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#1 [en] 

Part 1
10 years ago...
8 year old Ayuko Wa-Hu was chasing yubos outside Min-Cho's southern gate. He lived with his family in Hoï-Cho, but his parents often had to take business trips to Min-Cho, on which Ayuko and his older sister would come along. His sister invariably spent the time in Min-Cho's famous marketplace, but Ayuko hated shopping and preferred to play by the southern gate, watching out over the Kipee Mull. The strange creatures of Grove of Umbra, so unlike those around the Cities of Intuition, and the bustle of foragers scrambling about their foraging, combined into a sight that Ayuko could never get enough of.

This day too, he had left their family's temporary apartment early in the morning to walk to the gates. At least Ayuko considered it early, though his parents had already been up and off to work for several hours. His mother stopped by later in the day to check on him, giving him a bag of his favourite berries to snack on while he played, imploring him again not to wander too far from the guards, and reminding him not to come home too late. She also asked the gate guards to keep an extra eye on him, as she always did and as they were well used to by now.

Normally the area around the southern gates of Min-Cho was safe enough even for children to play. No kitin or predators anywhere near, and even the large herbivores native to Grove of Umbra tended to keep their distance. Only yubos wandered close to the gate, yubos that Ayuko would often play with, feeding them berries and chasing them (or being chased by them) around the trees. But on this day, the young Zoraï must've been too enthusiastic, as the yubo he chased became genuinely frightened of him and ran off the fields and into the forest, Ayuko in tow. The gate guards did not notice the boy disappearing from their sight as they were momentarily distracted watching a patrol of Antikamis in the distance.

Ayuko himself was so caught up in the chase that he didn't realise he was in trouble until he crawled after the yubo through a thick patch of bamboo, only to emerge on the other end and see the yubo he'd been chasing dead on the ground, with a najab standing over it. Najabs didn't usually come this close to the gate, but for whatever reason, this one had. As the najab looked up from it's fresh kill to peer at Ayuko with it's huge eyes, Ayuko screamed and ran in blind panic in the opposite direction, even though the najab had no real interest in him and quickly returned to it's yubomeal. Alas, Ayuko's scream had alerted the gate guards who rushed onto the scene only moments later and killed the poor najab. But by then there was no sign of Ayuko.

Ayuko ran blindly as fast as his little legs could carry him until he tripped over a branch and fell on his hands. Only then did he notice the najab was not chasing him. His panic subsided but for a moment before he realised he was now very far from the town gate, amidst jungle he didn't recognise. He sat up and quickly peered around, at the jungle that had always looked peaceful but now suddenly looked very menacing. He became aware of sounds, animal howls, in the distance. Sounds that he knew to belong to the predators that wandered Grove of Umbra, as he could always hear them outside the gates too, but that was from a safe distance. Now, here, he felt, one might jump out off the jungle at any moment.

He had to go back to town, he knew, just run back in the direction he came from. He retraced his steps for a minute, but the flight from the najab was a hazy memory, like a dream, he didn't remember enough details... just enough that he vaguely remembered zigzagging through the trees, circling around patches of bamboo, hitting a natural wall in the bark and changing directions... he definitely had not run in a straight line, so he couldn't just walk a straight line back. Ayuko looked up at the sun. He was old enough to know from the direction of the Sun where north was, and south, and east and west... but he didn't know which direction he was from the town. What if he ended up running further into the jungle?

Should he shout for help? Maybe the guards would hear him, or some nearby foragers? But what if the najab heard him instead, or some other najab, or something worse? Eventually, the panic drove Ayuko to simply hide in a patch of bamboo and curl up into a ball. There he sat for a long time, shivering and crying, as he prayed to the Kami to please save him, again and again until he fell asleep.

He woke up to a soft prod in his side. As he slowly and drowsily opened his eyes, he noticed a strange creature curiously staring down at him through the bamboo. Instantly awake, Ayuko shot upright, his movement startling the creature into backing away from his hiding place, though it continued to stare at him curiously. Cautiously peering through the bamboo, Ayuko now recognised the creature as a timari. He had seen timari before, but from a distance, never this up close. Ayuko's first thought was that timari looked much bigger from a distance than they did up close, then he realised this timari was just particularly small, and next he realised this must be a timari young.

