In the woods outside Thamasa the leaves are piled three-deep, a rich carpet of golds and crimsons and oranges that catches the slightest movement and amplifies it with a loud crunch. Not even a field mouse can move through the forest now without making a racket, but Shadow is just about as far away from a mouse as one man can possibly be, and he has no trouble at all slipping through the sylvan alarm net, his equally silent partner following faithfully along at the ninja's heels.
It is fall, the time of harvest, and everything seems tawny. The corn on the stalk is yellow and ripe, the gourds on their vines a rich ochre – even the air seems to take on an auriferous tinge, chill though it is. When Shadow finally glides to the edge of the yard and peers over the fence, he is quite unsurprised to see that the child too is golden, a pretty flaxen-haired thing with apple-cheeks and a cheerful disposition. She must only be around four years of age – it is hard for Shadow to keep up with the passage of time; he does not live by it, as do office clerks and teachers and merchants – but the girl already so resembles her mother it quite takes his breath away. He generally does not allow himself the luxury of emotions, but once a year on this day it is acceptable, and so when the sharp pain in his heart comes he does not fight it.
The old man is nowhere to be seen, not that he would be much of a threat even if he were around. Shadow knows that the people of the village, Magus foremost among them, believe he caused the woman's death, and on this matter he actually tends to agree. If he had never set foot in Thamasa she would still be alive, her slender figure bursting with life and merriment and kindness like Starlet herself descended from the heavens. It is yet another sin to pile onto the heap, but it torments him for his own reasons, and not because of the slack-jawed villagers and their dubious opinions.
He pushes these dark thoughts out of his head for the time being and watches the child chase a ladybug across the lawn. Even at this young age she moves with a decidedly untoddlerlike grace, stalking the bright black-and-red beetle until it tires of the game and flies away home. Then she falls back on her bottom and cries in frustration, and Shadow can't help but smirk a little, knowing full well where this short-tempered streak comes from. Somewhere Baram must be chortling.
Before he realizes what is happening Interceptor has cleared the picket fence in a single bound and is frantically licking the little girl's face, trying to staunch the tears with a washcloth-sized tongue. Shadow is dumbstruck at this subordination; the feral dog has always seemed to dislike the bulk of humanity – save for the woman, his original owner – but here he is playing nurseymaid to a crying babe. The girl is unafraid, for this is something much better than a ladybird, much bigger and much fuzzier. She stops crying almost immediately.
"Puppy!" she squeals, throwing her arms around the wolfish neck with the heedless carelessness of the very young. Interceptor looks pleased, grinning even when she tugs on his sensitive ears painfully. He almost seems to enjoy the mauling.
It is a pretty sight, the child's angelic pink and white face pressed against the sable coat of her new friend, but Shadow cannot risk being seen for long. He hisses a command to Interceptor, but for once the dog does not obey the command. A mute, pleading stare is all Shadow gets for his pains, and with some dismay the ninja realizes if he wants his dog he's going to have to go fetch the disobedient beast back himself. For the first time in a very long while Shadow feels the beginnings of nervousness churning at the bottom of his stomach, an unwelcome emotion he thought long since banished from his psyche. This day is just full of surprises.
With a reluctant sigh he vaults the fence, leaving his protective screen of honeysuckle and ivy behind. Interceptor looks up with a guilty wag as his master approaches, broaching no more protest when the black-clad man snaps his fingers firmly and points away from the girl. The child, on the other hand, takes this sundering from her shaggy companion less than stoically, bursting into angry tears once more. She tries to bite Shadow's leg in a blind fury, but only manages to loosen her teeth on the high leather boots the ninja wears at all times. More crying erupts.
Shadow has not laughed in well over six years, but he laughs today, surprising both himself and the girl. Against every better judgment he picks the little firebrand up and dandles her on his knee, watching with some satisfaction as her mood switches back to sunshine. It is the first time he has ever held his daughter.
"What's your name, girl?" he finally says, setting her back on the ground carefully. She blesses this friendly stranger with a gap-toothed smile before deigning to answer his query. Most children are frightened of his mask and gruff demeanor, but not this one. She's as bold as a young wolf pup and this pleases him, if anything can.
"Relm," is the lisped reply.
An acknowledging nod. "Where's your grandpa, Relm?"
She looks around as if this might be a trick question, turning back to face him only when she's absolutely sure Strago isn't hiding somewhere in the bushes nearby. "Gone to fight a mons-ter," she says, obviously parroting back a phrase said to her many times before.
