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The Phoenix Curse : Chapter Twenty-One
 
Jeweled Sight

It stood imposingly on the edge of town, a massive metal and stone fortress of sharp lines and high fences, designed to separate it from the outside world. The complex had few windows, all of them too thin for even a child to slip through, and only one main door. Further, it was surrounded by what Jareth considered to be a jungle but Tolian referred to as “bushes.” Brown and green brambles impossible to transverse without magic.

The three mercenaries, Phaedra included, stood outside the enormous iron gates and looked in at the silent structure. The courtyard was nothing but a flat expanse of dirt without plants or decoration, but Jareth couldn’t be sure if that was by design or consequence, especially considering the strange aesthetic taste of the Niseiians.

“Well,” Phaedra muttered as she slipped her rod from her belt. “There’s no use in staring. We'd better enter if we plan on getting paid sometime today.”

“This place gives me the creeps,” Tolian commented as he pushed on the gates that were nearly twice his own height yet surprisingly light.

They slid open easily, without a squeak. The trio entered, the dry ground kicking up pillows of dust beneath their feet.

“It is eerily quiet,” Jareth admitted and squinted at the mansion. “Why would they make it with so few windows?” He counted a grand total of four.

Phaedra shrugged noncommittally. “It's not up to us to ask questions. Let’s just try to finish this quickly and painlessly. I’m hungry.”

Tolian chuckled as they strode towards the front double doors, which had uniquely ornate handles. The trio was at ease despite the odd feeling of the place and had yet to see any animals or even proof of their existence. The engineer was beginning to wonder if they were chasing the results of an overactive imagination, or perhaps the child had been attacked by a rogue wolf or similar creature.

“You’re always hungry,” the older man teased.

“Am not,” she shot back, blue eyes sparkling.

Jareth shook his head, and he moved forward and pushed the doors open. “You two will never grow--”

A huge weight barreled into him, a growling, slavering creature digging its sharpened claws into his shoulders and thighs. He crashed to the ground, back slamming into the dirt as he fought to keep several sharp fangs away from his tender neck. The beast crouched on his chest, and he struggled to draw air into his lungs, feeling the burning pull from lack of oxygen.

Jareth vaguely registered that the abomination was completely hairless with skin smooth and mottled with grey spots. He felt four limbs pressing into him, claws tearing through the fabric of his shirt and into his flesh. One of his hands attempted to push the beast away as the other strained with grasping fingers for the dagger attached to his right thigh. His sword was trapped beneath him, completely useless.

Just as he was beginning to wonder what had happened to his companions, the sound of Tolian’s whip cracked through the air, warning him seconds before the chained leather lashed out and wrapped about the creature’s neck. Tolian gave a great heave, and the monster yelped, the weight disappearing all at once from Jareth’s chest.

He sucked in deep breaths, filling his collapsed lungs as he scrambled to his feet. The monster snarled furiously, straining to attack once more. Saliva dripped from its fanged mouth, and yellowish, almost lizard-like eyes glared at him with intense hunger. It took the combined strength of Phaedra and Tolian to keep the beast at bay.

Jareth drew his massive blade, wincing at the ache in his right shoulder and the uncomfortable feeling of blood dripping down his skin. He planted his feet solidly against the ground.

Let go.”

Tolian jerked his head as Phaedra released her hold, and he snapped his whip. It uncoiled from the thing’s neck with a sharp twist, leaving behind an angry, red welt.

With a fierce growl, the six-legged creature charged at Jareth. As it leapt into the air, claws and fangs aimed for the captain, the human stood his ground. At the last possible moment, when he could see the whites of the monster’s eyes, the brunet swung his sword in a wide arc. He neatly cleaved its lupine head from burly shoulders.

Blood gushed, staining his blade as the abomination fell with a sickening crunch.

Jareth scowled in distaste, lowering his dripping sword and kneeling between the two sections of body. “What the drax is this?” he wondered aloud.

It was bovine in shape, though each of its six-feet were canine. The head was certainly more lupine in appearance with great tusks coming from its snout almost like a boar.

Phaedra pursed her lips in thought. “If I’m not mistaken, it’s a bevulf. But they're native to the plains.”

“What's it doing here?” Tolian asked, gesturing pointedly to the building. “And what in seven hells was Nisei up to?”

Jareth rose. “There’s only way to find out.” He kept his sword on hand, comforted by the weight and feeling as if he would need it again soon. “Let’s go.”

Tolian coiled his whip as Phaedra nodded. The three entered the building, door swinging shut with an inaudible click. They had expected to be met with darkness, but magically powered torches lit the way. A strange odor wafted to their noses as they eyed the long hallway in front of them, a series of doors lining the left-hand side and a steep set of stairs leading off to the right.

