What We See in the Dark
What had only five minutes earlier been a vibrant snarl of wild snapdraiks had devolved into a graveyard of rotted, putrid lumps of compost. The sole survivor, the largest and brightest of the bunch, remained tethered by its roots amongst the ruin of its comrades. A light breeze filtering through the secluded wood shook the petals softly, giving the illusion of a horrified shiver.
The sickly green Acara knelt down, grinning. She reached out and gently drew the edge of one crimson claw across the stem, almost affectionately. "My, my my. Aren't you lovely?"
If only flowers could run.
Vira smirked, tossing the now blackened and shriveled snapdraik aside, and strode off in the direction of the nearest town. Perhaps some poor fools would be frolicking at the edge of the treeline, assuming safety from the dark denizens of the deeper interior.
Or, she thought to herself at the sound of approaching footsteps, they'll come to me. With a quick flick of her wings, Vira darted up into a tree overlooking a dirt path. Before long, the travelers came into view; a young Kougra with a Kazeriu on a leash, and two baby Aishas. The babies were likely too young to worry about their appearance, but the Kougra was quite a pretty little thing. The bright oranges and yellows of her dress nicely complimented her pale blue and lavender stripes, and her silvery hair cascaded at a length befitting a princess (though how the girl could see with her bangs covering her eyes was a mystery for the ages).
Vira smiled. This was going to be fun.
Before the group could pass, she dropped down from the tree, landing crouched in the center of the road. The Aishas immediately squealed with fright and hid behind their older sister's skirts, and the Kazeriu began hissing and backpedaling. The Acara grinned. Another perfect entrance. She called out to the Kougra, who had stopped in her tracks but appeared to be too terrified to react. Her voice was sickly sweet, layered with a barely concealed vitriol. "Hello, young lady."
The Kougra tilted her head, smiled, and called back. "Good evening! How are you today?"
Vira faltered and nearly fell over in shock. Some strange cursed Acara showed up to block the way and her response was to greet her affably? What in Neopia were parents teaching their children these days? She regained her composure, mildly annoyed at the wasted effort. "I'm... fine. Just fine."
"Good to hear. What brings you out in the woods today?"
"I'm... I'm just getting some fresh air." She decided to attempt to regain control over the situation, adopting her disarmingly friendly tone again. "But enough about myself. What in Neopia could possibly require such a pretty girl to travel without a guide? Monsters always prefer the pretty ones, you know. They tend to scare easily."
"Well, thank you for the kind words, but we'll be just fine. I have no more fear for the woods than anywhere else."
Vira smirked. This one was confident. Or foolish. Either way, it was time to make her move. "Hm, maybe you're right. As I've said, monsters prefer the beautiful ones. And you're pretty... just not beautiful."
That was sure to wipe that incessant smile of her face. Vira had come across many young women in her days, of all species and colors, and no matter how pretty they were, none of them could stand being dismissed in such a way. Some yelled, some attacked, some sat down in the road and cried, but whether they ended up with a cursed mirror in their possession or not, she had still exercised her power over them.
The Kougra was quiet for a moment. Her little sisters and petpet had already taken offense, whining and growling in protest. Vira almost giggled. This was going to be a memorable outburst.
"Well. All the better for us, right?" the Kougra wondered aloud, smiling as gently as ever.
The woods were silent. Even the petpetpets seemed stunned. After a good ten seconds of sheer inability to process what she had just heard, Vira found herself unable to restrain herself. "What do you mean, all the better?!"
"You said it yourself. Beautiful girls are more likely to be challenged or curse out in the woods. My sisters and I have a lot less of a chance at being stopped since I'm not beautiful."
"And you're okay with that?"
The Kougra nodded, and began to walk onward again. Despite being visibly nervous about getting anywhere near the demon in their way, her companions followed, choosing to stay on the opposite side from her. "I don't typically worry about my appearance. Mother wouldn't let me leave the house if she thought I'd be ridiculed in public."
Vira was outraged. This girl was unreal. She was, what, nineteen, and still let her mother dress her? "And you'd really trust her better than a mirror?"
"I don't use mirrors," she responded, sweeping past the Acara.
Oh, that was it. Maybe her chances of passing on a cursed mirror were gone, but now she was mad and unwilling to let her pass unchallenged. Vira roughly grabbed the girl by the shoulder, turning her around to face her. "What sort of idiot doesn't use a mirror-"
As calm and collected as the Kougra was, she obviously didn't expect to be whirled around like that. Her bangs fell to the side, and her cloudy, silvery-blue eyes widened.
The realization hit Vira hard. She was never exactly one to care about hurt feelings or insensitivity, but now she felt like an idiot. "O-oh..." she murmured, letting go and stepping back, "I'm sorry."
The Kougra shrugged, smile slowly returning. "It's alright. Most people don't notice at first."
"Well... why in the name of Neopia is a blind girl wandering the forests with babies in tow and no protection?"
She laughed. "Like I said before, the woods aren't any darker for me than a busy town. I'm not worried. Besides, my twin sister is Battledome champ and I was her favored training dummy when we were little. I can take care of myself." She tilted her head again, grinning. "My name is Mrikuni."
