“The Elephant woke up at the bottom of a ravine. And rudely, too, for he found a pack of dogs biting at its bum,” children interrupted with a little giggling. “The startled and confused Elephant promptly shook them off and stood up. He did not remember how he had gotten there. In fact, the Forgetful Elephant did not remember anything.”
Hugo stared straight ahead, at the ceiling, while two mages worked their magic, with hands glowing over what little was left of his legs. The healers had been forced to amputate and now worked hard to stabilize him. Witnessing the amputation while conscious had been an interesting experience.
Meanwhile, he listened to the story being told by the leader of the Wild Felids, Mother Superior, to a bunch of kids she had brought into the room.
Hugo didn’t understand why any of those two things were happening, but he wasn’t in a mood to question and even less to ruin it. There was something about the old woman’s voice, and the children giggling, that he found heartwarming.
Crazy, Hugo thought, in the silence of his thoughts, which was another new experience.
“Standing up, the Forgetful Elephant discovered that his hind leg was badly injured,” Mother Superior continued. “He decided he would go and try and find out who he was and what had happened. He chose a direction and followed it.
“He first found this wild pig. His mighty tusks were red with berry juice. He greeted the wild pig and asked if he knew him. The wild pig said no, but that taking the other direction, he would come to find a snake, and snakes know a lot. The grateful Elephant then walked back and took the other direction of the ravine.
“The snake was enjoying the sun on top of a rock. Its skin was yellow and dry, anxious to be shed. It did not stir as the inquisitive Elephant came close. Again, he asked her if she knew her and again she said no. She told the downtrodden Elephant to try over the other side of the river, for she knew of a horse that talked about Elephants. The reinvigorated Elephant thanked the snake and headed to the river.
“When the hopeful Elephant got to the river, he sought the help of a crocodile. Its jaws grinned like twisted fate. The crocodile told the Elephant he could not carry him, but vowed not to eat him and told him the water was shallow enough for him to cross. So the trusting Elephant crossed the river, only to be attacked by the treacherous crocodile.”
“Oh no,” a child’s voice sounded out. “Did he ate ‘im?”
“No,” Mother Superior said, her kind smile present in her tone, “he survived the fight by hitting the crocodile with his mighty trump. But the betrayed Elephant did get hurt and so left the river even more injured than he was before. The limping Elephant made its way out of the Savannah wastelands where he had woken up, marching onwards for what seemed forever.
“The exhausted Elephant experienced the prairies, and lush forests, as it sought after this horse. It had to fight further, the poor Elephant. But he also ate things he loved and drank of water he much enjoyed. In time, the adventurous Elephant grew used to the limping, and accustomed to the injured hind leg as, alone, he braved the lands, meeting more and more animals in his quest to remember.”
Hugo glanced to his left. The Hunter was sitting next to her leader, gloomily looking ahead, suffering the introspections of regret. Over on the other end of the room, what was left of the mages that weren’t working on him, were working on the tired body of Ayane. She was also looking up ahead, as he had been until then, listening in thoughtfully.
“The raven, its feathers black as night, told the Lost Elephant what direction to take. As did the squirrel, its tail like a wandering wave, and the bunny, its snout more alive than anything on earth. The wild cat, its eyes merciless, warned him off the territory of its pack, and the spider, its voice all-knowing, told the wandering Elephant where to find this mythic horse.
“Finally, the persistent Elephant found the horse. The horse, a mare, was galloping along, enjoying a run. Its fur was brown, with spotted marks of beige, and it danced to the wind as it as an extension of her. The despairing Elephant asked her if she knew him and the mare said yes. She called him Chichinak, which meant big and proud, and told him she thought he was dead.”
“Whaaaaaat,” the children reacted, their minds blown. The Shadow also smiled at that one, even with all that had happened and was still happening.
“The mare told Chichinak, the Forgetful Elephant, that he had broken a leg, and because of that, had made the journey to die. Because you see, Elephants are more attuned to death than your average creature of nature. When they feel it is coming for them, they journey to their graveyard. And his was just next to a ravine…he had gone there to die but had tripped and fell over. It dawned on Chichinak that his assumption that the fall had broken his leg had been wrong, it had been broken long before.”
“Bu’ he walked so much,” a child said, marveled.