Phaedra grabbed one of the blue-fire torches, and they began to sweep their way through the first floor of the complex. But after an hour, they came to the conclusion that it was time to move on. They had found two empty kitchens, a dining room designed to seat at least seventy, a conference room with a massive table but only twelve chairs, and row upon row of dormitories, all abandoned and neat. Everything was covered in a thin layer of dust, containing that same odd and sickly sweet smell of citrus. However, they did not find any more beasts or an elevator, not even a second set of stairs for that matter.

“Up the stairs it is then,” Jareth mumbled under his breath with much annoyance.

He led the way, while Tolian guarded the back, leaving Phaedra with her sharper eyes to look for anything of interest as they reached the landing to the second floor. There, they were faced with the exact same floor plan as before with one exception. Behind them, there was a small communal space in front of a heavily curtained window. Gaudy furniture was situated around a low table with long dead flowers gracing the top. Another line of doors stretched before them, an additional stairwell leading upwards. But these walls were covered in oil portraits, all those depicted bearing sour, grim expressions.

“Am I the only one unnerved by the unnatural silence?” Phaedra questioned, peeking into the first door, but it was a simple cleaning closet that held only empty buckets and cobwebs. “That bevulf couldn’t have been the only thing in here.”

“Perhaps they're nocturnal,” the captain suggested, peering around. “Sleep during the day.” He pushed open the door to the next room, light from the torch allowing him a glimpse of what lay inside.

Surprisingly, it was already well lit.

Three pairs of eyes widened as they stepped into what had to be the largest library in all of Nisei. There were rows upon rows of shelves taller than the front gates, each stocked to capacity with books and parchments. Loose papers littered the floor, and random chairs were scattered about, some with even more books stacked upon them.

“This library takes up the entire second floor,” Tolian remarked with awe.

One quick glance back into the hallway proved his observation. Each door seemed to lead into the library. It was musty in the room, not altogether unpleasant, but it wasn’t strong enough to prove that the place had been completely abandoned. Jareth had the sudden and strange belief that there was some sort of caretaker.

They quickly spread out, their eyes raking along the books’ spines as their feet brushed over the papers on the ground. The tomes ranged from research notes to fairy tales to history books, and Jareth momentarily sheathed his sword as he knelt to examine a document on the floor.

“Hareph the 12 th , year 917. Subject displays great resistance to poisons. Perhaps his blood will help create an anti-toxin against Ghent’s chemical gas, but I cannot yet say. Further testing is needed. Subject resisted the truth serum and the control shroom as well. His tolerance for any sort of drug is remarkable--”

Jareth frowned in confusion, skimming over the rest. But it rambled on about procedure and concoctions, documenting each and every twitch of the “subject.” Had Nisei truly sunk so low as to take on human experiments? Or was this some sort of creature?

Tolian’s startled shout coupled with the sound of heavy books crashing to the ground brought Jareth to his feet, the Xaldin in hand within seconds. The paper floated to the floor, lost among the other abandoned remnants as the captain rushed towards the sound of his friend’s muffled curses and faint scrabbling.

The brunet darted to the right and towards the far end of bookshelves at a hurried pace, barely registering that Phaedra was behind him. A whip cracked through the air in the same moment that an over-sized rodent careened out from between two sets of shelves, slamming into the wall with a sickening crunch. Another quickly followed before a slightly alarmed Tolian emerged, facing his two rather surprised friends. The man panted like he had exerted himself in some kind of great battle, but Jareth knew that wasn’t the case. Of all the creatures on Raetaen, Tolian chose to fear rodents of all things.

“I'd have preferred getting bull-r ushed by the bevulf,” the engineer uttered through gritted teeth. “Anything is better than getting attacked by draxin' dumain that are nearly the size of a dagmar! How in the seven hells of Nar’sa did it get that size?!”

Jareth smiled faintly at the older man. “Be prepared for worst. It seems Nisei had human subjects, too.”

Phaedra gasped before her face hardened. “Kingdom of Dreams?” She snorted. “More like Kingdom of Nightmares.” Her voice was bitter as she kicked the unconscious over-sized dumain.

The blonde held no love for the Nisei Empire. Her family had thus far evaded the slave caravans, but she feared the day when Inteus would choose to ransack her hometown. They had already suffered so much, and she had vowed that if the king came anywhere near her family, she'd storm his castle and take him down. Fortunately for the both of them, Inteus had not made that mistake. Yet.

Jareth shook his head. “We've got to keep searching. We still have to find that draxin' thing the kid saw.”

