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Pokémon Another Way (Pokémon Mystery Dungeon / OC Isekai)

Chapter 1: Duress

redspah

the gay agenda
Pronouns
she/her

Another Way

After waking up in an alien body she has no control over, Sue must persevere in a world that eludes her understanding, its monstrous inhabitants as secretive as they are kind. Finding herself stranded with no knowledge of either the locals or their language, and no recollection of how her ordinary trip ended up here, even the refuge she does receive feels uncertain- especially with nobody else here seeming to have suffered a fate like hers.

Or having to deal with their dreams being used by the local deities to try to communicate with them.

As Sue uncovers more of this place's scarred, troubled history and the traumatic impact it left on those still around, and is forced to confront her own, her task here becomes increasingly clear, as does its seeming impossibility. Despite that and her very limited grasp of her own abilities, she perseveres, for her goal remains the same-

To survive and make it home, no matter what.

Xenofiction Mystery / Slice of Life, told from the perspective of someone with no Pokémon knowledge at all. Major themes include self discovery, xenophobia, overcoming guilt, and forging one's own fate against all odds or powers that be.



Tags: Hurt/Comfort, Mystery, Friendship
Content Warnings: Mild Body Horror, Mild Gore

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Cover art by the wonderful @anthrodyniacoms on Twitter!​


Chapter 1: Duress


Ow...

Sue’s body ached as she tried to breathe, each strained gasp pushing her closer to awareness. More and more senses chimed in by the moment, coming together to paint a picture of her immediate surroundings—one that only fueled her growing anxiety.

The smell of wet grass and dirt from up close, cold mud covering her left side, no sounds except for distant forest ambiance. She must’ve gotten knocked out by... something, and spent the last however long lying unconscious in some puddle. Trying to remember what happened before all this yielded nothing, which didn't help any.

She was making her way through a hiking trail, looking around for a place to sit down and eat lunch. There was a loud bang some distance away, and then...

...this.

There was always a risk of unexploded ordnance in the area, but she doubted this was it. If she’d been close enough for an old bomb to knock her out, she would've been close enough to take enough shrapnel to her body to not wake up ever again.

Pleasant mental imagery right there.

Regardless of what exactly had happened, Sue was awake now. Birds were chirping and leaves were rustling, so she had to still have been in the woods. Which just left getting up, checking her body for injuries, walking through the rest of the trail, and reporting this whole… blast event to the authorities.

And getting a bath. God, could she use a bath right now.

Well, no time like the present.

With a painful grunt, Sue took in a deep breath and placed her right hand on the ground for leverage, before rolling onto her stomach and pulling in her legs—

“AGH!” Sue shrieked at the cold shock that went through her body in response. It felt like she’d gotten freezing water splashed on her, forcing her to finally open her eyes.

And scream at what she saw.

A massive red spike jutted out of her chest, its tip stained with fresh mud. Sue froze before attempting to push herself onto her back and get a better view of the grotesque piece of shrapnel—and felt the same freezing shock from behind, shrieking involuntarily. She couldn’t spot the source of the painful sensation no matter how hard she’d craned her head, making her try to reach behind her shoulders and probe what was happening back there—only to freeze at the sight before her.

This was not a human arm.

It was... green, a muted shade of green, its forearm wide and much thicker than the unnervingly thin upper arm. It had three short, muddied, fingernail-less fingers, the middle one sticking out further than the other two. Fearful of what she might see, Sue attempted to clench her right hand, and the unnatural limb in front of her obeyed. The rightmost finger bent at an angle, akin to a thumb, as the malformed hand turned into an equally off-putting fist.

The sensations of her thumb, index, and middle fingers rubbing against mud and each other brought on a horrifying realization that she tried to fight off. A glance down revealed that this spike and these monstrous hands weren’t the only things that were utterly, horribly wrong. The body she was looking at was not human, and definitely not hers. Breasts being gone was the least of her worries. The sight below her waist was particularly hard to wrap her head around.

What are… these?

Her legs were thin and white, feet hard to make out and with no toes. They were obscured by many flaps of white and green skin, the colors matching the rest of her body. They were smeared with mud, long enough to go past her ankles, and originated from somewhere at the waist.

Sue had no idea what kind of bizarre alien body she was hallucinating, but it was just that; it had to have been just that, just some vicious nightmare! She just had to wake up, and she’d be alright—

Her thoughts were cut off by a gust of frigid wind, felt by her entire body. Her legs, her midriff, her three-fingered hands, the buffeting skin flaps brushing against every inch of her skin. Even the spike joined in on the fun with a reprise of its cold shocks, leaving her shaking. The wind also helped Sue notice a sight her brain had blocked out as effortlessly as it did her nose—a lock of green hair covering the center of her vision, stiff enough for the gusts of wind to only briefly sway it.

“Whghat—GHA!” she tried to mutter, before choking on her own tongue. Not even her mouth was right, its different dimensions unfamiliar and off-putting, making her clench her eyes closed again.

This can’t be happening, this can’t be happening, THIS CAN’T BE HAPPENING!

Any semblance of having a grip on the situation faded by the moment as her breaths turned shallower and faster, the barraging wind soon picking up the warm tears leaking down her cheeks. But this wasn’t her body, her arms, her cheeks, none of this was hers, none of this was real! It wasn’t her; it couldn’t have been her; this was some Area 51 escapee whose eyes she was seeing out of! She had a future ahead of her—a shaky one, yes, but a future all the same!

She couldn’t be this, this freakish creature…

Sue curled up as she wept in panic, not even the wind giving her any reprieve. She had done nothing to deserve any of this, especially not this body she had found herself in. The inability to recall just what had caused this only fueled her despairing rage, expressed ineffectually through slamming a deformed hand against the muddy forest floor. Soon enough she’d lost track of how long she laid there, with only mud and wind keeping her company. Despair and anger burned up inside her until there was only ashen numbness left, numbness and surrender.

Guess she was a freak of nature now. Some incoherent alien out of a video game, doomed to die in here—

No.

Her body tensed up at the thought, a snarl twisting her expression. She might not have had anyone to live for anymore, but she’d promised herself that she would carry on and make the most of her situation, regardless of circumstances. Granted, she didn’t foresee ‘getting transformed into a mutant’ as a possible circumstance when she made that promise, but it didn’t matter; she was stronger than this, goddammit!

Dad would’ve wanted me to be, at least.

Sue opened her eyes, capitalizing on her surge of anger-fueled motivation as she tried supporting herself on her right hand again. Her muscles screamed in protest, but eventually yielded as she pulled her legs in and put the other arm to use. Very muddy, very sore, but an ultimately successful position on all fours.

Halfway there.

She took in the sight of her new arms as she gathered her strength. The sheer size disparity between their parts was unnerving, making her feel even more deformed than she no doubt already looked. Any further observations could wait, though—it was time to actually get up.

With deep breaths, she counted to three. After bracing for whatever might happen, she pushed herself up and rose into a kneeling position, legs wobbling painfully underneath. For a moment, she worried if they’d be able to support her weight, given with how thin they were. There was only one way to know for sure, though. Sliding one leg forward, Sue looked around for anything she could lean on in the immediate vicinity, with a nearby tree looking like it’d perform that task splendidly.

Don’t fail me, tree.

Sue grunted, pushing on the ground as hard as she could as she brought the other foot into position—at least for a moment—before losing her balance. A few stumbled steps later, she’d managed to half lean on, half run into the tree she had previously sized up.

Thankfully, the laws of physics did not spontaneously break in those ten seconds, and the tree held. She also avoided running into it spike-first, which, if earlier was anything to go by, would hurt a lot.

Breath by breath, Sue slowly regained her bearings, legs aching with each little movement. Her arms shook, but held the tree firmly, giving her ample time to think through her next steps. Getting back to the trail was a straightforward enough goal to start with—though, judging by her recent experiences, she doubted it’d be any less of a struggle than scraping herself off the ground had been.

The questions about what would happen afterwards didn’t arrive anywhere pleasant, either. Anyone she ran into would be unlikely to react to her new appearance any better than she had. And, if the difficulty of basic movement was any clue, this body was about as suited for combat as that of an infant. If anyone, or anything, got aggressive with her in this state, she was as good as dead.

Maybe the green coloration meant that she was poisonous now? Not that it would help her while being attacked, but she’d take them down with her at least, eh?

Eh…

If she wanted to avoid getting shot by the first outdoorsman she ran into, she would have to convince them she was an actual person. Her previous attempt at speaking didn’t go well, but the situation demanded persistence. Not that she had any other choice, anyway.

With a deep breath, she felt around the inside of her mouth out before giving speaking another go—

“Mhy n-nhame ish Shue.”

Far from ideal, but at least she wasn’t choking on her own tongue anymore, and was somewhat understandable, she hoped. A few more attempts at speaking yielded the same results. Her new mouth was just different enough to make vocalizing the exact sounds she wanted a royal pain, especially when tired. And hungry.

The chaos of realizing she was in a whole new body distracted her from many sensations, chief among them hunger and coldness. They weren’t the only ones, though, far from it—and she had barely any idea how to describe some of them.

It felt like something in her body was being tugged from all around. Each individual tug was so faint she wasn’t even sure it was there, but they combined into something she could sense clearly. They varied in intensity and... the emotion they gave off, as incoherent as that sounded when stated out loud. The more she concentrated, the more of these tugs she sensed. There were too many of them to investigate them all, but she could at least try to focus on the ones that stood out the most, and hopefully figure out if they meant anything.

Something distant in the direction she was facing... maybe angry?

Another, way off to her right, afraid? Thrilled?

The sensations were almost beyond description. Sue could feel emotions in them, but they weren’t her emotions. It was almost as if they existed on their own, independent from anything physical.

Curiosity, nearby. No, not just nearby, right behind her—

Sue gasped, looking over her shoulder. The small clearing was as empty as it had been earlier, aside from a sparrow or some other small bird sitting on a nearby low branch, eying her out.

I know, birdie, I look like I took a bath in nuclear waste…

Guess the weird tugging sensations were nothing important. She’d probably just hallucinated them in her exhaustion, assuming her mind was unchanged between the two bodies. Sue really, really hoped that assumption held true. Though, considering she wasn’t craving brains or whole human bodies, it most likely did, thank God.

The only thing worse than taking the body of a monster would’ve been becoming one.

With a sigh, somewhere between reassured and distraught, Sue braced herself for another attempt at walking, shifting her weight from one foot to another. Balancing on what were essentially just two points proved tricky, much trickier than walking should be—but somehow, not impossible. Hopefully, she could maintain a regular pace, however sluggish.

All that remained now was grabbing her bag and heading out on a trek… home. Hopefully.

Returning to normalcy in a body like this was out of the question, but catching the interest of some government agency or another beat trying to live as what was essentially a cryptid. Especially with this body having traded any ability for self-defense for... uh... yeah. With how useless she now was, there had to have been much less risk of being experimented on, right?

The world’s thinnest silver lining didn’t help much as Sue looked around in search of her bag. There were no traces of it around, nothing but a monster-shaped imprint in mud and some shrubs. She knew all that trying to shove her ID into someone’s face would accomplish was making them think she got eaten by this pale, spindly thing, but she needed it all the same—even if only for when the authorities found her.

I have to find that fucking bag, my life might depend on it.

The extra motivation was enough to get Sue moving again after her long pause. She only barely maintained her balance as she pushed forward, one step at a time. The resulting march was slow and painful, legs aching as if she’d run a mile—and it would be at least half a dozen of those before she’d make it back to the nearest town…

Refusing to let that fact settle in, Sue kept going in her now alien body, one step at a time. Each one a minor achievement considering the circumstances, but an achievement she’d need many of if she wanted to get anywhere. A visual scan of the nearby area only confirmed what she’d already feared—her bag was still nowhere to be seen. Hopefully, making it back onto the trail and backtracking from there would help her find it. If it was a blast that had knocked her out, her bag couldn’t have been too far away.

Though… Sue remembered wearing it before all this happened. Considering she got turned into something halfway between a Martian and a cryptid, her tattered memory was obviously insufficient. Then again, it was the only thing she still had. Not even her clothes—

The abrupt realization made Sue freeze as she processed the fact that she was, in fact, naked. There was no trace of her purple tee on her or the surrounding ground, and the same went for the rest of her outfit. Guess the clothes-likeness of these weird flaps must’ve deceived her consciousness into thinking they were an actual dress or something.

She wasn’t just a monster, but a naked monster. At least she didn’t have any breasts to be hanging out for everyone to see anymore, but considering the circumstances, having yet another bit of humanity taken away from her wasn’t a particularly uplifting realization.

Gritting her teeth, Sue pushed on with renewed vigor, trying to distract herself from another breakdown. Pain worked just as well for that as anything else, but as she marched on, wincing every other step, it soon became apparent that even her cobbled-together plan would have a spanner thrown into it. She was sure she’d at least be able to spot the path from the nearby hill, but it wasn’t anywhere in sight. What she did spot, though, was much scarier.

There was a small group of what looked like gray wolf pups off in the distance—something she’d rather stay well away from even in her usual body, let alone this freakish one. Thankfully, they didn’t notice her, allowing for a hasty-ish escape in the opposite direction.

Hope the path isn’t that way…

Left with nowhere to go aside from ‘forward,’ Sue focused inward, splitting her attention between the indistinct forest ahead and the extremely distinct body she now inhabited. The more she examined the jutting red spike on her chest, the more she doubted it was just some piece of shrapnel. It wasn’t bloodied, it had a somewhat regular shape, and it didn’t hurt when left undisturbed.

Sue took it upon herself to verify that last observ—ow. Guess it really was the spike itself that hurt when touched, its sensations feeling like they came simultaneously from her chest and her spine. She reached a hand behind her shoulders, confirming her earlier hunch about there being another, likely identical spike sprouting from her back.

All of that only raised more questions—what kind of creature would just naturally grow extremities like that? What was their purpose, even? Could be the answer was just ‘some mad scientists made it this way just to spite her’, which, while unsatisfying, was as good as anything she’d arrive at through idle pondering. If nothing else, she could at least secure a double kill if she ran into something chest first.

After chuckling at her morbid thought, Sue shifted her attention to her oddly shaped arms. They looked misshapen, and she was curious about why that was; feeling along her right forearm with her left hand.

God, these fingers are so off-putting, why do they not have fingernails!?

As she examined her new body, a couple of things quickly became apparent. One: the forearm was just… wide and thin like that; there wasn’t any fatty padding anywhere. And two: this skin was smooth. Guess it was expected with her not having any body hair at all anymore, but the utter pleasantness of it all still caught her off guard. Her new superpower, being nice to the touch except for the painful spike thing.

Yay.

Her torso caught Sue’s attention as she glanced down at her lower half. The green skin on the sides of her chest and the arms made it look like some sort of cardigan. If nothing else, it at least fit into the theme of this alien body looking clothed. Her midriff was also… really, really thin. She was far from overweight back in her human self, but this body almost looked like it was being bound with an invisible corset. Curiously, it didn’t have a belly button, either.

Before Sue could ponder any further, an abrupt yank interrupted her. She tripped, only barely catching herself from falling before looking over her shoulder. The culprit turned out to be a small, prickly shrub, a small patch of the green-white skin now hanging from it.

Guess that answered whether these flaps felt anything, and whether there was any magic in place that would make them not get stained with dirt and grime just by walking. Negative, and negative.

Fantastic.

Washing these wouldn’t be a bad idea if she found a stream. Though, was there even a point to that, considering they’d just get dirty again in no time? Probably not, but if she had to be a monster, then at least she wanted to be a clean monster—

Above her, very alert.

Sue snapped her head upwards at the intense tugging sensation. Before she could even consciously process the feeling, the creature flying downwards towards her captured the entirety of her attention, making her stumble back with a gasp. Despite her major, Sue considered herself a relatively outdoorsy girl. She found most wild creatures neat, even if she knew well enough to avoid most of them. Butterflies were especially cute, fluttering from flower to flower with their many colors.

Butterflies half her size, however, were fucking terrifying—especially when they were buzzing at her. They might not have been known for being carnivorous, but Sue wasn’t about to learn whether that fact extended to this mutated one.

She took off with a frightened shriek, running as fast as her deformed legs would allow. Which wasn’t exactly fast, but thankfully the discount Mothra wasn’t keen on following her, sending her off with a low buzz—not that there was enough non-panicking brainpower left in Sue’s mind to notice that.

Her flight of fancy was cut short by the devious appearance of a tree root right in front of her, positioned perfectly to lay her out on the ground. Subconscious reflexes twisted her body to the side mid-fall, the spike spared from taking on the brunt of the impact.

It still hurt, though, a dull pain pulsing through her left side with every breath.

Judging by the lack of any further buzzing, flapping, or other animal noises more unnerving than birdsong in her immediate surroundings, she was in the clear now. She had absolutely no idea where in the woods she was anymore, how she would get back to the path, or even if she was still in the same forest to begin with. One thought, however, occupied her exhausted mind most of all.

What.

The fuck.

Was that.

Was her joke about having gotten dunked in nuclear waste true, and it happened to more than just her? Were there other mutants out there that wouldn’t be so passive when confronted with defenseless prey? Did she have any chance to survive in what was increasingly turning out to be hell on Earth!?

She was gonna try no matter what—being eaten wasn’t exactly on her bucket list—but the odds were growing more dire by the moment. There was always the possibility that the ‘butterfly’ was just a one-off freak, just like she presumably was, but… she had a feeling that wasn’t quite it.

Speaking of feelings.

The sensation she felt right before that thing appeared, that tugging she’d initially dismissed… was it actually some kind of spider-sense? She could feel these tugs even right now, pointing all around and mostly too weak to make out. Did they point out threats? No, not threats, unless that bird near where she woke up was a threat. Maybe living creatures—wait, did that bird look normal? She couldn’t quite recall.

‘Sensing creatures larger than insects’ sounded accurate enough. It would be an oddly specific ability if true, and she had absolutely no idea how it worked. Regardless of how little sense it made, though, it was likely to be her only saving grace here.

Behold the Spindle-Woman, whose power is being even more of a recluse than most computer science students.

The dry chuckles that followed only brought on more aching in her chest. A reminder to get up and going again if nothing else, lest something sneak up on her while she was enjoying the less pleasant kind of mud bath. Well, assuming her sixth sense worked how she thought it did, nothing would truly sneak up on her. Still, if anything fast enough ran up to her while she was still scraping herself off the ground, she was a goner either way.

Not that she could walk swiftly enough for that to stop being true even once she was on her way…

Let’s just... get going and avoid everything that moves.

Sue winced every other step as she resumed her trek, the soreness not making for a good walking companion. It was that or getting eaten by whatever else might’ve lived here, but that awareness helped little by itself. A limp and keeping a mental watch for anything that moved made her already glacial pace slow down even further. Her magic sense didn’t give her a way of distinguishing friend from foe, but she doubted she’d find many of the former in here, anyway.

What she ended up finding plenty of, mainly through an astonished realization followed by a stealthy getaway, were many more of those mutants, of all species and sizes. Caterpillars the size of her hand, slowly crawling along trees? Check. One-legged, red-eyed birds glaring at her every time she looked at them? Check.

Very poisonous looking purple rodents with fuck off big teeth scampering their way around? Check.

It seemed whatever messed her and that butterfly up had affected most of this place. Maybe that blast she heard was a biological weapon now sweeping its way through the forest? Sounded about as plausible as every other idea she’d had until now. No matter what had affected them, the resulting freaks were too small—or at least thought themselves too small—to try having a bite at her, much to her continued existence. In any sort of direct brawl, she was dead to everything that wasn’t one of those harmless-looking green caterpillars.

And even that one would likely be a close matchup.

Eventually, growing hunger reminded Sue of its presence. The unpleasant sensation posed the question of what the hell this body even ate. Meat was out of consideration—she wasn’t in the state to hunt any, plus without a fire she’d have to eat it raw and... no. Just no.

*stomach growl*

Not yet, at least.

That left either fruit or the relatively abundant greenery, but the latter wasn’t arousing any more eagerness in her than raw meat. She’d have to forage for berries, maybe edible mushrooms, without any idea of what was poisonous to this body.

As she pondered through the ethics of checking the edibility of wild mushrooms through feeding them to these purple rats, something colorful caught her attention. It was stark enough to make her flinch before she could focus—peaches. Or, at least, something that looked like peaches. Sue had no idea whether whatever the hell had mutated this whole place had also affected the plants, but she wasn’t gonna pass up possibly the only edible fruit in this entire forest.

As she stared hungrily at the treeful of goods, a problem presented itself, one she was very familiar with and which her transformation seemed to not have affected—she couldn’t reach. Even the lowest branch was barely out of the range of her jump. If she still had her boots and gloves, or even just a body that didn’t feel like it’d break on a whim, climbing up the tree would be an option, but alas.

No fucking way am I walking away from here empty-handed, not with my life on the line.

Looking around the forest floor, Sue soon found a large stick to enact her Plan B with. No matter how hard she whacked the branches, though, they just bent and refused to yield, quickly burning determination into frustration. She tried again and again, accomplishing nothing except tiring herself more and more.

Just break, GODDAMMIT!

Sue put all the strength she had left into one final thwack—and was rewarded. She barely dodged the falling branch with a quick backstep, before the entirety of her attention focused on the mouthwatering bounty hanging off it. It wasn’t even the one she had initially aimed at, but that didn’t matter.

She was famished by now, and there was a feast to be had.

It could’ve just been hunger and exhaustion meddling with her perception, but Sue swore these were the best peaches she’d ever had. Juices dripped down her chin as she wolfed them down one after the other, relief blooming in her with each bite. Eventually, she remembered to keep sensing for any critters creeping up on her.

Clear.

Back to eating now.

In no time, most of the branch was picked clean, and what was once fruit came blissful fullness. The delightful fruits felt like they’d relieved some of the constant aching filling her body—though that might’ve just been her sitting down and taking the weight off her legs. She closed her eyes and breathed deeply, calming down as much as she could while keeping track of other living things around her.

There was some excitement a decent bit off to her left, but nothing else near.

Were these emotions she sensed... actual feelings of nearby creatures? It sounded like the most reasonable interpretation of that utterly incoherent ability. Huh, maybe that was it. Maybe she’d been unknowingly thrown into the panels of the first issue of Spindle-Woman and was just waiting for an equally absurd-looking villain to present themselves and toss several pages’ worth of exposition at her.

Fantasizing these insane possibilities couldn’t have been good for her mental state.

Sue turned her head skyward, trying to clear her mind. She could just about make out the sun’s position through the treetops. Without cardinal directions, it was impossible to tell the exact time, but with how high the sun was, it had to have been close to noon. Which… made no sense.

It was around two PM when she had taken a break before—before all this must’ve happened. Yeah, this was likely the next day; explains why she was so hungry. She had to say, the local fauna were taking the changes like champs, no doubt helped by a lack of self-identity or higher thinking capacity. Plus, none of them seemed to have drawn the short end of the stick anywhere near as much as she had—

*bwoosh!*

The sudden blur dashing in front of her knocked Sue onto her back, taking her out of her idle pondering. Reflex made her twist her body to avoid landing on her spike as she tried to focus on a dark gray… fox? Wolf? Whatever it was, it had red accents in its fur, and—

“HEY!”

—and it was holding the branch with the remaining peaches on it in its mouth.

After some indistinct shouting in the creature’s general direction, Sue had to call it for what it was—an embarrassing loss. Soft rattling filled the clearing after she’d kicked what was left of her bounty away, furious at the little shit for nabbing the rest of her meal. With how hard it was to get just one branch down, securing another was unlikely to be feasible.

On second thought, strutting around with a branchful of food and precisely zero capabilities for self-defense was asking for trouble, to put it lightly. It would let Sue finally achieve her dream of being a full walking meal, including dessert, for anything large enough to realize it could just run up to her and start chewing. And… so would staying here, right next to the abundant fruit tree.

Let’s get moving.

At least her legs didn’t ache as much anymore. Her mind immediately sprang to action, fantasizing about what might happen next on her way through the mutant forest. Maybe she’d be saved by some special forces that wouldn’t gun her down on sight? Maybe she would see more of whatever had caused these mutations dropped on the surrounding landscape and black out again? Before her imagination could swallow her, a different tangent had caught her attention—a very unnerving one.

She didn’t sense that off-black fox approach at all.

Whatever her tugging sense was, it was downright screaming at her when that butterfly showed up, but it remained dead silent this time. And it’s not like it didn’t work anymore; she still felt it pointing all around. Were there creatures she couldn’t sense at all then? That would’ve been terrifying enough on its own with how frail she was, but this one was also fast—it could have easily caught up to her by now if it’d tried.

A mutant that not even the mutant-sensing mutation could sense, and fast enough to nibble all the meat off her legs before she could even try to kick them off.

Peachy.

With her speed disadvantage, her top priority was getting as far from the little dark-colored thing as possible. The peaches had helped with her hunger for sure, but they didn’t come close to solving her thirst, making finding something to drink priority number two. And afterwards… the day might have still been relatively young, sunset a good few hours away at least, but securing a shelter was vital. With danger lurking around every corner, Sue was more than willing to play it safe on that front.

She wasn’t sure how a shelter like that would even look. A natural cave would work, but those were likely to either be already inhabited, or worse—have their occupants not be immediately visible and crawl out at night to enjoy an alien-shaped takeout on their front porch. Served with extra mud and half-digested peaches.

There wasn’t a whole ton as far as alternative choices went. Any burrow big enough to fit her would’ve similarly held something venomous, her claustrophobia aside. Trees weren’t known for having the space for anything bigger than birds to sleep in either—not that climbing on one felt possible with how frail her body was to begin with.

Something more makeshift could work, like a tent made of leaves, similar to what she’d heard her scout friends describe when she was younger. Just had to take it steady, and hope that an answer would present itself.

The only other option was panicking, and she’d had enough of that one for a good while after her breakdown.

With her stomach filled, Sue’s trek went by calmly. As she marched on, she realized some critters she’d seen earlier were pretty common. No-good purple rats, oversized green caterpillars, these disturbing brownish squirrels with perpetually full cheeks, and a few others seemed to be commonplace, which raised further questions.

Did every critter of the same species get mutated in the same way, and these overly-toothed rats all used to be the same species of forest mice? And, more urgently, did that mean that other humans in the vicinity also became whatever she was right now?

Sue wasn’t sure which potential answer to that question filled her with more dread. The mental image of finding a friendly soul only for them to be just as powerless as her and dying together with her out here, or stumbling upon someone turned into something much more monstrous, much hungrier, and with much less of their humanity preserved.

Option A sounded less immediately terrifying, but it was nothing if not a close matchup.

Speaking of terrifying things, spiderwebs.

Sue didn’t think herself an arachnophobe—at least, not a severe one. It wasn’t fear as much as it was... wanting to keep a respectful distance between herself and spiders. All spiders. Thankfully, almost all she was ever treated to were the occasional landmarks of their presence. Glossy webs between flowers, in the bushes, or at the mouths of various small burrows.

NOT in between trees half a dozen feet apart, larger than her bed, and dense enough to immobilize her if she were to take a single step too far.

Sue inched backwards as her mind raced on—just what kind of spider was even capable of spinning something this big!? The question made her imagination feed her many a horrible sight, icy dread shooting down her spine. In hindsight, she probably shouldn’t have expected spiders to be excluded from whatever had befallen this forest. She only had her own mind to thank for that, for trying to shield her already tenuous sanity from the thoughts about spiders the size of her head.

And then; she looked up.

Several of them hung motionless from the thick canopy above her. Light green bodies roughly the size of her pillow, red mandibles, venomous to all fuck no doubt. If she got caught or bitten by one of those things, she was a flappy goner—even if the markings on their backs looked like smiley faces.

Thankfully, despite what had to have been the loudest gulp in history, they didn’t immediately all set upon her. After shuffling off to the side, Sue broke into the second panicked sprint of the day, only barely stopping herself from screaming in panic. She ran as fast as these spindly legs could carry her until her lungs refused to comply, forcing her down to a crawl. A nearby tree eventually let her body catch a breath—but not her mind, brain still going a mile a minute about what it just saw.

Her already tattered sense of psyche didn’t appreciate this place also having massive, lethal, and likely predatory spiders. The prospect of sleeping anywhere that wasn’t behind a multiple reinforced door suddenly became even less alluring—and so did just walking around for that matter, since death could come from above now.

Sue kept her pace down even after she’d recovered her breath. Partly because of exhaustion, but mostly because of wanting to pay closer attention to her mental senses, juuuust in case there was another of these spiders waiting on a nearby branch.

The resulting paranoia did not make for a particularly good walking partner.

Thankfully, she wouldn’t end up running into any more sudden threats. The couple of creepier-looking insects were given a wide berth, thankfully uninterested in eating her flesh. A distant noise eventually caught her attention, the kind she recognized well enough to let herself get excited in response. Her eyes went wide, her steps gained an extra spring to them, her mind even sobered up from its fearful haze, the sound lighting a fire inside her.

Running water.

The stream was tiny, clear, and just deep enough to drink from. One quick check with her tugging sense later, she kneeled on the stream’s bank and got to quenching her thirst, finding the water delightfully cold. The sixth sense warned her each time something approached down the river, making her back well off until it passed by.

A purplish serpent more than merited that response, but what followed it was much more… dubious. Sue could only blink as her newfound superpower warned her of a lily pad, of all things. Still, she backed off a step, eyes glued to the plant as she wondered if it would do anything but be an inanimate lifeform. It didn’t.

With a clear stream came an opportunity to inspect her new body some more. The lock smack dab in the middle of her face kept close to her head as she stared straight down at her reflection, her attention immediately taken by the sight of her eyes. They were massive and fiercely red, and not even in the fun, stoner way. The eyes that, if she’d seen them on any other creature, she would’ve assumed it to be a demon.

Who knows whether that isn’t what I really am right now. I sure don’t feel like one, at least.

After she’d gotten over her infernal gaze, her attention shifted to the spikes on the sides of her head. Touching them revealed that these either were her ears, or that’s how her brain interpreted them. Despite them sticking out a bit like this, she knew they could bend and lie flat against her head, letting her lie down on her side.

Trying to imagine how she would sleep if she could neither rest on her front, back, nor sides left Sue staring blankly off into the middle distance. Guess there was at least that bit of mercy in her situation.

With her thirst quenched and flaps rinsed off, Sue headed downstream. The tiny river gave her somewhere to go—it might’ve been only about three feet across and shallower than most kiddy pools, but it would lead to larger and larger rivers down the line and, eventually, a settlement. After all, that’s where they got built. Paying a modicum of attention in her lower high history classes finally paid off. Though, not even her sneering teacher would’ve wished for that knowledge to become relevant under such dire circumstances.

Maybe I can even make it somewhere civilized by nightfall!

Alright, that was way too optimistic considering her track record so far. The moment of sobriety forced Sue to regain her cool, and put the warm hope back enough in her head to not burn her up in despair, but still close enough to keep her motivated. Eventually, she even stopped running away as critters swam down the stream beside her, though still kept a cautious eye over them and their emotions. Most of them were just curious and confused, fair enough, but a few were also… reassured by her presence, it seemed.

The only creature that could’ve conceivably been reassured by her current appearance was Marvin the Martian, and only because it meant he could find himself a mate.

Strangling the part of her brain responsible for mental imagery like that just became that much more tempting of an idea.

Despite wishing she had mental eyebleach on hand, Sue couldn’t deny that the weird thoughts made the trek much less tedious. No matter how out there they were, they let her mind wander away from the bleak reality as the spindly creature she was controlling made its way forward on autopilot, only occasionally needing Sue to check her senses for any potential threats.

She sure didn’t expect most of her march to be so peaceful, considering the sheer outlandishness of the creatures around these parts—not that she was complaining, of course. Guess since everything here was armed to the teeth with fangs, claws, or venom vicious enough to murder in one swipe, nothing wanted to be the initiator since it would get wrecked even if it won the scrap?

Mutually Assured, uh, Devouring.

Intense fear and thrill of the hunt, ahead and to her right, just as she pondered about nothing having tried to eat her during the day.

Sue’s breathing sped up as she turned to make it across the body of water, away from the encroaching terror. As tame and shallow as the stream was, its coldness didn’t help any, her thin legs numb as she tried to wade through it. Before she could worry about the potential of hypothermia, she realized that the hunting sensations were getting closer and closer, her eyes shooting wide. Her body broke into a sprint on its own as she climbed onto the other bank, mind barely paying attention to what she was even running into as she craned her head to keep track of the approaching chaos.

Hey, it’s that dipshit fox thing that stole my peaches.

Whatever it was, it was running beside another fox. One much more eye-catching, bright yellow with a red tail tip and... ear fluff, a rather generous amount of it. If not for their situation, Sue would’ve stopped to consider the hygienic implications of such an unusual fur formation—but it had to take a far back seat in her mind for the time being.

Her entire focus was dedicated to running and panicking, and much the same was true of the foxes. Yellow one’s mind was filled with enough terror to freak Sue out, and she wasn’t even the one actively running for her life. The gray one continued to be silent on her inner radar, but a quick glance confirmed it was no less terrified than their companion.

The sight of their pursuer made her legs feel weak.

The spiders she’d previously seen filled her with dread, despite being immobile. This one was much bigger, much redder, and even had a horn to underline just how much one should not fuck with it. Quite a few too few legs, too, though that observation was quickly pushed aside.

Sue was not interested in joining its prey in getting eaten, narrowly dodging a tree before deciding to hide behind it and observe the rapidly ending chase. The tattered pieces of knowledge she remembered from her biology classes included spiders producing their web from their backs, not mouths—a fact that this one conveniently overlooked.

It struck true with a glob of silk from its mouth, knocking the two foxes onto their sides. It left them tangled and feebly trying to break the webs binding their limbs, screeches of fear from Sue’s sixth sense turning almost deafening. The beast of a spider slowed down as it approached, savoring a successful hunt. Every part of Sue’s body wanted to take off and run for the hills, run until she couldn’t anymore, away from that beast—but she couldn’t.

Feeling this tiny fox crying in fear for its life kept her from running. A deeply subconscious impulse she had no name for or comprehension of forced her to act, to do something, anything to help this little one in need. She tried fighting that impulse with every fiber of her being, tried to run away—but it wouldn’t relent, forcing her to take the shakiest and most dreaded step in her life, toward strife.

The foxes were already making progress in breaking out of the webs. They likely just needed that beast to be distracted for a moment and they’d be on their legs again—just a moment of distraction, which Sue could provide.

Fortunately for her conscious decision-making, currently feeling like it was trapped in a car with a maniac flooring it against the traffic, even this inner impulse didn’t force her to provide a distraction with her own body. A quick glance around her spotted a fist-sized stone, just right for the task at hand. She didn’t expect to have enough strength in it to throw the pebble anywhere near as hard as it did, and certainly not enough to strike the fiend with any meaningful force—though she could only estimate the latter from the loud screech that followed.

She immediately ducked behind the nearest outcropping after committing to the throw, hoping beyond hope the insect would be too dumb to connect the dots. Mortal fear that saturated her sixth sense finally faded as it swiftly ran away, soon replaced by an equally intense relief and joy.

But that wasn’t the sensation Sue was focused on.

Anger. Seething fury at a meal opportunity dashed, at being struck off guard. Rage that was rapidly making its way closer, freezing dread filling her body at the realization.

Fuck.

Fangs dug into where her head was just moments prior, only striking dirt. The maddened shriek that followed hastened her further, panicking mind and a pursuing threat pushing her to run faster than ever before, despite her bodily exhaustion.

Nowhere near fast enough to outrun the fiendish spider.

Sue’s feeble last-ditch attempt to strafe around a tree was interrupted by the beast’s own lunge, knocking her out onto her side. Suddenly, all she could see was its screeching head towering over her body as it reared for a bite. She flailed her legs as she closed her eyes, flailing in desperation. She felt something hard cracking under her kick, heard an ear-splitting cry—

An instant later, all these sensations were eclipsed by the burning, stabbing pain in her other leg, spreading through her body with every heartbeat.

That’s what I get for trying to be a hero...

Before she knew it, her entire body felt like it was on fire, leaving her too tortured to even scream. Soon enough, it all became too much to bear, the harrowing realization of her upcoming death filling what remained of Sue’s consciousness. Distant cries and nearby steps all faded into a muted noise that then flickered away, together with the rest of her.

And then, there was only darkness.


If you're confused about the species of the characters and want them spoiled, I've set up a page listing the species of all the featured characters in each chapter!

If you want to discuss the story, I've set up a Discord server for it! (and my other writings)

Also check out my other story, From the Vast!
 
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Negrek

Windswept Questant
Staff
Welcome to the forums! Always glad to see a new fic cropping up around here, and this looks like a fun take on the Mystery Dungeon franchise. Interesting that Sue seems to be a world where pokémon don't exist (even fictionally), or if she's from a world similar to ours is just completely unfamiliar with Pokémon. A gardevoir is also an interesting transformation, and one that might under some circumstances make for a rather overpowered protagonist, but I like how you've made it abundantly clear here that if Sue wants to develop that incredible power she's going to have to do quite a bit of work to get there, heh.

A bit mixed on this chapter as an introduction to the story--it's definitely frustrating that many PMD fics will spend just a couple paragraphs on the protagonist freaking out about having paws or whatever and then they seem to never have issues navigating in their new body again, but on the flip side this sequence of Sue essentially beginning to figure out how to function as a gardevoir felt like it went on a bit long to me. Here's what I liked: I thought we got a good sense of Sue as a character here; she's clearly a very interior and analytical sort of person, as well as a bit snarky. It was also fun to see how much of a grounding we got in her human life; even PMD protagonists without amnesia often have only very hazy pasts, and so Sue's concern with her mundane priorities was a fun contrast. It was also really interesting to see that she doesn't immediately understand the other pokémon here. I'm not sure whether this is because they may be some form of feral/wild pokémon that can't speak the way villagers can, or perhaps because gardevoir rely on some kind of telepathy to communicate/understand others and Sue hasn't figured it out yet, or for some other reason entirely.

On the other hand, I did find some of the walking slowly from place to place, freaking out about something, then finding out it wasn't really a problem to get a bit repetitive. For a chapter of around 10,000 words, I think a little more structure would have helped to make this intro feel a little less, well, wandering. I wonder whether some aspects, such as the "peaches," could have been introduced later in the story or while something else was going on in order to condense this segment a little bit more. It looks like we may be getting an introduction to some other characters, and perhaps a more populated part of the world, in the next chapter, which I think is great! I think making the road to get there a little shorter could be beneficial, too.

I was a bit confused by the mention of Sue's red, ear-like extensions. Pretty much everything points toward her being a gardevoir, most notably the big chest spike and the fact that she's about the same size now as she was before her transformation. However, gardevoir don't have any red ear/head extensions, or whatever they are, in contrast to ralts and kirlia. Not sure if that's an oversight or meant to indicate something unusual about Sue's new form.

All in all, this is an interesting take on the traditional PMD opening, and it leaves me really curious to see how Sue deals with it when she realizes just how far from home she is. This story could go a lot of ways from here--no real hint just yet of what form the broader plot may take--but I'm sure it would be fun! Welcome again to the forums, and if you're interested in checking out some of the other stories around here, you might enjoy Places We Call Home, a PMD fic with a prominent kirlia character, or maybe Instruments of Creation, which is quite a different sort of PMD fic from this one but gives me similar vibes for some reason. You might also want to check out the Review Blitz event we have going on right now--great opportunity to get familiar with the community and maybe earn a prize or two!
 
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Chapter 2: Hereafter

redspah

the gay agenda
Pronouns
she/her


Chapter 2: Hereafter



Sue wasn’t sure how long she’d been sitting in her spot for before snapping back to awareness. It felt as if she’d dozed off into a hell of a daydream before suddenly finding herself somewhere else altogether. She couldn’t say she was unfamiliar with this clearing and the campfire at its center, though.

Nightmares had brought her back here many times.

For the first time in her recollection, she seemed to be alone in here, the only occupant of the benches scattered around the fire pit. Despite that, the soft twangs of a slightly out-of-tune guitar filled the air. Far from masterful, but more than enough to lift anyone’s mood with their simple melody.

Just like she used to play.

Try as she might, Sue couldn’t remember what had happened for her to end up here. She let out a resigned sigh before looking around as the details emerged from the recesses of her memory, one by one. It was so calm, so… jarring. Every other time she had dreamed of this place, it was merely a playback of that fateful evening, of all its tears and denial. But this time? This time it was just a pleasant backdrop, utterly divorced from the trauma that had burned it into her psyche.

She was about ready to start humming along with the ambience, before an unfamiliar sound caught her attention. A closer examination revealed it to be a voice, feminine and dignified. Its words inscrutable, its origin uncertain. It almost sounded like it was coming from—

Above...

The sky was filled with more stars than Sue had ever seen in her life. In the middle, right above her, rested the crown jewel of a full Moon—massive, bright, hypnotic in its radiance. And… speaking towards her, somehow. With that in mind, the voice was adequately awe-inspiring. If she understood anything it was saying, Sue might’ve even been humbled by its words.

But, alas, that was not the case. The few sounds she recognized combined into nonsense words that nonetheless sounded important. All Sue could do was tilt her head in response as she stared up at the celestial body, her gesture making it pause.

Sorry Moon, no hablo whatever you’re speaking.

Just as Sue was about to shrug it off, another voice caught her attention. It too came from the heavens, but in almost every other aspect, it was the direct opposite of the first one. Deep, masculine, cold in its inflections, sending shivers down her spine with its every word. But, unfortunately, just as comprehensible as its counterpart—not at all.

With the Moon already taken, she wondered which celestial body was speaking towards her this time, chuckling as she examined the stars. Her amusement didn’t last long, though, not once she noticed that the entire night sky dimmed whenever the second voice spoke, many stars flickering out of view. It was creepy, no doubt, but to her relief, being creepy was all it seemed to be capable of doing—not even the campfire was phased by its intimidation.

The two voices appeared to converse afterward, though the way in which they constantly cut each other off suggested something closer to an argument than a rational discussion. She might’ve had no idea what they were talking about, but she had an awareness, deep down, that it was about her.

Left with nothing coherent to follow, Sue soon spaced out, imagination taking her for a ride as she tried to figure out what was going on. The range of possibilities was almost endless, but God and Satan fighting for the claim to her eternal soul felt like the most plausible hypothesis. The mental fog of dreams made her perceive all this as more funny than anything.

Moon God and Sky Dimmer Satan are doing a rap battle in my head for dibs on my spanking new Martian body.

As she giggled at the mental images her imagination fed her, Sue noticed the two voices growing urgent, pleading even, redoubling their efforts to talk to specifically her. They hadn’t become any less incomprehensible, though, leaving her to ponder idly some more. Truly, it would be very nice if she could understand literally anything that has happened so far.

Her resignation caused the two voices to go at each other even more fiercely. They grew louder and their words harsher, ever more accusatory. It was amusing to observe the Moon and sky repeatedly brightening and dimming in tune with them speaking, then shouting their parts. At least, it was at first. As the volume of the heavenly argument built up, Sue tried to cover her ear-spike-things to not go deaf—to no results, alas.

Thankfully, before her dreamed-up ears would get blown out by the divine shouting match, a third voice intervened with a drawn-out groan. It was unlike either of the two—squeaky, androgynous, somewhat nasal. Its intrusion caught the attention of the first two for long enough to follow up with a comment that shut them both up, redirecting their focus back to her.

She didn’t notice that, though, entirely preoccupied by the realization that she… recognized that third voice, but from where she had no idea.

The sensation of everyone gathered staring right at her made her squirm; unseen divine gaze brought no less anxiety than the usual kind. As Sue shuddered in her seat, a cold wind kicked up around the scene, rapidly growing in intensity. Before she knew it, it had destroyed the campfire before her—and then, to her shock, it did the same to the rest of her dream.

By the time Sue realized what was happening, the dreamscape came undone around her, falling apart into a colorless void. She turned skyward; the sight of a shattered Moon with a golden star circling around it graced her eyes for just an instant before it, too, disappeared—


And then; she woke up.

The dream quickly faded from her mind as she laid still on the edge of consciousness, the celestial exchange she’d witnessed equally awe-inspiring and incoherent. She might’ve had no idea what the two voices had spoken, but knew very well where it had all taken place, at the campfire from the day of—

*SMASH!*

Sue’s eyes shot open at the sudden shatter, the sound speeding up the usual five minutes it took for her to wake up to five seconds, leaving her startled and confused. She looked around the room, realizing she was somewhere else altogether. The wooden walls around her assured her of that much, at least.

As she investigated her surroundings, she realized she was resting on a bed. A primitive one, sure, but downright divine because of the normalcy it represented, the normalcy she had been denied yesterday. Yesterday...

Recollection flooded Sue’s mind as she looked at her hand, her body having disappointingly not reverted to its former self. She didn’t have the time to linger on the unpleasant fact, the realization that soon followed taking up all her attention—

How did I survive that?

With some awkward sliding, she sat up on the soft mattress, examining her blanket-covered body. She braced herself for a gruesome sight before yanking on the covers, uncovering her lower half—and revealing a generous amount of bandages wrapped around her visibly swollen, very numb leg. All the other scrapes elsewhere were cleaned up nicely as well.

Someone had helped her out!

The unbelievable realization poured a can of gasoline into the flames of hope inside her. Someone had found her! There were people here! They had helped her despite her looking like a demon! She would be alright in the end! The sheer joy blooming in her body was almost intense enough to make her overlook the tugging sensation informing her that someone was approaching, and rather quickly at that. As much as she wanted to hug her presumed savior, she imagined her appearance had already scared them plenty.

Plus, her chest spike would… hurt if she went about hugging the usual way.

Sue quickly laid back down and pulled the covers over, pretending to be asleep—just in time, no less. She jolted at hearing the wooden door creak open, followed by two pairs of steps walking into her room. Two voices accompanied them—one boyish, upset, and… chittering, and the other much older, mumbling and soft-spoken. To her chagrin, she didn’t understand either of them, her heart sinking at the realization.

Can I just no longer understand English?

It was harrowing to even imagine, destroying any hopes of her ever returning to normalcy. Thankfully, the more she considered it, the less plausible it felt; there was no way she just forgot the only language she knew. Sure, it wouldn’t be any less strange than everything else that had happened so far, but… Sue found it especially hard to believe.

Her train of thought was interrupted at hearing the older voice shush the younger one after a louder complaint, followed by a whispered apology. Seems they thought she was still asleep. She decided to try her luck and glance at the pair, prying one eyelid open as she braced herself for more of this weird world—



No wonder she couldn’t understand them; they were no less irradiated than every other living being around here.

The smaller of the two creatures reached to around her waist, but she sure didn’t want it anywhere near her. Both bats and scorpions unnerved her greatly on their own, and this abomination looked like their unholy fusion—and also like it had been doused in aggressively pink paint and had a comically oversized tongue glued to it.

While the handful of cuts across its front would’ve usually elicited a bit of sadistic glee in Sue because of how terrifying it looked, she didn’t have it in her now. Not in this body. The tugging sense let her feel its embarrassment and pain so clearly that all she could do was feel sorry for it.

From the safe distance of preferably the next continent over.

The demon was being tended to by the other creature, the source of the older voice. It was trickier to describe than its fellow monster, even less similar to normal animals than the bat-scorpion chimera. Bipedal, roughly tall enough to reach to the letter opener on her chest, and split between cream and pink fur, with the latter segment of its coat being shaped like... a coat.

At least I’m not the only creature with a weirdly clothed-like appearance out there.

The bunny-like tail and large, floppy ears were by far the most animalistic of its traits, and even then, the latter looked unnatural because of the weird curls extending from them. They reminded Sue of fancy earrings—at least until it went and grabbed one of them, extending it to press its wider tip to the pink bat’s chest as if it was a stethoscope.

Her history with drugs might have started and ended at the couple cans of booze she’d nabbed at some party while underage, but the sights her eyes were gracing her with were right out of a druggie’s trip.

Afraid she had already been pushing her luck, Sue closed her eyes and resumed her sleeping disguise. It left her relying on her hearing and the tugging sense to make out what was happening around her, but thankfully, they sufficed. The smaller creature was happier after being tended to and soon ran out of the room, the door creaking in its wake.

The bigger one muttered to itself before walking up to her, its approach making her swallow nervously. To Sue’s chagrin, it had clearly noticed even that barely audible sound, speaking up towards her in a questioning tone of voice. Whatever question it had asked was then immediately answered by a quiet barking coming from somewhere close.

A closer inspection of her sixth sense revealed another creature nearby, resting right beside her bed and unnoticed until now. Its gratitude was downright radiant, making for a sensation so pleasant Sue almost overlooked how… familiar that creature felt. Whatever it was, it was much more noticeable to her extrasensory perception now that it was awake, clueing her in to how all that worked.

As the freshly awakened critter and the big pink creature continued to make noises, Sue wondered whether the latter could even understand the former’s barking. Its soft mumbling was about as distant from canine woofs as human speech—and yet, the two appeared to converse for a while afterward, about her.

Sue had no idea how she even knew the latter, but was more certain of that fact than of almost anything else in her present situation.

While she steadfastly pretended to be asleep, worry crept into her mind. What would these two do once they’d realized she was awake? Had they helped her out, or… did they just drive out the humans that had? Were they also mutated humans? Would that even matter when the push came to shove? So many questions, so few answers—

Sue froze solid as a soft paw gently shook her shoulder, accompanied by the bigger one’s voice muttering something again, a worried question judging by its tone. Guess as well as she had tried to hide, it wasn’t enough. She tensed up, bracing for whatever was to come before daring to peek with one eye—the big one was looking down at her.

Its blue eyes softened as it grew increasingly concerned, in emotions and expression alike. It spoke again afterward, no less uneasily, to which she just sighed, unsure what to do. It was expecting an answer, an answer she couldn’t provide, leading her to mutter out in defeat, “I-I chanht undershtahnd yhou, shorry.”

She wasn’t sure how she expected them to react, but confusion wasn’t on the list. The creature stared at her, wide eyed, tilting its head as it muttered something back at her. Just off to the side, a couple of yellow paws reached up onto the mattress. They were followed by the very ear-haired fox from yesterday peeking at her from over the bed’s edge, revealing the woofer’s identity.

The two creatures couldn’t have been more different even if they’d tried, but they seemed unified in their confusion. They both kept trying to talk to her for a while, their words questioning and uncertain. Sue opted to just remain silent, hoping she could make it clear she didn’t understand them. And judging by their reactions, they didn’t understand her either.

Fantastic.

On the upside, they clearly weren’t interested in eating her, even if the fate of whoever had built this building remained uncertain. The bigger one thought about something for a while before sighing and walking over to the other end of the bed. It pulled back the covers, revealing what Sue had already seen—her patched-up leg. Concerningly, she couldn’t move it below the knee. Whether it was temporary, she didn’t know, and could only hope for a positive answer. The big one said something that was obviously meant to sound comforting before pulling the covers back on.

Its actions so far introduced yet another conundrum into Sue’s strained sanity.

Whatever it was, it clearly wanted to help her out. It had just patched up that scorpion bat, and she couldn’t sense anything other than worry and concern for her wellbeing emanating from it. Her leg was in a bad enough state to where she wouldn’t be doing much walking anytime soon, and she was stuck here for now—wherever ‘here’ was.

With these facts in mind, Sue figured she could use a better way of referring to that creature, something that wasn’t just ‘the big one’. Especially since, seeing as it had patched her up, it was likely to visit her again. A nickname wouldn’t help her much with direct communication, and she was well aware. Still, she’d appreciate soothing her tattering sanity through having an actual label to refer to something—no, someone—in here with.

And not think of it as an ‘it’ while at it. Determining the appropriate pronouns for it was rather tricky—even beyond being inhuman, its voice and mannerisms didn’t strike her as either feminine or masculine, prompting Sue to go with ‘they’ for now. Guess she got something out of that LGBT+ club talk at her college in the end.

The only question remaining was what to call them. Their ear-extension-thing made her think of a stethoscope; so maybe something medical? Especially since they had just patched up that pink thing too... ‘Doc’?

Fuck it, Doc it is.

She sure didn’t have enough spare brainpower to come up with anything more sophisticated. And, considering their actions so far, the nickname felt appropriate, if painfully bland.

Doc was staring at her with a distraught expression. In her zoned-out pondering, Sue seemed to have missed them asking a question—though with her grasp on their language being nonexistent, it wasn’t like that made much of a difference. A few moments of waiting for her to respond later, they sighed in defeat.

Before Sue could feel too bad for them, they perked up, ears rising as they excitedly muttered something. Whatever their idea was, it led them out of the room, the glimpse of grass on the other side revealing the door to be the building’s front entrance.

Sue appreciated the resulting silence, letting her collect her thoughts for once. Before she could get a better look at the room, though, she remembered she wasn’t alone in here, making her modesty kick in. An attempt to shield her chest by pulling up the covers was made simultaneously more difficult by the presence of the big red spike jutting out of the area in question, and somewhat pointless without any secondary sexual characteristics for her to hide to begin with.

That didn’t mean she didn’t try, though.

Despite her best efforts, Sue eventually had to concede defeat after her attempt to hold the blanket an inch or so away from the spike ended up revealing everything there would’ve been to reveal, had there been anything in there to hide in the first place. She sighed, let the blanket fall to an audience of one yellow, confused fox, the critter still looking up at her from over the bed’s edge.

It would also need a name eventually, but Sue’s immediate attention returned to the building she was in. In any other circumstances, the wooden hut would’ve been scarcely interesting. Considering what creatures surrounded her, however, one question after another arose as she took it all in.

The most immediately noticeable thing was just how small everything was, her bed aside. The drawers and shelves lining the walls seemed more appropriate for a creature Doc’s size than a human. Even the ceiling was off, only about six feet off the floor.

Her claustrophobia didn’t like that realization.

Vaguely medical-looking supplies and equipment lined up almost all surfaces and a good few walls. Gourds and wooden bottles of unknown substances, pincers, hooks, at least one saw, almost all of it made from wood or stone. Nothing here looked like it was made with any industrial tooling, at least not within the last two hundred years.

Aside from making Sue hope these tools would never have to be used on her, it all made her question her assumption that the structure was human-built to begin with. The ceiling was much too low for that; the furniture was tailor-made for whatever Doc was, and it all looked handmade, rustic even.

So… if humans didn’t build this place, who did?

Unless her eyes were deceiving her, Doc didn’t have enough stamina to handle the logs that comprised the walls. Maybe enough to put the furniture together, but that was about it. On that thought, they sure didn’t look strong enough to have carried her here, either. Which meant they weren’t alone in this general area, and that whoever had moved her here could’ve also helped them out with this hut.

That was something Sue could try to find out on her own.

She closed her eyes and focused on her tugging sense—and an instant later, a very warm softness brushed against her side, making her jump. The yellow fox capitalized on her distraction, using the window of opportunity to scramble onto her bed and nuzzle her. Its quiet woofs drew Sue’s attention to the sheer gratitude pouring out of it, warming her at least as much as its body heat.

It made sense it’d be thanking her for saving its life, but that only left her more conflicted.

On one hand, she wasn’t all that sure about ascribing humanity to this mutated animal, but on the other, it had communicated with Doc earlier, somehow, and was clearly attempting to do the same with her. Even if it didn’t actually have human intelligence, it came much closer to that than any fox she’d ever seen.

With that in mind, it would also need a nickname and a set of pronouns. ‘They’ seemed even more adequate here than for Doc, considering an absence of any obvious gender characteristics, and looking under their tail was the exact last thing Sue wanted to do right now, which left just the name. A joke at the expense of their generous ear hair felt appropriate, but she didn’t have the snark in her for that, thoughts veering toward something much more innocent. They were yellow with red accents, ridiculously warm to the touch, so maybe something alluding to that... ‘Flame’? ‘Ember’?

Either of those made her feel like a jock that names their dogs ‘Destroyer’ or ‘Annihilator.’ It was hard to deny that her current ideas were much more appropriate here, though—not to mention incomparably cuter.

‘Ember’ it was, then.

With the fox granted a nickname, Sue could pay closer attention to them instead of tripping up over how to address them. Their warmth immediately caught her attention, more consciously this time. While it was undeniably cute and very appreciated to be warmed up by a yellow-red fluff ball, Ember’s body heat went beyond anything normal.

They felt like a sweater straight out of the dryer, which was as curious as it was worrying. In any other creature, being this warm would’ve resulted in it having dropped dead from a heat stroke ages ago—and yet, Ember here showed no signs of discomfort, not even panting as they got comfy beside her. Perhaps she shouldn’t have been surprised by that, considering the existence of creatures as odd as a spider her size, a bright pink scorpion-bat-nightmare-fuel, and whatever the hell Doc was, but this was the first time where the weirdness wasn’t just skin-deep—barring her own sixth sense, at least.

Still wonder how that ties into everything else so far.

Even if she only had a fox-shaped lap warmer as opposed to any answers, they were much better than nothing—or worse yet, hostility at the hands of an assorted bunch of nature’s rejects. Their concern was... well, concerning, and Sue hoped it didn’t mean they had figured out she’d been transformed into whatever this was.

Speaking of nature’s rejects, it was a decent opportunity to give scanning the area with her off-brand Spidey-Sense another go, now that Ember had laid down. Sue closed her eyes and relaxed her body, exhaling and focusing on the emotions tugging at her soul from every direction—

Oh god, there are so many.

Middle of the woods from yesterday had few blips on her radar, but it was dozens as opposed to hundreds in here. Even beyond that, each individual sensation was much closer than what she’d felt back in the thick of the woods, combining into something much too intense to try picking apart.

Still, the emotional landscape seemed to be happy and content on the whole. Sue caught her breath following her glimpse beyond as her attention returned to the world around her to the tune of an intense, if thankfully brief, headache.

There were many creatures in her vicinity, most of them feeling fine. That left a few possibilities. A farm was obvious, but also the one Sue rejected the fastest. All the creatures she sensed felt... different in ways she couldn’t describe, even if she’d tried. Distinct enough from one another to make a pasture with all of them at once feel infeasible. Guess whatever her sixth sense was, it could also feel species apart, somehow?

Go-go Martian Spidey-Sense, find me a human.

A settlement was another option, though the same diversity of species made that similarly tricky to conceptualize. Humans were already going at each other’s throats with just one species; she had no idea how a hundred different ones could ever hope to live together in any semblance of peace. Despite that, she couldn’t think of anything else. The surroundings of this cabin ended up as yet another mystery, thrown onto the pile.

Though, as opposed to the rest of them, she could solve it herself.

The window was a few steps away and frankly, her right leg did not look capable of walking even one of those steps. She could probably just barely limp over there with the support of good ol’ inanimate objects to lean on, letting her figure something out for once. Would be a welcome change of pace, that’s for sure.

Sliding the blanket off herself, Sue turned over to sit on the edge of the bed, preparing for the journey of a lifetime. The movement stirred Ember up from their attempted nap, making them woof at her in surprise and concern.

“D-dhonht whorry Embher, I’ll bhe arright,” Sue reassured. Right as she tried putting weight on her busted leg, though, she felt her hand being gently grabbed by something pointy, making her jump. Ember had taken matters into their own maw, holding her oversized hand in their teeth and pulling it back, together with the rest of her. “H-hey, sh-shtoph that!”

Attempts to yank the limb away from the little fox ended in failure. She couldn’t tell whether that was because Ember was much stronger than they looked, or if her body was even weaker than it felt. That didn’t mean she stopped trying, however.

The world’s most bizarre tugging war continued until her sixth sense alerted her of Doc’s return, somehow picking them out from the outside crowd. With them being unlikely to approve of her going for a short walk with a busted leg either, Sue gave up for now. She slid her legs underneath the blanket, shifting to her previous spot and grumbling quietly at Ember. She had a hard time maintaining her annoyance once the pup had resumed their nuzzling, trying their hardest to push her away from the edge of the bed, ineffectual as they might have been.

I get it; you don’t want me walking because I’ve got a busted leg.

Her expression remained soured as the door creaked open, but seeing what Doc had brought with themselves offset that significantly. They smiled, upbeat, carrying a wooden tray packed with various foodstuffs, a jug of water, and… a couple scrolls off to the side. As eye-catching as that last item was, the treats on display left her unable to mull over it for too long. Sweet buns, rolls, a fruit salad, even some grilled veggies.

The smells alone made her mouth water.

It was almost captivating enough to make Sue overlook the discussion that Doc’s return had resumed. They and Ember chit-chatted while the medic delivered the lavish breakfast right to her bed. Sue wished she had some way of thanking them at the moment, however limited—

The tray being set down all the way over on her calves took her out of that train of thought. The spot, just barely out of her arm’s reach, appeared to be intentional. A couple of dumbfounded blinks later, she turned to look at Doc; the medic having whisked away the scrolls in the meantime. They carried them further into the hut as they chatted with—oh.

Her hunger-fueled hyper-focus led her to overlook the other being that accompanied Doc on their return—an incredible feat considering their appearance.

If Doc was a vaguely mammalian bipedal creature, this one was a vaguely insectoid bipedal creature. Their coloration was split between green and yellow, and parts of their body appeared to be made of honest-to-god leaves. Some of them had visible chunks bitten out of them, without causing them any obvious discomfort. No way that could be healthy.

Though what even is healthy for a crossbreed of a mantis and a fucking bush.

Ember already spat in the face of the entire field of biology with their impossible warmth, and that was peanuts compared to this thing, whose very existence took that entire field of science and choke slammed it across the floor—



...and now everyone was staring at her because she glared at the mantis so hard.

Trying to save face, Sue looked back at the tray, thinking about how she’d pull it closer—before going for the obvious method, hoping her arms were longer than they felt like. Her first attempt had her pointed fingertips barely brushing against the wood. She exhaled as much as she could before doubling down, gritting her teeth through the exercise.

Maybe that was the point, to get her to stretch a bit. Quite rude, if true. Then again, it wasn’t like Doc could write down a yoga routine for her, and they knew best what she needed right now.

If only I could just get that bloody tray—UGH!

With one last lunge, Sue’s fingers just barely gripped the tray. Her back complained while she pulled the bounty closer, chuckling to herself at how silly she must’ve looked. Still, she did it; she completed the exercise! Satisfied, she smiled, turning to look over at Doc—only to see uncertainty and feel worry. She couldn’t help but gulp at the sight. They were expecting her to do this, right?

What else was I supposed to do there!?

To her concern, Doc sighed in consternation before turning to leaf-bug-whatever and chatting with them instead, Ember occasionally chiming in as well. They were discussing something about her, but knew that Sue could not understand them at all and didn’t even try addressing her directly. Completely understandable on a rational level.

It sure didn’t help with all the worry that had been germinating inside her, though.

There wasn’t much she could do about that at the moment, left to try enjoying the breakfast as everyone gathered chatted about her. The warmth and flavors helped lift her spirits somewhat, letting her get lost in the sweetness, and pretend none of this was happening, at least for a moment.

That she was back on campus, enjoying a break between classes with treats from the local bakery. That she was re-energizing herself for two more hours of lectures about databases before her evening shift. That she wasn’t god knows where, mutated into a god knows what. That she wasn’t at the mercy of aberrations of nature that could’ve turned on her at any moment.

That she wasn’t completely unable to understand any of them.

Sue’s angsty daydreaming was interrupted by a nudge to her side. A glance through her damp eyes revealed Ember to have resumed their warm, soft affection, woofing quietly. She didn’t understand them, but it was hard to interpret it all as anything but trying to comfort her.

If not for clinging to that thought with all her heart, she would’ve broken down there and then. This might’ve been one capricious hell she had found herself in, but the local demons seemed to have a soft spot for her. Suppose that was only appropriate now that she was one of them. Or… was she?

Her mind latched onto that stray possibility as she reached for the next berry roll. She offhandedly acknowledged that it tasted like no fruit she’d ever had before continuing that worrying strand of thought. While every moving creature here was unnatural in some way, most of them were at least based on real animals—but not her.

Maybe this spindly white thing was just what the humans had turned into, but she had an inkling that something deeper was going on here. Nobody else was dealing with the terror of having their body gotten changed like that. Hell, this very building had been built with Doc’s current proportions in mind, quite an impossible feat if everything had simply been mutated all at once yesterday.

But if not that and this freak show of a forest had existed before her ending up here, how come nobody had ever run into it before? Especially with it being so close to a tourist trail?

There were enough questions piling up in her brain to build an imaginary fort made entirely out of confusion and hide away from all this insanity in there. Before she could attempt just that, Doc spoke up toward her, having just finished drawing something on one of the scrolls. The jolt to her system made her realize she’d been nibbling through this roll for a while now, making her wolf down the rest of the treat as she acknowledged the medic with a nod.

She accomplished that in record time, but Doc’s confused expression was her only reward for that particular performance.

They slid the food tray off to the side and replaced it with the scroll, unfurling it right away. She immediately tried to parse the detailed drawing—but before she could get into it, Doc drew her attention to one spot in particular, a charcoal-stained finger patting it for emphasis. It depicted an outline of her current body with a small, crossed-out swirl next to it.

And then; they pointed at her.

Sue nodded back, confident. That one represented her—simple enough, unless she’d somehow botched interpreting something this straightforward. With that in mind, she scanned the rest of the scroll, starting from the top left and... another outline of whatever creature she now was.

It was slightly different in places, but was inarguably the same species. The stiff hairdo was longer, the weird skin dress was shorter, and there were extra lines drawn along their arms and face, much lighter than the main outline. Probably markings or something. They also had something on their head—wait, was that a crown?

Curiously, they had a swirl beside them too, but this one wasn’t crossed out.

Whatever Sue was, she wasn’t one of a kind. It filled her with hope that she’d meet another once-human in here and be able to figure something out with them, maybe even get out of this middle-of-the-woods wonderland.

That hope didn’t last for long once she gave it more thought, though.

With everything else being unphased by their freaky bodies, a sudden transformation felt less and less likely by the moment, and the other slender creature fit that notion. Their markings and crown gave them a royal appearance, incompatible with them having suddenly appeared in here yesterday like she had.

So, they were a native specimen of whatever bizarre species this was, while Sue was an impostor that had only awoken in this body less than a day ago. Considering her track record of taking care of herself through all this mess, they’d almost certainly be able to tell, which was terrifying.

Could that be what the swirl represented? Being a native creature—or in her case, not being?

What if that discrepancy simply meant that there have been multiple rounds of people and animals getting mutated into this freak show? What if everyone around her, including that other spindly creature, came from an older batch? Though, if that were the case, they’d still be using English, or at least would understand it… yeah, fat chance.

What would that other-her do once they found out she was a fake whatever-this-is?

She had no way of knowing, but none of the ideas her brain fed her sounded reassuring in the slightest. They ranged from exile for being a fake, to... being disposed of right away. Excitement at meeting someone like her evaporated within moments as a mortal fear of that encounter replaced it. And with it, came urgency towards figuring out how to get away from here without running into them.

If I ever run into that other Martian, I am fucked—if my fate isn’t already sealed, that is.

With her head filled with a sufficient amount of dread, Sue shifted her attention to the rest of the drawing before her, starting with the figure next to the other-her. They were also bipedal, and also looked like they were wearing a dress, but the similarities ended there. They were covered in thick fur, had a tail, and their head was like Ember’s—canine, with massive, very furry ears. They also had a swirl next to them.

The similarity between the shape of their head and Ember’s perked Sue’s attention. She wondered whether it was a coincidence, or if there was something to it all, glancing at the mutant fox to confirm her hunch. It would be surprising for them to be related, considering the sheer difference in body shape and size. The bipedal hairy-ears was drawn at roughly the same scale as her, after all. Though, not like creatures here cared about such trivialities as coherent anatomy, anyway.

The little fox eventually noticed her glances between themselves and the drawing. They reacted with excited woofs, scooting onto her lap before patting that particular sketch a few times, punctuating the gesture with more vulpine sounds, commented on quietly by Doc.

Guess there was something to it, after all.

Her brain threatened to fry itself in thinking coherently about any of it, though. Mammals didn’t have that kind of difference in body shape between children and adults; this looked like the result of metamorphosis or something. Sue did not want to live with the awareness that the lovely maybe-fox beside her was actually an oddly foxlike insect.

What’s next, laying eggs?

One more brick for the confusion fort in her mind.

Trying to purge the mental image of Ember being more insectoid than their appearance would’ve suggested, Sue’s attention shifted further to the right. Finally, something she could understand—an arrow. It led from the couple of creatures towards some sort of fortified structure of sorts, maybe a castle? Suppose it only made sense with the crown on the other-her, but the possibility that she’d get ratted out by royalty of all things did not calm her down any. Another arrow came from the castle, curling back towards her outline with several symbols alongside it.

Circle, a small slice of a circle, circle, an even smaller slice of a circle, circle.

The circles and slices along the second arrow stumped her for a hot minute. She was ready to concede and just add this one to the fort-shaped pile of unknowns—before realizing she recognized that odd shape. After flexing her remaining brain cells, the eventual realization made her eyes go wide. Not really at the obvious-in-hindsight discovery, but more so at finally cracking at least one part of this place’s mystery.

It was the crescent moon.

So slim, like it had only a couple of days left until it disappeared completely. If these two were moons, then full circles were likely suns. The arrow had Sun-Moon-Sun-Moon-Sun written alongside it, which meant…

Other-her and maybe-big-Ember had left for that castle and would return in two days.

Not much time to plan her escape, but still infinitely more than she feared she had.

A sigh of nervous relief left her before she finally looked up from the drawing and towards Doc, nodding to acknowledge the message as she returned the scroll. She was glad to be more aware of her situation, distressing as it was. An icy shiver ran down her spine and spikes when she tried putting it all into perspective. In two days, the other-her would return and expose her as a fake whatever-this-is, and none of the potential outcomes of that sounded like something she wanted to be around for.

Two days to hobble out of here with a busted leg and zero awareness of where she even was.

A gentle touch on her shoulder startled her, making her jump slightly, and almost toppling the tray still on her legs. If their emotional disposition and tone were anything to go by, Doc was trying to reassure her, the effectiveness of the gesture very limited. As much as she tried, she couldn’t hide the building anxiety all that well.

Hardly inconspicuous, but what else am I to do?

A glance around the room reminded her of the second scroll, unused for now. There was even a writing implement next to it, though Sue couldn’t say she had ever tried to draw with charcoal. For a moment, she considered trying to explain her circumstances, sketch herself changing from a human to… this thing, visualize yesterday’s events, but…

All that’d do is give her away as an impostor immediately. She likely wouldn’t even have to wait for the king and queen of nuclear woods to come back for judgment to be passed on her. And so, she turned back towards the tray, visibly tense as she pulled it in closer before nibbling on what treats remained. The rest of the room soon returned to chatting amongst themselves, similarly far from upbeat.

Were they already suspecting her of being a fake, and that’s why they crossed out her swirl? Were they just waiting for the royalty to return before executing her? Was she actively giving herself away right now through her skittishness? Would she be driven out of the only safe spot she’d found so far in all this madness?

That last possibility sounded especially likely.

The anxious bind her mind was trapped in took up too much of her focus to let her pay attention to the rest of the treats laid out before her. With her stomach being sated for now, she left the tray as is, her thousand-yard stare drilling straight ahead into the clinic’s door all the while.

Soon enough, the surrounding discussion died out, and the bug-leaf creature took their leave. The other two sent them off with warm goodbyes before heading out for themselves. Ember trailed Doc as they carried the unfinished tray out, leaving Sue truly alone in here for the first time.

The anxious, cornered part of her psyche wanted to get up and run away as fast and as far as she could. The very slightly less anxious rest of her knew she would likely not even reach the front door in her current state. She needed an idea of where she was, where she could run off towards, and, crucially, how she’d accomplish any of it with her leg like this.

Looking out the window would help with at least one of those conundrums.

Sue appreciated the surge of determination that thought brought, fear-driven as it was. Busted leg, a nightstand and a wall to lean on beside her, and enough adrenaline in her system to bring someone back from the dead.

Let’s do this.

Attempts to feel how much weight she could put onto the injured leg resulted in a very unhelpful answer of ‘none’, the limb immediately buckling every time. While it didn’t hurt at the start, eventually a dull ache accompanied every motion, making all this even harder.

Sue racked her brain about how she’d accomplish any of this. Guess she could try pushing herself onto the good leg, lean against something for support, and work from there, as under-specified and likely to result in her splatting on the floor as that plan was. Sadly, that didn’t make it any less necessary.

After reaching her hands out to brace for takeoff, Sue began rocking back and forth on the mattress. One, two, up she went. She immediately tried grabbing everything in her reach, the good leg aching at having to carry her entire weight before she’d offloaded it onto the inanimate objects beside her.

Alright, she was up now, just a few feet left.

Now in a stable-ish position, Sue kept her injured leg as straight as she could while pushing it against the wooden floor, hoping it would let her inch forwards. It worked initially to her joy—each push moved her a bit, though not without stinging pain beginning to pierce the profound numbness in her leg. It got worse with each step along the wall, intensifying until every hard-earned inch towards the window made her wince loudly, tears flowing down her cheeks.

It was too late to turn back; she’d bear through it all.

She had to.

A ton of pain and a couple minutes later, Sue finally grabbed onto the window frame. She dragged her body towards it in a painful, teary triumph. She’d need to bend over to look out of it with how low it was set, the realization forcing an angry grunt out of her. Whatever; she could manage. She had it.

Let’s do it, let’s see what this hell I’ve found myself in even is.

Sue wasn’t sure what she expected to see after looking out the window like this, in the most awkward position she ever had to contort herself into. To her relief, the reality before her roughly fit one of her earlier hypotheses.

A multitude of creatures were making their way around, some of them terrifying, some cute, others still dopey—but none of them normal. None of them like anything she’d ever seen before. Despite the diversity in sizes, colors, and body types on display, they all simply coexisted, talking and playing instead of devouring one another.

Over a dozen buildings were scattered among them just in the area she could see, many similar to the hut she was peeping out of. Many, but not all, and the other kinds of structures caught her attention even more. Burrows reaching into hills or downwards into the ground, overgrown treehouses, larger brick buildings, all mixed with no discernible rhyme or reason.

They all stretched way off to her right, far out of view; this was clearly just a tiny slice of this settlement. She made out a well-defined treeline in the distance to the left—an obvious direction for her to run off towards once the time came. Until then, she could savor just how… insane all this was. An entire village full of mutated animals, every one different and weirder still. They all just casually coexisted despite some freaks looking like mythological beasts that could have had the other ones for dinner.

Including her.

The sight was so surreal she almost lost her balance after staring too intently. It’s not like she hadn’t considered the idea of a village earlier, but had no illusions about how improbable that'd be. And yet, here it was, staring her right in the eyes. It kindly withdrew one brick from her mental confusion fort, only to replace it with a couple more and give her a pat on the head for trying.

There was no way all that could’ve been stuffed away deep in the woods with nobody finding out, right? Not with satellite imagery venturing further inland than any human ever had. Has more time passed than she had thought between her trip and her waking up here!?

Is this even Earth anymore!?

A loud creak behind her cut her idle pondering off. It was immediately followed by Doc’s and Ember’s alarmed squeaks, their approached footsteps making Sue wince as she braced herself for what was to come.

Fuck.



If you're confused about the species of the characters and want them spoiled, I've set up a page listing the species of all the featured characters in each chapter!

If you want to discuss the story, I've set up a Discord server for it! (and my other writings)

Also check out my other story, From the Vast!
 
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redspah

the gay agenda
Pronouns
she/her
I originally posted this fic on Thousand Roads over a year ago, and it was a fail start because I wasn't aware of how forums quite worked at the time. With the benefit of hindsight and some more experience, I'd like to try again, apologies for necro'ing this thread.
 

redspah

the gay agenda
Pronouns
she/her
Welcome to the forums! Always glad to see a new fic cropping up around here, and this looks like a fun take on the Mystery Dungeon franchise. Interesting that Sue seems to be a world where pokémon don't exist (even fictionally), or if she's from a world similar to ours is just completely unfamiliar with Pokémon. A gardevoir is also an interesting transformation, and one that might under some circumstances make for a rather overpowered protagonist, but I like how you've made it abundantly clear here that if Sue wants to develop that incredible power she's going to have to do quite a bit of work to get there, heh.

Over a year later, but thank you for your welcome and thanks for the feedback. I've heavily edited the first chapater twice since posting it here initially, but much of your original feedback still applies, so let me go through it.

Yep, Sue is completely unfamiliar with Pokemon, they are completely absent from her homeworld, even as fiction. I wanted to put a lot of focus on body dysmorphia in this initial bit, because that to me felt like the most obvious consequence of such a sudden, full body transformation. Human-to-Gardevoir is much easier on her than so many other species she might have became, and even that was incredibly difficult to adapt to.

A bit mixed on this chapter as an introduction to the story--it's definitely frustrating that many PMD fics will spend just a couple paragraphs on the protagonist freaking out about having paws or whatever and then they seem to never have issues navigating in their new body again, but on the flip side this sequence of Sue essentially beginning to figure out how to function as a gardevoir felt like it went on a bit long to me. Here's what I liked: I thought we got a good sense of Sue as a character here; she's clearly a very interior and analytical sort of person, as well as a bit snarky. It was also fun to see how much of a grounding we got in her human life; even PMD protagonists without amnesia often have only very hazy pasts, and so Sue's concern with her mundane priorities was a fun contrast. It was also really interesting to see that she doesn't immediately understand the other pokémon here. I'm not sure whether this is because they may be some form of feral/wild pokémon that can't speak the way villagers can, or perhaps because gardevoir rely on some kind of telepathy to communicate/understand others and Sue hasn't figured it out yet, or for some other reason entirely.

Language and language barriers will play a large part in the fic going forward. Telepathy as a skill isn't something known innately and has to be learned, which Sue is obviously unaware of. At the same time, she isn't even aware other beings around her are sentient to begin with, making attempts at communication unlikely even if she was aware of how to use her new body to its fullest potential.

On the other hand, I did find some of the walking slowly from place to place, freaking out about something, then finding out it wasn't really a problem to get a bit repetitive. For a chapter of around 10,000 words, I think a little more structure would have helped to make this intro feel a little less, well, wandering. I wonder whether some aspects, such as the "peaches," could have been introduced later in the story or while something else was going on in order to condense this segment a little bit more. It looks like we may be getting an introduction to some other characters, and perhaps a more populated part of the world, in the next chapter, which I think is great! I think making the road to get there a little shorter could be beneficial, too.

That's a fair criticism, and to a certain extent it's just a result of my writing style. It's long winded and "inside the main character's head" to a fault, and my main characters tend to be anxious wrecks because self-insert. For what its worth, the journey being meandering only makes sense considering Sue being so utterly lost, and the later parts of the story will callback to basically all the scaredy segments of this first chapter in one form or another.

I was a bit confused by the mention of Sue's red, ear-like extensions. Pretty much everything points toward her being a gardevoir, most notably the big chest spike and the fact that she's about the same size now as she was before her transformation. However, gardevoir don't have any red ear/head extensions, or whatever they are, in contrast to ralts and kirlia. Not sure if that's an oversight or meant to indicate something unusual about Sue's new form.

I've edited the text since but I think this might have been a case of misreading it, I'm quite sure I never specified red, ear-like extensions, anywhere, ha. I think you mixed up the mention of red eyes and the spiky, ear-like extensions, they were listed as separate things.

All in all, this is an interesting take on the traditional PMD opening, and it leaves me really curious to see how Sue deals with it when she realizes just how far from home she is. This story could go a lot of ways from here--no real hint just yet of what form the broader plot may take--but I'm sure it would be fun!

Without spoiling too much, it'll go in a rather different direction than most PMD stories, much smaller and more character-focused in scope as opposed to a world changing threat. As to how will Sue deal with the realization of just how far from home she is... same as everything else so far, "fuck it we ball", she isn't gonna let anyone eat her or burn her at the stake. Once more, thank you for the greetings and the feedback, I hope it's alright for me to respond to it much a long time later.
 
Chapter 3: Respite

redspah

the gay agenda
Pronouns
she/her


Chapter 3: Respite



Sue had no idea that it was possible to get scolded so thoroughly despite not understanding a single word.

Or that Doc had enough muscle to drag her back onto her bed, for that matter. They were none too happy about needing to do that, their annoyance shifting into worry as they examined her injury. The bandages around her leg had turned red, and the wound burned with every heartbeat—the simple act of taking the bandage off was bad enough to make Sue grit her teeth.

Doc kept their usually quiet voice up, ranting about something with enough intensity for Ember to occasionally flinch as the fox comforted her hand. Sue was glad she couldn’t understand in what precise way she was being bad-mouthed, but she still felt foul. The medic had patched her up after she got herself into trouble last time, and her needless expedition just undid a decent chunk of their efforts.

Sorry Doc, I really wish I could explain any of this to you.

Without anything else to do while being tended to, Sue dared to sneak a peek at her injured leg. The wound was large enough to stick a finger in and, much to her surprise, it wasn't even sewn shut. Its current state made her already white face go paler still imagining how bad it all must’ve looked before Doc’s help.