The timari young was still staring at him, seemingly too shy to come closer but too curious to walk away. Ayuko remembered the berries he still had, took a few in this hand and stretched his open palm out as far as he could to offer them to the timari. The timari cautiously came closer until it was within reach, gave Ayuko one last look with it's strange eye-stem, then calmly ate the berries from his hand. Ayuko giggled to himself as he reached in his bag to offer it more berries. Now he could really see the timari up close. He was struck by it's beautiful green colour and the intricate patterns on it's skin, but must of all by the huge scales on it's back. In the late afternoon light, they seemed to glow like amber, no, they seemed to glow with a hundred different colours in a constantly changing pattern.

"Can you only see this from close, or are your scales shinier than other timaris?" Ayuko asked the timari, who only responded by looking up at him curiously while munching on it's berries. Ayuko cautiously attempted to pet the timari's head, which the timari allowed with a soft chittering throat-sound. "I shall call you Zo'li", said Ayuko softly, smiling to himself as he continued feeding and stroking his new timari.

As he ran out of berries, Ayuko began to remember the situation he was in, still lost in the jungle and with no way of getting back, and, he realised, now it was getting dark too. His cheerfulness at befriending a timari faded away, and a tear ran down his cheek. The timari seemed to notice his change in mood, and butted it's head softly against Ayuko's, as if asking what was wrong. "Oh Zo'li" cried Ayuko as he hugged his arms around the timari's neck "I want to go home. How am I going to find my way home now?" The timari stood still for a few moments, producing a soft, low and deep sound as the boy clung onto it's neck, then it squirmed itself loose, walked over to the boy's side and pushed him with it's head. The confused boy was forced to take a few steps backwards to avoid falling over, and the timari followed and pushed him again.

"You... want me to go this way?" asked the boy, as he cautiously continued walking in the direction the timari had pushed him in. Could it really be a timari understood him and knew the way to town? Had his new friend been sent by the Kami to rescue him? The timari followed behind Ayuko for a minute, pushing him until he walked with steady pace, then darted in front of him and continued in the direction he'd pushed the boy, occasionally looking back to make sure that boy was still following him.

The walk seemed to last forever to the 8 year old boy. He became more and more scared as night quickly fell and it became darker under the trees, but Zo'li's scales in front of him glistened a hundred shades of silver in the light of the moons and stars, like a reassuring beacon leading the way. Ayuko pushed out the creeping fears that the timari was just leading him further into the jungle to be eaten, confident now that Zo'li had been sent by the Kami in answer to his prayers, as he continued following the shiny beacon through the night.

Last edited by Hailuan (8 years ago)

#2 [en] 

Part 2
6 months ago...
Ayuko Wa-Hu walked through Min-Cho's southern gate, thinking back of that fateful day 10 years ago. As he walked through, he greeted the gate guards, his colleagues, as he now was himself one of the guards of Min-Cho and lived in his own apartment inside the town. He was long since not a little boy anymore, having grown as tall as most Zoraï men do. He had completed his adoption ceremony and received his kinship mask from the Kami years ago, officially making him an adult. He had travelled most of the Witherings, even visited Pyr and Fairhaven, and now found it hard to imagine he'd once gotten so desperately lost so close to home.

With the skills he had learned over the years, it was no longer dangerous for him to wander out into the Grove of Umbra on his own. He had long since managed to retrace the entire route he'd gone on that night, and followed it again now, his mind walking through the memories as his body walked through the jungle.

In the end, Zo'li, 'his' timari, had not led him to Min-Cho, or even to one of the search parties of Zoraïi that had been looking for him that night, but instead into the arms of a group of fearsome, heavily armoured Matis women on patrol. Fortunately for the then 8 year old Ayuko, who had rarely seen a Matis but had heard stories, he had by that point been too tired to run away, and was thus taken by the Hamazans into their camp and from there put on the first caravan to Hoï-Cho, where he was finally reunited with his terrified parents.

