They're quite wrong in thinking there are an infinite number of parallel universes. An ungodly number, yes, but finite all the same. If they were numerically limitless, there would be no current upon which the Zeppelin could sail. Outside of Everything, the Zeppelin glided across Nothing, reflecting the luminance of passing Creations--parallel worlds. Once beautiful and bewitching, after weeks abroad, peering through Nothing at others in their respective, native universes left Noon feeling single at a couple's retreat. There couldn't be an infinite number of parallel universes, because if there were, Noon could sail endlessly and never breach the shores of Heaven, or Utopia, or as Noon called it: "Home". The voyage was made all the more difficult by not knowing specifically where he was going or what he was looking for, so I suppose it didn't matter which way he went.
Soap suds seeped onto white, marble floors, followed with scarlet traces. His eardrums ached with the echo of his scream inside the lavatory, with it's six stalls, urinals, white, marble sinks and a grand, stretching mirror. Eyes transfixed on hands scrubbing, vigorously. They burned. They bled.
He grasped for soft, white towels that stung to his touch. He dabbed his guilt, until every white thread bled back. He groaned. Existence is quicksand for which no man can escape.
Raw hands patted pockets for cigarettes and a lighter. Noon slid the cigarette between his lips and stepped backwards into the stall, resting on the porcelain throne. His thumb pressed the gizmo, sparking new life, igniting fire. Not since his last cigarette, could Noon breathe. Shoulders eased, his back loosened, his eyes followed his gust. The smokestack slithered and dispersed.
His right arm slung at his side, with his left hand resting on his chest, rising and falling with his breathing.
"Guacamole. I reeaalllyyy want... guacamole."
Tick, tick, tick, tick, tick--
The watch went unnoticed at first. Rather, it was the ratcheting, clanging, and ticketing gears of the dropping anchor that jolted Noon from his mid-Nothing smoke. His heart plummeted like his anchor. It slithered and snaked its way from the Zeppelin, before clamoring with tree canopy that sprouted from the world below.
Tick, tick, tick, tick, tick.
Goggles fastened over his eyes, robed in his gray trench coat, feet fastened inside his boots, pistol in a shoulder holster underneath his coat, flask inside his breast pocket, and raw hands gloved, Noon prepared himself for the world outside his Zeppelin. Passing a mirror in the bar area, he stopped for a few minutes, stepping away, then returning seconds later to make minor adjustment to his person, or reassuring himself of his appearance.
Noon buttoned his trench coat, and goggled his eyes. His gloves covered his worn hands and tied the laces of his boots. A pistol rested in his shoulder holster, with a flask situated in his breast pocket. He grasped the anchor's chain from "The Porch" and worked his way down the thick, steel ladder, dipping beneath forest canopy.
The massive ship soared through the sky with a soft humming sound, as the motor roared lively and the clouds parted. Captured in the deep dungeon-like hold of the ship, a single light bulb swung back and forth from the ceiling casting shadows on each of the cells. With the casting of the light, an injured Fenris appeared, and she was fatigued from the previous onslaught of battle as her injuries weakened her with every passing minute. Then, as the light shifted with the turning of the ship, Fenris fell in the shadows, and a restrained Najm appeared with a pirate hauling her into a cell adjacent from Arem. She began to hurl a slew of profanities as the pirate teased her with the keys, like a ball of yarn with a cat. As he walked away, she fell to the floor of her cell…then the light moved.
The gauntlet had been thrown down, the duel of eyes had commenced. Arem unblinkingly stared into the pirate’s expressionless green eyes. He returned his gaze, increasing the crushing force with his boot on Arem’s hand. Arem was not letting go of the earpiece because it was the only connection he still had to Illusionia. Allowing a foreign passerby to gain possession of it would create the official brick wall, parting him from his home. He never intended for this to happen, especially to Dougie. He really only tried to abate the growing nostalgia within him for his family, but in life, things that seemed so simple always became complicated, and being captured by pirates with a ship in the sky was pretty complicated.
There was turbulence and the light bulb flickered off for a moment, and then popped back to life. The pirate used this as leverage to quickly bend down, grab Arem’s hand, and roughly throw it off of the small device. He picked it up from the planks, and closely examined it, turning it each and every way. The mechanism disappeared inside of his closed fist, as he looked up to Arem. Dougie sat there puzzled at the great loss that Arem had taken. The duel was over. The green-eyed pirate was victorious.
“Staja avo?” The pirate asked suddenly.
Arem and Dougie exchanged quick glances after hearing the strange language…lost in translation.
“Staja avo?! Nasta oda Imperial City, eh?” he continued.
Arem parted his lips to allay the pirate’s persistence in speaking to them in a foreign tongue, but what was there to say? He could not respond to something that he was not able to understand. All that Arem knew of the language was Imperial City, and he was not sure where this “city” was located.
The pirate exhaled. “Odaklisi? Jesli oda Imperial City?”
The horse was bolting across the outskirts of Elderin. A waft of smoke issued from his mouth as he panted. Clouds of dust swirled up into the sky as his hooves struck the ground. It struck several of rocks and created sparks, which lightened the darkness of the early dawn. The crest of his neck rose and descended rhythmically as he ran faster and faster. His knees arching, his cannon stained with the mud of the earth. A powerful beast.
Isabella raced the sun with her brown stallion, Ace, to the Great Red Desert of Kopul-Vul. She rode like a huntress stalking its prey; one of her arms held straight back, while the other tightly grasped the reins. The red fabric of her dress flowed behind her, revealing her sleek mahogany legs to the knee. Two creations. One a ruler of a creature not possessing intellect, the other, a slave. A dutiful beauty.
As she rode her stallion, Isabella looked in front of her on a blind mission. The horse was her eyes for she did not see anything in sight. The thoughts of the fire, long ago, held her captive. The dancing embers licked at the house and lashed his body. Its orange and yellow hues pervaded throughout the land at the hands of a ruthless outlaw. She could see it, the awful memory coming back to her as she flew across Elderin.
She grabbed the reins and pulled back roughly. Ace quickly halted and threw his strong front legs into the air. Isabella tightened her grip with her thighs on to the horse’s back lest she fell to the ground, and darted her blue orbs to the entrance of Elderin. He was buried there.
What was it that brought back this flood of emotions or this attraction to her old memories? They were forgotten, and she believed she buried it with him, but after Tao rode off to the Eastlands, the memories came back to her. Perhaps, it was the overprotectiveness of Arem that sparked these unwanted past memories. After Tao had set off, she had the great urge to see if Arem was safe in Limbo. She knew what was between them burned out, but the wax candle of their love remained within her, and because of what occurred so long ago in Elderin, the instinct of protection often rose in her. She could not help it.
She tapped Ace on his rear and changed her course into Elderin. She had to visit him, and that drawing feeling took precedence over her feelings for Arem, for he was alive and what was in Elderin lay deep within the earth.
The graveyard in Elderin was enormous. From the royal section to the very section where old poor men and women were laid to rest, the tombstones were leveled to the earth; a tradition of her people. She dismounted her horse and walked among the dead, her steps smooth and humble. She never forgot where they buried him as she saw it in the distance. Walking towards it, she could feel the held back tears slipping from her eyes. She kneeled in front of it and covered her mouth as the emotions overtook her.
It was not a good way to start talking to the dead, but it was a start.
“I didn’t know how to appease father…and-and her. My sisters,” she paused and smiled. “Our sisters did not know and when you were weakened by love, we should have been there to catch you when you fell. Not her. I’m sorry.” She held her head low, allowing her auburn hair to dangle in front of her face.
Isabella whispered. “I’m sorry I came so late…and---“
She stopped. She did not know what more to say but, “I love you.”
Isabella leaned over and kissed the tombstone. As the first light of dawn finally peaked over the horizon, the sun casted its light onto his tombstone, and its cold stone glowed as if he opened his eyes to respond to her. She stood up and sighed.
<So, dawg, that seems to have held them off for a few. Any ideas how to get out of here?> Pounce asked.
Anubis began to reply but suddenly his nose twitched. He huffed, shaking his head. But no, it wasn’t going to be brushed off, he had an incredible urge to sneeze.
He could no longer resist. He sneezed three times in a row before he could stop himself. He struggled against his bonds but his forearms and forelegs were tied together and he could not reach the knots with his teeth. <I don’t know. I have to admit that this is the tightest spot I’ve ever found myself in in a while. And to think, I’m with a cat.>
Pounce was obviously not very concerned about being kidnapped. She also, like most cats, was not paying attention to a thing that was being said to her. <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?>
<Ferocious warrior? Tell me, cat, do you know how to spare? Battle? I’m only asking because I think you’re trying to ask me to agree that you are an oversized cats, and since I have noticed that cats can’t stand to have anyone speak about their weight, I am avoiding the subject. Cats are the most sizest animals I have ever come across, I will not get in the middle of that one.>
While Pounce responded indignantly, Anubis had an idea.
<Pounce! You made me think of something> he said wisely giving her the credit. <If we are too big, why don’t we get smaller? Much, much smaller?>
Anubis closed his eyes and concentrated on shrinking. Slowly his arms and legs got shorter, his head got smaller, and everything from his paws to his nose shrank. He shrank to the size of a three pound puppy and quickly wiggled his way out of his bonds.
<Can you believe this?> he said excitedly as he worked diligently gnawing at the rope that connected to Pounce’s collar. <I mean I get to chew on something and no one is complaining>
"How did we fare?" asked Alex quickly. "Was the Guardian there? Anything else of worth?"
Hayder immediately snapped back into his duties as first mate. His tone was dispassionate and he looked destitute.
He took a deep breath. "Yes, the guardian is on board. At first I feared she was Pamuyan, but her telepathic abilities are superb. I had her agree to join our crew with the promise of taking her someplace later. I also moved her companion, a wolfish woman, into the guest quarters and issued her a doctor. She did not attempt to negotiate for anything further. She obviously does not need money, then, but we must not let her forget that we are her only way of getting to her destination and the fate of her travel partner. Fortunately, she has not been a problem yet. I don't have to tell you what this means for our trading prospects. As for the others, there's an Eastlander female that seems to be completely scattered and claims to be the queen of some empire. There are two enchanted animals a wolf that can enlarge itself and a large feline. There are two men from Elderin, one old and one young. We have also apprehended a dark haired female from Elderin. She seems quite deadly so she has been confined by herself. I have heard wind that we have a Khalian or Zionese female in The Hole. I will attend to her personally. Would you like me to escort any of them in, sir?"
He had gone back into automaton mode, whizzing off this list in quiet clipped tones. His voice was cold and his hands were trembling in frustration.
A fascinating if misunderstood race of people. There were so many different types of Eastlanders, the area was so wide and vast. But the one thing that they all had in common was the penchant for misdirection. The lands weren’t unchartered for no reason. The Uncharted Eastlands and Khalian Republic had that much in common. They liked to keep their secrets.
Secrets were one thing. Secrets he did not mind, but Hayder hated when people lied to him. Especially when the lies were so obvious. It was perhaps one of the most irritating and rude things one person could do to another. He thought the telepath would at least understand that, having had to listen to the inconsistent slipstream of verbal lies betraying the truth in the liar’s conscious. Currently she seemed to be in the corner, have cringing, half impassive.
Hayder took a break to assess his situation. He studied the young captive’s hands. It looked as if a few of her bones were broken because her hands were cone-shaped. If she let it heel that way she would never be able to pick up anything or open doors again in her life. She would be totally dependant on someone else her entire life. Hayder could not imagine it. Not being able to hold a sword, a chess piece, or a woman. No. Unthinkable.
"I'm a teacher,” she said, “My students are all very gifted and I would very much like to get back to them."
Abedah was a pretty girl. Her thick black hair was a bird’s nest on top of her head. She had skin like golden coral and her dark narrow eyes were hidden behind eyelashes wet from crying. Still, he could see that she would be quite lovely in another setting. She sat before him practically shivering in pain and yet she still had decided her best defense was to lie. Perhaps she did not know that he could tear her beautiful hair out one strand at a time. But, of course, he wouldn’t. He hated to see a woman suffer, even if that woman was his enemy, but he had found through years aboard this vessel that asking nicely was not something captives understood. They always had to be focused on some pain or tragedy to give the information they could have so much more easily stated straight out. Instead, it seemed they preferred these little torture scenes and if it was a performance they wanted, then Hayder was obliged to indulge the fantasy.
His projection reached down to grab her hand once more.
"She's telling the truth.”
Both of him turned and looked at Angelus.
“She's just a lost traveler.”
“Where is she from then?” he asked.
“We found her in the woods and decided to help her find her way.”
“Why didn’t she simply say that?” Hayder said annoyed.
“She had little memory of her time in Limbo before we found her.”
“She is making outrageous lies then. Saying that she is the queen of an empire. Perhaps you all do not know, but the Eastlands are going through a political upheaval. Lying about a thing like that could get a hefty ransom placed on you, and if I had to find out it was untrue from some other source, it could also get you a cell in the bottom of this ship for the rest of your natural life. I cannot illustrate how one lie from your lips can affect the course of your life,” he had no raised his voice, but there was a tone of irritation. This was not an implied threat, he was very serious.
“I can tell you whether anything she says is true or false, but please...” Angelus waivered, “stop torturing her."
Hayder could sense she was deeply troubled by what she was seeing. But perhaps that was because she was a guardian and in Zion the understanding of guardians was that they were mostly moral beings. This must be strange and frightening to her. But Hayder lived in the real world. He had seen much darkness and despair and had met and dealt in it freely.
“Darling, I do not know if you fully understand your position here. To be perfectly clear, let me clarify your role.” The strange darkness that was inside of Hayder was curling toward the surface. He suppressed it. “You may never give me, your first mate, any order. If I seek your counsel and find it pleasing, I may alter my course of action, but you are and never will be in any position to direct me to do or not do anything. I hope that is perfectly clear, because I would hate for you to forget yourself. You are a member of this ship, no longer a guest, and so you must follow protocol.” There was a hidden undercurrent that there would be consequences for not doing so. But Hayder did not want to terrify Angelus. Though he knew she was not a child, she appeared to be one, and Hayder remembered the terrors that he had faced at that age and would not wish them on anyone.
In his civil, breezy way he switched gears. “I can torture whomever I like, but torturing women is not very high on my list of priorities for today, I’m afraid. Though I would like to not harm you, Abedah, I would like much more for you to be honest with me. Incidentally, you prefer to prattle off little lies,” his mouth tightened, “silly little lies that could put you in peril.”
He crossed over to the part of his room where he had some strange laboratory equipment and his extensive wardrobe. It was a small wing behind a door, closed off from the main part of his chambers. He liked to keep this room locked. For one he did not like anyone messing with his equipment, for two he had seen men wearing his clothes once or twice on the ship. Of course they were beaten to within an inch of their lives, but his clothes were quite expensive and special to him. Searching through a group of highly organized shelves he came to a neatly labeled jar. While he was gone Abedah and Angelus were alone.
He returned with a jar that housed a red gel-like substance. “It's Akeso,” he said holding it up. “So I had time to think about your suggestion, Angelus. If you don’t like torture scenes then you will tell me what is true about all the captives. I will not have to harm them and I will get the answers that I need. Otherwise, you are dismissed to your quarters and I will find answers my own way.”
Hayder took the salve and grabbed Abedah’s wrist after she recoiled the first time he tried to touch her. He shook his head slightly and put the gel on her hand. Her hand radiated heat at first, a heat that would quickly spread through her body accelerating its natural tendency to heal itself. It was a draining process, but it was a magic that was used to repair things that were broken. It could reorganize just about anything, really, but it had to be controlled to be effective. As her body patched her hand, he pulled each of her fingers flat so that they would form back correctly. There was no use healing a hand that would be perfectly sound, but completely misshapen. He started again on her other hand. This time Abedah did not fight him; rather she stared at him strangely. He could not tell what the look on her face meant. Anger, frustration, gratitude. He had not broken her hands, after all, and he certainly was not obligated to fix them, but Angelus had been right. There was no need to torture her. She knew nothing.
Or did she?
“What is the purpose of those animals that were brought in? Tell me everything you know about the women in your party.” She must know by now that if he pulled her hand wrong she would never use it again.
For a moment, Angelus felt a minor flash of rebellion within her. She could not tell what had caused the feeling, perhaps her dislike of Hayder as a person, or a little of Fenris rubbing off on her, or her own pride as a Guardian, but she felt like reminding the pirate before her that she was still capable of effortlessly killing him with a bolt of plasma if she wanted. But she knew that this might not be true, she still didn't know what he was fully capable of, or if she was dealing with the real Hayder, and he still held the trump card. As long as Fenris was on this ship and injured Angelus was incapable of lifting a finger against Hayder. So she bit her tongue. Still, Hayder had eventually decided to play by her rules, something she silently agreed to. She may not like the fact that he was currently holding the fate of Abedah's hands as a bargaining chip, but it was still better than leaving the woman in intense pain. <Abedah> She said, finding the distressed woman's mind and thinking into it, <Play along for now, and keep your lies light. If you don't say anything obviously false I can tell him you're telling the truth.> As these thoughts reached her she detected another mind on the ship, one that seemed to be surprised by it's change of circumstance. She smiled slightly. 'Welcome back, Fen.' *** Fenris was getting tired of closing her eyes in one place and opening them in another. When she had last closed her eyes, she had been in a cell, clutching the wound in her chest in pain. When she awoke, she was flat on her back in a well lit room, the top of a bedframe visible over her head. She blinked twice, confused, and lifted herself up slowly. She was in a plain room, she found, with wood paneled walls and a wardrobe, as well as a small chair near a small window. She was in a bed, and while she had fallen asleep in her blood-soaked clothing, she woke up to find her shirt missing, with only several bandages covering the upper half of her body. A thrill of rage and embarrassment shot through her, and she considered hunting down whoever had done this and so that she could quickly end their miserable existence, but then she noted that the bandages had been applied skillfully, and that by all appearances the one who had treated her was a simple doctor, and nothing more. Still, if she discovered that he had done anything besides treating her wounds while she was unconscious, she'd quickly teach him what it felt like to have a sword pierce his temple. She slowly lifted herself from the bed and walked to the wardrobe, finding it fully stocked with shabby clothes. She quickly threw on a loose cloth shirt and a leather vest and examined the rest of the things that waited within the wardrobe. Most of it was full of simple things, extra pairs of boots, bottles of rum, a few small, hidden trinkets, but nothing of value, but in the back, leaning against the thin wooden backboard, was a prize. She pulled it to the light, freeing it from it's sheath and examining it as it glistened in the sun. It was a rapier, it's blade thin and sharp, it's handle made of copper, baring a glaring wolf's head. "Fitting," She said quietly to herself. The blade itself was inelegant for it's type, it was strangely top heavy in weight, and the warrior could already tell that this facet would make it difficult to use properly in battle. Likewise, the shape of the guard made it difficult to properly grip the sword, but she would not complain, as any weapon was better than none at all, and her Vorpal sword had been taken from her while she had been unconscious. For a moment, she thought about fighting through the ship to get it back, but as she took a tentative swing with her new weapon she felt a rush of pain from her chest, and fell quickly to one knee. She was still too hurt to fight,so she would have to do things the old fashioned way. For now she would have to study her foe. When the time came, she'd find a way to strike them down. As she decided this, she realized that while she was in the room, there was no sign of the little angel she had been captured with. She frowned, surprised to find that she was actually a little worried about her. Yes, Angelus could be annoying in her commentary, and, yes, she was prone to saying and doing the wrong thing at the wrong time, but Fenris had discovered that she was starting to grow fond of the little being that had apparently been just out of her sight her entire life, and she felt that she should find out what had happened to the little thing. With that in mind, she secured the rapier to her belt and left the room under the assumption that she was no longer a prisoner. If she was correct, she would hopefully be able to find Angelus,and perhaps the others as well. If she was wrong, well, she'd have to speed up her escape plans somehow.
<Ferocious warrior? Tell me, cat, do you know how to spare? Battle? I’m only asking because I think you’re trying to ask me to agree that you are an oversized cats, and since I have noticed that cats can’t stand to have anyone speak about their weight, I am avoiding the subject. Cats are the most sizest animals I have ever come across, I will not get in the middle of that one.>
Who on earth ever said dogs were more intelligent than cats? Pounce thought to herself. Can't the dog tell I wasn't even talking about weight? Good grief. Pounce was annoyed, both at being tied up like a dog, and at the dog's inability to communicate. But she had to be nice, since they were both stuck in the same situation.
<I spar quite often, nearly every day, I'll have you know. If these pirates had approached instead of appearing, there wouldn't be one left standing.>
<Pounce! You made me think of something.>
<Glad I could help, dawg.>
<If we are too big, why don’t we get smaller? Much, much smaller?>
<It would be nice, but Papa Mike didn't make me a shape-shifter like Sway made you.>
But since Anubis could change his size, he did just that and was able to slide out of the now too big bonds as if they were playthings. He made short work of Pounce's bonds, and she quickly slid the leather coverings off her paws. Taking a full bath to make herself presentable would take hours in this condition, but she had to lick down a couple spots that had been annoying her the most. She noticed some of Anubis' wounds, and licked a couple of those as well, partly because she had a mothering instinct and partly out of appreciation for getting out of those awful binds.
<You’re on cat. Now what?>
Pounce looked around and saw two problems. She ran over to the ropes that had been tying Anubis and began shredding them. <Keep 'em guessing, ya know?>
Second, they needed to get out of the cell. Fortunately, cat claws make pretty good lock picks on those older style tumblers. It took her a few minutes because she had to angle her paws in a way they weren't really designed to move; but with a satisfying click, the door swung free.
The two animals stepped into the corridor and looked around. <I think someone's coming, but we have time to get one more door open. Who do we help?> Pounce asked.
She wasn't lying. She wasn't telling the whole truth, but the whole truth would sound so unbelievable, Abedah was sure she would suffer far worse for it. When Hayder went into his room, she asked Angelus, "Please, you have to help me out of this. I don't even know what he wants."
Angelus just shook her head, trying to communicate by thought. <Abedah> She said, finding the distressed woman's mind and thinking into it, <Play along for now, and keep your lies light. If you don't say anything obviously false I can tell him you're telling the truth.> Abedah couldn't quite hear the words, but she caught the general idea. Hayder came back with a jar of red gel. Was it poison? He took her hands. No, please, not the hands again. She tensed and tried to pull away, but his gentle touch was too strong for her. He didn't explain what he was doing, but the salve was warm, not burning, and make her feel less in pain and extremely tired. She didn't understand what he was doing, and looked at him with curiosity. Perhaps if she could see into his eyes, she might understand a little about his motives. She was getting so sleepy from the effects of the stress and the salve.
“What is the purpose of those animals that were brought in? Tell me everything you know about the women in your party.”
"Animals? What animals?" she asked drowsily. Then she remembered Pounce or Anubis. "I don't know where they came from. The dog showed up last night with, someone...." Her speech was slurring. "...and the cat was sleeping by my head this morning. She's strange, but smart, I think. Half the time I can't understand her at all." Her head bobbed. "The women don't like me, I think. I don't blame them. They all have swords, and big knives, and seem like they can use them. When I tried to help slay the dragon, I just hurt them and ran away. Can I go home now?" Her head bobbed again.
The cat wasn’t as bad as he thought. Even though she liked to be loud and had more self-confidence than a legion of professional wrestlers, she pulled her own weight. He could respect that.
The two animals stepped into the corridor and looked around. <I think someone's coming, but we have time to get one more door open. Who do we help?> Pounce asked.
Anubis was busily sniffing the hallway. There were so many smells here but he could catch the individual odors of each of the people in the party. All but one. No Lox.
<I can’t smell Lox> he said. <I’m bias, so that would be my first choice. I think my second choice would be the person who could most easily help Lox escape and that person would be Fenris> he reasoned. <But the trail has run cold for her and Angelus. I’m not sure whether or not they’d help anyway.>
His tail was no longer wagging and he was still feeling woozy from his wounds. <Let’s be smart about this. Who could we choose?> Then a lightbulb went off in his head. Last night he had curled up at Najm’s feet. She had been so sweet and her clothes smelled like warm spices. His tail wagged again.
<Najm!> he said. <That’s who we pick. She’s an assassin, she has military training, and she’s probably pissed.>
Pounce followed him as he made his way to her cell.
Pounce made short work of the lock but they were both stunned when they walked in to find her… crying?
<Awww!> Nubie said penitently. <She’s sad. We have to make her feel better.> So he did the only thing a dog would do in the situation. He walked up to her and sat, looked in her eyes with that puppy expression, tilted his head, then walked in a circle for a second before sitting directly in her lap, laying his head over her leg and sighing like this had been his destination the entire time.
Pounce was the only one who could talk. He had to rely on body language.
<Ask her how she plans to escape.> Nubie said making himself more comfortable.
Hayder was starting to lose his patience. Then he realized that there would be little point in doing that. In fact, this entire exchange would have gone easier if he had simply lost his patience and thrown them into the bowels of the ship, but because he was trying to press on and do his job with some civility things were more complicated. He was quickly realizing he was in a losing battle with Abedah. Nothing he could do would get any better or more direct answers out of her. The Eastlander was just confused and... well… he couldn’t be sure she was all there.
"Animals? What animals?" she asked drowsily. Hayder was wondering if she was about to drop off to sleep. He had meant to fix her hands, not usher her into slumberland. He had been told he had a nice voice but he had never hypnotized anyone before. "I don't know where they came from. The dog showed up last night with, someone...." he couldn’t catch that last part.
She ignored him. Or rather she was on a dreamy cloud in La La Land. "...and the cat was sleeping by my head this morning. She's strange, but smart, I think. Half the time I can't understand her at all." Her head bobbed.
Hayder’s eyes twitched. Was she… was she really? Was she falling asleep in the chair?
"The women don't like me, I think. I don't blame them. They all have swords, and big knives, and seem like they can use them. When I tried to help slay the dragon, I just hurt them and ran away.” Abedah paused for five seconds with her eyes completely closed. He reached down to touch the top of her head to wake her and she jerked away suddenly. He jumped. “Can I go home now?" Her head bobbed again.
“Uh…” Hayder said articulately. “Is she always like this?” he asked Angelus.
“Sure,” he said breaking his usual manner or urbanity. He was completely confused.
“How about I just send you back to your cell?”
Hayder made an almost imperceptible motion and immediately Orel was there, his face red because he had been told off by not only Dougie, but also Arem. His limp blonde hair hung over his sallow face.
“Okay, come along,” he said taking Abedah’s arm.
When he walked out he did not even have time to register that he was being followed by two animals.
Angelus and Hayder were alone again.
“Your crew is very strange,” he said softly. “I have never seen such an odd compilation of people together at the same time. It must be maddening.” He refilled his glass of brandy and sat in his chair heavily.
What he did not know was that at that very moment Hurricane Najm was tearing through his crew. Her force was so effective that Orel had completely lose Abedah in his attempt to calm the storm.
At that moment there was a knock on the door.
“Sir!” Orel shouted. “This woman escaped her bonds and tried to kill half of the ship.”
"What?" Hayder said. "What of Abedah, then, you just left with her. That wasn't enough time to get her back to her cell."
Orel shook his head frantically. "I don't know where she is!" he shouted. "She's not as big a concern as this Eastlander."
Three men were restraining a dark haired woman. All their clothes were torn up and bruises were visable on their faces. She, on the other hand, was completely unscathed. She could have been on her way to a Sunday picnic if it weren't for the fact that she was flanked by a trio of men who were using every bit of their muscle to prevent her escape.
A slow smile crept on Hayder’s face.
“A shadow assassin,” he said. “Please, show her in.”
They fumbled to bring her into the room, tying her to the chair in short order.
“It gets better and better,” he said more to himself than the angel.
Hayder tried not to be a prejudiced man, but he had never met an Eastlander that he could call a friend. “I know about your kind. I know what you do and how you operate. Lurking. Killing. You’re no better than we are. What is a shadow assassin doing as the captive of sky pirates? Have you completely fallen off of your game? I would have expected better from an Eastlander,” he mused.
