By Chaos Shadow
He sat on the bed, quite alone in the shuttered up room, with only the gleam of the setting evening sun's orange blaze traipsing into the room and setting dancing dust particles ablaze with light to give him any notion of the outside world. One knee was drawn up close to his chest, his arms wrapped around it for purposes of comfort more than anything, and the other leg hung over the edge of the bed, dangling mere inches above the hardwood floor of the inn. His gaze was intent on the mirror that hung on the wall before him, although his eyes were unseeing of the reflection of the polished glass. Heaving I heavy sigh, he shifted every so slightly so as to lean against the backboard of the bed, gazing now up to the ceiling of his room.
Despite the rather calm although stifled appearance, his mind was rent by a thousand thoughts that had taken home in his brain waves and decided to have a field day and run rampant. Although he did his best to hide such thoughts to the outside - and, in truth, from himself - he couldn't deny that they would need to be unleashed somewhere, be it in bouts of mindless violence or fits of hysteria, he couldn't tell.
Try as he may to clear his mind of all thoughts concerning what he and the graceful princess Maya had seen on the top of the enormous tower, he couldn't manage such a job, for when his mind began to fly to another thought pattern that rested elsewhere and put its full concentration on that, he would continuously run aground into another of the patterns that was forming in his mind, tapping into the echoing voice box that refused to allow him to rest in peace.
"You can't deny it," the man that had once been concealed behind his barrier of an intricate mask had said. "It should be quite obvious by now, Rue."
Rue shut his eyes tightly, forcing his head downwards, his chin pressing against his chest, willing the image to vanish along with the sound recording that it accompanied, and it did so, although he knew that it would be back, it would be there with a vengeance, and he wouldn't be rid of it so easily the next time.
He finally opened his eyes again, finding himself to be staring down at himself and the bed sheets, and then slowly brought himself to look up again, his eyes once more locking with the mirror that hung directly in front of him. As the thoughts continued to swirl in his mind, his head began to ache, obviously from the overload of memories and silent cries of denial. He let it alone, however; pain of any sort might help to take his mind off of what he was thinking.
But even a headache, especially one so minor, would not allow him to be left alone. The pain of his thoughts far outweighed anything that a minor headache could hope to offer to him. He felt like crying out, just screaming to relieve himself of the pent up swirl of whatever it was inside of him that was doing its teeming, festering rounds within him.
Emotion? Could one call it emotion? Or was it nothing but an automated response meant to simulate emotion?
He closed his eyes again, gritted his teeth, trying to steer his train of thought clear of those sort of tracks. Of course it was emotion. It could be nothing but emotion. It could... He exhaled heavily again, then sucked in another breath, seemingly trying to clear his mind as he did his lungs - to simply let out the stale thoughts and bring in new, fresh ones to try and rid him of his misery. But it wasn't going to be that simple.
The pain of his head was becoming worse now, and even behind shut lids he could make out small, glittering spots appearing as the pain began to rupture his mind.
'Let it come,' he thought blandly. 'It can't be any worse than what I'm going through now.'
Yet despite this sudden, roaring pain, the mental flashes became prolonged when they surfaced, and the number of times they cropped up was growing rapidly. Finally, unable to take the overload of though processes attempting to catch his attention all at once, he selected one random one that stood prominently before him and tapped into it, allowing the tape to play in his head.
And there stood Doll Master, looking tall and proud as ever, smirking down at him and outlined by the glimmering dots of the void. He was saying something - the audio track had momentarily been lost, apparently - but Rue could already place words to actions; the memory burned to freshly, managing to override the other horror he had lived with previously.
"I've told you, Rue," Doll Master repeated, now devoid of his mask and bearing the mark of the demon upon his brow. "Do not bother to deny the fact any longer. You and I - and even the princess here - we all know what is to be truth and what is to be naught but a fantasy, a fantasy that is not whimsical in any way nonetheless. And you know you can't escape the truth."
There was a silence in the void for a length of time, and then the audio for the mental tape became to play itself, without Rue needing to provide the words to it.
"You can't be right." His voice, it seemed, was foreign even to himself who knew how he sounded the best of anybody. It sounded... Choked was the only word that he could think of. Strangled, holding back something, keeping it pent up, despite knowing that such an act only worsened the end result.
"You know I am, though," the man continued, now grinning slightly, seeming to mock Rue in all his confusion and disgust. "All of us here, even the old coot Atenacius, we have all come to know the truth, haven't we, wether you believe it or not. Your past"- and here he smiled fully, although it was perverted into a sinister, wicked grin -"is quite obvious now, isn't it?"
'Stop it,' he thought to himself, trying to stop the image on his own, but coming to no avail.
But the mouth continued to move in its wordless, mocking drone. And his mind continued to play the words that were appropriated to his mockery.
But the wordless beast continued talking to his mind, speaking in its grandeur and continuing to look down upon him, mocking him, that grin plastered on his face as he revealed everything, everything that he knew to be true but couldn't begin to accept...
And now his own voice, outside of his mind's eye and ear, rocked the small room of the inn, carrying itself outside, down towards the grass plains. He had little doubt that Rod and Johnny Wolf were trying to figure out where it had come from now.
He didn't care, of course. The image had faded, but its message had broken out. His thoughts finally ground to a halt; they had tormented him long enough, and now they allowed him something else to think about other than suppressing them.
