Angelus seemed genuinely happy to see him. He wondered if Fenris was keeping her company or not. He noticed that she was spending a lot of her time with Frey. A good guy. Fenris could do worse.
"It's time dilation," Angelus explained, "Crossing the realms has thrown off my perception of time, and the rate I experience it at. I've tried to compensate by using my ability to see into my own future, but my mind keeps getting lost in my own personal timeline."
He thought on that for a moment, not realizing that she could see her own future. It must be pretty strange moving at the speed of light, a state that defies the natural flow of time, and being able to literally see a timeline. It must be like watching a movie about your and everyone you’ve known’s life out of order and getting sea sick in the process.
He was wondering why it was taking her so long to respond to his questions.
"It's like a really bad case of Jet-lag," she went on after a beat, "Basically, you and everyone else have adjusted to the change in time-zone and I haven't. But while I have Jet-Lag from one flight I've gone on another, and another, and another, so my internal clock is all screwed up. Basically, if you could keep us in one realm for just a day or two I could sort myself out, and reset my mental clock."
“I would take your request to the captain, but I know what he would say. We are in no position to dock. While we’re moving at this speed, we’ll lose our momentum and a great deal of fuel on the restart. Look on the bright side, at least if we do it all in one leg it’s like ripping the bandage off all at once. How are you going to act when we take you to Terra Di?” he smiled.
She seemed to brighten a bit. Maybe she was thinking about home.
"Time flows differently in the various realms, and while you humans don't seem to be affected by the change, it can be very difficult for a multi-dimensional being like myself to adjust."
“Then I’ll give you this,” he said reaching into the inside of his coat. He pulled out a pocket watch. It was gold and the face was translucent so the inside of the watch could be seen. The gears zipped and moved quickly, the cogs spun around in measured order. “You’ll have to remember to wind it a few times a week. It doesn’t run off a battery. But it keeps good time, and if you feel dizzy, you can look at it and remember what time we perceive you to be in, at least.”
She seemed appreciative. Angelus paused.
"Um," Angelus said, forgetting the watch, "Who is Pash, and why is she thinking such...vivid...things about you?"
Hayder smiled uncomfortably and rubbed the back of his neck. “Vivid?” he sighed. “She’s a girl. Since a gentleman doesn’t kiss and tell, I wouldn’t tell. But since we haven’t kissed, there isn’t really much harm.” He had the fleeting idea that Angelus could somehow help, but he realized that if he told Angelus something else that made Lox mad she would quit them both for good. But his desire to fix things outweighed his fear of discovery. “I don’t know how I feel about her,” he said sticking to Pash. “She’s Lox’s roommate. She started trying to pursue me after Lox and I had the most illogical argument. I don’t know what their living conditions are now, but I never see Lox in the room anymore. Pash tells me all these things about her but I don’t know if she’s lying or telling the truth. I guess she’s helping me get my mind off things.” Thing.
“Lox told me about your relationship. I asked her why you all argue so much. She said she didn’t like having her mind read. I thought that was funny. Because it’s always so obvious what she’s thinking, mind reader or not,” he smiled, caught himself remembering he was supposed to be mad at her. “It’s all over her face, all the time. The only time I’ve seen her face expressionless was poker and the time I showed her some interpretive Elderin artwork. I think she just doesn’t like being made a fool of.
“She told me she doesn’t want to see me anymore. I've never had a woman say that to me. Drexel told me to get another girl, throw it in her face. But Pash just came to me, which was an accident. I shouldn’t ask you. You’ve got wings but you’re not cupid or anything,” he smiled. “But you’re a woman and you know Lox personally, mostly her bad side, but since that's clearly what I'm on, that is probably best. Is there anything I can do here or at least not do?”
Angelus took a moment to stare at the watch in her hand. Hayder had been right to give her this, it was exactly what she needed. Whatever her mind was telling her, the watch was moving at the rate of time of this realm, and it was moving at the same pace her body was. It took a few moments, but she eventually managed to line up her perception of time with the rhythm of the watch. She found the flow of time again,and after a moment she was comfortably adjusted to what she thought must be 'real time'. She smiled, relaxing as she realized that Hayder was talking at a normal rate again. It was nice to be back in one place in her timeline, and it she quickly felt the signals of past and future fade. She was herself again, as she was meant to be in this moment. And while she still felt somewhat nauseous, she felt better than she had in days. It was too bad that Hayder didn't seem to be feeling as well. Love had made a fool of him, as it did every man, and now she found herself shaking her head, wondering how he'd managed to get himself into this jam. The fact that he was madly in love with Lox was bad enough, but the fact that he had managed to screw up his relationship with Angelus' enemy was even worse. It meant that she was now working with no knowledge about how Lox felt about anyone but herself. Even without reading Lox's mind, she had a feeling that she knew the writer's opinions of her quite well. They all revolved around the same basic idea:Angelus was the devil. Angelus shrugged. It didn't matter. She thought just as lowly of Lox. To the devil, God is the evil one. Angelus was just relieved to be certain of how one of her fellow travelers viewed her. She hadn't checked on the others yet, but something told her that their opinions of her weren't very high at the moment. She definitely agreed with Hayder's assessment of Lox. It was true, she practically wore her feelings on her sleeve, and if she didn't want her thoughts to be intruded upon she should make more of an effort to keep them to herself. To Angelus, it had always seemed that Lox's thoughts were screaming 'Hey!Hey!Listen!Play the song of Time!Play the Song of Time!' She blinked, realizing that she had wandered into a reference again. She didn't like this one. <I hate navi, you prick> She thought to her writer. He considered this for a moment, only slightly surprised that his character was talking directly to him in the middle of what was supposed to be a dramatic, serious scene. <Doesn't everyone?>He thought back. Angelus decided that this was true, and she turned her attention back to the matter at hand. It was a good thing she'd started paying attention again, too, because Hayder was looking for advice. "You’ve got wings but you’re not cupid or anything,” He was saying. Angelus frowned, looking over her appearance. She wasn't far off from looking like Cupid, actually, she knew. The gender was wrong, and she was actually significantly taller than him(something she had pointed out to him when he had challenged her to a basketball match back in Terra Di. Had Fenris noticed him she would have cut the game short, but then Fenris' lack of perceptiveness had made her miss the whole court) but there were similarities. "I've also got a bow,"Angelus pointed out, pulling her bow back into existence, "The trick is that my arrows don't make people love you.They just make them sort of dead." “But you’re a woman," He continued, a hint of a smile on his face, "and you know Lox personally, mostly in a negative way, but since she’s mad at me, that is probably best. Is there anything I can do here?” Angelus blinked furiously, as she often did when she was flustered, and started to rock back on her heels. The truth of it was that, as a guardian, she wasn't used to the subject of romance. It wasn't unheard of for Guardians to fall in love, but it was rare, partly because male guardians were very uncommon, and partly because male guardians tended to share Orel's views of romance. Still, in observation she had learned many things, and knowing Lox had taught her several more things. And if she knew anything about romance, it was that it made human beings do a great many very, very stupid things, and it had an even greater tendency to ruin their ability to do things that made logical sense. Still, she had heard the nonsensical ramblings of lovers before, and she drew from the information she had, compared it with other cases, and came up with a diagnosis. "Maybe," The little angel said tentatively, "Lox is afraid that you're moving too quickly, and feels uncertain of her ability to deal with her feelings toward you, especially given your...questionable...moral status." Which was a nice way of saying 'Lox likes you because you're a bad boy, and now that she's let the thrill of you being off limits wear off she's afraid that you're not her type. "Maybe she's just afraid of commitment," The angel continued, "Or maybe she's unsure of her own feelings. Maybe she's afraid of getting hurt. I don't know." She smirked at the pirate, wagging her finger back and forth. "See," She said teasingly, "This is why you don't hide Lox's thoughts from me. I can't help you if I can't hear her." She was teasing of course, she would have been cautious to give Hayder the truth about Lox's thoughts even if she could hear them. After all, if Hayder seemed too knowledgeable about Lox's true feelings the girl would get suspicious,and when she discovered Hayder's inside source she would likely pluck the angel's wing feathers out while she slept. It wouldn't do her any good, the feathers were for show, but Angelus liked all of the parts of her body where they were at present, and she didn't want to give Lox any more reasons to hate her. "Still, whether I can hear her thoughts or not, I'll tell you one thing," The angel said, "Stringing two people along is cruel, and there's no way to do it without hurting someone, so I would find some way to let Pash...or Lox, whichever you decide is less desirable, down gently, lest they decide to cut your throat with your own cutlass."
What was it about humans that they always put the expelling place so close to the eating place? While water was pretty easy to come by - there were puddles and bowls and barrels of it all over the ship - there was a serious lack of sand and clay. Since she was still doing her best to remain invisible to the pirates, she bided her time and waited until she could move about freely. There was a latrine around the corner from the galley, and though it stank wretchedly, Pounce had few other options. She could hold herself for a long time, days if need be; but she had no idea how long she was going to be on this ship, and she didn't care for the idea of making herself sick just to satisfy her dignity. At home, she could demand the litter be cleaned before she used it, and it usually was. But she wasn't home, and she doubted these barbarians even knew what cleaning was. She was so glad she was a cat.
Pounce wasn't a thief, and didn't take much from the galley - only what she needed to maintain her energy should she need to fight. She watched and waited, stayed under the tables and along the walls. She was amazed that she hadn't been noticed or caught. At regular intervals through each day, a gangle of pirates came clomping down the stairs, always loud, sometimes half drunk. A few of the men were so obnoxiously rude and full of themselves, Pounce just wanted to reach through the stairs and rake their legs; but she stopped herself from being impulsive.
The cook, he was a different sort of man. He wasn't loud, was never in a hurry, and never seemed to be in a bad mood. Whenever someone insulted his cooking, he just smiled, held out a spoon or a spatula, and said something like, "Grill's yours whenever you want it." For some reason, nobody ever took him up on his offer. As often as not, he was either humming or whistling some tune or another, and Pounce found that after a few days, there was some piece of meat left alone on the edge of the grill, even if he was cooking something like boiled cabbage and rice.
On the tenth day, as she was watching him work from the shadows, he began to sing a tune she hadn't heard from him before.
Throughout the lands, and across the times, there are worlds of sand, and seas of wine.
Creatures strong, peoples odd; come hear this song, a tale not old.
Sailors often sing of enchantments. A bard will spin a yarn of magic wove. I don't know how some things happen. Or why some people can't find love.
On this flying ship we all are pirates. Our crew comes from a hundred lands or more. There must be other groups just like it, adventurers more strange than ours.
Womenfolk and guardians, some with wings and some with fur. Warriormen, ancient weapons, fight for life, or fight for honor.
Among this troupe of lads and lasses, are some friends not what they seem, a daughter of the gods rejected, a wolf whose path sets people free.
A canine friend, whose wags and cuddles, would quickly change to jackal fierce; a feline dark, but not black-hearted, a gentle voice I long to hear.
Come out from hiding, let me see, The one for whom this tale I sing. Though others are not so endearing, From me you need not fear a thing.
He continued humming without words as he continued his preparations. Pounce peeked out from under the table. "I suppose I shouldn't be surprised you know I'm here."
The cook stopped his humming. "Well, ah couldna help but see th' missin' vittles. 'N ya need to move yur tail a might fastah."
Pounce looked at her tail and wrapped it around her legs. She stood on her hinds, so he could see her at height. "So the men ha' been sayin' true," the cook commented. "You're welcome to stay and keep yourself hid. It does get a might lonesome here at times. And ya h'ain't been no bothah. If ah need ya to help meh fetch a thing or two, so long as there's noone about, would ya mind doin' me the favor on occasion?"
"Sure," Pounce said enthusiastically. "What should I call you?"
"Ha!" the cook laughed. "Ah h'ain't been called nothin' of import in such an age, Ah've near forgotten mah own name. Ah be Shan o' the Highlands, though the lands t'ain't so high no more. It's an old family name, though theah be no place like it no more."
Pounce placed her paws on Shan's shoulders and gave him a sandpaper kiss on his cheek. He laughed again and flipped the meat off the grill with his spatula. She caught it with her claw in the air and took a quick nibble. Before running off to eat in private, she gave Shan another kiss and thanked him for his kindness.
How long had it been since Arem had a decent meal, and a chance to relieve himself when he pleased? A week or two, or was it just a couple of days? Twice a day, a derelict looking sky pirate would hobble down the cell block’s hall with a tray of soup and bird meat. Every day, soup with bird meat. It would have been nice if it tasted as if Paula Deen was the chef in the ship’s kitchen, however, it tasted like hot water and duck fat. With closed eyes, Arem suffered through it frowning at every spoonful.
The question that seemed to spark another angry fire within him, slapping a look of vexation upon his visage, was where the hell was everybody else? He knew for sure Najm was dragged out of her cell, moments after he had made the great discovery that his bounty was right here on this ship. He cursed the pirates who nabbed Najm away from the cell block and out of sight, but it came to no avail. Being behind bars did not give him the free range he liked to kick a few teeth in. However, Angelus, Lox, and Abedah were different stories. He had not seen them since he was captured by Alban and placed in his cell, with the exception of Fenris in the beginning. Although she, too, disappeared after some time. Not to mention, Kyle; he hardly remembered he existed, for he was strolling the wooded forest when the pirates arrived. Then, there was Caspar. No telling what happened to him.
Dougie, on the other hand, set his wondrous aptitude of over-friendly demeanor to use on the vagabond waiter. To Arem’s surprise, Dougie’s social bunny trick actually worked out for the best. The poor, old pirate only needed a little of attention to pour his heart out about old past times, how he came to be on this ship, and most importantly, where they were headed. A place called Zion, where mostly every person in every corner practices magic. What really baked Arem’s noodle was that this place was located where his journey had started, Illusionia. Who the hell was steering this ship? Whoever it was, he really wanted to piss Arem off.
He did not even get far in Araaf. He appeared near a meadow from the depths of the desert, traveled a few steps into said meadow where he met all of these people, and then a ship comes, captures everyone, and suddenly they were unwantedly piggybacked back to Illusionia. He could have counted all of these events on one hand only, and perhaps have several fingers left over.
Events burgeoned into bigger and more eventful incidents which worked against Arem and Dougie’s favor. Arem did not want to be a bounty hunter, nor did Dougie for that matter. All that he wanted was to be reunited with his family, and possibly get them to return to Illusionia with the promise of receiving money from Tao, after capturing Alban. Why did such simple tasks spin out of control almost every time?
Finally settling down beside Arem, Dougie sighed and chucked down his bird soup. "You look troubled."
"Ya think?" Arem answered indifferently.
"I mean, I don't want to be the one who told you so."
Dougie puffed in anger. "Oh, and I'm supposed to be 'take crap, Dougie' while you sit here and dish out your frustrations?! Remember kid, you were the one who got us into this mess. Without you, I would be in the bar winning bets!"
"Well, we're almost in Illusionia," Arem paused. "I didn't mean that. Sorry, I'm just tired."
Silence overtook the cell block as they sat in weary thought. The rising tension, the brewing frustrations, and the sickening food were getting to them. It was time to get off this ship before the increasing tension became intolerable.
The screeching sound in the distance broke the fermenting silence as the hatch was opened. Arem thought it was another round for the vagabond waiter, but those green eyes pierced through the dimness as Alban stalked down the vista of the cell block, and came to the door of their cell. Arem and Dougie were released from the precincts of their mind as the man came into sight. It was him again.
“Almost time for landing. I hope you boys still know how to walk out of here," Alban said as he unlocked their cell.
Beads of sweat rolled from Arem's forehead. "We'll manage if you're extending the olive branch."
Alban smiled and held up his hands as if he was being arrested. "No olive branch here. Unless you know something I don't and prefer to stay in."
"No!" Dougie interjected, before the worked up Arem could seal hs fate in the dungeon. "We prefer to leave and prepare for landing."
Alban nodded at the smart decision and opened the cell door. First, Dougie walked up to the door, allowed Alban to bound his wrist with a thin rope, and then stood in the aisle as the same process was carried out on Arem. Opening the hatch, Arem and Dougie climbed the staircase and arrived on the deck as Alban followed. The night air was a blessing upon their skins as the ship cut through the sky. The stars were luminous as if they were polished individually by a maid, and they lit parts of the sky like lanterns hanging upon strings. It was beautiful to see the sky again.
Arem and Dougie gazed on, as if they were in a state of catatonia, at the sky lighting up with all sorts of magical colors that they had not seen before. Fireworks! Amazing fireworks painted the night sky, and danced amongst the white moon. They took on shapes of dragons, twirling ballerinas, and singing elves playing flutes. The sky was alive with magic, and Arem was bedazzled.
"Stay here boys, and please actually stay here because if you try and escape, the fall is a long way down." As Alban spoke, Arem and Dougie never took their eyes off the night sky.
There was a call from the pirate who was steering the ship as it started to descend. The ship began to dip, and Alban followed orders that was inaudible to them. A group of pirates rushed on the deck like a school of fish outmanuevering a massive whale, in their sable jackets and sullied boats, pushing and nudging Dougie and Arem out of the way. Like vivacious apes, the pirates, alongside Alban, began to claw up the many masts, and release the sails in order to use the wind as a brake for a smooth landing.
The ship began to slow and settle down gently. Arem saw as the moon reflect off of the port's water, creating a festive mood. He watched as Alban hung onto the mast with one hand and allowed the relaxing cool breeze to hit his face. Arem was amazed and quite intrigued with the whole scene.
An old pirate passed him with a smile on his face. "Ya know, laddy, the best part is landin'" he said to Arem, smiling like a kid on Christmas morning.
Angelus did some rapid blinking, perhaps surprised he would ask her for advice. Drexel had given him man advice. “Make her feel terrible. Be mean to her. That’s what girls like.” But Angelus came from another place. She wasn’t a child, but in ways she was childlike so her advice would probably be less vindictive. She had also existed a much longer time and was engineered to be a protector. She might be thinking of something he had overlooked.
"Maybe," she treaded, "Lox is afraid that you're moving too quickly, and feels uncertain of her ability to deal with her feelings toward you, especially given your...questionable...moral status."
“Hmm…” Hayder said. “We did move fast. But that was because I thought she wanted to. I would have courted her for…” he balked, “for forever. But she did not seem to want that. As for my moral standing,” he sighed heavily, “I don’t know. I told her about Acel and my mission. I don’t think she knows that I will probably be dead soon. She thinks I can win. I explained to her why I couldn’t and she said that that was ridiculous. She really believes I’m going to be around for a while.”
"Maybe she's just afraid of commitment," Angelus offered.
“Maybe,” he said thoughtfully.
"Or maybe she's unsure of her own feelings,” she continued.
“That’s the thing with her. She thinks she’s so mysterious. And in a way, she is very different from any other girl I’ve ever met, but she thinks I don’t know how she feels. I really think she does like me. She just doesn’t want to admit it. I mean she’d rather die than apologize or say she was wrong. And since she started with ‘This isn’t serious’ she can’t go back on it now. She’s stubborn. What would she lose by just being nice?”
“Maybe she's afraid of getting hurt. I don't know."
He leaned on his elbow. “You’ve given me a lot to think about. We will reach Zion soon and then, well, the inevitable. I need to resolve this now. I wish I knew what she was thinking.”
Angelus smirked and wagged her finger at him. "See," she teased, "This is why you don't hide Lox's thoughts from me. I can't help you if I can't hear her."
He laughed. “I thought you were enjoying your time off? You ladies haven’t argued all trip.”
Hayder rose to leave.
"Still, whether I can hear her thoughts or not, I'll tell you one thing. Stringing two people along is cruel, and there's no way to do it without hurting someone, so I would find some way to let Pash...or Lox, whichever you decide is less desirable, down gently, lest they decide to cut your throat with your own cutlass."
Hayder grinned. She was right, of course. “Death by cutlass? You know Lox so well.”
For a moment Hayder considered telling Angelus the truth about Pash, but he hesitated and thought better of it. Even though he had always been honest with Angelus, he wasn’t sure it would be prudent. He had to stick with the plan.
“I will take what you have said into consideration, Angelus. As you know, if you need me just call. But” he paused, “if I my make a recommendation? Get out and walk about. It might make you feel a bit better. A pleasure, as always.”
It was very late indeed, now. Hayder was supposed to be on duty right now. He was on patrol between five p.m. and five a.m. and he would be getting off in the next thirty minutes. At that time Orel relieved him, but he was on call all day. He rarely went to his room early, but he felt like he should stop by and think about his next move. Besides, outside of some melodious singing wafting through the halls, everything was pretty quiet tonight.
As soon as he approached his quarters, though, things were off. For one, his door was unlocked. Some of his things were moved around. His bed was a total mess.
He was immediately on guard and unsheathed his sword. He quietly crept over to his bed and, perched to stab whoever was in it. He paused just in time to see a plume of velvety violet hair.
Lox was asleep.
A wave of happiness ran over him, then relief that he would not have an altercation, then the realization that if he woke her, he would. She was still angry, after all. He shook her gently.
She slowly woke up and looked surprised, as if he had snuck into her bed.
“I’m sorry,” she said drawing the covers around her. “You’re back earlier than I thought.”
“You’ve been staying in my room all these nights?”
“I couldn’t go back to mine,” she was looking for her shoes.
That’s how she had been avoiding him, then. She slept while he was working and was awake while he was asleep. That also explained why his sheets still smelled like her even though she was long gone. Devious.
She was making her way to the door. “Please, stop. Lox, we have to talk.”
“The worse four words in the world.”
“Then let me try four more: I want to apologize.”
“You don’t have to apologize, it wasn’t like you were cheating. We were never together.”
He made up the distance between them and stood between her and the door.
“Neither were Pash and I. It is a misunderstanding.”
“Then what were you doing with her?”
“Talking… mostly about you.”
She rolled her eyes. “Please, you want me to believe that?”
“Ask Pash,” he said folding his arms. His jaw was clenched again.
Maybe he was telling the truth. “You were trying to make me jealous.”
“Impossible. For you to be jealous you would have to admit that you like me enough to want me for yourself, which is something you would never do.”
She looked frustrated. “I have to go now,” she opened the door.
He closed it. “You’re afraid of me, aren’t you?”
“Be serious. You’re as terrifying as a newborn fawn.”
“Then look at me when you say that.”
She looked at him. She loved the way he held his head. High sort of and a bit to one side, like a prince. She imagined in another life he would ride on a majestic horse, giving dignified waves, saving townspeople, kissing babies. She shook her head to clear the image of other things those lips could do.
“I’m not afraid of you. It’s just…” she hesitated. “It’s a pirate ship. You’ve got girls all over the place. And if you said you wanted to be serious, how could I believe that?”
“You travel with Arem. He could be a loincloth model, or whatever they wear in the Eastlands and your eyes don’t wander. Then I saw you with that Elvin guy from the cantina a few times, what’s his name?”
“Bardou. Or Brendon. I don’t know.”
“Exactly. I knew you weren’t serious. Finally there’s Dougie, whose name sounds like some type of dance.”
She made a face. “Dougie is an old guy. That’s gross.”
“Well I don’t know what you’re into since you seem to have a problem with all this.”
She rolled her eyes.
“My point is you have just as many opportunities as I do. That’s no excuse.”
Lox bit her lip, he was right. “The real reason is… I think you’re not real. Like you’re going to like me for a few days, get bored with me, and move on.”
“Oh,” Hayder said stroking his chin seriously. “What you did to me?”
She looked annoyed. “Basically.”
“I wouldn’t dare.”
“How should I know that?”
“You’re making fun of me,” she said, not knowing she was Padmé.
“Oh no. I’d be much too frightened to tease a Lox,” unaware that made him Anakin.
“Then why are you laughing?”
“You’re not on earth anymore. All men are not bad men. And even men who are bad, like me, can be good men under certain circumstances.”
She waivered. “How will I know you won’t change your mind?”
“I would like to make a vow. It’s what you say in Zion to your brother or sister or someone you care about. Will you permit me?” He sat her down on the bed.
She crossed her legs. “Depends.”
He kneeled and held her hands. “As your brother, I vow to be your honest keeper. As freely as Nyx has given me life, I will defend yours. Wherever you go, I will follow. Whatever you face, I will face. For good, for ill, for life.”
She blushed. “That was deep.” She had so quickly picked up his art for understatement.
He kissed her and any lingering doubts she had vanished as quickly as their clothes. As dawn approached, it was Lox’s turn to lie and watch the moon play over Siris’s skin.
And when he woke up, she was still there.
Angelus decided to follow Hayder's advice. He was right,some time away from her room would do her some good, and she did have business to attend to now that she had found her proper place in time. She was a guardian angel, after all. So, she closed her eyes,and let herself find the familiar signal. It was different than Angelus remembered, something about it had changed. Fenris was...happy, the angel realized, truly happy for the first time in what felt like years. A quick scan of her thoughts revealed why. She'd made a friend. The angel smiled, deciding it was time to catch up with her charge, and point out that she had, in fact, been right all along. After a moment she found out where her charge was lurking, and still smiling, she let herself slide out of existence. She reappeared over Fenris' right shoulder, and while she had planned on immediately pointing out that she had been right, the sight that greeted her immediately distracted her from that idea. Fenris had been standing on the deck with Frey, staring over the rails,and Angelus could see why they both had failed to notice her arrival. The night sky was awash with color, flashes of fire and light that wove themselves in intricate patterns, and that told long forgotten tales. Angelus had seen many beautiful things in her time as a guardian, but this was one of the most remarkable. Back home she had spent many days watching the colors that reflected off of the pool of imagination weave in and out of each other, and this was similar in most ways, save for the fact that Angelus was now inside those ever-shifting colors, a part of the dance that was imagination. It took all of her effort to avoid flying off into the night sky. Her wings cried out to be used, and she longed to weave in and out of the flashes of magic fire, weaving her way through the tales that were projected in the sky. She wanted to lose herself in this sky, and to be part of the magic of this celebration, but she knew that she could not. She had a job to do. "See what happens when you make friends,"She called down to Fenris. The warrior turned, frowning up at the angel. She had been waiting for this moment, and now it had finally come. "Do my friends always have to capture me before we get to know each other?" She asked over the roar of the fireworks. Angelus chuckled, glad to know that Fen at least had a sense of humor about this. "No," She said, "In fact normally that's thought of as pretty odd." They both laughed, and Angelus found herself genuinely enjoying this moment. A scan of her mind revealed that Fenris was enjoying it as well, and that part of her enjoyment came from seeing Angelus well. The little angel was touched. It was nice to know that Fenris cared about her. She'd been worried that the warrior's opinions of her would sour in her absence, but if anything Fenris seemed to appreciate Angelus' presence more. This fact alone raised the little angel's feelings more than the fireworks. She had forgotten how wonderful it was having friends herself. "So, weren't we both supposed to apologize to the others?" The angel asked. Fenris blushed, scratching the back of her head nervously. "Yeah, well, it's kind of hard to find them," She admitted. Angelus rolled her eyes. "Lox is always with Hayder, Pounce is always below, and Dougie and Arem have literally been unable to move, how little effort did you put into looking?" She asked. Fenris' face went a deeper shade of red. "It's not like you did any better," She pointed out, "As far as I can tell everyone's still suspicious of you." The angel shook her head, unable to believe Fenris had tried to turn this into a childish argument. This wasn't about who had or hadn't done what, it was about the fact that the other travelers had less reason to trust them than ever. "I had time-sickness," She pointed out,"So at least I have a legitimate excuse." Fenris sighed, still blushing, finally admitting to herself that Angelus was right. "I guess we'll apologize when we land," She said. The angel nodded, deciding that this was an acceptable idea. "Fine," She said, "Until then...I'd say try not to enjoy the show so much, but I can't blame you." Fenris smiled at the angel, and turned her attention back to the sky above. She had to admit, in this moment it was hard to find anything wrong with the world. Getting home seemed unimportant, and their struggles up to this point seemed irrelevant. What mattered was the beauty in the sky in this moment. She silently wished that tonight could last forever. She knew in her heart that it could not.
The engineer placed his hand on a square pad next to the engine room door. The pad changed color from white to green and the door slid into the wall. This battle school style technology was out of place on this ship; but then, wooden seacraft weren't supposed to fly through the air, either. Abedah followed the man into the engine room and was stunned by the mish-mash of ancient and futuristic technologies keeping the boat from crashing into the ground.
"We still have a while before we get to Zion, and some of the men aboard never learned how to treat a lady, so I think you'd be safest if you stayed here with me. There are a couple cots in the back corner over there," he said, pointing, "but we can move them around if you prefer."
He stopped talking and just looked at her, searching her face, her eyes. There was a lot more to this woman than she let on, he was sure of it. She kept staring at him, certain she knew him, but unsure from where. "What is your name?" she finally asked.
"Oh," the engineer chuckled, "I change my name every time I get on a new ship. I've never really learned who I was born to, to have a proper name. So there's no one to tell me that I'm wrong. It keeps things interesting that way. It can be kind of fun confusing people when we get to a port, and I run into someone I worked with on another ship with a different name. 'Hey, Hank, where have you gotten to?' they say. Then I say, 'I'm not Hank, I'm Jerry.' Throw's them off every time. Anyway, on this trip I'm going by Jimmy. What should I call you?"
She thought about that for a moment, and realized it wasn't too different from what was happening with her. "I'm Abedah," she replied simply, not sure if the curse was still in effect.
"Abedah. Mind if I call you Abby...," he stuttered as his mouth forced out the last syllable, "Duh." Jimmy shook his head, "Okay, that was weird." She told him about her landing in Limbo, and the curse that was thrust on her almost right away. Apparently she hadn't accomplished her mission yet. "So, if you aren't from Limbo and not from Illusionia, let me ask you a question. I totally get it that you can't tell me a lot about where you're from. This whole travelling between realms business can get downright mental. Does anything in this room look familiar to you?"