Angelus was actually somewhat enjoying watching Hayder lose his cool over time. It was making what had once seemed like an insurmountable foe suddenly seem very underwhelming. She had expected the man to respond well to pressure, but instead he was wilting. He was sort of like Gordon Ramsay, she mused, all polite up front, but absolutely incapable of containing his anger. 'Been watching Kitchen Nightmares again, have we?' She thought to her writer. What Angelus had expected in response was the typical mental backlash she got for mouthing off to her controller. What she got instead was a physical punishment, a slap on the nose. 'Ow, Christ that hurts!' She thought, making an effort to avoid shouting the words as she clutched her nose, 'Now I know why Fenris hates it when I do that.' She made a note to continue doing it, because while she could appreciate that it hurt, it was still pretty funny. When she looked up, she noticed that Hayder was looking at her, having dragged Abedah back to her cell. "Your crew is very strange," He said, "I have never seen such an odd compilation of people together at the same time. It must be maddening.” The angel smiled at this, deciding that it was quite a magnificent set of understatements. "You have no idea," She said, "And sadly I have to say that they aren't mine. They aren't anyone's really. For some reason we never set up a chain of command." That was meant as a joke, but she wondered who they would elect leader if they had decided to make some sort of hierarchy. Probably Kyle, she thought, he seemed to be the most agreeable and skilled of the lot, anyway. She would have elaborated on her 'crew's' insanity, but she suddenly felt quite a bit of psychic noise. Something was going on outside, something that had a lot of people very angry, and very scared. One mind screamed louder than the others, and it's cry was simple. It wanted to kill. Instinctively Angelus assumed it was Fenris, but a quick scan revealed that the warrior was not the source, she was nearby, apparently unsure of whether to join the melee or not. This surprised Angelus, she had rarely known Fenris to be unsure of anything, and she usually jumped at the chance to fight. 'Maybe I am making a difference,' The angel thought silently, although taking away Fenris' will to fight was hardly one of her goals. She shrugged, deciding that she would have to check on her very soon. For now, the whirlwind of thought seemed to have died down, as a knock came at the door. Hayder opened it to find an exhausted crewmate waiting outside for him. Angelus quickly noted that he had been one of the more frightened minds she had heard. 'Wait,' She thought to herself, 'Is he the Smee of the ship?' She looked over Orel, and could hardly hold back a smile. 'He's the Smee,' She thought, 'He is totally the Smee.' She gave a wicked grin for a moment, imagining him trying to calm the invisible captain that she hadn't met as he screamed that he would get revenge on the flying crocodile that stole his hand. The grin disappeared from her face quickly, however, as the man began to speak. "Sir!" The Smee shouted, "This woman escaped her bonds and tried to kill half the ship." Angelus' heart sunk like a stone. This was it. Fenris had been given a second chance and she'd blown it. She'd tried to free herself, she must have. And yet, there was still the matter of that other mind. Angelus reassured herself that this must be the case, someone else had tried to escape, but who? They must have been a woman, but that was most of the party at this point. It couldn't be Abedah, however, and a quick scan confirmed that it wasn't Fenris, so that left only Lox and Najm. Angelus decided that, depending on the punishment for attempted escape, she was rooting for Najm. Unless, of course, the punishment for attempted escape was very, very, very severe, in which case she sort of hoped that not only was it Lox, but that she decided to spit in Hayder's face so that she could 1)Get the enjoyment of seeing Hayder freak out at that and 2)Could get the greater enjoyment of watching Lox sign her own death warrant. Excited by this prospect,Angelus adjusted herself slightly in the air, trying to get a view of the captured woman. Unfortunately Hayder was blocking her view. "What?" Hayder asked, something like anger tinting his words, though the mask was back up so it was hard to tell, "What of Abedah, then, you just left with her. That wasn't enough time to get her back to her cell." The Smee shook his head, looking very Smee-like. Angelus suppressed the urge to giggle, hoping that he would follow up this act by stuttering and producing a pair of absurd glasses that would repeatedly slip down his nose, forcing him to correct them. She also decided that she ought to find a realm with DVD players so she could watch Peter Pan again. She wondered how Fenris would react to the film, though she felt that the warrior would probably smash the player out of anger towards the protagonist. Angelus wouldn't disagree with her there, Peter Pan was kind of a jerk. "I don't know where she is!" The Smee shouted, not stuttering, to Angelus' disappointment, "She's not as big a concern as this Eastlander." As he spoke several men forced a dark haired woman through the door, and Angelus suddenly found herself hoping that the punishment for attempted escape was very light indeed. “A shadow assassin,” Hayder said, a smile creeping onto his face that made Angelus uncomfortable, "Please, show her in." They forced Najm in with much difficulty, and Angelus also noticed that the woman was practically unharmed. She must have given them quite a show. Eventually they managed to tie her to a chair, but she fought each step of the way, and by the time she was secured the men that had restrained her looked absolutely exhausted. “It gets better and better,” Hayder said to himself. He turned to Najm then, launching into another verbal lashing. A friendly, very complimentative verbal lashing, but a verbal lashing none the less. Angelus was starting to suspect that he practiced these. “I know about your kind. I know what you do and how you operate. Lurking. Killing. You’re no better than we are. What is a shadow assassin doing as the captive of sky pirates? Have you completely fallen off of your game? I would have expected better from an Eastlander,” He said. Angelus flinched, wondering if he was about to pay for these words. The mood Najm was in was not one where one wanted to taunt her, and Angelus almost felt like telling Hayder this. Still, she felt that he would learn this quite soon. She also decided that she would help Najm get out of this if she could. She rather liked the woman, she was a fighter, and she refused to back down from what Angelus had seen, but there was something else about her. She was nurturing in a way, gentle, but not soft. She was, in may ways, similar to how the little angel hoped Fenris would be some day. Of course, she also hoped that Fenris would have leadership skills. 'No,' The angel corrected herself, 'The I.F hopes that she'll have leadership skills.' Personally she just hoped that Fenris would end up happy. She had to suppress a laugh at this. Her charges often ended up many things. Happy was rarely one of them. *** Daniel Frey was not prone to bouts of homesickness, but as he stared over the railing of the ship he felt his heart fill with regret. His mind was lost in thoughts of his homeworld, and of the things he had been forced to leave behind there. He could still see the faces of his siblings, stil see the squallor they were forced to live in. He was there only means of survival. And here he was on a stupid pirate ship, more than a world away. 'Guess I let you guys down, huh?' He thought. His reminisence was interrupted however when a voice broke his train of thoughts. "Excuse me," It said, "I was hoping you might help me find a friend of mine." Frey was confused, and as he turned he wondered who could possibly need help finding anyone on his ship, but his heart nearly stopped when he found Fenris staring back at him, her eyebrows narrowed, a confident smile on her lips. He had hoped to play it smooth the next time he saw her, so that she wouldn't think the headbutt had gotten to him. Instead he said this: "Ohgodpleasenotanotherheadbutt!" Fenris stared at him, utterly confused. "Excuse me?" She said. He quickly composed himself, although once again he did not do so smoothly, having to take several deep breaths to accomplish this. "Sorry," He said, "Um, why exactly are you on the...?" He stopped, taking a moment to note her dress. His heart sank. "They actually made you part of the crew?" He asked. Fenris shrugged. She hadn't been briefed on the situation. He was about to comment on how he was not a fan of this decision when they noticed a loud ruckus being raised further down the deck. At first Daniel assumed it was one of the many fights that were common on the ship, but there was something different. The playful, rowdy nature of the men was gone, replaced with sheer panic. As he reached the scene Daniel had to take a moment to even find the attacker, but eventually he caught a glimpse of them, flowing like water as they easily tore through the crew. He would not join this fight, he decided. Whoever this attacker was, they were good, and he knew that if he tried to fight them he would die. They flowed when they were open, and they sank into shadow as quickly as they appeared. They were beyond the skills of a simple thief, and he wondered if they were really on the same skill level as anyone he had ever met. He quickly turned to leave, but noticed Fenris observing the scene, considering joining the fray. He wondered which side she would attempt to fight for. Either way, it didn't matter. "Don't even think about it," He said, catching her in the eye, "You fight them, you die, you fight us, and you end up back in a cell." "I can escape," The warrior hissed. Daniel stared at her as if he had never seen anything like her before. "Escape!?" He cried, "Escape to where, exactly?" He pointed to the surrounding skyline. "We're in the middle of the bloody sky," He pointed out, "The only place to escape to is a quick death." The warrior considered this, and noticing the truth in his words, took her hand from her blade. "So what should I do?" The warrior asked. He shook his head, smiling as behind him the woman who had been attempting to escape was captured. "Stick with me," He said, "And we'll find some way off of this heap at the next port." Fenris frowned, uncertain of this new alliance. "You don't seem to be particularly good at escaping," She pointed out, "Otherwise, why would you still be here." He smiled, tilting his head slightly. "Just because I haven't escaped doesn't mean I can't," He said, "It just means I've started to figure out a whole bunch of ways to not go about doing it." He had meant this as a joke, but it was true, he had built up quite a list of ways to not escape a pirate ship. Hopefully with Fenris' help he'd be able to add to his list of ways to actually manage it.
The steel hatch was covered with a thin film of sand, camouflaging in the vast dunes of the desert. Isabella tied the reins of her stallion to the golden flower bush near the flowing stream, walked a few steps toward the mouth of the facility, and kneeled down. Grasping a small crumbled paper, she opened the parchment and read the characters that snaked across. She had ‘borrowed’ it from Arem’s home, and intended to return it, knowing that he would not be upset with her actions. After all, it was for him.
Isabella glanced at the horse, uneasy about the task before her, and opened the hatch. In the spacious desert grave, she could hear shouts coming from deep within. The bells of her golden anklets let off a subdued jingle as she began walking down the steep stairs. Her heart was thumping beneath her bosom as she went down further and further. It was like sinking into the deep sea and discovering the sunken island of Atlantis.
She looked up back at the hatch door and noticed she had left it open. Perhaps it was better that way just in case she had to make a quick getaway. Did Arem really come here? She had forgotten how brave and determined he was. Those were traits she adored in him.
The loud voice that came from a back room had stopped. With that, she was frozen in place, afraid that perhaps he figured she intruded upon his home. She wanted to speak to him and find out if he knew where Arem was, but she was terrified. Suddenly, the outline of a man tore out from one of the rooms into another.
“Hello?” She softly spoke.
The rummaging in the bedroom ceased as a man slowly arched his body from behind the doorframe. She looked at him with all the earnestness in her blue eyes. The information about Arem was soon to unveil itself, and she was a bit relieved.
“Excuse me, who are you? And it would have been nice if you would have knocked before intruding,” He said, clearly frustrated.
The man appeared from behind the doorframe, carrying a black suitcase.
She lowered her head in shame. “I’m sorry. I-I came here because I believe you know someone that is,” she paused, embarrassed to say the words although she could not find any other words that would suffice. “Dear to me.”
He made his way toward her in the main room, and placed the suitcase on one of the tables.
“And who might that be? I have seen my share of people in my thirty years.”
“His name is Arem.”
His eyes widened a bit at the sound of his name.
“So, you know of him?” She asked. “Please, do you know if he arrived safely in Al-Araaf?”
The man deeply exhaled and sat down on the sofa. “Please, Miss---“
“Isabella, sit down,” he beseeched, motioning to the sofa.
She did as he said, and continued to listen to him eagerly.
“To allay your fears, it is known to me that he has indeed arrived safely. However, there seemed to have been somewhat of a struggle, and-and we were disconnected.”
Just as he thought, such heart-breaking statement would take away all of the wind from her body. It was like watching a mirror break, but the frame was left intact.
“That is why,” he quickly began trying to fix the mirror, but something occurred to him mid-thought.
“What? What’s wrong?”
He sat up from the sofa and paced the room as he always did when he started pondering.
“Out of panic, I tried to imagine myself in Limbo when my connection failed, but there was something wrong with the imaginateer’s realm. I’m not sure what, but I wasn’t successful.”
Isabella did not know what Habeeb was talking about, but she tried to follow him either way.
“Therefore, when you arrived, I was going to try and enter said realm by a portal, but I can’t because the person I know who knows about portals is in another realm all in itself,” he sighed.
He then continued. “I have reached an impasse…a great impasse.”
She looked down at the red bangles on her wrists. She could not take this pressure anymore. There was a time when she was among her five sisters. There was no Arem, no Tao, and no worries; living a simple life which entailed becoming a woman, and then being prepared to become a good wife. Her worries were only if her lehenga was neatly pressed, if her bangles matched, or if she sang and danced beautifully. Those days hastily were taken away when a woman came into her family’s life. When she slowly broke them into believing that she was one of them, and then like the fang of a viper, she attacked, killing Isabella’s brother. Ace.
She began to feel like she was losing Arem as well. It was Isabella’s doing that Arem got to Limbo in the first place, when she told Tao that she knew of a person who was willing to do the bounty job. She could not go through the same regret she endured when her brother was murdered. She just could not stand it.
Isabella wiped the lone tear that rolled down her cheek before Habeeb could see.
“I think I know of a way.”
Habeeb turned at the sound of her voice. “You do?”
“My fiancé is the prince of the Eastlands. His mother, the Empress, has many connections. Perhaps, I can write him a letter and send it with one of the swiftest messengers.”
Habeeb did not like the idea. No, he did not like involving any form of royalty into his affairs.
“I don’t think that will do.”
Isabella shot up from her spot with anger. “What else is there to do?! Arem is in Araaf alone.”
“Not really, he took Dougie along with him,” Habeeb added.
“Dougie? Oh yes, I forgot, he is a mastermind,” she said sarcastically.
“Again, I strongly disagree with your proposal.”
“What is there left to do?”
In the distance, the computer’s speaker crackled to life. “Staja avo?”
Hours had passed. Hours and hours and hours had passed.
She was alone in here.
Here was a metal cell filled almost to the top with water. At the center was a slick metal pole with rivets. Lox had noted after the first few minutes that the water was not only foul but also soapy and full of filthy rags.
She was in a giant washing machine.
There were six inches of usable air in the six-foot cell. She had long since stopped screaming. Her voice just pierced into her ears so loudly that she shuddered sure no one could hear her anyway. Most of the available oxygen had been exhausted while she frantically hammered the top of the hatch. She beat her knuckles raw trying to escape.
The cylinder was too long for her to stand up in and too wide and slick for her to comfortably rest. She had to tread water or hold onto the agitator at the center to keep from drowning. Every time the airship turned or tipped the water would go along with it and she would have to struggle to find the half a foot of air she could breathe in.
There were no windows to the outside so she had no light or reference for how long she had been inside there. There was, however, a window to the hallway and men walked by, staring at her as she struggled to breathe. This whole ordeal was on display and she had drawn a crowd. At first she begged them to help her but she realized that they were cheering, not because they were humanitarians, but because her shirt was white and underwater, quite see-through.
She turned away from them and noted that the water had been getting redder and redder since she had entered it.
She had been stabbed in the chest and cut down the inside of her leg. But the redness grew and grew and she knew that there was something she was overlooking.
As she tried to tread water she became more and more tired. Exhaustion crept through her limbs. She was hungry, drained, and she was suffering the signs of hypothermia. Her pulse was weakening, her breathing was shallow, and she was becoming more and more confused. She couldn’t remember how to use her hands. Her legs locked up.
What was she doing here in this water? A few hours ago she had been at her writing desk eating Chinese food. But then she felt like she had made that up. She wasn’t a writer. What was China? Her thoughts got more and more warped. She had a dim memory of a dog she was supposed to protect. A dog? Then came the haunting image of a slit throat. Someone was pulling off her skin in the darkness.
Better not to think, she thought.
The crowd began to disperse. She wasn’t interesting anymore.
But she wasn’t interesting because she was dying.
“Who’s the mermaid?” asked an observer. He was due to relieve one of the prison guards but he was running late today and had no reason to suspect that his lack of punctuality was one of the many factors that had made the current escapes easier. Besides, there was a beautiful woman in the hallway. “And why is she pantsless?”
“I don’t know, Lorry, she’s cute though,” answered Rusko dreamily.
“She’s shivering. There’s nothing cute about that. No pants means hypothermia,” a passing man with a thick red beard said. He was one of the few sailors who had set sail on a real ship. When people suffered extreme hypothermia they thought they were hot when they were really freezing. Haskins had always thought their taking off their clothes was their mind’s way of speeding along the inevitable.
He hated The Hole. Having been its victim, before he knew how hellacious it was. The lye soap dried your skin out and the rippling waters would make even the strongest pirate seasick. Obviously she had not eaten in a while or the tank would be full of vomit. That was the mistake he had made when he had been thrown in the first time and he had to live with that mistake for nearly three days. The entire practice was sickening. He wasn’t going to stick around and watch a poor girl drown. He was pretty sure the two men ogling her had no idea that that was precisely what she was in the process of doing. “Enjoy her while you can. She’ll be dead soon.”
They shrugged Haskins off. He was a moody guy anyway. She was quite beautiful, really, suspended in the water that way. Her hair bellowed around her until she was lying at the bottom almost peacefully.
“When is the last time she moved?” Lorry asked Rusko while eyeing Haskins as he turned the corner in a huff.
Rusko thought for a moment. “I don’t know. Pretty hair though. Looks Zionese almost.”
In fact Lox hadn’t moved in the last three minutes. She was lying at the bottom with the posture of a discarded dishrag. Somewhere Angelus was laughing her ass off.
“The water’s red,” Lorry said getting them back on topic. “Is she bleeding to death or something? Because if she is Zionese” his voice was getting higher and higher, “Hayder will murder us if she dies.”
A cloud passed over Rusko’s face as he realized that Lorry was absolutely right. Hayder would severe then sauté their testicles, bib them, and spoon-feed them both in front of the entire crew if he found out that someone had killed a woman on his ship. Especially a woman from Zion. That was why all the men were gone.
“We have to get her out of there.”
“But you need clearance to open the hatch.”
“What?! Lorry, you’re a prison guard, you don’t have clearance?”
“Only upper levels, the captain, and Hayder.”
Rusko grabbed his package protectively. It might be the last time it would be attached to him. “I hope they kill us.”
“We could just leave,” Lorry said. “We’ll leave like the others.”
“Haskins saw us. We’ll have to kill him because he’ll never keep quiet about this.”
Rusko was right. Haskins was petitioning to get rid of The Hole and he would present this as one more reason to do so after Hayder had been shown the dead body of one of his sisters.
“We have to bite the bullet. We have to get Hayder,” Rusko said. “We’ll blame it on Haskins. Say he was trying to prove a point. We can’t go down for this.”
Lorry, who moments before had just been a passing guy with a question, was not sure why he should risk himself for Rusko, but he knew that the young man was ruthless and if he did not implicate Haskins, Rusko would put the full blame on him.
Hayder had been walking through the hallway toward the prison to check to see if anyone else had escaped when he overheard his name.
The men did not see him approach, but they left in the direction of his quarters.
What had they been talking about? he wondered.
And then he saw.
A woman was crumpled at the bottom of the tank everyone called The Hole. Her skin was gray from asphyxiation. Her eyes stared at him, but she was immobile.
Hayder immediately opened the hatch and dove in to get her. He pulled her out of the water and fell back into the hallway, which was soaked for his efforts. She was complete dead weight. She was a lovely girl and her hair was as blue as the sea.
Hayder knew from that instant that someone else was going to die.
Rusko and Lorry clamored through the corridors until they came to Hayder’s quarters. A group of men were leaving. Their clothes were torn up and they looked completely disheveled.
“Hayder’s on a rampage again?” Lorry asked.
“No, a crazy woman from Eldrine.”
Rusko laughed. “Then he’s busy?”
“You have mastered his art for understatement.”
They wedged themselves into his quarters. They were overwhelmed at what they saw.
“An angel,” said Lorry making a religious sign and bowing.
Rusko winked at Najm.
“Sir, we have to tell you something—”
Hayder leveled his gaze on them. His face was a stern mask but his eyes betrayed his true feelings. Irrepressible wrath.
“Do you not see that I am very busy at this very moment?” he asked dangerously.
“Yes sir, but there’s this girl downstairs. I think she’s—“
“Dead,” said a second Hayder. He came through the door drenched carrying a soaked woman in her underwear. If Lox had been conscious she would have been embarrassed. However, she was completely lifeless in his arms.
The men were visibly trembling, watching Hayder’s every movement as he gently laid the young woman on the mahogany table before him. Her hands were bloody and so were her clothes.
Lox’s eyes were wide open. Her pupils were pinpoints and had no light in them. Rivulets of water were slowly trickling through her hair creating a pool of red water below her. With a blank expression, she was staring at no one and everyone in the room. Her mouth was open but she was not breathing. Her body was so long and limp she seemed boneless.
“Yes, dead,” Hayder said evenly. “Quite dead.”
“But sir,” Lorry began. “We did not even—“
“Don’t interrupt me.” Hayder said pulling out his cutlass. “You saw this woman dying and you did nothing?”
“We didn’t put her in there! It was Drexel—” Rusko started.
Lorry groaned. How long had Rusko known this? They could have asked the navigator to get her out.
“Listen to me closely,” he said as if he were an elementary teacher speaking to his most remedial students, “You saw a Zionese woman drown and you did nothing to stop it. I do not have time to sort you out right now. I have to decide which would be better. Will I simply cut your arms or legs off, drop you in the ocean, and let you watch each other suffer the same fate? Or should I make your death as drawn out and humiliating as hers? Be good lads and sit in the corner until I figure out how I will kill you both,” Hayder said as casually as one would direct a stable boy to prepare his horse or tell a child to go play in his room.
He picked up the girl. She was as cold as a winter morning. A pity. So pretty.
Then he saw it. Down one of her bare legs was a detailed sickle-sword. A snake was wrapped around her thigh. Hayder blinked. No, he had just seen that. The snake rippled.
“Maybe I can save her,” he said holding her with one arm and ripping open the doors to his room. The door closed behind him and he repositioned her on his laboratory table.
Alex watched in a mix of mild amusement and suspicion as Hayder began detailing the results of their raid. It was obvious that something was off, but Alex needed the information before he could start to make sense of what was bothering Hayder so.
"Yes, the guardian is on board," said the first-mate. "At first I feared she was Pamuyan, but her telepathic abilities are superb."
"So is she crew," asked Alex. "Or cargo?"
"I had her agree to join our crew with the promise of taking her someplace later. I also moved her companion, a wolfish woman, into the guest quarters and issued her a doctor."
A wolfish woman, thought Alex. A Tetradian? Here? That would be rather unique.
"Any other conditions I should be aware of?"
Hayder shook his head, the twitching of his eyes mildly noticeable. "She did not attempt to negotiate for anything further. She obviously does not need money, then, but we must not let her forget that we are her only way of getting to her destination and the fate of her travel partner."
"Still," said Alex. "Keep her on a short leash. From what we've heard of these Guardians, they can become rather unpredictable, and we don't want her blowing a hole in the hull on a whim."
Hayder smirked at that. "Fortunately," he continued. "She has not been a problem yet. I don't have to tell you what this means for our trading prospects."
"She's a valuable commodity," said Alex. "A mind-reader can be useful." Like, for instance, figuring out what's going on while your wheels are turning, my friend.
Alex had poured two glasses of amber, and offered one to the frazzled first-mate.
"Your nerves look like they’re on fire," he said with a smile. The first-mate accepted the tumbler graciously, and the two clinked glasses before shooting down the fiery substance in a single gulp. Both took a seat across the chessboard. And Hayder seemed to calm down a little.
"As for the others," he said in a more measured tone. "There's an Eastlander female that seems to be completely scattered and claims to be the queen of some empire. There are two enchanted animals a wolf that can enlarge itself and a large feline. There are two men from Elderin, one old and one young. We have also apprehended a dark haired female from Elderin. She seems quite deadly so she has been confined by herself."
Alex thought this over. This was quite a haul. When they'd taken on this contract, Alex had acquired a specific device for tracking the guardians across the realms. The smith Mohanri had called it "The Spiriter," a mystical-powered device that detected magical frequencies specific to guardian constructs. Because such creatures generally worked their magic utilizing a heavy concentration of plasmic intelligence, their magical signature was unique.
Or so Alex had been told.
They'd seen no luck in Rain City, and Alex was ready to turn and cut the lying smith's throat himself, but instead, Drexel had convinced him to make one last run to Limbo. Alex sent his second ship, The Requiem, to Imperial City to deliver on a minor contract, but took his flagship, The Ascension, to Limbo himself.
They'd found a huge energy spike almost immediately on arrival. But knowing the power of the Guardians, they decided that waiting in ambush would only serve to get more of them killed. A lightning-fast raiding party would at least catch the creature off-guard. But Alex never would have expected to bring in a capture of such a gallery of characters.
Hayder finished off his drink, and stood up. Still a little nervous, but the drink seemed to have calmed him a little.
"I have heard wind," said the first-mate, "That we have a Khalian or Zionese female in The Hole. I will attend to her personally. Would you like me to escort any of them in, sir?"
"No," said Alex. "I'll take a look myself. I trust you to be... Appropriate with the interrogations, Hayder, as usual."
"Thank you, sir," said Hayder, and offered a small bow before walking towards the exit.
"Oh, and Hayder," said Alex. The first-mate paused, and turned. Alex had pulled his hatchet off the wall, and tossed it to himself. "Knock before you enter, next time."
Trees, foliage, lakes and mountains seemed to blend into one another as the ship continued on its course. Alex stood on the control deck, looking over the monitors. The sailors were busy fussing over the controls, but the ship was mostly on auto-pilot. When he'd first taken command, he'd often stayed at the wheel, loving the feel of the steering mechanism sliding carefully through his fingers.
But he'd quickly realized that there was little a wheelman could do in these ancient lands. Aside from the ever-rare dragon or gryphon, the only competition for the skies up here was the birds, and they usually kept their distance, only rarely plinging off of the hull with a small thud.
The only time that the wheelman would take the steer is when they visited either Rain City or Imperial. The large buildings and flying cars in the respective realms often made for difficult navigation, especially for the auto. Alex had taken to recommending outer parts of the cities for rendezvous, as opposed to risking the ship in more populated areas.
The ship's wheelman was the same man who had first unwittingly brought Alex aboard in the first place. He was a burly specimen, with arms the size of Alex's head, and at least a foot-and-a-half more of stature. A towering man, it was quite surprising that his name handily fit his stature.
"Oxford," said Alex.
"Yes, sir," said Ox. Alex did take note that while Hayder seemed to say the word 'sir' with all the poise and venom of a viper, Ox was very sincere. Over the years, the two had gained a mutual respect. Ox had always been the wheelman, and had never looked to raise his own rank. He had served each captain well, which was both comforting and a little unnerving. Ox had never been one to involve himself in a fight unless it involved him personally. That is, of course, aside from raids, which he absolutely loved.
"Some good shore leave?" Asked Alex with a smile. Ox immediately knew what he meant.
"Yes, sir," said Ox, stepping up next to the captain as he looked out the front windows. "Sorry that you couldn't join us."
"So was I," replied Alex. "I'll have to catch up on the next one, I guess."
"Looking forward to it, sir." Ox stepped over to the wheel. He expected a new course, especially since they had retrieved their bounty. "Course?"
The rumor was, that he was half-giant, but Alex wasn't sure that was true. After all, he'd known of men of this size before. Then again, he never really had found out where Jett was originally from.
"Set course for Illusionia," said Alex. "Head for Zion airspace, and land us on the outskirts of town. I don't want to repeat the same scene as last time."
Ox nodded, remembering the rather hostile welcome they'd received upon landing in the city center last time. The local government had not appreciated that gesture. Alex figured a more incognito approach would work better for them.
"I'll leave you to it," said Alex.
Ox turned away from the wheel, and grasped Alex's arm. "Captain," he said calmly. Alex stopped, because this was a drastic change of protocol.
"You need to keep an eye out," said the large man in a hushed tone. "Something is going on with your first-mate, sir. Not to worry you too much, but be careful."
"Why the sudden interest in politics, Oxford?"
"You're a good captain, sir. Hate to see your take a blade in the back."
Alex paused for a moment, grinning his way through that morbid image. "I'll take that under advisement, Ox, thanks."
The captain left the control deck, and headed for the lower levels, into the hold.
Noon held his cigarette between his left index and middle fingers. He sat on a rock, lost in reverie, contemplating the bloodied, beaten, battered warrior carpeting the ground beside his feet. He wasn't concerned with who the warrior was, or why he was wounded—irrelevant. Who beat the warrior. And, are they coming back? Noon remembered a time when he might have felt more afraid. Certainly, there's the obvious concern of being a stranger in an entirely foreign land, there are dangers and enemies unknown, but as of late, Noon remembered a specific Bible passage from his world: ”Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for I'm the meanest son-of-a-b**** in the valley.” God bless the good book.
The Warrior was still alive, if only temporarily. Noon looked up at the Zeppelin. That's going to draw attention, he thought. He glanced at the Warrior's wounds, again, then felt the Luger holstered underneath his coat.
“Of all the places...”
No sense in waiting.
Noon pulled the cigarette from between his lips and kneeled before the Warrior. He pressed the heated end into the Warrior's shoulder. He drew the Luger from the shoulder holster and pressed it against the Warrior's head before the cigarette went out.
Angelus would be the first to go on record as saying that she was not Lox's biggest fan. She would also be the first to go on record as admitting that she had maybe, kind of, sort of, wished that she would die a couple of times. But two things were stopping her from not interfering with Lox's pending death by drowning. The first was simple fear for herself, she wasn't certain, but she was somewhat sure that refusing to interfere to save a Player Character violated the rules of being a guardian, and while she was not completely sure that this was true, she hardly wanted to find out when she was being defragmented. The second reason she decided she couldn't refuse to interfere was that, as much as it pained her to admit it, she was genuinely distressed at Lox's fallen form. She hardly liked the woman, but she hardly thought that she deserved to die and she was actually genuinely afraid for her. Lox had been a travelling partner, and while hardly a friend, she was still someone that Angelus cared about...for some reason. Besides, if she died she wouldn't have anyone to hate. Well, no one that would've given her a good reason, anyway. So she found herself standing in the air, weighing her options. She was, she realized, at something of an impasse. If she left to attend to Lox Hayder would be completely alone with Najm, meaning the Is only knew what would happen. On the otherhand, if she left Hayder to attend to Lox she would be relying on his medical expertise, and she had no idea if he had any of that at all. On the one hand, she liked Najm, and Lox was one of the most awful people she had ever met. On the otherhand, from what she'd heard defragmentation was a very, very painful way to die. She sighed, deciding that Najm was capable enough to fend for herself, and slid out of existence, reappearing behind the other Hayder. At first she said nothing, simply scanning for the familiar wavelength that she knew of as Lox. She found it easily, and before long she was able to confirm two things. She wasn't entirely dead, and because she was unconscious she was more aware of even the slightest disturbance in her mind, and her entire brain seemed to be busy shouting one thing. 'Get out.' Angelus rolled her eyes. 'I swear I hope you're saying that to the water,'She thought, even though she knew full well that wasn't the case. She sighed, deciding to draw Hayder's attention. "Sir," She said, "Not that I'm one to doubt your skill, or anything, but I thought it might be useful for you to know that the patient is only MOSTLY dead." The Hayder that was with her(she had no idea whether it was the original or the double) shot her a quick questioning glance. Fair enough. "That means she's still slightly alive," Angelus pointed out, "Also, I thought you might want to know that I could use empathic suggestion to aid in getting her body to reject the water that...well, y'know, she drowned, so there's kind of an excess of it. I could also use it to convince her brain, which is under the assumption that she's sort of...um, dead, to restore certain functions." This was mostly true. The truth of it was, she couldn't do anything that would actually bring Lox back to life, she could just fiddle with the few parts that still worked. She also left out that empathic suggestion is voluntary, like hypnosis, so if Lox didn't want to hear a suggestion(which, given that Angelus was the one giving it, was likely) she wouldn't listen to it. "Tell you what, sir," Angelus said, suddenly reconsidering the entire ordeal, "I'll be in the other room, you give a shout if you need me." She vanished again, reappearing in her previous position. 'Great,' She thought, 'Now he'll know that you're a babbling idiot.' Still, there was one plus to this. Now, if Lox did die, she'd have the perfectly serviceable defense that she had, in fact, tried to help her. 'Yup,' She thought, 'That'll get you a whole five extra seconds before they reduce you to random bits.' Sometimes, Angelus really, really hated her job. ((OOC:Yes, the whole empathic suggestion section is BS, but dammit all I saw a chance for another Princess Bride quote and I had to take it.))
