One Year Later
The Razor Bluffs of Derely
Looking out over the Bluffs was a sight most people would only dream of. The way the deep blue stretched on seemed like it would never end as it melted seamlessly into the afternoon sky. On the horizon sat two suns; the larger one resonated a blue bluer than cornflowers, and the smaller one shamed the tiger lily with its magnificent orange-and-yellow hues. For the terrans, this sight was an everyday thing.
"Oy, Danye. I'm starting to believe nothing is ever gonna happen out here."
Danye sat beside his partner, perched on the branches like a graceful falcon, waiting for the moment to strike. At those words, the fur on his neck ruffled slightly. Casting a sidelong glance, he let out a soft growl. His pointed ears perked in every direction, acknowledging each and every sound to make sure all was right.
"Yaroah is young," he replied, "But his senses are sharp. Trust in him, Goma."
Danye and Goma sat atop the tallest tree on the northern Razor Bluffs-a striking oak with plentiful hands to catch the nourishing rain on those melancholy days. It was their watch shift and their feral eyes scanned the ocean, the cliffs, even the woods to their rear, for any signs of trouble or intruders. Yet, nothing came, much like each day before after their Yaroah assigned them the watch. Western Derely was already protected by the Soulfrill, a monstrosity of a serpent that swam the Sylir Sea night and day, never taking rest. Only the mad would dare brave those choppy waters and the deadly cliffside.
A chill wind ruffled Goma's feline tail, making it curl and quiver.
"Blessed Autumn," he grumbled. "It comes sooner and sooner each year." He wrapped his flowing appendage around his waist, under his warrior's garb, to keep it warm. "I'm going to request an audience with Yaroah about this watch when we get done. What say, Danye?"
Danye, a being of wolf descent, gazed over at his feline companion. "Do as you're told and stop questioning him. He has a reason for this."
"Eh, I think he's too nervous," Goma went on to say, ignoring his friend's warning. "The Elder's passing had a bad effect on him. I think he's afraid something'll happen to him, too."
"Goma! Hold your tongue! He is Yaroah, and we are to do as he commands. That is how it is. If you were Yaroah, would you not expect me and the rest to follow your word without question?"
Goma scratched behind his furry ears. Shrugging, he replied, "Well, of course. I guess I'm just not used to him yet. Not every day you have one so young being in command of the entire race. But, what happened to the Elder, anyway? I mean, it happened so quick and it seemed to be…I dunno. All hushed up or something."
Shaking his head, Danye remained silent. It was visible that he, too, took the Elder's death hard. And having happened barely a month ago, the effects were still far-reaching indeed. However, despite his normal character, Danye hazarded a reply. Maybe it was the weather, or the fact that he was bored; no one knew.
"The Elder was away to Mt. Akkitok," he began, startling Goma with his words. "He was trying to get some information."
Goma looked around, hearing a strange noise to the south. When he saw nothing, he turned back to his partner. "You were with him, weren't you?"
Danye nodded. "Yes. I was his Trusted at the time and it was my duty to ensure he made it back safely. Everything had gone well; the terrans of Neuge played by our rules, and we went on our way back home."
The wolfman heaved a sigh, feeling deep regret at his reminiscence. "As we approached Englus, the Elder fell sick. There were no poisonous plants or beasts, and we ate only what we had packed ourselves from the Neuge terrans' supplies. I did my best to care for him and he seemed fit to travel after a night of rest."
"I remember when you two came back," Goma interjected. Everyone was running around, trying to figure out what was wrong. Poor Yaroah was in tears…"
Goma stared in shock at Danye's reply: "Yaroah is too sensitive. He lacks the proper discipline and knowledge to rule."
"Danye!" Goma yelled in surprise. "I thought you said not to badmouth Yaroah?"
The elder terran shook his head. "This is the truth. You were making ill comments about him just for the sake. I speak the truth. But, anyways, not long after… The Elder passed on. No cause could be found; no wounds or poisons."
Goma laughed weakly. "Maybe it had been a ghost," he joked, trying to get Danye to laugh.
However, he took the silence he received as Danye's annoyance finally coming out. Goma shrugged it off and kept vigil to the east, over the forests themselves. He also kept talking, mostly to himself, about this and that. A disgruntled sigh from Danye made Goma laugh.
"Sorry, I know I talk too much."
"Agreed. But, there are many things on my mind as well."
Goma looked. "Like what?"
"You know full well."
"Oh," Goma bitterly replied. "That royal?"
"It's been a year since he fell, but, despite the edict, Yaroah still keeps him within the village. I wonder what our young lord is thinking?"
