The Death Throes

I’m scrubbing my soul with lye.

The witching hour approaches, and I’m tired of choking on lingering spores.

On paper, it sounds so simple. The cause of the dark circles under my eyes, the heaviness of my limbs, the pain in my stomach.

I look at the synopsis. Stated so simply.

Was that it? Was that all it was?

Mere months of toxicity?

Mere mold, spreading, creeping up the walls and hanging around the human boulder on the living room floor. Fruiting bodies, releasing toxin.

Across the room, spores whispering around my head like gnats, burrowing into my skin. Rooting, spreading, suffocating. Was that all it was?

Behind my eyes, I watch the months in hyperdrive. Over and over again. Every time less raw. Less crisp, perhaps less reliable.

I was cornered because I didn’t know. Wasn’t that it?

Naivety, hope, guilt. Trying and trying, but never able to change anything.

It wasn’t my fault. Was it?

The apartment is clean now, but the embedded hyphae secrete toxin as they slowly wither away.

A red noxious film, a splotch on my heart, a craving for blood, for recompense I will never hold.

The more I want it, the more it binds me.

I gape in despair at the apparition of spores and pain and fumes. Shadows strung up like cobwebs. I thought I’d fought them all.

I thought this was finally dead.

The paper is soaked in toxin. It stings, burns, fills my mouth with bile.

The paper sees it first, in the dead of night. My creator reads over my shoulder, as the witching hour approaches.

I tell my loved ones in daylight.

I have been poisoned, and I will not hide my weakness from those that will pull me up.

The festering is dead and the hyphae are fading, but there may still be some stubborn embers.

Do not let me become what hurt me.

May this aftermath never be more than a passing sickness.

This lingering pain, the sting of antibiotic.

+++

A/N: It’s been a while, hasn’t it? Learned a lot of life things this year, including things about negativity and toxic people. Haven’t had the headspace to comment on them coherently, and I apologize for my recent absence on this little corner of the Internet. I hope to get back to a regular blogging schedule soon (one that will also be compatible with my soon-to-begin school year.) Thanks for bearing with me!

America the Broken

I am so incredibly heartbroken and disgusted by what has happened in the last few days. Brutal, unapologetic rapists get a 3 month prison sentence, a young rising singer loved by everyone who knew her murdered in a senseless act of violence, and then I wake up this morning to learn about the horror what went down in Orlando.

And I don’t have words. Certainly not civil ones.

All year, we’ve been hearing “Make America Great Again!!” along with “It’s ______’s fault.” The immigrants, the gays, the Muslims…etc etc etc. Things aren’t the way they used to be, and we are freakin’ uncomfortable with that.

But what happened to the still small voice of love in our hearts, against which everything is weighed and compared, which helps guide our responses and actions? Are we listening to the small, scared voice of our comfort zones instead?

I do not feel safe in my country and that has not always been the case, simply because I did not used to know what horrors awaited me in the real world. The kind of Great America that too many of us are hoping for does not exist, and it will not be solved by any one presidential candidate. Pining after such an illusion is like obsessing over the golden days of childhood—the blissful ignorance of privilege we simply cannot afford to entertain anymore. People are suffering, people are dying. What kind of modern, development-oriented society are we that allows this? Since the dawn of forever, the marginalized have been silenced, and now that they have fought and sacrificed and paid very dearly for the most basic of introductory footholds to make their voices heard, how dare we not listen. How dare we push them away and whine for the good ol’ days so we can ignore reality and sit in our cozy privilege and look after only ourselves and our posh, 2-dimensional ideas? 

The more I see of our downward spiral and notice the patterns in our history, the more I think perhaps America has never been “great.” We have used our power and wealth to meddle and abuse for as long as we’ve had the means. We are proud to be a melting pot, but at the same time, we stand on the bodies of the peoples we exploited to make our country what it is and continue to exploit them. We have sanitized and domesticated and commercialized ourselves and our ideas to a point that, quite frankly, no longer looks human to me, and our modern worshipping of firearms and status quo has led to the caustic, systemic plague of violence and hate exploding all around us.

And amidst all this horror and pain, how dare we think self-preservation is worth the monstrosities we are permitting?

Love is the greatest weapon against hate. It is a compass, a counterbalance. But faith without action is dead. Making this life count requires something of us, and if we want to do good in this world, it will not be from the tiny boxes we’ve decided are big enough.

The American Dream is over. It’s time to wake up.

+++

A/N: I’ve kept my wrath to myself the last few months. I may just be one young, angry voice. But something needs to change, and I will add mine to the call.

Enceladus’ Indigenous

I was the first to turn.

It was extremely quiet on Enceladus, the tentatively friendly moon of Saturn whose colonization we were sent to oversee. The operation was already pretty far along. They had begun to build towns across the frozen valley. I could spot people from the station windows. Going about their business, living life, quietly.