Shadow fishes in his pocket for a moment and finally pulls out a shiny gold coin, stamped on one side with the king of Doma's head and on the other with the Doman crest, an eagle holding a sword in its claws. He hands the gil piece to Relm, who examines the pretty trinket with fascination.
"When your grandpa comes back, Relm, will you give him that, and a message from me?"
The girl looks up at him as solemnly as she can and nods. Shadow knows there's a very real chance his message will never be delivered, but it is merely a mean whim and nothing of any importance. "Tell him I said to use it on a better babysitter next time."
He runs his hand over the child's golden curls in what could almost be mistaken for a caress, then swings back over the fence without a second glance, Interceptor following dutifully as always. The dog pauses at the fenceline and glances wistfully back at the girl in her arbor just once, before reluctantly disappearing into the shadow of the woods alongside his master.
Deep night finally fell, and with it came a myriad of constellations, whirling onwards in a stately procession that took no notice or heed of events down below on terra firma. Bismarck the star-whale came first, followed in her turn by Kirin the Great Stag and Unicorn, his lovesick pursuer. When these wheeled out of sight they were replaced by Stray – the Cat of Luck, whose winking planetary eyes could foretell fortune or ill depending on how brightly they blazed – and the Shoat, and mighty Odin, the hunter. At Odin's feet trailed Fenrir, his loyal wolf companion, who in the mythology was a protector of orphans and the weak. It was sometimes said that the constellation's Esper counterpart had sired the world's first wolves, but whether or not this tall tale was true, as so many of the world's legends had turned out to be in hindsight, none could say.
Relm had always loved the constellations and the mythology behind them. Strago had not been idle in teaching his adopted granddaughter star-lore, and Relm, who loved a good story, had eaten his words up like apple pie. She even tried to paint them once or twice, but the lively fire and twinkle of a blazing star was a difficult thing to catch on canvas, even for a master prodigy such as herself. The girl had contented herself with merely painting the legends instead, and in this she excelled. That triple-blasted Starlet painting she had been doing for Owzer had been one of them, as ill-fortuned as that had turned out.
On this evening Relm had no taste for stars or heavenly beasts. The constellations wheeled above her and she simply did not notice, trudging steadily northward with Interceptor slung heavily over her tiny shoulders. He was light, far lighter than he should have been, but even in such an emaciated state it was difficult for Relm to haul his massive weight very far. She had to stop and place him on the ground every few feet, resting a little before picking up the burden with almost superhuman determination and moving on. It took most of the night for her to reach the outskirts of Kohlingen, a journey of just under fifteen miles made in nine hours' time.
Sometimes when she stopped and sat beside Interceptor's body Relm would forget where she was, where she was going, or what had gone before. Then the dizzy spell would pass, the urgency of the situation would set in, and once again she would be off, staggering as fast as she possibly dared towards the glittering lamplight of the village.
She had to get him to a doctor, or a vet, or something. Relm had ripped her weather-stained cloak to shreds to fashion bandages for Interceptor's split belly and ruined legs, but he had made no sound or movement in a very long time, and this worried her. Relm had made sure to kick the corpse of the old bear several times before setting out, furious and sick with fear for her friend in equal parts. She wouldn't let him die, not for her sake.
Occasionally she would talk to the wolf-dog, trying to let him hear her voice and know that she was still there. Relm had no idea if it helped at all, but given a choice between walking silently through the cricket-chirp darkness and hearing herself talk to an unconscious dog, she would take the latter any day of the week. Hopefully there weren't any more bears. If there were she hoped they would eat her fast and get it fucking over with.
"Remember that time … you got into the smokehouse and ate up all of Grandpa's bacon? And then … you threw it all up on his Jidooran carpet? That was … awesome." Every step was a struggle and taking a breath burned her throat like fire, but she kept on talking anyway. "Stupid dog … why didn't you just … stay at home? Not worth it …None of this … worth it."
Looming shadows began to take shape in the grey pre-dawn light, houses and barns dotting the blurry landscape. Relm stopped under a tall oak, its limbs a dim nebula against the washed-out sky, and this time she didn't move for a very long turn. The boll of the tree felt warm and solid against her aching back. It wouldn't hurt to sit just for a moment, but then she would have to rise up and keep moving. Interceptor was counting on her. He had saved her, and she would save him.
