"Regina... Regina Lepue...
"Hear us out, from the depths of our sanctums. You must seek us out from our respective resting places and bring us together to repel the evil that is brooding in the mountains…
"Please... we beg of you. Evil is lurking in the shadows, and unless we are brought together by one of a pure heart, the clutches of evil will forever bind us together, draining our power for the use of turmoil and despair.
"... Find us ... please, find us."
Regina Lepue slowly awoke to the sounds of the vast ocean crashing together outside her window. The young skunk clenched her eyes tight and reopened them, before slowly dragging herself out of bed to look out the window. The sun's morning rays always washed over Shartapus beach so beautifully this time of year.
"-In other news, Prime Minister Zoot Lablanche, the leading man of the world-renowned Alliance Army, spoke last night at a rally for solving hunger in the third-world provinces. He was very optimistic about giving a billion Teg to charity, to help children get education, and food," said a news reporter's voice from the television set Regina was half-paying attention to as she made breakfast.
Next on the TV screen came a small video of a large, fat human, with brown, wavy hair, wearing black and purple attire, with a red robe draped from his shoulders. Around his arm, clung a thick, red band, with a large, yellow "A" in the middle.
Regina clicked off the television set and shuffled into the seat of her small kitchen table, before leaning over her bowl of cereal. She stared at the blank wall ahead of her, her mind wandering idly while she shoveled spoonful after spoonful into her mouth. The dream she had wasn't something that surprised her in the least, though a deep sense of curiosity had clouded over her mind for a few months now, when she first began having the reoccurring phantasm.
She wondered who exactly could be trying to contact her, and how she was supposed to be able to help this person. It wasn't like she was a super hero or anything – just a nurse in Altas Regional Hospital.
Regina's train of thought suddenly fluttered into the back of her mind when the phone rang.
"Hello?" she asked slowly, still half plagued by sleep.
"Regina, where the Hell are you? I've been waiting for well over fifteen minutes!"
"Good morning to you too, Dwain."
"Don't 'good morning' me, it's a quarter after twelve! … Don't tell me you woke up late again."
Regina balanced the phone against her jaw and shoulder as she slowly swirled her spoon around in her cereal bowl. "…Maybe. I'm sorry, Dwain – I really am. I had a late night at work."
"Excuses. Always excuses with you. Do you need me to pick you up?"
"No," Regina sighed. "I'll see you in a few minutes. I love - "
Regina blinked and slowly pulled the phone away from her ear. It made her blood boil to know her fiancée was such an ass, but she never had the guts to end it with him – Dwain had been Regina's first real relationship, and if she lost him, she would have been so scared of never being able to find someone else. Regina knew she could be stuck with Dwain the rest of her life – even if he did treat her poorly – but loneliness can kill a person.
"Well here she finally comes!" a tall, yellow hedgehog, remarked sarcastically from his outdoor table at a restaurant as he saw Regina come towards him at a fast pace. He wore a black bodysuit with a massive, purple "X" coming down from his shoulders, and around his waist, to meet again at his shoulders – the uniform of The Alliance government offices
"Hi, Dwain," Regina said quickly.
"C'mere, babe," Dwain purred, and brought her close for a deep, lingering kiss. "I already ordered for you." The two of them sat across from each other and waited patiently. Dwain stretched a bit and eyed Regina. "Work's a killer, yanno?"
Regina nodded slowly. "Yes. I know what you mean."
"No you don't," Dwain laughed softly. "What's so hard about checking up on patients every hour? Nothin'. Anyway. Work's been really tough lately. I have to get ready for my trip to Garia, and Prime Minister Lablanche is all out on this whole new project for his army. I don't quite understand it though – An army that keeps the peace. That's like saying a jelly doughnut tastes like a bagel – or something."
Regina tried desperately to ignore Dwain's horrible comparison, and just gave him a small smile and a nod. "Uh – how is work, anyway? I mean – what else is going on?"
"You know I can't tell you that, Regina," Dwain frowned. "That's confidential. I'd be breaking the law if I told you anything that's top secret. It's none of your business."
"Stop talking to me like I'm a child," Regina scowled. "And it is so my business. If you and I are gonna be getting married soon, I have a right to know what's going on in your job life."
