A/N: Wow, I've had this in my Word Documents for-I don't know—six months or so. Oo; Anyway, it's long, but I couldn't decide where a good break would be. If you read all of it, or even if you don't, please review it. Please? It's my birthday!
you to aquajogger for beta'ing. I was supposed to go back and
check over some stuff, so I take any credit for mistakes as I lazily
skimmed over that stuff. Meh. The Duma stuff has been taken care of, thanks! Please forgive my weirdness and enjoy!
An intimidating pile of papers rose high above the surface of an oaken desk, threatening to topple at even the gentlest tap. A pair of dark, tired eyes stared at the pile, wishing for it to vanish, but the wish remained just that—a wish. With a sigh, Ruwalk slowly walked towards the desk, eyeing the pile as if it were a nasty villain. He plopped heavily into his chair and grabbed the piece of paper that lay atop the pile being exceptionally careful so the stack would not add to the mess that already existed in the room. Papers were strewn about haphazardly, trash littered the floor, and even items of clothing could be spotted scattered among the trash and paper. More noticeable than the utter mess the room was had to be the atmosphere. It was undeniably dreary. Gloom pervaded in every corner in the room, but it was most apparent in his weary eyes. His eyes were troubled and grief clouded them, smiting the twinkle that usually shone in Ruwalk's dark eyes. The warm and inviting nature that usually found them had vanished, and glum and listlessness had dulled them. The past few days had been cruelly taxing on his emotions and had left him both emotionally and physically worn out. The unavoidable paperwork wasn't helping his already frail state of mind. He forced himself to focus on the paper he had just retrieved from the top of the unfriendly stack and he began to skim it. It took great effort on his part to ignore the mess that surrounded him on all sides, various thoughts, and recent memories that tried to distract him.
After a couple hours of relentless reading, he leaned back in his chair, letting out a somewhat satisfied sigh. He had managed to get the pile of papers down to half of what it had been when he began. However, the halfway point would prove to be his breaking point. So far, he had been blessed enough to only have to deal with papers from foreign lands or ones that dealt with the domestic needs of Dragoon. He hadn't come across anyone's reports and he wouldn't have even realized it if not for the report he now held gingerly in his hands. Alfeegi's penmanship seemed to scream at him a shrill, unwelcome greeting. It was more than one page, he noted, a sad smile playing on his lips. He very carefully set it down, deciding not to read it, and with even greater effort than before pushed the torrent of awful memories that threatened to destroy the peace of mind he so treasured, determined to finish his business with the stack of papers before him. He finished off a few more papers before coming across another unwelcome report. This time Kai-stern's handwriting covered the paper, also shouting a shrill greeting at him. He noted how this report was less than a full page and he smiled the same sad smile he had earlier. He set it facedown on top of Alfeegi's report, before continuing to whittle the stack of papers away. He had gotten a little further, when he came across another unwelcome document. He was about to sign the paper, but he stopped, his pen poised over the line where his signature was supposed to be. It had already been signed. He stared at Lykouleon's signature. It was odd seeing his closest friend's name staring up at him, when he was trying so hard not to worry about him. He set it aside with Alfeegi and Kai-stern's papers, ready to continue his war with the reaming papers. However, when he brought his hand up to retrieve the next paper, the stack began to shake at his touch. He brought his other hand up to steady it, but, instead, succeeded in helping it tumble off the desk, a flurry of white and black spiraling to the floor. He watched with dismal interest as all the documents found new, if temporary, homes. Most added to the pile already on the floor, others fell into his lap, and some remained on the desk, making it impossible to see its surface. He glanced at some of the papers that had found their way into his lap, and a small, almost frustrated, groan escaped his lips when he saw that his late friends' papers' and Lykouleon's signed document were staring up at him, demanding his attention. With subdued resignation, he picked up their papers, unable to fight the curiosity that was welling up within him. After all, there must have been a credible reason that those particular papers had landed in his lap of all the papers that could've.
He began with Alfeegi's report, since it was the longest and the first he had found in the stack. The report was dated for over a week ago, Ruwalk noted. It was a report about the castle and how everything was, what needed to be replaced, who needed what, and stuff of that sort. Each word he read seemed to glare at Ruwalk, and it only seemed to worsen the more he read. It was almost ironic the way he was so intensely studying the document when the information scrawled across the pages usually bored him to tears. The words began to blur as he allowed recent wretched memories come to the forefront of his mind. His eyes still skimmed the paper, but he was no longer reading it. In his mind's eye, memories began to vividly unfold, drawing his attention away from the paper before him and back to events that had just recently transpired. He could still recall, all too well, the life fading dully out of Alfeegi's eyes. His friend's eyes had looked vacant and the usual anger that had once been present had vanished, resignation in its place. Ruwalk closed his eyes as another wave of sadness washed over him. He also remembered the sincerity that had been so apparent when he had asked Ruwalk to find Kai-stern. He had thought the request strange at the time, but, now, he wished he hadn't been so horribly clueless. Kai-stern's corpse was an image that often appeared in his nightmares. The corpse was usually accompanied with the horrible thunk of Kai-stern's decayed hand hitting the ground, shattering. The awful sound seemed to echo endlessly. Without warning, a voice suddenly pierced through his memories as an arrow pierces the sky, soaring at its target if aimed properly.
"Good…timing." Alfeegi's voice had been weak and unusually low, but inside the confines of Ruwalk's mind it bounced around as a taunting shriek. "Good…timing." Ruwalk's eyes snapped open and he dropped the paper he held. His eyes darted around, fervently trying to avoid the unwelcome reality his mind seemed to relish so much.
Alfeegi's comment continually replayed, mercilessly tormenting him with his unwanted memories. Ruwalk sighed sadly, and slumped in his chair. What, he wondered, had possessed Alfeegi to say such a ridiculous phrase to him? After all, Ruwalk had found his friend much too late to do anything to help him, and he certainly hadn't done any better with Kai-stern. They were both dead, on account of Ruwalk's bad timing. More than bad, he thought. Awful timing. He hadn't even been able to find the doctor quickly despite his best effort. He hadn't been able to get to anyone on time that day. He assumed it was one day; it might have been longer. After all, he hadn't really had much time to do, well, anything, as his current situation attested. He had been in the same outfit when he had found first Alfeegi, the life slipping slowly out of him, then again Kai-stern, already a lifeless corpse, he reflected bitterly. When it rains, it pours. With that thought, the sound of unrelenting rain whooshed, unwelcome, into the chaos of his mind, threatening to drown out Alfeegi's now cruel voice. The torrential sound of rain would've been welcome if it wasn't insistent on causing such a headache for the poor Yellow Dragon Officer. He slumped further down, remembering how it had rained unforgivingly the day of his friends' deaths. The sound of rain intertwined with the taunting voice, effectively creating a very disturbing cacophony of cruel noise causing the dark haired main to shiver. Ruwalk desperately tried to push it out of his mind, but the unwelcome dissonance seemed to block out all other coherent thoughts.
