Demyx hated desert missions. He wasn't too fond of deserts, period - too hot for his liking, and way too dry. But that was one of the reasons he usually got picked for desert missions - he was immune to dehydration.
Well, he supposed it was nice of them to send him at night, with a lantern. Except now instead of being blistering hot, it was cold. And it was just his luck that the lantern battery seemed to be low. At least this square stone plaza that seemed to be the remains of some important building or another looked more or less like where he was supposed to be - the moon and the lantern didn't provide enough light between them to read his instructions, but he pulled them out of his pocket anyway, for one last quick attempted read. It couldn't hurt, at least.
Well, maybe it could. An errant gust of wind suddenly tore the notecard out of his hands and sent it under a rock. Grumbling under his breath, he set the lantern down next to the rock and reached under it in the hopes of retrieving the paper - he still needed that to carry out the rest of his mission. He wasn't a hundred percent sure he was where he was supposed to be yet, and he still didn't remember what he was supposed to be looking for.
Something suddenly stabbed into his hand. As he jerked it back, he saw something that looked like a small cobra wriggling deeper under the rocks.
He peeled his glove off, with difficulty, and noticed there were two neat, round holes in his skin. Sweat trickled down his face.
I don't want to die here. I want to see my friends again.
He tried to stay calm - one of the worst things to do after being bitten by a poisonous snake was panic, or so he'd heard. Maybe it hadn't been a cobra - cobras weren't supposed to come this far into the desert anyway - maybe it had been some other, nonpoisonous snake - Kingdom Hearts, his hand - he would never have believed two little holes could hurt so much - and his hand was starting to swell up like a balloon; no wonder he'd had trouble getting his glove off...his head was pounding all of a sudden...and he felt so dizzy...he leaned over and threw up into the scrubby bushes...then he just couldn't stand up anymore; his legs just gave way underneath him...too weak, too dizzy, too sick...didn't even feel like he was attached to his own body anymore...and his hand...hurt so much...
I'm going to die here. I'll never see my friends again.
His entire body went rigid, then started shaking violently; by then, he was in no position to notice. He'd lost consciousness as soon as the first part of the seizure hit. When it was over, he didn't come to several minutes later like he usually did; instead, he sank deeper and deeper, slipping further away from the realms of the living. As the venom worked its way through his system, his breathing grew slower and ever more labored, until a little over an hour after the bite, it stopped altogether.
For most people, that would have been the sad end to a short story. Most people didn't have gills.
Lungs need to expand and contract regularly to fill with fresh air to extract oxygen from. Gills just need a steady flow of water over their surface. And even at death's doorstep, there was something inside Demyx that refused to just give up and die.
Almost as soon as he stopped breathing, his mouth started to fill up with water. Moments later, it started to flow from the narrow slits in his sides that were hidden by his clothing. Soon, his entire body was covered with a thin sheet of water. By the time the sun rose, the trickles and rivulets coming from him had merged into a real stream, too large for the sun to evaporate, that was already collecting into a pool several feet downhill. The local fauna were quick to take advantage of this newfound watering hole, but its living source was showing no other signs of life.
"Has there been any sign of Demyx yet?"
Roxas shook his head, feeling every bit as anxious as Axel sounded. "Nothing. His Proof's still blue; that's all I can tell you. I saw Saix and Xemnas talking in the hallway on my way here from lunch; maybe they're finally going to go send someone to look for him."
Axel nodded wearily and took an unenthusiastic bite of the sandwich Roxas had brought for him before setting it down - he'd probably ignore the rest of it completely; when he was sick, he didn't have anything like the voracious appetite he had when he was healthy. "Wish to hell I could go. Wish to hell I could even get my ass out of bed." He sighed heavily and burrowed a little deeper under the covers. "Something feels really wrong about this. Like he's not just lost beyond all reason, or he can't find what he was sent to go get - I'm afraid something really bad happened to him."
