The Shadowby Lockpick
Entire Fiction (2008)
Clyde grew up in a backwater village, full of mosquitoes and weeds and cranky old people who liked to start their sentences with When I was young. He didn't have parents because his parents were dead, or on the run, or something—he didn't know. The old man who lived with him would never say, or maybe he didn't know either. Clyde called him "Grandpa" because it sounded nicer but he really didn't have any idea if they were related at all. They didn't talk much. Clyde did the chores around the house and Grandpa fed him, and that was the extent of their relationship. Sometimes Clyde messed up and Grandpa would call him stupid and beat him, but as time went on he messed up less so he got beat up less. He didn't remember anything else, so nothing else mattered.
The bullies started bothering him when he was really little. He didn't remember how old he was, but he couldn't remember a time before the bullying so it didn't matter anyway. There were only two or three boys, but they were all bigger than him, so whenever he heard them coming, he ran away. He was pretty fast, but there were more of them than him, and one day they caught Clyde and beat him up. Even though they hit him hard, he didn't cry. The biggest boy didn't like it, and kept beating Clyde up even after his friends went home.
"I give up," he said to Clyde, when the sun had gone down and the mosquitoes were waking up for the night. "How come you don't cry?"
"Don't know." Clyde shrugged and sniffed and then wiped the blood away from his nose with his torn sleeve. "Grandpa always said it was stupid. When he was young kids didn't cry like babies, and all that bullshit. You don't hit hard as he does, anyway."
The boy laughed. "You're pretty funny! Thinkin' I can't hit harder than no stupid old man. Next time I'll hit you real good. What's your name, kid?"
Clyde swatted at a mosquito that had landed on his neck. "I'm Clyde."
"That's a pretty stupid name," the boy said callously. "Now mine is real good—I'm Baram." Baram stuck his hand out and gave Clyde a lopsided grin. "Put 'er there."
Clyde's hand had blood and probably snot and who-knew-what else on it, but Baram didn't seem to care; he had blood on his hands, too. Clyde stuck his hand out and they shook the handshake of two partners in crime.
A few more years passed and Grandpa drank himself to death, so Clyde didn't have to worry anymore about chores or getting beat up, just feeding himself. The rest of the bullies all grew out of their rebellious stages and got real jobs and stopped fooling around, but Baram and Clyde hid out in Grandpa's old house long after the villagers thought they'd left, and stole food and money and beer every night until they got caught. The old lady who caught them was in her big red barn doing who-knew-what in the middle of the damned night, but she had a pitchfork and Baram just had a knife, and between the two of them Clyde would put his money on the old lady, even if she did look about a hundred and two. A madder-than-hell old bat would kick Baram's drunk ass any day.
"You kids git outta here!" she screeched, waving her pitchfork at them madly. They were both running off, giggling, a little drunk and a little hungry. "Stay offa my property, you—you hooligans! When I was young, we didn't pull this kinna foolishness!"
Baram and Clyde left the village that night with nothing but the clothes on their backs, the money in their pockets, and Baram's knife. Baram lagged behind, maybe because he was more drunk out of the two of them, but Clyde was running away from that God-awful place as fast as his feet would carry him.
Baram didn't know how to make an honest living and Clyde didn't want to, so after they left home they just hid out in old houses and stole food and money and beer until they got caught. When they got caught, they ran away. There was always another village, another place to steal from.
One time they robbed a train. They didn't bother with food or beer this time, just the money. Baram held up the man up front even though he was drunk and his knife hand shook, and Clyde piled the money into the sack and took off. He didn't stop running until he was by the lake near the station. Baram caught up to him a few minutes later.
"Clyde! Clyde, slow down! Shit." Baram leaned forward, hands on his knees. He was panting. "Thought you were gonna do a runner on me, pal."
"Nah." Clyde threw down the heavy sack. "You know I'd never run from you. It's all ours."
"A million gil." A slow, lopsided grin spread across Baram's face. "We did it!"
Clyde laughed. "Can you imagine all the booze we could buy with this?"
"Real alcohol, too, not that cheap ale they got in Nikeah and...what was that other place..." Baram frowned, drunkenly.
"Mobliz," Clyde supplied.
"Yeah! Those guys don't got nothin'. We got it all, now. What're we gonna call ourselves, Clyde? We need a good name."
"Are you stupid or somethin'? I thought you were the one with the brains...hey, I know. How 'bout the Shadows? Creepy, right?"
"The great train robbers of the century," Clyde drawled, rolling his eyes, "Shadows? Yeah, Baram, that's real terrifyin'. Try it again when you're sober, you ass."
They camped out at the lake. Clyde woke up in the middle of the night when Baram stepped on his face, and swore at him for being so clumsy when he was drunk. Baram swore back at Clyde out of habit and stumbled over him, just barely missing his face again.
"Baram, what the hell are you doing? Go back to sleep, man. S'all dark."
"I can't sleep, Clyde. I gotta take a leak."
