"You have come into a hard world. I know of only one easy place in it, and that is the grave."
~Henry Ward Beecher
It was so dark.
She couldn't remember the last time she had seen a night so dark.
It was almost mesmerizing, this darkness. The night swirled in a mist all around her, the shadows dancing around like half-crazed men, jumping, twirling, prancing about like mad artists performing on a light-decrepit stage. On this chilly late fall night, the bright red-orange glow of the central campfire was not enough, nor was the pale-white light of the moon and stars quite bright enough to make any kind of headway against the encroaching dark. That darkness, like the fangs of some great oppressor moving to strangle its prey as it invaded the small circle of light which gave shelter to the three inhabitants seated around it.
And so the blackness stirred, spitting and whispering it's malevolent message as she sat against the slightly sun-baked dirt of the tattered ground, knees pulled up to her chest, folded arms wrapped gingerly around her legs as her head tilted downwards at an angle where her face could not be seen. The shadows crept slowly upwards against her legs and thigh, at once both ravishing and lustful, determined beyond reason to take up the girl and swallow her whole. But the fire wouldn't allow it. Fighting back with all the savage desperation of a cornered animal, it snaked its thin, golden appendages firmly around her upper body, unwavering, determined to make one last desperate stand to protect her from the hunger of the encroaching night. A wasted effort. For all its twisting and struggling, there was a part of her it simply could not reach.
Two stern, unyielding entities on the crest of her upper back. Bodies which seemed to relish in the blackness all around, wrapping themselves in it with all the tenacity of an old women clinging to a shroud in winter. A pair of pitch-black figures which stretched themselves silently upwards into the heavens like two solemn sinners in prayer.
Two silent symbols of her sorrow.
Her black wings.
The call awakened her as if from a dream, snapping her back from the stream of half-conscious deliberations on which she had floated. Her features clenched for a moment, than relaxed. Nina raised her face to reveal the eyes of a beautiful young woman— bright and blue, staring out from underneath a sea of flowing golden hair. She shuddered.
The familiar voice led her to the figure of the young woren warrior now seated cross-legged across from her, one furry hand placed firmly on the embattled staff which served as her weapon, the other holding the hind leg of the killed boar which served as dinner, now stripped almost disgustingly bare of any meat or sinew. She gazed at her now with curious green eyes— eyes which, much like Katt herself, always seemed to be filled with the embers of an eternal, undying fire. What was that spark that always drove her? Nina had always wondered that. She wished she knew.
"Nina? Aren't you gonna have some?"
The Wyndian girl looked distastefully at the slaughtered hog now roasting over the open fire. It's face, partially burned a crisp brown over the intense heat of the flames, seemed to be in the act of almost emitting a laugh as the faintest traces of a smile tugged at the corners of the mouth. A laugh! What an odd expression for any creature to have when staring death in the face. But then again maybe it wasn't so strange.
"No thanks." She replied, brushing aside a stray lock of golden hair away from the edges of her eyes. She stared longingly at the slow burn of the campfire, watching the yellow embers fly forth with a crackle and a pop before dying away into the darkness of the night. "I don't have an appetite."
"Don't have an appetite? Are you feeling alright?"
It was Ryu. Her eyes drifted downwards to the prostrate figure of the young man lying beside Katt, staring at her now with those deep emerald eyes she had learned to hate so much. Ryu. Who was this man? This man she had traveled with for the greater part of the past two years now, this man whom she had fought alongside, laughed alongside, cried alongside, bled alongside? She thought she knew at one point. But now she wasn't so sure. Nina forced herself to look away.
"I'm fine. I was just thinking."
"Oooooh. 'bout what?" Katt's voice was as bright as ever as she helped herself to another slice of boar meat. "You seemed pretty intense there."
"Nothing in particular."
"Oh come on." Katt smirked widely through mouthfuls of food. "You don't have to be so shy. Aren't we good buddies? Don't be such a stranger, Nina."
Nina sighed. Friendly and open to a fault. That was Katt. Well, when she was in a good mood at least. There had been moments in the past when she had loved her for that inquisitive and ever bubbling personality. But this was not one of those times.
