Sunrise. Birds twittered as a light breeze carried leaves across an open savannah, south of the city gates of Rabanastre. The ground was damp from the rain, and the air was still slightly humid, and pleasantly warm. What clouds there had been had broken apart to reveal an azure sky.
This description is one that might be found, perhaps, in a travel brochure, or the first few lines of a film script, or as a clumsy attempt on the part of a fanfic writer to start another chapter. It is not, however, a description that befits delivery by a narrator who pretends to be objectively reliable, for it must be said that this description was at once entirely informative and misleading in equal measure. When taken at face value, there was nothing factually wrong with it – at the specific moment to which it refers, it was indeed sunrise, there was indeed a light breeze blowing (leaves moving therewith) and the birds did indeed twitter. However, these grounds are far too general and ambiguous upon which to determine that a morning happens to be favourable and life happens to be good – for at this point the lie makes itself apparent.
The morning was not, however, favourable in the least, and life was far from good as far as those who were around to witness this misleading sunrise were concerned. Though dawn typically brings light, warmth and invigoration to those who see it, today it served only to illuminate the devastation of the previous evening, a cold sun shining on tired people, who could only dread what the morn would bring.
The Watch knew exactly what it would bring, and for this reason they had requisitioned stretchers and white mages as they could find them, hoping to mitigate the aftermath of the storm. Most of their efforts were confined to the city bounds; indeed, the density of the population meant that a great deal of people were in need of medical attention. Structures too had to be watched; while the majority of the city was build from various forms of masonry, some weaker timber structures existed, and these in particular had to be evacuated until they were repaired and made safely habitable. Some buildings were completely destroyed; for those, no mages nor engineers were required; the only services needed in those cases were provided by an ordained Kiltias.
In spite of the storm's ferocity, the city itself had not suffered too greatly – masonry had little to fear from even the most violent of the elements. Certainly, anything left out on the streets had not survived well, and there was water pooled here and there, but this was more or less the extend of the damage. The lower city had been shielded from the storm itself, but it was now quite flooded, and drains were blocked, but efforts to clear them were working smoothly and the problem would soon be overcome. In fact, it would be surprising if the city was not largely returned to business as usual within a day or two.
How lucky we have been, the bangaa at the South Gate mused. It is almost as if the weather, for all its hostility, means to cause no real disruption…
Quaint as the thought was, it was summarily contrasted with the watchman's uncomfortable realization that that the efficacy of recovery effort in Rabanastre city was probably not representative of similar efforts elsewhere, in particular, the Plains over which he was now staring. Every now and again, search parties would leave via the South Gate, and come back a short while later with another casualty on a stretcher. They were of all shapes and sizes, though there was quite the preponderance of the relatively short in stature, the moderately lagomorphic and the sufficiently weak to be afforded various societal concessions accounting therefor. This troubled him.
On this particular stretcher lay a young moogle, a tattered flower in her hair, unconscious and covered in mud, still soaked from the rain she had evidently spent the night in. Given that the watchman himself, even with his tough hide and warm cloak, had felt the need to retreat for shelter that same night, he was not terribly keen to suppose what this poor girl had been through, with her sodden fur and simple, long-sleeved garments. As she was marched in at a pace reminding him all too grimly of a funeral, he could only feel pity, and a frustrated self-loathing. While recognising that it was ludicrous for him to hold himself personally accountable for her misfortunes, he wondered yet that if he had worked a bit harder, just a bit harder, she might not be in the position. Bowing his head, he returned to his job, his initial hopefulness of a swift return to normality overshadowed by a realization of the cost.
Warm. Fuzzy. Nice.
Simple monosyllabic utterances, representative the internal monologue of the semi-conscious.
When one is waking, the first few things one becomes aware of is tactile and auditory feedback. This is because while asleep, these two senses remain partially active, enough to allow the sleeper to react to external stimuli and awaken hastily if required. Certainly, there is little call for vision when one's eyes are closed, and less still for gustation when one is not eating. Tactile and auditory senses are the principal two modalities utilised by the unconscious mind, because they are together the two most likely senses to detect predators while one is sleeping, be it through rustling, kinetic vibrations as they approach, the heat of their breath, their weight upon their prey, or any other telltale sign up on which they can pick (olfaction is a possible third, although its usefulness is typically confined to fairly specific cases).