“Yes,” Mother Superior confirmed, again with a telling smile. Hugo could tell by how she enunciated. “Yes. Chichinak said to himself the same thing. I went to die, and yet, have lived on for so much longer. I gave up on life over this wound and now have experienced what I would have missed. The wound was not the end I thought it was. Chichinak thanked the Mare and marched off, not towards the graveyard, where his old self, the injured Elephant had been left to die, but towards other lands, and other adventures…as a new Elephant.”
“Whoah…so what he thought was the end didn’t have to be!”
“Yes.” The tired old woman brushed the child’s face with her hand, lovingly. “And so must we all be careful of the fate we set upon ourselves, Kyle, for we never know what we might be missing.”
Hugo stayed silent, thinking about the story. It was obvious to him Mother Superior had told it for his benefit rather than for the children, even if it was a legitimately good story. The kind anyone could apply to them, most likely. But him, dismembered as he was, would be the most likely target.
The door opened.
“Hey! Clear out, ya brats, we need the room!”
Hugo didn’t look, recognizing the voice of the Street Rat, who he knew no longer looked anything like the Street Rat. She walked inside. Jamie looked way better in her new assortment of clothes, if not a bit older than she should.
She was a girl this whole time, Hugo remarked, there’s that.
The kids giggled their way out, led by Mother Superior.
“Ain’t stickin’ around?” Jamie asked.
“I have no need to,” the woman said sagely, “you have the Hunter.”
Hugo glanced again to see Zaniyah looking away, a bit embarrassed. Although Mother Superior exited the room, however, the Bronze Alchemist made her way in. They had been waiting for her since she had been on a different ship when Ayane arrived.
And Eliza died…
Shuu looked pretty angry as she slammed the door behind the children. The mages were still doing their thing on both Hugo and Ayane.
“That damn Falk,” she growled. “Why did we ever trust him?!”
“Falk?” Jamie spat to the side, literally. “What about that Head o’ Mists? ‘Oh, I lost the scroll.’ Seriously?! Freakin’ Zaniyah there’s running across a stupid rainforest near nekkid and she doesn’t lose the scroll, but the master of all spies—” she choked on her own words, grunting in frustration. “How stupid can we be??!”
“We have made mistakes,” Zaniyah said, very sadly, thinking on her own, most like. She blamed herself for Eliza. “We should focus on what to do next. We can be mad once we are safe.”
Apparently, Zaniyah had let go of Eliza after they teleported into the water. So she could help save the Circus Freak. Hugo was still mulling that over, quite taken aback by that unexpected set of priorities.
“There’s nothing we can do next,” Shuu protested, “if we sail now, maybe we can get off the blast radius, but I doubt it. He’s probably waiting for it.”
“Blast radius?” Jamie asked. “What’re ya talkin’ about?”
“Ugh,” the Bronze Alchemist looked like she hadn’t slept in days, which was probably true. “It’s a long story, but Falk has the means to create a really big explosion. I mean, bigger than anything you can imagine if the theory’s right. It’ll be at the cost of his life but–”
“That’s definitely what he’s doing, yeah,” the Circus Freak said from his corner of the room. They all turned to him as if remembering he was there.
“Yer awake, huh?” Jamie asked. “Sorry we were doin’ this without ya, we’re kinda outta time.”
“No, I understand.” He sounded different. He absolutely looked different, but now that he spoke, the change in his mind seemed all the more evident. He shut up and stared at the ceiling thoughtfully.
They had removed his legs.
His bed was still bloodied, a smell that would be noticeable if the ship wasn’t already absolutely reeking with all kinds of odors, due to how many people were there. The mages seemed to be mainly preoccupied with the stumps of his legs, speeding the healing there.
“Yeah, it’s what he’s doin’,” Jamie agreed. “We’re screwed. We’re blocked off the island by the Beasts, what can we even do?”
“Guys,” Hugo called out before the conversation could be properly renewed, “Eliza died to save us all. We can’t let her down,” he couldn’t believe what he was saying, or even how he was saying it, but he really wanted to. “We can’t let Falk win.”
It was the most sobering thing, most likely, to hear the Circus Freak, of all people, say something like that. In such a serious and dramatic way.
Ayane reacted promptly, voicing out with determination.
“We will not–Uhng.”
