Abedah was so drowsy, it was hard for to keep awake. It helped that she was sitting on a hard boulder with no back support, and even though the country feast was delicious by every normal measure, she had been subjected to the I.F. food for so long, she wasn't used to anything else. As a result, she truly enjoyed the fruit, but only picked at the rabbit. She had only taken a small amount, so she finished what she had; but if there was going to be a great deal more fighting or travelling the next day, she was going to have to find some way to either improve her appetite or improve her energy.
It seemed everyone was pairing off, either because they already knew each other or had something in common. Abedah felt lost and lonely. When Kyle stood up abruptly, trying to end the argument between Angelus and Lox, she felt a certain compassion for him. This in itself was quite unusual, because in the realm in which she maintained complete control over just about everything, she had no use for compassion. She didn't know if it was the situation, or just her new chance at youth that softened her emotions; but she wasn't going to figure it out while she was awake. She slid off the boulder and put her head where she had been sitting, and fell into a sound, silent sleep.
His heart pulsated behind the prison of his ribs, thumped against the bone cage. Beads of sweat rolled down from his forehead to his neck, while his bare feet shuffled beneath him, working, working, and running as if they were freed from fetters. He tore through the double oak doors, and darted down the dimly lit hallway. The portraits on the parallel walls became like moving clips as he passed them.
Three men raged after him, gun in hands, waiting for a clear shot, but the runner was too fast. He cut through a door to his left and flew down the first flight of stairs before realizing it was an ambush. Five men in black suits were racing up several flights, while one of them looked up through the square opening of the staircase, and let off a couple of rounds at him. He quickly tucked his face backward from the speeding bullets, which ricocheted off of the banister.
A radio crackled to life. “Where is he?”
“We are in pursuit!”
“Hurry and catch him. I want him back here alive!”
The runner dashed back up the staircase, step by step, and almost collided into one of the three men coming through the entrance to the stairs. He agilely dropped to the ground like a base runner rushing to tag second base, and slid through the man’s legs.
He did not wait around to retort to an insult. His adrenaline was at its pinnacle, but his energy was near E. He skipped several steps as he climbed his way toward the roof, and held on to the banister as it helped him hoist himself even further.
He suddenly reached the top with the eight suits following closely at his heels. With his heart now in his throat, he kicked open the roof door and charged into the night with full force. His only choice was the edge; his only choice was to jump.
He ran faster, dashing in between and around several antennas and cooling ducts. He raced, his heart raced, his feet raced, his mind raced. It was all or nothing. He sprung toward the edge of the roof like an archer’s arrow splitting into its target, jumped off, and fell into the murkiness of the night. The eight men watched as his arms and legs slowly propelled in the open air, their eyes focused in astonishment as his body became smaller and smaller. Then, unexpectedly, he disappeared in the midst of the night sky.
“What’s going on?! What happened?” The man over the radio exclaimed.
"That's an interesting question," Angelus said, deciding to field Najm's question, "And unfortunately it's one that's sort of difficult to answer. The best way to description I can think of is that we're in the space between spaces. This is sort of the world where all of the forgotten things fall. Everything is born here, and everything dies here, and sometimes things just sort of...drift here. Everything that ever was, everything that could have been, it's all here. It's the glue that holds all of the realms together." She smiled, shrugging slightly. "It's also where all of those socks that you can never find end up," She said,"So if that helps anymore than my non-answer, go with that." She had never found a satisfactory explanation for what Limbo was, and while the idea made sense in her mind, she had never been able to put it into world. How had Esse described it...this was the realm of all possibility, the filter that decided what was and was not. That description was a little bit more concrete, but Angelus knew it didn't really explain things anymore than her own rambling attempt. Limbo was a strange place. That was the only thing she could say about it with absolute certainty. ((OOC:If somebody wants to give a better explanation, let me know and I'll delete this post. I just didn't want us to freeze))
She walked out toward the docks by herself. The night was still warm and the moon was high and beautiful. This is something that a better author could write poetry about. The shore greedily groped her bare feet. She wished she could smoke.
She could pull on the cigarette and watch the end turn bright red, exhale and release white curls like translucent feathers. Sway smoked like a dragon, well, not on paper, but any time when she didn't have to be seen.
No one in Illusion-land smoked. Everyone was too goody goody to do something like that.
Wow... was she really the villain? Is this how it was going to go down?
She heard something in the water, but shrugged it off. "Probably a sea mammal," she said to herself.
She laughed. Who was the most goody goody person that had ever come through the Illusion? Probably Sara. Sara who sang songs of peace during actual battle sequences. She did her best impersonating, singing a saccharin sweet made up song in an awful key.
Ooooh let's not fight, Let's take back the night And from this day forth Only do right
Let's swing our swords only for the Lord Like Areal did in a Sentinel horde
Let's get our blue blade And join the brigade because batting hazel eyes is not totally gay
She started cracking up and paused to think of more.
Let's not judge or jury and forget all our worries Because Caspar and Fenris And Nubie are furries
Angelus mentioned She's from the fifth dimension But has stayed around For the sexual tension
Let's all hit the gym If you value your limbs Because if you're not careful You'll get Najm'd
Don't worry about dangers In this game changer Let's welcome DArem Two total strangers
Forget your alliance No time for defiance Abedah will save us With a vine and some science
Ooooh let's not fight, Let's take back the night And from this day forth Only do right
Cuz the right thing to do Is the best choice for you When you call yourself One that is True
She stopped in the sand, curtseyed, and thanked her fans.
And let's not forget We haven't yet met The annoying a** Lox The worse True One yet
No, really, that was... that one was pretty bad. Well, they were all pretty bad. She couldn't think of any other words that rhymed with science and felt she had totally dropped the ball on the Dougie-Arem stanza. This was pretty miserable but it made her laugh and took her mind off of the argument before. She self-conciously hoped Sway hadn't actually tried to come up with any real words to go with that and had simply written "Lox came up with some songs in poor taste" instead. But she was pretty sure, she hadn't.
Then she paused. She felt like she was hearing whispering. She certainly hoped no one heard her singing. She looked around and did not see anything but Nubie, coming after her from a long way away. Except he didn't run to her, he stopped short a little farther up the dock. He was sniffing something and was walking with his nose down and his rump in the air like he was following something or someone.
Whatever it was, he wouldn't come to her when she called. She walked over to him to pick him up and felt--something--in her way.
She squinted her eyes. "What... what is that?"
The writer sits on the sofa with the laptop on his knees. It's a hot night, and the fan of the air conditioner provides noise in the quiet, and some sense of relief from the humidity. He's not alone in the living room, but everyone is busy doing their own thing. A wet nose nudges his elbow with a purr. "Hiya, Pounce." He strokes her soft black fur, and she rolls over to let him scratch her snow white stomach. She looks at the screen of the laptop and nudges it with her nose. She goes back and forth between the writers arm and the screen several times, and begins to knead his thigh. "Ow. That's enough Miss Pounce," but she doesn't stop. "What? You want to go into the story?" The writer's wife gives him a look suggesting he's gone off the deep end. She shakes her head and goes back to Facebook. The cat purrs louder and nudges the screen harder. "Okay, but it's not going to be easy. The portal's over there." The writer points to a narrow frosted window next to the door. The cat jumps down and washes herself. Then, in a blink, she launches herself towards the window and....
"Yee-haw!" she yells as she lands in the woods. The transition to Limbo is never perfect, and physical changes are common. The cat, who stood barely a foot high when on all fours and weighed less than ten pounds, now found herself twice that size and four times that weight. She had no problems standing on her hind legs, making her a full meter and a half tall, plus a little. And, to her great surprise and delight, she could speak English.
The brush rustled, and she smelled "Dog!" She arched her back and bristled her fur and hissed. Anubis looked at her and just kept on sniffing, searching for something far more interesting that a new cat in Limbo. "Wait just a minute here, Papa Mike. What could be more interesting than me?"
Sorry, Miss Pounce, I can't change what somebody else has written, the voice echoed in her mind.
"Hmph," she squeaked as she licked her fur back into place. "You could have at least put me somewhere a little more interesting."
I could have dumped you in the pond.
"Hmph," she squeaked again, and she sauntered off into the woods, perpendicular to Anubis, hoping she wouldn't have to run into him again any time soon. It was dark, a perfect hunting time for cats. She took her time, but soon spotted just what she was in the mood for. She squatted down as low to the ground as she could, waiting a moment to catch the movement, and as her name suggests, pounced onto the unsuspecting mouse, breaking its neck swiftly before opening up the fresh meal. After enjoying the spoils of her victory, she washed her paws and her mouth, and considered curling up to sleep. But even though this was far more adventure than she usually got in her suburban home, she knew there were a few things she needed to do before she could take a nap. She had read all the Limbo posts up to the point she jumped into the portal, and knew Abedah needed to get her belt back, so she would have some kind of weapon. As much as she didn't want to have to prove herself to the dog just yet, she knew the pouches couldn't have gotten that far away.
She found her way back to the scene of the battle, and dug into the brush where human eyes would have trouble seeing. After about twenty minutes of meticulous searching, she finally spotted the glint of steel from under a leaf. A little more searching revealed the remainder of what Abedah had left behind. The dagger was the easy part of reassembling the belt. The canteen was still attached, and Miss Pounce picked up the blade in her teeth, dropped it by the loop, and batted it into place. She did the same with the flint and the cap, until that was secure. She pulled the strings of the belt so they were out straight, and grabbed each of the pouches to place in their positions. She had no idea what the contents were, but knew from reading that one of them made a loud noise. She did her best to be careful not to make any of them mad. She looked at the pouches, and sat to think for a minute. "You know, Papa Mike, this would be a whole lot easier if you gave me opposable thumbs." There was no reply. "Hmph," as she set to work tying the knots as best she could with a combination of tooth, claw, and paw. Another half an hour later, she yawned widely, satisfied she'd done well. She took the straps of the belt in her teeth and whipped the belt onto her back. The smell of a campfire dying greeted her nostrils. She walked off in that direction on all fours, keeping her eyes out for anything of interest. Seeing nothing, she got to the edge of the camp and kept as low to the ground as she could. Her black fur would help keep her concealed from most of the characters there.
She dropped the belt quietly in front of Abedah, who was sound asleep on her side. She smelled a couple small pieces of rabbit meat that had fallen off the bone by the fire, so she walked over, hooked a piece with her claw, and ate it. She was about to squeal with utter deliciousness, but realized most of the characters were already asleep. She didn't want to cause a stir, so she walked over to the rock Abedah was using as a pillow, curled up, and fell asleep herself, quite content to be where she was.
Arem tried arduously to peel the skin of the orange, but it was to no avail as the stubborn coat clung tightly to the treasure within. He did not realize how hungry he truly was until his stomach groaned out of anger at its master. Plucking the butchered orange on to the ground, he plopped the berries into his mouth one at a time, hoping that it would satisfy him until the roasted rabbit was done. He really wished that there was tea. Tea, especially with milk, was a delicacy in his native town, and having a banquet without tea was not a banquet. Wherever it may be, at any moment, there had to be tea, but unfortunately for Arem, there was none.
“Arem and Dougie.”
Arem peered up from the berries in his hand, and was astonished to find that the tattooed woman was addressing him. Dougie, too, seemed rather perplexed. Arem thought it weird hearing his name masked beneath an accent.
“Are you single? Because Fenris is available.”
Arem flinched a little at the bluntness of the question, and almost dropped the rest of his skimpy dinner. He turned to look at Dougie’s crush, and saw that she flushed a bright red. Before he could retort with a sly answer to send this Fenris women into an embarrassed fit, she began defending herself.
“I’m not looking for someone like…like that.”
A smirk appeared on the corner of Arem’s mouth. “Ouch.”
“You see, I told you that woman had fire,” Dougie said, nudging Arem in the ribs.
“She just insulted us, Doug.”
“You saw her face, she clearly wants me.”
Arem softly laughed, and then began to pick pieces from the cooked rabbit. He was witnessed the three women began hammering away at each other, which he was use to something small escalating to something greater when it came down to women, even if that woman was not…human. They always talked about past topics rather than the matter at hand, and it almost always consisted of an insult or two. Not to mention, the point by point replay of their defense. They also held grudges worse than a Montague against a Capulet. Oh yes, he knew them all too well, especially being the previous inhabitant of a home with five sisters and a mother.
“Arem, I know you cannot respond, but that person you was talking to before, the one from Elderin. I said something about the Bedouin Massacre. I’m not sure if it is known to you as the Bedouin Massacre,but it is known as this in the innermost parts of Elderin. Some years ago, a tribe of Bedouins were killed in the northern part of the desert by two forces before my father and I were locatedthere. Scores of Bedouins were slaughtered. Someone once worded it as the sand actually turned red that day.Some even quipped that the name, ‘The Great Red Desert of Kopul-Vul’ was a foreshadowing of what happened.”
Arem tried to listen to Habeeb over the loud prattle between the three ladies.
Dougie quickly became uninterested and leaned over to Arem. “I guessing your thinking that when light comes we have to leave.”
“Why would you say that?” Arem asked, his mind obviously distracted by what Habeeb was telling him.
There was something that tickled the back of his mind about this Bedouin Massacre, something that made his hair stand on edge. Perhaps, it was the thought of a multitude of Bedouins being slain in Kopul-Vul, or Arem not remembering it. Was he so involved with rebuilding is life on his own that he did not pay attention to his surrounding events? The small room that he occupied back home was all he possessed; it was all anyone had around him. On the outskirts of Elderin, there were tattered fabrics that hung at the mouth of people’s doorframes, a single room where a family of five lived together, or the old man that traveled using a board with wheels to replace his missing legs. No, his mind was use to the wilted conditions of the people, and maybe that marred his vision when the Bedouins were killed. Maybe it was just another sad thing you shake your head to. It was wearisome to even think about, so he probably pushed it out of his mind when he heard it the first time.
“Well you said something about this other fellow you’re here for,” Dougie whispered.
“Hmm, yeah. But first I have to know this place before I can search around for anyone.”
The tattooed women stood up, and stalked off with her now small pooch into the forest. It was the second time she walked into the thick greenery and now it was getting strange. First, she went there and conveniently found all that she needed to make the perfect feast, then she stormed off again into the forest as if she knew Araaf better than any person here. Arem could remember one of the ladies saying that this tattooed woman has written a homicidal maniac, which struck him as quite peculiar. Wrote? Smashing people to random bits of data? Who are these people? He began to mull over everything from what Habeeb said to what the winged being said. Things just didn’t seem to add up.
“I got a question. Where the hell are we?” Najm asked.
After explaining her view of what she thought limbo to be, the childlike being went on to say, “It’s also where all of those socks that you can never find end up.”
Arem guessed that he would have laughed at the joke, but he could not relate because he never had socks, so he wouldn’t know. He did not know what Araaf was. Imaginateers, Imagiwaves, writers, imaginations, realms; it was all new to him, and he did not know what to make of it yet.
“Here’s an idea,” Arem threw in. “We can try and find out at dawn.”
Pierre strode silently along the pond's shore, nearly within a stone's throw of the docks.
"Yes, Perrine," he answered quietly, pausing momentarily.
--A humanoid and non-humanoid have broken from the group by the fire, it looks like they're headed your way.--
"Do we have files on either of them?"
"They're not sprites then, or any of the confirmed "True Ones". I suppose he would want me to do some reconnaissance on the still unknown members of the group."
--Just be careful Pierre, I'll be watching in case you need my help.--
Pierre chuckled, "I know, you're always watching, my little angel."
As he approached the dock the humanoid Perrine had told him about came walking out of the forest, following after what Pierre assumed was the non-humanoid Perrine had mentioned, a strange-looking creature with blue and silver fur, and an oddly shaped tail.
He wasn't nervous or wary of being discovered, Pierre knew that in the dark, with his cloaking utility active, he was a ghost. But the little creature, who was following his nose, was making a beeline straight for the spot where Pierre was standing.
He said a silent curse to himself for having the cigarette earlier, it had tainted his tactical-suit with the scent of high-quality tobacco.
--You shouldn't have smoked earlier.--
Pierre bit his tongue, he hated being scolded by his childish partner. He stood stock still as the diminutive creature sniffed around at his feet, fighting back the urge to just tranq it, and the humanoid, and just continue on with his mission. He had been ordered not to interfere with non-targets, however, unless necessitated by an emergency. Instead, he stood as still and silently as possible, trying to mask his presence as much as possible.
The humanoid said something that Pierre couldn't make out, but when he looked up he realized that she was walking straight towards him, most likely to retrieve her dog-like companion. He tried to move out of her way, but the creature would not leave his side, so when the humanoid stooped to pick up her pet, she head-butted him lightly in the stomach.
He flinched, still biting his tongue.
The humanoid squinted, as if she was reading something far away, and then said, "What...what is that?"
Pierre groaned inwardly. He had no idea what to do. He couldn't tranq her, he definitely couldn't kill her, but if she caused a scene it would alert his actual target, who was just a short distance from them, and who Pierre hoped was either asleep, or not paying attention to what was happening on the edge of the pond.
--Pierre, I have an idea!--
Pierre shook his head slowly. Perrine was always coming up with ideas to help him, but unfortunately Perrine's ideas tended to be on the...strange side. He listened as she outlined her plan to him, and after she finished he could do nothing but shake his head yet again.
--C'mon Pierre, it'll work, what other choice do you have?--
She had a point. He sighed inwardly, aware that it would probably not work and backfire, like most of her plans did, but for lack of a better plan, he still enacted it.
Gracefully, Pierre pulled a long cigarette from a pack hidden inside his suit, which he began slowly weaving circles in the air with.
"I am the strange and mysterious floating-enchanted-cigarette of the lake, and I reward my enchanted cigarettes to those who are worthy. If you seek my sexy, smooth smoke, you must pluck me out of the air, and run away as fast as you can!"
Upon acting out the scene Perrine had so carefully laid out in his mind, Pierre realized that she was an idiot, and that he was also an idiot for having listened to her. Hopefully, the humanoid was an idiot as well.
She stood, mystified as a cigarette materialized in front of her. A man’s voice said, “I am the strange and mysterious floating-enchanted-cigarette of the lake, and I reward my enchanted cigarettes to those who are worthy. If you seek my sexy, smooth smoke, you must pluck me out of the air, and run away as fast as you can!"
Lox knitted her brow. “I didn’t know cigarettes could talk. But I’ll take your offering, oh cigarette god,” she said flatly, not sure that Limbo could get any weirder.
Was she to believe that she could just think of a thing on the beach and a spirit would bring it to her? Whatever the case, she wasn’t about to offend another ghost. Her ears were still ringing from Diantha’s headbutt.
She reached out for the cigarette and then, feeling what felt like fingers, startled. She tried to run through the ghost, but ended up running directly into something hard that she couldn’t see. The sand rippled and cigarettes and matches littered the beach. She burst out laughing and in her panic picked up as much as she could in a split second then ran with all her might the other way. She was laughing at the top of her lungs.
“Quit smoking, ghost!” she called, “It can kill you!”
She jumped through a break in the trees with Nubie hot on her heels.
She jumped through a break in the trees with Nubie hot on her heels.
Back up to the rancid smelling Dragon Pond she ran.
Her heart was pounding but she did not hear anyone behind. From far off she could see that the campfire was dying, but no one could see her from the campsite.
Perfect. She lit a cigarette and, closing her eyes, took a drag. Sexy smooth, indeed. She had snagged six total and about four matches. She told herself she wouldn’t waste the others.
She had never gotten a chance to clean up after the battle and, having spent so much time over a fire and combing the woods, it made more sense to wait until she was about to go to bed, anyway.
She disrobed, flicking her ashes, and shivered in the cooling night air. She saw a beautiful young woman standing behind her in the moonlight. She jumped, stumbled, thinking of all manner of ghosts, and saw no one. She sat beside the pond and peered over the edge.
It was her. It was her as Sway saw her. Well, as everyone saw her, now.
Her hair was a curly, deep burgundy and swept the middle of her back. She had the type of lashes people paid good money for. Wide, neat eyebrows framed clever almond eyes and a determined expression that concealed some secret anticipation. Full lips disguised a wide, devilish smile.
She was not short or tall, fat or skinny, but her waist was small and she was hippy. She had smooth brown skin that was laced with a web of neat, symmetrical tattoos. Three -quarter sleeves were on both arms, evoking the solar system. The sun and the planets were on her left arm with Anubis at the center and the moon and constellations on the right with a goddess in the middle. There was a background of dozens of small hieroglyphic symbols like stars. The planets did not look familiar to her, nor did any of the star formations.
There was a break at her shoulders that was bare, clean and brown. But on her sides there were inscriptions that went all the way down to her hips and then branched out over her thighs. From the top of her hip to her right knee was a long, curved sickle-sword and an asp coiled around her left thigh. She had a heart over her heart, an elaborate crown on the back of her right hand and a lamp on her left. A feather laced delicately around her left wrist like a bracelet.
There was no way for her to see what was on her back, but she assumed that her creator had not been negligent. That would be an awkward conversation later. She estimated that fifty percent of her body was tattooed. There were blank spaces, of course. The middle of her body was bare, as if someone had taken a picture of her and erased a wide, straight line from her collarbones to her ankles. Sway probably did this so she could wear long shorts and low cut shirt and avoid revealing anything. She decided to invest in some light gloves as well.
She stared at herself for a long time. Nubie looked at her expectantly, waiting for her to speak. She sighed. “I really can’t find a better way to say that…” She blew out some smoke, “I hate this. It’s beautiful. Don’t get me wrong. It’s actually pretty magnificent, impressive, really,” she started grumbling, “but I feel like someone painted me,” she trailed off, “without my permission. I feel different from everyone and I don’t like that.”
He watched her send her battered shirt floating in the water to get clean. She jumped into the pond as if she were trying to wash the ink away, careful to keep her cigarette above water.
He thought they were pretty, really. More humans should have markings. They started to look the same after a while, anyway. This at least made her unique in some way, but he got the sense that she did not like it for another reason. It was not the adornment itself, it was that she had not been given an opportunity to give or refuse her consent. That was what bothered her.
He stood guard as she waded into the pond. His ears twitched in the midnight air, searching for anything that sounded too uniform in the forest. Humans found it almost impossible to replicate the rippling of the wind, their walk had a pattern, a cadence that was difficult to disguise as anything else. He knew the ghost was no ghost, but as long as the human was not going to harm Lox, he let it be. Nubie thought it must be their biology. They did not have pads on their feet to negotiate snapping twigs, nor did their whiskers tell them to duck away from low hanging branches.
They were upright apes, having few senses and usually being unable to detect anything until it was far too late. To a certain extent, Nubie empathized with Angelus.
Who would want to be human?
There was very little one could hear or see in such a state and if Angelus had the ability to see and hear more, why wouldn’t she settle for Lox’s blindfolded existence? Of course there were disadvantages to having more than sub-standard senses. Nubie could hear, for instance, people gossiping through walls, fights breaking out, screams from far, far away.
He wondered why Angelus was so sensitive to it, now. Hadn’t she been hearing people’s most awful imaginings for millennia? Perhaps it was because they were not directed at her. His train of thought was interrupted when he smelled the markings of a stray feline and felt it his obligation to hose the offending bush down to assert his presence in the neighborhood. Yeah, take that, he thought creating a golden trail alpha male style. He glanced up and saw that Lox was wadding in the water, staring very intently at one spot, completely still.
She had already demonstrated with a few rapid laps that she was a very strong swimmer and he assumed she would be okay. Now, back to the issue at hand, he had to admit, it was difficult to tune things out, but he never thought about it. He was used to the senses he had as he assumed a human was used to using thumbs or seeing in “color.” These were just two things on a staggering list of concepts that humans probably never bothered to think about.
“Nubie!” she called. He perked up immediately and rushed to the bank ready to leap to her aid. She turned to him and splashed a torrent of water his way. Something heavy and slippery hit him squarely in the chest. There were a couple of seconds of confusion as he nearly crashed into the pool, legs tied. He felt a hand grab his rump and push him back on the shore. “Sushi,” she said. Nubie shook himself and saw a green fish flapping frantically on the shore. Before he could turn to attack it, she grabbed his little shoulders and kissed the top of his head before disappearing like a mermaid into the deep.
He had to admit, she was thoughtful. And, in her way, sweet. No, that wasn’t the word, she was spontaneous, unpredictable, fun even. And then there was this name ‘Nubie’ that she had created for him. It rhymed with ruby. She might as well put a dress on him or tie a bow in his hair. He recoiled at the thought; knowing she would do something like that. His name was Anubis, and she had given him a childish derivative. He wanted to be annoyed, but he had to admit that he liked it. Not just the name, but her attention, her affection. She was very warm to sit beside and she had scratched his ears for a full fifteen minutes. Admittedly she had probably forgotten he was still in her lap as she was talking to Kyle and Caspar at the time, but he was grateful either way.
She was his charge, yes, but she made him feel like a part of the team in a way he had never felt before. Usually he followed along behind in the shadows, but she had discovered him immediately and though he had thought of slipping away more than once she always had her eye on him as if she were trying to keep him out of harm. He made himself admit that there was a human he liked and that human was currently stark naked, skipping dragon scales across the water.
She had a lot of nerve. The fish was good, though.
He had assumed this tiny form so that she would not be afraid of him, but it seemed that he had underestimated her. She wasn’t easily rattled. Her argument with Angelus was classic. She had guts, that was for d*mn sure. She had some gumption, finding the nerve to stand up to a demi-god, unblinking and unrepentant. Of course she lost the foolish argument. She had not gotten what she wanted and had gained an enemy in one impressively awful swoop. Yet, she did set a precedent. She was not to be trifled with. In the canine community, that was valuable. It put Angelus’s alpha status as ‘the most powerful being’ in serious jeopardy and exposed an assortment of weaknesses. Leadership would fall on someone else’s shoulders for now. It was a good show, as far as he was concerned, especially for an inexpert tyro.
He turned the fish over and started on the other side. Though she was a neophyte to battle, she had hunting acumen, this fish and the forest feast for example. Even though she often talked out of turn, she had fortitude. He laughed to himself at how woefully unprepared she had been for the specter battle. He found her so quickly on the battlefield because she reeked of fear, but she had kept her courage and had not deserted though she was injured and outgunned.
It had been too many long years since he had found a female who could withstand the trip to this lost place, let alone had any spirit left in her on arrival. But to survive in this place she would need to make three immediate changes: choose her battles, make use of her weapons, and use her scurrilous sense of humor for good. He was pretty sure she wasn’t interested in doing any of that.
She cut off his thoughts. “You know what I noticed?” she said.
Of course he couldn’t respond to her, but he tilted his head to the side.
“I’m much prettier than I was before, even though I don’t remember what I looked like anymore.”
She was what a human would describe as curvaceous. That was all fine, but until she could grow a tail he wasn’t interested.
“Now I know why all my clothes are baggy. With all these tattoos and this shape, I look like I’m a stripper that just got out of jail,” she said laughing.
All this stripper talk was confusing Nubie. He could care less about her nudity because he was naked all the time and had no idea why anyone was wearing clothes, anyway. Still, anything that made Lox happy somehow made him happy.
“I was thinking about my character, Nubie,” Lox continued. It was hard to take her seriously as she was pacing around a pond in the nude finishing a stolen cigarette, “And if I am an attractive female they’re probably going to try to romantically link me to someone.” She was carefully drying her hair now and he was not sure who ‘they’ were. “But I don’t really know if I want that because it makes your life too complicated.” He retrieved her shirt from the bank in his teeth and thought of all the lady-wolves of his past. “What do you think?” She picked it up and started to ring it out.
He wagged his tail hard, wishing that he could say something to her. He could understand Lox but he was pretty certain she was incapable of understanding him. He was not even sure that she knew he understood her. She just seemed like one of those people who would talk to their dog because it made the dog feel special. It was true; he loved the attention.
“Oh, so you’re saying you’ll be my love interest, Nubie?” she teased. “I usually like my men with a little more fur.”
He spun around in a circle tail wagging.
“But really,” she said more to herself, “I doubt anyone will notice what I look like anyway. They never did where I am from so why should Limbo be any different?”
He slunk to the ground. As a dog that was a foot tall, he knew the feeling of being overlooked.
“Oh well,” she said brightly, pulling her clothes on and starting back toward camp. “It probably won’t be like that. All fantasy girls are hot,” she explained. “Only guys can manage to be unattractive. Fenris looks like an international spy and full-time Swedish supermodel, Najm is femme fatale assassin straight from a French film noir, Angelus descended from heaven with the express mission of sweeping every child beauty pageant, and Abedah is currently going for confused school girl, but she could totally pull off fierce dragon lady if she wanted. Big booty rap video girl is okay with me,” she laughed, “I could do a lot worse.”
Getting closer to camp, she stopped talking so as not to disturb anyone. She carefully assembled a pallet of moss to sleep on. Nubie could tell she was losing momentum and tried as best as he could to help.
She asked Kyle if he wanted her to help him with the first watch and was not surprised when he refused. She decided to stay up, anyway, but was asleep before she could fully formulate this resolution.
Nubie, however, did not leave Kyle’s side and stayed with him until his shift was over. Nubie saw Kyle getting ready to get up and pressed his head into his side as a salute before bed. He trotted over to Lox who was shivering in the night air but was still asleep. He pulled her poncho over her. Dreamily she pulled it around her and tucked her legs into her chest like a child. He made himself big again and, circling her a few times, plopped down beside her to warm her up. She scooted toward him, half asleep, and drifted off with her head over his paw.