Roxas sat down in Axel's desk chair, fighting the temptation to start chewing his nails. "Well, you always think of the worst-case scenario."
Axel sighed. "You're saying that just because you're thinking the same thing, right?"
"Yeah." Demyx should have come back the day before yesterday, but he hadn't even sent word that he was in trouble, or couldn't complete the mission on schedule, and definitely hadn't come back like he was supposed to...
"They should have sent someone to look for him yesterday," Axel muttered, taking another bite of the sandwich only because Roxas was glaring at him. "Wait, don't tell me, I need to eat or my blood sugar's gonna be all messed up."
"I've said it often enough; about time you started reminding yourself..." Roxas turned the volume down on the cheesy martial arts flick Axel had been watching with disinterest. "I don't want to think about the worst-case scenario anymore - what do you think is the best-case scenario?"
"For Demyx? Hmm..." Axel thought for a moment. "He's off in some beautiful tropical paradise making time with some beautiful princess who's single, intelligent, funny, sane, sweet, kind, thoughtful, generous, knows sign language, and is a fantastically gifted musician in her own right. Who doesn't mind that he's a Nobody. And whose parents don't mind either. And knowing Demyx's off-the-wall tastes, she's an adventurous eater. And an excellent swimmer. And thinks he's the hottest thing the worlds have ever known, would help too."
"...Yeah, I have to say, that's a better-case scenario than I think is likely to happen. Bet Demyx wishes it was the case, though."
"Better than what I think is really going on, which is that he's lying in the desert somewhere on the brink of death."
"Did you have to -"
Kingdom Hearts...my hand...my head...my whole body...
Demyx struggled back to the realms of the living very slowly, as the last of the poison worked itself out of his system. The first thing he noticed was how much his hand hurt, then how much he hurt in general. The last thing he remembered was getting tagged by a cobra, and assuming that meant that was it...
Add that to the long list of things I've lived through that should have killed me and didn't.
He was soaked to the bone, for some reason, but that wasn't a huge surprise. On the other hand, he was in the middle of a desert, so yes it was...Well, he couldn't dry up or dry out; that's why they tended to send him on desert missions in the first place. Apparently, his powers had gone into overdrive instead of conking out, which was probably what had saved his life. How long had he been lying there defenseless? It must have been a while...odd that no vultures or jackals had come after him...even odder that he seemed to be lying on top of a rare natural spring...he didn't remember any such springs when he'd arrived here...
What the hell was he doing in a tent?
He looked at his bitten hand - it looked like he'd held it in a fire for a good long while, burned and blistered all to hell with the skin peeling off. He shuddered, grateful it hadn't simply rotted and fallen off and sure it had been a distinct possibility. And it hurt like hell, so it didn't seem to be about to rot and fall off, as long as all its nerve endings were intact. Trying to move it was like trying to grab a cactus wrapped around with concertina wire, and he groaned involuntarily.
Someone heard him. A little girl, no more than five or six years old and wearing the garments of one of the local nomadic tribes, peered into the tent, her eyes widening as she saw him stir. He tried to sit up a little, but his muscles weren't willing to obey him just then. "Who are you?" he asked.
Apparently the girl didn't speak the same language. She tiptoed into the tent, hugged him tightly, then darted out, yelling all the way and leaving Demyx very confused.
Well...at least she's a nice kid...
As the tent flap waved with her passage, he both saw and sensed a fresh pool of water just outside, several feet deep and a hundred feet across. Now that, he knew damn well, hadn't been there when he'd arrived.
...The hell did that come from?...Did I do that?
He wished he could actually move, but the best he could do was roll onto his back away from the spring, cradling his injured hand. The little girl was shouting - people, grown men and women, were answering - then one old man said something in an authoritative voice that got the whole - camp? - to quiet down...and Demyx could do nothing but lie there, wondering what in Kingdom Hearts's name was going on. Soon, the tent flap opened again, and it looked like the entire tribe was there looking at him, with a wizened old man in front.
