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The Phoenix Curse : Chapter Twenty
 
Coincidental Fate

Ciara entered the common room, glad to find that she was not the last to arrive, her eyes immediately falling on the stranger sitting in a lone chair by the hearth as she slid into a seat beside Phaedra. The man was elderly and seemed very much the worse for wear. His obviously peasant garments were little more than tattered ruins on his rather bony frame. His thinning, grey hair was plastered to his scalp, like he had been caught in a storm, and his dark eyes were lost, sunken in his lined face. His skin was a rich, dark color, but it was marred by wrinkles with a few faint scars interspersing. All in all, he was a pitiful sight, looking like the weight of the world rested on his shoulders.

Chelan entered the room with a loud yawn, rubbing his eyes tiredly and looking very much the same as all the others present. The meran plopped down onto the couch on the other side of Ciara, nudging her gently with a shoulder before propping his head on his hands as he put an elbow on the arm of the sofa.

“Well,” Jareth remarked with a frown tugging at the corner of his mouth. “Now that everyone’s here, I can begin.” He shot a pointed look at the latecomer, who just shrugged and yawned, gesturing for him to continue.

“This had better well be good,” Tolian commented, trying to stifle a yawn as he eyed the younger brunet. “That was the first time I was resting peacefully in quite a while.”

There was a general nod of agreement.

“I assure you, Tolian,” the captain responded testily. “This will not be a waste of time.” His voice had a solemn edge to it.

Phaedra glanced around. “What’s going on, Jareth?”

Jareth inclined his head towards the stranger beside him. “This is our client, Fuki. He was supposed to meet with us tomorrow, but he couldn’t wait any longer. After hearing him, I was inclined to agree.”

With the acknowledgment, the old man finally raised his gaze, haunted eyes glancing at those around the room and taking in the motley assortment. “Thanks, Master Jareth,” the man said, his voice cracked and aged as much as he was. His gnarled fingers twisted nervously at a paper in his hand, crinkling it with a soft noise that echoed in the quiet room. “But I believe I’m able to take my story from here. From my own mouth, it has more truth.”

The skipper nodded before moving to take a seat, finally settling for a perch on the edge of the table. Phaedra narrowed her eyes disapprovingly, but he waved her off.

Fuki cleared his throat noisily and chewed on his lip before raising his dark eyes. Ciara could see every bit of his despair, and her heart went out to the pathetic man.

I live in a small town, Feng Huang. It's in Kalarkis. We are a peaceful people, simple farmers and such, devoted entirely to family and never really having much contact with the outside. We worship only one deity, a goddess. Her mortal form has always been that of a phoenix, the bird spirit known to rise from its own ashes and be birthed once more. You might know her as Hou-Hou.” He paused then, face lowering as he again crinkled the paper in his hand.

Everyone waited patiently for him to continue, no one willing to rush him. He was having a hard enough time as it was.

“I’m sorry,” the man mumbled. “My dearest Midori was taken in the first attack; the loss still weighs heavy on me.”

Phaedra clucked her tongue, shaking her head to the side. “Please, take your time,” she soothed gently. “We've all faced the pain of such a loss.”

His eyes flashed for just a moment, but Ciara almost thought that she detected another emotion behind that gaze… something almost like regret.

Fuki inclined his head. “Thank you; your support is appreciated.” He sighed softly before continuing, “We are simple, and since the goddess doesn’t walk amongst us, we worship and pray to an idol in her temple. To us, the statue is priceless, but to those with desires for money, it is a valuable object.” He held up a hand, using it as a form of measurement. “It is about as large as my hand, carved entirely from a mixture of garnet and ruby with two topaz stones for the eyes. But there is another reason it has been sought after, a truth that is even more than its monetary value.”

Tolian frowned. “A statue like that could be worth two million coin or more. It’s remarkable that you've held on to it for this long.”

“Isolation does have its advantages,” Chelan inserted thoughtfully. “What be this other reason?”

“It should be obvious,” another voice came from the doorway, and a red head appeared. “I should think, anyway. Hou-Hou is a goddess of death and rebirth; it would only make sense that her statue would have powers in that regards,” Lucas finished, leaning against the doorframe and chewing on the fruit he had just pilfered from the kitchen.

Fuki blinked at the newcomer. “Yes, that’s right. With good intentions, the mayadalan can raise the dead to life. For us, we were granted good harvest and, for a time, a peaceful home. But with the wrong intentions, the dead are made into animated corpses completely under the bidding of the wielder.”