Dawn broke overhead and Lox was still asleep long after the fire had been rekindled and people were talking about their next move. This concerned Nubie. She slept too soundly and enjoyed sleeping too much. He nudged her a few times with his muzzle, but she pushed his nose away lightly and curled back up.
Nubie decided to try something. He knew Angelus could not read his mind, but perhaps he could try to speak to her telepathically. He could communicate with animals and other beings like himself in this way and Angelus had mentioned she had telepathic abilities. They were both magical creatures, after all, and it could not hurt to try.
<Angelus> he said <It’s Anubis. Can you hear me? Who invited the … cat?>
Angelus had done many, many strange things in her time as a guardian. She'd been the guardian of a king who believed that the appropriate response to any crime was to execute the offender, she'd watched over someone who's only goal in life was killing the whale that ate his parents(she had never quite figured out that scenario, or what it was supposed to mean, but it had been interesting), she'd been woken from stasis to watch over someone else's charge, she'd picked the pocket of a demon fish...on the moon, but in all of her varied, strange adventures, she could not remember talking telepathically with a dog. Credit where it was due, this was a new experience. At first, she wasn't even sure that she'd be able to communicate with him without speaking out loud. The problem with her two-way communications with the other guardians is that it relied on the idea that the other party was also fully telepathic, and usually what one sent was the meaning of an idea, rather than a verbalized version of the idea itself. Even her communication with Esse had only been presented as a back and forth dialogue for the convenience of the reader. Still, after a few minutes she started to find his signal. The act was like tuning a radio, she had to find the right frequency. It took a few tries, but eventually she picked up his thought process. It was less muddled than the usual minds she tuned into, this was a brain driven by instinct and impulse rather than careful reason. It was like Fenris' mind in that way, but there was an element to it that was almost disturbingly alien. 'Then again, I'm practically the embodiment of Deus Ex Machina in the most literal sense,' She thought to herself, 'So I can hardly call anyone else 'weird'.' Of course, she'd pretty much already done that to Lox, but she deserved it, as far as the angel was concerned. In fact, she deserved to be call far worse things. Before long, she discovered that this dog did, in fact, have limited empathic abilities. However, she would have to be careful to make her message clear. For a simple idea like this it shouldn't be too difficult, she'd just couldn't give him a soliloquy. 'Darn,' She thought, 'And here I was hoping to practice my Shakespeare.' She quickly formed the idea into proper words, but also sent the feeling that went with it, which was confusion, and sent it to his mind. <I haven't a clue> She thought, <She seems to be tied to Abedah, so I assume her writer sent the cat. I don't know why, but I'm sure we'll see why.> As she finished these thought, Fenris began to stir within the tent, eventually rising to her feet and walking to where the angel floated in the air, stretching as she did. "So, what are you up to?" The warrior asked casually. Angelus shrugged as if she was doing nothing more exciting than watching water boil. "Talking to Lox's dog," She said. Fenris raised an eyebrow, giving the little angel a strange look. "You say that like it's normal," She said. Angelus shrugged again. "We're in the world of lost socks, remember," She said, "Weird is kind of the norm."
The night grew late. As conversations dulled and slowed, the various members of the party staked out small clearings to sleep. The night was clear and temperate, so there was little need for shelter, though several of the groups seemed to glance towards Angelus' plasma tent with at least a cursory thought. Kyle was walking his way back from the woods, dragging along several large branches, intending to take first watch.
As things settled, Kyle pulled over a particularly thick branch, and started hacking away with his hatchet. The work was a little tougher than he'd expected, but he knew that they'd need a supply of wood to keep the fire going through the night. He kept at it, but it was obvious hacking off a single piece would take longer than he'd like.
Glancing around, he made sure that the others weren't paying direct attention to him. There was no need to excite anyone unnecessarily. Satisfied that the others were preoccupied elsewhere, he opened his palm slightly, and concentrated.
The familiar chill enveloped him as time began to slow. Kyle realized that his abilities were a little less potent than they had once been. He remembered, long ago, when he could literally freeze time completely, concentrating his power to keep an enemy completely vulnerable to his attacks. But now, it seemed as if his abilities would only give him the slightest edge, enhancing his reflexes and boosting his strength. Even now, he could feel the effect starting to fade away.
Working quickly, he brought the hatchet down with all of his strength onto the branch, and the blade sliced through the wood like a hot knife through butter. He pulled the branch over in a pattern of high-speed motion and lopped off piece by piece, just finishing the job as the effect completely wore off. There, sitting in a rather unconventional pile, was a stack of logs, ready for the fire.
He stacked a generous number of them in his arms, and walked his way back. As he turned back to grab the rest, he was surprised to find Lox's little dog Anubis behind him, a large log gripped tightly in his jaws. The image was a little ridiculous - The log was almost the same size as the dog was. But it was apparent that this particular canine was very much stronger than he looked. Kyle remembered that this little pup could, in almost a moment's notice, morph himself into a rather intimidating jackal, so perhaps he shouldn't be surprised that he still retained a rather unreal strength even in his more "travel-sized" form.
Kyle and the dog made two more trips, stacking up the wood just a couple of feet from the fire, and then the Blue-Blade Warrior settled himself down on the ground, leaning up against the stone that he'd claimed for most of the night. The others had retired, or so Kyle assumed, all, that is, except for Lox, who offered to stay up with him for the first watch.
There was sleep in her eyes, and Kyle could see it pretty clearly. He smiled, and thanked her, but told her that she should get some rest. He expected Anibus to follow her, but instead the dog unexpectedly stayed with Kyle.
It was odd, but Kyle often found himself as the night watchman, especially at camp. He suspected that much of it had to with his own inherent distrust of strangers, but there was more than that. Lox probably was as familiar with his tendencies as he himself was, but she wasn't privy to his reasoning. Not many except his writer was, actually.
The evening dragged on, and Kyle continued his watch. As the sounds of the forest and random light snoring drifted their way through the night, Kyle leaned up against the rock, and looked at Anubis, who rested attentively next to him.
"Anubis," said Kyle suddenly. "You want to know something?"
The dog perked up slightly at his name, and looked towards Kyle.
"I think I have some real control issues." The dog didn't seem to respond, but... Wait, was that a nod?
"I'm serious," Kyle continued. "I think I've been doing this so long that I don't think I really trust much of anyone anymore." Kyle sat up, and tossed another log onto the fire. Anubis stood up and stretched, but then looked towards Kyle, listening intently.
"Actually," clarified Kyle. "That's not true. There are a few that I trust. I can trust Caspar. He's never done wrong by me. And then there's Lox, who I think I can trust, just because we've really been through a lot together."
Kyle paused for a moment.
"But I think that's really about it. My writer, too, I guess. Don't meant to be forgetful." The warrior paused, going over his thoughts as he stared into the fire's dancing tongues.
"Sometimes I think that all there is in this place is deception, you know? I mean, just in my own life, my brother's tried to kill me, my sister nearly did kill me, and I've been lied to and betrayed so many times that I've started to think that that's the norm, not the exception." He stood up, and looked up into the sky. "Call me paranoid, but I don't like to sleep, because I feel like at any moment, a giant group of killer monsters might barrel their way into the campsite and kill us all in our slumber. But that's justified, isn't it? I mean, that's actually happened before!"
Kyle heard a snuffle as one of the party was a little startled by Kyle's voice.
Sighing, the warrior sat himself down again, and blew out the breath he'd unconsciously pent up. Anubis, sensing some of his frustration, trotted his way over and hopped onto the man's lap. Kyle smirked, and scratched the dog behind his ear.
"Maybe I'm just ranting, Anubis," he said with a grin. "But I don't get to get frustrated often enough. People always expect me to be the one with a cool head, the one who's able to take it all and keep on going. Sometimes, though..." Kyle thought for a moment.
"Sometimes it's nice to not have to be the good guy."
The night drifted on, and Kyle stayed vigilant, alert and searching the darkness for any signs of attack. He sat up for two watches, and then finally nudged Caspar awake. From what he remembered, the now thin and wispy youth didn't much like getting out of bed, but Kyle felt that he was the only one that he could trust to at least wake him up if there were any emergencies in the night.
Scratching Anubis' neck one last time, the warrior wrapped up his cloak, using it as a pillow on the sand near the lake. Staring at the stars, he quickly found his eyelids closing, and his mind drifted off into several hours of slumber before the sun crested the distant horizon.
There was a long pause, and Najm thought she was either going to be ignored yet again or replied to too late to do much of anything about it, but to her surprise Angelus took up the reins and decided it best to supply an answer.
"That's an interesting question," Angelus said, her finger tapping her bottom lip as she gazed at the night stars. "And unfortunately it's one that's sort of difficult to answer. The best way to description I can think of s that we're in the space between spaces. This is sort of the world where all of the forgotten things fall. Everything is born here, and everything dies here, and sometimes things just sort of...drift here. Everything that ever was, everything that could have been, it's all here. It's the glue that holds all of the realms together."
With that, she turned to Najm, the fire reflecting in her eyes, and gave small shrug accompanied by a warm smile. It was the most beautiful answer anyone could have ever given to a question like that. It was amazing how much a simple gesture of courtesy could be deeply appreciated, escpecially at such a time. Najm mirrored her smile.
"It's also where all of those socks that you can never find end up," She joked,"So if that helps anymore than my non-answer, go with that." Najm held back a laugh with an even broader smile. "Really? And to think, I thought all those socks I lost ended up in the Twilight Zone."
A bit weary now, she closed her eyes and gave a playful shrug of her own.
So that's where they were, a setting made up of a fluid concept. Somewhere, nowhere, and in between all at the same time. And unfortunately, that only begot more questions.
Najm couldn't help but to be slightly amused by the intricacy of it all. Thinking back to all the 'Thin Man', flicks her an Cekic had enjoyed on those late nights when they were exploring their new found love for old black and white movies, she would always yell at the screen, a pint of ice cream cradled in her lap, when the detective steered his theories in the wrong direction, but now, dramatic irony wasn't on her side, and she was beginning to empathize with the detective. Evidently, it wasn't that easy following the bread crumbs of clues, however, she did not have years of training at honing such a skill like him, so maybe she shouldn't be too hard on herself if she steered in the wrong direction. Opting to make assumptions every now and then didn't seem too bad of an idea. At least it could give a slight perspective on things, even if it was a bit distorted in certain aspects. She was bound to make out the painting at some point in time, or at least a semblance of it.
Assumptions always tended to tell a slightly different story, and hers went a little like this....
For starters, they were trapped in a realm where all realms were fused, sort of like the middle to a Venn Diagram. When two worlds collided, it did not necessarily render null and void the space in between, their had to be the space in between, and that's where they were.
"In between space and time," Najm mused in a whisper as if receiving some type of divine revelation.
But why was time matter? What's the significance of time being a solid concept? Or did time and space serve as a symbolic entity for something else?
So far, Najm counted four realms in all, or three, that is if you disqualify where they were as being a realm: Illusionia, Imperial City and all that was around it, the realm of the writer, and the 'glue that held everything in place'. It was already quite apparent that travelling to and from these realms were possible through a portal of some sort, but how did those portals get their and what purpose did they serve? Why were there realms in the first place? More questions.
It was no use, but to call it a night and tackle these questions like the days, one at a time.
"You know Angelus," she said in between sleep and wakefulness, "your not so bad, even if you could read minds. A little confidence goes a long way, sometimes you just have to learn how stand alone, even if the current isn't in your favor."
A weary smile spread across her face.
"And trust me, the current will never be in your favor, but that's what makes it all the more fun."
Najm then allowed herself to be rocked away to the sugar plum tree in the garden of shut eye town.
The bright light burned Abedah's eyes before she even opened them. For decades, she had needed no signal to get her out of bed. She had no set schedule that required her to wake up at any particular time, but she had long ago settled into a routine. This light was a very unwelcome intrusion, and so unfamiliar that she struggled to even recall the name for it. Morning. This is morning. As the haze lifted from her thoughts, she opened her eyes and tried to sit up. Her ribs were so stiff she could hardly move. Her hand throbbed, and the rest of her body ached. This was not going to be a good day, as if the previous had been a holiday.
She finally noticed the belt on the ground in front of her. Huh? she thought. Where did this come from? On the rock above her, Miss Pounce stretched and yawned exaggeratedly as only a feline can. She stood, gave Abedah's forehead a lick, and proceeded to walk down the woman's side like a ramp. By the time the cat got to the ribs, Abedah yelped, "Owww. Watch it, cat," and knocked Miss Pounce to the ground. Pounce took a bow, stretch her front legs as far as they could reach, then did the same with her back legs. She was ready for action. She ambled down to the pond to get a drink, and upon finishing, noticed the bones Anubis had left from his overnight treat. She smelled his mark and muttered, "Barbarian."
Angelus noticed that folks were waking up and decided this would be a good time to see what the cat was all about. Miss Pounce looked the part of a pirate because of a severe eye infection she'd had when she was a kitten. Though her right eye was normal, her left eye was dimmed so she could only detect motion from it. It never bothered her, and she used it to her advantage to evoke sympathy whenever she could. Seeing Angelus descending from wherever he had been spending the night, she crouched low and flicked her tail a few times. Angelus didn't need to read any minds to tell what the cat was thinking. She leaped into the air with her claws extended. "Get back here, birdie. I'm hungry." Angelus easily moved out of her way, but that didn't deter her from trying again. "I'm not a bird, I'm an angel. Bad kitty." After several rounds of this, Angelus rose high enough that Pounce would never be able to reach him and just shook his head. Frustrated, Pounce sat and watched him for a moment, flicking her tail and licking her lips. "Just wait, birdie. I'll have you for lunch." She washed her paw, and walked off to find someplace private. Unlike the male animals she was familiar with, she was going to cover her scent.
While this comical scene was taking place, Abedah finally summoned enough strength to stiffly stand on her feet. "And I thought yesterday was weird." She went off to use the designated latrine, wishing somebody in this realm would conjure up some toilet paper. She used a fern instead, remembering at least what someone had mentioned about poisonous leaves or some such thing. Returning to camp, she found there were a couple pieces of fruit left, though slightly dried out from being in the air. This was actually much closer to what she was used to.
Pounce came back to camp with some kind of insect leg hanging out of her mouth. Seeing Abedah up, she also stood and walked over to her. Abedah was at least a foot taller than the cat, but the way the cat moved, it seemed like she was in charge. "Well good morning. Aren't you even going to say thank you?"
Abedah was too distracted by the insect leg, and too weirded out from talking to a cat trying to act like a human. A talking cat? What next?
"Well, you are the rude one, aren't you," Pounce replied to herself. "Then again, I know all about your adventures as the Spider in the Shadow, so don't try to pretend with me, okay? You need some serious help here, and I'm, like, here to give it, okay?"
Abedah pointed to her own lip, trying to get the cat to wipe hers. "So you brought back the belt?"
Pounce licked her lips and swallowed the leg. "Well, I haven't seen Santa Claus around here anywhere. Come to think of it, he only shows up in Narnia. Ooh, I would love to go for some reindeer meat; but a nice warm fleece blankie would be nice too."
Abedah shook her head. This was just too weird, and this cat was beyond weird. "You're the second one who's mentioned Narnia. Would you mind filling me in?"
Pounce was gesturing as she spoke like an old Italian; but with joints in the wrong places, it made her look more like a drunken sailor than a normal person. "Like, oh emm gee. Don't you people ever read? Chronicles or Narnia, C.S. Lewis, total classic? Ugh! Papa Mike needs to do a lot better with you. You don't even know anything." Watch it, Miss Pounce. The voice echoed in Pounce's and Abedah's mind at the same time.
"Miss Pounce?" Abedah asked. "That's you?"
"At your soivice," trying to sound like Bugs Bunny. "Look at you - you're totally lost. That's what your name means, by the way, lost. It's ancient Hebrew. I've read all the posts, and Papa Mike told me a few things he hasn't written yet. I've even read Ender's Game, so I know your future." She said this last phrase in a sing-song voice. "Until you get a weapon you can actually use, I can do some fighting for you. I've got ten sharp knives, and a bunch of sharp teeth, and I'm really not afraid of anything. Except crinkling plastic. I don't know what it is about plastic, but when it crinkles, oh boy. It totally freaks me out."
Does she ever stop? Abedah thought.
"And you need to learn how to fight even without weapons. And stop lying to everybody. There's nothing wrong with admitting you scratched your hand trying to fulfill a childhood memory you didn't know you had until Papa Mike made you. I've been a character in a story before. Just go with the flow. It's pretty fun."
Abedah was quite annoyed by this point. "Okay, Miss Smarty Pants, did 'Papa Mike' tell you what these other pouches are for?"
"Nope, but there was a chemistry book I knocked off the table one day and decided to read. A lot I totally didn't get, but maybe I'll remember something."
Abedah shook her head. It wouldn't hurt to give the feline a chance, but she would much rather find a way to warm up some water and soak for a bit. She needed to loosen these tight muscles, and try to wash some of the stains out of her shirt. And she always did her best thinking either in the hot shower or over a cup of warm tea. "Would somebody bring me some tea," she called out, momentarily forgetting where, or who, she was.
A breeze ran its ghostly fingers through the leaves, as if the world was pulling back its unruly hair with a cool hand. The night reached its midpoint, and most of the ones gathered around the fire began to resign to their places of slumber. Arem and Dougie did the same, and to much delight, for it gave them free time to go over some boiling questions that was yet to be stirred. They retired several feet away from the campfire, and Dougie plopped on the ground, stretching and serenely closing his eyes. He kicked his short, stubby legs high up and comically folded them. Arem took his place, approximately a meter from him, and clasped his hands behind his head. He bid farwell to Habeeb until the morn, and released the earpiece from his ear and slipped it into his pocket.
“Quite an eventful night, was it not?” Dougie murmured.
“Different personalities from the ones in Elderin I would say.”
“Indeed. Albo?” Dougie asked, distorting the poor man’s name into something that sound like a water disease.
“Alban,” Arem corrected.
“Spill it.” Still with closed eyes, Dougie rocked his folded feet back and forth.
“You know, I feel sorry for the raven bombshell who sliced her hand, I wonder how she’s doing.”
“Whoa ho! No you don’t, you sly Hungarian devil.”
“Tombstone,” Arem remarked, holding out his hand.
With a low grunt, and a slew of muffled profanities, Dougie handed Arem a silver coin.
“You know you are really getting rusty. It’s time to push it up to intermediate level,” Arem said, chuckling.
“Oh, come now, I’m serious. You wanted me here, with the promise of women---“
“Which I clearly kept.”
“Which I didn’t want to come, and you gonna play me?”
Arem shifted his weight. “Alright, Alright. Remember when I left the bar to see Isabella?”
“Well, her fiancé---“
Dougie interrupted. “I’m sorry to hear that, how you holding up?”
“You want to be in the know or should I go to sleep?”
“As you were,” Dougie said, turning on his side and holding his head up with his hand, as he was now interested.
“So, he wanted to find someone in Araaf and Isabella said that I would be interested. Funny enough, at the moment I’ve been thinking about going to find my family…and to make a long story short, this family reunion turned out to be some kind of bounty.”
Dougie sighed. “So, what are you going to do?”
Arem unclasped his hands and shrugged.
“Well I guess all that can be said is, seeya space cowboy,” Dougie yawned.
Dougie handed Arem another silver coin and turned over in a huff. Then, they both fell quietly to sleep beneath the night sky.
As Angelus decided to avoid becoming a cat toy, she decided that she didn't like this cat either. Cats and Lox, that was the main chunk of her 'do not like' list at the moment. Fenris, meanwhile, seemed just as bothered by the arrival of the cat as Angelus, but there was something else. Something was amusing her. "What's so funny?" Angelus asked, drifting back to her charge. Fenris turned, smiling suggestively at the little angel. "You mean besides you being made into a cat toy?" She asked. Angelus frowned, which gave Fenris a laugh. It was obvious she enjoyed teasing the little angel just as much as Angelus enjoyed being snarky and rude to her. They made a good pair, actually, Angelus thought. They both knew exactly which buttons to press to annoy each other. "Anyway," Fenris said, gesturing towards the cat's charge, "I'm much more amused by the so called warrior over there." Angelus watched, as Abedah and the cat argued. She raised an eyebrow, surprised at how familiar the scene seemed. It was like looking into a mirror, only the mirror made Fenris incompetent, and it made Angelus a cat. Angelus had to admit, she liked her situation the way it was better. She didn't like the idea of having whiskers. "I swear," Fenris said, drawing Angelus out of her fantasy, "Abedah proves to be less of a warrior with every passing minute. One minute she's getting her hand torn open on a dead enemy, the next she's demanding tea from the skies above. This woman's not a fighter...I don't know WHAT exactly she is, but she's NOT a fighter." Angelus didn't know what exactly Abedah was supposed to be either, but there was something familiar about the woman. Angelus felt that she had some sort of invisible bond to the woman, but she couldn't tell what it was. She just had a feeling that in some way they were intrinsically tied together, like she was to her sister, like Fenris was to her estranged father, or like a child to it's mother. Something about that last thought resonated with her, but that scared her, and she quickly pushed the thought from her mind. There was work to be done, she didn't have time to try to figure out why this woman was so familiar. Except...what work was there to be done exactly? "Hey, um, guys," She asked the group at large, "Not that I'm one to doubt the flawless planning skills of a group of veteran heroes, but what exactly ARE we trying to do? We're all traveling together, but, um, where are we going and why?" She hadn't had time to think about this question yet, and she was amazed that it had taken her so long to think of it. "Well," Said Fenris, "I am personally going to try to find some way home to Terra Di." She shrugged, turning to the others. "I have a feeling that the rest of you have a similar goal, right?"
In the night, while everyone still slept, she had heard something in the forest. She got up, being sure not to wake Anubis. She padded silently into a clearing where the moonlight danced through the leaves across her face.
It was empty, but she felt a presence. She felt the pressure of his eyes.
He touched her wrist. Her pulse was racing.
That was the only word that could describe him. He was as beautiful as any woman she had ever seen. His eyes read the contents of her soul as quickly as a shopping list.
He pressed his lips against hers before she could protest. Her hands wrinkled his shirt. She couldn’t find any reason to stop him.
“I have found you, love,” he murmured. His eyes were shining. Was he crying?
He softly pulled her hair back from her face and neck. Then he slit her throat.
Lox woke up shaken.
She stared at her hands, hands that had clutched a neck to dam a crimson geyser moments before. Hands that had been cut off. Hands that had had the skin peeled off of them the way a sticker is removed from a piece of fruit.
She gazed at them now. One bore the symbol of an elegant red crown, the other a simple oil lamp. Neither of these things were worth her life.
She had a feeling that there was nothing she could do to prevent what she had just seen.
Nubie was small again and had slipped into her lap. He was staring at him with a look of concern.
“I’m okay, babe,” she said with a false smile. She got up to walk to the woods. He immediately went to follow her but she told him to stay. He plopped down, dejected, at the edge of the forest and listened for her.
Angelus was sending Anubis a reply. It was quite clear to him, but he could tell from her look a few seconds ago that she was trying to focus. Since this was his only form of communication with other animals his telepathy was very strong.
<I haven't a clue> Angelus thought <She seems to be tied to Abedah, so I assume her writer sent the cat. I don't know why, but I'm sure we'll see why>
He was pretty satisfied with that.
<Affirmative. And quite interesting> he replied. <If at any time this feline is cleared for termination, please notify me so that I can dispose of it>
"So, what are you up to?" Fenris asked casually Angelus.
Angelus looked nonchalant.
"Talking to Lox's dog," she said.
"You say that like it's normal," Fenris was surprised.
"We're in the world of lost socks, remember," Angelus said. "Weird is kind of the norm."
She did not seem completely comfortable with his intrusion so he made a mental note to be courteous and only consult with Angelus when the situation was dire and there was no other recourse. But the only time he felt either of those situations would come up is if something happened to Lox and he was relatively sure Angelus would be in no mood to help his charge.
Because he was an adorable dog, he assumed that she was neutral toward him and he felt the same way about her. To him, Angelus appeared to be a child and he thought of her as a child. He had overlooked her outburst for that reason but was sure that for the same reason she was not over the argument.
She might never forgive Lox. If something happened to her, she would probably be relieved. He did not hold this against her. She was a young pup. He wished more than ever that he had his voice back. Regretfully he thought of the sins of his past and wished he had not made such costly mistakes.
While Nubie was focused on military strategy, Lox was somewhere in the woods brooding on the pretext of picking oranges.
Her bag was weighed down, bumping against her hip. She remembered his hand there. He had been so close to her. He pressed her against him. She was powerless in his line of sight.
He hadn’t stopped at her hands. He had pulled all the flesh off of her body until she was sticky, pink, and inside out. Before he opened her throat, his eyelashes and lips had tickled her neck. Flies buzzed lazily overhead as he dismembered her in the key he had hummed in as they danced slowly in the grove. She remembered his hands tearing her clothes off, how different they were from the expert hands that held the steady scalpel. Her ears were the only things he had not skinned. He cut them off with two quick snips at the top and bottom as if he were pruning roses. He had been nibbling on them moments before, whispering wild things. Their time together had been vigorous, exhausting. Her death had been cold and effortless. He came to know every part of her and then he destroyed her.
She blushed, confused, and sat down in the middle of the forest with her head in her hands. What did all this mean?
What is Sway doing? Is she even doing this? Wait, was this Angelus? If so, Angelus is a pervert.
Cheer up, she thought, at least you got some.
She chuckled. And he was cute. No, beautiful.
So much blood.
“Get a hold of yourself,” she said trying to control her breathing. But she saw it again, the gaping cut in her throat and the beautifully symmetrical lines of her trachea. Her lips hung open and her teeth were red. No one had come for her.
The urge to cry seized her. She was so far from home. Where was home? Who were these people, anyway? Where were they going? She kept replaying it over and over. It was so easy to die here. She doubted that anyone would have helped her. People were used to her walking off by herself by now. Would anyone even notice if she were just… if she were just gone?
She pressed her hands against her eyes to convince herself that this was not worth crying about. “Things could be worse,” she said. But considering the beat down she had taken yesterday, her burning legs, her tattered clothes, how hungry she was, and how sick she felt sleeping out in the sun and drinking water from a lake it was hard for her to imagine worse.
These people did not know or understand her and she had made a terrible first impression by getting in an argument, had her head cracked open by a ghost, and had been no help in battle whatsoever. She had a weapon she couldn’t use, no place to go, and no way to get there.
A spider landed on her shoulders and she felt its legs against her neck. She gasped in utter terror, knocked it away, and killed it. That was it. The tears took no time. Maybe she had been crying the whole time. Embarrassed, she covered her mouth so she could at least be quiet about it.
Nubie appeared almost instantly. He came to her side with tentative steps. “Go away,” she sobbed. He wouldn’t. She tried pushing him away from her, but she might as well been moving a refrigerator. He plopped his head on her shoulder. He was so big she couldn’t put her arms all the way around him, but she cried quietly into his side. He licked the top of her head, his tail wagging tentatively.
He hated to see her this way and wished he knew what was wrong. She wouldn’t say anything. They sat in silence for a long time after she finished crying. She had already dried her tears on her shirt and was hiccupping. Her face was grim. He sat there with his head in her lap as she played with one of his ears staring at a clearing in the trees.
“I’ve been in bad situations before,” she said breaking the silence. “But they always work themselves out. Things in my life do that. They stay terrible until they cannot get worse and then, all of a sudden, everything fixes itself. It will be okay,” she said as if she were trying to console Anubis. “I just have to survive. I’m not going to sit here and pity myself, I don’t have pity for anyone else.”
She let Nubie carry her bag of oranges back to camp. By the time she got back there was a huge cat at the center.
Nubie growled low, his ears perked.
“Shh.” Lox said. “Don’t be mean.”
Then they both saw something they never though they’d see.
They watched, slack-jawed, as Pounce tried to bat Angelus down from the sky. Lox would have laughed but she was leery of cats and did not want it to get the idea that she wanted to be the next plaything.
Then the cat started talking. Lox realized that Anubis, too, had her terrible habit of staring. They were both so surprised, the bag of oranges fell out of Nubie’s mouth and scattered all over the floor.
“Someone new for Angelus to argue with,” Lox whispered to Nubie. He wagged his tail good-naturedly.
"Miss Pounce?" Abedah asked. "That's you?"
"At your soivice," she said in a Bugs Bunny voice. Now the chase scene made sense, it was supposed to be like Sylvester and Tweetybird. Lox had wrongly assumed she was the only American. "Look at you - you're totally lost. That's what your name means, by the way, lost. It's ancient Hebrew. I've read all the posts,” so then she also knew a writer, “and Papa Mike told me a few things he hasn't written yet.” And she was privy to private information. “I've even read Ender's Game, so I know your future." She said this last phrase in a sing-song voice. Lox was confused. She had read that book eight times and could not remember the part about talking cats, flying angels, and little Asian ladies. "Until you get a weapon you can actually use, I can do some fighting for you. I've got ten sharp knives, and a bunch of sharp teeth, and I'm really not afraid of anything.”
Lox could have sworn she saw Anubis roll his eyes at that. He obviously held cats in low esteem.
“Except crinkling plastic. I don't know what it is about plastic, but when it crinkles, oh boy. It totally freaks me out."
“Uh okay… No worries,” Lox said with a glass smile, “There isn’t any plastic here.” She would have liked to have said, “Get away from me cat-demon,” but she didn’t want any more enemies and she could still be cordial even if cats, like clowns, gave her the willies.
