[RO] [M] there's no hidden meaning; there's no secret message

WARNING: This thread contains material exceeding the general board rating of PG-13. It may contain very strong language, drug usage, graphic violence, or graphic sexual content. Reader discretion is advised.

Specifically, this thread is marked mature because of: a quick murder and questionable dealings with dead bodies.

31 October 2017

Cassandra breathed deliberately, drawing in long, slow breaths and exhaling them in turn. She listened carefully. Her heartbeat slowed. A silence and stillness prevailed in the night.

The slain couple bled out in sync with her heartbeat; the flow of blood split into new streams and tributaries with each beat, dark against the grey concrete. The tiny rivers pooled in the edges against the curb, but the flow slowed before they could reach any drains.

When her breathing steadied again, Cassandra stood and sighed, wiping a hand on her cloak, which was filthy again. Pointless aggression; pointless death. They could've left her alone and it would've been fine, but it always ended up like this instead — or at least, the better days ended like this.

The other ones left her injured and in hiding, sometimes with lost possessions and harrowing near-misses with death or captivity or worse.
Unbidden, she flicked an ear towards a nearby building, and in the next moment, there came from within a small, high-pitched cry. Cassandra stood still.

The cry came again, accompanied by another. The two squeaks rang out together, pitiful, whimpering.

The pallid hybrid strode towards the noise, stepping carefully through the long-destroyed wood door of the crumbling brick building. Inside was the smell of dust, mold, and weedy grasses. She did not have to go far before finding a nest of dirty blankets and furs near the back of the building, in the furthest room from the door.

There were two pups, both mostly black and white, perhaps two or three weeks old.

Cassandra felt a slow wave of panic course through her. Were they old enough to survive without milk?

She didn't have many other cohesive thoughts as she gathered the pair into her still-bloody arms. They seemed to struggle a little, perhaps uncertain of the unfamiliar scents, but their voices quieted all the same.

One of them took a few licks of the blood on her, which had apparently belonged to its parents. Cassandra did not feel guilt or obligation, but somehow, even before she had entered the building, she'd known, and she'd known that she would save them, if she could.

The other pup eventually found its way to a breast, but there was nothing for it there. Cassandra barely felt the tiny teeth against her skin, but nudged the child away, regardless. It squeaked again and tried to return to it, but Cassandra nudged it away again.

Were they old enough to survive without milk?

It was the only thing she could not provide for them.

The hybrid looked around the room for something to carry the pups in, but there was nothing. Setting the pups back into their nest for a moment (to a new chorus of frustrated squeaks), she removed her cloak and plucked out the cleanest blanket she could find from the pile.

After testing the makeshift sling a few times to ensure that it was secure, she placed the two pups inside and reattached her cloak. With the bundle resting somewhere between her hip and the small of her back, the pups were completely shielded from view — though their tiny voices could still be easily heard.

Cassandra did not intended to spend the night in her victims' home. As she stepped outside though, her pale eyes swept over the two bodies again.

She considered a moment, then approached the dead woman.

Kneeling next to her, Cassandra flipped her onto her back and tore open her useless shirt. Pulling out one of the (woman's) children, she set it near a breast. It squeaked and wriggled, shivering a little in the cold, but eventually latched onto the teat — and drank. Cassandra then drew out its sibling and set it near the opposite breast.

Eventually, when they had both had their fill, Cassandra returned them to her sling.

Her horse had wandered off a short distance and was grazing in a patch of tall grass about two blocks away. She retrieved a jar from the saddle bags and emptied it of its contents, then went back to the fresh corpses.

Methodically, she drained the woman of whatever milk she had left before abandoning the grisly scene at last.

Were the pups old enough to survive without milk?

Well, they wouldn't have a choice after tomorrow.

She didn't remember puppies being so tiny, but when was the last time she had been around any? Myrika's litter was a thousand years ago.

Nestled against her chest for warmth, both continued to seek out her small breasts, trying for milk. After a while, Cassandra stopped directing them away and let them suckle uselessly, despite the discomfort of their tiny teeth.

She'd heard before that women who weren't nursing themselves could sometimes produce milk in times of need, but she doubted it was true. Most likely those women had been recently nursing, or were pregnant, and she was neither.

Were they old enough to survive without milk?

There was nothing she could do about it, if not. If she had left them with their dead parents, they'd have been dead sooner, so didn't she deserve some credit for trying?

She didn't have to kill the parents, but she didn't regret it, either.

If the pups died, then they died. That was all.

In retrospect, it had been foolish to assume otherwise, but Cassandra had not anticipated that nearly all her brainspace would be occupied by the mewling whelps in the following weeks.

They ate regurgitated meat, but very slowly, and with clear effort. They probably needed milk. They certainly needed milk. But what could she do? They continued to suckle, and her body continued to be dry.

Once or twice, she'd thought idly of finding some pregnant or nursing woman and trading for aid, but then she thought of killing such a woman, which would make the interaction less horribly awkward, but the benefit far more brief. Cassandra sneered at herself. If that imaginary victim also had suckling babes, then what? Would she adopt another litter of orphans of her own making?

She wondered if other creatures' milk would do, but spring was seasons past and the idea of finding and killing a nursing deer seemed too daunting. Did foxes whelp in the fall? She had no idea.

There weren't any other options.

Cassandra laid on her side, watching the two pups nose into their messy meal of half-digested rabbit for the evening.

They were both black and white with areas of tiny spots which seemed together to make a bigger spot; they were doggish markings, but both had sharp, pointed ears, like a coyote. Cassandra had already forgotten what their parents had looked like; it had been dark, and she hadn't cared.

It wasn't impossible that pups she bore herself could look like these though. They had blue eyes, as all puppies did, but she hoped they stayed blue, like her sister and mother.

Eventually, the pups tired from eating, though Cassandra could not tell if they were truly satiated. She finished their leftovers and carried them over to the roots of a large oak. Curling up with them against the November chill, she pulled her cloak over the three of them. With luck, they'd sleep through the day, and she wouldn't have to squint too much in the daylight to tend to them, but she wasn't counting on it.

To her relief, the pups seemed to adapt quickly to eating soft, pulpy, regurgitated meat. Held against her chest, they still nosed around for her breasts and cried for milk, but they did not seem to have weakened for the lack of it.

Their eyes opened when they were awake, but they were squinty and pale, and Cassandra assumed they still couldn't see well. A part of her worried that perhaps they couldn't see at all, but she remembered that her sister's children had acted the same when they were young, too.

The pups were growing, so she supposed they would survive, after all.

Some part of her apparently hadn't anticipated this, though, and a dull panic curled in the pit of her stomach as they began to try their voices at words.

Was she going to teach them to call her mother?

It was a farce. She didn't belong in this role. How could she raise them? It was difficult enough to fend for herself. They would become liabilities, the more they grew, pieces of her that were vulnerable and weak and exposed.

