What Was Once Nephren
Poke poke poke.
She felt something small and soft repeatedly poking her cheeks. Extremely tired for no apparent reason, she would have greatly appreciated a little more sleep.
“Hey, wake up.”
Poke poke poke poke.
As she ignored it, the poking only accelerated. Her squishy cheeks bounced up and down. It didn’t hurt, but it sure was annoying. She rolled over, trying to drive the nuisance away.
A small splash sounded nearby.
“Come on, will you just wake up already?”
Shut up and go away! I already told… or maybe she hadn’t said anything yet, but anyways, she was tired. She wanted to sleep more, much more.
“If you keep sleeping here, you’ll catch a cold, you know?”
Now that this nuisance mentioned it, she noticed for the first time the coldness surrounding her. It felt like her entire body was drenched in ice water. Not a very good feeling. She wanted a soft blanket and a warm pillow.
With thoughts of comfortable bedding running through her head, Nephren slowly opened her–
Destroy destroy destroy destroy destroy destroy reclaim–
Overwhelmed by the sudden destructive impulses threatening to snatch her consciousness away, she closed her eyes again in a panic. The tempest of impulses gradually subsided. What was that? Rational fear took hold of Nephren in place of the irrational torrent of emotions. Some unknown thing had gotten inside of her. Or no, more like she herself had changed into something unknown.
“Oh my, look what’s happened to you,” an unfamiliar voice said. It sounded like it belonged to a middle aged woman.
“… who are you?”
“We’ll talk about that later. First of all, try opening just your right eye.”
“It’s okay. Trust me.”
Nephren knew not to trust strangers, but she didn’t detect any hostility in the voice, and she certainly couldn’t keep shivering with her eyes shut forever. Preparing herself for the worst, she cautiously did as the voice told her to. Bit by bit, her field of view widened. Right in front of her, a scarlet fish floated about.
“… are you okay? Can you see?”
“My eyes are broken. It looks like a fish is flying around.”
“Oh, then your eyes must be normal. Look, you can see my pretty scales, right?”
The fish performed a somersault in midair. Its red and silver scales sparkled brightly. As promised, they made for a fantastical and gorgeous sight.
As for those strange impulses from before, they hadn’t completely disappeared, but they seemed to be much more quieter. The constant urges gnawing at the back of her mind were annoying, but not a big problem.
Where am I? Nephren took a look around. Dirt walls surrounded her from all directions, towering into the sky like cliffs. A shallow pool of clear water had gathered by her feet, submerging about half of her body. Far above, a large tear ran through the ceiling, exposing the blue sky beyond.
“Did we fall from up there?” Nephren asked.
“That’s what it looks like,” the fish responded.
“It’s cold,” she said with a shiver.
“I told you you’d catch a cold sleeping like that… well, you probably won’t have to worry about that for the rest of your life.” The strange fish said some strange things.
“What do you mean?”
“Well… let’s talk about that later. First lets look for a way out. Staying in here forever wouldn’t be very fun, and I’m starting to miss the sun. This area was originally full of holes, and the ground must have been weak. That’s how this big hole came to be. If we try all these paths, I’m sure we’ll get out eventually.”
With her left eye kept tightly shut, Nephren ignited Venom. Glowing ashen wings sprouted on her back. The Venom did its job without any problems, or maybe even smoother than normal. Nephren’s body floated up off the ground.
“… hey, why didn’t you say you could fly earlier?”
“I’ll go ahead.”
With a flap of her illusory wings, Nephren took off for the surface.
Why am I still alive? Nephren wondered. In that battle upon the Plantaginesta, she received fatal wounds and fell to the ground. Then, in the few seconds before their death, she and Willem got trapped in some weird barrier world. When they eventually destroyed that world, she jumped into this weird black thing swallowing up Willem, and about half of it went into her.
No matter how she thought about it, any normal fairy would have died about three or four times during all that. And Nephren Ruq Insania, not having any special abilities like someone such as Kutori, was a very normal fairy.
Looking down at her body, Nephren saw that her army uniform had become tattered and hardly resembled its original form, but she didn’t see any wounds. Given the short amount of time that had passed and the severity of the injuries she incurred during the battle, a natural recovery would have been impossible. It almost seemed more probable that somehow her consciousness had moved into a brand new body. However, both explanations seemed utterly ridiculous.
Standing on the surface of the ground, Nephren noticed the lack of wind. Looking up, the same blue sky that she saw in Regul Aire greeted her. However, unlike in Regul Aire, an ashen plain stretched out in all directions as far as the eye could see.
“… there really is nothing here…” the fish floating beside her said.
Ignoring her companion, Nephren searched for the figure of a certain someone, but came up empty. “Willem’s not here.”
They had been together the whole time. When they entered the illusion, and when they destroyed it, Nephren had always been inside Willem’s arms. Even if some kind of impact had pushed Nephren away, it couldn’t have put that much distance between them.
“I don’t see my companion anywhere either. Her body’s not in a condition to move around at all yet… I wonder where she disappeared off to.”
