The next morning, the first thing Jay noticed was how absolutely terrible she felt.
Her eyes fluttered open slowly, and she stared up at the ceiling for a moment, knowing that she had to get up to explore her surroundings but not having the energy to actually get it done. She stared at the patterns on the upper segment of the room, but she couldn't use them to force herself out of bed. Jay had always been an early riser, and on most occasions, she was able to get going in the morning without too many issues. It was only on her worst days that she found herself stuck in bed for far longer than she should have been.
This most certainly qualified as one of her worst days. In fact, it somehow seemed to be even worse than her worst days. Jay's entire body felt like it was a creaky mess, and moving was too great a task for her to accomplish on her own. All of her limbs felt like they were made of lead, and her torso seemed to be pressed down against the bed by some invisible force even stronger than gravity. Even looking over at the other two people in the room seemed to be too much for her.
As soon as Jay was able to force herself to stare at Lana and Arian, she almost wished that she had never done it. Arian looked absolutely awful, and it seemed that he was feeling just as nasty as Jay was. His eyes were tired, and his body seemed to be collapsing in on itself. He was standing up and stretching, but he barely seemed to be registering what was happening around him.
Then there was Lana. Her eyes were wide with panic, and she was pacing around the space at the bottom of the bed. Judging by how tense her shoulders were, something had gone very wrong, and Jay didn't think that she was going to be able to relax for quite some time. She hated to see Lana so stressed out, but it wasn't as if there was anything that she could do to change it.
Jay's movements were slow and heavy when she finally managed to get herself to sit up. Her body was constantly threatening her with crumbling once again, and even just staring across the room was exhausting to her for reasons she couldn't describe. Her vision was fuzzy, and she could barely force herself to concentrate on much of anything. It was as if everything existed on the other side of a censor that was keeping her from seeing the rest of the world, and she had no idea how to pull herself out of it.
"What's going on?" Jay questioned, but she was barely able to get the words out. As soon as she had spoken, she found herself feeling tired again, and her eyes were drooping enough to make her want to lean back against the bed and fall back asleep. Maybe she would feel better after getting a bit more rest. She couldn't think of any other reasons for her sudden and dreadful exhaustion.
"Something happened last night," Lana answered. She still didn't stop pacing, and Jay could only see the outline of Lana's figure given how fuzzy her vision was. Jay tried to will her eyes into focus, but it didn't work. She let out a sigh and wound up leaning back against the bed when she couldn't keep herself upright anymore. It was tempting to slip back into slumber when she pressed her face against the pillow, but she couldn't allow herself to do that. Everyone was counting on her to stay awake for the coming series of events, and she couldn't give in to her own exhaustion quite yet.
Jay was attempting to rationalize her own sleepiness when Lana suddenly sat down beside her. All sense of coherent thought disappeared as she concentrated on the space between Lana's torso and left arm. Lana wasn't facing Jay, instead choosing to watch Arian's movements with narrowed, scrutinizing eyes. Jay didn't think there was much of anything particularly odd about Arian, but she found herself watching him as well. Sure, he was tired just like she was, but that didn't seem to be a problem for just them.
In fact, Lana seemed to be tired as well. She was hiding it far better, but she was absolutely exhausted. The skin beneath her eyes was dark, and her eyes were wide with stress. Jay could see it when Lana glanced over her shoulder to ensure that she had the other girl's attention. Jay responded by cringing, but she found that the action hurt her far more than she would have expected, so she made a mental note to stay as still as possible from then on out.
"I took a walk to try and clear my head since I couldn't sleep. While I was out there, I felt like I was being constantly watched. I think the other people in the town were staring at me," Lana explained. "They were all in their houses, but I could just feel it. They were trying to watch my every action, and it was absolutely terrifying... That was when the man showed up."
Jay hated the sound of that. She didn't get the chance to ask what Lana meant though before the other girl continued. "He appeared seemingly out of nowhere, and when we passed by each other, our shoulders touched. His skin was so cold... I know that some Ice mages are freezing since it's a side effect of their magic, but this was something deeper. I could just tell. I don't know what his problem was, but there was something weird going on. As soon as we were finished, I started running back here. People were still watching me as I came back here, but I didn't really care. I forced myself to look like I was asleep to ensure that nobody got suspicious of us."
