. . . nothing . . .and nothing still.
He/she/it/what? struggled to come to terms with a sensation that was anything but. Was this what it felt like to be dead? Difficult to say, on account that there was no memory of ever having been alive. Still, questions kept surfacing and that was a good thing. It was a good thing, wasn't it? Or was it? Was this as good as it got, or would something happen? Would anything happen? As it so happened, nothing continued to happen.
Let's just wait, the inquiring mind inquired inwardly. Surely, there was no harm in that.
Then a glimpse. Yes, it was definitely a glimpse. You couldn't, after all, discern something without at least seeing it first, could you? Or couldn't you? Maybe you could. The mind was still reeling from this thing called 'seeing'. It didn't even know what it was looking at, only that whatever it was it looked at was becoming more and more elaborate with each passing minute.
This made sense. If there was a mind with which to comprehend this thing called seeing, then it stood to reason that it also had a pair of eyes with which this whole seeing thing was made possible. And probably even . . . yes! A skull with which to park this mind and these eyes. A pair of hands came up to feel a head the mind suddenly realized it had. Arms, legs, a body? Oh my! The mind felt so privileged.
All the while, the image started to shimmer into crystal clarity and then come into being from all around. Small, square-shaped things stood out in the distance, tipped off with steepled triangular shapes as though they were trying to be the most unnatural things in the world. Buildings. A town! The mind was at once compelled to move towards it all, and then it did. Short, green grass tickled its feet. Such a pleasant feeling. It stopped walking towards the town and started walking in a circle. It didn't want to stop feeling this feeling.
The mind's eyes began to get a better look at itself in the morning light. It was a lithe, young body, tanned and spotless. It shook its head, and long, blond ringlets danced around its face. It let in a breath of early morning air, and found that two equal, ample hemispheres heaved on its chest. She touched them. The mind started.
Whatever she was, she was definitely a 'she' it seemed.
As much as she wanted to keep walking around in the grass, keep breathing the air, and keep touching these half-orbs on her chest, an unseen force was still beckoning her to continue on towards the town in the distance. Heedless of how she looked or what she might find when she got there, she pressed on past the patches of grass and overhanging willows that made up her wooded glen. Perhaps somebody in town would be able to tell her who she was . . .
* * *
"Remind me again why we're doing this?"
Ever masked and never without something to complain about, Ziegfried belayed his amply robed body higher up along the branches overlooking the railway. The holdup had been his idea, though he hadn't counted on the vertigo freaking him out like this. Their ascent into the bushy canopy above the tracks had been a perilous one, with only Clyde's night vision keeping them aloft in a maze of tree limbs. He and Baram seemed to sigh at almost the same time, anticipating the swordsman's comment.
"It's a heist, Ziegfried," Baram explained to him, not for the first time. "Or rather, that's the story the Doman Guard will be receiving. You still remember what we're here for, don't you?"
That he did. "The relic they got stashed away on that train somewheres. Yeah, I bet that'll make us a fortune down at that auction house in Jidoor."
"Indeed." Clyde glanced at his pocketwatch, able to see its minute- and hour-hands better than his two accomplices could see themselves. "Now get ready, the train's going to come up over that hill in another ten minutes."
The three of them waited amidst the brush until a bright light accompanied with mechanical rumblings started to peak over the hill in the distant horizon. With feet planted against their respective tree trunks, Clyde, Baram, and Ziegfried readied themselves for the inevitable breakfall that was about to ensue.
"Ever do anything like this before?" Baram asked the swordsman, his own surging adrenaline coming through in his voice. "Jacking a train, I mean?"
"Can't say I have. Thievery has never really been a strongsuit of mine." Ziegfried plucked one of his loose Kodachi's out of the air just as it started to fall from its sheath. "First time for everything, I guess."
Baram squinted at the masked man with his good eye, curious as to the sudden cryptic tone of his voice. "Who are you really supposed to be, anyway?"
"What do you mean?"
Clyde nudged his long-time friend, warning him not to lose focus. But Baram could do little to stave off his curiosity - his biggest flaw, it seemed.
"Come on, you know what I mean. We all know that you just ripped this Ziegfried guy off so that we have someone to lay the blame on. You told us that right from the start. But you still haven't told us who you really are."
Ziegfried gave a grin which Baram couldn't see. "And yet you go ahead and recruit me anyway. Am I missing something here?"
The roar of the distant train began to get louder. Clyde braced himself, while the other two only spoke louder over the din of the oncoming locomotive.
"Come on, friend. What's your real name? I mean, really?"
"Very well, it's Go--"
Baram felt a hand seize him as Clyde pushed away from the tree. Their stomachs cartwheeled along the way down, and then stabilized upon hitting the roof of one of the cars. The one-eyed train robber slipped and slid along the coruscated metal, feeling as though he were being dragged along a haywire conveyor belt. Ziegfried, however, did fairly well for one who had never jumped onto a moving train before. He had perfectly followed Clyde's approach.
