There’s a fire in Fea’s eyes. There always is, but this time it worries Ana. Like many times before, she contemplates reaching out to her twin. A calming touch could do a world of good, but instead, Ana falls back into herself. Good intention swallowed up in doubt.
Air breaks fast against Ana’s forehead and she squeezes Hope tight. Fea had instructed her to hold onto the baby as they’d be flying faster than usual. Ana had no idea The Flying Spaghetti Monster could reach speeds that made the world around her blur. Looking over the edge of the sinewy beast treats her to the sight of the ocean with an occasional island here and there. Ana’s further from her home than she’s ever been, yet she doesn’t feel the least bit lost.
Hope’s sharp scream snaps Ana to attention. Ana tries comforting Hope by bringing her closer, but her tears just won’t stop.
“You should hold her,” Ana whispers. “You’re better with her.”
Fea doesn’t respond. Ana looks over and finds Fea’s feathers stiffening out and getting so sharp that they glint in the moonlight. Ana suspects Fea’s anger must be affecting Hope. Sure enough, Ana finds that red had begun to overtake the hazel in Hope’s irises.
“Fea,” Ana speaks up. “You have to calm down. I’m not asking for me, It’s for-”
“Quiet.” Fea’s voice cuts her off.
Ana glances up. Still, Fea’s feathers grow sharper. Now, Ana’s own feathers are shaking, no doubt spurred on by Fea’s temperament.
Between Hope’s unending wails, the harsh winds, the thin air, and Fea’s attitude Ana can’t help but scowl.
“No,” Ana says.
“What,” Fea responds.
“No,” Ana says again. “I won’t ‘be quiet’.”
“So you’ve suddenly grown a backbone?”
“No I- I don’t know. I don’t care about that. I just care about Hope. And you should too. Don’t you understand that your mood affects her?”
“So? Can’t you see how bad that is? Do you want to screw her up?”
“Screw her up,” Fea says while looking back. “Like how your friends screwed you up?”
Ana bites her bottom lip. Hard. Hard enough to taste ichor. So she spits.
“Always attacking someone else,” Ana says. “I don’t want Hope to be like you.”
“So you’ve got a say in how Hope turns out,” Fea asks as she faces forward. “Doesn’t matter, so long as she worships me.”
“Do you really mean that,” Ana asks hoping Fea was lying. No answer comes. They just soar through the sky with Hope crying all the while..
Then, when Ana feels like screaming, Fea speaks.
Ana looks over FSM and sees a domain in the form of a small town, or at least what was once a town. The land around the town seems to be in much better condition as the plot beneath them is little more than scorched earth with a few ash covered buildings here and there. There’s no vegetation for miles, so this place doesn’t seem the least bit habitable. But this is one of Fea’s domains, no doubt about it. Ana knows because of the feathers covering just about every inch of the ground. Though they seem a bit different from usual. Instead of laying flat, the feathers are stabbed into the ground and stand straight up, pointed towards the sky.
By the time Ana looks away, Fea is up and ready to leap down.
“FSM,” Fea says. “Get to a higher altitude and circle the area.”
Fea plucks a feather and tosses it towards Hope. The feather lands on Hope’s stomach and there’s a small flash before coating the infant in a light blue cocoon of energy.
“There,” Fea says. “Now you don’t need to worry about her breathing so take her as high as you can. Now as for you.” Fea looks at Ana and as much as she wants to turn away, she doesn’t.
“Don’t follow me.” Once the last word rolls off her tongue, Fea falls back first off FSM.
Who does she think she is? Always mocking Ana’s friends, always telling Ana what to do.
Ana sits Hope down and wraps some of FSM’s noodles around her for protection. Ana stares down at the infant and a thought briefly runs through her mind.
Another more curious thought tramples the former. Why has Fea been so irritable as of late? It could just be because one of her domains was invaded. But having gotten a look at it herself, Ana can’t see the value in a place like this. Even though Fea told her to stay put, Ana decides to get a better look. Besides, it isn’t like Ana swore fealty to Fea. She didn’t have to listen to her.
Ana leaps down after Fea. The closer Ana draws to the ground the more feathers spread along her arms. At the right time, Ana throws her arms out and slows her descent with several flaps of her wings. She lands beside Fea, behind a singed stone house.
“You,” Fea whispers and glares at Ana.
Before words could even form in Ana’s head, Fea presses a finger against her lips. Fea presents Ana with a feather. Ana touches the feather and feels a jolt, then she no longer sees Fea.
