Disclaimer: Yep. Do want, do not own.
A/N: This chapter is dedicated to apatheticfire for being the first to correctly guess last challenge question (the First Month of Reaping is September). Congrats! A lot of people guessed and a few nailed it, but apatheticfire was the first. Check out her stuff here: about the slow update again...funny thing, lol -- when you have a lot of free time, you tend to get less accomplish. Or maybe that's just me O.o
VI: The Lady
Seated on her throne, the Lady represents the divine and the land.
I was kicking and flailing, yelling at someone -- anyone -- to help. Panic pervaded my senses and fire erupted in my lungs, water filling my mouth and throat as I screamed, fighting some invisible hold on me. The solid floor of the pool was right beneath my legs, I could feel it there, but my body wouldn't obey my commands. It seemed as though I was made of rock, I couldn't rise to the surface or even kick off the bottom, I could only make the futile motions with my arms.
/Do not fear./
I reached up towards the surface pleadingly, unable to break the water, but no one grabbed my hand. Having already ripped off the blindfold, I could make out the rippling, intricate ceiling far above and the bubbles that scurried towards freedom as I choked on the unforgiving water.
K-Khaan...I don't want to die...
/This test is not for you./
Suddenly there were a flurry of bubbles as a hand shot into the water and seized mine, ripping me from the force that held me down and back into light and sweet, sweet air. Then the ground was beneath my feet once more, someone holding me up as I tried to cough up water and breath in oxygen at the same time. Shouts...people were shouting...but I was so dizzy and couldn't make sense of what and I was seeing or hearing...everything was swirling...
I felt my legs give out, and I fell into the blissful embrace of velvet darkness.
I jerked up was a gasp, coughing and spitting, but the water I was trying to expel was imaginary. My throat was raw, but dry, and the only thing that choked my lungs was my own breath. I panted a little as the panic subsided, taking in my surroundings. The earth was hard beneath my wet robes, and I was sitting against...an old building. It was late afternoon, but the dirt roads and decaying houses of the area seemed to be deserted, without any real movement except the flutter of a curious butterfly nearby. I could see the top of the church over the thatched roofing, and shuddered involuntarily. It was a little chilly since I was dripping wet...
"Hey, you're awake," Riku remarked, sitting next to me against the building.
"Yeah, I --"
"You jerk!" Suddenly he punched me rather unnecessarily in the arm, his expression annoyed, and rose.
"Hey!" I shouted angrily, rubbing my assaulted limb, and my eyes narrowed into a glare. I almost died back there! "What the hell was that for!?"
"You could've told me!" He yelled back, turning to face me with an emphatic gesture of his arm. "Didn't you think I might like a little warning that they were going to be setting you on fire!? Et dren! Ish skul ler brita, nevrikin drenuv, ffenin ron..."
He turned in a distressed circle, throwing up his hands and cursing in Sorthish. I felt my anger ebb immediately and I leaned back, watching him, a small smile touching my lips. He had been worried...
I guessed it never occurred to me that Riku wouldn't be familiar with the custom. In retrospect, it was pretty silly of me to assume he'd know it, but...it was so common here I hadn't even given it a second thought. I suppose it would be a pretty scary sight to an outsider.
"Hey, stop fussing. You're making your hair come loose," I said, standing and moving in front of him, lifting my hands to tuck the silken, silver strands back into the dark hat. He stopped, allowing me to complete my task, granting me a slight glower as reward for my troubles. He shifted a little and I had to reprimand him for fidgeting when I was trying to keep us from attracting too much attention, to which he begrudgingly replied that it didn't matter now anyway because the church congregation had caught more than a glimpse of his silver hair and were probably looking for us.
"You pulled me out, huh?" I asked, gently pressing the last few slivers of rebellious moonlight beneath the protective cover. Others weren't supposed to interfere with the ceremony, but...what had happened wasn't normal at all. I couldn't express the sense of gratitude I felt. "Why?"
"Didn't look like anyone else was going to," he mumbled, shifting again in discomfort, and I pulled my hands back, regarding him for a silent moment. He was taller than me, though not by a whole lot, but he seemed a little insecure at this moment.
"But...you could've left me..."
He appeared surprised by this suggestion, as if it had never occurred to him, and had opened his mouth to reply when a series of loud, angry shouts sliced through our dialogue and a flash of gold and ivory darted swiftly passed, disappearing around a corner. The yells increased in volume, and at the heels of the wrathful verbiage came a trio of thuggish men running after the burst of sunlight.
