Walkabout Chapter 8
His hackles have been bristling ever since they entered the forest. Normally dark and gloomy woodlands do not bother the dog he is half-wolf and such places are his natural habitat, after all but there is something wrong here, something deeply unnatural and unsettling that makes his lip curl involuntarily in fear. There is no smell of rabbit or field mouse in the undergrowth; not even a bird breaks the silence with its chirps. The entire thicket is deserted of animal life, and it is making Interceptor terribly, cringingly afraid. He hides behind his masters legs and slinks along the ground, bushy tail tucked between his legs, prick-ears flattened against the long, wide skull. Where his master goes he will follow, but that does not mean he cannot hope his master will turn aside and go another way, somewhere where trees do not stand in stifling rows to block out the light and good air from man and beast alike.
They pass through tangled trails choked with briars and thorny vines, making their way further and further southward until at last a clearing is reached, a dilapidated train platform appearing as if by magic, flanked by string upon string of rusting, broken-down passenger cars. Interceptors pupils widen with terror and it is all the wolfling can do to keep himself from fleeing back in the opposite direction, yipping like a whipped cur. This is where the menace flows from, the font of all the fear and unease he has been feeling since the party left the plains and resumed their journey under the overhanging branches and greying moss of the phantom woods. There are Bad Things lurking inside those disintegrating hulks, Bad Things that want to hurt Master and take him far away, and Interceptor snarls in fear and protective anger at these unseen foes. He places himself firmly in the pathway between his owner and the train and whimpers softly, pleading with the black-clad man to go no further. If the human understands he gives no sign of it; he pushes onwards past the dog and there is nothing Interceptor can do but follow.
The closer they get the greater the menace grows, until Interceptor is almost crawling along the ground in dread. His master stops on the platform and talks with the big man and the other who smells of despair for a moment; there are eyes and white faces watching huddled from the windows, but no-one seems to notice them but the dog. He shows a snowy expanse of glistening fangs and rumbles a warning growl low in his chest, but the faces do not move or change expression and continue to throng behind the broken panes, silent and menacing and translucent. The big man throws open the door and disappears into the darkness, followed unwillingly by the sad, nervous man with the whiskers on his lip. Soon the only living creatures left outside the train are Interceptor and his master, the car doors flung wide before them like the waiting throat of some ravenously hungry demon.
Once again the wolf-dog looks up at the beloved face and whines, slanted yellow eyes begging his master not to do this. The man finally notices his pets fear and crouches down on his haunches until the two are eye-to-eye, scratching Interceptor in the downy-soft fur behind one vast ear. Under his owners comforting hand the black dog calms, both ears pricking forward to catch the softly-spoken words as they leave the Masters lips.
Good boy, Interceptor, theres a good fellow. Come now.
And with that the dark man rises to his feet and enters the train. Interceptor hesitates for only a brief second on the threshold before trotting into the darkness, close at his masters heels.
When she was around six or seven years old, knee-high to a cricket and just as noisy, Relm managed to convince every other child in Thamasa that there was a witch who lived in the abandoned, run-down mansion just outside of town. The previous owners had vacated one day without warning, leaving all their belongings inside, and ever since the estate had been observed by the locals with a mix of wariness and superstitious awe. No-one tried to salvage the goods the ex-tenants had left behind; no-one ever dared. The lawn grew shaggy and unkempt, and one by one the windows were broken by vandals or the weather.
Years went by, and, as all abandoned places do, the mansion attracted the attention and curiosity of the local children, Relm foremost among them. On hot summer evenings, when the air was stale with pollen and listing shadows, they would gather at a safe distance and peer through the fence, taking turns at guessing what catastrophe could have driven the occupants away in such a hurry and what sorts of beasties might possibly lurk inside now. Several said they had seen ghosts flitting past the windows, but Relm scoffed at these poor imaginations, insisting that there was no such thing. Instead she wove the gruesome, hair-raising tale of a shape-shifting witch who harvested childrens livers for her voodoo spells, and told her story with such relish and aplomb that every boy and girl present believed it. When they broke up to return to their homes there was no lingering in the dusk, and the children travelled in groups of twos and threes if they possibly could.
There were two things Relm would always remember about that mansion, two things that embedded themselves in her mind space and refused to be evicted. One was the smell that lingered around the place, like a musty, soured old bedsheet left heaped in a barn for too long, and the other was the noise or lack thereof. The house was eerily quiet; not a pigeon or a popper had stirred in all that expanse of mouldering fabric and decaying drywall. It had been unsettling to the extreme.
