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What Can be Found if You Trust the Gods


Naunet

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((Somewhat simultaneous and somewhat after Definition of a Parasite))

 

***

 

Water had never felt as good as when it was running down Thal's back under the scalding glare of a midday sun.

 

He knelt in the partial shade of a strangely isolated rock that jutted up from the middle of a shallow lake. A short distance away, massive toads croaked out dry, wobbly sounds. His bare feet were as grateful for the cool water he crouched in as his back, and he wriggled his toes in the sandy mud, stirring up little flurries of silt. A few tadpoles fled the underwater disturbance.

 

Not really caring if he got his pants wet, he slid with his back to the rock until he sat in the water, and then leaned his head back towards the blue sky. He didn't think he'd ever grow tired of seeing so much sky, and he grinned lazily at the satisfaction of such a thought. "Maybe I should've thanked those weirdos," he wondered aloud, referring to the Keeper brothers who'd been rather dead set on learning things from him that Thal was quite certain didn't exist. He chuckled at that, lifted up palm-fulls of water, and splashed them across his face.

 

Yup, this was the life!

 

A great, gray reed bent in the shadows of nearby stones, well above the water. it shifted like a dead stalk, a withered drunk carved with bugles at shoulder and hip. The wind moving through the crag carried a stink of foreign filth: Gridanian mud and Ul'dahn rot.

 

A bent piece of wood fell in the water, splashing in front of the bathing Miqo'te. Carved into the shape of a head, with crooked holes punched out for eyes, it was like any other Woodwailer mask, though lines had been carved onto the outside of it, not unlike the tattoos born on a familiar, elderly face.

 

One red-furred ear twitched at the splash, and blue eyes blinked from behind calloused fingers at the smoothly curved object floating in the water. Lowering hands to pick it up, running a thumb along the grain, he wrinkled his nose. Then he looked up.

 

"You should come down here and take a bath, old friend." He grinned upside-down.

 

In the shadows, the figure shifted. Greasy hair parted and a silver eye glowed out of the darkness like a moon trapped inside a hollow tree. "There is less vegetation in the desert. You will want to learn how to sustain yourself from other sources if you remain."

 

"Mm, it's worked okay so far." That topic tasted strangely uncomfortable on his tongue now, after the events in the caves. He shrugged it off. Lifting the mask up, he waved it towards the Duskwight. "Y'know the Shroud can't get me out here. Least I don't think so."

 

"That is not what that particular mask is for. Keep it." The Duskwight's tone was a monotone thing, leaking out of the crags like a distant echo. "Now, I have something to show you. It's rather important."

 

"Ya can come down here to tell me all about it so I don't get a crick in my neck," Thal chuckled and spun the mask idly between his hands.

 

The face in the shadows shook, and the eye vanished. "Leave the water. Walk in the sand and do not thin of your movement. Wander aimless. It will not take long."

 

"Hah!" The man stood, though he didn't move immediately. The water was just far too comfortable. "That's what I've been doin' ever since we parted ways. Well, I think I've been roughly headin... south? West? We...outh. Eh, doesn't matter."

 

The shadows did not respond. They appeared empty.

 

Thal waited a moment longer, breathing deeply through his nose and filling it with the dry, clear scents of a desert he'd so quickly grown at home in. "Eh... Y'don't take no for an answer, do ya old man." Tucking the mask into the waistband of his soaked pants, he kicked at the water a bit and glanced around. One of the giant toads croaked loudly. He threw up both arms.

 

"Alright already! I'll humor ya this once, you hear? I've got places to... oh who am I kidding." The miqo'te man laughed at that. Then he started walking, slowly at first with reluctance to leave the water completely. When he finally hit dry land, the sand stuck uncomfortably between his toes, but it was a minor annoyance easily forgotten in the joy of just being out in the open. Clasping his hands behind his head and shaking out his tail, he ambled on.

 

It wasn't long before the sounds and sights around the ambling man coalesced into a static din, a strange off-brown sameness. If he even noticed as he walked. The sand beneath him would feel the same, the air on his skin growing slightly salty. There was nothing but brown limbo stretching to white horizon, until the limbo along one side began to darken as though falling away. The dark pit turned into a flat surface at foot-level a dozen meters to one side, and took on a bluish tinge. The sound of the static began to throb, falling away and then growing to a crash before falling away again. The air cooled and grew salty.

 

Thal walked on a beach. The blue sky was still above him, and the scents of Thanalan surrounded him, but thick white clouds marred the air, dark storms far off over the sea. The surf roared and reverberated off of tall cliffs nearby. The cove was small and closed in, wrapped on all sides by cliffs that had no clear path of ascent.

 

Several meters ahead of Thal, an elderly Duskwight stood, impossibly thin. The man's dark skin glowed with sweat and filth in the sunlight, his greasy hair shining where it lay over his bearded face. Silver eyes looked away from the open sea, watching Thal. The Duskwight, Megiddo, inclined his head to the man. "Hello."

 

Thal didn't notice the change in scenery immediately, but the smells disoriented him enough that he stopped walking. He blinked, wrinkled his nose at the completely foreign scent of a strangely rotten saltiness. Then one ear quirked towards the greeting, and he startled.

 

"What the--" White foam gathered a short distance away, where water washed up along a sandy shore. One arm dropped to his side, though the other reminded behind his head to scratch at his ears. He swept his tail behind him. "Hey now, this is new. Where'd you learn a trick like that?" A lopsided grin tugged at his mouth, wrinkling the dark markings beneath his eyes. He turned around, peering up the cliff face. "... Huh. Y'know, I was liking that sun."

 

"I apologize, but I can return you there as soon as you've had a look around." The Duskwight cross his arms and gestured to the ocean with one hand. "Weren't you also enjoying the water?"

 

"Well, sure." He turned back to the Duskwight, kicked one foot in the sand, and shrugged. "This place smells weird. What's up?

 

"It's salt water. All oceans smell like this."

 

"Huh, that so..." He wandered a bit further down the beach, until he was only a few steps away from the edge of the surf. The sand grew cool and damp beneath his bare feet. "Well! Learn something new every day. Wouldn't mind learning that trick of yours either. Seems handy." He tossed a wink of one blue eye Megiddo's way.

 

"It cannot be taught, unfortunately. Oschon keeps his talents to himself." The Duskwight shrugged and looked down at Thal's feet.

 

A moment later, a large wave rushed toward Thal, the tide rising and push up towards his ankles. Something rolled out of the sea against his feet, a mud-colored figure wrapped in shredded red cloth. The woman was practically naked, flesh burned on her chest and shoulders, a gash tearing through her throat and up behind her jaw. Her eyes were closed, her green ears and tail limp.

 

"Waggh!" Thal jumped back, his tail jutting out straight, fur standing on end. "What in the--hey, that's a..." His ears shuddered back, features twisting for a moment, unnerved.

 

Megiddo watched, unphased, as the body rolled onto its back. The wave that had deposited it receded, leaving the sopping, tangled heap exposed on the beach. Water seeped from between the woman's green lips. Her tail shivered.

 

"Uh... old man, you seeing this?" Thal grimaced, flicking his eyes between the jumbled body and the sand next to her as though unwilling to go too long looking. "That's a body right there and--woah hey! Did she just move?"

 

The Duskwight shrugged. "Possibly. I'm no expert on Miqo'te or corpses."

 

"Uuh... okay then. Huh. This is... well. Beaches aren't supposed to have bodies, I don't think." He laughed despite himself, rubbing at the back of his head. A beat passed, and then he shuffled his feet across the sand, inching forward as though the body might explode at any moment. "Uhm... you awake over there? Sheesh she's got a... no way she's alive." His tail drooped a bit as a hint of the gravity of the situation settled in.

 

The green ears shifted as Thal began to approach the body, swiveling as thought to listen to him. The tails shivered again, and the features twitched. Reddened water leaked from the green lips and from the gaping wound on her neck.

 

Thal jumped again, catching on the movement of the body's ears and biting back a very unmanly squeal. Dead animals never really bothered him - it was natural - but dead people? And she looked young.

 

Except she didn't seem dead.

 

"Hey, uh... lady!" His own ears swiveled uneasily. "Damnit, old man, I think she's alive. Help me out a bit? Is she... like, do we have to get water out of her lungs or something?"

 

Megiddo brushed the back of one hand over his face. "Perhaps we do, but how would one do such a thing? I have no idea."

 

The body moved one arm pathetically in the sand.

 

"Eh, I dunno?" Thal wavered a bit and then, finally, dropped down in a crouch next to the girl. He grimaced again at the ugly slash across her throat. There was no way she could be alive after that, and yet... "Hey," he repeated and touched her arm, lightly shaking it.

 

The girl's eyes shot open, staring directly up at the sky for an instant. Then they turned towards Thalen.

 

The man leaned back slightly, still a bit disconcerted, but flashed a grin down towards the girl. "Oh, awesome! You're awake. Good thing, cause I don't know the first thing about drowned people... or..." His gaze slipped over the gash across her throat, and then he laughed. "You okay there? Er, well. What happened to you?"

 

The woman beneath him did not react. She watched him with a look of empty observation. Water continued to seep from the wound in her neck. After a moment, she made a strange gurgling sound as she tried to breath.

 

"Uhm..." Blue eyes lifted a confused glance towards Megiddo, then back down to the girl. "... Okay, let's get you out of the water first." Moving near her shoulders, he worked his arms under them and made to drag her back away from the surf. She was light, so it would be very easy.

 

The woman did not respond to this, though her eyes followed Thal's movement.

 

Megiddo paced over towards the two of them, his long arms still crossed over his chest. "Now I wonder why Oschon would guide you here to this little girl in her moment of need. Do you have any ideas?"

 

"Nope! Not a one." Once the girl was a good distance from the surf, he lay her down and moved to crouch by her side again. The smallness of her features struck a certain chord in his chest, and he pushed wet hair away from her face, mud from her cheek. "Hey, what do I do, huh?" He asked her, not expecting an answer. Going mostly on instinct, he set his hands over her small chest and pushed down in a sharp, hard motion.

 

The girl coughed, hard, eyes snapping wide in surprise as water shot from her lips and the wound in her neck. She then curled forward and exhaled a gurgling groan of displeasure, her arms moving to cover the spot in her chest that Thal had just pressed on.

 

Megiddo paced around the pair. "I have a thought. Do you remember what I told you once, that the person who buried you was small, dark Miqo'te woman with green hair?"

 

"Eh?" Thal didn't look up from where he was inspecting the girl worriedly, though his ears swiveled towards Megiddo. ".. Hey, that isn't anything to go joking about right now. Little lady, can you hear me?"

 

The woman didn't respond. She collapsed flat again after a moment, staring up at the ceiling.

 

"It wouldn't be a very funny joke, would it? But think about it." Megiddo leaned over to look down at the girl. "She could very well be the one. And Oschon definitely thought you had business with her."

 

Thal shifted his tail across the sand at that, and sat up slightly. That Megiddo was pressing on the same topic those Keeper brothers had been so adamant about bothered him, especially when it was something he'd rather just not think about. Who really wanted to think about what it was like to wake up buried alive?

 

"I bet there are hundreds of green-haired kids out there," he said after a moment, squinting down at the girl. She didn't seem to be improving. Should he take her somewhere? Hells, he didn't even know where he was, much less where he could take her. "Maybe we should find a doctor, huh?"

 

"That would be a great idea. The problem with that is, however, that I am not so great at finding things." Megiddo gestured to himself as he began to pace again. "An Acolyte of Oschon wanders, finding nothing himself, only those things to which his footsteps are guided."

 

"Augh," he ran one hand through his bangs and over his ears, shaking them out. He thinks. "... Well. Even if she, uh... is that - and it's SO unlikely I'm not even going to give it serious thought here - she doesn't look all that good. So. How do I get out of this place?"

 

Megiddo shrugged again, spreading his hands. "I don't know. How did you get here?"

 

"Well I just... hey, that was your trick, not mine, old man." He gave Megiddo a knowing grin.

 

"I don't have any tricks. I work by the will of Oschon. But, if it worked once, perhaps it would work again?"

 

"Maybe... Man... why couldn't you've just let me relax in that lake," he griped mildly even as he moved to scoop his arms beneath the girl to lift her up.

 

"It was the will of Oschon." Megiddo replied, smiling. "I could not help it."

 

As Thal lifted the girl, she made that ragged gurgling sound once more, but she remained mostly limp. Her eyes turned on Thal.

 

Her persistent silence except for the gurgles was really starting to bother Thal, but he focused on the pity and concern he also felt for her condition. "Yeah, so... Hngh. Guess we should try will of Oschon-ing our way out of here, huh?" He turned from the surf and lightly shook the girl in his arms. "Stay with me, kiddo. I'm gonna... get you help. Or something."

 

Megiddo ceased his pacing, watching Thalen with a sly smirk. "It is good to see you trusting yourself to the will of the Twelve. It will only work out for the best."