The captain thought of Guildan as his eyes flickered around. The boy had been playing too close to the building and had nearly paid for it with his life. He had vertical slash marks on his chest, spaced too far apart to be from claws. The flesh between each injury looked half-chewed. The child was weak and listless as well and seemed to be inflicted with a disease that had him coughing up blood. They didn’t expect him to make it.

Nothing interesting to be found within, the three mercenaries abandoned their search of the library. Tolian was all too happy to go and not just because of the dumain. The book he had been perusing before held enough to keep nightmares coming strong for months. He shivered at the thought of ever being with some of the Niseiian scientists.

The trio headed towards the stairs to the next floor, convinced that the library was the only room on the second. A short climb later had them facing the exact same layout once more, but instead of portraits of sour-faced scientists, the walls were adorned with peaceful landscapes, all apparently painted by the same artist.

“Not very creative in their design, are they?” Tolian remarked.

Jareth sighed, already sick of the place. “Spread out. Maybe we can cover it faster that way,” he suggested, plucking a torch from the wall, the other male following suit.

As his companions headed to further rooms, Jareth moved towards the closest one, surprised to find that the room seemed more like a jail cell. There was a metal door with a latching handle, a small opening at the top with bars so that one could see inside. He peered through them, holding his torch up high, but it was empty inside. Some straw was in a high pile on the floor, an empty wooden bucket overturned nearby. Scattered bones that had been picked clean littered the ground, and the walls had claw marks on them. But other than that, the room was abandoned.

The brunet gently pushed the door with one hand, and it swung open easily, the hinges broken. Whatever had been inside had apparently escaped.

“These appear to be holding cells,” Tolian’s voice carried from the next room over, and Jareth noticed the man wrinkle his nose and step into the hallway.

His cell had contained the deceased remains of a beast’s forgotten dinner, and its door had been ripped away from the wall completely. Now, the room appeared to be used by some monster as a macabre pantry.

“Probably for the experiments,” the skipper thought aloud as he stepped to his friend and peered inside before moving along. “Though, I wonder how they got them to the third floor.”

“Using this lift, I should think,” Phaedra answered, her voice floating to them from several doors down.

Unlike the men, she had quickly peeked into the rooms, not pausing to examine every nook and cranny. The first four still held their prisoners and were locked tight, though the monsters were on their last limbs, most resorting to eating each other. One contained another bevulf and the remains of a few more. Another held the lixes of the Tropian continent, the last a colony of seemingly thriving, albeit normal-sized, dumain.

Now, she stood before a gaping hole that led to some sort of basement level. She could faintly see a dim light below, perhaps an entrance to the outside. Phaedra held her torch up high as she gripped onto the wall, leaning in so that she could look up. The metal platform of a lift sat above her, probably waiting on the fourth floor. But they had found no evidence of it on any of the other levels.

“The magic powering it is gone,” she stated as the two men joined her.

They poked and prodded at the useless lift, and she shook her head at their foolishness, quickly sweeping through the remaining doors. Some of these cells were larger, but those doors had been opened as well, their occupants scattered to Melali only knew where, leaving behind piles of rotting hay and empty water buckets.

The last surprised her the most. It was completely clean, not a stick of straw or a speck of dust anywhere. It almost appeared as if it had been unused, but claw marks were everywhere. Further, something of great strength had torn the metal door, throwing it against the wall on the other side of the corridor. Those marks were remarkably similar to the injuries on the boy.

Pursing her lips, Phaedra examined the twisted remnants. As her eyes traced the claw lines, she saw something she hadn't noticed before. While Jareth and Tolian argued over whether or not the beasts were smart enough to use the lift shaft for their own devices, she moved to investigate.

It was another door, metal like all the others, but on the right side of the hall, directly beneath the stairs. None of the other floors had entrances on the same side as the staircase, and unlike the other cells, this room had no viewing portal and was marked with a distinct symbol.

Cautiously, she tried the latch, only to find it locked.

“What're you looking at?” Jareth questioned, appearing at her back.

Phaedra momentarily started before taking a deep breath. “This is the only door we've come across that's locked.” She frowned, stepping back to cross her arms over her chest.

Jareth furrowed his brow in thought before nodding. “Move aside,” he ordered as he grasped the Xaldin firmly.

She was quick to obey, and he took a deep breath, swinging with as much strength as he could muster. His sword struck with a fierce clang, and the metal crumpled inwards, crashing to the ground with a resounding bang, nearly cleaved in two. Tolian hopped to the side to avoid being hit by Jareth's backswing.