Anubis grunted a little jealously. She rubbed his big pointy ears and he piped down. “You’re still number one,” she said with a smile. He seemed satisfied with this and began pushing the fruit back into her bag. Then he got distracted and ate an entire orange, rind and all.
Lox was done with this conversation when she heard Abedah say, “Would somebody bring me some tea?”
She took this as an opportunity to walk away. She wasn’t anyone’s maid.
She took refuge on the pile of moss she had assembled into a bed the night before. She was staring blankly at the letter Sway had given her. She didn’t want anyone to know about her message because if they did, they might try to steal it and she would know nothing. She also didn’t fully trust eighty percent of the group. She wanted to tell Kyle or Caspar about it, though. They both knew that Sway kept a journal and she was sure at least one of them had read some of it. Boys were nosey that way. If that was the case, perhaps they could still read her handwriting.
Fenris and Angelus were busy trashing Pounce.
"Anyway," Fenris said, looking at Abedah, "I'm much more amused by the so called warrior over there. I swear Abedah proves to be less of a warrior with every passing minute. One minute she's getting her hand torn open on a dead enemy, the next she's demanding tea from the skies above. This woman's not a fighter...I don't know WHAT exactly she is, but she's NOT a fighter."
Lox raised her eyebrow. “She’s here so she’s part of the group,” she said dismissively. “You don’t know how to whisper but we let you stay around,” she said flatly. She was wondering why Fenris was being so negative about Abedah when she had not done anything to her. It was Angelus who had been attacked, not Fenris. But then last night she had teased Fenris and Angelus had gone on the defensive. Then Lox realized that the girls were going to operate as if anything that happened to one of them happened to both of them. She hated that kind of thing. It was very high school. People should think for themselves.
But, she couldn’t argue with the fact that Abedah was strange. Her cat had simply made her a strange cat-lady. But she was hesitant to add any further comment because she did not think there was any way to talk to Fenris without Angelus involving herself somehow.
Lox went back to trying to read Sway’s letter. It was pages long but the only part she could read said
quote: Deliver this message - Lox: I will find you love…
What did that mean?
I will find you love. I will find you love? I will find, you love? I will find you, love.
"Hey, um, guys," she said, addressing everyone, "Not that I'm one to doubt the flawless planning skills of a group of veteran heroes, but what exactly ARE we trying to do? We're all traveling together, but, um, where are we going and why?"
"Well," said Fenris, "I am personally going to try to find some way home to Terra Di."
She shrugged, turning to the others.
"I have a feeling that the rest of you have a similar goal, right?"
“I have found you, love!” Lox exclaimed, shocked. She looked embarrassed. “Sorry,” she said smoothing the paper, “Sorry, I was just… erm… reading something.”
I have found you love was the last thing her killer had said and I will find you love was written on her letter.
She must make sure that whatever goal she had falling in love was the last thing on the list.
Also she had to make sure that she was never found.
“What is Terra Di?” Lox said scratching her ear. It sounded like a far away place. “As far as goals, I have to return Anubis to his owner,” she lied. “The world depends on it.”
Everyone stared at her.
“Not really.” She forgot that only in Limbo could a statement like that be true. “I’m kidding.”
Angelus had to admit, she actually liked Anubis. Not talking to him, the intrusion was still far too alien for her, but from what little she could gather of him he seemed like a decent enough...dog. His dislike of Pounce helped bolster her opinion of him,and if at any point it became obvious that the cat WAS fair game, she wouldn't hesitate to tell him. Her only problem with Anubis was his owner, and she'd done little to redeem herself since last night's fight. For one, for a person who didn't particularly like having her thoughts intruded upon, she had very loud, very strong thoughts. Angelus had actually tried to shut out the writer's thoughts, but they had been so annoyingly strong that she hadn't been able to completely shut out any of them, as she had expected. She had, however, found a way to avoid getting the content that would annoy Lox, and it had been thanks to Anubis that she'd been able to do it. Since she had focused on sending him her thoughts on the cat while downplaying the emotion that went with it, she figured that she could simply focus on the emotion that went with Lox's thoughts, and while this took a lot of effort, it had been mostly successful. Because of this, she had only a vague idea of why Lox was upset, but she knew absolutely that Lox was very troubled by...something...something about love, and a guy doing...something violent because....? She had no idea, she wasn't even sure she had the subjects in the right order. Maybe Lox had done something violent or...she didn't know, and she didn't think it was worth her time. Still, for most of the morning Lox had been off doing whatever it was she did when she walked away from camp, and Angelus had only had to worry about Abedah's stupid cat. Still, not long after she'd fought off the cat Lox had re-established herself as Angelus' least favorite person in camp. She had started this by misinterpreting what was a very blunt but mostly accurate assessment of Abedah on Fenris' part as an insult, and she had followed this up with an infuriatingly wrong-headed judgment. Fenris didn't have a negative opinion of Abedah at all, she was indifferent to the woman, as she was to most of her traveling companions, but she found her current situation funny because it was obvious that Abedah was playing a part she wasn't fit for. She was a woman of science, used to living a comfortable danger free life, and yet here she was in a dangerous world, being forced to live off the land completely cut off from the tools and comforts she'd grown accustomed to. Her inability to adjust had only made the contrast between what she was and what she was supposed to be even more noticeable, and Angelus thought that it actually was pretty funny.Nobody was saying that Abedah was a bad person. They just thought it was funny that she wasn't cut out for what she was doing at all. Lox had followed up this first incorrect judgment with another one, and Angelus was starting to believe that Lox was completely incapable of understanding the link between Angelus and her charge, which was made all the more obvious by her repeated shifts in her opinion of the two. First they hadn't been close enough, now they were acting like they were the same person. First they were too different, now they were too alike. These contradictions were annoyingly inaccurate at every turn, and her belief that they would treat an insult to one as an insult to both was the most ludicrous thing she'd heard yet. Angelus knew full well that Fenris could care less whether Angelus got her feelings hurt, and Angelus really didn't mind if Fenris was teased occasionally, although keeping her charge in a good mood made her job easier. Fenris was thinking for herself, and Angelus wasn't particularly fond of Lox's completely inaccurate assessment of the pair. The fact that she had followed up on that thought by making a rather unpleasant assessment of Abedah on her own didn't help her reputation. 'Great,' Angelus thought to herself, 'You're not only a judgmental idiot, you're also a hypocrite,good to know we've got you on the team.' She was somewhat satisfied to find that Fenris' opinion of Lox wasn't much better. She had just silently added Lox to her 'possibly abandon in the woods' list. Normally Angelus would scold her here, but she wouldn't actually mind leaving Lox behind somewhere. At the very least it would give her one less thing to complain about. Unfortunately, Lox hadn't finished her goal of degrading Angelus' opinion of her, as she had to add 'being weird' to the list of problems Angelus had with her. She accomplished this by shouting out:"I have found you, love!" in response to Angelus' question of what they were planning. "That...um, more of a statement than a goal," The little angel said awkwardly, but Lox quickly resorted to sheepishly saying that she was reading something. 'You're the most enthusiastic reader in the world,' Angelus thought to herself, and she could tell that whatever Lox was reading, it meant more to her than she was letting on, and it had something to do with why she was upset. Angelus frowned, sensing that whatever that paper was, she didn't want the others to know about it. Suddenly her dislike of Angelus' mind reading made sense. The only people who had something to fear from Angelus' mind reading were people that had something to hide. And the fact that she didn't want the rest of the group to know about it only made the thing more suspicious. 'And she says I'M the untrustworthy one,' Angelus thought. She felt another mind in her thoughts, and knew that Esse was with her. 'Let her have her secrets,' The older mind thought, 'She won't trust you if you don't.' 'I don't trust her,' Angelus thought back angrily, but Esse remained calm as she replied. 'That makes you even,' The older of the sisters thought. That didn't improve the situation at all, Angelus knew, but Esse was adamant about her leaving Lox's secret alone. She would,for now, but her own dislike of Lox only grew because of this development. She didn't like people who kept secrets, especially when those people lectured her about trust. Lox was a mess of problems, and Angelus couldn't wait to be done with her. She was starting to think that Fenris was right. Getting back to Terra Di should officially be their main goal.
Lox could increasingly feel the pressure of Angelus staring daggers into the back of her head. At first she thought she was just tripping, but as time went on and she mulled over the concerns of the day she realized that it wasn’t a coincidence that every time she thought of something Angelus would be right there, huffing.
From her manners and behavior she gathered that she was more and more disgusted with her. She recalled that Angelus was a mind reader and if she had been reading her mind all morning then she would be getting mad because at least some of her thoughts concerned Angelus.
But she didn’t seem to be concerning herself with anyone else’s thoughts; she was only pissed at Lox.
Fenris and Angelus both seemed to be even madder when Lox said something on Abedah’s behalf. She hadn’t really stood up for her, but Lox generally did not let people talk trash about her group. Even people in the group. And whether she liked it or not Abedah was in the group. The cat-demon was still debatable.
She noticed how Fenris and Angelus had coolly refused to even answer her question about Terri Di.
This was stupid. She looked at it objectively.
If Sway is trying to cut off Angelus as a way for her to return home then she had been successful. Maybe too successful. She had put her in a scenario where mind reading was allowed knowing that she was a very analytical person. Lox knew that she would be able to censor what she said, but would never be able to lie in her thoughts, only misdirect.
She also realized that the more bad blood that was between them would ultimately poison the progression of the plot. Nothing would get done if all the posts were about Angelus and Lox going out it. No one wanted to read that. This was the last time she was going to spend any of her time worrying about Angelus, she decided.
Finally she confronted it.
Angelus she said in her mind.
I am going to be as brief as I can be, but as you’ve already seen since you’ve probably been riffling through my thoughts all day, I have an abundance of ideas and I want to get them to you in an orderly manner.
The first thing is that I have felt the crosshairs of your eyes on the back of my head all morning. You keep cutting your eyes at me and I can tell from your mannerisms you’re angry that I still draw breath.
Bad news, this is a colossal waste of time.
Last night, I thought you said you would try to not to read my mind, but I guess it hasn’t worked. Now you’re mad.
I knew this would happen. That is why I asked you not to read my mind. But even if you were going to read it, I had hoped you wouldn’t take everything personally.
You’ve seen all my thoughts about you and Fenris. Here’s a new thought. I like Fenris. She’s practical, unemotional, and has self-control. I respect that. You’re not so bad, but you take everything to the heart and it’s not necessary. What do you care what I think of you? You could assassinate supernatural beings for a living—don’t you have other things to worry about? Isn’t that more exciting than this?
As a writer, I would expect you to have thicker skin. Can you really be mad at someone for thinking about you? Especially when that person has admitted that she can’t control her thoughts and that she wasn’t comfortable with you reading them anyway?
Maybe you’re suspicious of me, but I am suspicious of you. I don’t hate you, though, I just don’t understand you. I have never known of a character that has the power to read minds or has the extent of the abilities that you have that has not been a villain or a god. I say that because characters have been as strong as you, take Andolus for example, but they are usually Christ-figures or have uncorrupted innocence and moral goodness. They use their powers constructively; there is a purpose behind them and it usually involves sitting in the clouds and being objective. I don’t see what the purpose of your reading my mind could possibly be or how it is helping your journey in any way. I don’t have the secrets to killing gods, after all, and isn’t that your focus?
Now this brings me, perhaps abruptly, to my final two points.
There is no purpose for me to further think about you. My writer wanted to alienate you from me because there is something that I need done that only you can do. Now that you have firmly decided that you loathe me, I will have to find other means to achieve my writer’s goals. Essentially, there is no reason for us to argue. Or even be mad at each other anymore. The damage is done.
Here are some things that I will do. I will be a reliable and efficient worker and hunter even though I am a lousy warrior, I will defend you with what little fighting expertise that I have if someone tries to bring you harm, and I will be loyal to the group at all times without question.
Here are things I am not going to do. I am not going to stop thinking, I am not going to leave the group, and I am not going to apologize to you for how I feel or lick your toes so that you’ll like me. You would never accept my apology anyway.
My final point is swiftly approaching. You take my upfrontness for bitchiness. And that’s fine. But I am not a duplicitous person. What you see is what you get. There is no way to be fake around you anyway, so I would think someone who is honest about their feelings would be a relief in your line of work.
This is my main point. The bottom line is, you don’t like me. And my response is:
I. Do. Not. Care.
You are not the first person who hasn’t liked me.
You should adopt the same attitude. I am suspicious of you. You should not care. If I am wrong about my suspicions, the plot will reveal that and eventually we won’t be rivals. If you're right about your suspicions of me then you could spend your time more constructively coming up with ways to make my death look like an accident. She laughed in her mind.
You are not someone who can help me with my plot and I have no idea how your character development can be being served with your personal obsession with me.
Is this a romantic thing? You’re cute, but I like my mates with more chest hair. She laughed.
I can’t figure it out. Anyway, you can be mad at me all that you like, but I promise that I will not spend another moment of my time thinking about you.
I guess that’s it.
Then Lox poked the fire and started thinking about how much she’d really like some waffles.
Angelus had to admit, between Lox and her dog, she was starting to get annoyed with people that weren't telepathic trying to be. At least the dog was actually pretty good at the process. Lox was just thinking and hoping that the signal was being received. She was RIGHT of course, but it was a very sloppy attempt at communication, and Angelus would have preferred if she had just pulled her aside and said "Hey, we need to talk about all the ways we hate each other and be done with it." Still, it was an attempt to extend an olive..well no, it wasn't, or if it was it was incredibly poor attempt, but it was least an attempt at establishing an understanding between the two...even if it was a really poor attempt at that too. That said, Angelus was willing to accept it. She was just going to have her own say first. So she shut her eyes, trying to find Lox's mental signature. She was surprised at how hard it was, her thoughts were distinct, but her mind was flexible, shifting from one mood, one way of thinking to another. This was the problem with people. They had this annoying habit of changing who they were from second to second. Eventually she found the most consistent pattern though, and fixed on it, finding that she would be capable of sending Lox messages. That was a relief, because this would be a mouthful to say. <Y'know what?> She said into Lox's mind, <We've got to to stop doing this. Everybody else gets this whole 'talking like a real person' thing, but all we do is monologue at each other. Honestly,our conversations are starting to turn into the Lincoln-Douglass debates...only stupid.> Thinking back to Lox's soliloquy,she realized that her first problem was actually how it had started. <Incidentally, if that's what you call brief, you SUCK at brevity> She thought <I'll at least be honest, this is going to take a minute. You might not get why I care what you think, but I have to work with you, and hating you makes that REALLY difficult. It's also hard to ignore when it's one of the only things I have to worry about. Also, while you may not see the point in my mind reading, it's there to help me accomplish my mission, and reading your thoughts helps because if you decide to kill Fenris I'll know first. Also, because we're working as a group, it makes it easier if I know what's on everyone's mind. Ironically, normally I can use this to deal with conflicts before they become an issue, but because of you those very powers are the issue. You also confuse my mission with Fenris' mission, and you need to know they are different. Fenris is all about killing Gods. I'm all about keeping her alive. If I can help her grow as a person, that helps. If I can help her not get stabbed in the back AGAIN that REALLY helps since I'm trying to fix all of her trust issues, but you definitely haven't earned either of our trust, and for good reason. You don't like my mind reading, I don't like that you keep secrets related to weird notes we're not allowed to know about. Seems fair to me.> She took a moment to make a side note that Lox's excuse of 'What you see is what you get' made her sound like someone desperately trying to act like a grunge rocker from the 90s, and given that Lox had as much in common with Kurt Cobain as Angelus did with Keith Richards, that was actually pretty funny. <Also, I refuse to adopt the mindset of 'everything will just work itself out' because for all we know our objectives will pull us in different directions which means that the plot won't just fix everything.> The other problem with this was the assumption that the plot would follow a logical direction, and given the giant armored dinosaur fight the other day, that seemed unlikely. <Lastly, I'm not personally obsessed with you. You just keep interrupting my morning with more reasons to hate you. It's kind of hard not to waste a lot of time on your thoughts when most of Fenris' have been 'I'm hungry, LOL Abedah, and I really want to kill something with my bare hands and eat it's still beating heart.'> She paused, realizing that Lox might actually believe that last one. <Okay, I made that one up, but still, most of her thoughts haven't been interesting. She just wants to go home, and right now I'm trying to find out how to help her do that.> She really didn't have much else to say, but she felt that,since fully addressing Lox's point had already been established as tradition, she might as well finish up. <Also, I hate to say it but you're not my type. Besides, it wouldn't work anyway. We're from two different worlds, and not in the sweet 'Romeo and Julie'way but in the 'Oh my God, I just realized why no one does distance relationships' way. I mean, traveling across state borders to carry on a romance is tough, could anyone really pull that off between dimensions?> She laughed a little at this incredibly poor joke, but she was almost done, so she thought she'd better wrap things up. <My point is this. I will put up with you as long as you don't try to betray Fenris and I. That's it. You're here, and I'll put up with you, but I won't help you with your goals unless they coincide with mine or Fenris'. That's the deal, you do your thing, I'll do mine.> She stopped, deciding to address her last problem with Lox's arrangement. <Also, as much as I appreciate the offer of defense, I uh...kind of can shoot Plasma Arrows. You have a stick with a knife on it that you don't know how to use. I think I'm okay.> She broke off the communication then, drawing her attention back to the group as a whole. "Alright, like I said, what are we doing today?" She asked, "Because if nothing else, I think we should get away from the dinosaur corpse rotting over there." She paused then, deciding to leave Lox with one last thing. <By the way> She thought <For the record, I already figured out how to make your death look like an accident. You've got this nice habit of wandering off into the woods.> She smiled, turning her attention back to Lox. "But maybe Lox would be nice enough to start us off with some food?" She said. Fenris stared at her, confused as to why Angelus seemed so amused by this. "Um...yeah, I guess..." She said, "Although I would prefer to get moving as soon as possible."
Lox “listened” to the angel’s response, and having heard it all fulfilled the promise she had made Angelus and thought nothing of it.
"Alright, like I said, what are we doing today?" Angelus asked, "Because if nothing else, I think we should get away from the dinosaur corpse rotting over there."
<By the way> The voice was back <For the record, I already figured out how to make your death look like an accident. You've got this nice habit of wandering off into the woods>
"But maybe Lox would be nice enough to start us off with some food?" Angelus crowed.
“I already got breakfast,” Lox said. She took one of the oranges she had gotten out of the grove and handed it to Angelus.
She leaned it so that only Angelus could hear what she said. “You’re wrong about me.” Then she put the piece of paper she had so closely guarded and pressed it into Angelus’s hand.
All of this was confusing Fenris. "Um...yeah, I guess... Although I would prefer to get moving as soon as possible."
“I agree,” Lox said, picking up her scythe. “Let me know what you all decide, in the mean time I’ll just wander off in the woods.”
She didn’t go into the woods. Instead she went to the edge of camp where she wasn’t in the way and started practicing thrusts and horizontal slices with her scythe. She was stronger than she thought and when she put her weight behind a blow she could slice a medium sized branch almost completely off the tree. She imagined that if it were someone’s bone they would bleed out before they could find help.
She balanced a branch on the tree and tried to jerk it off of the limb it was on cleanly as if she were disarming someone holding a sword. She focused all her attention on these tasks, knowing her life depended on the preparations she made now.
Angelus smiled, looking at the piece of paper pressed into her hand. That was more like it. She'd gotten the information she'd wanted, and she'd gotten it without violating her deal with Lox. It really was nice when things went her way. Now she just had to top off this crowning moment of negotiation by reading the information. She looked down at the paper, prepping the voice of Morgan Freeman in her mind to make the reading enjoyable and... Nothing. She couldn't read anything on the page. She couldn't even tell if what was on the page was writing, it just looked like a bunch of random scribbles with a few sections that were barely discernible, including the one that Lox had read out loud. The little angel was utterly lost. What was the point of this mess of ink, and why was it important. What was it's purpose, and why had Lox guarded it so intently. She sighed, drifting to Fenris' side again as the warrior sat down, attacking her Orange as if it were going to run away. "You seem flustered," The warrior said with a mouthful of fruit. Angelus had almost forgotten that Fenris had come from a culture that lacked most manners. She was silently thankful that the warrior had reminded her of this fact. Hopefully she'd be able to use it to defend Fenris in the future. 'Probably not, though,' She thought. "Hey, Fen, do me a favor," She said, handing the warrior the paper, "Tell me if you can make anything of this." Fenris looked at the paper, going from bemused half-interest to utter confusion in the course of thirty seconds. "Um...what's it supposed to be?"She said, pulling the paper back, "A wendigo...a dragon...um..." Angelus slapped her hand against her forehead. She had no idea why Fenris thought that it was a picture, but she supposed that it made as much sense as anything else about the paper. "It's supposed to be writing," She said, "You can read, right?" Fenris narrowed her eyes, casually placing her hand on her sword's hilt. "Yes, I can read," She said, "Can you?" Angelus rolled her eyes. "Of course I can read," She said, "Every language you can and a dozen more, probably...anyway. I mean, I still don't get Spanish and Portuegese, and German is pretty tough, but..." Fenris stared blankly at her. "Can you read REAL languages?" She asked. Angelus resisted the urge to slap her forehead again. She had forgotten that Fenris didn't know about Earth languages. After all, the game world had to be as separate from reality as possible, so she wouldn't know what English was, there wasn't an England for her to connect it to. "Yes," The angel said, "And I can't make anything of that." Fenris nodded, staring intently at the angel. "Who gave you that note?" She asked. "Lox," The angel replied, "She was guarding it pretty intently but I don't know why, nothing on it means anything it's just...I don't even know." The warrior shrugged. "The only way to get answers is from her," She said, "Plain and simple." Angelus pressed her hand to her eyes. The last person she could ask for information, at least for now, was Lox, but she was the only one who could answer her questions. 'Good job there, Angelus,' She thought to herself, 'Can you go five whole minutes without shooting yourself in the foot?' Fenris was looking at her again. "So,"She said, "Any idea how I can get home?" The angel thought about the question. She actually did have a way in mind, but she thought she ought to tell the others in the event that it could help some of them. Even Lox could probably use this information, and it mattered so little to Angelus that she didn't mind trading it. "I'll get back to you on that," She said, "But I'm pretty sure I can come up with something. It just might take a while." Fenris nodded, turning her attention to her sword, which she had started to sharpen. "As long as we get there, I'm fine," she said, "I'll do whatever I have to if it means I can get home." She looked at the angel, locking eyes with her. "And I'll work with anyone I have to," She said. The angel nodded, seeing the warrior's point. "Agreed," She said. Fenris gave an approving nod. "Okay then," She said, "So lets see what everyone else wants to do."
Abedah looked for an out of the way place to set her things out, still trying to avoid the trees. Pounce bounded up behind her, rubbing against her knees as Abedah opened the pouches. The knots would have easily fallen open during a hike, but they were enough to keep everything in place around the camp. Pounce looked and sniffed at each one of the powders. A yellow one was obvious to the cat, though Abedah was too far removed from chemistry to have recognized it. "I think you have, like, this fire thing going on her," Pounce said. "What, with the gunpowder, and the flint hidden in the knife, and now the sulfer and all?"
Abedah looked at the cat with a just-how-do-you-know-this glare and stood up. She needed to get some of the still warm embers from the fire. She may not recognize the elements, but she remembered something of how to perform some simple tests. Usually with chemicals, that involved burning them, at least as one test. Pounce stared at her curiously, but was distracted again by The Birdie. It seemed, though, that she wasn't the only one interested in it. She recognized Lox by the descriptions of her coloring and hair style that she'd read. It looked like Lox wanted The Birdie for breakfast as much as she did, but why didn't the lady jump for it. She could have reached it easily. Then The Birdie spoke: "But maybe Lox would be nice enough to start us off with some food?" For a moment, it looked like Lox was going to get it. Pounce swished her tail. Dang! The Birdie got away. Lox looked mad and started clawing at the air with a big curved knife. Then she started scratching at some trees with it, and actually cut a few of the branches off. Way cool! Pounce thought. She made up her mind that she was going to have to get to know Lox as soon as she had a chance.
Abedah returned with some hot embers on a thick piece of bark. The bark was starting to smolder, but it was hard enough that it wouldn't ignite for a while. She took a little bit of the sulfer and tossed it on the embers. A small blue flame erupted from the embers with the characteristic odor of rotten eggs. Pounce reached up to scratch out the flame, but Abedah mindlessly blocked her with her forearm. They locked eyes for a moment, each coming to the quick conclusion that Abedah perhaps had some latent skills she didn't know she had. "Okay, so that's sulfur. What about this next one?"
"I dunno," answered the cat. "Put it on the fire, but I'm gonna watch from over here," as she strolled about 10 feet away. "Scaredy cat," Abedah teased as she put the white powder on next. "Hmph," was Pounce's only response as a bright white flash emanated from the bark and quickly faded. The cat came closer to look. "Ooh, you've got flash and bang. Magnesium makes a nice flash, and burns hot too. That could be useful."
The next pouch looked like sand. "Any guess on this, Miss Pounce?" The programmer was starting to respect the cat's intelligence. She wondered if Anubis could talk, would he be even more intelligent? That could be fun to watch, a knowledge contest between the two animals. Pounce shook her head, and licked down a piece of fur that had popped up. Throwing it on the fire didn't cause any flame or smell. The sand simply melted, and formed what appeared to be glass balls, only it wasn't glass. She tried adjusting the amount of sand she put on the embers, and the more she used, the bigger the balls became. She had three: one about the size of pea, one the size of a ping-pong ball, and the last the size of a baseball. As Abedah took the largest off the bark, a picture of a space fighter quickly flashed and was gone. It wasn't a picture so much as a mirage, like one she had seen in a pool when she had first arrived in Limbo. She was beginning to just ignore weird stuff as having no particular meaning.
Pounce decided the middle-sized ball was fun to bat around the ground. The cat gave it a hard thwap which sent the ball crashing into a boulder. But instead of breaking, the ball simply bounced off and fell to the ground. Abedah retrieved it along with the other two, and put her belt back in order. She stamped out the embers on the bark to extinguish them, and took the balls to Angelus, who was busy looking over a piece of paper with Fenris. Pounce was marching alongside, her tail held high. The tail whipped a couple times when they approached the angel, who wasn't happy about the intrusion.
"I'm sorry to bother you Angelus...," Abedah began.
"Angelus?" Pounce quietly asked herself.
"but I was wondering what you make of these orbs?" Fenris glanced, but pretended to be uninterested. Angelus looked them over, tossing them lightly in the air judging their weight. She concentrated and filled the smallest one with plasma and looked around for a target. She looked at Pounce and grinned. Pounce just looked with wide eyes. The angel found a tree about 100 meters away on the other side of the pond and hurled the orb at its base. With a powerful explosion, the tree moaned and crashed away from the camp. "I think they may be good for something," the angel replied, and handed the other two back to Abedah.
Abedah put the orbs in the pouch with the sand, which made it difficult to retie the knot with that much bulk; but she eventually got it by shifting the contents a bit. She started off to take a look at the damage the orb had done to the tree.
Pounce stayed where she was, looking at Angelus with her chin on her stretched out forelegs, ears forward. To look at her, one might say she was depressed. "Angelus?" she called tentatively.
"I'm not your toy. Go away."
"I'm sorry about that," the cat said with true penitence. "I didn't realize who you were. I've never met an angel before, and, well,... I got confused and I'm sorry."
The burning sun climbed over the perch of the horizon, and stretched its rays across the loony realm of Al-Araaf. Heat from the sun rays began to tickle the top of Arem’s eye lids, waking him from a long slumber which seemed like days, approximately four according to the imaginateer’s time. He was half expecting to be back in Illusionia under the safety net of his poor living conditions, where everything made sense and the goal of that day’s mission was clearly known. However, in this limbotic realm, the group of individuals who woke up one by one, practicing their fighting, sharpening their blades, or stalking off into the deep of the woods was also thrust into a world of oblivion. They did not know what their next move was, nor did they truly understand how to get there even though they had a goal. All they knew was that they had awaken in the same realm they laid their heads in, and no dream came as a sign like the guiding north star, nor any omen to send their journeys in a climatic uproar. There was just the group of individuals in the small meadow, surrounding the charred, dead spot where the campfire raged once before.
Arem, however, could not stay nestled between the dewy blades of grass with his tail between his legs, waiting for a hero to come and show him the way. He had to get a head start on a certain individual who had a large bounty on his head, Alban. If he did not, he would lose out on a great deal of money, which was blasphemous to a poor man like him. No, he did not enjoy putting the search of his parents on the backdrop of his duties, but he had no choice. The quicker he can find Alban, was the quicker way he can disconnect himself from a snake like Tao Seesari. This did not mean he was not going to try and dig for information for them as well. He had a plan, and hopefully he could inconspicuously carry it out without the interference of Tao the Goon. Where was Alban? That was a question that burned in the deep recesses of his mind. Searching the whole of Araaf, no telling how massive it was, was quite a task that needed to be taken up by dawn. And so was dawn, and so the journey began.
He sat up from the grassy bed, rubbed the sleep from his eyes, and gazed out on the people surrounding him. Everything appeared to be exactly normal as the previous day, except---Arem’s body jolted violently at the sight of a, abnormally tall cat standing on its hind legs…and talking! A shape-shifting pup to a speaking cat was, Arem thought, clearly signs of the last day. The old, derelict who scribbled, ‘Judgment Day is near’, on the side of the dirt road was not far from right. The dark-haired woman, who Arem knew to be as Abedah, was talking to the new addition to this Barnum and Bailey side show. He did not exclude himself or Dougie from this group. They, too, had numerous differences---especially being from Illusionia---that they knew many of the individuals around them thought quite odd. Different personalities and people was what made up the world, but it was still rather normal to stare at something that took you off guard. And the speaking cat definitely broke many of the firewalls Arem had installed. Surprisingly, Dougie was up before Arem, dusting off his clothes and cleaning the crud off the bottom of his black cane.