“Maybe I can save her,” he said holding her with one arm and ripping open the doors to his room. The door closed behind him and he repositioned her on his laboratory table. He yanked the tops off of half a dozen bottles and quickly fired up a burner. He put a beaker on top and made some quick measurements, fumbling to put on a surgical mask and a pair of goggles. He covered her face with his gray handkerchief. The fumes from what he was making could kill someone. Fitting, because they could also revive a person. This small gesture showed that he had faith that she could be spared. If there were even the slightest spark of life in her he would try to bring her back. But it was always up to the Fates.
If they wanted to take her, there was nothing he could do.
Then, from the shadows, came Angelus.
She hadn’t frightened him, but he was curious as to why she teleported when she could have simply opened the door. Guardians had their ways of doing things. He couldn’t let himself get too distracted. Instead, he was trying to remember a specific formula.
"Sir," She said, almost knocking over a group of highly organized bottles. "Not that I'm one to doubt your skill, or anything, but I thought it might be useful for you to know that the patient is only MOSTLY dead."
“Yes,” Hayder said pulling serum into a syringe and then injecting it into Lox’s lifeless wrist. He gave her a brief questioning gaze. “I see that. Pass that blue bottle.”
"That means she's still slightly alive," Angelus intoned handing over the bottle.
He took it from her and added a few measured drops into the already bubbling beaker.
“Cover your eyes,” he said. Realizing she wasn’t going to move fast enough he put his hand over her eyes and darkened his glasses while opening a blinding box. The light from it was so ferocious that some of the furniture in the room faded after he closed it.
"Also, I thought you might want to know that I could use empathic suggestion to aid in getting her body to reject the water that... well, y'know, she drowned, so there's kind of an excess of it.”
Hayder was trying to figure out why she was prattling on like this. He did not mind having people in his laboratory but he wondered if Angelus had ever seen a dead person before.
“I could also use it to convince her brain, which is under the assumption that she's to restore certain functions."
“Is that like a hypnotist? We have those in Zion. Hypnotists, I mean. They’re usually people who can’t do magic, but they’re useful. Don’t worry, Angelus,” he said pausing to look at her, “I’m not a doctor but I am a scientist. I won’t let your friend die.”
"Tell you what, sir," Angelus said, changing gears. Maybe she was in a hurry to get out of there because she really did think Lox could not be brought back and she did not want to be there when he found out. Guardians knew things normal people did not. "I'll be in the other room, you give a shout if you need me."
“Excellent,” he said to no one.
She was gone.
There were a few more steps needed in this formula. People didn’t say potions anymore.
He needed blood. He cut his hand and let it flow into the bowl. He covered Lox’s bare legs with his shirt. If she were alive he didn’t want to embarrass her further. Besides, she was distracting.
He mixed the liquids together and stirred them. He put them in a centrifuge and let it spin for a few seconds and then scrapped off the waste. He added it back to the beaker and deftly found a stopper of a seething dark substance. He swiftly opened it. The entire room went totally black. He capped it, having obtained a single drop. The lights came back on. He carefully set it back in its box on the shelf beside the light box.
“This is it, do or die,” he said.
He questioned his own choice of words. Why was he helping her? She was Zionese; that was enough reason. But these women were crazy. Shouldn’t he be cautious?
He looked at her one last time. No.
Hayder hopped up on the table beside her and draped her over his lap, pulling her torso up. He put the stopper to her lips. She stared at him, a thousand miles away. Her eyes were amber brown. He poured the substance into her mouth and closed her lips.
A long time passed.
He had a long time to think. What kind of person was this? She had killed two of his men. Two more would need to be killed for her. Shouldn’t he have let things be even and let her die? No. He had given Angelus his word. Besides, no one deserved to die like that.
She just stared on. Her gaze bore into him. Her eyes were wet. A tear slowly formed and dropped down her cheek. One, then, two, then four tears streamed her face. Her mouth moved and her fingers jerked. Her saw her chest rise. She was trying to look away from him but she couldn’t. She put her hand on his.
It started with a few coughs. He helped her spit up a lot of water. If he hadn’t known any better she had tried to drink the entire tank. He held her hair. He had not even noticed that he was smiling.
“I couldn’t” she sputtered, “I couldn’t get out.”
She was alive. An unlucky girl that the Fates favored.
“Take your time,” he said. She was trying to sit up but she couldn’t. She was completely helpless but she did not seem to be afraid of him.
“Who are you?” she rasped.
“I’m Hayder. You’re on a sky pirate ship but you are now safe. Who are you?”
“Lox,” she said slowly.
“Lox what?” he asked.
“You don’t think that’s my real name?” she asked. She closed her eyes for a moment. “I don’t think Hayder’s your real name.”
Perceptive. Never mind he had saved her life. “Osiris. Osiris Hayder.”
“Nice to meet you Siris. Lox is my whole name,” she said trying unsuccessfully to stand up.
“Lox is a family name. Like Hale or Stone.” He said trying to help her sit first. “I guess you forgot your first name then. That’s fine. Maybe you’ll remember it later. What part of Zion are you from?”
“Yes, Zion. Where you’re from.”
“I’m from another realm. Not Illusionia.”
“No, you’re not. You’re from Zion.” Confusion was to be expected.
“How do you know? Did you read my mind?”
He half smiled. What a strange person. “I’m not a Guardian, no wings. Your hair is violet. You’re Khalian. You’re speaking Zionese. You’re from Zion.”
“I’m speaking—“ she was about to say English when she realized that she wasn’t using it at all. This whole conversation had been going on in a fluid, lilting language. “Zionese? What is Zion like?” she asked.
Hayder was used to being the one asking questions. “It’s a beautiful place. There are trees everywhere and a city center. It’s like any big city, but there are a dozen huge buildings, and most of the homes are really beautiful tree houses. There is an aristocracy there of really rich people but I have to admit that most people are not poor. Just about everyone can do magic and if you can’t do magic you’re a scientist. Or a telepath, hypnotist, or potion maker. There are a lot of people there that have unique magical talents, you know, they can do things no one else can do,” He realized that she was staring at him. It was like she was sizing him up. “What are you?”
“I’m hungry,” she smiled. And then with a bit of a shock, “and naked. Did you—”
“No,” he said quickly. “No, I didn’t touch you, I brought you back to life,” he averted his eyes.
She was looking around the room for some clothes. “I thought that was against the rules. I used to think telepathy and guns were against the rules but I guess there aren’t any rules anymore.”
A very strange woman indeed. “You weren’t totally dead.” He handed her his robe. “I’m just guessing here but I think you’re an illusionist like me. Only you’re an animator.”
“I can’t draw at all,” she said, “I’m a writer.”
“What I mean is that you can make inanimate things come to life. It’s very rare. I’ve only met one other.”
She raised her eyebrow. “May I have a towel?” He quickly supplied her with one and watched as she tried to dry her hair. When she pulled the towel away he saw that it was red. “So a few things. Someone died my hair,” she said. “I drowned in the air. I am on a sky pirate ship. I’m Zionese. My hair is dark purple. I can speak another language and I died.” She sighed. “I’m not in Kansas anymore.”
“I’m lost,” Hayder said. He had also lost all his urbanity. He felt like a regular person around her. He liked that feeling.
“I told you I was a writer. In these stories a new character enters and they almost always die. When they die they officially join the game and they can’t leave it. I’m trying to escape this realm but I don’t think I can anymore. I died. There’s a clause somewhere that states escape is over for me.”
“Where are you trying to escape to, Lox, do I really have to call you that? I mean the Loxes are a very interesting family. When I say interesting, I don’t mean to be insulting, but they’re really eccentric.”
She was intrigued. “Eccentric like the Addams, the Jacksons, the Skywalkers, or the Pritchetts?”
There she was talking about things he did not understand again. He was about to conclude this conversation when she touched his shirt. “You’re bleeding,” she said.
“I was in a fight earlier,” he said remembering his failed attempt to finally kill Alex. He took out the jar of Akeso. “You’re cut, too,” he said. “Let me help you.”
She recoiled. “You first.”
He rolled his eyes. “You’re the strangest Zionese girl I’ve ever met. Just so you know.”
“You have a blue pompadour, Fonse. I’m erring on the side of caution here.”
She watched as he put the red substance over his wound. She found it hard to concentrate on the healing process because his chest was the ultimate attention split.
“You don’t like my hair?” he asked.
“So I told you I’m an illusionist,” he said spreading the substance over her battered knuckles without asking. “My specialty is being a multiplier. I can make copies of myself.” On ‘myself’ he became two people. He held both her hands with all four of his. She jumped, startled. He laughed and became one person again. “I can change the hair if it’s that bad, too,” he said. Now his hair was black. Then he had a beard. Then his hair looked exactly like hers.
She snorted. “It’s not because of the color, it’s because you put all that pomade in it. What does it look just like by itself?”
“Big blue curls. Not very intimidating,” he grinned.
“You were going for intimidating?” she asked.
He laughed then paused, “You’re up front. Maybe a little reckless.”
“You’re arrogant and you think you’re cute.”
“I can’t argue with you there, darling, I’m magnificent.”
She rolled her eyes. “So let me get some of that Akeso or whatever.”
“I have to do it because you don’t know how to use it.”
“Fine, big baby, go without it,” he mocked.
“No,” she said. “Do it then.”
“You’ve got to,” he cleared his throat, “Lift up your shirt.”
She sighed and instead took his hand in hers. “Your hands are sweaty,” she added before putting his on her side.
“No,” he corrected, “You’re freezing.” A wave of tension threatened to carry him away. The other cut was on her leg. He moved there more slowly.
Her hand was on his shoulder so she could balance. Her skin warmed up almost immediately. Akeso had that effect. He could sense her heartbeat.
“You’re nervous,” he said.
“That’s you,” she said. “Can I get some clothes?”
He took her into his wardrobe. It was quite impressive and most of the things inside of it looked expensive and handmade.
“Do you make your own clothes?” she asked.
He avoided the question. “So I have a lot of different things you can wear. You’re about,” he looked her over, “an eight so… a medium…” he walked down the line where he had a row of pants and shirts that were arranged in color order.
“Why do you have women’s clothes? And they’re all so pretty. Siris, are you a cross dresser?”
He shook his head suppressing a smile. “I am an extremely macho member of a pirate ship. And you? You are just plain rude,” he immediately followed that by putting on a sequined woman’s hat. “So quick to call my sexuality into question. Have you seen these muscles on top of these other muscles?” he said with a quick flex.
She rolled her eyes. “Rude? I’ve been called that before.” She said deciding not to spoil this moment by thinking of Angelus. “Now get out of here so I can dress.” She called as he coasted off. “And you didn’t answer my question—” but he was gone. “What a weirdo,” she added under her breath.
She shooed him away so she could try on a few things. First she tried on a few dresses she knew she wasn’t going to be able to wear on any adventure. She did it because she didn’t think she’d get the chance to do so again. This also gave her a chance to get used to the idea of having crayon hair. After a nun’s habit, a stunning form fitting red dress, a wedding dress, and a mini-skirt that begged the question “how much?” she buckled down and picked out some real clothes. She selected some slim fitting dark purple harem pants, a sleeveless leaf green shirt with a deep v in the front, and a pair of tan ankle boots.
Hayder appeared around the corner after she had smoothed her outfit for the seventh time. She suspected he had been there the whole time. She watched as he wrapped a white belt around her waist, pulled her hair into a ponytail, and put some bracelets that had a honeycomb pattern on her wrist after applying a pair of smart fingerless gloves. He sauntered from place to place the whole time, clearly not over her earlier jab. He seemed impressed with the final result.
“I look like The Joker,” she laughed.
“No you look like a delicious grape jam,” he corrected.
She made a sour face in mock indignation. She was confident in herself. He doubted that there was much a person could say about her looks to hurt her feelings.
“No, really, you look nice,” he said abandoning his stylist persona. He probably should have kicked her out a long time ago; she was a prisoner after all. But it was fun to speak Zionese again. It was thrilling to spend time with someone who clearly did not recognize him as the heartless criminal he was. Maybe his misdeeds were only part of him. There was another side. “I could never fit into those pants, anyway.”
She laughed. He didn’t take himself too seriously. It was charming. It was good to have someone to joke with.
“But I think I’m missing something,” Lox said. “A necklace.”
He shook his head. “No ma’am, you can’t have mine.”
“Why not? Yours is official.”
“It keeps telepaths out. I don’t need it but I like it.” If he had had any sense he would have seen her pupils dilate at the words “telepath out.” Instead he put a chain of pearls around her neck. She loved them. He suddenly had this weird feeling that he knew her.
They had been staring at each other for a long time. Lox looked like a Christmas gift to Hayder. Hayder looked like Mr. July to Lox.
“I know what you’re thinking about,” he ventured. His hands were on her hips on the pretense of smoothing a wrinkle.
She scuffed. “And what is that?”
He pulled her hair back to straighten her necklace. “It’s been on your mind this whole time, eating you alive, this curiosity. The tension is really getting to me.”
She blushed. “What? You don’t know what I’m thinking.”
“Oh yes, I do, Miss Lox. You’re thinking you want to… know where your crew is.”
They both laughed because they both knew that wasn’t it.
“You’re thinking about kissing me,” Lox said turning suddenly to face him.
Hayder’s poker face was gone. “No I’m not.”
“Who’s the telepath now?” she asked. “That was it, wasn’t it?”
“Please,” Hayder said.
“Coward,” said Lox. But it wasn’t that she said it. It was how she said it. The word fell from her lips like a simple mock, but to Hayder, it was the ultimate condemnation. And she was right; after all, that was the only thing on his mind.
So he did it.
He made the biggest mistake of their lives.
At another time they would look back on this moment and just wished she had died, he had refused, they hadn’t connected or met, or Angelus had barged in. Unfortunately no on interrupted them.
He grabbed her by the waist, draped her on his arm, dipped her slowly, and kissed her.
The first kiss was quick.
They pulled apart and he picked her back up. She had this sudden impulse. Kissed him again.
They both thought it would be quick. But she wrapped her arms around him and he picked her up and pressed her against the table. He didn’t feel her put his necklace in her pocket; his hands were too busy. Another impulse. He stroked her hair. It felt so right, but it was the wrongest thing he had ever done. She was sure she would never see this random man again. He wasn’t a main player; he would get killed for no reason in the next battle. She pushed it because he was handsome and she was certain that if she didn’t make a move now he’d be victim of a haphazard sword attack later and she would have missed her chance. Later, Lox would reason that she should have known this was a tragic mistake, but hindsight is twenty-twenty and this kiss had been going on for a few glorious minutes before it was interrupted.
Suddenly, the room was extraordinarily bright. They both looked at the door. Still closed. The sudden fear that they would be discovered sobered them.
Why did she have a sense of foreboding?
“Your hand is glowing,” he said pointing to the one marked with a lantern.
“Ah, yeah,” she said not quite covering up her embarrassment or fear. “I gotta go,” she said.
She went for the first door. She moved before he could stop her.
She opened it and first saw two men cowering in a corner, Angelus hovering overhead, and Najm in ropes. She looked back for Hayder but he was gone, only he was standing beside Angelus over Najm with a sword in his belt.
This was not part of the plan. In fact, Angelus decided, this was quite the opposite of the plan. Not that she had a plan, but whatever she had been scheming this whole time, this was NOT part of it. She hadn't planned on getting captured by Pirates, but a short time before this had almost seemed advantageous, after all, she was going to get back to Terra Di, so that hardly went against her plans. But now, not only was she working under a murderous psychopath with the ability to multiply, she was working under a murderous, multiplying psychopath that was madly in love with Lox. Again, whatever the plan was, it had just gone up in flames. She decided this quite certainly as Lox tore open the door to Hayder's "laboratory" and decided to loudly ask what the hell was going on. Class was another one of the things Lox lacked, Angelus decided. "Oh, hey," Angelus said, feigning disinterest, "It's you. You're alive. Yay." She was trying to avoid a fight, especially since the last person to start one was currently glaring across the table at one of the Hayders, but she was already regretting her decision to attempt to assist in Lox's revival. "Anyway, to answer your question, this is an interrogation, on a pirate ship, in the sky," She said, as if none of this was surprising. She stared at the beams of light that were escaping from Lox's covered hand. "Um...why is your hand glowing?" She asked. By the look of it, Lox had just been accepted into the White Lantern Corps.,something that couldn't be right, since they represented goodness and life, two things Lox did not represent in any way, shape, or form, something that had become more obvious during her recent time away from the world of the living. "By the way," She said, turning to Hayder, "While I may be unable to read your thoughts as long as you wear that necklace, sir, I think you should know that I can still hear Lox's, and she just spent the last ten minutes thinking REALLY loudly about how great it was making out with you." She sighed, starting to rock back on her heels for the first time in what felt like ages. 'Fen, wherever you are,' She thought glumly, 'I hope YOU'RE at least having fun.' *** Fenris was, in fact, not having fun. She was staring at the back of Daniel Frey's head realizing that for the second time in two days she had agreed to trust someone that hadn't given her a reason to trust them. She was starting to think that she'd lost her edge. "I know what you're thinking," Frey said as they continued to walk along the deck. Fenris' eyebrow shot up. Was he another telepath like the angel? Her sense of Deja Vu heightened. "Really," She said, "And what is that?" He shook his head, clearly annoyed. "You're wondering why you should trust me, right?" He asked. She narrowed her eyes, suspicious of him. Was she really that transperent or was he in her head. "You're not a telepath, are you?" She asked, trying to keep the venom from her voice. He turned then, staring at her as if she had just asked if he was actually a fish. "What?" He asked, completely baffled, "No! No! It's just, you keep staring at me, and narrowing your eyes and whatnot, so you're clearly suspicious." She nodded, accepting this explanation. It still didn't mean she had to trust him. "So," She said, "Tell me, why SHOULD I trust you?" He smiled slightly, nodding. He'd been waiting for this question, and he was fairly certain that she would enjoy his answer. He'd been thinking that ever since the little angel had made him reveal his true face. "Because," He said, "I want to see good old Terra Di just as much as you do." Her eyebrows shot up, and outright surprise flooded her face. He smiled at that, it was always nice to catch someone off guard. "You're from Terra Di?" She asked, "That makes you, what, an Olympian?" He nodded, not surprised that she'd been able to ascertain his homeland from his appearance. The people of the Olympic Plateau had a distinctive appearance, and their tan skin combined with their light eye and hair color always made them stand out. "Yes," He said, "And I've been trying to get back there for the last several years." He tried not to think of his siblings again, but he couldn't help it. His face darkened as he saw their faces once again, saw their hunger ravaged bodies. They relied on big brother Dan to bring them food, but now he was gone, replaced by a shell that went by the name of "Dread Pirate Roberts", and who sailed the skies of unfamiliar lands. "Anyway," He said, attempting to shake the thoughts from his mind, "There's something I need to take care of at home." She looked at him, her face curious. She did not have the predatory look that normally hung at the edge of her features, as he looked at her now she seemed completely docile. It was somewhat unnerving. "You've lost someone," She said, "Haven't you." His mouth fell open, and he felt his heart begin to chill. "How'd you..." He started, but then he trailed off. She was a warrior, she had seen loss. He should have known that. "My family," He said slowly, regret wracking his words, "I just want to see my family again. I'm sure you can understand." She thought about this for a moment. She thought of her own families, both of them. She frowned, shaking her head at the thoughts. They were not happy. "No," She said carefully, knowing that they were not the words he wanted to hear, "I can't." He lowered his eyebrows, looking her over. He had never met a person who didn't want to see their family. "Did you have a falling out with your folks or something?" He asked. She was very young, he noticed. She probably hadn't been on her own for very long. "Sort of," She said, "I uh...well, my original dad is an evil trickster God who wants to destroy the world, and my Stepdad tied me to the bank of a river and left me to die." She looked at him, her face suggesting that this was enough. She hadn't expected him to go pale, his face alight with a fearful recognition that had been absent before. "You..." He said slowly, his voice tremling, "You...you're the Fenris Wolf, the devourer, you're..." He swallowed hard, staring at the woman before him, and suddenly seeing something suspicious, something evil lurking behind her eyes. "You're a monster," He whispered. Her eyes narrowed, and before he could move she had him by the collar. "No," She said, true fury in her voice, "I am no monster. I'm the one that makes the real monsters pay the price." She let go of him, turning quickly and staring over the rails of the ship. "I didn't ask for the life fate gave me," She said, "And I'll be damned if I let our so called Gods tell me I'm not fit to live." She had forgotten the monstrous reputation she had in her own homeland. She had forgotten that she had been treated as a horrible beast for something she had never done. She had forgotten that the normal people, the people that she was trying to free from the tyranny of the Gods, feared her more than anything else. "I'm sorry," Frey whispered, "I didn't know." She looked up at him, seeing fear on his face, but also genuine regret. She sighed, pulling herself from the rails. "I'll get you back to your family," She said slowly, looking him in the eye, "But only if you understand that I'm not a bloodthirsty beast. I..." She sighed, struggling to find the real reason behind her drive for revenge against the Gods. "I just want to live," She said. It was true. As long as she existed, the Gods would hunt her. As long as she lived, she would have to hunt and kill them before they could do the same to her. And as long as she lived, she would be the bane of the God-fearing people of Terra Di. But she wasn't just going to lay down and die. Frey nodded, seeming to understand her. "Seems like a pretty simple goal," He said, laughing slightly. "Seems like it," She said, not laughing with him, "But it's been pretty damn hard so far."
It all boiled down to this, how could you erase the past?
How many people had she killed? How many lives had she taken unjustly? She would destroy anybody who would dare lay a finger on her son, but how many sons had she snatched away? What kind of oxymoron was she living anyway? Was she an assassin or was she a mother? Being a mother did not suddenly do away with the skeletons in her closet, besides, what type of mother would she be if her son ever grew up to find out that his mother was a cold-blooded killer from a kingdom far away, the daughter of a man who manufactured human beings to be emotionless murderers. Funny, he had forgotten to make her emotionless.
Najm’s head shot up.
She slowly crept over to the mouth of her cell and peeked between the bars.
The pirate stood in front of Arem’s cell, his large boot making mash potatoes of Arem’s fingers.
“Staja avo?! Nasta oda Imperial City, eh?” The Bosnian flowed from his lips in a similar fashion as that of Cekic’s. “Odaklisi? Jesli oda Imperial City?”
What were the odds of her finding a person who speaks Bosnian, on a pirate ship in the middle of Araaf? This was definitely another clue.
“Jasam oda Imperial City,” Najm called out. It was an obvious lie, for she was from Elderin but chose to escape her old life in Imperial City. In a way, she was from both places, sort of like how she was both assassin and nurturer. Eventually she would have to pick.
Najm shooed the thoughts away, focusing on the pirate. She was sure that would get his attention, but her main goal was to find out who was he and what made him important?
The sky pirate darted his head toward the raven-haired woman, who called out in his language as she leaned against the cell’s bars.
“Ti si from Imperial City, eh? Then, how do you know what I am saying? This is not the language of Imperial City.”
Arem watched in astonishment as Najm conversed with the stranger. It was like trying to figure out a puzzle with a few pieces missing. He could not see the entire picture, but he was listening intently in order to find out. He knew he remembered Najm said she was from Elderin, therefore, this conversation was crucial. Perhaps, Najm could get them from behind these bars and back to civilization.
“Ti si from Imperial City, eh? Then, how do you know what I am saying? This is not the language of Imperial City.”
A smile crept upon her countenance. He stared intently at her hazel eyes. He was engaged.
“Let’s say I stumbled upon a few in my day,” she replied coolly. She had to drop a name. If this man was a pirate on this ship, then perhaps he was their meal ticket out of here.
She averted her gaze. She couldn’t seem too eager. Nothing was granted to those who appeared to be too eager. Instead she had to reel him in and take the house. It was a roll of the dice, but she had to go with her instincts.
“You wouldn’t happen to know a man named Cekic, would you?”
The pirate looked up momentarily as if to ponder the origins of such a name. He tapped the tip of his pipe upon his bottom lip for a few minutes and then cooed an ‘ah’ as the name struck a chord.
“Imperial City Cekic?”
“How do you know of him, my love?” He pointed the edge of his pipe at her, emphasizing the last part of his question.
Should she tell him? She had a child to think about now. This man could be Cekic’s nemesis for all she knew, and divulging the fact that her husband, after being underground for so many years, was alive would most likely spell his death. It would probably spell the death of her child as well.
She cringed at the thought.
No. She had to be very careful not let that happen. “He was a close friend of mine, but he died a long time ago. How do you know of him?”
Alex had decided that as soon as he took his last step down the stairs into an inch of agitated bathwater. He looked about the cargo hold, and could see nothing but disarray and chaos. Blood stained several walls, and the crimson was fresh. Two crewman lay beaten on the ground, evidence of a particularly brutal scuffle, and broken crates and machinery lay scattered about.
The captain was not pleased.
"The Hole," an improvised interrogation device that Hayder had insisted was installed. It had proved effective in keeping order throughout the crew, with foaming water constantly shifting and moving as the victim was forced to search for the single pocket of air that would keep them alive. Often, just the threatening of being placed in The Hole was enough of a push to keep all but the most unwieldy crewmen in line.
Personally, Alex abhorred the device. It seemed like such an excessive method of control, especially to place offenders in what amounted to a rather vertical washing machine. The fatigue and potential drowning that the crewmen would endure would cause permanent brain damage, or even death, but Hayder had always been able to bring such victims back from the brink, so supposedly it wasn't that bad.
Besides, Alex had his own ways of dealing with troublemakers.
One of the crewmen walked over to The Hole, a mop and bucket in his hand, looking to clean up the mess. As he stepped past, Alex grabbed the man by the back of his collar. The crewman froze.
Alex knew the man as Kitch, a relatively new crewman who had been assigned to the galley under Mr. Rook. Rook-the-Cook was a personal friend of Alex, and had been for quite some time, so perhaps it was a bit unfair for Alex to suddenly abuse his assistant. But then again, fear of the Captain's wrath was a potent motivator for a new crewman to simply tell him the truth.
"What happened here, Mr. Kitch?"
The wiry young fellow gripped his mop and bucket ever tighter, and stammered out a reply.
"We-we-we captured eight-eight creatures, sir. Five appear to be human, one a Guardian. But two of the females were extremely unruly."
Alex released the man's collar, allowing him to stand up. He began adjusting the gauntlet on his left arm, pressing several buttons near the wrist. Kitch, now more nervous, began to rush his report, rapid-fire.
"One, I think she's Zionese, sir, she threw off Quid and Firefly, there, on the ground. Wendell and a couple of the others decided that she'd calm down in they threw her in The Hole, sir. They left her in there for fifteen minutes."
"A long time," said Alex, twisting a dial on the bracer.
"I agree with you whole-heartedly, sir. I think it was too long. Eventually, Mr. Hayder showed up, sir, and demanded that she be taken out of The Hole, and he took the girl away. If you want my opinion, sir, the girl was dead. Her tattooed arms and such were lifeless as a wet noodle, sir. I don't know what Mr. Hayder was looking to accomplish, but I know that dead is dead, sir."
Alex twisted a final dial on the bracer, and then looked at Kitch. "Hayder has his ways of performing the impossible, Mr. Kitch. Where is the first-mate now?"
"Should... Should be down the hallway, sir. In the cargo room next to Mr. Hayder's quarters. And sir, I believe the Shadow Warrior is in there, with them."
Alex paused for a moment, lowering his hand, much to Kitch's relief. "A Shadow Warrior?"
"Yes, sir," said Kitch. "A raven-haired woman who took four men to restrain. She started spouting off to one of the guardsmen, and well, you know how that can turn out, sir. Suddenly they pulled her from the cell, off for Hayder to interrogate, but she started pummeling her way through them like nothing. I know that Wendell has a bloody nose, and she may have broken Pushka's arm."
Alex was thinking. A raven-haired female Shadow Assassin. No... It couldn't be. The coincidence would just have been way too much. But still, he would have to see for himself. Perhaps he might find a way out of this situation, and off of this ship, after all.
He raised his hand again, and Kitch began to flinch. But then, he rested the hand on Kitch's shoulder. The man peeked, and then looked at the captain with surprise.
"Thank you for the information, Mr. Kitch," he said. "I expect this mess here to be cleaned up before I end this interrogation. If you need it, go get some help. But I'm sure you'll take care of this before I'm done, correct?"
"Sir, yes, sir. Captain, no problem, sir." Kitch immediately went to work, and the Captain made his way down the hallway.
He did not knock, but instead walked right past the cells, and and tried the door handle, pushing the door open, effortlessly.
The scene was more disarray. A tattooed woman stood in the opposite doorway of "Hayder's Lab," where the Captain knew the first-mate kept an array of potions, instruments, and other tools for his experiments. Alex assumed that this woman was the one that Hayder had brought back to life, especially considering her current raiment in Hayder's signature flamboyant style.
Hayder, meanwhile, stood over a bound woman, with a winged creature that Alex recognized as a Guardian seemingly assisting with the interrogation. In the corner were two crewmen, both unconscious, who looked to have been dragged there after a scuffle with, most likely, the woman in the chair.
