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Pokémon Wandersword (redux)

I: Helical
  • kyeugh

    you gotta feel your lines
    Staff
    Location
    the freaking swamp
    Pronouns
    she/her
    Partners
    1. farfetchd-galar
    2. custom/gfetchd-kyeugh
    3. custom/onion-san
    4. farfetchd
    • Feb. 21, 2021: Prim no longer kills the zoroark, and merely scares it off instead.


    Part I: Curtains​


    ⟡⟡⟡


    I: Helical​


    I wouldn’t wish the almighty burden of saving the world on my worst enemy. Yet I must shoulder it all the same. Everything depends on it.


    The journey to Laverre had taken five days, but it felt like a lifetime. Ferrycloth the lucario had grown dreadfully tired of sitting and waiting, and now that he’d finally made it to Laverre, he was sitting and waiting here too.

    Waiting to meet the knight who would be his new master.

    Before the clerk had stepped out to wait for the Wandersword, he'd ordered Ferry to sit down on one of the stools lined up against the wall. But Ferry wasn’t particularly fond of the idea of spending more time in a seat after having spent so long on the wagon, so as soon as the clerk was gone, the lucario had sprung up to stretch his legs. The room was cramped, though, divided in half by a counter, leaving him with only a few feet to pace around in.

    The city of Laverre was just outside. The little window on the building’s front face was so coated in grime that he could hardly see out it, but he could hear the sounds of the street even through the walls: the clopping hoofs of a passerby gogoat, the hollow whooping of a vendor advertising their wares, or when people passed close enough to the building, even a few words from their conversation. The multitude of auras outside was overwhelming, and Ferry’s aura feelers had been aching dully since they’d approached the city walls.

    He’d never been somewhere with so much life packed so closely together. His master—no, former master now—never had cause to take him to a human city. Ferry had been a hunting dog all his life, tasked with detecting game with his aura sense, and there was no hunting to be done in a place like this. The thought of making his way through the city alone, a solitary mon in a sea of humans, was a frightening one, but part of him still longed to explore anyway. It felt like some kind of punishment that he was forced to wait in here with only the inches-thick wall separating him from the sights and sounds of the city.

    The Wandersword was supposed to be here by now anyway. “They’ll arrive a night before we do,” the Wandersword that had escorted him here had said when they’d set out. “Wanderswords ride alone. They have no wagons to bring, no passengers to carry. Compared to us, they’ll ride like the wind.” Yet here he was, stomach roiling as he waited for his new master to show up. So far they weren’t leaving the best impression.

    Until the knight arrived, Ferry had only his thoughts for company, just as it had been on the wagon. He found himself unable to wrangle his mind as he sat still in the quiet. It loped to the strangest places and fished up the most obscure memories: hunts in the sunlight-dappled forest; petty arguments and play-fights with his brother; the savory delight of the luxurious table scraps he’d been allowed on feast nights, the hearty laughs of his master’s guests audible even from the dank kennels. He’d hated his life at the manor, but some of the memories had been good, and it was hard not to dwell on them. He’d even enjoyed the thrill of the hunt, odd though it felt to derive pleasure from his servitude. And at least he had been with others of his kind then. Ever since he left, he’d felt so small and alone.

    More than anything he thought of the words he’d exchanged the night before leaving the manor for Laverre, the night before he’d left his family behind for a new, uncertain life under a new master. “My heart will ache for you every day,” his mother had said mournfully. Unlike Ferry, who had been born at the manor and had only ever known servitude, his mother had been born free. She remembered a time when lucario were a free people, and reminded him that things had been different, once. “But this is an opportunity,” she had added. “Take from it what you can, and become strong. Hold onto your anger. Don’t you forget for a moment what they took from us. Once you become powerful, you can shape the world to your will.” They were good words. He said them over and over in his head, trying his hardest to form them in his mother’s voice. He wondered how long it would be before he forgot what she sounded like.

    Greyscar had spoken to him too. He was an old fool, but for once Ferry had been glad to hear his words. “When the time is right, you must climb Mount Molteau,” the elder had told him urgently. He was normally so mellow and even-keeled, but he had been dead serious that night, more serious than Ferry had ever seen him in his life. “I left an old relic there long ago, far and safe from the prying hands of humans… It goes to you now. It must.” When Ferry had asked him when the right time would be, the old wolf had just chuckled. “Would that I could answer that question for you, rio-lu.” Little one. “You will simply know.”

    Ferry had always hated that hoary bastard, who spoke in riddles and urged them not to bare their teeth at their oppressors. His mother told him that before the Siege of Lucar, before the humans had taken their people as servants, Greyscar had been the chief of the lucario and the most powerful warrior in the tribe, but Ferry found that hard to believe. He didn’t see how someone with such a weak will could have ever commanded respect.

    Voices sounded from just outside, causing Ferry’s ears to prick and snapping him from his reverie. One of the voices was feminine and low. The other he recognized as the voice of the clerk—suddenly panicked, he scrambled back to the stool and seated himself hurriedly. He very rapidly became unbearably nervous as he waited for the door to swing open, heart suddenly hammering and blood rushing hot. He struggled to keep his tongue from falling slack in a pant.

    The clerk entered first. He looked slight compared to the Wandersword behind him, whose wide, towering silhouette occupied most of the doorframe. Ferry blinked rapidly. As his eyes acclimated to the light, the Wandersword’s features came into view.

    Her pale blue eyes were sunken into a face creased with worry lines and marred with a single pale scar that ran from her left cheek to the edge of her square jaw. Some of her wavy blonde hair was tied back, and some of it fell in locks that framed her face, accentuating the rectangular shape of her head. Boiled leather armor covered her body, all straps and gleaming buckles, and a huge sword was slung over her back, its brass hilt visible over her shou lder. Ferry thought she looked like a woman who had seen many battles and had spent many nights beneath the stars. Her aura was like a graveler, weighty and impenetrable. In those instants, although he found himself unable to read through her impassive facade, he knew that she was sizing him up just as much as he was her.

    “A lucario, huh?” she said at least, her voice bold and deliberate as a terrakion. Something about the words made Ferry feel small and angry at once. “Yeah, okay.”

    “Yes,” the clerk said, shuffling his way around the counter and producing some paperwork from beneath it. “I hope that’s to your liking.”

    “My liking?” The knight grunted. “It would have been to my liking not to have to lug another body around at all. But yes, he’ll do fine. Er, he, right?”

    It took Ferry a moment to realize she was speaking to him. “Yes,” he said. “He. My name is Ferrycloth, of Lucar.”

    “Yeah, I pretty much figured you were ‘of Lucar,’” she said, making an amused-sounding grunt that wasn’t quite a chuckle. “Right, names. I’m Primeveire. Just Prim’s good.”

    “Primeveire,” Ferry echoed. It was hard for him to pronounce. He was glad she’d allowed him to shorten it. “You can call me Ferry.”

    “Ferry,” she said, drawing the name out as if testing it. “That’s cute.” Heat rose to Ferry’s face, and his aura feelers prickled. He couldn’t decide if he was embarrassed or indignant—probably both. Before he could formulate a response, Prim turned to the clerk. “So that’s it, then? We can go?”

    “Well, nearly,” the clerk said, shuffling the papers he’d retrieved. “Record-keeping and all that. If you could just sign here…” He offered her a quill. “Yes, good. And Ferrycloth—can you spell?”

    “No,” he said. He wasn’t sure why he was ashamed to admit that. What need did lucario have for markings on a page? Letters and writing were irrelevant to a pack in perfect aural sync; maps and figures had no use when one could sense the environment and all things in it. His tail swished in irritation.

    No matter,” the clerk said. “I’ll give it my best guess then. F… A… I… R…” He fell silent for a moment, then set his quill down. “That does it. Let it be known that I have officially borne witness to the transfer of ownership of one lucario called Ferrycloth to Ser Primeveire Wanderling, on this twelfth of September… and so on, you get it.”

    Prim pressed her lips into a line. “Great, thanks,” she said. “If that’s everything…”

    “Yes, that’s all. God with you,” he said with a bow of his head.

    “You too,” Prim replied, waving a hand dismissively. Then she turned her attention to Ferry. “Let’s go then. I’ve got a few things to pick up now that you’re coming along, but I don’t plan on sticking around here. Never been a big fan of cities. Hopefully we can get some distance behind us before the sun sets.”

    Ferry nodded and stood, legs a little shaky, then followed her out the door. He looked back at the dingy little building as they walked away from it. The waiting was over; this was really happening now. It was real.

