He didn't move, just watched the lizard as it drank the bloody water. Time passed. He didn't know how much. Time was not something he understood. The lizard was gone. The blood was still there. He held a large, metal pan in his hand. He didn't know why exactly he had it or kept it. It just seemed right. He was supposed to have it. He'd always had it. The pan went in the cupboard with the oak doors and the little metal handles that looked like flowers. He took it out when he needed it, and put it back when he was done. That was how he had always done. That was right.
The lizard was back. It was following a small, black spider. The spider tried to scurry away, but it was too slow. He thought he heard it scream, but he was fairly certain that spiders couldn't make such noises. Still, spiders were not what he knew about. He knew how to cook. He didn't feel sorry for the spider. Pity was not something he understood.
It was getting brighter outside. For some reason, he felt like getting up. He didn't have much else to do. The kitchen was gone, so how could he cook? His head bumped against the ceiling. He walked toward the mouth, his long, awkward legs struggling to maintain balance. The pan was still in his hand. He clutched it tighter; it made him feel better. He didn't understand, but it wasn't his place to understand.
Outside, the sky was clearing, letting the sun shine through onto the field. It was a dismal sight. Bodies were lying in the mud, their gleaming armor now filthy with blood and dirt. It was okay though. They were the enemy and didn't matter. Their white skin had grown paler in death. On an impulse, he rolled one of the fallen onto its back. It was young, clearly no man, yet too old to be called a boy. It had been struck down by a blow to the shoulder, the horrible rent already showing signs of decay. He reached into its pocket, finding several coins and a piece paper. The paper, which smelled vaguely of sweet blossoms, went straight to the mud. The coins he kept in his own pocket, again acting on impulse. Men valued such things, so they might prove useful. He had never had such coins before.
Picking himself up out of the mud, he continued across the wastes. The dead were everywhere, not only the pale men he had been taught to call enemy, but also his own kind. Their straw bodies were torn and motionless. Their innards danced across the field with each gust of wind. Seeing them like this filled him with an unfamiliar feeling. Sadness, he supposed. Humans were always sad when others died. It wasn't a very pleasant sensation.
As he plodded across the battlefield, he paused beside another human body, this time one that he recognized. His good Lord Zappa was dead, lying in a muddy ditch just like one of the awful curs he had fought against. Seeing Lord Zappa like this filled him with an even greater sadness. Lord Zappa had always been kind to him. Zappa had been a big man, one with a big appetite. Meals were always grand at Zappa's table. This was good. The more he cooked, the happier he was. But now, Lord Zappa was dead, God rest his soul. He wasn't sure what God was, but his lord always said, "God rest his soul," when someone important died. He supposed Zappa was important.
Kneeling down beside his lord, he removed the beautiful red cape Lord Zappa wore so often. It was dirty now, but it was still so vivid beneath this grey sky. Shaking it off, he clasped it over his own shoulders. Somehow this made him feel better. The cape was warm, and the air was getting colder.
He could see a hill not far off, toward the center of the field. Climbing out of the ditch and leaving Lord Zappa behind, he walked toward the hill. So many lifeless faces stared up at him. He reached the hill and staggered up the slick slope. Reaching the top, he found one of his brothers impaled by a spear of the enemy, its stitched mouth agape, not with fear but with rage. He'd never thought of them as brothers, but they were. Seeing this one brought back his feelings of sadness. To try and make himself feel better, he thought about the past. Just cooking in his kitchen. It was what he did. The memories only made him feel worse. He sat there on the hill, watching the clouds in the sky. His head hurt. His empty eyes looked out over the battlefield, but they saw nothing.
Time passed. It didn't seem like that long. His head was feeling better. The pain gone, he could now think again. The sun was lower in the sky. He didn't know why. The sun was not something he understood.
But, for reasons still beyond him, he felt like he was beginning to understand.
Looking out the towering window, Gaspar felt younger than he had in ages. He wasn't sure how to begin to describe what he saw. It was like the night sky, darkness speckled with points of light like the stars, yet their sparkle was somehow more magnificent than any starry sky. It wasn't the night sky. It was something far more. Clouds of color swirled about the stars, moving as if charged by some unearthly life. Other lights danced across his view, some so faint that he barely noticed them, others so brilliant he had to turn away as they streaked past. It was the most amazing sight those ancient eyes had ever beheld. "Spekkio," he said, "you must tell me where we are."
The nu only shrugged, taking a quick drink from the brown paper bag in his hand. "To be honest old man, I don't know if I can even begin to explain." He gestured to the windows that lined the hall. "There is no name for this place, and I don't suppose it has a real location either. It is what it is.
"It is too divine for words," Gaspar said, his voice still filled with childish glee.
"Yeah well, look while you can. You may be the only human who ever sees it." Spekkio continued down the hallway. It was a beautiful hallway, seemingly plucked from an emperor's palace. It was lined with iron-framed windows, slender yet tall, reaching from the floor to the ceiling. The ceiling itself seemed to be rather low, but at the same time unbelievably high. Looking up gave Gaspar a most horrid feeling of vertigo. Either way he looked, the hall had no beginning or end. It stretched on, surrounded on the outside by that most peculiar sky.
Gaspar followed reluctantly, his eyes always straying to the alien cosmos that encased him. Spekkio, his usual pink self, waddled along in front, taking the occasional sip from his bottle. They went on for some time, the hall never changing. Though he saw nothing to suggest it, Gaspar felt as if they were close. "I am most honored that you chose to bring me along, Spekkio. I know what a privilege it must be."
"I wouldn't call it that," Spekkio answered. "Just remember to stay out of the way. They aren't used to such lowly beings attending these meetings."
He supposed that he should have taken offense at being called a 'lowly being,' but Gaspar ignored it. It was certainly true. "How often do these occur?"
Spekkio gave an awkward nu shrug. "Whenever."
Gaspar glanced at the floor. "How often is that?" When Spekkio didn't answer, he looked back up. He was startled to see that he was no longer walking down the hallway. He was outside under blackened skies. The churning clouds flashed with silent, unnerving lightning. He was standing toward the center of an immense crater. Its sides were smooth and black, as if coated with obsidian. The smooth glass sloped up to the crater's lip, where it was broken by jagged outcroppings of dark, volcanic rock. It was an unpleasant place, though Gaspar didn't regret coming. This was exactly what he had come to see for himself.
Spekkio hadn't paused, and continued down to the center of the crater. Gaspar followed slowly, taking care not to slip. He saw now that they were not alone. At the very center sat a being easily the size of a three-story building. Its pinkish-purple body was roll upon sickening roll of fat, all surrounding a gigantic gaping maw. A pair of beady eyes stared down from the top of the pillar of obesity. Its surprisingly thin arms reached down to the crater surface. A serpent-like creature was coiled around one arm, while the other flailed about its toothless mouth. Closer to Spekkio now, Gaspar leaned over and asked, "Who might that be?"
"No names," he reminded the guru.
As they walked closer to the mound of flab, Gaspar saw that the serpent on its arm was actually another person. The long red-scaled body ended in an obviously female torso. She was blue-skinned and had six arms, but was decidedly beautiful. Her face was framed by hair the color of her snake-like body. Every so often she flicked a forked tongue out of her thin mouth, tasting the air.
As they neared, the large one finally noticed them. It waved its free arm to Spekkio and opened its mighty jaws to speak. "About time someone else showed up," it said, its booming voice echoing off the glassy crater. "I had half a mind not to come at all this time. But I did anyway, and look!" He gestured around them. "No feast! Not even a little snack bar! I was at a truly regal dinner in Galbadia enjoying the company of a buxom young serving wench! And I left for this!" the creature moaned.
The snake woman cocked her head at the large one. "And I suppose that wench was better than me?" She reared back, like a snake ready to strike. "None of those things could possibly compare!"
"Of course not!" it bellowed. "But human women are far more manageable. Just think about it. The worst they ever do is kill you. Come to think of it, my drink was probably poisoned. That's okay though, just adds a little flavor."
"Glad to see you, too," Spekkio mumbled between gulps from his paper bag.
"You understand, don't you?" the large one asked Spekkio, flailing its free arm. It's small eyes sought reassurance. "It's not easy having a purpose in existence."
The snake woman slithered up the other's arm, coiling her way up the rolls of its body. She stopped at the top, pressing herself against its head. "Yes, we know how hard it is. The way of the gourmand is not meant for us all."
"Exactly," it rumbled. "It is a thankless path, but it is the one I have chosen. Now, if you don't mind, I'm going to imagine I'm eating something pleasant until this pointless little gathering is over."
"And I'll pretend you aren't here." Gaspar turned to the new voice, almost a feral growl. It came from a large, muscular creature slowly stalking towards him. Its purple skin gleamed beneath a wild golden mane. It stopped by Gaspar, taking a few sniffs of the guru, baring a muzzle of stained teeth. "Why?" it growled simply. Gaspar was too mystified by its luminous golden eyes to formulate an answer. Spekkio only shrugged, then took another sip. T he purple creature backed away, apparently content with the nu's answer.
"You really must pardon him," spoke a gentle, alto voice. Its owner was a woman of normal proportions who now emerged from behind the sullen beast. She would have seemed like a perfectly normal human if not for the fins protruding from her hips and forearms. Her sea green skin shimmered even in the prevailing darkness. "It is so uncommon for us to have visitors. Yours, correct?" she asked, now addressing Spekkio. The Master of War nodded slightly. "Interesting indeed. This one is much brighter than most."
"T-thank you, madam," Gaspar managed, somewhat taken aback by the compliment and the woman of the sea's beauty. Her teal eyes sparkled like sunlight on the waves. "It is an honor to be your guest."
"Honor indeed," the woman said before shifting her attention elsewhere.
"What do we do at these things, anyway?" boomed the fat one. "I don't remember the last one."
None of the beings present answered, rather they went about their individual business. Gaspar took to observing them. The fat one, still visibly agitated by the lack of food, amused itself by winding the snake woman's tail about one of its bony fingers, much like a bored human would twirl a lock of hair. The snake woman didn't seem to mind. She was now conversing with the purple beast, which remained sulky and irritable, flashing its teeth often. The woman of the sea found a place to sit on the reflective crater surface and stared up at the sky. Gaspar followed her gaze and looked again at the storm clouds that choked the atmosphere. The woman seemed to be quite interested in them, not just staring off into the distance. She had a haughty air about her that reminded Gaspar of his days in Zeal, where everyone thought they were too good for the world. He turned his attention away from her, looking now for Spekkio. The pink nu still stood apart from the others. He appeared calm enough, but Gaspar could tell that he was troubled.
