Notes: It's so close to the end now... Only two chapters left. ;_;

08: Dance of Curse

Celena moaned in pain as she pressed herself into the back of the rider in front of her. The Dragon Slayers and her were heading back to town and had to ride double because there were not enough horses for everyone, what with the added merchants who had managed to survive the raiders' assault on their supply wagon. Not that she would have been able to ride by herself either way. She was in so much agony, she could not even bring herself to remember the name of the blond whose shirt she was ruining.

The left side of her face had thankfully stopped bleeding some time ago, but Celena's upper body was still sticky from the mess it had left behind. She was also feeling light-headed, both from the injury and the fear she was experiencing. There were no mirrors to check, but by the way her whole left side was burning, surely that thug had cut off a good chunk of her cheek and there was no way it would ever recover. She just knew that this kind of pain reached too deep to ever completely go away and, although she was not nearly as vain as her brother Allen, it was better to look nice enough that others would not be forced to forever keep their eyes slightly beyond her to escape looking at the ruined disgrace of her face.

The good she had done saving those merchants from a fiery death did not even factor into her thoughts, next to the mind-numbing pain. She wanted to let go and cry, but even that hurt too much at the moment, so she just pressed herself a little closer to the rider.

"Miss Celena? How are you feeling?" the blond - Chesta - asked, turning his head to look over his shoulder. All he could see were her curls, tainted red in places.

The gentle voice broke through Celena's misery. Suddenly, she could not contain an hysterical sob. She started to pull back to meet the Dragon Slayer's eyes, but that caused her cut cheek to throb even more, so she quickly discarded that idea and spoke into his back instead.

"Like I'll never feel anything else but pain ever again."

Chesta worried his lip. Something about the way she had said that had triggered his psychic powers. He had glimpsed only a flash of the future, more of an impression than an actual picture, but it let him know that she was not entirely wrong. He said nothing of it to the scared girl, of course, and decided to let her rest as best as she could.

Instead, he turned his attention to his friends riding beside him, each also carrying an extra passenger. The driver of the wagon sat behind Gatti, while Ryuon had been left with the two young boys whose job had been to load and unload the cargo. The dark-haired Slayer had placed them in front of him on the saddle to make sure they did not fall off, a decision he was no doubt regretting as he kept his eyes firmly on the road rather than on the little waif currently picking his nose and wiping his fingers on his beloved horse's neck. Behind them, riding Celena's horse, were the remaining two merchants who had been the first to escape the burning wagon and had thus been left mostly unharmed.

"How much further, Gatti?" Chesta asked. This deserted region looked all the same to him and his sense of distance was not as keen as his friend's.

"We're close. The horses are tiring but I think we can push them a little to reach Gekki's house. It's closer than town."

"Anything else on that danger you mentioned earlier, Ches?" Ryuon asked. The Seer appreciated his effort to keep from voicing any words like "sense" that would tie him to anything supernatural. They were in the company of strangers and not all were as accepting of his gift as his fellow Slayers, who had been living closely alongside it for years.

"No, I can't think of anything else, but it's still there."

All three pondered those words in silence for a moment. Whatever Chesta was sensing, they would find out one way or another, for better or worse. Gatti spoke up then, feeling it was his duty as second-in-command to try to take away some of the dread hanging over them.

"It will be fine. We'll stay at Gekki's and avoid town for a while. Then we'll figure out what to do."

"Excuse me, but..." the leader of the caravan group interrupted, "we have to go to town. The people there were expecting the supplies we brought with us."

"That won't be a problem," Gatti reassured him. "The place where we're going is only a short distance away. You'll be able to walk there. Besides, Celena there can explain everything that happened to your caravan to the townspeople."

All eyes turned to the young lady shivering behind Chesta once more.

"How is she?" Gatti asked the seer, half-hoping Celena would not hear so as to not disturb her.

His immediate answer was a negative shake of the head. Chesta then proceeded to add, "She's reminding me of Dalet."

Gatti and Ryuon sucked in a breath. It was not often that they thought back to their fellow Dragon Slayers, their fallen brothers - in fact, they often went out of their way to do so - and Dalet's death was an especially touchy subject. He had suffered a grievous injury at the hands of the Abaharaki that no one in all of the Black Dragon Empire had been able to fully heal. The pains had been permanent and strong enough that Dalet had decided that it was not worth living any more.

Ryuon was the first to shake off the grim memories. "Pff... don't be dramatic, Chesta. A couple of stitches and she'll be fine. She'll have a new story to tell that will be the envy of every adventure-longing, sheltered young lady from here to Freid."

His efforts to lighten the mood went unanswered as silence descended upon the party. They rode another hour before the fence that marked Gekki's property came into view, and with it a whole new cause for worry.

A large group of people had assembled at the front of the house, with Gekki and his family in the lead. The others could have been mere refugees, trying to find out what had happened to the supplies they so needed, but the coldness in their eyes and the way they fixed on the Dragon Slayers gave them pause.

They pulled the reigns on their horses to halt them as far away as possible without making it look like they were trying to keep their distance. The traders with them dismounted immediately, while Gatti and Ryuon helped their passengers to the ground. The welcomes were brief and subdued, as all eyes had yet to let go of the mercenaries.

Celena was still in too much shock to let go of Chesta or to realise the tenseness of the situation. The first to take action was Gekki, who took a cautious step forward.