"Trust you to step on me tryin' not to piss yourself," Clyde muttered, and he rolled over and tried to go back to sleep even though he could hear where Baram was peeing on the tree. Clyde was used to Baram being noisy no matter what he did—even when he was going to the bathroom. His eyes closed, then—
"Shit, shit! Clyde, wake up. Shit."
"What is it now?" Clyde groaned, sitting up. "Baram, if you're too drunk to take a piss by yourself—"
"Son of a bitch, shut up! Not so loud. They're after us. See them lights?"
Clyde blinked, squinted, and rubbed his eyes. Sure enough, there were lights—lanterns, probably—flickering in and out of sight, in a distant part of the woods. "Shit."
Clyde grabbed the sack, and Baram hitched up his pants. Then they started running.
They found a few caves, and got themselves lost inside, figuring if they didn't know where they were the men chasing them wouldn't know either. One of the bastards tricked them by going around and catching Baram off guard, though. Clyde wasn't really sure how he did it—one minute he and Baram were feeling their way through the dark, and the next minute Baram and the soldier were trying to kill each other. Baram killed the soldier but the soldier got Baram good in the chest, and they both fell down on the cold stone floor.
Clyde couldn't see well—there was just the soldier's lantern for light and it was running out of gas. He grabbed it and fell to his knees next to Baram, who was gasping and holding his chest.
"You're gonna be okay." Clyde was feeling Baram's chest, trying to see where he was hurt. He couldn't see the wound for all the dark blood welling up out of it.
"This...is my blood?" Baram looked white as a ghost. "How? I don't hurt none."
"See? So, so—you're gonna be okay," Clyde said again, voice shaky. "We're almost to town, Baram."
"I'm done for," Baram realized, looking down at himself. "Oh, Clyde. I can't even feel nothin'. I'm done for."
"Shut up!" Clyde hissed. "You're going to be fine."
"No." Baram shakily groped for his knife, and his bloody hand pressed it into Clyde's. "You run. Leave me an' the money. Slow you down."
"Shut up." Baram looked disgusted and terrified all at once. "Don't tell me you're gonna cry, Clyde. You look like you're gonna cry."
"I don't cry."
"Good," Baram said, eyes narrowed. He swallowed visibly. "Before you go, do me a favor?"
"S-sure. Anything, Baram." Clyde's knuckles around the knife were as white as Baram's face. It made the blood on their skin look darker.
"If they catch me...they're gonna beat me, or lock me up...can you imagine? I don't wanna be at their mercy. You gotta end it for me, Clyde."
"No way." Clyde stood up fast.
"Don't tell me you're gonna do a runner on me now!" Baram yelled. He coughed, and when his hand came down from his mouth there was more blood on it. "Of all the stinkin' times for you to get cold feet! Don't be a coward! Don't wuss out on me now! Come on, you pansy, do it!"
"I..." Clyde swallowed. "I can't—"
He turned around and ran, knife still clutched in his bloody fist, trying not to hear Baram screaming obscenities and who-knew-what else behind him.
Clyde ran for what felt like forever but not nearly long enough, too terrified to slow down. He kept seeing Baram every time he closed his eyes, so he didn't stop to sleep. He was too scared of that image of his friend—covered in blood and giving him that lopsided, half-drunk grin. When Clyde kept his eyes closed for too long, Baram coughed up blood and fell down on the ground.
He came across a town eventually, and it was probably lucky for him that he did, because the adrenaline had worn off and he hadn't eaten since who-knew-when and his legs were all sore and he didn't think he could run another step. It was another backwater village like any other, with mosquitoes and weeds and probably more than a few cranky old people who liked to start their sentences with When I was young. Clyde passed out under a tree because he figured that was as good of a place as any, and while he was asleep he heard a girl talking to him like she thought he was awake or something, which he wasn't. He wished he was, because sometimes Baram showed up in his dreams and coughed up blood and fell down and died, but there was no helping that.
He woke up because there was something wet on his face. It took him a second to realize it was a dog, and the dog was licking him. "Gross," was the first word out of his mouth, and the dog backed up and barked, and the second word Clyde spoke was a curse, because the bark made his head pound.
There was a giggle, and Clyde looked around the little room until he found who'd done the giggling. She had her hand on the dog's head, petting him, and she was awfully pretty, with long curly hair and a serene expression. "Good morning, sleepyhead!"
Clyde didn't tell her good anything. "Where am I?"
"The village of Thamasa. This dog found me and led me to you."
"Thanks," Clyde said to the dog, and wished he hadn't, because it barked again.
"Aren't you going to thank me?" the girl asked. "I've been tending to you and spoon-feeding you and listening to you talk in your sleep this whole time."
"Thanks," Clyde told the girl. She didn't bark at him, though, which he was glad for.
"Who's Baram?" she asked.
Clyde froze, then shook himself. "Don't know. Sounds like a really stupid name, though."
"Oh yeah? And what's yours, is it much better?"
"Much," he said. "I'm Clyde." Clyde stuck his hand out, noticing the blood was all gone. "Put 'er there."
