Until the End of Time Part 3, Chapter 6
Gamblers and Ghosts
By Demon-Fighter Ash
March, 1020 AD
"So you three think you're going to the Viper Festival," the bandit snarled at the three travelers.
"That's the plan," Guile nodded, Sneff and Sybil standing on each side as they stared down the small gang of thieves blocking their way . They stood on an empty road winding along the side of a grassy hill, the left side of the road sloping gently down into a thick rain forest, the right side swelling up along the hill and the road itself twisting around the side of the knoll. Four rag-dressed men stood in the middle of the road--the muscular sunken-eyed leader of the gang, a tall gaunt man with a lean hollow face, a short squat older man, and a hulking brute.
"An old woman, a clumsy goofball and a tuxedo-mask wanna-be," their leader smirked, "fine, we'll let you go to Termina for the festival, but you have to pay us a toll for it."
"Fortune hasn't favored us," Guile said before Sneff or Sybil could speak, "we've nothing you'd want."
"Don't play with us," the slim man shouted, "we saw your shows over at Viper Manor just a few nights ago and we know you still got all that cash!"
"Hand it over," their leader said calmly, "and you won't get hurt."
"Let's just give it to him," Sneff said quietly, "it's not worth a fight and we'll make more at the festival."
"I'd agree," Sybil answered, studying their leader's face carefully, "except they have no intention of letting any of us live. The reason the dragoons haven't caught this gang is that they never leave witnesses."
"She knows us," the massive thug asked the others, "how could she know us?"
"So what if they do," the leader snarled, "Gaunt, take care of these sideshow freaks!"
The tall lean man stalked slowly toward the group and Guile flung his right hand out, fingers spread as he slapped the air with the back of his hand, and the thick floating wand mimicked his gesture, flying forward and whirling upward, striking the approaching bandit across the cheek with the side of its metal shaft and then whacking him across the stomach, knocking him onto his back.
"Screw this," the highwayman growled to his confused lackeys, "just kill them already."
Sneff shot a glare at the hulking thug walking toward him and he slipped one hand into his coat, pulling out a deck of playing cards and catching three of the cards between his fingers. He suddenly flung the handful of cards through the air at the brute and the man laughed at the flying poker cards--then screamed in pain, clutching his chest and staggering backwards as the cards, transmuted by the magician's powers into stiff razor-sharp blades, sliced through his arms and chest and flew out the other side.
The chubby thief stared in fright at the two men and then charged at the old woman, grinning as she stood frozen in panic. He lunged his dagger forward, then looked down in confusion as the blade stopped short of her face, his wrist tightly gripped in her left hand. She reached her right hand to touch his cheek, her thumb on his chin and her fingertips pressed to his right temple as she whispered in his ear.
"All the fear and pain you've caused...open your eyes...feel what they felt..."
The stout highwayman suddenly wrenched away from her, his eyes widening in speechless panic, and he staggered away from the group, ripping out his hair as he screamed and fled down the slopes into the jungle.
"No," his voice screamed from the forest as he ran from a swarm of imaginary ghosts, all of them staring at him with dead eyes, arms outstretched as they floated toward him, "somebody...somebody help me!"
The thin wiry thief facing Guile stared at the fleeing man in confusion, rubbing his bruised face, and reached over his shoulder, drawing out a long gleaming sword and grinning as he pointed the tip at Guile's chest.
"Let's see your magic wand deal with this!"
"Do not test my luck," Guile said softly, "it's saved me from much worse than you."
"Shut up you freak," the bandit screamed as he lifted the blade over his shoulder and swung forward.
Guile quickly twisted his wrist upward, his fingers folding back into his right palm, and he flipped his palm down and swung his right arm out in an arc, spreading his fingers toward the attacker. The floating wand suddenly shimmered and melted into a sword--then split into two swords, then four, then eight swords all hovering in a circle around the bandit, their needle-sharp tips aimed at the man's torso. He looked around in fright at the ring of blades surrounding him, then he snarled at Guile and tried to plunge his sword between them at the magician.
Guile folded his outstretched fingers back into his right fist; the eight hovering rapiers all thrust inward at once, driving into the man as he screamed and dropped down to his knees, then tumbled onto the ground. A stream of blood flowed from beneath the man and the swords vanished as Guile opened his fist, looking up at leader of the gang of thieves to find the brawny hollow-eyed man pointing a shotgun at him.