"Okay, Mrikuni." Vira glanced down, kicking at the dirt. She wasn't used to such casual conversation. Most people took one look at her and didn't even stick around long enough to scream. But Mrikuni was completely unaware of the fact that she was conversing with a monster. "You still haven't explained why you're out here."
"Ah, right. Mother likes to press flowers before the chill sets in and they all wither, so we're gathering some for her while our older sisters run errands in town. We might be too late, though; all the patches we've found are already gone."
Vira winced. Right. Maybe she should've gone easy on those snapdraiks. "Well... there's a pretty sizeable cluster of pebeanjays in a little clearing that way. And a couple of perfume mallows too I think. But you should hurry; it's getting dark."
The babies followed her pointing and glanced to the side. Mrikuni, however, just blinked. Vira groaned. It was just not her day. She was getting tired of it, and wanted the girls out of her woods. "Fine. This way; can you tell the petpet to follow me?"
The Kazeriu whined, and glanced up at Mrikuni. She reached down to comfort the little thing. "It's alright, Izanami. Let's go."
She huffed in protest, but complied, leading her mistress and the babies along the path that Vira lead.
She watched the group frolic in stony silence, unsure of her reasons for staying. They found their flowers, and they would be leaving shortly, but for whatever reason...
Maybe it was because she was amused by the prospect of friendly conversation. Mrikuni had spent the entire walk engaging in small talk, completely oblivious to the fact that she was conversing with a monstrosity. Vira hadn't carried on dialogue so casually in years. Not since before the curse. So much time had passed, she hadn't even realized how quiet her life really was.
"I know you're still here."
Vira flinched a little, but remained silent. Mrikuni carried on, carefully knotting the stems of two flowers together in a chain. "I can hear your heartbeat."
Vira scoffed. "You're messing with me."
"Maybe I was, but you just confirmed you're still here."
That was clever. Vira was slightly embarrassed for falling for such an old trick, but she couldn't deny her amusement. She sat down a few feet from the Kougra, toying with blades of grass absently. "You're too smart for your own good, Mrikuni."
Vira smiled, tugging at a stray thicket of weeds, and started crafting her own chains. The twins, worries all dispersed by the sheer joy of play, nudged at her knees, dropping spare mallows into her lap. She worked them into her flower crown seamlessly, taking the time to enjoy the calm atmosphere. It was... different. Like a memory she had almost lost. Just a couple of girls and their flowers.
"You know... I never thought you were that ugly."
Vira paused, smile faltering, and looked over at Mrikuni. "What are you talking about?"
"I mean, I never thought the curse was that bad. My mother has a copy of the Gallery. I saw your picture quite a bit before my vision went. Maybe you aren't faerie pretty, but style has evolved over time. There was a time when my sister, Anna, would dress like you every day. There's whole subcultures dedicated to the concept of beauty in darkness. You'd fit right in."
The Acara had stopped weaving her flowers, eyes widening. A chill spread outwards from her stomach, and her voice wavered. "I...I don't know what-"
Vira was up on her feet in seconds, flowers discarded. "You know?"
Mrikuni turned to the abrupt noises, and nodded. Her voice was gentle, as if trying to placate the confused monster. "You met us on a dark path and started obsessing over how I look. I know how you work."
Vira felt an uncharacteristic sense of panic. The girl was no threat to her, and never had been. But still, terror struck her all the same. She knew. She had known the entire time, and didn't care. She had been tricked into complacency, socializing for the first time in years, under the impression that she was just another traveler to Mrikuni.
She should have been thrilled. She should have jumped for joy at the thought of someone who perceived a person where others saw a monster. But she was afraid. She lowered her defenses, and she was deceived.
"You... you knew," Vira repeated, still dumbfounded, as she backed away. Mrikuni stood, and moved towards her, but the Acara flinched, turned on her heels, and shot up into the sky. The babies yelped, startled, but Mrikuni was silent. Vira turned back, and made eye contact. If the Kougra was aware, she didn't show. Her eyes stared off at a point just beyond her, unblinking.
Vira turned her head, ascending higher into the dark clouds of the evening.
"Mrikuni! Where in Neopia were you; it's getting late! We were worried!"
The twins bounded off the paved road towards Anna, chirping and cooing. Mrikuni smiled sheepishly. "Sorry. I lost track of time. But we managed to find some flowers!"
Anna chuckled, and righted a wilting dandelion amongst her sister's hair. "I see. Bright pretty ones for mother, and weeds for yourself? I'll never understand you, Mrik."
Mrikuni smiled. "Well, maybe I like weeds. Who decides on what counts as a weed anyway? It's a blanket term for unwanted plants; I bet some people would consider roses a weed."
"Alright, dearest, dial back the philosophy. Mother expects us back soon. Let's go."
The sisters set off into the heart of the town, and Mrikuni could almost feel the eyes boring into her back. Her ears flicked as her observer drew back into the branches of her perch, but she didn't turn back. She didn't have to.
Vira leaned against the trunk of the tree, arms crossed and frowning. "Idiot girl."
She adjusted her crown of pebeanjays, and withdrew into the darkness of the forest.