All at once, the town fills Ana’s vision. Every angle, every nook, and cranny. Every little imperfection that Fea wanted to protect sprouted up around Ana. This must be what Fea’s feathers could see. The panoramic view of the domain clued Ana into who they were hiding from. Two intruders stalk through old houses, over rusted fences, and beneath eroded bridges. A short boy with long black hair held up in a ponytail wears a white robe with a red scarf. Walking beside him is a beautiful redheaded woman with ears like a fox and 9 accompanying tails swaying behind her. They seem to be speaking but Ana can’t quite understand them.
Ana’s vision returns to normal and she hasn’t the chance to ask Fea what happened before Fea tucks that same feather behind one of Ana’s ears.
“It’s a different language,” Fea explains. “With that, you’ll understand them. Now quiet. They’re close.”
“Soos-kun, can’t we go somewhere a bit more romantic,” asks the woman from around the corner.
“And abandon our post? No way,” says the boy, in close proximity.
“This isn’t how I wanted to spend my day off y’know.”
“We’re an army now. Last I checked soldiers don’t get days off.”
The voices draw closer.
“It sounds so weird being called that. On the bright side, at least I get to spend today with you,” she says with a laugh.
“Yeah,” he coughs his response.
“I mean it. I’m really happy that it’s just the two of us.”
“Say, do you think she’s found the stone yet? I figured it’d be easier to spot considering how little there is here.”
Still, the voices draw closer.
“Did you just ignore me?”
“No, pretty sure I’ve been talking to you this whole time.”
“Sure, but you just changed the subject?”
“What about us?”
“How we’re together.”
“Yeah, we’re together. Out here. Doing our jobs. Is that a problem, Mae-chan?”
At last, the voices are here.
“At least have the decency to look me in the eyes when you reject me,” says the girl as she turns the corner.
The first thing Ana sees is the girl’s large puffy foxtail. Soon it’s followed by several others, and then the long pink fabric of her sleeves.
As Ana makes eye contact with the girl, Fea lunges, a feather in hand. Ana hadn’t even realized how prepared Fea was to attack. The flicker that was Fea meets a flash and they both come to a stop in front of the nine-tailed fox.
Fea is face to face with the boy, their weapons clashed in a stalemate. Fea’s sharpened feather against this boy’s long thin sword. They struggle there for all of a moment before he steps forward, and Fea’s feather snaps from the pressure. The sword would have cut through Fea had she not broken down into a black sea of feathers and escaped. The feathers pool beside Ana and reform into Fea.
The boy steps back and sheaths his weapon. Now Ana can see that he’s carrying not one sword, but two, one strapped to each hip.
“Are you alright Mae-chan,” the boy asks in such a light voice it’s almost hard to think he’s just crossed blades with Fea.
“W-what,” The fox, Mae, replies. She looks around and once she realizes what’s happened she steps behind the boy. “Soos-kun you saved me...”
“Oh come on,” he says, sighing. “Don’t sound so surprised.”
Wasting no time, Fea attacks again. She leaps and plucks two feathers from her collar, sharpens them into knives in an instant, and slashes at the boy.
In one motion Soos not only pushes Mae further behind him but draws the same sword from earlier and parries both of Fea’s swipes. Their weapons clash in rapid succession, each time Fea’s feathers give way beneath Soos’ sword, leaving her to pluck more and start the process all over again.
At least a dozen feathers fall the same way before Fea leaps back and fires some sort of desperation attack. Multiple feathers sharpen to fine points and rocket from her collar, all aimed at Soos. So many attacks blast towards the boy that Ana loses count, but Soos manages to deflect each and every one.
When he cuts through the last feather, he looks back and asks Mae, “You okay?”
He speaks so calmly; like he isn’t the least bit worried about Fea. And Ana doesn’t have to look at Fea to know how angry that must make her.
“I can’t stand how cool you are,” Mae says as she wraps her arms around the boy and nuzzles into the nape of his neck.
“Come on,” Soos says. “Not while I’m fighting. It’s dangerous.”
“Leave,” Fea says, interrupting their moment.
“So I take it you’re the original tenant,” Soos says. “While I can’t honestly say I understand what anyone sees in a domain like this, I can’t abandon my post.” He sheaths his sword. “I won’t leave this place until my queen has taken this land for herself.”
As much as Ana hates it, she stays in the shadows this time. After her last interaction with some of Fea’s enemies, she thought it might be best to give the girl space to work. Like everyone else they’ve met, these people don’t seem all bad. Ana is sure this boy’s queen has her reasons, but so does Fea, even if Ana admits she doesn’t quite understand them yet.
“Loyalty like that is hard to come by these days,” Fea says. “Swear fealty to me. You and your pet there. If you do, I might just look the other way on this and spare your queen.”
“Excuse me,” Soos says, tilting his head.