"Demons," the man shouted, "all three of you...witches!"
"Just lower the gun," Guile said calmly as Sneff and Sybil turned toward them, lifting his clenched right fist before his face, half his face covered by his fist, "don't tempt fortune anymore than you have."
"Damned monsters," the bandit screamed as he looked around in panic for the floating wand, then relaxed as he noticed that it'd completely vanished, turning back to the tuxedo-wearing man before him.
"So where'd your little toy go," the highwayman taunted, "did I scare it off?"
He grinned and slid the pump-action bolt on the shotgun and Guile simply opened his palm. The gunman's head wrenched upward, his eyes bulging out of his head and his high-pitched scream suddenly cut short as the long thin blood-covered point of the wand rammed upward between his open lips, the handle and top half of the wand ripping out from between his ribs. The leader's body tumbled onto the ground after a faint shudder, impaled from the inside out by the magic wand, the road empty except for bodies and the three silent magicians.
Guile lowered his right hand to his side and the bloody wand vanished with a blink from within the corpse, appearing beside the magician's right arm, the floating shaft suddenly clean and dry.
"Are you two alright," Guile asked after a moment of ringing silence.
"Yeah," Sneff answered and Sybil nodded silently.
"We'll let the authorities know what happened when we arrive at Termina," Guile said, shaking his head sadly at the group of fallen bandits before resuming their journey toward the distant white terraces of Termina, the colonial port-city that marked the landing point for all the mainland visitors, "if the dragoons have been hunting these thieves, there shouldn't be any trouble."
They continued across the mountain road in silence for a moment, Sybil watching Guile and his wand floating along the road with interest, before suddenly speaking, as if she couldn't hold her thoughts back any longer.
"Guile, that thing follows you like a puppy," Sybil exclaimed as she watched the gleaming wand hovering beside Guile, floating with him as he walked alongside the other two magicians, "Sprigg's staff was never that strong; you've been augmenting it with your own magic, haven't you?"
"Yes," Guile answered, "I've been teaching myself how to channel my powers through it."
"Why," she asked, "your magic would be much more powerful if you just used it directly."
"If I'm to surpass my teacher," he replied quietly, "then she should be here to see it. Until then, I'll continue to use the wand."
"She's been gone for four years now," Sneff said, "do you fink she'll come back?"
"I know it," Guile said in a low voice, glancing sternly to each of his fellow magicians, "and all of us should train, to prepare for that day."
"We have and we'll keep training," Sybil answered with a smile, "but you should most of all, Guile. Lady Sprigg's far too kind to say so, but when she told us to keep developing our powers, she meant you more than either of us. I sensed her feelings about you--your power's unlike anything she's ever seen. She'd want you to explore that gift."
"I know," he said softly, then looked up at them, smiling a little as he changed the subject, "so what are you two doing when we reach Termina?"
"You won't believe fis," Sneff answered eagerly, "but I've gotten a jig as fee opening act for Nikki's Magical Dreamers! He finks my cat-magic will make a great crowd-warmer!"
"That's impressive," Guile said with an admiring nod, "if you stay on with his concert tour, you'll finally get to see the Zenan continent like you've always wanted. How long will you be gone?"
"Just a few weeks," he replied, "after fat, I'll be back in El Nido."
"Then I'll be sure to come to the opening show tomorrow night," Guile said with a warm smile, "how about you, Sybil?"
"Oh, nothing that ambitious," she answered with a wave of her hand, "I'm setting up a tent on the Termina bridge to give out fortunes and palm-readings. Should be a pretty big crowd during the day."
"That should make a nice profit," Sneff snickered, "especially wiff your powers!"
"I'm not charging for it," she replied, and the other two gawked at her in speechless surprise, the magicians stopping for a moment along the hilltop trail as she quietly giggled under her breath at their confused expressions.
"A lot of people are coming to the festival," she continued, "many of them lost, without a clue of who they are or what they were meant to be. If any of them seek my help, I'll give it. Besides, we made a big enough profit at the Viper Manor show to cover a little vacation during the Viper Festival, right?"
"We've earned enough for several vacations," Guile nodded after a moment of mentally counting the money from the Viper show, "and besides, I think Sprigg would like that."
"Yeah," Sneff snickered, "even iff it does bring down our monthly revenue."
"So Guile, what about you," Sybil asked, "which of your many talents will you employ at the festival?"