And sure enough, the woman in the chair was none other than the blast from Alex's past - Najm Alam.
"Captain?" Asked Hayder suddenly.
"Out, Hayder," said the Captain sharply. "You and I will have words later. Keep the Guardian with you, and put this other prisoner back in her cell."
"But Captain, I'm not finished with the interrogation..." Alex raised his hand, and pressed the button that resided in the palm of the gloved bracer. Suddenly, a burst of energy fired from the device, and Hayder disintegrated, vanishing into nothing.
There was an audible shock, but then the real Hayder appeared from behind the tattooed prisoner, looking to see what had happened.
"You heard me, Hayder. I'm not in a good mood. Out."
Hayder obliged, taking the tattooed prisoner and the Guardian, and closing the door behind them. Alex, meanwhile, turned to the woman in the chair. He pulled his dagger from within his coat, and cut the ropes that she was bound with.
"Oh, hey," Angelus said, pretending not to care, "It's you. You're alive. Yay."
Lox narrowed her eyes in annoyance. She had nearly died and Angelus was still being a complete *sshole. Death would have probably been better than spending even a moment longer with her. She had probably known she was drowning the whole time and just let it happen. Technically, she wouldn’t be killing her and she had already made it obvious that she wouldn’t mind seeing her dead. Well, she got her wish. Angelus had complained that Lox’s thoughts were loud and Lox remembered the seriously sobering steps of coming to terms with her death for a long time before she drew her last breath. But what did Angelus care?
If she could be so cold about a person dying, then there really was no reason Lox should continue in any attempt to reconcile with her. She literally did not care if she died.
She wasn’t an angel. She was a demon.
"Anyway, to answer your question, this is an interrogation, on a pirate ship, in the sky," she said in a monotone air of detachment.
“Let Najm go. She’s a True One which is obviously something you are not.”
Angelus was staring at Lox’s hand which was getting brighter and brighter the more confused and angry she got. In fact now its brightness was bordering on violence.
"Um...why is your hand glowing?" she asked.
“Try to relax,” Hayder said. “You’ll hurt yourself.”
“And who the hell are you to tie up my friend?” Lox said obviously not hearing him.
Hayder started to answer when Angelus interrupted him.
"By the way," she said, turning to him, "While I may be unable to read your thoughts as long as you wear that necklace, sir, I think you should know that I can still hear Lox's, and she just spent the last ten minutes thinking REALLY loudly about how great it was making out with you."
Hayder was beginning to question Angelus’s value. She only seemed capable of telling him things he already knew. Swordsmanship was just one of his many talents. But he wouldn’t gloat, that would be ungentlemanly.
“You are really pathetic, Angelus,” Lox said annoyed that this flying demon could never find anything more constructive to do with her powers than to be an immature twat. Meanwhile her hand was eye-splittingly white. She was trying to figure out how she was going to untie Najm with her normal hand. “You would say something like that because you don’t know what it’s like. No one has ever liked you or will probably ever wanted you. And because you’re so childish and cruel, no one ever will.”
Hayder was surprised by all of this. A moment before he was about to introduce the two of them, but they obviously had a really rocky past. His face indicated that he thought both of their comments were uncalled for. Before he could reply, the door burst open.
"Captain?" Hayder was completely caught off guard. He realized how terrible the room looked. Everything was messed up and now the prisoners were unaccounted for. Usually he did a better job than this, but he had thought he had buried a sword in Alex’s side earlier today. The satisfaction of that action, with the subsequent let down that he was still alive, had thrown him off his game for most of the day.
"Out, Hayder," said Alex hissed.
Lox could not believe that she was staring at Kyle. Had he been in on this the entire time? The kidnappings, the interrogations, the violence? Now she understood why Angelus was always so angry with her, she had been in on it, too. She and Najm were the only ones who did not know about this little plot.
Hayder was livid. For one, this was his room. Hayder had specifically asked Alex if he wanted to interrogate the prisoners himself and he had sloughed the work onto his shoulders as usual. Of course the situation got out of hand! Hayder was one of the only people on the crew who seemed to have any combat training or the ability to think critically. Every time he tried to delegate a task to a crew member they screwed it up entirely. This frustration had been building in Hayder for months until sometimes he thought very seriously about poisoning Alex’s amber and watching him sail rapidly to the ground with a small push.
The fact that he would barge into his room, his space, and give him orders made him even angrier. It seemed unfair that Hayder had grown up with servants and now he was spoken to like a mongrel dog. Alex had no pedigree, was a terrible friend, and an even worse captain. He could have at least let him explain or brief him on the situation.
"You and I will have words later.” Alex said. Hayder’s jaw clenched and he furrowed his eyebrows. “Keep the Guardian with you, and put this other prisoner back in her cell."
What prisoner? Then he followed his line of sight and saw that he was referring to Lox, who was now staring at Alex with a look of utter disbelief. Now he looked like a buffoon in front of her and Alex had just made every effort to completely emasculate him.
But this was not entirely his fault. It was Alex’s idiotic men who had put her in the The Hole in the first place. Drexel was the navigator and Oxford was the wheelman, they sat across from each other day in and day out. Shouldn’t his bosom buddy have alerted someone? Hayder had never authorized her being put inside there and had no idea it was going on. With this type of disorganization a mutiny was imminent. When it came time for Alex to answer for his lack of leadership, Hayder would not step in anyone’s way.
"But Captain,” he said, finding his voice after pushing back a hundred horses of fury, “I'm not finished with the interrogation..." He should have said, “Not finished doing your job.”
Lox watched as Alex leveled his bracer and murdered Siris Hayder.
Siris who had been the only person who had shown her even the slightest bit of decency on this entire trip without spitting venom at her every five seconds.
The beam hit him squarely in the chest and Hayder was completely gone. She supposed Alex thought he was Han Solo and simply shot first. Hayder, on the other hand, had not even been holding his weapon.
“You coward!” Lox was in the middle of saying as she ran toward Kyle. But she didn’t get a chance to say what she meant or make contact with him. Hayder stepped from behind her in his bedroom and stopped her lunge. She struggled with him momentarily until she realized who it was.
She felt anger and relief. Anger at what Kyle had done and relief knowing that it hadn’t worked.
"You heard me, Hayder. I'm not in a good mood.” Alex clipped, “Out."
Hayder crossed the room and took Angelus firmly by the wrist. If his touch was hard, it wasn’t personal, he was just very angry. He took Lox by the crook of her arm and pushed her toward the door. His nostrils flared and his face barely masked his complete and utter contempt.
“As you wish, sir, you know best,” he said in a rattlesnake’s voice.
He closed the door behind them.
They were in the hallway for a few paces before he let them both go. As a multiplier, he really did not have to worry about a person running off on him.
“What is wrong with you two?” he said barely containing his anger.
“What is wrong with us?” Lox said also as angry. Mostly she was mad because her hand was still a searchlight that she couldn't turn off. “Angelus is obsessed with me and thinks that I’m going to kill her girlfriend, Fenris. I have no intentions of doing so but she continuously reads my mind and uses every thought I formulate to mock and humiliate me on a daily basis. What is wrong with the two of you?” she asked.
“Alex is the captain of this ship and I am the first mate. If anything goes wrong it is my fault, never his,” he said going back to his calm reserve. “I need to carry out my orders so I will have to take you to a cell.”
Lox was offended. “Are you serious, Siris? You’re going to let Kyle boss you around?”
“Who is Kyle?”
“Alex. Kyle Alexander Brogan. A very elaborate name if you ask me but it does flow well and usually long lasting characters have a middle name. Do you have a middle name, Siris?”
“Yes," Hayder said with a half grin. "Siris.”
She felt a little better. Then he couldn’t immediately die. Immediately, she had the grim thought that she only had one name. How long was she going to last out here?
“I must say that I was impressed by your display,” he said laughing. “You actually tried to tangle with Alex.”
“I thought you were dead. Angelus is the only other person I know. Nothing to lose, really.”
“Angelus,” he said turning to her, “My orders were to escort you out, but not incarcerate you. Though I would like to release you, Alex specifically asked me to keep you with me. You will have to follow me and watch Lox get locked up. I'm sorry, dear,” he was back to his old self in no time. Apparently, Alex’s disapproval was nothing new. "You don't mind, do you?"
Angelus was fairly certain that, by her current estimate, this day had weaseled it's way into the top five worst days of her life. It had everything really, her charge getting grievously injured, her being captured by a bloodthirsty pirate, said pirate falling in love with Lox, Lox continuing to be rude to her, really, all it needed now was a fight with her sister and the entire world collapsing and it would cleanly sweep the 'worst day ever' category of the annual Awful awards. In the hours following her capture, she had actually forgotten entirely about Lox, and she had started to think that her hatred of the girl was misplaced. Perhaps she wasn't worth the effort, the angel had thought, and perhaps they could use her recent death as a chance to reintroduce themselves to each other in the hope of restoring their ruined relationship. Instead Lox had come back even worse than before, and with an obnoxious glowing hand to boot. It was almost as if the Is had looked at it's creation, decided it was awful, but then decided that it needed to throw a couple more things on there to make it the absolute worst thing to ever exist. She would rather pass her time with the VoidBeast, and all he ever talked about was how he wanted to destroy every thing that had ever existed. "It's not a problem, sir," She said politely to Hayder, trying to keep her anger from showing through. She failed after all of five seconds of trying. "After all," She said, keeping her polite tone, "I'm just a cruel, childish little demon who no one has ever loved." Angelus had decided that, if she was ever asked, THAT statement was the reason she couldn't imagine reconciling her relationship with Lox. She had tried to compromise with her. She had tried to be nice to her. She had even tried to help in bringing her back to life. And the very first thing she had said to the little angel after all of that was the cruelest thing she could think of. Still, fighting with Lox was probably not the best way to get on her new employers good side. So she swallowed her anger and decided to focus on more important matters, like maintaining her relationship with Hayder and, if she could pull off a miracle, saving Najm. After all, unlike Lox, Najm was nice to her. "Sir," She said, managing to control her tone, "I apologize, that was out of line. Lox has a habit of bringing out the worst in me." This much was true, Angelus thought, although seeing her locked up might bring out the best in the little angel. Only time would tell. "To correct Ms...um, whatever Lox's last name...or is Lox a last name?...anyway, to correct her, I am NOT obsessed with her," She said, "She just decided that I was untrustworthy while we were travelling and it bothered me. As you may be aware, given your knowledge of guardians, I am succeptible to hearing the thoughts of others nearby. As I have tried to explain to Lox, it is very difficult for me to not use this ability, unless it is being blocked by artifacts such as your necklace." She eyed the necklace, wondering how exactly it worked. She had no intention of trying to get around it, unless Hayder gave her a reason to, but she was always fascinated by artifacts that hid one's mind, and she wondered what magic allowed it to hide Hayder's mental signature so absolutely. "Part of the reason I initially monitored her thoughts is that I had no idea what her intentions might be, and given my current charge's history, it was natural for me to assume that killing Fenris might be one of her objectives," The angel continued, "And furthermore, I don't aim to mock and humiliate her with statements related to her thoughts, I aim to tease, and given that Ms.Lox teases the rest of the group more than anyone else, I assumed she would be capable of taking as much as she dished out." The angel rolled her eyes, wishing that this statement was true. "Apparently I was wrong," She said. She looked at Hayder, who's expression revealed nothing, hoping to herself that he might understand her more than his lover. If he didn't, this would be a very difficult journey indeed. "Anyway, sir," She said, "I hope you will not hold my dislike of your friend against me. Given our arrangement I assume we will be working closely through the rest of this journey, and I wouldn't want my own personal opinions of your companions to ruin our working relationship." She had used the plural because she was fairly certain that she wasn't going to be a fan of Alex either. She wasn't exactly sure why, but people that pointed gauntlets that shot plasma at people that were nice to her weren't high on her list of 'people I think highly of'. Deciding that her apology was probably a lost cause, she decided to change her focus to trying to figure out what was happening with Najm. She tried to tune into Najm's wavelength, but another mental signature was overriding it, one that was filled with rage. This was not a quick, fiery rage like the rage of battle, but a pulsing, smoldering rage, not unlike the rage that Fenris held when she thought of her adopted father Odin. This was the rage of one seeking revenge, and there was a satisfaction to it that made it clear that said revenge was going to be exacted soon. Angelus heart fell. It seemed very likely to her that Najm was probably never going to leave that room. The only person outside of Fenris who had shown her any kindness in this realm, and she was about to be snuffed out like a candle in a hurricane. The angel shut her eyes, and found Najm's wavelength. She sent her one simple thought, wrapped with all the pain and sadness of her failure to protect one of the only people she could have been friends with on this journey. <Najm> She thought solemnly, <I'm sorry.>
“He was a close friend of mine, but he died a long time ago. How do you know of him?”
The pirate turned his back on the woman, and leaned against the bars. He took another pull of his brown pipe, and exhaled a plume of smoke into the air.
“Hmm. Cekic,” he paused in deep thought. “Cekic and I were brothers of the same cause. I’m pretty sure if you know…knew him you would know that he was a Maggie.”
He peeked back at the woman. “You can say we had that in common, only…So, we fought against the Elite Purist with one another, until his son was killed for being ‘impure’. After that he lost the will to fight…poor kid.”
The sky pirate moved from the cell’s bars and began to walk away. He stopped in the middle of the cell block and took one last pull on his pipe. He then looked back at the hazel eyed woman.
“Tell Cekic, Alban said it’s been too long,” he said smirking, and then walked away as the pipe’s smoke flowed behind him. __________________-_________________-_____________________-___________________-
Alban? That was it! That is where Arem knew him from. Tao’s description of him was spot on. Those green eyes. Yes, he knew the green eyes from when Tao described Alban to him. Arem shuffled towards the cell’s rusted bars, and looked on as the pirate disappeared up the small staircase which led to the deck.
“Dammit,” he mumbled.
“What it is?” Dougie asked, massaging his short, stubby legs.
“That was him.”
“Alban. Our meal ticket. Conveniently a pirate on this ship, and guess what? We’re the ones that are captured. Irony can go to hell,” Arem responded, still gazing at the staircase as if Alban would reappear.
“Not to mention Habeeb being in our bounty’s pocket. Now, how’s that for irony?” Dougie asked, standing up and stretching.
“Arrrrgggh!!! Eff Man!!!” Arem yelled out of frustration.
He walked back toward the wall, slammed his back against it, and sat down. Once again, he was sitting in this closeted cage. His bounty was gone, Habeeb was gone, and it seemed like everything that could have possibly go wrong did exactly that. He wondered what Habeeb was thinking now. Perhaps, he was panicking beneath the massive desert, feeling like those dusty dunes were about to crush him. If not, surely that was how Arem felt.
“Look on the bright side,” Dougie said, sticking his arms out of the bars. “At least we know where Alban is.”
Hayder looked down at the young woman as she replied, "It's not a problem, sir."
He was relieved she would not mind going. He did not really want to go himself, but he could not use his feelings as an excuse for not following Alex’s orders.
"After all," she added, "I'm just a cruel, childish little demon who no one has ever loved."
“It’s whom,” Lox said under her breath.
Hayder, didn’t hear and couldn’t understand why Angelus would say such a thing. He patted her on the back, reassuringly. She was a child, after all, no one should be kissing her but there must be someone who did love her. “Don’t worry, dear, when you get older you’ll find someone who sees how special you are.” Then he paused considering that Angelus might be completely grown, “And if you are already grown up, men are a lot of trouble.”
Lox half smiled. She remembered being a kid and wanting a guy’s attention. She wouldn’t have tattled on someone who got that attention, though.
Hayder, a wise man with common sense, knew that there would be no positive outcome for any man that chose sides in an argument between two women. He remained quiet on the subject because he did not want to be the target of their contempt. Women had a weird way of going back and forth with one another then accidentally destroying the wrong target. If they were men, they would just fight one another or play basketball. There would be no reason to be overly dominant or passive aggressive. He was actively planning to kill Alex, for example, he wasn’t leaving nasty notes on his bathroom mirror.
"Sir,” she said as they turned a corner, “I apologize, that was out of line. Lox has a habit of bringing out the worst in me."
Hayder stole a glance at Lox, but her face was impassive. He hadn’t expected her to behave this way. She had been so charming earlier. Maybe that statement was true for them both.
"To correct Ms... um, whatever Lox's last name... or is Lox a last name?”
“It is,” said Hayder.
Lox sighed, braiding and unbraiding a few strands of hair.
“...anyway, to correct her, I am NOT obsessed with her," she said. "She just decided that I was untrustworthy while we were travelling and it bothered me. As you may be aware, given your knowledge of guardians, I am susceptible to hearing the thoughts of others nearby.”
“Yes,” Hayder agreed, holding open a door for them both.
“As I have tried to explain to Lox, it is very difficult for me to not use this ability, unless it is being blocked by artifacts such as your necklace."
He felt her looking at his necklace and wondered if he should guard it more closely. Why had Lox been suspicious, after all? He kept trying to read her face, but she was staring straight ahead, her expression all horizontal lines. She obviously had a lot on her mind.
"Part of the reason I initially monitored her thoughts is that I had no idea what her intentions might be, and given my current charge's history, it was natural for me to assume that killing Fenris might be one of her objectives.”
Lox cut in, “Why would I—”
Hayder pressed his fingers to her wrist and she let Angelus finish.
"And furthermore, I don't aim to mock and humiliate her with statements related to her thoughts, I aim to tease, and given that Ms. Lox teases the rest of the group more than anyone else, I assumed she would be capable of taking as much as she dished out. Apparently I was wrong," she said.
“Tease me about my hair, my clothes, my accent. Why do you always have to go to my thoughts? It’s cheap because I can’t do it back. If you’re going to tease someone, what you say has to be funny or clever. I thought we could work it out but you didn’t care that I died and you put me on blast in front of a room full of people. That was the last straw.”
Lox fell silent again. She put her hand in her pocket and her whole left side was glowing a soft purple through the fabric in her pants.
Hayder had heard both arguments. He was carefully calculating what Angelus had said. She monitored Lox’s thoughts because Lox was leery of her. When he had met her, Lox had absolutely no fear of or apprehension for him and he had a sword while she was defenseless. What about Angelus had made her so uncomfortable? Angelus had assumed that Lox would kill her partner. That might be true, Hayder thought. Lox was now very obviously an animator and in that case she was lethal. She had launched herself at Alex after seeing him disintegrate someone. That meant she was also very bold. But who was right? He realized that there was a lot about Lox that he did not know. What had Angelus seen in her that made her think she was a killer? He would have to ask her for the low down later.
Hayder continued his thoughts. Lox, on the other hand, felt like she was being victimized by Angelus. That comment about kissing had been a little off-color. He had wanted to keep that secret. After all, a gentleman never tells. Lox would have to learn to control her thoughts around Angelus. On the other hand, Lox had just very recently teased him about his hair. He had made fun of her for pouting and she had made fun of her clothes. In both cases they had gotten a laugh out of it. Maybe Angelus and Lox simply did not have the same sense of humor.
He came to his conclusion. This was fixable.
"Anyway, sir," she said, "I hope you will not hold my dislike of your friend against me. Given our arrangement I assume we will be working closely through the rest of this journey, and I wouldn't want my own personal opinions of your companions to ruin our working relationship."
“You all have a history that precedes me. There is no law that states that you all must like one another,” they finally made it to the jails. “However, you are expending a lot of energy disliking one another. You are both charming, beautiful women with no reason to compete with each other. You might consider getting along.”
Lox looked at Angelus and wondered if that was even possible.
“Follow me,” he said. Hayder led Lox to the cleanest cell there was. That was similar to saying the least sandy sandbox.
The bars were black and the walls were a dingy gray.
This was really happening. Lox felt terrible. Hayder and Angelus stood on the other side as Lox entered. She wondered if she would ever leave the cell after walking in. She sat on the only piece of furniture in the room. It was a white medical cot.
She put her head in her hands, trying to suppress the sudden panic she was feeling being imprisoned by these people again.
Hayder sat beside her.
“I’m sorry about this,” he said wrapping his arm around her waist.
Somehow he knew she would try to be tough and shrug it off. “Sorry about what? It’s not your fault. It is what it is.”
“Can I give you some advice?” he asked.
She groaned. “It better be a way to turn my hand off.”
He continued in Zionese. “Don’t be like me, Lox. Don’t burn all your bridges.”
“She is unfair,” she replied in the same language. “She persecutes her enemies and interrogates her friends. The only thing I asked her to do is stop reading my thoughts,” she said. “She won’t.”
“Maybe she can, maybe she can’t.”
“She has no respect for my privacy. What am I supposed to do? Stop thinking? I live in my head. I can’t do that.”
“Did you just say you can’t do something? What did you call me?” Hayder asked in mock disbelief. “Oh yes, coward.”
Lox sat up straighter. “Don’t be ridiculous.”
“Then control your thoughts.”
“I don’t know how,” she admitted.
“Then someday I shall teach you. Until that day,” Hayder took off his necklace. He had always told himself he would never give up this necklace. His father was the most powerful telepath he had ever encountered and without this necklace it would be hard to make a move around him. He knew exactly what Lox was going through. He had simply survived the ordeal, but in doing so his life had been ruined.
Hayder resumed the guard he had held up against his father for decades, clearing his mind so that all his musings translated to nothing. He pulled her hair back and put the bright chain around her neck. “Will you hold on to this for me?” he asked in English.
She hid a smile. “Yes, but it will cost you.”
“Anything,” he said.
“Can I have my dog?”
“You would pick the hardest thing, wouldn’t you? You couldn’t ask for riches or fame. An animal is your selection.”
“Riches and fame? Siris, Are you a genie or the first mate?” She followed him to the door and he slowly closed it shut.
“I won’t keep you long, Miss Lox,” said Hayder. He kissed the back of her hand through the bars and the light went off. “Think about what I said.”
Lox stepped back into the jail and was almost invisible in the darkness. “I will.”
She watched Angelus and Hayder walk down the hallway and away. He was so tall compared to her it was almost comical.
Hayder turned to Angelus. “I need to find a dog.” He said this absurd thing in true Angelus fashion, as if it were the most logical statement in the world. “To make it up to you, we'll walk through the cosway and I will show you the most beautiful view from the ship." Hayder could not go back to his quarters anyway and the tension between Lox and Angelus was almost physical. It might be nice to show an angel the heavens.
They walked through a breezeway. It was like a grand obsevation deck. A complete panoramic view of the skyline was on display. He watch Angelus take it in while carefully lighting his cigar.
"Let’s play the question game. I’ll start. Ask me anything. Don’t worry about it being too personal. If I can’t answer, I’ll let you know why not.” Hayder said. He was truly interested in the young woman and had the unique ability to get along seamlessly with people who could not get along. This was not an unusual situation on a pirate ship.
The rumbling above him began to shake him from his unconsciousness. How long had he been out? Days? A week? Longer? His right arm was still in a lot of pain, but at least he could move his fingers. That meant that he hadn't lost the limb, and that meant that it would probably heal in time.
Pain is good, he tried desperately to convince himself. As long as there's pain, it means I'm still alive.
His left arm, on the other hand, was relatively fine. While any extreme exertion would cause a bolt of agony to fire through his body, he could still maneuver the left hand with relative ease. He looked at his side, and was relieved to see that the blood had slowed, and that the mediera was doing its job nicely. Though the pain was still great, he could move himself a little.
He didn't feel like he was in perfect condition, but he felt as if he could sit up if he tried.
But he didn't want to try.
Above him, a rather odd-looking craft was coming to rest nearby, in a small clearing just to the north. It was a smaller vehicle, which looked to be carried beneath a large, balloon-shaped contraption. Despite the many travels that Kyle had been on, never before had he seen such a thing.
And that was to say nothing about the man who stepped out of the craft itself. He was dressed in a coat, boots, and gloves, and had goggles securely fastened over his eyes. If Kyle didn't know any better, he would have assumed the man was some kind of motorcyclist, or automotive enthusiast. He'd never really taken the time to study the history of the modern world, but considering that he'd always worn glasses while on his motorcycle, this man would have almost fit that same description.
The man surveyed the metal anchor of his craft, apparently making sure that it was secure, so that his floating machine didn't just up and leave without him. Satisfied, the man took a seat on a rock, and lit up a cigarette.
Kyle didn't move, instead watching the man motionlessly through slitted eyes. The man just seemed to stare, weighing his options and trying to decide on a course of action. Frankly, Kyle was a little annoyed - Why didn't the man have the decency to at least check and see if the wounded man would be alright?
Finally, it looked as if the man in goggles had finally made a decision. He stepped over to Kyle's fallen body, and crouched next to him. Kyle closed his eyes in time, but heard the sounds of the man rustling through his clothing, and assumed that he might be retrieving an ointment, or perhaps some water.
“Of all the places...”
Instead, he suddenly felt the heat of the man's cigarette pierce into his right shoulder. The flame burned into Kyle's flesh, and his teeth grit involuntarily.
Kyle's eyes opened, and focused on a weapon pointed directly at his forehead. Some type of pistol. He saw the man kneeling there, his finger on the trigger, but the hand was steady. It was obvious that the man wasn't afraid to use the weapon, but Kyle felt no compelling reason to allow that thought to be tested.
He opened his left hand slowly, and could feel time begin to slow. But because of his injuries, he could feel the effect wearing away rather quickly. In a flash, he whipped his left hand to the pistol, and ripped it from the goggled man's fingers. Spinning the weapon, he aimed it right back at his new adversary, but his hand was infinitely less-steady.
"Not the greatest welcome I've ever had waking up," deadpanned Kyle. He looked up at the man, but was struggling to keep the weapon aimed correctly. He just wanted to rest again.
"Look," said Kyle slowly, the pain in his voice betraying his rather vulnerable state. "I don't want to hurt you. I need help. I can barely feel my right hand, and my legs are plenty weak. Plus, there's been a sizable hole ripped into my side, if you can't tell. And now, thanks to you, I've got a new cigarette burn to heal from."
Kyle was a little desperate. He needed a way out of this forest, and here was a man with a craft that could provide him that. He needed to take action.
"I understand your worry," said Kyle. "But we've got to move. Whomever that idiot was that attacked me may have had friends. I don't know who you are, but I can assure you, if he can overpower me, he'll overpower you. So can you get us out of here? Or do I have a new friend to join me bleeding here in the woods?"
“Hmm Cekic.” His eyes looked off as he pondered the name.
His eyes seemed to flash with familiarity of the name as if it were painted on his memories long ago. He drew again from the end of his pipe.
“Cekic and I were brothers of the same cause,” he continued, exhaling thick tendrils of smoke through the parting of his lips. “I’m pretty sure if you know---“he paused and shot a glance Najm’s way with an arched eyebrow, then looked off once more.
“Knew,” he sarcastically corrected, “him, you would know he was a Maggie.”
Maggie was the word used to indicate a magician in Imperial City. It was sort of akin to that of a racial slur, lingo only used by those inhabitants. This man had grazed that realm, but what brought him to Araaf?
He smirked to himself, recalling a memory. He looked off the corner of his eye at her. “You can say we had that in common, only…so we fought against the Elite Purist with one another, until his son was killed for being impure.”
Never play the game with something to lose. It was something Cekic often said to her. Words of regret that really did not make much sense until…until now. She had something to lose. She was pulling Cekic down the same road all over again, only this time, she was Cekic.
Now she understood why he was so angry when she told him she had to go that day. Why he pleaded with her to stay in injured tones. He understood all along that he was treading the same path he tried to abandon so long ago, but he never said it plainly to her. Why? Perhaps the disparity in their ages gave him the advantage to look at the bigger picture, but what was it that sealed his lips even after seeing things for what they were?
“After that, he lost the will to fight….”
Did this mean she was going to end up like him? Son dead, leaving behind a failure to thrive and lack of ambition? Why was she do dumb?!
The pirate pulled himself away from the bars of Arem’s cell and began to walk away. Najm looked over to him. She wanted to call out after him, but something inside her made her bite back on her words. Somehow, he seemed to sense her call, stopping midway of the cell block and taking another long pull at the edge of his pipe. Over his shoulder he looked at the woman and after what seemed like an eternity of some sort of secret understanding, the pirate began walking again.
“Tell Cekic, Alban said it has been too long.” Smoke parted over his shoulders and ran down his back like narrow, gray rivers in his wake.
The entrance of her cell was suddenly thrown open and a group of pirates quickly hovered around her like vultures, scooping her up within their arms and dragging her from the dimly lit hole in the wall. Where ever the hell they were taking her, she was not going to make it easy for them. For all she knew, they could be planning to gang rape her.
She kicked and screamed, crushing the nose of one of the pirates with the heel of her boot and elbowing the other across his face so hard she saw the speed knot begin to blossom on his forehead. Both of the pirates staggered away from her, and she tried to make a run for it, but again their huge hands seemed to wrap around her limbs twice as they hauled off to the unknown.
Smash! Kick! Slam! Smack! She felt like an old batman flic, pumbling her foes in vividly colored words that splayed themselves across the screen. She knew she had to break one of their orbital bones, for the pirate’s eye swelled up to about the size of a watermelon. He, of course like any man with a damaged ego, smashed her in the face with a fist of his own, and she fell back a bit dazed from the attack.
She hadn’t been punched like that since…well since Kyle had snuffed her back on the roof. Cursed men. Why were they so damn strong?
They brought her into a room and flung her into a chair, tightly binding her wrists in front of her. They then stepped back and looked upon her as if she was some kind of masterpiece of their handiwork, all of them, their chest heavily rising and falling in unison. They parted to reveal a man with hair as blue as a treasure troll’s and clothes as ornate as that troll’s treasure.
He looked at her off the top of his eyes, graveyard serious. But how could he be? He had blue hair!
