Walkabout Chapter 2
The world was a different place in these post-Empire, post-Kefka days. Over a thousand years had passed since the War of the Magi, and in that time the continents and their peoples had made alliances, split into warring factions, rejoined, and generally done all the things that civilizations tend to do. Even the shifting of the very earth itself hadnt stopped people from living their lives as best they could, and now, almost four years on, you could hardly tell there had been a cataclysmic shaking of the worlds foundations, but for one massive change things had become astonishingly (and some might have said gratingly) peaceful.
There had been times of peace in the past, true, but those had merely been momentary lulls between wars or monster attacks, brief reprieves before a steady succession of storms. This, on the other hand, was the peace to end all peaces. The land was lusher and greener than it had ever been in living memory, the monsters had all but died out, and the remaining human population was scattered far and wide across the globe, exploring areas never before seen by the eyes of men. Previously regents and wealthy landowners had controlled the best farms and the finest pastures, but the reshaping of the world meant a drop in numbers across all income brackets. Soon there was a surplus of rich land up for grabs to whoever would cultivate it, and many left their homes in the wrecked cities to raise crops or try their hand at ranching. Rural hamlets that had numbered perhaps a hundred strong exploded overnight into bustling villages full of commerce and trade, and farms sprang up like weeds in places once haunted only by monsters and other beasts of the wild. For the first time in its history the world was becoming thoroughly civilized.
Relm wasnt sure she liked it at all. The girl had grown up in an isolated community where most people knew their neighbors by name, and then all at once in the past few years it had become populated by strangers looking for a new and better life in the fishing trade. At the same time, many of the older citizens had succumbed to disease or old age, until Relm could walk through the marketplace and not see one face she recognized in the bustling crowds of fishwives and bakers. The city of mages had quite suddenly turned into the city of mariners, and Relm hated this new change with a burning passion.
She had thought leaving on this new adventure would placate her wounded sensibilities somewhat after all, there had to be places not yet choked and clogged with people, where only the wild remained but so far it wasnt working. There were even ranches on the Veldt now, and the sight of the fenceposts and cabins dotting what had once been a major monster migratory path lodged in the girls stomach like a large, heavy, and mostly indigestible brick. Was there anywhere they wouldnt fucking settle?
Four years before, a child wouldnt have lasted five seconds unattended on these plains, unless perhaps they had sported a mane of shaggy green hair and an incredible will to live. Now there were several at every homestead, usually playing tag in the front yard until they spotted the stranger and her dog passing by and ceased all activities to stare with the uninhibited boldness of the very young. Kefkas defeat had caused an unprecedented baby boom all those years ago; with the rich and plentiful crops that were sure to spring from the now-fertile soil to feed these new mouths it didnt look like it would be ending any time soon. Relm sighed and picked up her pace, wanting to get away from their prying eyes and prying questions.
Hey lady, where ya goin? Aint nothin that way but the haunted castle.
Whats your dogs name? Didja just come over on the boat from Mobliz? Is the confec-confecis the candy store still open there?
Are you a vagabond? My daddy says there are lots of vagabonds around now, and that Im not spposed to talk to them.
One rosy-cheeked urchin hanging monkey-like from the planks of the fence reached a hand through the slats to touch Interceptor as he trotted by. Relms voice stopped the outstretched digits before they got even halfway to their destination.
Leave him alone. The dog eats little boys.
The sticky hand was retracted with a swiftness. Widened eyes tracked the pair as they quietly passed the edge of the farm and became nothing more than specks on the horizon, shapes dissolving into obscurity on the vastness of the Veldt. The two would be discussed and analyzed by the children for a good five days after, most of them coming to the conclusion that the girl and her dog, if not the mysterious vagrants and obviously not monsters, must be wandering espers. Then the adults told them all the espers were dead, as they had told them a thousand times before, and feeling very silly for believing in such stories the boys and girls turned their interests towards vampire chocobos instead.