 

"Eh, I'm thinking it's got more to do with you, old man," Thal tossed the Duskwight a raised brow and sharp grin. Then he shifted one ear and briefly wondered how one consciously didn't think about where they were going. He started walking while he did this.

 

Megiddo stared at Thal's back for a time, then turned his gaze back out over the ocean, just watching the surf.

 

Thal was too busy worrying about not thinking of where he was going to actually pay attention to where he was going. By the time he thought to check if anything had worked, he found the strange smell of the sea was gone, replaced by clear if hot air that carried the light scent of dust and dry plants. He hummed a bit in satisfaction and didn't bother calling out for Megiddo; chances were the old man hadn't followed him, and even if he had, Thal knew him well enough that he wouldn't respond unless he wanted to be known.

 

Instead he glanced down at the girl in his arms. Under the harsh light of the desert, her wounds stood out all the more, and he winced at the sight. "Ookay... So I guess the thing to do is find... people, huh? People who know more than me about fixing you up."

 

The girl lifted one arm over her stomach and lay her fingertips against Thal's chest. That would be all the response he'd receive.

 

When nothing else seemed forthcoming - no real surprise there - Thal tried to remember if he'd passed any signs of civilization. Then he tried to remember what direction he'd come from. Then he just rolled his eyes and started walking.

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Thal was certain he'd passed by those rocks, their dusty forms jutting up from a ragged cluster of bone-dry weeds, and so he felt assured he was at least roughly retracing his steps. He'd passed a town at some point during his wandering from the north, but he'd avoided it half on instinct and half just because he was enjoying the freedom of being alone in such an open area. Now, however, with a gravely wounded young girl in his arms, he had need of civilization.

 

Every so often he wondered if the girl was what Megiddo had wanted to show him, and if so why, but these thoughts were shrugged off for the moment as far too heavy. Though his limbs did not tire from walking or carrying, he grew weary of mysteries.

 

The old man was just very strange. But hey, so were they all.

 

He'd found what looked like a road after a few hours of wandering and so took to following it. It would be another hour until he could just make out shapes on the horizon that seemed less natural. The sun glared lower to the west and was beginning to color things in orange hues. The near-sunset light seemed to emphasize the dark gashes in the girl's body when he looked down at her. But at least she didn't seem to have gotten worse.

 

The girl's tattered body shone with salt from the evaporated seawater, sand still stuck to the insides of her arms and legs. Her green hair swung long behind her in tangled clumps. Her blue eyes stared at the man carrying her. For the most part, she was limp. Her tail twitched, and her ears turned about on her head. The attempts at breathing had ceased making gurgling noisy and become grotesque, meaty sighs. 

 

As the sun cooked her through, she appeared no better or worse. She appeared to be in a kind of half-conscious stasis, her fingertips resting against Thal's chest the only gesture she had made. Until, very slowly and out of nowhere, her back curled forward and her head lifted, sitting herself up in Thal's arms and laying her head against him.

 

Red ears swiveled in momentary confusion as the girl's weight shifted in his arms, and he adjusted his grip a bit to accommodate her new position. "Hey little lady," his eyes wrinkled in a confused smile. "You awake now? That's good, I guess. Won't be long til we get to a healer who can patch you right up."

 

The woman lifted one hand and pressed them into the wound at her throat. She made a strange, coughing sound and shivered.

 

"Yup, they'll fix that for sure." He didn't really want to look at that gruesome slash any longer than necessary. He'd been deliberately trying not to think about what kind of situation could have led to a young girl - she couldn't be more than a teenager - being injured so. It made his tail curl. "See there, just ahead!" The shapes he'd picked out on the horizon had coalesced into visible, man-made structures, the foremost of which seemed to be a wooden awning. A number of dusty, yellow chocobos lazed about beneath and around it.

 

Pulling her hand from the wound on her neck -- she'd inserted her fingers two-knuckles-deep in her own throat -- the woman pushed her head against Thal's neck. Her tail curled up around his arm.

 

Bare feet plodding along the dusty path, Thal approached the settlement with the only hope that it was actually large enough to contain a healer. While conjurers were a dime a dozen in the Shroud - though he'd always tended to avoid them - he wasn't sure what it would be like out in the desert. "Don't go exerting yourself too much," he spoke to the girl, lifting his head a bit so her own settled into the crook of his neck more comfortably.

 

As he approached the chocobos, he became aware of another scent that seemed to be wafting from the area beyond. It was an old smell, rotten but not like the ocean, and there was a sharp tanginess to it entirely foreign to Thal. It stung at his nose and made him wrinkle his face up in distaste. "Sure hope their healing is better than their cleaning," he chuckled to himself, and a few steps later he realized that the path he walked split, with one branch dipping down sharply.

 

Of course. A place that smelled like a corpse would be a hole in the ground. The concept of it left him uneasy, but he pressed on for the sake of the girl he carried. Why an entire town would want to submerge itself beneath the surface  was beyond him; he'd spent as much time as he possibly good above ground for the past five years.

 

The chocobokeep gave him an odd look as he passed - not surprised, but... sympathetic? The expression confused Thal, but there wasn't time to waste in figuring it out. Instead he followed the path down into what was clearly an established town of some sort. It opened out into a courtyard - at least they could see the sky from here - and was fringed by a number of stalls and larger buildings built into the cliffs.

 

As he wandered across the courtyard, eyeing the buildings and finally settling on one to approach, he shifted his grip on the girl and glanced down at her. "Still with me, kiddo?"

 

The woman didn't answer, or even attempt to. Her chest had begun to swell subtly with breath, though she still made strange sounds each time. She leaned her head back and looked up at Thal. By happenstance, the motion put her wound on display.

 

The man grimaced and shifted his arm against the girl's head so that her neck wasn't... hanging open like that. Really, that could not be a good thing. His pace took him through the door of one of the buildings then, and he silently mourned the loss of the sky for a few seconds before glancing around.

 

A woman stood behind a counter some yalms in front of him, and she lifted her eyes in greeting.

 

"Hey there, miss! My little friend here got into a bit of trouble and could do for some healing. Uh... heh, well more than a bit. Anyone around here who can help?" He shrugged his shoulders a bit helplessly, though careful not to jostle the girl in his arms.

 

"How long does she have? Our hospice is unfortunately full at the moment."

 

That statement took Thal off guard, and for several seconds he just blinked.

 

The woman didn't even react to that. She remained mostly limp in Thal's arms, though she did stubbornly shift her position to look at him, once again showing off the vicious garrote wound on her throat. The flayed skin opened up with the motion, showing the whites of her ligaments and a crooked, cracked hyoid bone against the tattered cartilage of her larynx.

 

At this, the receptionist blanched, eyes widening. Her professional demeanor fell away as she said very slowly. "She. Should. Not. Be able to move her head." She blinked three times, and then seemed to lapse back into her helpful, cheerful tone as a self-defense mechanism, and empty smile pulling at her cheeks. "Maybe I'll just go ask someone about... something."

 

The woman in Thal's arm ducked her head forward when the wound was noticed, hiding much of the gash behind her jaw, but it didn't do any good at this point. Her tail curled tighter around Thal's arm.

 

"Uh... alrighty then! I'll just.. wait here, I guess?" Swiveling one ear, he dropped his blue eyes towards the girl in his arms, wincing. "... Well, what does she know about neck wounds, huh? You're gonna be fine."

 

The woman in Thal's arms pressed herself up against him, but remained silent.

 

A few seconds later, not long at all, a Hyur garbed in black robes emerged from the inner hall of the hospice. The receptionist was behind him, as though hiding, and whispering fervent but inaudible words. As the man saw the pair, he stopped in his tracks, and then observed, "I recognize this girl." And then to Thal, "Please sit her down. We don't have any open beds but I'll take a quick look. What's happened to her?"

 

The red-haired miqo'te half-turned one way, then the other, and finally crossed to a corner where there was a small bench, like to accommodate waiting visitors. Or something. Thal didn't really question it. He did give the man a sideways look, however. "Recognize her? Eh, that's doesn't really... Hm." He shook his tail and knelt to set the girl down on the bench. "I don't know exactly what happened. Found her washed up on a beach like this. Couldn't exactly leave her, y'know? So you're a healer?"

 

"She used to volunteer at the church. You carried her here all the way from...? There are no beaches nearby!" The man crouched in front of where she'd been set down. The woman gave the black-clothed man an empty look, without recognition and a bit of fear. Despite this the man proceeded to take her head in both hands and push it back, gazing in to the wound. He had only been looking at it for a half second before he snapped his hands away and stood tall. "By the Twelve!"

 

The woman curled her head down to hide the wound, turning her face away. Her ears fell down on her head.

 

"Well, I dunno. Maybe it was a lake or something... But hey, that doesn't much matter. She needs healing help, so if you can give it, that'd be appreciated." Thal leaned his head back slightly away from the man as he swore in apparent disbelief.

 

The man looked first at the receptionist, then at Thal, and then back to the green-haired woman. "This girl cannot possibly be alive."

 

"Hah, well she's moving, so she definitely is. I know it's a pretty big scratch, but..." He shrugged at that, and then gave the man an impatient frown. "Look, she doesn't have all day. If you're going to help her, do it."

 

Shifting anxiously in the seat, the woman cast her eyes towards Thal again, the only time she had a look of recognition at all.

 

The black-robed man eyed Thal for a moment, and then shook his head. "Don't worry. This is, sadly, not the first time that one of Drybone's dead has refused to go quietly into the ground." His eyes went to the receptionist. "We should burn it. We'll dig a grave and put oil-"

 

The chair the green-haired woman had been sitting in clattered to the floor when she bolted for the door. She did this clumsily, weakly, barely able to move, but managed to get out of the building in mere seconds. Only to fall into the dirt when her legs failed her.

 

Thal jerked back at the sudden movement, blue eyes blinking rapidly. A moment later, he was pushing past the robed man and the receptionist, hurtling after where his nose told him the girl had ran. How she'd managed to run, he wasn't going to ponder just yet.

 

Her burst through the door and hurried to where she lay in the dirt, bending down. "What are you doing, kiddo? You're gonna hurt yourself," he spoke quickly, tail swishing behind him as he set his hands on her shoulders, to lift her. "I'm thinking there's a misunderstanding here, so don't worry."

 

The woman squirmed in the dirt, trying to get her footing once more, to continue getting away. When Thal's hands fell over her, however, she stopped, letting herself be moved by him.

 

Right behind Thal, the man in the black robes appeared in the doorway. "Sir, please keep your distance from it! Don't worry. It can't get away here."

 

Scooping his arms beneath her, Thal lifted the girl with ease, her fragile weight next to nothing in his grip. At the words behind him, he turned and frowned. "What're you talking about? First off - she's a she, not an it. And second... what?" His ears gave a baffled shake.

 

"Sir, that woman is undead." He lifted his hands in placation. "I know it is disturbing, but trust us, she died long ago. We've handled situations like this one before. We are very capable of destroying it."

 

The man's words unnerved Thal in more ways than just worry for the girl. They made his bones itch. His ears shifted to point behind him as he took a few steps back. "Yyyeah... I didn't come here for you to, uh, "destroy" the kid." Mouth twisting, he continued backing up a ways. "So... I'll just be on my way, I think. Nice meeting you."

 

As the woman in Thal's arms curled up closer to him, the man in black robes rushed down the steps. "Please, that girl deserves to be buried at the church where she worked for so long. Her body deserves rest. I don't think you understand what it is that you hold."

 

Blue eyes shifted left, then right, then back towards the black-robed man. The smell in this pit of a town was suddenly overpowering, choking his senses like earth and worms. "Yeah... I'm just gonna go. See ya!" He spun around then, holding the girl to his chest, and picked up his pace, angling towards the ramp he'd entered through.

 

"Wait! Are you mad?" The black-robed man chased him for a handful of steps, and then shouted out, pointing. "Someone stop that man! He's harboring an aberration!" The response did not take long, since there was an Immortal Flames office just across the square.

 

Laying his ears flat against his head, Thal turned his hurried walk into an all-out run for the ramp.

 

The woman in his hands curled up against him and vocalized a haggard groan. He put one arm around his neck, but didn't hold any of her own weight. Behind them there was a distant clatter of armored pursuers.

 

A number of townsfolk fell back with frightened looks as he ran past them, but Thal didn't really pay them much mind. He took the ramp without losing a beat, legs hauling himself and his lightweight charge up towards the surface. The clanging thud of metal and leather and heavy foot beats continued behind him, and as he crested the top of the ramp, he forced his own legs to extend their stride.

 

The pursuit was disorganized. The call had been so sudden that the chasers hadn't had any organization. There were no chocobo involved. Just heaving, overheated soldiers in full armor. And unlike Thal, they tired.

 

Thal ran south from the town, or as best he could estimate as south, breaking from the road almost immediately. He didn't stop, even when the pounding and shouts from his pursuers faded and gave way to the ambient sounds of desert. He would run all the way back to the lake Megiddo had first found him at, unless the girl in his arms stopped him.

