Maka swung her short blade forward in a rhythmic motion, barely registering the thunks and thwacks as her knife made contact with the overgrown vegetation. She staggered against the thick roots and tangled vines, throwing her weight into her swings; her arms were too tired to work properly. Her brow slick with sweat and her back bent against the strain of her pack, Maka concentrated solely on putting one aching foot in front of the other.
She had to ignore the sharp pains shooting through her stomach. She had to overlook the throbbing of the blisters on her feet. Somewhere in the back of her mind, dulled with pain, was the knowledge that if she rested, she would never rise again.
There was movement in front of her, and Maka paused, labored breathing slowing as she strained her ears in the silence. She tried to raise her knife in front of her, but anything higher than her chest caused a lance of pain to shoot up her arm, so she gritted her teeth and held it at her waist.
Peckers she could handle; she was an expert at slapping them out of the air and cutting clean through their thin necks. They made for a skimpy meal, but at least there was meat on their bones, unlike the Scumbag she had dispatched two days ago. The only spoils a fat gas creature like that left behind were oozing patches of acid, steam curling into the air as their bloated bodies disintegrated. Some of the slime had fallen on her exposed arm as she had sliced at its belly, and Maka had been forced to tear another strip off her shirt to bind her raw skin; soon she’d run out of fabric. It was troubling for the lack of bandages, not for her nakedness, because who could care about something like that after the world had ended?
Her ears tried to listen for the high-pitched hissing that heralded the arrival of Windbags, and Maka crept forward through the thick brush. A rivulet of sweat slid down the side of her face, but she brushed at it impatiently. Knees shaking as she crouched behind the bushes, Maka breathed deeply to steady herself, trying to listen for the sounds of an enemy approaching between her breaths.
An insidious hiss wended its way through the thicket to her ear drums. Maka tightened her grip on the hilt of her knife and crouched lower, fingers sinking into the damp earth underneath her. Taking one last breath, Maka sprang from her cover with a hoarse shout.
A pair of hunched shoulders covered in tattered cloth stopped her dead in her tracks. The hooded figure turned its gaze on her, and Maka could see the bare blue chest of the gaseous creature. The Gasfella loomed over her, the hissing growing pronounced as it raised a pickaxe in its hand high above its head, bulky arms bulging even as the lower part of its body tailed off into a wisp of smoke. Where a face should have been were only the soulless glowing eyes of a Gasfella turned rogue, icy blue and flat and out for blood. Her puny weapon was no match for something that had once mined the Caelondian underground for jagged rocks and hardened gemstones. Maka prepared herself to die.
But her body wasn’t ready to give up yet. As the creature swung its axe down, her legs propelled her forward so that she found herself almost pressed against the pale chest of the Gasfella. Maka swung her knife upwards without thinking, and it carved through the gaseous body of her attacker in a move that would have gutted it had the Windbag had any organs to spill. The axe was embedded behind her in the thick peat moss of the bog, and the creature struggled to pull it free as thin blue vapors seeped out of its gaping stomach. Maka pulled in vain at the knife, but it was buried deeply into the Gasfella’s abdomen, and for a few moments, she and the creature pulled uselessly at both their stuck weapons. As the axe shook behind her, she knew she was wasting time.
She ducked under the muscled arm of the Gasfella, blinking blue mist out of her eyes, and crashed through the underbrush away from the dying Windbag. She didn’t care how many Lunkheads she alerted, she didn’t care how many Peckers would swoop down on her from the sky; she just ran. Her lungs burned for oxygen as branches and thorns tore at her hair and her skin, sweat dripping into her eyes and blinding her. She ran until her legs gave out, collapsing into a heap near a babbling stream, and Maka was surprised to find that she was crying. The pungent smell of rotting leaves and wet moss assaulted her nose, and she sobbed into her aching arms. She retched, but nothing came up, there was nothing to come up, she had nothing more to give. There was a darkness at the edge of her vision, and she let it come.
Maka felt something tickle her cheek. It was warm and damp and smelled of earth. The gentle whispering of a stream sang happily through the heavy forest air.
For a brief moment, Maka wondered if she were dead, but then every ache in her body came rushing back in full force, and she knew she hadn’t been so lucky. She remained motionless, vaguely hoping that the soft earth would lower her slowly into its cool embrace, washing over her senses and soothing her to sleep. The noise of the stream was the only sound to meet her ears.
Except that it wasn’t. There was an impossible sound, a sound she could not be hearing, something so foreign and familiar at the same time, the only sound that could make her shift her arms to bear her weight and lift herself into a sitting position. Maka stared straight ahead, holding her breath to catch the thin, lilting sound as it drifted towards her.
It couldn’t be real. Her mind was playing a cruel trick on her senses, a sadistic little game.
I dig my hole, you build a wall
She slowly got to her knees, arms shaking with the effort. Maka staggered upright, stumbling under the weight of her stained pack. The stream gurgled in the background, the wind rustled through the leaves, birdsong floated gently on the breeze, but Maka only had ears for one thing. Her face was wet again, vision blurred as she moved slowly, haltingly forward.
So build that wall and build it strong 'cause
We'll be there before too long
Was it possible to see a mirage in the middle of a forest? The sloping shoulders in front of her reminded her for a nauseating moment of the Gasfella she had used as a scabbard for her blade, but the pale crop of hair could only be human. He strummed lightly on a thin guitar, notes plucked out of the air and sent straight through her heart. His voice was raspy, as if he didn’t use it much, and it was clear he had no particular talent, but to Maka, it was the most beautiful sound she had ever heard.
But now you've got nowhere to run
Maka tried to speak, but her throat was dry as an empty well; she had stopped using words a long time ago.
So build that wall and build it strong cause
We'll be there before too long
She fell forward, letting out a gravelly gasp. The haunting music stopped short and the figure turned sharply. She was met with a pair of startlingly ember-like eyes, burning brightly with surprise as he stared at her. Her lips parted in supplication, cracked and bleeding. He opened his mouth, and Maka noticed unusually jagged teeth. She tried to lick enough moisture into her lips, and coughed raggedly. "Please," she croaked, the darkness returning to the edge of her sight. She tried to fight it, tried to hold onto the vision of the only person she had seen since the world had ended, but the black slowly creeping in on her senses was overpowering, and she felt a panic grip her. She reached out for him, vision fading fast, eyes still riveted on his shocked face.
There was sunlight pressing against her eyelids, and Maka slung an arm across her face to shield herself. Her muscles groaned in protest, but she felt more stiff than anything else. She was also not lying on the ground; was that a blanket over her chest? Moving her arm away from her face, Maka opened her eyes, only to be blinded by the harsh sunlight. She winced and curled onto her side.
“Ahh, you’re awake.”
Maka sat bolt upright, hand clutching at her side for a knife that was no longer there, heart in her throat.
“Easy, easy. You’re safe.”
Scrubbing furiously at her eyes, enraged that she couldn’t see, Maka tried to peer in front of her as a face swam into view. A mop of grizzled gray hair came slowly into focus; the lined face looked haggard, but the man was smiling.
“You’re fine,” he said, but Maka could only stare.
“Wh…” She tried to speak, but her throat was parched. She pressed a hand to her neck, and the man turned.
“Here! Yes. Drink this. Humans do need quite a lot of water.” He spoke almost as if he were an observer of humans rather than one himself, but he handed her a seagreen bottle that looked perfectly ordinary, and Maka brought it to her lips. She poured the liquid straight down her throat, which turned out to be a mistake, because the hot burn of alcohol left a trail of fire down into her stomach, and she pulled away, coughing.
“Heh, you’re okay, easy there,” the man said, taking the bottle from her grasp swiftly and awkwardly pounding her on the back. “All right, take it easy. That’s the first batch of Bastion Bourbon. Guess it still needs some work. Or rather, I guess it works a little too well.”
Slowly, her hacking subsided, and she gazed curiously up at the man.
“Who… are you?” she managed, and her voice sounded like that of a stranger, cracked and rusty from disuse.
He smiled at her, lips stretched taut over yellowed teeth.
“Names are funny these days, but you can call me Stein.”
“How did you get here? Well, a friend of mine brought you here. You were in bad shape when he hauled your very injured body up here. Very badly damaged. I took the liberty of bandaging your wounds” -- Maka glanced down and saw fresh linen fabric stretched over scabbing injuries -- “and we’ve found you some fresh clothes. Your injuries were absolutely fascinating,” he continued, sounding impressed. “Lots of gashes. Lots of bruises. Just fascinating.” She stared at him. He grinned. “I am a doctor.”
Somehow she found that less comforting, not more. Maka glanced around. Now that the sun wasn’t glaring directly into her face, she could see that she was lying on a lumpy pallet in the middle of a stretch of grass. The sky was a pale blue above her, with not a cloud in sight, and the breeze was pleasant against her skin. Peering around Stein’s crouching figure, she noticed a few rudimentary wooden houses, shabby and haphazard.
“Where…” she cleared her throat again. “Where am I?”
Stein met her eyes as he spoke.
“You’re in the Bastion.”
Maka opened her mouth to ask what that meant, but she was cut off by an excited cry and someone pushing close to her, talking animatedly at her. A young man was leaning over Stein, jabbering enthusiastically at her. He had dark, windswept hair and glinting yellow eyes, and he wore a garish combination of brightly colored striped clothing, at odds with Stein’s dull browns and earthy grays. As she continued to stare, bewildered, his speech lost its animation and his smile slipped just a little.
“Do you not speak Ura?” asked the younger man.
“Oh! No. No, I was raised in Caelondia. My father was a scientist here.”
It was the most words she had strung together in a dangerously long time, and she paused, causing her to miss the disappointment on the young man’s face and the bright flash of light as Stein adjusted his glasses, turning them momentarily opaque.
“‘Here’ isn’t really Caelondia,” Stein said, turning his attention to a strange monument several yards behind him. Maka tried to lean around him to get a better view, but one of her ribs protested the movement, and she stopped, sucking on her teeth. Stein whipped his head back around, missing nothing about his patient. Maka frowned at the almost predatory look in his eyes.
“Rest. We’ll explain everything once you’ve had more to eat and drink, and once he comes back from the Wilds.” The thin young man smiled at her, then moved away, and Stein put a hand on his knee to hoist himself upright.
“You haven’t asked my name,” Maka said.
Stein smiled wryly.
“Names are funny these days,” he said again. “Don’t need to know yours, unless you wanna give it. It’s just not that important anymore.”
“I suppose a proper story starts at the beginning. I don’t think it’s quite so simple with this one.”
They were sitting around a small crackling fire, the flickering light throwing everyone’s faces into harsh relief. Stein sat on a thick log, staring into the flames, his knees spread wide with arms draped across them. The Ura man sat primly to his left, limbs folded neatly and spine straight. And the young man with the white hair hid in the shadows, not looking at Maka.
Maka had spent the rest of the day recovering, resting on her pallet. Stein had erected a small shelter over her, but it didn’t do much good except provide a bit of shade. There weren’t enough supplies to build a proper shelter yet, he’d explained, so they’d all been sleeping outside. Maka had drifted in and out of consciousness until the sun began to dip below the horizon, when the young man with burning eyes had returned. This seemed to serve as a catalyst of activity for the others, because Stein and the Ura had stirred into action, relieving the other young man of the supplies he carried with him and bustling about to prepare the fire. They finally seemed to remember Maka was there, and Stein came over to help her hobble to the fire, but even just those few steps had drained her, so she sank weakly into the grass next to the fire pit, feeling shaky and feverish.
Stein took a long drag of his pipe.
“This is the Bastion. This is where we were all supposed to meet if something went wrong.”
Peering through the gloom, Maka watched his features in the firelight. He seemed even older in the glow of the dying embers. The smoke from his pipe mixed with the smoke from the campfire, and it undulated together in the air before dissipating without a trace.
“Well, something did go wrong. Something rather big. I’ve been calling it the Calamity. Damaged every bit of the old world. Nasty business. Well, I suppose you know. You’ve seen it. You’ve been out there.”
She had. She had seen the world crumble to nothing, whole streets collapse underneath wailing crowds of people, their screams echoing as the ground fell out from under them. She had seen the Windbags, Squirts and Gasfellas and Scumbags, normally domesticated, placid creatures with gaseous bodies who had lived alongside the Caelondians peacefully for decades, turn against their masters. The Caelondians had given them sturdy axes to wield and taught them to mine the cavernous underground below the City, but the Calamity had changed something in them. The eyes of the usually tame creatures took on a blank, dead look, and they raised those axes against them.
And those people had been the lucky ones; Maka had seen her neighbors, her friends, overcome by the disaster so quickly they could not act, their bodies turned to hardened ash even as they went about their routine, frozen in their final act as dark statues.
Maka had run. She had run and run, not paying attention to the ground that rose up to meet her feet, not paying attention to the screams of her fellow citizens as they were surrounded by renegade Windbags, just running until her legs gave out and she thought she must be safe. But there was no safe anymore, no place to run. Maka was on a rock in the sky, and there was nowhere to go but down. Stein seemed to read her thoughts.
“I haven’t yet been able to determine why some parts of the old world still linger, though I have some theories, but I haven’t had as much time to study it as I might have hoped.” He chuckled darkly, taking another long hit on his pipe, and breathed out, smoking wreathing his face. “Well, regardless. The Windbags have turned against us. The land crumbles beneath our feet. The world, for all intents and purposes, has ended.”
“The Windbags have been instrumental in the laying of Caelondia’s economic foundation,” the Ura said, almost as if he were reciting something in school. “Without their prowess in mining, the Caelondians would never have become the thriving society it is. Was,” he corrected, looking into his lap, mouth a thin line. Maka stared at him, his face unreadable. He seemed to notice her gaze, and glanced up.
“What’s your name?” she asked.
He said something long in Ura.
“Call me Kid for short,” he said. “You really don’t know any Ura, do you.” It wasn’t a question.
Stein smiled slightly, leaning forward.
“You grew up in Caelondia, then? Your father moved you here?”
Maka turned to him.
“Yes. He was a diplomat.”
“Thought he was a scientist.”
“He was both,” she said, with the barest trace of bitterness in her voice. The pale-haired man shifted, and her eyes snapped to his figure. His back was to her as he quietly ate his meal, scraping it out of a thin tin bowl, but his shoulders twitched in a way that made her think he was listening to every word.
Stein nodded. Maka looked at him again.
“Do you know him? His name is… was Spirit Albarn.”
“Name rings a bell,” the older man said smoothly. “But I don’t think I did. I may have just heard the name.”
She cast her eyes towards the fire again. There was something in her chest threatening to constrict her heart, but she refused to let it. Her fingers curled her skirts into knots.
“I’m also a diplomat,” said Kid, and everyone turned to look at him. He nodded towards Stein and the silent young man. “I’ve already explained to them, but I was sent to Caelondia only very recently to help maintain a peace deal between our two nations. I never worked with your father, but I am sure I would have liked him.”
Maka wasn’t so sure, but she said nothing.
“I have studied Caelondian culture my whole life, but I had never been beyond the Rippling Walls until very recently. Rising tensions had made it difficult to have a proper relationship with the Caelondian government, but as relations were improving as of late, it was felt that my presence would be helpful to continue that trend.” His face took on a sad smile. “I was so excited to see the place I had learned so much about. And now… everything is gone. And I’ve had no way to find out how the Calamity affected the Ura and the Tazal Terminals…”
Clearing his throat, Stein continued.
“Yes, the Bastion was built as a place of protection for Caelondians if anything went wrong.”
“Then why didn’t I know about it?” Maka asked.
“We never thought anything would go wrong.”
“I guess you were wrong about that.”
Stein let out a hollow laugh.
“Yes, I suppose we were.” He shifted his weight on the log. “But it has at least served its purpose. We’re here now, and we’re safe.”
“How is this place safe? How does it work?”
“Like the great city of Caelondia, it runs on Cores.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Let me finish, then. Cores were mined from the Burstone Quarry by our friends the Windbags. The creatures seem to have a natural affinity towards them, and it was that relationship that first sparked the early Caelondians to try to domesticate them. They found a way to use the Cores to power most of Caelondia. You see, the Cores remember. They remember what the old world was, and when we put them here in the Bastion, they help the Bastion remember too.”
“I don’t follow.”
“Maybe because I’m still not finished.” Stein huffed into his pipe, but he looked amused. “They let out a power that helps keep pieces of the world intact, so we’ve been collecting them here to help strengthen the Bastion. We put them over there,” he said, gesturing towards the strange monument. “We’ve been doing a good job with finding them,” said Stein, clapping the pale-haired man on the shoulder, who stiffened slightly. “You’ll see once we get another one. It really helps heal the Bastion, like a soothing balm on an open wound. This young man’s been bringing back whatever he can find, but he hasn’t found too much worthy of note. Except last time. He sure didn’t come back empty-handed.”
Maka felt a flush spread slowly across her cheeks and creep down her neck. She pursed her lips and clutched at the bowl in her hands more tightly.
“You haven’t said a word yet,” Stein addressed the young man. “Did you even introduce yourself?”
The white-haired man scowled at him and finally shifted around in his seat. She looked up to meet those startling eyes again. He wore a thin black shirt and dark pants of a thick material worn by laborers. He had shed the armor he had been wearing when he went out to explore the remnants of the world, but he had not removed the bright red bandana covering the lower half of his face. She couldn’t help but notice the thick muscles of his arms, no doubt the result of swinging around the large hammer that lay next to him wherever he went. He seemed to be sizing her up as well, and Maka unconsciously drew herself to her full height.
“Name’s Soul,” he said.
Over the next few days, Maka recovered under the disturbingly watchful eye of Dr. Stein.
Maka finally had asked the question she had been dreading, and the answer was just as unpleasant as she had feared. Soul had found her almost four weeks after the Calamity had struck, meaning she had spent almost a month alone, wandering through the wreckage of her world. She had lost track of time out there, and hearing the date had made her feel so nauseous that she had had to lie down for another few hours before attempting to get up again.
Maka felt strangely cooped up in the Bastion’s safety, fidgeting on her pallet and playing with her bandages, which caused Stein to chastise her in an almost fatherly voice. Kid seemed perfectly content to putter around the Bastion, helping Stein reinforce some of the structures they had been building and reading what few documents they had managed to scavenge, but as Maka’s injuries meant that she had been forbidden from doing any heavy lifting, she was stuck with nothing to do.
She wanted her knife back. Unfortunately, the bog where she was found (which turned out to be the remains of Prosper Bluff, a place she had liked to visit with her father as a child) was no longer stable, and there was no hope of retrieving it.
“Sounds like you found a War Machete,” Stein said when she had told him about it. “Those were old Ura weapons; gave the City’s missionaries quite a bit of trouble during the war. Unfortunately, we have yet to find any ourselves. They do make excellent tools for carving up things. Like Lunkheads and Peckers, I mean, of course. Excellent weapons.”
She approached Soul as he was getting ready to leave the Bastion for another scouting trip. Staring hard at his boots, she asked that he keep his eye out for something sharp that she could use. He hadn’t asked her why she wanted a weapon now that she was safe in the Bastion, something she was grateful for; she suspected that by the way he shouldered his hammer and nodded once, he understood her need for something sharp in her hands.
Stein and Kid were often hard at work around the Bastion. The shabby wooden structures Maka had noticed were slowly taking shape into buildings, though most of them were still in the process of being constructed.
“Why didn’t you just focus on one building before starting others?” Maka asked Stein on a smoke break. “You could have consolidated the wood.”
Stein looked a bit abashed.
“We… struggled to agree on what to prioritize. Soul wanted the armory prepared to protect the weapons, while I wanted to build the kitchen and distillery first. Kid found it oddly frustrating that we had started construction on only one half of the land and insisted we balance it out more. Crazy bastard. You’re right, though. Perhaps you’ll whip us all into shape.” He chuckled as he exhaled a cloud of pipe smoke.
Soul frequently returned with the flotsam and jetsam of the old world, bits and pieces of all that had been destroyed. Frayed cloth, hunks of wood, scrap metal, parts of tools, old paintings, tattered books, worn boots, broken children’s toys, shattered pieces of pottery, twisted spectacles -- Soul left nothing behind as he traveled. Stein often had little interest in the personal effects that had been left behind, his eyes sliding over the heaps of accoutrements of the past. He mostly scavenged for whatever he could use to improve the Bastion.
Kid, on the other hand, held everything with great reverence. He would gently comb through it, turning each object over in his hand as if it were a precious gift. They all ended up in a small shack that was rapidly filling up, makeshift shelves adorned with the only proof they had that the old world had ever existed. Once she was able to stand on her feet for longer periods of time, Maka allowed Kid to drag her into the building to show her what he’d found.
“I’m calling it the Lost and Found,” he said sadly. “I’m holding onto all this in case we find more survivors. It’s possible some of this will belong to someone we discover.” He turned to her. “Is any of this yours?”
Maka’s eyes scanned the shelves, roving over the broken items slowly collecting dust.
“No,” she said quietly. “None of this is mine.”
Soul never seemed to visit the Lost and Found, but he still brought home as many things as he could carry in his rucksack, slung haphazardly over his shoulder. One day, when Maka was feeling particularly itchy with healing scabs, Soul returned home earlier than usual. Stein and Kid approached him, assaulting him with rapid fire questions, but Soul merely shook his head.
“M’fine. No, it was this.” He reached into the canvas bag and pulled out what Maka thought was a misshapen pillow. It took her a minute to recognize the stuffed doll.
“Pyth,” said Kid, voice quavering. He reached out and took the plush from Soul, holding it carefully. “God of Commotion and Order. How fitting.”
“That’s one ugly doll,” Stein said.
Kid whirled on him.
“That has nothing to do with Pyth and everything to do with the manufacturer of the doll.” He left them in his wake, making his way over to the small shrine to the gods they had erected in the far corner of the Bastion. He disappeared inside the small building.
Maka cocked her head at Stein.
“The Ura are a lot more respectful of the gods than the Caelondians,” he said, as way of explanation. “I suppose your father never taught you much about them.”
Shifting from foot to foot, Maka shook her head.
“Least he’s happy,” Soul said, surprising Maka. He stooped to collect his pack again.
“The gods don’t care about trinkets,” Stein said to him as he made to move away again.
“I ain’t no god,” said Soul, not looking at them. She watched his retreating back as he headed for the kitchens.
The scent of cooking carrots washed over Maka as she stirred their dinner. She was seated at the small campfire, using the crooked ladle to turn the stew. They had managed to collect a fair amount of ingredients this evening; Soul had come across Joe’s bar a few days ago, and though the owner was nowhere to be seen, the stockpiles of food in his kitchens were untouched by the Calamity. Stein had also started a small garden next to the storehouses, and Maka was using a few of the tiny little onions he had managed to grow. The scientist seemed highly interested in which ones grew large and why, and he spent more time measuring and taking notes than he did watering or weeding, but Maka didn’t have the heart to tell him that they might grow a bit better if he did.
Still, tonight they had enough to eat, and that was something. Stein had also finally removed all her bandages and splints, and Maka was thrilled at finally being free of the burdensome bondage. She had a few shiny scars across her back, but as there were no mirrors in the Bastion yet, she could only go off of what Stein and Kid had told her, and both assured her that they were hardly noticeable. Maka wasn’t sure why they bothered; the world had ended, she was hardly concerned with the state of her skin.