“I see you’re awake,” Dougie said.
Arem joked. “We’re still in Araaf eh?”
“Hmph, so it seems from the cat.”
“Oh you see it too? I was hoping that I was dreaming,” Arem said still staring at the cat.
“I, too, was hoping. When I woke up I was hoping that I would be in a palace in Illusionia, filled with beautiful women, and a comfy feather bed,” Dougie sighed, looking at the clear, blue sky above.
“Here’s to hoping.” Arem raised his hand as if he was holding a goblet of the finest wine. He continued. “But you didn’t have that when we were actually in Illusionia, so it doesn’t make a difference. “
“Once we catch this man we will, haha!”
Arem nodded, not too happy about benefitting from someone else’s demise. For all he knew Alban was a thorn in Tao’s side. Sometimes releasing a thorn from broken skin could cause more harm than good. Alban was probably someone Arem could kick back and drink a couple of good ones with, but business was business. He had to keep his word.
“Would somebody bring me some tea?!” Abedah yelled out to the group.
Arem felt the exact same way, without tea he started to become irate in his new surroundings. Limbo was just not like home, and he was hoping that some witch of some kind would tell him to click his heels three times to return to Elderin, but what good would that do? There was still much more to venture. Speaking of witches, Arem rummaged through both pockets of his trousers, and found his earpiece right where he left it. He pressed the small mechanism back into his ear and heard silence. Perhaps, Habeeb was still asleep. Was the time in Limbo different from the time in other realms? Maybe it was the morning here in Limbo, but night in Illusionia. Arem shrugged.
“Hey, um, guys? Not that I'm one to doubt the flawless planning skills of a group of veteran heroes, but what exactly ARE we trying to do? We're all traveling together, but, um, where are we going and why?" the winged being, Angelus, asked everyone.
Her tough companion, Fenris, answered. “Well, I am personally going to try to find some way home to Terra Di.”
Arem had never heard of this place before. There was Elderin, Eastlands, Kopul-Vul, and Arjuna to name a few places he was familiar with in Illusionia, but Terra Di was not one of them. Maybe it was a place apart of another realm. Arem began to think over every individual from the group. It appeared that each one of them was from different realms. Najm, Dougie, and himself were from Illusionia, Fenris was from Terra Di which was perhaps in another realm all together, but he still was not sure about the hazel-eyed fellow, and the frail one. Where were they from? And not to mention, the woman known as Lox, who was also known to be a writer of some sort. Arem still did not know what that meant, but he made a note to ask Habeeb when he woke up. If they were all from different realms, was it possible they were really significant assets to one another? There was no such thing as coincidences. It was a possibility that they had to assist one another, but how? Arem knew, though, that perhaps there was something more to these individuals that would all make sense in the end, especially with Najm.
After shouting out a random phrase, Lox proclaimed. “As far as goals, I have to return Anubis to his owner. The world depends on it.”
Arem stared at her. He didn’t realize how important an animal could be to the world.
“Not really, I’m kidding,” She then added. He had thought so, but it didn’t hurt for her to settle the matter.
“I don’t know about you guys,” Arem finally answered Angelus’ question. “But I’m going to try and find a town of some sort. Probably to get some information from people who have lived here long enough. Perhaps, they know a way around this place.”
He knew he left many questions to the group of people. Where was his destination? What would he do with this information? It did not concern them, but he did not mind if they picked up to follow. Perhaps, they would find their way while going…somewhere instead of here.
Preparing for the journey, he took up the rope that he untied late last night, and wrapped it around his waist. He concealed the crescent weapons in a large, conveniently placed back pocket-like compartment beneath his shirt.
Unexpectedly, there was quick flash that passed by Arem’s face. The flashing object crashed into a tall, slender tree, and knocked it to the bare soil ground below. Poor guy. Arem turned toward Abedah as if she was off her rocker.
“If you wanted to kill me, a simple stab to the gut would do. I prefer to not be a headless corpse,” Arem chided sarcastically. Unfortunately, the helpless tree took the fall for him, literally.
“You got a load of that, Dougie?”
“Hardly, I’ve been rather dazzled by my cane,” Dougie responded, sizing his cane up and down.
“Prepare to be enlightened.”
Dougie crawled his fingers along the cane until they reached the top. Unlike in Illusionia, the hilt of his cane was a silver, roaring lion’s head. With a single tug, a thin blade was manifested.
“I’m enlightened,” Arem said, eying the small slither image of the blade.
“As well as you should be. I guess you aren’t the only one Habeeb was thinking about,” Dougie smirked, intrigued by the grandeur of being noticed in life. The wild dreams of any aging man.
“Congratulations, my dear friend.”
“One day, Arem, you will be the one shining my shoes, cleaning my clothes, and driving my horse and carriage.”
“Seeing that I would be doing all those things, I would have your women as well,” Arem teased.
“And you’d be dead,” Dougie retorted.
Arem tilted his head, and grimaced. “No, I think you would. Old men tend to die.”
“And I’ve heard many stories of a body of a beautiful young man turning up every now and again.”
Arem and Dougie faced their Ringling Brothers Act.
“We should try and get an early start before we lose another day to nightfall,” Arem suggested.
“Chop, chop. Pick up your feet,” Dougie clapped.
They both turned and headed toward the thick of the trees. Arem hoped they could at least emerge from the forest by nightfall, and arrive at a plateau literally, but not figuratively.
Hoping, so it seemed, was something Arem did a lot since arriving here.
The sound seeped into the walls of her room as a muffled semblance of its former self.
He was beating her mother again. She could hear him shouting outside just beyond her closed door, blind rage slurring his diction.
Thud Thud Thud.
Was that her head hitting the wall or her back this time?
Nooo, don’t think about it, Elderin thought to herself, shooing away the questions like unwanted flies. She tried hard to drown out the pounding of her mother’s body slamming against the concrete with her imagination, but her heart wouldn’t permit. It was beating against her rib cage like a zoe drumming a xylophone, but only this time, the xylophone player couldn’t play, and the sounds the instrument resonated made her grind her teeth.
She clapped her hands over her ears and tried to think of all the bollywood films she enjoyed, the vivid colored sarees, the clinging and glittering of beautiful gold bangles as they cuffed the wrists of an elaborately clad, desi bride. Hennaed hands and lengha cholis, symphonies and melodies tangled in a fusion of tunes as bare feet pounded the marble platform in unison to the cadence of the beat. Tanned bodies shaped like hour glasses, gliding in a sensual motion like snakes as their bellies undulated up to down, down to up, hips shimmying all the while, layering the moves like an artist stroking a canvas. Soft, slow, graceful…exquisite, sharp. Their faces lit with confidence and their motions overflowing with poise.
Somewhere in the distance a glass breaks, and the sound shatters the delicate image at once. An imagination broken, and a mind haunted by…
Thud Thud Thud.
She had to get out. It wouldn’t be the first time, and sadly, Elderin knew that it wouldn’t be the last.
She quickly made her way to her room’s only window, and swung her feet over the threshold, thrusting herself away from its sill with one final push. Her sneakers smacked the cobblestone below, and she halted herself in a crouched position upon impact, creeping away from the edifice of horrors.
Her mother was so over protective, the last thing she wanted was Elderin sneaking off at all hours in the night, but what exactly was she to do when Dave was pounding her like a UFC fighter pounds a punching bag? Intervening was out of the question, of course. One time she had tried that and it only landed on the wrong side of her mother’s hand and swollen face that wouldn’t go down for a week. When asked why, the only explanation the battered woman could give was that Dave was their only means of survival in this world.
She spoke of Imperial City as if there were aliens watching down on them from afar and she was the only one who knew about it. Elderin’s real father, well, he was a thing of the past. A subject never brought up and topic her mother often shied away from when and if brought up on occasion. She seemed to be a woman scorned, but it was obvious beyond a shadow of a doubt that whatever mishap had sealed her lips about Elderin’s biological father was in proportion, if not more, than the mishap that was occurring now. And all in the name of sustenance?
She couldn’t help but to pity her mom. In fact, she couldn’t help but to hate her for her weakness. Sure a college education in Imperial City qualified you with a job that paid above minimum wage, but a good job at CVS and Modells wasn’t exactly chump change when it was cast in your hand as a lump sum. Yeah it required a bit of patience on the employee end, but that was not as detrimental as getting your face pounded in by some narcissistic, control freak that did not even know how to spell the word women, let alone know how to take care of one.
She turned the corner, her house disappearing out of sight.
She was tired of the same vicious circle over and over again. It was nice to forgive, but even saints got tired of doing it, and even God punished those who erred. She wanted to get away, far away and go to those places in the books, those places in the bollywood films. Places where cares and worries were cast to the side and you fall in the arms of your knight and shining armor, your prince, your thief, your pirate, as oppose to living off the closed fist of an abuser, who uses those same fists to stroke his ego every now and then. It had been too many years, and it was time for a change.
“Make a little well in the middle.” Esmina’s now aged hands used her fist to make a small trench at the center of the flour as she listened attentively to the memory of the instructions of her late grandmother. The last time she did this with her, her hands were short and pudgy. Now, however, they were long, strained figures, stained and weathered by the experiences of life.
“Now carefully cup the remaining flour around your well.”
Delicately her hands drew the remaining flour from all sides of the cooking bowl and carefully stationed it around the well. How long had it been anyway? Twenty-two. No. It had to be going on twenty-three years now since she’d last saw her, counting this June.
“Why do we call it a well Nana?” Esmina whispered to herself with her eyes closed and a slight smile upon her face, enacting the memory from oh so many years ago. It got a bit lonely living alone. The only thing that kept you company were the memories that you treasured, and Esmina basked in each and every one of them. In fact, she savored them, for each memory carried a subtle scent, emotion, taste, and reliving them worked just as good as traveling back in time.
“Because,” her grandmother swiftly drew pitcher of water from the wooden counter top beside them, and Esmina turned her head, her hand outstretched to relieve her grandmother of the vessel. But her grandmother shook her index finger at the now young Esmina, and she recoiled a bit embarrassed at youth’s hastiness.
“It’s used to hold our water,” her grandmother concluded her reply with a warm smile, wrapping Esmina’s hands around the vessel and guiding them to pour the right amount water into their makeshift well.
There was a knock at the door. Esmina looked up and her grandmother vanished all at once.
“It’s open,” she called out.
The door opened and a tall young lady stepped in dressed in a white, knee length chiffon, summer dress. It was Elderin.
“Didn’t I tell you not to keep this door open.” She reprimanded Esmina as if she was 15 years her senior. She gave a little peek outside just before closing the door. “There’s a saying you know, the freaks come out at night and I don’t want said freaks,” her fingers made quotations, “bludgeoning my Hala, ya dig?”
Esmina looked at Elderin and smiled as the young lady took her seat just opposite of her. Young lady. Ha! Esmina had remembered when she called the little firestarter a toddler. Firestarter because it was the nickname chosen well for her ginger colored hair, which had grew to such a length now it was hard to keep out of her face.
Esmina laughed inwardly as she now saw the thick afro puff tied into a huge pony-tail at the nape of her neck. Well, rabbit-tail if you were the literal type.
“If I do that, then I would miss out on your beautiful reprimands. Water?” Esmina lifted the pitcher beside her and raised her eyebrows at the fiery youth. Could she even call her that now? The dress she was wearing, my did it do well at complimenting her adult figure, cinching at her waist to accentuate her hour glass shape, which was only further accented by the fullness of her hips and thighs. Not to mention the sweetheart neckline which…oh my…when did those blossom!
Elderin waved off the water, snatching up a chocolate chip cookie from the table’s centerpiece stuffing it into her mouth. Esmina shrugged and placed the pitcher back onto the countertop, replacing it with a container of oil.
“So what brings you here, may I ask?”
Elderin grabbed another cookie. “May I ask,” she mocked. “Who says that nowadays anyway, and do I really have to answer that question?”
That stung. It carried with it the same intensity and the same pain every time Elderin had shown up at ther door step. Dave was beating her mother again, and Elderin showing up only served as a tradition ever since she was eleven years old, aside from the fact that it was the only place her mother ever allowed her to be, but that was with her knowledge.
Esmina knew it was hard for Elderin, but she was her mother’s sister and rules were rules. “I’m sure your mother knows you are here?” She inquired with a raised eyebrow. She added some salt, yeast, and sugar to activate the yeast.
“As sure as Santa Clause is real. Listen do we really have to keep doing this?” she asked in between mouthfuls, waving the decapitated cookie around.”
“Of course we do, what kind of Hala would I be if I didn’t?” She began mixing the contents in the bowl until it formed a giant doughy mass.
“A Hala that would understand.”
Esmina understood. Of all people Esmina understood, and it hurt just as much when Elderin’s mother had left her alone to be Dave’s arm trinket.
Esmina held up her hand to stop her in her tracks. She hated apologies, all it did was remind her how forgiving of a person she already was, so she decided to do away with them long ago. Who needed apologies to heal anyway when you had dough to knead?
The balls of her palm smashed away the mass as she sprinkled some flour on the onto the counter top. With a plop, the gooey substance fell into the thin film of flour, only again to be grinded away by Esmina’s ominous palms.
“That’s quite alright my dear,” she said panting.
“Quite alright my…” Elderin rolled her eyes and shook her head at the choice of lingo, proceeding to point the conversation back down the path it was going.
“I don’t get it Hala, why does she stay with the jerk?”
“To make a living.”
“Ugh, tell me something I don’t know. But does the end really justify the means, I mean you seen her face.”
Black and blue. Yep. She saw her face alright, On countless occasions she saw her face, but she wasn’t ready to bad mouth the stupidity of her sister with her own child. No. There was some honor to protect in all of this.
“Yes it does,” she lied. “Look at you,” she began, motioning to Elderin. “You’ve grown up to be a fine adult, able to wear clothes like…like that.” The last bit of that statement wreaked with contempt.
“But what the hell is material gain compared to mental sanity, I mean Hala are you serious?!”
“Watch your tone,” Esmina warned, but Elderin disregarded.
“She’s weak! A weak old woman willing to put herself in the line of fire all because she cannot live without material gain! And I’ll be damned if I end up like her!”
Esmina slammed on the countertop, seizing Elderin’s attention at once. “No its not weakness. It’s bravery! Bravery to give you the life you cannot even afford, although it means the ailing of her own health. Don’t you dare look down on your nose at her Elderin, you do not know what she’s been through!” Her finger shot in the air before her, as if it were an arrow to prove her point. “You may be 19 now, but you will never be able to return the favor your mother has given you! Ever!”
Esmina caught herself heaving and did her best to gather her composure. Elderin, on the other hand, bolted out of her seat.
“I’m tired of this bullsh*t,” she mumbled. “I’m leaving.”
“Where do you think you are going?”
“To the north pole.”
“Elderin don’t you walk out that do---“
The girl was gone.
Esmina took a deep breath and looked down at her creation.
“And that’s how you make dough,” she said sarcastically.
Obviously Najm had overslept because when she woke up, everyone was already walking around, even a big cat, who wasn’t there earlier, had managed to get up before her.
“We’re still in Araaf, eh?” she heard Arem say to Dougie in the distance.
Araaf? He spoke her language to a lesser caliber, the dialect of the people on the outskirts of Elderin, the perversion of her language. Araaf. It meant the elevated plain between heaven and hell. Was this the name of where they were?
Najm feigned a yawn and stretched in order to move into better earshot of Arem’s conversation with Dougie. She could only make out certain parts, mainly the important parts. The ones that stood out to her and her mission. Selfish but well worth it.
“Once we catch this man we will, haha” she heard Arem joke.
So they knew where they were and were after someone. Who?
“Would somebody bring me some tea?!” cried Abedah in the distance. Najm rubbed her eyes. That woman needed God.
“Hey, um, guys?” Angelus began beside her. “Not that I'm one to doubt the flawless planning skills of a group of veteran heroes, but what exactly ARE we trying to do? We're all traveling together, but, um, where are we going and why?"
The question seemed to be directed at everyone.
“Well, I am personally going to try to find some way home to Terra Di.” Fenris answered.
Did she say Terra Di or Chef boyardi? Najm’s grogginess was getting to her. Perhaps it was another realm of some sort.
She looked toward the warrior. She would have to take trip round Fenris’ way, find out what this Di thing—
Najm saw something in the sky.
“I got a better question. Anyone know what that is?” Najm pointed at the black speck in the sky.
No matter what the night, this city never changes.
Alex's eyes watched over the scene before him with cold calculation. He counted the numbers, watching their shadows dance under the pale streetlights. Six by his last count, each unaware of his viperous presence. They walked with precision, one after the next, as steady as the ticking hands of the most precise timepiece. He raked his fingers through his brown hair, waiting for the best moment to act.
Despite the anticipation that was washing over him, he couldn't help but find a sense of relief in his present situation. He'd been on this trail for months, following one courier, and then another. Shaking down the competition's dealers for just small scraps of information. Finally, finally, he had found their headquarters, and he knew the perfect moment to strike.
The target building was five stories tall, a shiny, glass-covered structure that reflected the night like a vertical lake. There were no visible lights on, but from experience, he knew that there were several people working late. That was how scientific researchers stayed ahead, after all. If you simply left the night work to the competition, then there would be no way to gain an edge. If you wanted results, you kept the wheels of industry moving twenty-four hours a day.
The fifth guard was just emerging, offering him just the barest window of time to leap across. He stepped back, took a deep breath, kissed his talon necklace pendant for good luck.
And then he bolted for the edge.
He quickly ate up the distance, and with a final foot plant on the roof, he was airborne, flying through the air with the grace of a newborn chicken. Arms flailing, he was just glad that he had a story difference to work with as his goal came rushing towards him. With a measured grace, his feet met the ground and he rolled, pulling his gun from his shoulder-holster in a smooth motion, and coming up on one knee. He checked the roof, listening intently for any motion, any indication that he'd given himself away.
Slowly, he made his way over to the roof's edge, and checked on the guards. Number five was still walking along on his path, and no one was the wiser.
Smooth, he thought.
He kept his weapon ready as he made his way to the roof access door, reaching into his jacket pocket for a lock pick set. A quick glance at the door lock and he realized that this would be a tough one. Placing the gun into the crook of his arm, he inserted the first hook, trying to find the first tooth. He continued to fiddle with the tools, painfully aware that lock picking wasn't one of his strengths. As he was about to just give up and shoot the lock off, suddenly the door handle moved.
He leaped backwards, his gun at the ready, but quickly relaxed as he recognized the woman standing there. She was blonde, wearing a well-rigged jumpsuit and combat boots.
"Andolus, Cashe," said Alex. "You really need to stop doing that to me."
"You were taking too long," said Cashe. "Besides, I know you can't pick a lock to save your life."
"I would have gotten it," replied Alex, indicating the lock pick as he put it away.
"We don't have time for you to practice tonight," she said with a smirk as the two made their way into the stairwell.
Cashe and he had been working together for just over eight months, and the camaraderie had been there for quite some time. Alex usually handled the heavy lifting, while Cashe would do the infiltration. But for this one, Alex had a very specific score to settle.
They'd finally found the sniper.
DC and Varnish had disappeared on the streets three months ago, both with bullet wounds in their chests. Point and Tracy had soon followed, each with a single sniper's bullet lodged in their temples. Alex had then taken to the streets solo, donning a mask to keep his identity secret, beating the hell out of a number of Imperial City's finest dirt bags, until one of them had finally given him the tip that he'd needed. His arm and face were still reasonably sore from the rather unpleasant conclusion of that little fiasco a month and a half ago.
But Alex was sure that she was in this building, and finally Cashe and Alex could avenge their friends, and perhaps get the information they needed to peel away a few more of the rather mysterious layers that the Trident covered themselves with.
The two partners worked their way down the stairs, weapons loaded with silencers tight and ready. They knew that they were looking for a woman, with black hair, just shorter than Alex was. And according to the sources Alex had asked, she had an affinity for keeping her rifle nearby, even when not on assignment. They said that she thought it was a good bit of intimidation. Regardless, this was their chance - An opportunity to stop this whole sniper business once and for all.
They seemed to quiver at her scythe, lacing their leafy hands together in solidarity as they were obliterated in quick succession.
Anubis watched as Lox hacked each sapling to sawdust. At this point, it was obvious that her training was more than what it looked like. She had to be imagining that each short, waif-like tree was something else. Anubis used to imagine that his targets were the thin, ugly throats of his opponents. It did not escape him that from time to time Lox glanced in Angelus’s direction as she devoured her letter churlishly.
He questioned her judgment. Why had Lox surrendered something so important to someone who openly antagonized her? Angelus must be threatening her, he thought. Angelus was sweet, but like any child it was her natural instinct to one-up whomever she could at any time. A child would hold a magnifying glass over an ant, never suspecting that someday the ant would rally his friends and the sun’s heat would be nothing compared to their collective stings. Lox seemed like a pretty competitive person, though. Why had she so willingly put herself in a one-down position, then? It must be that winning or proving a point was not more important than surviving. Or perhaps, Lox really did not feel like Angelus was important enough to beat.
Anubis had been there.
He remembered a long time ago, when he stood upright, and another man had threatened to take from him a woman he had been courting. No one could understand why he did not argue with the man for the girl. They expected him to spend all of his energy railing against him. He had fantasized about it, no doubt, but he knew the effort would not be worth it.
It was simple.
Anything this toothless, idiotic man wanted was something Anubis knew wasn’t worth having.
Maybe Lox felt the same way about her letter. If Angelus was pressuring her for it, then it must not be that important. Certainly not more important than her piece of mind. Anubis knew other telepaths and they were all courteous enough to reserve the use of their gifts for things more important than popularity contests and schoolyard spats. But Lox had to understand at this point that Angelus was a child and that she should be the more mature out of the two of them.
Still, he could not be sure what Lox and Angelus had been arguing about, just that from their faces each of them was on a hair trigger while everyone else seemed to be relatively relaxed.
“Nubie,” Lox said breaking his reverie. A wide arc from the scythe felled three trees at once. “See if you can put the things back in my bag. We are leaving soon.” He went to collecting her possessions, without questioning her.
Lox had always known that in any fantasy situation asking, “so what are we going to do next?” was always a formal invitation for doom to come calling. There had never been a situation where it was better to be doing something than it was to be sitting still. They were safe here, and only relatively so since they had been attacked by five different baddies in less than twenty-four hours. Six if you count the weirdness of the Cigarette Ghost. It seemed foolish to Lox to invite more bad karma by openly asking for a new direction. These were almost always negative. It wasn’t like a fairy was going to come to them and lead them to a cool, refreshing spring. That was why she was practicing while everyone else was milling around enjoying citrus fruits. It was a matter of time because they would each get their teeth kicked in.
She decided to retire and give herself time to rest. She was a bug with a hard-bottomed shoe hovering overhead. She did not know when her hunter would step, but she would be ready to scurry at a moment’s notice.
She left her scythe and approached Angelus and Fenris. She needed to clear some things up before the heavens parted and they were all killed.
“I hope that this has shown you that my personal concerns are harmless and are no threat to you,” she said taking the letter back. “Hopefully you will decide to direct your energy elsewhere now that you have completely read my mind and my letter and, I have to assume since I am still alive, have found nothing. Isn’t that right?”
She waited for her response.
“Fenris,” she said turning to the girl, “I feel like you’re the sensible one. I have asked Angelus to stop mind-raping me, but she refuses saying that she thinks that I am going to try to kill you.” She looked her in the eye, “After watching my dazzling skills yesterday, I have three questions. Do you think I would really kill you, wouldn’t you agree that after all you have been through I am the least of your concerns, and assuming I did try to harm you, what motive?”
She let her reply.
“That’s all well and good, but recall that I have seen you turn a dragon into shish kebab and you very recently pulled the head off of a ghost. From that display of sheer athleticism, I would need a Gatling gun mounted to a machine gun, mounted to an elephant inside a ring of fire with you voluntarily handcuffed in a box crocheting a sweater. And even then I could only hope the inside of the box scratches you, since Angelus would have dropped me off a cliff long before the necessary packages and land mammals would arrive,” she laughed.
She was sure Angelus would take this as an opportunity to say, “Exactly, that is why I am reading your mind, because you could do all of those impossible things” and totally miss the joke.
“I’ve never killed anyone. The idea I’d kill Fenris? Nonsense. I feel like you’re trying to bully me,” she said to Angelus.
She turned to Fenris, “I want to dispel Angelus’s last feelings of paranoia and show you one of the millions of reasons why it would be impossible for me to kill, nay even tickle, you, Miss Fenris Badass McGee,” she laughed. She pulled out a lengthy reed she had been carrying with long hanging flowers on it. “Observe!” she tried to brush it against Fenris’s arm and was not surprised that in a few short minutes the reed was snapped in half.
"Who's personally obsessed now?" Angelus asked, lazily floating on her back, "Because last I checked I haven't read your mind in, like, seven posts or something." She was starting to get absolutely tired of Lox, and this recent push to prove her own point as 'right' was downright obnoxious. How many times had they buried and then dug up the hatchet this morning? "Honestly," She said, "All I've done since last spoke is read your gibberish letter, REALLY informative by the way, so far I've learned that you're carrying around something that isn't written in any known language AND has hideous handwriting in whatever nonsense speak it's written in." She paused, recalling her previous point. "Anyway, other than that the only thing I've done is shoot a ball of plasma at a tree," She said, "So why,exactly, are we going over this again. I thought we had a system, you go cut trees and mind your own business, and I ignore you and try to get Fenris home." Fenris, for her part, was glaring at Lox. She was tiring of the writer herself, mainly because for all of her flattery she wasn't asking Fenris' opinion, she was using her as a prop. As far as Fenris was concerned, Lox was making a mountain out of a mole hill. Then again, this angel had been reading her mind her entire life, so she had less to worry about. Still, while the mental invasions were annoying, none had been outright harmful yet. She was tired of hearing Lox complain, and if she kept it up she was going to learn that in a rather unpleasant way. "I haven't mind-raped you, I haven't read your entire mind, in fact, I have made every effort to appease you of late," She said, "You continue to complain even after we've made our agreement. I suggest you leave this alone before I start poking around your mind to figure out why you woke up so scared and why that letter really matters." It was an idle threat, she'd have to wait until Lox thought about either of those subjects,and that would take too much effort, especially while also keeping track of Fenris. Empathy didn't grant her free access to the mind like Lox thought it did, it just gave her an idea of a person's present thoughts or feelings. If the connection was stronger she could access deeper thoughts, but her connection with Lox only allowed her the most basic form of telepathy. "Also, regardless of her strength, reflexes, bloodlust, freakish supernatural powers, etc, Fen still sleeps, and she can still be injured," Angelus continued, "And you could still kill her under those circumstances. I hardly expect you to try to fight her directly. I really don't expect you to try to kill her. But I don't know what you ARE trying to do, so I'm staying open to that option." She was getting tired of this argument, and she didn't see why it was a problem. She had thought her previous arrangement would be enough to satisfy Lox. Apparently she was wrong. 'If this keeps being a problem, we might have to do something about it,' Esse thought into Angelus' mind. 'Meaning?' Angelus asked, dreading the response she was going to get. 'Meaning we might have to talk later,' Esse thought, seeming awkward. 'I was afraid you were going to say that,' Angelus thought, but before she could continue another process interrupted her thoughts, followed by another, and another. Several minds were approaching the party. And they were all out for the same thing. Blood. "Anyway," Angelus said, turning her attention back to Lox, "we've got bigger problems." "Such as?" Fenris asked. "That,"Angelus said, pointing to the sky above, where a great craft of black steel was descending, it's glider like wings blocking the sunlight, it's propellers slowing. "What is..." Fenris started, but Angelus stopped her. "Sky pirates," Angelus said, narrowing her eyes. Fenris had never heard of sky pirates. But if they were anything like the rest of the beings she'd encountered so far in this realm, and if they were anything like normal pirates, the party was in for another fight.
She still thought she was trying to harm Fenris, had missed the humor in everything she said and had only dwelled on her seething anger toward her. Also she hadn't given Fenris an opportunity to say anything.
To top it off she threatened to interpret a dream she had mostly forgotten and figure out why the impossible letter was important. Lox thought those might be the best use of her abilities to date. However, she had no idea how anyone could find this out because she did not know.
That in itself was pretty funny.
Lox had agreed to stop thinking about Angelus but thought talking to her was the method of communcation she preferred. Now all interaction seemed to be off limits as sky pirates or whatever else were approaching.
She hoped some new characters would join them. And that she wouldn't sustain any new head injuries.
While everyone was grabbing their weapons she sank onto a log, stretching. You didn't have to be a mind reader to know this was coming.
Kyle, Najm, and Fenris had it under control. She was just going to focus on not dying.
His lifeless body lay slumped over the arm of the beige sofa, blood trickling from the corner of his frowning mouth. The scene was musically morbid. The hissing of the computer monitors, the humming of a coffee machine, and the drops of water falling to the floor from a tipped cup. Click. Click. Dripping blood. Dripping water. Droplets of tears from a young boy’s face. Hiss hiss, click click, hum hum, an elegy made by surrounding forces for his father. His corpse, could it be called just a corpse? It was his father! His father, a corpse?! The one thing that made him human fleeted from his body so long before his son arrived. His eyes hazed over with the familiar blue-tinted glaze, not looking at anything. The eyes were the windows to the soul, but now, the shutters were drawn, the curtain to the stage dropped, and it was time to leave. Exit stage left.