Ruwalk started when he heard Alfeegi's weak pierce his turbulent mind. "I have a f-favor to ask you." After a couple moments, though, Alfeegi's tired voice had taken on a cruel snarl and intertwined itself with the previous phrase and rain, only adding fuel to the dissonance already rampant in his mind. Ruwalk shuddered, recalling how miserably he had failed at accomplishing his friend's last request. Alfeegi had told him about Kai-stern, and asked that he find him. Ruwalk's shoulders sagged as he unwillingly relived holding his friend before his untimely and unfair death. Vivid images flashed through his mind of the mess of blood that had stained Alfeegi's clothes and streamed down his face. Ruwalk's face looked pained as he recalled how he had reassured his dying friend he would find Kai-stern. Alfeegi's last phrase haunted Ruwalk as much as the other two. "Please… hurry." It seemed to ring throughout his mind as some sort of ear-splitting siren that one could not stop. Alfeegi had given him an unreadable but peaceful expression when Ruwalk had tried to command him to stay alive until he returned with a doctor. Alfeegi had known then that Ruwalk wouldn't get to the doctor in time, but had simply looked at him with sympathetic, almost apologetic, eyes. Now those eyes took on a hateful look, glaring at him, accusingly. Alfeegi had been correct—Ruwalk hadn't been able to get the doctor to him before death unfairly stole his friend away.
Then, to Ruwalk's infinite mortification, he had even failed in completing his friend's last request. An image of Kai-stern reappeared in Ruwalk's mind's eye. The sight of his friend slumped over altar like a ragdoll would always make him cringe. More than that, though, the horrid sound of his friend's bone cracking, shattering, would forever chill him. It reminded him of the nightmares he had been having lately. The sight of Kai-stern's left hand dislodging itself from the body, only to reveal decay was not an uncommon sight in his nightmares. It was what Alfeegi had tried warning him about. Ruwalk had failed horribly. Now, two of his fellow officers were dead because of his incompetence. His downright deplorable timing and utter lack of awareness were to blame.
Images continually flashed through his mind like a rapid slideshow that he couldn't stop. Lightning flashed around each memory, making his friends' faces look ghastly while thunder boomed about him, causing Ruwalk to jump on more the one occasion. The foul scent that had plagued the dragon castle just a few days before seemed to stuff up his nostrils, making breathing a difficult task. The smell of dead bodies had permeated throughout the castle at the time, causing a sense of grief and dread to soak throughout the palace grounds. Ruwalk shuddered at it all and jumped when a loud rap on his door stopped his thoughts in their tracks. Everything paused suddenly before vanishing completely leaving him in total silence, save for the knocking on the door.
Relieved, he gave the person permission to enter, resisting the urge to jump up, swing the door open, and squeeze the other person out of pure appreciation. Cernozura peered in and Ruwalk urged her to enter. Though, he didn't want to, he offered her a smile. After all, he figured if he didn't smile, who would? He was the one currently charged with keeping the kingdom together, so everyone looked to him. He worried that if people began to doubt he didn't have it together the already frayed, fragile kingdom would only progress to a less desirable state. Besides, Cernozura knew him personally and being depressed would worry her. He definitely didn't want any of the inside staff fretting over him. Not when both Lykouleon and Raseleane were in such questionable condition.
Cernozura smiled back and walked over with a covered plate in her hand. "Ruwalk," she began, glancing around the room, searching her mind for the right words to say to her superior. "Are you okay? You've been in here for a while…."
"Yes, I'm fine," he assured her. "I was just….finishing up some paperwork," he motioned at the various piles and sheets of paper that covered the desk and littered the floor. A friendly grin remained plastered on his face. He hoped it reached his eyes.
Cernozura nodded. "I…see. Well, I noticed you didn't show up for lunch, so I brought you some food," she told him presenting the plate, the lid remaining on. She hoped that when he did decide to eat it, it would at the very least be lukewarm. "Where would you like me to set it at?" He patted the desk.
She put it down, discreetly scooting some papers over to make room for it. "If you need anything else," Cernozura began, nervously, "I'm…here."
Ruwalk smiled up at her. "Thanks, Cernozura." She inclined her head, accepting his words, and then turned and walked back out of the office, leaving him alone with his agony.
Cernozura gently closed the door behind her, and leaned lightly against it, head turned upwards, eyes searching the ceiling, hoping to find answers to her problems hidden there. Ruwalk had been in that small office for hours. He hadn't been eating much. She wasn't sure if it was because he was forgetting to eat or just didn't have an appetite. She suspected it was a mixture of both problems. She let loose a tiny sigh. She had yet to express her concerns to him. He had only made a couple public appearances since the chaos had calmed a bit. However, he was so distracted by his duties and distraught over his friends that he was oblivious to the anxiety that plagued the kingdom. Rumors were quickly circulating through out Dragoon's subjects. People wanted to know where the Dragon Lord and his queen were. Why had all three Knights left the land after such a vicious attack? Shouldn't have at least one stayed? Was it safe to remain here? What if they were attacked again—who would watch over them then? Was Lykouleon even capable of protecting them anymore? Whispers of moving to a safer place carried through the winds of the Dragon Kingdom.
As if such a place exists, she thought, gently pushing herself off the door, and slowly making her way down the hall. She and Tetheus fielded the bombardment of questions as best as they could. He assured them that he and the dragon fighters were doing their absolute best to protect the castle and that all three Knights were needed to defeat Nadil. He tried to avoid the questions about Lykouleon as did she. Cernozura tried to reassure the staff under her supervision that everything was under control. She attempted to explain to the uncertain subjects who thought about moving elsewhere that there was nowhere to move to. Not anywhere that would allow them escape from the threat of Nadil, anyway. She could only do so much, though. Ruwalk was the one with the dragon lord duties for the time being. Cernozura wasn't a fool. She knew her word didn't mean nearly as much as his, which was why he really need to reassure the subjects of their efforts in Kainaldia. The people didn't want to hear her. They wanted to hear their king or, at least, the substitute king, and, right now, they weren't seeing much of either. She stopped at the palace gardens and took a stroll, gratefully inhaling the fresh air, temporarily forgetting the problematic situation she was caught in the midst of.
Ruwalk stared at the plate before him. The aroma was almost intoxicating. He was tempted to just leave it there so the smell could reach all the corners of the room. However, he knew the smell wouldn't last too long and the food probably wouldn't taste good cold when it was so obviously meant to be consumed when hot. He didn't really seem to have much of an appetite, but he needed something to eat and the smell was rather tempting. Maybe it would take his mind off things for a little bit. He could use a break. He lifted it, peeking at the food and instantly paled. He hadn't realized the color red was used so often in food. The plate was practically coated in that grotesque color. It had more red than any dish should be allowed. Already the memories flooded back, mostly of the blood that had practically coated Alfeegi, the bloodied Palace staff that the demons had managed to wreak havoc on, and the random streams of unexplainable blood Lykouleon possessed. Lykouleon had already lost so much of his blood: it frightened Ruwalk to dwell upon it. The loathsome sounds of the past few days came rushing back, roaring unpleasantly in his ears. The sweet smelling scent of the food moments earlier now seemed rancid, alluding to the repulsive smell that had plagued the palace grounds just a few days ago because of the abundant amount of corpses that had been scattered about. He looked at the food in disgust and shoved it away. He must've pushed it too hard, though, because it tipped over the side of the desk, and landed on the floor with a resounding clatter. Food and sauce now marred various papers, adding to the unsightly mess that seemed to close in on him at all sides.