"He's kinda acting weird lately… But, maybe it's because of Nebu's passing?"
Danye hesitated. "Maybe. Goma, we need to do our job. This line of thinking could be detrimental to our home's safety. No more foolish talking."
A bit irritated, the younger terran descended the tree's supple branches and walked to the cliffs. The raging of the seas matched the storm inside Goma's mind; he felt like his words weren't reaching anyone, but he knew that Danye's heart was true to their home. Despite what the elder said, Goma knew the only thing within his partner's mind: protecting their people and keeping their young lord safe from all harm. Even though one part of that harm might very well lie within the village itself, slumbering quietly like a man in death.
No matter neither the time nor place, young Fayth always found time to visit his grandfather. The moon lay snug upon the treetops, casting milky arms of white through their thick branches and splashing the hills with pale arched bands. It was nice outside, with a gentle breeze just strong enough to ruffle the decorative headdress within the boy's flame red hair. Within the skies, the stars shone like a million diamonds. It was nights like this that made Fayth smile. Finding a nice spot on the grass, he sat.
"I am sorry for not coming earlier, Grandfather." With a gentle smile, the boy brushed a smudge of dirt from the engraved stone before him. "Things have become hectic since you left us. The man is becoming more and more a topic of debate amongst some, and their words are starting to turn violent. I wish you were still here. I am starting to get lost…"
The wind picked up, brushing the boy's face. To him, it felt like a hand wiping away a tear that had yet to form. In his heart, he knew it was his grandfather reaching to him from the other world. It was a sign of comfort to him.
"I will cry, Grandfather," Fayth said with a soft smile. "I am young, and I do not know nearly anything that you did."
A noise reached his sensitive ears. Turning, he found a great cat-like man standing within the shadows of a tree. His golden eyes shone like the flames of a candle. With his arms crossed and his face grim, Fayth hung his head, depression returning to his innocent mind.
"I promise I'll stay longer tomorrow, Grandfather. May the light keep you safe."
As he stood, the cat-being uncrossed his arms, eyes trained on Fayth.
"What's happening, Shomahri?"
"Trouble," Shomahri replied. His voice was deep, gravelly. Even though Fayth had known him for most of his life and had been protected by him, the youth had trouble letting go of his fear. "The man. He wakes."
"Are…are you sure? Has he said anything? His name?"
"I do not know. Elder Terra sent me. Come. Quickly, Yaroah."
The air was heavy as lead when Fayth entered. He felt a great pressure as all eyes turned to him. In all, there were about twenty people-each sporting animal traits-in the room, all gathered before the great door in the meditation room. As the youth advanced, the people parted, letting him through without question. Almost immediately, one of the beings was on him; it was a woman with deer-like qualities: Elder Kysta.
"What is it our lord prepares to do, hmm?" she said, her voice a pitch that hurt Fayth's ears. He had never approved of Kysta, but there was little he could do; she was a well-respected member of their community. When all she received was a blank stare, Kysta threw her hands up. "Hmph, nothing, as always. Incompetent child!"
Choruses of voices came up around the youth, getting inside of his head and filling his ears. It felt like his head was going to explode. Amidst the voices, he could hear words of accord with Kysta, while some others disagreed with her. A single voice suddenly rose above them all, and it came from the smallest creature amongst them.
"You leave him be, you great hag. And watch your impudent tongue or I'll see it removed. That goes for all of you."
Attention turned to the small elderly creature in the now open doorway. She was raccoon-like in appearance and pushed her tiny glasses up with her dainty paw. Smatterings of murmured apologies rang out here and there. When all had gone silent once again, the raccoon reached out to Fayth and took hold of his pant leg, leading him into the darkened room before them.
"You arrived just in time, young lord," she said. "He's finally awake."
"Elder Terra, I'm… I'm scared."
"He's a royal, and Grandfather said-"
"He said that this man was an old friend, did he not? I remember the stories he used to tell you of his youth outside this wood. You can't be afraid of that."
"But, those were just stories! I knew this man would wake one day, but I never knew what to say to him. And now… The thought scares me… I don't know what to do!"
"Hush! And act on impulse. What comes to mind, speak it to him. Mathieu was always a good man, and listened well to the words of others. Calm yourself, young lord, and let things flow."
It being his first time within that room since the man had been brought to the village, Fayth was naturally scared. Barely out of his early teens, he had never had to do anything without the consul of his grandfather or the support of his advisors. And with his grandfather's passing, Fayth felt lost, like he was stumbling around in the dark with no one to help him. For him, this event was more frightening than anything before. Because he had no one for guidance.
