At World's End
The midday sun beats down upon the backs of weary travelers, who seek shelter under makeshift tents of salvaged canvas tarps. Somewhere in this sea of sand and glass there is, like a monument to generations past, an old water tower, crippled by the weight of years and rust. At its base there is a small human settlement, a ramshackle slum-housing commune built from scrap metal and broken boards. And, in one of these makeshift hovels, tangled in a pile of tattered bedlinen, there lies a child.
He writhes, seemingly in the grips of a nightmare, with beads of cold sweat breaking out across his brow. Across the room, visibly restraining herself, his mother moans in terror.
This one is sick, Doumeki knows, sick not with an illness of the body but of the spirit. With great care he folds back the sleeves of his robe, shuts his eyes, and lays his hands upon the panting child. The child twists in the bedclothes and wails; his mother gasps and clamps a hand over her mouth. Doumeki is silent and still, his back straight, and it is only because of his commanding presence that she does not rush forward to them.
Eventually, the child's thin wails give way to a dead silence. Abruptly he arches once more, straining towards the heavens as though pulled by a wire through his chest - and then collapses. His breathing quickens, then slows, normalizing, until at last he looks as though he merely sleeps.
Doumeki removes his hands, and turns to the mother, who quails away from his gaze.
"The worst is over," he says, calmly. "Bring water, let him drink. Keep him warm."
She comes forward, then, to see her son, kneeling by the bedside to kiss his forehead, brushing a trembling hand over his cheek with obvious relief.
"Thank you. Thank you," she repeats, in a murmur, a mantra, to Doumeki, who but nods, and turns to leave. A hand on his arm stops him.
"Wait. Don't you need... Isn't there something we can-"
He quiets her with a raised hand, understanding her meaning immediately. "No payment is necessary."
Her mouth opens, closes; color suffuses her pale cheeks. "At least let us give you something. It isn't much, but..."
She leaves the little room, walking softly, as one might by a loved one's sick bed. When she returns she carries with her a small satchel of grain and bread, which she presses into Doumeki's hands. Though mildly reluctant, he accepts the gift, and as he departs lays a blessing upon the house. It is the least he can do for them - at least, until this town should find a spirit-healer of its own.
Outside, the streets are nearly deserted; the heat has chased all but the most foolhardy indoors. Doumeki finds himself walking confidently, muscle memory leading him home, and knows that they have stayed in this town too long. Eventually he finds their humble shelter, a squat building with the windows blown out long ago, battered boards nailed over gaps in the walls.
A sullen Watanuki is on hand to greet him by the door, which hangs pitifully off a single hinge. Doumeki catches a whiff of a delicious something – it seems that Watanuki has a pot of soup on the boil.
"Have you found anything?" he demands, as Doumeki hands him the bag of rations. "Are we going the right way?"
"We've drifted west," says Doumeki. "But they said we're still headed inland." He does not say How should I know, I don't even know what we're looking for, but Watanuki looks up sharply, as though he'd heard it anyway. He glares at Doumeki, expression souring, but, finding no crime to pin upon him, instead whirls away in a huff.
"Sit," he snaps, serving up the soup with a bent ladle. Doumeki does, legs crossed, in the center of the bare dirt floor, and accepts the chipped bowl of soup he's handed with barely a look exchanged. It's hot from the fire and fragrant, despite the lack of hearty ingredients. If Watanuki has to be mad all the time, thinks Doumeki, at least he's a good cook.
Spirit-time is always the hardest of times.
Doumeki is no fool, so each night he waits until Watanuki is sound asleep before draping his coat over thin shoulders, neatly tucking it in as though it will somehow make a difference. But there are some nights Watanuki doesn't sleep. Can't sleep, really; he tosses and turns, fidgets and sighs, occasionally lifting his head as though searching for something. And sometimes, when he thinks Doumeki's not looking, he stares at the ceiling with wide, frightened eyes, as though enthralled by some terrible vision.
Each night Doumeki stays awake by Watanuki's side, perpetually alert, waiting for something to happen. They pass most nights without incident, and only in the few dusky hours before daylight does Doumeki finally allow himself a brief respite from watchfulness, simply grateful that they have survived another night.
On other nights, however, they are not so fortunate.
It begins first with the howling of a sudden wind, which snuffs out the few remaining embers smoldering in the cooking fire. Doumeki's skin begins to prickle, accompanied by the sick feeling of being watched - somewhere, by someone. With a soft gasp, Watanuki's eyes fly open; he stiffens and his shoulders tighten. He knows.