Despite finally leaving, his headache had worsened to a migraine now, and he simply couldn't take the pain any longer. In a fit of mild rage coupled with anxiety and lacking most forms of common sense, he opened his eyes again and tore his hat off his head, tossing it as hard as he could to the hardwood floor. He spent about five seconds glaring at it before finally calming himself down. His shoulders relaxed considerably, and he finally leaned back against the wall, once again looking into his reflection, but this time his eyes locking on a particular point; the glimmering diamond that was embedded in his forehead.
God, he hated the gem.
It served a triple purpose for him, he knew that now - It was the source of his powers, the source of his very life force, yet it also bore with it the source of his own personal damnation. If it hadn't been for the stone, then the mess on the Book of Cosmos would have been avoided; Atenacius wouldn't have cared an inch about him. Going farther back, then, considering, he wouldn't have destroyed the Book in the first place and teleported them all onto its surface. Still farther, if not been for that stone, then Doll Master wouldn't have come looking for him, and Claire wouldn't be dead. And still farther, if it weren't for that stone...
Why, if it weren't for that mocking sliver of the ultimate Relic, the Dewprism, the microcosm of the very universe itself, he wouldn't even be alive at that moment.
He hated tracing the roots of a problem back to their origins; the tracings would ultimately lead to finding blame in the Creator, Prominence, God... And if it was God's fault, then nothing at all should have been created in the first place. And the world was, of course, a beautiful place, tainted only by the greed of man. And it was by the greed of man that he existed in the first place, to hear it from Doll Master.
So he continued to stare into the mirror, allowing the thoughts to run through his mind on a runaway locomotive as he looked, unblinking and uncomprehending, into the reflection of himself in the mirror, finding fascination as well as disgust in it at the same time.
"Where the hell did he go?" Mint said bluntly, having finally managed to corner the small child Marco and loom over him, glaring right into the depths of his young soul with her cold, calculating scarlet eyes.
About an hour ago, Marco had dropped a hint to Mint that he had overheard Rue and Maya talking in front of the main gates about something strange that he hadn't been able to figure out - something about emotions, reality, and that giant glowing thing in the sky. Mint really hadn't cared about the former two implications, but if Rue had been discussing Valen's fortress with Maya, who had been shuttled off to Fancy Mel's place - and there was no in Heaven, Earth, or Hell that Mint was going to be caught dead in that pastel paradise again - then he must have had an idea as to how to get up. At least, according to her logic. And her logic was consistently one sided, so it really didn't matter wether she was right or not.
"I don't know where he went!" Marco insisted for the umpteenth time. "I know he went to the tavern immediately after that, but I don't he was there for long." She pressed closer to him, forcing him tighter into the corner. "I really don't know!" he screamed, his voice becoming disturbingly shrill now. "Please don't hurt me!"
Mint, having had enough of the whining, finally let him go by simply turning around and storming off in a random direction, trying to figure out where she could feasiblely check next.
She had gone through the weapons shops, the tavern, the hotel, Klaus' house, even the grasslands and the dock, but had found nothing. All that was left was the church - and he may well have been in there, she had known him to pray - and the inn.
Deciding that she didn't want to bother with the pastor, who had kicked her out several times for disruption when she had slammed in there in order to demand of Rue to get his sorry butt out of there and onto the next track, she opted to check the inn. At least it would have been narrowed down he wasn't in there.
She made her way easily to the inn, opening the door and stepping up to the register, ringing the bell once upon finding that nobody was there. After a few seconds and still no service, she rang it again, only to find the same response. Getting frustrated, she simply pounded the bell several times, but once again found nothing for her efforts.
Pushing all common sense and decency, she vaulted over the desk, neglecting to notice in the door that was on the side of it, and charged up the stairs. She wanted to find her reluctant partner, and she wanted to find him as fast as she could in order to get all the information on flight up to Valen's fortress as soon as possible.
She found his room, the second one from the stairwell along the opposite wall - hers was the room directly opposite of that one, the first one next to the stairwell - and tapped the door a few times, expecting some sort of invitation, or at least an answer. However, she heard nothing. Not willing to give up and just go see if the pastor of the church still had a small restraining order against her, she knocked again, this time much harder, but still got nothing. Finally ready to snap, she took the ball of her fist and pounded with all of her power on the wooden door, forcing it to shudder on her sudden blows.
There was a few seconds of silence, in which case Mint immediately began nursing her injured hand, and then she simply gave up and turned back for the stairs. She could wait for him outside the church...
Having finally heard a response to her rather violent request to come in, she jumped at it, and ran to his door again. "It's me," she said, her voice carrying the proper and indignant air of somebody who had managed to waste a half an hour looking for somebody before finally injuring their dominant hand getting their attention.
Obviously, there was no need to inquire as to who it was; Rue had apparently learned of Mint's enraged tone of voice in the four previous days they had spent hunting for clues to the location of the ultimate Relic. "What is it?" was all she got out of him immediately, but that simple sentence seemed to carry with it more than Mint could have expected. Rue seemed... Exasperated, she supposed, unhappier than he usually sounded, which on its own was, granted, either neutral or miserable.
She kept her voice as level as possible, and managed to retain the same tone she had when she had responded the first time. "I'd like to talk," she responded. "Can I come in?"
She was almost amazed by the polite tone she had taken up suddenly; perhaps by the way he already sounded, she didn't want to touch on too many sensitive nerves at a time.
