Walkabout Chapter 13
Relm never seemed to mind the stares she and her shaggy escort got whenever they entered a village or city. She was a brash, outspoken girl who did unusual things all the time; surprised expressions were nothing new to her at all. Some thought she even liked the attention, and this was not entirely untrue. It was nowhere near untrue, in fact.
Interceptor, on the other hand, noticed and resented every human eye that set its gaze upon him. A stare was a hostile thing to a creature of the wild, a challenge and a threat, and he met every look with fluttering lip and baleful glare most of the time this was more than enough to make even the most curious passers-by switch their interest to other, less perilous sights. Some instinctively feared him and shrank away when they saw the big black half-breed following his owner down the sidewalk, while others wanted to reach out and pat his head or fondle his ears. A quick word from the girl was usually enough to warn these latter types off, but if they persisted in bothering him the ever-useful snarl usually did the trick. Otherwise the rest of humanity did not exist to Interceptor; he ignored them as readily as he worshipped the girl.
Men he would not hesitate to attack. Women he might lift his lips at, but reprisal was generally less forthcoming. Children were a baffling mystery to the dog. They were weak, and young, and so he regarded them much as he would have an annoying puppy, with stoic (and slightly exasperated) patience. The girl had been different of course - he had sensed her in the childs blood and spirit and this had been quite enough to make Interceptor a willing slave, going so far as to leave the man in black on several occasions just to stay at her side. He loved the man with all of his great heart, but the memory of the woman owned his soul.
As for the rest of the human litters, Interceptor paid them no mind. There seemed to be hundreds of them in every city, running through the streets in loose, giggling packs. They were as ubiquitous as leafers on the plains, and far less interesting because he couldnt give chase. Therefore he ignored them, even when they brushed past the girl in their unthinking, clumsy way.
At least, he had until this day, anyway. On this day he had changed his habits, and all at once the world had gone out from under him like rotten river ice breaking beneath a heavy weight.
They had been in yet another city, one of the biggest the girl had yet led him into. Interceptor had stayed close at her side as he always did, nervous and fearful of the sights and smells threatening to overwhelm his finely-tuned senses. The sounds of men and women chattering and laughing and shouting in every octave filled his eardrums; once a carriage rumbled by almost on top of the two, and the harsh cracking of the whip and yells of the driver very nearly sent Interceptor out of his wits with fear. Only the girls soothing hand on his head kept him from bolting away through the crowd in terror.
Eventually they had made it out of the worst of the congestion, emerging near a double-set of shining tracks that reminded Interceptor disconcertingly of the Bad Places. They had smelled of the ruined castle and the bad forest, but it was a faint aroma, so faint he had merely raised his hackles and followed the girl onwards without even a whimper of fear. After the events in the castle there was not much Interceptor would balk at, and he didnt even blink an eyelash at the train-cars, despite bad experiences with their type in the past. He had been in the act of cocking his leg on the tracks just to show what he thought of them, of course when the lurking boy caught his watchful eye.
It was a scruffy one, very thin and very young, and ordinarily Interceptor wouldnt have given it a second glance. The thing that had given the wolf-dog pause was just what the child had been up to. It had quite boldly reached into the girls pack and stolen an item she seemed to love dearly, an item that had once been the womans. Then without another look around it had fled back into the crowd, before Interceptor could even think to act or spring.
If the child had been a grown man Interceptors teeth would have been buried in the flesh of its neck before it took two steps away from the scene of the crime. However, its youth made Interceptor pause for just a bit longer than normal, and in those few moments of hesitation it had gotten away, slipping off as easily as a fox after a henhouse raid. Its scent-trail had still been fresh on the ground, but it wouldnt have stayed that way for long with all the human activity in the area. Interceptor had been faced with a grave decision follow the thief and retrieve his mistresss belonging or stay at her side as he had always done, sure in the knowledge that she was safe and he was there to protect her and keep her that way.
The choice had only taken a few moments, but to the dog it had seemed like ages. He had stood watching the girls face for some time before leaping away into the throng, and every instinct in his body had told him to stop when she yelled out his name and gave chase. For three years he had been her constant companion, sleeping at the foot of her bed, dogging her footsteps wherever she travelled, and lying patiently in wait when she went places he could not follow. Leaving the girls side especially when she was giving him conflicting orders was a sundering of his very nature, but something told him it had to be done, and so he did.