Ruwalk sat stock still in his chair for a few moments, in utter shock. He hadn't meant to knock the plate over and he prayed Cernozura or anyone else hadn't heard it. After a couple minutes he convinced himself that no one was coming. The painful memories whirled around his mind, distracting him from his current task at hand. He put his elbows on his desk and leaned forward, clenching fistfuls of hair. Up until now, he had just been able to push the events to the back of his mind, not really thinking about them much. He had planned on grieving later. Too much was going on right now to do much for those who had died. Now, for some reason, he seemed unable to do that. He vaguely suspected this might be due to Lykouleon's condition and because it didn't seem to be improving.
All the memories seemed like one long, unforgiving taunt. Alfeegi's voice and the sickening crack of Kai-stern's decayed arm seemed to be the loudest of them, relentlessly bounding through his mind over and over. A horrible, horrible taunt...
Good timing. Crack. Good timing. Crack. Good timing. Crack. Good timing. Crack…
It only grew louder and more painful with each passing second. He pulled at his hair and briefly wondered if this was the end of his sanity. Then he shrugged the thought aside, finding slight comfort in the voice that told him he would be insane if he didn't care about his friends' untimely demise. The comfort didn't last long, though. The weight of depression, guilt, and failure all weighed heavily upon him. The job as the substitute dragon lord only succeeded in adding to his stress. He feared he would fail at his job which he had been doing all too well lately His shoulders sagged and his eyes grew wide with desperation.
Unbeknownst to Ruwalk, he was not completely alone in the office. Two pairs of sympathetic eyes watched as he fought the urge to shout in agony and frustration.
"He isn't dong very well," was the quiet observation.
"No, he isn't," was the reply. Big, feminine eyes looked up at her companion. "But we can fix that."
Alfeegi looked down at Reema, surprised. "We can?"
Reema offered him a big grin. "It's simple. Remember?"
Confusion remained in Alfeegi's eyes as embarrassment and traces of frustration at not knowing began to shine through as well. "No, would you mind refreshing my memory?"
"Come on," Reema prodded him, good-naturedly. "The first noble soul you helped me lead into the afterlife?"
Realization dawned upon Alfeegi's features. "I didn't know we had any control over any of that..."
"Well, we don't, but sometimes exceptions are made. So, you know what I'm talking about now?"
"Yes," a small smile graced his lips. "Kai-stern. His wish."
----- (flashback) ---
Kai-stern stared down at his hands, a bit startled. It was official. He was dead. Death might put a crimp in some people's day, but not Kai-stern's! He was actually quite satisfied with his death. It had been for, in his opinion, a very good cause. He was sure Rath would despise him, but maybe, just maybe, Rath would place a little more value on his own life now.
Kai-stern glanced around, wondering what he was supposed to do now. He looked heavenwards, hoping that gesture would somehow make him float up towards the sky. It didn't work. He really wanted to leave. At the very least he wanted to leave the room he was currently stuck in. He looked over at his corpse, and felt himself shiver slightly. Staring at your own dead body sure was strange. It was also rather disturbing. He jumped, shocked, when he felt a presence pass through him. "What the…." Kai-stern stopped, realizing more people had come into the room. It had been Ruwalk who had flown through him. Thatz was there as well, looking shocked and amazed at once. They both stared at his body before Ruwalk dazedly walked over and dropped to his knees. He grabbed Kai-stern's left arm only to hear it make a terrible cracking noise and watch it shatter onto the floor. Ruwalk stared, horror and understanding melded into one expression. It seemed displaced on Ruwalk's face, Kai-stern couldn't help but think. He cringed as Ruwalk berated not only himself but Kai-stern as well. Thatz went over, trying to make an attempt at comfort.
The late Blue Officer heaved a sigh, wondering if maybe he was supposed to be a ghost for eternity. Maybe he was supposed to remain in the Dragon Castle until the end of time. Perhaps there was truth to those ghost stories after all. Perhaps this was…it The white-blonde secretary's eyes began to roam around, trying to fight off the stifling boredom that was already starting to overcome him. If this was death, he would much rather be alive. He turned to head out and look for something to do only to find himself come face to face with a familiar face. Alfeegi stood before him and Kai-stern stared at him, apprehensively. It was almost like the White Dragon Officer could actually see him. Surely, it wasn't possible that Alfeegi could cross into the afterlife simply to find and scold him. He shuddered at the thought of still being unable to escape Alfeegi's aggravating lectures.
"Hey." At first Kai-stern was positive that "hey" had been directed at someone else despite the fact Alfeegi was looking straight at him. It just wasn't possible. Was Alfeegi going to demand he continue his job in the afterlife? Alfeegi frowned slightly and cocked his head. "I'm talking to you, Kai-stern," the annoyance in his voice was barely contained.
Kai-stern's eyes widened and he opened his mouth but no words came out. He stared at his fellow Officer, unable to comprehend. There were only two explanations that would allow Alfeegi to be speaking to him. Either the White Dragon Officer had supernatural powers or was dead. Kai-stern had no desire to accept either theory. His mouth was finally working, though "working" was a generous term at the time. "You, how…" he pointed a finger at Alfeegi. "You're dead?" Alfeegi nodded and turned to stare at the group huddled around Kai-stern's corpse. Kai-stern continued to stare at Alfeegi, shocked. "But…how? When?"
"Recently," Alfeegi began, then halted, unsure of what to say. He really didn't want to admit that he had been outwitted by a possessed Rath. Kai-stern didn't give up and asked again how he had died. Groaning inwardly, Alfeegi turned to him and smiled brightly, causing Kai-stern to stagger back again. After all, the two had not been on good terms too often, always bickering over expense reports. One of them smiling so sincerely at the other might have caused the other one to go into cardiac arrest. Luckily, Kai-stern was already dead so the unexpected grin didn't harm him bodily; it only made him doubt his sanity. Alfeegi cleared his throat, somewhat annoyed by the disbelieving look Kai-stern was giving him. "My powers of observation failed me when I needed them most." Alfeegi replied in answer to Kai-stern's question. He decided to quote Nadil's departing words to him. They were true, he supposed.
Kai-stern was now gaping at Alfeegi, obviously not entirely satisfied with such a vague explanation, annoyance pricking at him. After all, it was such a simple question. Since when had the White Dragon Officer become all mysterious, anyway? He knew Alfeegi was observant. Too observant in his opinion, but how in the world did that even begin to explain his death? "Powers of observation failed?" Kai-stern repeated, unsure what else to say or ask. Alfeegi gave a curt nod, making it apparent he didn't wish to discuss it further. A sudden thought struck Kai-stern. "What about our dragon crystals?" he inquired. He silently scolded himself the moment after he asked it. Why would Alfeegi know the answer to that question? He was sure Alfeegi probably knew just as much as he did, which really wasn't much at all. However, Alfeegi surprised him by readily answering the question with obvious confidence and knowledge.
"Mine left me and went to Rune, competently saving the Water Dragon Knight," Alfeegi explained. "As for yours, I'm not entirely sure where it's gone yet. I suspect Thatz, but it's still kind of up in the air," he continued, truthfully. Annoyance began to boil as Alfeegi observed, yet again, another disbelieving look aimed at him.
