STORY THUS FAR:
When Numaix was six, she killed the family dog.
It was less of an accident and more of the fact that a creature, darker and more arcane than even the Neopian faeries, sought her out just before her birthday and made a bargain with her. Maix was overly fond of a bunch of plushies that she liked to insist were animate beings, but was scorned for this. Her parents patiently coped with her, in spite of her now-growing impatience ("They ARE real, mama! They talk to me!"), to the extent where, once, in a particularly loud and rowdy argument on her behalf, she stormed to her room. Sitting on her windowsill, lazily inspecting its nails, was something that vaguely resembled a faerie. Its flesh was soft and gray and appeared to have a semblance to half-melted candle wax, and it had a cold, smooth face, devoid of any facial features, with only the faintest of shapes and indentations to suggest where its nose, mouth, and eyes should have been. It had skeletal, jointed wings, but they seemed to drip uselessly with strips of tissue.
It called to her, and in the matter in which little children are sometimes fearless, she demanded, "Who are you?" To which she received the reply: "Someone that you'll learn to love, sweetheart." The creature went on to explaining, in silky, nuanced tones to the spellbound child, that it could make everyone see the life in her beloved stuffed animals. It promised that people would believe her then, when row by row all of her precious little toys would rise into a true state of life. And she accepted this, thinking that she'd found a solution at last.
But these things come with a price.
Now, this family had a dog. It was a hybrid between a common Warf and a Doglefox, a mutt that the breeders had been all too eager to dispose of - a simple minded creature, but undeniably loyal, and much beloved. He had picked up the scent of something sour and vaguely burnt from Maix's room, and, feeling obliged to protect her, bounded down to her, barking frantically. Before he reached Maix, however, the creature on the windowsill slid to its gnarled feet. In a snap of its skeletal fingers, the dog dropped abruptly dead at Numaix's feet, and the place of his life arose things that never should have lived.
Numaix, however, was delighted. These toys were full of evident life, and immediately seemed to love her. They followed her around, calling her name softly in adulation and chattering away and praising her generously. However, when she drew her parents close to witness the spectacle, thinking that this would finally get them to understand why she cared so much, her little animals had fallen silent. They were slouched lifelessly on the floor, having retained their previously inanimate forms, much to Maix's dismay. Her parents, who were occupied elsewhere, were annoyed at her distractions and chided her for leaving her toys lying around.
Deeply frustrated, Maix returned to her room and slammed the door. Her toys promptly sprang back to life with a couple of quick shakes and blunders, and soon were as enthusiastic and alive as they had been before. She played with them until the anger in her mind numbed and subsided into nothing. All that was left was an almost giddy elatedness, and she watched as her toys chased each other around in circles across her bedroom floor, disregarding the body of her dog as it lay by her door. The strange man had long gone, but she didn't think much of it back then - something that, so many years later, she would learn to regret.
But for now, Maix was thriving in the world that her own imagination and her living charges carried out for her. She spent hours and hours playing, locked away in the seclusion of her room, so isolated that it took days before her mother finally walked into the room and found the body of their pet sprawled on the floor. However, Maix could not procure an explanation that was plausible in her parents' eyes, and, choosing not to believe her, they blamed it on an internal disease. It was sadly that her parents buried that little dog, and they were left devastated looking at his small, lonely grave in their backyard, for he had been loved. And Maix, meanwhile, stayed in her room and whiled the time away with her toys.
After a while, it was announced to the young white Draik that she would be having a little sister. Her parents spoke to her, expecting her to be pleased, but instead, Maix was shocked into jealousy and refused to speak to them. She feared that what she considered to be the limited amount of attention given to her would be diverted. She feared that her life would be stolen away by a wailing bundle of sleeplessness and complaints - she had watched enough TV to come to this conclusion. And so, sulky and even more peeved, she ducked into her room and played more furiously now. Her parents would sometimes walk past and hear banging and screaming, but when they burst into her room, concerned, their daughter paused and looked up blankly, surrounded in her stuffed animals.
