Vay: Vicious Circle
Chapter 3- Love in the Air
 

"Okay! Ready! Lift the sword up! Ready? One…two…three….No! Not like that! Look out! Your balance will be off! You’ll-"

"AIEEEE!"

"Do that."

"Ooowww! Rachel! You told me I wouldn’t fall on  my butt anymore! You told me!"

Rachel laughed and helped the girl up. "Listen, Anje, you don’t learn this stuff overnight! It takes years and years of practice," she sighed. "and, for you, I see years and years of practice ahead."

"Aw, Rache. Why can’t I just learn it NOW?" Anje whined, brushing the dirt off her sore bottom. "Why can’t I be as good a mercenary as you?"

Rachel shrugged. "Like I said Sis, It’s practice practice practice!"

Anje suck out her tongue. "I HATE practice!" she moaned. "But, I want to be as good as you."

 Ok then, pick up your sword. That’s it.."

Anje hefted the massive sword over her head, already tipping over to one side, dangerously close to falling on her bottom again.

"Now swing it in an arc ONCE."

Anje nodded and prepared to swing it in an arc. But she was already dipping her back too far. She yelped as she began to lose her footing, flailing her arms, and her sword, wildly through the air. She gave a desperate look to Rachel, but she knew it was already too late.

"AIEEE!" Crash! Anje’s bottom once again met solid ground. Rachel, once again, went to her younger sister, ready to pull her up. "Well, look on the bright side, you did swing it in some sort of arc." She said dryly.

"Ha ha. Funny. Can we call it a day now? If I fall on my butt one more time…"

"I suppose you’ve had enough beatings today. Hmm…maybe it’s the weapon that’s causing you so much problems. Perhaps we should try a quarterstaff, or a bow and arrow…"

Anje scowled. "Hell no! It’s either swords or nothin’!" she brightened. "But I’ll change my weapon only if you’ll let me try out claws again! Claws rule!"

Rachel gulped  and she struggled to find some appropriate words. "Um...I don’t think that’s a good idea, especially after the last time you used them. The cat’s never been the same after that, you know."

"Oh all right…." She grumbled and sulked back to her house.

Rachel let out a sigh of fatigue and sat down wearily on a tree stump. What did she get herself into? Oh sure, it seemed like the nice, sisterly thing to do, but now she was regretting it with a passion. She thought, at the time, that is was wonderful that her little sister wanted to be just like her, and Rachel thought it would be wise to train her herself. But she never expected Anje to be so…so…kultzy.  Her problems with a sword were only the beginning. She couldn’t use any weapon without falling down. She couldn’t swing any weapon without destroying property or poking someone’s eye out. Rachel prayed that her sister’s adoration for her was a phase…a nice SHORT phase.

Rachel vision suddenly diminished when two large hands were placed over her eyes. "Guess who?"

Rachel giggled. "Grandfather?"

"Nope, try again."
 
She pretended to think hard. "The Elder!"

 "Noo!"

"Oh, could it be.." she smiled, and threw the hands off. "Yan?"

"Took you long enough, luv." He held her in a passionate embrace. "Thought you were losin’ your mind there.’

She gasped. "Me? Lose MY mind? Hardly. What’s up?"

Yan shrugged. "Oh, nothing. Just came to see how my tough fiancee was doing. You look worn. Let me guess, another fine day with training our little prodigy?"

Rachel snorted. "Badly. I love my sister with all my heart, but she can’t fight worth crap…"

"Well, it’s nice that your passing along that ol’ mercenary spirit to someone else, since you’ve given it up.."

It was true that Rachel gave up her adventurous life as a mercenary. After leaving Sandor and staying behind in Treefall, Rachel began to evaluate her life very critically. Sure, she always loved the thrill of battle, but she loved her homeland just as much, and it needed her. When Yan proposed to her one month after the Danek fell, she knew that it was time to settle down and become a nice, normal girl. Well, normal as she could be. All her life, Rachel was the tomboy, the reckless one, and even though she had put away her leather mercenary garb and wore plan, peasant clothes, she still had the fire that made her world renowned. She prayed she’d never lose it.

Rachel smiled. "I suppose so, Yan. Of course, we’ll still go on a few adventures ourselves, right?"

He held her closer. "Of course, sugar. That’s the only way I want it."

"I’m glad." She put her arms around his neck. "That there’s a boy crazy enough to keep up with me."

"Keeping up with you, Miss Rachel Landale, is one of the reasons I can’t stop loving you."

And the kissed each other for a long time.
 

****
 

"N…N-No…No…You…You can’t…."

What the hell? Probably nothin’…better go back to sleep…
 
"Please….stop this…stop…."

Who the hell is thrashing down there? Oh no...don’t tell me…Damn! Does he have to do this every night? I can’t get a decent night’s sleep around here!

"It’s burning….burning…the forest…it’s crying…Stop! Stop!"

That’s bloody it…

The bed creaked loudly as the youth sleepily sat up and rubbed the sleep out of his eyes. He opened them and peered down at the source of the noise.

"Just as I thought!" he whispered angrily, "It’s HIM again! I can’t take another night of this! What time is it?" He fumbled around and found a clock. He peered at it, waiting for his eyes to focus. "Mother of…it’s 3 AM! To hell if I’m gonna let him babble all night!"

"M-Mother…make it stop!" the voice dissolved into terrified moans.
 
The youth in the top bunk growled and grabbed the nearest thing to throw, which turned out to be a soft pillow. He sighed. He didn’t really want to wake him up this way, but he had no choice. There was no way in heaven or hell that Mort was gonna let Derek ruin another night of sleep. With a grunt, he flung the pillow with all his might.
 
The pillow struck the restless Derek right in the face, and he yelped, half falling out of the bed, the sheets twisted around him like mummy’s bandages. He shook his head and rubbed his eyes, blinking in sleepy confusion. "What? W-Where’s the fire…?"

"No fire. I’m just sick of you talking in your sleep every night! Can’t you dream about something a little QUIETER?"

Derek’s confused look turned into a frown. "Why did you do that? I thought something was wrong! You scared the hell out of me!"

"Sorry man," Mort apologized, "I’m just hella tired, you know. Finals coming up…"

Derek nodded. "Um…Mort, what did I say?"
 