There was no response for several seconds, and Mint was beginning to wonder wether her advent had caused him to simply open up a window and leap for it rather than speak to her - trying to get the Dewprism without her - betraying whatever trust level they did have... Naturally, of course, she was well aware that Rue seemed to have an honor code, and such a thing was far beyond his limits.
Then, finally; "Come in."
She slowly opened the door and peered into the room before finally creaking it open large enough for her to fit through and closing it behind her. Looking around for a moment, she found that the room was considerably darker than she had thought it to be, the only light source coming from the almost set sunbeams trailing through a half closed window. When her eyes had adjusted to the dim light, she got a better look around the room - standard in quality, a little desk, a chair at the desk, a bed. The only thing missing was the small mirror that hung at the wall of the foot of the bed, and she found herself staring, perplexed at the empty space.
"It's on the floor," he suddenly explained. "I had to take it off the wall; I couldn't stand it."
She suddenly spun around and stared at him, now having found a different position, one far more suited to speaking to her; sitting on the edge of the bed facing the door - or more specifically, Mint. In order to keep her composure, however, she quickly sprung a question.
"What took you so long?" she demanded bluntly. The answer wasn't quite what she had expected.
"I was debating with myself wether I should put my hat on or not."
Mint tilted her head, confused at such a notion and wondering just why it would need so long to be debated. What was so special about that hat, anyways? All she could tell from the shadow that he made through the light well was that he had a rather strange hair style, but nothing to debate about...
"Can I turn on a light?" she asked. He didn't respond verbally, but instead nodded very slowly - too slowly, far too deliberately for Mint's taste. Finding herself in a somewhat awkward position, she inched over to the light and pulled the small cord, allowing it to flicker on and flood the room with a sudden white brilliance from the lamp. She shielded her eyes from the sudden glow for a moment, blinking to try and balance the spectrum, and finally adjusted to the sudden light where there had been a disturbing lack thereof. She removed her hand from over he eyes and blinked a few more times before finally getting another look at Rue.
And without his hat, with such a minor change, he looked utterly and completely different.
His hair, which had looked a sort of grayish tinge from the shadow that always fell over it, proved to be a very attractive, very pure white color, which fell in a somewhat graceful manner over him before leading to the odd style she had seen the vaguest shadow of. His eyes, which had always looked like a dark gray as well, instead took on a deep auburn hue, which seemed much more befitting. His whole appearance was generally a younger one, but there was one definitive feature that caught Mint's eye from all of this.
Embedded in his forehead was the beautiful sapphire gem that, despite the main light source coming from the lamp, also seemed to catch the red of the sun and refract the both of them into an infinite spectrum, holding a glimmer tha no other jewel she had ever seen could hold.
"Tactful," he said blandly, suddenly interrupting Mint's personal staring contest. She blinked herself out of it and looked slightly abashed by her reaction, deciding to find it best to mention nothing of it, hope that her fixation with the gem would level itself out and disappear so she could talk properly and not think about money that could be made from such a pretty little fragment...
"I know what you're probably thinking," Rue said, allowing her the opportunity to later initiate conversation and, from there, evade any sort of further frustration and embarrassment concerning the small, twinkling gem. "If it's about the stone, I can guess from there." He tilted his head slightly, his look somewhat inquisitive as well as a bit on the pathetic - by her standards at the least - side. "Am I right?"
"Well..." Great; here came the awkward moment she had been hoping to avoid. "Um..." She couldn't take the beating around the bush any longer, and instead simply decided to come right out and speak her thoughts. "Yeah."
Unfortunately, she found her thoughts to be very, very blunt, and her voice only aided to make things fell yet more awkward to her. Silence stretched for a long while, neither party wanting to get on any further about anything, each having their own horrible mental images about how badly the conversation could turn out; Rue's mind running over the turmoil that he had been trying to suppress earlier, while Mint was running over the utter embarrassment that she was beginning to feel. The evening sun, shining a brilliant red beam straight through the window, had mercifully washed her in its glow - the lamp wasn't bright enough to contest the sun's deep evening rays - but the crescent that remained of the heavenly body was slipping beyond the horizon now, taking along with it her hopes for secrecy of the mad blush that she was feeling go across her face.
She rarely blushed, of course; it only came about when she was particularly embarrassed about something, and she knew full well that words wouldn't be able to hide the emotion. Which was exactly what she felt this time.
The silence continued to stretch, both of them feeling increasingly awkward, and finally the sun's last husk disappeared, leaving behind only the afterglow of either minutes of twilight. Mint's sharp mind quickly thought up a solution to the lack of the natural makeup that had just disappeared, and changed the subject posthaste.
"You were talking to Maya earlier, right?" she said, suddenly jumping at the whole reason she had tracked him down. "I heard from Marco that it was concerning the big... Floaty... Thing in the sky."
"Valen's fortress," Rue quickly put in, his voice conveying a tone that Mint had never heard before, even from him in his infinite sadness. "His holy limits."
"Yeah. That." Another lull, and finally she broke in again. "Any ideas on how to get to that thing?"
"What would I know?"
Now she was downright surprised by this reaction. Hiding the sudden fear for his mental stability and overall health that came swirling into her out of nowhere, she instead grew into her well known, annoyed, bossy self, and quickly filled any gaps that the conversation had been taking on basic characterization.