 

She didn't. She remained tense the entire way, as though they were still being pursued, though her groaning ceased. She lay a hand over her neck, pressing down on the flesh about the wound on her throat, sealing it. She breathed.

 

When his feet hit the shallow water, Thal finally slowed, first to a light trot, then a walk, and finally, as he approached the rocky plateau jutting up from the center of the lake, to a complete stop. He didn't really know why he came back to the water, but the liquid was soothing to his feet and helped him ignore the way he had begun to feel each individual joint in his toes, and the way his muscles twitched along calves and thighs to hold him steady.

 

Dropping his gaze to the girl in his arms, he frowned in silence for several seconds. There really wasn't any denying it now, he thought. At least... for certain things. Damn that old man.

 

It was a half-hearted damning, though. Not like he could really blame Megiddo for all this. Swishing his tail and trying not to think of how he could feel each vertebrae sliding against one another, Thal forced a smile at the girl. "Well, that didn't go exactly as planned. You're... looking a little better though, so there's that."

 

The woman took several long, deep breaths. She then intoned an indiscernible series of croaking syllables, her lips moving to try and form words. She ceased after a few moments, however, a frustrated look on her face.

 

His brow wrinkled. "Not all better, though." He hummed to himself for a few seconds, looking up and around at the lazy toads that croaked nearby, and then back down to her. "I'll admit, not really sure what to do now. I'm thinking taking you to any other healer is just going to get the same kind of unhelpful reaction." He twitched one ear and stepped along the rocks, finding one he could sit down upon. Settling onto its surface and letting his feet dangle into the water, he shifted the girl until she was more resting in his lap than he was holding her.

 

A thought occurred to him then. "... Huh. Hey, do you know how to pull on aether?"

 

She nestled in comfortably on his lap, sitting up and remaining against his chest. Keeping one hand over the wound on her throat so she could breathe, she shrugged, and looked up at him with a curious expression. Her ears shifted against him, all salty, sandy fur.

 

"Mm..." He felt her shrug more than saw it, along with the tickling of her sandy ears. "Eh, it was a thought. Not sure how else to help you, but if you don't know... well. You don't seem to be getting worse, so maybe if we just wait?" He tilted his head, glancing up towards the sky, which was lit with fire to the west and darkening to the east. "... And clean ya up a bit, miss sandy-pants."

 

Her blue eyes left the man to look down at her legs. She certainly wans't wearing pants. The burnt-and-torn red remains of what had once possibly been a dress were more just string tangled up around her body than any kind of clothing. She tightened her hand around her throat and tried to speak again. "I... d..." She groaned.

 

The miqo'te blinked in surprise, snapping his gaze down to the top of her head. "What was that? Don't hurt yourself, okay?"

 

She shook her head. "I... died?"

 

Red ears shifted at that. "Hrm." Bringing one hand behind his head, he offered a lopsided smile to her hair. "Well now, it's not all bad."

 

Her head fell against his chest again and she made an unhappy sound, pouting.

 

"I'm serious!" He laughed despite himself. Not like the kid needed anything more to worry about. "You hardly notice it."

 

She grunted out a number of syllables that sounded not only unconvinced, but bitterly so. Then she just pouted again and kicked one leg.

 

This drew a grimace from him, and something unsettled shifted in his gut - something that made him keenly aware of the way his organs sat atop one another, tucked within his abdomen, between his ribs. Her worked his jaw side to side. "Don't believe me, huh? Can't say I blame you." There just wasn't any ignoring it anymore, was there? The Keepers, the old man, that healer who wasn't a healer... Thal shut his eyes for a long moment, but when he opened them, he smiled. "Well just look at me. Going on five years now, and it isn't a thing to worry about."

 

"I.. ne..." She began, but then stopped, and kicked one leg in frustration, unable to express whatever it was she wanted to day. After a pause, she angrilly ripped a large swath of cloth from the once-dress she was wearing. Not that this could have made it cover any less of her.

 

"Hey now, don't get mad. Tearing up your clothes isn't gonna change anything." He moved his hands over her's to keep them still for a moment. "Best to just accept it and move on. Enjoy life." He snorted a laugh.

 

She smacked his hands away from hers and proceeded to tie the torn piece of cloth around her neck, closing off the wound beneath her jaw. At least, mostly.

 

Holding up his own hands in surrender, Thal watched the girl expectantly.

 

Once the cloth was in place, the woman put her hands on either side of her neck. Then she tried very hard to speak. "I... ne...ver... live..."

 

"Eh?" His tail twitched across the stone as he tried to piece together the syllables. A sigh escaped him then. "I don't know what got to you so young like this, kid. For what it's worth, I'm sorry."

 

"N-!" He hit his chest with one tiny fist, the blow exceptionally weak. Then she put her hands back on her neck. "Never!"

 

"Hey, it's not a license to go hitting people, so stop that." His reprimand was gentle, though, in proportion to the weakness of the blow. He barely felt it. Brow lowering, both in concern and confusion, he tilted his head. "I'm not sure what you're trying to say, kid. Maybe you should just rest up for a bit? I'm sure your head's a bit jumbled. I know mine was."

 

This pulled another groan of frustration from her, but then she cuddled up against him again. "Don't... want. Dead."

 

"Yeah," Thal muttered, holding onto her and shifting on the rock he sat upon until he could lean his back up against more rock. "Just rest a bit, alright? You'll think clearer when the sun's up."

 

She huffed unhappily, but pulled her legs up against her chest -- putting even more weight on Thal -- and curling her tail around her ankles.

 

Thal took her shifting around in stride, waiting until she seemed to have settled into a comfortable position before he moved an arm around to steady her. Something about it felt entirely natural, and he leaned his head back until his blue eyes were looking up towards the stars.

 

The woman was silent, breathing calmly and carefully. Her eyes rested on the water for a very long time. Then she looked up at Thal's chin and said with great effort. "Thanks... Dad."

 

The quiet voice brought a slight furrow to his brow - confusion, and pity. Unseen by the girl, his mouth twisted, and then he lightly patted her arm. "We'll talk tomorrow."

 

She dropped her gaze again, but didn't close her eyes.

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The woman appeared, for whatever reason, to chafe against her relative nudity. She crouched in the ankle deep water with her back to Thal, pulling the charred red rags of the dress up over her chest and scowling at the water. She still wore the torn strip of fabric around her neck, but it was loose now, and her fingers slipped underneath that rag to touch her wound. She moved her wrist as though she thought she could force her throat to work by pushing on it had enough. Her tail twitched back forth in the water behind her. Her ears lay flat in her tangled hair.

 

Thal had been content to just relax against the stone near the water. Watching the night sky had not ceased to be an exhilarating experience even after the week or however long it had been (he honestly lost count of the days - it could have even been a month, for all he knew) since he'd left the Shroud. He'd begun to be able to pick out particular shapes in the bright specks above, which entertained him. Sometimes the shapes were not very wholesome.

 

Much of this night, however, had been spent watching the girl he'd pulled from the sea. And thinking. Lots of thinking, which was something he usually had a rule against, but... the situation seemed to call for it. He kept silent, though, letting the girl adjust on her own time, and every so often allowed his own thoughts to drift towards the hypothetical Megiddo had briefly proposed.

 

The girl who had supposedly buried him had green hair.

 

When he sensed the coolness of night fading, the sun inching its way past the horizon, he straightened from his stone seat, leaning forward over his knees to peer towards the girl. He tilted his head to one side, so long, red bangs hung away from both his eyes for once, and smiled. "Feeling any better, kiddo?" She didn't look it - in fact, her body language seemed extremely frustrated. But he figured she'd had enough time to stew.

 

When Thal spoke, the girl lifted her head. Her ears swiveled back, and she took several slow, careful, difficult breaths. Then she turned her head towards him. The cloth had slid town her neck enough that her fingers could be seen reaching deep inside the wound, inserted near her chin and curling down inside her throat. Almost completely insert. She blinked, and then made a sound like a frog's final croak. "No."

 

The man leaned back with a grimace, looking away. "Okay, first off, just because you're dead doesn't mean you can just... stick your fingers in places fingers have no right being."

 

The girl's frown shifted to annoyance. She grated out, "Trying-" and chocked, gagging as though she'd triggered some kind of reflex. Her shoulders bunched up and her body curled forward. She didn't withdraw her fingers. She did mover them, however, and the gagging ceased. She spoke with a voice of grating sand and clicking cartilage. Her jaw moved strangely. "Trying to learn. To speak."

 

Thal heaved a sigh, "Yeah, yeah," and ran a hand up his face, through his hair. He held his bangs back a moment, and then dropped his hand, letting them fall forward again. He grimaced again at the sensation of every single one of his hair follicles shifting minutely to accomodate the change. Idly, he lifted his gaze beyond their little lake, scanning the shore. Megiddo was right - plants were scarce out here. Still...

 

Pushing away from his perch, he splashed his feet into the water and stood. "Do you feel up to a walk? It's nice around here. Would be good to stretch your legs anyway."

 

"I need food." She kept her fingers stubbornly inside of her throat as she rose to her feet, tail dripping behind her. She turned to Thal, and it was clear that the hands crossed over her chest were trying to conceal the charred flesh there. She took a second to gag again, and then groaned out. "I remember eating."

 

"Ah, another thing a walk will help." Grinning, he held out one calloused hand towards her. "I bet we can find something around here. Cactus, maybe, if we take all the spines off."

 

His extended hand provided an opportunity which the girl took to step forward and lay her body against Thal's, laying her head against his neck. "Not hungry. Dead." She said in that very quiet, very rough breath that could barely be called a voice. "Still have to eat."

 

"We're gonna work on that, kiddo." Her sudden closeness caught him off guard, but he patted her back gently. He felt the cartilage in his joints giving against bone with the gesture and bit back another grimace. Then, taking her loosely by the shoulders, he turned her to start walking out of the lake. "Don't ya worry."

 

"Nothing worse." She walked with him. "I don't remember. Dying."

 

"There's not really any point in dwelling on it," he kept his tone calm and even, hopefully soothing. When their feet found dry sand, he paused to stretch and look around to pick their new trajectory. Staying near water seemed wisest for finding plants, so for now he just angled them to walk near the shore, around the lake. "It'll just upset you, and... well, that won't do you any good." He grins a bit. "But hey, at least you didn't get stuck in the Shroud."

 

The girl averted her eyes. "Sorry. Do you remember?"

 

"Hm?" He paused to consider a thin patch of grass. It looked green enough... Bending down to set his hand on it, he tilted his head to keep the girl in his sight. "Remember dying? Heh, nope. Wouldn't want to. Really, kid, let's talk about what you wanna do now, not what happened in the past."

 

She stood there, watching him. "I remember."

 

It was a lot easier without thick, leather gloves, Thal thought as he curled his fingers through the grass. Still, the aether running through them was thin, as dry as the desert they walked upon, and it pulled up into his bones in an almost imperceptible trickle. As he did this, his brow drew down in a frown. "Really, kid, it's not a subject we should talk about. Now, I'm thinking cactus is our best bet."

 

The girl took two steps away from thal, her tail swishing back and forth behind her. With her ears laying down on her head once more, she whispered as loud as she could. "I want to go home."

 

Straightening, he cast a look towards the sky and then sighed towards the girl. Sand crunched beneath his bare feet as he took a step to wrap one arm around her shoulders. "If I could help with that, I would."

 

She dodged away from him, and then gagged. She shifted her fingers inside of her throat, and then pointed eastward. "Home."

 

Blue eyes followed her gesture, then frowned. "Nothing but cliffs over there. Well, that I saw at least."

 

The girl gave him a pouty but stern look.

 

"... No, really. I was walking around over there just the other... day... week... something like that." He shrugged, offering the girl an apologetic look. "Let's keep walking though," he added when shrugging pulled on each individual muscle fiber running along his back. His vertebrae shifted upon one another to adjust his posture. He held back a wince.

 

Continuing her glare for a long moment, the girl's tail twitched at its tip. Then she abruptly turned to walk eastward, in roughly the same direction Thal had gone to get ot the settlement where people had tried to burn her.

 

"Aah, hey, wait up a second!" He caught up to her easily and grabbed her shoulders - though with as gentle a grip as he could manage. "If you mean that town, it's not really the best idea to go back there, I don't think."

 

"Home. Desert!" She turned towards him, and gagged when she did so. She moved her fingers to ease the sensation, but this time it didn't work immediately. He shoulders bunched up and her back bent, and she leaned her head against Thal's chest. "With mom." She managed between choked spasms.

 

"Mom?" He shook his ears. Of course the kid had a mom, who was probably worried sick all things considered. Petting her back lightly, he worked his jaw in thought and cast his gaze over the top of her head, towards the direction she'd wanted to go. "... you still can't go back to that town, kiddo. They didn't like you. Does your mom live there?"

 

Taking a moment to work her fingers inside her throat, the girl croaked out. "East then south. Very south."