In that room, lying on a soft cot of featherleaves was a man. A human man. His still-young face was blank, his eyes closed. On that face, Fayth spied a curving scar that hooked from the man's right ear and stopped just below his bottom lip. His black hair was peppered with silver, and slight stubble graced the man's face.
A blanket covered the rest of him, so all the young boy could see was the man's head. But, as those thoughts crossed his mind, Elder Terra climbed atop the cot and pulled the covers away. It revealed the man to be wearing a pair of shorts and soft tunic shirt. Fayth spied a strange white symbol on his left thigh. It looked faded, like a stain someone had tried to remove from fabric.
Feeling the soft sheet glide across his chest, the man shivered. Wearily, he opened his eyes and looked about.
Fayth stood back, out of sight. He wished he could fade away; he was scared. Yet, as he felt a strong presence beside him, he knew his fear wasn't wanted in that room.
"Only for you," he whispered. And he stepped forward, into the human's sight. "You…are awake."
Shivering as if cold, the man grabbed back at the covers. "I am…? I didn't know I went to sleep." The slight joke made Fayth feel a little more at ease. At Elder Terra's urging, Fayth stepped closer. "Where am I?" the man went on to ask.
He had wanted to stop there and wait for the man to ask something else, to make it easy. But, Fayth couldn't help but keep talking. His mind raced with countless things he wanted to say and they all came spewing out like a dam had burst.
"Why have you come back after so long a time? Where have you been? Why did you leave this land when Grandfather needed you the most?"
Now fully awake more startled than anything, the man looked at Fayth like he had spoken another language. After a tense moment of silence, his beetle black eyes narrowed. "What are you talking about, kid?"
Fayth widened his eyes. He felt stupid. He felt a redness rising into his cheeks, felt an oncoming of tears in his eyes.
"You? You are… You're Mathieu, former Guardian to my grandfather and the Ancestor Emperor Beatrix. Aren't you?"
Deep confusion filled those black pools. The man remained silent.
It didn't make sense. Over and over in his mind Fayth tried to remember everything he heard about Mathieu. He was so certain it was this man before him! He had the scar, the mark! He even had the same unruly black hair that stuck up in all directions, 'like a crazed porcupine' as his grandfather had always joked. Fayth abandoned his fear for anger. It didn't make sense for this man to not remember. Unless…
"You…you have to!"
Fayth's sudden change of tone startled the man.
"You have a Guardian mark on your leg! That scar that Grandfather gave you! How can you explain that? Wait… Maybe you don't remember… Maybe because you're ashamed to!"
Fayth silenced Elder Terra. "You said speak my mind, Elder. I am doing that. Why have you come back?"
This time, the man's reply was adamant. "I said I don't remember. Let me out of here. I'm not taking this. I have no clue what you are going on about."
"No. You are in my home, and I am speaking to you. I want to know why you're here. Why you let this place fall into ruin while you just up and fled like the coward you were!"
Fayth saw as the man anxiously bit his bottom lip, pulling the scar into a strange shape. His shoulders shivered with a rush he had never felt before. Was it more fear? Or was it a strange sense of satisfaction? At the man's words, he realized it was neither.
"I know what your problem is, kid," the man sneered. Pulling himself from the cot, he placed his feet on the floor and proceeded to stand. The long sleep his body endured made his knees fail and he almost fell had it not been for the cot. Steadying himself, the man glowered down at Fayth.
"Let me guess," the man began. "You've had a sheltered childhood and someone who was always there for you is gone now. So, now you're trying to be brave for everyone and show them all who the big boss is. You're acting all proud like you've found the person responsible for this guy's disappearance and taking it out on them."
Finding himself steady enough to stand on his own, the man released his white-knuckle grip on the cot. He stood, shoulders square and his gaze set firmly on Fayth.
"Well, I have news for you, kid. I don't know what you're going on about, and I sure as hell don't know your grandfather. All I know is that I woke up in this strange place, with this raccoon on my chest and some snot-nosed brat accusing me of everything under the sun. Think before you act and maybe you won't have such a hard time getting everyone's approval in this place. Get out of my way and let me out."
As he went to leave, Shomahri stepped forward from the crowd outside the room and blocked his way. With his astounding height and burly look, Shomahri became one imposing barrier between the man and his freedom. Yet, as he did what was expected of him, words from his lord reached him.
"Let him go," Fayth said, tone bitter and breaking. "Just…let him go."