"What's wrong with you, you idiot?" she demanded tersely, taking a step towards him, her hand wandering towards one of her rings in case she felt the need to literally knock some sense into him. "A while ago you were as fired up about this entire thing as I've ever seen you, and now..." Unable to find the word for it, she mind a wild hand gesticulation as though attempting to prove her point. "You're like... This."
But there was something to it, she could tell. The advent of the final obstacle couldn't have been what was slowing her reluctant partner down - Hell, she had seen him go through the entire tower just to make it to the innermost regions of the Lake Ruins, although her knowledge of what had gone on in the Tower of Maya was beyond her recollection; she couldn't have figured it out, of course, she hadn't been able to go after him on such a mission.
"Something happen in that damned tower that the little worm Maya made?"
Rue jumped slightly; it was a minor reaction, granted, but just something so small had proven to Mint that she had managed to strike a nerve. Finding a position now, she continued to dig.
"I knew it," she called out, triumphantly, and finally stepped a bit back and pulled out the chair from the desk, choosing to finally sit down. "I told you when we first met; I'm a genius! Now, what's got you so-"
"I'd rather not talk about it."
The curt reply was something that the princess hadn't even begun to expect. "Excuse me?" she demanded, loudly and forcefully as ever. "Did I hear that correctly? Are you denying me any knowledge of whatever it is you're thinking about? Me?" Her marvelously self-centered self was beginning to unfold now. "Your partner?" She stood up again, looking down on him with an extremely annoyed expression. "Just what are you hiding, Rue?"
Now twilight had finally blinked out, leaving the window shrouded in the darkness of a moonless night, nothing but stars twinkling in the void of space, which Rue had decided to carefully keep his back to. Space's endless mass of stars and darkness was not something he was to find particularly appealing at the moment. He said nothing to her curt demand, only succeeding to enrage her further. "Are you listening to me in the least?" she growled, seemingly attempting to suppress a sudden bursting from her lungs in the form of a scream. "I just asked you if you were hi-"
"I SAID I didn't want to talk about it!"
And now it was his turn to stand up, forcing Mint to sit back in the chair, his outline ghostly in the wan light from outside, his eyes - and gem - seeming to flash dangerously. An anger that she found unfamiliar to him was obviously welling up, and from the edges of his eyes a gleam was beginning to form... Dare she consider them tears?
"Look, Mint," he began, keeping his voice as levelly calm as possible. "All I wanted to do for the past I'm not quite sure how many minutes it's been as to think; on my own, in this room, without any sort of interruptions. And I have a lot to think about." He blinked once, the small wet droplets forming in his eyes becoming slightly disengaged. He quickly rubbed them away before the could leave any sort of trail. "As of this moment, I don't care about treasure hunting, or that damned fortress, or the Dewprism, or... Or whatever. I need to think. And I need to be alone to think... Yes, your guess was correct; something did happen in the Tower of Maya, and you're right, I suppose I do have something to hide, now..."
He stopped suddenly, looked down at the carpet, his eyes losing the manic sheen, and he suddenly looked far more tired, somewhat haggard, actually, and the sadness that his eyes had always reflected seemed to deepen considerably now. He shook his head, trying to clear something, and then turned his back to her. "Please," he muttered, his voice dropping to an almost inaudible whisper. "Just leave, Mint."
Mint was irrepressible in most cases, but she saw that any further interrogation of the young man would be utterly pointless, unless it only made things yet worse. She backed off a bit, looking up at him with a confused yet sympathetic look. She may have been a downright jerk most of the times, and she knew it herself, but she had the integrity, the morality, to know when to quit.
She stood up and slowly pushed the chair then, then, without even realizing it herself, bowed slightly to him and walked slowly out of the room, shutting the door almost silently behind herself. The interview had gone far worse than she had initially planned or hoped; she could only pray - imagine that, her, praying - that he would be better off in the morning.
She want to the door adjacent to his and slipped into her own room, which proved to be identical to his, and lie down on the bed. It was only about seven at night, which was quite early for her to hope for sleep, for she always wanted to stay up relatively late and wander the town for any sort of action, although the apex of 'action' that she had found involved the tavern on those lucky nights when Belle and Duke were arguing with each other and down to throwing mugs at one another.
Ah, those were the nights.
However, her mind couldn't concentrate on such a thing, and instead continued to whirl around in her mind. What was with that guy tonight? He didn't seem ill in any way, and he had said that something happened on the top of the Tower of Maya...
The Tower of Maya...
Maya... That snake. She would know what had happened.
Of course, having sworn to never visit Fancy Mel's again while she could either avoid it, it wasn't crucial, or she was sane, she couldn't haul off to see Maya and demand of her to know why Rue was in a bad mood, unless Mel suddenly had something like a phone service, which she doubted greatly.
She turned over again, this time lying on her stomach, trying to force herself to sleep, knowing that the sooner she drifted off, the faster the next day would come, but found that sleep was suddenly an impossible, foreign concept. She growled a few times, then finally shoved herself off the bed and vaulted off, her intent to simply walk around town, pace, what have you; any sort of movement to clear her mind. Maybe head down to the tavern... If she was lucky, hopefully Belle and Duke would be putting on a 'performance' tonight.
The door to the tavern opened, making the whole congregation within turn with half-lidded eyes, each of them in a slightly drunk, unseeing gaze. From the door, frozen winds whipping into the tavern, and then the door shut, allowing the figure walking in to step in from out of the cold.
He immediately gravitated towards a small table that sat closest to the door, where he always went, and found two people already sitting there, as they often did.
