Robo wasn’t sure how he was going to explain this to Doan. The sudden breakdown of the power plant wasn’t dangerous, but it would be exceptionally expensive and time consuming to fix. And they didn’t have all that much money to spend in the first place, with Arris Dome having overspent on this year’s budget, so trying to get the repairs approved by the council was going to be a frustration neither of them would rather deal with. His leader was going to go into conniptions, for sure.
He glanced over at the other robot assigned to him for this assessment mission. A newer model than he, made to look more manlike. Well, a little more, at least-- he was still far from appearing human. The robot’s ID number was HH-53, and his name was Jacob. And he, as the humans would say, was a major pain in the ass.
Jacob blipped angrily, the assortment of lights implanted in the control panel in front of him flickering chaotically like fireflies on amphetamines. "Commander Prometheus, it seems the Lithium we shipped in last month was flawed in its purity. We have been- *searching vocabulary databank-- please hold . . .*- we have been gypped. Chancellor Doan will have to be alerted. Shall I also send out a message to the Medina embassy demanding a formal apology for the problem their imperfect export has caused?"
Commander Prometheus. Even after 3 years, the title still seemed strange to him. "No, Jacob. It is not our duty to negotiate with Medina. Let us just fix the problem. I was equipped with a backup supply of Lithium, in case of a dilemma such as this. It should last until we are sent a new shipment. And that’s an order." He added hastily. Newer robots, for security reasons, had many restrictions . . . one of which that they had to obey orders from humans, and only humans- except for him. He was, thankfully, considered human in every respect except for the physical.
Robo’s partner said nothing, but his optical sensor narrowed slightly in agitation. The older robot could almost hear the circuits whirring inside Jacob’s metal head, battling each other out for domination. Finally, he answered rather grudgingly "Yes, sir."
Robo reached forward and removed the metal plate that covered the tiny Lithium core. It was unexciting, a thing about the size and shape of a flashlight battery, and yet it powered the entire dome exceptionally efficiently. At times, the city had even had so much extra power, it would short-circuit the system. Arris dome had grown fairly rich as a result of selling their excess electricity. Being as important as the core was to both the electrical *and* economic systems, he found it a little odd that no one had tested the thing before it had been installed- especially since the Medians were usually so proud and protective of their exports. This would be a blemish on their record, no doubt. He held the thing out for Jacob to take, and tapped once on a tiny button on his breastplate, opening a compartment with a hydraulic hiss. The secondary core was inside.
"Sir?" Jacob’s voice was uncharacteristically quizzical and snagged Robo’s attention like a curiosity-coated fishhook. "There is something odd about this Lithium. It seems to be . . . leaking?"
Ancient beauty, primal beauty, bright moonlight beauty. The smell of flowers, vanilla, sweet as a cinnamon roll. So quiet, too, the special lack of hubbub that you could find under pine boughs. Mist like water, opaque and milky. Walking on clouds! How cute!
It’s so pleasant here, so pleasant and saccharine sweet . . . so fake. An illusion. The sky clear, the stars between the blue-green leaves knife sharp, scintillating. Puncturing the eyes, they’re so bright . . . look away! Look back down, where the red flows, the bodies three, they lie torn and dead, save one . . . beating heart, heart of a warrior, of a knight, it will not give up.
Oh, poor little knight-child, frog-child, why don’t you stop fighting? Die peacefully, you hurt so much . . .
Molasses thick repugnance, recognition, realization.
The nightmare dropped from her mind abruptly as Lucca awoke, slipping back into the technicolor abyss where dreams spend the waking hours. Mouth and throat were as tender as a salted abrasion, tasted like one, too, and her face was thick with tear trails. They’d actually fallen into her gasping, murmuring mouth as she slept. The cast away bed sheets were musky with the splinter sharp stench of fear-sweat. She couldn’t move. Couldn’t think beyond the singular word that was screaming in her head, bouncing off the walls in a desperate attempt to escape past her lips, to be shouted into the unnaturally still and shadow riddled air.
Glenn was dying, Frog was dying, her friend was bleeding to death in the middle of a candy-coated and blood soaked wooded wonderland, four hundred years before she could do anything to help.
She quivered, snot and perspiration and teardrops all mingling on her cheeks. No, no, this couldn’t be happening. She wouldn’t let it happen. The Epoch was ready enough . . .
