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Thread: [M] The Sword and the Fang [Namingtoohard & Ashen]

  1. #131
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    Maybe they were just seeing things, but the hesitation Issa showed after their question struck Lec as odd. So it had been a weird thing to ask, and they had made him uncomfortable. Lec prepared an apology, but Issa unknowingly dismissed their shame with his answer. Lec exhaled slowly and, after once more checking that no one was watching them, focused their full attention on Issa. He had done this in front of them before, they reminded themselves; this was nothing new. Still, Lec could not deny the rush that clamored through their veins insisting on the contrary.

    Issa closed his eyes and focused, and Lec braced themselves too. Soon, the human body Lec knew morphed into something strange, something shapeless, as Issa’s limbs trembled and his hair—fur?—grew. Now that Lec was paying close attention, they could hear the sounds of Issa’s transformation, the snaps and pops that Lec realized with horror were his bones breaking. Issa had assured them that this was normal, that he was used to the pain that came with all of this, but that didn’t stop them from wanting to reach for him and offer some comfort until it stopped. They rubbed at their arms, wondering once again if these transformations could ever be worth it.

    It wasn’t long before Issa’s limbs settled into their new shapes, and soon, Lec was standing in front of a cat. Issa was a cute little thing now, and Lec fought the urge to pet his soft-looking fur. This new creature looked so relaxed, so content, that it was hard to imagine the pain he’d had to endure to get here. Issa turned to him, and Lec could see those eyes. They seemed ridiculously big now on his much smaller face, and the dark hue of them reminded Lec that, even after the impossibility of shapeshifting, that was still Issa. No matter what form he took, he was still there, still with them. Lec thought to crouch beside him, but they decided against that, figuring it was probably condescending. “Are you…” they started, but they realized he wouldn’t be able to respond to them in a way they understood anyway, so their question fell away unasked.

    The longer they looked at Issa’s new body, the more they wondered about it. Had Issa taken the form of a cat, or had he become one? How much of his humanity was a skin, too? Did he even recognize them like this? Of course he did, they told themselves, shaking their head. He had every other time he’d transformed. But Lec still wished they had asked a few more questions about how this all worked before Issa lost his ability to speak to them.

    They were still just standing there. Lec coughed awkwardly, suddenly all too aware of their own gaping. Issa seemed ready to go, so Lec nodded at him and started out of the garden. Endless questions swam in their mind, but they would have to save them for later, unless they figured out a way to talk in meows and purrs. They glanced around the city, feeling almost like they had something to hide, but they shook the thought. People walked their pets all the time. Usually not cats, exactly, but still. They would only look out of place if Lec made things weird, so they took another steadying breath and continued on.

    “We should find a place where people gather,” Lec mumbled, not sure if Issa was even listening to them. “Let’s check out the restaurants.” So close to a major port, the city was oversaturated with various cafes, bistros, and other eateries. Lec didn’t know how to decide between them, and they didn’t know how to ask for Issa’s input either. One seafood restaurant sang to them as they walked by, and Lec mentally decided against that one for fear their kitty companion would have less self-control than they did—and those crab cakes one excited diner was tearing into did look really good. There was a colorful diner not far from that, and according to its sign, it specialized in food from a country Lec knew very little about. Further down the street was a general buffet advertising its glazed chicken special of the day. Lec stopped walking, not wanting to give both of them more options and make the decision even more complicated.

    They had just eaten, but everything here looked so tasty that they wouldn’t have minded having a meal at one of these places. Lec shook the thought though. They were here for information, not food. “Let’s try that one,” Lec said to Issa, pointing to the foreign restaurant. A sign by its doors warned against bringing pets inside, but the weather was nice enough that there were plenty of people eating on the patio instead. The ambiance was gentle, relaxing, and several beach-themed decorations had been tastefully placed around the tables to create a canopy from rain or harsh sunlight. A sweet tune flowed from a person in a straw hat playing a violin, and a few diners were pointing towards him and swaying with the music. It was a perfect place, and no one would even notice a red-eyed cat listening in on their lunchtime meetings.

    Lec motioned towards the patio. “That looks like a good place, right?” they said to Issa. “I won’t be able to get close enough to hear their conversations without it being weird, so I leave the intel gathering in your capable hands. Paws. Sorry.” Traveling around with Issa in Evimaire had been easy; he’d been a human nearly the whole time. Exploring the world with a beast-man would take a lot of getting used to. Lec stepped away and watched Issa go. They wanted to see how he moved, and they told themselves that was for the sake of their mission. Their curiosity wasn’t so pragmatic, however, and they found themselves dreaming of what it would be like to shed skins so easily.
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  2. #132
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    Issa listened patiently when Lec began to speak, only to flick an ear in irritation when the words died on their lips. He wasn’t annoyed at his human, but at his current inability to prompt them onwards. He’d clearly underestimated just how much of a problem the language barrier would be. He was just considering transforming back when Lec set off, slipping out of the garden and back into the street beyond. After a brief moment of surprise, Issa quickly darted after them. He had to take several quick steps for every one of theirs, but this lithe body was more than up to the task.

    The change in perspective made the street seem like an entirely different place to the one it had been just a few moments earlier. Instead of buildings and people, Issa was greeted by a veritable forest of moving legs, interspaced only by the occasional group of rattling wheels. He had to crane his neck to make out people’s faces, and their attention left him with mixed feelings. Some small part of Issa reveled in the delight that flickered across their features as they beheld him, even as his feline instincts quailed at the idea of being so noticeable, so exposed. Still, when Lec stepped out into the intersection, he had little choice but to follow. Issa reminded himself that he didn’t need to worry so much while they were around, and the thought soothed his nerves, if only a little.

    In the end, the Lucet smelled the restaurants before he saw them. Their mingling scents carried on the wind, catching his attention almost immediately, despite his mostly full belly. The seafood in particular seemed to call to him, offering his feline form a little taste of true divinity, and Issa found himself wondering how any of the humans were able to resist going inside. It took him an embarrassingly long time to realize that he’d started walking towards it, veering out of Lec’s shadow and towards the door. The desire to avoid losing them in the crowd quickly overpowered his impulses, though, and Issa corrected his course before he lost them completely.