A dark figure materialized in her field of vision, shaking her gently by the arm. It was still too early-morning hazy to make out any particulars of the figure's face, but from what she could see he was long-limbed and graceful, squatting casually next to her in the dirt. Relm wondered vaguely why she hadn't heard him approaching and with a guilty start realized she had fallen asleep - almost all the stars were gone and a faint glow was growing in the east, away behind the mountains. She scrambled to her feet and nearly scared the visitor out of his wits; he leapt back with such a smooth motion it seemed more feline than human.
"Might want to give me a warning before you do that next time."
The voice was terse and unmistakably male. Any other time Relm might have been wary of a strange man in the dark, but on this morning it seemed a remarkably good stroke of luck. She replied and was surprised to hear how strange her own inflection sounded now, hoarse and strained and slightly froggy.
"I … I was going to Kohlingen, and we got jumped by a bear. My dog, he's hurt, and … is there a vet nearby? A doctor?"
Already the figure was crouching over Interceptor's still form, prodding and feeling carefully with shadowy hands. When the voice came again it was grimmer than before, gentle but immovably firm.
"Kid, your dog's dead. Has been for awhile, by the feel of things."
These words didn't make sense. There was no way they were true, and so they simply did not register at all. Relm shook her head until the blood-stiffened spikes of her hair whipped back and stung her painfully in the face. Great, she'd finally found someone and they were obviously out of their head. It really was just her luck. "No, he's just hurt. It was a really big bear." She motioned to the south with one hand. "I was … we were …"
The man had produced a lighter from somewhere and was holding it over Interceptor, the better to see with. He had his back to Relm, but even in her stunned, glassy-eyed state she noticed how his shoulders stiffened when the light fell over the dog's face, the muscles bunching rock-hard underneath his shirt. A faint shudder ran through the stranger's body; if Relm hadn't known any better she would've thought he was crying. One hand ran gently over Interceptor's matted pelt.
"… Where did you get this dog?"
He really did sound upset. The strong, gravely voice that had addressed her before was now shaky, quivering around the edges. Something in the back of her mind suddenly clicked, putting the pieces together, but she still replied with some hesitation, unsure and cautious.
"My father gave him to me."
Silence. The man froze as if touched by the hand of Shiva. Everything seemed to slow down and stop, from the rapidly brightening sky to the wind in the oak's leaves. Like some terribly melodramatic painting in the Jidoor opera-house, Relm thought to herself, but she dared not break the quiet, lest the spell be broken and the world go to pieces around them. Slowly the mysterious figure rose from his haunches and turned to look at Relm, the features of his face becoming clearer and clearer as the sun approached the horizon. He bent over to look into the girl's eyes, and the visage he saw staring back at him seemed to nearly stagger the man to his foundations.
Relm heard him gasp for air like he'd been socked in the gut, and watched with growing concern as he braced his hands against his knees and fell into a half-crouch, wearily struggling to keep upright. It was a long time before he spoke again.
"… Why did you—no. This isn't the place. Come on."
In one swift movement he had Interceptor's lifeless body over his own shoulders and was striding away towards the village. Relm hesitated only a moment before running to catch up with her father's long-legged strides.
Did it take minutes to arrive at Clyde's house? An hour? Two? Thinking back on it Relm could never quite remember; the rest of the walk was a blue-grey blur of grief, confusion, and conflicting emotions. The only thing she could clearly recall was the smell of crushed wet grass and Clyde's dark shape always bobbing just ahead, ramrod straight against the dawn. He did not acknowledge her existence again for the duration of their journey, never even turned his head to make sure she was keeping up with his fast pace. Relm would have been hurt, but she was already so full of pains this one failed to register on her internal scale. Let him play the ass. She could be just as arsey as her old man, as he was sure to find out soon enough.
Walking soon became an automatic response. Relm wasn't entirely conscious, but just like breathing or blinking she reflexively continued to lift her feet, doggedly following Clyde even when everything around her seemed like a painful waking dream. She didn't notice they had arrived until the sharp jingling of keys brought her back from the brink of unconsciousness with a start, just in time to see her father gently lay Interceptor's body to one side before fumbling with a deadbolt lock set in a massive wooden door.
Home at last.
The door creaked open, spilling warmth and light out into the damp chill of the early morning. Clyde picked up his burden once more and went inside without another word, motioning for Relm to follow with a silent hand. As soon as she was inside he shut the door securely behind them and, again with the utmost gentleness, lay Interceptor on the floor, covering the dog's body with his own cloak before standing and turning to face his daughter.