(However, this was the second time in five months Interceptor had disobeyed a command, and the fact wounded him grievously. He was officially a Bad Dog, but perhaps she would forgive him when he came back with the lost item. Then he would be a Good Dog again.)
Interceptors sense of smell, like that of all canines, was superlative. He had no trouble at all following the childs zig-zagging path, fresh as it was, and when the culprit was finally cornered it had returned the stolen thing without any further fight or hassle. The problem came when Interceptor returned to the spot where he had left the girl.
She was not there. She was not anywhere. The boxcars were gone, and so was she. With growing franticness the wolf-dog quested through the crowds searching for a trail, but the smell of her was old and overlaid with the footsteps of ten thousand others. The girls scent-path ended at the train-tracks, disappearing into thin air. It was as if a monster had swooped down from the heavens and carried her away. Once he thought he saw her struggling through the mass of people, but when he ran to greet her with a joyous whuf it turned out to be a stranger, a mere child who shied away and screamed when she saw the great black shape bounding towards her. Interceptor turned away with lowered head and drooping tail, the very picture of dejection and confusion.
Nothing made sense. He had only left her for what seemed like a few moments, but in those moments his very world had been turned upside down. Interceptors entire lot in life was to serve and protect the girl, but now the girl was gone. Night was falling and he was alone, frightened and bewildered in a habitat as alien to him as the Veldt would have been to many a city-dweller. The gas lights blinded his eyes and the smells of soot and chocobo dung and dust confused his nose.
He made short, halting dashes through the forest of legs, first in one direction, then the other. They were hesitant steps, and if anyone had taken the time to look downwards and seen the dogs upturned eyes desperately scouring the sea of faces, they would have immediately known he was lost. No-one did; they were too busy with their own lives and affairs, and stray dogs were no uncommon thing in the cities. Once a boy-child did take a lively interest in him, but the interest mainly involved idly throwing sharp stones at his legs, and the fact that it was young was the only thing that stopped Interceptor from taking all his fear and frustration out on the feckless creatures hide. He fled to the outermost reaches of the train-yard, where people were not so thick and the air clearer.
Evening had begun to dip into purple twilight. A dusk wind kicked up, swift and refreshingly cool after the stifling airlessness of the crowds. Interceptor lifted his head and sniffed deeply of the breeze as it ruffled his coat it was blowing to the west. The west
Some instinct urged Interceptor to follow the wind, to run as fast as he could towards the sunset. The desire was almost overpowering in its call; if he went west, he could find the girl. No other direction felt right, and the canine had nothing to go on but his feelings. He did not doubt them, like a human would have, but trusted in the instincts nature had given him. She was waiting for him, somewhere out there in the darkness.
He threw back his head and let out a long, lonesome howl that chilled the marrow of every late-travelling commuter and vagrant within a five-mile radius. Then without another sound he disappeared into the night, already falling into the slow, steady wolf-trot that eats up the miles and runs the rhinox to ground.
Figaro Desert did not begin abruptly. It crept up on travellers stealthily, the only sign that it was coming a slow disappearance of green vegetation the farther northwest one journeyed from the city of South Figaro. Long stretches of parched earth spread their tentacles outward inch by dry inch, until the ground was entirely grassless and there was nothing but sand and rocky wasteland as far as the eye could see. Eventually even the rocks and packed dirt vanished, leaving one adrift in a sea of dunes that moved with the slow, stately rhythm of ocean waves. Tracks vanished in the blink of an eye and sight was dazzled by the glittering crests; unless the desert wanderer was well-provisioned and extremely adept at finding his or her way, disorientation usually set in, as good as a death curse in this place where every second counted and the temperature soared well beyond the bodys meagre limits.
When they came over that last hill between where the packed earth stopped and the dunes began, many men quailed with fear. The sight of the changeless expanses sweeping before them put a mighty terror into even the staunchest heart, and some went mad, or took the long way around rather than step into a wilderness of sand they might very well never come out of.