Fear and panic yielded slightly to allow a new emotion, determination, into the tormented folds of her post-nightmare mind. Lucca knew that if she just sat by while her friend died alone and unhealed, she would never be able to live with what she had, or more to the point, *hadn’t* done. The very thought made her stomach roil with nausea. Sweat still fresh and matting the hair to the back of her neck, she willed her limbs to move, the joints creaking with late night protest. Crono, of course, had to come, and Marle. She couldn’t save Glenn alone, and he was their friend and comrade, too. It wouldn’t be fair to anyone if she just left them behind.
The purple haired inventor slithered of her mattress and collapsed to the floor, her hand flailing on her nightstand and knocking over several books in a jumbled attempt to snatch her glasses. She’d end up missing the bridge to the mainland and running right into the ocean without them, and, of course, *that* wouldn’t save anybody.
Moments later her mother, half-asleep and wandering into walls, stumbled into the front room to see why the door had slammed. Concluding that it was just the wind, and mumbling about Taban fixing the latch, she made her way back up the cedarwood stairs and just missed the image of her daughter, still wrapped in her flower studded pajamas (a misguided birthday gifted from her deranged Grandfather) sprinting down the slim path to the mainland, her hair drifting in the moonlight.
Mercifully, Lara also missed the gentle and sinister way the gloom under her daughter’s bed shifted, little whorls of darkness moving in to seemingly fill a space that had a split second before contained something not quite as insubstantial as shadows. And the sweet scent of vanilla, fading off into the midnight ether.
Lucca pounded on the solid wood door of Crono’s house, her fist slamming over and over like a battering ram on the heavy oak. She’d run all the way here, driven by the insane burning fear for her friend, taking shortcuts through the weeds and briar bushes of the fields outside Truce. Her legs were stained maroon with blood from hundreds of superficial scratches. She paused only a moment in front of the house, to suck in mouthfuls of sunflower scented air, and then began the merciless beat of her palm against the door. By now, she would have bruises on the side of her fist in the morning.
The loose floorboard in the front room creaked, and the door pulled open to reveal Crono’s mother, looking perplexed and disheveled. "Lucca? What *are* you doing here? It must be-" A whisper-quick glance at the falling moon, then deep brown eyes were back on the pitiful looking teenager. "-Four in the morning. And what happened to your legs? Goodness, you look like you’ve been attacked! But why are you still in your pajamas? Well, what’s left of them, that is."
"Hello, Ms. Petosky. Is Crono there?"
"Of course he’s here, you silly girl! It’s the middle of the night! Oh, come inside, come inside. You’ll catch your death."
The older woman pulled Lucca over the threshold of the door and into the cozy, if slightly cramped living room. Across it’s polished hardwood floors, the glowing embers of a still dying fire immersed the room in feather-soft golden light, illuminating the modest furniture that was blanketed in the furry, sleeping forms of several cats. Only one awoke as she stumbled inside, blinking drowsily with verdant eyes. The warmth of the house finally reminded her that it was still chilly outside, the below sixties nip of late spring, and that she was wearing naught but a few damp pieces of flannel. "I know it’s late- um, early- but could you please let me go up to Crono’s room, Ms. Petosky?" She asked, her voice sounding tinny from the aftermath of the mad, adrenaline fueled dash over to Truce.
Crono’s mother glared disapprovingly, but Lucca could sense the kind exasperation behind that mask. "Goodness, just *look* at those legs!" Ms. Petosky exclaimed, and disappeared into the kitchen. "Lucca, dear, what did you do? Run through a pit of thorns? Let me bandage them up. Then . . . you can go see Crono."
Lucca felt a look of relief whisk over her face. The smoldering, pure *need* to see her dearest friend had turned her thoughts inside out, sending her into a untamed frenzy ever since she had awoken from the Nightmare. Finally, with the near guarantee of being satiated, it had faded from her thoughts, leaving only a shell of panic behind. It would be all right, now. Crono could help Glenn.
The lights flickered on as Crono’s mother re-entered the room. One of the benefits of being a genius was that you could give your friends some very useful gifts- in this case, Lucca had installed an electrical system inside the Petosky household. It was the only building on the Northern Continent, save for Lucca’s own home and Gaurdia Palace itself, to have such a luxury.
Lucca let herself be seated, and her legs swathed in white gauze. She barely felt the sting of the soapy washcloth that wiped away the crusted, half-dried blood from the scratches on her legs. And she didn’t notice Ms. Petosky’s puzzlement at how very glassy the teenager’s eyes looked, and the lack of idle conversation and pleasant banter that was always present when Lucca came over to visit.