Doumeki rises: calm, slow, supremely confident. You had to be confident to face them. (Even if you were hoping, deep inside, that the dark presence would simply dissipate and leave you both in peace.)
When it doesn't - when it starts coagulating in the shadows, black masses lurking at the corners of his vision, twisted shapes rising into the air, warm, stifling heat bringing the sharp tang of fear - that's when he'll throw himself over Watanuki, shielding the shaking boy with his body. This brings their faces close together, and he can see Watanuki's warped in a rictus of terror, his pupils shrunk to mere pinpricks. The guttering wind strengthens, carrying with it the whispers and the wails of the angry dead. As though weathering a storm, he bows his head, holds Watanuki's trembling body tightly, and waits.
After what feels like hours, the pressure on them abates and the oppressive darkness seeps away, leaving the room cold and empty once again. Watanuki begins to struggle, succeeding in shoving him off, and yells at him for being stupid, for being self-sacrificial and definitely the biggest idiot to ever walk this planet.
Doumeki collects himself, gathering the remains of his nerves even as the echoes of those ghostly screams ring in his ears, and merely says,
"You're too noisy."
(This was something that happened a long time ago:)
"I can't leave," says Watanuki, almost thoughtful. "I can't leave this place. I-" he takes in the shrine, its ragged walls, the hollow shell of what was once a temple, now nothing more than debris. "This is the only place I'm safe."
"You can leave," says Doumeki, almost urgently. "You can. Just trust me."
"Trust you," scoffs Watanuki, looking halfway between laughter and tears.
(But all stories have a beginning. We should start there.)
It's strange to think that what Doumeki really remembers is, the first time that he met Watanuki, Watanuki was wearing a scarf. Of all the things to remember, it had to be that moth-eaten piece of cloth, which he had on that day dubbed a 'scarf' only because he was in a charitable mood. By now, Doumeki has surmised that either Watanuki's perpetually cold, or some ex-lover or long-lost relative must have given it to him, because he can't think of any other reason why Watanuki would want to hold on to something so threadbare that it was nearly transparent.
At the time, though, that was what struck Doumeki - simply that scarf, the end of it flapping merrily in the breeze as the thin young man wearing it ran up, yelling-
"What are you doing, you great oaf, you've killed my vegetables!"
As he drew near Doumeki noticed his clothes and cloak, which, although shabby, looked as though they had been painstakingly patched by hand.
"No need to be so loud," said Doumeki, and glanced down, only just noticing the little garden he'd crushed as he'd made his way across the grounds. "Oh." He looked up again in time to watch the young man's expression swiftly change from angry to confused to guarded. He had very blue eyes.
"...Who are you?" he asked, warily, after a long pause.
"This used to be a temple," said Doumeki, tangentially. "My grandfather was a priest here."
"Who are you?" asked the young man again, more insistently, colorful anger returning to his face.
"I'm -" began Doumeki, and then he stopped, and said, "Who are you?"
"How can you ask me that?! I live here, and you just ruined my garden!"
"This is my family's shrine," Doumeki reminded him. The boy gaped for a while, mouth moving silently as he tried to work out something to say. After some time he shut it, and swallowed, still glaring at Doumeki as though everything was his fault. (It rather was, come to think of it.)
After a while he ventured, sullenly, "I'm Watanuki."
"Doumeki," said Doumeki, extending a hand. They shook, Doumeki with a firm grip and a steady gaze; Watanuki averting his eyes, hiding his face in the folds of his scarf.
"Fine. Doumeki. So, Doumeki," said Watanuki, managing to imbue that single word with enough venom to kill a lesser being, "why are you here?"
"Why are you here?" mimicked Doumeki.
"You're just trying to annoy me, right?!" Watanuki exploded.
"Are you cooking?" said Doumeki, changing the subject. "I smell something good."
Watanuki sputtered speechlessly, like a broken sprinkler, and then finally threw up his hands.
"First you ruin my garden, then you want to eat my dinner! I don't even..." He continued complaining loudly as he turned away, heading into his shelter. But Doumeki took silence to mean consent, so he followed Watanuki into the ramshackle slum-dwelling, ducking his head as he did so.
They've been traveling for months now; Doumeki works for their food and Watanuki, well, he cooks it. And they are searching - always searching, spiraling inland to the center of the earth.
The next place they go to is large, populated – akin to the glorious days of the original city before it was reduced to rubble. Like ants people stream out of the husks of stone buildings, going about their daily business. Children - a rare sight in these times - run laughing through the streets, playing and shouting amongst themselves.
