It's happening again, the voice in the back of his head told him.
Over and over, it chanted that phrase, repeating it like a prayer, a mantra.
And he couldn't figure it out. What was happening again? He couldn't remember, but could sense the answer looming in the back of his mind. But hard as he might try, he couldn't get it to surface, couldn't pull it out into the light.
He didn't need to remember to know it was something bad, though. Something very bad, waiting for him around the next bend in the path, perhaps. His body told him as much. He was chilled to the bone, goose bumps covering his arms.
He was walking on a path. No, a ledge. A ledge from which he couldn't escape. And it was dark. If he reached out, he was sure he'd be able to touch the black void surrounding him, feeling its cold surface beneath his fingertips. It pushed him forward, eating, engulfing all light and forcing him to stumble along the ledge.
He could see only three feet in front of him, the dusty ledge illuminated by some unseen source of light, but the darkness was slowly taking over even this source, and he feared he might soon be walking in complete darkness.
It was cold, the darkness. So unbelievably cold. And as it drew closer, he could feel small ice crystals forming on his clothes and skin, pricking and stinging. He welcomed the feel, a reassurance that he was indeed still alive. The darkness had numbed him, and at some instances he felt dead, a corpse with no control of his body being pushed along by the void.
He could feel it now, nipping at his back, like black, lifeless flames, sending chills down his spine. It continued to push him forward, and he knew that if he fell, it would run over him, engulf him whole. Every step was a triumph, but also another chance to fall, to be devoured by the endless black monster behind him.
And then the ledge, the path, widened, and he fell onto his knees into a clearing, no longer having the constant push of the darkness on his back. And the darkness withdrew, and there was a small light. But not a white light, but a dark one, a light that spread its ice fingers across the clearing, freezing everything in its path.
He couldn't breathe, couldn't move, merely gasp for air as he sat on the ground, watching in horrific fascination as the dark light spread, covering him and going beyond, before merging with the darkness still hovering at the edge of the clearing.
And then he saw it. A small house, being illuminated by the light. The silence was deafening as he stood, but not of his own accord. The only sound being heard was that of the voice in his head, screaming hoarsely, as if it knew what was going to happen. The house drew him towards it, and with each step closer, the silence slipped away, and soon he could hear the sound of his own footsteps.
And then the smell. A sweet, sickening smell, hanging thick in the air, polluting it, making him choke and gasp for breath as he drew closer to the house. And while the voice tried to tell him what was happening, he couldn't understand it, couldn't make out the strangled words being pounded into his head. Once in a while he could grasp hold of a phrase of the guttural screams.
-gain! Happening again! Hap-
The smell was making him nauseous, growing stronger the closer to the house he got, and he got the feeling that he recognized it. And as he reached the door, reaching out for the handle, he remembered from where he knew it, just as he stepped in the first perfect pool of crimson.
It was seeping out from under the door, seemingly coming in waves, sweeping over his feet, painting them red. And as the voice in his head continued to scream, he turned the handle and opened the door, stepping inside the house.
The smell was overwhelming, and if he was able to control his body he would have turned and run, braving the darkness, just to escape from the room. It was dark, but the same strange light that was in the clearing was illuminating the walls, which where dripping red. Pouring red.
And as the light traveled across the room, it revealed the people sitting at the table by the far wall. They were silent, frozen, as if they were too petrified to move.
And as he finally regained control of his body they turned, looking past him to the door, unreadable expressions on their faces. And he swung around, ready to confront whoever was there, but was met only with the darkness. It surrounded him, blocking everything from view.
But he could still hear them.
Screams of pure terror, of shock and of pain. And he screamed with them, tears running down his face, trying to break through the darkness, trying to reach them. But he couldn't.
And he could suddenly feel a huge void inside of him, as if someone or something was ripping apart his soul, his very being. Pain lacing through his body, he fell to his knees, his screams still mingling with theirs, his pain blending with theirs.
And as their screams died out, one after one, his didn't. And he continued to scream, even as the darkness withdrew and he suddenly found himself kneeling in a pool of crimson.
He could see them all around him, lying on the floor, their faces showing their suffering at the moment their spirits left them. And then he saw her, staring back up at him, her fingers moving slightly, as if beckoning him to come to her. And he crawled over, through floods of pure red, and cradled her in his arms, his tears showering her face and mixing with her own.