Kid sat down next to her, spine straight despite the uneven log. Maka adjusted the scarf on her head absentmindedly.
“How are you feeling?” he asked, smiling gently at her.
“Great! I’m so relieved to have those bandages off,” she said.
“Stein told me. I’m pleased you’ve made such a rapid recovery.”
Maka might take issue with the ‘rapid’ part, but she smiled nonetheless.
“Glad I finally have permission to move again.”
“Yes, our good doctor was certainly strict on that front.” Kid chuckled. “But it seems to have paid off.”
Maka hummed in agreement, eyes on the soup. She was getting hungry.
Kid smoothed his robes over his knees.
“Maka, I did want to ask you something.”
She turned to him. He looked a little sheepish.
“Or rather, perhaps offer something? Ah, this is kind of embarrassing. I… would be honored to teach you about the Ura, if you’d like. I know you grew up in Caelondia, and you might not have much interest in our culture, but I’d be happy to tell you about it if you’d like. I don’t… I don’t know how much it really matters, at this point, but if we remember them… well, the offer’s on the table.”
Unsure of what to say, Maka stared at him. His face seemed hopeful, but as the silence grew longer, Kid’s countenance started to fall.
“Sure!” she said hurriedly, and his eyes lit up. “Yes, thanks Kid. I just was surprised by your offer, sorry. I’d be happy to hear more about the Ura. Maybe you can teach me some of the language.”
“I’m no professor of language, but I can certainly give it a try.” He chuckled and Maka nodded.
“How is the stew coming along?” interrupted Stein, swinging a leg over a log to join them.
“It’s comin’, old man, don’t get your skirts in a twist,” Maka said waspishly. Stein threw his head back and guffawed.
“I didn’t mean to imply I was rushing you. Take your time, Maka.” He pulled out his pipe, but before he could light it, Maka snatched it from him.
“Not over my stew.”
“Yes, yes, of course.”
Stein observed her thoughtfully for a few moments. “Are you using my onions?” he asked suddenly.
“Of course,” Maka said, fighting a smile.
“I do think they will vastly improve the flavor of the meals,” Stein said, almost to himself.
There was a tinkling rustle from behind them, heralding Soul’s arrival. Stein glanced over at him.
“My goodness, what a large haul!” he said excitedly, and stood up again, closely followed by Kid. Maka twisted, trying to get a good look at what everyone was so excited about, but she didn’t have much flexibility with the ladle in her hand and she couldn’t leave the soup. Cursing under her breath, she turned back to face the fire.
Something sliced through the air right next to her, quivering as it sunk into the wood of the log.
“Careful with that,” came Stein’s voice from behind her, but Maka turned her head to see another War Machete stuck fast in the wood close to where she sat. A wide grin spread across her face as she looked up at the young man, peering over the thick breast plate protecting Soul’s chest to meet his eyes.
“Thank you,” she breathed, and his lips twitched upwards as he nodded.
“So I’m not allowed to smoke over supper, but he’s allowed to throw weapons around?” Stein asked, voice petulant as he rejoined them at the fire.
“It’s different,” Maka insisted, running a finger along the blade.
Stein winked at Soul.
“She must like you better,” he said, and Maka snapped her gaze back to the boiling pot, ears burning. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Soul drag his bandana further up his face.
“Well, now it’s cut into one of our seats,” said Kid, looking a bit askance at the weapon.
“I can find a new log, Kid,” said Soul. “If there’s one thing the Wilds still got for us, it’s logs.”
“Dinner’s ready,” Maka said. She held out a hand, and Stein placed a tin bowl in it. She ladled out a portion of the stew into it, and Stein removed the full bowl and replaced it with an empty one. They repeated this process until everyone had been served (it never took very long), and Maka stood up, carefully grabbing the metal spit that held up the cooking pot and dragging it backwards so the bottom of the pan was no longer directly over the flames. She gathered her skirts again to sit comfortably on the log and took her bowl from Stein.
“Excellent, Maka, thank you for the meal,” Kid said, raising the bowl slightly in acknowledgment.
Soul grunted his thanks, shoveling the still steaming stew between his jagged teeth.
“Could use more onions,” said Stein thoughtfully. Maka ignored him.
Stein uncorked a small golden flask that Maka recognized as Lifewine. The doctor passed it to Kid, who primly took a sip, then held it out to Soul.
“Don’t finish it all before Maka gets some,” Kid admonished. Soul took the bottle and shot her a discreet look, and she couldn’t help but smile.
Soul turned the bottle up, pouring the drink down his throat. He stayed that way for a few moments, far too long to actually be drinking, and Maka swatted his arm playfully.
“Stop, gimme that.”
Grinning, Soul passed her the flask.
“Sorry for the spit,” he said.
Maka rolled her eyes and made a show of wiping the neck of the flask on her skirts. Kid looked slightly ill, but Soul chuckled.
Soul didn’t talk much -- Stein had told her once that Soul was “a little gruff at times” -- but Maka was starting to suspect it was because he didn’t need to speak. His looks and grins spoke volumes, and she found she appreciated the silence sometimes; she liked being able to just hear herself think.
Stein was slowly dripping his stew back into his tin bowl, looking mesmerized by the way the liquid poured in, and Maka cleared her throat. He jumped, then began to eat his soup placidly, like a child being caught in the middle of some wrongdoing.
“Well,” said Kid, setting his empty bowl away from him and turning towards Soul. “If you are going out for more logs tomorrow, it would be great if you could bring back some Peckers too. I’d love to collect a few more feathers so we can finish that down blanket. I don’t know how the Calamity is going to affect the weather, but we should really be prepared for anything, so having at least one large blanket should--”
“I can help Soul,” Maka said.
Everyone turned to look at her.
“I’m really good with Peckers,” she said quickly. “Had a lot of practice with them. Really, I can be helpful.”
“I’m sure you were quite good at them,” Stein said. “But that would mean going back out into danger.”
“I know,” Maka said, struggling to keep her voice even.
“Are you not happy in the Bastion?” asked Kid.
“Of course I am.”
“Do you need more projects here? I can certainly think of a few, and maybe I’ll let you help with the onions--”
“Can you fight?”
All eyes snapped to Soul, but he was looking only at Maka.
“I know you survived out there for a while on your own,” he said. “But can you fight a lotta Windbags all at once?”
“Yes,” she said, steadily meeting his gaze. “I can handle myself.”
Stein shifted. “But Maka--”
“You are not my father,” she snapped, turning to him and feeling an unexpected surge of annoyance that he had used her name with the same tone as the man in question always had.
He adjusted his glasses. “No, I am not,” he agreed quietly.
Maka inhaled through her nose and breathed out through her mouth. “I’m sorry,” she said, and meant it, “I just… I can be useful out there. I can hold my own.”
“So long as you got my back, you can come,” Soul said.
Suddenly remembering, Maka turned to Kid. “Kid, I still want to have lessons in Ura. We can do them after dinner. But I think this is where I’ll be most helpful.”
“With that tiny thing?” Kid asked incredulously, pointing at the Machete, still sticking out of the wood.
“Found this,” Soul grunted, turned towards his rucksack again. “Thought maybe you’d prefer it.” He unhooked a long spear from the pack and twisted back around to stand it in front of him.
Kid looked skeptical. Maka frowned. “What is it?”
“Brusher’s Pike. Meant to help explore the Wilds.”
“So you… poke things with it?” she asked.
“It’s pointy,” he insisted, sounding slightly insulted.
“I have an idea.” Maka shot to her feet and dashed away from the campfire. Her eyes were adjusted to its brightness, and it took her a few seconds to regain her night vision, blinking back bright spots as she ran towards the makeshift forge. She sifted through the materials there, looking for something in particular. Finally, her thin fingers closed around it, and she scurried back to where the men sat waiting. She grabbed the hilt of the Machete and yanked upwards, freeing it from the log, and took the Pike from Soul’s unprotesting hand. She set them both on the ground in front of her. Maka revealed her treasure -- a thick bit of twine used to string bows -- and set to work.
“There!” she said, lifting up her masterpiece. She had secured the hilt of the Machete perpendicularly to the Pike, and she swung her new weapon to test it.
“Ain’t harvesting wheat,” Soul said.
“Hush. Look, this will give me a good swing with power behind it, but it will also give me some distance from an enemy.” She set the end of her new scythe on the ground. Soul was eyeing it as if it had personally offended him, but Stein looked impressed.
“That was clever. Will it hold?”
It let out a satisfying whistle as Maka whipped it through the empty air in front of her. She brought the blade close to her face; the string was still in place.
“Looks good. Hopefully it’ll come clean out of a Scumbag’s belly, but if not, we have more string.”
Kid looked doubtful, but Stein was nodding. “I think it does certainly give you more range of motion than the Machete alone. And having distance from your enemy would be a useful advantage. Otherwise, you might get hurt, and I might have to fix you up again.” He looked a little too cheerful at the prospect, and Maka made a mental note to avoid injury at all costs.
Soul sighed. “Fine. But if it breaks, it ain’t my fault. Then you can poke things with it.”
“I’ll poke you with it,” Maka muttered, but if Soul heard, he made no acknowledgment.
“All right,” he repeated. He reached for the ladle to spoon himself more stew. “We leave tomorrow morning.”
The next morning dawned bright and chilly; Kid’s request for Pecker feathers seemed appropriate. Maka approached the Skyway, homemade scythe on her shoulder, nerves ablaze.
The Skyway had been Caelondia’s main form of transportation before the Calamity. Her father had explained to her once that they had been invented a long time ago, and that while they may be a little scary to ride, they were perfectly safe. The transportation squares would send a rush of air under the person and send them hurtling to their destination, where they would land gently on their feet, cushioned by air released on the other end. It had been a common sight in Caelondia to see people riding the wind wherever they needed to go.
Soul had warned her that the Calamity had damaged the Skyway; it was no longer such a pleasant ride. Maka was a bit anxious, as she had been unconscious the last time she’d ridden on it since the Calamity, and she wasn’t totally sure what to expect. Her fist tightened around the handle of her scythe.
Cracking his neck, Soul sidled up alongside her. “Ready?” he asked, breath misting in front of his face. She nodded. He motioned towards the transportation square, and she stepped onto it.
A howling wind engulfed her, and Maka was knocked off her feet. She screwed her eyes shut and held tightly to her scythe, stomach left behind in the Bastion. The air rushed past her ears and her skin burned and she opened her mouth to scream, and then it was over, and she was face down in the dirt.
She groaned, curling her fists into the damp earth. Running a quick mental checklist, Maka determined that she hadn’t broken any bones on her way down. She slid a hand through the sparse grass to lift herself up, but before she could, she felt something slam into her back, knocking the wind out of her.
“Aw, shit! What-- Shit, sorry!” The weight was gone and Soul hit the dirt next to her. “Shit. You okay?”
“Nughhh.” Maka slowly peeled herself off the ground to a kneeling position. Soul sat spreadeagled on the ground, looking at her with fearful eyes. It would have been comical had she not felt so squashed.
“M’fine,” she said, rubbing her neck.
“Thought you’d get out of the way,” he mumbled, looking away from her. She was surprised to see his cheeks burn under her gaze.
“I’m fine, you just surprised me, is all.” She stood up, cracked her back, then extended her hand to him. He looked at it skeptically for a moment before taking it. Maka hauled him to his feet.
Soul looked ready to move on, but Maka held firmly to his hand. “Listen,” she said, looking into his face. He met her gaze. “I’ll be fine out here. Please don’t get yourself killed trying to protect me, okay?”
His wine-colored eyes did not waver from her face, but he was silent. After a moment of studying her, he nodded. She squeezed his hand in acknowledgement, then released him and looked around. “Where are we?”
The vast expanse of emptiness where the world used to be was much more evident outside the Bastion. Maka felt a shiver run down her spine. She was back out here, back out in the catastrophe that had claimed the lives of her people. Or the Caelondians, she supposed. She didn’t know what had happened to the Ura. Or who she should count as her people
Soul put his hammer head down on the soft grass, swinging his arms back and forth to stretch them out, walking in a slow circle. “Dunno,” he said. “Can’t recognize it yet. But the ground’ll shift as we go, and it should be obvious soon enough.”
They set off. The small spit of land was covered in debris, chains and planks and empty barrels, and a full-working hookah that they debated trying to put in Soul’s rucksack, but decided against it for fear it would break (“Stein can live without it, he has his pipe”). They wandered off, both determinedly not looking at their feet, where the world rematerialized below them. Maka’s grip on the shaft of her scythe was tight, and she kept readjusting so as to wipe her sweaty palms against her skirts (“if we find some gloves, I’m keeping them”).
A large spot of green came into view on the horizon. They made their way towards it, stepping carefully. Finally they were close enough to see what it was they were approaching, and Soul grunted. Maka turned to him.
“Think I know where we are,” he said, pointing. “Can you see the bull statue?”
Maka peered forward. They reached the boundary of the land mass, and stepped up to the fence surrounding it. “Oh yeah,” she said, nodding. “What, you think this is Pyth Orchard?”
“Must be,” Soul responded, hefting his hammer over the fence. He swung himself over, and Maka clambered to catch up. He eyed the bull distrustfully as he picked up his weapon once again. “Let’s keep moving.”
As they wended their way through the rising paths, Maka glanced around. “These flowers were always so pretty,” she said thoughtfully. “But I never really realized until now…”
“You see things a little differently after the world ends,” Soul said, not unkindly. He looked over at her. “Ever come here with your father?”
“Rarely,” she said. “He wasn’t much interested in the gods.”
“Your father sounds a little strange for an Ura.”
“You’re right. I suppose that’s why he lived in Caelondia for so long.”
“Suppose so.” They walked in silence for a few moments. “What did you do with your old man?”
“Not… not all that much.”
“Busy, I guess.”
“Always. With research, with politics… with women,” Maka said dully. There was no venom in her voice, no contempt, despite the number of times she had yelled at him for it. “His nonsense drove my mother away. I think back to the Tazal Terminals, but I don’t know. My father watched me growing up, but he just never seemed to have enough time. I was by myself a lot. I read, y’know, to pass the time. Haven’t found many full books out here yet, which is a shame. But he would always carry on about how he loved me the most, though I sure didn’t get that much of his time. But he cared, that much I do know. He wasn’t a bad man. He just wasn’t a very good one, either.”
Maka heard the words spoken in her voice, but she felt as if she were hearing them from another person, because never in her life had she said this aloud. Soul didn’t interrupt; he simply listened, eyes straight ahead and occasionally motioning for her to watch her step.
She stumbled slightly as he stopped short in front of her. Glancing up, she saw two dark figures ahead. Soul lowered his arm and lifted his hammer, fists clenched tight around the handle. They moved forward, stepping cautiously, but the figures up ahead didn’t seem to move. Growing closer, it was obvious why.
Sighing, Soul lowered his weapon. “Damn,” he said, running a hand through his snowy hair. Maka closed her eyes.
The hunched figures of two elderly women stood in front of them, blackened to ash. They had obviously been hit by the Calamity without warning, frozen in place in the middle of tending one of the gardens at the Orchard. One was smiling, eyes staring blankly ahead of her, crouched down over the tangles of what was left of the garden, while the other stood, hand raised in the air, clearly in the middle of gesticulating a story she would never finish telling.
“That bull makes a bad watchdog,” Soul said sourly. “Didn’t do his followers any good, being so devoted.”
Maka peered into the face of the crouching woman. The ash her body had become had started to crumble, and there were large gouges carved out of her face. Maka backed up quickly, turning away. Her stomach turned over and she cast her sights on the horizon.
There was an odd poofing sound from behind her, and she whirled around. The old woman was gone, replaced by a pile of ash. “Soul!” she cried, as he raised his hammer over the standing woman. “What are you doing?!”
He dropped the hammer and looked at her. His eyes were dull. “Only thing we can do,” he said, a strain in his voice. “There’s no reversing it. I can’t… we can’t leave them like this. But this way, they’re free. Their ashes can get off this damned rock, they can get all the way to the stars.” Lips twisting, he shook his head and dropped his gaze. Maka didn’t know what to say, so she stayed silent. Soul took a shuddering breath. “Sorry. I don’t… I don’t like them like this.”
“Okay,” she said quietly. “Okay.” A shiver seemed to run through his spine, because his shoulders shook, but the arms that raised his hammer again were steady. He swung it in a full arc, passing through the shadow that had been one of their neighbors, scattering the ash masquerading as a human into the air. Soul followed through with his swing, the head of the hammer slamming into the ground with a final thud as the dust eddied around them, caught on the breeze and drifting away.
Determined to give Soul some space, Maka started to poke through some of the weeds that had overtaken the garden to see if anything was still edible. She found a few cucumbers hidden below some large leaves, thick vines encroaching on them, and she placed them gently in her backpack. The weeds rustled as Soul walked over to her, face set in its normal grim line.
They walked side by side, feet in perfect stride with the other’s. Maka took to swinging her scythe experimentally, the schwing a surprisingly satisfying noise. Soul kept watch out of the corner of his eye, still looking slightly skeptical. Maka struggled to keep her lips from twitching upwards.
“I think we’re getting close to the shrine,” Maka said as a stone staircase manifested itself below their feet. “If I remember correctly, it’s at the top of some stairs, but I don’t-- aha!” They crested the stairs, and Maka pointed. “There’s the shrine!”
The once proud building now sagged in the middle, the roof having caved in when something crashed into it. Some of the wood was splintered, and the stone steps leading into it were cracked. Another bull statue stood next to entrance, a silent sentinel to the devastation in front of it.
Or maybe not so silent. There was an odd grinding noise coming from the bull, and Maka took a step closer, curiosity overcoming her. Soul’s hand clamped down on her arm, and she turned to look at him inquisitively. A mechanical roar echoed across the sky, and she whipped her head around again.
The bull’s eyes were glowing maliciously, bright blue against its cracked rusty hull, and steam billowed from the chinks in its armor. “Shit--!”
It charged, barreling forward with another tinny roar. They dived in opposite directions, and the bull flew past them, whirring and clicking and growling. Maka readied her scythe in front of her, but Soul gave a loud yell, and the mechanic creature turned towards him. He crashed his hammer right between its horns and the hull caved in with an agonizing screech of protesting metal. Unfortunately, it didn’t stop the beast. Soul was forced to roll out of the way, narrowly missing being impaled.
“Here!” Maka shouted desperately, charging forward. The mechanical animal turned again; she stared into its misshapen face. She swung her makeshift scythe forward, and it hooked into the side of the beast’s shoulderblades. The momentum carried her off her feet and she followed it, curling up as she swept under its horns.
Soul reappeared, smashing his weapon into the other side of the statue, cracking its rusty ribs. The thing seemed to notice the damage. It began to rampage, releasing larger clouds of steam, nuts and bolts flying through the air. Soul cried out and grabbed his shoulder. Maka was able to remove her scythe with a flurry of sparks where metal kissed metal, and swung it again. She managed to slip between the plates this time, and the large gear attached to the rear of the iron animal fell away, falling heavily into the grass with a thump.
This seemed to make it madder still, causing Maka to lose sight of Soul, so focused was she on dodging the creature’s attacks. She tried to call out to him, coughing on the smoke billowing from the beast’s belly. She felt something close around her upper arm again and Soul was there, swinging her out of the animal’s path. The creature’s mouth fell down, and a blue glow rose from the pits of its stomach. Soul swung his shield around and shoved Maka down. They huddled under the shield, feeling the heat from the mechanical creature’s maw as it let out a blast of energy. Maka’s ears were filled with the sounds of the roaring flames.
As soon as the energy blast died down, Soul leapt up, hammer swinging. He cracked the beast on the side of its skull, a blow that would have killed a living creature instantly, but only sent the bull staggering sideways. Maka saw her chance, and sprang to her feet. She swung her scythe down in a full arc. The sharp blade slipped between the neck plates of the animal and met wires. She sliced through it cleanly, and the bull’s head dropped straight down, an anticlimactic thunk against the ground.
A siren wailed. “Security turned on!” shouted Soul, grabbing her wrist. Maka could see holes in the ground gaping open. Dragon-headed pillars slowing ascended from the hidden depths. She had never seen one activated before, and she decided she wanted to keep it that way.
Their feet pounded hard against the ground, both of them gasping raggedly. Soul’s grip around her wrist was ironclad, and even when she stumbled, he didn’t let go. He turned to help yank her to her feet, face illuminated by a blast of flame from the nearest security tower. She struggled back to her feet. Soul twisted their hands again so that their fingers interlocked, and they were off again. Maka felt something hot slam into her shoulder, but she didn’t stop to look. Her eyes were blinded by the flashes of light and fire from the security statues, and she only recognized the Skyway on the ground in front of them when Soul pointed it out up ahead.
“C’mon!” he bellowed, and their feet hit it at the same moment. The rush of air swept under her again and she felt her stomach drop, left behind on the burning plains. Soul wrapped another arm around her and she clutched at his back, nails scraping against the armored plate. The wind screamed in her ears and all she could do was hold onto Soul, or her scythe, she couldn’t keep track of which was which--
They hit the ground hard. Maka tensed up, straining to hear any sounds of anything else that was out to kill her, but there was only silence. She lifted her head, glancing around. They seemed to have landed on an abandoned street, stretching out endlessly on either side of them. Soul still had his arms firmly wrapped around her, eyes screwed shut. She gently touched his shoulder.
“Soul. We’re okay.”
He groaned and opened his eyes. They seemed to take a minute to refocus, staring blankly at her face, but he seemed to snap back to himself and pulled his arms back as if her skin was hot. He sat up slowly, wincing. He brought a hand to his head, and it came back bloody.
“Shit!” she cried, reaching out to feel his scalp. Soul flinched, and she hesitated momentarily, then steeled herself. “I need to see it,” Maka said firmly.
“S’okay,” Soul murmured, “head wounds bleed a lot.”
“Still,” she insisted. He answered by way of leaning forward, allowing her access. She gently ran her fingers through his hair, surprised by the soft texture of it despite the matted blood.
“Think I got hit by something off the bull,” Soul said, his face near his knees. “I think I’m okay.”
“Do you think you have a concussion?” she asked, picking through his hair. Maka turned suddenly to rip a bit of her skirt, and Soul let out a small cry. “Did I hurt you?”
“No, shit, but your clothes--”
“Oh for the gods’ sake, Soul, the world ended, I don’t care one bit about my clothes,” she snapped, pushing his skull forward to dab at the gash. He was right, it didn’t look too bad, but she wasn’t sure how much Stein had in the way of medicine back at the Bastion (and frankly the less that man doctored, the better). Soul obediently sat still, picking at an invisible spot on his boot.
“I know the world’s ended,” he said suddenly. “I just… there’s not much nice stuff left in the world. I hate to have you ruin the last nice thing left for yourself.”
“These skirts are hardly ‘nice’,” she said, wiping at the wound. Soul hissed through his teeth.
“Nicer’n anything I could have afforded,” said the young man waspishly.