"Hey! They're chasing that person!" I exclaimed, running after the men. I heard Riku attempt to call me back, but I had already rounded the corner after the hunters. I didn't know why they were chasing the smaller individual, but something took control of my legs before I could even think about it. Dust flitted about the path left by the roguish pursuers, catching the low sun and glittering mawkishly, and I could tell by the undesirable aroma we were dipping deeper into the sickly 'underbelly' of Raelius. The buildings were a picture of perpetual decay, the food barrels wafting with contaminated water and rotting fruit that caused my delicate stomach to twist. Suddenly I felt horribly nervous and out of place and unreasonably guilty all at once.
The vagabonds turned another corner, still hot on the tail of their prey, and I heard them stop. Sliding to a halt behind them, my mind took a second to register a few critical notions.
One -- I had no evidence that the person they were pursuing didn't deserve to be chased.
Two -- I had nothing to defend myself with, and certainly couldn't take them on bare-handed.
Three -- Perhaps I could help them negotiate some sort of compromise without anyone getting a bloody nose (namely, me).
They hadn't noticed me yet, but that didn't last long. I saw one of the pursuers step forward and jerk the golden-haired youth up roughly by the collar of plain, white robes, who had turned this corner only to be faced with a sturdy makeshift fence between two houses. It was the acolyte from the church! The one Riku had spoken with!
"Hey!" I shouted, and instantly all four sets of eyes were on me. It was a good thing Riku skidded to a stop next time me at about that time. "What's going on?"
"This brat owes me money!" a dingey-haired, unwashed brute of a man answered, shoving the acolyte's back hard against the side of one of the mud-brick accommodations. I heard the youth emit a slight whimper, and took a step forward. "Now'm here to collect! You'd be best te keep on walkin', lad, 'less ya wan'ta be in on the payment."
The other gave a pair of hearty guffaws, turning to face Riku and I. They moved forward, blocking most visualization of their leader and the captured acolyte, and caused me to not only retract my step but take a few more backwards.
"Luck smiles on us, Brol!" Quipped the smaller one of the two flunkies, his dirty yellow hair reminding me of a rotting banana. "A fine pair of boys, jus' fer our enjoyment! Oi, you take that ther brunette -- I know hows you likes'em fem'nine."
Still moving backwards, I shared a glance with Riku. He kept his expression neutral, but a profound understanding passed through us in that briefest of moments. And instantly, simultaneously and without warning, we both took off running in different directions. I didn't glance back, but I could tell the two thugs had taken the bait and split up -- the one called Brol who liked 'fem'nine' boys was chasing me, and Banana Rot was presumably following Riku. No problem, I could so handle one great lout.
Vanishing around a teetering house, I dove behind a large wooden crate the smelled nauseatingly of urine and heavily mildewed cloth and waited for any sight of the fem'nine-loving Brol. I hate to tell ya, bub, but Banana Rot couldn't've have been more wrong about the grace of luck on you two.
I watched Brol skid to a stop, looking around in confusion, and I began to formulate a devious plan.
I could sneak over to that barrel over there, stealthily retrieve some squishy, mushy fruit or vegetable and plant it on the ground. Then all I'd have to do is give a holler, ole' Brol'll come running, and BAM! Right on his large buttocks. Or, I could always --
A loud clack-clattering caught my attention, and I glanced behind me to see a wheeled stand with coiled rope, cheep jewelry, and other accessories sidling along the next street that crossed the one we were currently employing for our cat-and-mouse game. A lanky man was pulling the cart -- undoubtedly returning from the bazaar. I had the image of Brol crashing in to that poor resident's cart, but I highly doubted he'd be stupid enough to fall that. Flunkies that dense were only in books and plays. But I could improvise.
I took off again at full speed toward the stand, hearing Brol shout something from behind and launch himself after me. The accessory cart was getting closer, yet I kept my eyes down, pretending to be watching the ground instead of where I was running. My ears caught the warning shouts of the few other people lingering in this area, and all at once I catapulted myself onto the cart, clenching my eyes closed.
Wood splintered beneath my forceful body-slam and one wheel popped off entirely too cheerily and rolled a few feet before toppling over, leaving me to my bed of broken wood and gaudy jewelry and mediocre cloth. I emitted a pained cry of alarm before rolling off the cart and onto the street, clearly blinking back tears. People were shouting, the stand owner was cursing angrily along with a few others -- family members, most likely. Brol had stopped dead, unsure of what to do.
"Now look what you made me do, you big meanie!" I shouted, pointing at Brol, and rose with a wavering limp. "You're the worst dad ever!"
The look on the big ogre's face as those words spilled from my mouth was absolutely beautiful. Priceless. I watched the expression change from shock, to anger, to I-think-I'm-gonna-be-ill as the cart owner and family rounded on him, giving me plenty of time to slip away.
Haha, sucker. That man had needed a new cart anyway -- why not make such an upstanding citizen of Raelius like Brol pay for it?