"Rune, huh?" Kai-stern muttered. Rune would make a decent Officer. He was a bit of a pushover, though, Kai-stern couldn't help but muse. It would've been much easier to use extra money with him as the White Dragon Officer. It sure hadn't been easy spending anything with Alfeegi practically breathing down his neck, despite the generous help Ruwalk had so often provided. Kai-stern fell deep into thought, contemplating how different the palace might be after this attack of Nadil's. If there would even be a palace…he quickly pushed the thought aside, feeling slightly guilty and ashamed that he had even allowed such a direful thought to form. Of course there would still be a castle! And a kingdom, he assured himself, temporarily forgetting his current predicament. However, he quickly remembered and, again, found himself wondering what he was supposed to do now that he was dead.
"Alfeegi?" Kai-stern's voice was low as he prepared to voice what he considered a sinister thought. "Do you think we're...ghosts?"
Alfeegi started, surprised at Kai-stern's grave tone. "What? Of course not." He turned towards the other man. "We're in soul form…" He trailed off, seeing that Kai-stern wasn't paying attention to him.
Kai-stern was imagining a world in which he and Alfeegi were both ghosts. It was a very terribly vivid nightmare. He could see Alfeegi yelling at those in the living world about all the things they were doing incorrectly. Since no one would be able to hear the frustrated late officer he would take all his frustration out on Kai-stern. The thought made Kai-stern cringe. As if he hadn't had Alfeegi screaming at him enough in real life! Now he would have to deal with it in the afterlife, too? It just wasn't fair. Being a ghost would make things slightly easier. He could pass through walls so hiding would be easier. However, Alfeegi would also be able to pass through walls, which would make finding him easier. He was wrenched from his waking nightmare by Alfeegi's angry voice.
"Kai-stern!" The furious exclaim caused his eyes to snap over to Alfeegi. The former White Dragon Officer went on, somewhat quelled by the fact Kai-stern was now listening to him again. "We're not ghosts. We're in soul form." Kai-stern looked as if he would interrupt, but, upon seeing Alfeegi's glare, decided to keep his mouth shut. Alfeegi continued, "Right now, you're waiting to be led to the next world."
Kai-stern looked visibly relieved. He wouldn't be stuck as a ghost for eternity after all. His relief didn't last long, though, as Alfeegi's words fully sunk in. "Who are we waiting for and how do you know this?"
Alfeegi hid a grin. "It happens to be my new job." He could no longer hide his grin. "You're my first assignment."
"What?" Kai-stern's incredulousness was impossible to hide and he gaped at the other man. "You just died and you already have a new job?"
"Yes," Alfeegi replied, a bit abashed at the reaction from Kai-stern.
Kai-stern narrowed his eyes. "You do realize you give new meaning to the term 'workaholic'?"
Laughter floated to their ears and both spun to face the entrance of the room. Kai-stern stared at the very short girl that was holding her sides, shaking with laughter. "Who is she?" he whispered, aware that no one but he and Alfeegi seemed to be able to hear her.
Alfeegi glanced at the girl and to Kai-stern's infinite astonishment his face lit up. He smiled down at her as she approached them. "Kai-stern, Reema. Reema, Kai-stern," he introduced them. "She and I, along with Duma, lead noble souls to the afterlife," he explained to Kai-stern. Reema laughed again.
"It hasn't been the most gratifying job," she stopped beside Alfeegi, smiling up at him, "until recently," she finished. A slight blush colored Alfeegi's face and he interlocked hands with her.
Kai-stern was beyond dumbfounded. He couldn't even find his voice and even if he had been able to, with his mouth hanging open the way it was, he doubted he could've said anything. He was struck speechless. This is way too weird, he couldn't help but think, staring at Alfeegi and Reema. Still, it is rather cute, he thought, studying the couple. Reema barely reached Alfeegi's knees and he, towering over her. A slight smile tugged at his lips at Alfeegi's obvious discomfort at his scrutiny and Reema seemed completely oblivious. Everything about it made Kai-stern want to laugh. Not a cruel laugh, but a good-natured, happy laugh. He bit his tongue and offered them a sincere smile.
"So, I guess I won't be waiting around long, huh?" Kai-stern chuckled, breaking the awkward silence that had settled upon them.
Alfeegi smiled. "No, you won't. But, before you go, you get one wish."
"Yes," Reema piped up, nodding. "One wish."
"But it can't be anything too drastic," a deep voice sounded from behind Kai-stern. He whirled around and found himself looking up at a tall, dark skinned man with simple tattoos marking his sienna-toned face. Kai-stern probably wouldn't have gone so pale if the man hadn't appeared out of nowhere.
"Uh…." Kai-stern stuttered, unable to form a sentence or ask who the mysterious man was.
"Duma," Alfeegi nodded in acknowledgement. "This is Kai-stern. Kai-stern, Duma."
"Pleasure to meet you," Duma smiled warmly, extending his hand, which Kai-stern accepted.
"Pleasure's all mine," the former Blue Dragon Officer responded, finding his voice. Duma then turned towards Alfeegi and Reema, his face turning grim and slightly annoyed.
"You two can't dally around too much longer. There's quite few other souls that need guidance," his gaze shifted pointedly towards other parts of the castle where it was apparent restless souls were lounging about unsure what to do. Alfeegi readily assured him that they wouldn't be much longer, while Reema mockingly saluted him.
Duma rolled his eyes at her before turning to leave.
"I'm going to go lead some of those souls away. Try not to linger here." With that, he vanished, on what Kai-stern could only call a "magic carpet."
"What did he mean? 'Nothing too drastic,'" Kai-stern asked the moment Duma was gone. Reema gave him a reassuring smile and Alfeegi explained that Duma had simply meant that one couldn't wish for world peace, someone else's death, or for someone to remain alive. Reema chipped in, explaining that life couldn't be restored no matter what. All very basic things, she reassured the attentive Kai-stern. Everything else was fair game, though. Kai-stern thought everything through for a few moments before speaking his thoughts. "So, I guess wishing for the Dragon Tribe to defeat Nadil will be too much?" He asked, hope clearly tinting his words.
"Unfortunately, yes," Alfeegi reluctantly confirmed. Kai-stern's face crumbled a bit. Reema noticed this and smiled at him, sympathy obvious in her huge eyes.
"Yeah…." Reema began. "'Oh snap!' That's what you were thinking, right?" Kai-stern stared at her for a second before bursting into laughter. Reema blinked at him, surprised, but also joined in, laughing happily. Alfeegi's grin reached both ears as laughter echoed around him. Once the merriment subsided he cleared his throat.
"So, what wish do you have?" He asked, serious eyes looking directly into Kai-stern's eyes. Said man stared back, apprehension obvious in his countenance. This would be the last time he would have to accomplish something in the living world. The gravity of that did not escape him. His weight shifted as he tried to steel his nerves. His eyes flitted to the tiny group that surrounded his lifeless body. He recalled Ruwalk's harsh words, cringing as each syllable slowly replayed itself in his mind. He turned his attention back to Alfeegi and matched the other's serious expression.
"I wish for no one to take the blame for my death," he declared with finality. He faltered a bit and shot Alfeegi and Reema a questioning look. "That's not too much is it?"
Reema shook her head, and her smile grew larger. "Nope, it's not. Pretty creative. Most people either assume it's not allowed or don't believe anyone will blame themselves for their death."
"Not at all," Alfeegi affirmed and, with that, the wish was cinched. Kai-stern noticed the slight overtone of relief in Alfeegi's voice and cocked his head, grinning.
"Blaming yourself a bit over there?"
