This is the first of several short stories to be written about the Wandering Witches universe. Learn more about Wandering Witches here:
written by ens0.eth
The dreams always started with cherry blossoms. Their endless pink lined either side of the gravel road, never at anything but the perfect peak of blossom-viewing season in their blooms. The path went seemingly infinitely in each direction, straight and level until it was lost over the horizon. Through the trellis of trunk and flower, she could see rows of rice paddies. Roads in the distance seemed to connect them, but the path before her never forked — no matter how far she went.
Occasionally, a blossom would break free and come tumbling toward the gravel below. She could never remember many details of the dreams before, but she vividly remembered a blossom’s fall being how she discovered the nightmare lurking between the surface. When she plucked one off of the ground, it instantly rotted in her hand, emitting an odor with layers beyond the pure putrescence — skunk and sulfur and soot. So she walked. And walked. And never saw another soul. Until she did.
The figure was short and robed, their face covered in a wooden mask with a face carved into its surface, big voids where its eyes should be. Behind them, they pulled a squeaky wooden wagon. Until they were within arm’s length from each other, the figure did not even acknowledge her presence, just plodded ever so slowly but steadily onward.
“Hello,” a voice strangely familiar reverberated under the mask, deep for such a petite person but still strangely feminine. The figure curtsied.
“Do you know where we are?” the girl asked in reply.
“No time for pleasantries today, I see,” the figure said before trodding onward once more, not acknowledging her presence again at all, leaving her to the endless cherry blossom road.
That was, until she dreamed the dream again, not sure how much time had passed in the waking world — at least a few days, if not a week or two. She vaguely remembered having seeing someone before, though, once she saw the figure, it all came racing back — as they plodded towards her.
“Hello,” the voice behind the mask said once more, once they were in arm’s reach.
“Hello,” the girl replied, bowing slightly.
“You were selfish enough to respect me. Sometimes selfishness is necessary,” the masked figure replied. The carved mouth in the wood turned to a grin, shedding splinters as it shifted.
“Who are you?” she asked in turn, tone noticeably more frustrated — even as she tried to keep her calm. Her mind fought to forget that it was a dream. She wanted to soak in the wonder of the beauty around her, but she knew it was all a facade — the blossoms a graze away from gloom.
“Exactly the question we are here to answer, are we not?” the masked figure asked knowingly.
“I don’t even know where I am,” replied the girl. “This is a dream, right?”
“You are lucid enough to perceive that. Good,” the figure replied.
A brief breeze fluttered the flowers around them. She felt as if she had goosebumps, though, when she looked down at her arm, it looked normal. The girl then looked off in the distance, trying to see some semblance of something beyond the fields before her. “So you’re just a figment of my imagination.”
When she looked back, the figure was gone. “So you’re me?” She muttered to herself. “I remember that voice from the videos my mom took when I was just in grade school.”
More anxious than ever, but determined to break through the veil of decaying bloom, she suddenly raced through the trees, prepared to slosh through the knee-high water of the rice paddies that awaited. As soon as she crossed through the trunks, she tripped — immediately taking in a huge breath for fear of landing face first in the murk.
Much to her surprise, she landed on dry grass. After overcoming the slight stun of falling to the ground, she rolled over on her back to look up at a forest canopy over her, spanning around in every direction, with no sign of the fields or road from which she came.
“It’s just a dream, it’s just a dream,” she muttered to herself, frustrated.
A strange shriek erupted from the woods, echoing intensely enough to ruffle the leaves on the trees like bothered birds, rattling in a wind that passed in an instant.
“It’s just a dream,” she repeated, more frantic this time. She suddenly deeply missed the gentle whisper in the blossoms. “I’m not supposed to be here, am I?”
From behind the trunks and ferns, a few shimmering creatures emerged, no more than an upright, acorn-clutching squirrel in height, with edges to their forms that seemed to bleed and blend into the environment around them.
“The light, the light, follow the light,” a soundless voice she could somehow tell with theirs pierced her mind, circumventing her ears entirely.
“W-what light?” she stammered.
“She calls to you,” the piercing voice said. “She calls.”
“If she’s what let out that roar, I might pass,” replied the girl. “I want to go home, or at least back to those pretty blossoms. I won’t touch them again.”
“No, no! Burn her light might! But she is the nightnether not. You must follow!” All of the glowing figures were jumping up and down in a frenzy.
The nightnether roared again, sending the leaves into a frenzy. The beings of light dissipated into fireflies, twinkling back into the underbrush. The roar repeated again a third time.
Not sure what to do and not seeing any light, the girl turned and ran. When yet another roar came, the fear became so fierce, she shut her eyes, even as she ran. She knew it was just a dream, but it felt as if death was approaching her, and the risk of running headfirst into an oak trunk not truly there was minor by comparison.
And then she saw it. The light. Just a flicker at first. She assumed it was just one of the creatures peeking out from behind a fern. But this light was different — more like a campfire in the distance than some strange glitch in her vision. She ran and ran for what felt like days, the light only growing slowly in the darkness of her closed eyes. The journey wearied her mind and spirit, but she could feel her body resting, her physical form paralyzed and prevented from participating in the fearful fleeing.
Then the warmth.
The warmth, at first, was reassuring — a warm bath, the first light of morning, the fire of a boiling bowl of noodles. But soon that broth began to singe. All of her senses felt overwhelmed. Instinctually, she slammed her hands over her ears. Her eyes were still shut — as was her mouth. And yet all she could see, smell, taste, hear, and feel was an overwhelming sensation that somehow both numbed her but also got more intense in its pain faster than the numbing could prevent it.
