www.eugenewoodbury.com for the annotated online version and more information about the Twelve Kingdoms series.
[1-1] A pitch black world. The girl cowered in the darkness. Out of the empty nothing came the high, clear echo of a drop of water striking the surface of a calm pool. A cave, she imagined at first, except that she knew she was not in a cave. The darkness was too wide, too far and too deep.
A crimson light blossomed in the distance. The flames flickered and twisted, shifted in shape and form. The conflagration climbed higher, casting long shadows into the heavy gloom. The shadows of a countless horde of beasts, beasts that leapt and pranced as they ran from the fire. Apes, rats, birds. Every kind and species of creature.
And none that would ever be found in a children’s book, their torsos too large and out of proportion, their coats colored red and black and blue.
They whirled like dervishes, reared and raked the air with pawing forelegs. It made the girl think of Carnival and people whipping themselves into an ecstatic fervor. But even as they danced and spun, their attention remained focused on her, the sacrifice they would bear joyously to the altar.
Four hundred yards away. Their mad and murderous intent beat against her like a hard wind. The monster at the head of the mob opened its wide maw in a jubilant howl.
She heard nothing.
Only the sound of a drop of water breaking the quiet surface of a pond. Youko couldn’t tear her gaze away from the rushing shadows. When they reach me, she knew beyond a shadow of a doubt, they will slaughter me. Tear her limb from limb and gnaw on her bones. But she couldn’t move. There was no shelter to seek, no way to defend herself. The blood rushed in her veins, roared like the ocean in her ears.
In the time she watched, the stampede pressed another hundred yards closer. Youko awoke with a start. Blinking the stinging sweat out of her eyes, she took a deep breath.
“A dream . . . ” she said aloud.
Hearing her own voice confirmed that she was indeed awake. She couldn’t relax until she knew for sure. “It was a dream,” she said again. A dream. The same dream that had plagued her for weeks.
Youko looked around her room. The heavy curtains shut out the light. The clock on the bedside stand told her it was almost time to get up. She should, except her body felt like a slab of lead, her arms and legs as if mired in tar.
The dreams had started a month ago. In the beginning she’d seen nothing but the empty darkness, heard nothing but the falling water. She stood in the pitch black, the awful panic growing inside her, desperate to run away, run anywhere, but was frozen in place.
Five nights ago she’d awakened, screaming inside, haunted by the red glow and the shifting shadows and the black stain flowing inexorably closer. For the past three nights, she’d grasped the nature of the fearsome things running from the inferno.
Two days. It had taken two days for the strange beasts to separate themselves from the shadows. She picked up her old rag doll and hugged it to her chest.
They were so close.
In a month they had crossed the distance from the horizon. Tomorrow, or the day after, they would be at her throat.
What would she do then?
Youko shook her head.
It’s only a dream.
Even if the dream returned again and again for another month or more, it was still only a dream. But saying that didn’t calm the fear in her heart. Her pulse raced and her heartbeat pounded in her ears. Her breath burned at her throat. She clung to the rag doll as if to life itself. She roused her body from the bed, put on her high school seifuku uniform, and went downstairs. No matter how bad things got, she could manage the daily routine. She washed her face and walked into the kitchen.
“Morning,” she said.
Her mother was at the sink, making breakfast. “You’re up already?” She glanced back over her shoulder as she spoke. A look of concern crossed her face. “You’re getting red again,” she said.
For a moment, Youko had no idea what she was talking about. Then she hurriedly pulled her hair back from her forehead. She usually braided her hair before she came down to the kitchen. She’d combed it out the night before and left it undone.
Youko shook her head. Her hair brushed against her cheeks. Her hair had always been unusually auburn for a Japanese. Exposure to the sun and water only bleached out more of the black. Her hair now reached the middle of her back. The ends were so light they looked pink.
“Maybe if you trimmed it a bit?” her mother pressed.
Youko didn’t answer. She bowed her head, quickly twisting her hair into three braids. Doing so darkened the tint somewhat.
“I wonder what side of the family you got it from,” her mother mused with a grim little sigh. “You know, your homeroom teacher asked me the same question. He even wondered if you were adopted. Imagine that! He thought it’d be a good idea if you dyed it, too.”
Youko said, “Dyeing your hair is against the rules.”
Her mother busied herself with the coffee. “Then get it cut. At least so it won’t stand out so much.” She said in her matter-of-fact voice, “A girl’s reputation matters the most. She shouldn’t draw attention to herself or give anybody any reason to question her character. It’s not the kind of thing you want happening to you, that’s all I’m saying.”
Youko studied the kitchen table.
“You know how people look at your hair and raise an eyebrow. Stop at the salon on your way home from school today and get it cut. I’ll give you the money.”
Youko groaned to herself.
“Did you hear what I just said?”
Youko stared out at the charcoal-gray day brightening outside the window. It was the middle of February. The winter sky was cold and wide and cruel.