 

"Very... hm." Pulling in a deep breath, Thal dropped his hands to the sides of the girl's arms. His tail swung in slow, thoughtful arcs behind him. "I guess... well, no one else would have a reason to not like you, I guess. How far south?" Almost as soon as he asked that question, he shook his head and let a smile cross his face. "Nah, doesn't matter. So long as we steer clear of that town, we should be just fine. And maybe find some cactus along the way."

 

She lifted her chin to show the wound on her neck. "Need to clean. Close cut. Find clothes."

 

Thal hummed at that. "Right, right... Well..." One ear quirked. "... if you hang back, I could... probably find some clothes at the place. Not sure if that's the only town around here or what."

 

The girl shook her head, looking unsure. She stared at her feet, and curled her toes.

 

"Well, I'd give ya the clothes off my own back, kiddo, but... I think that'd leave me indecent for your eyes." He gave her a lighthearted wink and then patted her reassuredly on the head. "We'll figure it out, okay? For cleaning... well, got some nice, fresh water right here. I can give ya some privacy."

 

She rolled her head again, "Not body. Neck. Inside."

 

Thal watched her a moment and then bit on his tongue to try and suppress a shudder. "Eeeheh... right. That. Hrm." He sighed. "Well, uh, you seem like a smart kid. Who... strangely knows what she's doing... help me help you out here."

 

She blinked, then frowned. She looked at Thal and then looked away, appearing hurt by something. After pouting for a moment, she turned to face east, as though to start walking. All she did was lean that direction, though, before stopping and looking back at Thal. "Home."

 

"... Okay, then!" He shrugs after a moment. "Guess it can't hurt. Not like I had anywhere else to go." Tossing a grin down at the girl, he gestured for them to start walking. "Lead on, little lady."

 

The girl finally pulled her fingers out of her throat, gagging and making a sound like she was coughing them up. Her chest shuttered and she staggered as she shook from her shoulders all the way through her diaphragm. Her tail shivered.

 

Thal decided it was better to just ignore all that grossness, though he did rub her back in a gentle, reassuring way.

 

When she was done with her fit, she gave Thal an apologetic look, and then ducked her head away so that her face was hidden in her tangled hair. She moved forward to push herself against him again, wrapping an arm around him and pulling him off eastward.

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The girl turned them south well before they reached the town that had chased them away. As much as she wanted food and clothes, she didn't seem to want either of them going there. They hadn't gone far east before she had them walking southward, just east of a cliff face, heading for a narrow pass that would lead into the larger expanse of the Sagolii sands.

 

The climate didn't quite reflect that yet, however. As she walked, she broke a small limb from a scrub brush. It still had some greenery on it, though it was dry and mostly dead. She turned it one way and the other in her hands, then wagged it around in seemingly random gestures. Her expression was very concentrated as she did this, though didn't pause in her walking. Her tail twitched in agitation when nothing happened.

 

The pass they were heading towards loomed perhaps a half kilometer ahead. She tried harder with the twig, but the nothing continued.

 

Thal had grown increasingly uncomfortable as they walked, though not through any fault of the girl's. He paused when he good, moved his hands through patches of tall shrub and brambles, lay it against the dry trunk of a thin, twisted tree, and even managed to find a few stunted cacti. He stopped at them, under the pretenses of of trying to tear off some of the chunky leaves for them to eat. The spines were annoying - and occasionally painful - but it was the only truly green thing he'd seen in this desert.

 

He left the remains of the cactus brown and shriveled when he pulled away. The girl had been distracted with some twig she'd found, and he watched her a moment, picking back up his walk to catch up, before speaking, "Hey, look what I found!" Smiling, he idly pulled spines from the cactus bits he'd left undrained. "They look nice and juicy."

 

Looking back curiously, the girl made a dusty sound in response and then fidget around looking for somewhere to put her twig. She tried to stick it in the dangling threads of the dress, seemed to consider slipped its end into the band of her underclothes, and then finally wedged it into her tangled hair like a decoration. Finally, she reached for the cactus.

 

Double checking one of the cactus chunks for any more spines, he handed one over to the girl. "Eat up." He glanced past her, towards the pass they steadily approached, and let out a low whistle. "Well that looks impressive. Hey, how far is your home? And what's it like there?" Casting a smile her way, he worked on getting the last of the spines from his own cactus chunk.

 

She bit into the cactus chunk well before she was able to answer. Her shifted strangely as she chewed, her throat and muscles make strange sounds beneath the tied cloth that concealed them. There was no war she still had the prerequisite muscles to chew, and her mouth and jaw moved as though she did.

 

Her attempt at swallowing, however, was a miserable failure. She choked violently, staggering, and tried to squelch instinctive coughs and heaves that made her entire body convulse. She fell to the ground and pulled the cloth away from her wound with one hand, reaching inside of it to try and fix whatever had gone wrong.

 

"Ah, hey, are you--" Thal hurried to her, dropping down to rest a hand on her back. "Hey, just try to breathe." He grimaced, rubbing her back.

 

Amal'jaa moved in the crags of the pass, dark shadows falling over their black-scaled forms. This was not a normal place to find them, and they were an unusual sort for this part of Thanalan. They carried the weapons of Zan'rak. The air around them shimmered with the heat of the tempered. Ifrit's blessings warmed their breaths. They moved in silent stillness, as though waiting, wrapped in eddies of concealment. Their scents did not blow away from their bodies, nor did the heat reach through the earth and air away from them.

 

Perhaps this is why the other figure on the crags, standing well above the Amal'jaa and in the light, appeared not to notice them. He stood with his small body glistening with sweat, shoulders and arms reddened from sunlight and harsh, biting sand. He looked down, taking in the length of the pass, and shifted his spear in his hand. His tail flicked. His ears stood high and listened. The gaze he wore was suspicious, aware, and yet he did not turn on the Amal'jaa. They eyed him like meat they did not dare hunt yet, and he eyed the pass below him.

 

The hair on his head shifted like heavy fire as he lifted his gaze suddenly. The concealed Amal'jaa shifted deeper into the shadows at this. He did not turn it on them, however. He looked northward and narrowed his blue eyes.

 

The girl in Thal's arms pushed hard against something inside her throat, and there was a crackling, sucking sound. She moved her neck and jaw as though to swallow again, and stopped coughing. Her eyes closed, and she shuddered again, but was still. After a few long moments, she did as Thal instructed her and breathed. She had not been doing so before. On her exhale, she muttered, "South. Very far. Days."

 

Still rubbing her back gently, the man nodded, his red hair shifting across his face. He swiped at his bangs with the arm holding his cactus and watched the back of her head a moment before looking forward, towards the pass. "Mm, that's not so bad. I've been walking for a lot longer." He chuckled at that, then let the sound fade into a calm silence. "... Feeling any better? Maybe you should hold off on eating until we get that throat of yours fixed up."

 

The girl huffed a rough sound. "I'd get sick." She rose then, and plucked the sprig of wood from her hair. She concentrated very hard and waved it in front of her. A few particles of sand shifted. She huffed and put the stick back against her ear, taking another bite of the cactus.

 

The fiery-hair man on the crags turned his gaze north and squintted. He sniffed at the air and his ears lay down.

 

Thal straightened as well. "Alright... Just take it slow and easy, okay? No need to stress yourself." Then he smiled and started walking again, taking a hearty bite out of the cactus. The moisture held in its green flesh was a welcome feeling on his tongue, even though the sensation of his jawbone moving against skin and muscle was not. His tail swung lazily as he walked. "What're you trying to do with that stick, hm?"

 

"Magic," she grated out, simply, two fingers of one hand still in her throat to help her speak, breath, and eat. She turned away to continue walking.

 

The man on the crags groaned at any inward thought, and his features twisted into something unpleasant that was just past the wrong side of annoyance. "Every time it's something, isn't it?" He muttered to the rocks around him, and then turned and began to walk. This small movement made the Amal'jaa beneath him all but vanish into shadow. He began to clamber down, and still did not seem to notice them. He moved as one accustomed to climbing desert stones, and did not slip on the drifts of sand. His spear and tail swung about to help him balance has he moved.

 

"Fancy," he grinned, clasping his hands behind his head and tilting it towards the girl as he walked. "Kind of reminds me of the conjurers in Gridania. Not that I talked with them much... they were pretty uptight." He laughed, ears shifting.

 

She just nodded at this and continued to eat.

 

The fiery-haired man landed in the silt at the base of the crags, then walked into the path in front of the pass. There were only about a hundred meters between him and the pair at this point. "Hey!" He did not sound friendly.

 

"... Huh, really now? Didn't know they had conjurers outside of the--hrm?" Turning his head, hands still clasped in his hair, he squinted ahead of them. "Is that... oh, must be another wanderer! Heh. Maybe he has something to help your throat? Or knows where we could find some clothes for you... Hey there!" Thal lifted on arm over his head and waved it in a broad gesture.

 

The girl jumped up and grabbed Thal's arm, pulling it down with both hands. The cactus fell into the sand forgotten. Her fingers were still sticky with cactus juice and whatever was inside of her throat. She coughed forcefully, the sound somewhat coming from her neck instead of her mouth, but she forced some intonation into it. "No!"

 

The small man with the spear continued towards them.

 

"Huh?" Thal glanced down and let his arm get pulled down, though if he'd wanted he could have resisted the girl's meager strength. "Hey now, I don't think he's from that crazy town, so it's all good." He flashed her a grin and made to keep walking forward, towards the stranger.

 

She pulled on him desperately, however, with every ounce that her tiny, thin, sickly body could muster. It wasn't much; like a piece of thread pulling against a rolling boulder.

 

"K'aijeen!" The man shouted, now only fifty meters away. His voice carried a growl. The spear in his hand turned. "What have you done?"

 

Red ears twitched at the anger in the voice, and Thal turned a frown towards the small man approaching them. Setting a hand on the girl's shoulder, he moved to stand slightly in front of her. "Hey there, friend, why so angry?" He flashed a grin in an effort to ease whatever tension the stranger was bringing to them. "We're just passing through."

 

"Oh no you're not!" The man did not pause in his approach. His features knit into an ugly expression. "Is this some plan to get yourself back into the tribe, Aijeen?"

 

The girl concealed herself behind Thal, trying not to let herself be seen. She put her fingertips to her throat and pressed hard, whispering to Thal. "Killer."

 

"What?" When his attempt at easing things didn't seem to have even an ilm of effect, Thal's expression sombered slightly. Glancing down and behind him, he gave the girl's arm a gentle, reassuring squeeze, and then squared himself against the approaching man and let his arms hang loose at his sides. "Hey stranger, I don't really know what you're going on about, so you might want to consider you're directing these hostilities at the wrong people."

 

The girl stood on her tip toes to whisper to Thal. "He killed us."

 

The fiery-haired man didn't slow. If anything, he walked faster. "I should've known this would happen. As soon as I heard you were in Ul'dah! You might have found mercy from Airos and Piru! But you won't from me!"

 

She whispered to Thal. "Murder."

 

"What?" Thal repeated down at the girl, features shifting in brief confusion. "He's not anywhere near the Shroud, kiddo, and I've never met either of you before." Shaking his head, he held his arms out to either side, both blocking the girl from the approaching miqo'te and demonstrating his willingness to be nonaggressive. "You mind explaining yourself, friend? Before someone here gets hurt."

 

The laugh the man let out was a bitter sound of disbelief. He paused long enough to incline his head. "K'ile Tia. I remember that twisted stink of yours. I ran into you in Gridania once. Of all the places for her to hide you. If you'd been anywhere else I'd have recognized you in an instant."

 

Thal leaned his head back slightly, and then squinted towards the man. A moment later he let out a laugh - not a bitter one. "Oh, I remember you now! By the falls. Didn't I tell you to relax?" He forced a chuckle. "I guess that advice didn't stick." He drew a deep breath, tail flicking behind him and to one side of the girl he half-hid. "But really, I don't know you beyond that, so whatever business you think you have here..." He shook his head, ears laying back slightly as his thoughts settled on something the girl behind him had said.

 

Small fists beat on Thal's back.

 

"Sure, sure." K'ile Tia's lips smirked, then twisted down into a scowl. He began forward again. "She should've left you in the dirt. She should've stayed in the sand herself." His hand moved on his spear again.

 

Blue eyes narrowed sharply, and Thal broadened his stance just a bit. "Alright, we're going to be that way, huh?" He muttered, half to himself. He was pretty tired of this kind of thing coming up, over and over and over again. But unlike Megiddo, or the Qion brothers, or the young girl, this man was overtly aggressive. He tried not to think about the familiarity with which the other miqo'te was addressing him; it was a disquieting thought. "Look, friend, no one pulled me from the ground but myself," not exactly true, but he didn't need to bring the old man into this. "I don't know what grudge you have against this kid, but it needs to end here."

 

"I need to fix this before the rest of the tribe sees you." K'ile muttered, his features twisting. "And besides. If I can beat you as a monster? Beating K'yohko will be like kicking an infant." He was close enough now that he lost his casual demeanor. He swung his spear in front of him so that he had it in both hands, pointed it at Thal's gestured, and ran forward with it.