With the bandages discarded, the medic rushed to fetch a square of thick cloth, scooting back just in time to catch some pale blood leaking from the aggravated wound. Before Sue could wonder what they’d do to treat her self-inflicted injuries, they got to doing just that—and it wasn’t anything she could’ve expected.

Instead of preparing any natural remedy, they rested their hands next to her injury. Their touch was soft and… tingly. The sensation escaped an exact description—almost ticklish but not uncomfortable—and only intensified as the medic focused, soon enveloping her entire leg. It melted through the pain wherever it touched like it was nothing.

Doc’s hands glowing throughout this entire process gave Sue a pause, but she didn’t dare oppose any of it. Both because it’d be rather uncouth to do so while she was being healed, and because the ritual had left her so, so tired. It only took a few minutes, but she was struggling to keep her eyes open by the time the mutant healer had finished doing… well, magic.

No other words to describe it, really.

She didn’t expect to be as unsurprised by the existence of actual magic in this forest somewhere in Oz as she ended up being. But between the otherworldly fauna, her own unexplainable abilities, and a heaping dose of exhaustion, her reactions had been dulled all the way down to silence. In any normal circumstances, she would have freaked out about this ten times over—but these weren’t normal circumstances.

That, and she had Ember beside her, tirelessly comforting her.

After Doc had finished casting their spell, Sue dared to look at the aftermath. The results were very appreciated, though hardly anywhere near as flashy as the magic through which they had come about. Her wound had shrunk a fair bit, its bleeding stanched, and the surrounding swelling reduced. A quick twitch test revealed that the limb had even regained some sensation, much to her relief.

“Thanhksh, Dhoc,” Sue muttered.

The two pairs of eyes focusing on her an instant later had clued her in on her gaffe—not that she had a way of explaining what had just slipped out from underneath her skullcap. Instead, she did the second-best thing and shook her head while looking embarrassed. Thankfully, Doc and Ember got her intent soon enough, returning to whatever they’d been doing before.

What she wanted to do was take a nap, that’s for sure.

Her idle pets stroked Ember’s head, klutzy on account of all her strength suddenly being sapped. Trying to hold her yawn in was similarly awkward, some of the sound leaking out and catching Doc’s attention. To her surprise, it made them put the bowl of ointment they were holding down and walk over to her, mumbling something all the while.

Sue hadn’t gained a sudden understanding of Doc’s language in the meantime, but even she could tell they had calmed down. Her relief mixed with confusion at the medic’s words and a pinch of mild disappointment at Ember scooting off the bed soon after. Having failed to convey their intent verbally, Doc took the matter into their own hands, gently pushing down on Sue’s side, taking her off-guard. Her eyes went wide, arms raising to maintain her balance before she figured it out.

Fine, fine, I’m lying down.

After some awkward shuffling, she laid down on her left side, leaving the injured limb accessible to any further profane rituals. To her mild disappointment, she didn’t get to see what else would be done to it.

Exhaustion knocked her out before Doc could even resume their magical handiwork.


The absence of any more religious visions was reassuring in hindsight, but Sue was too knackered to notice right away.

Her returning consciousness took its time as it pieced the surrounding stimuli together. Most of them were familiar by now, but if anything, that made them even more welcome this time around. Her hand's exploratory journey discovered a wild Ember snuggled beside her midriff. Her gentle pets were enough to stir them out of their stupor, leaving them squirming as they came to. Once they had finished waking up, they scooted over to her head—

And excitedly licked all over her face.

Sue just scrunched her features and giggled. Her eyes slowly pried themselves open, soon finding Ember’s—and realizing theirs were just as fiercely red. She mumbled, “G-ghood a-aphternoon Embher.”

They tilt their head in the cutest way when they’re confused.

Ember kept nuzzling her as she sat up; her left hand immediately returned the affection. Doc wasn’t around anymore, but a few eye-catching additions around the room offset that fact. The nightstand was occupied by another trayful of food, the selection of treats much more savory this time—and it was the less exciting of the new arrivals.

A rudimentary crutch stood leaning on the nightstand, right beside the tray. It looked about big enough for Sue to use, hopefully freeing her from having to hurt herself again just to get around.

Speaking of.

After checking her leg again, Sue found it patched up like the first time she woke up here—and then some. Doc spared no bandage in securing the injury. They even reinforced the bandages with something stiffer, making it feel almost like a cast. Running away in a cast wasn’t gonna be easy, but it was still infinitely preferable to being ratted out by the local king Martian and burned at the stake.

Trying to distract herself from that foretold future, Sue focused on the food instead. The assorted goods had her drooling. Roasted fruit and veggies, fried dumplings, and even a huge, savory pie, right in the middle. Her stomach wanted it all—despite how large her breakfast had been, she still felt like she could vacuum the entire tray up and then some. Guess her emotion radar used a decent bit of energy or something.

Who cares, it’s dinner time~!

Sue wasted no time stuffing herself with roasted goodies, now properly able to notice and then summarily dismiss their unusual flavors. The light filtering in through the window had gotten noticeably more orange, making her pause. She must’ve been really exhausted after Doc had patched her up.

Their absence was worrying, though if they were indeed a doctor as she had christened them, they were probably needed elsewhere, too. Quite a few heads around the place, and it only made sense that some of them would also need medical attention, likely stat to boot.

Now that she thought about it, Sue hoped she wasn’t taking up the only bed in this entire village. It’d be a shame for an actual… mutant to not get the treatment it needed in favor of a mutant-shaped imposter. Acknowledging that’s what she was didn’t lift her mood either. But…

It was what it was—a clusterfuck she hoped she’d soon make her way out of.

Ember soon crawled back to their rightful spot by her side, bringing Sue’s smile back as she enjoyed a fibrous, sweet... probably vegetable. Its flavor and aroma were somewhere between potatoes and carrots, tingling her tastebuds with every bite. The lil’ fox could scarcely resist sniffing the trayful of food up. Fortunately for them, Sue found enough restraint in her hunger to humor them, offering them a roasted veggie. Ember looked up at her uncertainly.

Yes, silly, go right ahead, knock yourself out.

Thankfully, a firm nod was enough to convey her message. The little one wasted no time munching on the large slice of god-knows-what, freeing Sue’s hands. Most of the treats might have long since cooled down, but their spices warmed her insides and woke her right back up.

Living the best life indeed—while I still can, at least.

As Sue wrapped up her meal, she offered more and more treats to Ember until even they started denying them. She smiled once they were both done and slid the tray away, continuing to give the lil’ fox their share of affection. What could she say? They were a godsend, both as a heater and as a companion. Hopefully, nobody else was getting worried because of their absence. If she’d interpreted the earlier drawing right, their maybe-parent was out of town, and they were free to fool around all day long.

The question of the second parent was subconsciously overlooked.

Before she could decide whether to give the brand spanking new crutch a spin or... go back to sleep, probably, she sensed Doc making their way back, perking her up. Soon enough, they were back, their expression lighting up at seeing Sue up and having already eaten. They wasted no time chatting Ember up as the leafy mantis followed them in.

Repeated exposure didn’t make the latter’s appearance any less weird.

Soon after, though, Sue realized the bug wasn’t paying attention to her; their gaze fixated on a spot on the floor beside them. They watched over something as they stepped in, obscured by Sue’s bed from her point of view.

What are they—

*squeak!*

Sue’s eyes went wide at the sound, her curiosity getting her to lean over the edge of the bed to see its source. The hidden newcomer waddling beside the bushbug answered a question Sue didn’t have a chance to ask herself before now—namely, what did the babies of her current species look like?

The answer was absurdly tiny and incredibly adorable.

Assuming her height hadn’t changed, the baby Martian was only around a foot tall. Size aside, they looked so similar to her new form that they had to be related somehow. The same stiff green hair, shaped like a silly bowl cut, the same porcelain white skin. They even had the same red spikes, except on their head instead of their chest.

Amusingly enough, their spikes weren’t any smaller than Sue’s, making them look way oversized for the little... creature.

Of course, that also raised the unpleasant question of how the hell these spikes moved from their heads to their chests as they grew up. Even a brief attempt at imagining the possible transitory forms left her disgusted, prompting her to banish that train of thought.

Thank god I’ve gotten past that... Martian puberty.

Snapping back to reality, the little not-her seemed to have spotted her despite the obstacle of their own hairdo. They acknowledged her with a loud, excited squeak before walking over to her bed, the oddly wide legs helping them keep their balance.

They were so much like a human infant it was uncanny. The squeaks were a dead ringer, the waddling was similar, even the excited gestures reminded her of the toddler she got to babysit a few times. But… they clearly weren’t human, and neither was Sue—not in form, at least. She had no idea whether she should be unnerved by that similarity, or whether it implied anything about the nature of this world as a whole.

Oddly enough, the little Martian had caught onto her worry. Their babbles grew quieter as they tilted their head up at her, confusion filling their teeny face.

How can a mutant be so cute?



Alright, that was stupid to ask with Ember right beside me.

The lil’ fox purred into her side before woofing at the infant, their squeaked response loud and excited. They kept babbling at her as they tried to reach up towards her, succeeding at nothing except being cute. Sue’s worry about whether the mantis would approve of her grabbing the baby Martian was answered quickly enough. The bushbug nanny nodded eagerly as she leaned towards the infant, even making a picking-up gesture to guide her.

Just don’t try scrambling off, lil’ one. Can’t imagine falling on your... spike would be anything but excruciating.

With shaky hands, Sue pulled the alien toddler onto the bed. They weighed, indeed, about as much as a baby. Thankfully, her arms could still handle that much. Once she’d set them down on their feet, they wasted not a moment before running over and pulling her midriff as close as they could into a hug, their touch not unlike Doc’s from when they performed their magic.

Alright, this one is adorable; can I keep them?

She wondered if this little one was related to that not-her from the drawing. If so, maybe there was the possibility of salvation through befriending the royal baby? Unlikely, but her flailing mind couldn’t resist latching onto that idea as a lifeboat. Ideally, she’d be able to ask, but... actually, hold on, maybe she could mime it out?

Sue waved to catch Doc’s attention, thinking through how to convey this alien baby being related to the alien king of the alien town. Eventually, she settled down on the most straightforward idea. She pointed at the infant attached to her stomach, then moved her hand as if writing, and finally, pointed towards the drawers.

Miraculously, Doc got her general intent.

They squeaked something before pulling out the drawn-on scroll from earlier—and adding to it. As the piece of charcoal whizzed around the page, Sue absentmindedly supplied the pair of tots with further affection, feeling her hand being weakly pulled all the while. She blinked at finally noticing that sensation—she hadn’t consciously moved it, and yet, it ended up right beside the lil’ not-her, much to their joy.

What’s this, intra-species magnetism or something?

Before Sue could think that idea through, Doc slid the expanded drawing in front of her. The couple of additions were immensely helpful, confirming her earlier hunches. An outline of the baby not-her, connected to the royal not-her. Beside it, Ember’s outline connected to the humanoid in a dress and large fox ears.

Guess royal kids love her. Hopefully, she’ll be anywhere near this lucky with royal adults.

A nod of acknowledgment later, Doc whisked the edited scroll away and resumed their chat with the bug creature. Sue was once more left alone with two important tykes and unable to communicate with either. Though, judging by the baby noises the lil’ Martian made, she doubted whether anyone could understand them.

As she kept petting them and they kept trying their hardest to pull her hand into a hug, Ember snuck up on them. Moments later, the fox dove in and struck, attacking the infant’s side with a flurry of licks. They immediately broke into a fit of loud, squeaky laughter, squeals turning into giggles as they flailed. Sue was too amused to intervene, laughing louder and louder at the sight. She had no idea why it was all so funny to her, but couldn’t deny the joy that bloomed within her in response.

A couple of comments from the presumed grownups made Ember stop; the little one immediately splatted and panted as they caught their breath. The fox snuggled up to them soon after, letting the Martian tyke hug them tight. Sue only barely kept herself from swooning at the sight—she didn’t want to interrupt the adorableness before her. The lil’ Martian, however, had other plans. Her gentle pets made them look up at her as they laid on their side, before feebly trying to reach up towards her.

Do they want hugs?

Smiling at that possibility, Sue reached in to pick them up; carefully lifting them up to the side of her spike. They made it harder with their wriggling, but ultimately behaved and eased out once she was done. It didn’t take long for them to look up at her from their new position; breaking into a big smile and an even bigger squeak. Their squirming let her peek underneath their bowl cut, finding their eyes predictably red.

Just don’t start thinking I’m your actual mommy. She’s probably just on a trip.

Doc spoke towards her, though their words were likely aimed at the baby in her arms. They then took the mostly finished tray of food away, much to the tyke’s dismay, for... some reason. Guess they just wanted a bite of the leftovers. Oh well—

That’s where her train of thought would’ve ended, if not for a leftover berry suddenly becoming surrounded in a blue aura before levitating upwards, and towards the alien in her arms. She briefly caught a similar glow emanating from their eyes before it disappeared, the treat now secured in their hands. Before the little one could bite into their spoils, though, they abruptly looked up at her, confusion matching Sue’s shock at what she’d just witnessed.

Guess magic here went far, far beyond just healing touch.

As incredible as that was in its own right, even children being capable of performing it only made it all the more awe-inspiring. And prompted an incomparably more unnerving thought—if literal babies could do this, what about adults? Just how much further could that royal take it?

Was Doc’s magic touch just a tiny part of their abilities? Did they just magic all the logs of this building together? What about the bug-person-thing? They have done nothing magical so far aside from continuing to exist despite their appearance. Was magic restricted to certain species she just happened to be one of?

Why is everyone staring at me?

Sue’s sixth sense clued her into being the center of unwelcome attention. She pretended her head just hurt a bit, lowering the munching baby onto her lap as the free hand rubbed her forehead. Fortunately, the rest of the room bought her pretense, returning to whatever they were previously doing. In Ember’s case, that meant wordlessly asking her to continue petting, paws reaching for her hand.

She sure wouldn’t say no to that arrangement.

Soon after, Doc carried the tray out of the hut, the bug person staying behind this time. They walked closer to the bed and chittered something at the two creatures that presumably could understand them. Ember woofed back while the little-her squirmed, tried to squeak with a full mouth, and latched themselves onto Sue’s nearby hand.

Sue had no idea what she’d done for the little Martian to adore her so much, but she wasn’t gonna refuse it. Both because it was lovely, and because it could earn her some brownie points once their parent came knocking. Right now, though, one of those was much more important than the other.

With everyone chilling for once, the idea of naming those around her crept back into Sue’s head. The bushbug had already visited her twice, and she imagined they would do so again in the future—likely with the lil’ Martian in tow. Her brain wasted no time in providing a simple and uninspired nickname of ‘Leafy’ for the former, but the tyke proved much trickier.

The most obvious physical characteristic she could latch onto was instantly banished on account of them being an infant.

Aside from that dead end, Sue was uncertain what kind of nickname to even give them. Part of her wanted to go with an actual name with just how baby-like they were, making cutesy pet-like monikers feel... wrong. Then again, it was still an alien whose parent would want her head on a stick. Best to avoid getting attached.

‘Bowlcut’ would certainly be effective as far as limiting attachment went, but it felt... rude. Not like anyone but her would ever know, especially not the infant in question, but knowing that only helped so much. Sue soon resigned herself to the substandard name, deflated at having failed to come up with any decent nickname. It was irrational, sure, even more so with her stay here threatening to be temporary. Still, she couldn’t help but latch onto the only display of kindness she’d been given in this world, and being unable to match it was upsetting.

Trying to divert her thoughts away from that topic, she circled back around to Bowlcut’s show of baby magic. Instead of worrying about all the ways their parent would eventually mess her up, she began to wonder whether she was capable of anything like that too.

She sure didn’t feel magical, extra-sensory perception aside, and she figured those kinds of fancy powers would be noticeable. Unless… they had to be taught, explaining her inability to use them. Though, Bowlcut wasn’t much different from a year-old baby, and good luck teaching those anything.

Maybe she could do magic all along and just wasn’t aware of it? It was worth a try either way. She glanced around the room for an appropriate target, spotting the still-untouched crutch, and... realized she had no idea what to do with it.

Sue tried a few thought commands: ‘Come’, ‘Up’, ‘Fly’, ‘Get over here’, but the tool remained persistently inanimate despite her attempts to think it alive. Maybe she had to focus hard for it to work? Her eyes narrowed as she concentrated on the crutch as much as she could—but once more, nothing.

Guess she just didn’t have the touch.

Now that she thought about it, could it be that’s what the crossed-out spiral referenced? She was ‘magic deficient’, if that was even an actual term. Which, considering literal babies of this species can make things float, would definitely be a cause for concern. Only concern and not panic, though, leaving the possibility that Bowlcut’s parent would see her as just disabled and not an imposter. Unless they had access to powers wild enough to let them see through her embarrassing disguise, which didn’t feel unlikely…

Before Sue could ponder the implications of technically being doubly crippled, Doc made their way back. As they stepped in, the orange light bathing them clued her onto the lateness of the hour.

Wonder when everyone is gonna leave.

There weren’t any light sources she could see, and considering this place gave off pre-industrial vibes, the best thing they were likely to have would be candles. Candles which Doc then pulled out of the drawers, together with a pair of holders, though without anything to light them with. Unconcerned by that, they laid the candle holders around the room. Once done, they headed towards the bed with the actual candles in hand, the once-human’s eyebrow raising in response.

Sorry Doc, this spike does not double as a firestarter.

Ember begrudgingly wriggled themselves from underneath her steady supply of affection, taking Sue off guard. Their bushy tail wagged as they leaned over the edge of the bed. Doc then brought the unlit candle wicks in front of the fox’s snout, as if expecting them to spit fire.

And then Ember spat fire.

While Bowlcut’s minor act of telekinesis only left her staring in shock, the burst of flames coming from her lap warmer’s mouth made her jump and gasp, startling everyone around her. Doc stared at her for a moment before the melting wax burned their fingers, prompting them to insert the now-lit candles into their holders and blow off the brief burns.

Ember looked fiery, sure, but that was supposed to just be an appearance thing, not being able to go full dragon and just breathe fire! Sue was terrified at the concept, not to say baffled at how it even worked. The lil’ fox’s puppy eyes melted through that fear rather quickly, though, especially with them looking genuinely sorry at having startled her.

It’s alright, Ember, I forgive you. Suppose this is normal for you after all... just, wow. Will have to remember not to tickle you and stay way away if you ever start sneezing.

Sue communicated her forgiveness with a couple of pets and a smile, the fox pup immediately returning to nuzzling her. Their fluff tickled against her bare skin, but she kept her giggles from escaping. Before long, Ember’s affection was cut short after Doc spoke up towards them, making them nod and dash off to the side, seemingly unbothered.

As she stared at them, confused, Leafy pulled Bowlcut over to their end of the bed, the infant immediately trying to waddle back despite being held in place. What Doc did right after explained it all, fortunately, the medic waving at her as they shook the crutch.

Time to give this thing a test drive.

She didn’t have to be gestured at twice, shifting over until her legs dangled off the bed. As Doc handed her the crutch, she examined it—it was rather crude and roughly made, but overall similar to what she had already used a few times in the past. The medic was unsure how to convey the next part of the process to her, speaking up uncertainly towards Leafy. Fortunately for them, Sue knew what she was doing—or rather what she did back in her human body, hoping the different proportions wouldn’t make this a miserable experience.

Or, at least, an even more miserable experience.

With the crutch and her good leg in position, she pushed herself off, cutting Doc off mid-word. They backed off as she tried to balance herself, taking a few attempts before succeeding—barely, but still. Now for getting around.

Curiously, Doc remained quiet while she waddled about, evidently waiting to intervene should anything happen. But, for the first time in a while, nothing did—she kept her balance and made steady progress. Relatively slow thanks to a lack of practice and the crutch taking way more effort to use than she remembered, but progress nonetheless. A couple of hobbled circles around the room later, Sue turned towards Doc and gave them a wide, triumphant smile.

They looked and felt happy, so all was well.

Their gesture toward the bed was straightforward, Sue hobbling over before sitting down and putting the crutch away. They then glanced outside, muttering something to themselves before speaking up towards the fox. Ember woofed disapprovingly in return, scrambling back to Sue’s side.

You know Doc is right, silly, it’s getting really late. It’s time to head home.

Sue gave Ember a patient smile before sending them off with a few pats. Bowlcut was next, Leafy carrying them towards her to say goodbye. The lil’ Martian tried to scramble out of their hold as Sue waved them away, giggling at their antics.

“Ghood nhight, I’ll shee yhou all thomorrow.”

The precise contents of her words might not have been understood, but she felt her intent was transferred, anyway. Bowlcut enthusiastically waved at her while being carried out, almost knocking their nanny off balance. Ember trailed them out after one last look towards her, the door creaking shut behind them.

Doc’s mumbles caught her attention, the gesture that followed straightforward. They tilted her head, closed their eyes, and mimed resting their head on a pillow. Sue wasn’t particularly exhausted just yet, but a good night’s rest would do her well, regardless. Rolling her eyes a bit, she obeyed their instructions and laid down.

Goodness, this place was comfy.

With their patient laid to bed, Doc smiled and blew the candle further away from her, plunging most of the room in a soft shade. They were about to repeat that with the other one before reminding themselves of something important—at least judging by their audible surprise and the subsequent dash out the door.

She’d never seen them move this urgently before, their soft body downright comical while running.

After calming down her giggling, Sue finally tried to chill out. Guess putting out the last candle would be left to her, but she was in no rush—the faint background light was rather comforting. Back at home, she usually slept with her laptop’s monitor turned on. It was one socially acceptable alternative for a night light, and this was another, even if less reusable.

Just as she began to doze off, her attempt at sleep was interrupted by the front door creaking open again, accompanied by Doc’s panting. She groaned, exhausted, but also quite curious about what was so important as to make the composed medic break into a mad sprint—a feather.

A sizable feather for sure, eye-catchingly blue at that—but just a feather all the same, carefully placed on the nightstand. Doc looked content with themselves despite the pointlessness of their action, mumbling with satisfaction. Realizing she had stirred to look at them, Doc simply nodded at her and blew the other candle out before Sue could act to the contrary.

Oh well.

Thinking nothing of it, the medic left with some more soft-spoken utterances. Sue was left in darkness, only illuminated by the faint violet glow creeping in through the window, and... the aforementioned feather. It radiated a soft, pale shine, too weak to light up the room, but just enough to be visible in the dark.

Maybe this was their version of a night light, hah.

With little stimuli to keep her awake, Sue soon dozed off. Even her overactive worrying couldn’t withstand the gentle glow that filled her eyes, calming her by the moment. Regardless of its intended use and significance, it sure looked nice, the pleasant shade of blue soothing her mind as it warded off nightmares.

What it did not ward off, though, were more religious visions.


Here, again.

Sue warmed her hands by the fire as she realized where she was once more. Familiar guitar twanging mixed with the crackling of flames as she relaxed by the campfire, its warmth as comforting as ever despite being wholly imaginary.

Guess these dreams won’t always suck.

The sky was chock full of brilliant stars, shining as if just for her, accompanied by a splendid full moon. Even its pale light felt much warmer, much more... gentle, than its usual coldness in the waking world.

The Moon God’s voice was there, too.

To nobody’s surprise, there was precisely zero progress as far as understanding it went. It took the voice stopping for Sue to even notice it, incomprehensible words having turned into background noise. Just there, until they suddenly weren’t. The expectant silence that followed left Sue unnerved, as if somebody was waiting for her to do something.

“I’ve no idea what you’re saying. Don’t you have some other dreams to be in?” she asked, exasperation dripping from every syllable. None of this made any sense. She couldn’t take this ‘talking to a Moon God’ nonsense seriously, not even inside her own dreams. She wondered how much of this was just a figment of her imagination, and was leaning towards ‘all of it.’

Despite having just been told off, the heavenly voice kept going, urgent and insistent. Sue couldn’t help but worry—yes, this was all just a dream, but she’d rather her mind not subject her to further horrors because of something she couldn’t understand. Speaking of horrors—the other, masculine voice appeared to be mysteriously absent, though considering everything going on, it was at best a footnote.

“Y’know, if you want me to know what you’re talking about, how about you write it down or something?” Sue quipped, rolling her eyes. “Aren’t you a god or someth—”

Her follow-up was interrupted by a sheet of paper splatting right against her face. The forehead curl shielded her from the brunt of the attack as she flailed in surprise, soon grabbing and examining. A page torn out of a lined notebook, something written on it in pencil—

...

Oh for fuck’s sake.

The scribbling was too regular, too orderly to not be some kind of writing—too bad it was one completely alien to her. It was very geometric, unlike anything she’d ever seen, dozens of straight lines forming many shapes, with only some of them filled. She had no idea whether one symbol ended and the other began, making it even more daunting than it already had been.

It was kinda like Korean, in that Korean was the language she knew of that was least utterly dissimilar to it.

Half the page was taken up by a drawing of... something. Sue had no idea what it was supposed to be, but it made her think of a ghost of sorts. Its body was wispy and all black, with an hourglass-shaped... torso at its core. A couple of arms and a head were its only extremities, the latter looking like a white plume surrounded by a spiky crest, a single eye peeking out from its base.

A good contender for a sleep paralysis demon, though Sue doubted whether that was anywhere near the intent of the drawing. Given that the accompanying text was about as helpful as the sketches of dicks on the margins of her actual notebooks, her attention only had one way to go. She pointed at the eerie sketch before looking up at the Moon, asking with much less exasperation than before, “Who’s that?”

The second page hitting her face that imagined night did not startle her any less.

She grabbed the sheet of paper with an annoyed grunt before glaring at the moonlit sky, snarling out, “You don’t have to toss it in my fucking face, you know!?”

The mighty lunar deity mumbled what Sue presumed to be an apology. She grumbled, flipped the page over, and examined the... mostly solid blackness. The only part not filled in with solid color was a shaded circle at the center, the fine details revealing it to be the Moon. Was that spooky ghost-looking thing... the sky dimmer Satan... deity?

No, these two don’t deserve nicknames. They can figure something out if they’re so up and mighty.

“Alright, if that’s supposed to be the spooky one, then what the hell are you, and why did you even bring this all up to begin with?” she asked, equal parts annoyed and curious.

To Sue’s relief, the response didn’t slap her in the face this time. Instead, it took a much more civilized route of spontaneously manifesting on her lap while she wasn’t looking, in the form of a tiny bundle of pages. The topmost one seemed to contain the answer to her first question, a drawing depicting a—





Actually, scratch that. This one gets a nickname, after all.

Moon God is Duck now.

It was very hard to deny the similarity between the object of the sketch and the bread munchers of her local ponds. The only actual differences were the tusks on the sides of its head, a curved horn, and its wings looking like flimsy, translucent arcs—somehow. It even had a third such arc on its back, larger than the other two. Judging by its location, the only purpose it might have had was providing the divine entity with a speed boost while flying or swimming around.

Duck goes nyooom.

After finally easing out her laughter, Sue could examine the rest of the scribbles. Duck kept talking all the while, but she didn’t have it in her to care about their unamused words. The second page depicted a rudimentary comic, its plot all too familiar.

The first panel featured a human with a backpack on a forest trail. An arrow connected it towards the only other defined panel, showing a Martian lying unconscious in the mud. Next to the arrow was none other than the Sky Dimmer Satan himself, together with some more geometrical writing. The implication was obvious, making her ask, “Wait, did that other guy bring me here and cause all this?”

Duck responded with a raised tone, contributing precious nothing towards making all this any more understandable. Sue’s head tilted as she tried to figure out whether that meant ‘yes’ or ‘no’, arriving nowhere. Weirder still, the celestial voice sounded similarly uncertain, mumbling before quieting out and… sighing.

“Guess I’m not the only one confused for once, eh, Duck?” Sue chuckled. The lunar deity answered with some more mumbles in a raised, almost apologetic voice—or at least, that’s how it felt. But why would it—

Suddenly, a migraine.

Sue grunted, the sudden pain no less uncomfortable than the real stuff that occasionally ruined her days. Her free hand reached up to clasp her head, trying and failing to banish the sensation of a rusted knife drilling into her head. She shouted, “H-hey, what the—stop, STOP THIS!”

The subsuming pain made it difficult to make out Ducks response, the serene sensations of her brain frying itself eclipsing everything else. A roll of nausea surged through her body—and then it and the pain stopped as abruptly as they had started.

Sue was dazed, achy, and really, really pissed at all the nonsense taking place inside her head. She glared at the imagined celestial body, getting up from her seat, and shouted, “You know what, fuck this and fuck you! Get the hell out of my dreams you—whatever the fuck you are!”

Surprisingly, but not at all unwantedly, her indignation had an effect.

A strong wind kicked up out of nowhere, fierce and loud enough to eclipse Duck’s pleading. Sue didn’t care—she was fed up with all this, with having no idea what was happening, with this torment inside her own mind.

Before Sue knew it, the dream once more came undone in front of her own eyes; pieces of landscape fell into a colorless void. As if to spite her one last time, the page slipped out of her grasp and slammed into her face once more. She wanted nothing more than to just tear the stupid thing apart and was about to do so before spotting a detail that wasn’t there before; the rest of the dream dissipating moments later—

There was a question mark next to the drawing of the ghost Satan now.​



If you're confused about the species of the characters and want them spoiled, I've set up a page listing the species of all the featured characters in each chapter!

If you want to discuss the story, I've set up a Discord server for it! (and my other writings)

Also check out my other story, From the Vast!
 
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Chapter 4: Recon

redspah

the gay agenda
Pronouns
she/her


Chapter 4: Recon



As good as it felt to tell off an imaginary deity, it ended up coming with a noticeable downside. Sue’s old professors would’ve been up in arms at her linking the two events based on nothing but coincidence, but since they weren’t the ones that had to deal with their dreams being invaded, their opinion didn’t count anymore.

She slept like crap.

Doc shook her arm, making her finally commit to awareness after several hours of restlessness. Exhaustion stuck to her despite her best efforts, showing itself through tired groans and sand in her eyes. Eventually, she tried to sit up, the action only making her soreness worse as she greeted, “G-good mhorning, Doc.”

The medic responded in kind as they checked up on her leg. They found the sight satisfying, in that it hadn’t changed since the previous evening, rating it a soft squeak and an animal-person’s pat of approval out of ten. Sue just smiled and nodded absentmindedly, mentally still not there yet. Doc chuckled briefly at her reaction before turning for the exit door—and stopping right as they were about to press on the handle.

It took Sue embarrassingly long to catch onto that, eyebrows slowly raising as she finally spotted the medic looking at her over their shoulder. Once they’d realized she’d noticed, they changed their plans, pulling out the scroll from yesterday and getting to drawing on its clean side.

Wonder what they’re scribbling over there.

Maybe they were gonna ask her what she wanted? Not like she knew what the things she’d eaten yesterday were, especially with all the fruits and veggies she didn’t recognize. She could try to go off the resemblance to actual food she’s had in the past, but that was about it.

Is this a sandwich, or some weird fruit salad? Not even Duck knows.

Sue chuckled at the thought, thinking back to the supposed depiction of the imagined lunar deity and wondering how much of that was based on any sort of reality. She didn’t think herself creative enough to come up with all she’d seen and heard out of whole cloth. It was probably just a combination of her mental exhaustion and the quirks of this body—that was the only possibility that made sense, really.

Despite everything that had happened so far, her suspension of disbelief didn’t go as far as to let her think that an honest to god... god had actually contacted her in her dreams—let alone two. Imposter from Earth or not, she couldn’t have been anywhere near interesting enough to warrant such an act. Besides, they had clear difficulties communicating with her, quite pitiful if they really were deities.

No matter what their deal was, Sue was sure she wanted nothing to do with them, anyway—

A light tap against her arm snapped her to awareness; eyes darted to the side just in time to catch the medic’s amused expression. It only lasted a moment before they spoke up and offered her the edited scroll. They kept chuckling at her absentmindedness, but she was too focused on their drawing to notice.

A pair of rudimentary comics covered the page, sharing the final panel. The first one featured Doc heading out, walking up to a counter with a tray in their arms, and returning with it now filled. The other, instead, had her tag along with them to the same counter. In either case, the end result was her cartoonishly gorging herself on food, though the latter approach appealed to her much more.

Getting to stretch my legs and scope out the area to plan my getaway? Sign me the hell up.

Enthusiastic nods and pointing at the second drawing were enough to convey her intent. Doc smiled as they whisked the scroll away, waiting for Sue to get up. Now that she actually felt awake, she soon climbed out of the bed, right hand holding onto the rough wood of her crutch like it was her only key to freedom. Which, at this rate, it may very well have been.

Once she was up, Doc nodded encouragingly and held the door open for her like a proper gentle... creature. Maneuvering towards the exit door turned out tricky, especially with the door frame turning out to be an inch shorter than her.

Oh, bother.

Faced with this existential obstacle, Sue decided to try bowing her way under the overhang. With a calculated move that was only partially accidental, she stumbled out the door in one piece. A few moments of desperately regaining her balance later, she successfully came to a stop outside, the sunlight making her squint. She had made it through the five or so meters separating her from the rest of this village—time to behold the spoils.

A breath of fresh air was welcome in both the literal and figurative senses; the chilly breeze reinvigorated Sue as she looked around. There were several cabins just like the one she’d left, and a couple of larger stone buildings on the other side of the path. She could’ve sworn she even saw something reminiscent of barebones machinery through the window of one of the wooden huts.

And all around, creatures of all shapes and sizes—including a literal dragon flying its way overhead. It was nowhere near the size of Smaug, but it still dwarfed her enough to unnerve her, despite being rounded and somewhat non-threateningly orange. Before she could investigate it or the purple mammal with overly long arms passing by, Doc tugged on her free arm.

Sue got the point well enough, turning to follow their footsteps as they headed further into the village. Oddly enough, they didn’t bother to lock the door to their clinic beforehand—but maybe they’d just magicked it shut instead. Half bunny, half marshmallow wizard medics were one thing, but them just leaving the door to their place open was much harder to believe.

A couple of turns later, their trip had led them to a massive plaza, easily the size of multiple football fields. Dozens of creatures filled it, doing everything from just walking and talking, to sunbathing and even making art. It was calm enough to remind her of a Sunday at her local park.

Most of the clearing opened towards the surrounding woods—reassuring, considering her foretold future. Though, on a second look, the large, well-trodden path cutting through the treeline at the opposite side made it too obvious of a getaway route.

The side of the plaza she’d just stepped through was lined up with stalls and kitchens, most with a picnic table or two in front of them. The tables were similar to the ones in her world—not that there was much to improve upon.

That didn’t mean the local mutants didn’t try.

Some tables had benches only along half their length, leaving the other half to just dangle awkwardly. Was it a standing table of some sort? Couldn’t have been too comfortable, but who knows. Sue pondered on that tangent, following Doc as many an inhuman being passed her by. She knew only that they were there, ranging from being shorter than her knee to towering over her.

Overstimulation autopilot made her stumble forward for a few more paces before her sixth sense took notice of the medic trying to catch her attention, spotting them waving for her once she glanced over her shoulder. Seems they had reached their destination.

The stall looked just like Doc’s drawing from earlier, decorated with earthy colors and wooden doodads. A quick look at its inside revealed a well-equipped kitchen, at least as far as pre-industrial cooking technology went. A handful of etched-in drawings of meals were displayed above the counter, though seemingly lacking anything that could denote their price. Above the pictures sat...

Uh-oh.

The writing on the sign might have been crude on behalf of having been sloppily painted on, but it was undeniably the same script she’d seen in her dream last night—guess that part wasn’t just her strained imagination. Which only begged the question, what about the rest of it? Was Duck real? And if so, just what the hell was it, and why did it enter her mind like that?

A fine addition to the fort of confusion in her head, though this particular conundrum felt... more worrisome than anything else.

Before Sue could investigate the possibility that her unusually holy dreams weren’t her own creations, a couple of sounds caught her attention. Namely, knocking on wood and high-pitched grunts, her gaze snapping downwards at their source. The creature before her was... a fairy. Or at least, something fairy-adjacent—though not the Tinkerbell type. A familiar bipedal frame reaching up to her chest-mounted letter opener was welcome, but even that apparent similarity didn’t withstand a closer inspection.

They were a pink blob with a pair of arms, legs, large, black-tipped ears, and spiky… wings? There was no distinction where their face ended and the rest of the body began, making it look almost drawn on. Besides all that, they were also rather impatient, the finding corroborated by Sue’s eyes, ears, and sixth sense alike. Their three-fingered hands tapped rhythmically on the wooden counter as they waited for something. Or rather, someone.

Or even more precisely, her.

Sue was unsure what to do—it’s not like she could just ask what each meal was. Even crudely pointing at the signs got complicated with her being broke. She supposed Doc would cover for her—they took her here and would’ve grabbed something for her regardless—but being put on the spot like that didn’t help her anxiety any.

She hoped that a few ‘ummmm’s would be enough to convey her unease. Fortunately, Doc got what she was getting at right away. Unfortunately, they just tapped her hand before pointing up at the presented meals, cutting through any feigned ignorance she might’ve had.

Alright, what to choose now...

The sketches were far from clear. Some looked like salads, some looked like baked goods, but the rest were, at best, impressionist takes on food, mostly resembling piles of round… things. Maybe one of those was those roasted fruit pieces; those were excellent. Ultimately, she didn’t have a way to know for sure—guess it’d have to come down to random chance.

Confusing everyone around her even further, Sue resorted to the good ol’ arbiter, “E-eehnie, Meehnie, Mhiney, Moe…”

Half a minute and one muttered out tune later, Sue’s little lottery was done. She pried her eyes open, finding herself pointing at a crude approximation of a jam-filled pastry. Not an awful choice to stumble on—suppose Fate saw it fit to provide her with some much-needed reassurance.

Reassurance which was cut into the moment she looked around. Doc and the pink fairy creature were staring at her, completely dumbfounded, baffled about what any of that was. Sue resolved the resulting deadlock by stabbing with what used to be her index finger toward the selected drawing to underline her selection. It conveyed the message, but a realization that soon followed left Sue too distracted to verify that.

Guess what felt like her index finger was now her… middle finger. Huh.

On top of everything else weird about this body, it had an uncanny ability to flip people off by accident—all it really took was pointing at something. The dissonance between what fingers she felt she was using and how her gestures actually looked left her uneasy. Neither Doc nor the other one seemed insulted—in all likelihood, the middle finger as a gesture didn’t even exist here, what with every creature having its own different amount of fingers. If it even had fingers to begin with.

The worry being irrational didn’t make Sue feel any less awkward.

While she internally fretted about nothing, the pointy pink one got on her order, starting with the dough. Sue’s increasingly strained sanity baptized them with a very serious and not-at-all potentially demeaning nickname of ‘Pixie’. The wooden rolling pin in their paws was a strangely familiar, but not at all unwelcome sight. It provided a connection to home, even if a tenuous and shallow one. What was less familiar was the way Pixie used it. After a few moments of using it normally, they let go of it with one hand, and then… began wagging a finger, tracing out a small circle at nothing in particular.

Things began to happen before Sue could even get dumbfounded enough to form a coherent question.

One after another, several fruits leaped out of the baskets in the back and onto the counter beside the fairy. Once they’d landed, the cook switched from finger wagging to a stone knife, slicing the berries while continuing to roll the dough with their other hand. Despite their clumsy appearance, they sure had more coordination than her college’s entire miserable basketball team combined.

Observing the fairy cook at work turned out to be much more interesting than expected. Each time they wagged their finger, things just… happened. A fire lit in their oven, the berry slices leaped onto the grate above the flames, more berries flung themselves from the back. There was no consistency in Pixie’s magic, and yet, they looked entirely in control.

A squeak from behind her alerted her to Doc trying to catch her attention. They pointed towards a nearby picnic table before heading there themselves. Right as she was about to follow them, Sue spared one more glance at the kitchen—and froze in fear.

Massive, glowing red eyes, almost like brake lights, were emerging from the shadows on the kitchen’s back wall. A wide grin soon formed underneath them, attached to a pitch-black body.

Whatever that demon was, its gaze was set on Pixie. It drew closer and closer to them without making a single noise, Sue too terrified to even whimper. It kept glancing towards her, as if to ensure she’d be too afraid to act. A part of her told her to run. Run like a madmartian, run as far as she could with her injury—but she couldn’t. The impulse that had led her to protect Ember from that giant spider wouldn’t let her, forcing her to save Pixie.

Except, there were no rocks to throw this time, and an insurmountable obstacle separated her from the approaching demon, leaving her with very few options. As the shadow creature neared closer and closer to Pixie, she finally pushed through the cold paralysis and did the only thing she could think of—point and shout.

“W-WATCH OUT!”​

Her call caught Pixie’s attention despite not being understood. All it did, though, was confuse them as they glanced at Sue—at least until they spotted the pointing finger and… audibly groaned. They then did what nobody on the scene should’ve expected—

Namely, turned around on their heel and planted a smooch right on the demon’s cheek.

The kiss stunned the newcomer and Sue alike, the former erupting into a blush. Their utterings sounded simultaneously croaky and whispered, not helping with Sue’s confusion any. The ghost’s embarrassment might’ve made Pixie giggle in their twinkly voice, but seeing Sue’s slack-jawed shock made them break into bellowing laughter.

The spooky one soon followed, rambling on as they laughed, a well-lit spot letting Sue finally make out their shape. They were very similar to Pixie—almost the same size and with an absence of wings being their only noticeable anatomical difference. If not for their introduction and looking more like a ghost than an actual living creature, she might have even considered them being related.

It took a while for Sue to calm down as she stared at the laughing duo, slowly processing the situation. The not-ghost had snuck up on Pixie, as if they were about to attack them. How the cook had reacted to her alert, this seemed to be a regular occurrence between them. They were obviously unafraid of the spook; the kiss suggesting fondness, even. But if that’s the case, then why would—

...



Did—did I just get pranked by that shadowy gremlin?

The realization that she was a victim of a practical joke provided some well-needed relief, but Sue was still unamused. She was already easy to scare before all this, and her newfound frailty only made that worse. Especially with everyone here being magical and the exact extent of their capabilities unknown—and Sue really wished it to remain that way.

Though… she must’ve made one hell of a face.

The thought cracked her stunned expression, a small chuckle leaving her as the pair calmed down. Eventually, all the laughter had brought Doc back, making them call out towards the presumed couple. Reassuringly, the medic was just as unamused about Sue being the victim of a prank as she had been. The three argued about it for a while as Sue watched on, sticking out even more than usual with her foot of height over all of them, her posture slouching with each passing moment.

It was all good fun—for someone, at least—until the group smelled smoke.

Pixie dashed back into their kitchen as Sue glanced at the grill, revealing some of the fruit slices to have leaped way past well done and straight into charcoal territory. An appropriate comeuppance if nothing else, the cook’s grumbling bringing mischief to Sue’s heart. It would’ve been even better had it happened to the actual culprit, but she wasn’t gonna argue with Fate.

Thankfully, Doc was more than keen to remedy that, continuing to barrage the shadowy—you know what, if they’re so eager to spook people, then ‘Spook’ is what they’re gonna be. Either way, Doc was barraging Spook and breaking through their excuses, until they finally caved, rolling their eyes as they approached Sue. Their voice was unamused, but she didn’t care, not with them having brought it on themselves. Their half-creaked, half-whispered words didn’t ring even the most remote bell in Sue’s mind, but her sixth sense let her feel a bit of genuine apology in them.

They weren’t all excuses, even if said rather begrudgingly.

Nobody was ultimately hurt, and if not for her being new to this world, she would’ve probably found it much more amusing, so... apology accepted, expressed with a weary smile and a nod.

Spook pondered for a moment before stumbling on another mischievous idea, looking about ready to do… something involving her outstretched hand. Thankfully, Doc brought them back in line with a single pointed squeak, the specter’s excitement evaporating with a groan. Despite their ghostly appearance, their handshake felt normal, being cold to the touch aside.

With that forced introduction over, Doc patted her side and gestured towards the table once more. And, with no more terrifying pranks to distract her, Sue gladly followed. Once she’d sat and let go of the crutch, she took a moment to massage her wrist and arm, not expecting them to have gotten so sore just by walking.

Guess that constitutes a workout, even if it’s the one-armed kind usually reserved for the guys.

She giggled loudly at the thought while internally regretting there was nobody around—potentially even nobody else in this entire world—that would get her joke. That… was a bit of a downer.

Before she could hit another checkpoint on the emotional rollercoaster ride, Spook spoke up behind her. They were just standing there in the open, looking sillier than Sue had expected. Their dark, unnaturally matte coloration stood out like a sore thumb—and levitating an inch off the ground didn’t help, either.

A loud bark of the most familiar variety caught her attention before she could think through that sight. She looked over just in time to see Ember dashing towards her. The fox immediately lifted her mood, especially as they reached their goal by leaping onto her lap with one clean jump, making her chuckle at their enthusiasm. “H-hehe, good mhorning Embher!”

The fiery pup responded in the only correct way—by climbing on the table and smothering her face in very warm, very happy licks. Sue was too enamored to stop them, and even Doc’s words took a while to convince Ember to ease out. They then woofed something behind themselves, making Sue glance over as well.

*squeak!*

I’m glad to see you too, Bowlcut.

They and Leafy had almost caught up to the rest of the group by the time Ember had pointed them out. Bowlcut half waddled, half ran up to the bench before stopping and reaching up towards her, making Sue and Leafy alike giggle at the sight. The littlest one immediately tried to snuggle into her once she’d set them on her lap, melting her heart.

Enough so to make her forget about the threat that came from their family, at least for a moment.

It was weird just how affectionate they were towards her. With how different every living creature here was from each other, the lil’ one may have just been happy to see one of their own kin. Sue wasn’t convinced by that explanation, but ultimately, there was no point in trying to rationalize their joy away, not with how cute and soothingly warm it was. She could let herself enjoy it, just for today.

And enjoy it, she did. One hand stroked Ember as the other held Bowlcut close. The Martian tyke could not decide whether they wanted more pets, to be picked up, or to be hugged. Sue catered to all those needs by alternating between them every once in a while, much to their audible enjoyment, while the rest of the table chatted amongst themselves. Doc, Spook, and now Leafy had taken up the opposite bench, the latter occasionally gesturing to make the tyke laugh.

To Sue’s relief, their discussion only sometimes revolved around her.

Considering the circumstances of her appearance and her disability, she’d obviously be talked about a lot. Despite everyone’s good intentions, not understanding anything they were saying still left her uneasy, though. Or, at least, mostly everyone’s good intentions—she still had no idea what Spook’s deal was. To her relief, everyone was so used to them as to see any pranks from a mile away and deny them the satisfaction. They whined and rolled their eyes each time, but it never took long for them to go back to mischief afterwards—or, once Pixie had made their way back, to elation.

With the cook around, Spook’s grin felt much less unnatural, despite being just as massive as before. Their joy was shared by the rest of the table, if for different reasons. The cook had brought a whole trayful of goods with them, sitting down beside Ember while handing out the meals to everyone gathered.

Sue and Doc got a piece of warm, fruity-smelling pastry each, while Leafy and Bowlcut received small bowls of roasted veggies. Ember, meanwhile, got a seared, richly spiced piece of fruit, the scent tingling Sue’s nose. The meals were accompanied by mugs of pleasantly chilled water. She briefly wondered how that was accomplished with no technology from even the same century as a fridge, before shrugging that thought aside.

With the meals finally handed out, Pixie could get comfy, petting the lil’ fox as they grabbed their breakfast. It reminded Sue of toast—two flat layers of light dough with copious amounts of jam between them. The cook’s grace continued to be immaculate, not a speck smearing on their cheeks as they ate.

Curiously, they hadn’t brought anything for Spook. The prankster didn’t seem to mind, preoccupied with chatting while staring at Pixie with infatuation in their eyes.

Some mixed messages being sent here.

Pixie’s arrival marked a welcome change in the topics being discussed, in that Sue as a subject was dropped completely. She appreciated the change, finally able to peace out and simply enjoy her meal without her extrasensory perception warning her about others paying attention to her. Bowlcut’s squirming made that trickier, especially with Leafy occasionally coming over to wipe the mess off the baby’s cheeks, but it was still by far the calmest she’s felt since she’d first woken up here.

Eventually, even that was helped. One of Pixie’s comments had the tyke squeak happily and scramble towards the cook, setting upon hugging the fairy’s side. The sight of Bowlcut’s limitless affection extending to those outside their kin warmed her heart—especially with Ember using the opportunity to climb back onto her lap.

As she pet the lil’ fox on autopilot, Sue allowed herself to space out. The surrounding calmness helped, letting her mind soon drift off into something resembling meditation. She felt her anxieties fade away, becoming meaningless by the moment.

Everything would be fine.

She would find her way back home.

Meeting the royals tomorrow would go well.

And maybe, just maybe, she would learn the incoherent mishmash that constituted the local language someday.

She might not have consciously believed those thoughts, but they were a pleasant distraction from the uneasy confusion she’d felt until now—a distraction that was eventually interrupted by a snout touching her leg. Her zen state kept Sue from getting startled in response, but the cold, damp touch still got a small jump out of her, one which the lil’ fox had noticed, looking under the table with her.

This critter’s coloration was almost as fiery as Ember’s. Instead of a mixture of yellow and red, their coat was bright orange with black stripes along their back and hindquarters. Their shape was closer to a dog than a fox, the lion-like mane aside. They were by far the most animalistic out of any creature she’d seen in the village so far—if not for their stripes and mane, Sue might have even confused them for an actual puppy.

If literally every other creature here was any sign, that puppy had a similar level of intelligence to her and was trying to catch her attention. They didn’t look or feel hostile, and she couldn’t sense anything negative coming from them, so she doubted it was anything bad—



On that point, I can’t sense anything else coming from them, either…

The realization made Sue squint at the newcomer as Ember hopped off her lap and sniffed them, before getting taken aback and turning very affectionate towards them. The two immediately got to nuzzling one another as Sue stared blankly.

For the second time today, her dumbfounded expression was a cause for someone else’s amusement.

This time, however, it was kept much more covert. As the newcomer tried to stay quiet, their head... transformed into something else. Sue reeled back at the sight—at least until she recognized this particular head. Dark gray with red accents and blue eyes, vulpine ears, and a black mane underneath—

It’s the little shit that stole my peaches.

And, by extension, the little shit she ended up saving later that day. Even being unable to detect them with her sixth sense checked out, reminding her of that uncomfortable fact. She sure didn’t remember them doing anything like this shapeshifting from the brief time she’d seen them, though.

Her uncertainty was soon noticed, and swiftly acted upon. Between her blinks, the orange dog had turned entirely into that gray and red fox, smirking up at her for just a moment before reverting to their disguise—which raised the question of why they were hiding like that to begin with.

Sue could ponder on that mystery later—right now, she was preoccupied by the pair of foxes affectionately nuzzling her leg. She couldn’t help but smile, reaching as inconspicuously as possible to stroke the gray one’s head. The sensation that accompanied the softness of their fur was... weird. Slightly like Bowlcut and Doc weird, but altogether different. Not uncomfortable, though, not in the slightest.

As one imposter pet the other, she realized that while the gray fox might have been able to disguise their appearance, that didn’t extend to physical presence, as evidenced by her hands feeling their ears while seemingly touching air. Sadly, their fun didn’t last long. Soon enough, Bowlcut had noticed the newcomer, startling them and prompting them to leave. They took their time, strutting out from underneath the table while Ember escorted them out and woofed them away.

Suppose that was ultimately much more inconspicuous than dashing away in panic.

It also resulted in Bowlcut reclaiming their proper spot on her lap. Sue giggled at the switcheroo as she kept thinking about that gray fox and their mysteries, starting with them being hidden to her extra sense. She concentrated on her mental radar as she looked around the clearing, trying to match each little tug to a specific creature. She had to give up halfway through thanks to a mounting migraine, but she hadn’t spotted anyone else that her sixth sense didn’t sense clearly. She wondered whether any creatures like that lived here at all, and if not, why?

It was really weird for that gray fox to be forced to hide because of something as unimportant as her ability to sense them, especially with how integrated this place looked. There were hundreds upon hundreds of species in here—hell, they and Ember were way more similar to each other than either was to any other creature around. Why did one have to hide and not the other?

What a mess.

As Sue mulled through it all, her mind drifted toward names once more. She tried to come up with something for the dark fox, but only drew blanks each time. Nothing, not even something on the same level of abject stupidity as ‘Bowlcut’—not that her concern for their situation would have let her keep anything this dumb, anyway.

Sudden motion around her finally pulled her out of her own head. Pixie used their finger-wagging magic to bring all the long-emptied dishes onto the tray before carrying it away. Spook followed them out in the most direct way possible—straight through the table as if it didn’t exist whatsoever.

The total lack of reaction from those gathered let Sue know that, like Ember literally breathing fire, this was apparently normal. Who knows, maybe Spook was an actual ghost and these just… existed here. Sure wouldn’t be out of place next to dragons, fairies, shapeshifting foxes, and giant enemy spiders.

With the cook and their... sidekick taking their leave, there wasn’t much left to chat about. The remaining topics were quickly wrapped up, and peaceful silence settled in shortly after. Sue didn’t mind one bit; it was nice to chill like that.

Especially with doom looming on the horizon.

Sue shuddered at reminding herself of that before glancing around the plaza in search of another route into the surrounding woods. Nothing, just the wide main road and a small pathway off to the side. Maybe she should try sneaking out on the other side of the village? Nah, probably too predictable. Though… if she’d gotten away before running into that royal, they wouldn’t have much reason to chase after her. They’d still maybe try out of concern, but would soon give up and write it off as a weirdo going back to doing weird things after having gotten better for a couple days.

She’d just be another in what was no doubt a long list of weird events that had happened in this place. Or one of the very few weird events. Who knows, maybe the threshold for what constituted ‘weird’ here was really high—high enough for her arrival and departure to not even count.

I really, really wish I could ask.

The sensation of a leaf brushing against her arm clued her in to Leafy picking Bowlcut up, followed by a tilt of their head towards the rest of the village. Utter anatomical weirdness aside, she had to admit the bushbug nanny was quite cute. Cuter than any insect or plant had any right to be, at least. With the baby removed from her lap, Sue fiddled with the crutch until she’d found some well-needed stability, soon catching up to the rest of the group.

Ember did their best to sneak in some nuzzles as Sue hobbled along. It may have made staggering forward just that bit harder, but it was still welcome on the principle of Ember being very cute. She already wanted to pet them all day because their affection was the only thing in this wild world that she could entirely and utterly understand, and their every action only contributed further towards that desire.

Curiously, they weren’t heading to Doc’s hut this time. Sue didn’t mind; she’d had more than enough time to let her arm recover—she just had no idea where else they could be taking her.

The breakfast relaxation helped keep her grounded as her group made their way through the village’s streets and paths. All the species surrounding them were much easier to process now that she was sated, fully awake, and at least temporarily at peace. Sue was surprised to realize just how many birds there were here. They perched all around, be it on the roofs of the buildings or an occasional pole. She wasn’t sure what the latter was for—until she made out a lantern-like cage near the top.

As neat as the realization they had street lights in here was, she had no idea what they could have been using as a light source. Candles were much too weak, so maybe torches like in some video games she’d played? It wouldn’t be too outlandish, but she couldn’t see how a torch large enough to light up its surroundings would fit in there.

Guess she could try to sneak out at night to see for herself? She really wanted to, but knowing what awaited her tomorrow dissuaded her from it—she’d need all the sleep she could get. Ultimately, the entire conundrum was relegated to the back of her head, adding to the confusion pile. By now, it was a bona fide confusion fort.

To her disappointment, the group moved briskly past the ongoing construction effort, not letting her take much of it in.

A gray, rock-like bipedal rhino felled trees in the back and carried them to the worksite proper. Then, each log was cut to shape and prepared for assembly by something halfway between an insect, a robot, and a can of fiercely red paint. And finally, the building itself was being assembled by a creature so close to a human that Sue had to do a double take at seeing them—only to get disillusioned upon seeing them rocking four extremely muscular arms and not two.

Guess that explains where all the really huge creatures have been hiding all along.

To offset Sue feeling even frailer than before, at least the little brown... pangolin working on the foundation was much shorter than her. And quite cute at that, even with all the spikes on their back.

While they marched to their next destination, several villagers stopped Doc to exchange a few words each, Sue’s arm not appreciating the resulting pauses. One creature caught her attention in particular, their dark blue chitin standing out among the sea of fur and feathers. They looked like a beetle and towered over the medic—they were even taller than her if their curved horn was included.

Despite their size, they were quite reserved, only exchanging a couple words with Doc and leaving after receiving words of reassurance. If not for their lightning fast bow towards her, Sue would’ve thought they hadn’t even noticed her.

Fortunately for her arm, their actual destination was right up ahead.

This clearing was much smaller than the other one, almost empty aside from the group of various small creatures resting in front of a blue bird that—somehow—sat inside a tiny, localized cloud. Or plumage that very much looked like a cloud. Either or. What was much easier to figure out than the bird’s anatomy was that all the little creatures were an assortment of children, ones very excited at Leafy’s arrival to boot.

Each of them said something to the bushbug as they noticed them, presumably a greeting. And with none of them being in sync and their voices sounding like anything from rumbling gravel to outright whistling, the result was an utter cacophony that made all the adults on the scene wince, Doc especially.

Guess those big ears aren’t just for show, heh.

Thankfully, few kids were interested in her. A little green quadruped with a… leaf sticking from the top of its head and a part blue, part black bipedal dog with four ears walked over to investigate her, but that was about it. The latter even woofed something out toward her, but Doc’s calm squeaks were enough to make them nod and scramble back to their group. A group that Bowlcut and Leafy had joined in the meantime, the bushbug sitting down beside the living cloud. The whole gathering felt even happier than before, and the bird eventually resumed their singsong lecture.

Was this a daycare of some sort? It kinda looked like one. But if that was the case, then what about Ember?

A downward glance revealed the little fox to have stayed glued to her side, not even considering joining the group of assorted kids. Nobody around was pressuring them to, either. Guess they either were too old, despite fitting on her lap, or were granted permission to chill with their savior in their parent’s absence. Sue really wished she could crouch and give them a few pets right about now.

With Leafy and Bowlcut delivered to their destination, Doc quietly caught her attention and took off. She blinked at seeing them not turning right around, but quickly caught up afterward—seems they weren’t quite done yet. Fortunately for her crutch arm, their next stop wasn’t far away. It grabbed much more of Sue’s attention than a mutant animal daycare, though not because of any reasons the rest of the group knew about.

The central wall of carvings narrowed towards the top, flanked by a pair of smaller tablets, angled to face the raised altar at the shrine’s center. A large bowl sat on top of the altar, filled with massive, bright feathers—the same kind as the one Doc gave her last night. It was surrounded by diligently kept flowers, their colorfulness contrasting with the imposing nature of the engraving looming over them.

An engraving of Duck.

It was much more intricate than the by now hazy recollection of her dream, letting her spot some additional details. The pair of small paws on its front, to which the wing-like crescents connected. The crescent-Moon-like shape of what Sue initially thought to be tusks on either side of its head. And, last but not least, the multi-colored appearance of its arc-like wings, masterfully expressed despite the limitations of stonework.

A full moon loomed above it, slightly different from what she’d remembered from Earth.

Each of the walls facing the monument depicted its own scene, coming together to present Duck as a guardian deity of sorts. To the left, it was shielding a small creature from a writing, black mass. To the right, it was driving that same black mass away. And finally, in the center, it was healing a visibly injured creature; crescent wings raised high as they wielded moonlight. Aside from the black mass on either side tablet, none of the engravings used any paint, making it stand out even further among the light-colored stone.

Guess Duck is kind of a big deal.

And probably isn’t called ‘Duck’, either.

If not for Doc’s kind nature, Sue would’ve gotten laughed at because of her expression for the third time today. To her appreciation, they kept themselves to a single amused comment at seeing her stare at the shrine slack jawed, before approaching it themselves. They stopped next to another creature, and as they got into their prayer, Sue focused on their fellow… worshipper.

Their body shape made her think of a badger standing on their hind legs. Their back was covered with velvety, dark purple fur, while the little she could make out of their front was cream-colored. She didn’t have the time to focus on a ring of glowing purple spots around their neck before they turned towards Doc and spoke up with growls and soft whines. Once the medic was done with their prayer, they joined in on the chat; Sue left unnerved at the feeling of attention being placed on her again.

Ember kept close to her, clearly worried. They felt... afraid of the monument, maybe even of Duck itself. Considering Sue’s experience with the deity forcing itself into her dreams, she sure couldn’t blame them. Before she could reassure the little fox, though, a quiet, slow growl caught her attention.

Her gaze shot up to find the purple and cream badger mid-bow right before her. The elegance of the gesture left Sue unsure what to do before she feebly tried to replicate it, the result closer to a large nod than anything.

The resulting bow-off lasted for several long, awkward moments until Doc finally intervened, their brief comment clearly taking the badger aback. Even with that eye-opening revelation, they continued to hold their pose, determined to do… something. She decided to speak up to drive the point home, “Hello, I-I can’t understhand you.”

Sue could swear she saw their eyes twitch as they looked up at her.

Despite that, they resumed their graceful appearance shortly afterwards, straightening out before leaving with a brief comment. Wait, was that… contempt in their thoughts? Doc’s gentle shaking of her hand took her out of that unpleasant train of thought, a paw pointing further into the village wordlessly conveying their intent.

Finally, back at the clinic.


The rest of the day passed rather quickly, for better or worse.

Sue took her time recovering, both from the injury that got her here and the exertion on her not-at-all athletic arm. Ember kept her company while they mostly just chilled. After lunch—the meal delivered this time—she’d charaded asking Doc to bring her some paper, the request eagerly fulfilled. She could tell they were disappointed when she used it to draw Ember instead of attempting to communicate, but they didn’t let it get to their expression.

The lil’ fox sure enjoyed it, at least.

A few hours later, she mimed out wanting to take another walk to get a better view of the construction site. The number of differences between that gray four-armed creature and actual humans made her feel dumb at having had to do a double take in the first place. It also clarified that they, as well as every other monster working on the new building, were strong enough to snap her in half, carrying entire logs and Doc-sized slabs of rock in one arm each.

The evening was less gruesome to think about.

Leafy and Bowlcut had paid them another, shorter visit. The tyke and Sue were once more overjoyed at seeing each other. She appreciated their presence, trying to stave off the sense of impending doom as the sun sank below the horizon.

Tomorrow was approaching fast, way too fast.

As much as Bowlcut had tried to cheer her up, none of it really worked. It left them just kinda sad as Leafy walked them back home after twilight, together with Ember this time. Soon after, Sue was left alone at last, with only mounting dread and that glowing feather to keep her company. The mental image of Doc stealing it from that very sacred shrine made her chuckle, but it was the only relief she got that evening.

The feather’s glow guided her to sleep eventually, but it took much, much longer than she would’ve preferred—enough for the moon to be already high in the sky by the time she finally dozed off.

For all Sue knew, it was the last night of rest she would ever have.


The next thing she knew, she was falling.

Air whizzed past her body at deafening speeds, eyes feebly trying and failing to make sense of the vision. She couldn’t do anything but watch as she flew through the cosmic void, surrounded by stars in every direction but down, all reduced to uncountable blurry lines.

All but one.

A single speck of golden light danced around her as she rocketed through the darkness, spiraling so close she felt like she could reach out and grab it. And she tried, many times, mind issuing the command to her body again and again, only for it to refuse each time, as if she was but a mere passenger.

Suddenly, a voice. Squeaky, grating, neither male nor female. It chided her for things unknown, things unknowable; goaded her towards her Fate with its every word.

And then; it flung her forth.

An instant later, she was somewhere else altogether, bathed in bright blue and green. The golden twinkle was gone, absent with no reason or explanation. In its stead, so many others, creeping up on her, unknown and hostile. White and green and black and yellow, without shape, without comprehension.

Another blink, a spider’s maw about to devour her whole.

A silver comet crashed into her, shattering her body. It spoke with an angelic choir, its words beyond comprehension as they guided her towards her Destiny. Its impact sent her tumbling off course, down, down, down.

Down towards a clearing.

Down towards a campfire.

Down towards a pair of scarlet eyes, staring back at her.

Down towards these familiar guitar twangs.

Here comes the ground.​



If you're confused about the species of the characters and want them spoiled, I've set up a page listing the species of all the featured characters in each chapter!

If you want to discuss the story, I've set up a Discord server for it! (and my other writings)

Also check out my other story, From the Vast!
 
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Chapter 5: Capture

redspah

the gay agenda
Pronouns
she/her


Chapter 5: Capture



Sue awoke with a gasp, eyes jumping around as her heart calmed down after the brief, but intense dream. The brightness of the room and breakfast waiting for her on the nightstand let her know how late in the morning it already was, especially with Doc absent.

Best to get up and about quickly.

The sweet, jam-filled pastry and the accompanying roasted fruits were enjoyed as calmly as could be—which is to say, not at all. Sue’s hands fidgeted as she sated her hunger, thoughts swirling around the fellow Martian that would be her undoing. She had no idea how much time she had left before the inevitable, the uncertainty hastening her meal.

With how ornate Duck’s altar was, it made her wonder whether they’d sacrifice her there if they caught her.

As intense as her paranoia was, Sue couldn’t quite imagine this particular possibility. Incomprehensible as it might have been, Duck didn’t seem like a malicious entity, not with the scenes chiseled on its shrine. They made it look more like a guardian deity than anything.

Then again, nothing stopped this village from executing her in a purely secular way.

The morbid thought made Sue chuckle as she wrapped up her breakfast. She was about ready to get done with that mental tangent, though… now that she’d stumbled upon it, she couldn’t help but wonder whether the blue feather Doc had left on her nightstand had played any role in all this. Wouldn’t hurt to investigate it—





...at least, if it was still there.

Sue tried looking all around the room, including behind the nightstand and her bed, but couldn’t find it, not even a trace. Though, with how important the item seemed to be, Doc had probably just moved it back to the altar. That didn’t really explain why they gave it to her, even if temporarily, to begin with.

Here, have this sacred artifact as a night light.

While she chuckled at that idea, Sue felt her sixth sense act up. She closed her eyes and tried to concentrate on it—only for the resulting migraine to make her double over.

S-so many people...

She’d slowly gotten used to sensing the emotions of more and more creatures, but even her practice couldn’t have prepared her for this. It felt like half the village was within a stone’s throw of the clinic, their combined emotions almost making her nauseous as her head spun. Her immediate worry, as unrealistic as it was chilling, was that everyone was gathering around Doc’s hut to make sure she wouldn’t get away.

Fortunately, looking out the window was all she needed to dispel that particular fear. There were many creatures around, sure, but they were all walking around it, heading towards something else. What that something was, she didn’t know—and had only one way to find out.

The thought of heading out on her own, without Doc’s reassuring presence, was an unnerving one. She didn’t have any other options now, though, especially with all of this possibly being related to the royal couple…

Once more, into the breach.

Sue tried to keep her cool as she opened the door, netting her a few raised eyebrows—or the equivalent—as she stared at the passersby. Their attention was thankfully transient—and once she’d successfully stumbled out and joined them in their march, completely absent. As they all neared the plaza, Sue realized she could hear something over the din of hundreds of walking and murmuring mutants. It almost sounded like a loud speech, except... howled out.

She slowed down at the realization, sticking to the side of the path as she approached the last corner. Instead of turning the corner right away, she paused in front of it, deciding to first peek at what was going on over there—

And good Duck was she glad she did.

Dozens, hundreds of creatures filled the plaza, all listening to a being that Sue recognized as the second, furry royal from Doc’s drawing as they gesticulated with a burning stick. As eye-catching as their spectacle and red-yellow appearance were—especially with the occasional fireworks accompanying the former—the being beside them took up the entirety of Sue’s attention.

The inverse, thankfully, wasn’t the case. The royal Martian was calmly looking around with a soft smile, occasionally chiming into the story being woven. Sue dove for cover the moment they turned to look her way, heart hammering in her ears.

It’s go time!

Without wasting another moment, Sue turned around and booked it. She breathed faster and faster as she tried to push her body way beyond what it could do in her current state, only forced to finally slow down and catch her breath after almost falling over while passing by Doc’s hut.

No point in charging ahead if she had no idea where to even go, anyway. The forest path she had scoped out yesterday was inaccessible, forcing her to think back to other potential exits. She remembered there being another pathway leading out of the village at its other end, but she doubted it’d be a good idea either—much too obvious. If they wanted to find her, they definitely would with how middling her pace was.

Ideally, she’d just disappear into the treeline, which… hold on. As she marched on, trying to stave away panic, she noticed the construction site from yesterday, its clearing opening into the woods. The workers she’d seen yesterday were absent and there were almost no onlookers, certainly not any that acknowledged her presence—this was her chance. After taking a moment to compose herself, Sue slowed down her pace and breathing alike, easing into an inconspicuous strut.

Nothing suspicious here at all, just someone out on a weird walk and absolutely not an alien imposter trying to escape undetected.

Her anxiety drove her to push ahead faster and faster, just to be out of sight. If there was one way to ruin her disguise instantly it was that, though, forcing her to cling to whatever calmness she could manage until she was out of view. She hoped the distance she steadily gained on the village covered for her increasing shaking.

Every step brought her closer to freedom as she marched in a straight line, only pausing to correct her grasp on the crutch and look over her shoulder. Each time she did, the construction site was further and further away—until, eventually, she couldn’t make it out at all from behind the foliage.

Despite everything, it seemed she was in the clear now.

After not sensing anyone following her with her sixth sense, Sue finally breathed a sigh of relief. There were only a handful of other souls in the immediate area, and all of those were calm and peaceful. And after she’d recovered from almost tripping over because of being too focused on her extrasensory perception, she could join them, quietly laughing.

She’d made it out of the village despite the royals having already returned, and nobody was pursuing her. She wouldn’t be exposed and burned at the stake, or whatever punishment the other Martian would’ve decreed for her after figuring out her deception.

Granted, she had no idea what she’d do now, but no matter what, being lost was better than being dead. And, if a village like that existed, many others almost certainly would too. Just had to find one without other Martians in it and assimilate while looking for a way home.

‘Just’ was doing a lot of heavy lifting in that sentence, and Sue knew that, but she didn’t care—she would do it, she would heal from her injury and eventually not need the crutch anymore. She’d find a safe place for herself, learn the local language, and then, finally, be safe.

A rock-solid plan in four easy steps.

She’d definitely miss the few friendly beings she met in her brief stay back at the village. Doc, Ember, Leafy, Bowlcut, the... couple? At the pantry. And who knew, if the not-her royal wouldn’t end up figuring out that she was an imposter, leaving the cause of her sudden escape forever unknown, then maybe, just maybe, they would miss her too. The lil’ fox would be heartbroken the most, and Sue really wished she could convey just what had happened and why she had to leave, but alas.

Stay strong out there, Ember.

The woods remained as calm as ever as Sue marched in the only direction she was sure of—forwards. Triumph burned out into muted melancholy as her mind wandered, and any coherent train of thought soon gave way to idle pondering or humming along to whichever tunes she could still recall. She paid only enough attention to her surroundings to not trip on a random root, withdrawing inwards otherwise.

It wouldn’t be easy to get used to being on her own again, but it’s not like she had a choice—

The sudden light hitting her eyes startled her, breaking the rapidly darkening train of thought.

All of a sudden, Sue found herself on the edge of a clearing, the grass filling it lush and softer than any other she had ever felt. Most of it was decorated with stones painted with geometrical shapes, their arrangement only vaguely ordered, reminding her somewhat of a graveyard.

A glance in the other direction revealed more about this place, some of it much more terrifying than the rest.

A pair of rugged benches flanked the clearing’s entrance, each large enough for half a dozen people and much better maintained than any forest trail bench she’d ever seen. They faced a young tree at its center, surrounded by a smaller ring of rocks, decorated in the same way as the rest. The sapling was barely taller than Sue and absolutely gorgeous, its silvery leaves gleaming in the muffled sunlight.

As pretty as it was, though, the entirety of Sue’s attention was focused on the creature kneeling before it.

The other Martian’s closed eyes and clasped hands made them look like they were praying—something Sue wished she’d done more of in her immediate past. They were in a deep enough focus for Sue’s sixth sense to have completely overlooked them—a limitation she really wished she’d been aware of beforehand.

Seeing them from closer up let Sue notice all the differences between their appearance and her own. A shorter skin dress, longer hair, slightly straightened curls. The most striking detail though, by far, were the blue markings on their upper half. Despite the muted shade blending somewhat with the green parts of their skin, the ornate, wavy patterns covering their arms were still clearly visible, meeting at the collarbone above the spike before turning upward towards their face. They culminated in long, curly lines that ended in points just underneath their eyes.

Eyes that were staring back at her.

The rest of their expression was as neutral as could be, leaving both Martians at an impasse as Sue began to panic. How the hell had she run into them!? Everything was going so well! She had escaped without being seen—have they been waiting in here for her all along!? Was this place just a vicious trap she’d unwittingly walked into!?

Regardless of the answers, Sue knew she had only one way out of there.

Sue’s body tensed up as she clenched her crutch harder, the other Martian’s eyes widening before she finally sprung. She turned around and ran, ran as fast as she could, pushing forward in a desperate attempt for freedom, despite everything, until the exhaustion would eventually claim her—or at least, that was her intent, the reality of her crutch getting snagged on the clearing’s stone perimeter catching up to her fast. It sent her splaying toward the ground at the speed of gravity, leaving her to close her eyes and brace for the inevitable.

Only for it to not happen.

She waited for a second, then another, then a third still, but the cold mud of the forest floor continued to not grace her body with its presence. After a few anxious, tense breaths, she finally managed to pry her eyes open—and gasped at what she saw.

MJImfac.png

By the wonderful @Sweet_Mintality!​

Sue was suspended in the air, completely still, a bluish aura filling the corners of her vision. Before she could act, she was slowly moved upwards, as if the air itself was gently pushing her along. Before long, she was facing the other Martian again, their eyes aglow, just like she’d seen with Bowlcut. Except this time, the target of their magic was her, and not some bits of roasted fruit.

Alright, adults can lift whole people, and relatively effortlessly at that...

They cleared their throat, preventing Sue from venturing any further into that panic-inducing mental thread as she was lowered onto her feet. Or rather, foot and crutch, the magical touch holding onto her until she’d regained her balance. They then… smiled at her.

Sue had no idea what they would do to her, let alone what they were capable of, but one thing she definitely didn’t expect was for them to extend a hand for her to grab. She stared dumbfounded at it for what felt like ages, the other Martian patiently holding it out all the while. Given that they had magicked her out of what would’ve been a very painful fall, she didn’t have much of a choice. If she tried to run again, they would just yank her back and likely follow it up with something much more painful.

I’m dead anyway, might as well.

Hesitantly, she reached over, tentatively taking their hand. The pleasant, tingly sensation she’d felt with Bowlcut and Doc was here too, and stronger than ever. It was downright... calming.

They spoke, their voice soft and no more comprehensible than anyone else’s. After getting no response from her, they looked over their shoulder and nudged their head toward the clearing’s entrance. Sue couldn’t walk particularly fast, but they were eager to accommodate that, slowing their pace down as they walked beside her.

The unnatural calmness filling her mind made it tricky to reason about what was happening. If she had more of a grip on herself, she would’ve likely grown anxious about her inability to think straight at the moment. But that was an if, and now, the forced tranquility helped, even if the burning questions from earlier remained unanswered.

As they walked in silence, Sue tried to get a better look at them—or maybe her, judging by the softness of their voice. She wasn’t sure what it was, but they looked... older than she was, though far from elderly. What she presumed to be a crown on Doc’s drawing turned out to be something else—a plain, metal circlet, the material having long since lost its luster.

Just as before, it didn’t take long for them to notice her staring. They raised an eyebrow as they looked at her, making her look away with what felt like a burning blush on her cheeks, though she wasn’t sure if this body actually blushed like that. Either way, the likely royal Martian didn’t seem to mind beyond giggling at Sue’s fluster. It was reassuring, if nothing else—she didn’t expect royalty to be this… laid back. Suffice it to say, this encounter was nothing like her worst fears, even if they seemed just as powerful as Sue’s scared worrying had them be.

If not more so.

They followed their giggle with gentle, upbeat words, talking to nobody as the pair half-marched, half-hobbled down the beaten path towards the village. Eventually, their voice grew muddled and quieter, as if they were just muttering to themselves.

Or just venting their thoughts out loud; let’s be generous here.

After a couple minutes, they stopped, head tilting up to look skyward with a thoughtful expression. A small, shrunken part of Sue worried whether that meant they had cracked her mystery. Thankfully, her worry fizzled away soon after as the other martian broke into song, whistling a serene tune as they marched on.

The gentle song and calm march gradually melted through Sue’s built-up tension. Her shoulders relaxed, her breath deepened, and she even let herself close her eyes for a moment. Peace, serenity, cool air—suddenly, a distant squeak. A moment later, her sixth sense warned her of someone panicking approaching. Panicking, and familiar enough to give Sue an idea of who it was, with her sense of sight confirming her hunch.

She sure didn’t expect Doc to be capable of making the kinds of noises they were.

Their panting mixed with panicked shouts as they ran up the path, the sight just as silly as Sue would’ve imagined it to be based on their anatomy alone. They came to a stop once the royal spoke up, gasping for breath with their hands on their knees as they desperately tried to mumble something out in between strained breaths.

Doc gasped at hearing the other Martian speak up, their head jerking up in surprise before turning to look up at Sue. Their emotions rapidly shifted from alarmed and nervous to still nervous, but decidedly unamused. They must’ve run all the way over here to tell the queen or whoever they were about something—wait, about her? Sue’s cloudy mind made her realize that only now, after they had already stopped grumbling about exhausting themselves for no reason.

Sorry, Doc.

Sue had a hard time focusing on the incomprehensible discussion even after they all got moving again. She could feel herself being mentioned from time to time, leaving her thoughts with an undercurrent of anxiety even as her forced calmness tried to dull it. She really, really wished she knew what about her was being discussed, and why so much of it.

She couldn’t sense any hostility in either Doc or the other Martian; it was almost all varying levels of concern, but worries couldn’t help but start digging into her once more, right as things were looking well for once. Or, maybe because of that, her overzealous mind fixated on a trap that would inevitably be sprung—totally not like that royal couldn’t just magically yank her crutch at any moment.

Normally, realizing just how little she could do either way would’ve helped calm her, but she could only chuckle weakly under her breath this time, the worries persisting underneath the numbing coolness in her head. Why was that coolness even there?

Why did that royal forcibly calm me like that?

Sue wanted the answer to be ‘because of their goodwill’ and only that, but she wasn’t feeling too confident at the moment.

The rest of the walk flew by quickly, at least. Doc and the royal kept chatting amongst themselves, the topic eventually steering away from her. Sue clung to whatever comfort she could as they made their way back into the village, emerging onto the large plaza from earlier.

They made quite a few heads turn as they passed by, though Sue wasn’t sure whether it was because of her or her company. The casual way in which most villagers greeted the other Martian made Sue doubt her ‘royalty’ assumption—though if they weren’t some sort of king or queen, then why that crown, and why that castle from the drawing...

Sue wondered if they had as many questions about her as she did about them. Likely not, considering the difference in scale between one transformed college student and an entire civilization of mutated animals capable of anything from breathing fire to levitating objects and moving through solid matter.

Yeah, there might be a bit of a discrepancy there. Just a tad.

The thought diffused some of her tension as the group approached Doc’s clinic, the very same walls she’d ran away from now returning as the only point of stability in this wild new world. Sue only hoped they would remain so for longer than it took for that royal to find out the truth about her—a flimsy hope, but she didn’t exactly have much else to hold on to.

An array of noises from inside acknowledged her arrival—toddler squeaking, leafy rustling, a few vulpine woofs. The latter was immediately followed by a pair of now well-familiar paws pressing against her leg as Ember looked up at her, concern and relief mixing on their snout and in their mind alike. They kept on woofing for a while, their anxious noises making Sue feel bad despite how ordinarily amusing she found them. Even once they were done, they wouldn’t go further than a step away from her.

Poor sweetie.

Bowlcut almost got even louder than Ember at seeing them all. They squeaked loudly and shone so brightly to her sixth sense it felt like they were made entirely out of happiness as they scrambled to their legs. It was cute enough to bring a smile to Sue’s face despite everything else going on, especially when they tried running over to their parent as fast as physically possible. Which... turned out to not be particularly fast at all.

Fortunately for them, it wouldn’t matter. The Martian tyke squealed loudly as they were magicked into the air and hovered over into their parents’ arms. It was illegally adorable with how much worrying was going on around them, Sue just standing off to the side and taking it all in as Ember nuzzled her legs. Eventually, the not-her carefully set Bowlcut back down on the floor next to Leafy and turned to face her again, beckoning her over.