“Wait,” Phaedra said, holding up a hand as she eyed Lucas. “Who's that?” She pointed towards the stranger before turning back to Fuki. However, she hesitated then, thinking over what the elderly man had just said. “Did you say that this statue can make zombies?”

“In the wrong hands… yes.”

“But only someone with a great hold on the threads binding Raetaen could even hope to harness that power,” the quetz explained as he came into the room. “It is a thing of the gods, not meant to be wielded by mortals, which is perhaps the only reason Hou-hou allowed it to be placed within your village.” He started pacing just then, not seeming to notice the perplexed expressions most there were giving him, probably due to the fact that they had no clue who he was. “It would be useless to anyone unless they were either Adept or magic-born. Yet, there are very few in the world who can claim that, and most are quetz,” he finished, taking another bite.

“Lucas,” Ciara interrupted, “I did not realize that you would be staying with us.”

The man brightened, putting a huge smile on his face as he turned to look at her. “After discussing it with your leader and a short conversation with Ilith, I thought that I would better come to understand what is going on in Raetaen if I stuck with you guys… err…” He caught sight of Phaedra and grinned again, giving a bow. “...And beautiful ladies.”

“Gods,” Tolian muttered under his breath. “He’s another Danam.”

Phaedra immediately scowled. Jareth exhaled loudly, interrupting anything she might have said. He rubbed his brow with a forefinger, a pained expression on his face.

Lucas, meet my crew.” He slowly introduced everyone, gesturing towards each. After doing so, he turned back towards the quetz, obviously expecting him to say something.

Lucas half-grinned as he rubbed the back of his head with one hand and raised an eyebrow. “Eh… I am not sure what you are expecting,” he began. “Um, what a fine group of fighters you have, Captain? Wow… they sure look strong? Eh, at least you can pick ‘em?”

He was obviously teasing, a fact that Phaedra found amusing. She giggled but then tried to cover up the sound when Jareth glared at her. Navar, on the other hand, didn't bother to hide her mirth.

The brunet’s brow twitched again, but with a heavy sigh, he took the teasing in stride. “A simple greeting would have sufficed.”

The quetz laughed to himself as he took another bite of the fruit that he kept swinging about in the air, as if he were full of boundless energy. “Ladies and gentleman,” he started with an exaggerated bow and wink. “Lucas Bedrich at your command, loyal servant to Ilith and snazzy dresser, wit extraordinaire… so on and so forth.”

Chelan held up a taloned finger. “Wait a minute. Tae know so much of the workings of magic and deities… but tae have hair of that color.” He hesitated, choosing his words carefully before continuing, “I mean nae offense, but what sort of creature are ye?”

Navar smirked. “He’s certainly not a verdillan,” she put in. “He’s not green enough.”

Lucas suddenly laughed aloud, the huge grin on his face causing his silvery eyes to sparkle. “None taken, my dear meran. And no, fair lady, I am not claiming to be of the green ones,” he replied with a teasing wink. He pursed his lips before putting a hand on his hip, gesturing towards Chelan as he spoke again. “I think the real question is: what sort of man do you want me to be? All prejudices aside, of course.”

The room fell silent, most confused by what he had said. Chelan blinked his three eyes separately, not expecting that kind of answer. On the other hand, Ciara snorted, surprising herself with the fact that his brand of odd humor was actually amusing.

“Lucas, we don’t care what you are,” she answered with a chuckle, an uncharacteristic thing on her part, but she found that somehow the quetz brought that out in her. Perhaps she was the only one who really thought his humor entertaining. Of course, the fact that everyone else was now gaping at her might have had something to do with that.

However, something clicked in Tolian’s mind as he really noticed the odd color of Lucas’ hair. “I know where I remember you from now,” he inserted. “You’re the quetz that the Hin soup vendor pointed out to me. I thought I recognized that hair.”

Lucas adopted a neutral expression, but his eyes flashed. “I recall that man none too fondly. He called me a heathen and shooed me away, as if I were nothing more than an insect, not even a person.” He crossed his arms over his chest and gazed at the floor.

“My nona always told me that all the quetz died in the Great War,” Navar said quietly, watching him.

Lucas’s eyes flickered to her. “We encouraged that rumor to protect ourselves.” He hesitated for a second, as if recalling something painful, though no one could say for sure since none of them knew anything of his past. “We may be Adept, but there are few of us as skilled as I. As such, we are slowly dying, a little more with each passing year.”

“And yet, you were the only one able to pierce Murdoch’s immortality,” Ciara commented with a frown, her earlier humor lost as she recalled her own inadequacy. “Of the quetz, you must be among the most powerful.”