"I haven't decided," he shrugged as he looked out at the white marble city and endless gleaming ocean stretching beneath the crest of the hill, his right hand lifted over his mask to block the bright tropical sun from his eyes, "or rather, I've decided to let fortune take me where it might."
"Since you have such faith in fortune and chance," Sybil suddenly grinned, "how about we put your luck to the test? Do you remember how that Deva Karsh bragged about Viper Manor's fortifications?"
"I remember that he relies far too much on the terrain," Guile remarked with distaste, "they only had a few guards stationed because they were so confident that nobody would scale the cliffs around the manor."
"Let's put that to the test," she answered, "I'm willing to bet that you can't breach the mansion, without our help."
"Interesting," Guile replied, "go on."
"Here's the deal. You have to sneak into Viper Manor and come back out with some proof that you were there. Think you could pull that one off?"
"Easily," Guile answered with a slow smile, "how long would you give me?"
"The festival lasts for a week," she answered, "and I don't want you to spend all your time crawling through that dusty old mansion. So let's say you have until the end of the festival--one week."
"What's the prize," he asked.
"If you win," she answered, "I'll pay to have your staff brass-plated. It's getting a little worn out and that should help make both its strength and its channeling ability more powerful."
"Alright," he nodded, "but what would you want if there were any chance you'd win?"
"You know exactly what my terms are," she smirked.
"Not fis again," Sneff groaned, his hands on his hips as he turned toward her, "Sprigg told you that it's too dangerous to read his aura, that you could go mad if you tried to look into his mind! Why are so obsessed with fis!?"
"I've grown much stronger since then," she said, "and I'm dying to know what's locked up in there that could possibly be so dangerous. You don't seem dangerous to me, Guile, just mysterious...and I hate mysteries!"
"If you're really so much stronger," Guile chuckled, "why not simply look through this mask?"
"You know that's not how it works," she retorted, "your mask symbolizes your own hidden aura. Without the symbol of the mask, I could read your true face and see into your hidden nature. Besides," she frowned a little, "I've seen the way you twist around in your sleep. Something big's bottled up in there, and it might help to get it out in the open."
"I know," he sighed. His dreams had always been filled with sadness and anger, ashes and faces that he didn't recognize anymore, but lately words and names had begun to appear as well, names that faded from his thoughts as soon as he awoke, but nonetheless filled him with a melancholy that sometimes took several hours to shake off.
"But Sprigg said that would be dangerous," Guile continued, frightened by the thought of the enigma lurking beneath his mask, a forgotten life that had endowed him with magic so dark and powerful that it sometimes troubled even him, "if I tried to force my memories before they return on their own it could cause problems, maybe for all of us."
"Alright," she sighed, then suddenly turned to him, "well then, how about this. I just won't tell you what I see. After all, Lady Sprigg seemed to know something about you and it didn't do her any harm, right?"
"I guess so," Guile said slowly, closing his eyes for a moment before finally replying, "alright, I accept. Besides, you've never won any of our bets before," he teased her, "so what's the harm?"
"Then it's done," Sybil exclaimed as the gravel-filled road gave way to a hard paved street leading down into the bustling tourist-filled city of Termina, "your luck can't hold up forever, Guile, and I'm betting today's the day it runs out. Meet me at my tent with proof that you were in the manor, if you can."
* * *
"Who might you be," an old lady's voice asked from within the gold-fringed red tent. Serge swept his hand over his own red bandanna, covering his dark blue hair, and leaned on the rowing oar that he'd learned to use as a kind of staff-like weapon, while Leena peered curiously into the tent and Kid scuffed her feet over the white marble streets of Termina. He looked over his shoulder at the tapestries, flags and Magical Dreamers posters hanging over the side of the bridge, then suddenly turned back around as a puff of smoke wafted out from the tent.
"Fortunes be good, fortunes be bad," an old woman in a long green dress, wearing a white pillowy caliph's hat that nearly hid her face, said as she appeared out of the smoke and glanced curiously at each of them, "anything from reading your destiny to searching for the missing, do wish your fortune to be read?"
"Why not," Leena shrugged to Serge.
"Do what ya like, mate," Kid muttered, "but I never did like fortune-tellers. Besides, we've gotta hurry up and find out what those blokes want with you!"
"We are in a hurry," Serge agreed, then answered the old lady, "but alright, why not tell our fortune?"
The fortune-teller nodded and peered carefully into Serge's face, her eyes narrowed with confusion as she tried to look into his aura, then finally gave up, making out only a vague darkness around him.
