TsuYa found himself trapped inside the dark chamber of his dreams once more. The same dull grime blanketed the floor. The same dark lumps of decay slumped in the far corner. The scent of stale blood and suffering filled his senses, making them writhe.
The same eerie mechanism stood in the center of the room. The silver light burning from the orb was brighter than he remembered. Larger and more intense. The feeling of dread was more powerful than before.
This is only a dream, right?
It was only a dream the first time, too. Except for the burning in his chest, and the patch of darkness that appeared on his skin afterward. How he fell into the terrible illusion a second time, he didn’t know. But, he wasn’t going to wait around for the same thing to happen again.
Okay, I’ve got to think about this. There must be some way of waking up.
Now knowing it was some sort of dream, he could approach the situation with a bit more logic. After taking a few deep breaths of tainted air to ground himself and clear the jitters in his mind, TsuYa balled his fists at his sides with determination
Tossing away caution in search of the exit, TsuYa made his way around the strange machine. He kept his distance from the orb and its silvery light. His senses told him that whatever was going on here, whatever was being developed in the orb-machine, was done so at the hands of something very vile.
The floor under his feet crackled and flaked away as he stepped through dried black patches on the tile. Both of his palms spread wide as he pressed his hands along the cold stone of the wall. He could only feel the slick solidity of the darkness and nothing more.
With a frustrated sigh, he turned to make his way around the orb-machine to the other end of the room. That was when his eye caught a pale glimmer rippling within the depths of the machine’s smaller, dark capsule. TsuYa felt his throat constricting as his gaze locked on the unknown.
Is there something inside?
A small, round window was built into the back side of the capsule. He didn’t see it before coming to this side of the room, but now that TsuYa was aware of it, he couldn’t terrible flights of imagination scattered through his mind.
One small window. A pale glimmer of white within.
I don’t want to see this…
His thoughts didn’t change his direction. TsuYa was already moving forward in a slow, deliberate crouch, like a creature getting ready to pounce. Or run.
I really don’t want to see this…
The drumming of his heart grew in intensity as he crept closer. Revulsion grappled with fascination. The stale air of the chamber already choked him. The tell-tale sign of chest burning was beginning.
All logical thought fragmented away as his eyes focused on the tiny window in the back of the capsule. His stomach churned with the threat of illness. His hands began to shake, though the rest of him was frozen, rooted in nauseous horror.
A pale white face stared out from the capsule window.
She couldn’t have been much older than twenty passes – about AsaHi’s age. Her eyes were open wide, staring vacantly into nothing. The pupils had shrunk into tiny black points within a vibrant ring of green. Long white hair swayed through the capsule’s clear liquid to the motion of induced breathing. Her face had once been soft and attractive…
…but now it seemed as if the features of the girl were melting, like she was being drained, fed off of. Her flesh was sapped of color, waxy and swollen. Her body illuminated pale silver, like the light that shown from within the globe. Her eyes were the only thing that still held color.
A choking wave of illness gripped TsuYa’s body. The burning within his chest grew more acute, though he hardly felt it for the overwhelming waves of nausea. Fighting to regain his breath, TsuYa ripped his eyes away from the window. He tried to move. To struggle backwards. Away. Between the retching reflex that shook his entire body and the fire that had engulfed his lungs, he found himself forced to his knees.
No! Not this again!
His voice ruptured the death-silence. It came as a raspy, animal-like sound, “Someone please! Help me!”
A sudden pain cut his cry short — a sharp sting on his cheek. His head jolted back from the unseen force, one arm raised as if to defend himself. The sting came again, this time from the other side. TsuYa gasped, reeling back, his eyes fighting for focus, the world blurred as if being seen through the distortion of dark water.
Then the vision of the terrible room tore away as the dream world shattered within his mind. TsuYa blinked, trying to get a grip on his surroundings.
JouKa stood over him with one hand raised, ready to slap him again. Both sides of his cheeks were already aglow with the flush of her abuse.