The atmosphere around Doma Castle was almost exactly the same. An oppressive silence hung over the ivy-cracked walls of the old fortress, a stillness that didnt quite belong. Birds and lizards and insects should have been about in abundance in a place like this, and yet it was as silent as a tomb for miles around, as far as the castles shadow lay. It was no wonder the locals thought it haunted; it gave Relm, standing warily several hundred yards away, the heebie-jeebies and a bad case of chocobobumps. She didnt believe in ghosts and hauntings and all that stuff, not with magic gone once you were dead you were pretty much dead nowadays but there was still something bizarre about the town. Something was just not quite right.
Relm loved exploring places that werent quite right.
You think anyones bothered to look around this place since the Imperials left?
Interceptor swivelled his ears to catch her words, making a small whuf sound deep down in his chest. Relm skipped ahead several feet and turned to face him, hands on hips.
Well, I dont think anyone has. Cmon, lets go check it out.
Relm knew all about the tragedy of Doma. Her teammate Cyan had lost both wife and son in the massacre, along with his king and every companion the swordsman had ever known since childhood. He had never said a word to her about it, and she had never pushed the issue, understanding some things were better left to the past; it was only now that the full horror of what Kefka had wrought was made clear to her, here in the echoing, empty ghost town that had once been the bustling centre of an entire kingdom. There had been many horrors visited upon the peoples of the world during those dark days three years before entire continents ripped asunder, towns wantonly and indiscriminately blasted with lightning and hellfire by an insane demi-god but none quite so shocking to Relm as this, the extinction of an entire culture in one fell swoop. Settlers might move into the area someday as they had in other parts of the recovering land, but few, if any, would be native Domans; that race had been wiped from future history as cleanly as chalk from a slate. The river was unfit to drink from even now, a dead and almost stagnant stream of coffee-black water running sluggishly underneath the castles crumbling foundations.
The marketplace was as deserted as the rest of the city, weeds and tufts of rank grass pushing their way up in clumps through the once neat cobblestones of the town centre. Where once the shouts of merchants hawking exotic fruits and fine Doman steel had rung out, there was now no sound but the quiet footfalls of the girl and her dog. Where sheep-herders and chocobo-ranchers had driven their bleating, braying beasts to market nothing stirred but the wind. There was life here, but it seemed strictly relegated to spiders and dirt-daubers, busy building their nests on the rotting fences and forgotten windowsills and even the very walls of the outer fortifications themselves.
At this time of day shadows were beginning to gather in the corners of the square, and that, combined with both the sepulchral tone of the entire city and the vast, hollow emptiness of the ruins, made it quite an intimidating place indeed. Relm was a brave girl, sometimes foolishly so, but even she shrank closer to Interceptor and trod softly, clinging to the dogs thick black ruff with slender, slightly sweaty fingers. It was like visiting a church or a cemetery. The solemnity of it all suddenly landed on her back like a physical weight, demanding respect and silence.
They walked underneath an archway and through several more overgrown courtyards before reaching the gates of the actual castle itself, where both wings hung off their iron-wrought hinges at crazy, impossible angles. The once-impressive, almost vertical staircase leading to the royal palace was reduced to rubble in several spots; the earthquakes and tremors that had come with the reshifting of the continents had severely damaged what the Imperial troops previously stationed there had not. Interceptor had no trouble springing up and past the piles of debris, but Relm had to claw and fight her way over them, scraping her palms and knees bloody on the jagged blocks of broken marble. She spat and swore and thought about turning around more than once, but sheer stubbornness drove her onwards towards the castle, determined to see what lay behind the rotting doors.
I really need to get in better shape, Relm wheezed as she pulled herself up the final step to the landing. Interceptor had sat watching her from the top the entire way; she wouldve sworn blind the dog was laughing at her even now, tongue lolling out merrily. His eyes danced with mischief. Oh shut up, Crap Breath. Just lucky youve got four legs, you big jerk.
The two continued on with only a little hesitation at the great doorway. Relm had an overpowering fear of creepy-crawly things (caterpillars mostly, although she never would have admitted it if Gau ever found this out Relm was pretty sure she would just curl up and die, if she didnt kill him dead first), and the sight of all the cobwebs made her slightly nervous. Still, they had come this far She steeled herself and pushed onwards into the interior darkness of the castle, dancing nervously around the broken web-wisps blowing in the wind. It was dark, and musty, and there was a layer of dust you could write your name in on pretty much every surface, but at least there was light filtering through the grimy windows. Enough light to see any spiders by, anyhow.