A couple of weeks after the newest addition to the house finally arrived, Maix's health seemed to deteriorate. She spent more time closed away still, but now, when she emerged, she was tired and spent. Her parents were thoroughly occupied with caring for the gurgling baby that they seemed to dote on. Feeling more and more jealous, and now more and more sickly, as convulsions of a disease tore at her from inside and out, Maix slid away into delirium. She collapsed, once, and was sent immediately to bed, where she was gripped was powerful hallucinations and a dreadful fever. Her parents hovered over her, concerned, as she moaned about how the "Dripping Man" had cheated, how they were "so, so blind".
They didn't understand at the time. But they grew progressively more worried about her state of mind, and she shrieked and howled and pleaded that they let her keep her toys about her, and so they consented. What else could they do? Little did they know that this was a part of the cause for her rapidly draining health. The other factor came to her at night, sometimes, in the form of the Dripping Man - sitting at her bedside and offering soft, honeyed words to her. Once, he brought her a bouquet of blood red roses, but when Maix touched them they turned to ashes and blew away. He amused her with his small tricks, and in the end her frustration toward him subsided.
He spoke to her, too, in a voice that only she seemed capable of hearing. "You mustn't let them take your toys, Maix," the Dripping Man said to her, once. "That's what they want: to make you unhappy." And then other times she saw other things - flashes and glimpses of strange other creatures that were not quite in her range of comprehension. Mousy little creatures scurried between her floorboards at night; once, a sad-looking, hunched little imp, its skin so old and weathered that it had split like stone, hovered on her window all night, its luminescent yellow eyes fixated on her. Other times, scarcely visible entities drifted in and out of her vision, some clearer than others, whispering to her things that she did not quite grasp before they were gone, but she detected panic in their voices, and sometimes even fury.
Through this, her feverish attitudes peaked, and she screamed at her parents for not believing in these things that she saw. Eventually, the conversation would waver, as it always seemed, to her toys. Her concerned parents decided that maybe it would be best to confiscate these objects - they only seemed to upset her all the more. Worriedly, they pulled the toys away and left them in their room. When Maix awoke, she was thoroughly upset at the loss of her toys, but after a while, her mind wandered to other pressing matters. The Dripping Man ceased to visit her as the toys vanished, although her visions continued sometimes, flash pulses of other colors and places. Her sickness slackened its grip slightly, although she was still pale and trembling and clearly unwell, retired mostly to her bed. When she did come out, she was weak and ill concerted, stumbling about. The images pervaded her mind, sometimes, confusing her to no end. Sometimes, she found herself erupting into another place, suddenly, brought back only when she bumped into something in her world or was called back somehow by a concerned voice or the slamming of a door. And it was difficult, sometimes, to pry apart the real world from these other ones that she kept on seeing, flashing by in her mind.
One night, she awoke to something softly murmuring her name - over and over, growing progressively insistent. It was soft and scarcely above a whisper that radiated down the hallway, and slowly, softly, she crawled out of her bed and padded down the hall, following the sounds. When she walked in, her mother and father were sleeping peacefully, and the baby, in her cradle, lay still and unmoving. The toys were huddled around, their eyes gleaming in the moonlight, their mouths open, gaping - shark-like, pristine teeth glittering at her from their shockingly wide jaws. Numaix, they whispered. The same words echoed from every one of them, but these words were soft and hushed and in a multitude of different voices and emotions that shimmied and wove themselves in and out of one another. It's been so, so long. Come with us. Why won't you play with us any more? She stared at them blankly, not quite registering - and they whispered to her of how they were trapped, how they could not move, how all she had to do was to pick up a pillow and walk up to them, to smother her parents' faces until their air choked free, until every last breath was gone...
Slowly, almost mechanically, Maix started to move...and paused. She looked at the plushies, goading her on, their shark's teeth glinting in the light, and something flickered inside of her, an unease that she couldn't quite explain. "No," she said, quietly.