As he focused on her, she slowly lowered her hand, “Finally…”
Daylight streamed into his eyes, burning his vision with golden brightness. The quiet sounds of the sky island wove around him, mingled with the scent of warm grass and dozing flowers. A blur of misty clouds meandered in the distance, a slight breeze teasing through JouKa’s short-cropped hair. TsuYa could now feel the rough bark of a tree behind him, where he must have fell asleep to the lull of the hazy afternoon.
“You always like to slap people around when they’re sleeping?” TsuYa grumbled at her, trying to hide the relief he felt in seeing her face.
“If you call that sleepin’…” JouKa’s eyes watched him with a wary expression, something remotely akin to concern. He could only wonder what she had seen or heard. “Yer not supposed to be dozin’ off when watchin’ over Suzume.”
“I know,” he sat up with a quiet groan, running his hand along the side of his face and fighting to find his breath. He wished he could find some off-color retort at that moment. Nothing but weakness filled his mind. “Where is she?”
“SaRa took her back to the compound,” JouKa replied, peering down at the grass around her feet. After a long moment of silence she peered up and murmured, “Do all Neffies sleep with their eyes wide open?”
“What?” TsuYa wrinkled his brow.
“You were sittin’ there, starin’ off into the sky,” JouKa spoke slowly, seeming somewhat shaken. “I didn’t know if it was just somethin’ weird your kind do. But then yer face started to change, like you were seein’ all kinds ‘o stuff you didn’t wanna be lookin’ at. And you were holdin’ yer chest like you were about to die! So when you shouted out, I came over and obliged you with a slap-around. It took a few to bring you outta it and… ”
JouKa’s words faded in mid-statement, her face growing mystified as he peered down at the open front of his shirt. Sometime during his dream he must have mimicked his own motions in the waking world — one hand was clutched tightly over the dark patch of skin.
“What’s that?” she reached for his arm.
“Nothing,” he growled.
“Are you hurt?” JouKa gripped his arm tightly, as if to pull it away.
“No, leave me alone!” he snapped. “Don’t touch me!”
She blinked, startled by the unusual ferocity in his voice. Then she continued to press, “Come on, big cry-baby. If you’ve banged yerself up, let’s get a look at–”
TsuYa jerked his arm from her grasp, sharply enough to break her train of thought. That’s when he realized his mistake. He moved his hand, and now JouKa’s eyes were fixed on the grey patch of skin on his chest.
His hand itched to pull the laces of his shirt back together, as if the mark on his chest was some terrible secret to keep from the entire world. Pride left his hands where they were, shirt front open.
“What are you staring at?” his voice grated darkly. Angry at everything.
The look in her green eyes and the pressing silence spoke plainly that she didn’t know the whole story. But she could figure out enough.
It’s not like she could understand. Light, I don’t even know what’s happening to me!
Nothing remained but the desperate, angry suppression of the fear that threatened to overrun his life. The lost feeling that there was no one in the world who could help him. That this would continue until he was consumed.
How can I tell anyone? They’ll cast me off the Island, to the Marked. Or lock me up in a little chamber so I don’t hurt anyone.
Finally he did pull the laces of his shirt closed, head turning from the intensity of her gaze. Fighting back the predatory despair that circled him, coming closer each pass.
What did I ever do to deserve this? It was just one mistake…
He tilted his head back against the tree trunk, peering away into the sky.
Just one mistake!
JouKa didn’t speak. She didn’t move. She simply stood there, watching him from the other side of the cold wall he built between himself and everyone else.
I didn’t even know that it was Zerom!
He drew in a ragged breath, trying to calm himself. He couldn’t do this there. Not where the world watched him.
I just wanted to do what was right for the School… I swear, Father! I just wanted to do what was right…
“TsuYa,” she finally spoke. “Yer in trouble, aren’t ya?”
“Just leave me alone,” his voice hissed from between his lips. “I don’t need your help.”
JouKa weighed her words. Then she told him sternly, “You lie.”
She said nothing more beyond that. Wrapped within the silence of her wings, the girl simply sat down on the other side of the tree. Close enough so that TsuYa was not absolutely alone. Yet, far enough to leave him to his tortured silence.