And thus began Relms afternoon of wandering. The castle was huge and of a grand architecture no longer seen in that rapidly changing world, a stone labyrinth of dim passageways and open gardens and mattresses silently mouldering away in their dank little chambers. She looked upon this forgotten place with silent fascination - the empty nursery with its forgotten toys, the servants chambers that would never be scrubbed again, the ivy climbing in through the cracked windows to reclaim what had once been the earths and while she kept a kind of quiet, reverential respect for the massiveness of it all and the lives that had been disrupted there, nothing she came across really seemed to surprise or interest her. Creepy castle, sure, but not especially fascinating.
Until, at the end of a long series of mazelike halls, she found the throne room. Here she stopped in shock, inhaling so loudly Interceptor glanced up at her worriedly.
The hall was as long and as high as a good-sized house, almost completely empty save for a fireplace set in one of the walls and a dust-coated throne sitting directly opposite it. Skylights in the ceiling far above illuminated the lonely scene the throne, the fireplace, a broken-down pile of splinters that might have been something resembling a table once upon a time but these objects werent what made Relm gasp. It was what was on the walls that made her sharply take in her breath, one hand pressed to her gaping mouth.
Holy shit, she finally whispered, with the gravitas of a monk quoting sacred writ.
All castles generally had murals in their throne rooms, paintings of conquest over rival nations or the acts of mighty kings. The moving fortress of the Figaro Empire, for example, had a great sweeping fresco of an ant-lion hunt, one of the familys oldest and most widely-known traditions. But the decorations within the royal chambers of Doma Castle were more than just big portraits for making the royalty look impressive they were some of the most detailed, beautiful works of art Relm had ever seen, outstripping anything that good-natured tub of lard Owzer had ever shown her. There were samurais at battle, their armour and weapons detailed to an incredible degree. There were lovely, demure maidens. There were roe deer at play, and wild hunts, and the sea teeming with life.
This was Art with a capital A. Relm walked around the room with the awestruck expression of a pilgrim at a holy shrine, gently touching the decorated plaster with timid reverence. Her bootsteps echoed hollowly through the chamber, stirring up tiny puffs of dust underneath her feet like smoke from a grass-fire. Already some of the paint was flaking away, the elements slowly undoing what the greatest artists of the kingdom had probably laboured at for years uncounted. Eventually it would all be gone, and nobody would ever know it had been there, save maybe Cyan and a handful of others. Unless
Relm reached for her sketchbook, plopped down in a swathe of sunlight, and began to rapidly sketch. Interceptor stood warily looking about before settling back down on his haunches beside her, nose and ears constantly on-guard for a threat he could not pinpoint.
When Relm started sketching really going at it, the tip of her pencil a grey blur on the parchment - she pretty much zoned out to any and everything going on around her. The world narrowed down to the subject and the drawing, nothing more, and so it really wasnt surprising in the least that she didnt notice the sun disappearing from the skylight until it hindered her from finishing her drawing. By the time she looked up the room was growing dark, a sudden, chill darkness growing around the edges. If the throne-room had been shadowy in some places before, it was as black as the pit now.
Goddesses damn it, of all the stupid luck, she thought, glancing around in dismay. How am I supposed to go back down all those windy little hallways and the blasted staircase in the dark? Ill break my neck! Ill get lost! Relm, you idiot
Her eyes hurt from the strain of staring at the sketchpad, and her butt wasnt in much better shape after sitting on that dusty stone floor for so long either. She was too tired and too annoyed to try and find the way back out, so instead she grabbed an old throw rug, shook the dust out until it popped (making Interceptor sneeze repeatedly in the process), and went to sleep right there on the ground, head pillowed securely on her pack.
Interceptor stayed awake beside her for much longer, his eyes nervously searching the dark. When he finally followed Relm into dreams it was with one ear cocked towards the encroaching darkness, wary and intent for any sound or movement.
The two travellers slept deep, unnaturally deep, and as they did so they dreamed.
He dreams of his old master, the one long before the man in black, the one who smelled of machinery and death. The man lived in a village with many other men who dressed exactly the same as he, and for most of the day they would loiter about, tossing square white pieces of bone on the ground in a game that all the identical men seemed to find very entertaining indeed. When they werent doing this they would go in one of the big houses and drink a foul-tasting liquid that smelled almost as bad as it tasted. Interceptors master especially enjoyed this way of passing the time, and when he had been inside the big house for some while, it often seemed as though he had trouble walking when next the dog saw him.
Most of the time the man simply ignored Interceptor, but sometimes when he drank a lot of the stuff and came out staggering he would try to beat him. Interceptor would snarl and show his fangs and cringe away, but the lead chain the man kept him staked on next to their tent always kept him from running away. He had put his teeth to the chain on many a long night, but it would not give. Interceptor was stuck.