“I know about your kind.” His voice was deep and raspy. “I know what you do and how you operate. Lurking. Killing. You’re no better than we are. What is a shadow assassin doing as the captive of sky pirates? Have you completely fallen off of your game? I would have expected better from an Eastlander,”
Who the hell was this kid and how did he know she was a shadow assassin?
Najm tasted a bit of blood on her lip as she opened her mouth to retort. She was bleeding? Damn sky pirates.
“Fallen off my game?” she mocked indignantly. “Have you seen your men? They look like rodeo clowns when I was done with them.”
She crossed her legs and leaned forward, lifting her bound hands. “I may be bound, but please don’t let this fool you. If you want me to coo my oh my what big teeth you have, it’s not going to happen. You don’t intimidate me.” She lowered her hands. “So let’s do each other a favor and skip the bullshit, and you can begin with telling me exactly what the hell am I doing here.”
The corner of his mouth was turned up. He was obviously amused by her sass.
She made a quick sweep of the room and noticed Angelus in the corner completely unbound, watching the little scene intently. She seemed to be a bit embarrassed, shrinking from Najm’s accusing gaze. She hoped beyond hope that Angelus was not working with this treasure troll. What had gotten into her?
“I see some of the party,” she motioned to Angelus with a nod of her head, “has been easily swayed.”
Two pirates barged in the room, the female of the two of motioning the cross at the sight of the angel. The man, however, winked at Najm before having a brief exchange with his chief, the treasure troll. Then the most bizarre thing happened. A second treasure troll came waltzing through the door drenched from head to toe, clutching Lox in his hand like some precious chalice of some sort.
She was definitely dead.
He reprimanded his subordinates and tore through the doors of a room adjacent to the one they occupied.
The pirates on the other hand stood like shivering mice in the furthest corner of the room, their eyes as wide as hush puppies. Obviously, their chief was not exactly a man they wanted to toy with. The original treasure troll stood creepily still, his menacing gaze fixed on the two as if he was going to devour them whole. They retreated and bowed out of the room like poor people do when you give them a bit of food or some form of currency.
“So, I see you are not only a treasure troll, but a magical one at that,” joked Najm.
The blue-haired man gave a sarcastic laugh. “Treasure troll, very original.”
“And you Angelus,” Najm never turned around to look at her, “I have to say I’m rather surprised at your choice of friends. Let’s just hope you are not too off your rocker.”
Angelus opened her mouth at her defense, but joker motioned for her to keep silent. He knew Najm was trying to gauge her position in this little play of his, and he apparently wanted the mystery to persist. He was trying to keep Najm in the dark before he made his attack. Pretty clever.
“A shadow assassin of Alva’s, am I correct?”
Never play the game with something to lose.
“What is it to you?”
“Just checking if my years of experience serve me well,” he said rather indifferently. “But you would not happen to be the infamous daughter, would you? Exiled from Elderin.”
That stung, and he saw the fleeting look of pain in Najm’s hazel eyes.
“You see, right there.” He smiled devilishly through clenched jaw muscles. “You and I have that in common.”
“I’m sorry, I don’t have blue hair.”
“Nor do you have my style, but we do share a similar history.”
Najm shrugged. “And what of it? I’m not going to play fallen angel like this one over here and be your partner based on a minor similarity.”
“I’m just showing that I can empathize.”
Manipulative son of a b*tch. She had trekked that road before with the Elite Purists. It was not exactly a walk in the park either. She was not about to play that role again.
The door to his chamber opened and Lox came sauntering pass its threshold dressed like a highly functional crack-head. Her hair color had even changed!
“Is that what you are trying to do?! Turn me into a treasure troll?! You can’t be serious.”
“What the hell is this?” Asked Lox.
“Oh hey. It’s you. You’re alive, yay,” said Angelus sarcastically
That feud hadn’t obviously died.
Lox narrowed her eyes at her. She could tell, for it was written all over her face, she wanted to deck the tooth fairy in the corner, but she was too far. A few more feet and she would have been giving change for he own fallen enamel.
"Anyway, to answer your question, this is an interrogation, on a pirate ship, in the sky," continued Angelus in a monotone air of detachment.
“Let Najm go. She’s a True One which is obviously something you are not,” retorted Lox.
Oh no, not this again.
The two birdies began plucking at each other, the man in the middle playing referee.
Then the doors parted once more, hopefully for the last time. And like a kid with a magnifying glass, fate decided to darken her day with not only an ominous cloud, but a chance of rain.
Kyle Brogan, the pain in her a$$, came walking through the door dressed, well, dressed like a pirate with his own modern spin on it. He seemed to be bothered. No, rather he seemed thoroughly pissed.
Why was he roaming the ship free? No. Don’t tell her…
“Captain?” the blue-haired man acknowledged with the tilt of his head.
Captain?! What the hell was going on here?! First Angelus and now Kyle, dammit even Lox had not been bound. It seemed as if Dougie, Arem, Fenris---if she was bound wherever she was--- and her were the only ones being treated like criminals.
“Out Hayder.” His words cut through Hayder’s with as much venom as a viper, but he never took his eyes off of Najm. Both of their hazel orbs spoke mountains as they stared at each other. Hers bled with contempt, his a much milder form.
"You and I will have words later. Keep the Guardian with you, and put this other prisoner back in her cell." He was issuing orders so smoothly as if had had been in this position of captain for years. Something wasn’t adding up.
"But Captain, I'm not finished with the interrogation..." Kyle blasted him to dust and his original stood at the threshold of the chamber with Lox.
"You heard me, Hayder. I'm not in a good mood. Out."
Hayder conceded to his demand with a slight bow and led both of the girls out of the room. The door shut behind him, making an audible thud that penetrated the silence of the room. It was the preface to one of their many episodes.
He walked up to her, dagger in hand, and unleashed her from her bondage.
“Hello, Najm. It’s been a long time.”
Actually, it had only been a few hours, but obviously that was more than enough time for him to defect to the other side. He wore the roll well, perhaps too well for Najm’s liking.
She had been here before, only this time she wasn’t cuffed to a head board. She could strangle him in one quick motion. End his life and thus end their feud. But this time was different. She almost killed Cekic for believing in the same sort of treason. Maybe it was time for a different approach. Besides, she was tired. Motherhood had taken something from her.
She rubbed her wrists. “I have to say, I’m quite surprised you didn’t leave me bound like last time.”
He looked at her a bit puzzled.
She sighed and looked up at him. “What are you doing here Kyle?”
She was upset. “This isn’t you, I mean come on. Although I don’t like to admit it, the Kyle I know would never side with a group like this.”
She tried to understand first, something she had never tried before with him. In fact, she never really gave him a chance every time they had an encounter. The default had always been to try and slit his jugular. Granted, he was a jacka$$, but everyone deserved a chance, at least for an explanation, right?
These feelings were alien to her. She wanted to scream, who’s the traitor now, then tear him a new one, but what of it? Where would that get her? She was still his prisoner and everyone had to bite the bullet every now and then. Besides, she had taken the wrong side too once, and although she knew, undoubtedly, that he did not share the same reasons as her, there probably was something there in his heart that made him do it. Or perhaps something that went missing.
Angelus was experiencing a whirlwind of emotions, and sorting them out was proving to be a problem. The trick was really figuring out which emotion, and which experience, mattered most at the moment. The first step to figuring out how she should be feeling then, she decided, was to sort through each of her emotions and the experience tied to them. First on her list was curiosity regarding Hayder. After all, he was a mysterious man, and he seemed to be a walking contradiction. He was upright, polite, a gentleman, and yet he was a marauding pirate prone to fits of rage. He was her captor, but also her employer. He seemed untrustworthy, and yet she found his company appealing, and he was nicer to her than many people she considered friends. Figuring out the various contradictions that made up Hayder, and which half of each held true would be difficult, and Angelus wondered how she would view the man when she had a more complete picture of him. Her next emotion was anger at Lox. This was simple enough, Lox continued to annoy her by continuing to be Lox, and she seemed unwilling to give any ground on that front. The fact that her venom had gained more bite didn't encourage the angel to give her another chance. And finally, there was regret. Regret that she'd allowed herself to be captured. Regret that she had allowed Fenris to be injured. Regret that she had not made life easier for the rest of the party when negotiating with Hayder, and,most pressingly at current, regret that she had disappointed Najm. She had hoped that she could be friends with the Shadow Assassin, and that perhaps she could use Najm as an example for Fenris to follow. Najm had been kind to her when no one else would. And now she seemed to hate the little angel almost as much as Lox. That regret threatened to become all encompassing. After all, Angelus had struggled so hard to make friends, and now she was losing one of the only ones she had. Still, there was no point focusing on that regret now. Najm was furious at the moment, and she wouldn't listen to Angelus' defense of herself, and her anger was aimed at everyone. If she survived her interrogation there would be time to sort things out. Which reminded Angelus that she really ought to find some way to help Najm's chances of survival. She just couldn't think of a way to manage that at the moment, after all, Alex, or Kyle, or whoever the captain was, would probably reduce her into nothingness before she could react if she warped back into the room. So now she stood in the air, her regret hanging over her like a cloud, wondering what to do. Hayder chose this exact moment to return from Lox's cell to answer that question for her. "I need to find a dog," He said. Angelus naturally assumed that he meant Nubie, but joking was in her commentary, and she was about to ask if a white beagle would do when she noticed that something was missing from Hayder's dress, something important. He was no longer wearing his necklace. Which, she realized, she should have noticed immediately. After all, the normally loud thoughts of Lox had suddenly gone silent. As much as Lox probably thought Angelus would miss them, she was glad for the change. Not hearing someone think that they hated her was very relieving. But what meant more to the angel was what it meant for Hayder. It meant that he trusted her enough not to intrude on his thoughts. This trust was probably rooted more in his own belief that he could keep her from seeing anything he didn't want her to, but the gesture of trust was still there, and she was thankful for it. By removing his necklace he left himself vulnerable, and she was certain he knew as well as she did that one slip would reveal all of his greatest secrets to her. The fact that he did not seem to be concerned that she would try to use that against him comforted her. It was nice to be trusted once more, and it gave her more of a reason to like Hayder. It was enough to almost make her forget that she needed to guard herself against him just as much as he needed to protect his thoughts from her abilities. He led her through the ship, eventually leading her to a breezeway that revealed a full view of the sky that waited outside. For a moment, Angelus forgot herself. Her worries, her regrets, her fears, all vanished, giving way to an all encompassing joy that she had forgotten. The joy of being surrounded on all sides by the vivid blue of the midday sky. It was not quite the same as when she flew, but she had forgotten the joy of looking out at the world from this height. She had forgotten the way it made the whole of creation seem small, and how it made even the most insurmountable threat seem minuscule and unworthy of concern. When she had been younger, flight had been her way of escape. The sky was a symbol of freedom to her, and while she was still trapped behind the glass and metal that held her, seeing the sky again gave her a taste of that freedom once more. It was a sweet taste, and one she could easily lose herself in forever. She would have remained lost in her reverie for the rest of the day had Hayder not pulled her back to reality. "Let’s play the question game. I’ll start. Ask me anything. Don’t worry about it being too personal. If I can’t answer, I’ll let you know why not.” He said. Angelus considered this proposal. It was one she had no problem with, she could think of no question he could ask that she would be uncomfortable answering, and she had so many questions about him she wanted to have answered. If he would give them freely, she would accept. It was much simpler than hoping that he would accidentally let one of his answers escape from his mind. She considered for a moment, trying to think of a good question. She bit her urge to ask what he saw in Lox, and instead remembered her own interrogation. She remembered the image of a young Hayder, soaked in the blood of a great beast, and knew that, while he would likely not answer, she had to ask. "Sir," She said carefully, hoping the question would not upset him, "When you were validating my telepathic abilities you accidentally showed me an image between the legs of our journey. It was an image of you soaked in the blood of a monster. You were very young. I was wondering if you might tell me what that was about?" She knew that he would likely refuse to answer, but it was one of the most curious things about him. She wondered what his past had been like, and what had led him to this point. And she wondered why that memory was so potent to him. If she could figure that out, then perhaps she could figure out some of the things that motivated her new employer.
Exile looked out into the reflecting pool; a great skyship cut its way through swaths of clouds like some ethereal ocean. Exile had once known that joy. The privilege of living in a world the vast majority of Illusiona would never see.
"I am no help to them now.” He cast his gaze away from the pool and out into the void. "I am Exile, and unworthy of a place in that world any longer."
Teller called out to him. "You know that isn't true. You were part of that world once. You can be part of it again."
Exile roared. "Look at me! I am a shade of myself, and you were the one who did this to me! My fate was in your hands Teller and you abandoned me!"
The void was silent for a time. Exile had never seen Teller, but he felt his presence. He was aware of it like he was aware of breathing. It was not something that could be noticed until it was already gone. And it was not until he was abandoned that he felt Teller's absence for the first time. It was like he had been forced under water and kept there for years, and he had not felt whole until Teller returned to him in the void. But he would never feel whole again. Not now.
"I was wrong to leave this world." said Teller, his voice echoing off some unseen surface in the distance. Exile didn’t answer him. He made his way from the shifting waters that were his only window into a world he had once been a part of, but now only knew in passing, watching through a window. Each step left a ripple in the hard obsidian ground, a path back to his watchtower over the world.
“You were. But you could fix it.” Exile stopped and turned skyward. He didn’t know where the voice came from, the echo seemed omnipresent. But it seemed appropriate. “You’ve told me that you’ve changed things before, created them.”
“It is true I can effect change within that world, and others hidden from your verse.” said Teller. “But there are other things that are out of my grasp of talent.”
“You’ve created entire worlds! You’ve told me about them! But you can’t fix me; one miserable being!?” Exile screamed into the night.
“It is the way of my kind.” Teller said slowly, explaining himself. We all have the power to create worlds, and in the world of our creation we have powers the likes of which you’ve never seen. Cities rise and fall with a thought, the minds of kings and beggars alike turn at our every whim and command. But I did not create your world; my power is greatly diminished here. It is true there are some small things I can do, but you are bound to the rules of your world as surely as my kind is bound by the rules of the ‘Verse. I cannot help you friend, but I can at least bring you back. There may still be answers for you in Illusiona.”
Exile sighed, resigning himself to defeat. He was furious that a god would claim such great power, and be unable to alter the physical state of someone as small as him. He didn’t quite buy it, but if anyone he knew in Illusiona had answers, they would be on that ship.
“I won’t make you go there. But I can show you the way.”
A rift tore open in the empty space in front of Exile, shedding light more light into the void than had been seen there in millennia, truly revealing its inhabitants for the first time. Exile stepped into the glow of the rift and removed his tattered tunic, stretching like a man who spent his life fighting, and was ready to get off the sidelines.
He stood taller than he had in years, and flexed his muscles, unfolding the remains of wiry wings from his back. They would never carry him now, singed, featherless, and broken as they were, but they had remained unopened for too long. He stepped into the rift, and with a gust of wind it shut closed behind him, leaving only the void, and a disembodied voice.
Regus burst from his shop and into the crowded city streets. Zion was awash in cries of delight and celebration. Above him, the sky was on fire.
“Do you have the equipment?” he called over his shoulder.
“You just worry about keeping those powders separate.” called Skratch, “I’d rather this night not be cut short with me rebuilding my arm.”
Another explosion rocked the night, and another round of cheers rang through the streets nearly as loudly. It was time for the Festival in Zion, and every man woman and child was in the street, or hanging out of windows, or shouting on rooftops at the sudden release, the altogether expected swelling of magic through the city streets. Regus and Skratch ran through the crowds, past self-performing puppet shows, magical fountains that needed no source to pump, flames that were cool to the touch juggled themselves, and all around all manner of magical chaos ensnared the collective spirit of Zion on this the most wonderful of nights.
The duo reached the top of a nearby rise, in a small park where someone had turned the grass blue, and a quartet of lutes played themselves five feet in midair, and unloaded their wares onto their cart. Exotic looking statues and powders of many colors and grains were laid out before them, and they had all night with which to burn them. Above, the sky still flamed five colors of the rainbow, a cavalcade of pyromagi unleashing their talents above the city in a display of chromatic pageantry.
“So do we bring my cousins to life first?” asked Skratch, gesturing at the animatronics, “Or do we start our show?” He raised a copper eyebrow, and the wires that formed his lips spread wide, ready for his first Festival fully completed. Regus had created many toys, or robots for service throughout Zion, but to call Skratch a robot would be an untruth, and to call him an android would almost seem an insult, like calling a person a monkey. The copper, bronze and silver plated concoction of gears had a life to it, and not just by design. Skratch had been brought to life with magic, the gears were merely a shell that held him together, the way a human body holds a soul. Regus had first brought him consciousness three Festivals ago, and had only this year deemed him complete, ready to join him and perform as a partner, and not just an attraction.
He's ready for this.
“Light up the little ones. I’ll prep for the clouds.” Skratch moved slowly to each toy statue and cupped them in his hands one by one. As he held each one leather pads on his fingers began to glow a deep navy blue, and when each statue was returned to the cart, it began to move with a life of its own. Miniature street performers began to juggle miniature balls, birds flew in complex aerial patterns around the cart, and a six foot dragon coated in jade roamed the hillside, blowing more heatless fire into the air in a rainbow of colors.
In all the commotion sat Regus, calm in a world suddenly gone mad with delight. People were slowly starting to crowd around his cart, relishing the chance to once again see the magimechanical marvels that he created. Regus’ arms and hands were blurred flashes round the cart, glowing pale green as he reached into the dozen containers he’d brought with him, combining and recombining them into small pouches and setting them to the side. Before long, he had a large pile of ‘magic in a bag’, several empty containers, and a not so small crowd of Zionese gathered round, hoping to see something else spectacular tonight.
“Let’s not disappoint them.” Regus said with a smile.
“I don’t think you’re capable of downplaying yourself Reggie.” said Skratch.
Skratch turned toward the audience and bowed, Regus pulled on a pair of fingerless gloves, and the show began.
The ivory silk robe fell upon his shoulders as the servant dressed him for the meeting. The elegant fabric flowed down to the marble floor of the House of the Eastlands, and dragged behind him as he walked towards the mirror. His strong jaw clenched at the sight of himself. He still did not wear the robe of a king, but the robe of a subordinate beneath his arrogant mother. It was no surprise that she abhorred the ground that he treaded, and spat in his face with callous words and evil sayings as if the devil wielded her tongue. She was envious of his masculinity and tried arduously to break him so that he would become a little boy under her tyrannous thumb. What she did not perceive was that he still was her son, and he possessed every trait that she praised in herself. He would never capitulate to her cunning oppressiveness, nor would he back down. The Eastlands would soon be his, whether she was dead or alive.
There was a knock on the door and one of the female servants entered with her head bowed.
“Son of the Empress, the meeting will begin in a few minutes,” she uttered, and then exited the quarters.
Son of the Empress. So, that is what she reduced his name to. Only the son of the Empress, not a king or an emperor himself! That senile bat will soon come to know, she will soon realize that the discredit of her son will cause her great descent from grace, although, many snares would be in his path as he tried to tear down her throne piece by piece. She had many connections in Illusionia and the realms, but little to her knowledge, he was building up his chain of associates that will be at his service like a loyal army of soldiers. She will fall, and he will see to it, no matter what the sacrifices.
He fixed his collar and the cuffs of his sleeves, and opened the door. Down several staircases and beyond many doors, he now stood in front of a thin, white curtain at the entrance of the meeting hall. Two servants quickly moved submissively and parted the curtain, revealing the Great Hall of the Eastlands. Several officials and his mother, the Empress, sat at a massive table like that of the Knights of the Roundtable. They stared at him as he entered and took his place at the other end of the table, across from his mother.
Magdalena sat at the head of the table with all the pomposity in all of Illusionia. She wore a similar ivory robe as the officials and Tao, only her collar was studded with rings of gold. Her hair was tightly pushed back in an ornate bun, and a gold chain ran through her black hair.
As she spoke, her voice resonated throughout the hall. “It is an honor that we have lived to meet today, and what a pleasure that I could see such great officials,” she extended her hand in the air to her son, “and my son, once again.”
“May she live on, Empress Magdalena,” they all said in unison. Tao, however, said it with a smirk on his face.
Magdalena placed her hand upon her heart out of false humbleness, and lowered her head. “Pray speak the issues that are of great concern.”
A graying official with deep wrinkles near his eyes responded. “Yes, my Empress, one of the concerns of the House of the Eastlands is the association with Zion. It has been known to me for some time that there have been many dealings of magic occurring there. The question that I pose to you, my Empress, is whether the Eastlands will deal in such magic?”
“Our alliance with Zion should not affect the way the Empire of the Eastlands conduct their rule. However, Official Morimoto, you have failed to mention the strict rule in which Zion is governed by. Magic is practiced in secret, and more discreet rather than out in the open. So, if we were to deal in such matters, our alliance can be greatly affected,” she answered gracefully.
A young official turned to Tao. “And what are your thoughts on the matter?”
Empress Magdalena glared.
Tao shifted in his chair and smiled. “Well, Official Hans, I believe that possessing such power will give us the upper hand in our Kingdom…when the time calls for it.”
“And when will the time call for it, my son?”
“When there is war. For men, we think of all of the possibilities for our people and our kingdom. As for women, well we can just say that the dress is more important than the fight,” Tao retorted sarcastically.
Magdalena pursed her lips and remained composed. “Are there any other issues?”
Official Hans cleared his throat. “If we were to consider Tao’s idea on the matter, should we send one of our own to Zion for the up-and-coming festival? Perhaps, he or she can be disguised as just a foreigner.”
Tao leaned against his hand, pleased with the acknowledgement. However, Empress Magdalena’s anger was boiling over the edge of the pot.
“Say we do send someone to Zion, what does that accomplish?” Magdalena asked trying to remain calm however it showed in her furrowed brow.
“To learn magic, of course. Just in case we are in need of that ability; it could definitely come to our advantage.”
She noticed how Official Hans did not address her as ‘My Empress’, while all the others respected her position, he obviously did not care. The youthful Official Hans would soon have to watch not only his tongue, but his back.
To end the discussion, Magdalena concluded. “I will take such ideas into consideration.”
Many others ideas were discussed and conceded upon or rejected. After a couple of hours, the officials began to disperse throughout the House of the Eastlands, and Tao walked over to his mother and took up her hand. He led her out of the House to the royal carriage that waited for them. There were no exchange of words between them, but many looks were secretly given as their thoughts took over.
As Tao arrived to his quarters in the kingdom, he saw a letter lying upon his nightstand. He picked it up, tore off the seal, and began to read the words from the parchment.
Towards the end of the letter, Tao read the name that was signed. “Isabella.”
"Sir," She said carefully, hoping the question would not upset him, "When you were validating my telepathic abilities you accidentally showed me an image between the legs of our journey. It was an image of you soaked in the blood of a monster. You were very young. I was wondering if you might tell me what that was about?"
A rueful grin spread slowly over Hayder’s face. “A very deep memory, a long story, too” he said, “a personal question, indeed.” He looked at the sun setting in the distance and tapped the ashes off his cigar. His smile was more mischievous now, “But if I do not answer it, the game will be no fun. Rules are rules.” He was a good sport, after all, and it had been his idea to play.
“I am going to tell you something that I have never told anyone,” he said as if starting the beginning of a ghost story.
“When I was a little lad, a child, maybe eleven, I lived in my father’s house.”
He rested his fingers on his temples then held Angelus’s hand. Immediately they were standing in a warm courtyard in a place surrounded by sweet smelling trees. The land was living, vibrant, the air even seemed to hum to itself. In the distance the coastline was visible and a corral of small islands dotted the aqua blue horizon. “We haven’t left the ship,” he informed her, “If you are afraid, just open your eyes and you will find we are quite safe back on the deck.” He was communicating with her mind. His depiction was just like any memory. There were places where time skipped or locations shifted suddenly. It all seemed very seamless the way a dream was.
“This is where I grew up,” he said modeling the house for Angelus.
The estate was a multilevel home that rested in the branches of a dozen wide, ancient trees. No part of the house touched the ground. It was all connected by elegant walkways and ladders. There were magnificent arches, slanting roofs, and many windows.
“Zion is right beside the ocean,” he explained, “There is a season where everything floods. But I won’t explain, I’ll let you watch.”
A little boy ran past them. He had waves of curly blue hair and was busily buttoning a complicated looking monk’s robe. He quickly ascended the ladder into the trees and pounded up a dozen landings until he was at the top of the property. His eyes were frantic as he made a capricious leap to a landing a few feet away. He didn’t quite make it, and at the last second he split into two children. The second made it the rest of the way up. The original child dissolved before he could hit the ground. The little boy had finally made it to the highest point of the highest tree. He put his hands on his knees, breathing heavily.
“You are late,” a very imposing tall man said coldly. His back was extremely straight and he was wearing a cleric’s robe. His name was Acel Osiris Hayder and he had named his son, his only child, the same. He had the regal bearing and steady manner typical of all Hayders. “How will you ever learn to be a telepath if you cannot keep your commitments, Acel?”
Siris hated it when his father called him Acel. He believed bitterly that he would never escape his father’s influence or win his approval. He thought he was completely incapable of living up to his father’s impossible standards.
“That will be enough, child,” Acel hissed again.
“I am sorry, sir,” Hayder said bowing. He had to think about how much he meant it, even though he truly did not. His father never allowed him a single independent thought. This was difficult for a curious child. “I will not be late again, sir.”
“You were with those ragged children again, weren’t you?” Acel said grabbing his son by the collar of his shirt. “I can smell them on you. Do not lie to me, boy.”
Siris remained silent and made no attempt to defend himself. It was better that way.
“I have told you not to associate with them.” Acel released him, satisfied. “They are filthy, animators, illusionists. No son of mine will be seen with those clouts. You are a Hayder. That name means something.” It did. Hayders were well respected, famous, and had become extremely rich over the centuries because of their telepathy.
“Yes, sir,” Siris said solemnly.
“Now let us begin your training,” said Acel. He held up two boxes. In one housed a heavy jar of candy. In the other was an equally heavy snake. “Focus your mind, boy,” Acel said in imposing tones, “and choose.”
Hayder interrupted and looked at Angelus. “I won’t make you watch this,” he said. He led her carefully down the stairs toward the main part of the house. A boy’s screams could be heard in the distance.
Hayder took Angelus to his mother’s laboratory. “When I was a child I would go to my mother after these ‘lessons’. They would last for hours and I would be no closer to telepathy but completely sure of my hatred for my father. She always heard my side and she cared for me.” Just then a woman appeared from behind the science equipment wearing a white coat and glasses. “My mother,” Hayder remarked. “I loved her very much.”
The boy Siris stood in the doorjamb cradling his arm. He walked in shyly. “Come in, dear,” his mother said sweetly. She put down a letter she had been reading. It was on neat blue stationary. She took off her coat and glasses. Her beauty was literally assailing. Isis Hayder was a gorgeous woman with a generous nature.
“Bad day again, Siris?” Isis asked. She wasn’t a telepath, in fact she was a shape shifter, but she knew her son infinitely better than his father did. She also never called him Acel.
“Yes ma’am.” He said quietly. He rubbed his arms where the snake had repeatedly bitten him. He kept these things a secret from his mother. He felt he was protecting her from his father. “I have tried so hard. Why do I always fail, mother dear?”
“Would you like a mommy answer or a scientific answer?” she asked. Siris liked to think he was an adult, but Isis knew he was still a child in many ways and she was always patient with him.
“A scientific answer,” Siris said. “And then a mommy answer.”
“Okay,” Isis began, sitting her son down beside her. “There is reason to believe that telepathy is hereditary, many magical abilities are,” she said. “Most Hayders are telepathic but there are exceptions to every rule. For example I am from the Odara family, we shape shift. But your uncle cannot shift at all.” His mother looked uncomfortably at a blue letter on her desk. “We can’t know what powers you will possess, dear, time will tell.”
Siris frowned. The only thing he wanted to do in the world was please his father and the only thing Acel wanted him to do was something he simply could not.
Isis kissed his forehead. “Now, for the mommy answer. You may not be a telepath, but you will always be my son and I will always love you,” she said tousling his hair. He smiled. “Look on the bright side, Siris, you are quick to learn in the lab and you have become an excellent swordsman. None of the other boys has ever come close to beating you.”
This was true. It had been her idea for him to start learning to fence and he had done exceedingly well. Not that Acel had noticed. “But it’s not from telepathy that I’m winning, mother.”
“Your father doesn’t have to know that,” said Isis.
He felt a little comforted.
“And you’re good at other things. I saw you with the Loxes the other day. It looks like you have a true talent,” she said trying to cover her grin. “You were practicing your sword fighting with yourself.”
“Mother you must never tell,” Siris confessed in a frantic whisper. Acel had expressly forbidden his son to play with ‘the help’. The Loxes were not a moneyed family, but they worked for the Hayders. He snuck over most days to play. He was an only child and if it were not for his mother and the servants his life would be devoid of all human interaction.
“You have my word,” she said with a smile. “Siris, you’re a smart boy. I trust you to make the right choices.”
Hayder turned to Angelus and smiled ruefully. “Misplaced trust.”
The next day was the first day of the rainy season. He was running rapidly across the grounds to a small hallow of trees at the edge of the property. He charged past a broken sign that said The Loxes. Torrents of water rushed everywhere and the mud was up to his ankles. It would be over his head in a few days.
He climbed a ladder into a girl’s bedroom window. She was drawing in the corner.
“What do you want, Siris?” she asked without looking up. Her whole room was covered in paper drawings. Drawings of the solar system, animals that had never existed, distant worlds she had created in her mind.
“Don’t call me Siris, only my mother calls me that. You must call me Master Hayder. That’s the rule.”
“Not when you’re in my house, bubblehead. In my house you have to call me…” she thought for a moment, “Miss Lox.”
“I won’t,” he said.
“Then I won’t listen to whatever boring story you’ve got for me today,” Lox said. They talked almost every night, argued mostly, and he would sketch pictures that she would bring to life. But it didn’t have to be a picture, she could make anything live. He wouldn’t admit that he thought her abilities were amazing, but they were. She would give things the spark of life and, when she was done, crumple the piece of paper and it would stop.