"Huh?"

"I mean, when I was sleeping, what did I say?"

Mort stared. "You don’t remember? Well, something about a forest burning and a mother. Does that help?"

Derek was silent.

"Guess it does!" Mort smiled. "Night!" He snuggled under the covers.

Derek laid down as well, but he didn’t go to sleep right away. Mother? Forests? It all seems so…foreign. Why can’t I remember? Whatever it is...it seems important…

Then he slowly drifted off to sleep.

****

"Nice morning, ain’t it Derek? Got lots of work for you today…"

Derek nodded. "It is a nice day. What sort of work?"

The man smiled evilly and plopped a bundle of clothes in Derek’s arms. "Washing! Lots of it! Take all that to the pond and  clean ‘em. After that, you have a little time off, then you gotta mop the main hall."

Derek tried not to groan. Didn’t he mop the floors two days ago? Oh well, this was his job and he wasn’t going to whine about it. He waved good-bye to the man and headed outside, and was instantly greeted by the sun shining right in his eyes, blinding him. He squinted and grumbled.

Boy, I’m sure in a rotten mood. Must be because Mort woke me up last night…

But it was more than just that. The dream he had last night were haunting him. It wasn’t just the fact that he had the dream, but he had dreams similar to this one ever since he arrived at the shrine, and he couldn’t recall any of them. The fact that his own identity could be locked within those dreams was driving him crazy. It has been a year since his injury, and he was no closer to recovering his memory than when he started.

In reality, however, he was a very lucky boy. Although it took a good few months, he eventually recovered fully from his injuries, something that surprised even the high priestess, Imogene. Imogene claimed he must have had the blessings of the goddess Anemone, but Derek wasn’t so sure about that. If he was so lucky, then why was he injured in the first place? He had lots of time to ponder the basic meanings of life while he recovered. And his recovery was a very painful one. His wounds would constantly flare up in pain without warning. Frequent dizzy spells would strike him as he ambled down the shrine’s halls.

However, once he recovered, he knew it would be nearly impossible for him to survive on his own. He was young, amnesiac elf, and those traits were frowned upon in this world. He had no one to rely on. No friends or family to speak of. Derek often wondered just WHAT he would put on his resume. Phoebe tried all she could to find work for him in Cannisk, but it was hopeless. No one wanted to take an elf in. Then Imogene came up with the solution. He could stay at the shrine, if he worked for his meals and lodging as an assistant. Phoebe was more than thrilled at this arrangement, and even Shayla and Mort were happy as well. Derek wasn’t dissatisfied with his life, it was more the fact that he wanted to know more. Maybe, he thought, there’s something else missing…

Idly, he put a finger into pond’s surface, right where his reflection danced upon it’s glassy surface.  His reflection seemed to break apart as large ripples raced toward the center of the pool. He stared at that face for a long time. His memory may not have changed, but his appearance did somewhat, due to a lovely process known as puberty. He shot up several inches over the past year, no longer looking quite as "runtish". His voice was slightly lower than it used to be, and his face, although still boyish looking, no longer looked so childish. But it didn’t matter much. He still looked like a boy who could easily be pushed over.

His reflection was once again broken, but this time it was because a large rock splashed into the pool. A spray of water hit his face and threw him so off balance that he nearly landed in the pond himself. When he got his senses back, he could see a boy looming over him. "Earth to Derek? Hello? I need these shirts washed…NOW!"

Not even saying a word, Derek reached behind him and took the boy’s dirty shirts, plopping them into the pond. "Hello Flint," he said with a scowl, "Didn’t I just wash these shirts for you three days ago? I don’t want to be wasting soap and water on your things. We have to think about everyone else here."

The boy laughed and vainly brushed his curly blonde hair back. "No, you’re thinking of Arianna’s load of wash. Not mine! Tell me Derek, is your amnesia progressive? Does it get worse everyday? Surely it must, or you wouldn’t have forgotten."

"No. It’s not," He growled, "Anyway, how is your dear sister doing anyway? You know, I heard she was picking on Phoebe. Again. Can’t you tell her to lay off? What did she ever do to her, anyway?"

Flint smile melted into a frown. "Hey! I didn’t ask YOU for your biased opinions on Arianna OK? Just wash my clothes, servant! I’m going on a very important date tonight."

Derek began to laugh. "You’re joking, right? Who’d want to date your ugly hide!? If I was a girl, I’d run in fear! Or I’d be hopelessly drunk. One or the other."

Flint ignored his comment and smiled slyly "Well, I didn’t really ask her out yet, but well, all women can’t resist me. This girl is no exception."

"Humph, whatever." Derek knew for a fact that whoever Flint had his eye on, that girl would never go near him. He was not only a complete jerk, but a chauvinist. His idea of a good time was "knockin’ boots" with a girl. The scary rumor going around however told tales of how Flint wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer. Derek suddenly found himself feeling sorry for this girl. If she rejected him, how would he take it?  "Well, who is this "girl" anyway?"

"Oh, you know her, that’s why I came. Tell me, what would Phoebe like as a, Oh, I don’t know…buttering up gift?"

Derek accidentally dropped his soap in the water. As he watched the soap sink beneath the pond’s murky depths, a red haze seeped into his mind. "Phoebe..?"
 

"Yeah, I know she’s a little young, but she’s such a looker! Such soft skin, such pretty cheeks…oh! Gotta admit! She’s one to score with, eh?"

Derek’s could easily imagine the situation. Phoebe was the kindest, sweetest girl he knew. He could just imagine he screaming at Flint to stop, and he just kept on advancing, until he was on top of her…and…. Derek’s haze of shock slowly absorbed into a seething anger…He rose up slowly. "I don’t think you should go near her…if you know what’s good for you…"

Flint did a double take. "What?"

"She’s too good for you."

"Hey!" Flint yelled. "You have no right to make comments on my life, servant! You work here, you serve under ME! Got that? Don’t get all smart mouthed on me, thinking you actually have STATUS here! Ha! The only person lower than you is that homeless guy who hangs out on the front steps! So don’t you go preaching about what I can and can’t do!"