Together, these senses also form a positive feedback network, allowing a person to either continue sleeping or begin the cycle of waking. The network is fed by the constancy of external stimuli; if there is no change in their outside environment, then they have no reason to wake, and vice versa. Here, with constants such as tactile sensations of warmth and fuzziness, and the absence of aural stimuli, Liam felt no reason to completely wake just yet.
A small change in that tactile stimulus, accompanied with auditory cues, followed. This consisted of something warm, fuzzy and in direct contact with him stirring, easing into a more comfortable position, followed by a contented, distinctly feminine sigh. Though not more than half-awake, Liam knew from experience exactly what, or rather, who he was snuggled against, giving him even less reason to move. He had fallen asleep next to Sammy, and they were still in that car of his, which he had to note was quite a bit warmer than he remembered – not that such warmth was at all unwelcome. Although this was hardly the first time he and his sister had cosominated – they did most nights – it had never felt so un-awkward before, so warm and inviting. So… soft, he might almost say fuzzy. Furry, even. Right now, he was in heaven.
Not so heavenly was the smell his nostrils began to detects as his waking returned his other faculties to him, one by one. It wasn't nauseating, but it was certainly… not like a smell he was used to, and certainly not one he could oretend was pleasant. It reminded him of a chicken coop, only… stronger, far more pungent. Like being in a chicken coop.
And it was this that prompted him to open his eyes, and take in his surroundings. It became plainly obvious that he was not in a car as he noticed that the roof above him – quite aside from being quite a bit lower than he recalled – now appeared to be made of some shafted material, rather like leaves, or perhaps feathers. The odour he had earlier detected seemed to be concentrated in this material, which seemed to indicate an organic origin – perhaps a primitive shelter erected from natural, readily available materials. Certainly, it was by no means a part of any car he'd remembered falling asleep in.
Which could only mean he'd been moved.
Jolted conscious enough to be both alert and alarmed, Liam hastily took in what little he could of his surroundings, fearing the worst. Light was bad, though he was able to determine that this shelter was some sort of simple tent, not unlike a lean-to. It seemed to end above his head and below his feet, and to him those seemed to be the best ways out. With practiced care, he removed himself from his sister's embrace without waking her, and carefully eased himself out of the shelter, not wishing to test whatever structural integrity it might not have. And when he did emerge, there were yet more surprises.
He appeared to be in some sort of cavern. He could see the opening a short distance away, through which sunlight filtered in, briefly dazzling but subsequently allowing him to make out the dimensions of the enclosure. The walls had been cut rectangularly into rock, and seemed slightly worn, which led him to conclude that he was in some sort of artificial construction designed to convey some sort of eroding fluid; perhaps a disused drain or aqueduct. He walked towards the light at the end of the tunnel, and turned to face the shelter he'd spent the night in.
As he did so, he tried to think of a reason that one might erect an outdoor shelter of a simple, relatively fragile design in the middle of a drain. It defeated the purpose, really – all a lean-to was any good for was stopping the wind, of which there was none, and the rain, which didn't do a lot of falling sideways – or through solid rock for that matter. In fact, he realized that you'd be more likely to get washed out if the place was in fact a drain and flooded; in which case there was no way a simple structure like that was going to do anyone any good.
While musing, he tried to make out exactly how it had been constructed. He could not see it well, but there seemed to be a large pile of whatever the whole structure was made up of behind it, almost like it was leaning on it. Or… part of it. A smaller part of a larger thing. Or…
And then it stirred.
In Liam's experience, inanimate structures did not typically stir – at least, unless an external net force acted on them, exerted perhaps by the wind, or gravity. However, these forces had specific conditions under which they could act, and could only act in certain ways, producing characteristic kinds of motion. For instance, the force of the wind on an object could cause it to rustle if it had relatively little mass, or gently sway if it was heavier, but most importantly the force of the wind did require a gust to be present, and Liam felt no such thing. Gravity could act on an unstable object to move it into a more stable equilibrium, but ceases as soon as this potential energy is conserved by the ground. Clearly, it was nether of these.
This left Liam with not a lot of options. Himself excluded, the only other thing capable of moving things was his sister, who clearly could not be involved. Further, and notwithstanding the fact that he had not yet attempted the feat himself, he surmised that the section of the structure they'd been sheltered under was much too heavy to be at all moved even by the both of them, let alone the whole larger mass to which it seemed attached. The only conclusion he could draw was that the shelter itself, by means currently unknown to him, was capable of movement under its own power.