Habeeb eyes slowly opened to the alarm clock flashing bright red numbers. 8:00 am. He overslept. He was responsible for another human being, now. The reoccurring dream was bothersome, and it tortured him almost every night because it was the last thing on his mind when he fell asleep. When he was having a good dream, there was always a flash of his murdered father. It would be in a reflection in a fountain where he and his dream-lover stood, talking romantically. It would be in the reflection of a sword’s blade as he cut through zombies and giants. It was a passing memory embedded in his dreams and he was weary of it. His father’s murderer was never found, but he left a five inch blade wound in his father’s chest. Habeeb tried to resuscitate his father, Steven Morde, but it was to no use. The blade punctured his lungs, and blood was quickly filling them as sand filled an empty hole. Habeeb stretched across the bed, and then relaxed his muscles. It was going to be a long day, no telling if Arem was awake before him. Perhaps, something happened?
“Beeb stop over analyzing things,” he said to himself.
He heaved off of the high bed, and walked sluggishly to the computer room. Rubbing his eye, he pressed the monitor’s on-button, and it hissed to life. That damn sound. He needed to invest in new computers from Imperial City. Habeeb needed computers that were sleek and silent, no hiss, no hum, and definitely no click. If that was possible, but it had to be. If Dyson could make a vacuum that does not lose suction or a fan without any blades, then Marvell can dig up a silent computer. Marvell, a computer genius in the underground scene of Imperial City, always gave him the latest technology, whether it was a couple of flat screen monitors, or that loud alarm clock. Everything was imported from Imperial City, for Habeeb took a trip there every year.
So, why did he live in Illusionia? Granted, it had its massacres, tyrants, and past, but it was free from the futuristic touch that infected everything and everyone. Imperial City was a cancer slowly spreading from organ to organ. Technological warfare, subliminal take-overs, and drugs manufactured to keep the poor where they belonged. A controlled chaos. Now, if the poor dwellers did not have enough money to pay the big man for a quick fix, they bought a new type of drug off the shelves of stores, nutmeg. No, Habeeb would not get mixed up in crap. Perhaps, he would play in it, but he would not eat it.
He left the computer room as he waited for the computer to reboot, and went into the small nook that was small rendition of a kitchen. He filled his mug with coffee and took a few buttered scones from the refrigerator. Holding the mug and the plate, Habeeb leisurely walked back to the computer room and sat at one of the desks. He placed the headset on his ears and repositioned the microphone to his mouth.
He listened closely and heard rustling, quick breaths, a tussle. A woman voice cried out.
“Arem! What the hell is going on?!”
He was right. He should have woken up earlier, there was something wrong. Every time he chided himself for over analyzing a situation, he turned out right. Now what was he going to do?
He looked around at the computers. There was many of them, an army, a cavalry, but not meant for war. He listened as the struggle continued. His heart rate quickened. His adrenaline rose, but there was no way to release it.
“Arem! Answer me dammit!!!”
The sound crackled. The sound was cutting up. He heard bits and pieces, and then suddenly, there was silence.
Habeeb looked up from the desk with terror in his eyes. What was he to do?
“I got a better question. Anyone know what that is?” Najm exclaimed, staring and pointing to the morning sky.
Arem and Dougie, about to exit the meadow, turned around to look up. There was a black speck that was growing in size. It was getting bigger and bigger until they could see the massive silver undercarriage that was shining brightly beneath the sun’s rays. An artistic crafted gold snake twisted its body along the hull of the ships, its scales differing in silver and gold. The ship descended from the heavens until it was ten feet from the grassy field below, and came to a complete halt. Everyone shuffled back away from it. Some marveled at its grandeur and beauty, while others tapped their fingers on the hilt of their swords preparing for war. Arem on the other did not know what to make of it. It was like an airplane landing on a group of people from the 1400s. There were no words, just a silent boiling of excitement and fear, flight or fight, welcome or kill.
Without warning, a man appeared on the ground floor, from thin air, a couple of feet from Arem and Dougie. Then, they saw a group men, standing in the shadows at the railing of the ship. They suddenly charged with full force. Arem fell backward to the floor, trying to dodge the head on attack, but before he could, one of the men wrapped his arms around Dougie and disappeared. Arem covered his face with his arm as dust swirled into the air.
“DOUGIE!!!” Arem screamed, trying to run at the nothingness that was left behind.
He darted his head from side to side looking around for answers. Something. Anything. What the hell was going on? He saw every individual’s face staring with awe and weariness, of terror and determination. All Arem could think about was, somebody do something. He thought he just lost the only being that he could trust in this strange world.
Like clockwork, the men spreaded throughout the land like locust, snatching up every single individual. Arem swiftly grabbed the crescent-shaped weapon from beneath his shirt with trembling hands, and stood at the ready. He didn’t know what he was going to do. He didn’t even know how to do it. But whatever it was, he was going to succeed.
It was only a few people left, scrambling, trying to escape in the brush of the wild woods, but Arem knew his time was coming, like death slowly picking away the people around him, day by day. One day, without notice, it was going to be his turn. You could not outrun a ghost nor could you outrun death, and Arem did not plan to.
So it was. The tall human apparition who took Dougie hastily sprinted towards him. Arem twisted his feet into the ground, crouched down, and prepared himself for whatever it was. The man’s blank green eyes came closer and closer. It was as if he was a machine following orders. As he quickly approached, Arem drew his weapon back. Sweeping the curved blades against the grass, he came up with his weapon and sliced through the air. Then, he was gone.
Arem felt his ribs suffocating beneath the man’s wrapped arms. They soared through the nothingness surrounding them. It was like the feeling of walking through realm portals; the air was like icicles hitting their faces. Paresthesia tickled the soles of his feet and crept up his back like spiders were running up and down along his spine. He closed his eyes, fighting the pressure of the torrential rush of wind like that of a waterfall cascading from its peak. He could hear someone calling his name in the distance, but he could not respond because the man clutched him tightly, crushing all of the wind out of him. He forced open his eyes and saw a cedar deck. It came closer and closer, and then his head came crashing into it with a loud crack.
“Arem! Answer me dammit!!!”
Blackness on the edges of his eyes pervaded over his sight, and he slipped into the black arms of unconsciousness.
At first, Angelus had expected that the pirates would be nothing more than an annoying distraction from their main quest. After all, Fenris had killed Gods, what could a few pirates do to her. Then they had swarmed from the decks, and Angelus realized her folly. These were not a few pirates. They were an army. And as good as she was, Fenris couldn't fight off an army on her own. That didn't stop her from greeting them as if she could. She rushed forward, cutting down several of them immediately, but then she found herself surrounded. No problem, she just had to let them decide her moves for her. She watched one step forward, and she made her decision. Dodge, step behind, stab in the back, slash the opponent behind him, turn, block, it was like a dance now, and luckily Fenris knew all of the right moves. Angelus stared in awe at her charge's skill. It was always impressive watching Fenris take apart an enemy. Then again, she wasn't going to win this fight without help, Angelus reminded herself, and she drew her bow from the air, drawing several plasma bolts back and unleashing them on the horde. They cut through the pirates easily, like a hot knife through butter. Now the horde was confused, did they deal with the insane swordfighter up front who was tearing through their ranks, or did they deal with the little angel in the back who was shredding anyone who dared to turn their back. 'Good,'Angelus thought, 'Maybe we can with this after all.' Then she heard the cannon fire. She hadn't expected the sound, but it came, a massive boom. She didn't see the shot, but she saw the bodies flying from where it had hit, and it had hit next to Fenris. That left only one thought in the little angel's head. The thought was 'No', and with each passing second it repeated, echoing louder each time. 'no, No, NO, NO!' She thought, racing through the air to where Fenris had been. She found her, surrounded on all sides by enemies. The little angel gave out a sigh of relief as she reached her, hearing the warrior's vicious thoughts. 'Get up,' She was crying to herself, 'Get up, come on, I'm not done yet!' The angel floated down to her, making a graceless landing and falling to her knees to examine her charge. She'd been lucky, the pirates had taken most of the blast, but there was a loose piece of the cannon ball lodged in her chest. She wasn't going to die, but it was pretty obvious that she wasn't going to stay conscious for very long. "Fen!" Angelus cried, "Fen, come on, hold in there." The warrior glared up at her, her eyes glowing an unnatural yellow. Angelus' heart leaped into her mouth. She was changing. This was bad, because if she changed she'd only exacerbate the injury. She wouldn't die in her current state because Angelus would have time to properly treat the wound. If she used the wolf spirit, that became riskier. "Let me at them," Fenris whispered, nothing but malice in her voice, "I want to hurt them, I want to DESTROY them." Angelus shook her head. "Fen, calm down, you're hurt," She said, fumbling through Fenris' pack to find gauze while drawing some plasma from the air around her. She remembered the basics of how to deal with something like this. Extract the offending object, clean the wound, dress it, if necessary cauterize with plasma. Why hadn't she thought of the last part first? She didn't know, she was panicking, she didn't know what to do, especially with all of the... A blade touched to her throat, and a figure wearing a black mask smiled down at her. "Morning, madam," It's owner said, his voice surprisingly polite for a marauding, bloodthirsty pirate, "If you and your friend want to live, I suggest you come with us."
“Tie up!” shouted a man as thin and blond as a wafer. “Dock the ship, you idiot!”
The navigator scowled. “I will not.” His speech was short and slurred. “Orel, you get out of my cockpit you mangy dog!”
“Drexel, if you do not anchor this ship I will be forced to inform the first mate!” Orel was a man so ordered he had parted his hair down the center for his entire life, so that now when it was wet the part still shown through. His thin eyebrows furrowed on a wrinkled forehead that belied his youth. He looked exactly like a clothespin.
Drexel’s shoulders sagged under his stringy gray hair. He hated this blond rat, hated himself more for leaving the spyglass unattended. If he had not been so focused on getting to the end of this bottle, this would not have happened.
“And don’t think I hadn’t noticed you blocking the telescope for the last three days,” Orel spat. He kicked one of the many empty bottles that littered the cockpit’s floor and tripped. One of his suspenders loosened itself and he paused a beat fumbling to fix it.
Drexel was in stitches. “That is exactly why I have kept our course a secret. We are never going to find the spirited one, the angel, or the code. These are childhood fairy tales. These things do not exist. Now be a good lad and pass me my bottle.”
“Get it yourself,” Orel shouted tossing a dirty glass jar directly into his chest.
Curses followed him into the hallway as he snapped shut the door. This place had grown gloomier and more desolate over the last few weeks. The morale was low and the men were getting restless. They hadn’t seen women in days and hadn’t seen port in a month. They were missing the fresh feeling of the wind on their faces. Their every happiness having been taken from them because they had not satisfied their captain’s demands.
He wanted three relics to unlock... something. No one truly knew what it was. Orel was not a smart man. He couldn’t read and he rarely brushed his teeth, but he had pieced together that the captain was in search of some treasure. A treasure unimaginable. And if he could get together the things he wanted, he could find it.
“But we will never find it,” Orel muttered. He stopped where he was, frightened. Had anyone heard him? Three sailors moved past him without looking at him. No one had heard him. He relaxed incrementally and twisted his hat in his hand in frustration. His watery blue eyes followed the unfamiliar path to the first mate’s quarters.
Orel’s hands were shaking. From fear or anger, he did not know, but neither of those emotions would serve him on his errand. His footfalls echoed in the labyrinth that laced through The Devil’s Virago. She was a staggering vessel. She was a sleek and glistening airship with a vicious crew, itching for action.
He had to admit it; he could understand Drexel’s flirtation with disobedience. He wanted to continue to sail to Zion, even though they had been ordered to return any suspicious women to the captain.
Zion. He could feel his skin prickle with the heat of the place already, its electricity. It was wild, ordered, clean, and filthy. The tropical canopies of that wicked and beautiful territory would be a welcome sight. Orel had not seen sunlight in days and his face was leeched of color as if he had been wrung him out. He envied the dark complexion of the first mate. At least he didn't look like a vampire after a few sunless days.
There was a lot to envy about him. His manners, his breeding, his education, his steadiness.
What a rake, he was. Terrifyingly civil.
Orel had seen him tell a man to remove his hat, and when he hesitated to do so, cut his head clean off. The man was in the middle of saying, “Pardon m—”
His reply was, “You're excused.”
Orel’s Adam’s apple rippled nervously as he rapped twice on the door.
Instantly he heard, “Enter.”
Hayder’s voice was deep and quiet.
Orel took a step into the heavy, dark room. It was like a lion’s den, dangerous and elegant, wrapped in crimson and set with deep brown furniture. Tapestries hung from the wall, a set of arms, scientific equipment. A spear was tilted against the door.
The first mate sat with his back to the entrance. He was idly moving pieces on a chess set. He could have just as easily been moving the planets in the solar system; his concentration was total. Another, unseen man sat in the chair across from him.
“Sir,” Orel cracked. “I—I—Think we have found something that might interest you.”
“What is it?” His voice is cultured, soft.
“A girl… well… “ he quickly counted on his fingers. Then paused again to count once more. Then waited a beat to be sure. “I mean fah—five females.”
He took a long drag from his cigar. He had quirky good looks and his eyes were closed, overlarge, and quite beautiful. He had an impressive set of sideburns and his jaw was always clenched.
His cup of brandy was as cold and empty as his heart, sweating slightly.
This voyage had taken longer than anyone could have ever anticipated with no results. Hayder was a man on edge.
“Sir,” Orel said, trembling. “What are your orders?”
“Apprehend them. Do so as peacefully as possible. I have little concern for the men. Tear them to shreds. The women, however, should be captured intact. Is that clear, Orel?”
“But sir, the men are restless, I am not sure if they will be able to—“
A flash. The shadowed chair moved.
Hayder had both his hands around Orel’s neck. He spoke through clenched, white teeth and a vein throbbed across his forehead. His voice never broke in its steadiness. “I said,” he repeated slowly, “captured intact.”
Orel could not breathe and as a result his vision was failing. He had never seen Hayder so close before. He had the sea-blue hair of a Zionese man, styled in a flawless pompadour. His shirt, vest, and trousers were taylored immaculately and Orel could feel his cufflinks pressing into his shoulders as his many rings dug into his skin.
“Then I said,” Hayder repeated as if reciting the lines of a play, “‘Is that clear?’”
Orel could no longer stand.
“Then you said…” Hayder asked with true curiosity.
“Yes, sir!” Orel choked.
Hayder released him.
Orel looked past Hayder and saw that he was still sitting idly at his chess set. The second version of him patted him on the back, steadying him.
With that, the strangler dissolved just as Hayder began to stride toward the door, his cutlass in hand. “I will attend to this personally. Good day, Orel.”
Orel gasped, "Good day, Sir."
“Oh, and fix your collar,” said Hayder, pausing to move his knight to capture the queen. “Let’s not forget our manners.”
The whirr of engines had assaulted Alex's senses immediately, along with the stench of burning flesh. As he and Cashe made their way deeper into the bowels of the structure, he realized that they had stumbled upon something far beyond a simple research facility. Cavernous warehouses were linked together inside the underground, some filled with vast machines, and others brimming with large tubes, creatures floating within them in glowing liquids.
Alex and Cashe made their way along the upper catwalks, unnoticed by the random researchers simply going about their business. As they walked on, Alex realized that this place was far more dangerous than the rather unassuming sniper that they had first looked to engage. Sure, the sniper still would demand some priority, but this... This place was just plain sinister. These were the images that Triska had sent back to the safe house, but the holos had done very little justice to the actual horrors within.
Creatures and people, human, elven, centaur, tetradian... All were being utilized, all were captured in various states of either stasis or torture. Some were hooked to machines, others were simply floating motionlessly, their tanks stacked in corners as of they were nothing more than morbid storage items.
What engaged Alex most, however, were the machines that the tanks were hooked up to. Though he was no expert, the tanks almost looked to be some type of power source for the machines, somehow utilizing their life magicks to infuse the machines with living energy.
Above it all, something about all of this felt horribly wrong.
"We can't let this stand," said Alex quietly. Cashe placed a hand on his shoulder.
"You can't destroy all of this by yourself," she said calmly. "We have a mission here. Let's finish it and then we can plan out how to take care of this."
Alex knew that she was right. Despite the injustice welling up inside of him, he knew that there was little that he could do now. He did, however, notice that she had been careful to mention that he couldn't destroy it by himself. There was no "we" when it came to the destruction of the facility. He would have to remember that little slip of the tongue.
They moved on, passing through several more floors and several other facilities until the pair stumbled upon something extremely out of the ordinary.
It was a trio of ships, but these were unlike anything that Alex had ever seen before. They were not adorned with sails and masts, but were unmistakably designed after the galleons of the swashbuckling stories. Golden snakes writhed their way around each vessel, the decorated heads poised and ready to strike. Both Cashe and Alex were slightly dumbstruck.
And then, as if on cue, the black-haired woman, carrying a marksman rifle, walked into the room, flanked by two equally-menacing mercenaries, escorting a pair of unconcerned scientists, one blond, one with black hair, both discussing something intensely.
While Alex couldn't hear the group normally, he triple-tapped the communicator on his ear, and suddenly the directional mic kicked in.
"...not ready for inter-dimensional travel, at least not the scale you're talking about, Nemius," said the blonde man. "It would take at least three more years of study before we fully grasp the ramifications of what this is fully capable of."
"You know that we don't have that kind of time," snapped the darker man. "Leon wants these transports off the ground and hunting for us immediately. The Awakening is coming, and we still have over fifteen-hundred units to drain into X4."
The blond scientist turned and brought up a holo screen, tapping into the floating console. "Our testing has showed that the technology is, in fact, intact. Despite the damage sustained in the Zionian invasion, the portal magnifiers are primed and ready to fire. Preliminary tests in ancient Illusionia have been successful, but we're still not sure of the consequences of our use of the tech. We believe that there could have been sustained rifts created during our testing that might have enabled or even forced unintentional cross-dimensional travel."
"You think?" Said the raven-haired woman suddenly. "You know," she corrected. "It's not like I wandered in here by sheer accident, you know."
"My apologies," said the blond scientist. He turned back to his colleague. "As such, it's in advisable to simply take the transports out for a joyride. We're unsure of what the consequences of such an action would be."
And then there was an explosion of light. A portal of gleaming sunshine poured from the sky, along with a galleon of mercenary individuals. Some had hair of ocean blue, some wore the trappings of an ancient age, and others were bedecked in rather modern attire. Others wore clothing and markings that Alex himself had never seen before. If Alex had to name them, the group looked like a crew of mis-matched pirates.
They landed and began approaching the small cluster of scientists and mercenaries still huddled near the holo screen, though Alex could see the defensive posture of the mercenaries react to this new threat.
Cashe and Alex were dumbstruck for a moment, but then Alex had a grin spread across his features.
"This could be just what I need. Good excuse and a clear shot," he said. And he pulled his grapple from his wrist, clasping it onto the catwalk railing
"Don't do anything stupid," said Cashe.
Alex offered a brief salute, and leaped from the edge, ignoring Cashe's warning. He slowed his decent at just the right moment, and released the cable, drawing the grapple back into the small device on his arm. As the motley crew of pirates continued their advance, Alex grouped his way right into them, his leather jacket and other attire blending himself into the crew of mis-matched individuals almost immediately. He pulled his pistol to fit in with the crowd.
"You have something of ours," said one of the blue-haired men. "We don't take kindly to those that steal from us."
The researchers were panicked. They were men of science, and not of the sword, and the bristling weaponry that the pirates were branding did much to deter the impulses of the mercenaries.
"Go ahead!" Said the blond scientist suddenly. "Go ahead and take it!"
The blue-haired man lifted a weapon, a strange device that carried within it a glowing beam of golden energy.
"We don't need your permission," he replied.
The weapon suddenly began to glow as the man pressed a button on the top of it, and the three mercenaries hit the dirt. The two scientists, however, suddenly found themselves missing some rather essential assets from about the neck up. The bodies crumbled to the concrete.
The pirates began to laugh, an evil, sickening laugh that carried with it a heavy dose of morbid enjoyment. Kyle smirked, not wanting to give away his cover before he had a chance to take the shot to end this sniper and get himself out of here.
"Alright, boys," said the blue-haired man. "The ships are ours. Leave these ones be, and let's ship off."
The motley crew turned towards the ships, but Alex stepped forward to aim at the dark-haired sniper. He leveled his pistol, and aimed. The sniper looked up at him, and both exchanged a glance of unbelievable recognition. Alex knew this person from some time or place, but couldn't recall the memory. It was as if it were from another life. Regardless, he knew that he had a job to do. Removing this sniper would keep others from dying by her hands, and would at least give Alex and his team the time to plan out a strategy for burning this facility to the ground.
Suddenly, though, he was gripped by the collar and dragged away. A burly, well-tattooed fellow pulled him along, the light disdain in his voice evident, but aimed more at being forced to follow an order than at Alex himself.
"Captain says to leave them," he said to Alex. "We got more important things." Alex looked back, but realized disobeying would leave himself in the middle of a gang of pirates with nothing but a pistol and the sword on his back.
The "captain" pressed a couple of buttons on the side of the largest ship, some kind of control panel, and then gave an indication with his left hand. The group grabbed one another's jackets and coats, and the man who had Alex's collar gripped it tighter. Alex glanced up towards Cashe, who's eyes betrayed her alarm. In a brief flash, all of the pirates were gone.
They maneuvered their way towards the portal, and Cashe watched in an almost panicked alarm. In a moment of weakness, she forgot herself.
The three mercenaries on the ground looked up, noticing the blonde operative as the ships began to enter the portal. The mercenaries opened fire, and Cashe bolted towards an exit. Klaxon alarms began to wail, indicating imminent escape, red lights and sirens echoing across the facility. Cashe reached the exit of the room, and hesitated for just a moment, before watching the last ship slip itself into the portal, taking Alex along with it into oblivion.
He would have said hurt, but his pride would not let him. He fought through the pain, limping on three unsteady legs. One of his paws was lacerated so deeply that he could see the bone. His face had been cut open so badly that clotted blood was blocking his vision. He was being optimistic; he really suspected that he had lost vision in his eye.
He swerved, unable to find his bearings and sunk slowly onto the forest floor. Here in a break in the pine. This is where it would end. For all the bad deeds he had done in his life, he knew that this was a fitting death for him. He could look forward to being picked apart by vultures by morning, or being more optimistic, a wild cat would find him and pinch his throat closed with its teeth.
He wrapped himself in a ball, his tail curled up between his legs. Tentatively he licked his paw, but the blood kept coming.
That was when he saw someone stumbling out of the woods like a ghost. She was wounded but there was more blood on her scythe than her body. She had fought well then, he thought.
Relief swept over him. He had not failed her in this, at least. Hopefully she would survive until the end of the night and should he die, he could pray she would find one of the others to help her. Anubis had a deep respect for Kyle and knew that she would be in good hands with him. But he felt that there was little chance anyone was left. He had seen Lox run away as soon as she had seen the men materialize. The others had stayed to fight. Anubis had no idea what this battle was about but he had personally killed two men and bitten a man’s shoulder so hard he felt it snap in half.
Lox was picking through the woods, calling his name, but he couldn’t respond. Nubie. It sounded so sweet on her lips. He was too tired. So very, very tired. He tried to bark back but all that came out was a low whine.
That was when she saw him. Anubis was on the ground covered in blood. His small, quivering body was trembling from exhaustion and pain. To him, she looked like Christmas morning. He tried to run toward her but couldn’t move. His tail was wagging wildly, but he found a way to lick her face even though his eyes were matted with blood.
They had been the two that had escaped. He had seen her fall into the hollow of a tree. She was smart enough to stay there. Men walked right past her calling for her to come out, but they couldn’t see her. As much as she talked, she had an uncanny ability to be silent. This was a rare trait in humans, he had observed.
He had seen her face when Angelus and Fenris had been taken down. Glee. There was a hint of fear there. When he looked back at the hallow again he saw that she had pulled a tree branch over it. She was afraid, then. If they could be taken down, she had no chance. She had too little faith in herself. She was stronger than she knew.
He wheezed. The men had pierced him so many times he had a hard time breathing.
And then her face. She saw his huddled figure in the break.
It was the saddest thing Lox had ever seen. Brave Nubie was down. She had him in her arms immediately. He forgot about his pain completely. He just thought about her scent, how warm she was, could it be that he cared? She wasn’t like other women. He was proud that she was his charge and even happier that she would be with him at the end. He could not understand why she was crying.
“What did they do to you, baby?” she was saying. She had never known anyone that could cry and be furious and happy at the same time. “How could anyone try to hurt you? You knew you were hurt before this, Nubie, you should have ran away. I wish you had found me. I would have—I would have tried. Who did this to you?” She made resolutions to kill them each.
Deeper in the forest they flew. She had been running for some time now and was still not out of breath. She was fleet-footed and seemed to be aware of her surroundings.
The image of the airship behind them was peeling into the distance. Where was she taking him? It didn’t matter.
And then it happened.
She stepped on a branch.
He felt a change of pressure in the air. Four men surrounded them immediately. She pulled up short.
“Woman,” a dark skinned man with a navy beard said. “Surrender yourself.”
“Yes,” said a man wearing only a pair of pants. “Give us the enchanted beast.”
“No,” she said simply.
They each exchanged glances.
“He’s hurt and I have to get him help. Get out of my way,” she growled.
The third man took a step toward her. He had watery blue eyes and pin straight yellow hair. His torso was short and his legs were too long. “Our orders are to take all women. We have no orders for animals. If you do not come with us, ma’am, we will kill the dog and seize you.”
He let this set in.
“Kill. My dog. You…” her hands were shaking as she very carefully placed Anubis in her bag, “are going to kill my dog?”
“We have been looking for you for thirty minutes,” the fourth man said. His head was too large for his beret. “Come on girl, we don’t have time for this.”
“Okay,” she said. “I’ll come with you.”
Orel closed his eyes in relief. Thank goodness. His throat was still aching and he didn’t feel like another drawn out battle. He had a plasma hole in his shirt that would not stop smoking. He had wanted to get outside the ship, but not if he had to fight a bunch of insane women.
Something bumped against his foot. A man’s head stared up at him, eyes still open in surprise. The girl was running away, a bloody scythe in her hands.
The three remaining men stared at each other for a split second in complete and utter surprise.
She was running across the field now. “Go away!” she shouted.
The men immediately and split up their efforts trying to trap her.
“Zionese,” the dark skinned man said with a hearty chuckle.
“Get her,” said the shirtless man.
They ran straight for her. Blue beard had no time to prepare for the rock that met his face. She reloaded her sling and barely missed Trousers.
He tried to knee tackle her, but she sidestepped him. With a cutting swing of her scythe she hacked his lower back open. He hit the ground bellowing.
The two other men met her. One grabbed her free arm. For a moment Diantha’s face flashed through her mind and she head butted him. He bowed, clutching his face. He disappeared back into the ship. She swung her scythe like a bat and shattered blue beard’s shoulder into two pieces. Nubie was growling his encouragement.
“Hold on!” she shouted. Someone had grabbed her foot. She pushed her weight the other direction and he lost his hold. Rolling, she sprang up and sank her scythe into something slimy. He slumped over her. The base of his skull was exposed. She had dropped her bag.
Orel had it in his hands. He realized that out of the four of them he was the only one left and the only one who knew his current location.
“Get your hands off my dog!” she shouted.
Orel drew a trembling breath. His level of frustration with Hayder’s civility was overflowing. If they could simply kill these people things would be easier. “I will. But you have to come with me.”
“What part of I need to get my dog some help do you not understand?”
“Your dog? You need some help. Your leg is sliced open and you have a cut in your chest. Do you realize that someone has stabbed you?”
“Oh,” Lox said, pulling up her shirt some. “You’re right. Somebody stabbed me. When did I get stabbed?” she said more to herself. Her white shirt looked like someone had used it to clean up a bottle of wine.
“You will come with me, unconditionally,” he said steadily. “If you don’t I’ll set this bag and everything in it on fire. I have my orders. Now give me your hand.”
She reached out to him. She knew unconditional meant she wasn’t getting Nubie back if she didn’t cooperate.
She felt herself rushing through time. It was a whirling feeling, like she was in an invisible cyclone.
Suddenly she was in the hallway of a cavernous ship.
The trip had stunned her. When she landed in the ship she was momentarily blind and confused. She felt someone tie rope around her hands. Orel had taken the scythe from her, glistening with blood, and handed it to another sailor who gave him some money for it. They took her sandals off her feet. They ran their hands through her hair for razors. No earrings. No money. She had nothing else of value.
He helped her stand up. “I’m taking you to your cell.”
“Cell?” she said slowly. The blood loss was hitting her. Her words were slurred.
Orel told a few men in the hallway to be on guard.
“I sold the dog to the navigator” Orel said. “You don’t have to worry about that little beast any more. He’ll be happier with us, anyway. That is until rations run low.”
Lox leapt at Orel. She tried to grab him, but another man pinned her against the wall. “Let me go you filthy mouth breathers!” Lox snarled. Four men were restraining her. One for each arm and leg.
It wasn’t easy going. She fought the entire way. Men on the ship stepped to the other side of the hallway smirking. “D*mn, she’s live,” they laughed.
She bit the man closest to her. “I said let me go you ****ing ***holes!”