"Alright, all patched up-"
"Thank you, Ms. Petosky!" Lucca practically shrieked, and streaked up the staircase, the wooden steps squealing in protest as her feet beat upon them. Crono’s mother gaped after the girl, and then frowned mightily.
"How terribly rude! Even that pale fellow Crono brought around wasn’t that impolite!" She muttered.
"Get up, you red-headed moron!" Lucca hissed, shaking her friend’s shoulders so hard she briefly worried he might get whiplash. "Up! Wake up!" No stranger to Crono’s sleeping habits, Lucca knew she would have to smack his entire upper body on the mattress for at least ten minutes before he at least reached a state of lucidness, and she proceeded to do so as soon as she entered the room. Finally, he grumbled and waved his arm at her, giving a shaky sign that yes, he was returning to the living world . . . in just a minute, anyway. "Awaken, gawddammit!"
"Murphdashnug. Gabeez urkt. Beh?" Crono gabbled at her from behind the thick cotton coats of near sleep. "Cca? Lucca? Wassit? Wha’ timis eh?"
"Around four. Get up! It’s really urgent!"
"Urgen?" Crono mumbled sleepily, and rolled over, blinking in the moonlight at the silhouette of his friend.
"That’s what I said, and that’s what I mean, boy. Get your ass out of bed and pack your bags. We’re going to the castle to get Marle and then we’re going off to 600 AD."
"Say wha?" The red head sat up suddenly, bumping his elbow against the bedpost. "Wha the hell’er you talkin’ bout?"
"We gotta go. Now. Like, right now. Glenn’s dying, we need to save him, he’s in a forest, I don’t know where, and we gotta go fuckin’ NOW." Lucca hopped from foot to bare, bruised foot in anxiety, her arms flapping and gesticulating. She looked frightening in the window’s moonbeams, as detached and delusional- though not as homicidal- as Queen Zeal had been. "C’mon, c’mon!"
The last traces of sleep fleeing from his suddenly dour face, Crono reached forward and grasped her waving arm firmly. "What about Glenn dying?"
"I *saw* it Crono, I was there! In a dream! He had a big puncture in his chest and was bleeding everywhere, I mean *really* bleeding everywhere, bright red arterial blood too! Shit, I think there were two other people too, but I couldn’t tell . . . they looked strange. But, anyway, that’s not the point, the point is, we gotta go RIGHT FUCKING NOW!" She squawked the last part, leaping into the air with exuberance and ripping her arm right out of Crono’s grip. "Now! Nownownownow!"
"Now wait just a fucking second, Lucca! It was a dream, for Astara’s sake-"
"No! It was real! How can you not believe me? Crono, I’m your best friend! You-you always believe me! What’s wrong with you?" Eyes wild, Lucca jerked her arm back, fingers crooked, giving the impression that she was going to bring her hand down and rake her dirty nails across his unprotected face.
"Lucca, you’re hysterical! Calm *down*, please, and explain!" Crono rose to his knees, feeling surreal. This wasn’t his friend at all. It was like something had possessed her, slipped into her body while she was sleeping and asserted it’s foreign consciousness over her iron will.
"You don’t believe me. You . . ." She almost tripped over her own feet in sudden recoil, leaping away from the bed like it had transformed into a venomous viper. "You asshole! Well, fuck you! *Fuck you*! I’ll go by myself, and you can just fucking *rot*, you betrayer!"
"Crono, what is going *on* up there?" Shouted his mother from downstairs, sounding like her patience was wearing mighty thin. "What’s all that yelling?"
Ignoring his mother’s complaints, Crono dodged forward, leaping off the bed in a sudden strike and grabbing Lucca by the shoulders, swinging her around and switching their positions. She met the sheets with a choked yelp, digging her nails into his strong hands, and immediately turned into a docile slab of jelly, her bottom lip quivering. "What is the *matter* with you?" He questioned, sounding hurt and befuddled. "You’re out of your head, Luc . . . what happ-oh no. Oh, no, please don’t start-"
The girl pinned to his bed let out an animalistic wail, liquefying into tears and laments and cried of ‘Glenn, Glenn’. Feeling horribly guilty, Crono released her from her helpless position, and she immediately went for him, latching onto his chest like a cat gripping a breaking branch. Within seconds, he could feel the front of his shirt growing wet from her weeping. Absolute bewilderment creased his face and his mind, and he awkwardly patted Lucca’s back, her violet hair tickling his nose, as he scrabbled for something to say. She, however, beat him to it.