The toys snarled and leapt at her, clawing their way, skittering across the floor. They whirled and tumbled and slithered, hissing in unison, MAIX! MAIX! MAIX! Play with us, Maix! Set us free! Love us. Don't you love us any more? And she screamed softly - a strangled sound that scalded her throat, but went almost unheard - and scrambled back, crying at them to leave her, to let her be, but for once they would not listen. They crawled up at her, grinning, claws and wheels and flippers scuffling dryly against the floor. Her toy helicopter spun around her, its static echoes of her name wrapping around her in accusation. We love you, Maix. Why don't you love us? Play with us. Play with us, Maix! We are your best friends. Pretty little Maix. Foolish Maix... And they sprang upon her, their sharp fangs tearing into her, wrapping around her face and obscuring her eyes, clutching at her throat, clinging to her legs...their sweet, rasping words ringing around her ears, curdling and souring.
Somehow, the Dripping Man had appeared behind them, and was staring at her with his eyeless sockets, a twisting, toothless smile wrapping its way across his malleable features. Help, she wanted to scream, help me, please, but he would not hear, and he would not care.
And then the baby began to moan, and then cry, awoken rudely by this commotion. The toys faltered, seething in their fury, and Maix used this to her advantage, kicking herself free and running, rashly, up to her parents. Something in her wanted their comfort, but the Dripping Man was there first, throwing himself across the floor. In a rustle and a blaze of his torn wings, he stood suddenly before her, as if he had teleported, his features sagging and his ripped threads of wings fanned out aggressively on either side of him. "Silly Maix," he said, softly, reaching out to grasp at her chin in crude tenderness. "You can't run away from me." Behind them, her toys shuffled forth, moaning and spitting and lamenting their abandonment. She stumbled back - how could her parents not hear this infernal noise? - and then the walls broke around her. They twisted and warped like wet clay, rippling in and out, slanting and tilting. It was the vision of an insanity. She cried for her parents, but suddenly, a shifting wall speared through the floor and obscured them from view as they awoke, their eyes wide with fear. She heard them screaming for her and for her sister as the barrier went up between them, and then they were sealed away, and no matter how much she leapt and pounded at the wall, it remained stark and unmoving. And then the plushies came, approaching rapidly, vengeful from their tumble. The Dripping Man reached out and grabbed Numaix, painfully, and lifted its skeletal wings as if to fly away with her...
But then instinct ruled over. There was one window that remained unharmed, a little crooked, but nevertheless an escape route. She slammed into the Dripping Man, shocked at the softness of his flesh - he screamed as if in awful anguish and doubled over, wings snapping down, and in this moment she ran. She bolted for the crib and snatched up her baby sister, and then pivoted to run for the opening. But the creature saw her intention and moved once, and a shattered fragment of wall licked up, obscuring her only escape route.
Desperate, running out of options, she turned, and her enemy approached. Maix hugged the baby to her, a quick squeeze, and then turned and grabbed the nearest weapon available. It just so happened to be one of the bars from the crib, which, with a great deal of straining, she managed to break loose, driven by her fear. She turned, whirled, and when the creature came, she lost her concentration. Terror corrupted in her mind, and instinct threw the only thing she had - that one wooden bar - into the Dripping Man's chest.
It made contact. The Dripping Man erupted around it, black splattering into the air, and Maix fell back on one knee as the house lurched, the walls spinning out of control without a master. Everything was crashing, unharnessed, down, and down, and down...
Her section of the floor plummeted from beneath her, and suddenly she was surrounded by openings, large, gaping routes. Still, the Dripping Man did not rise again, and she thought, he never would again. But her toys were tumbling forward, howling curses at her, and her parents were trapped, but she had her sister, and so she ran. She ran until her legs ached and her baby sister was wailing, until she could scarcely see or sense or feel any direction beyond the straight line she was cutting. At points, Maix became very aware that she was surrounded in a forest, but could not quite piece together which one.
She stayed there for the next few days, trying to make odds meet. And every so often, the Dripping Man plagued her in her dreams, and her visions came when she least expected them. She was tired, and scared, and she did not know how to care for this child that she had brought along with her. Once, when Maix woke up, the baby was staring at her blankly with her wide, pale blue eyes. Her little heart was not beating. She was cold, and her soft little lips had turned slightly blue, and it was more than Maix could bear. She buried that little body and cried until her heart ached, and then slept, hungry and lonely, always fearful of what would come for her in the night.