    “You coming?” Prim asked.

    He managed to pry his eyes away, heart fluttering, and they made their way into the city.

    It was hot for a September day, but the sun was perched behind a cloud, so it at least less bright and warm outside than it had been before. The cobblestones were still unpleasantly hot, though, and he winced when his paws made contact with them.

    “Are you hurt?” Prim asked. The question caught him off guard. Why did she care? His master had always left it to him to heal up, and the Wandersword that had accompanied him on the wagon during the journey to Laverre had hardly made so much as small talk once the wagon was in motion, much less expressed concern for his wellbeing.

    “I’m fine,” he said. “The cobblestones are just hot.”

    “Oh. I guess it would kind of hurt to walk around barefoot in this weather.” She looked down at her own feet, which were clad in sturdy leather boots that reached halfway up her knee. “We can do something about that. I doubt they sell any shoes that’ll fit feet like yours around here, but I can put something together. I’ll just need a few things from the apothecary.”

    Huh? Ferry almost stopped in his tracks. “You’ll… Really?” He thought of his former master’s brother, who had visited the manor to hunt a few times a year and always gave treats of jerky and bone to the lucario he borrowed. He and his peers had appreciated his kindness but also thought it strange. Perhaps it wasn’t so strange after all…?

    Prim looked down at him, an eyebrow arched. He felt her aura squirm slightly with befuddlement. “Yeah, it’ll be a few silver, it’s not a big deal. Why are you looking at me like that?”

    A human has never looked out for me like this, he wanted to say. But he thought of his mother and her warning words. She had known the hearts of humans better than he did. She’d seen their violent, callous nature firsthand. He decided to remain cautious and said, “It’s nothing. I just wasn’t sure where you would find shoes for me at first. But what you say makes sense.” He paused for a moment. Then: “Thank you.”

    “Don’t sweat it,” she said despite the doubt he felt emanating from her, and they pressed on.

    Their visit to the apothecary was quick. She came out with a roll of bandages and a small vial of rawst salve; she applied the stuff liberally to the bottom of his paws, which was a little embarrassing, then wrapped them thickly with the bandages, leaving the end open so he could wiggle his toes. At first, he found the slimy feeling of the salve at the bottom of his new makeshift sandals offputting, and they threw off his balance slightly, but before long he was walking confidently, and his paws felt strangely cool. He felt his chest swell with gratitude.

    Was Mother wrong about the humans after all? He pushed the thought away. Time would tell.

    Prim effortlessly navigated the sea of bodies that flooded the merchants’ district, and it wasn’t hard to see how—people gave the towering armored woman a comfortable berth. Ferry had a bit more trouble making his way, however. He only came up to the average person’s chest and no one seemed to have any reservations about pushing him out of their way. One shove would cause him to stumble forward into the another passerby, who pushed him again in turn. His anger climbed with each successive shove, and it wasn’t long before he had half a mind to shove someone right back, but he could scarcely imagine what hell would befall him if he were to try something so foolish. Fortunately, Prim was tall enough that her head bobbed above the crowd, so Ferry was able to make his way back to her easily even when the roughness of the crowd caused him to lag behind.

    They stopped at a few more shops after the apothecary. When they came to the butcher, she let him pick out a jerky, and he thought of his former master’s brother again. At all the other stops he waited outside for her, chewing on his new jerky and soaking in the sights and smells and sounds of the city. A massive tree loomed in the distance, casting the rooftops in its shadow, and the roads were littered with its gilded leaves. Prim explained to him that the tree was older than the city itself and that some revered it as a nature god. It was only early autumn, she said, but at the season’s peak the streets were flooded with the tree’s huge golden leaves.

    He found himself staring at the tree blankly while he waited for her outside the shops, losing himself in the myriad auras, so loud and numerous that the air around him seemed to tremble. So many people poured through the streets, and there were mon abound, too. He spotted more than a few people walking their dogs—boltund and furfrou—and countless pidove hopped on the cobblestones and nestled on windowsills. He was unable to latch onto any single aura in the cacophony—the chaos of auras washed over him as one. As he acclimatized, the roar subsided into an ambient buzz, almost pleasant. But as the hours slipped by the edge began to creep back. When Prim said she was done shopping and it was time to go, he was all too ready.

    Her gogoat was waiting for her at a stable near the city’s outer wall. It had a strange odor, like the earthy smells of soil and manure speared through by the sharp scents of basil and mint. Prim dumped a handful of bronze coins into the stableboy’s cupped palm, then took her gogoat’s reins and scratched the animal behind the ears.

    “Hey, Scout,” she said. “Thanks for waiting up.” The gogoat bleated softly in response. “Listen, this guy here is joining us now.” She gestured at Ferry. “He doesn’t have a steed of his own, so you’re going to have to carry both of us for now, okay?” Scout snorted—Ferry felt his aura flicker with irritation. “I know, I know. I’m sorry. But I know you’re strong enough for it, right?” The gogoat tilted its head to the side and then shook it, curling its lip. “Yeah, that’s what I thought.”

    She loaded her new purchases into the saddlebags hanging from Scout’s sides, then put her foot into a stirrup and swung her leg over the gogoat’s back in one fluid motion.

    “You too,” she said to Ferry. “Up.”

    He nervously approached the gogoat and watched as its flank rose and fell, the lush foliage on its back matted beneath the weight of Prim and the saddle.

    “He won’t bite,” Prim assured him. Ferry placed his foot in the stirrup and then paused, nervous. Prim extended an arm, and he reluctantly grabbed it; she pulled him upward with some difficulty, and after a bit of struggle he was seated safely on its back. He concluded very quickly that it was not a saddle made for two.

    “Arms around me,” Prim instructed. Ferry winced, embarrassed by the odd embrace, but did as he was told. To his surprise, she barely felt like a living thing—her solid frame and suit of leather made it feel more like hugging a barrel.

    Prim steered Scout away from the stable and away from Laverre, onto the road. The city’s cobblestones eventually gave way to packed dirt, and the road seemed to unfurl endlessly before them, disappearing into the horizon like an infinite ribbon of twine wrapping up the world. As they traveled further and further from the city walls, the wilds came to life—fletchling darted between towering pines, skwovet dashed up the trunks, and even the odd fletchinder could be seen roosting in the upper branches. Much to his chagrin, Ferry quickly discovered that riding a gogoat was far worse than riding on a wagon pulled by one. Each step sent a jarring shock through his bones, and it took no time at all for soreness to invade every part of him.

    After a while, Prim spoke up. “There’s a small village I know not far from here. We probably won’t make it there today, so we’ll have to make camp, but we’ll get there tomorrow for sure. I don’t think we’ll have trouble finding work there.”

    “Find work?” Ferry cocked his head. “Are you not a knight already? A Wandersword?”

    He felt a jolt of surprise bounce from Prim. “Huh? I mean, yes, but… Well, that’s not how this works. They really didn’t tell you anything, huh?” She looked over her shoulder at Ferry, and he shook his head. “Well, basically, we’re really good at dealing with mon. People pay us to do it.”

    “Dealing with mon…?”

    “Sure. Like taking down a rampaging haxorus, helping a snorlax give birth, taking care of a skorupi infestation, whatever. It’s all part of the job.”

    A prong of discomfort stabbed at Ferry. He was a mon.

    “And you just wander around, hoping you bump into someone who needs help?” he asked.

    “Yeah, pretty much. It’s more common than you think. We’re the only ones who know how to do most of the stuff we do, and there aren’t many of us, relatively speaking. Fewer and fewer by the day.” She let those words linger for a moment. “Most folks go a long time without seeing a Wandersword. By the time one of us makes our way to a town, they’ve stacked up a whole list of shit they need taken care of.” Despite the harshness of her words, she didn’t sound frustrated. “‘Course, not all of us really live up to the ‘wander’ part. Lots of Wanderswords, especially the younger ones, set up shop in a city and suck up all the jobs there forever. But for me, exploring the country is part of what makes the job exciting. All that ‘settling down’ business was never for me. Didn’t used to be, anyway.” Ferry expected her to say something else, but she didn’t. He sensed a twinge of longing and decided not to press the matter further.

    “So what do you need me for then?” he asked.

    Prim scoffed. Ferry couldn’t help but feel a little offended by that. “Need? Any Wandersword worth half their salt doesn’t need anyone for anything. That’s the point.” She paused, then added, “But the folks at headquarters like pairing us up with mon when they can. Say it ‘augments’ our abilities. You lucario are supposed to have some kind of aura sense, right? That’ll probably be useful. I’m sure that’s what they were thinking.”