After two months here on assignment, I was beginning to think I didn’t like it here. It felt like we were living under a microscope, but with no one at the eyepiece. Like we were on the edge of being forgotten. As much praise and ambition people had had for the project back on earth, I had come to expect…more.

It’s a strange thing, to leave your own planet. It’s not like leaving your province, your country. It’s even farther. A deep, cold, alien homesickness, that lodges in your bones and never quite leaves.

And as I force myself to concentrate on work, updating the station, monitoring the environment, managing communication between earth and the projects across the valley—I can’t get over the fact that I signed up to be here for two years.

Two years.

The station was always chilly, but you get used to it after a while. The rooms were big and quiet and ominous. We all slept in the same room. The kitchen was massive as well, silent, dark, with the light from the skylight glinting blue off every chrome surface.

I hated to stay in the kitchen, the sleeping quarters too. But I was one to let my imagination run wild.

“¿A veces, te sientes como alguien está mirándonos?” I sometimes asked one of my colleagues, without thinking.

“¿…Qué quieres decir?”

That’s where it would end, usually. Me feeling like a paranoid freak, with the more rationalistic minds of the group beginning to think I was a paranormal fanatic.

I began to have nightmares, of dead people under blankets, rising with hollowed screams as I drew near. My colleagues, my friends. I began to see things, shadows racing across the walls, whispers of touch on the back of my neck, a gaze on the back of my head.

But there was never anything there.

A little fuzzy creature that called itself Pud got into the station, and stuck a little too close if it saw me. None of my colleagues could see it. Even when it stood right at their feet, looking up at them. I couldn’t get Pud to leave. It always found a way back in. Tried to cause trouble with the work. Always questioning what I was doing. Jeering at my colleagues.

They’d catch me telling it to get lost and let me work, to not sit so close, to get away from my food. I tried to reign it in when they were around. I tried to figure out where the little imp came from, but it never answered anything.

And how could it speak my language, anyway? That’s what I’d like to know.

I needed to get up the guts to stick up for myself to my colleagues. But…what if it really was just me? This frozen rock, the muffled, distant rumbling of its petulant geysers, hoping one wouldn’t form under the station. Perhaps it was beginning to get to me. Admittedly, I hadn’t been the most stable of people upon leaving earth.

I meant to put together something with empirical evidence, to show my colleagues something really was there. But I kept forgetting.

I was forgetting everything, actually. Simple things, like forgetting to wash my dishes after meals, even when the protocol was to line up and do it all at once. I kept finding things from my desk in my bed.

I dreamt my blanket wrapped me up and was trying to drag me off into the darkest corner of our quarters. Pud appeared and I punched it straight in the face. I woke up on the kitchen floor. The only sound the vague rumbling of Enceladus’ geysers outside.

I began to feel angry, all the time. Everything was cause for aggression. I am not an aggressive person. I don’t pick fights. I don’t bark, and I don’t bite.

But I did. Many times. Over stupid things. I got headaches. I lashed out at every opportunity.

The last straw was when I caught myself actually trying to physically bite someone.

I backed off, horrified. I turned and ran, looking for silence, for solitude. Sweating and shaking, I found myself in the kitchen.

I sank to the floor behind one of the counters. The only light came from a skylight in the middle of the ceiling, creating ghostly shadows, a frozen, blueish hue to everything.

I ducked forward, hands clutching my head. I wanted to kill them. I wanted to kill them all. But why? It didn’t make sense. They were my colleagues. We were a team.

Something stood over me, but when I looked up, I saw nothing. I fought to breathe.

This was supposed to be a quiet two years. Eerie and lonely too, perhaps. Sure, it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be, but it was quiet. A chance to do honest work, to be some good in this universe.

But I wanted to tear it down. Ten years of collective effort, I wanted to see it wiped from existence. These people and their arrogant, stupid structures. Didn’t they once stop to think that maybe Enceladus belonged to someone else?

My breath caught at a sudden, sickening crack of my spine, in the shoulder region. More followed it, all the way down, painful, electrifying; curving and elongating and pushing up and out.

With a cry of pain, I fell to my side. My legs grew longer, my feet stretching far beyond the backs of my slippers, losing human form. The skin was darkening, hardening.

I curled up into a ball. I could hear footsteps, muffled voices. I panicked. They couldn’t see me like this. I pushed myself up, feverish, my vision blurring in and out. My arms were unsteady, clawed hands warping beneath me. My spine had become longer, stretching my body another half its length.

Something burst out of my sides, thin shafts jointing and planting on the floor. Four extra appendages. My blood dripped on the polished tiles—black, viscous liquid, like an insect. I wanted to run, but I couldn’t move, couldn’t breathe.

Structures sprouted on my forehead. Two rows of two. When they opened and the confused visual information imposed itself upon my natural perception, I realized they were eyes.

