Her Hero - By Kirika
Teresa and Clare are back for more! I'm starting to wrap up this series, probably only one or two instalments remain. Sorry it took ages. It's tough being an adult with adult problems!
The streets teemed with humanity. Merchants still hawked their wares behind makeshift stalls, the beggars still cluttered underfoot, and the peasantry still cluttered everywhere else. Minoc was still a city for the time being. A city with life. Perhaps if one did not look too closely at the population's worried faces, didn't notice the tense soldiers within the crowds, didn't listen to the snippets of nervous conversation regarding what was outside Minoc's high walls and what might await those huddled within, one might think it was a city with a future.
Minoc was under siege. The South had come to the North at last.
The southern cities had allied, banding together to drive into Alphonse as a singular legion, a stern answer to the North's unprovoked invasion into central Toulouse. Teresa had seen many different banners beyond the walls. From the western lands of Lautrec to the Organisation's home in eastern Staff, city states had rallied to the threat. Even Mucha in the deep south past the Zakol Mountains, arguably the most protected from Alphonse's armies and ambition, was represented. Minoc, the first major Alphonse city in the Southern Alliance's path, close to border with Toulouse, was doomed.
Produce traders extorted huge sums for their supplies, preying on the fears of the people, while some other predatory vendors, feeling crafty, hoarded their inventory for the coming weeks and months, anticipating the demand of a starving populace and the price that could be enforced during a siege. But the smartest sold what they could and saved only what they would consume themselves, before the garrison requisitioned their supplies for the city's stores, and before food and drink became worthless and weaponry the sole appetite for the people. Minoc would be swallowed whole. Its walls were thick and high, but the garrison was nowhere near enough to hold the South back. There would be no protracted siege, no risk of starvation, just the risk of being slaughtered. With such a superior force outside the gates, the assault would start any day now. The siege towers were nearing completion and the battering rams were prepared. In Minoc's high spots Teresa could already catch sight of a few of the finished wooden siege engines gathering snow and looming over the ramparts. No time for a relief force to arrive. No chance to muster much defence at all.
Teresa of the Faint Smile wasn't supposed to be here. She should have moved on weeks ago. She shouldn't have been caught up in these human politics. But the youma slayer travelled with one of those humans in her care. All of that human's concerns were her own. And all of her frailties.
Teresa weaved through the streets, mingling with the crowd, just another hooded figure hiding from the bitter northern cold. If the city wasn't about to fall she could have concealed herself among its inhabitants for some time, she imagined.
The blonde's cloak caught on something, and her silver eyes peered from the depths of her cowl down at a muddy hand clinging to the hem. Before the filthy vagrant sitting in the muddy snow at her feet could open his mouth, Teresa tugged her cloak loose and continued onwards.
Teresa could have concealed herself, however remaining any longer than necessary in this base human warren would have been distasteful.
A few minutes later Teresa saw the familiar sign over the heads of the rabble; a crude drawing of a pestle resting within a mortar. It was painted on a wooden board with its fair share of icicles, hung high on one of the many dilapidated buildings in the district. From the outside 'The Cure' didn't appear as if it was a home to any such thing, but Teresa had made diligent enquiries upon first arriving in Minoc many days ago. Ulgi's cures were the most effective in the city.
Teresa walked past two men with swords on their belts loitering at the doorstep-paid guards, by the look of them-and entered the apothecary's store, the door creaking on its hinges followed by the floorboards beneath her steel boots. The Cure was dark and dingy inside, little light getting in through the warped glass windows caked with what looked like years worth of frost and muck. And then the odour hit. All manner of scents bombarded the nose, from the strong and sharp to the downright rotten and pungent. Cuttings from bizarre plants and bowls filled with unpleasant pastes sat on shelves behind the store counter-a counter blotted with a myriad repellent stains and smears, permanent character seeped right into the wood grain.
Despite the off-putting atmosphere the place exuded Teresa was not Ulgi's only customer. Rich mixed with poor in the queue in front of the counter; well-dressed nobles and successful merchants with perfumed handkerchiefs held under their nostrils brushing shoulders with ragged farmers and labourers, the last group no doubt used to their own stench to be bothered by The Cure's. It was always busy when Teresa came. Perhaps the siege had people stocking up on remedies. Or perhaps it was simply Ulgi's reputation as a healer.
Teresa joined them, the shadowy figure with a blade on her back the odd one out at the end of the line. But no one cared. No one even looked her way. Minoc was a city of self, like any other human settlement. The larger a place grew, the less people living within thought about the others beside them.
"*I* heard there have been mass desertions," the aristocrat in front of Teresa was saying, his shrill voice slightly muffled by the handkerchief he had clasped over half his face. "For what reason no one can tell me. There's a new story with every new face I talk to. But what they-and I-are certain of is that the army is a barely at half strength, with more abandoning their posts every day! Traitors, say I! Well, if these deserters should come back looking for their homes *here* only the noose will welcome them!"
"I was talking to Belrund the other day; you know him, the tailor with those silks? Fine indeed, though he charges as if he spun it himself! This siege is playing havoc with his imports, let me tell you," the aristocrat's equally dapper companion said, adding his own high voice behind cloth to the conversation. He would sometimes rub at his crotch with his other hand, almost unconsciously. "He told me General Thornir is turning his offensive into a final stand in Graadenhold, but the man only held half the city, and had no hope of holding what he has, his soldiers ragged and routing! Karesia had been virtually cowed and now this?! The Toulouse campaign is in shambles!"
"And now look what we have, those pompous Toulouse degenerates at our very gates! Heads will roll once we break this siege."
"Reinforcements are due to arrive? I have heard nothing..."
"Of course they must be! This is Minoc! If we fall Alphonse falls! Surely the Lords realise that! *These* soldiers on their way best not be cowards like those-hu-hah!-'fighting' in the south!"
Teresa listened. Not because she wanted to, but because there was no avoiding it. Not here, not outside in the streets-it was the same words on everyone's lips. Alphonse's formerly relentless invasion force inexplicably scuttled from within, General Thornir's martial dominance in the south all but yanked from beneath his feet, reduced to a desperate losing position inside Graadenhold, stuck between its walls and Toulouse retribution. The news had reached Minoc just before the Southern Alliance did; the army's appearance the other topic keeping tongues wagging in every corner of the city. It had come within marching distance to Minoc so swiftly, warning of the approach arriving a scant day or two before the city was under siege, that many who had tried to flee were cut off, left stewing with the slow, the stupid, and the steadfast inside the walls today. Only those who had taken nothing, abandoning Minoc straight away had had any chance of getting out.
How a legion of its scale had slipped into Alphonse's borders without sooner alarm reaching the northerners still had the people chattering. The northerners thought their southern neighbours soft, too used to warm weather to brave the snow and ice. Teresa had no such prejudices. If the warrior had to guess, the Southern Alliance had marched through the deserted mountains, through the lonely forests, where the clinking of arms and armour and the racket of wagons and camp followers had been swallowed up along with obvious signs of their incursion. No doubt the strategy had cost the bold Toulouse commanders dozens upon dozens of soldiers, slain by sickness and the cold and the predictable misfortune that trudging through rugged terrain sooner or later befell all travellers. But here Toulouse's allied army was now, with a northern city ripe for the plucking. Probably the only factor that hadn't seen the soldiers hammering at the gates and throwing themselves over the walls on that first day under siege was the need for rest and recovery following that brutal march.
"I wish I hadn't ran *into* the city," an unkempt man spoke to his nodding friend; farmers by their poor work clothes, their northerner constitutions likely the only reason they hadn't frozen to death clad in those thin rags. They walked away from the counter holding their medicines-small packages from their small pay. "My farm is probably stripped. I bet they killed my pigs. At least my family isn't out ther-"
"Watch for your betters, peasant!" one of the nobles squawked; taking profuse umbrage at being brushed against as the farmers walked past. "Your kind of filth is difficult to wash off."
The farmer who had committed the apparently grave insult stopped, clenching his jaw a moment, while his friend tugged on his arm to just keep moving. "You're right, my Lord," he then spoke, shrugging off his companion's urgings, "you almost certainly never worked a real day in your life to know how difficult it is."