I tried to hurry back in case Riku or the acolyte was still in trouble, but I really had injured my knee in that fiasco. It forced me into kind of a half-run -- the kind were you sprint about four steps, then walk quickly about four steps, and so on. As a result, I rounded the alley where we had left the acolyte just in time to see Riku crack a board over the leader's head from behind. Rather hard, too, the contact of wood-on-skull had almost made me cringe, and the larger male crumpled to the ground.
"We have to hurry," I heard Riku say to the acolyte, reaching down to pull him up. "Sora might--"
"I'm here!" I chirped, running over to them. Riku glanced at me, straightening, then smirked, but my attention turned with concern to the blonde acolyte that was pulling himself off the ground. His clothes was torn and he had a bloodied lip, but he seemed in one piece at least. "Are you alright?"
The acolyte was, indeed, the same one from the service, though his white robes were plain now and without the hood. His thick, golden hair was pulled into a high ponytail with two tendrils left loose to frame his delicate face, but even pulled up the sunny cascade fell a good length passed his smooth shoulders. He was collared, but not studded...and unstudded collar was for laborers instead of house slaves, which is what males generally were. It surprised me a little, though, since he was probably younger than I and didn't seem very strong at all -- certainly not fit for labor work.
"Y-yes, thank you," he murmured, one hand on the wall for support and the other clutching at his torn garments, and lifted his crystalline eyes. He caught sight of the silver hair that spilled around Riku's own shoulders (he must've lost his hat in the struggle with Banana Rot), and gasped softly in surprise.
"Mi direth!" the youth exclaimed, eyes wide, causing me to do a double-take and Riku to recoil as if slapped. "Lox par ter minin lukura--"
"Shh!" Riku hissed, pressing his hand against the boy's mouth. He glanced back at the street, but still no one graced our desolate road. There was a pause, the acolyte still regarding Riku in surprise, and then the Sorthien removed his hand and asked softly, "...Lox par teik damen?"
"Lusen..." the boy answered tentatively. He seemed very naive and young to me, the way he kept shifting with insecurity.
Something about the youth's answer seemed to strike Riku as funny, though, because he chuckled and crossed his arms over his chest with a smirk, relaxing. "Like the fox?"
Needless to say, I was utterly confused at this point and slightly indignant at being left out of the conversation. So I cleared my throat slightly to remind Riku of my presence, and was awarded a glance from the older male. "Ah..." my silver-haired companion amended with a sheepish smile, "he says his name is Lusen."
"Yes," the blonde affirmed, moving from the wall and granting me with a friendly smile, which I couldn't help but to return. He didn't really seem like the same acolyte from the church...there was no slyness, no dark smirk...maybe a twin? "Thank you both for saving me. Perhaps I could give you something for your troubles?"
"Nah, we don't--"
"Like what?" Riku interrupted, raising a curious brow, and I nudged him in annoyance. Really! Wasn't there a generous bone in his body? But Lusen only smiled, unperturbed, and move to a corner created by the house and fence and began to go through a cloth bag (which I had mistaken for trash). He pulled out, much to my amazement, a gilded rectangular container, about the size of a mud-brick, and offered it to Riku. The top was engraved with Sorthish lettering -- a strange alphabet made up of lines and points. Riku took the box, unlatched it, and opened it just a little to peek in.
"What is it?" I asked, putting my hand on his shoulder as I tried to look inside. He promptly snapped it closed, though, denying me any hope of seeing the mysterious treasure, but I did feel a cold air wafting from the depths of the thick case.
"Where'd you get this?" Riku inquired, ignoring me, and Lusen shifted a little.
"...Katar supply convoy."
Again, my Sorthish friend smirked with amusement. "Stolen?"
But Lusen only shrugged a little, nonchalantly.
It was then that I glanced down in annoyance and noticed a far darker stain against Riku's black vest, complemented by a little slice that parted the cotton. "Riku!" I cried in alarm. "You're bleeding!"
"Eh?" He glanced at me, then the telling garment. "Ah...yeah, he knicked me a little. Nothing to worry about."
"Nothing to worry about!" I grabbed his hand, pulling him back out into the street despite my avidly protesting knee. "You get daggered in the side, possibly barely escaping with your life and it's nothing to worry about? Come on, I know where we can go..."
Riku, surprisingly, allowed me to pull him along without argument, still maintaining a perpetual, relaxed smirk.
After finding Riku's hat and re-concealing his unconventional hair, I focused on getting us out of the city's slums. It was a considerable walk (I kept getting lost and felt too somber to ask for directions) before I finally found the establishment I was looking for. It was a large manor, though not quite as impressive as my own, and the familiar gates broke through the dark haze of my depression and caused me to smile. This was the world I knew...this was what I was familiar with. Wholesome cleanliness and luxury. Not collapsing buildings and putrid foodstuffs. But...that was a good thing. Here I could help people, I'm sure I could do something! I had always been encouraged to follow in my father's footsteps, but maybe...maybe war wasn't the answer.