Too perfectly, it seemed.
"Halfway there, gentlemen." The first to pick himself up after the trip down, Clyde hastily brushed himself off before pulling on his black mask and hood for concealment. "C'mon, let's get to work."
Baram accosted the swordsman by his arm as he strode along to join Clyde. "Hold on a sec. You said you were going to tell me your real name."
"I already told it to you."
"No you didn't."
The smile which Baram couldn't see only grew wider.
* * *
The woman with neither a care in the world or a shirt on her back walked soundlessly into the main square of the town of Mobliz. It had taken her almost two hours to reach it, though she wished it could have taken longer. From the wind which rustled her hair to the grass which tickled her feet, it all seemed to be happening to her for the first time. For all she knew, it 'was' her first time, and it made the experience all the more sensual for her.
She smiled and waved to others in the square when she got there, though there seemed to be hesitation for the villagers in returning the gesture. The men seemed to look at her as though trying to be sure of exactly what it was they were seeing, while the women were more concerned with covering up the eyes of their young ones. A shame, she thought, that another would put up with having their sight suppressed like that. There were so many wonderful things to see and touch in the world to have it all snatched away in a heartbeat. Oh well, they had to have their reasons for it.
"Hello, everyone," she heard herself say as she entered the local pub, realizing for the first time that she could speak. "Oh wow, that's so cool! Can all of you do this?"
Everyone just seemed to stop what they were doing and stare her up and down, in much the same way the ones outside had stared at her. The experience had begun to bring along with it a twinge of discomfort.
"Is there something wrong?" she asked them.
"Oh my God!" an old woman cried from somewhere in the back of the pub, running towards her with a blanket in her arms. "You poor thing. Here, cover yourself up! Did you want something to eat as well?"
"What? No, I feel fine. I feel--oh." She felt the soft, fuzzy fabric of the blanket brush up against her, and she immediately cocooned the rest of her body inside of it. "Oh, this feels much better."
"Glad I could help." She pulled up a chair for her to sit down in. "Please, sit and relax. I have some soup on the stove. I'll go and get you some."
"Thank-you. You're very kind."
She sat for a while and watched all of the many-sized patrons go about their own comings and goings. Most all of them had lost their interest in her by this time and that was fine by her. She had already met a kind old lady whose hospitality warmed her much like her blanket had. Such a nice-feeling material, she thought. She never wanted to let it go.
"Barkeep, some bourbon."
Her head came up from regarding the fine brown wool of her comforter and found a masked man breezing in through the door, dressed in some of the strangest looking clothes she had ever seen. Granted, she was hardly in much of a position to judge, but set against the backdrop of the Mobliz crowd he clearly didn't look like one who was from around here.
At the same time though, she was intrigued by this man's statement. She had no idea what this bourbon was of which he spoke, nor did she realize it was even a drink. Nevertheless, while in Mobliz . . .
"Barkeep, some bourbon."
Heads began to turn back in her direction, more slowly this time. She was about to ask what the problem was for the second time, but then it dawned on her. She had mimicked him perfectly, not just for his words and gesture but his tone and inflections as well. It was as though the masked stranger had spoken his words high up on a precipice, and the mountains had echoed them all back with perfect precision. The man suddenly found that he couldn't take his eyes off of this mysterious woman, and moved to sit down alongside her.
"Okay dearie, soup's on the . . ." The old woman glanced over at the thickly robed newcomer as though looking for a good place to stick a knife. "Oh no you don't, Ziegfried! Come on, get away from her. That poor thing has already gone through enough out there on the Veldt without you stepping in and trying to take advantage of her."
"No, it's okay," said the woman sweetly, "He's not bothering me, and I love having people to talk to. Such a wonderful pastime, don't you think Mr. Ziegfried?"
"Just Ziegfried," he corrected, "And yes, you're absolutely right. Norma, it's fine. I'd just like to speak with her for a couple minutes."
The old woman's facade lost none of its granite-like rigidness as she gave her new guest a bowl of broth with some bread. "If I see you trying to pick up this sweet little girl, I got a frying pan right where I can get at it."
He waved her away, so that the two of them could be introduced formally.
"Well then," he said, sticking out a hand, "I'm Ziegfried, swordsman extraordinare. And what, may I ask, is your name?"
"I Don't Know, Still Not Knowing," she replied, sticking out an open palm in the same fashion as he did. "It's a pleasure to meet you."
"You don't know your name? Are you serious?" He leaned back in his chair as a waitress delivered them their two shots of bourbon. "You seem to know an awful lot about other people for someone who knows very little about yourself."
"What do you mean by that? Soup?"
"Uh, no." He downed his shot of bourbon before inching his chair closer to her own. "Well, what I mean is the way you were able to project your voice like that. The way you mimicked me a moment ago, is that something you were always able to do?"
