A lone swordsman walked down a dusty road, sun beating down on his dark hair, furthering his magnificent tan and raising a slight sheen of sweat to finely toned muscles. His footsteps rang loud in his ears, a single sound amidst the otherwise calm and serene morning, one man on one road, walking toward an unknown destiny.
Thud, thud, thud, thud.
Left, right, left... occasionally his scabbard, the Insane Sword safely nestled inside, would thwack against his left thigh with a satisfying weight.
Thud, thud, thwack, thud.
It was an almost sort of melody, he thought with an easy grin, breathing in the morning.
Thud, thud, thud, thwack.
The lone swordsman paused, squinty eyes rapidly issuing forth a blink. That wasn’t part of the rhythm.. in fact, that almost sounded like..
"KYLE! DAMNIT, Kyle! Where are you going?"
.. almost sounded like...
The not-so-lone swordsman turned around, crossing his arms over his chest sternly, fighting to stop the lupine grin that slid across his lips.
The diminutive priestess of Althena skidded to a stop a few feet from him, long robes swaying and then settling around her tiny frame as she struggled to regain her breath, having run after him down that long stretch of road. Kyle’s eyes involuntarily trailed up and down, some inner part of them lighting up with affection.
Hers were lit up with something different altogether. "Don’t you Hey Jess me, you foul smelling delinquent!" she shot, one hand resting on a slim hip while the other adjusted her hood. "I asked where you were off to! It’s two hours before we were supposed to start looking around and we AGREED last NIGHT that NO ONE was going anywhere alone!"
This time he couldn’t stop the grin, and let it take up residence. Jessica was so upset that her hood was falling back, her pointy ears were turning red amid her whiteblond hair, and her fangs were showing.
Goddess, did he love this woman.
"Sure we did," he answered finally, noting that she was starting to fume. "It’s just that you looked so nice and comfortable while you were oversleeping."
"OVERsleeping?! We still have two hours!!"
"With the amount of time you take to get ready in the morning?" he muttered quietly. Not quietly enough, he noticed, as her ears perked slightly and her blue eyes narrowed.
"I heard that, Kyle." Jessica tugged her hood back into place, mindful of bright sun and her own pale skin. "If you wanted to leave me behind then you should have done so back in Meribia." She paused, and then grinned. "Not that I’d have LET you."
"HA! Like you could have stopped me," Kyle barked, way before he thought about it.
Oooh gods. He knew that look.
Jess clenched her hands into fists, and then relaxed them, a nasty look flitting through her eyes, and then she was all smiles.
"Absolutely, Kyle. I’d almost forgotten that you’re perfectly capable of living on your own and surviving without the help of any sort of female types," she declared, straightening her posture as though a metal rod found its way into her spine. "So capable, in fact, that you managed to completely burn supper three nights in a row, got lost twice, and WHO was the one so seasick he couldn’t even remember his own name?"
"I’m a thief, not a sailor!" he defended.
"Yes, I know," Jess cut in. "Such a shame you never got into an honest profession. Maybe some sense of morals might have worked their way into that thick thief skull."
"I’ve got morals," Kyle grumbled.
"And not even a very GOOD thief!" Jess continued.
Kyle’s eyes widened. He was all for a hearty argument (hell, some days he wondered if their relationship was built on screaming at each other), but calling his thieving skills into doubt was just one tiny step over the line so far as he was concerned. He’d STARTED the Nanza borderguards, and kept it running in good shape with the protection racket for as long as he’d been using a sword. He’d have to speak up, now.
"If I’m such a bad thief, then why are you missing three pairs of undergarments?"
Jessica opened her mouth to retort just as what he said seemed to unfold in her brain. Her eyes widened, stunned, and Kyle could practically see the calculations running around behind them.
The aforementioned filched panties were, of course, in his bag. It was a naughty impulse that he just couldn’t pass up.
"You... you... you..."
Kyle sighed, getting comfortable and shielding his eyes from the sun with a large, callused hand. If she was already at the stuttering stage, this screaming lecture was going to take a while...
Luldorrin was a tiny village, one of the new ones that had sprung up in the few years following the defeat of Ghaleon, to accommodate a sudden baby boom and all of the young lovers responsible for such. It was also, according to rumor, experiencing a sudden rash of disappearances. A few townsfolk had appealed to Jessica’s father, the world-renowned Master Mel (or Hell Mel, as he liked to hear) of the nearby port city Meribia, to investigate. Mel, already up to his pointy ears in Wannabe-Ghaleon-Copycats (all of whom were almost comically inept, but in rather high numbers, and with Vane having the same problems, all of the usual heroes were a bit busy), had sent his feisty daughter and her rogue-ish boyfriend (who admittedly was scared to death of Hell Mel, and what those freakishly muscular arms could do to his handsome young studbody, thus making maidens everywhere weep, and probably making Jessica gloat like crazy) to look into it.