His thatch of curly hair was iron grey; although unremarkable in most respects, it was the first thing she noticed about him for some reason. High cheekbones framed a stern face, tanned the deep, rich brown of mahogany by several years of working unprotected in the sun. Obviously the old ninja's hood and mask had not been donned in some time, if the sight of them hanging dust-coated from a peg in the wall hadn't been enough of a clue for her to follow.
The eyes were just the same as she remembered, though. Cool and green, but softer than they had been when last the two had met, back when Clyde was still Shadow. Relm remembered those eyes from her childhood as well, long, long ago, but how she recalled them was a baffling mystery, since he had left shortly after her birth, according to Strago.
Clyde stood staring at her with an inscrutable expression before turning away again, disappearing through yet another door at the end of the hallway. By now Relm knew the drill and followed him without a prompt, into what seemed to be a spacious, well-furnished living room area. There was an absolutely gargantuan fireplace with a merry blaze roaring away, a kind of wicker sofa carpeted in furs, and even a tattered bearskin rug, spread neatly before the fire. The sight of it set Relm's legs to shaking before she could stop herself, knobbly knees knocking together in a sudden rush of fear. She tried to focus on other items around the room – ninja stars nailed artfully to the walls, an oil painting of old Thamasa that seemed strangely familiar, more types of animal skin than she could identify – but the panic wormed its way into her stomach and settled there in a churning knot. The full extent of what had occurred finally hit Relm and she swayed on her feet like a punch-drunk boxer, grasping at the couch to keep from toppling over as a sudden darkness passed over her eyes. Her head felt feather-light.
Before she had a chance to fall there was a muscular pair of hands bracing her from behind, guiding her to a seat on the settee with surprising gentleness. In another moment Clyde disappeared and returned with a mug of something hot, shoving it into her hands with a gruff command. It was the first time Relm had heard him speak since their initial meeting on the road.
"Drink," he said, and Relm drank, surprisingly obedient for once. The smell of hot chocolate tickled her nose before she actually tasted the stuff - out of all the weird and terrible things she had witnessed and learned over the past seven months, the fact that Clyde 'slit his mamma's throat for a gil' Arrowny kept piping hot cocoa prepared and waiting in his kitchen had to be somewhere near the top of the Bizarre-O-Meter. Premium blend too, from the taste of it. She tried not to guzzle it down, but eventually gave up all pretences of politeness and slurped at the scalding sweet drink until there was nothing left but a ring of foam in the bottom, pausing to peer at Clyde every now and again over the sticky rim of her mug. He took no notice of her curiosity, pacing before the fire on those long, muscular legs that seemed to make up most of his body.
There was no sound but the crackling of flames and the whistling of the wind underneath the eaves for some time. When the lithe figure finally addressed Relm again it was in a hoarse, tired voice, not far above a whisper.
"… Who was it that told you, then?"
I suppose we know where I get my tact from now. "Grandpa left a note for me when he died. He didn't know where you were or what you were doing. Just your name."
"Figures. Old man always did have it in for me. I'll bet he's laughin' his sweet arse off somewhere right now, the bastard." He said last part more to himself than to Relm, but eventually raised his eyes to glance at her again. They looked as exhausted as his voice sounded. "And you …decided to come and look for me."
It was a flat statement, not a question. She nodded.
"Any reason why, exactly?"
The way he asked it annoyed Relm slightly. There was no malice in the words, no sarcasm, just an honest curiosity as to why she had wanted to see her own father. Didn't the old crab have any idea about anything? Empathy didn't seem to be his strong point, but jeez. She drummed her heels against the hide-wrapped legs of the settee, unable to hide her irritation very well as usual.
"You're my father. I wanted to see you. I thought you might want to see me." Her nails dug into the deerskins with a barely suppressed, fast mounting anger. "And I've kinda had some questions building up for the past fourteen years, y'know? It's not exactly a self-esteem booster to know your dad dumped you like a sack of rotten fish on the neighbours fourteen fucking years ago for no apparent reason."
