Dude... I can't believe I spent two weeks with this, all finished and edited, just laying there in my documents because it didn't have a title. So I gave up and decided to stick with the tentative one I gave it at first.
Anyway, WARNING: Potentially bizarre/disturbing content. I swear I'll write something more lighthearted next time. Or try, anyway. And only the first scene is italized becaaaaause... I wanted to point out the time skip... thing. It made more sense in my head.
Lastly, a big fat THANK YOU to those who read/reviewed my last Tormod+Muarim story. Thanks for giving me a good start in the fandom!
One-Shot Unique Chapter
Tormod stood still, an orange spot against the night, facing eastward. The cool wind carried his voice to his laguz companion, who stepped towards him on human feet. The terrain was littered with the remains of a battle, too unmerciful on his wounded paws to allow him to remain in his tiger form.
"Yes, little one?"
Tormod didn't take his gaze off the horizon, mind entranced with the imaginary sight of far-off places. "Why do we always avoid the east? What's in that direction?"
Muarim allowed seconds to pass them by before he replied, all too softly for the mage's taste. "A city," he said. "Do you remember cities?"
"I know what they're like, but… not really. I don't think I could spot the one I came from, either."
"It's better that way. You should get some rest now, we have to travel a great distance tomorrow," the tiger declared, turning away and striding slowly towards the sheltered area where their group slept: a makeshift tent surrounded by a fence made of the fallen enemies' weapons.
"Muarim… can we go to that city?"
The words froze him in his tracks, a knee-jerk reaction that he tried to soften under a calm demeanour. "Why?"
When he looked back, he found Tormod's eyes staring directly into his own. "Most of the laguz slaves are taken to the city, right? So, shouldn't we check on things over there?"
"Our captured brothers are taken here first, little one," Muarim replied, features hardened by a frown.
"But we… we're not always fast enough to save them all. Everyone who couldn't be saved should be in the city. We can bring them back, Muarim," the beorc flashed a toothy grin, as if to put his friend to ease. "That would give the dealers a lesson. It'd be great!"
The taller male glanced eastward with an inscrutable look and heaved a sigh. "…are you sure this is what you want? There are much more beorc there than in the desert. In groups, they can be… ruthless."
"Of course, that's why we have to go help."
Something in Tormod's eyes, ablaze with conviction, made him unable to doubt such an obvious truth, let alone say 'no'. The honesty of his voice left no space for doubt; who was he, after all, to turn away from his brothers and sisters?
"Alright. We'll go to the city tomorrow, just the two of us."
The cheering crowd seemed to grow constantly, making it increasingly difficult for the boy to push through. Men bigger than the healthiest tiger he'd ever seen blocked his way, fists in the air, encouraging the spectacle in the middle. His cries went unheard among their voices, their cheering and their insults; everything had begun to grow louder, and he hoped he was nearing the centre of the conglomeration.
"Good folk!" A voice shouted from the front, silencing the others. "It is our duty to execute these slaves as punishment for attempted mutiny! Rightful forgers of this land… I trust you know what their destiny is!"
Tormod's eyes widened, breath cut short. Was he too late, already? "…No! Stop this! Stop!"
Once again unheard, he pushed and shoved those around him with newfound strength, stumbling upon his own feet as he made his way out of the crowd and towards the middle of the town square. He could hear himself panting for breath and yelling demand after demand, detached from himself; all he truly perceived was his approaching goal and his own heartbeat thumping against his chest.
And then there was light, sudden and blinding daylight; he had made it out of the mass of bodies, all of which had begun to chant in unison with sickening vehemence. "To the Lion! To the Lion!"
Far too entangled in confusion to attempt to find a meaning to their words, Tormod laid eyes upon the source of the uproar.
Six laguz men stood in a row, hands bound by heavy shackles. Several guards were positioned around them, covered by red armours, swords ready to silence any complaint from their prisoners. In front of them stood the man who spoke to the townspeople: a thin, tall man with silver hair and immaculate white robes. His pose was that of one who possessed authority, with a perfectly straight back and a smirk that betrayed his aspirations of grandeur.
