The storm still raged in the morning. Raelle stood near the cave entrance, staring out into the wall of falling water and listening to the way the thunder echoed against the stone walls.
It was certainly not exactly what she had been hoping for. But the more she thought about it, the less certain she became of what she was doing and where she was going. Sure, she had a general destination: home to Tanuki. But how to get there, how to avoid her foes, and how to go about dealing with other matters important to her... she was starting to get lost in the complexity.
She picked up the glowing stone the Hyul'nee had loaned her and wandered back into the network of caves. She passed the kitchen area, where a group were preparing what looked like the mid-day meal. They smiled and nodded to her. She passed the library, where Gavin stood with his back turned inspecting some scroll. She passed several other rooms, and eventually she came on a larger cavern with walls that seemed to sparkle with a variety of different colors. Intrigued, she entered, and took a closer look.
From the entrance, the cavern sloped down sharply. Next to a sizeable boulder, stairs had been cut in the slope. She walked down them and strolled along the walls. Crystals grew in clumps along the otherwise smooth surface. There didn't seem to be a regular pattern to their locations, but stepping back there still seemed something other than chaos in their placement. She smiled a bit, finding it nice to be able to take time to appreciate beauty when the rest of her life currently seemed a bit rushed and hectic.
Her mood lightened somewhat, she climbed the stairs again and sat down on top of the rock. It really was rather soothing, the way the walls twinkled. She placed the glowstone next to her and pulled her shakuhachi out of her small pouch. She unwrapped it and tucked the cloth away.
Soon a meloncholy tune filled the cavern, a song that had comforted Raelle on some past occasions. After a few measures though, it stopped.
Not that one, she reflected, it doesn't fit this place...
She lifted the instrument to her lips again, and after a pause, a happier tune streamed from it. The notes echoed not unpleasantly back at her, creating harmony instead of cacophony. She continued playing for a while, losing herself in the melody, blowing softly, blowing strongly, filling the music with passion in some verses and playful improvization in others. It was not the performance of a master, but by the time she brought the song to a close, Raelle felt it was probably the best she had played her instrument in a long time.
It's been quite a while, she thought, holding her shakuhachi out in front of her.
"That was very nice," a voice said from behind her, somewhat startling her. She turned and found a man standing in the entranceway behind her. She recognized him from dinner the previous evening. It was Neeprot, the vice-chief.
"Thank you," she responded.
"I don't believe I have ever seen that sort of instrument. May I take a look at it?" he asked.
Happy to have an appreciative audience, Raelle slid off the rock. "Sure," she said, holding it out to him.
Neeprot took it into his hands and regarded it with his large eyes. But after a moment, it seemed as if his gaze was pointed beyond the instrument. Raelle looked around.
"The cavern enjoyed your playing," Neeprot said.
Raelle turned back to face him. "Enjoyed?" she asked.
"Yes, I can tell by the way it glistens."
"Er, the cave is alive?" Raelle asked.
"Hum. No. No, it is difficult to translate. But it did enjoy, and I believe it would like to give you a gift in return."
"A gift?" Raelle asked again, growing more confused.
In response, Neeprot's eyelashes bent slightly in the direction of the shakuhachi he held, and he spoke a single word that echoed strangely. The walls of the cave flashed brightly in a rainbow of colors, beginning from the back and rushing up towards the entrance in a wave. The instrument glowed brightly.
"Ahh, what just happened?"
Neeprot smiled warmly at her and handed the instrument back to her. "We the Hyul'nee would be honored if you would play a song for us at the mid-day meal, Raelle, as a small favor by one of our guests." Raelle recognized the posture and odd formality of his words as their sort of etiquette when dealing with outsiders. She had the sudden feeling it was a request she shouldn't refuse.
"Sure..." she said.
Neeprot's smile widened. "Thank you," he said, and then he turned and walked off without explaining anything at all. Raelle began to fume in frustration, but even her usual desire to break something didn't last long. She looked at her instrument with curiousity, and then looked back at the cavern, wondering.
I suppose I'll find out at lunch, she decided, and went to go find Gavin.