    Aura sense. Useful. Ferry felt something inside him sink. Back at the manor, his job had been to accompany his master on hunts and detect prey with his aura sensors, then either retrieve it or lead his master to it. That didn’t sound too different from what Prim was describing. So this would be more of the same, then. He wasn’t sure what he’d expected.

    This is an opportunity, he could hear his mother saying. Take from it what you can, and become strong. There was more to this than being used as a tool again, he thought. Prim was a highly experienced warrior. He could learn from her.

    “When does my training begin?” he asked meekly.

    “Training?” He felt the confusion radiating off her, but it quickly reshaped into revelation, tall and rigid. “Oh.” She pulled up on the reins, bringing Scout to a stop, and turned around to face him best she could. The sky was waxing indigo now, and a few stars had twinkled to life. The mournful song of a distant kricketune broke the silence first.

    “Listen, Ferry…” He felt his stomach drop at the sound of his name. Whatever she was about to say, he doubted he was going to like it. He’d tried to remain hopeful about this situation, tried to cling to his mother’s words, but he felt the cracks in his optimism beginning to form. “I don’t know who put it in your head that I was going to train you, because most Wanderswords don’t train their mon. You do the aura sensing, I do the combat. That’s how it’s supposed to work. Now, I’m not like the rest of them, and I admit that if things were different, I might think about teaching you a thing or two, but…” He felt sympathy spilling from her in waves. At first the tender feeling soothed him, but then he felt his anxiety ignite into anger. Why was she doing this to him? Why couldn’t she just train him? Then came the answer: “I don’t plan on keeping this up much longer. Not long enough to pass on anything worth knowing.”

    “What?” Ferry demanded, the word coming out more forcefully than he’d intended. Speaking seemed to have opened the floodgates of his emotion; anger washed over him now. Anger at the injustice of his situation, anger at her apathy. Everything had been taken from him so he could serve under her, and his only solace had been the hope that he would learn from her. Only for her to now reveal she was planning on jumping ship as soon as possible? His vision blurred slightly, and his aura feelers burned hot. He felt a brief spur of fear flare off Prim, but it quickly solidified into stern resolve.

    “I’ve been at this a long time, okay? Almost thirty years now. I’m ready to hang my sword up. And if I want do that, that’s my business, you understand? I don’t owe you anything just because the Wandersword Corps decided I needed another partner. Buying supplies to accommodate you has set me back a little, but all I need is a few more jobs and I’ll finally be able to afford to rest. So… I can’t train you.” She stared at him intensely, and he felt his hot anger transform into cool fury. “I’m sorry,” she choked out, and he could feel that she meant it, but it bounced right off him. She turned around and spurred Scout onward.

    They rode in silence after that. Ferry wasn’t sure for how long—he felt frozen in place, his mind at once racing and perfectly still. The landscape blurred past him, nothing more than strokes of color in his periphery. He barely noticed when she led Scout off the path and into the woods. Eventually she dismounted, lit a torch, and began to set up camp in a small clearing. Somehow, a part of him still wanted to offer to help, but it didn’t outweigh the numbness, the inertia of sitting on the gogoat’s back and staring at nothing.

    This is all for nothing, he thought. This wasn’t an opportunity. He wouldn’t become stronger. He’d just been handed off to another master, one with a softer tone but just as firm a grip. His mother, his siblings… He’d never see them again, and for what? To play servant for some defeated old knight who didn’t want him there, who didn’t even want to be there herself? He had nothing now, no future and no people and no home.

    He was barely aware of anything but his thoughts until Prim spoke. She didn’t have a sleeping place for him yet, she explained after a while. He nodded, somehow extracting meaning despite barely hearing the words. She’d laid out some of Scout’s hay for him, which was better than nothing, she said. Some distant part of him wanted to thank her, but he didn’t say anything. Instead he dismounted the gogoat mechanically, landing harder than he’d expected on the makeshift sandals Prim had made him. By the time he had reached the ground, Prim was already laying in her sleeping roll, torch extinguished, eyes screwed shut.

    Ferry looked down at his feet, and then at the hay she’d laid out for him, and his cool anger receded slightly. Prim had made him these sandals to protect his feet, and let him pick out any jerky he wanted, and had made this bed for him. All things considered, this was an improvement over his old life. He hadn’t realized it until now, but today had been one of the best days in his life. He was still being used as a resource, yes, but at least he was to some extent finally being treated as something more than that, too. It wouldn’t be everything he’d hoped for, but he could learn to live this way. Tomorrow would be a new day. It was painful, carrying so much anger. It was tiring. He could make amends and learn to find happiness in his new life, just as he had in his old one.

    But once again he thought of his mother. He thought of her words: hold onto your anger. He thought of the stories she told him, stories of the humans laying waste to his ancestral home. Then he thought of his former master’s harshness, the years he spent in those dank kennels with his stomach growling, the hours he spent toiling against his will just for the right to live. His sympathy for Prim withered up. The sandals, the jerky—none of that mattered. They were nice gestures, yes, and he was grateful for them, but gestures couldn’t erase the thing that mattered. She was one of them, and he had been handed over to her like an object. I’m still being used as a tool, he thought, cold fury heavy in his chest. This anger, this injustice he felt—it wasn’t arbitrary, it wasn’t a mere reaction. Carrying it was his birthright, and his duty. The fact that his new master was somewhat kinder than his old one didn’t make her any less unjust. It didn’t make things different. His mother was right.

    Nothing has fundamentally changed. I was a fool for thinking for even a moment that it would.

    Yet he had to become strong. That’s what his mother had told him. Once you become powerful, you can shape the world to your will. And that’s what he would do. He would become powerful, and he would create a world where his people were free.

    If Prim—if this woman wasn’t going to help him do that, he would have to get there on his own.

    His training could start now.

    “Prim,” he whispered. No response. “Prim,” he said again, louder this time. Again, no response. She was definitely asleep.

    Ferry felt oddly calm now, as though his anger had frozen over entirely into cool determination. He stood up and began to walk away from the camp and away from the road, further into the wilderness. Scout bleated at him, quiet but stern. Ferry felt the scorn rising off him. He answered with a scowl. Quiet, the scowl said. He knew the gogoat understood it. With that he took off into the forest, tail swishing behind him.

    He walked in a straight line until he was far enough that he was sure Prim wouldn’t be able to hear him. Then he squared his stance, held his arms at his side, and took a deep breath.

    A memory played out in his mind’s eye.

    Greyscar used to wake up before anyone else. He would walk to the corner of the room and start in the same square, neutral stance Ferry held now. Then he would move one arm, slowly but so deliberately, and then the next. He’d lift a leg, hold it there, then gradually drop it. The movements were practiced and slow as anything, but at the same time fluid and intentional. He would inch along, almost imperceptibly slow but ever in motion, like an avalugg in migration. He’d had some strange name for it, something in the old lucario tongue, complicated and impossible for Ferry to pronounce. In Kalosian, he had simply called it “Agility.”

    Ferry took another deep breath, trying his best to clear his mind, and then attempted to replicate the motions. He’d never memorized them and found himself regretting it now. He had no love for that old fool, but it would have been something to ground him physically and remind him of home. Instead he had nothing. Still, eyes clamped shut and breaths shallow, he tried.

    The movements themselves had never been the impressive part. But after a few hours, something special would happen: Greyscar’s aura, so intensely focused and rigid, would leak from his body, coating his fists in iridescent blue flame. Some days he would let the riolu gather around and watch him with sparkles in their eyes, hearts aflutter at the spectacle. “Aura given form,” Greyscar used to call it. It never got more intense than the flames, and after a dozen times or so Ferry had become bored of the old wolf’s parlor trick.

    But there was something more to it, Ferry knew. He’d grown up hearing fanciful tales of the “old magic,” of just a few lucario beating back armies of men, blasting them away with deluges of blue flame and swords made from aura. The old magic was mostly gone, his mother had said. There were only a few left who knew it. Greyscar was one. She was just a riolu when he’d challenged the chief at the time for his position. They’d dueled publicly in the town square, and they fought with blue flame and phantom blades and all the weapons and magic of legend. She’d never forgotten it. As a riolu, it had sounded just as fantastic as any other story Ferry had been told. It didn’t seem right that the spineless old wolf he knew Greyscar to be could wield a power so intense. It was the stuff of bedtime stories, not reality. But as he grew, he began to think it might be true. Greyscar had been the chief. And Ferry had seen that blue fire with his own eyes…

    “The old ways cannot die with me,” Greyscar had said to him once. “They must live on. One day, when the time is right, I’ll pass them on to you and your siblings.”