She looked around at the wooden gears, the onyx boxes, red and amber lights on bright green boards, and a host of other technologies. "Actually, I've worked with quite a bit of this type of thing before, though not exactly in this context. If you're willing to teach me, I'm pretty sure I can learn enough to be of some help." Though Jimmy wasn't the only engineer aboard, he was the one who spent the most time with the engines. The chief spent most of his time in the cantina, and the others just didn't know enough to be of help. They put up enough of a front to get the job, and they could handle some basic tasks, but it was left to Jimmy to do the real work. He started her on basic maintenance, cleaning and lubricating, and reading the various gauges. As they worked together over the days, they maintained a friendly, but platonic and professional relationship. The cots were placed on opposite sides of the room at Abedah's insistence. She had spent so many years sleeping alone, except for the night by the pond, she simply didn't feel comfortable any other way. Jimmy respected that. But from time to time as they kept to their tasks, she would catch him just watching her; and on occasion he would catch her doing the same to him.
Though this was a lot of work, with two people doing it, there was also a lot of free time. For meals, Jimmy ran to the galley and got an extra portion for "he and his men, working through another meal." Shan's reply was always something like, "Well, we wouldna wantcha crashin' th' ship now, would we?" with a laugh and a grin.
In the engine room, there were three swords hanging on hooks by the door. Jimmy started teaching Abedah some basic sword-fighting techniques, but she admitted that oddly she had felt more comfortable with the branch she was using when she was captured. "I had a feeling you might be a mage, but from what you've told me, you wouldn't remember how."
"What's a mage?" Abedah asked, having never heard the term.
Jimmy was somewhat surprised at the question, but didn't show it. "A mage is someone who uses magic to either fight, entertain, or manipulate the environment. In Zion, where we're going, magic is illegal except for one day out of the whole year. I may be able to take you to someone who is discrete, and can tell if you've used magic before."
Abedah thought of the pouches she no longer had. It was possible that Jimmy was right, though she had no recollection of ever using the craft. Besides, magic was nothing more than science people couldn't explain yet, at least to her way of thinking. "And the way you tell me you used the branch, it sounds like you've been trained on the quarterstaff. That's fairly consistent with mages," he continued.
She thought about it and admitted it made a lot of sense. But since Jimmy didn't know whether there were any quarterstaves on board, they decided to continue practicing with the swords so she wouldn't be completely defenseless in Illusionia. If she thought Limbo was dangerous, that was just the warm-up.
A fleeting thought crossed Abedah's mind. Warm-up. There was something significant about that comment, but she couldn't remember the connection she had just made. The thought was gone, and it was time to begin the preparations for landing.
Vertigo swept over the Captain as he stood on the upper deck. Several of the more adventurous crewmen joined him, putting their trust in their luck, and the artificial gravity that kept them from flying off into the realmstream. The shifting colors and blending shapes merged and flowed in the tunnel of light around them, rushing by at speeds that baffled imagination. Though there was no real air or wind outside of the ship's force fields, the shifting masses and shapes seemed to evoke an unreal sense of movement, which made the distinct lack of rushing air feel out of place, and strange.
Travel through the realms was, of course, dangerous, but after years of shifting from one to the other month after month, even the queasiest sailors became used to the ebbs and flows of portal travel. The process was simply a matter of utilizing the ship's Realm-Drive to create a portal, allowing the navigator to plot the course through that realmstream, and find an exit. The rest was fairly simple, but far from safe.
Of course, 'safe' has never been a luxury in the life of Kyle Brogan.
Travelling across the timestreams could sometimes take minutes, or sometimes take days. While the entrance and the exit were instantaneous from one realm to the next, time often moved differently within the realmstream, and practical physics and rules didn't always apply. When Oxford had pulled them into the entrance portal, Alex had felt it, a small, lightly queasy feeling that seemed to just warn the body that something just wasn't quite right.
Though you eventually got used to that feeling, it never fully went away, and Alex had come up with a theory about that. If a person belonged to a certain realm, then he would never feel fully comfortable in another. Just like moving to a new country would take some adjustment, but it may never fully feel like home. The realmstream, as Alex understood it, was a negative space that resided between the many realms, acting as a conduit or highway to transport travelers from one realm to another in the fastest way possible.
But unlike the realms themselves which seemed rather constant in their flow of distance and time, the realmstream seemed to shift and move on a whim. Sometimes certain realms would be closer to others, and later they would be unbelievably far away. Such accounted for the discrepancy between travel time. And such was why the ship carried with it two years worth of staple provisions at all times. After Alex and the crew had barely survived their longest trip of eight and a half months, he vowed to never be unprepared for another, similar situation.
Hayder. What to do with his errant first-mate? Alex knew that the man quite often did exactly as he was told, and often pulled off his tasks with not only admirable skill, but also enviable flair. To catch him in such disarray below decks was rare, and frankly astounding. Alex hadn't known quite what to do.
The Captain had been told, of course, of the situation with the drowning prisoner, and even the difficulty in keeping some of the prisoners under control. But even so, to find not one, but three of the prisoners within his private quarters, only one restrained, and two of the crew unconscious on the floor...
Alex had about lost it, and it had taken most of his patience to remain as calm as he had. Yes, the disintegration of one of Hayder's "spectres" had been a bit dramatic, but such was required. It was no secret that Hayder's incomparable speed was owed to his talents as a multiplier. Certainly some of the crew were not privy to that information, but in the years that Alex and Hayder had known one another, such a secret would have been impossible to hide, especially when spending months aboard the same ship day after day.
However, this promised discussion between Hayder and himself would likely prove to be either the end of this boiling conflict, or may, in fact, prove to be the beginning of Hayder's own plan to usurp him. In the end, Alex just hoped to be able to remain breathing through it all.
He unconsciously adjusted a dial on his bracer.
"We'll be in port within the next few minutes, Captain." Drexel had made his way to the upper deck, as was custom. Though Alex often had a vague notion of how long a stream was taking, Drexel's obsession with order and efficiency demanded that he inform the Captain of the time as often as possible. Such made him a very able navigator, but a poor judge of people. Alex didn't have to know him that well to know that the man was cruel.
And cruelty, unfortunately, often had the unenviable side-effect of spilling over into any situation where one might need to enforce control.
"Thank you, Navigator," said Alex calmly. "Would you mind joining me for a moment?"
Drexel, a stocky, but well-built Khaleian man, walked obediently to the Captain's side. The Captain signaled for the other crewman to leave them, off to prepare for imminent landing in port.
As the last man disappeared into the airlock hatch and closed it, the elevator descending into the lower decks, Alex stepped over to the railing, and gazed out into the shifting lights.
"We've been at this a long time, Drex," said Alex.
"Aye, Captain. We have." The Navigator followed suit, and approached the rails.
"Would you say that I've been fair, as a Captain?"
"Is that a trick question, sir?"
"You're free to answer freely, Drexel."
"Then I'd say that you're plenty fair, then, Captain," replied Drexel. "A little high-strung, perhaps, but fair."
"Would you call my decisions rash, then?"
"No, Captain, of course not."
"How do you feel that the prisoners have been handled so far, then?"
Drexel smirked to himself. "I think they've been put well under control, Captain. Even the most difficult have been well taken care of."
Alex's eyes narrowed slightly, but he looked away.
"You wouldn't say that we've mistreated them, then?"
"No Captain," said Drexel, almost a little surprised. "Why? Have there been complaints from the prisoners. They are being held in chains, you know."
"I just needed to know a little honest opinions, is all. Sometimes prisoners just need a little extra persuasion to keep them in check, and I need to know who's not above that kind of work."
"Oh," said Drexel, his face visibly relieved. "Don't worry about me, sir. I know how to make sure our captured cargo is kept out of the way on the way to delivery."
Alex smirked, and patted the man on the back, and started walked back to the hatch. He pressed the button on the lift, and watched as the lighted indicator showed it was rising again.
"Captain?" Alex turned.
"Are you thinking of stepping down?" Alex could tell by the careful wording that it was a somewhat hopeful question. Stepping down, especially on a pirate vessel, was an almost guaranteed suicide. Once a Captain lost the respect of his crew, he was either to be killed or marooned, left to die in some unknown realm. Neither outcome appealed much to the brown-haired pirate leader.
The lift arrived, and the doors opened.
"Not yet," said Alex carefully. He stepped into the lift. Drexel stepped away from the lift to join him, but Alex let the doors close. He held the button on hold, and watched the Navigator through the air-sealed glass. He indicated the comm that he'd left sitting on the ground, which Drexel picked up.
"Captain," said Drexel with a suspicious grin. "Very funny. Could you open the door?"
"What you forget, Navigator," said Alex suddenly through his comm, his tone very serious. "Is how it was that I became Captain."
Drexel's eyes suddenly became panicked. He looked over the deck, and realized the implications of that statement. He was the only soul on the upper deck, and the second portal was fast approaching.
"Only a couple of minutes left, Navigator."
"You can't do this, Captain... You, you have no right..."
"This is my ship, Drexel," said Alex angrily. "And there are ways that we treat prisoners."
"But you said that..."
"You drowned a Zionese citizen on the way to Zion. Not only that, but you delighted in the doing of it. You endanger our bounty, and endanger our crew, just for a laugh?"
"She was misbehaving, Captain!" the Navigator screamed into the comm, his panic rising. "It was the only way!"
"You know, as well as I," replied Alex. "Violent prisoners are to be handled by Hayder or myself, and not by you. You betrayed my trust, Drexel, and I have no need for more disloyalty aboard my ship."
Drexel could feel the temperature start to change. As the ship would rip its way through the exit portal, an intense cold would follow a scorching heat that would envelop the ship, a side-effect of pulling the craft from the realmstream into an actual reality. No living thing could survive the transition. It had been long-rumored that the Captain had dispatched his first rival in such a fashion.
"You need me!" Said Drexel, his confidence shaking. "You cannot bring this ship into port without me!"
"I don't need you at all," said Alex. "There are several sailors who have been eager to prove themselves. We'll sail into port just fine, don't you worry.
Alex dropped the comm, and released the lift's hold button, lowering into the depths of the ship.
Drexel pounded on the glass, but then slid to the ground, leaning against the lift windows and watching the colors of his own, approaching doom. He accepted his fate.
"I'm sorry, Captain," said Drexel. "I apologize for my mistake."
Drexel dropped the comm, and watched the colors continue to merge and swarm. He closed his eyes, realizing that as these final moments passed, he would soon be gone. There would be no more chances for redemption. No more opportunities for reward or relationships. This would be his end.
In his mind, the image of the woman in The Hole floated in. Her look of panic as he'd closed the door. And then, his own amusement at her suffering.
It was quite different being on the other end.
His heartbeat was racing, and he watched as the sky started to lighten up, the first sign of imminent portal entry. It would happen at any minute.
His time was done.
And then the door opened.
Alex gripped Drexel's collar and literally threw him into the lift's back wall, the lift's doors closing immediately. Drexel and the Captain both watched as a wave of bluish-white fire burst across the ship, bathing the craft in unearthly flame. Immediately, however, the flame dissipated as frost began forming in its place, covering The Ascension in a wintery white.
The Navigator looked up at the Captain, who was gazing into the violent swarms of color as they continued to increase in fervor and chaos.
"I," said Alex calmly. "I am not a murderer."
The doors opened, and the Captain left the Navigator there in the lift, trying desperately to calm his rapid breathing and slow his racing heart.
Drexel watched the Captain turn the corner as the doors sealed him into the lift.
The city of Zion was sprawled before the ship in a cacophony of noise, lights, and excitement. The Captain directed the craft to land just on the outskirts of town, just south of what was often referred to as Zion's "Red Lantern District."
Especially here, in the city's more degenerate societies, the festivities were in full-swing, though the sun was only just starting its downward slope under the horizon. There was little time to waste, for tomorrow would mark the return to the city's normal law, and there was so much to be done here before the twin-twilight, and no one wished to miss out on the annual occasion.
Known by many names throughout Zion, The Festival of Magic was a celebration throughout Zion of magical wonder and amazement, a chance for the many practitioners throughout the city to show their skill and talents to the populace. It was also one of the most rampant occasions for the loosening of many of the rather strictly-enforced morals throughout Zion's culture, which the crew of The Ascension was very much looking to take advantage of.
As the ship landed, the crew quickly locked the craft down, and Alex went about the tasks of assigning certain crewman to guard duties for the night. Though there were some noticeable groans from the younger crewman chosen, Alex was grateful that Oxford had volunteered, offering to forego the Festival and keep an eye on the craft.
As for the prisoners, Alex had assigned Hayder to handle their transportation. He spoke to the First-Mate, and explained that here was a second chance. He also suggested the use of Spirit Tracers just in case one of the prisoners were to escape, but left the details up to him, with a small detachment of six men to assist him.
Alex hoped that it would at least be seen as an olive branch to the First-Mate, instead of as a continued belittlement, but the Captain wasn't so sure about his top officer anymore. It could be that the relationship was already soured. Only time would tell, as their story was not yet ended.
Finally, Alex addressed the rest of his crew, eager to enter into the city.
"Return by the second watch," said the Captain calmly. "We still have much to do tomorrow, but you lads have earned yourselves a good time tonight. Enjoy the bounties of Zion, my friends."
And with that, the pirates entered into the fray of Zion's Festival of Magic.
Skratch collapsed to the ground in a smoking heap. Blue grass all around the park had been torched black and the once full park was now only filled with the most daring and drunk of celebrators.
“Sorry Skratch. Not tonight.” Regus walked over to Skratch’s body, smoldering on the ground. “I’m still the master.” Regus turned from his downed opponent and bowed to the audience that still remained. Slowly the rest of the spectators emerged from their hiding places amongst the homes and shops surrounding the park.
And then Skratch opened his eyes, and smiled.
“Sorry Reggie. I’m not done yet.” Skratch stretched his body and pushed hard against the ground, and delivered a sweeping kick to Regus’ legs, knocking him to the ground. He landed in a graceful crouch, and did a back flip before landing in a crouch atop a swing set, perched like a bird on a wire. “Not by half.” He smirked.
The crowd cheered and Regus lay on his back for awhile, coughing through a crooked smile.
Nice. But I’m not done yet either. Not by half.
Regus leaned forward and sat on his knees, rubbing dirt and scorched grass off of his pants. “You know, you look an awful lot like Bubo up there.” He remarked as he stood.
“Bubo never had my roundhouse.” said Skratch. He snapped, and the leather pads on his fingertips ignited a spark, and he held a fireball in his hands. This one wasn’t like the ones that lit the sky or juggled though. This one could burn. “And I’m fairly certain he didn’t know how to do this either.” Skratch clapped and the fire spread down his arms up to his elbows, sparks ran up and down his arms at the sudden heat.
“True enough.” said Regus. “But either way,” he smiled, “This ends now.”
“How melodramatic of you.” said Skratch.
“You have no idea.” Regus snapped, as if pulling forward his snapdragon fireworks again. He let the magic heat the air around his fingers, but now he also made micro-adjustments to the air pressure around him as well, and instead of igniting a flame with a spark, the familiar crackle and blue glow of lightning spread over his fingertips.
Skratch’s smile disappeared. This was another new bit of information he was gleaning from his maker and friend tonight. He knew he had only been ‘alive’ for three years, and complete for less than one but he still considered himself one of the more skilled magicians in Zion. It seemed he still had a lot to learn. And he was happy to learn it.
I should probably end this quick then. And try not to get hit. It would be a really good idea to not get hit.
Skratch jumped into the air from his perch and swung his arms at Regus. He wasn’t anywhere near enough to hit him of course, but throwing fire wasn’t exactly a mystery to most Tellers, in fact it was a pretty standard affair. So when he released the contact points he was using to hold the flames to his arms, they flew through the air like guided arrows pointed at a big, fleshy, flammable target. He landed with a metallic thump on the charred ground and watched his bullets fly, smile from ear to ear.
Regus smiled, but didn’t move quite yet. He wanted to give the spectators a show; they only got to see this spectacle once a year of course. So he waited just a half beat after the crowd gasped, and then stepped back, dodging the first flame. He ducked under the second and extended his arms like a child who would pretend to fly, and aimed his empty palm back at Skratch. The lightning followed the changing pressure up his arm and across his shoulders, the hair on his neck standing on edge, and down his opposite arm. When the bolt reached the end of his hand it fired straight and true, and struck his metallic friend’s chest plate, knocking him back through the swings and harshly onto the slide behind.
The crowd was silent for a moment, stunned by the show. What eyes weren’t glued to the man they thought a humble storyteller and tinkerer were fixated on Skratch, now charred further, and still smoking.
“That was a good one. I yield.” coughed out the metallic man. He stood and took a bow, before gesturing his surrender to Regus, head bowed. The silence shattered as the people of Zion chanted their approval for a fight well executed. It had been planned of course, a rare display of battle magic. There were few practitioners left in Zion and even fewer who knew enough to pull their punches and how to fight for show.
Regus jumped onto his cart and waited for Skratch to join him. They clasped hands and took their bows, blew kisses to the audience and laughed along with the sound of bright metallic coins being hurled at their feet. “Thank you good citizens and patrons of Zion! We are most humbled by your generosity and by your applause. We hope you have enjoyed the show. Good evening to you all, and don’t forget to purchase a snapdragon on your way back to the Festival Proper!” he shouted over the raucous and appreciative crowd.
An hour or so later Regus and a magically rebuffed and polished Skratch walked through the crowded city streets, pockets heavy with coin and smiles plastering their faces.
“That lightning was a genius move. And using a dodge to fuel the movement for it was brilliant!” Skratch shouted throwing his hands into the air.
Regus just looked down at the pavement and smirked. “It’s like I’ve always taught you Skratch. Balance is physical, emotional, and mental. Your thoughts, movements, and feelings must all react as one if you want to maximize the return on your effort.”
“You sound like your still telling stories friend.”
“Just because I still sound poetic doesn’t mean I’m not right.” said Regus.
“If you say so. I don’t know about you but I’m ready to experience the night! I haven’t been able to walk the Festival my entire life!” Skratch said through a grin.
“I know Skratch I know. I thought we’d leave the Market District tonight; see a little bit more of the city if you know what I mean."
“You just want to get drunk and shack up with the first woman you meet.”
“Show some respect Tin Man. I may wait until the second or third.” Regus laughed.
“If you can woo that many.” said Skratch. Regus let out one short loud laugh and clapped his friend on the back, and they walked thick as thieves through the night life into some of seedier locales that Zion had to offer. It was Festival night after all. What was the point of packing a year’s worth of celebrating into one day if it didn’t include one or two drunken escapades in a pub by the docks with a mechanical friend you spent three years building in your shop?
Pounce's fur bristled under the stairs, almost of its own accord. She wasn't aware of any direct danger, but then, cats had evolved to be wary even when they were unsure why. While she'd done a lot of storybook traveling, the only time she'd passed between realms was in coming to Limbo. She wasn't aware that they were coming out of the realmstream at the moment, but her instinct reacted nonetheless. Not long after, she felt the momentum of the ship slow down, and a gentle thud as the ship touched the ground. There were cheers and hollers as the energy level amplified among the crew. Since she still had no idea where anybody else was, and wasn't quite sure whether her first foray into public would get her killed or not. Unless Angelus, Anubis, or someone else who could track well came looking, she decided it would be best to wait until most of the crew had left before she ventured out and tried to find the others.
It was a joke from whomever had built this realm-leaping vessel to include a parking brake. The brake didn't actually do a whole lot, but it did tell the various other systems that they were supposed to be in a non-moving state. But then, computers had a habit of not paying any attention to what they were supposed to be doing and did what they felt like anyway. There were rumors of ships taking off by themselves after the last crewman disembarked, even though the "brake" was set. Jimmy wasn't sure whether those stories were fact or fiction, but he set the brake anyway and started packing. Abedah had nothing to take with her, so she sat on the edge of the cot and watched. "You know I'm still technically a prisoner, right?" she asked.
"I've been thinking about that. First, we'll try to get off the ship without anyone noticing. There are a couple ways off, but I don't think we'll be able to avoid everybody. As long as we're inconspicuous, I think we can manage."
"If you haven't noticed, I'm not exactly the fitting in type around here."
Jimmy laughed at that. "There are a few men with longer hair among the crew, and we'll try to move before it gets light, but after some of the night life dies down. And if any of the crew tries to be a hero by 'recapturing' you, I'll convince them that Hayder recognized your natural talent for engineering and assigned you to me, and that now that we've arrived, I'm taking you back to him. Except we won't go anywhere like that if we can help it."
Abedah shook her head. "Well, I can't think of any better ideas. Can we at least take the swords with us? I'd feel better having some kind of protection if things got rough."
"Sorry," replied Jimmy with a tinge of sadness in his voice. "I agree, I'd feel better if we went armed, but the swords have to stay in the room, and they'd get in our way. Once we're off the ship, we'll get some things we can use soon enough; but our best bet now is to travel light. We'll give everyone an hour to get a head start and move then."
Daniel Frey had been waiting for this moment since the ship had taken off. He'd had months and months to think about it, and now the moment had finally arrived. At last he was going to escape these pirates, and then he'd have to plan his next move from there. He didn't know how he was going to get home, but he knew one thing, he didn't want to be subjected to the whims of Alex and Hayder anymore. Unlike Fenris, the life of a pirate didn't suit him. He may be a thief, but not by choice, and he was not one for taking orders. He stood in Fenris' room, the warrior sitting on the bed beside him, cleaning her new blade. His heart was pounding in his chest, and he could barely hear anything over the sound of the blood pounding in his ears. "Alright, Fen," He said quietly, "Now or never." He knew it was true. If he knew Alex, then he'd use spirit tracers to keep track of his newly acquired assets, and if that was the case Fenris would never be able to lose the pirates. Fenris seemed to be having second thoughts, though. He knew why. She had come to her room from the deck to discuss their escape plans with him, and in the process she had left Angelus behind. The little angel had stayed on the deck, watching the show in the sky, and following this departure she had known one thing. If she left now, there was no taking the guardian with her. Frey had tried to convince her that it was for the best. Angelus would want her to escape, and odds were that they'd be able to meet up later. Angelus was smart, she'd find her own way out of the pirates' clutches. But now the warrior sat, staring at the blade in her hands, letting her last chance at escape slip away. At last she put the blade down and looked at him, her eyes set. "I'm not going," She said. The thief sighed, leaning against the windowframe. "She'll be fine," He said, but she was already shaking her head. "I can't leave her," She said, "She may be annoying, but she's my friend, and she's been the only person who's been there for me through everything...even if I didn't know it." The thief nodded, watching as the other pirates flooded into the streets. He knew that if he wanted to escape, he'd be with them. He sighed, resigning himself to his fate. "Alright," He said, "Do what you want." Fenris nodded, smiling slightly. "What about you?" She said. He shrugged. "Well," He said, "I could still escape, but at the same time, I trust my chances of getting home more with you." He shook his head, laughing slightly. "Guess I'm stuck to you as much as Angelus," He said. Fenris smiled, glad to know that the thief was sticking with her. Of course, now she had two people to take care of on her way home. At the very least they were people she could tolerate. Now she just had to find her other traveling companions.
Set Odara had been huddled against the lush wind and music of the night, tightly crouched with his long legs coiled under him in the courtyard. His shoes left no tracks as they soundlessly closed the distance between him and the ladder and ascended its rungs. He dove with a bird’s quiet and precision behind a large box and sidled to the next landing.
The young man’s shortly cropped hair was almost completely straight and his skin so pale he had been mistaken for white once. But his features were Zionese, and like all Odaras he was a terrifyingly handsome and proud of his country. For Odara did mean beautiful, after all. But unlike the rest of his clan, which was universally known for its kindheartedness, Set’s beauty went no deeper than his skin. A skin that held that other trait of Odaras, the ability to change into whatever it pleased.
He was built like a titan, a hulk of muscle with sharp gray eyes. He shimmed up the next ladder and shifted into a salamander, cutting quickly from room to room and wedging his small head through cracks and corners that had never been seen before. The nauseating jolt of the panic and desperation that courses through a creature so small as a salamander threatened to overtake him, but he had learned to ignore these urges and primitive feelings. He pressed toward his destination here at the Hayder estate until he came to what used to be a child’s room. He shifted back and observed that the roof was still broken in some places and the floor was strewn with sketches and pieces of tattered paper. Upside down he read a single word still written in crayon: RYXON.
<I see you>
Set’s gray eyes widened.
He must hurry. Perhaps the necklace had been fake. <I know what you want>
He forgot all pretext of silence. With the strength of a charging animal, and its bulk, he ripped through the doors of the beautiful, but now haunted, mansion until he came to the only light he saw. His axe was at the ready. He breathed deeply and pushed open the door.
There he saw her, Isis Odara, split down the middle. As magnificent as ever, on one side, cloaked in decaying, putrid flesh on the other.
She was in a crystal cage, floating above him in the center of the room.
“What have you done to my aunt?” Set snapped, spit flying from his lips.
“What have I done?” Acel laughed. “I have preserved and protected her from further harm. The cast off has killed her.”
“You made her a monster,” he sneered.
“In a way, she already was one,” Acel said with heated bitterness. “She bore me a powerless bastard.”
“We all know that the cast off, Osiris, is a bastard. That is no reason to keep my aunt locked up all these years. She was innocent.”
“Innocent.” he laughed, “And you’ve come, to what, Set?” Acel said closing his eyes. “You’ve come to kill me?” his lips curled into an unnatural smile. “You waited until you were of age and trained your mind for this, but obviously not enough. You’ve been thinking of destroying me for weeks as we worked together as political allies but this is your opportunity. In the confusion of the festival you were going to attack. And somehow you knew that the festival would also draw the bastard. You intend to kill him, too.”
Set had known that Hayders were powerful telepaths but he had no idea the extent until now. “It’s all true,” he said. It did not matter now. He would hack the old man to pieces.
Acel’s telepathy immediately ripped the axe out of Set’s hand with so much force the young man fell down violently. The axe hovered over his neck poised to decapitate him immediately.
Acel laughed hoarsely. “We shall see about that,” he said. “I must remind you, Set, that I am invincible. I will prove as much now.” The axe reared back on its own accord, gaining momentum.
“No! Stop!” Set shouted. “I can be useful to you! I am a politician, you can’t simply kill me, there will be a scandal.”
“You are right. We are both in the public eye and Zionese hate scandal. There are two options. In either case you will abandon all plans of interfering with matters between Isis and I and you will leave Zion for daring to defy me.”
“Please, Acel, be reasonable. There is no place in this world like Zion. Do not make me leave the only world I have ever known.”
Acel continued as if he had not heard Set. “You will either kill the bastard and leave Zion forever or I will put this axe back into your hands and watch you hack yourself to pieces. Either you will leave on your own accord or you will leave in boxes.” The axe jammed itself between his hands and began to violently shake. “You have a strong arm, Set, and a sound mind. This decision should not take long.”
“This decision should not take long,” Hayder said. “Either he is going to continue to berate me all the time or he is going to have to give me a chance to redeem myself in his eyes.”
“Huh?” Lox said turning the page to a very gripping children’s story. It was “The Big Bad Wolf” Zionese style. Only this time, the pigs died.
“Alex. He said he would talk to me later, but lately he’s been avoiding me.”
“Why is that?”
Hayder shrugged glancing at the chess game they had started days ago and never finished. “I don’t know. Maybe he is going to replace me.”
“He can do that?” she paused a beat, “You can get a better job somewhere else.”
“Well, when I say replace, Lox, I mean kill.”
She put her book down and furrowed his eyebrows. “I wish he would.” The light started to creep into her palm again. “I mean really, the next time Alex tries something, I will tie that bracer around his—”
Hayder crossed the room to shush Lox. “Don’t talk like that, anyone could be listening.”
“But we’re in your room,” she said.
“I know, and that’s the other thing. He feels like he owns everything around here, including me. And to an extent, even you. It’s coming to a head. I am not intimidated by any man, especially not an outsider like Alex.”
“Leave him. Why are you on this ship anymore? To get to Zion, yes, but what happens after that?”
“This is the endgame, Lox. I’m going to go to Zion, avenge my mother, and die.”
“For the hundredth time: stop saying that.”
“It is the truth, darling,” he kissed her forehead. “I am sorry that I could not have known you longer.” He curled up on the bed with her and wrapped her in his arms. “Life is not a fairy tale. People die.”
“I won’t let you die,” she said softly. In the back of her mind she remembered that when she met him, it was the magnetic feeling that he was not long for this world that pulled her to him in the beginning. Now she wished more than ever that it had not been true.
They lay there together, sleeping, but when Lox woke, Hayder was gone.
He had almost died and the inside of his pants was a little moist with the smell of ammonia.
Since the incident with the Zionese girl he had avoided Hayder. The man had found Drexel eating in the commissary and had choked him until he blacked out. Now he was actively searching for him. A tall black man with blue hair and a sword, never hard to locate on a ship like this.
He set eyes on him. The young man was walking at a clip toward the captain’s quarters.
“Hayder,” Drexel called.
The gentleman paused, looked at Drexel, then punched him squarely in the face. “Stop!” Drexel shouted. “It’s about Alex.” He grabbed Hayder’s lapels and pushed him against the wall to avoid the left hook that was coming for him. He took it in the kidneys instead of the face.
Hayder paused. “What are you saying Drexel?” he sniffed something offensive. “You smell like a dying cat box.”
“I’m sorry a million times for the lady.”
“You have no loyalty,” Hayder continued. “You’re Khaleian, but no one could tell by the way you carry yourself. You act just like the rest of these savages. With no regard for form, decency, or common sense, and certainly no self-respect.”
“It’s about Alex,” Drexel wheezed.
“I am on the way to see our beloved captain.”
“He tried to kill me,” Drexel said, through eyes half-closed in pain. “I am not Zionese, but as your Khaleian brother, you should help me eliminate him. I’ve picked up from Oxford that you might be trying to kill Alex, I want to help you.”
Drexel was no brother; in fact he was an embarrassment to the Khaleian people. Hayder was shrewd enough to learn more before he made any alliances. “Why did he try to kill you?”
“For what I did to the lady.”
Hayder considered this. “First of all the idea that I would kill Alex is barbarous,” he said louder than he needed to. “I would never do such a thing. Secondly, the fact that he almost murdered you for Lox,” he paused, “positively heroic.” He slapped Drexel on the back. “Have a good day, chap. Maybe you’ll find your manhood when you locate a fresh pair of pants.”