Three pairs of eyes peered into the room, gasping in unison, the combined light from their torches easily illuminating the insides. Instead of finding a vicious creature or something equally horrifying, they were shocked to see what appeared to be a human chained by both hands and feet encased within a solid block of ice.

Kicking the crunched door aside, Jareth stepped inside, Tolian and Phaedra right behind him. The cell itself was rather ordinary, containing a small table with two chairs, one of which held a sword in a sheath. The child-sized bed was shoved against a wall, and a pile of neatly folded clothes laid on the table. Like all the others, there was no window.

The only occupant of the room was the child... no, the girl, lying within the ice. They would have thought her dead but for the subtle rise and fall of her chest, visible even within her frosty prison. Her black hair was was loose, hanging just above her shoulders. She couldn’t have been more than fourteen, but she was chained and entrapped as if she were some sort of terrible beast.

“Is she asleep?” Phaedra questioned as they crept closer, blue eyes very wide.

Jareth shrugged. “The door exploding would have woken her.” He scowled in thought. “How long has this place been abandoned?”

“Three years,” Tolian answered as he moved to inspect the girl.

Though somewhat thin, the child didn’t appear to be ill or in danger of dying. She had no injuries, and her breath rose and fell in steady if shallow rhythm.

Tolian's green eye trailed to the cuffs, examining the links carefully. Understanding washed over him at the sight of the marks etched into the metal and frozen liquid. He might have been a man of science and not magic, but any imbecile could recognize runes. A way of casting that used the magician’s own threads to bind the magic to an object, in this case the metal and ice.

However, rune magic was dangerous and could only be used by Adepts since it relied on the caster having absolute control over his or her own threads and, by the looks of it, a mastery over the threads of others as well. Tolian doubted that any of the Niseiians had such power. He could only wonder where they had found a magus capable of such a feat.

“You really think she’s been in here for three years?” Phaedra queried, her tone half-awe and half-anger. A bit of her feared the child, wondering why she was so dangerous to be chained, but the other part of her was furious with Nisei for subjecting a human, and a girl at that, to such treatment.

Tolian nodded. “I’m no mage, but judging from these runes, it’s quite possible.”

Jareth tapped his foot. “D'you think we have anything to fear?”

The bald man’s eye trailed over the thin frame and the multiple scars on what pale, almost translucent, skin was visible. He took in the delicate, clearly feminine features of the sleeping girl's face before sighing and gesturing towards the child.

Do you seriously think she’s a threat?”

“Only one way to find out,” the brunet said before reaching out to run a hand over the frozen ice. He had originally intended to touch it out of curiosity, wondering if his blade would be enough to break through. However, he was surprised when ice rapidly became steam and the metal chains grew hot beneath his touch, turning red before promptly cracking in half with an angry snap. The pieces crashed to the floor with a decidedly final clang before crumpling into dust. The girl, now free from her bindings, slid downwards, Jareth quickly sweeping her up into his arms, surprised in the fact that she was not even wet.

“How did you--” Phaedra couldn’t even complete the question.

“You’re insane,” muttered Tolian under his breath.

The captain merely shook his head as he carefully laid the girl on the unused bed. “I didn’t know the chains would do that. And perhaps I am insane, but for all we know, this girl's innocent.” A strange expression flitted over his face as he added, “Maybe all she wants is to go home.”

With that, they all turned to look at the child. A few bated breaths passed before she twitched, fingers moving slightly, as if grasping for something. Her eyelids slid open slowly, revealing golden irises. The girl stared at the ceiling as she blinked once and then twice before turning her head to the side, eyes immediately focusing on the captain.

Her brow furrowed in confusion. “Who…” she trailed off, voice hoarse from disuse, and she burst into a fit of coughing, blood flecking onto her lips and hand as she covered her mouth. She thrust her body upwards, though she hunched as the hacking continued.

“I’m Jareth,” the brunet explained once the fit had ceased, though the girl was not looking at him. “This is Phaedra. And that's Tolian. And you are?”

At the question, the dark-haired child raised her head and glanced about the room, as if seeing it for the first time. She still held her hand over her mouth, forgetting that it had been placed there.

“I…” The child faltered as her eyes darted back and forth, her gaze dropping to the floor in sudden revelation. The blood-flecked hand moved to her forehead, fingertips tracing along her hairline as her face twisted into a look of utter despair and disbelief.

“I… I don’t know,” she admitted, looking up and locking eyes with Jareth. Her irises were swirling with confusion, unsettled as they searched the captain's face for an answer. “I don’t know anything.” The anguish was plain to see, even as she coughed again with her proclamation, more blood spilling free.