"Sounds like we're dealing with something really weird here," Arian commented with a nervous laugh. He had taken a seat on his bed, and Jay was left to wonder when the hell that had happened. He was finished stretching, it seemed, but he was shifting nervously like no other. His teeth worked at his lip, and it looked as if he was on the verge of breaking through skin.
"We have to get out of this town as soon as possible," Lana explained. "I don't know what's going on here, but I don't think that we want to get caught in the middle of it... The man that I found... He was so much colder than any person should have been. I want you to touch my shoulder where he ran into me. It wasn't natural at all."
Jay watched as Arian reached an arm out to touch Lana's skin. He immediately recoiled and rubbed at his fingers. It looked as if he had been chilled to the bone, and he couldn't stop shivering. "That's ridiculous...!" Arian murmured. His teeth began to chatter, and Jay frowned to herself. If he felt that terrible after just one touch to the man, albeit indirectly, she didn't even know if she wanted to try and see how she felt by trying to touch Lana's skin.
"I feel like I would feel a lot worse if I wasn't a robot," Lana commented with a light snort even though it was clear that she was far from being in a joking mood. "I guess it doesn't matter though. We just have to get out of here. We can keep looking for the other Skylian Mages elsewhere. Something weird is going on here, and I don't think that we should stick around long enough to figure out what it is."
"Jay," Arian suddenly said, prompting the girl with brown hair to look up at him. "I'm not trying to insult you or anything, but... You look absolutely terrible. Are you sure that you feel up to getting up and moving around?"
"You look awful too," Jay countered. She was avoiding his questions, but she wasn't sure if it was deliberate or not. Did it really matter all that much? They had to get out of the town. That was all there was to it. They could talk more about how terrible they looked and felt later down the line when they weren't in immediate trouble.
Lana shook her head. "No, you look way worse," she agreed with Arian. Lana reached out and pressed a hand against Jay's forehead, and a frown spread across her features. "That's so weird... It's like you're freezing cold and super hot at the same time... I guess that you're running a fever."
"That's weird," Jay muttered, but she didn't try to object. After all, that was the only way she could explain how absolutely terrible she felt. It had to be a sickness of some kind, but there was an issue with that. "What could I have even gotten sick on...? We've been together for ages, and I felt perfectly normal yesterday. In fact, I didn't start to feel weird until after we got here, and it's not like we looked around for any longer than we had to..."
"Yeah, okay, there's something going on here," Arian agreed, his gaze darting over to Lana. "We have to get out of here before anything worse happens. Jay, do you think that you're going to be able to get up and move around? We have to get away from this stupid town as soon as possible." He had been infected with the same panic as Lana, and he followed her lead in standing beside Jay's bed. He reached out a hand to help Jay to her feet, and Lana did the same.
Jay wanted to reach out to them, but there was something still bothering her. Her sleepiness was one thing, but she couldn't dismiss the feeling that there was something else going on. It was deeper than simply being tired, but she wasn't sure of how to define it beyond that. Her mind felt like it had been stuffed full of cotton, though she supposed that was likely normal given the circumstances that she found herself in.
Instead of reaching for Arian and Lana, Jay snapped her fingers together, trying to create a small flare of purple magic. It was a simple spell, the sort of thing that she could pull off in her sleep. She concentrated all her energy into casting the sphere into existence, and yet, nothing appeared. Jay frowned to herself before trying again, but just like before, she failed and came up completely short. There was nothing more than a small spark of purple dancing across her fingertips, and her eyes were losing focus as the seconds passed by.
"Magic withdrawal," Lana suddenly realized, pressing one hand against her forehead. "I'm a robot, so it doesn't exactly impact me the same way it would others, but you're a mortal. Damn it... I should have seen this coming sooner. You're feeling awful because something is tampering with your magic. I've just had a weird feeling since we got here, but there's something more going on in your case."
"Then why doesn't Arian have it?" Jay questioned, shifting her gaze up to the blonde boy. He was a mortal as well. At the very least, that was what she thought he was, though she couldn't be fussed to press him for information given the context of the situation. She stared at him with tired, droopy eyes and wished that answers would pop out from nowhere to comfort her steadily rising fears.
Arian didn't offer a response, and Lana didn't give him the chance to bother thinking about it. "That doesn't matter. If you've got magic withdrawal, something must have happened to dampen your powers. Removing magic from any given person is impossible, but there are poisons out there that can lessen one's magical strength for a short period of time. If enough power is sucked out at once, it can make people feel sick," Lana continued.