 

The girl made a grating, panicked sound, and ran in the opposite direction, away from Thal.

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  • 5 months later...

When the spear swung forward, Thal felt the muscles along his legs bunch up, flexing against long bones. His tail kept loose but stuck out behind him, and he felt his spine leaning him forward. When the tip of the spear was only a few long strides away, he stepped to one side, dropped his shoulder, and grabbed for the length of the spear while pushing forward and up all in one motion.

 

K'ile had been holding back a long time. He wasn't going to hold back here. K'thalen needed to die. Again. And then he could get rid of K'aijeen as well.

 

When Thal went to grab the spear, K'ile allowed it. He let go of the weapon and spun away from it, dropping down close to the ground, his smile body bundling up. Light and heat swelled against his chest from something obscured by the harness on his chest, moving through to his collar and shoulders, sliding down his arms. His hands hit the sand, and there was a rush of ignition. Heat like fire burned up from beneath him, and the glass around him glistened. It moved. It stuck to his hands, crystalline, boiling hot, glowing red and white.

 

When he lifted himself and dove at Thal, he was holding globs of searing matter, trailing drops of viscous molten quartz from the melted sand. He slammed these into Thal's flesh.

 

Eyes widening, Thal brought the spear lengthwise in front of him, and K'ile's chest collided with the wood as the miqo'te brought his attack to bear. He grunted in vague disbelief as something blindingly hot crashed against his side and shoved as hard as he could with the staff, kicking out with one leg for good measure to knock the other man away from him, though he staggered backwards simultaneously.

 

Being very small, K'ile was thrown backwards by Thal's shove. He fell into the melted quartz left in the sand beneath him, but it didn't burn his body. As he rolled to his feet, the sand vitrified in an instant, turning into a smoothed glass with a strange orange color to it. It cracked and crumbled, falling into shards seemingly without cause.

 

K'ile spun. His tail ran over the sand, cause it to melt and cool in an instant. Sand stuck to his arms and shoulders, melting, glowing hot and exhaling nearly invisible fumes. Small sparks of flame danced on their borders. His blue eyes were narrow and hard, his face twisted into hideous anger. He crouched and took up more sand in his hands. The sand beneath his feet melted and vitrified around his toe, giving him a perfect spring block with which to throw himself forward again.

 

"Will you just calm--down!" Thal dove to the side, rolling his body around to give his arms the momentum they needed to swing the spear around like a long, thin club, stricking it against the other man's back.

 

K'ile turned, and ducked. He lifted a hand and struck it against the spear absently, causing the entire length of wood to burst into fire in an instant. This delayed his momentum for only an instant. "The last thing I needed to see was that face of yours again!"

 

"The hell did I do to you?!" Thal threw the spear off to one side, not bothering to watch it burn. His side felt strange, the detailed sensations of his muscles numb there. Not wanting to give the other man more opportunity to summon any more of the molten sand, he dropped low and charged, barreling against K'ile to tackle him to the ground. His arms would move to clasp around the other man's neck.

 

K'ile was overpowered by the larger man's charge, slammed to the ground and pinned there. It reminded K'ile a bit too much of Yohko, and his anger burned all the hotter because of it. Unable to free himself, K'ile's blue eyes smolder up at Thal through his veil of fiery hair. The sand beneath them melted into fluid quartz and he began to sink into it, millimeter by millimeter. A very slow process.

 

Clenching his jaw, Thal steeled his nerves and jerked the other man to the side, rolling away from the molten sand. Where his skin touched it, however briefly, he felt it go numb, though there was no immediate pain. When he was on his back, he bunched his legs up and drove his knee into the Tia's lower abdomen.

 

What breath K'ile had left was forced out of his lungs by the blow to his gut, and it had the side effect of leaving him nauseous and dazed. The lack of air, something he had been able to deal with moments before, was suddenly paramount. His dazed senses were not coming back. His fingertips were languid. The man writhed, claw at the ground, pushing at it with his feet. Everywhere he made contact, the sand melted, leaving boiling hot fluid quartz in shimmering pools. Fire lit upon his skin and on the surface of the pools.

 

Grimacing, Thal brought his knee up again, driving it into K'ile's gut, and then twisted to one side until he could straddle the Tia. He straightened with his knees on the ground, pulling K'ile up by the hold on his neck. "Stand down," he bit out.

 

He didn't have much of a choice. The second knee did him in. His strength waned. He pushed against the ground, but it didn't melt beneath his hands. He couldn't even glare. His eyes were half-lidded, and he was silent. His tail writhed still, but the rest of him was too heavy.

 

Thal didn't ease up his hold, though he did drop one arm down to wrap around K'ile's arms and torso as he stood and dragged the tia with him. "I'm not looking for a fight, friend," he muttered, "but you can't just go trying to kill people." Part of him wondered where the girl had run off to, but for now he figured as long as it was "away", then she'd be fine.

 

The Tia hung limp, still dazed. His eyes watched the pools of molten quartz on the ground as the cooled into glass and then crumbled into small shards.

 

Stepping back from the slagged sand, Thal let out a heavy sigh. "Are you going to try and kill me again if I let you go?"

 

After a time, the Tia managed grudgingly. "You're already dead."

 

"Maybe," Thal muttered. Why everyone on Eorzea seemed to know of this, even before him, he had no clue. "But I'm not some mindless voidsent, so put your big boy pants on and get over it."

 

"I have too much invested in you being dead." K'ile answered, coldly. "She only brought you back to ruin everything. And it'll work, too. One person gets one look at your face, and everything'll fall apart."

 

Blue eyes closed, and Thal tightened his grip around the Tia for a moment in frustration. His tail lashed behind him. "No one brought me back but me," he forced out after some seconds of silence. "I don't care what you've 'invested' - though I'll admit that's kind of disturbing. I don't know who you are, but I guess I probably should."

 

K'ile's tail lashed. He remained limp, and his scowl deepened once more. He glared at the sand, pondering. "People don't come back to life by accident. Or without reason. You ask her why?"

 

"You can't just believe me, can you?" Thal groaned. "Look, an old Duskwight - good friend of mine now, actually - pulled me out in the Shroud. That girl was nowhere near." He nudged at the back of K'ile's legs with his knee, not roughly, just as a gesture that he couldn't make with his busy hands. "And I've been doing pretty fine on my own the past five years. So maybe you should just let me keep on doing that, huh?"

 

"The Shroud? Then why are you here with the dead girl, huh?"

 

"What, you want my whole life story? Maybe I got tired of the forest." Blue eyes rolled. "I found her, not the other way around. Wasn't intentional, trust me, but it's not like I could just leave a dying kid be."

 

"You just happened to come back to life out of nowhere?" K'ile scoffed. "And you just happened to wander from the Shroud back home. And you just happened to find your daughter, who just happens to be dead too? No way."

 

"Suit yourself, I guess," Thal muttered. Then he pushed at K'ile's back, releasing him suddenly and with great forward energy. He took a few steps back himself. "I'm not gonna fight you. Maybe under different circumstances, I'd try to get you to tell me just how the hell you know me, but for now I'll settle for: don't attack us."

 

K'ile stumbled, but recovered within moments. He shot up straight as a rod, his tial switching behind him, and he turned to glare at Thal. "Don't you realize what you are? What she is?"

 

"I'm me," he said simply, frowning towards K'ile, but it was a relatively neutral expression compared to the Tia's anger. "And she's... whoever she is. Doesn't have to be any more complicated than that."

 

"Good to see you still don't think about anything. Yeah, you're still you, and that's exactly the problem." The ground beneath the Tia started to heat again, the sand left on his body turn into shining fluid. "If it was just the face, maybe. But it's still you. If it wasn't K'aijeen, but it is."

 

"What're you afraid of?" Thal demanded, feeling the nerves along his spine light up, his muscles tensing. He didn't drop into any sort of fighting stance, though, instead letting out a rough breath and shifting his gaze to one side. "There's a reason I didn't go digging into what was missing beyond those five years. Nothing good would have come of searching out people who'd probably already mourned."

 

"Then you shouldn't have come back! You should've stayed away from K'aijeen." K'ile ducked his head forward and growled, audibly. The sand beneath him turned fluid and bubbled, small flames alive on the top of it. His bare feet sank centimeters into it. "I can't let this be any more than I could just leave a tent burning down with my family inside. I can't, understand? K'aijeen can't be allowed to keep doing this."

 

"How the hell was I supposed to know some guy who apparently knew me would be wandering around?!" He gestured sharply with both arms to either side of him. "She was hurt and confused and asked me to help take her home. I'm not gonna say no to a sad kid like that."

 

"Still not thinking. Pretending everything's so simple. I guess..." The Tia thought for a moment, and then laughed again. "I guess, yeah, I hate that! I can't do it. Man, you got all the best of everything, didn't you?" His laughter faded. His hands fell to his sides, and the pool of melted sand around him expanded. It seemed deliberate. Like he was preparing it for something. "And then you died. And now yo-"

 

The earth moved behind him, hard clay pushing up through the sand like a beast surfacing. It was visible, stationary, for only an instant, before it solidified and shot from the ground as a missile, striking the Tia hard in the back of his head. he stumbled in the fluid sand, silenced suddenly, dazed.

 

The girl in the tattered red dress stood back near the pass, that broken branch in her hands. Green light moved around her fingers and the wood she held. More missiles began to rise through the sand at her feet.

 

Thal startled, eyes darting past the Tia, and then twisted his mouth. "Damnit," he muttered, and then shouted, "Kid, get out of here!" He wasn't quite sure what to think about her at the moment - certain facts were slowly aligning in his head that pointed towards something very uncomfortable - but he did know he didn't want her involved in this fight.

 

There wasn't much fight left in the Tia. He fell to one knee in the viscous quartz, stunned by the ferocity of the blow. Blood ran down his jawline from a wound on the back of his neck. Then more missiles struck him. In the head. In the back. The girl had become frighteningly efficient at that particular spell, and the Tia collapsed under the assault.

 

"Hey, stop!" Thal felt his legs break into a run, around and past the tia and right for the girl. "No one else is gonna die, kid, y'got that?" he barked, reaching out for the arm holding the wand.

 

She dropped the branch and jumped back from it as Thal rushed her. Her arms pulled up near her chest, she retorted in a scratchy voice. "Wasn't killing. He's killing." She rolled her head and put a hand ot her head. "Was going to attack."

 

"Yeah, right," he grunted, setting his foot on the branch and holding one arm up, palm out towards K'ile, the other towards the girl. "Fighting's done now."

 

K'ile didn't stir. The quartz around him vitrified.

 

The girl reached out and grabbed Thal's hand, pulling on it, eying him with distress. "Okay?"

 

Moving his free hand to run through his hair, Thal let out a sigh. "I'm fine, kid. Just hang back for a bit, okay?" Then he turned, pulling his hand from hers, and approached K'ile.

 

The girl pouted at this. She croaked, "No! He's..." She coughed and began again. "Murderer! Killed you!"

 

"I don't know about that," Thal muttered. His tail hung still behind him as he walked, feet crunching across a thin film of glass as he neared the fallen form of K'ile Tia. Grimacing at the visible blood, he dropped to one knee and carefully rolled the man on to his side. "You alive there?" He resisted the urge to snort at the phrase. At least one person here wasn't dead.

 

The Tia breathed, but didn't move. His eyes were closed. There was a lot of blood.

 

Working his jaw, Thal eased the man onto his back and pushed back his hair, using one thumb to lift an eyelid. "Really did a number on him, kid," he said, likely too quietly for the girl to hear. "Not what I was going for."

 

The girl waited in the pass, looking worried. Like she expected K'ile to pop up and destroy Thal in one sudden instant without warning.

 

The Tia's pupils were clearly dilated unevenly. Thal wasn't an expert, but he thought he knew enough to understand that wasn't good. Shifting the man's head, he felt in his hair for the wound, pulled his fingers away wet with blood and grimaced. "Okay."

 

He bent then, lifting one of K'ile's arms over his shoulder and wedging himself beneath the Tia enough that, when he stood, he took the Tia with him. Then he turned to the girl. "Change of plans, kid. I'm taking him to the town. He's not dead yet, so I'm pretty sure they won't burn him."

 

She flinched at that, her eyes shaking. Then she lurched forward and extended a hand. "No!" She choked shook her head, and put both her hands to her throat, pressing hard. "He'll kill you!"

 

"He already tried that." Thal was getting tired of this. He turned towards the pass, back the way they'd come. "Just wait outside the hole out of sight."

 

She whined, a rough sound rattling from her throat. "Daaad!" And gave chase, picking up the dropped stick as she went.

 

Thal froze, one arm over K'ile's back, the other holding the Tia's own arm over his own shoulder. He blinked away from the pass for a moment, and then leaned his head back, looking towards the sky. "Oh. I get it now." He breathed out, shut his eyes, and then just started walking. "Wait for me outside, K'aijeen," he said, using the name he remembered the Tia calling her.

 

She groaned, again, looking distressed, but nodded.

