Chapter 2: Wh-what? Zed's Dilemma
There was one single survivor still left in the city of Saint Centaur. Those few who had not been "spirited away" for experimentation by Alhazad had fled far and wide in fear. Only a single blind girl had been passed over, hidden in a secret compartment. Now, even after a year had passed, the solitary girl waited for her neighbors to return to their homes. Despite all of her heartfelt prayers, they had yet to reappear. She had never cursed her fate when it came to this unfortunate situation, just as she had never wasted tears over her sightless eyes. Her positive outlook only changed on a certain day when she realized that a person whom she cared for was in need of help that she could not provide.
The sickness was just a joke when he started to sneeze. At first it had been funny just like everything else that Zed did, and nothing to worry about. He sneezed with such a dramatic flair that it made her laugh. Then the coughing started, deep gritty coughs that scraped the inside of his chest. Then Zed's perpetual energy waned, and that is what really made her concerned.
If Zed got sick, it was Aura who would care for him, and Aura could not see, nor did she have any medical knowledge. She could insist that he sleep and drink as much as possible and eat healthy foods, but he was not human to complicate matters. There was nothing that she could do to help him, and this time she found it impossible to sit by and wait, hoping for the best.
She had to find help while there was still time, but who in the world would want to help a demon even if they knew how? Rudy and the others, they could help; but they were wanderers and the task of finding them would be difficult. There was no one in Saint Centaur who could carry a message. She was able to keep a cool head and hide her worries well enough from Zed, but they were there and they ate at her spirit just as a physical ailment was eating away at Zed.
It was after a few weeks of Zed's deteriorating health, which he fervently denied and tried to disguise altogether, that a wanderer named Jane appeared in Saint Centaur. Aura recognized her as one of Rudy's friends, and would have welcomed her just as warmly if not. It was finally some kind of answer to Aura's many prayers.
Jane explained that she and her partner Magdalen had been sent from Adlehyde to investigate the possibility of people from Adlehyde coming to inhabit the silent, abandoned town.Aura didn't know how to feel about this news. If people would come, it would mean that she wouldn't be alone anymore. On the other hand, the people of Saint Centaur could always come back someday, and it was also important to note that she wasn't exactly alone. She didn't want to think about the idea of Zed being run out of town by people who were just as new here as he was. With Zed being sick, he would be in an even worse situation.
Zed tried to hide his sickness from Jane too out of pride, but unlike Aura, Jane was never one to hold back. Aura could tell from her voice that she had a big heart full of care for others, one that she tried to hide under an aggressive personality. She sounded disgusted by the very idea of helping Zed, but then she pushed him into bed and told him to shut up and that she'd get Rudy right away. Rudy was different from humans too, but he had gotten over sickness before. Rudy would be able to figure him out, probably. Maybe. That's what they hoped.
Aura continued to pray for Zed and everyone else, because it was all that she could do.
Jane kept to her promise and returned with Rudy and Jack as quickly as possible, sans Magdalen, Cecilia, and Hanpan. It was a few days' travel from Port Timney to Saint Centaur, including the boat ride and the walk over land from the shore to the town. They reached the barrier gate by mid-afternoon. The sun was shining brightly and casting sharp shadows in the abandoned town.
"So what happened here, anyway?" Jane asked, walking backwards and looking back at them. The silence of Saint Centaur spooked her the last time she was here and it was still creepy the second time, though she wanted to make sure that Rudy and Jack wouldn't find out about that.
"Well," Jack began, "It was right after that whole Caging Tower incident where we first ran into you, actually. We were trapped, as I'm sure you remember, and by the time we got out, everybody had vanished all except for the one girl."
"I feel sorry for that girl!" Jane cried. "Here all by herself, and even worse--with Zed!"
"She's got my sympathies as well," Jack agreed.
Jane honestly had no idea why she had been called out to this place like some kind of real estate agent, but it didn't matter to her. She figured that the last that would come of it is that Aura would have some real people to talk to. She wondered why the girl hadn't skipped out of town already as it was. She couldn't imagine being stuck here, especially with Zed. Were some girls so dependent on the strong that they would lower their standards so far?
That reminded her of Cecilia's sudden willingness to break away from her usual teammates and how it had surprised her. She told herself that the entire tearful parting was a ploy the princess was faking, but she knew that it was not the case. It hurt her a bit to admit it, but Cecilia did not have to try very hard to get people to care about her. Even Jane liked her, and that was frustrating. The idea that maybe Cecilia felt unloved from time to time was something that she couldn't imagine.