"Poisons?" Arian echoed. His eyes suddenly went wide and ghastly. "The food we ate here last night. We had food sponsored by the town. If something is really going on around here, then chances are the townspeople are somehow involved, and they could have given us something that would lessen our powers. Since Jay is a mortal, it had a direct impact on her, and now she's sick."
Jay wanted to comment on how Arian had only said that she was a mortal, making it seem as if he was in the same category as Lana, but she couldn't bring her tongue to move long enough to form the syllables. Instead, she just stared at the bed, wanting the darkness to creep up behind her and take her into its loving embrace. Sleeping had to be better than staying awake given the circumstances. She doubted that she would feel any better by staying conscious.
A rumble cut through Jay's stomach, and she recognized that it was hunger. Still, if Arian and Lana's conclusions were correct, chances were high that she didn't even want to try to eat any other items of food from the town. It would only make her sick all over again, and Jay didn't know if she would be able to take that. She felt terrible enough as it was, and her current suffering was only caused by a single meal that wasn't even all that large.
"The more power someone has, the more they're hurt by magical withdrawal," Lana sighed. "It dampens your magic to a certain level, but that level is the same for everyone. There's a greater divide between a strong mage's withdrawal and a weaker mage's suffering, and I guess that Jay's got a lot more power than we realized... We've got to get out of here. Stopping in this town was a mistake."
"Most of the people around here seem afraid of us," Arian murmured. "It's not like they have a reason to be scared of us... Right? What if there's something around here that's threatening their safety?"
Lana let out a gasp. "It has to be the man from last night! We don't want to mess with him. Chances are he'd only make us feel worse given everything that we've already had to deal with. Come on, guys. Let's get out of here as soon as possible. I don't think that sticking around here is a good idea. We have to find the other Skylian Mages, and we can't do that while we're still here."
"Grabbing food sounds great too," Jay muttered, trying to pretend that the room wasn't actively spinning around her. She was far dizzier than she had ever thought possible, and she couldn't help but wonder if she was on the brink of passing out. That would be the worst possible outcome, but she felt as if she was dangerously close to losing consciousness.
Jay, Arian, and Lana didn't waste much more time in their room. Everything they had unpacked the night before was hastily thrown back together, and Jay watched as the other two did most of the work. Her mind felt as if it had been shoved inside of cotton before being stuffed back into her head, and her tongue felt too large for her mouth. If this was what magical withdrawal felt like, she never wanted to have to deal with it again.
Weakening another mage's power was done in some cases under legal situations to ensure that a dangerous criminal didn't break free, but the drugs and spells that caused it in regular people had been banned for a long time. Jay didn't know how the people in Cloudpeak had managed to get their hands on something like that, but she wasn't sure if she wanted the answers either. She already had the sneaking suspicion that she was going to hate whatever she found, and she really wasn't in the mood to put herself through more than she was already dealing with.
Jay almost didn't notice when they other two were finished with packing, and they helped her to move towards the door of the room. Arian had an arm wrapped around her shoulders while Lana's fingers curled around her torso for extra stability and balance. Jay was internally thankful for their help, but she didn't know how to fully state it, so she simply allowed the silence to fill the space for the time being.
As the trio moved away from the hotel, Jay's dulled mind attempted to rationalize how the people of Cloudpeak could have come to access such an exclusive and terrifying drug. They were out in the middle of nowhere, so chances were they didn't exactly care for the law. Jay didn't know the people of the town well enough to be sure of how they could have found the drug, so she wound up deciding to push it from her mind since she realized that trying to find an answer was pointless.
The three mages had been moving through the greater area of Cloudpeak for only a few minutes, trying to find the entrance that Ronan had let them through, and a figure came into view. Speaking of Ronan, he was walking closer to them, and he didn't seem to realize how heavy the situation was. He had a smile on his face, and he waved to them gently. "Hey, you three," Ronan greeted simply.
Arian and Lana immediately stopped moving, and Jay slowly looked over to Ronan, hoping that he wouldn't notice the scowl that was quickly forming in her eyes. She just wanted to get out of there as soon as possible, and as nice as Ronan was, he was keeping her from being able to eat and get whatever the hell was in her system out of her body.