    When the time is right. The old fool was always saying that. Well, now the time was never. Ferry would never see Greyscar again, and whatever knowledge he might have had to pass on was as good as gone now.

    Before long Ferry found himself lost in his physical motions, inexact as they were. At first, his mind focused solely on the gentle ebb and flow of his breath. In and out, like the endless tug-of-war of the ocean and the shore. But as his thoughts turned to what he’d lost and his feelings soured, the movements began to make his limbs feel heavy instead, and the peace was replaced with budding frustration.

    Meditation was a powerful thing for a lucario, Ferry knew, but a volatile one too. Turning one’s aura sense inward compounded one’s own emotions many times over. For a mind at peace, this resulted in complete, all-encompassing tranquility. But the slightest falter could trigger a perilous downward spiral.

    He’d simply wanted to calm himself down, but he should have known better than to try it when he was feeling so raw. The experience of being in his body, so deeply attuned to his flesh, suddenly became uncomfortable rather than soothing, and his discomfort was redoubled back on him through his aura sense. The negative feedback loop made his aura feelers feel itchy and somehow restless, the same way his legs had felt after hours spent sitting on the cart without a break.

    The hopelessness gnawing at his mind expanded and rapidly engulfed him. He thought of the things that the humans had taken from his people, and the fact that he had been divided from the others too, forced to serve a new master alone without the comforts of family, of community. He would never hear his mother’s voice again, never hear her stories, never learn the old ways, never engage with what fragments of his culture still existed. He was a lone individual with no home to return to, only a prison, and with no family by his side. He had been born a slave, he had lived his whole life a slave, and now he was going to spend the rest of his life a slave, too. And why? What had he, what had any of his people done wrong? Was he brought into the world only to be used and die?

    The rush of thoughts just kept coming, so quick that they were indistinct and barely formed, rapid punches of emotion. He caught a fragment here and there—his mother, Greyscar, the smell of smoke on the air, his master’s wrath, Prim’s words, stolen memories of constellations and fairytales.

    He tried to take a deep breath to calm himself down, but his chest was too tight to allow it. His failure to even breathe the way he wanted made him feel worse. When it all became too much to bear, his fist went flying toward the tree in front of him. A shower of bark exploded from the collision. A dagger of pain shot up through his hand, and he pulled back reflexively. His knuckles were striped red, little hot beads of ruby blood collecting on the fur like condensation.

    The pain coalesced all his muddled emotions into anger, twice as strong and bright and dense as the sum of its parts, and then he heard a voice.

    "Are you okay?"

    The voice spoke in the old lucario tongue, rough but not rougher than his own. His old master hadn't liked it when they spoke in a language he couldn't understand.

    Ferry whipped his head around to view the speaker. It was a lucario, sure enough, standing there between the trees, tail wagging slowly just a few inches above the ground—a friendly, cautious stance. Confusion and relief whirled through his head at once.

    Are you okay?” the lucario repeated.

    “I… Who are you? How did you find me here?”

    The lucario grimaced. “Lucario, like you,” he said, language fragmented. “Sensed your aura.” Ferry suddenly became aware of his heart pounding in his throat. The moment didn’t feel real. “Are you okay?”

    “Yes, I’m fine.” It wasn’t true, but even as he said it, he felt some of the tension leave his body. His arms stopped shaking. “What are you doing out here?” he asked, switching to the old tongue. “Are you with a blade-walking, too?” Wandersword was a human designation, and a recent one too. There was no analog for it in the Lucario tongue. He hoped the other lucario would understand.

    Mm.” The lucario looked thoughtful. “Yes. Blade-walking, like you.” Then he held out a hand. “Come here. Something for you.”

    Ferry squinted at him and took a cautious step forward, then another. The other lucario just stood there, unblinking and smiling slightly, hand suspended in the air. Something seemed off about his appearance, Ferry thought. It was the eyes—from another tribe, perhaps?

    But as he approached more closely, he realized that wasn’t it. Ferry hesitated. It wasn’t the shape, or the color, but the way they flickered at the edges, and the smile too. “What—,” Ferry began, and then the lucario’s form slanted into nothing, gone entirely like a candle’s flame extinguished by a sudden gust.

    Crimson claws thrust forward in his place, glinting silver. Ferry didn’t register what was happening until the claws had already dug triple trenches into his shoulder. He felt the blood before he felt the pain—warm and slightly uncomfortable, then white-hot and screaming. A shout escaped him, equal parts surprise and anguish.

    Blue eyes flashed at him from where the other lucario had stood moments before. Ferry realized with a start what he was facing.

    A zoroark.

    The impostor lashed out with their claws again, so swift and furious, but this time Ferry tumbled out of the way in time. Of course they’re a zoroark, he thought as he reoriented himself. Why would there be another—

    The zoroark swept his legs out from under him. All his breath was squeezed from his lungs in a single puff as his back slammed into the ground, his vision swimming. Then the zoroark was descending on him, all knotted black fur and ruby claws, eyes like a moonlit pond, aura like a violet flame.

    He tried to scramble out of the way, but the zoroark pinned him by his wrists in no time. They were two heads taller than him, and their limbs seemed twice as long as his. “So lonely, your kind,” they said, blasting him with its hot breath. Their voice was different now, icy and venomous where it had been warm and inviting before, but they still spoke in the old lucario tongue, which felt obscene. “So trusting. And so foolish.”

    The words barely registered. Ferry resisted with all the energy he had in him, bucking and scratching, but it was little use. The zoroark was lithe but sturdy, slender but powerful and tall—the finely-tuned body of a solitary predator. Ferry had the build of a pack hunter. One on one, there was no contest between the two. He was feeling that disparity now as he squirmed and kicked desperately at the zoroark’s ribcage. The blows earned nothing but grunts from his assailant, not so much as breaking their gaze. “You don’t fight like they used to. Disappointing.” They stared right into him so intensely Ferry wondered if they could read his aura, too, feel the way it was flickering and oscillating.

    He continued jerking his body violently against their grasp, but the zoroark just tightened their grip, eventually drawing blood as their claws sank into his wrists. Eventually they released one of his wrists, and he pushed his palm into their face frantically, trying with everything in him to push them off of him, but they didn’t seem deterred. They brought their hand to Ferry’s face as if in kind, unflinching despite Ferry’s kicks. They looked almost curious. “The things hunger drives us to… Hunting another hunter. How strange,” they remarked casually. “The hunter of all hunters rises.”

    Then they dug their claws into his cranium and dragged them downward, across his face.

    Ferry screamed as hot blood trickled into his eye, blurring his vision. He thrashed harder than ever, still to no avail. The zoroark’s claws seemed to penetrate through his skull into his very being, his very soul. They were playing with him. Helplessness and fear and anger and shame and desperation all whirled madly in his core like a wild tempest.

    And then it all exploded from inside him.

    He gasped as he felt his raw emotion become real, every hair on his body standing straight up on end, his breath suddenly cold and crisp—and his fists cloaked in blue flame, so brilliant it was almost white, bathing the trees in soft ethereal light. He was somehow profoundly angry and wholly calm at once, both detached from and fueled by his fury. The zoroark’s face slackened with disbelief or fear, not a moment before Ferry’s flaming fist slammed into it with such force it sent the zoroark tumbling.

    And then, just as suddenly as they had appeared, the flames evaporated. Everything was very dark again, save for the stars twinkling overhead, and the wan glow of the zoroark’s eyes. They burned with unadulterated fury. Ferry suddenly felt very small, and so empty his heartbeat seemed to echo.

    The zoroark was really going to kill him now. He was going to die.

    Not quite paralyzed with fear, he scooted backward frantically, kicking up a storm of crunchy leaves and soft detritus as he did. The zoroark lunged at him, their ruby claws held forward as they leaped, their white teeth flashing.

    But they never reached him. Instead a boot collided with their body mid-leap, and their trajectory was cut short; they hit the ground suddenly with a shrill yelp. Ferry watched as a towering figure lowered its leg drew a blade, moonlight dancing off the metal. “I’m giving you a chance to fuck off,” Prim said, her voice almost a whisper but radiating authority, “before I kill you.” The zoroark didn’t need a second warning. They faded into the night in the blink of an eye.

    The sound of Prim’s sword being re-sheathed snapped Ferry back to his senses. His whole body throbbed, sharp pain biting into his wrists, his skull, his neck. He groaned involuntarily. The sound barely made its way through his constricted throat.