"Oh, damn, oh, what’s wrong with me?" The inventor managed to hiccup, talking around Crono’s soaking shirt. "Shit, shit, shit, Crono, it wasn’t just a dream. It was something else. It was a *vision*."
"Uh, Lucca . . ."
"Crono." She pulled away from him suddenly, and the redheaded boy could feel his jaw trying to drop. Where there had been, moments ago, a panicked and violent harpy who’d transformed into a defenseless maiden, there was now another new persona, something akin to Magus’ stoniest expressions. Lucca’s eyes were fixed on his face, but they were not looking at him. He could still see the sparkling tear tracks on her cheeks, but no new salty droplets fell. She was dead, dead but breathing, and the sense of disquiet that had been growing sense he had awoken to these rapid mood changes evolved suddenly into blatant horror. "Crono, we have to go. There is no other option. No other possible direction to take. I’m going with or without you, though I would prefer it if you went." She smiled distantly, weaving back and forth. "You are my friend, after all." She stood smoothly, staring distantly at the wall, and, unhindered, began to leave the room.
"What the *hell*?" hissed Crono under his breath, listening to her disregard his mother’s questions, and the slamming of the door as she left the house. Then, as if waking up for a second time, he shook his head, and grabbed his sword and traveling bag.
Marle sat up in bed, clutching the white sheets to her chest in deference to the cold. Her gold spun hair wafting around a pale face, she sat quietly, waiting for the strange noise that brought her awake to sound again. She made quite a lovely sight, sitting the center of the expansive bed, slim shoulders bearing no sign of any undergarment and lips pressed together in a curious pout. But her eyes betrayed the innocent scene- they glinted in the dark, dangerous and cold as glacial ice.
Tap. Her ears caught the tinny sound and, one hand flicking under her pillow for less than a spilt second, she stood. The bedding followed Marle like a wedding train as she stalked to the window, careful to stay quiet and not be seen by any intruder or monster that hoped to get a taste of the princess. With a sly glance outside the panes of glass, she reached forward with a delicate hand, and pushed the window open just slightly. Cool air drifted through the gap, but nothing else attracted her attention. She waited patiently, hidden in the shadows, for something to bring itself to deadly attention.
Her waiting was not in vain. A few minutes later, she heard hissing voices from the grounds below her window, hushed so not to attract the attention of the patrolling guards, and a scraping and grunting that could only mean that some idiot was trying to scramble up the wall outside her window with nothing but his or her bare hands. She almost felt embarrassed for the poor wretch, and rolled her eyes in the dark. She hoped feverently that it wasn’t another would-be Romeo, come to sweep her off her very rich feet. Bah. That’d be the fourth this month. The fools never seemed to get it through their pretty little heads that she had no interest in them, at all, as in not a bit. Maybe she’d give this one a good sound thump on the head to clear it, and he could pass the message to his colleagues.
She leaned up the wall, feeling like yawning as the intruder came closer and closer to her windowsill, cursing like a drunk sailor as he cut his hands to ribbons on the sharp stone blocks of the castle wall. Within seconds, the man was right below it, and she stepped forward to make her move, flinging open the window and grabbed the young man by the back of his shirt, dragging him, flailing limbs and all, through her bedroom window. With a thump, she dumped him unceremoniously onto the floor, and drew the knife she’d grabbed from under her pillow out of the billowing folds of the sheets wrapped tightly around her.
"Don’t you people ever learn?" She snapped, nudging him with a toe.
"Aw, shit Marle! That hurt!" The black bundle lying on her floor whined. The princess blinked.
"One would think that their fiancé would be able to recognize them!"
"It was dark, you impetuous fool!" Marle hissed, but the joy in her voice was unable to cloak itself. "So, ah . . . what are you here for, anyway?" She fluttered her lashes. "Not another late night . . . rendezvous, is it?"
"I wish." He replied sourly, and pushed himself to his feet. "But this is a lot less enjoyable. We’re leaving. Now, apparently."
The blonde young woman blinked in stunned confusion. "Leaving? As in . . . the *big* leaving? ‘Jumping in Epoch and leaving’ type of leaving?"
"Don’t look at me, it’s Lucca’s idea. Just between us two, I think she’s been drinking those funny purple potions again."
