It was dark and there was no pull of gravity, which was a telltale sign. I'm dreaming. Majic felt light; he was flying… no, falling… The darkness was actually rushing past him at a furious rate, propelling him downward with that same force. He was going to hit the ground in a moment… any time now…
With an almost violent jerk, Majic's eyes shot open. And in the next instant, nearly choking on the strangled gasp that escaped his throat, he jolted himself upright.
I'm not falling…
He was breathing hard, like he'd run a mile. Majic ran a shaking hand over his face, trying to calm himself down and recover from his shock. It was dark out - he must have been knocked out for a while - but there was the familiar flickering combination of light and warmth nearby that told him even before he looked what the source was. Above the fire something was cooking in a pot - and the smell was good enough to make his stomach rumble. There was a worn blanket crumpled in Majic's lap: a sign that whoever had built the fire had not intended to just leave him there. Cleao?
If it had been his foster sister, she must have wandered off somewhere because he didn't see her nearby.
What had happened? Majic nervously clenched one hand around his blanket. The other, he noticed, still clutched the red crystal he'd found in the ruined temple. It felt uncomfortably warm and damp from being held so long, so he set it down beside him and wiped his hand on his shirt. The last thing I remember is the floor falling apart… and Cleao…
Cleao was gone, apparently.
Majic looked around. Nothing was familiar in any way - even if the temple had fallen apart for some reason, this couldn't possibly be the same area it had stood in. Most of what he saw was forest, but there were disjointed stone structures dotting the mossy clearing around the fire. This suggested that he was at the center of where a ruined building had once stood - but this place appeared to have been dismantled a long time ago. The walls were so fragmented that they couldn't even really be called walls any more, and there was no ceiling left at all.
Where on earth am I?
Footsteps approached from the other side of the fire, interrupting his train of thought. Cleao? He had a moment of hope; if Cleao was back, then at least he'd have some friendly company. That relief, unfortunately, was dashed in the next instant.
"So you're awake."
That was definitely not Cleao. Majic looked up apprehensively as a tall, undeniably male figure moved around the fire and stood in front of him. The newcomer had dark, roughly cut hair, and tanned skin. He was thin without being at all skinny, and his clothing was all in shades of blacks and greys - the sole exception being a thin red strip tied just below his hairline. From his height and build, he had to be at least nineteen - or even twenty. And he looked, especially in the moving shadows cast by the fire, decidedly unfriendly.
Majic wasn't sure he trusted himself to think of something to say.
Fortunately, the older man didn't seem to expect conversation. He glanced into the pot simmering over his fire then turned away from Majic, bending over a large bag that the younger boy had somehow missed in his survey of the area. He returned with two battered bowls and thrust one almost resentfully in the blond's face. Hands shaking a little, and still thoroughly confused, Majic took it.
"Lucky I have a couple of spares." The dark-haired man used the large mixing spoon that had been sitting in the pot to scoop some of the contents - a stew of some kind - into his bowl. "If you plan to eat my food, I'm going to expect you to cook and carry things for me, though." He sat down and handed Majic the spoon.
Who are you? He fully intended to ask the question, looking up to meet the man's gaze - but it never made it past his lips. He hadn't noticed before, when his companion had been standing farther away and in the shadows, but under the spiky mess of dark hair was a set of harshly slanted eyes of a color Majic had never seen before. It was almost a burnt shade; too brown to be overly red, but too red to be plain brown. Besides that, the thing that made this set of eyes remarkable was the way they were shuttered off - unreadable, one might say. And instead of making Majic feel more nervous, looking at them gave him a feeling of security that he couldn't even begin to trace. He felt, without knowing why, that he could trust this man.
It didn't even start to answer his questions, but at least it made him feel better.
So instead of asking, Majic offered a grateful smile - which, interestingly enough, caused the man's eyebrows to rise in what he guessed might be surprise. Whether it was or wasn't, though, the younger boy didn't really care. He didn't have to feel frightened; for now, that was enough. Questions could come later.