At this, the sun reached a position in the sky whereby the cave was lit up. Briefly blinded once more, Liam reopened his eyes to find some light shed on the matter – and subsequently wished he hadn't.
Before him lay an enormous, yellow bird. He would almost have called it a chicken, except that he didn't know of any mature gallinacean that turned out yellow, nor, certainly, any that ended up as large as a person - and this one was taller than him lying down. The shelter he and Sammy had been under had, remarkably, been one of its wings – either the bird had settled down to roost on top of them or they had found their own way under the wing - each a story as likely as the other.
Liam sat down on the cold, stone floor, trying to make sense of patent nonsense. His palms met his face, and at that point he became acutely aware that being spirited away with his sister to cohabit nonsensical drains containing giant chickens was the least of his problems.
On a human being, particularly a male, bodily hair can grow just about anywhere. There are, however, a number of well-known places it absents – among which are the lips, the soles of the feet and the palms of the hands. Indeed, so well known are these places that they are the subject of many an adage; chiefly that one who observes hair to grow thereon is surely mad. This troubled him.
This may seem puzzling to the reader. After all, in humans, it is perfectly rational – if it is observed that few sane people see hair on their palms, and if it is further observed that people of an unsound mind may not necessarily perceive things in the same way as sane people, then it follows that it is far more likely for people of an unsound mind to perceive hairs growing on their palms than those of a sound mind. So it can been seen that unless Liam knew he was himself mentally unsound, he had no cause for alarm.
But then, it was not his habit to fret over nothing, which meant something real had unsettled him. Some stimulus had set off a deep-seated paralyzing fear that all was far from well. This stimulus had been tactile, caused by the collision of his palms and his face. Not that he was specifically looking to make the observation, but the moment he felt a soft cushion of hair between his cheeks and his palms, he knew something was up. And so, he pulled his hands away from his face and turned back towards the light.
What he saw was not objectionable either, as there is nothing inherently disconcerting about the appearance of a pair of white, digitgrade, fur-covered paws in front of one's face. Nor is it disconcerting to see them move in the manner of human hands, or even to note the sheer anatomical familiarity of an opposable thumb flanked by four digits. No, what was disconcerting was the realization that when they did move, it was by his own command, for it inferred that the paws, or hands, or whatever he was to call them, were somehow linked to him on a fundamental level, more than likely neurally. And, assuming he was not part of some alien experiment, or had been whisked into an Issac Asimov novel, the only other way he knew of hands being neurally linked to anything was for them to be a part of the same body, in this case, his own – and at this point, the disconcerting part becomes apparent.
Cognitive dissonance followed. For the uninitiated, cognitive dissonance is the act of holding two vastly incompatible notions in one's mind, or more specifically, the discomfort that results (anyone who has experienced a real dilemma knows this feeling all too well). The most popular and readily demonstrable use of the term 'dissonance', from which all others are abstracted, originated in music, where it refers to any two or more harmonically incompatible sounds in juxtaposition, producing a sound which is unsettling to listen to. Dissonance implies transience and instability, and conveys an implicit need to resolve into consonance – which is why it can be used for dramatic effect, as it prolongs the feeling of unresolved tension until such time as the musician should deem appropriate.
Here, the dissonance resulted from a fairly simple notion – Liam was human, and the core of his self-perception was based around this notion. As a human, he knew quite intimately what his hands should look like – skin-covered, four slender fingers and thumb, slightly marked under the left wrist where he normally wore a watch – all of which fell well within the parameters of human normality. So when he looked upon these paws, quite unlike anything a human could ever bear, and yet came to realize that they were indeed his, the dilemma emerged. And when these dissonant notions demanded resolution, the only consonance the dilemma could offer was for Liam to realize that one of the two notions was no longer valid. It did not take Liam long figure out which one it was. His entire concept of self-image usurped, he could only stare, eyes blank, mouth agape.
Soon staring became a rapid self-inspection. Looking down a shirt he did not recognize, he saw the same fine white white fur covering his entire body. At this point he noticed definite anatomical changes – his feet were, by proportion, longer, and his toenails longer still – more like claws than anything else, to match the shorter claws of his forepaws. He tried his paws experimentally, and quickly found that they were, anatomically, more similar to human hands than he would have expected, and he was somewhat pleased, at least, to find that he had no appreciable difficulty in getting them to do exactly what he wanted.