Lox could never seem to keep up with her pants or her clothes in general. Even on earth she had been messy and fortunately, Hayder found it endearing rather than annoying that she could never find what she needed to wear. He would watch her, staring at the item in question, and wait for her to find it, pinching the inside of his cheek to keep from laughing as she looked everywhere else.
He wasn’t here, though. Just a few hours before he had been tracing the lines of the wings tattooed on her back or reading the poetry she had written in her book or spreading and unspreading her fingers in his hands. He hadn’t been gone long; his brandy was still cold.
She drank it, got up, and stretched in the now dark room. The ship had stopped humming and, for once, it felt like they were very still. She got the sense that she was on solid land again because she had not felt any turbulence in a while. She cracked the window’s blinds and for the first time in her life saw the wild beauty of Zion. Fireworks cracked overhead and it seemed the place was seething with activity and people. The circus had come to town.
Her hand began to glow again, softly now, triggered by her anticipation.
Hayder had convinced her that she was an animator. She could cause things that were not real to become real or things that were broken to work as if they weren’t. She deduced that the lamp that had been drawn on her hand could be made manifest when she desired it to be, but for the most part, it only came alive at the most embarrassing times.
She had been successful at bringing the asp that coiled around her leg to life, but Hayder had killed it on reflex. It was the only time she had seen him really scared and she had laughed until there were tears in her eyes. It reappeared around her leg again before he could sheath his sword. He spent a long time trying to convince her that he had not jumped on top of a table with a shout to protect himself, but because he wanted to see the scaled specimen from a better angle.
Her thoughts were interrupted when she heard a knock at the door.
She scrambled to pull on her pants, shirt, and ankle boots.
She opened the door slightly. It was the blond, pin-straight Orel.
“Orel,” she said with a half smile. “I haven’t seen you in a while.”
“Since you won all my money in the cantina, I have been too broke to call,” he grinned.
“You’re probably looking for Siris. He’s with Alex.”
“I know, miss. I came to tell you to report to the deck. Hayder is trying to assemble all of you.”
“Okay, I’ll walk with you. Let me get my bag.”
She remembered when she used to carry Nubie around, but he simply could not tolerate Hayder and had bit him so many times, Lox had allowed him to stay with Pash when she went to visit him.
She and Pash had not spoken much, but they had come to an understanding. Apparently her perception of her and Hayder’s relationship was wrong, but just like Alex and Hayder, they had never gotten around to formally figuring out their differences. They simply coexisted for the time being.
“Orel,” Lox said. “You seem to be troubled.”
Orel sighed. “It’s Drexel. Again.”
“What’s wrong this time?”
“He says Alex almost killed him.”
Lox looked surprised. “I thought he just didn’t like Hayder.”
“Well, it was over you. He almost killed him because he almost killed you.”
“I don’t want to be biased, Orel, but I have to side with Alex on this one. Drexel should not have done that.”
“You say it so calmly, you almost died. You don’t even seem mad at Drexel.”
Orel turned to her, “Why?”
“When you’re mad at a person, it shows that you care about them in some way. It validates them, they matter to you on some level. Look at Angelus and I. All we do is argue, but that must mean something. I don’t care about Drexel one way or the other and in my estimation, he means nothing. That’s a whole lot worse.” She patted Orel’s back, “Now when it comes to you and Drexel, I’m always on your side.”
“Interesting,” said Orel. “I don’t know how to feel. I know you and Drexel both and if Alex had really killed him… well I… I don’t know what I would have done.” Somehow the way he said that did not suggest that he would be a weeping widow, rather a crazed killer.
“I think this is the deck, Orel, I’ll see you later,” she said. But Orel didn’t leave. He joined five other men behind Hayder.
Lox was the last one to arrive. Everyone else was standing around. Pash and Anubis were even there.
“I came right away, I didn’t mean to be—”
Pash shrugged, “You didn’t know to come, Angelus told us all to report.”
It was the necklace.
“Now that we have all gathered together,” Hayder began, “let us thank Angelus for assembling us. I would like to apologize for any mistreatment that you have received on The Ascension. Those who have been overly rough have been dealt with accordingly. I want you to know that we have been honored to have you aboard. Normally, we do not allow our prisoners to leave the vessel, but tonight it would be truly criminal to keep you here. This is Zion’s Festival of Magic and Alex has entrusted you in my care. I would like for you to experience this festival because it has great significance to me and my people. However, I cannot lose even one of you while we are here. That’s where these come in,” he held up a flat white orb that looked like a button one would wear on a shirt. “It is called a Spirit Tracker.” He touched it to Abedah’s arm and it disappeared into her. “It makes it possible for us to know where you are. Now you have a decision to make. You can either accept the Tracker and enjoy the festival, returning by second watch, or you will stay on board the ship alone.” He handed them each a Spirit Tracker. “Make your decision. My men will escort you to a cell if you intend to stay, but that would be a shame indeed. If you do venture out, pick a partner.”
Angelus had to admit, as she hovered over the others, she was rather impressed by all of the other prisoners, it was kind of impressive all of the madness they'd gotten onto on the Ascension. Fenris had made a friend, Lox had found a lover, lost said lover, re-found him, and gotten into a soap-opera style love triangle,and she had manged to get herself lost in time.It was impressive, really, how much they had managed to pull off while floating around the sky on a hunk of metal. The little angel decided, however, that she was in no rush to do anything that could lead to those same shenanigans ever again. Namely, save for her return journey to Terra Di, she would never EVER get on a flying pirate ship ever again. She realized that she had accidentally made another Peter Pan reference and shook her head. 'What is it with me and that movie?' She wondered to herself. As she thought this, Lox arrived on the deck, accompanied by the Smee. A short while later, Hayder began to speak. "Now that we're all gathered," He said, "Let us thank Angelus for assembling us." A quick scan of the thoughts of her fellow captives told Angelus that they were as likely to thank her as they were to suddenly turn into giant wombats. She hadn't gotten to that apologizing bit yet, she realized. "I would like to apologize for any mistreatment that you have received on The Ascension," Hayder continued. Which Angelus interpreted as "I would really, really like to apologize to my girlfriend for letting her almost die.", though she said nothing. "Those who have been overly rough have been dealt with accordingly," He continued. Angelus interpreted this nugget as "We scared the hell out of Drexel, and now he has to spend the night searching for a new pair of underwear." Of course, scared the hell out of him was an understatement. She'd heard all his thoughts during Alex's near-murder of him, and she was fairly certain that she'd never be able to get them out of her mind. Angelus had heard many things in her life, but hearing someone face death like that was still intensely disturbing. She almost felt sorry for the poor pirate. Then she remembered that he'd earned every second of his near death experience. Like Lox or not, no one deserved to be treated the way he'd treated her. "I want you to know that we have been honored to have you aboard," Hayder said. Angelus almost laughed at that. That made the prisoners sound like celebrities, and it left the impression that they had been treated WELL. Which, in all fairness, they had, but not intentionally. And if nothing else, Arem and Dougie showed that being honored to have someone on board did not mean being nice to them. Those two, of course, were still using their thoughts to make it clear that they weren't very happy with her. She frowned, knowing full well that she had earned these thoughts. That was what made their current dislike of her painful. Lox had hated her for dubious reasons at best. Arem, Dougie, and the others hated her because she'd been an exceptionally crappy friend. "Normally we do not let our prisoners leave the vessel," Hayder continued, "But tonight it would be truly criminal to keep you here. This is Zion's festival of magic and Alex has entrusted you in my care. I would like for you to experience the festival because it has great significance to me and my people." As Angelus watched the sky she could see why. Zion was a dazzling place in it's own right, but with the night sky lit up with a thousand colorful magical flames and the blaze of a million fireworks it was a sight to behold. Complimenting that, Angelus' psychic abilities allowed her to sense the pure joy that was radiating from the crowds that thronged the streets. She doubted there was a soul worried about anything on this night. There was nothing but joy and wonder at the spectacle, and the feeling left Angelus feeling lighter than air...of course she could be lighter than air if she wanted, but the idea was the same, she could hardly think of a time when she had felt better. This was a night worthy of celebrating, and the happiness it brought with it was extremely infectious. The Angel had truly never felt anything like it, and she wanted nothing more than to take part in the joy and wonder of the festival. She felt like a child again, and she knew better than anyone that there was no better feeling in the world. However, despite her urge to lose herself in the wonderful emotions of the festival goers, she had to pay attention to the ship. Hayder was still talking. "However, I cannot lose even one of you while we are here. That's where these come in," He said, holding up a small white orb. It was flat, and yet it's surface seemed to pulse, giving dimension that wouldn't normally be there. The object fascinated the angel, as it seemed almost alive, as though there was something animate lying inside it's plain casing. "It is called a spirit tracker,"Hayder continued calmly, as if there was nothing surprising about the object, "It makes it possible for us to know where you are. Now you have a decision to make. You can either accept the tracker and enjoy the festival, returning by second watch, or you will stay on board the ship alone." Angelus smiled at this, realizing that Hayder's statement seemed to perfectly compliment her childlike feelings. He was a parent, giving a curfew. 'Be back by nine, and take your phone, kids, or you'll be grounded for all of eternity.' She saw him saying in her mind. Of course, the punishment was fairly accurate, save for the fact that they wouldn't technically be 'grounded' for most of the duration. He began to hand out spirit trackers, and knowing her decision already, Angelus floated gracefully back to the deck, landing beside Fenris and accepting her tracer. She winced as it pierced her skin, passing through to latch on to something unseen. The object felt uncomfortable in it's perch beneath her skin, a white hot object pinching into the very fabric of her existence. Her discomfort wasn't just physical either. The tracker left her with another new feeling, the constant feeling of being watched. That made perfect sense, she guessed. After all, with this in place, she really WAS being watched at all times. Still, she wished she could find a way to ignore the feeling. It made her self conscious, and that was the last thing she wanted to feel like on a night like this. It didn't take Fenris long to pick her partner, finding Frey in the crowd and picking him out easily. The thief seemed to think that the decision meant that Fenris still thought she could escape, but before he could attempt to whisper the foolishness of this to Fenris, the Angel stopped him. <This has nothing to do with escaping,> She thought into his mind, <Fen just wanted to travel with a familiar face.> Angelus laughed as she sensed the pirate calm. He was awfully nervous, almost like a boyfriend picking up his date for prom. That was a nice comparison, the angel decided. It was fun to imagine that someday Fenris might have a romantic life, even if that meant that the angel would have to deal with some uncomfortable thoughts. More than that, it would be fun to watch the warrior awkwardly fumble with her feelings. Before long Angelus was following the others off to the night, but before Frey and Fenris could leave the ship the angel stopped them. "One sec," She said, "I've got some unfinished business to take care of." She closed her eyes, and silently she found the signals of her traveling companions. Najm,nurturing but vicious, Arem, kind but tough,Abedah, intelligent but confused,and Dougie, old but with a mind fresh and full of optimism and enthusiasm. She found all of these strange, contradictory people, and decided to tie up the last loose end on this current journey. She started to think one thought to them all, it was a simple thought, and one she should have passed on to each long ago. <I'm truly sorry> She said to them all <I'm sorry I betrayed all of your trust, and that I did so little to make your time traveling on this ship easier. I was so focused on getting myself and Fenris out of this that I did nothing to help you through this. I should have been a better friend to each of you. Instead I looked out for myself. I'm so, so sorry, and I hope you have it in your heart to forgive me.> She hoped that the apology would be enough to win them over, even though she knew that some of them would probably never view her in a positive light again. Still, she had done her best, and if they still did not trust her after this, well, she would just have to find another way to earn their trust. For now, she had done her best. With that weight lifted form her heart, she went with Frey and Fenris, disappearing into the night to enjoy the infectious bliss that filled the streets of Zion. *** Cassandra had always hated the magic festival. She knew that she should not, and she knew that if nothing else she should try to tolerate it to fit in with the people of Zion, but she could not lie to her heart, and in her heart she despised the Festival with all of her being. She couldn't help it, she supposed, given her past. Seeing one's father immolated in front of you by a powerful magician kind of sours the entire magic thing for the rest of your life. More than that, she hated everything that magic had cost her. Were it not for magic she would still have a father. Were it not for magic, her best friend would still be speaking to her. Were it not for magic, she would still be able to call the small house that waited atop the tallest hill on the outskirts of town home. Instead, she was left with no family, no friends, and a home that, while comfortable, felt less like a home than a place she retreated to when in need of sleep. There was nothing comforting about the small apartment that she lived in, it was just a place to keep her things. Maybe that was all a home was, she thought, but she had always felt there was more to it than that. A home was a place where one could feel comfortable being who they really were underneath it all. And the truth was, there were no places in Zion where she felt truly comfortable. She supposed that wasn't entirely true. She felt comfortable in the academy, and the library, but even those places lacked the feeling of freedom that a home granted her, and she couldn't flee to either of those on this night. She also knew that besides her personal dislike of magic itself, the festival made her uncomfortable for another reason. It reminded her that she was a stranger in a strange land, and it brought the feeling of alienation that she tried to suppress to the forefront of her mind. She was not Zionese, and while she could remember no other home she had never really felt like a part of Zion. The people had accepted her as one of their own, but she had always known that she wasn't one of them, and the feeling never stopped bothering her. It was why she spent so much time helping her fellow citizens, she felt she had to earn their trust, that she had to show that she really appreciated their kindness for allowing them to live with her like one of their own children. That thought stopped her dead in her tracks, reminding her of a kind face, an old man's face, who had promised to do just that. 'You have no reason to fear me,' That face had once said, 'For I view you as one of my children.' That was the face of her father's killer. It was a face she had once loved, but that she now feared and hated more than any other, even in the years after his death. The grandson of that face had once been her best friend. Now, somewhere in the night, he was preparing for something that would solidify his position as her worst enemy. Unless she could get there first. She had to stop him, and then she had to show him reason. At least, that was the plan. Of course, the father had tried the same thing on dear old Shada, and look where that'd gotten him? Still, she had to work on the assumption that Ramus WOULD listen to reason, otherwise this whole night would be lost. She would stop him, and they would be friends again, that was the plan. It was a childish one, she knew, and it would fail because it was nothing more than wishful thinking. Still, it was better than doing nothing at all. The first thing she had to do, she knew, was find the location that Ramus was searching for before him. That location was the catacombs that ran beneath Zion, but she didn't know where the entrance to the catacombs was. All she knew that it was near the docks. That was why she was here, fighting through the crowds of people that thronged the docks, watching the fireworks that burst in the sky above. She weaved through each, searching the ground as if she would somehow discover a simple secret door that had 'Catacombs Here' written on it. She would occasionally look up as the annoyed citizens that bumped into her informed her of their annoyance. Still, she had to find the way into the catacombs, no matter what. She looked up again, annoyed with her lack of success, and started to pull her map of Zion from her pocket, when she caught sight of something. Wings. There was a pair of wings in the air in front of her. And attached to them was a young girl, beautiful, with silver hair that flowed with the night breeze,and soft golden eyes that reflected an eternity of sadness and knowledge. Suddenly, finding the catacombs meant nothing. Cassandra knew that she had to get that girl, and fast. The fate of Zion might depend on it. She had to get to that girl, and she had to somehow find a way to end her. Otherwise, the age of magic would come again. And with it, the end of Zion. She looked to her pack, finding in it all of the objects she'd need. She had her alchemic supplies, the various metals and chemicals she'd need to craft things on the fly, her healing salve, her compass, and, most importantly, her diamond knife. If she was quick,and quiet, she'd be able to stop the girl before she even knew that she was there. And then, the little angel was gone. Cassandra blinked, staring at the spot in the air where she had been hanging. She had looked away for a moment. She sighed, frustrated with her failure. She let her head fall back on her shoulders, staring at the sky as if it held the answers she needed. What she found made her jump back, hitting another civilian. "Excuse me," The little angel said, staring down at her, "You were just thinking about killing me, weren't you?" Cassandra swallowed, only now remembering that Shada had told her that Guardians were psychic. She should have prepared more, but she had planned to stop the guardian being resurrected, so fighting it hadn't been part of the plan. "Not part of what plan?" The angel asked, popping out of the air in front of her in a flash and reappearing behind her, "What was that about me being resurrected?" Cassandra's heart was racing in her chest. She refused to let herself turn to look at the angel. She didn't want to face her failure, and her fear forbid her from looking at the face of her killer. "Killer?" The angel asked, still confused, "Why would I kill you...why were you trying to kill me...dammit all, if you could you just answer one of these questions instead of freaking out?" Cassandra narrowed her eyebrows, confused. The angel should know about all of the things she was talking about, and yet she seemed confused. "Because I am," The angel said, "So, please, Miss...Phaedra, is it, could you please explain to me WHY you were thinking of killing me and you think I'm going to kill you?" Cassandra tried to resist the urge to answer. But this angel seemed so confused, and while her powers were formidable,she seemed to care little for Cassandra. The girl was starting to doubt that this angel would hurt her at all, in fact,she almost felt like the little angel would sooner help her than harm her. "Sounds about right," The Angel said, smiling, "Though if you keep thinking about killing me I might have to provide some fireworks of my own." Cassandra's breathing quickened. She realized now how foolish it would have been to try to harm this angel. She was faster, smarter, and more talented than the alchemist could have imagined, and she wouldn't have any chance of hurting her. "Good," The angel said, "Now that we've gotten that out of the way, could you please tell me WHY you were even considering killing me?" The angel seemed bored now, and seeing no way out of this, Cassandra sighed, deciding to submit to the Angels' questioning. "So you really don't know who I am, Gadriel?" She asked, turning to look at the young girl. The angel's face was set, and there appeared to be anger on it. Cassandra felt her heart drop in her chest, realizing just how easily this angel could put an end to her. "What did you say?" The angel said. "Well," Said Cassandra, "You are Gadriel, aren't you?" The angel shook her head slowly, her face still filled with fury. "Where did you hear that name?" The angel asked. Cassandra swallowed hard again, terrified by the petite girl in front of her. "It's a long story," She said nervously. The angel narrowed her eyes again. "Then start telling," She said.
Abedah, Jimmy, and Pounce took their time walking the streets, enjoying the various demonstrations of magic. It occurred to Abedah that many of the displays involved either light, fire, or some combination of the two. She asked Jimmy if there was something about magic that preferred that mode of expression. "You'll have to ask a mage," was his curt reply. Since leaving the ship, Jimmy had seemed very on edge, but Abedah thought it best not to ask him. She probably wouldn't like the answer. Pounce was especially dazzled by the lights, and occasionally had to jump at a starburst that she thought was just in her reach. "I wouldn't do that," Abedah warned. "Somehow, I don't think that's just a pretty show."
Pounce didn't say anything, but heeded the advice. As they wound their way along side streets, the displays of magic became less flamboyant, but no less potent. In one shop that resembled a high-class bar, patrons were being entertained by the fizzing and foaming drinks being served for one night only. Some of the drinks seemed to glow of their own accord. The house lights had been dimmed more than usual to accentuate the display. The trio paused to look through the window for just a few moments before Jimmy urged them to keep moving.
Finally, on what appeared to be an abandoned street with few intact buildings was one shack with a fairly new looking shingle that read "Counselling". Jimmy didn't knock on the door, but went around the side. He signaled that Abedah and Pounce should wait.
"There doesn't seem to be anyone around here," Abedah whispered.
"I don't like this, either," Pounce whispered in reply.
The wind began to swirl around them, blowing dust in their eyes. As they blinked, they found themselves in a small sitting room, with Jimmy standing next to a short old woman. "This is Iysi," he introduced. "She's the one I said could help you, Abedah."
"Come to me," Iysi beckoned. Abedah stepped forward, and though Pounce hadn't been summoned, she walked on all fours around the chair Iysi was sitting in. "She's a good person," Pounce judged. "We can trust her."
"I should think so," Iysi, "though you are right to be suspicious, Miss Pounce. There are many in this town who use magic solely for their own comfort, and those are the most likely to abuse it and forbid it in others. Please, Abedah, tell me how you came to be in our land."
Abedah told her everything, including all the details she left out when she was talking with Jimmy on the pirate ship. "You have been wise to tell me, and (what are you calling yourself this year?)..."
"yes, Jimmy, was wise to bring you here. You two have travelled far, and I fear your journey has only begun. I have heard of this portal, and this odd land far away. Those who know it call it, 'Limbo.' There are tales of people coming through that portal, but very few. From what I have learned, all who come that way have enhanced language skills. What language am I speaking, dear?"
"Common, of course," said Abedah.
"She has not been using the same words we usually use on the ship. I am not fluent, but she has been speaking Zionese."
Iysi continued, "Coming through the portal that you did, you have been granted the gift of being able to understand all languages in all realms, and to be understood by all. You said there was another who is not from our realms, but her companion could not speak. I believe it is because they came by a different path.
"You are unique, you two. Your gift of language is a great magic by itself. But I believe you, Abedah, have a much greater skill to discover. I will send you to Regus. He will be able to help you, I think, though you haven't much time. Jimmy, please do come again while you are in Zion. Though, try not to come at festival. I would like to have time to visit for a while, and these days are so chaotic. Abedah, Pounce, it would be my pleasure to dine with you before you leave our city."
Jimmy gave Iysi a hug and stood with Abedah and Pounce. Pounce's eyes lit up at the mention of dining, "I'd like that a lot, ma'am. Thank you."
"Nu vi an'na!" she incanted. "On your way," Abedah heard. And in a blink, they were standing in front of a pub by the water, as two men, one silver-skinned, walked towards them.
Fenris was amazed at how easy it was to lose the little angel. One would think that it would be hard to lose something with wings,especially something that seemed to give off a constant aura of white light,but it seemed that one could lose anything in the flow of this festival, and in a blink she had lost her angelic friend. Lucky for her, it didn't take her too long to find her again. She was standing at the end of the docks,talking to a girl who seemed absolutely terrified. Fenris shrugged. She could see why. It wasn't everyday that an angel started talking to you casually. Before long the warrior had fought her way through the crowd, catching up to the little angel as she continued to converse with the strange new girl. The newcomer was short Fenris noted, barely taller than the angel, and her light skin and messy brown hair made her stand out from the rest of the crowd. She was not Zionese, but she seemed to be from this realm, whichever one it may be. The warrior moved to tap the angel on the shoulder as Frey fell into place behind her, having lost her in the crowd. The angel seemed genuinely surprised, having been apparently engrossed in her conversation with the new girl. "Who's this now?" The warrior asked cautiously. The angel shrugged, smiling slightly. "Oh, her," She said, "She's Cassandra. She was trying to kill me." The warrior's hand went to her sword immediately, but the angel waved her hand dismissively. "Trying," She said, trying to calm Fenris, "Past tense. Now she's supposed to be telling me a story, but she keeps blathering on about someone called Shada and someone else named Ramus." The angel shrugged, sighing. "Really, I was hoping she'd tell me about my dear sister, Gadriel, and how she found out about her," She said. Fenris raised an eyebrow, lost. She knew that Angelus had a sister named Esse, but she had never heard of this Gadriel. "You haven't heard of a lot of my sisters," The angel said nonchalantly, "I have thousands. All of the guardians are my 'sisters', and Gadriel is another one like me. Of course, given her...um...interesting history you wouldn't hear me talk about her anyway." Fenris noticed that there was an edge to the Angel's last few words, and that the mention of Gadriel seemed to make her angry for some reason. "Anyway," She said, "This girl's not telling me anything that makes sense, and her thoughts aren't much clearer." As she spoke the new girl stared up at Fenris, her blue eyes widening with fear. "You..." She muttered, "You aren't with the order are you?" Fenris looked down at the angel for guidance, but the winged creature simply shrugged. "See, this is what I've been hearing for the last few minutes," She said, "She keeps dropping name's I don't get like they'll make perfect sense. I feel like I've dropped into the middle of a story with no background...which is how I presume our audience feels right about now." Fenris had no idea what to make of this, but in a room in Missouri the writer of this pair slapped his hand against his forehead, realizing the accuracy of his creation's words.He really sucked at introductions, and Cassandra's had been especially poor. "Anyway," The angel said, turning back to Cassandra, "You were telling me about Gadriel?" The girl's wide eyes zipped back to the angel, and after staring in fear for a moment she started. "But you can't be here...I mean, there are no guardians in Illusionia," She said quickly, "Gadriel's the only one and she was sealed after Shada's rebellion and....and..." Angelus looked at her for a moment, a bemused smile on her face. Then she floated over to the girl,raised her hand slowly, and slapped her as hard as she could. For a full minute Cassandra rubbed her jaw and swore. Eventually she was able to turn the angel and talk, though her mouth still felt like it had been torn from her face. "Why the hell did you do that!?" She screamed at the angel, forgetting her fear. Angelus frowned, falling back on her heels. "You were gibbering," She said, "I needed sense, not gibberish." Cassandra nodded, wincing at the pain in her jaw. "Right," She said slowly, blinking as if she was coming out of a trance, "What were we talking about?" "Gadriel," The angel said calmly, "You were telling me about why you know the name Gadriel." The girl nodded slowly, watching as another burst of fireworks filled the sky. "Right," She said, "Can we talk about this somewhere else?" The angel sighed, but nodded, letting the girl guide her through the streets. She could sense that part of this was simply a comforting routine for Cassandra. If she was going to tell this sad story again, she might as well do it somewhere she was comfortable. 'Whatever,' The angel thought, 'At least I won't have to worry about the fireworks distracting me.' As she spoke the sky filled with light in the shape of a massive phoenix, and the sound of wonderful, unearthly music filled the air. For a moment Angelus was tempted to leave her current task behind to revel in the festival once more. But she had to learn why Gadriel's name was known here, and if the corrupt guardian had been set free. *** The cafe was dim and mostly empty in the midst of the festival, and no one batted an eye at the strangers that filled it, as they assumed them to be nothing more than travelers coming through to enjoy the festival. Even Angelus drew no attention, something the angel was happy to find. Cassandra sat across from her, smiling slightly as she calmly sipped a mug of coffee. Seeing her now, Angelus could barely connect her with the gibbering girl she had just spoken to on the docks. "So," She said, "As I said, the story of how I know Gadriel is a long story, and one that I fear is not very satisfying." "That's what she..." Frey started, but Fenris and Angelus both shot him a glare, and he immediately fell silent. "Right..." Cassandra continued awkwardly, "Anyway, to tell this tale, I must first tell another." She took another sip of her coffee, took a deep breath, and began her tale. "A long time ago, when Zion was still a small kingdom, my family and I were traveling through the region to trade various goods that my father had collected in his youth," She said, "We had never really had a homeland, but Zion was new territory for us, and we knew almost nothing of the land." She looked up and looked out at the blossoming city beyond the cafe, and her eyes seemed to mist over, seeing the city as it had been all those years ago. "I was very young then, and life had not yet taught me of tragedy," She said, "It seemed that on this journey I was meant to first experience it, as we were set upon by bandits, and my mother was killed. My father was forced to abandon all of his goods, and we retreated quickly to the city. Upon our arrival we were unable to find a place to stay, but the people in the city all told us to seek the help of Shada, a powerful magician who lived on the outskirts of town, renowned for his remarkable skill and his kindness. Desperate for help we went to his house, and the kindly magician, surprised by our arrival, welcomed us with open eyes." She smiled slightly at this memory, still seeming disconnected from the world around her. "We had arrived at a convenient time, as the wife of Shada's son was about to give birth to a son, and shortly after we arrived he was born," She said, "Seeing a chance to give his grandson a playmate, and unable to let a desperate family live on the street, he allowed us to stay in his home. Three days later the child was born, but this happy occasion brought tragedy with it, as the boy's mother died during childbirth." Cassandra quickly took another drink form her coffee, pausing for a moment before continuing her tale. "The boy's father departed, distraught at the death of his love," She continued, "And he decided to leave to find something worth living for. He never returned, and the child was left in the care of his grandfather for the rest of his youth." Her smile broadened, and there seemed to be a warmth in her eyes now, that had not been present before. "His name was Ramus, and he grew to be an adventurous, brave child...and," She hesitated slightly, red slipping into her cheeks,"And my closest friend. When we were young we would spend hours playing, and together we dreamed of a thousand glorious futures for Zion, futures where we were kings, or where the empire became a paradise within Illusionia that none of the other kingdoms could compare to. We were children, and to us these dreams seemed plausible. We didn't see the real future that was quickly coming to bare on the land. We didn't see the signs that the age of magic was starting to fall." She sighed, her face falling as she continued. "But our elders noticed, and they responded in different ways," She said, "My father began to teach me to ignore the ways of magic, and to focus in more practical skills, like alchemy and writing. I became a voracious student of the sciences, and as I grew older I became focused on my studies, and in the pursuit of knowledge." She frowned, seeming to grow uncomfortable. "But afraid of the change coming to the land Shada taught Ramus in the ways of magic, and he grew to be a cocky young man, focused only on advancing himself in society." She turned to Angelus, her eyes serious. "Gadriel plays into my tale at this point, as Shada's fear came from a prophecy given to him by the guardian," She said, "She predicted that when the age of magic ended Zion would fall, and she advised Shada to do everything he could to prolong the age." Angelus frowned, anger in her eyes, a fury that Fenris hadn't seen before. "Sounds like my dearest sister," She said, "She was always trying to start trouble where there wasn't any." "Quite,"Cassandra said, smiling, "Well,as you can see the age of magic has come to an end and Zion still stands." Angelus nodded, anger still her eyes. "It sounds like there's more to this tale," She said. Cassandra nodded grimly. "Taking the angel's advice,"She continued, "Shada began to kill those that would ban magic. My father learned of this, and afraid of what his friend had become, and afraid of what it would mean for Zion, he told the rulers of his treachery. Before long they sent their best mages to stop him, and he was forced to flee. He learned of my father's treachery before he left, however, and enraged he..." She paused, her face going blank, as she seemed desperate to shut out the next part of the memory. "He set him aflame in front of me..." She sighed, suddenly desperate to end the tale. "He fled to the catacombs beneath the city, and there he summoned the angel to help him," She said, "No one is sure of what happened there, except that Shada fell, and that the angel was sealed away." She sighed again, seeming to grow even more unhappy with the path the tale had taken. "Ramus, angry at his grandfather's death threw me from his house, and convinced that his grandfather was right he began to try to follow in his footsteps, trying to bring the age of magic back, which brings us to now," She said. She looked at Angelus, and smiled slightly. "My friend is trying to resurrect Gadriel so that he can bring back the age of magic," She said. She shrugged, seeming to allow herself to seem vulnerable. "If you can help me stop him, then I will welcome your help," She said, "If not, then I'll be forced to consider you an enemy." She narrowed her eyes, locking her blue orbs on the angel's gold ones. "So, what do you say?" The angel smiled at her, her face brightening. "Given my history with Gad, I'll definitely help you," She said, "I only have one condition." Cassandra smiled. "What is that?" She asked, happy to know that she had made a valuable ally. "Next time I ask you a question," The angel said, not dropping her bright facade, "Don't tell me your life story, okay." Cassandra frowned, but nodded. This angel was annoyingly snarky, but she was still a valuable ally. And if she was lucky, she'd be able to use her help to stop Ramus.