If it was an especial occasion in the village his master would take Interceptor to a big square cage on the outskirts of town, where many of the identically-clad men gathered. Some of them even came on huge two-legged machines that clanked and hooted and stank of oil and hot metal; these towering giants gave Interceptor nightmares for many years after he had left the village and gone to better places with much kinder masters. When enough of the men had gathered the master would shove Interceptor into the makeshift ring, and there he would fight one of his own kind, usually to the death. Interceptors owner had caught him in the wild when he was not much more than a pup, and his wolfs blood gave him a size and a fierceness the other dogs simply could not withstand. He moved like a whirlwind made of snapping, slashing teeth and yellow eyes, fighting for his very life against every kind of canine imaginable. The men would cry his name and pump their fists in the air from start till finish, when Interceptors opponent lay gasping his or her life out in the dust and he stood panting, weary but triumphant.
Things went on like this for what seemed a very long time, until one day during a routine beating Interceptors life took a rapid and unexpected change. The man had been drinking and was as wobbly as a newborn buffalax, almost unable to draw back his foot to give Interceptor a kick without toppling to the ground below. He was giving it his best shot anyway, and had just taken another swing when out of nowhere there appeared a woman, gripping the mans arm while frantically crying out in a loud voice. She was fair-haired and did not smell like a native of the village; none of the villagers had ever stepped in to stop Interceptor from being whipped before. The man had pushed the slightly-built woman out of the way easily and continued his assault with renewed fury, kicking the injured Interceptor again and again in the ribs until each touch was like a red-hot blossom of pain in his sides and flanks. He continued to snarl stubbornly at the man, but his protests were getting weaker and weaker with every blow that fell.
In the real world, outside the veil of pain, the woman had risen from the ground and done something Interceptor could never fathom. She had raised her hands, spoken a few words in an angry tongue, and before dog or man knew what was what Interceptors old master was lying prone in the street, unconscious from a lightning bolt that had descended out of a clear blue sky. With that done she turned her attention to Interceptor himself, chanting over the injured wolf-dog in the same language until his wounds were healed and he could once again stand on his own. The two had left the man where he lay in the street, and from that day onward Interceptor had never left the womans side, guarding her in the little isolated village they dwelt in until the day she died.
This is not what happens in the dream.
The woman rises to speak the words that will send the man to the gutter, lifting her hands in that same strange gesture Interceptor recalls, but she does not make it in time, and the man turns and kicks her squarely in the stomach. Even as she is falling Interceptor has leapt for the mans throat in a rage, but the man is no longer a man. He is a great two-legged machine, taller than the tallest building or tree, and with one of his great clawed feet he stomps down upon the womans body, crushing her underneath with a sickening pop. The man-machine grinds her body down until the sound of bones and ligaments snapping are all Interceptor can hear in his ears, and the dog howls in anguish, a sobbing wail he has only made once before in waking life.
The machine is transforming again, this time into the winged, white-faced man-beast he and his master and the others fought and defeated so long ago. It holds the girl in one claw and his black-clad master in the other, and as it squeezes the life out of them it laughs at Interceptor, laughs as it clutches his gods until blood pours out of their mouths and eyes in bright red streams of gore. It lifts a mountain-sized wing and is preparing to smash Interceptor himself when, at last, he awakens with a start.
Relm dreams too, tossing and thrashing in her sleep. She dreams of that fateful day when the Blackjack was ripped in half like a piece of rice paper, scattering its passengers willy-nilly across the landscape like toy soldiers shaken out of a container. Shadow had grabbed hold of her collar as she fell she remembers this clearly, and how even in that moment of panic it seemed strange he would go to such trouble to save her but it had been a futile gesture; seconds later the half of the airship they were clinging to had come to pieces and the ninja lost his grip. The world had rushed up to meet her in a blur of green and brown, blackness swallowing the girls consciousness seconds before she hit the treeline. When Relm woke up she was hanging from a tree-branch by her sash, and the land around her had changed forever.
This is not what happens in the dream.
She is clinging to the falling wreckage for dear life, reaching out over a widening chasm with one desperate hand to grab her mother while holding onto a plank with the other. Mothers fingers are outstretched and Relm is inches away from grasping them when the section of the ship the older woman is riding comes apart. She drops like a stone, blonde hair fluttering outstretched around her face in a halo as she falls away towards the earth, and Relm screams and screams but there is nothing she can do but watch as the upturned eyes grow more and more distant. The screams are still leaving her throat when Relms piece also disintegrates and she begins to fall.
There are no trees to catch her this time.