Mild relief followed from the realization that at least he had no immediate physiological obstacles. Indeed, there was nothing, as far as he could see, that was going to make survival difficult or impede his capacity to do anything he would need to, changed though he may look or feel. At least, he reasoned, he should just need to find out where he was, then find a hospital, get himself checked out, and get back to England. A nice, simple, foolproof plan. In nice, simple, easy-to-follow steps, no less.
Of course, it was obvious that he was more than a few steps ahead of himself and the situation. First and foremost, he could not forget his sister, who was still under the gigantic chicken. He blanched - getting her out from under that was not going to be pleasant or easy, but he reasoned that if he himself could sneak out without waking either of them, there was a good chance he should be able to manage without further incident.
So convinced, he crept towards the wing that had sheltered them, and felt around for her. While so doing, one thing he found that took a bit of getting used to was the feeling of having fur, a sensation, if one permits the cliché, quite unlike any other. When feeling for something, a human will directly apply his skin to a surface and move across it, noting how the tactile stimulation changes through time and hence deriving information therefrom. Liam found, however, he could gently feel the presence of something as it touched his fur before actually contacting it with his fingers proper, giving him a slightly broader picture of what immediately surrounded his hands. At the moment, however, this only served to unnerve him, as it gave him the impression that he was being clumsy and brushing things unintentionally – to say nothing of the sheer novelty of the sensation. After several seconds, more nerve-racking than they had to be, he found Sammy's shoulders, and proceeded to – in as dignified and gentle a manner as he could manage – drag her out from under the wing.
When moving a sleeping person (without the aid of drugs), the key is to be slow, even, and gentle. One must also pay attention to the reactions of the person you are dragging, being sure to stop and let them settle should they show signs of waking (unless the intention is to wake them, in which case, dropping is suggested). It was with this in mind that Liam managed to get Sammy out from under the the wing without incident.
Once clear of the bird, he carried her towards the light, and set her head down in his lap, pondering his next move. He had absolutely no idea where they were, and realized that he would sooner or later need to go outside in the hope of getting some bearings. With this, he realized that, much as he would like to, it would not be practical to leave his sister sleeping on his lap, and would have to wake her. His hand started for her cheek, but stopped sharply around the ear – for there was no way he could pretend his sister had ears like that. In fact, his sister – if indeed this was his sister - looked more like some sort of anthropomorphic rabbit than anything else, though he could still see the semblance. Taking particular note of the white fur and a little green ball of fur attached by a long, flexible fibre, and hence noting his similar endowment, he realized that she must be afflicted as was he. The matter adequately explained, his hand completed the journey to her cheek, and gently caressed it.
Sammy stirred a little, before opening her eyes a little, and nestling herself a little more comfortably in his arms. Almost immediately, however, they went wide as she saw not her brother, or indeed any face known to her, but some lagomorphic monster bearing down upon her, much too close for comfort. She made to scream, but Liam quickly covered her lips and drew her even closer.
"Shhhhhhhh! Sammy, it's me, kupo! It's Liam!"
One can imagine the effect these words had, or didn't have, on what Liam was reasonably sure was his sister, who started resisting horrible monster grappling her even harder. It was a struggle, but Liam held her long enough that she eventually tired, as she wordlessly took in her surroundings, trying for answers. Not finding them, she turned to the only thing she supposed that could.
"It's okay, I'm here now, kupo..."
She wailed, trying to disbelieve her eyes - and her ears weren't helping. "No, it's not, kupo! Big brother doesn't have fur!"
Liam cradled her head in his arms, and nuzzled her. "It's me, Sam... it is me, kupo. I'm here now... there's no need to be afraid..."
To realize one's older brother has turned into some sort of animal is rarely a pleasant notion to digest at short notice, but in Sammy's case, it was at least made easier by that fact that he did not seem bothered by it – an impression Liam was going to greater pains sustaining than he was willing to admit. But it worked, and soon, Sammy was snuggled up to him, tears rolling down furred cheeks, seeking comfort now as much as answers. "What...where are we? What happened to the car... what happened to you, kupo?"
These were not questions Liam's idealistic side had hoped to be called upon to answer, though to his inner cynic they brought a wistful genre-saavy expectance. Still equal parts not trying to freak out and desperately trying to work out some rational explanation for what was a patently inexplicable turn of events, he hadn't had the time to come up with some readily palatable explanation for her sake, some hand-wave that might kiss it all better. No, right now, all Liam had was a few theories, fewer facts, and some overriding principles to uphold; chiefly, making sure that she was safe and happy. He knew that what next he said could either make her safer or happier, but not both, and so after a moment's deliberation, he capitulated, and decided that she needed to know everything.