"Lorenne," the girl said, and her hand felt so soft and fragile that Clyde had to bring it up to his lips and kiss it.
It was probably the worst time her father could have walked in, so in he came. He was the funniest old man Clyde had ever laid eyes on, with bright clothes and wispy gray hair, but Clyde was pretty sure the guy could hit like Baram or Grandpa had, so he dropped Lorenne's hand real quick just in case.
"Awake, is he?" the old man huffed. "Then it's time for him and the dog to go, Ren."
"Daddy!" she huffed. "Goodness, he's only been awake for a few minutes. He's probably not even strong enough to stand yet."
"I can stand up," Clyde said, offended.
"There, you see? We've done our part. You know, Lorenne, when I was young—"
I knew it, Clyde thought.
"—we didn't take in strays, people or dogs."
"I won't stay," Clyde said. He swung his legs over the edge of the bed, stood up, got dizzy, and then fell back down. At least he had made it to his feet to begin with.
"I told you!" Lorenne said to her father.
Lorenne and her father—who never told Clyde his name—had a short fight about it, but Lorenne won, as Clyde thought she would. He wasn't really in shape to get too far out of bed, so he endured her caretaking, and her father's snide remarks every now and then. He told himself he'd leave when he got better, but when he got better Lorenne insisted on him staying for dinner, so he told himself he'd go the next day. And every day he kept telling himself that he would go the next day, but Lorenne always told him to stay, stay for dinner, and he never did wind up going.
They kept the dog because the dog had saved Clyde's life, even though nobody ever named it and Lorenne's father made it stay outside. When Lorenne and Clyde were alone, they went to different places and talked. Sometimes she asked him uncomfortable questions—he guessed she really wanted to know where he was from and what he'd done before coming here, but he always told her he didn't know and they left it at that. One thing led to another and soon they were spending entire nights alone, even when they came home and Lorenne's father yelled at them until he turned blue and threatened to kick Clyde out. He couldn't help but to want to be with her—her touch, her voice, they were like magic.
They never got married, but one day she told him he was pregnant. She looked happy, but he'd run off into the woods, terrified, and hadn't come back until dinner, because she always wanted him to stay for dinner. Her father didn't take the news well, but he never took anything well. Clyde got more and more used to the idea over the months, though, watching Lorenne's belly get bigger and bigger. Once or twice she'd playfully called him Daddy, but he always just ignored her, because that just made him scared again. What the hell was he supposed to do with a kid, anyway? Teach him to rob trains? That'd go over real well with Lorenne's father, Clyde was sure.
Oh, well. First time for everything, he supposed.
The baby came early. Not too early, but just by a few weeks. Lorenne was in a lot of pain or maybe just scared. Clyde could tell she was because she was white as a ghost like Baram had been the day he died. When the baby came out, it cried so loud it made Clyde's head hurt, and the midwife told them it was a girl, and Clyde figured she was right—only women could make that kind of noise. The girl thing really threw him for a loop—he didn't know what to do with a boy baby, let alone a girl one. Lorenne did, though. She held it and cooed at it, and then, with Clyde holding one hand and her father holding the other, she died, because the birth had been too hard on her and she'd lost too much blood. She was the first person he'd ever killed.
Her hand felt so soft and fragile in his, just like the first time he'd touched it, so he just had to bring it up to his lips and kiss it. She wasn't breathing, but she was still warm. The baby kept crying, and her father was crying, but Clyde didn't cry, just kissed her hand again and again until all the warmth was gone.
That was when the rage started. Lorenne's father had nobody to blame but Clyde, and Clyde knew that, but he couldn't stay and take his punishment like a man should have. At the first This is all your fault he was off like a shot, leaving Lorenne's pale body and the crying baby and the funny old man behind him as he ran. He was as sad as he'd ever been, too, but he didn't cry.
Clyde didn't realize the stupid dog was following him until he got to a patch of forest and heard the leaves rustle. He nearly jumped out of his skin, looking for flickering lights in the trees, but the dog came out, panting and wagging its tail, looking like it was having the time of its life.
"Go home," Clyde told the dog flatly. "You belong there."
The dog barked.
"I'm serious." Clyde's eyes narrowed. "Go protect the baby. I don't need you and you don't need me, so you just go on home."
Now the dog whined, coming up to where Clyde stood and nudging his hand with its nose.
Clyde wasn't used to traveling alone, so he gave in pretty fast. He decided the dog would be his dog, since neither one of them had another place to go, and then he went on his way to who-knew-where with nothing but the clothes on his back, the money in his pockets, Baram's knife, and his big weird black dog trotting beside him the whole way.
One week later found Clyde and his dog in Zozo. It was a haven for thieves and murderers, one of which Clyde was and one of which he had never wanted to be, but it was also the scariest place Clyde had ever been, except maybe the cave Baram had died in. Clyde had a black scarf tied over his nose and mouth, partly because he didn't want to be recognized, and partly because everybody in Zozo stank to high heaven and it made him sick. He didn't order anything at the bars, because he didn't trust the bartenders or the drinks, but he did sit down on one of the old wooden stools, because it was better than sitting on the ground and it got him and his dog out of the rain for awhile.