"Are you they? The ones they're talking about?"

Months of being on the run instantly let the Dragon Slayers know the real meaning of the words, but they would not admit to anything without at least trying to keep their identity hidden for a little longer.

"I don't know what you're talking about," Gatti countered.

"Don't try to deny it! My wife heard it on the radio your friend fixed when she was cleaning the rooms!" Said wife stepped further back into the crowd at the mention of her name, like she feared retaliation. "The Dragon Slayers and the General Dilandau Albatou, Folken's draconian white-haired, red-eyed devil! That's who you are, isn't it?"

"No, it's not," Gatti denied. "We're just a group of homeless mercenaries, trying to..."

"Bollocks!" one of the townspeople shouted before he could finish. "It's you, all right! I've seen your leader!"

"You've caused more destruction and killed more innocents than even the cursed madman himself!" another one accused.

"An unfortunate coincidence, which, I'll admit, we have taken advantage of in the past."

"And look at that other one with the painted forehead!" someone else interrupted again. "It's just like the broadcast said! They've got a bloody devil with them!"

The shouts were multiplying and people were getting more and more agitated. The Dragon Slayers could no longer put in a word edgewise in their defence before someone started listing the names of dead or missing family members and cities that had been razed during the war. They subtly instructed their horses to step back and put some more distance between them and the angry mob, but they knew that theirs was a lost cause and that the only option they had left was to leave the place altogether.

Until a feeble voice put an end to the confusion.

"Stop..." It was Celena and she repeated the command with increasing intensity, as many times as it took for everyone to obey and listen to what she had to say. "I am Celena Schezar, sister of Allen Schezar, leader of the Abaharaki resistance! You all know who my brother is and what he has done for all of us and I hope that, throughout the time I've spent here, you have come to know me as well."

The Dragon Slayers exchanged a nervous look, unsure of where the blonde young woman was going by bringing Allen Schezar's name into this, but taking comfort in the fact that people had calmed down enough to listen rather than pull them from their horses and make a public example of what happened to criminals out of them.

"I find it insulting for you to even suggest that I have been sheltering criminals of war! They have been living in the same house as I for the past week and I have given them food and work. I can tell you that I've come to know them and they are no different than the rest of us - poor souls who have been left without a place in the world after the war ended!"

The Dragon Slayers were having a hard time keeping the shock from their faces, but it did not make a difference. Everyone was too busy taking in Celena's fervent little speech to notice.

"Celena, you don't know what you're saying... These people..." Gekki said.

"No! I am perfectly aware of what I am saying. I never made it a secret who I was, not to you and not to them, and twice now they have saved my life. If Chesta, Gatti, Ryuon and Dilandau truly were the monsters you claim them to be, why would they not simply leave the sister of their greatest enemy to die? If they say that they are not the ones you heard about on the radio, then I believe them," she stated, directing a fierce look at the Slayers.

For the first time, Ryuon was looking at her with something other than indifference. If Celena did not know any better, she might have even called it respect. Gatti was looking into her eyes, trying to discern her thoughts, but his gratefulness was obvious. Chesta, still sitting in front of her, could only turn halfway and bow his head.

Meanwhile, the crowd was confused. They did know who Celena was and their respect for her family and all the good they had done during and after the war was immense. There were still a few cries of "but his name is the same" and "how many red-eyed demons can there be in the world?" but they went unanswered. No one wanted to doubt Celena and if, she of all people, was vouching for these mercenaries...

Gekki was speechless. He had been living with the Dragon Slayers too and he knew better than most how disagreeable their leader could be. He did not know what to make of the fact that Celena was showing them such strong support. He had no doubt that she had every bit as much desire as everyone else in town to see the remains of the Black Dragon Army brought to justice, perhaps more than most, given what the poor girl's family had been through. Did she know something he did not? Could this really be a case of mistaken identity?

Before any of the onlookers could decide on a conclusion, Celena asked the three mercenaries to go on into the house. Her cheek was still hurting, she said. Finally realising the amount of blood she was covered in, the crowd parted easily enough to let the horses pass.

The Dragon Slayers still could not believe their luck when the front door of the house closed behind them and they followed Celena without question when she started up the stairs to the second floor. She turned to them once they had reached the corridor that led to the rooms, eerily quiet after the strength she had just displayed outside.

"Celena, we..." Chesta started to say, but she put a hand on his arm to stop him.

"You don't have to say anything. I saw the way you acted out there and I've spent enough time with my brother and his men to know that simple mercenaries don't have that kind of discipline."

She lowered her eyes, knowing that she had just defended the remnants of the Black Dragon Army in front of the most important people in town. She hated the empire as much as any of them but she could not help but sympathise with these young men whom she knew next to nothing about. There was no denying what she had just said, but, nevertheless, she hoped that they would do just that because she did not want to have to hate them. Instead, she noticed that all three wore the same type of boots.

"Blue..." she laughed sadly. Just like the standard Black Dragon Army uniform.

None of them understood what she was laughing about - or maybe she was crying - but Gatti decided that she deserved more than their silence. With a look of shame on his face, he said, "Thank you for what you did back there."

Celena nodded her acknowledgement. "You know you cannot stay."

"We'll stay until Lord Dilandau gets back and then we'll go. We don't want to cause any trouble."

Unable to bring herself to wish the Dragon Slayers good luck, Celena just gave them a second nod and then left, walking away and closing herself in her room.