18. Falling Hard

          Hataru’s body was numb. The only thing she could feel was her heart raging like a stallion trapped within its stall, aware of the danger and ready to bolt. Her palms were moist and clammy, as were her cheeks and forehead, causing strands of her unbrushed hair cling to her face like magnets. The lace neckline of her nightgown was itchy and allowed the cool, twilight air to dance across her skin, chilling her entire body, yet she took no notice to any of these things. All of her attention was focused on the heaving mountain of fur, claws, and muscle only inches from her face. The princess tried to gulp down a breath, but her throat closed up in fear.
          Behind her, another body shivered. Zephyr. Only moments before, as the monster had closed in on the child, her mind had completely shut down, and her body began to run on pure instinct and adrenaline. Like a mother bear protecting her baby from the bloodthirsty male of her species, the princess had dove between the boy and the beast. She just couldn't allow harm to come to the child, even at her own expense. There had been no need for thought, then; only her action had been necessary. Now, however, her terror-stricken mind was resurfacing into consciousness, striving to take charge of the situation. She realized she had nothing to prevent this gigantic mass of fury from tearing the both of them to shreds and therefore dooming the captain hidden within to death by the hands of his own men. There was no special fighting skill or secret weapon for her to use. Nothing, nothing except the kiss.
          All of their lives on the line, she took a risk and closed her eyes, trying her best not to tense up any further. This wasn't how she had envisioned it, but then again, she'd never really had a plan in the first place. She tried relaxing her muscles, but her fear proved to be too strong and her body remained rigid. The most the princess could manage to gain from her internal battle was a shaky control over her arms once again, so trembling like an earthquake, Princess Hataru lifted her cautious hands and placed them on the monster's muzzle, stroking its course, matted fur with her thumbs. She could feel its heated, dank breath against her face; it reeked of blood and death. The girl dared not return the beast’s piercing, one-eyed gaze, for she knew that her own eyes would surely be a window into her frightful lack of confidence.
          Hataru could almost hear the cackling of the Sands of Time as they mocked her predicament. If she acted too hastily, she could waste her only shot, but if she didn't maneuver fleetly enough, she might not get another. The princess knew this, yet her own angst would not permit her body to move any further. What had happened to the blind bravura she had possessed while loping off alone to save the boy? What had daunted her lionheart so, making it dash away upon a road paved with bricks of yellow ─ the color of cowardice ─ especially in her time of need? Would it ever return, bringing its roar of valor and victory to her again?
          The lampooning laughter grew louder in her ears as the Sands quelled their recession, slowing time to a near stand-still. Squeezing her eyes shut, the princess slowly began the trek toward the Kresreb's giant wet nose, her lips puckered. The seconds could not have passed more snaillike. Contact was a mere millimeter away, and the fidgety steed of her heart pounded on its stall door, raving to escape.
          Three seconds, two seconds, one... A sudden jerk and a sense of weightlessness stupefied the young woman beyond her limits. Icy claws clutched her waist, hard enough to elicit pain but not to sufficiently draw blood, as a horrified shriek, worthy of the gates of hell, erupted from her throat, burning like molten rock laden with pointed shards of tissue-tearing crystals. Her feet dangled in the air-- like a mouse in the talons of an avian predator, soaring high above the quiet, peaceful meadow floor upon which the night bird desired to splatter its prey's entrails for a midnight snack-- as the Kresreb escalated up the main mast of the ship. Its metal claw sliced through the wood like a knife through flesh, sometimes sliding cleanly in and out, sometimes catching hold of a tougher spot and leaving deep, cragged trails as a vestige of its existence. A flock of flying motor boats, similar to the rowboats used to travel up the mountain but bulkier with the weight of powerful engines, materialized out of the air and began circling the beast and its captive. Then came a hoard of bullets seeking to embed themselves in the muscles of the beast, but when a stray projectile seared across the girl's left upper arm, summoning a yelp from the her lips, the firing ceased, immediately followed by an emphatic censure from Firious' gravely voice below. The beast roared in annoyance but continued to scramble up the thick mast with lustful eagerness, and the vegetable princess hung limply in its fleshy paw as it hauled her further and further above the deck.
          Finally, the beast reached the top, and the endorphins in its brain shot about crazily as the anticipation of its first kill swelled. By latching its metal claw into the wood and gripping the the pole with its hind feet, one beneath the other, the beast freed itself to dangle the young woman out away from its body, like an ape ready to release a useless, empty banana peel unto the forest floor. Her arms, legs, and hair flopped about lifelessly when the beast shook her, much to its dismay. What fun was killing something already dead? No, the monster would awake its prey from her oblivion, if only to hear her scream as she plummeted to her foredoomed extinction. Sucking in a cavernous breath and whipping her body before its massive maw, the Kresreb let rip a cloud-shaking bellow. Gobs of its sputum and mucus launched away from its jaws, splashing against the girl’s front-side and clinging to her hair. Her eyes shot open faster than a pyromaniac cracking into a box of explosives, her wake up call proving overly effective. The beast snarled with pleasure, a macabre grin.