The doors beyond the counters opened. Silence ensued. Listening.

“¿Renata?” One of my colleagues called. Sergio. “Renata, ¿estás aquí?”

Slow footsteps. I held still, my chest heaving, head and heart pounding.

He crept around the corner. As soon as our gazes met, he backed up in horror.

I acted on the first impulse: Attack.

+++

When I came to my senses, I found myself beating against a prison door with all six arms, screeching at the top of my lungs. I stopped, abruptly, and backed up, surprised and mortified.

I could still taste blood in my mouth. Red, coppery. Not my own. There was a gash in my grasshopper-like leg. It hurt like heck.

I sat down against the wall, trying to catch my breath, taking in the sight of myself.

My skin was almost black, plated along the top like some kind of lightweight bio-armor. My uniform was ripped and too short in many places. It was bloody.

I’d never been covered in blood before.

Had I killed someone? Oh god…

I stood up, creeping to the door. I felt like I was on stilts, with silly putty for a spine. Everything hurt. I tapped on the cell door, tentative.

“¿Aló?” I called. My voice had changed. My jaw felt torpid, trying to talk through rows of jagged teeth. “¿A—alguién está? ¿Qué pasó? No…no puedo acodarme después de…” After transforming. How long had my blackout been?

And why had I regained sentience now? Lost and found it just like that? If it was that easily forgotten, I could forget it again.

I was better off caged.

But for some reason, everything in me screamed to be set free. This cell was suffocating. It wasn’t safe, it was strangling me. I had to get out. They couldn’t keep me here. I had to empty this station. They all had to die or surrender—

I jerked myself away from the door, so sharply I collided against the back wall. That beat back some of the animalistic thoughts clawing through my head. For a moment, the spiraling, seething voice silenced.

I was shaking.

I felt the anger, as well as the derision. From deep inside me. Mingled with my fear and confusion and shame. Something else. Whatever had taken control of my body…it hated me.

It hated all of us.

This is the price for trespassing, it said. This world is not yours. It will never be yours.

“¿Qué es usted?” I demanded. To myself in the lonely cell. To the monster inside my head.

We are the indigenous.

“¿Renata?” A voice from outside the door made me jump. Delfina. “Franco dice que dijiste algo sofisticado. ¿Tú estás…tú?”

“¿Todos están bien?” I said, anxious. My voice shook. “¿Por qué estoy cubierta de sangre? ¿Maté a alguién?”

There was silence for a moment. “No.”

I brought a hand up to my mouth. “Gracias a Dios…”

“Pero empezaste algo,” she said, solemnly. “Algo aún más feo.”

“¿Qué quieres decir…?”

A screeching sound burst into the air from the cell next to mine. Scratching and banging against the door.

A weight dropped into my chest. “O no…” I straightened up. “¿A causa de la mordedura?”

“Eso pensamos,” Delfina said. “Funciona rápidamente. Pregunta es, ¿quién te mordió a ti?”
“Nadie,” I said. I tried to think back. No strange wounds had manifested. Just a lot of other strange things. “Pienso que me seguía un rato…De algún modo, me entró. No sé cómo…”

Delfina hesitated. “¿Este…Pud cosa?”

I took a steadying breath. “No sé. Es posible que tenía algo que ver…”

Maybe the night I punched it incited something. But that was in a dream…It had to have been…

“Tenemos que irnos,” I said, urgent. “Recoger todos de esta luna. Las creaturas aquí…Ellas son las que hacen esto.”

“¿Qué son?”

“No sé.” The thing in my head was sitting back and watching through my eyes and ears. If I did what it wanted, I hoped maybe it would leave us alone.

“¿Cómo hacen esto?” I muttered.

None of your business.

“Estamos dispuestos a trabajar con ustedes. Queremos colaborar.”

Now you’re negotiating, because we’ve made you a crazed monster. You will never be human again, you know.

I swallowed. “No creo eso,” I whispered.

“…Renata?”

“¡ALÉJATE DE NUESTRA LUNA!” The screech exploded out of me, compulsive. “¡O MUERA! ¡VAMOS A MATAR TODOS USTEDES!”

I clutched my head in my hands, bracing the other arms against the floor.

“No sabíamos—” I said through clenched teeth. “Por favor, no sabíamos. Tienen nuestra atención total, ahora le suplico, nos permitan colaborar con sus exigencias.”

The creature quieted then. I sat back, trying to catch my breath. I looked at Delfina, apologetic, wishing more than anything I could set this right.

10 years of collaborative effort. The pressure of colonization pushing back against an isolated incident on a tiny science station. As it stood, the indigenous had claimed me and Sergio. They wanted immediate evacuation, but we all knew they wouldn’t get it, not without an epidemic.