She let the question hang unanswered for a moment as she went about sampling this thing called 'soup'. The aroma of garlic and vegetables made her head swim and when the spoon finally made it to her mouth, a wave of bliss almost knocked her out of her seat.
"Mmmmm," she uttered, her eyes rolling, her blanket slipping . . .
Ziegfried snapped his fingers. "Uh, blanket girl?"
"What? Oh right, the voice thing." She popped a morsel of soup-soaked bread into her mouth and then reached for her shot of bourbon. "Well, it wasn't deliberate what I did just then. To be honest, that's actually the first time I was really able to pull it off."
She downed the shotglass, just as she had seen him do, then spit it out all over her robed friend.
Ziegfried blinked. "I take it this is also your first time trying bourbon, correct?"
"First time for everything," she said, coughing.
"Well, at any rate, how about a repeat demonstration?" The swordsman tilted his head up in a direction that was squarely to the back of her. "Mimic Norma for us. I just want to make sure this think you do isn't just out of mockery of me."
The blond woman pulled her brown blanket more tightly around her naked body. "I don't know. She's a really sweet woman. I don't want to go making fun of her."
"How about for another bowl of soup?"
She turned side-on to watch Norma dry out a large pot, and then suddenly jumped headlong into character for him.
"If I see you trying to pick up this sweet little girl, I got a frying pan right where I can get at it."
Ziegfried sat transfixed, feeling even more intimidated from her way of putting things than Norma's. Even her body language and expression seemed to mirror the old lady's with a disturbing exactness about it.
"Unbelievable. I mean, do you have any idea how useful you could be to me on my travels?"
"Thank-you, I think. And you do seem harmless. But really though, why would I want to come along with you at all? This Mobliz place isn't that bad, and the people are friendly enough."
"But you're trying to figure out who you are too, aren't you? Do you really think you're going to figure that out wearing comfortable clothes and drinking soup for the rest of your life?"
The woman was stuck for an answer.
"I'm on an expedition right now for a marvelous little relic known as the Rat's Tail. Legend has it that the one who possesses it will instantly be able to understand everything there is to understand about one's self. Who they are, what their purpose in life is, who they will become, everything. I'm looking for others to accompany me on this search, and you of all people would be in the right to accept. Come on, what have you really got to lose?"
The woman bit her lip in thought. He was right. As much as this place appeased each of her senses, her quest for self-identity superceded the importance of every single one of them. She smiled and leaned towards him, at all times keeping an eye on the Kodachi which hung around his back.
"Keep talking," she said to him.
* * *
The three of them walked from the roof of one car to the roof of the next, their footfalls almost indiscernable from walking along the sides of their feet as Clyde had taught them. When Baram realized one car in particular appearing longer than the rest, he ordered them to stop.
"This is either one of two cars," he spoke up over the roar of the train. "It's either the security car, where the Rat's Tail is probably being held, or a passenger car. We're going to have to take a peak down over the side to see which it is."
"I'm on it." Clyde dropped down onto his stomach, spider-crawling towards the edge of the caboose. "You two, grab my legs."
Taking hold of either pant leg, Ziegfried and Baram lowered their comrade down over the side as carefully as they could manage aboard a constantly moving vehicle. The masked one had no trouble seeing into the cabin, which made what he saw no easier to bear. It was a car that had been reserved for the wealthy elite, and everything in eyeshot was riddled with either fat tycoons smoking cigars or tuxedoed waiters feeding single families what could have fed the entire Imperial army. His mouth watered, and he almost took leave of his senses when one side of him dipped sharply to the left.
"Quite messing around up there," he whispered harshly.
He lingered by the window only long enough to see some toddler in a sailor outfit smile and wave to him. Clyde waved back, then gestured to be pulled back up.
"Passenger car," he said to them, sneering. "And a posh one at that. More food, drinks, and cigars than you can shake a sword at."
"They all must have been born with a silver spoon in their mouths." Baram tried to sound outraged, though his stomach seemed to rumble even louder than the train. "Alright then, let's keep moving down the line."
Every car they hopped onto, however, made the trio all the more thirstier, hungrier, and angrier. At one point, Baram even had to be physically restrained from breaking down through a crawlspace and raiding the car for himself. Fueled only by spring water and a day's worth of trail rations, the party had come dangerously close to letting their judgment get clouded. Only Clyde's discipline and cool-headedness kept their train of thought from getting derailed.
"What do you see this time?" Ziegfried grunted, straining from the weight of the thief's body. "And for our sake, for Baram's sake, please don't say 'passenger car' again."
"It's not a passenger car," he said, looking more closely to get past the window's reflection. "Guys, I think this is it."
"You sure?" Ziegfried was about to take a look down over the edge with Clyde when Baram pulled him back. "Hmph. Well, about time I guess. This wouldn't even be an issue if we had just invested more time into getting a blueprint of the tender, like I had suggested from the start."