She wasn’t sure what to do as the royal casually sat on her bed, facing the pillow and giving Sue a very clear view of what this species’ back spike looked like. It was much smaller and more rounded than the front one, almost like a fin as opposed to something you could stab people with.

They noticed her confusion, patting down the other half of the bedding for clarification—guess she was supposed to take a seat there. The chatter in the room continued as she shambled over. Bowlcut had to be held by Leafy lest they’d try to run over to the bed, right in Sue’s way. The mental image of her accidentally punting them was as amusing as it was harrowing, considering their parent was about to do... something to her. Or with her.

She’d find out very soon either way.

Sue leaned the crutch against the nightstand as she sat down, orienting herself around to face the other Martian. Their expression remained as patient as ever, a reassuring smile widening as they reached a hand out towards her, convincing Ember to hop off with a soft-spoken comment.

She had no idea what any of this was for, but figured she was supposed to grasp it. Right as she was about to take their hand, a pang of doubt made her freeze—why did they drag her all the way back here? It couldn’t have been just so they could sit on the bed together and hold hands; there was something else going on, but what? Sue feebly hoped it wouldn’t be used to show off her being an imposter right there in front of everyone—

And then; she grabbed their hand anyway. Even if that was the case, even if she was already doomed, hesitation wouldn’t help.

Suddenly, utter exhaustion.

Sue blinked in surprise as her awareness drained fast, too fast to even react. The last thing she saw was the royal’s head slumping forward before the same happened to her, sleep returning in the most unexpected way.


It may not have been Sue’s first time finding herself at this campfire—far, far from it—it was only the second time she remembered feeling awake here. The usual thought-muddling fog of dreams was absent, despite this clearly being one. She clearly remembered watching the other Martian doze off moments ago and her following them, but how come she didn’t actually feel asleep here—

“Good morning, Sue.”​

The first comprehensible voice she’d heard in almost a week made Sue jump in her seat, eyes darting around the scene in search of its source. The other Martian was here, sitting on a bench opposite to hers, giving her a weak smile as they continued, “Quite a pretty place, I must say. It’s special to you, isn’t it?”

Further words snapped Sue of the shock of there being someone else with her in her dreams, replacing it with anxiety at the royal’s presence—and without any forced calmness to numb it this time. She had no idea how to respond; a straightforward answer would inadvertently reveal her extra-whatever-his-place-was origin.

Instead, she changed the topic, hoping to draw the heat away from herself by asking, “H-how did you get inside my dream?” She pressed the issue soon after, hoping the Martian wouldn’t see it as her pushing it too far, “A-and how do you know my name?”

While the first question had them open their mouth as if ready to answer, the second made them visibly pause. They glanced away with a thoughtful expression before turning to look back at her, pensive but—thankfully—not suspicious. Not yet, at least.

For once, Sue had really wished the weirdness of this body also worked in her dreams. The silence where the sixth sense once was did not reassure her in the slightest.

“You’ve been through a lot, haven’t you?” they asked, expression softening further.

Oh, you have no idea...

Sue wasn’t entirely sure how to respond to her own question being sidestepped like this, nodding nervously as she tried to hold on to her flaky calmness. Yeah, it was true, but going into any further detail would be the kind of mistake she’d only get to make once...

“That’s regrettable, but…” they trailed off, Sue’s heart skipping a beat as she hoped to Duck that this wouldn’t be the point at which the trap was sprung, “but I want to reassure you, Sue, that you’re safe here, no matter what.”

The trap continued to lie inert. Sue needed a good few moments to start releasing her tension, still completely unsure whether she could trust them. She didn’t have a concrete reason not to, but the elephant in the room remained untackled, making any assurances much harder to fully believe.

While Sue was too nervous to pay close attention beyond just weakly nodding, the other Martian’s expression soured further. Their attempts at soothing this lost, confused stranger weren’t working at all. If anything, they only made her even more concerned about some secret she thought so hideous it would turn everyone against her if they ever knew.

Ultimately, they had no way of dealing with Sue’s unease without addressing it directly. They sighed, “I... I know you’re hiding something, Sue. You’re too scared to bring it up, terrified it’d make everyone you’ve met turn on you. Let me assure you, there are very few acts as repulsive as to force our hands towards exile. I highly doubt anyone who had risked their life to save an innocent despite not having the inner power to do so would have done any of them.”

Sue’s body froze solid at their words, brain threatening to lock up in panic. She’d been seen through, she was done for, and there was nothing she could do—nothing but feebly hope that the Martian’s words would ring true. She dared glancing at them with shaking eyes, finding a reassuring, smiling expression, trying its hardest to melt through her fear. It looked genuine, but she doubted it would remain so for long.

What in the world am I to do now?

She hyperventilated as she tried to process it all, finding there to ultimately be no way out but ahead. There was no way she’d just be let go scot-free after all this, leaving her to confess at what felt like gunpoint, hoping to any deities, real or imagined, that things would turn out okay.

Duck save me.

It took her a while to gather her thoughts into something halfway coherent as she stared into the flames, using them as a feeble distraction from what was about to happen. Eventually, she took what felt like her final breath—

“You don’t have to go into detail if you’re uncomfortable, Sue,” the other Martian cut her off, concerned. “I just want your fears to be finally soothed.”

It wasn’t possible to explain any of this without going into detail, not anymore. At last, Sue spoke, “I-I’m not w-what you think I am.”

In her anxious bracing for the immediate reaction, Sue didn’t notice the royal simply tilting their head a bit, unsure what she was getting at. “How so?” they asked, uncertain. “Your upbringing seems to have been rather distressing, yes, but you’re still one of us. The first Forest Guardian I’ve seen in a good while outside of my tribe, hah.”

‘Forest Guardian’? Was this how this species was called? Quite a weird name if so, more like a title than a scientific designation. Sue had no idea what they meant by ‘her upbringing’ either, but it ultimately didn’t matter—it wasn’t true, and by now it was too late to even pretend it could be.

“I-I’m not—or rather I wasn’t. I-I wasn’t always this, this species,” Sue muttered, finally daring to peek up at the royal and seeing the confusion on their expression in full detail.

Confusion, which they then followed with their own hesitant words, “I... alright. If that’s the case, what… were you, and what happened to you to become a Forest Guardian?”

Sue nodded shakily, expecting a response like this. She tried recalling how she used to look, a pang of panic shooting through her body at finding that task so much more difficult than it should have been. Her past self was getting muddy on the details, and if she wasn’t being held at dreamed-up gunpoint, it would’ve hit her even harder than it did.

Still, a few tears did force their way past her eyelids.

Before Sue could start worrying about how she’d even present her previous appearance, she noticed a vague outline of her human self start coalescing in the air. She concentrated on what she wore that day, how she kept her short, blonde hair, the hologram sharpening with her every thought. Soon enough, she was done, the royal’s eyes widening as she explained, “Th-this is how I looked. I-I used to be a human, and as to what happened... I don’t know. I remember walking through a forest in... my world, and then suddenly waking up here, in this body, with no memory of what caused this.”

No going back now.

The truth was out, and all Sue could do was watch their reaction. And, if she was extremely lucky, it wouldn’t include ending her there and then.

She jumped as the royal got up from their spot, walking around the illusionary image to inspect what was once her from every angle. Their question soon pierced the deafening rumble of her racing heart, “Is... is this what you were afraid of us knowing?”

Sue closed her eyes and nodded, turning back to face the campfire as she braced for the inevitable, a wave of eerie calmness filling her. She felt her senses withdraw from her dreamed-up body, too terrified to look anywhere but at the blazes. All she could do now was just wait for it to happen, whatever form ‘it’ would end up taking.

This is the end. Goodbye, world—

And then; she felt an arm wrap around her, tingly to the touch, and pull her to the side.

Within moments, Sue was sitting right next to the royal, her head resting on theirs. Her eyes shot wide open as she turned to face them, seeing the concern filling their expression. There was some uncertainty too, but it didn’t last long, evaporating in moments as reassurance replaced it. After what felt like hours but was only seconds, they finally spoke, “I’m... I’m so sorry this happened to you, Sue. You must be so, so terribly lost...”

She could only stare blankly in return, too shocked to even think. Was that really it? Were all her worries for naught?

“...but you don’t have to fear anymore. You’re safe now.”

I’m… safe?

Sue felt calmness fill her once more, not unlike earlier in the forest—but this time, it was her own; a blanket of comforting warmth wrapped around her body as opposed to cold clarity forced into her head. Moment by moment, she felt her tension fade, giving way to exhaustion. At having to fear, at running away so foolishly, at feeling like she couldn’t trust anyone here, despite how friendly they seemed.

But it was over, it was finally over.

She shook as the stranger held her dreamed-up tears running down her cheeks as she felt safe, truly safe, for the first time since finding herself in this magical new world. A world where nothing made sense, and yet one in which the people were just as kind, if not even more so, than in hers, despite all their fantastical appearances and abilities.

The pair simply sat in silence for as long as Sue needed to, until all the pent-up emotions finally found an outlet through freely flowing tears. The royal’s gentle rocking continued, soothing the occasional sob until all that remained was peace. Peace, calmness, and clarity with which to face the world as it actually was, not the imaginary one she had almost run away from mere hours ago.

“Everything is okay,” the other Martian whispered, smiling at her with a patient, downright motherly smile. It provided more comfort than Sue would’ve thought possible, especially when coming from someone so… inhuman. Inhuman, and yet more humane than many people she had the displeasure of meeting in the past.

Sue mumbled, “Th-thank you.”

“You’re welcome, Sue. I can only imagine all the questions on your mind now that you finally found someone you can talk to. I’ll try to answer as many as I can, starting with the most urgent one, hah. My name is Solstice.”

Sue nodded along, her mouth already opening before one of her questions was immediately answered. Not the one she was about to ask, but this answer was immensely helpful as well. “Solstice,” she admired. “Th-that’s a beautiful name.”

“Why, thank you~!” Solstice giggled. “I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t curious about your name, too. Elegant and rolls off the tongue for sure, but does it mean anything in your language?”

She certainly didn’t expect a question of that nature, making her think back to whether her name meant anything. It probably did; she remembered looking it up on trivia websites when she was younger, but couldn’t recall any findings. Regardless, even if it technically meant something, it was far from the same level of literal meaning as ‘Solstice’. She finally responded, “I-I don’t think so, no. It’s just a name. It doesn’t mean or stand for anything.”

“Huh, intriguing. I must admit I haven’t run into a name like that before, without meaning in itself,” Solstice admitted, curious.

Speaking of running into things. “I-it’s quite usual for humans... on that note, d-do you know where they could be?” Sue asked, sparks of hope lighting in her eyes.

Sadly, they fizzled out just moments later as Solstice shook her head, clearly taken aback at the question. “In truth, this is the very first time I’ve seen or even heard of kin like that. Similar to mine and my father’s in appearance, but only just—unless there’s a large mane that your recollection isn’t showing. And these clothes... not even the seamstresses in the Central City were making anything near this detailed or richly dyed.”

So that was it for getting back home the easy way. At a certain level, Sue already knew that, especially with there being no sign of any human habitation anywhere—Solstice having not even heard of humans was merely a confirmation of that fear.

Fear that she would be stuck here forever.

“I... I see,” Sue muttered weakly. The sorrow of the realization began to gnaw at her before the warm calmness emanating from Solstice forced it away, her embrace becoming that bit tighter.

“I’m sorry, Sue. I can’t imagine this being in any way easy to process, but do not despair. Pale Lady sees many things, and I’m certain Her guidance will help us find a way back into your world,” Solstice reassured, holding her closer.

The connection didn’t click for Sue, the once-human simply nodding her way through Solstice’s words, not thinking of them as anything more than some vague religious reassurance. Still, she appreciated being comforted, Solstice’s care helping her avoid breaking down there and then—once was more than enough.

“Forgive me for asking, though,” the other Martian chimed in, “your... original kin are not psychics, right?”

“Psy... kicks?”

Both of them were left about as confused as each other, Sue at having no idea what that word meant, at least not in this context, and Solstice at Sue being dumbstruck despite her language appearing to have a word for the trait in question.

“I’m not sure what you’re referring to...” Sue said, still confused.

Solstice tilted her head. “I thought your tongue had a term for that concept, so that’s what I used. Does ‘psychic’ refer to something else, then?”

“I’ve no idea what you’re referring to to begin with. Th-the only time I remember hearing that word used is with, like, conmen that pretended to see the future and move objects with their mind and—”





The association took a while to click in her mind, but once it did, it was so obvious.

Bowlcut levitating that one treat a couple days ago, Solstice stopping her fall just this very day... not to mention other potentially related things, like her sixth sense or even this dream communication. These definitely fit that definition, though without the association with fraudsters.

“I think you might just have cracked that one yourself,” Solstice giggled, trying her best to avoid breaking into full-blown laugher. “There’s no seeing the future like that, though—at least not in the way you’re thinking, heh.”

Sue appreciated her hunch being confirmed, though it only solidified an observation from earlier, a very appropriate one in the moment. She asked, dumbstruck, “W-wait, are you reading my thoughts or something?”

Solstice was briefly taken aback, before giggling and nodding, “Yes, yes I am. It’s admittedly hard not to do so here, since I was the one that put you to Rest. It’s not a common occurrence in the waking world, if you want to be reassured of that.”

Sue sure didn’t expect her to be so nonchalant about that, as if it was just an everyday thing. Though, who knows, that might very well have been the case here. She still had no concrete idea about the extent of this species’ abilities—and this chat was an excellent opportunity to find out about just that. “Is that just... a thing you can do?” she asked.

“Well... essentially, yes. And so can you now, I’m quite sure.”

“I dunno...” Sue sighed. “I tried doing some of that levitation thing after seeing Bowl—um, your child do it, and couldn’t figure it out.”

The other Forest Guardian blinked at Sue’s double take, expression turning uncertain before she finally broke into laughter, trying and failing to hold it in as the once-human threatened to burn up in embarrassment. “That’s one nickname for the lil’ Comet, hehe. Even though I’m sure he didn’t look like it, it took him a lot of practice to get to that point, practice I doubt you had any opportunities for, let alone knowledge of how to go about it.”

“With how effortlessly they—he did it, I would’ve thought it was a subconscious thing...” Sue justified.

“Oh, it does become subconscious, and rather quickly at that,” Solstice reassured, “and I hope you’ll find that out for yourself soon!”

Sue blinked, confused. “O-oh? What do you mean?”

“It’d be an honor for me to help show you the ropes, so to say. No Forest Guardian deserves to live like this, separated from and unaware of their inner power. And it’s certainly a better outcome than what Willow was afraid of—they feared that the poisoning you’ve sustained at the hands of that beast had injured your brain, and rendered you unable to draw from your inner power.”

She had no idea how to react to the queen of this entire village offering to personally teach her how to do the magic her new body was capable of. It was touching and humbling, sending a sting of regret through her body at having ever doubted Solstice’s intentions. “Th-that’s... I don’t think I can thank you enough for this...”

“Neither can I thank you enough for saving my best friend’s daughter’s life,” Solstice responded, somber. “She had a terrifying premonition during our stay in the Central City, urging us to return as soon as possible, worrying that something horrible had happened. And, if not for your intervention, it might very well had.”

Sue could only nod weakly in return, almost forgetting the importance of what she had done on her first day here, thinking back to Ember and their endless gratitude.

“And it’s Spark, actually.”

“Huh?” Sue blinked, taken aback and with no idea what Solstice meant there.

The older Forest Guardian explained, “The one you’ve nicknamed ‘Ember’—her name is Spark. And before you ask, Willow is the one you know as ‘Doc’; they’ll be more than relieved to learn that your brain is alright. ‘Leafy’ is Splitleaf, caretaker for the village’s little ones. We asked her to look after Comet and Spark while we were away. ‘Pixie’ is Poppy, a cook like no other—for the best, because I’m not sure the world could endure having two of her in it, and ‘Spook’ is Hazel, Poppy’s wife. Made quite an introduction, didn’t she?”

“That’s helpful, th-thank you.” Sue stammered, taken aback at all the times. “I hope none of my... nicknames were offensive or anything...”

Solstice shook her head, “Oh, not in the slightest. We’ve all been called much worse things than that to our faces, and it’s not like you did it out of any sense of malice. I’m sure they wouldn’t mind, but since you’ll be getting to talk to them sooner rather than later anyway, knowing their actual names will come in handy.”

“Getting to talk to them?” Sue blurted, taken aback. “I don’t know the language—”

“You don’t know it yet. And besides, that won’t even be an obstacle, telepathy is handy like that,” Solstice reassured.

“W-wait, what? You mean like talking to someone without speaking?”

The older Forest Guardian nodded, “‘Communicating with just thoughts’ would be a more accurate way to describe it, but yes, essentially that.”

“That sounds... complicated.”

“Oh, it isn’t—nowhere near. In fact, it’s the simplest thing a psychic can do. If Comet knew how to speak to begin with, he would’ve been chatting you up your entire stay in Willow’s clinic. Sundance will gladly teach you the basics, and from there, it’s just practice! I’m sure Spark would love to be your practice partner on this one,” Solstice giggled, with Sue soon joining in at the mental image of the Martian tyke babbling like he already did, but directly into her brain.

Though... Sundance?

“Sundance is that close friend of mine I mentioned earlier, Spark’s mother. Regrettably, I won’t be able to help teach you today. There are a lot of issues to discuss on the Elders’ council following our talks in the Central City, plus a celebratory feast to organize in the evening. You’re cordially invited to sit next to me in advance~.”

Right, so that other figure on Doc—Willow’s drawing. Sue was still confused about a few points, asking again, “Elders’ council? I thought you were some sort of royalty with that diadem... and if telepathy is so straightforward, why didn’t you use it to talk to me earlier when I ran into you?”

Sue’s comment made Solstice look sharply upwards at the barely visible tip of her diadem, as if she’d forgotten she was even wearing it. She carefully took it off before handing it to the younger Forest Guardian to inspect, the latter taken aback by the gesture as she explained, “Oh, I’m the furthest thing from royalty. I can assure you of that much.”

Before the once-human could pay attention to her voice having grown much flatter there, the not-royal continued. “I’m... hmm... in your language, the word ‘mayor’ comes the closest, but it’s not an exact match. ‘Head of council’, I suppose? I sit on the Elders’ council and am its informal leader and our village’s political representative. The diadem is just a gift from an old friend. I can’t say I ever imagined it would be perceived as a royal insignia, hah.”

On a closer inspection, the piece of jewelry really was quite basic. It was made from a single lumpy strand of partially corroded metal, decorations limited to simple geometric patterns etched on its outer side.

“And as for not communicating with you beforehand and dragging you in here to talk—you can thank Willow for that, though they were acting in the best of faith,” Solstice explained. “Since you didn’t show any psychic ability once you woke up, not even your own telepathy, they assumed there was something wrong on the inside, likely caused by the poisoning. They decided against asking the other psychics in the village to talk telepathically with you, since they were worried that doing so would only exacerbate the issue. Instead, they opted to wait for me to return since I have more experience with psychic health issues. From there, I played it safe and talked to you in your dreams first, which is probably a good thing, considering what I learned here.”

It made sense when she’d put it like that, though the latter remark made Sue’s hair stand on end. The Mayor noticed it, clarifying right after, “Don’t worry, I only intend to share the truth about your origins with Sundance, and that is just out of necessity, so that she can teach you more effectively. If you want anyone else to know, I will not stop you—it’s your call. Otherwise, I can come up with a... cover story if you wish, though it’d be of a rather miserable kind.”

“A miserable kind?” Sue asked, confused.

Solstice sighed, expression faltering as she answered, “It’s... not really done anymore, at least not in the tribe I hail from, but once upon a time... disposing of hatchlings which were crippled and unable to draw from their inner power was commonplace. Some tribes sent them out to die, and some just... took matters into their own hands, not wanting to waste resources on those who wouldn’t ever be able to repay them. I thought about spreading a story that you were one of those children sent off on their own, but who managed to survive.”

Sue could only stare in shock; the actions described so utterly unlike anything else she’d seen from the Mayor—or anyone else in the village, for that matter. “That sounds...”

“Monstrous? Barbaric? Abhorrent? It is, it is all these things. That’s why we’re here, to escape from the callous brutality of nature and the cold ruthlessness of those who only cooperate for survival,” Solstice said, proud and resolute. She laid a hand on Sue’s shoulder, smiling as she continued. “And we’re more than honored to have you here, Sue. Though I should get going now, council issues won’t talk themselves through.”

Sue nodded in understanding, though was still confused about the logistics of the older Forest Guardian leaving… whatever this was. “Wh-what about me then?” she asked, “Isn’t this a shared dream?”

“Well, I was thinking of leaving you asleep after this vision fades away. You’ve already had quite a day and could definitely use some more rest. It’d also give me time to explain everything to Sundance and for her to walk over—though ultimately, it’s up to you.”

Guess there was no harm in getting some more rest, especially with how exhausting her day had been so far. Sue figured she might as well take her time before meeting everyone, for real this time. “A-alright, that sounds good. Th-thank you, Solstice, for all this.”

The Mayor bowed at her words, turning her head skyward as the dreamscape unraveled around them. Her parting words echoed in Sue’s mind as her unconscious was plunged into nothingness once more—

“Rest well, Sue. Much lies ahead of us...”​



If you're confused about the species of the characters and want them spoiled, I've set up a page listing the species of all the featured characters in each chapter!

If you want to discuss the story, I've set up a Discord server for it! (and my other writings)

Also check out my other story, From the Vast!
 
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Chapter 6: Reality

redspah

the gay agenda
Pronouns
she/her


Chapter 6: Reality



Sue’s rest was well needed, the release of tension resulting in the best sleep she could remember in... ever, really. She took her time waking up, stirring slowly on the soft bedding in search of a more comfortable position—at least, until one of the other occupants of the room noticed. And once they did, there was no coming back.

Her ear spikes twitched at the sound of soft thudding against the wooden floor, breaths deepening as she listened in. The thuds were followed by chipper woofing, then deeper, more distant barks, and finally by alerted squeaks. Sue tried to look at what was going on, reaching her hand to rub the sand out of her eyes—

Only for Ember—no, Spark—to get there first, licking affectionately all over her face.

Sue’s features scrunched up as the affection banished the last of her sleepiness, followed by tired giggles. Her hand swerved to pet the little fox; the kit satisfied at fulfilling their mission of waking their friend up. Which, considering the disappointed woofs that followed, was much to someone’s dissatisfaction.

As Spark turned around to respond to the canine noises, Sue sat up, stretched, and took a look around. Somewhat expectedly, it turned out to be Spark’s parent that was the source of the disapproving sounds. They—well, she, Sundance if Sue remembered it right—were just as fluffy as she recalled from the clearing, and much less imposing. Partly because she wasn’t waving a burning stick around, and partly because she was just sitting calmly on the floor with Doc—no, right, Willow—beside her.

They’re both smiling at me, so that’s a good sign—

“Good afternoon, Sue.”



Sue reeled back at the sudden understandable words—she could swear that the bipedal fox had simply woofed at her, but she could somehow understand it as if it was plain English spoken by a middle-aged lady. The mismatch between what her ears heard and what her mind comprehended made for a weird sensation, but ultimately, it didn’t matter. Once she’d shook her confusion off, she answered, “Good afternoon... M-Mrs. Shundance?”

To her relief, the ear-hairy fox simply chuckled at her confusion and shook her head, “No need for any titles, Sue. How are you feeling?”

Considering everything, Sue felt... good. Even beyond the immeasurable relief of not getting burned at the stake, the nap did wonders for her. Spark was busy nuzzling her stomach, making concentrating on any remaining bodily aches difficult and earning the little fox some well-earned pets for her efforts. “I-I’m doing well, thank you,” Sue yawned. “Jhust... taking it all in.”

Sundance nodded lightly, woofing out again. This time, though, Sue perceived nothing more than the expected canine noises. The fox on her lap picked herself up with reluctance as her mom continued. “We aren’t hurrying anywhere. We left a seat free if you want to join us; let me know if you need assistance with moving yourself over.” And again, woofs became understandable, as if a light switch had been flicked back on. Considering that Solstice mentioned Sundance helping her with catching up on the whole ‘psychic’ deal, it wasn’t a bad idea to ask her about this.

At least, after she’d moved her rear over and joined them instead of looking down at them like this.

“Y-yeah, I’ll probably need a hand with sitting down...” Sue muttered, gently shoving Spark to give herself space before she pulled the covers aside and shuffled to the bed’s edge.

Right as she was about to grab the crutch, though, she Sundance spoke up again, “Hmm... it might be simpler if I moved you over myself.”

A part of Sue wanted to reject the offer and try her best regardless, but it didn’t take long for her bodily exhaustion to catch up to her, the soreness in her right arm shaking her out of that silly idea. “A-alright, if it’s not a problem…”

“Of course it isn’t, Sue. Now, relax...”

As Sue awaited further instructions, her eyes went wide at seeing a similar shimmering aura as with Solstice earlier envelop her body. It was light orange instead of blue, and it felt much warmer to the touch, but it was the same kind of magic, likely related to the whole ‘psychic’ thing. Despite her having a rough idea of what Sundance was about to do, the experience was no less intriguing than the last time. It once more felt like she was being moved by the air itself, its embrace firm and yet gentle enough to not cause any discomfort.

Sundance’s eyes were filled with that same orange shimmer, holding Sue’s attention as she was gracefully levitated through the cabin. She felt her legs being folded into a lotus position before the vixen lowered her, grip waning as she neared her pillow seat, giving her a moment to orient herself before the last of the psychic touch let go of her.

The sudden disappearance of the magic touch and its warmth made Sue shiver a bit. Spark wouldn’t let that stand, though, taking no time before nestling herself once more on her savior’s lap.

“That’ll do it,” Sundance chuckled, catching Sue’s attention as her hand auto-piloted to petting the smaller fox. Worry about whether the action was even appropriate threatened to bloom in her mind, but a single look at the older vixen’s contented smile was enough to dispel it.

Right, have to thank her.

“Th-thank you—” Sue began, only for Sundance to cut her off moments later—

“No, Sue, thank you,” the psychic insisted, voice more serious than earlier. “If not for your intervention, my little Spark might not be with us anymore. My debt to you cannot be overstated.”

Sue shakily nodded at that, unused to receiving praise like that. It left her unsure how to respond, and she tried to swerve towards minimizing it, “It’sh just what anyone would’ve dhone—”

Sundance wasn’t having it, though. “Maybe. But it was you who did it, and at your weakest no less, so to you my gratitude goes.”

Well, that didn’t work. Guess I just… have to accept it, for now at least.

“You’re whelcome,” Sue sighed.

The vixen bowed in return, flustering the once-human further, but her little lap warmer helped her persevere. Spark took the initiative afterwards, interrupting her happy purring to woof something at her parent, leading to a realization if the surprised expression that followed was any sign. The small yet noticeable jolt in her brain caught Sue off guard, making her pause.

Right as she was about to resume her affection, though, she heard the lil’ fox speak up again—and this time, she could understand her. “Did you already do it, mom?”

Sundance chuckled, “Yes I have, sweetie—”

YAY!” Spark squealed. The sound was simultaneously a howl and an excited cry of a preteen girl, resulting with a whiplash that was as utterly adorable as it was surprising—more so the former as the lil’ fox scrambled on her hind legs and pulled as much of Sue’s body as she could into a hug. She then continued, voice much quieter and more emotional this time, “Thank you, S-S-Sue...”

Her emotions had palpably changed from burning excitement to tearful sadness, taking Sue aback—at least until she noticed the equally abundant somber relief at finally being able to thank her. She might not have known how to deal with praise, but dealing with children on the verge of tears? That’s something she had a bit more experience with. A gentle hug worked as well here as it did any other time, Sue smiling as she whispered, “Y-you’re welcome, Spahk.”

The lil’ fox leaned to lick as much of her savior’s cheek as she could, sending Sue into a laughing fit as her free hand stroked Spark’s fur. She wasn’t the only one that found the situation amusing, though, with the giggling coming from elsewhere in the room clueing her in to the medic sitting beside her and Sundance, Doc—Warren—no, fuck—Willow. They took their time getting their laughter under control, before easing into a soft smile, “Awww, that’s just cute.”

Their voice gave Sue a pause, creaky in that distinctive elderly way but also just soft enough to remain perfectly androgynous. Didn’t help much when it came to deciding the right pronouns, but Sue didn’t care all that much in the moment, perfectly content with sticking to ‘they’ for the time being.

“N-nuuuhh...” Spark mumbled in denial before yawning. The associated flash of a mawful of very feral teeth gave Sue pause, but thankfully she wouldn’t have to linger on it for long.

“Someone’s exhausted herself from all the excitement, hasn’t she?” Sundance chided. Her daughter tried to oppose the accusations coming her way by shaking herself awake—unsuccessfully. Sue extending her affection to the lil’ fox’s tummy didn’t help either. In not too long, Spark was out warm, curled up on her savior’s lap, everyone else keeping quiet until they were certain she was out.

Partly to finally let her rest easy after these last few days, and partly to make sure she wouldn’t listen in on the... darker subjects ahead. Or, at the very least, ones less appropriate for already worried kits.

“So—how’re you feeling, Sue?” Willow asked calmly.

Sue internally thanked Solstice for soothing the medic’s worries, especially after they’ve had to deal with her nonsense over the past few days. “I-I’m... good—really good nhow, I think. I can’t thank you enough f-for your help, and,” she sighed, choosing to just call it for what it was, “...and for putting up with my nonshense.”

Her pronunciation was tangibly improving now that she finally had an opportunity to actually practice using her new mouth. Hopefully, it wouldn’t make getting used back to her old body harder once she… got there.

Willow chuckled, “Hah, it’s more than fine Sue, I’m just glad you’re fine inside your skull after all—besides, I’ll gladly take nonsense over belligerence. I’ve already looked at your leg once you were done with Solstice, and it should be fine to walk on again within a few days. With all that said, I only really have one more question...”

Sue nodded along, the news about her recovery lifting her mood. As much as she was getting used to the crutch, it gave her arm enough workout to last a lifetime. She knew full well that if she hadn’t put her leg through more abuse than it already had to take, it might’ve already recovered by now, but she didn’t want to think about it—

“So, where are you really from?”

Fuck.

Sue’s eyes shot wide as she stared at the timid medic, the fear of being discovered as an imposter returning in force. Sundance was just as surprised—far from reassuring, but at least she wasn’t alone in being taken completely off guard, for once. The vixen asked, “What do you mean, Willow? Solstice went through—”

“A cover up. My fur may be graying, but I’ve been watching over Sue for a few days now, and from her reactions, I have to guess she had spent her entire life under a particularly large boulder, one that left just enough space to let her figure out how to use a crutch, despite her looking and sounding like she had evolved into her current form not even twenty Moons ago.”

Neither Sue nor Sundance knew what to say. The latter very much wanted to say something, her mouth opening and closing a few times as she tried to gather the right words, while the former was keen to collapse underground at being seen through so easily.

“Now, now, I’m not accusing Sue of anything,” Willow continued, still smiling. “I was there when she was being carried into Moonview; I saw the venom dripping from her wound. She’s surely a good person, but that doesn’t make what Solstice said make any sense. A Forest Guardian village exiling one of their own is absurd, but even if they had, they wouldn’t have waited until she grew up, and the idea of a helpless little one lasting a hundred and fifty Moons in the wild is laughable.”

Moonview. Guess this village has a name, after all.

Willow paused for a thoughtful moment before they shrugged and continued, tone as upbeat as ever, “The worst part is that I have no idea just what you three are hiding! Hundred and fifty seasons in this world, and nothing I’ve seen or heard of comes close to making sense of all this; you’ve really stumped me!”

Sue was dumbfounded at their cheerfulness in spite of their accusations as Sundance sighed in the village, admitting, “The reality here is truly more outlandish than any fables I’ve heard.” The once-human couldn’t help but glare at the vixen at the comment, feeling a bit betrayed by her admitting the deceit so quickly.

The medic noticed their distress, trying to defuse the situation, “Oh, don’t worry, Sue. I might have no idea who or what you really are, but whatever the truth is, Solstice trusts you, and of course so does lil’ Spark. I’ve no reason to doubt either of them, though I sure can’t deny being very curious after tending to you.”

Sue slowly nodded at their words, getting back to petting Spark after realizing she’d stopped amid all the tension. The lil’ fox’s soft fur made for a great stress reliever as the once-human chewed through her thoughts. Her gaze shifted between the other two, dreadfully unsure what to say and how much of it.

Eventually, Willow took it upon themselves to break the impasse, “Well, I gotta say, if that’s how spooked you got by just silly old me asking you that, I can only imagine just how rattled Solstice made you. Helps put your, well, ‘nonsense’—your words, not mine—in context. I am sorry for that, though; I didn’t intend to make you afraid.”

The genuine apology helped soothe Sue’s worries, despite being mixed with a heaping pile of curiosity.

“If you want me to, Sue, I can attempt to explain based on what Solstice told me,” Sundance offered. “Admittedly, I’m still unclear on some details myself, however.” Guess it really fell to her to provide them both with some much deserved clarity.

Here goes nothing.

“Alrhight. Guess I’ll anshwer the biggest point first—y-you’re right, Sholstice made her story up. I’m…” Sue paused, resigning herself to the most direct description she could come up with, “I’m from another world, I-I think.”

Sundance was following so far, Solstice’s explanation had made that much clear. Willow, though, immediately had questions of their own, and spoke, “Another world you say! Sundance hails from so far away, but I think this is my first time talking with someone from across the seas—”

“Much further than that, Willow,” the vixen corrected.

The medic turned their gaze over at her, lifting their eyebrows as they tried to figure out what she meant. “How so?”

“From what Solstice tried to explain to me, Sue appears to hail from another reality entirely.”

Hearing it stated so plainly made the truth of the matter hit Sue harder than she’d expected, making her feel… empty. Fortunately, the sensation didn’t last long once Willow’s curiosity inserted itself back into the discussion. “Golly. You are a bit odd, Sue, but I can’t say I would’ve expected that... or someone from another realm to behave in such a familiar way.”

Sundance nodded in response, putting the shared attention back on the interdimensional traveler. She didn’t understand how Sue could be just like them, either—but, then again, neither did Sue. “Yeah, it’s weird,” she admitted. “Thish world is so similar to my old one, almosh identical except for its creathures.”

“Identical, you say?” Willow leaned in. “So if not for the looks of us three, this very cabin and village it’s in, the woods around it, the rivers cutting through them, the dirt below and the skies above, all that would’ve been just the same as your world?”

Sue had to give it a moment’s thought, but... yeah, that checked out. She nodded firmly, Willow’s expression turning pensive as they chewed through her unexpected response. “Well, my mother used to tell me that the other worlds glow bright in the sky, and that’s what stars are—though I sure wouldn’t have expected worlds to have siblings like that, hah!”

Putting it that way got a lighthearted chuckle out of Sue and Sundance alike. The latter picked up where Willow left off, herself curious about the aforementioned differences. “Since you highlighted the difference in creatures, I meant to ask. Solstice had mentioned that your... natural form is similar to your current one in anatomy, except for not being psychic, correct?”

The once-human nodded, “Right. There aren’t any ‘pshychic’ creatures where I’m from to begin with.”

Neither of the duo were expecting that one, judging by their stunned expressions. Willow gasped; “None at all, you say?”

Sue wondered whether to mention that concept ‘existing’ in fiction, before ultimately deciding against it and confirming their hunch. No matter how wild her world’s imagination was, it couldn’t compare to this world’s reality.

“Well, if nothing else, that explains why you haven’t shown any of your psychics so far. Is it just a matter of not knowing how to, uh, tap into them?” the medic asked, intrigued.

“That appears to be the case from what Solstice had told me,” Sundance answered, eyeing Sue out.

“Huh. Would’ve thought it would be all instinct.”

“Not without developing it first. Speaking of,” the vixen paused as she faced Sue head on, her expression focusing while maintaining its prior warmth. “I take it Solstice had mentioned me guiding you through developing your abilities?”

“Yeah. I-I’m shtill honored at that—”

“No Sue, it’s my honor to repay my debt to you in such an important way.”

Sue was once more taken aback, unsure how she should react. Eventually, she bowed towards her mentor-to-be, hands continuing to dispense affection for the little sleeping one all the while. “Thank you.”

It was Sundance’s turn to stop herself from reflecting the praise back onto her student, acknowledging her thanks with a light nod before speaking up, “Now, before we begin, do you have any more questions you’d want answered first?”

Even just listing everything that still confused her in this world would likely take several days on its own. Of the unknowns that comprised the fort of confusion in her mind, few came close in importance to what she then asked, “That... shrine with the feathersh in front of it. Is it for a deity or something?”

“Hah, mother would’ve scolded the horns out of you if she heard you referring to the Pale Lady as just ‘a deity’,” Willow chuckled. A bit disconcerting, though it at least showed the medic themselves didn’t seem to be too extreme on the matters of religion, slight nervousness about this entire subject aside. “Now that I think about it, I doubt ‘Pale Lady’ is ringing any bells either, with how far you hail from, hah.”

“Indeed. Pale Lady, Night Mother, Moon’s Grace, or just the Moon,” Sundance listed. “She’s the chief goddess worshipped in these parts for her healing and protection from what lurks in the night.”

Sue appreciated a more concrete connection between the deity and the astral body while giving her several names to use in place of ‘Duck’, all of them immediately forgotten. The vixen’s matter-of-fact, downright encyclopedic tone raised her eyebrow, though—that definitely didn’t sound how someone devoted would refer to their deity. “Does ‘theshe parts’ not include you? Just asking with how you shaid it...”

Sundance answered, “It does not. Where I hail from, the Sun was the chief deity. I don’t have a strong attachment towards any of them nowadays, not anymore. Spending a decade wandering the land and meeting all sorts of peoples changed my perspective on it all a great deal. With how many varied deities folk from all over pray to, the only conclusion I could arrive at is that deities don’t particularly care about what mortals do one way or another. Don’t let Solstice hear that, though.”

The vixen chuckled after her final remark, with Willow following in tow, the two remaining unbothered despite the seriousness of the topic. The medic followed up with, “Can’t say I’ve ever been as laid back on that topic as you have, Sundance, though you’re at least mostly right. It sure wouldn’t be like the Pale Lady to take offense to other deities being worshipped—outside of the Night Father, at least. Any attempts to convince those who disagree would only result in more strife.”

Sue felt more and more doubt fill her as she listened. The mayor of this place, as well as the first person she’d spoken to in a solid week and someone she felt she could trust, was apparently a religious zealot. Willow’s brief mention of ‘Night Father’ didn’t help either, recollection of Sue’s dreams providing an excellent candidate for who could that possibly be. She needed clarity about all this, tackling the touchy subject head on, “Um, why sh-should Solstice nhot hear that?”

Sundance caught to the unease that underlined the Forest Guardian’s question, her smile softening as she shook her head. “I said that in jest, worry not—we two just disagree on that point. She strongly believes that the Pale Lady personally intervenes to aid the ones under Her protection, and that she’d communed with Her in the past. Considering she’s still best friends with Moonview’s biggest heretic, I doubt she cares that much, especially since the Pale Lady symbolizes protection and healing to begin with. However, I have to admit, the mental image of someone getting physically violent over others not worshiping a guardian goddess is rather darkly amusing.”

Sue couldn’t disagree, chuckling to herself as she tried to visualize that. Imagining Solstice as the person getting offended sent a shiver down her spine, though. The Mayor came off powerful without even trying, and any attempts to imagine what her getting violent would look like froze Sue to her core. She tried not to let it get to her as she continued, “I see. Whillow mentioned a ‘Night Father’. Wh-who’s that?”

She felt the air in the room grow colder at her words. Willow looked uneasy at having brought all that up to begin with, even if offhandedly, as Sundance explained, “Another deity worshiped in this wider area, though His worship is shunned in Moonview. He is the dimmest dark on the night of a new moon, protecting the night kin. In some interpretations, He’s in active conflict with the Pale Lady, being the entity She protects mortals from.”

Guess ‘Sky Dimmer Satan’ wasn’t that far off course after all.

“Night kin?” Sue asked—and immediately regretted it. If the previous subject was uneasy, this one felt almost like a taboo she had inadvertently stumbled upon.

An icy chill ran down her spine and horn, making her gulp before Sundance continued, voice barely above a whisper, “According to the myths, they are the ones who had pledged themselves to the Night Father, who granted them protection from being revealed by moonlight or perceived by our psychic senses. You... won’t find them in Moonview.”

As intimidating as the description of the night kin was, Sue soon realized that she'd already ran into one creature that fit it—or at least the part about them being undetectable by her psychic senses. Her encounters with the dark-colored, disguise-happy fox might've been memorable—and them stealing her peaches might've been a good argument towards them being devil spawn—but she had a hard time feeling anywhere near as unnerved as Willow clearly was.

There had to have been something that Sundance wasn’t mentioning—she had already seen the gray fox in here, just disguised to avoid being spotted. “Um... why won’t I find them in Moon—”

“OH GOODNESS it’s getting late,” Willow shouted, making Sue jump. “I-I should make my rounds around the village and grab us all a snack before today’s feast. T-take care you all, I-I’ll be back soon,” they mumbled as they almost ran out the hut.

Oh yes, there’s definitely something more to all this.

Unfortunately, Sundance preemptively cut off any further paths of inquiry soon after, “It’s... a grave subject, and I’d rather Spark not overhear it, even if incidentally. I hope that’s alright with you, Sue.”

Her stumbling upon a subject so grim that even the upbeat medic had run away instead of talking about it wasn’t particularly encouraging, but Sundance’s request made sense. Sue would definitely have to ask more about all this later, though. “Yeah. Shorry for b-bringing it up—”

“Don’t be. You’re not the guilty one here.”

Sue was even more unnerved at the vixen’s grim delivery. The psychic had caught onto her unease and tried to steer the subject back to where it was supposed to have gone all along. “You shouldn’t be worrying yourself with any of that, Sue. Now, have you been able to figure out any of your psychics thus far?”

Sundance’s question was moderately successful in making Sue focus on the point of their discussion. The darkness that soaked the earlier topic wouldn’t let itself be discarded so easily, though, slinking off to the back of her mind as she answered, “I don’t think so. I tried to make m-my crutch move like Bo—Comet did, bhut nothing happened. U-unless thish... ability to sense emotions counts.”

“From what I know, that ability is innate to your… current form. Have you been able to do anything with it, or just passively sensed those around?”

“Just sensed, yeah.”

The vixen nodded slowly, gathering her thoughts on how to teach the complete beginner before her. Ultimately, there was only one way to learn when starting from complete nothing—one step at a time, as always. “Let us start from the very beginning, then. You said you attempted to do this,” she paused as her eyes filled with orange light, mentally gripping Sue’s crutch. Once it had come to a stop between her and her student, she continued, “What did you try?”

“Jusht... tried thinking it up, or ordering it to move, stuff like that,” Sue answered, confidence faltering with every word. Her recently gained sense made it easier to track Sundance’s mood, even with her expression remaining focused and dominated by glowing eyes.

It let her sense just how dumbfounded her mentor was, though she tried not to let it show. “I... see,” Sundance eventually muttered. “Well, the actual way you do it is much simpler.”

That was far from what Sue expected to hear. Her inability to figure any of this out had led her to think of her supposed new abilities as something that was at best contrived and extremely difficult, and at worst, as a thing her human, non-Forest Guardian mind was just inherently incapable of comprehending. “Oh. Wh-what do I do, then?”

“You just have to reach and grasp~,” the vixen smirked. Sue was dumbfounded at her explanation, the words coming off almost like a mean-spirited joke considering how little of it all she understood—

And then she felt it.

The sensation that followed was like nothing Sue had ever experienced. Her confused brain interpreted it as something grasping her arm, an intangible arm that had been sitting folded up in the back of her head for Duck knows how long, now finally stirring from its numb stasis. “Wow...”

She felt the imaginary limb be pulled out of her head bit by bit, guided carefully by the vixen. It only kept going and expanding, breaking any mental images Sue’s overwhelmed brain had tried to put to it, easily stretching over half a dozen feet. It felt more like a tentacle—or at least what Sue thought a tentacle would feel like—than any even remotely familiar body part. She whispered, awestruck, “What is this...”

“An extension of your mind, your ‘mental reach’. I can only imagine how outlandish it must feel right now, but using it will become second nature sooner or later,” Sundance reassured. She then let go of Sue’s psychic tendril, leaving it awkwardly hovering in midair. If it was visible, or even perceptible for non-psychics, it would probably be one hell of a sight just floating there. “Now, try moving it yourself. Experiment, get a feel for how it weaves and shifts.”

Sue nodded shakily as she concentrated on this new set of sensations. She instinctively closed her eyes as she tried wriggling the neurons close to where she felt this phantom limb originate from, the random prodding eventually letting her figure out a way to move it around. It was slow and clumsy, but it was progress all the same.

Reach...

She moved this extension of self towards the crutch, now laying on the floor again. Once her mind got there, she felt it wrap itself around the item without her input, as if it was the most natural thing in the world.

And grasp...

Sue… wasn’t sure how to think invisible tendril into actually grabbing the piece of wood. Instead of that, she tried to prod the other parts of her brain, not getting much success either. Finally, she tried to mirror the grasping action with her actual hand—and this time; it felt like it worked. Her left hand gripped the air while a small patch of white aura now surrounded the part of the crutch her mind held onto. To her surprise, Sue could feel the wood as if she was actually touching it, the sensation so disembodied from any physical reality it tripped her brain.

“There you go, keep at it. Try lifting it up,” Sundance instructed. Even in the vixen’s focus, it was hard for her student to not notice her emotional outlook having shifted from gloom to veiled excitement, making the reality of her being yet to catch up to a toddler’s level of magical aptitude that bit more bearable.

Her attempts at moving the crutch were only partially successful. Most of the time, the tool only shuffled along the floor, refusing to be lifted at all. Sue wanted to retry the whole maneuver in case she’d grabbed it wrong or something, before hearing Sundance whisper, “^Put more force in, focus harder on your grasp.^”

She didn’t notice the vixen speaking without opening her mouth, instead focusing even harder on her mental reach. The faint glow soon expanded to cover more of the tool, the upward motion that followed briefly lifting it off the ground—only for it to slip out of her uneven hold.

Sue’s aura fizzling out as her eyes shot open—just in time to see Sundance’s orange glow grab the crutch before it could bang against the floor, slowly settling it down afterwards. “Definitely not bad for your first attempt. How are you feeling, Sue?”

It was a tricky question. There was the triumph of achieving at least the minimum of progress with her psychic magic, disbelief at how unreal it all felt, anxiety over whether she would ever be able to catch up to the ‘natural’ level of skill, and finally, the unease from earlier, not helping any. “I’m... I’m good I-I think. Glad I didn’t turn out to be broken or anything.”

“Indeed, there’s nothing wrong with you, Sue,” Sundance smiled. “It may take a tremendous amount of practice, but I have no doubt that one day you’ll catch up to where you ought to be. Once we get past the basics, it’ll be much easier for you to further explore your psychics on your own.”

The idea of self-directed learning sounded impossibly distant in the moment, but the vixen’s confidence was reassuring, if nothing else. “Okay, th-thank you.”

“It’s my pleasure, Sue. Now, are you ready to tackle the next subject, or do you need more time to get your bearings?”

“Next subject?” Sue leaned back, surprised. “B-but I could only bharely do this one.”

Sundance elaborated, “That’s not wrong, but with fundamentals like these, I think it’s best to introduce you to both key skill sets before delving further into them. Besides, I’ve little doubt you’ll find what’s coming up even more useful than telekinesis.”

Sue had nowhere near the expertise needed to argue with that assessment, leaving her to just ask, “What’s the other s-subject, then?”

“^Telepathy.^”

While she might have missed the previous instance of Sundance speaking without using her mouth, Sue most definitely caught onto it this time, the sight rousing her imagination.

It’d sure be nice to figure out how to communicate with anyone here.

“Oh! How do I d-do it?” Sue asked, revealing her excitement as her hand reached down to resume petting. Her fingertips brushed past something warm and wet where she expected to only feel fur, snatching her attention back to her lap—just in time to see Spark’s impressive array of teeth in mid-yawn. And get to stroking her belly the moment she finished yawning, of course. The high-pitched woofs that followed were as incomprehensible as they were yesterday, confusing Sue somewhat. She could understand Spark before she took a nap, so why not now?

Wait a minute, how did she understand any of them to begin with—

“That would be my doing~,” Sundance winked. Her part in Sue suddenly being able to comprehend everyone was obvious in hindsight, but it didn’t help make the ‘how’ of it all any less mysterious.

Her confusion did not go unnoticed by her mentor, either. “I suppose this subject warrants some explanation beforehand. So—” the vixen paused as Sue jumped at the unfamiliar sensation, feeling as if someone had plucked on an invisible string connecting her head to Sundance’s. “What you just felt was me drawing attention to the mental link between us. They are what telepathy is performed through.”

Wouldn’t have imagined a connection like that to be so… tangible.

“We can take glimpses at each other’s thoughts and emotions through them, and more importantly, ^communicate with just thoughts,^” Sundance elaborated, the mid-sentence switch away from spoken word making for a helpful demonstration in its own right.

It also raised further questions, though. “Ish me understanding what you’re... well, woofing, also telepathy?” Sue asked—and gulped at seeing the vixen be stunned by her question.

For a second she worried about having offended her, but thankfully, she brushed it off soon after. “It is a different form of it, yes. Instead of directly passing you my thoughts, I take the meaning behind my words and get your mind to translate them into the language you’re most familiar with, which you then perceive as hearing it. In a one-on-one conversation between psychics, there’s little practical difference between these two approaches. But…”

A moment passed before Spark noticed something, turning to look back at her mom and asking, “Oh, oh, oh, did you do it, mom?”

“Yes, sweetie—”

“Yay! How are you feeling, Sue? Are you better now?” the lil’ fox perked up, the excited tail wags accompanying her questions making Sue’s heart melt more than her warmth could ever manage.

Before she could answer, her mentor continued, “^We can use these techniques to translate others’ words and act as bridges between those who couldn’t otherwise communicate with each other. And turn ‘woofs’, as you’ve called them, into words.^”

The light ribbing was not undeserved, reassuring Sue that everything was indeed alright. The rest of Sundance’s explanation helped too, withdrawing another brick from her internal fort of confusion. “I’m feeling quite ghood, sweetie,” Sue smiled at Spark. “Your mom is teaching me how to, uh, do all the psychic... thingsh.”

“Oh?” Spark asked, the high-pitched ‘awoo’ that accompanied her expression of confusion straining Sue’s willpower in keeping herself from cooing in response. “You don’t know how to do them? But Mrs. Solstice is also a Forest Guardian, and she knows...”

It was time for Solstice’s cover-up story. Or at least it would’ve been, if Sue remembered it all. The little she still recalled wasn’t appropriate for a little kit, making her nervously look up to Sundance for help—and help was graciously granted. “She hadn’t had the time to study it all, sweetie, and the bite from that nasty creature didn’t help either. But don’t worry, Sue will do her best to catch up, and once you evolve, you could both practice together.”

“Oooooh—oh oh yay! Did you hear Sue!? We’ll get to practice together!” Spark squealed.

Sue was more than down for that, smiling even wider at the little fox. The… odd choice of words deposited a brand new brick of confusion onto her mental fort, with ‘does “evolution” refer to something specific here’ stamped proudly on its front. Something to tackle later, either way. “Yeah, I-I’d love to!”

As much as their chat was heartening for both girls, Sue’s lesson wasn’t over yet. Sundance asked, “Would you mind giving Sue some space to study, sweetie? It’s important she learns the basics without distractions.”

“I won’t distract her, I promise!” the little one pleaded.

Sundance gave her daughter the most unconvinced look Sue had seen in her life, her lifting eyebrows making the kit plead, “Moooom, pleeeeeease!”

The mystic closed her eyes and giggled, “If you promise not to distract Sue and she agrees, I suppose you can stay beside her.”

“YAYAYAY! Please Sue, pleeeease!”

How could I ever hope to refuse a request delivered so adorably?

“Teehee, shure sweetie.”

Sue needed no translation for the high-pitched squeak of pure joy that followed. The fiery fox quickly scooted beside her, keeping her nuzzling to a minimum as her mom continued her teachings. “So—that was that about the basics of telepathy. Now, let’s move to practice. Establishing mental links with other beings is the most important ability for any psychic to have, and serves as a foundation of much more than just telepathy. You’ll get plenty of practice during your stay here, but it’s good to get a good foundation beforehand.”

Sundance drew attention to Sue’s mental reach once more, making her shudder again at the strange sensation—especially now with her feeling like the psychic tendril she’d clumsily maneuvered earlier was but one of many. “Forming links is not too dissimilar from telekinesis. Instead of a physical object, focus on a sentient mind, and reach into it.”

This description of what she had to do would’ve been little more than a word salad for Sue a mere week ago, which made her understanding the gist of it now somewhat disconcerting.

“I’m going to sever our link now and let you attempt to form one yourself,” the vixen explained. “We won’t be able to talk until then, so if you need me to assist you, just wave at me.” Sue felt their link break before she could even respond, the sensation so faint that if she wasn’t expecting something she would’ve shrugged it off as just her hair feeling weird.

Showtime.

With a deep breath, Sue concentrated on the spot her mental reach felt like it sprouted from, exploratory wriggling making her eventually focus on one thread in particular. Her brain had already given up on any attempts to interpret these as actual body parts—though, if anything, that only made the sensations coming from them even weirder.

The invisible extension of Sue’s mind took its time approaching her mentor. Partly because of her being cautious, partly because she had no idea how to make it go any faster. Trying to control the brain tentacle like she would an arm proved somewhat effective, though it had a side effect of the real limb twitching as she controlled her imaginary one. It was stuck moving only as fast as she would move her arm, but something told Sue that was far, far from the fastest this mental thread of hers could go.

It might have taken her a while, but she got there eventually, her reach hovering in front of Sundance’s face. Its awkward position made Sue very glad that nobody else could perceive it as she attempted to dive into the fox’s mind—and only succeeded at sliding it into her physical head, too focused to notice the vixen’s wince.

Sue tried to figure out what she’d done wrong—this was what her mentor had meant, right? She’d reached her brain, and yet felt nothing like what she’d expected to feel, missing any sensation of things clicking into place.

Alright, where did I go wrong this time?

Sue tried thinking back to Sundance’s instructions, replaying them to herself word by word. The source of confusion refused to present itself—she had hovered the funky tentacle into place; she tried to interact with her mind just like she had done with the crutch, but nothing kept happening. Either her mind’s reach wasn’t where she thought it was, or…



Or she had a wrong target in mind.

She’d assumed that Sundance was using ‘a sentient mind’ to refer to a brain, but what if that’s not what she meant? It felt like the most probable cause of error, but that then left the question—if the mind she was supposed to target wasn’t the vixen’s brain… what was it, then? What else could it even be?

The handful of ideas she eventually came up with turned out to be duds. Her mental thread continued to move around idly in the space currently occupied by Sundance’s head, the fiery psychic keeping quiet about the discomfort for the sake of learning.

It didn’t take Sundance long to notice Sue struggling with something, though, but she kept quiet until her student had finally admitted defeat with a weak wave. “You almost got there, Sue. Is something wrong?”

“I—uh, I guess I mishunderstood what you meant by ‘reaching into a sentient mind’.”

Sue was disappointed, especially with her earlier progress, but the unpleasant sensation had a hard time sticking for long, not with Spark’s constant affection offsetting it.

How can a creature with this much excess ear hair be so cute?

“I see. I can’t say I don’t understand your interpretation, but it is rather... literal,” Sundance responded, both her and Sue chuckling at the situation, the latter with slight embarrassment. It didn’t last long once the vixen continued, “But no, that’s not it. You’ll need to concentrate on this ability to feel others’ emotions and go beyond just them. The Forest Guardian ability to sense emotions is just one facet of a sense all psychics share, the one that lets us feel other minds around us. A naturally very well developed facet of course, but only that. Minds will feel much fainter than the emotions they radiate, but you’ll have to learn to focus on them.”

Sue nodded weakly, feeling like she barely grasped any of it. Wanting to avoid another wasted opportunity like last time, she was proactive with her questions this time, “So, concentrate o-on that sense, and then try focushing on just... minds, yeah?”

“Correct. It may take a lot of practice to even make them out over the glow of emotions, especially if you haven’t been experimenting much with this sense yet, but I have no doubt you’ll get there, eventually.”

It sure was hard to get disheartened like this, heh.

Sue took a deep breath before concentrating, her body relaxing as she withdrew from the physical senses. She dove as deep into the mental sense as she could, the emotions of the two foxes near her shining so brightly they dimmed all the ones out by their mere presence. Intense as they might have been, she couldn’t deny that adoration and a mix of patience and pride respectively eclipsing everything else felt very, very nice.

Looking past all this is gonna be tricky.

Before she could even attempt doing that, Sue sensed a couple of similarly bright blips of emotion making their way close. As opposed to anything warm, though, they were fear and anxiety, respectively—and from experience, she could pretty confidently narrow the latter to Willow.



Wait a min—

*creak!*


The door slamming open snapped Sue out of her trance. As her eyes adjusted to daylight again, Willow passed by before her, accompanied by someone else, their squeaks incomprehensible and their appearance terrifying.

It—they seemed to be half small, mostly yellow humanoid, around as tall as her knee, and half a massive black maw lined with metallic teeth sticking out the back of the humanoid’s head. The second part reminded her of a venus flytrap, but large enough to catch entire body parts and not just insects, and otherwise nightmarish.

The blood didn’t help, either.

Much to Sue’s sanity, a closer look revealed it to have come from an injury on top of the maw, rather than from it having had a bloody snack. Willow wasted no time wrapping bandages around the injured body part, doubling as a flimsy way of keeping it closed.

“—gonna try to heal it some more; it won’t hurt. Is that okay?” the medic asked, suddenly. Sue might have had a better grasp on how the translation worked this time, but that didn’t make it any less surprising to experience. She needed a moment to shake her confusion off as Willow awaited a response from the small, scary creature—a response that wasn’t coming.

As much as Sue’s initial impression of the toothy creature was dominated by the maw hot glued onto the back of their head, taking a better look at their front half and listening to her sixth sense revealed quite a few things—chief among them how utterly scared they were. Their tiny body shook as they looked up between all the adults in the room, backing away from Sundance. Not what Sue expected, given their other half, that’s for sure.

Noticing their distress, Willow kneeled beside the maw creature, and offered them a hug. “Joy, everything is alright, I promise. Nobody is mad at you.” The now-named little one eventually leaned in, letting the medic hold them and do their healing magic, one paw aglow as it stroked the freshly bandaged part of the maw.

“What happened, Joy!?” Spark asked, breaking her affection towards Sue only to redirect it towards Joy, leaning up to nuzzle her side. Thankfully, the newcomer was receptive to the fox’s affection, their fear soon dulling into mere unease.

Willow sighed, “Someone was mean to her and it went way, way too far. Hopefully Cirrus gives whoever did it a good scolding.”

Joy shuffled in place as she was being talked about, twiddling her hands before resting one on Spark’s head. It was also the moment at which she had finally noticed Sue; the sight startling her momentarily before she looked closer—and then, pointed at the recently transformed Forest Guardian. Sue blinked in confusion as the maw child tried to speak, struggling immensely before finally stammering out, “Wh-wh-w-w-who?”

“Sue!” Spark cheered. “I told you about her back at the playground! She’s the one that rescued me!”

The Forest Guardian in question was too preoccupied by curiously observing Joy to get too flustered at the praise. Spark’s description only encouraged Joy further, and the fox kept her company as she ambled towards Sue before giving speaking another try, “H-h-h-hi...”

How could something with a body part this terrifying be this cute?

“H-hello, Jhoy,” Sue smiled, trying to pretend she hadn’t been terrified by the girl’s appearance just moments ago. As simple as her greeting was, it emboldened Joy enough to take a seat beside her, shifting afterwards to hide as much of herself from Sundance as possible. She then grasped Sue’s nearby hand, leaving the Forest Guardian in a bit of an awkward situation. Not that Sue minded that much, especially with the scary bits tied up with bandages and the rest of the little one being admittedly quite adorable.

0mMqAXh.png


By the wonderful rrronald @ FurAffinity!

The abrupt change in her behavior still left her dumbfounded, though, making her give Sundance a confused look in hope of some explanation. She didn’t have to wait long. “Joy’s is a sad situation,” Sundance sighed. “She can’t understand us anymore—best she’s left out of this unpleasant discussion.”

“Can’t she understand you normally?” Sue asked.

The vixen shook her head, “For the most part, no. She hasn’t been here for long and is still only learning our language. From what I’ve heard, her progress has been rather slow.”

Guess we have something in common, hah.

“And the other kids aren’t helping, *sigh*...” Willow groaned.

Sue felt even worse for the little one, reaching with her free hand to pet Joy’s not-scary half; the gesture thankfully received positively. She asked, “Are they bullying her?” The two mouthed girl might have looked... unusual, yes, but she was far, far from the weirdest sight this world had to offer, or even the most intimidating.

Willow closed their eyes, “Some of them are, yeah. Though it’s as much if not more the fault of the adults, we sowed this and are now reaping the results.”

Sue was following this even less now. “How?”

“Her kin is... not well seen,” the medic admitted.

“And that’s putting it lightly,” Sundance grumbled. “I’ve heard several people call them ‘limb eaters’. There was little point in trying to dissuade these kinds of epithets when nobody thought any of her kin would ever join Moonview. But eventually, Joy happened, and now we’re stuck with those terms and attitudes until we can weed them out.”

The term ‘limb eater’ combined with the intimidating maw made Sue gulp as the vixen went on. She had to keep her imagination from turning particularly lively, deciding to distract herself with another unknown. Why did this village, Moonview, think that nobody of Joy’s kin would ever end up joining it? It made little sense to Sue—she’d seen weirder, much weirder creatures during her stay here so far, up to and including actual snakes, after all. “Wh-why would they not join? Joy’s ‘kin’, I mean.”

Willow blinked blankly at her, chuckling to themselves before speaking up, “I almost forgot you’re not from here, heh. Well, eh... from what I heard, they mostly live in caves and... prey on creatures that wander in. Not very friendly—or talkative, for that matter.”

Nope, nope, nope, don’t want to imagine that.

“Then how did Joy get here?” Sue asked, trying to ignore the gruesome imagery the medic’s description invoked.

Sundance asked, “Astra brought her here, right?” The medic nodded firmly in return as Sue stared, lost in the conversation. Before the latter could speak up, though, the vixen elaborated, “Astra is our scout and cartographer. She’s on the lookout for locations we could expand to, new crops we could grow here, and for other settlements to reach out towards. One time, she found a cave to spend the night in, and Joy was there, alone, too terrified to even think about being aggressive. With how little she is, we think she might have gotten left behind by her brood. After some coaxing, Astra got her to open up enough to bring her here.”

Poor little lim—girl.

“She did the right thing,” the vixen continued, “though she couldn’t just pause her scouting duties afterwards, and the lack of someone to watch over Joy throughout the day is hitting her hard. Cirrus can only do so much to reign in over a dozen little ones, and… let’s just say nobody else in the village is exactly racing to look after a limb eater, sigh...”

Heh, not like I don’t have all the free time in the world now...

The thought of taking a little one under her wing made Sue feel much warmer than she’d expected—almost frighteningly so. She shook the entire train of thought off before it grew further, lest she hype herself up for something that would never happen.

“I think she’s out on a scouting job today anyway, won’t be back until late. Speaking of, what time is it…” Willow trailed off as they looked out the window, the sight of many a villager heading towards the plaza making the time of day crystal clear. “Seems the feast is about to kick off. Best get going ourselves, eh?”

Sue’s stomach wasn’t about to argue with that idea, that’s for sure.



If you're confused about the species of the characters and want them spoiled, I've set up a page listing the species of all the featured characters in each chapter!

If you want to discuss the story, I've set up a Discord server for it! (and my other writings)

Also check out my other story, From the Vast!
 
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Chapter 7: Spectacle

redspah

the gay agenda
Pronouns
she/her


Chapter 7: Spectacle



Joy stuck close to Sue as the party headed out of the clinic, confused by the sudden commotion. As much as she appreciated Sundance stepping in to explain the upcoming feast to her, that didn’t make her fear the fiery vixen any less, opting to stick to the Forest Guardian of the group for the time being.

Sue didn’t understand her fear, but wasn’t in a position to investigate it. She sensed it all the same, though, letting the toothy child stay as close to her as she wanted if it would help—and help it did. Both Joy and Spark keeping close to her sounded like a recipe for someone getting smacked with a crutch, but they were pulling it off flawlessly.

“Sho, this feast. What will it look like?” Sue asked as they neared the last corner before the plaza’s entrance.

Sundance smirked at Sue from the front of the party. “Those who can help the cooks and the Elders in bringing the food to the hungry mouths. Those who can’t just take a seat somewhere comfortable. And, once all the meals are dispensed, the show begins.”

The Forest Guardian blinked. “The show?”

“You’ll see~!”

Sue wasn’t sure how to respond to Sundance’s tease—though if the vixen wasn’t giving her a straight answer, she guessed it was gonna be a spectacle she didn’t want spoiled. Even with that in mind, though, one detail still stood out to her. “Are you not on the Eldersh Council?”

The question visibly took the vixen aback, her smile deflating as she answered. “Not anymore. I’ve already had my share of bickering in this life.”

Sue supposed that only made sense, even if she wouldn’t have thought of that position as one that someone could just leave. She didn’t have much time to dwell on that as their destination came into view, though. The plaza was as filled as it had been in the morning, but all its occupants seemed to be concentrated in just one half of it, with the other left empty—seemingly intentionally. It wasn’t an issue; between the plentiful tables and makeshift fire pits on the grass, there was space for everyone.

Or so it seemed, at least.

It took a moment for Sue to realize why the fire pits were there, with so many available tables. A glimpse of a large quadruped passing by finally made it click in her head—not everyone could use the benches, after all.

Though there is that one famous painting of dogs playing poker, so what do I know, anyway?

Spotting ‘their’ table turned out to be much easier than expected. Comet was already there, distracted by the ghostly prankster from yesterday with the game of peek-a-boo that involved them phasing their face through the bench the infant sat on.

If his elated squeaks were anything to go by, Comet loved it.

“Finally!” the ghost-alike groaned, looking up at their group. “And here I was thinking I’d have to grab y’all. How’s Crutches doing?”

Spook’s—no, Hazel’s—voice was still as creaky and whispered as Sue remembered it, despite Sundance’s translation. It ended up rather tricky to understand as a result, almost enough for Sue to not even notice a nickname of her own—but only almost. She was about to speak up, before Willow cut her off. “She’s doing just fine Hazel, and you know full well that’s not her name.”

“Yeah, but it ain’t like she’s gonna tell us her real name, eh?” Hazel rolled her eyes.

Alright, now was her moment—

“On the contrary,” the vixen insisted, “she told it to us perfectly well. It only took a bit of help.”

Not the time, Sundance!

Hazel lifted an eyebrow. “So her brain’s not broken then, eh? Pop was guessin’ with all her gesturin’. What’s her name then?”

“Shue!”

The urgency and accidental volume with which Sue had said that made everyone look at her with varying amounts of confusion and concern. Before she could spontaneously combust from sheer embarrassment, she cleared her throat and tried again, hoping to save face. “Um, m-my name is Sue.”

“...’Sue’, eh?” Hazel prodded. “Weird name. You from somewhere far?”

You have no idea.

“She is, but now is not the best of times to chat about that, Hazel. Is Poppy still in her kitchen?” the medic asked, stepping in front of Sue to draw the attention away from her.

“Dunno, Willow, prolly. She said Solstice was gonna come over once they were both done. Though... y’all are here and can look after the bowl cut, so I’m gonna go check up on them~,” the spook answered, her grin growing as she took the excuse to get away from the crowd. Before she left, though, she took a moment to pull one last funny face on Comet, stretching her face far beyond what ought to be anatomically possible. Joy and Sue could only stare, aghast, as everyone else just shrugged and approached the bench, far too used to the spook’s antics to pay them any mind anymore.

The professors at my biology department would kill to get some of the locals here under an X-ray.

With Hazel out of the way, the band got seated. Both Joy and Spark were practically glued to Sue, ending up beside her and on her lap, respectively. Comet wanted to join them too, but was quickly snagged away by the other adults as they sat down at the other side of the table. Once the entire group sat down, Spark leaned towards Joy, extending her affection to the other girl. The toothy tyke appreciated it greatly, especially with all the scary strangers around.

Judging by the plentiful empty spots around them, it’d still be awhile until the festivities kicked off properly.

Not a bad opportunity to sate my curiosity before doing the same for my stomach later.

“So... what ish Hazel?” Sue asked, interrupting the group’s idle chatter. She didn’t expect a question this simple to be this hard to interpret, shuddering at the multiple confused expressions turning her way soon after.

“Whatcha mean, Sue?” Willow asked, uncertain. “‘What’s up with Hazel’ or...?”

Their confusion made it clear Sue would need to phrase it in a cleaner way, but she was unsure how. Asking about Hazel’s species felt even more abstract than her original question. It wasn’t even likely to clarify anything, either—after all, she might have known now what her current kin was named, ‘Forest Guardians’, but that explained precious nothing about how her newfound magic worked. Guess she’d have to play even dumber, eh.

Sue tried to not think about it as she elaborated, “Oh, it’s just like, she’s khinda like a ghost with how she walks through stuff...”

“But Ms. Hazel is a ghost!” Spark clarified cheerfully, bluescreening Sue’s brain. The assertion of the ghost-like creature turning out to be an actual ghost somehow took her completely from the left field, despite her best attempts to brace herself for any more of this place’s insanity.

As her mind held on to a piece of wreckage to as to not sink, it eventually arrived at a possible explanation. Maybe the little fox just meant something else by ‘ghost’? Maybe it was just a species name, a weirdly perfectly fitting one, and didn’t actually mean what she thought it meant? That didn’t sound especially likely, but Sue wasn’t about to waste an opportunity to preserve a bit more of her sanity, asking, “Uhm, like... a ghost ghost? Came bhack from the dead and all—”

Spark frowned. “Mom told me it’s very rude to ask about that!”

What.

The kit’s clarification wasn’t doing Sue any favors, making her look up at Sundance with an unspoken ‘help’. The older vixen looked as uncertain about the ongoing situation as Sue was, but she was willing to give her an out—both to resolve the awkward situation, and to hopefully learn more about the world Sue came from. She explained, “Sue didn’t know, sweetie. She’s from very far away.”

“Ooooh. Really!?” Spark perked up, tail wagging as she turned to look at her big friend once more, her wide-eyed gaze melting through any residual embarrassment.

“Yeah!” Sue confirmed. “Really, really far away. I-I’ve never seen a ghosht...”

“Really!? But they’re not that rare... and you knew what a ghost was already?” the lil’ kit tilted her head.

Awfully perceptive for a fiery critter that doesn’t even come close to clearing my knee.

Sue cobbled together an excuse on the fly. “Well, I’ve heard of them, but thought they were jusht a myth or a scary story, y’know.”

“Noooo, of course not!” Spark giggled. “There are many of them in Moonview, and even more in the woods! Most of them are even nice!”

Sue wasn’t sure whether the ‘nice’ category included Hazel, but the reassurance that her soul would probably not be eaten by a wild, undead specter was appreciated. Even with that in mind, though, the shock of ghosts being real here still hit her hard—as if deities, fox shaped heaters, brain magic martians and plant people weren’t enough already. Then again, not like ghosts didn’t fit with all the fantasy wildlife either. She sighed, uncertain what she was expecting here exactly, and asked, “Uh-huh. Are they... dead?”

“Some are; others hatched like that already,” Sundance explained. “There’s no difference between them, and it’s considered very rude to ask.”

Guess now Sue knew that, even if it wouldn’t undo her unintentional faux pas. At least it didn’t happen in front of the being in question. Something something silver linings. She shuddered. “Oh. Sorry...”

“It’s fine, do not worry Sue. No way you could’ve known, after all,” the older vixen reassured. Her warm smile brought Sue relief, especially when combined with Joy hugging her hand.

Willow wasn’t done with the conversation yet, adding, “Though, not like Hazel hasn’t been outspoken about having come back from the dead.” Sundance tilted her head with an ‘I suppose’ expression at their words, leaving the once-human even more confused. The medic wasted no time before continuing; “It’s all a rather sensitive issue. There’s still some prejudice against ghosts that had returned from the afterlife, painting them as wanting to drag others to the afterlife or hurt the living out of spite. Hard to shake off for many. After Hazel arrived here, many accused her of having come back from the dead, and she eventually snapped and admitted it—and now, she wears it as a badge of pride, in a way.”

Seems the kind of ghosts Sue had heard of were still here, with the teensy tiny distinction of there also being non-undead ghosts. Somehow. Whether the latter counted as alive was a question Sue considered asking for a moment, before tossing it aside, primarily because of not having the slightest idea of how to phrase it. “Uh-huh. So, was Hazel someone else here before she... died?”

“No. We don’t think so, at least—personality didn’t match anyone who had recently passed around that time. I was under the mentorship of my uncle when she joined us, and preparing the dead for burials was part of our duties. We got to see everyone that kicked the bucket, heh,” Willow chuckled, reminiscing about a gruesome, yet important job.

Sue blinked. “Wouldn’t she remember?”

Sundance shook her head and sighed. “She would not. The returned ones don’t keep any memories of their past life. From what Poppy had told me, Hazel’s oldest memory is finding herself sitting on top of a hill under a cloudy sky, not remembering who, where, or even what she was.”

Sue shuddered at the vixen’s explanation. Her own arrival here was plenty traumatic, despite being far less drastic—to imagine it with no memories whatsoever, not even of her own name, made her want to give the spectral prankster a hug. “That’s horrible...”

The fiery fox nodded, not blind to the parallels between Sue’s case and Hazel’s. She stretched to reach across the table and lay her paw on Sue’s shoulder, the limb’s warmth comforting. “It is, yes. Eventually, however, she found us, and look at her now—you wouldn’t have guessed what had happened to her. It’s all gonna be alright Sue.”

“Yeah! Mrs. Hazel is doing good, and once your leg gets better, you will too, Sue!” Spark cheered.

“Heh. Thank you, Shpark,” Sue smiled weakly.

Spark’s enthusiasm combined with her mom’s reassurance brought a smile onto Sue’s face, netting her all the head pets the once-human could dish out. Her toothy grin was almost as precious as her giggling, though slightly marred by some of said teeth looking way sharper than they ought to for any creature this cute. She wasn’t done with her own curiosity yet, asking, “Oh, oh, oh! Where are you from, Sue!?”

Her mom reminded, “I told you Spark, she’s from very far away.”

“Yeah, but what is it like there? Oh, oh, oh, is anyone there like us?”

Sue was unsure how to respond, for multiple reasons. There was keeping the truth of her origins secret, and while she trusted Willow and Sundance to keep that knowledge to themselves, Spark was another case entirely. The even bigger issue, though, was just how uncomfortable the truth was, especially regarding the similarities between the intelligent creatures here and the… at the very least, not obviously intelligent animals of her homeworld.

The rest of the group was no less curious than the excitable kit, even if they expressed it in more subdued ways—Sue’s sixth sense let her pick up on all of it. Hell, even Joy wanted to hear more, intrigued by the mysterious faraway land her newly made friend had come from. Comet was the only one that didn’t care either way, content with his company and having very warm fur to snuggle into, expressing his approval with a high-pitched squeak.

Sue explained, “It’s... quite similar to here, in most ways at least. There are many kinds of creaturesh there, some like the ones here, but more... mundane.”

“Mundane? Like, Normal?” Spark perked up.

Sue could tell there was something more to her word choice, but couldn’t determine it from her mood alone. She prodded some more; “Like... th-there are creatures there that are shimilar in appearance to you Spark, just... without the whole, uh... fire, thing.”

Or sapience, for that matter.

Spark nodded. “So, Normal then! That sounds boring.” It didn’t take her long for her to realize her gaffe, looking apologetically at the medic before her mom could even give her the look. “Oh, sorry, Willow!”

“Oh, it’s alright sweetie, I get it,” the elderly medic chuckled. “Though, with that in mind, is that true, Sue? Does the place you’re from really only have Normal-types?” they asked, before correcting themselves shortly afterwards to maintain the pretense for the little ones, “Except for Forest Guardians, that is?”

A straightforward answer would’ve been a ‘yes’. A truthful answer would’ve been ‘what in the world is a Normal-type’. Sue went a step beyond either of those, playing dumber still, hoping to figure out just that bit more about how this weird world worked. “I-I think so, but I’m not sure about what ‘Normal’ meansh here...”

“Whaaaaaat?” Spark squeaked, “but it just means—”

Willow intervened, “No, no, Spark, that is a fair question! Especially if Sue had little to do with those outside her kin.”

Sue took the cue, nodding along eagerly, “Yeah, I-I’ve only lived with other Forest Guardiansh before...”

Thank Duck Solstice wasn’t around, else she would’ve had a hard time not laughing at such an obvious lie.

“See, Spark~?” the medic chuckled before pointing all around. “Well, Sue, you might’ve noticed how Spark and Sundance have a particular affinity for fire and warmth, while yourself, Solstice, and Sundance all have the gift of psychic senses. Hazel is a ghost, of course; you, Solstice, and Poppy have a special connection with the Moon. These are what some call ‘types’, though they’re a very vague description. Most beings have a type or another, or even two, but some just don’t. Those that don’t have any of those traits, gifts, or however you want to call them, are bundled together as the ‘Normal’ type—”

Spark cut in, “But what about—”

“Yes, yes, there’s a bit more to it than that, but let’s keep it simple for Sue for now.”

Sue slowly nodded, the concept making some sense to her. The two fire foxes weren’t the only fire themed beings in here, so having a ‘type’ to bundle them all under felt reasonable. It was just one of several kinds of… well, superpowers, and the poor schmucks without them were the ‘Normal’ ones. Considering the apparent power level of everyone else around, that sounded… awful. “Okay, yeah, there are only these Normal types where I’m from. K-kinda sad really...”

In another world, all the critters on Earth could’ve been sentient beings, able to communicate with each other and live for more than a panic fueled fight to survive and pass on their genes before a brutal death... oh well.

“Eh, I’d say it’s not that bad, personally,” Willow winked. “Though yes, that situation does sound peculiar and hard to imagine. But—I’m also curious about you specifically, Sue. What did you do back there?”

Oops. Guess if Willow also fell under the umbrella of ‘Normal’, then that group also had access to some magic at least, and stood a chance after all. Their question turned out even more difficult to answer than the first one. Sure, she could say that she is—or was, rather—a computer science student at a local university.

But then she’d have to spend ten hours explaining every word of that sentence, including all the concepts needed to make sense of her original answer and all the ideas needed for those concepts, and so on and so on, working her way up from the basics the rest of the group would grasp intuitively. Decent odds the feast would still not have been ready by the time she was finished, but Sue preferred not to push her luck. “It’s... very hard to describe. I-I can say I was studying how to use a certain very c-complicated contraption. For counthing, and other thingsh...”

‘Other’ was definitely the load-bearing word of that sentence.

Sundance hummed, tapping her claws on the table as she thought back. “Hmm... something like an abacus? I recall a few settlements using those in my travels, and I think one of the recent arrivals has even brought one with themselves. Completely beyond me how they function.”

“Uhm, yes! K-kinda like those, bhut more complex,” Sue nodded, sighing in relief that she was able to inch her way towards a somewhat coherent answer. The vixen’s response provided an excuse to redirect the conversation away from herself, at least for a moment—and Sue wouldn’t waste it. “D-did you travel a lot, Shundance?”

“Oh my gosh, you have no idea Sue!” Spark perked up. “My mom traveled around the world for years! Right mom!?”

The vixen chuckled at her daughter’s enthusiasm, moving one paw in a scritching motion. Her mental magic transferred her affection towards her little one at the other side of the table as she began, “I suppose that’s not a wholly inaccurate way to describe it, but ‘traveled’ makes it sound a lot more structured than it ever was, really. Never had a grand plan to ‘travel around the entire world’ or anything like that. I just wanted to wander until my legs fell off, see everything there was to be seen, everything and everyone, and figure myself out while at it.”

Sue could acutely relate to the desire Sundance had described.

She wasn’t ever in a position to just let go of all earthly attachments and hitchhike across the globe for a year or two, even if she daydreamed about it every once in a while. Hell, even once she finished college, she’d need to save up for a good few years afterwards just to afford a week-long vacation, let alone anything more than that...

It felt so much more possible just a few years back. She was about to wrap up high school, ready to take on everything the world had to show her, dad was still around… and then the diagnosis came, and a few months later, he was gone. Suddenly, any frivolities took a back seat to making sure she could make it through college without taking on too much debt.