    “You just couldn’t stay put, could you?” Prim chided. Leaves crunched as she moved toward him. “Damn it, Ferry. It’s only been a day and you’re already a pain in my ass.” Despite everything, he felt something inside him shrink. “Come on.” She bent over and stuck her hands under his armpits, then hefted him over his shoulder. Pain lanced through every part of him. His head felt like it was being struck by lightning. He groaned loudly in anguish. “Oh, stuff it. You’re fine. Just scratched up. Kind of a mess, though. Hmm.”

    He felt very small and pathetic, being carried through the forest, and very hurt. But through the humiliation and exhaustion, there was relief too. Relief that it was over, and that he had been rescued. A pang of gratitude for Prim pulled at him, but the thought of her dragged up his anger at her too, and the defeat, and the hopelessness. The powerful negative feelings battled with his relief and gratitude on some level of his consciousness, but Ferry was too tired to follow it. He just stared at the ground underfoot as Prim approached the camp, suppressing a grunt as a new round of pain stabbed him with each step.

    “About what I said earlier,” Prim said at length. Ferry screwed his eyes shut. “I’ll do it. I’ll train you.”

    He wrenched his eyes back open. “What?” he croaked.

    “I said I’ll train you,” she repeated, not unkindly. “What just happened can’t happen again. I can’t come running to your rescue every time you get yourself into trouble.”

    I don’t expect you to, Ferry thought. I never expected you to. But he stayed silent.

    “I’ll train you so shit like this doesn’t happen again.”

    So it wasn’t all for nothing. He would become stronger. The seeds of hope took root deep within him once more.

    “And I saw what you did back there,” she added. “Whatever that was… it was something. We can talk about it later.”

    Somehow, he’d nearly forgotten about that. The emotion, the clarity, the fire. The night painted blue. The old magic, like from the stories. He’d made it real.

    Perhaps he could do it again.

    ---​
    here's some lovely art that some community members have made for the fic—thank you guys so much!
    by @bluesidra
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    II: What Might Makes
  • kyeugh

    you gotta feel your lines
    Staff
    Location
    the freaking swamp
    Pronouns
    she/her
    Partners
    1. farfetchd-galar
    2. custom/gfetchd-kyeugh
    3. custom/onion-san
    4. farfetchd
    blood, violence, some swearing.


    II: What Might Makes​

    I have never relished the sight of blood, but I did respect its value once. Yet defending the totality of life in this world from armageddon has exacted a heavy price. Blood has become like the rain or the wind. It is nothing to me.

    Ferry was barely aware of himself as he smashed his fist into the bandit’s face over and over again.

    As a riolu, he had spent many mornings laying in the grass as his elders hunted. He’d stared up at the sky, absently transfixed by the shapes of the clouds and their steady passage across the pale blue sky. Now he was similarly entranced by the play of the light through the oak canopy overhead on the bandit’s glassy, hazel-rimmed eyes—the way they seemed to look without seeing, just barely hanging onto the last muddy inches of consciousness—and the sharp whipping of his head back and forth with each blow, the neck muscles strained, the teeth and lips slick with blood.

    He heard someone calling his name, but it sounded distant, like he was hearing it through a dream. It wasn’t until his fist was intercepted mid-swing that he came back to himself.

    “Ferry!” Prim shouted. “Ferry, that’s enough!”

    He blinked hard, suddenly aware of the way his chest was heaving and his tongue was hanging slack as he panted. He wiped his mouth on his wrist and noticed that the blue fur on his knuckles was streaked with glistening red.

    The bandit squeezed his eyes shut and let out a small, raspy groan. Ferry pulled himself off of him, disgusted now by the swollen, bloody face.

    “Sorry,” he mumbled. He inhaled deeply through his nose, feeling his heartbeats in his face.

    His eyes meandered to the bandit Prim had dispatched. He almost seemed to be sleeping peacefully. The only sign of a struggle was a tear in his shirt and the welt on his forehead.

    “Show some restraint next time,” she replied. Her gaze was a little disturbed, but mostly concerned. “The point was to protect this man, not to punish a criminal.”

    Ferry nodded, feeling dazed and a little ashamed. He couldn’t suppress the part of him that craved her approval. But what had he done wrong, anyway? Harmed a criminal who would have killed them?

    The merchant they’d saved stepped forward from his wagon and bowed weakly. His wiry limbs didn’t seem to match his portly frame. “I thank you from the depths of my heart,” he said. Ferry’s ears twitched; the man’s voice was high and he spoke in a drawn-out, irritating way. “I owe you my life. If there is any way I can repay you…”

    “Not necessary,” Prim said, waving a hand. “But for your own sake, you might think to hire some protection next time you’re traveling so close to the frontier. It might not stumble upon you by chance next time.”

    “Of course, my lady wandersword,” the merchant said. His smile was strained. Ferry squinted at him and probed his aura, sensing anxiety. Residual stress from the fight, perhaps?

    The tauros tied to his wagon snorted and pawed at a pass of grass sticking from the packed-dirt road, tripe tails whipping about wildly like willow limbs in a tempest. The merchant turned his attention to soothing the tauros and securing his wagon.

    “No payment?” Ferry whispered.

    “Always the material one,” Prim chided. She nudged Ferry out of her way and got on her knees and placed a pair of fingers on his wrist. “Still breathing,” she muttered, and she began to pat the body down. A few rings slid off the knobby fingers and a coin pouch with a heavy sound came from the trousers. The other bandit had similar boons to offer: coins, rings, a necklace, a finely-crafted dagger.

    “It’s not right to demand a reward for a rescue,” Prim explained in a low voice, “especially not when there are rewards to be found elsewhere.” She counted the coins under her breath as she poured them into her purse.

    “Not bad,” she remarked as the last one tumbled into her purse with a clink. “This should be enough to buy you your own steed. We can finally give poor Scout’s back a break before you break his back.” She chuckled at her own joke.

    “Wait, really?” Ferry said, his tail wagging low to the ground and kicking dirt onto his heels. His own steed… That was a luxury he’d never even thought to hope for. He’d be like a real knight of his own accord. “Aren’t you trying to save your money so you can hang your sword up?”

    Prim shrugged. “I’m not done training you yet. Especially not if that was any indication.” She gestured at the bruised mess of a bandit. Ferry’s ears lay flat. “Besides, you helped me earn this. And if you break my goat’s back it’ll cost me twice as much.”

    There was a strange timbre to Prim’s aura right now—something like joy, something like sorrow, mostly unlike either. He had sensed it a few times before, usually when they spoke about the future. It was almost wistful.

    He couldn’t help but feel like that emotion was bigger than him, but he dared to hope a little. It was plain that Prim was weary of the hard life of a wandersword—she’d said as much when they first met. But the thought of her retirement was worrying to him. When she hung up her sword, he would be transferred to some other wandersword, and there were no guarantees that they wouldn’t abuse and degrade him however they saw fit. That seemed to be the default treatment of mon, by his assessment. Her retirement could turn his life into a living hell, subject to the whims of a cruel and arbitrary master—and unlike his life at the manor, he would not have his family to support him. He wouldn’t admit it to her, but privately he wanted nothing more than to stay, for his sake.

    “Thank you,” he said, perhaps a little too intensely. Prim looked taken aback.

    “It’s not a big deal.” She turned her attention away to the merchant, and just like that her aura changed, replaced with her usual stony resolve.

    The merchant was climbing into his wagon now, reins in hand. “You,” Prim barked at him. “Are you heading to Lumiose?”

    “Yes, my lady wandersword.”

    “So are we. We’ll escort you there.”

    Anxiety pulsed from the merchant, but he nodded. “Very much appreciated.”

    Prim clapped Ferry on the shoulder. “We’re already behind schedule,” she said, gathering Scout’s reins. “Let’s go.” They climbed onto the gogoat’s back together and followed the wagon down the road, away from the fallen bandits.

    Ferry fell into his thoughts, strangely soothed by the rhythmic rise and fall of Scout’s haunches with each step. It was silly for him to wish for Prim to stay with him, he realized, and impractical. Their time together was a single step on his quest, a means to an end. He was here to become strong, to learn what he could from Prim, and there was only so much she could teach him. She was not a part of his greater plans, could not be by his side when he shaped the world to his will.

    One way or another, they were always going to part ways. Perhaps it was easier if she left him of her own accord.

    - - -​

    Ferry was tiring of failure. He looked at his hands with frustration, imagined them engulfed in blue flame. Had that night really happened?