"Hey, Ronan," Lana said lightly, barely focusing on the attention Ronan was trying to give them. She didn't say much more than that, and she started to ease the group towards the nearby exit of the town.
Ronan followed them with a frown on his face. "Is there something wrong? Why are you leaving so soon?" he questioned, not seeming to understand the severity of the situation. His innocence was a breath of fresh air when compared to the intensity that the rest of the town seemed to offer, but Jay couldn't help but find it unsettling given what had happened the night before. She couldn't stop herself from shuddering when a shiver sprinted through her body without warning.
Lana took a moment to observe him, to fully digest his expression, before offering a response. "We've decided to get going. We haven't been able to find anything of use around here, so we think that it would be best for us to hit the road. Thank you for your hospitality," Lana told him, bowing her head gently in his direction. Jay almost would have been impressed with her sudden about face, but she was far too tired and drained to care. She was so used to thriving off the energy of her own power, and suddenly having that was giving her a serious case of whiplash. She wanted to get out of that damn desert town as soon as possible, and Ronan was simply another obstacle to her.
"Aw, that's upsetting," Ronan frowned. "You know, I was really hoping that you would stay for just a while longer. We've been waiting to see someone for quite some time, and he just showed up again last night after you guys got here. It's been months since he last came back here, so I guess I was thinking of you three as a little good luck charm of sorts."
"Who came back?" Arian questioned, though the ghastly expression on his face told Jay that he already knew exactly what he was expecting the answer to be. She thought the same thing. It had to have something to do with the strange man that crossed paths with Lana the night before. There was no other explanation she could think of. If something else had happened in a town so small, chances were that they would have heard about it.
"The mayor of Cloudpeak!" Ronan chirped in response. "His name is Rob Cryai, and he hasn't been around Cloudpeak in quite some time. In all honesty, I was getting worried that we wouldn't get the chance to see him again for ages given how long he tends to be gone at times, but he came back just after you all arrived. I don't know if it had anything to do with you all showing up, but I'm glad that you were able to draw him back here."
"Rob Cryai..." Lana murmured, a frown taking hold of her features. She shook her head a moment later to dismiss any lingering thoughts she may have had. "As nice as it is that we were able to help you all out, I'm afraid that we still won't be able to stay for any longer than we already have. We're on a mission, and while we were thinking that Cloudpeak had something to do with it, we've since been proven wrong, and we have other business to take care of. Thank you for everything, but we'll be going now."
"Aw... What are you doing scurrying off so soon?"
Jay looked up with a frown to see that another man was coming up behind Ronan. The boy's eyes practically lit up as he turned to face the newcomer, and Jay didn't need confirmation to assume that this was the Cryai man that Ronan had been referring to. Her eyes narrowed, but she couldn't tell if it was out of suspicion or exhaustion. Perhaps it was a bit of both.
The man had pale skin, almost unnaturally close to white, and wore sunglasses. Jay could have sworn that the desert air grew colder as soon as he strayed too close to them, and she had to bite down on her tongue to keep from yelping in surprise at the drastic shift of temperature. Even the steaming morning wasn't enough to prevent the sudden change, and Jay felt nauseous at how sudden it had all been. This wasn't sitting well with her in the slightest, and she just wanted him to leave so that they could get going.
"Mayor Cryai!" Ronan exclaimed, a wide grin breaking out on his face. "It's good that you're here. These are the guests that I was telling you about this morning. They said that they were just about to head out of Cloudpeak, but I don't think they would mind staying for a little while longer if it meant that we were all able to talk for a few extra minutes."
Jay wanted to object openly, but she couldn't force her lips to part and form the syllables. Instead, she simply looked up at Cryai, almost snarling at the way that his head tilted when he smiled. His eyes were unreadable, and the glint of his darkened sunglasses was too severe for her to see any further than the surface of the plastic. She wanted to get out of Cloudpeak desperately, and she didn't think that she had been that unsettled in quite some time.
"I wouldn't want to be rude and pressure them into anything," Cryai commented, his voice low and rolling. "Still, if you would like to stick around for a while longer, I would be more than happy to give you the chance to enjoy yourselves in our humble town. I'm sure that you've already picked up on the fact that we don't see many visitors around here, but don't let that stop you. We're more than hospitable enough to see to you three, and I'm sure that you would enjoy your time here."
