I woke with a sharp breath, before breathing heavily. I knew I'd just had some sort of dream, but for the life of me I could barely remember what. It felt like I was sinking and floating at the same time. It took me a couple minutes to regain my composure. It was still dark, so I guessed that I wasn't in bed for that long.
I looked down. I was in my bedroom at the hot springs. I faintly remembered being told to rest, and
Well, anything after the monster fight was a bit blurry. I slid out of the covers. I was still wearing my swimsuit, and my body had already started to heal its cuts and bruises. I still felt pins and needles all over though.
I sat on the edge of the bed, my tail dangling over it. I stared at it for a minute or two, still finding it hard to get over how surreal everything was. This body, the monster, Illaena
It just felt like a waking dream. I took a deep breath, tracing my finger through the fibres of my hair, feeling the individual strands. I pulled on it a little, still amazed that such long hair was indeed stuck to my head. I wasn't used to this kind of feeling; I'd always had short hair. The nature of long hair was an unfamiliar knowledge to have. I let go of the hair and it slid back down, lying over my knees.
I didn't know what to think. I didn't know what to feel. Anything that would be an indicator of that was strewn across several interlocking strands of emotion and chaos, yanking in different directions whenever something new unfolded. I felt like I needed some... Clarity. Everything was so jumbled and messed up.
I stroked my tail gently, my fingertips brushing across the bushy fur. I sighed, the still unfamiliar sensations tingling. I moved my hand away, and flicked the tail, watching it move. I grimaced, and shook my head. If I let myself get taken away by the new body, I'd be stuck in a downward spiral of depressionI knew it. This was a thing I had to learn to tolerate. I spent a couple moments glaring at my chest.
I felt wide awake. I didn't know how much sleep I got, but I knew that I couldn't get any more. I stood up, and wobbled a little before gripping the side of the bed, stabilizing myself. My legs were a little shakythey obviously hadn't recovered that much from the demon fight. I stood there for a couple more minutes, breathing heavily until my legs stopped wobbling.
I looked around, remembering that I was supposed to be sharing rooms with Janet. She, however, didn't appear to be in the room at present. I frowned, and shook my head, grumbling.
I walked slowly and carefully over to the door, making sure I didn't fall over. I then exited into the hallway. I was on the second floor of the hot springs, so I figured there would be a balcony nearbyI even remembered walking past one the day before. Maybe a breath of fresh air was exactly what I needed.
With that thought in mind, I headed down the hallway, walking quietly as to not disturb anyone who might be resting. My thoughts turned to Lilly... I wondered how she was doing. I hoped that she was okay. I didn't think she would do something reckless like charging a car into a freaking demon, but... I sighed. I'd have to ask her about this next time she was awake.
I approached the door to the balcony, but realised it was already slightly open. I pressed my palm against the front of the door, pushing it open gently, looking outside.
Janet was standing there, her hands placed atop the barrier that went around the balcony; Her dark red hair swaying in the wind, as she looked over the springs below, and the remaining debris from the battle. I stepped through the door, taking a breath of fresh, forest air as I walked next to her, resting my own hands against the barrier, almost mimicking her pose. I turned and looked at her.
Her expression was... hard to read. I couldn't tell much emotion behind those hazel eyes, but I knew that there was a lot on her mind. Maybe she was as contemplative as I was.
"Couldn't sleep too, huh?" I asked. She nodded.
"I... I've been up for a few hours now." She said, smiling nervously. There was an air of uncertainty, enhanced by a moment of silence. I nodded gently, my gaze shifting to the horizon. The wind billowed through the treetops, as the full moon was high in the sky.
"It should be dawn soon..." Janet said, quietly. I grunted quietly, not quite sure how to follow that sentence up. Now that I finally had someone to talk to about the thoughts buzzing through my mind, the words escaped me.
"...Lilly's... She's gonna be okay. The... The owner of the hot springs checked her outapparently she's got some kind of medical training, which was a gift from Alana. All she needs is rest and recuperation, and she'll be fine." Janet said, smiling gently.
I nodded. "That's good news." I said, my voice wavering slightly. Janet looked at me, concern showing in her eyes.
"Naema... Are you okay?" She asked, slowly. She looked at me with an almost piercing gaze. She looked... Almost sad.
"I... ...I don't know anymore, Janet." I said, truthfully. I looked away from her, unable to keep eye contact.
"... Do you want to talk about it?" She asked.
"...What good will talking do?" I inquired.
"...I don't know." Janet said. She paused a little, before continuing. "I feel like... I don't know. I justEverything that happened today, it... It feels like it shouldn't have. You know? Like... The wheels of the world just took a turn down the street of crazy." She said.
I nodded. "I know exactly what you mean."
"I figured you might... Heck, I think we all feel that way, especially after today. ...We could have died, Naema. We could have all died." She said, looking away. "I've... I've never felt more vulnerable than I have today."