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K'ile awoke tied to the rack. It was familiar, like the rack he'd tied Thalen to so many times back in the tribe. But this one was a sex rack. He could tell by the rack's gentle but firm hold on his limbs and the heat of the air.

 

***

 

Thal made the trip back to the hole in the ground that was a town in silence. He spoke to the girl - K'aijeen, he kept having to remind himself - when they neared, telling her to stay far from any guards, out of sight, and that he would come back to get her once he'd gotten K'ile taken care of. Then he trudged towards the ramp that would lead into the settlement. The Tia's weight kept his steps slower, though he didn't tire from carrying the other man. At the bottom of the ramp, he paused a moment, not sure what he'd do if they tried to chase him out again, but then just shook his head with a dry chuckle and walked on. He headed straight for the building he'd met the black-robed man in.

 

The building was full of the smell of death, almost completely overwhelming the stink of the dying. Beneath that was a hideous haze of antiseptics. The same receptionist was present, and she recognized Thal as soon as she stepped in, going rigid and alert in an instant. "Oh, no! Not another one!"

 

"What?" Thal looked up, squinting a bit as he stepped inside while his eyes adjusted to dimmer light. He shifted K'ile's weight draped over his shoulder. "Oh! Heh. No. I promise this guy's still alive." He shrugged the shoulder not burdened by the Tia and gave a half-hearted, apologetic smile. "Sorry about earlier. I was... well. Y'know." One ear twitched. "But, uh, don't suppose you could help my friend out? He took a nasty hit to the head."

 

Almost before Thal was done talking, the receptionist had fled from her desk and run down a hallway, shouting, "He's back! He brought another one!" as though she hadn't even heard him talking.

 

An instant later, the black-robed man appeared from down the hallway, alert like he expected to find a blood-covered Voidsent in the room.

 

"I swear, he's alive!" He hefted K'ile a bit, as though that demonstrated the Tia's continued liveliness. "Just out cold. Uh. Spare some help?"

 

The man and the receptionist behind him both stood frozen for an absolutely, just, rude amount of time, before the man in black gestured towards the empty surface of a nearby table. "The beds are full."

 

The receptionist grabbed his arm, "But-!" He hushed her quickly, however.

 

With an expression that spoke of a shrug he couldn't wholly make while carrying the Tia, Thal stepped over and dumped the man out across the table. He rolled his shoulder once he was free of the weight, worked his jaw at the pull of tendon fiber and the way the ball of his joint shifted against the ends of his shoulder and arm bones. "Just had a bit of a tussle. Wasn't really sure where else to take him, but... uh. You people kind of look like healers."

 

As soon as the Tia's back hit the table, his body curled forward and his legs curled up, and his hissed rather roughly, "Azeyma burn you through! Augh!"

 

The man in black sent the receptionist after something for the pain.

 

Frowning, Thal pushed his fingers through his bangs. "Yea, damn the guy who's getting you help. Great idea."

 

K'ile just growled again, and groaned, and clutched at the back of his head. He closed his eyes and hissed. "Just a dead body with snark."

 

"And feelings," Thal muttered, turning blue eyes on the robed man. "He'll be okay?"

 

The robed man took a dark bottle from the receptionist, the latter of whom kept as far away as she could. Carrying the bottle towards the Tia, the man in the black robe looked Thal over, "Are you going to be okay? You're heinously wounded." He then turned towards K'ile and put a hand to his head. "Hold still."

 

"Ow!" The Tia bristled. "Who the heck are YOU now, Hyur?"

 

"Someone who can help. Hold still."

 

"Yeah, listen to the guy who knows what he's talking about," Thal tossed a smirk down at the Tia, though he wasn't really feeling it. To the robed man's question he blinked and then shrugged. "I feel fine. Just a few scratches."

 

"Your definition of 'scratches' troubles me." The black-robed man frowned. "Look at yourself!"

 

"Eh?" Lifting his arms slightly to either side, Thal glanced downward. Both brows lifted at the sight of blackened, blistered tissue carving a smear across his side and along his ribs. Recognizing it as where he'd felt numbness, he glanced towards his arms and saw numerous similar marks, though on a smaller scale. He let out a breath that attempted to be a laugh. "Well... it doesn't hurt. I'll be fine. Just make sure he keeps living."

 

"It likely does not hurt because of the severity of the wounds! You must be looked at immediately." The black-robed man was adamant, then stooping to push some of K'ile's hair out of the way and see his wound.

 

K'ile provided, very helpfully, "He doesn't feel it because he's undead!"

 

"Hey!" Thal did his best to look offended - it wasn't all that hard, given the situation, though it came out more annoyed. "Don't just go calling people that." He looked to the robed man. "I guess you can patch me up if you want. Don't really like the sight of it now that I noticed."

 

The black-robe man had looked, for a moment, like he was about to proclaim Thal a voidsent and have him burned, just like he'd threatened to do with the girl. But after a moment, he just narrowed his eyes in suspicion, and then nodded towards the receptionist.

 

She flinched. "But, what if he-... Very well. I'll be right back."

 

Thal just shrugged at that, lifting his arms to rest his hands behind his head. He hoped the girl - no, K'aijeen - wouldn't get too anxious if this took a while. The last thing they needed was her coming down here and making another scene. Blue eyes drifted down towards the Tia on the table. "Y'know, if I still knew you, I get the feeling I'd be a bit upset about you hating me so much."

 

"If you were still who you were you'd help me get rid of that girl." K'ile tried to sit up, but stopped half-way, cringing in pain. When he tried to lie down, however, the robed man pushed him fully upright and continued to clean the wound on his head.

 

Thal grimaced at that. "Maybe. I still don't know what all is going on. Would rather not make such a hasty decision." Which was funny, considering how he usually acted, but for once in his remembered life he felt like a little deliberation was in order.

 

Squinting with one eye up at Thal, K'ile said. "Okay, let me put it this way. The girl is evil. She's been a menace for years, summoning Voidsent and abusing us. She's supposed to be dead. And if you can't guess why you're around, then you really haven't changed. THINK about it."

 

"Hey, it's not like I asked for--" He caught himself, flashed an awkward grin towards the robed man and shrugged at him with an expression that said, 'family - what're you gonna do?' After a moment, he just let out a heavy sigh, but the action made him aware of air moving down his esophagus, how the muscles in the back of his mouth tightened to allow passage. He could even feel his lungs sitting against his ribcage, his diaphragm relaxing.

 

Thal swung his arms in some frustration. Megiddo's oblique suggestion returned to him, and paired with what this Tia said... well, there wasn't much else it could be. And yet... "She's a kid. I'm having a hard time thinking evil's possible."

 

"That's because you don't know her!"

 

The receptionist returned with bandages and alcohol. And swabs. And very sharp-looking instruments. And a look of reluctance and disgust. She obviously didn't want to do this.

 

K'ile went on. "Look, she summoned a monster when she was just a 'kid'. I've still got the scar on my leg from that day. And now she's a full-grown monster herself!"

 

The black-robed man muttered as he worked. "If the woman is still around perhaps we should dispatch some men to search for and apprehend her."

 

"Yes!" K'ile agreed immediately. "Do that. Definitely."

 

One of Thal's ears twitched, along with his tail. "Don't bother," he spoke suddenly. "I told her to run." It was a lie, but he wasn't going to put the girl's fate in strangers' hands, evil or not.

 

The man in black balked, "Why are-"

 

But K'ile growled more emphatically. "WHY are you protecting her?"

 

"Maybe because killing a little girl without damn well understanding things beyond a shadow of a doubt isn't how I want to operate?" The words came out a bit snappier than he'd intended. "Look at it from where I'm standing, friend. Some psycho attacks us out of nowhere saying the little girl I rescued is actually evil and destroying lives?"

 

"She's undead! And she's creating more of you!" K'ile's tail shivered.

 

"See? To an outsider, that just sounds like crazy talk." Thal shrugged. "Not saying that it is, but... you can't blame me for wanting to take a moment and think things over." He didn't seem to have noticed the return of the receptionist.

 

The receptionist began work on Thal's body with hushed muttering. She seemed afraid to touch him.

 

"I can!" The Tia continued to glare at him. "Because in the meantime, you were walking her right back to the tribe! You're letting her walk you back there so she can use you."

 

Thal tossed his hands up in the air, nearly whacking the receptionist. He started at her, having only just then realized her presence and that she was messing with his wounds. Giving her an awkward look, he tried to keep still; at least it didn't hurt. "Okay, look, I don't know what, who, or where your tribe is. She was sad and sick and wanted to go home. No reasonable guy with any kind of heart is gonna say no to that." He rolled his eyes. "Home. That's all she said. And like I said, I don't know anything about it."

 

"She isn't welcome at the tribe anymore. Neither are you." K'ile's eyes narrowed, and his tone was sharp. "If either of you showed up now it would be nothing but trouble for everyone. You think it's annoying when I try to have at you alone? Wait until I have ten hunters with me."

 

"Not planning on going where I'm not welcome," Thal muttered. He let out a sigh and then silently apologized to the receptionist for moving while she tried to work. This was why he'd never gone looking, never asked questions, never even thought about it.

 

"You're not welcome anywhere. Don't you get it?" The look K'ile gave him was absolutely loathsome. "You cannot be."

 

The taller man let out a sharp laugh at that, ribs shaking under the receptionist's hands. "Boy, you sure do know how to make a guy feel good." He set his eyes to a far wall for a few seconds and then, when his thoughts settled, shook his head. "I wish I remembered you." Another pause. "I'll be on my way once the nice lady's done with me. You don't have to see me again. Just pretend I don't exist. Neither of us exist. And go on back to your life."

 

K'ile sat, glaring at Thal, in silence.

 

The black-robed man stood from where he'd been working on K'ile's head and walked over to stand in front of Thal. His attention was on the receptionist, however. He put one hand over her shaking hands. "Please let me finish." At this, she paused, and then handed over the work to the man, and stepped away.

 

The man in black bent to continue tending Thal's wounds. As he worked he said, "So you know, the world is not meant for those who have died. They belong in another place. They are better off there."

 

His tail hanging still down by one leg, Thal turned his head to watch K'ile on the table. "Yeah, I think we can all agree on that."

 

"So... if this woman you speak of is not... alive..." The man did not look at Thal as he worked. "Then she cannot be happy unless she is returned to where she should be. Released."

 

Letting out a slow breath, Thal hummed to himself, features somber. "Probably not."

 

"You should think about letting us take care of it."

 

"We'll see," Thal said after a moment. "Just get him back on his feet. You done down there?" He glanced down at his side.

 

The man in black stood and backed away, having bandaged the worst of Thal's burns. "I suppose."

 

"Right then." He shook his arms out, twisted at the waist, testing. There was still an annoying numbness all along his side and at points down his shoulders and arms, but the healer seemed satisfied. Sort of. He got the feeling it didn't really matter in the end.

 

"I'll just get out of your hair, I guess." He turned away from K'ile, towards the door.

 

The Tia and the man in black both watched Thal silently, as though waiting for him to leave.

 

Lifting his hand as though to wave farewell, Thal trudged towards and out the door.

 

Shortly after Thal left, K'ile tried to stand. "I need to go after him."

 

"Don't." The man in black looked over his shoulder. "I'll see if I can have him followed this time."

 

Thal paused a few steps out of the building, looking up out of the hole in the ground. Then he just sighed, shrugged to himself, and headed up the ramp. He hoped the girl--K'aijeen hadn't wandered off.

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He'd left the girl a good ways back from the town, amongst a stand of rocks and shrub. It took him a good fifteen minutes to walk back, during which time he found the weight of K'ile Tia's words pulling heavier with each step. He wondered if it was strange that the rejection from someone he didn't even know hurt more than the accusations leveled towards the girl, and frowned at the thought.

 

"Kid, you still there?" He called out as he approached the cluster of tan stone and tan plants. Everything was brown here, and it was starting to frustrate him.

 

The green-haired girl looked up at Thal's approach, blue eyes blinking at him. The red tatters of cloth shifted on her charred body as she stepped away from the stones, turning towards him and trotting directly towards him. She still had concern on her face.

 

Her face looked so innocent, he thought. If one ignored the gore exposed along her throat. He put on a smile as she approached. "Good, you seen anyone pass by here while I was gone?"

 

Before she answered, she trotted right up to him and tossed herself against him. She pulled curiously at his bandages.

 

"Eh? Oh, they insisted. Told them it didn't hurt, but... guess you don't say no to healers." He shrugged, and then dropped the smile. "So, K'aijeen, is it?"

 

She nodded, and stepped back, looking up at him. Blinking.

 

"Right... I'll remember that." One hand ran through the hair at the back of his head as his ears shifted. Then he heaved in a breath and out a heavy sigh. "Y'know, that guy didn't exactly... no, that's not the right way. Hrm." He took a step to one side, scratched at his ears, and then turned back to K'aijeen. "Are you the one who brought me back?"

