As a very The Full Moon eloquent British actor from the classic, Monty Python and the Holy Grail , once said, "I'm not dead yet!" I give you all another longer chapter, one that brings back the action! And, once again, I apologize for taking so long.
A huge thank you to Shadowdrake Magi, HopelessRomantacist, CTSael, missiongirl87, The 666th necrophiliac, Kein Sylvan, Delaroy, Fethiel, , ChaoticRevival, Anatherin, and Brendan Aurabolt for their kind reviews! And, as always, thank you to my beta reader Antismurf Lord of Darkness!
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Shadow just managed to dodge the Slow spell aimed at his head. He put on a burst of speed to bring him across the town green towards his attacker. Leaping over a hastily cast Blizzara he growled out the words to a Silence spell. He released the spell with only a moment to set his target, but the sudden cutting off of his opponent's voice let him know that his attack had hit its mark. The assassin slowed and turned. He couldn't help the satisfied smirk that formed on his lips as he watched Strago's lips mouth terrible curses, but without sound to drive them home. Calmly padding over to irate mage Shadow removed Ichigeki from its sheath and placed it on the cloak covered shoulder.
Without even pausing to let out another silent curse the old coot whirled away and stormed back towards his house. Shadow let out a snort and re-sheathed Ichigeki. The old man shouldn't have expected an easy fight, even if the stipulation was that only magic could be used. The coot had a lifetime of experience behind him, but Shadow was younger, faster, and knew how to fight magic users as effectively as any other enemy.
Relm must have passed her grandfather on his way into their home because she approached Shadow with a scowl on her face. The assassin tried to ignore her for as long as possible, keeping his attention focused on the blade he had sat down to sharpen. But when Relm ignored even Interceptor's dedicated begging for pats in favor of glaring at the seated assassin, Shadow had little choice but to look up.
"What happened?" she practically shouted at him.
Shadow just shrugged. "Your grandfather challenged me to a casting battle. He lost."
Relm's eyes widened at his response. "I'm impressed," she said, taking a seat next to the assassin, "That makes six."
"Six losses," the artist replied. On a whim she took out a brush and sketched a dragonfly. As it buzzed off she explained further. "Grandpa has been challenging everyone to fights. He lost each one that was accepted."
Shadow could imagine that the old man having a good bit of difficulty defeating Terra, who had an inborn talent for magic or Celes, whose intense training from a young age had made her exceptionally skilled at the technical aspects of the art. Even Sabin, whose lack of skill could sometimes be made up for by pure power and enthusiasm. But then who else? He did not have to wait long for his answer.
"I don't think he really expected to win against Terra and Celes, but I know he hoped to! Then losing to Sabin, Gau, Setzer, and now you! Maybe Grandpa really is losing his touch…" Shadow hadn't considered Gau, but thinking about it now he could see how the wild boy could be a difficult opponent for the old coot to face. Though magic was not his forte, the boy did have experience copying similar abilities from various monsters. And his fighting style was different than anyone else Shadow had ever seen; erratic, uncontrolled, and entirely unpredictable. It was surprisingly effective in certain situations. How Setzer could win a casting battle of all things was a mystery. Luck must have truly been on the gambler's side. Luck and perhaps a few sleight of hand tricks.
As Shadow tried to imagine what sorts of ways Setzer had used to cheat his way to victory Relm continued to muse aloud. "I think Grandpa has just lost confidence in himself. He has been talking about being old lately. But just because he's an old fuddy-duddy doesn't mean he's useless! Right Shadow?"
"Hmm?" The assassin had not really been listening. He determined that Setzer most likely had one of the group's precious enchanted ribbons tied on under his coat, as well as two or three other relics that would have increased his speed, reaction time, and possibly casting ability. It wouldn't be beyond consideration for him to have been slipping a Reflect Ring on and off in the midst of the duel. He would have to ask the gambler about it later.
"Shadow!" Relm's insistent voice tore him away from those thoughts.
She put her hands on her hips and let out an annoyed huff. "Grandpa's not useless. Right?"
Had the question been asked by anyone else, Shadow would have answered with a definitive yes. But he could not lie to her. It took him a moment to reply with a truthful answer that kept his scorn and dislike for the old man to a minimum.
"No," Shadow grudgingly growled, "He's lived a long time and gained a lot of experience. His magic might not be as strong as it once was, but he's an expert on monsters, more than any of us will ever be. Without him we wouldn't be able to travel half as safely or fight those monsters nearly as well." It was all true. A lifetime of studying monsters had left the old man an expert in the field. Even new creatures that appeared after the breaking of the world were quickly observed and cataloged in the coot's mind, then later written down in a comprehensive bestiary now kept in his quarters on the Falcon. Sometimes when excited by a new find the old man would spout off some drivel about getting copies made for libraries in some of the major cities. Then he would remember that those cities, Vector, Jidoor, South Figaro, Doma, had much more pressing concerns than books.