It was strange to talk to them, aloud. At times, Cassandra had gone weeks without speaking to anyone real. Sometimes she would say something to her horse, but the mare was old and compliant enough that it generally wasn't necessary. Her thoughts were endless, but they only bounced around in her head. It was a surprise to hear her own voice, too often.

But now the pallid woman was mumbling all the time at the pups, telling them off for crawling in the wrong direction or not eating enough of their meals. She chastised them, though she knew they couldn't understand, and asked them questions she knew they couldn't answer. She felt stupid doing it, but she continued all the same.

She had decided to call them Fiction and Soliloquy, which were perhaps unkind names, but they were words she liked, and she thought they were horribly fitting for her situation.

This was not a situation she had ever planned to be in, and she didn't know that she wanted to settle into it, but it seemed far too late for that.

Maybe she should've left them to die, after all. Would they wish she had, if it turned out she was a horrible mother? And how could she be anything but?

"It's better I didn't give birth to you," she muttered, tucking them carefully into the roots of another tree on another night. "My family blood is filled with madness and abandonment, apparently."

Of course, theirs could be as well. It was likely that that curse cursed everyone's blood. Lykoi was not unique. And Asylum couldn't contain anything so fundamental. Their names were just a prayer her father had whispered into the night.

"You'll probably grow up to be horrible," she said. "Just like your parents, just like me, just like everyone else."

Cassandra took extra care to avoid areas with even the smallest sign of canine claim, and luckily, the swath of wilderness she was currently in made that relatively easy. Perhaps that was why the dead couple had been so eager to try and extort and rob her — there wasn't anyone else around for miles, and her saddlebags were so full, there must have been valuables there, right?

In the mornings and evenings, while her horse grazed and she hunted, she would hide the bundle of pups in a tree, carefully hidden by foliage and well out of reach of any common predator. After a few weeks though, it became clear that their growing size, weight, and general feistiness made this increasingly dangerous.

The pups could not yet speak, but their vocalisations had become more nuanced and varied. Their eyes were fully open now, and they seemed to understand a little of what she said to them — though speaking to them was still something she was adjusting to.

Cassandra took to leaving the pair by thickets and fallen logs while she hunted, leaving behind a bag they could use as an anchor and reminder to not wander too far. She warned them of the world's many, many dangerous in gruesome detail, though they probably still didn't understand.

They traveled east by the days and weeks, slowly, carefully making detours around the areas where packs resided. Twice they encountered other loners, but there were no incidents. The pups were too large and too noisy to hide now, but the strangers did not seem interested in taking advantage of a lone woman with two children. That was good, for their sake.

Cassandra tried not to think too deeply about their direction.

Myrika was long gone from Inferni, but as far as she knew, her father was still there. He had no where else to be, he'd said. (Her niece and nephew, too, perhaps, though Cassandra wasn't sure they would have any fondness of her, after their sister's disappearance.)

Cassandra still could not imagine that pack life would ever be the right path for her, but she entertained the idea that her father could at least spend some time with his (sort-of) grandchildren — if he was still alive.

Besides, surely it was a good idea for the pups to have others to socialise with other than her.

Even if they did not join, for all her mixed up and nonsensical reservations, Cassandra trusted Inferni — for as long as Vesper and her father remained. They could stay nearby and the pups could play with the children in the clan, their cousins and cousins' children, perhaps.
It had, perhaps unsurprisingly, not taken any time at all for her to mentally consider them her own blood.

Their real parents were simply another unfortunate encounter in a long history of unfortunate encounters, and Cassandra almost considered the discovery of the pups a separate incident entirely.

It didn't matter. They were her children now.

Cassandra wasn't prepared to feel as strongly as she did when the pups began to speak. She did not remember urging them to call her "momma," but she must have, because they did.

The small, round lumps had been dependent on her the moment she killed their parents, but with their tiny voices, they seemed to acknowledge it now for the first time.

It had been different with Maeriia who, while still a child, truly, had come to her already standing on two legs and speaking adult sentences. To her sister's daughter, Cassandra had been a way out, that's all -- the pretense of being a guardian or protector hadn't lasted long. The girl might have depended on her for a time, but she'd had a choice, and the moment Maeriia gained the confidence to strike out on her own, she did.

Would it be the same for these pups?

Fiction and Soliloquy had legs strong enough to stand on now. Their blue eyes were wide open, they stumbled around, half-heartedly chasing each other only to be distracted by this or that — a branch on the ground, the sound of a lark in the night.

Occasionally, they drifted towards the horse, and Cassandra would herd them away. Though the old mare seemed cognizant of the tiny children and was surprisingly mindful in her steps, there was always the chance that something else would spook her, and she'd forget.

Soliloquy wandered down the slope of the hill and was suddenly out of sight. Immediately, he began to cry, whimpering and howling in his shrill little voice.

Exasperation and adoration rose in Cassandra simultaneously. "I'm here," she said. There was a musical tinge to her voice she never expected to be there. She had heard others speak to their children in such a voice and had always thought it was strange — why did they all speak this way? Why was she doing it now? "Come back the way you came, big baby."

Fiction toddled towards where her brother was, curious at his crying. Cassandra could see her peer behind her as she started down the slope of the hill, but even as she disappeared, she did not cry out in panic.

"Soli," Fiction said seriously. "Stop cryin'"

Cassandra couldn't stop herself from grinning widely; it was such an unfamiliar expression that she felt it must have been maniacal, but with the pups just out of sight, there was no one to witness it, at least.

"Momma... Momma!" Soliloquy continued to whimper.

"I'm right here," Cassandra said again.

"Momma there," Fiction said, and Cassandra could imagine the small pup nodding sagely. "Come back."

And eventually, Soliloquy followed his sister back up the hill. He yelped in surprise and relief when Cassandra returned to his line of sight and tripped over his large feet on his way back to her.

The albino woman nuzzled and licked his tiny face and felt a strange relief, as well. The brief episode had only lasted a minute or two, and of course, she had known the whole time that he was only a dozen feet away, but still, somehow, it was a relief that he was back again.

December 2017

She'd forgotten how formidable the ocean wind was.

In the clear night, it was sharp and biting, like little knives in the air. At two months of age now, Fiction and Soliloquy were too heavy for her to carry constantly, so she had further emptied out saddlebags so that they could ride in them.

The horse ambled along slowly as they made their way towards the beach, plucking up weeds here and there.

The news of Inferni's defeat in war and their retreat over the mountains had not stirred much feeling in her. She doubted that her father had been involved directly, and she was certain, somehow, that Vesper would not have been foolish enough to die in battle. Still, the clan's recent strife made her uneasy when she thought too long.

It snowed while they crossed the mountains. The pups had been excited, but this tired Cassandra more than anything. They were obedient enough when it mattered, but they were pushing boundaries more.

