awareness, swooped gleefully toward the two humans. In mid-dive, the imp frowned, veered away, did a tight circuit around them, made a face, and whooshed off into the eddying mist.
"What was that?" Izark spoke softly in her ear when she recoiled, turning her head into his shoulder. He could tell from the way she had been staring that she sensed many more apparitions than he did. He drew he protectively into his lap, cuddling her to his chest as the fire blazed again, its light immediately overpowering that of the specters. "What did you see?"
Noriko looked up at him, shivering. "You didn't see them?" and then, to answer his question, "One just dived at us, but it lost interest for some reason. There are thousands, Izark. You really can't see them?"
The young man shook his head. "I can see a few of them. Remember what Irk said, about how most people can't see him because he generates too little energy? Nights like this give them extra strength, so that the most powerful ones are visible. Irk must be pretty strong, if you can see him in broad daylight. He had been staring at the fire as he spoke, but now he craned his neck around in order to see her face. The fear he saw in the depths of her wide, bright eyes made him wish he had not told her about the SylphMoon or shown her the festival of shadows taking place all around them, but the damage was already done. Now he must do something to repair it.
"Don't worry," he whispered in a kind tone, resting his cheek against he forehead. "They won't touch you again as long as you are here with me."
"Why is that?" Noriko asked, trusting his words completely but nonetheless curious.
She immediately regretted the question. Izark was still and silent, which meant that she had touched a sore spot somewhere in his memory. It was a thing that she found herself doing much more often than she intended to, that being never, but which she couldn't seem to avoid.
The warrior swallowed, having decided what words he should and shouldn't use.
"I told you it's been a long time since I paid any attention to the Spirit Days. That's because I learned that I didn't have to pay attention to them. Before I left home, I followed the same customs as everyone else: put an offering of some kind just outside every door and window, preferably in a clay dish that the spirits can break to prove they are real. The goal is to provide them with trouble they can cause outside the houses and the barns, the fields… you get the idea." He stared into the fire, resolved to avoid the subject of his family. For now. "I kept it up for a while after I left, but I couldn't always find a place to sleep inside. The first time that happened on a Spirit Day," here Izark paused to clear his throat.
It was the Night of the Winter Fiend. A boy of about thirteen pelted along a mountain road, long strides eating up the distance as he attempted to backtrack, but it was already too late. Even at his current pace, it would take him until early morning to reach the town he had been aiming for. That was plenty of time for a fiend to find him.
A strange mist was beginning to form. It glowed an icy blue that added to the chill of a winter night in the mountains. Finally, the child, for that is all he really was, came to a halt and glared into the darkness, flame blue dragons' eyes straining to penetrate the eerie haze. Cold sweat mixed with the moisture collecting on his shoulder-length black hair and trickled down his collar, while his breath came fast and shallow. Clenching his fist, he could feel sharp talons digging into his palm even as they formed.
Izark turned slowly, considering his options. They were fewer than he liked, and each had their own risks attached. He could keep going in the fog, but doing so might draw unwanted, even dangerous attention. If he chose to stay put, on the other hand, he was more likely to meet an evil spirit even this far into the mountains than an hour down the road. Winter spirits tended to be more powerful in the highlands.
A frigid gust from the lowlands he had been heading for blasted his back while leaving the thick fog intact, and the boy knew he was in for it. After a second's hesitation he dashed back up the path. In less than a minute he was at the stand of trees he had passed a short while ago. Quickly he pulled some food out of his bag and deposited it on the road. Hopefully that would placate anything that happened by. Hopefully…
Another squall sent the terrified child scrambling into the trees, where he huddled between the roots of a gnarled evergreen. Watching through the dense foliage, Izark thought he saw a particularly thick bank of mist moving slowly, deliberately, up the road. As it came closer, he began to perceive two or three individual bright spots. Or rather, figures with cores of shadow wrapped in concentrated light the same color as the mist. GREAT. But then again, this was how his luck tended to run. He'd heard that most winter spirits were reasonably non-threatening, as were most elemental spirits. It was the malevolent ones that made it so dangerous to be out on Spirit Days. It figured that on the one night he was caught outside he would end up encountering no less than three Frost Wraiths, by all accounts the kind of apparition most likely to kill you when, not if, it found you, not to mention the most sadistic. It was said that Frost Wraiths were actually a combination of elemental and dark spiritual energy, which explained their cruel nature.