“I don’t know where this is or why I’m here or… or anything.” She closed her eyes tightly as she spoke, chest heaving as she struggled to draw a breath. “It’s dark… blank and hazy, faces I don’t know. Words that crowd in on themselves.” Her body started to tremble as her voice cracked, and her lungs betrayed her, forcing another hacking fit.

The sound of low thumping in the ceiling above made three pairs of eyes turn upwards, momentarily distracted from the frail and ailing child. The noise was not unlike the sound of many pairs of booted feet running back and forth along the floor. Jareth and Tolian exchanged glances.

“We had better investigate,” the engineer intoned as he unrolled his whip. “After all, we're on duty.”

“What about her?” Phaedra inquired, nodding her head towards the now silent girl, who's head snapped up at Phaedra's question. “She's only just a child.”

“Her? She?” the girl repeated in hoarse confusion. “I'm not a girl. And I'm certainly not a child.”

Tolian blinked. “Errr...” He quickly glanced over the young... child. “Are you sure? You said you didn't remember anything.”

The... person drew up indignantly, nostrils flaring. “Well, I know enough that I'm not a girl,” came the response with a firm gesture towards her... his lap.

The subsequent silence could only be described as awkward.

Something thumped rather loudly above them, and Jareth inhaled sharply. “Whatever. Girl. Boy. It doesn't matter.” He moved to kneel in front of the boy so that he could look him in the eye. “You have a choice,” the captain began. “Either you can come with us, and there’s a chance we can help you find out who you are. Or you can remain here, surrounded all this.” He vaguely waved his hand around.

The child blinked but said nothing, keeping his blank eyes trained on the floor. Jareth waited for just a moment before trading looks with Phaedra and rising. When the boy made no move, the brunet turned his back, and the three adults headed for the doorway. Tolian was the first to step over the twisted wreckage that was the door. There was a rustle of clothing behind them, and then, a small but slightly hesitant voice spoke up.

“Will I… be free?”

Jareth glanced over his shoulder at the boy, finding that he was now standing at the side of the bed, staring at the ground with his hands clenched at his sides.

It was an odd question, especially considering that the child claimed he could not remember anything. Yet, at the same time, it was not. It was as if the boy believed Jareth and his friends had released him, only to lock him up at a later time. But having looked into his eyes, the skipper seemed to understand the boy completely, the reason why he had yet to treat the child like he was something delicate or young.

“The only chains will be of your own making,” Jareth replied softly, though he wasn’t exactly sure why those were the words that came to him, but they were surprisingly fitting. Somehow, he knew that answer was the only one the child would have believed.

The boy raised his head, the confusion once present now replaced by a fierce determination. “I’ll go with you,” he declared. “Until the day comes that I find out who I am.”

Gone were the hesitation and the small voice filled with uncertainty.

A grin tugged at the corner of Jareth’s mouth. “Alright,” he responded as he half-turned to regard their newest addition. As he did so, his gaze fell on the clothes and sword on the table, the child following his line of sight and frowning.

“I don’t know how to use a sword,” he said with a shake of his head before moving swiftly past Jareth and heading for the hallway. “And neither do I want that clothing.”

The brunet watched his movements with an almost bemused expression as the boy climbed over the battered door and joined the other two in the corridor. Shaking his head in wonderment, Jareth cast one last look at the room before another loud and sudden thump disturbed him from his reverie.

“I have the feeling that what we’ve been searching for is on the next floor,” Jareth announced, joining his friends. “Stay on your guard.” He turned to their newest addition. “You don’t have a weapon, so stay close to one of us. We’ll prot--”

”I don’t need protection,” the boy denied as he crossed his arms over his chest and scowled.

Phaedra opened her mouth to protest, but Jareth shook his head. “Very well, if that is your wish,” he stated, pivoting quickly and heading up the corridor towards the stairs.

The blonde quickly caught up to him, her words coming out in an urgent whisper that only the two of them could hear as they climbed the staircase. “He’s just a boy, Jareth.”

“He doesn’t seem to think so,” intoned the brunet as they reached the landing.

He stopped to look at an“ Authorized Personnel Only ” sign that was posted on the door in front of him. It hung loosely on its hinges, gaping open by a few inches, and an eerie feeling seemed to emanate from inside.

Jareth made the first move, one hand on his sword as the other slowly pushed, Phaedra holding a torch over his shoulder. As a result, they were the first to see what appeared to be the main research lab of the complex, a huge open space that seemed devoid of life. Shelves of chemicals lined the walls, and tables with glass containers were scattered about. Papers littered the floor, just as they had in the library, but there didn’t appear to be anything which would make noise.