They were forming better sentences now, too, which came with it an onslaught of questions about everything. Cassandra did not mind answering, but her tongue tired more quickly than her body, and it was a type of exhaustion she hadn't really encountered before.

At least she was better at speaking with them now, though. She kept her self-doubt in all avenues at bay, typically, but it was terrifying to watch children grow. How could she tell if she was failing them? What if they grew up to be awful, after all?

Cassandra understood that Inferni now rested along the coast of their origins — her father's birth place, she supposed, though he had never spoken of it.

The borders were not as well-marked as they had been near the bay, and the pallid woman was hesitant to wander too near. If they were licking their wounds after losing a fight, she was certain that a needy stranger would not be welcome.

Instead, she camped a fair distance away, further down the coast, and tried to learn what she could from a distance.

It seemed like it was to be a difficult winter, though. Prey along the beach was scarce, and she spent more and more time each night hunting, leaving time for little else.

And in the end, it was her father that found her first.

He was worse for wear.

She shouldn't have been surprised, but it was such a departure from even her most recent memory of him (some years ago, now) that she couldn't help it.

The scars on his face were old now, his blind eye a solid, milky white. The chips in his ears almost looked like they belonged there, and his face and muzzle were a more washed out grey. He was on four legs — because it was easier to limp along that way without a stick for an aid.

But this was the form that Cassandra usually hunted in, and so they met like feral creatures, unhindered and unburdened by the years of advancement that had progressed around them.

"Cassandra," Kharma greeted. He smiled weakly, and the pallid woman was amazed at how quickly she could feel like a child again.

"Father," she greeted softly in turn.

"I've missed you," he said. The old man took a few steps forward, but seemed to not want to intrude on her space.

"I'm sorry," Cassandra found herself blurting. "I should've visited more often."

Kharma laughed without sound and his smile softened. "You don't need to be sorry for living your life," he said. "I think it's clear, after all, you're happiest wandering."

"Maybe," she said, and looked away. She wasn't sure she agreed.

"Why are you here then?"

And the guilt came at last, because he knew she still wasn't there to visit him.

"You've new grandchildren," she said, looking back at him.

Her vision blurred a little, but she blinked it away. The moon was full — and it was too bright for her, now.

"Come with me."

Kharma followed her quietly through the tall grass that bordered the rocky beach. She moved slowly, but still had to turn and wait for him several times. There was no small talk, but the awkwardness she expected was minimal. They didn't really need to say anything.

The pups were asleep when they arrived, having already eaten. Fiction lay with her back half inside the empty bag while her front half was sprawled in the dirt. Her brother lay with his head against her, belly to the sky.

Turning, Cassandra could see Kharma's single eye light up at the sight of them, and she could not help but smile.

She nudged the pair of siblings awake with her nose while her father lay down a short distance away.

"Mummmm," Fiction whined while Soliloquy flopped back over onto his stomach, grumbling softly.

"Hush," Cassandra said gently. "Your grandfather's here."

"What's that?" Soliloquy wondered, eyes still closed.

"A relative," Kharma said. "A friend."

The pallid woman supposed he didn't say "your mother's father," in case they didn't know what a father was. She shouldn't have been surprised; her father had always been well-spoken and tactful.

She didn't expect him to ask about their father, and he didn't. As with Myrika, it didn't matter.

The pups woke at the new voice. All grogginess left them in an instant and they hid behind Cassandra's forelegs, staring suspiciously at the stranger.

"You don't need to be afraid," Cassandra said. "He won't hurt you."

"Your eye looks funny," Fiction told Kharma.

"It's blinded," the old man said simply. "I can't see from it anymore."

"Why come."

"It got hurt in a fight."

"Oh," Fiction said, frown apparent in her voice.

"What about your other one?" Soliloquy asked.

"The red one's okay," Kharma said. "I can see you."

"Momma's eyes'r'red," the little boy said. "They're change a little, though."

"Our eyes are blue!" Fiction said. "But they gonna change colors, too, momma said."

"Probably," Kharma agreed. "What color do you want them to be?"

"I want them blue," Fiction replied. "I like them." She took a step out from behind Cassandra's legs, the hesitated again.

"You can't even see them," Soliloquy pointed out. He wagged his tail, but did not feel brave enough to venture forward yet.

"They might stay blue," Kharma offered. "Your mother's sister's eyes stayed blue. A greenish blue. Two of your cousins' eyes stayed blue."

"Momma's sister?"

"Wassah cousin?"

Cassandra stepped back, taking away the pups' shelter. Fiction yipped in surprise, but Cassandra was already too far away for her to catch up with — the pallid woman backed up a few feet, then went around the pair to stand behind Kharma.

"Come say hello properly to your grandfather," she said simply. "His name is Kharma Asylum."

"Asylum!" Fiction squeaked. "That's our name!"

"Yes," Cassandra said more patiently than she felt. She didn't necessarily want to emphasize family, but she supposed that this name was their safe harbour anyway — an identity apart from Lykoi that Kharma had created for them.

Fiction ran forward at last, stopping as suddenly as she could about a foot from the dusty old hybrid. Kharma pulled his ears back to make himself as non-threatening as possible and lowered his head so the child could sniff at his nose.

Once he saw that his sister did not come to any harm, Soliloquy rushed forward as well, sniffing eagerly and tail wagging.

"How old are they?"

"Two months," Cassandra said, tucking the pair of them into the saddlebag. Her horse seemed not to notice and continued to graze, ambling around slowly and rocking the tired pups to sleep.

"And you've been traveling all that time?" Kharma asked incredulously.

She nodded.

Kharma had remained unshifted, and sat on his haunches with a sigh. "I'm sorry," he said. "I don't know that this is a good place for them, now."

"It sounds like it's been a rough year," Cassandra acknowledged.

The one-eyed hybrid nodded, then coughed, a motion that seemed to make his thin, lanky body shake. "Things have been difficult. If I'm honest, I'm not sure Inferni will last the winter."

It'd be different if Myrika were still there, Cassandra thought, but maybe it was for the better that she wasn't.

"You can stay with us," Cassandra said. Inferni was nothing to her, after all.

Kharma shook his head. "I'd only be a burden."

"You'd be a help," his daughter said. "Really. I could hunt for a lot longer if there was someone to watch them."

"Four mouths is a lot to feed on your own... three is hard enough."

"I've managed," Cassandra said easily. "I'll manage. You won't be a burden."

"I can't believe you've been traveling for two months with these babies," Kharma said, changing the subject. "You're stronger than I ever was, that's for certain."

"It hasn't been bad. We've been going at a slow pace. They like riding in the saddlebags."

"Must have been stressful though."

"You don't need to worry," Cassandra said. "We've been doing okay, and you can come with us. There's no need for you to stay here anymore, is there?"

"Maybe not," Kharma said ruefully. "I'm sure I'm as much a burden to Inferni as well. Just a sour old man who doesn't contribute much of anything."

