Zauna tiredly rolled her shoulders as they continued to wait for the Ghosthound to return from the armory. As her joint lightly popped as she worked through the kink, she considered the people that were gathered around them. She could tell from Salazar’s stance that the snake-man was nervous, but Zauna could do little for him.
At the very least, most of the mocking commentary from the guards of the armory was only directed toward Zagnal. For his part, Zagnal had done well enough enduring the constant mocking, but it was clear that the more that he was mocked for being a subordinate to an image, the more Zagnal forgot what mission he had been clearly given by Queen Iellaya and grew to resent the trio for putting him in a situation like this.
Something to watch out for,
Zauna’s eyes glowed quietly.
After all, in his eyes, it was the Ghosthound’s fault that he was being sent on a mission that he would likely not return from. It was one thing to wait for Queen Iellaya to save your people while alive. It was quite another to die in her service and hope she kept her word after you were gone.
Zauna surprised herself with a long sigh as she confronted the likely truth that she would die soon. Despite the fact that she had been long waiting for the chance to die and be liberated from this binding, now that there was a concrete chance that would happen… her heart seemed to have lost its way.
Zauna shook her head ruefully.
Even I am infected by the Ghosthound’s madness. Even if Yggdrasil can heal us if we make it back to camp, it is no help to us out in the Great Rift. Even if the Ghosthound is powerful… on this mission, we can not escape our fate. This mission is strategically necessary, but all know the result for those sent on it. We will die without a doubt.
Again, Zauna sighed at the heavy word ‘die’. But this time she didn’t question her instinctual reaction. A bone-deep weariness that stemmed from her own emotional confusion and the weight of the geas she bore was enough of an excuse for the sigh. She simply accepted that as the truth and allowed time to pass.
The small distraction of the guards teasing Zagnal was eventually cut off by the return of the two figures around the fire that Randidly went to talk to before proceeding into the armory. They had been gone and then suddenly they were at the fire, playing with smoke. Within a minute, the guards scattered like pidgeons fluttering out of the way of a car to head toward more hidden parts of the camp.
Zagnal sagged like a deflated balloon after they left, displaying clearly the weakness that had been picked bloody by these scavengers. Rather than standing, he sat on the ground and looked at the dirt. Licking his lips, Salazar stepped forward, probably to try and comfort the man, but Zauna surprised herself by moving to touch Salazar’s shoulder.
She shook her head strongly; nothing good would come from trying to talk to Zagnal right now. He was a rusted blade that would be turned on anyone who approached him. Trouble enough that they would need to stay with him for their extremely long duration in the Great Rift. No need to antagonize him now.
Zauna knew only generally that the Aether Key they would be given would last quite some time, but she didn’t know the specific amount. But either way, keeping relations civil know would stave off the inevitable. After all, Randidly Ghosthound was not a gentle leader. Zauna had no doubt tensions would be high during the mission.
Despite Salazar’s rather vapid expression, Zauna knew that the snake-man was quite perceptive. Seeing her reaching for him, Salazar sighed and nodded nervously, then moved back toward the largest of the tents. Zauna watched him go with mild eyes.
If he hadn’t been so perceptive, he wouldn’t so perfectly needle the Ghosthound whenever the Ghosthound’s mood became particularly dark. Perhaps even more important to Zauna, his actions were also a demonstration that Salazar had an empathetic and kind heart.
The kind that usually gets you killed in the army,
Zauna thought moodily as she returned to her silent vigil outside the armory.
The sky above them began to darken. The shadows flowing down from the high walls of the valley swiftly engulfed them. Zauna clicked her teeth together. They hadn’t specifically been given a time limit for the trip to the armory, but it had almost been three hours… and it was pretty clear that Lord Miln expected them to begin the mission today.
Would he come to fetch them after a while? Only time would tell.
Zauna couldn’t help herself, she chuckled, earning herself a sharp look from the morose Zagnal. But it truly was funny. Although they were being sent to their deaths, obviously Lord Miln didn’t want to directly kill them himself. Otherwise, he wouldn’t bother with the fiction of the mission. So he could reprimand them for delaying and give them a punishment, but that punishment wouldn’t actually occur until they returned from there mission.
Honestly then, there was no reason to rush. Perhaps the Ghosthound was leisurely proceeding below with his training. He was just reckless and masochistic enough to think of something like that even with a death sentence looming above his head. Therefore, Zauna settled in to wait.
At about the six-hour mark since the Ghosthound had gone into the armory, Zagnal finally could stand it no longer.
“Hey! You two.” Zagnal said as he walked toward the two figures tending the fire. “Has he… when is Randidly Ghosthound going to be finished with his selection.”
A cold wind whispered through the camp. The subtle background noises of the other guards attending their business suddenly became obvious as they suddenly ceased completely. Within that moment, Zauna saw all the guards turn and look at Zagnal with a pleading look in their eyes. But she also saw in their expression the truth that it was already too late. The damage had been done. They dreaded would result from this thoughtless shout across the camp after the visitors departed.