          Before her body could begin to shake again, the princess' hands hurled themselves at the Kresreb's snout, and her fingers embraced its filthy fur with the gentleness of a crocodile's chomper. She could not give up! The remarkable turn of events earned her a dreadful scowl and a sharp howl from the once-was captain. This was the last chance, and Hataru knew it. Her heart pounded with the traipse of lion feet as her moxie returned to her, and a roar of prowess erupted in her chest. Though her mind still grappled with fear, her spirit was prepared for melee and triumph. A spark shone in the corner of her eye; the sun rising with all of its glory, declaring the coming of a new day. Hataru stared at the Kresreb one final time, taking in its horrific frame ─ its matted silver hair, its battered eyepatch and its glowering, golden eye, its pointed teeth, and its gargantuan, slobbery nose.
          Drawing near, her puckered, rosey lips quivered. It was time. She could save everyone with this one act. There was nothing stopping her this time, and yet she still could not bring herself to do it. Maybe it was the morbid stench of its breath. Maybe it was the cruelty in its eye, or maybe it was length of the teeth her body was so very close to at the moment. Whatever the excuse, she could not break her unwillingness with any form of rationale. A droplet of sweat broke out along her brow, worry winning the internal battle for her thoughts. Here she held the key of salvation, yet she could not dare herself to use it, not even to save Zephyr, not even to save herself, not even to save the captain. The Captain. He was still in there, hidden behind the atrocious mask of the Kresreb beast. How was it possible that she had almost forgotten? He was here, with her, watching her every move, davening for her assistance in escaping from his prison. He needed her help. He, the wondrous Captain Levi Spry, who'd saved her pitiful self from desperation a number of times over the few days since they'd met, needed her.
          Mustering all of her conviction, the princess squinched her eyes tight and furrowed up once again and dove into the kiss before she could change her mind. As her lips forcefully met the beast's cold nose, the sun broke through the surface of the cloudy horizon, making the sky blush in the richest spectrum of reds ever seen by man or bird or beast. Hataru ravished all of her emotions into the endearment ─ her admiration of the man that rescued her from danger, her eagerness to see her friend returned to his sprightly endearing self, and her desire to never lose him in this manner again. Every positive sentiment she’d ever felt for the captain ─ gratitude, awe, inspiration, and warmth ─ found their outlet of expression through her lips, and all she could hope was that they were received by the heart and mind of the man within the monster. Fully drained, the princess gently withdrew, the tiny smack of suction alerting her that her mission was accomplished, but when she relaxed her body and opened her eyes to watch the transformation, she was met with a giant set of teeth, a short, hairy muzzle, and one glowering golden orb shining with a mixture of animosity and panic. It hadn’t worked. The Kresreb emitted a final terror-raising roar and released the girl from its grasp, subjecting her to a life that would undoubtedly end with a splat. It hadn’t worked.
          Why hadn’t it worked?
          With only her fitsts of matted fur suspending her in the air, the princess dangled from the Kresreb’s jaw. She stared up at the beast with giant, watery doe-eyes, pleading. The beast growled, swaying its head, trying to shake her loose.
          "No!” the princess begged at the top of her voice. “Levi! Please! I know you are in there! Don’t do this!” She began to whimper, tears of betrayal searing down her cheeks, as the beast shook harder. “Levi! I’m sorry! It should have worked! I’m sorry, I tried! Please, Levi, you've got to take control! You have to stop!” The girl squaked like a captured hen meant for the farmer's supper when one of her hands slipped from its hold. “Levi! Levi, no!"Only a few tufts if hair held her above the world, a few tufts that would surely not hold her weight. Snap! The strands ripped out one by one, and the girl began her descent with a fistful of fur; with a shrill voice she cried in misery, "LEVIIIIIIIIIIIII─!"
          Now she was plunging to her death at a seemingly increasing rate. She could help but bawl out blisteringly long shrieks and squeals, desiccating her already inflamed throat, and with every scream, she found each breath intake more strenuous, her oxygen levels dropping at a rate comparable with her own velocity. Hataru couldn’t stop the images of two charming men from broadcasting across her mind’s eye. One lived in the lap of luxury, burdened by his inherited occupation. The other lived life on the edge, emancipated by the trades of his father. Both where her knights in shining armor. Both were her heroes, her saviors, her false hopes of escaping the clutches of Death once again. But now it was time to face the facts, she was falling ─ falling fast and falling hard ─ to her demise, and no one could save her now.

The End

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