Didn’t even really have the time to mourn, just had to grit her teeth and get down to holding on—

“Sue?” Sundance spoke up, expression concerned at Sue’s drawn-out pause.

Sue shook herself out of it. “O-oh, shorry. Just got lost in thought. I... definitely know what you meant th-there, and can relate a lot.”

“And haven’t been able to explore like that yourself?”

Not until now, at least.

Sue nodded, sighing deeply. She didn’t want to be questioned about why on the spot, though, immediately swerving the conversation back—“It’s alright. I-I’m curious though, why did you want to exphlore, and what did you shee out there?”

The redirection away from herself wasn’t exactly subtle, but Sundance wasn’t about to make a fuss about that. She couldn’t blame Sue for not wanting to talk about her past life too much, with it only reminding her more about being stranded here—and even beside that, prying would just be rude. “The ‘why’ question is much simpler than the ‘what’, because it wasn’t really my choice.”

Sue blinked, the revelation painting Sundance’s travel in a wholly different light. “Wait, what? Were you kicked out?”

“Essentially, yes. It wasn’t an act of cruelty—not of explicit cruelty, at least. It was just how my kin... did things, out in the desert. Females were kicked out of the nest after they evolved and had to fend for themselves. Hunt, build their own nests, look for mates. Gain the experience and wisdom needed to one day be in charge of their own brood.”

Spark huddled on Sue’s lap as her mom went on, the once-human hoping to Duck that the poor kit wouldn’t be subjected to all that. The whole thing gave Sue a whiplash and a half—for how human-like the creatures here behaved, this revelation reminded her they weren’t humans, and that their animality extended beyond just appearance. And it’s not like Sundance’s parents weren’t aware of what they were doing, making it even more vile. It was no animalistic instinct.

It was a conscious choice.

“H-how could they do thish to you?” Sue asked, aghast.

“It’s just... how things used to be done,” the vixen began, shuddering. “The conditions my kin live in, out in the desert, are unpleasant. Dens are cramped, food is scarce, it’s hard to sustain a whole brood, and… compromises have to be made. Brood mothers have the final say on everything, and that level of responsibility requires grit and experience—or at least, that’s how my mother justified it. It’s heinous, no two words about it. But that’s how things were, and probably still are, out there. You won’t see me trekking back there to investigate.”

Sundance took a deep breath, shaking the mental muck off before continuing, “I wasn’t interested in settling down. The desert sands weren’t particularly fascinating, but I knew that vastly different places lay beyond, so I kept going—I wanted to see that different world. Every so often, I ran into someone else of my kin, another den. They couldn’t take me in, of course, but it was a common custom to offer a night’s respite and for brood mothers to share any wisdom and knowledge they had.”

She smirked, “And, well,” before flicking her arm upwards and sliding a stick as long as her forearm out of its hiding spot in her fur, its tip immediately catching flame. “Flames might not solve every problem—or even many problems—but they make for a very effective repellent from those mistaking you for easy prey. Especially with a bit of knowledge on how to apply them.”

“Oh, oh, oh, mom can you show Sue—” Spark woofed, excited, before her mom cut her off.

“Probably not the best idea for me to show off right before the main event, sweetie, don’t you think~?”

Spark grumbled, “I—I guess...”

The table giggled at the lil’ kit’s enthusiasm being extinguished, Sue not hesitating to make up for it with further affection.

“Besides, I never was one for strife. I know a flashy technique or two, but most of those are only ever useful in a life of violence, and I—” Sundance blew off the flame at the tip of her stick before sheathing it as swiftly as she had pulled it out, “—chose a different path. It took me over half a year—the desert was horribly vast, after all—but eventually I made it over to grasslands, and eventually, forests. Got to experience how delicious berries could taste and never looked back. Even most desert dwellers didn’t want to risk taking a bite out of me—you can imagine how much less alluring that became with everything in the vicinity now flammable.”

Oh shit.

Sue didn’t suspect the vixen of being willing to resort to something this dangerous without a justified reason. Even so, just trying to imagine the sheer damage she could do if she did was unnerving, not to mention humbling. Hopefully her lessons, be they with Sundance or Solstice, would cover self-defense before long. Or better yet, she’d get to go home…

It was hard for the fiery fox not to sense Sue’s desire. Still, she kept weaving her tale, wanting to avoid drawing attention to Sue’s distress. “It let me travel freely and relatively safely, if nothing else. Not to say there weren’t occasional fools who tried their luck, but most brawls ended in seconds with one side running away with some freshly charred fur. I saw many settlements, most of them tiny compared to this one, even back then.”

The change of subject helped Sue shake the moment of dread from before, eyebrow raising at the prospect of there being more places like this. Many, many more, judging by the way Sundance phrased it. “So, are there more townsh like this?” she asked, leaning in closer.

Sundance smiled. “Plenty. Ones as large as this one are few and far between, though. This town and the Central City, where me and Solstice just got back from, are the only two in this general area. To get anywhere else you’re looking for a weeklong trek, if not longer. Most settlements I’ve seen were much more modest, and by and large didn’t let outsiders stay permanently. They were more so several families banding together to share resources and watch each other’s backs than anything else. Still, they were usually welcoming, if briefly and at arm’s length. Many had unique spiritual traditions, which was the other thing I wanted to explore and witness.”

Sue thought back to Duck’s shrine, wondering how it stacked against other religions of this world, especially with Duck being real to some extent if her dreams were anything to go by. Of course, they also implied the Night Father was real, too, which probably made monotheistic religions… something of a hard sell here. “What did you shee?”

“Almost anything you can imagine, really. Worship of one deity, worship of multiple, worship of all, worship of none. Beliefs in an uncountable number of spirits all around us from times untold, in an upcoming end of the world, in the natural order, in the cessation of the natural order, in reincarnation, in hells and heavens of myriad forms. Far too much to summarize. Thoroughly humbling, one and all.”

Sundance paused to catch her breath, briefly closing her eyes as she sorted through a lifetime of experiences in her mind. “I was never particularly devoted to my worship of the sun, and seeing it all made me relax my faith even further. If there was one throughline to everything I’ve seen, it’s that nobody really knows why we’re here and what awaits us after death, so might as well be kind to one another, and to ourselves. An afterlife may or may not exist, but this life sure does, so why not make it a pleasant one?”

The insights weren’t anything extraordinarily deep, but they were reassuring. Sue chuckled, “Heh, I-I kinda thought you would’ve found some deeper truth of the univershe, or shomething...”

“Oh, there definitely are deep insights to be had. But the deeper the insight, the more specific it is,” the vixen explained, shuddering. “As far as broad principles go, being kind and not doing to another as you wouldn’t want done to you are the ones I’ve grown to appreciate the most over the years. I’ve heard more than one truth so piercing it made me want to incinerate the person I was talking to because of how painful, yet unerringly accurate, it was. As true as they rang, none of them would mean anything to anyone in a different position,” she sighed. Noticing Sue’s unnerved look, she quickly followed up—“I-I never actually incinerated anyone like that, just to be clear.”

Okay, phew.

Sundance chuckled softly. If it was someone more familiar with her, she would’ve gotten a bit offended by someone presuming something like that about her—but in Sue’s case, it was more than forgivable. Especially with the girl having no prior experience with fiery beings and Sundance’s soft brag about how fearsome she used to be.

Once Sue had calmed her heart down a bit, she could chew through the vixen’s words properly. And yeah, they largely made sense. It’s not like she knew just what kind of deep wisdom she even expected to hear. Maybe the golden rule was more profound than she had originally given it credit for? Something to ponder on another day. “Okay... n-now I’m curioush, what was the weirdest religion you’ve seen in your travels?”

“‘Weird’ is a very subjective metric, you know,” Sundance chided. “I’m sure I was the weird one for many. Though… I can’t deny that one place in particular was… memorable.”

The entire table listened in closely. From Sue and Joy ready to hear about that encounter for the first time, to Spark wanting her mom to tell it again, to Willow not remembering the details all too well, to Comet just reading the room and keeping himself quiet and comfortable in Sundance’s hold with a bubbly squeak. A perfect audience as far as the older vixen was concerned, but she still needed to establish some things first. “I take you’re not too familiar with the Allfather, right Sue?”

The name brought on the mental image of the Abrahamic deity, making Sue want to reply with a tentative nod. Still, she couldn’t be sure if that was quite it, leading her to shake her head instead.

Sundance took the cue, explaining, “Allfather, Allmother, the Ancestor... quite a few names for them. They are said to have populated the world with living beings. How they did it depends greatly, of course. I’ve heard tales about them creating life from dust, from mud, from salt, from their own wishes, or even by breeding with themselves. A lot of variation on that last point especially. They’re most often depicted as a small, pink creature with a long tail.”

“Do you really not know about Allfather, Sue!?” Spark squeaked, incredulous.

Sue was unsure how to answer Spark’s question. Sundance’s brief description did indeed make the being in question sound even more like the monotheistic deity she was familiar with, but it also had elements of other religions’ creation myths, so it was really hard to know for certain. Wouldn’t hurt to ask. “I—maybe? They also created the resht of the world, right?”

“That is not typically attributed to them, no. Most many-god faiths I’ve seen assign that feat to another deity. So, that eerie place I mentioned—they had a faith centered on the Allfather, but according to them, they were an evil deity.”

Evil creation deity was a new one. “How sho?” Sue asked, eyes going a bit wider.

“Their logic is surprisingly sound. If Allfather created all the creatures, then they did so deliberately and with a plan. The circle of life, the split between predator creatures and the prey creatures, and so on, are all deliberate, which makes the Allfather evil, profoundly evil, for knowing about the unceasing misery they were sentencing their creation through, but going along with it, anyway. Unsurprisingly, that faith was mostly held by lower, ‘prey’ species.”

Sue nodded along for now. The idea was outlandish enough that she’d need more than a moment to chew on it and find out if it truly made sense to her, but wanted to hear the rest of it.

Sundance continued, “As such, they worship another deity, whom they call the Usurper, for it is destined to usurp the Allfather’s throne and reign over mortal beings. According to them, this Usurper will bring on a new era, one that can scarcely even be imagined right now, one where the circle of life has been broken and its suffering ended. Its form is said to be beyond comprehension, an ever-changing mass of sunset and midday, of orange and blue. That wasn’t even the memorable part of it; that would have to be the chanting. I was hungry, tired, and had stumbled upon their ceremony. They invited me over and promised food afterwards, but until then, we were to chant, chant for their deity to come, ‘Arise Usurper!’, ‘Arise Usurper!’. It was... surreal.”

“Did they at least feed you after all that?” Willow asked, chuckling to themself.

“Oh yes, they did,” Sundance answered, shuddering. “They were rather hospitable, but I opted to get going by the next day’s sunrise. It all… unnerved me past a certain point.”

Wonder what, or who, they would’ve had for their next dinner had she stayed…

“Why did you stop traveling, mom?” Spark asked, supporting herself on the table with her forelegs as she looked up at her mom. All the tales so far have been exciting enough to make the little one wonder why one would ever want to stop.

And for that… Sundance didn’t have a simple answer. “Why did I stop? I don’t think there was a single, specific reason for it. Part of it was exhaustion, no doubt—I had been wandering around the world for over a hundred moons by then, almost two hundred. I was tired physically and mentally, felt like I had learned enough, and perhaps most of all, I finally wanted to contribute to somewhere where I could spend the rest of my days. After going over every single memorable settlement I had visited in my journeys, a decently sizable village by a small stream back in the south caught my attention. By the time I got back there, it had grown a lot since I last saw it, and now it’s plenty bigger than that still!” she smiled, taking a moment to take the surrounding buildings in.

“To this day, I’m not sure if I really remember when you visited us for the first time, Sundance, or if my failing memory made it up after you brought it up. By the Pale Lady, do I remember when you arrived for the second time, ha!” Willow laughed as the vixen tried to keep herself from rolling her eyes too much.

“Oh oh oh, what was mom like then, Willow? Did she do something cool!?” Spark asked, tail wagging even harder.

“She looked like she hadn’t slept in a week beforehand, and the moment we sat her down and gave her food, she dozed off and slept for two days straight.”

Sue tried and failed to hold in laughter at hearing that—she sure didn’t think that herself from the last semester would have so much in common with her newly found mentor, or at least her past.

“Yes, that entire time period was a blur,” Sundance chuckled, “but it’s hard to forget just how profoundly exhausted I was, and how relieving having somewhere safe to rest was. It’s something that I would never want to deny from another being, no matter their kin or type.”

The indirect jab in Sundance’s response went over the heads of everyone but its direct target. Sue wasn’t sure why Willow was squirming like this all of a sudden, but she knew she still had more to ask them. “How long h-have you been here for, Willow?”

The medic appreciated the distraction, eagerly responding, “How long~? My dear, my family founded this place!”

Now that was an interesting twist. “Really?” Sue asked.

“Mhm! Well, I suppose if you get down to the nitty gritty, someone else had a hand in it too, but that’s the gist of it, indeed.”

Spark might have heard this story enough times to not be as curious about it anymore, but that couldn’t be said about Joy, the little big maw creature standing up to peek at Willow from behind the table. Sundance held in a smile at her antics and tried not to look at her directly lest she get spooked, smirking, “I had to elaborate, Willow; we have the time for you to go into detail, don’t you think~?” she asked in a playful tone, winking at Sue and managing to conceal enough of her other feelings for not even the Forest Guardian to notice.

The once-human reached down to hold Joy closer while avoiding her back maw, the girl briefly wincing at the touch before relaxing into it as the medic sighed and continued, “We do, indeed. So~ a long time ago, before even my grandparents had hatched yet, my clan had a modest dwelling here. Just a large burrow and a small wooden hut on the outside. We weren’t proficient craftsmen, and, well, I suppose it’s not much of a surprise that we didn’t have the shared strength to put together a sturdier shelter, ha.”

That’s one hunch validated.

“We took pride in healing anyone who came, staying neutral in any larger conflicts and trying to compile all the medical knowledge we could. Part of it was tradition, of course, one started so long ago that the bones of anyone that saw it take form have long since become dust. But the rest was… us being rather easily pressured into inaction. We were bad craftsmen, but we were even worse at fighting, including any self defense.”

“If only you had someone soft spoken yet carrying a flaming stick to stand up for you back then,” Sundance smirked.

“Well, we do now, better late than never, ha! It was an actual issue at the time, though,” Willow continued, calming themselves down. “We were at the mercy of the woods in a very literal way, pleading for them to not send someone mighty with a vendetta our way. Fortunately, that wouldn’t be the case forever, thanks to Granite’s forefather.”

Before Sue could ask who that was, she felt her attention being drawn to one of the builders she’d seen yesterday, a gray creature with four arms sitting beside a small firepit a few meters away from them. Despite it being her second time seeing them, their similarity to a human being didn’t result in any less whiplash this time. As she took their appearance in, Sue noticed Joy looking around in confusion. She might not have known how to magically redirect the lil’ girl’s focus in the same way as her own had been moments prior, but she could point well enough.

She lightly tapped the back of Joy’s front head before pointing out the villager in question, trying to keep it inconspicuous. Though, considering the sudden uproar of laughter that took over Granite and the rest of their band shortly after, they probably weren’t paying too much attention to their group.

Once they had both taken in enough of the builder’s appearance, Willow continued. “Thank you, Sundance. Sadly, his forefather’s name has been lost to time, but not his actions. He had stumbled upon our little shelter in need of aid after getting poisoned, which, of course, we gave. In return, he vowed to repay us once he had completed his pilgrimage to a sacred mountain, which he was in the middle of. We were used to promises like that; most of them were never acted upon, and we didn’t expect much once he’d left. A Moon passed, then another, then a few more. I believe it had been almost twenty Moons since his original visit, but he eventually came back with a mate, and proclaimed that he was settling down near us and had taken it as his life mission to aid us and our cause.”

Sue blinked, surprised. “Soundsh... rather drastic.”

“Oh, it absolutely was,” the medic laughed, “we were just as dumbfounded as you are! Took a while to get an answer out of him; he was so dedicated to working hard that he never sat down for long. In short, his pilgrimage had been in search of guidance from the spirits, and help in finding a virtuous deed to dedicate his life towards. And, as he sat meditating on the mountain’s peak, he realized that our little clan was the right choice.”

“Didn’t he already want to help?” Spark asked.

“Yes, but that revelation changed it from maybe building something for us once as thanks to settling down permanently and helping us expand—and help us he did. That building you sleep in, Sue, was supposedly one of the first to be built by him. He helped us grow, and even more importantly, he made for a very effective bodyguard. We still healed all who came, of course, but now we could afford to be more assertive and work to make our corner of the world safer for everyone. And from there on, more people kept showing up. It’s much easier to grow past a certain size—more travelers will come by, and some will decide to settle down. Hundreds of Moons passed, people kept coming, we kept growing. We took to the Pale Lady’s worship, our nameless village turned into Moonview, we carved out a decent clearing that we’re only now finally filling in, continued to gather our knowledge and pass it down the generations…”

Willow took a deep breath, chuckling to themselves, and concluded, “And now, there’s just me left.”

Wait, what?

“Wh-what do you mean, only you?” Sue asked, stunned.

The medic calmly answered, “I’m the last of my clan, Sue. Once I’m gone, that’ll be it for us.”

The casualness with which Willow said that was chilling. For a moment, Sue thought it was a sorrowful resignation, admitting the inevitable, but they truly weren’t all that bothered by the harrowing realization, remaining as upbeat as ever. She blurted out, “B-but how?”

“We kept expanding for a while, but there’s only so much you can grow if you want to avoid mingling with close relatives, but once we had the people to pass our knowledge and mission to, it wasn’t an issue anymore. All things end; that’s just how life is. Considering everything, I’d say we had a pretty good run—wouldn’t you agree, Sue?” they asked, smiling.

How do I even respond to that?

The prospect of accepting one’s demise so calmly was completely alien to Sue. She had to exorcize the occasional thoughts about her inevitable death with hot cocoa and funny internet videos whenever they came up, just to distract her from her own mortality. Even brief forays into that subject threatened to send her into a panic attack, and Willow just... didn’t care. “I—I guess. That’s shtill sad though, isn’t it?” She asked, more shook by this than anything Solstice had told them about.

Willow shrugged, “In a way it is, I suppose. At the same time, the sorrow of a loss is offset by the joy of giving something else a chance to grow instead. Life keeps going, after all.”

Guess this was something she’d be taking to bed with her tonight, and without a pleasant distraction, no less. “I guess I-I never thought of it like this.”

“Makes sense!” they giggled. “You’re still young, whole life ahead of you, little point to coming to terms with one’s death just yet, ha! And speaking of things ahead of us~!” Willow looked away from the table as their expression lit up, the reason not hard to figure out—food was on its way!

Oh, and Solstice, too.

The other Forest Guardian was holding a bowl of freshly roasted treats in each hand, with a few more suspended in front of her with her magic. Her glowing eyes were even starker as the sunset crept on them, though Comet’s excited squeaks made it hard to focus on them.

“That ought to be most of it. Apologies for the delay—there was a sad mishap in one kitchen and it took longer to get everything prepared, but we should be ready to start soon. Are you all feeling alright?” Solstice asked as she leaned on the table, catching her breath while magically pulling her son out of Sundance’s arms and into her own. Joy huddled closer to her big friend at the Mayor’s appearance, but kept watching.

“We’re doing alright,” Willow smiled, “we were just telling Sue about Moonview’s history, and Sundance reminisced about her travels for the hundredth time.”

The older Forest Guardian chuckled. “Sounds like her, alright.”

Sundance couldn’t keep herself mature enough not to stick her tongue out in response, sending the rest of the table giggling. “As if you don’t have your own share of stories.”

Solstice rolled her eyes at that, the sight slightly unnerving considering their size. “Touche. I suppose I can be swayed into telling some of them again after the show—but first, mind lending us a hand, Sundance? We’re wrapping things up, and a couple extra pairs of hands would help a lot.”

“You got it,” the vixen answered without skipping a beat, rolling her shoulders as she got up from her seat.

With the two women gone and Comet begrudgingly left in Willow’s lap, Sue had a wonderful opportunity to inspect the food left in their wake, the display making more than one gathered stomach rumble in anticipation. Grilled berries looking almost like cuts of meat, thick stews, browned and spiced root veggies, even ice cream! Or at the very least, something very similar looking, smelling of sugared fruits and radiating coldness.

Spark’s excited barking interrupted Sue’s observation—and made her acutely realize she wasn’t gonna be doing much of any talking with Sundance gone. Despite the safety surrounding her, being left with nobody who could understand her was still chilling.

Sue tried to piece together what she could make out of the conversation that followed. Spark’s barks, a question most likely, were responded to with Willow’s firm squeak. The kit then tried to bargain a couple more times, eventually giving up and laying down Sue’s lap with a small grumble.

Sorry Spark, we all have to wait, which means so do you~

Her big friend’s pets helped the lil’ fox feel better, as did Joy joining in on them, even if hers were much clumsier and had nowhere to reach. Humble as her efforts were, Spark got noticeably happier at seeing the toothy girl contribute. Having the bridge of her snout petted made her sneeze shortly afterwards, though, a handful of sparks thankfully redirected into the air. As much as the sight took Joy aback, it made her giggle, too. The sound was rather hoarse, but adorable all the same.

The rest of the wait went by quietly, the encampment quickly growing calmer as the sun set and the last dishes were handed out. Even the firepits were snuffed out in not too long, the tension in the air feeling downright palpable. Sundance and Solstice kept quiet as they snuck back over to the table, Solstice sitting down beside Sue after fetching Comet from Willow.

“When’s it gonna shtart?” Sue whispered in anticipation, green hair standing on edge.

Solstice responded, equally quiet, “^Any second now—^”

*PFOOOM!*

A plume of flames erupted suddenly at the far side of the clearing, silencing all onlookers. Sue swept Joy up into her arms after noticing her desperately trying to peek over the table. She weighed more than expected, but nowhere near enough to dissuade her friend as the show got started.

The inferno burst into a five-armed shape at its apex, raining embers over the modest, raised stage and illuminating the two beings facing each other on its opposite ends. To Sue’s left, someone red-colored with yellow legs, white top, humanoid shape and a nimble build. To her right, someone blue with white accents, bulky build and a massive tail.

And then, once the first ember had touched the stage, they charged at each other, turning into little more than blurs.

The blue one’s horn glowing bright purple took Sue aback, the display intimidating. It was matched moments later by the red one’s flurry of burning kicks, brilliant flames leaving fiery tracers in the air. All the while, the blue one dodged and weaved, much faster than its size would hint at it being capable of doing.

Flames and violet glow mixed chaotically in a blazing fast back and forth of swings and kicks, the two contenders moving around the stage as they expertly dodged anything the other tried to dish out. With one last kick, the red one jumped into the shadows behind the stage, with an unfamiliar creature taking their spot—white with a single red part, smaller, shaped like a levitating torso.

They immediately got to work, launching volley after volley of glistening ice shards at the blue one, forcing them into endless dodging. Eventually, the latter counterattacked, spouting a gout of purple liquid at the white one. Their target faded from where it stood, disappearing into thin air—

And reappearing all around the blue one at the same time.

Each clone laughed to itself, filling the air with cacophony before the bulky one stomped the ground with all its might. Moments later, the earth erupted from underneath it, demolishing the stage it stood on and the illusions of the white one surrounding them.

The tremors made the dishes on their table ring a bit; Sue’s breath grew shallow. She was utterly transfixed by the show, too focused to notice anyone else’s reactions, or that Joy was observing the spectacle from behind her fingers.

Suddenly, the white one reappeared behind the blue one, a sphere of dark, crackling energy between its hands. An instant later, the shadowy projectile was launched with a blistering speed; the crowd gasped—only for yet another contender to leap onto the ruins of the stage and take the projectile onto itself, brown and vaguely bear shaped.

Sue’s heart skipped a beat, only to see them get only barely staggered by the blow. The blue one leaped back into the shadows as the brown one swung at the white one, its claws leaving dark tracers that distorted the air, forcing the white one into constant dodging. They finally made some solid ground with a hefty leap before answering with a brilliant blue beam that cut through the darkness, the brown one dashing away just in time for the ground behind it to erupt with massive ice crystals.

Their dodge didn’t give them any breathing time, the white one tagging out and the red one leaping back in with a fiery roundhouse kick. The brown one had to keep backing off from their aggression, aggression which left them open to a counterattack. The opening was capitalized on by the blue one charging in the shadows and stomping the ground with their heft again. Instead of an explosion, a massive stone spike erupted from underneath the red one after they only narrowly avoided being impaled.

At the same time, the brown one was charging up.

Small wisps of yellowish light gathered around its mouth before erupting into an honest-to-Duck laser, aimed at the red one and shooting off way into the sky. It looked almost like a thunderbolt against the backdrop of the night—but only almost, and actual lightning wasn’t about to be outdone.

After weaving and dodging the ray for a few moments around the tip of the stone spike, the red one leaped high into the air, just in time for another performer to show themselves—yellow, bipedal, hidden in the dark.

Roaring.

Their outcry was accompanied by a Thunderbolt shooting out of its body, up into the sky, and down onto the red one in the middle of an overhead kick. Sue’s heart skipped a beat as the bolt of electricity struck their leg before getting redirected downwards onto the blue one. The intensity of the attack kicked up dirt all around the stage, shrouding it for a few moments as everyone’s hearing recovered.

And then, once it had settled, the performers were all standing next to each other on top of what used to be their stage. They faced the audience, lit up by fading embers—and struck a pose each. The crowd’s reaction wasn’t too different from what Sue was used to, though, erupting into a mix of loud cheers, claps, and cries of adoration.

“By the Pale Lady, it feels like they cut it closer every single time...” Solstice whispered, finally letting out a breath she’d been holding. Her words fell on deaf ears, though. Sue was stuck staring wide eyed at the scene as the torches around the plaza were lit once more, with but a single thought thrashing in her head.

What.

The fuck.

Was that.



If you're confused about the species of the characters and want them spoiled, I've set up a page listing the species of all the featured characters in each chapter!

If you want to discuss the story, I've set up a Discord server for it! (and my other writings)

Also check out my other story, From the Vast!
 
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Chapter 8: Shadows

redspah

the gay agenda
Pronouns
she/her


Chapter 8: Shadows



“Sue?”

The once-human stared into the distance, mouth agape as she processed the show. The sheer power that had been so casually displayed put her on edge—were those just… performers, or actual fighters? Was their might exceptional, or was that just how strong everyone here was?

Was there anyone here that couldn’t break her body in half without even trying—

“Sue?”

Sue blinked, another attempt finally snapping her out of her shock. She turned to look at a visibly concerned Solstice as she shook her daze off, the Mayor soon following up, “Are you alright?”

“I... yeah, I think sho. Just... didn’t expect that,” Sue mumbled, still processing it all.

Solstice nodded with a light smile, patting her shoulder, “That’s very understandable.”

“It was sooooo cool!” Spark howled, her excitement immediately diffusing Sue’s worries.

The Forest Guardian’s shaky hand reached to keep petting the kit after she’d set Joy down. Her sixth sense let her know the toothy girl’s reaction was not unlike her own, if with less existential dread and more awe. “Yeah, it was. M-makesh me wonder how nobody got hurt.”

“Practice, practice, practice,” Sundance smirked. “I’m sure they’ve rehearsed their entire routine in full over a dozen times before tonight, and if I know anything about Snowdrop, she'd made sure they had a plan for everything that could have gone wrong.”

The vixen’s explanation of the group’s precautions calmed Sue down a bit—guess it all wasn’t as insane as it had looked at first glance. Still, with the sheer amount of flashy and dangerous looking attacks happening in quick succession, she couldn’t help but wonder just how bad something going wrong would be. “I-I can imagine. Wouldn’t it end horribly if someone did shlip up regardless, though? That all looked really scary.”

Willow shook their head, “It’d be ugly, and they’d need medical care, but there’s no way anyone’s risking death to begin with, hah.”

“And as Snowdrop had explained to me, they’re pulling their punches the entire time,” Sundance continued, keeping track of Sue’s reactions. “They just know how to not let it show.”

Sue wasn’t sure which of these facts concerned her more: that most creatures here could survive a burning kick, a thunderbolt, a stone spike, or whatever the hell that laser was, or the casually admitted truth that this wasn’t even the worst any of them could do.

Drop anyone from here on medieval Earth and they’d be worshiped as a god.

“I’m sure she won’t mind going over it all with you either, Sue, if we can spot her amongst the crowd at least. Until then, let’s eat, lest our meals get cold,” Sundance nudged.

As awestruck as much of the group still was, the vixen’s comment did a good job of snapping them back to the reality of having a delicious feast right in front of them. Comet reached out towards the dumplings on a nearby table, managing to pick a couple of them up with his psychic magic before Solstice gently put them back down. “One at a time, sweetie~. Oh, Spark, do you need help with getting something within reach?”

In her daze, Sue hadn’t even noticed Spark’s feeble attempts at grabbing foodstuffs from the table. The kit stood on her hind legs and tried grabbing the nearby items with her front paws, accomplishing nothing but ineffectual swats at the bowls and plates. The Mayor’s question made her freeze and look away in embarrassment, “Yeah...”

“Doncha worry Sparkie, your evolution is coming any day now, and all these struggles will turn into distant memories. Not much space left on the bench; mind if I place your bowl on the ground?” Solstice asked, magicking a small wooden bowl into the air.

Spark pleaded, “But then I won’t be in Sue’s lap—I mean, I won’t be warming Joy up anymore!”

“I think Joy will manage a moment without your warmth, Sparkie~. Speaking of—Joy, do you want me to move your portion somewhere within reach too?”

The overly toothy creature beside Sue jumped at being directly addressed by Solstice, the sound snapping her out of passively taking the meals in. Both Forest Guardians felt a pang of fear rock her small body, the sensation making Sue hold Joy closer to her side.

Solstice had no idea why one of their more recent arrivals was so spooked by her and Sundance all of a sudden, but had an idea of what to do despite that. She moved Comet to her other arm, freeing the one closer to Joy, before slowly reaching over and offering it to the girl. “Joy, I promise you, you’re welcome here. Everyone is, no matter their form or shape. Nobody’s gonna hurt you here.”

As effective as the careful words turned out to be at calming the lil’ one down, Sue felt another emotion coming from nearby. The blip of unamused scoffing was brief and only barely noticeable, not even having time to leave a mark on Sundance’s expression before it faded away.

So many questions, and this one in particular feels like the kind you don’t ask in polite company.

Joy, unaware of Sue’s concerns, focused on Solstice’s green hand, the older Forest Guardian’s gentle smile gradually making her less and less intimidating. Eventually, the lil’ one reached back with her own hand, the black limb only big enough to grab a single finger. The Mayor sighed in relief at the sight while Sue carefully pulled Joy in closer and gave her some more head pats, making her squirm and break into a light blush.

“So~ want me to move you something over there?” Solstice asked again. This time, Joy’s response was a timid nod—there was still some reluctance in her mind, but not enough to leave her entirely unresponsive anymore. After a moment of consideration, Joy settled on what looked like sugared fruit slices, confirming her selection with a shaky nod.

Solstice’s smile grew as her eyes lit up, a few pieces of candied fruit getting picked up together with small portions of healthier meals. A spoonful of veggie salad, a crispy slice of bread, and a cup of water to accompany them, the latter left on the table as the rest was placed beside Joy in a small bowl.

Right as the girl was about to bite in with her front half, Sue caught her attention with a gentle pat, her smile wide and proud. “What do you shay when someone d-does something nice to you?”

Sue might not have been Joy’s parent, but if she could help teach the wild child some manners, she wouldn’t decline that excuse. What she didn’t expect to happen, though, was for the toothy girl to stare at her in utmost confusion, her head chewing through the unintentional puzzle.

She… literally doesn’t know, huh. A great opportunity to teach her!

“You say ‘thank you’,” Sue cheerfully explained.

Joy’s reaction cemented Sue’s hunch; the girl intently nodded as she absorbed the knowledge. She turned to look at Solstice, huddling closer to the friendly Forest Guardian beside her before opening her front mouth—and vocalizing a bunch of gibberish.

It took Sue a while to figure out what happened, the rest of the table similarly confused. She had no idea where there could be any ambiguity in her instructions—unless… unless Joy had taken them too literally and had tried to repeat the literal words ‘thank you’ in the same way Sue had said them.

“Sue doesn’t speak the same language as the rest of us, sweetie,” Solstice chimed in, confirming Sue’s hunch. “We say it like ‘thank you’.”

Sue had to focus past the psychic translation to pick out the actual sounds being uttered. They sounded odd, almost as if they were being whistled out, their pitch constantly moving up and down. Weird or not, Joy understood them this time, giving it a shot herself, “T-t-tha-thank y-y-you.”

And raising even more questions.

With her already focusing on the physical sounds everyone around her was making, Sue realized that Joy’s version wasn’t even close to how Solstice had said it. It was dry and harsh, far from the Forest Guardian’s smooth whistle, with only the cadence matching up.

“There you go~! And you’re welcome sweetie, enjoy the feast! And so do you, Sue!” Solstice beamed, snapping Sue out of her bewilderment. The mystery of the village’s language got discarded on top of her mental confusion fort as Sue refocused on the delicious treats in front of her.

With no knowledge of what any of the displayed dishes were, she opted to grab one of the sugared fruit slices and gave it a tentative bite. Her attention shifted to Joy as they both savored the treat, the third eye confirming what the first two saw clearly—Joy was loving it. And… yeah, it tasted good—great even—but it definitely didn’t come off as something a young child would appreciate, though.

What Sue thought to be sugar turned out to be anything but. The white spice tasted very zesty, almost spicy, the flavor not matching anything she’d ever had. It left behind a warmth reminiscent of mulled wine, bringing back memories of Christmas with—no, no reminiscing, not now. Anyway—the fruit underneath the spice wasn’t anything she recognized, either. It looked vaguely citrusy, but was nowhere near sour enough to match any grapefruit Sue had ever eaten.

Wonder if the plants here are also mutated, and I just hadn’t noticed.

Either way, musings on the precise nature of this world’s ecosystem were best left until bedtime. The day might have been too busy for Sue to pay much attention to her own hunger, but now that she’d gotten some food in her mouth, her stomach wouldn’t let her walk away unsated. As her hunger reminded her of its existence, it made her nab a bit of every dish within reach, starting with the dumplings that Comet had just tried to take.

Ohhhh, that was a satisfying crunch.

The stuffing wasn’t anything to sneeze at, either, a mix of boiled grains and roasted mushrooms in thick, gravy-like sauce. Even if Forest Guardian Sue was growing increasingly repulsed at even the thought of eating meat, Human Sue still remembered how wonderful a good stew could be, and this hit all the same notes.

She didn’t think of herself as being terrible at cooking or anything—she made it workday-to-day, even if her meals were on the simpler side. The gourmet display in front of her made her usual dinners feel like buttered toast in comparison, though, the sheer disparity in richness and diversity of flavors almost indescribable. She knew because she ended up having a bite of every single dish on the table.

Her feast continued even as the rest of the group slowed down, their chatter little more than background noise for the once-human. All that mattered was that she was getting filled up, and that her taste buds were in heaven—even the drinks were great! Perfectly chilled water went a long way, but the juice beside it was somehow even better. Not too dissimilar to apple and mint, but not as cloying and without the unpleasant aftertaste, and the pinch of bitterness made it much more refreshing.

Despite how it had felt at the start of the feast, Sue’s stomach didn’t have infinite capacity.

As it got filled up, her increasingly heavy head shifted from savoring every bite back to pondering on what she was eating, the food coma making it a profoundly difficult task. Right as she was about to pour herself another glass of juice, a gentle shake of her shoulder snapped her back to reality. She mumbled, “Hmm? S-sorry, I must’ve shpaced out bad...”

“Oh, you very much did, ahahaha!” Willow giggled, lighting Sue’s cheeks in embarrassment as she looked around the now much emptier table. Joy was long since done with her portion and had dozed off in the meantime, resting her head and the large black maw on her lap. Without her noticing, somehow. Off to the side, Comet was similarly sleeping in his mom’s arms, and Spark was… absent, it seemed.

“All good Sue,” the medic reassured. “You must’ve been starving!”

“Yeah, I haven’t had anything shince breakfast...”

Sundance smirked, “No wonder you cleaned up half the table, then. Sating that kind of hunger is its own trance, and I would know.” Sue chuckled, appreciating the reassurance.

“Shook you out of it since Snowdrop is around,” Solstice chimed in. “It felt like you had wanted to chat with her about the show her team put on~.” Her words woke Sue up the rest of the way as she scanned the nearby tables, finding most cleared of any food and some already entirely vacant. The mostly white performer from earlier hovered next to one of them, a closer look revealing them to look even weirder than Sue had suspected.

The two extensions that she’d previously identified as arms turned out to sprout from where ears would normally be. The oddities about their appearance didn’t end there—the crystalline horns on their forehead glistened in the orange light, almost distracting Sue enough to make her not notice the red… something on their back, reminding her of tiny wings. It all added up to an appearance that was tap dancing on the line between ethereal, intimidating, and slightly goofy, though their graceful movements swung the needle closer to the former.

They were chatting with the bipedal gray rhino Sue saw toppling trees around the construction site the other day. From what she could make out, their conversation wasn’t going particularly well, with the builder’s increasing nervousness and disappointment bringing to mind someone getting shot down.

At least they took it well, all things considered.

With one last sigh, they nodded and left the white performer, heading back to their group afterwards. Said group was mostly other builders, with the addition of who Sue realized to be the blue performer from the recent spectacle—and, if her eyes weren’t deceiving her, a relative of the gray rhino.

They were both bipedal, with massive tails and horns on their heads; their bodies were covered with stone-like scales, and their stomachs were cream-colored. Despite being much shorter than the gray one, the blue one behaved much more maternally, petting the larger rhino on their back. It didn’t take long for the rest of the group of builders to contribute—Granite pulled as much of the gray rhino into a hug as his four arms were capable of, and the brown, quilled pangolin supported them with some weak pats. The red metal insect and the dark blue beetle kept themselves to just words.

Wonder if the two rhinos really are related—

“Should I call her over for you?” Solstice asked, snapping Sue out of her focus. She gulped at the idea—the icy performer deciding to float over on their own and her using the opportunity to get a couple questions in was one thing, but calling them over just to sate her curiosity was a different matter altogether. It would put a spotlight on her, but… it’s not like there was another way to get answers for her questions, and she was supported by friends—couldn’t ask for a better opportunity to get used to being more social.

None of that’s really helping with the anxiety levels, but I guess I’ll just have to bite the bullet.

“Shure.”

Sue distracted herself by petting the sleeping Joy as she waited for Snowdrop to float over. The toothy girl was no Spark in how pleasant showering her with affection felt, but it was nice in its own right. Her front half was adorable, and when it laid inert like that, even the menacing maw looked… affable. Sue’s brief, tentative pets made her squirm closer as—

*♫~whistle~♫*

Once Sue was done calming her racing heart, she turned to glare at the origin of the sound. Solstice had somehow kept the whistle quiet enough to not draw literally everyone’s attention, melodic enough to not wake either of the little ones up, but still loud enough to accomplish its purpose, making Snowdrop perk up and turn their way.

She only waited for a moment before hovering their way, an inscrutable expression gradually shifting into a smile as she spoke up, “Good evening, ma’am~. Enjoyed the show~?”

Sue sure didn’t expect a creature this ethereal-looking to sound so... teasing.

Solstice answered, “Hello, Snowdrop! And hah, how could I not? Your performance was thrilling as always, though my poor heart sure didn’t like how risky some of that looked.”

“It’s all about looking risky indeed,” Snowdrop winked. “How can I help you~?”

“Well, it was Sue here’s first time watching a show like that, and she was really impressed and had some questions for you, if you don’t mind.”

Snowdrop’s attention shifted from one Forest Guardian to the other, her expression softening the more of Sue she took in. One of her ear-hands gave the once-human a little wave, one that she reciprocated soon after, about as awkwardly as possible. Sue couldn’t deny feeling weird at being eyed out like that, but she wasn’t sure if it was good weird or bad weird.

“Ah, I see!” the performer’s expression lit up. “Oh, goodness, forgive me for not recognizing you sooner~. You’re the one that saved little Spark, no~?” She asked, leaving Sue to nod and squirm in her seat as her unintentionally heroic feat was brought up again. “Well, I’ve got all the time in the world for you, then~. Pleasure to meet you, Sue, what would your cute face want to know~?”

...my cute face?

If Sue wasn’t busy being dumbfounded by the tone of the question, she would’ve noticed the rest of the table holding in laughter at her reaction. Instead, she pushed past it, hoping to get some of her previous curiosity answered, “Umm... how d-do you ensure that nobody getsh hurt?”

Sue saw Snowdrop’s expression briefly falter at the way she spoke, forcing the performer to rely on the mental link to get meaning out of the Forest Guardian’s gibberish. She didn’t linger on it, thankfully, answering shortly after, “Well, that’s an awfully wide question~. Broadly speaking, it all reduces to deliberately missing when we can, keeping track of each other’s cues, and putting in as little power as we can while maintaining appearances.”

“A stage like that has its advantages—everyone is looking from broadly the same angle and from below, so we can move on slightly different planes,” Snowdrop explained, lifting both ‘hands’ so that their ‘palms’ faced Sue, before sliding them past each other a few times. “Very important to keep dodging to maintain the spectacle~.”

The weird tone continued, but at least Sue was getting her answers now. She listened intently, responding, “I-I see, thank you. And what was that about putting in little power, pulling your punchesh—how’s that work?”

“Tsk, tsk, tsk~! I can’t just reveal all my secrets to anyone who asks now, not with so many people around. That latter fact could get remedied if you’d like, though~.”

Sue’s initial train of thought went to a place much, much darker than was intended, almost making Sundance spit her drink out at overhearing it. She began catching onto what the performer actually meant soon after—she wanted to explain it to her, but only somewhere with not as many people around, and was offering to take her there. Which probably meant taking her on a walk there—

...

...

Is she… hitting on me?

Her face went flush at the thought, wide eyes looking to Sundance for answers. The fiery vixen confirmed her hunch with a nod while trying not to laugh, leaving her in a wholly unfamiliar position. And then another once she’d stammered her response, one she hoped she would never have to be in, “I-I, umm, I-I’m sorry Snowdrop, I don’t—I don’t shwing that way...”

Sue wasn’t even sure whether that was truly the case, but even if it wasn’t, being suddenly put on the spot wasn’t conductive to self-discovery like that, leaving her to just go with what she’d been assuming was true. Her heart sank as she watched the icy performer sigh in defeat, her expression deflating by the moment.

Something told Sue this wasn’t the first, or even the tenth time this has happened to her.

“That’s alright,” Snowdrop sighed, trying her hardest to pretend to be alright. “Oh well. Wish finding someone was easier.” Before she could continue, she spotted the blue rhino waving back at her from a distance. She waved back before turning to the group. “I need to be going now. Though, if you ever want some more of your curiosity answered, or... anything else, I’ll be around, Sue~. Until then, have a good night, you all.”

“Take care, Snowdrop,” Willow smiled. “May She keep your rest peaceful, especially after such an amazing show!”

Snowdrop giggled, “Aww thank you, Willow~! We wouldn’t have gone as far as we did if not for your first aid lessons, it really made us more comfortable pushing the limits. Oh, hey there, Sparkie~!”

The vulpine bark of Spark’s response snagged Sue’s attention as the fiery kit climbed back onto the bench. Her big friend’s lap being occupied prevented her from proceeding further, but Spark didn’t let it get to her, speaking up once her mom had extended her translation to her again. “Sue, Sue! My friends wanna meet you, wanna come over and say hi?”

Sue was a bit taken aback, but on a second thought, she really wasn’t opposed to that. There were some obvious issues with that idea, though, ones Sundance immediately vocalized. “Sweetie, can’t they come here? It’s much harder for Sue to walk than for them.”

“I knoooowww, but their parents won’t let them,” Spark pleaded. “They’re not too far from here, though!”

Sundance raised an eyebrow, “How will you all even communicate with Sue? Maybe I ought to come too—”

“No no no, we have a psychic that can talk to her! Please mom, pleeeeease~!”

Sundance just rolled her eyes and chuckled. Sure, sure, her little one didn’t want herself to get embarrassed in front of her friends. “It’s not me who you ought to ask for this, sweetie,” she chided. “If Sue is alright with it, then so am I.”

Even in the dim lighting, Spark’s puppy eyes were as super effective as ever. Sue just giggled, “Shure, sure. Just need to get Joy off my lap, and I can come.”

“Yay yay yay!”

While Spark wriggled in joy, Joy was picked up with Solstice’s psychic grasp and lowered onto her lap. The brief period in between the two Forest Guardians made the toothy girl stir a bit, but ultimately, her rest remained uninterrupted. With that adorable weight off her lap, Sue got up, stretching her joints after several hours of near motionlessness, full stomach and exhaustion making her somehow feel even less mobile than usual.

“Follow me!” Spark howled.

And follow Sue did, slowly picking up the pace as her arm warmed up again. The fiery kit led her between tables, firepits, and beings of all shapes and sizes, be they sitting, standing, walking, or even asleep. Her presence was barely catching anyone’s attention by now, helping her keep calm enough to let her take in all the scenes they were passing by.

The leafy caretaker she’d met a few times by now sat next to several unusual beings. Sue didn’t have too much time to take their appearance in, mentally jotting them down as a white sphere the size of her arm and a green-white serpent with a yellow collar, respectively. These two weren’t the only beings around, though, not with a small, brown pony and the pink bat-scorpion chimera she saw when she’d first woken up at the clinic sneaking up behind the white sphere.

The green snake might’ve been trying to contribute to the hissed, clicked, and growled chat around their table, but they couldn’t resist joining the two sneaks once they had spotted them. With a quick scan, they slithered off the bench and scooted up to them, helping the pink bat climb onto the white sphere.

Whatever the latter was, it had seemingly just woken up, leaving the bat laughing loudly as they clung to them. It only took moments before everyone else was either giggling along or becoming increasingly confused, the shenanigans continuing until the blue cloud bird had noticed the bat and chirped at them to get down. Probably. If that was the case, it had to have been the most pleasant sounding ‘get down!’ in the world.

Splitleaf might not have noticed her in the crowds, but Hazel did.

The two locked eyes as Sue passed by, her expression softening at the scene beside her. As opposed to any more heart attack inducing pranks, the ghostly prankster was busy stroking Poppy’s hair, the sleeping cook’s head resting on the ghost’s lap. For once, it was Hazel that got flustered, looking away from Sue even as she continued her affection in full.

Guess even Hazel can be cute.

She had little time left to linger on that topic, though—without any warning, Spark took a sudden turn away from the festivities, constantly looking over her shoulder to check whether her big friend was still following her.

“Shpark?” Sue asked, surprised. She knew the kit couldn’t understand her, but the question in her voice was still clear enough. All Spark did, though, was tilt her head to tell Sue to keep following her, the gestures paired with urgent woofs. With no actual communication, this was the best she was gonna get, leaving her with no choice but to follow the fiery kit.

Straight into the treeline.

“Spark, wh-where are you taking me...”

Thankfully for her ever-growing anxiety, the answer turned out to be ‘just a few meters ahead’, the kit then stopping and turning around to face her again. It was a few meters Sue took her sweet time getting through, her steps as slow as possible to avoid tripping on any sneaky roots or other inanimate objects. Spark waited patiently all the while, her fiery eyes piercing the darkness as her friend approached—before being hit by a sudden wall of light.

Sue almost lost her balance as her free arm jolted to shield her eyes, wincing at the impromptu flashbang. Once the stinging in her eyes subsided, she dared to look at what had caused it, taking in the scene she’d found herself in.

It provided more questions than answers.

Y3MbHDq.jpeg


By the lovely eevyychu @ Ko-fi!


A small clearing with a bonfire at its center stood where there once was just a pitch-black stretch of forest floor. Startling as that was on its own, it wasn’t even all. The two other creatures now present alongside her and Spark took Sue aback, if both for very different reasons.

Hello again, ‘dipshit that stole my peaches’.

The lil’ dark fox remained invisible to her sixth sense as they excitedly eyed her out, a faint blue sheen filling their eyes. They wasted no time before scrambling over to join Spark in nuzzling Sue’s legs as she took in the appearance of their… friend, presumably. They weren’t necessarily harder to describe, but for her sure harder to make any sense of anatomically, being mostly composed of a large, pastel-colored hat, reminding her of something Merlin might’ve worn.

Except this one had a tiny, pinkish, humanoid body hanging from underneath it, their pinprick eyes staring at her curiously.

There’s absolutely no way hanging like this can be comfortable.

As Sue tried to focus on kinda-braid, kinda-hand, kinda-neither extensions on the back of the creature’s… hat, she suddenly felt an uncomfortable wriggling in her head. It wasn’t too dissimilar from the sensation she felt right before Sundance first spoke to her, but much, much rougher and more than a bit painful. Thankfully, it was over before long, leaving her to rub her temples and gather her bear—

“^Okay I got it! She can hear you now Pollux!^”

The very high pitched, very squeaky, very girly voice took Sue aback—as did the cheeky, boyish one that followed, “Yes! Thank you thank you Thistle!”

The sudden voices left Sue too stunned to think through what was going on. All the surprises combined with the constant affection from the two kits made it difficult to keep standing, forcing her to sit down on a nearby log. Both foxes were there before she could even rest her behind, and the pastel creature wasn’t far behind. As the latter dashed over, though, they briefly stopped and winced in pain, one braid-hand-something reaching up to rub the side of their hat. “^S-so many people...^” Sue heard again, in the same high-pitched voice as from a moment ago.

Overwhelming as the scene was, everything clicked into place soon after, especially with the darker fox, Pollux, speaking up again shortly after. “Thank you, thank you, Sh-sh-Shue! We were goners if not for you! I-I was s-so scared, a-a-and—”

The excitement in his voice cracked at the recollection of that almost tragic day, words stopping as he pressed his increasingly teary snout into her side. Sue had enough experience with Spark to know what to do, both hands carefully petting the foxes as they huddled closer. She responded in the only way she could: “Y-yhou’re w-welcome, P-Pollux.”

As the dark fox sniffled and calmed down, the hatted creature took the space on Sue’s other side, observing the entire scene with as big of a smile as their tiny face could contain.

“A-and I-I’m sorry f-for stealing your P-Pecha...” Pollux muttered, looking away in shame.

Guess I know the name of at least one local fruit now.

Sue giggled tiredly at Pollux’s apology, continuing her affection. She appreciated it, though, especially with how much his prank had initially spooked her, trying to make that appreciation clear though pulling him a bit closer. His fur was nowhere near as soft or warm as Spark’s, but the entire experience was no less lovely because of that. “Apology accepted,” Sue beamed, glad to have resolved that unfortunate incident—

“I-I just thought it was Solstice,” the gray fox continued, “and d-didn’t see the difference until after...”

Sue didn’t comment on that, filing that admission into a mental drawer to come back to later. Right now, the little ones needed affirmation, and she needed answers about what was going on here—starting with their talents. “It’s okay, it’s okay. I-I’ve gotta shay, I’ve never run into someone that can do what you did, with that d-disguise and all...”

Her comment perked Pollux back up, his expression turning sly as he repeated his feat from the previous day, once more turning into the orange striped lion-dog. This time, though, his disguise only lasted for a moment before he reverted to his former appearance, giggling, “Hehe, we’re hard to find with our illusions~! Oh, Spark told us you’re from really far away!”

“^Yeah! And that there are only Normal types and Forest Guardians there—does that mean you’ve never seen a Dark-type before?^” the hat creature asked, their high-pitched words inadvertently steering the conversation towards where Sue actually wanted to go, making her nod firmly in response. “^See! I told you Pollux!^”

“No way!” the dark fox gasped, “Really!?”

“Mhm! You gave me a bit of a shcare!” Sue answered, meaning every single word of that sentence.

“Teehee... s-sorry.”

“Don’t worry, P-Pollux, it’s okay; I’m glad I finally got to meet you. Though… you’re not a D-Dark-type, are you~?” Sue asked the hatted creature, shifting everyone else’s attention over to them. A calmer moment let her check that for herself—and indeed, the girlish creature wasn’t just not Dark, but seemingly a fellow Psychic, answering the riddle of how they were all even talking in the first place.

“^Of course not,^” they squeaked, confused. “^Didn’t you feel me connecting us all?^”

Sue gulped quietly, realizing only in hindsight how weird of a question it was coming from a fellow Psychic. She tried to justify herself, “I-I did, I-I just wasn’t shure, I’ve never seen a—a you, either.”

“^I can tell, you’re not scared! My name is Thistle!^”

The immense whiplash between Thistle’s upbeat tone and the incredibly unnerving implication of her words slapped Sue across the face so hard it left a mark. It took her a while to blink through her confusion as she stared at the adorable cotton candy-colored hat girl, asking the obvious once she’d recovered. “...Wh-why would I be shcared of you?”

“^My mom told me our kin are really mean and aggressive in the wild! A-and that almost everyone fears us because of that...^” Thistle explained, reality poking a hole in her enthusiasm and letting excitement turn into somber, sadder feelings.

Sue was still confused as all hell, having a very hard time imagining the goofy pastel Psychic acting aggressive—or even just being remotely scary, for that matter. That didn’t stop her desire to cheer Thistle back up, though. She was about to reach in to contribute some affection before realizing she had no idea where on the hat creature was alright for her to touch.

What in the world is this hat-like growth anyway—

“^That’s my hair! And anywhere on it is fine!^” Thistle squeaked. That was the one answer Sue absolutely wasn’t expecting, but the clarification was nice, she supposed.

With how subtle Sundance and Solstice were, she wouldn’t have guessed the next Psychic she’d meet would be so… nonchalant about acting on her unspoken thoughts. The realization brought with itself a pang of fear that Sue soon shook off—it didn’t feel like Thistle was doing this for any malicious reasons. Maybe this was just how her ‘species’ was?

Wanting to calm her down, Sue gently petted along the blue ‘brim’ of the hair ‘hat’, the surface feeling much closer to skin than bundled-up hair. Odd as her anatomy was, Thistle wasn’t enjoying it any less than the two vulpine kiddos, her pinprick eyes closing as she lightly swayed in place.

Three kids cozying up with her next to a campfire, the feast’s noise turning into a distant ambience—as unnerved as Sue was walking here, this little scene turned out to be much more pleasant than she could’ve ever hoped for. She closed her eyes for a bit, taking it all in as she dispensed affection between the three, their small bodies snuggling her tighter by the moment.

Before long, though, the burning question on her mind reared its head again. “So, why are we hiding—”

The loud call coming from behind her made Sue jump in her seat, a glance over her shoulder barely making out a figure looking their way from the edge of the clearing. Pollux’s and Thistle’s reaction was instantaneous—the bonfire was suddenly suspended in an intense pink glow, getting smothered in a split second as the two took off into the pitch-black treeline.

Sue sat stunned at the suddenness of it all, brain still playing catchup as Spark barked something back at the voice. The fox’s gentle yank on her skin dress finally snapped her back to awareness, cold and anxious. After taking a moment to find her crutch, Sue got up and began to follow the kit back into Moonview, somehow ending up even more confused than before.

What were they doing there in the first place?

Why so close to Moonview’s edge?

Why did Thistle run too?

How come nobody noticed them sooner?

How come I didn’t see the bonfire until I was right next to it?

Could hair that looks so hat-like really be called hair anymore?


And of course, the question at the root of it all—

Why is Pollux hiding from Moonview?

In her dejected pondering, Sue almost didn’t notice the appearance of the villager that had inadvertently dispersed their group—one hell of a feat considering their appearance.

Their bipedal, reddish body radiated heat, prompting her to steer half a step further away, just in case. Even beyond their coloration and the warmth, a plume of pinkish flames flowed from the back of their head, its shape reminding Sue of an odd ponytail. Upon closer inspection, she spotted the large metal plates covering their upper arms and torso, covered with intricate engravings and green corrosion alike.

Sue had a good idea as to what their ‘type’ was, but no clue whatsoever just what they were.

Somewhat ethereal appearance, armor-shaped metal shards, all the flames… yeah, she got nothing. Maybe some sort of forge spirit? Not that ‘forge spirits’ ever made any sense as actual living beings, and she wouldn’t have expected an abstract being like that to be so human-shaped in the first place, anyway. Could be a spirit, could be some sort of fire elemental, could literally just be a really hot guy.

Or girl.

Either way, they were about as confused about her and Spark as she was about them, which… fair. Thankfully, the lil’ fox took all the talking upon herself, eventually convincing the flaming being to split up with them. Sue sensed Spark’s relief the moment the stranger left, the kit immediately scooting over to nuzzle her legs. Most tables were completely empty by now, many of the remaining feast-goers cleaning up after themselves.

Who would’ve thought that bestial freaks of nature have better table manners than my college year.

Their table hasn’t been spared the cleanup either. Dishes weren’t the only thing now gone, though, with Willow also absent. Sundance sighed loudly the moment Sue and Spark stepped back into view. “Goodness Spark, where were your friends at, the Central City?”

“Sorry! Tassel’s family was at the other end of the clearing! It took us a while to get there!” the kit pleaded.

Sue rolled her eyes at their long absence being blamed for her, but didn’t dwell on it for long. She had no idea whether Solstice or Sundance had caught Spark’s lie—if they had; they weren’t showing it.

The older vixen chuckled, “Sure, sure~. An appropriate time for us to head home as well.”

“Y-yeah-yaaawnn—”

Both Spark’s and Sue’s excitement quickly burned into exhaustion now that they were back with the rest of the group. The unanswered questions continued to spin around in Sue’s head, but thankfully for her, she soon grew too tired to focus on them. Much the same was true of Solstice, the older Forest Guardian looking like she was only keeping herself awake through sheer force of will.

The two sleeping kids in her arms and on her lap didn’t help, either.

“Mrs. Solstice, what about you? Aren’t you and Sue going to bed too?” Spark asked, staving her sleep off that bit more.

Solstice yawned and stretched, switching to telepathy to answer. “^We are. Just waiting for Astra to pick Joy up and we’ll rest, too—oh there she is, thank the Pale Lady.^”

Sue followed her line of sight at her comment, turning around and looking up at the night sky. A large silhouette was approaching fast, much larger and faster than any creature she’d seen in Moonview so far. The sight made Sue back a couple of steps away as the stranger finally landed, her wings kicking up dust as she came to a stop.

Now that she could inspect the scout closer, Sue realized she’d already glimpsed her before. Her orange coloration was no more threatening now than it was then, but her sheer size and the draconic parts of her soft appearance did their best to make up for that.

Her satchel’s the size of my hiking backpack, for crying out loud!

“Phew, finally back home—oh no, don’t tell me I missed it all!” Astra groaned. Sue didn’t expect her to be so soft-spoken considering their size—or so outwardly emotional, her body slumping forwards with a loud groan as Solstice’s nod confirmed her hunch. The dragon continued, “And I didn’t even find anything... is there at least some food left?”

“Mhm! Poppy saved a hearty portion for you, though you’ll have to ask her or Hazel where they’d stashed it,” Solstice reassured.

Astra sighed in relief, “At least there’s that, hah—*gasp!*” The entire gathering flinched at the sound, the psychics sensing the reason moments before the dragon herself exclaimed it, “Oh no, Joy!” Her voice trembled at realizing just how long she’d left the little one with no one to look after her. “Where’s—”

Before the dragon could freak out any further, a psychic glow let her spot the toothy tyke resting on Solstice’s lap, before being lifted into her arms, her embrace as huge as it was gentle. She soon spotted the bandage wrapped around Joy’s maw, though, gasping at the sight.

Sundance wasted no time in explaining what had happened, “She’s alright, Astra. Other children sadly got physical with her to the point of minor injury. I doubt she’ll want to spend much time with them on her own anymore, unfortunately…”

Astra was aghast at the news, holding the little one that much closer in response. Emotions boiled on her soft expression, anger mixing with sadness to produce despair. “Oh gods, I’m—I’m so sorry. It all took so long, I had to dodge thunderstorms on my way back, one of the snow people thought it’d be oh so funny to toss an Icicle Spear at me—a-and Joy got hurt a-and I couldn’t be there for her, and,” the dragon choked on her words as her voice wavered, eyes growing damper and damper, “and I-I can’t split myself like that... I don’t know what to do...”

Solstice took a deep breath, holding her own little one closer to herself. She may not have had much concrete advice, but wanted to reassure Astra nonetheless, reaching up to lay her hand on the dragon’s shoulder. “Rest for the next few days, Astra, scouting new lands can wait. But… you’re right. We’ll need to think of something in the long term, or find someone...”

The Mayor glanced up at Sue, thinking of how fond Joy was of her. Gears in her head turned at the idea, but it came with its own host of issues. Still, it was something to consider—consider tomorrow, in any case. “We can do that tomorrow; no need to worry about anything more today. We all deserve rest first—you especially, Astra.”

The dragon nodded wordlessly, a few tears rolling down her cheek as she held Joy close. Moment by moment, deep breathing slowly calmed her back down, as did gently stroking the toothy girl’s head and maw. “Okay. Okay. Tomorrow. I’m—I’m sorry for all this—”

“Don’t be Astra, you did all you could. I don’t doubt that one bit. I wish I could say that of the rest of us,” Solstice sighed. “Take care, Astra, and may She keep your rest peaceful.”

“M-mhm. Y-you too Solstice, a-and Sundance, and Spark, and Comet, and—” the dragon paused, her eyes finally meeting Sue’s.

Sundance helped her out, smiling as she walked over with Spark in her arms. “Sue. The Forest Guardian that you rushed to the village the other day.”

Astra’s eyes shot even wider at that. Before Sue could even react, she was suddenly pulled into a massive, tight hug, the dragon orienting her sideways to avoid being stabbed by her chest-mounted extremity. “YOU’RE ALRIGHT!” Astra half-squealed, half-roared. “Oh my gosh, I kept thinking of you while flying. You got hurt so bad and I was so worried but I never had the time to check up on you and you’re alright, oh my gods, I’m so happy you’re alright. That looked so scary.”

The outburst of joy once Astra had connected the dots between the bloodied, muddied, and otherwise grimy being she helped save just a few days ago, and the unassuming Forest Guardian next to her, was something immense. It almost overwhelmed Sue’s sixth sense, but the once-human was too preoccupied by hugging as much of the dragon as she could to care.

I’m much too tired and much too small to even come close to returning that hug, but that doesn’t mean I won’t try, goddammit!

“Yeah, I’m alright!” Sue answered, suddenly feeling tears flow down her cheeks. “I-I can’t thank you enough for helping me there! I-I thought I was dead there, I-I—” Lacking any words, Sue tried to hold Astra even tighter, once more not accomplishing much. The gesture was appreciated much the same; the dragon’s scaly and surprisingly soft arm held her close in return.

Astra beamed, “You’re welcome! I-I just happened to be at the right place, at the right time... and from what Spark told me, so were you to save her; right, Spark?”

The little fox responded with snores, having lost the battle with her own body in the meantime, making everyone still awake giggle. “I think she’s got the right idea,” Solstice chuckled. “We can wait with all the thanks until tomorrow, too.”

Astra nodded shakily as she let go of Sue, the once-human quickly stabilizing herself on her crutch. The dragon clearly wanted to say something more, but kept her words to herself for now, just nodding deeply in affirmation instead. “Tomorrow.”

“Mhm! And seeing how much Joy liked Sue today, I’ve little doubt she’ll try to drag you over to meet her anyway!” the Mayor continued.

The dragon’s expression turned to surprise, eyes glancing between the little one sleeping soundly in her arms and the still-relatively-small-one she helped save beside her. She really wanted to express her happiness at hearing that, but the resolve to wait until tomorrow held, an almost comically large smile filling her face instead. “Yeah. T-tomorrow. Sleep well Sue, a-and... thank you so much.”

Astra finally collected herself enough to take to flight again, holding Joy tight as she scanned the area for either half of the pantry couple. Sue didn’t get to see whether she’d end up finding them; Sundance soon tapping her shoulder and tilting her head for her to follow.

Guess the poles she saw yesterday were indeed lampposts.

The realization didn’t explain just what it was they were housing, though. ‘Fireballs’ was an answer, of course, but not one that really explained much at all. Even beyond that, Sue wasn’t sure if that non-answer was even accurate, with the flaming spheres in question sitting motionless and slowly shifting between red and purple.

As they all walked back towards the clinic, it struck Sue just how different Moonview felt at night. So much quieter on all her senses, so much more serene, nowhere near as alive, and yet… just as safe. A crescent moon shined on them from above, the sight deeply comforting in a way Sue couldn’t hope to describe.

“Even at her weakest, Her visage is full of hope, isn’t it?” Solstice asked. Sue nodded thoughtlessly at her words, needing a moment afterwards to consciously decipher their meaning. As odd as the religious reverence in the other Forest Guardian’s words felt, she couldn’t help but agree as the clinic came into view. Once they neared closer, Solstice continued; “It was a pleasure to finally meet you, Sue. My schedule is much clearer tomorrow, so if you’d want, you could pick your lessons back up with me after breakfast. How’s that sound?”

“I’d love to, th-thank you.” Sue nodded, excitement pushing past her exhaustion.

“Wonderful. See you tomorrow Sue, and may She keep your rest peaceful.”

Sundance chimed in, “Good night, Sue.”

“You too...”

With a by now well-practiced motion, Sue scrambled through the doorway once more. Her exhausted body gave in to the desire for rest the second her head touched the pillow, her crutch slipping until it eventually banged against the floor moments later.

The two women outside doubled back to check up on her at overhearing that sound, but thankfully, nothing was amiss. Only Sue, sinking into a deeper and deeper rest. Deeper and deeper,

Darker and darker...



If you're confused about the species of the characters and want them spoiled, I've set up a page listing the species of all the featured characters in each chapter!

If you want to discuss the story, I've set up a Discord server for it! (and my other writings)

Also check out my other story, From the Vast!
 
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Chapter 9: Lies

redspah

the gay agenda
Pronouns
she/her


Chapter 9: Lies


Sue’s consciousness was sinking into a lake of tar, the surrounding darkness growing thicker by the moment. Thicker, stronger, ever more vicious; what once was a mere absence of light turned aggressive and suffocating, filling her body with terror through its mere presence.

The pitch blackness leaped at her, tore her to shreds in a way her feeble mind could scarcely comprehend and do even less about. She trembled and tried to scream, only managing pathetic whimpers for nobody to hear—

GRRRAAAHH!

And then; it all stopped.

In an instant, Sue suddenly found herself at the campfire scene once more. A wall of twisting, writhing void surrounded her from all sides, held at bay by the one being she never expected to see for herself in person, or even in a dream.

His body was perfectly black, just like in the drawing she saw a few nights ago; the white of His smoke-like head and the crimson of the cowl that surrounded it contrasted greatly with the surrounding darkness. His blue eye stared straight at Sue as His outstretched arms held the seething nightmare at bay.

RRRARGH!

With another roar, the pitch black deity pushed the Dark Void even further back, banishing it from Sue’s mind entirely. With it gone, Sue finally noticed the changes to the all too familiar dreamscape—the extinguished campfire, the barely visible new Moon above them, and the starless sky that surrounded it.

All that, however, paled in comparison to Night Father joining her here.

He stared down at her unblinkingly, His ethereal body shifting in place as she came to. Once she’d snapped back to awareness, Sue gasped in fear, shaking as she tried to scoot further away from the ghostly Satan, to no avail. “I-it’s you, isn’t it?” she stammered, eyes wide. “N-Night Father, right?” The deity slowly nodded, not attempting to speak beyond a couple of loud grumbles, making her continue. “Wh-what are you gonna do to me? A-am I dead, or—”

A loud noise caught Sue’s attention as the dark one shook His head. The dark tendrils of His arms reached up above Him and pulled the fabric of the dreamscape apart, opening a gash through which Sue could see herself sleeping on the clinic’s bed, safe and sound.

“Not dead. Alright. S-so you’re not Satan,” she summed up, still coming to terms with everything around her. Night Father let the rift above Him close, the little Sue could make of His expression growing flatter as he shook his head. “Not Satan, okay. Wh-why are you here?”

Before she could even finish asking her question, Sue realized she was holding a page in her hand. A downward glance revealed the same drawing that Duck had presented to her a couple of nights ago, the one depicting her transformation into a Forest Guardian.

The one with a depiction of the dark deity next to an arrow connecting her two bodies, with a question mark next to it.

“I-it—She asked me whether you turned me into this, but... it wasn’t you, right? I don’t remember you,” Sue muttered, aghast. The deity affirmed her hunch with another nod, causing the page to disintegrate in Sue’s hands, its purpose complete. “W-who—what was it then?” she asked, still dumbstruck. “Do you know?”

A firm, somber shake.

It was followed by a squirmy, unpleasant sensation in the back of Sue’s head, not unlike the pain that had caused her to destroy her earlier dream in a fit of anger. Thankfully, it was neither as intense nor long lasting as what Duck had inflicted, easing out seconds later and only leaving her a bit woozy this time. She was just about to speak up before spotting something even weirder in the corner of her vision, something she wouldn't ever have expected to see in this wild world.

An antique film projector, together with an accompanying wall for it to project onto.

“...what the hell is this?”

Night Father wasted no time before showing her, gesturing towards the contraption, making it kick to life with a loud rattle. Without delay, it began to project a gray scale recollection of Sue’s memories, the last ones she could remember from Earth. A hike through the woods, sitting down to grab lunch, a bang not too far away—

And then, the replay stopped.

A pair of disembodied hands made of something that was neither light nor dark, something that Sue’s mind could only perceive as golden static, reached in to tamper with it. It pulled out the rolls of film, cutting it off at the exact point the display had stopped at, and then again, further along the recording. Afterwards, it stitched both ends together and resumed the movie at the moment of Sue waking up in her new body for the first time—while whisking the surgically removed snippet away.

“Wait, wait,” Sue gasped, hands clenching into fists, “d-did something steal my memory of what had happened!?”

A slow, somber nod.

The dreamed-up film equipment dissipated into the dreamscape, leaving Sue as confounded and unnerved as she was angry at the revelation. “Who could it have been!?” she yelled at nobody in particular—and, to her surprise, the skies above answered.

Suddenly, the heavens filled with figures of wildly varying shapes, sizes and grandeur, dozens upon dozens of deities—though with neither Night Father nor Duck among them. All of them awe-inspiring, all of them glorious, all of them way, way too much. Within seconds, the scene grew too overwhelming to bear, making Sue shield her eyes as she looked away. “Okay, okay, I get it! Too many suspects!”

The spectacle ended in an instant as Sue and Night Father were left alone in the dream once more, the former trying to wrap her head around everything. “S-some god took me and tossed me into this world and didn’t even let me remember what had happened. C-could it have been the Pale La—” she tried to ask, only for the dark deity to firmly shake His head in the corner of her vision, cutting that lead off. “Not Her, then. And not you, either. S-someone else.”

A defeated nod.

All both of them had learned was that neither knew what had happened or who had done it. Though, one of them knew of everyone who could have accomplished that, and was about to start mulling over them all.

And then; the second one cut Him off, her voice uncertain. “Did you... enter my dream just to confirm that?”

A quick, firm nod.

“I-I see. I...” Sue trailed off, thinking back to everything she’d seen over the past couple of days. To the creatures aligned with the deity she was interacted with spoken of in hushed, taboo tones, to Pollux being forced to hide, to Willow’s profound discomfort once the night kin were brought up—

The mystery was burning a hole in her mind.

“I have to know,” she whispered. “You are a god, right?”

Weirdly enough, Night’s Father’s reply was much more subdued this time. His head meandered around for a while before eventually settling on the world’s slowest, most reluctant nod. Bewildering as that response was in its delivery, it was ultimately affirmative, making Sue follow it up with her actual question, “What are you a god of?”

Nothing happened for a few unending minutes as Sue awaited an answer. Right as she had started to worry she had committed a divine faux pas, though, she saw His eye close—and the world around them dissolved.

The sky, the dirt, the extinguished campfire, all of them melting and shifting, until eventually, they morphed into a rudimentary chase scene. A small, dark being was running away from two massive white ones, one with massive eyes gleaming like floodlights, and the other with a blindfold and a third eye on top of its head, shining bright enough to burn the scene with a blinding glare.

Sue could barely stand the overwhelming, crippling light, forcing her to watch from between her fingers. The little dark being kept up its panicked dash, away from the light, eventually leaping into an isolated, pitch-black spot. Even as the lights approached, the spot didn’t budge, continuing to protect the small one—but that didn’t mean the bright ones wouldn’t try hurting it all the same.

The one with two eyes cast forth brilliant flames as the single-eyed one stabbed into the dark with a pure white tendril. All their attacks did was make the darkness counterattack and flood from the isolated spot, shattering the light wherever it touched and sending the intruders running away in fear, the little dark creature safe.

And then, in a blink, the scene returned to the extinguished campfire. Sue replayed the events she’d just witnessed in her mind, piecing it together as the deity beside her watched in silence. “...safety. Protection from eyes, from light, from... th-the third eye...”

A slow, firm, deliberate nod, followed by low grumbling she had no hope of understanding.

“I-I see, I think,” Sue muttered, still processing the religious vision. She thought back to the Duck’s altar, and the scenes depicted on it. One of them was a complete inversion of what she’d just witnessed, with Duck protecting a small creature from the darkness—the very same darkness she just saw protect someone.

Something wasn’t adding up, sending a shiver down her spine. “Then... what about her?” Sue asked again. “Duck, I mean—Pale Lady, or whatever...”

Night Father’s eye grew wider at her comment; the rumbling noise that left Him afterwards was probably the divine equivalent to laughter. It didn’t last long before the scene melted again, though, subjecting Sue to another vision.

The little dark creature shambled out of the black hiding spot and towards a nearby clearing, its limp and cuts around their body clearly visible. It pushed for a while before collapsing mid-step, right beneath a full Moon. The silver light bathing their body grew stronger with their every whimper, flooding the scene with cold, gentle healing. Sue watched the little one’s wounds mend right in front of her eyes, all of them becoming undone in moments.

“...healing...” she whispered, and found her attention being drawn upwards, up at the Moon.

She watched it fly through its phases as if on fast forward; the dreamscape going from pitch black to bathed in cold light, and back, and back, and back.

From the Dark’s protection.

To the Light’s mending.​

The Moon, one and whole.

One and whole.


The eventual awakening that followed, many, many hours later, was by far the calmest one Sue had experienced during her stay in this world yet. Her mind floated in the liminal space between sleep and wakefulness for Duck knows how long, only interrupted by intermittent attempts at checking out her surroundings, finding the room just a bit brighter each time.

She could not have slept for more than a couple of hours, and yet... she felt surprisingly alright, though a big part of that was no doubt caused by the religious vision that kept replaying in her mind. The sights felt like they ought to be shattering her world, but… they weren’t, not really. She supposed it all only made sense like this, even if it painted everything she’d seen in Moonview in a much more confusing light.

The far more startling truth was that of her amnesia being deliberate.

Sue couldn’t even imagine who could’ve done something like that, or why. A literal divine intervention to pluck her, a woman of no remarkable qualities, from her own world, and toss her into this one. With no purpose in mind that she could figure out.

Who knows, maybe it was some long con she was unaware of. Maybe all she was supposed to do was save Spark and Pollux on that fateful day, and ended up outliving her usefulness thanks to Astra’s intervention. Maybe one day she’d see the show’s host walk out from behind the nearest corner with a camera crew behind him and inform her she was being pranked the entire time.

Maybe the god in question just thinks it’s funny.

Trying to think more about the Capricious Deity’s motivation would just make her feel even more defeated, and Sue knew that. Would she need a nap down the line after a night like that? Possibly. Was she feeling like trying to get some more rest in her current headspace? Not in the slightest.

A glance out the clinic’s window revealed the sunrise to have only barely begun. Human Sue was the furthest thing from an early bird, but she figured she could make an exception this time. She needed to clear her head, and there were few things better at that than a walk around the block, even if without any tunes to keep her company. Now to just grab the crutch, and—oh.

Sue didn’t remember her mobility device moving anywhere after she’d left it leaning against the nightstand, but, to her dismay, it had done so anyway. It was splayed out smack dab in the middle of the room, much too far for her to even attempt to reach with her good leg.

A low groan filled the cabin as she chewed through the scene, thinking about what to do. She’d have to crawl over to grab it, and she sincerely doubted her ability to stand back up on her own from a position like that. It was a long shot, but maybe the partial lesson she got yesterday would help?

Sue found herself equal parts excited and antsy at getting to make use of what Sundance tried to teach her. Getting better at the psychic magic would be great, of course, but there was also the possibility that she’d mess it up badly. Or worse, that she’d already forgotten how to do it.

Either way, there was only one way to find out, making her groan as she flipped through what she recalled of the lesson. Remembering how to use her ‘mental reach’ was one thing; re-discovering where it even sprouted from was another. Thankfully, it didn’t take her long, random probing around her brain eventually finding a spot that gave in and extended beyond the confines of her skullcap.

Good Duck, that feels so weird.

She shook off the stray thought before prodding the spot further. Her eyes involuntarily closed as her mental tentacle reached into the room, right hand twitching with its every move. She hadn’t paid that much attention yesterday, but now that she was aware of it, she couldn’t help but stop and think. If her physical arm moved whenever she’d tried to move the imagined one… could it also happen the other way around?

Carefully, Sue lifted her arm and reached toward the crutch, her motions slow and exaggerated. And indeed, her mind mimicked the motion. It wasn’t the most precise and shot way further than she’d expected it to, but she could control it like this, the realization making her sigh in relief. This was so much easier—so easy that the next part felt downright instinctual.

Her hovering hand grasped the air, shrouding the crutch’s handle in a spotty, white glow. She felt the rough, wooden surface, but had no idea where, the sensations coming from an utterly disembodied place. Once she’d secured her grip, she just pulled it towards her, almost as if she was just changing the gear.

Loud rattling of wood on wood startled Sue out of her trance, her grasp fizzled out—and once she opened her eyes, the crutch laid right in front of her.

Alright, I think I like this ‘hands’ method more than what Sundance was trying to teach me.

On the other hand… she’d never seen either the vixen or Solstice use their hands when performing their magic. Maybe there was a reason for that which she just wasn’t aware of? She hoped not, hoped she wasn’t doing it all wrong in some subtle but important way.

With any luck, she’d get to ask Solstice that very question in not too long.

Before Sue could head off to the races, she realized she hadn’t told anyone about her little walk. Not that it would normally matter, but considering her hijinks yesterday, she thought Willow especially deserved to be kept in the know.

Alright, where’d you leave all that paper you brought...

There wasn’t much space left on the page she’d soon fished out of a drawer, forcing Sue to surround her small sketch with a large black circle to draw attention to it. Almost like clickbait, but actually useful here.

Duck, that’s such a surreal thought.

A Forest Guardian stick figure, heading out of the clinic and walking between the various buildings. A straightforward drawing conveying an equally simple, yet badly needed action.

After swatting the charcoal dust off her fingers, Sue finally limped through the front entrance, finding the surrounding streets unnervingly empty. Hell, there had been more people around before she went to bed than now. A sweep with her sixth sense revealed almost every nearby soul to either be asleep, trying to fall asleep, be too focused on something to sleep, or… tossing around with a hangover. Guess they had booze here. Neat.

With no destination in mind, Sue opted to retrace the path from a couple of days ago, starting with the makeshift construction zone. Aside from the occasional bird chatter and the rustling of leaves, Moonview remained almost completely quiet as she made her way through, cold air waking her up with every step.

She had little time to focus on the state of the construction work during her escape, but it felt like the builders had made some very noticeable progress since, regardless. The foundation was almost entirely finished, with only one corner still opened up, and with the walls also similarly well underway.

Wonder how long they take to finish putting one of these up—

*chitter, chitter*


Sue jumped at the sound coming from right behind her. Once she’d calmed down enough to fumble her way into turning around, she saw its source in all their pangolin glory. As intimidating as their massive claws and brown spikes were, the accompanying emotions of modest curiosity and equally mild surprise made up for their appearance.

Left at an impasse, she opted for the default option—a nervous wave. It didn’t immediately clarify anything for either of them, but at least it gave the builder something to do in response. In hindsight, Sue realized she probably shouldn’t have chosen this specific gesture, if just because it drew even more attention to their cleaver-sized claws.

Looks were very deceiving; she knew that more and more by the hour in this wild new place, but… it’d probably be a while before she fully got over herself in that regard. Before she could give that thought more focus, though, heavy footfalls coming from nearby forced her out of her head and back to the world around her once more.

The blue bipedal rhino she saw perform on stage yesterday might’ve been a bit shorter than her, but what they lacked in height, they certainly got in heft. They were also much more outspoken than the brown pangolin, calling out towards her once they’d spotted her. Their rumbling growl was unintentionally intimidating, but the absence of any malice to go along with it prevented fear from worming further into Sue’s mind. Hell, what she did sense was the polar opposite of malice, a wellspring of genuine warmth pouring out of their growled welcome.