"Ohhh~!" the other aristocrat cooed, sharing a mocking look with the first, the effect only somewhat cheapened by his habitual scratching between his legs. "This one has a mouth on him!"
"Yes, he does. It won't help him in the coming days, I'm afraid." The nobleman turned his head back to glare at the farmer. "You and your wretched lot will be the first to die if any southern barbarians breach the city. Your kind always are."
"Like rats in-No, no... Like the *pigs* you lie with!" the second noble chortled.
"Yeah," the farmer said, stony-faced amid the screeching laughter. "I'm sure you'll be spared, my Lord."
"Blue blood is not so easily spilt, my smelly friend," the first aristocrat replied, smiling with many teeth. "Unlike yours." With that, he struck the farmer across with face with the back of his velvet-gloved hand, before childishly bringing it down, slapping the man's medicine package out of his grasp.
"Oh dear," the second aristocrat remarked as he ground the package into a dark green slime on the floorboards beneath his heel.
The farmer looked down at the ruined remedy with big, staring eyes. There was blood on his lip, but he only seemed to care about the medicine he had just purchased. "That was for... She *needed*...!" He roared and launched himself at the nearest nobleman, his rough and callused hands effortlessly closing around a high collar and white lace-and the thin neck under it all.
"Yuld, no!" the other farmer howled while the rest of the apothecary store stopped to witness the spectacle, calls to cease or take it outside coming from behind the counter.
"H-Help! Help! Guards!" shrieked the lord that still could, quickly divorcing himself from his cohort and the violence that was being plied upon him. "Murder! Murder!"
The armed men Teresa had seen waiting outside burst in, blades bared. They took one look at the farmer choking the life out of the nobleman and responded rapidly. After all, it was their stipend that was being threatened. One guard moved to stand in front of the still shrieking lord whilst the other ran up behind the farmer, clubbing him over the back of the head with his sword hilt. The blow was more than enough to loosen the farmer's murderous grip and knock him into a daze, his knees wobbling.
"K-Kill him..." the asphyxiating aristocrat managed to wheeze, feebly clawing at his attacker's large hands. "Kill him!"
His bodyguard obliged. The swordsman rained more blows down on the farmer's head, beating him to his knees, and then to the floor while the lord scrambled away, rubbing his neck. He didn't stop until the peasant was face down, his hair matted with blood and half his skull had sunken into the other half.
"You... you really killed him..." the dead farmer's acquaintance gasped, his eyes glued to the gruesome scene.
"Be thankful you are not lying next to him!" the half-choked aristocrat spat. He looked at the corpse and sniffed, pulling a fresh handkerchief from inside his sleeve.
"I detest coming to this district," the other aristocrat bemoaned. "Should we alert the city guard?"
"Why bother?" said the first nobleman from behind his handkerchief. "My man here was well within his and my rights to act." He turned, looking from one gawking customer to the next. They dropped their eyes before meeting his. "And there were no witnesses that I can see." When his gaze came to Teresa he lingered a moment longer than he had for the others, straining to plunder the depths of her cowl for her eyes. Unsuccessful, though identifying no outward antagonism from the stoic figure Teresa cut, the nobleman moved on-but not before a wary glance at the long handle of her claymore protruding past her shoulder.
"What about this one?"
The nobleman looked to where his companion pointed, at the surviving farmer.
The peasant cringed under the sudden barrage of eyes, shrinking back as if he wanted to become one with the woodwork. "I... I swear to the Gods I didn't see anything, m'Lords...!"
The nobleman that had started the whole fatal disturbance smiled thinly. "No doubt, my good man. There is no doubt in my mind that you didn't." He began to turn from him, and then stopped, as if reconsidering. It was all pretend. "Still... you'd want to make sure with your own eyes that your friend receives a decent burial, yes? I think it best if our men take you in hand."
"N-No..." the farmer gasped as one of the burly bodyguards advanced on him. "No! Please!" His wailing continued as he was dragged by his arms through the store towards the door, scratching at the air and heels battering against the floor.
"I guess we ain't leaving this 'ere then?" the remaining bodyguard commented, gesturing with this sword tip at the dead body.
"I think not. To the gutter with this trash, where it belongs," the aristocrat commanded. He took one last look at the man he had had murdered and sniffed into his handkerchief, before striding to the exit.
His noble cohort quickly followed behind him after his own parting glance, handkerchief likewise over his face while rubbing at his crotch yet again. "I didn't get my cream...!" he could be heard grumbling until the door swung closed.
The bodyguard unleashed some colourful language under his breath once left by himself with the task of carrying the carcass out. He sheathed his blade and seized the bludgeoned farmer by his ankles, pulling him outside the building, heedless of the thick fresh blood smear he produced in his wake.
The smell of it hung thick in the air. Teresa could taste the blood in her mouth, that unmistakable iron tang. The demon inside her stirred, but the blonde swordswoman kept her vicious passenger on a strict leash-always had-and it was effortless to rein the brute in. She had never sought its gifts, never needed them-not until the Organisation had turned on her... and Priscilla. The only aspect Teresa had taken from the beast, besides a latent physical prowess, was the passive ability to read the yoki of the others like her. There was no such aura about humans, however Teresa hadn't needed to be able to read their intentions to know what had been coming for the two peasants. The gutter would have two corpses before the sun went down.
None of it surprised Teresa. She had seen a lifetime of 'humanity'. Youma were minor predators upon humankind against humankind itself. Teresa could have stepped in between the nobles and the peasants. She could have made herself a part of the situation, altered it, and prevented the death and the one to follow. But why should she? The men would have died regardless sooner or later, victims of another trivial encounter, another pointless argument with a neighbour, a friend; anyone. Teresa's blade could not alter the anger between the humans, could not prevent the selfishness and contempt that was ingrained in them for their fellows. It had been this way since she had been a sister; she would slay the monsters in their midst, but only those obvious ones; the ones with fangs and claws, not false smiles and hollow words. Humanity would not change. They would never rise to anything greater. And, like when Teresa had been a sister, it was not for her to interfere. Too often she had already. Too quick to weigh in on unfamiliar human affairs, too quick to cut down those she thought had earned it. Why stain her claymore with more red blood and hoist more lives on her shoulders when she could choose not to? Her claymore should stay in its sheath. For Clare it cut, for one human only, one deserving, and no other. Let the rest destroy themselves-they would do a fine job of it without her supplementing the tally.
"Devin! Clean it up!" Ulgi's raspy voice screeched from behind the counter.
With that, it was business as normal again. The queue reformed, almost all of the customers preferring to stay at the site of a callous murder rather than be put out for their apothecary needs. Meanwhile Devin, the young boy apprenticing under Ulgi, came out with a mop and bucket.
Teresa observed him as he casually dropped the bucket of cloudy water to the floor and began slopping a frayed mop over the blood trail, all but pushing the gore around more rather than erasing it. As with Clare, not even the youth seemed touched by the violence. Devin washed the floor as if it were soiled with any other commonplace muck. Perhaps that was what their own blood was to the humans. Commonplace muck.
When it was Teresa's turn she stepped towards the counter. From under her cloak she produced a small pouch, dropping it onto the marked countertop with a heavy thud. It represented nearly half of her remaining money, Minoc whittling a little more every passing day. Yet the blonde didn't baulk at the price of a human girl's health.
"Ahh. It is Pretty Hands."
An old woman shuffled over to scoop up the pouch, sliding it off the opposite side of the counter and spiriting it away with surprisingly alacrity for one so aged. Like an ancient tree, Ulgi looked to have lived a long time and weathered her share of hardships. Her face resembled a map of the known world, a confusion of thick and thin lines cut into leathery skin. What hair still clung to her scalp was dusty gray and wispy, poking out from under her headscarf like dead scrub. The weight of her years had bent her back, condemning her to a plodding gait back and forth behind her counter.