He heard the other men whisper about him before he really thought about the words they were saying. They were all very drunk as they were dangerous. One of them snickered and looked his way, then came over, flanked by two of his friends, to Clyde's stool to push him to the floor.
"What was that for?" Clyde asked, from the floor. The dog was growling.
"Lookit you, kid. What do you think you are, some kinna ninja? Check the mask," he added to his buddies, snickering again. A low rumble of laughter swept through the bar. "You need to go on home. This bar's a place fer real men. You look like the sorriest excuse fer a man I've ever seen. Gonna get yer puppy here to bite me so's you can run away?"
"He might kill you," Clyde warned, getting to his feet.
"What, 'cause you can't?"
It was real quick, the way it happened—the man lunged at him and Clyde went for Baram's knife, but the dog was faster than both of them and chomped down on the man's leg. The man let out a yell and Clyde had time to fumble with Baram's knife and slice it across the man's throat throat, quick and clean, like he'd been doing it for years. The man fell down and made some kind of gurgling noise and Clyde didn't look at him because what if he coughed up blood like Baram had?
He wanted to say something cool, something tough, because everybody was staring at him and not one of them was laughing now, but instead he just turned around and ran out of the bar and didn't go back to Zozo again for a long time.
He named the dog Interceptor, because it always seemed to get between him and real trouble.
Clyde decided sometime after that that Baram really had been right about two things all along. One thing he'd been right about was that Clyde was nothing but a big coward. The other thing he'd been right about was that Clyde really was a pretty stupid name.
The first thing he decided to do was become an assassin after all—he threw away his old brown coat and dressed in all black, partly to hide better at night and partly to match Interceptor better, as weird as that was. The second thing Clyde did was change his name. All that black reminded him of the dark, so Clyde shared one last pathetic joke with Baram and named himself Shadow, and hoped it was really, really terrifying.
Clyde—or Shadow, as he now thought of himself—roamed the world over, offering his services to whoever had money to pay for them. The trade was learned with practice, but it was learned: he became silent and deadly and fast, able to run away and escape from any situation. He was not afraid to kill, any more than he was afraid to die. He witnessed death so personally, embraced it so intimately, that the abyss no longer held fear for him, and his fearlessness and skill got his reputation around quickly, and he was hired for jobs much more important than holding up a stupid train. No longer did he have to crouch in old abandoned houses for his food and beer—no, now he was doing things in style. Hehad a real meal every night, a big bed at whatever inn he stayed at, and wine that was finer than anything that had ever touched Baram's lips.
He was sitting in a bar in Figaro with Interceptor when he heard the men whispering about him.
"The assassin Shadow. He'd kill his own best friend for the right price..."
A humorless smile graced the lips beneath the black mask.
Later he was out near the mountains on a completely different job when a big blonde guy and a Doman came up to him and asked him for directions like he was a tour guide or something. He dismissed them and Interceptor growled at them, but the Doman seemed to know what he was and offered him a big sack of money to guide them to where they needed to be. Shadow looked at the money and looked at Interceptor and Interceptor wagged his tail. That was good enough for Shadow; he took the job. The blonde guy introduced himself as Sabin and the Doman declined to give his name, but Shadow heard Sabin calling him Cyan.
There was no killing requested, but that was all right. Pay was pay, after all. With what they were set out to do he figured he'd get to kill somebody, anyway.
He went with them to the Imperial Camp, and beyond it. There was fighting there, and, as he predicted, killing. He killed the Imperial soldiers, and nearly killed the Doman called Cyan on accident when the man, reckless with rage, dived into a tent he had just set an explosive in. Sabin pulled him back out, though, and they continued on their way.
The forest was less rowdy. There wasn't a soul in sight, but Shadow sure could hear them, whispering in the trees with the wind and looking down on him. At least none of them were Baram. Baram would have been a lot louder. But he couldn't be sure none of them weren't Lorenne.
Shadow hated forests. He always felt death was but a step behind him in these places, like the soldiers who had chased him through a dark cave red with Baram's blood. He was constantly looking in the trees for flickering lights. After awhile, Sabin saw some, and he and Shadow and Interceptor and the Doman followed them. They weren't soldiers, though—they were ghosts, and they led them right onto a train.
The click-clacketty of the wheels soothed Shadow's anxiety, but Interceptor whined and he was back to being all tensed up. That dog had better sense than any human so if he was worried then Shadow was worried too. The flickering lights gathered around them, again, and they whispered again to him. No escape, they murmured in his ear. Nowhere to run.
That's what you think, Shadow thought. He was fast. He could always escape, could always run.
They all ran, detaching the cars behind them as they went. Up to the engine room, and Shadow grimaced beneath his mask. This reminded of him of shoving money into an old burlap sack while Baram's shaky hands held a knife to the conductor's throat. He forced the memories away; the flickering lights were coming closer—like soldiers chasing a pair of bandits through the trees—and they had to get away. They had to run...