The crater shook as the fat one unleashed a mighty belch. Wiping its mouth of spittle, it addressed the gathering once again. "Are they going to be fashionably late again?"
"Who is late?" All turned to the newcomer. A tall human figure stood well away from the others. He was dressed in a tailored black suit that hung loosely on his emaciated frame. A tall, black steepled hat hid his eyes beneath its wide brim. A black coat was slung over one arm; in the other he held a dull, metal cane. The colorless skin of his face was pulled tightly over prominent bones. Slowly, his lipless mouth stretched into a smile. "I arrive promptly to all of my appointments." His voice was surprisingly deep and rich for one so wasted. As the dark man spoke, Gaspar could see small, dagger-like teeth. Images of reptiles crept into his mind. The man reached up to adjust his collar and brush aside a lock of grey hair. "We have arrived."
With that, light began to creep through the cloud cover. The glass crater created a horrible glare. Gaspar stared up at the sky where a definite hole was forming in the clouds just above them. Light streamed through, becoming more intense by the second. Unable to bear it, Gaspar shut his eyes, yet the light burned through his eyelids, still blinding him even as he turned away. He covered his eyes with his hands. It helped for a moment, but soon the light penetrated even that. Pinkish light through his eyelids turned to white. It felt as if his retinas were burning. When Gaspar feared his body would burn away under the powerful light, it became suddenly dark. Gaspar opened his eyes, blinking as they readjusted to the weak grey light. Two new figures now stood near the base of the crater. The first was a being in gleaming armor that encased its form entirely. It was the most complex suit of armor Gaspar had ever seen, as if it were a shining cathedral constructed to be worn. It reflected light that couldn't be coming from the sky. The second stood beside the armored one, all but the simplest of forms hidden beneath layer upon layer of colorful robes. Two dull grey eyes stared through a slit in its hood. Gaspar noticed that three swords had been thrust into the ground around the robed one, forming an odd triangle. It looked as if they should form a square, only a point was missing. The glass at the fourth point was shattered like the rest, but there was no sword.
The armored figure raised its head and spoke. Its voice rang through the crater, a sound as complicated as its armor. The words buzzed with a strange white noise: sounds that, no matter how hard one tried, could not be focused upon. "Let our meeting serve its purpose." The helmet turned to Spekkio. "Is the task proceeding?"
Spekkio addressed the shining one with a sober tone Gaspar had never heard before. "It is. Shortly, it will be done."
The robed figure nodded, then drew itself up to its full height. The grey eyes scanned all present. "Remember," was all that it said, its voice not muffled at all. The crater was bathed in a ruby light. It was a warm, welcoming light, not painful like the bright whiteness from a few moments ago. Gaspar looked up to see the source of the light floating above the center of the crater. It was, oddly enough, a shard of green crystal. "We must not forget what we have lost and what we must do." The light faded, the crystal with it.
"May I ask," Gaspar began, "what exactly this task of yours is?" All eyes turned to him. Spekkio cringed, knowing that the guru had stepped out of line.
The robed figure fixed Gaspar with its flat grey eyes. "No," it said. "You may not."
There was silence for a long while. The atmosphere of the gathering seemed to change. The meeting was clearly over, leaving those there to shift nervously. There was nothing left to do, yet it would be rude to just leave, especially just after the Guru of Time's evidently tactless question. Finally, one by one, they began to wink out of existence. First was the snake woman, then the purple beast. They just faded away, leaving no trace. Next was the pallid, reptilian man, the fat one, and the robed figure. The woman of the sea stood, brushed off, and disappeared. The armored one stretched its limbs, then phased out. At last, Gaspar was left alone with Spekkio.
The nu took one look at him, then plodded off toward the lip of the crater.
In passing, he mumbled, "No comment." Gaspar dusted off his bowler and followed.
The Tabard Inn was a place outside of Hops's previous experience. The first floor was the tavern and the owner's main source of income. Never in his life had he seen so many worthless people gathered together in so small a space. Regardless of the time of day, the local drunkards were warming the bar stools. The rest varied, but most of the tables were usually full. The waitresses were quick to slap an unwelcome hand, and the barkeep's collection of stories was more extensive than any library. A black-haired man in a military jacket was dancing on a table and singing one of the popular drinking songs. Someone had clearly had a few too many. The smoke was thick, the air rancid, and the drinks cheap. Hops had to admit that he found the place intriguing.
Weaving through the chairs and puddles of spilled mead, Hops passed through the tavern to the decrepit wooden stairs in the back. They creaked with each step, but held well enough. Reaching the third floor, he walked down the darkened hallway, illuminated by a single bulb dangling from the ceiling, to the room he and Lucca had rented. The large sack of spider parts slung over his shoulder jingled as he moved. Fumbling for the key in his pocket, Hops reached for the doorknob. It, unlike the rest of the inn, was warm. Hops frowned and twisted. It turned easily, unlocked. Bracing himself, he shoved the door open and strode in, his long bangs hiding the rising fire in his eyes.
Hops quickly scanned the room: lights on, beds stripped, mattresses askew. His eyes fell on a figure sitting at the small writing desk by the window. Long hair, female, dressed in a kimono. "What are you-" His voice caught in his throat. He tripped over his own feet, falling nose first to the floor. The sack of ruined spiders spilled across the cold floorboards. He stayed there, unmoving, staring up in disbelief at the person sitting nearby.
The unknown guest pushed away from the desk and stood. Her dark blue tresses swayed with the motion, cascading perfectly over creamy shoulders. "Plenty of men have called me stunning," the woman said, "but don't you think you're overreacting?" Seeing that the boy was recovering, she continued. "I think it's safe to assume you're the person that's been traveling with the famed Lucca. I was hoping one of you would arrive soon. Right now I want to ask you about this picture." She held out his picture of Kyra, the one with the frame that he had carved.
Regaining his senses, Hops pushed up to his knees. He looked from the picture to the woman, back again. "Who are you?" he managed, gingerly rubbing his nose.
"You may address me as Lady Tyria," the woman said. Her kimono was warmly colored; reds, yellows, and browns like the sun setting over hills. "I asked you about this picture. This girl, who is she? It's like looking in a mirror."
Hops took the carven frame, holding it with more reverence than Tyria had shown. The resemblance was astounding. "Miss Kyra," he mumbled.
Tyria frowned. "Well, I don't suppose it matters." She pushed past him, the folds of her kimono rustling like leaves. Heels clicked against the floor.
This Lady Tyria looked strikingly similar to Kyra, only slightly older and with the wrong hair color. Hops stared up at her again, finding it still somewhat unnerving. Looking around the room again, he saw just how thoroughly it had been searched. Nothing had been left in its original place. He now noticed an animated suit of green armor pawing through his bag of belongings, sniffing his new "tourist" shirt like a bloodhound. Setting the picture aside, he stormed over and snatched his satchel back. "What the hell do you people want?" Spekkio's shot glass was still gripped in the armor's bulky hand. Hops took that back as well. The thing loomed over him, glaring down with the vacant eyes of its draconic mask. Hops countered with his own defiant gaze.
"Tabanne," Tyria called. "Back down." Reluctantly, the suit of armor stepped back and returned to poking through the wrinkled sheets.
"Well?" Hops pressed, still agitated.
"If you must know," the woman told him, "I came here to talk with Lucca."
"She's not here," he said as he returned the spilled scrap metal to its sack. It took effort to look away from her.
Tyria nodded. "I noticed. You'll have to excuse our little scavenger hunt; standard procedure, you understand. Of course, there's nothing of any interest to me here."
Hops dropped the sack in the corner. The woman was now sitting on the corner of his bed, checking her well-manicured fingernails. His opinion of her was souring by the second. "So," he asked, "are you going to leave?"
Tyria looked amused. The boy was staring whenever he got the chance. It disappointed Tyria that it wasn't due to her beauty, only her resemblance to this Kyra person. "You should have a bit more respect for the ruler of Choras."
That explained the attitude. "I'm not expecting Lucca back for a while. We were observing the base that was attacked recently. She finds such things very intriguing."
"Visited the gift shop, didn't you?" Tyria asked with a joking smile. Too much like Kyra.
"Research material," Hops said uneasily. He hefted Lucca's mattress back into place.
Losing interest in her nails, Tyria turned to the dark haired youth and fixed him with that unbearably familiar gaze. "It's a waste of your time. I can tell you exactly what they are. That's why I wish to speak with your friend." Hops gave no sign of acknowledgment. "Not interested?"
The sheets floated down over the bed. "You can see the door," Hops said as he smoothed out the folds.
Tyria sighed heavily. "What a dreary child. Very well. I will see you and Lucca tomorrow at the royal residence. The address is on the desk." She stood and dramatically brushed back her hair. "Come, Tabanne. Miss Lucca won't be arriving tonight." She briefly glanced at Hops. The boy had started on his own bed, carefully straightening the blankets, still ignoring her. A dreary child indeed. "I look forward to tomorrow. And do bring your things with you. I'm sure I can find you better lodgings than this." With that she left, the suit of armor trailing in her wake. Their footsteps faded, blending with the murmur of the tavern.
Hops shut the door behind them, glad to be alone again. Seeing Tyria had left him homesick, confused, and angry. Angry at himself for losing control of his life. He was tempted to go downstairs and become absurdly drunk but thought better of it. It wouldn't help.
The address. There was indeed a scrap of paper on the desk. In elaborate cursive was written, "The Hilltop." He let it fall to the floor. It would wait until tomorrow.
He collapsed on his bed, shut his eyes. Crying would have been nice. But he couldn't make the tears fall. Minutes passed. He struggled, trying desperately to free some of his agony. It wasn't happening. "I hate you," he whispered, still gripping the shot glass he had taken back.
Lying there, begging for a sob, Hops fell asleep. The shot glass slipped through his fingers, fell, and rolled across the floor.
The sun was bright, as it always was. Sometimes it could get to be annoying. Waking up every morning to another perfect sunny day drained the pleasure out of it with remarkable speed. You found yourself waiting impatiently for the next rainy day, just to see a cloud. If you wanted to splash in the puddles, you had to play in the rain. The horrible sun dried any mud within the hour.