Her eyes had stayed sharp however, a blue akin to the purest Alphonse ice. They raided the interior of Teresa's hood as they always did whenever the youma slayer visited, hunting for a face. But the shadows were plentiful in the dingy shop and Teresa was not inclined to lower her hood and make it easy for her. News of a 'Claymore' within the walls would run through the closed city in hours. Who could say what fallout would come of that? Minoc was on edge as it was and creeping closer to toppling from it every day.
In spite of her repute as the best healer around and the fee she demanded to exercise that vaunted skill, Ulgi favoured a typical poor peasant's apparel; the muted layered rags that were so popular among the lower class. It did much for her image of a wise mixer of brews however, and maybe that was just the point. It was from one of those tattered layers the old woman pulled a corked wooden bottle, standing it on the counter. Teresa had been expected.
"Every week, the same," Ulgi hacked, her voice the crackling of an antique tome's pages. "The same day. The same hour. The same minute?" She watched keenly as Teresa snatched the bottle. "And the same remedy. 'Winter's Breath' can be fatal... especially to limp-bodied southerners." The old crone grinned, discoloured wooden teeth showing. "...And to the young."
Teresa had turned to leave, but paused despite herself. What did Ulgi know? Teresa had told the apothecary nothing beyond the ailment that troubled her companion, cautious to maintain a low profile in a city on a knife-edge.
Ulgi grinned wider, her teeth creaking.
"Pretty hands," Ulgi repeated, shuffling over to a shelf behind her. "Too pretty for one that holds a weapon like that on your back. Far, *far* too pretty..."
Teresa lowered her cowled head slightly, contemplating whether the store's gloominess had finally failed her.
"Here," Ulgi said, turning back to slide a jar of some mysterious goo across to the unnerved blonde. "For the *child*. Rub it on their chest, twice a day, sunup and sundown. It will help. 'Chill Rot' must have set, for my medicine not to have cured them after all this time."
Teresa eyeballed the jar warily, but it was what it signified that had her cast a suspect look. Human generosity was an invention of storytellers. "The price?" she asked, counting her leftover funds in her head. Whatever it cost, it would be worth every last gold rod if it worked.
Ulgi rhythmically rapped her fingertips on the counter a moment, her knobbed knuckles stiff. "...A name," she settled on.
"My name is-"
"Not yours, monster eater," Ulgi interrupted. "Have your kind's names ever truly meant something? No, the child. Boy or girl?"
Teresa tensed a second. The old woman was indeed sharp. Would her tongue be loose, with 'Claymore' on her lips? In any case, there was nothing to be done about it now. "Girl. Her name is... Clare."
"Clare..." Ulgi parroted slowly, as if she was digesting the name, her blue gaze staring towards a far off place only she could see. "Go now," she then abruptly said, shooing the youma slayer away with waves of her weathered hands. "Twice a day. It will help. Go, go."
"...Thank you," Teresa said, taking the jar and leaving.
"See you next week, Pretty Hands. Bring your girl. She will be able to walk again."
Teresa glanced over her shoulder to see Ulgi grinning.
The blonde woman left The Cure behind for the streets once more, and its beggars and criminals and squalor. The district she walked to next wasn't much better than the last, but at least it seemed safer, with people not being murdered and dumped on the cobblestones to her knowledge. The inn was there; the 'Rabbit's Respite'. Weeks ago its lodgings were the best Teresa's gold could buy; in a couple more weeks a hayloft outside some seedy tavern would claim that title. A little work wouldn't go unwanted right now, but unless the southern armies turned into a horde of youma, there was no demand for Teresa's particular talents. Besides, her kind was apparently no longer welcome in the northern reaches by decree of the human authority governing the rugged expanse.
The Rabbit's Respite sign soon creaked above Teresa's head; the crude drawing of a brown sleeping rabbit had become a signal of home lately. Or as close to home as Teresa could fathom in her mind. Clare was inside the inn, as much of home as Teresa had ever understood or needed. The youma slayer couldn't recall another occasion she had chosen to dwell in one place for so long. A perpetual drifter, it was a strange feeling to discover comfort in stagnation, in routine, in returning to the same four walls day after day-and some days not leaving them at all. Teresa frequently told herself that it certainly would not last, that she should not grow accustomed to these scheduled days, not become dependent on the feeling. The mutterings about the force outside the walls and now the siege towers peeking above them kept her will strong and her heart stony, but she would be lying to herself if she said she never forgot about Minoc's predicament to relish in her novel time here... if only in small amounts here and there.
Teresa entered the inn, trekking across the ground floor tavern towards the stairs. It had been a concern of hers that a tavern below the rooms would be a raucous annoyance; however the Rabbit's patrons were too lost in their drinks for merriment. Teresa supposed there wasn't a great deal to celebrate with death on your doorstep.
The innkeeper, who also posed as the bartender, glanced at Teresa as she past before going back to taking swigs of his finer stock behind the bar. The almost sickly skinny man was used to her comings and goings and no longer paid her much attention. That he had taken to drinking his own supply of ale and mead meant even he must be feeling the hand of death on his shoulder today. Perhaps when Teresa couldn't afford her bill anymore it wouldn't matter. Like booze, what good was gold to a corpse.
Teresa walked upstairs, already eager to see the old scratched-up door to her and Clare's room. If only the circumstances of their sojourn had been better. Clare was sick, a victim of her human body's weakness... and Teresa's pace on the road, the blonde feared. The journey through the border wilds and Alphonse's snowy climate had taken a massive toll on the girl. 'Winter's Breath' other humans had named it. Clare had no strength in her limbs, no appetite in her stomach, and barely any air filled her chest. She spoke of being cold when it was hot, even when her skin burned to touch. Teresa paid extra for a room with a fireplace and kept its flames stoked high at all hours, and yet nothing seemed to drive the ice from Clare's blood. It was now 'Chill Rot', Ulgi had said. So many different names for as many different illnesses, every one as inventive at killing humans as the last. It was a wonder that humans survived a day in a world so determined to see an end to them.
Teresa had questioned putting her faith in someone else to heal Clare, even after seeking much advice from the locals to unearth Ulgi as the most skilled at it in the city. She still questioned. But knowing little about human wellbeing, the blonde had no other option. At least Clare hadn't gotten any worse. But the new medicine had better do as the old woman had said. If Ulgi turned out to be another charlatan...
Teresa took out the room key and unlocked her door, locking it behind her once she was inside. Leaving Clare by herself, especially in her condition, had Teresa forever on edge until she could lay eyes on her companion again. If they were forced to find a new, less secure, place to stay Teresa would have to think of a better way to pick up Clare's remedies; she couldn't very well forsake the girl to the villains of the streets in her absence.
The blonde woman went to the softly crackling fireplace first, tossing a couple more logs into it, and then to the chair by the room's only bed. She unfastened her cloak and slung it over the back of the chair, shaking her wavy flaxen tresses out, and then unbuckled her claymore from her shoulders. Teresa placed it gently against the wall, scabbard and all. Once she had undone her bracers she put them on the small bedside table nearby, brow creasing a little at the mostly uneaten food resting on a tray there as well. A day's fare wasn't complimentary for guests of the Rabbit's Respite, and in spite of where the inn was and the class of visitors it encouraged the meals weren't bought cheaply either. Teresa's frown wasn't for the gold squandered though, but for the ever missing appetite of the unconscious girl in the bed.
Teresa took the jug from the tray and poured some water into a wooden cup. With sublime care she eased a hand behind Clare's head and coaxed it up from the pillow towards the cup.
Clare emitted a quiet murmur as her lips touched the cup and felt the water lap against them, before she instinctively drank, taking huge gulps as if a moment away from succumbing to thirst. When the cup was empty Teresa filled it again, this time adding the usual dose of medicine she had received from Ulgi. It changed the water to a muddy brown concoction that looked vile and at odds with the curative properties it was supposed to contain. Nevertheless, the blonde brought it to Clare's lips-Teresa had nothing else to put her faith in.
The girl's face contorted at the no doubt insulting taste, but she swallowed it down as she had every prior dose. Finally, Clare opened her eyes, revealing an exhausted, bloodshot gaze.
"Teresa..." was the only word her raspy tongue could muster.
Teresa smiled faintly down at her. Clare didn't have to say anything.