 

She took a step back, eyes snapping wide at the question. She pursed her lips, looked to the left, and muttered, "Don't know," in a voice that, while still very scratchy, seemed to come easier.

 

"Yeah... I'm not so sure about that," Thal muttered and then shook his head, tail swinging. "Are you the one who buried me in the Shroud?"

 

She spread her arms and turned her eyes off to the right. "Complicated."

 

Craning his neck back so he could look skyward, he pulled at the back of his hair. "That's not an answer, K'aijeen." He glanced over his shoulder, back towards Drybone. "I'm not going to be taking you 'home' - at least, not the place you wanted me to go."

 

Her eyes narrowed, and she shook her head, looking like she didn't understand. "But. Our home."

 

"No," he sighed. "That's the thing, kid. You can't just die, come back, and... go back to how things were before. Why do you think I stayed in the Shroud? Er, aside from the whole not knowing any better thing."

 

"But I never-!" She choked, groaned, and put pressure on her neck. Her shoulders shook. Her wide eyes pointed at the ground in front of her, shaking. "No!"

 

"I'm sorry, kid, it's just... how it has to be." Thal frowned, rolling his shoulders in frustration. "If even half of what he said was true, they're not going to want you back. And they won't want me."

 

She shook her head harder, and made a hard sound deep in her chest. "It wasn't me! He's... It's complicated!" She couldn't manage to say more than a few syllables in a row without pausing to recover, and her voice was deteriorating. She gestured wildly as she continued trying, her tail whipping behind her and shivering.

 

"Look, it's not... well, it's not the end of the world. How about we just go... elsewhere, huh?" He shrugged, but it was half-hearted. "It's a big world. I think."

 

"But home." She put her hands on either side of her head, staring forward without seeing as though she'd just been told that... Well, she wasn't allowed to go home. She was on the verge of tears, and her fingertips dug into her hair.

 

Muttering a curse he didn't really mean under his breath, Thal stepped forward to pull the girl into a hug. This was why the robed man had wanted to burn her, he thought to himself. "I'm sorry, kid. It'd be easier if... well. I guess it's not easy."

 

She lay herself against him and shook. "Where?"

 

"I don't know." Her small weight against him pressed an object against his hip, and Thal suddenly recalled the mask. It was a wonder it hadn't fallen out during his scuffle with K'ile Tia. "Back to the Shroud, maybe. Or... I don't really know what else is out there."

 

The girl called K'aijeen released a grating groan. A moment later, she hit Thalen's chest weakly. "She ruined it."

 

He caught her arm gently, moving it down and then just setting his hand against the back of her head. He blinked at her words though. "She?" More people he should know, probably. Or used to know.

 

"Me." She said, bitterly. "Me, but she."

 

"Huh?" Bringing his hands down to hold her shoulders, he held her back enough that he could look the girl in the eyes. "You're going to have to run that one by me a second time. Or a third."

 

She averted her eyes and muttered. "It is... too complicated." And then gestured vaguely at her neck.

 

His brow lowered. "Okay, no. That's not gonna fly as an explanation from now on, kid. You owe me that much."

 

Her hand falling, she appeared conflicted. She gave Thal a pathetic look and ran her fingers over her neck. "Hurts."

 

"No, it doesn't, if you're anything like me." He sighed.

 

She groaned again. "It does." She shifted, and pouted, and eyed the ground, and her tail swung behind her. And then she lifted her gaze and said, "I don't know." Her fingertips pressed against her throat, sliding underneath the strip of red cloth wrapped around her neck. "I watched. Couldn't choose."

 

He chose not to press the pain thing, especially when she started expanding on her earlier words. It didn't do a whole lot to lift the confusion, though. "You... watched? What, watched yourself?" He blinked, shivered one ear. "Like... possessed?"

 

Her ears lay down, and she looked Thal right in the eyes. Then she thrust her head forward and shrugged. "Or crazy."

 

His mouth twisted. "Yeah... alright. Well. We've all got our quirks." He muttered the last part, mostly to himself. "Look, let's just... get away from this place for now, okay? We can talk more as we go. And I guess figure things out from there."

 

Her tail shifted behind her, and she appeared sad again. "But not home?"

 

“If you think of it like that, you're never going to be happy." And he needed her to be happy. It hadn't taken long into this conversation for him to realize he didn't have the heart to end her, or take her to others who would. Even after what she may have done. He offered a lopsided smile down at the girl. "A friend of mine calls his home wherever Oschon wills it. How about we just take a page out of that book for a bit?"

 

She didn't appear convinced. At all. She looked at him both with incredible disappointment and disbelief in his unfathomable naivety. Then she just shook her head. "Don't understand."

 

He deflated a bit, swung his tail from side to side, and then just set a hand at the girl's back to turn her. "Eh, don't have to right away. Let's just walk, huh?"

 

"But...!" She started, but didn't object further. She glanced over her shoulder, southward, and groaned again.

 

***

 

The girl in the red, tattered cloth was at length just fine with following Thal around. She eventually calmed, her argumentative huffing and frustrated body language subsiding. She seemed even lose talkative, however, keeping the rag pulled tight around her neck. After several hours she began to busy herself as she walked, using the stick she had earlier obtained to conjure green light about her hands and arms, ccool air rushing about as she made small movements with the stick. The sand stirred about her, subtly. The magic she was using was very weak, however, and barely palpable except for those indications.

 

Thal seemed largely okay with keeping to himself for now. In the interest of keeping her walking, he didn't immediately bring up the conversation again, instead letting his attention wander to something more present - that was, how strange his bones seemed to feel in his body and he almost thought his senses seemed duller than usual. The rough fabric of his pants brushing against his legs was a quiet sensation, muffled, overpowered by an awareness of the fine hairs all over his skin. He swore he could even feel the separation of skin and muscle as he walked.

 

These things were all around just starting to disturb him. He kept his eyes peeled for any hint of green and made a beeline for the first shrub that seemed less tumbleweed and more growing plant that he saw. He didn't bother hiding it from the girl this time. She seemed lost in whatever magic she was playing with - reminded him of conjury, the way she pulled at the air - and she was aware enough of the situation that it didn't particularly matter. Bending down, he wove his fingers between dry leaves and branches. A few thorns pricked and scraped at his hands, but he didn't really notice.

 

Conjury still wrapping her arms, she paused in her walking when Thal paused, sensing his movement even if her attention wasn't otherwise called ot it. Her eyes panned over to the shrub, watching Thal grab at it. After a moment, she inhaled -- she had not been breathing as she had walked idly about -- and spoke with a voice that seemed to be coming more easily to her every time she tried. "Are you okay?"

 

"Hmm?" Red ears swiveled backwards as he pulled on the sluggish aether within the plant. It left the stems and leaves in invisible ripples that sunk into his own flesh, merging with the flow there and leaving the plant shriveling. "Oh, yeah, just a little pit stop! You're sounding better."

 

The girl huffed and drew one hand towards her neck. Then she hefted her stick and grated out, "Healing." Her voice was still weak and sandy, but the words came faster now and were easier to discern. "It doesn't work on you. Sorry."

 

"Heh, not your fault." Though it kind of was. In a roundabout way. That wasn't something he was going to say to the kid, though. The mask tucked into his waistband jabbed into his stomach as he bent over the plant, and it occurred to him to wonder what use it might have. There were no vengeful elementals to appease out here; at least, he didn't think they were. Megiddo would have told him to wear it if it were an urgent need.

 

The shrub had begun to look even more sickly than before, and the aether running through his fingers had dwindled to an almost nonexistent trickle. Frustrating. It had barely been enough to return some feeling. Thal straightened and pushed his hand up his face and over the top of his head to run calloused fingers through his hair. "I'm just glad you can fix that yourself."

 

"Still need to eat." She said, walking towards Thal, casually. She didn't appear disturbed at all by his behavior. "Everyone needs something."

 

"Yup." He turned towards her and swung his arms up to clasp his hands behind his head. Leaning his weight onto one heel, he kind of rocked in place. "So keep an eye out for any more cactus. Or anything else edible, really. You ever had to live off the land before, kid?"

 

She blinked at that, and thought. She narrowed her eyes, and then looked back up and said, "I can set traps. For predators. If I have meat." Then she cast her gaze to the side and rubbed at her neck, the gesture idle but eliciting a slight sound of crackling cartilage. "Never trapped anything small."

 

“Animals, huh... Heh, that's a funny thought. Meat was a no-go in the Shroud." Rolling his neck, cracking the joints there, he looked around them. "Wonder what kinds of little critters are about here.."

 

"Orobon near the water. Birds. Lizards." She looked skyward, then along the horizon. "Find carrion, find vulitures."

 

"Water? Okay, I like that one." He flashed the girl a grin. "How about a little swim, huh?"

 

She blinked, and her ears lifted up. "Where?"

 

"Well..." He scratched at one ear. "... There was water back a ways. Lots of toads there, but I bet if we followed it, we could find orobon."

 

She shook her head and pouted. "Always going back. Never to the right place."

 

Thal blinked at that, looked to one side, then another, then back to the girl. "Ah... erm. So you don't want to find some orobon? I guess we could try north instead."

 

"If we're not going home I don't-" She finally choked, and groaned in frustration, tossing her head back and glaring at the sky. She put her hands to her neck and moaned.

 

"Eeh... Ah, come on, kid..." Dropping his hands from behind his head, he stepped over to her and rubbed at her back. "I'm doing the best I can here."

 

"I don't want to go south!" She tossed her face forward. "This isn't fair! I didn't do anything!"

 

"Well..." Continuing to pat at her back, he urged her to turn and start walking again. "Things aren't always fair. Don't think that I particularly like how I ended up, either. Stewing in it doesn't really help, though."

 

"You don't want to go home." She snapped at him, turning in the direction she urged him. "You're just running away! From the killer."

 

"That's not home for me, kid." He sighed and kept her walking. "And... it's not home for you, either. Not like this."

 

"But I didn't do-!" She was silenced when an arrow slammed into her back, a direct hit between her shoulder blades with enough force to send her falling forward into the dirt. It was not the only arrow that had been fired, but merely the only one that had hit home. Another cut the sky over Thal's shoulder and hit the ground, fire already spreading from their points up the shafts.

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A voice from behind the cover of nearby rocks complained, "Dammit, Phil! You promised you weren't going to miss this time!" There was a movement of yellow and red, the colors of the Immortal Flames.

 

The girl on the ground didn't have the presence of mind to pretend to be dead. She tried to push herself up. From the arrow lodged in her back, fire began to spread over her skin, burning away even the tattered remnants of her dress.

 

Thal spun, moving his body over the girl's on instinct, body wound up and defensive. Then he saw the fire and, after a moment's flash of worry, pressed her back down into the dirt. "Don't move. Smother it!" As he said this, his head shot up, ears swiveling, eyes darting around before locking on the flash of color between rock and shrub. "Don't fire! We have nothing!" He didn't expect them to obey, but he could maybe buy some time to figure out what to do...

 

A voice could be heard over the rocks. "I'm sorry! I just got scared! They're zombies, doncha know that?"

 

"Exactly!" A large- shoulder man jumped from behind the rocks, his yellow-and-orange smock blowing out around his dark-armored body, his cascading hair and bronzen skin shining in the desert light. Her presented himself with the strength and certainty of a hunter, knocking back another arrow. He sneered. "But they die just the same as anyone."

 

"Actually they don't." The other peeked over the stone. "See, look."

 

"Wait, what?" The man squinted at the green-haired girl, watching her try to get up and then get pushed back down. "Oh, that's... Huh. Oh, wait, yeah. That's what the fire's for!" He took a flint from his pocket and began to scrape it against his arrowhead. "Come on, Phil!"

 

"But the man in black said they don't feel any pain. And they haven't stopped to eat or drink or rest or anything. And look that guy is mad now. He's going to use dark magic."

 

As they had this exchange, the green-haired girl shifted on the ground, trying to grab the arrow from her back. When she couldn't reach it and she could still feel the fire burning, she called quietly, "The arrow! Get it!"

 

Thal grimaced, hands dropping to feel between the girl's shoulders without dropping his gaze from the uniformed man. Blue eyes narrowed as he wrapped his fingers around the arrow shaft, set his other hand on her back, and pulled hard. The arrow slid free with a sick squelch that he determinedly ignored. He rose then, solidly between the girl and the soldiers. "I don't wanna hurt you," he called out. "Just leave us alone."

 

As soon as the arrow was free, the girl rolled onto her back to smother the fire. She lay there, staring up at the sky. She didn't breathe. Her eyes shook with shocked confusion.

 

"Got it!" The man smiled broadly when the arrow in his hands lit up. "As I was saying. They may be zombies. But, once they're on fire..." He knocked the air and shifted his head, his yellow-orange smock blowing out around his dark-armored body, his cascading hair and bronzen skin shining in the desert light. "They die just the same as anyone."

 

The man behind the rock began, "I still don't think that-"

 

"Shut up, Phil!" The bronzed man lifted his flaming arrow and fired a well-aimed shot directly at Thal's chest.