That was until their eyes landed on a swirling mass of pulsating shadows. No, not shadows. Bodies. Creatures.

The things writhed and twisted in a nest of coils. And there didn’t seem to be any form as they soundlessly slid along the floor. Yet, the sight of the black throng was enough to make Phaedra’s stomach turn, blood freezing in her veins.

Behind them, Tolian stifled a groan of disgust. The boy looked on with wide eyes, though he said nothing.

Inky darkness glided over the walls and floors to join the horde. Distinct sets of glowing eyes peered out at them. Each was a different color, the only distinguishing mark.

“What... what are those?” the blonde asked, horror plainly written on her face.

The strange monsters themselves made no noise, but as their bodies rubbed together, the sound of rubbery flesh and the wet slide of oily skin were plainly audible.

Jareth shuddered, rather out of sorts. “I don’t know,” he honestly replied, gaze fixated on a single small form as it detached itself from the throng.

It glided along the floor tiles, slowly approaching them. Jareth drew his sword and took a deep breath as the strange thing lifted itself, glowing green eyes locked onto him. It hissed loudly, revealing a something mouth-like with a trio of dripping fangs.

“But I do know that these are what attacked that boy,” the brunet added in as he took an unconscious step backwards from the shadow.

The thing stopped suddenly, lowering itself until it was once again flat, but it didn’t take its eyes off of the captain. Two more forms slithered away from the swarm, joining their lone kin, orange and red eyes staring. They didn’t even blink, regarding Jareth and his companions with both hostility and curiosity.

The brunet was about to attack when the sound of a muffled cry had the three mercenaries whirling around. The boy was wrestling with one of the creatures, which shockingly clung to the side of the wall as two arm-like appendages wrapped around his frail body, pinning his hands to his side. The dark head of the thing nuzzled at the child’s neck before a long flat tongue snaked out from its mouth, licking a wet trail up the boy’s face from chin to cheek. The boy shuddered with revulsion as he strained to get free.

Tolian immediately drew his whip and darted at the shade-beast, but his weapon flew through its body like it wasn’t even there, as if it really was just a shadow. The monster made a strange cackling noise before the part of it still attached to the wall glided upwards, dragging the boy with him.

Meanwhile, the swarm in the center of the room began to writhe and pulsate with more force as the torches in their hands flickered and dimmed. More shapes broke away from the mass and headed towards the three humans.

“Jareth!” Phaedra grabbed onto the boy’s legs and refused to let go, but she would find no help from the brunet.

He was locked in his own battle for survival as four forms piled on top of him, attempting to restrain his limbs. His sword clattered to the floor, and he kicked and punched, though his attacks passed through them. Strangely, they had enough form to hold him down, wrapping their shadow-like bodies around his own. Like the boy, they tasted his skin before trying to drag him towards their nest.

Another sidled up to Phaedra, even as she held onto the boy, its tongue flicking out to taste the air. Immediately, it homed in on the woman, gliding towards her. Bizarrely, the things ignored Tolian completely, despite the fact that he repeatedly cracked his whip at them.

“Dammit,” he cursed as he held a basically useless whip in his hands. “How do we kill the draxin' things?”

Everywhere that the monsters gripped, Jareth felt an odd pulling on his body. It seemed to drain energy directly out of him, making his limbs sluggish, his mind dimming with each passing second. He violently struggled, managing to slip one hand free, and he groped for his sword. A wheezing sound rattled through the shade-beasts, and searing pain raced across his chest as a shadowy arm wrapped around him. He doubled over, coughs choking in his lungs, blood now gurgling in his throat.

“No!” The angry denial tore free from the boy, mouth liberated from the shade’s grasp. He twisted in the monster’s hold, dangling several feet off the floor as his face filled with rage.

“No!” he screamed. “Not--”

Suddenly, his eyes opened wider, his pupils contracting almost entirely. His body went completely motionless. Then, stranger still, his skin began to throb in a rhythm that nearly matched the pulsating bodies around him.

All other movement in the room stopped instantly. Phaedra released her hold on the boy’s leg in surprise, her own shade dropping away from her. The other shadows paused, now just hanging onto Jareth. Even the monsters watched with quivering eyes as the child began to shriek. The high, guttural sound transformed to a fierce snarling as his back bowed and something raced upon his flesh, searing the shadowed arms of the monster holding him.

The thing squealed in surprised before dropping the child, who managed to land on all fours, body still shaking as he hit the ground. His fingers clutched at the floor for a moment before he growled loudly and arched his back again, a pair of webbed wings bursting out in a shower of blood. In the same moment, fangs elongated from his mouth and his hands became claws that were sharp enough to cut through the tile beneath him. His bare feet turned into taloned, feline-like paws, and his clothing was shredded into tatters. Within seconds, there stood a strangely winged kilicat-esque beast where the boy had once been, its eyes the exact same golden color.