The mid-day meal seemed a bit more festive than dinner the previous night, which had been nice and friendly, but not like this. For one, it seemed like the whole tribe was in the dining hall. Secondly, it was difficult to count how many different dishes were on the table. Gavin idly wondered just how many different ways you could prepare fungus, fish, and root. Each dish he tried seemed quite tasty, however, so he couldn't complain.
Mid-day meal also seemed more social. Laughter and shouting surrounded them. Children juggled fish nuggets with their eyelashes and mothers only halfheartedly scolded them. The level of familiarity was much higher. Gavin and Raelle were not left to the whim of the chieftan at this meal, and the chief himself was approached as a social equal by everyone. Mid-day meal was, clearly, the time of day everyone could just relax and be themselves.
Of course, by Hyul'nee standards, this wasn't too much of a change; it just made them even more jovial than normal.
At length the meal grew to a finish as the food disappeared, and the tribespeople removed their dishes from the large flat rock that served as the tribe dinner table. The people themselves stayed, however, and the atmosphere came to focus more on the tribe's guests.
"So we were looking for this amulet," Gavin said in response to a question from Chief Neepyar, "and they kept calling us the 'Earred Ones' because some of us had animal ears."
"Such as Raelle here," Neepyar supplied.
"Exactly, so they stick us in this house with other earred people, and we're all trying to figure out what's going on, and this Yabelo guy makes us undergo this Nightmare Test, which was pretty horrible..."
"Nightmare Test?" Neeprot asked.
"Er, well, they put us to sleep and we all had to face our nightmares. So those of us who passed..."
"What was your nightmare about, Gavin?" Neepyar asked.
Gavin glanced briefly sideways at Raelle, remembering the bizarre scene in his dream where he had kissed her in response to her murderous attack. He almost had to stop himself from making a face. "Ah, well, nothing particularly interesting, just kind of... frightening."
"Ah, well there is nothing to fear here, tiny-eyed ones," Neepyar said.
"Most of the nightmares were rather... personal," Raelle said, not looking happy at the line of questioning herself. She smiled weakly, "I hope you don't mind."
Neeprot touched his elder's arm and said something in their own language. Neepyar nodded. "We understand. Go on with your tale."
Gavin continued retelling the events of their recent past, but Raelle's thoughts turned inward. She remembered her nightmare trial about Utaryn and the burning of the Tree of Shinte-Gleska. She had failed Tanuki at that time. She felt at the amulet in her pocket. Had she really failed him again?
She had the amulet. That's what she had set out for. And Gavin... she looked over at him, giving an animated description of the battle with the villagers. The situation was different. She didn't have the strength to kill him, and he was offering his help. If he went all the way back to Tanuki's main temple with her, that would be the same as bringing him to justice, right?
And maybe, since he was helping her now, they wouldn't kill him.
Raelle reflected on that a fraction of a second. No, he would be a dead man. He was stupid if he thought that helping her was going to make anyone merciful towards him. What was that idiot thinking?
Her thoughts were interrupted as she heard Neeprot speak her name. "I believe Raelle indicated earlier she would play a song for us this afternoon," he was saying as she refocused her attention on the people around her. The boisterous conversations of the mid-day meal crowd subsided as the tribe was called to attention. She got a slight knot in her stomach, feeling put on the spot. But she had promised.
All eyes were on her, and all but two of them were very large and very expectant. "Of course," she said politely.
"Please, when you are ready," Chief Neepyar said, giving her an encouraging smile.
She pulled her shakuhachi from her pouch and, after a slight pause to compose herself, began playing the same tune that she had originally started playing in the cavern earlier. The low, sweet sound filled the dining hall as Raelle played. The simple slow melody definitely wasn't a jaunty tune, but it had enough soul and spirit in it to keep everyone's attention.
A light breeze rustled the fringes of Raelle's hair. After she finished the first full measure, someone behind her started slowly shaking some rattles. A few moments later, some drums began to thrum in time with the melody. Another flute lightly played harmony in the background.
Another measure passed, and tree branches sprung from the cave walls and ceiling, turning the place into a virtual forest. Raelle stood in the middle of everyone, solid as stone. Yet the melody of the shakuhachi carried on.
Suddenly and softly, Raelle began to sing while in stone form.