The grass was very green. This, too, was a constant. Its perpetual health was disturbing. Hops was convinced that it was fake.
The lake was real water, of course. Malt's rocks wouldn't skip over colored glass. Each one hopped across the water exactly ten times. It was not out of any skill of his sister, simply by the small spell she wove around each stone. Malt could always amuse herself with such tricks.
Hops returned his attention to the matter at hand. His current tome was yet another dissertation on the cause of the current ice age. It was the usual theory of meteoric collision, but it was terribly well written and had full-color illustrations. True, it made for a rather dismal picture book, but Hops liked it. The latter portion of the book might prove entertaining as the author expounded on her own theories. Based on what he could gather from the table of contents, it seemed that the author believed that a malicious alien race fired the asteroid at the planet, hoping to wipe off all traces of life. The Mystics were most obviously descendants of this vile race planted here to finish the job. It was absurd, but the pictures were very nice. The author deserved praise for her conviction. It takes courage to stand alone.
"That book is bullshit." Hops raised his head, lifting a hand to block the glare of the sun. Malt stared back sourly.
"Well, have you read it?" he asked, knowing the answer.
"No," she responded.
"Then how do you know that it's bullshit?"
Malt flung another rock over the water. "You got it from the bullshit section, so of course it's bullshit." By that, she meant anything outside of the fiction shelves.
"You're going to have to explain your logic," Hops told her. "If nonfiction is bullshit, what is fiction?"
His sister only shrugged. Hops returned to his book, letting the unsettled argument drop. Malt had no interest in fact. Sometimes she seemed to have little interest in reality. Rather than worry over it, he went about his business and left her to do as she pleased.
The swish of a turned page. "You've been slacking up on your studies lately," Hops stated. He watched his sibling out of the corner of his eye.
"Do you care?" Another rock made ten perfect ripples.
"You were missing yesterday."
Her shoulders shook with a slight chuckle. "You're one to talk."
Hops frowned. Another standstill.
A rock skipped five times, then plunged into the water. Malt turned angrily, dropping her handful of stones. "Can we go somewhere else?"
They walked away from the park with its plastic-green grass, down a rough dirt road that slowly slithered to the edge of their township. Hops favored the clumps of clean, white buildings with an unconcerned glance. He grew tired of all the simple houses in neat rows. The guards in their full dress armor nodded as the twins passed through the pearly gates into the open country of their floating continent. They could see an edge not far to the west and the puffy white ocean beyond.
Hops, with his book tucked under an arm, watched his sister, who walked briskly ahead. "Do you have any place in mind?" he asked.
She answered without turning around. "No."
The road stretched onward to the northeast. A forest was about an hour's walk ahead. Beyond that was Kajar, the silvery City of Reason. Hops was never opposed to a trip, but it was a long walk to make so late in the day. Even at the rate they were moving it'd be dark before they reached the Creator's Door.
To the right was the side road that ran to Kyra's house. He watched as they walked past, Malt never glancing that way. "So, are we going to Kajar?"
It was a moment before she answered. "It's at the end of this road."
"What are we going to do there?" It would be night, but the city was always active, much like the Mind it exalted.
"There are other roads," said his twin.
The conversation dropped there. Malt walked on, briskly as ever, with Hops trailing behind. He watched the summer scenery slide by. Malt was clearly agitated. He could see it in her movements, but he couldn't sense what it was. She was acting like this more and more as of late. The boy decided to risk another question. "Do you think this is an odd way to spend a birthday?"
"Is that today?" She looked back over her shoulder. "I don't keep track."
"Yes," Hops said. "We are eleven years old on this day."
"Afraid so. Seems like more, doesn't it?" A cart passed by, drawn by a large emu. Only recently had the birds been bred for that purpose, and they were quickly becoming popular with the merchants. It kwehed happily.
Once the cart had passed, Malt spoke again. "Why don't we live with Kyra?" It was a question, not a suggestion.
"I don't know," Hops answered with a shrug. "We live with our parents."
"But they're not our parents."
"Neither is Kyra." His sister didn't respond. "It's not a bad idea. We spend most of our time there anyway. Maybe we should think about it."
Again they walked in silence. Malt's pace had slowed somewhat. Hops let his eyes fall to the dirt under his feet. It gave his mind something to focus on.
"So it's our birthday, huh?"
Lifting his eyes again, Hops saw that his twin was looking back at him. "Yeah. I hope you don't mind, but I didn't get you a present. There didn't seem to be any point since I knew you had forgotten."
"That's fine," she said. "You know, if we kept walking on to Kajar, then past there, and on and on as far as we could go, only three people would notice."
"Just three?" he asked.
"Yes, exactly three," said Malt. She raised one finger. "Obviously, I'd notice. I'd be the one walking away, so I'd know that I was gone." A second finger went up. "Then there'd be you, for the same reason." The third finger. "The last would be Miss Kyra. She'd notice if we stopped eating all her food and using up her toiletries. She'd even miss us, too." She turned back to the road ahead. "Isn't that funny? Only three people would notice if we left," she mused. "And that's counting ourselves."
Hops thought about it. Only three. "Are you trying to make a point?"
"Of course not," she answered.
"Look," Hops said, stopping. He'd had enough. "What's your problem?"
His sister stopped as well. "What problem?" she asked angrily.
"Something's bothering you. You're even angrier and more depressed than usual. Out of concern, I'm just asking why, okay?"
Malt turned her back on him. "There is nothing wrong." she said firmly. "I'm not acting any different, and I don't have a problem."
"Just spit it out, Malt."
"There's nothing to spit out." She was almost yelling now. "So what if I'm angry? So what if I'm depressed? So what if I've got a problem? Who doesn't have a problem?" Tears were welling up in her violet eyes. "I've got a problem with our parents. I've got a problem with our city. This place, this world! I've got a problem with you, Miss Kyra, and our dickhead father! So what? Who cares?"
"I care," her brother answered.
"Then fucking stop it!" she screamed. "Stop wasting your time on me!"
Hops shook his head, his eyes hidden behind his long bangs. "It's not a waste of my time. You're my sister. My twin sister." He paused, waiting for her to react. "Whether you want it to or not," Hops went on, "that means something to me. And I think it means something to you, too."
"Don't assume you understand me," Malt spat, though the venom was forced.
"Don't assume that I don't," Hops said.
Another cart rolled past. As if sensing the tension, its emu remained quiet, bowing its head as it strode past. Malt stood, arms at her sides, her beautiful violet eyes shimmering with moisture. She turned, as if to walk down the road, back the way she had come, back to the park and its perfect mockery of life. She didn't move.
"Pardon me, young lady," said a voice from the side of the road, "but your brain cloud is blocking my sunlight."
Both twins had failed to notice the stranger reclining beside a road sign. His heavy, travel-worn cloak would have blocked his sunlight with or without a "brain cloud" nearby. One leg rested on the other's bent knee, waving his muddied boot in the air. A pair of lumps at his sides suggested that he was armed, but Hops sensed no threat from this country vagabond.
Malt's eyes smoldered, her anger rekindled by the intrusion of this traveler. "If my brain cloud is interfering with your day, then keep walking!" she yelled.
The man stood up. A roguish smile shone on his hooded face. "You needn't be so angry. It will surely sour your sweet face." Malt huffed with annoyance. "I apologize if I have offended you, Madam." Hops couldn't help but chuckle at the stranger's polite sarcasm.
Malt didn't take it as well. "You can't talk to me like that!"
"My, I seem to have stumbled upon the Queen of Zeal herself," the man laughed.
The girl lost interest in the argument and turned away to sulk. The man frowned. "You're awfully temperamental for such a young kid. I think I feel a pang of conscience coming on." He shrugged. "I guess I'll have to make it up to you somehow."
Malt mumbled something, but didn't look up.
"Well, that's physically impossible," the man answered, "but I'm sure I can find something else to do for you." He smiled as an idea came to him. "How about a story?"
"A story?" Malt asked.
"Why not?" Hops said, eager to defuse his sister. "Fine, tell us a story, whoever you are."
"Terrific!" the stranger said. "I've got a great one I heard just a few days ago." He sat back down in the grass and motioned for them to join him. They did, but with obvious reluctance. When they were comfortable, he began.
"Once upon a time, in a magical kingdom called..." The man thought for a moment, "...San Diego--"
"You're telling us a fairy tale," Malt said incredulously.
"Just let me tell the story," he said. "In the magical kingdom of San Diego, there lived this guy."
"A name?" Malt asked.
The man frowned. "Juan. In the magical kingdom of San Diego, there lived a man named Juan. Better?" The twins nodded their approval. "Anyway, Juan lived in a cheap apartment next to the Spam factory. Everyday he watched them bring in leftovers from the real slaughterhouses and send out truckloads of meat byproduct."
"You're telling us a fairy tale about Spam?" asked Hops. "That's disgusting."
"I don't mind," Malt said.
"I'm trying to create a setting, okay? The story has nothing to do with Spam. Juan worked at a Seven-Eleven, one of the finer establishments in the magical kingdom of San Diego, but he really earned most of his money working for the big, scary drug dealer." His audience immediately became more interested. "Juan was a big man, you know. He worked as a sort of enforcer. If a client was being disagreeable, Juan would visit them and show them the light, so to speak. He was a loyal flunky, and had served the drug dealer well for the last three years."
"Does the drug dealer have a name?" Hops asked.
"Everyone just called him 'il Duche.' He was actually a comically short man, but he had lots of money, lots of women, and lots of drugs, so everyone was generally nice to him. Early one Saturday morning, just as Juan was getting home from pulling a double shift at the Seven-Eleven, he got a phone call from il Duche. The boss had a job for him. A particular client had been causing il Duche minor cranial discomfort as of late, and he wanted Juan to deal with the problem once and for all."
"Kill the dude," Malt said.
"Right. Only there was one problem. The dude was Juan's best friend since childhood."
"Name?" Hops asked.
The stranger had to think for a moment. "Lucifer. Juan and Lucifer had been friends since they were in diapers. They had spent the better part of their lives playing Drug Lab in Lucifer's basement. Anyway, Juan begged il Duche to spare Lucifer, or at least get someone else to do it. Il Duche wouldn't change his mind. Juan knew it was a test of his loyalty, but he wasn't certain who he was more loyal to: il Duche or his friend. After a bit of discussion, il Duche agreed to give Juan until the next Saturday evening to kill Lucifer.