Belle and Duke looked up from their drinks for a moment, took a few seconds to comprehend what they were seeing, then grinned slightly. "Oh, hi, Rue," Belle finally said, making a motion as an invitation to sit down. "What would you like to drink? Go ahead and order; it's on us."
He didn't have much time to say anything else after he heard that comment. "On you?" Rue asked, a little confused at the concept. "But I thought you guys had a tab that could buy off all of Klaus' store items..."
Belle laughed hollowly at the notion. "Yeah... That little snafu... Well, you know, we're treasure hunters; we'll be able to pay off the tab with all of the wonderful stuff we just know we're going to find eventually..."
He grinned slightly. There had been a reason he had chosen the tavern; Belle and Duke always had something either encouraging or stupid to say, and though it was oftentimes the latter, it was always uplifting as well.
"You gonna do anything about that fortress?" Belle suddenly asked. "I don't think we have a snowball's chance of getting up there, but that's where the Dewprism is and all..." Noticing that his eyes fell towards the table at the mention of the fortress, she quickly picked up on a passion that Mint refused to show. "Hey, are you all right?"
He sighed heavily, then looked up at them again. "Not really," he admitted. "It's just... Well, something happened on that tower, and... I'd rather not discuss it right now, you understand..."
"Of course," Duke immediately piped up. "Don't worry, Rue; you don't all that good anyways. Must have been something pretty hard, though... We can't do too much for you, of course, but our offer for a drink is still open, you know..."
Such a candid hint made Rue smile a bit again. He knew that the two treasure hunters were hopeless in cases like this, but at least they made life so much easier to handle with their inadvertent jokes and kind offers. And to think they had been enemies - or was the term more likely rivals? - not so long ago... "I think I'll take you up on your offer," he finally said. "I only wish I could repay you for it, though..."
"You already have," Duke said suddenly, taking another swig from his own mug. Rue sent him an inquisitive glance, obviously wondering when that occurrence had been, and Duke only shrugged slightly. "Just trust us; you have."
Perhaps it was simply the drink, or the friendly atmosphere of the familiar tavern, or just the company of Belle and Duke, but Rue was feeling quite a bit better in a matter of moments. The talk had turned drastically from the somewhat depressing references to the fortress that they all knew hovered above them, and all of them equally knew that nothing could be done about it until tomorrow, to conversation concerning their previous encounters - and, in the case of Belle and Duke, the horrible defeats they had suffered - to something as simple as how weird the weather had gotten now; the tropical town of Carona was suddenly experiencing a cold front, and although all of them put up to the magical radiation of the fortress, none of them wanted to mention it.
It was only a little while later that the door opened again, and another figure walked in, straight towards the congregation table, looking quite perplexed at the fact that Rue was there at all.
"Mint," Belle said, waving her down as well. "You're just in time. Rue just got here, and..."
"So," Mint said bluntly to him. "You wouldn't talk to me, but you would confide in these two lowlifes?"
Her anger seemed to be rising slightly, but Rue shook his head. "I hadn't planned on it," he said simply. "I just needed a drink, and to see a couple of people..."
"Number one, I'm a person," Mint replied hotly. "And number two, aren't you under the legal drinking age?"
He managed a very wan grin at these comments. "Come on, Mint," he said. "I know you're a person - that's obvious - but it was just... I had too much on my mind, back in the room, that was all. I had to clear that up. Besides, you know that I don't plan on drinking anytime soon, even if I'm considered legal drinking age."
It seemed a harmless comment at first; just a slip of the tongue, perhaps, but the sentence didn't flow properly to Mint. She had heard two words in there that didn't register well; 'considered' was one, as though it wouldn't be obvious when he was twenty one, and 'if' was the other, more blatant word. Had he meant to be so candid, or was he simply unable to talk at the moment?
Or was it something more than that.
Mint called the waitress and ordered her own drink, refusing to add to the insane tab that Belle and Duke were amassing, and the conversation continued, staying as normal and friendly as possible considering the fact that they were all aware of an enormous, floating fortress that stood precariously over their heads. After length, however, as the talk died and the time wore on, Rue and Mint decided to depart from the tavern, but as they were leaving, both stopped simultaneously, exchanged glances for a second, and then left a decent amount of gold each on the table.
"Our treat," Mint said, grinning slightly. "I figure you'll be reduced to beggars soon enough; we might as well help you before you go on your hands and knees." She pushed the pile closer to them. "Go ahead; take it. Don't gawk at it; re-hinge your jaws, please."
Both of the treasure hunters slowly came to their senses and took the gold up, looking at it with a stare of fascination as well as confusion. Nobody in their right minds gave up this much gold at a time, just to help a couple of destitute bounty hunters who were really hard on their luck.
Of course, it was easy to classify the both of them as out of their minds for simply going through with what they were going through, so they supposed it would be pretty normal for them.
"Well, um... Thanks, I guess," Belle muttered, a bit dumbstruck by the notion of being aided for such a strange reason. She knew that the both of them meant well, and naturally had done quite well, but Mint's wording for their generosity was rather... Unpolished.
"Don't mention it," Mint continued, then glared at the both of them. "Really."
"Of course not," Duke said. He had already picked up the fact that it would ruin her reputation for being the tough, calloused soul that she had wanted to try and be. "Have a nice night, then!"