With a delicacy many would be surprised a predator of youma commanded, Teresa helped Clare sit up. The bedridden girl was also too weak to question what the blonde was doing; simply staying upright taking everything her frail form had. She didn't protest at her shift being pulled over her head, or at the smelly ointment Teresa liberally smeared all over her chest. And it was indeed very smelly. Clare was as malleable as a doll in the youma slayer's hands. The sort of trait she had known others of her kind to have coveted in their human pets; a plaything without questions or protests, without thoughts or feelings, existing solely for the desires of their strong mistress.
Humans could be many things good and bad and all in between, but they weren't made to be pets. Clare wasn't a pet. Teresa did not want a doll or a plaything, nor did she keep Clare's company for her own sake. Teresa's sisters, the ones that had selfishly enslaved, did not-could not-feel as she felt now. Clare did not exist for Teresa's desires-Teresa lived for Clare's.
Teresa replaced Clare's nightgown and cradled the girl back down onto the bed. Her eyes had closed again, her infirmity frequently robbing her of most of her waking hours. It seemed today would be like yesterday and the day before and the day before that; but in tomorrow Teresa had hope.
Teresa sat down on the chair facing the bed. A statue of a blonde woman watched Clare as her chest lift and fell, listening only to the girl's breathing. Minutes past. Hours. In the window on the other side of the bed, in the corner of one unblinking silver eye, Teresa could see the snow-capped northern mountain peaks rising far, far away. Their goal, within sight. But not within reach. Clare had proven herself not ready for that final, gruelling, journey, where the winds would blow fiercer and frostier than those that had challenged them, and the ranges climbed higher than anywhere else in all the lands. Would Clare, a human, ever be ready? If there was another world to be discovered beyond the mountains, a world without Claymore and the Organisation, would they see it together? Or was Teresa pushing Clare blindly towards a certain death, her malleable doll after all?
Teresa thought of Josel. Find the girl a home, the sister had said. Teresa had believed their home to be one and the same, to be found together. She had believed she could protect Clare from anything and everything. It had all been so clear to her; where she had been, where she was going, what she had been seeking. Teresa had thought she had every answer to every question. She didn't.
But the answers would come soon. As soon as the mountains did.
Teresa watched Clare as her chest lift and fell, listening only to the girl's breathing. Clare lay in the bed, her eyes closed. Not unconscious-*asleep*. It was early morning, too early for the recovering girl to be awake yet. Ulgi's cures had at last fulfilled their and their brewer's promise. Clare was better. Much better. She could talk; she could walk; she could eat and drink her fill. And Teresa's heart could beat again.
It was a new day in a new week. Teresa needed a replenishment of Ulgi's remedies. For all the colour back in her cheeks and renewed vigour in her limbs, Clare wasn't entirely rid of the chill in her blood and bones. She still needed rest in a warm bed in a warm room and daily doses of the best medicine Minoc could provide. Clare's place was still here. Teresa knew the girl well enough that she would say otherwise, eager to follow in the youma hunter's footsteps, but not this day. Definitely not this day.
Teresa closed the door.
On the landing outside her and Clare's room she allowed herself to hear it. Minoc had begun to crack. Even at this early hour the sound of humanity's death rattle was thunderous, the rooster's crow exchanged for human howls, for breaking glass and ringing steel-for piercing screams. Toulouse and its allies had not come, not yet, though it wouldn't be long before they were scaling the walls. This was Minoc's people beginning to realise it. It had dawned on them, with inescapable finality, that their lives were about to end. No more self-delusion, no more faith in silent Gods, no more hope in miraculous victory or mercy. The people knew now that there was nothing to fear anymore, nothing left to lose. What did a man care for when he had already tumbled from the cliff into the inevitable? They were alive now and that was all they had. They'd relish the last moments in complete freedom from the yolk that had been around their necks every other day of their lives; shedding once ingrained devotion to sovereign, employer, family, morality, law and order, Gods and their Heavens, and good sense. Every buried lust would be fulfilled in these final hours, every freedom, in this last dawn.
Teresa had seen it before. Give a human too long to think about their coming demise and it drove them mad. It was humankind's Awakening.
The youma slayer trudged down the creaking stairs. The innkeeper was still at his post behind the bar, feverishly polishing his pewter mugs as if all Twelve Lords of Alphonse intended to drink at the Rabbit's Respite this afternoon. There were even a few patrons at the tables, most likely other lodgers staying in the upstairs rooms. No one was drinking. They just sat. Some, the ones who weren't alone, the families, those with children, held one another close. Everyone immediately looked when Teresa descended into the tavern. These people had not found freedom yet-only fear.
Like the members of the city's garrison manning the ramparts this very minute in full regalia, there were some that stayed true to their responsibilities. Those individuals too loyal to the idea of honour; or too dedicated to loved ones; or even simply too stuck in routine to abandon it even in the face of annihilation. Those that stayed true to something inside-and to themselves. Teresa couldn't say if the steadfast were to be admired. It was their fear that kept those people in their place most of all. Fear of change, fear of forsaking what they knew to embrace cold death instead. In the end, they were just humans burning out like all the rest of them.
Seeing Teresa had not emerged from her room to butcher them, the people in the tavern went back to feeling sorry for themselves; a thankfully quiet pastime besides the handful of stifled sobs from the weaker women and their offspring. As the blonde past the bar, the innkeeper looked up from his mugs, though his buffing never ceased.
"I'd stay in with your girl today," he spoke up, familiar with Teresa's weekly pilgrimage and the reclusive company she held upstairs.
"I would if I could," Teresa replied, not stopping.
"Then I should tell you I'm going to bar the door soon. I'd rather not serve drinks to the rioters or the invaders this afternoon."
There were no objections from Teresa. Clare would be safer inside a fortified building than not. At least until she could *truly* be safe-under Teresa's watchful eye once more.
"That thing on your back," the innkeeper kept talking behind her, raising his voice to follow her. Harried. Hopeful. "Can you really swing that thing, or...?"
Other people looked to the blonde warrior again too, reacquainting themselves with the fearsome sight of the aforementioned 'thing' strapped to her body, the bare wedge tip almost scraping the floor. They had thought her their killer and now they sought a saviour. Teresa was neither.
She left the Rabbit's Respite and its innkeeper and patrons without another word.
The streets outside the inn were quiet, the morning mist hovering above the cobblestones undisturbed by a soul save Teresa-the lawlessness hadn't spread to the inn's doorstep yet... but it would. However, whether there were armies battering down the gates and hoodlums around every street corner or not, Teresa wasn't one to dawdle. With luck, Clare wouldn't even know she was gone.
The further Teresa walked the more it looked as though Minoc had already been breached by invaders. Doors to homes and shops were left wide open to the wind-some no longer had doors but splinters on hinges. Shutters were torn loose and tossed wherever, the windows underneath smashed into hundreds of scattered shards to have made way for a dozen different looters passing through. Clutter littered the road; broken and abandoned furniture, stolen ornaments cast aside as worthless, unwanted heaps of clothing; all sorts left behind as an echo of the latest ransacking.
For all the devastation it was a sideshow to the city's people. Villains and victims criss-crossed in and out of Teresa's sight; vandals and the offended; thieves and the robbed; thugs and the assaulted. Human blood and human voices were in the air. And human fear. Men and women rushed everywhere, for petty treasures and flimsy safety both, spurred by a common affliction of urgency. There was desperation in the eyes of every person Teresa saw.
Down some thoroughfares primitive barricades slapped together from the debris had sprung up, grim-faced and crudely armed citizens staring out from the other side, table and chair legs and kitchen and smithy tools the predominant weapons of choice. Whether the efforts were to repel the coming Southern Alliance force or to protect property from the rioters was anyone's guess. Probably a bit of both. Desperate to defend their way of life, desperate to defend their lives.
Down another street roving ragtag bands moved as one, a force of nature wrecking anything and beating anyone caught in their pull. Improvised clubs, dug up cobblestones, bare fists-everything was a weapon, any reason was enough to employ them. They no longer thieved but simply destroyed, razing all that held worth and meaning in their city before someone else did, searching for an enemy to fight. Desperate to battle for their way of life, desperate to battle for their lives.