Alfeegi half grinned, embarrassed, "Slightly. I had figured out what was wrong and had a pretty good idea what you were planning." He paused and gave Kai-stern a sideways glance. "That's why I had been looking for you."
Kai-stern nodded. "I know. That's why I had been avoiding you." Alfeegi couldn't help but roll his eyes, a shadow of a smile playing on his lips.
"Anyway, I got…distracted."
"Yes. With dying." He paused again before relating the moments before his death to Kai-stern. The other listened attentively as Alfeegi explained how Ruwalk had found him practically dead in the palace hallways. He had also told Ruwalk about what he suspected Kai-stern might be up to. He wrapped up his explanation with, "Obviously, he didn't find you in time."
That explains the weird look on Ruwalk's face earlier, Kai-stern thought to himself. He offered Alfeegi a kind smile. "Well, I don't want you, Rath, Ruwalk, Cesia," it suddenly hit him that a lot of people could find a reason to blame themselves for his departure of this world, "or anyone trying to take responsibility for my death. I chose to go the way I did. So, that's my wish. For no one to blame themselves."
---(end flashback) -----
"For no one to blame themselves," Alfeegi repeated, smiling at Kai-stern. "That was your wish, correct?"
Reema added, "And that's why we're here." The two had been granted permission to speak with Kai-stern concerning this matter. He stared at the two, more than a little surprised.
"What? We haven't even been dead long at all," his brows knitted together. "People sure don't waste time do they?"
Alfeegi looked at Kai-stern with sad eyes, "No, they don't." Kai-stern asked who it was and guessed Rath. This garnered a small smile from Alfeegi and he told him that it wasn't Rath, but Ruwalk. The shock on Kai-stern's face prompted the other spirit to explain. "He believes that if he had gotten to you sooner he could've prevented you from giving up your life." He stopped and admitted in a heavy voice. "He also thinks he's responsible for my death, too."
Even more shock contorted Kai-stern's face. "What?"
"He thinks if he had gotten Dr. Awis Laira to me sooner…." Alfeegi trailed off.
"Oh," Kai-stern responded softly. "He really couldn't help the way things played out, though."
Alfeegi nodded, "I agree, but Ruwalk doesn't seem to."
"We'll have to remedy that," Kai-stern said with a slight grin.
Reema clapped her hands together. "That's the spirit! Just what we needed to hear!" Unable to conceal her excitement, she grabbed Kai-stern's hand. "Come on."
Kai-stern looked down at her, surprised. "I'm going with you?"
"Well, of course!" Reema bobbed her head up and down. "That's your wish."
"This is great!" he exclaimed. He looked at Alfeegi. "I didn't know you could do this."
Alfeegi gave him a small smile. "Technically, we can't. However, this is an exception since it involves your wish."
"Exactly!" Reema's eyes practically glowed with enthusiasm. "What Alfeegi said." She released Kai-stern's hand and grasped Alfeegi's instead. Kai-stern bit back laughter at the death faerie's amusing antics. Alfeegi looked around as if in search of someone. Kai-stern questioned this and the other explained that he was in search of someone. Duma was supposed to pick them up. As if on cue, Duma appeared on his carpet right as Alfeegi finished explaining things to Kai-stern. He commanded the three to hop onto the carpet and they obliged. Reema asked if Duma was going with them as well and he told her that there were a couple souls that needed guidance. He would guide those souls while the other three tended to their business.
"No one we know, I hope," Alfeegi said, alarmed.
Duma smiled. "No, it's a little ways from the Dragon Palace," he reassured his friend. "You should have plenty of time to complete your task while I'm doing that, though."
"Sounds good to me," Alfeegi nodded. Reema piped up with her agreement and Kai-stern nodded his approval of the plans.
"Good," Duma said with satisfaction, "because here we are." He had stopped at a window and waited for the three to climb off the stationary carpet.
"That was quick," Kai-stern commented hopping off the carpet and through the window. Reema explained that the flying carpet made time pass by fast as she climbed through the window with Alfeegi's help. Duma promised them he would return soon and took off.
Kai-stern sauntered ahead and was across the room and at the door when he realized his companions were lagging further behind than they should be. He turned and his face broke out into a wide grin at the sight that met his eyes. Reema had managed to climb atop Alfeegi's shoulders and now perched there, happily. "When did that happen?" Kai-stern asked, laughing. A slight blush colored Alfeegi's face and he gave Kai-stern a sheepish grin along with a tiny shrug. Reema laughed and winked at Kai-stern.
"Ruwalk's down the hall in that small office. Four doors down," Alfeegi tried to steer the conversation away from his obvious embarrassment. The other late officer nodded and the trio began in that direction, Reema remaining on Alfeegi's shoulders.
Minutes later, the three found themselves outside the door to the room Ruwalk currently occupied. Kai-stern stopped and turned to his companions. "What do we do once we're inside?"
Alfeegi gave him a blank stare, also confused about what to do next as well. Reema laughed drawing their attention to her. Kai-stern looked up at her, anyway. Alfeegiwasn't exactly capable of doing that so he just rolled his eyes upwards in her direction.
"You'll only have a few minutes," she explained, "but you'll be able to talk to him. That was the way deemed best to deal with this situation."
"Good," Kai-stern nodded his head, happy at this news. He had hoped as much, but there was one thing that bothered him. "Will he be able to see us? I mean, if he just starts hearing us talk that might freak him out."
"That could be traumatizing," Alfeegi voiced his agreement.
Reema smiled, amused, and nodded her head. "Yup! He'll be able to see you, too! And even touch you!"
"So, in other words, we'll be physically manifested into the living world for a short period of time?" Alfeegi surmised.
"Yup!" Reema nodded again, deciding to relieve Alfeegi's shoulders of her weight and hopped gracefully to the floor. She grinned up at her two comrades. "Are you ready?" she questioned, nodding her head towards the door.
Kai-stern's hand paused above the doorknob and he glanced at Alfeegi. "Try not to say anything that might upset him, okay?" He instructed, but not in an unkind tone.
Alfeegi stared at him for a moment, rage boiling in his eyes, incontestably insulted. Sure, he had gotten into plenty of arguments in his lifetime, but they weren't all necessarily his fault. Besides it had been his job to make sure everyone else was doing their job. He replied stiffly. "Of course."
"Don't be offended," Kai-stern began, but Reema cut him off. She had known it would only a matter of time before they managed to get into an argument. After all, they hadn't been the best of friends in the living world. However, right now, they had no time for arguments.
"We only have so much time," she said, her voice firm, but still cheery.
"Understood," Alfeegi said quietly.
"Point taken," Kai-stern nodded. He placed his hand on the doorknob, quietly twisted it, and gently pushed it open.
Ruwalk was a mess. He was hunched over and his head lay limply in his arms, resting upon the desk. Paperwork was skewed all about and his hair was sticking up in random places. He couldn't see his face, but, Kai-stern suspected, it was plagued with unsightly dark circles beneath the eyes. He wasn't really sure what he had been expecting, but he hadn't expected it to be so….gloomy. The atmosphere in the room reeked of depression. It was overpowering. He remained by the door, unable to will his feet to move. Alfeegi, having already seen the condition Ruwalk was in, strode purposefully across the room, halting in front of the desk. He hesitated a couple moments before rapping the desk. "This place is a mess," he stated bluntly. Kai-stern groaned inwardly. He couldn't help but think, Leave it to Alfeegi. He waited for Ruwalk's shocked response to Alfeegi, but, surprisingly, it never came. Kai-stern frowned as Ruwalk remained unresponsive even when Alfeegi cleared his throat, attempting to get their living friend's attention. Alfeegi bit his lips, casting a look of uncertainty at Kai-stern before returning his full attention to Ruwalk.
