Wind was the first audible sound. Wind, whistling through the glassless window. Then the sound of cloth rippling and snapping back against the wooden wall. Finally, waves crashing in the distance, muted by the surrounding structure.
Must be near an ocean.
The next sensation realized was the surface of a bed – not terribly soft. Probably made of hay and scavenged feathers.
What followed was a chill. The blanket was thin and tattered, and the wind outside relentless.
It was time for eyes to open, but when they did, they were greeted with blackness.
No… disuse. It took a moment for them to become reaccustomed to light. Head turned to the side; faced a sparse, tiny room. Arm tried to lift, but fatigue dominated. Muscles had withered.
There was no choice but to succumb to sleep once more.
* * *
Once more awakening, ears were greeted with a new sound. Shuffling, thumping, like footsteps nearby. Eyes wearily focused on the figure of a boy, half naked and hair wild. Voice failed to call out, but a whispered sigh escaped. The boy turned, bewilderment all over his face. A strange but cheerful sound escaped his throat as he leapt to the bedside.
“Locke!” The boy wiggled excitedly. “Locke awake!”
“G… Gau,” whispered Locke.
Gau skipped around the small room in a joyous dance. “Locke awake now!” he cried again and again.
“I… can’t move.”
The boy rushed back over to Locke, now looking slightly concerned.
“Locke sleep so long,” he said sadly, growling as he spoke.
“Long time.” Locke then noticed how haggard the boy looked. Ribs poked through his torso; nasty, untreated wounds blemished his skin. He could see that he walked with an odd limp, as though a broken leg had not been properly set back in place before healing. When he opened his mouth, teeth were missing or visibly rotting. Locke felt a sinking feeling in his gut.
“Where are we?” he managed to gasp.
Gau limped to the window and peered out as the cloth flew in his face. “Eye-land,” he replied, sounding it out phonetically. “But too small. All people dead. Not big food.”
He returned to Locke’s side and a grin spread across his face. “But Gau find food!” he announced proudly. “Gau Locke’s mum!”
Locke managed a weak smile. “Yes… you’re like my mother.” He tried to roll onto his side, and after much effort he succeeded. “Why is it so hard to move?” he wondered aloud.
“Locke sleep soooo long. Maybe forgot how.”
The Returner was almost afraid to know exactly how long he’d been unconscious. Long enough to outlive everyone else who’d been on the island, anyway. He hoped none of his friends had been among them.
Over the next few hours, Locke worked on willing his limbs to move. He’d never imagined it could be so difficult to do something so basic; he felt like a newborn baby lying on that hay-bed, flexing his joints simply for movement’s sake. For a while he stared with vague horror at his own arms. He was almost as thin as Gau – his fingers looked skeletal and his veins protruded noticeably. But he felt guilty when he realized how much Gau must have been sacrificing to keep his comatose friend alive. The boy looked positively awful. Not only was he sharing what scarce food he could find, there must have been monsters out there on the island, judging by the wounds all over his body.
With much effort, Locke had managed to sit up, though not without blacking out briefly due to the rush of blood to his head. Upon regaining consciousness, he pulled himself up once more and gently let his feet over the side of the bed. A long lock of hair fell over his shoulder and into his face. His heart began to rush anxiously as he pinched it between his fingers and held it in front of his eyes.
His hair had never been anywhere near this long.
Dull, ashy-blonde waves of hair fell easily below his shoulderline. He ran his fingers through the greasy locks with unease. He felt his chin – well, the patchy stubble wasn’t particularly remarkable. He’d never been successful at growing a beard, but this – this impressive length of hair flowing from the top of his head – could only mean that he’d been asleep for a very, very long time.
At least a year, he estimated, if not longer.
He glanced down at his chest through his open shirt. There were his ribs, too, he noted sadly. He now understood the difficulty of movement; his muscles had been slowly withering away as he’d slept uninterrupted for the past year.
All of a sudden, he couldn’t believe he was even alive. But that he had survived was all thanks to Gau – bless that strange, feral child Sabin had picked up on the Veldt.
A loud yelp then came from outside. Locke heard Gau’s wild growling cries of rage as he tore apart some lesser beast. The tussle did not last long, and soon he entered the doorway dragging a bloody mess of meat behind him.
“See, Locke!” He gestured innocently at his kill. “Gau bring food! Gau Locke’s mum!”
Locke had to chuckle this time. But as the boy hauled his load back outside to prepare it, a slight sadness washed over him. Whatever had raised Gau out in the wild had obviously done the same for him, and now it was Gau’s turn to care for a helpless cub. Though Gau was a generally cheerful person, his was an undeniably unfortunate story. Sabin had relayed the rumors he had heard in Mobliz – about the man who, believing him to be a demon, had thrown his newborn son out to the mercy of nature.