And then there was Teresa. She walked down the middle of the streets, in between the looted buildings, amongst the frantic people. She walked alone, an unswerving ship in a roiling sea. She walked apart from everything. It was as if she wasn't really there, a passing silhouette under the morning sun. The humans, even swallowed by their insanity, gave her a wide berth. They innately knew she was not one of them; not a piece of their collective last gasp; not kindred to their pooled emotion. She was who she was and they were who they were. As it had always been; one world alongside another. Teresa could not save them from themselves. Nor would they have asked if they had known the colour of the eyes that gazed out from underneath her hood.
Teresa walked. She walked past four young men punching and kicking a bloodied old man labouring to keep his arms up over his body, and didn't flinch as the youths picked up chunks of brick to use instead of their fists. She walked past a man and a woman lugging a trunk bursting with silverware through a shop window, and she didn't blink at the gutted bodies in the doorway. She walked past six men with scarfs wrapped around their faces forcing themselves on a lone girl whose clothes were turning to tatters underneath their clawing hands, and she didn't pause when the hooting men finally pinned the girl down to the cobblestones. There were dozens of such sights around Teresa. Dozens upon dozens. There was no point in stopping it. No point in intervening, even if Teresa had been moved by what she witnessed. Self-inflicted atrocities and tragedies were what comprised human culture. There was no one around her worth saving. There was no one that *could* be saved. A life saved today would simply mean a life senselessly lost later. It was in a human being's nature to hurt others. And to die easy.
Teresa turned down another street where citizens were amassing around a bellowing man standing atop a few stacked crates, a wild gesticulation after his every howl and holler. Another militia in the making. With Minoc's garrison at the walls to die before the South's forces, more and more people had taken to policing themselves. A noble idea, but as with all humanity's good intentions, quickly corrupted by human desire. In a perfect world the populace would arm themselves with whatever weapons dug up from dusty corners of every half-baked smith and armoury in the city and rise as one to defend their homes and each another. In truth, for every militia faithful to their wartime doctrine, a dozen more would turn to banditry. Put weapons in the hands of the people and you put them in the hands of the criminals too. It wasn't just human nature-it was the nature of the blade. Give someone power over life and death and they would use it. They would most certainly use it.
The shouting man caught Teresa's passage through the crowd, and probably sensing a real fighter, began to work for her attention. "You! Can you do nothing while your...!" He was stopped by a hand on his shoulder and the shake of a head from a confidante next to him. Then the man saw what his friend saw-no saviour, a figure apart, a shadow passing on the wall. Not a beat later the loud man resumed rousing the crowd, where his words could touch sympathetic ears instead. For her part Teresa hadn't slowed. She had ears for one human's tongue-only one. And she longed to hear that sweet voice again.
Seeing The Cure quickened Teresa's heart together with her stride. The apothecary's store hadn't burnt to the ground just yet. It wasn't until the blonde moved closer and noticed the door was ajar that she realised the unrest hadn't missed Ulgi's doorstep.
Standing on that doorstep, Teresa nudged the door open the rest of the way. It creaked as it always had. The old floorboards did as well when she walked inside. But it was a different store now. It was quiet. It was still. There were no customers; there was only Teresa. She saw Ulgi's assistant, Devin, there to greet her at the counter. On top of it. He was lying on his side, his back to her.
Teresa walked closer, knowing what she'd find. She could smell the scent in the air. The woman touched the boy's arm, rolling him onto his back. He stared up at her. There was nothing in those eyes anymore; the gash across his throat had seen to that. They'd cut him from ear to ear, the final minutes of Devin's waking life spent bleeding out and choking on his own death. It wasn't a peaceful end; however it was at least an end. Those eyes wouldn't witness another atrocity, his body wouldn't feel any more pain, and he would know no further hardship.
It hadn't occurred to Teresa before, but he and Clare were around similar ages.
"Hmrmm... is that you, Pretty Hands? Did you come? Every week... the same..."
Teresa rounded the counter. Ulgi was on the other side, slumped against her shelving, concoctions knocked loose shattered on the floor around her. Teresa could still isolate the human blood within the blended spills.
"You... didn't bring her... 'Clare'..." Ulgi sounded disappointed. The youma slayer would have thought the knife in her breast would have been her larger concern.
"No," Teresa replied, kneeling to the old woman's level.
"Pity. Pity-pity. I would have liked... to see her..." Ulgi gazed ahead, her blue eyes, usually so keen, dull and unfocused. "I had a girl, long ago. A beautiful girl." Her head turned against the shelf, looking up at Devin on the counter. The young boy's blood had run rivulets down the counter to the floor, pooling with Ulgi's and her broken wares, one last stain for the old wood. "This... world... is too cruel for children. I wonder... if it was really meant for us..." The crone's leathery head lolled towards Teresa, her ragged lips curling back from her wooden teeth in what the youma hunter believed was either an attempt at a smile or a grimace of pain, "...or if... it was made for the monsters... and the eaters of monsters..."
Ulgi wheezed, the knife moving with her chest. She tried to lift one of her arms, but the limb trembled after a few inches and dropped dead at her side again.
"I'll... find someone to help you," Teresa said. It sounded awkward, and it was awkward coming out. They both knew it for a tired platitude, a pantomime of human speech by someone who wasn't human, who had only seen what it was to be so.
Ulgi gave that semblance of a grin once more. "Nice of you... I don't have a cure for this!" The mirthful hag glanced at the knife and then shook her head; more a quiver really. "I bargained with death, staved it off for others... for so long... now I go myself... to settle up with the Gods." She again tried to lift her arm, failing. "I suppose... you want what you... came for..." More strain had seeped into her scratchy voice. "I... have it... in..."
Teresa leaned in and reached into the old woman's billowy layered sleeves, where she normally kept Clare's remedies, and felt smooth glass within.
"Yes... you know where... that is it... my last cure," Ulgi remarked with a combination of pride and melancholy as Teresa drew back with the jar of salve. "And yours."
"The price?" Teresa asked quietly.
Ulgi smiled, no mistaking it this time. "*You*. Your face before mine. If I can't take Clare's with me... yours will have to do..."
Teresa stood, putting away the jar inside her cloak. She lowered her hood, allowing her unnaturally flaxen locks to spill out in waves down her back and over her shoulders, and for her otherworldly silver eyes to shine brightly in the dim light.
"As... pretty as your hands..." Ulgi praised, her coarse face a quilt of creases as she beamed up at Teresa. "Don't be something you are not, Pretty Eyes," she muttered and mumbled. "Only you... know what you are. You... Monster... to monsters... Witch to... the ungrateful... The hope... to a... g-girl..."
It took a moment for Teresa to realise the old apothecary wasn't blinking anymore. Nor was she breathing. But Ulgi was still gazing up at her, still smiling.
Teresa turned from the corpses, pulling her hood back low over her inhuman features. Briefly the thought of where she would get medicine for Clare now that Ulgi was dead passed through her mind, however with the city on the brink of falling it wouldn't have been at The Cure again anyway. It was a pragmatic contemplation, yet the woman was glad when it had gone.
The streets hadn't gotten any more peaceful when Teresa made her way back to the Rabbit's Respite. If anything the madness had spread; the crowds thicker, and louder, and their aggression swelled to match. There was no one around the inn when Teresa returned to its door however, a small relief. True to his promise, the innkeeper had barred the entrance for his, Clare's, and everyone's safety. Teresa didn't bother to knock-it was not an inconvenience for a being that could leap several storeys straight up.
Teresa climbed through the window into the inn room she kept with Clare, and at once her ready gaze sought out her other half. But the bedsheets were empty, the mattress cold to touch. The room's door was wide open. A moment of worry passed through the woman.
"You're not bad with that, girl."
It was the innkeeper's voice from downstairs. Teresa followed it to the landing outside the room and to the stairs.
"Keep it high; my Pa used to say a novice should always rely on the high guard. He-"
The innkeeper clammed up when he saw Teresa coolly walk down the stairs, one heavy boot at a time. His face said that he was surprised; either from seeing Teresa appear from upstairs after he'd barred the front entrance or at being caught encouraging Clare. Someone had put a sword in the girl's hands.