“We can’t, you crazy *****, you already killed two people.” Everyone was exhausted.
“I did?” she said softly, there was a sudden fear in her voice.
“Yes,” they all hissed at the same time.
She relaxed and they all sagged in the hallway, trying to catch their breath. They had been trying to haul her through the ship for the past twenty minutes and it was pretty similar to transporting an angry moose.
“Then I’ll make it four more!” she shouted making a break for it.
She wrenched away and was immediately caught again.
“Oh enough of this,” Drexel said, stepping out of the cockpit. He pinched a nerve in her shoulder and she collapsed. She had to resist the urge to pee on herself.
“You have just been upgraded from a cell to The Hole,” Drexel laughed.
He opened a side compartment in the ship and dunked her into it.
It was a cell six feet deep and three feet wide. The only other thing in this pit was a metal pole at the center. There was about six inches of air space and nothing else. “Don’t leave me in here!” she shouted. “Give me my—“
Drexel slammed the top door shut.
“Let her hang out in the Jacuzzi for a while, Orel. You gotta teach a woman her place.”
Orel hated Drexel at that moment. But he was right. Solitary confinement would cool her off.
“Now I’m going to get back to minding the ship,” Drexel snarled. “Why don’t you try to do your job, Orel?”
The blond man seethed with anger. Drexel had done in three minutes what had took him thirty. He needed to punish someone.
He went to a nearby cell. “What kind of a names are Dougie and Arem? What do they call your men? What were you doing in that forest, you maggots?” he snapped.
Angelus had never really been a good observer. She was more prone to focusing on the big picture, not noting the specifics. The point was the crowd, not the person, the forest, not the trees, that was how her mind operated. But in the far off land of the past she had been taught differently. As she was tugged across the ship by her captor, she remembered those teachings. She had sat cross legged on the marble floor of the temple of creation, and stared out at a pool of water, Esse sitting beside her. The older sibling turned to her, her golden eyes serious. "Angelus," She had said, "I have a test for you." Angelus had been young, and she was easily excited by the concept of a test. Any chance to prove herself to her older sister was welcome, and she clapped her hands together excitedly. "What is it?" She asked, desperate to prove herself. Esse smiled, gesturing towards the water. "Its a simple test, but there is a lesson in it, the test is this," She smiled, closing her eyes, "Tell me everything that you see." Angelus had frowned, confused as the why this was important, but she had decided to forge ahead. "I see water, and grass, and the halo," She said. Esse nodded, not opening her eyes. "Yes, but elaborate, tell me more," She said. Angelus frowned again,struggling to think of more. "That's all I see," She said. Esse shook her head, opening her eyes. She turned to her sister, starting to speak but instead deciding against it, turning to the water. "I see a black marble pathway leading to the edge of the water, surrounded on all sides by white marble, which also surrounds the water on all sides. The marble is still bright, it has recently been cleaned, and the path is ill used, there is not sign of extensive use, no scuffs, no cracks. The pool is calm, there are no ripples on it's surface, but it bobs slightly from the wind that also disturbs the grass. The grass is overgrown, untended, indicating our remoteness from society. The Halo is falling beyond the horizon, setting, there are no stars, ensuring that we are still in limbo. That, dear sister, is what I see." Angelus frowned, realizing that she had failed the test, but not understanding why. Esse smiled at her. "Dear sister, in our line of work, details are important, you must not only observe the general, but the specific," She said, "Find details, and then find what they mean. Life has a tendency to reward those that pay attention." As she walked onto the ship she could find little in the details to help her escape. Her hands were bound by a plasma stream, an unfortunately smart decision on her captor's part, and the ship itself, while far from invincible, was slick, and crowded. Escape would be difficult, and there was no way of knowing if the people on board possessed sufficient technology to track them. Fenris writhed against her captor beside her, her eyes still glowing yellow, her teeth, closer to proper fangs now, still bared. She was still changing. Things were about to get very, very bad. "Hey, stop that!" Her masked captor shouted back to Fenris, "Look, you're only making this more difficult for yourself." Fenris ignored him, continuing to try to free herself through sheer force of will. Angelus could have told her that it was pointless, but at this point the warrior wouldn't listen. There was no reasoning with her in this state, and Angelus could feel the waves of bloodlust coming off of her. The pirates had the most vicious animal in the universe bound up, and if they weren't careful she was going to tear free. Then only the Is himself could help them. But the bindings she was in were unusually strong, and Fenris herself seemed to be resisting the change. That was good, Angelus knew, because she hadn't had time to heal her wounds. Sure, she'd get to kill a lot of pirates if she broke free, but she'd also bleed to death. This really was a no win situation for everyone involved. "Please," Angelus said as she walked, trying to avoid sounding as desperate as she felt, "Just let me help her. She's hurt, she needs to be treated." The masked man turned to her, his blade still in his hand. "We'll treat her if we see fit," He said, "But you, my precious little bird, will play no part in the helping. You're going to fetch me a pretty penny or a promotion, whichever the captain deems more fit." Angelus scowled at him, but there was that nagging difference in him again, he was different from the others, the way he spoke, the way he carried himself, he wasn't like them. He didn't seem...well, piratey was the word Angelus was using, but she had the feeling that wasn't a real adjective. There was something else, something obvious, but Angelus couldn't place it... As he dragged them across the deck another sailor came up to them, burley with dark skin, and strange violently blue facial hair. Angelus imagined him complaining about rent prices for some reason, but the thought was gone as quick as it had come, and she found herself once again listening to a conversation that she felt oddly disconnected from. She was there, and she was a subject of conversation, but it was like she was not in her own body. It was truly a strange sensation. "Roberts," The rent is too d*mn high pirate said, "Anything of value on these two?" Roberts glanced over,realizing he hadn't actually checked his captive's belongings. "Well," He said, looking over Fenris and Angelus, "If I know my stuff, the little bird won't have any physical possessions. Her kind don't need them, and even her clothes will be made of a material we can't even use. That only made him more suspicious in Angelus' mind. He knew about guardians, which made this crew more knowledgeable than most of the people of the realms. But how had he learned of them? Had the become myths in some culture? Was there a realm where they regularly interacted with normal people? Or had the pirates encountered them elsewhere in limbo. That was a frightening thought, because if they had met guardians they had probably learned how to fight them.In fact, they had probably figured out that Fenris was her charge when they attacked, and had intentionally endangered her to draw Angelus attention. She had the sinking suspicion that Fenris would have been safe if it wasn't for her. She really wasn't a very good guardian, she thought. "As for the other one," Her captor said, walking over to Fenris, "Let's see..." He went to reach for the vorpal blade, but he never got the chance, as Fenris gave him a vicious headbutt. The top of her head collided with his nose, and he stepped back quickly, clutching has face. "Ow what the hell!?" He shouted, his words somewhat masked by the damage done to his face, "Who the hell headbutts someone? Seriously, NOBODY wins with a headbutt!" A thick stream of crimson slipped down his face, dribbling over his chin. It stood out in stark contrast to his pale skin. That was important, but Angelus couldn't finish putting together why, as Fenris had started to speak, and her voice had turned the angel's blood to ice. "Careful there, boy," She said, an edge in her voice that hadn't been there before, "Didn't your parents ever tell you that wolves bite." She smiled, flashing a smile that showed teeth stained by the crimson blood that streaked her own face. "I might decide to take a souvenir with me if you try that again," She warned. The change was accelerating, Angelus could tell that. Fenris needed to be restrained, calmed, or things would turn sour for everyone very quickly. Her captor glared at her, seeming more hurt than seemed appropriate for a pirate. "Ject!" He called to another sailor. He rushed up, thin as a rail and shirtless, his red eyes bright. "Get some other boys together and take this one to a cell," The masked pirate shouted. Ject nodded, signaling several others. "And don't get too close to her," The captor added, "Wouldn't want anyone losing an eye. We're sort of running low." Angelus sort of hoped that was a bad joke, but she wouldn't doubt the truth in that statement. The crew as a whole seemed to have seen more than it's share of fighting. "What about me?" Angelus asked. Her captor turned back to her, smiling as he wiped the scarlet streaks from his face. "You're coming with me," He said, "You're the prized catch, and I think our first mate needs to know who deserves the credit." Angelus glared at him, but said nothing, instead starting to observe him more closely. He was different, that was certain, but there were many reasons. He carried himself differently, spoke differently, he seemed to have a different accent, but why? And he was PALE. That suddenly dawned on her, the other pirates all had darker complexions, but he barely seemed like he'd seen the sun, why? But all of these differences made her realize that she could go even deeper, in fact, she could get exactly what she wanted. She could get him to tell her everything she needed to know himself. In the forest it's hard to hear the sound of one trees leaves, but if you can separate the tree it becomes easier. She knew he was different from the others in all other respects, so his thoughts would be different as well.She closed her eyes, searching for the signal. And then there it was, the one process that stood in contrast to the others. She smiled. Maybe she wasn't out of moves after all. At that point her captor got behind her, pushing her shoulders. "Alright, move," He said. She watched as he gestured to the others to drag Fenris away. "Word of advice," Angelus called over her shoulder, smiling maliciously at them, "Lock her up alone. She doesn't play well with others." She enjoyed the scared looks the pirates gave each other, but she hoped they followed her advice. In her current state, all Fenris wanted to do was kill anyone that stood in her way. She didn't care if they were friends or foes at this point, anyone in her path was just a target at this point. Her own captor led her away, deciding to push her for some reason. He had trouble with her wings, which amused the angel, but more than that she was starting to get hints of his thoughts. Which meant that she could finally learn what she needed. "Hey, not that I'm jonesing for a case of Stockholm syndrome or anything, but since we're going to be all buddy buddy until you do...whatever it is you're going to do with me...can I get a name from my captor?" He glared down at her, his mask obscuring most of his face, although she noted that the glare still seemed more petulant than intimidating. "I am the Dread Pirate Roberts, the most magnificent pirate on land, sea, or air," He bowed slightly as he spoke, "My exploits are legend, I have conquered the fire swamp, plundered the home of Death himself, and escaped capture from the most formidable pursuer of all, time itself." The thoughts each reached Angelus, and with each statement there was a resounding similarity. Each was inventive, and imaginative, and each and every one was a lie. All of them. Even the name. With each, she had listened to the thought and the statement to get the truth, and the truth was interesting from what she'd pieced together. "Okay, Dread Pirate Roberts," She said, smiling, "Or should I say Daniel Frey, tell me this, what are you doing on a Zionese multidimensional pirate ship?" She shook her head, smiling slightly to herself. "Come on Dan," She said, "You're a man of action, lies do not become you." He glared at her again, noting to himself that he should have guarded his thoughts better,since he'd known he was tangling with a guardian. "Should have, but didn't," The Angel said, a mischievous grin on her face, "Answer the question." "I was recruited for my skills," Her captor said. Half truth,but he was hiding something. "Answer it truthfully," She said. He kept scowling, but said nothing. "Pretty please?"She asked, "I want to know now, really, I do." "Why else would I become a pirate, I like treasure and I'm Zionese," He said. She rolled her eyes. "Sure you are, White boy, and the Easter bunny is real, and Vanilla Ice really had talent," She said. He tore the mask from his face, revealing striking blue eyes and slicked back platinum blonde hair. The eyes were burning with fury, and it was obvious he was tiring of her. That was unfortunate, because she had just decided that the mask was doing the world a disservice, and that she ought to find a way to make this trip to the first mate's take more time. "Fine," He said, "You got me, I'm the only Olympian on this boat, what difference does that make?" That was a shocker, being an Olympian meant that he was from Terra Di like Fenris, which meant that these pirates had definitely been to other realms. "A lot," Angelus said, "Given that the rest of the crew is Zionese it means you weren't originally here, so what are you doing here?" "I already told you," He barked, but she stopped him. "You told me the general give me the specific," She said. He sighed, placing a hand against his face, which only spread the blood he had spilled earlier. ] "I'd rather not talk about it right now," He said. In her mind Angelus saw a flash of faces, children, three of them...his? But his relationship didn't seem paternal...what was it. She was about to ask when they stopped in front of a large, heavy wooden door. Apparently Angelus had been paying so much attention to her captor she hadn't notice that they'd gone below. "End of the line," Her captor hissed to the angel. She noted that he seemed happy that he would soon be rid of her. That stung a little bit. He knocked on the door, but said nothing, and she noted a wave of fear wash over him. What could this first mate possibly be like to inspire fear in his crew like this. 'Well,' She thought, 'Guess I'm about to find out, aren't I?'
“Magdalena?” Isabella asked, preparing his bags for travel.
“Yes, mother needs me in the Eastlands for various reasons,” Tao answered.
Isabella sighed deeply. “You left before for ‘various reasons’ or what’s the other one?” she tapped her bottom lip with her finger. “Oh yeah, business expeditions.”
He grabbed her hand away from the ornately decorated sacks, and pulled her closer to him.
“Are you upset with me, my love?” he questioned softly.
She peered down like a helpless child and began idly fixing his shirt. “No, it’s just,” she looked into his eyes. “I feel like you keep me shut out of your world. I mean what’s the point of even marrying me if I do not know everything about you?”
He smiled. A smile that always melted her stubborn disposition back into his heart.
“The trip will take about two weeks, once everything is cleared in the Eastlands, I will ride my swiftest horse to you. I promise.”
She again looked away trying to shroud her tears beneath the night sky. He turned her face back to his and gently kissed her lips.
Tao strapped the saddle to his black horse, and hopped onto its back. With a final look at his beloved, he rode away towards the ribbon of light appearing on the morning horizon.
She did not take well to Tao trying to butter her up with beautiful words and soft touches, but she could not help the way she felt. She was a woman, and men seemed to know how to play a great tune on the heart strings of women. But Isabella was not going to crawl into her plush bed and began to sulk over the unfortunate incident. She had other plans. Rustling through her packed armoire, she pulled out a fine red dress, undressed from her robe, and slipped the dress onto her slender body. She released her auburn hair from the back of the dress, and quickly snatched her red glass bangles from the exquisitely carved nightstand.
The sun remained a peeping tom at the horizon, allowing her elegant steps to be cloaked by the dark blues of the breaking dawn. She walked around to the back of her house, and saw a dark brown horse perched in a dusty patch, lazily licking at a puddle of rainwater.
“Right where I left you, Ace.”
Isabella delicately stroked the slick fur coat on his nose. Those eyes. Mysterious, yet robotic. Used by the people around him. It reminded her of him. A captive waiting to be free in someone’s arms. She missed him, she missed him so much.
Isabella clicked her tongue, and Ace stood up at attention. She smiled to herself remembering a loving memory in her past, and mounted the horse. Grabbing the reins, Isabella directed the horse to her destination and began to race towards the Great Red Desert of Kopul-Vul.
Arem, I need to know you’re alright. __________________________________________________________________________________________________
His breath was shallow.
His bosom slowly expanded and contracted against the wooden planked floor. Sinking in and falling. He did not know where he was. Was he still in the meadow? Did he fall back to sleep? It was like being trapped in a dream that felt so real when you awoke, you did not know which state of mind was truly reality.
A seething pain writhed in the back of his head, thumping against his skull. With every thump, his closed eyes fluttered. Thump. Flutter. Thump. Flutter. After the last banging thump, his eyes opened, and the red blood vessels snaked along his white orbs. He stared at the wooden floor for some time, trying to regain all of his senses.
He slowly uplifted himself from the hardwood floor, and examined his surroundings. From the looks of it, he was inside of a cell in a semi-dark area. Wooden pillars extended from the floor to the ceiling around the cell. To his surprise, his cell was not the only one, but there were rows of cells parallel to each other like a mini cellblock. He saw a group of people talking amongst themselves, and then departed to different parts of the place. One of them, in a great huff, turned savagely towards Arem.
“What kind of a names are Dougie and Arem? What do they call your men? What were you doing in that forest, you maggots?”
His voice was vicious and hoarse, as his straight blonde hair swayed in his face with every word.
“Don’t get angry with us because you were schooled sonny boy. Oh and our names are the kind that do our jobs, even maggots do their jobs, but I guess ‘Orels’ can’t,” Dougie retorted.
Dougie? Arem shot up from the floor and spun around.
Dougie was in a cell connected to his. Arem could see his small pudgy face between the flat, thick steel bars. They bars were rusted, which was strange because that indicated that they were once near a water source, but they were in the sky. Perhaps, Arem would have analyzed every single aspect of the ship, but he was overcome with great relief with the sight of Dougie, that it slipped his mind.
“Yeah, these filthy beasts trying to call me a maggot, hmph. Let them try, they don’t know where I come from!” Dougie yelled.
Arem knew he reached his rope’s end and he would blame him for it, but he was just glad the old man was ok.
“I thought I lost you there pal,” Arem uttered, sighing, and leaning up against the wall.
Dougie turned to him, his bags beneath his eyes heavy with fatigue and toil. The sight of him caused Arem’s guilt to increase in its painful growing process.
“Don’t say it, Dougie,” Arem whispered. Dougie’s eyes grew ten times with his rage. “Oh so you know already!”
Arem was silent.
“I guess it’s not totally your fault. I’m a grown man---“
“An old man.”
“Don’t push it, Arem, my anger has not subsided enough yet for you to throw in insolent comments.”
Arem nodded. He gazed up at the other cells, and saw Fenris, who did not seem like herself at all. She looked as if she was suffering from an illness that came over her, or perhaps, she was upset about being captured.
“You win some, you lose some, but you live to fight another day,” Dougie said, also staring at Fenris.
“Friday,” Arem responded, drained from all his energy after the taxing experience with the green-eyed fellow.
Dougie laughed wearily. “You know, that statement holds true. In my younger years, I knew the Emperor’s brother in Elderin. He was the one that somewhat gave heart to our town. He use to always stage uprisings against the Emperor, he gave our people purpose. The will to live in poverty.” He exhaled, and then continued.
“That’s when I met your father, you know. We use to take part in the rebellion, until things became too dangerous. Well, not for me, but your father had a family, you and your sisters, and I was his best friend. So, before the Emperor’s brother formed what he liked to call the Spade Rebellion of a select few of people, your father and I left to the outskirts of Elderin.”
Arem listened intently to his story. Dougie rarely spoke of the past, but when he did it was like a clam unveiling its treasure. He never knew that his father once rebelled against the emperor for the sake of poverty. The Emperor’s brother, perhaps, had different intentions, but Arem knew his father would only fight against the wilting conditions of the people. Maybe that is why he left. He tried. He had once tried to work, rebel, and do all sorts of things to change his condition, but it did not help. So, when the opportunity of Al-Araaf, or Limbo, presented itself, he clung to it as if it was a rope of paradise.
“I wonder if Habeeb remembers that,” Dougie thought aloud. “Meh, he was a little older then you, he probably only remember bits and pieces.”
“Habeeb!” Arem exclaimed.
His hand shot up to his ear, but the earpiece was gone, Habeeb was gone. Arem quickly shuffled on all fours around the cell, searching for the earpiece. He looked through every crack and slit in the planks, but did not see it.
“Look! Over there near the door!” Dougie said, pointing through the steels bars.
Arem rushed toward the door of the cell. As Arem’s hand clasped the earpiece, a man’s black boot crushed his hand.
“ARRRRghhhh!” Arem yelped in pain.
He glared up at the menace only to see the man with blank, green eyes.
That single concept had been drilled into his head his entire life.
Everything had not been ships and pirating for Hayder. Unlike most of the crew of The Devil’s Virago, Hayder remembered a time when he wasn’t on a ship. He had remembered living on solid land, a strict upbringing, manners, waistcoats, and tea at four. He had remembered propriety, women who laughed with tight lips, and men who spoke endlessly of politics and science saying nothing.
Stuffy places. Restrictions. Curfews. Courting.
Those memories were pointless now. He had been exiled from his native land and there were few conditions where his return home would be welcome. A pine box was at the top of the list. He could never remove the tarnish that marred his title.
But there was a glimmer of hope.
He had planted the stolen relics weeks ago. They sat in an enchanted box in the hull. Men tried to pick it up, but upon touching it, forgot their purpose. It had been hexed to cause amnesia and cursed so that it was much deeper than it appeared.
Hayder could do that. Play with men’s minds, make them see things that weren’t there, make them unsee.
In this box were stolen statues, precious stones, scriptures that were sacred to the Zionese. He hoped that one day he should get the opportunity to overtake this ship, turn it over to the Zionese, and return a home hero.
He had practiced the speech he would give denouncing the men as terrorists, taking all the glory for himself, nobly forgiving his father for ever doubting him.
If he could do that, if he could access Zion, if he could infiltrate one last time, he had the hope that he could fix things.
“Fix things,” he said to himself with a bitter laugh. He put his hand to his lips, covering a rueful smile.
His past had been shattered and he could only blame himself.
He and Alex were friends. Or at least he felt a certain closeness he did not feel for other people. Yet, Alex seemed to know Hayder was a snake. Quick, exacting, but if kept in the right conditions, completely harmless.
Alex kept a close eye on him. In some way, Hayder knew Alex needed him. He needed Alex. It was symbiotic. Hayder was an efficient worker, highly intelligent, and extremely rational. He could fix some parts of the ship that Drexel had never even seen before and he had more than once convinced Alex that his course of action was incorrect and had been completely right. He hadn't gloated, he simply nodded, appreciative that Alex had sought his council.
Hayder was not sure why Alex had not killed him, though. Maybe because he was the only man on the ship who had ever demonstrated the ability to beat him in chess.
He had a careful respect for Alex, they had fought side by side many times, but lately their relationship was strained. His leash had been tightened and he knew that Alex was becoming more and more aware of his deviousness. That was precisely why he hesitated. Alex knew Hayder more intimately than anyone. Maybe better than he realized. There must be some hidden terror Alex kept for insurance. A red button he need only push.
For his part, Hayder had been carefully planning to incapacitate his captain for a long time. Incapacitate, not kill, they were friends after all. But if it came to death, he would not hesitate. He could not afford to be exiled and have a crew of hundreds searching for him throughout the realms. It had to be clean. He would make it look like an accident and the beauty of it was, he would be the one who tried to resuscitate him. He had practiced crying over Alex’s body. He just needed the time to be right.
The sun was high in the sky now. Morning had passed and the mugginess of a warm afternoon had set in. He sheathed his sword and fingered the links on the long necklace he wore. He stood very still, listening. A few persephone were lopping through the bushes. Butterflies flapped by.
And then he saw him.
Alex was out of the ship, standing over a dying doe. He pulled out his sword mercifully.
A gentleman would never challenge an unarmed man.
They were alone in this clearing. No one could hear or see them and no one would know what happened. He remembered that there were a number of men in the group. He would blame Alex’s death on them. No, incapacitation, he told himself.
He never had a chance to react.
Hayder came out of the trees with lethal speed.
He immediately brought his cutlass down in a wide arc toward the man’s chest. He deflected, surprised, and parried the blow.
Blind luck. If he had stepped the other direction he would be a sliced open sausage.
“The game is afoot, old boy,” Hayder said. “I’m grateful, to be honest. I may be a snake, but I am not cold blooded. You’ll give me a good show, won’t you, lad?”
His adversary looked baffled. Hayder could not help but notice that he was staring at his hair the way he had the first time they had met.
Kyle braced himself for a battle. He certainly was not going to let himself get killed in the middle of the woods by a blue-headed weirdo. He had other people to protect.
“Who are you, blueberries?” he growled.
“It’s your old friend, Hayder, come to kill you, I mean, help you after an unfortunate accident,” he replied. “Do keep standing there like that, it will make this all the more fun.” Hayder ended his reply locking swords with Kyle. Sparks flew between his cutlass and the blue-blade of his opponent.
He was completely thrown off by Alex’s style. Usually he moved differently, but now he seemed to be a little sluggish. He was no coward, but he wasn’t exposing himself. His blows were powerful, Hayder’s hand was aching on the handle already, in fact, but they were unfocused.
Hayder thrust his sword forward and Alex batted his blow down, grabbing his shirt with his free hand and throwing him against a tree. Hayder was too slow to recover and caught a good slice diagonally across his chest. He kicked Alex squarely in the thigh and brought the butt of his sword down with both hands as he stumbled back, connecting with his neck. He was on the ground, but quickly rolled out of the way of his finishing stab.
Alex was not amused. He was angry. Manic, even. “Alright,” he spat. “Let’s dance.”
A wide grin stretched over Hayder’s lips. “Yes,” he remarked, “time for me to take the lead.”
Their swords clashed again, the combat was getting closer and closer. Hayder saw Alex pull out an axe from his belt. He thrust his sword upward, intending to disarm him, but miscalculated. The hatchet caught his cutlass at the right place and Alex charged him with his shoulder and knocked the wind out of him. Hayder’s sword was gone. He had taken two punches to the face to boot.
“Back down or I’ll take you down,” Kyle said.
Hayder had exposed himself. Either he ended this now or he would have to spend the rest of his life hiding under a rock. “I did not want to have to do this, Alex,” Hayder replied unsteadily. His voice was doubled because suddenly, so was he.
For a split second a shadow of alarm passed over Kyle’s face.
“Right, let’s go,” Hayder called. He rushed toward Kyle and avoided his axe. His clothes did not avoid them, though. The fold in the side of his shirt took the whole blow and ripped off half of his garment. In a swift movement he rolled on the ground and recovered his sword. The other version of him stood, sword suddenly in hand, panting from the exertion.
This was the problem with being the leader. There was never anyone to call for help. Kyle assessed his chances. He wasn’t expecting anyone to give him a hand, but he certainly wasn’t going to give away this battle. Besides, if he focused he could take these two out. He had a better chance against two men than one.
“Not exactly fair, blueberries,” Kyle countered.
The three of them stood in a perfect triangle. Everyone slowly raised his sword.
The two men ran toward him at once. Kyle tried to strike the one with the tattered shirt, but he feinted. He had just enough time to use his bracer to block a deathblow from the second one. He deflected it, but the sword sliced into his bicep. The two men regrouped and launched a second attack from behind. This time Kyle calculated correctly and swooped under the first blow. He stabbed upward and caught the man in the chest with his dagger. The wound wasn’t as deep as he would have liked but it would teach him to be more careful. The second man was doubled over in pain.
Kyle took this as an opportunity to end this. He attacked the healthier one. Hayder was ready and had enough body control to avoid Kyle’s thrust. He grabbed his arms and they grappled. The second man had recovered enough to help his twin. He wrenched the sword out of Kyle’s hand and was punching his back as he abused his twin.
“Enough!” Hayder shouted. Kyle collapsed on the floor, holding nothing but the man’s shirt.
He had been fighting the false one all along. Hayder’s illusion had vanished and he had had enough time to soften Kyle up and regain his strength.
“Now we see who’s best,” Hayder said.
There was no sense of panic in his eyes as he brought his sword down against Kyle. He had no remorse. Not a moment was spent on sentiment. His movements were swift and sure, his hands never missed an opportunity to prod an opening, punish a misstep. He had analyzed long enough. Now he would destroy Alex and everything that he stood for.
Hayder cruelly sliced a wound diagonally across Kyle’s chest to match his own and when the man tried to parry the blow he met him in the stomach with an impressively powerful kick. He brought his elbow down across the Alex’s throat and, spinning backward, sank his sword fully into his side.
Alex’s legs weakened. He sank to the ground, clutching his wound.
The ground was littered with the blood of the three men.
Hayder pulled a knife from his vest. He knocked Kyle’s hands away as he pulled his head back by his hair. The knife was against his throat.
“Goodbye, old friend,” Hayder uttered. His tone was regretful, but not sad. The knife pressed and then, paused. “No,” said Hayder. He waivered. “I have taken your crew, your ship, and everything that is of value to you. Everyone you have ever known has left you and you are in this realm that you do not belong in alone. It is fitting that you should die alone, but I am a man of choices. I will let you do it yourself,” he put the glittering gold knife into his captain’s limp hand. “You can decide to bleed out, or you can end it on your own terms, like a gentleman.”
He released Kyle. Touched the necklace around his neck. Vanished into oblivion.
Kyle decided that there would be nothing gentle about their next meeting, but there would be blood.
Hayder, with the excitement of a child at the eve of his birthday, went to the captain’s quarters. How long had he dreamed of sitting in that chair and watching the sky whip by at his command?
Today would be the day that he could tell Drexel to pull into port at Zion and with pride, he would hand over the ship and everyone in it, for the off chance he could enter the hallowed gates.
“At last!” he said. Glee rippled through him. He was as giddy as a girl’s first date. He turned the handle and walked directly in as if this were his personal quarters and he were returning from a particularly draining day at work.
