The fox didn’t reply. She only watched Essairyn finish the burial with an inscrutable gaze. By now, the sounds of the day had gently subsided into the stirrings of the night, and fairylike wraiths materialized in the cascading twilight. Startled by their sudden appearance, Essairyn goggled at the ethereal creatures.They dusted the forest floor with fallings wisps while flitting around like fireflies. Their speckled glow faintly illuminated the understory. Intrigued, she outstretched a hand, and they daintily danced upon her hand in mirth. Their giggles whispered throughout the air, and their smiles radiated in the coming night.
“Ts’ rien,” they murmured, causing Essairyn to knit her eyebrows in confusion at the foreign language.
“What’re they saying?” she asked Akari who was now attentively looking at the creatures.
The fox turned her gaze away and seemed to shrug before beginning to walk again. “Who knows,” she replied disinterestedly.
As dusk finally descended, more creatures of the night arose from their slumber. Soon, the forest was a hushed frenzy of activity, and Essairyn was astounded once again by the beauty of these otherworldly spirits and demons. This world… is truly beautiful.
While gazing at the mysterious splendor of the night, Essairyn noticed some light-footed animals streaking through the brush. They were traveling so swiftly that they could only be discerned by a soft phantom glow that smudged the air behind them. She wondered how and why they were moving so fast. She squinted her eyes in concentration, trying to pick out their features as they passed. To her surprise, her vision sharpened automatically, and she could distinguish their forms and colors. With their slender bodies and spindly limbs, they looked similar to greyhounds; except, their coats were a mystical silvern that luminesced the air around; their backs were dappled and streaked in platinum, and their paws were dipped in sateen sable. Their ears, as well, were peculiar and looked more akin to rabbits. And their tails too were remarkably long and splayed out at the end like a feathered fin. But the strangest features had to be the two elongated appendages that arose next to the backs of each ear and billowed behind them as they ran.
Just as her thoughts wrapped itself around that last feature, the animals suddenly stopped their frenzied dash and turned their eyes toward Essairyn. A flash of anxiety surfaced in her middle as she returned their glassy gazes. They slowly patrolled around her a few meters away, and she looked to Akari for explanation. The fox merely watched them with indifference as she stood at an angle two feet away from the girl.
After several bewildering seconds, one of the larger animals stepped forward in front of Essairyn, and Akari’s ears twitched in mild interest. No longer running, the animal’s two strange appendages looped around its ears and floated airily at the sides of the face. It appeared that this one was the leader of the pack. And as it studied the girl, its inquisitive eyes seemed to whisper arcane words of reassurance and salutation. Somehow, Essairyn knew that these animals weren’t a threat. This moment of inexplicable understanding between the girl and the pack leader was then abruptly ended by the crashing of scattered thicket in the direction that the animals had been running toward.
In the near distance, a gigantic, ghastly beast had manifested itself from the gloom. Essairyn watched with amazed horror as the grim, humanoid giant languidly slogged through the canopy. Its arms and legs were gangly; its blackened bones were visible underneath its stretched sooty skin, and its head hung under the apparent weight of its two horns. Rising loftily above its skeletal figure, the horns curved toward one another in an ellipse, creating what Essairyn envisioned to be an almost full moon. As it moved, strands of earthen masses swung from its center.
“A nightstalker,” Akari murmured with diligent eyes as the the phantom greyhounds began running again.
Essairyn repeated the creature’s name under her breath. This monster was like one straight out of a nightmare, and yet the greyhounds were racing straight toward it. Why are they running so desperately toward that monster? The nightstalker looked like it came straight out of a fantasy, horror movie. But there was an odd, mysterious magnificence to the monster. It seemed weathered by the ages, languid to life. She looked over at Akari who, sensing her gaze, immediately jumped up on the magic circle Essairyn had generated. She climbed up the girl’s outstretched arm, and together they rushed through the forest along with the phantom pack.
With the greyhounds running below, Essairyn nodded in their direction and asked Akari, “What are they?”
Akari’s eyes glimmered as she glanced at the animals before returning to the nightstalker. “Solh’vunds. Spirit hounds. One of the guardian animals of the forest,” she answered.
“Guardian.. animals?” Essairyn.