    When Lec decided on a restaurant, Issa was quick to get to work. He didn’t waste any time trying to confirm their plan, since his human wouldn’t be able to understand him anyway. The cat just slunk towards the maze of tables and chairs. He slipped between them slowly, ears pricked as he searched for his prey. With his more acute senses, Issa rifled through the chatter with ease, careful to avoid brushing up against the legs of any unsuspecting patrons as he worked.

    It took Issa a couple of minutes to complete a lap of the patio, and while he learned several interesting bits of gossip, there was nothing of direct interest to their dragon hunt. The failure did little to dampen his spirits. Expecting results so quickly would’ve been plain unrealistic, and there were plenty of other places he was yet to search. And so, Issa turned his attention to the open door, and the restaurant’s interior. Naturally, the illiterate Lucet was completely oblivious as to the meaning of the ‘no pets’ sign displayed in one of the windows, and he wasn’t a pet anyway. He ducked inside without so much as a second thought, equally oblivious to any muted attempts Lec might have made to try and stop him.

    He started out much the same way he had before, weaving through the metal forest with all the feline grace he could muster. One of the waiters almost kicked him by accident, but Issa was quick enough to dart out of their way. He chose to ignore the curses that chased him as he ducked back into shelter, instead turning his attention back to his search.

    Just like before, the Lucet came up with nothing of relevance. But as he drew closer to crossing this place off their proverbial list, Issa began to wonder if he wasn’t being a little too narrow-minded. Most refugees would’ve been lucky to escape the dragon with their lives. They wouldn’t have the money to eat at a place like this, if they even looked clean enough to get through the door. If he only listened out for precise mentions, then maybe disappointment was inevitable. However, if he expanded his criteria a little, paid a little more attention to context, those who were talking about topics that were potentially linked…

    This new line of thinking made Issa feel like one of the conversations he’d originally dismissed might be relevant after all. The Lucet changed directions, turning back the way he’d come. It took him a few minutes of searching, but…there they were. Two female voices. One of them was talking about the tragedy a nephew had suffered recently, while the other offered her sympathies. About how he’d lost his home in another town and was staying with the woman while he got back on his feet. About how some of his neighbors hadn’t been so lucky. There was no clear mention of a dragon, but the context suggested that it was close enough to be worth investigating further.

    Once he’d managed to pick out the exact table, Issa pounced. Not figuratively, but literally. The Lucet leapt up onto the table, accidentally knocking over a glass of water in the process. His unexpected arrival made the women squeal, and one of them even leaped out of her chair in surprise; a commotion that Lec was certain to notice, wherever they were watching from. In the meantime, he made sure to do his best cat impersonation, looking up at the seated woman and offering her a polite meow in greeting. If he was cute enough, then maybe he could stop them from trying to shoo him away, or calling the restaurant staff to remove him from-

    The thought was interrupted when someone grabbed Issa from behind, wrapping their hands around his stomach and lifting him up into the air. The Lucet glanced back, expecting it to be Lec, only to be greeted by the face of the same waiter who had almost tripped over him before. Issa meowed in protest, indignant at being handled in such a manner, but the host ignored him. He tried to bap them on reflex, but found that he was unable to reach from this position. And so, Issa was just left dangling there awkwardly as the man apologized profusely to both of the women, and told them that he’d remove this ‘feral stray’ immediately.

    So much for covert information-gathering. Out of all options except transforming, Issa cast his attention around the room, searching for Lec. Hopefully they’d be able to get him out of this situation. He’d be more than happy for them to kick his ass later, so long as they stopped this waiter from doing it first.

  3. #133
    The Ashen One
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    While Lec watched Issa in cat form run off, alarm began to settle in their throat. At this point, they lived in a constant state of anxiety, but this felt worse, suffocating, and they absently stroked their neck as if they could remove the mass of emotions there. Lec counted their breaths, the whole time keeping their gaze on the grey cat approaching the diners. Had they become so dependent on him in the short while since they’d left home that now, being away from Issa for only a moment sent them into a panic like this? No, the more Lec thought about it, the more they realized it wasn’t the separation making them feel this way. They didn’t like this earth-shattering, prophesized mission to be left in someone else’s hands—paws. While waiting for Issa, there was nothing Lec could do to not feel useless, or like they were wasting precious time. They wanted to chase after Issa and take him away, come up with another plan so that Lec could be in charge of the information gathering. At least then they would be responsible for however this day turned out.

    Lec paused. They remembered the conversation they’d had with Issa on the ship over here, in that cramped little room, about this exact thing. Issa was just as important to the success of this mission as they were, they told themselves, and trying to be the only one ever in control was unfair to both of them. Hadn’t they promised him they’d work on those feelings? So Lec turned away to not focus on what Issa was doing. Their thoughts drifted back to the swell in their throat, and they wondered if they still had more of that plant the apothecary had given them back in Evimaire, or if they could restock somewhere nearby.

    A stranger approached them while they were looking at storefronts, and Lec snapped their attention to them. She was probably only a few years older than Lec, but she bowed to them and offered a polite smile. She asked them for directions, and her voice clung to the deep, gorgeous edges of an accent Lec didn’t recognize. They stumbled over their words for a few breaths, rendered an idiot by the presence of a beautiful person, before they could finally choke out that they were a tourist too and were just as lost as she was. She thanked them for their time, but as she turned away, Lec considered asking if she knew anything about the dragon. Her accent didn’t necessarily mean she’d moved here from far away, but there was still a chance she knew something.

    Before Lec could get her attention again, though, they realized they’d lost sight of Issa. The patio was filled with people enjoying their meals and company and the waiters with bright smiles catering to them; there was no cute cat among them. Lec turned towards the restaurant fully and caught a glimpse of a curved grey tail dipping behind the doors of the restaurant. Issa was inside.

    Now, Lec panicked. Didn’t Issa know he wasn’t supposed to go inside the building? What world did he come from where a restaurant would allow animals? But then, Lec realized Lucet eateries probably had very different standards, if they even had restaurants at all. Of course Issa wouldn’t have known the customs here. Lec hesitated, trying to decide what they should do. Issa might have found his own way out of this, in which case Lec charging in there frantically looking for him would cause unnecessary drama. Their thoughts quickly changed when they heard someone from the restaurant scream something about a filthy animal. Lec jogged towards the restaurant, wondering how they were going to get Issa out of this one.

