It had been four days since the Maxwell Gang had emerged blinking owlishly at the sun from the catacombs of Nidhogg Pass. While they were making very good time on their journey to the observatory, food and water was growing dangerously low. The monsters of the Eastern Highlands were inedible and sometimes poisonous to humans, so they could no longer hunt and kill for their dinner. The water in the shallow creeks they passed by was cloudy and stagnant, smelling of earth and mud. There was so little of it that boiling the water was not an option, or else their entire water supply would evaporate away. There was a very good chance that if they continued to drink the impure water it would make them sick, but what else could they do? Die of thirst?
Originally they were firmly set on not entering Humphrey's Peak at all, but the situation had been worse than they thought and they needed new stores of food and clean water. Any longer without a source of fruits or vegetables and scurvy would soon set in. Together they drew lots on who would risk going into town for the four of them. Clive was naturally left out of the drawing. He would be far too recognizable to the townspeople. In the end it was Jet who ultimately drew the short straw and was sent out into danger by the others with a shopping list and a pocket full of gella, followed by a feeling of dread in the pit of his stomach. The others would wait for him in the rocky badlands outside of town, but if he was not back within three hours, four at the very most, they would assume that he had been captured by a bounty hunter or by the Ark itself.
He wondered what the others would do for him if that was the case. Would they attempt a rescue mission or would they write it off as another loss? With Virginia it was hard to tell. In the beginning she would have eagerly gone off on a suicide mission to rescue anybody that she cared about, but she had grown up a lot since then. Becoming a wanted criminal had forced her to grow up far more swiftly than was normal, even more than when she had the fate of the world resting heavily upon her shoulders. Virginia would think of the consequences first now, as evidently as Jet had watched her begin to smile less and less. It filled Jet with a sensation almost similar to regret to liken Virginia's melancholy to a flower shriveling up and dying in the summer heat. He had a preference to the old Virginia, because he'd rather be annoyed by her cheery antics than mourn the lack of them. Did she really know how much her loss of hope was making him feel?
Luckily the change in scenery was making the thoughts in his head mostly a background noise to the surrealistic sensation of being in a town again. The calmness around him was a trap made to let his guard down. The town was so green and filled with trees, the opposite to the browning cracked lands that lay around it. Jet pulled the fold of his scarf up to mask part of his face and tried to remain inconspicuous. The outlaw walked to the fountain at the edge of the area, the small monument pouring a thin streamer of clear water into a basin below it. As Jet peered into its cool depths he was satisfied that he could easily see the bottom. The water was surely not contaminated.
He couldn't help himself. Jet knelt at the basin and freed his face from the veil of his scarves, dipping his cupped palms into the waters below. It wasn't as cold as he had imagined it to be, but still, it felt absolutely wonderful. He splashed his neck and face with the water and then drunk a palmful of it fearlessly. It was sweet and pure, almost as good as the water from the Yggdrasil lake, but was less artificial and false. Feeling the water trickling down his face and through his hair, already beginning to be evaporated by the sun, Jet got down to business and began to fill his waterskin and the waterskins of his friends, the loose dry leather becoming dark and swollen with moisture.
The water had refreshed him and Jet found that he could think more clearly now, rising with the waterskins slung about his body and fumbling in his pocket for the list that Clive had written him and had palmed into his hand right before he had left. Jet scanned Clive's thin spidery writing carefully, trying to figure out what it said. It was directions to the town's marketplace, but he didn't quite understand the method Clive had used to write it down, using the names of several landmarks that Jet had never heard of before. If he had been a resident of the town, things would have been so much clearer.
A small kid ran by, spinning along with him a thin metallic wheel which he was guiding with a stick from one of the nearby trees. A child's toy. "Hey kid." Jet called out as the boy passed him, prompting him to jam the stick into the circular middle of the wheel, immediately halting it from spinning. As the metal wheel clattered to the ground with a gentle tinkling sound, the boy looked up at Jet with expectantly bright eyes. Jet was almost taken aback by how directly the boy was staring at him, almost as if he was a bounty hunter in disguise. "Uh... you know where the market is?" He added lamely, surprised at how jumpy he was.