The three of them went to the house where Aura stayed within the protection of the barrier around the town. Soon it seemed that even this preventive measure would not be needed, as monsters in Filgaia were on the decline.
Rudy knocked and was greeted by Aura, who could not see them, but knew who it was without having to guess. "I'm so glad you are here," she said with the usual passive enthusiasm. "Please come inside."
"Thanks," Rudy replied, and led the others in. He looked around the house as if he had never been inside of it before. It was dim in the cottage though the sun outside was bright. He scanned the area and then met eyes with Jack, who seemed equally on edge. He glanced back to Jane and shrugged, but he got the feeling that she felt it too. The feeling of death and decay permeating the air was startling.
They followed Aura up a narrow set of stairs as she made her way to the upper floor where the bedrooms were. Her golden hair and white dress made her appear ghostly in the shadowy corridor. It was too quiet there, definitely too quiet for any place where Zed was taking up residence.
Rudy entered the bedroom and found a set of beds. In one was a frail form completely covered in blankets that seemed lacking any breath of life to him. "Here he is," Aura said sadly.
"Yeesh," Jack winced, staying well behind Rudy. "Is he deformed or something?"
Rudy looked to Jane to ask if that was the case, and Jane looked back, just as confused as he was. Aura replied by pulling back the blankets. All three jumped slightly, but unless Zed had magically transformed into cleverly-shaped pile of pillows, he wasn't there at all.
"You'd attack a guy while he's sleeping would you?" Zed exclaimed loudly, and leapt out from behind the door they had entered from. He was fully dressed, including his orange scarf, and stood holding his sword at the ready. "Cowards! Well, I've been here ready and waiting for you! Let's go!"
Everyone groaned, including Aura.
"Zed," Jack aighed. "Believe it or not, our primary goal in life is not to pick fights with you."
Zed dropped his arms to his sides and looked woefully disappointed. "Oh," he said, "Well, what else could you want?"
"What do we want?" Jane repeated in disbelief and anger. She balled her fists up and stamped one foot on the wooden floor. "You told me to go get them yourself, you idiot!"
"Jane tells us that you are sick," Rudy explained calmly.
Zed pointed his finger furiously at Jane. "Well then, she's been spreading dirty lies!" he shouted accusingly. "The great Zed never gets sick! I'm not weak like you human beings, I--!" then he cut off suddenly and began coughing like an old man with asthma. He coughed and wheezed several times until the others were afraid he might hack up a lung, and then stopped just as abruptly. "Just clearing my throat," he said. "Now where was I?"
"Zed, please," Aura chided him softly. She crossed the room to where he stood, then looked at Jack and Rudy in turn with her sightless eyes. Rudy saw the depth of her concern, and knowing how calm and collected she normally was, it proved that something really was wrong. "He is ill, but I don't know what affliction he has or how I should treat it."
"Okay," Jack said willingly enough, "You could start by telling us what exactly is the matter with him."
Aura nodded and felt out for Zed's right hand. Zed shunned away from her at first, resembling a small child resisting a nasty boo-boo inspection from his mother. Then he found that he couldn't push her in good conscience and just turned his head to the side in an angst-ridden fit as Aura slid the glove off of his right hand. "He hid this from me for quite a while," she said, holding his bare forearm up. "If only I could see, maybe I could take better care of him..."
The others saw with their eyes what Aura could only detect from the sheer pain that must be throbbing through Zed's body. It was a horrible sore that appeared to be spreading up the rest of his arm under his sleeve. It was purple and shiny with the mithril liquid which pulsed through demons' veins.
Jane recoiled in disgust. "Egad!" she cried, raising both hands in front of her face dramatically. "What the heck have you been doing with that arm?"
"Is that contagious?" was Jack's first and only question. Rudy lightly smacked himself in the forehead in dismay at both of these insensitive reactions.
Zed snapped his hand back and covered it again quickly. "Okay, so I have some kind of infection, probably," Zed said. "You don't have to call the army about it."
"That looks serious," Rudy said quietly. Though his own body was disguised to look and feel much more like a human's, he found the look of the sore familiar. When he had been wounded deeply enough, the same sort of flesh was visible.
"Okay," Jack said. "Zed old pal, I'm no doctor, but I'd say that's a problem that needs to be seen to as soon as possible."
Aura nodded calmly. "I thought that all of you might know something more than I do."
"Hardly," Jack replied. "I mean, Rudy has a similar body, and we had to go to another dimension entirely to get him healed up, and at great risk and expense. I don't think we could do it again even if it happened to Rudy."