Dwain shrugged at her and smiled at the waitress who brought out a plate for Regina, who looked over at her fiancée with a confused expression. "What about you?" she asked.
"I already ate. I couldn't wait for you," Dwain said, getting up. "I gotta get back to work. See ya." He kissed Regina on the cheek and left her sitting there, still completely baffled.
Regina sighed and slid back her chair. She wasn't all that hungry anyway – she only went to be with Dwain, but because of his abrupt departure, a walk to clear her head seemed a good idea.
For a place with "City" at the end of it, Altas wasn't all that big. The community was built on hills, mostly, one half surrounded by a crescent moon-shaped forest, while the other half sat on a slight cliff, where Sharktopus Beach snuggly sat below. Many foreigners confused Altas for a port city, due to its settlement on the Gabriel Sea.
Regina soon found herself trailing into the depths of Altas Forest. She came here often over the span of her life to escape her sad and pathetic reality. A lot of the time she would come to the forest and find a secluded place to break down emotionally – even though she hated to feel sorry for herself. But there seemed to be nothing else she could have done; she was a very quiet person, was never really outgoing towards people, and Dwain never referred to her as "beautiful" or "pretty". It was always "babe", or something crude.
"I need to end it with him," Regina decided finally as she gazed out across a small brook beside her. She sat down heavily on a tree stump, picked up a nearby branch and began to swirl it around in the water. "I need to get a transfer, and start anew. I need a clean slate." But as she thought it over, the whole idea seemed to implode on itself. Regina wasn't exactly the richest person in the world, and buying a whole new house in a whole new city, after being transferred to a whole new hospital, really wouldn't work out.
She strolled deeper into the forest, soon finding herself following a narrow path she had never paid attention to before. A light shiver creeped down her spine, and she lifted her arms to hug herself as the trees seemed to lurch forward menacingly, while a breeze fluttered through their leaves.
Regina's mind soon wandered off as she walked aimlessly down the dirt path. Thoughts of red clouds against black skies entered her mind. Warriors, sitting upon horses with their swords drawn came to her next, followed by images of a male skunk, dressed in tattered clothes. He held a sword of his own at his side, and let out a shout as he jumped in front of another skunk – his wife, before the warriors were upon them.
Screams of Regina's past echoed in her ears, and she shivered a second time. She hated thinking about the past … Especially that past. She didn't have to think about it long though, for her train of thought diminished as she heard a light clomping in the distance. Regina lifted her head and looked down the narrow path to where the sound was coming from to see a wild cloud of dust coming right at her, following a group of men in emerald and black armour, riding on horseback.
Regina glanced around quickly, and to her dismay, she found there was no way to get out of the path of the speeding horsemen, who obviously didn't realize – or care, rather – that the dirt road they were coming to would thin out into a single-file pathway. Regina moved to the side as best she could, but even that wasn't enough. The horsemen drew nearer at a rapid rate, and before she knew it, they could have been upon her.
But they weren't.
Regina looked up the nose of a smelly, black steed, which rudely snorted hot breath into her face from its nasal passages.
"You! Get out of the middle of the road!" the General of the horsemen, and rider of the horse Regina had met, demanded in a firm, yet rather feminine voice.
"I – I can't," Regina said, backing away slowly. "This road is made for single-file riding, not branched out flanks, like yours. There's no way I can get out of the way."
The General looked to the right, then to the left, and back down at Regina. "All I see is forest. I'm sure if you climb up on either edge of the path way YOU CAN GET OUT OF THE WAY!""Help me…"
Regina let out a light gasp."Help me…"
The voice echoed in her mind once more, and guided her attention to one of the horsemen's saddle-packs.
"This is stupid," the General spat and leapt off the horse, revealing a female, and noted by the black, fluffed tail whipping behind, the form of a fox. "This is your final warning," she declared while drawing a long broadsword. "You get out of my damn way, or I'll cut you down on the spot. You hear me?"
Regina blinked and looked back at the General, almost forgetting she was ever there – the presence of the person in dire need had made itself strongly acknowledged to her.
"I don't think that will be very necessary, General Blacktail," said a new voice from behind the soldiers. Everyone turned to see who had interrupted the General's anger; a tall, gray-cloaked animal stood quite a few feet from behind the horses, carrying a large pack on his back, and holding a long, gnarled walking-staff. His hood drooped over his face, only allowing his white muzzle to poke through.