A hand suddenly clasped Tormod's shoulder and he jumped away, whipping around to face a figure mostly concealed by a cape, much like his own. The man shook his head, his voice barely heard above the clamour of the chanting citizens, "Stay back, little one. There's nothing you can do."
"Muarim!" The boy exclaimed, rushing back towards the disguised laguz and grabbing onto his cloak. "I thought they'd made it out! What are they going to do to them?! And why is everyone talking about a lion?!"
Muarim's eyes widened, his shoulders slumping. Tormod felt a shiver run through the laguz's body. "The Brazen Lion…" He said grimly, looking away at some point to his left.
The young mage followed his gaze, finding six metallic structures nearby. Squinting to make out their forms among the guards, he realized they were some sort of statues of roaring lions, almost as tall as the guards themselves.
"As you wish, good folk!" The man in the white robes concluded, earning cheers from the crowd.
"What's going on…?"
Tormod watched, held back by Muarim, as the slaves were led to the metallic lions. Six guards separated themselves from the rest and stood each beside one of the statues, grabbing onto the lions' sides and pulling them up; the upper halves of the structures were lifted to reveal a hollow inside, big enough to fit a man.
And so it was proved by the now struggling slaves, trashing and squirming out of the guards' hold as they were each shoved inside a metallic lion. Bound and tired as they were, their resistance was weak and inconsistent, far from a free laguz's nature.
A laguz with long, black hair seemed to be the only one truly determined to fight; Tormod recognized him as Idhar, the slave he and Muarim had spoken to and convinced to escape. His striking golden eyes met Tormod's amongst the chaos and he seemed to become still for a moment, before baring his fangs in defiance and shifting forms, transforming into a dark tiger. The shackles were too small for his paws, however, and Idhar was immobilized. He fell to the ground, trying fruitlessly to raise himself before two guards lifted him; another two were needed to push him inside the brazen structure and close it, trapping him inside.
The silver-haired man in the white robes stood before the brazen lions, once again facing the crowd. He opened his arms in a wide gesture and exclaimed, voice louder than Tormod would expect from someone of such a thin frame, "Judgement for their criminal deeds has come! Burn in the fires of hell, sub-humans!"
The people's deafening cheers filled the air once again, encouraging the guard that neared the lions and kneeled, a torch in his hands. It was only then, as the wood underneath the lions was set on fire, that Tormod noticed it was even there.
Not a minute passed before the bronze became too hot for the slaves trapped inside; when the first cry of pain tore through the atmosphere from a brazen lion's open mouth, thundering above the din, Tormod's knees almost gave away under his weight. It was a powerful roar, unmistakably a tiger's roar, soon dissolving into a human's anguished voice.
His voice broke in the middle of the single syllable, choking back the tears that formed on the corners of his eyes.
"What the hell are you doing?! Stop this!!"
He struggled against Muarim's strong arms, successfully elbowing him in the stomach after a few tries; without a single glance back and the town's cheers resounding in his ears, he ran towards the brazen lions and into the rising fire.
"Little one!" Muarim called, chasing after him until he neared the fire, unable to stand too close to it. "Tormod!"
The one innate weakness of the beasts did little to stop Tormod, however; his skill as a fire mage allowed him to avoid being burned as easily as other beorc, albeit not for long. He avoided the flames as much as he could, soon reaching the closest brazen lion. He spotted the structure's lid and attempted to open it, but his fingers were burnt as soon as he touched the metal.
"Dammit!" He cursed loudly, trying again; a sizzling sound accompanied the pain this time, and he had to take his hand away. "Idhar! Hold on, I'm gonna get you out!"
Idhar's screams reached him from the lion's open mouth, making it seem as though the lion was roaring and, both disgusted at the opening's purpose and overcome by a feeling of helplessness, Tormod had to bite back a string of curses.