And as I sat on the cold floor of my cell, in temporary possession of my mind and altered body, I knew the indigenous intended to give us one.

+++

A/N: Been sitting on this one-off for a long time. I get really weird stories from dreams–more the environment and a few strange impressions, and then it spirals off into the sunset from there. Originally, like most of my scribblings, this was all in English, but I thought I’d experiment with language a bit for kicks, see how it changed its flavor, so to speak. I kind of like it.

For the translation: Enceladus’ Indigenous dialogue (english)

Reboot

comic3_robot_revised_1

A hand jammed into my chest. A quick, lethal tug.

That was my last memory.

When my next bit of sentience reengaged, I was lying on my back, looking into a round dark face, fluffy black hair framing it like thunder clouds.

“You are alive!” it said.

I jerked back. I tried to get up, to run. My leg was supposed to plant into the weedy grass and propel me, but it missed. Only air. I pitched straight onto my face, amid background noise of its voice, words I didn’t care to hear.

Its human voice.

The last voice I’d heard was human. Raised. I could still feel the tug. The last word.

u  s  e  l  e  s  s  .

GET AWAY FROM ME! I tried to say—but what issued from my voice simulator was a staticky buzz, ugly and unintelligible.

I cut off, surprised. Half my left leg was missing, twisted and snapped clear out of its socket. My chest panel was also gone, baring my sensitive inner circuitry.

I tried my voice again, quieter.

The human stood over me. It was showing me its palms. Bare hands.

Good for you. You have hands.

Bare hands were supposed to pacify me? Bare hands had fingers, muscles, bone, the perfect combination for insertion and extraction. Soft and vulnerable, perhaps, but cruel, all the same.

“It’s ok, it’s ok,” it was saying. “I’m not going to hurt you.”

I can’t trust you— More ugly buzzing. Water damage, probably. I glared at the hole in my chest, hunching my shoulders.

It had registered by now. I was in a junkyard. I could see the me-shaped outline in dead grass under a fallen beam a few yards away. Spindly arms, smooth edges.

The human had propped up the beam with a small scissor jack.

u  s  e  l  e  s  s  .

We are not supposed to have feelings.

But that’s a pesky side effect of advanced AI. Those of us that are placed with humans develop personalities.

She’d probably already seen it, this human. I didn’t know what to do. She’d decided it was a good idea to revive me, and now she’d seen—how many emotions plastered on my simplistic mechanical face? I didn’t care to count, but I tried to think of them—fear, surprise, hostility, disgust…

All problematic.

She’d probably cut more of my wires now, including the ones she had soldered back together. I had no escape.

My outer panels were already starting to rust. She would cut my power, take whatever scraps she wanted, and leave my remains to rust away.

Because robots were never supposed to feel.

“What are you doing out here?” she said, gently kneeling next to me.

I curled up, slowly.

Sadness came, then. Pain, betrayal, confusion, grief. Welling up in my circuits, flooding my broken voice simulator, adding a whining tinge to the grating buzz. They threw me away…

I showed negative emotion and they threw me away, and now that same fearful ugliness was spilling out of me.

I curled up tighter. I hid my face, but I couldn’t hide the shaking.

Why did she revive me? Why?

I hadn’t hurt anyone.

Why did they throw me away?

What was I supposed to do now?

“Well then.” She got to her feet.

When I looked up, she had extended a hand.  “What do you say we get your leg fixed up? Your voice simulator too?” She flashed a smile. The well-meaning type. “You look like a talker…”

I stared at the hand. Callused palms, short fingernails, grease and rust along the fingertips. Probably from me. The hand remained in the air between us.

I chanced to look into her eyes. Tentatively, I unfurled a tiny bit. I lifted a hand.

I placed it in hers. Metal panels against seamless skin.

Her smile softened and the warm, organic fingers closed.

And I wanted to believe in that sensation.

I wanted to believe that maybe overstepped malfunctions like me deserved to live too.

+++

A/N: A written version of a comic I did for class this last semester.

Kindling

One final checkmark. I felt it coming on many days in advance. Perhaps even weeks.

Before I felt the anger and contempt and unrest building to unbearable proportions, I knew one last dialogue was on the way.

Either he would instigate a talk, or I would explode under the pressure. Or, if we were lucky, we’d just fade away. Our time together would expire and we would never draw near again.

A metaphorical matchbox sat heavy in my hands. The crumbling, warped bridge barely standing between us.

One final checkmark.

I ended up sparking the impending moment with an indecorous flare of anger. I was met with outright denial.

A misunderstanding, perhaps, on the subject of my tactless quip. But I couldn’t have misunderstood everything. Not the things I saw and felt–the months of emotional stress that had slowly been driving me to breaking point after breaking point. Things witnessed and affirmed by another uninvolved.

I couldn’t have misunderstood it all.