"So what?" Cassandra said. "Maybe there wasn't much you could do for Inferni, but if you're going to complain about being dead weight, if you want to contribute, you can watch these kids. As I said, things would be a lot easier for me if you could."

"All right," Kharma said at last. She smiled. "I know you're right. I've just... It's just been a long time since I've been a help to anyone, you know."

"You don't need to worry about that. They like you. And it'll be good for them to be able to talk to someone other than me."

"Will we keep traveling then?"

"Eventually... but I think it will be nice to rest for a little while."

Cassandra could see her father's health failing.

His body was thin and bony, and no matter how much he ate, there seemed to be no change. Sometimes he threw up his food and claimed it was regurgitation for the pups, but there was too much bile, and he didn't let them eat it, after all.

His breathing was unsteady at times, a little laboured, even in his sleep. He coughed often, and on occasion, had terrible fits.

She brewed him teas of all sorts, made sure he was warm, and spent hours every night hunting in the woods, taking care to stay out of areas where Infernians might be.

They stayed near the far end of the beach because she could tell Kharma wasn't ready to leave the sea just yet — or ever, perhaps.

Once or twice, on her way back from a hunt, she glimpsed Kharma smiling while the pups played near him. She had always loved that smile: warm and content, at ease and at peace. She'd seen it when she'd been young, but not since.

Cassandra was grateful.

Her father was old, and if he didn't survive the winter, at least she could be with him in his final days. At least he got to meet these children she'd stolen away. At least he could think that she wouldn't be alone for a while.

She was glad to give back a little of what he'd given her — a place to be, food to eat, a small bit of company and comfort.

Despite this logic though, the pallid woman was surprised at how difficult it was. The bittersweetness of it all weighed on her when she couldn't sleep.

She didn't want to watch her father die.

She didn't want her final memories of him to be of a frail old man.

It wasn't fair of her, she knew, and maybe that bothered her most of all.

This was a glimpse of her own morality and impending weakness. Her vision had been weakening, her eyes lightening in color, as the puppies had noticed. The sunlight was more painful than it'd ever been, and even the moonlight was too much at times. How much longer until her two eyes were milk white like her father's blind one?

On the brightest nights, she squinted into the darkness to make out the shapes of rabbits and voles. But their instinct was often to hold still if they suspected danger, and this had begun to thwart her efforts more and more. She was relying on sound and movement to hunt, and her failure rate was creeping steadily upwards.

She was dimly aware of her own exhaustion.

It was true that having a babysitter was a great relief — the children would often tire themselves out asking Kharma questions instead of her — but she was spending eight to ten a night hunting to feed all of them. Her weakening vision, combined with a less-than-abundant prey population, kept her working hard to bridge the gap.

Maybe it would be better to travel out of the area, but she wasn't sure Kharma could take that.

She was grateful that the December nights were at least long.

The winter solstice was not a night of solace — it was a long, exhausting night, but at least at the end of it, she was able to bring food back to her family.

Just a few weeks later, Kharma passed away in his sleep.

They had set up "camp" in the woods bordering the beach by building a rough lean-to shelter out of fallen logs, moss, and a growing patchwork of rabbit skins. The floor was padded with dead leaves and covered with the the various blankets she had.

Though the pups couldn't shift yet and she and her father both spent most of their time on four legs (in addition to convenience, this kept their respective food requirements lower, as well), the ground was too cold to dig out a den.

It was nearly dawn when Cassandra had returned from a hunt with a fresh rabbit for her father and another — in mostly regurgitated form — for the pups. Fiction and Soliloquy had been waiting for her and told her that their grandfather was still sleeping, and somehow Cassandra knew.

Kharma would've woken when the pups did, if he was still able.

His body wasn't quite warm anymore when she sat down next to him, though it wasn't yet cold, either. Cassandra could almost fool herself into thinking that he was still breathing, just very slowly.

She lay down next to him, as if to warm him up, and watched the pups eat.

"Grandfa not gonna eat?" Fiction asked, looking up from her meal.

"No," Cassandra said softly. "Let him rest."

The pup went back to her food without further questions, but when she was finished, there was a renewed curiosity. The two month old pawed at her grandfather's face gently, urging him to wake.

Unexpectedly, Cassandra found herself crying.

Fiction was ataken back. Blue eyes wide, she stared for a long moment before asking, "Momma?"

The pallid woman shook her head and pushed herself up to her haunches, turning halfway to hide her face.

She'd known it was coming. She had half-expected it to have already happened when she arrived. Kharma could've died at any point over the years and she wouldn't have known for sure for a long time. He was old. It wasn't a surprise!

But the last few weeks, difficult as they had been, had been the closest feeling to home she had had since she could remember.

Cassandra had never wanted a family. She had watched them fall apart all her life. She had watched people who cared about and loved one another abandon each other all the same. She had seen children kill their parents and parents kill their children. She had seen endless cruelty in the world, vicious communities full of twisted creatures, false idols, and malicious gods.

She had never longed for children, or at least, that was what she had always told herself. The ones that had grown and died in her womb would have died anyway -- she would have killed them before they make a sound, if they had ever been born. She had never let a man touch her again, and she could not want for what that meant giving up.

But taking care of something, protecting it, watching it grow — these were things that all creatures enjoyed. She had tended gardens here and there, when she allowed for a pause to wandering. They did not always bloom, but there was a comfortable satisfaction and a strange sense of accomplished belonging when they did.

Her father had raised her despite his loneliess and self-loathing. He had taught her to be kind, in spite of everything. Kharma wasn't perfect. Cassandra wasn't either. They both acted against what they knew best often enough. They broke promises and did things they said they wouldn't.

But Kharma was there for her again when it mattered. Against his reservations and despite his health, he had agreed to leave the protection of a clan to stay with her, to help her, to see his grandchildren.

But now he was gone, and she was alone again.

Alone again.

Not understanding what was happening, Fiction was crying now too, and Soliloquy had finished his meal in confusion, waddling back over to his sister to see what was wrong.

Cassandra shook her head again, trying to clear her head.

"I'm sorry," she said. "Your grandfather is dead."

"Dead?" Fiction asked shrilly.

"His body remains, but he's gone."

Cassandra stood and nosed the little girl — her little girl — gently. "Shh," she said. "I'm sorry."

Soliloquy pawed at Khrama's nose, then looked at his mother and sister. "Gone?"

"It's like when someone's asleep," Cassandra said. "Except they won't respond when you try to rouse them -- they won't wake up ever again."

"No," Soliloquy said, not understanding. "Grandfa wake up when he's hungry."

The pallid woman smiled weakly. "He used to," she said. "Not anymore."

She took a deep breath and closed her eyes, willing her tired body to change. The sun was rising. With luck, the clouds would remain thick for a while yet.