"Sure mister, you just take that street there until you see a shop with the butcher's sign in the window, then take a right to the grocer's. You'll be in the markets by then." The boy said readily, and then picked his fallen toy up from off of the ground. He spied the unique-looking ARM by Jet's side with awe, then transforming into a look that was almost like longing hunger. Perhaps he wanted an ARM for himself one day. Unable to help himself, the child asked; "Are you a drifter, mister?"
Jet shrugged the boy's inquiry off easily enough, beginning to walk away in the direction that had been indicated. "No, I'm just visiting from Little Rock." He lied smoothly, figuring that Little Rock was the closest town to his birthplace, so it technically wasn't a lie. "See you later, kid. Thanks for the info." He heard the child run away, probably gaining some momentum in order to get his toy spinning again. Had his ARM scared the kid? Maybe. But in this world children had to grow up scared, it was the only way they would be wise enough to stay alive.
The directions he had gotten seemed to be true enough, so it was with minimal hassle that he found the Humphrey's Peak marketplace. He had the small, annoying feeling in his mind that this was a chore better suited for a woman to do, and that he was wasting his own time needlessly for doing it by himself. Oh, how Virginia would have scolded him for admitting to a viewpoint like that! Jet smirked as he walked through the increasingly bustling streets, filled with shoppers taking their supplies home. He didn't think he'd be mentioning that any time soon, even if just to complain. He liked his testicles to remain intact, thank you very much.
It didn't take very long to find and purchase everything that they needed, and Jet was honestly surprised at it. The gella that the others had given him covered for everything. Red apples were in season too and he bought plenty of them as well, knowing that it would help fight off any traces of scurvy that only eating hunted meat had done to them. They would be alright. Jet left with a large brown paper bag that took two hands to carry, his vision slightly impaired by the sight of it. The full waterskins were weighing him down quite a bit, too.
So it was not very surprising that Jet wound up colliding with somebody walking on the same footpath as he, knocking the other person down. He recoiled from the impact himself and dropped the bag he was carrying in surprise, the food and medical supplies spilling out of it and rolling about on the ground. "Oh shit." Jet muttered as he knelt to pick everything up again, gathering it up in his arms.
The other person groaned softly and sat up, rubbing his head as if he had a slight headache. A can of pudding rolled towards him and came to a rest at the side of his foot. The man stared at it dreamily for a second but then got his wits back into proper order. "I'm sorry." He said apologetically as he started to help Jet with cleaning everything up. He smiled, embarrassed. "Sometimes I just end up wandering into my own little world."
When everything was put into order again Jet stood up and looked at the person he had collided into. He didn't react too much outwards, but on the inside he absolutely froze. Pike was looking at him with equal astonishment, wondering what he should do next.
Shit. He knows me. He knows I'm a wanted man. He could tell the Ark and ruin everything.
So what should I do? Should I shut him up for good?
His trigger finger began to itch. Murder was an unpleasant thing but maybe it was something that had to be done. He could take Pike around into a back alley, execute him quietly and dump his body somewhere in the Eastern Highlands. No, that would be too hard. His ARM would be too loud and alert people when it fired, and after that, smuggling a body out of town without being seen would take an impossible amount of luck.
He was not a murderer. Running from a frame and then killing somebody to protect his own ass defeated the purpose of his running in the first place. He almost felt ashamed for thinking such a thought, but his eyes crept back to Pike's neck, wondering how easy it would be to put his hands around it and squeeze until either the body below it stopped moving, or until he heard the pleasing crack of vertebrae.
He was not given enough time to fulfill his sick, frightening fantasy. Pike dusted his hands on his pants and strode by Jet, patting him on the shoulder in a friendly and above all familiar gesture. "Nice to see you again, Ted. Take good care of yourself." Before Jet could open his mouth again Pike had already disappeared into a store front.