Locke decided to wait until he’d had a proper meal to attempt walking. It seemed like ages before Gau returned with charred meat hanging off a large stick. Under normal circumstances, Locke would have hesitated before this questionable cuisine, but this was not the time to be finicky and his stomach was rumbling loudly. He graciously accepted the chunk of blackened meat held out to him and slowly took a bite. It was rather tough, and he didn’t want to think about how Gau had managed to feed him while he had been unconscious.
It was strange to feel his stomach fill after eating so little. But it was a good thing, for the time being, he figured; this meat would probably have to last the two of them for several days at least.
As he now dared to lift himself off the bed, he voiced the questions that had been burning inside of him for hours now.
“What happened to everyone else on the airship?” He wondered how much language Gau actually understood. He had rarely interacted with the him on a personal basis before; the kid had tended to stick with Sabin whenever possible. “Do you know where uh… Mister Mash is?” For some odd reason, this was the nickname Gau had bestowed upon Sabin.
“Mister Mash…” the boy echoed sadly. “Gau not know. Mister Mash not come to eye-land.”
“What about the others? Celes? Edgar? Terra?” Locke pressed on hopefully.
Gau shook his head. “Gau and Locke only. Some more people come too, but Gau know only Locke.”
Locke sighed. At least he hadn’t confirmed that they were dead, but he still had no idea if the others were alive. For all he knew, he and Gau could be the only ones left of their party. Or in fact, the only ones left in the whole world.
The thought was terrifying.
But he pushed it out of his mind for the time being and tried to concentrate on keeping his balance. Gau cheered him on as he took a wobbly step forward, hunched over and clutching the top of a makeshift stool. As he attempted a second step, his knees buckled and he crashed to the floor. Gau let out a bizarre cackle but helped Locke back to bed. He sat still for a moment, trying to catch his breath and calm his trembling. Walking was apparently too ambitious at this point.
And though it was the last thing he wanted to do, Locke laid back down and closed his eyes. Sleep easily washed over him, and for the first time in over a year, he dreamt while he slept.
* * *
It was a few days before he successfully walked across the room even with support of the stool. Several more days later, he was finally able to stand on his own and walk short distances. No thanks to the lack of nutrition, he was not gaining strength at any rapid pace, but he was feeling a bit better. Now, two weeks after he had awakened, Locke stood outside on the beach nearest the small shack, leaning on a crooked staff.
He was going crazy here. Stuck on this tiny, solitary island with only an animal-like boy who could barely converse for company. All he could think about were his other friends, wondering where they were and if they were safe. He had been sorely disappointed, upon exiting the shelter for the first time, to find that he could see the shoreline in every direction, save for to the north where the land elevated steeply and dropped off as cliffs on the opposite side. And beyond the ocean, there was nothing. No other landform could be seen from anywhere on the island. What were the chances of actually making it to a mainland if he constructed a raft and put himself to the mercy of the wind? Probably slim to none. If he didn’t run out of food, burn to a crisp from the sun, get caught in a storm or eaten by sea creatures, there was still no guarantee that there was even anything on the other side of this expanse of ocean.
But how much longer would they really survive on this island?
A large shadow passed over him and he looked to the sky. A great, winged creature swooped overhead, circling the island. Locke’s heart raced. What was that thing? A dragon? It didn’t have a tail, and it appeared to have claws on the ends of its wings, like a bat. His curiosity was not so strong as to keep him standing out in the open like a fool; he hurried back to the shack as fast as he could. Gau was standing just outside, glaring up at the beast.
“Gau, what is that?” asked Locke, panting.
“Skull bird,” came his reply. Locke squinted up at the creature and though it was difficult to see with the sun behind it, sure enough, its head was nothing but a bare, white skull.
Locke felt faint. If that thing decided to land, he and Gau were dead for sure. He backed into the shelter and pulled at Gau’s arm. “Come on, let’s try to stay out of sight.”
“No, Gau protect Locke!”
“I think it’s better if we don’t get its attention…”
“Gau fight skull bird before; kill now!”
The demonic beast swooped down near the ground, close enough for Locke to feel a gust of wind through the open door, and it was then that he got a sense for how large it really was. A low growl escaped Gau’s throat and Locke shrank further back inside. Gau was putting himself in danger, and Locke was too weak to do anything about it.
The creature let out a shrill cry and swooped again. Dust swirled up in small cyclones, temporarily blinding the boy. He rubbed at his eyes quickly and continued to stare it down as it dove once more. This time, the enemy had come too close to the nest.
Gau flew into a rage and lashed out at the beast, striking with his sharp, clawlike nails. It shrieked as blood spilled from a wound on its massive leg and rushed back into the sky. Gau galloped away from the shack and the skull bird followed from above. Locke cautiously peeked through the window opening to watch as the two clashed once more. The demon sent Gau flying with a swift beat of its wing, catching him in the side with one of its ghastly claws. The boy rolled and stood back up immediately, maintaining his offensive stance.
