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I fell asleep on accident. And even when I tried to, I couldn’t open my eyes. I couldn’t move my arms, or my legs, no matter how hard I fought to free myself. Something was on my eyes, forcing them to stay closed. I gasped for breath through a damp rag, and struggled even harder. I heard mumbles over the sound of my heart beating through my throat and my head. I remembered what was next, and I whined a little bit, waiting for the inevitable pin-prick on my arm, or my torso…
Storm shook me awake, and my eyes shot open.
“Gray, you were having a nightmare. It’s okay, don’t be scared.” He held me tightly, hugging me and hiding my face with his wings as I began to remember where I was. The shelter… the humans- or, elves, as they had called themselves...
“Is she okay?” I heard one of them- Harold- ask. He sounded tired, and his voice was even more hoarse than it had been before.
“She’s fine,” Storm said quickly. “Just give us a second.”
“With all due respect, that is none of your business.”
“My bad. I’m sorry. I hope she feels better soon.”
There was a moment of silence, before I pushed away from Storm and sat up. I looked around at the elves. Fayne, the foolish one, had his eyes closed and his cheeks looked more red than they had before. All of them looked flushed, and a few of them looked like they had been crying, even as they were curled up clearly trying to rest. I couldn’t help but feel more than a little bad for them, and even concerned about their survival. They hadn’t been exposed to that much of the dust, yet they were as sick as any of us Chimeras would get for walking out into the dust storm for a full minute. Harold seemed to be the least sick out of all of them; his daughter was leaning heavily against him, coughing every now and then in her sleep.
“Where are Rune and Scout?” I asked Storm.
“Rune is gathering as many blackberry leaves and as much wood as he can. We’re going to make enough blackberry leaf tea for everyone, and we need another fire to make some food. Scout is out fishing right now.” Storm smiled a little bit suddenly. “If you’d like to join him you can, seeing how much you enjoyed fishing last time…”
“Oh, fuck off,” I growled, standing up. I heard Valla shift, and glanced at her. She was looking up at me and blinking slowly, her eyes red and watering. She stretched out her legs and arms, before trying to relax.
I remembered Valla’s last words before Valla and Safiena had decided to go to sleep. “I don’t want to go back to Akalai yet.” Safiena had seemed to immediately understand fully, but I didn’t. Valla seemed soft and fragile. All of the elves had an element of fragility to them compared to us, honestly. And it was clear they weren’t taking the dust well, either. It seemed so strange that the one who seemed to be the most vulnerable was the one who didn’t want to leave.
“I’m going to go set up the fire,” Storm said.
“I can come with,” I said. As we were leaving the shelter, however, I heard Valla move again. I looked at her and she was standing up, and looking at us. “Do you need something?”
“No, I… wanted to see if I could come with…” Her voice sounded worse than Harold’s had. He glanced up at her and shook his head.
“Princess, please don’t over-exert yourself…”
“I know you want to prove yourself but this isn’t how to do it…”
“Like I said, I’m fine…” She started coughing.
“That’s a clear lie…” Storm muttered. Valla was coughing too hard to respond to him immediately, but when she stopped coughing, she sighed in frustration.
“I want to get out of this place, okay? I don’t even know how long it’s been…”
“Is it relatively clear of dust out there?” I asked Storm. He nodded.
“Yeah, the only dust left is in the forest. Scout didn’t even have to use a face mask. But… they might need one, with how… sensitive they seem to it.”
I nodded, and thought for a second. “...If Valla’s determined to come out with us, she can use mine then.”
Valla smiled, and Storm blinked in surprise, looking at Valla and then back at me. Harold hesitated, but nodded.
“That may help, but… Princess, just don’t overwork yourself.”
“We won’t have her do any work,” I said to him. “Scout and I will just be tending to the fire, and if Scout and Rune get back we’ll help them make food or the tea that’ll help you guys out. So she’ll be fine.”
Valla nodded, and walked towards me. I untied my facemask from my neck and put it over her nose and mouth, and reached behind her neck to tie it on as securely as I could without hurting her. Her skin was soft, and her eyes were deep and seemed kind and intelligent. There were definitely a lot of differences between us and the elves…
“Keep it over your nose and mouth while we’re outside, just in case. There shouldn’t be any dust out there, but there is some in the forest always, and if the wind starts blowing more it can blow over here,” I said.
“Got it,” she whispered. “Thanks, Gray.”
I nodded, and turned away from her. “Let’s go, then.”
It was around midnight. When we were outside, Rune was already there. His eyes widened when he saw Valla, who seemed to be struggling to see anything beyond the sparks in Rune’s hands.
“Are they feeling better?” Rune asked.
“No,” I said. “But Valla wanted a break from being in the shelter.”
Rune nodded. He was already starting the fire, and had a basket of blackberry leaves by his side. I picked it up and looked in it for any traces of dust on them. Valla sat on the ground and watched Rune start the fire. “You’re a mage?”
Rune hesitated, but nodded. “Yeah. And an alchemist, but… I’ve achieved more in magic honestly…”
“That’s not bad,” Valla said. “I’m kind of both too, though I focus on magic. But the two go hand-in-hand a lot of times, really.”
“Yeah, they can help each other,” Rune said. “Storm, can you tend the fire? I’m going to go get some water so you guys can start making the tea, and then I’ll get more leaves.”
“Sounds good,” Storm said. Rune grabbed an extra basket and started walking to the forest. Valla leaned towards me, looking at the leaves. I glanced at how close she was to me… though I wasn’t bothered by it, surprisingly.
“Blackberry leaves?” Valla asked.