    Scout hopped over a puddle, jerking Ferry a few inches into the air. His backside hit the gogoat’s backside hard and a lump formed in his throat.

    He took another deep breath in, tuning into his aura but distancing himself enough from it that he didn’t spiral as he had on that night with the zoroark. He pushed the memory out of his mind and radiated his aura out from his core to each part of him, standing his hairs on end and tingling his ears and his fingers and his toes. He could feel each heartbeat, every muscle, even the flow of his blood. He drew another deep breath, focusing all his aura into his right fist, and when his lungs were at capacity he thrust his arm out, willing the aura out with it.

    He cracked one eye open. Again, nothing.

    The sun was approaching its zenith now, but the mossy, intertwined limbs of the oak canopy hanging over the road protected them from the worst of its rays. The merchant’s wagon was rolling onward a fair ways ahead. Perhaps his aura sense was overloaded and blurry from the meditation, but Ferry thought he sensed something strange about the auras around the wagon.

    “Still at it back there?” Prim asked, voice lilted with amusement.

    “I can’t just give up on it,” Ferry said, rotating back around so he faced forward. Fortunately, he’d become accustomed enough to riding on Scout’s back that he didn’t need to hug Prim from behind anymore to stay aboard.

    “It’ll come to you on its own time,” Prim said. “You just have to be patient. It didn’t come to you that night because you willed it to, did it? It just came.”

    “What do you know about it?” Ferry snapped.

    “Nothing,” Prim said, shrugging. “You’re right. Keep at it, I guess.”

    Ferry grunted. They rode in silence for a minute, and then Prim spoke up again: “Your fighting has come a really long way, you know. When I met you, that bandit would have taken you down easily. It’s not trivial to take down an armed opponent without a weapon of your own.”

    He looked down at his hands and coiled them into fists. He had little trouble picking objects up, but they had learned quickly that there was a reason lucario didn’t wield human weapons. His hands just weren’t built for it. It put him at a frequent disadvantage, but he had trained all the harder to make up for it.

    “It’s not enough,” he said, almost a whisper. “I need to be stronger.”

    “Why?” Prim asked. The question caught him off guard, pushed his brain into a different awareness. His mother’s words flashed across his mind, her instructions, her fury.

    His mind scrambled to find the right words. Instead, they found a story.

    “When I was a riolu, I and the others in my litter were sent out into the woods to hunt pichu, to train us for the day we would have to hunt pikachu instead. The riolu that brought back the most pichu got extra food that night, and the ones that brought back none at all went to bed hungry. Out in the woods, where the master couldn’t see, the bigger riolu would steal from the smaller ones like me, leaving them with nothing. When we banded together, the bigger, stronger riolu banded together too, and we never stood a chance. When we told the master what was happening, he called us liars and beat us. Even though it was unfair, even though it was wrong, we learned to keep our heads down.” He clenched his fists, wishing he could force them to obey. “I never want to be too weak to do what’s right again. If I can just figure this out, I never will be.”

    Prim turned around and looked at him with her brows knit, her aura like a stone. “Is that what you think, Ferry?” she asked him, voice gentle. “That if you learn this magic the whole world is going to open up for you?”

    “Yes,” Ferry said, trying to ignore her patronizing tone. “This magic is what held my people together. When we had it, we stood against the empire even as the other mon kingdoms fell, and when we lost it, we were conquered. If I can recover it…” He trailed off, feeling he had said too much.

    Prim just shook her head. “I hope that for your sake you’re right,” she said. “I don’t know what it is you want, or what you expect, but take it from an old knight like me—strength isn’t everything. One way or another, everyone learns that lesson.”

    Not your emperor, Ferry thought. Not my old master. Not the men who conquered my people. But he didn’t say anything, and neither did Prim. The rest of the ride went on in silence. He rolled the same words over and over in his head.

    She was wrong.

    The people with the strength to dominate others got what they wanted. That was the way of the world. If it could be true for others, it could be true for him.

    He didn’t want to rule the world. He only wanted to free his people. His mother had urged him that this was the path to that reality, and even Greyscar had agreed. Such things had been done before—the humans had done it before, long ago. Even he knew that.

    She was wrong. She didn’t understand what he wanted, and she never could. Strength would be enough for him.

    It had to be.

    - - -​

    The pen they stood in was a disaster area—just looking at it was making Ferry’s head spin even more than it already was from the city’s concentrated inundation of auras, and the smell certainly didn’t help either.

    “Well, take your pick,” Prim said. She stood at his side, arms akimbo, seemingly unbothered by the stench. Ferry supposed she had spent the last decade or two in proximity to a goat. “Whichever one you want, I’ll buy it.”

    Ferry hadn’t exactly envisioned himself riding a mighty warhorse into battle, but he hadn’t expected this, either. He rubbed his temples as he looked at his choices. A pair of mudbray chased each other around the pen, braying playfully and tackling one another into the mud. A lilac-maned ponyta looked on in disgust from the corner, cautious to stand on the straw so as to keep the shaggy purple hair around its hoofs clean. A juvenile tauros lay napping peacefully in a sunbeam.

    He assessed his options, placing a paw on his chin thoughtfully. The tauros would rapidly grow too large and ornery for him to handle. He recalled from his time at the manor that mudbray were strong working animals and receptive to training, but they were slow and could be irritable. Ponyta were blazing fast and fiercely protective of their owners, but inferior pack animals and often prideful. He thought he might prefer the reliability of a mudbray, but they were dreadfully dirty, too, and ponyta were meticulously clean… That could go a long way on the road.

    “Got a favorite?” Prim asked.

    “Not yet,” Ferry said. “I’m thinking a mudbray might be best, but at the same time—”

    As he spoke, the playing mudbray tumbled into the napping tauros. The bull stood abruptly, snorting and shaking its head with irritation, and chased the mudbray off. A mon that had been laying behind the tauros was revealed. It was a ponyta, its mane a striking indigo, but this one was cowering in the corner of the pen. When it noticed Ferry’s gaze, it scooted further into the corner frantically, hiding its face against a fence post.

    “That’s the one,” he determined. He stepped toward it and it recoiled at the sounds of his footfalls. It was a timid thing now, but better timid than too rowdy—it would be more responsive to commands this way, more eager to please. With the proper training, it would grow into an obedient and formidable—

    “Pardon,” came the voice of the stablekeeper. “There’s another option for your consideration, if you like. She’s a bit high energy, so we keep her separated, but she’s a fine—”

    Before the stablekeeper could finish her sentence, the mon came bounding from between her legs and bolted into the pen. She was a green blur of a skiddo, hopping and rolling joyfully in the dust, sprinting about the area, and butting her head into every mon she could. Ferry didn’t have time to react before she bowled through his legs from behind and knocked him into the muck as she made her way to the cowering ponyta. Not one to be tormented, the ponyta let out a whinny of protest and jabbed the skiddo with its horn, a shower of white sparks flying from it. The skiddo let out a bleat of surprise but continued prancing around the pen at lightning speed, undeterred.

    “Fuck,” Ferry said, picking himself up and brushing what he hoped was mud off his knees. “Definitely not that one.”

    “My god,” Prim said, a huge smile splitting her face. Ferry didn’t think he’d ever seen her grin so widely; it was a little unsettling. “She’s perfect. We’ll take her.”

    “What?” Ferry said. “No! I want this ponyta!”

    “Sorry,” Prim said, still grinning wildly as she shrugged.

    “You said I could have my choice!”

    “That was fine when the choices were boring.”

    “I…,” Ferry sputtered. His jaw hung slack as the stablekeeper attempted with great effort and little success to wrangle the skiddo into a harness.

    “Come on, it’ll be fun,” Prim insisted. “She’ll never tire out! And she’ll be fast friends with Scout. It’s going to be great.”

    Ferry could only shoot his nastiest, most smoldering look of contempt at Prim as she counted at the coins and passed them to the stablekeeper.

    “Thank you very much,” she said as she plucked the leash from the stablekeeper’s hands.

    “No, thank you,” the stablekeeper said. Ferry wasn’t sure if he was imagining things or if the stablekeeper actually looked relieved to be rid of the thing.

    Prim dragged more than led the thing out of the pen. Ferry followed listlessly, sparing one last look at the quaking ponyta in the corner and wondering what might have been.

    “Got a name for her in mind?” Prim asked.

    Ferry peered down at the skiddo and gave it a look of utmost loathing. The skiddo’s eyes glimmered in response, ears flapping. “How about Idiot,” Ferry suggested, scowling.