It’s accepted as a general rule that every town, no matter how small or how sprawling, has a place reserved for people of…questionable character. Zion was no exception to this rule. The docks were a haven for smugglers, thieves, gamblers, and magicians who didn’t much care for restrictions on magic. Regus had in fact acquired several parts of Skratch at the docks, and found that if anyone was a good judge of ale, it was the people who had spent weeks at a time with nothing but a ship’s grog to pass for liquor. He walked to one of the higher end establishments in the area, high end meaning the liquor wasn’t watered down and the fights were kept to a minimum, and stopped just at the door.
“Been awhile hasn’t it?” he asked the man off to his side without turning to look at him. “I see you’ve brought company. Well, you might as well join us then. We were just about to squander the night’s earnings, and I could do with another story to add to my repertoire.”
Regus stepped inside with Skratch and grabbed a table before waving the bar man over. “Anything you have over 50 years old.” said Regus. “And two pints of the Rimboldt my friend and the lady. You’ll enjoy it.” Regus said towards the woman. “They only serve it once a year.”
“What brings you back to Zion Luke?” said Skratch, sitting backwards on his chair.
That’s right. Skratch doesn’t know he goes by more than one name. thought Regus. Come to think of it…I don’t think I even know his real name.
“Something tells me his friend can answer that.” said Regus. “By the by, you can ask your four-legged friend if there’s anything to her liking here. I doubt a cat inside the bar would be the strangest thing anyone here has seen tonight.”
Arael moved through the streets of the city, away from the docks. He’d been following a girl and her…angel? It certainly wasn’t a Sentinel. Not unless they had learned to glow, or flicker out of existence since Arael had taken the mantle of Exile. He had spent time in Limbo watching their journey through his window into the world, and he had recognized the one with angel disembarking from their ship. There had been no sign of Najm or Kyle. Not that those two were ever in the habit of being found easily.
I’ll find them eventually. Arael thought as he meandered through the crowd. One way, or the other.
The girl’s hand flew to her sword, and Arael moved to do the same. The realization that his steel had been taken from him was nothing new. But it was hard to shake his old battle hardened reflexes. That’s something else I’ll need to recover. Arael moved back into the crowd and followed as the group entered a nearby café. He sat against the wall and ordered a round; dropping a few coins onto the table he had lifted on his way. It wasn’t the most ethical of practices in the Sentinel handbook, but picking pockets was handy in a pinch. Especially after years of living in a place that offered no food or drink.
He listened to a sob story that once upon a time would have moved him greatly. Now though, it was just another drop in the pond. Join the club kid. Arael leaned back in his chair and watched through a frosted glass as his marks got more acquainted.
If Angelus' over-reliance on her powers and under-reliance on her observational skills had led to one weakness, it was that she often overlooked things that she should have noticed with ease. For example, she should have noticed the man with broken wings that had been following her and Fenris for several blocks. She should have noticed him when he followed them into the cafe, or when he had first caught sight of them in the docks. Instead, she had missed his thoughts in the noise of the festival, as they were quiet thoughts compared to the noisiness that had been spilling from Cassandra's head. But now that things had calmed down she did notice several thoughts directed towards her and Fenris. Someone was paying oddly close attention to them, someone who's thoughts also seemed to be concerned with some of her fellow travelers. And being a good little guardian, Angelus knew that it would cost her to ignore this man's attentiveness. So, without a word to her companions, she floated over to them as he stared at them in the cafe, and casually decided that he needed to be asked some questions. "Hey," She said, smiling politely at the newcomer, "Not that I'm not used to being stared at and all, kind of comes with the wings, but, um, who are you, why are you staring so intently at me and my friends, what's a sentinel, and how do you know Najm and Kyle?" She held her fake smile for a moment, and then let it slide into her normal, confident smirk. "Sorry for the rudeness of that massive question-drop, by the way," She said, "I just thought it would save us both a bunch of time if I asked everything all at once instead of taking the slow-route." She was immediately curious towards the newcomer, but also weary. If she had learned anything in her time as Fenris' guardian, it was that people that took interest in her or her charge often did so for the wrong reasons. With that in mind, she started to charge a ball of plasma, ready to end the newcomer should he try anything.
Everyone was dead. Caspar, Najm, Lox, Adebah... Each was laying on a cobblestone square, bleeding, maimed, burned, unmoving.
The fight had been valiant, as each combatant had struggled to survive, and to overcome. There were other faces that Kyle didn't recognize, faces that still fought against the overwhelming odds. Fenris battled with all of her strength, yet even she was no match for this new threat. Kyle watched in disappointment as all fell before these mystical creatures and their overpowering magic.
Yet, even as he watched the scene unfold beneath him, his helplessness ate away at him. He should be there to stop this. To keep it from occurring. But instead, he was forced only to watch, to observe as his friends and traveling companions were murdered before his eyes.
With a final flourish as Fenris fell to the earth, Kyle's vision faded to nothingness.
"Thinking about the vision again, I see."
Kyle was shaken from his reverie as he gazed across the open sky. The landscape beneath him went on for miles, and the ocean beyond the rolling hills almost beckoned to him. Kyle gripped the zeppelin's support cables, and watched as the greens, browns, and blues blended into a cascade of colors.
He turned to Noon, who piloted the craft with expert precision. The goggles-wearing zeppelin pilot effortlessly guided the craft across the speeding scenery towards their destination with a sense of purpose and direction that indicated he'd been to this place before.
"It won't go away," said Kyle. "Every time I try to block it out, it appears again. I had the same dream again last night."
"Usually that's a sign, my friend," said Noon, pulling one of the levers on the controls. "It means that there's something more to the bad dream than just a little indigestion."
"I'm not so sure about that," countered Kyle. "I mean, did you try any of your stew last night?"
"Look, I said I was sorry about that. How was I to know that the penephone had gone bad?"
"It wasn't the meat," said Kyle with a smirk. "It was the blackened parts all over the penephone that seemed like a tip off."
Kyle was surprised, even now, that he and Noon could joke around considering the circumstances of how they'd met. He still carried the remains of a certain cigarette burn on his right shoulder, just in case he ever forgot. But once Noon had been convinced to help him to heal, Kyle discovered that the oddly-dressed man knew much about the adventures of the True Ones, and was, in fact, quite the fan.
A bandage was still wrapped tightly around Kyle's torso, but the wound was all-but-closed after nearly a month of travel. The pain was mostly gone, though there were still twinges of injury here or there. However, it wasn't as if pain wasn't a sensation that he was used to by now, especially considering his past adventures.
As Kyle had continued healing from his injuries, with the assistance of some of the salves that the pilot carried aboard, Noon explained that his ship travelled through the different times and places of these realms much differently than any other ship that he was aware of. Instead of travelling through simply air, this zeppelin utilized a very specific steam-based technology that allowed for the transportation to nearly any time or space that had ever occurred throughout the history of any of the different realms.
When Kyle had mentioned to Noon his suspicion that raiders had likely attacked him and his companions in the woods, Noon was quick to clarify.
"Those pirates," he said with an air of disdain. "They can't travel as I do. They travel through the realms at the whims of the magic they possess. I can hitch my craft into any time I like. It's how I know so much about you, Mr. Blue-Blade Warrior."
As Kyle spoke about his understanding of being a character with a writer at the helm, Noon nearly cut him off.
"I know your writer," he said calmly. "Or at least I know of him. Good guy, in need of a haircut. Probably needs to be writing more than he gets around to doing."
"Yeah, that would probably be him," agreed Kyle.
Noon and Kyle went on talking about how as he'd travelled from place to place and from time to time; he'd often taken a break to read up on the adventures of the Black-Winged Sorceress, the Blue-Blade Warrior and the others, well-aware that Noon himself was actually a fictional character, and often wondering what it might be like to run into one of the more well-known characters of one of these stories.
They'd talked about this and other things at length, and Noon had explained that he was actually a character completely outside of the realms of The Mind Game altogether, and could trace his creation to just about a month ago. Though he was well-aware of the history that had been implanted in his mind, he was also painfully aware of his own youth as a character, and even felt the change when he realized that another character was taking the reins.
"Even now," he said to Kyle as he pulled another lever. "It's not my writer guiding my actions."
"What do you mean?" Said Kyle. "Whose writer is writing for you?"
"Yours, actually," replied Noon with a laugh. "I guess he got tired of waiting."
"Oh, great," said Kyle. "The gods help us all."
The writer, meanwhile, mumbled to himself about how ungrateful his characters could be sometimes, and took another swig from a nearby soda bottle.
"Now," said Noon. "About your little dream..."
"Visions," corrected Kyle. "I don't ever seem to just have dreams."
"Alright, if you insist, visions," said Noon. "What do they mean?"
"Well," Kyle said, turning back towards the zeppelin's cabin. "In the past, they've always happened like this right before something dangerous happened. Generally this kind of thing is either a vision of the near future or the present."
"Right," said Noon. "Like the time that Sway left you and you saw her and Dean doing..."
"Yes," said Kyle, a little annoyed that that would be the example he picked out of all the different visions Kyle had had. "Like that."
Noon, well aware of the light sting, continued with a smirk. "So, you're thinking that all the new characters in this adventure besides yours truly are about to get themselves killed?"
"That's about it," said Kyle. "But I don't know what I'm supposed to do about it."
"You're probably supposed to stop it," said Noon, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. "I mean, you are The Blue-Blade Warrior, after all."
Kyle rolled his eyes. "That doesn't mean that I'm ready to take on two sorcerers who can put a shadow assassin, a former Illusionist, and even a god killer to the dirt. I hate to remind you, but I was nearly killed by just a shape-shifting pirate not too long ago."
"Yeah," said Noon, thoughtfully. He was quiet for a moment as he steered the zeppelin along. "Good thing I know a guy."
"What? You know a guy for what?"
"Oh, it's alright. You know him, too."
Noon began slowing the craft, and indicated out the window. The city was spread out beneath them, a bustling complex of buildings made from white marble and granite. Tetelia creatures pulled trolleys of people along rail-lined streets, horses were ridden from here to there along the cobble-stoned streets, and right in the center of it all was a very familiar, though now, completely finished, governmental structure.
"Well," said Noon. "You're looking right there at the State Capital Building, the heart of the State Block. And there," he indicated another, larger structure to the east. "That's the National Judging Council building. I reckon that you haven't seen this place is a while."
"Years," confirmed Kyle. "But from the looks of it, this place has aged a few centuries!"
"No, no," said Noon, guiding them away from the Council Block. "These are just creative people who are extremely hard workers. They wanted a glowing city, and so they built it up with their bare hands."
Kyle stared across the bustling metropolis, reminded of his role in liberating this nation from the clutches of Aker and Yemoja. Memories flowed around him, both good and bad, and he was lost in thought.
Suddenly, however, he turned to Noon.
"I know who we need to talk to," said Kyle quickly.
Noon stopped the dirigible and began lowering the anchor.
"I'm so far ahead of you, it's pathetic."
"Shut up," said Kyle with a smirk. "We've got the same writer. He's cheating."
"No, no," said Noon. "This one's all me. I mean, we're in Ascent, you need to figure out how to deal with two magic-toting psychopaths. Who else would you want to talk to?"
Kyle nodded. "Alright, fine, point for you." The two made their way to the rolled-up ladder.
The ale was dark and hoppy. And inexplicably, purple. But it did warm Arael, and even started to turn his mood into a pleasant, almost jubilant one.
He figured he was better off not taking any more of that.
I wonder what kind of trouble those two have gotten themselves into now. People like them didn’t often take time for vacation, and certainly not with a group of pirates, angels, and sword wielding mistresses. Speaking of angels, where was Sway in all of this? She’s usually nailed to Kyle’s hip, or vice versa.
Almost as if on cue the angel he currently had his eyes on looked up from its table. And it was looking right back at Arael.
**** he thought.
It moved over towards Arael’s table and gave him a furtive glance. “Hey.” She said with a smile. “Not that I'm not used to being stared at and all, kind of comes with the wings, but, um, who are you?”
“Just a traveler. It’s not often that I come across another person sporting wings. Though your pair seems to be more of the working variety than mine at present state.”
“Why are you staring so intently at me and my friends?” she asked.
“Like I said, it’s rare to see anyone with wings; even rarer that they glow. You’ll excuse me if I was rude.” Had he really been staring that purposefully at them? His training was wearing off after four years of having nothing to watch that could conceivably watch you back.
She kept her polite smile up. “What’s a Sentinel?” she asked. “And how do you know Najm and Kyle?”
Arael almost fell out of his chair. There was no way this girl should know any of the things she was asking him about. Was he followed as he was following them? It would be just like Kyle; or Najm for that matter to tail him as he was doing the same thing. They could have let some information slide to the girl, but then why would she ask him and break cover?
Arael leaned forward smiled back at the girl. “I’d say that’s our own personal business. But if you’d care to produce them I might be more open to answering you.”
The angel’s smile turned into a smirk. She was still playing the game.
"Sorry for the rudeness of that massive question-drop, by the way," she said, "I just thought it would save us both a bunch of time if I asked everything all at once instead of taking the slow-route."
And she was playing it well.
They always did manage to find interesting company. thought the True One, thinking back on older times.
Angelus smiled, enjoying the ebb and flow of this conversation. Really, the whole thing was a chess game, or more accurately a poker game. It was all about forcing your opponent to give away more than you, and the trick here was that Angelus couldn't lose. After all, she could give away everything. She had nothing to hide, so she could, with some luck get all of the information she needed. Of course, being able to read his thoughts made that much easier. "You can let your guard down, Ariel," She said calmly, "I'm not here to hurt you, I just want some answers." She smiled again, noticing that he seemed to thinks he was some sort of agent for Kyle or Najm. "I'm also asking for my own benefit, I haven't seen Kyle in days and Najm..." She frowned, remembering that, as far as she was aware, Najm was still angry at her, "Well, let's just say she's not too happy with me. So if you're afraid of them learning that you're here, you don't need to worry. But if it's telling ME, someone you don't know, that worries you, which is fair, well, I have other ways of getting answers from you...certain people just don't like those methods as much." She was growing tired of playing this as if she was some criminal scum trying to wring information from a low-life thug. She wasn't a criminal, and she was fairly certain that Arael wasn't really one either, though his ill-fitting clothes implied that he was a thief at the very least. The real reason she'd tired of that game, of course, was because she'd managed to lose her advantage. She lacked tact, and it was hurting her right now. "Anyway, I understand not wanting to trust me given that you don't know me, and I am kind of suspicious, but trust me," She said, stretching her wings, and drawing a halo above her head in plasma, "I didn't get these things for nothing."
It was not an easy task, not at all, especially in the early morning when the sun dispelled the dark looks of every shadow. He crept slowly and steadily along the corridor although he did not know why he tried to be inconspicuous at all. It was morning and he was a regular comer-and-goer of the Eastland Kingdom. However, this particular task comprised of entering a part of the kingdom which contained a rift greater than that of Cain and Abel; it was entering upon Tao's private quarters.
The "what" that probed and piqued the interest of Magdalena is what sent Nohaym on this formidable feat; dipping behind columns, and walking without caution when a maid strolled by. Magdalena. Yes, caged within the precincts of his mind, Nohaym secretly called the Queen by her first name. The adoration and ardor that he felt for Her Lady was tumultuous. He would do anything for her. He wanted her to ask for him and depend on him, but unfortunately, he was only a servant who preferred to be her wings.
He climbed down the spiraling staircase to the ground floor. The air was cool and a line of smoky haze swam near the ceiling from the burning incense. It was a macabre silence that lived within the confines of the ground floor. All of the doors were closed and the curtains were unfurled over the massive bay windows, which was contrary to the upper rooms of Queen Magdalena. The sun basked in her rooms while here it was restrained and unwelcomed. It was…eerie.
Nohaym peeked over one of the columns and saw the door to Tao’s personal quarters. There it was closed, hopefully not bolted, at the end of the hall. He swallowed the lump of fear in his throat and slowly tiptoed towards the door. Inching closer, Nohaym held his breath and pulled down on the silver handle. The door creaked as the rusted metal rubbed together, and he froze in place out of fear that the sound had awoken Tao. He could hear the sheets and blankets rustling in the bedroom. About to turn away and run, Nohaym remembered Magdalena. He just wanted to run away back into her protection. He knew she would protect him, but the rustling ceased and the mission was back on. He knew he could not disappoint her.
He slid open the door and stepped into the room. The ceiling was like a towering canopy that curved in an elaborately decorated dome shape. Tao was tangled in silky blue sheets on a king-sized bed, and his blanket shrouded his face from the rays of the early morning sun. Nohaym scoured the room quickly for the letter; slowly opening and closing draws, and kneeling on the floor to look beneath the bed. While standing up, his eyes came closely in contact with a silver tray on the vanity mirror dresser. He could see his reflection moving stealthily as he grabbed the letter. With quick glance at Tao, Nohaym swiftly stole away from the room, and softly closed the door behind him.
Lying upon a royally prepared bed and embroidered cushions, Magdalena received the letter from Nohaym with a snake-like grin upon her face. She unfolded the piece of parchment and read the contents intently.
“Nohaym, you are incomparable in loyalty. I am very pleased.”
“Madam,” Nohaym uttered, bowing lowly.
“Call the maids, and prepare my carriage,” she paused, and looked Nohaym up and down, “Dress in your best clothing, Nohaym. We are about to meet very high end people…together.”
A surge of joy ran through him as if he was shaken up like a soda bottle and opened. He wanted to jump up, cheer and holler, and kiss Her Lady square on her perfect lips. However, he straightened his shirt and gently nodded his head.
“Very well, m’lady.”
He turned on his heels and exited her quarters. Strutting arrogantly down the passageway, Nohaym smiled to himself.
The girl continued interrogating, every word delivered with confidence.
She could have been trained. Or she’s just charismatic. Arael remarked to himself.
"You can let your guard down, Arael," she said calmly, "I'm not here to hurt you, I just want some answers."
How in blue blazes did she know my name? It’s not like she can read my thoughts. It has to be she’s working for Kyle or Najm. Probably Najm, Kyle would handle this on his own. Najm is the crafty Shadow Assassin.
"I'm also asking for my own benefit, I haven't seen Kyle in days and Najm... Well, let's just say she's not too happy with me. So if you're afraid of them learning that you're here, you don't need to worry. But if it's telling ME, someone you don't know, that worries you, which is fair, well, I have other ways of getting answers from you...certain people just don't like those methods as much."
So if she was telling the truth, then she really wasn’t an agent. And as far as Najm not being happy, well she couldn’t see Najm no being happy with torture, so that wasn’t the other method of obtaining information she was talking about. Then how…unless…
Arael had had enough training in his lifetime and enough experience with people from all over Illusiona to know it when he saw it. The confident grin, the knowledge she unnecessarily exposed. It was clear to him then what was going on. No trained operative would give away so much so quickly. And untrained mind readers tended to be cavalier with the information they gleaned.
"Anyway, I understand not wanting to trust me given that you don't know me, and I am kind of suspicious, but trust me," she said, stretching her wings, and drawing a halo above her head in plasma, "I didn't get these things for nothing."
“Pardon me for not trusting you just because you can draw pretty lights in the air. Most of the people that stab me in the back at least give me a gourmet meal before they do it nowadays. The deity that locked me in limbo even tried to carry on casual conversation like we were friends. Though I guess you would already know that.” Arael leaned forward with a smirk and tapped his temple.
“Since it seems you can pick and choose any answer you want from in here, I think maybe I should be asking some questions too. Who are you? And who are they? And how is it that you got mixed up with a couple of True Ones in the first place?”
You know, maybe I will finish that drink.
Angelus was back to having to sort through her emotions. On the one hand, she was annoyed at not being trusted again, though now she could at least understand why,but on the other hand, Arael's thoughts had been unintentionally complimentary. She didn't know whether to be proud or annoyed. She decided to go with neither, letting her curiosity instead take control. If Arael had information he was worth talking to, and if it meant that she was going to learn something then she didn't mind trading him equal information. Again, she really didn't have anything to hide, so it wasn't like she was giving too much away. At the very least, now that he was aware of her status as a mindreader he was unlikely to get as upset with her powers as Lox. Of course, he didn't seem like the type to throw a fit over such things. He seemed more like the kind of person who would actually take the time to monitor their own thoughts. 'Fine by me,' Angelus thought, 'As long as I learn what I need first.' "Sounds fair, given that you answer my questions," She said, "But I do feel the need to point out that I can't pick and choose answers from your head. My abilities don't work that way. You have to be thinking of a subject, otherwise I can't really get any information from you." She turned to the others, who were staring at her and her new conversational partner. She shrugged, waving for them to come over. If Arael was curious about them he might as well get answers straight from them, rather than the angel. The group stood, confused and annoyed, each subconsciously placing their hands near a weapon. They quickly gathered around the little angel, staring down at her in confusion. "Hey guys," She said, not noticing the anger that seemed to be lurking behind their confusion, "This is Arael. He seems to be familiar with some of our traveling companions...well, Kyle and Najm at least, so I thought he might have some valuable information. That said, he wants to trade, so be nice and answer his questions." Cassandra eyed the angel suspiciously. "And why should we agree to do that?" She asked. Angelus smiled, knowing that while Cassandra might not want to talk about herself, she had little to hide as well. Right now the issue was trust, and Angelus had already worked out the solution to dealing with that. She could force Cassandra to answer by threatening not to help her. But that would be selfish. "Because he probably has some information that'd be useful to all of us," She said, "But if you don't want to answer any questions directed to you I won't make you. Likewise, I brought you over here so you could answer questions about yourselves. I don't know what you want strangers to know, so I'll trust your judgment over mine." Cassandra nodded, seeming to be okay with this setup. Angelus was relieved, she could hardly afford to lose this girl's trust. After all, she needed her if she was going to find out what Gadriel was doing in Zion, even if she was in stasis. Which was really where she should be, and where Angelus thought she had left her. She turned back to Arael, smiling awkwardly. "Okay, so, we'll trade answer for answer, you know my questions, so I'll start by answering yours." She took a moment to consider how best to answer the questions, and then she decided to simply play it by ear. Being open and Honest tended to work better than trying to get away with withholding information after all, and it tended to have the added benefit of making the questioner feel like opening up themselves. "I am Angelus, a guardian," She said, "Basically, I've been tasked with following around this one" She grabbed Fenris' arm, earning her a quick scowl from the warrior, "To ensure that she doesn't die...and that her player turns into the person the IF wants, but that's neither here nor there." She looked at her other companions, hoping that she wouldn't step on any toes with her next answer. "Next," She said, "These are in order, Fenris, a container for a powerful force called the wolf spirit who hopes to kill the Gods that have enslaved the people of her realm." The warrior nodded in acknowledgment, though her scowl remained. "Daniel Frey, a pirate originally from the same realm as Fenris and myself, Terra Di," She continued. Frey waved, keeping his expression suspicious, though he secretly felt no fear of Arael for reasons he could not explain. "And Cassandra, a would-be assassin looking to stop her friend from...um, basically causing a really bad day for everyone here in Zion," She said. She smiled at Arael, glad to have all of the cards on the table. "If you want to know anymore about them, you can ask them yourself, but in the interest of maintaining their trust I'll say nothing more about any of them," She said. The group seemed to accept this as fair, though at the least they were still annoyed with Angelus for pulling them from their food, drinks, and conversation. They had been enjoying the meal, and the talk had been of funny incidents involving the parents of each of the wanderers. Of course, Angelus knew she had drawn them from that line of conversation at the right moment. In a few more moments they would have each realized that they were, in a sense, orphans, metaphorically in Fenris' case and literally in both Frey and Cassandra's. The conversation that would have followed would have been much darker, and would have soured the moods of each member of the party. "As for how we got mixed up with some true ones," The angel continued, "We sort of just ran into them and started traveling with them in the hope of finding a way home. So far we have failed completely at that, but we have found them to be delightful company." Her mind flicked to Lox, who she distinctly remembered was not particularly delightful. In fact, delightful was the opposite of how the angel would describe her. "Well, most of them have been, anyway," She said. She sighed, turning back to the other winged creature across from her. "Now, if you could answer my previous questions," She said, a hint of her smile returning, "And this new one:What happened to your wings?"
“Been awhile hasn’t it?” Regus asked the man off to his side without turning to look at him. “I see you’ve brought company. Well, you might as well join us then. We were just about to squander the night’s earnings, and I could do with another story to add to my repertoire.”
Jimmy, Abedah, and Pounce followed Regus and Skratch into the pub where Regus ordered a round of a special concoction made just for the festival, including one for Jimmy and Abedah. Pounce frowned her best feline look of contempt, but didn't say anything.
“What brings you back to Zion, Luke?” said Skratch, sitting backwards on his chair.
“Something tells me his friend can answer that.” said Regus.
Jimmy had last been in Zion about three years ago. He didn't recall ever meeting Skratch then, but he remembered Regus stopping by while he was staying with Iysi. Regus may have had some part of Skratch with him then, but he just couldn't remember. "Actually, I've been going by Jimmy this last trip. Abedah was helping me work the engines, but she had an incident before we met where she doesn't remember anything about her training in Illusionia. I suspect she's a mage, but Iysi thought it would be best if Regus helped her out." Jimmy thought it would be best not to get into all the details of her travels. Simplicity rarely failed as a defense, and from her expression, it seemed like she didn't object.
Regus nodded and took a sip of his drink. “By the by, you can ask your four-legged friend if there’s anything to her liking here. I doubt a cat inside the bar would be the strangest thing anyone here has seen tonight.”
Pounce flicked her tail and said quietly, "If you think I'm strange, I'd hate to see what you think is normal." Her tone wasn't threatening, but it wasn't quite joking either. "If this joint has any cream, you might get me to purr." Regus called the bar man back to the table and requested a bowl of cream and a plate of fish and chips. There wasn't any need to upset any of these travelers here needlessly, though they had come to him quite uninvited.
"So, Jimmy, Abedah, what makes you think you're a mage?" Abedah described the pouches she had and what she had found about some of the powders, and for her preference for staff fighting during a recent encounter with some thugs.
"Hmmm. Yes, I think you may be right," Regus replied. "Do you think you could come to my workshop around mid-day tomorrow? I should like to give you a bit of a test. The memory is a funny thing; sometimes you can remember something without remembering that you remember it."
Abedah was about to agree, but remembered the spirit tracer. Her smile quickly turned as she dropped her head. "I'm not sure we can. When we disembarked, the first mate put these into... some of the new members of the crew." Abedah rolled up her sleeve to show where the spirit tracer had been injected. "He said we had to return by second watch. I don't know what will happen if we don't." Jimmy seethed at the guardian. They all would have been off the ship and free if Abedah and Pounce hadn't listened to the imp's lies. He took a large swallow of Rimboldt which left a burn in his throat that matched his ire.
Regus nodded again, "That does seem to be a problem."
"Sounds fair, given that you answer my questions," She said, "But I do feel the need to point out that I can't pick and choose answers from your head. My abilities don't work that way. You have to be thinking of a subject; otherwise I can't really get any information from you."
Arael did take another deep drink of the lager he’d been served, and began to think, now fully aware that his thoughts were no longer his own.
So you can’t pick and choose. Comforting to say the least little one.
She turned and gestured toward her table and called over her companions. They all shot daggers at the angel, and then at Arael.
Well they are pirates, can’t expect them to be happy about being called away from enjoyment on shore leave.
"Hey guys," She said, not noticing the anger that seemed to be lurking behind their confusion, "This is Arael. He seems to be familiar with some of our traveling companions...well, Kyle and Najm at least, so I thought he might have some valuable information.”
“Charmed I’m sure.” He said raising his glass. He was already in a good mood. He really needed to find out who made this stuff. And cheerfully kick their behinds.
“That said, he wants to trade, so be nice and answer his questions."
You really haven’t done this before have you?
"I am Angelus, a guardian," She said, "Basically; I've been tasked with following around this one.”
Angelus continued round her circle of friends, and Arael gave a curt nod, extended a hand when it was given, and tried to remember what it was like to be a diplomat.
But you aren’t one anymore. You’re a free agent. Drop that welcome wagon crap. he told himself. An angel, an assassin, a pirate and a wolf spirit. That doesn’t sound familiar at all. he thought with no small degree of sarcasm. The wolf could be trouble. But if she’s from another realm maybe they’re a bit different than the less than palatable kind we have here.
"As for how we got mixed up with some true ones," The angel continued, "We sort of just ran into them and started traveling with them in the hope of finding a way home. So far we have failed completely at that, but we have found them to be delightful company. Well, most of them have been, anyway," She said. Now, if you could answer my previous questions," she smiled once again. "And this new one: What happened to your wings?"
Arael looked down into his mug and took a deep breath.
It’s on your mind already now. You may as well tell the story.
“As Angelus has already probed out of my head, my name is Arael. I used to be a Sentinel; a group that guarded over some of Illusiona’s most precious objects, and when called upon negotiated an end to hostilities, tracked criminals, and generally offered assistance policing the world where it was asked for.”
He took another breath, and pushed away the mug. This wasn’t a story you were cheery for.