General Blacktail turned her back on Regina, starting towards the cloaked animal. "What do you want this time, old man?" she growled. "Can't you see that I'm more than a little busy? I'm not in the mood for your games."
The cloaked animal shrugged. "I just don't think you should harm someone who didn't know you were in such a hurry to get back to camp. I think you should apologize."
The soldiers all roared with laughter, and General Blacktail looked even more furious than before. "Give me one good reason why I shouldn't kill you and the girl right now!"
"Because," the cloaked animal replied, "That would be manslaughter, and killing innocents purposely is treason in this land, is it not?"
The General scowled and sheathed her sword. "Damn you, old man. I've wasted enough time." She turned slowly and clamboured up onto her horse. "I do hope this is the last time we meet – because if you pop up out of nowhere again, I will take your head!" And with that, the group of horsemen rode single-file down the road, and once past Regina, branched out again and sped into the darkness of the wilderness.
"She's been saying that for years. 'I'll take your head, I'll take your head.' She never does though," the cloaked animal said aloud as he made himself comfortable on the grass, stretching his legs out.
Regina stared at him for a long moment, and slowly began to step towards him. "Th-thank you, kind sir…"
The cloaked animal looked up at Regina and pulled his hood back, revealing that he, too, was a black fox and not old, as General Blacktail had called him.
Regina's eyes widened and she inhaled sharply. Her rescuer's gray eyes were almost the same shade as his cloak, and they stared at her like daggers, piercing into her heart. "You're not old at all … What are you – in your early twenties, it looks."
The black fox smiled and gave Regina a light nod. "Somewhere around there. The General is just snide with me. She and I know each other very well. And, you're welcome." He paused for a moment. "What's you're name?"
The black fox smiled widely. "Well, R-Regina, I'm Timmons." He got up slowly and shifted his pack over his shoulders with a heavy grunt, then began to walk towards the path Regina had come from. "It was a pleasure meeting you."
"Wait! Where are you going?"
Timmons stopped and turned his head. "I was thinking maybe Altas. Why?"
"I haven't repaid you," Regina said quickly.
Timmons blinked. "I expect no payment from you. I just did what any right-minded civilian would do. I hope." He turned on one heel resumed his onward journey.
"I live in Altas!" Regina said suddenly. "…Uh … Please. Let me at least make you a meal. You look like you haven't eaten in days."
Timmons stopped again and turned to face Regina. "…That, my dear, would be truly appreciated."
"So, where are you from?" Regina asked from the kitchen. She was stirring a large pot of homemade mushroom soup. Timmons was wandering around the living room, looking at the framed pictures and decorations.
"I'm from Durnham," he replied loudly so Regina could hear. "I left there when I was about five, and have been traveling since. I've been all over Vida, and still, there is much to explore. The snows of Zeeph, the exotic festivals of Capernaum … With all the time I have, I'd like to see it all."
Regina smiled at Timmons's words and reached forward to turn off the stove. "That sounds so nice. I wish I could do something like that. I'd love to see the world." She poured two bowls full of soup and reached into the cutlery drawer to retrieve spoons.
"Then why don't you?" Timmons asked, looking at the skunk from where he was.
She shrugged and set both bowls on the kitchen table. "Work, mainly. Today's been the first day off I've had in like, three months. It's crazy this time of year, with tourists, and school starting… There are a lot more carriage and horseback accidents in the summer than ever. In the winter, everyone just walks everywhere."
Timmons nodded and came to the kitchen to seat himself. Not yet had he taken his cloak off.
Regina smiled at him softly and leaned over her bowl of soup. "I hope you like it…"
"I'm sure I will," Timmons beamed before taking in a spoonful. And he was right. He consumed nearly three bowls of mushroom soup, all so fast compared to Regina, who didn't even get halfway through her first helping.
"What's it like to travel?" Regina asked after she finished.
"Very long, but the sore heels in the end are worth all the miles walked." Timmons said.
"I've been considering doing something like what you are…" Regina told him shyly. "I did a lot of thinking before we ran into each other, and I really want to travel, I think."
"You should!" Timmons smiled, just before the phone rang.
Regina nodded and got up to grab the cordless phone. "Hello?"
"Hey, babe, it's me."