Lucas smiled faintly as he bowed. “A compliment from such a stunning beauty, I am truly honored. Perhaps you--”

“--Are wrong,” Rivalen interjected, speaking for the first time and interrupting Lucas like the quetz’s words were of no consequence. “Murdoch was already dead.” His voice was steady, words firm like he did not expect any argument.

Immediately, all attention was drawn his way. The mimicker leaned further against the wall, arms folded over his chest as he stared back at them. He had been listening the entire time, absorbing all the facts as he pondered on his own observations. There was something about the fight with Murdoch that had bothered him, along with some truths that Lucas had revealed.

“What makes you say that?” asked Phaedra, one hand smoothing down her braids in a nervous gesture.

Rivalen exhaled softly before stepping away from the wall. “The way he moved, the manic way he stared, and how he was fetid and caked with rot. That combined with all this talk of the mayadalan.” He glowered, something in the fire catching his attention. “Coincidence is not our fare. Somehow, everything is connected.”

Jareth shook his head, shifting where he sat and twisting his face into a confused expression. “What're you talking about?”

The mimicker turned to Chelan. “Murdoch’s blood had the same foul odor and texture as Inteus.”

The meran inclined his head, as if recalling this information.

“He was acting unusual, not to mention the fact that he was on the mortal plane at all. Combine that with Ladon and you have a strange sort of coincidence that sits too heavily for my comfort,” Rivalen finished.

“So you're saying that whoever caused the sea god to go crazy also caused Ladon to attack us and had a hand in Inteus’ fate?” Phaedra questioned.

Rivalen nodded curtly.

“And the mayadalan?” Navar inquired. “I assume that it somehow ties in.”

“It is a statue of rebirth,” Lucas replied. “Though if someone was strong enough to kill Murdoch and then raise his corpse, I do not see why they would even need the statue at all.”

Rivalen rubbed one hand across his face. “No, it doesn't make any sense. There must be more to the story. There is a link between it all, I'm sure of it.” He turned, centering on the their client. “Fuki, what else is there?”

The gnarled man nodded slowly, nearly mesmerized by the mimicker’s piercing gaze as he again crinkled the paper in his hand. “About two weeks ago, a villager from a nearby town came running into Feng Huang spouting tales unlike any we’d ever heard. He was mad with a fever, raving about an army of the dead with eyes like fire. One of our healers attributed his words to delusions caused by the fever, but the village elder thought it wiser to at least send someone to check on Cary Nean, his town, just in case the man had family who needed contacting.” Fuki paused, taking a deep breath as he lowered his eyes, smoothing down the completely wrinkled parchment on his lap as his hands began to tremble.

“I take it that he did nae return,” intoned Chelan.

Fuki shook his head vigorously, looking up with watery eyes. “Oh no, Yarret returned, though not quite as we expected.” The elderly man took a deep breath. “He was beaten and bloody, looking like he'd been chewed on. He stumbled into the village, collapsing just inside the first line of houses. He only managed to say one thing before he died, but he had an arrow in his back with a parchment rolled around its shaft.” One finger traced along a blood stain on the paper as Fuki fell silent, lips moving soundlessly as read.

Phaedra rose from the couch and moved to the poor man’s side, taking one of his wrinkled hands into her own without hesitation. “What did Yarret say?”

Fuki blinked ever-so-slowly. “ ‘ware the curse, ‘ki, Hou-Hou’s anger…”

His fingers spasmed on the paper in his lap, but the sound of the parchment seemed to stir him from his trance. With a deep breath, he took it in hand and thrust it in Jareth’s direction. The captain took it, a question on his face.

“Though I have long since memorized those words, they still chill my old bones every time my eyes fall upon them,” Fuki murmured. Then, as if that one action had taken the rest of his strength, the elderly man trembled violently before his eyes rolled into the back of his head, and he slumped in the chair, hand going slack in Phaedra’s grasp.

“Fuki?” the blonde questioned, holding her free hand up to his forehead.

He was burning with a fever. His breath came in shallow pants, but he was still alive. Truthfully, he was probably just worn out from his journey, especially considering that he had traveled across the Iapetus just to get to Niantha.

Poor thing,” murmured Phaedra. “He’s exhausted.”

Tolian stood up, once more assuming his role as semi-healer, and it took him only a moment to confirm Phaedra’s diagnosis. He sighed as he scooped up their unconscious client. Ciara and Chelan abandoned the couch as he laid the man down on it, covering him with a blanket that Navar had hastily located.

“He’ll be fine,” Tolian muttered. “He just needs a little rest. Go on, Jareth. Read the letter.”