"I've got nothing, kupo. I've got absolutely no idea."
These words pealed like a knell upon Sammy's now larger and considerably more sensitive ears, and were miles from any sort of comfort or reassurance Here they were, wherever that was, barely human if at all and now big brother was flat-out admitting that he didn't have the answers, let alone a fact or two. Suffice to say that this put young Samantha in a position she spent a large amount of time trying not to think about – and it took every ounce of her restraint to not scream in despair. She did, however, manage a quiet sob into his chest, sorely underrepresenting her feelings but a nonetheless appropriate and understandable reaction.
Not that Liam felt much better,for that matter – of all the things he had been trying to avoid, upsetting his sister had near-topped the list. He needed to stay strong for her, or at least look like he knew all the answers, or how to keep them both from harm, but above all, he had his honour, and would not lie to her – even to keep from her a terrible truth. In these unfamiliar surroundings, in an unfamiliar body, and so placed by means unknown, his ability to judge a situation and keep them both out of harm's way was practically nullified. At best, he could do little more than hope nothing bad would happen until he found a way out of this mess, or at least, someone else who could.
But fate wasn't going to wait around for Liam to work out how to proceed. Instead, it came right up to him, and gave him a face full of beak.
Ouch. Pain. Hurt.
Simple monosyllabic utterances, representative the internal monologue of the semi-conscious.
Suffice to say that Edgar Burkhalter was not a morning person. Suffice also to say that he was not remarked upon for his physicality; indeed, the fifteen-minute walk from the CERN staff carpark to his office was enough to see him gasping for breath. Suffice further to say that waking up to the sensations of being sodding wet, completely filthy and in a few too many kinds of pain is an experience best left to the imagination. Suffice finally to say that his experience was not helped by the all but irrefutable evidence facing him that everything he had ever come to regard as familiar and recognizable was out the window. His rational mind had no trouble accepting this; after all, it was a merely a consequence of the facts, but his subconscious was still taking its sweet time.
The other thing taking its sweet time was his body, which in spite of his efforts seemed perfectly content to remain motionless. While this was literally how Burkhalter, and indeed, the cynical reader would be to see it, the last sentence is somewhat unfair, because it implies that Burkhalter's body was willfully defying him. In reality, as it had no mind of its own (reflexes and other related involuntary actions notwithstanding) it therefore lacked such a capability; the issue was less one of willful defiance and more one of physical incapability. In fact, if one was to give credit where so due, his body was holding up laudably well considering the fact that it had been dropped onto the ground from a height not particularly worth contemplating and then trodden into the ground in a manner no more worthily pondered. When he thought about it, there were even a good deal of days reasonably fresh in Burkhalter's memory in which he could distinctly recall feeling worse than he did now; curiously, try as he might, the events that led up to these refused to resolve into any sort of meaningful detail, save perhaps for the remarkably consistent detail of having had a mouth full of liquid and not quite being able to think straight - not helped by the fact that he was presently reminded of both.
So he lay there, mostly unmoving, face down in the mud. Breathing was getting difficult, and he figured that, sooner or later, he'd probably just choke on the mire and that would be that. Which would be nice, in a way, because that would mean the pain would stop. Except then he remembered that he still had work to do, and this gave him pause. Fortune had handed most of his life to him on a silver platter, whether he wanted it or not, so he wondered now if that was to happen again. He was fairly easy either way; there was little enough he could do about it for his part, and he could not think of anyone in particular who would miss him.
Actually, that would be a shame. Burkhalter recalled his old dreams of delusion and grandeur once more, surrounded by equal parts disgraced coworkers and disbelieving critics. And through all the chaos and the hubbub of the media conference, he would climb up to the podium and raise a hand, and there would be silence. A pause pregnant with anticipation, for he was about to bless them with his gifts of words and knowledge. And there would be much rejoicing, and every man, woman and child would know his name. And most importantly, they would all miss him, when the time came.
When the time came. Burkhalter had no time left now, as all the air in his lungs had been supplanted by muck. He could only lie there now, in the peaceful albeit slightly regretful contemplation in wait of death, wondering what fortune was hiding from him now. What the plan was hiding from him now.
His thoughts became blurry, less coherent, simpler, as he slipped back into the monologue of the semi-conscious, and then into the nihilogue of the unconscious. By which time it seemed to be all over.