Both pups were whining and whimpering, pawing at Kharma's face and his neck in turn, telling him that it was dinner time and that his rabbit would get cold if he didn't hurry. Cassandra felt the knot in her chest tighten again and again.

When she had hands again, she scooped the two pups into her arms and cradled them to her chest. "Listen," she said softly. "Everyone dies eventually. If you aren't careful, if you get hurt and it's serious, you can die early. But otherwise, if you're lucky, you'll grow up and live a good life. And then when you're old, your body will be weaker, and you won't be able to do as much, and eventually, you'll die, peacefully in your sleep, just like your grandfather.

"Do you understand?"

The pups stared at her.

"Everyone dies?" Fiction asked.


"Momma die?"

"Some day, yes."

"Fiction die?"

"Some day, yes."

"Soli die?"

"Some day, yes."

"Granfa Kharma... die. Is dead."


Fiction began crying again, which prompted Soliloquy to as well.

"Shh," Cassandra cooed softly. "It's all right. He had a long life. And I know he's happy to got to meet you before he went."

She cradled them for long minutes until they tired themselves out. When they were finally asleep, she wrapped them carefully in the blankets and stowed them in the farthest corner of the lean-to, tucked between the roots of the tree it was up against.

By then, the sun was up, but as she had hoped, the thick clouds from the night before were lingering and a strange fog was rose high from the forest floor, further filtering out the light.

Cassandra put on her cloak, then picked up her father's body.

It was bony and light, a testament to how frail he'd been. It seemed almost like the two pups weighed more. She carried him a mile, to the water's edge.

Once, Kharma had told them a story about how he'd almost drowned in the ocean when he'd been a child. Their mother had been there, and the waves had gotten too close. He had pulled her back before getting caught himself... or something like that. Cassandra wasn't sure she was remembering correctly. It'd been a long time.

It'd been a long time.

Kharma had survived, though she wasn't sure that he ever learned to swim, in the end. Had he mentioned it? Had it been part of the story? She didn't remember anymore.

What a kid, he must have been — to grow up by the sea and never learn to swim.

The water was freezing.

Cassandra nearly dropped him when the lazy morning tide crept past her ankles. Shivering as she went, she walked until the waves reached her thighs, then set Kharma's body gently in the water.

She cupped his face with a hand as he began to sink for one last look in the dim light. A wave surged against them, then pulled away. In another moment, his body was already mostly submerged in the pale blue and being carried away. She thought she could follow the shadow of his body for a while, but in the end, she couldn't be sure. Her vision was poor and the clouds were beginning to part.

She couldn't stay for any longer.

Her teeth were chattering by the time she turned around. December was a terrible month for a water burial.

On the shore, she dried herself off as best she could with the top half of her cloak, then left the soaking thing on the rocky sands while she retreated hastily back to the forest.

The rising sun warmed her back. She closed her eyes and found her way home.

They were on the move again within days, and it was good timing — snow began to fall. By the time they reached the mountain again, it covered the river valley.

Cassandra led the horse carefully over the mountain pass, testing the footing of each step before moving forward.

Exhaustion hung from her bones, but she did not see any other option but to press on. She would not miss this place. She had never liked it. She would be glad to never come back — her father's body would be consumed by the sea, and if her sister ever returned... well, they were too scattered now. The anchors were gone. It would only be by miracle and coincidence, if they ever met again.

It was easier to make peace with something that was already gone. The weight in her heart was from having those last three weeks with her father, but it had been she that had taken her leave of Myrika, and by the time she'd returned, her sister was gone.

So it goes.

Thornloe was a memory, and perhaps Inferni soon would be too.

They were out of places to return to, though Cassandra had not really even had those places. She had never wanted to leave, but once she had gone, there had never been an option to return.

And so she drifted, and drifted on.

January 2018

She was always grateful for the longer nights.

The raccoon looked in two directions before leaving the shelter of the bush to wash a piece of fruit in the creek. There was no breeze, and the tall grass along the creek bed was still.

The fat grey creature sat on its haunches and took a bit of its prize, and in the next moment, a white streak came out from the shadows, seized it by the throat and jerked her head high, snapping its neck.

The adrenaline rush blinded her for the next few moments, though they felt like an eternity. She stood, still again, listening to her heartbeat thunder on. The blood was warm in her mouth, a strange tether back to reality.

She was so hungry.

The last two ambushes had been failures. Mistimed leaps, a poorly aimed attack. Her vision swam the moment she moved and she couldn't follow the movements of her prey quickly enough. The night became a dull blur and all of the shapes around her looked the same. She'd lose her sense of balance and suddenly nothing would seem real.

She had known for a long time that the day would come, but she had never prepared enough for the anguish and fury. Her eyes had always had weaknesses, but she had convinced herself that the night would always be on her side. But slowly, the moon and stars turned traitor, and her jaws began to turn up empty.

Cassandra set the raccoon down and licked the blood from her lips and chin. Her vision was still blurred; the night was still a haze. The breeze picked up a little, and she could hear light rustling in the grass a short distance away. Perhaps a mouse, perhaps nothing. She knew she'd need to rely on her hearing more, but it was difficult to focus when her anger and resentment bubbled so close to the surface.

It wasn't fair. She'd worked so hard for what she had. All of her skills, all of her independence and self-reliance had been fought for, and she continued to work hard every day while lazy packdogs let others take care of them and spent all their time thinking up wilder and more ridiculous magic to believe in.

She took a slow breath, trying to will herself to only listen to whatever was on the wind, instead of whatever was on her mind.

It was impossible though.

A few moments later, she tore into the raccoon, relishing in her prize, hard-won as always.

The raccoon was average in size — not an inadequate meal, but she had to give up a portion of it to the pups later. It would be better if she could kill another one before the sun rose. That would make the next meal less critical, and maybe she'd start to have some breathing room again.

A cynical voice whispered that it wasn't likely; she had been lucky enough to score this one with her vision swimming constantly. She was lucky the air had been still and that the bright moon had been blocked by the clouds. These things would change by the time she licked all of the blood off herself, and the next attempt would be another failure.

She was grateful for the longer nights in winter, but she was well aware that it was poor compensation for the crueler weather and scarce prey. She had longer to hunt, but oh, they were very, very long nights to spend with herself.

February 2018

The exhaustion caught up with her as the seasons began to turn again.

By then, they were further south, in an area away from most canines once more. Prey was easier to come by, but the pups were growing quickly and becoming less able to remain occupied and still for long periods of time. Cassandra spent most of her time hunting and worrying that her charges would wander away from where they were supposed to stay.

And they did, because of course they did. Cassandra did not remember how much she and her sister had wandered as children, but they had had a home, then, and the surrounding woods were not perpetually new to them, and the nearest pack was not strangers.

Should she plant roots as well, for their sake?

But she didn't. She didn't want to. They asked her sometimes, where they were going, and she never had a real answer for them.