The girl’s brothers were just as interesting. They were twins, or at least they thought they were. They had the ability to split themselves into multiple copies of one another. They had shown him how to do it and he had made the mistake of letting his father see him at it. Acel had beaten him until he could no longer stand. Siris showed his mother one day. She hadn’t seemed surprised at all.
This girl was the youngest Lox and was different from them all. She could put her hands on something and make it real.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“I’m sorry, what?” she asked.
“I’m sorry, Miss Lox,” he said rolling his eyes.
“So what’s the story?” she said unable to mask her excitement.
“This time it’s not a story,” he said, “This time it’s something really real.”
“My father was meditating with The Oracle today. My father said he had a vision of the future. He said that I would be more of a disappointment to him than I ever was before and that something evil would happen to our family. I asked him if something bad would happen to him, specifically,” Siris said, “I was kind of hoping—”
“An asteroid would fall on him from space?” Lox offered.
He smiled, “Well, he said he was invincible. That nothing could ever hurt him. He said his telepathy had made him indestructible and that I would never know what that was like. He said,” Siris’s head was bowed, “He said I did not have to worry about the prophecy because… I was not his son.”
Lox folded her paper and gasped, shocked. “That was a terrible thing for old man Hayder to say. You look exactly like him. Did you tell Mrs. Hayder?”
“No,” Siris said. His hands were starting to shake. “I couldn’t bear it. He is implying that my mother did something she could never do. My mother is the best person in this world, better than my father could ever be. And she’s not a telepath; she’s a shape shifter. It’s not her fault I’m a failure; it’s his. I want to teach him a lesson. I want to show him that I’m not a disappointment, I’m invincible, too.” His lips formed a tight, angry line.
Lox nodded. “So how will you do that?”
“I need a lot of paper.”
By the next morning Hayder had drawn a gigantic beast on a piece of paper too large for the small girl’s room. He moved the project to his quarters. He worked on it obsessively for a week as the floodwaters rose. He would not be disturbed and, for the first time in his life, he hid something from his mother. He would not let the little girl peak, no matter how much she begged. He spent hours adding and subtracting, until he had created a monster from hell’s darkest legion. Only he would know where its ultimate weakness was. Only Siris would be able to defeat the mutant. His father would have to respect his skill and cleverness. People would hear of how Siris had slain a behemoth.
He had named it. In a boy’s calligraphy he wrote below it RYXON.
Rain poured endlessly outside on the day that Siris invited Lox to see his masterpiece. The region had flooded and there was seven feet of water on the ground. Lox had to come to his house in a small boat and by the time she arrived she was soaked and in a bad mood. She watched as he unraveled what looked like thirty yards of paper. Her mood instantly changed. She was rightfully afraid. “Are you sure that this is a good idea?” she asked. “I mean, what if it gets loose?”
“I can control it,” he said. Something was deeply troubling him. “I created it. All you have to do is animate it.”
“No, Siris, this is dangerous. We’ll think of something else.”
“Today I went to see my mother after my ‘lesson’ with father. They did not see but he was yelling at her. He said the wickedest things to her. He accused her of actions I cannot repeat. He said that because my telepathy had not manifested that I was not his child,” Siris was shaking with anger. “My mother called him a fool.”
“What did your father say?”
“He smacked her. Her whole face was bloody.”
Lox put her hands over her mouth in utter shock. Mrs. Hayder was the nicest, most beautiful woman she had ever met. She was a proper lady and, in her mind, a queen.
“I ran in and I fought him,” Hadyer continued. “I had my sword and tried to stab him, but I couldn’t do it. This thrust that I have never failed to do correctly—I couldn’t pull it off. He used his telepathy and made me think I was completely blind. He laughed in my face and said he was invincible, after all. Surely I hadn’t expected to harm him. Then he threw me out and said that today was my last day in his home. He locked me in my room.”
“I brought my boat, you won’t have to swim the whole way. We can lower your ladder and go to my house.”
“And leave mother? No. Acel is sending me away tomorrow. He can’t stand to look at either of us,” Siris had tears in his eyes. “He said I was a mistake and he called my mother,” his lips trembled, “a whore.”
Lox had a look of complete shock on her face. She did something that she had never done before. She hugged Siris Hayder. “It has to be tonight.”
She put her hands on the paper and the room was white with energy. Slowly, in degrees, the monster of nightmares came to life.
“Angelus,” Hayder said, “This is going to be gruesome. I may not be able to tell the whole thing.”
In time, the glittering, gray beast soared overhead. It had the body of a sphinx and the torso of a man. It was bigger and more ferocious than a pack of lions and had an impossible wingspan. Its dull scales glistened with mucous. In both of its clawed hands were swords and its talon-like feet ripped trees out of the ground as it skipped over Zion’s horizon. Its face was a horrifying skull with lifeless eyes. As soon as the dreaded Ryxon came to life, it ripped open the top of Siris’s room and flew into the stratosphere.
Both children were knocked to the ground and immediately covered in the steady, powerful rainfall.
“You said you could control it!” Lox said over the rain. She didn’t realize she was holding Siris’s hand tight out of fear.
“I can,” Siris said, “I have to focus.”
“Ryxon, this is your master!” he shouted. “I command you to return to me!” The beast banked and let out a thundering scream. The beating of its wings was so powerful the children found it hard to stand. “Kill the first Acel Osiris Hayder. Rip him to shreds!” Siris shouted.
The monster pealed off and flew back toward the house. It perched in his parent’s room, searching.
“Come on, Lox,” Siris said, his eyes alight with glee. “Let’s see the look on the old man’s face.”
They kicked in the door and ran through the house until they made it to his father’s room. They laughed the way children do when most excited. They might have thought they were going to a carnival or the circus. They were too young to realize their mistake. They had never seen death.
Siris ripped open the doors to see, to his delight, the monster hovering over his father. Its lifeless face was bearing down on him. It inhaled deeply and then let out a blood-curdling roar.
“Back, you monster!” Acel shouted focusing his mental energy on creating a field around him that would keep the beast from devouring him.
“Monster? At least you two have that in common,” the boy crowed. “It’s called Ryxon and it is my creation, father,” laying emphasis on his last word. “You will soon learn that you have made more than one mistake.”
Upon hearing his master’s voice, Ryxon turned its head in jerky movements toward Siris. It sniffed the air and its mouth widened revealing rows of gigantic festering teeth. The room was rife with the cloying odor of sulfur and hellfire.
Siris had but a moment to react. Ryxon lunged at him, tearing the room to pieces. Lox had not moved so quickly. Its tail whipped her twice. The girl fell to the ground, motionless.
Ryxon held both swords in one hand and picked the boy up by the front of his shirt. “No!” the little boy cried. “Please!”
The beast looked at him and reared back, savoring the instant before devouring the child.
When beautiful Isis came into the room, she saw Acel standing motionless by the window watching the last moments of Siris’s life.
“You would kill our son?” she cried. She had not known that this monster was Siris’s creation and she never would know.
“He is only your son,” Acel spat. “And I am no longer your husband. I had loved you, Isis, but no more.”
Isis, an exacting woman, shifted into the most powerful thing she could think of: the Ryxon.
With two swords in hand she squared off against the beast. Two identical monsters desperately locked in combat. The boy was thrown to the ground. He saw the upside down image of his father hurling a vibrant burst of power into the side of both beasts. His face was emotionless as he tormented both creatures with psychic energy.
They fell to the ground, crippled, sizzling.
“Get back, boy,” Acel shouted. “You don’t know which is which.”
But Siris knew, as only a child would know, and threw his arms around one of the creatures.
His mother, paralyzed and helpless, turned back into herself.
“Siris, I love you. Live up to your name,” she said. For Acel meant noble.
The Ryxon stumbled to its feet, half-dead, finally seeing its chance to kill the child.
“Father, help me!”
“I do not know you,” Acel replied, motionless.
Ryxon reared back and howled devilishly. Siris knit his brows in anger. Anger at his father, anger at this beast, anger at himself. His small body trembled with fury as he reached back and buried his sword into the bottom of the creature’s stomach. He ran the blade down the seam and the behemoth split open, entrails slickening the ground. The room was suddenly hot and the monster buckled and collapsed immediately.
Siris was crimson with effluence. The monster drew one last shuddering breath and was dead.
So was his mother.
“Crushed,” Hayder said, “was what he told the police. My father, of course, was completely unharmed. He ordered the girl to revive my mother. She explained she mustn’t, my mother was dead, after all, and the consequences would be great. But my father did not care. Selfish to the end, he forced her to do it. My mother came back to life as an undead shell of herself. I would never have a chance to put her out of her misery. He had me exiled from Zion. I have been trying to find my way back there ever since. I had always thought the girl had been put to death. Acel got rid of his witnesses. Before they took us away I went to my mother’s lab. I found her letter.”
Hayder took them lab again, once bubbling with life, now completely empty without Isis’s presence.
The little boy climbed onto her table spying the abandoned note. He feverishly read the words off the blue stationary. It was his grandmother’s careful handwriting.
quote:Dear Dr. Isis Odara Hayder,
I received your request. It was wise of you to keep your inquiry within the family. We do not want a scandal.
Within this letter you will find the results of the blood tests that you asked for. I was very surprised that you sent for them. As I suspected, your son is completely devoid of any markers of a Hayder.
The findings are not so remarkable with a little perspective.
Your husband, my son, is one of the most powerful telepaths in Zion. However, this is by luck alone. His true parents abandoned him before he could remember. We never knew his name, but began calling him Acel and moved him into our home, caring for him as if he were our own child. We have always kept this a secret from him because of his pride. He is so headstrong, he could not handle the shock of knowing he is not from the class of nobility.
Your son may never develop the abilities of a Hayder because his father is not truly one. But with you as his mother, he is well loved, and that should be enough.
“So that’s where the story ends. The Ryxon did not harm my father because that was not his true name, and in the end he still bested me, only I lost much more than I gained,” Hayder said. “The prophecy was true, after all.” His mind was blank space again and his cigar was the same as it had been before. Only a few minutes had gone by, though he had taken Angelus on a journey of days. “I feel I am finally ready to return to Zion now. That’s one reason why I am so grateful you have joined our crew. Without you, our ship would be barred and I would never have the chance to avenge my mother and fix the things that I have destroyed.”
He sat heavily on the rail separating him from the safety of the deck and the ground thousands of feet below.
“Gather round now and hear a story of old, of the Guardians of Illusiona, and their tales many and bold.” called Skratch to the growing crowd.
“Shall it be a story of the wolves of the forest, man by day and fearsome creature by the light of the moon, big enough to crush a man in each arm? Or of the angels that stand guard in their citadel in the clouds, or of the elves, or of Blue Blade and his fierce companions?” Regus said to the audience. As he did he snapped, and allowed the magic within to travel into his arms, and into his hands, and to heat the air around him until each snap produced a small burst of flame and light, one of his favorite showman’s tricks, and one he was allowed to use far too rarely.
“The Academy!” called a voice from the crowd. Regus smirked and looked back to Skratch. Skratch looked back at Regus slightly confused, it was a tale he hadn’t told since before he had brought Skratch to life; and for good reason. Tonight was a night for celebration and the free use of magic, but if one of the city patrols caught you telling the story of Academy in any way other than the sanctioned version, the penalty was a harsh one regardless of the night you were telling it on.
But maybe tonight, he would take the risk. He knew the story back ways and front, and as long as he told the sanctioned ending, he would be fine…in theory. Regus huddled into his stage cloak, and hid his hands in the folds as they slowly mixed new compounds and concoctions from the ingredients in his pockets. Now finely coated he slowly leaned forward into the crowd and produced his cupped hands, and bringing them to his mouth, exhaled, blowing the powder into the air in front him. But this particular recipe did not dissipate and fall to the ground, this was magic. The powder began to grow and rise above the crowd, gleaming violet and black and dark shades of emerald green, and it began to glow as if stars had become stuck in the mass. When the form was of sufficient size and height, Regus began to speak, and Skratch moved to sit with the children who had gathered in the front of the crowd for a better view.
“Many many years ago, before anyone who now breathes Zionese air was born, the city was one of true freedom. One where magic flowed freely through the streets. A select few people, who did with science what we now need magic to accomplish, learned of an energy that is pervasive in all things; an energy that pulls and pushes and balances our world. It was called...magic.”
The shimmering cloud that Regus had breathed into being began to swirl, and shapes began to become recognizable in the cloud. A city rose, and men created fireballs, grew trees, and moved mountains with just a gesture of the hand.
“But once upon a time not everyone knew how to interact with this force. Some tried to control it, while others to weak or too ill prepared became controlled by it. The results were disastrous, and many powerful and good magicians lost their lives.” Explosions erupted from the cloud, while inside the sounds of screaming and agony could be heard.
“But the strongest of the magicians, that is the name they gave to themselves, were also the wisest. They knew that no force as great and powerful as magic could be controlled, but neither did they give themselves wholly to it, losing their ability to control themselves, and what made them men. These magicians learned to exist in balance with the magic, learning that for every push you must pull, and every pull you must push, and that became the first law of magic. You must give to the effort what you expect to get out of it.” The figures in the cloud grew, the screaming stopped, and several men appeared, holding hands, or contorting their body in strange manners.
“These the strongest magicians vowed not to let their people interact with magic untrained. They were scared not only for the lives of the people that had come to depend on them, but terrified that an untrained magician might one day upset the balance too greatly, and damage the world in which we all live. So they started a school, and taught the people how to interact with the magic, and soon the Academy was born. People came from all corners of Illusiona to be taught this new skill.” The figures dissolved and a great rendering of the city of Zion appeared, but bigger, more glorious than any had ever seen it.
Regus continued, sparing a glance into the audience, enraptured by the display above that they in fact were creating. Several of the ingredients Regus had thrown in were designed to remove images from people’s minds and create them for all to see. It was highly illegal most nights and usually used for interrogation; but for story telling it worked wonders, and a good tale could create astounding effects if the audience was up to the task.
“But soon the original masters, now teachers at the Academy saw what a mistake they had made. It was true that the vast majority of students grew to accept the balance of power between man and magic, but some few thought that they could take it a step further, exert less energy themselves and force their will back over extraordinary amounts of power. The Masters of the Academy confronted their disobedient students and attempted to expel them from the school, and to take from them their ability to communicate with the source of their new found power. But in their old age they had become weaker, unable to give as much strength as they once had, and found their powers weakened and wanting.”
“They were destroyed by this band of outlaw students, who took control of the Academy and began new teachings, forcing students to accept that the power was theirs for the taking, and balance was a crutch of the weak and those unable to impose their will onto others. All who resisted were dealt with swiftly, violently, and publicly.” Visions of public executions and burning buildings ran through the minds of the public, and were reflected in Skratch’s all too human eyes.
“Naturally, news of the passing of the Masters reached the outside world. Students who were now expert craftsmen, healers, and soldiers met throughout the countryside in secret, plotting revenge against the students who had murdered their teachers and friends. And so one day, amidst the ruins of the town that stretched out from the Academy, a great army of magicians both skilled and powerful staked their claim to the school that gave them their lives, and had sculpted them into the men and women they had become. They issued a great challenge, that if the renegades could best their masters with their great power, surely a few students would be no threat to them.” The view of the Academy returned, smoke billowing from its windows and towers, and a small army of shining white soldiers stood at the entrance of the school.
“The students of the school ushered out the doorway, but to the surprise of the gathered army they were not prepared to fight, nor did they even look as though they could. A man approached them, clad in a tattered black and red robe that once must have truly been imposing and threw himself at the feet of the army. He told tales of woe and pain, of how their teacher’s greed and lust for power had consumed them, literally, until nothing but shriveled husks remained to be scattered to the four winds. The remaining students, who had never known any other way of performing magic had huddled together, terrified within the confines of the once majestic school building for fear that they would someday suffer the same fate. They begged and pleaded for mercy, and most of all for protection from the grim fate suffered by their Masters.”
“And so the army, come to take back their beloved school found no fight, and found no glory, for the misuse of magic brings only pain and suffering to those that seek to control it. It is only within balance, they learned, that magic may truly be used as a powerful force for creation in the world. The eldest of the students remained at the Academy and rebuilt the town surrounding, it grew into a sprawling city that they named Zion, and for fear of another, even more destructive insurrection the use of magic was banned except among a chosen few, deemed able to work with the power, but not attempt to control it. And every year, when the moon is high we are allowed to celebrate their wisdom, by gathering in the streets and parks and arenas of the city, and releasing magic into the world the likes of which goes unseen for the rest of the year. And we remain content in the knowledge that the overuse of magic leads only to corruption and sadness.” Above Regus the cloud began to roil and churn, gone were the images from a story well received, and the colors began to flash. Slowly the cloud began to grow smaller and smaller…
“So let us celebrate!” goaded Regus in a celebratory scream. “Let us scream into the night and revel in our partnership with the essence of the world, the push and pull that makes the world turn, and in the wisdom of our leaders, for enabling us to live safely in such a world!” Regus threw his hands above his head and clapped them together, and at the sound the cloud exploded above his audience in a dazzling display of noise and light and color and flame. The dragon circling his cart took flight and hurled itself into the air vents on either side of the beast opening and taking in the floating flame, changing the color of his metallic scales as more was sucked in. Finally when the beast was all that remained it let out a great bellow, and shot flame into the sky in the form of a great dragon, which flew into the sky and imploded as it lit the park with stunning fireworks.
The crowd erupted, as did Skratch as Regus began creating his snapdragon fireworks again, coaxing his metallic creations to jump and fly through them in exotic ballets of motion. Regus laughed for the joy of it all and thought to himself; It’s a good thing I can’t tell them what really happened. They would riot in the streets and tear any of the Minor Tellers like me to pieces.
Angelus flinched slightly as she came back to reality, trying to shake off the pain that still wracked her mind after Hayder's memory had faded away. Her empathic abilities may not grant her access to his thoughts, but she had felt some of his emotions,and the pain that the memory carried with it was more than the Angel had been prepared for. She had never felt a pain so exquisite, and she wondered how Hayder could bare to carry such pain with her. It made the little angel feel lucky, in a way. She had never truly experienced a pain like that, as she had never had anyone she truly loved stolen from her. She had gone through many charges over the years, true, but she had never had one die before their time. She was very good at her job, she thought, and because of her skill all of her charges had lived full lives. All of them save for one. It was the memory of this last charge that lingered in her mind now, and that allowed the pain of Hayder's memory to remain. It was the only memory Angelus had that came close to the level of discomfort of Hayder's last memory, and the similarities between the two memories made it difficult for the little angel to drive the thought from her mind. The emotions were similar too, a feeling of personal failure, of loss, and of having let down someone who could never be properly impressed. The memory stung at Angelus, clawing up images of her own darkest hour, and despite her best attempts to resist, her mind was soon filled with visions of things she had tried to forget. In her mind, a young man stood, frozen in time, his fierce brown eyes locked on the angel, true fury reflected within them. They saw her, and yet they did not, just as her charge was both alive and not in that moment. He was older than Hayder, and his brown hair was ragged, but like the young boy in the previous memory he stood with a sword in hand, covered in blood. Only, Angelus knew that the blood had not come from a great beast. It was not blood he was meant to spill. It was the blood of his closest friends, and it was Angelus' fault that he had been driven to this point. She saw him now as he had been when this realization had been driven home to her. She was remembering her greatest failure, and this failure made it all too easy for her to understand why Hayder's quest to redeem himself was so important to him. It also made it easy for her to want to help him accomplish this goal. After all, the boy in her memory had not been unlike Hayder, except in that she had made his tormentor, and his fall had been entirely her fault. Still, she hoped that revenge was not part of his agenda. Redeeming himself would be as noble as his name. Doing so through attempting to strike down his father would sour all of the nobleness of his intent. She eventually drove all of these thoughts from her mind, instead focusing on answering Hayder's question. "Terra Di," She said, masking the pain that lurked within her, "Is a realm wherein all of the myths of the world are combined, creating a land where the stories of all of the lands are real. It is ruled over by a pantheon of 'gods' that were originally created to nurture and protect the people by an entity known as the Is. However, over time the Gods grew frustrated with their roles, and with their simple task. They were extraordinarily powerful, after all, and the way they saw it they were simply being used as babysitters to the much weaker humans that inhabited the realms. Enraged, they overthrew the Is, sealing him away and beginning to rule over the people, forcing them to worship them. Over time the Gods also began to demand tributes, and as time progressed their demands on the people of Terra Di became much greater. Many were forced to surrender their lands and their families to the Gods, who insisted that they would need these tributes to continue to protect the people from the dark forces that sought to cause them harm. My charge, Fenris, is the daughter of the evil God Loki, and she was created to overthrow the current Gods, granting Loki and his associates control over the world. However, she was stolen from her father at a young age and raised by the God Odin, who wanted to make her into his ultimate weapon, so that he could eventually claim full dominion over the world, defeating the other Gods. However, she soon discovered his corrupt ways, and rebelled against him and the other gods." She sighed, remembering the most difficult thing about being Fenris' guardian, the part of her story that always troubled the Angel most. "It is prophesied that she will free the people of Terra Di from the tyranny of the Gods," She said, "But in doing so she will lose her own life." She thought about this prophecy each time Fenris came closer to her goal of destroying the Gods, and each time it filled her with a powerful pain not unlike Hayder's feeling of loss. The angel had many charges over the years, but she was fairly certain that Fenris was her favorite, and the thought of the warrior receiving such a vicious end always disturbed her. Often she wondered about how she herself would act when that final battle came. The scenario was clear, she was not to interfere when the battle came, and yet, the angel wondered if Esse had not laid this stipulation as another test to her sister. After all, Esse knew Angelus, and she knew that she would get attached to the warrior, so perhaps there was something to be learned in that final battle. The angel usually tried to avoid thinking about it, but she still knew within herself that she would probably try to save Fenris in the end, even if it meant being defragmented. She would have to save that decision for another day, though. For now, she had to focus on the present. "That's why it's important that we get back to Terra Di," Angelus said, "As long as Fenris is absent, the Gods will have no one to stand in their way. The people of Terra Di deserve rulers who actually have their best interests in mind, I'm sure you understand." She fell back on her heels, sighing as she tried to think of her next question. There were so many thoughts on her mind, and so few were happy. But one of these unhappy thoughts had to be dealt with before they got to Zion. "If I may ask a two part question," The angel said, "Is your father still alive? And if so, are you planning to take revenge on him?" She had to know if this was Hayder's plan, because it would affect her ability to help him. She wanted to help him regain his former status. But she didn't want to do that if in doing so she would have to help him murder a man she didn't know. 'Funny,' She thought, 'Fenris is all about revenge and you help her without problem, but if this guy wants revenge it's wrong?' She pondered this own contradiction within herself. She knew that she shouldn't have such a double standard, and yet she could not help it. Life was built on mental contradictions, she knew. If she thought about them too much, she would probably drive herself mad.
Hayder had heard of Terra Di before but he had never been there or known that the people were under the constant control of corrupt gods. He was grateful that the scattered gods of Illusionia were like an unorganized group of people. Some were good and some were bad, others were neither and just existed to do certain things or serve people. Of course there were childish, selfish gods here, but they were kept in check for the most part. The fact that a young woman was single handedly charged with changing the balance in her realm was remarkable. He had a new respect for Angelus and Fenris.
He had been right to proposition them rather than imprison them. He doubted seriously either could be contained and, knowing their mission, supported their ambitions. He knew more than most what it was like to be controlled.
However, he could see that on some level Angelus was unsure about the sacrifice she would have to make.
"That's why it's important that we get back to Terra Di," she said, "As long as Fenris is absent, the Gods will have no one to stand in their way. The people of Terra Di deserve rulers who actually have their best interests in mind, I'm sure you understand."
Hayder nodded, knowingly.
“When a loved one passes away, it is the people who survive who suffer most. But if Fenris lays down her life for the good of her people it will be a sacrifice worth making. A noble thing, indeed.” He paused, “But that doesn’t make it any easier.”
Angelus rocked back on her heels. "If I may ask a two part question," she said, "is your father still alive? And if so, are you planning to take revenge on him?"
The young man sighed and unsheathed his cutlass. As he spoke he fought a shadow enemy, slicing the air as if it were a person. His motions were not aggressive, very focused, very fluid.
“My father is definitely alive,” he said mid-slice. “I feel him. His presence presses on me. He is always searching for me, my mental signature, and I know that when he sees me again, he will destroy me.” He paused, “Mind you I said, he will destroy me, Angelus, not that he will try to do so.” He resumed, “He has more power than I have never seen a telepath possess. He has gotten stronger and more grotesque since I have been sent away.
“Now for the second question.” He extended his sword in a delightful arc; he was clearly enjoying himself. “Will I take my revenge?” His eyes narrowed. “That is complicated. My father predicted that something evil would happen to our family, but it is ultimately my fault that that evil was my mother’s death. Had I done nothing, it could have been me. I would have preferred that. It is his fault, however, that she is undead. He has degraded her and turned her into a soulless monster. I have to put an end to her suffering to honor her death,” he stopped.
“But will I kill my father? That is what you want to know. He is invincible. While he still lives, my mother’s soul will never find peace. So I must kill him. Even though I will die doing it. I will bury my mother.
“I have made horrible mistakes, but don’t think of me too harshly, Angelus. When it comes time for Fenris to die, if you love her, you will not be able to stand by and watch.”
“Now,” he said. “Why did you let me interrogate Abedah and Najm? You don’t like them? I'm sure they can't be as bad as Lox,” he grinned.
Angelus was glad to see that Hayder seemed to understand the plight facing the people of Terra Di, but she was hardly surprised. His father had been like a God to him, and he had certainly been a tyrant, so it was hardly surprising that he could relate to the oppression that the people of Terra Di faced. What surprised her was that he seemed to understand her own concern for Fenris, and for what fate had in store for her. “When a loved one passes away, it is the people who survive who suffer most. But if Fenris lays down her life for the good of her people it will be a sacrifice worth making. A noble thing, indeed," He said. It was true, Angelus knew, and she had often tried to use the nobility of the act to comfort herself. Fenris might not have many friends, but she would die in an act of selflessness that would reshape her entire world for the better,and surely the effect of her sacrifice was worth the price, but Angelus still could not bare the thought of losing Fenris. The warrior deserved more than what she was being given, and while the prophecy made it clear that Fenris would make her final sacrifice due to her desire to protect others rather than her selfish desire for revenge, Angelus could not even take pleasure in the fact that this confirmed that Fenris would eventually mature into the kind of person the angel wanted her to be. It was foolish, but in the end, she wouldn't accept Fenris' death regardless of the circumstances. She was her friend, and the idea of losing her to death's icy grip filled the angel with a pain that she was not truly accustomed to. “But that doesn’t make it any easier.” Hayder said after a moment. He had hit the nail right on the head, the little angel thought. She had asked her question then, and for a moment it hung in the air, as if waiting for the two beings below to decide how it should be dealt with. Eventually, Hayder sighed, unsheathing his sword. Angelus' heart shot into her throat, and she cursed herself for saying the wrong thing. 'Great work, Ang,' She thought,'Now you're rudeness is going to get her killed.' Somewhere, Lox was laughing her ass off. However, the pirate did not swing at Angelus at all, in fact, he did not swing at anything, simply starting a practice exercise. Angelus had seen Fenris perform many exercises like this in her time, but she was still amazed by Hayder's skill. His blows were not particularly strong, and he seemed to be exerting little force, but each movement flowed into the next, and the speed and agility of each action more than made up for the lack of strength used in each strike. Somewhere, in the back of her mind, she heard a voice. 'It's not about strength or power, gotta' be fluid,' It said, 'You have to be like water.' She paused for a moment, blinking rapidly. 'Wait,' She thought, 'That's Cowboy Bebop!' She was about to ask why she had thought of Cowboy Bebop in a world without DVD players, but Hayder had started to answer her question. “My father is definitely alive,” He said, continuing to cut through the air, “I feel him. His presence presses on me. He is always searching for me, my mental signature, and I know that when he sees me again, he will destroy me.” He paused, “Mind you I said, he will destroy me, Angelus, not that he will try to do so.He has more power than I have never seen a telepath possess. He has gotten stronger and more grotesque since I have been sent away." Angelus frowned, realizing that regardless of her thoughts on Hayder taking revenge he would have the opportunity at this rate. Confrontation with his father was inevitable, and the moment they landed in Zion both father and son would begin to prepare for the final battle. In that case morality would mean nothing. She'd have to stick with Hayder and help him accomplish this goal simply so that she'd be able to make sure he'd follow through on their arrangement. “Now for the second question.” He said, smiling as he continued to flow from move to move, "Will I take my revenge?" The joy seemed to disappear from his face as he considered the question. “That is complicated. My father predicted that something evil would happen to our family, but it is ultimately my fault that that evil was my mother’s death. Had I done nothing, it could have been me. I would have preferred that. It is his fault, however, that she is undead. He has degraded her and turned her into a soulless monster. I have to put an end to her suffering to honor her death," He said. Angelus could appreciate this goal. To see those close to one insulted was painful, and there was probably no greater insult than refusing to grant a person a fair death. The shell that had been Hayder's mother was a disgrace to the woman, and Angelus knew that if something similar happened to Fenris she would do the same thing. He continued. “But will I kill my father? That is what you want to know. He is invincible. While he still lives, my mother’s soul will never find peace. So I must kill him. Even though I will die doing it. I will bury my mother." When put like that, she could actually get behind his desire for revenge. In a way he was simply tying up a loose end in his life, and moreover he wasn't doing it for himself. As much as an eye for an eye made the world blind, Angelus couldn't fault Hayder for wanting to honor his mother by destroying the person who had most disgraced her, and who forced a mockery of her to continue to exist. Besides, the guy was a monster, and the world would be better without him. 'See, this is why you're a terrible angel,' She thought to herself, 'You're supposed to value all life, even horrible, nasty people.' She paused, adding to that list. 'And Cubs fans,' She thought, 'Although being a Cubs fan is PRACTICALLY being undead, in that it makes you a hollow shell of a person, so you can value them less.' She was drawn from these thoughts by the soft sound of Hayder's voice. “I have made horrible mistakes, but don’t think of me too harshly, Angelus. When it comes time for Fenris to die, if you love her, you will not be able to stand by and watch.” He said. Angelus frowned, knowing that he was right. She dreaded the day that Fenris would finally meet her fate, and she still battled with herself over her own role in those events. Her heart had made up it's mind about what to do, but her mind knew the consequences of her present decision. She wondered which side of herself would win when the final battle finally came. Only time would tell. "Now," Hayder said, his tone losing it's grim edge, “Why did you let me interrogate Abedah and Najm? You don’t like them? I'm sure they can't be as bad as Lox." She laughed at this, glad to know that Hayder could at least have a sense of humor about her dislike of his love. "Actually, it was quite the opposite," She said, "I didn't know what type of person you were, so I assumed I could protect them. If I had left, they would have been at your mercy, and our arrangement made it so that I didn't have to worry about Fenris. I assumed she could handle herself against any of your crew, so I could afford to be someone else's guardian angel for a while. When we made our arrangement I didn't try to ask for anyone else's freedom because I assumed I would have been asking for too much, so I decided that I would do my best to protect our traveling companions. Unfortunately I've come up short there, by my count only Fenris and the animals are safe, while Abedah has been tortured," She gave Hayder a disapproving look, but there was a playfulness to it. She didn't want him to think that she didn't trust him, though this monstrous act had made her weary. "Arem is in severe pain and imprisoned, Dougie is simply unhappy, Kyle is...um...the captain? Lox died, and Najm is in danger of being blown to smithereens." This last part concerned her, and she hoped in her heart that Najm was okay. A quick scan revealed that her thoughts were still going(and still very, VERY angry), so she wasn't dead yet, but that could only be a matter of time. "Which brings me to my next question," The Angel said, "Do you have any idea why the captain is so furious at Najm?"