Relm awoke to darkness and the sound of Interceptor roaring like an angry bull, his half-crazed barks echoing deafeningly loud through the great hall. Waking up to a crazy-mad dog in a pitch-black room was bad enough, but it held an added terror for Relm: she had never, ever, ever heard Interceptor bark like this, not since the day of Kefkas defeat. Whatever had started him off had to be bad - really bad. The thought sent a chill through her aching body, goosebumps prickling on her arms and legs. She sat up and peered into the dim.
There was just enough light leaking through the skylights from the stars and moon to paint the room in a kind of low, watery illumination. It took Relms eyes a moment to adjust to it; when they finally did, she saw an impossible scene playing out before her.
Interceptor was standing between her and one of the corners, still snarling and barking with that crazed intensity she had woken up to. Every hair on his body was fluffed out and at attention, the fur around his ruff splattered with flecks of saliva. He looked like a mad thing, a devil. And what had raised Interceptors ire to such a terrible level? What had made him go seemingly insane with fear and rage, out there in the dark? A demon, perhaps? A monster that had wandered in looking for shelter?
A little boy, no older than seven, lay curled in the crook of the wall, knees pulled firmly to his chest. He wore knee-length shorts and even in the dim non-light of the throne hall Relm could tell he was of a dark complexion, black-haired and dusky. A neat little cap was perched on his head, and he looked perfectly healthy, not abandoned or scared in the slightest. In fact, his face seemed kinda blank for a small child lost in a giant castle with a wolf threatening to eat his face off. The only emotion in his eyes was a languid, dreamy confusion, like a sleepwalker. He was staring right through Interceptor like the dog wasnt even there.
Relm didnt know why, but something about the kid made the hairs on her head prickle straight up. A wave of nausea swept over her; she shook it off and rose to her feet, trying to ignore the unsettled feeling she got every time she looked at him.
He-hey, kid-- Interceptor, shut up, for the Goddessess sakes its just a little boy are you alright? How the heck did you get in here?
She managed to somehow get the words out past the lump developing in her throat, but the boy barely even looked in her direction. Thinking maybe he was just shy or scared (and who wouldnt be in such a situation?), Relm walked a few steps closer and spoke again, hesitantly but louder this time.
Really, its okay; I wont let the dog hurt you. Hes harmless. Where are your parents? Are you alright? Did you get lost? And more to herself, Are you a mute?
The boy slowly raised his head and looked up at her, his blank expression giving way to a vague uneasiness. He mouthed something that looked like it could have been Father, but his voice seemed far too quiet for Relm to hear, even in the ringing silence of the abandoned castle. Quite suddenly, and without warning, he rolled over on his side and began to retch, vomiting a dark brown liquid onto the flagstones of the floor. The heaving slowly rose in intensity until the child was convulsing and buckling in painful jerks, foam and bile frothing from between his clenched jaws. Relm tried to go to him she had to help, the poor kid seemed to be fucking dying right in front of her but Interceptor threw himself between his mistress and the strange boy before she could take two steps forward, knocking her clear off her feet and hard onto the cobblestones.
She scrambled back up, ready to give Interceptor the worst name-calling she had ever laid on anyone. If that kid died because of his weirdness, she would
Wait. Where was the kid?
Relm had never doubted her own sanity, mainly because she had never had a reason to. She had a fierce, imaginative spirit, sure, but she sure as hell wasnt prone to hallucinations or demented fits of any kind. So why then, if she wasnt losing her damned mind, had she just seen a little boy as real as herself foaming and jerking on the floor at her feet? And where had he gone? Where was the liquid he had vomited up? What the hell was going on?
A dull, rasping cough came from the hallway opposite the throne room. It was joined by others, a multitude of voices hacking and gasping wetly in pain. Some sounded like they were screaming, or trying to scream, through choking throatfuls of something. The voices got louder, and closer, until they were right outside the doorway and Relm thought she was going to wet her trousers in panic. A hand emerged from the darkness, pale and insubstantial, and
Relm didnt realize she was running until she was halfway down the darkened corridor, Interceptor sprinting beside her with his ears laid back in fear. Somehow they managed to find their way out of the labyrinth of hallways in the dark, and even more miraculously Relm cleared the stairs without slipping once, leaping over debris and rubble like a terror-stricken gazelle. Fear gave them wings, and they flew all the way through the abandoned city and out the gateway, back onto the plains where the night sky stretched crystal clear overhead.
They spent the rest of the dark hours huddled together in bleary-eyed watchfulness, neither willing to turn their back on the looming shadow of the castle for even a second.
You know what? she said to Interceptor, just before the sun rose and they both fell back into an exhausted, dreamless sleep, Fuck ghosts.
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