The brunet nodded in understanding as Chelan found himself a perch on the floor, Phaedra appropriated Fuki’s abandoned chair, and Ciara took over Tolian’s seat. Jareth unrolled the wrinkled parchment and cleared his throat, brown eyes roaming over the words. His face hardened at what he found, but with a nudge from the meran, he began to read aloud:

To whosoever calls himself the leader of the hovel Feng Huang:

I am Syl Ironmonger. This is the first and last warning you will receive. I want the mayadalan.

Bury all thoughts of fighting back. Forget any chance at saving yourselves. There is nothing you can do. My undead army will raze your village and slaughter your families, all for the mayadalan. Tremble in fear with the knowledge that I am coming, that your children will be fodder for hungry corpses and your loved ones will be forced into my servitude. Imagine dying as rusty swords tinged with poison plunge into your body, and I… I will be laughing as your home burns to the ground. I desire the phoenix and will do whatever it takes to have it for my own.

There is no resistance. There is no running away. There is nowhere to go. So wait in fear as my army comes for you. Have the mayadalan ready. Dream of the end of your pathetic lives as it creeps ever closer.

I, the shadow of dread, have decreed this so.

Jareth’s expression completely hardened by the time he finished reading, his face drawn into an expression of outrage and disgust. The paper crinkled in his grasp as his hands clenched into fists. There was something oddly Ahriman-esque about the words and in the outright villainy and easy flow of threats. It boiled his blood.

“He received this a fortnight ago,” Navar murmured, looking over the brunet’s shoulder, “but it takes at least three days to get to Niantha from Aiwar, much less from the country regions where Feng Huang is supposed to be. I hate to say this, but for all we know… it may be too late.”

Phaedra shook her head. “But we have to try!”

Lucas agreed, “Even if it is too late to save Feng Huang, we have to worry about the rest of Raetaen. The mayadalan is dangerous in the wrong hands.”

“Zombies be damn near impossible tae destroy,” Chelan commented more to himself than to them, an almost wistful cast to his face. He absentmindedly stroked a scar on his forearm. “Nae tae mention the Death Dread.”

“Death Dread?” the verdillan repeated.

“That’s right,” Rivalen put in. “I had nearly forgotten.” He frowned, one hand rubbing his chin in thought. “Then perhaps, they weren’t truly dead after all.”

Lucas shook his head. “No, I realize that now the sea god was definitely dead. Perhaps it simply means that the magic in the mayadalan and the magic used to poison Murdoch are of a different sort.”

“Wait. I’m still confused. What is the Death Dread?” Navar asked again.

“Legends say that when you look into the eyes of any living being, you can see the threads of their soul. If you know how to read them, that is,” Rivalen intoned softly. “But if you look into the eyes of the walking dead, those that no longer have a threaded soul to them, they seek to take yours for their own. They paralyze your body with fear until you unravel from the core.”

“Imagine if such an item got into Ahriman’s possession,” Jareth stated. “Unless this Syl's somehow involved with Ahriman. I wouldn't put it past the draxin' chienza.”

Lucas blinked. “I am confused. Who is this Ahriman that you all keep referring to?”

“The greatest threat tae arise in Raetaen since the ending of the Great War,” Chelan responded his voice tinged with anger. “He attacked Meransia, razing most of it tae the ground.”

Phaedra nodded, her voice catching. “He destroyed my home, too.”

Navar furrowed her brow. “But who is he? How do you all know him? I have to admit that I have wondered.”

The original members of Jareth’s crew all exchanged glances before turning to their skipper. Truthfully, all they knew was that Ahriman was a man from the brunet’s past. But they didn’t even know what caused him to go astray. Or why Jareth was so determined to destroy him.

“Jareth's the only one who truly knows Ahriman,” Phaedra replied softly.

But the captain merely glowered before turning away. “That’s not important right now,” Jareth evaded testily, giving a dismissive wave. He took a deep breath. “Are we going to accept this assignment or send him back to Aga? I highly doubt there's any profit for us.”

“We cannot let the mayadalan fall into Ironmonger’s hands,” Lucas insisted.

“Quiet!” Rivalen hissed. “This is a choice for us, not you.”

Jareth narrowed his eyes and glared at the mimicker. “Lucas is a part of the crew now, just like Navar. Deal with it.”

The two glowered at each other for a moment before Rivalen inclined his head slightly and presented his back to the others.

“You are the captain,” he intoned neutrally, and a tense silence fell over the group.