"Obviously, Juan didn't want to kill Lucifer. He spent the week moping in his apartment, trying to think of a way around icing his best friend. Of course, he couldn't think of anything. Creativity isn't exactly a required trait in thugs. About Thursday he got his pink slip from the Seven-Eleven, but he didn't care anymore. Finally, Saturday arrived. Juan had barely slept all week. His eyes were even more bloodshot than usual. So, around four in the afternoon he slipped his knife in his pocket and walked over to Lucifer's apartment. Lucifer lived in a less reputable part of town, too, by a store called Sears. Juan went up to the door and knocked, but no one answered. Taking a deep breath to calm his nerves, he kicked down the door. To his surprise, the place had been cleared out. No furniture, no Lucifer, nothing. Not knowing what else he could do, Juan went back home to wait for the inevitable visit from il Duche.
"Il Duche showed up, but not to kill him. Instead, he congratulated Juan. Lucifer had died last Wednesday of food poisoning from a bad can of Spam."
"You said this story had nothing to do with Spam," said Malt.
"I lied. Il Duche said that bad Spam was the most ingenious murder tool he'd ever heard of. He gave Juan a friendly slap on the back and left." The stranger smiled and leaned back against the road sign.
"That's it?" Hops asked.
"Basically," the man said. "Juan felt terrible that he would have killed his best friend to save his own life, but he eventually got over it and went on living. He got his job back at the Seven-Eleven and worked for il Duche in his time off. End of story."
Malt stood, brushing grass from her pants. "Well, I liked it. It was different. Hops?"
Hops merely frowned. "That sucked."
"So," Lucca asked, looking out over the cerulean blue waves at the beginning of the world, "what do you want to tell me tonight?" Leaning back, she let her hands enjoy the rough texture and warmth of the yellow-orange grit. Her legs dangled over the edge of the cliff as waves caressed the rocks below. The sun was bright, the air untouched by any pollution. It always refreshed her to see the world so healthy in this time period. Truly a pity that it wouldn't last much longer. The inescapable Red Star would soon fall, freezing the planet and polluting the land with its very presence.
"Oh, I don't know," the man said, his perfect brown hair untouched by the ocean breeze. "I'm afraid I don't have much more to say to you."
"Okay," Lucca said. "Then may I ask you a few questions?"
"I don't see any harm in that," Lavos answered. "Ask away, dearest."
"First of all," Lucca asked, "would you please not call me that?"
The man smirked. "Certainly, my darling."
Rather than press the issue, she asked her next question. "What are you?"
There was a pause as he thought. "I don't see why you ask me such a question," he said at last. "You know the answer. I am Lavos, that which is all. The eternal consumer of your wretched world. He who has existed since before the dawn of time and will still exist well past its end."
"So you're immortal?" she asked.
Lucca frowned. "Effectively? What's that supposed to mean?"
"It means, dearest, that you will certainly not live to see my passing," he responded.
She watched the waves pound the base of the cliffs. The relentless rhythm drew her in, clouding her mind. She turned away. "So, did we kill you?"
"The question," he said, "is 'Will we kill you?' I'm not dead yet. The answer is no, obviously."
"That means you can survive without a physical body?"
He shrugged, grinning. "Can't you?"
Lucca didn't answer that. Instead, she stood and walked away from the edge, past Lavos. "Where exactly are you going?" he asked.
"How should I know?" She stopped, now standing in a forest. It was a pleasant morning, spring or summer. A light mist drifted in the air, trapped beneath the green ceiling. She was in the Cursed Woods in AD 600, more than likely. Lucca found these sudden changes of locale to be a nuisance. "Stop doing that."
He stepped from behind a mighty pine tree. "But it brings you so much joy, sweetling."
She shivered with disgust. "Wouldn't a being of such phenomenal cosmic power have something better to do than annoy me?"
"Better? No. Every day is not much different from all the others. Wake up, suck the life from the planet, maybe fart every so often, and go back to sleep. You see, my hectic schedule leaves me quite a bit of spare time. Bothering you is the highlight of my week."
Ignoring him, Lucca continued to walk. Her feet crunched on the undergrowth, sending unseen creatures skittering to better cover. There was no sign of Lavos following her. The dawn forest became a dark, decrepit hallway of the distant future, Trann Dome perhaps. Her stride did not falter as her boots clanged against the rusted metal. Off to her left she could hear the low hum of working electronics. Something below her sputtered as it struggled to return to artificial life. Moments later she was in the bowels of Guardia Castle, the one of her time period. The flickering torches illuminated the heavily guarded treasure troves. Ahead at the end of the hallway, she could see the remains of the Rainbow Shell, its coils now disfigured by the hand of a skilled blacksmith.
The world changed again, and Lucca strode into something decidedly solid. Recoiling more from surprise than pain, she fell on her rear with a resounding thump.
"You're certainly stubborn. I always do pick the difficult ones," Lavos lamented. Lucca looked up at the bright green eyes of the man looming over her. "I get the impression that you still have some questions for me. You're not going anywhere until you ask them all, so I suggest we stay on task."
They were now in her bedroom at home. It was late, judging by the moonlight. Lucca sat at the foot of her bed. "Fine," she said. "Why are you doing this to our planet? We assumed you were eating. Is that the case, or is it something else?"
Lavos leaned against the windowsill, blocking much of the light. "A living being has to eat, right?"
"But what sort of creature feeds on planets? Are you really just a big parasite?" He only shrugged and smiled. "I'm not denying the possibility of a planet parasite. It just seems horribly unlikely. After you eat this world, do you plan on disappearing into space to find another?"
"I suppose I must. Of course, you're going to make that difficult. It's hard to leave if I don't have a body."
Lucca smiled with malicious glee. "Surely a mighty creature such as yourself wouldn't be hindered by something like that."
"Next question," Lavos mumbled.
"I'm not done with the last one," said Lucca. "What exactly do you eat? This mana stuff that the Mystics harness?"
"Mana, ley lines, dragon lines, Lifestream, etc., etc., etc. The energy of a living planet. Call it what you like, I'll drain it, whatever its name may be."
"So the planet is alive?" Lucca pushed.
Lavos pushed away from the window and paced across the room. "What do you want from me? I'm not from here. I don't live here. I'm just visiting. I wouldn't call this ball of filth alive, but it has energy. The only planets that have this energy, Mana as you called it, are planets that support life. Does the energy make it possible for life? Does the life produce the energy? I don't really know, and it makes no difference to me. Ask one of your silly Mystics if you really want to know."
Lucca filed this knowledge away for later pondering. "Okay then, new subject."
"Why are you talking to me?" she asked.
Lavos stared at her, as if shocked. "Cannot a fine, upstanding young parasite like myself talk to a beautiful young lady if he wants? You should be honored."
"But you don't talk to Crono or Marle. Why just me?"
"Why would I want to talk to them?" Lavos asked. "That Marle girl is far too moral and decent for me. It truly is disgusting. Almost as scary as that Crono friend of yours. His dreams frighten me, and that's saying a lot." He returned to the window. "Honestly, I only feel like talking to you. I can't think of a better answer."
That was as good an answer as any. "So, let me get this straight. I'm talking to the Lavos that is currently inside the earth, so you have memories going back, but you don't really know what will happen in the future. You just pulled that out of my head, right?"
Lavos nodded. "Correct. I have access to my own memories, plus your memories, and Crono's memories, and Marle's, and Frog's, and his child's. Sadly, the poor girl never reproduced, so that was the end of that."
"So, whatever connection we have with you can be passed on to our offspring?"
"Hey, you're the genius inventor here. You're smart enough to figure it out on your own."
Lucca didn't press the issue. "Well then, since you've been on this planet so long, surely you must know of the Purge."
The man's face contorted, something between annoyance and hellish fury. "I'd rather not speak of them."
"Touchy subject?" she asked with visible joy.
Lavos's expression brightened. "On second thought, yes, let's talk of this Purge. What exactly do you want to know about them?"
"Anything," she said. "Should I be worried about them?"
"Why are you asking me?" Lavos asked with a chuckle. "I love to see humans suffer, remember? I'm not going to help you."
"You already have, you know. You've given me a lot to think about."
"I really do talk far too much," he said. "Well, why stop now, I suppose. The Purge is certainly your concern."
Lucca's eyes brightened behind her glasses. "Are they a threat to me? A threat to you?"
"Look," Lavos said. "If you want answers, go get answers."
"Where? I'm looking everywhere I can, but I'm still just as confused as when I started."
"Fine," Lavos said angrily, "but this is the last help I offer. You want to know what's going on? Go to Triangle Island, where the sun is always mystically shining. Your answers are there."
The Sun Keep. She'd been there many times before, in several time periods. What had she not seen? Could she trust Lavos to tell her the truth? Did it matter? Inwardly she smiled at this last thought. Of course not. She'd go, just because it was as good a place to check as any. It wasn't as if she had any better ideas. As soon as she was done in Choras, she'd head north. The thought of Choras brought her back to her present situation. What exactly had befallen her? Where was she? "I'm not dead, am I?"
Lavos looked up, startled. "Of course not. Even I can't converse with the dead."
"Just checking." Well, she was at least alive. That was mildly comforting. She remembered the hallway and the metal spiders but was unclear about the rest. She'd just have wake up and see, but she wasn't entirely sure how to do that. All the times before, these dreams had just ended on their own. Closing her eyes, she focused on thoughts of consciousness. "Wake up!" she said with a wave of her arms. She opened her eyes and quickly regretted her efforts to end this dream prematurely.
She was in a cream-colored room, decorated with pink drapes, heart-shaped night stands, and other tasteless tributes to love. It was dominated by the large heart-shaped bed on which she sat. Its perfumed sheets were yet another shade of pink. Lavos stood in front of the only door out, dressed in an immaculate white suit, truly his finest attire so far.
With a twist of his wrist, he locked the door with a silver, heart-adorned key, which he then dropped into a lavender wastebasket. Taking a few steps toward the bed, he grinned with mockery and lust. "You're looking exquisite as usual, my pet."
Blood coursed up to Lucca's face as she realized that she was completely naked. With a startled yelp, she scurried over to the pile of stuffed animals at the end of the bed and recovered her decency with a few well-placed poyozos. "What the hell is this?" she yelled, a hint of panic creeping into her voice.