Ignoring him, Baram threw his voice down over the side of the car. "How can you tell?"
"Pull me up." His partners in crime labored their shaky way back to their feet before hoisting Clyde back onto the roof. He breathed and dusted himself. "It's the one, because it's exactly as you described it. The guards that never take breaks, the chamber doors that never open. This is it, I'm telling you."
"Well, alright then." Baram pulled on his own mask and hood. "How do you want to go in?"
"We'll need to create a diversion first. Ziegfried?"
He nodded, and produced a handful of Shurikens from underneath his robes. "Way ahead of you, boss. What happens then?"
"Try your best not to hit any of them. Their cries would no doubt alert others in the cars nearby." He tapped Baram on the shoulder, gesturing towards the end of the car. "When the guards make it outside, give us a signal and we'll sneak in afterwards."
"What if one guard goes out and the other stays watch?"
"Simple. Take out the one that wanders outside and then keep up with the distraction until the other one goes out to check on his friend. None of us goes in until all of the guards are out. Everybody got that?"
Baram and Ziegfried nodded with their hooded heads.
"Alright, let's do it."
Meanwhile, inside the armored railcar, the two guards standing watch fidgeted at their posts. They were far from the nobody's typically hired by the Doman Guard. It was the guise which the train's passengers had been lead to believe, though none of them were able to recognize the bloodmark insignia that donned their visored helmets. Not idly did the Empire curry favors with other kingdoms, though even Emperor Gestahl could be swayed from time to time if it meant adding a few more soldiers to their ranks.
Tonight, however, not even the most brutal training from General Leo could prepare them for the eerie ambience which the Doman rails offered. Rumors of hauntings around these parts made them more than just a bit ill at ease.
"What was that?" one of them suddenly asked, his helmeted head whipping around to and fro sounding like a loose nail inside of a tin bucket. "Did you hear something? I heard something."
"You didn't hear anything, Biggs. Shut up, will ya?"
Wedge straightened at his post, trying to ignore the sounds of something clicking against the armor of the car. Several minutes passed, but the sounds only persisted. Without turning his head, Biggs looked over at the other guard in his company. His own eyes were beginning to react to the sounds as well, though he wasn't about to turn his back on the duty entrusted to him just because of some unusual sound from outside . . .
"It's nothing, Biggs."
"Are you really willing to jeopardize a mission given to us by the Emperor himself just because you think one stray sound means nothing? What if it's someone trying to jack the train and take this here cargo right out from under our noses, huh?"
Ziegfried abruptly stopped flinging his stars, overhearing their conversation. Wow, the swordsman thought, this Biggs fellow is pretty sharp. Then, after getting some soundless beckoning from their ninja, Ziegfried continued with the distraction.
"Fine," Wedge grunted at last, heading for the door with his pike at the ready. "If it means so much to 'the success of this mission', I'll head on out there and prove that there's nothing out here trying to get at us."
He was already half-outside into the night by the time Biggs could bring himself to protest. His brass armor looked to have a glow of its own in the midst of the moonlight, and Biggs heaved out a sigh of relief.
"See? There's nothing--"
A dark shape bore down on the soldier from out of nowhere, utterly enveloping him in his long dark clothes. Biggs sprung into action, pulling out his rapier from its sheath and running to take some of the heat off of Biggs' back.
"That's the signal!" Clyde yelled. "Let's go!"
Baram looked befuddled. "What? But that wasn't the sig--oh, to hell with it."
As one, they both swung out over the threshold and into the car. Landing, they discovered that Ziegfried had already taken care of knocking out Wedge and was currently wrestling around on the carpeted floor in an attempt to take out a big piece of Biggs. Without thinking, Baram crossed over the length of the car, snatched up Biggs' loose helmet, and smacked him over the head with it. The soldier dropped deadheap on the floor as Ziegfried recovered his footing.
"Nothing to it, right?"
Neither Baram nor Ziegfried bothered with a response to that.
"The ruckus we made could have still alerted the other cars as to our presence," Baram warned.
Clyde nodded. "All the more reason to get this over with as quickly as possible. C'mon, let's grab this thing and go."
* * *
South Figaro was never what you'd call a village that slept. The type of folk it had attracted over the years wouldn't let a title like that take, not even for a day. The township was, however, known for resting its weary eyes of vigilance every so often, and that was long enough for some truly shady characters to hatch some very sinister plans.
The townsfolk simply didn't notice it at first, too preoccupied as they were with either rinsing out beer goblets, running errands, or enjoying the nightlife to notice. And just as they least expected it, their peace was shattered.
"Excuse me? Excuse me . . ."
A pair of soft but insistent feet drummed down over the relic shop stairway, almost tripping several times before making it to ground level. The shopkeeper, drained from a long day of haggling with merchants, was suddenly awake and alert to the distraught young woman that approached him.