Ted? Jet knew that Pike never forgot a face or the name that it was attached to. The kid had an amazingly impressive photographic memory, and to Pike, memories were the most important things of all. The fact that he would forget both his name and his face seemed beyond strange to him.
The only other option that made sense was that Pike had purposefully decided to forget who Jet was. Either it was because he no longer wished to associate with the outlaw now that he had become a convicted murderer, or he was trying to protect Jet's anonymity. As the drifter began to walk again, towards the boundaries of the town, he ardently hoped that Pike was taking the latter option.
Call him merely insecure, but life seemed a hell of a lot easier when some people still believed him to be an innocent man.
"Do you really think that man was telling the truth?" Todd asked of his leader hesitantly, flexing his hand upon the round wooden surface of his saya. Grady had left a little while ago, taking his two young goons with him. The inn was now the property of the public once more. Todd didn't know what the man's true intentions were about, so he was considerably wary.
"I don't trust anybody who tried to get me drunk before we start talking, and that guy felt like the lowest piece of slime around." Maya said sourly, regarding the rest of her team who were ringed about the same table as she. Todd and Alfred were sitting up respectfully, while Shady was settled down in Alfred's lap. Kids and pets, Maya thought bitterly, if it weren't for Todd, I'd be the only useful one here.
"So you're not gonna go after the gem?" Alfred piped up innocently, speaking what came to his mind before he could think about it.
Maya slammed her curled fist down hard on the table, causing Todd to flinch and making Alfred and Shady jump. "Of course I am!" She cried, determination written all over her face. "Even if that smarmy bastard is lying out of his asshole, I still have a gut feeling that this gem, this 'Heart of Filgaia' actually exists. If it does, then it's automatically mine by birthright. I have to have it in my hands!"
Alfred looked at his glass of milk. Beside it was a saucer of milk that was meant for Shady. "So we're going to either play exactly to his tune or we could ignore it entirely. When we bring him the gem, how do we know he isn't going to take it for himself? We would have done all the dirty work for nothing."
"Oh, I'm fairly certain that's exactly what 'ol Red is going to do, and with that crazy cult behind him he'd be able to with absolutely no problems." Maya grinned in her trademark way and spread her hands a little, a gesture that said she was forming a plan. "But since their old leader dropped dead, that cult's holdin' itself together with nothing more than a single loop of thread. That guy's the one who could unravel it whenever he wants. But when things are as chaotic as they are right now, all we have to do is slap his grubby hand away and hold onto that loop for ourselves. I will have this planet for myself, boys, so maybe this Ark place will be a good spot for it all to begin."
Todd chuckled, pleased. "You are proposing a strategic coup de tat, milady? You truly have the mind of a tactician. Lord Schroedinger would have been proud."
"I'm just saying that if one dirtbag drifter can take over a group of fanatics easily, I most certainly can turn them into my own kingdom. Then, the Heart of Filgaia will be all mine."
Alfred always felt a chilling thrill go down his spine whenever his sister spoke of the future. More so than her ability to transform information into materials on the physical plane, Maya possessed an inborn ability to lead flawlessly, to inspire and bring out the emotions in people. What was that word called? Charisma. His sister was a veritable fount of it. Sometimes Alfred thought that maybe she would have been more at home during a different point in Filgaia's history. The great demon war, for example. He could easily picture her there, in the front lines and screaming a war cry, leading the charge.
Over the centuries that sort of thing had always been left to the members of the aristocracy. They had been bred for it, so to speak. Secretly, Alfred felt that all the bad qualities that had been sucked out of his sister before her birth had been transferred to him, making him the genetic refuse pile of the Schroedinger family. He did not possess the special powers that Maya and her mother did. He was okay with it, though. He still loved his sister very much. If Alfred truly was all of Maya's bad qualities, then it could also be said that she was all of Alfred's good qualities, as well. They shared their victories as one and the same.
But neither of them would admit to this sense of dualistic oneness to the other. Todd was the only one who noticed it on both sides of the siblings.
And frankly, he was very proud of them both for it.