Ruwalk's eyes stared down hard at his desk, with all it's cruel, unwanted papers that were there for the sole purpose of torturing him. He really needed to finish reading through all those awful papers, not to mention signing them. He shuddered, annoyed that his name had to grace such horrid things. He couldn't help but think of them as the cause of his current miserable state. His mind continually played twisted games with his logic, distracting him from his work. At some point, his head had hit the desk hard, his physical body also betraying him. He was so exhausted from all the mental commotion that he had fallen into a fitful sleep. If anything, the nap had only made his state of mind worse, with vivid images of his friends' corpses and paperwork dancing around him, laughing at his misfortune. Tears had begun to prick at his eyes and he blinked rapidly, fearing that Cernozura might decide to walk in and find him having an emotional breakdown. That wouldn't really give her good reason to continue trusting him. It was then that the strangest feeling overcame him. It was strange and a little scary, yet comforting at the same time. He frowned, convinced he had lost it when he heard Alfeegi's voice. He continued staring at the desk, certain he must still be napping and that if he looked up he would find Alfeegi snarling at him, glaring at him through cold, accusing eyes.
"Ruwalk?" Alfeegi's voice was almost too soft and tinted with so much worry. It didn't sound like the way Ruwalk had remembered him at all, but it also didn't sound like the voice from his nightmares Ruwalk's dark orbs wandered upwards, seeking out the owner of the familiar voice. His eyes quadrupled in size as he stared at Alfeegi, awe-struck. Alfeegi offered his shocked friend an awkward smile.
"Hi," Alfeegi's smile remained even as unease began to creep into his expression. Ruwalk simply stared at him, wide eyes, mouth agape, utter disbelief so obvious on his features. Not that Alfeegi could really blame him. After all, people usually didn't have dead friends popping in for visits so it was understandable that Ruwalk was a bit dumbstruck.
Ruwalk wanted to desperately to say something—anything to what could only be Alfeegi standing before him. Part of him was convinced that if Alfeegi would reply to him then he was definitely no longer sleeping. The other part of him, though, was what was making his voice non-existent. That part of him insisted that once he spoke, Alfeegi would only respond with a cruel laugh, dashing his hopes that his former friend was really standing before him so full of concern.
"Ruwalk?" Alfeegi repeated, his voice even softer than last time. Ruwalk's heart twisted at Alfeegi's unusually kind tone. This couldn't be a nightmare…could it? Alfeegi's voice didn't have that malevolent tone it usually had when it reverberated throughout his mind in his dreams.
It took great effort on his part and his voice was so soft, Alfeegi had to strain to decipher the words spoken. "Are you real?" The words were hopeful, but Ruwalk's expression held doubt as he stared at Alfeegi, expectantly.
"Yes, I am," Alfeegi nodded, his voice still quiet, fearful of raising it. Ruwalk half stood, leaning over the desk and grasped Alfeegi's hand with his. Alfeegi glanced down at their hands before redirecting his gaze at Ruwalk. "I am," he firmly repeated.
Ruwalk slowly released his hand from the tight grip, still wide-eyed. Confusion was extremely apparent in his dark eyes as were glimmers of uncertain joy. "You are real." He stared at his own hands for a moment before looking at Alfeegi again. "How…..?"
Alfeegi bit his lip, unsure of what to say. Words usually came so naturally to him, but, now, they just seemed to elude him. He couldn't think of anything to say to his grief ridden friend. No phrases of assurances, no words of comfort, not even complete thoughts were forming in his mind. Instead, random, useless words seemed to bounce around a huge white, empty expanse, teasing him as he stared at his bewildered friend. Kai-stern's feet remained planted to the floor still by the entrance to the room, unnoticed, with Reema at his side. He watched the exchange between his two friends, fascination and agitated disquietude conflicting each other.
"You're….alive?" Ruwalk asked, the buoyancy in his tone betraying his high hopes. At the anticipative assertion, more useless words bounced around Alfeegi's blank mind, only now there were too many instead of too few and they bounced at a ridiculous speed, making the white and black blur into grey. Alfeegi frantically grabbed at them, hoping he could find an answer that wouldn't crush his hopeful friend. The words weren't coming and he could only find one to articulate, though it seemed painfully cruel.
"No," Alfeegi still spoke in quiet tones, yet, even to his own ears, that one simple word sounded harsh. Ruwalk's face crumpled a bit before confusion took over again.
"Then….how….." Ruwalk trailed off, waiting for Alfeegi's response. The words kept bouncing around Alfeegi's uncooperative mind until just one remained. It was a name. He smiled amicably at Ruwalk.
"I'm here because of Kai-stern," he waved his arm over at Kai-stern, in a sweeping motion, beckoning for the other spirit to join them. Kai-stern slowly walked over, offering a kind, if uneasy, smile. Ruwalk's eyes rapidly glanced between the two, his shock and confusion increased ten-fold.
"Hi," Kai-stern greeted, also having trouble finding the right words to explain himself or the situation to Ruwalk.
"Kai-stern….." Ruwalk acknowledged, trance-like.
"Hey," Kai-stern stood beside Alfeegi, sympathetic eyes trained on Ruwalk. "We're here because I made a wish," he bluntly stated, unsure where the words were coming from or why they seemed to sound so strange to his own ears.
"A wish…?" The statement had only succeeded in confusing Ruwalk even further.
Kai-stern nodded. "Yes, I was granted a wish before my death." He instantly regretted saying his last word when he saw Ruwalk cringe at it. He continued on, "I was allowed one wish. That wish was for no one to blame themselves for my death." He paused, letting his words fully sink in. "And, you are." Alfeegi nodded his head and waited for Ruwalk's response.
Ruwalk stared, in agony, at Kai-stern. "H-how could I possibly not blame myself? It was my fault."
"No, no, it wasn't," Kai-stern cut him off, insisting, "I chose to do what I did. It had nothing to do with you."
"Yes, it did." Ruwalk countered. "I should've known what you were planning. I should've been able to find you sooner. If I had…" he trailed off.
"If you had," Kai-stern's voice was low and soothing, "it wouldn't have changed anything. There was no other way." Ruwalk shook his head, certain there must've been some other way. If only Kai-stern had given them the chance… Kai-stern slowly shook his head, guessing what Ruwalk was thinking. "No, there wasn't enough time to try and find some other way. There simply wasn't any other way then."
Alfeegi spoke up, his voice quiet, "I'm sorry." The apology had been aimed at Ruwalk. Ruwalk and Kai-stern's attention snapped over to Alfeegi, both perplexed at his sudden apology. Alfeegi went on despite the strange looks, "I…I shouldn't have said anything to you back then," he explained, remorseful eyes trained on Ruwalk, "I didn't think…it would turn out… like this." Kai-stern stared at Alfeegi, wide eyed. It hadn't occurred to him that Alfeegi might not only feel partly responsible for his death, but also partly responsible for Ruwalk's battle with sanity.