“That should be the worst of it, Shadow,” the one mage treating her said. “A few more minutes.”
Ayane nodded at the mage and then looked back at the room. “I can go. Thanks to the stone, I can traverse the shadow streams even when they’re blocked by the dark mist. I will go and put a stop to this.”
“But how?” Shu brought up. She had sat down meanwhile and was now in what seemed like a thinking position, bent over and leaning on her knees, glaring at the ground. “Falk’s bomb is rigged to his heart rate. It’ll go off soon as it stops.”
“Or soon as we’re about to exit its blast radius, I bet,” Jamie sneered, “or, of course, as soon as the Beasts get to him. That means we’re racin’ them.”
“Can we teleport inside?” Shu asked.
“Only Albert and Cassandra are left who could accomplish such a feat,” one of the healing mages reported, revealing they weren’t just there for show and healing, “Albert’s a hostage of Falk’s, and Cassandra is the one we sent to retrieve the Magpie.”
“Cripes, can we call her back?” Jamie asked.
“Not until she finds the Magpie,” the mage said, frowning disappointedly. “We uh… didn’t give Cassandra a scroll.”
Ayane bit her lip softly but frustratingly. “Damn, we keep making mistakes.”
“Wait, Albert is with Falk?” Hunter mentioned.
“Don’t get any ideas,” Jamie immediately said, shaking her head, “our cowardly pacifist wasn’t up to doin’ anythin’ useful other than tellin’ us what’s happenin’. Apparently, the Beasts decided to bring the building down instead of taking it over.”
“But wait,” Shu pressed, “he could teleport Falk away and kill him!”
“He’s a pacifist, he’s not doin’ anything like that,” Jamie repeated.
“Are you kidding me?!” Shu’s voice cracked. “The world’s at stake, here!”
That wasn’t necessarily true. Hugo felt like saying it out loud.
“Well, technically only we’re at stake,” a melancholic voice pointed out, from Circus Freak’s direction. They all looked at him briefly, and he felt indeed odd. It wasn’t something he’d say, ordinarily.
“That should be compelling enough,” Shu argued.
“Some people will risk anything for their principles,” the Hunter pointed out.
“It doesn’t matter,” Jamie groaned. “He’s already unconscious, or dead, Falk gloated about it through his scroll. He just needed him around to teleport back to the tower.”
“I will go,” the Shadow repeated, her brow frowning in determination. “I will stop him.”
The Street Rat flustered, her vest fluttering with her.
“But how? You can’t kill him, and he can just trigger the explosion if you try to–”
“Sleeping dart,” the Hunter mentioned. “You will take my blowgun.”
“Nice,” Jamie nodded, pointing at the Hunter, “Holy crap, yes!”
“Not so?” Shu interrupted, raising an eyebrow. “He can just trigger the explosion the moment the Shadow shows up.”
“I’ll goad him on,” Jamie said, gesturing with the scroll “he’s still reading the thing, clearly. I’ll egg him on, and the Shadow can make ‘im even madder. Long as Falk wants to kill her personally, then he won’t just trigger the explosion, I bet?”
Shu looked down, scratching her chin.
“Is there a better plan?” Ayane asked.
Hugo saw Shu looking up at the Shadow. She had her hands such that they made a triangle in front of her nose. Still thinking.
“No,” said Jamie, ever the impatient one, “hate to admit it, but it’s up to you, Shadow.”
Shu leaned back, groaning in frustration. “Bah!” She stood up in protest.
“I’ll go brew you a pick-me-up,” she said angrily. “I don’t want you fighting for my survival looking like death itself.”
“I’ll go find that scroll and madden the Mad Genius,” Jamie announced with a smirk.
“I will go get the blowgun,” the Hunter said herself while looking determined. She paused for a moment, as if to say something, but then thought better of it and just left.
The Circus Freak watched them all go.
“Well, I guess we’re done,” the healing mages told Ayane, “we’ll be going, we’ve got plenty of other people to take care of.”
“You also seem stable, Hugo,” said the mage to his side. “Do you mind?”
“No,” he told his own healers, his head still sunk into the pillow, lost in whatever he was staring at on the ceiling. Not even he knew what. “Go and help others.”
And like that, almost as fate had demanded of it, the Circus Freak and the Shadow were alone.
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