She continued to live like this for almost two years. In this way, she taught herself to survive. But not very well, unfortunately, and she just barely managed to live, and finally she began to make the slow, painful journey - one that she had made so many times before - to the village. She had had no money and no idea what she was going to do, but she continued to walk on through the forest. Presently, however, she was cut away by a pair of stray shadow wraiths, their sinister intent bent primarily on consuming her heart. Maix was spent from the exertions of living, and could not defend herself. And so it was something that, years later, she still felt gratitude for, when a flaming red Yurble and a small elite patrol erupted from the trees and dispelled the fiends with a few quick waves of a sword. The patrol noted the small, weakened white Draik, and, in the ways that they were chivalrous, found it only right to bring her back with them and help in nursing her back to health. On the tedious road, Maix, assisted by the Yurble (who was consistently referred to by his patrol as "Captain Arjak") and a golden Tuskaninny (called Jangorian by his peers), explained to them fragmented parts of her story, cutting away the fantastical elements for fear that they might think her crazy. Her improvised version was enough for the warriors, although Arjak slanted her a dubious sideways glance, and once they had properly returned to the camp, amid the bustle of a full-blown army, the captain called her to his tent.
There's something else about you, isn't there?" Arjak whispered, but she refused to say anything. And the grizzled old leader accepted this, having seen things in his days of youth and vitality that, too, had scarred him. But he kept his suspicions about him. "I'm going to train you to defend yourself," he continued. "It's an important skill to have in life. In the forest - you were very capable of dying there. It was fortunate that my patrol was there on time, or right now you would be little more than an unidentified body." Maix consented to this, for some things stalked in her nightmares, and it was only natural for her to want to repel them, to safeguard against these things. And so, as her training began and her childhood ended, Maix began to do something internally. She began to grow up.
As it turned out, Arjak's group was at the top of the pyramid. It was a small, selective regiment of warriors - about eleven overall - in the midst of a booming army of common-grounds soldiers. When Maix came of age, she officially enrolled into this massive army, wishing to make up for the things she had done and protect, instead, those who were innocent.
Sometimes, she still thought of her parents, and it haunted her to think of what might have become of them. But she would never be able to go back to them, and while they were sealed away into that room, she feared the worst. She did not want to know, really, and found it best to simply forget and start with an entirely clean slate. She found this opportunity here, under the command of a particularly strict Hissi and in a large legion of several soldiers, one of the many clusters that the army was separated into. Arjak had since become a sort of father figure to her, one that she held with much affection, and still sometimes when she passed by members of the elite patrol, they'd offer her a friendly smile or a small wave. It was all too easy, here, to forget that things lurked in her past, but so often she'd have small convulsions, in which she swore she was in another place. She would retreat into her quarters and lay down on her stiff, uncomfortable pallet and try to hold out the dizzy pulsation in her head. The concerned captain of her legion queried frequently on her health, but she told him, every time, that she was fine; the sensations and memories could rend her being apart and blind her in their intensity, and she would always tell him that she was fine.
Presently, the first real war emerged, after about a year and a half of Maix's recruitment. An army of bandits under the rule of an anonymous "shadow magician" had raided a great deal of land, beginning primarily in Neopian Central and spreading outward, an impressive feat given the security around these parts. However, this rival group operated mostly in masses, which gave them strength in numbers, and Maix's first battle was a surge of bodies and fear and shouted remarks. Her side lost, a bitter, crushing defeat, and was left with no choice but to retreat. This was Maix's first encounter of war, and she hated it.