I stared at the ground below, a lump in my throat. I felt like I should know what to say, but I didn't. I had no words to convey my sympathies, because this was a situation I had no idea how to handle. And to be honest? I felt that way too.
We both fell silent, listening to the birds of the forests slowly begin to sing their praises of the morning sun, as orange streaks began to shine through. My tail hung limp behind me, as I gently brushed some of my dark brown hair out of my face.
"...What do we do?" I said, finally.
Janet looked at me, almost in desperation. "How should I know?! I... I'm as lost as you are! Why don't you ask thatthat goddess in your head! Maybe she'll know!" She said, a hint of bitterness in her tone.
I winced a little, my ears flattening slightly. Janet was scary when she was mad. "She doesn't always answer me..." I admit.
Janet gave a bit of a grunt, before folding her arms and looking away. "Figures." She said, annoyed.
"...sucks for me too, you know." I reminded her.
She gave a sigh, and relaxed her shoulders, her arms falling back to her sides. "Yeah, yeah, I know..." she said.
It was now at least a little light outside. I could hear faint sounds of movement beginning to emerge from the rooms inside.
"So... You've been up all night?" I said, trying my best to sound casual.
"...Yeah. I couldn't bring myself to sleep, because..." She hesitated for a moment, before giving a sigh and shaking her head. "...forget it."
"...Because you're afraid there will be more demons, right?" I asked.
She didn't even need to say anything. She just nodded, ever-so-slightly, before resuming to rest against the balcony.
I didn't know what to say to comfort her. I didn't even know if I COULD comfort her. Up till now, we'd rested in the assurance that the gods would prevent things likethings like THIS from happening. They don't normally fail. Now, that sense of assured security was ripped right out from under our feet, and we had nothing solid left to stand on. It was an eerie feeling, leaning on the edge of paranoia.
'...I can't promise you safety, Naema.' Illaena finally spoke up. 'But I can give you the means to provide it yourself.'
I closed my eyes, and decided to humor her for once.
'What do you mean?' I inquired.
'I can teach you how to protect yourself. I can teach you to be able to fight. I can't promise that it'll be effective, or that you won't inevitably face someone or something stronger than you and be incredibly outmatched, but the least I can do is try. I can't stand seeing you like this.' She said.
'So... You're going to teach me... What, exactly? And how?'
'I can give you combat training. I can teach you all the magic that is accessible to you at this tail level. More importantly, I can drag your consciousness into a sort of testing combat arena where I set the rules and opponents you would be facing. You would be able to drop out of it at any time, since it requires you to be meditating in the real world. I cannot force you to do this, so you will have to let me.'
'That... Sounds incredibly confusing.' I replied, bluntly.
'Basically... Imagine a dream world where I set the boundaries, and throw enemies at you. If you win, I'll give you a treat~. If you lose, you'll be given the choice to start over. At any time, you'd be able to return your consciousness and focus back to the real world.'
'...I.... I THINK I understand what you mean by that. Is it dangerous?'
'Not at all. In fact, it's the safest way to teach you artificial muscle memory. However, it won't be a substitute for real life training for long.'
'So... It's like training wheels on a bike then?'
'Yes, you can think of it like that. Horribly inaccurate, but you can think of it like that.'
'...I'll think about it.'
I opened my eyes, and gave a sigh. I didn't think it'd be wise to tell Janet about that particular discussion given her previous outburst at Illaena not responding, so I let it slide.
"...We're... We're going to be okay, alright?" I said, trying my best to smile but only succeeding in making myself feel awkward.
She nodded. "...yeah..." She said, quietly, staring down at the ground below.
I walked up to her, and wrapped my arms around her in a soft embrace. I felt like it was the right thing to do. Janet turned softly and returned the motion, resting her head on my shoulder as she let out a shaky breath... And sobbed gently.
I... I couldn't blame her. I felt like I was almost on the verge of tears myself. But I knew I had to remain strong. I held her a little firmer, rubbing her back a little as she soon regained composure, silent; but for the sound of her shaky breath.
I don't know how long we stood like that. It... It made me feel a little better, to be honest. It made me feel less aloneless helpless. A strange warmth spread through my body as we continued the embrace, my skin tingling a little.
Janet moved her face in front of mine, and stared at me. She seemed... Fragile. I felt the urge to protect her build up inside me. I didn't know if I'd ever be able to do it, but I'd damn well try. My heart pounded in my chest, as we stared at each other. My breath felt heavy, and was quickening a little. A strange new feeling arose within me, but I couldn't bring myself to act on it.
"Yooooo! Naema, waffles are ready!" I heard Rin's voice yell loudly from the floor below. My ears twitched, and we awkwardly let go of each other. I shifted a little, feeling a slight blush sweep across my face.
"Uh... Y-Yeah, let's get food..." I stammered.
Janet nodded. "I'll meet you down there!" She said, before turning around and rushing back inside.
I didn't know why, but I felt even more confused than before.