Clyde raised one eyebrow, the barest hint of a grim smirk gracing his creased features. "Well now. You've certainly got your old man's tongue, that's for damned sure. And your mother's way of cutting straight through bullshit like a katana." He sighed heavily, leaning hard against the mantelpiece for support. The ex-ninja suddenly looked very weary and very weak, braced there in the firelight. He reminded Relm of a battle-scarred old panther, ready for the fight to end so he could worry about nothing more pressing than basking his battered hide in the sun. "It's difficult to explain off-the-cuff like this--"
He shot her a look and she immediately quieted down, cowed into silence by the fierceness that had suddenly flared in his eyes. There were a lot of people she could dick around with, but Relm got the feeling Clyde was not one of them. Ninjas never retired, they just ran out of reasons to kill. "--It's difficult, but I'll do my best to explain. Listen the hell up, though, because I'm only going to say this once."
Relm listened the hell up.
"I had to go. I wanted you to live a peaceful life, and with a bandit for an old man it's doubtful you would have had that if I'd raised you. Your mamma made me promise her that you would grow up in peace if I could possibly help it. That didn't come to pass, but I did what I could to keep my word. It was … the least I could do for her." Obviously not used to talking so much at a stretch, Clyde paused for a moment, turning what looked like a gold pocketwatch over and over in his hands. He stared at the interior of the fancy timepiece for a long time before continuing. "The reaper's always been just a step behind me, and I've seen some good men and women taken in their prime. Hell, I've taken good men and women in their prime. I couldn't do much for you either, but I could give you a running headstart at keeping one step ahead of the sickle. An assassin's life is no life you want a part of, girl. Trust me on this."
This wasn't the way it was supposed to happen. Clyde wasn't supposed to dislike his old lifestyle. Interceptor wasn't supposed to die. They were all supposed to have a joyous reunion, and then Clyde would show her the tricks of his trade, and they would all go back to the Veldt and he would meet Sally and they would live happily ever after. Never in Relm's calculations had she taken into consideration that her father might have settled down and gone soft. Dazedly she heard herself asking what he did for a living now.
"Monster-hunter. Most of them disappeared with magic, but the ones still around are tough. Pays a damn sight more than slitting people's throats, too."
Relm recalled Edgar's words, and along with them brief, flashing images of the golden bear's knife-scored hide. Of course. It figured, didn't it.
"That doesn't explain why you never ever came to see me, even after the Kefka … thing. That doesn't explain why you never sent me a card for my birthday, or dropped by to say hello, or even let me know that you were still alive. Fuck, we travelled together for a year and you never said a word." Numbness was giving way to anger once more. It felt good, getting it all out. "What's your excuse there, huh?"
Clyde's voice was more like a growl than any other Relm had ever heard. "I don't make excuses, girl. I had my own reasons. It was best for you and best for me if we stayed on our separate paths. I don't expect you to understand right now, but maybe someday you will." In a lower tone he added, more to himself than to Relm, "And it hurts to look at you. Just like her."
The last part stung something fierce, and as always when she was wounded, Relm reacted with swift, violent rage. "Hurts to look at me? What the fuck is that supposed to mean?" Her hands clenched into fists of their own accord. "I think I'm starting to understand now. Just because you didn't wanna get hurt you pretended I'd never existed as long as you could. You're a selfish old bastard, is what you are."
He smiled his thin smile again. "Now you're beginning to understand."
There was a soft stirring from the top of the landing. A groggy voice drifted down from somewhere out of sight, slightly accented and very feminine.
"Clyde? What's going on down there? I heard the door slam earlier, did your hunt go alri-oh!" The voice suddenly had a body, standing halfway down the stairs. A woman's body, with curly red hair and a heart-shaped face and the shapeliest legs Relm had ever seen. The girl and the woman blinked at one another in surprised shock before Clyde spoke again, staring at Relm with what almost looked like amusement.
"I don't believe you've been introduced to my wife yet, have you? Liz, this is Relm. She's the daughter of an old friend who's passing through." His eyes were daring Relm to speak, to correct him. She said nothing at all, mouth swinging agape like an unhinged wagon tongue.
Liz, obviously too well-bred to show surprise for long, cleared the final few stairs with a grace that rivalled Clyde's and shook Relm's hand, polite but a tinge guarded. Her fingers were slim and cool, slightly rough at the tips, the nails trimmed close to the quick.
"It is very nice to meet you, Relm," she said, her voice gentle yet somehow firm. It was one hundred percent ladylike, perfectly modulated, and yet Relm could tell just by listening that here was someone who would not be pushed around lightly. "Will you be staying with us for long? You look like you've come a long way."