Hayder had the amusing idea that Angelus was quite possibly the worst guardian angel he had ever seen.
"Actually, it was quite the opposite," she said, "I didn't know what type of person you were, so I assumed I could protect them. If I had left, they would have been at your mercy, and our arrangement made it so that I didn't have to worry about Fenris. I assumed she could handle herself against any of your crew, so I could afford to be someone else's guardian angel for a while.”
He nodded thoughtfully.
“When we made our arrangement I didn't try to ask for anyone else's freedom because I assumed I would have been asking for too much, so I decided that I would do my best to protect our traveling companions.”
“You were right, I did not know who any of you were or what you could do. My orders were to interrogate you, not ask nicely.”
“Unfortunately I've come up short there, by my count only Fenris and the animals are safe--"
"Who still must be found."
"--while Abedah has been tortured." She gave Hayder a reproachful look.
“But healed,” he offered.
"Arem is in severe pain and imprisoned,” she said.
“Dougie is simply unhappy.”
“Aren’t we all?” he laughed.
“Kyle is...um...the captain?”
“Alex,” he corrected.
“An accident. Corrected,” he remembered that he was supposed to be getting back to her. “You looked positively devastated,” he said with a grin.
“And Najm is in danger of being blown to smithereens."
“Now that,” he said stroking his chin, “is a concern. But perhaps not a serious one. I have never seen Alex harm a defenseless woman. Only men that he finds threatening.”
"Which brings me to my next question," the Angel said. "Do you have any idea why the captain is so furious at Najm?"
“None,” said Hayder. “She’s a beautiful lady?” He shrugged. “He’s furious at me most likely. But as you can see, I’m no stranger to that and couldn’t care less. I have no idea why Alex did not simply run the interrogations himself. I am not even sure what he wants to know,” Hayder said. “But Alex does not tell me much lately. We used to be very close friends, but now we just work together. He is a skilled fighter, but without his bracer,” Hayder sliced the air and laughed, “I won’t say.”
“So,” he said straightening his collar. “What kind of magic can you do?”
Angelus wondered what Hayder meant by his last statement. The implication seemed to be that without his bracer Alex wasn't much of a fighter, but she could see the hunger for power in Hayder's eyes, and she wondered why he didn't just kill Alex when he didn't have the bracer. Perhaps it was out of an old sense of loyalty, but the first mate hardly seemed like he would agonize over killing his best friend, and it was clear that there was no love lost between him and Kyle. Still, the angel decided to press the issue. "Interesting question," She answered, "Depends on how you define magic. I'm telepathic as you know, and I can also make constructs out of Plasma and wield a bow that fires plasma arrows in combat, but those are all inherent abilities." She frowned, forced to face her own lacking magical powers. Many guardians were veritable archmages, trained well in the magical arts, but save for healing magic she knew practically no magic, and she wasn't even a particularly good healer, evidenced by the legions of scars that still pocked her charge's skin. A talented healer would have left no sign of damage at all, but as it stood Angelus was usually lucky if she could stop Fenris' bleeding. She thought back to the last time she had healed Fenris with magic, following her defeat at the hands of the God Thor, when she'd had to fix, among other things, Fenris' cracked skull, which had been one of the least enjoyable experiences of her life. She had used magic to re-fuse several of the dislodged parts of the bone, which had been extraordinarily stressful. More worrying than that, however, was the fact that Fenris had been mostly dead at the time, which meant that as soon as she had fixed her charge's skull she had to use a revival spell to restore her bodily functions. For a more skilled guardian, this task would have been easy, requiring for them to simply draw on the natural energy around them, but because Angelus was not as attuned to the ebb and flow of the world as many of her fellows, she had been forced to use her own energy to revive her fallen charge. After that she'd barely had enough time to drag Fenris to safety, safety being a rundown inn, before she fell in an exhausted heap on the floor. Both warrior and guardian had spent the next several days drifting in and out of consciousness, and Angelus constantly used this incident as a reminder as to why it was better to try to keep Fenris out of combat. She might not like avoiding fights, but healing her was harder to deal with than listening to her whine. It was supposed to be easier to keep her out of trouble now that the angel could speak directly to her, but so far she wasn't doing so well when it came to directly influencing Fenris either. The angel sighed, deciding to face her own shortcoming. "I can also perform healing magic, but I'm...well, I'm really not very good at it," She said, "The truth is, being a multidimensional being makes it hard to tune into the rhythm and flow of each world, and being able to find that flow is a huge part of using magic. Most of the time I have to tap into my own energy, which is extraordinarily exhausting." She sighed, deciding that she might as well be completely honest with Hayder. After all, it wasn't like he could use her healing magic against her. "That said, I can heal most injuries, and I can revive people, but only if they're in the same 'mostly dead' state that Lox was in earlier," She said. She frowned, remembering Lox's resurrection. She wondered if Hayder had used the same technique she normally used, or if he'd used some other method of reviving her. "Sticking with our theme of Kyle...er, Alex," Angelus said, "How did you meet him and why did you decide to join with him, or did you have a choice?" She was genuinely interested by this. Alex and Hayder's personalities seemed to clash, and while Hayder was exiled from Zion, he could have probably set himself in any of the various metropolises that towered over Illusionia, or any of the other realms for that matter. She wondered what had made him go pirate, and why he wanted to work for...whatever his name really was that was running the show here.
It was good to see a familiar face after so many years. Though he never would have showed such a kindness in the face of his crew, and more especially Hayder, Alex was more than happy to release Najm's bonds. Sure, they'd had a rocky past, but it had been four years since he'd been pulled aboard this blasted ship. Longer still since the two of them had actually seen one another. Alex had been alone for a very long time.
Najm was obviously grateful to have her wrists untied as she rubbed the feeling back into her hands. She smirked at Alex slightly, and indicated the ropes.
“I have to say," she said. "I’m quite surprised you didn’t leave me bound like last time.”
Alex wasn't sure what she meant.
"What last time?" He asked. "I'm not sure what you're talking about."
Najm sighed, seeming resigned to simply disregard his blatant ignorance as if he were just always so forgetful. She looked up at him, and asked the question that Alex had often asked himself over the years.
“What are you doing here, Kyle?”
"Please," he said calmly. "It's Alex. These men aren't very loving towards 'True Ones,' and let's just say that several of this crew would sell me in an instant if they knew the bounties that were consistently on the head of the Blue-Blade Warrior."
He paced around the room, his breaths measured and calm, all in an effort to keep himself from wandering off too far into his thoughts.
"I was brought here. It wasn't my choice. I did what I had to to survive, to keep myself alive. It was never a matter of just leaving - There was too much to do, too much left undone back in Imperial City... But now, it looks like that realm has moved on without me." He thought back to Cashe, Terrance and the others, and realized that it had been four years for them, as well. They must have moved on as well, leaving him as a relic of the past.
"You of all people should understand survival, Najm. If you don't fight tooth and nail for everything that you've got, someone's bound to take it from you."
Najm wasn't buying it. “This isn’t you," she said suddenly. "I mean come on. Although I don’t like to admit it, the Kyle I know would never side with a group like this.”
"It was an accident," said Alex. "I was looking for a sniper in Imperial City. My partner and I had tracked her to one of the Pedia warehouses, and we had her cornered. Even with the couple of mercenaries at her back, it would have been an easy kill, and an at least probable escape."
He looked up into the steel rafters of the room, his mind momentarily lost in thought.
"This pirate crew showed up out of nowhere, looked to almost do the job for us. And at the time, I thought it would be a perfect cover. Let me get myself in close, and finish her off, and get out without anyone even knowing what had happened. Even the score after the lives she'd taken from my team."
"But," he continued. "That didn't quite work out the way I'd hoped."
She was still incredulous. Maybe she didn't believe him. Maybe there was still a lot of that bad blood boiling that hadn't had a chance to cool off. Maybe she was just still mad that she'd allowed herself to be captured.
“What the hell are you thinking?”
The question wasn't new to him. It echoed in his mind the same as it had over and over. The first time that he'd plundered a settlement alongside his new crew. The first time that he'd beaten a crewmate in a duel, the time he had battled his way to the position of first-mate, and the time that he'd challenged Captain MacShea for the helm of The Ascension.
At first, he'd resisted the life of a glorified thief. It had eaten at him. He was no pirate. But as he came to realize his aptitude for the craft, and realized that, despite whatever good he'd done in his past, he had lost all of his friends, all of his family, and even the gods themselves had seemingly abandoned him, he had come to understand only one constant. His strength kept him alive, his wits kept him from danger, and his will kept him from giving up. Nothing else mattered anymore, and so why not start taking what he could?
Why not just take it all? The rest of the world seemed determined to take their share, so why shouldn't Alex have his piece of the pie?
Alex looked at his bracer, and unconsciously began to grip his hand into a fist.
"I'm thinking you might be a way out of this, Najm. I have allies on the ship, but they're only as trustworthy as my title of Captain demands. Truly, we two have never seen fully eye to eye, but surely in a situation like this, we can put aside our differences. I've been stuck on this ship for four years, and the only escape is death. But perhaps, with your help, that death doesn't have to be my own."
The grueling journey trickled from day to day as The Ascension surfed the sky through the clouds, through different time zones, through different realms. Time seemed like a fluid concept that was ready to take form whichever way it pleased while existing in the solar system of the mind game. The clouds, the deck of the ship, or the people walking aimlessly on it were susceptible to the twinkling imagination of the Ultimate Realm; the writer’s realm. Oxford, steering the ship as if he had been doing it for years, rather it had only been a few days he existed. Drexel, Orel, Rook the Cook, they were just created to fill in the empty spaces that time and matter owned in order for everything to seem…real.
The reference of convenience was at a constant basis thrown around back and forth from people’s thoughts and words, but what was the convenience of being on a ship, whose captain was an Imperial City native who used to fight against the Elite Purist, and captives who seemed to be connected by a group of energy source present in a designated area. Convenience was a failed attempt to try and solve an unknown occurrence that kept occurring. Perhaps, the proper word for such matter was fate.
It was fate that the Ultimate Realm continued to return to a particular place in order to create a world different from its own. This realm wanted to fill an empty space that was nagging at it. This thorn in its side was the constant urge to release talent. Alban had known this. Standing at the bow of the ship, Alban allowed the night breeze to kiss the top of his shaved head. He looked as if he was fresh from the army, ready to return home to his loved ones. However, he was only a spawn of the mind game created to keep order amongst the realms, but something had been troubling him for some time. The mind game seemed to have neglected her duty to him. She seemed to have turned away from all that was created, and disappear within her own self. Self-acknowledgement? Alban could not be too sure, but he could feel it…he could sense it because of his life-long attachment to her. Mother.
It had not been long since his last mission in Imperial City where things were spiraling out of control. The Elite Purist, the many assassinations in organizations such as the Plexus Six Industries, and working with Cekic and a colorful group of rebels. To take it further back in the Mind Game’s data, Alban once watched as a massacre of Bedouins occur. Unfortunately, under the orders of the Mind Game, he was forced to remain on the sidelines because of a multitude of events that would soon occur after such incident happened. He had to let fate take its shape.
His white shirt was dirtied from the soot and grime from the ship’s engine, and his brown trousers, which had red suspenders hanging from them, were worn and torn. It was about time he took a long hot bath, although, he rather had done it in Limbo. It discomforted him traveling to Illusionia on such short notice because of a technicality. Yes, it was fate that they came across these individuals, but something tickled his ears about the situation. Limbo was where the mind game had sent him for his mission, and journeying to another realm left him feeling uneasy. As if he was abandoning his purpose, but orders were orders, and no matter how long he lived between realms, Alex was the captain.
Alban knew for sure that when this ship landed in Zion, he would be headed back to Limbo with or without The Ascension. He loathed Zion and the use of magic because it always created a rift between the people, which he had to clean when they left or were dead. He was a janitorial knight of the mind game. Mr. Fix-it. And magic did not make his job any easier.
Holding the head of his pipe, Alban drew from it and inhaled all of the easiness of the world, and then exhaled all of his hard work. They were almost there; he felt them break through into the Illusionia Realm because the ship always suffered some turbulence when they would reach another realm. Now, it was time for his job. The prisoners had to be taken out of the cells and prepared for landing on the deck.
Alban placed his pipe back into the pocket of his trousers, and walked towards the hatch. He strolled past the first mate and a child-like being with wings, and opened the square door on the deck's floor. Again, he walked down the short staircase as was the routine everyday all day. A few cells down, Alban saw the only prisoners left sitting inside their cage. The only prisoners who behaved, Alban thought. He could have sworn they captured a larger group of people, but it was not his concern. He was only in charge of smoke stacking to heat the ship, and preparing the prisoners for landing.
He sauntered over to the only cell that was left occupied. Peering in at the weary prisoners, Alban unlocked the cage.
“Almost time for landing. I hope you boys still know how to walk out of here.”
Fenris stood in her room, sweat dripping from her face, her breathing heavy. She had her new sword in her hand, and after several seconds she gave it another tentative swing, wincing as she did. The pain in her chest was still great, but it was beginning to dull, and soon it would hardly be noticeable. The warrior sighed, walking to her bed and sitting on the edge, looking over the blade in her hand. She was starting to get accustomed to it's strange weight, and to it's awkward grip, and she had found that, in some respects, it was actually more useful than her Vorpal sword. The heavier point allowed for more forceful stabs, and it made blocking much more fluid than she had expected. The trick was that the blade had a different focal point, and she had to adjust herself to it. With the vorpal blade she had carried out most attacks with a focus on using the Mezzo to slash, but here the idea would be to use the debole to stab instead. She would have to relearn how to fight with this sword. It had been a longtime since she'd had to reteach herself to use a blade. She smiled slightly at the thought, realizing that this was not an entirely unappealing idea. She rather enjoyed the challenge it presented. There was a knock at the door. Fenris paused, as if wondering who was lurking behind the heavy wood, but she knew already who it was. She only had one consistent visitor. "Come in," She called. The doorway slid open, revealing the nervous form of Frey. Over the past few days the warrior had gotten to know him better, and she had discovered a good deal about his personality. Mostly that he was a nervous man, but one who used his own self-confidence to hide his anxiety, and who used his cunning to carefully plan his every move. He was also a friendly, charismatic man, and he had a knack for getting people to admit to things they normally wouldn't. He wasn't a fighter, she decided, but she was starting to understand why he was such a successful thief. "We'll be landing soon," He said as he entered, "I think it's time we came up with a proper plan." Fenris nodded, looking at Frey and wondering what exactly he wanted her to contribute to this conversation. She had no idea what Zion was like, and as such could contribute little to their planning. "Alright," Fenris said, "What did you have in mind?" The thief smiled, a look that implied that he had just gained some promising information. "It's my understanding that Zion is in the middle of a festival of magic," He said,"The plan is simplicity itself, we must simply get lost in the crowd." The warrior thought this over. In theory it was sound, but all it accomplished was the escape itself. It didn't get her home. "That's not a bad idea," She said, "But where I go Angelus goes, and it's hard to blend in when you've got an angel hanging around you." Frey frowned. He had forgotten about the little angel, as she had spent less and less time around Fenris as her duties aboard the ship increased. Fenris had noticed too, and she had realized that she almost missed the little pest. She felt somehow incomplete without the angel's watchful eyes on her, and since realizing that Angelus was largely responsible for her success so far in her journey, she had also started to feel less confident about her skills. She'd also noticed that the little angel seemed more sluggish, something that disturbed her, but when she'd asked Angelus about it she had seemed unconcerned. "It's time dilation," The little angel had explained, "The journey between the realms has caused us to experience time at different rates." Fenris had barely understood this, but she took the angel's word for it. She sometimes wondered if Angelus was simply trying to hide some sort of sickness from her, but she tried not to think about it too much. Her escape was more important at present. "Unfortunately the First mate and the Captain won't let your friend go," He said, "We'd have to fight them to free her and..." Frey frowned. Even with Fenris' remarkable skill he doubted they'd be a match for the Captain and Hayder. He sighed, thinking as quickly as he could. "Maybe if we had a few of your friends we'd stand a chance," Frey said. Fenris smiled at this, rising to her feet. "And maybe we could come up with a better plan," She said. Either way, it was time for her to meet with her fellow travelers again. Their skills would be invaluable if she wanted to escape, and for some reason it seemed wrong to consider continuing without them. Some invisible force seemed to have bound them for the duration of this adventure. Fenris had thought of this many times, and she had discovered something unexpected. She didn't dread the thought of traveling with the others at all. In fact, to the surprise of the lone wolf, she discovered that she actually looked forward to it. She opened the door, stepping back onto the dock, in search of the ones that called themselves true.
“The first time I met Alex? Well this story is not quite as interesting. There’s no punch line, I mean. I had been trying to sneak back into Zion for some time; however, I was unsuccessful. There was a bounty put on my head. I fought a few head collectors, won, but things were getting too hot.
“I spent a lot of my time travelling to avoid being killed and because I love adventure, I made it fun. I needed something that would make my father’s mental control over me impossible. A relic, a sacred necklace. I didn’t know how I would track it down. Someone suggested tomb raiding. I rightly enjoyed it. I found scores of treasure, relics, religious artifacts, pearls, diamonds. Soon I was as rich as any proper Hayder.
“That was because most grave diggers need a five man team but they have to split the profits five ways. My five man team was me. Raiding got to be too dangerous. I was almost killed by a shadow assassin twice in one day. For obvious reasons I relocated.
“Imperial city. I died my hair, got a job as a scientist, joined a gym, started dating—I tried to seem normal. At work, my credentials were fake, but my qualifications were very real. People were impressed by my “discoveries”—if they had just visited Zion they would have known these were elementary solutions to elementary problems. I was drawing attention from the press. I had to get myself fired.
“Imperial City didn’t have the spirit of Zion because there is no magic there. Being a very magical person, I had to keep my abilities secret. I wanted to leave.
“Ennui. You know? The same petri dishes everyday. The cons outweighed the pros. I destroyed my research and was dismissed. I wanted adventure again. There, the drinks were warm, the women devoid of personality, and the pay pathetic compared to what I was making on my own.
“As I was leaving, I heard of a hidden treasure in Imperial. It was buried under cement. Urban planning. Anyway, I heard Alex was the guy to go to for protection. I contacted him. His men covered me while I dug up the site. I found the only thing I had been looking for, the necklace. Alex probably doesn’t remember that that is the first time we met because when we met again, we were crossing swords on the ship.
“I joined the pirate crew because I needed a ride. Unfortunately, nothing is free. I had to work on the deck for a year. I did it happily, I mean I was adventuring again. A lot of men were suspicious of me; you don’t see too many Zionese outside of Zion. Captain MacShae took me on and told me I was a good worker, just too fancy. Can you believe that guy made me shave my head? Anyway, I brought him a ridiculous amount of treasure and I helped keep the medical bay clear. He started to warm up to me. I got promoted. But Alex was even more ambitious. He got the top spot? That’s a story for another time.”
A man with green eyes walked between them.
“I must find a new treasure: Lox's dog. We’ll speak again, Angelus, send for me any time you want to talk.”
Angelus watched Hayder disappear as he ascended a staircase at the end of the room and started to rock back on her heels. It was strange, but somehow the more she learned about Hayder the less certain she was of her feelings towards him. When she had first been captured it had been so easy to view him as simply another villain, someone to be defeated, overcome, someone who deserved no sympathy. Yet, now the lines had blurred, and part of her wanted him to be an ally. His life had been tragic, and his goal of restoring his own honor, and his mother's, was noble, and yet the means he used to reach that end were awful. The angel sighed. The mind game often made it easy to forget that in reality morality was rarely black and white. But sometimes, even within the fantasy there were shades of grey, and finding the right path became difficult in situations like this. Angelus frowned, deciding that she would have to use the coming days to figure out which path she would take. For now, however, she decided that this was not important. She had other matters of morality to attend to, matters pertaining to the unfair treatment of her fellow travelers. They were all angry, and rightly so, at their imprisonment, but they should be angry with her for not attempting to release them from it. She sighed, deciding that it was time for her to find them, to apologize. She had made a terrible mistake. It was time to set things right. *** The next few days were grueling for Angelus. The passage between realms was disorienting for the little angel, but it was the change in the flow of time that caused her the most discomfort. The realms they were traveling in moved at a different rate than Limbo, and her inability to adjust left her feeling a step behind. She felt as if the world had sped up on her, and she found herself having to use her future-sight just to keep up. It took all of her effort to receive signals from what was her future, but was the others present, and she quickly discovered that searching out these signals was exhausting. She grew more and more tired as the days went on, and while she tried to hide it from her fellow travelers, she was beginning to feel worn down. She did her best to hide her exhaustion from Fenris, but somehow the warrior seemed to notice. When Fenris was gone the angel slept in their room. It didn't help. Before long she found herself tiredly staring out at the sky over a distant realm, doing everything in her power to keep up with the flow of time in this alien place. Her mind begged for the release of sleep, and for a chance to find the proper flow of time in this place. 'Zion had better be close,' She thought, struggling to remember the proper words, 'I don't know how much more cross-dimensional travel I can take.'
Najm wasn’t incredulous. She was confused. As Kyle continued his explanation, he had smoothly addressed her, the sniper, without missing a beat. He had not even given her slight exchange of hateful words, or a minute look of contempt. He breezed by the subject as if…as if it had never existed. She wanted to say something. An apology perhaps, or maybe a word to cool the flame she knew she lit within him with the murder of Terrance, but somehow, she knew he did not need it.
Her brow furrowed, and he caught wind of it, staring at her as if trying to read her expression.
Maybe she did believe him. Maybe all the bad blood boiling between them had vanished in this instant. But one thing was for sure, she was not angry that she had been captured because…
…It all boiled down to one thing, how could you erase the past?
For the longest she wondered how she could gain redemption. Ever since her child was born, she wondered how she could repay those whose lives she had stolen away from their families. Her heart crumbled at the hypothetical situation of her son ever being taken away from her, so her heart became dust when she realized the magnitude of the pain and suffering she had caused.
A Shadow Assassin. That is what you remained in her line of work. A shadow. Because shadows have no hearts, they are only meant to follow.
So no, it wasn’t an incredulous look that invaded her countenance, it was a look of a person whose prayers had been answered, even if only for a minute. She wouldn’t tell him she was the sniper, but she had to see if he was telling the truth.
“What the hell are you thinking?”
The question seemed to open up volumes with him. His words were silent, but his hazel eye belied his speech. She saw in him what she found in herself back in Imperial City. He was a man driven by the wind of his sails because nothing else mattered. With that being said, there was nothing in his body language that uttered her betrayal. When she had first met him in Araaf, he was putrid with the scent of disdain for her existence, but something was different. Maybe fate had given her another chance.
“I'm thinking you might be a way out of this, Najm. I have allies on the ship, but they're only as trustworthy as my title of Captain demands. Truly, we two have never seen fully eye to eye, but surely in a situation like this, we can put aside our differences—“
“Differences? What differences?” She asked, still trying to gauge whether or not he understood what she understood.
He sighed and continued. Perhaps he thought she was being sarcastic.
“I've been stuck on this ship for four years, and the only escape is death. But perhaps, with your help, that death doesn't have to be my own."
This was not the first time her help had been asked of him, but this was the first time she would assent to the entreaty.
“Consider our differences on pause for the time being,” she replied. “At least until I can figure out what is going on here.”
What she really wanted to say was her desire to keep their feud on pause forever, but as she did with Arem, she would do with him. She would play dumb for as long as fate allowed. It was better that way.
She stood from the chair and fixed her hair. “So where exactly are we headed, Captain?”
The cool night breeze was the first thing Arael felt. As Exile, living in Limbo, he had been taken from Illusiona, and all the experiences it provided. There was no breeze in Limbo, there was no fresh air. Arael allowed himself several deep and fulfilling breaths. Like when Teller had first left him, the fresh air was something you didn’t realize you missed until you were deprived of it. His wings, or what was left of them, stretched wide in the small alleyway he had been deposited in. At one time they had been his defining mark as a Sentinel of Cloud City, stretched wide and proud. Now, he was lucky if he could even feel the breeze on the wiry decimated twigs that jutted out of his back like a series of faintly connected veins.
I’ll get them back. I’ll get everything back. And I’ll make those who took it from me pay. In the meantime, I’m probably fairly terrifying looking like this.
Areal looked at himself in the reflection of a small puddle that had gathered in the alley. He had left his tunic in Limbo, and had nothing to hide his wings underneath. He was still very muscular, but his face had become gaunt, his hair had gone white and was tangled and dirty, and his eyes had sunk back into his head slightly. He looked like he had suffered a series of very long, very painful and unentertaining nights, which is exactly what had happened.
He walked cautiously to the end of the alley and into the street. People crowded around for what seemed like miles. The jubilation was almost tangible. Arael scanned the area for any way to escape unnoticed. Despite the self-playing bands of instruments, parade of what looked like household furniture and the inexplicably flaming sky contributing to the somewhat distracted nature of the people here, Arael doubted a man with two crippled wings, long shocks of white hair, and the face of death would go unnoticed for long.
The drainpipe then. Always something.
Arael paced back down the wet alley, and grabbed hold of a thick drainpipe running the length of the building. It was square with rounded edges, and not a perfect tube, but it was made of hard steel and would support his weight. At least, that was the theory here. He gripped his hands around the cold pipe and braced a leg against the brick. He began to climb.
The first thing he felt was pain. He had no concrete idea of how long he had been in Limbo and no idea what year it was. He’d remained lean and muscular, but he wasn’t the warrior he had once been. And this climb was not the first thing he would have chosen to exert himself on. Ten feet up he was tired, and twenty he was exhausted. By the time that he had reached the top his arms were on fire, his hands had been bitten into by the uneven and partially rusted metal, and his legs were stiff and sore from bracing his body against the wall as he climbed.
He flopped unceremoniously onto his back and panted, rubbing his hands together.
I must be hallucinating. The sky isn’t green anywhere I know in Illusiona.
Fireworks erupted from the sky and green flame raced from point to point, covering the night sky in great swaths of fire and light. Arael rolled into a crouch and leapt to his feet ready for action. His sore muscles tensed as he gazed at the spectacle rolling overhead. Calls from the rooftops of other nearby buildings sent him into a defensive stance before running for the cover of the building's chimney. He listened in and tried to decipher the meanings of the words being called out over the city.
“Fifteen degrees left!”
“Shore up that left berm!”
Instructions. So the fire is just a show, part of the celebration. Arael let his stance relax, and he exhaled the tension from his chest. The shouting was constant, and the air show seemed to demand an extraordinary part of their attention. Here he could travel. Here he could move without being seen as long as he stayed off the buildings occupied with fire starters. He ran toward the nearest ledge and jumped forward, extending his wings to their full width…and fell like a rock onto the gravelly roof adjacent, rolling painfully against a chimney and wrapping himself in the useless fleshy appendages emitting from his back.
I feel you there Teller. Are you enjoying this? I hope so.
He lay there in pain for a few moments, green sky overhead, silently contemplating the misery his life had become. He was a Sentinel, he had become a fabled True One of Illusiona, and he had helped save the world. And then for his troubles he had been exiled from Illusiona by the Council, disgraced and disfigured by the very men and women he had fought beside his entire life. And the only person that he had had to talk to in the last few years thought that that was something called good plot development.
Areal stood and rubbed the dirt from his pants, and the gravel away from his chest and surveyed the surroundings. He was on a lower roof thankfully. The party goers below were thick and raucous. And he was all alone, out of the sight of distracted flame throwers. He had rolled up against a chimney situated near the center of the building, and to his left skylights gave him a view of the building’s interior below. He was above a bedroom, a child’s by the look of it. The sheets were coated with stars and the room was filled with small stuffed animals, but the bed was noticeably empty.
Probably still out enjoying the festivities. No better time.