“It was on one such mission that I met Kyle. I was looking for a stolen artifact and found him and his party fighting off a werewolf. We eventually joined forces and were dragged into what is now called The Ascent War. Not long after the war I was captured, and thrown in a cave, with every reason to believe I was going to die. I was rescued by two young soldiers I met during the war, and parted ways with them to report back to Kingdom in Cloud City, my home.”
“The only problem was I hadn’t left on the best of terms. Kyle, Najm, and the rest of us broke into a Cloud City vault and stole an ancient and powerful relic called the Regalia, in order to help a friend who had been corrupted by the power of the items. We were chased from the city, and coming home, I found out that my Council does hold grudges. I was deemed a traitor to the cause and to my kind, and those loyal to the Council beat me, and ripped my wings apart feather by feather. When I tell you that you have never felt such agony, believe me.”
“I was fortunate however, to have friends still in the city. The Sentinels who knew what I had done fought to save my life, and I was exiled. I was locked in Limbo for what was supposed to be all eternity. Suffice it to say I was released, and am tracking down Kyle and Najm. If anyone can help me find a way to restore my wings, it’s the rest of the True Ones.”
Angelus nodded as Arael finished his sad story, a frown resting on her face. Was it possible for anyone of the heroes to have a happy backstory? Or did you really have to see the worst of the world to have the motivation to make it better? This question would have to be solved at a later time. For now, she just had to focus on catching up with her other crewmates and restoring their trust in her. And stopping Gadriel, but, y'know, priorities and all that. "Yeah, you've got the prerequisite sad backstory and you don't seem to want to KILL Kyle and Najm so...." She paused, deciding it was best to check this assumption. It wouldn't do her any good to bring people who wanted to kill her friends to them. Doing so would turn her attempted Olive Branch in to Poison Ivy. "You don't want to kill Kyle or Najm, right?" She asked, "And they don't want to kill you? 'Cause I'm sort of tired of this attempted murder stuff acting as a launchpad for my introductions." She sighed,waiting a moment for him to answer. "Anyway," She said, "I can help you, and you don't seem to be the sort that would try to sell us out. Even if you were, I think with five skilled fighters here we'd be able to hold our own in a fight if you did." She was distinctly aware of Cassandra nervously noting herself in that lineup, but Angelus stopped her before she could deny the claim. Besides, in combat Fenris had enough skill for the both of them, as well as a few others. She was certainly a skilled enough fighter to handle most challenges on her own, after all, she killed Gods, and it wasn't because she was lucky. "I can take you to Najm, if you think she'd want to see you," The angel continued, "But Kyle's a bit more problematic. We lost track of him back in Limbo, and at present I don't even known if he's alive. Gut instinct tells me he'll show up though, and there's someone who looks a hell of a lot LIKE him hanging around...actually it might be him but it....it's confusing, anyway, point is, I don't know if Kyle's here or not, so for now it's Najm or nothing." She left out the part where Najm might very well try to kill her the next time they crossed paths. She thought that this was information that Arael really didn't need to have.
Having wandered into the ramshackle saloon, Alex realized that getting himself drunk was probably not the most wise of decisions. As Captain, he had to maintain order, had to avoid leaving himself vulnerable, especially considering the rather precarious personnel problems he was having lately.
Besides, thought Alex. I'm not exactly a very jolly drunk.
Being the leader of a pirate band often meant that he was wholly without friends. Comrades, sure, but if you became too much of a buddy with a crewmate, it was a sure way to get yourself shanked, or find yourself the victim of a rather unfortunate, though purposeful accident.
So, instead, Alex wandered through Zion's Red Lantern district alone, searching for something away from the spectacle that the city seemed hell-bent on creating tonight.
And in such a cause, of course, Alex heard his name uttered almost immediately.
"...It was on one such mission that I met Kyle. I was looking for a stolen artifact and found him and his party fighting off a werewolf. We eventually joined forces and were dragged into what is now called The Ascent War."
Alex did his best to hide his curiosity. Hearing the voice, he recognized it, but it seemed like from a different time, another life. But then again, as Alex thought back, it might as well have been.
Furtively, Alex snuck a glance. The man's hair was cut differently, and his clothes were much less regal than they might once have been. And where once were wings remained only a small shadow of the former appendages, almost unnoticeable lumps on the man's back. But there was no mistaking the man's face.
This was Arael Devine.
Somehow, he's become the victim of a grilling session by none other than that Guardian they'd picked up in Limbo.
Telepaths, thought Alex. They're naught but trouble.
Luckily for him, the Captain had had a specialist in Imperial graft a neuro-scrambler into his cranial-rewiring. Especially after the first couple deals with Zionese where they'd undercut him by reading his thoughts, he'd made sure that there would be no such repeats. So far, the scramblers had kept even the best mind-readers at bay, letting him stay successfully under the mental radar.
Finally, Alex decided to make his move. Picking up his glass of Amber, he made his way closer to the table to hear the end of Arael's explanation.
"...and I was exiled. I was locked in Limbo for what was supposed to be all eternity. Suffice it to say I was released, and am tracking down Kyle and Najm. If anyone can help me find a way to restore my wings, it’s the rest of the True Ones.
The (apparently former) Sentinel then finally took a break, and looked right into the Guardian's eyes.
“Trust me now?”
The Guardian seemed the mull this over, and then responded with an offer of trust, but then added a caveat that she hadn't actually seen Kyle for quite some time.
"But Kyle's a bit more problematic," she continued. "We lost track of him back in Limbo, and at present I don't even know if he's alive."
You know, thought Alex. For a telepath, she's not very observant. I mean, I stood right in front of her when I blasted Hayder's double.
"Gut instinct tells me he'll show up though, and there's someone who looks a hell of a lot like him hanging around...actually it might be him but it....it's confusing, anyway, point is, I don't know if Kyle's here or not, so for now it's Najm or nothing."
"Well," said Alex, clapping a hand onto Arael's shoulder. "Even telepaths can't know everything."
"You don't want to kill Kyle or Najm, right?" She asked, "And they don't want to kill you? 'Cause I'm sort of tired of this attempted murder stuff acting as a launch pad for my introductions."
“If I kill them then I’m going to have one heck of a time making myself whole again. Besides, without the wings I’m not in fighting shape anyways.” he shrugged.
"Anyway," she said, "I can help you, and you don't seem to be the sort that would try to sell us out. Even if you were, I think with five skilled fighters here we'd be able to hold our own in a fight if you did."
Arael surveyed the crew. At least three of them looked like they were in fighting shape, but the hostile one looked nervous at the idea of open combat. Anyways, Arael was one of the only ones without a weapon. He could shift if need be, but that wouldn’t last long.
"I can take you to Najm; if you think she'd want to see you," The angel continued, "But Kyle's a bit more problematic. We lost track of him back in Limbo, and at present I don't even know if he's alive. Gut instinct tells me he'll show up though, and there's someone who looks a hell of a lot LIKE him hanging around...actually it might be him but it....it's confusing, anyway, point is, I don't know if Kyle's here or not, so for now it's Najm or nothing."
A hand clasped Arael’s shoulder and again he was painfully aware of the lack of weaponry at his side.
Well you could flip him onto the table and then…
"Well," said the voice attached to the hand. "Even telepaths can't know everything."
Arael turned in his seat to face the body attached to the hand. He was older to be sure, and looked every inch a pirate. But it was still the same Kyle Brogan.
“The Blue-Blade Warrior in the flesh.”
The memories flooded through him at the sight of his old companion; fighting Caspar, leading soldiers into battle, running from an army of Sentinels.
“You don’t know how good it is to see you again my friend. It’s been far too long.” He paused for a moment before continuing on. “But as you can probably see,” he said, eyes turned toward his own back, “I’m not here for personal pleasure. I need your help, or at least your advice. Times have been…rough...without you and others by my side.”
Draining his glass Arael sat back at the table, and motioned for Kyle to join him.
“At the very least, I would enjoy the company of a friendly face after all this time. Sit, tell me the latest stories of Illusiona’s greatest hero.”
Angelus frowned as she watched Alex converse with Arael. She was unnerved by his arrival, partially because she was still uncertain of his connection with Kyle(His pattern was the same, and yet something was missing), and partially because it meant that she wouldn't be able to get the information she needed from Arael, though she'd at least be able to get some of it from listening to his conversation with Alex/Kyle. "Um...excuse me," Cassandra said from her side, "What...what exactly is going on?" Angelus turned to her, having almost forgotten about the new girl's presence. "Yeah, 'bout that," She said, smiling, "Since we just dropped in on your story and you expected us to keep up, you have to do the same with us." Her smile faded, being replaced with a slight frown. "That, and I really don't know," She said. She turned to Alex. "Um, Sir, I don't want to interrupt your reminiscence and all," She said, "But I think someone's trying to take our table." This was true, as a group of festival goers(several highly intoxicated from the look of it), were eyeing their table with desperation. "So can we sit here?" She asked. This was mostly a ruse to get to eavesdrop without getting in trouble, but she also didn't want to deal with the drunkards. Sure, it would take Fenris a handful of seconds to end them if they started something, but Angelus wanted to stay as far under the radar as a woman with wings could.
His back was to her, reflecting the moonlight, slick with sweat’s sheen.
“What?” she said lazily in the silk cocoon of his sheets.
Just moments before that they had been intertwined and no words were needed to express their feelings. Hayder had the creeping feeling all the time that this was the only way that they could communicate.
She was so unsettling cool. She was right, about what she said when he met her. She had driven him completely mad.
He stood close to her, could see the fine texture of her skin, stripped and spiraled with beautiful pictures that danced on her clear complexion. Smooth, uninterrupted mahogany. Her hair gathered past her shoulders in waves that echoed the curves covered behind her sheets. Pearly beads of perspiration gathered against her skin and she did not so much sweat as seem to glisten. She was so casual with everything she did, there was nothing rehearsed about her. She had no interest in impressing him, and he had quickly realized there wasn’t a thing in the world he could do to inspire the feelings he felt for her.
In fact, he had no idea how she felt.
Except for how her skin felt against his. Eyes she would close tightly behind the softest lashes and could still open so boldly and see directly into his innermost. She had no idea the control she had over him, and that was what made her so frustrating. Seductive. He wanted to sink into the floor when she was near him and raise her on a throne. He wanted to control her and be her slave, if that would mean he could keep her. She could not be possessed.
But time. Time was running out and soon would expire. He needed to know.
He wanted to cover her with his eyes and devour her. That was the only thing he could bring himself to say the things he wanted to scream. But no matter what he did he could not seem to understand what was happening below the surface. She was so obvious with her feelings on everything else. It was her feelings about him that he could not access.
“It’s not just this between us,” he said quietly.
“Sex?” she stretched.
“No. I—I feel more for you than that.”
“Mmhmm,” she curled up and for a moment a flicker of light illuminated her expressionless face. She was a sphinx, taking two slow drags on a cigarette. Her tone suggested maximum indifference though she hadn’t said a word.
“I mean it, Lox. I’m trying to say something.”
“Why do you always get like this afterward?” A long pause. “You make me feel like I’m taking advantage of you. You get so emotional. Then you act like you don’t care. Then you don’t talk to me for half the day. Then you’re mad when you see me hanging out with somebody else. Are you a Cancer or really just this passive aggressive?”
“That’s what you do,” he said quietly. “You make an argument out of nothing so that you don’t have to talk about anything that makes you uncomfortable. I’m not falling for it this time. I want to talk to you about something.”
“Sagittarius. And that’s another thing, we don’t know each other well enough.”
“I know you, Siris. You’re going to pace in front of the mirror now and look at me in the reflection and start sighing.”
He stopped pacing almost instantly. “I’ll speak for myself. I feel like I don’t know you at all.”
“As much as I talk?”
“You never tell me anything important.”
“I don’t know anything important to tell you.”
“I don’t even know your name,” he said.
She sighed, exasperated. “I don’t know it either. I have tried to remember and I can’t.” This was an old argument.
“How is that even possible?”
“You think I’m lying to you.” She cut to the end of it.
“I think you’re the only one who could.”
Her voice did not mask her disgust. “If one more person calls me a liar, accuses me of something I didn’t do, or gets smart with me—”
“People would not do that if you would open up.”
“People? You are not people. You are Siris. I would tell you anything you asked. And I’m an open book, remember? At least according to you and Angelus.”
“Why do you bring her into it?” He tensed.
“You spend all your time with her.” The light flickered again. There was a tombstone’s length between her words now. “You. tell. me.”
“You’re jealous of a child?” a swift parry.
“You always misinterpret what I say. That’s why you don’t understand me.” In fact Lox was not jealous of Angelus but felt that Siris should not be so close to her if she was so obviously loathed by her. What did they talk about, anyway?
Hayder’s jaw clenched and his hands balled into nervous fists. He said very slowly, very carefully. “You drive me insane.”
“That is what you wanted to tell me? Well… the feeling is mutual,” she said dressing.
“And there you go again, running away. I never got to say what I wanted to say.”
“I guess you haven’t figured me out after all then,” she said in hurried anger as she crossed to the door.
He stood in the doorjamb.
He was imposing. His body was like a symphony, all the lines playing in perfectly ordered symmetry. Very suddenly, he kissed her forcefully, pressing her against the wall. His lips found her neck and her hands slowly lost traction against his chest as she tried to push him away. She could feel his heart and they were both breathless. “I’m sorry,” his lips brushed her ear.
He was so generous. Too generous. It always made Lox feel like the worse person alive with the ease that he could pivot between force and tenderness. She was not capable of these smooth transitions. “Don’t be mad at me,” was all she could manage. She knew it was not enough. It was the desperate way she apologized for being so completely unbearable. She felt how awful she was and could not find any way to stop behaving so without fearing she would lose something. “I am trying.” She felt suddenly as if she would weep and if she did so, would never be able to stop.
He encased her in an embrace. “Don’t cry, Lala.”
How did he know?
And then it was inevitable. She collapsed in his arms and broke down. He held her, stroking her hair, until she was too weak to continue. She cried quietly and powerfully, as if in some desperate fear that he would hear her. She was shaking as they slowly sank to the floor. He pulled her on his lap and held her hands.
“I’m afraid for you,” she said quietly. “You’re so calm. You’re so sure you will die.”
“I am certain of it. I have accepted it. I am no longer afraid.”
“How?” her voice cracked. “How can you be so calm?”
“We say something. Zionese people, we have a saying.”
“What is it?”
“I cannot fear. Fear is the murderer of dreams and the assassin of hope. It devours souls and lurks in nervous night. I have seen fear’s face and laughed. For fear has seen my inner strength and trembled in shame. The only thing that fear fears is me and there is but one thing that I will permit myself to fear.”
The festival was in full swing when Set showed up, axe in hand.
To his left was Acel, weaponless, gliding on impossibly long limbs. He was a weathered man whose age was not apparent in his lineless face. His skin was the color of heated brass and his eyebrows were thin and set in a determined V. His cold eyes seemed completely black for they were narrow and wise in the ways of the world. He was all coiled, lean muscle and he was bald but for an impressive pharaoh’s beard. He held his head high and to the side, a regal habit his bastard son inherited. He clenched his jaw in anticipation. His dark eyes were alight with a child’s mischief. If anyone looked and carried himself like a king, it was Acel.
Set looked down at his own limbs, like milky butter, shaded by gauntlets and shin braces. His feet were clad in military boots and he wore the crisp blue uniform of a solider well. His piercing silver eyes swept the grounds. He knew his orders. He would perform his duties for Acel in exchange for his own life. If he failed to perform satisfactorily he would be banished from his homeland forever. A fate, to a Zionese man, that rivaled death.
He could not imagine how the bastard Hayder could live so long outside of this world. He must be a walking dead man. And Set thought of this gaily, reckoning that this would make him far easier to kill and make the act, for its sick irony, infinitely more satisfying. He knew, knew to his marrow that he would sink his axe deeply into Hayder’s neck before the night was through.
People stopped to acknowledge them, mostly out of fear of Acel, because they were famous and easily recognizable. Acel’s mien and Set’s beauty set them apart and he had the strange sensation that people were deliberately making a path for them.
“Senator,” Set said solemnly to Acel. “How will we find Hayder?”
“We shall not need to find the boy. He will come to me.”
“Can’t he shapeshift, sir? What if he surrounds us even now?”
“He is much too foolish to do that,” Acel said with a twisted smile passing over his lips and leaving just as quickly.
“What do you mean?”
“That is a coward’s move. He will try to be brave.”
Set was confused. “You do not seem concerned.”
“Why should I be? It will be his undoing.”
Neither of them saw Pash walk directly between them. She had just been talking to a very beautiful young woman and her luminous eyes lead her to a shady looking bar. Her heart was pounding, her thoughts lost in a sea of imaginings.
She ambled inside with Nubie concealed in her bag. Otherwise, she was alone. Lox had made some excuse about getting her bag out of Hayder’s room and he had followed her there to let her in. This was a silly rouse. Lox had a key.
Pash had never been much of a thief, but she could certainly take a hint.
She immediately recognized Angelus, Fenris, Roberts, and Alex. There was a strange woman with them and a mutilated angel as well. A Sentinel, she thought absently, having seen one once before and assuming that they did not make Guardians in Adult-Size.
She knew enough not to think too much about what she was seeing, she would draw Angelus’s attention immediately. She wanted to enjoy her drink in peace. She also knew she could not think their names again. That would be a mistake. She thought instead about something innocuous. The pattern on her red and black dress. She was wearing leggings underneath it as was customary in Arjuna. She played for a while with the bangles on her wrists until her drink arrived. She paid for it and tipped generously. It was Lox’s money. She would spend it freely.
That was one good thing about her former roommate. She needed to create a fake name for her, but she did not even know her real name. She liked to think of her as a Gia because she was pretty, but also mean. Gia was not just a good hunter. She was good at acquiring just about anything. She was particularly good at finding a way to hustle for money. Her best fundraiser was card playing. She was impossibly lucky. The problem was she often lost things and if she thought she misplaced some money, she would not make a big deal of it. She fully intended to procure some more. Pash was really good at letting her think she had found the money she misplaced and she rarely worried about it after the initial relief. That’s when Pash would reclaim it.
Presently, Alex—Bruce was about to pull up a char to join the festivities. Pash watched as Angelus—Grace contrived a way to eavesdrop on the conversation as a group of partygoers vied for their table.
Pash settled in for a story, never seeing Lox and Hayder walking by the yellow window.
“You’re sure about this?” Lox said.
“Certain,” said Hayder.
“I want to give you this,” she quickly took off the necklace and put it on Hayder before he could protest.
“It was a gift.”
“I’m not going to argue with you. I won’t accept it.”
“I want you to have it.”
“I want you to live.”
He sighed. “You are impossible,” he said half smiling. “One more time, if Acel comes you run.”
“You made me promise nine times. I’m going to run okay. I promise. That’s an even ten.”
“Why are you coming with me, then?” Hayder asked.
“I want to see you off. You made a vow to protect me. I am going to protect you.”
He smiled. “Remember that you can control the light in your hand. If you can pull the snake out, you can pull out the sword, too.”
This was always something she had had trouble with. She couldn’t figure out how to get the sickle sword etched on her leg to come to life. It was as if she could not control it at all. She had learned to turn the light on and off at will and could bring the snake, which extended to six feet around her thigh to life, but never the sword. “Got it,” she said automatically. She did not want to worry him. “How will you find him?” she asked.
“I’ll make a distraction,” Hayder said with a smile. “Let me see your book.”
Lox had amounted a collection of writings, sketches, poems from memory, poems of her own invention, and random doodles in a blank book Hayder had given her when he first met her. She pulled it out now with an unsure look on her face. Hayder opened it swiftly and ripped out a page.
“Hey!” she protested.
“Part of the plan,” he said holding the page out to her. He had already drawn something on it. It looked like…
“Ghosts? Ghosts with little bombs tied to them?” she rolled her eyes. “You’re sick.”
“Yes, now, bring them to life,” he said.
“The bombs just make noise, they will clear the area so no innocent people get hurt." She didn't reply. Just looked at his sketches and realized these ghosts weren't just daydreams, the had been real people once. Soon, Hayder would be among the young, hopeful faces. Her thoughts were interrupted. "You said you wanted to help.”
“I do, I’m just—”
He put her hands on the page. It was real now. If she did this, he would attract Acel and he would die.
“Do it,” he said. “For me.”
She put her hands on the page. A brilliant light swirled uncontrollably from her fingertips. And slowly, all the people who had died in the revolution, came back to Zion as silvery whisps with grim grins on their faces. In each of their hands was a bomb. Across their chests read the simple phrase:
It only took a few minutes for the first blast to sound.
"So, Jimmy, Abedah, what makes you think you're a mage?" said Regus. Abedah went on to describe her preference for fighting with a staff, and pouched full of powder she had found as well. Regus couldn’t help but think of the ones he was carrying even now within the many folds of his coat.
There’s something then. Not many people carry around a full complement of mage powder if they can’t use it.
"Hmmm. Yes, I think you may be right," Regus replied. "Do you think you could come to my workshop around mid-day tomorrow? I should like to give you a bit of a test. The memory is a funny thing; sometimes you can remember something without remembering that you remember it."
Abedah perked up slightly at this, she seemed genuinely excited; just what you wanted in a prospective new student. But almost as suddenly as she had lit up her smile disappeared and she shrunk into her chair, a firm gaze fixed in her lap. "I'm not sure we can. When we disembarked, the first mate put these into... some of the new members of the crew." Abedah rolled up her sleeve to show where the spirit tracer had been injected. "He said we had to return by second watch. I don't know what will happen if we don't."
Jimmy took a large swallow of his drink and scowled. Apparently, the spirit tracers were a point of contention. Regus could understand why. A spirit tracker was almost a living thing. It burrowed its way into its target’s body and latched on to the energy of that person, their soul if you will. It took on attributes of the person it was clinging onto, like a parasite. Then it broadcast its signal back to the master tracker, wherever it was. They were generally considered foolproof and were by far the best method of tracking anyone that Regus had seen in his many years.
But they weren’t completely foolproof.
“That does seem to be a problem.” Regus drained his mug and stood. “But with every problem, there’s a solution, if only you look hard enough. If you can, follow us back to our shop now. I’m not sure I have all the ingredients I need to help you, but maybe we can improvise. At the very least, you’ll have your answer.” He tossed a few more coins onto the table and turned in his boots to leave, Skratch in tow.
“So what exactly is a spirit tracer?” asked Skratch.
“Trouble. They aren’t exactly common, anywhere. Whoever has those in her is professional, not your average scum.”
“The government?” asked Skratch.
“Not likely. If they wanted her that bad they wouldn’t let her roam free. She’d be in custody by now. This is more like pirate work.”
“A kidnapping then? Ransom her out to whoever wants her back?”
“I doubt it. It’s more likely they don’t know what they have; they think she’s just a run of the mill prisoner. Maybe they weren’t even the ones who wiped her memory. Either way, we need to make sure they can’t find her if we want to figure out what she really is.”
Nearly half an hour later they had arrived at Regus’ shop, he ushered them in quickly and closed the door behind them.
“Welcome to our humble home.” A lock slid home in the front door. “Close the shades.” A second slid into place beside it.
Skratch set the shades down with a wave of his hands, and with another wave, Regus brought up the lights. He motioned for Jimmy, Abedah, and Pounce to follow him into the back room.
“What I said before about memory wasn’t just an anecdote. Sometimes the mind remembers things that are for some reason inaccessible to the rest of the brain. I think either someone or something has locked off your past. I’m not saying I can fix it, but I can try.”
The back room was Regus’ main workshop. Cabinets filled with beakers and flasks of exotic looking powders and liquids lined the room. The workshop tables were filled with wooden and metallic machines each through various parts of completion. Hunks of wood and metal littered the room. The Festival was the biggest day of the year for most any business that remained open, especially for magicians and tellers. His shop looked like a hurricane had gone through, and recently because of an experiment gone wrong, or right depending on how you looked at it, one recently had.
Regus dug for the nearest worktable and cleared the various detritus from it. Skratch meanwhile walked up to a cabinet and selected a two vials, one a fine grey powder that looked like sand, and a viscous green liquid. He found a hollowed length of wood inside a drawer and deftly mixed a small amount of each vial inside the tube, before placing a metal cap on top and tossing it to Regus.
“One mage test, ready to go.” called Skratch.
Regus placed it on the table and continued moving around the shop, rubbing his chin and shooting curious glances around the room, every so often grabbing a beaker, then replacing it and grabbing another. On his next trip past the table he placed the wooden container and motioned to Abedah as he continued walking and climbing around the shop.
“Set that on fire.” He waited a moment for a response. “No matches; don’t touch it. Just set it on fire.” He took several powders from a cabinet and gave a non-committal shrug before settling at another workbench and measuring them on small brass scales.
“Every mage can set fire to wood. If you can do it by the time I’m done mixing this, then maybe you are what Jimmy thinks.”
"Since this is a test, are there any restrictions on what I can use?" Abedah asked.
"No matches; don’t touch it. Just set it on fire."
"Ouch." Abedah was nervous now. What if she couldn't do it? She had no idea how to even start doing what Regus was asking her to do. Magic was an art for storybooks. Her world was the human mind, and manipulating streams of electrons to encourage specific competitive responses from those minds. She stared at the vial, wishing for fire, but nothing happened.
Is there anything I can do to help, Papa Mike? Pounce thought to her writer. Nope came the short reply. Pounce just watched sympathetically.
"Remember who you are, Abedah," Jimmy suggested as he took her hand.
"Which me?" she asked.
"The real you," he answered confidently.
Abedah closed her eyes and tried to think back to all the things she had ever done in creating Free Play. This kind of mental exercise was one she had not done since she was actually teaching the children at battle school, and had difficulty even remembering how she had gone from teaching to programming. There was something painful there, but she still couldn't recall what. A rat skittered across the floor as Abedah recalled lines of code she had entered long, long ago. Pounce grabbed the rat's tail, but let it go with a yelp when it bit her paw harder than a rat should be able to. The rat vanished and the room grew frigid. Abedah was remembering the routines she had used for some of the icy domains of the game. A wolf's howl sounded in the room, but there was no sign of the beast. A cricket materialized on the table in front of the cat, who grabbed it quickly and stuffed it in her mouth. It disappeared before she could swallow. "Hmph!"
Next, a breeze kicked up, and water began flowing in from under the door, though the weather outside was perfectly still and clear.
"Abedah, think of fire," Jimmy shouted at her, as the sounds of her efforts were becoming louder. A bolt of lightning hit the floor only a foot from Jimmy, with a deafening boom added for good measure. Pounce looked for a good place to hide and decided under the table was as good a place as any. The water on the floor was quickly evaporating and nothing new was coming in.
"On second thought, don't think of fire, please," Jimmy pleaded. The room began to shake, gently at first, and becoming more violent. Jimmy grabbed Abedah's arm to keep their balance, which jolted her out of her reverie. Upon opening her eyes, all she could focus on was the tube, sitting quite unscathed on the table where Regus had placed it. Not even a scorch mark or smolder changed its appearance.
"So much for that idea," Abedah lamented.
A cluster of firecrackers erupted in a loud crackling sound, as several children lit them and ran away in laughter. A fisherman’s tweed flat cap was blown from his head by one of the mischievous teenage magicians, and rows of pasteboard tubes were lined together on the shore then lit to create the multicolored firework show. Couples danced to tunes produced out of thin air, and several booths were erected to draw in groups of curious people to see the latest magic tricks. This was considered the greatest times in Zion, where the magically-enriched blood of the Zionese was able to appear from behind its curtain. A balance, was what the government intended by such festivities. A balance.
Return by the second watch. Alex’s words echoed in Alban's thoughts.
He was one of the six men dispatched to accompany Hayder, in order to assist him with the transit of the prisoners. Although with the Spirit Tracers, Alban was able to keep his distance from them, which was a preference he relished. To have moments of silence where he was able to maintain a clear network between him and the Mind Game was all he ever wanted. However, the last place one could accomplish such solitude was during the Festival in Zion. There was always the ship, but from being in charge of smoke-staking to manage the heating system on The Ascension to tracking the flight pattern of The Requiem and The Traverse simply gave him no mind room to sit and listen.
As the thought of his various jobs on the ship came to his mind, he remembered late one night when one of the eldest of the pirates told him how the three main ships got their names.
“Well laddy,” he had begun, “Believe it or not, the names of these three ships tell our story. The Ascension was the time we arose into the heavens with this bloody ship, mate. It star’ed off with a few of us, and then as time wen’ on more of those orphans came on the ship. Ya know like those exiles, people lost in realms, and the bloody people with no lives; the true scallywags. Then, there is The Requiem. Oh, me boy, we lost plen’y of lads over the years. There had been hangings, beheadings, and a couple of ‘em were left at sea to be devoured by the creatures. So, The Requiem is our lament for our old lads incarnate. Lastly, there is The Traverse. The name really speaks for itself, laddy. We soon were amongst the envied of the realms when we gained the abili’y to pass through them…”
That was one of the first days he spent on The Ascension as one of the deckhands. Now, he was a regular carrying out his job mechanically like an android. He was becoming weary of the task, and frustrated that he was not receiving anything from the Mind Game. It was as if he was sent on a mission without details or guidance.
Pushing these thoughts away for some time, Alban walked through the pathways on the boardwalk of the dock, surveying the fish stands for a hearty grub from the usually bird meat on the ship.
“And what are you having today, sir?”
“Uh,” he paused, looking over the many choices, and then he turned to the two figures that were secretly following him for some time. “I’ll have the snapper.”
“Snapper? Very good choice!”
“You know, mate, make that three snapper dinners. It seems I’ll be dining with some others.”
After the fisherman cooked and prepared the dinners, Alban took them up the small stone staircase to the town’s square. There were fine iron-made bistro sets that surrounded the square for the many inhabitants of Zion. He took his seat and began eating his fish and yellow rice with delight.
“You know the saying is that rudeness is a weak man’s imitation of strength,” Alban said over the bustling crowd to his stalkers.
“I bought you food, and you refuse to sit,” he continued.
Arem and Dougie made their way from behind several people. As Dougie sat across from Alban, Arem picked up one of the chairs, turned it in the opposite direction, and took his seat.
“So, the prisoners have become the captors, eh?” Alban joked.