"Surely this is familiar," Lavos said. "I got it from your mind." Lucca's face became even redder. "Of course, when you had this dream, you were fourteen, and instead of me, there was that math teacher you so adored, the one with the goofy hair and the glasses thicker than your own."
"I got over him," Lucca said defensively. "He quit his job and eloped with Maria, the class representative. It was quite the scandal."
"Yes, and you cried your poor little heart out for days." Lavos was becoming uncomfortably close.
"I still went to school back then," she reminisced, "which wasn't that long ago, now that I think about it. Seems like an eternity ago." She adjusted her poyozos. "So what exactly is your point?"
Lavos was now at the foot of the bed. "Unlike your math teacher," he said as he crawled onto the sheets, "I won't disappear with the class rep. I only have eyes for you."
Now panicking, Lucca tried to back away from the dark-haired man that moved ever closer, but found that she was stuck. Her legs were covered in a green, chitinous material that held her firmly in place. She leaned back as far as she could to avoid Lavos's advance. He was over her now, smiling down with those perfect teeth. It wasn't a very pleasant smile. Lucca squirmed, but the green shell was spreading.
Lavos's hot breath rolled over her as he lowered his face. "Soon enough," he growled, "I'll be all that you have left."
She closed her eyes as he gently pressed his lips against her own. The feeling revolted her; it was cold, like kissing rubber. The chitin now grasped her head. Unable to clamp her jaw shut, Lucca could only whimper as he pushed his lifeless tongue through her lips and into her mouth. She fought him with her own tongue, but could do nothing as his seemingly endless muscle caressed her palate before forcefully pushing its way down her throat. She gagged and struggled to breathe around the invading tongue.
Her eyes shot open.
A warm, pink glow surrounded her, infinitely more comforting than Lavos's cold presence. Panic gripped her again: something was still down her throat. Gagging again, she thrashed any limb she could move, finding her current surroundings very restricting. Kicking against the confines of her world, she thought she heard the resonating clang of metal.
Her side flinched from a spark of pain. A needle, she thought as her eyes
rolled back and she returned to darkness.
Waking from a dreamless sleep, Lucca found herself in a place unlike anything she had expected. She was lying on a clean, white-sheeted bed, dressed in a sea-green gown common to most hospitals. Judging by the healthy breeze she was feeling, the room was air-conditioned, and that gown was all she was wearing. The whole room was a sterile white, suggesting that this might really be a hospital. There was a steady hum from the piles of electronics lining the walls.
Lucca propped up on her elbows, surveying all the devices that were apparently attached to her. Moving brought a sharp sting from the electrodes scattered over her body. The equipment seemed highly sophisticated. She recognized the spiked lines of a heart monitor. They hadn't been invented yet, but Robo had shown her one from the future. She watched the display, hoping that the pattern was healthy.
A soft hiss brought her attention to a door on the far wall. It slid aside noiselessly, revealing what had to be some sort of robot. Lucca was immediately fascinated with it. It was slightly shorter than an average person and lanky, its thin frame only vaguely humanoid. Its cylindrical head was studded with blinking lights of all sizes and colors, which Lucca assumed to be sensors. It gripped a clipboard in one of its three-fingered hands and stumbled into the room, wobbling uneasily on its crooked legs.
At the same time, a hiss announced a second visitor from the door to Lucca's right. It too was a robot, only much shorter and rather round. It waddled in, searching the room with its own impressive array of blinking lights. Both the robots were a dull yellow-grey. They were scuffed and dented worse than Robo had ever been.
The tall one seemed to finally notice that she was awake and nearly tripped over its feet in surprise. The short one scurried over to help steady its companion. Its balance regained, the tall one straightened to its full height. "Greetings, Mistress Lucca," it said in a tinny voice. Lucca was caught off guard by the robots politeness. She hadn't expected them to know her name. "We apologize for any inconvenience. These measures, though regrettable, were necessary. Try to understand."
Lucca wasn't entirely sure what measures it was talking about but nodded her thanks anyway. Both of the robots seemed to cheer up. "Now for introductions," said the tall one. "I am called Biggs." He attempted a bow and almost toppled over. The short one caught him and helped him regain his footing. "And this is Wedge."
The stout robot gave a little wave with its stubby arm. "Hi," he said in a voice much like the other's. His head swivelled to look at Biggs. "Why are you talking like Demi?"
Biggs smacked Wedge upside the head. "I'm trying to be polite, dimwit!"
Wedge hit back. "Bunghole!" he shouted as Biggs struggled to remain on his feet.
"Ass monkey!" he retorted.
"Duck fucker!" Wedge yelled, pushing Biggs hard enough to knock them both to the floor with a loud clang.
With great difficulty, Biggs got back onto his unsteady legs. "Look what you did, turd minion!" he shouted at Wedge, who was wobbling on his back like an overturned tortoise, unable to right himself.
"Um..." Lucca began carefully, "I don't mean to interrupt anything..."
The two robots quickly turned to her, having clearly forgotten why they were there. Biggs rolled Wedge back onto his stubby feet before addressing Lucca again. "We're really sorry," he said, grabbing Wedge's head to steady himself. "We can get a little carried away."
"Apparently," Lucca mumbled as the robots went to work removing the electrodes that covered her body. A number of the machines along the walls winked off as they were disconnected.
"If you don't mind me asking, where exactly am I, and how did I get here?" she asked. Biggs and Wedge didn't answer, just finished what they were doing and walked away to turn off more of the gizmos.
The steady beep of the heart monitor was suddenly replaced by a loud buzz. "OH MY GOD! YOUR HEART STOPPED!" screamed Wedge while pointing at the flatlined heart display. Lucca was startled, but she could tell that her heart was clearly in working order. Biggs and Wedge were making weird staticky noises which she assumed to be chuckles.
"Master Darma used to love that joke," said Biggs with an air of nostalgia. He made another odd sound, probably a sigh. "That is, until the time his heart really did stop, and he developed that fear of sheep. Poor guy didn't sleep for a week."
"It just wasn't the same after that," agreed Wedge. They went back to their work.
Lucca wasn't sure how to respond to that. "...er...is this a hospital?"
"Hospital?" Wedge laughed. "Heck no!" The robots poked at a few more devices, and Lucca got the impression that they didn't really know how to use most of them. The situation was starting to worry her.
"You know," she said, "maybe I should just go back to sleep now."
"Don't do that," said Biggs. "We still haven't shown you the machine that goes 'Bing!'" He gave a particularly frightening piece of equipment a solid thwack. It binged happily in response. The two beamed at her as if she should be impressed.
Lucca could only nod. "Right..." The machine binged again. "Look, I don't want to be a bad guest, but I'd really like to know where I am. Could you at least tell me that?"
Biggs and Wedge immediately straightened up. "You are in the top secret lair of His High and Mightiness, Master Darma!" they shouted in unison. They both thumped their chests, adding new dents to their casings. "Well, actually," Biggs said, "he's not really very high..."
"Five foot six," said Wedge quickly.
"...and I don't suppose he looks all that mighty."
"But you get the picture."
Shifting again, Lucca found that she was feeling incredibly healthy. In fact, she was probably feeling the healthiest she had in her life. It was quite unpleasant; her body was screaming for some poi. "What did you do to me?" she asked, scanning the room for her belongings.
Biggs scribbled something on his clipboard with a pencil. "Master Darma should be able to tell you when he gets here." He tapped his metallic chin thoughtfully. "Hey, Wedge," he called, "have we called Darma yet?"
"Gee," Wedge mumbled, counting something off on his fingers. "I thought we were forgetting to do something."
"Who is Darma, other than your Master and one shorter than average?" Lucca asked. Maybe they'd be willing to talk to her about him. They seemed to be a bit more open with information about their master.
The robots pondered this for a moment. "Well," Biggs started, "he's this really smart guy."
"He's writing a book," Wedge added. "A really big book," he said, gesturing with his hands.
"I think the working title is, 'The History of Existence.'" Both of the robots were staring off into space with glazed looks in their photoreceptors.
"Right..." said Lucca. "About my bag..."
The door across from Lucca hissed open. A floating sphere, perhaps the size of a small cantaloupe, whizzed into the room and circled over the two robots. It was a dull bronze and had a large lens, most likely an eye.
"Biggs! Wedge!" it yelled in a more human voice than that of the robots. "I've been looking everywhere for you! The door locks are still broken. You two were supposed to fix them ages ago!"
"Sorry, Demi," Wedge said. "We were still shining Master Darma's chrome toilet, and then the girl woke up." He motioned to the bed. "We figured she was more important."
Hovering in place, Demi fixed his eye on her. "What?!" he wailed. "Have you told Darma?"
Biggs shifted nervously. "We were getting to that..."
Demi spun angrily. "Oh well, I've sent a spider to find him." He dove to eye-level with Lucca, flitting about in her face. "Are you okay, Miss? Are you feeling well? These incompetents haven't mistreated you, have they?"
"I'm fine," she said, brushing Demi away. "You wouldn't happen to know where my stuff is? I had this bag, and there was this canteen in it..." The flying eyeball wasn't listening to her. He had returned to chastising Biggs and Wedge.
"I can't believe you didn't notify Master Darma immediately. He said he wanted to know when she woke up so that he could greet her himself." He zipped back to Lucca. "Are feeling light-headed? You've been under an awful lot of sedatives in the few days. They might have some lingering effects."
Gripping Demi in her hands, Lucca pulled him close to her face. He struggled to get away, but she finally had his attention. "I feel like a new woman," she assured him. "Now, be a doll and bring me my poi."
Demi shook violently in an attempt to get free. "P-poi?" he stuttered.
"It's a kind of pork stew," Lucca told him. "I had two canteens full of it on me when I was attacked. Where is my bag?"
"But Master Darma said..."
"I don't care what Darma said." She was getting angry at this flying melon. "I want my stuff back!" To Demi's relief, the door hissed open yet again. Lucca glanced up and finally saw Master Darma.
Biggs and Wedge had been right; he wasn't high and mighty at all. He was short, for an adult male, and rail thin. Most of his youthful yet sunken face was hidden by his long, black hair and a large eye patch over his left eye. He wore a white lab coat and faded brown pants. His knees were armored, along with his green, padded shirt. This, along with the dagger strapped to his right leg, suggested that he wasn't entirely harmless.