    When they entered, the host greeted them with a dramatic gesture. “Welcome to—“

    But Lec wasn’t paying attention. They were scanning every table. “I’m looking for…” they interrupted, but their voice trailed when they found him. A waiter was chasing after a small cat, a look of pure rage on the poor server’s face. “That,” Lec said, and they started past the host, who let out a confused gasp as they followed after them.

    “Issa,” Lec hissed as they followed after the excitement. They hoped he would hear them and come this way, but Issa was either too far away or too busy not getting caught. He happily led his new entourage through the restaurant and out a side door onto the patio. When finally he stopped and jumped up onto a table where people were eating, Lec visibly cringed.

    They caught up to him just as the waiter grabbed him off the table. “I, um,” Lec said awkwardly as they stood next to the waiter and pointed at Issa. “I’m terribly sorry, but that’s… my cat.” It felt weird referring to Issa that way. It was still difficult to grasp that he was a cat, and they didn’t know how he would like Lec claiming ownership of him, but they doubted the waiter would believe there was a man in that tiny body, especially after all this.

    The waiter glared at Lec. “We don’t allow pets,” he spat, tossing Issa towards them. “I’ll have to ask you to leave.”

    Caught off-guard by the sudden cat in their face, Lec nearly dropped Issa. They managed to catch him against their chest, but that made their face flush. Sure, he was a cat, but he was still Issa, and he was still pressed closer to them than he ever had been. Was this as weird for him as it was for them? Lec adjusted him, cradling the cat in their arms, but then wondered if that was demeaning and switched to a different position. They held Issa under his arms, and as his body swung, Lec was very aware of everyone’s eyes on them. They probably looked ridiculous. “I’m sorry,” Lec said again to the waiter. “I’ll just… Yes, I’m sorry.” Their face burning, they took Issa and started away. As embarrassed as they were, they couldn’t help the chuckle that graced their lips.

    Not knowing where else to go, Lec took Issa back to the garden they were in before. They set him on the ground. “I’m sorry about holding you like that,” they said with a crooked smile. “We don’t allow animals in restaurants like that. It’s a safety hazard. Animals can’t control where their fur gets, or their drool, and some animals aren’t trained so they might end up using the bathroom, and we can’t have any of that getting into other people’s food. Some people might be allergic, too, and it’s unfair to them. But I… That’s something I should have explained before all this, and I’m sorry I didn’t.” They glanced towards the restaurant, which was now covered by the fence around the garden. “That was really funny though,” Lec laughed. “I’ve never seen someone get so upset over a cat before. I thought the waiter was going to kill you. You have that effect on people, don’t you?”

    They sobered before asking, “I know you weren’t there long, and there was a lot of other stuff going on, but did you hear anything?”
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  4. #134
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    When Lec’s familiar voice reached his ears, relief washed over Issa. The Lucet had been too distracted to notice their approach, but he was so glad they were here. Everything about this situation still sucked. Being caught in such a compromising position by his crush was the sort of thing nightmares were made of. But at least now he didn’t have to worry about the waiter trying to wring his neck over the disturbance he’d caused. The deeply unpleasant man seemed like the type to try, based purely on how upset he was. Given that alternative, a little embarrassment seemed like the lesser of two evils.

    Issa twisted in the stranger’s hands, trying to catch a glimpse of his savior. He was just about to voice his appreciation when a sense of weightlessness gripped him, and the sounds of the restaurant were replaced by the wind whistling in his ears. He barely had time to process what was happening before he was safe in Lec’s arms, hugged up against their chest. Under different circumstances, Issa might’ve been thrilled by this development. Instead, he only felt shocked and indignant. Had that bastard really just thrown him? Now Issa wanted to transform just to see the look on his face. And so that he could punch the pretentious fucker right in his-

    The world shifted around him again, and then Issa was dangling awkwardly from his armpits. To call this position uncomfortable would’ve been an understatement, and he made sure to meow his displeasure, though he managed to suppress the urge to hiss and scratch. Lec probably wouldn’t have agreed, and they’d still come to his rescue, so he could try and cut them a little slack. And no matter how much he disliked it, this was still better than being left in the waiter’s callous hands.

    Issa endured the short walk that followed with all the good grace he could muster. Once they were alone again, hidden away within the garden’s leafy embrace, the rest of his indignation finally began to fade. After Lec set him down, he took a moment to shake himself out, and silently accepted his human’s unnecessary apology. Then the Lucet turned his attention inwards, taking advantage of their seclusion to transform.

    Human once more, Issa blinked rapidly for a moment, ran a hand through his hair, as he adjusted to his changed body and freshly dulled senses. After a moment, a smile graced his features, and he joined Lec in laughing at his earlier predicament. And not just because their amusement was infectious, either. While it certainly hadn’t seemed funny at the time, now that the moment had passed, it wasn’t difficult for him to see the humor in the whole situation. Normally reminders of how much humans hated his kind were upsetting, but right now, it almost felt like a point of pride.

    “Honestly? It’s a good thing he caught me by surprise” Issa offered, once he was able to breathe again. “When he threw me, I was this close to transforming into some sort of bird on reflex. I can’t imagine what sort of commotion that might’ve caused. Good thing cats always land on their feet, eh?” The idea of everyone scrambling while an eagle or falcon flew around the restaurant’s interior almost made him burst out laughing again.

    When their discussion turned to more serious matters, Issa’s smile faded, his expression turning contemplative. “Maybe” he answered, tone rife with uncertainty. “Nobody mentioned a dragon, or destroyed villages, or anything else along those lines. But there was one lady talking about a nephew who had just lost his home, and how his neighbors hadn’t been quite so lucky. Maybe I’m reaching, but…” Issa trailed off, before shrugging idly. “They said he was from a town called…Serdo? Serdio? Something along those lines. Maybe we can find it on your map.”

    Issa waited patiently as Lec produced and unfolded the map, but as they scoured it, irritation began to creep in. He desperately wanted to help, but the Lucet was pointedly aware that he still didn’t know enough human letters to be of any use. When Lec finally pointed it out, Issa scowled. He wasn’t quite sure how to judge distance on this thing, but based on the size of the lake they’d crossed to get here, it seemed like Serdio was a fair distance away. And beyond that, another problem had occurred to Issa while he’d been waiting.