And If only she had any idea of what they’d just said, she could’ve tried to respond in kind. Instead, she had to settle for the next best thing. “Uh, ghood morning!” The incomprehensible sentence took both of her impromptu visitors aback, especially the blue rhino, making them pause mid-step.

Guess that’s one way to get back at them for startling me, pffft.

Confusing as her speech was, the larger of the strangers wouldn’t let it get to them. They resumed their walk as they chatted the pangolin up, the latter’s responses curt and quiet. Whatever they had just settled on clearly wasn’t their only concern, though, not with the blue performer turning towards Sue again—and almost toppling her with a few pats on her back, right next to the back spike.

Sue’s panicked scramble to remain standing got a bellowing laugh out of them, with the spiky rodent chiming in with quiet chitters. It was much less fun on her end, especially before she’d stopped her upcoming freefall, but she couldn’t deny that it made for an amusing sight, joining in on the laughter with her own giggling shortly after.

Please don’t do that again, mini-Godzilla.

Thankfully, the pangolin took the lead in the discussion afterwards, beckoning the other one over to the unfinished portion of the foundation. Tagging along for what was likely to be some sort of safety inspection didn’t sound all that bad to Sue, though she doubted she’d get much out of it without the ability to comprehend what was being said.

If nothing else, it let her see all the spikes on the rhino’s back, at least. Kinda like some dinosaurs she’d seen, and also like that one poisonous fish she’d seen in a documentary once, with all those toxic spines.



Please don’t be poisonous, mini-Godzilla.

Trying to scurry away from both the scene and that harrowing possibility, Sue wondered about where else to head now. Her recent dream gave her even more questions than it did answers, with many of the former tied to Moonview’s deity and Her nature.

It was time to inspect Duck’s altar again.

The monument was even more striking with only the chilly wind and early dawn’s cold light to keep her company. The central engraving of Duck underneath a full moon evoked power and demanded respect, even if the scenes being depicted were as reassuring as she’d remembered them.

The flowers that decorated the base of the three walls comprising the monument made it difficult to walk up to the stone slabs, forcing Sue to keep her distance. As much as the central scene looked like it was plucked straight out of her vision, the two engravings on the sides felt… wrong.

The chisel work was rougher, the stone had a darker finish—the artist had even used actual black paint for the dark mass that Duck fought against and protected her followers from, contrasting the entirely paint-free central illustration. The more she looked, the more confident she grew about the side illustrations being later additions. They weren’t right; they were downright tacky, as if added solely to drive a narrative—a narrative whose truthfulness Sue was growing increasingly skeptical of.

As she examined the arrangement of the monument, another observation clicked into place. The side walls were massive, but nowhere near the size of the middle one. In fact, she was quite sure they were only around—around half the central one’s size. The realization took Sue aback, and wouldn’t let go. Together, the side walls would add up to the same size as the central one; they were both made of the same kind of stone; she even swore she saw bits of dried dirt near the top of one of the side walls—

I need to check what’s on their other side.

Before Sue could move anywhere, though, a half whistled sentence caught her attention, clearly aimed at her. It was all the more startling because of its incomprehensibility, spiking Sue’s heartbeat as she turned around—

“Oops, my bad! Good morning Sue, didn’t expect to see you up so early, or here of all places,” Solstice chuckled. Comet chimed in as well from his mom’s arms, the baby squeaks dulling some of Sue’s nerves, but not getting rid of them wholly. And, predictably, the other Forest Guardian could tell. “Are you feeling alright, Sue?”

Sue didn’t know—but what she was certain of, though, was that the monument was the one subject best not discussed with Solstice specifically. “Yesh, you—you just shurprised me. A-and I could say the same about you, it’s so early.”

Solstice giggled, “It is, indeed~. Alas, ‘an appropriate time of day to wake up at’ isn’t a concept Comet is familiar with yet, so here we are! Did you sleep well?”

Without waiting for Sue’s response, the Mayor kneeled in front of the altar. Even Comet went quieter as his mom bowed her head in prayer, the younger Forest Guardian taking the opportunity to slowly back off from the shrine and its unnerving mysteries. As Solstice wrapped up her prayer, Sue finally responded; “Yeah. Had a weird dream, but I shlept well.”

“Hah, with all that had happened yesterday, I can’t blame you one bit. Even if it all ended well, minds always just keep on churning through it all, again and again. I hope it wasn’t an unpleasant dream, at least.”

Sue answered without thinking. “Oh no, nhot at all.” She wasn’t sure whether this was a lie by omission—either way, keeping what she’d seen to herself felt like the best idea for the time being.

Thankfully, the other Forest Guardian didn’t prod the issue any further. “Wonderful. So~! Let’s grab something to eat, and then we can get started on your lesson?”

Guess with Solstice already here, there wasn’t a point in delaying her lessons. Sue itched to grow more independent around here and not have to drag someone with her just to talk. Her nod conveyed her enthusiasm, the newfound motivation pushing the underlying mystery further into the back of her mind.

“Let’s get going, then!” the Mayor cheered.

Comet appreciated the idea as much as Sue did. His loud, gurgling squeak broke both women into giggles as they headed towards the pantry. It also brought with itself a question Sue couldn’t resist asking. “How old is he?”

“Closing in on five Moons now. He grows so fast! It feels like yesterday that he would spend all day just sleeping and eating, and now look at him~! He’d be running circles around us if I let him.” Solstice squeed, the glee in her voice almost infectious. The little one in her arms wriggled at all the good vibes while the big one beside her tried not to coo at the sight.

Though… ‘five Moons’? The Lunar cycle was like 29 days or something, basically a month. And if that’s what she was referring to, it only raised more questions. “That’s sho much livelier than I’d expect a five month—I mean, five Moon old to be.”

“Oh?” Solstice perked up, genuinely confused. “Why so?”

Sue had no answer to that question. The other Forest Guardian’s surprise underlined the obvious reality of her situation, one she was guilty of not paying as much attention to as she should’ve—humanlike as they were, neither Solstice nor her son were human. Trying to apply human metrics to them was doomed to fail.

And try as she might to avoid that realization, she wasn’t human either, at least not anymore.

“Oh, never mind…” Sue muttered, distraught. She had intended to leave her response at that, but felt like should at least try to address Solstice’s confusion, “I... jusht went from memory about human b-babies...”

The other Forest Guardian slowly nodded in response, her pupil’s confusion finally making sense. She didn’t want Sue to feel self conscious about it, though, walking over closer and patting her shoulder, “It’s all good, Sue. Figures it’d be the only reference point you had. Though... you got me curious now. How old are you?”

The question caught the once-human off guard as they all entered the clearing again. Just like the rest of Moonview, the space was nearly empty, with only a handful of tables still needing to be moved back to their proper spots. Sue had little time to linger on it as the group suddenly turned the other way from their usual path, away from Poppy’s kitchen. After gathering her bearings, she stammered out, “Umm... I’m twenty-two yearsh old.”

For once, it was Solstice’s turn to get surprised.

The Mayor almost tripped over a stick as she processed Sue’s response, needing to jog for a moment to catch up afterwards. Comet had no idea where that sudden motion came from, but he liked it all the same, expressing it with a loud squeak as his mom responded, “By Moon’s Grace, I had clocked you at almost half that.”

“...what?”

The two Forest Guardians were at an impasse as they finally reached their destination, the structure so much larger than Poppy’s pantry. Its purpose was immediately clear, at least, with literal heaps of leftovers piled up underneath the canvas roof and a cook busily fixing something for the creature in front of them in line.

The fact that the cook was a humanoid, four-armed ladybug, and the other patron was a blue amphibian her size, didn’t even register as particularly noteworthy in Sue’s mind anymore. Though, with the latter having orange gills sticking out the sides of its face, she wondered how they interacted with normal air. They weren’t in any discomfort from what she could tell, and the wet sheen covering their body no doubt helped with that.

“Good morning, High Tide,” Solstice greeted, drawing the blue creature’s attention. Their blue eyes briefly scanned Sue before turning towards the Mayor. Their croaked response remained untranslated, but whatever it was, Comet enjoyed it, breaking into chipper laughter—and with him, the rest of the group, the ladybug cook included. “Next harvest starts today, doesn’t it?”

*croaaak.*

“Tomorrow, I see. Best of luck! I hope it goes smoothly!” Solstice cheered. High Tide’s reply had much more of a groan to it this time, sounding like gurgling noises mixed with wet hisses. Whatever was said, it left Solstice uncertain, but only briefly. “Sounds serious. We can discuss it tomorrow; I’ll make sure to check up by the orchard.”

With a confirmation on the amphibian’s side, the brief chat soon wrapped up. Following laying out a topic serious enough to leave Solstice concerned, High Tide then proceeded to grab the meal with their mouth before heading out; Sue left taken aback by the juxtaposition of animalistic traits and higher intelligence. Again.

Once the blue frog had left, the ladybug immediately got to preparing something for their group, without even waiting for them to ask for anything in particular. Their meal was a slapdash of several kinds of leftovers, but not in a bad way. A handful of dumplings wrapped in dry bread for the two adults, and a few spiced fruit slices and one whole dumpling for Comet, both tossed in a rudimentary oven to warm them up. It was far from Poppy’s artisanal cooking, but with how tasty it smelled once reheated, Sue’s stomach couldn’t care less.

“Much appreciated, Sunrise,” Solstice greeted, giving the cook a brief bow. “Has Astra already grabbed something today?” The ladybug thought for a moment before shaking their head, remaining silent all the while. “And yesterday? Or were you not around to see?” A couple of firm nods, followed by intricate gestures with the upper two arms. “With Joy, I know. That’s good to hear at least; she got here very late. Gonna be calling it a day soon?”

Before the bug could get too far into their gestured response, the loud crunch of Sue biting into her reheated sandwich caught everyone gathered off guard, leaving Sue frozen in place as all eyes turned to her. Thankfully, the cook didn’t let that distract them for long, soon wrapping up Solstice’s portion.

Nothing like a satisfying crunch first meal in the morning, though probably not when it’s loud enough to startle someone.

“Mhm. Hope he shows up soon, then. And until then, take care, Sunrise.”

With the cook’s two armed salute and yet another firm nod to send them off, the group could get going again. Sue was unsure which mystery she wanted to tackle first, taking a hot minute to finish chewing through her current bite before finally asking, “Sho... are they alright?”

Solstice blinked, “Oh? Yes yes, Sunrise is alright. They just can’t speak very well, so they opt for signing.”

“You have a sign language here too?”

“Mhm!” the Mayor nodded eagerly. “Not a very developed one yet, though. Sunrise’s largely been the one spearheading that effort. They’re making good progress last I’ve heard, and trying to teach it to others where they can, but it’s quite a bit harder with them being nocturnal.”

Admittedly, Sue had never really thought of language—a non-programming language at least—as something that could be created. It made sense in hindsight, though, especially with a sign language that would have a hard time naturally developing on its own. “I-I see. Hopefully, it helps them out; not being able to speak shucks.”

Solstice chuckled, “You’d know something about that, hah. Yeah, it’s been a great help for them, and it’s been great watching them teaching it to others where they can. Even minimal communication beats no communication.”

“It really, really does.”

The next stretch was spent in silence as Sue split her focus between not falling over, following Solstice, and progressing in her grand quest to eat her breakfast. Moonview’s streets were finally coming to life, sending Sue back into her own head—she had nowhere near enough spare brainpower to pay close attention to every single passerby.

That didn’t mean she didn’t pay any attention to any of them, though.

A louder, echoing hiss perked Sue up, the noise unlike any other she’d heard while making her way around. The scene waiting for her once she’d glanced at the sound’s source was… unexpected, for a reason she wouldn’t have ever guessed.

The being responsible for the hiss looked almost segmented. Its body was split between a dark brown bulbous lower half with glowing, suspiciously face-like cutouts, and a lighter upper half, culminating with a small face with a few plumes of orange hair.

Prehensile orange hair, because of course it was prehensile.

As weird as this… entity was, the other one was more eye-catching, if for very different reasons. Despite being entirely made of leaves, petals, and plant bulbs, they were one of the most human-like beings Sue had seen yet, as far as shape went at least. Thick legs, a pear-shaped torso, a face without an immediately visible mouth, and a blooming flower on top of their head at a bit of an angle. Their arms being singular, long leaves and the silly yellow… shoes sure made Sue do a double take, though.

Half plant, half lady, and all… cute.

As pleasant as the sight was, Sue soon grew confused at hearing the two creatures argue about something. Ghastly hisses and rustles of leaves mixed in with smooth, sing-song whistling, their subject incomprehensible—or, at least, that’s what Sue thought before one of them pointed their arm straight at her, followed by the other one. They were still arguing with each other, and from what she could pick up from their emotions, it felt like the glowing face was egging the plant lady on about something, much to the latter’s embarrassment. But if so, what about—

!

The shift in the mood was palpable enough to give Sue whiplash as she focused on the duo again—the duo that was now staring back at her. For a split second, she worried about them taking her attention negatively, which… was the case, but not in the way Sue could’ve ever imagined.

Hisses turned into ghastly giggles as the hissing pumpkin laughed at the plant person’s burning embarrassment, the emotion downright visible on their cheeks. Before Sue could even react, the walking plant acted first, grabbing their buddy by a lock of orange hair before running off into the distance with them, towards what Sue suspected to be the local farm.

It took Solstice circling around after realizing that Sue had frozen at some point to finally shake her out of her shock. She had no idea what had just happened, and whether it was mean-spirited. She wanted to think that it wasn't, but… there was always that uncertainty, the sort that soon turned her thoughts sour the more she lingered on this subject.

Thinking about this won’t help me, but… ugh. Am I that much of a joke here already? No, not now, let’s think about something else instead.

“So, for humans, the age of adulthood is eighteen years old. What about the F-Forest Guardians?” Sue asked, wanting to distract herself. Despite how simple she had thought her question to be, it made Solstice think much more than she’d expected, and as she did, Sue felt some of her own thoughts being gently prodded.

The other Forest Guardian tried to figure out just what was the hard thing to understand here, looking curiously at her student before finally stumbling on a lead, the half-eaten sandwich in her mouth forcing her to use telepathy instead. “^There isn’t a set age. It’s when one evolves into their final form, the one we share. It happens at around eleven to thirteen years old.^”

There’s that word again.

“What doesh ‘evolving’ mean?”

As surprised as Solstice was at Sue’s actual age earlier, it paled compared to her shock at this particular question. Her eyes were wide as saucers as she blinked at Sue, finishing her bite and opening her mouth a couple times as if to speak—but no words came out. Solstice’s confusion was downright palpable, her pupil’s lack of knowledge about something so basic slamming her across the cranium. “Do—do you really not know?”

“No!” Sue raised her voice, partly in exasperation and partly in concern. “I’ve heard it mentioned a few timesh, and was meaning to ask th-this whole time.”

Solstice worked through her shock as she gave more thought to it all—seems the assumptions about how the other’s world worked went both ways. “Hmm. I… I have to admit that I’m just as confused as you are, Sue. Confused and more than a little curious, but that all can wait until lunch. Will make for a nice reward after practicing for a bit, doncha think? Until then, we’re there.”

The conical, rugged tent stood out from the rest of Moonview. Blue geometric markings covered its lower half, not unlike the ones on Solstice’s arms and face, while the upper, narrower part depicted the phases of the Moon. The Mayor pulled open the flap acting as the front entrance and gestured for her guest to come in, Sue gawking as she absorbed it all.

The inside was nowhere near as dim as Sue expected it to be without any windows. The thinner canvas closer to the top let a surprising amount of early sunlight in, letting her see everything clearly. A handful of thick rugs made for a welcome sensation for her feet after all the dirt, grass, and naked wood of the past few days.

A low-set, extinguished firepit took the center spot, surrounded with the world’s shortest fence to act as baby proofing, presumably. A small cauldron stood above it, Sue’s quick peek determining it to be empty.

“Alas, nothing in the pot,” Solstice giggled. “I made sure to empty it before our trip to Central City, lest it spoil. Haven’t had the time to refill it yesterday. Wonder if we—” she abruptly cut herself off, her mood suddenly faltering. Before Sue could ask if everything was alright, Solstice brushed it off, shaking her head at nobody in particular. “N-nevermind. Take a seat Sue, anywhere is fine.”

A handful of raised surfaces lined the edges of the tent. One of them, presumably Solstice’s bed, was marked off with a curtain and was much more plush than the rest. The others didn’t look all that different aside from looking rather barren. Regardless of whether they were couches or indeed spare beds, Sue took a seat on the smaller one, with Solstice taking the one opposite.

Sue could’ve sworn she saw her mentor’s expression twist into a grimace for just a split second before it returned to normal. Before she could ask if there was anything wrong, or even think through what had just happened, Solstice spoke up first. “Wonderful. Ready for your lesson?”

As ready as I’ll ever get.

“Swell! Let’s start with the obvious. How much do you already know?” Solstice asked, carefully lowering Comet down onto the carpeted floor. The tyke’s immediate reaction was aimless, excited waddling before he inadvertently circled back around to his mom—and plopped down as he and his mom felt Sue concentrate.

Sue’s mental handiwork was nowhere near as difficult to make sense of the third time around, thankfully. It only took her a few attempts to reach out with the extension of her mind, the invisible tentacle moving along with her physical arm until it had grasped the crutch, a white light immediately spreading to cover the tool’s entire handle.

She clenched her eyes even tighter as she tried moving the tool around, almost standing it up—only for it to slip out of her grasp. Her glow fizzled out as she opened her eyes, just in time to see the crutch fall back down onto the carpeted floor—and loudly catch her breath, not realizing how exerted even such a simple action had left her until she was done with it.

“Th-that’s—*pant*—that’s it, bashically.”

Solstice replied with a slow nod as she thought through what Sue had shown. It all only confirmed what she already knew—her guest was almost completely new to this in a way that felt downright disturbing considering her age. Still, it’s not like Sue lacked the ability, merely the practice and know how, and both of them she could provide in spades. “Alright~! What about telepathy?”

Sue shook her head, “Shundance d-didn’t have the t-time to show it to me too well.”

“Let’s start with that then, if that’s alright.”

“It ish. She mentioned a couple of things, something about mental links, but only briefly.”

“I imagine that was a tricky part for you?” Solstice leaned forward.

“I... yesh,” Sue sighed, unsure how the other Forest Guardian knew that, but she was right.

She wordlessly closed her eyes as she thought back to what she recalled of Sundance’s lecture, the instructions to focus on her sixth sense and home in on it, beyond just the surface-level emotion sensing. And, as opposed to her earlier attempt, it felt like she was succeeding this time, even if she was left with little idea of what to do afterwards.

“^That’s a start, but it won’t work as well with many others around,^” Solstice spoke up telepathically, her gentle voice echoing in Sue’s mind. “^You’ll have to learn how to tune the noise of emotions out. It takes a lot of practice, but even just doing it unskillfully will help a lot going forward. Lemme—^”

The sensation of another mental reach interfering with her own made Sue jump in her seat. Her eyes blipped open for a moment, only to spot Solstice and Comet focusing along with her. She shook that distraction shortly afterwards, once more withdrawing into her extrasensory perception and trying to pay attention to what her mentor was doing. Her expression twitched as the foreign aura touched her innermost sense, pushing the burning glare of the surrounding emotions much further away.

And with those tuned out, Sundance’s instructions from the previous day made much more sense; the actual blips of consciousness she was supposed to link to now made clear. Solstice’s was busy reaching out all the way over to her while Comet’s was... all over the place.

Their forms didn’t translate well to the visual senses at all. ‘Amoeba-shaped’ was the closest term Sue could think of, but even that was only an extremely crude approximation. Regardless of how they didn’t look, Sue had them in her mental sight. Her hand and the mental extremity bonded to it reached towards Solstice, closer and closer—

And then, the Mayor withdrew her help with tuning the emotions out, their blinding glare returning in an instant and breaking Sue’s concentration. A harsh grimace twisted her expression as she winced and flinched backwards, her lead completely lost.

“^Keep your composure,^” Solstice instructed. “^Follow what I did there.^”

It was much easier said than done, but Sue at least had the vaguest idea of how to do it. She tried to replicate her mentor’s actions by feel, and even if the end result was nowhere near as effective at turning out the surrounding emotions, it at least gave her some breathing room. It also made her inadvertently stick her left arm out to the side, her body replicating the push-like sensation to a too literal degree.

With nearby feelings somewhat tuned out, Sue finally went for it again. Her mental reach closed the remaining distance between herself and Solstice with one swift motion, moving as if about to jab her consciousness—

“Ugh!”

And judging by her pained grunt, that’s literally what might’ve just happened.

The sound and the muted sensation of pain that accompanied snapped Sue back to awareness. She snapped her eyes open, worriedly looking at Solstice—and growing dumbfounded at the unexpected position her arms were in. Fortunately, despite the older Forest Guardian’s wince, her pain was very brief. Some further rubbing of her temples drove the last of it away as she spoke back up, trying to soften her expression and voice. “I’m alright Sue, I’m alright, don’t worry.”

“I-I’m so shorry, what’d I do?” Sue asked, worry refusing to leave her.

“You used too much force. I know it’s hard with so little control over it, but you really have to keep a firm grasp on what you’re doing with your aura, or you run the risk of accidentally hurting someone. This was just a small Confusion, unlikely to cause more than a headache at the worst case, but the more practice you get, the stronger your aura will become, and the more it can hurt people.”

Oh, fuck.

Sue hadn’t thought of herself as someone physically capable of hurting anyone else here, but Solstice was right. Deep down, she might’ve been a human, but her body was of this world, one with no less strength than anyone else here, merely with no practice—practice that the realization made her even more keen to get.

She nodded intently, “I-I see. Do I try that again?”

“Yes, go ahead. Though I’ve got to say, I’ve never seen anyone use their hands while using their psychics as much as you have.”

“Oh,” Sue blinked, suddenly much more self-conscious. She forcibly rested her hands on her lap as if she’d just been caught cheating, embarrassment twisting her face.

Embarrassment that wasn’t intended by Solstice in the slightest, leaving her surprised with no idea of what had just happened. “What’s wrong?”

Sue asked, confused, “Wh—sh-shouldn’t I not be doing that?”

“No?” Solstice answered, uncertain about the source of Sue’s hangup. Still, more elaboration wouldn’t hurt. “If it helps, then keep doing that. Everyone has their own tricks to help them control their aura better, after all. Sundance’s wand isn’t just for show, hah. If moving your hands around makes it easier for you, then that’s all the reason in the world to keep using them. Maybe you can try to get better at using your psychics without that help down the line, but only if that’s something you feel you need to improve at.”

Sue felt relief fill her body at that framing, letting out a breath she wasn’t even aware she was holding. “I see. I-I thought it was just a—a crutch of sorts, shomething that’d make it unfairly easier.”

“Easier, absolutely—that’s the entire point, after all. But unfairly so? I don’t even know how you’d come to that conclusion. The goal is to grow more independent by honing your psychics. Who cares about how you accomplish that, or if you do it differently than others? I don’t see why anyone would judge you for that—and if anyone ever does, it’s none of their business,” Solstice reassured, beaming at her student. “Nothing wrong with using a crutch, no matter what form it takes.”

A crutch that her teeny son was busy inspecting as the two adults spoke, squeaking softly as he patted the wooden tool’s surface.

After a few moments for her to get her thoughts under control, Sue finally responded. “Thank you, Solstice.”

“You’re welcome, Sue.”

Sue watched the older Forest Guardian’s smile grow that much warmer at her reassurance working out. She spotted her hand moving on her lap in a petting motion—and felt the matching sensations on her shoulder moments later; the mental touch was no less warm and reassuring than the physical one.

“Though, I can’t deny being rather curious,” Solstice began, catching Sue’s attention. “Your previous kin, the ‘humans’. They—uh, you—must use your hands a lot, right?”

The question initially took Sue off guard, but… the answer was overwhelming in how trivial it was. Sue nodded firmly before answering, “All the time, for everything.”

“Figures you find it easy to use them, then! So much of your subconscious mind must be devoted to knowing how to control them, that it’s easiest for other things to map onto them. Hope the Forest Guardian hands are a suitable replacement at least, hah.”

The remark made Sue focus on her new hands. They were… weird, and she didn’t enjoy looking at them, especially at their weirdly proportioned, pointy fingers and the lack of fingernails.

Guess they’re usable enough in the end.

“They’re... okay.”

Solstice didn’t expect her pupil’s response to be so frank, leaving her equal parts amused at the honesty and sorry for Sue for not enjoying her new body. She didn’t outwardly display either of those emotions, though, redirecting the topic back to the lesson at hand instead. “In any case—let’s get back into the swing of things, hmm?”

Sue was not opposed to that idea in the slightest, pushing everything else out of her mind as she re-focused on the exercise ahead of her, hands involuntarily rising to move in tandem with her mental reach.

“Try what you did last time, just slower,” Solstice instructed. “Take as long as you need, Sue.”

Let’s do this.

Sue heeded her advice, tuning the surrounding emotions out with slower, more deliberate actions. Once the mindscape wasn’t blindingly bright anymore, she extended her aura in Solstice’s direction, keeping at it until it finally made contact with the other Forest Guardian’s aura. The sensation felt less so like touching and more like… intertwining, unlike anything Sue had ever felt and yet so, so very right at the same time.

Even in her focus, Sue felt the pride blooming in her mentor, the faint whispers of thoughts she could now overhear matching that emotion.

“^Great! Now—back—again!^” Solstice beamed, her words choppy as they traversed through the link between their minds, reminding Sue of a bad satellite connection.

Sentences were chopped up into individual words, leaving most of the meaning intact, but not all of it. The quality of the communication was a concern for another time—right now, all Sue wanted was to get better at the one thing she’d pulled off.

Without even needing to be prompted, the once-human withdrew mentally all the way back before starting again, repeating the entire routine a bit faster this time. And then she did it again, and again, Solstice soon not even needing to guide her anymore as she watched her pupil practice.

Comet just squeaked in confusion, finding the repetitive mental motions comforting and wanting to feel more of them. It didn’t take long until Sue had tried connecting to him, too. His aura was much more lively, requiring Sue to either chase it a bit or slow down to not impact it too harshly. The tyke was oblivious to her struggles, just giggling happily at every successful connection. His mom wasn’t as amused, keeping a hand on the pulse of Sue’s training to make sure no accidents would happen. Soon enough, though, the young Forest Guardian had more of it under control than Solstice could’ve ever hoped for, her pride glowing brighter and brighter.

It’s so comforting.

“^Wanna switch over to telekinesis for a bit?^” Solstice asked excitedly, interrupting her pupil’s umpteenth repetition. Sue opened her eyes and nodded at her beaming mentor, not opposed to changing tracks for a while. As she took a moment to grab her bearings, feeling the full intensity of her mentor’s joy washing over her with nothing to muffle it anymore, Solstice whisked Comet away and moved her crutch before her once more.

With her breath caught, Sue focused again, both of her hands shifting and turning as she directed her aura to the tool in front of her. Her first attempt might’ve only dragged the crutch along the carpeted floor, but that changed as Sue kept trying it, pushing her telekinesis that bit harder each time. Her mental muscles soon began to complain in exertion as she tried to think the piece of wood into the air—but she had something better in mind for them to do than rest.

Sue’s hands grasped the air as her mental reach grasped the crutch again and again, the accompanying white glow growing larger and larger each time. In not too long, she’d finally managed to lift a part of the tool off the ground, if only for a moment before exertion forced her to let go of it again.

“That’s it, that’s it, keep going!” Solstice encouraged, bringing Sue’s motivation to an all-time high as she forced herself through the repetitions.

Each attempt pushed her limits that bit further, and even if it was only a literal millimeter each time, it all added up. And all along, her mentor kept cheering for her with words and emotions alike, keeping her going even if she would’ve long since stopped on her own because of exhaustion.

This feels right, this feels so right!

“You can do it, sweetie, just that bit stronger!”

*squeak!*

Sue smiled that bit wider at Comet joining in on the cheers, the added bit of motivation pushing her even further as her hands shook more and more with each go. She would need a break soon, but not before getting this thing in the air first—no shot she wouldn’t.

I got this.

“Just a bit more! Grasp as hard as you can!”

Sue did as instructed, the surrounding joy bathing her in rejuvenating warmth, letting her push herself even harder, even further. Her arms shook as her hands bundled into fists, the entirety of her mind focused on this singular task. At last, she grasped the crutch with all her strength, finally surrounding all of it with her aura as it took to air, her eyelids snapping open as she witnessed her own accomplishment. Jubilant pride filled her at the sight, even as hard as it was to make out through all the light emanating from her eyes.

And then, it all shattered in an instant.​

“You did it Aurora, you did—*gasp*!”

The celebratory atmosphere disappeared as if a switch had been flicked; Solstice’s pride immediately replaced with a harrowed, shameful realization. The whiplash shattered Sue’s focus, the bang of her crutch hitting the floor startling both her and Comet as they stared at Solstice in worry. Sue gasped, “Solstice, what’s—”

“I-I-I’m so sorry.”

Solstice’s voice was little more than a whimper as Sue’s crutch was hovered up into her reach before, moments later, she felt the Mayor’s psychics forcibly move her back onto her legs, pushing her towards the tent’s entrance. She barely held her balance, shouting—“Solstice, wh-what’s going on!?”

But there was no response.

Sue’s last glance at her mentor saw a tortured, tearful expression, one too ashamed to look back at her even as it forced her out of the tent, making her almost fall over there and then. She felt Solstice’s grief cling to her, its sheer torrent forcing tears out of her. She was startled, panicking, worried whether the Mayor was alright, and terrified beyond words at the possibility that she’d caused this.

“S-Solstice...”, she whimpered, voice catching in her throat as tears flowed on. All she heard from the inside of the tent were heavy sobs and Comet’s quiet cries, the little one now sad together with his mom.

It was too much, their shared despair leaving Sue barely able to keep upright. She was exhausted, completely on her own at the wood’s edge, with no idea of where she even was, and with nobody that could understand her around.

Abandoned.

She felt irrational anger drip into her mind at that thought, expression turning into a scowl at feeling betrayed. It didn’t take long until that too burned out into more sadness, though, sadness that only exhausted her further. With nothing else left to do, she grasped the crutch’s handle as tight as she could still manage, shaking in exertion as she turned to face Moonview again and began her slow trek back.

Feeling so,

utterly,



alone.



If you're confused about the species of the characters and want them spoiled, I've set up a page listing the species of all the featured characters in each chapter!

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Also check out my other story, From the Vast!
 
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Chapter 10: Birthright

redspah

the gay agenda
Pronouns
she/her


Chapter 10: Birthright



It only took a few shambled steps for Sue’s exhaustion to really hit her.

Her expression turned into a pained grimace as she tried to keep pushing forward, painfully sore all over. It was bad enough to where she worried whether she’d even be able to make it to Willow’s clinic—or avoid fainting where she stood, for that matter.

The wisps of panic sprouting from that thought joined the stirring pot of misery that was her mind, only making basic movement even harder. Getting around was hardly the only concern bubbling in there, either—responsibility for what had happened to Solstice, fear of the rest of Moonview learning of her role in the Mayor’s breakdown, her own powerlessness to stop it.

What did she do?

What did I do?

Why does it hurt so much—

*crackle*


The sudden noise took Sue aback, stopping her pitiful march before it could even really begin. It sounded like a roaring flame trying its hardest to whisper, with the accompanying worry palpable to her sixth sense. Neither that sensation nor their sounds could’ve prepared her for the stranger’s physical appearance, though.

Sue might’ve begrudgingly accepted the existence of actual ghosts by now, and that some of them could be nice, even if Hazel wasn’t… the best example of that fact. Even with all that in mind, though, a floating bedsheet was the last entity she expected to see here, feeling almost like a joke at her expense—even if the being hiding underneath wasn’t in any jovial mood.

As to what it—they even were, Sue had no idea. They levitated with no visible legs, had a large point at its top that the off-white shroud draped on, and… seemed to glow. Kinda. A cold light illuminated the fabric below a straight cut-off line, but without it casting any shadows, it didn’t give her any ideas of what the stranger could’ve looked like. Despite their weirdness—even by Moonview’s standards—they were still concerned for her, though.

Another fiery crackle grabbed Sue’s attention as the other creature’s worry grew, making her realize just how obviously messed up she must’ve looked. Her face was sodden with tears, her path so far veered to the side despite being only a few meters long, and she winced with every ever-pitiful step.

As close to misery incarnate as it gets.

Sue’s attempt to repeat the freshly practiced telepathy only netted her an outburst of burning pain in her head, almost sending her down onto the grass there and then. She gritted her teeth as she leaned on a nearby building, clenching her eyes closed and sensing the floating bedsheet growing even more alarmed at the sight. “D-don’t whorry,” she tried to mutter, “I-I’ll be—”

*swoosh!*

Before she could even finish her sentence, the stranger had left, zipping around the corner faster than she would’ve guessed they could based on their appearance alone. Sue might’ve felt only barely capable of pushing forward on her own, but she decidedly didn’t want to wait here for them to return with company—not so close to Solstice’s outpouring of despair.

Onward, onward, onward.

Sue took off with a determined grunt, clutching her crutch even harder as she ventured deeper into Moonview. Each step drained more and more of the little strength that she had left, the accompanying winces drawing worried looks towards her. Using all the burning determination she could muster, she didn’t acknowledge any of them, only doubling down on her desperate march as the last of her tears dried up. Even if that headstrong part of her wanted to push on forever, Sue was acutely aware of how little she had left in her—no way she was making it to Willow’s clinic, not like this.

She needed to stop and rest, no matter how much she hated that thought.

The rough bench she’d eventually spotted in the corner of her vision made her gasp as she beelined for it, almost tripping over nothing a few times. In just a few strenuous seconds, she was there, less sitting down and more so collapsing on the cold, rough wood, bringing immeasurable relief.

Fuck whichever god got me here, and everyone else… thanks for the bench.

With her rear finally resting on a flat surface, Sue broke into raspy panting and let go of her crutch. She kept trying to plan her next step between her breaths, forcing the little of her brain that wasn’t hurting to come up with something despite how much it too wanted to rest.

She had to gather her bearings and make it back to Willow’s clinic; that was the rough outline. As she examined the nearby buildings, she tried to remember them from her past walks around the place, soon coming up with a tenuous route that, if not directly to the clinic, ought to have at least led her back to someplace she recognized.

And from there, straight to bed and a nap. Good Duck, could she use a nap—but only then!

Don’t get any funny ideas, body.

The last thing she wanted to do was doze off on the bench, fall off mid-nap, and end up making even more of a scene. Or, Duck forbid, somehow break her other leg.

Before Sue could finish getting the equal parts terrifying, embarrassing, and amusing mental image out of her mind, she heard a loud cry coming from nearby. It was rough and low pitched, but… not aggressive from what she could tell, keeping her from getting too startled. The sound was much too soft to be a hiss or a growl, sitting ambiguously in the middle and leaving her wondering what kind of creature could even make noises like that—for about half a second before she finished turning her head. “H-hi Astra, hi Joy!”

Joy’s harsh sounding greeting from Astra’s arms single-handedly broke Sue’s weary expression into a shaky smile, especially when it was combined with the little maw girl excitedly pointing her out to the dragon, the latter answering with a soft giggle. The toothy tyke wasted no time before scrambling over to her tall friend once her guardian had lowered her down, wrapping her arms around Sue’s torso.

The bench didn’t have enough space to accommodate Astra, but she wasn’t bothered—especially with her line of sight ending up around Sue’s once she’d sat down on the grass beside the bench.

As excited as Joy was to run into Sue, her happiness soon wavered at noticing her obviously roughed up state. The shaky movements, the wetness on her cheeks, the uncertain smile. It only took Joy pointing her little finger up Sue’s face for Astra to notice and grow alarmed too—followed by leaning in and pulling both Joy and Sue into a gentle embrace, patting the Forest Guardian’s back with her massive paw.

“I-I’m okay, I’m okay, I—I can’t understand you, Astra,” Sue sighed. Her garbled words were enough for the dragon to realize the lack of any translator around, but with the nearby streets not having anyone who could help with that, Astra was out of ideas.

That didn’t mean that she’d stopped dishing out her affection, though—or that it didn’t help. It helped so much more than Sue would’ve ever thought it would, especially with Joy doubling down on her weak hugs as well.

Moment by moment, the surrounding warmth slowly banished all the leftover gloom Solstice’s breakdown had left her with. She breathed easier, felt lighter, the modest pain rocking through her body easing out with every breath. For a moment, she wanted to pretend that all this was just a result of finally sitting back down and resting her body, but… she couldn’t, not when the effects were this stark.

Guess Forest Guardians interpret the power of positive thinking much more literally.

As fascinating as that observation was, Sue’s attention soon shifted back to the pair of vastly different friends bathing her in said positive thinking. Her arms reached out, trying to wrap around them both as she appreciated the dragon’s quiet mumbling, incoherent as it was. “Th-thank you both...”

Even if they didn’t fare any better at understanding her than the other way around, they still got the gist. Their hugs grew stronger, Joy’s especially, her front head nuzzling Sue’s midriff. Quite a few pets were in order as thanks for that, and the toothy tyke appreciated them no less than the last time once they were dispensed. This time, though, Sue wanted to try something else as well. She waited until Joy was done nuzzling her head into her palm, then carefully stroked the top of her large maw, avoiding the bandage still wrapping it.

Despite a brief jolt of surprise, it soon became clear that Joy enjoyed having her back face pet even more than her front one. Moment by moment, the shock evaporated and left only calm, comfort, and desire for more affection, expressed with quiet mumbles as her whole small body shuddered.

Astra was no less surprised at this development than Joy, but soon grew just as happy, mentally jotting Sue’s discovery down. As glad as she was to have discovered that about the little one she watched over, though, Sue was still exhausted and clearly needed a pick-me-up. She cleared her throat, catching both girls’ attention before saying something to Joy, and then repeating it for good measure. The toothy tyke clearly had only a partial understanding of the dragon’s words—if even that—but that didn’t stop her from absentmindedly nodding in response.

Left none the wiser about nobody understanding what she’d just said, the dragon took off into the air. The fierce gusts of wind in her wake sent Sue’s front lock of hair flapping against her face as she watched Astra fly towards the clearing.

Suppose we can sit here for a while longer.

Sue didn’t mind, and—judging by her relaxation—neither did Joy. The small, out-of-the-way bench gave them a pretty good look at the various creatures passing by. The tyke was understandably much more focused on her big friend than any assorted strangers she wanted little to do with, though.

Ironically, the incoming attention went mostly in the opposite direction.

Hardly anyone cared about the injured Forest Guardian—she was old news at this point—but the toothy child on her lap kept drawing the passersby’s focus, be it positive or not. As much as Sue glared whenever she’d sensed the latter, though, Joy wasn’t paying enough attention to notice it, to her temporary guardian’s relief.

The more Sue watched the passersby, the more taken aback she got at the sheer diversity Moonview—and by extension, this world—had. Not just in species, but also in how close they were to any animals she recognized from Earth, the group that settled down across the road from them exemplifying that range. A couple of its members tingled the Forest Guardian’s recollection and caught her attention, especially now that she had enough time and light to examine them closer.

One of them was just a donkey. An actual little brown and cream donkey, reaching to her waist at the shoulder and looking so ridiculously… mundane that Sue had to do a double take. If not for them clearly talking with their friends with brays and slightly different proportions, she wouldn’t have spared them a second glance back in her own world.

The pink creature beside them, though, looked straight out of a nightmare—a nightmare Sue was familiar with by now; their initial appearance at the clinic permanently burned into her memory. She was still baffled at how they combined the creepiest parts of bats and scorpions, their massive fangs a cherry on top. The way they crawled up a nearby lamppost, the way they just waved their tail and its huge stinger around, it all left Sue spooked.

Spooked, and annoyed that it was the shy maw girl beside her that was the focus of so much negative attention and not that pink demon. For crying out loud, that stinger full of Duck-knows-what alone was ten times more dangerous than anything Joy could dish out!



On second thought, it was probably not a good idea to think about the passersby’s lethality—both to avoid dehumanizing them, and to preserve some of her rapidly dwindling sanity.

…’Dehumanizing’? ‘Depersonifying’? Neither? Anyway.

Somewhere between the normalcy of the donkey and the nightmarish-ness of the winged scorpion sat the last member of their tagalong group. There wasn’t anything immediately off-putting about them, or even that weird—at least, beyond them being a light green plant bulb the size of her head, with several stubby extremities that let them move around. And grasp objects, if splitting up a small bounty of a few fruits between the rest of their group of presumably children was any sign.

It was that living plant that eventually drew the group’s attention towards Sue and Joy, their responses differing greatly—especially regarding the toothy girl. The bulb just gave them both a friendly wave, but the other two instead chatted nervously amongst themselves, enough so for it to break into an argument, fortunately without shouting.

It was still enough to catch Joy’s attention, though. The maw girl clung onto her friend even harder in fear once she’d turned to see the source of the noise, making Sue’s eyes narrow—the dots weren’t exactly hard to connect. Once the Forest Guardian was done pulling the little one closer, her focus shifted to leering at the arguing kids. The pink bat reeled immediately while their donkey friend kept talking to them, in what had to be the most lethargic raised voice mathematically possible—until a whistled question from the plant finally interrupted their spat.

The donkey answered shortly after, taking the bulb aback as they first looked at the pink bat, then over at Joy, and then back at the bat, raising their voice soon after. With a double-sized dose of chiding from their friends and a piercing glare from Sue, the flying scorpion had had enough. They hissed something out before taking to air and dashing behind the nearest corner, the rest of the group left annoyed and confused in equal measure.

I’m neither skilled nor strong enough to actually hurt that pink freak, but if I ever get my hands on them—

A firmer hug from Joy broke Sue’s wrathful train of thought, her arms shaking as she returned the affection and resumed her petting. She banished her anger one deep breath at a time as she whispered, “I-I won’t let anyone touch you again as lhong as I’m h-here, Joy.” The girl didn’t understand the exact words, but they mattered the least at the moment. Her friend’s embrace, affection, the reassuring tone. Feeling cared for, protected,

Safe.

As Sue focused on the toothy girl beside her, she felt the emotions and attentions of the two remaining kids shift. First onto her, then onto Joy, themselves, and finally, at something else. Something weird enough to catch much more of their attention. Something in the direction of her and Joy, but what—



As she huddled together with Joy, Sue suddenly felt a very different, very unnerving sensation. Something cold, slimy, and wriggly was pressing itself into the other side of her lap.

I don’t wanna look I don’t wanna look I don’t wanna look—-

The maw girl felt her friend’s sudden freeze, peering out of her hug to see just who the intruder was. Somewhat reassuringly, she wasn’t bothered by the sight that awaited them, left curious more than anything else. If nothing else, it gave Sue the confidence to at least check what was happening, whole body bracing as she slowly turned her head and witnessed… something that was much less immediately terrifying than it could’ve been.

The two large barbs on both ends of the brown caterpillar were secured with small balls of yellowish wax, keeping them disarmed. It was amusing enough to almost make Sue overlook them having those massive stingers, to begin with—but only almost. Even knowing she wouldn’t be getting stung by them anytime soon, she still audibly gulped, the caterpillar only barely reacting to suddenly becoming the center of attention.

Their front perked up for a moment to return Sue’s frightful glare, the two locking eyes for a second—before they immediately went back to trying to crawl onto her lap, much to Joy’s giggles.

At least she finds this funny.

“Please get off m-me...” Sue whimpered. But with her plea not getting responded to at all, she knew she’d have to do it herself. With all the care she could muster, she reached over to pick the bug up and put them back down somewhere else. Or, at least, she was gathering the strength to attempt doing just that, praying internally for someone to come and take that thing off her.

For once, her prayers would be answered immediately.

Sue jolted at seeing a yellow blur in the corner of her vision, but its source had already bolted off to the side by the time she could look at it. Loud buzzes and palpable, worried confusion filled the Forest Guardian’s senses as her eyes played catch-up with the stranger, only succeeding after they’d stopped to look her way.

Why did it have to be bees?

All the various bugs clad in yellow and black already had a permanent spot on Sue’s shit list, and this one being the size of that flying hell scorpion, able to move blazingly fast, and wielding massive, glistening spikes for arms did nothing to endear them any. Their arm-spikes were disarmed in the same way as the caterpillar’s barbs, which helped Sue’s sanity somewhat, but any relief that might’ve brought was then immediately undone by the stinger in the ‘normal’ position still being exposed and dangerous.

Oh, and they kept buzzing at her, because why wouldn’t they. For what it was worth, though, the sounds Sue could sense being aimed towards her were clearly apologetic. It was the caterpillar that got their share of chiding instead as the bee swept in and picked them up, their speed leaving Sue even further intimidated.

As thankful as Sue was for the oversized insect taking what likely was a baby of their species away, she couldn’t deny wanting them to fly anywhere but here, and preferably to the next continent over. They had other plans, though, continuing their attempts to chat her up despite receiving no response. She had no idea why—she couldn’t sense any ulterior emotions or motives in them or their actions, but that only made their enthusiastic insistence on chatting with her even more confusing.

After a solid few minutes, they finally realized the Forest Guardian wasn’t responding, giving them a pause. The resulting silence finally gave Sue an opportunity to respond, and even if it wouldn’t be a straightforward answer, it’d at least convey the crux of the issue. “I’m shorry, I can’t understand you.”

Finally, an emotion I can empathize with—utmost confusion.

Sue chuckled weakly as the bee turned towards the pair of kiddos on the other side of the road; their subsequent question answered predictably. No, they didn’t know what the heck this Forest Guardian had just said, either. Unfortunately, that didn’t result in the one thing Sue really, really hoped it would—namely, the insect being deterred in the slightest. Instead, they kept trying with much slower buzzes and accompanied by waving their massive stinger arms at her.

As much as a part of her wanted to, Sue couldn’t pretend she didn’t understand that gesture, arms shaking as she waved back at them. Joy copied her action soon after, sending the bee into a laughing fit for some reason. Unfortunately for Sue, though, now that the bee had seen her communicate, they wouldn’t even think of relenting anymore. Once a few more communication attempts failed, they finally took matters into their own stingers, hovering beside her and carefully grabbing her hand between the two wax balls that capped their spikes.

It took Sue her entire willpower to not yank it back with a terrified shriek there and then.

To her further dismay, they still weren’t done, pulling her limb towards themselves as they flew up, as if trying to drag her onto her feet. It seemed the only way forward was to follow them, lest they expressed their impatience in a much more painful way. Sue gulped at the associated mental image as she got up. Joy’s confused squeak fell on deaf ears as she scrambled along, huddling as close to her friend as she could.

To little surprise, the bee was no less excitable than before. They constantly pointed the way as Sue ambled on, commenting on everything in sight—and especially on what soon turned out to be the group’s destination.

What the hell is that place…

The first descriptor that came to Sue’s mind was a massive, termite hill with half a wooden shack embedded in it. As superfluous as the door of the latter looked considering how many holes the former had, it also was where Sue was eventually led to, bracing herself for Duck-knows-what once the bee had opened the door. The room that awaited them was small and sparsely decorated, with little more than straw littering the floor. It was hardly boring as a result, though, with one of its walls missing and instead opening into the myriad tunnels of the insect nest.

The occasional twitching inside them didn’t exactly fill Sue with confidence.

Their impromptu guide eventually laid down their caterpillar… offspring before diving into one of the tunnels, leaving Sue alone for once. To her unending gratitude, the little bug didn’t climb onto her again, opting instead to close their eyes and try to rest. As muddled and half-formed as their emotions were, the exhaustion in them was clear to see.

Before Joy could waddle over and pet the impromptu friend to help them sleep better or Sue could gather the courage to run away, the bee had returned from their delve. They brought a huge egg in their stinger arms, carefully placing it down in an opening close to Sue’s eye level and hovering beside her as if to show it off.

Insect eggs were hardly surprising on their own, though Sue wouldn’t have thought they would look so similar to bird eggs. This one was the shape and size of an ostrich egg, colored equal parts green and yellow. It even jittered from time to time, as if whoever rested inside kept stirring in their unborn sleep.

Wouldn’t have thought that an unhatched mutant insect could feel so… cute.

Judging from the bee’s excitement, pride, and a bit of concern, the egg was also one of their offspring. Suppose them being this hyper was slightly more understandable with that in mind, even if it didn’t explain why they had been dragged here. Still uncertain, Sue mumbled, “Umm... con-congratulations?”

Adding further to her confusion, the bee kept nudging her beyond just staring at the pretty egg, gesturing… something towards it. Sue had no idea how to decipher their intent, eventually wagering a guess and reaching towards the egg with her free hand—only for the bee to instantly shield the egg with their body, cutting her off as their emotions turned to shock.

Okay I get it no touching please don’t kill me please please—

If not for them simply shaking their head with no anger she could sense, Sue would’ve skipped straight to hitting the legs. Instead, she was left paralyzed in place as she tried to make sense of it all, stewing in her own stress. She’d been left at such an uncomfortable impasse that even her next idea was less anxiety-inducing than continuing to stand here like a dope.

The strained parts of her mind had gotten less sore since she was shoved out of Solstice’s tent, making it possible to try talking to someone again. It’d still suck and be painful and Sue really didn’t want to be forced to do it, but she had no idea what else she could try anymore, considering her choices were either trying her luck with telepathy or continuing to stand there dumbfounded like a moron.

The prospect of finally communicating with someone by herself was exciting, though, pushing her on despite how much her circumstances filled her with dread. Adding to her confusion, the bee grew palpably happier once she’d begun to focus, not clarifying any of it.

Thankfully, I can just ask them about it in a second.

Using her hands made controlling her psychics much easier, but it also meant that being left with just one working arm made the entire process much more awkward. Many, many more emotions in her immediate vicinity didn’t help either, and if not for her roaring anxiety, she would’ve probably stopped there and then.

Her grip on all this was already shaky, and that was with the idealized conditions of Solstice’s training. Sue knew she shouldn’t have kept going, but by then, she wanted nothing more than to be out of this mess as soon as she could.

Despite Sue’s awkward pose, using her free hand to tune out nearby emotions worked enough to let her continue, even if at the cost of a steadily creeping headache. With the pathway to the bee’s mind clear, her crutch hand and limited mental control began to twitch as she reached her psychics towards them, towards the insect that had dragged her into all this.

And maybe she would’ve even reached them, but Fate had different plans.

Sue’s increasingly awkward grip on her crutch made it slip slightly on the straw that covered the floor, throwing her off balance. Her right arm moved wildly to regain it, succeeding soon after—and driving her mental tendril straight through the bee’s mind.

FUCK.

Their head exploded with pain, unrelenting even as they tried holding their head with their stingers and buzzed loudly. Sue immediately realized what she’d done, the fear of the stranger’s retribution making her hyperventilate as she backed off, deaf to Joy’s alarmed squeaks by then.

The bee’s pain soon gave way to hurt, annoyance, and then, at last, anger. That latter emotion hastened Sue’s retreat as their eyes narrowed and their buzzing grew pointed. She wanted to run; she wanted to apologize—and the realization she wasn’t capable of either tied her mind in ever tighter panicked knots.

I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m—oh Duck thank you please help explain this mess!

Seeing the leafy caretaker open the shack’s door made the once-human grow weak with relief. Her whole body ached as she bounded forward until she ended up behind Splitleaf, hoping beyond hope she’d be able to defuse the situation. Joy caught up with her as the plant-like mantis and the decidedly non-plant-like bee exchanged buzzes, both trying to figure out what was going on in here.

To Sue’s distress, though, their conversation hadn’t made the bee any calmer, with the insect nanny soon turning to face her with an unamused, angry expression. She desperately wished she could explain that it was all an accident and apologize, but the ever-tightening bind of panic left her just standing there, unable to whimper even a single word. Her lack of response left the mantis agitated at not being graced with a response, and before the realization of how overwhelmed Sue must’ve been could settle in, the group all heard a sound from the outside.

*growwl?*

Astra!


The dragon’s voice pierced Sue’s panic for long enough to let her shamble out of the shack and run towards the dragon, almost crashing into a passerby before clinging to Astra’s soft, orange body. She trembled in panic as she looked away from the mess of her own making, tears of fear and anxiety flowing freely down her cheek as her overstimulation tuned out any further discussion taking place around her.

She felt Astra grow confused as she was pulled into the conversation, evidently unsure what to think. Despite her uncertainty, she erred on the side of comforting her tall friend first and asking questions later. Splitleaf and the bee weren’t all too happy to see that, slamming the shack’s door closed soon after. The sound made Sue flinch and freeze, heart racing a mile a minute as Astra gently patted her back.

“I’m shorry...” she whimpered quietly, much too late.

Astra was already busy huddling them all to the side of the road, letting the weary Forest Guardian lean on her as long as she needed. Bit by bit, Sue unwound from her panic attack, and the zesty fruit roll the dragon had given her once she’d stopped hyperventilating helped greatly. Until, at last, only guilt and regret remained.

I… I just hurt that stranger for no reason, haven’t I? They probably just wanted to share the joy of having another child on the way and for that, I repaid them with misery and didn’t even apologize afterward. I made Solstice have a breakdown, hurt that bee... I can’t fucking do anything right, can I—

Before Sue’s train of thought could drag her deeper into the quicksand pit of self-loathing, she felt Astra’s body move. She glanced up, seeing the dragon waving at someone down the road, out of her view—or, at least, out of view until her ears peeked out from the crowd.

The rest of the surprised Sundance revealed herself soon after, eyes going a bit wider at the scene before her. Her confusion soon turned into concern at Sue’s situation, though. She calmly asked, “Are you alright, Sue?”, her question only partially rhetorical. She was just as clueless as everyone else about what had happened, both earlier today and just now.

The rest of the group listened keenly at finally being able to understand Sue, waiting patiently until she whimpered, “I-I don’t th-think sho...”

Astra and Joy held her tighter as Sundance nodded at her response. “Would you want to talk about it? One on one?”

Leaving her friends in the dark felt bad to think about, but… she would probably need to. Even beyond what had just happened, there was little Sue wanted more right now than to figure out what was going on with the bee, with Solstice, with Pollux, with Night Father.

Especially from the one person who seemed like she knew everything.

“Y-yeah…” Sue sighed.

“Hope you feel better soon, Sue! You didn’t mean it, right?” Astra asked cheerfully. There weren’t many things she could’ve been referring to, making Sue’s expression grew more pained as she shakily nodded, adding further fuel to the fire of Joy’s tiny hug. “I knew it wasn’t like you to do something like that! Are you gonna say sorry?”

Sue wanted to apologize, wanted to do that so much, the reminder of what she’d done almost pushing her to a breakdown again. To her relief, Sundance gave her a hand, though, “It’s best if Sue waits until the tension defuses some more and everyone calms down.”

“Of course, ma’am!” the dragon nodded.

Sundance chuckled at her response. She wasn’t a fan of titles, and while in other circumstances she would’ve brought it up to Astra, Sue’s wellbeing was occupying the vast majority of her attention at the moment. She patted the Forest Guardian’s back. “Let us get going, Sue.”

It took Sue a moment to detach herself from Astra’s comfort. Thankfully, Joy gave her enough space to shamble until she could grab Sundance’s paw. The vixen was taken aback at that, but ultimately didn’t complain, instead offering her a faint smile. “Shorry for all this,” Sue muttered. “I-I’ll see you both later. You’re both great...”

“Awwww,” Astra cooed, “so are you, Sue! Feel better soon!”

Joy’s stutters were much less understandable than Astra’s words, but their warmth was much the same. Sue gave the toothy girl a tired smile before taking off with the fiery vixen, the latter keeping her pace down as she mentally whispered, “^Would you want me to fetch Solstice—^”

I can’t think of a worse idea than that.

“No no no no, do not, th-there’s no need to,” Sue pleaded.

Her forceful rejection took Sundance aback, leaving the mystic more surprised than Sue had ever seen her up to that point. It didn’t last long once the vixen got her bearings, though, acknowledging her pupil’s response as she guided her further into Moonview. “^Alright.^”

“Wh-where are you t-taking me?”

“^My dwelling. I initially considered taking you to Willow’s clinic and grabbing Spark along the way, but considering how you answered that... it’s something very private, isn’t it?^”

Sue tilted her head to the sides, uncertain how to answer. “More sho just... scary and confusing...”

The vixen’s curiosity only grew as she led Sue towards a large—for Moonview’s standards—building she’d seen a few times by then. Even beyond its second floor, it stood out greatly from its surroundings, the pale stone it was made of unlike anything else around. The intricate patterns chiseled into the lower floor’s exterior provided a clue as to its inhabitant’s occupation.

Their destination, however, was the upper floor.

It was shaped like a dome with a circular opening at the top. A large canvas patch flapped beside said opening, attached to something Sue couldn’t make out. She might not have been afraid of heights, but the stairs leading up to Sundance’s dwelling made her reconsider.

Why do these not have guardrails… o-or even just anything to hold onto…

Sue’s palpable fear made Sundance add a new item to her to-do list. “Apologies. I didn’t realize how frightening you’d find the stairs.”

“It’s alright... th-though it wouldn’t pass inspection where I live. O-or lived, I guess...”

The vixen blinked. “Inspection?”

The question lingered in the air as they made their way into Sundance’s dwelling. Its layout turned out to be not too different to Solstice’s tent, comprising a single open space with no designated rooms. The ceiling being set much higher than anywhere else in Moonview made it much more welcoming to Sue’s human sensibilities, and even if the dwelling as a whole reminded her of a messy studio apartment, there was an order to its layout.

On a closer look, each corner turned out to have a designated purpose. A large flat stone slab above a wood-fired stove made for an obvious kitchen, especially with a few other counters around it. The spacious, plush bedding must’ve been the bedroom, or the bed-corner. Heaps of ceramic jugs and woven baskets full of food and other supplies were a clear pantry.

The last corner, though, was much more confusing, mostly in that the last thing Sue expected Sundance to have in her dwelling was a rudimentary workshop. Saws, picks, clamps, flat surfaces, a bunch of wooden scraps.

Tinker, Mystic, Psychic… Spy. Need to work on that last one.

As Sue took the sights in, Sundance grabbed a large ceramic cup from the kitchen and filled it with water from one of the pots. Afterwards, she began adding bunches and pinches of contents of the other pots, filling the air with a mixture of familiar and alien smells alike, tingling Sue’s nostrils. “Take a seat on the yellow one,” the vixen instructed. “And… ‘inspection’?”

A direct command snapped Sue out of her spaced-out state; her brief confusion eased once she spotted the two recliner chairs facing each other at the center of the room. Their covers, one yellow and one orange, made it clear which one she was supposed to take—as did the ‘orange’ chair looking incomparably more worn down.

As she stumbled over to her seat, Sue got to explaining her Earth-y aside. “Umm, when you b-build a new building where I’m from, it has to fit certain requirements, especially about shafety. So then, someone qualified comes in and ch-checks the plans before you can even start building it.”

“I see,” Sundance nodded thoughtfully. “A dedicated person ensuring construction safety? That sounds like an... exceptionally narrow of a role.”

“Oh, it’s not, there are sho many buildings going up all the time th-they have their hands full, no doubt,” Sue clarified, leaving the vixen thoroughly dumbfounded.

Moonview was putting up a new building around twice a Moon at their current rate, and said buildings couldn’t possibly take more than a few minutes each to be ‘inspected’. Just how ridiculously many buildings must have Sue’s people been building for even one person to be occupied with inspecting them full time? Sundance summed it up, muttering, “That’s... hard to imagine.”

Sue giggled, “It helps th-that human cities are much, much bigger than M-Moonview.”

A large part of the fiery vixen really, really wanted to question her inter-universal guest about the size of her world and its implications. She doubted she’d be able to keep herself from doing that forever, but at the moment, her curiosity played a distant second fiddle to Sue’s concerns. “Remind me to ask you more about your world sometime. I... had not realized it would be as different as your words here are implying it to be.”

Sue raised her eyebrow at the vixen’s words; Earth wasn’t that different from here—oh. Well, not too different as far as natural vegetation and geology went, probably, but… that wasn’t everything, was it now. Even beyond this world being populated by magical mutants, the effect that several centuries of global human civilization had left on Earth was impossible to deny—or overlook. Eventually, Sue muttered, “I will.”

Even if Sue couldn’t lean into the seat because of her back horn, sitting down still brought immense relief. Her exhaustion’s grip waned as she observed what her host was doing, Sundance soon catching onto her curiosity. “I’m preparing you something to drink to get you back on your feet. A complex brew, but remarkably good at bringing forth a second wind when needed. In the meantime, could you tell me what happened back there? Did you hurt someone by accident?”

Admitting that didn’t hurt any less, despite some time having passed. “Yeah. Th-the... I don’t know their name, the black and yellow one with all the stingersh. Their kid or someone else, the brown caterpillar with a couple spikes, had waddled onto my lap when I was resting with Joy. Then, they showed up to pick them up and began talking to me.”

Sundance nodded, following along as Sue caught her breath.

“I tried to make it clear I couldn’t understand them, but they didn’t understand I guess and e-ended up dragging me with them to their nest, I-I think. They showed me an egg and exphected me to do something. I tried following Solstice’s practice and linking with them, and accidentally pushed much too hard and got them hurt, th-they felt very pained, and then I-I panicked becaushe of them getting angry with all the stingers...” Sue continued, trailing off as her self-consciousness grew ever more oppressive.

Everyone here’s a freak of nature; why would I fear that bee more than anyone else around? What the fuck is wrong with me!?

Sundance wordlessly acknowledged her pupil’s words as she wrapped the concoction up. Once it was done, she moved the cup over to the kitchen corner and set it on a raised stand. If it was anything like the drinks Sue was used to, it’d need to get heated first—she just didn’t expect Sundance’s ablaze paw to act as the heating element, though. It was effective, the steady stream of flames emanating from it quickly warming the drink up as Sue stared at it, mesmerized by the casual display of fire magic.

“That all sounds... unfortunate,” the vixen sighed. “It matches what I’ve heard of Basil; he can get rather hot headed. He probably hadn’t even considered you being plainly unable to talk, and thought you were being mystical or oblique.”

“Wh-what did he want from me, though?” Sue asked, still confused.

“I can’t know for certainty, but the most probable answer is that he wanted you to bless his unhatched offspring.”

Bless? Me?

The only time she’d seen anything be blessed was when she was four and a local bishop came to tour their freshly renovated preschool, and she sure hadn’t gotten any holier since then. Thankfully, Sundance was eager to explain, chuckling at her confusion. “Forest Guardians are commonly seen as emissaries of the Night Mother, having a special bond with her across all other kin. It’s not a universally held position, and Solstice has been trying to work against the idea of there being any chosen people, but, alas, the superstition holds. I cannot blame Basil for his desire either, not with the Night Mother being such a big deal around these parts.”

Sue sure felt chosen, but if the Night Father’s visit in her dream was any sign, it wasn’t by Duck. Hell, she was probably cursed, if anything. “I-I see. That’s... that feelsh so weird to me.”

“Likewise.”

“Is he gonna be alright though?” Sue continued, worried. “H-he felt really hurt...”

“If he was still flying afterwards, then any injury was at best superficial. It hurt, no doubt about that, but he’ll fully recover soon if he hasn’t already. It is unfortunate, but it is what it is. If you wish, I can come over and help translate your apology—but if I were to guess, he’ll be more upset about you panicking afterwards than about you having hurt him.”

Sue blinked. “Why?”

“His kin are… very territorial, and often thought of as savage. The best we have negotiated with their nearby hive is a hard border between our territories. Splitleaf found his egg ways into our land a few years ago and raised him as her son. Even if his stigma isn’t as recent or cruel as Joy’s, I imagine he won’t be amused by being thought of as dangerous.”

Ouch...

“Th-that’s... I’m s-so sorry.”

Sundance weakly smiled. “It’s unfortunate, but not the end of the world. I hope he can empathize enough to put himself in your situation, especially with how obviously feeble and tired you were. Sometimes, however, all we can do is apologize and not be forgiven—and that’s alright. The world keeps turning, even if made heavier by someone’s resentment.”

Sue chewed through the vixen’s words, plunging the hut into silence. For a few minutes, the only sounds in the dwelling were the crackles of Sundance’s orange flame smothering the ceramic cup, its contents soon beginning to steam. With the brew’s unusual aroma growing in intensity, she could finally make out what comprised it. The most prominent scent was no doubt coffee, its appearance made even more nose-catching with the once-human having been spared of it for the past few days.

Eventually, Sue just sighed. “Yeah. Th-that just shounds so... dreadful, though.”

“It certainly does. Ultimately, it’s just a part of life we all have to learn. You can do everything right and some people won’t like you, some people won’t forgive you, some people won’t accept you, and trying to force them to is a pathway to suffering. They won’t be losing sleep over it, neither should you. How do you like your drinks, hot or cold?” Sundance asked, snapping her guest out of the philosophical mulling.

Sue glanced over at the vixen just in time to see her pour the black, steaming brew through a sieve into another cup. “...what do you mean by cold?”

Sundance chuckled at her pupil’s question, raising an eyebrow as she picked up the hot cupful of… something and smirked at Sue. “The same as everyone else, even if I do think they’re missing out on freshly boiled tea.”

…oops.

“Sorry. I-I’ll have it shlightly warm if-if that’s alright, then.”

“It absolutely is, worry not,” Sundance reassured. The mystery of how someone so fiery was going to chill the drink turned out to have a very mundane answer. She lowered the cup into the pot of water and waited patiently as their temperatures equalized.

In the meantime, Sue had a moment to take in more of the vixen’s dwelling’s quaint design. The almost-noon Sun shone bright on the center of the chamber, lighting up a circular patch of the stone floor between the two chairs. As she looked up to investigate the rudimentary sunroof, the decorations that surrounded it finally caught her attention, previously overlooked as just bits of paint.

They turned out to be so much more than Sue could’ve expected, a ring of dolls suspended around the circular opening in the ceiling. Their designs were mere curiosity—until they suddenly weren’t.

Are those… Duck and the Night Father?

The rudimentary depictions of the two deities on opposing ends caught Sue’s attention and wouldn’t let go, finally forcing her to ask, “Wh-what are those?”

Sundance didn’t even have to look to know what her guest was referring to. “Crafts projects. It’s... easy for me to get lost in my mind’s realm at times, especially when the situation in the physical realm grows difficult. I found that making myself put these together with my bare paws every once in a while keeps me... honest, sane even. They are simply something entertaining I can focus my attention on and weather the storm without sinking ever deeper into my thoughts. In addition, they help me maintain manual agility and prevent me from getting too dependent on telekinesis for everything.”

Sue appreciated the explanation, but it didn’t explain everything. “And... deities?”

Sundance chuckled as she set the freshly cooled drink on a stool beside Sue’s seat. “Well, I make what I know~. Sometimes, I craft a depiction of someone in Moonview, though I keep these to myself and disassemble them afterwards. Even if someone doesn’t believe that a figurine of them gives its wielder control over them, it still unnerves them, and I’d rather avoid that. Don’t have that issue with celestial beings—lest someone thinks I can make the Moon dance to my whims with a bunch of sticks and leaves.”

“Know... how?”

“Not by any sort of heavenly visions, if that’s what you’re asking,” the vixen winked. “Various peoples constantly make depictions of their deities, and I just happen to have a great visual memory when that’s concerned. Even here, I can just look at Night Mother and Ni—well, just Night Mother’s altar now and copy that design competently enough.”

Sundance felt Sue’s attention at her correction, but she opted not to act on it right away. Instead, she walked over to the storage corner and dug through one of the smaller pots in search of something, the resulting silence growing that bit heavier.

I’ll need to ask about that when I bring Pollux up…

Sue really wanted to finally get to the topic of night kin and their deity, but could tell Sundance was avoiding it. Whether it was temporary, she could only hope for—and that’s what she did. In the meantime, she refocused on the deities dancing under the ceiling, a couple of them catching her attention in particular. “What’s that one?”

Sundance glanced over her shoulder a moment as she kept digging in her supplies, the answer as simple as it was haunting. “Death.”

Its serpentine body was mostly gray and red, culminating in a yellow head. A multitude of tentacles sprouted from its back, both the shorter yellow ones and longer black ones with red tips. Judging by the sheer number of additional threads holding it up, its design wasn’t any easier to keep assembled than it was to put together to begin with.

“D-does it kill or—”

“It comes afterwards, doing whatever you think it does with the souls of the dead,” the vixen explained. “Be it ferrying them to the world beyond this one, passing judgment on their deeds, or just devouring them whole and leaving nothing behind. I’ve heard all of those expressed with fear and reverence alike—more so the former than the latter.”

“S-so it doesn’t kill?” Sue asked, uncertain.

“That would be the Gate.”

The Forest Guardian felt her attention being drawn to one doll in particular, its appearance confusing. It appeared to be made of three equally spaced crimson limbs with black decals, and a bit of gray fur around the center. It took her a while to notice a small head between two of the limbs, colored the same as the rest of its body.

Step aside, Grim Reaper, a floating ‘Y’ just stole your job.

“Does your world have a deity of the afterlife?” the vixen asked, curious.

…does the top dog of Christianity count?

“I-it’s complicated.”

Sundance chuckled. “As most things are.”

“Nothing th-that does all the options you’ve listed, I-I don’t think.”

Well, that isn’t the case here, either. Most agree on what Death is, but each faith has its own interpretation of what it does.”

“There ishn’t even that agreement where I’m from,” Sue elaborated. “B-but there’s shomething kinda like a similar symbol of death where I grew up; not a deity, but like a representation of death, a skeleton in a b-black robe with a scythe.”

The mental image got Sundance thinking as she returned to her seat, holding an… unexpected find. It was a wooden pipe, the kind Sue associated with Sherlock Holmes more than anything else, stunning her as the vixen continued, intrigued. “Is it a... specific skeleton?”

“A—a human skeleton mostly, bu-but I’ve also seen skeletons of other species...”

Only ever as a joke, but still.

“I think I like how that sounds,” the vixen chuckled. “I can’t say I have ever tried to construct a skeleton, or even have a good idea of what mine looks like, but it sounds like an interesting project idea for when I have spare time on my paws.”

Sue chuckled nervously, worried that she’d somehow managed to misrepresent her own pop culture to someone from another world. She knew it didn’t matter much ultimately, but left her uneasy all the same. Trying to distract herself from that, she brought up the pipe in the room: “H-heh, yeah. Umm, wh-what are you smoking, by the way?”

Her words came right as Sundance leaned back in her chair, lighting the pipe’s contents with a small Ember sprung from the tip of one of her claws. The resulting smell answered Sue’s question a split second before the vixen did, the actual answer the furthest thing from what she’d expected. “Oh, it’s just hemp. Considering your question, ‘smoking’ like that is a thing in your world too?”

“Yeah, it’s—it’s a plague,” Sue explained, stunned to see her mentor be a stoner.

“Oh. I can stop if you’d want.”

A considerate stoner, even. “No no no, it’s mostly tobacco th-that’s the worst one there.”

The vixen had to think way back to the last time she’d tried that particular plant for herself. Her recollection didn’t paint her experience in the most positive light, leaving the implication that it was common in Sue’s world rather surprising. “You wouldn’t get me to voluntarily try tobacco again. I can’t imagine it being pleasant to experience often.”

“You’ve no idea.”

Both women went quiet as Sundance took another deep breath through the pipe. Before she could relax fully, something caught her attention first. “You can toss the cover aside and lean into the chair’s back—Solstice loves doing that whenever she comes over.”

The prospect of resting her back after several days of inhabiting this body caught Sue’s undivided attention. The revelation of the widely spaced wooden splats under the cover left her downright ecstatic, much to the vixen’s amusement, but not even that came close to the sheer relief that leaning all the way back and resting her shoulders brought.

I don’t wanna move… ever again…

Sundance chuckled. “And I thought Solstice’s reaction was drastic.”

“You can’t imagine h-how good thish feels after not being able t-to rest my back...”

“I clearly cannot, indeed. Remember to have your drink before it gets too cold,” the vixen reminded.

As Sue reached over to grab the ceramic cup, her attention drifted upwards once more, soon caught by what appeared to be one very convoluted doll. Or, at least, before she squinted and realized it was two separate dolls, simply bundled together, explaining the confusing appearance. “Wh-what are thoshe?”

Sundance followed the once-human’s line of sight as the latter took a sip of the concoction—

Holy shit, what is this stuff!?

It was definitely coffee alright, just one with an absurd amount of additives. Its bitterness was mixed—no, overshadowed by fruity, zesty sourness, half a dozen subtler, herbal flavors and at least four tablespoons of sugar. The end result probably had enough caffeine in it to down an Indian elephant in a single sip and enough calories to keep her running for three days straight.

The vixen was oblivious to her guest’s shock, though, explaining, “I don’t think they have a unified name. The titles I remember hearing about are ‘The Capricious’ and ‘The Judicious’, the twin gods of fate and destiny. Or simply Fate and Destiny.”

Both of the intertwined dolls had the same general shape of a large head with three points, two to the sides and one straight up, with a small body underneath it. One had a yellow head, a white body, and a few strips of green fabric hanging off the points of its head, while the other was equally split between pink and gray, with branches that had been contorted into circles and painted yellow hanging from the sides of its head.

They almost look like hoops of some sort.

“Fate and Destiny?” Sue asked, tilting her head. “Is there... a difference?”

Sundance laughed softly at her question, taking her aback as she explained, “You have just stumbled on a topic of one of the bigger theological debates I ever had the... ‘honor’ of witnessing in person. It was amusing if nothing else—at least before it devolved into a brawl. Afterwards, it became a matter of making it out of there in one piece.”

Sue’s wide-eyed stare brought even more amusement to the vixen, soon dismissed as she regained composure and continued, “From what I gathered, ‘destiny’ is preordained by divine will, and ‘fate’ merely happens to you, thanks to nothing more than chance and consequences of what came before. The way I see it, any control over the latter turns it into the former by definition, but that’s the gist of what I got out of all the shouting.”

If anything, the chaotic mess underneath the Sundance’s ceiling covered the confusion rather clearly. The similar size and body shape, together with their physical proximity, made it difficult to tell where one ended and the other began, physical chaos representing divine order.

“Sometimes they’re just one deity that puts on one of two masks, sometimes they’re opposing forces, sometimes there’s only one and not the other. I don’t think this wider area has a strong worship of either, beyond believing that they both manifest as comets in the night sky. Remember to make a wish the next time you see one, and who knows, maybe one of them will hear it,” Sundance smirked, leaning back in her chair.

With the explanation finished, the vixen took a large hit of her pipe as Sue continued to sip on her concoction. Their respective indulgences soothed their minds—if not necessarily their bodies—and let them peace out after a turbulent morning. Or, in Sue’s case, peace out as much as possible while in the beginning stages of a sugar high.

As relaxed as they grew, though, both of them knew full well that the Forest Guardian didn’t just come here to chill and down an energy drink. Before long, the tension began to creep back into the chamber—until Sundance finally acknowledged it. “The incident with Basil wasn’t the only reason you wanted to talk with me, is that correct?”

Sue nodded as she put her cup down, arms jittering from the mix of nerves and caffeine. “No. Earlier t-today I was practicing with Solstice and it was going well, a-and then she mentioned someone called Aurora and broke down in front of me and forced me out of her tent. And yesterday, Shpark took me to see her friend who was a black fox that I couldn’t sense and they hid from people. And then they ran away when spotted a-and I don’t know why and—” Sue stopped, only barely catching herself from rambling on. Instead, she looked up from the drink, staring the vixen dead in the eyes. “What’s going on, Sundance?”

The Forest Guardian focused on her host’s emotions, trying to piece together the puzzle with their help. A part of her worried about the topic, making the mystic furious because of her uncovering something that wasn’t meant to be known—but, fortunately, that wasn’t what happened.

Unfortunately, the truth was so much worse.

For a few moments, Sundance could only flatly stare at her before shifting into a resigned somberness, sighing, “In hindsight, I do not know why I even hoped you wouldn’t run headfirst into all this on your own. Maybe if you had awoken in this realm in any other body, but... no, not this one. Of course, the pretense would all come crumbling down.”

Sue could only hear her own racing heartbeat as the vixen closed her eyes, searching for the right words, but… there weren’t any. “To answer your question—nothing now. Nothing anymore. But… to recount what led to this, what happened all those years ago, I have to tell you a story. A story of a wayward soul that came here from afar. One that saw the harm zealotry and prejudice could inflict and vowed to build something better, safer, a place all could call home… and failed.”

Despite the comfort of her seat, Sue involuntarily leaned forward, the entirety of her attention occupied by Sundance’s tale.

“Her name... was Solstice.”



If you're confused about the species of the characters and want them spoiled, I've set up a page listing the species of all the featured characters in each chapter!

If you want to discuss the story, I've set up a Discord server for it! (and my other writings)

Also check out my other story, From the Vast!
 
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Chapter 11: Truth

redspah

the gay agenda
Pronouns
she/her


Chapter 11: Truth



Sue’s eyes went wide as she processed Sundance’s revelation, the tense silence soon culminating in a whispered, anxious question. “Do you mean... l-like me?”

Sundance was visibly taken aback at the idea, shaking her head once she’d figured out what her pupil meant. “No, not in the same way as you, Sue. She hails from this world, from a clan far away from here.”

A part of Sue was glad that nobody else had been subjected to what she had been through, but… there remained that nagging thought that maybe if they had, they would’ve had a better idea of how to get back home. Or at least would be able to empathize more with her circumstances… oh well.

Pushing through conflicting emotions, she acknowledged the vixen’s response. Her disappointment could wait, she wanted—no, needed to get to the bottom of all this. “I see. H-how far away?”

“Approximately a week’s march in a straight line from her recollection—you won’t see her ever making that trek to confirm her memories, though.”

Definitely not how I would’ve expected Solstice to act…

“Is it because of shomething they did?” Sue asked, fidgeting.

“Worse,” Sundance paused, a weak shudder going through her body. “Because of what they are.” She took a deep sigh and an even deeper hit of her pipe as she leaned back in her chair, sorting through her thoughts once more. The Forest Guardian could sense flashes of anger bubbling from deep within her mind, briefly manifesting through shaking, clenched paws.

The vixen’s composure strained, but ultimately held as she wove her tale. “Her clan had a much similar ambition to that of Willow—on its surface, at least. ‘Bring healing to those who need it, and honor the Pale Lady through their deeds.’ Noble on its surface, but with a crucial difference—they didn’t think themselves mere worshipers of the Night Mother, they thought themselves Her emissaries. The closest thing to Her incarnation in flesh, and as such, it meant that their will was divinely guided, too.”

Guess that’s where that bee got the idea from.

“Her clan might not be expansionist, but aspects of its rotten ideology had spread far, all the way to here and further beyond. No doubt aided by the fact that, as opposed to Willow’s kin, Forest Guardians are far, far from defenseless—even if both you and Solstice are terrible examples of that.”

Part of Sue felt like she ought to be offended at that, but wasn’t sure how or why, shaking the thought off soon after. Uncomfortable as it was to consider, Sundance was right. Telekinesis strong enough to lift whole people off the ground, the ability to tamper with minds, reading thoughts; all those were scarily powerful, and they weren’t even the flashy kind of feats she saw at the feast. Hell, she herself had painfully hurt the bee villager despite her weakness and inexperience, and it was completely accidental! Who knew how harmful a deliberate attack of that sort would’ve been by someone who knew what they were doing.

How lethal.

In truth, Sue didn’t want to know, an icy dread running down her spine at the awareness of how much capability to harm others further training would give her. To maim, even kill, with just her thoughts. And to imagine that kind of power in the hands of a clan that thought itself divinely guided… If there was anything Sue remembered well from her history lessons, it was that a ‘divine’ guidance at the lead of a powerful group only ever ended in tragedy—if not genocide.

“Of course,” Sundance chuckled bitterly, “they believe themselves to be kind rulers. They offer their healing arts to those who come. As long as they pledge their worship of the Pale Lady, make an... ‘offering’, and aren’t the ‘wrong’ kind of creature, of course. The kind whose compliance they can’t enforce because of an immunity to their psychics.”

Just like Pollux…

“Th-the night kin...” Sue whispered, the rotten puzzle beginning to come together.

“Correct. Contrary to what their immunity to psychics might imply, Forest Guardians are hardly defenseless against them—Moon’s pale light drives away the darkness just as well as the Sun’s. Their thoughts and minds would forever remain off limits to prying eyes, however, and there’s nothing Solstice’s clan and their ilk despise more than someone they can’t control.” Sundance paused to steady her breathing, keeping her anger at bay through sheer willpower. “They cast the night kin aside and declared them profane, and their deity evil incarnate. And if anyone ever extended their hospitality towards them… consequences were in order.”

Sue shook as she processed the revelation, thinking back to what she’d seen around the village. Willow’s panicked reaction to her so much as bringing the night kin up, Spark lying about meeting one of them through her teeth, the engravings at the Pale Lady’s altar… “And those beliefs really reached as far as here?”