Derek turned around, giving Flint a steady, hateful gaze. "Tell me, does assholyness run in your family? Get a clue! There is no status structure here! I like living here! I don’t mind it that much! Sure, there’s days where I’m not in the mood to wash floors, but I’d rather do this than be homeless! And, even if I have no status here, I have my pride! I will personally see to it that you never lay your dirty hands on her, got it?"

Flint laughed, taking a step forward, so that he was right in his face. "Humph. I get it now. You just want to score with her yourself? Is that it? Girls are just there for my amusement, got it? I’m better than any girl out there, they all want me, and your little Phoebe is the same. Just because you can’t have her yourself-"

That did it. Derek’s rage had reached the breaking point, and he let his fist do the taking for him as he pelted him in the jaw, hard enough to cause Flint’s nose to bleed heavily. He stared at Derek in shock for several long seconds, then pounced on him, fists flying. The two fell to the ground, kicking and punching each other, rolling around like wild animals in the wilderness. Each grunted obscenities at each other as the blood began to flow…

Suddenly, a strong hand lifted both of them off the ground and attempted to separate them. Derek didn’t even know who it was, he was completely lost in his rage.

"Break it up!" a feminine voice commanded, "Do you two want to be kicked out? Flint! What in god’s name are you doing beating up on my best friend?"

"Oh, sure Shayla! Fine! Take his side, why don’t you! He attacked me! Just out of the blue! Stupid little…"

"No, that’s not how it happened! He was going to butter Phoebe up so he could ask her out and…what was it…"score" ?" he sneered.

Shayla threw Flint to the ground, and growled. "Listen bucko. Derek had every right to kick your sorry ass. You’ve needed a little lesson like this for a long time. Please, do yourself a favor, keep away from Phoebe, or you’ll have BOTH of us to contend with!"

"You weren’t even there, you-"

"Good BYE Flint!"

Flint got up slowly, and began to walk away, but under his breath he muttered "You’ll pay…."

****

"You look like crap, you know." Shayla giggled.

"Thanks," Derek laughed, "but I’ve been through worse. Ow!" He flinched and rubbed his arm.

"It’s just antibiotics! Sheesh! I know you were trying to defend Phoebe and all, but what HAPPENED? It’s not like you to go beating up on someone like that." Shayla started wrapping gauze around his injured arm. "Here. This should heal in a day or two."

Derek shrugged. "I dunno. Something snapped. Just couldn’t stand the thought of him with her."

"Ah…AHHH!" Shayla cried, leaning back into a tree, with a goofy grin on her face.

"What? What?" Derek asked, bewildered.

"Derek, we’re best friends, right? We’ve told each other all our somewhat dirty secrets, right?"

It was true, they were best friends. They bonded quite easily. They were both elvin, both freaks of society, and they could both understand how the other felt. "Yeah.." he began, "So?"

"Well, then," She tossed back her long black braid and grinned again, " I think…you’ve fallen in love with Phoebe. Am I right?"

"WHAT?!"

"Don’t get defensive! I can just tell! The way you two look at each other, the fact that you both can’t shut up about each other…’Derek this, Phoebe that!’" she laughed, "I don’t just think you love her, I think you’re crazy about her! This little stunt today proves my point even more! C’mon! I think that’s she’s the reason you’ve felt so empty lately! You need her to fill the void!"

Derek chuckled nervously "C’mon Shayla. I have no feelings for her. We’re just friends. You’re just a best friend trying to hitch her with a random guy."

"Denial is the first sign of someone who is in love, but is scared shitless to do anything about it! You’re so in denial, you can’t even look me in the eyes…just admit it. Trust me, you’ll feel a hundred times better if you do."

Derek grinned slightly. "You know who you sound like? With all this love talk?"

"Hmm? Who?"

"That know-it-all science teacher, what’s her name? Oh yeah, Mrs. Hoover! Yep! During that whole lesson on sex education! You know you do!"

"Argh! I do NOT sound like that old bat, and you know it!" Shayla smirked.

"Why yes you do, and you say I’M in denial?" He puffed out his chest, and made his voice high and squeeky, trying to imitate her. "Yeeesss…now you seeeee, when a boy reaches a certain age….-"

Shayla began to rock back and forth with laughter. "Argh! Stop! You’re evading the issue!"

 Derek droned on, getting right in her face, trying not to laugh himself. "He starts to go through the change! Yeeeess! He starts to grow hair in all the -naughty- places! And his voice gets deep! It’s like he’s possessed, I’m tellin’ you all! And he thinks lewd thoughts about women! Yesssss! Sex sex sex!! And then, when he falls for a woman and maaaaaries her-"

"Nono! Stop!" Shayla was laughing so hard now that tears were coming out of her eyes. He sounded exactly like her.

"They go on the hooooooooneeeeeymooon! Yeees! And they have se-"

"Now stop," Shayla said, becoming much more somber, "you’re stalling."

Derek stopped then and looked at the ground, like a little kid who got caught with his hand in the cookie jar. "Heh. Had to try, huh?"

"C’mon! Just admit it! You know, admitting it one of the hardest parts. Get past that, and you’re halfway there…"

Derek looked at his hands, and nodded. "Yeah, ok…OK….I admit it…I’m crazy about her. I was ever since I came here. It’s not her looks so much that I love, unlike Flint. It’s  just her. It’s her sweetness, her kindness. The way she’s always helping others.  Her innocence. Her-"

"Hee hee! Look Derek!" Shayla interrupted. "You’re smiling! Look!" Sure enough, a large smile was present on Derek’s face. He couldn’t quite believe it at first himself. Sure, he had good days, but he never, EVER felt like this. Yes, love was indeed, a grand thing.

"You’re right Shayla. I feel great…never felt this good…" He smiled wider.

"You’ll feel even better once you tell her how you feel in person!"

Derek’s smile suddenly disappeared and he grabbed desperately at her arm. "NO! You can’t TELL her!"

"What? Why the hell not? Oh! Oh! I get it! You’re afraid she’s gonna reject you? C’mon! You don’t want to be one of those pathetic lovers who looks at his love from afar, do you? Those kinds of lovers suck!"