"I'm selling this, all of this . . ." She flung the duffle filled with precious and semi-precious items onto the counter, unable to stop herself from crying or even keep her hands from trembling as the shopkeeper appraised her haul. "I just . . . I really need to get away from here."
"Of course, my lady. Is everything alright?"
"Whatever you can give me!" she fired back.
What was wrong with her, really? What had she done that was so bad? The more she tried to push the memories under, the more they kept boiling back to the surface. Was it her? Was 'she' the problem? She stiffled a cry in her fist. Ziegfried had just been so insistent with her, and though she tried to refuse his advances, something far stronger kept bringing her to him. She had to get out of here before he woke up.
"Gauntlets and switchblades . . ." The shopkeeper continued along with his estimate unhindered. "My my, it's quite a collection you have here."
Quite a collection he had, she thought bitterly. The snake, taking advantage of her like that. She should have just stayed in Mobliz with that Norma woman. The sight of him disrobing in the lamp light nauseated her. Had he no shame? She winced as the moment started to come alive again. The only thing about those moments that even remotely interested her was the charm he wore, the 'only' thing he wore. Just what exactly was it supposed to be?
"I can't give you anything for this," the bearded man put in, handing back the very sapphire-studded bangle which was the source of her interest. "Don't know what it is, so I can't appraise it."
"Fine." She snatched it away from him. "What about the rest?"
He plopped a small bag of gold on the counter and began to count it out when she took up the entire pouch and left. The night that awaited her seemed suffocating somehow, probably from all the strange and unknown stares she was starting to receive all over again. Was it her? No. Maybe it was the strange, robe-like garments she had decided to rip off from that idiot swordsman. She didn't care about it anymore. Fuck 'em, she thought, and started to run.
Would all of life be like this, either painful or unfavorable encounters for the rest of her days? She stopped running and sank down alongside the Figaro River, her hands touching the soft grass. It was one of the first things she could ever remember touching. So soft, she thought. She yearned for the pleasant side of life again, to see all of the Veldt's many fascinating creatures and to taste Norma's vegetable soup just one more time. Her tears started to flow again in the moonlight, and this time she wasn't sure if they'd ever stop.
"Hey. You're Ziegfried, aren't you?"
The woman straightened, shoving the golden bangle beneath her cloak. Her first impulse was to vehemently deny the man's observation. Why would she want to so much as even acknowledge the fact that she knew Ziegfried? Her knack for mimicry, on the other hand, was a far more deeply ingrained quality over her anger. So, burying her head within the deep hood of her apparel, she stood and turned to regard the two men that had addressed her - with Ziegfried's voice ready and waiting to be used.
"That I am," the swordsman's voice replied. "How might I help you gents?"
Both of them wore frazzled leather clothes, with cloaks whose collars trailed up to the tops of their ears. The one with a patch over his right eye had a small slip of vellum in one hand, and she knew already what it was regarding even before the two men started to answer.
"We're actually here in response to the messages you sent out concerning a relic you've been looking to acquire. Can you give us a bit more detail as to this special little gadget?"
The nameless woman couldn't believe her incredibly dumb luck, clapping her hands around either shoulder of the two strangers.
"Gents, you're timing couldn't have been more perfect."
* * *
No locksmith, however seasoned, could create a forge so complex that Baram could not simply disarm it. Not even all the ingenuity of Vector was going to keep the three of them from getting at their long-overdue reward, especially when the trial to find it could still only just be starting. They had two chambers to choose from: one which contained little other than supplies for the people of Doma; the other which had a simple wooden coffer which they had all been after since the beginning.
It took Baram only a minute's worth of tinkering to find their way into both of them. The coffer room had a nondescript quality about it, with limited lighting and no adornments to show it was part of the rest of the train. It instantly made Baram ill at ease.
"I don't like this," he said, though neither Clyde nor Ziegfried seemed to hear him at first, too bewitched upon their prize to notice. "What if this place is rigged to explode or something?"
"Then we won't live to regret it, now will we?" Clyde never turned to his colleague as he tiptoed ever closer to the chest and podium, his grin becoming consistently larger with each step he took. "But if it isn't, then by this time tomorrow we're all going to be some very rich men."
Ziegfried remained mollified for the moment, apparently the only one to realize that none of them had yet taken it upon themselves to satisfy their curiosity. With Kodachi in hand, the swordsman gave the lock a violent, well-placed thrust that parted the link from its sealing mechanism. Huddled shoulder to shoulder and their heads bent over the magical cast-iron box, Ziegfried lifted the lid and they all gazed inside.
The contents virtually exploded out from within, giving life to the nondescript recesses around them. Their eyes soon adjusted to the blinding radiance, and the silhouette of what looked to be a golden ponytail wrapped in an ocean-blue ribbon glared up from the dark silk of the chest's interior. Bearing witness to the beauty of such an item suddenly made it a struggle to concentrate on what their intentions were with it. Wealth, power, fame. All of it was forgotten in a second. None of them knew what it was they were here for anymore.