Watanuki doesn't say much in public, when he goes out at all. He seems to prefer to stay away from wayward spirits indoors, where it's safer; even in the daytime, they don't leave him alone. When he does go out, he trails silently in Doumeki's wake, a shadow of the Watanuki Doumeki knows when they are alone together. And, when people talk to him, he simply smiles enigmatically,
Doumeki couldn't see spirits before, not really, not properly - but he's seeing them more and more now, the previously hazy shapes resolving into clear visions of the dead. Maybe it's that he's getting better at it - or maybe, it's just that more of them are showing themselves before him.
At the market, they split up to buy the week's rations, Doumeki with a rucksack slung over his shoulder, Watanuki with a basket on his arm. He stands in line at a fresh-produce stall, prodding and examining a bulbous red fruit, and does not notice the shadow that hovers over him, thickening by the second. Nor does anyone else – except one.
"Demon!" A voice gasps from behind Watanuki. He barely has time to look up in surprise before he's taken down. The food items in the basket on his arm scatter across the dirt floor. A wiry but surprisingly strong young man has planted himself solidly on Watanuki's chest, ripping at his cloak until it falls away, tearing at his clothes, pummeling him roughly with fists.
"Fiend! Monster!" he cries, his eyes wild. Watanuki throws up his arms uselessly, trying to block the blows, but they rain down upon him, each heavier than the last. A crowd gathers, onlookers murmuring in shocked whispers to one another, but none step forward for a few long moments.
Then, a tall man in a long white cloak bodily thrusts himself through the cluster of people, his eyes narrowed. With all his strength he pries the young man off Watanuki, and pushes him aside, where he is absorbed into the disapproving mob.
Doumeki arrives soon after; he is breathing heavily, and goes to Watanuki's side at once.
"What – the hell -"
The man in the white coat kneels over Watanuki, who appears to be in a state of shock, light welts rising across his jawbone from the blows he'd received. With great care, he helps Watanuki stand.
"He was attacked by a madman," explains the man, simply. "He'll be all right, but I can clean his cuts and scrapes for him as a precaution. I'm the doctor in this town," he adds.
Doumeki resists the urge to reach out, to touch Watanuki's forehead, his face; his hand curls into a light fist by his side. He considers this, and then nods.
Previously silent, Watanuki seems to snap out of his trance. His mouth falls open, and he takes a step towards Doumeki with a beseeching look.
"No buts," snaps Doumeki.
The doctor, who already leads Watanuki away by the arm, shoots him a quizzical look.
The doctor's office is pristine for a primitive dwelling; Doumeki is impressed by its cleanliness and organization, and briefly entertains the idea that there is hope for mankind, after all. His thoughts, however, are interrupted by the doctor clearing his throat conspicuously as he enters the room.
"Well, I cleaned the cuts and scrapes. There's little chance he'll get an infection now."
"That's good," murmurs Doumeki, distractedly. "That's good."
He watches Watanuki in the front yard, through the window of the waiting room. Watanuki glances over, looking almost shy, although that was probably more wishful thinking than anything else. Somewhat unsteady on his legs after the shock of the attack, he had excused himself to get some air, leaving Doumeki and the doctor to chat.
Distracted, Doumeki doesn't notice for a long while that the doctor appears to be struggling with some inner turmoil. Finally he says, in as careful a voice as he can manage, "I must ask you something."
"Anything," says Doumeki, looking over.
"Know you of the scars on his throat?"
At once, Doumeki's blood runs cold.
"Scars? What scars?"
"How long have you been traveling together? You have never seen them?" asks the doctor, skeptically.
"I – No, what do you mean by -"
The doctor interrupts him, sharply- "Were you the cause of them? Are you why he cannot speak?"
"What are you saying? Of course he can -"
"He was not keen," continues the doctor, doggedly, "on having me examine him too closely, and now it's clear to me why. It is an old wound, but from the looks of it, it was a terrible one."
The doctor, with his back to Doumeki, could not see the horror on Doumeki's face upon his uttering his next words.
"So you know not how this young man might have come to have his throat torn out?"
He had always been wearing that scarf, Doumeki realized. Always.
"Not talking to me won't make me stop talking to you," presses Watanuki, insistently.
It has been three days. Three days and he is waiting for this delusion to go away. For Watanuki to... stop talking.
"You're not real," he says, to Watanuki, simply. "You can't talk."
Watanuki sits back, looking at him, and then finally sighs.