They did get away, just barely. The train stopped to let them off, and lights whispered to them again.
You made me so happy, darling...
I'll miss you, Daddy!
Shadow turned back, heart leaping into his throat, but the wife and child on the train were not whispering to him. They were not his. It was the Doman—the Doman who was making a fool of himself kneeling on the platform and bawling like a child, the Doman who'd had the wife and child say their final goodbyes...even this tragedy was part of a bigger world of light that a shadow did not belong in. He truly was not envious of the Doman. The man had lost so much, and now here he was weeping without reserve...
A wife and child.
"What a terrible thing to lose," Shadow murmured to Sabin, who was watching the Doman in a kind of frozen horror. "Best leave him be, for now."
He turned and walked away from the platform, Interceptor trotting faithfully behind him.
He thought he'd forget his little adventure as a tour guide relatively quickly, and go on with life, one kill after another, but it didn'tquite happen that way. He took a few jobs and then rested for awhile, and then a little later a man he'd seen at the very camp he'd helped to raid contacted him, this time hoping he'd be good protection. He didn't much see himself as a bodyguard, but good pay was good pay, even if he mostly was an assassin. So he and Interceptor wound up sailing to who-knew-where on a dingy boat with a seasick thief and some creepy girl who could make fire with her bare hands.
It wasn't so bad because he got to sleep under the stars. There weren't any trees out there, so that left pursuers no place to hide, and that was how he liked it. He rested easy, for the first time in awhile, because with no place for his enemies to hide and Interceptor at his back he didn't need to worry about anything.
They made landfall and split into two groups, and he figured later he probably chose the wrong group to go with. They were making their way towards a village. The others didn't know that, of course, but Shadow had been there before, knew all too well the little area surrounding it. They actually passed the trail leading down twice before they went back and found it. Shadow was silent and unhelpful as he lagged behind them, because he was hoping they'd miss it, but Interceptor was wagging his tail. Shadow glared at him and called him a traitor under his breath but Interceptor didn't care, just kept wagging his tail like he was the dumbest dog in the world or something.
Thamasa was just the same as he remembered. There were more weeds and less mosquitoes, but the cranky old man was still there, tending his garden outside. He stood up when he saw strangers coming and Shadow pretended not to recognize him. He looked the same, too, except his hair was thinner and whiter than last time, even though Shadow had thought once that it couldn't get any thinner or whiter than it already was.
"Well well, who do we have here?" he asked, brushing his hands off and getting to his feet. He took off his gloves and held out his hand. "Strago Magus, pleasure to meet you." He shook the thief's hand, and the girl's hand, and everybody introduced themselves, but when Strago Magus offered his hand to Shadow, Shadow didn't take it. He didn't give his name, either, because the old coot had never wanted to give his own name out, had he?
"Now...how can I help you fine people?"
Shadow didn't listen as his companions explained what they needed because he was looking at the house, same as ever except for the coat of paint it needed. A little girl who couldn't have been more than ten was standing in the doorway, eyes locked on Interceptor.
"Hey, cute dog," she remarked, coming right up to Interceptor and reaching her hand out.
"He bites," Shadow warned truthfully. Interceptor had killed more than one of his targets for him, and Shadow knew him to be vicious to strangers. "Better back off." He tried not to sound very concerned for her safety.
Interceptor barked, then wagged his tail hard, pressing his face into the girl's hand. Thanks a lot, Shadow thought, but he didn't say anything. The little girl laughed and told him the dog was sweet, and Shadow's eyes narrowed but he still didn't say anything, because Strago Magus had narrowed his eyes too—at the dog. Now he was looking at Shadow real hard like he was trying to see through him or something. Shadow didn't flinch or budge one inch, though, just stood there looking at his dog and the little girl.
"This is Relm," the old man said, nodding his head. "My granddaughter. Say hello, Relm."
"Hello, Relm," she echoed, and Interceptor barked at her again.
"I'm sorry. She's got a smart mouth. Seems to have taken a liking to your dog," he added to Shadow.
Shadow raised one shoulder in a shrug. The thief cheerfully apologized for his moodiness and Interceptor chased Relm once around the house, and the old man wound apologizing and telling them no, he couldn't help them with what they were looking for. The choice was made to stay in the town's little inn, and Shadow called Interceptor away from Relm to go follow, but a withered hand grabbed his arm.
"Wait," the old man said. "What brings you back here?" Shadow didn't say anything, so he tried again. "Relm...? She's a good girl, Clyde. A lot like her mother."
Shadow stared at him for a long moment. A mosquito buzzed by his ear, but he ignored it. Finally he asked, "Who's Clyde?"
Later, in the middle of the night, Shadow woke from a dream that was really more like a memory, Lorenne's name on the tip of his tongue. He stopped the impulse before he started, not jerking awake or crying out, simply opening his eyes and sitting up in the dark. He was still in his work clothes; he and his party were all crammed in one room, and he didn't let people see his face anymore. He knew without looking that Interceptor was gone, and he foreign feeling left Shadow unsteady. Interceptor had not left his side once since they had both departed from Thamasa the last time. What's going on...?