...Now what? "Um...hi..."
"Figured you'd be one of the ones they sent," Axel murmured weakly. Roxas just nodded. "I'd probably be goin' with you, if I wasn't feelin' so shitty...so who else is goin'?"
Roxas shrugged in confusion. "I didn't know anyone else was going. I kind of thought I was going by myself."
Axel shook his head. "Never send one guy alone on anythin' that might end up bein' a rescue mission. If somethin' got Demyx, alone, they don't want to give it a shot at gettin' anyone else, alone. Rescue teams are always two or more." He sighed and closed his eyes for a moment - he was having trouble staying awake for more than two hours at a time. "Wish I could go with you. I take heat pretty well."
Roxas checked the cold pack on his forehead - too warm already. They had to be changed a lot more often than the directions said. "Serves you right for getting sick just when Demyx fell off the face of the worlds. Hate to leave you to Vexen's tender mercies, but if Demyx is in serious trouble..."
"I know. Gotta save the nutcase. I know you'd do the same thing to him if he was sick and I was in trouble. Don't worry; I'll be fine." Someone knocked on Axel's door. "Either that's Vexen, lookin' for me, or whoever else is goin' to look for Demyx, lookin' for you."
"They can wait fifteen more seconds while I get a fresh cold pack. I swear, one of your fevers would kill an ordinary person."
"Good thing I'm so gosh-darn amazin' then..." In the ten seconds it took Roxas to portal down to the kitchen, put the melted cold pack back in the freezer, get a fresh one in exchange, and portal back to Axel's room, Axel had almost fallen asleep. He groaned as Roxas put the fresh one on his forehead. "I hate those damn cold things - are they really all that necessary?"
"If you don't want to be kept in the dungeon or kicked out of the castle altogether for starting fires..."
"Ugh. Had enough of that once. I'm not in a hurry to do that again."
"So, yeah -"
The knocking came again, more insistently. Roxas opened the door to reveal Zexion, wearing loose, light-colored clothing and glaring at him like he was the source of everything that ever went wrong with missions. "Thirteen, I was going to ask if you were ready to go yet, but as you're not even dressed, let alone packed..."
"I am packed. I packed first. I'm just not dressed yet..." Roxas hastily teleported down to his own room and changed into a similar outfit - loose, lightweight clothing that offered protection against the sun to skin that wasn't used to sunlight and was still cool enough to be halfway tolerable. Picking up his backpack and full canteen, he returned to Axel's room pretty sure there wasn't anything else for Zexion to complain about. Zexion was apparently searching hard anyway, but Roxas's main concern was that Axel had gone to sleep while he was out. "Hey, doofus...what happened to staying awake long enough to see me off?"
Axel groaned and rubbed his eyes. "Sorry about that...if you gotta go now, good luck..." His eyes sharpened, and he suddenly seemed twice as alert as he'd been for the past two days. "You will come back all right, and you will bring Demyx with you. Commit that to memory."
"Come back, bring Demyx. I'll remember that."
As it turned out, it was pretty damn difficult to track scent over the desert. Shifting sands and constant winds erased scent trails within hours, and Zexion was supposed to be tracking a days-old scent. "I told the Superior he should have sent someone immediately," Zexion grumbled.
Roxas couldn't help but agree. After three days of searching, traveling from dusk to dawn and resting while it was too hot to do anything constructive, the two of them had accomplished exactly nothing. They'd found the approximate location of the ruins Demyx was supposed to have been searching, but there were dozens of candidates for the exact location - it must have been a city once upon a time, and the directions Luxord had somehow procured from one of his hundreds of variably reliable sources had been rather vague. Maybe they should have sent Luxord in the first place. It would serve him right for trusting the first drunk he met in Cairo with an authentic-looking treasure map that he was willing to part with for the price of a good binge. Reliable people just didn't use alcohol as currency. However often Luxord's magic touch with the thoroughly unreliable had come up golden, this time it looked like it had gotten Demyx killed, or at least in serious trouble.