Zed grimaced and crossed his arms. "Sure, if it were to happen to him, we would all care. Who cares about poor Zed?"
"I thought you were the one saying you weren't even sick!" Jane retorted and threatened to stomp on his foot.
Zed dashed behind Aura to where he was safe. "No, I'm not bed-ridden or anything," Zed said. "Just a cough and a sore, you see? Heheh... I can still best any of you!"
"You aren't bedridden yet," Aura clarified, "but I am afraid that you will be very soon. You've already been sleeping much more than normally, as if your body just can't hold onto any energy."
"Strange," Jack said. "Zed's never lacking in energy, that much is true. Unfortunately, neither me or Rudy is an expert on this."
Aura's head lowered as her hopes for a simple solution were dashed. This only lasted shortly until Zed began coughing sporadically again. He turned and tried to suppress it to save face, but lost the fight. "I'm uh," he said between coughing and wheezing, "I'm just gonna sit down if that's okay with everybody. It doesn't mean I'm sick or anything."
"Oh, shut up, you moron!" Jane said and shoved Zed forcefully so that he landed in a chair. "You're causing us enough trouble as it is without making yourself sicker, don't you think?"
"I'll get you something warm to drink," Aura said to Zed, then smiled at them all. "I'll get some for all of you." She turned out of the room and down the stairs on her way to the kitchen, leaving Zed with their friends.
"Okay, here's the deal," Zed said in a low tone once she was gone, being uncharacteristically frank. "I know I'm sick as a dog, a dog after a visit to Uncle Alhazad's in fact, but Aura doesn't know that, so just play it cool guys, okay?"
"I think Aura knows better than you do, you fool," Jack berated him. "And there's nothing we can do about this, either. You're in a bad spot, do you realize that?"
"Where's your sorceress girl and the chubby mouse?" Zed asked, craning his neck to be certain they weren't hiding anywhere. "I should think those two would be more useful in this sort of situation!"
"You're right," Jack agreed grudgingly, "Cecilia might have a better chance of guessing what's the matter with you, but she was called away. You caught us in the middle of something important, you know? And Hanpan went with her because from what little you told us, we thought all you had was the mumps or something!"
"I think that this might be out of the range of even your wind mouse's knowledge," Jane said. "My father might know a little, but he really deals in ARMs more than other ancient technology."
"Doctor Emma is a specialist in that area isn't she?" Rudy asked them. "Why not visit her? We are on our way back to Adlehyde after all."
"Great idea!" Jane agreed. "Okay Zed, pack some bags or whatever it is you do."
Zed crossed his arms over his chest in his typical pose. "Hey, I haven't decided to accept your help just yet!" Each of them looked at him in disbelief for a brief pause. Then Zed smiled and nodded his head. "Worry not, Zed will accept your offer of assistance. Thank you for joining my party!"
"We are not in your party," Jane argued, "you are in our party, and you should be damned glad for the opportunity!"
"Does it matter?" Jack grumbled while rubbing his head like a headache was forming there. "Let's just get out of here before we end up having to stay overnight. We'll have to tell Aura that we pass on the tea."
Downstairs, Aura was nearly finished (cooking was not easy for her, but tea was something that she learned to manage) when she sensed the others coming back down. "Are you all planning to leave right away?" she asked them without turning her head. There was a sad but hopeful tone in her voice.
"Yeah," Jack answered. "Sorry, but the sooner we get out of here, the sooner we can get Zed patched up."
"We'll bring him back as soon as we can," Rudy explained.
"I understand," Aura said. "Zed, would you come here for a second?"
Zed, who had fallen into another coughing fit, stepped forward into the kitchen. "What is it?"
Aura smiled. "In the pantry up there is a thermos bottle," she said. "Would you get it for me?"
"Will do!" Zed agreed, very proud of his ability to reach high places, no doubt. He retrieved the canister and set it in front of Aura.
Aura lifted the teapot and felt for the rim of the thermos. Then she poured the liquid inside. "Take it with you," she said.
"Ah, you didn't have to do that," Zed said bashfully. Then it was Jack who coughed, and not because he was sick. Zed shook his head clear and then took the thermos. After tightly screwing on the lid and throwing it over his shoulder, he turned to the others. "Move out!" he said. "The Z-Gang is on the move!"
"We are not the Z-Gang," Jack grumbled, and left willingly. He walked all the way to the door and through it without looking back. Jane followed after him, just as glad to put Zed behind her, even if it was only in their lineup. Rudy waited, hoping to keep Zed at the center of their formation.