Fenris was trapped. That much she could tell absolutely, she was trapped, and in more ways than she could hope to escape. There was the literal version, she was trapped in a cell on some godforsaken pirate ship, but she was also trapped in her own mind. She had been hurt during the battle,and her she had foolishly given in to her most base desire, to survive, and to kill anyone who stood in the way of that goal. And she had been so desperate in the heat of the moment that she'd let Him loose. And now he had control of her body. She writhed against it just as viciously as she fought the chains that bound her wrists. "Come off it girlie, it's not going to work," He said into her mind, his hungry smile visible, despite his lack of a form, "I'm driving now, you just get to sit back and watch." If she were able to scowl, she would have. "I don't need you!" She cried, "I'm entirely capable of escaping on my own." She could sense his doubt, and she hated the feeling. It felt like the disapproving glare of her father, either of them, and she had always hated that glare. "Yes," He said, "Because you've done SWIMMINGLY so far." She laughed a little bit, surprised by his tone. "For the embodiment of my own inner bloodlust you're awfully well spoken," She said. She could feel him smiling again, a taunting smile not unlike the kind she would usually wear when finishing an enemy. "Hey," He said, "I have to treat the landlady nice, but shut it now, I've got to kick through these bars, and then I've got to kill every last person on this ship." She had a sinking feeling that he literally meant everyone. Usually he did, anything that got in her way in this state usually died, and that could very well mean Dougie, Arem, Lox, or any of the others that had been captured. She didn't have a particular affection for any of them, but she didn't want them dead. They were all innocent, even Lox, as frustrating as she was, and none of them deserved to die. "Too bad," He thought, "We need to kill, and we need to be free, anything that stops those goals dies. That's the agreement." She tried to scowl again, which was awfully difficult when restrained inside her own mind. "I refuse," she said. He laughed. "Too bad, girlie, like I said, I'm driving," He said, "So you just sit back and watch the show." A surge of pain shot through her. She was disconnected from it all, but she remembered the injury she had sustained earlier, the one that had let him loose. "We're hurt," She said,"If you tax us too much we'll die." The sound of laughter filled her mind, deafening and confident. "No, girlie, YOU'LL die," He said, "I haven't got a body to kill, if you pass daddy Loki's got two more kids I can have. You're all disposable, of all the pawns he has on the board I'm the only one he NEEDS." She knew that he was right, but she also knew that the body transfer might not work this time. "What if I die and you can't make it back to Terra Di?" she asked. He paused, thinking this over. If he was stranded in Limbo he couldn't get a new body, only Loki's enchanted children were compatible vessels, and Fenris was the only one in this entire realm. He gave out a sigh, deciding to give in. "Fine," He said, fading back into the dark corners of her mind, "Take back your pitiful little form. Just remember this. When we get home that nice little body of yours is mine. And I won't let it go until I've hunted enough to have my fill." He would never have his fill, that was what made the threat so frightening. But she slowly felt herself regain control of her body, cringed as the dim light returned to her eyes, sound rushing into her ears. She could smell the damp wood below her, and she could feel intense pain. She fell to the floor, clutching her chest. She pulled her palm away, noticing the scarlet that now stained her once brown gloves. 'Right,' She thought, 'The injury.' She tried to look down, but the pain refused to let her. She could only look forward, across the room, where she saw Dougie and Arem in another cell, glaring at a tall sailor who she could not properly make out. There was something messing with her vision, making it hard to make out details. Normally she would be trying to escape now. But her eyelids felt heavy, and her body felt so weak. She was tired, and for some reason escaping seemed unimportant for the moment. Sleep seemed to be the only thing she could think about. So she let her eyes drift, and she slowly let her eyelids close. For now she would sleep. She'd worry about escaping when she woke up.
Blood always tasted like metal, liquid iron seeping into your mouth. Copper taint filling the mouth with crimson pain, a sign that death would soon arrive.
It was a taste that Kyle Brogan had tasted far too often, and even now, he'd already had his fill.
Wounds spread across his body like ribbons, across his chest, arms, and back, the evidence of his most recent and massive failure. He laid himself back, forcing his breathing to stay normal as he focused his own energies. Pain coursed through his side, the pumping of his vital lifeblood reminding him constantly of his current predicament.
He hadn't the strength to call out, and felt that, if he tried, he might ruin the one good lung that he had. He could feel the other struggling, and knew that without care, he wouldn't survive much longer.
He dropped the golden knife into the dust.
Kyle slowly, painfully, turned himself onto his stomach, and started crawling toward his belt pouch, which his attacker had mercifully left behind, just a couple of eternal feet away, sitting in the dirt. He crept ever closer, ignoring the agony.
The man had called him "Alex."
In his own mind, he remembered that there had been a time in his life when he'd gone by that name. There in Imperial City, he had gone by his middle name, in an effort to hide his identity. It had seemed necessary, especially considering that he didn't know who or what he was dealing with.
Gritting his teeth and by sheer force of will, he inched his way closer to the pack.
Upon reading some of the Writer's backstory and planning, Kyle had learned that "Alex" was to be a darker, more ruthless version of himself. A powerful character who used the night to his advantage in an effort to give the Maggies a chance to remove themselves from the shackles of their own opression. Kyle's thoughts, at the time, were that if he was somehow stuck in this alternate dimension, he should at least do his best to continue his efforts to help those who needed his help.
But who was this person who had attacked him?
Kyle finally reached out his fingers, and grasped the buckle of his belt, pulling the pouch over to his reach. His right arm didn't want to cooperate as he opened his largest pouch, and pulled from it his very last pack of mediera.
He knew that the wounds on his arms and chest were, while painful, relatively superficial. Silently, he cursed himself for wasting his other pack on Adebah's sliced palm, which was relatively insignificant in comparison to his current problems. Then, shaking his head slowly, he realized that he couldn't have known he was going to be ambushed so randomly.
Still, he cursed himself for not expecting it.
With his left hand, he gripped his blood-soaked tunic, and began to tear, pulling away strips of cloth. These strips, however, weren't long enough. He knew that he would have to try something else. He instead pulled the entire shirt from his body, and, using a rock, was able to shred the garment in half.
Reaching the mediera to his side, he braced himself, and then pressed the pack into the wound. Pain exploded through his body, coursing in vibrant waves of torture. He spasmed slightly, his back starting to arch as he pressed the pack deeper into the wound, hoping to close the blood flow. He forced himself to avoid blacking out, his mind screaming as he ignored its pleas for release. This would have to be done if he was to survive.
He held it there in place for several moments, thinking of what to do next.
Slowly, purposefully, he began to wrap his tattered shirt about the wound, and was able to grip both ends of the shredded cloth. Able to barely grip the material with his right hand, he used his left to tie the makeshift bandage, and pulled it as tight as he could.
His energy spent, he laid his head back.
“It’s your old friend, Hayder, come to kill you," the man had said.
Hayder. Hayder... Though his mind was admittedly delirious, he couldn't place that name during any part of his travels. Nor could he remember any person with such vibrantly blue hair.
"Blueberries," Kyle chuckled drunkenly.
There were far too many questions, and no real chance to find answers, at least for the moment. For now, he had to simply hope that one of the others might come across him. The bandage would hold, for now. The mediera would accelerate the sealing of the wound, but for now, his energy was spent.
But one thought focused his mind just enough to allow him a respite from the pain as he drifted into unconsciousness.
Hayder. His mind memorized the name. While I still breathe, I'll be sure to cut yours short. You should have finished me off, Blueberries. Because when I see you again, it will be just before I drive your golden trinket through your throat.
Hayder stalked back to his quarters. He opened an impressive closet of clothing and ripped the tattered shirt he had been wearing off. His other self was with Alex and he was watching this conversation with the utmost frustration.
He had only had a few brief moments to be happy over his victory. They were almost forgotten now. It sank in that he had left a wounded man to die in the woods. There was nothing honorable about that, but the ship was pulling away now and there was nothing he could do about it. This was someone who hadn’t even done anything to him—and what made it more frustrating—someone who was not even helping his cause. Well, he thought, consoling himself, the young man had put up a good fight. At least he would die with honor. It had been a long time since Hayder had crossed swords with anyone worthy of the exercise.
He pulled out a deep purple button up shirt, a gray bow tie, and a black vest. He scanned his wardrobe for the appropriate pocket square and looped on a gray leather belt. With his comb in his teeth, he ironed his clothes with lightening speed and carefully assembled his ensemble. Quick hands rearranged his pompadour in a small mirror and re-shined his shoes. Though it was extensive, this enterprise was so rehearsed it had taken him six minutes to pull it off.
For a moment he glanced in the mirror at the finished product. Not great, but not bad.
He would have taken a quick bath since he smelled like trees and grass, but it had seemed as if a century had passed since they had docked. He wanted to remember what outside smelled like for as long as he could.
He had only taken two steps toward his chess set when there was an interruption at his door.
The door swung open and he saw Frey escorting a child inside.
He almost asked why he had handcuffed a little girl, but then he saw her wings.
“A guest,” Hayder said, fingering his necklace. “Do come in. I hope that you have been treated well.”
His dark eyes quietly assessed the young woman as Roberts settled her into the seat across from him at his chess set. “Tea or brandy?” he asked. “Please excuse my manners, I am Hayder.” He shook her hands, the hands that were still bound by plasma. “It is a pleasure making your acquaintance.”
Roberts quickly poured the cup obviously ready to get out of there, and handed it to the young woman.
“Do you play? Pardon me for asking but Guardian or Pamuyan?” Hayder said, casually. He set up the board with expert swiftness. There was a small clock beside it. He assumed that if she were a guardian she would not be very skilled at chess. In a culture where it is difficult to avoid reading a person’s mind, cultivating the strategy of deception needed to play the game would be terribly irritating. On the other hand, if her wings indicated Pamuyan origin he might face a fair opponent. He did not let her youthful appearance fool him, she was not a child. “Brandy for both,” he decided. Roberts made the necessary movements.
“I have a business proposition for you, guardian,” he began. “I have something that you want and you have something that I desire as well. Do you mind if I smoke?”
He put out the match’s blue flame.
“Excellent,” he said nodding to the masked man. “What I am proposing is quite simple, really. You stay on board as our guest. You would perform a simple service, using your telepathy to communicate with a liaison. I would have your companion restored and put in more suitable accommodations. We would dock, do our trading, and then I will personally see to it that you are escorted back to whatever destination you desire.”
He let that set in.
“Do you think this is something that would interest you?”
“But there is one further stipulation,” he said. “I must be sure that your telepathy is real.”
The soft wrinkles that plagued her neck sent an odious resentment up her spine. A forty-two year old woman, wielding the power of life and death, imprisonment and freedom. A power that any man would outstretch their very fingertips for, or sell their soul to satiate their tumultuous ego. But this mature woman held in her metaphoric grip the sword of King Arthur, however, time seemed to be against her milky skin.
She stood there looking at her reflection in one of the pristine Khaleian-made mirrors. It was large, having gold filigree encircling its massive frame. It was beautiful and timeless, unlike her body, which over the years, developed a wider circumference in the hips, a small bulge at the stomach where she carried her prestigious son, and the hands; the windows of evident adulthood. She dared not say ‘old age’, for it left a bitter taste in her mouth, and she would rather regurgitate let alone utter it to the surrounding atmosphere.
Rolling her eyes, Magdalena spun on her heels away from her reflection, and walked over to the mahogany wood, canopy bed fit for a Queen. She chuckled to herself. She was a queen, the Queen of the Eastlands. No man stood at her side, no testosterone, just the great reign of a woman ruler. It was always boasted that men were created superior to women. Their many strengths, their ability to fight, and their savage appetite to conquer, but women, she thought, were the strongest beings in all of Illusionia. They not only were the vessels for giving life---not to mention the intense pain that came with it---but they were the pillars to uplifting men, and pillars had to be sturdy and able to withstand every blow. Women had the power to raise their young, keep their men content, and while possessing all of these strengths they had the ability to love.
“Jalaia and Adamona, dress me. My son is on his way, and a Queen must look her best.”
Two young ladies rushed to the Queen’s order, carrying a long, strapless black dress. Fit for a Queen. They slipped it onto her feminine figure, and tightly tied up the corseted bodice. Her long jet black hair was slicked back to her head, accentuating her slim frame that she was rather proud of.
She walked from her room to the Great Hall with a gait of confidence and power. Passing the statues of ancient men of the Eastland Kingdom, she stomped amongst them towards her throne elevated on a high step. She was the only woman ruler among these powerful men. Men who saw their end, while she was in search for a timeless reign.
Tao Seesari had been one of her greatest regrets. While many of the kings prayed for sons, this Queen kneeled down in every temple of every city for her womb to bore a girl. That little girl would have grown to be a great woman ruling over men, however, she had Tao, and now she would have to use him like every man in her life. Insignificant beings, used for pleasure and physical strength, then discarded like the trash in the Downtown region of the Eastlands.
Magdalena sat on her throne, her spine perfectly aligned and her shoulders upright, free from any form of slouch. Her hands were placed firmly on the arms of the throne as she waited there like a flawless painting of Michelangelo.
A man greying at the scalp of his hair serenely sauntered into the Great Hall, and bowed his head. Nohaym, he was Magdalena’s right hand and a useful tool in the Eastland Kingdom. He was, perhaps, the only man Magdalena trusted, even though she disliked the feeling within her, she could not control it. After all, she was human.
“Queen Magdalena, your son has arrived,” his raspy voice issued throughout the hall, as he bowed even lower.
“Please let him in.”
Still bowing, Nohaym stepped backwards towards the grand oak doors, never turning his back on the queen. After he disappeared in the shadows, there were a few whispers, and Tao, her son, came strolling into the hall with the same confident gait as his mother. She secretly loathed him. He was too confident. He was man yet to be broken like her many horses in the stable.
Tao kneeled on one knee as he reached her throne, and said peering into her slanted brown eyes.
“Mother, you called for me.”
“I certainly did, my son. As you were so disgustingly having your way with the lovely peasant girl, I had to assemble a few meetings with the House of the East,” she said, her voice never cracking.
Tao laughed. She hated when he took her for a joke. He walked up the three steps leading to her throne and sat on one of the arms.
“And what were these meetings about that you had to pull me from my loving fiancé?” He asked.
“Loving fiancé,” she mocked. “Hardly.”
“Mother, mother, do I sense a raging jealous beneath your aging bosom? I thought you were the conqueror of men. Ha! That still amuses me, a woman unable to control her emotions being capable of conquering a man.”
“You watch your venomous tongue,” she spat, darting her face towards her son. “You forget I can have you imprisoned.”
She straightened her posture again, and continued as if she did not lose her composure. “My meetings with the House of the East consisted of some very important matters.”
“I suppose you mean the development of the outskirts of Elderin?” he questioned, grabbing an apple out of the elevated tray beside him.
“Precisely, and how capable you are of having success.”
“Are you finally senile? I almost single-handedly built the Eastlands from the ground up, every town, every city, pays homage to the kingdom. The people are pacified and we are gaining day after day. Hmpf! My being capable is merely an understatement. I’m over qualified!”
“Don’t lose your composure. How do you expect to be king someday?” She covered her mouth with the back of her hand and giggled.
He seared holes in her with a devilish look in his eyes, and shot up from the arm of the throne. He began to pace back and forth the Great Hall, taking vicious bites out of his apple. He stopped and turned to his mother with a pointed finger.
“You mock at me all you want, bat, but your days are numbered.”
She stood up pompously. “Is that a threat? Should I call the guards? No, I shall not. Rather I’m going to tell you about my meeting. And try not to lose your temper again. A king cannot afford to rule with emotion.”
Magdalena stepped from her throne and began to circle around her son, who was much taller and muscular than she was.
“The House of the East is worried about your inability to complete the task. Not that you are under qualified for the mission, however, that your emotions will get the better of you. Have you apprehended Alban as of yet?”
“I’m on it.”
“Well then, if that is not completed in a matter of days, perhaps months, then I will have to send my own man to pursue him.”
“Mother, I am quite capable of apprehending one man,” he snapped, his anger busting at the seams.
“I will send one of my men to spy on your man, in order to see if he is doing as he was told. By the way, I must give you credit for sending him to the Limbo Realm, your goons in Imperial City failed in their mission to capture Alban.”
“So who will you send if my mission falls through? And I said ‘if’ being a rare occurrence.”
“Why, none other than Nohaym. Unfortunately, I can trust him more than anyone in this Kingdom. Before you begin to ‘develop’ the outskirts, I prefer that Alban is caught. I will leave the rest to you. I’m sure you can complete that. If not, I will get Jalaia on the job,” she let out a boisterous laugh, and walked back over to her throne.
She sat down with the feeling of another victory and accomplishment.
“I suggest you attend our next meeting tomorrow, and then I want you back in Elderin without further delay.”
From the other side of the heavy door a voice called back, deep, quiet, and commanding. "Enter," It called. Angelus looked up at her captor and watched him nod slowly,placing his hand on the handle and slowly swinging the door open. Now she was going to get to meet the real dread pirate, the one this Roberts was so scared of. She swallowed hard, prepared for whatever threat lurked behind the door. She was not properly prepared for what greeted her. Another Zionese man waited inside, but he was different from the others. There was a properness to him, a civility, and he carried himself with a pride that seemed to contrast completely with his profession. His clothes were fine, and they suited him well. He was not always a pirate then, he had once been part of a higher society. Or maybe he simply desired to be a part of that society, Angelus couldn't tell. She silently searched for his thoughts, but could not find them. She narrowed her eyes slightly, confused by this. She wasn't used to struggling to find the minds of others, but perhaps the fear that was radiating off of Roberts was making it hard for her to concentrate. She knew that this thought was nonsense, of course, but it was the only explanation she had at the moment. She didn't want to think that the Pirates had some way of blocking her abilities, that thought was too frightening to consider. And jumping to that conclusion without proof could be costly. She wouldn't want to cut off a potential advantage after all. As she looked over the first mate he looked over her, and at first he seemed confused by her presence, and slightly annoyed with Roberts for bringing her. Understandable, at first glance she appeared to be nothing more than a little girl, and what use would pirates have with a child? Then she saw his eyes find her wings, and immediately light up with an excitement that made the little angel uncomfortable. "A guest," He said, his fingers quickly finding a long necklace that Angelus had overlooked before. That explained why she couldn't find his thoughts, the necklace was probably designed to block telepaths. 'Way too clever for a pirate,' She thought bitterly. "Do come in," He continued, "I hope that you have been treated well." 'Oh just fine,' Angelus said, deciding to keep her thoughts to herself, 'Really, having to watch my best friend get shot with a cannon before being dragged on board by a masked Olympian was a load of fun, really, why don't you guys have a resort?' She said none of this. She simply nodded, not wanting to risk the anger of her guest. She couldn't use her hands, she couldn't use her powers, really, she realized, she was at a complete disadvantage. Her enemy held all the cards, so the only she could do was play his game until she could find some way to turn the tide. The first mate's eyes quickly darted to a chair that sat before an ornate chess board, and her captor dragged her over to it, letting her settle herself into the stiff wooden chair. The first mate sat across from her, watching her and the board both with intent interest. Angelus actually found that she didn't enjoy being the center of attention, and that the man across from her was genuinely intimidating. She had no access to his mind, no way to fight him, and there was just something unsettling about his presence. He was sophisticated, but he was also a fighter, and his predatory nature seeped through the facade of properness that he maintained so well. She imagined this is how it felt to be caught by a tiger, and she genuinely hoped he wasn't simply playing with her before cutting her throat. This would be such an undignified place and way to die. "Tea or Brandy?" He asked, continuing to keep up the dignified facade. Angelus would have liked to have answered 'neither' but she decided to appease her host. Continuing to breathe was still on her list of objectives, after all, and if she got on his good side she'd probably be able to treat Fenris. It didn't matter, however, as she never got the chance to answer, her host had changed mental gears too quickly to let her. "Please excuse my manners," He said quickly, "My name is Hayder." He held out a hand for her to shake. She awkwardly held her still bound hands out, shaking his outstretched hand awkwardly. "It is a pleasure making your acquaintance," He said. He was being awfully nice for someone that was keeping her against her will, with her hands bound, aboard a pirate ship. She half-wondered if he was about to ask her if she believed in ghost stories. 'Think we might get into some legal trouble with that one,' She thought, 'We've already tested our luck a bit with the DPR bit.' “Do you play? Pardon me for asking but Guardian or Pamuyan?” He continued casually, setting up the chess board before them with remarkable speed. She didn't play Chess, or at least, not very well. Chess had always been Esse's game, and it was a difficult one for guardians to play, as it was so easy to find the strategy the other player was planning on implementing. Angelus had always tried to overcome this by relying on instinct, but this only led to costly mistakes. Esse overcame the challenge by using all sorts of mental tricks to throw her opponents off. Once again Angelus had to admit that her sister was incredibly clever in a way that she wasn't. She still hated that admission. She loved Esse, but her own lacking skills always made her feel vulnerable. "Guardian," She answered stiffly, noting that she could probably pass for being Pamuyan in the future if she needed to lay low. 'I would rather just stay invisible, though,' She thought to herself. After a few more minutes of idle conversation he looked at her, his eyes alight with that bizarre excitement again. "I have a business proposition for you guardian," He said,“I have something that you want and you have something that I desire as well. Do you mind if I smoke?” She shook her head, knowing he would smoke regardless of what she said. This was what she had been afraid of. He was going to use Fenris as a bargaining chip to force her to do whatever he wanted her to. There was no avoiding it, she was just going to have to see if his price was worth taking. He nodded, letting Roberts leave the room, something that relaxed Angelus somewhat because she no longer had to deal with his irritating thoughts. He had spent the last several minutes thinking nothing but 'Don't touch anything, Dan, Don't touch anything, Dan, he's gonna' kill you if you mess with his stuff, Dan, keep your mouth shut, Dan,' And various other annoying, fearful thoughts. Now she assumed things would seem more peaceful. They didn't, and she realized that some of the fear she had been detecting was her own. The first mate continued to look over her with his predatory gaze. Now Angelus could tell why the men were so afraid of him.Even without making any outward threats his presence was frightening. “What I am proposing is quite simple, really." He said,"You stay on board as our guest. You would perform a simple service, using your telepathy to communicate with a liaison. I would have your companion restored and put in more suitable accommodations. We would dock, do our trading, and then I will personally see to it that you are escorted back to whatever destination you desire.” For a moment he fell silent, letting her take in the deal. She had to admit, as much as she didn't want to deal with pirates, this deal was more than agreeable. As long as she played her cards right she would be able to get Fenris proper treatment and then she'd be able to get them back home. She'd just have to be careful not to make any wrong moves before the pirates docked. "Do you think this is something that would interest you?" He asked. She hesitated for a moment, biting her lip. Than she nodded slowly. Of all of her current options, this was the one that had the highest chance of working out well. "But there is one further stipulation," He said. Her heart froze. Of course there was. "I must be sure that your telepathy is real," He said. She resisted the urge to let out a sigh of relief. That would be easy enough to manage. "Alright," She said, trying to keep the tension from her tone, "How do you suggest I prove my skills to you?"
"Get these, ung, infernal, oukh, things off my paws!"
Pounce let out a bloodcurdling caterwaul. Her neck was collared with a tight chain that was connected to the wall. Each of her paws was wrapped in thick leather and tied with rope to the floor. She was facing the back wall, flat on her stomach, unable to see what was going on and unable to move. Blood matted her fur in several places, and one of her ears had a slice missing. Her tail looked like it had been run over with a lawnmower. Papa Mike, why are you doing this? Don't you like me anymore? You've never hurt me in a story before. There was no reply to her questioning thoughts, as though the writer either couldn't or wouldn't relieve her discomfort and pain. Pounce wasn't sure whether she felt worse about the writer's treatment of her, or the pirates'.
She'd been trying to apologize to Angelus for the way she had treated the angel, who was too distracted by the approaching sky ship to acknowledge her. The tension in the atmosphere was electric as everyone except Abedah prepared themselves for a new battle. The programmer was still on the other side of the pond looking at the damage the little plasma bomb had done, completely oblivious as usual. Pounce bristled her fur, arched her back, and flexed her claws. She was going to run over to get her attention, but there wasn't enough time. Before she knew it, everyone was running helter-skelter, lashing out with weapons, fleeing for their lives, and being completely overwhelmed. Four pirates descended on Pounce, and one grabbed her from behind. She squirmed and wriggled and clawed with all her might. "You put me down! These pads do not leave the ground unless I say so!" She gashed the pirate's arm, but he held her tightly.
"Well, well. A talking cat - that's something you don't find everyday, not even in these parts. I know a few carneys who'll pay a pretty penny to have you for a sideshow," the pirate said. She dug her rear claws into his shins and gave a mighty push. Rivers of blood ran down his legs as he lost his grip on her. "Ha, a feisty one, at that," he joked, as if he wasn't even aware of being scratched. He stopped smiling. "So bring it on, kitty. Just you and me."
Pounce didn't fall for his trick, but started running as fast as she could in the other direction. Normally, her wicked speed gave her a huge advantage, but this time it was her downfall. Instead of paying attention to where she was going, she was checking to see if 'Red Rivers' was coming after her and ran full speed into a swinging club. The impact sent her flying limply through the air like a home run into a patch of brambles. She didn't remember anything after that until she woke up in this awful condition on what could only have been their ship. She had no idea what they had done to her between the ground and here, but it wasn't nice. She could faintly hear some voices that sounded like some of the other travelling companions, but couldn't exactly make out who it was. And she had no idea what had become of Abedah. This adventure wasn't going as well as she had hoped.
The air suddenly grew dark, as happens when a large cloud passes over the sun. It had been so long since Abedah had experienced such shadows that she didn't know what to make of it. She stood holding a long broken branch like a staff and stared at the large object getting closer. She heard yelling from the camp, and was immediately surrounded by a group of blue-eyed men. "Charlie, we got ourselves an Eastlander," one of the men said.
The man addressed as Charlie replied, "I hear they make a man feel like a man once you've got 'em trained right." There were six of them that she could see, each brandishing a different kind of sword. Abedah held the branch in the middle and swung in horizontally in a wide arc. "We ain't gonna hurt ya," an older man with gray stubble and a few missing teeth told her. One end of the branch was very jagged where it had split from the tree as it fell. She jabbed that end into Stubble's gut, which caused him to wince, but didn't hurt him in any other way.
"I told ya you been havin' too many beers, Enrique," the apparent leader laughed. She swung the other end of the branch at the leader's head; but he grabbed it and pushed both it and Abedah in Enrique's direction. Enrique grabbed Abedah around her chest and pulled her close to him. "I'm going to enjoy our private lessons," he whispered in her ear. She discretely took her dagger out of its sheath and make a rapid upward stroke along Enrique's groin. He released his grip and blanched white as a sheet as a torrent of blood gushed from between his legs. Abedah quickly pushed the branch into the leader's windpipe, nearly crushing it.
An intense shooting pain sent waves of agony down her arm. Her already wounded hand tingled. A tall, quiet, angry man had thrown a knife directly into the back of her shoulder. She tried to swing the sharp end of the branch at him, but the pain was making her nauseous and dizzy. She stumbled several steps and fell to her knees. Charlie kicked her onto her back, driving the knife even deeper into her shoulder. Her arm went completely numb, as he put the tip of his sword to her throat. "No, Charlie," the leader choked out. "All...women...alive."
Charlie put his sword back in its sheath and placed a large booted foot on her chest. The pressure made her arm switch between agonizing pain and useless paralyzation. "Artie, give me that rock."
"Charlie...," the leader gasped.
"I ain't gonna kill her - just make 'er a little easier to drag back is all." Artie handed over a rock about the size of a softball and slammed it down on Abedah's good hand. She screamed in pain as several of the bones cracked. Charlie took his boot off her chest and slammed it on the hand, twisting it like he was putting out a cigarette. Several more bones cracked, and the swelling and throbbing of her now mangled purple palm was too much for Abedah. The swirling in her head sent her hurtling into unconsciousness. "Now how's she gonna man you up if she can't use either of her hands, Charlie?" one of the other pirates asked.
"Aw, shut up and let's get her back to the ship. Let the cap'n decide what he wants to do with 'er," Charlie answered.
"What are we gonna do with Henry?" asked Artie. The leader replied, "Leave 'im. He's already gone." Enrique's eyes rolled back into his head as he took his last labored breath. Charlie lifted Abedah off the ground and threw her over his shoulder like a sack of grain. The angry man cut her belt off so she wouldn't be able to deliver any surprises when she woke up. The leader fingered his necklace, and the group returned to the ship.
When she woke up, she could faintly see Fenris, Arem, and Dougie in cells across from her. Arem was crawling towards the door to his cell, like he was looking for something. A guard saw and walked over crushing his hand, though not as violently as Charlie had done to her. Her right arm was completely numb, though it seemed that the knife had been removed and the bleeding stopped. The fingers on her left hand were angled in all kinds of unnatural directions, and swollen to three times their normal size. Even if she could get back to the battle school, even with the skill of the doctors there, she wasn't sure if she'd ever be able to do her work again.
Hayder watched the guardian assess her options. He was surprised that she was so quick and willing to agree to his terms. He determined that she must be desperate then. He came to this conclusion because she had not asked for money. That meant that the destination she needed to travel to was far more valuable than riches. She must find her place inaccessible by her own means.
It explained why she had unequally yoked herself with such an unorganized group of layabouts. It also explained why her face momentarily betrayed her relief when he suggested that Fenris would be properly tended to.
"Alright," she said carefully, "How do you suggest I prove my skills to you?"
He smiled, “It’s simple, really. I will think of a series of events and then ask you questions about it. Anyone can guess a single thing, but a truly talented person can remember a sequence. My father is a telepath, I don’t mind telling you this, and so I have learned how to control my mind from such intrusions.”
He had wished that he could have followed in his father’s footsteps, but for all the months and years of practice and mental concentration, he had never been able to accurately read anyone’s thoughts. He could fool people into believing they saw things that they did not, but possessing this rare skill had not been enough for him. He took up fencing to distract himself from his perceived failure and spent many hours in a laboratory creating potions as his mother had done before him. But it always stuck with him that no matter how many achievements he may amount, and despite the superb control he had over his own mind and body, a telepath he would never be.
He took a cleansing breath. He sat with his feet and knees together, resting his fingertips on his temples. “I don’t want to overwhelm you.” With a swift motion, he took off his necklace.