Luxord and his damn treasure maps. The next one he brings back from some shithole tavern or bar in the back end of nowhere, I'll see if I can get Axel to burn. And the next time the Superior thinks they're worth following, he should make Luxord do the following.
"Thirteen, do you remember the oasis we passed last night?"
Roxas's train of thought was suddenly derailed. "Yeah...I do...I thought you said we couldn't stop at it until the tribe that was camped there packed up and moved on..." A shame, too; their water supplies were getting low.
Zexion was staring off into the distance, even though he couldn't see past the tent material rigged over the entrance to the one room in the ruined city that had yet to collapse in on itself. "Do you remember anything...unusual about it? Especially about the vegetation?"
Roxas shrugged - only Zexion would care about details like that. Or maybe Marluxia. "I don't remember there being a whole lot of vegetation, just a bunch of those scrubby bushes. It's a desert."
That distracted stare never wavered. "One would expect, at an established oasis, to see trees, date palms...or at least some sort of water plants...even rushes or papyrus...but there was nothing of the kind, only the bushes..."
Roxas wasn't sure where all this was leading. "Okay...so what does that mean?"
"That oasis has only been there for a matter of days. Weeks at the most, though I doubt it was even that long. And wherever it came from, it appeared suddenly."
...Apparently the heat was starting to get to Zexion. "Where would you get all that water at once? We're in the middle of a desert."
Zexion raised an eyebrow. "Think for a moment, Thirteen...in the middle of a desert, where could all that water come from?"
"...A storm?" Roxas hazarded. Sudden torrential storms were known to happen in deserts, which is why they'd avoided the dry riverbeds for camping.
"And where would a storm come from?"
Now Roxas was starting to see the point. "Demyx. He wouldn't even have to call a storm, he could just produce all that water at once. But why? He wouldn't need all that water just for himself..."
Zexion shrugged. "The local nomads are opportunists, by nature and necessity. Anything they find and can make use of, they will take advantage of, or risk death by not doing so...including taking slaves and captives when the opportunity presents itself, to sell at profit or to spare their own labor."
A chill traveled up Roxas's spine, despite the heat outside. "You think that's where Demyx is? With that tribe?" As a slave? he wanted to add but didn't.
"It's a strong possibility." Zexion answered the questions Roxas had asked and the one he couldn't bring himself to say out loud. "The sun sets in two hours. Even if the tribe has moved on by then, three dozen people traveling together with herd animals will move much slower and be far easier to track than one alone." He glanced over at Roxas. "It would not be in the tribe's best interest to be cruel to slaves. Well-treated slaves are harder workers and less likely to run away or cause trouble, and they would know that."
Zexion didn't refer to Demyx by name - or by number, since he almost never referred to anyone by name - but Roxas still understood what he was trying to say. Knowing that Demyx wouldn't be beaten or starved even if he had been enslaved was the only thing that enabled him to wait those two hours.
They definitely have guards, Roxas signed. He was grateful for the moonlight - he and Zexion didn't have to speak to communicate, when speech might have been overheard.
Zexion nodded. I expected as much. Jackals and hyenas are frequently active at night, and the goat herds make easy prey.
Where do you think he is?
Zexion shrugged, then crept towards the far end of the wall, motioning for Roxas to follow. Emerging on the other end of the wall from where they were, they'd be in its shadow as long as possible. They were hoping to get as far as they could on stealth alone before resorting to Zexion's illusions, but they'd only made it halfway down the length of the wall when a cry went up from the camp. Instantly, Roxas and Zexion were hidden from view, even their own, by an illusion.