Dougie grabbed a platter of food. “We’re just three men having a hearty meal. No harm done, right?”
Arem followed suit. “No harm done.”
They ate in silence as the boisterous Festival surrounded them.
“Ah, yes I remember. I took something from you,” Alban produced the small mechanism from his pocket.
“Meh, we don’t hold grudges if that’s where you’re getting at,” Arem retorted slyly.
Alban smiled. “My second guess then would be that you really wanted to eat with me.”
“We dined with worse,” Dougie answered.
“Ok, so what do I owe the pleasure of such lads?”
“Tao Seesari,” Arem replied, now staring Alban in his green eyes.
Alban shifted in his seat while grinning. “Ha! Maku muja bam.”
Scales rested in a delicate balance as ingredients were poured on one after the other, the heavy brass swaying back and forth slowly with each new reagent as if pushed and pulled by a current. One by one Regus took a pinch from this container, a handful from that, a drop from one or a generous pour from another. All this was done with the steady hand and eye of a master craftsmen and magician.
This had better work.
Despite being banned for all but one day of the year magical reagents were fairly easy to get in Zion. It was an accepted truth that it would be impossible to acquire everything you needed for the full day of the Festival in just a few hours. Some of the shelves in Regus’ workshop were lined with containers he hadn’t opened in years, while others had been purchased just weeks ago in preparation. There was always someone experimenting on new chemical compounds or creating them under the guise of science, which, as Regus could attest to, had advanced significantly enough to be thought of in the same breath as magic.
The light in the room started to fade, and when Regus exhaled he could see the cloud of breath condensing into existence before him. Crystals of ice began to grow and grasp their way around the glass containers in the room, and his scales began to freeze in place as ice crept across them, spreading like the veins of a leaf, or vines along a tree. Somewhere in the room he heard a wolf howl.
She’s talented alright.
Crickets began to chirp, and Regus had to dust one off his shoulder, though it disappeared in a cloud of smoke to the touch. The sound of running water entered the workshop next, and Regus took an empty beaker from his work station and filled from the leaks that had sprouted from his cabinets a third of the way full before mixing it with the cocktail he had been brewing a moment before. Cumulonimbus formed above the ceiling and a bolt of lightning struck from overhead.
Very talented. But not a whit of control to what she’s doing.
Slowly the room began to shake. Cabinets shuddered and shelves began to shake as the room began disagreeing with where it was positioned against the ground. The shaking grew in ferocity, forcing Regus to stand and brace himself against a wall, the beaker he’d been working on clutched close to his chest for safekeeping. He was fairly sure that the undulations weren’t strong enough to collapse the house and shop, or even to really disturb any of the buildings adjacent. Fairly sure.
As quickly as the disturbances came they went, the light in the room returned, and Abedah opened her eyes and focused on the small totem still sitting on the table in front of her, quite unperturbed.
“So much for that idea.” Abedah lamented.
Regus chuckled to himself. His previous apprentices had been disappointed when they couldn’t summon a spark. Here was a girl who didn’t even know who she was and she had almost torn down his home and livelihood, and didn’t seem to notice that anything had happened.
“Generally,” Regus righted a chair and sat opposite her, noting that the floor was still covered in an inch or so of water. “I give students a totem so they have something to focus what little power they can summon into something tangible. You on the other hand, seem to have no problem creating and interacting with magic. Congratulations whoever you may be. You are a magus. And once trained will probably be fairly terrifying. Drink this. All of it.”
He placed the beaker on the table next to the small wooden totem. The liquid inside was the color of a freshly formed bruise, and had a sickly looking green foam slowly making its way to the top of the container.
“There isn’t a single foolproof way to get rid of a spirit tracker if you aren’t the one who placed it, or failing that killed the one who placed it. Any potions work with varying success depending on who takes them. If your magic doesn’t fight too hard against this, it should at least scramble the signal for awhile.”
Regus rose from his chair and knelt down into the water covering the workshop. He placed his palms flat on the hard wood floor and signaled for Skratch to do the same. He certainly wasn’t going to clean the workshop alone.
“By the way, it’s going to taste like axle grease and bad seafood going down. And if you vomit it back up it won’t take hold. So try not to waste it.”
The water ran over Regus’ hands as he began to flex them against the floor, gently tracing the grain with his fingers. On the other side of the workshop, Skratch stood with his arms slightly lifted from his sides, palms outstretched. He had begun chanting, and Regus closed his eyes.
He felt the magic envelop him like and greet him like an old friend, and he was filled with warmth. He could feel the magic running down his arms and out of his hands into the water, soaking it up, righting furniture, returning brass and wood and all manner of metal fittings to the wall. Light raced around the room in small golden globules, soaking up water, repairing broken glass, and restoring the room. Before long the beads of light began to disappear one by one, until the last of them had flittered away, and the workshop looked better than it had in weeks, not a spring or sprocket out of place.
Regus and Skratch sat at the table, there being enough chairs to seat everyone now. Skratch sat upright and proper, while Regus slouched and kicked his feet on the table. It was a simple spell and didn’t require much effort, but any controlled spell was taxing in some small way.
Rule number one: Give to the process what you expect to get out. thought Regus.
“Now that we know you have magic in you, and we’ve hopefully solved the problem of the spirit tracers for now, we have to start in on your memory. For that, I unfortunately don’t have any potion or set of magic words that will unlock your mind. I might be able to have a look inside, but if it’s been locked away by someone malicious, I might not be able to do much to unlock it. That’s something you’ll have to do."
Somewhere out in the night fireworks shook the night with a renewed vigor, and Skratch looked longingly toward the door at the thought of a Festival not fully enjoyed.
Under normal circumstances she would be enjoying the festival. Under normal circumstances she would be reveling in the joy of it all, of the feeling that for once the weight had been lifted from this place that was far too aware of the discrepancy between it's citizens, and in the joy of having the light lifted from this oft dark place. Under normal circumstances she wouldn't have a care in the world. But these were not normal circumstances. In fact, they were as far from normal as they could be, and as such she found herself here, in this quiet bar, watching from her place in the corner as her target listened nervously to a tale told by a pirate. Even under these abnormal circumstances she had not expected this of Cassandra. Then again, Hitomi wasn't really sure what she had expected of this girl. The thing that surprised her more was her other companion, who sat intently listening to the pirates tale while playing with several strands of her platinum hair. At first Hitomi thought that Cassandra had resurrected the guardian before Ramus, but she knew that something was off. She didn't look like the description of the avenging angel that Ramus had always given, and she seemed far too...young, too small. She was not yet mature enough to be a real threat. Of course, having no knowledge of guardians beyond what she had been told, Hitomi still had no way of knowing what made one guardian more threatening than another. All she knew was that even one as young as this could put an end to her miserable life in the fraction of a second. Thankfully the guardian had not noticed her watchful eyes, or realized that the dark haired woman standing in the corner was staring daggers at her. Of course, with the spell in place she wouldn't be able to notice. That was the magic of distortion, it drew the eyes away from the caster, and it made it so that even the most adept telepaths would only hear their thoughts as something quite like the annoying buzz of a mosquito by one's ear, there, but not enough to really notice. She had been told that some might try to stop the Order on this night. She had been told that the government would be hot on their trail, and that more than them, certain adventurers might also interfere with their plans. Most of all, she had been told that one Cassandra Phaedra would certainly interfere, and that she must be stopped at all costs. That was easy enough for Hitomi, she had been an assassin once,and she had always had a way of finding people and learning of their plans without being seen. The only problem was that she was no allowed to kill the girl unless necessary. Otherwise Phaedra would have already met the wrong end of an obsidian dagger. Instead she had nothing to do but observe Phaedra, and the striking band of heroes she had surrounded herself with. From what Hitomi knew of the girl she had expected her to attempt to operate alone, but she had not only gathered herself quite a merry band of adventurers, she had picked some very competent ones. And yet, there was something strange about each. Even in a place as strange as the festival of Zion they felt out of place. They didn't belong here Hitomi knew, but she could not place why. Either way, they were all dangerous. The guardian was the most obvious threat, but the sharp eyed woman behind her also seemed to give off an air of aggressiveness and self-confidence. She was a warrior of the truest sense, and she would not simply back off because of the threat of pain. If she was turned loose against the Order she would present quite the challenge, but Hitomi didn't fear her. If she was a problem Hitomi would deal with her herself. After all, even the most skilled warrior cannot kill a foe they cannot see. The pirate that had come in with them was like her, he had a way of drawing attention away from himself. But he was also charming and charismatic, and he had a way of loosening people up so that he could learn what he wanted from them. He presented no outward threat, but Hitomi did not take his skills lightly. After all, he would be the most valuable member of the team if they sought the location of the catacombs, as he could easily convince a tight lipped criminal to give up that information. She might have to use her magic to keep him from following the right paths to gain that information. And then there was the girl herself. She was equipped properly for a fight, though her alchemy was hardly a threat to an adequately skilled mage. Still, her wit and determination had brought her this far, and she might have a few more tricks up her sleeves. Still, the mage had to admit she was disappointing. She was of average skill, and intelligent, but she was hardly the prodigy Ramus had made her out to be. His childhood had blinded him to the real worth of his friends. Hitomi would not overestimate the girl. Such a foolish move would cause her to hesitate if the moment came to strike her down, and hesitance was something an assassin could not afford to display. She felt something disturb her thoughts, and knew that Ramus was attempting to reach her. She opened her mind to the passionate will pressing in on them, and let her magic waver for a moment. <What have you found, my most magnificent eyes?> The voice of Ramus said into her mind. She was frustrated by his intrusion, as it made it difficult to maintain her own magic while devoting power to the draining process of mental communication, but she knew that she must report. He would not accept insubordination, especially on this night. <I have found the girl> Hitomi said plainly, <She has gathered several adventurers, but there's something more..she has found another guardian.> His thought process leapt in fear and excitement. <Let me see> He said harshly into her mind. She sighed, closing her eyes and allowing his mind further access to her. Her skin crawled as she felt his mind become one with hers, and as she opened her eyes she felt as if someone else was leaning over her shoulder, breathing in her ear. <This quite a development> He said, <I did not expect another Guardian to come to Zion.> Hitomi nodded, wondering what she should do next. <Perhaps she can be persuaded to join our cause> He thought. <I shall separate her from the group and try to persuade her> Hitomi thought back. She could feel him smile. <Good> He thought. Hitomi paused, wondering about the loose ends this left. <What shall I do with the others?>She thought. He seemed unconcerned, as he always did when something gained his intense interest. Nothing matter but his most recent obsession. It was his most infuriating quality. <Observe them> He thought, <If you think they might be useful you can attempt to make them join our cause as well. If not, do what you must to stop them from interfering. And if possible, I must still ask that you leave Cassandra alive.> Hitomi was tempted to rebel against this order, but she knew that she must not. Even if she didn't see the value in Cassandra her master did, and he was wiser and more skilled than her. <Yes sir> She thought. In the distance there was the sound of an explosion. The bar shook, and while many played it off as a part of the festival Hitomi knew that it was not. Still, she had a task, and she would stick with it. Now the only question was, what would these new heroes do now that a real threat had presented itself?
Loyalty. Such a novel concept, one that is so very often manipulated, maligned, or even just misunderstood. For some, loyalty was naught but a tool to be used to achieve personal goals. For others, it was a garment to be worn as a banner for all to see and recognize. Loyalty can be as deep as the sea, or as shallow as a wading pool, all determined by how much effort was put into obtaining it.
For Kyle Brogan, loyalty was difficult to earn, and easy to lose. But if cared for properly, it was as dependable as the strongest steel.
Arael and Alex spoke for well over an hour, and barely noticed as the others sat down with them. These were two men who had been through more mutual struggles than any should be privy to. They had freed a nation together, fought off hordes of the undead, and battled side-by-side numerous times. And more embarrassingly, the two had even once danced the tango together.
These two were about as close as two straight men could get.
Arael explained his current situation, detailing his separation from the others following the Battle of Elderin, and his return and subsequent exile from Cloud City as he attempted to return to his home. Though his details remained vague, he did explain that he had been stuck in the Limbo realm for quite some time, and had only recently been pulled from it back into Illusionia.
Alex, in turn, took the time to explain his past few years, vaguely recalling his pull through a realm portal into Imperial City, and his rise to Captain within the crew of The Ascension fleet. He talked of several battles, numerous raids, and a rather prosperous trade between the differing realms, but Alex could sense that his old friend wasn't exactly as excited about his successes as he was himself.
In Arael's eyes, Alex could sense a little bit of disappointment in the former Sentinel. It was as if, Arael had expected more of him. As if ending up as the Captain of a crew of pirates was beneath him.
"It's not as if I had much of a choice," iterated Alex. "It's a cut-throat business, and either you survive, or you die. And I'm not one to die. You know me better than that."
But even as he said it, he couldn't bring himself to completely believe it. Alex knew that there was something wrong in his life. Being a pirate hadn't set well with him from the beginning, but he'd learned to accept his fate. If all those around him had abandoned him, then why shouldn't he take whatever glory he could get? He'd saved so many lives that he should be seen as a savior, but instead, he'd been left to rot, without a friend in the world.
"I was on my own," explained the Captain. "I had to take what I could get. And lucky for me, I'm good at this job." He grinned as he shot back another glass of Amber. "You'd probably do well at it yourself, my friend."
They continued talking for a little while longer, but Alex could tell that this wasn't to be the night of reminiscing and stories that he had hoped. Instead, it felt as if he were being judged, taken to task for not living up to his own legend.
What was the Blue-Blade Warrior doing as the leader of a gang of blood-thirsty pirates?
Whatever the hell I want, thought Alex with a smirk.
"Well," said Alex finally, as he stood himself up. "It's been great catching up with you, Arael. But I've really got to get going. Lots of things to see before Zion puckers itself up and becomes its old, repressive self once again. If you're still around in the morning, feel free to stop by the ship, and we'll see about giving you a ride to wherever it is that you want to go. You have a good night."
And with that, Alex finished off his glass and made his way out the door, not even bothering to pay.
“Just make noise, hell! I thought you said no one would get hurt!” Lox shouted. Her hands were clasped to her ears and the jarring sound of a high whine still lingered between the bomb blasts.
“No one is getting hurt,” Hayder shouted over the percussive sound of the casings.
She swore she heard something like a clown laughing under the tremendous groan of an earthquake.
Glass was shattering everywhere from all the storefronts and people peeled off in every direction in fear. She heard the sounds of a machine gun ring through and clear, ricocheting off the archways of the square.
She realized, belatedly, that he was holding her hand. Guiding her through the throng of fleeing people. She tried to keep up with him and keep her eyes down. Every time she looked at one of the ghosts it would immediately lock eyes with her for far too long.
The ghosts looked like normal people of Zion, except it was very obvious from their blank expressions that they had been dead for some time and had died in the service of their country.
“Who are these people?” Lox whispered.
“All the greats,” he said simply, then remembering that she was Zionese and seemed to have idea of its history added, “they were killed in the magic wars. These are great mages of the past who were executed for their magic.”
“Wouldn’t drink the hemlock,” she surmised.
Now she had lost him with a reference.
“I am going to multiply,” he said. Hayder was still holding her hand but another version of him was standing directly beside her and was guiding her with his hand on her back.
“Where’s Acel?” Lox said.
“You promised ten times. I know that Acel will kill me, but if he kills you, I will not only be dead but everything in me will be broken. You must go.”
“I won’t leave you,” Lox said.
“He’s here. I can feel him. He is dangerous, Lox. Much more terrifying than you can imagine. This is not a discussion, Lala. Hide yourself.”
The second Hayder turned to her. “Or I will make you.”
Her lips were a tight line of annoyance. “Good luck,” she said. She jerked his hand back for a moment and stopped him. He slowed, unsteadied by her movement and found that he had been kissed quite suddenly before she turned and was gone.
Both Hayders watched her retreat.
The sounds of fireworks bursting overhead shook him back into reality and he could have sworn he heard the roar of a lion.
He realized, too late, that it was real. A gigantic feral lion was lopping toward him, his dark mane twisting in the wind.
“Set?” Hayder asked.
Set turned back into himself. “I thought it fitting. Hayder being lion, you know, and since you are not truly a Hayder the irony was too delicious.”
Hayder, the taller of the two, straightened. “Acel has sent you to do his job? Then that means one thing.”
“That he can’t be bothered with you,” Set sneered pulling out his axe.
“That he fears me,” Hayder’s smile reflected in the blade of his cutlass.
Their weapons clashed. Hayder spun out of the way a meaty slice. Set pushed back from the man, surprised by his swiftness and circled him, his axe high and his stance low. “You use your little dance moves while you fight? All you Hayders really are queers.”
Hayder laughed. “You would be the authority, spending so much time in Acel’s pocket.”
Set’s beautiful face tightened. He brought his axe down on Hayder, who sidestepped him and smoothly used his momentum to sweep kick him. Set hit the ground hard and brought his axe over his chest defensively in enough time to block a killing stab. It was blind luck, literally, the stars in his eyes had almost gotten him killed. He rolled to the right and recovered his lion’s form. Hayder’s helper arrived with a wild look in his eyes. A line formed between his eyebrows. “We end this,” Hayder breathed.
The lion’s haunches coiled a moment before it would leap and tear one of the men’s faces into napkin scraps. Then came Acel.
“Halt,” he said in a deep cultured voice.
Both men froze.
Set roared mightily.
“Down, boy,” Hayder sniped.
The temperature had dropped and the streets had cleared.
“The festival is terminated,” Acel said. His high collared shirt was expressly tailored and his shoes were of the finest leather. He had in his hand a scroll and with an almost imperceptible wave of his hand he immediately silenced the explosions happening all around them. It was as if he had silenced the world and anyone who listened could hear the universe’s gentle breathing.
“From this moment forth the Festival of Magic is cancelled, never to return. A filthy renegade is among us, people of Zion, using traitors as reminders of the bloody past.”
The ghosts flickered, drawn to Acel’s voice, seeming to speak to one another in a tongue no one could understand.
“There will be no more magic in Zion. For the boy who invited the Ryxon on our nation has returned to destroy us once more. But history will repeat itself. As he did last time, this time, he will fail. And what you value most,” Acel said closing his eyes, “I will take.”
Hayder did everything he could to keep his father out of his mind, but he could feel the icy tendrils pressing against his temples, burrowing for access.
“Anyone who stands in the way of his death will be put to death. This is the end of magic. The end of it all.”
Acel said all these things quietly, but his utterances were clear. He looked directly into his son’s eyes. “You brought friends?”
“I brought no one,” Hayder said. “I would never risk anyone else’s life.”
“There’s me,” came Pash’s voice. She was holding a spear. Nubie was at her feet, a vicious stuffed animal.
Acel laughed. “Clever, Hayder, the girl, very clever.” With one flick of his hand Pash was flying through the air and was suddenly being drug against the cobblestones.
Hayder looked sick.
“You coward!” He shouted. He ran to Acel at full speed but was blocked by Set who leapt onto him with feline ferocity and pinned him to the ground. His second version was trying to recover Pash and cursing these women for getting themselves involved.
He ran so far from the battle to recover Pash that he smashed into Alex.
"Get out of my way, @sshole," Hayder said furiously. He had no idea how much amber Alex had had.
A block away Acel howled with laughter. “You thought you had friends,” he said. “You were wrong. Set.” Acel said turning to walk away with disinterest. “Finish the boy.” With that, Acel disappeared into the air like the thinnest smoke.
And Set tried to kill the helpless Hayder he had trapped. But he never saw the attack that would so savagely rip off his ear.
Angelus never ceased to be amazed by the power of friendship. She still remembered hearing it best described to her by another guardian as being the family that one chooses. You are born into a family, but you make another one the moment you make friends, and you add to it as you add to that circle. And like family, friends had the ability to comfort, but the also had the ability to shame. The difference was that it was almost impossible to shake the shame one receives from disappointing a friend. More than that, a friend can make you feel ashamed of yourself for disappointing them without you having to even say a word. She had seen this phenomenon many times, but she had never seen it more clearly expressed than in the way Alex's face had fallen throughout his conversation with Arael. She was still confused as to his relationship with Kyle, and her inability to search his thoughts had given her few answers, but if Arael's expression during Alex's reminiscences was any indication she had been right on one front. Something was off about the warrior that was with her now. And it was obvious that whatever this warrior's relationship to Arael was, he was ashamed to see his friend's clear disappointment in him. It was almost as if Arael had reminded Alex of his own potential, and how he wasn't living up to it. Arael's looks(and thoughts) seemed to imply that Alex could be so much more than he was at present, and it was clear that Alex knew this just as much as Arael. The sentinel had just made him admit it to himself. Even his defenses of his actions seemed half-hearted. Alex knew that he could do more than just guide a bunch of misfits around the skies in a rickety old ship. He had chosen to ignore his potential and now that he admitted that he was ashamed to have let down the people that cared about him. At least, that's what Angelus got out of his expressions, she had no way of knowing for certain. After all, his thoughts seemed to be blocked from her. She should have expected as much. She watched as he slid from the bar without paying, as if needing a quick exit from the shame that was now consuming him, and considered asking Arael if he agreed with her assumptions. He seemed like an interesting enough person, and one that she could relate to. He was a warrior, the kind of person that Angelus had been protecting for years, and she had learned how to deal with the various types of personalities that came with this role. Tonight had just confirmed another one of her suspicions about the types of people that become warriors, it was easy for them to relate to others who had chosen their vocation, and to find kinship with them. This had been clear from Alex and Arael's interactions, but more than that it had been obvious from Fenris' reaction to these stories. She had listened intently to each recollection, each detail, and she had mentally compared each described adventure to her own journeys. It had been strange for the warrior, Angelus knew, but she could relate to these fellow fighters, even though they were literally from two different worlds. That was the other reason Angelus wanted to continue talking with Arael, it would be a chance for Fenris to connect with someone, but the chance to continue the conversation never came. Just as the guardian had opened her mouth to speak an explosion rocked the world outside the little cafe. And because people who live by the sword tend to try to find trouble before it finds them, in a flash the angel had found herself in the street with the party she had entered with, Fenris leading the way, Cassandra hiding nervously behind Frey,who's facade of bravery couldn't hide his real fear from the Guardian. What Angelus and the others found waiting for them in the street was one of the strangest sights any of the assembled group had ever seen. The road was full of translucent figures each walking solemnly through the road. They were ghosts, and for some reason their presence in this mystical festival almost felt perverse. "Their the old mages," Cassandra whispered from where she stood. Angelus perked up at this, floating back to the other girl. "Eh?" She said, hoping for clarification. "In the old days Zion was sort of the epicenter of magic in Illusionia," The alchemist explained, "We had a magic academy that was renowned through the entire region. Then there was a great magic war, and when the dust settled the new rules decided to ban magic. These ghosts must have been the ones who fought in the war." Angelus nodded, seeing now why their mental signature seemed to almost violate the festival of the very magic that had been their undoing. Still, that didn't answer one important question. "Why are they here?" The Angel asked, "I mean, does this NORMALLY happen?" Cassandra looked at her as if she had asked if fish regularly rained from the sky and fried themselves, but the angel shrugged, knowing that her question wasn't entirely unreasonable. After all, stranger things happened with startling regularity in the mind game. "They were called here by someone," The alchemist said,"But I couldn't say who." The angel smiled,realizing that if they had been summoned they probably knew the identity of their summoner. In her experience, mystical beings were always drawn to whatever had brought them back into the world. "I could," She said, closing her eyes and looking for the common thread among the voices of the dead. She found it with ease, and her heart froze. Each ghost was thinking one name. Hayder. "Fen," She said sharply, looking at the warrior. Fenris turned to her, her eyes serious, waiting for what the angel had to say. Angelus was surprised to see trust in the warrior's eyes. She wasn't looking at Angelus because she had to, but because she knew that the angel had something important to tell her, and she trusted her to come up with the best plan of action. That made this easier for Angelus. If nothing else it showed how far her relationship with Fenris had come. "I need you to be ready for a fight," She said, "If what I'm getting from the mess of thoughts I'm receiving is correct, Hayder is a little way ahead fighting a couple of really strong foes. There's no way he can take them both alone, but with your help I think he can manage." Fenris nodded, though her brow creased. "Are you sure we want to help him?" The warrior asked, "I mean, I still don't have a solid idea of what kind of person he is. You would know better than me." Angelus nodded, also glad that the warrior had bothered to consult her. "I'm not really sure if we can trust him in the long term," The angel responded, "But his cause is noble, and he's our best hope for getting home." Fenris nodded, silently drawing her blade and waiting for the signal to move. Angelus turned to Frey then, looking at the frightened pirate. "Daniel," She said, addressing him by his true name, "You should help to." "Why?" The pirate asked, more out of fear than dislike of the idea, "Hayder's been a jerk to me my whole life, and I'm not really much of a fighter, I'm more of a..." "Thief," The Angel said, "I know, but you're still part of the Ascension's crew, and Hayder is your first mate. Do your duty. Defend him." Cassandra looked up the angel then, her eyes wide with fear. It seemed something had just dawned on her. "Cassandra,you don't have to..." Angelus started, but the alchemist cut her off. "Is your friend Osiris Hayder?" She asked. The angel blinked, surprised that Cassandra knew the name. Then she nodded slowly. Cassandra's eyes filled with fear again, but also some sort of admiration. "You will all die," She said, "If it is Osiris, than Acel has surely found him, in which case..." A spark filled her eyes, and the hint of a smile graced her face. "I may be able to help you," She said. Angelus heart rose, and she found something resembling a smile on her face as well. "Thank you," She said, "Cassandra, why would you..." The other girl cut her off again. "Acel is a wicked man. Anyone opposed to him is a friend of mine," She said, "Now go and buy me some time. If you don't die too quickly I might be able to mix a magic nullifying agent for you." Angelus beamed, then set her face, ready for the fight to come. She drifted down to Fenris and placed a hand on the warrior's shoulder. "Thank you, Fen," She said quietly. Fenris smiled, a true, genuine, mischievous smile. "You don't have to thank me," She said, "You've always been there for me. Why shouldn't I return the favor?" The angel smiled broadly, feeling truly loved for the first time in far too long. Then in a flash of light she vanished from sight alongside her closest friend. She reappeared in the chaos of the fight, and instantly her heart froze once more. Hayder was on the ground before her, a lion standing over him, ready to strike the final blow. A man stood watching, saying something, but the image had numbed the angel to the sound of words. She couldn't do anything, and she felt foolish for it. Thankfully her apprehension had not spread to Fenris. The warrior struck swiftly and effortlessly, and her blade bit into the flesh of the lion, effortlessly tearing away an ear. The warrior smiled. "Y'know," She said, grinning maliciously, "Maybe it's just the wolf-spirit in me, but I've never liked cats."
"After you," said Noon as they reached the low iron gate. Kyle stepped through, and the duo walked their way up the cobblestone path.
It was a modest, but well-cared for home, built of granite and white marble. A garden of herbs sat peacefully in the side-yard, and smoke rose lazily from the chimney above, indicating that the house was occupied. Kyle looked about, but there were no other signs of movement on the property.
"You sure he lives here?" Asked Kyle.
"Sure," said Noon, nodding. "At least he did the last time I saw him. Just knock on the door already."
Kyle turned, and rapped his knuckle on the sturdy mahogany, and waited. He turned back to Noon, and shrugged slightly after there was no response. So, the warrior knocked again. Still no answer. Kyle raised his hand to knock again, but finally, the door opened. Kyle's hand was frozen in mid-knock.
There, in the open doorway, stood the most gorgeous woman that Kyle had ever seen.
Raven hair cascaded down her back and around her shoulders, framing a face with a smile as warm as the most perfect spring day. She wore a light green blouse and matching skirt, enhancing her curves in a subtle, yet elegant manner. Kyle was so taken aback that he didn't realize at first that the woman was talking to him until Noon nudged him in the shoulder.
"Can I help you?" Asked the woman again. Kyle lowered his hand.
"Um, yes," said Kyle, forgetting what they were doing there. "We're looking for..."
"Master Sudoku, yes," said the woman. "He's been expecting you. Please, come in."
Kyle was a little confused, even as he and Noon began to follow the woman into the home. "What? How did he...?"
"Master Brogan," said the woman with a sly grin. "You can't expect to land a zeppelin in Ascent without the former Head Judge knowing about it."
"You know my name?"
"Isn't that evident?" Replied the woman.
"Well, sure, but..."
"No need for more silly questions, then," she said smartly, and continued walking into the home.
Kyle looked at Noon, who offered no answers as they continued to walk down the hallway. It seemed as if the interior of the home was much larger than the exterior, as they continued to walk and walk. Tapestries and portraits lined the walls, with intricate carvings and other decorations spaced every ten feet or so. It was like walking down the halls of a museum.
After what seemed like nearly a half-hour, they reached a side door, where the Raven-haired woman stopped.
"Wait here, please."
She pushed her way through the door, and left Kyle and Noon standing in the hallway, staring at a battle portrait of a group of warriors fighting against a large lizard-like creature with an armored helmet in a forest. As Kyle looked at it, it looked just like the creature that he and the others had battled in Limbo.
How in the hell...?
The door swung open, and the woman stepped out.
Noon and Kyle nodded, and stepped to the door. The woman closed it behind them, and they could hear the echoing footsteps as she walked back down the hallway.
The room was a mess of books, drawings, sketches and notes, with piles of papers stacked haphazardly about numerous tables. A burning fire blazed in the stone fireplace, above which were hung three artifacts that Kyle was quite familiar with.
The first was a golden rod, topped with a rather unimpressive ball at the top. There was not a scratch to be found on the smooth, un-etched surface, which betrayed no signs of man-made smithing. Hung just above that were two crowns. The first was golden, with six finely cut red stones embedded at even spaces. The second was a blackened silver, with five blue stones embedded around the base, just below ten spikes that seemed to emulate a creature's fangs. The three items looked practically unassuming, simply wealthy treasures, but Kyle knew better.
Kyle knew exactly what these items were.
"So," said a voice from the past. "You at least recognize the tools of your past grand adventures, Mr. Brogan."