"I said I'm fine. It's nothing."
She turned away from the campfire. Staring out into the jaws of the surrounding night she found she could see nothing. No trees. No grassland. Nothing. Just an enormous expanse of emptiness which sprawled onwards in all directions, stretching back as far as the eye could possibly see. She used to be afraid of the dark as a child. Countless were the times she found herself awake in the middle of the night at the magic school, realizing that there was no one to run to, no one to protect her from the monsters lurking in the shadows. There was no one back then.
And there was no one now.
"Don't think I'm letting you off that easily!"
And suddenly she felt arms around her— warm, fuzzy hands which wrapped her up firmly from behind and squeezed. There came a sudden sensation from beneath her armpits, a sharp tingling which quickly spread downwards along her sides and threatened to burst outwards in all directions. Katt struck with all the speed and fury of a tiger going for the kill, and Nina couldn't help but let out a tiny squeal in spite of herself.
"S… stop that Katt." She gasped, trying desperately to suppress the waves of laughter which tickled at her throat. "I'm not… I'm not in the mood. S… stop…"
"Ha! I'll stop as soon as you stop with all that dang sulking! You're seriously cramping my style!"
"I'm not sulking! I'm just… t… thinking to myself…"
"Then stop thinking! For someone so smart you're such a moron sometimes!"
She couldn't hold it anymore. A stream of giggles burst from her lips, ringing out hard against the night to mix in with Katt's own raucous roars. She squirmed violently to free herself, knowing full well the futility of struggling against the woren's far superior strength.
"I said STOP!"
Her voice echoed loudly in the stillness of the night— firm, threatening, harsh. The tickling abruptly halted. There came a pause, a slow groan, and then a strained, agonizing sigh of defeat from the lips of the young girl behind her. She turned around to see Katt slouch off with a dissatisfied frown, arms crossed firmly against her chest.
"You're no fun anymore, ya know that?" She spoke bluntly, all the mirth and merriment of the past few moments seeming to have all but vanished into thin air. Katt quickly raised herself into a standing position with one abrupt motion, staring down with large, frustrated eyes. "You're boring now."
"Just leave me alone, Katt."
"You're boring." She repeated, paying no attention to the Wyndian girl's plea. "When did you become this boring?
"I was always boring."
"No, that's not true." The Woren shook her head. "The Nina I knew wasn't like this."
She didn't respond. Only let out a tired sigh, forced herself away from the girl's accusing stare.
"She wasn't boring." Katt continued in a slow, dry drawl. Her voice was derisive now, almost mocking. "The Nina I knew talked, smiled, and laughed with the rest of us. But you… you never do. You're not her."
"I don't know what you're talking about."
"You wouldn't. You can't even see that you're not yourself anymore."
"Katt. That's enough."
Ryu again. He was still lying there on his makeshift cot, his head propped up against his arms, eyes staring deeply into the flames as if searching for something. Katt spun on him, anger flashing quickly against the young girl's eyes.
"You know it's the truth! Don't pretend like I'm saying something wrong when you've been thinking the exact same thing! This girl…"
Her eyes darted back to meet her own. There was that fire again, that same damn fire which always burned so bright in those eyes. And now shining more brilliant than ever, glowing with a radiant intensity that seemed to peer right down through her mind, through her heart, through her very soul. Nina could feel herself shake under the weight of the Woren girl's stare, her breaths catching in a single knot at her throat.
"… this girl… this girl isn't Nina. I don't even know who this girl is!"
She couldn't handle it. Nina broke eye contact yet again, peered into the darkness searching for something, anything to get her mind off the image of those two burning emeralds searing deep into her heart. For the first time in her life she found herself disliking… no, hating… the fiery young girl standing before her now.
"I'm sorry if I disappoint you, Katt." She whispered.
"Disappoint me?" The Woren almost yelled now, her voice rising into a near hiss. "Not just me! Everyone! Yourself too! And your sister! Mina!"