 

The miqo'te had jerked to the side as soon as the soldier's arm pulled back to release the arrow, but it still found a mark, knocking him back a few steps with the force of it as it buried itself in his shoulder. Mouth twisting, he grabbed at the wood and, deliberately not thinking about the action, yanked it free to toss it away before any flames could set in. "Fine," he muttered. "I'm about done with people wanting me dead again."

 

Then he bent his legs and, in a fluid motion, sprung forward at the bronze-skinned hyur, barreling into him and sending him to the ground.

 

"Ah!" The one behind the rocks jumped up. "Hank! Oh, no!"

 

"Do something!" The man shouted. He was not a small man, but the miqo'te had him pinned anyway. He held Thal off of him and tried to punch its head. "He's gonna eat me! Do something!"

 

The concealed man, a thin Hyur, hopped up on top of the rock he'd been hiding behind and drew an arrow, knocking it, preparing to shoot Thal at point-blank range. A sharped, earthen missile to the face stopped him, however, throwing him into the dirt with a pathetic wail. A line of dust hung in the air, trailing behind that stone back to the green-haired girl, standing now with her stick in-hand.

 

Tail whipping behind him like a ribbon, Thal pressed down on the hyur beneath him, locking his legs against the other man's and bringing his forearm down against the base of his neck. His other hand grabbed at one of the man's arms, trying to hold it back. The hyur's blow to his head landed, but it didn't do much other than jerk him to one side a bit, dislodging his grip on the man's arm. "I'm not gonna eat you," he barked. "Just leave us alone!"

 

The man didn't appear to be buying it. He felt along his belt for a knife, and pulled it. He lifted it to stab Thal, but a piece of weaponized stone struck his hand, and his arm snapped violently away, likely broken.

 

Thal pushed away from the man, springing back several fulms before spinning around and sprinting towards the girl. "We're leaving, now," he said, grabbing her arm.

 

She sputtered, but didn't argue. The rags of her dress slipped down on her body so that she was barely wearing them anymore. The very thin girl was now mostly burned flesh, cut and stabbed and bleeding.

 

The man on the ground writhed and grabbed at his damaged arm, and did not stand up.

 

Thal ran with her, and then a few steps later scooped up the girl in his arms and ran faster.

 

Looking bewildered at Thal for a moment after being picked up, she eventually curled her limbs up and looked around them, her eyes searching every shadow and rock warily. "Will more follow?"

 

"I don't know," Thal grit out. He wasn't about to look back, either, just pumping his legs as hard as he could make them go, westward. "We'll lose them, don't worry."

 

She was quiet for a brief time, and then said. "I don't like that town."

 

"Neither do I, kid. We won't go back."

 

Fully silent then, she eyed the stick in her hand. She waited a long time, still worried that someone might be following them, but when they were far enough and it had been long enough, she reached up and put a hand on his shoulder. "You hurt?"

 

Thal blinked, sparing a moment to tear his eyes away from his path to glance down at the girl. "Huh?" Then back up to watch where he was going. "It's fine, just a scratch." He smiled. "Doesn't even hurt."

 

She frowned. "Maybe it should? Mine does."

 

"Eh?" His steps faltered, slowed. "... Why didn't you say so? I'll find a place to hide in the rocks."

 

"It's okay. It isn't bad." She shook her head and blinked up at him, unphased. "I can handle it."

 

Brow lowering, Thal picked his pace back up. "I don't like you in pain. I'll keep an eye out for a place to duck into."

 

"What I need is food." She said this firmly, but not sternly. "And I like you carrying me."

 

"Right," the man breathed out. He chanced a glance behind them but could smell no hint of the soldiers' scent, or catch any sight of their colors. That didn't mean they wouldn't return to town and get others, though. He pressed on, moving in the direction he'd been originally wandering, before Megiddo had interrupted.

 

"I'm starting to think the answer is 'no'." The girl said, conversationally, as Thal carried her. "I'm not the one who buried you."

 

The frown deepened. "Green hair, young girl. Given the circumstances, kid... it has to be you."

 

"I thought so, too. But I..." She appeared vexed, and looked down at her hands. "I remember feeling very sad. But sounded angry. I remember mud on my hands. Feelings of burying..." She put a hand to her throat and rubbed it. "But I would not... do what I... she. What she did."

 

Adjusting his grip on the girl, Thal banked around a number of rocks jutting out from a cliff. His ears relaxed slightly as he spied a familiar pool of water on the horizon, complete with giant toads. His frown doesn't ease up, though."I don't know what to tell you, kid. I..." He faltered, hesitating over his words. "I can understand why you might've been upset at the time. Not thinking straight."

 

She shook her head. "That's not it. I remember doing lots of things. Mean things. Angry things." She blinked and looked unsettled. "Things that made me sick. Things I didn't want to do. But I did them anyway."

 

Dry shrub and sand crunched under Thal's feet as he ran. The lake ahead bobbed in and out of sight as he moved over a few, low dips and rises across the ground. His mouth twisted at the girl's words. "If you didn't want to, then why did you do it?"

 

"I did not have volition," she answered. "I did not decide. I did not speak. I was moved and words emerged from me. They were not mine."

 

"You didn't..." His steps slow a bit, until he's just ambling across the sandy ground. Then he sighed. "What does it change, kid? You can't do anything about it now."

 

Her tail shifted, lifting to curl around his arm. The fur was matted and burnt in places. "It matters."

 

"I'm not one to hold grudges, but... well, yeah. I guess it does," he sighed and slowed even more until he was walking. The ground became softer the closer they got to the lake, and he angled his path to walk around it. "You okay to walk on your own?"

 

She nodded and waited to be put down. "I'm not... I did not do anything wrong. But that's not my point. My point is. I was not before, and am now."

 

Lowering her feet carefully so she wouldn't stumble, Thal kept a hand on her back once she was on the ground and quirked one ear towards her. "I'm not sure I'm following."

 

"I'm not sure." She lowered her ears, and then she shook her head. "I am sure. You were alive, but do not remember. I was not alive, but remember a life."

 

"Let's keep moving," he murmured, urging the girl onward further along the lake. He wasn't about to take the chance that those soldiers might catch up to them, not until they'd put a few days between themselves and that town. After a moment, he spoke again, "What's done is done. I won't pretend to understand what went on before, kid, but I'm not sure what good it would do to try and figure it out beyond causing more grief."

 

"But I..." She walked with Thal at his urging, following his lead dutifully. "But I care! About people. That I remember."

 

Blue eyes closed for a moment, then opened to look down at her as they walked. "That's why you can't go back to where you want." His feet sunk into mud as they neared the lake's bank. "They know you as dead. Showing up... it would only hurt them."

 

"Not if I explain!" She leaned forward, turning wide blue eyes on Thal. "And I can explain away the bad, too. And someone needs to do something about K'ile!"

 

Thal frowned at that. "The guy's just protecting his family. I can see that much pretty clear." Then he shook his head. "But you don't understand, kid. They've grieved, moved on. It's not fair to pop back up in their lives, especially when... you're--well, we're not actually... that." He shrugged slightly, half-heartedly.

 

"And what's fair to me?" She managed to whine through the grating in her throat.

 

"What was fair to me?" He countered, not happily.

 

"That's not my fault!" She started, and then trotted forward to turn back and look at him. "What do you want me to do?"

 

"Keep walking, for one. We need to put some distance between us and that town." He swung his arms, rolled his head back and around. "... And just try to move on."

 

She turned to walk a bit faster, putting some distance between herself and Thal, actually. "No. I can't move on. I never lived."

 

"Can't you just... ugh," he let out a frustrated breath, though the emotion was half directed towards himself, just as much as it was towards the girl. "Look, I don't know, kid. I just know that going back 'home' is not a good idea. You saw how that one guy reacted. They'll all react like that."

 

"We'll go to Ul'dah then!" She spun once more and pointed at her head. "I remember now. That's where mom is."

 

Thal's steps slowed and then stilled completely, arms hanging limp at his sides. "Mom?" He blinked and then seemed to slump before saying reluctantly, "Right... uh. I think that would be the last person either of us should see."

 

The girl stopped and put her hands on her hips. "Well I disagree. Mom won't care."

 

Blue eyes frowned. "Because you can explain it all away? That's not how these things work." He let out a groan then, rubbing roughly at his face, pulling fingers through his long bangs. "Mom. Your mom. Which, if I've been understanding things right, would make her my... uh. Someone. Yeah... I'm not going to do that to her."

 

"I am." She stated this proudly, lifting her nose. This also showed off the gash exposed by the listening cloth on her neck. "She still loved... her. The bad person. So. I should be easy."

 

Thal grimaced at that. "I don't think you quite get it, kid. You died. Just... let her be in peace."

 

"And I don't think you get it, dad!" She had one hand on her hip, and leaned forward, pointing at him with her other hand. She didn't sound angry, just insistent. "Family is important. And alive or dead, I'm still around. So I'm going to find my family. That includes you."

 

"And what happens when she sees you? You're a ghost to her. And me... I don't know you. And I don't know her. I don't feel anything for her but pity, kid, and that... that is not fair."

 

"You're not fair!" She stood up straight and shook her head. "No, family's stronger than that. You would've said so once. You'll see."

 

"I'm not doing it." He started walking again, then stopped and groaned, combed through his hair, rubbed at the back of his neck, paced to one side. "Why can't you just let it be. I'm trying to protect you."

 

She walked back towards him. "Because I know what I'm talking about. Why can't you just give it a try?"

 

He paced some more, feet splashing into the shallows of the lake, then back out. He did this for several minutes until finally throwing up both arms and then letting them drop back to his sides, swinging a few times from momentum. "Let's just keep walking for now," he said at length, jaw working on a heavy thought, brow wrinkled deeply. His tail spun and twisted behind him.

 

She scoffed, the sound like a cough from her ruined throat, and grated out, "Fine." She began walking, not waiting for him.

 

Thal watched her back for a moment, and then let out a heavy sigh, muttering under his breath as he followed.

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As the girl walked ahead, shifting her tail behind her pridefully, a shadow eased out from in between some of the great stones that ringed the pool. It looked Thal over, and its thin lips smirked. "You have wandered great distances and gone nowhere at all, it seems."

 

Thal's only apparent reaction to the voice in the shadows was to turn his ears, and then his head towards it. He paused walking, though, and frowned. "Don't sound so pleased with yourself."

 

"With myself? With you, god of death. You are learning the ways of the wanderer. I am proud." The Elezen could be discerned in the shadows, but only just barely. He spread his arms and bowed to show his appreciation, still smiling. "Tell me: are you hungry?"

 

Blue eyes flicked ahead, towards the girl he walked with. "Hey, kid, wait up." Then towards Megiddo, eyeing him in silence for a moment before twisting his mouth. "Not much green around here."

 

"That's what the mask is for," The dark man said, and lifted a fingertip to the lines on his face.

 

The girl stopped and turned to watch Thal, confused. She couldn't see the man in the shadows. It looked to her like Thal was speaking to the stones.

 

"Do you wish to know how to use it to feed?" The elderly Duskwight spoke with a smile, as though he were beginning a joke.

 

"Eh? I thought it was for protecting? Or... absorbing. Whatever." Still, he freed the mask from the waistband of his pants, glancing down at it.

 

"On the surface it is but a simple woodwailer's mask, yes." The Duskwight nodded. "But inside," he traced his fingertip over his tattoo, "I have carved these lines for you. I will not waste your time with the spiritual technicalities. My guess is you have studied neither Thaumaturgy nor the Fist of Ralgr. Let it be this, however: any living being you kill while that mask is on your face will be sacrificed to your vitality."

 

"Living... oh hey." He flashed a grin at the shadows. "Animals, huh? Kid! How about that hunt..."

 

The girl looked confused, her head tilting and her eyes narrowing.

 

"Animals are good for base sustenance." The Duskwight retreated a step. "But if you ever must needs kill in self-defense, or feel like bringing someone down who has it coming, make sure the mask is on your face when you do. You won't regret it."

 

Thal grimaced at that, rocking back on his heels and running the fingers that didn't hold the mask through his hair. "Yeesh, old man, just put it out there why don't you..." He shook his head, bangs swinging, and then just tossed the mask up, catching it against smoothly. "You always were a bit creepy. Anyway... thanks, I think. Someday I'll repay you for all these favors, heh."

 

The old man chuckled, "Thal judges Oschon for suggesting the taking of lives? I think you'll come around. And, yes." He stepped back towards the shadows. "you will repay me. But don't worry. I'm every bit as humble as I appear."

 

The green-haired girl, losing patience with her confusion, turned and began walking back towards Thal.

 

Lifting a hand towards the shadows, Thal just shook his head, a mildly humoring smirk on his lips. Then he turned away towards the girl and blinked at her approach. "Right, so, I'm thinking we should find something to eat."

 

She frowned at that, and blinked. "How?"

 

"Well..." He flashed her a grin and then set the mask over his face. "Weren't we just talking about all the animals around? Let's see about getting us an orobon. We're by water, after all."

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