Phaedra’s eyes flickered between their newest crewmember and the mimicker with a suspicious gleam. Rivalen had always been cold, sometimes arguing with Jareth, but she didn’t understand why he would have anything against Lucas. It made no sense to her.

“It’s not in our nature tae be heroes,” Chelan put in quietly, his voice cutting through the almost visible tension. “But it seems we’ve been thrust in tae that path. Whether by circumstance or design, I cannae be sure.” He shrugged. “Nevertheless, we must put our search for Ahriman on hold, if only tae prevent someone like him from getting the mayadalan.”

Tolian nodded. “Chelan's right,” he admitted grudgingly, “and the sooner we leave, the better. We don’t know if Ironmonger has destroyed Feng Huang or not. But Fuki’s home still has a chance, if we hurry.”

“That's it then?” asked Jareth. “We'll help?”

There was a general consensus of agreement. No one wanted to turn their backs on Fuki, not after hearing the letter and the exhausted man’s story, not after knowing that there was a chance Ahriman might have been behind it all. Aga had probably known this, which was why she had chosen to send the obviously impoverished man to Jareth and his crew.

Jareth glanced around one final time. “Very well then. We can’t wait around. Get your stuff and head to the ship.” He turned to Tolian. “Contact Matey; tell him to find what he can of the crew. I’ll leave Fuki to you, too.” The engineer nodded in understanding as the captain turned his attention to Lucas. “You're coming, too, I assume, so meet us at the ship. I think you know where it is.”

The quetz made a noise of acquiescence. “It wouldn’t happen to be the only skyship outside of Niantha, would it?”

Ciara snorted. “Yes, that would be the one.”

One of Jareth's eye faintly twitched as his crew began to stumble tiredly from the room, knowing that they would be able to get rest once the Xanathos was in the air.

Rivalen had every intention of leaving without another word, but Jareth said his name in a low tone, one that barely hid his slight irritation. Eyes narrowing, the mimicker paused and waited as the others filed out, Phaedra looking back only once. Some kind of communication passed between Jareth and her before she, too, left them alone.

Silence fell. The skipper sighed before rising to his feet, walking towards the hearth and crossing his arms over his chest.

Why do you dislike Lucas?”

“I don’t dislike him,” Rivalen bit out. “I have no opinion whatsoever on the quetz.”

Jareth snorted in disbelief. “You rarely speak as it is. Yet, you made it a point to respond viciously to his comment.” He paused, a sudden thought hitting him. “What happened on the beach?”

“Murdoch attempted to attack Niantha. Lucas defeated him.”

“You know I wasn’t talking about that.” Jareth exhaled forcefully. “Don’t think me a fool, Rivalen.”

The mimicker frowned, though his companion couldn’t see it. “It’s none of your business, Jareth. I blame it all on you, Captain. You just had to push, didn’t you?”

The other man raised an eyebrow in confusion. “What are you talking about?”

Rivalen shook his head. “It doesn’t matter. I don’t care whether Lucas joins us or not; he is an adequate fighter, and I believe he is also worthy of our trust.” He began to move from the room.

“I wasn’t done talking to you, Rivalen,” Jareth retorted angrily.

“That’s unfortunate,” replied the mimicker, “because I am done speaking with you.” He didn’t even look over his shoulder as he departed.

Jareth growled and crossed his arms over his chest. Something had to have happened on the beach, something more than he was saying. And if he wasn’t careful, the mimicker was going to get burned. The man needed to focus, Otherwise, he would end up like everyone else that had ever challenged Ahriman. Little more than a splat on the ground.

Seven hells, Jareth himself didn’t even know if he could survive. That was what worried him the most.

***

Feng Huang was one of the smallest villages that the mercenaries had ever aided, and unfortunately, it was nestled within a ring of forest, a mile or so deep. The Xanathos had been forced to land outside the treeline, leaving them no choice but to make the rest of the journey on foot. Fuki apologized extensively for the inconvenience, but Jareth shortly told him not to bother. They had more important things to worry about.

Navar was actually looking forward to the walk, her natural proclivity to nature making her more inclined to the long hike. And the forest was different than what she had ever witnessed for herself before. It was and felt old, the trees densely packed together and making their path difficult. It was also dim beneath the thick canopy, the branches above weighted down with needled leaves and brushing the taller members in their group. Chelan, especially, much to his annoyance. He grumbled as he continuously brushed needles from his fur.

Le Nigir Dever,” murmured Fuki noticing Navar's interested as he scuttled ahead of the mercenaries.

“The Ring of Green,” Navar translated. “I can understand given that it is indeed full of life, but the abundant color here seems to be this deep shade of purple.”