    “It’s not much to go off, is it? I don’t really like the idea of traveling that far based off hearsay alone. And even if the town was destroyed by the dragon, it’s probably moved on by now, right?” The Lucet scratched at his neck idly as he mulled the problem over. “There has to be a better way to go about this. If a monster has been wiping out entire villages, and refugees have made it all the way to Evimaire, then someone has to be talking about it, right? Finding information shouldn’t be this hard, or slow.” He tore his gaze away from the map then, glanced back across at Lec instead, silently hoping that they’d have a better idea.

  5. #135
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    Lec was glad to see Issa back in his human skin. They much preferred this form over his cat one, cute as he had been, though they wondered if that was a preference stemmed from their own inherited prejudices about Issa’s people. He would be beautiful in any form, they told themselves, and their face grew hot at the truth of that. Lec coughed awkwardly, trying to clear their mind and focus on what Issa was saying.

    They thought of the boat ride over here, when Issa had transformed into a bird to pluck the hat off of that angry woman’s head. Lec had brought that hat with them, folded awkwardly to fit against all of the other things in their pack. A smile returned to their face at the memory, and they wondered just how much trouble Issa would get himself into before all this was over. They couldn’t deny that they’d been enjoying their time with him; they didn’t want to. Lec hoped, selfishly, that they’d have many more joyous memories like that before they had to accomplish what they set out to do.

    The news he brought from his eavesdropping delighted Lec, who quickly removed their map from their pack and scanned it for the town Issa had mentioned. It was only a name, not much to go off of, but Lec was so relieved at having any sort of direction that they hardly cared. They located the town easily enough, but when they looked up to present their findings to Issa, they saw the bitter expression on his face. That children’s book, too, was taking space in their pack. They hadn’t shown it to Issa, not since the last time they’d tried to read it back in a park in Evimaire. Issa would probably find it as ridiculous as it sounded. Lec had stolen a library book, as if they’d have any time to read on this journey. Lec turned back to the map, biting their lip. They remembered the way Issa’s lips formed over the syllables, sounding out words he knew only by sound. His expression of focus, of triumph, and even of frustration… Lec wanted to see those again. They hoped, if Issa wanted, they could introduce him to the world of literacy. Maybe someday, Issa would be the one reading to them.

    They only realized how foolish and unproductive those thoughts were when they noticed Issa staring expectantly at them. He was probably right; there must have been a better way to find information about a world-changing event like this. Lec’s gaze turned to the sky as they thought. The sun was continuing its afternoon descent, which gave them a few hours still before they’d have to find an inn. “I bet it’s in the—“ Newspapers, Lec had wanted to say, but they stopped themselves. Until Issa had a better grasp of the written word, they didn’t want to introduce him to things that would make him feel more useless unless they had to. They started again. “In some cities, there are people called criers. They shout announcements in the streets to keep the general public informed. They don’t tend to have the best reputation since a lot of people don’t want to be bombarded with politics when they’re just taking a walk, but… Well, Evimaire has a couple, and they’re even willing to find information for you. For a price. Maybe this place has someone similar?”

    If it would earn them more direction than a single point on their map hundreds of miles away, then it was a worthy expense. Lec couldn’t remember seeing any such person on their walk around the city earlier, though. “Let’s look around for one,” they suggested. They motioned for Issa to follow them out of the garden. As they continued through the city, Lec’s thoughts wandered from their current mission and instead to how exhausted they were. Their feet hurt from traveling all day, and they could think of nothing nicer than a bath with warm water, or snuggling into a soft bed. Maybe they would have better luck finding an inn for the night and continuing their search tomorrow morning, bright and early—

    Lec spotted her out of the corner of their eye. A young girl, barely a teenager, was standing on a wooden platform next to an old, unmarked building. She had a bundle of papers in her hand and even more by her foot, and she was heckling people walking past her to buy her supply before it was gone. Were those… newspapers? Maybe she would know where they could find a crier. Lec briefly wondered about the child labor laws in this country before tugging Issa towards her. She noticed them quickly and pointed to them. “Fresh printed and filled with the latest!” she announced. “Care for some news?”

    She was hardly old enough to understand the news she was selling, Lec thought. “Do you know where we can find a crier?” Lec asked.

    “Right here!” she announced brightly, pointing a thumb into her chest. She looked about to say something else, but she stopped herself and leaned towards Issa. “Wow,” she whistled. “You’ve got some pretty eyes.”

    She was too young to even know about the war overseas, then. Lec wondered how reliable her information could be, but they decided to try their luck anyway. “What can you tell us about a town called Serdu?” they asked, using the name they had seen spelled out on their map.

    The girl crossed her arms over her chest. “You got coin?” Only when Lec had forked over some change did the peppy smile return. “Serdu no longer exists,” she explained, and she proceeded to tell them about a dragon’s attacks on the villages and farmlands out west with far more detail than a child her age should have known. At their prompting, she also told them about other cities the dragon had destroyed, though when asked where it was heading, she shrugged her shoulders.

    Lec had been scribbling notes into the margins of their map, but they looked up when she stopped speaking. “You said the attack on Serdu happened three weeks ago?”

    “Where might be something even more recent in my paper,” the girl prodded, voice sugar-sweet. She looked between the two, expecting more coin, but then considered something. “I can trade you one.”

    Lec was wary. She was young, but she had made a career out of selling to people. “For what?”

    She pointed to Issa. “I wanna know about you,” she said. “Why are your eyes red? Where are you from? What are you?” She chuckled. “I’ve never met a real Lucet before.”