"Alfeegi…" Kai-stern whispered, his voice so light, yet so loud in the silent room. He started to say something, hoping to offer words of comfort and assurance to the spirit beside him, but Ruwalk beat him to it.
"You're right," Ruwalk's voice was heavy with sorrow. "You shouldn't have." Kai-stern looked horrified and Alfeegi's eyes lowered in mortification, but Ruwalk trudged on. "You shouldn't have had to say anything. I should've realized what was going on. It was so obvious."
Alfeegi's sorrowful expression quickly twisted into one of shock. "What!" he cried. "No, that's not what I meant."
Kai-stern slowly shook his head. "Ruwalk, you know Alfeegi didn't mean it like that." Ruwalk opened his mouth to protest, but Kai-stern continued, "What do you mean, 'obvious?' No one knew. Not even Cesia seemed to realize about my condition." He let that sink in. "So, how could it have possibly been obvious to you?"
Ruwalk stared at him, unconvinced. Alfeegi sighed softly, sadly, casting his gaze upon the oaken desk. "This is my fault," he whispered, more to himself than to the other two occupants in the room. His pained whisper pierced through Kai-stern's heart as did Ruwalk's defeated mannerisms. Thoughts began to wildly flutter throughout his mind; he prayed he wasn't losing Alfeegi, too. He knew it would take more than just him to knock sense back into Ruwalk. He shot the late officer beside him a desperate look. Alfeegi's gaze was still on the desk, but he felt the weight of Kai-stern's look and slowly raised his eyes to meet the pair that was waiting expectantly. Kai-stern's heart sank at the sight of such intensely doleful eyes. He tore his gaze away from the frightening sight and looked over at Ruwalk instead. He sighed inwardly, aware that the cheerlessness surrounding the living officer wasn't any less frightening than the dead one's horribly sad eyes. This wasn't going at all the way he had hoped and it was frustrating him to the umpteenth degree.
Shocking everyone in the room, including himself, his fists slammed down hard on the desk making a few papers flutter to the floor. The bang his hands had made when they had connected with the oak and the air rustling the papers as they slowly fell to the ground reverberated around them like a loud, ringing noise in their ears. Ruwalk and Alfeegi both stared at Kai-stern, eyes enormous, and neither could hide their immoderate shock. The ringing seemed to go on and on until, finally, all was silent again, save the unsteady breathing in the room from Ruwalk. Kai-stern's voice was very clear and pronounced, "Stop. Stop it. Both of you, please. Just...stop," his voice cracked on the last word as he looked from one friend to the other, eyes pleading with them. His voice wasn't as clear or loud now, but it still had the same impact, "None of this was your fault." His voice dropped an octave. "Neither of you. So, please, stop trying to blame yourself for what happened," he briefly shut his eyes, trying to reach for some magical word or phrase that was sure to convince his friends of their innocence, but could only find, "Please. Please."
Hope quickly sparkled back into Alfeegi's eyes as Kai-stern's heartfelt plea reached his ears. He turned his attention back to Ruwalk with renewed determination. Ruwalk stared at Kai-stern, unsure what to do or say. He opened his mouth, but clamped it shut. Confusion swam rampant in his mind as Kai-stern's words played over and over again, like a warm, reassuring lullaby. He finally opened his mouth and the next words he spoke caused joy to burst from within Kai-stern and relief to wash over Alfeegi.
"So, you really don't think I could've done anything?" The question was soft, but uncertain. Kai-stern nodded his head vigorously.
"Are you kidding?" He asked, grinning madly at Ruwalk, "That's what I've been saying. I know you couldn't have done anything!" Relief warmed Ruwalk's eyes as a small smile graced his face.
Alfeegi smiled as well, happy that Ruwalk finally seemed to grasping the idea that he wasn't to blame. "He's right," he spoke up. Ruwalk looked over to Alfeegi and his smile quickly vanished.
Ruwalk bit his lip before asking, "And you? I know I could've helped you. Dr. Laira has said that he could've helped if we had only gotten there sooner….." his voice trailed off. The former white dragon officer's smile vanished as well. Ruwalk avoided meeting his eyes and stared off at something in the distance.
"But," Alfeegi began in a kind, soft tone, "I'm glad you weren't able to." Ruwalk's shocked eyes quickly found Alfeegi's and searched them, positive this had to be a flat out lie. He started to say something, but Alfeegi continued, "If you had, I wouldn't be able to be with the one I love most."
Ruwalk stared at him, his shock at this statement immeasurable. Kai-stern held in his laughter able to understand exactly how Ruwalk must feel at Alfeegi's seemingly bizarre statement. "Uh….what?" Ruwalk stammered, the shock so immense he temporarily forgot his two friends were actually dead. A sudden thought slammed into his mind and he rapidly glanced between his two friends, an awkward expression on his face. This only succeeded in making Kai-stern hold his stomach and clamp a hand tightly over his mouth as he shook with contained laughter.
Alfeegi shot Kai-stern a shocked look, before turning back to Ruwalk, horrified. "No, not him!" He jerked his thumb at Reema, still standing by the door. "Her." Ruwalk's gaze followed the direction of the thumb, but his expression remained blank.
"I don't see anyone."
To his surprise, Alfeegi actually looked relieved. "Well, that's good." Kai-stern shook even more at the expression on Ruwalk's face. Alfeegi explained, "You can only see her if you're going do die anytime soon, so it's good that you're unable to see her."
Ruwalk stared at Alfeegi, mouth agape. "You fell in love with the grim reaper!" Kai-stern practically doubled over. It had been so tense just moments earlier and, now his two friends were having an absolutely hilarious conversation.
"Well, not technically. She only collects certain souls."
"And, it's Alfeegi's new job to help her," Kai-stern added, waiting for what was sure to be another hilarious expression on Ruwalk.
Ruwalk's jaw practically hit the desk as he stared at Alfeegi. "You already have a job!"
Alfeegi nodded slowly, shooting Kai-stern an annoyed glance. "Yes, I do. I fail to see what's so amusing about it, though." He crossed his arms, frustration obvious on his features.
Kai-stern guffawed out loud, unable to contain his laughter any longer. "I-I'm sorry!" He sputtered. "It's just….it's just…too much." He barely managed to finish his sentence before laughing uncontrollably. Ruwalk smiled brightly up at Alfeegi. The former Officer returned the smile, thrilled that they had finally gotten through to their living friend.
Reema poked her head out the door, pursing her lips. Kai-stern's laughter was infectious and she found herself grinning. Despite the fun they were having, though, they did need to wrap things up. They had already stayed way longer than they should've and Duma was sure to have her hide if they weren't there to meet him when he got back, if he hadn't already returned. It seemed they had pretty much accomplished what they had set out to do. Ruwalk would've to work the rest out on his own. She decided it was time to end the little reunion. "Alfeegi, Kai-stern," she called to the two. Kai-stern's laughter lessened somewhat as they both instantly looked over at her, Ruwalk also looking in her direction curiously. "You need to wrap it up. We have to go," she told them as nicely as she could. They both nodded and turned back towards Ruwalk.
"Ruwalk," Kai-stern offered him his most charming smile, "We have to go." Ruwalk looked at him, panicked and shook his head. Kai-stern cringed. "Yes, we do. We can't stay."
"No, wait," Ruwalk begged, desperation darkening his face, "please stay. Just a little longer? Please?"