Regina frowned slightly. "Hi, Dwain."
"What are you doing later tonight? I get off work in like, an hour."
"I dunno. I haven't thought about it yet. Why?"
"I wanna take you out to this great restaurant I found. It's like, so whacked. You need to check it out with me."
Regina watched as Timmons took both plates to the sink and pushed the chairs in politely before heading into the next room to give Regina some privacy. "I don't know, Dwain … I have a guest over, and - "
Dwain laughed. "You? Have someone over? Regina, stop it, you're killing me."
Regina growled. "I gotta go. Bye." She marched into the living room and looked at Timmons. "Let's go."
"Where?" the black fox blinked, holding one of the framed photographs in a paw.
"Anywhere. I don't care where. I want to go with you. I've had it with this place."
"But I'm a complete stranger to you. Please, Regina, think this out," Timmons stated, trying to sound as calm as possible. "Don't you think you're being a tad rash?"
"Maybe," Regina grumbled as she walked down the hall and to her bedroom. She pulled a backpack from under her bed and began stuffing it with clothes and toiletries. "But anywhere is better than here. I swear it is."
Timmons blinked again and walked over to the sink to rinse out the bowls. If no one was going to be around to wash them, the house would be filled with flies in just a week.
Regina marched out with her backpack slung over one shoulder. "All right. Let's go," she said. "Right now. I don't care if you're a stranger – you've been more kind to me than this stupid town ever was."
Timmons stared at her. "Are you sure now? I don't want anything to happen to you."
"Yes! I'm sure!" Regina exclaimed.
Timmons chewed on his bottom lip, and after a moment, nodded. "Well. All right then, if this is what you really want to do – but I'm warning you. Things could happen on this journey that could change you forever, Regina."
Regina stepped out onto the front porch of her beach house and locked the door after her guest. "That's fine with me, Timmons, I could use a little backbone and independence, anyway. And with that, I'll start by calling you 'Tim'."
Timmons laughed softly. "All right then, 'Regi'."
"Where are we headed?" Regina asked as she and Timmons passed by a carriage. Timmons shrugged lightly. "Don't know. I find that it always helps to have a goal in mind – and that always seems to help put me in the right direction – literally."
Regina laughed softly at this, and looked at Timmons with a smile. "What's your goal, Tim?"
The black fox shrugged again and returned the smile. "What's yours?"
"I don't know," Regina said with consideration. "Now that you ask, maybe … well… I did say I wanted to get some backbone and learn to be more independent, but is that too miniscule, do you think?"
Timmons shook his head no. "No goal is too miniscule, Regi. You can have whatever goal in life you want, and hunt it down and succeed any way you can. You can do that now. No one can stop you."
"There's you," Regina replied.
Timmons smirked. "I may not always be at your side though. Besides, how do you know that I'm trustworthy? You don't even know me."
"We'll have plenty of time to get to know each other," Regina shrugged.
The two of them crossed a semi-busy street, and continued walking on the other side, towards the entrance of town. The event back in the forest sparked a question in Regina's mind, and without really realizing it, she thought it out loud.
"Why would those Alliance horsemen come to Altas from the forest? Usually if you were passing through, you would come right through the entrance – wouldn't you?"
Timmons looked at her for a moment. "To be honest, I thought the way we came was the entrance to Altas. Maybe they thought the same."
Regina shook her head slowly. "I don't know about that. Being a part of The Alliance Army says a lot about your intelligence and geographical knowledge. And that General Blacktail seemed really smart, in just the way she was handling her troops through the forest – from what I saw, anyway. Meaning, they had to have had a map. They knew they were coming through the back way of Altas."
"Strange," Timmons murmured.
"Why would they be coming through the back way of Altas? Where would they be coming from?"
"Maybe they didn't want it known that they were passing through…"
The two of them exchanged silent glances.
"Shall we take a detour?" Regina asked, gesturing to the forest, which lay over a hill of houses.
The sun was just beginning to set when Timmons and Regina made it to the clearing where they first met. To Regina, the trees seemed to have grown into massive, maniacal creatures, with arms of many sharp fingers, but for some reason, she felt safer with this near-stranger walking next to her.
It wasn't until fifteen minutes after this checkpoint that speech was made aloud. It was Timmons who asked the question, and it threw Regina off guard, but only because she had grown accustomed to the current silence between them.