As soon as she felt as if she could not bear it anymore, she heard a voice, soothing to her skin like the coolest aloe suddenly smoothed over her skin. “Sakura.”
“That’s not my name,” she shouted back, surprised she was even capable of speech. Her eyes were still closed, but instead of a black void, all she saw was white.
“And yet it calmed you to hear, did it not?” the light gently whispered back.
Sakura thought a moment. “I will admit it did. Not to mention I cannot even remember my name.
“We can have multiple names. Here, Sakura will work for you,” the voice reassured her.
“But you’re just some projection of my mind!” Sakura protested.
“Am I?” the voice whispered back in a playful tone.
“I’m asleep, aren’t I?” asked Sakura. “This all has to be a dream.”
“And yet still, you have done what so many cannot in their dreams,” the voice said, pride evident in her tone. “That is, except open your eyes, Sakura.”
Reluctantly, Sakura slowly pried apart her clenched-shut eyelids. Mere meters in front of here was a sheer cliff, leading off into the sea. Standing between her and oblivion was a beautiful woman dressed in a gray robe, the light Sakura followed emanating from her left hand. In her right, she carried a staff topped with a crescent moon.
“Why didn’t I smell the salt until now?” asked Sakura, the ocean’s presence suddenly overcoming her.
“Because you didn’t know it was here,” the robed woman replied with a gentle but knowing grin. “In these whispering realms, you can only experience what you perceive.”
“But your light…” Sakura wondered, peering down at the woman’s still glowing hand.
“It’s special. Though, seemingly, so are you,” said the woman. “I am Beakon. Some call me a witch, though I come from before they had that word for beings like me.”
Sakura walked over towards the edge of the cliff, expecting to see only ocean below, but there was something strangely shimmering about the surface, as if falling through the waves would not lead to the engulfing embrace of water but simply being sucked into the endless oblivion below. Eager to finally get off of her feet, even if her dream legs had such strangely supernatural endurance, Sakura let herself fall down on the grass. It also felt strangely of feathers.
“Never felt this worn out by a dream, Miss Beakon,” replied Sakura. “That I can remember, I suppose. But worn out enough to talk to the weird characters I am dreaming up. You’re just like that child. That child who is me. The child who used to believe in the good in things. That’s who that was.”
Beakon walked closer to the cliff, briefly looked down at Sakura, and then gazed at out at the black of the night ahead. “No words of mine will convince you otherwise in the here and now, but I exist outside of your mind. Inside it too, of course — but outside of it as well. A bridge formed in your dreams. Not the first bridge of this sort. Not the last. But most are not so bold to cross it so soon.”
“Soon? It feels like my time is running out. I can only grasp fragments of my waking life, but I can’t shake this sense my life is slipping by while I keep — a secret. I just cannot remember what,” replied Sakura.
“What appears to us in dreams is not without meaning. Many wonder the fields. But the cherry blossom represents a fleeting opportunity to be able to experience something beautiful. People flock from their homes to look at the flowers from all over the land. Yet, to deny who you are means your flower simply wilts,” replied Beakon knowingly. She knew.
“Will I remember this when I wake up?” asked Sakura, forlorn.
Beakon chuckled. “No, no, not consciously of course. Bridging memories between the waking and unawaking is tricky, even if you will surely master it in time. But, like all humans, you are best at remembering strange details.”
“So, wise lady of my dreams, what strange detail would you have me remember?” asked Sakura, waving her arms above her head as she remained on the ground.
“Your soul is a candle that is now alight. You cannot be burned when you are one with the fire. Fall asleep thinking about fire. I am the lighthouse, you are the torch. Focus on the flames.”
“Is that strange enough?” inquired Sakura, springing back up on her feet, feeling more invigorated. “I bet I’m more likely to remember the weird shimmering—wait, where was I before this again?”
“It’ll help if you wake up sooner rather than later,” replied Beakon, chuckling.
Sakura sighed. “I’ve tried so hard to wake up so much along the way and just can’t.”
“There’s a way. It’s not a fun way. But it’ll be over quick,” replied Beakon. “Just remember love is not always sweet in taste.”
“Yeah, yeah, let’s do this! No time to waste, right? I am the beacon. Focus on flames as I fall asleep. Focus on flames as I fall asleep,” Sakura started muttering to herself in a determined fashion.
Suddenly, Beakon’s beautiful face changed into a mischievous grin, her human-like teeth replaced with rows of fangs that extended back into her mouth like a shark. Her body — which started rapidly growing in size — erupted into flames that suddenly surrounded Sakura. A terror she had never experienced surged through her.
And then she saw her cat. Wait, what was going on again? Her heart was pounding against her chest. She looked around her room, taking comfort from her surroundings. While sleeping, she felt as if she had gone through a journey, but only tatters of memories remained.
“Focus on the flames as I fall asleep,” she said to herself. “I am the torch?” The day awaited her, yet somehow, it now was what seemed dreamlike. But she had treated too much of her life like a dream. One thing bore a renewed sense of urgency for her — a new level of determination and purpose.
Outside, the ground was coated in cherry blossom petals. She reached down and picked one up. It was soft, and she took in its scent. She loved the girl from her physics class. And that was — scorn of her parents or anyone else be damned — okay. And she skipped onward, the fallen petal still beautiful in her hand.