"I knew it!" Relm exclaimed. She hopped up and snapped her fingers, drawing a yawning Interceptor to her side. "I'm going to think of a way to bring his confidence back! Maybe Gau will help me. Come on Interceptor!" The little artist and the dog bounded off without another word, leaving Shadow sitting alone under the tree. Silly girl, Shadow thought as he watched her disappear into the trees on the outskirts of town in search of the wild boy. He could follow her … but Interceptor would keep her safe. Of that he was certain. Shadow put away his knife and whetstone, then leapt for a low hanging branch. He swung himself up, then repeated the process until her was on the highest branch the tree could offer that still supported his weight. Leaning back against the trunk, Shadow closed his eyes. He had not slept at all last night and the strain was beginning to tell. Within moments he was dead to the world.
0 0 0
One of the two older men poked a finger at the puffy half healed skin around his shoulder wound, causing him to let out an involuntary hiss of pain. They had been at this for near twenty minutes and there seemed to be little that would keep them from stopping until they had identified the source of every single one of the bites and scratches.
"Definitely a bite from a vector hound," the big one asserted.
"It can't be," the smaller, and slightly older, one argued, "The punctures aren't spaced far enough apart."
He could have described exactly what sort of monster it was that had taken hold of his shoulder and shaken him like a ragdoll, but they would have none of it. It ruined the fun, they said, if they could not guess the source of the wound without any outside information. He wondered why the men could not have done this when his wounds were fresher. He had been unconscious for nearly three days after all! They would have had plenty of time to examine the injuries then and he wouldn't have had to listen to their mindless prattle! While the fools continued to prod at his back, now concentrating on a set of scars he had received years ago from some beast's claws, he stared at the door, willing the older fool's daughter to come home and chase the two away.
"What are you doing?!" As if to answer his silent prayers the girl had waltzed in through the front door and was already chewing out his tormentors. "You were supposed to have left an hour ago! Go hunt that monster and leave the poor man alone!" She shooed the men off, finally, finally, giving her patient the chance to slip back into the silent embrace of sleep.
0 0 0
The mayor's old dog woke him with her insistent barking. She had been on edge since the batch of adventurers had arrived two days prior, so Shadow was not surprised at her hostile behavior. Until he noticed that it was Relm she was barking at. But she wasn't alone. A battered looking older man, in leather armor that had seen far better days leaned on her shoulder. He staggered and nearly fell, only Relm's support keeping him on his feet.
Just as Shadow was about to leap down and go to her aide, Relm let out a shout. "Grandpa!" He paused. The old man's head poked out of the door to his home scant moments later.
Relm and the stranger took a few more staggering steps forward. "This is terrible! Gungho's hurt!"
He could not see, but Shadow could imagine the old coot's eyes widening as he stammered the man's name. Then he rushed out to join his granddaughter, wrapping the man's free arm around his shoulder for support as they made their way to the house. Shadow waited until he was sure that no one would be emerging from the house before he left the tree. But still he didn't go inside. Not even when, sometime later, Interceptor slunk from the growing evening shadows to join him did he entertain the idea. He didn't want any part of this.
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Strago could not believe the direction the day had taken. What had started out as a fine morning quickly turned sour with each "friendly" bout of casting he initiated and subsequently lost. Especially when the gambler and that, that, assassin, bested him! And now his oldest and closest friend staggers into town, barely able to breathe, let alone walk, and not even his most powerful Curaga seemed to have any sort of effect on Gungho's condition.
The man coughed and moaned as he rolled under the sheets on Strago's bed.
"Gungho, wake up!" Strago pleaded. He reached out and took hold of his friend's gnarled and callused hand. From the other side of the room Relm sat and watched. She had known Gungho since … since forever! The adventurer was her grandpa's oldest and dearest friend. They used to hunt monsters together, until her daddy left. She was so young that her grandpa wouldn't even think of leaving her alone while he went on the sometimes weeks long hunts. Relm blinked and smiled. This was how she knew her grandpa loved her. He gave up his greatest passion so that he could take care of her. By the time she thought herself old enough to stay on her own (which everyone protested) Strago's reflexes had dulled and Gunho's sword arm grown weak. Neither one believed themselves to be in any condition to hunt like they used to.
Beside the bed, Strago was encouraged when his old friend opened his eyes.
"What did this to you?"
When he answered, the old adventurer's voice was very weak. "It was … Hidon." Strago let out a gasp and his grip on Gungho's hand became unintentionally vice like. Gungho winced and continued. "The beast you and I used to hunt. I almost had it…"
Shock, fear, uncertainty, and even a little jealousy crossed Strago's features. But to Relm's surprise, her grandpa's reply was not the loud squawk she expected, but an astonished whisper with just a touch of doubt.
"You took on Hidon …?"
Before Strago could launch into the tirade of questions that Relm just knew he was itching to ask, Gungho let out an agonizing moan. He rolled away from the blue mage, pulling his hand from Strago's grasp as he did.