None of them, that was, except Ziegfried . . .
"Are you two seeing this?" Clyde's eyes could almost be seen bugging out from his mask. "So, it does exist. Miraculous."
Baram was similarly beside himself, but for a much different reason. "It's doing it," he said, "It's doing precisely what it was rumored to do. Do either of you see it as well?"
Then they did. Glimpses of their inner and outer selves danced in the empty spaces between them and the relic, each one of them something different for each of its spectators. For Clyde, there was a man who appeared as though he were a shadow. For Baram, a great and powerful curator of priceless treasures filled in the scene.
But for Ziegfried, it was a woman. A very familiar woman. And with it a name, her name . . .
The two other train jackers stared at their enigma of a comrade, as though he had suddenly started growing a serpent head out of his back. Since when did he learn how to mask his voice behind that of a woman's?
"Ziegfried?" Baram touched the swordsman's arm, as though he might have to administer some first aid to him. "Ziegfried, what is it?"
"And why do you sound like a girl?"
She pulled the ornate hood from her head, revealing to them her true appearance. Both Baram and Clyde were struck dumb, from both her beauty as well as her ability to mask her identity.
"It's not Ziegfried, it's Daryl." Her eyes went back to the Rat's Tail still lying in its coffer. "My name is Daryl."
"I don't care who you are," Clyde growled at her. "What's the meaning of the stupid farce? Why didn't you tell us who you were right from the beginning?"
"Because from the very beginning, I didn't even know who I was. I needed this relic to find that out, and you weren't going to let just anybody tag along to help you find it. You needed someone more seasoned than that, didn't you?"
"Ziegfried isn't exactly what you'd call a seasoned adventurer," Baram put in offhandedly.
Clyde ignored the comment. "So, what exactly is your share in this little endeavor of ours?"
"There are no shares. I'm sorry, but I'm taking the Rat's Tail for myself."
"The hell you are!" Clyde knocked the blond woman back just as she moved in to take the golden lock for herself. "This Tail is . . . it's incredible! The money we can get from an auction alone would be worth more than an entire fleet of airships."
A spark of recognition suddenly ignited within Daryl's being at the mention of 'airships'.
She crossed her arms irately. "Oh please. You've already had a taste of what this thing can do just by standing next to it. Would you really be able to give it over to a group of foolish auctioneers?"
He seemed stuck for an answer, so his one-eyed associate stepped in. "Be that as it may, we're not going to simply hand it over to you."
The woman took a step back and drew her blade. "And I'm not going to just turn back after coming all this way to find out who I am. You two already know who you are, who you were, and where you're going. I don't have that luxury. So I'll ask you again, just give me the Rat's Tail. Please."
Clyde pursed his lips, about to feel a change of heart come on when Baram stepped in to match blades with the woman himself.
"Forget it!" he said. "Our kind isn't accustomed to thinking that way. We're not going to let a treasure like this get away without a fight."
Daryl straightened. "Then prepare yourself for a harsh lesson in the fine art of mimicry."
For a thief with no depth perception, Baram was able to handle himself with a blade surprisingly well. But for all of his skills and quick reflexes, there was little he could do to match blades with a mimic. Clyde faded back, reaching for his Blossom so as to join the fray against the fiery-haired woman. Watching as he worked the weapon out of his sheath, however, he started to wonder whether or not there was anything he could truly do against such a display.
The woman seemed to be everywhere Baram was, moving in a mesmerizingly perfect synchrony with his blade as they both wheeled back and forth. Their two swords flared in the golden light, swiveling at impossible angels and then spinning back around to clash vehemently against one another. It seemed like a tug of war, shooting to and fro with no discernable advantage on either side. Even when Clyde jumped in to assist, Daryl seemed capable of instantly miming both of their skills and techniques at once and with a mere thought.
Ultimately, the endless air curtailing overwhelmed Baram and his heavy arm finally dropped its weapon. The woman capitalized, kicking him back while still fending off Clyde's own savage attacks. His toiling would only be met with the exact same result, giving Daryl ample opportunity to snatch up the glimmering charm and head for the door.
"Sorry, gents. It's been fun."
Just as either of her erstwhile partners reached for the door, she slammed it tight and relocked the mechanism. Daryl knew that with Baram's skills at lockpicking, the door wouldn't hold for long. She turned and moved for the door when she found one of the Imperials starting to regain his senses. What was his name? Biggs, was it?
"Don't! Stay down!" she commanded, using Wedge's voice for good measure. "We're being attacked!"
"What?" Biggs flattened back on the floor, face down. "By who? Where are they coming from?"
She immediately threw her train robber alibi out the car window, knowing that it seemed asinine to use it as an excuse when two Imperial soldiers could easily topple an entire mob of them. But what else she could use?
"Returners!" she spoke up. "They're camouflaged . . . as passengers on the train!"
"Those sons of bitches!" he growled.