After being told of the timari that saved him, his parents agreed Zo'li must've been sent by the Kami, and that they owned their proper thanks and respect. So they allowed Ayuko to wait outside the southern gate with a bag of berries for Zo'li whenever they visited Min-Cho, despite their initial urge to never let him go there again. Ayuko never saw Zo'li, so he just played with the yubos and watched out over the Kipee Mull as always, and left the berries behind when he went home at the end of the day, as a symbolic thanks to his saviour even if he knew the berries would likely just be eaten by the yubos.

Two years later, his family had moved to Min-Cho, so Ayuko could visit the southern gate every day and the novelty quickly wore off. But one day on a guided school trip around the outskirts of Min-Cho, Ayuko finally saw Zo'li again. The timari had grown a lot bigger, but Ayuko recognised it by the patterns on it's skin that he'd never forget, as well as it's shiny scales that he now recognised were indeed much more colourful and vibrant than those of the other timaris in the herd. (His teacher had told him the correct term was 'plates', but he couldn't stop calling them scales.) Zo'li still seemed to recognise him too, and he had fed the timari berries again and told his class about the time the timari had saved him.

Since then Ayuko had visited Zo'li regularly throughout the rest of his childhood and into adulthood. He would share his troubles with the timari, like that time the girl he liked didn't like him back. They would explore Grove of Umbra together, as Zo'li seemed to have a second sense for danger and would never let them get near any. Other times Ayuko would just sit and study his books or train with his sword as Zo'li grazed next to him. As Ayuko grew, Zo'li grew faster, and it was by now one of the biggest timari in the herd and towered over Ayuko.

Today was a special occasion, 10 years since Ayuko had met Zo'li, so he'd brought an extra large bag of berries today. It wasn't exactly to the day, as Ayuko had had to work on the exact day, but he didn't think Zo'li cared much about the date anyways. Ayuko arrived at the spot where he had cried himself to sleep all those years ago, the place where he usually met Zo'li these days, and sat down to meditate while waiting for 'his' timari to arrive.

It grew late though, and Zo'li didn't come. Ayuko grew increasingly restless and peered around every few minutes, looking if he could see any timari between the trees, or any predators or other danger that might've scared the timari off. He didn't see anything, but increasingly felt as though something was wrong, something in the air he couldn't quite pinpoint. He heard a rustle from a nearby bamboo patch and cautiously walked over, sword in hand. "Zo'li? Is that you?" No answer, just more rustling. His friend, or a predator? Ayuko was now in front of the bamboo. "Come on out, it's just me!"

And a timari did emerge from the bamboo, slowly and unsure, with shaky movements. It took a few seconds before Ayuko recognised the timari as Zo'li. The beautiful green hue of it's skin was gone, replaced by a sickly brown. The timari's eyes were red and bloodshot. It's movements were twitchy as it softly belched a rasping, gurgling sound. It was obviously in great pain. "Oh no!" yelled Ayuko as he dropped his sword and dashed forward to hug the creature around it's neck "Zo'li! What happened to you?"

But Zo'li ofcourse couldn't answer, just let out another sad gurgling sound as it rubbed it's head against the Zoraï's waist. Ayuko, while holding his friend, now saw up close what he hadn't seen at first. Purple blisters covered Zo'li's back, excreting a similarly purple gooey substance. "No.... no no no no..." Ayuko whispered as he hugged the timari tighter and tears welled up behind his mask. He knew Goo when he saw it, ofcourse, what Zoraï didn't? "It'll be okay", he said, "I'll get you to a healer, they... they'll cure you, we have treatments against Goo, we..." but his voice trailed off as his mind caught up. They did have some medicine against Goo-infection, but nothing that would save someone from an infection this far progressed. And the guards would never let him bring a Goo-infected timari into the town.