As anyone who chooses to keep avian pets will attest, a face full of beak is not a pleasant thing to experience. Suffice to say that it is something best avoided, perhaps through careful handling or distancing, or better yet, not choosing to keep avian pets. Suffice also to say that the whole experience can be made even more unpleasant when the bird is actually so much bigger than you that the sheer force of a peck is enough to throw you flat on your backside, a lot less sure of which way is up. Suffice further to say that there is often a certain amount of pain involved in such secondary injuries, in addition to the initial trauma of the peck itself. Suffice finally to say that the whole unpleasantness of his experience was somewhat mitigated by the fact that it had perhaps mercifully left him unconscious before the pain proper could set in. That would be for later, if there was one.
This, unfortunately, left them both helpless, as Sammy had no means of defending herself, save perhaps for her voluminous screaming, here employed more as an offensive tactic. The young of many species capable of vocalization evolve instincts which take into account the fact that screaming can sometimes frighten away predators, as well as potentially alert any nearby help. Unfortunately for her, the only nearby help was presently incapacitated by other means, while the bird was only slightly startled and hardly intimidated.
A combination of this realization with a very painful rasp developing in her throat prompted Sammy to quieten down, succumbing to terror, trying to pretend she didn't exist. This too was a survival tactic, the premise being that if one pretends that one does not exist, the predator will be similarly deluded and will go away empty-handed. Strictly speaking the premise does not literally function as such, but the act of attempting to pretend one does not exist can help to suppress any unwanted movement or sound that might alert a predator to one's position, which leaves the predator with fewer ways of learning of the existence you're not supposed to have. This is all well and good in theory, but it does have a crucial flaw – it is completely ineffective if the predator already knows you do exist, doubly so if you lie in plain sight before it.
It was clear that Sammy's charade fooled no-one, but it did have a fortunate side-effect – by remaining deathly still and quiet, she was showing no sign of offense or danger to the bird, which meant that it was less likely to see her as another predator, and therefore decide that she was not a threatening problem that demanded a violent solution. Unfortunately, this left to her the role of prey, an arguably worse position to be in, and she could only hope for now that the bird was not immediately interested in eating.
And as its beak moved inexorably closer, Sammy realized that she had just second-guessed the bird's entire psyche with what seemed to her to be some quite remarkable accuracy, despite the paralysing terror with which the whole situation was fraught. By which time it seemed to be all over.
As anyone who wakes up on a stretcher will attest, being at once totally helplessly immobile, in rapid forward motion and unable to see where one is going does not make for a pleasant experience. Nor does the sight – or what one can see through barely-opening eyes – of vicious-looking reptillian creatures, glancing at you now and then for purposes presumably removed from the benign. And given the discomfort they seemed to be ensuring their quarry was in, Burkhalter had nothing to suggest otherwise.
Of course, he also had no way of resisting, and could only lie back as he was carted toward a high stone wall. The party slowed, and exchanged with a similar creature at a gate. In spite of all else, Burkhalter had retained his atrocious hearing through the metamorphosis, but even so, he was midly fascinated by their communications. He could hear modulation, articulation, perhaps even some syntax, but without doubt speech. Behind all that, he mused, there might even be a language he could learn or understand. Irrefutable proof of non-human intelligent life was now a possibility far that seemed more real than even he, or indeed, he realized, any scientist had ever dared to consider - for now he had the evidence barking in front of him, deciding what to do with him. If that wasn't scientific achievement, he didn't know what was, unplanned as it was.
While looking them over, it appeared that the four had realized that he was awake, and they promptly came over to him, inspecting him closely. It occurred to Burkhalter that the end was nigh – and then scoffed. The end had arrived no less than four times today, each time bungling the address and returning empty-handed. So rather than being struck with the rational fear of one who is about to die, Burkhalter sunk into indifference and cynicism, wondering just when Fortune would get sick of him already and be done with it. So one can imagine his disappointment when her head drew near to his face and tried for conversation.
"Sssalutationsss, friend. How doesss you fare?"
Words. Recognizable words in an recognizable tongue. Well, thought Burkhalter, perhaps not unmistakeably – I never remembered it being so full of sibilants. He felt a hand on his cheek, and realized the speaker was brushing something off of him. "Apologiesss, friend, I did not mean to ssspit in your faccce. It tendsss to happen sssometimesss."