From the other side of the chamber door, Clyde and Baram kept trying to shoulder their way out. Biggs started to turn around.
"No!" Wedge's voice called out. "Don't!"
"Why not? And what's that banging noise?"
Daryl decided that she was getting tired of this game and knocked the soldier out again with his own discarded helmet. Bolting for the cool night air, her haste to make well on her escape robbed her of any regard for her own safety. She leaped from the tender and fell head over heels into a haze of stinging branches, rocky ridges, and a cyclone of darkness. The last thing she remembered before slipping into unconsciousness was wishing that she had similarly learned to mimic a jump from a moving train.
* * *
Clyde and Baram didn't fair too well after their resident swordsman-turned-mimic took off with their treasure. No sooner had they broken their way out of the coffer chamber did they have to fight their way through an entire squadron of recently rallied Imperials. Their injuries were extreme, which made breakfalling from a moving locomotive no easier. Half-crippled and bleeding from more cuts and contusions than they even knew they had, they were somehow able to slip out of sight from the tracks and into the underbrush.
"Clyde . . ."
"Shut up." The ninja grunted as he hauled his broken friend away from the tracks. "We're good. You're gonna be fine. There's a chocobo ranch around here somewhere, we just gotta--"
"Clyde, look." He gestured out towards the way they had come, and tension started to push more blood from out their wounds. "The train, it's slowing down."
He batted reality to one side. "They just getting close to the station, that's all."
"Or maybe those damned Imperials just had the train stopped so they can hunt us down and finish us off."
Baram sighed and pulled his mask off. He was spent from the heist, spent from their exodus, spent from everything. But Clyde wasn't going to let him give up. They had been through failed operations in the past and this was no different. The only difference this time was that they had never gotten this close to the big score. The woman couldn't have been that far down the line. They could probably even still catch up to her if they hurried.
"We're gonna live to regret this, okay friend? I promise you. Just hold on a little longer."
"I can't. I . . ." The thief disentangled himself from his friend and slumped against a tree trunk. "Listen, she . . . she dropped this. I found it back on the train."
Even in the pitch black of night, Clyde could still detect the simple gold bracelet Baram held in his hand - a bracelet with a blue gemstone heart soldered to its surface.
"A Charm Bangle. I might have known."
"She tricked us, Clyde. It's no wonder we went to her of all people. We couldn't have turned her down if we tried because of this." He gave a sharp flinch as pain lanced across an open gash in his shoulder. "Clyde, I'm just going to slow you down."
"What? What are you saying?"
"You have to kill me."
"What? No. No, I won't."
"Clyde, imagine what they'll do to us if they catch up. No, you need to take care of this now."
"Baram . . ."
"Now." The ever-present nuisance of brass-clad soldiers on the march started to emerge from the other side of the foliage. "Come on, it shouldn't be such a chore for one such as yourself. You've more than learned to kill those emotions of yours by this time."
This wasn't happening, Clyde kept telling himself as he reached down to his comrade's neck. Yet, at the same time, his good friend's words kept echoing in his head. Imagine what they'll do if they catch us.
"I'll . . . try and make this quick."
"I'd expect nothing less," Baram answered, showing no emotion whatsoever. "I'll see you on the Spook Express, friend."
With one hard twist, the thief's neck snapped. And his good eye joined the other into darkness.
* * *
"Tickets, please. Be sure to have your tickets ready for boarding."
Daryl stirred at the sound of the distant voice. When recollection of her daring escape came flooding back to her, she moved as quickly as she could to find her feet. A swift appraisal of a misty, almost intangible train station immediately put her on edge. Why did it appear to be daylight when, only minutes earlier, it had been nightfall? Why were there passengers boarding the train as opposed to disembarking? Wasn't the station further up the line? How long had she been out?
The cold, moist air made her shiver inside her robes.
"You there," the voice called out in the background, "Can I see your ticket?"
She started to move towards the figure that stood near the passenger entrance. His pale, thin face seemed barely perceptible beneath his simple black clothes. He stood in his place as though he had stood there since the world first came into being. His routine consisted of little beyond inspecting his pocketwatch, taking tickets from an endless stream of soon-to-be passengers, checkmarking his register, and then inspecting his pocketwatch all over again.
"My ticket?" she asked. "What for?"
The pale man sighed, as though the question had come up one time too many. "Your ticket to board the Phantom Train, ma'am. Do you have it at the moment or not?"
"Uh, no." She patted herself down to be sure, but could find nothing - nothing, that is, except for the Rat's Tail. "No, I don't."
He huffed and flung open his register, asking the growing rivulet of souls to please be patient. "What's your name, miss?"
"Daryl," she said, almost gratified that someone was at last able to ask her a question that she was able to answer.
"Daryl, Daryl . . . ah, here you are." His finger punched at the parchment, as though this had been a highlight of activity for him. "Or rather, here you were. It says here that you boarded less than fifteen minutes ago."