So far they weren’t doing too well.
"What the hell is all this talk gonna do, Jess? The people here don’t know anything or they’d have already CAUGHT the guy!" Kyle reached for the hem of the rapidly walking priestess’s robes, but she somehow, without even looking, twitched her hips in such a manner that the cloth escaped his grasp.
"Just because they haven’t figured anything out," she called over her shoulder, "doesn’t mean they haven’t seen clues. If we talk to enough people who’ve seen different things, then we might gather enough from everyone to piece it together ourselves."
"That’ll take too long," he grumbled under his breath, taking advantage of his longer stride to catch up to her. "If you really think this interrogation thing is our best bet, then we’d be better off splitting up."
"And why is that?" Jessica quipped, glancing at him from the corner of her eyes.
"7 people in 10 days. Seems a little fast for my liking. We’ll cover more ground that way, and taking our time would probably just doom a couple more people to .. to whatever’s going on here." He glanced over, wondering if she was gonna mock him.
"Not bad, Kyle," she admitted, heading for the inn they’d agreed to stay at while in town. "Nice to see you using the muscles in your head for a change."
"I can be clever when I want to," Kyle groused.
"Picking up girls," Jessica agreed.
"Worked with you." He grinned. She shot him a scathing glare but didn’t say anything back.
Inwardly, Kyle cheered. Last year she’d have denied liking him, smacked him upside the head, and stormed off. Now he warranted a glare.
Things were looking up.
Things were going miserably.
At first, Jessica had been completely thrilled that her father had sent her to investigate the occurrences of Luldorrin, especially with his inexplicable overprotectiveness as of late. Hadn’t she proven her independence and self-sufficiency to him yet? What did she have to do, reincarnate Ghaleon and beat the bastard a second time?
All of that aside, she was thrilled. Then, he tacked Kyle onto the roster.
Less than thrilled, and yet at the same time, almost giddy at the notion. Maybe a little roadtrip together would bring the two closer, since they were still at about two fights a week (minimal compared to the old days, but tiresome nonetheless). THEN Kyle tries to sneak off without her, and managed to completely piss her off when she caught up with him, and then they split up (independence, yay, no Kyle, boo!), and FINALLY...
She sighed quietly, resting her elbows on the rough, beerstained table in front of her. And finally she’d ended up mingling with the locals in a small, smelly, tavern that had been tucked away in the seedier portion of a small and relatively unseedy town. Apparently a seedy portion containing a small smelly tavern was a prerequisite for being your own town. At the moment most of the young men in the place were loudly singing about some sort of large breasted neighbor, and she didn’t feel up to risking their halitosis after the kind of day she'd already had. Kyle was probably living it up, being treated like the bandit king he was, or he’d wandered into a lush hotel, or he’d (this being the most likely) wandered into a brothel and had women hanging off of him.
Jessica could actually feel her hackles rise, despite being alone and this only being her imagination, and her lack of hackles. It would be just like that brainless dolt to forget why they were here and get saturated with alcohol and surrounded by women and then he’d forget about her and probably impregnate some backwater hussy and then she’d be left all alone to figure this stupid disappearance out.
"Left all alone?" a soft, masculine sounding voice offered from over her shoulder. Jessica harumphed. That was it exactly, left all alone to figure this stupid disa-..
She blinked, blue gaze flicking to the glass of water suspended near the side of her face, and the slight, slimfingered handing holding it there, up the arm and to the man standing directly behind her.
He was probably about five inches taller than her, but well shorter than Kyle, and so thin she might have considered calling him a waif and looking into his dietary habits. He had tousled, careless black hair, eyes of a curious bland yellow, and a long, thin face, pronounced by prominent cheekbones and a scar running from the side of his right eye down to his chin. Faded, dark and expressionless clothing hung loosely from his gaunt frame.
"I beg your pardon," she asked, the once-over taking no more than a moment.
"I had asked if you’d been left all alone," the man repeated, still holding the water. "It certainly seems that way."
"Yes, well.." Jessica ran a list of replies through her head, shaking her head at the glass of water. "I wouldn’t say left so much as ‘temporarily on my own’, thank you."