Her breathing was raspy, and he knew there was nothing he could do to save her, that she was too long gone.
And as he sobbed her name, touching his forehead to hers, mourning her short life, she raised a hand and gently touched his cheek. Gazing into her eyes, he watched in anticipation as she took a last raspy breath.
"Where were you?"
And the darkness surrounded him again, and his baby sister disappeared from his arms, and the only thing he was left with was the resentful look in her eyes and her accusing question. Such a strong question for a child, such an unforgiving gaze, it chilled him more than the darkness did. And as the cold paralyzed him, and the darkness engulfed his being, he opened his mouth for one last heartbroken cry.
A strangled scream, traveling through the decks of the rocking ship.
The small doll fell from his hands, hitting the floor with a low thud. To him the sound was like an explosion, bouncing between the walls, shattering the peaceful yet horrific silence that had been.
He was gasping for breath, staring disbelievingly at the rays of light entering the room from the window on the far side of the room, sure that the darkness would soon come, to engulf him again.
Staring at his hands in disgust, envisioning the blood dripping from his fingertips. Their blood. Unseen, it ran along his hands, large drops soiling the blanket covering him. Almost traveling up his arms, covering them in the red liquid. He could almost smell it, almost taste it in his mouth. In horrific fascination, he watched as the large drops continued to spill from his hands onto the blanket. He could hear them in his mind.
Drip. Drip. Drip. Drip.
A strange beat, as he continued to sit unmoving, in his minds eye watching the blood drip, feeling the sticky liquid cover his hands, the whole room smelling of the dark red pools running down from his blanket and creating pools of crimson covering the floor. The liquid spreading as the ship rocked, covering the floor, traveling up the walls, the roof. The walls spewing the red, large drops coming from above.
He could almost see it, almost feel and smell it. Almost.
And then he could hear the footsteps and the door burst open.
He jumped and turned, finding himself staring into a pair of amber eyes.
Turning his gaze back to the walls, he could see they were no longer red. And all he could see of the wooden roof and floor was just that - wood. Staring at his hands, he couldn't detect any trace of the thick crimson liquid. The smell was also gone.
"I- I'm fine."
The bandit bowed his head and turned to leave the room, looking back in the last moment and seemingly hesitating, before stepping out and closing the door.
He sat looking at the door for some time, almost not daring to turn back his gaze to the room, fearing that maybe there was indeed still blood running down the walls. But as time passed, the idea faded, blending into the nightmare he'd had, making the whole thing surreal, a figment of his imagination.
And then he noticed the doll.
Lying in the floor, it was a small and worn little thing, covered in dirt from many years loving use. Hesitantly he reached out, picking it up before settling back in his bed.
Its hair was of string, its dress made of a variety of different left over pieces of cloth. Its body was made of a material very much like leather. The sand it was filled with made it heavy and almost solid to the touch. Its eyes were small beads, one long since gone, the other hanging by two or three thin threads.
Sewn by a mother, expecting her fifth child. Although her husband often told her with a sparkle in his eye that it was going to be another boy, she simply smiled knowingly and continued to work on the small doll.
He remembered watching her, working at the light late in the evening when his younger siblings had been put to bed. Remembered bringing her handfuls of sand, remembered her smiling at the gesture.
Remembered when two months later, one young life was gained, another life lost.
Remembered taking care of the young one, much as he had seen his mother do three times before. She had cherished the doll, they all had, the final gift from a mother to her child.
It had been loved dearly, and he could remember on numerous occasions having to mend it the best he could, when the play had been too rough. Trying to mimic his mother's careful stitching, find new pieces of cloth to cover holes that had formed, and then handing it back to the youngest one, watching her face light up in a joyful smile as soon as it was back in her arms again.
It grew dirty and old, and she would often ask him to bring her a new one, making him think that maybe she'd grown too old for it, making him sadly remember watching the woman work on it with care.
He never brought her a new one, coming back from his wanderings. And she never complained, merely asking him again. It became an unspoken play between them, a connection, an understanding. She never wanted a new one, no matter how many times she asked, and he would never bring her a new one, no matter how many times he promised he would.