"Well this is interesting," she muttered, "you're not dead or anything are you? Has anyone called you back from the great beyond?"
"Why does everyone keep saying that," Serge sighed, "I'm not dead, I feel fine!"
"You just might be," she said slowly, awe-struck, as she began to sense a vast energy hidden within the darkness of his aura, an inner crimson glow that seemed to shine from somewhere beyond time itself, "the key to the destruction of this entire planet. I can't say for sure, but fate seems to have a great task for you. Be careful now, boy!"
"Hey Serge," Kid rolled her eyes, "that's nothin' but rubbish. Let's hurry up and get movin'."
"Hmm...you there," the fortune-teller turned to face the impatient teenager, "in your eyes, I perceive...both the look of a beauty and the look of a beast. Be mindful not to bring about your own end, my dear."
"Wha," Kid started to protest.
"A dream lies in wait," she said softly to Kid, suddenly sensing a looming ominous shadow buried deep within the young girl's aura, something dark and powerful lurking deep within her furthest memories, "reaching out to engulf you."
"Sorry, mum," Kid replied, "I don't believe in fortune-tellin' at all. I make way for me own future by myself."
"Lassie," the fortune-teller countered, "you should listen to your elder's advice."
"Ha," Kid shook her head, trying to laugh despite the troubled look on her face, "I don't give a damn. Let's go Serge."
"Hey, wait a minute," Leena called them back, "I want my fortune too!"
"It says," the old fortune-teller answered as she stared into Leena's youthful face and her relatively tranquil aura, "that you will not find a boyfriend for a long time. Fortune-telling is such a merciless thing..."
"How rude," Leena sniffed and turned back toward Serge, "yeah, let's go."
"If you must go," the fortune-teller replied with a knowing smile, "then you may want to check out the Dragon's Tail, a restaurant and bar on the main square of Termina. There's a man there who seeks entry to Viper Manor as well, and his aura is as mysterious as yours. It may be that he was meant to travel with you."
"How did you know we," Serge answered, puzzled but still grateful, "I mean, um...thanks!"
"Come back any time you want a reading," the old lady snickered, then raised her arms, "that is all!"
She suddenly seemed to explode into a stinging cloud of smoke and when the air cleared, the woman had vanished again, leaving only the tent and two blinking eyes peering out of its shadows. Serge shrugged silently to the other two and they jogged back through the marble streets and balconies, past the streaming ribbons of woven flowers and blossoms decorating the walls toward the Dragon's Tail restaurant.
"Good luck to you, Guile," Sybil whispered within her tent as she looked through the crowds for her next customer, then she smiled, "but don't you dare forget about our bet!"
* * *
"So you're this ghost-boy Serge I've been hearing about," Guile asked the blue-haired teenager, leaning one elbow against the bar and sipping the glass of wine in his right hand. Candle-tipped chandeliers swung lightly from the ceiling of the upscale restaurant, casting a warm golden glow across the alabaster walls of the Dragon's Tail, and tourists sat around the tables, a soft babel of voices filling the room.
"No," Serge cried out, then sighed, "at least, I don't think I'm a ghost. I remember my life, just like I'd never died. It's more like the rest of the world just...forgot about me."
"Fair enough," Guile nodded and turned Serge's friend, a pretty red-haired young woman in a knee-length purple-and-gold dress, "and let me see if I've sorted it all out: you, Leena, used to be the friend of the young boy that died ten years ago, that this boy Serge now seems to be."
"Um," Leena answered, now confused herself, "yeah, something like that. Except this boy's not dead."
"I noticed that myself," he answered with a smile, then turned to the third member of their group, a shorter girl with braided blonde hair, wearing a large purple bead-necklace over her white top and short red vest, a sheathed dagger hanging across the waist of her red skirt.
The other two teens were Arni villagers; he didn't need to ask them, he immediately recognized the colorful woven fabrics they wore, the chief trade of the otherwise quiet seaside village. This one, however, was different, a foreigner like him--and his heart nearly stopped as he suddenly felt that, somehow, he should recognize her.
She'd dabbed her apple-red cheeks with the white warpaint that marked her as one of the mainland's Radical Dreamers, but that hardly mattered to him. Instead, he found himself staring into her deep blue eyes, her youthful face suddenly awakening a formless memory of protectiveness, love...and finally, for the first time since he awoke on the shores of El Nido nine years ago, a name that didn't slip away from his thoughts.