    So she did know. Lec stepped forward, prepared to offer the girl coin instead of answers to her intrusive questions, but they stopped themselves. This wasn’t their fight, wasn’t their decision to make. They stepped back again and looked at Issa. Maybe this was an opportunity to combat the prejudices in everyone older than this girl, a chance to show the world that the Lucet were just like anyone else. Lec wavered awkwardly. “You don’t have to,” they reminded Issa, but a part of them hoped he would. Lec loved seeing Issa talk about what he loved, and maybe the world would see that passion too, one crier at a time.
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  6. #136
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    The longer Lec spoke, the brighter Issa’s expression became. While their choice of name struck him as odd, these ‘Criers’ sounded like the exact sort of thing they needed right now. Their existence made a lot of sense, too. The Lucet spread all their news by word of mouth, so why wouldn’t the same thing work for the humans? It seemed like their methods were a little more formal, but they were also dealing with a much larger population, spread across multiple cities. Honestly, now that Lec had mentioned them, Issa couldn’t believe that he hadn’t considered the possibility earlier.

    This new information made Issa feel even more foolish than he had just a few moments ago. If they could’ve just spoken to a Crier at any time, then the entire ordeal at the restaurant, and the way he’d embarrassed himself in front of Lec, had effectively been meaningless. At least he’d have a funny story to tell if he ever made it home again.

    After mulling it over briefly, Issa decided that there was no point in dwelling on it, so he turned his attention back to the matter at hand. He had no idea what sort of price this Crier would demand in exchange for their information, but Lec seemed confident they’d be able to pay it, and the Lucet was inclined to trust their judgment. So without any further ado, he nodded his agreement, before following them out of the garden and back into the city once more.

    The street beyond was the same one they’d walked down just a few moments ago, but this trip felt like an entirely new experience to Issa. This time he didn’t have to crane his neck to look at people’s faces, or worry about being stepped on, or take several steps to match every one of Lec’s paces. All these things he normally took for granted, now made impossible to ignore. Being a cat had its own benefits, of course, but the change in perspective was refreshing. Not for the first time, he found himself wondering how the humans made do without such a blessing. They had their own gifts, certainly, but even so.

    Issa was so consumed by the thought he didn’t realize they’d found a Crier until they were already standing before the young girl, perched comically atop her box, next to a stack of naked books. She wasn’t quite what he’d been imagining…but that probably didn’t mean much, when he hadn’t really known what to expect in the first place. The compliment she tossed him made the Lucet smile, and he quickly offered her his earnest thanks. Just like that, he found that he liked the young human. Whether that was because of her candor, or because it was just nice to meet a human who didn’t hate his kind on principle, was difficult to say.

    He wasn’t particularly surprised that she knew about Serdu’s destruction right away. That sort of thing had to be a big event, no matter how many humans there were, right? Especially if all of their towns were this big. Really, all this information was great. Well, not great, exactly. A town being destroyed by a dragon was bad. Really bad. Terrible, actually. But here, at long last, was the information they needed to plan the next stage of their travels. Issa couldn’t do anything quite as practical as Lec’s note-taking, so instead he focused on committing what the girl said to memory. And given the circumstances, it wasn’t hard to keep his focus on her.

    When the girl insisted that she wanted to know more about his kind, Issa started a little, his pretty eyes widening in surprise. Of all the things she could’ve asked for, he hadn’t been expecting that one. “Why are your eyes brown?” He fired back before he could think better of it, tone playful. It was only after the words were out of his mouth that Issa realised how combative they could seem. Thankfully, the girl seemed to take it in stride.

    When it became apparent that the girl wasn’t joking, and Lec gently suggested that he refuse, Issa chewed on the inside of his cheek gently. He’d have no issue sharing with the Crier if she was just trying to satiate her personal curiosity, but he didn’t really like the idea of her yelling information about his home to the whole street. Still…the Evimaire humans already knew a fair bit about his people, and he’d probably have to sacrifice a great deal more before this trip was over. And while he was grateful that Lec had asked, Issa was thankful for the opportunity to help. To relieve the burden his presence placed on them, even in such a small way.

    “It’s okay. I don’t mind” Issa answered softly, giving Lec a small, wan smile. “Just…tell me when I’ve shared enough, okay? I’m not sure how you’re supposed to decide something like that.” He turned his attention to the Crier good and proper, then. Issa decided that the questions she’d asked just a few moments ago were as good a starting point as any. He told the Crier roughly where they lived, and everything he remembered about their supposed origins. His words were a little awkward at first, but it wasn’t long before Issa found his voice. The girl’s curiosity seemed genuine, and her enthusiasm was endearing. And…well, it was nice to speak to someone about his culture and heritage, even in broad terms, without having to worry they’d judge him for it. Or worse, try and enact some sort of revenge.

    It wasn’t long before his explanation blossomed into something resembling an actual conversation, and Issa quickly lost track of time. And when Lec interrupted, making it clear that he’d paid their dues, he actually felt a little disappointed. A part of him wanted to keep going, but common sense won out, and the Lucet forced himself to acknowledge that they had more important things to do. After the girl had handed over the book she’d promised them, Issa bade her a genuinely cheery farewell, before following Lec away.

    Once the young girl and her books had been obscured by the crowd again, Issa finally turned his attention back to Lec good and proper. He eyed the uncovered book in their hands, a little uncertain as to where they should focus their attention next. “Should we…find somewhere quiet so you can read in peace? Or would it be better if we started looking for transport first?” Hopefully they wouldn’t be getting on another one of those terrible bus things, goddess willing. While he waited for an answer, Issa glanced up at the sky, shielding his eyes with a hand. There was still plenty of light to see by, but it looked like the sun itself had dipped below the city walls, hiding itself from view. “The ship we came here on still traveled at night, right? Do most types of human transport do that?”

  7. #137
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    To Lec’s surprise, Issa was willing to humor the young crier. They felt obligated to protest, to protect Issa from the discrimination wrapped in sweet words and innocent curiosity, but they bit their tongue. Issa might have been from a different culture, but he was still a man, still a person capable of making his own decisions. If he wanted to share his culture with the first person who had given him space to do so, Lec was no one to stop him. They swallowed their mounting anxiety and tried to remind themselves there was little a young girl could do to hurt Issa. They hoped.

    Issa began to speak, and Lec forgot about the fear that they had just held to their chest. He had a lot to say about his people. Some things Lec already knew, and some they did not, but they were enamored by the way he talked about it all. The quirks Lec had picked up on in their time spent with Issa paled to the thorough explanations he now offered to the crier. There was nuance in the way Issa spoke, acted, in the way his entire people existed, and Lec was ashamed at the bristling prejudices they were reminded of as he talked. The girl, too, listened attentively to Issa, equipped with questions Lec wished they weren’t too awkward to ask.

