Chapter Four: Where Our Story Truly Begins

Cacophony ruled her mind, a terrible, chaotic song that she heard without hearing. It vanished the instant she opened her eyes.

Varying shades of black and grey blended together. She questioned through the fog of her mind, when and why the world had melted. A phantom of that awful force pulsed through her one final time. Her jaws parted as she forced air into her lungs. The blurs shifted, eventually morphing into something more recognizable. Her muzzle, dull as the fur appeared, stood out as the brightest color in her sight. The ground before her snout was black as night. She hardly detected the sickly grey tree trunks, which like her, had been swallowed by this darkness. Dead leaves came into focus. Somehow they still clung to the corpses of the undergrowth.

A groan escaped her. The noise was muffled. Her side pulsed painfully with every beat of Nylva's heart, a sound she found deafening, yet somehow quieter than it should have been. She prayed for a cool wind to lessen the fire. No trace of such relief would come. As it was, she couldn't feel the air at all. Not the faintest trace of hot nor cold air could reach her skin. She took note of this in the back of her mind whilst she made her first attempt at sitting up. She noticed upon her movement that the soil was cold. It seemed damp to the touch.

She managed to push herself upright after only two tries. The world spun. Nausea gripped her stomach and she struggled not to retch. Her icy gaze raked across the clearing she found herself within. She lifted a hand from the frozen ground, placing it gently upon her blood-soaked clothes. Warm, and wet, though not as much as she'd expected it to be. She bared her teeth as she dwelled on her failure. Where had the foul thing gone off to? Where had it taken her? Why would it suffer the trouble of bringing her to this place just to vanish?

How dare you! We have unfinished business, Reaper; don't believe otherwise.

Though, it appeared their final confrontation would have to wait. She had a wound to see to, and home was surely far from here. She struggled to her feet. The ground numbed them. Her side burned. Aside from those, she sensed no temperature as she stumbled towards a tree. Smooth; cold. She glared at the shadows ahead, unable to detect more than the few steps before her. Every instance of sound was muffled in her ears. Somehow she knew it wasn't due to their position.

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She hadn't a clue for how long she'd wandered. Her heart pounded steadily, the only sound not originating from heavy footfalls and strained breathing. Her tail hung limply, brushing against the dirt. Her side had ceased bleeding. The fire had dwindled to dying embers. She glared at the shadows, feeling suffocated by their oppressive existence. Or perhaps it was merely exhaustion crushing her lungs. Whatever be the case, Nylva saw no sign of an end. It was time to rest.

Leaning against a frozen tree trunk, she slid downward. A chill coursed through her body. She cursed her muscles for their reaction. A look around would prove fruitless; her gaze turned to the sky. Where had the moon gone, she questioned yet again. Why had the stars abandoned her? She caught faint silhouettes of leaves here and there, likely resembling the lifeless d├ęcor of the undergrowth. There was nothing beyond them. It was as though the sky had vanished, swallowed completely by this void consuming the world.

Panting faintly, she lowered her muzzle. Her side throbbed. Her blasted body felt near collapse. She partly supported herself with one arm, the other resting upon her injured knee. Carefully, she lifted a finger to her eye to remove a contact. She flicked it away, then did the same with the other in an overly aggressive fashion. Her true eye color was revealed once again. There was no one to see it. They wouldn't have been able to in any case. She looked upwards.

She wondered about the time. Surely dawn was soon to come?

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Something was horrendously wrong. She realized it the instant her mind awoke. Twice now she had slept since arriving here. She had yet to witness a change in scenery. The sun failed to rise. There were no stars. No moon. No different kind of tree. The shadows, ever present, clung to every inch of this place. She'd begun to wonder if she'd suffered hearing loss, now placing the blame for each muffled noise upon the too-heavy air. Where ever the Reaper had taken her, Nylva was no longer in the mortal plane she had always known.

She cursed the hooded figure with every ragged breath. Often she would check on her injury. Again and again it crossed her mind until she sought not the world she knew, but anything posing viable use as medical supplies. Even a stream of water would be more than welcome by now. It was clear to her and to this retched realm she found herself trapped within that she was dehydrated.

Things went on in the manner they had been for several meaningless hours. There was but one key difference, which became more apparent with every heartbeat. Nylva sensed a presence not previously known to her. Her eyes had acclimated to some small degree, but failed to catch sight of anything lurking. Believing it to be the Reaper, she called out, throwing challenges out into the veil of blackness. They went unanswered each time. She hadn't a clue how many times it took place. Perhaps it had only been a few by the time her voice left her. Perhaps it'd taken a hundred screams before she fell into silence.

The cursed being was enjoying itself. Either that, or her condition had brought a temporary madness upon her.

She stumbled onward, scoring the ghostly trees with dull claws. It felt as though she'd dipped them in icy water. A growl rumbled in her throat, lasting moments before she found herself in a coughing fit. She saw without seeing, avoiding the trees and stepping over the brambles that she had grown so accustomed to staring at. A terrible weight had wrapped itself around her rib cage. Air was a battle she would find herself losing before much longer. Much as she loathed the fact, it was again time to rest.

So she settled onto the frozen ground, eyes open. Surprisingly she would find it difficult to leave them closed. She didn't hear nor see anything new. It was the same environment she had wandered for who-knew-how-long. She scented nothing but the ground her muzzle rested on. There was nothing at all to indicate that Nylva wasn't alone, yet somehow, she knew. The Reaper was observing her, gloating about its supposed victory over the one who would dare try to claim its weapon. As time passed, she would realize it was now a struggle to keep herself awake. Why was she trying to? She feared nothing, paranormal or otherwise.

As she drifted off, she felt a tickle in the back of her mind.

Something began to whisper, jolting her from a light sleep. Her limbs flailed momentarily before she sat upright. She heard nothing but the pounding of her heart. She glared at the shadows, baring her teeth and started to mutter about grand revenge. That creature would not best her. This tale was far from through. Such words she uttered without voice, ragged breaths laced with ire. The words persisted even as they grew broken. The syllables surrendered themselves to obscurity long before she deigned to leave them be. She mouthed them as she laid there once more, scenes of triumph playing out before her bleary gaze.

Beyond her line of sight, there was movement. It was not the Reaper's influence, however. It wasn't even present. An uncountable number of somethings existed in this realm. She would hear their terrible song once again. It haunted the fox in her sleep.

The shadows were alive.