"Strago…" He had to strain to catch his friend's whisper. "Please … you must avenge me … Oooh …" After a few wrenching coughs Gungho quieted. He still breathed, but otherwise was silent. Strago sat back and stared. Him? Take on Hidon? He and Gungho had spent years searching for that legendary beast. Twice they had come oh so close, only to be turned away by the brutal waters that covered Ebot's Rock. Now Ebot's Rock was uncovered, but did that make a difference? He wasn't the mage he once was and he didn't have his closest friend and partner to back him up. Hell, he was old!
No, he couldn't do it. If he couldn't take on Hidon as a young man in his prime, there was no way he could even think of doing it now. Relm saw the look on his face. It was one of defeat and resignation. She could almost hear him lamenting his incompetence.
"Gramps!" She hopped out of the chair she was perched on and stood by her grandpa's shoulder. "Why are you hesitating?"
Her grandpa let out a sigh as he turned to answer. "Well … I spent my youth chasing that creature. To do it again at this age is more than I bargained for."
To say that finding Hidon had been a desire for Strago was an understatement. It was an obsession. Ever since hearing about the elusive monster that no one had ever seen but almost every dedicated scholar believed existed Strago had been determined that it would be he who found it. Gungho was similarly enthralled, but not to quite the same extent. He was in it for the hunt, the impossibility of it all, the adventure. Strago was in it for all that as well, but beyond that was the deep, burning desire to discover something that no one else had, to be the only one to discover it and the only one that ever would! During his younger years it had possessed him, sometimes to the point of madness. Only a sad accident, which left him the guardian of his sister's only daughter, nine years old at the time, kept him from being utterly consumed.
When his little girl, she would always be his little girl not just his niece, grew up he started the chase again, albeit with more temperance. Hunts took a few weeks, not months. And they had come close. So close he could swear that they had seen the shadow of the beast before them. Then Relm came. And his little girl died. And Relm's deadbeat father left without a second glance. He had to take care of his granddaughter, not gallivant across the world chasing a monster.
He didn't regret a single decision. Being there for Relm and her mother was greater than any monster hunt. But … to be presented with the chance again, after so many years. Strago felt the flames of his obsession flare inside of him. Gungho coughed and moaned again. Setting his jaw, he reached down to grasp the staff lying by the chair and used it to boost himself up. That beast had hurt his friend. Things were personal now.
"Gungho … rest easy, I'll do it for you!"
The dramatic whirl and subsequent striding out of the room and down the stairs was subdued by the fact that Strago's "striding" was more of a stiff gaited arthritic affair than anything and his cloak end tangled helplessly around the staff when he spun. But even so, Relm could practically feel the dedication and resolve emanating from her grandfather. She could not resist smiling as she followed him down the stairs.
She caught him at the bottom of the stairs where he had stopped to untangle his cloak.
"Grandpa! Just a minute!" He looked up at her in surprise. She stopped several stairs up so that she could look him in the eye without any trouble and put her hands on her hips. "You don't think you're going alone, do you?"
Strago sighed. He had suspected something like this would happen. But he knew firsthand the difficulty and danger involved in this quest and he would not have Relm dragged into it!
"I spent too many years hunting that thing. It's my obsession, not yours."
Relm had suspected something like this would happen. As much as the two men hated each other, she could really see the similarity between her Grandpa and Shadow sometimes. Both were exceptionally proud, and neither wanted to put others in undue danger when they thought they could face it alone. She could not let her grandpa go alone. She had almost lost him once and, by the gods, she was not going to lose him again!
"But Grandpa!" she put on her saddest pleading face and opened her eyes as wide as they would go, "This 'obsession' of yours could easily slay you! You're my grandfather. I can't just sit idly by and watch you go."
With Shadow, big eyes and a sad face always seemed to work. Not so with her grandpa.
Strago shook his head. "Sorry, Relm. I'm so grateful that you care! But as its name implies, the Hidon is extremely difficult to find. Unless I go alone, it will not show itself."
That was bullshit. Strago had hunted the beast for years with Gungho by his side. But, for once, Relm was not going to argue. She knew that, if faced with the choice, her grandpa would abandon the hunt rather than see her get hurt. And he couldn't do that. Not this time.
Very slowly, Relm nodded. Her grandfather's eyes widened in surprise, but he didn't question his good fortune.
"Next stop, Ebot's Rock."
Relm waited until her grandpa had left the house before letting out a relieved sigh.
0 0 0
He barely considered the old man a companion, so why had he allowed himself to be talked into hiding in a broom closet on the Falcon while the gambler reluctantly flew the coot over to a sea-swept rock? Shadow growled to himself and shifted where he stood, trying to find a position where cleaning supplies did not poke into his back. It was Relm's fault, of course. Anyone else he would have blown off their request with a glare and, if he was feeling talkative, a scathing remark. Her he could only follow. If he did not she would have gone anyway and would probably get herself killed for her troubles.
"I think we're here," Relm whispered from the other side of the closet. Though the Falcon's engines had not stopped the thud of the main hatch opening sent a shudder through the ship's frame and they could even catch snatches of the gambler and his passenger conversing. Soon the hatch slammed shut and the engine started to whine.