“W-what?” Phaedra breathlessly gaped, unconsciously taking a step backwards.

Jareth took the moment of distraction to wriggle his other arm free, managing to pull himself out of the slackened grip of the dazed monsters.

“At least, we know why he was chained,” Tolian murmured. “He’s a monster.”

“No,” Jareth denied vehemently. “He’s still there. Just hidden.”

Even as he spoke, the winged beast roared again and swiped at the shadows that had crept up around him. However, his attacks seemed to be doing more damage as he sliced through a shade, cleaving it in half and sending bodies of writhing black to the floor.

The shadows made an odd cackling noise before the nest in the center of the room exploded, and the monsters started to attack in earnest. The three mercenaries went down under the weight of the shades, struggling for their very lives. Phaedra screamed as three fangs sank into her thigh, a cry of pain that matched Jareth’s own as he was ruthlessly dragged back towards the central nest. The once child went down under a pile of shadows, his wings the only part of him still visible.

Tolian, on the other hand, stumbled on his feet, blinded by his attackers and falling against a shelf by the front wall. Bottles and beakers crashed to the floor, glass shattering as toxic compounds spilled all over the floor. The smell of chemicals filled the air moments before a fire burst up from seemingly nowhere, most likely the result of a dropped torch.

Tolian was pushed up against the wall once more, knocking down more beakers and causing the flames to rage even higher. It roared across the rest of the shelves, fueled by unknown toxins, igniting and exploding more beakers and containers as it went.

The shades screamed, pulling back from the inferno in fear. Tolian’s assailants slid off, allowing him to breathe as they retreated from the fire, their jeweled eyes seemingly mesmerized by the blaze. The man howled, uncoiling his whip and flicking it through the chemicals so that it caught on fire before directing the leading edge at the shades. All that it struck burst into flame, shrieking in agony as they were consumed.

As the blaze swiftly roared through the room, Tolian sprang to Phaedra’s side, using his flame-ignited whip to free her. She was now bruised and bloody, limping due to her bitten leg, but she would survive. The two rushed to their captain’s side as Jareth scrabbled to get away from the shadows, a fanged mouth sinking into his shoulder. He hissed and attempted to reach for one of their dropped torches as his friends rushed to the rescue. The trio backed away from the center of the room, heading towards the door as the inferno built up even more, using fuel from the other shelves.

“Jareth! Look!” Phaedra cried out, pointing back into the room.

Their eyes landed on the small form of the boy as it was dragged back to the nest. He had reverted back and was now unconscious, bleeding from several bite wounds.

The brunet’s eyes narrowed in determination. “Get out of here!” he ordered to the others before diving back into the fray, fire licking dangerously close to his body.

“Jareth!” Phaedra protested, but she was ignored. “Jareth!”

He scooped up a torch and ripped off the protective encasing before swinging the blue flames at the shades. They hissed and backed away from him, jeweled eyes flashing. He ignored their glares, however, grabbing the boy into his arm and racing back towards the door. The child didn’t even make a noise, just lolling about in his grasp, but the keening sound from the shades more than made up for his silence as they succumbed to the blistering firestorm.

“Why did you do that?” Tolian demanded, open-mouthed, but at the look in Jareth’s eyes, he quieted, jogging to keep up with the other man. He traded glances with Phaedra as they ran for the exit, almost leaping down the stairs in their haste to get out of the now burning complex. With all the chemicals, Tolian doubted there would even be a building within a few minutes.

Fortunately, none of the shades gave chase, and had he cared, that fact would have given him much food for thought. As it were, he just wanted to escape from the research center before it collapsed around their ears.

Minutes later, the three mercenaries were standing outside, watching as fire consumed the top floor. They could still hear the screeching cries of the strange shadows as they died in agony, all burning with the building.

“They'll be angry that it was destroyed, but for what was inside, I don’t regret it,” Jareth commented.

Tolian shook his head, gaze landing on the boy who his friend still carried. “Perhaps not… but now, we don’t have a clue who this boy is or why he can change into a beast.”

“You’re wondering why I didn’t just leave him behind,” the captain said quietly.

“He’s just a boy, Jareth,” Phaedra replied. “I don’t think either of us could've honestly left him lying there with those things. And in the middle of a burning building.” She smiled faintly. “He only wanted freedom, didn’t he?”