"Shayla," he begged, "just don’t. Flint may not be good enough for her, but neither an I. Look at me, I’m just a simple janitor…While she’s…" he sighed. "A goddess compared to me."

Shayla shook her head. " Oh please. You’re more than just a janitor. Don’t listen to Flint."

"Well, it’s true. You had to pry to enroll me in classes. And I’m not even allowed to attend them all. Flint and all his friends treat me like garbage, and Phoebe sees it all the time. Oh sure, she helped me out in the beginning, and maybe she liked me then, but all I must be to her is one big burden." He went back to nervously staring at his hands.

It was true they had to pry to let him do anything worthwhile. When Derek was well enough to help out around the shrine, she found out he was extremely intelligent. A young genius, a prodigy, or at least, he knew more than Shayla and Phoebe combined. It came at such a random time that Shayla might have missed it. Shayla always excelled at Physical Education, and English, she could write one hell of an essay, but when it came to history, she was an all mighty idiot. So when a history mid-term was slowly creeping  up on her, she began to panic like there was no tomorrow. She tried to recall the day she found out about Derek’s hidden intelligence.

She was propped up against her bed, reading a fat history book for the fourth time. The words and phrases seemed to jumble up together in one big blob inside her brain, and her bottom was sore from sitting in one position for so long. She didn’t even notice Derek when he came into the room with a broom, ready to sweep the floor, until he waved his hand in front of her face, saying "Earth to Shayla? Anyone home?"

Shayla groaned and mumbled, "History sucks. Sucks sucks sucks. I’m never gonna use it. Never never never."

Derek looked thoughtful, and shrugged. "Ask me, I might know."

"Okay, Mister-Know-It-All. What year did the explorer Jean Begat discover Bonnaren?"

Derek went back to sweeping by then, but he mumbled an answer and smiled.

"What was that?" Shayla asked, her brow furrowing.

"Oh, sorry, it was 13 AD. I think it was right after the Armor of Vay was stopped. Yeah, I remember. After all that destruction, the Kingdoms wanted to expand, you know, rebuild, so they had a major imperialism fad and sent all of these explorers out to find land for them to cultivate. The Danek Empire had a much stronger naval fleet, so they were the first ones to send out explorers, but Marwick also had a strong cultural background, so they had more intellectuals. Anyway, it was a close race, but Marwick ended up finding the isle first. Five hundred years later, Marwick let them live as a free state…"

Shayla just started at him and flipped through her book. Her mouth dropped open when she read up on the information. Every single thing he said was correct. Not only that, it was in a part of the chapter that was considered much more difficult to remember. All she asked was for was the date it was discovered, not WHY it was discovered.  She was quite impressed.

"Derek, how did you know all that?"

"I dunno. I just did. Just thought about it and it popped up in my mind."

Shayla pulled him by his shirt, and grinned. "You’re helping me pass this test."

"But my work…!"

"Screw it! If you help me pass I’ll do it FOR you."

The two best friends stayed up late into the night. It was uncanny all of the knowledge Derek had stored in his brain. There was almost nothing he didn’t know, and what he didn’t know, he could use other facts to figure out the answer. It was incredible. Sure enough, Shayla passed the test, with a B+, and found herself sweeping the floors that very day.

Once Shayla told Phoebe and Mort about Derek’s mass intelligence, Phoebe was determined to enroll him in classes at the shrine. "If he has so much talent, it shouldn’t go to waste, right?"

"But there’s no way they’d let him in. I mean, Phoebe and Shayla LIVE here, so they don’t HAVE to pay for classes, but the rest of us do." Mort sighed. "Or we’re not, and I totally don’t mean to sound snooty, but we’re not lower class, like Derek is. They’ll never let in a janitor who can’t even remember his own name."

"Mort!" Phoebe gasped, "That’s a terrible thing to say, and you know it!"

"Well, I hate to say it, but with people like Flint and Arianna around, he’s right," Shayla admitted with frown. Then she brightened. "I say we sneak him in."

Phoebe blinked. "And how do we do this?"

"Simple! His whole JOB is to clean. We’ll just CONVENIENTLY have him sweep, mop, and dust during certain classes. Like, maybe once in the morning, and once in the afternoon. That way, he’ll be able to listen in, and best of all, not study or do homework. It could work!"

And it did, for a while. Derek would quietly slip into the classroom, and listen in while he worked. The teachers didn’t even pay him any mind, it was normal to have young workers cleaning during class, and as long as you didn’t make any noise, they couldn’t care less. However, Arianna noticed how he always came in at the exact same time, and smelled trouble. She ratted on Derek and he was banned from the classes. This crushed him far more than Shayla could ever imagine. "It’s not fair," he moaned, "This may sound stupid, but I really liked learning. And now they won’t let me do it anymore…"

It took all three of them to plead their case, to show that Derek wasn’t just some simple-minded boy, but a intelligent youth who could easily become a scholar if he worked at it. Maybe it was luck, or maybe Imogene liked Derek more than Shayla thought, but Imogene caved in and let him attend a few classes "You can’t be in all of them. Remember, you have a job to do. " With that, Imogene left them alone, and Shayla’s grades improved quite a bit with him around. Shayla especially enjoyed the day when Derek didn’t have to sneak into class, he belonged there, and Arianna’s shocked expression to see him sitting in front of her. She also remembered how lovely revenge can be when Derek smiled, a bit too sweetly, stuck his middle finger right in her face and whispered "Bite me." He turned around with that smile plastered on his face.

"Wow," Mort laughed, "Where’d ya learn to do that flip-off?"

"Sorry…don’t remember. But it’s good, isn’t it?" he beamed.

"Earth to Shayla? Hello?"

Shayla snapped back to reality, and sighed. "Anyway, Derek, let me tell you something."

He continued to stare at his hands. "Yeah?"

"You think pretty lowly of yourself. I know it’s not true. You gotta believe that, Derek. She’s good enough, and so are you. You’re smarter than that air-head Flint,  and you’ve got the kindest heart out of anyone I know. You care so much about her…money doesn’t matter, status doesn’t matter. It’s what’s here," she patted her heart, "that matters. Just have courage, and a little faith, huh? If I figure something out…will you consider going along with it?"

Derek nodded. "Maybe, what do you have in mind?"