"But the last time we had to keep her lashed to the bed for two days until the ferrets went away!" Gasped Marle in mock dismay, one hand flying to her mouth. "Oh, you can’t be serious!"
"No." Crono glanced toward the window, and for the first time the Princess noticed fine lines of worry streaking his face. "But she is acting very, very strange. She showed up at my house wearing nothing but her pajamas, wailing about- about Glenn, about him dying or something. I think she dreamed it . . . but she’s absolutely hysterical."
"I don’t . . . doesn’t she realize it was just a nightmare?"
The boy shrugged, shoulders heaving in tight agitation. "I really don’t know, Marle." He bit his lip. "But I do know she’s so panicked right now that she going to go ‘help him’, whether we’re with her or not."
"And you’d rather be with her." Marle dropped the sheet and kicked it away towards Crono. "Put that on the bed while I change, will you? And don’t you dare blush, you’ve seen it all before anyway."
"Um." He replied, fighting the flush tickling his ears. "Right. So . . . you’re going to go? Even with the Summer Festival and everything?" He could sense her sharp glance from halfway across the room, and it spoke better than anything else could. "Never mind."
Marle drew her shirt over her head with a silken slipping noise, and adjusted it carefully. "Where *is* Lucca?"
"Outside, guarding the Epoch."
"From what, Shitake?"
"It was better than having her fly it right up to your window, wasn’t it? That’s what she wanted to do originally."
"I suppose it would cause quite a stir. Hand me the Valkyrie, would you? It’s hanging on the wall over there."
"Your father let you keep it in your room?"
Marle smiled prettily, snow-white teeth glimmering past rose petal lips. "He did after I threw one of my little tantrums." She gave her quiver one last tug, making sure it was secure, and nimbly leapt onto the windowsill, small goosebumps barely visible on her arms. "Let’s go."
"But . . ." Crono glanced warily at the thick oaken door to the hall. "Shouldn’t you leave your Father a note or something? Marle?" He stared at the empty window, a frown tugging at his lips, and then sighed dramatically. "Well, fine." He grumbled, crawling out after the lithe young women. "But if I get arrested again, you can bet I’m gonna blame you for it, Miss-let’s-not-ever-tell-our-parent-who-just-happens-to-be-the-king-where-we’re-going-or-at-least-that-her-boyfriend-didn’t-kidnap-her!"
He wiped once again at the crusted blood under his nose, staring intensely at the cobblestone wall. Rage, pure and hot as magma, pounded in his sunken temples and blinded him to rational thought. Bastard! Bastard! How *dare* he strike back! How dare he ruin the game, and his attacker’s poor, delicate nose! ‘Nasty little bugger,’ thought Mirven vehemently. ‘When I get my claws on his pale hide, I think I’m going to make myself a nice new Magus-skin coat. *After* I gut him like a fish, of course.’ He heaved a small pebble at the wall in irritation. Added to his plight was the fact he’d been sitting and pouting in this very spot for two days now, ever since the escape of his prey, and his butt and tail were feeling uncomfortably numb.
He reached over and plucked up another stone, this time sending it hurtling *through* the wall.
Something was direly wrong.
After the wizard had fled the castle grounds, Mirven had been too upset to try and chase him, and had spent the night jumping up and down and swearing in every language he could think of (and up). In all his decades of being a Hunter, never before had one of his toys dare lay a hangnail on him, let along a full set of knuckles, and he’d been engulfed by hate to the point of complete loss of the thin façade of sanity he previously projected. Spitting and howling like a rabid leopard, he’d been in no condition to try and hunt Magus down.
Later, after nearly causing the castle to disintegrate around his ears, Mirven had calmed himself enough to sit down and try to locate the miserable, magic-less worm. He could not have gotten very far, anyway- shock and blood loss from his head wound would have taken him down like a poisoned rabbit chased by a pack of wolves. It would not take very much concentration to locate his unconscious or weak form. And yet, no matter how much the Hunter strained to ensnare even a flickering gleam of his quarry, all he found was a void where Magus’ mind should have been. There was no logical - or illogical -- explanation for it. Hunters were chosen and trained in part because they were such powerful psychics to begin with, born with the gift to turn minds into little more than sparking slabs of brain. And then, of course, they were conditioned, tortured and twisted until they finally set their sanity free, and were instead filled with the Disease. The loss of basic bodily functions like eating, sleeping, and breathing were replaced by a constant and all-encompassing hunger for the suffering of others. Preferably innocent others. Innocent, virginal others. Or maybe that was just Mirven’s personal preference adding its own spice to his programming, he couldn’t tell. Whatever. At least they weren’t as pitiful as their servant beasts. Speaking of which . . .tail slapping angrily against the stone with a hollow thwap, Mirven snarled, his thin mouth splitting like an opening wound. "I don’t want to go search on foot!" He whined, glancing to and fro as if this would help him find his quarry. "Where is Krimla? I called for that dense piece of meat hours ago. I’m never going to find that stupid spoil-sport wizard at this pace."