A grin tugged at the corner of Jareth’s mouth. “Aye. And I know that, whoever he is, the beast isn't his true nature. I don’t think that he's a danger to us.” He paused for a second. “After all, even in that form, he never tried to attack us.”

With that said, he turned and began to head for town. They still needed to report their mission and collect their fee. Phaedra and Tolian moved to walk beside him.

However, before they could pass through the gates, the boy stirred, groaning softly as his eyes opened. With a start, he realized he was being carried and struggled until Jareth put him down. He swayed unsteadily, finally regaining his balance a second later. The boy regarded Jareth with a peculiar expression, fear mixed with indignation, like he remembered what had just happened.

“Why didn’t you kill me?” he demanded after a moment of silence, eyes very suspicious. “I’m a monster. You saw it for yourself.”

“That eager for death, boy?” Tolian asked in return. “You’re no beast… just an unfortunate result of Niseiian stupidity.”

The child snorted. “My name is Rivalen,” he responded scathingly. “And I’m no boy. I’m twenty-one years old.”

Jareth peered at him. “I thought you said you didn’t remember.” He gazed again at the child… no, man that stood before him, hardly able to believe that his age was as he claimed. Rivalen looked entirely too young to be only three years the captain’s junior. What exactly had happened to him?

“I don’t!” Rivalen hesitated as he glanced over their shoulders. “But after I… changed into that beast… Erebus… some of my memory came back. Just a few pieces, mind you, but I know enough now that I am no boy!”

Tolian chuckled. “You’re still a boy.” He smiled widely. “To me, all three of you are still children.” He tilted his head before continuing. “Nevertheless, we saved you from that building. Gratitude is only polite, boy.”

The not-boy snorted as he crossed his arms over his chest and looked away from them. “If you expect gratitude, you shouldn’t have bothered.”

Jareth shook his head, trying to stifle his laughter at the boy’s stubborn and rude demeanor. “That sounds reasonable enough. Very well.” He bowed slightly in acquiescence. “Are you still coming with us, Rivalen?”

“I’m going to find out my past,” the not-boy insisted, “and you said you would help me. I’m traveling with you.”

Jareth studied him critically. “We won’t waste our time protecting you,” he stated, ignoring the look that Phaedra shot him.

She was appalled. “ Jareth!

“I don’t expect you to,” Rivalen cut in, tilting his head to look at her. There was a hint of irritation in the movement. “Now, are we going to stand here all day and talk in front of a burning building or have you something better to do?”

Jareth raised a brow. For a not-girl, not-monster, not-boy, who had just woken up and that had been saved by strangers, he was surprisingly rude.

We're leaving,” the captain said, and he stepped away, walking back to the town. He didn’t even bother to see if the others followed. He already knew that they would, even Rivalen.

It was the beginning of... something. He just didn't know quite what.



“And after that, Rivalen was a part of our crew,” the captain intoned as he finished his story. “Every time he changes, he regains a little more of his memory.” Jareth paused, remembering something. “At one point, he discovered that he actually did know how to use a sword... somewhat. But since the lab was destroyed in the fire, we lost all hopes of even getting a lead on who he really was.” The man snorted faintly. “And his attitude hasn’t changed from that day either.”

Navar bit back a chuckle. “So I see,” she commented and shook her head. “I still can't believe you thought he was a girl. He's the least feminine person I've ever met. And that's really saying something.”

Phaedra coughed into her hand. “Anyway... Rivalen remembered something from the beginning, something that he hasn’t told to us. That's why he's this way. Even from day one, he's pushed us away. But now, I can say that he does trust us... to some extent. I guess as much as a man with that many secrets can trust someone.”

“If you are done with story time,” Rivalen interrupted then as he passed by the three, nostrils flaring ever-so-slightly. “We are nearly at Feng Huang.” He said nothing else, casting Jareth a cold look before moving ahead.

While Jareth and Phaedra had related that tale to the verdillan and an eavesdropping Lucas, Marquel and Fuki had led them successfully through the forest and out the other side. Now, they stood on a dirt path that was surrounded by a fence of bronzed wood. The trail would take them straight to the village a short distance away.

“I take it that he didn’t want you to know about that,” the blonde murmured as she watched the back of the man in front of them.

Navar shrugged, her grin never fading. “I don’t think he wants anyone to understand anything about him. But I am altogether a curious verdillan, and he knows that.” She smirked in remembrance.

Jareth frowned, his mind again recalling the look on Rivalen’s face when he had awoken after his first changing. “Aye... that I can believe,” he replied but fell silent as they approached the walls of Feng Huang, a trickle of dread spiking through his belly.

****

Cassandra Smith
Copyright 2006-2008
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