Oh the embrace...
of the stoooone...
it protected me...
Several branches in Raelle's vicinity began to bend down towards her, further enshrouding her form. Yet her voice was still clear and strong as she continued to sing.
for my duuu-huuu-ty...
The branches unwrapped themselves from around Raelle, and she was no longer in stone form. Her arms streched out, reaching towards the sky.
By my looord...
After half a beat, cymbals crashed, the drum beat increased, other instruments joined in, and the melody took a sudden, much more lively turn.
I came alive! Raelle sung loudly, striding forward. A chorus rang out from the branches above, a group of very large-eyed raccoons, swaying too and fro with the beat.
(She came alive!)
I had a mission! Raelle struck a pose.
(She had a mission!)
I had to track down this dirty thief and bring him retribution! She pointed directly at Gavin, who now stood before her, holding the amulet high above him and grinning evilly.
Raelle snatched the amulet from Gavin's hands.
I got it back!
(She got it back!)
I had him in my sight! She raised her fist at Gavin, and he cringed as if expecting a fatal blow.
(In her sight!)
But then something took a hold of me and drained me of my might! Raelle crumpled herself into a crouching position on the ground. And then everyone began to sing at once.
What did I do? As she sang, tiny tree sprouts emerged from the ground, leading to a statue of a raccoon.
Ohhhh Tanuki... what did I do? She circled the statue, looking up at the raccoon's face.
What did I do?
What did I~~~~ do? She turned, her back against the statue's pedastal. When she opened her mouth again, she was the statue on the pedastal.
What did I do?
The music slowed again, the instruments temporarily subdued.
Oh the embrace... of the stoooone... it protected me... As she sang, the pedastal slowly lowered to the ground.
Until I... was callllled... for my duuuty... She stepped off, flesh again.
By my lord... the great... Tanuki...
Lights erupted from the branches, a rainbow of colors flashing around. Raelle was now wearing platform shoes and a purple and yellow silk sarong, and her hair was tied up with a lacy gold net.
I came alive! she sang, as lights swirled around her.
(She came alive!) sang the raccoons in the brances, who now in addition to large eyes also sported large afros.
I had a mission!
(She had a mission!)
Suddenly a huge tree was visible behind Raelle.
I had to protect the sacred tree from our enemies with ill intentions.
And then he came! Another man appeared, dressed in a white suit with a large collar, hair slicked back, and wearing a big flashy grin.
I fell in love! She fell into his arms, and he swooped her low as if to plant a kiss.
(So in love!)
Then he vanished, causing Raelle to plop onto the ground gracelessly.
And then I woke up and looked and my tree was burning! The dance of multicolored lights converged on the tree, and it erupted in flames.
Raelle covered her face for a moment, and then threw her arms wide.
What did I do?
Ohhh Tanuki oh Tanuki oh Tanuki... She was standing again, in her normal clothes, looking up at the branches above her, which also began to erupt into flame.
What did I do? The large-eyed raccoons, still sporting afros, danced in a circle around Raelle as she sang.
Ohhh Tanuki... The flaming branches began to wither and crumble away into nothing, exposing the rock walls of the dining hall again.
What should I do? A bright light shone down on Raelle, as she struggled to lift a morning star.
What can I do? The raccoons grew back into the people of the Hyul'nee, who stood in a circle around Raelle, holding their hands out. The music grew slow and fragile.
How can I escape this fate of mine? She slowly picked up the morning star.
Why have our paths become entwined? The circle of Hyul'nee opened up to reveal Gavin standing alone outside it. Raelle began to approach him, holding her weapon straight out at him.
What did I do? She reached the edge of the circle.
Ohh Tanuki... Gavin stepped back, bumping into another statue of a raccoon.
What did you do? Raelle asked, glancing up at the face of the statue.
What did you do? Raelle asked, staring at the face of Gavin, weapon still outstretched.
The music stopped and the lighting returned to normal. Raelle found herself holding her shakuhachi instead of a morning star. She looked at it. She looked at Gavin. She looked at the large raccoon statue still sitting behind him. She looked at all the Hyul'nee.
She screamed, very very loudly. Then she ran.
Sign up to rate and review this story