"You’ll see!"

****

So many thoughts, and so many questions. Was she doing the right thing? Could she settle down into a domestic life? Marry the man she loved? Raise children. Most of all, Rachel Landale wondered, could she become something she despised most out of love?

She wasn’t quite sure, but she was doing it nonetheless. After all, it was just a new experience, and she couldn’t spend her entire life fighting monsters and risking her neck. After all, she’d hate it if someone knocked on Yan’s door one night saying something about his fiancee’s entrails being ripped out. This was the right decision…even though it wasn’t her most favorite one.

And situations like this only made it harder. The dress she wore itched and she constantly found herself wanting to scratch, yet that was ‘unladylike’. On top of that, she was now doing her least favorite chore, walking at least one mile uphill to a small lake to wash clothes, and since Yan was now working as a logger, deep mud stains that were a pain to clean were always present on his clothes. It wasn’t that Rachel was lazy, she just didn’t prefer being a homemaker, sitting at home all day long while her husband worked. She was a wild one, a tiger, and she was suffocating.

It was during her agonizing little stroll that she heard a loud scream, then jeering laughter. Her head perked up, and her old friend adrenaline pumped in her veins. Her lips formed into a small smile. "Something’s goin’ on…" She might be able to relieve some of her aggression after all.

With smooth cat-like grace she never thought she’d have with her god-awful dress, she dashed from one tree to another, never quite being seen, until she was fairly close to the source of the cry. It was then that she witnessed something so disgusting that it made even her own skin crawl.

Two well-built men were looming over a young girl, no older than her late teens. One of them was busy pinning down her skinny arms, while she wiggled out of his grip. The other smiled, unbuckling his belt and smirking. "Don’t fight us baby, or you might not go home in one piece." The man who was pinning her down took one hand off her, and quickly pulled out a silver object: a revolver, and pressed the muzzle to her temple. The man who was unbuckling his belt ripped off her blouse in one quick motion, her white breasts suddenly becoming visible. Rachel involuntarily turned away, more out of respect than anything else. The men were doing something to her, that caused her to scream, but Rachel still had her head turned, figuring out just what she should do.

It was obvious what was going on. Whoever those two were, they were  soldiers, and they were about to rape this innocent girl. She could jump them, sure, but they had a gun pointed at this girl’s head, and one pull of the trigger spelled instant death. Plus she had no weapons on her, only her fists, and even though Rachel was a tough woman, that gun was far tougher than she could ever be.

Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed a large, thick tree branch. She grinned, "If I jump the man with the revolver…then….perhaps I have a chance…" It was worth a shot…she wouldn’t let this one suffer. With a war cry, she dashed to the  man with the revolver and struck him head on. He was so taken by surprise that he didn’t even react, he mearly took the hit, slumping to the ground. Rachel picked up the revolver, and pointed it at the solider who was still standing.

The solider was terrified, his body shaking and his fat face red. "What…what do you want, you bitch?!"

Rachel grinned. "Ahh…lots of people have called me that, but you know, when I see fat disgusting little shits like you rape innocent little girls…why, that term seems to lose all meaning, and you simply look…well…I’d say what you’d look like, but we have a young girl present." She slammed the butt of the gun at the soldier’s face, grinning savagely. "Who are you?"

"I…"

She slammed it again. "Tell me who the HELL you are!" She slammed the gun one more time, hard enough to send the man sprawling to the ground. She pinned herself on top of him, ready to torture him, just like he tortured that poor girl, when she noticed an emblem on his brown helmet. An emblem she prayed she’d never see in her lifetime. This man was a Danek solider. Newfound anger coursing through her, she pressed the gun to his temple. "What the hell are you doing here, Danek bastard?"

"Go to-"

She pressed harder. "I said speak up, unless you want this bullet lodged in your brain! I’ll do it too, I’ve killed a lot of Danek soldiers in my day. Lots. Killing your type has lost all meaning to me. I almost have no remorse… and I definitely have NO remorse for rapists like you!" she pressed the gun even harder against his fleshy head. "Speak up now."

The solider cracked. He started crying, blubbering like a poor baby without it’s mother, terrified. "ALL RIGHT, All RIGHT! I’ll tell you god dammit! We’re gonna Treefall first thing tomorrow! Lots of things are gonna happen to tomorrow, " he giggled like a child, "Lots of death, lots of blood. It all begins tomorrow man!" he cackled maniacally.

Rachel eyes narrowed. "Why?"

"Dude, you don’t ask WHY, it’s just what the emperor wants, and with the pay we get, I don’t ask questions, I just do it!" his laughter grew to a fevered pitch, and Rachel was finally sick and tired of him. She slammed the gun into his head one more time, and his body fell limp. She stood up, her face a deadly calm. "That’s all I needed to know."

"Excuse me?"

A soft voice behind her made Rachel jump, but then she realized that the girl…the one nearly raped, was still there. She held her hands over her torn shirt and smiled, grateful. "Thank you, miss. If it wasn’t for you…"

Rachel smiled. "What’s your name?"

"Emily."

"Emily, I want you to do me a favor…when you get back to whatever village your from, I want you to warn them that the empire plans to attack this entire region tomorrow, and they must be prepared for anything. You got that?"

The girl nodded, and took off. Apparently she realized the situation as clearly as she did. Knowing that the girl would be all right, Rachel took off herself.
 

 ****

"You did WHAT?"

"I just used a branch to knock the guy senseless….Oh come on Yan, don’t give me that look, what was I supposed to do? That girl was about to get raped! You wanted me  to sit there and watch?"

A bang on the table, something crashing to the floor. "No! That’s not what I meant!"

Shouting. "Then what was I supposed to do?!"

Anje squinted her eyes shut, squeezing her stuffed animal closer to her chest. Something was wrong, Rachel and Yan NEVER fought, and they were so loud too, she could hear them all the way through the wall, in her bedroom.

Silence. Then a barely audible whisper. "Don’t you know what happened to that man, Rachel?"

"No, I don’t."

"He’s dead, Rache. You cracked his head open like a melon."

"She…killed someone?" Anje thought aloud. She jumped off her bed, and pressed her ear to the door, hoping to hear more of their conversation. She didn’t really like eavesdropping, but this was obviously serious…serious enough to involve her.