Lucas inclined his head in agreement. “Indeed, it is such an old place… and yet, still full of life, as if it is just not quite ready to die.”

He was answered with a series of incredulous looks. Tolian mutely shook his head. He had unfortunately learned that Lucas’ sense of humor was neither an act nor was the man ever silent.

“What?” the redhead questioned. “Do not tell me that walking through this forest does not make you feel like you should be aging as well.” He was regarded with multiple blank stares, which caused him to shrug and divert his attention, whistling as he did so. “It isn’t like I am not older than everyone here anyway,” he muttered under his breath.

Fuki picked up the pace then, his concern for his home and loved ones obvious as he rushed forward. Yet, they couldn’t help but wonder why such an elderly man had been sent in the first place, and somewhere deep in his gut, Chelan felt that something was off. There was an inkling of the human's story that just didn’t sit right with him. The meran wasn’t sure if it was the strange looks of remorse that he occasionally caught on the old man’s face or if it was just his instinct. Either way, he found himself watching the elderly human with three suspicious eyes.

Due to that, it seemed that only he caught Fuki’s increasingly peculiar actions. The closer they walked in the direction of his home, the more skittish the human became. His eyes darted back and forth, and he jumped at every little sound, almost as if he were expecting something. Fuki also kept increasing their pace, going remarkably fast for someone who was exhausted the night previous. While Chelan could have attributed these behaviors to fear or concern, he wasn’t sure if those fit. There was just something odd about this entire situation.

The smell of human blood struck him then, and the meran was instantly on alert. The taste was bitter and coppery, filling his senses so that he was almost gagging on it, and Chelan had to resist the urge to spit. He immediately halted on the path, Lucas nearly crashing into him from behind, and held his paw up.

“Wait,” Chelan intoned, keen eyes searching the trees around them. “Do ye smell that?”

Behind him, the quetz delicately sniffed before making a strangled noise. “Blood,” he answered with a grimace.

The meran nodded. “Yes. Fresh blood.”

Fuki paled. “We are too late,” he whispered, beginning to frantically wring his hands together.

Rivalen shook his head. “No. If it was an entire village, then all of us would be able to smell it, not just those with heightened senses.” He paused before glancing back at Chelan. “One or two perhaps. Am I correct?”

Chelan considered for a moment. “More than that. From the south.”

“Very well then,” Jareth inserted. “We can’t continue until we know if it's a friend or foe. Lead the way, Chelan.”

The meran obeyed, leading them off in a different direction. Next to him, Lucas nibbled on his lip in deep contemplation.

“Is it just me,” the redhead whispered in an aside, barely even raising his voice, “or does something seem off about this entire thing?”

“I was just thinkin' the same,” Chelan returned just as quietly. “Fuki’s story is nae sitting right, but I’ve yet tae find any real reason tae believe that other than my instincts.”

“I have been watching him, and I can’t help but wonder why they would send a man of his age? Or why if he is such a simple farmer, his speech is educated and sure?” Lucas replied, putting a hand to his chin. That little fact had bothered him since the beginning, not to mention the idea that someone already powerful enough to raise the dead would desire the mayadalan.

It just did not make any sense.

Chelan fell silent with a curt nod as they continued forward, his trio of eyes distinctly on the scattered trees around them. The coppery odor was getting thicker, and he could tell that they were close. However, it wasn’t until Navar nearly trod on a concealed body that he realized they were already there.

The verdillan sidestepped automatically, nimbly missing Tolian as he moved to steady her. Rivalen knelt at the spot, brushing aside some of the local flora and finding a bloodied foot attached to a very bloody body. The work of a sharpened weapon.

As Fuki looked over the man to see if he could recognize him, Chelan and Lucas crept ahead, finding a small clearing a few feet away. Four more bodies were within, and all were dressed much the same as the first, apparently sharing his fate as well.

Nevertheless, there was one surprise, a single live person.

A thick cloak was pulled up over the stranger’s head, the red material obscuring his or her features as they rifled through one of the corpse’s pockets. He or she didn't even look up as Chelan and Lucas crashed through the bushes, still ignoring them as the meran nudged his companion and unconsciously flipped a dagger into his claws. The quetz readied a spell as the pair made moves to take a step further into the clearing, but the stranger spoke then.

“If these men were accomplices of yours, I advise you turn away before you meet their fate.” The male voice was husky and muffled but the threat still clear. “And if not, then put down your weapons, or would you slay someone with his back to you?”

“Why did ye kill them?” the meran demanded, refusing to lower his dagger.