Ayuko's mind suddenly overflowed with the reports he'd heard in the past days about increasing Goo infestation on the outskirts of the Witherings, reports that had worried him but seemed too far away to affect him personally. How had it gotten so close so fast? He should've gotten Zo'li away... but to where? Where is a timari safe from the Goo? Oh, it's not like that matters anymore now. The thoughts raced through Ayuko's mind as he turned his gaze up and saw Zo'li's scales, more shiny and colourful than ever before. He had heard Goo infection tended to turn animals more bright and colourful, but to see the changing colour patterns he'd so often admired made more beautiful than ever by the very disease that was killing his friend, seemed to Ayuko as a sick mockery. A cruel, perverted mockery that made him feel nauseous to his core.

He knew full well there was only one thing that could be done for an animal infected with the Goo. Only one thing to save it the pain of a slow agonising death or even worse, becoming a Goo-zombie. And he'd have to be the one to do it. He slowly let go of the timari, slowly walked back to where he dropped his sword, slowly picked it up, and slowly walked back to Zo'li. All this time the timari just stood there, looking at him, hanging it's head down, seemingly knowing and accepting what had to be done. But as Ayuko stood there, he realised he couldn't do it, he couldn't muster the strength to raise his sword. He and Zo'li just stood there, frozen, for what seemed like forever.

Then suddenly Zo'li butted his head against the Zoraï, pushing him back, as the timari had done those 10 years ago to show a little boy the way. It then stepped shakily forward and pushed him back again, raising it's head up high towards the town where Ayuko had come from. "You... want me to go away?" asked Ayuko, confused. The timari looked at him intently, and Ayuko had gotten to know Zo'li well enough over the years to know that meant yes. "But... I can't just leave you here to... to die..." protested the Zoraï. Zo'li stepped forward and pushed him a few steps back once more.

Then, the timari suddenly stopped. It lowered it's head and closed it's eyes as all it's muscles tensed and it stood there twitching for several moments. "Zo'li?" asked Ayuko hesitantly. When the timari opened it's eyes and looked back up at him, it was with a look Ayuko had never seen before. A look of rage, madness and bloodlust. The timari let out an angry unnatural cry as it stormed forward, and Ayuko knew it was no longer Zo'li in there. He raised his sword against the onstorming timari, but found he still could not bring himself to swing it against his friend, and in that hesitant moment the timari's claws slashed across his chest.

Still lucid enough to realise he would die if he could not fight, Ayuko did the only thing he could and ran. He dropped his sword and the bag full of berries to lose the weight and he ran as fast as his legs could carry him, back to the town. He ran the exact same route he had ran 10 years ago to escape the najab, but in opposite direction. He ran from his friend whom he knew he was leaving to a torturous existence as a mind-controlled Goo-zombie, because he hadn't been able to put it out of it's misery.

The gate guards at the southern gate of Min-Cho saw him stumble out of the jungle just as night fell and collapse in front of them, bleeding from a chest wound. He was carried into the local hospital, where the head healer sighed at the sight of him. "Another Goo-infected injury? Let me see... Yes, it is definitely Goo-infected. Did he cut himself on the leaf of a Cratcha too? With a wound like this the Goo will have entered his bloodstream by now. Move him into the Goo ward and have nobody touch him without gloves. I expect it will be weeks before he recovers, if his seed can manage the strain at all. Let us pray to Ma-Duk he will come out with his mind intact. Now, get me a courier to take a message to Zora, this makes too many Goo infections to be a coincidence, the sages need to take action against this before we have an epidemic on our hands."

Edited 2 times | Last edited by Hailuan (8 years ago)

#3 [en] 

Epilogue
Today...
Homins, I shared this story with you because it was Ayuko's final wish that it be told. He is still in the hospital, battling against his infection, and shows no signs of improving. He is rarely awake and even more rarely lucid, usually when he wakes up he just rants like a madman.

While investigating the recent events I visited him in the hospital and caught him in one of his few conscious moments, and he asked me to write down his story and publish it. The bits that he couldn't tell me I deduced from conversations with guards, healers or his family.

It was his hope that his story would encourage people to battle this scourge that plagues our lands, and if the rumours that homins caused it are true, to bring those homins to justice. Please see here and here for more information on those events.

But most of all, it was his hope that somebody could find his friend and do what he could not.
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