As time progressed, battles became a more and more frequent occurrence, and Maix became tired. All she had was a simple, used armor, offered to her by a rather charitable soldier, and although it was sturdy it had rusted and permitted too many blades through its defences. As a result, she was battered and bruised at the end of each clash, and resenting it all. The more and more she fought, the more sick of it she became, but still she persevered. There was always something small that made it worthwhile - children looking to her for safety, or evacuating burning buildings, or saving a city. And although she wished so many times that things would be different. Once, Arjak came to visit her, slumped and tired, and she said, unthinkingly, "Behind you," not quite calling that they could not see what she could see. Looming behind him was the ghost image of a creature passing by in her other world, fairly innocuous, but large enough to trouble her. It was then that the red Yurble turned and realized that there was really nothing visibly behind him. He went to her and took her hands in an almost sympathetic gentleness. "Sorry," Numaix was correcting, hastily. "I just -" She pulled a hand away apologetically, looking vaguely confused.
Maix," he said, instead, to her surprise. "There's more to you then you're letting on, isn't there?" When she looked at him, he patted her shoulder and stood. He leaned in to her, and whispered, "Let yourself go." And there was a pause, and an uncertainty, but when Maix looked up, he was already turning away. He left her there, scared and small, a child in her fear again.
In her dream that night, the snowflakes began, skating across her face. She was aware of snow, all around her, and trees, blooming from the whiteness like exotic flowers. Curled up in the uppermost branches was a soft, slinking creature with wide, luminescent eyes. Snow had caught in its fur, and when it spoke, its voice was soft and lilting, in a language that felt ancient but somehow made complete sense to Maix. "Do you know what you have to do?" the creature whispered.
She replied, "I think so.
The creature studied her with its sad, darkening eyes. "He's coming after us," came the response. "Sooner or later he'll be coming for you." Even days later, Maix could not quite understand what the creature had said, but it had made complete and utter sense to her, in that moment, in her dream.
These moments haunted her, sometimes for longer and longer periods of time. She learned, slowly, to stifle them, but could not call them back willingly, when she wanted to fade into oblivion. Still, sometimes, these things came unharnessed, and the line between that world and hers began to progressively blur. The war became a large, full-blown affair. During battles, sometimes she became so dazed and disoriented that she came near to death in the hands of an enemy. But sometimes it gave her strength, and it was this that Arjak noticed, and for this, after her fifth year in the army, he came to her and asked if she wanted to join the elite patrol. She was talented, he'd said, in ways that even he could not quite understand. Her instincts were strong and sharp and her intellect was quick. While she would need some further preparation to catch up to the rest of the patrol, her potential, or so Arjak explained, was undeniable. And they could definitely work with it.
Maix was no longer a little girl.
She became a warrior, full-fledged then, trained to the best of her ability. Little did those people know of the anguish that sometimes took her, of the fits of emotion she had when alone, of the brokenness of the situation that she tried so hard to hide from everyone. She fought this pain, forced it beneath fierce physical combat, training until her muscles hurt and her mind could think of nothing but a desire to rest, until everything in her mind was blocked out by sweat and a waning feeling of success. She plastered on a smile at times, and then it was all that held her together - all that bound her up when, one day, she realized that Arjak, too, would never wake up again. He had simply gone to bed and would not be coming out of it.
Maix was devastated. Sooner or later he'll be coming for you. She did not know what was happening and didn't want to be any part of this, didn't want to go on alone any more. She was still rough and uncut, a badly shaped soldier in contrast to the others, and although they were courteous around her, she feared now, almost selfishly, how she would cope and how she would train. She felt damaged and small and useless. And with this, she continued, in private, to work, trying to whet her abilities in the way that Arjak had wanted her to, but she could not seem to find her talents as Arjak had instructed her to. The group lay without a command, awkwardly situated in a place where they could not quite advance without a leader but could not do anything, as problems erupted around the globe and had to be cared for. So Maix did something that she knew she would regret, and that was rash, and tore away the respect of most of the patrol members. She stepped up to a position of leadership.