The stranger’s hands disappeared into his cloak as he slowly rose to his feet and half-turned towards them. His face was shadowed by his hood, though they could plainly see the bottom of his mouth, and his cape draped well over his shoulders, making it impossible to tell if he carried a weapon.

“They sought my life, so I took precautionary measures,” he replied stiffly, voice full of disdain. “Not that it is any of your business.”

“What’s going on here?” Jareth demanded, appearing at Chelan’s side; a rustling in the underbrush behind them indicated that all the others had also arrived. “Who are you?” he snarled, hearing Phaedra’s startled gasp behind him.

The man did not seem concerned in the least to be facing six well-armed people, instead merely gesturing towards the bodies. “My name is not important to those I will not speak with again,” he coldly replied, moving away from them and into the forest, quickly ending the short encounter.

“Wait!” Fuki called out, rushing forward. “Marquel is that you?”

The stranger froze, glancing over his shoulder. “Fuki?” he questioned, surprise evident in his tone. “What are you doing out here?”

Rivalen frowned. What a coincidence... to come across someone that Fuki should know in the forest. And by all accounts, someone who seemed skilled with a weapon, if he were to go by the bodies strewn about. That uneasy feeling stirred in his gut again.

“I should be asking you the same question!” The elderly man’s eyes widened considerably.

“Wait a minute; you know this guy?” Tolian asked with shock.

“He was a wanderer who stayed in my village for a time several years ago.” Fuki stepped further into the clearing, seeming to easily ignore the chopped corpses around him. “I thought I recognized that cloak.”

“Yes,” the other man affirmed. “Midori crafted it for me.” He had yet to lower his hood, leaving them to wonder what he had to hide.

“But why are you here? In the woods?” Fuki asked, confusion evident. “I thought you were headed to join your family in Voulos.”

“And why are you surrounded by dead bodies, rifling through their pockets like a common thief?” Tolian added in, crossing his arms over his chest.

Marquel stiffened. “I don’t see how any of that is your business,” he bit out, facing the old man and dropping his tone even further, as though his words were meant for him alone. “Master Fuki, why do you travel with these… people?”

Fuki shifted awkwardly. “A terrible man has threatened my home. I had to seek outside help from mercenaries.”

“Then, it is true,” Marquel commented a distinct sneer in his voice as he shook his head. “Ironmonger really seeks to build an army and take the mayadalan.”

Surprise registered on Fuki’s face once more. “Yes. He sent a letter with his intentions to raze Feng Huang to the ground.”

The other man sighed heavily. “Very well then, it is the least I can do.” He waved a hand towards Jareth and the crew, though no one was quite sure what he meant. “Send them on their way. I will keep Feng Huang safe from Ironmonger’s grip and the mayadalan where it belongs. You do not require their assistance.” He seemed to look them over, noting their motley assortment. “Besides, they do not appear to be of any use.”

Phaedra scowled, indignation clear. “Why you arrogant--”

Thankfully, Jareth halted her before she could continue, face hardening. “That is up to Fuki, stranger. Not you.”

All eyes turned towards the old man. Fuki took a deep breath. I’m grateful for the aid, Marquel, but I think you underestimate both Ironmonger and Jareth’s crew. What can you do alone against an army of the dead?”

Marquel’s head snapped up, his hood falling back a few inches and revealing the sharp lines of his chin and lower cheeks. His thin lips were now in full view, and as he spoke, they could see that his front canines were slightly pointed. The rest of his teeth were white and even, a stark contrast to his tan skin.

“You expect these ruffians to have enough skill to defeat an army of any kind?” he inquired with a dark laugh. “These fools couldn't defeat a child, much less Ironmonger.”

“Aga’s Guild, the highest ranked of the mercenary coalition, considers them to be the best in their branch,” Fuki replied evenly, his head tilting up.

The other man sneered. “Mercenaries only help for a price. They would not care if you fell in battle or not.”

Jareth glowered again. “We haven't asked for a fee,” he retorted sharply. Though he couldn’t see the man’s face, he believed that this Marquel was young, perhaps somewhere around Navar’s age. And he wouldn’t stand for such disrespect, especially since they had yet to see him in battle.

“Time's of the essence if we're to stop Ironmonger,” he continued, directing his words to Fuki. “We can’t waste time here arguing, especially not over the bodies of the fallen. Friend or foe, it's a great disrespect to the dead.”

Marquel squared his shoulders. “Very well. However, I am coming, and nothing you and your rabble say will stop me.”