It was time to leave. The three companions, artist, assassin, and dog burst from the closet and made for the stairs leading to the Falcon's main deck. For the umpteenth time Shadow wondered why they had to sequester themselves in a closet when their rooms were much closer and, with locked doors, made for just as good a hiding place. Dramatics, he supposed. Not that much else was needed in terms of such things, if the slack jawed expression on the Setzer's face was to be believed as he watched the three forms, two large and black, one small and bright, vault over the railing of the Falcon's main deck to fall to the ground right under the old man's nose. By the time Setzer managed to snap to his senses the Falcon had risen over a hundred feet higher than was needed. He set the ship to hover and sauntered over to the railing. Peering over he could just make out four dots staining the uniform brown that was the old man's silly rock. If he looked really close he could imagine he saw the red one shaking in fury. He laughed.
Setzer was still laughing as he swung the airship back towards Thamasa.
0 0 0
"Y-you!?" Strago sputtered, "What are you doing here?!"
Relm picked herself up off the ground and dusted the worst of the dirt from her knees. "Isn't it obvious," she replied, "We're here to make sure you don't get yourself killed!"
"Not a chance young lady!" her grandfather snapped, "You, all of you, are getting right back on that …" Above them the Falcon flew southward, much too far away already for Strago to even think of hailing it down. This certainly posed a problem.
"Fine," he snapped, "You can come. But DO NOT get in my way!" Strago stormed into the crevice that served as the cave's opening without a second glance. He was angry, but Relm hadn't expected any less. Better he be mad as a berserk behemoth than dead!
"Come on!" she chirped before ducking into the darkness of the cave's entrance. Interceptor went first, cautiously sniffing the air before stepping into the darkness. Aside from the pause to sniff, the big dog hadn't hesitated. It was likely he hadn't detected anything worth hesitating for. The cave entrance had been under water for so long that whatever aquatic monsters were in it probably died when it rose above sea level. And its remote location made it a poor choice for any other creatures wanting to settle in. The old man would have been fine if Shadow's assumptions were true. Unless, of course, the legendary Hidon really dwelled here. Of that, Shadow was skeptical. But he promised Relm he would go with her. He couldn't break his promise.
In less than a minute he caught up with Relm and the old man. The coot walked with his eyes straight ahead, as if by not looking at them he could make them disappear. Relm, on the other hand, was peering about intently at the damp wall, much of which still had shriveled patches of seaweed clinging to it. As he expected, there was no other sign of life, hostile or otherwise. The floor sloped gradually down and they had to take care not to slip on the slick stone.
It was not long before the floor leveled off and the source of the cave's unnatural dim lighting came into view. A circular patch of stone glowed with the faint light of old magic. Despite his unwelcome companion's hesitation, Strago walked right in. He had never seen one, but he recognized it from descriptions given in various books as a teleportation portal. The portals were pieces of solid material, most often stone or metal, infused with magic. When entered the portals activated a Teleport spell that transported the person to another similar portal nearby. In ancient times mages set up series of such portals in mines, so that in case of cave in workers had a way to escape and the mine could sometimes continue to be used. Judging by the extremely faded look of the infused spell it did not seem out of the question that this might the remains of one such mine.
The ancient magic took a moment to activate, but when it did everything went off without a hitch. With a bright flash Strago found himself alone, all of his parts in the right places and nothing missing from his person. When he thought about it, storming headlong into the portal without first looking it over for any obvious flaws was exceptionally stupid. Had anyone else, especially Relm, done so, oh boy would he have let them have it! If his granddaughter had not gotten the fool notion into her head to follow him this wouldn't have happened! He wouldn't have been so angry he could barely see straight, never mind think about whether what he was doing was safe or not. If only for once in her life she listened to him! How was he going to take on Hidon now with her and that damned assassin distracting him?!
Behind him the light flashed. Strago turned and, to his surprise, came face to face with the dark assassin. He had been certain that Relm would insist on following him first. Shadow fixed the mage with an icy glare as he stepped out of the portal. With slow, deliberate movements Shadow pulled a shuriken from his belt and placed it in the center of the glowing stone. After a long moment it disappeared with a flash.
"Excuse me!" Strago barked.
Shadow slowly straightened from his crouch and spun to face the older man. "Relm wanted to follow you. If this had killed you, she wouldn't have known."
That was exactly what Strago feared hearing. He knew what he had done was stupid and knew that it very well could have led the others to a terrible fate if the portal failed and he did not set up a method of signaling so as the assassin had obviously done. But to have it told to him, and by that murderer of all people!
"I didn't ask you to come!" he spat.
"But she did," Shadow replied. Did the old coot really think that he was here of his own volition? Not for all the gil in the world would he have consented to keep the old man safe on this ridiculous quest of his. "And you're more of a fool than I thought if you refuse the aide offered."
The words alone were enough to Strago furious. That man saying them was enough to make him irate. But the tone, cold, dismissive, and utterly degrading, was what caused him to snap.
"I'd rather die," Strago shouted, "Than except help from a callous murdering lowlife like you!"
The words did not bother Shadow overmuch. He had been called much worse in the many years he had worked as an assassin.