Something about his tone told Jay that he wasn't going to be taking no for an answer. He was acting casual and conversational, but there was still a threat hiding between the spaces. She wanted to backpedal and get away as quickly as possible, but she couldn't do that as long as Arian and Lana were clinging to her. She couldn't have run off even if she wanted to. She didn't even think that she had a transformation in her. It wasn't often that she transformed these days given that she was trying to keep a low profile, but she still would have done it if it meant getting away from Cryai and his ridiculously creepy excuse for a town.
"I'm afraid that we really must be going," Lana told him before trying to turn away. Suspicion was rising in her gaze, but she did her best to stifle it, not wanting him to realize that she was aware of what had happened. Her eyes told Jay loud and clear that this was the man from the night before, and her stomach dropped into her stomach. No matter how much he pressured them, they couldn't stay. They had to get out as soon as possible.
"Your friend is looking a bit tired there," Cryai commented, gesturing to Jay with a light frown. "I understand that you're busy, but even so, I think that you should try to come back to my home and visit with us. We're all nice folk around here, and I believe that we could do you some good. You could use some good food and a nice nap. How does that sound?"
Arian shook his head with a nervous smile. Fear was starting to blossom in his eyes, and alarm bells were clearly ringing like mad in his head. "No, it's really fine," he insisted. "We can take care of her elsewhere, and she's just a little tired. Trouble sleeping every once in a while, you know? We'll get out of your hair now."
Cryai's expression slipped into something shadowed and heavy, but Ronan didn't seem to notice. "If I tell you to stay, you had best stay," he said softly. This time, the threat was far more pronounced than it had been before, and Jay felt as if she was going to be sick, but it wasn't just because of her sudden issues with magical withdrawal anymore.
Cryai reached out one hand before curling it around Jay's neck, and she would have screamed if she had the energy. He was so cold that it hurt, and she felt pain pricking its way up and down her spine. Her thought process was starting to grow fuzzed and distant, like every idea was nothing more than a faraway memory that she would never be able to fully uncover. He was a man who knew exactly how to get what he wanted, and he wanted nothing more than for them to stay in Cloudpeak for a while longer.
Before Jay could even register what was happening, Cryai had replaced Arian at her side, and he was walking her away from her teammates. Lana and Arian had perplexed expressions on their faces from behind her, but they were quick to chase after Cryai alongside Ronan. "I'm glad that you decided to take me up on my offer," Cryai said as soon as they started walking, and he had slipped effortlessly back into his previous kind persona as if nothing had gone wrong at all. "It's nice to know that you're still able to trust the people of our humble little town. I know that we're a bit strange, given that we live out here in the desert and all, but it's what works best for us."
Jay's mind was slowly growing hazier, and she was barely able to keep her eyes open. It was as if the ice coursing through Cryai's skin was trying to lull her off to sleep, and she didn't know how to keep herself awake. If her magic had been more active, she would have simply fought him off, but that wasn't an option, and chances were high that it was Cryai's fault that it wasn't an option.
"Soon enough, you'll see exactly what we're talking about," Cryai suddenly whispered, and a sharpened pain drove into the back of Jay's neck like an icicle among the snow that had coated her body. Her face screwed up in pain, but she made no sound to show her agony. It hurt like hell, but she couldn't do anything aside from stand there.
Jay was vaguely aware of Lana and Arian shouting her name, but she couldn't make out any other words that left their lips. She was far too out of it, and she wasn't sure what she could do to reach out and grasp the world of light once again. Cryai had certainly taken sudden yet drastic measures to get what he wanted.
She wasn't positive of if her legs were moving or not anymore, but she could feel the sharpened pain of ice spreading throughout her body. She would liken it to being stabbed, something she had unfortunately experienced in her past battles as an experienced mercenary, and she absolutely hated it. Somehow, this was worse than every other injury she had ever received though, as there was no healer around to cure her pain. In fact, Jay wasn't even sure about if there was any blood. All she could feel was the way her skin crawled with agony as her throat grew tight with the yearning wish to scream.
"Goodnight," Cryai whispered, and Jay's eyes slipped shut. She couldn't stay awake any longer between the exhaustion and the pain coursing through her body, and her legs began to give way from beneath her. The last thing she was aware of was the way that Cryai's single word echoed in her mind endlessly. Shadows took hold of her a moment later, and she couldn't even begin to fight back before she was unconscious.
It's my birthday! Hell yeah!