    The two of them lost themselves in conversation, and Lec could only watch. They didn’t mind; they adored the way Issa’s dark eyes shone with the love for his family, his culture, and the heavy longing he obviously felt for it all. Even his bittersweet smiles were beautiful, a picturesque façade under the fading sunlight. Lec startled at that. When had it gotten so late? They didn’t want Issa to stop talking—they were sure they could listen to him like this all night—but if they didn’t continue their journey, they’d never stop the apocalypse. Lec wasn’t too keen to travel at night, either, not when they didn’t know how safe the roads were in these foreign lands. Regretfully, they gently interrupted Issa.

    As promised, the crier handed over one of her papers, bound with a thin string that was fraying at both ends. With a cheery smile and a chipper thank-you, she turned her attention to the other passersby and called out to them, ready to make another sale.

    Lec looked down at their new newspaper when Issa asked his questions. “Oh, no,” they said with a dismissive wave. “I don’t need quiet to read, thankfully. And we really should get going.” They cast a glance around town in search of a sign for public transport, but finding none, they took out their map again. “Hm,” they said while they considered Issa’s question. “Some of our transport runs at night, sure. Most of it actually. Steam-powered technology isn’t limited by the sun, for example, but it’s a bit harder for, say, animal-drawn transport, where the animals will be blind and tired at night. I’m not sure what kind of transportation is common around here, but…” Their gaze fell to the map again, and they moved to show Issa.

    “We’re here,” they said, pointing to a circle designating the city they were currently in. “Serdu is—was—here,” they continued, trailing a finger to the far west. “I’ll see if the paper has any specifics about where exactly the dragon has gone, but in the meantime, that’ll be a good place to head towards. There’s a town here,” they said, dragging their finger back towards their current location and moving it to a tiny spec towards Serdu, “that should be close enough to walk to before it’s properly night. We can rest a room at an inn there and hop on a transport further west come morning.”

    It was a lot. They were overwhelmed, and at least they knew how buses and maps worked. They couldn’t imagine what Issa likely thought of the whole mess. “Does that make sense?” they asked awkwardly, making sure he understood. “If you’d prefer, we could probably find an inn here and head towards the next town in the morning.” It was only after Issa agreed to head towards the next town tonight that Lec stashed their map away. “Okay,” they mumbled. “Okay. Then let’s start walking… that way.” They pointed towards the setting sun.

    As they walked, Lec finally turned their attention to the newspaper. They unraveled its string and glossed over the bold headlines. When they caught Issa’s gaze from the corner of their eye, they smiled. “I can read and walk,” they insisted. “As long as it doesn’t get too dark too quickly, that is. Though I’m no stranger to reading in the dark, either.” A small smile fell onto their lips. “Mother used to scold me for that. She said it’d ruin my eyes, always straining like that.” They felt awkward bringing up their mother, especially to someone who didn’t come from a culture with a written language and wouldn’t be able to relate to such a warning. Lec fumbled the paper in their hands. They turned back to the pages, eager to escape another fumbled conversation.

    They were a fast reader, so Lec swiftly skimmed the pages until they found what they were looking for. The paper had a section dedicated to the tragedies brought on by the dragon. Lec cringed at the list of victims; there were so many dead that the font was miniscule just to get them all on one page. They scanned the obituaries, half-expecting to see a name they recognized. They did not. “Hey, this is useful,” they said, looking up at Issa. “There’s a list here, of people who…” It felt so much harder to say it than to read it. Lec cleared their throat. “Of the ones who didn’t make it,” they finished awkwardly. “It’s got their towns, so we can cross-reference the map later and try to figure out where it’s going.”

    Even still, it sounded like a fantasy. The gravity of these obituaries was a lot for them to swallow, and they needed a distraction. Mapping out the rest of their journey would be a dynamic thing; they didn’t need all the details now. So they let their mind wander to something else that was sticking out to them, and they hoped Issa wouldn’t mind the diversion.

    They said his name, softer and sweeter than they’d meant. Lec was thinking about the way his lips curled into a smile when he talked about his family, and they wanted him to talk like that again. If he could hold onto his passion, knowing what he knew, then maybe things weren’t so bad after all. “For the next couple hours,” they said, “it’s just us and this road.” They turned to face him, not breaking stride. “Are you doing okay?”
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  8. #138
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    Lec’s insistence that neither peace nor quiet were necessary, the casual dismissiveness with which they spoke, completely baffled Issa. He couldn’t string together the most basic of words, but his human could read an entire newspaper in the middle of a huge crowd, while walking through growing darkness, with no risk of getting sidetracked or making mistakes? The benefits of a lifetime of practice, he supposed. Issa couldn’t help but wonder if he’d ever have the chance to reach that level of mastery. Probably not, if he were honest with himself. Not when there was a giant, winged, scaled monstrosity threatening to wipe them all out of existence in the not-so-distant future.

    Even more confusing was their mention of ‘steam powered’ transport. Had the boat and bus they’d travelled on worked by heating up water, somehow? That seemed absurd. Surely that word just meant something different in this context, and Issa simply didn’t know the difference. Was he…supposed to try and learn how, then take that information back to his people? Was that one of his responsibilities in a situation like this? Did he want to see his home changed in such a way? Would his family even accept that sort of knowledge? He doubted it. He was just as impressed by the implications that every human understood how they worked. Apparently learning to fit in with humans was going to be even more difficult than he’d originally anticipated.

    Issa was a little surprised when Lec directed their attention towards the map first, instead of the newspaper, but he was quick to turn his mind to their task. His eyes followed the human’s finger as Lec pointed out the city they were currently in, and the place the dragon had allegedly destroyed. It didn’t take Issa long to realize that he had no idea how to gauge the scale of the distance between them. Even looking at the water they’d crossed on the way here didn’t really help. Not when they’d used a boat for the trip. He’d already known that he was completely out of his depth, but now the water beneath him seemed to be getting deeper with each passing moment.