"Then die," he rasped, "What do I care?"
Unbeknownst to the assassin, the portal had flashed once again, this time revealing Relm and Interceptor, the former of which had Shadow's shuriken tucked into her belt.
"I know you don't like Grandpa, but isn't that a little harsh?"
Before Shadow could even give a noncommittal shrug as an answer Strago cut in. The old mage's blood was up and, though he knew it was foolish to have a shouting match in the middle of the possible lair of a deadly beast, he couldn't stop himself.
"You stay out of this, young lady! If you hadn't taken this fool notion of following me into your head, why, why, this would all be irrelevant! You never do what you're told, especially when it's for your own good! And when you go about disobeying me you have to do it with the least respectable character out of all of the rebels, criminals, and wild things that we're traveling with! Out of all of them you chose a murderer to help you?! I thought I raised you right!"
"Shadow is my friend!" Relm shouted back, "And at least he knows that when you go into a monster's cave, you don't do it alone!"
This was getting out of hand. "Quiet. Both of you." Shadow growled.
"Don't you order me around!" The only warning Shadow had was a whistling sound as the old man's anger fueled attack sent the end of his staff on a direct course for the assassin's temple. Shadow ducked to the side and grabbed the staff end as it swung past. Taking hold of the wood in both hands he jerked it, and the stubborn coot hanging on to the opposite end, in close.
"I said quiet," he snarled.
A blast of power wrenched Shadow's grip from the staff and propelled him across the narrow cave to slam hard into the wall. The spell was an unfamiliar one, probably one of the old man's self taught techniques inspired by the monsters he studied. Whatever it was, it was enough to crush the breath from Shadow's lungs and leave him stunned for more than a brief moment. When he finally came to his full senses, he could not help the quirking smile that came to his lips when he saw the old man was already half incapacitated.
In what surely must have been a swift and vicious charge Interceptor had knocked the old mage to the ground. The only reason that the dog's jaws were not around the old man's throat was they were instead tightly clenched around the staff Strago used to defend himself from just that fate. The big dog snarled and bit down hard, his teeth puncturing the wood as easily as if it had been leather.
"Interceptor, no! Cease!" Relm yelled. What was the matter with everyone? They were acting like children! Dangerous children capable of murder, but still, children! She knew her grandfather and Shadow did not particularly like each other, but this was insane!
"Have you both gone mad?" she snapped, "Maybe I shouldn't have come. Maybe I should have let the only family I have left get killed on some stupid quest for to prove that he's not old! And maybe I shouldn't have asked my friend who happens to be the best fighter I know and has the best chance of keeping us alive to come along!"
With a disappointed rumble Interceptor let go of Strago's staff and padded over to Shadow's side. The old man rose stiffly from the cave floor, but made no hostile movements. As much as he hated to admit it, Relm … and Shadow … were right. He may not like the situation, but he needed to make the best of it. Stepping back he went to sit down on what at first looked to be a flat stone, but on closer inspection proved to be a worn chest. Curious. Cautiously Strago prodded it with the end of his staff, which he had been intending to inspect for irreparable damage. To everyone's shock, the chest moved.
It shook itself, like some sort of legless dog, then the lid popped open. "I'm hungry! Hungry hungry hungry hungry hungry hungry hungry hungry hungry hungry hungry hungry Hungry hungry hungry hungry hungry hungry hungry hungry. Feed me! Otherwise I won't let you by! I like to eat 'Coral'! Have any?"
"A mimic," Strago muttered. What a nuisance. Thankfully this one did not seem aggressive, just annoying. There did seem to be a sort of passageway behind the chest. But Strago was not about to attempt getting by. He knew from personal experience that these things bit hard.
"Well, are we just going to stand here or are we going to go find some coral?" Relm chirped, happy to have something to do that would take her grandpa and Shadow's minds away from hating each other! Falling into her customary bouncing walk she moved back towards the teleport portal. "Come on Interceptor!"
The big dog followed her into the portal and for a moment the old mage and the assassin were alone. Strago made a move to follow his granddaughter, but before he could even make a step Shadow's hand shot out and grabbed his cloak where it clasped around his neck, easily shoving the old man against the cave wall. The assassin leaned in close and whispered, "I can kill you without trying. Don't cross me."
"Then why are you here?" Strago retorted, too angry to feel fear.
Shadow's eyes narrowed and his grip around the red fabric tightened. But, rather abruptly, he let go. Stepping back he stared at the person who despised him, feared him. That he hated in turn, for reasons that he was not sure he wanted to or even could name. "You didn't see Relm when you were gone. I won't see her like that again."
0 0 0
From his calculations it had taken them the better part of the day to gather enough coral to satisfy the mimic. Without the sun to mark the passage of time it was difficult to be sure. But if there was one thing that Shadow was certain of, it was this: the old man hated him more than ever. In a way he could understand it. A heartless killer had no place as a grandfather's replacement. Even only a temporary one. And for Relm to continue to keep said killer close must have grated severely on the old man's nerves. Strago feared him. He feared what he could do to him and to his granddaughter. And Shadow did not blame him.