With that, he turned on his heel and headed into the woods, Fuki beside him. He left the others no choice but to follow, gingerly stepping over the corpses as they did so. Lucas made symbols of prayer, the same that he had conducted over the dying form of Murdoch. Navar wrinkled her nose in disgust at the unnecessary loss of life, wondering if Marquel was responsible for their deaths.

“He is rather rude,” she murmured to Phaedra, who was next to her.

The blonde shrugged. “That he is. Perhaps it's unwise to have him with us.”

Fuki seems to know him,” the verdillan responded, “but I'd rather not trust him.”

“One could say the same thing of you,” Ciara commented blithely, inserting herself without invitation.

Navar cast a side-glance at the prophetess. “Perhaps, but then, you didn’t meet me while I was rummaging through a dead man’s pockets.”

Ciara turned her nose into the air. “I wouldn’t have put it past you,” she shot back before veering off to walk with Lucas.

Phaedra shook her head, patting Navar’s arm gently as she traded a look with Tolian and Jareth. “He reminds me of someone,” she commented idly but didn't finish the sentence.

The brunet agreed, “I was thinking along the same lines.” His gaze slid towards the silent Rivalen, who was the furthest from anyone in the group, distancing himself as usual.

Marquel behaved very much the same as Rivalen when they had first met. He had been altogether arrogant and cold, determined to make it on his own, though his body obviously had been weakened and his mental capacity severely limited. Rivalen had been young as well. Yet, after pulling him from that burning building, he had donned the black cloak that he wore now, wrapping it around himself like it would protect him from more than the elements.

Marquel seemed to do the same, hiding his true face beneath his hood.

Navar noticed the look Jareth sent the mimicker’s way and the idle comment, her interest immediately piquing. She wondered about Rivalen’s past, but he was very close-mouthed, simply shooting her one of his famous glares when she had asked. He was very fascinating for a human, and the fact that he was Kalarkis’ long lost king only added to the mystery.

“How long have you known him?” the verdillan queried, Marquel and Fuki leading the way through the trees. There was an actual path now, and the further they went from the scent of death, the better.

Jareth and Phaedra’s exchanged a glance before the captain crossed his arms over his chest. “It was about two years ago when we found him in a Nisei lab.” He lifted his head, watching the twin suns rising higher in the sky.

“You found him?” she repeated, her rose eyes darting to the mimicker and back.

His head was down, a thoughtful expression on his face with his brow furrowed. It was the usual Rivalen-brooding expression.

The blonde put in, “It was quite shocking... to say the least.” Her somber tone and face were out of character, making Navar itch to know more, but she didn’t have to ask before Jareth began to relate the tale.

“We were hired by the local government of Egden to clean out an abandoned lab after the Abylon War. Animals had overrun it and were multiplying, enough that they weren’t afraid to venture out and attack the townsfolk. Back then, it was only me, Phaedra, and Tolian.” Jareth paused, a noticeable scowl pulling at the corners of his mouth. “I hadn’t decided yet to search for Ahriman,” he added in a much quieter tone, restlessly plucking at a loose thread in his shirt.

Navar rubbed her chin. “The Abylon War?”

“Yeah,” the skipper replied, “the five year conflct between Nisei and Ghent over the Abylon technology. The Xanathos is the result of it, and so is its prototype the Tantalaus. But the other ship was destroyed by Ghent at the end of the war.” He sniffed, eyes sliding towards his dark-skinned friend before continuing, “That, however, is Tolian’s story. It’s not my place to tell.”

“I understand,” the verdillan said softly. “Still, I wonder how Rivalen got involved with the Niseiians. He doesn’t look like one.”

Jareth sighed. “So do I, but not even he can answer that question because he doesn’t know himself.”

“What do you mean?” Navar cocked her head to the side.

“Rivalen has no memory of his prior life except for scattered images,” Phaedra supplied quietly. “When we found him, he didn’t even know his name.”

Navar blinked but remained silent, turning that information over in her mind. It did seem to explain a great deal about her new friend.

“The Niseiian monarchy hasn’t always been ruled by madness,” Jareth redirected after a few moments. “Once, Nisei was called the Kingdom of Dreams by those who believed in that sort of thing.” He snorted. “Then, something happened to change all that; no one knows what. After the Abylon War and his father’s death, Inteus abandoned all research and set his sights on slavery and building an army. He planned to take the world for his own, not allowing anything or anyone to get in his way.” The man took a deep breath. “As a result, many of the structures left behind began to spew monsters, animals that weren’t really animals. Aga sent us to one of those places. She'd promised us a lot of money...”

****

Cassandra Smith
Copyright 2006-2008
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