A bone speartip gleamed for an instant as it flew through the night air. A second later, Zexion screamed and flickered back into view, with the throwing spear buried in his shoulder. Roxas hit the ground next to him, in case there were any other spears pointed in their direction. "Leave it," Zexion hissed as he tugged at the spear. "Clearly they're not...easily fooled by illusion..."
"Will you be all right?" Damn you, Luxord; damn you, damn your treasure maps, and damn all the sots and boozers who sell them to you for beer money...
"Doesn't seem fatal...I hope it wasn't poisoned..." Roxas nodded, but couldn't do much else; the two of them were suddenly surrounded by a ring of spears, clubs, and knives. The two of them were forcefully led to the middle of the camp - well, Roxas was led; Zexion was half-led, half-carried. If the tribe intended to make slaves out of them too, it wouldn't do to injure Zexion any worse than he already was.
"I guess it's as good a way as any to find out if Demyx is here; now if only we could rescue ourselves," Roxas muttered, before a sharp jab from behind encouraged him to keep his mouth shut. It suddenly struck him - if he and Zexion also disappeared without warning, they wouldn't send three people after them, figuring two was at least one too few...nothing would be left to chance the second time; the entire Organization would come after them...the camp would probably be wiped out...it wasn't like Roxas's sympathies were with their captors at the moment, but he could see sleepy-eyed children being led out of tents by their mothers to see them...and if they went through all that and found out Demyx wasn't here to begin with...
"Stop!" The totally incongruous word of English was followed by a torrent of what was presumably the tribe's native language. Roxas didn't pay a whole lot of attention; his focus was all on the source.
His clothing was largely unfamiliar; he was dressed half like a tribesman, though still in his old boots, but wearing more gold, silver, and pretty stones than all the women in the camp put together. And he didn't seem to be doing all that well; his face was pale and drawn, he was leaning heavily on a staff, and one hand was bandaged so that only the tips of his fingers were visible. But none of that was important.
"Demyx, I hope you have a really good story..."
"If you weren't here to see it, I don't think you'd believe it..." Demyx went back to the tribal language, presumably giving orders, and two women with veiled faces led Zexion into one of the larger tents. "They'll take care of him. That, or face my wrath," he added with faint humor.
Roxas was having trouble wrapping his head around what was going on. The way he knew it, Demyx's wrath was something less than formidable. "So what happened? They found you out in the desert and decided to make you their chief, and you'll order them staked out for the lions if they don't take good care of Zexion?"
"Even better than that..."
"How are we supposed to eat this?" Roxas asked warily. "What is it, even?" The three of them were gathered in the little tent by the water's edge - apparently that was Demyx's temporary residence. Someone had brought food for them on thin, flat stones - yellow stuff, white stuff, some sort of roast meat, and round disks of some thin flatbread, almost like tortillas, but thicker.
"I've had better things to do than ask. I assume the white stuff is goat's-milk yogurt, or at least it tastes like yogurt and there aren't any cows around, and the yellow stuff is some sort of mashed bean...I've been eating it by scooping it up with the flatbread. Not sure what the meat is."
Zexion picked it up with his good hand - carefully, as it was still hot - and sniffed at it. "Gazelle, I believe...presumably they stopped here for the hunting rather than the grazing. Your brand-new oasis doesn't have much in the way of vegetation yet."
Demyx rolled his eyes. "Only you could tell cooked gazelle from cooked goat just by smelling it when I don't think you've ever had either before." He'd had practice using the flatbread as an eating utensil one-handed. He was better at it than Roxas, who was the only one who still had full use of both arms.
Zexion hadn't had any such practice, and eventually resorted to eating with his fingers, which obviously wasn't his favorite method. "They must think highly of you indeed, if they're willing to risk a night hunt just to bring you and your friends fresh meat on demand..."
Demyx shrugged and smiled. "They think I'm a god."
Roxas just about dropped his plate. "..." It took him a good five seconds to say anything coherent. "You know, the usual excuse is 'they made me their chief', not 'they made me their god'. How'd you rate divine status?"