A slow silence drifted through the chill of the autumn air, swallowing the three of them whole within the deathly stillness of its jaws. They stayed that way for a long while—Nina peering outwards into the surrounding darkness, Katt looking down with an expression somewhere between anger and disbelief mixed into her furrowed features, Ryu staring forlornly into the fireplace as if desperately wanting to escape into its warmth. How long did they stay like that? Seconds? Minutes? Hours? Time seemed to slow to a crawl, the soft, gentle churning of the camp fire giving the only indication that the world hadn't come to a standstill altogether. Nina could hear the sound of her teeth grinding hard against one another, could feel the sharp stab of her own fingernails digging deep inside her flesh, bleaching the knuckles of each hand a ghastly white.
"H… hey Nina..."
Katt was the first to break the stifling silence. Her tone was softer, more subdued now, begging, almost pleading with something between embarrassment and regret.
"I… I'm sorry. That wasn't fair. I… I didn't…"
Nina stood up.
"I'm going for a walk."
She didn't look at them. Wouldn't. Couldn't. Instead simply picked up a spare branch from the now fading embers of the campfire, ignited the end with a quick flick of her wrist, and started walking forward. One step. Two steps. Three steps at a time.
"Don't follow me."
Darkness all around her. But different now, somehow… comforting . A warm blanket of stillness surrounding her, numbing her senses, dulling her wits, stilling the frenetic thumping of her heart against her chest. She wasn't sure how long she had been sitting there by herself in the darkness. But it must have been a long time by now; the soft glow of her makeshift torch was scarcely more than a shouldering ember, a tiny orange halo which could barely illuminate the ground in more than a faded cone directly in front of her.
She wrapped her arms tightly around her legs. Katt was right, she knew. There had been a time when she had thought she was happy. When she didn't fear others. When she didn't fear herself. A time when she could smile and laugh with those around her and say with certainty that those were things which sprang from the bottom of her heart. When she had truly felt free, free for perhaps the first time in her entire life. But that all changed far too quickly.
That all changed with Mina.
Nina buried her face deep within her knees, trying desperately to erase the picture of the young, beautiful Wyndian princess from the surface of her mind. Mina. Mina. Mina. It was all wrong. So very very wrong. It shouldn't have been her. Was never meant to be. It wasn't her destiny.
"There you are."
She looked upwards. It wasn't Katt this time who had awakened her from her stupor. There was a sudden flash, a momentary explosion of color as her eyes quickly readjusted to the new light source. When it had faded she found herself staring at the face of the Dragon warrior, a half smile spread on his lips.
"I told you not to follow me." She mumbled halfheartedly.
"Sorry, couldn't help it." He gave a quick chuckle. "Couldn't sleep, so I thought I'd come out and get on your nerves for a while. May I?"
She didn't say anything, just averted her gaze as he stooped down on the ground beside her. They sat there in silence for a while, neither of them saying anything, neither of them daring to break the stillness of the night all around. Ryu coughed.
"Look, I'm sorry about what Katt said." He finally broke the quiet in a near whisper. "You know how she gets when she sets her mind on something. But she didn't mean it."
"She only said those things because she's worried, Nina. She cares a lot about you."
"And…" He let out a deep sigh. "… and she's not the only one, either. You know I do too."
"Is that all?"
Another silence. It was stifling, this silence. How ironic it was that she had left the campsite specifically to seek out the quiet, and yet with Ryu here now she could barely stand it.
"No, that's not what I wanted to tell you." He paused, as if unsure whether to continue or not. "Tomorrow we reach Windia. I thought… I thought maybe I'd stick around for a little while."
She turned to look at him for the first time. The torchlight reflected gently off his face, basking his features in the warm, golden glow of its touch. He was a handsome man. She had always thought so. His face was strong and detailed. Sharp and clearly defined, and yet at the same time belying a sense of gentleness, a sense of kindness she had rarely seen before. All this lay under a mane of deep blue hair which was at once both ordered and chaotic, with stray locks jutting out in all directions but as a whole falling down in a neat pile down to his shoulders.
But those eyes. How she hated those eyes. She couldn't stand his eyes.
"You don't have to." She spoke at length, managing to coax a half smile out across her lips. "I'll be fine by myself. I really didn't want you guys to have to accompany me out here all the way in the first place."