But, naturally, they all know; a massive, floating fortress hovering hundreds of feet above the town wasn't usually going to present you with happy thoughts during the night.
"All right, I can tell you're in a better mood," Mint said bluntly, following Rue as he strolled out the door into the magically cooled night air. "Now can you tell me what was on your mind earlier. And why you wanted to think? And what was this the stone in your forehead?"
Rue sighed heavily and turned to her, making the both of them stop in the darkened alleyway that connected the town square to the tavern. "You really want to know?" he asked. He closed his eyes and nodded. "I suppose I'll have to tell somebody sooner or later, and bottling it up isn't going to help. All right, Mint; you wanted to know what happened on the Tower. Come on; let's take a walk."
His invitation caught her completely off guard, and she was only further perturbed by the fact that he was actually beginning to go off in the direction of the main gates. He stopped about twenty feet along the path, then turned around. "Are you coming?" he asked her. She snapped out of her trance and quickly fell in step with him, finding it to be a little more difficult than she had thought; he walked faster than she would have at first guessed.
Rue noticed that she was becoming annoyed with keeping time to his own pace and instead slowed to hers, allowing both of them to take a somewhat slower approach. They neared the massive door, and he pushed it open, beckoning her to follow. Mint couldn't quite guess what was going on, but went after his lead anyways.
Carona Forest was pressed up almost right against the town, with only a thin strip of leveled dirt path barring the wilderness of the area from the civilization that lay beyond in the form of Carona, the town itself. During the day, monsters roamed freely, stalking each other as well as smaller animals and, occasionally, unwary travelers, but during the night the road was calmed considerably, almost serene. The path through the forest was a bare strip, littered with leaves on the ground, but the trees that pressed to tightly on its sides gave a break over the path, allowing stars and moonshine to penetrate.
It was the ideal walking path.
"Why'd you drag me out here to talk?" Mint demanded harshly, and Rue sent one of his patient looks to her, then grinned slightly.
"It's the only place I feel I can talk about this," he said. "I don't mean the forest itself. We're heading for the Lake Ruins."
"But isn't the Tower of Maya over it now?"
"A little bit after Valen's fortress was released, it ended up collapsing upon itself; there was
no magical energy left to keep it standing, so it simply vanished."
They continued walking, and suddenly Mint looked at him, desperately confused. "No
magical energy?" she inquired bluntly. "But the Book of Cosmos was powering the tower, and
that stupid thing never runs out of energy."
"It wouldn't have, under normal circumstances," Rue explained ambiguously. "However, the
Book was destroyed. It only stood a few minutes after that before simply falling in on itself."
Now Mint felt a combination of amazement as well as relief. The Book of Cosmos - Maya's
greatest and, for that matter, only weapon against Mint - had been destroyed. Naturally,
however, one question hung in her mind. "How?" she said bluntly.
There was a few seconds of silence as the two suddenly came out to the cleared path that led
to the Lake Ruins, which looked just as they had before; completely tranquil despite what they
had held and what had happened there. After a few more moments of the disturbing silence, Rue
finally cut it with a jagged hatchet. "I destroyed it."
Mint came to a grinding halt, her hand shooting out to his shoulder and forcing him to turn
around and face her, her eyes swirling with more emotions and questions than she was even
aware of. "Excuse me?" she said curtly. "Could you repeat that? Did you just say that you destroyed it?"
His response was as simple as a nod.
"All right, Rue." Now the humor had left her tone, and instead her voice became harsh, ringing with an authority that she had never shown before. "I want to hear about this. Talk. Now."
He turned his back to her and walked towards the Lake Ruins, halting on the crest of the small hill that led down to the pool of water below them, and from there the oddly crafted ruins that composed the small seal that had hidden the enormous fortress that still floated ominously above them. "I'm not sure wether to be candid or try and cushion the blow, for you and myself," he began. "Either way, I don't want to do this. But I guess I'll try and lead up to it instead; reasoning is better than shock."
It seemed to Mint that he was suddenly talking more to himself than to her, and although she was greatly tempted to tell him to stare her straight in the eye and just spit it out, even she had the decency to allow him to think about things; she had seen him earlier, and whatever it was he had learned must have been extremely harsh to make him turn on her so suddenly.
"As you should be able to guess," he began again, finally breaking the silence that had once again boomed before them. "I'm not human."
This was nothing new to Mint, of course, but for Rue to suddenly just come out of the blue - or the black, as the case was - and admit that so bluntly, she knew that the single sentence carried with it several connotations that she couldn't pick up at the moment.
"That conclusion is pretty simple to figure out, but what isn't is what, exactly, I am. I suppose the only things that could help at all were the clues; they were subtle, granted, and I took them for nothing when I got here, but now I really can't bother denying them anymore. When I first set foot on Carona's pier, the whole area in general seemed familiar to me - deathly familiar, as though I had been there only a month or so ago, yet I knew that I had never visited this place in my life. When I went to Mel the first time, she spoke of the Relic, as well as its creator, Valen."
He shook his head and sighed. "Valen's name rang a bell in my mind, although where I had heard I couldn't begin to say. There was a decent interval between this and the next dropped hint - a couple of days - so I had time to forget about the whole thing.