Relm managed to shut her mouth and tried to grasp at some semblance of politeness, despite the overwhelming feeling that she was drowning in shock. When cold reality felt like smashing a few dreams it really went to town. "I—I dunno how long I'll stay," she finally muttered, her tongue doing its damndest to cleave to the roof of her mouth. It felt like she had packed her cheeks full of cotton wool. "Not too long, though."
The redhead – her stepmother? It was too much to think about – nodded sympathetically, obviously convinced that Relm's wan expression was due to overexhaustion. "Well, you are welcome to stay with us for as long as you need. Has Clyde given you anything to drink? Let me go fetch you some tea, you look in need of it." She gave Relm another polite smile and glanced curiously at Clyde before gliding off into the kitchen, her dressing gown trailing behind like a bride's train.
It all suddenly became clear. The hot chocolate, the way everything was so neat and straight and tidy … it was a woman's touch. Only now did Relm notice how free of dust the room was, how the books on the mantelpiece were arranged artfully in order from biggest to smallest. She didn't know how she hadn't seen it before; even the ninja stars nailed to the wall were placed in an orderly fashion. Fuck.
"She's a barmaid, would you believe. Reminds me of your mother."
Clyde's gruff voice cut through Relm's reverie like a hot knife through brains. When he noticed his daughter's horrified expression he merely shrugged, unabashed and unbothered. "I've been a settled man for three years. I promised myself I'd stop running, and I have. People change. Circumstances change, for better or worse. I'm not sure what you expected, but—"
What exactly do your expect to happen if and when you find this daddy of yours?
"… Nothing, Clyde. Nothing at all."
And with that Relm rose numbly from her seat and staggered towards the door, unwilling to stay inside this strange man's house one moment longer. If she did she feared she might shatter. Her hand was on the knob when Clyde spoke again, sharply and almost sadly.
She turned to face him, only to have something heavy and cool shoved bodily into her hands. Clyde's face was as unreadable as ever, but there was definitely a shakiness in his voice, something melancholic. He closed her fingers around the old pocketwatch carefully.
"Take care out there, girl," he said, finally. "Bury him deep."
Father and daughter stared at one another, their expressions inscrutable, before Relm nodded assent and stumbled through the door, slamming it behind her as she went.
She buried Interceptor on the crest of a hill just outside Kohlingen, underneath the flowering limbs of a massive maple tree. It took her the better part of the day to dig his grave by herself, armed with only a spade begged from a local farmer, and by the time she got halfway through there were raw, stinging blisters rising on her palms from the chafing wooden handle, and a ghostly half-moon already floated in the late afternoon sky. If Relm noticed either of these things she did not acknowledge them - everything seemed ripped apart into a million pieces, like canvas shredded by the wind. There were too many things spilling together and mixing in the girl's brain as she stabbed away at the clay, ideas muddled up so badly she could barely pick one thought apart from the next.
Ninja stars on the wall … firelight … A painting of Thamasa she had shipped off to auction at Jidoor at least a year ago … settlers, jobs, Sally, normal lives, Interceptor's blood drying brown on her fingers, new mothers with shining white teeth and ivory skin, her father a middle-aged man ready for a different kind of life …
No, not her father. The man Relm had met was not Clyde Arrowny, nor was he Shadow the mercenary. He was something else entirely, something that Relm could understand even less than a ninja or a train-robber. This Clyde was a brand-new person born in the aftermath of Kefka's destruction; whatever his daughter had expected to find, it had not been this. The age of adventure was as dead as magic and had been for three years - it had just taken finding Shadow here in this state to hammer the point home in Relm's ever-stubborn mind. But where did that leave her? She wasn't ready to give up on excitement and freedom, Goddesses damn it all. This wasn't the way things were supposed to happen. What about her dreams? What about Sally?
She didn't cry when the shaft was finally finished and Interceptor's body lowered in, nor did she break while automatically shovelling spadefuls of dirt onto the remains of her best friend. Grief would come later, after the numbness had worn off and the true realization of what had happened managed to sink in. For now Relm was left with nothing more than a hollow, empty feeling in her middle and a small gold pocketwatch, the faded daguerreotype of a smiling, fair-haired woman with high cheekbones and a sharp nose inside it unfamiliar but strangely comforting in these moments of indecision.
Limbs hacked from the tree's lower boughs made a crude marker, which Relm managed to hammer into the ground with a rock. It wasn't much for such a loyal companion and would probably blow away in the next high wind, but it was something, and Interceptor deserved it more than many a human who had died.