The cold that came with them hit the boy's throat and lungs like a physical blow. Breathing no longer seemed like an option. Now abreast of his hiding spot, the wraiths paused as one of them explored the offering he had left with a feathery tentacle of mist. The thing toyed with the bits of travel bread, derision obvious in its deliberate inspection of each tiny piece. One of the other creatures reached out a sinuous coil and picked up a large crumb, then let it fall with a dull ping on the road, where the mud had frozen solid. The third lost interest in the offering almost immediately, but rolled questing toward the copse of evergreens. Izark tried desperately to stop his teeth from chattering, even when he knew it wasn't the sound that drew the wraith.
The grove filled with freezing mist as the fiend moved through the trees, clearly enjoying its prey's fear. The child shook uncontrollably as he stared death in the face. The intense blue light was all around him now, and the dark core he had first perceived as wrapped in the light hung directly before him and was expanding.
It was the sight of the writhing black mass preparing to consume him that roused the boy's instincts. Suddenly the threatening cold was infuriating, the Wraith itself utterly revolting. He absolutely refused to die like this, that thing would not touch him, he'd make it sorry, this would not-
Instantly the mists retreated, as did their dark core, and Izark could breath again, though the spirit was still very close. He looked down, and was surprised to see the vague shape of tree roots where before there had been only fog. In the eerie light he perceived himself to be at the center of an invisible dome, outside of which the mist roiled. It would have been laughable, the puzzlement with which a long coil of darkness extended from the core, to touch the dome questioningly.
The boy stiffened at the contact. It was as if the fiend was touching some part of his essence, and he hated it passionately. He'd make it sorry.
The air inside the dome was hot. The wraith recoiled, only to discover that the shield was growing to push it away. The spirit was not quick enough and, as the dome pressed outward, Izark thought he glimpsed a strange face pushed against the barrier, a face veiled in shadow and twisted by fear and resentment, because it had recognized one stronger than itself.
The spirit fled, gliding quickly up the path, its fellows appearing from the other side of the road and, sensing the shield, also fleeing. Somehow, the boy had survived. But here was another difference; here as another power that would ostracize him from human beings. Here was another strength that would undoubtedly cause injury where he had intended none, and would spread fear instead of acceptance. Here was another token of his doom. The child stayed in the grove for the rest of the night, trembling for fear and fighting back tears.
"So there you are." he told her, his voice ironically devoid of triumph. "I got the hang of using my energy as a shield, and eventually I didn't need to worry about the spirits because they're worried about me. I'm a monster that even monsters fear. But," the warrior turned his gaze way from the fire and back to Noriko's dear, open face, which at that moment held an expression that utterly rejected his last statement. "But even when I lost control in Selena Guzena, I recognized you. I remembered what you meant to me as soon as I saw you," he whispered as he leaned in, "and I knew that I would never hurt you, no matter what I was or became. That I could stay with you," he breathed against her lips, "and protect you, even from myself. So don't –"
He never finished. Noriko cut him off, lacing her fingers around the back of his head and kissing him. Izark took it as a sign of agreement, and let himself drowned in the soft warmth of her mouth.
Suffice to say they were both blushing when they found it necessary to come up for air. For a time Izark went back to contemplating the fire while Noriko rested her head against his shoulder. Finally she said, "Izark? Do you mind if I write that story down?"
The young man thought about it before answering. "Go ahead, he encouraged her." Then, sternly, "But not tonight. You should be asleep. No" he said, and stopped her from getting up, "stay right here. It's SylphMoon, remember? You need to stay inside the shield."
Noriko made a face at him before snuggling her head back into his shoulder. Within minutes her breathing became slow and rhythmic. When he was certain she slept, Izark tightened his grip on her waist and stood up. Supporting her with one arm, the warrior carefully maneuvered over to their meager supply of wood, then returned and placed a piece on the fire, but not before hissing, "Try that again, and I'll make sure the next stick is so wet it steams. I can keep her warm if need be."
He wasn't at all surprised when the fire hissed back.
No chance of any fun this year, I see, it sizzled glumly. It really isn't fair. We fire spirits always end up getting caught. We can't even give people bad dreams without being threatened with wet.
Izark smiled. "Look at it this way," he suggested quietly. "You got my attention, not to mention hers. Isn't that the whole idea of the mischief making?" Then an idea occurred to him. "I can hear you," he murmured. "I take it you have an exceptional amount of energy."
But of course, came the reply, along with a smug little pop.
"Well, it's wasted on Noriko and me," he retorted as he carried her back to the place where they had been sitting. He sat down carefully, then eased back until he lay flat on the ground with her head on his chest and his arms around her. "And I meant what I said about the next stick. She needs her rest. Don't try anything."