Turning to her side, Nephren examined the strange fish once more. Big. That was the first word which popped into her mind. Although not large enough to swallow Nephren whole, the fish could certainly strangle Nephren to death if it wrapped around her. Needless to say, fish usually live in the water. She had read about flying fish in books before, but they were all small fish which swam through the air in groups. She had never heard of a flying fish this big before, much less a fish that talks.
“… so who are you?”
“Hmm… I guess it’s about time to introduce myself. My name is Carmine Lake. As you can see, I’m the Poteau who rules over the winds and the rain.”
Poteau. Nephren had read about them in a book before. They were gods who served the Visitors and the ones responsible for directly creating the world. In other words, very powerful beings. However, it didn’t really sink in immediately. I mean, if someone suddenly told you they were a god, you would probably be at least a little hesitant to believe them. Moreover, ‘as you can see’? All Nephren could see was a suspicious talking flying fish. Certainly, the fish was not normal, but she couldn’t exactly feel some sort of divine air about it either.
“Yup.” The fish danced around cheerfully. “Oh, but don’t get the wrong idea or anything. I wasn’t always like this. I used to have a super pretty, graceful, and magnificent physical form.” Ignoring Nephren’s utterly disinterested face, the fish continued, “I lost that about five hundred year ago though. Ever since, I can’t maintain my presence without residing in someone’s consciousness. I’ve been reduced to this pitiful illusory form.”
Illusory form. Nephren had never heard the term before, but she could infer what it meant. “So in other words… this body of yours isn’t real?”
“That’s right. Only you can see me, and only you can hear my voice. Well? Don’t you feel lucky to have such exclusive privileges?”
“… not at all.” In the first place, since no one else seemed to be around, that exclusivity didn’t exactly have any meaning. “So why is a god hanging around me?”
“Yes, that’s exactly what we need to talk about!” The fish raised her voice and flapped her tail fins about. Annoying. “I had a proper host before you. I was with her the whole time inside that barrier world.”
Barrier world. That eternal miniature garden which Almaria, the Shinator, created by trapping every resident of Gomag within it.
“But then you guys came along and smashed that barrier world. The impact at that moment blew me out of my host’s consciousness. On top of that, I lost sight of her…”
“For a second I panicked, thinking I would just disappear, but then I found you nearby. And so that’s how I ended up with you.”
Wait wait… That world was a prison, and a special prison at that, trapping huge numbers of Emnetwyte. Taking that into consideration, this self proclaimed Poteau also being trapped there didn’t particularly surprise Nephren. However…
“How long were you in there?” Nephren asked.
“A looong time.”
“If you had already lost your physical body, when your consciousness got thrown out of the barrier, you shouldn’t have been able to live.”
“Mhm, that’s why I was in a pinch before I found you.”
“No, not that. You said you had a host. Are they okay?”
“Oh my, worrying about someone you’ve never met? How nice of you. Or could it be that you’ve realized my host isn’t a complete stranger to you?”
I think this fish is missing the poi– wait, what? The fish’s surprising words caused Nephren to accidently open her left eye ever so slightly.
Destroy destroy destroy destroy destroy–
She closed it right away. Just from that split second, however, intense pain remained in her head, as if someone had whacked her with a giant hammer. She crouched down on the sand and endured the agony.
“Be careful, okay? One wrong move and it could hijack you,” the fish warned.
“… what do you mean?”
“The soul of the Shiantor is probably inside you, similar to how I’m inside you. Well, Beasts don’t really have a sense of self, so it’s more like a bundle of desires and impulses.”
Desire. Impulse. Nephren certainly felt those raging within her. “Will I become a Beast like those Emnetwyte?”
“Ah… no, probably not. Even though it’s not a physical form, strictly speaking, your body is still fundamentally yours.”
“It’s become infinitely close to being human-like after so many reincarnations, but hasn’t become completely human. So even if your mind gets disturbed, I don’t think your body will get taken away. Probably.”
… I don’t get it.
After a bit of walking, they stumbled upon the traces of a campsite. A ring of stone surrounded a pile of burnt out firewood. To the side lay numerous wooden boxes and tin cans half buried in the sand.
“What a rude bunch of tourists. This land isn’t a trash can,” Carmine Lake commented casually. Nephren had begun to realize that she didn’t need to keep up with all this fish’s small talk.
These ruins most likely marked the campsite of some salvagers. Perhaps they dug up more treasure than expected on their expedition and ended up having to abandon unnecessary cargo from the airship. Nephren picked up a nearby tin can. It was just small enough for her to be able to carry it in one arm. Its contents had already been emptied out. On the side, sand had mostly rubbed out the writing, but Nephren still managed to make out the letters.
‘Standard Type L7 Army Provisions – M’
For a moment, the possibility that the ruins belonged to the Plantaginesta crossed Nephren’s mind. However, she soon disregarded it. After the airship departed, the Shiantor appeared. In the presence of such power, the power to turn anything and everything into sand, mere tin cans wouldn’t have survived. The campsite had to be from sometime after Willem killed the Shiantor and broke the barrier world.