She slowed her ministrations. Sighing, Maka pressed the scrap of fabric against the cut again and spoke. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to offend. But I am sick and tired of you and Stein and Kid all trying to make me out to be some sort of delicate lady. I do not want to sit at home in the Bastion, I do not wanted to be treated like an invalid, I do not care about these clothes; I care about you,” she said, only realizing after she spoke exactly how those words sounded. Maka plowed on ahead. “I appreciate you all looking out for me, but I don’t need to be babied. I survived in the Calamity on my own long before you found me. I am not weak.”
“Never said you were,” Soul said defensively, but then he stopped. “You’re right. You survived longer out here by yourself longer’n any of us. And you held your own with that bull. Sorry ‘bout that.” He paused, looking pensive. “Want us to find you a pair of britches, then?”
Maka thought about it. “Actually, I think the skirts give me more range of motion. Maybe I ought to cut this one short and be done with it. We can use the extra fabric.”
“That’ll send Kid off the deep end,” chuckled Soul. “Impropriety, and the like.”
She snorted. “No, he won’t like it.” Peering through his pale hair, she released the now ruined fabric. “I think that should at least slow it until we get back.”
“Really, it feels fine.”
“Good.” Maka stood up to look around properly. Soul leaned back, placing his hands behind him to look up at her.
“So no lady stuff for you?” he asked after a few minutes of silence. Maka shot him an amused glance.
“I like some ‘lady stuff,’ as you say. I am a lady, after all.” His hand twitched towards his pocket, but then he cleared his throat.
“You may look like one, but you sure as hell don’t talk like one,” Soul said, raising an eyebrow at her.
“I heard you when you burned yourself on dinner last week. You swear better than half the men I knew during my stint on the Rippling Wall.”
“Well, I-- you were on the Rippling Wall?”
“Yeah. Signed up for active duty.”
“Isn’t it grueling work?”
He shrugged. “Pays better than anything else I could have found.”
“Was it bad?”
“First time, yeah. Second time, not so much.”
“You volunteered for a second time on the Wall?”
“Yeah. They told me I was the only one to ever do it.” He looked off into the distance. “Wanted to be a Marshall. I thought I could get there by doing my time on the Wall, but… you can see how well that plan worked out.”
She looked down at him, feeling something constrict in her chest. She was tempted to say ‘sorry,’ but she was quickly figuring out that that word held awfully little meaning anymore.
Soul turned back to her. “You’re filthy, by the way.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Now, see, there you sounded like a lady. Offended, and the like. But you’re looking like you wanna bash my nose in, so it ruins it again.” Maka stuck her tongue out at him. “Yeah, completely ruined. But yeah, your face is all smudged.”
“You don’t look any better.”
“Don’t claim to. But here, lemme help you clean up.” He motioned for her to sit again, and she dropped down to her knees, feeling suddenly shy as he untied the bandana and looked at her expectantly. “Here, I ain’t gonna bite.”
“I can clean up when we get back,” she said, unsure why she felt so embarrassed all of a sudden.
“Stein’ll kill me if I bring you back all beat up. He came to me after we agreed you’d come out with me and told me if you got hurt, he would string me up and leave me for the Peckers.” Maka pursed her lips, torn between grateful amusement and exasperation. “Lemme at least make it look like I tried.”
He wiped the red cloth gently down her cheek, and Maka stared determinedly down her nose, going slightly cross-eyed. Perhaps she could get away with not looking at him.
“Why’re you making a face?”
Perhaps not. She breathed out through her nose, lifting her gaze to his face. His eyes were trained on her, steadfastly observing her as he rubbed her face clean.
“Isn’t that gonna get dirty?” she asked.
He gave a dry chuckle. “It already is. This probably ain’t doing much, but as long as you don’t look like death warmed over when we go back, I should be able to keep all my limbs.” Maka rolled her eyes as Soul lightly touched her chin, holding her head steady while he wiped a layer of grime from her neck. “What is-- ah, shit.”
“What?” she asked a little fearfully. Soul moved his hand from her chin to her shoulder and Maka winced.
“You got hit,” he said, and Maka resisted the urge to say something sarcastic.
“Is it bad?” she asked, twisting to try to bring her shoulder into view.
“Don’t think so,” Soul said, turning his head to get a better look. “Can you move your jacket?”
Maka pulled at her collar, trying to stretch her shirt and jacket aside. She had managed to find some clothes that fit her well enough back at the Bastion, but they were an odd mix. The jacket was clearly brand new and Ura-inspired, with its turquoise color and embroidered sleeves, but the skirts were a dark maroon, more in line with typical Caelondian fashion. She had taken to tying her hair back with scarf that matched her jacket, very reminiscent of the way her mother used to wear her hair, but her feet were clad in heavy work boots. She managed to work her clothes far enough over her shoulder to get a better look at it, but she felt a little awkward that she had started stripping in front of a man she barely knew.
Soul seemed to be approaching it clinically, and Maka reminded herself that he had worked on the Rippling Wall, a military position, where he must have had no privacy; skin probably didn’t bother him much anymore.
“Does it hurt?” he asked, eyeing the wound.
“Not really, actually. Only when you touch it.”
“Gonna hurt tomorrow, I bet. Doesn’t look terrible, but Stein’s still gonna have my hide.” He motioned that he was done, and she straightened her clothes. “We should head back.”
“But we didn’t find any Peckers!” she protested as he stood up. “We need some down feathers. We barely got anything, we didn’t even find a Core!”
“Core would’ve been great,” Soul said, looking a little mournful. “But we’re both injured. We shouldn’t be pressing our luck. How’d your weed whacker hold up?”
Maka held her scythe aloft triumphantly. “Fine, thank you. You’re a bit ungrateful to something that saved your life.”
“I coulda smashed that bull just fine on my own,” he grumbled.
He turned his back on her, and Maka rolled her eyes. She got to her feet. “Will that Skyway take us to the Bastion?”
They looked down at the small golden tile.
“You go first this time,” Maka said.
Soul was partially right; Stein was upset that his recently-cured patient came home a little bloodied. However, he perked right up again when she told him her shoulder needed binding, and scurried off to get his supplies. Soul disappeared, and Maka knew he was going to be stubborn and pretend his head was fine, but Stein pounced on her before she had the chance to protest.
After dinner (and after Soul had done everything in his power to hide his head wound from Stein, to no avail), the survivors sat around the campfire, lazing about while their dinner sat heavily in their stomachs. Stein and Soul were playing cards (apparently active duty on the Rippling Walls also gave a person the opportunity to master card games, so Stein was losing catastrophically). Maka sat against the log, feet stretched out in front of her, when Kid slid into a sitting position next to her. He held a small book in his hands.
“Are you too tired for a history lesson?” he asked, somewhat tentatively.
“Not too tired, no,” Maka said, sitting up a little straighter. Her muscles were a bit sore, but she figured she’d be able to stay awake a little while longer.
Kid opened the book. Tiny writing in a language she didn’t understand adorned the pages in neat rows. “So you don’t know the language,” he said matter-of-factly, thumbing to the back of the book. “I’m guessing you must not know the alphabet.”
Maka shook her head. Kid found some blank pages at the end and pulled out a scratching pencil. He drew a small delicate symbol in the top right corner. “Well, I guess we’ll get started then!”
Kid went through the entire Ura alphabet by the light of the flickering flames. Maka was a fast learner, having been a voracious reader in her spare time. Kid’s handwriting was impeccable. They passed the book back and forth so that Maka could practice writing the small letters herself. She was a bit sloppy; her hands were used to forming the chunky Caelondian letters, not the curling flowing ones of the Ura, but she thought she was getting the hang of it. Stein had retreated to his pallet long ago, but Soul lay on his back by the dying fire, one leg crossed over the other while he watched the stars. Finally, he stood up.
“If we’re gonna go out tomorrow, we ought to get some sleep,” he said. Maka looked up.
“All right. Kid, shall we continue this tomorrow night?”
Kid glanced towards Soul, meeting his gaze over the flames. The air seemed to thicken.
“Sure,” he answered smoothly, standing up as well. “I’ll get to bed as well.”
The next morning dawned even colder, and Maka knew they couldn’t return empty-handed again. If the nights grew too chilly, it wouldn’t matter how many Cores they found; they’d all freeze to death in their sleep. Maka had awoken to find herself curled against Stein’s back, which was a better alternative to frostbite, but only just. As they got ready to leave, Soul moved a little stiffly in the cold air.
They rode the Skyway without incident, with Maka remembering to roll out of the way before Soul could crash into her again. The first thing she heard as soon as her ears popped was the rushing sound of a nearby river. She clambered to her feet and took a look around, hearing the dull thud of Soul hitting the ground behind her.
“Where are we?” she asked, after a minute to allow him to pull himself together. She heard his footsteps pad towards her.
“Damn. I think this is the Langston River. Or what’s left of it. I’ve never seen it this wild.”
They stood a few feet from the churning brown banks of an angry river, waters swirling with dirt and debris. It was hard to make out the opposite side, but there seemed to be a few trees still standing. It was more land set together than they had seen in a long time.
“Let’s try this way,” Soul said, pointing downstream. “Might find something.”
Carefully watching their step, they made their way along the river, keeping its frothing waters to their right. The roar of the water made it hard to hear each other, so they walked in silence, Soul leading the way.
There was a flash of movement overhead, and Maka glanced up. A flock of red birds alighted from one of the trees, startled by Soul walking below them. “Peckers!” she shouted, tearing after them and barrelling past Soul. She held her scythe up high, unsure exactly how to use it best: should she try to hit the birds with the flat of the blade to send them crashing to earth, or should she try to slice off a wing to prevent them from flying away?
Soul gave a shout from behind her, but Maka couldn’t make out what he was saying. She crashed through the undergrowth, eyes riveted on the birds above her.
So she had no warning when suddenly she felt a hundred sharp pricks all over her body. Maka cried out, stumbling forward, skin aflame as if she were falling onto a bed of needles. Wincing, she struggled against whatever was clutching at her, and realized that there had been no mistake; this was a bed of needles.
“Stab weeds,” Soul said as he approached cautiously. “Guessin’ you never dealt with them much.”
“Ow,” she moaned, trapped by the sharp black thorns hooked into her clothing. “Ow.” She couldn’t maneuver herself up without getting poked over and over again. “Gods, ow. Soul, I can’t get up.”
She felt something grab the fabric of her coat and yank her upwards. Wincing as some of the thorns pulled free, Maka was lifted like a plank up from the ground until she was vertical again. But most of the prickers were still stuck fast to her, so she stood as motionless as possible. “Ow, ow, ow. Cursed be. I think I’m gonna need help with these. Ow.”
Soul made an odd strangled noise. She glanced up at him, trying not to move too much.
His face was contorted, lips curled in an odd twist. Another snort escaped his lips, and he swallowed, looking pained.
“What the-- are you laughing?”
Soul couldn’t seem to hold it in any longer, and doubled over, arms wrapped around his sides as he guffawed. His laugh was a deep, rich baritone, smoother than his somewhat gravelly voice, and Maka might have taken some pleasure in being the first person from the Bastion to actually make the serious young man laugh if she wasn’t jammed full of needles like a seamstress’s pincushion.
“Soul! Stop that! Get these prickers out of me.”
He threw his head back, laughter fighting against the roar of the river to their right.
“By all the gods, Soul, shut up and help me!”
Soul brought a hand to his eyes, wiping tears away. It was a bizarre sight, his usually stoic face glowing with mirth, endearing if not for the fact that she couldn’t move her arms to smack the grin off his face. “All right, all right,” he said, chuckling weakly. “Just don’t hug me or anything.”
“Oh trust me, that’s the last thing on my mind,” Maka snapped. Soul took a deep breath in an attempt to compose himself and stepped closer. He grabbed the edge of one of the thorns and yanked, and Maka yelped.
“You okay?” he asked in what she supposed was meant to be a concerned voice, but the wide grin still across his face ruined the effect.
“Fine,” she snapped, feeling hot and humiliated. “Just get this over with.”
“Stab weeds’re supposed to hurt like a broken heart,” Soul said conversationally while Maka clenched her teeth through each needle removal.
“And they say taking too long to get stab weeds out of your partner hurts even worse,” she seethed, averting her eyes from where the thorns were being pulled out of her skin, “because that forces her to kick you in the head. Or hit you with your own hammer. Or maybe that encyclopedia you found a few days ago, that thing was heavy. The possibilities only seem to multiply the longer it takes.”
“Partners, huh?” Soul said in a much quieter voice. Maka’s face untwisted itself from her pout, and she looked down at the top of his head (he had crouched down to reach the needles stuck in her legs). She was saved from having to answer by the indignant squawk she released instead when Soul pulled out a particularly large needle.
“Okay, almost-- shit!” Soul said, yanking his hand away as if he had been burned.
“Did one get you?” she asked.
“Yeah,” he said, shaking his hand rapidly. “Ow, they do sting.”
“I’m gonna resist the urge to say I told you so.”
“Yeah, yeah,” he said, standing. “Think you did anyway, though, but yeah.” Maka rubbed her hands up and down her limbs, trying to soothe the ache. She wasn’t bleeding much; the needles had not gone in too deep, but they left her feeling itchy and sore.
“Let’s go get those damn Peckers,” she said, turning downstream again.
“Do you see that?” Soul asked suddenly. Maka lifted her scythe, poised and at the ready in a heartbeat. “Sorry, didn’t mean to scare you. I meant, through those trees there.” He pointed, and she followed his finger.
“I think it’s a barge,” she said, lowering her weapon.
“Might be useful,” he said. “These stab weeds tend to grow in thickets. We might wanna steer clear of the path. Maybe the river’s the way to go.”
“True, but there are stab weeds growing all over it.”
“Watch,” Soul said, and swung his hammer down. He smashed the bulbous, spiny plant, and it released a squirt of green liquid as it squashed flat under the head of his hammer. He grinned at her cheekily, looking proud, but she simply motioned at the bed of them still growing. Rolling his eyes, he set to work.
It was slow-going. The stab weeds had thick hides, and required a full swing of Soul’s hammer to get squished down enough to be safe to walk over. Maka’s scythe wasn’t much good; they grew too low to the ground for her cut away at them from the roots, and she couldn’t angle the blade parallel to the earth to squish them down. So she sat patiently on an abandoned crate while the task fell to Soul, who quickly grew hot and sweaty. At one point, he stopped and unlatched his armored breast plate, dropping it to the ground with a clatter. He grabbed the bottom of the black shirt he wore, and before Maka knew what was happening, hauled it over his head and tossed it to the side.
She sat up straighter, fidgeting a little and willing herself not to grow too red in the face. The world had ended; she was not going to let some skin affect her. But by all the gods, Caelondians certainly seemed more at ease around bare bodies then her Ura mother had ever encouraged. Or perhaps it was something one picked up on living on the Rippling Wall, guarding the city’s borders with other soldiers. Or perhaps it was even just a Soul thing, because he looked utterly unperturbed, setting right back to work, swinging his hammer in those wide arcs, each stab weed releasing another squirt of green goo.
Instead, Maka chose to focus on the sounds of the river, which were starting to worry her. The surface was rough and choppy, and it seemed to be flowing rather quickly. She wasn’t sure the barge would be strong enough to survive the trip, especially without looking at it up close. Idly, she watched the muscles of Soul’s back contort as he worked until she realized where her gaze had drifted, then firmly turned it skyward.
“Got it!” Soul called from up ahead, hidden from view by some trees. Maka slid off her crate, feet hitting the earth lightly. She gathered up her scythe, his armor, and his damp shirt, holding the last as far away from her nose as possible. Treading carefully over the flattened stab weeds, she approached the boat.
“Here,” she said, handing him his things. Soul took his armor back, but held his shirt to his face. Pulling away and wrinkling his nose, he tied the end of it to his belt, and turned back to the barge. Maka quirked an eyebrow, but he obviously had no intention of putting it back on anytime soon, so she said nothing and stepped around him to see the boat for herself.
“It looks okay,” she said cautiously. And it did; it seemed to be all in one piece, the faded name Weeping Nellie etched into its side.
“Can’t be sure unless we test it,” Soul said, a warning in his voice.
“Let’s push it out a bit but tie it to the tree. See if it’ll hold any weight.”
“And if it doesn’t?”
Soul thought for a moment. “Only one of us will go out. If it can’t even hold one of us, it sure can’t take two.”
“We should tie a rope to me too, in case I fall in.”
“Yes, of course!” Maka said, turning to look at him. “You have a better chance of pulling me out of the water than I do you.”
Soul looked like he were about to protest, but her glare seemed to make him think better of it.
They set to work. It wasn’t too hard to tie one of the ropes they had scrounged securely around the mast, but Soul insisted upon tying two ropes around Maka’s thin waist (“if one gets caught on something, you oughtta be able to cut that one loose and still have a lifeline”). Maka forced her features into a neutral face, but she was inwardly wary; that water was angry and she hadn’t practiced swimming in years. But if Soul’s thick arms and sturdy chest were any indication, he should be capable of dragging her back to shore.
Each of them took an edge of the boat, sliding it along the gravelly riverbank until it slid into the water. The current dragged it out into the river, but it stayed anchored to the tree, rope stretched taut. Soul grabbed the rope and pulled the barge back in, hand over hand.
“You sure about this?” he asked, grunting from the effort.
“Yes,” she said as firmly as she could. She walked into the shallows, cold muddy water eddying around her ankles. She clambered onto the raft, then turned back to Soul. “Ready?”
He nodded, jaw locked. He used one hand to keep the barge steady, but held the other aloft. Maka gathered the twin ropes around her waist and tossed the ends towards his free hand. Somehow, Soul managed to catch both of them, and he wrapped the ends around his wrist twice before curtly nodding again.
Maka got shakily to her feet, arms stretched out on either side of her. The boat pitched and shook, protesting against its bonds, but it seemed to still be in good condition.
“How we lookin’?” Soul asked through gritted teeth.
“I think we’re good!” Maka answered, jumping up and down a bit.
“It’s fine,” she promised. “You can let go of me and get the stuff.”
He grimaced, but slowly slid her ropes from his hand. The boat he released even more gently, but once the rope was stretched to its full capacity once again, he disappeared into the brush. Maka held onto the mast while she waited, eyes on the thin rope keeping her near the shore.
Soul reappeared, scythe and hammer propped over his shoulder and his armor clutched in his hands. Both their packs were slung over his other shoulder. She held up her hands, and he tossed her the items she could safely catch. The weapons he stretched out to her, handles first, and dunking his shirt into the shallows, finally slid himself onto the barge. Maka took her scythe and used it to cut them free as Soul pulled the wet garment down his sweaty torso. The boat jerked forward, carried by the swift rapids.
She felt something tickling at her waist, and she glanced down. Soul had taken the ends of her safety ropes and was busy tying them around his own hips.
“What are you doing?”
“Making sure we don’t lose each other,” he said as if it were obvious.
“Kinda limits our maneuverability.”
“But what if I pull you overboard?”
“Doesn’t matter,” Soul said, tightening the final knot. “I’ll follow you wherever you go.”
Maka blinked slowly at him. He sat cross-legged on the raft, face stubborn.
The Langston River carried them swiftly downstream. Maka was pleased to see that the middle of the water was slightly calmer, and they were able to use the oars attached to the sides of the boat to keep them aiming down the center.
It was clear that this part of the world had survived better than the inner portions of the city. The river banks on either side seemed to stretch into the distance, long drooping willows dotting the landscape. Sometimes, a Pecker would swoop between the branches, and Maka would perk up, eyes sharp in case one flew over the river.
“We’ll get ‘em,” Soul said after the fourth time she did that. “We’ll take this old girl a little farther, then make for the shore when we see a large spit of land.”
“How are we gonna get there?” she asked, peering dubiously over the side into the churning waters below the barge.
“Not sure,” Soul said after a pause.
Maka sat on the floor of the boat, adjusting the edge of her coat over her knees. Soul sat a few feet away from her. She tugged idly on the ropes connecting them, eyes on the opposite shore. Soul gave a gentle yank back.
The river dragged them along, and Maka kept a wary eye out for a good place to land. The occasional Gasfella would appear along the riverbank and float over the rough whitecaps, axe held aloft as it spotted them. Maka was right; being tied together gave them less room to move, so they took to standing back to back, swinging heavy hammer and makeshift scythe.
“There!” Soul shouted. Maka pivoted and saw instantly what he meant; there was a large patch of land to their right, dull wooden buildings apparent behind the trees along the river. They dropped their weapons in the middle of the boat and exchanged them for oars. They sat on either side of the barge, rope stretched tight between them, and paddled against the current.
Her arms ached, but they were turning towards the shore, so Maka kept paddling. Soul was shouting encouragements, but she could barely hear him over the roar of the water and the pounding in her ears. Sweat beaded on her forehead, but she kept going, kept going, kept going.
The edge of the barge growled as it slid over rough sand, hitting land favoring its starboard side. An ominous crack sounded through the air, and Maka was pitched forward on impact. She and Soul grabbed their belongings and jumped over the edge, stumbling into the brush as they scrambled away from the boat. Another crack and a crunch, and Weeping Nellie broke in two, churning waters swallowing her bones and carrying them swiftly downstream.
Both of them crouched in the bushes, panting hard, watching the swirling muddy waters for a few more moments before Soul let out a loud sigh and stood up. The rope still binding them dragged Maka forward a bit, so she reached down to untie it, though not without feeling a slight reluctance. When the world had been reduced to a few floating rocks in the sky, it felt good to have an anchor.
They shouldered their backpacks and their weapons. There were loud caws in the distance, and Maka knew they had been wise to wait for Pecker hunting; they had clearly stumbled upon a roost. The pair tread carefully as they made their way through the trees, trying not to disturb the birds and scare them off.
They emerged from the forest to find the small building they had spotted in the distance. “An armory,” Soul said quietly as they approached. “We must be near one of the military posts.”
The floor of the building was covered in the thick black dust that remained after a person’s ashen body had been destroyed, and Maka felt slightly nauseous as they stepped through it, stirring up small clouds around their boots, but Soul was staring determinedly at the walls, looking for something to use, so she swallowed the bile in her throat and said nothing.
“Perfect,” he said, reaching out and grabbing something hanging off the wall. He turned and handed it to her. “It’s a Repeater,” he said in answer to her confused face. “It’ll shoot down Peckers much faster than if we tried to snag ‘em by hand.”
“I don’t know how well I can shoot,” she said with some hesitation.
“These things’re easy,” Soul replied. “They were mainly used by beginners. Only Breakers were trained to use bows and the like. The Repeaters are even easier than the standard Muskets. I think you’ll be fine.” He looked upwards towards the dingy ceiling. “Plus I have an idea.”
They stepped outside and walked around to the back of the dilapidated building. Old crates stood abandoned behind it, and Soul used them to hoist himself up and swing onto the roof. Maka scrambled up after him, skirts riding up her legs.
Crouching behind the large sign on the front of the armory, Soul held up his Repeater and looked through the small scope on top. The Repeater was made of animal bones: the skull adorned the front of the weapon and the sharpened ribs were lined up within the barrel, waiting to puncture the living with the dead. Even the small scope was a hollowed out vertebra.
“All right,” Soul said quietly, peering into the trees opposite the building, “if you pull the trigger when the Pecker’s in the line of the scope, you’ll get it. It comes out quiet and fast, and if we’re lucky, the birds won’t scatter after each shot. Ready?”