But that did not mean he didn't hate him.
Strago emptied the sack of collected coral into the mimic's mouth one last time. The chest noisily chewed the meal and belched contentedly. "What a feast!" it groaned. If it had the capability to do so Shadow was certain it would be wearing a happy smile. "I'm stuffed."
The three adventurers and their dog stared at the creature expectantly. "Oh, yeah, you wanna pass through here, right?" Why they wanted to do that was beyond the mimic's understanding. All that was in that passage was more empty sea caves and sometimes a big monster or two. But then again, what was it to try to understand the bizarre behavior of humans. Silly creatures. The mimic bounced out of the way, but when it tried to move off to a more comfortable place to digest its dinner something large and vaguely familiar blocked its path.
"Eh! What the…!" Oh, it was just that monster. The mimic thought it remembered the creature coming back a decade or so ago. Surely this wasn't what the humans were after!
The mimic's unusual outburst instantly had Shadow on guard. Even so, he was completely unprepared when four man sized creatures sprang from the formerly blocked passage. One of them hit him full on, bearing the shocked assassin to the ground. The creature's claw lashed out and caught Shadow under the collar bone, ripping through his light armor and into flesh like knives. With the creature's claws still dug in Shadow wrenched his body to the side, dislodging the creature from its perch over him, but not its claws from their grip. In his new position it was possible for Shadow's free hand to tear Ichigeki from its sheath.
"Die!" he snarled as he stabbed the blade into the monster's shoulder area. It was a glancing blow, but the beast writhed and shuddered around the steel. The blade's innate magic was taking effect and tearing life from the monster's body. With the monster in its death throes Shadow was able to rip himself from his grip and lurch to his feet.
Interceptor had cornered one beast and was tearing into it with a vengeance. Relm and Strago stood back to back, one launching spells to keep the remaining creatures at bay, the other frantically tracing the outline of something in the air. The outline abruptly came to life and sprang after its inspiration, one of the monsters. The confusion this attack caused rendered the two easy prey to the mages' powerful spells.
Good. Shadow thought as he watched the old coot and artist cast simultaneous Firas to decimate the final creature. Don't feel so much like fighting right now . . . A terrific searing sensation was spreading from his wound. Shadow leaned heavily against the wall. Poison. Strong poison. He barely registered when Interceptor dashed away from the mutilated corpse of his own enemy and came to his side. The big dog whined and tugged insistently on Shadow's hand. He needed to see a healer now!
"Easy boy," Shadow whispered. The poison was painful, but Shadow was used to such things. In all likelihood he could ride it out on his own. Over the years he had subjected his body to such a variety of things that his resistance to deadly substances, even those he had no experience with, was uncannily high. He could wait. He could wait. . .
A vicious shriek echoed through the cavern. A giant clawed limb appeared from the passageway, followed by another, and another. With another rending cry the monster's head came into view.
Strago gripped his staff tightly. "That's Hidon!" Relm was shocked to hear what sounded like a tremble of fear in his voice. But, she couldn't blame him. The creature was massive and ugly and very, very angry looking. She took a quick glance at one of the smaller monsters' corpses. Smaller, but almost identical to the creature that was trying to force its way through the passage. Oh shit. Momma's pissed off.
As the creature forced its way into the too small cavern Strago desperately searched his mind for everything he knew about Hidon. But try as he might, he just couldn't remember! He knew he had read treatises discussing the monster's supposed weaknesses, hell, he had written some of them himself! But now that the thing he searched for all these years was in front of him and all his effort had finally borne fruit, his mind was blank.
"Grandpa!" Relm screamed. This was his beast, he knew more about this thing than anyone in the world! But he did nothing! How was she supposed to help him if he didn't do anything?
Fools. How could Relm and Strago just stand there when the focus of their hunt was in such a vulnerable position? Shoving himself off the wall Shadow started towards the creature in a jog that because of his disabled state reminded him a of controlled stagger. Sheathing Ichigeki, Shadow then grabbed a shuriken from his pouch with his right hand. His left was too swollen to handle such intricacies. The metal star whistled from his hand and embedded itself in the monster's neck.
The sudden pain only hastened the creature's attempts to squeeze into the cavern. With a howl and a spray of stone it succeeded.
"Out of the way!"
Strago suddenly found himself falling. He hit the floor with a thud and several creaks and cracks he knew were not normal. I really am too old for this. Hoisting himself into a sitting position Strago just managed to catch a dark, staggering form shove Relm away so that it alone was in range of Hidon's wrath. Shadow? The assassin was swaying back and forth and his entire left side was disproportionately large. Strago had no doubt that the skin beneath was some shade between dark purple and black. Erebus venom: fast acting and deadly if not treated, but relatively easy to negate. Causes rapid swelling, loss of coordination, and feelings of nausea.The assassin had to know he was ill! But still he flung himself into the monster's path!