Running with the slightly hopeful assumption that he was not simply being spoken at in a language that sounded otherwise identical to English but actually meant they found him salivating and couldn't wait to eat him, Burkhalter became aware of two things – one, he was probably not being marched towards as grisly a death as first thought, and two, the creature had excellent manners. Manners implied social order, and social order implied a high degree of sophistication, perhaps even civilisation-grade. And that meant knowledge and information, scores of it, many times more than could satisfy his curiousity in a lifetime, if only he could gain access to it. And of all people, Burkhalter could be trusted to gain access to information.
He coughed a little before speaking, bringing up some mud, but managed. "Ah, it's no trouble... friend." His accent had mellowed a little, giving way to a slightly rounder, less continental form of enunciation than that to which he was used, but it did not seem to hamper the clarity of his speech – not as much as two lungfulls of muck in any case. "Tell me... what is this place? And if you don't mind my asking, who are you?"
The creature nodded, though mistaking his curiousity for confusion. "We've just walked inside the gates of Rabanassstre, friend. Do you know where are you now?" Burkhalter nodded his assent – a blantant lie, but he had more pressing concerns, such as acute pulmonary congestion – breathing, let alone talking, was becoming difficult. The lizard-man continued. "My friendsss and I are part-time watchmen, and we were called out to find where are the people left lying after the ssstorm. We find many victimsss, friend, and it sssaddensss us when we sssee ssso many hurt. But we are glad that you live, friend, and we think that a quick visssit of magesss ssshould fixxx you right up."
Burkhalter's comprehension had fled at the mention of mages, and he was now torn between taking them seriously and forgoing the entirety of his own rational experience, or trying to pretend he had the answers. Of course, this was not the first time he had been forced to make this decision, and he was finding it easier each time. Of course, the fact that he suspected that he might have more answers than he was prepared to admit did confuse the issue somewhat, but for now, he just relaxed as he was carried, a bit more gently now, towards promises of treatment. And with treatment, perchance to comfort. And with comfort, perchance to some proper sleep. And how long I have coveted some proper sleep. And as the promise of sleep afforded him some welcome comfort, he was found to be doing just that long before he reached his destination. All his grief and pain seemed a distant memory, obscured for promised joy.
A small puddle was forming in the earth, a puddle of what was mostly water, mixed with a small amount of sodium choride, along with some other organic compounds. It was forming as a collection of droplets, which dripped down from a short distance above the ground to gather in a small pool of saline solution. In fact, there were actually two puddles, a short distance from each other – and all of this should give one a reasonable hint as to where these puddles might come from. The reader may here take a brief break to contemplate their answer, or if they should feel the need, read on, lest they need some more hints (having become stuck), the solution (having given up) or the rest of the story (having no patience for the writer's antics).
Saline solution is a chemical most commonly used to sterilise and clean light dirt and grime from an organic surface. It is particularly useful in medical applications, because it happens to be naturally occurring in most-carbon based life. Without exception, every single mammal ever to have lived will have come into contact with it at some stage – it is found in sweat, blisters, and on the surface of the eye. This last is the responsibility of the lachrymal glands, which secrete this solution in order to lubricate the surface of the eye. Notable is the fact that the action of the lacrymal gland is usually an involuntary reflex, brought on by abrasion or dryness of the ocular surface, or more dramatically by intense emotional triggers. Most of the emotions regarded as suitable triggers are negative, with some exceptions, and it is partly for this reason that the word 'lachrymal,' meaning 'of tears' is the base of the word 'lachrymose,' which means 'showing great sorrow.' Of course, sorrow is hardly the only emotion capable of driving a person to lachrymation, traditional misconceptions notwithstanding, and indeed there are a wide range of other equally if not more effective lachrymatory feelings – even positive ones, given sufficient intensity.
While there was no question as to the intensity of the source of the puddles, there was less certainty regarding the positivity – in fact, one might even go so far as to recognize despair. As the droplets fell, a pair of lachrymal glands were stimulated repeatedly by neural impulses induced by severe distress, found in a young, female moogle who was utterly convinced she was about to die. More simply, Samantha was now crying – there really wasn't anything more she could do, and even her brother couldn't save her this time. But the inevitability of the situation was made all the more unbearable by the fact that Samatha knew well that she was not yet ready to die. Bad things like that didn't happen to kids like her, she reasoned – and this feeble hope was all she had left to cling to, a simple, desperate, idealistic presumption. To her credit, her childish naivety did help her to sustain this quaint, flowery belief, as she had not yet developed the sort of healthy cynicism that normally develops moving into the teenage phase, and as long as she clung to that she could delude herself into thinking that everything was going to be okay. And as long as she kept this quaint, flowery delusion alive, it kept her from thinking rationally, from fully comprehending the hopelessness of the situation and the imminent threat of death. Of course, it is well-known that the real world frowns on quaint, flowery beliefs, or delusions of any kind, so it would come to the reader as no surprise that reality decided to throw some spontaneous happening at Sammy to cut them short as abruptly as possible.