Interceptor did none of those things. He was, after all, merely an animal, and no-one had ever told him that Figaro Desert was a deathtrap, or warned him against crossing it. Instinctively he recognized that it was a harsh place, but he did not cower and think about the many ways he might die out there underneath the baking sun. That is not the way of beasts. All he knew was that his girl was waiting somewhere on the other side of the sands, and that cross it he must. There were no ifs, ands, buts, or maybes in Interceptors black-and-white world.
He sat looking down at the empty quarter, watching the heat distortions ripple along the horizon in curiosity. Then he arose and without ceremony or prelude trotted down onto the dunes. The race was on; the clock was ticking away.
The first two days were the easiest. Interceptor still had plenty of water left in his system, and during the hottest part of the day he took refuge in the overhanging root systems of stunted trees, the dead remnants of a lusher time in this barren place. The sands had blown away from their bases, leaving shadowy hollows between the dried-up tendrils once used for pulling up moisture from the ground. When the sun was at its zenith and no life stirred Interceptor slept underneath these, scratching deep nests into the ground until the cool of the evening came and made crossing easier. Night was his preferred time to travel, but the nagging urge to keep moving sometimes grew too strong to ignore, and he started out while the heat of the day was in full force. It cost him dearly in body moisture and sweat dripped off his panting tongue in dark droplets, but he made better time.
By the third day his steps were lagging, and there were no tree-roots to hide under when noon rolled around and the sand grew so hot it burned his paws. Interceptors heavy black coat actually insulated him against the worst of the heat, but any benefit was quickly made null by the way it soaked up the suns rays. There was no water or moisture to lap at anywhere; his tongue had actually begun to crack and dry up, all the fluids in the dogs body including saliva - needed to help propel him forward just a little further.
A strange visitor came to the weary traveller that day as well, a tiny fennec fox with ears three times the size of its head. With mild curiosity (and from a safe distance) it watched its big cousin plod onwards before trotting off, and Interceptor paid it no mind. The young fox trailed him for the next two days, perhaps hoping for a kill it could scavenge or maybe even a playmate. Interceptor satisfied neither of these cravings in his companion, for there was nothing to kill and no time or energy with which to frolic even if he had been in the habit of tolerating foxes. It did have one useful habit, though: the little creature was an expert digger and had a nose for finding water seeps buried underneath the sand, as scattered and incredibly rare as they were in this heat-blasted place. The only reason Interceptor was able to keep going was because he chased the poor beast away when it scraped wells for itself, then lapped greedily at the muddy moisture with his grossly swollen tongue.
Eventually even the fennec fell behind, and on the fifth day Interceptors mind began to go. He saw things that scent and hearing told him were not there, images that wavered and disappeared in his poor field of vision from moment to moment. People and packmates long-dead walked beside him underneath the scorching sun, sometimes beckoning him onwards when all the exhausted wolf-dog wanted to do was lie down and rest. Once it was the girl. Another time it was the man in black, walking placidly a few feet ahead. At still other moments it was his big grey mother, who had died in a snare-trap just outside Narshe years and years before.
Sometimes it was the woman, and when she appeared Interceptor called upon all the strength left in his failing body and tried madly to catch up, black and swollen tongue roiling from his mouth, eyes wild with desperation. She was always just out of reach though, and no amount of running could ever bring him to her side. Still, he tried. He could do no less than try when she was so tantalizingly close, smiling and waving for him to come on, boy! in pantomime as she had done so many times in life.
The womans apparition was the last to appear, and she stayed with him through the heat of the day and far into the night. When he finally collapsed on the cracked earth, leg muscles feebly twitching with the instinctive drive to move forward, it seemed almost as if he could feel her cool hand on his head, scratching him between the ears in benediction.
His tail thumped weakly, just once, and then the dog was still.
When the mounted soldiers sent out on patrol came across the unconscious wolf-dogs body in a wash several miles east of Figaro Castle, they thought at first that it was dead. Then one of them saw its side lift, ever so slightly, and that was all the sign they needed. Within moments the beast had been hefted onto one of the riders laps and was lolling across the saddle-pommel as they galloped away to the west, unheeding but alive.
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