    “Don’t be a jerk,” Prim said. “Let’s call her… Princess.”

    Ferry had to admit it fit, somehow. Before he could say as much, they exited the stable. Princess’s eyes lit up at the wide new world she’d entered and she bolted forward, jerking Prim’s arm and almost knocking her onto the cobbles. Legs flailing, she slid to a halt in front of a dandelion poking out from between the cobblestones. Her nostrils flared twice before she peeled her lips back, revealing oblong teeth, and ripped the weed from the ground, chewing gleefully.

    “Here you go,” Prim said, shoving the leash into Ferry’s hands. “I have some supplies to pick up while we’re here. Why don’t you head to the temple and see if you can find a job for us to do?”

    “What? Alone?” Ferry asked. He’d never done that on his own before. Dread tugged at his heart at the thought of it. “With this thing?”

    She was still smiling, but Ferry could tell she was completely serious about this. “It’ll be good for you to learn to do that on your own,” she said. Strangely, that strange wistful emotion pulsed from her as she said it. “And it’ll be a great time to bond with Princess here.”

    “I’ll meet you at the temple when I’m done,” she said, and she gave him some brief directions. “You can do it.”

    Ferry nodded glumly as she mounted Scout and disappeared into the sea of people. His head throbbed as Princess pulled on the leash furiously, sending a jolt through his shoulder. This was going to be a long few hours… and a long, long journey ahead, if this blasted goat had anything to say about it.

    He stared down at the leash in his hand, then to Princess. She was staring up at him with her head cocked, little leafy tail wiggling. “So I guess I’m supposed to ride you,” Ferry said. Princess hopped in place. He sighed, not trusting this little goat as far as he could throw her. Cautiously, he swung one leg around the skiddo and pulled himself over her back. To his surprise, she didn’t buck or bolt but rather stayed in place. Though she had no saddle, Ferry found her leafy pelt surprisingly soft and plush, and she seemed to carry his weight well. He tenderly grabbed hold of her horns and pressed forward slightly. She trotted ahead responsively, chirping happily. This wasn’t half as bad as he expected.

    Ferry steered her toward the promenade that wrapped around the castle. She bleated and broke into a gallop. “Whoa!” Ferry shouted, urging her to slow down, but she ignored him and dashed over the cobblestones ahead, hopping more than running. He sucked in a breath as she darted out of the way of a pedestrian just in time. While Scout’s hops had caused Ferry to come crashing down on his muscled haunches, here he bounced on Princess’s soft, leafy pelt instead. It would have been fun if he weren’t so afraid she would crash into someone at any moment and send him sprawling across the road.

    Amazingly, she didn’t. Ferry’s heart was pounding, now from excitement more than fear. He tilted her horns to the left and let out a laugh as she veered across the road and into an alleyway. Princess let out a cry of delight as she hopped into a puddle, splashing brisk water up around them. A ratatta scurried out of their way as they raced down the alley. Clothes hanging on lines overhead swayed from the force of their passage, groups of pidove alighting from the disturbance. She scampered around the corner, hooves slipping on the slick stones. Ferry let out a whoop as she leaped over a low wall, his aura feelers streaming behind him.

    It felt like they were running through back alleys for hours before Ferry remembered he had a job to do. He was sorry to end the fun… He couldn’t remember the last time he’d enjoyed himself so much. Princess’s gallop was reduced to a trot as Ferry pulled back on her horns. “Don’t tell Prim, I said this,” Ferry said, tousling the skiddo’s head from behind, “but you’re not so bad after all.”

    Princess bleated in response, and Ferry pretended it was a promise.

    They walked leisurely down the alleyway, picking their way back to the promenade. It helped that the city was wheel-shaped—the alleys all eventually met spoke-like boulevards jutting out from the city center. Ferry’s headache had retreated a little for now; the adrenaline rush from Princess’s sprinting had done him wonders. He was daydreaming about racing with Scout later on when he heard a familiar voice. He pulled back on Princess’s horns, pulling her to a halt, and he perked up his ears, concentrating on the sound.

    “… as quickly as I could. I was followed by a wandersword, so I was very careful, you understand…”

    It was that same shrill, grating voice.

    The merchant.

    Ferry knew there had been something amiss about the man. What did he have to fear from a wandersword? The words vindicated him.

    “Mmmmm,” came a second voice. It was scratchy and androgynous. “Careful. Yes. This thing must be done. It is forgiven.”

    Ferry tried to make out the aura of the speaker. It was unlike any aura he’d seen before—strange, inscrutable, and remarkably heavy. He felt like if he were close enough, he’d be able to physically pluck it out of the air.

    There were other auras, too. Several. Most of them were undulating softly… sleeping? And there was a sullen one, one that Ferry thought he recognized somehow.

    There was a sinister quality to the auras, a grave edge. They were alert, almost paranoid. This was no routine trade operation.

    Ferry wondered what he was getting into.

    “You are free to examine the… wares,” the merchant said. “Ensure they are to your satisfaction.”

    “Mm. Examine.” Clothing rustled and wood creaked. “Good. Very good. The master will be pleased. We shall take them all. Yes.”

    “Ah…,” the merchant said. “I would like to keep this one. Just the one.” A pause. “I have reason to believe it is… uniquely valuable.”

    “Hm. So be it.”

    Quietly, Ferry dismounted Princess, gesturing silently at the skiddo to stay put and remain quiet. She cocked her head at him, tail wiggling slowly. Ferry crept forward a little, toward the alley corner, hoping he might be able to get a better read on the strange aura with some proximity and wondering whether he dared to steal a glimpse. The merchant had been a small man, out of shape, certainly no fighter. If the others appeared unarmed and untrained, too, there was a real chance Ferry could take them all. He didn’t know what this thing was that he’d stumbled into, but he knew in his bones that it was wrong.

    He could intervene—he had the chance to do what was right, and the ability. If he walked away, what kind of person did that make him?

    And then Princess came bounding up behind him, hooves clopping loudly on the stone. Ferry’s eyes widened.

    “A sound,” came a new, heavily-accented voice. “Something is near.”

    Ferry gestured violently at Princess to stay in place, but she seemed to take his movement for play and hopped toward him, bleating. They collided, and Ferry rolled backward past the alley corner and came face to face with the group.

    He only saw them for a moment. The merchant stood by his wagon, staring down at Ferry in shock. At his side, a grotesque purple creature stood waist-tall, one eye of silver and one of blue.

    The purple mon grinned widely at him, revealing white, pointed teeth. “Tread carefully, son of Lucar,” it said. Then it snapped its spindly fingers, and they all seemed to melt into their shadows, gone in a blink. Even the wagon vanished. Ferry stared blankly at the suddenly empty alleyway, not understanding. Princess stood over him and licked his head with abandon.

    “Damn it!” Ferry cried, shoving Princess off of him and scrambling to his feet. He searched the alley desperately, flaring his aura sense. How in the world had they disappeared like that? And the purple creature had seen him, spoken to him. He probed outward in search of the merchant’s aura, but he was too panicked to concentrate.

    Exasperated, he whirled around to Princess, scowling fiercely. “Look what you did! Fucking idiot! I was on the verge of figuring something out and you… You…” He trailed off and slouched a little. Princess looked at him curiously. What had he planned on doing? Was he going to barge in and take them all on? They would have just disappeared anyway.

    He buried his head in his hands, groaning. The headache was returning. He recoiled in surprise as Princess pressed her face against his, nuzzling him softly. He found himself melting into the embrace, wrapping his arms around her neck and patting her softly on the back.

    “I’m sorry for yelling at you, Princess. There’s nothing we could have done anyway.” She bleated softly. He felt a little better. “Come on. Let’s go to the temple.” He stood up with a grunt and swung his leg over her back.

    He thought about what he had seen as they walked. The strange purple mon and its twinkling eyes, one silver and one blue. He thought of its peculiar aura, so alien and tangible, like nothing he had ever seen. Its words replayed in his mind, its smile burned into his memory.

    He shivered, couldn’t help but feel that he had made a grave mistake. They had seen him. Spoken to him. Warned him. What did it mean? The memory of their strange disappearance, the way they melted into shadow like a trick of the light, haunted him. It must have been strange magic. He could think of no other explanation.

    That disturbed him. His heart sunk at the reminder that although his people had forgotten their magic, many in the world had not. It frightened him, made him feel small, but it hardened his resolve, too.

    He had to master his magic. Until he did, how could he think to stand against others that had?