    He was still staring at the map, trying to wring some sort of understanding from his brain, when Lec asked if everything made sense. Issa was so focused that the unexpected question made him jump a little, and before he could think better of it, he quickly stammered out something that sounded vaguely affirmative. After a few seconds, when his brain caught up with his mouth, the Lucet’s cheeks began to burn. Why had he said that? Now he couldn’t ask for help without admitting that he’d just lied. When Lec followed up by asking if they should move on tonight, he gave a more confident affirmative. Partially because he wanted to keep moving, after so long on the boat, and partially because he was desperate to escape the awkward situation that he’d created for himself.

    As they started to walk, and Lec unwrapped the newspaper, Issa found himself unsure as to where he should direct his attention. He desperately wanted to see more of this town, now that he knew they were leaving today, but he also wanted to make sure that his efforts bore fruit. The Crier had held up her end of the bargain, but she’d only ever implied that the newspaper contained more information about the dragon, and she’d built a life out of selling to people. What if she’d duped him? Issa tried to tell himself that it didn’t matter, and that staring would make no difference, so he should focus on the town. But no matter how hard he tried, his attention inevitably crawled its way back to Lec. For more than one reason.

    When Lec caught his eye, and smiled at him, Issa knew that he’d been caught. Thankfully, they didn’t seem to mind. And when Lec mistook his interest for concern, Issa decided against correcting them. The little story that they shared about their mother filled his chest with a gentle warmth, and Issa was quick to return their smile. The Lucet couldn’t pretend he understood every part of the story, but he liked the way Lec spoke about their mother. The fondness that crept into their tone and eyes, same as it had every other time they’d spoken about her. Even after they were done, Issa said nothing, wary of spoiling the moment.

    Then Lec finished reading the newspaper, and shared the results with him. Issa was filled with relief at first, glad they hadn’t been scammed. Then, after a few moments, he found himself horrified. Both at himself, taking joy in such horrible news, and at the idea of hearing about deceased relatives from words printed on paper. What a depressingly clinical way to learn someone you loved had passed. But…well, perhaps it was inevitable, when so many humans lived scattered across far-flung cities. Every revelation he had about these people and their culture seemed to make it increasingly clear that it was unfair to judge them by the standards of his own kind, and this was no exception.

    After that, Issa found it much easier to keep his attention on their surroundings. He watched as the city walls seemed to grow in size above them, until he stepped into their shadow. The buildings around them seemed to grow darker, and the people more serious. They were still interesting, just in a different way. He stared at the oversized doors that marked the gate, and craned his neck to look at the great stone arch as they passed underneath. And then, just like that, they were out. They stepped back into the fading sunlight, and officially left his second human town behind.

    With every step he took, the city seemed to fall behind. With every minute that passed, the road became less crowded, until they were practically alone. They were on their way again, headed towards another slew of new experiences, and Issa’s whole body seemed to prickle with anticipation. Some small, traitorous part of his brain almost thought it romantic. A leisurely twilight stroll with the object of his affection, marred only by their heavy packs and the promise they’d be at it for hours. At least, until he mentally scolded himself for such foolishness. Still, when Lec spoke again, Issa jumped at the opportunity to answer, to speak with them more.

    “Well, my legs haven’t stopped working yet” Issa answered playfully. But after a handful of steps and heartbeats apiece, he spoke again, his tone a little more somber. “I…miss the rest of my family already. More than I’d care to admit. This is the longest I’ve ever gone without seeing them, and we haven’t really been travelling for that long, right? And I’m a little disappointed that we didn’t get to see more of that town, too.” He was contradicting himself, wasn’t he? He’d agreed it was time to move on, after all. The Lucet hummed softly for a moment as he tried to put together the words, figure out how to explain.

    “Moving on still feels like the right choice. We’ve got more important shit to do, right? And I’m sure we’ll visit plenty of other towns on our journey. But we spent days exploring Evimaire, and it still feels like I’ve only scratched the surface of what was there. I really enjoyed visiting the library with you, and the café, and I can’t help but wonder what else we might be missing when we brush through towns like this.” The Lucet took a moment to adjust his pack, shrugging its familiar weight into a more comfortable position. “Maybe I’m just…starting to realize just how big the human world is, I guess.”

    As his voice faded into the night, Issa realized just how much he’d been rambling. Realized that Lec had probably only meant to ask how he’d been holding up physically before he’d dumped all of that on them. Desperate to recover, the Lucet would stammer out a hasty attempt to return the gesture. “And, uh, how are you holding up?”

  9. #139
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    Unaware of how flustered Issa was making himself, Lec took his words at face value. They cast a quick glance towards his legs and smiled along with his joke. As he continued to speak, though, their smile fell, and they looked at his face with a sympathetic frown. Issa was holding it together well, especially considering how much newer all these experiences were for him than for Lec, but he was still hurting too. They didn’t know how to comfort him, not when they were in the same place, but they wanted to hug him. They had before, a spur of the moment thing when Issa had first told them about their fates. It had been weird, then. Lec didn’t want to make things weird again, and besides, they needed to keep going if they wanted to make it to the next town by sundown.

    Lec found themselves thinking about Issa’s family. He had talked about them before, and again with the crier, but Lec still didn’t know much about them. The Lucet had an elder Issa regarded like a grandmother, and he had mentioned his mother and some siblings, too. Lec only had their father and brother, and even then, it wasn’t like their father gave a damn about them anymore. They wondered what it was like to have to say goodbye to so many people. Their gaze rose to the distant, darkening clouds, and their mind wandered. Would they ever get a chance to meet Issa the people in Issa’s stories? A subconscious hand flew to the scar at their neck, and the memory of the last Lucet they’d met lingered at the edge of their mind. But if Lec got the choice, they decided, they wanted to meet the people that meant so much to Issa.

    With the mention of the town they were leaving behind, Lec hesitated, nearly tripping over their own boots in the process. They really couldn’t afford to take their time, but Lec still considered turning around and stalling their responsibilities just for another day. They could take their time sightseeing with Issa, and his inexperience with the human world would pose questions Lec would have never thought to ask. It was more fun exploring that way, and Lec wasn’t quick to deny an opportunity to put off thinking about what was to come. Even Issa agreed they needed to go, though, but Lec knew what he’d meant. They were both tourists here, and Lec might have liked going into every shop and sampling their collections before eventually leaving to explore a new destination. They tried to tell themselves they would get the chance, that both of them could come back here when this was all over, but they couldn’t yet see past the impossible task they were set to do.