“Yeah,” Mae shouts. “I’m not his pet, I’m his...”
“Don’t care,” Fea cuts her off. “I made myself clear. Swear fealty. Now. The queen you’ll follow from this day onwards is Morrigan.”
This is off. This isn’t right. Ana’s seen this kind of setup before, but something is different. It’s one thing for Fea to strike fear in her enemy, but why was Ana so afraid right now? She can’t stop shaking.
“Morrigan,” Soos questions while resting a hand on his sword, ready to draw it at a moment’s notice. “If that’s the case then I definitely won’t step aside or stand down.”
“I hate this,” Fea whispers. “But what’s two more, right?”
Fea’s feathers shuffle, and the meaty sound of something tearing hits Ana’s ears. The sight of viscous red fluid causes Ana’s eyes to widen.
Mae tore into Soos’ neck with a wolfish bite.
“T-..ama...?” Soos’ words sound stuffy like he’s underwater. His movements are so much slower than before. As he tries to pull away from Mae she just bites down harder and tears at his arms with her claws.
A gust of wind builds around the two before a burst of concentrated air breaks them apart. Mae crouches on all fours and uses her nails to stop herself from skidding back. When she snarls at Soos Ana can see that her eyes are glowing red.
Mae charges Soos, and he pivots around her. She twirls her body and leaps, and he rolls underneath her. This goes on and on until Fea scoffs.
Defend yourself,” Fea speaks and Soos glares at her. “Fight back.”
Once more, Mae rushes Soos, but he holds up his hand and a wind catches her. She’s stopped in her tracks, held there in some sort of concentrated typhoon.
“So when you figured you couldn’t win on your own,” Soos says before pausing to spit up some ichor. “You decided to use her against me. You really are as twisted as the stories say. You deserve everything you have coming your way. I’m glad to know my Queen is going to rip every shred of power from you.”
“Here, I’ll help you draw your sword,” Fea says as the trembling in her feathers quickens.
Red starts to overtake Soos’ vision, and his hand reaches for the hilt. It stops there, however. The boy, trembling with pain, manages to hold Mae in his wind trap and not give in to Fea’s influence.
“Trying to resist, huh?” Fea stomps towards him, her feathers dancing like mad. “You might’ve had a chance, but this is my domain, and you’ll pay for thinking otherwise!”
Soos trembles, the red glow of his eyes grows and he grabs his weapon. Still, it doesn’t leave its sheath. Mae crawls forward as the winds holding her in place ebb away.
No more. She couldn’t stand another second of this. Ana tackles Fea to the ground.
“What are you-!?” Fea writhes beneath Ana, but the girl pushes down with all her weight.
“Run, you and your friend can still make it out of here alive,” Ana shouts, hoping they will listen as she summons more strength to hold onto Fea.
As a result of Fea’s attention being shifted elsewhere, the red in Soos’ eyes lessens and Mae gradually becomes less bestial.
“Huh, Soos,” Mae questions as she blinks the blood coloring from her eyes and looks around the battlefield. Once her eyes fall on Soos her shoulders sink and face pales. The look only worsens when she licks her lips and looks at her hands.
“Mae-chan. You’re awake...” The smiling samurai falls to his knees. “I’m glad.”
When Susano’o collapses Ana gets a good look at his wounds. The torn flesh is purple and peeling back as though heavily infected. Ana wasn’t the only one to see this as it garners a reaction from Mae. The fox cries out and crawls over to the boy.
“Soos,” she screams. “M-my poison...I didn’t....why...?!”
They aren’t escaping. Why aren’t they escaping? Focusing on the two costs Ana her leverage and it isn’t until she feels Fea push up that Ana realizes she’s fallen over.
Fea throws a feather that stabs the ground between Mae and Soos, preventing her from reaching him. Fea takes a step in their direction, but Ana grabs her wrist, stopping her.
“Let them go Fea! Please!” Ana cries, hoping the fox would get the hint and run away.
“Not yet,” Fea shouts. “I won’t let them go! Not until they-” Fea stops and her eyes go wide.
A droplet of water hits Ana, then another and several more. It didn’t seem like it was going to rain, and even if it did, Fea shouldn’t seem so startled by it. This is her domain so she should know what the weather would be like far in advance. In fact, she should have control over it. But Fea too stares up at the sky with a bewildered expression as the rain falls.
Ana hears laughing and looks over to see Soos shifting about. He turns over and smiles at them.
“S-sorry for not taking her seriously sooner,” says Soos. “It’s kinda hard to split my attention like that. Conjuring a storm takes a lot of concentration, y’know?”
“What,” Fea asks for both Ana and herself.
