Chapter 2: Rest Easy
From the presence of shopping carts and rows and rows of empty shelves, most of which were now covered in greenery (or purplery, taking the color of the Jinmenju's leaves into account), this place use to be a shopping center. Although it was long since looted, likely stripped bare in the early days of the Death Bloom. Now all that was left was the chance to find the stray Shell dropped by a looter or a scavenger passing through. Looked like years ago the roof caved in, further exposing the place to the elements. The vivid purple leaves and the white bark of the Jinmenju gave the whole place a very bright hue.
Very little sound, just the raspy sound of Casper's breathing, distorted by his mask, as well as the rustling of branches and leaves. The sour smell of the Jinmenju hung in the air; the smell specifically came from the sap, it gave off a smell similar to oil, which became lessened after it was refined.
But, regardless of what this place use to be, it was starting to get dark and Casper had to sleep somewhere, the exhaustion of a long day finally catching up with him. Going over to a large rack of shelves that once housed boxes of food or other necessities, he noticed that the bottom shelf was big enough to house his scrawny body. It wasn't the best sleeping spot, but it scavengers like him had to make do. He had to be close to a Haven at this rate.
Slowly, he removed his jacket, planning to use it as a pillow, his build was even more apparent without it. Sphynxs like him were naturally thin, yet his body was an extreme case. Unhealthily so, his gray skin hugged against his ribs and spin, even his shoulder bones visible against his skin.
As he got down to a sitting position, he took a crumpled cigarette from his pocket, in a flash of purple light from his fingers, lit it, taking a deep breath on the red smoke. For a period of time, Casper got lost in his train of thought. Yet, even as he tried to keep a peaceful state of mind, his past would come back to haunt him.
"I spared you because you are my friend. There's no other reason."
They picked at the back of his brain, like a needle, yet this same needle is what kept pushing him further. As those thoughts lingered, more and more time passed, until the sun was gone and the sky was full of stars. Finally, as he calmed himself down, he began to shift where he sat, ready to lie down to rest.
It was at that moment, he heard a noise. There were three things it could be, an amalgamate, a passing animal, or a lone scavenger; it sounded too precise and small to be an Imperial Vehicle. Casper gripped his gun, cigarette still in his mouth.
Heavy footprints and the crunching of foliage. It was definitely a scavenger. But there was something else coupled with it. The clanging of lightweight metal? Could it be? He thought, before speaking out loud. "Old Path?" He shouted to the darkness in front of him, still holding his pun, pointed in the direction of the footsteps.
Emerging from the darkness, crunching plant life under his armored talons, was the Garuda from earlier. Clad in heavy armor far out from the time period of Qest. Casper's mild suspision towards him had increased just a bit. Going from mild to medium. "You've been following me, haven't you?"
The Garuda held both hands out and spoke in the same tired, but friendly tone from earlier, "Don't worry. I'm not hostile." To prove his point, he removed his sword from his belt, a heavy bastard sword, and set it inside a vine covered shopping cart, before stepping forward. He proceeded to remove his helmet, a helmet that opened from the front, coming apart in two pieces. Without it, he was revealed to be a Forest Hawk. His feathers were mattered, some of them coming off in places, showing signs of incredible age. Having a sharp eye, Casper also noticed the slight pink coloring on the shafts of his feathers; a sign of late stage Arborpathy. "See? I mean you no harm." He set his helmet to the side. "Without this, you could kill me in one shot and I couldn't retaliate if you missed… My name is Amin."
Casper still held onto his gun for a few moments, but began to lower it, steadily though, then used his free hand to remove the cigarette from his mouth. "You're crazy. What if your gamble didn't work and I did shoot you?" Taking his finger off the trigger, he holstered his gun, leaning against the shelves, slowly sliding down, back to sitting down.
"I've lived 7 decades and 2 years now. I'm ready to die." Amin said, as he took a step forward, setting himself down in front of the Sphynx, who stayed put.
"Same." Casper stated bluntly, flicking the cigarette away, before taking another one out and lighting it. Not even looking at Amin, he added, "If you're looking to work together, you are better off asking someone else. Unless you have something that can help me, I work alone."
"I wasn't going to. I'm a loner myself… A stereotype of us Hawks. I just came here to ask you something. You are a man burdened by his past, are you not?"
"Maybe." The Sphynx said, then after a moment's pause of staring at the Garuda, trying to figure out just what the hell he was talking about. "What do you even mean?"
"I'm just a curious man," he said, rubbing the back of his head, "I know it sounds like nonsense, but I couldn't help but pry."
"Again, it doesn't really concern you." He said, before asking the hawk a question of his own, "Right, let me ask you then, how do you know my name? I never shared it with you."
"Came to me in a dream." Amin said, "I have… Premonitions, you could call them, when I sleep, I get these dreams that act as visions of the future. Through them, I learned your name."
Right. Sounded fake. Casper smiled, amused by what could very well be some flimsy excuse, "Uh huh, so let me guess: You learned my name in a dream because you heard your future self say it even though there is no way you should've known it then? …And you didn't stalk me weeks before we met?" He didn't want to think about how that even made sense.
"Correct." Amin said, not bothering going into detail about how that worked. Maybe that was for the best… "Each vision pertains to someone's death. When they start, I cannot determine who will die. Just that someone shall. It was in this vision that I witnessed the death of the one called Ekko. Killed by an Amalgamate that he had the upper hand on until the fatal blow. A death I wish I could have prevented."
"But you didn't?" Casper said, extinguishing his cigarette out on a nearby log.
"I have learned over the decades, after so many deaths, that I cannot prevent them even if I try. I have witnessed the death of friends and family, even the death of my mentor, the finest swordswoman in the Old Path. I couldn't stop any of them. I can only guess when they will happen and how I will get there. They can be a few minutes away or years. Like opening a book to a random page and wondering what is going on. It's a…" The old hawk trailed off, taking a deep breath. A strong sense of weariness in his voice. Casper would have thought that he suddenly died of old age, if it weren't for his breathing.
"It's a…? Casper asked, tilting his head.
The hawk opened his eyes once more, looking at the booklet on Casper's belt. "It's an odd world. You search for this Coalition, all in the name of a man you don't know. For your own reasons yes, but you hold his history long after he has left this world. Both of us, we are burdened by the past, that is what got us here. It's because Qest is full of death and suffering. Friends can die without warning or worse, become Amalgamates. I've seen it happen. I've seen it happen so many times that I've become numb to it. This fact is the only thing I regret about living so long." Slowly, he began to get up, using a shelf for leverage, already ready to go. "But, if you went to one of the villages that dot the land, you wouldn't know that. That's because this world has made Qestians into optimistic creatures, constantly drawing out hope with what little they have. That is the one thing you should never do, no matter who you are, do not lose hope. This world cuts deep and can drive a man mad." Taking up his sword and helmet, he rambled on, "Draw hope from others, let others draw hope from you. If you can't do that, draw from the things that you love… This ability is something I truly envy about others."
Casper watched him as he put his helmet back on and scoffed, he choose to be silent through the Garuda's ramblings.
"Thank you… Sorry for keeping you up. Thank you for listening to an old bird's ramblings." The Garuda said, as he was prepared to leave. "For we will meet again, some day, on a snowy field in the north. The day I both fear and look forward to." With a long, quiet pause, he left with his final parting words, "The day that you kill me."
The Sphynx sat there, puzzling over his words, still hearing the sound of his clanking armor in the distance. So much to take in in such short time, Casper didn't get any sleep that night.
How can a man who has lost all hope get it back?