The woman scrunched up her brow in confusion. "What? That's impossible, I didn't board any train. I mean, I did. But I wasn't a passenger, and it sure as hell wasn't the Phantom Train."
"My register is never wrong, young lady. It does say that a woman named Daryl came by this way some fifteen minutes ago, and that her cause of death was an airship collision off on some uncharted triangle island."
Again, there was that abrupt spark of recognition.
"There aren't any other Daryl's on that list that might have passed by here recently, or will be passing by here later?"
"No, I'm sorry. It's not a very commonly used name, and this list is infallible. If you wish to wait for something to . . . could you stop doing that, please?"
She didn't realize it at the time, but since she had started talking with this skeleton of a man, she had been mimicking his every gesture and it was slowly driving him into hysterics. She could only conclude that her knack for mimicry was becoming more and more innate.
"Sorry about that. But really, what am I supposed to do?"
"There's little you can do. The only real thing I can suggest is to wait until your number is up, then your ticket will be able to tell you who you are. Names for passengers are always listed on their tickets."
"Wait until my number is up?" She felt like ripping her ears off. "Are you saying I have to die to figure out who I am! That's ridiculous!"
"No more ridiculous than playing the copycat. And I told you to stop that!"
Now, the two of them were scratching their heads.
"I can't just sit around and wait to die. There has to be something else that can be done."
The man went back to taking tickets and consulting his timepiece which, on closer inspection, the mimic realized was broken. "I'm sure you'll think of something. Perhaps if you continue your search, you'll make some progress."
"Well then . . ." She pulled the Rat's Tail from out of her back pocket. "I guess I ripped this thing off from those two boys for nothing. Hey buddy . . ."
"My name is Drail."
"Whatever," she said. "Are there usually a lot of lost souls on this Phantom Train?"
"All souls are ever lost, young woman."
"I'll take that as a yes." She passed the priceless relic along to Drail. "Perhaps this should be kept on the train, then. You know, to give the departed some sense of self in their darkest hour."
The psychopomp paused while scratching another checkmark onto his register, reaching to accept the Rat's Tale from her. Since Drail himself only knew meaning from being the conductor of wayward souls to the afterlife, its magic had no effect on him. There was no doubt in his mind, however, that its presence would be able to ease even the most troubled passenger's thoughts as they made their restless way across the threshold of life and death.
"I think that would be a very noble gesture, young lady. If they could, I'm sure the dearly departed would thank you."
The mimic smiled and then made her way off from the shoulder of the train station. Drail puzzled over her directionlessness and asked aloud if there was anything he could do to help her find her way. She declined, knowing that a sense of self started with having no direction whatsoever. And knowing that she had yet a long way to go was the greatest feeling in the world.
* * *
A short while later, Drail finished his loading of the passengers for the Phantom Train's most recent trek into eternity. It's last patron was a hooded, wild-haired man with a patch over one eye and with a look of consternation virtually sculpted onto his skull.
"Name, please," Drail asked of him.
"Baram," the man said, "Of Kohlingen."
Drail ripped his crystalline ticket in two. "Please hold onto your stubs. You'll need them as proof of entry past Purgatory."
The thief heaved out a long and troubled lament before continuing on for the passenger car.
"And please," the Conductor continued, handing him the Rat's Tail in mid-stride. "Can you make sure this little trinket is stowed safely away on that car somewhere?"
Baram started, did a double take, and gawked. Then, with his long sought-after treasure finally within his hands, he pressed on to take his seat onboard the Phantom Train. Oh, he would make sure it was stowed safely away alright. Somewhere where no one would be able to find it.
Not even Ziegfried.
* * *
Had she been mimicking this Daryl person from the very start, a woman whose premature death had incited the most genuine of sympathy in her? Or was she the one being mimicked? She fought for a good many years with herself to try and come to terms with this concern, until she concluded at last that it had to have been the former. Daryl - that was to say, the Daryl with a ticket to ride - knew nothing of mimicry. A novice to the ways of the Simulacrum herself, the mimic felt as though a little solitude and study might help her in understanding the skill in a bit more depth.
Clyde, too, had his demons to deal with. Another had used him, him and his dearest, most closest friend. He and Baram had both decided a long time ago that they were going to become their own persons and that no one would stand in their way. How could he have known? Ordinarily, this would have been the time when he'd have felt the guilt nip at the back of his neck. He was beyond emotion now, though. Thus, he, too, fell back into solitude - away from his colleagues, away from his daughter, away from himself.
So different had the both of their lives turned out that several years later, the mimic and the ninja met up yet again. With masks covering the both of their faces, however, neither could tell that the other was a specter of their past. Aboard a familiar flying ship which the mimic knew was not her own, many of their new allies asked often of the lives they had lead before joining their cause. It was a question which the two of them had dwelt upon often.
But they never said a word.
All That Glitters Is Cold 2 Fanfic Competition
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