Sundance nodded deeply, hanging her head and closing her eyes. “Ideas can spread like wildfire, especially when they appeal to our worst, basest impulses. It would be both foolish and wrong to attribute all the hatred towards the night kin to Solstice’s clan alone. The fear of those different, of the night, of defenselessness—all those were already there, a fertile ground for bigotry to grow on…” she trailed off, sighing in defeat. “All one needs to do to control those controlled by these fears is give them enemies to hate and rally against. I’ve seen it time and again, not just with the night kin, and it is just as terrifyingly effective each time.”

Definitely seen that one with quite a few politicians and priests.

“Wh-what about Solstice, then?” Sue asked.

Sundance gathered her thoughts, giving her pupil a moment to collect herself. Sue’s shaking hand thanked whoever was watching for the cup of her host’s brew having long been emptied, lest she spilled it all over herself as the vixen continued. “She got to witness the injustice her clan had caused, and it was enough to make her doubt it all. Her father isn’t a Forest Guardian. His kin is similarly psychic, even if he looks different, but regardless of how little his otherness mattered, not being a Forest Guardian meant he was still inherently lesser. And so was Solstice, on account of her blood being ‘impure’.”

The vixen briefly paused, anger at her friend having been treated how she was warming the air around her as her expression twisted into an intense, but brief snarl. “That planted the seeds of her doubt, and hearing about Night Mother and Night Father not having always been enemies from a passing mystic made them bloom. Every time someone was harassed or denied help because of being ‘lesser’ cemented her resolve even further. To get out of there, and to do what she could to make things right. And once she’d evolved and received her blessings... she did.”

Sue couldn’t help but imagine a younger Solstice sneaking away in the middle of the night, disappearing without leaving as much as a goodbye note in her wake. She grew more and more invested in the story being told, hunching forward as she nodded for Sundance to continue.

“She arrived in Moonview a few years before I settled here for good. Her kin gathered her no small amount of reverence, one she always tried to squash. Her knowledge of healing arts earned respect, even from Willow’s kin, and they exchanged many lessons over the years. Ultimately, she was much the same person you know—it’s little wonder that she was liked and eventually joined the Elders’ council. Once there, she did her best to undo the influence of her clan, however she could.”

Now that’s the Solstice I know.

Sundance’s tale lit up an ember of second-hand joy inside Sue, if an uneven and flickering one. She might not have known when the story would take a turn for the worse, but she knew it would eventually, trepidation coiling around her mind. “Was she successful?”

“To an extent, yes,” the vixen nodded. “Widespread as her clan’s influence was, Solstice undid enough of it to open the gates for the night kin to live here. They weren’t explicitly forbidden from settling here before, but they would not have been welcome, either. She changed that, pushed back against them being seen as evil or as Pale Lady’s enemies, and used the influence her kinship gave her for good. And, in time, the night kin indeed settled here.”

The night kin… used to live in Moonview?

“Hard to imagine th-that nowadays...” Sue whispered.

“Indeed,” Sundance responded, cold and regretful. She closed her eyes, furrowing her brows as she muttered the rest of the tale. “The beginnings were rough, but familiarity and exposure are the anathema to prejudice. As the relations warmed up, the Pale Lady’s shrine was expanded with a wall depicting the Night Father, leaving them standing side by side. It was controversial even then, but most didn’t care enough to be opposed, especially with Solstice blessing the change. Those that did, rallied around Root, the spiritual leader of Moonview until Solstice’s arrival.”

Having to utter Root’s name had the fox grasp her chair’s armrest, claws scraping at the well-worn wood. “He was the strongest opposition to the inclusion of the Night Father in their altar, as well as to the night kin’s inhabitation. As much as he whined, he accomplished little, not with Solstice’s popularity. Despite his complaints, we kept growing, people of all kin kept coming. It really seemed like Solstice’s dream had come true, that she’d defeated her clan’s vicious teachings. She eventually married one of the night kin, and had a child with him.”

One particular name crept back into Sue’s name, as did an icy chill of dread and the implication. “Aurora...”

“Indeed.” Sundance fought hard to keep too many memories from forcing their way from under her eyelids, their sweetness harrowing in hindsight. “She was a wonderful kid. So bright, so curious; she wanted to do everything, learn all there was to be known, meet everyone—the entire world felt much too small for her, at times. Her psychics unfortunately came as a great struggle at the best of times. Solstice confided in me that had Aurora hatched back at her clan, she wasn’t sure what they would do with her, whether they would’ve even let her live with her weakness.”

Was...

The sinking pit that had been forming inside Sue had grown tenfold at hearing that word. She couldn’t resist asking the question at the root of it all anymore, her voice little more than a hoarse, wavering whisper. “What happened to her?”

Sundance shuddered again at her words. It wasn’t in anger this time, however—it was in fear. Old fear, fear thought long buried, building up inside the vixen by the moment, ending up only barely contained as Sundance answered, her voice similarly pitiful.

“The plague.”

The words grasped Sue’s mind with terror, flooded it with all the terrifying interpretations of that singular word. And yet, she still wanted to know, and the mystic could tell, pushing through her pain to tell the rest of the tale. Her pupil deserved to know, even if Sundance wanted nothing more than to be able to forget it all.

“It came without warning, its source unknown. It ravaged through the village, scarring our bodies and minds alike, stealing our breath and leaving burning pain behind. We tried everything we had to cure it, but all we managed was alleviating some symptoms, leaving us to pray it would subside on its own. It was arduous, but rarely lethal, at least for adults. The little ones...”

Even the briefest recollections of that hell brought more anguish than Sundance was equipped to handle, even so many years later. The pain, the cries, the death; her pipe dropped onto her lap as she reached up to forcibly Calm her Mind, wanting to scream as a part of her relived it all.

Not a day passed where she didn’t thank the Sun for Spark not having hatched yet when it all happened.

All the while, Sue could only listen, mind tying itself into knots as tears flowed down her cheek and heart threatened to shatter into a thousand pieces.

“Everyone lost someone, be it family or friends. Solstice...” the vixen trailed off. Despite having subdued her mind, it still thrashed at the mere thought of her friend during that time, the sheer torment she must’ve felt, both her own and everyone else’s. It was too terrible to comprehend—and yet, she had experienced it all the same. “She stayed by Aurora’s side as she died, alone. I-I was too sickly to leave my dwelling, and her husband, Jasper... He is a kind, sensitive soul, and it was all too much for him. He couldn’t bear to witness it himself, especially after it was clear his daughter would die, forcing Solstice to endure it all alone.”

Sue remembered how protective she felt towards Spark and Pollux when they were being chased, how she put her whole life at stake to save them. To imagine the torment of holding her own child, wanting nothing more than to protect her from the sickness ravaging her, and being completely powerless to help, with nobody there for her...

She could only weep.

For everyone who had to experience that, for everyone who had lost someone, for all the souls lost. She had no idea how long it took her to begin wrangling herself together. Even as she did, though, terror gripped her once more—for Sundance wasn’t done yet. “There was... one more thing. One twist of fate, that would’ve been a cause for joy in any other world. Not in this one. Not back then.”

Oh no.

“Not all types were affected by it equally. Few Fire-types got seriously sick, almost all Psychics did, but the night kin… were immune.”

The vixen paused to let the fact settle, as straightforward as its repercussions were harrowing. Sue grew more and more disturbed as she tried to imagine how the people who had already distrusted them had reacted to that fact—how much blood was senselessly spilled as a result. “Were they… k-killed?”

“Thankfully not, ‘merely’ ran out of Moonview. The grip of paranoia was inescapable—even those I trusted to know better were briefly swayed, even I felt its tendrils wrapping around my mind in the aftermath of it all. Ultimately, it culminated in a vote being held on whether to exile the night kin for good.”

Sue might’ve been held firmly by despair, but a different emotion soon crept into her mentor’s mind. Anger at her fellows for being so easily swayed by panic, seething fury towards those who had manipulated them. The air grew uncomfortably hot for a moment before Sundance reasserted her grip on herself and continued. “After Aurora’s passing... Jasper was paralyzed with shame. Shame at abandoning his wife and daughter when they needed him the most. It fed into itself with each passing day, leaving him unable to come back and face his wife after what had happened. Solstice was left even more alone, her entire self shattered and with nobody around to comfort her. Nobody… but Root.”

No… no no no no no—

“She was at her absolute lowest, with no reprieve in sight. Utterly consumed by loss and agony, willing to do anything to get any relief from the hell of it all. When the time came, her vote was the deciding one. Between Root’s influence, pain at her own husband for abandoning her when she needed him the most, and a moment of vicious weakness, she voted for exile. The champion of the night kin’s cause, the one who had opened the village’s gates for them, had now closed them once more.”

The hut was dead silent as the vixen took a deep breath, fighting to maintain composure. “The night kin felt, and were, betrayed. They didn’t fight the verdict—perhaps some of them expected, deep down, that it would never work out in the end. Jasper... took it the worst, blamed it all on himself. I remember him pleading with me, begging to do anything to help, but I had no power there, not anymore. I stepped down from the Elders’ council afterwards. And Solstice... felt betrayed too, by herself.”

Shakily, Sundance picked her pipe up again. She steeled herself before taking a deeper hit, her body language withdrawing further. “It didn’t take long for everyone else to realize what they had done. Their neighbors, their friends... gone, driven out. Some tried to rationalize it afterwards, delude themselves into truly believing that it was the night kin that had brought in the plague—anything to avoid facing the responsibility for their actions and the guilt they carried. Guilt and shame.”

So that’s why she felt so shameful…

“Shame, such a caustic and destructive force. It locks one into a cycle of misery, unable to right their wrongs and escape it. Ask almost anyone who’d voted towards exile on that fateful day, drill them past their inevitable excuses, and they’ll break down and admit that they’ve made a mistake—a mistake none of them will do anything to mend, because of how much even thinking of doing that hurts.” Sundance paused, taking a moment to cool off as she glared at the floor between herself and her pupil, closing her eyes soon after. “I kept trying to bring it up to Solstice every so often, but all that accomplished was making her break down and relive it all, her every loss and mistake, again and again. And so… I stopped.”

Sue waited for the vixen to continue for what felt like hours. After all the loss and grief, the story ended there, at last. “Th-that’s all... I don’t have words.”

“There aren’t any,” Sundance whispered, staring into the middle distance.

Her pupil shuddered, terrified about there being yet more death to come. “Wh-what happened to the night kin?”

“They established their own settlement, Newmoon, not far from here. Everyone knows about it, and we aren’t forbidden there, but… almost nobody wants to see the consequences of their actions. I come to visit sometimes. It’s a quiet place, rather barren and tiny, but lovely in its own way. They try to make do.”

“A-almost?” Sue asked, confused at the wording.

Sundance nodded. “I know Snowdrop is seeing someone from there. I don’t know why she’s looking for another partner here, too, but it’s not our place to judge. Solstice and Jasper… meet up too, sometimes. They never talk much. Those are hardly a secret—people find out fast. Everyone knows that nobody cares about the exile and the terrible things being ascribed to the night kin anymore—and yet, here we are.”

“How long ago was that?”

“Closing in on five years now. Spark was still in her egg when it happened, thank the Sun,” Sundance whimpered, once more forced to grip her armrests as the terrifying what-if filled her mind.

I need to ask about that ‘egg’ sometime.

“Spark’s friend, Pollux... he’s from that Newmoon village, right?”

“Indeed,” Sundance nodded, snapping herself out of her mind’s torture session. “I know he visits sometimes—as well as he can hide, it’s still easy to spot him. The divide between our villages is such an arbitrary one in the end, a line in the sand that the little ones won’t and oughtn’t pay any attention to. Sometimes it feels like it’ll take that new generation to finally mend that wound…”

“Guess that’s why they were outshide Moonview when that shpider found them...” Sue muttered under her breath—and immediately regretted it.

The mention of the events of her first day here immediately startled Sundance, her calm demeanor suddenly coming undone as she asked urgently, leaning forward in her seat, “Wh-what do you mean?”

The abruptness of her mentor’s reaction took Sue aback, her stammer intensifying as she retold what she’d seen. “Spark and P-Pollux were together when they ran into me and I-I distracted the spider...”

Sundance was aghast at hearing the news. Sue worried she’d said something she really shouldn’t have, sitting fearfully in place as she felt the vixen’s worry grow, grow and turn into anger. Not at Sue, not at anyone else, only at herself, though no less intense than her silent fury from earlier because of that. Deeper breaths sent a dusting of sparks out through her nose and ear as she simmered in her anger—her fury might’ve been aimed inward, but that didn’t make it any less vicious.

“I-I should’ve realized. A-a part of me hoped it was something else, some other freak accident. But… I was just fooling myself, wasn’t I. As much as I think myself above that, I keep doing that, clinging to whatever remote possibility lets me rest the easiest, just to not have to face the facts...” the vixen trailed off, fighting an internal battle. Eventually, however, she had to admit the truth to herself. “No, this can’t continue! I let it go on for too long, it—it has to stop! I can’t risk Spark getting in danger like that again, I...”

Sundance grew quiet as her anger burned up into grief and regret, at having failed to make the world safer for her little one, entirely through her own inaction.

Before her, Sue wondered what to even do in the face of all the misery, feeling powerless to help—and then; an idea came to her. A terrible, foolish idea, but one she had to at least try. She wouldn’t be able to mend the wound between these two peoples, no.

But I can at least try to comfort one hurt person.

“Perhaps I am truly no better,” Sundance continued through gritted teeth. “Much as I keep holding it all against Solstice, it had to be my flesh and blood for me to act towards resolving this injustice. Maybe I should’ve kept pressing her harder all along. Maybe I should’ve not even cared about what she’d do and acted on my own. Maybe if I had just pushed through the pain on that fateful day, pushed to her tent to be there for her, the suffering of so many more would’ve been averted…” she paused, a few stray tears forcing their way past her eyelids. And then, she admitted with a wavering, resigned voice, “I wish I had half the answers I give the impression of having.”

Sue had no idea what advice she could feasibly give to someone who had lived through hell after hearing an abridged version of the events. Instead, she offered understanding, sinking into an uncertain expression and trying to bounce back some of Sundance’s own insight from earlier. “Th-that’s undershtandable. Even if you’ve made a mistake by letting it fester, it doesn’t mean you have to let it continue.”

The vixen’s expression briefly twisted as she faced her own partial responsibility in all of this. The resulting mental struggle was as intense as it was brief, her eyes opening with a grunt. “You—you’re right. Thank you, Sue. I’ll need to think about what to do after all this time. It will be messy, but... I owe it to Spark. I owe it to Solstice, I owe it to you, I owe it to everyone. Something has to be done.”

Sundance’s newfound determination spread over to her pupil, adding fuel to her recently hatched plan. Sue spoke, “G-good luck. I’ll—I’ll leave you to it, but first, I have to know. Where is Solstice?”

The vixen shook her head, eyes going wide. “Don’t worry, Sue, I’ll handle talking with her. You shouldn’t put this burden on yourself—”

“Th-this isn’t what I want t-to talk to her about,” Sue responded, her words pointed and steadfast, unlike her.

The mystic thought about it all briefly before slowly nodding. “I see. I can’t read her mind from here, but... if I know her at all, she’ll be at the cemetery, praying.”

“Th-the cemetery? Where’s—”

Wait, the clearing I ran into Solstice on. The decorated rocks, the quietness, the distance from Moonview—that must be it.

It was a fair march away, but Sue felt readier than ever to take it on. The approximately nine espresso’s worth of caffeine circulating in her system helped, too.

“Seems you’ve figured it out,” Sundance spoke with the world’s weakest chuckle. “I won’t hold you back, unless you want me to escort you over.”

Sue’s arms trembled as she pushed herself through her strain and onto her legs. “No, no, I’ll be fine. I-I can do this.” She was tired and hurt, but the burning drive inside her made her overlook all of it, staggered steps quickly evening out.

“May the Sun hasten you, Sue. But remember, it’s not your fault. You aren’t responsible for any of this.”

Sundance’s remark made the once-human pause as her hand rested on the door handle. She took a couple of deep breaths before responding, “I know,” and speeding on, leaving the vixen to mull through her plan on her own.

A mixture of a sense of duty and an absurd amount of caffeine combined into a hyperfocus that had Sue hobble faster than she had ever walked anywhere. Her body hurt; she made for a dumbfounding spectacle with her waddling, but she didn’t care. Most villagers may have already gotten used to the second, much younger Forest Guardian in their midst, but watching her sprint with a crutch was something else entirely.

The emotional rollercoaster she’d just been through made the sensation of focus being placed upon her into something unpleasant—nerve-wracking even. It may have fed further into Sue’s anxieties about becoming the center of attention, but she wouldn’t let it stop her—not here, not now.

In just a couple of days, Moonview had turned from a location out of ‘Alice in Wonderland’ to a town mundane enough for her to have a rudimentary, subconscious map of. The surrounding landmarks steered her towards the clearing, her focus squarely on her destination as she passed by Willow’s clinic.

A cry calling from behind her snatched Sue’s attention, and she only barely braked in time to look over her shoulder at its source. Willow’s confounded expression hid immense worry as they waved at her—but they weren’t alone. A couple of other beings stood beside them, including the bedsheet-covered stranger she’d ran into earlier, a black, short tentacle waving at her from under their disguise.

The other one was mostly white and looked kinda like a cat, and that’s all the attention Sue would spare them, shaking her head at the group before leaving with a response only she understood—“Later!”

They deserved further explanation, but between her sense of duty and running on borrowed time granted to her by Sundance’s drink, Sue knew she couldn’t stop. The medic’s worry only grew further at watching her shamble away with a single word response, but they knew full well they weren’t gonna be able to persuade her to stop. Or even catch up to her, for that matter.

Before Sue knew it, she was back at the clearing, gunning towards the path to the cemetery. Poppy’s nearby call went unacknowledged, the once-human’s tunnel vision narrowing further the closer she got to her destination.

After having grown too used to sensing dozens of minds surrounding her at all times, the near complete mental silence Sue felt in the middle of that well-worn path was unnerving. As loud as Moonview was to her sixth sense, she was never alone in there, and help was all around her should anything happen.

If I collapse here, it could be hours, days before someone realizes…

And to think I tried to run away from that safety only yesterday.


Sure, the only other possibility Sue could imagine at the time was death, but hindsight sure didn’t paint her thought process in a good light. Not one bit. Thankfully, her worries about missing the person she was looking for were dispelled before they could build up any further, a distant sensation of sorrow growing closer with every step. It was far from pleasant, even if nowhere near as overwhelming as it had been immediately after her breakdown.

It only made the younger Forest Guardian push herself even harder.

The memory of her first encounter with Solstice, likely when she was praying to Aurora no less, was one that would remain burned into Sue’s mind forever. Her poise, her calmness, dignified and imposing—so utterly unlike her current state. She was slumped to the side, looking less like she sat down before the silvery sapling and more so like she’d collapsed there and hadn’t moved afterwards, hands clasped together and shaking. And then, she froze, sensing her student’s arrival.

Solstice’s panicked glance over her shoulder was no less miserable than the last time Sue saw her. Sue felt her sadness spoiling into shame as she reeled away from the cemetery’s entrance, her voice pathetically quiet. “I-I’m sorry Sue, I-I—”

“Sundance told me everything.”

The older Forest Guardian froze upon hearing that, staring Sue down as the latter slumped forward and caught her breath, body screaming in soreness as she made it through the last few steps separating her from the nearest bench. “E-everything?” Solstice asked, terrified.

“About Aurora. About the night kin. About... your clan,” Sue explained, each of these revelations making the Mayor wince visibly as she tried to retain the little composure she had left. And then, the final addition broke the dam, at last: “I’m so sorry for your loss.”

Solstice curled forward as if struck, breaking into full-blown weeping, tears glistening in the afternoon light as she grieved for her daughter once more.

Nothing I can do but be here for her.

Minute by minute, Solstice’s outburst of despair slowly faded. Wails gave way to sobs, then whimpers, and finally, silence. Eventually, the older Forest Guardian found enough strength to pick herself back up onto her legs and shamble towards her pupil, even if she felt too ashamed to look her in the eyes. Sue wasted no time before wrapping her arms around her mentor and pulling her into a tight embrace the moment she sat down. Solstice’s tears grew even more bitter at her student’s compassion, the comfort as nourishing as it felt unearned.

Eventually, only a heavy, lingering silence remained. Sue’s green hand gently stroked her mentor’s side as they both sat at a loss for words, for what felt like forever. Until, at last, the older Forest Guardian whispered, “I... I th-thought I had gotten over it.”

Sue nodded, her one-armed embrace shuddering. “I-I don’t think th-that’s something you ever really, fully get over.”

Solstice didn’t respond immediately, head hunching forward as she tried to keep her breathing stable. Eventually came a quiet whimper—“You think?”

I know.

“Yeah,” Sue answered, her whisper only barely audible.

“I-it was going so well...” Solstice pleaded with Fate, “i-it felt like I had made my peace with it all. Like I have finally moved on—”

“And then I showed up?”

Solstice was startled at Sue’s question; her words caught in her throat. Her gaze trailed off into the middle distance before she clenched her eyes shut, a few more bitter tears flowing down her cheeks. Sue’s embrace never wavered, nor did the comfort she tried to provide. An attempt at stroking the older Forest Guardian’s head sent a light jolt through them both, the Mayor eventually accepting the affection. “She... she would’ve been your age.”

The bitterly admitted truth made Sue freeze, lost for words. There weren’t any, there couldn’t be any. Eventually, she just acknowledged the fact with a slow nod, her embrace growing shakier.

“It’s not your fault, Sue—” Solstice insisted.

Sue cut her off—“I know.”

The Mayor shakily nodded, admitting soon after, “I-I just… don’t know why it hit me there as hard as it did.”

“A false subconscious hope deep inside, maybe. M-maybe you never really finished grieving for her.”

“I thought I have. Though... maybe not. Not too long after, I-I had to pick myself together and... keep going. Despite my loss, despite everyone else’s loss, despite—” Solstice doubled over as she felt shame stab her in the guts. Sue winced by proximity, doing what she could to hold the distraught mother closer even as her past sins weighed heavily on her.

Whether deservedly or not was not for Sue to decide—all she knew was that right now, her mentor needed the reassurance more than anything else. “Shounds like you didn’t really have that time then,” She whispered.

“Maybe not,” Solstice shuddered as she took in a deeper breath, her pupil holding her all the while. “I don’t know if I could, even. After all—”

“—the world doesn’t wait for us.”

The older Forest Guardian let out a quiet gasp as she looked over at Sue, her gaze focused on the memorial treeling. Her expression remained stoic even as a handful of stray tears began wetting her cheeks again, culminating with more whispered words. “Even if it feels like we’ve lost a part of ourselves, like we’ll never be whole again... we have to keep moving on, pretending we’re fine. Faking it until it stops hurting all the time, hoping we’ll get over it, get over ourselves, because nobody will wait for us.”

Sue’s body wavered, her own pain finally breaking through her facade as she thought back, way back. Solstice followed along with her train of thought, all the way back to its only possible destination—

And watched as her pupil relived it all.


“♪Ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone~♪”

A gentle campfire lit the clearing up as it chewed through what remained of its fuel. The pile of dry wood gathered beforehand had become little more than a handful of assorted twigs by now, though nobody really minded—especially with the pack of marshmallows they had brought with themselves having long since been emptied.

Despite the creeping clouds covering most of the sky, the Moon itself and a small swatch near it remained clear. It’d be a few more days until the celestial body would be at its brightest, but it was breathtaking all the same—especially with the family being able to witness it away from the town for once.

“♪Only darkness every day~♪”

Neither the three voices nor the gentle guitar twangs were even close to being on key, the instrument especially in dire need of getting tuned. Once more, the trio didn’t care, singing on as they wrapped up a fun, eventful day.

The youngest member of the impromptu band enjoyed herself in particular, putting everything she could into the song being sung, despite her tiredness. She rocked to the sides as she over-enunciated every note, pigtails waving and legs swinging under the bench with every word.

“♪Ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone~♪”

To her right sat the person playing the guitar, a woman with a similar face and a joyous expression. Her shoulder-length hair slid around as she bounced to the tune along with her daughter, without a care in the world. The man on the next bench over completed the trio, his scruffy and unshaven look giving off a casual, welcoming vibe, helped further by a slightly oversized tie-dyed shirt.

“♪And this house just ain’t no home~♪”

The long pointy sticks they had used to roast marshmallows lied off to the side, as did a handful of toys they had taken along for the trip. A partially mud caked frisbee, a slightly less dirty beach ball, an action figure of a main character from a popular cartoon, one that little Sue always brought with herself whenever she went outside, but which she never had quite enough spare time to actually play with.

“♪Ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone.”​

And with a final chord, the song ended.

“Can we do another one!?” Sue squealed excitedly.

Her parents smiled widely as they glanced at each other, and then at the fire. “I don’t know Sue, can we?” Dad asked, tongue in cheek.

“Pleeeeeeaase!”

Her pleading tone of voice made Mom finally cave in with a louder giggle. She reached over to ruffle her daughter’s hair, the laughter soon spreading to her little one. “Well, I think we could squeeze one more in. So, what will it be?”

Dad chimed in, “We should be the ones asking you that, Mrs. Gold Award Scout~.”

Mom couldn’t resist rolling her eyes and sticking her tongue out at her husband—only for him to return the gesture right away, sending their daughter into a giggling fit even without knowing the full context. Once she had gotten over her own laughter, though, Sue wasted no time before finally proposing something—“The houshe of the rising sun!”

“Again~?” Mom asked with a raised eyebrow.

“Yeah!”

“Alrighty, we can go through that one again~! Just lemme remember how that one starts—*eek!*” Mom suddenly jumped in her seat. Before Sue or Dad could figure out what had happened, they felt the first raindrops hit them too, the girl shivering in response. “Welp, seems the rain had other plans! High time to get back home, eh?”

“Sue, grab your toys and start heading over to the car. We’ll get there in a mo’,” Dad instructed.

“Okay!”

Even though she was a bit disappointed by the song plans getting interrupted, Sue knew that there was no point in arguing with the rain, especially with it being nice and warm enough to feel more ticklish than freezing—when it wasn’t making its way past her collar, at least.

The six-year-old resorted to holding the frisbee as a makeshift umbrella next to her parents’ car as she watched them clean the clearing up. With one last look around to make sure they had left no trash behind, they finally started heading over as well; a couple of lights blinked on the vehicle’s sides as it was unlocked. Sue scrambled to the trunk and popped it open the moment she saw the telltale flashes. She put all her toys back in, but didn’t have the reach to actually grab the lid again—not for a lack of trying, that’s for sure.

“Get in the car Sue, we’ll take care of the trunk,” Dad reassured.

“Okay!”

Even the brief exposure to the increasingly icy rain left the girl shivering as she climbed back inside the car. The dim lightbulbs provided just enough light for her to maneuver herself back onto the booster seat and click her seatbelt into place. Her parents followed a few moments later, Mom giggling, “Not a moment too late! The sky really just broke down on us there.”

“Ride back home’s gonna be fun,” Dad grumbled.

“Just take it slow Nick, no need to rush anything, especially not in this weather.”

“Yeah, yeah, I know.”

“Seatbelt on, Sue?” Mom asked, looking over her shoulder from the passenger seat. The sight of her little Sue always brought a smile to her face without fail, no matter the context.

“Yeah!” the tyke squealed.

“Awesome!” Mom beamed. “Let’s get outta here. How’s hot cocoa sound after we’re back home?”

“Can we have marshmallows too?” Sue pleaded.

“Well, we kinda ate them all here, buuuut we could make popcorn instead!”

“Yes! Thank you, mommy!”

Another hair ruffle sent Sue giggling again as the lights inside the car dimmed. The steady rattle of rain grew louder as Dad pulled out of the increasingly muddy parking lot and back onto the rural road, thanking whoever was listening for the relatively fresh looking asphalt that covered it. In not too long, the mix of the rain’s din and the engine’s rumbling was the only sound that filled the car. All the while, the headlights were doing their best to cut through the ever thickening downpour, to a limited success.

“Fat chance anything’s gonna be clear through this rain, but might as well try,” Dad sighed. A few attempts to tune into a local radio station ended up unsuccessful; any melody they could make out was too drowned out by static to be listenable. “Yep, guess it’s just us and the road.”

“Moooom, can I play?”

Sue’s mom sighed quietly, rolling her eyes with a chuckle as she glanced over to the back seat. “Sure, sure, just turn the sound off.”

“Thank you!” Sue squeaked, scooping the handheld console up from the middle seat. Its purplish plastic was cracked in a couple of places from overuse, but still held strong as the rectangular screen came to life; the device’s welcoming chime soon silenced.

Much as the girl’s mom tried to limit her daughter’s screen time, she couldn’t deny that a dull ride back home with not even a radio to ferry them over was a more than justifiable time to lose herself to the plumbers and heroes of legend and all that.

For a solid while afterwards, all Sue’s memories remembered was the small, glowing screen in front of her, the outside world entirely tuned out. Clumps of pixels representing franchise icons moved and jumped around as the same few levels were replayed god knows how many times—all that mattered was that they were fun, and fun they most definitely were.

Sue grew drowsy as her dad drove on, the last of her excitement about their day out camping finally leaving her system. Eventually, she dropped the console onto the seat beside hers, closing her eyes and expecting to wake up in her own bedroom.

The moments that followed were nothing more than a sudden, deafening blur.

Blinding lights ahead of them. Her mom’s shout. The next thing Sue knew, the entire world was tumbling around her. Seatbelt dug into her body as she was rag dolled in her seat, the shriek of crumpling metal permanently burning itself into her memory.

An instant later, it was over with another loud crash.

All that accompanied the still present rain and rumble was an occasional crack or groan. The concussed world around her was nothing more than a dark blur as Sue realized she was sitting at an angle, her entire body hurting—

“Cass? CASS!?” Dad shrieked, making the girl try to focus on and look at where her mom sat. Her memory refused to follow, continuing to stare straight into the back of her dad’s seat and tuning out his despairing screams.

Refused to relive the sight just off to the left.

Refused to notice the blood splatter on the car’s dashboard.

Refused to see her mom’s body, crushed by the tree their car had slammed into.

Refused to hear any more of her dad’s pleading.

Refused to experience losing her innocence again.

Sue’s traumatic vision began to come undone around her, her quiet whisper the last sound before it all disappeared—

“M-mom?”​


Sue had no idea how much time had passed by the time she felt herself return to reality. All she knew was that she’d been crying for a while, judging by the sticky sensation on her cheeks. Solstice was steadily stroking the side of her face and holding her tight, just as tightly as she was held herself earlier.

Her glance up at her mentor was returned, Solstice’s expression trying to be as comforting as she could manage, regardless of how badly she needed that comfort, too. “I’m so sorry, Sue.”

Sue thought about getting up before realizing just how utterly tired she was; any strength Sundance’s brew had filled her with long gone. Old emotional scars, both her own and her mentor’s, had drained her wholly, leaving little more than an emotionless husk behind.

And yet...

Her flat expression shuddered as her emotions crept back to her, including one particular sensation that she now, more than ever, couldn’t ignore—not after a light had been shone on it so directly. She recalled clasping her hands before bed each night for months afterwards, muttering whichever few prayers she knew for her mom to come back. For it all to have just been a vicious nightmare.

And yet, once she actually felt that comfort, the same warmth once more, after all these years... she didn’t know what to do.

Do I want this?

Do I deserve this?

Is it right of me to want this?

Is it fair? To myself, to Solstice, to my mom, to Aurora, is it right!?

Is it right of me to feel at home in ways I haven’t since that evening!?

Is it right of me to dread the return to my world, a world where I was and always would be a nobody, and where barely anyone has even realized I disappeared!?


Sue didn’t know. At that moment, there was only one thing she knew for certain, knew so much more than anything else in the world, be it this one or her own. The truth that felt so terrifying to admit—and yet, was no less real.

I don’t want Solstice to let go.



If you're confused about the species of the characters and want them spoiled, I've set up a page listing the species of all the featured characters in each chapter!

If you want to discuss the story, I've set up a Discord server for it! (and my other writings)

Also check out my other story, From the Vast!
 
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Chapter 12: Daybreak

redspah

the gay agenda
Pronouns
she/her


Chapter 12: Daybreak



Sue remembered little of what followed her heart to heart with Solstice.

Her exhausted mind kept slipping in and out of consciousness, reducing entire hours to singular images. Solstice holding her in silence for hours. Being half guided, half carried back to the village, the sun setting above her. Laying on the bed in Willow’s clinic. The medic themselves standing in the doorway, the faint candlelight illuminating them against the backdrop of a nigh-moonless night.

And then... she was here again.

For once, Sue took her time before springing head first into yet another dream, shaking and keeping her eyes closed. The memory of the actual campfire the mockery in her dreams was based on was still fresh in her recollection and rawer than ever.

Maybe, if she just kept trying, she could force herself to snap out of this vision before she had to see any more of it. Maybe if she told Duck and Night Father off firmly enough, they’d leave this place alone and not defile it any further with their presence. Maybe she was just being repeatedly tested, and would be stuck in this world until she cracked a puzzle in her dreams she wasn’t even aware of.

Ultimately, there was little she could do without finding out just what she was in for this time. With a deep breath, Sue turned her gaze skyward and opened her eyes, determined to stare down whichever deity was—

The Moon was not there.​

The realization took its sweet time to settle in as she kept examining the starry sky. She hoped to spot the usually unmistakable celestial body, or even just a Moon-sized hole in the astral backdrop—but no, nothing. No Moon, be it full or new, no clouds, only an endless canvas of darkness dotted with uncountable pinpricks of light, a couple of them moving across it.

Sue hesitated before lowering her eyeline and taking in the rest of the scene, left with absolutely no idea what she would see—and with the sky being simultaneously so familiar, and yet so deeply wrong, she didn’t have a good feeling about this. Then again, it wasn’t like she could avoid having to face it all sooner or later. She took a deep breath, then another, and then went for it in one swift motion, hoping her mind was ready for whatever horrors had been thrust upon it this time.

Okay, this is... slightly less unnerving.

Most of the scene was exactly how she remembered it, with the differences being limited to a couple of new objects, one of them as familiar as the other was gaudy.

To her right, on the next bench over, laid her mom’s guitar. The same one she played on that fateful evening before it ended up sharing her fate. The same cheap wood and even cheaper varnish, the same out of tune strings, the same magic-themed stickers covering most of its sides and front, courtesy of Sue from many years ago. The details rushed into her mind one by one, most of them thought long since faded from memory.

The other addition was much more eye-catching, but Sue would be lying if she said she cared about the ornate door anywhere near as much as the instrument beside her.

Before long, Sue was sitting where her mom once sat, the guitar now in her hands—hands that probably weren’t even fit to play it. Even if, though, that was a problem for the awake her. Without thinking more of it, she got right into plucking away at the strings, half-remembered chords combining into the most listenable kind of cacophony. Memories flowed with each note, slipping out from underneath the vice press of trauma that had threatened to crush them out of existence. Memories of the happier times, of her spending hours listening to her mom practicing or learning a new song.

Once upon a time, there was nothing cooler to her than being a guitarist.

She was so glad she could still remember.

Sue’s impromptu jamming session came to an end after a few minutes as she reached up to wipe the quickly building moisture out of her eyes. Once she had steadied her breathing, she laid the guitar down beside her—and did a double take at seeing something, someone in the corner of her eye, in the spot she sat on when she first woke up here—

One blink later, nothing.

Huh.

Regardless of whatever that was or wasn’t, it left Sue with an anxious feeling in her stomach, pushing her away from pondering on it. Shaking it off, she stood up and stretched, basking in the campfire’s warmth for a moment before turning towards the door standing off to the side. The golden frame and ebony wood made it look otherworldly—not to mention absurd, considering its surroundings. Before it lay a small, pink jewelry pillow, and on it rested a pair of golden semicircles, looking as if they had been made by someone with no sense of taste whatsoever.

Their combined appearance was so stark that all they needed was a large wobbling ‘Click Me!’ pop-up hovering above them—

Hold on.

The door could wait for a moment. As Sue was walking up to it, she felt… something underneath her foot, buried in the gray sand. An attempt to reach in found a massive slab of what felt like stone, large enough for her attempts to move it to accomplish exactly jack. She settled for the second best option instead—uncovering the object, one swipe of her oversized hands at a time.

Sue’s determination only grew as more of the slab came to view—and with it, writing engraved on it. Right as she was about to wrap it up, though, her hand brushed against a piece of paper somewhere in the sands. Without even thinking, she grabbed it with an excited, manic motion and brought it in front of herself—



You’re welcome.



Silver ink, elegant cursive, absolutely zero idea of what it could mean. The words made zero sense until she looked up from the page and at the unearthed slab, imaginary blood draining from her imaginary face as she took the inscription in.




In Loving Memory Of

SUE MARY MULLINS

16th January 2001 - 13th April 2023

Beloved Daughter

Forever In Our Hearts​


Thirteenth of April, when the hell was that!?

Sue didn’t even notice the second date having been crossed out as her panicking thoughts tried to remember a date, any date, eventually stumbling on something recent.

She remembered waking up at a small rundown hostel and checking her phone first thing in the morning. It was just past nine, April twelfth. She had breakfast, strapped on her backpack, and headed out to a nearby forest trail. It was supposed to look stunning at this time of the year. At around the halfway mark, she found a bench and had lunch, then there was a loud bang some distance away, and—

And—





And the next thing she knew, she was laying in mud, lost, in a body that wasn’t hers.

Was that supposed to represent her subconscious worry about everyone on Earth thinking she was dead? Sue had no idea, but between the hyperawareness of her memories having been tampered with, and the distress of seeing her own gravestone, she really didn’t want to think about it any longer.

Let’s just focus on that door.

Shaking the morbid discovery off, Sue slowly got up and approached the main attraction this dream had in store. The door’s appearance became more bizarre the closer she looked, extremely lavish materials mixing with equally banal, plain design. Even the door handle was just an ebony replica of the plastic ones from her campus.

She wasn’t surprised to see the handle not budge even slightly when she tried to open it. Instead, her attention jumped down and towards the shiny trinkets laying in front of the door, the entire display as eye-catching as it was tacky. The two semicircles on the jewelry pillow didn’t just look like they were made of gold—they were. Solid gold no less, judging by their weight. They were engraved with depictions of Duck and Night Father, respectively, the engravings as detailed as they were shoddy, as if it had been clumsily machine pressed onto the precious metal.

One of them had a bit sticking out in the middle. It dumbfounded Sue for all of half a second before she spotted a fitting hole in the other one, the realization that followed as dumb as it was inarguable.

This is a puzzle with two elements.

As much as she felt like a victim of a practical joke, Sue couldn’t resist sticking the two pieces together just to see what would happen. They kept clinking against each other as she pressed them together, the sound grating her ears, but eventually she got them to fit. And, on cue, the dreamed-up door opened, revealing her dorm room on its other side.

It was all there. The bed she forgot to make when heading out, her laptop sipping electricity from the outlet, the trash bin that was long due to be cleaned, the small pile of notes cluttering her desk, a few dishes from the last morning she’d spent there.

This was her way out of here.

Sue dropped the pathetic excuse for a puzzle as she took a step towards the gate back to her world. To her dismay, the door didn’t get any closer, remaining just out of reach. Panic built inside her as she broke into a jog, then a sprint, straining her body to the backdrop of her dorm’s ambience as the dream fell apart around her. She couldn’t keep up, putting the last of her strength into one last leap of faith—but it, too, wasn’t enough.

Her reach missed the golden doorframe by mere inches as the surrounding scenery finished dissolving, leaving her to fall down, down, down—

And then, she felt her hand be grabbed by another, much like itself, and woke up.


Sue gasped as she came to, eyes shooting wide open. Her mind caught up to her surroundings as she calmed down her shallow breaths, eventually getting back to something approaching calmness. Once she no longer felt like she was on the brink of a panic attack, she sat up on her bed, staring at nothing as she processed what the hell she’d just dreamed.

Which fucking deity is messing with me this time?

The Moon’s absence hinted strongly against either of the two lunar deities—but if not them, then who? That tombstone was there for a reason, that door was there for a reason, that guitar… might’ve been there for a reason, or it might’ve just been her own subconscious acting up or something.

Even brief thoughts about the implication of her having died sent chills down Sue’s back. Chills, but nothing for answers, forcing her to focus on the other mystery, thankfully as trivial in the waking world as it was in her dreams. She brought the Night Mother and the Night Father together, and the door back home opened—



Wait, is that… it?

She tried to arrange the facts into some other configuration, worrying she had fallen into an intentionally placed dead end while the actual mystery here ran much deeper. But… no, nothing came up; there was no other way to interpret this. She just had to bring two…

Gods…

Back together…



As straightforward as her goal now was, that didn’t make it feel any less impossible. Sue had no idea where to begin with that kind of divine counseling—or even what getting them back together would even look like. Did she just… have to wait until both of them showed up in one of her dreams, at which point she’d make a polite plea for them to get together again?

The mental image of trying to bring a divorced couple together emerged from her brain and wouldn’t go away, no matter how hard she’d tried to banish it. It might’ve been accurate—it even felt like it was accurate—but it only made her feel more disheartened at her impossible task.

Oh, bother.

Sue knew she had to stop thinking about this or she’d grow mad, sooner or later. Tried as she might, she couldn’t snap her mind away from this topic, though, deflating her with a weak sigh. The task in front of her was one she had absolutely no idea how to even begin approaching. Interfering in divine quarrels was an undertaking much better suited for heroes of Greek legend, as opposed to one traumatized comp-sci student of hardly any ability and even less renown.

She was far from a stranger to the question of ‘why me’, and it took her until the past couple years to realize there was no point in asking it. It was a question without an answer, not one more explanatory than the incomprehensible dance of random chance, chaos theory, and Fate.

But… that wasn’t the case here, though.

Someone got her into all this mess, someone snatched her from her world and sent her to calm down a feud between two literal deities, someone left her here without even deigning her with a familiar body—or any memories of being kidnapped into this world, for that matter.

The moment I get my hands on that someone, I’m kicking their ass all the way to the Moon.

The newfound determination didn’t unravel the mystery any, but it certainly gave Sue the motivation to snap herself out of her funk and face the new day. She tossed the covers off and stretched, finally settling on how she was gonna tackle it all.

One step at a time, just like everything else.

Before she could start the day proper, though, a couple of distractions caught her attention. The bulky cast on her leg had been downgraded to just a few layers of bandages. She could still see some reddish swelling underneath, but it was far from the sight permanently burned into her memory she’d witnessed on her first day in Moonview. A tentative attempt to stand up on just her two feet ended in failure, but only barely this time. The pain was only slightly too unbearable now, and if her leg kept improving, then she ought to be able to walk again in a few days.

The other distraction was a small, off-white bundle in the clinic's corner, a far cry from Willow’s usual cleanliness. If it hadn’t been glowing, Sue would’ve probably just ignored it, but that addition made it just a bit too interesting to look past. Especially when combined with there being a mental presence underneath.

“H-h-hello?” Sue asked—and backed off a couple of steps, the bundle’s reaction immediate.

It shuffled around the floor for a moment, making sounds akin to metal scraping on wood, before it hovered into the air. Once it was floating, its—their appearance suddenly became much more familiar, but not their identity.

Sue had no idea why the bedsheet ghost lookalike she had run into outside Solstice’s tent would spend a night in here with her. Before she could put even the measliest of ideas together, though, the hidden creature’s stretch had the canvas sheet covering it slide off. They caught onto it too late, the black tentacles reaching out from underneath the cover fumbling and failing to grasp it before it fell all the way off.

The creature hiding beneath was... a lamp.

It was absurd how well that description fit. The small black body, arms and ‘cap’ had a texture of wrought iron, while their head was a semitransparent, glass-like sphere with a couple of yellow eyes on its outside. It housed a stunning blue flame, growing livelier once she took a closer look at it.

So… so eye-catching... I can’t… look… away…

And then; it was covered up once more.

The floating creature hovered away as Sue blinked through her momentary daze. The stranger’s emotions had turned from a mild startle to a heaping pile of shameful anxiety, the shift catching Sue off guard. Their ‘words’ were apologetic in tone, at least as much as the sound of quiet whispers mixing with fiery cracking could be said to have a tone to it.

“What’s wrong?” Sue mumbled, feeling like she’d just woken up from a nap.

Despite a lack of understanding, the lack of hostility in her voice was apparent, calming the stranger down as they hovered higher into the air. Their black tentacles were gripping their off-white shroud extra hard, leaving them looking even weirder than normal. Out of everything Sue had seen there, they’ve been by far the most… eccentric creature yet—

*rrr-rrrip!*

Sue stared blankly as the black spike at the top of the lamp’s head impaled through their cover. It was clearly intentional if them growing calmer afterwards was anything to go by, but it only confused her even more. Guess it wouldn’t fall off this way, at least—wait, was that why—

Before Sue could home in on that particular mystery, a soft voice perked her up. The sight of Willow had grown incredibly reassuring over her stay here, dissolving any remaining tension as she looked at the door’s clinic, finding the elderly medic smiling up at her.

As they turned to talk to the hiding lamp, Sue gave her telepathy another go. She wasn’t exhausted or panicking anymore; there was much less risk of accidentally mentally assaulting someone, and—if the worst came to pass—Willow would probably be much more forgiving than that bee. With tranquil surroundings and a calm mind, the ritual she’d learned with Solstice only took a few seconds to perform in full.

Time to reap the spoils.

“G-good morning, Willow!” she greeted, expression turning ecstatic at getting one step closer to independence.

The medic, however, jumped at the sound, eyes wide as they turned around towards her. “Oh? Sue?”

The Forest Guardian beamed as she confirmed their hunch with a firm nod, trying her hardest to keep any self awareness about being far behind the skills of other Forest Guardians at bay.

I earned this; my brain can go and beat it.

“Oh! Good. Very good. How feel?” they asked.

Granted, all her limited skill got her were only fragmentary sentences, requiring a lot more brain power to process than she would’ve preferred. Still, it far, far beat nothing, Sue giddy as she replied, “I’m much better, th-thank you, Willow. Is my leg getting better?”

The imperfect communication seemed to go both ways, the bunny-like medic squinting as they worked through the few words they could make out. Their expression lit up as they finally cracked it, an affirmative nod joining it soon after. “Welcome. Leg better. Walk again in days. No walk now.”

She definitely wasn’t about to after her earlier test, but she appreciated the clarification.

With their message acknowledged, Willow turned back to the lamp in the room. Sue’s body used the opportunity to remind her about itself—it sure was high time for breakfast. Or two. She waited patiently as the other two spoke, the medic eventually speaking to her again, “This Crackle. He worried you yesterday, asked me help.”

The name fit, if nothing else. As much of a mess as yesterday was, she couldn’t recall getting scared of him, though.

Wait, maybe Willow means ‘worried about you’. Yeah, that fits better. Aww.

The news brought a smile to the once-human’s face as she waved at the newly identified Crackle, the floating lamp eagerly responding in kind. “Awww, tell him I said ‘thank you’,” she beamed. “That’s really sweet of him. Why is he hiding like this?”

Both Willow and Crackle grew confused as the former passed the words over, leaving Sue to worry she’d accidentally made a gaffe towards the animated inanimate object. Thankfully, the lamp got the gist not long after, his whispers growing louder as he let the medic know. “He say you nice. Glad you not mad. Him fire eat soul,” Willow explained, perfectly calm.

…what?

“Umm, could you repeat?” Sue asked, gulping. “I don’t think I got that right.”

“Repeat? Crackle fire burn spirit. Bad to look at alone.”

...nope, I didn’t mishear that.

Guess them wearing a blanket made much more sense now, even if it also implied that she had some of her soul eaten during her earlier exposure. Once she’d pushed past that terrifying realization, though, Sue realized she didn’t really feel any different afterwards. Maybe he’d only burned a small bit of her soul, then? Too small to notice? Maybe? Please?

Her sixth sense gladly pointed out that the unintentional spiritual arsonist was aghast at her being spooked by the news, only now realizing that she didn’t know what had happened. He hovered away in shame, the malevolent fire underneath the piece of canvas dimming out by the moment.

Regardless of how much of herself she’d lost, an accident was an accident. After taking a moment to compose herself, Sue walked over to the floating soul light, putting on her least shaky smile as she offered him a hand. “It’s okay Crackle, it’s okay.”

The gesture brought the burning one untold relief, his light burning brighter as he briefly grasped her hand with both of his own. They felt metallic and were almost too hot to touch—but only almost. Even their ephemeral speech was much louder and livelier now, even if still firmly in the territory of ‘whisper’.

Hope that the cover won’t fall off again, hah...

With that resolved, though, there was only one question left. “So... breakfast?”


Sue spearheaded the makeshift band in their journey towards the clearing. She’d grown so used to her crutch that she could wager she was the best Forest Guardian in the world at using it. Or at least in that specific moment, while reasonably rested and being further sped along by hunger pangs.

She didn’t have to be told where to go, auto-piloting her way over to Poppy’s stall. Hazel ghosted the counter this time, leaning on it with a bored expression. Even without the knowledge of Moonview’s weird language, the ghost’s croaked words being a greeting was a safe enough bet. “Hey, Hazel.”

Just don’t call me ‘Crutches’ again and we’ll be all good.

The ghost lifted an eyebrow and groaned at the newcomer having devolved to speaking in gibberish. Fortunately for Sue’s hunger and sanity alike, Willow and Crackle weren’t far behind, the medic speaking as they caught up. Their soft-spoken words confused Hazel even further, her red eyes glancing between them and the Forest Guardian beside them. With how used she was to Willow’s words being untranslated, it took Sue a while to realize that she’d dropped her link with them without noticing it.

No biggie, just gotta go through the motions again and—

As Sue was about to repeat her minor mental magic miracle from earlier, a sight off in the distance chilled her. Her breaths deepened again as the yellow and black blur turned away from her, her mind hoping that Basil wouldn’t spot her.

Of course, that annoying rational part of her brain may have had a point when it kept drumming about confronting her fears and apologizing to him before the situation could fester in both of their minds.



Especially since, even on a purely emotional basal level, as scary as a massive bee with stingers for arms was, a massive bee with stingers for arms and a grudge against her was ten times scarier.

While Hazel and Willow bickered on, Sue finally pushed through her hesitation. She took one step, then another, then a third still, each one taking her further away from the safety of the medic’s presence and towards the bee she was so terrified of. The medic was too focused to notice her sneaking away, but that couldn’t be said for Crackle, the lamp torn between the clueless medic and almost as clueless Forest Guardian. Ultimately, they stuck with the latter, even if just to see what she was up to.

Her breaths grew shakier the closer she got to Basil, knowing full well his relaxed body language wouldn’t last and hoping beyond hope he wouldn’t freak out at her presence. He seemed to have just finished making his order, leaning on the counter as he looked around—

And spotted her.

Both sides jumped, startled, as they stared at each other. His emotions occupied Sue’s entire attention, especially as they went from alarmed to… afraid.

Is he… scared of me? I’m so sorry…

As bad as the realization made Sue feel, it also melted through some of her panic. Her expression softened as she gave him a small wave, wanting to establish some communication, however limited. The bee returned the gesture, though not without concerned confusion accompanying it, one that Sue had no idea how to overcome short of repeating the action that got them in all this mess in the first place.

Sadly, the more Sue thought about this, the clearer it became that it was the only realistic option—one that she’d have to act on eventually with the steadily growing tension. Without wasting another moment, she closed her eyes and went for it, hands moving around as she repeated the telepathic ritual. She felt panic spike in Basil’s mind as she navigated her mental reach through the air, making her want to stop—but by then, it was too late, their minds linking an instant later.

Prying her eyes open revealed Basil to be bracing himself for more pain, holding the two massive stingers in front of himself like a shield. He shook as the torment kept not coming, eventually gathering enough courage to peek out from his arms.

As sorry as the sight made her feel, Sue knew this was her time to act. A determined expression crept onto her face as she walked over and spoke, Basil’s compound eyes going wide—“Hello, Basil. I’m... I’m sorry for hurting you yesterday.”

For once, the bee remained silent, his arms drooping as he stared, dumbfounded. For a few moments, Sue was worried if she’d done it right, if he’d even understood her. She was about to say something again before Basil finally responded, his constant buzzing translating into an entire deluge of words. “Heavens you mad not really good I scared Moon angry me little one us thank thank you.”

Basil’s speech was much less coherent than Willow’s, forcing Sue to fill in the blanks herself and string the words along. Somehow, she could make sense of some of them, but far from all. But it was okay.

I can just ask again. I can, for once, just ask again.

“No, no, I’m not mad. I washn’t mad yesterday either, it was an accident and I’m sorry.”

“You hurt then accident not intent not mad?” Basil asked, leaning in.

This time, she was confident enough in her interpretation to just nod and respond, “Yes. I didn’t know what you were saying, and I wanted to understand, but I hurt you by accident.”

Basil’s body language grew less defensive as he flew over closer, confusion turning into surprise. “You not hear understand me saying you psychic?”

Well, how do I put it...

“I’m terrible at being psychic, I’m sorry,” Sue sighed, chuckling nervously.

The admission melted through the last of Basil’s worries, leaving him calmer despite how fast his thoughts kept buzzing. “Sorry not understand you not understand me. Thought I you talk sacred Moon like I foolish not understand.”

Guess being able to say ‘fuck’ with nobody else knowing does feel sacred in a way.

“I don’t know any sacred words, hah,” Sue shook her head. “And it’s alright, I forgive you!”

The mention of forgiveness left Basil especially giddy. Relief filled his mind as he flew over in one swift motion, nodding rapidly to the tune of repeated ‘thank you’ before he continued, “Wonderful wonderful! Forgive I too, wish I know then you confused scared not understand. Here Birch hear good news happy!”

As happy as Sue was to hear his words, she could tell that the last part wasn’t aimed at her. She glanced over her shoulder, following Basil’s line of sight. Willow was there in the corner of her vision, waddling their way over, but they weren’t who the bee’s attention rested on.

The bespoke Birch was carrying the brown caterpillar Basil was looking after yesterday in their arms. They weren’t particularly unnerving or even weird looking, certainly not by the standards of this world—but what they were, though, was familiar. Almost entirely white wings with black edges, purplish body with large blue legs, red compound eyes. The memory of Sue’s encounter with another of their kin on her first day here crept out of her memories and into her attention.

Good Duck was I clueless. If only I knew massive butterflies are some of the least weird it gets here.

The memories were amusing enough to distract Sue from the fact that the recollection went both ways. Birch was clearly taken aback as they buzzed towards Basil, the bee’s response catching the Forest Guardian’s attention. “What met her ago? Away village, not hurt? Run scream away panic see you? Hey chosen Moon mate my Birch say he you met ago away, scare you?”

...

Welp.

“Umm... y-yeah, I did,” Sue chuckled nervously, trying to look at anything but the bug couple. “I’ve never seen another like him before and was terrified by everything, sorry...” she trailed off. Though, while she was at it—“Oh, and my name is Sue.”

The sound of her voice got the caterpillar in Birch’s arms to wriggle themselves in her direction. They squirmed until they to contort themselves to look straight at her. The two engaged in a brief stare-off before the little one broke it with lively wriggling; the little well-defined there was of their mind feeling very happy to recognize someone outside of their parents.

“Sue then happy hear,” Basil beamed. “Sue never see like you scared scared scared then, apology Birch.”

Thankfully, the butterfly didn’t mind one bit, upbeat and kicking their legs in the air as they laughed the whole matter off. As they did, Sue felt something touch her side from behind, followed by a sudden burst of joy and one warm nose she was well familiar with. And then, shortly after, by a whole host of other noises and emotions, the scene suddenly growing much busier.

But first things first. “Hey there, Spark~,” she cooed. The fiery kit was leaning on her good leg with her forelegs, happiness filling her woofs and mind—especially once she spotted the bee next to her tall friend.

“Hi hi hi Spark!” Basil swooned, returning the lil' vixen's enthusiasm.

Off to the right, Willow was trying to catch her attention, likely not realizing she couldn’t understand them anymore.

The leafy caretaker closed in on the group right behind them, Comet in her arms. His immediate reaction to seeing her was an excited squeak and letting her know he wanted to be picked up. Before Sue could decide on whom to focus first, though, Splitleaf took the initiative.

She moved Comet to one arm and caught her attention with a modest wave, the tiny Martian liking the gesture enough to repeat it on his own. Once the rest of the group had calmed themselves from the resulting giggling, the caretaker spoke up. Her rustling vocalizations were calm and measured, the apologetic intent clear to see.

“Mom Sue you understand not, maybe maybe,” Basil chimed in soon after. He was right, but it didn’t matter—she understood Splitleaf’s gist all the same.

Sue bowed as deeply as she could at the apology while returning some of her own, “Apology accepted. I’m sorry for all that mess yesterday.”

Still, it would’ve been nice to convey her desire for reconciliation in a better way. She lifted her free arm towards the mantis, miming a one-armed embrace, her gesture clearly understood—

If not necessarily by its intended recipient.

For what it was worth, Basil’s blistering speed made her not even realize anything was afoot until he was already embracing her torso. By the time Sue’s brain caught up, everyone else’s amusement was all she could sense, both at the situation and at her expression.

As unnerving as a realization that there were three very sharp, very large stingers next to and wrapped around her was, the adorableness of the attached person made up for that uncomfortable fact. Said person then buzzed, “Aaa aaa nice nice this nice thank you Sue.”

Thankfully, Splitleaf wouldn’t skip out on the opportunity just because her son also took it. She hugged Sue’s other side with one arm while bringing Comet closer with the other one. The little Martian was overjoyed at his big friend being in reach and let everyone know by squeaking loudly as he splatted into Sue’s side.

Guess even bugs feel nice here.

Once Sue got over the initial shock of Basil joining in on the hug, she wrapped her arm around his abdomen, low enough to not swat into his wings while keeping a hearty distance away from his stinger. His buzzing, combined with everyone else feeling well, filled her with a pleasant warmth, sorely needed after yesterday’s mess.

Speaking of.

As everyone detached themselves from her, Comet much more so begrudgingly than others, Sue looked around the scene in pursuit of either Solstice or Sundance. She sure wasn’t expecting to see the former around after yesterday, but the latter was a bit more puzzling. It was possible they had just departed for somewhere again, like they had when she first ended up in Moonview, but... it was worth asking.

Thankfully, the group’s chatter was self-contained enough to let her focus on linking with Willow again. The sensation snapped them out of their own confusion about how to proceed. Sue’s voice perked them up as she spoke, “Willow?”

Their nod prompted an excited question from Spark, the affirmative answer making her burn even brighter in her excitement. The reason behind her response wasn’t exactly difficult to make out, making Sue giggle.

Sure, sure, you’ll have your speaking time sweetie, just not now.

“Where’s Sundance and Solstice?” she asked.

The medic’s own look around the place indeed revealed the absence of either psychic, making them forward the question to Splitleaf. Both Spark and the leafy mantis responded to Willow’s question, occasionally talking over each other. Comet interjected a baby noise or two, squeaking once his addition was rewarded with some further pets.

Eventually, Willow had enough of a hold on the situation to pass it back over to their patient, trying to keep their description clear. “Sundance Solstice need alone meditate. Yesterday very hard both. Be back today hope. Yesterday hard you too, true not true?”

Meditation time, eh? Honestly, I could probably use some, too—at least if I knew how to do it.

“I see, thank you,” Sue muttered, thoughtful. “Yeah, yesterday was... very hard for me, too. Feel better now.”

A part of the medic wanted to reach over and comfort her before the reassurance that she was alright followed shortly afterwards. Concern still lingered inside them despite that, though they tried not to show it. “Glad hear better you. What happen?”

As much as Sue wanted to have someone else to talk about her trauma with, she could probably go a few weeks, if not months, without clawing at these old scars again. Triply so with the deep uncertainty her ultimate realization brought her, many of the intertwined emotions not fully processed yet.

A firm shake of her head was already clear enough of a response, but clarifying further wouldn’t hurt. “A lot,” she sighed. “So, so, so much, and it was all overwhelming, but I’d rather not talk about the details, not now at least.”

Disappointment joined the partially renewed concern, though Willow once more maintained composure, choosing not to press the issue further. “Is good all. Now, we need food take, then,” they began, before pausing at the thought. After a moment of consideration, they turned towards Splitleaf and continued, “Splitleaf Spark Comet take you where? Oh, good. Easy calm. Sue take you too? Good good. Sue! Splitleaf take you. Little play where. Calm there. After breakfast.”

As good as Sue was getting at the game of stringing barely coherent words into one concrete through-line, she didn’t quite accomplish that feat this time. The gist of Splitleaf taking her somewhere calm was as clear as it was appreciated, though, her weary smile inspiring a much larger one in the medic.

But first, breakfast.


Willow’s presence as a translator barely made the task of choosing her meal any easier.

Still, Sue eventually settled on something, her meal arriving a few minutes later. Said something turned out to be a well-grilled burrito, warm to the touch and crunchy to the bite. Its filling was much more monotone than even the cheapest meal out of a terrible franchise restaurant, though it had a marked advantage of actually being tasty, combining a crispy seared meat-like texture, with a sweeter, gravy-like flavor.

Not the favorite meal she’d had during her stay in Moonview—not by a long shot—but it was still much better than anything she had a hope of ever cooking for herself.

The meal the bug family went for was tricky to make heads and tails of—all Sue could tell was that it comprised approximately equal parts berries and leaves, the latter eaten with as much gusto as the former. The little ones of the band, Comet and Spark included, each got a singular blue fruit instead, walking away happy while Splitleaf kept trying—and failing—to keep their cheeks clean and non-sticky.

Crackle was... somewhere, she supposed. Sue hadn’t noticed the floating lamp had left until she was already wrapping her meal up, the realization more dumbfounding than anything else.

Hope he’s alright.

Once everyone was done, they all split up and got a move on. Comet got handed off into Sue’s free arm, much to their shared joy; the caterpillar ended up in Splitleaf’s arms; and Spark scrambled along off to the side. The other adults all departed shortly after, leaving the Forest Guardian with just the kids and their caretaker.

As they marched on, there was still one unknown Sue wanted to clarify.

The leafy mantis looked up at her in confusion as she suddenly stopped and concentrated, her mind’s movements making Comet squirm even more. His psychics just kinda went all over the place, feeling tingly against Sue’s skin as she linked up with Splitleaf, one question tickling her mind in particular. “Hi! What’s the little brown one’s name? The one in your arms?”

Sue didn’t expect the bushbug to get as confused as she did in response. The caretaker looked down at the little one in her arms and whispered, “No name,” before holding them closer, a tinge of sadness filling her mind.

The response took the Forest Guardian aback, especially with the unintended tone shift her question had inspired. Comet acknowledged the change in mood with a quiet mumble, clinging to Sue even closer afterwards. “Why none?” she asked.

Splitleaf sighed deeply. “No until two moon.” Her embrace tightened still as her leafy arm pet along the caterpillar’s head and back. “Then know they live. Then they name.”

The reason made sense when stated out loud. At the same time, the mere necessity of a rule like that stabbed Sue in the heart, the arm holding Comet following Splitleaf’s lead in holding him that much tighter. “I-I see,” she whispered, holding back tears. “Thank you.”

The mantis nodded, a weak smile creeping onto her face. “Is good. They healthy. Have hope hope.”

The rest of the walk towards their destination went uneventfully.

Spark kept trying to get as much affection from Sue as she could, getting just a teeny bit frustrated her savior was holding Comet in her arms and not her. The lil’ psychic, oblivious to everything else going on in the world, continued to experience it one exciting thing at a time, waving clumsily at almost every creature the group passed by. Most of them even waved back, those without the limbs to do so using their entire bodies as a substitute.

Moonview’s playground turned out to be less a structured location and more a large sandbox. Most of the little ones she’d seen the other day were already playing there, the blue cloud bird watching over them all. They only passed Sue’s group a brief whistled greeting and a timid wave before focusing back on their duty.

Spark ran right into the fray, immediately splashing sand on some other kids and chatting them up. They returned the favor soon after, forcing the fiery fox to shake the dust out of her fur before counter attacking. The quickly escalating sand battle was thankfully called off with a single stern whistle from the cloud bird.

Splitleaf took a seat off to the side, letting the little caterpillar wander around freely, but only in her immediate vicinity. Guess with her revelation, Basil’s panic at losing sight of his child made much more sense in hindsight.

As Sue looked around for a place to sit down herself, she felt a stronger emotion emanate from nearby. Hardly interesting by itself, but with how intensely sad it was, and with it coming from behind the tree line, she couldn’t help but investigate. It was probably just nothing, but… it could’ve been a lil’ kid in distress.

The feelings tugging at her sixth sense grew stronger with her every step, sorrow soon getting laced with a few other emotions—trepidation, worry, even a bit of excitement. Comet clearly felt it all too, growing quiet before long. The stranger’s longing burned even brighter as she peered into the greenery, scanning the area in search of the source of the emotions—and then, she spotted it. Kinda.

To the best extent her mind could perceive it.

The pitch black spot in the middle of the forest floor felt... wrong. It wasn’t sized right; it was simultaneously too small and too large to be real. A pair of white pinpricks peered out of it, wobbling all over as Sue’s vision grew blurry and her lungs burned, her entire body losing a grip on itself. She couldn’t think, but she couldn’t stop looking, her body gasping for oxygen as the aberration stared back at her—

And with another blink, it took off into the woods, away from Moonview.

Sue came to with a gasp, vision swimming as she tried to process what had just happened. The unnatural sight was so deeply wrong her mind rejected it whole, turning the past few moments into little more than a blur in her recollection. Comet’s equally confused squeaks helped her shake her funk off as she hoped that whatever she’d just seen hadn’t hurt either her or the tyke in her arms.

And that it wouldn’t do… whatever it just did to anyone else, especially the little ones.

Before Sue could worry any more about that, though, she felt one well-familiar mental presence approach her from behind, the toothy girl’s rough cry accompanied by a quiet clinking of metal on metal. Sue’s heart swelled as Joy reached her destination, wrapping her arms around the Forest Guardian’s good leg. “Hey Joy!”

*squeak!*



If you're confused about the species of the characters and want them spoiled, I've set up a page listing the species of all the featured characters in each chapter!

If you want to discuss the story, I've set up a Discord server for it! (and my other writings)

Also check out my other story, From the Vast!
 
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Chapter 13: Bloom

redspah

the gay agenda
Pronouns
she/her


Chapter 13: Bloom



After everything that had happened over the past few days, Sue could only thank Duck for Astra’s and Joy’s appearance. She was relieved, both at them doing well after their sudden separation yesterday, and at Comet having someone to play with besides just her.

With that heartwarming revelation came another, though, less reassuring if similarly wonderful at face value.

The bandages wrapped around Joy’s maw were gone, the previously concealed cuts only barely visible anymore. Her menacing back mouth was once more free to open and bite, left slightly agape as the metal girl looked up at her tall friend.

That smile is doing wonders at melting through my worries, I have to give Joy that.

Once Joy had detached herself from Sue’s legs, she ran back into the sandpit, with Astra passing them both a wave as she sat down and got comfortable—one returned right after. Comet wasn’t shy about wanting to join the other kids, squeaking and wriggling much to his current caretaker’s amusement. It took Sue an awkward, drawn-out moment, but eventually, Astra got the cue that the Forest Guardian would need help sitting down, one eagerly given. Her seat in the sand wasn’t the most comfortable out there, but she had more than enough distractions around her to keep it from becoming too annoying.

One of said distractions could hardly contain himself after finally being released onto his own legs.

His clumsy waddle led him first back up to Sue, and then over towards Joy. The toothy girl withdrew into her guardian at Comet’s loud enthusiasm, but Sue’s gentle pets helped her maintain her composure.

“Don’t worry, shweetie, he just wants to say hi,” Sue softly reassured. Her words were greatly appreciated; if not for their contents, then for their tone. They were enough for Joy to finally dare a step towards the little Martian—after grabbing and holding the Forest Guardian’s hand to her front, of course.

Comet responded with a gleeful squeak and an excited scramble, pulling most of Joy’s body into a clumsy, but very heartfelt hug. He wasn’t sure what to do afterwards, though, confused at his playmate’s clear trepidation.

Sue wanted to link up with Joy and hopefully provide some understanding—but before she could do that, Spark made her glorious return onto her lap. Her wonderfully warm presence was accompanied by several woofs, catching the other two kids’ attention.

Fine, fine, Spark’s been waiting for her chance to speak for longer, teehee.

Joy watched keenly as Sue went through a bunch of odd gestures. Her little arms held Comet throughout, or at least until he got bored and waddled away before plopping down in a random spot. The toothy girl didn’t notice, though, too distracted by hearing Sue speak. “Hey Sparkie, yes you can hear me now!”

The lil’ vixen gasped at hearing her friend’s voice, even if she had to put in some effort to piece her sentences together. “Yay yay! How do? Thought you not do.”

Sue thought back to Solstice’s cover-up story, hoping Spark didn’t know enough to poke holes in it. “Solstice taught me, sweetie,” she explained as confidently as she could. “I’m really thankful to her.”

Spark’s excited nods melted Sue’s heart. “Can teach me she?” the kit woofed, preemptively engaging her puppy eyes.

Adorable as the sight was, the question left Sue confused. “Why not your mom?” she asked—and somewhat regretted it right after. She felt Spark deflate at her words, the sensation stinging her soul as she feared she’d misspoken somehow.

That turned out to not be the case. “I can’t she say,” Spark muttered. “Too small.”

“Well, I’d guess that she knows best,” Sue smiled, to little effect.

Spark’s grumbles netted her a few more pets, the affection dissolving some of her grumpiness. Still, Sue wished she could do more. Before either of them could continue, though, Joy mumbled something out at them, catching their shared attention. Muddled as they were, Spark managed to make out a couple of words, responding cheerfully, “We talk, Joy! Sue can talk brain, Solstice teach!”

Joy might not have understood everything her friend had said, but what she did understand had her face light up in awe. Right as she was about to ask for Sue to speak to her like that too, though, she jumped with a startled cry, metal teeth clinking together as she turned to look at Comet. The little Martian was dumbfounded at his curious touch having resulted in such a startle, making him sit down in surprise.

Before either of them could grow more upset, Astra spoke up, her calm words calming both kids down. Joy gathered her bearings before walking up to Comet again, the psychic tyke wasting no time before providing her with some more affection.

This is adorable, but… it won’t hurt to give them something concrete to bond over.

“Wanna try building sandcastles?” Sue asked, beaming. To her worry, it seemed her telepathic capabilities fell far short this time, Spark just tilting her head with no idea of how to respond. Which left a practical demonstration, and Sue wasn’t opposed to that one bit.

As weird as these Forest Guardian hands were, their sheer size left them rather well-suited for shoveling sand. The entire group watched closely as Sue dug into their playground before sculpting a couple of handfuls of wet sand into a cylinder. A pointed fingertip then drew a brickwork texture on its sides, completing the look of a barebones tower.

Fortunately, this was all the example the two bipedal tykes needed to get inspired. Joy wasted no time before reaching into the dugout and grabbing as much sand as she could, already envisioning her own version of Sue’s tower. Comet, meanwhile, got the equally bright idea of decorating the structure by sprinkling it with dry sand and placing a pebble on top of it.

To Sue’s concern, Spark didn’t have anywhere near the handiness or fine motor control to contribute directly. Her attempt to draw something on the tower’s exterior only ended up taking a noticeable chunk out of the sandy wall, leaving her annoyed—at least, before she took a deep breath, and realized there was another way in which she could help. She couldn’t draw well, but what she could do was dig—and dig she was going to do.

The sight of the lil’ fox excavating the raw material for their construction efforts kept Comet’s attention as his playmate kept building. Sue was about to start adding to the impromptu sculpture herself before Astra’s soft, slightly hiss-like speech caught her attention first. The orange dragon seemed to be chatting with someone hidden behind her large body, her words interspersed with an occasional glance at the playgroup.

Can’t see them, but… could try sensing them?

Sue tried to probe with her sixth sense, revealing uncertainty and hesitation emanating from whoever Astra was talking to—one steadily waning with each word. A tiny squeak eventually acknowledged the dragon’s words before the hidden being began making their way over towards their group. With the situation resolved, Astra returned to her earlier duty, resuming her nap underneath the nearby tree’s shade.

The Forest Guardian sure didn’t expect the approaching stranger to turn out to be the plant bulb-like villager she and Joy had seen yesterday. They were friends with that pink bat, though, earning them a glare from Sue as they walked over. Though, from what she remembered, they were by far the least hostile towards Joy, the realization softening her hostility before it could build up further. The plant child still noticed her conflicted expression, though, pausing in hesitation.

Once she’d gathered her bearings and calmed down, Sue tried breaking through their worry with a friendly wave, the gesture’s effectiveness… mixed. Thankfully, it wouldn’t be all up to her, with Comet soon joining in on the greetings with a mumble only he could understand. The sound made Spark peek out of her impromptu quarry, greeting the newcomer—“Hi Petal!”—before going back to her excavator duties.

Joy was by far the least eager of the three towards the newly named Petal, and Sue couldn’t blame her one bit. She might have known nothing about the oddly mobile plant, including whether they would be nice to Joy, but with how serene the scene was and with them having walked over on their own accord, she was willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. She reached towards the plant with one hand, as if to shake their nonexistent one, while the other kept calming Joy down with some well-needed affection. As uncertain as Petal was, they pushed through their hesitation all the same, eventually reaching out one of their light green... extremities to be grabbed.

Feels like a stem to the touch. Neat.

From there, it was just a matter of bringing her hands together, the kids at their ends growing less hesitant by the moment. Petal spoke up not long after, their words half-squeaked, half-whistled, and… sounding a bit muffled, probably on the account of them not having a visible mouth.

I... do not want to think too deeply about how that works.

For the second time today, Joy took a moment to cool off before walking over to the plant. She mimicked her big friend and held her hand out, making Petal let go of Sue to shake limbs with her instead. The gradual drop of tension was downright palpable for the Forest Guardian—and so, so welcome.

“Petal! Build us help?” Spark woofed out, leaving the plant child confused. Sue took it upon herself to demonstrate, grabbing another pile of wet sand and building the next mound with it. Joy leaped in to help without skipping a beat, followed by Comet—and then, after a bit more uncertainty, by Petal.

Even if they were individually tiny, three pairs of hands added up, especially when backed up by one really big pair of hands. For a while, the group kept building and Spark kept digging, nobody but Sue having any idea of just what they were even making a sandy depiction of. Despite that, with the Forest Guardian as their forewoman, the construction of the stereotypical rectangular castle progressed smoothly.

As they kept adding to it, though, the sheer mass of the sand made the foundation buckle under the load. After Sue’s fortieth attempt to pile on all the material that had fallen away failed, Petal’s whistled cry caught her attention before she could proceed with attempt forty-one. She watched as the plant scooted closer to try something, resting one light green limb on the sandcastle’s wall—which then glowed.

The repeated exposure to glow stick body parts had dulled Sue’s reaction down to just her eyes going wide. Eye-catching as Petal’s bodily spectacle was, though, it was nothing compared to what happened afterward. The entire castle shuddered as dark, thin roots crept their way around and through the structure, providing reinforcement all around.

Following that minor act of all-natural miracle work, Petal tried to back away from the castle—with clear difficulty. To Sue’s astonishment, their light green limb turned out to be the source of the roots, each individual stalk connecting back to it. As rigid as said connection looked, though, it was ultimately brittle, the plant child freeing themself shortly after—and almost losing their balance while at it.

Guess the ‘types’ Willow had described include something related to plant life, huh?

Still, Sue wasn’t expecting that sort of affinity to manifest itself like this—or to show so strongly through Petal’s appearance, for that matter. With the ‘type’ conundrum on her mind, she couldn’t help but wonder what was the ‘typing’ of the rest of their group.

Both she and Comet had psychic senses, which... counted, somehow, as vaguely defined as that category sounded. And, if she remembered right, they also had a special connection with the Moon, a trait that Poppy of all people shared as well. Spark was fiery in looks, body temperature, and skills alike, the displays of her and her mother’s ability to manipulate fire burned into Sue’s memory. Petal had something to do with plants. Astra was... uh…

It was at that point that her attempts at categorizing everyone present broke down. Sure, Astra very much looked like a big Flying Dragon, but Sue had no idea how that translated to any type in particular. Her big orange friend didn’t look fiery, or plant-y, or... psychic-y, or even icy like Snowdrop. She obviously wasn’t one of the night kin either, which left... ‘none of the above’? That ‘normal’ type that Willow had mentioned and apparently shared?

As unclear as Astra’s elemental affinity was, it paled compared to Joy, making Sue give up right away instead of even trying to categorize the toothy girl. Her looks or anatomy gave very little away in figuring out what sort of ‘type’ she might’ve had—unless ‘cute’ and ‘at least partially made of metal’ counted. Having a list of all the options would’ve helped a lot, that’s for sure—or even just an idea of how many of these types were there. Ten? Twenty? A hundred?

Behold Sue, part Psychic, part Clueless.

Something warm and damp touching her hand distracted Sue from any further thoughts about the wacky genetics of this world. A glance over revealed said limb to be in a… rather unnerving position of being held by the tip of Joy’s maw. Firmly away from the large, sharp, shining teeth, but still much too close for comfort. The rest of the uncertainly typed girl had either not noticed or not paid much attention to what her back face was doing, busy drawing Astra’s depiction on the side of the sandcastle.

As much as the sight unnerved her, Sue didn’t have any reasons to think that the gesture was meant to be aggressive, certainly not from Joy. That didn't help much by itself, though, especially with her not having any other ideas about what it might’ve meant—





Wait.

Could this... be meant as affectionate?


Sue supposed it only made sense for a species that was half maw by volume to have ways of using it that weren’t aggressive, but… that revelation only did so much towards making it any less unnerving, though. Still, unnerving or not, it was on her end to deal with. It didn’t hurt, it clearly wasn’t malicious, it just felt a bit weird. Hell, it even made sense that Joy would want to do something like that, hold her big friend’s hand while she played with the other kids.

Spooky looking, but ultimately sweet. Joy in a nutshell, hah.

Instead of disturbing the metal girl, Sue inspected the group’s progress. The towers atop the castle’s bastions were left unfinished on the account of nobody but her having the reach to finish building them. Having absolutely no idea what any of this was supposed to look like in the first place helped greatly in not discouraging the handed kids despite that setback.

Spark, however, was growing a bit frustrated. Having an outlet in digging up sand helped release some of her emotions, but hardly all. And between being unable to start learning telepathy like Sue, and being unable to really contribute to the others’ play, there was a lot of annoyance to release. Eventually, the fox had enough—she got up, shook approximately three pounds of sand out of her fur, and scampered over to nuzzle Sue’s free arm, before woofing, “I go play others!”

One affirmative nod later, the lil’ vixen was off to the races, leaping over Astra’s legs. Before Sue could focus too much on the play group Spark was running towards, or the pink scorpion bat therein, the kit’s passed-by greeting caught Sue’s attention—“Hello Kantaro!”

The words jolted Astra out of her nap, making the dragon sit up and look over her shoulder. Astra might’ve been surprised at said Kantaro’s presence here at the playground, but Sue… was surprised at almost everything else about them, despite it being her second time seeing them.

The bipedal beetle’s dark blue chitin shined in the sunlight as they eyed the tree Astra was resting under out. The dragon’s question had them respond with low, grumbly clicks, despite their underlying emotional state, sounding quite unnerving despite their mind being filled with nothing but unemotional focus. While they stood there, Sue craned her head and tried to get a better look at what they had brought with themself. A handful of planks, a large coil of rope, a bundle of something very colorful that Sue had a hard time making out from the distance—and, as they promptly demonstrated by drawing a few lines on the tree’s bark, a stick of chalk.

Are they gonna build a treehouse?

Before Sue could see if her hunch would end up accurate, though, she suddenly felt a jolt in her brain. The sensation was rather unpleasant, but… not unfamiliar. Before she could even look around for its source, a squeaky, girlish voice echoed through her mind; “^Hello, Sue!^”

A much louder voice than Sue remembered it being.

She winced, looking over her shoulder to find Thistle and Pollux peeking out from the treeline, the latter not wasting an opportunity to chuckle at her startle before waving at her. “Hey, Thistle,” she greeted, surprised to see the kids here again after their escape a couple of days ago. “Whattcha doin’ here?”

“^We’re looking for Spark! Do you know where she is!?^”

Despite Sue’s near-permanent state of confusion, this was the one question she had an answer for. She turned further into the playground and pointed in the approximate direction she remembered the lil’ fox run towards—

*BRR-BR-BRRRR!*

The loud sound from behind made Sue visibly jump, kicking her heart rate up by several gears. As startling as the noise was, though, a panicked look over her shoulder revealed the source to have been Kantaro. Having filled in an outline, they were now horn-deep into scraping away the bark and the wood underneath, carving the sturdy tree as if it was butter.