Lucca froze when a chrome spider crept in behind him. She watched warily as it scurried across the room and out the other door. So this guy was the man behind the attacks in Choras. Darma must have noticed her interest in it. "Becoming a fan of my handiwork?" he asked jokingly. His voice was a little on the high side, like Crono's a few years ago.
While she was distracted, Demi had managed to slip out of her grasp. He circled around Darma, coming to a stop and bobbing over his shoulder. "I guess you've met everyone then," he said, glancing at Biggs and Wedge, who were standing at rigid attention. "What's with you guys?" Darma asked, puzzled. "No one's died or anything, right?"
"Thankfully, no," Wedge mumbled.
Turning back to Lucca with a goofy smile on his face, Darma said, "Well, I bet you're feeling a few years younger."
"You could say that," answered Lucca miserably.
"I took the liberty of filtering your blood, cleaning your colon, detoxifying your body, removing your tonsils and appendix, and straightening your teeth." Darma smiled, clearly proud of himself.
Lucca frowned. "I had braces when I was younger. My teeth were fine."
"No wonder it was so easy!" Darma laughed. "But geez! Your body was really filthy! It didn't make any sense, either. Your blood was full of a chemical a lot like caffeine, but it's only found in a plant that's been extinct for at least several thousand years! Why, the last time I detected any of it was..." The smile disappeared from his face. "...yesterday...in your backyard." He snatched the clipboard from Biggs. Flipping through the sheets of paper, he laughed again. "Well don't I feel stupid!" He scratched his head nervously. "I guess that about explains it."
"It must be the plant I'm growing to use in poi," Lucca told him. "I got it about 65 million years ago."
Darma thrust his hands into the pockets of his coat. "Yeah, that explains it. Oh well, there are worse things to fill your veins with."
"Can I have my poi now?" Lucca asked, smiling sweetly.
Shifting uncomfortably, Darma was looking very pitiful. "But I just went to all the trouble of cleaning you," Darma whined. "Sure it's mostly harmless, but it's the principle. I thought you wouldn't crave the stuff anymore after I got it all out of you. Can't you at least wait a few days before you poison yourself again?"
"I'm very grateful," Lucca said, "but quite frankly, I'm suffering from some pretty severe withdrawal. So, if you don't mind..."
"Fine," he mumbled, extracting one of her canteens from behind some electronic thingies. "Must be a psychological addiction." He tossed it to her rather reluctantly. The top came off and the poi flowed as soon as it was in her hands. "I guess some explanations are in order. You see, I'm Darma, technological genius and ex-member of the Purge." Lucca choked on her poi. Darma didn't seem to notice. "This is my super-secret subterranean lair, hidden far from civilization." He paused for effect. "By the way, I like to call this room Sickbay. It makes it sound a lot snazzier than it is."
Lucca didn't seem impressed. She wiped poi from her face. "You were part of the Purge?" She punctuated her sentence with a loud belch.
"You've heard of them?" Darma asked, grinning happily. "I sure miss those guys. Well, most of them anyway. Hey! Have you seen the machine that goes 'Bing!'?" He smacked the notorious machine, and it binged with obvious glee. "Isn't that the greatest?"
"While I'm thinking about it, may I have my clothes back?" asked Lucca as Darma coaxed more happy bings from the machine.
"Oh, sure." Darma looked over his shoulder. "Biggs. Wedge. Go get Lucca's clothes from the dryer. They should be finished by now. I thought it'd be nice to wash them for you," he told her. The machine was now binging merrily on its own. "Are you really feeling okay? If you need anything, I can do my best to get it for you."
"No thanks," Lucca said, content with her poi.
"Well," Darma said, shoving his hands further into his pockets, "you're sort of my prisoner now, seeing as how I captured you and all. But don't worry about it," he said quickly. "Try to think of it as a sleep over."
"A...sleep over?" Lucca was becoming even more confused. Could this really be the guy responsible for the attacks?
"Yeah," Darma said. "It'll be loads of fun! I've got a room for you and everything. I stocked up on lots of popcorn and sappy films, since I'm supposed to keep you here a while. Demi says women like sappy stuff," he added, "though it mostly gives me indigestion. All the films are in Zealian, too, since nobody has made any new ones since then. Except me." He turned to Demi. "Remember when we made that movie with all the aliens and the cottage cheese?"
"Please don't remind me," Demi moaned.
"Yep, that one," Darma said. "I'll bet Lucca will get a kick out of it."
"Who says you're supposed to keep me here?" Lucca pried. Darma's good eye darted around nervously. He was saved from answering by loud noises from outside.
Biggs stumbled into the room, trying not to trip over himself. "Master Darma! We're having some trouble with the dryer!" Behind him, Wedge could be seen wrestling a belligerent clothes dryer in the hallway.
"Geez, that thing can be so grumpy. I'll be right back." Darma and Biggs rushed to help, the door closing behind them. There were sounds of a scuffle, and Lucca could hear Biggs yelling something about cheesecake. In their absence, Demi floated back to Lucca's side.
"Master Darma is very honored to have an infamous inventor as his guest," he told her.
"Why has your master kidnapped me?" she asked politely, ignoring the metal cantaloupe's choice of adjectives.
"Well," Demi started, "I think it was partly because he was feeling lonely. As you can imagine, he doesn't get many guests, and he's been getting out even less than usual." He quickly changed the subject. "The main reason, though, is because someone asked him to."
"Who?" she asked sweetly.
Darma came back into the room with Lucca's clean clothes in his arms. He stumbled over to the bed, his eye patch covering the wrong eye. Lucca could see why he wore it: his left eye was gone, leaving a burnt and scarred pit that made her retch. "Sometimes you just have to tell that thing how it is," he said, dropping her clothes on the foot of the bed. He grinned stupidly, adjusting his disheveled attire. "Downy fresh!" Biggs and Wedge followed him into the room, sporting fresh scuff marks.
"Damn," Lucca muttered as Demi floated back to his master.
His eye patch back in place, Darma continued their conversation. "I'll let you change in a bit. In the mean time, I've got some things to talk with you about. You see, I'm writing this book..."
"'The History of Existence.'"
Darma looked very pleased. "They told you about it? Terrific! Completing it is my life goal. I admit it's a bit much, but I'm making considerable progress. It's basically a compilation of all that ever was and will be. Since you'll be staying with us, I'd like to get your opinion on a few subjects."
"Like what?" Lucca asked cautiously.
"SWEET LORD NO!" Everyone turned to look at Biggs. The robot was staring at a random piece of electronics with his hands on his shiny head.
"Ah," Darma said knowingly. "Biggs here has a metaphysical photoreceptor, a sort of astral eye, so to speak. Invented it myself. Whatcha got, big guy?"
Biggs was trembling now. "The Dark Lord will consume us all!" he shouted as he ran into the wall, falling to the floor in a motionless heap.
"You just take a nap then," Darma called. He turned back to Lucca. "Aren't they a hoot?" When he didn't get a response, he coughed and continued, "Right. I'll get to the point. I've got information you want. You've got information I want. I'm willing to be totally honest with you, if you're willing to do the same for me."
"Why should I be honest with you?" she asked skeptically.
"Because," Darma whispered, leaning in closer, "I keep a modest garden on the surface. And in that garden, I grow a particular plant that has been extinct for several thousand years." He grinned broadly. "I could be convinced to share," he said temptingly.
Lucca's glasses shone with wicked glee. "I like poi."
"So I noticed." Straightening, Darma extracted a hand from his pocket. "Do we have an understanding?" Before Lucca could take his hand, he was distracted by Demi, who was bumping against his head. "What is it, Demi? Can't you see I'm in the middle of an important agreement?"
"If you'll remember, master, you have that casserole in the oven. You wouldn't want it to burn, and the oven's been rather disagreeable since you tried to bake the microwave."
"Of course," Darma said, smacking himself in the forehead. "I'm preparing dinner for us tonight." Lucca's face filled with fear. Darma seemed to mistake it for hunger. "I can't wait, either. I haven't had a bite all day." He smiled. It was a harmless smile, even a little endearing. "I'll leave you to change. Why don't you go set the table?" he told Wedge. "For two this evening; we have a guest, remember. And see if you can't do something about him," he said, eyeing Biggs. Wedge left through the door to the right, dragging an apparently unconscious Biggs behind him. Darma turned to his guest. "I'll send someone to get you before dinner." He left through the far door, Demi hovering close behind.
Finally alone, Lucca sighed heavily. That had been a lot to take in. She wasn't entirely certain which she preferred: this or the dream with Lavos. At least she knew Lavos was just a dream. At any rate, she couldn't let this get in the way of her goals. Clearly she had found the source of the attacks on Choras. She'd have to talk to Darma about that. Judging by his manner, it seemed unlikely that he would do such a thing with malicious intent. He didn't seem too bad. A little on the odd side, but she had no room to talk. With another sigh she shucked the simple green gown.
"The Sun Keep..." she mused. "What could I have missed?" Lavos had said that she could find answers there, yet the Sun Keep was just a small cave. She'd been there in several time periods, and was fairly certain that she'd seen all there was to see.
Her mind strayed back to her dreams, back to Lavos. That insolent smile. The heat of his breath. The feel of his lifeless tongue. She shivered. These were not pleasant memories to recall while standing in a strange place, naked and exposed.
The door hissed. "One other thing..." Lucca grabbed for something to cover herself, but it was in vain. Darma stood in the doorway, frozen. His eye was wide and glazed. A single drop of blood oozed from his nose. "Ack! Thermal expansion!" he moaned as he collapsed.
Demi buzzed over his fallen master in frantic circles. "Biggs! Wedge! Quick,
fetch the smelling salts!"
The palace library was in the south wing, just above the pearly entrance gates. Sounds of visitors coming and going drifted up on the warm spring air. The room went up three floors. The walls were covered with shelves, and staircases spiraled up to the highest walkways. An enormous brass sphere, a model of the cosmos, dominated the center of the chamber. Smaller spheres spun within it, mimicking the paths of their celestial counterparts. Bright sunlight streamed in from the tall windows along the south wall, reflecting off the clockwork universe. These windows provided an excellent view of the land below, perhaps the best view in the palace.