He heard the footsteps before anybody else was even awake. The door to their little room burst open and in came Strago Magus, looking all flushed and scared. He was babbling like a lunatic, something about Relm and fire and please help me, but Shadow didn't care one bit to understand—the old man was only nice when he wanted something, so it didn't matter. Shadow wanted his dog back, he knew that much, so he got out of bed to go find him. Apparently the others thought he was following them to rescue to kid, because they kept hurrying him on, but he was taking his time, looking around in all the dark places for Interceptor, not bothering to correct them.
The house could be seen from a good distance away. Strago Magus must have had a pretty unlucky neighbor, because the whole building was old and dry and it was going fast. There were people around, trying to put out the fire, and his two companions rushed inside in a nauseating display of heroics to save the girl. Shadow stood by the door, eyes scanning the line of trees nearby. Where was Interceptor?
"Aren't you going in?"
The old man again; Shadow got distracted and looked down. "No. I'm busy."
"You have to help her."
"Actually, I don't," Shadow corrected.
"That's not my problem," Shadow said flatly. "People die all
"She's yours, Clyde. She's yours and you've got to help her."
"I told you I don't know any Clyde!"
He earned one doubtful, disgusted look from the old man before he too vanished inside. Good; perhaps he'd either die or finally be convinced that Shadow really didn't know who Clyde was. Shadow's eyes turned back to the trees. Where was his damned dog...?
The answer came to him all at once, and he might have laughed if no one had been around. Duh—the dog was in the house. He had more sense than any human did, and he'd caught it before any of them. The dog was in the house, protecting the baby, like Shadow had told him to do ten years ago. He would, of course, wait until now to follow that order, because now was when Shadow didn't want him to.
There was nothing for it; Shadow would have to go after him. He walked around to the back and peered down in the windows looking down at the basement—there. The two heroes, the cranky old man, and the little girl. (And his dog. He knew it. What a traitor.) They were all trying to put out the fire and arguing, but she was crying, her arms wrapped around Interceptor's neck. Shadow folded his arms, and heavily considered letting them all burn up just to be rid of them, but in the end he decided he liked Interceptor too much to let him burn, and he kicked out the window. They all looked up at the sound of breaking glass, and Shadow could have killed Strago Magus when he saw him grin. Interceptor barked and started wagging his tail.
"This way," Shadow managed, slipping down through the window into the heat of the flames. The smoke would have choked him already if not for his mask. He gave his two companions a boost up through the window, and while they helped the old man up, he knelt down to pick up the little girl. She had dirt and who-knew-what else on her tear streaked face, but Shadow's first thought was, She's so pretty. She'll be breaking hearts one day.
When he got up out of the house he was still holding her, and she threw his arms around him and kissed him on the cheek—a trained killer!—and told him thank you, thank you for saving her, and could he please stay at their house for dinner tomorrow, so she could play with the dog? Shadow put her down after that and when he looked up Strago Magus was giving him this funny look. Then he realized they were all giving him a funny look, and he rolled one shoulder in a shrug, not answering the kid's question. "Hey, don't get the wrong idea. I just wanted my dog back." Uncomfortable pause. Stay for dinner? "Come on, Interceptor."
He turned and walked away, ready to go back to the inn and finish sleeping, and Interceptor followed doggedly behind him, wagging his tail, the one constant in Shadow's world, which was getting weirder by the minute. Still, he had to smile when he remembered her face. The old coot was right; she was a lot like her mother. The next night they all went to the old man's house for dinner. Strago Magus let Interceptor inside for the first time ever, and he laid under the table the whole time with Relm feeding him table scraps and everything behind the tablecloth, just like he was a house pet or something. It was just really too weird. After dinner while everybody else was talking, Shadow told his dog to stay with the kid and he slipped out the back door to go his own way. Time to get back his employers and get his pay. He was done with this...
Shadow, having lived in a world where people wanted other people dead and would pay anything to make it happen, was well aware of the fact that not everybody was honest. Somehow, he was still surprised when, after he got back to the Empire, they led him to a room of armed soldiers. He guessed it was because he normally relied on Interceptor to get him out of these situations before he got in them, himself. He killed the guards, no problem, and left without collecting his pay. What a stupid way to try and kill an assassin...
Despite him being human and not having as good of sense as a dog would, he was still feeling, as he walked his way towards the next town, like the world wasn't happy. Not unhappy with him; that'd be nothing new. But just unhappy—and he didn't like it. The sky was all dark and it was windy, and the funny thing was that no matter where he went the weather didn't change. It was creepy, and he wanted Interceptor back. What was he thinking, leaving his dog with that crazy old man? So he went back to Thamasa to get him, but Thamasa looked pretty unhappy, too, like a tornado had just come through, with burn spots here or there and the roof ripped off one of the houses. And the neighbors all said that nobody was home, and Shadow didn't trust them so he broke in, and sure enough, nobody was. Just for kicks, he looked inside Lorenne's old room. There were pastels and paints everywhere, and teddy bears all over the bed. Rainbows had been painted on the walls. So, the kid was using it now...