The little ones only barely noticed, and Astra was sleeping through it all. Somehow.

Once Sue had recovered from it all and let out a breath she wasn’t aware she was holding, she looked back over at where the night kin fox and his friend were—and only found an empty spot among the trees. Well, not entirely empty. A black feathered, crow-like bird sat on the branch immediately above where she last saw Pollux and Thistle. They were focusing on Kantaro’s ongoing crafts work, and Sue didn’t have a reason to disturb them, following their lead shortly after.

After a few minutes of working away at the tree with just their horns, the beetle switched to using their white claws. They continued to make effortless work of the tree as a flat, smooth surface came into its own, followed by the cut-outs for the planks they had brought with themselves to slide into. They finally had to resort to using a tool for the latter, fixing the corners with an elongated, visibly worn down chisel.

As they worked on, a small display began to take shape on the side of the tree. The way it was attached and its slanted roof above it made Sue think of a bird box, despite how inapplicable it was in this world. As the craftsbug worked on, they tried to minimize the usage of any tools beyond their own body, only resorting to their chisel and wood glue a couple times, the latter just for the supports.

Something falling down in Sue’s peripheral vision, followed by Kantaro trying to hammer in the final support beam by tackling it with his entire body, finally took Sue out of watching the incredible display. She blinked her daze away before looking at what had—

Oh no no no no NO NO—

She had no idea what separated the creatures in Moonview from those in the surrounding woods, but if there was anything that should’ve only belonged in the latter, it was the green, horned spider that had just fallen onto Astra’s front. Its blood-red mandibles choked the breath out of her as Sue shook in fear, about to shout for the dragon to get away—

Before Astra herself came to once more, only reacting to the newcomer with a sleepy blink and a calm question. The spider responded soon after, their ‘words’ comprising soft click-like noises. The spider-dragon exchange lasted only a few sentences before the former... crawled off Astra and made their way into Moonview, leaving Sue stunned.

What, how, but, h-HOW!?

The green spider’s larger, red cousin having tried to eat Spark, Pollux, and then her was still fresh in Sue’s memory, immediately making her hyperventilate. If there were any species that shouldn’t have been allowed anywhere within fifty miles of Moonview, it was these spiders—a-and this one was just there! Just having a nap on a branch!

Splitleaf even waved at them as they crawled past!

Before Sue’s brain could fry itself from attempting to solve that contradiction, she heard someone else’s voice speak up from nearby. It was as soft as growls and whines could be, with a particular croaky quality to it that made her think of Willow. To little surprise, the newly arrived villager was completely unlike the medic. Though, if their chat in front of Duck’s shrine a few days ago was any sign, the two clearly knew each other.

The velvety fur covering their body was split between cream and dark purple. Their proportions looked more like a badger or a dog standing on their hind legs for a trick as opposed to a full-time bipedal creature. Admittedly, Sue wasn’t paying as much attention to their legs as she did to their... collar, she guessed.

Nope, it wasn’t a trick of the light last time; these spots are actually glowing.

The badger’s words had Astra almost jump to her seat before looking at them with concern. Her response was part justification and part apology, the former featuring her glancing over at Joy a few times throughout. The girl had picked up on the attention and scooted towards Sue at seeing the newcomer, her thoughts full of worry—and fear.

Whatever the badger was talking with Astra about, the dragon’s reply only left them more annoyed. Sue flinched at glimpsing violet flames flicker from the purple spots around their neck as they grumbled into their paw. Their response was short and rough, but it thankfully brought Astra some relief. With the dragon dealt with, they switched their attention to Kantaro’s handiwork—before spotting Sue in the corner of their vision.

I don’t like how this feels one bit.

Despite the chills that went through the Forest Guardian’s body, the newcomer’s mood did improve at seeing her. Their steps towards her were slow and clumsy, a scowl turning into a mild smile. Before Sue could react, they bowed as deeply as their elongated body would let them. Which was by no means little.

They accompanied their gesture with a greeting of sorts. Despite their slow and overly-enunciated words, the end result wasn’t any more understandable than any other time Sue’d seen them speak. The badger held their bow for several long, awkward moments until Astra’s brief comment finally clarified something, making them flinch.

Won’t hurt to speak up and drive the point home. Again.

“Hello, I-I can’t understand you,” Sue repeated, anxious. She swore she saw their eye twitch as they straightened out. Even as they composed their appearance, the emotions swirling under the surface turned sour to the point of contempt—much easier to sense than during their first interaction.

What the hell is your problem...

While Sue reeled from the encounter, the badger turned back towards Kantaro. The craftsbug hasn’t slowed down even slightly despite the latest arrival, busy adding decals all around what was turning out to be a small, empty shrine. Sue considered mentally reaching out towards Astra, but between reeling from the badger’s emotions and not wanting to draw their attention, she remained still.

Kantaro’s response to the badger’s words was curt but respectful. They even gave the newcomer a quick bow before resuming polishing the shrine’s wood. As they worked on, they continued to converse with the badger, the latter occasionally pointing at elements of their handiwork or at the large branch under which Astra had been napping moments prior.

Once Kantaro was done polishing the wood, they got to hanging small, flower-like tassels on dozens of small notches covering the shrine. They did a decent job mimicking the appearance of all the flowers at Duck’s main altar, even despite the much more limited color palette. With that menial step done, the pair’s discussion grew focused on a small block of differently colored wood that had been lying off to the side until now.

Once Kantaro and what had to have been their boss had reached some sort of agreement, the former got to work, carefully working away at the chunk of special wood. And, to nobody’s surprise, their carving soon began to take the form of Duck on a pedestal. The beetle’s powerful cuts grew increasingly more precise as the statue took form, the mastery within each stroke clear to see. Their skill made Sue quite giddy to watch, especially with an unfamiliar but pleasant aroma tingling her nose. Before long, she was itching to get back to her own crafts project, or at least check up on its progress.

What was a singular castle the last time she looked was now but a part of a larger fort. A long wall had sprouted out of it, snaking around to surround… the sleeping Comet. The tyke’s hair was full of sand after he’d taken a nap at some point, thankfully with enough foresight to build himself a little sand pillow first.

Joy giggled at seeing her big friend finally notice the progress of their construction efforts. She pointed at the fortifications surrounding the sleeping baby Martian, much to Sue’s amusement and approval. Before she could point more out, though, she looked up at Sue—and something else caught her attention.

Oh? Whattcha looking at, Joy—

The badger’s low, gruff voice cut Sue off before she could follow the line being drawn by Joy’s gaze. They were looking in her direction but not at her, honest-to-Duck violet fire surrounding the purple spots on their neck. And then, Sue heard drawn out, singsong whistling—from right behind her, no less.

She reflexively looked around her shoulder, only to see nothing. Her sixth sense sensed the amusement, some of which she’d thought was her own, move over to her other side. By the time she had looked over her other shoulder, though, the hidden creature had already slipped back into her blind spot, letting out more giggling whistles. The badger grew as annoyed as Sue was getting dumbfounded, shouting at the prankster with their neck flames bursting. Whatever was said, it finally prompted the prankster to make their entrance—right over Sue, at that.

Sue felt two large, smooth leaves press into her shoulders, a hefty chunk of weight following soon after. Her back didn’t appreciate being used as a springboard one bit, annoying her as she looked up at the offender—just in time for them to wrap up a backflip before landing with a perfect split, a handful of fruits falling back into their leafy arms shortly after.

They feel so giddy, so… teasing?

She remembered seeing them around yesterday, while Solstice was guiding her over to her tent. The same humanoid yet plant-like body, the same mouth-less head with a pink flower blooming on top of it, the same… cuteness radiating off them.

As much as Sue liked what she was seeing, the badger remained unimpressed by the stranger’s display. They kept grumbling, though each of their complaints was either ignored or deflected with a few whistled words each. In between arguing, the plant person kicked themselves off the ground and into a standing position, swaying in place as they eyed out Sue’s playgroup—and the once-human in particular.

Petal speaking up finally caught the plant… lady?’s attention, making them show off the fruity spoils in their arms. With a well-practiced motion, they tossed a single fruit up in the air in front of themselves, their arm glowing light green as it sliced the treat in half. Whichever magic they had just used had worn off just in time for them to catch the two halves before they hit the ground.

...don’t get cut on those arms, got it.

They spotted Sue’s awestruck look right away, whistling laugh making her feel... weird. Weirdly nice. A light smile crept onto her face in response, not even thinking of washing off as the leafy dancer passed two halves of a green fruit with orange flesh to Petal and Joy. Even if it should’ve been the bare minimum, the once-human felt much warmer at the sight of someone just being unconditionally nice to the metal girl.

They weren’t done with their fruit gifts. They then left two pried-apart halves of what looked like a comically oversized raspberry with Astra and beside the sleeping Comet, respectively. The dancer’s last gift, the peach—apparently named ‘Pecha’ from what she remembered Pollux say—was… handed over to Sue, in its entirety.

Wait, what?

“N-no, wait,” Sue stammered, “that’s not fair, you deserve some too,” before trying to tear the peach in two with her bare hands—only to be stopped by the plant girl’s smooth, slightly juice-stained arm cupping her cheek. A burning blush erupted on her cheeks as her attention was guided upwards, straight towards the dancer’s shaking head, the accompanying words conveying gratitude, but also disapproval.

Why did that feel so nice?

The message was understood perfectly, though Sue couldn’t deny feeling bad at hoarding an oversized part of the stranger’s gift. With her initial idea of expressing gratitude denied, she opted instead to bow at them, leaving them palpably happier. Their hand kept stroking Sue’s cheek and patting her green hair, not helping any with her fluster.

Off to the side, the badger only grew more annoyed with each passing moment, sternly speaking up again as the entire group got to eating. The dancer’s response was as upbeat as everything else they did, but much more forceful, capped with a pointed question back at the fiery badger.

Before the flames on their neck could burst again, Kantaro’s voice diffused the tension. They took a step away from their handiwork, revealing a sculpted likeness of the Pale Lady in a protective pose. A careful application of the polish even made Her weird wings look multicolored. The leafy dancer liked what they saw a great deal, and so did Astra, both of their responses upbeat and flattering.

Kantaro’s boss, on the other hand, merely acknowledged the beetle’s efforts with a short, approving comment. With that done, the craftsbug carefully deposited the sculpture in the freshly built shrine and prayed to it for a moment, together with the badger. The latter finally took their leave once their prayers were done, neck surrounded with purple embers as they grumbled into their paw.

Good riddance.

The dancer seemed to enjoy that development as much as Sue did. They spoke towards Astra, briefly chatting with her before… sitting down beside the Forest Guardian when she wasn’t looking. Before Sue knew it, the plant girl’s warm, smooth body was leaning on hers, tossing another jerry can of fuel onto her fluster.



She couldn’t say she disliked how it all felt, though. Not one bit.

Right as Sue’s hand was reaching around the leafy body to maybe possibly hopefully return some of the dancer’s affection, Kantaro’s gruff voice caught their attention instead. They sprung onto their yellow shoes from a sitting start and leaped towards the beetle, each motion as confident as it was elegant.

Alright, alright, snap yourself out of it Sue, they’re talking.

Kantaro drew something in the sand, clarifying their topic. Somewhat. To the best of Sue’s ability to make out, the subject of the beetle’s sketch was… the tip of their own horn. The depiction they drew was similar to their current one, but much more pointed, with a clean V shape at the top instead of a small prong between the two main ones. Kantaro drew attention to the differences by overlying the current shape of their horn on top of what must’ve been their desirable one. The leafy girl got the gist, going to work after one solid look at the reference. Their arm once more glowed green as it sliced away at the beetle’s horn, each cut small and careful.

Sue was stumped about the purpose of this… minor cosmetic surgery. It could’ve been something as straightforward as keeping the tool of the beetle’s trade well tended to, but Sue wasn’t convinced it was just that. There was the expected relief coming from Kantaro, but there also was… euphoria, vibrant to her sixth sense, even if well concealed in their expression.

The procedure was done in just a few minutes. After the last cut was applied, Kantaro looked at Astra for her to verify the new look, the deed done with an eager smile. They then glanced over at Sue for a second opinion, blinking a few times before realizing the futility of expecting any words from that particular Forest Guardian. Instead, they took a deep sigh and thanked the dancer, their ‘you’re welcome!’ just flat out pleasant to listen to.

I could definitely listen to it all day, at least.

With the horn-icure done, Kantaro turned around to inspect their handiwork once more, growing… annoyed at how it came out, somehow. Sue obviously didn’t have the technical knowledge to tell with certainty, but what she could see looked downright stunning. Hell, both Astra and the dancer clearly thought that, too—and yet, the sculpture’s own artist remained deeply unsatisfied with it.

They didn’t linger on that thought, thankfully. Instead, they got on with the other construction project of the agenda, grabbing the coils of rope and eyeing out the large, horizontal branch right above Astra. And then, they took to flight as if it was the most mundane thing in the world.

As Sue stared, dumbfounded, a cheerful call caught her attention. She glanced at its source, ending up staring face to face with the dancer from just an inch away, their words continuing all the while. Before she could even flinch, the stranger leaned in that bit further to nuzzle her cheek, ruffle her hair, and say their goodbyes. In just a few moments, they were bounding off further into Moonview, leaping their body’s length with each springy step, and before Sue even knew, she was once more left with just her thoughts.

One hand subconsciously reached up to feel the spot where the dancer had nuzzled her, a soft smile creeping onto her face. For once, Sue’s own thoughts caught more of her focus than Kantaro’s artistry ever could, mind kept going in circles over what had just happened, the sequence of events insane in hindsight.

All the affection came from nowhere, so much nicer than it had any right to be. As hard as Sue tried to will it away, the fluster on her cheeks wasn’t fading any time soon. With no explanations, she was left to ponder just what all that implied, and whether she wasn’t misrepresenting the dancer’s actions as something they weren’t.

Because it sure feels like I was just hit on again.

This time, though, it felt… different. Without being put on the spot, without several onlookers focusing on her, Sue… found herself considering it all so much more than Snowdrop’s advance. She had no idea about the stranger’s name, intent—hell, gender even, but… did any of those really matter? The more she thought about them, the less important they felt.

Sue was thinking about some of these topics for the very first time, what increasingly felt like her past life not exactly providing her with many opportunities to socialize romantically. Or non-shitty peers she could do so with, of any gender. She couldn’t even say she wasn’t enjoying thinking about all this, discovering what made her click in real time, but…





Her hand clenched into a fist as she chewed through the peach, thoughts taking a turbulent turn for the worse. The fruit’s sweet flesh turned bitter as more and more angst dripped into her thought stream.

Why here?

Why do I only get to think through these things
here, in this batshit world!?

Why am I being shown affection
here, with no knowledge about how long my stay in this world will be!? With any relationship I form here liable to disappear on a whim once whichever sadistic fuck of a deity that put me here decides it’s time for me to go back to suffering on Earth!?

Can I even trust anything I’m feeling?


That thought stung in particular, impossible to fully write off. Who knew, maybe this alien body processed romantic thoughts entirely differently. Maybe she was being manipulated by the very meat suit she woke up in. Maybe the moment she was back on Earth she would only feel revulsion when thinking back to this whole incident?

What if everything nice coming my way is entirely caused by me being an imposter of this revered species?

Sue almost doubled over in anguish at considering that idea, that every single nice thing coming her way was caused by something entirely outside her control. She didn’t even know whether she’d take that trade off, receiving any modicum of affection and romantic attention because of this awkward, weird body, versus being true with her accomplishments, her appearance, and her mind, just to get nothing but more struggle.

The worst part was that she wouldn’t even be the one to make that nightmarish choice in the end. Her Fate was entirely up to the whims of some god that seemed it fit to punish her for crimes unknown by forcing her to quell a conflict between two literal deities.

I’m going to kill that fucking god—

The last thing that Sue expected to hear in response to her god-hating moping was the—by now very familiar laughter. The sound took her aback as she looked up at the approaching Sundance. “That’s one hell of a topic to find you fixated on!” the vixen chuckled.

Sue couldn’t disagree; the religious reverence Moonview held towards Duck contrasted hard with her deicidal thoughts. Hell, there literally was a brand new shrine within a stone’s throw of her. With every passing moment, the mismatch diffused more and more of her anger, grumbles giving way to low chuckling. “Heh. Yeah, I can i-imagine...” she mumbled.

“That’s the type of subject you normally only ever see me pondering about. How are you doing, Sue, after yesterday?” Sundance asked.

Once enough tension had left her body, Sue smiled over at the vixen as she took a seat beside her. She had the same pipe she saw yesterday on her, with, to the best of her nose’s ability to tell, the same payload. “I’m... alright, I think. How’s Solstice?”

Sundance nodded at the offhanded acknowledgement, taking a deeper hit of her pipe before responding. “She’s better, thankfully. Still needs more time to finish processing it all, but should be alright before the end of the day. It was... a lot, for all three of us. I certainly don’t see a point in rushing any of it along. If you want to confide in someone about what happened yesterday, I’m all ears, Sue.”

“Yeah,” Sue began, before a vile pun crept out of the recesses of her mind, “you are. But yeah, th-thank you, Sundance. I-I promise, I’m better now.”

Once the vixen was done grumbling, she nodded. “I’m glad. In the meantime, we’ve figured out a plan for what to do going forward.”

“About what?” Sue asked, earning herself a raised eyebrow and a telepathic response.

“^The night kin. Ultimately, we have to make a first step somewhere. We’ve settled on venturing to Newmoon tomorrow morning to bring the subject up.^”

“Don’t they all hate her?”

“^Not all,^” Sundance sighed. “^Yes, there’s definitely some animosity there, which makes it even more important to face it, overcome the hesitation, and work on mending the wound at the root of it all. It’ll be unpleasant, maybe even awful, but it’s the only way through.^”

Still, Sue couldn’t help but worry. “Won’t she get hurt?” she asked—and flinched, feeling a bitter pang of disappointment run through Sundance’s mind for the first time since she woke up in this world.

The vixen shook her head. “^No, of course not. Yes, they dislike her, but they’re not monsters. Some of them resent what happened a lot, of course, resent her—but even then, they won’t murder her in response to a bloodless exile. Thorns isn’t the type, and Juniper…^” Sundance took a deep hit of her pipe, shuddering, “^…she’ll get herself together once we lay out what we’re there for. I’m sure of it.^”

Sue didn’t question it anymore, taking the words in with a deflated nod. Sundance’s light disapproval gave way to a desire to steer the conversation towards something more pleasant, and the humorously morbid topic from earlier was just the right thing. “^So, god killing, eh?^” the vixen asked, as jovially as she could manage. “^What got you to consider that?^”

Sue sighed, “I-it’s... complicated.”

“^As most things are.^”

“But, wait—is it possible?”

The vixen took another hit of her pipe as she chewed through the intricacies of Sue’s question, unearthing third or fourth hand knowledge from back when she was still traveling the world. Despite her heavy doubts about the trustworthiness of anything she was about to say, she eventually decided to just pass it on. “^From what I know and have gathered from mystics I spoke with during my travels... no. At least, not in a way you can kill a person.^”

Sue blinked. “Is there another way, then?” she asked.

“^I suppose if you were to destroy everything that comprises them, that would ‘kill’ them,^” Sundance mused. “^Their avatars certainly can fall, but the gods themselves... fat chance.^”

“Comprises them?”

The vixen raised her eyebrow at her pupil. “^Well, how do you think gods exist? That they just float in the sky, gathering praise and occasionally intervening in mortal affairs?^”

“...pretty much.”

Sundance choked on her smoke as her deliberately outlandish guess accidentally nailed Sue’s presumptions on the head. Once she got over herself, though, she clarified, “^No, not at all. Gods aren’t... separate from the world, they are the world. Or rather, the world is a part of them, as are the people. The dirt and stone beneath us is all a part of the Landshaper, it’s all Its dominion. Even then, the Landshaper exists beyond just the ground we’re sitting on, It has Its own will, even if that will is tied to the will of all the stone beneath us. You can’t kill Landshaper short of destroying every single rock that comprises this world—and I doubt even that would do the trick either.^”

The Forest Guardian had to chew on that piece of knowledge to even start absorbing it. The entire description sounded partially like something from when she was reading up on animism for her religious studies class, but it was far from an exact match. Ultimately, she just slowly nodded along as a partial picture formed in her mind.

“^Furthermore, there isn’t just one Landshaper with a unified will. Everywhere you go, It will be different, for Its dominion is different. All Landshapers will be greatly influenced by Its innate, divine nature, of course, but still not identical.^”

“I-I see,” Sue lied. “You mentioned ‘avatars’, right?”

“^Aye. They’re the physical manifestations of divine will. Partially independent from their dominion, and even from their divine nature, and yet still ultimately constrained by them. If you’re wondering what the being on the altar and all the shrines of Night Mother is, that’s Her avatar,^” Sundance explained, taking another hit.

Sue blinked, confused. “Are these avatars just... out there?”

“^From what I understand, no.^” The vixen shook her head. “^They manifest when a deity’s will wishes to intervene directly into worldly matters, and fade away when they’re no longer needed. They aren’t identical to the deity they belong to, acting independently even if heavily influenced by their underlying divinity.^”

Sue couldn’t even pretend to understand the entirety of what she was being told. Partially to her credit, though, not even her mentor could claim that. “What about D—the Pale Lady? What’s her dominion?”

The vixen lifted an eyebrow up at the once-human, chuckling under her breath. “^The light of the Moon, from what I understand. Obviously, it’s a much more limited dominion than the land, the stars, or even the Moon as a whole. It’s so fickle, and the Night Mother is so feeble when compared to other deities that, to the best of my understanding, her worshipers are effectively her real dominion. I think I’ve heard the phrase ‘half-god’ used to describe such a being once or twice. You won’t catch me ever saying it out loud in here, that’s for sure.^”

“Her worshippers...?” Sue trailed off, an idea forming in her mind. “W-wait, if I’m getting this right, then what happens to the worshippers affects... their god?”

“^Aye. They’re a part of her. For half-gods, to wound the people, is to wound their god.^”

The Forest Guardian mulled intently through the implications as her mentor watched over, amused at having elicited such a thoughtful mood inside her student. While the vixen watched Kantaro finish working on the swing, a realization bloomed inside Sue.

If Moonview’s people are a part of Duck, and what they do, what they are, what they believe, can affect her, a nd if that also holds true for the Night Father—no reason it wouldn’t with the two gods seemingly two parts of the same coin…

To wound the people is to wound the gods. To mend the people…


Is to mend the gods.

“I’m coming with you!” Sue shouted, inspired.

Sundance blinked as she looked down at Sue, the steadily creeping mental fog not helping in making sense of her pupil’s sudden outburst. “Wh-what?”

“I-I want to help you and Solstice with... y’know, your trip!” Sue insisted, but Sundance was still confused.

Even if the fiery fox understood what Sue was actually referring to, her snap decision still left so much unclear. Why would Sue want to do this in the first place? Why so suddenly, why so enthusiastically? Did she even know what Newmoon was like? Or, for that matter, where it even was?

The totality of unexplained and potentially unexplainable questions brewing inside Sundance eventually reached its zenith, culminating in a single word—

“...what?”



If you're confused about the species of the characters and want them spoiled, I've set up a page listing the species of all the featured characters in each chapter!

If you want to discuss the story, I've set up a Discord server for it! (and my other writings)

Also check out my other story, From the Vast!
 
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Chapter 14: Sibling

redspah

the gay agenda
Pronouns
she/her


Chapter 14: Sibling



Sundance and Sue stared blankly at each other, both trying to figure out what the other was thinking without resorting to explicit telepathy. Sue was losing that battle and she knew it, forcing her to come up with an excuse—a very valid reason in its own right, but one being used as an excuse here all the same. “Don’t you think that me being there after what happened with Spark and... her friend would help?”

Her question finally broke through the vixen’s thoughtless confusion. Unfortunately, all it resulted in was a quiet sigh as she shook her head, plumes of red fur warming the surrounding air with each motion. Her brief pause right as she was about to speak gave Sue a brief flash of hope, but sadly, it wouldn’t last.

“^While I can’t deny it being a good idea to bring up your incident and show how our separation is even harming third parties, I doubt your physical presence there would help.^” Sundance explained. “^I know you feel guilty about Solstice’s breakdown and are invested in all the ugly history that led to it, but you’re not responsible for any of this. These aren’t your sins to be burdened by, Sue.^”

As much as the Forest Guardian wanted to disagree and keep asserting her point, she couldn’t risk that. She had already almost given too much away through her insistence, and doubling down would only make it worse. A part of her wanted to just drop the pretense and explain her dream and the quest it had unwittingly led her on, but she feared that all explaining it would accomplish was to undermine it, tainting her efforts with a self-serving aspect in others’ eyes.

And so, Sue had no choice but to pretend to relent instead. “I-I suppose. It’s just… rough, to only be able to watch from the sides and hope that Spark and P—her friend can be friends in peace one day...”

Sundance sighed. “^It absolutely is. Alas, it’ll be a touchy, difficult discussion either way, its outcome up to the whims of Fate. I doubt your voice would help much—your deeds will be plenty, believe me.^”

Sue acknowledged her mentor’s words with a pretend somber nod. On the one hand, she was glad that Sundance wasn’t suspecting anything, but on the other… she did have a point, as much as it pained the once-human to admit it. Who knew whether the people of Newmoon would care even slightly about a second Forest Guardian showing up there in an attempt to steer their judgment. The more she thought about it, the less enthusiastic she was at the idea of disregarding Sundance’s words and tagging along anyway. But…





What else could she do? Give up? Let her Destiny be swayed by yet more forces and events beyond her control or comprehension? Again?

Fat chance—

A couple pats of a warm, furred paw snapped Sue out of any further moping. The vixen gave her a soft smile, softer still by the virtue of her inebriation, and an approving look. “It’s alright, Sue,” she reassured. “You’ve already helped plenty—more than most here can earnestly claim. You make the most of your stay in Moonview, and we’ll do our best to clean up the murk in the background. I’d even say that focusing on that, on making the most of a nice, calm day, is the best thing we could all do today. Compose yourself, take a deep breath, and enjoy this slice of spring. How’s that sound?”

Relaxing wasn’t Sue’s strong suit, not one bit, especially not after her father’s passing. Each day had a shopping list of tasks that needed to be dealt with, ranging from urgent like work, urgent like keeping on top of her classes, urgent like making sure she had something to eat, urgent like doing laundry, to urgent like churning through her schedule to carve out just a single week of vacation from it all.

Though… suppose that if I’m already taking a break from reality, having a day focused on relaxation wouldn’t hurt.

“Alright, th-thank you,” Sue sighed, shaking herself out of the earlier topic. “What did you have in mind?”

“I could retrieve Solstice, and then we could go for a walk and chat about more pleasant matters. Maybe even enjoy a mug or two of something harsher come evening. How’s that sound?” the vixen asked, smiling.

Not particularly riveting.

Then again, neither was Sue’s preferred relaxation method back at home, consisting of loading up her favorite sandbox video game, disconnecting her brain from all external stimuli, warping in time to about twelve hours later, and acting all surprised at it suddenly being dark outside.

“I-I like that, yeah,” Sue halfheartedly answered.

“Great. Astra, we’ll be heading out, mind—” Sundance began, before pausing after looking in the dragon’s direction.

Astra was talking to the gray, four-armed builder Sue remembered seeing a couple times, their sheer bulk making them nearly match the dragon in size despite them only having about a foot on Sue’s current body. The builder took their leave shortly afterwards, but Astra remembered to respond to her name before flying off with them. “Oh! I’m sorry Ma’am Sundance, I’ve just been called to help with moving some ore and rock around, I can’t—”

“Don’t worry, Astra,” Sundance reassured, “we’ll just ask Splitleaf. It’s no problem.”

“A-alright, hopefully Joy will be alright with that too. See you all later!” the dragon waved.

“Take care, Astra!” Sue added, lifting Astra’s mood as she took off. Right as she was about to follow in Sundance’s pawsteps and head out, though, their idea of leaving the kids under the leafy mantis’ watch ran into a hitch—a toothy, two faced, tripping hazard of a hitch.

My favorite hitch.

Joy clinging to her good leg almost made Sue fall over then and there, Sundance’s intervention thankfully helping her regain stability. “Joy! Wh-what’s wrong sweetie?” she asked, startled.

The toothy girl shuddered at her friend having suddenly raised her voice. The answer she had in mind ran into the obstacle of not knowing enough words, in any language, to properly formulate it. Ultimately, Joy mumbled to the best of her ability, hoping beyond hope it’d be enough. “N-n-n-n-not g-go...”

Awwh.

If Sue had the ability to, she would’ve squatted and pulled Joy into as big of a hug as she was capable of. Alas, all she could do was stare down at her with a soft, sad smile, and feel bad for her—at least, until an obvious idea presented itself. “Well, you could come with us if Sundance agrees—”

“And I do,” Sundance followed up. “I imagine it’d be much easier to keep up with us while being held. Unfortunately, that’s not an option for Sue with her crutch, but I could hold you, Joy, if you’d want.” The vixen’s words broke through Joy’s tunnel vision on her friend, making her jump with a by-now-predictable startle. As opposed to her previous scares, though, she wasn’t as completely terrified this time, considering the idea seriously enough to look up at Sue for her opinion.

And in return, she got a big smile and an even bigger nod—it didn’t get more positive than that. Since Sue trusted the Fire-type, so could she, Joy supposed. She closed her eyes as she reached her arms up to the vixen, bracing herself for… something.

The rattle of metal against metal wasn’t a pleasant sound, but it was thankfully brief.

Joy’s jolt at suddenly being surrounded in Sundance’s glow made her snap her maw shut with enough force to make Sue gulp, especially with her hand having been recently present there. Once the metal girl was done being spooked, she looked around her new position in the vixen’s arms, relaxing at the surrounding warmth.

“Like the view?” Sundance asked, smiling down at her. In a first, her comment didn’t startle Joy any further, the little one just acknowledging her words with a nod as she waved at Sue, smiling giddily. Her friend returned the gesture once they got moving—but unfortunately for them, they weren’t the only ones leaving the playground at that moment.

The mixture of loud chitters and quieter hisses running up to them made Sue look over her shoulder, just in time for the strangers to overtake them. Sue wasn’t familiar with the green-cream snake and their fancy yellow collar, but that couldn’t be said for the pink scorpion bat beside them.

Sadly, Joy noticed them too, whimpering as she withdrew further into Sundance’s arms. “Oh?” the vixen perked up. “What’s wrong, Joy—” she tried to ask, trailing off at connecting the dots between the strangers’ appearance and the girl’s reaction. With a tired sigh, she switched tracks to telepathy, privately asking Sue, “^I’m guessing they were the ones that hurt her a couple days ago?^”

“I-I think so, yes.” Sue confirmed, her voice distracting Joy from dwelling further on her fear, to both adults’ relief. She couldn’t hold the metal girl in her arms, but she could at least hold her hand with her free one to calm them both down.

Sundance summed the situation up, “^Unfortunate,^” before shaking the train of thought off and taking the lead again. Sue was of half a mind to keep going with that subject, ask her mentor about if there was anything they could do to help the girl. Before she could force the words out of her throat, though, another person passing by caught Sundance’s attention instead, the previous topic unintentionally snuffed out. “Afternoon, Kantaro,” the vixen greeted. “How’s work going today?”

The craftsbug had to turn around with most of his body to look up at the vixen. Her presence provided him some relief, enough to make him slow down for a moment as he responded, voice low and grumbly, “It’s going. That swing was long overdue, and Root talked me into putting up another shrine.” He accompanied the mention of the shrine with what looked like a quick prayer in its direction.

A bit unnerving, but at least he isn’t thinking any less of us for not following along.

“Glad to hear about the swing. Wonderful statue, by the way. Really sells Her being in motion,” Sundance praised. To Sue’s surprise, Kantaro’s only response to the vixen’s words were drawn out grunts and grumbles, only conveying annoyance. Her mentor didn’t mind, continuing, “Got to keep trying, then.”

Kantaro muttered, “On and on, indeed. At least the rest of the day is more banal.”

“Hopefully it brings you calmness if nothing else, then. See you around, Kantaro.”

The craftsbug acknowledged Sundance’s parting words with a curt nod before taking a sharp turn towards the ongoing construction effort. A few questions crept up onto the forefront of Sue’s mind as their impromptu band marched on in a straight-ish path. “What’s wrong with him?”

“Oh?” Sundance and Joy alike looked at the Forest Guardian in confusion, if for different reasons. Namely, uncertainty at Sue’s question and surprise at suddenly finding herself so sleepy because of all the warm fluff around her, respectively.

“I-I watched him make that statue,” Sue explained, “it’s so well done and everyone else thought so too it seemed... what’s his problem with it? O-or is it with the Pale Lady—”

Sundance firmly shook her head. “Oh no, it’s only ever with his own craftsmanship. I’ve hardly met anyone that’s as unflinching of a devotee as Kantaro.”

Sue blinked, stunned. “But that statue was wonderful!”

“Wonderful, but not perfect,” the vixen stressed.

“But… nothing is perfect.”

“Usually, I’d agree with you, but,” Sundance sighed, “that’s not how he sees it. He has tasted perfection twice, and hasn’t repeated it in many, many years now.”

Right as Sue was about to ask about which of Kantaro’s creations was supposedly ‘perfect’, a particular sight crept back into her thought process. One incomparably more impressive than even that pretty statue, stunning to even recall.

I’ll never have a fraction of Solstice’s devotion to Duck, but fuck me if her altar doesn’t look divinely inspired—



He had tasted it twice.

“And let me guess, only one of those perfect creations is still standing?” Sue asked, keeping her voice down. Sundance’s knowing, sad smile was all the confirmation she needed, making her feel bad for the craftsbug at her awful hunch having turned out to be accurate. To have one of his finest creations destroyed because of what was ultimately prejudice… harrowing. Though, it also only made his unflinching devotion even more confusing. “That’s rough.”

“It is. Thankfully, he got rid of one massive weight on his shell a couple of years ago. It helped, but… in the end, it only put further pressure on his struggle for perfection afterwards,” the vixen explained, adding another unknown to Sue’s mental pile.

She was curious about it, but there was another question she wanted to ask first. “I see. While he was working, someone else came up to him and—”

“Let me guess—off-white and dark purple, with a fiery collar and a bad temperament?” Sundance grumbled, growing palpably annoyed by the word.

“Yeah, them.”

“Root. Figures the old coot has nothing better to do than to come and micromanage, hmph.”

The name chilled Sue as she thought back to the vixen’s lecture from the previous day. His manipulation, his prejudice towards the night kin, the recollection rushing into the once-human’s mind as her own heartbeat suddenly grew deafening. “H-him.”

To think I’ve wasted my opportunity to shout something in his face.

“Indeed,” Sundance sighed. “He’s still around, serving as the Night Mother’s chief priest. Leads most of the big, important ceremonies and has little useful to do otherwise.”

As if I needed another reason to like that leafy lady more.

If Sue had any idea what they had said, she would’ve probably had to hold herself from clapping at what had to be some sort of overt disobedience towards the priest. “I don’t like him.”

“Welcome to the club; it’s a large one. Petty, old—” Sundance’s words cut off into a low, untranslated grumble. Knowing the vixen, it probably contained at least a couple of swears. As curious as Sue was, she didn’t push any deeper. Partly because she didn’t want to wind herself into fury on what was supposed to be a day of relaxation, and partly because the sight ahead was much more eye-catching.

So that’s what Willow’s doing when they’re not tending to people at the clinic.

Passing medical knowledge on was a truly inexhaustible task, one that the chubby medic was very glad to be undertaking. Despite how reserved their squeaks and mumbles usually were, their lecturing voice was loud and clear, not wavering even as they gestured at the sketches behind them.

The massive, blackboard-like slab they stood in front of was covered with chalk drawings, most of them looking like an anatomical cross-section of sorts. Of what exactly, Sue had no idea beyond a vague guess that it was some creature’s arm. Regardless of who exactly was having their body stripped down to the basic parts, Willow was describing them in rather impressive detail. Each individual bone, tendon, and muscle were accompanied by a couple of sentences and an occasional demonstration of the medic moving their free arm around in some specific way.

Everyone in the audience either repeated their gestured, asked questions, or waited for the co-lecturer to chime in as well. The exact shape of their body was… difficult to discern from the distance. It had three dark green, leaf-like growths sprouting out from a central point at their base, with their ‘actual’ body growing out of the central growth. The massive collar of dozens if not hundreds of multicolored flowers surrounding their head made it hard to make out anything above their… ‘waist’.

Yep, that one has to be the ‘plant’ type that Petal was.

The thought about types made Sue want to give classifying the surrounding strangers another shot—

“Sue? Mind taking a seat here and waiting for me to grab Solstice?” Sundance asked, instantly snapping Sue out of her focus. She was unsure why she was brought along here only to split up again afterwards, but it didn’t really matter. The lecture before her would occupy her attention for as long as was needed.

“Sure.”

The Forest Guardian paid only as much attention to the nearby bench as was strictly necessary for her to sit down on it. Her left arm immediately resumed its affection autopilot once Joy had scrambled up and took her seat beside her. Each gentle, drawn out pet of her back maw relaxed the girl further while her guardian watched the lecture with interest.

The medical student Sue’s attention latched onto was… hard to miss. Both because of their stark, mostly white coloration, and even more so because of their constant activity. They asked well over half of all the questions coming the lecturers’ way—and judging by the responses being eager, in-depth, and without as much as a sign of exasperation, these sure sounded like productive questions, too.

It was almost enough to make Sue overlook the student in question being a cat and their questions being delivered in meows.

The realization forced her to suppress her giggling, lest she’d draw attention to her own rudeness. Her composure was as appropriate as it was ultimately pointless, with Willow eventually noticing her being in the extended audience and greeting her with a brief wave, drawing the entire crowd’s attention towards her for a brief moment. Aside from being an immensely overwhelming experience, it also let Sue glimpse the attentive cat’s golden eyes before they refocused on the lecture proper, being the first one to do so.

Most of my professors would kill for a student this proper.

The other students weren’t as engaged, but were taking mental notes all the same. After a few more minutes of discussion about a mammalian-looking arm, the drawings were steadily replaced with… a cross section of a plant, capped off with a distinct hand.

Appropriately enough, the living bouquet took the lead during that part, with Willow stepping back to take a secondary role. The flowery medic’s sketches turned out to be much larger and more intricate than Willow’s, owing to their vastly better reach. Instead of a stubby paw, they drew with a… long, prehensile vine that sprouted from somewhere in the mess of flowers surrounding their head; the stick of chalk glided along the stone with the speed and precision that would make even tenured physics professors jealous.

That vine tentacle is… eerily glib.

As unnerving as that realization was, it soon became much worse at the realization that her own mental reach felt eerily similar when she was using it. It wasn’t just long, thin, and agile, but it was also entirely invisible to anyone but the fellow psychics—



...let’s just drop that subject.

Trying to shake off the uncomfortable train of thought, Sue looked around the plaza. Many of the passersby were keen to take a few minutes out of their routine to stop and listen to the lecture—most of them, at least. Most of those that weren’t were busy moving cargo around. Clay pots of various liquids, woven baskets of fruit and grain, even an entire log here and there. Though, for some, even having stuff to carry wasn’t an obstacle to absorbing some knowledge.

The low thud coming from nearby made Sue jump and look at its source. A red humanoid with greenish metal covering most of their upper body, and a ponytail that either just looked like flames, or… was flames. Their appearance tingled a remote bell in Sue’s head, but she couldn’t say she was truly familiar with them. She didn’t recognize the small boulder they sat down on, either—must’ve been something they brought with themselves.

No way that's comfortable, but who am I to judge?

Nearby swooshes of wind and grunts of annoyance snatched Sue’s attention before she could refocus back on the lecture. As much as she expected to see someone struggling to carry something through the streets, she sure didn’t expect said thing to be a slab of solid stone the size of a fridge—let alone two.

If nothing else, both of them were being carried by two people each, one of them bringing a wide smile to Sue’s face—followed by a chuckle at just how much higher Astra’s flying point of leverage was compared to that of the gray four-arms, inadvertently pushing most of the stone’s weight down on him. Even despite that, the dragon was still struggling immensely, wings forced to work so hard to keep her in the air that the resulting gusts knocked a couple of passersby off balance.

The other slab, in turn, was carried by the red robot insect she’d seen work with the other builders, as well as the smaller, blue rhino who may or may not have taken part in the show fight at the feast. And who, despite all the dangers that involved, waved at Sue after noticing her, the stone slab thankfully remaining stable throughout.

Considering they probably risked their life for that wave, I might as well return it…

Once she waved back at them, Joy sliding off the bench and hesitantly stepping closer to the lecture took Sue out of any further OSHA-violating thoughts. The Forest Guardian giggled at the girl’s tentative steps mixed with anxious looks back at her, as if to see if she was still there and watching.

Don’t worry sweetie, I’m not going any—





Oh no no no NO NO NO NO

Any jubilant mood Sue might’ve had burned the instant she spotted that thing in the plaza’s corner. Her breaths grew shallow, heart threatening to break out of her chest, even as the red beast that had almost ended her life a few days ago remained none the wiser to her attention. Her vision swam as she followed the savage insect’s every movement and watched it skitter down the street. She grasped her crutch in terror in case she needed to get out of here—

Oh god it’s looking at me it’s looking at ME NO NO NO NO GO AWAY GO AWAY—

In a move that her fear-gripped mind found almost impossible to process, the spider proceeded to do just that. It quickly skittered into a nearby alleyway, though whether it was to get away from her or try to flank her and finish the job was yet to be seen. The latter was an absurd possibility, and Sue was well aware, but there was no way in hell she’d give that thing an opening.

Once the red beast was gone, her attention finally detached itself from its last known position, jumping between all the paths that connected to the clearing, constantly looking out for it. A small part, deep inside her, knew full well that even if she did catch them, she wouldn’t be able to outrun them, making all this pointless—but her terrified mind was deaf to those concerns, stuck in a repetitive, anxious loop.

If Sue wasn’t freaking out, she would’ve joked at said loop feeling like something out of a shoddy indie horror game—and just like in a shoddy indie horror game, there was a mandatory jumpscare at the end. It might’ve taken the form of Willow’s voice from close up as opposed to a speaker-blowing screech, but it was hardly any less effective because of that, Sue only barely stopping herself from screaming out loud.



Oh.

The two lecturers and the aptly nicknamed teacher’s pet were standing before her, their emotions easy to sense now that her mind was no longer actively choking itself with fear. Willow’s eagerness, bouquet’s concern at her startle, the cat’s unemotional and yet very intense focus as the pink medic pointed at Sue’s bandaged leg.

Should I… lift it up?

Thankfully, Sue’s hunch turned out to be a correct one, letting Willow’s lecture continue as they reached a paw underneath her leg to help keep it lifted. What they were talking about, Sue wasn’t sure, and could only guess it was either about treating injuries like hers, or about the intricacies of wrapping bandages.

The white-navy cat’s barrage of questions was unceasing, to their mentors’ delight—that is, until one of them prompted a much longer back and forth between them and Willow, with even the living florist shop interjecting with their own curiosity. At some point, the question finally fell in Sue’s court to answer, if the entire trio refocusing on her was any sign at least.

Uh… can I ask the audience?

The incomprehensible question resulted in the first instant of utter, unbroken silence between the trio in the last few hours. And only an instant of silence it was, Willow reminding themself of the obvious soon after and commenting on it out loud. The cat acted without skipping a beat by… unfolding one of their ears and revealing a golden, eye-shaped something inside it, the lack of fur making it look almost fleshy.

And then, as one does, said something lit up in a bright, golden flare, much like she’d seen Solstice’s and Sundance’s eyes do in the past. Fittingly enough, it was followed with a jolt inside Sue’s mind, blunt and coordinated, and then by the flattest feminine voice Sue had ever heard in her life. “Hi. Willow’s asking why you tried to walk with a broken leg.”

Sue needed a hot minute to parse through the cat’s question, the hesitation annoying them slightly. The emotion was so unnaturally well hidden inside her mind that Sue almost didn’t notice, though.

“Uh, I was sca—” Sue began, only to get cut off mid-word by Willow, the realization that she still couldn’t understand them answering the ‘why’ question. The white cat’s reaction was the first instance of a genuine emotion Sue’d sensed from them, even if it was just a brief blip of annoyance.

Much like before, they unfurled their ear and put their psychics to use again before trying again. “Now.”

“Oh?”

“Repeat,” they insisted, voice somehow even flatter than before.

Sue blinked. “Oh. I—uh, I was scared, had no idea where I even was, and needed some answers badly. And didn’t realize how much it’d hurt...”

Willow chuckled, “Ha! All’s well Sue, I was just explaining how I went about patching you up to Northeast. Anyhow—after that incident, the wound reopened underneath the bandages and bled badly. First, I tore the old dressing off to avoid the risk of infection, then applied the first Healing Pulse to stem the bleeding, wiped the skin clean with water and white spirit, and got to the salves. Covered the wound up with a couple layers of antiseptic dressing, applied the Tanga salve around the edges, and rubbed Sitrus salve in further around.”

“No follow-up pulses?” the freshly named Northeast asked.

“No, no,” Willow shook their head, “Sue was already so tired she’d fallen asleep by that point. Pushing any further would’ve been more risk than was appropriate, Northeast, especially with immediate danger gone.”

Without skipping a beat, the cat nodded again and asked, “How many dressing layers?”

“I reckon I went with three there? I decided it’d be for the best if it was thick enough to sit undisturbed for a few days. Then, since we had no way of communicating with Sue at that point, I baby-proofed it with a thin cast on top of the bandage... no offense, Sue.”

Pffffft, baby-proofed. More like dumbass-proofed.

To Willow’s relief, Sue’s response was only an amused giggle as opposed to anything more stern. She was in absolutely no spot to be judging the medic, considering how annoying of a patient she must’ve been. Her reaction was mirrored by the chubby medic themselves and the living bouquet alike, Northeast standing silently off to the side throughout. Even Joy had chimed in with a raspy, harsh chuckle of her own, though largely because everyone else was laughing.

“That is curious, however~,” the flower-person chimed in, their voice making Sue think of a rich widow in her fifties, slow and dignified. “A Forest Guardian making it to adulthood without as much as Telepathy? I faintly remember Solstice mentioning that. I found it unbelievable, and yet here you are. Is it a result of… a developmental condition?” they asked with all the gentleness of a freight train.

As Sue sat there, torn between freaking out at being seen through and being unsure if she should be offended at the other medic’s words, Willow chimed in. “We think it may very well be something like that, Orchid. Or at least was, since she’s been able to start slowly picking psychic skills up recently. An exceptionally rare and unfortunate case either way—best not dwell too much on it and just appreciate her being safely with us.”

Sue let out a sigh of relief at their diversion, the tension leaving her body by the moment—at least, until Northeast took her turn at poking holes in Willow’s answer. “So she’s been capable of psychics for some unknown amount of time before now and only started acting on that here? That sounds incredibly unlikely.”

“What’s so difficult to believe, Northeast?” Willow asked, unbothered on the surface.

“At the very least, she would’ve had to notice her inner sense waking up at some point prior to her arrival in Moonview.” Sue expected to see the white cat staring at her with distrust after her comments, but she only saw the same flat expression, befitting the unerringly monotone voice.

I’ve no idea what her intent is, and I don’t like that fact one bit.

“I’d say we drop that subject,” the chubby medic sidestepped the subject, voice more serious than before. “I don’t think Sue wants to be interrogated and have her version of events called into doubt right now, or ever really.”

“I’m not—” Northeast began, before being cut off by an unexpected, relief-inducing voice.

“Oh dear, what did you do to get the medics’ attention now, Sue~?”

Sue felt her anxiety wane at Solstice’s words, shuddering at her earlier tension. The other Forest Guardian was looking so, so much better than when she last remembered seeing her, though she was still far from perfectly alright. The puffiness underneath her eyes, the warble of her voice—the tells were there, but Solstice was actively trying to be alright despite them, and that’s all that mattered, making Sue smile.

“Hardly anything but being a jumpy student and a useful case study in application of dressings, worry not dear Solstice,” Orchid chuckled at the situation, only barely stopping herself from going on.

Willow chuckled, “Ha! You’re right, though, it’d be for the best if we went from chatter to a bit of practice. Now to fetch—” they paused abruptly after turning towards the stone blackboard, their upbeat tone suddenly replaced with confusion. They concentrated on the grass in front of their impromptu canvas, clearly scanning for something, but couldn’t find it. “Huh. I could’ve sworn I brought some rags to practice applying bandages with. Reckon we’ll just have to grab some from my clinic instead, if you could follow me~.”

Orchid and Northeast went along without complaints, and despite Sue expecting the latter to suddenly look over her shoulder and shoot a suspicious glare, that didn’t end up happening. Her attention couldn’t linger on them for much longer with Solstice present, though, making her drop the crutch off to the side and pull the other Forest Guardian into a tight side hug, her front spike pressing into her mentor’s chest.

Sue felt Solstice’s heartbeat reverberate through it, making for a surprisingly calming sensation. The Mayor had to put in an active effort to avoid breaking into tears for Duck-knows-how long within the last twenty-four hours, thankfully stabilizing herself with a few deeper breaths. “I’m okay Sue, I’m okay, don’t worry.”

“A-are you sure?” Sue asked. “I can—”

Solstice shook her head. “I’m absolutely sure. We’ve both had more than enough tears yesterday to last us a full Moon, let us focus on here and now instead, alright?”

While Solstice might have been successful in avoiding any more tears, Sue wasn’t, sniffing as she let go of her more-than-mentor-it-felt-at-times before wiping her eyes and redirecting her attention to the toothy girl on her other side instead, holding her tight. “Mhm. Okay.”

“Wonderful,” the older Forest Guardian beamed. “Sundance is off to grab us all snacks, and in the meantime... someone would like you to meet him, Sue.”

Sue palpably felt Solstice’s tone turn somber, making her gulp. She had no idea whose presence could’ve prompted such a mood shift, speeding up her heartbeat. “O-oh. Who is he?”

“His name is Dewdrop; he’s one of our weavers. We’ve got to thank him for many of our antiseptic dressings. Some of which you’re wearing right now if I’m not mistaken~,” Solstice teased, only making everything more confusing.

Of course, she’d love to thank someone who’d contributed to her recovery; why wouldn’t she want that? “That’s great! Wh-what’s wrong?”

Solstice sighed, “He’s... a deathweaver. Of the same kin as the being that had grievously injured you.”

The click of all the pieces falling into place in Sue’s mind was almost loud enough to be audible, and the gulp that followed it most definitely was. Solstice immediately pulled her student in closer to comfort her. Her touch was calming, but nowhere near enough to make Sue feel alright on its own. “O-oh, him...” she mumbled, short of breath. “I-I think I saw him earlier...”

“Yes, you have,” Solstice nodded. “He went looking around for me afterwards to help facilitate some communication between you two and let you two meet.”

Sue wasn’t sure what to think of it. “B-but, what for? He’s not the one that—”

“No, of course he’s not, but he still feels guilty. And more importantly, he doesn’t want you to be scared of him in the future, like you are right now,” Solstice chided, stopping Sue’s anxious thought process before it could wind itself up even further.

Dewdrop’s reasoning made perfect sense, making Sue feel bad for indirectly forcing someone innocent, if really, really, really scary-looking, to defend themselves because of her fear. “Oh, sorry—”

“Nothing to be sorry for, Sue. Your fear is all too understandable—that’s what made him want to intervene directly even more and help you overcome it.”

How the fuck are the beast that nearly took my life and someone so considerate the same species?!

“I-I see. That’s really nice of him,” Sue mumbled. “I... alright, I-I think I’m ready.” She was extremely uncertain of whether or not she was actually ready, but it didn’t matter—the last thing she wanted was to keep Dewdrop waiting any longer because she was being irrational.

She braced herself, shifting her gaze downwards and focusing on the ground as Solstice first hesitated, and then followed along, calling the spider over. “^Alright Dewdrop, she’s ready.^”

Sue’s heart skipped a beat at seeing the red spider first peek out, and then finally step out of the nearest alley. He was moving as slowly as he could, clearly doing anything in his power to make his appearance as non-sudden as possible.

I wish you didn’t have to do that, but… thanks.

As he approached, she got a good look at the things he wore and carried. The elaborate cap was the most eye-catching item of the bunch. The twin blue accents that ran down the length of the flaps behind his eyes downright popped out from the brown canvas and red chitin—as did the central flap, resting on top of Dewdrop’s horn and curling around it, keeping it disarmed.

The two… not-legs on top of his abdomen carried a not-legful of tassels each, their vivid yellows, oranges, and reds complimenting his appearance.

“Good afternoon Sue,” Dewdrop greeted, “I apologize our meeting is in... as tense a situation.”

Even if Sue could still hear the hisses, clicks and chitters that underlaid Dewdrop’s words, her attention was entirely focused on his calm tone and eloquent delivery, helping her keep herself calm. “H-hey, Dewdrop. I-it’s alright...”

“I know it’s not, but that’s understandable. I’m not holding it against you,” he insisted, keeping his distance.

“Thank you,” Sue mumbled. “I-I just didn’t expect to see another... of that one here.”

“Oh, I can absolutely imagine, with your first encounter with my kin being what it was. But no, we’re not all like my sibling—if anything, however, that makes what they’ve done even more monstrous.”

“Y-your sibling?” she asked, eyes going wide.

The spider shook his head. “Not in a literal way, no. Though… I suppose it is possible they were part of the same brood as I. Depressing to consider.”

One thing to have a deadbeat family member, another to be related to someone who hunts other living beings for sustenance. “I-it is, yeah. Why are—why did—”

“Why did they almost murder you while I’m here holding a rational conversation?” Dewdrop cut to the chase. Sue gulped, anxious at the wording, but that indeed was the spirit of the question. “It’s... down to choice, in the end,” the spider continued. “The awareness of Moonview has spread far into the woods, and I’m more than certain that they have heard its beck and call as much as I have.”

He paused for a moment, reminiscing, before lowering his voice. “Shelter, food, duty, and possibly even family—on the sole condition that you abandon your predatory ways, irrevocably, forever. Many call it an impossible-to-believe lie, convinced that it’s little more than a ruse to lull gullible fools in before devouring them, predator and prey species alike. Ultimately, it is their choice whether they want to trust us. For me, and many others, the choice was clear. But sadly, not for all. And as harmless to anyone but themselves as that distrust is with prey species...”

…a distrustful predator means an actively hunting predator.

Sue leaned in, finding herself feeling sorry for the spider. “That must feel horrible. Knowing what your own flesh and blood is doing out there, and feeling like it’s your fault for not convincing them.”

“Every day I think back to the last time I talked with my brood, when all of us still subsisted on wild berries,” Dewdrop continued, lost in thought. “I tried to argue with them how it would make no sense for Moonview to be a trap, how that tradeoff was worth it. All they could muster back was paranoia and outrage at their ‘identity’ as predator species even being called into a question. Constant insistence that hunting was our purpose, that was what we were adapted for. And—” his segmented body shuddered, mandibles unnervingly clicking together, “—it’s not untrue. That is what we are adapted to, after all. But to put that as the ceiling of what we are capable of, to insist there’s nothing more one would ever want out of life, that murder for sustenance is the most supreme of callings... I can’t put myself in that mindset. I never could.”

Silence lingered for a long while as everyone gathered composed their thoughts. Dewdrop eventually broke the lull with an awkward shuffle, reaching his forelegs to rub under his eyes, one at a time. “I apologize. I went overboard there, haven’t I?”

The two Forest Guardians’ chuckles helped in diffusing the tension. Sue picked up the slack again as more of her nerves faded away—“It’s alright, Dewdrop. I can only imagine the weight th-that comes with that sort of awareness of what you c-could have done.”

“It’s heavy, indeed,” he sighed. “Thankfully, I have others here to talk it through with, others that know that kind of pain.”

“You can add ‘emotional support’ to the list of what our village offers~,” Solstice smirked.

The arachnid laughter that came out of Dewdrop in response was a bizarre sound. Hundreds of repeated clicks, almost sounding like the world’s quietest machine gun going off. “Indeed, Solstice, indeed. Well, I’m glad you gave me a chance Sue, a-and I hope I won’t be as scary of a sight going forward.”

If not for her injury and having no idea if that would even work on an anatomical level, Sue was of half a mind to give Dewdrop a big hug, empathy and a bit of pity replacing her fear. Any spider this size was inherently unnerving, but at least he’d likely not make her panic again by his mere presence. “You really won’t be, and you’re welcome, Dewdrop. I-I—thank you for this. It was illuminating, and I’m really sorry f-for things being the way they are.”

The spider nodded. “Not something either of us can change, sadly. All we can do is keep this place growing and hope we sway more hearts in the future. Speaking of, how far did you all push the other deathweavers back after Sue’s attack, Solstice?”

Wait, what?

“A day’s march, more or less.”

“Pushed back?” Sue asked, alarmed.

Solstice took it upon herself to explain. “Between offering predators a place to stay and protecting everyone already living here and others nearby, one of those is more important in the end. A whole brood living nearby is a grave danger for all of us, no matter how much some of its members could be persuaded if given enough time. And so it has to be dispersed, burned down, and its members pushed back, far, far from here, so that they’re no longer a threat.”

“And once the time comes, the eggs they had left behind will hatch here, and the little ones will be welcomed into a place where they don’t have to hunt,” Dewdrop followed up. His words made Sue second guess herself, uncertainty growing on her face as she worried about the moral implications of what she’d just heard described. Keeping their territory safe was one thing, but kidnapping the eggs left behind?

Though... not like the other answer felt any better. If they were pushed back together with the rest of their kin, the unhatched spiders would instead grow into yet more threats, not just to Moonview specifically, but also to any other prey species around them...

A moral nightmare with no answer.

“Indeed, Sue, there isn’t a ‘correct’ answer to what we ought to do in a situation like that,” Solstice nodded, patting her shoulder. “We can only hope that offering the unhatched ones a life of safety is the right call, even if it comes at the price of taking them away from their brood. And that, if we are in the wrong, then whatever awaits us on The Gate’s other side forgives us for our sins.”

“I don’t doubt one bit that this course of action is the right one for my kin, at least,” Dewdrop reassured. “Though yes, it’s certainly a case-by-case kind of dilemma. Regardless of whatever judgment awaits us, that’s way off in the future, and now I really should get to catching up on green silk.”

Sue blinked, confused. “...wh-why green specifically?”

“Some prankster thought it’d be funny to steal half the bundle I kept on hand and I only realized partway through weaving. Oh well, I just need to grab more green dye and get back to spinning.”

“There’s no rush Dewdrop. Take your time; the tassels aren’t a priority,” the Mayor reminded.

The spider murmured, “With the rate at which Root has been putting up shrines lately, you’d think he would eventually start wearing one on his back.”

Solstice sighed at the mention of the other Elder in a very familiar and fed up way. She grumbled into her hand and rubbed her eyes as she briefly switched to telepathy. “^I’ll have to bring it up with him, I don’t know what’s gotten into him lately. Take care Dewdrop, and may She keep your rest peaceful.^”

“See you both around,” the spider smiled. “Oh, and you too, little one, I almost didn’t notice you.”

The discussion had left Joy feeling pensive, though that didn’t last long after Sue got back to the girl with all the affection she was owed, a gentle tickle on her front leaving her whole body squirming and hands flailing. The lovely, gasping laughter was mixed with notably less lovely clinking of metal, though the result still sounded really nice.

Just because it was Joy.

The group perked up at Sundance’s voice—“Took you all so long these went cold in the meantime.” She was holding three portions of candied, syrup-covered fruits on sticks in her paw, one of them shorter and with only a slice instead of an entire fruit.

“Well, if there’s anyone around to help offset that grievous injustice, it’d be you, Sunny~. Though, agreed, rather heavy stuff for what was supposed to be our opportunity to relax. Let’s go make the most of what remains of the day, eh Sue?” Solstice nudged. Her nickname had Sundance roll her eyes as she summoned a small flame to warm the treats up while the group got going. Seeing open fire left Joy much more skittish, the toothy girl opting to keep to Sue’s side this time.

“Yeah, something more relaxing would be nice. Do you have any place in particular in mind?” Sue asked.

Solstice shook her head. “Hmm, no, I don’t—”

“Yes, I do~,” the vixen smirked, leaving the two Forest Guardians blinking in surprise. Their obvious curiosity went unanswered as the Fire-type led them on, and while Solstice soon pieced together where her friend was taking them, if not necessarily why, Sue… was just happy to be around.

It’s getting quite late already. Wonder if—

Before Sue could pay too much attention to the passage of time, a sight in the nearby alley caught her attention instead, making her stop, with others following soon after. Sundance was of half a mind to tease her there and then, but ultimately kept quiet, just watching along with the rest of the group.

Snowdrop was busy moving several rectangular baskets of grain and berries next to a large hole in the ground, lined with something that Sue couldn’t quite pick up on from a distance. Her routine was straightforward—assemble a stack of three baskets, do… something to them that resulted in them getting frozen, and lower the freshly chilled foodstuffs down the hole. The frosty performer kept going like this until she’d gotten through all the baskets on hand, closing the most unintuitively operated freezer shortly after.

While she took a moment to gather her breath and admire her handiwork, the duo from before ran up to her, their presence throwing a spanner in Sue’s mood. She had nothing against the mostly green snake, but hadn’t gotten any friendlier towards the pink bat-scorpion.

Why must you of all people be fucking everywhere.

The pair of what were presumably children didn’t arrive empty-handed, either, carrying a clay pot of a dark, fragrant liquid with their combined strength. Sue wasn’t the biggest fan of cherries, but couldn’t deny them smelling nice, watching closely to see what Snowdrop would do with an entire jar of cherry juice. The thoughts of food reminded her of the treats Sundance had brought with herself, the not-apple on a stick getting bit into as she kept watching.

Sue didn’t know what exactly the two kids had asked the icy performer, but she seemed to know exactly what to do, soon figuring out the right way of fulfilling their request—namely, the flashiest way. Snowdrop gripped the pot before flinging its contents upwards with her dainty hands, and right as the glob of the dark pink juice reached its apex, she snap-froze it with a single powerful gust of chilling wind from her mouth.

She didn’t wait before scooping the potful of ice cream out of the air, getting almost all of it, the handful of specks that had landed on her face and crystal horns making both the kids and Sue giggle. Before the performer could join them in their amusement, though, she finally noticed Sue’s group, the realization combusting her glee into a fluster bright enough to melt the frozen juice on her head and make her scurry out of sight.

“Awwwwh~. She’s sweet, isn’t she?” Solstice giggled.

Sue nodded, giddy. “Yeah! A-almost hard to believe she’d put as scary of a show back at the stage as she did.”

“A ghost of many talents you could even say~! Gods, if she’d been here twenty years ago when I first came here, then... hah, no telling who would my heart be with nowadays,” the Mayor fantasized, making Sue blink in surprise as they all got going again. Joy was the only one left unsatisfied at the Snowdrop’s spectacle—mostly because of her not getting any of the freshly made ice cream in the end.

“I-I definitely see what you m-mean, heh...” her pupil chuckled weakly.

“Oh, now you do~?”

Sue threatened to catch on fire following Solstice’s comment, looking away with a bright fluster as the two women laughed among themselves. Sundance wanted to double down on the tease in particular, but ultimately gave Sue mercy—she’d be even more flustered soon enough, after all. “Yeah, Snowdrop’s a treasure. However, she’s always struck me as wanting something more permanent.”

“D-don’t we all?”

Sundance looked at her student with a light smirk and a raised eyebrow, a chuckle seeping into her words. “I don’t~. Never really felt that romantic pull.”

“Oh,” Sue blinked. “B-but uh, what about Spark?”

“A very happy accident, but an accident all the same.”

Sue struggled to gather words at the vixen’s explanation, much to the other two’s continued amusement. A big, awkward question crept up into the forefront of her mind afterwards, one she’d avoided bringing up earlier because of the implied tragedy. “B-but, with whom?”

As the once-human had feared, the question had Sundance pause. Though, as opposed to her worry that the vixen would suddenly break out into tears, she instead began to count on her fingers, eyes darting off into the sky as she enumerated the possibilities. “There are... seven candidates in total, I think. Two of them are dead, two more don’t live here, and none of them ever spoke up or came forward even after Spark had hatched. As far as I’m concerned, she’s mine and mine alone.”





Oh.


Sue’s frizzed brain failed in composing any response to Sundance’s revelation, the cacophony of ‘how’s and ‘uh’s continuing to bounce around in her skull for a good while afterwards. It took their destination coming in sight for Sue’s thought process to finally snap itself out of the embarrassed deadlock it ended up spiraling into.

The nearby grove of fruit-bearing trees was right beside a house-sized patch of flowering plants, a handful of berry bushes, and what looked to be tomato plants being supported on an elaborate array of wooden scaffolding. The messiness continued further into the farmland with dozens of species of plants interwoven in chaotic patterns that nonetheless had to have some logic to them.

As sizable as Moonview’s breadbasket was, it still felt like way too little to feed what had to be hundreds, if not thousands, of beings, no matter how nourishing each individual berry was—not if harvested annually, at least.

A loud, ethereal whistle yanked her attention whole, dragging her away from the agricultural conundrum. All she’d made of the sound’s source was a dark brown lower half with an orange body sprouting from it, waving at someone. She turned to look at who they were waving at—but then, she felt a familiar, giddy sensation and caught a whiff of the pleasant aroma from before. Before she could even turn around, an excited, whistled message had reached her mind, accompanied by a couple of leafy pats on her shoulder—

“Want another fruit?”



If you're confused about the species of the characters and want them spoiled, I've set up a page listing the species of all the featured characters in each chapter!

If you want to discuss the story, I've set up a Discord server for it! (and my other writings)

Also check out my other story, From the Vast!
 
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Chapter 15: Warmth

redspah

the gay agenda
Pronouns
she/her


Chapter 15: Warmth



The leafy dancer’s reappearance took Sue aback, but she appreciated it greatly. Her wide eyes soon gave way to a giddy smile as she spotted another peach-like fruit in their hands.

Barring Solstice and Sundance, they were the closest to her height out of everyone she’d met so far. Still a few inches shorter, though; the pink bloom that sprouted out from their forehead was at Sue’s eye level. They immediately tried to make up for the height disparity, standing on the tips of their yellow feet once they’d locked eyes with her, to her amusement.

Nuh-uh, I’m the taller one.

Sue’s attempt to replicate that motion with her one functional leg accomplished nothing except briefly losing her balance. She didn’t end up needing it, but the stranger’s wordless readiness to help when it looked like she was about to trip was deeply appreciated. “Oh, sure! Thank you!” she beamed.

To her surprise and chagrin, though, her words took the stranger aback much more than her near-fall. They backed up a couple of paces as they gathered enough composure to speak again, enthusiasm giving way to worry. “Y-you talk?”

Sue blinked at the nervous question, suddenly very unsure about what was going on. “Yeah! I-I don’t know the language, but Sundance is helping translate me.” Her remark had the dancer look at the vixen in question with uncertainty.

She had no more idea of the reason behind the sudden shift in mood than her pupil, speaking up shortly after, “Is everything alright, Lilly?”

“I—” the freshly christened plant lady began before faltering and looking away.

Sue had no idea where either Lilly’s willingness to help or her anxiety had come from, but she wanted to help all the same. She reached out and put as confident of a smile as she was capable of as she greeted, “It’s very nice to meet you, Lilly! Thank you for the fruits earlier.”

Despite Sue having little confidence in her gesture accomplishing much beyond confusing Lilly further, her reaction turned out to be markedly positive. The dancer’s stress waned as she took a step closer—and misinterpreted the Forest Guardian’s gesture as an invitation for an awkward hug, accepting it eagerly. Her leafy body was smooth, warm, and firm in its embrace. The absence of a heartbeat was a bit odd, but between it all being immensely pleasant and equally flustering, it was the last thing Sue was focused on.

“N-Nice meet you too,” Lilly muttered. “I... I think you not talk, a-and... not care me not talk good.”

Even with Sundance’s translation, Lilly turned out to be trickier to understand than expected. The most likely reason—her not knowing Moonview’s language well—made Sue’s expression light up with a warm, empathetic smile. “Oh, it’s absolutely okay, I’m still learning the language too!” Contrary to what she hoped for, though, her reassurance fell completely flat.

Lilly felt even more uncertain afterwards, twitching as if to withdraw herself from the hug before reconsidering and attempting to explain again. “No no, I—I know language, I understand. But... words, using words, very hard. F-for me. I sorry.”

Sue blinked, confused. As much as she wanted to reassure Lilly that everything was alright—and it was—she couldn’t say she wasn’t curious about what exactly did she mean by words being ‘hard for her’. Still, it was a curiosity best left for some other time. “Wh-why are you sorry? You’ve done nothing wrong! You still were really nice to me earlier and now with the fruits and all.”

To her relief, Lilly’s head and thoughts alike perked up at her reassurance. A few more firm nods did away at any remaining doubt in the flower girl’s mind, her joyous relief expressed with another, much tighter hug—almost too tight, in fact, the flimsy leaf arms putting out stunning amounts of force as they wrapped around Sue.

They almost crushed her breath out of her lungs before Lilly realized she’s gone too hard and eased out, thinking about apologizing for a moment before deciding to enact it with a much gentler hug instead. Sue didn’t mind one bit, gently patting her back all the while.

Hopefully that’s not an inappropriate area…

“Sorry! Just—happy you not care me not talk good,” Lilly beamed, fidgeting with her arms.

“It’s all good, phew. I sure wasn’t expecting you to be this strong!” Sue remarked, making the plant girl break into whistly giggling.

Lilly let go of the Forest Guardian and lifted her arms as if to flex them—only for the elongated leaves to remain completely flat throughout. She then followed up on her absence of a flex by throwing the fruit up and repeating her glowing arm slice technique from earlier. With the treat split in twain, she carefully snatched both halves from the air and offered them to Sue and Joy, balancing herself on the tip of one foot during this entire process. “Yes! Very strong! I help farm! Want see?”

Yes, yes I really do.

Both recipients of Lilly’s gifts expressed their approvals with firm nods. Joy’s more limited perspective was quickly fixed with the dancer picking her up as if she weighed nothing and turning towards the mixed use farmland. Before Sue could get concerned about Joy getting scared, the metal girl’s own reaction was a more positive kind of surprise that then faded into fascination as she used her newfound vantage point for all it was worth, taking all the sights in.

Lilly was much too eager to show off to even think of stopping—though that didn’t mean she didn’t wait for Sue to finish her march to the nearest unharvested tree. She stalled for time by running, spinning, and dancing circles around the Forest Guardian, much to her own and even Joy’s amusement. Throws were quickly discarded as an option, though, the whine of fear that went through the metal girl at being tossed in the air clear enough for Lilly to get the message. “Sorry! Here is, need clean this tree now.”

The cart next to the tree in question answered where Sue and Joy’s recent gift had come from; a handful of the not-peaches peeking out from underneath a mound of yellow spotted fruit—the same fruit that Lilly had to harvest another tree’s worth of now. It looked like such a daunting task that Sue almost wanted to offer some token help, just so that she wouldn’t have to watch the dancer sweat her leaves off for two hours.

Thankfully, Lilly was privy to a secret farming trick that helped immensely with her task—namely, kicking the tree’s trunk very, very hard.

A single strike was enough to separate her target from most of its spoils, even visibly shaking the surrounding soil; the tree itself only staying intact through what Sue had to assume was the sheer force of Lilly’s will.

She sure eats her broccoli, hah. Or maybe she is half broccoli, who knows with the weird plant-like fauna here.

Regardless of what kind of Superpower had fueled Lilly’s kick, her job wasn’t done yet. Fruit in the dirt wasn’t any more useful than fruit on a branch, after all. Lilly was about to dive into more of her showoff before remembering she was currently holding a toddler, slowing herself enough to first gracefully lower Joy onto the ground, pat her head a couple times, and then get into it.

Yellow feet and green arms were little more than a blur as Lilly tossed each individual fruit off the ground and into the cart, sparing no effort to show off her dexterity throughout, mixing in spins, cartwheels, backflips, and even a few more splits just for the hell of it. Her demonstration had it all, just as many feats of physical agility as it had glances in Sue’s direction to keep track of her live reaction.

A reaction that, despite having started out dumbfounded at all the sudden motion, had quickly turned into cheers and encouragement. Lilly’s dance routine pushed her ever closer to victory over a hearty pile of inanimate fruit with each step, and Sue couldn’t get enough of it.

Goodness, she’s graceful. And… kinda pretty…

Once the fallen fruit had been gathered up, Lilly’s focus shifted towards the few stragglers that still held on for dear life to their branches. A few quick hops up the tree later, the dancer had made it to the largest branch. All she needed to address each straggling fruit were the daintiest of stomps on their branches; a stomp said branches only barely survived—or didn’t on a couple of occasions, making Lilly freeze self-consciously each time. Thankfully, even the embarrassment at having damaged the tree didn’t survive the sight of Sue’s warm enthusiasm, sparking the dancer back to action each time.

As Lilly wrapped her performance up, Sue reminded herself that, despite the child sitting beside her and the not-child pulling off anime moves before her having taken the entirety of her attention, they weren’t alone in here. A quick glance over her shoulder revealed what the two older women were up to.

Solstice was acting responsibly, chatting with a couple of villagers Sue remembered seeing around Moonview over the past several days, but of whom she knew very little about. A large, white, cotton-like sphere with something small and greenish hanging from its side, and a blue amphibian her size with orange gills and black fins.

Meanwhile, Sundance stood just a few feet away, munching on a freshly nabbed yellow fruit, clearly no less enthralled by Lilly’s demonstration than its intended recipient was.

With the last of the fruits placed in the cart, it was time to wrap up the show. Sue’s focus returned to the dancer right as she finished climbing to the top of the tree, stopping for the first time in minutes as she spread her arms wide and closed her eyes. And then, she jumped, hitting no less than four front flips in one leap before capping it off with yet another split.

The easiest 10 in my life.

All she needed to convey that fact was a large piece of paper, a charcoal stick, and an hour to explain the decimal number system—or just words. “That was awesome!”

Much to Sue’s astonishment, Lilly took her glowing review very, very literally.

The dancer closed her eyes as her upper half became shrouded in a pale white glow, much more intense than any magic Sue had seen so far, filling her mind with worry. But then, as abruptly as it began, it was over, suddenly leaving Lilly weaker and panting quietly.

“L-Lilly, are you alright?” Sue asked, worried, catching the attention of both the question’s recipient and Sundance.

The former picked herself up in one swift motion and dashed over to Sue—but not before nabbing one of the freshly harvested fruits to snack on. The bite that followed revealed her mouth to be in the usual spot, just small and very, very well hidden. “Yeah!” she beamed. “You like?”

“I—It was amazing!” Sue nodded, wide eyed. “I-I could keep on watching for ages, but what was that glow?”

“Synthesis,” Sundance answered. Lilly agreed empathically, internally thanking the vixen for freeing her from having to explain how it worked. Instead, she pointed out at the half-figurative fruits of her effort, dozens of tiny, whitish buds that covered the freshly harvested branches.

Some of them Sue swore she could see grow in real time. “Wait, are these—are these already flower buds?” she asked, stunned.

The vixen nodded. “Yep. Some coaxing and nutrients, and trees don’t mind flowering again one bit. Am I understanding it right, Lilly?”

“Yeah, now they grow fruit again. More fruit to pick up in week. Everyone hungry, we need food!” Lilly elaborated, the time scales involved taking Sue aback.

She was too much of a city girl to know whether that was how normal trees functioned back in her world. If it was, though, then Moonview had managed to solve world hunger by just telling trees to flower again with some applied pretty plant lady magic—and the implications of that fact hit her right away. “D-does that mean you have as much food as you want?” she asked, somewhere between stunned and awestruck.

“Pretty much,” Sundance confirmed.

“Hehe. You not see that before?” Lilly asked, and Sue could only shake her head in confusion. A downward glance revealed Joy to be similarly stupefied by Lilly’s feat of magic, making her giggle. “I understand you not see Joy, you very small! But you not too...”

It was only then, after an entire performance, that Lilly finally realized that she forgot to ask the nice not-mute-after-all Forest Guardian for her name.

The firefox sage barked out a chuckle as she cut through the confusion, walking over to the rest of the group. “Her name is Sue, Lilly.”

Figure it’s only fair for us both to fluster each other without even knowing the other’s name.

“Sue!” Lilly whistled, overjoyed. “Good know, nice name. Sue, you not see that before?”

“No, I haven’t,” Sue gasped, a smile refusing to wash away from her face, “that’s—that’s amazing! How did you all figure that out?”

Lilly tilted her head. “Figure what? Synthesis?”

“I-I think so! Does it make the trees bloom again like that?”

Both Lilly and Sundance were confused by the unclear wording of Sue’s question. Thankfully, the latter had ways of overcoming that uncertainty and wasted no time in putting them to good use. The Forest Guardian blinked a couple times as her thoughts were examined, the hangup soon revealing itself to the vixen. “Oh, I see what Sue was getting at,” Sundance said. “Berry trees bloom multiple times throughout the year on their own Sue, and Synthesis just helps speed that process up. Did I get that right, Lilly?”

“Yeah! With not, one moon in warm, never in cold. With, one week in warm, one moon in cold. Help many, help more with good ground. And—hi Bluegrass!” Lilly greeted, snagging Sue’s attention over to the more palatable of the duo she’d seen recently.

The leafy green-cream snake was smiling brightly at the dancer, slithering in a small circle from all the giddiness on his mind. “Hiiii!”

“How day go?” Lilly asked.

“Excellent! I’m almost done with that field you gave me!” Bluegrass explained. His voice was simultaneously too old to be boyish, and too young to be truly grown up, sliding around the teen halfway point as it raised and occasionally broke.

Reporting on his progress only excited him further, much to Lilly’s enthusiasm. “Remember take time!” she reminded. “No hurry, now learning. On break?”

Bluegrass shook his head. “No, better! Copper got the idea to bring everyone some frozen juice, Mrs. Snowdrop froze it for us! We’ve got a whole—” he trailed off as he glanced to the side, finding the large pot he and his friend had spent the last half hour dragging along with themselves missing. He was stumped, slithering in a circle as he looked around for where it could’ve gone.

And then; he finally spotted it, half emptied and being slowly dragged behind the freshly cleared tree by the one and only pink scorpion bat themself. “Copper, what are you doing,” Bluegrass yelled. “Come on!”

Wasting no more time, the snake slithered over to the flying scorpion, the hisses, clicks and growls that followed untranslated. Before Sue could feel thankful towards the snake or angry at the bat, footsteps coming from behind her made her turn around—just in time for Solstice and the small group she had been talking with to make their way over in response to Lilly’s waving.

The ‘cotton ball’ moniker Sue had used earlier turned out to be only partially true. Sure, they were partly a cotton sphere the size of a beach ball with a bunch of small seeds scattered in it, but with the greenish extension containing their eyes and mouth, it was probably their ‘true’ body. Suppose that made their white fluff their… hair?

Step aside, Thistle, your pastel wizard hat has some serious competition for the title of the weirdest ‘hair’ in this world.

“Is something the matter, Lilly?” the cotton ball asked, their voice ancient, unusually dry for a plant, and very patient.

They closed their eyes as they listened to the flower girl’s response. “Mr. Equinox, I tell Sue about how we grow here, and how you help make good ground. And you too High Tide!”

The blue quadruped responded to the followup with a dry chuckle, shaking their head. “I only help with irrigation, sweetie,” they clarified, voice croaky and slightly feminine. “No less important, of course, but soil quality is all Equinox. Though… irrigation is our greatest concern right now.”

“How long do you think until we’ll have to expand our waterways, High Tide?” Solstice asked.

Her question had the blue amphibian firmly shake her head and look pensively at the increasingly pitiful stream that sated the farm’s thirst. “Just expanding it won’t do anything. We’ll need to move the farms way downstream sooner or later. We’re pushing the limits of our spring, and could stand to shrink the land we use right now to leave us with more room to spare, just in case.”

That wasn’t an answer Solstice would’ve liked to hear, but it was a truthful one all the same. It left the Mayor in a thoughtful mood as the cotton ball chimed in, “Taking a closer look at the individual varieties we are cultivating will certainly prove helpful. I can think of at least three crops whose bulk inevitably circles around to the compost pile. Doing away with those and the thirstiest ones should be sufficient to bring us back to safety for the time being, no?”

High Tide shook her head. “At the moment, yes, but if we keep growing at our current rate, we’ll need another effort like that in just a couple of years, and I sure don’t see it getting any easier then. We need a long-term plan.”

“We ought to ensure that any such plan is considerate enough,” Equinox reminded. “Even if we are capable of reaching far downstream, it is far from unlikely we inadvertently end up rubbing shoulders with someone less than pleased about our arrival there. Or, more likely, that we underestimate the scope of such an endeavor in one aspect or another.”