"Nina. You know that was our choice…"
"I know." She continued. "But once I get to Windia it'll be completely different for me. I'll have to start living on my own, learning to perform my duties at the royal court. There will be a ton to do every day. So much that I probably won't have much time to do anything else. So…" She locked her eyes firmly on his, as if to get the full extent of her message across. "I think it would be a waste of time for you to stay, really. There's nothing for you there."
And yet another silence. The gentle popping of the torch was the only sound that pervaded the scene, continuing its slow, enduring conversation with the cool autumn air. But there was nothing else.
"Do you think about her a lot, Nina?"
"W… who do you mean?"
She turned her face away. Sank back down into the shadows, bit down hard on her lower lip.
"Why would you ask that all of a sudden?"
"I'm just curious, I guess." He let out a long sigh. "You barely ever talk about her. But…" Ryu paused.
"You have changed, you know. Since that day."
She didn't respond.
"Nina, please look at me."
And with those words she felt a pair of warm fingers on her cheeks, coaxing her, begging her to turn around. She didn't resist. Nina allowed herself to be guided gently back, until she was looking face to face with the young dragon clan warrior, close, so close now that she could almost feel the heat of his breath press softly against her face. Those eyes again. Those same eyes… so clear and green, at once both so gentle and full of a childlike innocence, and yet at the same time possessing a sense of determination and strength she didn't, couldn't possibly understand. His eyes were so much like hers. Almost exactly alike.
It made her sick to her stomach.
"Ryu? What… what are you doing?"
"I want to get to know you, Nina." He smiled at her now, a sincere, sad smile which sent shivers down her spine. "I want to get to know you again, like I thought I did once before. Do you remember?"
She didn't say anything.
"Do you remember? Our conversation that one time?" He fixed his eyes firmly on hers, daring her to look away. "It seems like so long ago now that sometimes… sometimes I wonder if I imagined it all."
She stared at him, feeling the sound of her voice catch in a whimper at her throat. She could feel the thumping of her heart beat hard against her ribs— not just a drum now but a cascade… a cascade of entire orchestras beating violently together in unison, threatening to burst from her chest altogether. She could feel herself shaking, sensed the heat of her entire body rise upwards to her cheeks.
"Did I imagine it? Please tell me, Nina. Please tell me because... because I've been wondering for such a long time. Was there ever anything between us? Or was it all in my head?"
Hot. It was so hot. She felt like she was suffocating, all the air in her lungs catching fire in her chest. Too much. She couldn't take it. With one desperate motion she pushed herself away, tore herself from the grasp of the young dragon warrior with a final violent gesture.
She turned herself back towards the emptiness of the night, feeling the relief wash over her in entire waves. She paused for a moment, sensing the heat drain rapidly from the corners of her body, feeling the chill of the brisk autumn air press softly against her skin. She couldn't help but smile in spite of herself. A small, sad smile. The kind of smile worn by those saying goodbye.
"No." Nina whispered softly. "I'm sorry, Ryu. There was never anything between us. Nothing."
Ryu pushed himself into a standing position. She didn't dare turn around, didn't dare look him in the face. What would she find now if she peered into those emerald eyes? She didn't want to know.
"You should really get some sleep. We have a long trip ahead of us tomorrow."
And with that the sound of footsteps slowly echoed and died away into the distance. The glow of the torchlight faded into nothingness. The night closed in once again like a shroud all around her.
And Nina sat.
Well, well,well! Look what I dug up! This is a fic I started back in 2002, more than 9 years ago! Man, that is a looooong time, let me tell you. I never got around to finishing this one back then, so that is something I plan to remedy starting now!
Because it was originally written so long ago though, I feel like my writing style has changed a lot since then. Also, re-reading it, I really didn't like the direction the story was going too much. So I decided to kind of rewrite it from scratch, with the basic themes and stuff being kept more or less intact. So here is the first chapter of The Black Wings 2.0, and I hope beyond hope that I can finish it this time.
I haven't written in a long while btw, so please point out any rusty parts that you think needs revising.
Thanks for reading!
7/6 update— Just did some minor cleaning up of the text, made some modifications to parts of the dialogue to make it sound more natural. Will start on Chapter 2 soon.