He should have left it there, with her. But he didn't, he couldn't. Instead a little red ball lay in its place by her side, where it would forever remain.
This was all he had left now.
Everything he had ever known lay buried in a village more than a days travel away. His siblings, his father, his mother.
His life revolved around them, it had always done so.
From an early age he had been forced to grow up early, forced take care of his family. He was left to raise the youngest one, the one who would finally stand him closest, not long before his twelfth birthday. She had been his responsibility alone, her and the task of raising money, taking care of his family. His father had been far too sickly to get out of bed, instead forced to lay there and watch as his oldest son grew up prematurely.
His desire for money? It had always been a joke among those who first made his acquaintance, a subject never mentioned among those who knew him well. He hated money, he loathed it. To spend every waking moment chasing opportunities to earn some, and then spending the nights fending off robbers, men who didn't think twice about stealing from a young boy who was only trying to support his family. He couldn't count the many times he'd been beaten, all of his earnings taken away from him. But as much as he hated it, he would rejoice at every newly earned coin, knowing that it would make the biggest difference in the daily survival of his family.
Until one day ago, his life had been about money. Earning money, saving money, counting money.
And now, why the use?
All he had ever lived for, fought for, worked for, was gone. And he had no purpose any more. All he had was a small doll, a painful reminder of his pride and joy in life, and the duty of a Suzaku seishi, the duty to protect Miaka.
Miaka. He had told her that he was all right, and she had believed him.
He had lied.
The pain had been unbearable, unimaginable. He would never be able to forget, to forgive. How could she have believed him? How could she have believed that after one night, spent burying his remaining family beside his mother, spent weeping and blaming himself for not setting out earlier, for being away from his home to begin with, he would be all right?
Had she always been that naïve, that foolish? Of course she had. But had he been blinded by first love only to discover it now, in a state of anguish, or had he always known, but never really seen it, trying to remain blissfully ignorant?
Now, in a moment he knew was of weakness, he regretted ever getting involved in this. His duty, his destiny. Was it worth the lives of his family, the blood of his father and sisters? His brothers?
It shamed him to wish that she had never come to this world, that the damned mark on his forehead had never appeared.
The love of his life, his soulmate, as he'd thought her.
If he could choose between her and the lives of those closest to him.. If Suzaku would grant him that wish, he knew that he wouldn't be able to look her in the eyes tomorrow, knowing what he'd choose.
He did love her, what he had told her on the deck of the boat as they set out had held some truth. He did live for her now. She was the only one left. But he wouldn't forget, never forgive, never not wish that things had turned out differently.
Never not wish that the Suzaku no Miko had never come.
It was selfish, but in grief not one single thought wasn't pure self-centeredness.
He let his fingers run over the face of the old doll. Taking in dirt spots, sloppy stitches and faded cloth. Every one told a story, how the youngest would come to him with the beloved toy, cry a little in his arms, watch him stitch and mend it, and then go on her way, happy again.
He felt tired now, drained. Like a piece of cloth that had been washed and washed again, until it was faded and.. and covered in blood.
The doll had been beside her when he'd found her. She'd held it in her arms as long as she could.
Not long from where he'd laid her to rest, there'd been a small creek. He'd cleaned the doll there, water and tears mixing to wash away the red covering most of the old toy.
Only faded pink remained now.
Lying back, he pulled the covers over him, clutching the doll to his chest. Hoping it would soon be time to wake, to again take on the duty of a Suzaku seishi.
Hoping that he wouldn't seem too tired, that they, that Miaka, wouldn't see past the wall he put up around him. Hoping that he could mourn alone at night, and that maybe in time it wouldn't hurt as much as it did now.
Hoping that when, if, he did sleep, the nightmares would stay away. Knowing that wouldn't be the case.
And as he closed his eyes, slowly drifting off, he could again sense the darkness close in on him, surround him.
-pening again! Ha-
His own voice screaming at him a strangely familiar message, which he couldn't remember the meaning of.
Heading towards an illuminated path, he hoped maybe it would lead him away from the dark, which seemed to inch closer every second.
But stumbling onto the path, he somehow knew that it wouldn't lead him away from the terror that was beginning to form a tight knot in his stomach, but closer.
But it was too late to turn back now.