As Zed began to pass through the door, Aura grabbed Zed by his long orange scarf. The lanky ex-demon nearly fell over backwards, though her grip was very gentle.
"Be good," she said, and then kissed his cheek without any hesitation or embarrassment as if this were the most natural thing in the world.
Zed, incapable of blushing as it turned out, turned a nice tint of green to match his hair. "Don't tell Zed to be good! I'm a respectfully bad guy!" Then she raised a questioning brow to him and he corrected himself, "Bad in the best sense of course... I'll just stop by the doc's and get myself patched up, I'll be back in no time." He put his hands on his hips and laughed uproariously. "Zed is mighty and invincible! Silly girl..."
"What is that idiot doing?" Jack called back from outside where he and Jane were already waiting. "Hey, hurry up!"
Zed was still flustered and pushed his way past Rudy and out of the little home. "Time's a wasting!" he shouted at all of them in a voice that sounded painfully hoarse. Rudy found himself intensely curious with the entire exchange.
"Bye," he said, and gave an apologetic smile to Aura before following after his friends. He knew that she couldn't see it, but must have felt it, because she smiled back as if to say this behavior was normal and she liked Zed for it.
The foursome then began to walk out of Saint Centaur. Jack, at the front, shoved his hands into his pockets and sighed as they passed through the barrier, keeping Zed close enough that he could pass through by association. Nothing zapped Zed, and Jack was glad, no matter how amusing it would have been. The guy was clearly in poor health despite all of his antics. That much was obvious, even without seeing the huge sore festering on his arm.
Jack was also concerned about running around with a demon in their party. He held no more against Zed for that than he did Rudy, at least not anymore. By protecting the blind girl for all of this time, Zed had shown that he was as decent as any human being, probably more than several that Jack knew. The problem was that the rest of Filgaia might not see it that way. Unlike Rudy, Zed was most obviously a demon at the first glance.
"You should get a cloak or something," Jack said. "We have enough problems without people throwing rocks at you."
"Can it be orange?" Zed asked hopefully, totally looking over the potential threat of projectile rocks.
"That's not very inconspicuous," Jack argued back.
Zed pointed a finger at Jane. "She gets to wear orange!"
"That's because she's not a demon!" Jack groaned in response.
"You can have mine," Rudy said, and held out his own cloak. "It's... almost orange..."
"No it's not, that's light brown!" Zed complained, without uttering a thank you.
"Can't you at least be grateful?" Jane nagged, and kicked him in the rear. "Really!"
"Hey!" Jack snapped at her. "Look, he's already falling apart, we don't need you kicking him on top of that. Something could fall off."
"Yes sir," Jane feigned obedience innocently, then as soon as Jack turned around, she kicked him. Zed laughed at his fellow kick-victim, even though it was him who Jack had been defending.
"I'm already getting tired of being the chaperone on this youth expedition," he sighed, and couldn't wait to drop off their additional party members, not to mention regroup with their usual ones.
Rudy dragged behind the other three as they continued to play-fight on their way out of town and wished very strongly that Cecilia and Hanpan could magically appear and join them. He wasn't very good at mediating arguments. Zed and Jane were both argumentative, and Jack was having about as much luck with them as a babysitter on some rowdy children. At least the story would be funnier retold to Cecilia later than it appeared to him presently.
That led him to wonder what Cecilia was doing right at that moment, and the thought occurred to him that she may be in an even more unpleasant situation. At least he was free to do and say what he wanted and to be with his friends. As he wished that there was something they could do to make things easier for her, he failed to notice Jack looking back at him as they walked.
"Are you okay?" he asked. "I hadn't thought of this, but whatever's affecting Zed could possibly infect you too, do ya think?"
"I'm fine," Rudy replied, unable to keep from smiling a little at Jack's concern. "Just thinking."
"I'm glad one of us is," Jack replied. "This whole predicament reeks of stupid."
Rudy laughed at the joke but didn't feel any better as they went on their way. By nightfall they made it back to the Sweet Candy with very little trouble. They encountered no monsters on the way. Unfortunately, the walk alone had Zed winded and almost unable to speak. Almost. Zed would probably never stop talking altogether until he stopped breathing for good. His breath was short and he began to stop every so often to catch his breath. No one chided him in these cases. They all played in argument, but they each could easily see that Zed was working as hard as he could to avoid being a burden to them.
Once they boarded the ship, Rudy led Zed to a room where he could lay down on one of the bunks and recover. Jack was eager for a break from "the kids" by then, and stayed on the deck where the night air was cool. Jane could also be found up there, having the men of the Sweet Candy do her bidding (not that she really needed any bidding done, it was just a fun thing for her to do). Rudy felt that someone should probably stay with Zed, and volunteered himself since anyone else might make him sicker in the long run.