"I... I passed out what blades I had," the innkeeper apparently felt compelled to explain under Teresa's ominous presence. "Weapons guests had forgotten or traded for rooms or drink, some I confiscated from duelling drunks... I thought it for the best, considering..."
Teresa glanced around the tavern. Instead of liquor everyone nursed a sword. Some of the humans clutched them like lifelines, some tried to actually wield them, attacking the air with all the grace one would expect from farmers and peasants. Clare was among the latter sort. She at least swung her sword in a manner that the air might just fear her one day.
"How did you get up...?"
The innkeeper knew when to hold his tongue when Teresa marched right past him to tower over Clare.
"You're supposed to be sick."
"I think I'm better," Clare replied, holding the sword upright in both her hands, the point reaching well beyond the top of her auburn head.
"Mmm," Teresa dryly concurred. In a sudden blur of motion she had plucked the blade from Clare, leaving the girl's hands empty and with a gasp in her throat instead. The youma slayer studied the old battered sword at length in front of Clare, her eyes running along its chipped edge. Then she put it aside on the bar. Clare watched it go with obvious disappointment.
Unmoved, Teresa looked at her. "I am the only sword you will ever need."
"It wasn't for me," Clare spoke up softly.
Clare looked away, around the room. Teresa looked as well and saw what Clare had. Every face was turned in their direction. Every eye was watching their exchange. Everyone needed a sword... but not the sword they were holding.
Teresa looked to Clare once more. The girl stared back.
It was then the roof came crashing down in a shower of wood and tile, bringing along with it a giant boulder and the first taste of open war.
"Are you hurt?" Teresa's voice was alone in the dark, in the sudden quiet. From a distance there were groans, both of stone and of flesh, sounds of a world held at bay for the time being.
Clare was beneath the youma slayer, under her, sheltered by her. Several tons of creaking brick and wood and tile pressed down against Teresa's arched back, insisting on flooding her and Clare's private cocoon. But for a moment, Teresa and Clare's moment, it kept still.
Clare was looking up at Teresa, dirt on her face and dust in her hair. She nodded, and Teresa smiled. The woman took the time to brush some of the dirt out of the girl's locks, a trickle of pebbles accompanying the movement of her arm.
"Are you ready?"
Another nod, and Teresa's face changed. The warmth and emotion drained, the woman becoming the instrument again, the impassive and enigmatic legend. Teresa stood up.
Rubble poured from Teresa's back, and the world came rushing in, the explosions, the screaming, and the dying. Teresa erupted from the debris pocket, standing in what had been the Rabbit's Respite-a respite for no one any more, unless among the guests who were in for a permanent stay. Limbs stuck out from under oak beams and mounds of rock; a grimy hand here and a bloody leg there; never moving, the only markers for a dozen graves.
Clare looked around in mounting horror, her breathing growing faster and faster.
"We have to go," Teresa said quickly, seizing Clare by the arm and dragging her through the inn's ruin.
The pair stumbled into the street, bumping into a hundred other souls with the same thought. Smoke filled the streets and fire crested more than a few buildings, while even higher flaming pitch and stones broke the sky, raining relentlessly upon Minoc. Hundreds of people with the same thought and nowhere to go. The city was a cage, a budding insane asylum, and soon it would be a tomb.
"Stay close! Hold onto me!" Teresa barked back to Clare, pushing a path through the chaos, gripping the girl's arm as if it were her claymore's handle.
Teresa couldn't break the southerner's lines, maybe alone but not with Clare; that she had known for a while. Yet there had to be another way out of the city and past the army. The blonde's racing thoughts instinctively went to the sewers; the locale in a human city she typically frequented most in her former career. Any route outside the walls via the tunnels would be sealed behind a mass of welded bars, especially during the siege-perhaps not sealed to her arm and its steel however. Escaping the army's attention was something else. She could only hope that the sewers would lead to a section of wall not currently beset by invaders. Maybe heading for a lesser gate was the answer? Getting beyond Minoc's walls was the simplest part of the crisis after all; how far she got afterwards with Clare was what plagued her.
"Keep moving!" Teresa called. No matter what they couldn't remain in Minoc. The Southern Alliance appeared intent on levelling the city with little thought to anyone within.
Teresa's feet had brought her to the nearest, smallest, and most underused gate. The city guard swarmed at its foot and on the ramparts; siege towers had already reached the latter, each heaving out a glut of Toulouse, Lautrec, Mucha, and Staff soldiers to harry the defenders. As it looked, Minoc's men still had fight left in them, somehow holding the onslaught to a stalemate.
Teresa and Clare weren't alone in their idea. Citizens swarmed the gate alongside the guard, ready to unbar the giant doors just to flee the rising heat of their homes burning. The fighting was fierce on the walls, but maybe Teresa could just leap over them and avoid the crush at the gate? It sounded so ill-conceived in Teresa's head. It all had right from the beginning. She was like everyone else here. She didn't know what to do. She didn't know how to get Clare out. As a sister, a creature that could shrug off arrows and blades, escape was straightforward. As a human being...
Teresa stopped in the middle of the street, her grip on Clare slackening until it fell loose. She looked pensively at Clare who returned the stare. There was expectation in her green eyes. There was faith. Blind faith. Clare looked to Teresa for everything, trusted her for anything. And Teresa was letting her down. Teresa was pretending to be something she was not; that she could never be. Pretending a sister and a human could truly be together, pretending she knew anything about being human. She thought of Josel, of the Organisation, of all the opposition until now, of the dream of the mountains and peace and home. A dream was a dream for a reason.
Teresa had to try though. For Clare's sake, for a chance for the girl to live, she had to try.
"Keep behind me," Teresa said, with a confidence she did not feel.
Thick shards of wood suddenly burst in every direction, the gate's barred double doors disintegrating into smoke and flinders. The closest guards and citizens milling about at its foot disintegrated with it, vanishing within the blast or reduced to fine red mist, bits of blood and bone mixing with the dust. The trebuchet shot responsible erupted from the grisly scene a millisecond later-a roughly hewed boulder, its unstoppable path making ragdolls out of anyone in its the way.
"Down!' Teresa snapped, turning to Clare and covering her body with hers, forcing her low to the ground.
The boulder lost height and hit the pavings in front of the pair, before skipping just over Teresa's back and careering further down the street. Teresa's head whipped around, tracking its route, and she watched it lodge in a building's facade, caving it in as if it were made of parchment.
Roars followed the boulder, and through the dust cloud hundreds of southern soldiers stormed in, trampling the maimed and the dead and whirling and thrusting blades at anyone still fortunate enough-or unfortunate enough as it were-to still be standing. They poured past the wrecked gate like enraged ants from a kicked ant mound, or a raging endless river from a ruptured dam; screaming obscenities and wordless wrath, driven by a collective insanity only bitter warfare bred. The soldiers set upon everyone, armed guard and unarmed citizen alike, no discrimination or quarter in the heat of battle. Those that didn't slaughter the northerners still by the gate stormed the ramparts, hitting the defenders on the walls from behind and crushing them against the siege tower invaders. The city guard there fought with renewed ferocity-cut off from retreat they had good reason to-but it was a dwindling defiance in the face of overwhelming odds. The men died on that wall, any heroics forgotten in the next moment. Minoc was breached.
Teresa cursed herself for a fool. Of course the southern legion would commit the bulk of their force to the weakest city gate, the one more likely to fall. The monster hunter was no siege tactician or authority on human warfare by any means, yet common sense should have been an adequate tutor.
The northern survivors scattered from the gate, only the citizenry standing in the way of the Alliance's advance. Old men, the enfeebled, the women, the children. Teresa knew what was going to happen next. Like wolves the assaulting soldiers descended on them, any scrap of military discipline they had entered Minoc with evaporating before the sight of a helpless crowd. The males were put to the sword, some slower than others, their deaths turned into a macabre sport. The females died later after the soldiers had used up their bodies in every manner a woman could be used. It was anarchy. It was brutal. It was humanity.