"I know I'm cute and all," she said, head tilted to one side as she tried to make out his expression through the golden mask, "but you're a bit old for me."
"No, it's not that," he answered quickly, repulsed by the pretty teen's suspicion in a way that he couldn't quite explain, and he paused a moment, uncertain of himself before finally testing the name that had suddenly filled his mind, "Sch-Schala?"
"I'm more into ska myself," Leena asked, puzzled, "but what's schala?"
"I don't know," he answered softly, then closed his eyes, barely managing to dredge up one last word from the amorphous shadows and darkness slipping through the back of his mind, a name that, though he'd long forgotten what it meant, he now realized had lately filled his shapeless nightly dreams, "Kid..."
"What the," the blonde girl stiffened, "how'd you know me name?! You'd best tell us quick or I promise I'll kick your tuxedo-arse so hard that you'll kiss the moons!"
"I don't know," he answered honestly, then he thought quickly, his voice deepening as he covered up his confusion by adopting the role he'd played for almost a decade now, "but you are a kid, aren't you? It's just luck that it happens to also be your name, and the mastery of fortune is my profession."
"Yeah, I guess so," Kid said, slowly relaxing, more puzzled by his behavior now than threatened, "but don't go thinking I'm some helpless little girl just 'cause I happen to be young, got it? I can take care of myself and anyone else who tries to get in me way, or messes with any of me mates!"
"Then I'll hope to be counted among them," he answered, and turned to the other two, "what we need now is a seasoned sailor and a sturdy boat to cross the rough waters."
"So you'll help us," Serge asked eagerly.
"If you can find one," he nodded, "leave the rest to me. I will guide you to Viper Manor."
He still didn't really remember anything, but in the past minute alone Kid's face had brought two names to the surface of his thoughts, after a decade of fruitless inner reflection at the maelstrom of his deeper memories--and one of those names had actually been right. Aside from the curiosity, he also felt another one of those impulses that sprang out of the wilderness of his forgotten life: he had to protect these teens, especially the youngest girl.
"Great," Serge answered, "and once we're in, we'll help find this thing you need for your bet too."
"That would be cheating," Guile laughed, "but thanks for the offer," he leaned over the bar and ordered four drinks for all of them, a glass of wine for himself and three glasses of Termina cider for the teens.
"That mask," Leena suddenly asked, "why do you wear it?"
"The true gambler never shows his hand," he answered, having long since rehearsed these lines, "and the best way to keep a poker-face is to have no face at all."
"Alright," Leena said, still looking at the round gold mask covering the top half of his face, offering just a glint of emerald beneath the two eyeholes, barely remembering somebody else wearing a mask like this a long time ago, when she was a child, "your mask just...it reminded me of someone else, I guess."
"You must have that sort of face, or jaw anyway," Kid shrugged, lifting her glass up to her face and peering into the non-alcoholic cider with disappointment, before glancing back up at him, "'cause yer a dead ringer for someone I used to know too."
"Really," he looked at her suddenly, holding his breath, "who?"
"An older brother, I think," Kid remarked, her eyes unfocused as she strained to remember beyond the fire that had marked the end of her old life and the beginning of this new one, "or maybe an uncle...but that was a long time ago and besides, yer too young. He woulda been a lot older than you by now. But besides that," she shrugged, taking a sip of her cider, "you could be twins."
"I see," he said, his heart suddenly leaping with a single certainty, that he'd finally begun to fulfill his true purpose in El Nido. The mysterious sadness and self-doubt that had plagued him since his awakening on Opassa Beach had somehow vanished with her words, and he didn't need his memories to realize that, without even knowing it, he'd been searching for Kid all these years, that he had come to El Nido to protect her.
One day his memories would tell him what had happened, who he'd once been--when that day came, he thought to himself, he would tell her everything, but not until he had something more than feelings and instincts, coupled with nameless dreams, to tell her. Until then, it would be enough to simply know that he'd found her again, that she was safe. He smiled to himself and then lifted the glass of wine up in his right hand.
"We'll leave for Viper Manor right after this round of drinks," he nodded to the three, "but first a toast...to new friendships and to the adventure."
"Sounds good to me," Kid answered with a shrug and she tapped her glass of cider against his wine-glass, "to all that stuff you said!"
"Alright," Serge and Leena nodded and completed the toast, "to friendship and to the adventure!"