Yet he was in the mood for denial, so I tried a familiar route he knew positively. I asked if he was ok.

Yeah, I’m fine. He said. Are…you ok?

When the sun is shining and all the thorns played off, he is an affable, open book. He is kind and eager to please. He loves discussion, and he can make a person feel like humanity is a virtue.

But only when the trouble does not concern him. He does not have the stomach for humanity, then.

Are you ok?

The final checkbox stood waiting, red, phosphorous. A match between my fingertips, the bridge before me. I’d already decided it needed to be burnt, but the question remained as to how it would go down.

We hadn’t been speaking for a while already. I hoped maybe he had thought through some things when, as a last resort, I had had to distance myself, allow my supports to atrophy. Maybe he had grown up a bit, now that I’d openly had enough of his toxic, juvenile behavior.

As I leaned against the doorway, staring at his face, his question, I thought maybe I could hope that when we parted, he wouldn’t turn right around and do this to someone else. Maybe the crumbling of our bridge had taught him some valuable lessons. Maybe finally he would help me put it out of its misery and move forward.

Months of pent up anger gave me courage.

I decided to be honest. For old time’s sake, for aligning myself with my firm belief that mutual communication and honesty are the best way to solve problems.

Out of the last few shreds of respect I held for him as a person, I decided to be honest.

After months of him skittering around me, avoiding eye contact, submissive speech and dirty looks, of fickle and unpredictable fits of self-pity, he looked me dead in the eye. He spoke with more clarity and lucidness than I thought he was capable of with anyone.

And he emphatically denied all of it.

He wanted specifics, but I was too flustered and incredulous to think of anything that would make sense to him. My pride screamed at me to think of something he could not deny, but I knew it was useless. He never heard me when I spoke. Only when it was good. Anything real, he recoiled from as if burned, a child’s hands struck by a ruler.

I stuttered a few lame sentences. He was earnestly confused by them, the pitch of his voice raising as he continued to press for a  better explanation, as if this were the first he had heard of the problem. I stared at him, dumbstruck. I think he truly believed himself. He spoke with such conviction I wondered, mortified, if I had made up everything about everything. If I was the insane one in this.

You know what, forget it, I said through gritted teeth, turning away. Just forget it. Stupid, petulant words, but they were all I had. He would never hear me.

Then his voice broke. Pleading hopelessness and confusion. An almost comical repeat of months past, whenever I attempted to calmly address concerns like a responsible adult and he never interpreted it as such.

Finally, I understood.

Like every other instance when the saccharine mask of sunshine and smiles and honeymoon friendship faded, whenever I tried communication, he pulled his platinum level victim card. He threw it down in front of me that afternoon, begging me to take it, to ease up, to make sense. A slap to the face. Presenting the front of his useless clogged filter he really believed was in working order.

And as the realization hit me, so did the overwhelming disgust. A deep, revolting nausea that would cling for days afterward.

He’d learned absolutely nothing.

I left him alone as he continued to blubber on, trying to shed responsibility. The brick wall of his stricken face, his teary eyes, his tight voice.

He would never change.

There was nothing more to say.

The last box was finally ready to be checked off.

I stepped forward to the bridge, finding it much uglier than just a second before, a whole other layer of illusion stripped away. Beneath the chipping, weathered paint, I could finally see just how painfully the wood was twisted and rotting. How many boards were missing, bolts and sockets rusted and cracked, how the supports had been defective all along. I had done everything I could to save it, but perhaps this bridge should never have stood in the first place. It was a time bomb, a desperate, idealistic joke.

The last clinging drops of remorse and hesitation detached as I docked his beloved victim card into the seam between two wooden supports.

Grimly, I struck the match and lit the card’s sharp, bitter edge.

+++

A/N: Some personal prose, I guess. A new experience for me.

 

 

It’s not just about drawing.

It’s certainly been a while! I keep trying to figure out how to concisely describe what my life has been lately, but it feels almost impossible to adequately put into words. I’ve spent the last two months typing in scraps of writing on my phone while commuting in the early mornings, or while I’m sitting in my workspace with too many confusing thoughts to concentrate through. When I tried to consolidate them into a coherent blog post, they kept falling through. Today, fresh out of a rather rough midterm week, I find myself in a good position to actually offer something more put-together for my poor, neglected blog.

It’s been pretty intense these days, a long hard lesson in the concepts that being a professional illustrator is not just about being able to draw.

I thought I had a good work ethic. I quickly establish myself in almost every setting as a hard and intelligent worker. Yet this semester has shown me just how small I still am. I have been pushed to hardcore self-motivate even when my work environment sometimes feels stifling, to not make excuses or waste precious time complaining, to develop systems and efficiency but above all putting in the hours because there is no way around it, to deliver however much is asked of me when it is due, and to decide all over again that I want this enough to work harder than I have ever worked for it.