Not saying a word, the great feline warrior stepped aside and let the man walk out. No one in the crowd of gathered terrans outside the room dared speak a word and parted like the man had some sort of infectious plague. As he left the room, all eyes went to their young lord. His shoulders shook and his head hung. Everyone could almost see the cloud of despair over his fiery hair.
"Young Fayth, don't take his words so hard," Elder Terra tried to say. Yet, Fayth told her to hush and left the room, too.
Behind his fading back, the youth heard the mixed concerns of having a royal loose in their village, but he didn't care right now. His pride hurt, his heart was heavy, and he felt like a complete idiot for going off like he did on a man who didn't know anything at all.
The village was in an uproar. There was a royal walking the streets, and no one felt safe within the secluded forest capitol. Women and their children shut themselves up in their homes and the men searched the whole place, but came up empty handed. Fear washed the streets like a massive wave. Fayth could hear it all; the voices of his people reached his ears even as he stole away within the floating gardens. But he did nothing about it. With knees to his chest and his chin atop them, the great Yaroah Fayth sat and cried like a little child.
What he didn't know was that his sniffling drew the attention of a certain someone.
Around the corner, the man stood, watching with mixed feelings as the boy cried on. He felt bad, of course, but felt even more that it wasn't his fault for the things he had said. Nevertheless, he did the right thing.
Approaching, the man cleared his throat. Fayth jumped. "I'm sorry," he murmured. "For scaring you just now, and for all that I said before. Are…you alright?"
For a moment, the man felt like he was being ignored. But, in reality, Fayth was trying to word his reply before speaking; he didn't want to say anything else wrong to this man. His words from before had a strange type of acid to them and Fayth knew he had only just seen the tip of this man's anger.
"It's nothing," he sniffled. "You shouldn't apologize for the truth. I'm just…angry and blaming others for my misfortune, as you said. I had come to the room with a hope that you would be able to answer all my questions, clear my doubts, but… You knew nothing of what I said. Please, forgive me, stranger."
"May I sit?"
Fayth scooted over, allowing the man a seat on the floating garden's edge. The place was a bounty of beauty. Great green hedges and pots overflowing with flowering vines, small springs and gently tinkling fountains of crystal blue. It was a small paradise in a small space hovering mere feet off the ground. Just what made it float, the man couldn't see. He ignored his thought and enjoyed the sight.
"So, what is your name, then?" Fayth asked after a moment. When he received silence, he glanced over. "Stranger?"
Shaking his head, the stranger sighed. "After I blew up at you, I found myself wandering in the middle of town. It seemed like a ghost town, and everyone who was outside was saying that I was a monster and all of these things that just…made me want to run away."
Fayth bit his lip. To him, he had always thought the rules imposed upon Royals were too harsh and that events had become blown out of proportion. At least, that's what his grandfather had always thought. As the youth listened to the man talk away, ideas began forming in the redhead's mind; ideas that would sound foolish to the elders, but might hold some merit with the younger terrans within the land.
"But," the stranger continued. "As I thought about why they were saying such things, it got my mind going. Soon, I realized I didn't even know who I was or how I had gotten here."
Fayth stared at the man. Was he serious? This man had no clue as to who he was? Though it might have been bad news for the man himself, Fayth felt an uplifting wind surround him. His sudden happy smile brought a frown to the stranger's face.
"What's wrong with you? You're happy I don't know who I am?"
"No, no! Of course not, but… But this might mean something good!"
Skeptical, the man kept quiet. He was interested in what this kid's theory was.
"You… You look like the man my grandfather always described to me, but you… But you don't know who you are, right?"
"I don't remember anything, to be honest," the stranger joked, making himself feel miserable. Fayth looked down, feeling like he had angered the man. "It's not your fault, but please continue. I think I know where you're going with this."
"Yeah. I remembered the looks on those guys' faces when you called me Mathieu. They looked hopeful; scared, even. Why is that?"
"Well," the youth began after a moment. He felt so awkward explaining things to this man. "Mathieu was a messiah for this world. He was called both a hero and a tyrant. It was his job to guard the Empress and the world had several years of peace after bloodshed from countless wars."
The stranger made a noise. In his head, he mulled over whether or not he wanted to be called this Mathieu guy. "And the tyrant part? What was that for?"
"The Occara. They were the ones waging war with the other races. They hated us terrans and the Royals, saying that we both stole their world from them. But according to the Elders, each race was created equal, only heightened in the areas they showed the most promise."
A small silence came to pass. It unnerved Fayth and his face deepened to a lower shade of red when he looked up to find the man smiling. It was strange, though. The smile seemed almost like one that knew the truth behind the history, but would never speak or acknowledge it.