Thankfully for Relm (or thankfully for any settlers Relm might have come in contact with), the land began to grow wilder and emptier the farther north she pressed. They would get there eventually, she had no doubt of that, but for now the only company she and Interceptor had were the birds and beasts of the plains and the wind, which never ceased blowing out here on the treeless wastes. As far as the eye could see there was nothing but gently rippling grass, stretching like a green-gold ocean from horizon to horizon in unbroken waves that fluttered when the breeze swept through. Occasionally a leafer would bolt almost under their feet and race for cover; Interceptor would chase the creature with long, loping strides of his own for a ways and then angle back towards his mistress, never straying far from her side for too long.
Much of the day passed like this, Relm making her way as best she could through the calf-high grass while Interceptor idled along just ahead or behind her. The girls mood had improved greatly since leaving the last outposts of civilization behind, and so she took her time travelling through this stretch of the world, whistling an old Jidoor bawdy-house tune Setzer had been fond of (Strago less so), while occasionally kicking at discarded cocatolis nests and other assorted debris with her big clunky boots. She was inordinately proud of her boots; they had been bought for her years and years ago from a seller in Albrook who had disappeared along with a great many others when the World of Balance was destroyed by Kefka. The shoemaker might have been long gone, but Relms fancy red footwear remained, an enduring testament to the cobblers great skill, Celess deep pockets, and Relms vanity for bright and shiny objects, especially those she could wear. Many pieces of overly-bright clothing had been left behind in Thamasa, but the thought of leaving her god-killing boots had nearly driven Relm into a frenzy. You had to have a little style, as her uncles Setzer and Edgar had often said.
The sun began to sink lower in the west, a massive red ball teetering precariously just above the grassy horizon. It looked as if it would set the entire prairie aflame were it ever to brush that golden sward, and in a way it did, brilliant pinks and fiery oranges leaping up to make an eye-watering conflagration out of the sky and every cloud in it. Grass-stems and rocky outcroppings threw long shadows in the coppery light; Relms shadow made her look at least seven feet tall and as menacing as a cutthroat mercenary. The effect was rather spoiled when the assassin began to sing about what a wonderful pair of boots she owned, and even more so when the bloodthirsty wolf following close behind started howling mournfully in time with the sound of her voice.
She had just begun on the seventh verse a paean to how shiny and candy-red they were, and how men from miles around would come just to polish them and the sky was going from orange-pink to deep purple when Interceptor suddenly stopped howling and began to scent the cooling air, ears flicking this way and that to catch sounds Relm couldnt hear even when she reluctantly stopped her song and strained to listen for them. The big dog began to growl low and menacingly in his throat, shifting in a complete circle to keep tabs on whatever-it-was he thought was trailing them in the long grass outside of Relms eyesight.
Something was out there. Interceptor could hear it rustling as it circled and even occasionally got a whiff of its scent when the breeze blew right a human but his weak eyes could not pin the intruder down, nor was the wind in his favour. It would have been the easiest thing in the world to rush into the weeds and sink his fangs into its back, but that would have meant leaving the girl unguarded, and that was the one thing Interceptor would not do. The grasses directly in front of them began to part and he threw himself against her knees, snarling and raging in a way that would have stopped most trespassers in their tracks. Not so with this one. It just kept coming and both travelers prepared to attack, Relm reaching for her paintbrush as Interceptor crouched at her feet and prepared to spring, raised hackles making him look absolutely monstrous in the waning half-light.
The interloper appeared like the Stray Cat Relms grandfather used to tell her stories of when she was a tiny girl first came the grin, and then the rest followed after. The rest in this case was a long, lean body and a mass of shaggy green hair that seemed to make its owner look much more substantial than he actually was. Golden eyes glinted mischievously at Relm from under the verdant mane, coy and affectionate and the slightest bit dangerous.
Youre a long way from home, arent you, Relmie?
Both Relms jaw and her paintbrush dropped, the latter clattering to the ground unnoticed.
Among the Returners that little band of adventurers who had saved the world and coalesced into something more-or-less resembling a slightly dysfunctional family group along the way it was pretty much agreed that Relm and Gau should have been the best of friends from the moment theyd laid eyes on one another. Both were around the same age, both loved animals with a passion, and both were (in the opinions of Mssrs Garamonde and Magus) entirely too precocious for their own good.