It would seem that tactile stimulus enjoys going about hand in hand with unexpected and frightening circumstances, and they will probably make by far the happiest successful pairing in this fic. It is observed that they never seem to be able to get quite enough of each other – whenever something frightening or unexpected is about to happen, it can be expected that the earliest warning will come from some uncomfortable feeling, perhaps a change in temperature or similar. This change need not itself be real – the perception somehow remains, brought into being simply by fact of the imminent occurence of the aforementioned circumstances. This union has borne unto itself a child, who has many nicknames, but seems to prefer something along the lines of 'I've got a really bad feeling something bad is going to happen.'
The above is the sort of thing that a healthy cynic might think when a large, yellow bird gently nudges you with its beak. Most gallinaceous fowl that the human reader will be used to treating all objects of interest as edible, and pecking at something is usually a fairly sure sign that it has gained their interest. They tend not to have very many positive communicative gestures, having a social structure based around a literal 'pecking order' rather than a support network that a mammal would be familiar with; what few affectionate social gestures they have are, in any case, reserved for their own kind. So, two possibilities did exist – one, the bird was quite deliberately and sadistically screwing with her mind before it killed her, or two, the bird trying to engage her in a genuinely affectionate social gesture. Each of these possibilities are equally unlikely to have occured, as both demand that the bird have flaunted its natural instinctive programming. There does exist, however, a fairly simple test which can be applied to find out which of these outcomes actually occurred, which cannot be put more eloquently than a polysyllabic string of words, representative of the internal monologue of the all-too-conscious.
I am still here. My God, I am still here! I am not dead, nor even hurt... and... what is it... is it trying to preen me now?
Running with the slightly hopeful assumption that she was not simply being led on into a trap and the bird actually couldn't wait to eat her, Sammy became aware of two things – one, the bird posed no immediate threat, in fact; two, it seemed to have taken a liking to her. Her fears, at least for the moment, swept aside, her usual cheerful disposition came rushing back as a triumphant soldier rushes home from the battlefield, met with great jubilation and relief.
"K-kupo... kupopo, s-stop that!" She giggled as it made its best guess as to how fur is preened, clearly a task its beak had never been designed to accomplish. It had managed to find a spot beneath the neck where Sammy was quite ticklish, and as a result the ebullient girl was now trying to fit a gentle dissuasion between fits of raucous laughter. Once it took the hint, she returned the bird's affections in far gentler kind, scratching under the chin to relaxing effect, for which it wharked appreciatively.
As she gently dealt with the bird, she noticed a small collar about its neck. Fashioned very simply from leather, it bore almost no distinguishing marks save one – a letter cut into the side. She had no idea of how she was to get anything done on the basis of a single letter, but she now realized why the bird had perhaps spared her – it had been tamed by someone.
Which actually didn't add up all that well when she thought about it, particularly with respect to the heap of brother lying next to her. At this, she realised with a pang of guilt that he had been lying there all the while, and promptly moved to check on him. The bird raised its hackles slightly as she approached, poising itself for another strike, but Sammy met its eye and firmly told it, "No, he's mine, kupo. You don't get to touch him." Humbled, the bird backed down obediently and allowed her to tend him. Cradling his head in her lap, she gently nuzzled his cheek, and was rewarded with a languishing groan as Liam repaid his earlier debt to pain with interest.
"Kupoooh... oh god, my head... "
She beamed mischievously. "Morning, sleepy-head!"
"Unhh, my head's a bit past sleepy, kupo... is that you, Sam?"
"Kupopo, who else would it be, silly?"
"Eheh..." He chuckled, pleased to find that she seemed mostly back to girl he knew and loved. Less pleasing he found to be the return of his ability to feel pain, which had decided that it had some catching up to do, and proceeded to describe, in the only way it knew how, every single damaged part of him in excruciating detail. "Owww... why did the sky have to fall on my head, kupo?"
This got a well-meant giggle. "Hehehehehe, I've think I've got a friend who can tell you all about that..."