"Just you wait, I… I…" He then coughed, his breathing made difficult by the dark smoke around him. The flames continued to rise, closing in on him and turning the bottom of the bronze structure an angry red. "I…"
He took a step back, mind racing with questions, possibilities, and horrifying images of the laguz inside the torture device.
"Idhar, I… I'm sorry."
Letting out a frustrated sound and holding back the tears that prickled at the corners of his eyes, Tormod ran away.
By the time he exited the burning area, he was drenched in sweat and felt as though there was no skin on his fingertips. He was able to spot Muarim waiting for him amongst the mass of beorc, which seemed angry now; the guards heading towards him made it obvious that he was the cause.
"Did I ruin your sick show?! Is that it?! You monsters… you should be the ones burning!" He yelled, quickly dropping his voice to a mutter, a spell recited by memory. The shorter ones, at least, he'd been able to master without using a tome.
"That's enough, we have to escape!" Muarim was suddenly by his side, grabbing his arm and pulling him towards their right, where the group of people was less numerous.
"No! We have to do something!"
The laguz stopped short and held Tormod's shoulders harshly, forcing him to look up and pulling the boy close enough for him to hear his words clearly, as well as the beastly growl that accompanied them in an underlying manner. "We can't. We have to go. We have to live, or it all will have been for naught. We need you to say alive, little one, we need you."
It took halfway of the silent trip back home for the words to sink in fully and half a decade for the Idhar's screams to stop echoing in his ears, but Tormod couldn't remember ever running any faster.
It was night again by the time they returned, a thick blanket of darkness that was still not enough to forget the desert's scorching sun. Tormod watched the horizon once again.
"Yes, little one?"
"Idhar…" he paused; the name tasted bitter on his tongue. "He recognized you, didn't he? You're from that city, right?"
"…yes. My master lived there," the laguz admitted demurely. "I didn't think you would remember that place. I apologize, I… shouldn't have taken you there."
"No, it's fine…I would've insisted, y'know."
A pause; the boy's voice had momentarily failed him.
"… but you're crying, little one," Muarim said, nearing him and placing a comforting hand upon his shoulder. "I'm sorry…"
"I told you it's fine," he countered. "Did you…ever see something like that before?"
"The Brazen Lions have always been there. I've seen and endured punishment as a slave, but for a master to request their use… I never witnessed anything like that."
"Ah," Tormod stopped to dry his cheeks with the back of his hand. "I thought so. Your hands were… shaking, back then."
The tiger fell speechless, amazed at the mage's sharpness; he had not noticed it at the moment, himself, but in retrospective, he could vaguely remember his hands trembling as he attempted to convince the boy to leave.
"If anyone noticed you were there…" Tormod spoke again, turning to face his fellow emancipator. "They would've done the same to you."
A blur of red and orange flashed before his eyes and, before he could understand or react, Tormod had his arms wrapped tightly around the laguz's waist and cried openly onto his chest. "It was my fault, Muarim! It was my fault that they all had to… to die like that, and if that happened to you, I…I don't know what I would--"
"But it didn't happen," the older male said, wrapping his arms around the beorc. "It wasn't your fault. Nothing is worse than the life they were living and you, little one, offered them the chance to be free. They died for a good cause… for their own wish. Don't forget that."
"I could've saved them…"
Muarim shook his head. "You can't save everyone. We can't."
"No," Tormod's voice was firm despite his uneven breathing, a reflection of his strongest conviction. "I'll do this. I'll save everyone. I'll find a way, so you better not die before I'm done!"
The tiger smiled warmly, tightening his hold on the boy. "I won't."
It took merely half an hour for Tormod to regain his seemingly infinite smile, and half of the night for his tears to cease falling. Even so, neither of them moved from their spot; they slept there, with Muarim in his tiger form and Tormod leaning against him, as they always did.
Form the moment they'd arrived and until dawn, they faced the east.