Did cats feel shame, Jowd wondered as they wended their way back toward Kohlingen and the Vanguard. It was hard to tell from the kitten that had turned the simple resupply stop into a search, as said kitten trotted along between Sissel and Missile, the latter’s tail waving merrily with pride in a job well-sniffed and the former seeming back to his usual laid-back self as if he hadn’t just been worried about the missing kitten.
It had proven a simple enough diversion at any rate once past the chaos of the initial search and the decisions to make once Missile had picked up the trail leading away from the ship. They didn’t need to all be here. One monster had been fended off with ease that any one of them could have handled alone. But, Alma had insisted on joining Missile and Sissel with a need to feel the ground under her feet. The thought of letting her go on her own had twisted Jowd’s gut and as for Cabanela, well, he never passed up an opportunity to go out. He likely didn’t want to leave her either if the time since Doma was anything to judge by but that thought strayed to too many others Jowd couldn’t face. Just as this little foray together stirred old rusted memories and even now there was something that felt natural about striding along together like this.
Missile stopped abruptly and raised his nose to the air. “Something smells funny.”
They all shifted into defensive positions—Missile’s nose was one to be trusted after all—and sure enough what had appeared to scrubby plants and dying bushes materialized into several large flower-like beings that scuttled toward them.
“Straaays from the catacombs?” Cabanela drawled.
“Looks like,” Jowd said. Exorays if he recalled correctly what Cidgeon had called them.
There were several this time. Lightning crackled into the centre of them and Jowd and Alma surged forward falling into an easy rhythm with one another. Missile and Sissel took care of another between them and it wasn’t long before only a pair remained, one near Alma while Cabanela fended off the other.
Cabanela reeled back as the exoray spewed a cloud of spores. Then it erupted in flame before Jowd could step forward to help. He had that handled then, leaving only Alma.
As she ducked a whipping vine Cabanela leapt toward them and then Jowd realized it wasn’t the lone exoray he aimed for.
“Alma watch out!”
Alma whipped around. Jowd lunged and caught hold of Cabanela’s arm as he swung his sword toward her. And to Jowd’s shock he found himself straining to hold him back as his swing slowly but inexorably continued.
“Esuna,” Jowd tried. If this was confusion then…but no, he saw no change.
If anything all he’d done was distract himself as Cabanela suddenly wrenched away with a sickening crack. Jowd reflexively recoiled. Cabanela’s sword whistled through the air. He swung again and Jowd caught the unnatural distortion in his arm. Alma parried the second blow with ease and jumped back out of range.
Cabanela elegantly pirouetted and Jowd ducked the next swing. And these simple blows were all wrong for Cabanela too never mind doing so with a broken arm. Vacant eyes in a pale face met his. And he thought of an unknown shadow, but this was different.
Cabanela raised his sword once more and froze.
“I’ve stopped his time.” Sissel said. The cat sat neatly by the charred rotting plant remains of the last exoray.
Missile cautiously approached Cabanela, sniffing. His ears flattened and his tail drooped. “Mister Cabanela smells all wrong. Like them. Rotting.”
Jowd and Alma approached him as well. Alma touched Cabanela’s face. “He’s so cold. And his arm… I don’t think he even noticed. Cure.”
The spell washed over Cabanela and Jowd and Alma stared in dismay as nothing changed. If anything Jowd thought Cabanela’s skin grew even more pallid.
“What’s wrong with him?” Alma asked.
Jowd shook his head grimly. “I don’t know. Sissel can you keep him like this?”
“I can cast it again if I need to.”
“Then we’ll take him back like this,” Jowd said. He pried the sword from Cabanela’s hand and tried not to consider how stiff and cold his fingers were. He sheathed the blade and passed it to Alma then lifted Cabanela. “Cidgeon may know what to do.”
Sissel and Missile took the lead once more flanking the kitten. Jowd and Alma lingered a few short steps behind.
“Jowd,” Alma said quietly after a few minutes of silence. “Everything happened so fast. I could be wrong, but I don’t…” she hesitated and took a deep breath. “I don’t think he was breathing.”