“It’s quite alright.”
An elegant new voice sounds out from all around and adds to the confusion.
“I wasn’t making much progress on my own anyway. ”
The rain parts before them, cascading over something that’s invisible. The water takes a shape, feminine and tall. Soon that shape gains color and physical form. Before them is a woman they hadn’t seen before. She’s beautiful, with long black hair, scales like a snake and sharpened horns. A large draconic tail protrudes from behind her and she takes two steps forward on feet that are clawed, much like their own.
“Her grasp on this domain is tighter than I thought,” she says, eyes locked with Fea.
As though paralyzed by surprise, or maybe fear, Fea doesn’t move. She doesn’t even flinch as the woman draws a weapon from her side. The handle of a sword, but with no blade to accompany it.
Fea stares up at the hilt and the woman with the cold eyes who wields it.
“Mae-san,” she speaks.
“Y-yes Otohime,” Mae says.
“Get Susano’o-san to safety. Issun-san will tend to his wounds. I’ll finish up here.”
Mae does as told and hoists Soos over her shoulder. The fox girl turns to leave when Fea springs forward and shouts out to them.
Fea’s words end in a surprised and pained grunt. The rain was cold, but that wasn’t what left goosebumps on Ana’s skin. The sight of crimson leaking from her twin’s back forms a knot in her stomach. Ana had seen Fea hit before, hurt before, but never injured like this.
The wound in Fea’s back went straight through and out her chest towards the woman, Otohime’s bladeless handle. Whipping her arm to the side caused Fea to scream out as a massive gash formed across her chest.
“He managed to resist you, didn’t he?” Otohime thrusts the handgrip in Fea’s direction.
This time Fea reacts, rolling out of the way and hurling a couple of feathers in retaliation. In that brief exchange, Ana saw it. A blur of silver as Otohime’s sword appeared then disappeared in a second’s time.
Fea’s feathers never hit their mark and bounce off Otohime’s body as though she were wearing armor.
“Tell me,” Otohime says. “He isn’t the first, is he? Your powers have limits.”
Fea throws multiple feathers at Otohime while running a circle around her. Not a single feather pierces Otohime’s flesh or cuts her clothing.
“I had my suspicions, but this would confirm it.” Otohime slashes at Fea, and no matter the distance, the attacks connect. “You aren’t really The Phantom Queen, are you?”
“Annie,” Fea screams. “Get outta here! Now!”
More feathers were thrown and deflected in a span of seconds than Ana could comprehend.
Was Fea crazy? Leave? There was no way Ana would leave her alone. FSM was close by, the two of them should just escape.
“Not without you,” Ana shouts. “We need to get out of here together.”
“Again with that shit!?” Fea snarls. “Stop actin’ like yer brave all of a sudden! Yer a coward! Ya run away all the time! So just get the hell outta here already!”
“Does this place hold some sort of sentimental value to you,” Otohime asks. “That doesn’t sound like The Morrigan from the stories at all.”
Otohime is right. Fea didn’t seem to care about much at all, yet here she is fighting for this place. Sure it was her domain but she had others. Wasn’t there more value in living to fight another day?
Otohime plunges her weapon at Fea. It hits, and Fea explodes into a series of feathers to escape. She doesn’t make it very far and ends up reforming right in front of Otohime, with dozens of more wounds scattered all over her body. Each bleeding spot on her is the size of a pinhole. Ana can see Fea’s flesh healing, but it isn’t fast enough, more holes just keep forming.
“The rain,” Ana says under her breath. Realizing what it had to be, Ana calls out to Fea. “It’s the rain! Fea you have to get out of the rain!”
“N-no...shit,” Fea grunts and rolls onto her side.
Despite the sheer amount of new wounds opening on her body, Fea manages to throw both her arms up. Every feather that made up Fea’s collar shifted to her hands and formed a shield of sorts above the girl. This was the first time Ana could see Fea’s shoulders and noticed that aside from the freckles there were burn marks.
“If you aren’t gonna leave at least be useful,” Fea says.
“R-right! Anything, I’ll do anything,” Ana responds.
“Ya have to get angry at me. Absolutely livid.” Fea’s words shock Ana. “C’mon. Like earlier...I know how ya felt. What ya wanted to say...”
The knot from earlier tightens. Ana’s feathers shake and she feels something lock in her chest.
“You hate me.” Fea smiles at Ana. “It’s okay. You aren’t the only one who feels that way. You aren’t the only one who hates me so much they wish I’d die. So, please...”
Was it the rain or were Fea’s eyes watering?