Maka nodded, dropping into position next to Soul. She propped the weapon against the sign and peered through the small scope, closing one eye to focus better. She could see flashes of red and pale blue through the dark leaves as the birds hopped from branch to branch, beaks opened and closing as they cawed to each other. She heard a quiet thwip and one of the birds fell from the tree, a thin white dart through its neck.
Maka and Soul sent Pecker after Pecker to a silent death, waging a tiny avian war from the roof of a building that held weapons to kill humans. Soul was a good shot, and though Maka had never used a Fang Repeater before, she quickly got the hang of it. Soul had been right; it was easy, and Maka refused to think about how simple it would have been -- how simple it had been -- for Caelondian soldiers to use them against her people during the war. She would not allow herself to imagine the Peckers dropping like stones from the trees as Ura soldiers, their brightly colored plumage was nothing like the vibrant shades and hues the Ura wore, the burst of feathers as each bird died did not resemble in the least the the traditional war hairstyles of her people, twisted into small tufts at the crown of their heads. With every twitch of her finger, a Pecker fell from the sky, and Maka stopped being able to see through the scope as the tears came hot and fast. She just kept firing until she felt a hand on her shoulder and Soul’s concerned face swam into view.
His mouth moved, but no sounds came out.
That evening, Stein regaled the group with stories from his youth. His childhood apparently had been spent conducting numerous, sometimes ethically questionable experiments, and he was describing in loving detail an operation that he had performed on a gramophone, a lit smoking pipe, and an axe, when Kid sat next to Maka again.
“Shall we continue with the lessons?” he asked, peering into her face.
She steeled her features into a neutral position. “Sure, sounds good, Kid.”
“You did such a good job with the alphabet last night, I think we’re ready to start forming words.” He opened his book to the back again, the last few blank pages rapidly filling up with Maka’s hesitantly formed letters. “I’m impressed with your progress.”
“Thanks,” she said, a warmth blooming in her chest. She felt, for the first time in years, that surge of pride she got when sitting in class and raising her hand for the right answer; she had forgotten how good it felt.
“I think the first order of business,” Kid said, rapping the scratching pencil against the page, “is to teach you the word for ‘Bastion.’ That way, we can work on a sign that we can hang up so that if there are any Ura survivors out there, they’ll know that this place is a sanctuary to them.”
“You’re perfectly capable of doing that yourself,” Stein pointed out.
Kid shot him a look. “True, but Maka needs to learn.”
“I thought this was voluntary,” countered Stein.
“Let’s take a look at the armory,” Soul said suddenly. “Need to make sure the Repeaters won’t go off in the middle of the night. I’ll show you how to dismantle them.”
“Very well,” said the doctor happily, but the sweeping glance he gave to the fireside was calculating.
“Regardless of my ability, it’s important that you learn,” Kid said with an air of finality.
Kid drew a long, flowing word on the page. “‘Bastion,’” he said. Maka took the pencil from him and tried to replicate it. “Not quite, but also not bad. Let’s try ‘Tazal Terminals.’ It’s certainly vital that you recognize the name of your homeland.”
As they practiced different words, looking around their small home for inspiration to pick out other ones to try, Maka felt more and more at ease. The past few hours -- collecting the fallen Peckers, riding the Skyway back to the Bastion, settling in for dinner -- had all passed her by in a blur. But as she did something she knew how to do, something she was getting better and better at, she felt almost normal; the Calamity seemed a distant nightmare when she was reading and writing again.
Kid, though stiff and formal, was also kind and gentle, and she laughed easily with him. He was so eager to teach her about the Ura that his enthusiasm was infectious. Each word he taught her had a story behind it, something that reminded him of home.
“Of course!” he cried. “I should teach you your name. What a foolish oversight. Let’s see.” He traced a small word onto the paper and turned the book to Maka.
Her veins turned to ice as she stared at the curling script on the page. Something swam in her vision, and Maka found herself on her feet, staring down into Kid’s surprised face.
“Bed,” she said, or shouted, or whispered, she couldn’t tell. She strode away from the fire, but her eyes were adjusted to the light of the flickering flames again, and she could barely see ahead of her. There was a pounding in her ears, but it couldn’t drown out her father’s words, echoing in her skull with a haunting clarity. This is for me.
“No it isn’t,” she spat, but whether she said it then or now, Maka didn’t know. Her hands were clenched and she was sobbing, a child whose mother was gone, gone, gone, whose father was wrong, wrong, wrong, that letter was for her--
This is for me, Maka, he said, taking the letter from her tiny fists, tucking it into his breast pocket with one hand and smoothing down her hair with the other. Mama wanted me to read this. But the letter smelled like Mama’s hands, and it was gentle and soft like her skin, and Maka couldn’t read what it said but there was a beautiful word on the front, formed delicately, intricately, and that same word was sitting on the page of Kid’s book, mocking her. This is for me, he had said, but it was her name on the letter, her name on the letter, your Papa always lies--
A crunch in front of her caused Maka to look up. A tall figure was leaning over her, and she slowly made out Soul’s features through the gloom. “Hey,” he said, but pressed no further.
Maka glanced around. She had somehow made it into the armory, surrounded by the mass of weapons they had managed to accrue. A spilled box of musket pellets lay near her feet. She rubbed a hand up and down her arm, and a few stings of pain shot through her skin, a reminder of the stab weeds that felt like a lifetime ago. She looked back at Soul.
“Sorry,” she croaked.
He only looked at her, sinking to one knee in front of her and examining her face. She hurriedly wiped her nose with the back of her hand.
“Not so ladylike now, I think,” she said thickly.
“Not so much.”
Maka sniffled. “I’m a mess.”
“The world’s a mess,” Soul said, and Maka let out a shaky sigh. She scrubbed her face with her palms. Soul waited patiently for her, gaze never wavering. Maka dropped her hands and inhaled deeply, meeting his crimson eyes. She let out the breath she was holding, and he leaned almost imperceptibly closer. “Good?”
“Got something for you,” he said, reaching into the small pack that hung around his waist.
Soul started to pull something out of his pocket, then froze. “Close your eyes.”
“Really?” she asked, amusement evident in her voice.
“Don’t like surprises?”
She smirked at him, but his eyes were wide and honest. “Fine,” she said in mock protest, and closed her eyes.
“You have to hold out your hands.”
“You’re so demanding,” she said, but obliged.
Something warm and smooth was laid gently on her upturned palms. Maka opened her eyes before Soul could prompt her and peered through the darkness at the small red egg that lay in her hands.
“Pecker egg,” Soul said by way of explanation. “I collected a bunch for our dinners, but this one is close to hatching. Ain’t gonna make much of a meal, so I thought you could use him as a pet.”
“Won’t he be aggressive?”
“Don’t think so. The Calamity’s what turned the others angry, but this one will imprint on you. You don’t have to have him,” he said, eyes sliding to the side as he spoke, “just thought you might like him.”
She stared at the small egg. “How do you know it’s a ‘him’?”
“Uh, I don’t.”
“Well, then I’ll name her Stella.”
“How do you know it’s a ‘her’?” he teased, but his eyes met hers again, his sharp-toothed grin growing across his face.
Maka went to bed with the egg near her chin, but in the morning it was gone, replaced by a thin, bedraggled chick that had wormed its way into her breast pocket in the middle of the night, curled up over her heart.
Maka tended to the baby Pecker, which sprouted feathers much sooner than she’d been expecting. It took to perching on her shoulder as she swept about the Bastion. Stein offered to take the bird while she was away with Soul on missions, but his eyes gleamed far too maliciously, so the task often fell to Kid.
Maka apologized the next day for her odd behavior, and their lessons had continued without much fuss. She was a fast learner, and Kid told her that while her handwriting might have brought the wrath of an Ura teacher’s switch’s down upon her hands, it was at least legible.
They were running out of room in the back of Kid’s book. Maka decided to keep her eye out for more while they were out on missions, and one day they uncovered a stash of books resting near the ashen statue of a woman with sharp-rimmed glasses. “Azusa,” Soul said sadly. “Taught me manners in school.”
“You obviously don’t use them much,” Maka said, but put a hand between his shoulder blades. He sighed, and swung his hammer.
Their Lost and Found grew more and more stuffed with debris, though Kid did his best to keep it organized. Stein would complain that he spent more time doing that than doing anything useful, but never seemed to have the heart to tell Kid to stop. Maka felt almost guilty when they returned with more remnants of the old world; Kid’s eyes would light up until he had sorted through it all, and upon not recognizing anything, his shoulders would droop and he would be quieter at dinner that night.
Once they managed to bring him back something that surprised him. Another abandoned Armory hosted little else than a few Peckers and a broken barrel of Werewhiskey, but they did find a pair of pistols, dusty but otherwise in perfect condition. They presented him with their gift that evening.
“What’s this?” he asked.
“Didn’t you say your paps used to take you shooting?” Soul handed over the twin guns. “Thought you could use these. You’re a bit averse to ‘pointy things,’ so maybe this is more your style.”
“Ah. Well, my father actually taught me with a long rifle,” Kid said, turning the guns over in his hands. “But I thank you. These are beautiful weapons.”
“You two never bring me back anything fun,” Stein said petulantly, leaning over Kid’s shoulder.
“Doc, we just got you a whole carcass to have fun with.”
“Well sure, but I mean, those look like fun.”
“That’s exactly why Soul and I don’t get you anything.”
The shelters of the Bastion were completed. Each had taken far more sweat, tears, and bloody noses than was desirable, but they were finished. Stein had sewn together the large down blanket, and though his stitches were garishly large, it was quite comfortable. Soul had taken to sleeping nearest the door, and Maka had claimed the pallet next to him; it was easier to depart in the mornings without disturbing the other two residents of the Bastion. Maka was delighted to discover Soul had the squeakiest snores she had ever heard, though he fervently denied it every time she brought it up.
They set off one bright morning, bickering playfully over what onion recipe of Stein’s was most tolerable and debating whether or not they should tell him he was actually getting worse. They rode the Skyway and landed with a thud in a thick bed of moss.
It was wilder there than anywhere Maka had ever visited, before the Calamity or since. Large, crimson flowers bloomed all around them, letting off a foul stench if disturbed, and thick ropy vines hung off the trees like curtains. Thunder rumbled in the distance, and Maka and Soul peered through the gloom of the forest.
“Think we should turn back?” Soul asked. His hands were on his hips; he was able to move a bit more now without his armor. The leather straps had finally snapped a few days ago, and they hadn’t gotten around to fixing them yet.
“No,” Maka said slowly, turning on the spot to get a better view of the surroundings. “This seems like a solid area. Not to mention this is one of the larger bits of land we’ve found. I think we should check it out.”
The partners wended their way through the overgrowth. Little puffballs expelled bursts of powder as they brushed past, and the long grass was itchy and sharp. Peckers cawed above their heads, but only a few swooped down to attack, and Maka and Soul dispatched them easily. It was a dense, untamed part of the Wilds, and Maka felt a slight sense of unease.
A grunting noise erupted from the bushes to their left. “Lunkhead,” Soul said, and they slid into their usual fighting stances as something burst into view.
The Lunkhead was a large, bulky four-legged animal, its massively thick skull having earned it its name. It plowed through the underbrush like a train, grunting its displeasure at having humans in its habitat. Maka and Soul slipped into battle mode as easily as if they had been doing it all their lives. The beast charged them, but they rolled smoothly out of the way, dodging its assault. Maka was back on her feet first, and drove her makeshift scythe down in a long arc. It hit the creature in the thigh, precisely where she’d been aiming. “Go!” she grunted, and Soul darted forward, a thin knife sliding down from his sleeve to his fist. He drove the knife into the beast’s neck up to the hilt, and it let out a gurgle as its legs collapsed underneath it.
They waited, watching the creature thrash weakly in its death throes. It let out an odd whine, then finally seemed to lie still. They slowly pulled their respective weapons out of its body. Soul put a hand on the animal’s thick, armored head. “Thanks,” he murmured quietly. Maka closed her eyes for a moment.
They tied the Lunkhead’s body to a tree upside down; the blood would drain while they were away, and they would collect it on their way back to the Skyway. Shouldering their weapons once again, they set off.
“Don’t see too many Lunkheads,” Maka said. “We must be out farther’n I thought.”
“What’s so funny?”
“You sound like you grew up on the streets,” he said, grinning at her. “What, you aiming to be a Mason, and the like?”
“I do not!” she protested, pinking under his amused gaze. “I just… said what I was thinking.”
“Said it like someone who’s worked the Wall,” he pointed out.
“Been spending too much time with me, eh?”
“Apparently. I’m starting to sound like I never went to school.”
“Hey now, I went to school!” Soul said, sounding vaguely affronted. Maka raised an eyebrow at him. “I mean, I never paid attention, but I was there! For some of the time.”
“Exactly,” said Maka, swaying her hips as she walked out in front of him. “What a fool I’ve been for listening to what you have to say.”
“Well, if the shoe fits...”
She gasped, throwing him a look over her shoulder. “How rude! I’m no more of a fool than you are.” They were both smirking, and Maka turned back around to pretend to turn her nose up at him. “I’m not the one who dropped that sack of flour everywhere in the kitchen two nights ago.”
“It slipped! And I ain’t the one who tripped over her own feet on her way into the bathing pool.”
“You saw that--! Well, I am certainly not the one who thought it was a good idea to bring a dangerous Pecker egg home!”
“And I sure as heck wasn’t the one who thought it would be a good idea to keep the thing!”
“And I was not the one who tried to take on that Scumbag by himself!”
“I didn’t know they grow bigger when they eat things! And I certainly ain’t the one who tried to talk to a Squirt like he’d answer back.”
“I thought it was you! Well, I’m not the one who thought it would be a good idea when we first met to sit in a bog and play banjo, am I?” The crashing footsteps of her partner came to a halt behind her. Maka pivoted. Soul’s face had gone slack, gaze fixed on a spot somewhere above her head. “Soul?” she asked, a slight tremor in her voice.
They had not discussed the day they had first met (except once when Soul told her she looked like Death herself come to claim him, eyes bloodshot and crazy). Maka had sometimes wondered about why Soul had been sitting there, strumming away at a guitar when the world around them had ended, but she had not thought it would cause this kind of reaction if she brought it up again.
She felt sick to her stomach. “Soul, I’m so sorry--”
“S’fine,” he said, brushing past her. She stared at his back for a moment, then hastened to catch up.
“Soul, wait, please--”
“We should keep moving,” he said gruffly.
“No, Soul, please let me explain--”
“Maka, just drop it--”
Soul stopped short and held out his arm. Maka walked right into it, hitting herself across the chest and knocking the wind out of her. There was a rumble under her feet, and something burst out of the ground in front of them, showering the pair with dirt and bits of leaves. It roared as it soared skyward, and Maka caught a glimpse of rows and rows of glistening white teeth and a vicious scarlet eye. She lost her balance and fell backwards, and Soul hit the ground next to her. The thing sunk back below the surface of the earth, which shuddered under them.
Maka’s heart was pounding. “What…”
“We gotta go,” Soul said, standing up quickly and offering her a hand. She took it and he hauled her upright.
“That was an Anklegator,” she said faintly.
“That’s why we best get a move on,” he said, leaning over to pick up their weapons.
“Soul, those are extinct.” He looked up at her.
“‘Fraid not. They’re awfully rare, which is why most folks don’t know they’re still around, but they are out there, and they are nasty. We need to get outta here before it catches up with us.” He shoved the shaft of her scythe into her hands, and Maka looked numbly down at it as Soul gathered up the rest of their fallen things.
“I thought they were green or gold,” she murmured as she stared straight ahead. “Maybe blue. In my picture books growing up, they were those kinds of colors. Had you ever seen one before?”
Soul glanced into her face, the first time since before their argument. “No. And I don’t want to see another one--”
“Black,” she choked out. “That one was pure black.”
“This one tonight, Papa.”
Papa closed the small notebook he had been scribbling in and took the book from his daughter’s chubby hands. “‘The Children’s Guide to Creatures of the Wilds,’” he read aloud. “Are you sure this won’t be too scary?”
“Yes.” She slapped the book. “Read.”
“What do we say?” he scolded gently, settling in next to her.
She looked a little sheepish. “Please, Papa.”
“Thank you, Maka. Okay, where should we start?” He parted the worn leather covers of the book and held it aloft in front of him so she could see the pages.
“The beginning!” she said, proud of her correct answer. Papa leaned over to kiss her hair.
“Okay,” he said, and she clapped her hands. “A for Anklegator. This large creature is one of the most dangerous animals of the Wilds. They swim through the earth like a fish through the sea. They have green or gold scales all along their body. Their heads are protected by thick bony helmets. Anklegators are strong and love to eat. Watch out for their long front horns -- they are extremely sharp! Some Anklegators can even grow so large as to swallow a small child whole. It’s rumored that their favorite kind are the ones who don’t do their chores."
Maka yawned widely. Papa smiled and closed the book.
"Wait, I'm not sleepy!" she protested, yawning again. Papa chuckled.
"But it is bedtime." He stood up and stretched, putting the book on the small table next to his daughter's bed. She wormed her way further under her covers, eyelids drooping heavily. Papa took the edges of the blankets and tucked them around her small frame. “Goodnight,” he said, patting the lump that was her knees.
“Papa,” she said suddenly, as if the thought had just occurred to her. “Could an Anklegator live in Caelondia?”
“No, of course not,” Papa replied reassuringly. “You will never have to worry about Anklegators, my angel. Now go to sleep.”
“Watch your step,” Soul said, stepping over another fallen log.
“Right,” Maka called.
The Anklegator had rattled the both of them, but they agreed this spot of land was too well-formed not to explore fully. If the ground had held up even through the Calamity, who knew what else might have? Maka knew Soul was thinking the same thing she was: even despite the presence of Anklegators, someone might have survived out here.
They weren’t talking much. There was still a slight tension in the air between them, though the arrival of the fearsome creature had caused it to dissipate somewhat. Maka still felt an awkward shame in her chest when she thought about how quickly their conversation had gone from fun to frustrating, and she found herself pursing her lips at Soul’s back. He didn’t want to talk about it; how was she supposed to fix anything if he was always so stubborn?
Both of them looked a little worse for wear. There were many spined plants that grew in the far Wilds that reacted as something came close and released their needles with a surprisingly ferocity. Soul and Maka were nursing plenty of tiny cuts, and one particularly large thorn had even dented Soul’s shield. They hadn’t seen any more Lunkheads. The partners were betting the Anklegator had already found their Lunkhead, but if their offering of meat could satisfy the creature, it was well worth the expense.
They made their way through the underbrush. Gnarled birch trees hung low over their heads, long branches swaying gently with the breeze. Much like the people, many trees had been petrified in the Calamity, and their twisted skeletons peered down ominously at the pair as they hacked and slashed their path through the thick vines.
Soul held up his hand again suddenly, but this time Maka stopped before running into it. He pointed ahead. “Think I see something.”
He was right; there were more abandoned crates and scraps from the old world. They slowly sifted through it, turning over the objects before deciding whether they could be used back in the Bastion.
Maka was moving a small crate of what was definitely rotten fruit when something caught her eye and her heart skipped a beat. She flung the crate to the side and wrapped her thin fingers around a small black book, dusty from lying on the ground. Soul seemed to noticed her sudden change in demeanor.
“Whatcha got there?”
She didn’t respond. She carefully opened the cracked leather covers, and a well-known scent assaulted her nose. Achingly familiar handwriting stared up at her. She stood suddenly.
“This is my father’s journal,” she said, spinning around on the spot and eyes peering off into this distance. “He used this to keep his notes on his different projects, when he wasn’t busy being a politician. Or flirting with every barmaid in Caelondia.” She glanced down at it. It was written in Ura, and though she recognized all the letters, she still couldn’t make out the words. There were a few very simple ones she knew, but the rest was gibberish.
“Maka,” Soul said quietly.
“No, it’s his, I’d know it anywhere,” she said. “He never went anywhere without it.”
“Maka,” he repeated, stepping closer.
“Do you think--”
“No, Maka,” he said softly. “Look at where it was. No one could live out here, not with Anklegators and Lunkheads roaming around.”
“But what if he just--”
“You said he never goes anywhere without it.”
She spun around to face him, her features unreadable. Maka slowly turned her gaze downwards to stare at the book in her hands. It was dirty and musty, and it had been lying on the ground.
Without warning, she burst into tears. Maka was more surprised by them than anything. It was as if every tear she had not shed for her father up until then was insisting on being freed all at once, and her shoulders wracked with sobs. She brought her fingers to her face in awe.
Just as suddenly, she found herself in a warm embrace and her tear-streaked face was pressed into Soul’s shirt. All she could see was the red of his bandana, and for a moment she struggled not to get snot all over him, but he tightened his grip almost imperceptibly, and she felt her resolve break. She buried her face in his chest, gasping and heaving breaths muffled against the fabric of his shirt. He smelled like onions and woodsmoke. This made her cry harder.
After what felt like hours, Maka heard herself take shuddering deep breaths, finally spent. She hiccuped as she looked up at Soul, who was staring determinedly off in the distance. “Better?” he asked gruffly.
“Better,” she said, her voice watery but steady.
“You, uh, had a good cry, and the like?”
She chuckled weakly. “Yeah, and the like.” She was suddenly very aware of his muscled chest against hers, and she stepped back slightly. He dropped his arms hastily. “Thank you, Soul.”
The pale-haired man opened his mouth as if to say something, but seemed to think better of it; he swallowed and nodded. “Best keep moving, then,” he said, and Maka noticed that his ears were red.
They gathered the few supplies they had scavenged. Maka tucked the journal into a pocket inside her jacket.
A crack of thunder rang out. The partners started, then looked up.
“I don’t like this,” Soul said uneasily. “I was hoping we’d make it back before it got too dark.”
“Let’s just go back to the Skyway. There’s nothing here for us anymore.”
A few fat drops began to fall as they retraced their steps, following the broken foliage through the forest. Lightning pierced the sky, cutting it in half, and thunder roared in after it, clouds gathering and roiling on the horizon. Without speaking, they both picked up their pace.
It started to rain in earnest. The sky grew darker and darker. Maka tightened her grip on the scythe, which was now slick with water. The wind was howling too loudly for them to speak, but when Soul broke into a quick trot, Maka followed his lead. A particularly close clap of thunder rattled her bones, and she felt her shoulders tense even though it had been years since she had been afraid of a storm.
Soul yelled something, but she couldn’t understand him over the wind. Something rumbled under her feet, and her heart leapt in her throat. Soul pointed ahead of them again, and Maka could just make out the faint gold outline of the Skyway on the ground. They were almost there.
A few yards in front of them, something breached the surface of the dirt. The lightning flash illuminated the silhouette of the black Anklegator, whose roar could be heard even over the screaming winds. Maka slipped in the mud, swinging her scythe off her shoulder and out in front of her as the beast turned its crimson eyes on them.
Her sopping bangs clung to her forehead as she tried to squint through the pelting rain. Soul dodged a massive claw and disappeared into the darkness. The mud sucked at her boots and the Anklegator sunk beneath the surface of the earth as if it were made of water.