And then his gut knotted, sending vomit and acid screaming up his throat. Choking and gasping, the Hunter fell to his knees, the dread and terror overwhelming him far more painful then the fire in his gullet. Not now. He hadn’t failed yet! There was still a chance!
‘She’ was checking in.
Body shaking uncontrollably, fangs chattering in panic, he bent in a stiff bow. "Lady." He rasped into the thinning air.
Has anyone ever told you that you’re far lovelier when you’re groveling in frenzy?
If he had a bladder, he would have let it go under the venom of that terrible, omnipresent voice. It was as tangible as the bars of a bone cage, and as sickly wet as intestinal lining. It clung in the ear, obstructing all other sound save for its own red echoes, and filled the mouth with a taste like bloody crude oil. Mirven retched in response, drawing his bony knees up to his quivering chest as he heaved stinking brown bile flecked with blood unto the floor.
Delightful. And I see that there is no Magus, or remnants of Magus, ready for inspection. Do you even have a clue to his whereabouts?
Mirven shook his head erratically, tears streaking his face. A very strange sight, considering his tear ducts had long ago shriveled.
No matter. He will not be hard to obtain. Go to the west, he is nearby.
"You are . . . forgiving my missteps?" The black-haired man asked, voice quavering.
I never forgive.
The words were sweet, frosted.
You will kill him no matter what, my little Hunter. When the time comes, I’ll send you a pet or two to lend a hand. Since yours has met a delicious end.
"Krimla is . . .?"
He tasted soooo soft, dear love. Melted like butter on my tongue.
And with that, the hellish presence faded from the room, leaving a jellied mess of a creature curled on the ground, bathing in his own retch and sobbing into the vacant air.
The morning air was cool and pleasant, filled with the sounds of bees in the garden patch and the impatient braying of a single charcoal mule, ugly as mortal sin but amiable as a honey clover, being hitched to a basket filled cart. Magus leaned up against the windowsill, one hand working a comb through his knotted hair. The bandages around his head had come off at dawn, and instead of the normal, tangle-free mane he barely ever had to care for, they’d left his head a matted mess of blue locks. He’d been working on untangling them since, and finally, just when he thought his poor aching scalp could take no more, it looked like the beastly task was just about done and over with. One last tug and grimace later, he sighed in relief, and let the torturous hair pick slip out of his grasp and to the wooden floor with a light clatter. Across the lawn from his window, Anna cursed as she dropped an extra wheel for the cart on her bare foot.
"Need any help?" Called Magus, though he didn’t really mean it, and already knew what her answer would be.
"You stay right there, you troublesome man. You might have lost your dressings, but you’re still in no state to be lifting a bucket of water-" She paused, and rubbed her foot with a scowl. "-Let alone big, heavy, nasty wooden wheels. Stop bothering me and go eat your breakfast, now that you’re done primping."
The blue haired man scowled, and recoiled from the window. He’d quickly learned that his benefactor wasn’t quite as kind as she’d first seemed. She was a most definitely a true-life battleaxe, with a tongue like a shining blade and a stubborn streak continents thick, hardened by years spent living alone. It was her who’d convinced him to comb his hair, after making several vicious comments involving the local sparrows and nesting time. *And* she’d absolutely forbidden him from traveling with her to Medina, at least this time, because he was still wobbly on his feet. The head wound, it seemed, had been far more cruel than he’d originally thought- almost as cruel as the woman who cared for him. He’d really grown to dislike her in the two days they’d shared in each other’s presence, his hate driven the insults she delivered in her surprisingly learned tones. She might be nasty, she might be crude, but she wasn’t stupid. There was something about Anna, about her stance and glare and viper words that reeked of royalty.
He never asked about a male around the house anymore. He just figured none could stand her.