"Perspective is a tricky thing." He set the glass down on her table and she watched as his eyes trailed downward. "So what’s a priestess of Althena doing in town?"
"Sitting at a table in a bar," she answered, as though it were obvious.
"What brings you here?" he countered.
"Truth," she admitted. He tilted his head to the side.
Jess nodded. The man seemed to relax a bit, then brighten, and held one of his thin hands out to her.
"As am I. My name is Len. Len Destine."
"Jessica de Alkirk," she offered, taking his hand in hers and giving it a brief shake. Before she had the chance to pull it away, he lifted her hand to his lips and pressed a cool, soft kiss there, and then let it go.
She rested it on her lap, making a mental note to wash it later, and immediately after wondered why she was being so mean. She gave him a bright smile to make up for it somehow.
"My partner and I just arrived yesterday. How long have you been at this?"
"Oh, for quite some time," Len murmured. Jessica raised a light eyebrow.
"Really? I thought it had only been going on for a week and a half."
"Yes, of course." He glanced at a seat adjoined to her table, and she quickly nodded her permission. A slight creak resounded as he pulled the chair out and sat on it, leaning forward slightly. "My sister’s roommate was the first to disappear, and she called me to see if I could help, since I am a bit of a ..." He smiled, a thin, sickly thing that seemed to suffer for lack of sunlight. At the bar, the noise level rose a few notches as two inebriated fellows started to argue over the correct lyrics to verse 27 of The Next-door Vixen.
"Bit of a ..?" Jessica prompted, ignoring the raucous.
"Magician," Len admitted. "I studied in Vane, before.. well, you know."
Boy, did she ever. Jess just nodded, not really up to mentioning that she was on the magical city when it was blasted from the sky. "And you’ve been investigating ever since?"
"I only intended to poke around," he sighed, "but after two days of not really trying, my sister disappeared as well. Since then, I’ve been serious about this."
"I can imagine," the priestess murmured. "How many have gone missing up to date?"
"Eight, all relatively unconnected, leaving behind nothing but a messy home and a bunch of questions. To be honest," Len added, cocking his head to the side, "I’m glad there are higher ranked people looking into this. I’m stumped."
"I don’t have much rank," Jess interjected, "but maybe three heads can uncover more than just one."
"Where is your.. partner? Not too far off, I hope." His eyes gleamed oddly as the tavern door swung open and the torch on the outside wall cast a new luminary source, and Jessica tried hard not to think of their unique color as ‘urine’.
"He better not be," she grumbled, looking up as the small argument at the bar caused a bottle to launch itself across the room.
"Oh, wonderful," Len noted dryly. "A bar fight. This always accomplishes a lot."
"Lots of drunkards in one room ends up this way a lot." Jessica winced in sympathy as someone got their head knocked onto the bartop.
"Liqueur," Len sneered. "Horrible stuff. Look what it does to otherwise fine people."
That was such the Anti-Kyle statement that Jessica almost wanted to write it down to rub in his face later. Look, Kyle! A man who doesn’t NEED to drink to have a good time!
Then she doubted if this thin and pale fellow had ever really had a good time in his life.
Jess ducked just in time to avoid a bottle, but it crashed into the wall next to her and a bit of shrapnel skimmed across the top of her hand. "Maniacs," she muttered, pulling her hood over her head and face and getting to her feet. "Let’s go outside."
"Agreed." Len rested his hand on her shoulder and the two wove through the surging bodies toward the door.
Cooler night air washed over Jessica as they stepped outside, and she took a grateful breath in, not realizing how stuffy it was in there until now.
"You’re bleeding," her acquaintance breathed, eyes locked on the small line of beaded scarlet on her hand.
"Oh, it’s nothing." She pulled a light green silken scarf out of a pocket and tied it loosely around the cut. "I’ll heal it up later."
"Shame to ruin a scarf."
She just shrugged. It was old, and hardly her favorite. That honor befell a colorful bolt of silk, as slippish and lively as a waterfall, that Luna had given her for the last Midsummer festival. The older green fabric was more of a glorified handkerchief anyway.
"Well," she began, deciding that she ought to go find Kyle soon and drag him out of whatever den of depravity he’d fallen into as of late, "I’d better get going."
"Indeed," Len intoned with a slightly bow. "Your friend is waiting somewhere. We shall probably run into each other, all three perhaps, at a later time."
"Yeah, probably." Jess nodded to him a last time, and started off toward the hotel.
"Yeah.." Len echoed, rooted at the entrance of the bar, colorless eyes following her shape as she walked off into the dark, his fingers caressing the hand which had held hers.