"You recall when we first went to the Lake Ruins - or at least when I did, and you followed. I'm not sure how much of the conversation you really got to see, but I don't believe you were around to witness the revelation I found; upon finding the centre, and the seal, I..." He almost seemed to force the next words out of his mouth. "I could recite the incantation for the breaking of the seal. Word for word. I know it wasn't a bunch of mumbo-jumbo because Prima spent a good minute staring at me and wondering how I knew the words. That was when things began to stick in my mind, and from there, everything plummeted. About two days later - today, actually - I went up to the Tower of Maya to try and save Prima and, if possible, break the seal, although Prima's life was my main concern - I've always been oddly attached to that little guy."
Mint was still staring at him, uncomprehending to the whole ordeal but managing to listen politely to his odd story - and it was definitely odd to her, she had never heard the like of it anywhere before, although it was beginning to sound like an oddly fictitious story to her. But still she stood by, leaning against a tree, and listened.
"So I went to the Tower. And climbed to the top - which was no small task, the place had been filled with monsters and traps. And for whatever odd reason, many of the monsters assumed the form of pumpkins..." Mint visibly shuddered at the comment. "At the top, however, I found more than I would have hoped - Claire was waiting for me."
Now Mint was downright shocked, however much she refused to admit it. Claire... She was the woman that Rue was going out of his way and running around like a lunatic to resurrect, wasn't she? But she was apparently dead, then...
"Unfortunately," he said, starting the story up once more, "I soon found her to be nothing but a copycat - Mode Master pulling on my chain, hoping to lure me up there and keep me in that room long enough for Doll Master to spring his trap, which he did disturbingly well." Now he hung his head as he began to recount the next event. "I... I battled him, but it was no use... He assumed the form of the Arm of Death, the man that had killed Claire... I guess my rage got in the way of the battle, because... Never mind that. I won't get into it. The point is, we fought, and I lost, but he let me live, just barely on the verge of consciousness. He wanted me to watch.
"The commotion called Maya into the room, and she attempted to stop it with the Book of Cosmos, but she was literally shoved away from it, and it was left floating in the air, which I still find rather odd; I would have figured her grip would have been supreme on it."
"The way she's always carrying that thing around," Mint interjected, "I would have figured that her arm would have sooner torn off."
Rue didn't bother asking her how she knew about Maya's tendency; it wasn't his business, after all. "The book was dropped, and then... Then Doll Master used a spell on me, something about 'releasing my powers', and... He used me to... To destroy the Book of Cosmos..."
Mint was shocked. It wasn't an easy thing for anybody to do to her, but Rue had done it; he had shocked her. And despite all of this, despite all he had supplied her with, she still couldn't see where this was going.
"You... You destroyed the Book of Cosmos, though... The most powerful Aeon Relic that the East Heaven Kingdom has..." Even her voice had become hollow, much like her mind. "But... But how..."
"I don't know what happened next," he continued, seeming to ignore her comment, "but when I finally woke up from the stupor I was in from releasing that much energy all at once to obliterate the Book, I found myself and Maya floating in space... In the Book of Cosmos. She proposed we see Atenacius, and he did end up showing up, although things got bleak from there." Rue finally turned back to face the princess, noting that the wan light cast by the stars was just barely enough to make out her expression, which was blanked with shock. He continued: "When he came up and finally got around to noticing me, he went insane about the stone in my forehead, and then attacked us. But, before the attack... He said... Said something along the lines of 'Of course! Your evil intents are so obvious! You are the servant of Valen!'"
Mint abruptly felt the oddest need to sit down. He fell into a lull, perhaps collecting his thoughts, perhaps debating continue, and she urged him to go on.
"Like I said, he attacked. So we battled. And I... Oddly enough, I managed to suppress for a little while, weaken him a bit, but he came back with a vengeance and probably would have killed me - and maybe even Maya had she gotten in the way like she was trying to - had Doll Master not appeared from nowhere and... And attacked him. Doll Master, in a way, saved our lives, I guess.
"Atenacius fell, and Doll Master came towards us and decided to inform us of the past, of the days when Aeons rules the world..." He stopped short, then looked to Mint. "Should I make this fast, or would you like to hear his story?"
"Whatever's better for you," was all she could say. And she almost never allowed anybody else to make a decision that concerned her in some way, shape, or form.
"I'll tell you his story, then," Rue decided. "And I'll hope you can draw your own conclusions from it, just like I... Refused to..." He shook his head again, trying to clear the mist that was fogging his mind now that he reached the most damnable part of he recollection, and began anew.
"Thousands of years ago, Aeons walked the land; powerful magicians that could create materials of any kind from nothingness. Each of them was extremely powerful, and each of them mastered their own skills. However, one of them rose above all others, proved to be the most of the entire group. His name was Valen, and he alone possessed the fabled ability to raise - or raze - mountains and change the orbit of the stars themselves. He was like a god.
"His power grew wildly, and eventually he decided to embody much of it into a single entity to be used for purposes of him truly becoming a god and ruling the world, taking the dews of the very universe itself, all of the elements, and containing it within a prism; hence the Dewprism. The other Aeons thought him mad, and each crafted their own Relic in order to combat the Dewprism. Each alone didn't have nearly the power to destroy Valen, but they had the sheer volume of numbers, and with that alone they knew they could take him out. So they attacked, and they ultimately killed him. "Valen, however, was too hellbent on his hopes to become a god, yet knew that he was to die before his plan was to come into fruition. Planning ahead for such a thing, he... He took several slivers from the Dewprism, each embodying a different ability within them, yet each a small microcosm unto itself. With them, he created life in the form of Dolls to carry out his plans for resurrectio-"
"Hold it right there!" Mint yelled suddenly, startling the both of them and shattering the serenity of the forest. She quickly composed herself again, lunged forward, and grabbed him by the arms, glaring full on into his face. "You mean to tell me that, all this time, you've been... And then you... So we..."