Her suggestion of breakfast did not sound particularly alluring. By now he was sure it was glacial cold, and he knew from personal, unpleasant experience that a chilled eggs and rutabaga does not exactly make the mouth sing. Instead, Magus hauled himself to his treacherously weak feet, careened into the front room and out the door into the lovely summer morning. He was determined to try one last time to force Anna to allow him to accompany her back to Medina, even if it meant making an uncomfortable seat on the pumpkins in the back of her cart. As he approached, grass pleasantly cool beneath his bare feet, the brown haired woman glanced up from her preparation, one eyebrow rising almost to her hairline.
"What do you think you’re doing, you silly mystic?" She asked, tone oozing superiority. "Go back inside."
Magus glared back at her. "Madam, I appreciate the help you’ve given me, but I must insist-" and here he donned his most impressive, commanding tone, so powerful that he could feel *his* knees weakening- "That you allow me to travel with you to Medina."
She stared at him, eyes gaining the exact and distinct glint of well-cut blue diamonds, and replied acidly. "Oh, you *insist*, do you?"
Magus set his jaw, determined to convince her, to *force* her to take him with.
For Zeal’s sake, he was a royalty, a prince among princes, a warlord to be feared and submitted to, a mage with power to-
‘Well, scratch that part.’ He thought rather dejectedly, mentally deflating like a skewered blowfish. Anna’s eyes bored into his face, laughing quietly without making a sound. Once again, he was beat. Scowling like it could help him gain mastery over his helplessness, he sat down in the grass. The bitch could work around him, because he wasn’t moving an inch, thank you very much. It was the least he could do for her, after her callous and rude behavior. He couldn’t think of anyone as completely unempathetic and obviously insensitive to other’s needs as Anna. Other than himself, of course.
"Well, then, I’m off." She said, shattering his train of thought with her sledgehammer of a voice. The tall woman was standing over him, blocking out the warmth of the sunlight, her brown curls pulled back out of her face with a strip of leather. This was the first day he’d seen her in anything but a dress, and her traveling clothes were no improvement. They were old, and stained, and in several places torn. "I should be back by tonight, if I’m lucky, and tomorrow morning if I’m not. Don’t cause any trouble, and most certainly do not try to wander off by yourself."
"And how will *you* stop me if I try?" The mage grumbled, eyes slit like a snake’s. He had a vague, nagging voice wailing with embarrassment in his ear that he was acting like a child, and it was getting louder and louder. Anna shook her head, and disappeared back inside, yelling out the door after herself.
"I won’t. But if you’re not here when I get back, I certainly won’t waste any of my precious time looking for you. Just hope you don’t collapse- there are wolves in these woods, and worse."
"I am *not* going to get eaten by wolves." He snapped back. He might be powerless, but he wasn’t completely pitiful. His scythe had been left back at the castle, but a warlord relied on no weapon alone. His fists were powerful things in their own right, and he knew quite well how to crush a throat or snap a neck.
"I hope not." His antagonist reappeared, carrying a mysterious bundle of rags almost one and a half times her height. The tatters of cloth were tied on with rough twine, but slipping in places, and Magus got a peculiar glimpse of dark wood and well-kept, polished metal. It looked almost like a spear, and for the first time, he felt his curiosity pique. It might have been a barter in exchange for her healing knowledge that the woman was bringing to market to trade for more food, or seeds, or something, but he found himself wondering if maybe she used it for protection on the long road ahead- though he found it doubtful that the virago couldn’t just chase off any bandits with her words. She didn’t carry herself like someone who fought; she was strong, but not defined, and her posture was more adapted to carry water buckets than a deadly weapon. But a single woman, living alone on a continent that generally hated humans- it wasn’t all that surprising. "I hate to think what it would do to the poor beasts."
Cliché, but bitchy nonetheless. Educated? Maybe. Clever? No. He’d heard better snipes from Slash. Sniffing angrily, he rose, and mockingly bowed. "As you wish, your highness. Come back safely."
"Ungrateful cretin," She snapped, reverentially setting the bound and half-hidden weapon in the back of her cart and standing back to run a critical eye over the whole mess, searching for things forgotten or ill-packed. "You had better be contemplating ways to repay me for my kindness. I’ll be back exactly when I say I will, and I expect some sort of payment decided upon by then. Preferably one that does *not* include your further company."
‘Oh, that won’t be any problem, believe me.’ The pale wizard thought, sneering at Anna’s back as she finally left off circling the cart and pulled herself into the rickety front seat, taking the old and cracking reins in her callused hands. Magus desperately found himself hoping that she contracted a severe splinter in the nether regions from her long and uncomfortable trip.