And my efforts have been fruitful. I’m learning a ton and, though I’m overwhelmingly busy and often exhausted, my inspiration is amply bolstered by everything.

I’ve found I like watching the hands and eyes of illustrators. The eyes of storytellers are always thinking, taking in visual information for both physical navigation, but, more significantly, for absorbing reference and inspiration. In a way, illustrators and storytellers are always studying, always crossing back and forth between reality and the realities they create in their own minds. Such line-crossing has been my experience for as long as I’ve been alive, and I am so excited to be able to see it all around me, to get to learn from people who have made it their livelihood, and are extremely good at it.

I’m convinced illustrators are wizards. And with as hard as this semester has been, demanding more time and effort in my art and processes than I feel I can always keep up with, that thought helps keep me going. Skilled illustrators are capable of things not a lot of people can do. Every moment I spend working toward my classes, I am learning. I am pushing into the reason I decided to plunge myself further into student loan debt instead of teaching myself. I see my art improving almost weekly in speed and quality. I’m connecting with fellow students, learning from people a generation or more ahead of me, yet cut from the same aching, dreaming fabric.

It breathes in their work. In the searching, considering gaze of their eyes, of the steady, analytical efficiency of their hands.

And slowly, I’ve been watching my hands take on a sort of slenderness they’ve never had before. They’ve always been kind of wide, shortish, sturdy. Growing up, I used to think they were kind of mannish. There’s a deep-seated callus on the right ring finger from years of nearly constant writing. Most of the calluses on the palms from gymnastics have faded from 5 years of disuse, but I like to think their memory is still there, buried and dormant. The fingernails are short and ragged, nervous habits fueled by stress and restlessness from the tendency to forget I have human needs.

They are often jittery. A nearly constant pressure to work and create and learn, working as hard as they can stand, but still not perhaps fast enough. This is what the last several weeks have been. The standard my professors hold me to can be overwhelming, but it’s also empowering. I am training to attain that standard, after all. All I have to offer is my best, and that is a bar that is constantly raised and reoriented.

Sometimes I glance down when I’m writing, consider my hands in the mirror as I use them to command my toothbrush. And I can see it, that sense of becoming.

I can see it in my face too. Sharper lines, cartoon-villain-like dark circles under my eyes. An unimposing frame of straight, steady contour lines, most often shrouded in some kind of sweatshirt. A body used to sitting still for hours and hours on end. Of doing whatever it can to adjust to what I’m putting it through. 3 hours of sleep is the new 5. Meals are short and simple, usually only to keep me steady. It holds out as long as it needs to, long nights and even longer days capped by tramping up the steep hill back to the apartment, toting all manner of supplies after an endless day of class.

Over the last month, I have been seriously intimidated by what I’ve gotten myself into: Painstakingly time-consuming assignments to understand paint and color, training myself to be patient and pay attention to realistically render a portrait with just two colors of pastel pencil, spending hours hunched over a tablet screen, drawing out comics more sophisticated than I’ve ever challenged myself to perform, trying to prepare 3 fully inked pages for critique in just a short week’s time. Working my hardest and still having to pull a near all-nighter to stay on track.

I’ve gotten away with too much in my time as a student in higher education. This graduate program’s been teaching me a thing or two about pulling myself together, staying calm, and putting in the hours. I’ve had to take a good hard look at everything I’ve been working for, demanding an answer from myself of whether or not I want this enough.

My life is currently a constant series of adjustments, of striving, of becoming. It has pushed me to the edge and back more than I can count, and I know this is just the beginning. I often wonder if I am capable of pulling this off.

That very fact tells me I’m right where I need to be.

Paths crossed

Stacea stopped in the street, suddenly, making Aría jump.

“What was that?” Aría said.

Stacea raised a hand to her head. “I don’t know…it felt like…” She shook her head, brow furrowed. She looked around, mouth slightly open, tasting the air, thinking.

“I sense a mage…” she said, slowly. She turned around. “The reptile one…”

“Ingram’s apprentice one?” Aría said, following her step in her chosen direction. “His master too?”

“No, just the one…” Stacea’s eyes narrowed. She shook her head again and rubbed a hand under her nose. “None of our business, anyway. I don’t care what the little skink does.”

Stacea continued walking down the street, and Aría tripped after her.

“Does he smell bad?” Aría glanced back.

Stacea hesitated. “Not really, why?”

Aría gave a one-sided shrug. “You seem really…hostile. He seemed pretty harmless to me at the anniversary dinner…”

Stacea kept her eyes on the street. “Have you not heard about Arkenyon mages?”

Aría hesitated. “No…? Aren’t mages like…herbalists, fortunetellers and the like?”