This was not how things had worked out at all. Relm was fascinated by the life Gau had led before his rescue, but completely and utterly exasperated by the boy himself. She tried several times along their journey to strike up conversations and once even attempted to paint his portrait, but Gau never sat still long enough to be asked questions and the portrait-painting session had proven a complete and utter disaster. Relm left the room for two minutes to fetch an extra brush and returned to find most of the paint squirted liberally across the floor and canvas, not to mention all over Gau himself.
That was the first and last time Relm ever saw a rainbow-coloured smile. It was also the final straw that broke the girls already tenuous patience; from then on she gave Gau a wide berth and paid no more attention to him than she would have an annoying toddler. He was interesting, and Relm liked interesting people, but her tolerance and her temper were notoriously thin and he seemed to delight in giving his younger companion a hard time whenever possible. Their relationship was strained from beginning to end, and when the party split to go its separate ways after Kefkas defeat, the two had no more dealings with one another. Relm heard from Edgar or Terra occasionally about how he was doing Cyan had taken it upon himself to see the boy had a proper education and sent him to the most expensive school in Figaro but even that line of information dried up when Gau apparently tired of the constricting clothes and endless formalities, running away to parts unknown. At the funeral Relm asked Cyan if there had been any word from him since then; the Doman had scowled so fiercely she hadnt pushed the issue further. That was the last Relm had heard of Gau and she figured it might be the last she ever heard about him, knowing his solitary nature.
Yet here he was not a bare foot in front of her with that shit-eating grin plastered all over his face, evidently pleased as punch at having scared Relm nearly out of her wits. It had been three years since the last time shed seen him, and General Leo himself rising out of the damned ground wouldnt have left her as speechless as this spectre of the past popping up in the middle of nowhere. He was much taller and older than she remembered (obviously, it had been three goddamned years), but there was no-one else on the planet with such an irritating cats grin, and most definitely nobody else who would dare to call her Relmie. It was Gau, alright.
One of the things that had annoyed Relm the most about him on their journey had been his habit of circling people whenever they tried to hold a conversation. Whatever else had changed in the intervening time, it wasnt this; the older boy had already made two laps around them and was starting on his third, slippery as an eel and as fleet-footed as any young stag of the plains. Every move Gau made seemed effortless, even when he leaned in and affectionately tweaked one of Relms many blonde curls.
Yep. Same old Gau.
You keep up singing like that, youll attract every night-monster on the Veldt, he finally said, slipping behind Relm until she had to crane her head around to keep track of him. His voice was ever-so-slightly-accented and hoarse from disuse, but thankfully that stint in Figaro had taught him how to conjugate his verbs properly. Its been awhile, hasnt it, Relmie? What are you doing out here? How did you get here? You lost?
Relm managed to find her tongue before he fired off another question, but gave up trying to look him in the face as she spoke. If he wasnt gonna stand still she wasnt gonna bother.
Its a long story, Gau. Wow, is this where youve been all this time? Do you know how pissed off Cyan and Sabin have been about you? I mean, Ive seen them pissed off before, when I clipped off one side of Cyans mustache for paintbrush bristles while he was sleeping the old crab wouldnt speak to me for a month, but were talking totally peeved, like, steam coming out of their ears and ...
Interceptor interrupted her babble with another low growl. He had been watching the strange human with a cocked head the dog remembered the green-haired human from long before and never failed to become confused when confronted with his presence; why did it smell and move like a wild thing? but from far away he had heard what sounded like a shriek. There had been not the least smell of anything dangerous since their journey had begun, but now night was falling and all his instincts told him things could change at any moment. He looked up at his mistress and whined.
Gau heard it too, stopping in his flight for several seconds to listen while shushing Relm with an uplifted finger. His entire body seemed to tense under the strain of listening, and then all at once he was back in motion, grabbing Relm by the hand before she could pull back or protest.
Cmon. You come back with me for tonight; its not safe to be travelling out in the open like this alone. Noticing Interceptor staring at him with some interest, he amended this last part. Or its not safe for the two of you to be travelling alone, that is. You might get lost or something. Come! Come come come!
Relm opened her mouth to argue against this but Gau was already bounding off through the reeds pulling her behind, and the only options were to go with him or get her arm jerked completely out of its socket. The guy was as strong as an ox and almost equally stubborn; she wasnt getting out of this without a visit. With a long-suffering sigh and a cluck to Interceptor they were off.
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