His mind was a Pollock painting. It was all cool blues and vicious golds. He focused the space, leveled it, until everything, very suddenly, recessed into the periphery. Faces were obscured, the patterns of clothing were muted, places were deformed and morphed, music was being played, people were talking backwards in a sweet sounding language that had the fluidity of French, Hayder was in the rain covered in blood, his feet slick with the entrails of a gargantuan beast that smelled like sulfur and looked like the inside of hell. He was wide-eyed child that looked no older than Angelus holding a sword dripping with flesh.
“Please excuse me, miss,” he laughed, “I’m a little rusty.” Immediately his mind went completely blank. It was as if a vacuum had sucked the images away. Everything had the white sterility of a hospital. It was as if his mind were dead. There was no signal, no signature.
“I will think of a few places,” he said.
He took Angelus on a voyage. He was in a warm place; he imagined she was standing beside him there. They were at a small, floating bizarre and he was walking her through the different vendors. People turned and greeted them, offered them samples and salutations. Their brown skin shown in the sunlight. She took a necklace the color of her eyes. Children broke out under foot in vibrant pinks and blues, laughing, chasing one another. The air practically crackled with magic. It was cool under the shop’s umbrellas. Someone had cast a spell. Women with violet hair carried baskets on their hips, floating on disks from one place to the next only pausing to chat. A tall, beautiful woman turned to talk to Hayder in a language that the guardian might not understand. She smiled down and welcomed her by lacing a flower in Angelus’s hair. The women processed on. The patterns of their clothes bouncing in the air like a ship’s sails. They were at a sporting event. Competitors were stretching, preparing themselves for a wrestling match. A group of men with deep voices were laughing as a boy child tried to wrestle his father to the ground. Zion. He took her hand and turned a corner. They were standing, alone, at the edge of the sea. To their left was a series of high, jagged mountains. Even though the heat was sweltering they were snow capped. Below them was an impressive castle. It had many courtyards and bridges. There were four keeps that had domes like upside down onions. The structure was marble, lavish. He led her across the mote and into the inner courtyard. Tigers brushed by them, lounging in the noonday sun. Before them was a throne. Three girls were hiding behind a curtain, frightened. On a throne meant for two was a lone boy with gray-green eyes and the grimmest expression on his old-man face. His head was in his hands and he seemed to be lamenting everything he had ever done. Arjuna. He turned to Angelus and suddenly they were back in his quarters. He opened his eyes.
“I thought of two places. One was a happy place, the other a tomb. What colors were the children wearing in the market? What were the men laughing at? What were you given? What was the color of the thing that you took? What time of day was it in our second location? How many girls were behind the curtain?” He sat back and listened carefully.
Anubis was so sick he was sure he would die. He was running a fever now and, though is wounds were beginning to clot, he was fairly sure that if he overexerted himself he would bleed out.
"Get these, ung, infernal, oukh, things off my paws!"
She let out a terrifyingly loud scream.
<Be quiet!> Anubis said. His front two and back two legs were tied together. He was lying on his side.
<I didn't mean to yell> he apologized. <I'm pretty sure they are keeping you because you're a talking cat. I think if I hadn't transformed they would have just let me run away into the woods. They want us because we're enchanted, I think. What do you say we convince them that they're wrong?>
Just at that moment one of the sailors came up to their tiny cell.
"That one right there can turn into a crazy big werewolf thing, he can. And that biggun right there can talk."
"You idiot, animals can't talk, or change shapes."
"No! I can prove it. Talk for me little kitty. Talk for daddy."
"And this one, he can change shape!"
Anubis chuckled and put on his cutest puppy-dog face. The only thing more adorable than the face he was making would be a baby panda slumbering on rainbow while a sleeping kitten napped on his tummy. There would have to be a legion of unicorns trotting through in the background, to reach the limit break of adorableness.
Angelus was surprised to find that when she came out of the trance she had been in that she felt slightly nauseous. It had been a long time since she'd been guided through someone's thoughts like that, and she had forgotten that the lack of control could be difficult to cope with. It was something like mental motion sickness, and she had to take a few seconds to compose herself. Then she turned her attention to his questions. This entire exercise basically amounted to a memory game, and she could manage that. She remembered every small detail of their shared experience, and she remembered one that she was certain Hayder didn't intend her to. She could still clearly see the image of him standing, covered in blood, before a giant beast. The image was not a pleasant one, and she wondered what it meant. Still, she couldn't dwell on that image now. "The children were wearing pink and blue, the men were laughing at a boy trying to wrestle with his father," She paused, smiling slightly. The images had been pleasant, and they reminded her of far off days and better times. It had been a long time since Fenris had experienced anything so pleasant, but she had once been a guest at a massive sporting event held by the gods of Mount Olympus. She'd been so happy that day, before she'd known the truth about her world. Angelus sometimes wondered if it wouldn't have been better to leave her in blissful ignorance. The guardian quickly returned to the questions at hand. "I was given a flower," She said, once again smiling at the thought. The flower had made her feel welcomed, and it had also made her feel beautiful, two things she was not used to, "The necklace I took was gold." The same as her eyes, and Esse's. It was not a natural color, something that the few beings that could see guardians often commented on. It was not a common eye color, even among the guardians, and Angelus had always been proud of it. Golden eyes were supposed to signify remarkable talent. As she'd grown older,and her own talents had seemed less remarkable, she'd started to doubt that belief. "It was midday at our second location," The angel continued, wishing to linger on the pleasantness of the first memory instead of thinking about the misery that seemed to loom over the second, "And there were three girls behind the curtain." She leaned back as comfortably as she could, permitting a small, confident smile to grace her face. "So," She said, "Have I passed your little test, or shall I be confined to a cell like your other captives?"
Elderin knew she was wrong for blowing up on Esmina like that. She knew she was dead wrong, but that did little to abate the rage roaring within her chest. Esmina would forgive of though. She always did. She had a level head and a heart that understood all, not exactly admirable qualities when around those who suffer from misplacement of anger. In short, it had put her at the top of the list to be picked off by Elderin’s fury. Love always seemed to be an enabler, even on the opposite side of its spectrum. Elderin made note to apologize to her though. She had to. But she did not have to get over it so easy. No. It was her turn to be Dave and vent her anger on a helpless, innocent victim. No matter how indirect.
Her wrath guided her eyes in the last place her mother wanted her to be, but the first place that piqued her interest ever since she was a child.
Why a bar, she really could not say. The narrow, amber necks of Dave’s numerous beer bottles all seemed to point in this direction, her mother’s disdain for such places adding to its force like a compass.
The secrets the bar contained seemed to be concealed by the muck and grime smeared on its windows. It beckoned with its title in Italic neon letters but was strategically nestled on the corner, just out of reach of the light from the overhead street lamp. Tucked away in the darkness. Away from civilization. A piece of the underworld left behind as entertainment for those with dark desires. Huddled at the entrance of the bar were a group of shadowy silhouettes, their white eyes striking amidst the darkness that enveloped them.
She felt her feet move along the pavement, first slow and hesitant, like a child aware of committing a sin, and then faster with the certainty of a lion stalking its prey. Stubbornness solidified her resolve, aiding her with a little red riding hood skip in her step. The light from the street lamp blossomed on her slender frame and then retracted as she inched closer and closer upon her mark.
She felt it, the towering silhouettes of men, perhaps all on the wrong side of their forties, their white orbs gliding across her body like ravenous fingers. She brushed past one so close she could feel his warm breath upon the nape of her neck.
It smelled just like Dave’s.
She drew her shoulders closer to her, cowering a little at the menacing glares that made her resolve quake. A white summer dress was not exactly the attire you wanted to be caught dead in inside a bar. It sort of screamed rape me, but the sheer unpredictability of it all gave it its thrill.
Her hand clasped the wooden handle of the door.
What her mother was doing didn’t exactly warrant this type of behavior, did it? What if she was hurt in some way or worse, kidnapped?
Elderin stubbornly refused to be the captive of such frightening inquiries. Besides, she had been sheltered her whole life. She was 19 years old now for crying out loud! Never having a real grasp of the outside world was shameful, in fact, downright pathetic. She only had movies and books to live her life through and even those had limits. She could only stretch her imagination but so far. It was time to experience the real thing. Time to leave the nest and claim independency, if only for a little while.
She pulled it open and an immediate sensation of repulsion flushed throughout her body as she was greeted by the bar’s atmosphere, which was thick with the heavy scent of drugs and alcohol. Her virgin lung made her want to gag, but curiosity propelled her on into the thickness of the odor.
Eighteen long years. It had been eighteen long years since he last saw her. Eighteen long years that he had traveled the realms in search for her, and as if on purpose, the universe decided to reward him for his efforts when he had least expected it.
He stood there, staring at her in disbelief, mug of rum trembling in his hand.
He had to admit, he was beginning to grow pessimistic, the graying tendrils of hair at his temples only testifying to a mission undone, dragging his self-esteem to the lowest of low. When collaboration with the eyes of the unseen had failed, he resigned himself to donning the ridiculous attire of a pirate in order to graze the dimensions himself in search for her. Sadly, over the years, he had become one of them. And as if completely knocked from a spell of hypnosis, his garb seemed alien to him…all at the sight of her.
He looked at the rum in his hand, his tattered vest over a beige button down flannel, his black cargo pants masked by knee-length leather boots. He could not even remember why he had dressed so raggedy. Perhaps to avoid attention, but he was comfortable wasn’t he? Well, at least until now.
Her ginger colored pom pom danced at the back of her head as her hips slowly slinked from side to side beneath her white summer dress. Like her mother, she kept her collarbone outstretched, her neck long as her long legs swept over to the counter top in delicate, graceful strides. Her fiery red hair accented her milky colored skin, which was in turn heightened by the arch of her jet black brow. She was an enchanting beauty marked by edgy, exotic features.
She seemed so unsure, almost completely innocent as she hoisted herself onto the stool and crossed her legs, feigning the body language of an age she was totally unaware of. It was tempting not to take her for himself. His crew had not seen the likes of a woman in days, and the south had always been one to fancy extra curricula activity.
But before being completely driven away by pure desire, his craving was halted by the orders he was given so long ago. It was as if his mind had blown the dust off of them, giving it a pristine clarity only truly captivated by youth.
Then he saw it, as if summoned by his thoughts he saw the shadowy figure walk beside her and steady itself near her ear. He never did see them clearly. They were only silhouettes and shapes to him. All he knew was that they collaborated with his boss, and they made things happen in whispers and suggestions.
Although they were far away, he could hear the muffled sound of their whispering like distant voices playing against his eardrum. He could not make out what they were saying. He never could. But his boss had once told them like music players plucking the strings of an instrument, they worked strictly upon the desire of their targets.
And as if right on cue, her eyes came into contact with his, and the mission was back on.
The rocks and pebbles beneath Najm’s feet quaked as the huge, airborne ship parted the clouds with as much awe and majesty as a king sitting at his throne. An ornately carved snake glared at the true ones from the hull of the ship, its ruby eyes ominously glittering against the golden sunlight. The whirring of machinery and the muffled hum of its internal engine vibrated within Najm’s chest as the massive vessel descended from the heavens, crashing into the earth with a deafening roar and unleashing a blanket of dust that enveloped all those who looked on.
This couldn’t be good, Najm thought to herself, and as if to prove her thoughts true, it was but moment before they were beat up, bound, and hauled onto the ship like slaves in the triangular trade.
Najm kicked and screamed a string of profanities as she was disarmed and slammed up against the cold dank wall of a cell wide enough to fit a dog but tall enough to allow her to stand. Giving her toothless grin, the pirate locked her cell and tauntingly waved the ring of keys behind a string of bars.
“Yeah pretty brave to pull something like that behind bars,” Najm yelled. “I’ll kick your a$$ any day of the week and twice on Sunday you toothless bastard. Let me see you cross my path and I’ll knock--- Don’t you walk away from me!”
Najm ran up to the bars and squeezed her face between the parallels. “I’ll have you head in my hands when this is all over with! I swear to it!”
She heaved a sigh and fell onto her bottom. Her heart wasn’t in this anymore. It was plain and simple. Behind these bars she wasn’t going to do sh*t, but that didn’t mean she did not feel good expressing herself either.
Cekic. Her son. How she yearned to see them again. It was a bit overwhelming, the feeling of it all. It was the first time she had been away from him and not only was she was a few realms away, she was locked at the bottom of some ship probably to be cannibal’s meat in the morning. It was weird, and sort of stupid, but for the first time in a long time…Najm cried.
Hayder sat in quiet contemplation as Angelus recalled the places he had taken her.
He was relieved that she was willing to cooperate. It must have been that she was in a tight spot. If she would agree to help him, she must really need to go somewhere that her group of layabouts could not take her. She had not put in a word on their behalf, so they must not be of value to her. He reasoned that she must be desperate because she had not negotiated. She had not asked for any money, so the destination was the ultimate prize.
She answered every question in earnest and smile played across her lips. She looked more confident, and so she should. She was useful, after all.
"So have I passed your little test or will I be transfered to a cell like your other captives?" she asked.
"You did exceedingly well," he said, reassuringly, "you are a very talented young woman, Angelus. Welcome aboard our ship. You are officially a member of our crew. I will have Roberts issue you a commemrative eyepatch," he added with a genuine, winsome smile.
"Then I have your word that you will do as you say? I will have you returned home safely, my word is my bond," he couldn't think of a time he had broken a promise.
He looped his necklace back around his neck and rose. He crossed to her side of the table. He felt her eyes on him, she must still be leary. He put his hands on her wrists and removed her bonds. His hands were so much bigger than hers that he could have pulled her arms completely out of the sockets with relative ease. But his hands were gentle and he loosened her handcuffs as if he were apologizing for the inconvenience.
"I will have your companion seen by a doctor immediately and escorted to a room we reserve for guests. It is quite comfortable, I assure you."
He turned his back on her and reached for his glass. If she were going to attack him, this was her chance.
He pivoted, "Allow me to inform my men to make the necessary preperations." He walked to the door.
For a moment it appeared Angelus was alone, until the tinkling of a glass revealed Hayder was still sitting crosslegged in the armchair across from her.
"I intend to interrogate a few of the captors. You are welcome to stay until your room is readied."
With that Hayder's twin walked through the door. With gentle but firm hands he stationed Abedah on a low stool below them. Her bruised hands were tied together.
Anubis. What did that dog know about anything? Dogs are supposed to be on chains, not cats.
<I didn't mean to yell. I'm pretty sure they are keeping you because you're a talking cat. I think if I hadn't transformed they would have just let me run away into the woods. They want us because we're enchanted, I think. What do you say we convince them that they're wrong?>
Pounce wanted to say back to him that yes, she was quite enchanting, thank you; but before she could, a pair of pirate guards approached. She was still chained down backwards and couldn't see.
"Talk for me little kitty. Talk for daddy," she heard. She opened her mouth, and yawned. Even if the dog hadn't suggested it, she wasn't about to give these barbarians anything they asked for. She was a cat, and she couldn't be told what to do.
"You really are an idiot, Joe," the other sailor replied as they left.
<So, dawg, that seems to have held them off for a few. Any ideas how to get out of here?> Pounce asked.
<It might be easier to convince them I'm nothing special, which is quite a feat mind you, if there were some way to shrinky dink me back to normal size. I have nothing against big cats, and if Smokey, my fat gray brother could see me he'd be running scared, but dainty comes off as cute much more than ferocious warrior, don't you think?>
With gentle but firm hands Hayder's twin stationed Abedah on a low stool below Hayder and Angelus, her useless bruised and broken hands tied together.
"Who are you and what is your mission?" Hayder asked.
Abedah spat in his face.
"Now that wasn't very nice, was it? Here I am, trying to have a friendly conversation with you, and you treat me like I'm repulsive. Why don't we try this again, shall we? Who are you and what is your mission?"
"I am the queen of an empire, and I've come to make you my subjects," she lied. Though it wasn't completely a lie. Before being pulled into Limbo, she was the queen of her own little tech empire at the battle school. And as the programmer of the Mind Game, she had been able to subject the characters to her will, at least those she knew about.
"You'll see I'm not a hard person to get along with, unless you make it hard." The twin squeezed her broken hand, which caused Abedah to scream in agony. Tears came to her eyes unbidden. "Since these questions seem to be too hard for you, let's try something a little simpler." Hayder pulled out the glass orbs from Abedah's belt that he now had in his possession. "What do you make of these?" He dropped one on the floor, and it rolled across the deck. "Now that doesn't seem to be a natural thing for glass to do, does it?"
Abedah shook her head. "I was just trying to figure out what these powders were for this morning, and that's what came out."
"Just trying to figure thing out, huh? So this belt doesn't belong to you? Who does it belong to?"
"It's mine, but I don't know what's in it."
"Do you realize how unlikely that sounds? Either you really are the imbecile you pretend to be, which I highly doubt, or you enjoy pain so much that you continue to be uncooperative." The twin squeezed her hand again, causing her eyes to fill with water, but she didn't yell this time.
"I'm telling you the truth. I came here yesterday, I don't know why, and all I really want to do is get back to my desk and get back to my work."
"Now that's very interesting. Tell me, what kind of work do you do?"
Abedah didn't know how to answer. How could she explain that she was a computer programmer to someone who probably had never even heard of a computer; and then how would she be able to explain her relationship to the Mind Game?
Hayder waited. "Well? This isn't a difficult question. Surely you know who you were before your trip."
If she said she worked for the military, she'd probably be tortured even further. "I'm a teacher. My students are all very gifted, and I would very much like to get back to them." Her first assignment at battle school was teaching, though it had been several decades before she had actually done any.
Angelus recoiled at the sight of Abedah, and she immediately felt her heart drop in her chest. Her hands were bruised and broken, and it was clear that she was in immense pain. She didn't deserve it, she had just been an innocent bystander caught up in the madness that the other adventurers brought on themselves. She didn't deserve to suffer. Now it seemed that suffering was all she was going to do for a long time. Hayder, in the meantime, seemed to feel no sympathy for the poor woman, instead proceeding to question her as if they were simply having a pleasant dinner conversation while his twin waited to force Abedah to give him the answers he wanted. "Who are you and what is your mission?" He asked, an edge to his voice. Abedah did not answer, instead she spat in his face. Angelus cringed, afraid at what would come next, but to her surprise Hayder did not retaliate. "Now that wasn't very nice, was it?" He asked, "Here I am, trying to have a friendly conversation with you, and you treat me like I'm repulsive. Why don't we try this again, shall we? Who are you and what is your mission?" She continued to glare at him in defiance. Angelus wanted to stop her, to say something to make her understand how pointless it was trying to argue with Hayder, but she couldn't say anything, and she temporarily forgot about her psychic abilities. "I am the queen of an empire," Abedah answered, remaining defiant, "And I have come to make you my subjects." 'No,' Angelus thought, her mind begging for her to cry out, 'No, Abedah, stop! Please! You're wrong, you don't have any power here, at least not now. This will only end badly for you, please, stop!' Of all of the times to be arrogant, Abedah had picked the worst one. And now, Angelus knew, she was going to learn how powerless she really was in this realm. "You'll see I'm not a hard person to get along with," Hayder said, malice showing in his eyes as he finished the statement, "Unless you make it hard." His twin squeezed one of Abedah's mangled hands, and the woman cried out in pain, tears springing to her eyes. Angelus gasped at the sight, and as soon as the sound escaped her mouth she placed a hand over her lips, as if afraid the interruption would lead to her own torture. She felt a lump starting to rise in her throat,and realized that she genuinely wanted to help the woman, but what could she possibly do? Hayder seemed frustrated with the woman, but unaffected by the intense pain he was causing her. Angelus wondered how he could be so callous. Then she remembered that he was not exactly the most noble soul in the realms. "Since these questions seem to be too hard for you, let's try something a little simpler," Hayder said, lifting several of the glass orbs from Abedah's belt. Angelus' heart skipped a beat at the sight, her mind desperately starting to draw together a plan. If she could just get her hands on those orbs... "What do you make of these?" Hayder asked, dropping one to the floor and watching it roll away, "Now that doesn't seem like a natural thing for glass to do, does it?" For a moment, Angelus thought about going after the little orb, about charging it with plasma and tearing this part of the ship apart. But she resisted the temptation, after all, Hayder was very fast, and he could easily stop her before she could get the orb. Or he may be able to make another double to react to her, or he could have some way to counter the blow, there were too many variables. Angelus closed her eyes, taking a deep breath. This was not the time to be rash. If she was going to escape it would be through careful planning, not recklessness. She opened her eyes, finding that the grim scene had not changed, and that Abedah still sat,pain visible on her face, being forced to answer Hayder's question. Angelus felt the lump in her throat rise slightly. As she watched, Abedah shook her head slowly. "I was just trying to figure out what the powders were for this morning, and that's what came out," She said, her defiance seeming to have disappeared. 'Good,' Angelus thought, 'Cooperate. There'll be time to fight back another time, or perhaps we can get through this whole thing without any fighting.' She knew that was not going to happen. The pirates had captured and beaten the true ones, there was little chance they would want to cooperate with them, no matter how agreeable the terms. "Just trying to figure things out, huh?" Hayder continued, "So this belt doesn't belong to you? Who does it belong to?" Abedah seemed to hesitate for a moment. Angelus knew why. Her answer sounded ridiculous. "It's mine, but I don't know what's in it," She said. Hayder did not seem impressed by this answer. "Do you realize how unlikely that sounds?" He asked, "Either you really are the imbecile you pretend to be, which I highly doubt, or you enjoy pain so much that you continue to be uncooperative." The twin squeezed her hand again, and tears once again came to her eyes, and while she didn't cry out, Angelus thought she could almost feel her tears. Than she realized why, as she felt a single tear slip down her own face. She placed a hand over her mouth, trying to avoid drawing attention to herself. She couldn't let anyone see how much this was affecting her, but at the same time she couldn't fight her own emotions. "I'm telling you the truth," Abedah said, the fight seemingly completely out of her, "I came here yesterday, I don't know why, and all I really want to do is get back to my desk and get back to my work." Angelus nodded, knowing this was all true, but she knew that Hayder would not be satisfied with this answer. "Now that's very interesting," Hayder continued, "Tell me, what kind of work do you do?" Abedah did not answer immediately, and as Angelus watched the Twin considered squeezing her hand again. Angelus was about to try to intervene, when Hayder reiterated the question. "Well?" He said, "This isn't a difficult question. Surely you know who you were before your trip." Abedah was probably in so much pain she was lucky to remember who she was in the present, Angelus thought. The little angel was relieved to find that Abedah was smart enough to avoid mentioning her connection to the military. "I'm a teacher. My students are all very gifted and I would very much like to get back to them." Angelus knew this statement was not entirely true, but she also knew that she didn't want to see Abedah suffer. She knew she had little reason to care what happened to this woman, after all, they'd only known each other for a day, but she knew that she was innocent, and she could not help but feel sympathy for her being treated so unjustly. She also felt sick, and like she wanted to cry, and she wanted to do neither of these things in front of Hayder. They may have an agreement,but she didn't want to appear weak before him. He could believe he had control over her if he liked, but Angelus refused to give him proof that he could manipulate her. "She's telling the truth,"The little angel said, trying to keep her voice from shaking with only moderate success, "She's just a lost traveler. We found her in the woods and decided to help her find her way.She had little memory of her time in Limbo before we found her. I can tell you whether anything she says is true or false, but please..." She stopped, swallowing the tears that fought to escape her eyes. "Stop torturing her," The little angel finished, realizing that she had revealed her weakness despite her best efforts.
Running water poured its way down the drain, only to be cleansed by the filtration and pumped right back into the reservoir. Dirty hands and arms were scrubbed clean, and then those hands brought water up to a sweat-drenched face. Staring blankly into the mirror, hazel eyes focused their rage on the image in the glass.
They're onto me.
No matter what Alex had told himself over the years, he'd never grown fully comfortable as a captain. He didn't mind leading, exactly, but he'd always preferred being the lone rogue, watching out for himself and not having to deal with the politics of it all. Especially the politics here, on a pirate vessel, where there was no such thing as resignation, and the only way that you rose up in the ranks was by taking your position from the man who held it before you. By coercion, or just plain force.
Grabbing up a towel, Alex patted his face, walking quietly over to his weapons-wall.
The previous Captain had never focused his efforts on hand-to-hand combat. To Alex, however, personal protection was absolutely everything. Far too often he'd seen others injured, maimed, or even decapitated by not being aware of their surroundings, not being aware of the dangers that were right there in front of their faces. The captain had spent the past three years focusing his efforts on becoming the most able combatant he could, and the rewards had paid off significantly. Be the weapon cutlass, rapier, longsword or dagger, he considered himself able to take any man of his crew.
Of course, that didn't give him license to stop practicing.
As he hung his personal rapier there on the wall, he stopped for a moment, and ran his finger along the blade. Sharp as a razor... It was a beautiful sight. A pristine blade, made by a smith named Mohanri, of the apocalyptic Rain City. Of all the realms that Alex would have thought unable to produce quality weapons, it would have been Rain City. A dreary, post-nuclear wasteland with naught but a single ruined city for hundreds of miles. But yet, there in the midst of the warring factions stood a smith of unbelievable skill. A craftsman able to shape steel as if it simply obeyed his will. He'd called the technique "Cadmi," but Alex had yet to find another smith who could duplicate the strength of his rapier while keeping its weight light and balanced.
It was good that he'd been able to secure a contract with the smith for exclusive other-realm trading. Beat the Punisky Boys out of their own game before they even had a chance to find the place. Both Alex and Hayder had had a good laugh over that one that night.
Time to get going.
Alex quickly started to get himself dressed, donning his brown pants, boots and vest over his white tunic, his royal blue sash tied securely over his belt, and his black embroidered coat topping off the ensemble. The coat, of course, was a symbol. Alex had long ago given up the wearing of the captain's hat, and instead had taken to wearing his coat as often as possible. The embroidered silver hawk emblazoned across the back showed the others that he was not afraid to flaunt his position, but yet was understated enough to avoid attracting too much attention. With a crew of relative scumbags, such a distinction was very important.
As captain, Alex had set up some rather lucrative contracts with numerous ports and civilizations, the availability of inter-realm transport significantly increasing the available market for unusual and rare goods. What one realm may find common, another would not, and as such, Alex and his crew usually made off like bandits. Even now, Alex knew that his second ship was off in Imperial City on a very specific assignment.
The raid should be over now.
This latest contract had been for the capture of females, of all things. But more specifically, Alex had contracted with the Zionese government for a group of individuals called "Guardians," telepathic creatures from a realm called "Terra Di." Apparently, the Zionese used such creatures as communicators, transmitting messages impressive distances almost instantly; a clear advantage in the medieval world of Illusionia.
Alex, himself, knew that his small fleet was equipped exclusively with quantum entanglement communicators, but he'd wisely avoided trying to explain the benefits of QEC to the Zionese... They wouldn't have understood it anyway. With them, everything was always about magic, and mystics, and rare relics and artifacts. Alex often rolled his eyes when they received their lavish compensations... They valued magic over just about everything else, and that just didn't make a lot of sense. Though this ship, technically, was powered by mystical energy, it was still a machine. It utilized that energy as a power source, which wasn't enough to make Alex worship it. That made as much sense as worshipping the sun.
Normally, Alex would have been there on the ground with the rest of his crew, but Drexel had mentioned that the port drives were having latency issues, and Alex figured that if it was something important enough for Drexel to bring to him, then he should probably take a look. He'd quickly made his way to the port side, indicating to Hayder that he'd catch up in a moment. The obvious disappointment in the first-mate's eyes was a little unsettling, but Alex had grown accustomed to such feelings when dealing with Hayder.
To call Hayder a snake would be an affront to the slithering creatures themselves. Hayder possessed the uncanny ability to make you see only what you wanted to see, and as such, made Alex unusually wary. He'd heard whispers throughout the ship, often, of sailors looking to take over as captain of the ship. But there was a hierarchy here, and the only one who would be in position to take command would be Hayder himself.
Alex had known for months that his first-mate was looking to elevate himself. He'd even brought the subject up over one of their weekly chess games, but Hayder had vehemently denied such an aspiration. But it was his eyes... His eyes had told Alex otherwise. He'd seen such eyes before. In the eyes of mercenaries, in the eyes of demi-gods, in the eyes of those who were thirsty for power, a greed that would not be sated until it had achieved its goals.
The captain would have to be careful.
Small zips of sound began to echo their way through the corridors, and Alex knew that the crew was returning. From the shouts of annoyance, pain, and anger, Alex guessed that the raid had been successful, with some new... "valuables" brought on board. Though Alex wasn't much for human cargo, a job was a job, and if he didn't keep this unorthodox enterprise afloat, his crew would make sure that there was hell to pay.
Alex lifted his rapier from the wall, and turned, intending to slip the weapon into the holster on his belt. But as he did so, his first-mate sauntered right into the room, acting as if he owned the place. Of course, Hayder and he were friends, at least on the surface, but this lack of protocol was highly unusual, especially for someone as well-bred as Hayder.
“I’m home,” said the blue-haired man, with an almost exuberant amount of relief. The Zionese didn't even notice Alex standing there until the captain spoke up.
“Home?” Asked Alex quickly, the small smirk evident on his lips. The first-mate turned, obviously surprised that Alex was here, for some odd reason.
“Sir?” Said Hayder quickly. His shock at seeing the captain was very brief, as his expression quickly turned to one of candor. But yet, Alex had seen the shock, and knew that there was something wrong. He wasn't quite sure yet, what it was, but it was there all the same, and it would merit investigation.
"How did we fare?" Asked Alex quickly. "Was the Guardian there? Anything else of worth?"