Ordinarily, the pups remained were close enough that they could see her coming back with the evening's kill and come running as soon as they did. Once, she had been mortified to find them at a bear's den, curiously considering the sleeping animal, who, thankfully, stayed asleep.

Once, a stranger came upon them, and it took every bit of control that Cassandra had to not kill the man on sight. He had left politely, in the end, seeing her anxiety on full display; her lips had been curled and her hairs on end for the entire, very brief conversation.

And then, one night, Cassandra woke to Fiction crying.

The night had risen all around them. The moon wasn't out, but the stars glittered contentedly. She'd slept far later than she normally did.

"Momma!" Fiction all but shrieked, when Cassandra rose her head. "Momma! You're not dead!"

The pup, and her brother behind her, rushed at the pallid woman's face, licking it and crying in turn.

"Not dead," Cassandra said softly. "Sorry, I've just overslept..."

She still felt exhausted. The pups seemed far away, even as their voices were shrill and despairing. She started to stand, but almost immediately changed her mind. Her head was heavy and she couldn't focus her eyes or her thoughts.

Fiction butted her head against Cassandra's nose. "Are you okay?"

Her little voice was so anxious. The albino hybrid felt bad, but it was distant, like everything else.

"I'm tired," she said truthfully. "I'm sorry."

Somewhere, in the back of her head, she knew she was sick, that she needed to rest, and that the pups would need to go hungry for the night, but she didn't have the energy to bring those words to the front of her head, or to her throat.

"Can you die from being tired?" Soliloquy asked earnestly. "Is that a hurt that's serious?"

Cassandra smiled weakly. "Probably not," she said.

"You rest when you're tired," Fiction said. "Like you eat when you're hungry."

"Yeah," her brother agreed. "Momma should rest!"

"We can do the hunt tonight!" Fiction declared, and almost immediately, the haze lifted from Cassandra's head, leaving a headache and a sharp fear.

"No," she said. She remained lying down, but was far more alert now. "Not yet," she added, more gently.

"But Momma—"

"I've taught you a little, but not enough yet," Cassandra said. "I... do think I need to rest tonight, so you and Soliloquy might be hungry for a little while... I'm sorry. Please... bear with it for now. Stay here with me."

Fiction whined loudly, but this was her only objection.

"It's okay," Soliloquy said, lying down next to Cassandra. "We'll be okay. You can rest."

Cassandra didn't remember lying her head back down or falling asleep.

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"I'ma hunt," Fiction mumbled quietly.

Her mother had fallen asleep again. The night was half over, and she was very hungry. Her stomach's dull rumbles had turned into higher pitched whines, and she was becoming more restless and more weary at the same time.

"You can't!" Soliloquy said. Her brother crawled out from under Cassandra's cloak, which was still draped over her. "Momma said not to go!"

"Momma's tired and it's our fault!" Fiction said, trying her best to keep her voice down, but not quite succeeding. "She's always hunting. If she didn't have to hunt all the time, she'd be better."

"If you get hurt, that won't help," Soliloquy said.

"You can't stop me."

Her brother stared at her, scowling. Fiction was bigger than him, for the time being, and won more of their wrestling matches, but Soliloquy was generally more thoughtful and calculating, patient, and much better at ambushes. And catching mice.

"I'll go," the boy said. "I'm better at it than you, and someone needs to stay with Momma."

Fiction frowned, but she didn't disagree.

"I won't be long, and I won't go far," Soliloquy said. "I'll just get us a snack, and maybe something for Momma if she wakes again."

"You can't catch anything bigger than a snack anyway," Fiction grumbled.

"Neither can you," her brother said, and before she could respond, he disappeared quickly into the night.

Fiction sat down, feeling like the conversation had happened far too fast, and that she should have argued better so she could've gone instead.

But she was hungry, and Soliloquy had a better chance of success.

Cassandra was silent in her continued sleep. For the first time, Fiction didn't feel small, looking at her. They had grown considerably, but they couldn't shift yet. They rarely saw strangers, and the pup didn't know if their mother was small for a grown-up, but she seemed small in that moment.

Her pale fur glowed in the starlight. It was white, but it was different from the white fur that she and her brother had. It looked more transparent, and felt different, too. Cassandra had called it a mild curse, once. Fiction didn't know what that meant.

Sighing, the pup crawled under the cloak and lay down next to her mother, resting her head on her outstretched forelegs.

Fiction was vaguely aware that she didn't truly understand the full extent of the burden Cassandra carried, but she was eager enough to grow up, to shift, to learn, to take care of herself, so her mother didn't have to.

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April 2018

In the end, Cassandra felt like she didn't really have a choice.

The pups were too big (and too wiggly) for her poor horse to carry anymore, even if Cassandra trotted alongside them on foot. They'd begun to shift and wanted to spend evenings learning to write or fight or just run around, instead of traveling endlessly to no where. They were overexcited and eager to learn, and travel just took too much time.

And Cassandra, too, found herself yearning for stillness and rest more than whatever it was she'd been quietly chasing for most of her life.

They found a decrepit cabin nestled among trees in the middle of a forest. It was spring, and saplings were growing out of the broken windows. One from several years ago was growing through a hole in the roof.

The pups, utterly thrilled at the news that they'd be staying put, for at least a little while, tore at the old building with an energy that Cassandra could not imagine having anymore.

They pulled everything out of the inside — all of the broken and rotting furniture, the soggy, ruined books destroyed by rain and mold, the old bones, the new growth — and piled it out front for Cassandra to sort through. Most of it was garbage that she scattered about in the woods in places that would likely hasten their destruction. Some of the furniture she cleaned off and fixed best she could, sloppily tying stray pieces of wood or branches back onto table legs so they'd stand upright once more.

The saplings she planted around the cabin, though she was certain that most wouldn't survive to grow very big. There were plenty of trees already around them, and the shade was abundant.

The tree growing through the roof, they kept inside. It was in a small, side room that many buildings had at least one of, containing a stained porcelain structure with a hole in the center. The floorboards were rotted and the intrepid tree had rooted itself near the base of the strange throne, wrapping around it as it grew.

Filled anew with only the tiny family's sparse belongings and a few salvaged pieces of furniture, the cabin seemed much bigger on the inside than it looked on the outside. Aside from the tree room, it was really just a single space with several corner nooks that could be used for some designated purpose.

The children celebrated, of course, by chasing each other inside, dashing from wall to wall and back again, running on all fours in their smallest form, and then their halfling form, and finally on two feet, laughing and tripping over themselves and each other from simple excitement.

Cassandra, sprawled out on their bed of old sheets and a quilt of rabbit skins, and safely out of their way, could not help but smile.

A half-formed, tricky feeling of home was there in the cabin. She decided not to think much on it.

June 2018

Blindness was not peaceful darkness, and Cassandra found this infuriating.

It wasn't white, either, exactly — maybe it truly wasn't any color, but it was light. Cassandra always felt like she was surrounded by too much brightness, and she hated it because she had always hated it.