"Clare," Teresa said quickly, coldly surveying the spectacle, "we must-"
Clare wasn't beside her.
Clare was running towards the madness, into it, scooping up someone's dropped sword as she charged. Barely keeping the heavy blade straight, she let the tip lead her towards the nearest rape-a young girl-and thrust the sword into the back of a soldier's thigh.
The Toulouse soldier hollered and shot upright from his spoils, turning to the sting wide-eyed and livid. As Clare unsteadily pulled her sword loose and tottered back, the soldier abandoned the small peasant girl to his half a dozen compatriots' tender company, a different girl having entered into his wild gaze.
"Little bitch!" he snarled, drawing a long thin knife from inside his scratched breastplate. "See this? It's about to be your *lover*, you wh-!"
The threat died when his brain did as Teresa's claymore sliced through skull and spine and groin, cleaving the man in half, his insides splattering wetly from between his legs onto the street paving stones. The woman warrior looked through his collapsing corpse, seeing fifty more of the man everywhere; another torturer, another rapist, another murderer. She saw that Clare saw them too. And beneath them, trodden under their heels Clare's eyes saw the victims; another ravaged young girl, another brutalised woman, another battered young man. People suffering. People that needed someone to act. People that needed someone to care. People who were as Clare had been, all those months ago.
Teresa couldn't pretend anymore. Even through silver eyes Teresa saw what Clare saw. The only difference-it was another Clare she saw in every one of the victims.
The soldier's violent death rippled through the invaders, slowly but ever reaching, a stone dropped into a filthy puddle. The other six rapists were first to gape at their comrade's sudden and visceral demise, hands instinctively clutching for their weapons. And then Teresa pulled off her hood. Even their victim stared after that.
"One of those witches!"
Whether seeking revenge, whether still frenzied and heady from their initial victorious attack and open plunder, or whether they were simply foolhardy, soldiers came at Teresa. They swung at her, they stabbed at her. Three, five, eight, *twenty*-*more*. Teresa swung in return. She stabbed in return. She didn't seek them out, but when the men ran at her with steel she met them in kind. Toulouse, Lautrec, Mucha, and Staff soldiers died in droves, by the handful, by the dozen. Teresa walked forward-Clare behind her holding her own bloodied sword-forcing the invaders back with her sheer presence, and slaying every other bloodthirsty human that chose to raise arms against her instead of falling back. Teresa gave them a chance; she gave them mercy-she let them run. And they did run, eventually. They poured out of the gate and Minoc proper as they had rushed in, but this time over the bodies of a hundred of their fellows.
Minoc's people, shocked and stunned like every human in the vicinity, still had the wits about them to take the opportunity to flee themselves; vanishing down streets and into wrecked buildings like mice into cracks, taking their lives with them.
"Behind!" Teresa yelled, driving the point of her claymore into the street with one arm while ushering Clare firmly to her rear with the other. She placed herself behind the wide flat of the blade as a black swarm of bolts peppered her. The crossbow bolts pinged off the steel; others found their mark, piercing the blonde's leather armour in her shoulders and arms and legs. They dug deep, through flesh and muscle, but not a human's flesh and muscle. Needles in a legend's hide.
Teresa spent a moment checking on Clare, the unharmed girl breathlessly giving a nod that she was alright. Then Teresa stepped around her claymore and tore it free, cobblestones breaking and flying.
Southern crossbowmen had lined up in two ranks in the gate, the first rank on bended knee below the second, their crossbows levelled at Teresa. The youma slayer moved forward.
"R-Reload! Reload, you dogs!"
Bolts were hurriedly replaced in the weapons and bowstrings and cranks were struggled with, however in the face of a sister there was no time for such a slow armament. As Teresa neared, some of the less disciplined dropped their crossbows and broke ranks, running for their lives. Those that remained, resorting to shortswords, surrendered their lives. A single mighty sweep of Teresa's claymore was enough, a titanic blow for any youma; it was more than devastating against humans.
Teresa marched outside Minoc as fresh infantry were ordered in; the meeting proving again that the South's finest were no match for a sister. The blonde woman stood in front of the gate, in its centre, cutting an arc before her against any that dared try to renew Minoc's sacking, killing when she had to. Ringmail, chainmail, full plate-the soldier's armour, their training, their rank; none of it mattered. Veterans, knights-all were bested and broken, the lucky ones crawling away with stumps for limbs and with breath still in their lungs.
Teresa wielded her claymore as she never had before. She fought not because it was expected, a job thrust upon her; she fought not for her own survival or her own sake. Teresa fought because she felt she had to. She fought because she wanted to. Because it was necessary. Because it was what was needed now, because it was the right thing to do. She fought because it was what Clare would do, had the girl the strength herself. Over the weeks and months Teresa had seen the world through Clare's eyes while it had changed in her own, and she couldn't just watch any longer. She couldn't remain a mere witness to humanity. What her encounters with Clare had kindled; giving up everything to save the girl, committing her life to understanding her, dedicating her heart to loving her; now flared more brightly than ever within her. Teresa didn't claim to have a duty to humanity, but she had a duty to be true to herself. This was who she was. This was the role she wished for. Perhaps... it was who she was meant to be, before the Organisation had gotten its hands on her. A woman who felt something. A woman with compassion.
As Teresa's crusade continued, the demon inside her bellowed its bloodlust, scratching to get out, to immerse itself in the presence of so much carnage. It wanted her to roar as it would, to screech battlecry after battlecry, to revel in the slaughter. But Teresa took no pleasure in the killing. She acted as she must, for the people at her back-for Clare, and for every man, woman, and child in the city behind the girl. Teresa pushed the demon down, its might and its silver eyes all that manifested in her. It was not its fight. This was a fight for the woman in Teresa, a fight for the child she used to be... for the side of her that was still a human being.
Teresa calmly watched through the routing soldiers as trebuchet, ballista, and every other warmachine that could hurl so much as a pebble were amassed against her in the distance. Bowmen joined the machines, nocking arrows. Everything and everyone fired at will, without rhyme or reason, the legion's commanders desperate to end Teresa in an all out bombardment.
Aware that Clare was vulnerable behind her, Teresa leapt into the sky to intercept the barrage, easily outdistancing Minoc's highest walls and the South's tallest siege towers. Arrows were cut to pieces or swept out of the air; trebuchet boulder's were smashed into powder or knocked off course and used as stepping stones to leap higher; ballista bolts had their points sliced off or were driven straight into the earth as Teresa jumped from one to the other. When Teresa landed on the ground again it rained gravel and matchsticks.
With a second grand leap Teresa launched herself towards an empty siege tower near the gate and swung her claymore at its base, demolishing its great wheels on one side, before springing away. The wooden monstrosity groaned, and then toppled. It fell across the breached gateway with an earthshaking crash, effectively blocking it. Teresa appeared on top of her barricade with Clare, and thrust her claymore into it in front of her, her hand resting on the hilt. There were other gates. And plenty more southern troops to storm them. Teresa couldn't be everywhere at once. But she was here at this one now and she hoped that was a statement in itself. As long as Teresa fought here today the Alliance would fail.
Four long, keening horn blows sounded. From her vantage Teresa observed the southern legions break off their assault on Minoc, withdrawing to their fortified lines. The blonde woman allowed herself a faint smile. She looked down at Clare and noticed the girl had stabbed her own sword into the tower in the same fashion she had. Clare was smiling too. Clare was smiling like Teresa had never seen her smile before.
Teresa eased the last crossbow bolt out of her bicep as the Alliance's commanders cautiously approached on horseback, a rainbow of banners from every authority in the south riding with them, but a white banner holding pride of place. It had taken them some while to muster after the signal to retreat, the time spent no doubt locked in conference amongst themselves debating how to deal with her and not actually have to 'deal' with her. Apparently it was finally accepted that strategy was hopeless if the southern leaders risked braving Teresa's presence now.
The group of men, the majority decked out in shiny plate mail and ornate plumed helmets that had never seen anything more dangerous than a bottle of polish, pulled reins near the fallen siege tower. The mounts were skittish, stepping from one hoof to the other, likely channelling the moods of their wary masters. If the sight of Teresa looming above them, the youma slayer mussed and bloodstained from fighting, wasn't enough to spook, the remains of their unfortunate soldiers surrounding the commanders and colouring the snow more red than white was.