"Thanks," he said, and leaned over to get himself some food. Filling his bowl, he sat back and blew on the stew in an attempt to cool it.
"Your friend is sulking somewhere out there." The man waved a hand vaguely at the woods. "I figured she'd come back when she got hungry."
Majic smiled down at his bowl. So Cleao was all right. That was a relief… "You know her pretty well for someone we've only just met. Why is she sulking?"
The stranger made a dismissive noise. "You'd think she'd show a little gratitude to someone who took the time to pull her out of a mud pit," he said - avoiding the question completely.
Majic sipped at his bowl to hide another smile.
"You can use a spoon for that, you know." The dark-haired man turned and fished two spoons out of his bag, holding one out for Majic to take. "Before you start eating, why don't you tell me who you are?"
Majic hesitated only a moment; for some reason, he didn't want to tell this stranger his middle name instead of the one his mother had given him. "Majic Rin," he said - and waited to see if there'd be any response.
Nothing. "You can call me Orphen," his companion said in reply, and smirked. "If I let you stick around long enough to call me anything."
Majic kept his eyes on the stew as he stirred it around. "I'm not totally sure yet, but I don't think we have anywhere else we can go." If his suspicions were founded, getting back to the cabin was going to be very difficult.
Strangely enough, that didn't exactly bother him.
Orphen shrugged. "Like I said, if you want to eat my food, you're going to have to work for it. That means doing my cooking and washing my clothes and carrying my stuff - if you're really sure you want to follow me around." He smirked again. "I'm not always very easy to get along with."
Neither is Cleao, but I managed somehow. "I won't be a bother or anything."
"You might not be, but that girl is going to get on my nerves." Orphen frowned. "Still, from what she said when she wasn't screaming, I don't think either of you will last long without someone to look after you."
And if that's what you told Cleao, then now I know why she was screaming. Majic decided that it probably wouldn't be in his best interests to voice that thought. "Is there a reason you're traveling by yourself?" he asked, instead.
This had to be a touchy subject; Orphen turned his face away, expression guarded. "I'm looking for a way to save someone," he said, after a moment.
Majic couldn't help but be reminded of his conversation with Cleao before they'd gone into the temple. "It doesn't happen to be a beautiful girl trapped in a tower, does it?" he asked, only half serious.
Orphen gave him a startled look. "How do you - ?" He stopped as his eyes caught on something beside Majic, and his whole manner changed. "Is that…?"
"Huh?" Majic looked down. "Oh. This." He picked up the red crystal again. "I found it while Cleao and I were in the temple - before the floor started collapsing, anyway."
The way Orphen was staring at him was a bit disconcerting. "The floor started collapsing?" the older man repeated, raising an eyebrow at him.
Majic blinked. "I thought Cleao would have told you already."
"She didn't tell me anything; all she did was whine and complain." Now Orphen was clearly getting irritated. "Never mind that - where did you find the crystal? Tell me exactly!"
"In that cylinder table on the dais." Majic looked down at the egg-shaped crystal in his hand. It didn't look all that important - but looks could be deceiving. "There was a space on the side that was sort of caved - "
"Yes, yes, that's not important," Orphen interrupted, impatiently. "Was there anything strange about the top of the table?"
"There were nine grooves shaped like this." He held up the crystal. "I figured that this was what they were made to hold, but there weren't any others around."
Orphen was still staring at the crystal, but his eyes held a kind of triumph. "That's the one… Rai was right, then." The words were almost reverent. "That makes eight."
Majic could only blink in response. "Eight what?"
"Eight blood crystals." Orphen obviously took note of his blank expression, because he went on without pausing. "There are only nine in existence, and when you have all of them together, you can use them to summon the Great Dragon."
"And there'd be a red dragon, too." Again, Majic found himself reminded strongly of the conversation between himself and Cleao. "Great Dragon?"