When her eyes were open and there was darkness in reality, what she saw amounted to a thick fog. It was less unpleasant because it was less bright, but it was still "white" in some sense. Sometimes there were shapes in the fog, but she learned very quickly that they'd stopped corresponding to real shapes. Her tired eyes only wanted there to be shapes there, but they were not things she needed to pay attention to.
When her eyes were closed in the night, she sometimes found the old comfort of darkness. This was the state that remained mostly the same. The light and shapes that came were from her head, and that was obvious.

It was painful to open her eyes to the light, though it was difficult to articulate why or how. It was not like a normal injury. It did not sting like a wound, but it was sharp and felt hot, even though there was no heat. Even after she closed her eyes again, there remained a pulsating, dull sort of ache, which usually developed into a headache, sometimes reaching as far as her neck.

Closing her eyes in the light mitigated some of the effect, but her eyelids were not enough to block the full strength of daylight. Wrapping a dark strip of cloth around her eyes provided palpable relief, but if her eyes remained open beneath them, what she saw returned again to a murky, distracting fog.

But keeping her eyes closed for too long was disruptive in its own way. For whatever reason, it threw off her balance, her sense of depth, her sense of space. Cassandra could not see either way, but having her eyes open seemed to keep some part of her mind engaged to those other senses and cues.

She tried to force the shadows in the fog to correlate to what she knew to be shapes in reality, but it was a difficult illusion to maintain. If she became distracted, what she saw became unreliable once again.

It was exhausting.

And Cassandra did not want to reckon with getting old.

Her freedom and self-reliance depended so much on her hard-earned skills, and those skills depended so much on her easy mobility and sharp senses. Her eyes had been a handicap for a long time. Bright sunlight had been unpleasant for her, even as a child — but in the dim light, she had been powerful, and she had relied so much on that power, and the self-confidence.

For some months, they caught game in simple traps. Cassandra had experimented with such things occasionally and had some vague ideas about how to improve on past trials, but she had never really relied on them before, and everything was different when there were two additional mouths to feed. They went through a lot of trial and error, and the traps did improve over time, but in between, there were many nights where they all went hungry.

The pups improved their skills at catching small things, but they were growing quickly and were rarely able to catch as much as they wanted to eat.

Hunger was not an unfamiliar experience for the pallid woman, but it frustrated her to not be able to provide for the children she had. It was different when the only person she was failing was herself.

Fiction complained on occasion about being hungry, but Soliloquy never did. Cassandra thought the boy was too soft.

His hunts were typically more successful than his sister's, but he always shared his kills with her. He tried to share with Cassandra as well, but his earnest generosity was no match for his mother's steadfast stubbornness.

And while he bested Fiction at the hunt, he could not defeat her in a spar. Cassandra wished she could see how they were doing, but even with her other senses, she could tell that Soliloquy hesitated far too often, unwilling to risk real injury to his sibling, even when practicing with sticks instead of knives.

It was impossible to tell how he'd fare against a real enemy.

Cassandra considered that it was irresponsible to keep children so isolated from others, and for them to learn about what constituted a normal life from random strangers that happened upon their lonely cabin. They were a social species, meant to live in groups, meant to rely on each other.

She could teach them about many things, but not everything. Besides, why would she want them to end up like her?

Myrika had found her reasons to stay with Inferni, and so had her father. Cassandra's avoidance of the clan, of all packs, was borne out of a childish fear that had been excerbated by trauma. But she knew — she knew — that she probably could have been happy in one, in Inferni.
She could have had more years with the only family she had ever known, and she could have found more family. Her blood was vast and deeply connected to that terrible peninsula in the east. Blood relations didn't mean as much to her as time spent in genuine connection, but it was a starting point.

She could have stayed.

And maybe Maeriia would've stayed then, too.

Or maybe not.

Cassandra didn't know if she felt guilty about it anymore. The girl had been grown, by the time she'd disappeared, and Cassandra had always known that it would happen if Myrika and Vesper had allowed their daughter to leave. It had been inevitable.

She hadn't made any promises to her sister or her mate except that she'd do her best, and she had.

But even without guilt, there was regret.

She could have stayed.

And even after Myrika was gone, she could have stayed. Cassandra didn't know that she considered Vesper a friend, but she had respected her sister-in-law, at least.

Cassandra's reason had never been good enough, but it had always been her reason. At some point, her identity was built around it, and she felt too tired and too old to build another one without it.

What would she be like as a member of a pack? Certainly she couldn't carry on as she always had. It had been difficult enough, the short time she had been on Inferni lands recovering. The person she'd become was not someone who could stay in a pack.

The choices would've been to return to who she'd once been, or to forge something new, again.

The pups belonged in a pack, or at least, they should be allowed to make their own decision. Cassandra's desire for isolation had taken that from them, but what was there to do?

They could travel again, but life on the road was difficult and dangerous. She didn't know where the nearest pack was, didn't know anything about the ones in the area — what if they picked a bad one? (But all of them were bad, if you looked long enough.)

She didn't know what was best.

Was it too late to find a different cabin, a perfect distance from some pack, and socialise from a distance, as her family had once done with Thornloe?

The pups were nine, nearly ten months old. How much longer until they decided to take their leave?

The philosophy that everything changed eventually and the easy truth that she could not control grown adults were easy to parrot, but Cassandra truly dreaded the day when Fiction and Soliloquy took their leave.

Her age was catching up with her and it would be difficult to provide for herself now, even just in terms of hunting and food. Her long-held self-confidence and pride assured her that she could do it, and some part of her knew she could — but there was no denial that it would be difficult, and that she would be vulnerable.

It had only been a few months since her sight had left her completely, but the effect it'd had on her self-sufficiency had been profound. She hated it.

And she hated the idea of being abandoned.

It would've been different if she'd never taken them, if she'd taken her leave of those stupid loners without punishing them. It would've been different to grow old alone, after being so long alone. She could have died more quietly then.

But she probably wouldn't have made the trip back to see her father, if she hadn't "had" children. She would have accepted his inevitable death from a distance, a horrible daughter and an unreliable sister, who had abandoned her family out of twisted, selfish fear long ago.

She could not begrudge her children anything, but she did not want to face their inevitable independence.

May 2020

Cassandra did not believe in premonitions, but she believed in death, and she knew death well.

She had never adjusted to thinking that she was old. Her eyes were blind and her body had weakened, but these were gradual handicaps that had been heaped on her — they were obstacles to learn well and to overcome, that was all. She had never felt that they were absolutes, or that she could not fight her away to learning to deal with them, as she always had.

Living life was more challenging than it used to be, but that was always what life had been. Struggle after struggle, year after year.
And she was tired, but hadn't that been the case for a long time too?