For the men's sake Teresa released the hand she had placed on her impaled claymore, dropping the cut and pierced limb to her side. Her unique symbol etched into the steel had been exposed, the ragged scarf she had kept around it to conceal her identity loosened and lost long ago in the melee. The blood on the blade had run into the markings, filling them, accentuating their ruby shade. Teresa had purposely not wiped her sword.
Next to the blonde Clare mimicked her motions, releasing her own sword from underneath small hands. She eyed the commanders and their entourage like vipers at her feet. Best get on with it before the plucky girl took it upon herself to leap down and attack.
"A Claymore..." one of the commanders spoke in an odd mix of awe and revulsion, "I wouldn't have believed it..."
"Has it turned? Has it Awakened?" another asked snappishly, just below panic.
"No," Teresa replied before anyone else could. That seemed to relieve the group for a moment, before their minds considered the answer and were gripped by fear once more.
"Well if not insane and fallen to darkness yet, I dare say you are on that path to ruin now," a rheumy-eyed and white haired commander remarked, rubbing at his short beard.
"She is *clearly* insane," a younger officer disagreed, his horse constantly skipping and turning underneath him, more so than the other mounts. He wrestled with the reins. "You! Witch! Your Organisation masters will hear of this... this betrayal! This *murder*!"
"You will be hunted like a rabid dog!"
"And put down like one."
"Didn't you hear? The northerners don't even want your kind in their lands!"
Teresa let them ramble on amongst themselves. She looked at her arm, watching her wounds knit, the demon inside her licking them closed.
"A Claymore fights for Alphonse now, for Minoc?"
"No," Teresa answered that particular statement, looking up and silencing the rest of the accusatory gibbering. "Minoc surrenders."
That drew confused exchanged glances.
"I don't defend the city, but the people within it."
The silence lingered until someone scoffed.
"This is not your role, Claymore. This is not the duty you were made for."
Teresa smiled faintly and turned to peer over her shoulder. On Minoc's ravaged ramparts men, women, and children watched her, bedraggled faces scared-hopeful. "Maybe it should have been."
"We came to parley with this creature? Ludicrous!"
"The city is yours if you want it," Teresa spoke firmly over the outburst, "but not its citizens. Guarantee them a safe and unmolested exodus and you can have your victory here."
"It thinks to dictate terms?!"
As the contingent began to devolve into squabbling yet again a voice rose. "Generals... Generals! Generals, if I may?"
An officer pushed his horse to the fore of the pack. His short dark hair was unkempt and a leather eyepatch covered his left eye. He wore the tabard and colours of Karesia, a Toulouse city Teresa and Clare had passed through months ago. His dented and scuffed armour had seen significant wear. "I know this wo- Claymore. She has fought for me-for us-in the past."
There was silence again.
"Captain Sabatte, would you illuminate us?" the old white haired general prompted.
Sabatte inclined his head in deference. "It was in Kazaar after the reclamation. Mercenary work." He at last lifted his head and met Teresa's gaze. "I recall she turned down the offer to work for Toulouse further."
"To aid our enemies it seems!"
"Perhaps, my Lord. Perhaps," Sabatte said quickly, before the delegation could break down again. "This one is a strange Claymore indeed. Like no other. A renegade, no question. But I believe there is honour in her. I believe in her word. If terms are agreed upon, we can trust her to uphold them."
"The people..." the old general muttered. "What is a city without its people?"
"Silver-eyed witch... Do you believe we will let you pass, after all the good men you killed here today? Brothers-in-arms, murdered unjustly by a freak of nature!" another officer called out.
"We can lose more, if that is what you prefer," Sabatte retorted somewhat sarcastically. "Let's not make war and death exist where it doesn't have to."
"I agree," the old general said, capturing the attention of everyone. He looked up to address Teresa. "Safe passage from Minoc for its citizens... for one day. But you... *you* surrender yourself to us."
"No!" Clare screamed, grabbing her sword from the siege tower and almost overbalancing herself with its sudden weight in her slim hands. She stepped closer to Teresa, making to defend her.
Some of the southern commanders' bodyguards drew blades at the sight of the armed young girl, earning a sardonic raised eyebrow from Sabatte.
"I would," Teresa said, her smile still on her face. She looked at Clare, the girl's anxious pants clouding the cold winter air while she held her sword aloft. "I would. But my life is not my own to give."
Teresa trudged down the beaten road, cleared to the hard frozen earth by the army of footsteps that had come before her. It had begun to snow, flakes falling on the long winding procession that was the population of Minoc. The city marched together for the last time, destined to travel their separate ways eventually to make new homes in other towns and hamlets. The line of faces was dirty and downtrodden, broken, with many nursing hastily treated wounds. Some wouldn't survive their journey. But most would. They had lost everything; homes, businesses, loved ones; their place in the world. But they could still feel the chill air in their lungs and the distant sun on their skin. They were alive. Shoulder to shoulder they walked; peasant, soldier, noble; it no longer mattered who you were, just that you had survived.
A man carrying a bulging ratty burlap sack on his back in front of Teresa turned to look at her. He quickly turned back, his eyes shying away from hers.
It still mattered to them that Teresa wasn't one of them. There was still apprehension in every look, just as much as if it were the southern troops she chaperoned. She wasn't human. She had committed slaughter on a scale no single man or woman could even imagine accomplishing in their wildest dreams... or nightmares. Teresa would never be one of them.
The Alliance generals had given in to the youma slayer, agreeing to her proposal. In the end, they saw Teresa's life wasn't worth the cost to their campaign. And no one really wished to witness any further death on either side, the blood toll overflowing for today.
Evacuating a major city in a day was no small feat, however when your life depended on it people tended to vacillate less. Teresa followed Minoc's citizens, not trusting on the southern armies' mercy lasting for long while outside the battered walls of the city. The blonde's experience with humanity's failings wouldn't let her put it past the southern commanders to not run down their routed enemy on the road a day or week later. But if they tried Teresa would be there, and be ready.
Word would spread of this, of everything that had happened here at the border in the north. The rest of the people in the north, the people of Alphonse, would hear of the siege and near razing of Minoc; the men and women of the south, in Toulouse, would catch word of the butcher with the silver eyes; the natives of the south, of Mucha, would heed the rumour of the blonde negotiator and her young companion that had bargained for thousands of lives; the settlers in the west, in Lautrec, would learn the tale of the solitary warrior that had defied a legion-and the Organisation in the eastern realm of Staff would know that Teresa of the Faint Smile still lived, still rebelled, still with the human girl at her side. Teresa didn't care about the bard songs this event would inspire or the epics it would help pen, or if people would even remember her name. She cared that the world had become smaller, centred on her and Clare. They might be seeing Josel and her group again soon. Perhaps others. Perhaps a lot more.
Clare strode beside Teresa, fit as ever, chest puffed out and eyes bright. She had the sword she had picked up strapped somehow to her back, akin to how Teresa bore her claymore. Teresa supposed it was truly Clare's sword now. The woman hadn't quite gathered all her thoughts and feelings on it just yet, but separating Clare from the blade now seemed wrong. The girl had earned the right to carry it today. Tomorrow was another matter.
The freezing air felt good in Teresa's flaxen locks. She had left her hood down. She was what she was, and she invited every kind of look Minoc's people cared to shoot in her direction. None of them had talked to her. None of them had thanked her. But what of it? Teresa hadn't expected them to. She was no one's idea of a saviour. She was no one's hero.
Except in the mind of one human girl.
And as long as Teresa was Clare's hero, as long as Clare was proud of her, the woman could face the nervous glances and baleful stares with her faint smile. Teresa didn't need or seek the love of the people she protected. She just needed it from the girl who kept her heart.
The End... for now.
Channelling Kingdom of Heaven at the end there! I originally wanted to have Teresa fight with very little actual killing of soldiers, but I felt that was too unrealistic and idealistic.
Bonus points for anyone that can tell where I ripped off the name of the city from! ^_^