He got directions from the hysterical locals and went about tracking his latest prey. He'd never tracked his own dog, before, and he'd never tracked someone he didn't intend to kill, either, but he'd try. First time for everything, after all.
Speaking of first times, he'd never been on a floating island before, either. But he saw the airship go up, and what else could he do? He hitched a ride up on the one the general was taking. He was kind of tempted to kill Gestahl while he was up there, but he figured he might as well wait and see how things turned out. Gestahl owed him money, after all.
The whole party looked at him with these great expressions when he showed up, hopping off the airship when it flew above them and tumbling to the ground at their feet. Strago Magus's was the best—Shadow would have laughed if he wasn't worried about his dog. Where...
"We thought you were dead," Strago said dumbly.
"I want my dog back," Shadow told him.
"What about working for the Empire?"
"Double-crossers." Shadow shrugged.
"But it's hard to kill an assassin." He glanced at Relm's startled face, and felt a little bad, but she had to figure it out eventually. She was about ten, probably, that was more than old enough to figure out the world wasn't all teddy bears and painted rainbows. "Is Interceptor all right?"
"He's fine," Relm chirped, seeming to get over her shock fast. "He's been with me."
Shadow heard a very familiar bark, and the relief set in as soon as Interceptor squeezed his way past all those people right to Shadow's side, where he belonged. Shadow paused a moment to look at his leg. Was that a bandana...?
They were going places, they said. Gestahl had landed up here somewhere, and they were going to find him. Shadow still had to collect his pay, so he followed them. He pretended that was the only reason, and tried his best to ignore Relm, who was happily chattering to him from Interceptor's other side, her hand on the dog's neck like they had been best friends all their lives.
Shadow lingered at the back of the party. Despite himself, he was kind of glad to see them—the old Doman, the creepy magic girl, the seasick thief...he'd be damned if he let them die while he was there, even though he was an assassin and wasn't supposed to save lives. He fought off a couple of what-the-hell-are-those monsters that tried to get them from behind, being silent like he always was. They didn't even notice, and he preferred it that way.
And when they did get to Kefka and Gestahl, despite everything he'd said about wanting his pay back, he kept his mouth shut. It wasn't until he realized that Kefka was seriously going to try and end the world with a bunch of stupid statues that he considered it might be time to leave. He took one last look at Relm's face, wanting to have a good memory of it before he snuck away because she was probably going to die—
And knew he couldn't do it. The terror on her white face reminded him of Baram and Lorenne and ghosts flickering in the trees like soldiers' lanterns. Shadow had left her once, but he wasn't going to leave her again...not like this, anyways. His mind kind of zoomed back on the conversation being held ten feet in front of him.
"Kefka! You mustn't! If you disturb the balance...!" But Kefka was too wrapped up in himself to hear anybody. And Shadow didn't have his dog to use as an excuse, or even, really, his pay, but he jumped over to where those statues were and started pushing them back as hard as he could go. And he told them to run, go on without him, because maybe there was something more important than his stupid pay. By the time he realized it was useless, they were gone and their airship had taken off. He watched it go, feeling nothing but a sense of annoyance at himself for trying to be a martyr. "Well, at least you stayed," he told Interceptor.
He saw the explosion, but never heard it. He grabbed Interceptor and held on tight for as long as he could. Then everything went black.
On that day, the world was changed forever...
He woke up because there was something wet on his face.
He was surprised he'd woken up at all. He was pretty sure a lot of people hadn't. When he sat up and looked around he corrected himself: he was pretty sure nobody had. The world was unhappy again—the sky the same color of blood and fire, and the ground the color of rust. Thank goodness for Interceptor—once Shadow sat up, his head was clearer, and he realized there'd been some kind of awful gas on the ground. Probably poison. That would be just his luck.
He was hungry and the mask was half burned off of his face and he wasn't sure he could walk, but Interceptor barked at him and he walked anyway. A while later he came to a coliseum—they'd pay him to fight, they said,and fighting and pay were all he knew, so he decided to stay. He expected everyone he fought with before the world died to be dead, so he didn't think about them, especially not Relm. It worked about as well as trying not to think about Baram or Lorenne. In the end, it didn't matter. They surprised him and found him anyway, even in a dead world in the middle of nowhere. It was Interceptor who led them to him, and when they entered the Coliseum, it was Relm who got to him first, throwing her arms around him and kissing him on the cheek just like she had a year ago when he barely cared about her at all.
Because Shadow had nothing better to do, he figured he'd go with them and try and save the world. He'd once dismissed the party for their cheesy heroics and martyr-like attitudes, but it was kind of catching to think you were important. Still, whenever he saw something like the thief moaning to his girlfriend about some scratch he'd gotten, he had to roll his eyes. They were a ridiculous lot.
"They're hot and heavy, huh?" Relm asked Shadow one day, while he was pretending not to watch them fight with each other about whether the group was ready to go down into the tower yet or not.