This time, as the hellish creature sped towards the ground, Gau leapt at the last second and grabbed hold of a leg. He was carried high into the air as the beast kicked and flailed. Gau swiped at its wing as it came crashing towards him and slashed through the leathery skin between the boning. Terrible cries filled the air. At last the wild child was thrown and he yelped like a dog as he hit the ground. Locke cringed. He knew he would be speared instantly by the creature’s great talons if he dared show himself. Yet somehow it was still more painful to have to watch the boy take such abuse.
Unable to bear the scene any longer, Locke frantically began to search the small room for anything he could use as a weapon. He couldn't just stand by and watch Gau get killed – not after he had cared for him and kept him alive while he slept for a year. Rummaging through a knapsack, he came upon an unexpected treasure. Locke held the glassy object to the light – a ghostly red teardrop sparkled in the center of a jagged, pale green crystal. He recognized it instantly as Magicite.
But who was it? he wondered. Each Esper’s Magicite crystal had its own distinct look, but this one was unfamiliar. No matter, he thought; any aid would help, regardless of source. He rushed to the door, only to then note that his surroundings had grown oddly quiet. Peering around the corner, he could see the beast had perched on the ground many yards away. It let out a snort and bobbed its head up and down. There was something in its teeth.
Once again overcome with fear, Locke could do nothing but gape in horror at the scene before him. He fingered the crystal nervously and stuttered breathlessly, “Esper… Esper, please… please come…”
He felt his legs about to give out and he leaned against the doorframe for support. His head was reeling from panic and weakness.
“Please, Esper… please come…”
The Magicite was draining his energy, but it was not enough to summon anyone.
Now barely able to see, he stumbled backwards into the shack and tripped over the stool. The crystal clattered to the floor and Locke blacked out as pain shot through the back of his head.
* * *
Something was tickling him. He put his hand to his face and touched something unexpected. In one swift motion, he was sitting up and a rather large spider was scurrying away from his body. He shuddered. Then he remembered what was going on.
Locke rushed out the door and whipped his head around. The demon was nowhere to be found. Squinting in the direction in which he last saw it, he made out a small figure in the distance. He ran across the plain until he stood over the body of Gau.
Nausea immediately overwhelmed him and for once he was thankful his stomach was empty. The boy was dead.
He worked up the courage to lower his eyes and face the victim once more. Gau’s body was mangled. Ribs and organs spilled out of his abdomen, and many were missing. His neck was torn; skin and muscle eaten away. But the carnage seemed so… random. It was as if the creature had not hunted for food, but merely for the sake of killing.
Locke didn’t bother to stop the tears from flowing down his cheeks. There was no one to see him, no reason to suffer in proud silence. For the first time in many years, he simply allowed his emotions to pour through his body as violently as they would come.
Was this it? Was this what the end of the world was really like? Just him and some bloody scraps of meat drifting on a tiny piece of land. He laid down on the ground, half hoping the sun would make him burst into flames.
Everyone else had to be dead. There wasn’t a single shred of hope left in his soul, and he had begun to tire of thinking, maybe.
Let the skull demon come back and pick me apart too, he thought angrily. Just come back and put me out of my misery.
But no shadows passed overhead; no great flapping of wings could be heard. There was just the sound of waves crashing all around forever and ever.
* * *
Every action, every movement from the moment he finally stood up was executed in a daze. First he paced around the island, sand burning his feet and sweat soaking his shirt. He stared out at the undulating sea, transfixed at the perpetual bobbing of its waves. His legs brought him up to the apex of the northern cliffs and he closed his eyes as the wind lapped at the moisture on his body. The heavy locks of his long hair were lifted and scattered in a chaotic dance around his head. And then he felt himself falling forward, though he hadn’t made any conscious decision to do so.
It was a wonderful sensation, freefalling through the cool oceanic air. All the anxiety and pain he had been feeling since his awakening melted away as his body was enveloped in a blanket of beautiful emptiness.
Even the shock of a sudden collision with the water could not break his meditative state. The iciness only relaxed him further, and soon the intoxicating lack of oxygen lulled him graciously to sleep.
* * *
Locke shivered himself awake.
He spat out a mouthful of salt and sand and lifted his head. He was lying belly-down on one of the island’s many beaches.
He did not feel so peaceful anymore. Nights on the solitary island were freezing cold, and by this time the moon had been hanging overhead for a couple hours now. Locke picked himself up off the ground and dragged his body back to the little shed, where he stripped off his wet clothes and wrapped a tattered blanket around his shoulders. Spotting the small remaining supply of dried meat, he tore off a chunk and took a bite.
If the demon couldn’t maul him, the sun couldn’t incinerate him, and the ocean couldn’t drown him, then he could survive anything, he thought. There had to be some reason he was still alive. Hell, first and foremost, he had survived an airship crash and slept soundly for a good year before he had a chance to live through this new set of challenges.
In the morning, he would tear down the shed and build a raft from its walls. He would load it up with what was left of the meat, and pile on what few blankets he could find. He would shove off and let the wind carry him wherever it willed, and the world be damned if he didn’t someday reach land.
Firm in his resolution, he settled in for one last lonely night on the island. But not before regretfully burying the remains of the strange boy from the Veldt.