"Why are you looking at me like that," Fayth grumbled. His hair was now dull as dishwater compared to his cheeks.
"You seem shy, but you have no problem talking about history."
"O-oh… Well, I like it. I always wanted to go out and see where all of it happened."
The man stared. "You've never left the forest?"
Fayth shook his head. "No. Grandfather was very protective of me, saying it was too dangerous beyond the woods. I guess I just lost interest after he and Shomahri built these gardens."
At the name, the man remembered seeing this tall furry being in the corner, standing in the shadows with its arms crossed its feline eyes trained on him. That same being had been following the man around town after he ran out. Glancing behind Fayth, the stranger saw the tip of a tail protruding from the wall, swishing to and fro.
"Is he your protector?"
Fayth nodded. "Yes, since I was little, Shomahri has always been around. And yes, I know he's standing there. I can go anywhere I want without being afraid because I know he's always with me."
Fayth suddenly looked up. On his face, the stranger saw a wide-eyed look of wonder. Without even having to ask, the youth jumped up and took hold of the stranger's arm. Having spent time with him, Fayth felt a little more comfortable around the stranger; he was good listener, and the boy appreciated that. Why not pour out his thoughts to him?
"You!" he exclaimed. "With you and Shomahri, I can leave the forest and learn about the outside world! And you could visit places that might jog your memory! If you really are Mathieu, then you could remember out there just why you've come back." With his face reddening once more, the boy added, "W-what do you say?"
The man gave the request some thought. Though it was true that he, himself, wanted to venture out and see what was to be learned, the strange world he awoke to might not be as friendly as it seems in the mind of a child. But then again, Fayth was Yaroah of the terrans; he was not just some child, but a young leader yearning to gain outside wisdom for the sake of his people. Another idea to consider was if the man truly was this Mathieu that everyone so far seems to think he is. Should the stranger go along with that in mind, with what was most likely a dangerous plan, he might end up getting the child leader hurt.
So, with that line of thought, the stranger gave a distraught sigh. He struggled to find the right words to express his inner turmoil at the sight of Fayth's innocent and pleading eyes. Yet, with nothing coming to mind, and no ways with which he could clear that heart-melting look away, the man drooped his shoulders.
"I guess there is nothing I can say to dissuade you, is there?" he finally asked.
Fayth's frail body trembled; he didn't expect the man to agree with his on-the-spot plan. Honestly, Fayth didn't even believe that he had asked the man! Before any celebrating could be had, the shadowed feline stepped forth and turned his gaze down to the young boy. Feeling those eyes on him, the redheaded king shrank down within himself. He had completely forgotten Shomahri had been standing there.
"Shomahri," he began. Fayth turned, shoulders square, and gave Shomahri a look that even the stranger could feel. His words became stutters. After a moment, he found the courage from within to speak up to his personal Trusted for the first time. "I…I know I am not allowed outside. I know this, because no Yaroah can leave the forest for his loss would jeopardize the safety of his people. But, Grandfather wanted me to learn, for everyone here!"
Through his pleading and explanations, Shomahri didn't utter a single word. He simply stood there, arms crossed and his piercing feline gaze boring into Fayth's watery gold eyes. He made not a move, and didn't even seem to breathe. Fayth, for a moment, thought the man was upset with him. The youth stuttered so bad that he eventually gave up and hung his head. As the moments rolled on by, Fayth became aware that his guard was smiling. When the boy looked up, he felt his heart swell.
"Twelve years," the feline began. His voice was deep and gritty, reminding the stranger of a creaking oak in the wind. "I guard you. Great Nebu make me promise to protect you, always. 'Wherever he goes, you follow, Shomahri. Whatever he choose, you agree.' Great Nebu beg Shomahri of this as he passed on. And I will do as Great Nebu asks."
Words couldn't express how happy that made the boy. A great smile lined his young face as he turned to the stranger. With little left that he could do, all the man did was nod his head.
"When do we leave," he asked.
"Um, as soon as the second moon rests upon the ocean," the boy replied. "No one is usually awake then."
Shomahri stood aside to let Fayth pass, but as the boy began to ascend the garden steps, he stopped. Turning, he looked to the man. "If you don't remember your name or who you are, then what should we call you until you do?"
"Mathieu," he replied without any thought at all. At Fayth's odd look, he added, "Why not become that which I am held to be? I'm bound to find someone who knows the real me out there somewhere."
Lights filled the boy's eyes as he grinned. He nodded, not able to agree with the man any more than he already did. "Come then. We need to get ready. And to find a way to avoid Elder Kysta…"