“How do they help?”
I shrugged. “We don’t know, but they definitely do help. They saved us from the dust when we first saw it, and ever since, it’s been what we go to when anyone gets sick.”
“I see… are blackberry plants common?”
“In the wild, they’re… reasonably easy to find, but you have to make sure they don’t have too much dust on them, or even in them, which can be difficult. Looks like Rune’s doing a good job of making sure they’re clean, though.”
“Can I see them?” I looked at her, and nodded. I shifted the basket so that she could look at them. “What does the dust look like? I saw some of it but… everything was rushing so much at first when we realized how much danger we were in.”
“It’s… well, it shines, for one,” I said, glancing at Storm. “It’s kind of… it just looks kind of dull and grainy in the dark. It’s easier to see in the light.”
“It’s really obvious in the light,” Storm said with a nod. “It almost glows in the light. Pretty much if you see anything glowing, stay away, and if you see nothing glowing, it’s probably too dark to see the dust so really… be even more worried.”
Valla sighed. “I see… seems like it’s hard to tell then.”
“Sometimes. We try to avoid being out when there’s no light- even the moon is usually enough to tell. We absolutely never go out when there’s a storm brewing… in the forest it’s near impossible to tell where the dust is during a storm, so you have to assume it’s all around you.” Storm explained.
“And it’s generally the right assumption,” I muttered. Storm nodded.
“Do you guys spend a lot of time in the forest?” Valla asked. I hesitated, and Storm looked at me.
“That’s where most of us live, so yeah,” I said.
“Most of you guys…? How many Chimeras are there, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“A lot more than just Scout, Storm, Rune, and I,” I said. “We have a town that we’ve kept sheltered from the dust.”
“So… a safe haven, then?”
“Kind of… from the dust. But it can be hard to get enough food in there without leaving, no matter how many gardens we have. There’s always more mouths to feed.”
Valla nodded slowly, and looked into the fire. “So hunger is a big problem…?”
“Yeah,” I said.
Valla nodded again, and closed her eyes. There was a long moment of silence. I looked at her as she took a deep breath through the face mask. “Sorry if I’m asking a lot of questions… I’m a bit of an anthropologist, at least, I’d like to be. I read a lot of their books.”
“A… what?” I raised an eyebrow at her. Valla opened her eyes.
“Someone who is really interested in cultures other than their own, and wants to learn more about them. It’s kind of… underrated in Akalai, though. And it’s not really a job that people like hearing a princess talk about being interested in, since usually, it involves travelling.”
“I… there are a lot of words you elves use that I’ve never even heard before, Valla,” I muttered. “Your name is Valla, right?”
“Then why do people keep calling you ‘Princess’? Is it another job title?”
Valla took a deep breath and looked up at the sky. “It’s… complicated. It kind of is, but it’s more… a title that I was given because of who my parents are, and my family lineage.”
“...What?” Storm and I looked at each other in confusion as I spoke.
Valla sighed. “Okay. Do you chimeras have a leader of any sort?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Do they have any children?”
I blinked. “I mean… he probably does.”
Valla paused, narrowing her eyes. “...You don’t know?”
“We can’t really be sure. It’s pretty damn rare that men know who their children are.”
“What exactly are you trying to get at, Valla?”
She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “...That just messed up how I was going to explain it. Does he have any known relatives…?”
“Yeah, his brother.”
“Okay, well, how do you guys feel about his brother?”
“He helps out where he can but most people don’t like him much.”
Valla opened her eyes and seemed to almost glare at me, as if she was trying to figure out if I was telling the truth. “Okay. If something happened to your leader, who would take his place?”
“Whoever is best able to.”
“So you don’t really have a person who you consider next in line, or anything like that…?”
“...No. I’m not even sure what you mean by ‘next in line’.”
“Okay, well… in Akalai, where I’m from, we have our leader, and his wife. Me and my older sister are their children. We’re called the princesses- as a way of kind of… acknowledging that we’re the children of the rulers and if something happens to them, one of them- well, my older sister first- will take their place as the leader. And also as a way of showing respect and saying that I should be protected.”
“Because you’re the child of the leader…?”
“Yeah. My sister and I both take classes in things that help with leadership- she’s better than I am though, and not just because she’s older. So… may the gods help Akalai if I ever end up being their queen.” Valla paused, before looking back up at Storm, then at me. “You two are siblings, right?”
“Yes,” I said. “Twins. And Rune is our younger brother.”
Valla opened her mouth but then looked at me in surprise. “Really? He looks nothing like you two…”
“...Is… Do you guys have different fathers?”
“So… is there any father figure in your family at all? I mean… I’m a lesbian so if there’s not, I don’t have a problem with it but it’s just not common in Akalai…”
“I have no idea what a lesbian is,” I said. “And Scout is Storm and my father, and he is actually close to our mother.”
“So… the man who isn’t here right now is your father? Didn’t you say it’s rare for fathers to know their children?”
“Yes, and yes. It’s possible in some cases… but not all. We just know that he’s our father because we look like him.”
Valla nodded. “I’ll admit… I don’t see the resemblance at all…”
I felt a pang of anger- not at Valla, but at the humans who had made our father the way he was. “He wasn’t always like this,” I said curtly, standing up with the basket of blackberry leaves. “I’m going to go offer some of these to the other elves, even eating the leaf itself can help. If you want one you’ll have to come inside again. It could be a while before we’re able to actually make the tea.”
Valla nodded and stood up, seeming to understand that the topic was sensitive. I glanced at Storm, who was glaring at her a little bit before looking back at the fire.
She quietly followed me back inside.
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