    Though… Library. Lec fondly recalled their last trip to the library, how Issa had seemed so fascinated with all the books, how he’d demanded they’d read random lines to him, how he’d fluttered from shelf to shelf until Lec had shown him to the children’s section and read him a silly book about an elephant going to a party. That very book was weighing down their pack now, contraband they should have never brought with them. But… an idea formed, stupid as it was, and Lec went back and forth with themselves about it.

    They coughed awkwardly to mask their prolonged silenced at Issa’s question. “I’m fine,” they said, voice cracking. Lec cleared their throat. That wasn’t the truth at all, and they both knew that. They picked at their fingernails as they chose their next words. “Well, no. I miss my brother. I miss Evimaire. I even miss performing with my magic.” They wondered how Soren was faring now. They’d been a bad sibling to leave him alone in a house without love, with a father who refused to even learn how to communicate with him, but they’d had to. It was why they were out here in foreign lands in the first place, wasn’t it? To protect the people they cared about. Lec sighed, letting thoughts of their little brother motivate them to keep going.

    After several steps, they half-turned towards Issa, not breaking stride. “Hey, I…” This was stupid. What would Issa think when they showed him what they’d brought? He would laugh at them; that’d be what. But Lec tried to silence their thoughts, and they pulled their pack to their chest. They rummaged in it until their fingers wrapped around the edges of the children’s book. In the silence that followed, they debated whether showing him would be a good idea at all. “The library lets people rent books for free,” they said slowly. “It’s to give equal access to information, and stories, and everything else they have, to everyone. That’s why it’s really, really bad, evil even, to steal from libraries. So don’t… Don’t ever do that, okay?”

    Finally they removed the book from their pack and aimlessly flipped through the pages. Ethor the Elephant and his many colorful animal friends smiled up at them. “I…” they mumbled. “I have every intention of returning this.” They were more assuring themselves than Issa. “But I thought it might be helpful to continue our lessons at some point. Reading, I mean.” They looked up at him, feeling like an idiot. Who stole a children’s book from a library to teach someone without a written language how to read? Lec laughed at the stupidity of it, even as their body tensed with anxiety. “If you’re still interested,” they added. “We can read before bed tonight once we find an inn.”
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  10. #140
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    In the moments that followed his bout of impromptu oversharing, Issa found himself listening to the sounds of the road. The buzzing of insects, brought on by night’s gradual approach. The soft rustling of leaves, whenever the gentle evening breeze set the trees to dancing. The satisfying crunch of dirt and gravel underfoot, accompanied by the occasional sharp snap of a fallen twig. These sounds were familiar. Comforting, even. They reminded the Lucet of the forest, his home. But they also mingled with new, stranger sounds. Like the rattling of those terrible mechanical transports the humans used, whenever one zoomed past. What had Lec called them again? Buses?

    Of course, he could only focus on these things because Lec was yet to answer his question. A surefire sign that his little speech really had made things awkward. Issa’s cheeks burned, and he found himself wishing they could move on. He desperately wanted Lec to ignore him, or to distract them from this topic, but he dare not open his mouth again, for fear of what else might come spilling out. Especially after the revelation he’d had that morning.

    When Lec finally broke the silence, Issa was surprised to find that he didn’t quite believe them. At least, not at first. But when the human corrected themselves, he felt a pang of sympathy. Apparently homesickness was a universal experience. Issa wanted to offer Lec his condolences, let them know that he understood, but something stopped the Lucet. Not shyness, or embarrassment, but some innate sense that no words could ever soothe such an ache. Not really. As much as he wanted to help, it seemed like folly to try.

    At the same time, Issa was equally surprised to hear Lec say they missed their performances. But, after casting his mind back to the night he’d watched them dance, the Lucet decided he shouldn’t be. When he recalled how comfortable Lec had looked on that stage, the passion with which they’d moved, it only made sense. It was a terrible shame, then, that his memories of that night were dominated so thoroughly by one disgusting person in the audience. The one Issa had started a fight with, against all common sense. A part of him wanted to correct that, to suggest that Lec put on another show at the inn they were going to stop at tonight. But again, he refrained. He was still learning human customs, and had no idea if such a thing would be appropriate. Or possible.

    Issa was pulled from his thoughts when Lec began to speak again, giving him a seemingly random lecture on the importance of libraries. The Lucet threw a sideways glance at his traveling companion then, his confusion written plain across his face. His eyes followed Lec’s hands as they dipped into their pack, and widened when they withdrew the colorful children’s book they’d been concealing all this time. It took his brain a few moments to process what he was seeing, but after a couple of seconds, Issa began to laugh. Softly at first, but then harder. It bubbled out of him uncontrollably, until he was holding his stomach, and his breath was coming in short gasps. But when it finally left him, the smile that remained was genuine.

    “I’d like that” he answered earnestly, holding Lec’s eye for a long moment. After the events of this day, the idea of learning human script was more appealing now than it had ever been. Then Issa’s amusement got the better of him, and he spoke up again. “Thank you for dirtying your hands on my behalf. I promise I won’t let this sacrifice go to waste. I’ll be the most dedicated student you’ve ever seen.” His tone was playful, but the Lucet’s words were threaded with good intentions. More so, perhaps, than he himself realized.

    A few minutes and several dozen steps later, it was his turn to break the silence. “So, uh. Just how long is it supposed to take us to reach the inn, according to that map of yours?” Issa tried to make the question sound casual, but he wasn’t quite as successful as he might’ve liked. He’d been trying to avoid peppering Lec with those sorts of questions, but apparently he was more eager for their reading lessons than he’d let on. “I know I joked about giving you a ride earlier, but we’re supposed to be in a rush, right? The fate of the world and all that. If you think it would make a meaningful difference, then…”

    He trailed off, his words hanging in the air between them. If another Lucet had asked him a few weeks ago, Issa would’ve told them that he’d never demean himself before a human like that. But now? I wouldn’t mind. Not if it’s you. The thought rose in his mind unbidden, and Issa found himself wondering just how far gone he really was.

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