People were suffering...
"Um...where are we?" Riku cut in, interrupting my thoughts, and I flashed him an enthused smile.
"Just a friend's. We'll be able to take care of your injury here, and it's closer than my place."
"It's really nothing..."
But I ignored his modest protests and instead turned my attention to addressing one of the guards outside the gates. They knew me, of course, and -- after expressing their shock at my impromptu visit -- led Riku and I through the courtyard and into a sitting room. He kept casting me uncertain glances, but I just reassured him quietly. I was worried, though, and kept bugging him to let me see the cut, but he continuously denied me. And not even the most adorable puppy-pout I could muster would grant me the secret to the enigmatic box...
The sitting room was large and comfortable, the polished floors capturing the rouge light that entered from various wide windows and reflecting it in warm spectrums. I plopped down on one of the violet sofas with familiarity, but I noticed Riku examining the ornate paintings on the wall with curiousity and watched him for a few comfortable moments. He was silent, studying the composition of a series of hounds, hunters on horseback, a clever red fox, a serene lake scene...I wondered if he possessed an interest in art. What kind of art did they have in Sorthiel, anyway?
"Hey, Riku, wha--"
A mahogany-haired female appeared in one of the three archways leading into other sections of the manor, and ran into the room. "What happened to you? I heard there was an uproar in the cathedral! They said you were attacked and carried off by an evil phantasm!"
"Kai--!" But before I could grant much of an answer she pulled me up, turning me around to make sure there was no blood staining my silver robes. "I'm okay, reall-- hey! Watch the knee, it hurts!"
It took me a moment to convince Kairi I really was fine and in one piece and not possessed or anything of that sort, and she finally sat down in an armchair facing my designated sofa. I sat down as well, grimacing a little from my sore knee.
"So...what happened?" She asked me concernedly, tilting her head slightly in that way of hers. I couldn't help but grin -- she's been visiting other family in Somne (our massive capital) for the last few months, so I haven't see her in awhile. Boy, did I have a lot to tell her!
But that smile quickly wavered, and I glanced down at my hands.
"W-well...I had my Cleansing, like you know, b-but...there was a problem..."
"No kiddin'?" She threw in as an attempt to lighten my mood, then fell respectfully silent so I could explain.
"Yeah...when I fell into the pool, I couldn't get out...like something was holding me there. Riku saved me."
Kairi seemed disturbed by my tale, and reflected on it for a thoughtful, sympathetic moment. She knew more about religious matters than I did, so her obvious seriousness was not reassuring at all. Still, after a contemplative moment she glanced back at me inquisitively. "'Riku'?"
"The 'evil phantasm', of course," Riku purred from behind Kairi's armchair, his arms folded against the firm, richly-colored back and looked down at her with a smirk. She emitted a startled yelp, not having noticed the Sorthien's presence, and immediately leapt up.
"Don't scare me like that!"
"No need to worry, Kai," I said, giving her a cheeky grin to calm her nerves. It seemed I wasn't the only one that liked to make Kairi have a near heart attack, and the thought caused me to snicker a little. "He's my friend."
At least...I saw him as a friend. And I was certain Riku must think the same, or he wouldn't have pulled me out of the water, right?
"A friend, you say?" Echoed another voice from the archway behind me. This voice was deeper, male, and caused me to wheel around on the sofa with a gasp. "My, Sora! What trouble you like to surround yourself with!
Message of the Lady:
Open yourself to the nurturing power of the divine. This power will fill you with passion and the ability to be creative and to enjoy a life of abundance and sensual delight.
A/N: Oh, my! Who could it be? It could be this chapter's challenge! And I know the message doesn't seem like it fits again, but it'll make sense (or maybe I'm just making excuses for switching things from the original events I had planned...). v.v
CHALLENGE: First one to correctly guess the identity of this mystery man gets the next chapter dedication! He is a canon character and hasn't been introduced into the fic yet. This is more of a guessing game and I haven't left any clues, so I wasn't going to make it a challenge, but...I didn't have one planned for this chapter so I thought -- why not? You, my dear readers, can also strive for the contents of the box -- it's something you're all familiar with! But not necessarily something you'd consider a treasure, so I doubt anyone will guess it correctly. Since I adore all my readers, I'll give you a hint: it's something expendable. One time use only, folks!
Also, if anyone wants to contact me with questions, comments, or just to chat, you can catch me on yahoo messenger with the screen name kitsune(insertunderscorehere)otome or the livejournal sn bharune. Don't be shy -- I'm nice, I swear!
Thanks everyone for the reviews, everyone!