Lightning flashed again, and Maka could see the rope they used to string up the Lunkhead, now devoid of its prey, swaying like an empty noose. A large black shoulder emerged from the ground in front of her, and instinctively she swung her scythe into it. The blade bounced off the scales harmlessly, but the beast lifted its gaping maw and screeched into the night. She tried to run, but her feet were being weighed down. Her heart pounded in her ears.
She lost track of Soul, she lost track of the time, she lost track of everything. All she knew was the terrible dance with the demon in front of her, its glittering fangs dripping as it snapped at her, its dirty claws slicing through the air as it tried to impale her. The long lizard was finally fully visible, muddy rivulets streaming down its ebony scales. The wicked horn curved in front of its face, shining in the lights of the storm.
Maka swung her weapon again at the beast’s hindquarters, and a sickening jolt shot up her arm as the blade shattered against its hide. Her shoulders screamed in agony and she dropped the now useless shaft. She tried to call Soul’s name, but the wind stole her words and flung them to the sky. She was defenseless.
The beast seemed to know this. Illuminated by another bolt of lightning, Maka saw the animal face her down, its horn piercing the heavens as it trained its eyes on her. It seemed to move in slow motion, gathering its long legs below its slithering body. Their eyes met in the next flash, and she knew she saw her death reflected there.
The next crack of lightning revealed the charging Anklegator, heading straight for a weaponless Maka.
But the pain didn’t come; the next bolt of lightning revealed why, and Maka felt another scream rip through her throat, because Soul’s back was illuminated in front of her, outlined in stark white, shoulders hunched as he spread his arms in front of her body, shielding her with his own, and she couldn’t stop screaming as she saw the blood splash outwards, and in the harsh white light of the electrical storm, it looked almost black--
Soul seemed to take forever to fall to his knees in front of her, the horn of the Anklegator swinging upwards from his chest in a smooth arc, rows and rows of sharp teeth spreading in a vicious smile. Maka felt a surge of fear pulse through her veins, and without stopping to think, without wondering what to do, she plunged her hand into the belt around her waist and pulled out the tiny knife she kept there, twin to the one Soul had used to kill the Lunkhead a lifetime ago. She shot her arm forward, over the body of her fallen friend, and shoved it into the mouth of the abyss, piercing the tongue of the roaring devil. It screamed, a high pitched noise that sent a fire down her spine, as it thrashed and threw its head back in agony. Maka wrapped her arms around Soul’s shoulders and turned him over. What she saw wrenched a sob out of her already raw throat.
His chest was sliced in two, and she desperately pressed her hands against it. The Anklegator let out another beastial roar. She tightened her grip on one of his shoulders and started to drag him in the direction of the Skyway, screaming and sobbing alternately. The blood bubbling under her fingers was warm, a small oasis of heat in the midst of the icy cold storm, running freely down his body, swirling down in tiny streams. She couldn’t look at his face, couldn’t look at the blank staring eyes, couldn’t look at the teeth blackened with the blood he kept coughing up, his lungs desperate for air. Water coursed down her face, rain and tears mixing as they slipped down and dripped into Soul’s gaping wound. It was like the crooked smile of a demon across his deathly white skin.
Maka saw the gold outline of the portal just as the Anklegator let out a bone-rattling roar behind them. She felt the earth shake under its angry gallop as it charged towards them, but she didn’t even look back, she just kept her hand in the mess that used to be Soul’s chest, dragging his lifeless body towards the Skyway.
Her toe stubbed against the device, and she flung her weight forward and felt the wind of the Skyway catch her and Soul. Maka could feel the jaw of the beast close on the sleeve of her jacket as their bodies were shot upwards, and she was dimly aware of a ripping sound before the winds howled too loudly for her to hear anything else. She clutched Soul’s form to her, feeling the warm blood seep through her clothes. Shouting and crying against the wind, she suddenly found them flung onto soft grass.
“Help!” she shrieked, her voice hoarse. Her fingers slipped as she tried desperately to hold the two pieces of Soul’s chest together like a door that should remain shut, a door never meant to open, and she felt her blood run cold as she saw parts of him she knew she never should, like sinew and bone and muscle, fanned out and edges ragged. She barely registered that it was not raining anymore.
For a few blood-chilling moments, Maka was afraid the Skyway had malfunctioned and flung them somewhere else, but finally her screams carried far enough, and she felt a large hand slip over hers and tangle itself into Soul’s ruined chest. She turned her head to numbly register Stein’s focused face. He was glaring hard at this patient, no trace of the kindly if creepy smile he often wore. “Kid, get my kit,” he said sharply. “Then get her out of here.”
“NO!” she bellowed. She clutched at her partner’s broken body even as Kid’s hands wrapped firmly around her shoulders. “No,” she sobbed, burying her face in his bloody chest, starkly aware that she had done this very same thing to a much more whole chest only a few hours ago, “no,” she cried, tears dripping down her face and splashing into his wound, “no, no, no, no.”
Kid forced Maka to sit by the campfire. He kept a hand on her shoulder, which might have seemed like a comforting gesture, except Maka knew he was trying to keep her from rushing back to where Stein was elbow deep inside her partner’s chest. Maka sat in a haze, staring into the flickering flames. At one point, she leaned over the log and wretched; Kid quickly stepped out of the way.
Finally, Stein approached the fire pit, wiping his bloody hands with a rag. Maka stood up and opened her mouth to speak, but Stein held up a tired hand to silence her.
“He’s stable, for the moment. I’ve stitched him back together as best I can with the available materials, but I’ve no way of knowing whether it will become infected. He’s sleeping for now. There’s also very little I can do about his blood loss, but we’ll worry about that if he lasts the night.”
Maka felt something icy drop down her spine. Kid moved into the light of the fire. His face was calm.
“But you are hopeful,” he said, voice reassuring.
Stein turned his gaze towards the Ura. “I’m realistic. Soul is a healthy specimen, but there are no guarantees in a situation like this.”
“But you’re doing all you can,” stated Kid, a tone of authority evident. Stein seemed to pick up on it as well.
“Yes, I am.” He turned back to Maka. “Were you injured?”
“No,” she said, but Stein shook his head.
“Maka, I can see your sleeve is torn up. Let me look at it.”
“I’d rather…” she trailed off, glancing back into the flames.
“I’d rather you use the supplies on Soul,” she whispered. “Whatever we have, use on him.”
Stein took his glasses off and began to clean them on his worn shirt. “Maka, I’ve done all I can for the moment. I’ll change his bandages in a few hours and reapply the salve I concocted, but for the time being, there is nothing else I can do for Soul. It is vitally important that I take care of your injuries too. You are an important member of the Bastion, and with Soul out of commission, we need all able-bodied persons to operate at full capacity.” Maka heard the unspoken assumption that Soul might never reach that capacity again.
She put a hand to her heart.
But she allowed Stein to approach her and roll up her sleeve. “Was this the same thing that attacked Soul?” he asked, peering down at her injury.
“Yes,” she answered dully. “An Anklegator.”
“A what?” Kid gasped. Stein sighed.
“I wondered if the Calamity might cause things to stir.”
“But Anklegators are extinct!”
“Obviously not. They are exceedingly rare, but their territory has been made more accessible by the Calamity rearranging everything.” Stein motioned for Maka to sit down again, and they both sunk to the ground, his calloused fingers around her thin arm. “Maka, this might actually be a good thing. I can use this abrasion to study the effects of an Anklegator injury and might be able to know what to expect in Soul.”
“But this was a bite,” she said. “He got s-slashed.” Her voice broke as she tried to speak.
“Then you might be at a higher risk of infection.” He waved at Kid. “Get the small vial of white cream. It’s by the Skyway. I won’t run out,” he said, cutting off Maka before she could protest.
Kid hurried off into the gathering darkness. Maka stared at the toes of her boots; they were chalky with cracked mud. Stein kept turning her elbow to see the cut from different angles, but she could barely feel it. All of her felt numb and distant, as if she were watching the scene from the other end of a telescope.
Tripping slightly in his haste, Kid held the vial out to Stein, who set to work. “Tell me what happened,” he ordered. Maka watched him idly for a minute without speaking.
“There’s not much to know,” she said. “A giant Anklegator attacked us. It might have been attracted by the Lunkhead carcass we were gonna bring home.” She rubbed her eye with her free hand. “My scythe broke against it; it was like trying to cut through a Core, it was like stone. It started raining, and I couldn’t see, and suddenly Soul was there…” She took a shuddering breath.
“Maka, this isn’t your fault,” insisted Kid. “Soul obviously made a conscious decision to protect you. You have nothing to apologize for.” Stein nodded along, clearly not paying attention.
“But I was the one who said we should keep going,” Maka said miserably. “I was the one who convinced him to stay.”
“We saw the Anklegator, but I said we should keep looking around. I thought… there might be more survivors. It was such a large area left untouched… I just wanted to keep going. And I got my partner--”
“Don’t blame yourself,” Stein said gruffly. “He knew what he was doing.”
Silence reigned for a few moments. Then Kid asked, “So… did you discover anything?”
Stein released her newly bandaged arm, and Maka reached into her jacket to pull out her father’s journal.
“It… belonged to my Papa.”
Kid shuffled slightly in the orange glow of the fire, putting a hand to his holster, where he had taken to carrying his twin pistols around with him everywhere. “Is it… for you?”
“I doubt it. He had it all my life, always wrote stuff in it. But it’s in Ura.” She held it out to Kid.
He reached forward to grab it, but it slipped between his fingers and fell to the ground. “Sorry about that,” he said sheepishly, stooping quickly to scoop it up from where it had fallen, “it’s heavier than I thought.” He dusted it off and opened it to a random page.
“This isn’t Ura,” he said suddenly.
“Oh, wait. Yes it is. But it’s written in code. How odd.”
“Yes. Your father seems to have developed his own method of record-keeping so that it can’t be easily deciphered.”
“Probably a list of all the brothel houses in Caelondia,” Maka said bitterly. “Probably did it so my mother couldn’t read it.”
Stein cocked his head curiously, but Kid seemed to set his jaw. “I think there might be something in here for you, Maka,” he said. “I believe your father may have simply wanted it not to be seen by anyone else because it was private, but with your permission, I will try to decode it and find his message to you.”
Maka’s eyebrows disappeared behind her bangs. “Uh, sure, thanks Kid.” He nodded once curtly, then swept away, walking briskly towards the Lost and Found.
“He likes to believe the best in people,” Stein said matter-of-factly. “He likes to think people are capable of great good. I think it disturbs him slightly that you have such a low opinion of your father.”
“Oh,” said Maka. “Maybe I am too harsh on him.”
“Oh, I think he sounds like a complete idiot,” said the doctor cheerfully. “Objectively, he seems as if he were a horrendous imbecile. I mean this in the most inoffensively way possible, of course.”
“Of course,” Maka said, staring into the fire.
Soul was moved to the forge, where the residents of the Bastion had been repairing their weapons and farming tools, and where Stein jovially said he hoped to repair his patient. It was also warm near the stone forge; Soul had lost too much blood and couldn’t stop shivering. He hovered at the edge of consciousness all day, unaware that Stein and Maka spent almost the entirety of it by his side. He tossed and turned with nightmares, a sheen of sweat across his brow.
Maka wiped his forehead with a cool damp cloth every time he settled into a lull, brushing the limp strands of pale hair out of his face. Her Pecker Stella kept her company, perched on her shoulder while chirping quietly.
Stein might occasionally be leering and unsettling, but he knew what he was doing when it came to doctoring. Soul's chest was stitched together with the same loose, haphazard links that the doctor had used earlier, but at least his internal organs were now back where they belonged. The edges of the gash were stringy and yellow, something that caused Stein's lips to narrow in a thin line whenever he saw them.
Maka ignored the bile that threatened her esophagus every time they changed his bandages; the rotten smell of his flesh and the burning scent of the salve was overpowering, but she gritted her teeth every time she helped Stein rewrap them.
While Stein and Maka were occupied in the forge, Kid took to striding around the Bastion with his hands on his holsters, like a sheriff newly appointed to a lawless town. He maintained the rest of the sanctuary while Stein and Maka huddled over Soul's prone form, taking on the duties of checking supplies and making repairs.
He had also started translating Spirit Albarn's journal. Maka found herself largely uninterested in his progress. Kid seemed convinced there might be something in there for her, and she didn't have the heart to point out that if her father ever meant for her to read his journal, he would not have written it in a language she didn't understand. But it gave Kid something to do, so she left it at that.
Days passed. Some of their food supplies began to run low, and they were almost out of wood; it took a lot to keep the forge hot enough for Soul all day. Maka knew it was making Kid nervous, and so it was she who said one night, "I think we need to go out again tomorrow."
She didn't look at Stein as she spoke, which was slightly difficult as they were facing each other. They had developed a system for feeding Soul, who still spent more time asleep than awake. Stein sat spooning hot broth between Soul's lips while Maka supported his head in her lap.
"I think that's a good idea," Kid said, scraping at his plate with his slightly bent fork. "We need to restock."
"We can take the Skyway out pretty far and see where we end up," she continued, ignoring Stein's gaze.
"I'll make sure to bring as many bullets as I can feasibly carry."
Maka unconsciously ran a delicate finger along Soul's jawline as Stein pressed the spoon to his lips and guided the broth down his throat. Their patient swallowed, but his eyes remained shut.
"Are you quite certain that's something you want to do, Maka?" Stein asked suddenly. She startled and looked up.
"Yes," she said. "We need to keep Soul warm, and we need more flour. If there's food out there, it's just rotting while we stay here. Besides, we never know where the Skyway is gonna take us. There’s always the chance it will spit us out somewhere we haven’t been before and we can scavenge more stuff."
Stein nodded, but said nothing.
And so they fell into a new pattern, with Kid and Maka venturing outside the Bastion to fetch supplies while Stein tended to Soul. Their first run in with a Scumbag revealed Kid's unprecedented fighting style ("Kid, you are holding those upside down!") but otherwise they worked well together.
But it wasn't the same. Maka had adopted a Fang Repeater as her weapon, and she and Kid took a different approach, a ranged attack pattern as opposed to her and Soul's up close heavy lifting method, and it just didn't feel natural. Kid was an excellent shot, but they couldn't seem to fall into a rhythm; they were fighting side by side, not together.
Kid was always the one to suggest turning back; Maka always wanted to keep going. Her eyes would scan the horizon before she would finally agree to ride the Skyway home. Kid never questioned her behavior.
Soul’s behavior, on the other hand, grew more and more agitated and sullen. He was finally back on his feet, but he snapped at people easily, snarling and growling with little provocation. Maka began to avoid the forge; when asked, she claimed it had to do with Soul’s sourness, but the image of his red, puffy scar flashed before her eyes every time she went near the forge. Kid and Stein started throwing worried looks at one another every time another supper passed in silence.
After Maka and Kid returned from a particularly narrow miss with a Gasfella, Soul cornered her.
“Stop looking for it,” he said gruffly, eyes focused on her face.
“Well we weren’t exactly looking for a Galleon Mortar, but it’s an excellent find,” she said innocently, but kept her gaze firmly on a point over his shoulder.
“You know what I mean.”
“I’m afraid I don’t.”
“My hammer. I don’t need it.”
“I don’t know--”
“By all the gods, Maka. Please.”
She noticed Kid stiffen behind Soul; she knew he was listening.
“Kid and I are just trying to keep the Bastion afloat,” she said deliberately. “We’ve only found one Core in the past two weeks.”
“Maka,” Soul said in a strained voice, but she brushed past him.
“I’m going to bed,” she said. “Goodnight, Soul.”
The next morning, Maka left without waking anyone.
As soon as her face hit the dirt, she knew she was where she needed to be. Her fingers tightened around the straps of the large bag that had traveled with her, and she felt her resolve harden. She leapt to her feet.
There was no mistaking the stifling feeling of the place, as if she were trapped in a building where the doors only opened in and she couldn’t find the handle. The trees hanging overhead felt ominous, overbearing, as if ready to reach out and grab her. The ground was dry now, but she could see what she came for, sticking partially out of the dust.
The handle of Soul’s hammer was caked in mud, but it was easy enough to free from the dirt. She gently wiped it clean with the handkerchief she used to tie her hair back. Setting the weapon down next to the Skyway, she briefly considered wearing the dirty bandana again, but thought better of it. Maka found some twine in her pocket and tied her hair into twin bunches on either side of her head.
She unwrapped the bag and spread its contents out on the ground in front of her. A smile crept across her face, but she didn’t take time to appreciate her plan; there was work to do. She grabbed the Fang Repeater off her back and set off into the forest.
It didn’t take long for her to find a small flock of Peckers in the trees. Her skill had improved immensely, and she swiftly dispatched the entire group. Gathering them by the necks, she brought them back to the clearing and set them down on a spot she had marked clearly.
Using her small knife to slice open their bellies and willing herself not to think of Stella, Maka turned the dead birds feet up, watching the thin rivulets of blood drip down their soft feathers and into the dirt. She left them there and got into position.
Maka waited. Hours seemed to pass, but she remained where she was. This had to work.
“Here!” she screamed finally, hearing her voice echo against the trees. “Here!”
A rumble. She knew it was coming.
“Here!” she shrieked again, her voice catching in her throat. “C’mon you bastard, here!”
Another rumble, louder this time.
“You want me? Come and get me!”
A spray of dirt clouded her vision momentarily.
In the light of day, the Anklegator looked old and bloated. Its body was pockmarked with scars, black scales dull, and one of its eyes was milky and blind. It roared, recognizing her voice, and she saw a particularly nasty scar across its face in a shiny ‘x’.
For the briefest of moments, Maka felt a surge of pity. But then she saw Soul’s scar flash across her vision, saw her father’s journal in the dirt, and as the beast charged her once again, she pulled the trigger of the mortar with a roar of her own. A steaming hot cannon ball fired at the creature, hitting it square on the shoulder, and it stumbled.
But the mortar was old, and the shot caused one of its legs to splinter, so Maka grabbed the barrel of the scalding weapon and aimed it at the injured Anklegator, ignoring the searing pain in her palms. She steadied it and yanked the trigger again. It glanced off the charging animal’s forehead, and it howled in agony, maw opened wide to swallow her whole.
Once more. Maka pulled the trigger with bloody fingers and shot a cannon ball directly down the beast’s throat, where it let out a strangled scream and sunk to its knees, skidding in the dirt and coming to a final rest at her feet.
Maka released the mortar and clutched her hands to her sides, tears welling in her eyes; they were useless. As she let out a ragged groan, she found herself thinking dully that she had been right all along, that gloves might have been useful. She struggled to her feet.
The Anklegator lay sideways, a thin trickle of brackish blood dribbling from between its long teeth. Maka started to move away, but the sunlight glinted off the scales of the creature, and she turned again.
Its horn pointed towards the sky, gleaming and sharp.
Maka slowly cracked her hands apart, feeling the red, raw skin scream in protest, but she wrapped them around the hilt of her knife once more. She knelt by the head of the Anklegator and stretched out an aching hand. She wondered briefly if she should send a prayer to Micia, Goddess of Loss and Longing, but she wasn’t sure whether the gods accepted the prayers of those who had long since stopped praying. Maka closed her eyes anyway.
After a few moments, she moved the knife to Anklegator’s beak.
It was slow work, due in part to the thick scales of the creature and in part to the dull throb in her fingers with every stroke of the knife. The black blood seeped over her own red fingers, but Maka kept sawing away, concentrating on her task and ignoring the dull scarlet eye that stared into the clear blue sky above.
With a final twist of sinew, the curved horn of the beast came free. She wrapped her other hand around it and pulled it away, trailing stringy bits of flesh. The chance to inspect it revealed that it was not pure black, like she had thought, but was actually a repeating pattern of ebony and burgundy, like a row of serrated teeth.
Maka used one burnt fingertip to close the eye of the Anklegator, sending one last wish to Mother Micia. She wondered, as she stood up, whether there was something to be said about the mothers reigning over loss and longing, or whether the smell of the creature’s rancid blood was just getting to her.
Riding the Skyway home was difficult, but she managed to hug the hammer and the horn to her without the use of her hands. As the Bastion grew closer, she tried to flip herself over. Maka landed on her side hard, which was not exactly what she meant to do, but at least she didn’t fall on the horn.
“Where the fuck were you?”
She struggled to sit up. Soul was striding across the lawn towards her, his face contorted in such a way she had never seen before. He was furious.
“It was dangerous,” she said hastily from her position on the ground as Soul towered over her, tall in his anger. “It would have left that area once it ate all the Lunkheads. It was a threat. And I found your hammer.”
“I didn’t want the damn hammer!” Soul grabbed his hair between his fingers, looking almost deranged. “You could have been killed! What were you thinking?”
“I was thinking it needed to be done,” she said, tears in her eyes. Maka willed them not to spill. “I was thinking about my father’s journal on the ground, I was thinking about the scar on your chest, the hammer you earned for being a Mason, our home!”
Soul rubbed a hand across his jaw, staring into the sky, apparently at a loss for words. Kid appeared quietly and helped Maka to her feet.
“What happened to your hands?” he asked under his breath, but Soul heard him.
“What did you do?”
“I took the mortar,” she said, meeting his flashing gaze. “It was old, and I needed to support it--”
Soul’s hand wrapped around her wrist, dragging her a little closer. She stared defiantly into his face as he examined her shiny flesh. He dropped her hand and stormed off towards the forge.
“He was worried sick,” Kid said quietly, taking the hammer and horn from her. “He would have gone after you, but Stein said he’d only get you both killed. I’ve never seen him so scared.”
“I’m not weak,” she hiccuped, feeling the tears threaten to overwhelm her. “I am strong enough to protect myself; he doesn’t need to ever again. I don’t need his sacrifice. I’m not weak.”
“Is that what you think it’s about?” Kid asked lightly, looking into her face. She turned to him.
“What?” She struggled to understand his words, but Kid only shook his head and changed the subject.
“Let’s have Stein take a look at you, get you cleaned up. What’s important now is caring for your hands.” He set the weapons down near the fire and gently took Maka by the elbow to guide her, an unnecessary but kind gesture.
“I went looking for you myself,” he explained as they walked. “I, of course, had not had my chest recently torn open, so I was allowed. Obviously, I did not find you, but I did find another Brusher’s Pike. It’s in the armory. I figured you could attach another Machete to the end of it to create another scythe for yourself.”
“No,” she said. “I have something better.”
Kid shot her a look that was hard to interpret in the dark. “Well, the Pike is in the armory for when you need it.” He moved her elbow, causing her useless fingers to dangle in empty space. “For the moment, you’re unable to do anything that requires fingers.”
They stepped into the kitchens, and Stein looked over his shoulder, elbow-deep in sudsy water as he washed the supper dishes.
“Another patient for you, Doctor,” Kid said with a look of consternation.
Stein’s face broke into a toothy grin.
“Well, I leave you in capable hands,” said Kid hastily. Maka looked at him with slightly desperate eyes, but he moved towards the door once again as Stein dried his hands eagerly on his apron.
“Let’s have a look, shall we?” he asked excitedly.
Kid poked his head back into the kitchens. “By the way, Maka, I believe I’m very close to cracking the code your father used. I’ll have his journal translated very soon.”