Shellac stood before one of these iron-framed windows, gazing down the palace wall. To the place where the earth seemed to drop away, only to continue far down at the base of the cliffs that protected the palace. Across the grass and heather to the mirror-like waters of the Lake of the Huntsman. Over the forests to the edge of the world and beyond to the cloudy sea. His view beyond the edge was obscured by black, billowing clouds of smoke. They shone red at their base, illuminated by the fires that spawned them.
Inwardly Shellac cursed. It seemed such a waste.
Behind him, the thick oak doors creaked slowly open, revealing a tall yet hunched figure. It was an old man, dressed in the faded robes of his position. He moved carefully, leaning on the gnarled staff he preferred over his ceremonial scepter. A short beard and white hair concealed a weary face, but his eyes shone with as much life as ever. Shellac strode across the tiled floor to meet him.
"You should have called me, Master," he said, taking the old man's arm. "I would have helped you. You don't need to be moving around so much on your own."
"Shellac, you've got to stop calling me that," the man wheezed. "I'm not your master." The scarecrow helped him across the room to a tall-backed chair in the corner, just beneath one of the windows. He sighed with contentment, finally able to rest his posterior on the soft padding. "If you must use a title, call me Guru."
"Of course, Guru," Shellac said as he carried over a matching ottoman for the aged guru's feet. "Are you comfortable now?"
"Yes, I'm fine." The warm sunlight felt marvelous on his wrinkled skin. "You really are too kind to this bothersome old man."
"Nonsense." The scarecrow pulled up a similar chair and seated himself, stretching out his awkwardly long legs.
"It's a pity, really," the guru said, his eyes closed, enjoying the moment of peace. "I can think of no better successor than you."
Shellac sat up, alarmed. "You don't need to be talking like that. You aren't going anywhere."
"Ha! No, Shellac, I'm well into my twilight." He sighed again. "You don't need to worry about me. I'm more than ready to pass on my title. I even know who will be my successor, though I don't much like the fellow."
Noise outside the doors announced the next arrivals. The Guru of Life came in, chuckling merrily about something. He was a short, round man with thick spectacles. His current pupil entered behind him, shutting the doors. The second guru waddled over to the center of the room. "Oh, Latimer, you must hear my latest joke!" he called between giggles.
"Dammit! Not again," Windex moaned as he leaned against the giant brass sphere. "It wasn't even funny the first time, and it won't be the tenth either!"
"Watch your mouth, boy!" the Guru of Life spat back. "You must listen, Latimer. This one's pure genius!"
"Oh, go ahead," the aged Guru of Time said, not bothering to open his eyes. He had learned to ignore the younger man's jokes.
"Okay, how's this: Why did the chicken..." he allowed for a dramatic pause, "...cross the road?" He beamed, waiting for an answer.
Windex, wanting to get this over with, asked, "Why?"
"To get to the other side!" The guru collapsed with giggles.
"Oh yes, pure genius, Ridley," said Latimer crossly.
"It still sucked," Windex said.
Ridley had recovered from his giggle-fit. "Listen, boy. Just you wait! I'll bet that within a year, everyone in the world will be using it!"
"You're on, old man! How much?"
The guru checked his pockets, then counted something on his fingers. "A thousand!"
Windex laughed. "Is that all? Ten thousand!"
"You haven't got two coins to rub together, you idiot!" Ridley considered it. "Fine, ten it is, but it's your loss. You're not going to weasel out of paying up when I win."
"Don't worry, old man," Windex said. "I won't have to pay because I'm going to win."
The doors creaked open yet again. A young woman, perhaps in her mid-twenties, entered. The slender brunette found a place to stand near Windex. After her came the last of the Gurus. He was the youngest of them and of average height, a nervous man who rarely spoke unless spoken to. His bushy brown beard was only beginning to grey. He nodded to Ridley, then crossed the room to Latimer's side. "Good afternoon, Latimer."
"Good to see you as well, Cranmer," the older man replied. "Now that we're all here, we can discuss our plans."
"I think we should continue with their training for the time being," Ridley said. "We can put them to good use soon. Miguel's army is hardly a threat at this point, but he's gaining strong support. It's obvious he plans to take as much of the surface as he can."
Cranmer said, "I agree. We'll have to do something about Miguel before too long. And what of Cohn? He has the audacity to attack us here on the upper layer."
"He is desperate," said Latimer. "He's throwing everything he has at us, hoping that he might have a victory. We're crushing him, though, and it will be a very long time before he has the strength to try something like this again, assuming of course that he survives that long. He's leaving himself open to the likes of Miguel."
For no apparent reason, Shellac blurted out, "To get to the other side. Give it a rest." He noticed that the others were staring. Ridley turned away to hide a fit of giggles. "Anyway," Shellac said, realizing what the guru had done, "there's a battle within sight of the palace. Why aren't we helping?"
Latimer shrugged his ancient shoulders. "You three aren't needed to stop Cohn."
"But what about a little hands-on experience?" Windex asked. "What you teach us is fine, but we need a real fight now and then. And don't start with that again, old man," he said, casting an evil eye in the shortest guru's direction. Ridley doubled over with chortling laughter.
"You see," Cranmer began slowly, his voice somewhat uneasy, "among our opponents, you three are barely out of the realm of legend. We feel it is wisest to prolong that as much as possible. If even the most dim-witted of the warlords considered you a serious threat and planned accordingly, you'd lose much of your advantage against them."
Shellac and Windex reluctantly nodded in agreement. In the meantime, Ridley had been developing a rather agitated expression. Finally, he could take it no more. "Cranmer, is that student of yours a complete incompetent, or does she think it's funny to ignore me?"
All eyes turned to Lysol, who up until now had been studying the brass cosmic sphere. Noticing the eyes drilling into her back, she turned. "Fenrir's Comet seems to be slightly off. I think someone must have bumped it," she said, addressing Latimer in particular.
"What has that got to do with a chicken?!" shouted Ridley.
"What has a chicken got to do with a comet?" Lysol retorted, looking horribly confused.
Ridley didn't answer. Rather, he glared fireballs at Cranmer. "Are you that far behind, you ninny?! She hasn't even mastered basic telepathy yet?"
In response, the young guru curled in on himself, as if to make himself appear as small as he felt. "I-I...well, you see..." he stammered, "I was getting to that...and, well...you know how difficult it can b-be at first to l-learn..."
"Come now," Latimer said, raising a bushy eyebrow, "I've seen her use far more complicated techniques with ease."
"Yes, but telepathy can be very straining...it requires a lot of...close work between teacher and pupil..."
"He's always doing this," Lysol said with disgust. "Clearly I've offended him or something, because he barely pays attention to me any more."
"That's not true," Cranmer managed. "I work with you daily."
"You give instructions and go sit in a corner and read, not paying any attention to what I'm doing," she said. "It's a wonder I'm improving at all."
"Honestly, Cranmer," Latimer interrupted. The other gurus increasingly irked him as the years passed. He was always settling these childish problems. To the rest he said, "If I'm not mistaken, I think our friend here is just a little uncomfortable around the opposite sex."
Both Windex and Ridley fought to contain derisive laughs.
"Well..you see..." Cranmer struggled to explain himself as blood rushed to his cheeks.
"Is that all?!" Lysol yelled at the blushing guru. "All this time! You mean to tell me that the reason you ignore me so much is because you can't get within ten feet of a female without getting a nosebleed?!"
"Well...yes," Cranmer said weakly.
"Fine," Lysol said, taking the guru by the wrist. "Just fine. I'm not going to stand for this. We're going to take care of your little problem right away." With that, Lysol led the panicked guru out the door and dragged him down the hall.
As soon as the doors shut behind them, Windex and his teacher exploded with laughter. Ridley wiped ineffectively at the tears of mirth flowing from his eyes. "HA! Cranmer's fifty-three, and he still gets nervous around a pair of tits!"
"Hey!" Windex was suddenly looking much more serious. "That's 'breasts,' old man! No one speaks disrespectfully of Lysol when I'm around!"
"Ha! You've never said anything respectful about a woman in your life."
"Well...that's not the point..." Windex mumbled.
Ridley dried his eyes and adjusted his spectacles. "I think I'd better check on them." He glared at his pupil. "Come along, boy. Let's make sure that woman doesn't do anything traumatic to him. At least not until I'm there to watch," he added with a chuckle.
As the two left, the Guru of Time sighed with relief. "Finally, some peace." His student had returned to his place by the window, his empty eyes watching the battle in the distance. "You still don't agree with me, do you? You think you should be out there, leading some desperate charge?"
The scarecrow shook his straw head. "I understand your reasoning, but I don't agree with it."
"Shellac," the guru began, "this is exactly why you won't be replacing me as Guru." The scarecrow looked puzzled. "It's also the same reason you were chosen to be what you are. The gurus are wise men, Shellac. We don't fight; we sit in our stuffy libraries and ponder all day. We hide in our cities and play with the fates of others. A bunch of old meddlers, really. You're a fighter, Shellac. You charge onto the field and get your hands dirty. Your heart cries for battle."
"I find killing...distasteful," Shellac answered.
"I didn't call you a killer." Shellac opened his stitched mouth to argue, but the guru, his bushy brow knotted in annoyance, raised a hand to stop him. "Don't. I'm old, and I'm tired. I don't have the strength to waste on arguing this." He looked up his student, his ancient eyes still sparkling with life. "All things considered, Shellac, you'd make a horrendous Guru of Time. I knew that the day I found you. Do you remember where you were that day?"
His face lowered, Shellac answered, "I was at Killiecrankie, under Warlord Nyga. We were forced to surrender to Zeal."
"Why were you there?"
"Nyga paid well."
"You see? You've been a professional soldier for years. Do you really think you can give that up and settle down here to be a guru?"
"But what kind of existence is this? Living just to fight?"
"It can be a very noble existence, Shellac, if done for the right reasons."
His pupil finally turned to face him. "And what are those right reasons?"
"That is what I've been trying to teach you," the guru said. "That's why
I've taught you in much the same way as I'd train a guru. You know why I
do what I do, and you know why I teach you to fight. There's nothing more
I can tell you. The rest, you'll just have to figure out on your own. You
can't be Guru, so instead, wield the blade that I cannot: be my Warrior of
Staring down at the hardy lump of "casserole" before her, Lucca felt her stomach give a less than hardy lurch. Her host, the "mighty" Darma, sat opposite her at the small dinner table, that goofy grin plastered on his face. "Just wait until you try it," he said. "It's my own recipe."