The little chain with its ring she left hanging on one of the cross's arms. How it had gotten around Interceptor's neck Relm would never know, nor did she care to know. He deserved to keep it just as much as he deserved a marker, of that much she was certain.
When the task was finished and the mound stomped down and nothing left to do, Relm sat down next to the grave, knees drawn up firmly to her chin, and she tried to figure out where to go next. There had never been a "and what happens after that?" clause in her plans; it had almost always been about finding Clyde and acting out the ridiculously idealized life of adventure she had made up inside her own head. She saw that it was ridiculous now, but that didn't stop her from wanting it. Sally MacDonald would never be her real mother and Clyde Arrowny was not the father Relm had longed for, but what about the excitement? What about danger and wildness and thrills? Was she supposed to give them up just like her dad, go get a job as a maid like those milksop idiot-girls that worked for Edgar? Just the thought of it turned her stomach.
The lights of Kohlingen lay glittering in the darkness of the valley like distant stars, twinkling and fading with a hundred shades of amber and orange and white. It was amazing how pretty the spurting yellow-blue of gaslight could look from a distance; if Relm had been in the mood for such things she would have pulled a brush from her pack and painted it right then and there. As it was she merely stared at the scene from her perch on the hill, disappointed and weary and achingly sad. She had never felt so alone, nor needed Interceptor's shaggy ruff to hold onto quite so badly. His absence was a palpable black hole at her side, like a missing limb she'd never known she had.
Look at all those houses out there, she thought to herself bitterly, looking out over the tear-blurred vista. Tens of hundreds of people living in that town and I'll bet they don't ever think about having adventures, not a one of them. What a bunch of dumbasses. I don't want to turn into that …Please, Goddesses, if you're still up there somewhere, don't let me turn into that.
Oh, the things they missed. And they would never even know they had missed them, that was the really sad part. The wild lands disappeared under their axes and their houses and the only thing they were thankful for was that they could toil themselves to death in the fields or the shops day after day without any bothersome surprises. Not long before Relm would have been disgusted at the idea that she had saved the world for such simple-minded morons, but now she just felt a great wash of pity. She would never be able to hold a real grudge against them again, not after seeing how her father lived these days.
Rising to her feet, she cupped both hands around her mouth and bellowed into the wind.
"HEY, DUMBASSES! YOUR LIVES ARE PASSING YOU BY! PLEASE GO OUT AND SEE THE WORLD! PLEASE?"
There was no reply from the direction of the village. Relm sighed and stepped back from the hill's slope, not quite sure why she had done it. Wasn't there some way to show them all? To shake things up a little?
The idea came like a lightning bolt, so sudden and illuminating she fell backwards onto the grass with a choked gasp. When other artists had talked about epiphanies before, messages or strokes of genius directly from the Goddesses, Relm had laughed hard at them and made the crazy cuckoo sign against her temple, but this was enough to make her completely rethink their supposed lack of saneness. This was … was …
Oh, why the hell wasn't Interceptor still here so she could tell him? She was frustrated and elated and hurting all at the same time. It was almost worse now, because this brilliant idea was very quickly formulating itself inside her head and there was no-one to tell, not even her best friend. The lonesomeness and excitement crashed against each other inside and nearly dashed her mind to pieces.
A tiny voice in her head said, I'll bet Gau would think it was a good idea.
Another said, Screw Gau, you'll be fine by yourself.
And the first replied with: Yeah, but he saved your life, you could at least tell him about this. What would it hurt?
Relm stood undecided on the brink, hovering between the city and the wilderness in the twilight. She bit her lip and glanced into the gathering darkness to the east. And then, all at once, her face fell into a small, determined smile. It was settled. Things would be okay.
She blew a final kiss to the little grave and
raced down the hillside.
The plains and wide open spaces of the Veldt are covered with more and more houses each year, even as the monsters and wild beasts vanish with increasing frequency. The age of adventure and magic is over; now is the time for simple things, it is said. Kefka was defeated so that we could live our lives in peace, and peace we shall have.
There are a handful of eccentric characters who outright rebel against this point of view. Generally the good people of the towns and boroughs laugh at these oddities or outright ignore them, but there is one who refuses to be ignored, and they have honoured her with their wholesale curiosity and with a name: The Painting Ninja.
She does not take, this slipping shadow of the night. When the people are asleep and peaceful in their beds she comes into the houses, silent as a whisper, and she gives them the most important gift of all, the gift of memory. They have nothing she would want, after all, but she has something they have lost, and knowing this the ninja returns it to them tenfold.