And Maix did not make a good leader. She was clumsy and missing much talent, but she could manage order for the most part, and this was enough to convince the upper powers to enable the elite patrol to keep on moving. Her own patrol disliked her immensely, and sometimes, at night, in her tent, she could hear them giving her spite outside in hushed, conspiratorial whispers. She was not particularly advanced, and she was not shrewd or wise in the ways of war. All she could do was try, and too many times it felt like it was not enough. She ached to be elsewhere, but then again, fate never works that way, and time does not turn back. She could only go forward, away from the pain, and try to keep on, to pretend that she did not hear these whispered words in the night. In this manner, slowly, the days drew them closer and closer to another imminent battle, one that seemed to Numaix like her first once more. This time, her perspective was different; her eyes wandered, and she saw, once again, the anguish and the violence and the burning as if for the first time, and although she knew how to handle it now, it hurt her with every blow. She salvaged what she could, and bitterly allowed them to be defeated, like a memory, coming back to her mind. Her patrol said nothing to her, and they proceeded to ignore her until she ached with loneliness and distance and lay awake at night, wanting to know why she had done all of these things. If she had never made one bargain, her life would be different. No constant fear. Her parents would be with her, and it was all her fault, all her fault that everything had gone so wrong. What a fool she was. And how ignorant, and stupid, and rash, and naive, thinking that everything would be all right again. She cried herself to sleep sometimes, sometimes unable to help it - but tears dry, and no one suspected that something was wrong, because she tried to hard to hide this weakness that she did not notice when it came cracking through her.
Everyone learns from their mistakes.
Maix learned, and things improved. Over time, her awkwardness in the position diminished and was gradually replaced by confidence, and her patrol's resentment began to turn away as time passed by. She learned from them as they learned what limited things they could from her, and in the end, she rose up again, from the ashes. She learned to grow, and to fight, and to lead. Slowly, but stably, she became a leader, and regained respect, and became someone. But these things take time, and this took months, if not years, and time is not infinite. When life goes around in so many circles, it is only expected that it revisits a certain point, after a while. After all these years, Maix drew her army with her to a small battle field - a refined task, with a difficult enemy. However, on their arrival, they had already been succeeded by a small group of faeries, who were managing to repress a small, distinctly familiar man. "We have this all under control," Fyora ensured the patrol, as the Dripping Man gave a small parody of a wave from within the ring of faeries.
I killed him, thought Maix. He was gone. The shock came slowly and crawled up her like a disease. He's come for me, Maix realized. It was him. He killed my parents. Everyone I love has died. And he came back to life.
The faeries, however, would not allow Numaix to enter their ring or harm the entity enclosed within. "He's older and more powerful than the oldest faerie," one of them had said. "We cannot let anything disrupt this power balance. We have him under control - he is our hostage. You have no business in our affairs, Riftwalker." Her choice of words had bewildered Maix, and as the faeries were trickling away, she pulled the one that had spoken aside. "Tell me what you know," she said. "What did you call me?" To which the faerie smiled slightly in response.
If you do not know, it is best that you never find out, she had said. You, too, have too much power to be corrupted.
Maix did not understand. But a fury raged within her, and she looked at the Dripping Man and knew, suddenly, that it had been him that had killed Arjak. He would kill everyone close to her, she knew. And she could not allow that to happen, not while she was living.
With the Dripping Man under the custody of the faeries, the war ceased - as the creature had been the cause of it. The army finally came to rest, and there was peace for once. Maix was outwardly grateful for this change, but at the same time, she felt gripped by a certain dread, a restlessness that continued to plague her. She fumbled over the word Riftwalker, wondering over its apparent significance, wondering what she was.
