Cheerful shouting resounded in the distance.
Countless white lights twinkled.
The dazzling lights were akin to the stars on a clear night.
The soft ground lay spread out in a twelve by twelve meter area.
This was the stage for fairies to dance.
Tchaikovsky, too, would become one of the fairies in this Swan Lake ballet.
Her movements flowed like water to the graceful melody.
Her body moved naturally.
She danced and twirled light-heartedly.
She finished her dance.
Wild applause broke out.
With her great performance she naturally smiled.
She let a small, “I did it,” escape.
Everything she’d worked towards had finally been rewarded, she thought as she took in the golden light.
Just as she did, the scene abruptly changed.
She was took a blow to the side.
All the splendid scenery was blown away.
Broken. Shattered. Pulverized.
It was hot. It hurt. Almost as if she were on fire.
She could smell gasoline and iron.
There was broken glass and black smoke.
Her field of vision began to narrow.
A dark room.
The only light came from a computer monitor.
She sat up and held her shortened, rounded legs.
She kept escaping.
From the voice that beckoned her.
She plugged her ears.
The weather is nice, the voice said.
She closed the curtains.
She kept escaping.
To her imaginary world.
To her temporary world.
She wished for her future.
She wished for her past.
She kept running.
Her vision blurred in the white mist.
On the other side… on the other side certainly—
—a pure white, calm, “Ai-le-en,” he stared into black emptiness. “A-i-le-en, Roh-a-chev-ska-ya.”
† † †
She woke with a shout, heart hammering, body covered in cold sweat.
Aileen sat bolt upright, shoving the sheets aside, her eyes wide as she rushed to feel for her legs. She ran her slender fingers over her thighs and down her calves before reaching her ankles.
“…” There was definitely bone and muscle.
She grabbed just above her ankles, and then relieved, the tension drained from her face and remained like that for a short while.
She finally regained her senses and began to let her eyes wander.
The room wasn’t that big.
Green rug. A chest engraved with a relief. Old books and scrolls lined a bookshelf. Gentle sunlight shown through the glassless window. The view was dotted with simplistic wooden cabins with a verdant forest in the background.
“…Where am I?” She mumbled to herself.
She suddenly looked down and realized that she wasn’t wearing her black clothes, but rather a thin white dress. She ran her hands down her dress she noticed that her bra was gone, but she still wore underwear.
—Why am I wearing this? The question crossed her mind as her right hand that was feeling the dress moved to the right side of her chest.
The core of her body reverberated with pain as she had a flashback.
“Ah.” She remembered.
Crossing through the fog; the illusion of the grassy plains; the dim light from the campfire at the foot of the mountain; the coming night; the scenery.
The arrow piercing her chest. She remembered the pain of it gouging her as it was pulled out. In her head it was muddled and cloudy, almost as if it happened to someone else.
However, there was one thing that stood out clearly in her hazy memories.
A voice that called her name.
“…Kei?” Alone in the room, she meekly called him.
However, there was no reply. Other than the occasional bird chirping outside the window, the room was silent.
Uneasy, Aileen gripped the end of the sheets in her fists with an expression of helplessness as she looked around the room. Suddenly, she took notice of the door.
It was made of wood and coated in a paint the same deep green as the rug.
She hesitated for several seconds. Aileen swallowed and made up her mind. She got out of bed and made sure not to make any noise. Her gait was unsteady, so she placed both hands on the wall and staggered to the door. Slowly, she pushed it open.
Creeeak. It was louder than she anticipated.
Even though she was scared, she left the room.
It led her to what resembled a living room that was a little bit larger than the other room. In the middle of the room was a large table and a metal chandelier with a design like a tree, hanging above it. There was no longer a rug on the floor; it was a rough timber instead. Compared to the rug, it was a bit dirty. She didn’t really want to walk across it, but she didn’t have many options.
She looked at the window. It was a simple window, and as she thought, there wasn’t any glass. There was yet another door on the other side of the table, but it looked like that was the entrance.
Aileen wondered if she should leave.
She wanted to know where she was, but she was barefoot and she didn’t know who was around in the first place.
As she hesitated, the door across the room creaked.
“…Oh my.” A fair-skinned beautiful woman walked in. The basket she was carrying contained clean and neatly folded clothes. Suddenly faced with Aileen, who stood frozen, the beautiful woman—Cynthia, smiled sweetly and kindly addressed Aileen, “You’re awake now, I see.”
“Ah, um, yes.” Cynthia’s warm smile released a little of Aileen’s tension, letting her move and nod her head somewhat.
“That’s great. Your companion has been quite worried about you…”
“…Companion? You mean, Kei!?”