Kyle turned, and there stood the man that they had come to see. He only looked a little older, hunched over a gnarled wooden cane, and dressed in an embroidered red robe. His white hair was cut short, as was his beard, but the look didn't seem to "fit" him quite right.
"Moira insisted," said the wizened man in answer to that unspoken question. "That I get my hair trimmed by the new hairdresser in the Capital Block. I'm not convinced, but she says it makes me look twenty years younger."
"I think it looks fine, Master Sudoku," said Noon with a grin.
"Well, Mr. Kairos," said Yuri, stepping over to a nearby table. "Still, as always, the flatterer."
"I speak nothing but the truth," said Noon, raising his goggles and smiling. "Always."
Sudoku turned his way back to Kyle, who still seemed a little shocked.
"Well now," said the old man. "I never knew the Blue-Blade Warrior to be at a loss for words."
"It is a bit of a shock," said Kyle finally. "It's been a few years, Yuri."
"Master Sudoku," corrected Noon gently, but the old man waved off the rebuke.
"Kyle here is one of the only men in Illusionia who has far and beyond earned the right to call me by my first name," he said calmly. "It would be an insult to take such a privilege from him."
Noon nodded, and walked his way over to one of the walls of bookshelves, and pulled a volume off the shelf.
Yuri motioned for Kyle to have a seat, and as he did so, the door opened, and in walked the Raven-haired beauty. She carried with her a silver tea service, with several ceramic cups.
"I don't believe," said Yuri to Kyle as the woman set down the tray. "That you two have been properly introduced. Kyle, this is my assistant, Moira Bertrand. She, of course, knows who you are."
"Wait," said Kyle. "Why does she know who I am? It seems like everywhere I go, most everybody seems to know who I am."
"Well," said Noon, looking up from his book. "You did take charge of the 51st, were instrumental in the fall of the Twin Terrors during the Revolution, not to mention your role during the Summit's original bouts with Serpon and the legends of you and Princess Vujo..."
"Not to mention," interrupted Moira, her eyes serious, but excited. "Your role in freeing the nation of Tetradias, your defeat of Vrashna not once, but twice, as well as leading the charge against the Raven's Claw beneath Cloud City and your discovery of the Crown of Strength..."
"Apparently," said Kyle with a smirk. "Noon isn't the only flatterer in the room."
"It's not flattery when it's true, Mr. Brogan," said Yuri. "It's not as if the deeds of the Blue-Blade Warrior are the most inconspicuous in Illusionia."
"You know as well as I do, Yuri," said Kyle. "I only do what I can."
"That's much more than so many others do, Kyle," said Yuri. "And that's what makes you so unique." The old man took a sip from his cup.
"So tell me about this dream of yours, then." Yuri was straight-faced, but Kyle was still a little impressed that he seemed to know exactly why the duo was here. Still, he chalked it up to magic and just pressed forward.
"All the people that I met in Limbo seem to die in a quick swath. And it's not like these are weaklings, either. I mean, a couple of them might be, but for the most part, they're fairly skilled. But these two sorcerers cut through them like a hot knife through butter."
Yuri thought for a second, and then motioned to Moira. "The Tolbin Legends, please, Ms. Bertrand." Moira stepped over to the bookshelf where Noon was standing, and looked through the volumes, bending over to check the lower shelves. She finally realized that the book she was looking for was currently in Noon's hands as he was using it as an excuse gaze down upon her backside, and promptly stood up, taking the book from the pilot's hands and casually swinging it back and crashing the hardcover into the man's stomach before walking the volume back to Yuri.
The old man didn't seem to notice as Noon doubled over.
"How often have you had this dream?" Asked Yuri.
"Every night for the past two weeks," said Kyle, ignoring Noon's grunt as his knees buckled. "Normally I don't take much stock in nightmares, but the same dream over and over seemed like a sign to me."
"Indeed," said Yuri, flipping through the pages. "It's generally considered a plot device."
"A what?" Said Kyle.
"A plot device," explained Moira quickly. "Is something that engages a character and gets them to move forward in a story. Sometimes it's a visit from an old friend, or a natural disaster, or, as in this case, it's a sign of some impending bad news."
"Kyle," said Yuri. "As you know, you're a character in a story. You may in fact be one of the most central figures in all of The Mind Game. And right now, you're not exactly in the thick of things."
"So," said Kyle hesitantly, yet again surprised to realize that even more people seemed to understand his role as a fictional character. "This whole thing is just a ruse to get me back to the others and into the story again?"
Yuri finally seemed to find the page that he had been looking for, and pointed it out to Moira, who stepped out of the room in a hurry.
"In a way, yes," said Yuri, putting down the book. "But more importantly, it seems as if the writers are looking for a way to bring you back into the story along with a fighting chance to actually get you and your new companions through this upcoming challenge with more than a passing chance at success."
Kyle glanced up at the Regalia items hanging above the fireplace.
"No thanks," said Kyle. "I remember what those things did to me last time, and I'm not looking to go through that again."
"I agree," said Yuri. "Your adventure with the Regalia is in the past. But I think I have something that might be a bit more helpful to you."
Moira walked back into the room, and presented a sheathed black dagger with elaborate golden etchings along the handle.
"Yeah," breathed Noon suddenly, pulling himself up from the floor. "That would probably work."
Kyle looked at the weapon, remembering his brief history with it so many years ago. And then, he shrugged.
"Well," he said, grasping the sheath. "I guess it's worth a shot."
The forest. That impossible forest that had sprung up out of the Red Desert. Arael still remembered like it was yesterday how his life had changed forever. On mission to retrieve the Book of Ages from two villains named Aker and Yemoja Arael had met the True Ones; Kyle, Sway, and Kelley. He had fought with Kyle against the werewolf Caspar, who despite extreme prejudice had become his erstwhile friend and companion. He had fought side by side with Kyle and the True Ones against oppression, tyranny, and the darkest forces of the world. If he had learned nothing else in his time he had learned this.
Kyle Brogan was an honorable man.
To hear him speak of piracy, of taking what you get your hands on without a care for anyone else in the world, it was unsettling to say the least.
Arael put his drink down. Had things in Illusiona really changed that much in four years?
“The Blue-Blade Warrior turned pirate? Come on Kyle.”
"It's not as if I had much of a choice," iterated Alex. "It's a cut-throat business, and either you survive, or you die. And I'm not one to die. You know me better than that."
“I knew a man with honor.” retorted Arael. “A man who fought for the good. Not one who preyed on those weaker than him. What happened?”
“I was on my own.” said Kyle. “I had to take what I could get. And lucky for me, I’m good at this job.” He grinned and drained another glass of Amber. “You’d probably do well at it yourself, my friend.”
They talked for a short while longer but the familiarity had gone. This wasn’t the Kyle that Arael had been looking for. Not by a long shot.
Where have you gone my old friend? And what did it do to you? he thought sadly.
"Well," said Alex finally, as he stood himself up. "It's been great catching up with you, Arael. But I've really got to get going. Lots of things to see before Zion puckers itself up and becomes its old, repressive self once again. If you're still around in the morning, feel free to stop by the ship, and we'll see about giving you a ride to wherever it is that you want to go. You have a good night."
With that Alex stood and left the bar, leaving his old friend with the check.
“You know,” he said to nobody in particular, “once upon a time he was the greatest hero in Illusiona. He was something to behold.” Arael said standing, leaving the last of his coins on the table. It wouldn’t be enough, but it was all he could give. “Once upon a time…” he walked out into the night, frustrated and once again without a plan.
Regus looked over at Skratch and saw the longing in his human eyes. He hadn’t realized that what they were doing was keeping him from enjoying the Festival. Regus had seen the Festival more times than most living now had, and Skratch had never been out in the world on his own, not when magic use had been approved anyways. It wouldn’t be right for him to hold him inside on the best night of the year.
“You know Skratch. This could take some time. And I really am not going to need you for this one. Go enjoy yourself tonight.”
Skratch took himself out of his thoughts for a moment. “Me out in the Festival alone? Really?”
“You’re your own person now Skratch. I won’t force you to stay when you could be out having fun.”
Skratch could hardly believe his master, no…partner was saying this to him. “If you really don’t need me…”
Regus laughed and gave Skratch a light shove. “Get out of here. This is something that Abedah and I have to do together, if she wants to. There’s nothing I need you for. Go have fun.”
Skratch stood and bowed farewell to their company before grabbing a cloak and heading out into the Festival mains. It felt good to be out, ready and able to use his magic any way he chose, for entertainment or just for fun.
Feeling festive he threw his hands into the air and shot his own fireworks into the sky, the noise and sudden light burst forth and surprised the crowd, eliciting cheers from the other festival goers. He didn’t really understand how he was able to use magic. From what Regus had taught him only living things had a bond with the magical world. So some part of him, however large or small had to be truly alive, and not just animated by the blending of science and magic. He had always wondered about his eyes, Regus had said he they hadn’t been of his design, and he had originally been given artificial ocular lenses. Some part of him was alive, some part of him wanted to live, not just to exist.
He walked through the streets, accepting applause and accolades whenever a passerby noted that they had seen his earlier show or whenever he threw his fireworks back into the air. He walked aimlessly for some time, eventually making his way to the city center where another show seemed to be going on. Ghosts it seemed wandered the crowd; and every so often one would explode and send a shockwave of sound through the crowds that remained. There amongst the ghosts a man fought a lion, and it appeared he had friends in the fray as well.
What a show. I’ll have to ask how they do it once they’re finished.
Another bomb went off, sending some of the crowd screaming and running away.
Perhaps they went a bit too far with the noise. They’re losing the crowd. Skratch braced himself against a wall to fend off the concussive blasts as he watched. The sound didn’t bother him, his ears were still mechanical, but the shockwave was palpable.
And then the woman with the sword cut the ear off of the offending lion.
Either they are very very good at this. Or this is real.
The remnants of the crowd ran screaming from the scene. Soon it was just the combatants, Skratch, and a crowd of onlookers that seemed to be with the warrior woman. Skratch watched, hypnotized, as the fight unfolded. Underneath his cloak his hands gathered magic, preparing to defend himself should the need arise, or to join the fight if he could figure out just who to burn.
Arael walked down a back alley, slightly tipsy and leaning against a wall for support. He could walk on his own; it wasn’t the alcohol that had done it.
It was the disappointment.
He had no leads, no plan of action. Teller had brought him back to find Kyle, but Kyle had been less than helpful.
“Where are you now Teller?” said Arael.
An explosion rattled the walls and sent debris down into the alley and onto Arael. He turned about face and ran past the café and into a small square that was occupied by…
He stood and watched as a dark skinned man took the form of a lion, and assaulted another man in the square. He must have been known to Kyle’s group, for the one who had been introduced as “the girl with the wolf spirit” took out her sword and jumped into battle, severing the monster’s ear from his head.
"Y'know," she said with a wolf’s grin, "Maybe it's just the wolf-spirit in me, but I've never liked cats."
Fine Teller. You want me to help, so be it.
Arael stepped forward and stopped next to Angelus and the rest of the crew. “It would seem outside forces conspire to keep me in your company.”
I don’t suppose you could conjur up a blade Teller?
His hand and belt remained conspicuously empty of steel.
I figured not.
Arael shrugged off his ill gotten and ill fitted tunic. He might not have his wings and he might not have his swords by his side, but he still had his training. He cracked his knuckles and watched as his hands turned dark and leathery, hair began to grow and run up his arms and his legs. Muscles began to ripple over his body and he felt his canines sharpen into fangs. His back bent and his hands pressed the hard cobblestone ground of the square. In a span of seconds the man had transformed, a gorilla now in his place.
The first thing he felt was pain.
Damn! So soon? Arael chastised himself for not thinking his battle plan through. Of course he would already be tired, he hadn’t trained properly in four years. His wings were in absentia. He knew that if this plan were to work, it would have to work quickly.
Arael leapt into the fray, throwing his full weight against the bloodied shape shifter and driving him to the ground. He took the creatures head in his strengthened hand and slammed it into the ground. Once, twice, three times he slammed the lion’s head into the cobblestone.
The lion rolled and kicked, sending Arael into a wall. His vision blurred, and the transformation drained him of his strength, but the lion still stood. The gorilla that was Arael launched back to battle and landed on the back of the offending feline. He wrapped his legs and arms around the beast and began to squeeze. He could feel ribs strain and the air go out of the great lion as it writhed in his iron grip, it bucked and roared and still, Arael held. Soon though, the pain became too much. Strength faded from Arael’s limbs and the lion attacked with a renewed sense of vigor. Too tired to speak even if he wasn’t an ape Arael tried his hardest to clear his mind until only one thought remained.
Angelus! he screamed inside his head, This form won’t last long, I can’t hold him any longer. Tell her to take him now!
The shape shifted let out a roar and bucked one last time, and Arael was thrown free, he rolled across the ground and by the time he came to a stop, he had once again become the damaged Sentinel, barely able to breath and certainly unable to fight.
His vision began to blur at the edges and things went black, his last vision was a great lion, murder in his eyes, staring at his prone form.
Angelus knew that if she was going to manage to survive this journey she had to stop being surprised by the things she saw. That said, seeing a man with broken wings turn into a gorilla to fight another man who had just turned into a lion was a pretty surprising sight, and not one that she had expected. It was enough to leave her dumbfounded for a moment. That moment passed as soon as Arael cried out for her with his mind. 'Angelus,' His mind screamed, 'This form won't last long, I can't hold him any longer. Tell her to take him now!' Unfortunately before Angelus could relay this suggestion the lion had thrown the sentinel to the ground, apparently doing severe damage to him. As Arael struggled weakly to move the lion sauntered to it's fallen prey, ready to end the winged man's life. Angelus knew what she had to do. It was her job to protect Fenris first, of course, but she was also supposed to protect the mind game's players. With that in mind she drew her bow from the air, readying a plasma bolt. Before she could fire, however, another object colored the air between herself and the lion, something silver and sharp. A moment later the lion reeled in pain as a dagger, curved, inelegant, but lethal, sank into it's side. The angel whipped around to see Frey smiling at his successful throw. As the lion turned and raced towards him that smile turned into a look of panic. The lion reared, ready to strike, but instead of sinking it's teeth into the meaty flesh of the pirate it found steel, and the confident smile of Fenris waiting for it. "We have a saying back in Terra Di," She said, throwing the lion to the ground and taking a defensive stance,"Pick on someone your own size." Angelus rolled her eyes, falling back on her heels. "Better one-liners, Fen," She quipped, temporarily forgetting the danger of the situation out of shock at how lame Fenris' taunt had been. "Shut up," The warrior spat back, slightly embarrassed. Angelus took a moment to note that, in many ways, she really was perfect for her charge. After all, she could think of no other person who could be so casual while staring death in the face. *** Cassandra's hands were shaking and her heart racing, but she still took pride in the fact that, even now in her intense panic she remembered perfectly the mixture she needed to make. And though she could barely hold the beaker she was mixing the chemicals in still she had yet to make a mistake, which was crucial with the magic-nullifying agent she was mixing. After all, this was a volatile mixture, and the slightest miscalculation when it came to the mixture could result in disaster. The shaking probably wasn't helping though. Still, the thing that bothered Cassandra most was that her nervousness wasn't entirely caused by the sound of the battle a mere block away from her, it was the feeling that she was being watched. Of course there was no reason for anyone to target her, and she was completely alone on the street, but the feeling wouldn't go away. 'Whatever, Cass,' She thought to herself, 'It's just paranoia brought on by the sheer insanity of what you're trying to do.' She went back to working on the mixture, unaware that if she were to spill it by accident she'd see the figure lurking just a few feet away. *** Hitomi watched the alchemist with disgust as she mixed the potion that would give her friends an edge in their battle with Acel. It was a foolish gesture of course, since Acel's magic was far too powerful for such a simple tactic to affect it, but it showed a cleverness that Hitomi hadn't seen in the girl before. She was smarter than the assassin had given her credit for. Possibly too smart. She drew her obsidian blade from her belt, considering striking Cassandra down for a moment. It would be so easy to frame it as an accident, or as a result of her fight with Acel and Set. Instead she put the blade back on her belt. She had her orders, and it would be pointless to go against them at this late stage, especially for someone who presented so little of a threat. Still, she would relay Cassandra's ability to create the nullifying-agent to Ramus. Perhaps now he would realize that his friend was not worth risking the plan over.
The room was a bit of a mess when Abedah opened her eyes, but it took her a moment to notice. Regus graciously explained his purpose with the flame, “I give students a totem so they have something to focus what little power they can summon into something tangible. You on the other hand, seem to have no problem creating and interacting with magic. Congratulations whoever you may be. You are a magus. And once trained will probably be fairly terrifying."
Jimmy asked her, "What were you thinking about when you had your eyes closed?"
"I was just doing what you suggested. I was thinking about the lines of code I used years ago to create environments in Free Play."
Jimmy nodded, but couldn't quite grasp what it meant, not being a mage himself.
Regus brought out the mix he had been working on and set it before Abedah, "Drink this. All of it. There isn’t a single foolproof way to get rid of a spirit tracker if you aren’t the one who placed it, or failing that killed the one who placed it. Any potions work with varying success depending on who takes them. If your magic doesn’t fight too hard against this, it should at least scramble the signal for awhile.”
Pounce sniffed it and squinged her nose. "I think I'd take my chances killing Hayder."
Abedah had gotten used to some awful tasting stuff at the battle station, so she knew her heritage would allow her to stomach the concoction. Whenever a new kitchen worker tried making Chinese tea in the traditional way she requested, it often tasted like a petroleum product the first couple weeks. She chuckled to herself at the thought and chugged the beaker in one gulp. Her body shuddered involuntarily, and Pounce's fur bristled at the thought of drinking that stuff. Jimmy was glad he had been regarded as crew, which he was, and not been injected.
As Regus and Skratch magically cleaned the room, Pounce's eyes widened. "Holy white tornado, Batman!" she exclaimed.
"Who's Batman?" Jimmy asked.
"Never mind," Pounce replied.
Abedah just watched, and tried to consider what she might have to do to complete the same task; but she just couldn't come up with any ideas. She thought she could move objects around if she could just find some way to locate them in the great computer's memory. The problem was that the amount of memory used by Free Play was so vast, and this was territory that was created by the game itself, she didn't know where to start.
Once the room was cleaned, Regus started addressing what Jimmy thought was the bigger problem, Abedah's memory from before she landed in Limbo. “Now that we know you have magic in you, and we’ve hopefully solved the problem of the spirit tracers for now, we have to start in on your memory. For that, I unfortunately don’t have any potion or set of magic words that will unlock your mind. I might be able to have a look inside, but if it’s been locked away by someone malicious, I might not be able to do much to unlock it. That’s something you’ll have to do."
Now Abedah was a little frightened. What would Regus think when he discovered that there was no blocked memory, that she was really someone else from a realm far different from any these folks would understand. Her fellow travelers might understand, but how could these residents? Then she remembered what had happened with the dead dragon when Papa Mike was trying to get her to understand her role as a story character. What would Regus think of that?
While she was thinking, Regus dismissed Skratch to enjoy the festival. She heard some extra loud bangs outside, but she figured they were just a more potent pyrotechnic display. Jimmy held her hand, "If Iysi sent us here, it's because Regus is the best there is. If anyone can help you remember your past, it's him."
Pounce flicked her tail, eager to see what was going on outside; but she patiently stayed, curious about what was going on in the room too.
Abedah patted Jimmy's hand, and finally responded to Regus, "Thank you, but I don't think it would be safe for you to search my memory. It was not erased; it never existed, as far as I know. I can't explain it any better because I don't understand it myself. It's like I'm two different people living in the same body. I'm not crazy, but it does leave quite a bit of uncertainty. If you have any suggestions to resolve the uncertainty, I'm willing to try."
Jimmy wasn't sure what it was about Abedah that attracted him, though she was most definitely a beautiful woman. There was a youthful innocence about her, but also an ancient wisdom that didn't seem to fit. She was as fearful as a schoolgirl, but growing in a powerful confidence by the day. She was so familiar to him, though they had only just met, yet he couldn't wait for the adventure of discovering the depths of her being. Was this love, or something else? He looked forward to finding out.
Kyle had said Zion was the next place they were headed. Although Najm considered herself a broad traveler of Illusionia, remembering the countless expeditions with her father and the assassins of Shadow Tech, she never heard of the place, and upon inquiry, Kyle offered a brief explanation.
The city of magic, he called it. The vessel took a deep plunge above the city of magic and glided smoothly over the cluster of buildings all painted red by the setting sun’s fierce glow.
The Red Lantern District.
Slowly the craft descended, the loud hum of her engine marking the beauty of her descent with an ominous, majestic sort of air. She came into contact with the cobblestone below, heaving a sigh of relief that kicked up dust and debris in all directions.
He said this was the day of their annual festival where the inhabitants of the city were allowed to practice magic, a tradition that was prohibited to them throughout the rest of the year. And practice they did.
In the distance, Najm could hear the dull crackle and pop of fireworks as they lit the premature evening sky with vivid colored lights that burst into striking images, haloing the town with glittering wonder.
Najm emerged from the vessel dressed like a pirate, her leather boots screeching on the cold, dank cobblestone below. She secured her daggers and gave them a reassuring pat.
Things could get hectic this time of year in Zion, or so Kyle said.
She watched him from afar issue orders to his men in steady tones. Alban readily assented to his task and made way for the more festive part of the city.
This was her chance, she needed to follow this man and find out more of what he knew.
With her index and thumb, she dipped her feather-tipped hat over her visage and began shadowing the movements of her target. And that’s when she felt it. An ancient feeling that she had almost completely forgotten, or tried to forget. The darkness around her quivered, and then slowly as if aroused from a lengthy sleep, the shadows crept up her body. She felt her body shiver as they made their way on up to her collarbone, then slowly upon the nape of her neck.
It was an addiction or perhaps a lust of some sort. The hedonistic desire to shed blood was back. As she followed him through alley ways, down roads, over bridges past cuddling couples and drunken groups of men, she could smell his scent like a predator. It was so easy. Too easy. She could kill him and like a whispered secret, be gone as fast as she came with the impact of sledge hammer. Her breathing was slow and measured, her eyes focused. She could kill him. She could do it! But…She held back.
Coming back to reality, she realized her hand wrapped around one of her daggers, and she, quite in shock, snatched it away, stifling a gasp.
You will never be able to escape who you are, her father had once said. And the words played themselves over and over in her mind.
But is there redemption for a killer?
The question had almost escaped her lips, but Alban stopped moving. With food in hand, he sat at the cluster of Bistro sets that bordered the town square, placing yet another tray of food upon the table beside him. Hungry man.
Najm shrunk away into the shadows and they in turn, jerked away from their prey.
She watched him talk to himself for what seemed like a few seconds, and then, at length, Dougie and Arem crept from out of the woodworks, making themselves comfortable before the trays of food. It was, what Najm had surmised, a bad attempt at tailing their foe. But why had they been tailing him in the first place?
She moved in closer, feigning interest in a fireblowers show and disappearing amidst the crowd. She was within earshot of them, focusing to make out the indistinct sound of their voices.
“Tao Seesari,” one of them said.
She emerged from the crowd peeved by her rustiness as an assassin and pulled a chair out next to the three of them.
“I’m not supposing you have room for one more,” she took a seat. “And to be quite honest, I really do not care.”
Alban smiled quite warmly, taking in another spoonful of his fish.
She sat back in her chair and steepled her fingers. “If you don’t mind, Arem, but I also have a bone to pick with this man.”
Alban proceeded to smile quite amiably, raising only one eyebrow in the way of inquiry.
Najm narrowed her eyes at the man. He was a sarcastic bastard, he was.
“I’ll tell you all like this, let’s play our cards straight. All of us.” She took care to emphasize. “Obviously fate brought us here for a reason, and I’m trying to figure out exactly what that reason is.”
Alban gestured for her to go first.
“Well, for starters. I’m not really sure why I’m here. All I know is that I’m supposed to save the day but to be quite honest, I’ve been grasping at darkness for quite some time. However,” she raised her eyebrow, “you guys seem to tickle my fancy. You wouldn’t mind telling me why, would you?”
Arem surveyed his capture as if he was prize snaking through the blue waters of victory. He waited for the pleading reaction of a guilty man who would kneel down and accept his fate like a prisoner of war, however all he received was a single chuckle and some words uttered in a foreign tongue.
“Ha! Maku muja bam.”
That was it. Seriously?! Where was the fear that would have twinkled perfectly in his green eyes? Or the kneeling of his frail body upon the floor of failure? Arem turned to Dougie with not only disappointment, but also a hint of shame was plastered upon his face.
“Well at least he bought us dinner,” Dougie shrugged.
“Tao Seesari was…” Alban began, but was cut off by a familiar voice.
“I’m not supposing you have room for one more,” Najm took her seat across from Alban with a look of blunt determination. “And to be quite honest, I really do not care.”
It seemed as if all of the men at the table smiled at the boldness of this lone lamb amongst wolves. Intrigued by said toughness, Alban stuffed a piece of snapper into his mouth.
“I hope you’re not hungry,” Alban said sarcastically.
Najm placed her fingertips together like a lofty tower, and leaned back in her seat as if she was a don about to conduct a crucial business meeting. She slowly turned her attention to Arem.
“If you don’t mind, Arem, but I also have a bone to pick with this man.”
“By all means,” Arem responded, interested as to why Alban attracted which seemed like so much trouble.
Alban raised his eyebrow at Najm’s statement and looked behind him, beneath the table, and in the far distances of Zion. “I wonder if there is anyone else coming to pick my bones.”
Najm narrowed her eyes. “I’ll tell you all like this, let’s play our cards straight. All of us.”
Alban took his pipe from his pocket, and lit it. “I’m starting to think I should fold.”
Najm ignored his statement and motioned to Dougie and Arem. “Obviously fate brought us here for a reason, and I’m trying to figure out exactly what that reason is.”
“Well I think since you brought fate into the picture, maybe you should start us off on exactly what that is,” Dougie suggested.
Alban paved an invisible way for Najm to partake. “After you.”
Arem agreed. He thought it was perhaps a good idea to hold until she revealed her hand.
“Well, for starters. I’m not really sure why I’m here. All I know is that I’m supposed to save the day but to be quite honest, I’ve been grasping at darkness for quite some time. However,” she paused, raising her eyebrows. “you guys seem to tickle my fancy. You wouldn’t mind telling me why, would you?”
Two pairs masquerading as a royal flush. Arem was definitely not a simpleton and he realized while many words were used nothing was said. As the saying went, he was not buying it, but he was going to rent it for tonight.
“I’m not such a good tickler. I tend to be like those people who dig instead of tickle, however,” Arem exhaled mockingly, “I’m guessing our Elderin background perhaps is one of the reasons why we are drawn to one another. Speaking for me and Dougie, I can say this trip was only to visit my family---“
“And then it wildly turned into a bounty for his truly,” Dougie interrupted, gesturing towards Alban.
“And being imprisoned in a pirate ship which can fly in the sky and surf through realms. So with that, I can say fate has been at the reins for this one,” Arem concluded.
“I don’t know why I’m here,” Alban tuned in. He shrugged, “That’s my story.”
Arem happily and figuratively placed a full house on the table, and was quite surprised that the others had blank cards. It seemed as if the strings of this journey were beginning to tie together into a single rope, which gave him some relief when he lost hope on the ship. However, he was not pleased to see that if a pin dropped all of the strands making up this rope would draw their weapons. Highway robbers. For now, they were using each other to find answers perhaps about the realms, a chance to save the day, or a moment with one’s parents. They were all withholding pieces of a puzzle that would show half of a picture.
With that thought, Arem still knew that there were others with them that were present in the meadow and on the ship. Perhaps, they possessed the other half of the picture, and one day these mistrusting and dueling personalities would have to join and see the picture for what it was. It was just a thought. Arem could not be sure.
However, since they had the right number of people, perhaps they should have played spades instead of poker.
Abedah looked hesitant. Jimmy took her hand in his and gave her a reassuring glance. “If Iysi sent us here, it's because Regus is the best there is. If anyone can help you remember your past, it's him.”
“lysi thinks very highly of her friends.” Regus said.
Her very old friends anyways.
“I’m the best in the city at this. At least the best who offers his services without want of a blood oath.” He was only half-joking.
Still, Abedah seemed less than ready to turn over her mind to Regus. "Thank you, but I don't think it would be safe for you to search my memory.” she said.
“Being the best means being safe dear. It’s been a long time since I let something slip away from a subject’s mind, and even longer since someone has trapped me inside. Besides, I am very good at restoring an erased memory.”
She continued on, undeterred. “It was not erased; it never existed, as far as I know. I can't explain it any better because I don't understand it myself. It's like I'm two different people living in the same body.”
Regus cocked his head sighed. What Abedah was describing wasn’t an erasure after all. At least not the kind that he had thought it was when they first found him in the pub dockside.
Abedah saw the look on his face and retorted. “I'm not crazy, but it does leave quite a bit of uncertainty. If you have any suggestions to resolve the uncertainty, I'm willing to try."
Regus picked his feet up off the table and walked across the room to a full length mirror. He didn’t look bad considering the excitement of the night, and he would need to magic away some scorch marks from his long coat before the sun rose the next morning…again…but under the scruffed brown hair and weathered face he didn’t look a day over forty three.
Another time my friend. Regus stopped admiring himself and took hold of the mirror’s wooden frame. A well known to fact to most professional magic practitioners was that while the Festival was tolerated one night a year, it was barely so. For the next few days after goons would be patrolling the city, performing inspections and generally making everyone’s lives miserable once again. Anyone caught owning anything of a decidedly magical nature was fined at best, or arrested at worst. Gods forbid anyone was caught actually attempting magic.
It was for this reason that most old hats knew how to secure their stash of reagents, of spells and anything else found to be operating outside the laws of science. Regus gave his reflection a perfunctory nod and, as is the case with most mirrors, received one in kind. He tipped his fedora, leaving one hand on the smoothly polished wood and again, the reflection followed his movements. Then, the reflection did something decidedly not mirror like. It took its hands off of its side of the frame and walked stepped back. With his free hand Regus pointed toward the bookshelf at the other end of the workshop. His reflection moved away from the mirror and walked through its reflected shop, eventually settling near the bookshelf.