“How long was I asleep underground?” Nephren asked.
“About ten days,” the fish replied casually.
“… I’m not hungry though.”
“Well, the presence of an everlasting Beast is inside you. Your body just hasn’t been taken over yet.” Another casual response. “Hmm… right now, you’ve transformed into a Beast just a little bit. Unaging and undying… thinking about it that way, it should be easier to understand, right?”
Certainly, that made it much easier for Nephren to understand why she wasn’t ravenously starving. However, she didn’t exactly want to understand that.
“So I’m… immortal?”
“In a way. You’re not indestructible, so there are a few ways for that to happen.”
“I see.” How ironic, Nephren thought. She had prepared herself for death. She had accepted it, and moreover she had been just one step away from it multiple times. But now, things had somehow turned out exactly opposite to what she had prepared for.
“… I guess I have no place to return home to anymore.” Nephren mumbled.
Just a little bit or not, a Beast is still a Beast. She wouldn’t be very welcomed in Regul Aire. Those days in the fairy warehouse, that leisurely carefree life, now seemed immeasurably far away.
“Are you okay?” the fish asked.
“Nn.” Nephren gave a grunt which neither confirmed nor denied her well being. After all, she didn’t really know the answer herself. She pulled a piece of red fabric out from one of the wooden boxes buried in the sand and wrapped it around herself in place of her tattered army uniform.
They walked across the sand for days. Under the influence of the Beast inside her, Nephren’s body no longer felt exhaustion. She could have walked forever if she wanted to. However, she never felt like it. Every few hours or so, they stopped and rested on some nearby rocks. When night came, she laid down on the sand and closed her eyes. Fortunately, her body hadn’t forgotten how to sleep. She no longer got tired, but still, she could sleep. She could dream. Her memories would one day all disappear into ashen sand, but for the time being, she could still warm her heart with recollections of the past.
Once, they came across a group of Beasts. On top of a gentle sandy slope, around ten Aurora were bathing in the sun, with their string like bodies resting vertically and their many needles retracted within. When Nephren approached, they showed no response. Even if she poked them, they twisted their bodies away in annoyance, but still didn’t attack.
Do they think I’m one of them?
The nearly immortal Beasts don’t require food. Accordingly, they don’t prey on each other. They stop at nothing to destroy all other forms of life, but in a place with only Beasts, they behave incredibly calmly, contradictory to their usual reputation.
Or perhaps that is how the Beasts were originally meant to be. Perhaps their strong desire for this peaceful state is precisely what drives them to eliminate the foreign beings who disrupt their tranquil repose. Perhaps that really is all they’re trying to do, and when no foreigners are around, they simply pass their time with leisurely relaxation.
Nephren grabbed a relatively small Aurora and tried giving it a hug. It squirmed in resistance, but didn’t poke her with its needles.
“Well this isn’t good,” Carmine Lake mumbled. Her personality didn’t mesh very well with Nephren’s, but on these empty sandy plains, the fish turned out to be a precious conversation partner. “Elq’s presence is very far. Not only that, she seems to be up in the sky.”
“… your previous host that you mentioned earlier?”
“By the sky, you mean Regul Aire?”
“That may be the case…” The fish shuddered as it pranced around. “Nephren, can you fly there?”
“… I might be able to.”
Normally, that would have been a ridiculous proposition. Given the distance and altitude, it just wouldn’t be possible for the wings of a regular fairy. However, Nephren was now no regular fairy. Now that her body no longer knew exhaustion, she could fly continuously without sleep for as long as she wanted.
However, she hesitated to do so. Of course, Nephren knew what would happen if she, an almost Beast, drew close to Regul Aire. She and the other Leprechauns existed for the sole purpose of protecting Regul Aire from the threat of the Beasts. She pictured Aiseia and Lantolq with their illusory wings spread wide, aiming the tips of their Dug Weapons straight at Nephren.
“… I don’t want to.”
“Come on, please?”
“No. If you want to go, go by yourself.”
“If I could I would already be there! But I can’t! I only exist inside your head!” Carmine Lake danced about in exasperation. “Ugh, we finally break out of that stupid barrier, and now look at what a mess this has become! I bet Ebon Candle and Jade Nail are off somewhere playing around and having a merry old time… come pick me up you idiots!”
I wonder where Willem is, Nephren thought, ignoring the self proclaimed Poteau’s loud complaints. She didn’t know about that Elq person, but Willem definitely had to be somewhere on the ground. Of course, she wasn’t optimistic enough to believe that Willem was still his old self. Unlike Nephren, he was pure Emnetwyte. After that black stuff, the soul of the Shiantor, entered him, he wouldn’t have been able to maintain his sense of self. She didn’t find it too hard to imagine that the Beast had taken over both his mind and body, and that he had transformed into a completely different being.
Almaria had been counting on her.
Nephren wanted to be by Willem’s side. Even if he was now a Beast, she wanted to snuggle up against him. Stranded on the vast ashen earth, Nephren couldn’t think of any other wishes she had for the future.