Maka managed to leave Stein’s care with all her fingers (she had been sure he would have asked for one as collateral for fixing the rest of them), but they were wrapped in thick bandages and generally useless until she could take them off. Stein used the same salve he had been applying to Soul’s chest, and while it soothed the ache in her skin, it also smelled acrid and made her stomach turn over, so she kept her hands as far away as possible from her face. The doctor had had the gall to ask if she was keeping her hands “at arm’s length” and had she been able to, she would have punched the grin off his face.
She and Soul skirted around each other. He seemed a little sheepish after his outburst, and he avoided her gaze. Supper was a tense affair, something that Stein was either oblivious to or refusing to acknowledge, because he was the only one who ever spoke, laughing and making bad jokes and insisting everyone put more onions in their meals.
Kid smiled a thin-lipped grin at Stein’s antics, but Soul remained stony-faced. Maka sometimes let a bark of laughter slip through, but it echoed hollowly across the Bastion. It only encouraged Stein, but did nothing to ease the tension at the campfire.
Maka was forced to swallow a smug smirk when she witnessed Soul retrieving his hammer from the firepit one misty morning. She made no sign that she had noticed, but watched him as he hefted it onto his shoulder, testing the weight. He disappeared into the fog, and the sounds of a hammer swishing through the air and falling heavily against the trunk of a tree could be heard in every corner of the Bastion. Maka turned her head to face Stella, who sat primly on her shoulder, and hid her triumphant smile in the scarlet feathers.
But despite accepting her gift of his returned hammer, Soul still gave her a wide berth, and Maka felt the enthusiasm drain away as the days passed. Stella seemed to pick up on her bad mood and took to hopping from shoulder to shoulder of each inhabitant of the Bastion, perhaps in the hopes of mending the friendships. Stein started to repeat his jokes.
It was after a particularly bad pun that Stein seemed to give up entirely. After the terrible joke elicited absolutely no response from any of the three young companions, he only sighed and stood up, gathering the plates from supper. Soul seemed to snap into himself again and busied himself with helping. Maka stared at his bandana, which was covering most of his face, but he managed not to make eye contact as he left the light of the fire with Stein.
She glanced down at her boots. Kid, who was polishing his pistols again, flicked his golden gaze to her face.
“You know I had a wife, right?”
Maka’s head shot up. She stared into his face, which looked gaunt and thin in the firelight. Kid dropped his eyes to the guns in his lap again.
“I was very excited to have been dispatched to Caelondia at last, and I wasted no time in trying to integrate myself into the society. I tried all the food, I listened to all the music, I read all the books I could get my hands on… and I met many, many people.” He twisted the gun in his hand, back and forth against the cloth. “One of which was a young woman around my own age. She was… beautiful. Gorgeous honey hair and eyes like the sea. She used to laugh and accuse me of being a poet whenever I said as much. I waited a long time before I admitted my feelings towards her, and of course she already knew them. I waited even longer to officially court her, and even longer than that to finally ask for her hand in marriage.”
The dying embers glinted off the pair of pistols.
“We were married in the Hanging Gardens. It was a small affair. Only her sister was present as a witness, and a few of the friends I had met during my time in Caelondia. My family was not able to attend, but we had made plans to visit them after the ceremony. That was one of the happiest nights of my life.”
Kid turned to stare directly into the flames. “The next morning, I woke up to find that the Calamity had happened.”
Maka watched the shadows play on his face, throwing into sharp relief the pale skin, the tired eyes. She saw his hands tighten their grip on the weapons in his lap, almost squeezing the triggers. He finally moved his gaze to her face.
“Don’t waste any more time, Maka.”
The sun was high overhead the next day when Maka laid out one of the blankets they had brought to the Bastion and flopped down onto her stomach to read a book. It was not a book she might have chosen for herself -- a history of Caelondian Mancers -- but it was one of the few that they had managed to scavenge. Stella perched on her bare feet, swaying slightly as she held them aloft. The Pecker seemed to confuse her toes for worms, and would poke at them with her beak, eliciting soft giggles from Maka as she read.
The day slipped through her fingers as she slowly turned the pages of her book, and it was growing dark by the time Stein called her for supper. Their meal was a haunch of Lunkhead that she and Kid had managed to take down a few days before she burned her hands, so they had cooked it extra well to be sure it was safe to eat.
“We’ll need more meat,” Stein said, tapping his fork against the tough, leathery hunk of meat on his plate. “I think our patients are finally ready to go back out into the world.” He pointed the utensil at Soul in a condescending manner. “You watch your swings, but you should be all right.” He turned the fork towards Maka. “You should be okay, but be mindful of your fingers. If they start to bleed or pus, return home immediately.”
Soul turned to her in the first time in days, and looked into her face. Keeping his eyes locked on hers, he nodded. “We’ll be sure to.”
Maka felt something turn over in her stomach that she was almost positive had nothing to do with the near rancid meat they had just eaten (though she couldn’t be sure).
Stein reached over and patted Kid’s knee. “And we’ll tend to some of the tasks we’ve let go undone.”
Kid jumped, startled out of his reverie. The look he shot Stein was almost cold, but his features quickly smoothed into more neutral lines. “Yes, of course,” he said quietly.
Maka helped gather the dirty dishes and watched Kid walk off with them; it was his turn to clean them. Stella chirped happily and leapt from Maka’s shoulder to glide to Kid’s, and Stein wandered away, throwing the scraps of meat he hadn’t eaten into the fire. Soul made no move to leave, so Maka drifted back to the blanket where she had left her book.
It was too dark to read, and she was too far away from the fire to use its light, so she sat with her knees pulled up to her chest, staring into the sky and counting the stars. Something shifted in her chest, making it feel as expansive as the space above her and as small as one small fist clasped over her heart.
She heard Soul stir from beside the fire. “Soul,” she called softly, and he came.
The stars burned after images into her eyes as she moved them to Soul’s face. He was standing over her again, but he was none of the angry, tense lines from before, only soft and waiting. She patted the blanket next to her, and he sat down heavily.
They sat in silence for what felt like hours. During that time, the gap between their shoulders closed and they leaned against each other, watching the constellations turn slowly overhead.
“I’m sorry,” she murmured into the dark. Soul stiffened slightly against her, but she pressed on. “For everything. For anything. I’m sorry I worried you. I’m sorry I brought up the guitar. I’m sorry I broke our partnership.”
He shifted, slowly easing himself around until he was facing her, leaning against his hand and gazing into her face. “You didn’t break nothin’,” he said quietly. Maka dropped her eyes to his face, and the blinking lights in her vision freckled across his skin. “You didn’t… Maka.”
She twisted her fingers together in front of her, but did not speak.
“That guitar… was my brother’s. I found it, same as you found your father’s journal. I was just about to give up hope of finding any more survivors. We’d found Kid a ways back, but not since then… and then there was Wes’s guitar. No Wes. Just his guitar. We didn’t have much, the two of us, growing up. Ma was sick all the time, Pa was a no show. But he had that guitar. Taught me to play it. He enlisted for the Wall and I followed. I signed up for another rotation and he went home to take care of Ma. Then the Calamity… didn’t know what to think. But there it was, just sitting there in the grass.” His breath smelled of the dinner they just ate. “Looked like he had just left it.”
His face was close to hers.
“Something, well… something broke. In me. I think it was then that I knew I’d never see him again, never see anyone again. I just sat down and started playing. It was no funeral procession, but it felt like the only thing I could do. I think I was just trying to say goodbye to him, to everyone… and then you came stumbling out of the woods like some sort of vision.”
She felt herself smile.
“It was like my singing had summoned the dead.”
His bangs brushed against her forehead, and she leaned imperceptibly closer until they were touching. Maka closed her eyes. She could feel his warm breath tickling her face.
“But apparently it was the livin’.”
“Please,” she whispered, and she felt their noses bump. He let out another breath.
“I dig my hole, you build a wall
I dig my hole, you build a wall
One day that wall is gonna fall
Gonna build that city on a hill
Gonna build that city on a hill
Someday those tears are gonna spill
So build that wall and build it strong
'Cause we'll be there before too long
Gonna build that wall up to the sky
Gonna build that wall up to the sky
Someday your bird is gonna fly
Gonna build that wall until it's done
Gonna build that wall until it's done
But now you've got nowhere to run
So build that wall and build it strong
'Cause we'll be there before too long”
His rich voice washed over her even as the night air chilled her skin. She lifted a tentative hand to his chin and allowed her fingers to trace patterns against his jaw. Trailing them lightly down his throat, she could feel the vibrations of his song running through her bones. The last note dropped to a rumble in his chest, then faded between them as a whisper, as a promise.
“I’m sorry I got you hurt,” Maka breathed against his lips, trying to fight through the haze that was threatening to engulf her mind, feeling as if it were important to say this, she had meant to say this too. She ran a hand down his chest, feeling the heat of his skin through the fabric, feeling the raised bumps of his stitches against her fingers, catching them as she moved her hand across the thick muscles held together with thread.
He reached up with his free hand to hold hers; he stopped her right over his heart. “Maka,” he said. She waited. “Maka.” Their noses touched again, and she felt herself tilting her head every so lightly. “I’d do it again,” he whispered.
“I know you would.”
Their lips brushed, and electricity seemed to course through her. Maka felt it strike like lightning in the pit of her stomach, igniting a fire that warmed her from the inside out. Soul’s lips were dry and chapped, warm and rough. She pressed hers against them, feeling lightheaded.
His hand moved from hers over his scar to tuck a loose strand of her hair behind her ear. It was gentle, hesitant, and Maka smiled without meaning to, breaking the kiss. He pressed forward, a smile of his own across his face, and his hand slid to the back of her neck, holding her as lightly as he held Stella.
So she curled her fingers against his chest and kissed him deeper, feeling his hand run down her back and sending shivers down her spine. Their lips moved apart and she peppered the corners of his mouth with light kisses; she felt him shudder.
Time seemed to stop. Maka wasn’t sure when they had ended up lying on the ground, but she found herself draped over Soul, who lay on his back, white hair spread across the blanket, glowing in the moonlight. She tasted his tongue slowly. He treated every kiss from her as a gift, and she reveled in each sigh that escaped from him between her lips. Her eyelashes felt heavy as she opened her eyes to smile down at him, looking into his to see the stars reflected there, over and over again.
The twine held the Anklegator’s horn to the Brusher’s Pike, creating a wicked scythe. It felt like the perfect balance in Maka’s hands.
Stein was actually awake to see them off, reminding them cheerfully that if they didn’t want to be his patients anymore, they needed to behave themselves. Kid was nowhere to be seen, so they asked Stein to tell him goodbye for them.
Maka landed a little less gracefully than she would have liked, but nevertheless was on her feet by the time Soul arrived behind her.
“Where do you think we are?”
Soul got to his feet, rolling a shoulder with the opposite hand. “Eurgh,” he said, wrinkling his nose, “smells like Jawson’s Bog.”
The vegetation in the bog was low growing and damp, with pungent scents wafting into their noses. There were Stab Weeds growing through the muck, but they were often overtaken by large, bulbous plants oozing slime out of their porous surfaces. The air was thick with pollen and insects, and Maka waved a hand in front of her face to try to clear them.
Soul stepped forward and slipped a hand into hers. She turned an amused grin to him.
“You’re sweet, but we can’t fight holding hands.”
“I know,” he said gruffly, but his ears were aflame. She squeezed his fingers and after another moment, they broke apart. Maka felt a fluttering in her stomach.
They tried to make their way through the bog, but it was extremely slow-going; the mud sucked at their ankles and dragged at their heels. More than once, they had to help free one another. Maka found herself in such a sticky situation that Soul couldn’t even get close to her to help. He was forced to extend the end of his hammer to her to grab onto while he yanked from drier ground. She was released with a loud shluck!
“All right there?” he asked, steadying her as she regained her balance.
“I’m fine,” she replied, amazed at how at home she already felt in his arms.
As the sun climbed higher in the sky, the partners grew more and more frustrated. Their arms were a red, splotchy mess of bug bites and fingernail scratches as they tried to combat the itching, and the damp air clung to their hair. They were tired from fighting against their feet all morning, and Maka was just about to open her mouth to say they should give up and return to the Bastion when something crashed in the bushes up ahead.
“Lunkhead!” Soul shouted, and like putting on an old glove, they seamlessly dropped into their fighting stances. The Lunkhead gave a piggish snort and began to gallop away from them, and they gave chase.
The Lunkhead squealed as it tried to escape, but its thick, heavy limbs were not made for speed. Maka held her scythe aloft, ready to slice at its vulnerable neck as soon as it was exposed. It swerved to the right, and Soul followed while Maka veered left. It almost ran into huge purple plant, but dodged at the last second. Soul swung his hammer and just missed the Lunkhead, slamming it into the belly of the plant.
As they had planned, the Lunkhead ran into Maka’s waiting arms. She managed to slide the blade of her scythe below the crest of the Lunkhead’s thick armored skull and drag the sharp edge against the creature’s neck. The scythe slid through sinew as easily as a knife through butter, and the Lunkhead thrashed weakly as its blood splashed onto the ground. Maka couldn’t help but sigh in relief; they desperately needed the meat. She knelt down and put a hand on the Lunkhead’s back for a moment before turning triumphantly to Soul.
“We’ll eat something aside from onions tonight!” Maka called cheerfully.
Soul was standing next to the purple plant, which had broken open under the heavy fall of his hammer. It was leaking a milky white substance and releasing a sickly yellow cloud of gas, wreathing Soul’s head. Maka took a step forward, but faltered.
Soul’s face was stretched into a crazed grin, lips pulled back harshly over pointed teeth. His eyes were glazed, unfocused, and there was no hint of the man she knew.
“Soul?” she asked uncertainly. A high-pitched giggle fell from his taut lips, and Maka felt her blood turn to ice.
She tightened her grip on her scythe, but made no move towards her partner; she watched the noxious cloud dissipate slowly as he swayed on the spot.
“What a great audience,” he mumbled under his breath.
“Soul? What’s wrong?”
He cocked his head at her, eyes focused on something far away. “The demon says we ought to dance.”
“What demon? Soul, what’s happening to you?”
“Or,” he said, as if he had not heard her, “I should swallow you whole.” He shifted on his feet, moving his weight back and forth like a predator stalking its prey. Maka felt a chill run down her spine. Soul reached a hand up to his lips and tugged them sideways.
As soon as the poisonous gas faded from sight, Maka shot forward. She dropped her scythe and the movement seemed to startle Soul, and he stumbled. Reaching out, she wrapped her fingers around the end of his hammer once again and yanked as hard as she could. Wresting it from his grip, she flung it down next to her weapon, but doing so had knocked him off balance and he toppled onto her, wheezing odd giggles all the while.
They fell in a tangled heap, his face scandalously close to her skirts, but his eyes rolled back into his head as he said, “Blue flames light up the dark.”
She flipped him over so that his head rested in her lap facing upwards. A thin line of drool rolled down his cheek and she used her sleeve to wipe it away.
“I won’t play for you,” Soul said in a scratchy voice.
“Soul!” she called, searching his eyes for a flicker of recognition.
“Maka’s underwater again.”
“Soul, I’m right here.” Maka fought to keep her voice steady.
Without warning, Soul’s limbs started thrashing and flailing, and she struggled to hold onto him. Wrapping her arms around his shoulders, Maka tried to keep him still, but the tremors in his body were making him shake like a leaf in the wind.
His fingers suddenly wrapped around her arm like a vice. “Whaddya say to a guy who’s seen too much?” he asked harshly, his red-rimmed eyes boring into hers.
“What if he swallows me?”
He turned to look into her face, his eyes bloodshot and suddenly focused on her like a laser. “Quite the treacherous demon, aren’t you?”
Maka felt bile rise in her throat, but she held on tightly to him and lowered her forehead to meet his. “Down deep, down deep…” he whispered, and she clutched him closer.
She would never know how long they stayed that way. She only knew she watched Soul’s body convulse and grow still, shake and shiver and sweat, twist and turn as his fingers scrabbled against her hold. Soul’s voice rose and fell, at times harsh and gravelly and not his own, other times soft and childlike.
Finally, she heard him say in a cracked voice, “Maka?”
Her eyes snapped open and she peered down into his face. He looked exhausted, but his eyes were clear.
She let out a dry sob she didn’t know she was holding back and squeezed him even tighter. He let out a chuff and she released her death grip, a watery smile stretching across her face.
“You’re back,” she breathed with relief.
“Don’t know what happened,” he croaked. “Don’t know where I went, but it sure as heck weren’t here. Thank you.”
“For what?” she asked.
“For pulling me out.”
Maka shook her head and cupped his cheek. “I didn’t do anything,” she protested.
“But I heard your voice. I went towards the light… and there you were.”
He lifted a hand to hold over hers, pressing it against his skin. Maka smiled and leaned down to brush her lips lightly against his, feeling a thrill run through her as they made contact. “Let’s go home,” she said, and he nodded, forehead still against hers.
She stood up, her legs sore and prickly under her. Soul was shaky, but seemed all right. He took a deep breath.
“I heard a rumor,” he said, after they had gathered their weapons and started walking towards the Skyway (avoiding touching as many plants as possible), “that men go mad in Jawson’s Bog. Thought it meant it was lonely out here, but I’m startin’ to believe they meant it literally.”
Maka chuckled weakly. “I guess they did.”
“Lucky that didn’t happen to me.”
She gave him a half amused, half exasperated look. “What would you call that, then?”
“Oh I went mad, and the like. But I knew I was safe. Men who came before didn’t have you to take them back again.”
This time, her hand found his.
Maka turned around as soon as she climbed to her feet to watch Soul ride the Skyway into the Bastion behind her. He hit the ground with no more or less grace than usual, but she still helped him to his feet.
“Nice landing,” she teased lightly.
“Yeah, well,” he said, looking up as he straightened, “what can--” His eyes suddenly snapped to something over her shoulder and his arm shot out to grab her shoulder. He swung her towards him and she pivoted, the two of them falling immediately into their battle stances.
At first she couldn’t make out what was wrong; the dark shapes of the Bastion’s structures were hard to discern through the falling darkness, but as her eyes adjusted more, her heart leapt to her throat, and she could see exactly what was wrong.
The buildings they had so carefully constructed were lopsided, broken, holes blasted through the painstakingly scavenged wood. There were rough, uneven patches of grass where it had been burned away.
And the Monument. It was cracked open like an egg, the Cores inside it exposed like a dull, colorless yolk. It was as if someone had exposed the pale underbelly of the Bastion, flipped upside down in submission.
“Stein!” she called out. “Kid!”
“Shh!” said Soul. “We don’t know what’s waiting.”
They moved forward cautiously, and Maka felt a surge of dread flow through her. The damage looked even worse up close, and she could not shake the feeling that she was walking through a graveyard.
Soul and Maka approached the fire pit, but stopped suddenly as a dark lump in front of them stirred. It let out an inhuman moan. Soul raised his hammer. It groaned again, but this time Maka recognized it.
“Stein!” she cried, rushing forward and falling to her knees. “Soul, light the fire, we need to see him.” Soul disappeared to look for tinder while Maka gently lifted Stein to a sitting position against one of the logs. He grimaced, holding a hand to his stomach. “Are you hurt?” Maka asked, struggling to keep the fear out of her voice.
“I can’t deny I’ve been better,” he grunted. There was a clatter as Soul haphazardly dumped an armful of wood into the fire pit, then got to work hastily to align them so they would light easily. Maka ran a tentative hand over Stein’s scalp to feel for any blood. Her fingers came away slightly sticky.
“My head doesn’t concern me. It’s my gut that worries me.”
A gentle whooshing signaled the fire catching, and the warm orange glow slowly spread across the older man. He grinned painfully at Maka; his glasses were cracked.
Soul shuffled forward to scrutinize the man’s face. “Where’s Kid?” he demanded. “What happened?”
Stein held out his hand. “This is for you,” he said, and for once the light from the fire did not turn the glass of his spectacles opaque, and she could see his eyes. They were old and sad and knowing.
As she stared down into her hand, there was a moment where Maka was almost sure that she could hear the gods’ cruel laughter, because one broken home seemed not to be enough for them, and the curling gentle script that spelled the same thing written on another letter all those years ago stared up at her, like the ghost of a laugh across time.
The Calamity happened for a reason. The journal of your father showed me the truth.
The Caelondians and the Ura were enemies for centuries. But even though relations were improving, the Caelondians decided to look for a way to destroy the Ura permanently. Your father figured it out. And he worked with a man named Dr. Franken Stein to turn it into a reality.
And they caused the Calamity.
It was designed to destroy the Tazal Terminals, the homeland of the Ura. It was meant to kill an entire nation of people. Men, women, children. Your people. Stein worked to put an end to a culture.
When you disappeared that day, I went searching for you. I discovered something else; I ran into an Ura woman. She told me that a handful of the Ura survived the Calamity, but the Tazal Terminals have been horribly damaged.
We have all been betrayed by the Caelondians. They can no longer be trusted. Stein is the reason we have lost our home, our families. He set out to destroy every last Ura using the Calamity.
The Calamity failed, but I will not.
I await you in the east.
Maka read the letter out loud to the deafening silence around the campfire. Her voice was steady even as the words fell like stones from her mouth, burying Stein under the mountain of accusations. He only smiled thinly at her, watching her with a kindness in his face she had never seen there before. Soul began to shake next to her, and she glanced over at him; his lips were curled into a sneer, his hands balled into fists. When Maka finished, she lowered the paper shakily, meeting the doctor’s gaze.
Soul began to shout, but Maka’s heartbeat pounded in her ears too loudly to make out the words; it was as if she really were underwater. Stein closed his eyes against the onslaught, nodding occasionally. He was smiling serenely, which only seemed to make Soul yell louder.
Finally Soul grew silent, choosing to glower instead. Maka opened her mouth, but Stein beat her to it.
“Yes, I knew your father. It took me a little while to recognize you; I never met your mother, and I believe you must look just like her. Your father always did such a good job separating his work and home life, though I was aware he was less adept at separating, ah, home and play.” He opened his eyes slowly. “And what Kid says is true.”
“So what happened?” Soul demanded.
“He summoned the other Ura; I don’t know how. But they arrived only about an hour after you left. They attacked me, and everything we’ve built. Kid showed them the way.” He turned to glance at Soul, whose face was still cold and unyielding. “I think he waited until you were out of the way so the Bastion would be defenseless. They destroyed the Monument. The Bastion will fail if we don’t repair it.”
Soul rubbed a hand across his jaw again, looking away.
“Stein,” Maka said, finally speaking. “Why?”
A slightly panicked look crossed his face. He glanced between the two of them, as if searching for a sympathetic person.
“We… it was just supposed to be in case the relations fell apart again. It wasn’t supposed to be put into place. I didn’t realize… it was an excellent experiment, to try to create something that could have a concentrated effect.”
“It wasn’t concentrated,” spat Soul. “It killed Caelondians and Ura alike. And even if it had worked like it was supposed to, how in the hell do you get off thinking that’s the right way to go about things? You wanna fight ‘em fair, that’s what we built the Wall for, that’s what our soldiers are for. You wanna destroy the whole thing, you’re just… you’re--”
“A murderer,” Maka said quietly. “You and my father both.”