He crouched and felt for anything, a loose pane of glass, a rusty weld, a poorly constructed hinge. But to his surprise the window was not locked, and he slid in quickly and silently. Standing, he left the child’s room behind and made his way down the hall, searching quietly for another bedroom. The home was modest, small and well kept. At the end of the hallway he found what he was searching for, and slipped into another mercifully unoccupied bedroom. It was sparsely decorated, a large mirror sat above a long dresser adjacent a bed fit for two, and an electric lamp sat atop the room’s lone table.
Electricity in even the smaller homes now. I have been gone for awhile.
He opened the dresser and produced a royal blue tunic. It was big on him, which was perhaps merciful. Not only did it fit on his body, but it did its best to at least partially conceal his wings. He also took a pair of dark brown slacks, and discarded his own. A glance into the mirror made him stop and look for a comb, to at least attempt to tame his hair. It didn’t take long for him to discover it was a lost effort. His hair had grown unruly, beyond the typical military precision he kept it in. He left the room and headed downstairs, the partygoers wouldn’t notice one more man making himself into the festivities, and even less that he seemed to be disheveled.
The floor below was a small shop, filled with covered carts and iceboxes that lit when Arael opened them. He took water that had been kept in a bottle, and several fruits from underneath one of the tarp covered carts, and made his way out into the streets.
Hayder figured out a way to get Lox out of jail early.
It was a very elaborate plot that involved three crucial steps.
He would procure the keys.
He would open the jail cell.
He would escort her away.
Very difficult, indeed.
She said she wanted her own room. He said he could arrange it but she would have to share with someone. She agreed. He tried to keep her with him as long as he could most nights, but even though they would talk until the sun was coming back up, she would never sleep over. He would wake up and she would be gone.
He found out about her background and questioned her about America and a planet she called “earth”. There would be times when she would falter in the middle of a story. He could even repeat the beginning to her and she would act as if she had never heard it before. Her recollections were slipping away. It troubled her, so he began to tell her about his life. He told her about his father, the Loxes, and his mother. He showed her the treasures he had found tomb raiding, walked her a few simple experiments in the lab, and indulged her while she played dress up in his wardrobe. She found him to be very interesting, but she did not let on too much. She asked him questions about science, a subject she knew nothing about, and patiently listened as he explained complicated concepts about genetics and or the intersection of science and magic.
She could not remember much of her time on earth anymore, she was having a bit of an identity crisis, and she often felt a creeping fear that she was alone in this new place. Hayder was obliged to keep her company. What was strange about all this was that the idea that she was on a pirate’s airship, her hair was a lovely dark purple, or that an enchanted dog (who loathed Hayder) was her constant companion did not faze her in the least. What frightened her was the fact that she had a driving motivation to go home, yet she could barely remember what home was like. Or which home.
“When you’re having a dream if you wake up in the middle of the night and write it, you can remember it the next day, even though the dream is over. You should write it down,” Hayder had suggested. “Write down what you remember now about earth.”
The dream was over. She was convinced that she would never return home but she wrote anyway. He asked her questions about the culture of her planet. She sang songs he had never heard before and could recite reams of the most beautiful poetry.
He asked her to copy the poems for him and he spent the time he was on duty patrolling the hallways reading her windswept handwriting.
It was not long before someone noticed a woman in Hayder’s room. He informed her that he had been invited to play a drinking game with the sailors and asked her if she would accompany him.
“These fellows can drink like fish,” he warned leading her to the cantina. “Are you sure about this?”
“I brought my snorkel,” she said. “It’s okay.”
Hayder thought she would spectate, but she participated with the rest of them. She could drink a shot of amber with a straight face and smoke a cigarette like a French actress. All the while she bluffed her way through a twelve rounds of poker.
They had that in common, he noted, a desire for money or probably more accurately, the spirit of competition. After losing a hand from sheer negligence, she realized that she was too intoxicated to continue playing cards, so she tried to collect her winnings.
“Now Miss Lox,” said a sailor, “You have to give us a chance to win our money back.”
“Mr. Haskins, you have had two dozen chances and you are no closer. I was under the impression that that money was a gift and it would be improper for me to return it.”
The pirates laughed. “Well then, let’s make it interesting.”
“Double or nothing, you can’t out drink our first mate.”
Whistles and handclaps. Hayder straightened his tie.
“I say the two of us versus you two,” Lox said indicating Orel and Haskins.
Hayder was amused. For one, he was rarely invited down for drinks at the cantina, but Lox had made him very popular with the other sailors and more approachable. He couldn’t turn down this chance to impress them, and besides that, he was sure, for all her talk, Lox couldn’t handle herself.
He had to admit, though, she had picked well. Haskins was so gone he couldn’t keep his eyes open and Orel was the size and weight of an adolescent girlchild.
The first round of drinks came, but that was a misnomer because this was more like the seventh for most of them.
There were a lot of bar songs, some talk about Zion’s underground, and plates of fish and chips started circulating around the deck.
By the fourth round Lox had taken off her jacket and wasn’t wearing any shoes. Hayder had lost his vest and shirt after a sailor had asked him who his tailor was and he showcased the careful seaming that went into a button up. He would never see those clothes again. Orel was crying emotionally into his glass about how Drexel always overlooked his work and Haskins was consoling him, telling him that he should have stopped carrying a torch for Drexel years ago.
Two more rounds and Lox had been invited to dance with a very tall Elfish pirate from Elderin. He was handsome and she could really move. Besides, she needed to sweat out some of these beverages. She knew a few dances no one had seen before and the different men showcased what they did back home. Hayder noted that she was drawn in in private and explosive in public, an introverted extrovert.
The drinking game ended after Haskins passed out and Orel ran to the bathroom and never returned.
This did not stop Lox from dancing with everybody who had the slightest bit of rhythm. Hayder stared at her from across the room and emptied his glass. They had not done anything inappropriate since the first time they had met, but he was feeling a strange sensation creeping up his spine. Jealousy. And then its cousin, desire.
“May I cut in?” he said to her partner. A man who seemed half-Summit because scales glistened on his skin and his face was narrow and sharp.
The man grinned and handed her off.
“You’re very beautiful tonight,” he said spinning her.
She had a girl’s laugh. “Blah blah blah,” she teased. “You can do better than that.”
He was shocked. “What do you mean?”
“I know what you want. Convince me.”
He took a careful moment, “Would you like to join me tonight?”
“A man shouldn’t ask questions.”
“Hmm… come with me now, then.”
“Too demanding and your voice rose at the end, still a question.”
His face was serious now. “I am going to my quarters,” he put his hands on her hips and his lips touched her ear as he said, “you will accompany me.”
She collected her purse. “Yes, sir.”
They weaved toward his room laughing about things they wouldn’t remember the next day. She seemed different, dangerous.
Hayder had barely closed the door behind him, when he turned around and saw Lox unpinning her hair completely in the nude. He tried to control his face. His cigar fell out from his lips and he had to pat his undershirt to put the fire out. It was always wonderful when the thing you want far exceeds what you’ve imagined.
“Yes or no?” she asked with disinterest.
“This doesn’t mean anything,” she clarified.
“Hmpf… We’ll see about that,” he took off the rest of his clothes.
She tried to control her face. Good lord. “I mean it, Siris, don’t do this if you can’t handle it.”
“What did you say?” he grabbed her legs and pulled her close to him. “Blah blah blah, convince me.”
They ate of love with an eager spoon, their bodies heated the room. The sheets lay twisted on the floor like candy stripe against their skin.
He had tried to talk awhile afterward, but she had fallen asleep immediately. He stayed awake, watching her, counting her breaths. He kissed the back of her neck and wrapped her in his arms. She smelled like honeysuckles and she murmured in her sleep. He added up her eyelashes, thought her lips were fascinating, marveled at the drawings on her skin.
The next morning he woke up afraid he had imagined it. But it hadn’t. It had really happened, as was evidenced by his completely destroyed room. But she was nowhere to be found. No note, no clothes, and if the sheets did not smell like her, he would have thought it had been another dream.
He sat up and sighed.
He was convinced. She had driven him absolutely mad.
<Ask her how she plans to escape.> Nubie said making himself more comfortable.
Before Pounce could speak, the guards turned the corner and were coming down the corridor. <We need to leave, now!> She bounded out of the cell without waiting or looking behind and ran to the opposite end of the block and straight through the door onto the deck.
"What on earth?" shouted one of the guards, shocked at the open cell and the two animals. Making a quick decision, he left the other guard to deal with Najm and started chasing after the cat. Najm took opportunity of the confusion to knock down the remaining guard and grab his sword, carving a hurricane's path through the crew, following after Pounce. Pounce found a staircase leading into the lower depths of the ship and raced down several levels when her nose detected the distinct scent of grilled fish. She paused and crouched behind the stairs of that level, allowing her black fur to conceal the white of her paws in the low light.
At this time, Orem was carrying a deadweight prisoner, now healed, back to the cell block when he was barreled over by Najm. Abedah, who had only been faking the grogginess to put an end to the whole interrogation, quickly lept to her feet and ran to the opposite side of the deck, squatting down between a store of sacks, barrels, and ropes, until the commotion died down. Orem and several of the other guards, in the second Najm stumbled, were able to relieve her of the stolen sword and take her directly to the interrogation room.
Pounce waiting for what felt like an hour, but in reality was only a few minutes, before she sensed that there would be no more traffic for a while. She cautiously stepped out from behind the stairs, sniffed the air, and made her way in the direction of the galley. Thankfully, being in the lower portions of the ship, the small lanterns hanging here and there made it difficult for any passing humans to see her clearly. She paused outside the door of the galley to see if anyone was there. She saw a man whistling as he battered some fish, she couldn't tell what kind, and slap it on an iron slab atop a layer of hot coals. It smelled so good, but if she went in right away, she would be caught for sure, and she was NOT going back to that awful kennel. While the cook's back was to her, she slid into the door and hid under a table, careful to keep her tail tucked in close. The cook continued to whistle as he prepared the fare, and she inched, table by table, closer to her target. She had no idea how she was going to get that last twenty feet to the grill, when luck went her way. The cook walked out a side door on the side of the galley opposite where Pounce had entered. Now's my chance, she thought to herself, and took three giant leaps from under the nearest table to the grill. She used a single claw to grab a not-quite-cooked fillet from the grill, put it between her teeth, and bolt back down the aisle and to the space behind the stairs. As the cook came back in carrying a fresh sack of flour, he saw a black tail streaking out the main door, noticed the missing piece of fish, and shrugged. Considering how long he'd been cooking on this boat, and the realms they've travelled in, there wasn't a whole lot that surprised him anymore. He simply took another fillet from the pile still waiting to be cooked and tossed on the grill in place of the piece that was taken.
Pounce was pleased with her catch, now satisfied from the meal, and began the long process of grooming. She'd need to find a drink and a litter box soon, but she had time for a good nap first, once she was mostly satisfied that she was far more presentable than she'd been upon leaving the cell block.
Abedah waited and watched as pirate after pirate walked by, completely unaware that she was there. Both her hand and her arm were completely healed, and growing stronger by the minute. Her clothing was another story, and she was going to have to find some replacements before she ended up completely naked. On a pirate ship of brain-damaged men whose frontal cortices were misplaced below their belts, being a nude female would not be a pleasant proposition. From her vantage point, the light in the sky did not progress smoothly from day to night, but seemed to grow light and dark almost randomly. It wasn't a quick change, but when it happened, it was sudden, like someone changing slides in one of those ancient projectors she'd seen demonstrated in a museum. When it seemed that the activity was dwindling, she slowly peeked out, and made her way to the stairs. She had three immediate goals: find some new clothes, get something to eat, and find a place to hide. On the battle school, the rooms were arranged in such a way as to convey rank by their position. She assumed that the same was true on this ship as well, so she made her way to the lowest level. If she was going to steal clothes, she didn't want it to be from a high officer where she would easily be caught. She figured the lowest of the pirates would spend as little time in the primitive barracks their rank entailed as they could.
As she passed the floor of the galley, she neither noticed the smell that had attracted Pounce, not having the sense of smell animals employed, nor noticed the cat herself, being well concealed and sleeping under the dark stairs. Continuing down as far as the stairs went, she could hear the loud rumble of the engines on one side, and smell the dankness of male sweat from the barracks. She stopped outside the roomful of bunks to listen for any movement. Hearing none, she quickly glanced inside to see if she could see any motion. Feeling confident that the room was empty, she stepped in, and spotted a set of clothing neatly folded on a barrel under the lone flickering lantern in the rear of the room. There was only the one door, so Abedah, muttering her lack of fortune that what she needed was in the most inconvenient place, ran in and began changing her pants first with her back to the door; and then took off her tattered shirt, feeling refreshed by the clean long-sleeved white tunic. The pants had a rope drawstring already threaded. As she was tucking the tunic into the pants and tying the belt, as voice spoke from the doorway, "I always thought these things were actually made for women."
Shocked by the sudden intrusion, she whirled around and found a silhouette leaning against the doorframe. "How long have you been standing there?" Abedah demanded.
"Long enough to know those aren't your clothes, but not so long to have seen what's underneath," the shadow said. He stepped into the room, and Abedah drew a sudden breath. This handsome face is one she had seen before, in the shadows and shimmers of deja vu. There was no hunger in his eyes, and no threat to his step. His dark eyes and dark hair reminded her of the styles common at the university.
"You seem familiar," Abedah stated thoughtfully. "May I ask where you are from?"
She was hoping he would say China, as she was, for he certainly looked the part. Instead he said, "I don't really come from any one place in particular. I am one of a handful of engineers, who knows how to keep these flying ships off the ground. I grew up on the ships, learned the craft from anyone willing to give me a lesson, and kept switching jobs at every port. I only came aboard here during our last stop before heading out for Limbo. I take it that's when we picked you up?"
Abedah didn't know what to say. He was so friendly, and so familiar, she wanted to open herself up to him right away. But she also knew from her brief time in this world that nothing was as it appeared. She had created Free Play to be a challenge, to force the players to make difficult choices, sometimes with no choice being correct. But being a part of the game, was this really the same game she had created? She certainly had never added pirates or a flying sky ship to any of the puzzles, games, or adventures she had written. She decided to keep her response short, "You could say that." Her natural curiosity spoke up before she could check herself, "How did you know I was in here?"
The engineer laughed. "I sense every vibration on this ship. It's part of knowing the engines and knowing when something's not quite right. There's never anybody in this room at this time of day, so when I felt a difference in the creaking and shaking everyone else ignores, I came to check it out and hit the jackpot."
"So what now?"
"Well, I could take you back upstairs, but that would mean leaving the engines. Since I can't do that, I guess you'll just have to stay with me for a while. Come on," as he held out his hand. "Let me show you around a bit."
Abedah wasn't sure if she should take his hand or not, and wasn't sure whether she should go with him; but this wasn't necessarily an offer without its advantages. She didn't take his hand, but motioned for him to lead the way. She figured the engine room would at least be better than the cells. The engineer laughed as he guided her towards his domain.
Pash returned from the observation deck to find Lox passed out in her bed.
She was sleeping, or rather hibernating, at a very strange angle and she still had one shoe on.
Pash had served in the Arjunan resistance before the sky pirates recruited her. Arjuna was a beautiful place, but a horrible location to live in if you were a woman. Females there had very little rights because the king, Sadiq the Vetala, despised women.
Growing up in an environment seeing males always win had lit a fire under Pash. She joined an underground group meant to depose the king. What she saw instead was a bunch of dead souls being sucked into the evilness of the Vetala. Each death made the monster stronger.
She had jumped ship and joined this crew as an advisor. She could help navigate the Arjunan mountains, something no one else on the ship could boast. She was also handy with a spear. When The Ascension was leaving the region she was asked whether or not she wanted to go along and stay. There was nothing left for her in Arjuna. Only bad memories.
“What are you doing in my bed?” she poked the girl who was completely obscured by her hair and smelled like a man. “Get up.”
The girl was motionless and heavier than she looked.
Pash sighed. Her roommate was very strange, indeed. She had met her while waiting in the prison. She had gotten thrown in the hold for reporting late for watch too many times. Pash’s sleep habits had never gotten right. When she met Lox, she hadn’t noticed her dozing in the corner. Lox said something about the first mate bringing her a dog. Pash had suspected that Lox had some very strange eating habits. But when the first mate actually came, she had managed to get Pash out, too.
She hadn’t had to do that, especially since she did not really know her well. She also noted that the dog absolutely loathed Hayder and had bitten him more than once.
She tried to shake her awake, but after three or four really good ones, she was still knocked out.
Time for Plan B. She went to the bathroom and returned with an icecold bucket of water. She dumped it over the girl’s face.
“No. I think the proper term is sh*tfaced. Why are you so drunk?”
“Pirates,” Lox articulated.
“Yes, but that doesn’t explain why you’re wearing men’s clothes. In fact… you’re wearing a lot of clothes. Two pairs of pants and two jackets. You only have one shoe, though. What happened? You look like you’re in pain.”
Lox sat up slowly, wincing. “I had the best night of my life, I think.”
Pash eased her out of bed. Lox tried to cross over to her own bed because it was not wet, but Pash shook her head. “No, you bought that one. So where were you?”
Closing her eyes was a great labor but the light in the room was so bright. “Can you turn the sun off?”
Pash, annoyed, killed the lights. “Well.”
“I went to hang out with Siris—“
“—and then we went out for drinks with the crew.”
“Wild woman,” Pash said sarcastically.
“I won a lot of money, drinking contest, started dancing,” she waved her hands in the air like she was still dancing.
“That’s it, drinking contest. But that doesn’t explain your clothes.”
“Then Siris invited me over to his room.”
Pash was tickled, “And then?”
Lox closed her eyes and furrowed her brow, pulling the pillow over her head. “I’ve been bad.”
Pash laughed. “You didn’t! How was it? Tell me everything.”
“I can’t,” she moaned.
Pash gasped. “That means you like him.”
“Uggggh!” Lox groaned. That was general protocol; if a woman doesn’t care about a man she would put the whole thing out there. “It was okay.”
“I’m lying. I transcended space and time.”
Pash clapped her hands together, “I knew it. Hayder walking around here with his cutlass like he’s the president of the known universe. Now all this swaggering makes sense. I’m telling you, tall guys—“
“Shhh!” she hissed. “I can see your words, I need ginger ale and a liver transplant.”
Lox stumbled to the bathroom and took a shower. When she was done Pash was reading a book. She had a mischievous smile on her face.
“Pash. Seriously,” she said getting dressed. “Don’t tell anybody about this.”
“Is it serious between you? Secret lovers? Whirlwind romance?”
“Romance? No. It just is what it is.”
“So you mean to tell me, you don’t like Hayder?”
“We’re just friends. It was that one time.”
“If that’s friends, we’re no longer friends. Come on. He’s rich, handsome, psycho but nice, and clearly into you.”
“He’s not. He just wants what he got and he got it. He’s a six two sky pirate who can quote poetry and swordfight and looks like he’s in the NBA. He’s probably got a closet full of girls. I knew that when I started talking to him. I’m not going to get attached.”
There was a knock on the door.
“You answer it,” Lox said on full alert. “If it’s Hayder, tell him I am not here. I repeat, not here.”
“Oh so he’s just Hayder now?” Pash said sauntering to the door.
Perhaps Lox was psychic, it was him.
He cleared his throat. “I was wondering if Lox was here?” he asked Pash.
“No!” Lox said in a whisper scream.
“Yeah she’s home. I’ll leave you two alone.”
“You b*tch,” she mouthed to Pash on her way out.
Hayder came in quietly. He did not know how to start. “You left.”
“I always leave.”
“You’re mad at me?”
“Have I ever been mad at you and kept it a secret?”
“No, but why would you leave?”
She sat him down. “Let me tell you a little bit about the relationships between men and women where I’m from.”
He was listening.
“They don’t exist. Between eighteen and thirty, there is no romance. We’re nice enough to each other, we do what we do, we move on.”
“You don’t stay with one person? You don’t fall in love on earth? You don’t marry?”
She looked shocked just by the mention of that word. “People don’t love each other. Thirty percent of black women get married on earth, half of all marriages end in divorce, and the average length of a marriage is eleven years. Earthlings are not programmed for love. We just see what we want and take it. Then when we’re done with that then it’s over.”
“Is it over then?” he asked masking his confusion. What kind of conditions were earth women living in where they were disgusted by the concept of love?
“It never started. I told you it wasn’t serious. It’s not.”
“What if I wanted it to be?” he turned his gaze on her.
If she looked up, this argument would be moot. She wouldn't be able to stop herself. “Don’t look at me that way. I have to go.”
And Lox spent most of the rest of the trip avoiding Hayder. Occasionally she would come over to eat dinner with him, and try to pretend she did not want him.
This would have worked well if she hadn’t seen him stumbling out of the cantina one late night with a beautiful olive-skinned woman with long, straight raven hair. She had gorgeous green eyes and was wearing the same smile Lox had worn.
She waited around a corner for them to pass her. She shouldn't care, but she wanted to know who this mystery woman was.
She didn't have to look. She could tell from her laugh. It was Pash.
Fenris was surprised by how much the life of a pirate seemed to suit her. There was something calming about the wide sky, and the nature of a pirate's life forced people to act like their true selves, rather than hiding behind the mask of appropriate conduct that restricted people's actions back on land. The sky was a free place, and the people were free within it. There were no secrets aboard the ship because there was no need for them, and there was no place to hide them. At least, that was like Fenris would have liked to believe, but the truth was there were many secrets on the ship, and while most of the men showed their true colors at all times, some hid parts of themselves, and kept things locked away behind the closed doors of their minds. Fenris lacked the natural perceptiveness that her angelic partner used to find the patterns of people's thoughts, and as such it was harder for her to unravel the mysteries of some of her crewmates. She had, for example, taken several days to discover Orel's...interesting romantic situation, and while she knew more about him than any of her fellows, there were still things about Frey that confused Fenris. At times she would catch him staring off into the distant sky as if looking for something that he had lost, and he neatly deflected most of her questions about his past. Still, aboard this ship of strangers he was her constant friend and companion, and they spent a great deal of time talking about their adventures, and making crude jokes about their fellow pirates. Had Angelus been awake enough to notice, she would have quoted Sherman Capote at them before pointing out what they ought to really laugh at, but her distracted nature at present left Frey and Fenris to their own devices. Fenris was surprised by how much she enjoyed Frey's company. He was a fellow Terra Dian like herself, and simply having someone to talk about home with was nice. She genuinely enjoyed her time with him, and she was glad that fate had decided to cross their paths. She was also glad that Angelus was out of it, lest she smirk at the warrior, before repeatedly saying various variations of 'See, I told you this whole making friends thing wasn't so bad.' At present the warrior found herself walking with Frey through the lower decks, watching as Lox scrambled to leave as Hayder approached. "And once again our tragic lovers go their separate ways," Frey said beside her, "Their inability to express their true feelings for each other damaged by their own social clumsiness." He said this as if narrating a story, and Fenris laughed, though she knew that she would have been more clumsy than Lox, had she been in her shoes. She had been confused by the change in Lox and Hayder's relationship, and she had no idea why the two, who had seemed madly in love only a few days ago, suddenly seemed to hate each other. A moment later another woman slipped into the hall, giving Hayder a smile that let on more than she intended. Fenris watched in surprise, suddenly understanding why Lox was so upset. "Ah," She said to Frey, "It appears we have a challenger." He grinned, correctly interpreting the phrase. "Oooh, someone has come to challenge Lox's claim to Hayder," He said in his mock-narrator tone, "Will this new temptress divide our star-crossed lovers?" Fenris laughed again, surprised by the sound. She wasn't used to laughing, and she was amazed by Frey's ability to force the sound from her so easily. She let her eyes find Angelus, who's eyes seemed distant, as if seeing something that no one else could, but who still gave a slight smile. Fenris wondered if the smile had been caused by something else, or if she was celebrating her success at forcing the lone wolf to become social. Either way, the warrior realized, she didn't care. Angelus had been right. There really was something to this making friends thing after all. *** Time is a fluid thing.Anyone who has traveled within it in any direction could tell you this, and like fluid it has it's own ebb and flow. It can be gentle or forceful, and like a mighty river it constantly moves, surging forward, towards the infinite ocean of the future. Those not careful can get swept away by it's pull, and unfortunately for Angelus, she had been one of the many poor souls who have gotten lost in the flow of time. She was now completely incapable of separating her past, present, and future. She had lost the ability to simply correct her perception of time due to dilation, and she was now trapped within the flow of time, receiving signals from the past and future in equal measure. She spent her days lamenting mistakes that hadn't been made yet, and reliving glories long since forgotten. Sometimes she heard thoughts, but she couldn't tell if they were remembered or if they were happening. She saw the faces of many charges, but struggled to remember which she was currently with. She was uncertain of which version of her she was supposed to be. Was she the immature creature who stood screaming at her sister in this memory, or the wise woman who stood before the pool of creation smiling at memories of charges long since past. She didn't know. Still, for a moment, she surfaced, and found herself. She was young, and she was with Fenris aboard a pirate ship. Hayder was nearby. She needed to talk to him. She needed him to help her. She needed to stop long enough to re-establish her place in the timeline. She couldn't think of how to say any of this. In fact, she had gotten so tired from her mental sojourns backwards and forwards in time that she struggled to remember what words were. She found Hayder's wavelength after a moment though, and slowly thought of the correct words. <Sir>She thought sluggishly<How close are we. I can't take too many more realm-jumps.> It was true,she needed to get used to the flow of time in a single time if she was to recover her sense of present. Otherwise she would be lost to the flow of time forever, and she would be useless to both her charge and her employer. More than that, she would be useless as a guardian, and she would likely be defragmented. And dying because she was susceptible to the effects of time dilation would not be a dignified way to go.
Hayder and Pash had been lounging in his quarters for some time. She was a very lovely woman. Enchanting, any man’s dream.
But she was boring.
No, it wasn’t that.
She wasn’t Lox.
He was a bit surprised. He hadn’t received a telepathic message in years.
<How close are we. I can't take too many more realm-jumps.>
“Please excuse me, dear,” Hayder said standing in a sweeping gesture. He took her hand and they both walked toward the door. He opened it widely. “I am sorry but I have a very important business matter to attend to. You understand, don’t you?”
Pash nodded and grinned. She leaned up to Hayder and kissed him on the cheek. He smiled uncomfortably.
He escorted her to her room, as any gentleman would. She opened the door and he tried to keep himself from peaking in. She misunderstood him.
“You want to come in.”
“Oh, apologies, business.”
He had already noticed that Lox wasn’t there. Disappointment.
He left in a brusque hurry.
He found Angelus’s room and knocked twice.
She opened the door. Lox had told him that Angelus was looking different lately. He had asked her what was wrong with her, but Lox had said she did not want to seem like she was being nosey. Besides, she did not think Angelus would take her concern as true concern, but rather as gossip. He had not known she meant by ‘different’ but now he did. Angelus looked absolutely sick.
“Angelus,” Hayder said with concern. “You don’t look well, dear. What is wrong? How can I help you?” He looked different too. But he was sick for another reason.
Angelus was thankful for Hayder's swiftness. It was taking all of her energy to keep herself focused on establishing this as her present, and it took even more effort to keep her own perception of time moving at the right speed. She was getting closer to the right perception of time, but she was still a step behind the others. Time moved faster in this realm, and she would have to adjust if she was going to sort herself out. "It's time dilation," She explained, "Crossing the realms has thrown off my perception of time, and the rate I experience it at. I've tried to compensate by using my ability to see into my own future, but my mind keeps getting lost in my own personal timeline." She was aware that this was just technobabble to him, so she slowed down. Of course, from Hayder's perspective her reply had already come almost a full minute after his question, since she was replying as quickly as she could despite the gap in their perceptions of time, so maybe slowing down wasn't a good idea. She shook her head, frustrated. She was tired, and upset, and she just wanted to figure out what was happening. She wanted to know who she was at this point, and what was supposed to be going on at this point in her history. She needed to adjust to the flow of time again, and she needed to re-establish her idea of present tense. "It's like a really bad case of Jet-lag," She explained, "Basically, you and everyone else have adjusted to the change in time-zone and I haven't. But while I have Jet-Lag from one flight I've gone on another, and another, and another, so my internal clock is all screwed up. Basically, if you could keep us in one realm for just a day or two I could sort myself out,and reset my mental clock." Just talking seemed to be helping, actually, her responses were coming faster now, and without thinking she was starting to get a sense for the way time flowed in this place. "Time flows differently in the various realms, and while you humans don't seem to be affected by the change, it can be very difficult for a multi-dimensional being like myself to adjust," She said. She decided to add this to her list of problems that came with existing across all of space and time. It made keeping track of which part of time you were supposed to be in very hard. Still, for now she seemed to be holding relatively steady, though the people and things outside her door kept speeding up and slowing down. At least now she wasn't flipping between different days and years within her own head. She paused, using her empathic abilities to get a feel for what was happening at this moment. She was glad to see that Najm had calmed, though she still didn't know the shadow assassin's opinion of her, Fenris had made a friend, a fact that made the little angel smile, and Arem and Dougie seemed tense, but were unharmed. Abedah was staying out of trouble as well, though she might be getting into something else. Angelus didn't linger, as one thought process overrode them all. It reminded her of Lox's thoughts, and the things it was thinking made her almost think that it was Lox. But there was another name within their fantasies, and unless Lox had changed her name this was someone else. "Um," Angelus said, ignoring her own problems for a moment, "Who is Pash, and why is she thinking such...vivid...things about you?" She had forgotten the one advantage to being lost in the flow of time, it made it impossible to monitor the thoughts of others, meaning that such disturbing thoughts couldn't reach her. She almost considered fleeing back into the confusion of the timestream, but she decided against it. The comparison to Jet-Lag was apt, and she really did feel quite sick. If she didn't get her perception of time sorted out soon she might need to ask for a bucket.