"You can't sigh, either," Doumeki adds.
"Why are you being like this?" demands Watanuki.
"What's underneath your scarf?" counters Doumeki. The instant the words leave his mouth he realizes they are a mistake, but by then, it's too late.
With Watanuki constantly at his side, Doumeki soldiers on, even though they now pass most of their days in silence. Day by day the land around them grows sparser, and they have long since left the large cities behind. Now they encounter only the smallest of settlements in the midst of a desolate wasteland swirling with fog, and no longer raise their faces by day to the sun, but the lightning-torn skies of a ravaged world.
They meet a hermit, a long-mad, bearded creature who crawls out from his hovel long enough to call after them, Turn back, turn back, there is something terrible there at the center, can you not feel it?
Watanuki grits his teeth and murmurs, "We have to press on."
Each day, every time Watanuki speaks, Doumeki presents himself with a logical dilemma, almost like a game. Am I crazy, he asks himself. Is this a dream? He hasn't thought of an answer yet.
At supper time they set up camp under a gnarled, leafless tree. Watanuki catches Doumeki's eye, and, before either can say a word, begins wordlessly to unfurl his scarf. The scars are white and knotted; at a gentle nod from Watanuki, Doumeki reaches out a hand to feel the ridged tissue.
Watanuki's mouth moves. He says – and Doumeki hears him, clear as day -
"Do you trust me?"
"How can I?" wonders Doumeki, aloud.
"Do you?" repeats Watanuki, almost pleading. "I can't tell you yet. I can't tell you. But I will. I'll tell you everything. When we get there. But you have to trust me. You have to-"
And Doumeki thinks to himself, knowingly, It's because my brain hasn't figured out how to exit this delusion. It hasn't figured out why he can talk, when he can't. It's making him tell me to wait. Making this dream – tell me to wait.
But still he waits, and he trusts. It's the only choice he has.
The second last night, they have penetrated the deep fog which blankets the center of what used to be the capital. All is dark outside, and silent as the grave; the spirit-time comes and goes without incident. At the foot of a crumbling staircase Doumeki relights the fire. He no longer questions – he feels as though he left that part of himself behind a long time ago.
"We're almost there," murmurs Watanuki, gazing beyond the fire, beyond Doumeki, into the misty distance, where towers a great, ancient citadel of sand, unlike anything anywhere else in their world. An unearthly glow emanates from it, mostly focused into a pillar of light which points into the endless reaches of the sky. "Tomorrow, we'll -" he stops, searching for words he can say with appropriate certainty, but, unable to think of anything, simply trails off into silence.
Early the next day, Doumeki is woken by someone shaking him vigorously, and reluctantly opens his eyes. He sees upon Watanuki's face a look of such intensity as he's never seen before, and realizes that the day has come.
The journey to the foot of that monolithic spire is shorter than he'd imagined. The gates, looming as though carved by the hand of a giant, are cracked ajar, and Doumeki gets the strange, creeping feeling that their arrival is expected.
With some trepidation, they pass through, and find they have stepped into the interior of a massive cavern of glass and dripping water and cold stone. At the very center of the cavern, upon a pedestal which rests in the center of a shallow pool of water, there glows something spherical, and Doumeki barely has time to call out before Watanuki is running hastily down the damp steps that line the room, splashing his way across to the pedestal. Unafraid, he reaches his hands out to the treasure, and at his touch the light peels away, uncovering for their eyes what appears to be a golden feather covered in dark runic designs.
Watanuki grasps the feather in his hands, unaware of Doumeki's consternation. It floats in the space between his cupped palms as though encased in a crystal sphere, its surface shimmering in ripples.
He shuts his eyes, then, concentrating – on what, Doumeki knows not.
Help us, he entreats. Help us, help us.
His voice sounded as though it had been amplified by some hundred thousand times, and Doumeki grabs at his ears in agony. Indeed, the walls seem to shake with the force of it, tiny pebbles tearing themselves from the walls and tumbling down into the pool below.
Slow at first, but then quicker and quicker, images of a single face begin to flicker into being on every reflective surface within the cavern - across every still pool of water, every shard of glass jutting from the ground. It is the face of a woman, with sharp eyes and long black hair. She opens her mouth to speak, and her voice echoes through the cave as Watanuki's had.
What would you ask of the witch of dimensions? Says she.
Watanuki swallows, his voice shaking.
"I wish to leave," he says. "Let us leave this place - the two of us," he adds, although he doesn't glance at Doumeki. Doumeki, for his part, is simply floored.