With only one arm capable of throwing shuriken Shadow was unable to keep the monster at range from very long. Interceptor joined the fight with a snarl, the viciousness of the attack giving Shadow the time to draw Ichigeki before the monster came in too close. Much of the pain had given way to numbness. For that Shadow was grateful. But he also knew that this proved the poison stronger than he had originally thought. He shouldn't be fighting like this. He should be resting, using every bit of his willpower to fight the creeping death in his veins. Or … he could just give in. It would be so easy to just let it take over and drag him down into the sweet, sweet, nothingness of death.
NO! The thought spurred him. With an uncharacteristic shout he flung himself back into the monster's path. I CANNOT LET IT BY! He was not the only one here. He was not the only one that mattered.
The final words of Curaga left Relm's lips an instant after the monster's let out another wavering shriek. Space itself seemed to condense and warp in the cavern's center. The unnatural space suddenly expanded, trapping those unfortunate enough to be close within its boundaries. Shadow and Interceptor. Two screams of agony echoed through the cave as unseen forces twisted and warped her friend's bodies in ways that no living thing could possibly endure. It was over quickly, Shadow and Interceptor dropping where they stood. The silver light of the healing spell bled away into the ground.
"No, no, no, no, NO!" Relm howled. She would not let this happen! Quickly cast Thundara spells hammered Hidon, keeping the monster backing away and letting Relm steadily approach her fallen companions. "Grandpa, help me!"
Grand Delta, an attack with the power to distort matter itself for a brief period of time. The existence of this attack is questioned, as no other known monster has an ability comparable. Strago could say with absolute certainty that the attack was in no way a myth. It was … it was … fantastic! In all the years he had hunted this creature he had never imagined that it wielded such power! The magical energy needed to do such a thing was immense; somehow simultaneously in complete control and utterly wild. A shell of shielding energy, similar to Reflect or Protect, surrounding a core of unbridled unfocused magical power. In the small space the power ran absolutely mad, distorting everything within it for a brief period of time. It was brilliant!
Strago used his staff to help him off the ground and began to advance on the beast. It was all coming back to him now. Every word he had read, everything he had discovered about Hidon was returning. By the blood of the magi that runs through my veins, I will defeat this thing!
Relm's rapid cast spells seemed like nothing compared to the massive torrent of flame that burst from Strago's staff. Hidon reared back and screamed in pain, giving Relm the perfect opportunity to dash the remaining distance to Shadow and Interceptor's battered, but breathing bodies. As soon as she reached them she began to cast. Flames continued to roar around her, but she paid them no mind.
Magic brought the assassin into a world of pain and fire. The slight healing that came about with the Raise spell gave Shadow enough strength to sit up. For a moment, he could swear he had entered Hell. The old coot glanced at them out of the corner of his eye and just for a moment gave up his rain of Firaga to bark out the words to a Curaga. Shadow felt the healing magic doing its work, and saw it do the same to the newly wakened Interceptor and battered Relm. And he heard the monster scream. Just as the healing silver light worked to bring their bodies together, so it did to tear Hidon's body apart.
But still the monster came on. Screaming, shuddering, practically falling apart at the seams it came. And the only thing that stood between them was the old man.
Strago stood unmoving in the face of the dying beast's final charge. If this was to be his final test, he could not let himself fail! Long ago it had only been his and Gungho's fate that hung in the balance. They knew the risks of their quest and welcomed the chance to sacrifice themselves for the sake of the hunt. Now it wasn't just him. It was everyone he had come to call a companion. It was the world that he had made a pledge to save. It was his granddaughter. These thoughts in his mind, Strago called up the spell patterns he saw Hidon weave. The unbreakable shell, the fierce interior. The beast was nearly upon him. Calling every last bit of his remaining power, Strago channeled it through his staff and let it loose on the creature he had chased for so long.
Hidon's already battered body was in too weak of a state to resist the tearing power. Rather than contort to the magic's unpredictable whim, the beast's body ripped apart. Charred bits of flesh and bone whirled inside of Strago's Grand Delta before collapsing in a smoking pile of gore at the spells dissipation.
Strago was suddenly very tired. He leaned on his staff for support and looked at the remains of his obsession. Relm was first to his side. She stood still and quiet as a statue, in awe as to what her grandfather had just done. With some hesitation, Shadow followed. He took up post at the old man's other side, silent as a shade. He had not thought the old man capable of such power.
"I did it!" Strago whispered. This kind of thing was something that the Strago of fifty years ago might have done, but not him! But he had to. Hidon forced his hand. No. Relm forced his hand. Silly stubborn Relm. If she had not been here he never would have faced down the beast unquestionably, doing exactly what had to be done because if he did not she would be killed! Terrible, clever girl! "I… I… I actually beat Hidon!"
Finally turning away from the monster that had captivated him for so long, Strago faced his companions with flashing excited eyes and a grin that stretched from ear to ear. "I have to tell Gungho he is avenged!"
0 0 0
The bed was soft and the night was quiet. But Shadow could not sleep. The last time he slept in this inn he had taken sleeping pills to drop into a dreamless unconsciousness. He woke to a fire that very nearly took from him the one friend he had and the young girl that did not yet mean so much. In truth he would have preferred to spend this last night in Thamasa lurking about the Magus house as he had done before. But with the old coot yammering away to his friend late into the night, an undisturbed rest would be impossible.