“…I see… Kei is here…”
Cynthia placed the basket on the table and affirmed Aileen’s words as she sincerely smiled. Relieved, Aileen dropped her shoulders.
“Yes. Right now he is out, but he should be returning any time now.”
“I see… Thank you.” Her legs suddenly grew weak with her relief.
“…Do you not feel well? Oh, your body is probably just weak. You should lie down and—“
Before the worried looking Cynthia could finish what she was saying, they heard a noisy crowd of people outside. “Oh my, speak of the devil… Aileen-sama, it looks like Kei-sama has returned.” Cynthia smiled widely when she heard the rattling of a cart approaching.
“Really!?” Aileen’s face lit up.
It was silly, but it seemed like seeing Kei would be better for her than resting right now, thought Cynthia.
Oblivious to Cynthia’s kind gaze, Aileen hastily opened the front door. She cheerfully said, “Kei! You’re—” but her voice fell.
Outside was a dark red parade.
She first noticed the men who trudged along on foot, then the cart as its wheels clattered against the ground, and finally a young man riding a horse.
The young man rode a Bowser Horse and held a vermillion bow in his right hand; it was Kei, no doubt about it.
His bracers and chainmail were dark with dirt, and even at a distance his expression looked grim. He was the avatar that Kei used and the one that Aileen knew, but something was different. Even if she were asked, she wouldn’t be able to answer, but she still knew that something about how he looked was wrong.
—It was definitely Kei. But not the Kei that she knew.
Confused, she hesitated to call out to him.
“Aileen!?” While she was still confused, Kei noticed her and froze. “Aileen!! You finally woke up!”
His previously stern look disappeared without a trace as he nimbly jumped off the horse and ran toward her with a bright expression. He moved to embrace her, but stopped a few steps away from Aileen in her white dress after considering his bloodied outfit, “—I probably shouldn’t in these.”
A few steps.
So close, yet still out of reach.
Just a few steps away.
A distance so close, yet so far away.
They both stood there silently looking at each other. A perplexed smile crept onto both of their faces.
“Um, I… seem to have been sleeping, huh?” she smiled awkwardly.
Kei nodded after regaining his composure, “I suppose so. You slept for almost an entire day, you know. How do you feel? Do you remember what happened yesterday?”
“Hm, I feel… fine, I think. As for yesterday, I don’t remember much after we made a fire.”
“What about when you were hit with an arrow?”
“I remember that. After that it got hazy, almost like I was dreaming.”
“Did you… use a potion on me?” asked Aileen as she rubbed the right side of her chest, the place where the arrow stabbed her.
“Yeah. Do you remember?”
Which meant that she didn’t remember the pain of the treatment either. Kei felt a little relieved that Aileen was so nonchalant. Not remembering certainly was fortunate.
He used a potion to heal his shoulder, so he knew firsthand that the pain was extraordinary. It was an experience that he would forget if he could.
The pain from simply healing his cut shoulder was like torture. Just how painful was it to heal a punctured lung from the inside? Even imagining it was frightening.
Left behind by Kei, Sasuke clopped his way over to them, “Bururu.” He closed his eyes and licked Aileen’s cheek as if asking, Are you okay? He flicked his tail around.
Aileen playfully laughed at Sasuke, “Ahaha, stop it, that tickles… wait,” she suddenly realized. “Why were you riding Sasuke? Where’s Mikazuki?”
Kei’s face darkened.
Surprised, Aileen let out a small, “Eh?”
Kei pulled something out of Sasuke’s saddle and showed it to her. A piece of dark brown hide was folded and tied up.
“The bandits shot him with arrows… I just went back to get a memento.”
He’d made a talisman for his head piece out of Mikazuki’s mane, and he’d taken some undamaged hide from his rear. Kei left the rest of Mikazuki’s remains to nature.
“…I was thinking of getting a purse or something made from this.” He laughed and the corners of his lips curled up into a smile, but he looked like he was in pain.
“O-oh, I see. That’s why you have blood on you… it happened like that, huh?”
“Yeah, that’s why. Some of it anyway.”
Mandel had shown Kei how to skin, but Kei was the one who actually did the actual work. So saying that he got bloodied because of that wasn’t a lie.
“But… What about his ‘respawn’?” Aileen knit her brow.
“Aileen,” Kei’s expression tightened, “It’s complicated, but we’ll save it for later. For now, wait inside for me. I’ll be right there.”
Kei came closer, and in just a few words he whispered in Aileen’s ear, “…It’s been only a day, but this…”
—Is not a game.
Swan Lake Ballet: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swan_Lake It’s pretty famous, but I didn’t know about it, so I put it here just in case :p