    For the first time, a seed of doubt took root in his mind. What if he couldn’t? How could Prim, or any other human for that matter, teach him this? Why had Greyscar gladly sent him away from the only ones who could?

    He clenched his fists as he rode, wishing he could understand, and that he could be understood.

    - - -​

    The temple was an impressive building despite its poor maintenance. Tall arched windows were carved into the stony side, the vaulted ceiling crowned by an angular steeple. The white standard flag of the Church of Man flapped proudly at the top. Ferry tied Princess to a post outside, instructed her to wait, and approached the temple’s broad wooden door. He swallowed hard. The church was generally unfriendly to mon—it was not called the Church of Man by mistake. They’d stopped in smaller temples in the past, and everything went fine when Prim was there to do the talking, but… this time, she wasn’t. He tried to suppress his dread as he passed through the door.

    The temple’s interior was musty and mostly dark, except at the back where dust-filled rays of light from the windows illuminated the finely-crafted pulpit. The ceiling seemed to have been painted at some point, but it had peeled to the point that the image could no longer be made out. The central aisle was lined on either side by rickety pews. A huge replica of the prophet’s sword was mounted on the back wall, its hilt trimmed with gold.

    Ferry proceeded down the aisle. The clerics could usually be found at the back. He poked his head into a doorway at the back and found one sitting in the study there, scratching something onto a piece of parchment with a large white quill. The cleric slowly pried his eyes off his parchment and assessed Ferry with a frown. He said nothing but eventually raised his eyebrows expectantly.

    “I’m a wandersword,” Ferry said. “I’m interested in any jobs you may have.”

    “Ah,” the cleric said. He narrowed his eyes and wrote another few words on his parchment, smacking his lips. “A thrall. I would gladly speak to your master about potential jobs.”

    Clerics loved to use the word “thrall” for mon like him that aided wanderswords. It made him feel sick.

    “My partner,” he emphasized, “is buying supplies. She’ll be here shortly. She asked me to seek a job for her.”

    The cleric made a straight face and gave Ferry a half-lidded stare. “The church is happy to aid wanderswords in any way it can. I am less enthused to service their… equipment,” he sneered.

    Hot anger roiled in Ferry’s gut. He clenched his fists and pulled his lips up in a snarl. “You—”

    “Is there a problem?” Ferry turned around to find Prim occupying the doorframe just behind him. He hadn’t heard her approach through the rush of blood in his ears. She wore a stern look.

    “You must be this one’s master,” the cleric said, dipping his quill into its ink well.

    Ferry gave Prim an indignant look, urging her to say something, but she gave him a look of her own, and its message was clear: Leave it alone.

    “That’s right,” she said, pushing past Ferry and placing a hand on the cleric’s desk. “Got any work for us?”

    “Yes,” the cleric said. He set his quill in its will and pulled a scroll from below the desk, squinting at the words on it and tracing them with a knobby finger. “Ah. We have several, but I can see plainly that you are an experienced knight.” The cleric’s eyes strayed to the scars on Prim’s face. “There’s one job in particular we’d prefer for a wandersword of your caliber to complete, if it interests you. The younger knights have turned it away.”

    Ferry sensed discomfort in Prim’s aura, but she didn’t show it. “Let me hear it,” she said.

    “There is an old farmstead a few miles outside the city. I shall provide directions to you, should you accept the job. It was abandoned due to persistent wild mon attacks, and has become the territory of an aggressive nidoking. The former tenant left an heirloom there in a chest below the bed that he wishes recovered.”

    Ferry retreated behind Prim, relieved to remove himself from the situation and let her do the talking but furious that it was necessary.

    Prim nodded thoughtfully. “Nidoking? Fine. I can do that. What’s the reward?”

    “Twenty shillings.”

    Prim cleared her throat. “Goodness.”

    “Yes,” the cleric said. “It has been some time since a veteran wandersword has visited this area, and the old man is growing restless, so he has been raising the job’s reward out of his own pocket to expedite its completion. It is my hope you can be the one to finally do so.”

    “It would be my pleasure,” Prim said.

    “Very good. As for the directions…”

    The cleric retrieved a map and began sketching directions onto it. Ferry tuned him out, finding himself focusing on the man’s movements—the way he moved his fingers, the way the droopy skin on his face wiggled when he spoke, the way he blinked slowly and multiple times in succession. He wondered how many other mon had been through here, how many others the cleric had made to feel like property, like dirt. Nothing Ferry could possibly say would ever make the man feel that way. That enraged him. The only thing he could think of was crawling across the desk and smashing a fist into his brittle, saggy face.

    Prim clapped him on the shoulder, pulling him out of his reverie. He noticed that his hands were shaking and that his face was twisted with anger; the cleric was giving him a strange look.

    “Come along, Ferry,” she said, turning to leave. “I think we can do this before dusk if we’re quick.”

    Ferry took a deep breath and trailed her out of the study silently, waiting until they were out of the temple to speak the words that were burning on his tongue.

    “Why did you do that?” he demanded as they stepped outside. He squinted against the sunlight.

    “Do what?” Prim said, untying Scout from the post. He’d been tied to the same post as Princess—she was having the time of her life scampering around his legs.

    “You knew he was going to treat me like that, didn’t you?”

    Prim shrugged. “Suspected it.”

    “And you sent me in there anyway?”

    “Should I only task you with things that are easy?” she asked, giving him that infernally penetrating maternal gaze of hers. “Or things that work your muscles, but never your mind?”

    “No,” Ferry said, chest swelling, “but that’s not the same as giving me an impossible task, a painful task.”

    “It wasn’t an impossible task, Ferry,” Prim said. “My task for you was to do your best, and you did.”

    “And what did that achieve? Did you just want to demean me?” he asked. “Is this punishment for what I did to the bandit earlier?” He was speaking loudly enough now that passersby could probably hear him clearly, but he couldn’t find it within himself to care. Let them think what they would.

    “I’m not your mother,” Prim said. Ferry furrowed his brow, not understanding. “It is not my role to dote on you, to protect you, to shelter you from the evils of this world. You asked me to train you, and that’s what I’m doing.” She pitched her voice upward, speaking more quickly and more intensely. “I am preparing you for a time when I am not with you, preparing you to stand on your own.” She shoved him and he stumbled backward, gritting his teeth and staring back up at her with smoldering rage. “Can you stand on your own, Ferry? What are you without me? What would you have done just now if I wasn’t there?”

    He wanted to lash out, retort with some scathing truth, but he retreated into himself instead, wilting and turning his head away. She towered over him, her gaze intense, and he felt very small in her shadow. “I don’t know,” he said, just above a whisper.

    “You don’t know,” Prim repeated. “Don’t you think you should find out before it’s too late? You say you want strength. Well, this is what strength is: getting the things you want from people who hate you without having to raise your hand against them.”

    “That isn’t strength,” Ferry said. “That’s… something else. That’s power. I don’t want that.”

    “Then what do you want?”

    “To protect myself and the people I care about,” he said, surprised by the truth of it. But he left the second part unsaid: that sometimes to protect, you had to strike first.

    Prim’s gaze softened. Ferry found himself strangely indignant at that. He didn’t want her pity. He wanted her to understand.

    “Let me put it another way,” she said. “It’s hard to say this, but Ferry, you are a person with no home to return to. For the rest of your life, you will be an outlander everywhere you go. The most important thing I can teach you is how to deal with people who look down on you for who you are.” She pursed her lips. “You have to understand. I’m only thinking of you.”

    Revelation took hold of him, her words clicking. She was preparing him for a time when she was gone, when he might serve a crueler master who did not advocate for him. She was teaching him how to live in a world that hated him.

    He couldn’t meet her eyes. She sounded like Greyscar, preaching the path of assimilation and patient adaptation. What could he say? How could he communicate the depths of her wrongness, make her understand that he would rather die than turn into someone who had accepted an existence of otherness, of enthrallment?

    He would not assimilate or adapt. He would create a home to return to. That’s what this was all about, that’s what she didn’t understand.

    But he looked back up at Prim and took in the hard lines of her face, the tender look in her eye, the knot in her brow, the look of concern and sincere care, and he wondered the price of the path he had chosen.

    No, he couldn’t tell her any of this. Instead he said: “I understand.” And: “Thank you.”

    She smiled and patted him on the shoulder. “Buck up, kid. We’ve still got a fun day ahead.”

    Ferry nodded and untied Princess from the post. As they rode down the street and toward the city walls, he tried to think of that immediate future—fighting side by side with his friend—and not the distant one of blood and ash.


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