Zed laid on a bed in their room with his arms crossed over his chest, looking absolutely furious with his own condition. All of that jumping and play-acting to cover up the fact was no longer possible. Rudy watched from a chair as Zed didn't sleep, but just laid quietly.
"Are you having trouble sleeping with me here?" he asked Zed.
He got a nasty look in response. "You act so concerned with my health," he said in a spiteful tone. Rudy just sighed and didn't bother to explain himself. Zed dropped the act and went on. "The truth is that demons don't really need sleep," he said. "I have been sleeping often lately, but that just goes to show that there's something wrong with me."
"What do you think it is?" Rudy asked.
Zed sat up straight in the bed and leaned his back against the wall so that he could relax and face Rudy at the same time. He seemed to be trying very hard not to seem friendly, and Rudy was willing to let him go right ahead if it would make him feel better. "It's not a cold or an infection or the flu," he rambled. "I don't really know, but I feel really... sort of like when we fell into that dimension at the gate generator and got spit out. Like I am being erased. Yes, it's like Filgaia's gotten out its big rubber eraser and is just rubbing Zed out for no good reason!"
Rudy smiled at that analogy, but wasn't smiling on the inside because it seemed very true. "I'm sure that Doctor Emma will know something," he said, trying to reassure him. "She helped me when I was sick.. although I don't remember it much."
Zed raised one eyebrow curiously. "And you're some kind of demon machine, right?"
Rudy hadn't actually heard it put that bluntly before. Cecilia and Jack had always been tender around the subject, but not Zed. Cecilia had always said Rudy is Rudy but there was still that fact nevertheless. "Yeah," Rudy replied finally.
Zed seemed confused by that reaction scratched his head, puzzled. Rudy wondered if Zed had assumed that to be a compliment, he seemed to think that being robotic was a good deal. "Well hey," he said. "That means we're kind of almost related, right?"
Rudy raised his chin again, astonished. "Are you trying to say... that maybe you and I... are like brothers?"
Zed frowned so hard that Rudy was sure it would stay stuck that way. "You don't have to go that far! I don't have that much in common with you. I don't see you getting sick."
Rudy had no response for that and sat quietly for a few minutes. These passed in a silence that Zed filled by tapping his fingers against his crossed arms. Rudy thought it best to change the subject. "What you have... It seems really nice," he said, and then paused to think of how to phrase the next part. Zed took it as the entire sentence.
"You think me being sick is nice?"
"N-no," Rudy answered, shaking his head and holding his hands up defensively. "I was going to say about Aura... she really cares about you."
"You've got friends running out your ears," Zed said in annoyance. "You would know better than me."
Rudy stared at him quizzically for a moment, then looked up at nothing. "Is it nice?" he asked. "A girl saying goodbye like that..."
"No, it's absolutely gross and disgusting," Zed snapped back at him. Rudy couldn't tell if he was being sarcastic, trying to fake disinterest, or being seriously honest.
He laughed awkwardly and wished he hadn't said anything. "I just thought it might be, sorry. Just asking. I do have friends, but no one like that..." Rudy thought back to his own experiences. When Cecilia left she hardly even said goodbye, just a short wave. Of course, Jane had been dragging him away, but she also had a tendency to just skip off without warning at any moment. Jane would just say Well, I'm off! and they'd not see her for weeks or even months. He wondered if either of them knew how much he wished that they wouldn't leave.
Before anything else could go wrong conversationally, Jane suddenly burst into the room with nearly enough force to bust the door down. She wore a huge grin on her face and two of the sailors followed behind her carrying trays piled high with food. "Eat up!" she greeted both of them. "Courtesy of the captain, of course."
"I bet," said Jack, whose voice could be heard from down the hallway. He walked up to one of Jane's temporary servants and shoved a fistful of fish sticks in his mouth.
"Hey, nobody invited you!" Jane complained, though she showed no sign of real objection. "Get your own loyal subjects!"
"Eh," Jack shrugged, and sat on the edge of one of the beds next to the chair that Rudy was in. "When all female crews start sailing the high seas, I'll be your arch nemesis. Until then, I'll have to admit that you have the crew whipped. Congrats, Calamity."
"Hey, don't call me that!"
They went on arguing until eventually Zed pitched in and the room which had just been awkwardly silent was loud and full of activity. Rudy relaxed, took some fish sandwiches, and prepared himself for a long trip to Adlehyde.