"Tell me something about yourself, Regi,"
Regina blinked slowly. "Like what?"
"I don't know," Timmons shrugged. "Anything. Where did you grow up as a child? Do you have any siblings? What's your favourite colour?"
Regina took another glance at the sky and noticed that the first star of the night had decided to come out and join the moon. "Well … I basically grew up in Altas all my life. I'm an only child, so my parents…" She broke off suddenly.
Timmons tilted his head to the side. "Your parents…?"
"I apologize," Regina murmured. "It's just that … My parents died in the War of Ages…"
Timmons's eyes grew sad. "I'm sorry to hear that. I remember the War of Ages. Quite well. A stupid skirmish between two provinces that evolved into a world-wide war. After. Zoot arrived out of nowhere to glue Vida back together, and that's how he became Prime Minister."
"That's right…" Regina remembered.
The two resumed a silence as they walked.
"…Purple," Regina said suddenly.
"Purple … it's my favourite colour."
Timmons laughed. "I'm rather fond of the colour green, to be honest."
They stopped for the night when it became too dark to see where the road was. Regina gazed out into the trees, lighted quite dimly from the fire Timmons was mending to. The wilderness seemed so quiet and peaceful to Regina, and she remembered her father saying all the time that he would have loved to own a farm with plenty of bush surrounding it.
She sighed softly at the few memories she had left, but she forced herself to shake the thoughts from her head.
Timmons looked up from prodding at the ashes in the makeshift fire-pit he dug, a half-hour earlier. "Yes?"
"Do you have any siblings?"
The fox shifted into a half-sitting position and stared at Regina. "Well … I do have a twin brother," there was a short pause before he added, "But he died a long time ago."
"Oh, I'm sorry…" Regina said softly as she sat down at the fire-pit, across from Timmons.
"Don't be," he assured. "You didn't know."
Regina pulled her knees up against her chest, and she gazed into the fire. Timmons drew back and sat cross-legged while prodding at the fire with a stick every so often. The two travelers remained silent for quite some time, until Timmons decided it was time to speak again. "Tell me more about yourself, Regi."
Regina beamed. "I've said enough. Why don't you tell me something about you?"
He shrugged. "I'm not a very interesting person. Really, I'm not."
"Yes you are!" Regina laughed.
Timmons shrugged once more and gazed up at the moonlit sky. "What about you?"
Regina rubbed her shoulder idly as she gazed into the fire. "I'm a nurse at Altas Regional Hopsital. I've worked there for a couple years now … I work in the Intensive Care unit. It's not a very lovely place."
"Mm." Timmons nodded slowly.
"I watch people die everyday," Regina continued. "And I hate myself for it, because there's nothing I can do. There's absolutely nothing I can do for them. And I go home at night and cry because of it."
"Do you sit with them?" Timmons asked.
"Yes … And talk to them if they want."
"Then that's all you need to do for them."
Regina stared into the fire as she reflected upon Timmons' words. "I suppose you're - "
"Quiet," Timmons said suddenly. Regina looked up to see him staring into the darkness, ears twitching. "I hear something unwelcoming."
Regina opened her mouth to reply when she too heard something. A twig behind her snapped. She glanced over her shoulder but saw no movement from behind the bushes.
"Stay here." Timmons climbed to his feet and withdrew a sword from his belt. Regina was struck by the weapon's ironic beauty: a white leather hilt with a red tail attached at the bottom, and a long, unstained, blade, which shone in the moonlight.
"What is it, Tim?" Regina quietly asked.
"Whatever it is, its scent is corrupt."
Another twig snapped.
"Timmons…" Regina shuddered.
"Get down!" Timmons ordered, and with unmammal swiftness, he leaped over the firepit and pinned Regina to the ground as a fox-like creature barrelled through the bushes, and over them. It landed hard on all fours, and made a U-turn to face the two travelers.
Regina struggled underneath Timmons and poked her head out to make out what the creature looked like as it stood upright. Its red fur contrasted with the fire, and as it turned to face the travelers, Regina was horrified to find that its eyes were vacant and yellow, missing all attributes of pupils.
The creature let out a low snarl as it bared its teeth, before it leapt at Timmons and Regina, its razor-sharp claws ready to shred through flesh.