Alfeegi slowly shook his head. "We can't. I wish we could, but we can't."
Ruwalk shot out of his chair and leaned over the desk, eyes wildly searching both of them, "Please. You can….you can."
Kai-stern felt horrible, but he couldn't change the fact that they had to leave. He grasped both of Ruwalk's hands in his own. "Please, Ruwalk, remember what we've said. Don't forget. Don't go on like this," he indicated the messy room. "Please." He slowly began to fade.
Alfeegi nodded his head in agreement with Kai-stern. "Yes, don't forget. You have a kingdom that needs you." Ruwalk stared at them both as they vanished into thin air. He looked down at his hands, where Kai-stern had been gripping them just moments earlier. They tingled with the sensation and he could still hear laughter floating around him, and Alfeegi's frustrated but comforting voice. He looked around the room, hoping they would magically appear out of thin air like that had earlier. He even peered over the desk, vainly hoping they were messing around with, but they were no longer present in the room. He sighed, giving up the search, knowing he probably wouldn't see them again for a long, long time. Their comforting presence seemed to remain, though, as he settled down to finish the papers. He smiled to himself as he replayed what had just happened in his mind's eye over and over again. His friends were happy even though they were dead and they didn't hate him with every fiber of their being. He was practically giddy with relief and began humming as he signed various documents.
Kai-stern beamed at Alfeegi and Reema as the three watched Ruwalk hum happily. "Wow, it actually worked! For a moment there, I really thought we weren't going to get through to him."
"Same here," Alfeegi nodded. Kai-stern suddenly turned towards Alfeegi.
"You do know none of that was your fault, right?" he pressed, recalling the other's apology. "Even if you hadn't told him, he still would've blamed himself." Alfeegi gave him a doubtful expression and Kai-stern shook his head. "It really wasn't."
Reema nodded as well. "He's right," she confirmed, reaching for Alfeegi's hand.
"I really shouldn't have had said anything," Alfeegi began, but Kai-stern quickly interrupted him.
"No, you should've. If it had been the other way around, I would've done the same thing," Kai-stern declared. "You couldn't have known how things would've turned out."
Alfeegi mulled over that for a moment, before sighing. "I guess…you're right." He hesitantly agreed, still not entirely convinced.
Kai-stern nodded. "You bet I am!" He grinned. Reema tugged Alfeegi towards the hall. Kai-stern began to follow, but stopped, a thoughtful expression on his face. "Hey, Reema?" Reema looked over at him. "Is this how we'll deal with anyone else who's blaming themselves for my death?"
Reema cocked her head, thinking. "No," she began, "you'll deal with each one differently. Alfeegi tagged along simply because Ruwalk was blaming himself for both your deaths. Usually, that wouldn't be allowed, but, sometimes, exceptions are made. For another person, they might not actually get to see or hear you. It just depends on which way is deemed best to handle the situation." Kai-stern soaked this all in with much interest, secretly wondering which way would be deemed best to deal with Rath. "Come on," Reema beckoned them. "We have to go. Duma's going to be really upset if he's been waiting long."
The three quickly raced down the hall and towards the room they had been dropped off in. Kai-stern halted in front of one of the doors. Reema and Alfeegi screeched to a halt and spun around to see what the hold up was. Kai-stern pointed at the door. "This is where Lykouleon is." He spoke in a low voice as he gazed at the door. He shot Reema a pleadinglook. "Do you think we can just take a peek? To see how he's doing?" Reema looked at him, sadly.
"No," she said, firmly. "We can't." Kai-stern's face fell and she bit her tongue. "I'm sorry."
Alfeegi glanced between the two of them for a moment before a horrifying thought struck him. He stared down at Reema, not wanting to voice the question, but unable to stop himself. "If we did, he wouldn't be able to…..see you, right?" Kai-stern's eyes widened and he, too, stared at Reema, waiting for her response. She sighed heavily as their eyes both bored into her. Her apologetic eyes told them all they needed to know. They both looked crestfallen at this bad news, but said nothing. Instead, they trudged the rest of the way towards the room they were supposed to meet Durma in.
They found Duma, hovering outside the window on his carpet, looking mighty impatient. He glared at the three as they quietly climbed aboard. Reema avoided eye contact with him as did Alfeegi and Kai-stern. Finally he spoke, annoyance all to clear in his strained tone, "So, how did it go?"
This question caused all three to break into broad grins as Alfeegi and Kai-stern recounted their experience to Duma.
Cernozura sighed, frustration building up within her. An angry mob had formed in the courtyard with all the wild rumors being flung in every which direction. They were demanding to know which were true, which weren't and why did they seem to be being ignored? Tetheus was there, trying to get a handle on the angry crowd, but didn't seem to be having much luck. It probably wasn't helping that he was also preoccupied with the demon sighting reported by one of his officers earlier. The crowd had caught him, unaware. He stood on a little platform so that he could be seen by everyone gathered there. Cernozura's heart lurched at the uncertain look on his face as he answered a question that had been angrily yelled at him. She really admired how he seemed to handle everything so well and keep such a cool head. If she had just found out her twin siblings she had long thought dead were alive and on the opposing side, she probably wouldn't act nearly as calm as him. She wasn't supposed to know about it, but had accidentally heard Thatz telling Rune about it. She slowly approached, wanting to help. His uncertain expression twisted into a glare at someone else in the mob. She had always pondered on whether or not Alfeegi's glares could melt ice. She was positive Tetheus' could. She stopped next to Tetheus. He shot her a desperate look and she nodded.
"It's okay, I'll handle them," she whispered. "I know you need to look into that demon sighting." Tetheus looked down at her doubtfully. She smiled, hoping to reassure him. "Don't worry." He nodded and he stepped off the platform, allowing her to hop on. He shot the crowd one last look before marching over to his nearest officer and commanding him to make sure Cernozura remained unharmed by the mob. After that, he left with another officer that had reported the sighting.
Cernozura cleared her throat nervously. Most of the crowd seemed more interested in Tetheus's sudden exit than her sudden appearance. Probably because they've heard me before, she thought bitterly, instantly recognizing half the crowd. She wasn't too sure where the other half had come from. She cleared her throat loudly and everyone quieted down, looking up at her expectantly. Before she could ask that only one person speak at a time, she was bombarded by various demands which were yelled at her in an unkind tone. The nearby dragon officer Tetheus had spoken to moved closer, attempting to intimidate the crowd into silence. Questions came at her from all corners. One man jumped onto the platform and demanded her answer his question. The officer frowned and demanded for the man to get off the platform. Cernozura stared up into his angry eyes and shuddered. He was asking some question about the dragon lord. Cernozura honestly wasn't too sure as her head had suddenly started spinning and those glaring eyes weren't helping. The man looked at something behind her, startled and to her surprise, but infinite relief, jumped off the platform. The officer relaxed and even managed a small smile. Someone tapped her from behind. She spun around and suppressed the urge to hug the other person. Ruwalk stood before her, smiling and that spark that had once been present in his eyes was now back, twinkling brightly at her. He looked so much better than what he had earlier. The crowd had silenced at his presence and waited patiently for him to speak.
"Mind if I take over?" He asked, eyes glittering with amusement at her predicament. She nodded, more than relieved. Her next words caused Ruwalk's grin to broaden and whole countenance to light up.
"Yes," she paused, stepping down, adding, "Good timing."