Soul turned to her, but she kept her gaze steady on Stein’s face, which had drained of all its color. “That wasn’t… I didn’t…”
“You were conducting an experiment,” she murmured. “You didn’t think about that part.”
Stein shook his head slowly, as if mesmerized by her gaze. He stared at her with a plea in his eyes, a look of supplication settled into his features, begging for solace. But Maka’s face was stony and she heaved a sigh, getting to her feet.
“We need to tend to your wounds,” she said, looking towards Soul, who stood quickly to join her. “Let’s get the materials. I think they’re in the forge still.”
“Wait, Maka,” Stein said, fear in his voice. “Don’t go there!”
“Why?” she asked, gazing down into his tortured face, gaunt in the firelight.
“Your… you… Stella…”
He didn’t get to finish, because Maka was racing away from him, Soul hot on her heels. A faint buzzing noise was in her ears again, but she paid no attention, only listening for the sounds of Stella chirping quietly to herself, waiting for her to return.
Her vision was still adjusted to the glow of the fire, so when she burst over the threshold of the forge, it took her a few moments to spot the small red heap amidst all the damage. She let out a strangled cry and fell to her knees, slowly reaching for the small, broken bundle of scarlet plumage. Soul put a hand on her shoulder as tears slipped down her face and dripped onto the tiny body of her baby bird.
Repairs were slow. Soul and Maka moved Stein to the forge, after they had cleared it of enough debris to make room to lay him flat. He had been quiet and compliant, allowing each of them to support an arm as he hobbled there slowly.
Soul dug a small hole near the shrine that Kid had erected and later tore down, and Maka gently lowered the small bundle that had been Stella into it. She had wrapped the bird in her headscarf, and they placed a small white stone over the grave. Maka’s hair, no longer bound by her bandana, lifted gently in the wind as she stood quietly by the tiny mound of dirt.
The Cores that were so vital to running the Bastion seemed to be few and far between now, and they were forced to search farther and farther each time. The Wilds were thick and unyielding, reluctant to give up their prizes.
Maka and Soul took turns leaving the Bastion to search for more supplies. It was harder this time; some of the places the Skyway took them to had already been picked clean by them earlier. While one partner wandered, the other repaired, both the broken buildings and their wounded doctor.
Stein had been bloodied and bruised all over, but it was his side that was most badly damaged. It wasn’t like Soul’s wound, open and gaping, but it was deep, penetrating into the muscle. They wrapped it and applied the salve as best they could; they were both experts at it now.
As the days crawled by, each a blur filled with exhaustion and frustration, the Bastion reformed little by little. Everything was a haze of cooking and cleaning and changing bandages and hammering and sawing and slicing and carrying and killing, and it was only in one moment of peace one morning that Maka was able to look up and make up her mind.
She strode into the forge, eyes steely and determined. Stein sat on the floor and watched as she gathered things into her arms. Maka grabbed one of their packs, a narrow-minded focus tunneling her vision.
“Maka,” the kowtowed Stein murmured. She ignored him.
The fire crackled in the hearth, the only sound in the tiny building.
“Maka, I need to tell you something.”
She pulled on another long coat.
“Maka, it’s about your father.”
Maka turned to him, but her mouth was set in a thin line. “You can’t stop me,” she said.
“But you need to know. Maka. Your father… he never wanted to be there.”
Her features were carved of stone.
“He… wouldn’t say why he was there, only that he had to be. But I think he was trying to keep you safe.”
There was a bone-tired weariness in his voice, a hollow echo of a triumphant yell. His glasses were perched on his nose, but they had been unable to find any replacements for him, and he could only see properly out of one eye. He tilted his head to turn the clear one towards her. Like a child being chastised, there was a chastised look to it.
“I don’t want you to get hurt. Your father and I… weren’t friends, exactly but… he was probably the closest I had to one.”
Maka closed her eyes.
“To me, it was an opportunity to conduct one of the largest grand scale experiments possible. I had been given a rare gift. I never thought I would have the chance like what was being offered.” His eyes seemed to be watching something far away. “The Calamity was meant to destroy the entrances to the Tazal Terminals. They’re all underground, you see. Miles upon miles of tunnels. The Calamity was designed to seal them. To trap the Ura.”
The knuckles of her fists were white.
“To see humans in such a controlled environment… think of the possibilities. You would be able to introduce any number of variables to discover the reactions they might elicit in people. Or you could just allow them to exist in the dark, watching as their society degraded and they turned feral once more. Think of the things you could learn about the rise and decay of human beings. Imagine watching the Ura, who always so worshipped the gods, face a reality of such jaded unfairness that they might have to abandon their faith. Imagine watching them deal with their inability to trade their goods, when their entire economy is built on that fact. A scientist’s dream.”
His voice had a wistful, nostalgic quality to it. He looked both incredibly young and impossibly old.
“It was meant to prevent a war. Kill them softly. Save so many Caelondian lives. Just as a… last resort. But it... quite literally, I should say... blew up in our faces.”
Maka pulled more twine out of her pocket and bound her hair again.
“Maka,” Stein said, but she did not stop. “There’s more you need to know.”
She slung the pack over her shoulder and moved towards the door.
“Are you going to leave without saying goodbye to him?” Stein called after her, a note of desperation in his voice.
She froze in the doorway, spine rigid. Something in her head buzzed, but she ran through her list again, why it had to be this way.
“Yes,” she replied quietly, and stepped outside.
The Calamity had damaged the Skyway, but she was still able to direct it somewhat, and Maka was flung from destination to destination, watching the decaying remnants of her old world flash by her in a whirl of gray and green. But she kept chasing the sun, farther and farther as it climbed higher and higher in the sky. A chill settled in her bones as she rode the winds, her eyes watering.
Finally, she landed in a dune of snow, sharp pricks of pain in her hands as she touched down. Maka stood. The icy wind whipped around her, howling angrily, and she shivered. She wrapped her shawl around her more tightly and gripped her scythe.
The Skyway behind her was dull and cracked; she was amazed it had worked. There was something about it that made her suspect this was the end of the line.
Her toes began to freeze as she trudged through the thick snow, her leather boots making for poor insulation. Her shoulders were hunched against the biting wind, and her nose dripped freely down her freezing face. The pack against her back swung heavily, hitting her with each plodding step she took.
As Maka walked slowly through the freezing snow, every part of her body cold and aching, she began to notice the haunting similarity between her circumstances when the Calamity first struck and her current one. Walking aimlessly, searching for any other survivor she possibly could find, pain shooting through her like lightning; she started to wonder if any of it had been real. Had she really been to the Bastion, or had she actually been walking for so long she had finally reached the end of the world, and her dying brain had created an elaborate fantasy for her to ease her suffering? Perhaps the Veiled Widow was playing one last trick on one last mortal…
There was a grinding noise ahead of her; Maka remembered flashing white teeth and a long jagged scar. Her numb fingers came to life around the shaft of her scythe, and she swung it in front of her just in time to clip the wing of a fat, white bird with a cruel, curved beak. The creature let out a squawk, a crimson smile appearing on its shoulder, stark against the white feathers and the snow, and it clicked its beak angrily and shook its tail. A rattling noise issued from the bulbous appendage, but before Maka could get a good look, the creature dove under the snow and disappeared, the grinding noise now directly under her feet.
Now it was coming from all directions, and Maka knew what would happen. The birds sprang from the snow in showers of ice, rattling and cawing, and she swung her scythe, again and again. The hot blood hissed on the snow as it fell.
Without warning, something crashed into her shoulder, and Maka fell to her knees with a cry of anguish. The birds had disappeared again, only to be replaced by colorful human warriors, their garments bright and their stares cold. One of them had cracked the butt of a rifle over her shoulder, and now pressed the barrel of it between her breasts. He spoke to her in a harsh, guttural voice. It took Maka a moment to recognize the language.
“Kid!” She spoke in Ura, unrefined and unpracticed. “Take me to Kid. Please.”
Yellow eyes slid over her, taking in her Caelondia garb, her Caelondian accent.
“I need to see Kid.”
The soldier holding the gun to her chest nudged upwards, and she stood, arm still aching. He nodded forward, so she turned away from him and began to walk. She sensed rather than felt the gun between her shoulderblades.
Maka walked slowly, feeling sluggish and chilled; the sweat from her fight was drying on her skin and she felt the cold in her bones. The occasional jab from the end of a gun kept her awake, but she could feel a deep fatigue roll over her. The Ura surrounding her seemed not to notice until her steps began to falter, but their only response was more sharp pokes.
The landscape changed gradually. Tall black spires of twisted rock pierced the sky, like the claws of the Anklegator reaching for the heavens. There were more grinding noises underfoot, indicative of the ivory birds burrowing below the surface. Maka felt faint.
They crested a hill and a sweeping view of a hastily constructed encampment met Maka’s eyes. There was a large bonfire in the middle, surrounded by numerous low structures wrapped over and over with large canvases. A path down the hill wended its way into the camp and the Ura descended, keeping a watchful eye on their prisoner. Two guards stood by the entrance, large spears uncrossing as their group approached.
“Kid,” she whispered again. “I need to see Kid.”
They marched her towards one of the larger structures and ushered her inside. It was like walking into a bathhouse, and Maka was overwhelmed by the sudden rush of heat. She felt drowsy and unresponsive.
Snapping into action, she held her scythe aloft, staring blindly at Kid, who sat behind a large table, watching her unperturbedly.
“I hope you took it as a sign of good faith that your weapon was not taken from you; you recognize, of course, you could have been disarmed.”
His eyes were cold, calculating. Gone were the spark of mirth that accompanied one of Stein’s terrible jokes, the reluctant grin over Soul’s swears, the cheeks flushed with pride over Maka pronouncing an Ura word correctly on the first try. Thin lines spread from the corners of his mouth, and he looked older than he had ever before. But he sat perfectly straight in the high-backed chair and his fingers were folded neatly on the smooth surface of the desk.
Maka approached cautiously, lowering her scythe. There were papers and charts spread across the table, but Kid swept them together as she drew nearer and indicated that she should sit on the small stool across from his desk. She did so, her gaze never leaving his.
“How did you get this place?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Why’d they give you such a nice place?”
Kid untented his fingers to lean forward, resting his arms underneath him as he observed Maka. “My father was a well-known man,” he said. “Not to mention, when the prodigal son returns with news of what the Calamity was and the location of the man who caused it, he is welcomed with open arms.”
She felt a wave of nausea. “Do they… did you tell them--”
“About your father? And his role? Surely you know he was coerced.”
“Stein told me.”
“I figured that he would. Yes, it appears your father did not choose to work on the project willingly. His notes indicated as much. It seems in retribution, he planned revenge.” Kid reached under the desk and brought out the worn leather journal, setting it on the table with a light thump. Maka had the wild urge to throw it outside the tent into the snow, but the damage it caused was already done. Kid tapped a long finger against the cover. “Your father installed a failsafe in the device. He specifically rigged it so that it would backfire. I suppose that was the best he could do,” Kid added bitterly.
Maka turned to look over her shoulder. “Do the Ura know?”
“About your father’s involvement?”
“An Ura man who did something under duress that damaged the Caelondians deserves to die a hero,” was all he said.
Maka watched him carefully, the slab of wood between them feeling like a cavernous gulf. “So what are you going to do?”
“We are going to put an end to this war,” he said. “It has gone on for centuries too long. Neither the Caelondians nor the Ura ever seemed capable of forgiving the other, even in our moments of great peace, even if we exchanged a hundred diplomats.” He ran a hand through his hair, ruffling the thin white ornamental stripes that adorned his head. As he pulled away, they lay slightly askew.
“How?” she asked her tightly clasped fingers. “How are you going to end it?”
Kid stared at her, but she wouldn’t look up. “You know as well as I,” he said, and voice was gentle, conciliatory, even pleading, “that the Ura and the Caelondians cannot exist in this world together. So we will do what we must to survive.”
She stood up so quickly that Kid jumped. Her eyes flashed as she stared down at him. He frowned, but allowed her to speak.
“I won’t let you,” she hissed venomously. “You won’t hurt them.”
“Maka,” he said, and she felt a surge of hatred for her name, used by Soul and Stein and Kid over and over again, to placate her, to ask her to do something, to ask her not to do something; if this was the end of the world and names were funny nowadays, why did they insist upon using hers?
“They saved you,” she whispered, hands planted on the desk, looming over Kid. “They took you in! They sacrificed their own supplies to keep you alive! And you--”
“I will do what I need to to protect the last of my people. You dare talk to me about sacrifice? I gave the Caelondians everything! I left everything behind in the Tazal Terminals! I never even got to say goodbye to my father! I came with nothing but the clothes on my back to make peace with a people that wanted me dead.” He was standing too, snarling into her face. “The only shred of happiness I took for myself was a wife, and she died in my arms the night the Calamity struck. I never got to mourn her, I never got to mourn my father. My people’s ancestral home was blown skyward and covered with snow. We lie exposed like an open wound on the surface of the world, and our hatred festers like a sore. Every shrine we built, every home we carved from stone, every tunnel we dug, it’s all gone. But I am not. I will avenge my people and prevent the Caelondians from ever doing us harm again.”
“You’ll punish someone for something they haven’t done yet?”
“Isn’t that what the Caelondians did to us?”
Maka felt a warm tear track slide down her face, and she brushed it away. Kid’s lips were curled in a grimace and he leaned away to stare at the canvas wall.
“I offered you a chance to come here to be with your people. I didn’t want to see an Ura be hurt in the ensuing chaos. You have obviously made your choice. Whether we agree or disagree, whether you like me or not, is immaterial. We are countrymen and will try to make the best of this.”
“I came to stop you.”
His gaze returned to her face. The golden eyes studied her, switching back and forth from one side of her face to the other. She wasn’t sure what he was looking for, but after a moment he looked away again, as if he found her unsatisfactory. “Maka,” he repeated, and he sounded almost sad. “We have over fifty soldiers. You have no hope against that.” He trailed off in something like a mournful lament, a funeral song.
Like a spirit, Maka wandered the grounds of the camp while Kid and the other Ura made preparations to attack the Bastion. Kid had been right; the camp was full of Ura soldiers, and even if she disarmed a few of them, there would still be plenty left to stop her and storm the Bastion afterwards.
She laughed hollowly; there were plenty of War Machetes at her disposal now.
The Ura soldiers sometimes tried to talk to her, but their speech was too fast, their accents too thick, and she could barely make out any words. They spoke rapidly from behind their scarves, arms flailing in an attempt to pantomime what they meant before giving up and walking away, shaking their heads. They lacked the patience of a well-meaning Kid, sitting eagerly by the fire in the Bastion, helping her sound out the words, used to her Caelondian way of speaking. It had never occurred to Maka to ask whether he had been teaching his fiancee how to speak Ura only weeks before he had started teaching her. Now she didn’t have the chance.
After their initial meeting, Kid had dismissed her, allowing her to go where she pleased. He had pointed her in the direction of an unused tent and told her she would be allowed to stay there, then disappeared back into the depths of his shelter. No one visited her there; the other Ura eyed her suspiciously and Kid steadfastly avoided her.
So as she wandered the ground of the camp, she was largely left alone; the Ura were too busy planning on how to destroy the only place that felt like home to her. It surprised her, how much she missed the Bastion. Maka yearned for the lush green grass, the smell of onions cooking in the pot, Stein’s wheezy chuckles as he tried to laugh and smoke at the same time, Soul’s hands on her face.
And Kid. Maka couldn’t deny how much the Bastion was missing when he left. There was a gaping hole in the heart of it, and the campfire had seemed to give off less warmth without the gentle lilt of his voice to guide her own through the cadences of speaking Ura. As she sat in her tent, watching listlessly as the soldiers held up maps and argued loudly with one another, Maka wondered if that had been the real reason she had gone after him.
But there was nothing she could do. She couldn’t stop them, she couldn’t bring Kid home; she felt hopeless, more hopeless than she had at any time after the Calamity had struck. Maka would watch her people destroy her other people, and she would be helpless to stop it.
The days crawled by, each one bringing only more icy winds and watery sunlight. Maka haunted the Tazal Terminals, feeling a growing pit in her stomach as each sunrise blended into each sunset.
Of all the survivors, her mother was not one of them.
She had notched six marks onto the main pole of her tiny tent to count the days when Maka heard shouting outside the canvas flaps. She felt sluggish; she wasn’t sure if she had slept at all the night before. With fumbling fingers, she tied the laces of her boots and slipped on the layers of clothing she had scavenged.
Ura soldiers were running back and forth from their large armory, pointing at each other and speaking in rapid Ura. They ignored Maka, who gathered her Anklegator scythe into her hands and trotted through the center of the camp. The bonfire had been allowed to sink to embers, and Maka felt a chill run down her spine that had nothing to do with the cold.
“What is happening?” she asked, her tongue tripping from both the unfamiliar language and from the lack of use. The burly Ura man shouldered her aside gruffly and she stumbled. She watched him storm off, then turned to the large tent in the middle of the camp.
“Kid, what’s going on?” she demanded, flinging the canvas flaps open. She was startled to see a group of Ura soldiers surrounding the table all look up as she entered, their stares as cold a the winds that swirled around their ankles.
There was a flash, and Maka felt a prick against her neck as one of the women held a small knife to her throat, and the image of the Lunkhead hanging upside down being drained of its blood sprang to her mind. The woman’s face was pock-marked and scarred, skin leathery from the biting winds. She spoke angrily, twisting the knife to draw a sliver of blood.
Kid shouted something in Ura, but Maka didn’t miss the fear in his voice behind the command. The woman didn’t move. He repeated himself, and she snarled, spitting on the ground near Maka’s feet before moving away. She took her place next to the table again, but Kid looked visibly shaken. There was a tension that hung over the room, and Maka stepped back against the canvas walls of the tent.
Waving his hands, Kid addressed the Ura soldiers, jabbing insistently at the parchments on the desk in front of him. He sounded authoritative, but Maka detected a slight waver in his voice. The soldiers listened with growing impatience, until finally Kid seemed to dismiss them, because they swept from the tent without another word. The woman who had attacked her gave Maka another scathing look as they exited.
“What’s going on?” she asked, coming closer to Kid.
He looked harried. “We’re being attacked,” he said shortly.
“The only person to make it back after the attack said it was a demon.”
Maka said nothing, but felt a tickle at the back of her neck as the hairs stood on end.
Kid rubbed at his temples. “I’ve sent rescue parties after the wounded, but they are angry. They don’t know what to think.”
She said nothing.
“I don’t understand. I don’t know what could have the kind of power to blow up the mountainside, which is what the man claimed before he passed out. I need to find out what’s going on.” He turned to her, his face grim. “And I need you to come with me.”
Kid gave her a look that was hard to read. “Do you really think the Ura trust you here alone?”
The thin line of blood down her neck was answer enough.
The Ura escorted her out of camp much the same way they had escorted her in, except this time Kid was with her. He was agitated, his colorful robes billowing around him as he barked orders. Maka couldn’t help but be impressed; leadership suited him well. He struck an imposing figure in the snow, the sharp angles of his face in harsh relief against the white.
But the Ura soldiers didn’t seem to think so. Maka could not help but notice the hostile glares they threw at him as they slowly obeyed his orders, chafing under the demands of a man who had brought nothing but trouble. Maka walked away from the Tazal Terminals, the birthplace of her parents and her ancestral home, in a forest of spears and machetes.
They climbed the hills, ankle-deep in snow, wind howling in their ears. Maka caught the occasional shouted order from Kid, but more often his words were drowned out by the screaming rush of air that threatened to fling them all from the mountainside and into the void of the Calamity. Maka couldn’t see the stars.
Walking for what felt like hours, Maka felt the cold pierce through her skin and she wondered if she’d ever feel warm again. The Ura seemed to be feeling it too, their noses red above their scarves and their heads bowed against the elements. Only Kid seemed all right, but his eyes were rimmed with red, and he kept prompting them forward, shouting encouragements in Ura.
They reached a high ridge. The Ura seemed to grow impatient with each passing step. One of the taller of the soldiers said something to Kid, who replied angrily, waving his hands with frustration.
An eruption of angry speech bubbled forth from the others, and Kid held his hands in the air, palms up in a placating gesture. Maka recognized the Ura word for “please.”
Suddenly one of the Ura cried out and pointed over the crest of the ridge, indicating something in the distance. Kid pulled out an amber spyglass and held it to his eye. A muscle twitched in his jaw. He turned to Maka. Silently he held out the spyglass, and with her heart in her throat, she took it.
She knew immediately why someone would think of a demon; with scarlet eyes and wicked teeth, he struck a terrifying sight to behold.
But it was a sight that made her heart soar.
“Soul,” she breathed, but the wind carried her voice away, rushing up the sides of the mountain.
The Ura were all shouting and pointing at the scene below, and Maka understood their fear; Soul was fighting like Death herself was on his heels, his lips a snarl and his eyes aflame. Another patrol of Ura soldiers had stumbled upon him, but their machetes and bullets were no match for the monstrosity that Soul was wielding. Hammer tied to his back, Soul had a large cannon hefted over his shoulder and every few moments it let out a roar like an angry god being woken from its slumber. It shot out a blast of pure energy, pale blue light bursting from the end with a shattering crack, that exploded in the snow, showering them with heaps of ash and ice.
She knew him, and she knew how he fought, knew it intimately like a lover would know the expression he wore as he slept, so she knew that he was trying to avoid the soldiers down below, trying not to hit them, but by the panicked voices of the Ura next to her, she could tell they didn’t understand.
One of the warriors next to her aimed a rifle towards Soul’s head. “No!” Maka shouted, and whipped her scythe down, slicing the barrel of the gun clean in two; the Wilds triumphed over man again. The Ura turned to look at her, surprise written into the features she could see, and Maka rammed her shoulder into his chest, throwing him to the ground. The other soldiers cried out and raised their weapons. Maka readied her scythe.
A warning shot from one of Kid’s sleek pistols went off, and he lowered it slowly, shouting in Ura again. The soldier Maka had pushed to the ground stood up slowly, glaring at Kid. The sound of another explosion from down the hill shook the air.
The man punched Kid square in the jaw.
“Kid!” she cried, but she was buffeted out of the way as the other Ura rushed in, like sharks towards fresh blood. Maka’s screams were lost over the sound of metal hitting flesh as they used the butts of their rifles to smash against Kid’s body. He collapsed, and she could just make him out through the forest of limbs. Kid coughed and the snow turned crimson.
“No!” she shrieked, and her scythe was flashing, and the Ura were scattering, crying out in a language anyone could understand, a language of fear and pain. The Anklegator horn ran red with blood again, dripping down the smooth curve, the creature’s bloodlust awakened. She didn’t stop to think about how cutting through human flesh was just like cutting through Lunkhead flesh, she didn’t stop to check how much damage she had caused, she just slipped her arms under Kid’s prone form and tugged him away. Maka dodged the point of a spear and lost her balance, sending them over the edge of the ridge.
They slid down the hill, the shards of snow slicing through their skin. Maka felt as if she were on fire. She couldn’t see anything as they tumbled down the sharp slope, head over feet over hands over arms--
Maka lost her grip on Kid as they hit the bottom. She cried out as he was wrenched from her grasp. Dizzy, she tried to sit up, reaching out to grab her scythe from where it fell.