"It's supposed to be the most powerful force in the known world," Orphen explained in an offhand tone, as if it were nothing important. "When you summon it with the blood crystals, you can ask it to do things for you." He finally raised his eyes from the crystal back up to meet Majic's gaze again. "According to what we know, it can do just about anything. Whether it'll forgive you for asking…" At this, the older man smirked. "That's another story."
Majic couldn't even manage to disbelieve any of it. "It's not a red dragon, is it?"
Orphen gave him a searching look. "It used to be. But that was before the - "
"AAAAAIIIIIIIEEEE! Somebody help!"
The dark-haired man was on his feet in a second, whatever he'd been about to say forgotten. Following that familiar scream was a deafening roar - with a whining, otherworldly tone to it - and an ear-splitting crunching sound like trees being torn out of the ground. For a moment, Majic just sat frozen.
In the next instant, the blonde girl burst out from the trees, eyes wild and almost tripping over her own feet as she hurled herself at Orphen. And even as he caught hold of her, the dark shape that she'd been running from came crashing into the small clearing in close pursuit.
Majic was forced to dive off to one side, rolling painfully with the excess momentum, as one massive dark appendage came crashing down on the spot where he'd just been sitting. He pushed himself into a tense crouch, looked up, and couldn't hold in a strangled gasp.
The creature was not - could not be - anything from the natural world. It was easily the size of a small house, and its body seemed consumed with a dark substance that swirled and churned as if it were liquid or gaseous. There were claws on its hands and feet, and its arms were massive. Above a dripping, fanged maw were two glowing white eyes that turned, even as Orphen set Cleao aside, to focus their malevolent glare directly on Majic.
The blond boy backed away, unable to stop cringing in terror. He couldn't think; couldn't breathe. Get it away… oh god, get it away, get it AWAY!
"Come forth! Fire!"
And then the creature was engulfed in flame.
Majic scrambled backward, looking around wildly until his gaze settled on Orphen, who was standing off to the right with one hand outstretched. The older man almost appeared to be surrounded by pure force, as if the energy of everything around him were gathered into the air and called to where he stood. "Wind!" he ordered, and a sharp stabbing force of air came rushing from his fingertips to push the creature back.
Majic could only stare, awed despite his fear. Orphen…
The monster roared again, throwing its massive arms about in anger and pain. With animal strength, it beat the fire away, and the darkness pulled back from its fangs in a feral snarl. Again, those terrible white eyes turned toward Majic.
"O-Orphen…" The younger boy pushed himself backward, trying to escape the gaze of his adversary. He couldn't even summon enough thought to wonder why it was so interested in him; everything narrowed down to the approaching creature.
Get back, get back, get back, get back…
Majic backed up into something solid behind him, and a corner of his mind snapped into total panic as he realized he was trapped. Instinctively, he struck out with one hand, trying to put all the force he could gather into the gesture and the words as he screamed out, "Get BACK!"
Then the world seemed to explode, and Majic was pulled back into darkness.
"What's the matter with him?"
Cleao's voice was the first thing to penetrate the tired haze that had settled around Majic's brain. That didn't surprise him, even in that confused moment where he hovered between waking and sleeping. Cleao's voice was the sort you paid attention to, whether you were awake or not.
Maybe this is all a dream, and I'll wake up in the car on the way to the cabin. Wouldn't that figure? It didn't seem like it, though… More like the opposite. Meeting Orphen… fighting that monster… that seemed more like the reality than living with the Everlastings ever had.
"Just shock." That was Orphen's voice; so it wasn't a dream. "It's pretty normal for someone using sorcery for the first time."
That woke him up, and fast. Majic's eyes flew open. "S-Sorcery…?" he gasped out.
"He's awake!" Cleao bounded over to his side, dropping to her knees beside where he was stretched out on the ground and peering closely at his face. "You don't look so great," she told him, almost cheerfully.