“Havermonte. Fourth shelf from the bottom.” asked Regus.
His reflection obeyed, and lifted a tome of medium size from the shelf and walked it back to the mirror. Regus reached his free hand through the glass; it was cold, and stung like a winter storm. He took the tome from his reflection and removed his hand from the frame. He tipped his hat once again and the Regus on the other side of the mirror did the same. Once again in sync, they walked away from the mirror, and Regus settled back into his chair.
“Now where were we?” Regus blew dust, and a small amount of snow, from his leather volume before placing it on the table.
“Your dual identity I think it was?” he flipped back and forth through the book searching for a certain relevant chapter.
“A long time ago when I was barely as tall as this table I had a friend named Neil. Neil was what you would call…odd would be putting it nicely. Anyways, Neil always was of two minds about everything. One day he would hate vegetables, the next he was a vegan. When we went away to school he studied psychology. Well some days anyways, others he studied biomagical energy. He came to the conclusion that his condition was caused by more than one person’s energy existing in only one body. Now it turned out Neil was crazy but before he was locked away he wrote some real fascinating stuff on the subject of duality that was later proven true by a man named Bishop Havermonte.”
“Havermonte proposed that even though one body only has enough room for one person’s energy, call it a soul or spirit or whatever you like, at a time. He then proposed that just because only one could be active at a time, that didn’t mean that each body only had one compatible energy paired with it. He was later proven right, but what they never could prove was his Theory of Partial Occupancy. He believed that two energies existing in the same body could each take control of part of the body at one time, leaving the rest of themselves dormant. If I’m right, what you are describing is that very proof! That two energies exist within you at the same time.”
“Now what we would have to do is put your body under the complete control of one of your energies. One of which is the mage, fully aware of her powers and able to use them but unable to consciously enter this world. The other I’m guessing is completely unable to use magic, unaware that such a thing even exists. The pieces of those two are both partially awake in you right now, and you have to learn to reconcile them. They are both you, and yet neither of them are you completely. In theory, once you learn to communicate with both halves of yourself, you should gain the full memories of both parties as it were, one true individual made up of two component parts.”
He slammed the book shut and let out an excited breath. “You could be rewrite scientific and magical theory at its very most basic principles! It could be a whole new world of possibility!”
Regus leaned his chair back on two legs and threw his legs on the table again, calming himself but still smiling. “Then again, I could be completely wrong and you could be just like my old friend Neil.”
Jeans, T-shirts, shorts. Elderin snatched at her belongings and stuffed them into the suitcase without the care of folding. She rummaged through her drawers, adding and subtracting the possessions she wanted to take versus the ones that were not much of a necessity.
After a brief discourse with the man in the bar, he decided she could accompany him on his friend’s ship to sail the skies. At first she thought he was kidding. He also said he was a pirate, and she thought he was kidding about that too. But once he showed her proof of the ship, her denial was hushed all at once.
The Requiem was what he called it, a towering piece of machinery with exquisite carvings of mythical creatures along the hull. It was something she had never seen before, at least not in Imperial City. How could she not accept such an invitation with a display like that? Hell, how could she even pass up the opportunity of finally ridding herself of the lonely walls of her room?
She took one long look about her, her eyes taking in the image of the setting as if ready to part from a long past love. They fell upon her stack of raggedy books all piled in the corner, dried water stains sullying their worn pages.
She had lost count of how many times she perused the contents of those books. How many times she yearned to be in those places they described as kingdoms and palaces, haunted forests and enchanted fortresses. No, she didn’t need to take those. She would be there this time. This time she would be there and the certainty of the eye would far outdo and description of an old, raggedy book. Her eyes fell on something else.
But it wouldn’t outdo a good old cup for Ramen noodles.
She cleaned the little cups encased in plastic off of the top of her dresser and onto the pile of clothes in her bag.
In case if this pirate was lying, she would need protection.
Secretly hidden beneath her top drawer was stashed a blade with and ivory handle. She pulled it from its hiding place and looked at its serrated edge. It was Dave’s, and she did not know how to use it. It was just cool to have it and feel protected regardless of the fact whether she knew how to use it or not. Tonight she needed it though. She didn’t know this man from Adam. For all she knew he could be a serial rapist or a mass murderer. Yeah, it was a risk indeed to grasp the hand of a stranger blindfolded and in the darkness of the night, but she really did not have many alternatives. Besides, this was enough.
She changed into her jeans and carefully tucked the knife away at the small of her back. Just in case, she told herself. Just in case.
Sitting atop her suitcase, she yanked and forced the zipper close as much as she could until she was satisfied with the final result. Then she gave her room a once over and a gentle goodbye kiss before she hauled the suitcase out of her window and, herself, mounted the window seal.
She heard her room door open.
“Where do you think you are going?”
Her mother’s voice froze her limbs.
“O-out,” she murmured hesitantly. Then, “Out,” feigning confidence.
It wasn’t normal for her to be going out at this time of night no matter how hard she pretended. The words even fell off her tongue more alien to her ears than her mother’s. Why now? Out of all times why was fate always on time?
Elderin closed her eyes, bracing herself for her moms reply. She felt her body go weak under the spell of the inferiority the supervision of an adult always seemed to entail. Her grip loosened about the frame of the threshold and she heaved a silent sigh, ready to give up.
“You did not answer my question,” her mother continued. “Where?”
She couldn’t do this anymore. She wasn’t a child or an animal to be caged away from civilization. She was a human dammit! A human!
With the reinforcement of anger, her grip tightened upon the threshold and she opened her eyes. She was too close and she was not going to give up now. Not for anybody. She couldn’t be here anymore with Dave beating her mother’s brains out, with the smell of alcohol lingering from his sweat glistening body, with the haunting thuds against her bedroom walls. She needed to get away…
“I’ll be back.”
And she wasn’t lying. She would. Eventually. Her mother just had to wait for it. She would be back with enough money and a better life for her mother, and she would convince her to leave Dave and join her in the life Esmina claimed she tried so hard to build for her here in Imperial City. Just watch, she would do it, she just needed to disobey her mother this once. In the long run she would thank her for it. She would.
“Elderin,” her mother called out. It was the first time she heard her mom’s tone marked by helplessness. It pained her.
Elderin slowly turned her head just enough to show a sense of acknowledgement, but she dared not to look at her, for that spelled regret, and she did not need any regret to make her sluggish.
“I did my best.”
….She did her best….She did her best?! Getting pounded by Dave?! Taking Dave and materialistic gain over her and Esmina?! She did her best?! How could she possibly call that her best?!
It frustrated Elderin. Boy did it frustrate her greatly. Her mother was so weak it was pathetic. She just gave up and became complacent allowing her only child to be the victim of the sound of midnight slug fests. I’m sorry mommy dearest but your best wasn’t good enough.
“I’ll be back,” Elderin repeated. “I’ll be back.”
She jumped from the window.
Eighteen long years. Eighteen long years and he could finally return to his home, to his master. Eighteen long years and he could finally complete his mission, returning to his perfumed bed, his satin pillows. He almost couldn’t believe it. And now it was too easy. Too easy. Like taking candy from a baby.
A devilish grin escaped onto his lips as he followed the scent of her path. The unseen was helping him. He could feel it. In fact, he could see it. Vaguely though. There were small misshapen shadows, like breadcrumbs dotting her path. He feared losing her, but with a force like this on his side, he was steadily reassured the closer he got to her living quarters.
Only a few more steps. Only a few more steps now, he kept telling himself with mischievous glee. He could feel the blood soaking his fingers now. He could smell the sharp, pungent odor saturating the air about him. His master would be pleased. His master would be thoroughly pleased.
“I’m not such a good tickler,” Arem began with a smirk. “I tend to be like those people who dig instead of tickle, however,” Arem exhaled mocking her speech, “I’m guessing our Elderin background perhaps is one of the reasons why we are drawn to one another. Speaking for me and Dougie, I can say this trip was only to visit my family---“
“And then it wildly turned into a bounty for his truly,” Dougie readily chimed in, cutting his eyes at Arem.
“And being imprisoned in a pirate ship which can fly in the sky and surf through realms. So with that, I can say fate has been at the reins for this one,” Arem concluded. Alban took that as his cue to begin his explanation, but it was quite simple. So simple that it was annoying.
“I don’t know why I’m here,” Alban shrugged, “That’s my story.”
In a broad, exaggerated gesture, Arem placed imaginary of cards onto the table as if to mimic a full house. And poker they were playing, but perhaps they should have opted for spades because they poker faces were poor. Distrust still soured on their tongues, lingering in the air like a big dark cloud. She needed to break down this barrier. In order for them to work together they needed to trust each other.
She took a deep breath. “Okay, I’ll tell you what. Let’s enjoy the festival together. Perhaps we can get a better understanding of each other.”
She attempted a big friendly smile. “Come on, what do you say?”
The percussive sound of explosions was everywhere. She could have sworn she heard a survivorless airplane crash land somewhere.
Lox crouched behind a bin and turned her back to the battle. Her eyes were closed and she was concentrating very hard on the blocking techniques that Hayder had taught her.
“Think of your happy place,” he had said to her. He smiled and she saw the sunlight play against his hair on the top deck of the ship.
She had closed her eyes and tried to imagine being happy. She had told Hayder that her happy place was her childhood home, had given him the details of all the children she had grown up with, had gone so far as to outline the rolling hills and moonlight gardens she had woven through, the secret spaces under vines, the chorus of laughter that rippled through the swimming hole.
But the truth was that this was all a lie.
She had no happy place, she had even fewer memories, and if it weren’t for Hayder she would have no friends.
Instead she thought of the most static thing she could imagine. The pretty ripples that played in Anubis’ hair. She imagined his wet nose and eyes. His smell and the way he would push his snout into her side and then leap into her lap. She thought of the tail that had given her many a lashing after a particularly satisfying ear scratch and the way he would stretch out his whole body to the point of falling down in a morning yawn.
She was interrupted when Pash plopped down beside her, Her clothes were torn in all directions and her hair was a scattered mess. Red hot welts rose up on her arms and back. She could not accurately read Lox’s facial expression after her intrusion, but she was absolutely pissed. She immediately rose from her hiding place and was just as quickly ducked back.
“How could you!” Lox hissed.
“What?” Pash whispered.
“He let you fight and not me.”
“Let me fight? He didn’t tell me not to fight, if you’re talking about Hayder.”
“You know damn well that I am.”
“Look, I just got dragged three blocks and he came to reverse the spell. I don’t have time for your crazy bullshit right now. I’m missing a patch of skin on my shoulder blade here, do you see that?” She showed her a completely raw patch that was so torn up Lox thought it was part of her shirt. It looked like the red side of a Rubix cube. “I am tired of your jealousy! There is nothing between me and Hayder.”
“I am not jealous!” Lox said with absolutely no effort to conceal the falseness of this statement. “I want to fight and I’m stuck back here like a coward.”
“We all know you’re so brave,” Pash mocked rolling her eyes. “But you only think you are because you’ve never seen battle. If you had any idea how terrifying war is when YOUR life is on the line you wouldn’t act the way that you do. You write something, you read it, you sleep like a baby. But us? Out here? We die and we never come back. So you stay here like a good little bitch and we’ll call you when the war is over.”
Lox turned slowly to look Pash in the eye. Then she slapped her so powerfully across the face the bin turned over. Pash, completely stunned, held her throbbing cheek in utter shock.
There was a moment of tense silence between them as Pash realized Lox’s nails had opened a cut in her face.
“Don’t you ever wonder why I don’t talk about what I wrote?” Lox said. “Because everyone I write is evil. They are sick and twisted in their own filthy way. Barbarous, wild. Because people really are that way,” like Hayder, it seemed she never raised her voice, “and so am I. I am not afraid of fighting, war, battle, you, or Nyx herself. And if you think that I will allow myself to be spoken to that way you should know I have no qualms about writing people out.” Lox shifted her weight. Pash slid back instinctively. “Am I a hero or a villain? I ask myself that sometimes. But when you do things like this, when you say these things, I think of something that you should always remember about me.”
“Which is?” Pash accidentally stammered feeling compelled to do so by the girl’s unblinking gaze. It was only then that she saw the reflective flash of a silver sliver in Lox’s hand.
“So many, and I mean so many, accidents can happen in a quiet alley behind a bin.”
Pash realized that she had made the often-fatal mistake of trying to out-crazy a crazy person.
“We’re friends, Lox. Relax.”
“Friends,” Lox laughed, “Hayder is my friend and he is about to die. You think now is the appropriate time to mock me? What because I don’t simply drive a knife into Angelus, that means anyone can f*ck with me?”
“No.” Pash had the undeniable feeling that she was pinned into a tight cage with something deadly.
“Then what?” Two of the most dangerous words Pash had heard.
“Hayder told me to do this. Start an argument with you to distract you so you wouldn’t help him.” She watched Lox uncoil. “Is this what you guys do all day in his room? Practice threatening people?”
Lox put the knife away, unsure whether or not she had intended to really use it. “Among other things.”
The battle was in full swing.
Hayder prayed that for once Lox would do as she was told, and if she refused, Pash would overpower her. Set had pinned him to the ground and he was sure that even in a matter of seconds he would snap his jugular into the ordered, juicy sections of a succulent orange. But then there was Fenris.
With a masterful stroke she separated a once flawless man from his ear.
For afar off he heard, “It would seem outside forces conspire to keep me in your company.”
He watched Fenris make short work of Set and rolled out of the way, recovering himself for a moment. There was an explosion of movement. He saw a side of Angelus he had never seen before. She had a determined look in her eye and Fenris had the manic glee of someone accustomed to killing. Roberts had braced himself for battle and his arrant twin was charging up toward him at full speed.
Set had to rethink his strategy. There was a gang of people here where there had only been Hayder before. His only quarrel was with Hayder and he was only being compensated for killing him and him alone. Acel had said nothing about a group of friends. However, he realized quite quickly that if he did not come up with an offensive strategy he would be dead before he would get another chance at the bastard.
A Sentinel charged toward him, wasting no time jumping into the fray. A swordsman? He thought. Then he saw him begin to transform. Thick fur rippled over his body, his hands became fleshy and brown, his eyebrow ridge popped out and his lips could barely contain a set of yellow sharpened teeth. A shifter. The spirit of competition threatened to overpower his senses. Set felt the wind leave his body as he was tossed to the ground by the gorilla. He tried to bite the monster’s arm, but a gorilla has thumbs, something a lion cannot boast. His head was hit against the ground so many times his vision seemed to crack like a mirror and everything he saw was blue or red alternately, swirling together and then apart. He managed to struggle free by sinking every claw he had into the gorilla’s chest as he kicked him off. He swerved drunkenly for a second and if it had not been for whiskers and tail he would have lost his balance completely.
There was one thing he could see clearly. The Sentinel was losing strength.
Excellent, Set thought. As a natural shifter, his stamina would outpace brute strength if the battle wasn’t over too quickly.
The gorilla was now literally the monkey on his back. He wrapped his legs and arms around him until Set was convinced that he was an octopus hybrid and began to squeeze, leaching his air away. He pawed viciously, tearing at the gorilla’s eyes and arms with his claws. He let out a massive roar in frustration, trying to turn to the side to slide free. Trapped he expended his last bit of air punishing the gorilla with quick, deep bites.
In the corner of his eye he saw the telepath get ready to do something but another man stepped in her stead. Frey got in close and stabbed him. Set howled in fury. How could a mortal man think he could stab a lion and live to tell the tale? He swiped at Frey furiously, opening a gash on his leg for his efforts.
He was paralyzed by the glint of a sword and heard Fenris’ voice. "We have a saying back in Terra Di," she said, over his prone body, "Pick on someone your own size."
"Better one-liners, Fen," the telepath said.
“Shut up,” she replied.
In their moment of distraction Set made a determined decision to live through this battle. He transformed immediately into a rhino and the sword thrust that should have killed him sank harmlessly into a flank that not only carried off the sword but was barreling toward the gorilla at lightening speed. He hit the gorilla in the chest, horn first, and to return the favor of his previous rib squeeze.
Just as quickly he turned on his heel, setting his sights on Frey. He ran to him as a rhino but by the time he arrived he was a bear, throwing every bit of his weight behind his charge. He turned and faced the last two, the telepath and the swordswoman who were standing between him and Hayder. Not so smug without your sword, he thought.
He turned back into himself, a fair-skinned and devastatingly handsome man despite the blood that was trickling down his side, and held Fenris’ sword defensively.
“My orders are to kill Hayder,” Set said. “I would not harm a woman if I did not have to. So, coward, are you going to hide behind these females or make a man of yourself?”
Hayder, who had just been mauled by a lion, immediately stood forth. “Do your worst.” Blood was dripping from his forehead and the family resemblance was obvious.
“I shall do much more than that,” Acel said appearing from the air beside his nephew, Set. “If a woman involves herself in man’s business, she should at the very least fight like a man,” he said laughing dryly at the very idea of Fenris. “Isn’t that right, Fenris?” he asked. With a gesture of his hand he lifted her ten feet off of the ground.
“Terri Di is your home, your family scorns you, and they are right to. I have seen your future. So have you. And we both know the truth. You will fail. And your companion,” he said bitterly, “Angelus. Has she told you about her other charges? Her multiple failures? Her inability to communicate with her superiors, her own flesh and blood? How is it that she so often criticizes your behavior in the interest of fitting in when she is too ashamed to speak to her own peers and no one she has met likes her company? Did you know, that even now, she is leading you like a lamb to the slaughter? That despite the ineffectual advice that she gives you, she already knows that in the end you will be sacrificed on this planet and another beyond?”
He smiled wickedly. “Fight like a man, indeed,” he uttered. “Show them, you nameless mistake, show them how to do it.”
Acel, with a flick of his hand, took control over Hayder’s bodies. He went lifeless for a moment and then came back to reality with his eyes completely white. He had one single-minded thought.
“I want to taste your blood.”
Set and Acel stood back.
It was a double blur of Hayders charging toward Angelus and Fenris with swords raised that cut through the air like a rushing stream.
Angelus may not be the most talented guardian, but Esse had always said that she had her moments. To the little angel's surprise, this was going to be one of them. She was outnumbered, outmatched, and her charge was about to be introduced to a swift death. Her greatest ally had just turned against her, and she had just had her pride wounded more than at any one moment in her life other than a certain fight she'd had shortly before her big falling out with her sister. Of course, given that 'shortly before' constituted approximately 150 years in game time before her falling out with Esse that was all relative. Still, despite all of the factors working against her, Angelus was surprised to find that she was not afraid at the moment. Because to her surprise she knew exactly what to do, and that alone seemed to make everything easy. Time seemed to slow down, and she was able to take in the whole situation. Acel was powerful, far beyond the level Angelus had expected, but he was underestimating her because he had been inside her head. He had seen her history and her flaws, but none of her strengths. In particular, she could do some fantastic sideways thinking when necessary. And just as he was able to abuse his powers to gain an advantage, she was familiar enough with her own to turn the tide of a battle. She looked up at her struggling companion, and at the Hayder's descending upon them, and immediately set to work, sliding her hand through the air and closing her eyes, feeling the charged plasma in the air gather in the spaces between her fingers. She effortlessly drew her bow into existence with her free hand and unleashed three plasma bolts, one colliding with the fake Hayder, the other clipping the leg of the original, temporarily immobilizing him, and the final ricocheting off a wall behind the main action, redirecting to head for Acel's neck. 'That should keep him busy,' The angel thought to herself, knowing full well that Acel could hear her. Then she vanished, reappearing beside Fenris. She took the warrior's wrist and before Acel could manage to subdue her she vanished again, disappearing from the battle completely. Angelus was pleased with how the plan was proceeding. So pleased that she forgot to stick the landing of her second jump. She landed with a loud 'thwack' against the hardwood floor, Fenris smashing to the floor behind her, giving a muted cry of pain. Slowly Angelus peeled herself from the floor, examining her surroundings quickly. A smile spread across her face as she looked around the room, it's broad window reassuring her that she'd ended up in the right place. She was in Hayder's room back on the ship, exactly where she needed to be. She stood, walking quickly to her next target as Fenris slowly sat up on the floor behind her, pressing a hand to a cut on the side of her head that was spilling a copious amount of blood. "We aren't seriously running away, are we!?" The warrior cried behind her. Just like Fenris, Angelus thought with a small smile. Even when she was losing the thought of fleeing was repulsive. "No, we're not," Angelus said, not turning as she went back into Hayder's 'laboratory', searching through several of his small medical drawers for anything of use. "We're arming ourselves," The angel replied. Angelus could sense Fenris nodding, and then an awkward silence fell between the two, as the only sound that filled the room was the clang of metal as Angelus searched through several drawers. Still, the desire for speech hung in the air. Both of them had something they wanted to say. Eventually Fenris decided to take her opportunity first. "Angelus, I..." She started, but the angel cut her off. "Wanted to know if he was telling the truth?" She asked, an edge suddenly in her tone. She looked away from a moment, feeling the sting of tears. She hadn't wanted to face so many things about herself. Now Acel had brought them all into clear focus. She choked back her tears. "Yeah," She said bitterly, "Yeah, he was. I'm an awful guardian Fen, I really am. Sometimes I think it's because I'm just an awful person." The tears were threatening again, but Angelus fought them back with some difficulty. "I try not to be," she said, her voice straining, "I try to be the perfect guardian, selfless, friendly, cordial, but...I dunno'...you do this job so long and it just wears you down. I mean, even when I do my job right I still have to watch the people I protect die in front of me. Every new charge either shows my own weakness or vanishes without even knowing I'm here. There's no rewards for this job, Fen. Even when I win I lose. So I try not to connect with people, I try to stay mostly detached and just laugh at everything, at least, that's what I was going to start doing when I got assigned to you, but you..." The angel laughed bitterly, a couple of tears sliding down her cheeks. "You just had so much fight in you, and so much desire to set everything in your world right that I...I couldn't detach myself," She said, "You were like me. You knew what pain was like. You knew that people could hurt you. And I liked what I saw in you, because you were a lot like how I wanted to be. You were strong, and you didn't let people get you down, and you didn't lean on anybody...but at the same time you actually needed me. Because you had my flaws too. You were too hurt by your experience. You didn't know how to relate to people. You were afraid of being hurt. I like you Fen, I really do." She sighed, letting a few more tears escape her. "Which is why I hate myself for being your guardian. Because you deserve better than me," She said, shaking her head, "I...I mess up a lot. A lot of the people I try to protect end up miserable, or worse, and a lot of my own sisters can't stand me. Even Esse is disappointed in me, and if she wasn't such a good person she'd probably hate me. And worst of all, I know what's supposed to happen to you, we both do, after you met with the oracle at the peninsula I checked, and you are supposed t die, but..." She shook her head, anger mixing with her sadness and frustration. "I'm not just going to let you die, Fen," She said, determination welling up in her, "I'm not just leading you to the slaughter. But I won't change your fate either. If you want to die to save Terra Di, and you think that price is worth it, than I won't stop you. But I'll do everything I can to keep you safe. You're not just a sacrificial lamb in my eyes, you're a wolf that's going to devour all of the evil in the world. And if letting you do that means I have to get defragmented then so be it." She stood, having found what she was looking for and walked back to the warrior outside. Fenris was still sitting on the floor as Angelus left the laboratory, but there was something different about her. There was a softness to her that Angelus had never seen, and a soft, kind smile rested on her lips. She really was beautiful when she smiled the angel realized. She really wished that Fenris would smile like this more often. And yet, there was also a sadness in her eyes, and another thing that Angelus hadn't seen from Fenris before. There was understanding in those fierce blue eyes. And Angelus was surprised to find that it came because at long last Fenris thought she understood her guardian. Angelus looked away, saddened by that thought. 'If that's the case then she knows that I'm not worth keeping around,' She thought. "Angelus," The warrior said slowly, "I wasn't going to ask if he was telling the truth." Angelus looked up, surprised to find that she had actually misinterpreted what Fenris had meant to say. She really was off-base today, wasn't she? "I was going to tell you that even if what he said was true, even if you weren't a good guardian before, it doesn't matter to me," The warrior said, her smile broadening, "Because you've been a good friend to me, and that matter more than what you've done in your past. I don't need someone to protect me. I need someone to remind me why this world is worth saving." She grinned at the angel. "And that's what you've given me," She said. Angelus smiled, tears streaming down her cheeks. "Thanks, Fen," She choked out. Fenris stood, awkwardly looking at the angel, unsure of what to do now. Eventually Angelus composed herself, and produced several round green objects from her hand. "Here," She said, wiping away her tears, "These are filled with a powerful healing salve, keep them with you." Fenris nodded, pocketing the little green balls. "Right," She said, "But I thought you said we were arming ourselves." Angelus smiled, perking up immediately. "Right," She said, turning again, "Give me a second." She went into Hayder's closet and began rummaging through his clothes, searching for another lost object. "Anyway," She said, "Right now your focus needs to be on keeping him out of your thoughts." Fenris rolled her eyes, folding her arms in annoyance. "Oh, is that all?" She asked sarcastically. Angelus laughed. "Right," She said, "That's all. The way you're going to do that is by flooding your mind with psychic noise, basically think about everything but fighting him." As she spoke she casually tossed aside several fine shirts, pushing her way slowly through the mass of clothes that filled the closet. Angelus silently wondered how one man could own so many shirts. "Y'know," Fenris said, annoyed, "This is hardly the time to be looking for a new outfit." Angelus rolled her eyes, but decided against saying anything. "Anyway, how am I supposed to fight without thinking about it?" Fenris asked. The angel smiled, surprised that Fenris hadn't figured this part out on her own. "You're going to rely on your instincts," The angel said, "Normally that wouldn't work against an enemy like Acel, but you've literally brought the Gods themselves to their knees, you've basically got the moves of a master swordsman pre-programmed into your sub-conscience, you don't need to think to fight at this point, it just helps." Eventually the angel found the wood backing of the closet, and found that there was one panel that was separate from the others. She grinned, certain she had found what she was looking for. She slid the panel back and discovered a line of several luxurious treasures. It was the on that sat on the top shelf, wrapped in velvet that interested Angelus, she lowered it slowly, stripping away the velvet that bound it and reveling in the warm blue glow it gave off. She still remembered the fist time she had stumbled across the artifact. It seemed to shine as bright now as it had that day. She stepped from the closet, presenting the great blade to Fenris. "I think you've been missing this," The angel said with a grin, handing Fenris the vorpal sword. Fenris took the blade lovingly, weighing it in her hand and turning it over, examining her reflection in the blade of the sword. "It's better than I remembered," She said with a smile. "And it has magic resistant qualities,"Angelus chimed in, then another wicked smile graced her lips, "Speaking of, we've got work to do." *** It seemed to Cassandra that just when things appeared to be going her way it had all gone to hell. She wasn't actively part of the battle, but she could hear the cold voice of Acel taunting Fenris and Angelus, and given that the two hadn't responded the alchemist was certain that her new allies had perished. She now sat in the alley clutching several vials of her magic-nullifying agent hoping that the patriarch did not come looking for her next. Her heart froze as a rush of air filled the alley, and she turned toward it's source, her panicked eyes wide. What she found waiting for her was the petite form of Angelus, Fenris lurking behind her, a huge smile on the Angel's face. Despite the battle turning against her the angel hadn't lost her confidence. "Hey," She said smirking, "You didn't think I'd forgot about you." For a moment Cassandra recoiled, certain that this was one of Acel's tricks, but the angel rolled her eyes. "No, She of little faith, it's actually me," The angel said, "I just came back to get the magic-nullifying stuff. It's done, right?" Cassandra nodded furiously, holding out her bag, which was filled with several vials of the agent. Angelus smiled, taking the bag and lifting several vials before handing the rest to Fenris. "Brilliant," She said, "You sit tight, I'm about to give these a test run." And like that she was gone from the alley, Fenris racing back to the battle field after her. Cassandra just sat shaking, wondering what in the world she'd gotten herself into. One thing was certain, her new companions were mad. *** Frey sat on the ground shaking with fear at the scene playing out in front of him. Acel and Set had just torn through their forces, and now all they had to do was finish by ending their foes. For now their focus seemed fixed on Hayder, but he knew the moment his former first mate was finished the mage would turn on him. As he thought this he noticed the blade on the ground beside him and started to reach for it. The moment he did Acel turned, glaring at him,and Frey felt his heart leap into his mouth. The mage started to lift his hand, but then something distracted him. A voice,calm, confident, and familiar, a voice Frey had thought he would never hear again. "Wait just a minute there Ace," Called Angelus form her new position in the air behind Acel, "We've got to do some talking. See, for someone that likes to talk about everyone else's flaws you don't seem to like to face your own." As she spoke Angelus drew three plasma arrows into existence and unleashed them, vanishing from sight as she finished speaking. "Like your ego-maniacal tendencies," The angel said, reappearing in front of Acel to unleash another bolt before vanishing again. "Or your refusal to admit that you don't come from the noble family you claim to," She said reappearing to his right, unleashing three more bolts. "Your utter disrespect for the dead," Angelus continued, reappearing to his left, launching another three bolts through the air. "Or the fact that, at the end of the day, you kind of look like Fu Manchu," The angel continued, unleashing another arrow that had some sort of glass vial attached to it. "Any way you slice it," She finished, reappearing above him and unleashing another three arrows, "You're being might presumptuous criticizing others." As she finished Frey struggled to his feet, feeling the air shift in front of him. There was a familiar feel of confidence and bitterness in the stance of the person that had just passed him, and he noticed Fenris step back into the fray, a new sword that glowed a dim blue clutched in her hands. "You really are useless, y'know that?" She said to him, shaking her head, "You haven't even moved since we left." He remained silent in shock for a moment, then he weakly tried to defend myself. "What do you expect me to do, let myself get killed?" He asked. Fenris shook her head, her face set. "I expect you to fight like a man," She said, almost tauntingly. Frey felt shame flood him. Then he knelt down and picked up his fallen daggers. "Maybe not like a man," He said, grinning mischievously as he took his place beside her, "But I might be able to fight like a pirate." She smiled back at him, glad to have a brother in arms. "Close enough," She said, taking her stance and preparing herself for the next round of combat.