Her grandmother had lived for a long time. Cassandra had only glimpsed her a few times when she had stayed briefly in Inferni. The old woman had been blind in one eye, bony and haggard. She carried out orders from Myrika without much argument, and it had been difficult, despite the scars, to picture Kaena has a commanding, cutthroat matriarch that had shaped their family for years.

When she'd been young, Kharma had almost never spoken of his mother, or at least, Rachias's mother and Inferni's queen, but the impressions Cassandra had had did not match what she'd seen. So, too, she wondered, whether her perception of herself was different from what others saw now.

Her father, with his own blind eye, scars, and limp, had laughed that he had become Kaena, but without all of her lifetime prestige. He had taken the place of Inferni's old miser, slinking around in the background, a mystery to most, only speaking to a small handful of other clansmember. He had been bitter.

Did they all become meek or bitter in the end? When they realised that all their best years were passed and they hadn't accomplished anything that they'd wanted?

Cassandra had never had any goal. Not one that she would articulate or admit to, anyway. She still thought, occasionally, of the days before everything, but even if they'd stayed in Thornloe, it would've changed eventually. Maybe they would've died with the rest of them, when the raiders came.

The cottage wasn't a goal. She had known, leaving it the first time, that they'd never go back. Perhaps that had been a premonition too. She remembered how certain she'd felt.

And she felt certain now: death was coming for her.

She didn't know how long she had, but it felt near. Maybe if she left this cabin, this new cottage, she would never return.

But Cassandra rarely left anymore, anyway.

In her mind, where she could see whatever she wanted because she couldn't see reality any longer, the pallid woman looked the same as she had, and she could move like she had, kill as she had.

Her knives never rested far from her, but could she retrieve them with her old speed? Strike with her old accuracy? She'd learned to listen instead of look, but her reaction time never truly recovered. She was already too old when it happened.

Maybe some part of her knew that, too, when it happened. She ignored a lot of her feelings and charged on anyway. It was easy to know when she lied to herself, but it was just as easy to ignore that fact.

Cassandra spent her days brewing potions and poisons. Plants and flowers she had always identified in some part by touch and smell. That transition hadn't been as difficult. They had dug out a hole beneath the cabin: a little cellar with crooked shelves filled with old glass jars and newer wooden ones.

Soliloquy was a reliable hunter, and they didn't need much else, but he traded his mother's concoctions to the neighbouring packs for blankets and paper and the occasional trinket.

Cassandra often wondered if he might disappear one day, head out to trade and simply never return. Maybe it wouldn't be planned, and he'd meet some unlucky fate; or maybe it would be, and he'd join his sister in the vast unknown. Fiction had said goodbye though. For all her cynicism, the old woman knew Soliloquy would too, if he ever choose that path.

The sun was setting.

She could feel the light pouring over her work table, warm, bright, sharp, painful. Her eyes were well-covered, but even imagining it brought phantom pains. The orange glow filled the room, casting long shadows on the walls. If she still relied on her eyes, she'd have trouble making out the dark leaves against the dark wood of the table.

Soft footsteps were coming up the hill, crunching softly in the early leaves of fall though the warmth of summer still clung on.

Cassandra cleared the leaves to one side of the table, held her hand against her dagger, and waited: the evening ritual.

Outside, the footsteps stopped in the yard and she could hear something heavy being dropped onto the grass before the steps resumed again, approaching the door.

The old woman tensed.

"I'm home," Soliloquy said, then sighed. "Momma, you don't need to be so worried."

Cassandra relaxed and placed the knife back in its sheath, then stood, careful not to move so quickly that the leaves on the table got swept away.

"There's no harm in being safe," she said, shrugging. "What did you leave in the yard, if it wasn't a stranger dumping your body there?"

"Dinner," he said. "It's half a boar. I ran into Sandstorm on the way back and he traded me what was left for one of the boxes I got from L'Vernal. It'll be a nice change of taste."

Through the open the door, Cassandra could now smell the congealing blood and matted fur. "What else did you get from the pack?"

Soliloquy dropped something else on one side of the cabin, kicking up a small breeze. "Blankets. I thought—"

"Don't drop things when there's work on the table!" Cassandra growled, moving back towards her unfinished work.

"Sorry," her son said. "Here, let me get it."

The boy crouched by the table and gathered the stray leaves, and the pallid woman heard him return them to their box and close the lid. He also removed the pestle from the mortar and put the stone lid back onto the latter. Cassandra sighed. She hadn't wanted to stop work for the day, but perhaps this was what the meekness of the elderly truly was: a lack of desire or energy to argue.

"I think I'm going to die soon," she blurted.

Soliloquy set the mortar back down instead of returning it to the shelf. "What?"

Cassandra shrugged. "Just a feeling," she said.

"Are you not feeling well?"

"I feel fine."

"What are you saying then?"

The woman shook her head. "The fortunes are all a lie, as you know, so I couldn't convince you of otherwise now. And maybe I'm wrong. I don't know. It's just a feeling. I'm old, did you know? It'll happen eventually."

"You're not that old," Soliloquy said, voice small and low.

"I'm older than my father was when he died."

"He hadn't been doing well... you said that year looked like it'd been hard on him. You're doing okay, aren't you?"

Cassandra leaned against the door frame and faced out towards the rising sliver of moon. "Forget it," she said. "It doesn't really matter. If I'm going to die, then I'm going to die. You don't need to worry about it."


"You should start thinking about what you're going to do afterwards though. What do you want out of life? Don't waste it like I did. I never figured out what I wanted."

"Do I need to want anything?" Soliloquy asked. "I've never felt like you were holding me back, if that's what you're worried about... I like being here."

"All the more reason for you to think about what you'll do," Cassandra said, voice becoming softer. "I also liked living with my family, growing up with just my father and sister. That time ended, and I never knew what to do after."

What she'd always wanted, of course, was to return to a time where she was stationary and comfortable again, surrounded by a small, familiar family. She wouldn't admit to this though, and had watched stubbornly each time as those opportunities passed her by. She could've stayed in Inferni. She could've stayed with her sister and her father. She could have watched her nieces and nephew grow up properly.

She had been lucky, because at least her family had been alive — for a long time, even. She could've had years with them, if she'd stayed.

Soliloquy would be less lucky, because she would be dead. And maybe he'd find Fiction again someday, but they did not have a mythical meeting place like Cassandra had had with Inferni. Inferni was probably gone now. And if Soliloquy abandoned this cabin, what would there be to go back to?

"Come eat," the boy said wearily. Past two years old now, he was not much of a boy anymore. These were prime years of his life, when he was able and strong.

Cassandra did not think often that she was holding him back from anything because she didn't think that her family's brief time together had held her back from anything. Nevertheless, she hoped that he wouldn't spend his life wandering aimlessly like she had.

The old blind woman obliged, though she did not let Soliloquy lead her outside. She felt for the door frame and stepped out on her own, pretending, as ever, that she could still see.

kiri is a butthead; avatar by dwudles
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