"They're annoying," Shadow said softly, but he smiled behind the mask. Kid had a good head on her shoulders.
"What do you think? Are we ready?"
"Everyone's here." Shadow shrugged. "We're as ready as we'll ever be."
"We might die," Relm pointed out.
"Everybody dies sometime," Shadow pointed out.
"Grandpa said when my mom died, you ran away."
It took Shadow a minute to digest this comment, and when he did he sat perfectly still, waiting for the right thing to say to come to him. It didn't, so he said, "When did he tell you?" That son of a bitch...
"After he thought you died," Relm said flippantly. She glanced back over at the thief. He was stewing, looking mad about something, but at least his girlfriend was gone and the fight was over. "That's why he had such a dumb look on his face when he saw you again."
So she'd noticed, too. "And you weren't going to say anything?"
"I wanted you to tell me. But since we might all die anyway, I thought I'd better get things said. Just in case."
And this kid was only eleven years old. Shadow studied her,impressed. "You'd have regrets at your age?"
"‘Everybody has regrets'," Relm said, making her voice sound low and flat like his. Then she sneaked a glance at his face and giggled. "Geez. And you think their angst is bad." Her smile faded. "I just wanted to ask you one thing."
"What's that?" Shadow asked cautiously.
"I..." Relm looked down, then around behind her. The thief had left, too, now. They were alone. Even Interceptor was up on deck. "Just once, I wanted to see your face. Mom got to and Grandpa has, but I..."
Did pulling a kid out of a burning building make up for not being a father for elven years, or did he still owe her this? Shadow shifted, uncomfortable. "I don't show people my face," he told her. "I'm an assassin. That could get me killed."
"Oh," she said, "okay. Okay, well, I just thought I'd—"
"Just once," Shadow said quickly, "and then it never happened."
Relm brightened. "Okay."
"No paintings, either," he added, not trusting her because that had been too easy.
"No paintings," she promised. He glanced down at her hands. One was in her pocket. She pulled it out to show she wasn't crossing any fingers. Shadow hesitated, then reached up to deftly undo his mask. It fell to his lap, and he stared at Relm, not really sure what his expression was betraying. She studied his face very closely, enough so that he nearly put the mask back on right then, but he clenched his hands and willed himself not to say anything.
"If we die," Relm said finally, "I want you to know I'm glad I got to meet you. I wanted to my whole life." Shadow really had no idea what to say to that, but she didn't push him—Interceptor had come down, and she was chasing him, rolling around on the floor and playing with him. Shadow put his mask back on and went in his room and shut the door and laid down on the bed and—since when was the person you wanted to meet your whole life an assassin, anyway?
An hour later they came and got him and told him it was time to go down into Kefka's Tower.
They split into three groups. Just his luck, he didn't get to go with Relm, but got picked to follow Strago Magus and the thief. Making their way to the bottom was easy, as far as he was concerned, but when they actually got to Kefka himself even Shadow felt a little scared. And then everybody was doing their hero-thing again, telling Kefka that there were Important Things to live for, even though Kefka was really too messed up to give a shit. But then they were all looking at him, and he realized it was his turn. What was important to him?
His dog, he thought at once. His dog was important. And somehow, some way, that smart-mouthed little brat standing next to him had become important, too. So that was it, then. His dog, and his...daughter.
His hand was on Interceptor's neck. Softly, he said, "I know what friends are." He sneaked a glance at Relm. "And family." He felt stupid saying it, but at the same time, he kind of owed the kid, didn't he?
It wasn't until after the bastard that was dead that he realized that he really had just done something important with his life. It was kind of nice to think out of all that sin—out of the robbing and killing and running away—he could do something worthwhile. He'd never gotten his pay, but he thought maybe he could rest in peace, now, if something ever happened. Stuck back behind the rest, he and Interceptor picked their way through the collapsing building as fast as they could go. He kept slowing the dog down because he only had two legs and one of them was injured, and he finally sat down and told Interceptor, "Go on."
Interceptor sat, too, and tilted his head to the side.
"I'm serious. Go. Go protect Relm."
"I know. But we said what needed to be said." I wanted to meet you my whole life. "Now you've got to go out and protect her because I can't. You've been a good friend. Will you do that for me?" Shadow swallowed down a lump in his throat. Don't tell me you're gonna cry, Clyde'...
Interceptor whined again, and took a few steps towards Shadow. He licked Shadow's face, then backed away.
"Yeah, you too." Shadow touched his face, and realized it was wet, and not just from dog slobber, either, but he pretended that was what it was. "Now go on." Interceptor went. Shadow closed his eyes, trying not to pay attention to how the building rumbled. It would have been nice to see the kid again, or the sun, but it wasn't going to happen.
"I can't run anymore," he whispered. "Not even for this." Everybody has regrets. He'd done so much wrong, and with the Reaper always on his heels he'd avoided death because he was afraid. But now...
In his mind's eye, he could see Baram and Lorenne. Their hands were held out for him.
Despite everything, they were waiting.