Shadow reached over the side of the bed to scratch Interceptor's ears. The big dog woke with a yawn and gave Shadow a reproachful look. He stood and stretched, then padded over to the door. Again giving his boss a look, Interceptor pointedly scratched at the door.
"Lazy mutt," Shadow grumbled as he pulled himself out of bed. He knew full well that Interceptor could work these doors. But the dog seemed determined to punish his boss for waking him and when Shadow did not move as quickly as desired, Interceptor let out an impatient bark. When he finally opened the door Interceptor trotted nonchalantly out into the darkness. Shadow slipped out and shut the door behind him. The dog would be back soon, so there was no point in returning to bed.
Everything was quiet in the darkness. Curiously, the light in the Magus house still burned. The old coot must still be at it. And though it forced Shadow to spend a night in the blasted inn, for once he did not begrudge Strago. He certainly had a reason to brag, standing up to Hidon like he did. Saving them all…
Lost in his thoughts Shadow did not notice at first when the front door of the Magus house opened and a silver haired figure slunk out. Gungho crept quietly towards the ruins of the old warehouse, but was quickly intercepted by the very person he had set out to meet there.
Relm dashed over to her grandfather's oldest friend. He looked exhausted, but that was to be expected. The poor man had just spent hours listening to Grandpa's story after all!
"What happened to Grandpa?"
Gungho sleepily blinked before answering, "Huh? Finally! He nodded off. However…" A fearful thought seemed to cross his mind and he hastily added, "Let's let him be! He's nice and … quiet …"
Friends or no, Gungho was tired! There were only so many ways that the story of beating a single monster could be told and Strago had somehow managed to tell all of them, plus several more. Frankly, Gungho was starting to wish he had never heard of Hidon in the first place!
"Now, about my 'wounds'…"
"Wait!" Relm interjected, "First let me thank you. You gave Grandpa a reason to go and defeat something that had tormented him for decades! Even if YOU were faking, that creature meant business!" Oh man did she know that thing meant business. But seeing her grandpa happy again, free for the first time in decades of the shadow that haunted him, made everything she went through worth it. Of course, if Shadow or Interceptor had … died … Even if her grandpa had managed to defeat Hidon, that was too great a price. But they didn't! So that didn't matter anymore!
Gungho shook his head and stared in awe at the young girl standing before him. Only twelve years old and willing to risk her life for the people she loved. She grew up so fast. Damn, he could remember Relm's mother when she was that age!
"What a granddaughter he's raised! Amazing!"
Relm smirked and playfully punched Gungho's arm. "And what a terrible actor you are!"
The old adventurer could only throw back his head and laugh. "Only Strago could have been taken in by that performance!"
To Relm's surprise a rasping chuckle sounded from not too far away. It was difficult to make out with Gungho's much more prominent guffaws, but she knew it was there! And if that wasn't Shadow's laugh then she was a tipsy moogle!
That girl! She risked her life, his life, his dog's life, and her only gods be damned family member left in an elaborate scheme to get the old coot to face his demons. Shadow knew he should be angry, or at least frustrated at being dragged into this, but all he could do was laugh. It was just so undeniably Relm! Shadow had learned that he could expect no less from the little artist who he was still not quite sure if she was a curse that angry gods had forced upon him. And even though he had no concern for Strago's peace of mind, Shadow found that he was pleased Relm's plan had worked. The old man was the only family she had left and if she lost him again it would tear her apart. Relm had gone through far too much pain in her short life, she didn't deserve any more.
He was not surprised when Relm skidded to a halt several paces away. She put her hands on her hips and stared up at him indignantly with those pretty hazel eyes. "What are you laughing at?"
Shadow replied with another quiet chuckle. He put a hand on Relm's head and, with a casual air that surprised even himself, gave her beret an affectionate twist like he had seen Sabin do so many times. She smiled at him.
"You know I would have done the same thing for you."
"I know girl. I know."
0 0 0
Antismurf Lord of Darkness pointed this out to me so I thought I would mention it- if you poke around Thamasa and talk to someone they will say that Strago is not Relm's real grandfather. Theories I have read say that he was a family friend who adopted her when her father left. I thought that giving them a closer personal connection would make the relationship a bit more powerful- to recap, in this story Strago had a sister who died and left him custody of Relm's mother. He became her adoptive father and, by extension, Relm's grandfather.
Yes, I developed my own interpretation of Grand Delta. I wrote the scene where Hidon uses it after seeing it used in battle and it was only afterwards that I read the description of the spell itself (a triangular beam of energy). The spell reminded me of Banish or Meteor so I gave it that sort of twist. Hope you all don't mind!
I do hope that I am still writing up to people's expectations. Next will be the battle with Deathgaze. For a while I thought of cutting this because I couldn't figure out how to relate it to the overall story. But I think I've figured it out. Poor neglected Setzer is going to get some time to shine!
Thank you everyone, for putting up with my slow writing. You guys are the best!