Solstice largely remained quiet, taking in the information one bit at a time and trying to work through its implications. Eventually, she admitted internal defeat with a sigh. “We can bring it up at the Elders’ Council. You’re right, High Tide, we need a plan; only so long we can keep doing things the way the founders did a thousand Moons ago.”

“Thankfully, we still have time aplenty before it gets dire,” High Tide sighed, looking over the neighbouring field, “but best get that done while we can do so calmly.”

“Indubitably,” Equinox acknowledged. “I would rather avoid straining the soil any further than we already are, and more land will help with that concern as well.”

As the trio mentally reset following the discussion about steering Moonview away from a possible ecological crisis, they realized they’ve had an audience for the last few moments. Most everyone else around was staring at them blankly except for Lilly, the dancer chiming in with her own question soon after. “Mrs. High Tide! How far down river to more water?”

The blue one took a moment to parse the exact intent of Lilly’s question before sighing quietly. This was the hitch of the whole thing, wasn’t it? “Last time I swam over to scout—our stream joins the larger river a couple days of march away. At that point, it’d be less of ‘our’ farm and more so its whole separate settlement that provides us with food. Hard to solve...”

“Which is why more voices will help a lot!” Solstice chimed in, eager to change topics. “Thank you for your expertise, Equinox, High Tide.”

The cotton ball bowed so deeply they almost flipped over. “You are most welcome, Solstice~.”

“Eeyup. We can figure it out, even if the transition will be rough—we’ve survived worse. Oh, Lilly, is that the girl Soot has been teasing you the whole day about?” the blue frog asked, abruptly drawing the attention back to Sue and snapping her out of passively taking in the informed discussion around her.

Both Sue and Lilly suddenly exploded in bright embarrassment, the latter speaking up in her own defense soon after, “I not know what you mean—”

“Yessss you do~!” a rustling, creaky voice jutted in, sending an icy chill down Sue’s spine as she turned around. The speaker turned out to be the same pumpkin-bodied being Sue had seen earlier a few times. The glowing holes in the lower half of its body still resembled a face, and its orange hair being prehensile was still weird, but she was too stunned and embarrassed to care.

More relevant to the exchange at hand, they were giggling mischievously, making Lilly shout, “Soot! Why you sneak!?”

Soot cackled, “Because it’sss very funny to watch your reactionssss~.”

Their voice sounded ethereal, not unlike Hazel’s in that regard. Though, as opposed to that grump of a ghost, they felt much more lighthearted in their teasing, even if they were no less effective at flustering her target.

Lilly grumble-whistled angrily as she searched for words. As appreciated as it felt to be used as someone to tease another person about and not as a direct receiver of teasing, Sue didn’t want to leave her to dry in here. She patted the dancer’s shoulder for reassurance; the gesture appreciated right away.

“Adorable~,” Soot swooned. “Though I can’t imagine work isss the best sssspot for a date~.”

Lilly shouted, “NOT DATE!” in the least convincing way imaginable. Sue wasn’t faring any better, entirely unsure what to do at the realization of being on a date, no matter how obvious it was in hindsight.

“Denial won’t get you far Lillssss~,” the pumpkin teased on.

“SH-SHUT!” Lilly leered at them wide-eyed.

“No~!” Soot leaned in, hovering in the air until their smirk was mere inches away from Lilly’s flustered expression. “I’d sssay you two head off and enjoy the evening together~.”

“B-but, harvest—”

“Oh Lillssss, you really thought I wasss gonna be a wingghost for you just to have you sssslump away with the harvest all evening?” the pumpkin smirked. “You go have fun with your crush, I’ll take care of thisss~.”

“SHE NOT—” Lilly shouted, not having it in her to finish the sentence on account of being unable to put words to such an obvious lie. Meanwhile, Sue was still stuck in a mental bluescreen, her expression completely blank.

“You’re good at many thingssss Lillssss, but a liar you’re not~. Off you go now, ya dummiesssss~,” Soot insisted, almost shoving Lilly out of the scene themselves.

As respectable a job of not laughing out loud at the exchange before them as Solstice and especially Sundance were doing, Soot’s last reply broke the dam for both of them. Embarrassment flooded Sue’s mind despite how good-spirited their amusement was, leaving her to try gathering words—only to fail miserably every time.

Thankfully, Lilly was there, snapping them out of their shared mental freeze. She picked the giggling Joy up into one arm and grabbed Sue’s hand with the other one, the firm yank away from the snickering pumpkin getting her crush to move. The rest of their makeshift band were right behind them as they all headed… Duck knows where.

It took both Lilly and Sue a few minutes to calm down enough to process anything but their own embarrassment. The intermittent chuckles coming from the duo of older women trailing them didn’t help either—and neither did the fact that Sue’s hand was being held by someone actively crushing on her.

And the worst part… I don’t think I mind one bit.

“I-is that true, Lilly?” Sue mumbled, eventually. Lilly didn’t have to speak up for her answer to be crystal clear to Sue’s sight and sixth sense alike. Bright red fluster grew on her cheek, her step flinched, her grip on Sue’s hand waned, her head looked away as if struck. Understandable as her reaction was, it was the polar opposite of what Sue wanted to happen. “Oh, it’s all good Lilly, promise! I—”

It was much too early to say how much Sue earnestly shared Lilly’s feelings on the matter. But, if nothing else, she was really eager to find that out. She held the leafy dancer’s hand as firmly as she could while hobbling along beside her. “I think it’s really sweet of you.” Good Duck, did Sue never think she’d get to say these words one day, especially to a creature that looked like much more of a plant than an animal, if it was any of the latter at all. “A-and, I’m down for a date!”

Lilly’s reaction was instantaneous, and almost strong enough to topple Sue over—but only almost. Her forceful hug had her press her white face into Sue’s shoulder, the yellow petals around her neck tickling the Forest Guardian as Sue’s and Joy’s brain played catchup. The toothy girl suddenly found herself hugging her big friend once more—and, just like Sue, didn’t mind that arrangement one bit. Lilly mumbled, “Th-thank, thank, thank...” audibly sighing in relief.

Since when were plants allowed to be so cute, Duckdammit!?

Sue’s giggles made Lilly squirm as she tried responding in a more affectionate way. She gently patted around the gorgeous bloom on the plant girl’s head, its aroma growing more pleasant by the moment. Her magical touch to the back of Lilly’s head and neck proved super effective, at least if her leafy body gradually relaxing was any sign. “It’s my pleasure Lilly. F-first time anything like that happened to me, hah...”

“What! Not believe,” Lilly insisted, the conviction in her voice taking Sue aback.

She had no idea why that would be such an unbelievable thing to say, asking, “Why not?”

“You nice! To sister, to me, to Joy most! You brave, help Spark. Morning I-I think have not chance i-if you can speak,” Lilly admitted.

...oh man.

As soon as Sue thought she was getting a grip on her own fluster, it was yanked out right from underneath her. Lilly’s compliment left her mumbling for a few moments before trying to steer the topic away from herself. “You really owe Soot one, eh?”

Joy found the quip especially amusing, her dry laughter soon spreading to the other two. Even Lilly’s grumbling had to give way to amusement at Sue’s point and Joy’s reaction as she sighed. “Yes, yes... they right. I thank them tomorrow.”

Feeling Lilly’s hand in hers brought a smile to Sue’s face as the two resumed their march. Neither of them was sure where they were heading as they marched on through Moonview’s outskirts—

“Lilly, where are you going?”

—and if not for Sundance’s intervention, they would’ve likely kept going like this for hours. The vixen’s words finally made Lilly pause and take a look around her surroundings, before admitting the obvious. “Uh. Not know. Sorry.”

Sundance’s lungs wouldn’t be spared any reprieve today, would they?

She broke into a bellowing laughter for Duck-knows-which time today, appreciating the antics so, so much more than all the dark gloom of yesterday. She laid her paws on both dummies’ shoulders as she caught up with them. “Well! High time we head over for drinks; the sun’s about to start setting. And since Sue will take her time—mind running ahead and grabbing seats for us all, Lilly? It’ll be a while before we get there.”

A part of Sue wanted to object to that, less so because of being blamed for the group’s slowness, and more so because it meant Lilly would be somewhere else until they caught up with her. Lilly felt much the same, but with the important addition of having a chance to prove her worth and do something nice for Sue. The dancer didn’t care about having a seat, but Sue sure looked like she’d need it. “Okay!”

Before Sue—or Joy—could get a word in edgewise, the dancer was already on her way, the toothy girl still in her arms. Sue’s free hand involuntarily reached out after her, only to droop as Lilly turned the corner. A few more of Sundance’s warm pets snapped her out of any funk that threatened to start building. Her smirk, however, only embarrassed Sue further. “How did it go again? ‘Don’t swing that way?’”

Sue’s low grumble brought not a small amount of amusement to Sundance and Solstice alike, the latter only now having caught up with the rest of the group.

The older Forest Guardian took the initiative and pulled her pupil into a gentle side hug, the gesture as tingly as it was comforting. “Oh, don’t be embarrassed, Sue! These things can take a while and a good few opportunities to really solidify. I didn’t even know I could have a thing for boys until I met Jasper.”

Even if that wasn’t how Sue thought Solstice’s words were gonna go, they raised a fair point all the same. She was very aware of her utter absence of serious romantic opportunities back in her home world; she could stand to give herself some slack.

On a second thought, it’s not like these were just her own thoughts that left her all flustered. “I—I think I’m more embarrassed because you two k-keep ribbing us...” she mumbled.

“...can you blame us?”

No, Sundance, I can’t. Doesn’t mean it’s any less embarrassing.

The unspoken response sent a wave of amusement through the psychic trio as they got going. Sue wasn’t excluded from the giggling, helping greatly to keep her embarrassment down as the group gradually calmed down. The next few moments were spent in well-needed silence as everyone caught their breath and composed themselves again; the two older psychics wordlessly agreeing to lay off any further teasing for now.

After all, some interesting questions got raised earlier.

“^So, you’ve got me curious now, Sue,” Sundance began. “Do fruit trees not bloom several times a year where you’re from?^”

The change in subject to something much more grounded helped Sue maintain her composure, not-monstrous butterflies vacating her stomach as stirring thoughts replaced them. She couldn’t honestly say she knew anything about the non-digital world with absolute, 100% certainty, but she had a good-enough intuition, and hoped it would suffice for now. “Yeah, as far as I know all plants only bloom once a year i-in my world.”

The vixen lifted her eyebrow. “^Don’t your people have any invention or process to help with their growth?^”

“There are fertilizers, but they only help with yields, and not with how fast the plants grow,” Sue admitted, immediately sensing the cogs turning inside both psychics’ minds.

“^If one harvest a year is all you get, you likely need a ton of farmland and storage...^” Solstice mumbled.

Sue nodded, “Mhm. I was really surprised by how small your farm was before you explained that part to me. I-I don’t think that would’ve been enough to feed a village ten times smaller than Moonview in my world.”

Her remark had the two natives of this world glance at each other before looking back at Sue, Sundance being the first to raise the obvious question. “^How... big are the farms in your world?^”

What’s the size of England again?

“From horizon to horizon, they’re big enough to take up most of the space in farming areas,” Sue explained as if it was the most normal fact in the world.

Her answer only resulted in further confusion, as a massive question was suddenly brought to light in a very stark way. Solstice blurted it loud out in dumbfounded shock, “^J-just how big is your world, Sue?^”

Sue blinked, taken aback. “I—what do you mean?”

“^How massive is your town to necessitate having such vast swaths of land dedicated to just growing crops?^” Sundance clarified.

“It’s not just a town, it’s everywhere!”

“^What!?^” both psychics blurted out. It was hard to say which of the three was the most confused at the way the discussion devolved. Sue tried her absolute hardest to think through just what was so confusing to grasp for these two intelligent women—and then the realization hit her across the head.

To them, ‘society’ was Moonview and a handful of other, equally small, distant towns.

To her, ‘society’ was the entire planet.

“Okay, I think I know what the misunderstanding is,” Sue began, taking a very deep breath. “My-my people, humans, they aren’t just in like, one area of the world, or a handful of towns. They’re everywhere; we live on our entire planet. Every land mass has peo—humans living on it, and controlling all of it.”

Every surprising revelation either of them had about the other’s world was dwarfed by Sue’s admission to such a comical degree that neither Solstice nor Sundance had any idea how to respond.

For a few tense moments, Sue feared that she’d managed to brick their minds with that simple but astonishing revelation. Sundance was the first to show any signs of life afterwards, her dumbstruck gaze slowly looking down at the grassy dirt of the path they were now blocking. The increasingly orange light of the sunset illuminated the vixen’s expression as her mind tried to comprehend all the implications of what she’d just heard, eventually muttering out, “^How—how many. Of your people.^”

Sue slunk off to the side to clear the path, her answer as clear to state as it was utterly impossible to comprehend in full. “A-almost eight billion.”

“^E-eight... thousand... thousand... thousand...^”

Every single word of that estimation represented a leap in a population’s sophistication that was nigh impossible to comprehend for those whose lives revolved around the scale of the previous ones.

Just as a few animals sharing a burrow was a massive step up from a solitary existence in almost every way, so would their Moonview completely blow the minds of said burrowful of critters, so would the complexities and intricacies of a city of several million go way beyond what anyone living here could imagine.

And the full extent of Sue’s civilization was another leap in scale up from that, still.

Each of those jumps represented profound changes to every single aspect of the lives of their inhabitants and the exponential increase of complexity of most of them. Hunting on one’s lonesome, versus stockpiling food as a group, versus division of labor with dedicated farmers and cooks. Further up, specialized distribution networks purely for moving food from mind-bendingly vast fields to hungry mouths.

And then, at the largest scale, an intricate tapestry of a planet-spanning trade network, one which reduces months of the year to numbers on a spreadsheet and climate limitations of the most popular crops to footnotes whose significance evaporates with the existence of global shipping.

Such complexity was quite literally incomprehensible to a singular mind. No person could ever be said to grasp the sheer vastness of a planet-spanning population like that in earnest; mortal minds weren’t made for that.

And yet, for a brief instant, Sundance almost accomplished that feat.

Her mind’s eye stared at what felt like infinity for one enlightening moment before it too had to back down with a pounding headache. In just a few moments, her stunned silence gave way to woofed grumbling and trying to rub away the aching with her paws. “^I have... so many questions,^” she muttered, out of breath.

Sue almost felt rude for laughing at Sundance’s admission—but only almost; she sure wouldn’t say no to some comeuppance. The vixen was much too stunned to even acknowledge the soft laughter.

Before she could put words to any of her questions, though, Solstice cut her off. Her mind might’ve given up in imagining Sue’s world at around a million souls, but that didn’t mean she was blind to implications of the once-human’s supposedly global civilization. “^W-what about other peoples?^” she asked. “^Do they live together with your people everywhere?^”

That’s gonna be a… touchy one to explain.

The truth that followed was far less incomprehensible than it was simply unimaginable—“Th-there aren’t any other people, no other... thinking people. It’s just humans.”

“^Thinking as in...?^” Sundance butted in, hoping that either she or Sue were just misunderstanding something.

Sue sighed. “Thinking as in consciousness. Every other species in my world isn’t conscious, they’re just... animals.”

Hearing words like that from anyone else in Moonview would’ve been easily classified as hate speech. The belief that only one’s own kin ever had sentience or morals was not an uncommon one in the wild, and many newcomers had to consciously unlearn that way of thinking. Sue clearly had no problems with treating other species as equals—which only made such a blunt assertion hit even harder.

Was her world truly as nightmarish as she was painting it to be?

Solstice asked, aghast, “^Do you kn-know for sure?^” Her words felt less like an honest inquiry and more like a plea for such a vulgar fact to be merely a limitation of Sue’s kin.

“I—no, I don’t think so,” Sue admitted. “We aren’t psychics, there aren’t any psychics in our world. But no other species seem to be capable of communication or building settlements like we are, and we’ve been trying to figure out if any of them are close to our intelligence for a while. From what I remember, only one or two species come even slightly close.”

It wasn’t certainty, no, but it was as close as Sue could get in the heat of the moment. Sundance and Solstice very carefully crammed the unpleasant fact into their minds in such a way that it only touched ‘Sue’s world’, the worries about that way of thinking infecting any other part of her mind making the Forest Guardian shudder.

“^I-I have no idea how to imagine a world like that,^” Solstice whispered, leaning on a nearby building. “^Back when I—when I grew up with my clan, that attitude was everywhere, but even those that expressed it didn’t really believe in it, it was just too easily disproved by stepping out of the borders of our settlement and looking around for even just a few moments. Or, at least I hope they didn’t really believe in it. To hear it’s the prevailing attitude in your world, Sue, and that it even could be correct is... depressing.^”

My world isn’t depr—



Actually, no, scratch that, it absolutely is, but not because humans are the only sentient species! There are so many other, much more valid reasons for it to be depressing!

“I... can’t say I agree, even if I do prefer the diversity here.”

The sobering subject didn’t do any of the trio any good to think about for longer. They all resumed their march as Sundance came up with a much more intellectually stimulating question, as opposed to more depression fodder. “^To bring up something less... morbid to think about. How does housing work in your world? Where do these eight… billions of people sleep?^”

A question like that didn’t have any singular answer, but it didn’t need to in order to work well as a distraction. Both Sue and Solstice got to thinking, even if the latter only kept coming up with super-sized versions of buildings in Moonview.

Sue explained, “It really depends, but for cities with millions of people, it’s mostly apartment buildings. Like this one over here, just stacked on top of itself.” She accompanied her explanation by pointing a finger at a nearby rectangular stone building, unlike the one Solstice’s dwelling rested on.

The elaboration helped, but it still left many details unspoken. “^I imagine these ‘apartment’ buildings also have staircases to enable movement from one floor to another?^” Sundance inquired. “^How many floors are we talking about? Two? Even three?^”

Hell, even two would be a vast improvement in many suburban areas…

“Mostly elevators, but stairs are used everywhere, too. And no, many more than two or three,” Sue chuckled. “The one I grew up in was eight floors, but there are many that are even bigger, like fifteen or even twenty.”

To her own annoyance, Sundance had a much harder time grasping how a building of that size would look compared to the incomparably more intricate tapestry of Sue’s world as a whole. She stopped abruptly and horizontally outstretched one finger from each paw. One ended up where the building Sue used as a reference touched the ground, and the other at its roof, both from her perspective. Then, she moved the upper finger by the same distance that had initially separated it from the lower one to visualize another floor being added.

And then another, and another, and another.

The vixen’s eyes went wide as her head craned upwards. She had run out of reach less than a dozen floors in, and by the time she was done visualizing even twenty floors, she was staring almost directly straight up. “^What the fuck,^” she muttered, more stunned than Sue had ever seen her. “^How?^”

Sue chuckled, “Do you get why we have dedicated building inspectors now?”

“^Dedicated what?^” Solstice blinked, hearing that term for the first time.

“^I think I’m beginning to understand now, yeah...^” Sundance trailed off, deaf to her friend’s question. It took her a good while to shake that particular strand of confusion off. Her attempt at imagining the sheer amount of raw material and stresses involved failed entirely, forcing her to admit internal defeat with a slump.

The older Forest Guardian’s curiosity wasn’t about to let itself be forgotten, though. “^What did you mean by ‘building inspectors’?^”

“Oh,” Sue perked up, “they’re just people that check on buildings that are being built and make sure they’re safe and won’t fal—AH!

Before Sue could continue pretending to understand the field of structural engineering enough to comment on what went into building safety, her feeble balance was yanked out from underneath her. Solstice’s intervention kept her on her legs for long enough for the younger Forest Guardian to finish stabilizing herself, heart hammering in her chest at being startled so hard.

The entire trio tried to figure out what had just happened—and found their suspect in a piece of wood sticking out of the wall they had just passed by, now decorated with a shred of Forest Guardian dress, helplessly fluttering in the evening breeze.

“^You alright, Sue?^” Solstice asked, concerned.

“Yes, yes. It’s j-just annoying.”

“^Sounds like you could use a trim then,^” the Mayor chuckled before she looked down, her eyes going wide. “^Oh good Moon, you really need a trim. I hadn’t realized how roughed up your dress was until now.^”

A glance downwards revealed said dress to be in a miserable state, even barring the two larger holes. Its edges were tattered and stained with dirt, almost dirty enough to cross the line into the territory of disgusting. Sue dearly hoped that nobody else had been paying much attention to it either, Lilly most of all.

Though… Solstice’s wording took her aback a bit. “T-trim?” She asked. “Like with scissors?”

Solstice blinked before shaking her head. “^What? No, just a simple flint knife. I have one made just for this at my tent that I could grab for you. Though, if we’re doing that, you’ll need to wash them first. The rest of you won’t hurt to be a bit cleaner, either~.^”

Sue wasn’t sure whether to take offense at Solstice’s words. She tried to sniff herself, not picking up on anything particularly offensive. Though, considering her crutch arm was sticky to the touch despite her not remembering sweating at any point during her stay here, she figured she really should shower, anyway. “Fine, fine,” she sighed. “Wh-where are the showers here?”

“^Showers? Unsure what those are, but I’m sure our baths can fill the same purpose. Can you take her over there while I grab the knife, Sundance?^” Solstice asked.

The vixen nodded. “^Sure thing. Let’s all meet at the table Lilly grabbed for us.^” Solstice nodded and dashed off towards the quickly creeping sunset, leaving Sue with just Sundance and a stern-sounding remark that followed, “^Just don’t drag me into the water with yourself Sue.^”

Can’t imagine a fire-aligned creature enjoying being splashed with water much…

“W-would that hurt you?” Sue asked, concerned.

“^Oh no, no,^” the vixen reassured, “^it’s just unpleasant; I prefer sand baths when possible. Annoyingly, a good, clean sand like that is hard to find around here...^”

The proximity to Sundance’s bodily warmth made for a pleasant sensation throughout their evening stroll. It’d likely still take a while before they’d get there, giving Sue more time to work through some of her own remaining conundrums about this world—starting with the one that has been persistently evading being answered for a few days now. “So, Sundance... what is evolution?”

The surprised stare the vixen gave her pupil might have been nothing compared to the ones in response to the borderline mind-shattering realizations from earlier, but it was still more shock than Sundance usually showed. She needed a moment to sort her thoughts out, eventually answering with her own question. “^...I’m less surprised about you simply not knowing about evolution, and more so about that being the case despite your language having that word. If you wouldn’t mind answering, what does your kind of ‘evolution’ mean, Sue?^”

Sue was less annoyed at her question being deftly dodged yet again, and more flustered about her tattered and woefully lacking knowledge of biology being suddenly brought into the spotlight. She hoped against all hope that despite all her C+’s and B-’s, she still understood the topic enough to give a competent answer.

“So, um... you have a population of a certain species, and it reproduces with variations. And then, like, the environment will prefer some variations over others, so when... Actually, think of a species of birds that feed on nuts. And they migrate to a different place with different nuts, which are harder to break. Then the ones that ended up with bigger beaks by chance will be able t-to break the harder nuts easier. They’ll be more likely to survive and reproduce, a-and eventually the population will be almost entirely bigger beaks.”

This has to be the most bastardized version of Darwin’s Finches ever uttered, good Duck.

Regardless of how scuffed her explanation was, Sue hoped it would prove sufficient—especially since it was the only concrete example of Darwinian Evolution she could recall.

Fortunately, it seemed like that was indeed the case. Sundance continued to guide them towards the baths as she chewed on Sue’s idea, scritching her snout and nodding at nothing in particular. “^Hmm... and then if, say, their environment were to change in such a way that the access to pyrokinesis would prove advantageous, that population would then eventually gain the Fire typing?^”

If not for them taking up a hefty part of a narrow, yet busy path, Sue would’ve stopped on the spot and asked the vixen to explain all that again, but slowly. Instead, she just hoped that Sundance’s smarts had her figure out the gist, even if her chosen example was completely incomprehensible. “I... think so?”

“^I see. Now that I think about it, I’ve heard of a similarly sounding idea before, however only as a tale. Supposedly, there was once a long-lived dragon that lived in a small valley. And, when they thought back at the end of their centuries-long life, they realized that none of the other species looked the same like they used to when they were younger, despite them having never overtly changed. Interesting to hear that there’s some merit to that tale. What’s the limit of a... population change like that? Also, here we are.^”

As Sue mulled over Sundance’s question, their destination finally came to sight, taking her aback with how luxurious it looked.

A handful of hot tubs stood on a large, elevated platform, all but one of them empty, and, judging by the vapor emanating from it, soothingly warm. The sight was alluring enough to make her overlook the pretty large practical obstacle of her ever getting in or out of these tubs in her current state, between her nonexistent athletic skill and having to use a crutch—not to mention the cast on her leg.

Before Sue could take another step towards the warm bliss, she found herself gently, yet firmly, held back by Sundance’s mental grip. The orange sheen that surrounded her body was just as warm as she imagined the hot tub’s water to be, making for a perfectly acceptable substitute.

For the approximate four seconds that it lasted.

“Not there~,” Sundance chided. “Don’t have time to soak like that. And even if we did, you’d have to clean yourself the normal way first, anyway.”

Despair filled Sue’s mind at the realization that there wouldn’t be any warm baths in her immediate future—and then faded moments later, replaced with an annoyed, but understanding sigh.

The large, flat, slightly submerged basin reminded Sue of a vastly oversized shower tray. It was large enough to force anyone stepping through it to clean their feet in the half an inch of standing water that filled it. Any excess that arose was drained off into a short, tiled channel that then led into a small, partially underground structure off to the side, the occasional sputters of smoke and vapor alike that escaped through its roof giving Sue a decent idea of what went on in there.

Sundance shivered with her entire body after stepping into the shallow water, distracting Sue away from any further observations and making her giggle. And then again, this time in response to the vixen’s eye roll. To spare herself any further embarrassment, Sundance pointed to where Sue was supposed to go, the display rather modest.

A bowl of water sat on top of a small table at the basin’s edge, one of many. Around it laid a modest wooden pitcher, a thankfully clean hand towel, and… a bar of soap, worn down to the size of a finger. “Here. Water, soap, a rag, you hopefully know the drill,” Sundance instructed. “If not, then my opinion of your entire species is gonna change drastically. Do you want me to help hold you in place so that you can use both hands for this?”

“Um, sure, that’d help.”

“No problem.” Sundance reassured, before her telekinesis grabbed Sue. The warm sensation grasping her—though only her lower half this time—sent a shudder through the Forest Guardian’s body.

Even once she got used to it, though she needed a good while afterwards to psych herself into actually letting go of the crutch to free both of her hands. For better or worse, the tool had become a de facto part of her. The realization that she would be cleaning herself in front of everyone further delayed her getting started. The vestiges of modesty had to be forcefully and painfully beaten out of her mind with how woefully inapplicable they were here.

For all I know, ‘nudity’ as a concept doesn’t even exist here.

Once Sue was done bashing through these mental blocks, the actual process of cleaning herself was similar to what she was used to, if much, much more rustic. Two more very sensitive spots on her body didn’t help either, even lukewarm water cold enough to make her flinch when it splashed against her horns.

With her cleaning underway, Sue could go back to the curious topic from earlier as she looked towards Sundance, the vixen leaning on one of the hot tubs. “A-as to your question—no, there aren’t limits like that, that’s the point. With enough time and changes, the new population will become its own species.”

“^I see...^” Sundance nodded deeply. “^Many incremental changes that eventually result in a different species. That’s... fascinating. Hold on, wouldn’t that entail that all living creatures are related to some extent?^”

“I-it does imply exactly that, from what I know.”

Now that was a deep revelation.

The abject absurdity of everything it implied gave Sundance a pause as she looked around the cleaning area. Her thoughts eventually settled on the green-yellow frog restocking the emptied bowls and replacing dirtied towels with freshly steamed ones.

The sheer magnitude of differences between herself and them was almost unthinkable—aside from a roughly bipedal body shape and a matching number of limbs, they had almost nothing in common anatomically. That she and them were related in some extremely distant, bizarre way was almost too absurd of an idea to consider. And yet, that was exactly what the simple theory that Sue had described implied.

Either way, something to ponder on later.

After filing the mystery under the category of ‘meditation fodder’, Sundance got back to Sue. “^Fascinating. All that from just slight changes?^”

Sue nodded, elaborating, “Yep! Slight changes until you have a new species th-that can’t reproduce with the old one.^” Her words achieved… mixed success as far as clearing things up, though.

The initial point made Sundance think some more, only for the remark at the end to send her eyebrow way, way up. “^Why wouldn’t they? Reproduce, I mean.^”

“...because they’re different species?” Sue reminded as if it was the most obvious thing in the world.

Sundance stared, uncertain. “^And? Nobody I could’ve possibly had Spark with was of my kin, and yet she’s just fine.^”

“Wh-What!?” Sue stared, wide-eyed.

“^What?^”

The part of the discussion that the onlookers could overhear made them look at the two in confusion, the blank stares Sue and Sundance were giving each other enough to make a few people laugh. Eventually, the Forest Guardian mumbled, “B-but, that’s not how species work!”

“^Why not?^” the vixen asked, baffled.

Sue didn’t have an answer.

Both because she didn’t know enough about biology to earnestly argue her position, and because the definition of ‘species’ she was familiar with forbade crossbreeding by definition. No, not even crossbreeding—Spark wasn’t some hybrid, she absolutely looked like a juvenile form of Sundance’s species. How that was possible despite the vixen having apparently had her with someone of a different species, Sue didn’t know—



...

Each time Sue brushed over that thought, she risked her spurious imagination finally giving up and attempting to visualize how that process might have looked like, to the immediate and long-lasting despair of the rest of her mind.

Best to just drop that whole train of thought and not tempt Fate any more.

Sue gave up with a sigh. “I-I don’t know. Alright, I told you what my evolution is like. What about yours?”

Sundance’s confusion only grew at her pupil’s sudden subject change. The vixen came perilously close to accidentally uncovering the reason behind that shift, but eventually just went along with her. “^Well~. Here, ‘evolution’ is a part of most creatures’ lives. It’s the name for the process of changing from one form to another.^”

That sounded... coherent enough, making Sue think of insect metamorphosis. Though, of course, there was no way something exactly like that applied towards non-insect species. Sue’s arms lathered her midriff on autopilot as she asked for elaboration—“By ‘change form’, you mean… metamorphosis?”

The unfamiliar word had Sundance immediately pick through her mind to find the corresponding imagery. Her paw tapped on the tub’s edge as she analyzed it, eventually shaking her head. “^Not wholly unlike it, but very different in how it happens, it’s much more... abrupt.^”

“Like what? One moment Spark looks like she does now, and the next like you?” Sue chuckled.

“^There’s a form in between hers and mine, and the process is more in the range of tens of seconds as opposed to an instant, but… essentially, yes. She’ll feel ill and weak in the days leading up to it, and once it happens, there’ll be a lot of bright, white light, and by the end, she’ll look different altogether and be completely wiped. And then the same thing will happen again in forty seasons or so.^”

That was not what Sue expected to hear. “A-and she’ll look the same the entire way through that period?”

“^Not exactly. She’ll grow a fair bit over the years, but yes, the same in the broad strokes—^”

*whiiiiistle!*

The piercing, drawn out call had both Sue and Sundance look over towards the nearby buildings, the sight of Lilly bringing a brief smile to both—at least, before it soured for the latter at the realization of what the dancer was doing. The few seconds that followed felt stretched in time as she leaped through the air toward the one occupied hot tub, curling up into a cannonball. Jumping from a nearby roof gave her a ton of potential energy—

All of which was transferred into the water as she impacted its surface.

Sue couldn’t even say this was the largest pool splash she’d seen in her life, Lilly’s short stature nowhere near sufficient to claim that title. It certainly was the most sudden, though—the loud noise startled everyone within earshot, and the actual splash wasn’t far behind. She might have only gotten hit by a few stray drops on her cheek, but Sundance wasn’t anywhere near this lucky. Most of her head and right arm got soaked; the mental grip holding Sue upright briefly wavered in response, but thankfully held in the end.

For a few moments, there was only silence as Lilly scrambled to stand back upright. Her whistled laughter was music to Sue’s ears; music that was abruptly cut off after the flower girl’s harrowing realization—the green head poking out of the hot tub she’d just landed in was not, in fact, Sue’s.

Lilly’s body language shrunk as the head’s owner slowly opened their eyes to examine what had just happened. Water dripped from their yellow, curved beak, their expression frozen as they stared at her, the dancer only able to mumble out,

“...sorry.”



If you're confused about the species of the characters and want them spoiled, I've set up a page listing the species of all the featured characters in each chapter!

If you want to discuss the story, I've set up a Discord server for it! (and my other writings)

Also check out my other story, From the Vast!
 
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Chapter 16: Justice

redspah

the gay agenda
Pronouns
she/her


Chatper 16: Justice



CONTENT WARNING: Graphic Depictions of Violence​

The recipient of a point blank tidal wave thankfully didn’t end up minding it once the entire situation was explained to them.

Lilly’s rounds of apology gave Sue enough time to finish her own cleanup, letting them all head out soon after. The dancer was a godsend in more than one way, eagerly helping carry the still-wet swaths of Sue’s all-natural dress, protecting them from getting dirty again—especially since it meant she’d get to walk right beside the Forest Guardian she was crushing on.

The question of who had been watching over the toothy girl in the meantime was answered once the trio finally arrived at the clearing, drawing expressions of joy from those gathered, Joy included. The little one waved at them from Astra’s lap, the dragon herself sitting on the grass beside the group’s table and sipping from a heavy wooden tankard.

To everyone’s glee, the metal girl wasn’t the only kid around the scene.

Once Comet had scrambled his way out of his and Spark’s play tussle, he greeted the recent arrivals with an elated squeak and an uncoordinated wave—though before he could waddle to them, the lil’ fox cut him off the moment Sue sat down. She leaped onto a seat beside Sue’s—though stopped herself from getting any closer at the sight of all the water saturating her dress. “Hi Sue!” she woofed. “Why are you so wet!?”

Pardon.

“I-I had to clean myself,” Sue stammered, hoping none of the nearby psychics were paying too close attention to her reaction.

Spark tilted her head. “Why?”

“For this~!” Solstice cut in, catching the attention of both the kit and her favorite Forest Guardian. She lightly patted Spark to make her scoot away and give her better access to Sue’s dress as she sat down, a flint knife in her hand. The lil’ fox first attempted to get comfortable on Lilly’s lap, and then—once she’d realized it was just as wet as Sue’s—she laid down on the ground beside their legs.

“What that?” Lilly asked, eyeing the curiously shaped knife.

Solstice showed the tool off. “A kind of knife that’s used for trimming our dresses, Lilly. Has to be really sharp, but doesn’t need to be very hard, and flint works well for that.”

“Cut dress?” the dancer blinked. “Like hair?”

“Yes, pretty much just like hair!” Solstice answered, smiling. “I remember when I was Sue’s age, there were a few very popular trimming patterns where I grew up. Let’s see if I can replicate one of those from memory, heh...”

“Not hurt?” Lilly asked to be sure, scooting closer to Sue and laying a hand on her shoulder.

“Oh no, it’s just dead skin, it doesn’t feel anything. By the Pale Lady, it’d be bad if it did...” Solstice shuddered at her own words. Despite having only spent a few days in this body as opposed to many decades, Sue felt her comment no less viscerally; the thought of feeling every single blade of grass her dress brushed against making her involuntarily cringe.

The Mayor’s mention of hair tingled Sue’s attention. Judging by her also sharing it, this stiff hairdo seemed to be a species-wide trait, though not one Sue particularly enjoyed. The chaos of the past few days may not have left much room in her mind to ponder about how she’d prefer to style it instead, but that was about to change. “Since you mentioned hair,” Sue spoke up, involuntarily leaning closer to Lilly. “Are there any ways to straighten it out?”

The older Forest Guardian blinked, uncertain, as she grabbed the nearest flap of dead skin. “I... think so, though I’ve never explored them in depth. Wouldn’t surprise me if all one needed was a hefty application of heat and an appropriate alchemical solution—though with just how stiff our kind of hair is, I don’t doubt it’d be a struggle even then, ha.”

“I’d imagine Patina could advise something,” Sundance added offhandedly, more focused on where drinks were being poured.

“Oh, for sure, Sunny. She’s the best person to ask about anything involving fur or alchemy. I remember her mentioning pursuing persistent pigments for her dyes, so that a light rain couldn’t wash them off. Actually…” Solstice smirked, looking up at her pupil as she grabbed the nearest flap, “talking to her sounds like a task you could try to get done tomorrow on your own, Sue~. I’m sure Willow won’t mind guiding you over to her workshop.”

Lilly whistled, “Me too!” Her addition was appreciated, lifting everyone’s mood. Sue reached around to hold her closer as she chewed through Solstice’s words.

Alas, my plans are already set.

Thankfully, the dancer’s reaction to being hugged distracted Sue from any further unpleasant thoughts—or the nearby psychics from spotting them. Lilly’s ecstatic whistle made the Forest Guardian giggle, and her delighted thoughts made her blush—it was almost enough to make her overlook almost everything else happening around the table.

But only almost.

*thud!*

Sundance setting four mugs on the table drew everyone’s attention, with the vixen wasting no time taking one of them for herself. They seemed identical to the one Astra had just finished drinking from. Sue’s curious glance at their contents prompted a rather unhelpful comment from the dragon—“Phew, they spared no punch this time!”

Curious, Sue grabbed the mug with both hands and lifted it to take a good sniff. A multitude of fruity aromas hit her nostrils, some of them increasingly familiar, all mixed with cinnamon—or something treacherously similar to it—and a handful of other nose-tingling spices. And, besides all of those—

“Oh, it’s just spiced cider, Sue,” Solstice explained. “Never had any before?”

Indeed.

Aside from a couple of cheap, terrible beers she’d grabbed from some party before regretting it shortly after, she’d never had any booze in her life, and wasn’t interested in changing that—at least back in her home world. The incomparably nicer scent of this brew was enough to convince her to give that particular poison a second try, though.

Ooooohhh.

Whatever alcohol the drink contained was its least interesting part. The mixture of several different kinds of sourness and sweetness was delightful on its own, and was only enhanced further by all the spicy, fresh herbs.

Step aside, ethanol, you’re boring.

One gulp was followed by another as Sue worked at her mug, looking around the table as she did so. Lilly was no less enthusiastic than her at the prospect of a good drink, her warm, leafy body loosening up as she leaned on her crush. The precious sound of her stray hiccups almost made Sue spill some of her own drink in all her giggling.

Further in that direction, Astra was playing with Comet as she got through mug after mug. The little Martian’s attention was so drawn to the pretty cup in the dragon’s paw that she could spin him in place as she moved it around, much to her amusement. After one more wave at Sue, Joy finally acted on her playmate’s distraction by tickling his exposed sides, sending them both into another playful tussle—and Spark joined in soon after. Her and Joy’s combined efforts left Comet flailing, his desire to laugh struggling against the limitations of this tiny body and resulting in high-pitched squeaks interspersed with winded gasps.

The fiery cub wouldn’t remain there for long, though, especially not after noticing Lilly having dried out in the meantime. With the lil’ psychic exhausted and gasping, she leaped up onto the dancer’s lap, leaned in to nuzzle Sue’s side—and almost made her spill her drink over her freshly cleaned garment.

And with how well Solstice’s trimming was going, it would’ve been such a shame for that to happen.

Sue’s eyes studied the pattern as the Mayor went through one flap after another, her drink untouched and her expression deeply focused. First, she cut off about three to four inches from the edge of each flap, the excess… ‘material’ piling into a small mound under their seats. She then rounded off each flap’s corners into almost a semicircle.

The real magic happened afterwards, with the handful of straight lines Solstice had sliced across the bulk of the flap coming together to look like a star, all without weakening its structural integrity. She couldn’t help but chuckle at noticing her pupil’s increasingly tipsy amazement. “Like the pattern?”

“It’s amazing!” Sue gasped, eyes wide and only somewhat focused. “D-didn’t think it’d be so pretty...”

Solstice chuckled, “And this is one of the simpler, more pragmatic designs. I remember some people carving entire artworks on those, usually only one flap at a time. Some even had multiple flaps done like that, ending up turning into walking galleries until they needed a trim again. It was so pretty to look at, ah...”

“Aww!” Sue swooned at her mentor’s trip down the memory lane, finding it adorable.

Though, as she tried thinking about it, she realized Solstice’s own dress was completely plain, aside from having been trimmed for length. She considered bringing that up, but eventually erred on the side of not wanting to possibly aggravate any bad memories of her people.

Only for Lilly to err on the exact opposite side immediately afterwards. “This very pretty! Why you have not, Solstice?”

The older Forest Guardian paused mid-cut at the words, her body recoiling. She forcibly straightened herself back out with a deep breath, making both of the increasingly drunk women beside her regret the question. “It’s,” she began, her voice barely above a whisper, “it’s something you’re not supposed to do to yourself, only to others, a-and I’ve been trying to hold that tradition. I’m just happy that I finally can...”

If not for the careful procedure being done on her and the sharp knife it involved, Sue would’ve reached out to hold her mentor there and then. Instead, she limited herself to just a drawn out ‘awwwwh’ in between gulps, soon reaching the mug’s bottom.

“It’s alright, don’t you two worry,” the older Forest Guardian reassured, trying to shake her funk off. “Maybe once you have a moment, you could try your hand at this too, Sue~?”

Sue blinked, confused. “But, I-I don’t—”

“It doesn’t have to be complex,” her mentor reassured, with a hint of pleading. “Even a simple pattern along the edges has its beauty to it.”

Sue wasn’t really opposed to that idea, merely worried about possibly messing it up. And if that weight were to be removed, then… maybe? Heh, maybe she could even give those nicer patterns a stab, ha! Why not; she was feeling on top of the world! “Sure then! W-we could try tomorrow?”

“After we’re back?” Solstice asked, and her pupil firmly nodded. “I like the sound of that! Have any specific—”

“Oh?”

Astra’s surprised exclamation snagged Sue’s attention away from her mentor’s words. It was aimed at the stony, bipedal rhino that had just walked up to her. Sundance was too busy clearing her second mug to have noticed their arrival, forgetting to include them in her translation. Thankfully, the dragon’s side was enough to make the exchange’s subject clear. “What’s up, Bedrock?”

*grumble, grumble*

Astra blinked, tilting her head. “Am I free? Well, I’m looking after Joy and Comet right now, not really. Tomorrow? I’m not sure, I’ll have to hear from Root first. What do you have in mind?” she asked, oblivious.

*grumble… grumble grumble, grumble.*

“Aaahh…” she hissed nervously, fidgeting with her free paw. “Aww… sorry, Bedrock, I don’t think I’m interested, sorry!”

*grumble, grumble!*

“Oh, it’s alright. Well, good luck with your search!” she cheered, sighing in relief the moment the rhino had looked away from her.

To the stranger’s credit, they weren’t discouraged that hard by having been shot down again. The steady chanting coming from the next table over also helped, growing louder and louder as if to cover for their disappointment.

Sue and Lilly’s increasingly floaty attention was drawn to the large gray four-arms—the former’s increasingly cloudy mind barely fishing out the accompanying name of ‘Granite’ from the recesses of her memory—as he tried to down an entire mug of cider in one go.

The repetitive cheers turned out to come from the rest of the builders’ team, including the friendly blue rhino and, soon enough, the gray rhino once more. They spread to more and more tables and voices with Granite’s every gulp, including Kantaro, remaining quiet despite having sat right beside the four-arms. The beetle’s low, gravely voice carried the chants throughout the clearing, their contents becoming clear soon after—

C’mon, c’mon, c’mon, c’mon!

And Granite did not disappoint.

He growled triumphantly as he slammed the now emptied mug on the table, breaking it in twain as his growl turned into an elongated burp. Cheers and shouts turned into laughter in an instant, lighting everyone’s moods even further—Granite’s included.

The sound of another full mug getting set down made Sue grab it on autopilot and take a sip before calling out to the craftsbug, earlier curiosity creeping back to the forefront of her mind. “K-Kantaro!”

Hearing an even-cruder-than-usual approximation of his name made the beetle turn towards their table and the kinda-mute-but-not-really Forest Guardian that sat beside Solstice. He raised the bit of chitin that vaguely corresponded to an eyebrow, but didn’t speak up directly. The quickly thickening haze filling Sue’s mind lowered her inhibitions enough to let her blurt out, “What’s—what’s ya name meeeeean?”

His name might have been vaguely understandable, but the barrage of gibberish that followed it wasn’t in the slightest. Neither was his brief comment coherent for Sue, prompting her to take matters into her own mental hands.

She tried to repeat the simple ritual Solstice had taught her, the invisible mental reach making it all of three inches out of her skull before being forcibly stopped by a presence much, much stronger than itself. “^Best I handle this, Sue,^” Solstice chided, holding back giggling. “^We don’t want a repeat of the Basil incident now, do we?^”

Despite the Mayor’s intent, her ribbing hit Sue harder than intended, all the shameful worry that had accompanied that entire disaster immediately creeping back to the forefront of her mind. Before panic could grip her body once more, a sufficient distraction presented itself as Kantaro repeated, “What did you say?”

“O-oh I—” Sue shuddered, trying to keep a grip on herself, “—I was curious about your name! Wh-what’s it mean?”

“My name? Kantaro?”

The beetle’s pronunciation of his own name made it clear that the version everyone else in Moonview used wasn’t a translation. It was merely a very limited transliteration, missing no less than four distinct guttural sounds compared to how he pronounced it, with Sue having no hopes of ever pronouncing any of them short of a piece of food getting stuck in her throat.

She nodded firmly, “Yeah!”

The clarification didn’t get rid of all of Kantaro’s confusion, but now her question at least made sense. It was still rather banal, making him shrug, take a large swig of his mug, and finally respond, “I believe that in Moonview’s language, ‘Stone God’s Gift’ is an acceptable approximation.”

That’s a baller name.

Sue and Lilly only grew more interested, something that Kantaro neither expected nor particularly wanted to happen. The unintended implication perked his chitin shell up before he elaborated. “It was a common name in the colony I grew up in, I knew two other Kantaro while I lived there.”

“Why’dja—why did ya leeeave?” Sue asked, thoughts and words alike growing blurrier with every swig from her mug.

Even despite her incapacitated state, she could still sense the pang of darker emotions inside the craftsman’s mind at her words, filling her with worry—worry that was soon overcome thanks to Lilly’s continued affection on her front and shoulder, her pleasant warmth making Sue want to melt.

“It was many things,” Kantaro began, voice even flatter than usual. “My colony was a talented place, but deeply stifling and focused only on itself. At some point, I desired to create more, so much more than another variation of the same banal icon, and after hearing for the twentieth time about how good of a broodmother I would make, I had enough, and left there and then. I marched westward in a straight line for many a fortnight before stumbling on Moonview’s quarry, right as Granite was in the middle of cutting stone down to size.”

The four arms in question responded with a comment that had all of theirs and most of Sue’s table burst into laughter. Even Kantaro chuckled this time, following up, “I had to intervene, Granite; your technique was atrocious!”

This time, Sue had pieced together just barely enough context to laugh, too. A stray wisp of cold, evening wind made her hold Lilly much closer; the dancer’s warmth appreciated even without an accompanying heartbeat. And, of course, Spark didn’t hesitate to help too, nuzzling into her friend’s side the moment she spotted her shivering.

Kantaro continued, “Following that, I settled for good. Abundant material, welcome hospitality, exquisite food, inspiration for the subjects of my creations. What else is an honest worker to want?” he asked, his table cheering at his words.

Sue’s head swam as she tried to pet Spark back, inadvertently tickling Lilly’s side as the dancer asked, “And then stay until leave for pilgrimage?”

The beetle flinched at the question, the rest of his table looking at him with concern. Granite tried to reassure him with a couple of pats on the back of his head, behind his horn, until eventually, the craftsbug himself replied with a sigh. “It was no pilgrimage, Lilly, not the usual sort at least. Imagine…” Kantaro trailed off, absentmindedly carving a line into what remained of his table with one of his claws.

“Imagine a splinter. Underneath the shell, stabbing your side. At first, it’s tiny, but it grows with you and follows you everywhere, aching you at all times. Every time you look at your own reflection or someone even mentions you, it stabs your guts especially hard. Each time, it feels like there’s no reprieve.”

Kantaro took a deep breath, sorting his thoughts out before continuing, “I ran from my colony in part to get away from it. However, not long after I found Moonview, I realized it had followed me all the way here, and it hurt even more. It was so agonizing I was afraid to look down at myself lest I suddenly saw blood. I tried distracting myself from it, from my body. I gave my entire self to the Pale Lady; I worshiped Her through my efforts; I put up the two monuments—I had finally reached the pinnacle of my work, if for an instant, but the splinter was still there, still goring my insides every day. And the pain only grew.”

The builder’s table listened in silence, their expressions all various shades of concern. Most of them were familiar with the broad strokes of the tale because of having known Kantaro the entire time, but not with the exact details, how it all felt for him through it all.

“One day, I simply could not take it anymore. I ran before the brink of dawn, away from people, away from water, hoping that it would help, at last. And, to my horror, it did. That fact hurt unspeakably; I felt forced to choose between the ones closest to me and even a momentary reprieve, filled with fury at Fate for having stricken me with such torment. I thrashed blindly, felling timber around me in a blind rage…” Kantaro paused with a low chuckle, “and then; a tree fell on me.”

Oh fuck.

“Were you alright!?” Sue asked, subconsciously leaning in.

He swatted his arm off to the side. “Yes, yes. If the Gate desires me, it needs much more than merely a tree. It hurt greatly, still, but it snapped me out of the worst of my anger, and… broke most of my horn off. I shambled towards the nearest stream, wanting to assess the damage—and then I finally saw it, my reflection, with its broken horn. And to my utmost shock, the splinter was gone. I stared and pondered for hours, trying to make sense of it all, a sense of this sudden relief. Until, at last, the truth hit me harder than even that tree.”

Another sip gave him a moment to gather his bearings. His free hand reached up, feeling along the recently trimmed tip of his horn. “That splinter wasn’t a curse placed on me. It was a part of me, a part I could get rid of, a part I could carve away. And so I did, spending days whittling my horn down to its current shape, grinding through dozens and dozens of boulders. And it was all worth it, every single moment, for I was finally in the shape I should’ve been in all along. I was Kantaro no longer, now, I was Kantaro, and the pain had finally left.”

The difference between the two versions of seemingly the same word was subtle, differing only in parts Sue couldn’t pronounce, but it was still present all the same. Sue didn’t have the time to dwell on that for too long, especially not once Granite had yanked the craftsbug into a massive hug, the rest of his table joining in from all around afterwards. It was enough to make even his stoic voice waver as he finished, “And then I returned, formed anew, and was welcomed all the same.”

Sue couldn’t exactly tell what, but something in his story touched her deeply all the same, forcing a few stray tears down her cheeks. As she sat there, trying to think through it, the craftfolks’ table swerved towards a different topic, cutting her off from any more followup questions. She had dissolved enough of her restraints in her mug that she simply leaned on Lilly with all her weight, muttering to herself.

Lilly wasn’t bothered by her weight even slightly.

Sue’s increasingly blurry vision soon spotted the rest of her flaps having gotten trimmed in the meantime. She had no idea where all the trimmings had gone, but was glad for Solstice taking care of that unsightly mess all the same. “Th-that was so nice, o-oh—*hick*—oh goshhh...”

Her words growing increasingly incoherent had Lilly laugh louder and louder, whistled sounds only interrupted by an occasional hiccup. After barely managing to settle her mug on the table without knocking it over, Sue returned the favor, embracing the leafy girl with both arms. Spark’s warmth, Lilly’s arms petting her back, and an undefined amount of booze in her bloodstream all combined into a heap of comfort that threatened to turn Sue into a puddle. A very happy puddle.

Lilly tried to tease, “Is! Like you!” to which Sue mumbled something not even she could understand as she leaned further on the dancer.

The sensations of her front horn resting against Lilly’s side made Sue shudder, especially with her warm bliss becoming even easier to sense. She squirmed happily, humming to herself as she took a deep breath of the jubilant atmosphere. The giddy aroma Lilly carried with herself was even nicer than usual, convincing Sue to crane her head and take a sniff right at its source.

Oooh, that’s even better—oh, Lilly?

The leafy girl’s abrupt emotional shift was all the clearer to sense with how close she was. Brilliant glee, immense, stunned fluster, and then; a deluge of excitement. Her leafy arms held Sue that much firmer, that much harder, that much closer as she tried to speak, her efforts not going any further than Sue’s. All she managed was a drawn out, elated squeak, leaving the Forest Guardian equal parts enthused and amused. Sue broke into affectionate giggling as she reached to grab another mug—

“...which cup is that for you, Sue?” Solstice asked, her voice unusually keen.

Sue mumbled, “U-ughhhgh... th-third—HEY!” before her mentor’s telepathy forcibly yanked the mug out of her grasp.

Solstice’s expression was somewhere between concerned, impressed, and slightly tipsy itself as she stared at her pupil, raising her voice. “That’s more than enough for you today!”

“B-b-but it’s, it’s jhusht chider—” Sue slurred, feebly trying to protest.

“And~?” the Mayor chuckled, raising her eyebrow. “You can hardly even stand up right now.”

“That’sh nhot thrue—”

Fortunately, Spark’s continued presence on her lap, accentuated with giggling at her antics, stopped Sue an instant before she would’ve attempted to stand up, anyway. Instead, she reached down to give the lil’ firefox some more pets, with Solstice commenting on her doomed attempt shortly after. “I think it’s about time you got some rest, Sue.”

“Bhut I-I’m all ghood…” Sue insisted.

As much as she wanted to oppose Solstice’s judgment, Sue didn’t have the drive to do the same with Lilly’s. “She right Sue!” the dancer insisted, making her finally give up with a sigh. Lilly followed her words with gentle hair ruffling, helping her greatly with accepting such an unfair decision. The other Forest Guardian didn’t keep her amusement bottled up either, joining in on the affection with her tattooed arm, the blue dye striking in the surrounding lighting.

“F-fine, fine, fine...”

Solstice smiled, glad she didn’t have to argue any further. “Let’s get you back to the clinic now—”

“I help!” Lilly cut in, enacting her plan before either Sue or Solstice could react, effortlessly lifting her crush up into her arms. Spark was similarly taken aback, jumping off just in time as Sue’s mind tried to catch up with what was happening, the realization of how cute Lilly was from up close not helping in thinking straight either.

“Are you sure Lilly?” the Mayor asked, sensing just how inebriated the dancer was herself. “It’s really no problem—”

“I sure!” Lilly insisted, holding the almost-limp Forest Guardian in her arms that bit closer. “Can move Sue!”

Solstice’s eye roll told it all—still, she was in no position to butt into their little display of dorky affection. Before she sent them off, though, she made sure they would understand each other even once they had walked away. Sue felt something ticklish in the back of her head as her mentor pulled an extension of her mind out of her skull, her dulled thoughts finding the sensation funny—and so did Lilly’s once the link was established between them, neither of them any wiser.

“Alrighty then, suit yourselves,” the Mayor giggled, waving them both off. “Sleep well Sue, sleep well Lilly, may She keep your rest safe.”

Lilly nodded. “Night!”

“Byeeeeee…~” Sue trailed off. As she was being carried, she spared no goodbyes for everyone around.

Astra looked like she was on the brink of joining the sleeping baby martian and toothy girl in her arms. Sundance only barely held her laughter in, shooting Sue a wink that she was much too clumsy to even try returning.

The builders’ table was near unanimous in their amusement. Granite and the blue rhino pointed and laughed; Kantaro smiled despite his best effort; Bedrock gave them a wistful look before sighing and joining in on the chuckles. The brown pangolin chittered to themselves, massive claws covering their expression, and the red robot insect… exhaled through their nostrils and took another swig of the cider.

Poppy excitedly pointed them out while shaking Hazel’s shoulder, the distance making it hard to tell whether she was amused, excited, or both. The humanoid ladybug she and Solstice had grabbed food from a couple days back didn’t notice them passing by, but caught Sue’s attention by drinking on their own away from anyone else, regardless.

“How are you sho strong...” Sue mumbled, making Lilly break out into even more whistled giggling as they neared the clearing’s exit.

mIMWAoR.jpeg

By the lovely vk.com/art_meri!​


The sight on a nearby light pole caught her attention, even if she was in no state to think through its implications. In the place of one of the plentiful red-purplish fireballs hovered Crackle, without the bedsheet-like veil that kept his body obscured. The light blue flame at his core burned bright, but it wasn’t hurting her the way it apparently had back at Willow’s clinic, merely eye-catching as opposed to… soul-catching.

Despite his apparent harmlessness, Crackle didn’t remain uncovered like that for long, pulling his white shroud back over his body as he hovered off to the side of the light pole. Then, he pulled another of the magical fireballs that topped all the other light poles from underneath his disguise and placed it in his place before floating off further into Moonview, away from the evening chatter.

Such a pretty sky…

Moonview’s light pollution was thankfully weak enough for most stars to still be visible, especially further away from the clearing. A new Moon laid smack dab in the middle—at least if the circular, pitch-black hole in the stellar backdrop was any sign. Sue giggled, “Hehe, new Moon tonight...”

Lilly’s upward glance had her hold Sue even closer to herself. As much as she didn’t mind the action itself, she wasn’t sure what had caused it—at least, until the dancer herself explained, “No Moon, scary. Night people time. I protect!”

It made sense, considering what Sue had learned about Moonview, but… it still stung. “Nooo, they’re not scary,” she insisted, as serious as she could manage in her inebriation. “They won’t hurt us.”

Lilly paused, uncertain. “Think that Sue?”

“Yes! It’s sad they’re not here.”

The dancer was unsure how to respond, considering the night kin’s reputation. Though, if Sue said that, then there was probably merit to it. She was still keen to protect Sue should the need ever arise, but she no longer feared that Newmoon’s denizens would threaten her life—or at least, not as much.

One corner later, their brief trip had reached its end. Lilly kicked the door to Willow’s clinic open—hoping that she didn’t damage it too much—and carried Sue in, not letting go of the Forest Guardian until she was laid down on the bed, all snuggly and cozy.

And cozy Sue most definitely was. “Thank you so much, Lilly...”

“Thank for day, Sue!” Lilly beamed, sitting down on the edge of Sue’s bed. Her leafy arm reached out to grab her crush’s hand, only for her to hold it with both of hers, making the dancer squirm even more. “I... happy, happy happy.”

“M-me too, hehehe... i-it’s so soft here, and...” Sue trailed off, closing her eyes. Before she could get lost in all the bliss, though, a single remaining strand of coherent thought realized a very important omission in the room. “Oh, we left the crutch...”

The remark snapped Lilly out of her own daze, right before she could finish psyching herself into shooting her shot and laying down beside Sue. The dancer glanced around what she could make of the room, confirming the tool wasn’t there, before hopping off of the bed. “I grab and back!”

By the time Sue managed to nod in affirmation, Lilly was long gone. She was on her own again, focusing on trying to endure the arduous wait until the dancer got back—

And failing.


♪ B♭ F E♭ B♭ D. D. E♭- ♪

Sue’s impromptu jamming session was abruptly stopped as she blinked and finally came to. She stared at her mom’s guitar for a few moments, illuminated by the nearby campfire and stray starlight, and wondered. She’d never learned how to play it properly; her mom had only given her a couple of basic lessons—hell, she didn’t even know how to read sheet music! And yet, despite all that, she felt…

Oddly confident, as if everything was completely alright.

Before she could give that peaceful observation more thought, she noticed the shadowy figures in the corners of her vision, sending shivers down her spine. One of them sat on the spot she’d been waking up in her dreams previously, to her left, and the other sat to her right. Her attempt to investigate what they actually were once more ended in failure, the shadows gone as soon as they’d arrived.

The rest of the clearing was exactly how she’d remembered it, unaltered to the best of her ability to tell. Above her, the same new Moon as in the waking world, and two falling stars beside it.

For once, they haven’t messed with it.

The thought brought Sue some well-needed reassurance as she put the guitar away and stood up from her mom’s seat. Despite the surrounding serenity, her worries wasted no time before chiming in, their input rational if somewhat unwelcome.

No way I got thrown in here for no reason; there has to be a hitch.

There has to be something to demolish any hopes of this sacred memory being mine and mine alone ever again.

And, indeed, there was.

To give the responsible entity the credit it deserved—namely none—the alteration was respectfully distanced from the rest of the scene. The doorway loomed in the distance, far away from the campfire to be only barely visible. Still far from preferable, but Sue would live—not that she had a choice.

Despite the doorway and the downwards staircase on its other side being completely dark, Sue could still see them perfectly clear. By the time she’d descended the stairs, her surroundings were pitch black, any and all ambient light gone completely. And, with one last step, Sue found herself on an endless field underneath thousands upon thousands of stars, all awe-inspiringly beautiful—

“Greetings.”

It wasn’t her first time hearing Night Father’s low, gravelly voice, but it still made her jump.

He seemed to have gotten the same idea as her, observing the stars before His attention slowly shifted to her. His pronunciation was… weird, as if He had to utterly contort His voice to end up with something she could comprehend, but she appreciated being able to understand him all the same. “Wait, how—how do you speak my language?” Sue asked, dreamed-up heart calming down after his sudden appearance.

Even with the ability to speak English, though, it seemed He wasn’t particularly talkative.

“Effort.”

She had no choice but to accept the non-answer with a hesitant nod. “I… alright. Wh-why are you here, again?”

“Ideas.”

Sue blinked, raising her eyebrow. “...of?”

“Suspect.”

The record-breakingly curt answer immediately caught her attention, dreamed-up eyes going wide as she asked, “Do you have an idea who could’ve brought me here?”

“Several.”

Still better than no leads at all. “A-alright, what are they?”

Sue’s question made the imaginary field beneath them shudder as His blue eye closed in focus. He didn’t accomplish much beyond just startling her, though, with the dreamed-up earthquake ending soon after.

“Multiple exceed comprehension. Singular.”

If she hadn’t been so overwhelmed at this entire discussion taking place, she would’ve rolled her eyes. “One at a time, then. Who do you think i-is the most likely?”

“Dependent on death.”

Sue’s heart skipped a beat. “...m-mine?”

“Previous self.”

“Wh-what, no, I don’t—I don’t remember dying, or even b-being close to death. I-I’m…” Sue trailed off, thinking back to her health choices and regretting not eating as many veggies as she should’ve been. “I was young a-and healthy and all that...”

“Possibility.”

She sighed. “I-I guess... who did you have in mind first, then?” The moment she finished asking her question, Sue felt even stronger tremors than before, almost toppling her over immediately. They were coming from somewhere, making her look at its source—

IT was incomprehensibly large.

Golden scales decorated ITS lower limbs, blindingly bright in the light of ITS own glory. ITS quadruped body was made of purest marble and filled up the entire sky. The halo surrounding ITS head was too holy for her mortal senses to comprehend, forcing Sue to cower pitifully. An infinitely detailed lattice ran through ITS core, comprising golden threads, green gemstones—one of them being this very planet—and stone tablets carved with divine truths; Sue’s mortal eyes only perceiving them as colors.

“Demiurge. Hollow.”

Sue trembled pitifully under the god’s might, feebly trying to shield her body as she was forced down onto her knees. The few parts of her psyche that weren’t being utterly overwhelmed by the deity couldn’t recognize IT in the slightest—and there was no way in hell she would’ve ever forgotten a sight like that.

The realization made the dreamed-up deity dissolve into fog, letting Sue finally breathe again. “Wh-what the fuck was that,” she panted, lungs burning. “Was that fucking God!?”

“Equivalent.”

She might have just found the one weird trick for her homeworld’s churches to use if they ever complained about attendance rates. As profoundly overwhelming as that experience was, though, Sue knew they were nowhere near done. If there was even a chance she could finally figure out who did this to her, she was willing to go through more, so much more—especially with the prospect of returning to her normal life on the line. “O-okay, who else?” she asked.

Her eagerness took the Night Father aback. He did the closest thing possible to lifting an eyebrow up as He stared at her, remaining expressionless. Before long, though, His focus returned to the task at hand; the dreamscape rumbled once more while the next deity manifested Itself—and immediately undid all physical distance between It and Sue, Its scarlet eyes staring her down.

Its body was made of stars and super-heated metal, their combined white and ultraviolet glare burning itself into her dreamed-up eyes. Despite being magnitudes smaller than the first one, It felt no less holy. Even the slightest movements of Its colossal arms distorted the land and sky around them, the dimension of space warbling under Its mere presence.

“Sculptor. Cautious, unlikely.”

The spatial deity was gone as soon as It had appeared. As her dream returned to the mostly featureless emptiness from before, Sue processed what she just saw, thankfully taking the mind-bending sight better this time. “Was th-that a god of light—”

“Space. Presence.”

“Space,” she nodded, breathing deeply. “O-okay.”

Night Father didn’t comment on her misunderstanding on His answer. She had no recollection of Sculptor’s influence either way, and of all the suspects, It was by far the least likely to have threatened the stability of the fabric of reality to begin with.

Once she’d gotten a grip on herself again, Sue asked once more, “Wh-what next?”

“Gate. Return.”

A cacophony of murmurs filled the heavens immediately, bringing her gaze up at the sky.

The first deity’s sky-spanning body comprised three fleshy, crimson arms, with a bloodied, grayish plume sprouting from where they connected, and from it, a tiny, low-hung head. Black veins bulged out of Its limbs as they held a colossal portal open, Its tremors making the immense strain of Its duty abundantly clear. Legions of tiny, white sprites flowed into Its portal, pouring in from beyond the reaches of Sue’s mind, each of them whispering about the demise they had met, be it with grief, fear, or relief.

The sight occupying the opposite end of the horizon was similarly massive. The second deity’s immense, rainbow-studded wings rained sacred fire with Its every flap, Its shrill cry bringing indescribable warmth to Sue’s soul as It crossed the sky. Each tiny ember Its wings shed turned out to be one of the white sprites, swaddled in seven-colored flames. As they fell, the flames caressing them turned back into flesh, in an uncountable myriad of forms—some of them even familiar.

“Inevitable cycle.”

“A-are these the d-dead—” Sue whimpered, awestruck.

“Correct.”

“Wait, d-do you mean that I-I died and ended up here—”

“Death, rebirth, identical. Possibility.”

This world certainly wasn’t like any afterlife Sue had ever imagined, her mind giving preference to the ‘rebirth’ possibility. Though, when it came down to it, was there any difference between the two when put like that? Either of them required that she had died back on Earth, the realization chilling her to the core—especially with the loud bang she could just barely recall before she ended up here.

Regardless of how much less improbable this idea sounded compared to interference by a deity further up on the divine pecking order, the evidence for it wasn’t there. After a few moments, Sue forcibly let go of that idea for the time being, even if just to hear the rest out. “I—I see,” she whispered. “Not impossible I guess, but...”

Right before Sue could throw herself into being overwhelmed or hurt once more, her thoughts veered in a very different direction. She’d been assuming that the deity beside her had been benevolent in His investigation, but… what if that wasn’t true? What if He’d just been trying to cover His tracks?

She turned towards Him, eyes narrowing. “What—what about you?”

His single eye stared blankly at her at the question. Moments dragged on as silence returned to Sue’s dream, making her worry that she’d both got it right and wouldn’t leave unpunished because of—

“Incapable.”





Yeah, I’m not buying that.

“Aren’t you a god, too?” Sue insisted.

“Half.”

The word made the once-human think back to her chat with Sundance earlier in the day. Him being a ‘half-god’ would make sense since Duck is apparently one, too. “A half-god?”

“One of two.”

Sue blinked at the clarification, guessing uncertainly, “One half of a god?”

“Correct.”

“Is… She the other half?” she asked.

The dark deity didn’t verbally answer, nodding his plume of a head before turning His attention skyward, at the uncountable stars gracing the ceiling of Sue’s imagination. She didn’t remember seeing a moon there earlier, but supposed it only made sense for it to be there—

And then half the sky moved, together with the moon itself; stars whizzed across as if they’d been painted on the surface of wings spanning from horizon to horizon. Sue could only stare, uncertain whether her own senses had played a joke on her or not. She sure hoped it was the former, at least.

“Continue?”

Sue blinked, snapping herself out of her daze. “Uh, sure. Wh-who’s next?”

Deep silence shrouded the dreamed-up clearing at her question, snuffing out any and all ambiance. Night Father’s eventual answer pierced the quiet, but sounded impossibly distant, like it was fading away,

“Grief...”

Before Sue knew it, she was surrounded by dense, pale fog. Salt in the air stung her eyes as she tried to make sense of what was happening. “Wh-what’s, where are you—”

“Sue?”

M-mom?

Her mother’s voice froze the once-human where she stood, face contorting into a gasp as she faced the origin of the sound. There she was, she was right there, alive and just as pretty as she was the last time Sue had seen her! Her expression brightened at seeing her daughter again, even if she looked so, so very different now.

“Sue! My goodness, how much you’ve grown!”

“MOM!”

Everything else can wait, has to wait, MOM!

This wasn’t just some memory; she was here; she was real; she was alive! Sue ran towards her mom, every step filling her with more and more happiness. Tears of joy ran down her face as her mom opened her arms for a hug, the girl closing her eyes as she prepared to take it—

Only for pitch-black tentacles to shoot past her and wrap tightly around her, stopping her in place.

Sue thrashed against His influence, wailing in grief once He began to forcibly drag her back. She was mere feet away from someone she thought she’d lost for good, the pain of being torn away from her again making her want to scream.

LIAR!

And then; Sue finally saw It.

A black, shriveled body slumped inside a spiked purple shell. Sea foam hair flowed down Its face, sparse and tattered as Its opalescent, hopeless eyes stared straight through Sue. Sue choked up before painfully coughing the joy she had felt bloom inside her out of her lungs. The sheer quantity of murky brine that had left her mouth formed a small puddle underneath her as she cried in pain.

“Broken.”

Sue shambled away from where her mom’s image and the cruel deity had manifested Itself, the fog that accompanied It long gone. All the sensations she had to relive in these few moments made her want to cry, to break down like a baby at having to relive her loss once more—but she couldn’t.

Not now, not yet.

“H-how many left...” she whimpered, tears streaking down her face.

“Two. Chaotic. Unpredictable. Inexcludable.”

Okay, I can manage two, I can do this…

“Okay…” she scrunched her face, trying to shake her grief off. “N-next then.”

For once, nothing happened right away. Sue tried to look around for any changes to her surroundings, but only found Night Father standing in the exact same spot as before, staring blankly at her.

“Certain?”

Of course not. “No, but... what other choice d-do I have?” she asked, her voice somewhere between accusatory and despondent.

The dark deity considered her words for a few moments before closing His eye once more.

The scene that awaited Sue right behind her shoulder was stunningly beautiful. A vast field of blooming pink flowers and fluttering butterflies, all of them facing the figure in the center. She couldn’t see much of it, but what she made out was similarly gorgeous. A massive shell, covered with incredibly intricate etchings, pinks, reds, blacks and whites, combining to depict life in all its forms and vividness. She took a step closer to take a better look—

“Cruelty.”

Suddenly, the shell creature turned around, and everything turned to suffering.

The force of nature locked eyes with Sue, obliterating her mental defenses and flooding her mind with visions of pain. Nails driven into her eyes, joints forcibly twisted the other way, her insides doused in acid, her head burning alive—bringing her until the brink of death, right in front of the Gate, but never further. The deity of death barred her from escaping, bringing her back to health only to torture her again, and again, and again, and again—

Sue shrieked and ran, her mind reduced to its basest of impulses as she felt her body be mangled.

By the time she could think again, her throat had worn itself dry from the involuntary screams, agony leaving her thrashing on the grassy floor of the dreamscape, completely unharmed. Shouts gave way to whimpers as suffering finally receded from her mind, left only with sorrow and trauma.

I can’t do it; I’m too weak; I’ll never make it out of here. This world, these deities, they’re too evil, I can’t…

It felt like an eternity had passed before Sue could do anything but sob and shake. Night Father stood over her, making her spit out in anger, “Wh-why did you do this to me—”

“Incorrect.”

“Y-you brought that fucking thing in here!” she shouted.

“Divine. Uncontrollable.”

“I-it’s,” she snarled, “It’s just an illusion—”

“Fragment. Divine.”

Sue had no idea if He was bullshitting her, but by that point, she didn’t care anymore. All she wanted was to storm out of this nightmare and never see Him or other deities again, to spend the rest of her days in this world, figuring out a way back through regular, not-divine means.

Even if she knew as well as He did it was naught but an agonized, impossible fantasy.

“Final. Harmless.”

Sue couldn’t tell whether His words were a promise or a reassurance, but she didn’t care either way. She was about to ask Him to do away with all this and let her go—but she was too late.

“Caprice—”

“No, fuck this, fuck you! I’m, I’m not looking!” she shrieked, turning away from Him and storming off. And indeed, she didn’t look, trying her absolute hardest to not pay attention to the squeaky, androgynous voice that had spoken up behind her. The way It enunciated its words sent a deep, frightful shiver down her back.

Night Father’s final remark made Sue want to throw hands as she continued her hissy fit of a march, only speeding her steps up.

“Very. Annoying.”

Fuck you too.

Part of her wondered how the hell was this dream still ongoing with how much suffering she’d experienced. She tensed up at the thought, fear mixing with hope of finally getting a reprieve from it all—

Destiny, however, had different plans.

A fluttering sheet of paper floated into Sue’s peripheral vision before cutting her path off. She wanted to tear it to shreds there and then—but the glimpse of its contents stopped her in her tracks.

Don’t turn around.

The elegant, silver-inked cursive reminded Sue of what she saw in her previous dream, the accompanying mental image of her own gravestone sending an icy chill through her body as her breathing grew shallow. She was afraid to shift her gaze anywhere else, muttering her words directly at the piece of paper. “Wh-who are you?”

A stray gust made the page thrash hard enough to let her spot more writing on its other side. With a deep breath, Sue flipped it around, bracing herself for what she might see.

An ally.

“An ally? Wh-what do you mean—which of these unholy things are you!?” she shouted, gripping the page tight.

After flipping the page again, the previous message was replaced with a drawing that defied comprehension.

A silver octahedron was depicted on the tattered page with a mathematical precision, looking more like a platonic ideal of a shape rather than a mere drawing. It was perfectly Ordered and slowly rotated when watched, its shining surface mesmerizing.

You may call me JUSTICE.

“Justice. Okay,” she sighed, stunned by the drawing. “What—what did you mean b-by us being allies?” she continued to ask, flipping the page over with each question.

We share a goal.

Her face narrowed. “Goal? Wh-what are you talking about?”

We both want to make the being who’d done this to you suffer and pay.

The words gave Sue a pause, her breaths growing shallow. “Do you know who th-that is?”

Yes.

“Who is it then!?” Sue raised her voice, almost tearing the page as she flipped it again.

Another scribble awaited her there, this one much more headache inducing. A golden line twisted and thrashed into shapes unknown and unknowable, writhing on the page with enough speed to render the result little more than a blur. Chaos incarnate.

She wanted to cry. “That’s not—THAT’S NOT AN ANSWER!” she shrieked.

It’s as much of an answer as I can presently give. Idiot covered Its tracks well.

Sue screamed in frustration at being denied the truth yet again. She was about to crumple the page up into a small, tight ball, before seeing a new message—

I would not advise that.

“Why did you contact me like this if you won’t even tell me anything that’s going on!?” she glared at the piece of paper with all the fury she could muster.

I have a plan to ensure Its compliance.

Sue shook in place. “Compliance!?”

It promised you a way home. I can make sure that comes to pass, and make It pay.

The mixture of anger and pain finally loosened its grip on Sue’s psyche as she considered the words. Regardless of anything else, the offer of getting out of this hellish world and back to Earth was very alluring, especially right now. Right as she was about to agree, though, a stray, bitter thought crossed her mind again, “Will it even matter if I say no?”

She hesitated for a while after asking. She knew deep down what the answer was inevitably going to be, but was afraid to face it, waiting until she had caught her breath before flipping the page once more—confirming her fears.

No.

Of course. Of fucking course I’m just playing into another deity’s sick fucking game.

“What do you want me to do?”

For now, nothing. Continue as you did. Before my plan can come to pass, Its plan must be accomplished first. Before the trap can be sprung, we need the—

Before Sue could finish reading the sentence, a louder call coming from that same squeaky, androgynous voice she heard earlier made her look over her shoulder out of reflex—

And wake up back at Willow’s clinic, the air reeking faintly of brine.



If you're confused about the species of the characters and want them spoiled, I've set up a page listing the species of all the featured characters in each chapter!

If you want to discuss the story, I've set up a Discord server for it! (and my other writings)

Also check out my other story, From the Vast!
 
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Interlude I: Remembrance

redspah

the gay agenda
Pronouns
she/her


Interlude I: Remembrance



Nearly there.

The skies were filled with roars of thunder from the distant storm, serving as constant reminders to keep moving. The unpredictable currents surrounding what remained of the archipelago were vicious in their temperament, thrashing aimlessly through the ocean with their master long gone.

Guarding the eternal grave of the people who once lived there.

Their name was all but forgotten to mortal beings. Only a few coastal-dwelling civilizations had ever established trade routes with them, and of those that still existed, most regarded their existence as naught more than an ancient fable; a parable of an island kingdom swallowed by the ocean for their hubris and defiance of their deities.

Even that was but a light-spirited anecdote compared to the truth.

What were once splendid beaches of marble-white sand were now little more than swaths of salt and ash, swaddled in a lifeless miasma that preserved the bones of the slaughtered, dooming them to keep their hands clasped in prayer for eternity. Prayer to the very beings that had ended their lives many centuries ago.

As much as her body screamed for rest after many hours of flight, the Windrider knew better than to disturb the island with her physical presence. Their selves might have been gone, but the deep bond between the hallowed ground and its once-guardians remained powerful, even if the latter were naught more than still-moving corpses.

Thankfully, her destination wasn’t too far away, and after a few moments of meditation, she continued further inland. Her golden eyes scanned the ruins of forests and settlements alike in search of anything that stood out as she flew, just like she’d done hundreds of times in the past. There was less and less to be found each time.

What hadn’t burned down slowly eroded in the briny air. The beautiful wooden sculptures this island was especially known for had decayed into little more than featureless hunks of dried kindling, awaiting their turn to be on the receiving end of the endless storm’s wrath. Back in the day, she would spend days simply absorbing the beauty of this place, natural and crafted alike, with the depictions of its four guardians taking up a large and deserved part of the latter.

Valor.

Love.

Bloom.

Passage.

Names long lost to time, and to themselves.

The thought stung more than even the salty, smoke-filled air, forcing the Windrider to compose herself lest her tears disturbed the island underneath her. It was far from her first time here, inside the charred carcass of the jewel of the ocean, but the suffering that underlaid the gruesome sights never got easier to process, to reconcile with what she remembered of Her. What she remembered of them all.

Their courage.

Their kindness.

Their patience.

Their wisdom.

They weren’t proud of their pasts, of what they once were, of the many mistakes they had made over the millennia—out of haste, out of thoughtlessness, even out of cruelty. Even at their lowest, even when they still were as wild and ferocious as their still-untamed islands, they cared deeply about the islanders’ wellbeing.

With time, the life that filled these dense forests and craggy cliffs became a part of something larger than itself, soul by soul. Something destined for so much more than a hasty death at the hands of whichever predator found itself hungry that day.

And as the islanders grew, their deities followed. Prayer by prayer, ceremony by ceremony, the four siblings shed more and more of their savage natures, their followers’ faith shaping them from guardians of the land to guardians of the people, their civilization growing ever brilliant with each passing season.

The Windrider still remembered her first visit to this enchanted land, to what those that visited it had described as heaven. The deep truths of philosophy and geometry the islanders had discovered and were eager to share with anyone who would listen, their unending hospitality, their joyous songs, elaborate rituals, and exquisite delicacies. Reminiscing the latter made her exhaustion sting that much more acutely, as did the contrast between her memories and the surrounding reality.

As did thinking back to the day of her discovery of the islands’ destruction.

One moment, she was racing across the azure waves to visit old friends. The next, flying above tens of thousands of dead, above unending wildfires, above the charred, dismembered remains of an island-wide celebration. She screamed, she wept, she called for anyone still alive amongst the carnage—and found what was once Love. If not for her kin’s swiftness, she would’ve died there and then. Died to what had once been her close friend and mentor, turned malicious and yet utterly hollow; not a thought emanating from Its shell as It tortured her with torment unimaginable.

For the longest time, the dragon assumed that an evil force had possessed them all. Possessed and drove them to commit unspeakable atrocities, before leaving their islands for good. There was no other explanation she could think of that came close to explaining the harrowing change that had occurred in even one of them, let alone all four.

It was only recently, relatively speaking, that she finally learned of what transpired here. Of the unimaginab