"Hope you don’t starve." She said by way of a farewell, and clicked her tongue at the old, slow mule lazily chewing on the grass. It lifted its gray head stupidly, and blinking like a newborn, began plodding towards the small dirt track that led out of the woods and into the natural fields surrounding Medina. Or at least, that’s what he assumed. He’d never known this area well. Before long, the sound of the beast’s hooves on the beaten mud was drowned out by the droning of cicadas, and Magus found himself wonderfully, beautifully, and most of all *thankfully* alone.
"Hope you don’t starve." He mocked, making his voice a terrible exaggeration of Anna’s rather pleasant tones. "Ungrateful cretin. Hah! Repulsive spinster bitch." He glared at the grass, the trees, the sky, and finally a pair of chickens pecking innocently at the ground, squawking and chasing each other about. "Humph."
There was a silence settled over the interior of the hut, familiar but uncomfortable. She moved through it cautiously, not wanting to disturb anything, and pressed the strip of cloth even harder against her nose and lips. The stench of rotting meat permeated everything here, sickly and sweet, the kind of smell that would cling to her hair and the roof of her mouth for days. She knew that Kino would have to continue to sleep outside of their mutual hut, for the pure force of smell kept her lover far away from anything she touched. As the sole being not too superstitious to touch the bodies that were piling up, she was the one to handle them, and bring their bloated forms out of their dying places and back into the fresh air and sunlight. It was a terrible job, and she hated doing it, but her tribe simply depended on her, or else their loved ones would continue to decompose untouched, and without having their souls sent off.
She slowed as she approached the hulking mound curled up in the corner of the tent; claw-like, skeletal hands were still locked around the rigid legs. The smell grew worse; she gagged, fearing that the combined sight of the corpse and the syrupy fragrance of putrefaction would grow too much to bear, and she would collapse herself, retching into the dirt floor of the hut. The family had been too frightened to enter the hut for several days, and had refused to tell Ayla, for fear of seeing the contorted and bloated body. The deceased had been a popular young woman of about ten and five years, beautiful and ripe for marriage. Her most favored suitor had died three days ago.
Fighting back the vomit that was staining her mouth the flavor of rancid Poi, she tugged at the hands until the finally gave way, leaving the upper half of the corpse free to flop backwards, seeming as if the girl’s silhouette was only fainting. The chieftess reached forward hesitantly, and took the head by the hair, turning the once attractive face towards her own slightly green appearance. It was bloated almost beyond any recognition, features set as solid as steel in the horrifyingly characteristic expression of anguish and panic. Chunks of brittle, corn silk colored strands came out in her fist.
Ayla was not a woman prone to swooning fits, but her vision suddenly sprouted a multitude of wiggling black spots, and she swayed ominously on her booted feet. Fresh air . . . she needed fresh air, and now. The girl’s carcass certainly wasn’t going anywhere, though perhaps she would walk again, tonight, in Ayla’s intensifying nightmares. Flinging herself to the exit, the blonde, muscular cavewoman threw back the flap of leather covering the door, and stumbled into the setting sunlight. Evening embraced its shaken daughter in a cowl of rejuvenatingly cool, light blue air. The sun had just fallen behind the white-tipped mountain peaks, and the higher clouds were still stippled with flaxen shades. She fell to the ground, hugging it with her knees and stilling the churning of her stomach with the sight of warm brown earth. She just needed a moment, to regain her composure, before she was forced to go back in, and heft that- that horrible shell of sloughing skin into her arms. Shouldn’t she be used to it by now?
Ten and four dead in seven suns, and she was still without a clue to the cause. Nothing had ever happened like this, nothing . . . her tribe was being murdered by an invisible predator that left no mark, and the only thing Ayla could do was bear the bodies to spiritual safety. It was unbearable for someone so used to being in iron-fisted control. Not anything seemed to block the imperceptible beast, and it struck at random. No charms were effective, no magic, no spear, no sword or arrow caused it to bulk. The valley’s curse was upon them, and for the first time in her twenty years, Ayla was completely and utterly helpless.
AN: Well, I finally got this out. YAY, ME! Uh, anyway . . .
Next chapter: The trio from 1000 AD make it to 600 AD! Anna thoughts! Medina! More Magus, more Mirven, and yes . . . some action! Woot, woot!
And Crono’s last name I completely made up, cause I needed one.