"You're having about as much trouble understanding it as I did," he said as calmly as possible, finally - and gently - pushing Mint away from him. "Of course, my initial reaction was very different... Disturbingly calm, really... I think was in shock, though. I must have been, because then I went and locked myself in my room - Maya certainly wasn't any help - and took out all the pent up emotions on... Well, you. And I have to admit that I'm sorry about that."
The pause reigned far longer this time than it had previously, and Mint took a step backward, trying to think things through herself. She, Mint, Princess of East Heaven Kingdom, proper heir to the throne, assumed bully - especially compared to Maya - who had managed to either comprehend or get annoyed at everything thrown at her was managing to do neither as this suddenly cropped up. There wasn't much that she could say for several moments, and then, finally, she managed to speak.
That was all it took, the closest she had ever come to showing any sort of compassion at all had managed to fold itself into such a compact word. Of course, her own thoughts were spinning like mad in her mind. She found herself hard pressed to believe anything, and even harder pressed to admit to believe anything. She didn't want to, of course, and she had no clue why she wouldn't.
She couldn't say anything to the poor guy, of course; she had never had a way with words, and she wasn't about to figure out how to use them right then. Her only forms of persuasion had involved the Dual Halos, and their form of speech wasn't the eloquence she felt was necessary right then.
The silence wore on for several torturous minutes, and finally Mint blurted out the question that made everything awkward again. "So what does that all mean?"
"I'm not sure I can go up there tomorrow," Rue said, surprising the heck out of Mint by using such a pessimistic answer - and he was relatively pessimistic anyways. "I know Doll Master is already up there, and I know that... Well, everything is up there." He had turned to the fortress again, and now he looked over his shoulder, towards her. "He can control me, Mint, like a..." He searched for a less blatant word, but came up blank. "Well, like a Doll. And I don't want to think about what I can do with him at the controls." He closed his eyes and exhaled heavily, then turned to the castle again. "I'm just not sure anymore."
Mint really did feel her heart sink for him. She had never seen him so down, especially when she knew how much the final goal really meant to him. She had to do something... But what, exactly, was the question. Unable to decide, she let relative instinct take over, not wholly wanting to see the result.
There was another moment or so that nothing happened, but Mint found herself subconsciously gripping one of the Dual Halos - Why? For some sort of odd comfort? What was she...?
Oh, that was it.
Rue spun around to her suddenly, on hand rubbing the back of his neck where she had suddenly hit him with one of the golden hoops, quirking an eyebrow and looking at her like she was nuts - which, technically, she did seem to be. "What was that for?" he demanded.
"For being so stupid," she said bluntly, almost regretting the words the instant she said them, but continuing on anyways. "This isn't like you! What happened to your personal purpose, huh?"
She chuckled slightly at the realization of what she was saying. "What about Claire, huh? Are you just going to give up on that? I couldn't forget what you were saying when we were just starting this whole stupid quest. 'I don't care what you do with the Relic afterwards, I just want one wish', 'I'm not gonna let anybody stop me'... So on and so on and so on and... My God! You're hopelessly sappy, you know that? And now you go off and begin moping because you're expecting something to happen that may well not even be considered by Fate. Come on, you moron; you can't just give up like this!"
He smiled despite himself and the throbbing pain on his neck, and then did something Mint had never seen him do; he laughed. "You know what's odd," he finally said. "That's the same thing that Maya said to me when we got back to Carona, only not so... Terse." He laughed again, forgetting to massage the injured area on his spine, and looked to Mint, still managing to smile.
"You have the strangest ways of cheering people up, you know."
"It's what I'm best at," she remarked suddenly.
"No, I think your forte is probably more accustomed to demeaning and insulting people. You just managed to warp that into the strangest reassurance I've ever heard." He brushed a stray hair out of his eyes. "Thanks, Mint; I actually think I needed to be yelled at for some strange reason.
"You're welcome," she remarked. "Now, don't ever do that again or I'll be forced to send you into a coma next time."
"I think I'll avoid being unconscious again." He looked up to the sky once more, towards the hovering doom that lay above them, a faint crimson glow surrounding the perimeter, only making it appear more ominous. "Let's go back," he finally said. "We'll need rest for tomorrow."
"Oh, so you are going to take my advice?" Mint inquired, a grin spreading across her face.
"I think I will, oddly enough," Rue replied.
"If only to avoid getting hit again?"
"If only for that."
There may have been something about the night air, something about the impending doom they were both aware they were facing only a few short hours, but something had really clicked right then. Rue hardly ever joked around about anything, and sarcasm was almost foreign unless under special circumstances, and Mint never showed any sort of compassion for anybody.
Strange things happened on nights when you that, the following day, you may well end up dying, yet for some reason it seemed that there was more to that night than simply a possibility of saying farewell in the strangest ways possible; an inexplicable sort of explanation that neither of them could begin the fathom, although both could understand.
As they headed back for Carona, they continued to talk of the next day, what they knew was inevitable, how they would reach the inevitable, their voices lingering behind them in the darkness as a silver veil that seemed to finally calm the night silences.
And for the first time in a long time, the world truly seemed at peace.
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