Stacea shook her head. “Not Arkenyons. They take it forty more levels. From what Mariet has told me, they can rip reality apart. Skilled mages can do just about anything they want. They’re sensitives, is the thing. Diliken sensitives are more herbalists, reading the lines of the lifestream, communing with nature and helping keep things in balance. I don’t know what they do in Kaladría, but in Arken, it’s like they’re made of those notorious thunderstorms of theirs. It roots them out, drives them insane…” She shivered. “I can feel it when people like them are nearby. It makes my skin crawl…”

Rapid footfalls on the street swelled behind them, shouts of “‘scuse us! Coming through! Look out!”

Aría glanced back again, just as they tore past her and Stacea.

“I think we’re going to head it off!” one of the boys panted, triumphant. Aría caught the hint of smoke from his singed shirt.

They swerved into an alleyway.

“What was that about…?” Aría looked at Stacea and paused at the look of sheer dread on her friend’s face. “—Are you all right?”

They heard a distant crash of wood and Stacea took off in the direction the boys had gone. Aría tripped after her. “What’s going on?”

“I don’t know.” Stacea called back. “Nothing humane, I can tell you that!” She turned the corner just in time to watch the boys turn one further up. “I think they’re after that mage kid. He’s nearby, moving—” Her eyes narrowed. “And he’s scared out of his mind…”

Aría kept up with her, winding through the alleys. Finally, they turned a corner and found a group of people gathered in the mouth of a narrow alley.

“Please listen…” Aría heard a young voice, cracking and frightened. “I’m not dangerous! I haven’t done anything—”

Stacea marched forward, and Aría heard the dragon in her voice. “Leave him alone!

The group paused, glancing back as Stacea pushed herself through, Aría on her heels. Stacea straightened as soon as she broke through, as if in surprise. Bristling, she twisted to face the group as Aría wrestled herself out the other side of the gathered.

She found herself looking at a huge pile of snake, more than anything else. Pressed up against the wall of the dead end, she saw the boy, his ashen face orange, not the burgundy she remembered from when she’d seen him with his master in the royal commorancy. His brown eyes were wide and tearful. He was shaking.

She took a step forward, palms held out in a peacemaking gesture.

“It’s all right,” she said gently. “You’re all right now. Stacea can hold them off. We’re not going to hurt you.”

His unconvinced gaze switched between her and the deterred crowd. Stacea was chewing them out. Aría ventured nearer, and the snake boy let her approach.

“—Don’t let her get near it!” one of the people cried. “It’s like an electric eel! Not to mention it’ll snatch her faster than you can blink! Crush her in an instant.”

Stacea barred their way with an arm, drawing herself up further. “Does that kid really look like he’s going to hurt anybody?”

“Never seen anything like that,” someone said.

“Shapeshifters are dangerous,” another added, resolute.

“So we gang up on them?” Stacea spat. “Oh sure, that will make them safer to be around. Haven’t you spoken with him?”

“…yes…but—”

“And what was he saying!” Stacea demanded.

“What’s your name?” Aría said softly, kneeling down next to Irix’s apprentice.

“Kennick…” the boy said. He brushed a hand across his eyes. “Kennick Turmen…”

Aría offered a tender smile. “I’m Aría. I don’t know if you remember me…but I’m the maid who gave you soda water that night in the Diliken commorancy…You’re Irix Ingram’s apprentice, right?”

Kennick stared at her, his breathing beginning to calm. Confused, he nodded. “I remember you…” He glanced down at himself and shifted, pulling his torso up to more of a sitting position. “Sorry…I’m sorry–this is so messed up. You probably–”

“You’re a shapeshifter?” Aría said, stopping his embarrassed fumbling.

Kennick nodded. “But I’m not dangerous—I swear I’m not—”

Aría held up a hand. “It’s all right. I know.”

“Go about your own business,” Stacea was growling at Kennick’s assailants. “We’ll take it from here. We know exactly how to deal with shapeshifters. We’ll figure out where he means to go and get him out of here. Don’t cause any more trouble than you already have.”

Aría smiled in spite of herself. Stacea was bluffing. As if all shapeshifters were the same…

“I tried to keep this from happening…” Kennick said, tripping over himself. “I tried so hard–” Aría wasn’t used to Arkenyon accents, but she followed as best as she could. “But—see—I can’t have legs for more than a few hours because I broke my instinctive cast…and I thought everything was going to work out, but I got lost and…” His throat tightened. He bowed his head, wiping at fresh tears and trying to get a hold of himself.

Aría gave him a moment. “Where’s your master?”

Kennick glanced to where the people were beginning to filter away. Some disappointed, some angry, others just embarrassed. Stacea stood planted in front of them like a mean house cat, her fluffy hair a swatch of black in the tan bricks of the alleyway.

“My master…” Kennick trailed off. He lifted a hand to his head, breathing a shaky exhale. “I…” He looked into her eyes, desperate. “I need to speak to the king. Can you help me? It’s extremely important…”

Aría hesitated. “That’s a steep request…”

Stacea came up behind her.