Demyx shrugged, and his pale face colored slightly. "First I died, then all this water flowed out of my dead body, then this natural spring appeared where there'd never been one before, then I came back to life. At least that's how they interpreted it. And, hell, I wasn't in any shape to argue. Though I have no explanation at all for the natural spring - I know it wasn't here before. Woke up right on top of it, so I got them to move the tent a few feet away." He looked down at his bandaged hand before continuing, pausing every so often for a bite. "My first night here, I got bit by a cobra. You don't really want to know what my hand looks like under the bandages - I'm surprised it's still attached. Hell, I'm surprised I survived at all. I must have been out of it for a while - when I came around, I was soaking wet, which wasn't all that surprising, considering, and I was in a tent, which I knew was a new development. Apparently the tribe had wandered by while I was out, saw this new oasis, stopped for a while, found me, checked for a pulse, didn't find one, decided I was dead, realized I was the source of all this water, decided I must have been a god, and set up a tent-shrine around me. When I 'came back to life' later, they were even more sure of it." He rolled his eyes. "I don't think I could have talked them out of it if I'd had the strength. Don't ever let a cobra bite you; it's more trouble than the bragging rights are worth. They've been keeping me in what passes for luxury out here ever since, and I've tried to be a benevolent deity...right up until they brought you two in. I just about flipped, especially when I saw Zexion was hurt." His face clouded briefly. "If you want specifics, I threatened that if they didn't release you two immediately and get him looked after, I'd dry up the oasis and make sure they never found water again."
Roxas nodded; he could see what a threat that would be in the desert - and also how revered someone who could produce unlimited amounts of water at will would be. "Only you, I think. Don't think they'd have done the same for any of the rest of us. Though if I had the opportunity, I'd throw Luxord out here to try his luck."
Zexion nodded, rolling a piece of flatbread around a slice of meat and eating it like a taco - it was about the only way he could manage it neatly. "Hopefully the Superior is going to set a little less store by his supposed treasure maps from now on. It's only sheer chance that none of us have died trying to follow one of them."
"I don't know why the Superior ever took them seriously in the first place...losing my damned instructions based on that map was how I got bitten by a cobra; they blew away and went under a rock, and there was a cobra down there too..." Demyx stared meditatively into the middle distance. "It's late...you two wanna just spend the night and go back in the morning, or am I needed back urgently? I assume you two were sent here to find me."
"Find you, or find what happened to you...Axel specifically ordered me to come back safe and bring you with me."
Demyx sighed, almost wistfully. "So I guess that means we should go home as soon as possible?"
"I would just as soon spend as few nights in the desert as possible. And I have little faith in tribal medicine, personally."
Demyx nodded reluctantly and reached for his walking stick. "So I guess that means I should say my farewells and return to wherever their gods are supposed to live...if you two are done eating, you should probably come out too, just for effect. I'm probably going to explain that you two are divine messengers under orders to bring me home." Roxas nodded; roast gazelle and mashed beans weren't his favorite foods in the worlds, he'd decided. Demyx smiled, a little self-mockingly. "All that trouble you went through on my behalf, and there's no heroic rescue or worlds-shattering secret revealed or other great reward at the end; all you get is little old me."
Roxas laughed. Right then, he didn't feel up to any heroic rescue or world-shattering secrets. "Hey, at least you got a few new scars and a heck of a story..."
AN: I started this, and then I just...couldn't...stop...
Like "Nobody Died", this was inspired by a dream, but it didn't really follow the dream's plotline too well. Originally, Axel and Roxas were captured and enslaved, and Demyx went searching for them and was hailed as a god when his powers over water were revealed (Axel and Roxas didn't impress the tribe so much, because there's light and fire all over the damn place).
Disclaimer: I don't own Kingdom Hearts, got it memorized? Tomorrow I'll go back to working on "Aftermath" and "New Neighbors".