Wolves drinking from streams and wild chocobo herds. The sun dappling a forest with gold and orange light. The plains before they had fences or humans, before they were split asunder. She paints wide, intricate, stunningly-rendered murals on the walls of their homes, always of the vanished wilderness, always so detailed you feel you could reach out and touch the dew on the leaves. When the first blue light of morning begins to creep through the windows she is away again, leaving only the memories behind.
Some are pleased to find their homes vandalized in such a tasteful manner, some are not, but none can deny the work is that of a master painter. Many try to catch the mystery artist, but no-one ever comes close. The woman is like the shadow of a ghost in a fever-dream and never makes a sound, coming or going.
If people knew where to look they could find her. There are places on the Veldt settlers still do not venture, and some say she has connections to the Hermit of Triangle Bay, and the Wild Boy of the Plains. Bolder tongues wag that this latter figure is the ninja-girl's mate, but they are both legends, and no-one knows anything of them for certain. The stories told about these characters – around campfires, or in the smoky bustle of village pubs, or in the schoolyard, chattered back and forth like magpie gossip - are the seeds of myth, folklore for the new world. Every age needs folklore, and it is up to the Painting Ninja and the Wild Boy of the Plains and a handful of others to provide this one with its own. They are just as important in their way as the schoolmarms and the bankers and the farmers, although no-one seems to know it.
But sometimes even legends have ties that bind. Once a year, when the summer light is stretched thin and the cicadas are at their shrillest, a long, lean figure comes to the outskirts of Kohlingen, now a busy centre of trade with connections to Figaro-On-The-Desert and a hundred other cities and ports that have sprung up along the mountains and the coasts of the Western Continent. She dresses all in black, red and black, and if you are careful and hide yourself well you might catch a glimpse of her face when at last she takes off her mask. It is a cheerful, sharp profile, with high cheekbones and a thin nose and golden curls that cascade like a waterfall when the mask and hood holding them back are finally removed. There is also a little sadness in those green-blue eyes, sadness and regret, but it is the sadness that comes with growing up, and with experience.
She lays a little wreath of flowers at the foot of a mighty maple tree, on top of a grassy mound and underneath a weathered old marker with a tarnished chain-and-ring hanging from its slowly decaying branches. The wind should have knocked it into the dust years ago, or vandals made off with the ring, but for some reason it has stood firm and untouched. Tiny miracles such as these are the only ones left in the age of reason and the plough, but this makes them no less special. Perhaps it makes them even more so.
The young woman stands on top of the hill until it is dark, wind whipping her curls into a frenzy. She kneels and places a slender hand on the mound, and she says only two words. The wind rips them away almost as soon as they leave her lips, but if you listen very closely you can catch them before they're gone forever.
Then she pulls her mask back on and once again disappears into the night.
(I have a hefty amount of folks to thank for helping me with this monstrosity. First off, I have to give props to Stealth Noodle and Bionicfen for beta-ing all 105 pages, putting up with my constant badgering (are you sure that phrase looks alright? Are you sure Clyde is in-character? Are you sure Relm could actually get away with saying the word 'hella'?), and generally being good sports about sacrificing a good amount of time and patience to help me out when they had no obligation whatsoever to. I couldn't have done it without either of you and you both deserve medals, or chocolates, or medal-chocolates. You get what I'm saying.
There were others too, not betas, but overwhelmingly patient sorts who read the parts and told me, true or otherwise, that no it didn't suck horribly and yes you should submit it to the contest. DK, Guardian1, Themis56, Zachere, Seventhe, Alek, Jenneh, Myshu, and anyone else I tormented but have forgotten about, you were all very kind troopers and I love you all dearly for not ripping my head off and shoving it up my rear after the bazillionth time I complained about my shit sucking. Gracias. And of course I can't end this thing without thanking the judges, shameless as that may seem.
This thing took two months to write. It absorbed a good deal of my summer and I ended up liking Relm a hell of a lot more than I did before I began on the tale. I think I'd like to write more with her, someday. In the meanwhile, thank you if you felt compelled to leave a review – we all live and feed off those things, of course, and I'm as guilty of frantically refreshing the Stats section as anyone – and if you didn't, well, I hope you still enjoyed my poorly-written, lumbering little golem-monster at least a little. If it brightened up one person's day, or touched someone a wee bit, that makes all the hours put into it worthwhile.