 "He’s dead?"

"Yes, Rachel."

"And the other one?"

"By the time we got there, he was gone. Must have recovered by that time…"

"Yan, I did not purposely kill that man, you KNOW that…"

"No, I know that…but you know what motivated this, Rachel. You can’t let the past do this to you. I hate seeing you suffer like this."

Anje pressed her ear even closer to the oaken door, when the latch gave way. Sprawling with a small shriek, she landed gracelessly on her face, right in front of Yan and Rachel, both with shocked expressions.

Rachel smacked her forehead. "God dammit, Anje…how much did you hear?"

Anje blushed. "All of it…I’m sorry, but you’re being so loud…I couldn’t help hearing you!" Painfully pulling herself to her feet, she walked over to a worn couch and sat, peering up at the two. "Since I heard the whole thing, you might as well include me."

Rachel groaned. "Now Anje…"

"Hey, I may be a klutz…but that does not mean I’m stupid! Go on. Maybe I can help." Anje scowled, crossing her arms over her chest, then her look turned more thoughtful. "Why did you react like that, Rachel? Why attack them so viciously?"

Rachel was silent giving a nervous. Even Yan gave a worried look to Rachel, then cast his eyes down.

"Is…there something you’re not telling me?" Anje whispered.

Rachel sighed. "I didn’t want you to ever know about this, Anje, but there’s something that happened in my life…that I’m not very proud of. But you’re right, you’re old enough to hear this. Before you go off idolizing me-"

"I don’t idolize you, " Anje retorted, "I mearly admire your work."

"Exactly, Anje. What makes you think I wanted to be a mercenary in the first place?"

Anje blinked. "But you said you like it."

"There’s a reason, Anje…and I’m going to tell it to you…"

---

When I was sixteen years old, Mom and Dad felt that I was old enough to make a living on my own, and frankly, I couldn’t have agreed with them more. I hated this town, hated the backwardness of it…and I wanted to make it big. I had a fiery sprit…I always did, but I wasn’t a mercenary. I dressed in tomboyish clothes and drank all night in bars…I had a high old time, but never thought I’d be fighting for a living…nor did I think I’d ever settle down, either.

I wound up in Marl, but I was what people would call a bum, a drifter. I had no set job, and no income. I’d  do odd jobs here and there, but nothing permanent. But as long as I had men and beer in my life, it didn’t really matter much. Oh…and I guess it was because Mom and Dad also gave me a nice bag of gold…but eventually I used it all, and I had to get a job somewhere…it was the first time that I felt I was in deep trouble.

I remember the night I went into the local tavern, ready to drown out my problems in a beer. I always did that, and sometimes, I regret to say, I still do. I  barely even took a sip of my ale when I saw him. I don’t know why he was all alone in a bar filled with lovely women, but he was. He wasn’t a warrior, he was just a handsome man who seemed lonely. I set my beer down, and struck up a conversation.

"So…often come here?" I asked him. I sat down right next to him, I always liked direct approaches, no beating around the bush for me.

He looked up, and I swear he gave me the sweetest smile ever, yet there was a hint of playful shyness in it. "Not really, I’m just…looking." I was surprised by the softness of his voice…not to mention his manner. Most men up there were coarse sea boys who have a different girl by their side each night.

"For women?" I giggled.

"Sort of, " he explained, "I’m a painter. I watch the patrons here sometimes…and paint them. I prefer human subjects than still life’s…Doesn’t pay a lot, but I enjoy doing it."
I remember trying to catch a glimpse of the canvas on his lap. I thought it was funny how I failed to see this before, but he was rather shy, he kept trying to hide it from me. Eventually I was able to pry it out of his hand and see his artwork…and I found out he was painting me, and I looked…well…beautiful.

"Sorry," he apologized, "I should have asked your permission first. I’ll be going now." He gave me a nervous smile.

I  was not about to let this one get away, no, this was too good of a catch to let go. I smiled at him, and said quite simply. "No, it’s all right. I love it. You shouldn’t walk home alone. Let me keep you company."

I found out his name was David, but I liked to call him Dave. We eventually fell into the habit of walking home each night from that bar. I’d come in from an odd job, he’d paint, and then we’d leave together. He’d tell me stories about his life. How he originally came from a tiny farm town called Hayhill. You remember me telling you about that place, Anje? The one I visited with Sandor a year ago, where we found that orb and nearly died, being blasted out of Mt. Bole? Yeah, you remember. I knew you would.

Anyway, he needed to escape from his constricting little village, so he used all the money he saved to make it to Vayguess, but Vayguess was full of partiers…not artists. Over time, he eventually ended up here. I cannot tell you just how we fell for each other. I think he liked the wild side in me, and I think he liked my innocence. Yeah, it may seem crazy to you, hearing about me drinking and seeing men, but overall I was fairly young. I never had sex with one of those suitors…I always fought them off. I had a wildness about me that was more adventurous than savage…and perhaps I was a bit full of myself. I don’t know, I just think he was drawn to that, as much I was drawn to his kindness.

Three months after we met, Dave proposed to me, which came as quite a shock. By then, we already had our…moments…that I won’t go into, because you’re still too young, but I didn’t know he loved me that much. I was happy, I was going to be his wife, you don’t know how wonderful that felt.

It was only a week after he proposed to me that everything changed.

We walked the usual way to his house, a small flat that overlooked the ocean. It wasn’t pretty, but at least there weren’t cockroaches infesting it, like most of the lower-class buildings. I remember that I held his hand, and he told me how much he loved me…and then I felt something strike me in the face.

I screamed, I remember that. I screamed bloody murder. One man was striking Dave in the face, the other was tearing off my clothes. They raped me while I screamed Dave’s name…over and over again.

I thought about fighting back, I honestly did, but they had weapons, massive guns. I recognized them to be Danek guards, by their armor. I just screamed and took it, because I didn’t want Dave to get hurt…but Dave had other plans. About halfway through their little game, Dave found some inner strength. He screamed my name, and struck one of the rapists right in the face. Then, the man who was raping me stopped, aimed his gun, and fired. It hit Dave right in the head. He died instantly, and the man just smiled, struck me in the head, and all I saw was darkness.