“Yes,” confirmed Akari, “They’re similar to other spirit animals; except, they’re much stronger and adhere directly to the spirit gods. They’re third tier spirits, considered to be servants or agents of the fourth tier of small gods called latymls, and the fifth tier, the reigning spirits gods. Demons, on the other hand, are called beast demons and make up the third and fourth tier along with humanoid demons who also make up the most of the fifth demon tier. But, spirit animals and beast demons are essentially equivalent. Guardian animals, however, are actually stronger than spirit animals or beast demons.The main difference is that beast demons can transform into pure demon while spirit animals can’t transform into ‘pure spirit’. They live and die like any other normal animal, although, with longer lifespans.”
Essairyn absorbed the information like a sponge. Now it made sense why the demons from before transformed and became stronger. But, the spirt and demon tiers part was a little unclear. She flicked her eyes to Akari. “How many tiers are there?”
“Five with the fifth being the strongest. No spirits fall into the first class. Only specters, phantoms, ghosts, and the like make up the first class of demons.”
“What about you? What tier are you, Akari?”
The fox was momentarily caught off guard by the girl calling her name for the first name. For some reason, a blossom of warmth tinged in her heart hearing her name. “At my peak I was fifth tier.” Akari puffed out her chest in haughtiness before it fell with the next sentence. “But I guess most would consider me a latyml since I started out as second tier.”
Essairyn hummed in acknowledgement. So Akari is actually pretty strong huh? I guess reincarnation really hurts for gods.
“So are nightstalkers beast demons?”
Akari narrowed her eyes slightly before answering, “Technically.. But they seemed to have evolved differently. I’ve never actually seen them rampage like typical beast demons do when morphing into their demon form. Apparently their collection of souls prevents them from transforming.”
“Collection of souls?” Essairyn exclaimed.
“Yeah they eat souls,” Akari responded a matter-of-factly.
“What?!” Essairyn nearly yelped and fell off the magic circle as they had quickly arrived at their destination, and the nightstalker was only a few meters away.
Upon their arrival, the nightstalker turned slightly towards the duo, and Essairyn came face-to-face with the beast as it gazed at her with dark, starlit eyes. Suddenly, she was hit with an overwhelming sense of urgency to retreat that clashed with the mystic wonder she felt staring into those eyes. The feeling lasted but a moment as the beast turned downwards at the earthen mound where the solh’vunds had gathered around.
It was a solh’vund den. In the curve of the den’s mouth, a mother and her pups laid on the smooth, dirt floor. Sprawled out on her side, she looked frail with her eyes closed and her pups milling weakly about her belly. The solh’vund that had approached Essairyn earlier stepped out from the pack onto the mound and was accompanied by another. The two sat stoically next to the mother’s head, and she parted her weary, emerald eyes. She lifted them towards the sitting leader and the other solh’vund, and they exchanged silent farewells before her eyes listlessly closed again.
As if it was a cue, the nightstalker bent its head down to the mother and blinked with eyes that mirrored the night sky. Stardust filled their depths, and its mouth gaped open to reveal a maelstrom of starlit darkness. As if magnetic, specks of light arose from the mother’s body and spiraled inside the gaping mouth. The warm, silvern starlight, the fragments of her body, eddied into the depths of the demon and disappeared among the twinkling stars. Closing its mouth, the nightstalker squinted its eyes at the pups and then inhaled and blew a stream of soft myrtle light upon them. As the light hit the pups, they squirmed and began mewling. After the nightstalker closed its mouth and the last rays reached them, they wriggled their faces in an attempt to open their eyes.
Transfixed by the entire scene, Essairyn hardly realized it was over until the solh’vund beside the pack leader broke its vigil and padded over to the pups. Their eyes were now open, and they took in the curious sight of their pack surrounding them as well as a monstrous demon, a human, and a spirit fox. Uneasy at the sight of their onlookers, the pups nuzzled into the lowered face of the larger solh’vund for protection. After a few seconds of consoling, the pups relaxed. The leader then got up and looked at the nightstalker and gave a nod. Upon that gesture, the beast demon rose to its full height, giving Essairyn a sidelong glance before it melted into the woods. Right after, the crowd of solh’vunds departed, and a few remained to comfort the pups. Leaving the mound, the pack leader approached Essairyn and Akari who were still on the floating circle.