In the end, it was the Dripping Man who told her, as she faced him off for the last time. It was spring then, shortly after she awoke to find that a disease had ripped through most of her patrol, killing some of them and rendering the others into an almost comatose state. This was the final breaking point of Maix; she was sick and tired of these games. Looking back on it, it was all an obvious provocation, drawing her to him, but she did not see it then; all she saw was an anger, and then somehow she had ended up in Faerieland, in the darkness of the dungeons that had been designated for only the most powerful, dangerous creatures. Most of the cages were stark and empty, but in the last one slumped the Dripping Man. He looked up, tired and ragged, silver cuffs around his half-melted arms, and when he saw her, he smiled, a deathly smile, and asked if she'd received his gift. And then, slowly, he began to shimmer, and melt. He dripped in a thick, viscous puddle beneath the cuffs and crawled down to the bars, where he materialized once more, looking more haphazard and slipping away more than before. He seemed desperate now, and as she watched he lunged through the bars, reforming, and his clawing, lumpy hands found her throat and wrested her to the ground. He fell on top of her, thick and heavy, his breath rasping in his quaking body. "You have powers, Riftwalker," the Dripping Man gasped. "You see into other planes and you consort with those creatures. I just thought I'd let you know now, before you died." His voice hitched until it was frantic, maniacal. He needed this, for some reason, Maix thought, and she clawed desperately, but could not quite break free. "Can't kill me now," he wheezed, laughing almost deliriously. "Can't even kill me. I'll come back over and over and over again, until you're dead as a doorknob." His grip tightened on her throat. "Won't need these powers when you're dead, you see." And he opened his mouth. The blue glow from within him suffused it, and, with an awful sucking sound, he leaned in and drew out her breath through her nostrils. His inhalations tore the air from her lungs and funnelled it higher, and higher, twisting and spiralling into his open, burning maw.
It snowed. Maix swore she saw snow, falling through the air. It caught on the Dripping Man's outstretched, fleshy wings, and it gathered on her eyelashes, blurring her vision. Behind her, something slunk, and voices called, called her name, and then the snow was cold around her body, and there was nothing but her lying there, buried in snow, looking around her at blinding whiteness. Sound ceased apart from her pulse, or the Dripping Man's pulse - she wasn't sure whose it came from, but it fell deafeningly on her ears, as if pumping blood and adrenaline into her body. The creature towering above her was flickering and waning. His fingers curled away and smoldered on her skin, and he was smoking into nothingness, and in her mind she twisted his shape into it rent like wet putty. The Dripping Man's anguished shriek flashed in the air, white-hot and devastated, as his current physical form broke and shot into the air, shattering from a central core like an unwinding puzzle. But there was a glow, a hot, burning blue glow that hung suspended as his shell of body fell away smoking into the snow, and creatures were prowling. Their wide eyes fixated on her. The creature from the forest came ahead, and echoed, You know what to do. And she did, somehow. As if in a dream, she crawled out, shaking snowflakes from her skin, and stepped forward. The creatures came with her, their shadows twisting and unfurling into the snow as she stopped before the light. It pulsated and thundered with the heartbeat, and the sound raged in her ears, and now she still could not tell whose it was, whether or not it was her own loud, frantic heart, although everything seemed almost deceptively soft and calm. She extended a hand, and touched the light - just lightly, enough to feel the frigidity exuding from it. It was so cold that it scalded her flesh. It blistered at her, and she screamed as the rush of light overwhelmed her, and she lost her grip on her surroundings. Tumbling down, pervaded by blackness, Maix became nothing.
She woke up wrapped in a blanket on a bed in Faerieland, and hovering around her were the surviving members of her patrol, come to visit her. They smiled weakly down at her and took her hands, but were surprised at the intensity of her fever. She tried to see beyond them, into those other planes, as she should be able to, but could not. She felt weak and useless, lying there, and in real life this world was too much for her to bear.
She recovered, soon, and came back to the army. They accepted her as their leader without pause, disregarding their superior abilities - to their extent of knowledge, she had single-handedly killed the Dripping Man, something that had seemed impossible. She never specified what happened, and when she was asked, she refused to tell, feeling an immense discomfort in what would happen next. And all this time, tensions between her and the faeries erupted with the death of that ancient creature, and she remained in immense trouble. There was a good measure of friction between her and the faeries, but she did not care.
Slowly, she began to see, with more clarity than before. Her vision returned, and she taught herself to harness it, slowly and steadily, as she had taught herself other things before. She fights, for the innocent. But at night, sometimes, she dreams of the Dripping Man, and of a family she never had, and these things stay within her, and they never leave. She has become renowned, but no one really knows how it feels to walk on the outside at all times, to never really belong anywhere. And so, in this manner, this is what she has become.
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