Thanks a lot… "I don't feel all that great, either." It was the same kind of winded feeling he got after a particularly brutal gym class. "What happened? I just remember that monster coming at me, and…" He trailed over, shuddering a little. "Then I blacked out."
Orphen came to stand beside Cleao. "You used black sorcery on it. Don't you remember?"
"Black… sorcery…?" Majic blinked at him, feeling about as intelligent as a dung beetle.
"I was able to sense it, so I'd be willing to bet it was black magic, and not white." Orphen frowned. "It felt different than it usually does, for some reason."
"I used magic?" He was having trouble taking this in. "Me?"
"You sent it flying!" Cleao waved a hand enthusiastically to illustrate. "After Orphen aimed that wind thing at it, you got backed into a tree, and then you sorta waved your arm - like this - and said 'get back'. And it did!"
"It'll be back." Orphen shrugged. "It might be a good idea to get out of here. The more people around us, the less likely it is that it'll attack again."
Majic levered himself into a sitting position. "What was it?"
"A servant of some kind." Orphen seemed unconcerned, which made Majic feel better. At least if the older man felt he could handle it, their safety was in good hands. And with the kind of power he'd displayed during the fight… Majic definitely felt right about trusting him. "It's after the blood crystal," the sorcerer continued. "That's why it kept attacking you."
He couldn't really think of much to say to that. "Oh."
"Wait there," Orphen said abruptly. "I need to check something." He turned away from them and jogged into the forest where the creature had left a wide track of destruction.
"He's pretty cool, hmm?" Cleao beamed at Majic. "Did you see him do that sorcery? It was great!"
"Yeah…" Majic stared after the dark-haired sorcerer. What is it about him that makes me so sure he'll keep me safe? "I saw."
Cleao nudged him hard in the ribs, breaking that trance. "You may be my friend, and my adopted little brother," she announced, with characteristic determination. "But" - and with that she stabbed a finger toward his face - "I am not going to lose this one to you!"
"Eh?" Majic blinked. "Lose… what?"
She opened her mouth to reply, but shut it again when Orphen came back out of the forest again. "Nothing," the older man said, frowning. "I didn't really think I'd find anything. They're too good at covering their tracks."
"Who are 'they'?" Cleao asked him.
He looked down his nose at her. "No one you need to know about."
"Oh, you are not getting away with that one, mister!" She faced him down, hands fisted on her hips. "You had better start telling us what's going on, and I mean now!"
"Who do you think you are!?" Orphen's eyebrows went down as his voice raised. "I don't have to explain anything to you!"
"Oh yeah? Well…" Cleao reached down and grabbed hold of Majic's wrist, holding up the hand that was still clutching the blood crystal. "If you want this," she told him, triumphantly, "you'd better listen to what I say!"
Orphen twitched, seemingly on the verge of saying something not so complimentary. He let out a frustrated breath then seemed to get himself under control. "Fine," he said, turning his glare on Majic.
The blond boy swallowed nervously. What did I do?
"Good!" Cleao let go of Majic's wrist, seemingly satisfied. "You can start by telling us why these things are so important, and then after that, go right ahead and tell us what you're going to do when you find them."
Orphen's expression was blank. "The first is simple," he said. "But the second is going to take a while."
"Well, I have plenty of time!" Cleao sat herself cross-legged beside Majic, fixing Orphen with a stubborn gaze. "So why don't you get started, hmm?"
"Don't forget that you asked for it." Orphen sat down himself, a few feet away. Majic sat up a little straighter, intrigued. He would never say it - not in front of Orphen - but he was glad Cleao had forced the issue.
"It's not really anyone's fault." Orphen shrugged again, looking away from his audience. "But you could say it started because of the first blood crystal that Azalie found - seven years ago, in the Dragon Temple."
He looked back at them again, and a smirk tugged at his lips. "Azalie always knew where to find something dangerous."