A lot of people might think Fea is the worst. An absolute monster. Ana would be hard pressed to argue with them. But right here at this moment, Ana feels like they’re one in the same. Ana is sure Fea hates her just as much, especially when she doesn’t listen.
Ana rushes to Fea’s side and gets in between her and The dragoness.
“Idiot! Don-” Fea starts, but that’s as far as she gets.
“Shut up! Shut. Up.” Ana looks back at Fea. “Let me do this.”
Ana looks to Otohime, hoping she could reason with her as she has with so many others.
“I’m sorry,” Ana whispers. “I understand that you’re angry and want to hurt her. But, please consider that she’s scared too. As afraid as you and everyone else is of her. Morrigan did horrible, horrible things. I’m sure she’s hurt someone precious to you. You’re probably right to want revenge. But don’t take it out on Fea. Please, she isn’t Morrigan. She isn’t The Phantom Queen.”
Ana gets down on her knees.
“I don’t understand the world,” she says. “It’s been this way ever since I could remember and I still don’t understand it at all. I ask stupid questions like why can’t everyone be happy, why isn’t there enough prayer or divinity or orison or whatever to go around. Somewhere someone is suffering right now because they don’t have enough, and others want to take what little they have left. Everyone is horrible in the eyes of someone else. So you have your reasons for wanting this domain, you might even need it. But I’m begging you- please don’t take this from her.”
Ana lowers her head to the ground.
“Annie! Don’t!” Ana hears Fea but refuses to listen.
Ana doesn’t speak again until her forehead touches the muddy ground. “I know it won’t make up for your troubles, but if you’d please leave this domain alone I’ll swear fealty to you.”
“Annie...” Fea falls silent after that.
“I don’t know what the value of this place is but I’m sure it’s worth more to Fea than I am.”
The rain rages on and Otohime just sighs. Then all at once, Ana feels pain coursing through the entire right side of her body. One swing of Otohime’s tail was all it took to send Ana flying back. Ana crashes and flounders to a stop in the mud, unable to get up.
“How many people have shown you mercy because you’re children,” The woman asks, waving her hand. The rain stops pouring and instead pools together forming a giant sphere of liquid.
“How many have you denied mercy?” Otohime glares at Fea. “I’m not like the others. I understand the enemy can come in any shape and size. Your age doesn’t change your accountability. You’re a conqueror so for you, this is a fitting end.”
The woman’s water ball cracks like an egg and out pours an ocean of knives. Ana knows it’ll hurt, even if she can’t feel most of her body as it is. Ana wonders if she’s afraid. If so, then of what? Was she afraid it would be painful or maybe of what comes next? Was Ana even afraid of dying? She hadn’t really thought about it before.
But when she considers everything. The idea doesn’t bother her all that much. Maybe that’s what she’s afraid of.
The pain of the flood doesn’t come, instead, the softness of feathers surrounds her and keeps her safe. With each second that passes a layer of feathers peels away. Ana holds onto her arm as she sits up and looks around to see feathers floating throughout the domain.
It’s surprising that the feathers were not just around her, but around the structures, and even the other weird feathers that were stabbed into the ground. Everything was preserved and unmoved after the woman’s massive attack. As magical as that was, there was something that bothered Ana. She saw the charred structures, and the feathers in the ground, and Otohime, but she didn’t see Fea.
It’s brief, like many things, but it’s still a scary thought. Suddenly Ana’s aware of a weight pressing against her head, shoulders, and back. She looks over and there Fea is, bruised and bleeding far more than ever before, but alive. Ana reaches up behind her ear and notices the feather Fea tucked back there from earlier was gone.
“I....told you to run...idiot.”
Ana gets to her feet and Otohime is already charging. Unable to fight on her own, Ana screams out at the top of her lungs.
“Dinner’s done, boy! We’re having spaghetti!”
A massive tendril slams into the ground, walling Ana and Fea off from their attacker. Another tentacle falls beside them and Ana climbs onto it. Once she’s situated Fea beside Hope and gotten herself strapped in, Ana commands FSM once more.
The next minute they’re in the air and a minute after that they’re miles away from Fea’s domain.
Ana checks Fea to see just how bad her injuries are. Some of them are healing, but not as fast as usual. What’s worse is that Fea’s molting. If this keeps up Fea’s shoulders would be bare before daybreak. Ana doesn’t know why, but this scares her; as though she knows what’ll happen when Fea’s shed her last feather.
Instead of thinking further on this, Ana gets up and walks over to Hope. She takes the sleeping baby and walks her to Fea. Ana raises Fea’s arm and slips Hope beneath it. She ties a noodle around them and returns to the pilot spot atop FSM’s ‘head’.
Without a destination in mind, Ana takes the reins and sets a path.