She had landed at the feet of an Ura soldier. The barrel of his gun rested between her eyebrows.
For a moment, the only sound she heard was her own heart in her ears, and she waited to hear a shot to ring through the sudden silence, but instead, the man crumpled with a strangled shout. As he fell, she could see a familiar hammer come into view from behind him.
She scrambled to her feet, her green eyes not wavering from his red ones, her fingers clenched around the shaft of her scythe. He was breathing heavily, shoulders rising and falling as he watched her with an unfathomable look on his face. He was battered and bruised, wounds bleeding sluggishly in the frozen air. His hammer was poised again, ready to fall like a judge’s gavel. Her scythe was at his throat.
They stood silently for a few moments.
“You… you weren’t kidnapped, were you.” It wasn’t a question.
She couldn’t speak around the knot in her throat. Tears in her eyes, she shook her head, her pigtails swinging against her frozen cheeks. He didn’t lower his hammer, aimed at her skull, only took more ragged breaths.
“Wh… why. Why did you leave?”
“I…” Her voice died. “I was trying…” The wind carelessly tossed her words away.
“You didn’t even… you didn’t…”
She didn’t say goodbye because she knew she couldn’t; she knew she would never be able to walk away while he watched. She knew he would be killed on sight if he came with her and he would worry too much to let her go alone; she knew he’d follow. She was trying to keep him safe, to get Kid back, to fix things. She didn’t know she said any of it aloud until she watched his face grow slack and his grip around the hammer loosen.
“Soul,” she said, the word more like a prayer than anything else she’d ever spoken in her life.
Soul dropped the hammer in the snow and Maka threw her scythe to the side to fling herself into his arms. She felt the dams break inside and the tears poured out, hot and fast down her cheeks. It occurred to her that she was crying against Soul’s chest for the second time when something landed on her forehead and she looked up. A glistening tear track ran down Soul’s face, and she pulled back to look at him, momentarily stymied. She reached up like a sleepwalker, pressing the cold tips of her fingers to his wet cheek. He leaned into her touch.
“Thought you’d been taken,” he said thickly, eyes closed. “Easier than thinkin’... than believin’... that you’d left.”
She pressed her palm flat against his face and he met her gaze. She shook her head again, the tears flowing too hard to speak, but she smiled. He leaned forward and their lips crashed into each other’s; she could taste the iron from his cut lip. For a brief moment, all that mattered was the slowly-warming lips against hers.
But a crack from behind them brought her crashing down to earth, and they separated. Dozens of watchful eyes studied them from a distance. The Ura soldiers had gathered their wounded, propping them up with their arms around each other. Every able body was training a weapon on Maka and Soul.
Soul gathered his hammer again and made for the cannon as Maka gazed steadily back into the yellow eyes of the closest warrior; she recognized the leathery skin. For a few heartbeats, no one moved.
“Maka,” said Soul in a low voice.
She turned her back on the weapons pointed towards her and strode over to Kid’s still figure. She brushed her fingers gently over his pale face, sweeping back the blood-matted hair. “We’re going home,” she said.
“We can’t carry him and the cannon,” Soul said, voice near her ear. She turned to looked at him. He peered into her face, exhausted yet patient.
“I know,” she replied quietly. The softness in his eyes told her he understood.
There was a thwip and Soul winced. The end of a Fang Repeater arrow stuck out of his forearm; evidently, the Ura had discovered how to make them after being felled by them decades ago. Several more thwips, and Maka felt sharp pricks and the warm trickle of blood roll down her back. She smiled at Soul and he nodded.
They pulled one of Kid’s arms around each of their shoulders and stood slowly. The cold air echoed with the sounds of the thin darts slicing through it. As each new jab of pain shot through her body, Maka thought of the Peckers she and Soul had collected all those weeks ago. Looking down, she saw the stains blooming across her clothes, and she almost laughed at how closely the red resembled the birds’ plumage. She gasped as a dart hit her stomach. She thought of Stella.
Slowly, haltingly, achingly, they walked past the harsh yellow gazes of the Ura soldiers, like as many rays of sun burning their skin. Every time Maka heard a thnk and felt no pain, her heart throbbed, because she knew it had hit one of her boys. Each step was agony, and they left a crimson trail behind them. Maka wondered how many rocks floating in the sky had absorbed their blood by now, if every little piece of the old world was united in its decoration with their sacrifices. She tried to concentrate only on putting one foot in front of the other, supporting Kid’s dead weight. Crunch. Thwip. Thnk. Crunch. Thwip. Thnk. Crunch.
But after a few steps, Maka realized she was missing her rhythm. She could feel every pinprick of dart that had pierced her skin, but she had not felt a new one for a few heartbeats. She craned her neck around and saw the woman standing in front of her people, hand raised like a shield between them. Maka watched through the gathering darkness at the edge of her vision as the older woman gave a signal, and the Ura slowly began to lower their weapons. Their eyes met for the last time, then Maka turned away.
Each plodding step shot pain through her entire body. She knew she had to ignore the searing ache from each Repeater dart. She knew she had to forget the bone-chilling cold settling under her skin. She had done this before. She knew that she must keep going because she knew, she knew, that if she stopped that none of them would ever get up again.
So she kept going.
Maka had no idea how long they stumbled through the snow, staining it red behind them, open mouths panting and dripping slowly with excess spittle. She was both overheated and freezing, sweat cooling on her skin almost as soon as her body created it. Everything was a haze of red and black and white and it made her think of Soul, or perhaps she only thought of him because she knew she was dying and she wanted one last peaceful thought--
Soul let out a wail that might have been a word, but he was pointing ahead towards the Skyway and it didn’t matter what he said because they were almost home. They all fell forward in a heap, Kid’s body draped across them as they clawed their way to the small golden square. Maka’s hand found Soul’s, and they hefted Kid onto the Skyway and rode it west, towards the setting sun, towards the Bastion.
It was far, so far, and the whistling winds around them buffeting their bruised and bleeding bodies seemed to tear her soul from her body. The clouds at the edge of her vision grew dark and stormy. The only real thing in the world was Soul’s fingers wrapped around hers. He was trying to yell to her, to tell her something over the roar of the rushing wind, but she couldn’t hear, couldn’t understand.
They collapsed in a heap. The weight of both boys fell heavily on her, and Maka lay face down in the dirt, the pungent smell of grass filling her nostrils. She was dimly aware of Soul shifting, calling out, and she thought she saw Stein hobbling towards them, supported by a cane…
And then she sunk beneath the dark waves.
C’mon girl, get up.
She was so tired.
Girl, you gotta get up. This isn’t funny anymore.
Not just yet.
Please get up!
She had done enough.
Maka, get up!
Names didn’t matter anymore, so why should she respond? But she knew she was Maka, and she had to get up.
Maka opened her eyes. She was lying in the lush grass of the Bastion, fingers curled into the dirt as if to anchor her. Soul’s stricken face swam into view above her, his hand on her back; another lifeline. Stein was peering into her eyes from his place by Kid’s unconscious figure, looking concerned. A relieved smile broke out across his face, his broken glasses riding higher up the bridge of his nose. Soul looked ready to cry.
“You’re okay,” he said, as if to convince himself, “you’re okay, you’re okay, you’re okay.”
It took several hours for the four of them to patch themselves up. Stein was well enough to be on his feet, but he now walked with a slight limp and he still couldn’t see properly out of the broken lens of his glasses. Soul and Maka both looked like they had rolled through a patch of Stab Weeds, and Soul was sporting several wounds from his tussle with the Ura soldiers. Kid had the worst of it. Stein was exceedingly gentle as he wrapped the cuts and bruises, applying their often-used salve liberally. Kid’s skin was almost as pale as the white bandages wrapped around his body.
When he finally awoke, Kid looked unsurprised to see himself in the Bastion. He met their gazes dully, only shifting to get more comfortable on the floor of the forge. He didn’t flinch as Stein tended to his injuries.
As soon as Stein was finished, he stood. His gaze flitted from one tired face to the next, and for a moment, he looked like a professor standing in front of a lecture.
But he said, “Can you all stand?”
For a moment, no one moved. Then Maka gathered her feet below her and heaved herself up. Soul followed, grunting audibly. They reached down for Kid’s hands and helped him stand.
“Come with me,” Stein said, just as mysteriously.
His hobbling footsteps made it easy to follow as they limped after him. He led them away from the forge to the center of the Bastion, where the Monument sat. Soul and Stein had obviously repaired it in Maka’s absence, because a few new Cores sat shimmering in the pale morning light, pink and violet reflected over and over again.
Stein leaned forward and pressed something at the base of the Monument There was a rumbling from beneath their feet as the Monument’s strange petals opened and sunk below the surface of the Bastion. Maka shot a glance at Soul, but he looked as surprised as she felt. Kid stiffened beside her.
In the center of where the Monument had stood was the top of a winding staircase.
Stein shuffled forward and began to descend into the darkness. After a brief hesitation, Maka followed, the boys at her heels.
The stairs had handrails, which was the only way Maka managed to make it down them. She heard Soul cursing under his breath as he clutched at it, while Kid made his quiet way behind them. Stein was waiting for them at the bottom, sitting next to an odd structure. More Cores were sticking out of the blocks that made it up, glimmering in the light that streamed in from overhead.
Two flat buttons lay on either side of it.
Stein watched them file into the small space in the belly of the Bastion, hands clasped over his cane. He smiled at them, lines pulling at his cheeks.
“I need to tell you one other thing about the Bastion. Its last secret.”
“The Cores… they remember. They remember what the world used to be. There is a power in that, something that I worked to harness during my years as a researcher.” He turned to face the structure. “And they can reverse it. They can reverse the Calamity. We can make it so it never happened.”
The light rippled across the surface of the crystal Cores.
“Or,” said Stein, turning to face them again. “We can leave.” He tilted his head to see them better out of the unbroken lens. “The Bastion can set sail. The Cores will also power it enough that it can take us away from here.”
“What’s out there?”
“The motherlands. You must have studied them in school? The Caelondians and the Ura had to come from somewhere in the first place, you know.”
The silence sat heavily in the air. Tiny dust motes floated in the beams of light that lay across the device in the heart of the Bastion.
Kid stepped forward. “Go back?” he asked, voice cracking. “Return everything to what it once was?”
Kid raised a shaking hand to point at the device. “That will reverse all this?”
Soul made a strangled noise from behind them. Maka turned to see his stricken face.
“What’ll happen?” he asked. “It’ll all go back the way it was?”
“Will we remember anything?”
“It’s reset, not redo,” Stein said gently.
“We must!” cried Kid, stepping towards the machine. Soul darted forward. Kid shot him a venomous look. “You cannot be serious, Soul. This is an opportunity to restore the lives of thousands of people, yours and mine! What valid reason could you possibly have for not preventing a genocide?” Soul flinched. “The Caelondians and the Ura have fought each other for hundreds of years, and have been killing each other for just as long. We finally have the chance to undo some of that killing! They are relying on us. We can restore the Bastion and our people will be returned to us. How can we turn our backs on them? It is the selfless thing to do.”
“You’re just as selfish as I am when it comes to people,” said Soul, and it was Kid’s turn to wince. “And you heard the doc, this isn’t a chance to do it right, this is just going back to the way things were. We won’t remember any of this, we won’t know that the Calamity is comin’. Stein and Maka’s pa will make it happen all over again and we’ll be back where this mess all started. All those people will die again. We’ll make the same mistakes again. We… all messed up. Every single one of us, Caelondian and Ura alike. But we gotta move on. We gotta learn from the past. We can tell the story.”
Kid shot a hand out towards the machine, but Soul grabbed his wrist.
“How do we know this is the first time we’ve done this? How do we know we all haven’t already been to the Bastion and reset everythin’, and the Calamity keeps happening, over and over?”
Red met yellow as Soul kept his piercing gaze on Kid. Kid’s face was contorted into a horrified expression. Neither moved until Maka stepped forward, her boots gently slapping against the stone.
She approached Stein. Kneeling so as to look at him eye to eye, Maka peered into his wrinkled face.
“What do you think?”
Stein smiled, cocking his head to the side. He met her gaze through his good lens. “I don’t think I have a right to decide,” he murmured, “if it’s my fault.”
Maka reached out and placed a hand over Stein’s perched on the top of his cane. He sighed as if in relief.
Still sore, she got slowly to her feet. She looked down into the smiling face of the doctor as she thought of her father. She thought about how he would read to her as a child, painting beautiful landscapes in her head with his words. She thought about his large, goofy smile whenever she presented him with something she had made. She thought about his misty eyes, his calloused hands. She thought about the echo of her mother’s footsteps on the stones.
Maka walked forward, and Soul and Kid stepped back to allow her through to the machine. Her lips pulled into a gentle smile, and she lifted a thin hand, no longer delicate after weeks of hard labor. The ripped sleeve of her coat slipped back, her mix of Ura and Caelondian garb.
“This war is over,” she said, and threw the switch.
Rumbling, grinding noises came from the heart of the Bastion, and suddenly light filled the small room as a hole opened up near the base of the stairs. Whirring and clanking echoed across the tiny chamber as the Bastion roared to life. Maka turned to Stein.
“You’re not going to want to miss this,” he said, gesturing towards where the stairs descended into open air. She turned towards the small staircase and carefully clambered down the last few steps.
A small platform rested below the spit of land that was all that the Bastion was. The stairs seemed to be the only thing holding it in place, but Maka felt no fear. As she heard Soul and Kid stomp down the stairs behind her, the scene in front of her stole her breath away.
The Bastion was flying. The small bits of earth that still held together from the Old World grew smaller as their platform took flight, and the rising sun in the east cast a warm glow across every stone. Tiny specks of birds soared beneath them as large sails began to unfurl out of the Bastion, catching the wind, ever rising. Maka reached up and grabbed the ragged bits of twine that held her hair in two bunches and pulled. It came free, falling gently around her shoulders despite the caked blood in it, and the wind whipped it out behind her. As she spread her arms to embrace the sunshine, the rope slipped through her open fingers.
There was a lot to do to keep the Bastion afloat. It seemed their sanctuary was in need of constant care, but Maka couldn’t complain. It felt good to work. Her arms and legs were tanner than they ever had been in her life, covered in small nicks and cuts, and she went to bed each night with a bone-tiredness that felt unexpectedly good.
She visited the armory on occasion, even though they hardly had a use for it now. She liked to run the thick pads of her fingers along the blade of her scythe, propped gently against the patchwork wall of the building. The tinny vibrations of the cool metal as her fingers ran across it was music to her ears.
One afternoon, Maka finished her chores early and took advantage of the extra time to sprawl out on the lawn next to where Stein and Kid were poring over stacks of paper. “Look here, yes, ‘some history books have indicated that the Caelondians and the Ura originated in bordering countries in the motherland, but these claims have been unsubstantiated.’ Another mention of it.” Stein glanced over to smile at Maka, stretched out in the grass. “I think that’s enough for now. Thank you for showing me that, Kid.” Kid nodded to Maka, and rolled up the pages he was holding. As he walked off, Stein turned to Maka, grunting as he moved his stiff joints.
“How goes research?” she asked.
“Very well. You and Soul scrounged more books than I had ever expected. And Soul’s doing an excellent job with the inner workings of the Bastion; he has a precise way with his hands I might never have expected from a man who swings a hammer. And my onions are just thriving,” he said proudly, sweeping an arm out to indicate his neat rows. “My calculations and experiments proved extremely accurate, and I have discovered the perfect conditions for growing them.”
She sat up, eyes trained on the clear blue sky above them. “Yeah,” she said, less of an answer to his statement than a general greeting. Stein leaned back too.
They remained that way for quite some time, enjoying the silence and one another’s company. Eventually, Stein said gently, “Maka, I think your father would be very proud of you.”
She didn’t respond, but smiled at the sky.
“Your father thought very highly of you. He didn’t seem to want to mention you in front of me, but often he couldn’t help himself. He always seemed convinced that you were the best version of him and your mother.”
She chuckled. “I don’t know about that,” she said gently.
“But he did. And he was happiest when he knew you were happy. Whatever his vices, he loved you.” Stein gripped the top of his cane. “I never knew such a love. I often thought your father was a fool… but now I’m not quite so convinced.”
“I think he was a fool in some ways,” Maka said, and Stein laughed.
“Well, perhaps. But not for loving you. Not for being proud of you.”
The sun beat down on them, warming their skin.
“You are very brave,” he murmured. “You made a decision not many people could make.” She closed her eyes. “I’ve been thinking a lot lately about your story. Our story. And who will tell it. And while I am certainly no author,” he sighed, shifting slightly where he sat, “well. Words aren’t enough to express what happened… but they’re all I have.”
Maka turned to smile at him. He grinned back.
“The old world’s finished, but the new world’s just getting started.”
Later that night, Maka found Kid in the shrine to the gods. He seemed deep in thought, and she had to knock twice to get his attention. He turned to her, looking weary, but smiled as she entered.
“Maka,” he said quickly, rubbing his eyes as she sat next to him, “I was lost in thought.”
“I know,” replied Maka gently.
“I’ve been really learning a lot from these old texts. There is… a lot to discover. The Caelondians and the Ura definitely seemed to have contact before we created our countries here, but the nature of it is unclear. It’s been rather fascinating. But many of the texts are damaged and old, and it’s hard to discern what parts are missing."
“How are you?” she asked in a quiet voice. Kid glanced sideways at her.
His tone was low, but Maka could hear him even over the whispering of the candles. “I wanted to see her again… her and her sister, really. My family. My father. I never properly said to them how much I… And I will never have a chance.” Without turning her gaze from the tiny statues of the gods, Maka reached for his hand. He allowed her to take it. They sat quietly for a time, candlelight flickering across their faces, hands gently clasping the other’s. After a time, Kid pulled his hand back to reach into his jacket.
“I should have given this to you before, but… I was angry. At everything. And I still am, in a sense, I suppose. But you should have this.” He grimaced at her, halfway between a grin and a frown. “At least I was right about something. I’ve translated it for you. Into Caelondian. It’s easier for you to read, and you deserve to read it.” In his hand lay a few ripped out pages of her father’s journal.
Maka took them and stood up. Kid stretched his features into a sad smile. “Thank you, Maka.”
She moved quietly towards the door, but turned just as she reached the entryway. “You are okay, yeah?”
He chuckled. “You really sound like a Mancer. Yes, Maka. I will be.” Kid looked down at the papers in front of him. “I spent my life studying another culture, and then the world ended. Now I’m researching yet another one after that. There’s a certain kind of poetic symmetry to that, isn’t there?”
If anyone finds this journal, I have a message for my daughter, Maka.
I am so sorry. I am so, so sorry. Your father loves you, but he’s never been very good at it. Your mother could tell you a hundred stories about that, but she chose not to, and I thank her for that. I love her more than I can say, but I don’t know how to love her, and that’s why she left. She loves you too. She wrote you a letter as she left, explaining why she had to go and leave you behind. You were already so Caelondian, she feared for you in the Tazal Terminals. She was afraid you wouldn’t fit in. The letter wasn’t for me, but it was the only thing she left behind. She would surely add “selfish” to my list of faults.
But Maka, I have been forced to do a terrible thing, and I am sorry for it. I just keep having to apologize to you, don’t I? But I am.
When I discovered the plan to create a device that would trap all the Ura underground, I knew I had to warn your mother. I wrote her a letter and begged her to let our people know. I was terrified, because if another war broke out between the two countries, you and I were in grave danger in Caelondia, but I could not just let our old home be destroyed.
But my letter was intercepted. The people who found it threatened to hurt you. They threatened my daughter. If I didn’t help them with the device, they would harm my Maka. And I would never allow that.
I made all my notes in code so that no one could reproduce my work without me. No one could say I was expendable and hurt you. And I’ve done another terrible thing, Maka, and I don’t know if it was the right thing to do. I never do, it seems.
Maka. Don’t make my mistakes. Be better than me. Better than your mother. If there was one thing I did that wasn’t a mistake, it was you.
Her favorite part of setting sail was the constant breeze that flowed freely through her hair, pushing it back from her face and bringing out the roses in her cheeks.
One of the tasks that they had given themselves was to put up railings around the edges of their home. If someone got distracted (most especially after having gotten into the spirits of the distillery), it would be a long, long way to fall, so the Bastion was now rimmed with a simple wooden fence to help keep its inhabitants in the air. Maka had been sure to fortify the fence in the front of the Bastion because she knew she would love standing there, watching the world come towards them, and she had been right, and she found herself there now.
Her lips were pulled back in a grin; the wind tugged at them until she couldn’t help but smile. It whistled past her ears, making it difficult for her to hear, but she still could tell when he approached. She could always sense him.
“Good morning,” she giggled as Soul wrapped his arms around her middle, pressing his face into her hair and inhaling its sweet scent. He hummed against her ear in assent, still bleary-eyed from sleep.
Her eyes watered from the wind and she slipped her hands over his as he held her. Maka traced patterns with her fingertips across the smooth skin of the back of hands while he slowly became more aware of their surroundings. It always amused her how deep his sleep could be, especially after a hard day’s work around the Bastion.
“I love flying.” She didn’t mean to say it out loud, but she didn’t regret the words.
“Mmm,” he managed, hooking his chin over her shoulder. “Long way down,” he said, peering suspiciously over the rail and into the space below.
Maka laughed. “I know,” she said, “but I’ve got you.”
“Means I’ll just have to hold on tight.”
They lapsed into silence, watching the sun creep higher and higher into the sky to their right. Her back against his chest was warm.
“Do you think we really had lived through the Calamity before?” Maka asked quietly. She wasn’t sure he had heard her, because Soul didn’t answer right away. But finally, he turned slightly so as to talk more directly into her ear.
“I’m not sure. When I first met you, I couldn’t help but think I mighta met you in another life, you seemed so familiar. But I’m glad I know you in this one, and I’m glad I ain’t about to forget you.”
She hummed, feeling the vibrations from the noise sent through his skin and back to her. He put his forehead against the back of her neck, and she laughed softly at how tired he still was. “You snored squeakily again last night,” she said.
“No I didn’t,” he said, muffled into her shirt, and she laughed louder.
“But I like it,” she said, and he straightened, putting his lips against her exposed neck.
“I have somethin’ for you,” he said.
He reached into his pocket and held his arm out in front of them. A delicate ornate barrette sat in his hand. Maka took it with light fingers. “Found it one day before I met you,” he said as she turned it over in her hands, watching the light catch the lacquer and make the flowers sparkle. “But I didn’t give it to Kid for some reason. Something about it… well, I guess I just wanted it, and the like. So I kept it. Then you found me, and I figured out why I had.”
“I love it,” she murmured, tucking it behind her ear and twisting it into her hair. He pressed his mouth to her neck again.
“Maka,” he murmured into her skin, and he said it with such tenderness, such emotion, that she thought she might just start to like the sound of her name again.
“Soul,” she whispered, and he kissed her freckles, earned from her work outside. She smiled and closed her eyes. The cold air whipping by them had nothing to do her shivers. Maka turned in his arms and brought her hands to his face. He grinned down at her, teeth sharp and eyes warm. “Please,” she said again, and he began to sing.
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