“Thank you so much,” Kennick looked up at her. “They were threatening to cut me open…”

“Disgusting,” Stacea said. She docked her hands on her hips. “You should know better than to show this side of yourself in the city…”

“I know—and I do—it’s just…I couldn’t help it—” Kennick stammered, miserably drawing his tail closer around himself, away from her feet.

Aría glanced back at her friend. “He said he damaged his legs so can’t have them for long. Is that correct, Kennick?”

“More or less.”

“He also says he needs to talk to the king,” Aría said.

Stacea stood over them, brow furrowed. “We can’t get you in there.”

“But you work there—” Kennick blurted.

“Yes, but there are guards at the gate, who are not going to let us waltz through with an orange Arkenyon boy,” Stacea said. “A snake, no less. And even if we did, someone’s going to find out we smuggled a shapeshifter into the royal commorancy, and we will be in the worst trouble of our lives.”

Kennick’s face flushed. He sank into himself a little in despair. “I know…” he said. “I knew it was a long shot…”

“Why are you here?”

Kennick glanced aside. “You won’t believe me…”

“Try me,” Stacea said.

+++

A/N: Hello! It’s been a while! I was going to post a life update, but I thought nah. Maybe I’ll post that later. Have a Diliken fiction blurb instead! *thumbs up*

Observers

“Oh—they came!” Elna cried. Kennick looked up from his nest by the hearth as the girl hurried over to the door and stood up on her toes to look through the window.

Tiny dots of light undulated past the glass.

“Fireflies?” Kennick said.

“Come here—“ Elna waved him over.

Kennick picked himself up and crept to the door to look.

“Däkhama,” Elna said. A group of the glowing orbs sat around the edge of the bowl Elna had stationed on the end of the porch. The milk inside rippled gently, like small tongues disturbed the surface.

“Momma says they’re the heartbeat of the world. The observers. They come and watch all creatures, and they give off certain vibes that help things stay in balance, especially between humans and mythical creatures. Da says they can predict earthquakes and stuff too.”

Kennick squinted, trying to see the creatures through their light, but he couldn’t. “How?”

“Don’t know,” Elna said. “But they come to visit if you put out milk and sugar just when it’s starting to get dark.” She smiled at him. “We’ve been doing this a long time, so they all know this is a good place to come for snacks.”

Kennick watched some flit away from the bowl while others crammed into their spot along the rim. Some were sniffing around the grass off the porch like glowing bumblebees.

“If you’re mean to them, the forest becomes a very sinister place,” Elna’s mother said, from by the fire.

“Do they let you near them?” Kennick said, raising a little higher to see better.

Elna grinned and reached for the doorknob. Kennick backed up as she carefully unlatched and opened the door. She peeked her face out, listening, waiting.

Kennick glanced back. The family was watching the ordeal.

Elna’s father got up and went to the kitchen. He opened a drawer and scooped some loose, granulated sugar into a small bowl. He handed it to Kennick.

Elna pulled her head back into the house. “All right,” she said. “They seem to be in a social mood.”

“How can you tell?” Kennick said, quietly.

“You can just feel it.” She stepped out onto the porch, gesturing for Kennick to follow.

He carefully slithered out onto the wooden boards. The air outside felt industrious, but the feel of it filled more and more with curiosity, directed at him. He gently closed the door behind him.

A few däkhama drifted up to Elna’s face.

“Hello,” she said, smiling.

The dots of light began to gravitate toward Kennick.

“Stay still,” Elna said. “Let them sniff you.”KEln_Dakhama_2

Kennick complied. He tried to hold his breath as they hung around his face, landing on his arms, his hair, his long, serpentine lower body. They were warm creatures.

One alighted on his nose, and he felt very tiny grippers, like caterpillar feet. He tried to see it through the light. It was vaguely star-shaped, full-bodied, but he couldn’t see much more than the blurred outline.

“Do they sting?” he whispered. The däkhama on his nose took to the air again, skimming back to the milk bowl.

“No,” Elna took some of the sugar from him and a handful of the creatures left their investigation of Kennick to eat it from her hands. “Don’t worry.”

Gradually, the rest of the däkhama began to lose interest in the human shapeshifter, and filtered away to continue their meal, or to take sugar from Elna or the bowl in Kennick’s hands.

“So—if you’re nice to them, they tell their friends, and the supernatural doesn’t really target you?”

“More or less.”

Kennick raised his gaze to the hundreds of soft lights floating around the yard. He sat back. “Wow.”

+++

A/N: Where Kennick is from, to be a mage commands a measure of volatility–which can be difficult to control. In the vast, notoriously dangerous forests of Dilikí, such sensitivity carries a very different meaning.