Jowd thought back. He’d been focused on trying to stop him without hurting him more, but Cabanela had been all wrong. Was that part of it? He didn’t want to believe it, but while his trust in his own eyes had waned, he’d never doubt Alma.
He stared ahead. Not far to go now for the Vanguard. “We’ll see what Cidgeon says.”
They managed several more paces before Cabanela’s head suddenly snapped up.
“Sissel!” Jowd barked.
Cabanela froze once more, face to face with Jowd. Like carrying a statue, Jowd thought, or a corpse and he shuddered. Alma touched his shoulder.
“I can take him if you need me to.”
“…No. No, we’re almost there.”
Soon, and after much too long, they climbed up the gangway and made it to the Vanguard’s deck. Only Bailey was there and he padded over curiously as Jowd set Cabanela down.
“Bailey,” Alma said, “can you please get Cidgeon and tell the others to remain below deck?”
Bailey cocked his head. “What happened?”
“We’re… not sure.”
“Maybe I can help!”
Alma tried to give him a gentle smile. “It’s appreciated but we’ve already tried magic.”
“Magic? Oh no, no.” Bailey struck a pose. Then he spread his arms and tapped his foot twice then slid into the moves of a dance. Somewhat different from his Panic Dance, Jowd noted but…
“I’m not sure a dance will help here…” Alma said slowly.
“Nonsense! A dance! Cures all ills!”
Alma and Jowd exchanged a look, but as Bailey danced and picked up speed, a warmth suffused the air. Jowd started to smile.
“Maybe not, but Cabanela seems to disagree. Look.”
Colour returned to Cabanela’s face. He took a shuddering breath and folded to his knees.
“Well,” Alma said faintly. “If it was going to help anyone…”
Cabanela started to raise his hands, gasped and clutched at his arm. Jowd and Alma immediately knelt next to him. Alma took his arm and attempted the cure spell once more. This time it appeared to work and Cabanela flexed his fingers.
“Thanks baby.” He touched his temple. “I couldn’t…” Then he shook his head and looked up at Bailey who was very slowly winding down to a halt. “Quiiite the nifty dance you got there.” He hopped neatly to his feet and added brightly, “You’ll have to teach me someday!”
“I’d be. Happy to!” Bailey panted. “If everyone could dance, I can only think how much better everything would be!”
Cabanela flashed a grin. “Thaaat’s the spirit.” His good humour faded as he returned his attention to Jowd and Alma. “I couldn’t stop myself. And there’s a couple of gaps here I’m not seein’. I didn’t hurt you, did I?”
“Well, you didn’t throttle anyone,” Jowd said.
Cabanela shot him a dark look. “Not funny, baby, not funny at aaall.”
Jowd ignored the look. “We’re fine. We did more damage to you than you us.”
“You were aware of all that?” Alma asked.
“Like watchin’ myself,” Cabanela said. “I couldn’t stop myself. Couldn’t feel anything either…Well, all’s well that ends well! And we got ourselves our missin’ kitten back.”
“Cabanela…” Alma tried, but he’d already directed his attention to Sissel.
“Everything all right?”
“Yeah. He’s fine.”
“And you smell normal again!” Missile chimed in. “I’m so glad, Mister Cabanela!”
“Ha! You and me both. What do you say we go down and tell Memry we can get mooovin’ again?”
With that Cabanela spun around and sauntered across the deck, animals and Bailey in tow, as lively as ever and disappeared below deck.
Alma sighed. “He’s not okay.”
Jowd’s shoulders hunched. “If he doesn’t want to talk about it that’s his choice.”
“He had his control taken away, again.”
“I’m sure he knows it’s not his fault.”
“Maybe this time.” Alma turned to face him, eyes worried and mouth set in a grim line. “And how many times before it’s one blow too many?”
“If he doesn’t want our help, if he doesn’t want my help and who can blame him, then there’s nothing we can do.”
“Jowd…” Alma shook her head. “No. Sometimes you need to push.”
“And sometimes a push leads right off a cliff.” Jowd turned away to go to the railing. “We got through today. Sometime that has to be enough.”
Alma sighed and joined him at the rail. “It won’t always be.”
It wasn’t now. They all knew it wasn’t. It wouldn’t be enough until they went to the tower. It wouldn’t be enough until they took care of Him.