The witch, however, seems unperturbed. And what will you pay me for this service?
"My-" From a distance, Doumeki can see Watanuki's throat bob up and down again, compulsively. "My voice. My power. My voice."
"No!" says Doumeki, even as he wonders about the meaning of those words. In the cavern his voice is little, weak; it barely creates an echo. He feels as though there is sand in his mouth, drying up his words. He splashes down towards Watanuki, but feels as though he wades through mud. "You can't do that!"
The woman in the pictures moves, sighs, and then looks away. She seems to be remembering something, or someone. Finally she says, And what will he give?
"I-" Watanuki turns to face Doumeki as he approaches with a look of deep despair, and Doumeki sees that his eyes are glowing a pure, brilliant blue. In his hands, the feather turns, and shimmers. "- Must he pay with something?"
"My power," says Doumeki, immediately. "Of exorcism. Take that instead."
"No!" cries Watanuki. "You idiot, you can't-"
"You would pay with something of yours," Doumeki points out.
In her calm voice, the witch continues, heedless of their argument, Where do you wish to go?
"To a world without spirits. My power is ancient and old," Doumeki bargains, quickly. "It should be worth that much."
Perhaps, says the woman delicately. Perhaps more than enough for one of you. But not enough for two. He, and she extends a finger outwards - even though she is a flat reflection on the wall, they can tell she is pointing at Watanuki - He must still pay a share.
"My voice," says Watanuki, again, miserably.
"Then you won't be able to talk, you fool."
"Who's listening?" snaps Watanuki.
"I am," says Doumeki, and turns back to the picture of the witch, as if the matter is settled. Unfortunately, she is watching him, and her expression is strange, almost pitying.
I'm afraid your power won't do... for, if you give me that, you will no longer be able to hear his voice. She pauses, allowing this to sink in. Is that what you wish for?
Doumeki, no longer able to mask his surprise, simply gapes at her. His thought processes feel as though they have slowed down to a crawl. He is only jerked out of his stupor by the feel of Watanuki's fingertips on his cheeks – for Watanuki has left the feather behind on the pedestal, and has reached out to hold Doumeki's face in his hands. Their eyes meet, and Watanuki speaks – but without moving his lips.
And at once Doumeki understands – perhaps not fully, perhaps only seeing part of the picture, but he understands. The voice that he believed existed only in his mind – did.
"How is it that I can hear you, when no one else can?" murmurs Doumeki. He reaches up to take one of those hands and pull it away from his face.
"You can hear the voices of spirits," says Watanuki, looking pale, but determined. "I was – I was possessed by one. He hurt me - took my voice from me – but gave me another one – even though he didn't mean to."
"He tore your throat out?" says Doumeki, feeling sickened by the thought.
"I tore my own throat out," whispers Watanuki. "I couldn't stop myself."
An impotent rage fills Doumeki, and he turns away, looking conflicted. His gaze roves the cavern, searching for inspiration, and finally settles upon the apparently magical artifact within Watanuki's hands. Working on a hunch, he turns to the witch and says to her,
"Take the feather."
"It's not ours to give!" protests Watanuki.
The witch pauses. This is ... an interesting trade you propose.
But it is possible, she continues. Very possible. That feather is... a valuable thing.
"Can we bargain for more?"
You can try.
Doumeki jerks a head in Watanuki's direction, still facing a pane of glass with the witch's image etched upon it.
"Give him a voice. Give him back his voice."
It's not enough for that, she says, simply.
"Not enough," repeats Doumeki, looking torn.
...But if I take your power on top of that, it will be, she finishes. However, he'll have to re-learn how to speak.
Doumeki looks to Watanuki, then, and he's almost smiling, but is surprised to see Watanuki's brow knit. The witch must have noticed too, for she commented, Your companion looks somewhat perturbed.
"It's just," Watanuki bursts out, suddenly, startling them both, "I don't understand - why do you want that feather? This – this payment – is it really enough? How can it be just right?"
The dozens of faces reflected across the cavern all smile the same knowing smile.
It's hitsuzen, she says, and raises her hand in its heavy sleeve to make a magnificent gesture. The air glistens wetly, shimmering like gauze, and then swells as a golden runic circle inscribes itself upon it. Spidery writing weaves its way through the air until it seems to split the very fabric of the world itself, revealing a luminiscent portal, beyond which lies an unknown destination. Doumeki glances at Watanuki and, seeing that same look of keen determination, is reassured. Together, they are engulfed by a blinding white light, and afterwards Doumeki knows no more.