I snapped that day, I can tell you that. All my innocent ambitions, my high times for adventure were stolen and replaced by revenge and hate. I had so much rage, I found myself doing horrible things, things like fighting without reason, and stealing when I had money in my pockets…terrible things that would sicken me now. Oh, sure, I wanted those rapists dead, but I didn’t really go off looking for them, not yet. I wasn’t strong enough. It was then that I met a highwayman, a talented one who was a world renowned mercenary. I joined him wanting to get rid of this rage, and I trained with him for three years, until he left me one night for reasons unknown. By then, I was in too deep, I lived solely for the thrill of killing monsters….collecting bounties…all to get rid of this rage…I never saw the highwayman again.

---

Anje sat with her mouth wide open as Rachel finished her tale. She had no idea this happened to her, none. All those time she was internally suffering…and she didn’t have a clue! How stupid she was!

"…I guess that’s why I snapped today. That girl would have ended up like me. Danek guards destroying her life forever. Ever since that day, I’ve been protective…maybe because I couldn’t protect Dave. I became protective of this town, of Anje…hell…I never admitted this before…but I joined Sandor partly because he and his little attendant had no chance in hell of surviving on their own. Too inexperienced," She then grinned, "but the treasure in Magmal Island was tempting…I’ll grant you that."

She then looked at Yan, suddenly realizing something. "Yan…those soldiers aren’t just up here as tourists…they plan to attack."

Yan’s mouth dropped open. "Say WHAT?"

"You heard me, one of the rapists said he was going to attack Treefall tomorrow, by orders of the emperor."

"But he’s dead!" Anje shouted.

"Well, apparently, they have a new one." Rachel went to a drawer, digging through it, till she found what she was looking for, a long, shiny black claw. Anje always thought Rachel’s claws looked like fingernails that needed a trim. Rachel sighed. "For all I know, they may not attack us, but I care about this town now…and I won’t see it fall."

Yan sighed. "Well, you’re not doing it without me…and if we do get ambushed…I’m glad you’re leading us Rachel. You always were the best."

"I’m going too." Anje said quietly.

Rachel quickly turned her head to her younger sister, giving her a stern gaze. "No you are not. You understand me? You’re not ready." She silently stormed out of the house, Anje following close behind, crying for her to wait.

****

Tick tock.. tick tock…

Only a couple more minutes, and she could finally continue with her plan. It was so sneaky, so perfect, she could hardly believe she thought it up. If all went according to plan, Phoebe and Derek would be a couple by tomorrow, and Shayla could sit back and smile, knowing she done a good deed. Of course, maybe it was just the fact that her gypsy side made her the perfect matchmaker, Shayla didn’t know, nor did she care, she was finally going to see these two have something they were lacking: happiness.

She sat on a small bench in the main hall of the shrine, with a small clock ticking overhead. Phoebe was just finishing up her last class for the day, and this was usually where Shayla met her, not to mention Mort, who was right next door. Twiddling her thumbs, and glancing briefly at the clock, she thought about her plan one more time…and it still seemed perfect. The only flaw in it would be if Derek chickened out, but Shayla knew he wouldn’t…he was too crazy about her to chicken out.

Suddenly the clock began to ring, and little wooden children came out of the clock, dancing about wildly. Shayla loved the clock the first time she saw it, the little wooden children with the tiny hammers and fat wooden shoes, dancing about in circles, but now she thought it was absolutely gaudy. The little wooden children rang a bell five times, before disappearing into the clock, as if they never came out at all. Shayla noticed  a muffled voice from Phoebe’s class, a teacher probably, telling them the assignment for the weekend.

"Show time." Shayla whispered to herself.

Shayla stood up and walked to the classroom, where Phoebe was packing up her satchel with fat textbooks. Shayla figured they must be textbooks about healing spells, because they were all written in a strange language…or maybe she just figured that out because this was a class about spellcraft. Phoebe noticed her immediately, and smiled. "Hi Shayla. How are you?"

"Eh, okay." Shayla replied, trying to sound as normal as possible. Fortunately, she was succeeding quite nicely. The two best friends walked out of the classroom, and out of the corner of her eye, she saw Derek dragging a bucket with a mop into the main hall. He nosily plopped the bucket down in the center, then whistled softly as he pulled the wet mop out of the bucket. Shayla grinned. "Oh what perfect timing."

"Excuse me?"

Shayla jumped. Did she say that out loud? "Nothing Phoebe. Um…" The fact that she nearly gave away her perfect plan made her slightly edgy. She leaned against the wall and fumbled for the right words.

"Shayla…is something wrong?" Phoebe looked concerned, putting her small hand on Shayla’s shoulder.

Shayla finally stopped fumbling when a new plan formed in her mind. She pretend to sigh and gave Phoebe a sad look. "I’ve been…hearing some rumors Phoeb."

Phoebe’s eyes narrowed, her lips forming into a frown. "Oh no…what sort of rumors…are they good or bad?" Phoebe had every right to be nervous…she wasn’t the type of girl people gossiped about. She was kind and had a spotless record…nothing worthy to talk about.

"It…could be good or bad," Shayla said, her voice grave. She leaned in closer, and whispered, "The rumor is that some guy is totally in love with you."

Phoebe’s eyes widened, and she gasped softly. "No way…you can’t be serious! Who?"

"That’s just it, no one’s sure!" Shayla giggled.

Phoebe’s look of shock melted into suspicion. "And who told you his little snippet of information? Arianna? Mindy?"

"God no! You think I would have believed them? No, I heard it from Krysta. She’s pretty reliable, right? Not the type to spread around false rumors." Of course, this was an outright lie, but Krysta was like a shadow, so quiet and drawn into herself that you never really knew she was there. She was somewhat new to the shrine, only having taken classes for the past three months.

This seemed to satisfy Phoebe, and she nodded. "A secret admirer…I wonder who it could be…?"

Shayla cackled. "Who do you WANT it to be?"

"Shayla! I can’t tell you that!"

"Oh, you know I wouldn’t tell a soul anyway…C’mon, there has to be someone…" Shayla pried.