Inwardly, Zauna checked her reaction. Had her geass recognized Zagnal as an ally of the Ghosthound that she was required to protect?
came the rather malicious answer. Nothing compelled her to move and draw the attention of these powerful individuals. Zagnal’s punishment would be his own. So for several seconds she simply watched Zagnal’s arrogant way of walking toward the fire. He opened his mouth again. “Can you not hear me? I asked you-”
Sighing, Zauna stepped forward to follow after Zagnal. First sighs and now unnecessary actions… today was a strange day for her. But she didn’t regret moving, because, for the first time in quite some time, she was completely in control. This was her decision to make. Even if she required a direct word from the Ghosthound to speak, she could at least choose to protect this fool with her own will.
Finally, one of the two by the fire looked up and tilted her head toward Zagnal. The air shifted.
“Keh-” Zagnal flew backward like an invisible giant had kicked him in the chest. Luckily Zauna was there to catch his broken form and prevent him from crashing and knocking over one of the guard’s tents.
Zauna checked the fool’s breathing; still alive, although reduced to unconsciousness by a single blow. That caused Zauna to look carefully up at the two figures by the fire. She didn’t really want to consider what would have happened had either Salazar or herself been the one to endure that sudden blow to the chest. The fabric of their image would have collapsed immediately.
But as Zauna looked at the figures by the fire, she could only blink as she found that the old woman was now standing directly in front of her.
“My, my, my,” The woman tutted. She reached out and poked Zauna hard in the chest. “That boy might make a good show of having patience… but he can’t understand the deep patience someone like you possesses. Aren’t you quite similar to my taste?”
Even if Zauna wasn’t quite confused by the sudden movements and touch of the old woman, she still wasn’t able to respond to her due to the geas that prevented her from speaking on matters unrelated to following orders or answering the Ghosthound’s questions. She could only stare firmly at the old woman and hope she didn’t misinterpret the look.
The old woman chuckled. “Don’t be like that, I can see the weight you bear with you. It would even be simple to… well, perhaps saying so is a cruel truth. Instead…”
The woman reached out and pressed her palm against Zauna’s chest with her fingers splayed outward. There was a surge of burning heat as the woman forced something out between her fingers and into the substance of Zauna’s image. But as soon as it arrived, it seemed to disappear amongst Zauna’s accumulated images. As soon as it disappeared, Zauna found herself so abruptly chilled that she gaped in surprise.
“A gift for the future.” The old woman’s smile was enigmatic. Then she turned back toward the pit and the liquified Aether within it. “As for that boy… he should be coming out shortly. He… well, he is a certain sort of monster, isn’t he?”
Zauna set Zagnal down and moved to the edge of the pit to look down toward the Aether below. Salazar moved to join her and they exchanged a glance before looking back toward the armory. Perhaps on some level, they had begun to worry that he would not even make it out of the armory. Especially after listening to the guards ruthlessly mock Zagnal. They had made a very compelling case as to why such an action was not possible.
But the man who walked down into the armory was not the average. Even this monstrous old woman who could destroy Zagnal with a look thought that the Ghosthound was a monster.
The first thing they saw was the discoloration. The pure azure of the liquified Aether in one small area was slowly corrupted by crimson. It started as a pinprick before expanding to the size of a fist and then a basketball. Bubbles wandered upward in ones and twos, and then by the dozen until the Aether was frothing.
The crimson color deepened, dominating the azure as it expanded. Then the Ghosthound’s head broke through the surface and his glowing emerald eyes could be seen. He was gritting his teeth, and suddenly Zauna could see the slow, staggering steps that the Ghosthound was taking to move forward. Even if he had escaped, it clearly had not been easy.
But before Zauna could see much more, a wave of flame wafted out away from his body. It seemed that it had been restrained by the Aether, but now that he had broken the surface it the flames were released. The stretched upward like grasping hands, greedily filling the sky above him. The fires around him pushed the liquid Aether backward, becoming a pillar almost five meters high.
Zauna could hear the Ghousthound curse quietly to himself and watched as the flames slowly shrank back down to simply fingers of fire against the Ghosthound’s skin. He took another staggering step forward, then another, revealing his entire torso. His skin was scratched and burned to an extremely painful degree. He honestly looked more than a little disheveled as he moved forward.
Again Randidly heaved, moving forward another step. This time as he ascended out of the Aether, he revealed an object he was carrying in his hands. A rather sizable wooden trunk kept tightly closed by a shimmering ivory lock.
After another step, the Ghosthound was only submerged up to his knees. Another step. Another step. And then he was free, slowly walking up the slope toward the lip of the armory.
“H-how w-w-was it?” Salazar cleared his throat and asked.
Randidly’s only response was to glare at the old woman standing behind Zauna, who began to laugh loudly in response. It seemed that his anger was so palpable that when be hissed out his breath, two dark streams of smoke curled outward.
“Delightful,” Randidly spat out spitefully.