Phoebe’s gaze slowly drifted off to Derek, who was now mopping near the doorway. Shayla giggled to herself. I *knew* it…

"Derek hmm?"

Phoebe blushed. "That obvious?"

"Well, yeah. I’ve been noticing it for a while."

Phoebe then looked at the floor, with a sigh. "Sometimes I like to think he cares for me too, but I know he has a lot more on his mind than to like a silly girl like me. Maybe when he recovers his memory…maybe I’ll tell him…but I think it’d be rather selfish to ask that now, don’t you think? Knowing who he is, it’s the most important thing."

Shayla nodded and gave Phoebe a quick hug. "Well, hey…you never know. He’ll get his memory back someday…he has to…and even if he doesn’t for some unknown reason…I’m sure he sees you as a wonderful person. For all we know, he could be the admirer!" Shayla then mentally smacked herself…she gave away too much.

But thankfully, Phoebe didn’t quite catch Shayla’s slip, she just stared off into space, dreamily, with yet another sigh. "One can dream, I guess."

These two are absolutely hopeless. Shayla thought to herself. Thank god I’m stepping in.

A quiet voice jarred Shayla from her thoughts. "Excuse me…?"

"Um…I don’t mean to be rude, but…we’re sort of in the middle of a very important conversation." Shayla didn’t even turn around.

"Um…but…I think this is rather important…."

"Well-" Shayla turned around and blinked. The girl addressing her was Krysta, her small, heart shaped face clouded with concern and perhaps a bit of puzzlement. Shayla pushed a few dark, stay hairs out her eyes and began again. "Oh, I’m sorry Krys, what’s the problem?"

"Is that boy over there all right?" Krysta asked, biting her lip.

"Who…?" Both she and Phoebe turned around, following Krysta’s gaze, which lead straight to the person Shayla prayed it wouldn’t: Derek.Derek was clutching his chest, draped over the bucket while holding on to the mop handle for support, as if he couldn’t support himself on his own. His face was pale and sweaty, and he seemed to be in great pain, although he didn’t make a sound. Shayla watched with cold horror as his legs buckled in, and he crumpled to the ground, tipping the bucket over and spilling the sudsy water over the stone floor. He didn’t move.

"Derek!" Phoebe screamed, rushing over to him.

"Not again, " Shayla mumbled, fear making her voice quiver. She was then stopped by Krysta’s soft voice called from behind. "Again? This happened before?"

Shayla nodded slowly. "You’re new here, so I’ll fill you in. He’s been here for a year now. He was injured…they found him in the ocean…with an arrow through his chest."

"Oh my god," Krysta said, horrified, "That’s…terrible!"

"Yeah, he’s lucky he lived…but he has these…attacks. If he overworks himself, this happens. Imogene said eventually this would go away…but I guess he’s still having them. It’s been three months since the last one." Shayla then smiled. "Don’t worry though, he won’t die or anything."

"But you look so concerned…"

Shayla waved a hand. "I am concerned…both for him, and for Phoebe. She gets hysterical when this happens." By the time Shayla reached Derek, a small crowd was gathered around him. She felt so guilty. Maybe I pumped him too full of hope…maybe that’s why he passed out like this, Shayla thought. A worker carefully picked him up and carried him into a patient room, with Phoebe trailing behind. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Imogene shaking her head sadly.

"He’ll be okay, won’t he Imogene?"

"Of course dear, " Imogene assured her, "He’ll just need to rest…"

"Yeah, whatever, " Shayla grumbled. She noticed Mort trailing in, looking confused.

"What the hell happened?" Mort asked her, adjusting his small glasses.

Shayla grinned wickedly and forced Derek’s mop into his open hand. "Be a prince, won’t you? Help Derek out and mop the rest of the floors…hmm?" She chuckled and ran off.

"What…the…hell?" Mort mumbled. He hated being clueless…and Shayla always had the knack to make it so.

***

Laughter. A voice was laughing softly in his ear. The man’s eyes, which burned right into his being, narrowed like a cats as he spoke, his voice laced with venom. Yet he could not see his face clearly, nor could he see the people standing beside him. It was all fuzzy, impossible to decipher.

"Enough!" the man hissed, "Lower your packs and drop your weapons to the floor…slowly. If my Chief of Staff is correct…you hold not only one…but THREE orbs!"

Strangely enough, he began to do this, along with the people standing next to him, but then he stopped. He felt the words coming out of his lips. "You’ll only get them over my dead body!" he cried, and he reached down for his weapon: a small bow. Yet he didn’t know why he did this…he wasn’t doing it on his own. It was like he was a puppet, and someone was pulling at the strings. He had no control.

The man laughed. "You heard him men! Attack!" Soldiers began to advance on him, swords poised and ready…

Derek moaned softly and turned over on his side, his chest flaring in pain as consciousness slowly returned to him. He opened his eyes and blinked. The room was darkened, with some orange rays of sunlight streaming through the curtains. He sat up slowly and rubbed his eyes, absolutely exhausted. He took a few quick breaths, and his chest stopped throbbing. He smiled. "Much better."

The door opened slowly and a dark head peeped from the doorway "Derek? You up yet?"

"Yeah Shayla, come in."

Shayla walked in slowly and lit a match from her pocket, bringing light into the small room. She then sat on the bed, looking depressed. "I’m sorry…"

"For what?"

"This attack was my fault…I made you too excited…"

"C’mon Shay…you know as well as I do that this was just a fluke thing. Besides…I got a lot of work done," He grinned, "Now…what was this plan you were telling me about?"

Shayla face brightened, and she sprawled herself on the bed. "Well," she laughed, "This is the plan. Tomorrow is the springtime picnic… we all get the day off, including you. Now, I already planned with Phoebe that we’re gonna have a nice, small picnic by the sea. She’s off now getting supplies, but what she doesn’t know is that Mort will be studying for his finals, and I volunteered to buy supplies for the picnic in Coryan…so you two will have a picnic on your own!"

Derek paled. "You’ve got to be kidding me…I can’t do this alone!"

"Oh, but you will, and I’ll help you plan! We’ll get some nice clothes for you, help you plan what to say…"

Shayla’s voice drifted off and he shook his head. What did he get himself into?
 

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