Lucca prodded the dark mass warily with a chrome spork. That, and a chrome knife, were the only utensils Darma had to offer. "What's in it?"
"Just whatever I had around the kitchen," he answered as he shoveled a large bite of food into his mouth. Swallowing it after a minimal amount of chewing, he continued, "I love to cook. You just throw a bunch of stuff in a pan, bake it for an hour, and the leftovers can last you for a week."
Grimacing in preparation, Lucca sporked a small chunk and raised it to her mouth. It had an undefined smell, a mix of odors that seemed to mask each other. She eased it into her mouth and let her tongue touch the blackened morsel. In all fairness, she couldn't say that it tasted bad. Its taste, much like its smell, was a bland combination of so many conflicting flavors. Neither good nor bad, it was simply edible. Resigning herself to the situation, she dug in. She didn't know how long it had been since she had eaten, and her appetite was finally catching up with her. Darma took her interest in the food as approval.
Very little was said as the two ate. Demi darted through several times, usually mumbling about one chore or another. Wedge passed by at one point with a still uneasy Biggs trailing behind him. The occasional grunt or rumble rolled in from the kitchen. Just the oven, Darma explained nonchalantly. Lucca finally noticed a clock on the wall behind her. Her biological clock was convinced it was morning. In truth, it was about seven in the evening: dinnertime after all. Regardless, it made little difference underground.
At last Lucca and Darma both pushed aside their plates, a good half of the "casserole" consumed. Darma leaned back in his chair, rubbing his full stomach. "Man, I'm stuffed! I haven't had a solid meal like that in a while."
Lucca might have disagreed with his description of dinner but chose not to argue the point. Instead she enjoyed the feeling of an overfilled gut.
"Unfortunately," Darma continued, "I'm afraid other matters require my attention tonight." He stood, grabbing his lab coat from the back of his chair. "Someone around here will show you to your room when you're ready." He left through the kitchen, off to some unknown section of his tunnels.
The "casserole," despite its dubious origins, did provide a pleasant weight in her belly. Lucca leaned back in the creaking metal chair that served as dining room furniture, closing her eyes in relaxation. Perhaps her stay here wouldn't be so bad. Counting off days on her fingers, she reasoned that she could afford to spend a few more days in Darma's lair before she'd need to check on the outside world. Hops would be able to manage. In the meantime, she needed to find a chance to have a serious conversation with her host. That was, after all, why she was here.
A sharp clicking noise echoed into the room, catching her attention. She opened an eye to see one of Darma's chrome spiders skitter by the doorway to the main hall, its gleaming legs clicking against the floor.
"Speak of the devil," Lucca said.
Her curiosity quickly overcame her urge to continue vegetating. Standing quietly, she peered into the hall. The spider was moving away to her left at a fair rate. Lucca didn't know how it would take to being followed, so she moved down the hall after it as cautiously as possible. Not far down the hall it turned to the right into an open doorway. Lucca followed along the wall and then carefully looked inside. It was a small room filled with crates and boxes of all descriptions. A storeroom, she thought, but for what? The containers were all unlabeled.
The spider had apparently entered only to perform a quick check and was already on its way out. Its many orange eyes looked up at her, and it clicked its mouth parts thoughtfully. Other than brief recognition it paid no attention to her. Now less concerned, Lucca followed close behind as it made its way down the hallway. It stopped in a number of rooms, mostly storerooms like the first. Lucca was more interested with the rooms it was passing by. One, which she barely glanced at through an open door, looked to be a large armory. So many guns, yet Darma still seemed so harmless. The confusion was becoming unbearable.
Finally, after a rather long walk, she and her guide reached the end of the hallway. The heavy double doors opened as the spider approached, revealing a large, dark room. Lucca's eyes quickly adjusted to the weak light. The walls were lined with racks that held dormant spider drones. Her guide found its empty slot on a rack three rows up. Hopping up to its row, the spider settled into place and shut down. Just to Lucca's left, another of the spiders opened its bright eyes and leapt to the floor, skittering quickly by her leg and out the open doors.
There could be little doubt that she had found the storage area for the chrome spiders. She approached one of the racks to get a better look. Each spider was curled in place, completely motionless. They were each the size of a small dog. They weren't nearly as intimidating while they slept. In fact, Lucca was losing herself in awe at them. Each was its own technological marvel. Their smooth, chrome-finished exoskeletons were marked by several pits, perhaps concealing weapons or tools. They seemed to plug into something on the wall. Recharging units, Lucca assumed. That suggested that the spiders ran on battery power. It made sense; it would take truly super science to let something so small produce its own power.
"Just incredible," Lucca breathed.
"Looking for the bathroom?"
Lucca spun on her heels. "Demi!" she squeaked with alarm. She hadn't noticed the robotic eye's buzzing. Demi hovered uncomfortably close to her face, glaring with his oversized photoreceptor. "I'm not lost," explained Lucca, her wits recovered. "I was just exploring."
"That's fine," Demi said, "but try not to touch. Master Darma would be quite distressed if you broke anything."
"Oh, I wasn't going to take anything apart. I just wanted to look." Demi eyed her wearily, but accepted her word. He excused himself, claiming business elsewhere. Alone again, Lucca was unsure where to go now. Bored with the spiders, she went back to the hall. Her feet carried her back down its length. She continued past the kitchen to explore the other end of the hall. It wasn't as far as in the other direction, and ended in a simple door that hissed open as she neared.
It was a large room, cramped with electronics. More than a hundred screens lined the walls above blinking consoles. Some screens dangled from the ceiling, hooked precariously to cables that blanketed the ceiling panels. Others were stacked in heaps on the floor, all with data streaming across them too fast for Lucca to follow.
Hunched over a console, his face green from the light of the monitors, Darma was scribbling on a notepad, his eye locked on the data streaming by on the screens. Lucca was reluctant to disturb him. He seemed so focused. She moved forward to get a better look at the monitors. In doing so, her foot caught a rat's nest of cabling, pulling a stack of monitors down with a crash. Lucca yelped and froze, waiting for Darma to curse her out.
Blinking in vague recognition of the noise, Darma turned slowly, his face showing his obvious confusion. "Wha...?" He finally spotted Lucca across the room, who apologized profusely.
"I'm so sorry!" she wailed. "I didn't want to disturb you, and I was just trying to look, but I tripped and knocked these over, and if anything is broken I promise to help fix it."
Darma scratched his head, trying to take in everything she said. "Don't get worked up about it," he reassured her. "The monitors are probably fine, and it's not like I was using them right now." He patted the pockets of his lab coat until he found a small red and white object. "Peppermint?" he asked and held out the candy.
"Um, sure." Lucca crossed the room, more carefully this time, and took the offered mint. It was larger than the peppermints she was used to seeing in candy shops at home. "So," she began, her voice distorted by the large mint, "if you don't mind my asking, what exactly are you doing?"
"Predicting the future!" Darma said, his voice brimming with pride. He gave the console nearest him a hearty thump. "You remember the book I was telling you about? Well, this is how I do it." He gestured out to the walls of screens, each flooded with bright green symbols.
Lucca now saw what was on the monitors: statistics, news articles, business reports, and more she couldn't understand. All of it scrolled by, pages and pages at a time. It was insane to think of how much information was flowing over the walls. "It's so much..."
"Pure data," Darma finished for her. "The data created by our civilization, just by existing. I have information dating back to the beginning of recorded history." He tapped the floor with his toe. "It's all stored in computers beneath this floor."
"There's just so much of it," Lucca whispered, the peppermint rolling from side to side in her mouth. "But, what exactly do you do with it? I'd think that so much random data would be useless unless you sorted it somehow."
"I study it," he explained. "It's a talent of mine. It doesn't need to be sorted in any particular manner. I just watch it. After a while, you start to see patterns in it. Nothing happens without some prior indications. The patterns seem to lead you back to points where the data focuses." After a pause, he continued, "It's hard to explain, really. It's like these points are what drive the world. They can be anything, from a person to a dragonfly on a blade of grass. If you watch them, you can predict what will happen."
Still perplexed, she asked, "But, how can you do that? How can you find patterns in so much information? How can you, as a person, process so much?" She caught a few words of a report on a riot in Lockton as it scrolled by on a ceiling monitor. It shocked her out of her awe. "Wait! Can you go back to that article?"
Darma tapped a few keys on his console, and the article reappeared. Lucca read, slack-jawed. "A tax protest turned violent," Darma said. "It wasn't the first. There have been others in the last week all over that area."
"Nine people were killed. Why?" She read on, but the rest of the article didn't help explain the reasons. "I can't believe this."
"The data is looking very turbulent these days."
Lucca wheeled on him. "You aren't helping any!" Finally, she'd found her chance to corner him. Answers would be hers, or neither of them was leaving this room. "I know you're the one responsible for all the trouble in Choras. I was arrested by my best friend because of you. People are dying! How can you be so calm when you're a part of the problem?!" She jabbed a finger at his scrawny chest. "Cut the innocent act. You can't fool me with it." She had to stop for a moment. She had nearly choked on the mint.
Darma was shell shocked. "Wha...?"
With a final hack, Lucca recovered enough to continue. "Your spider drones are attacking Choras. You can't deny that!" Darma greatly resembled a frightened rabbit right now. His good eye was filled with terror. It was enough to make her feel bad. "I'm willing to listen to your reasons, okay? I promise not to kill you."
"I've got to eat," Darma whimpered. "It's the money, I swear!"
"Who's paying you?"
He was becoming increasingly nervous. "Employer confidentiality," he mumbled. Lucca's eyes flashed wickedly. "Okay, okay! The Mystics are paying me. Who else? They're the same ones paying the Purge to throw a wrench in Guardia's gears. The peace is a fraud, at least among the higher-ups. It always has been." He sighed, leaning heavily against his console. "They're also the ones who want you to stay here for a while. You'd get in their way."
All Lucca could do was nod. It was obvious, really, in a sinister, twisted sort of way. Who else? "But, they've been peaceful for four hundred years! Why now? And why are you helping them start another war?"
"Hey," said Darma, "I'm just in this for a paycheck. This whole Human-Mystic dispute is none of my business."
"Like hell it isn't your business!" She didn't wait for his excuse. "Hell, I've got to talk to someone," Lucca said. "I can't let another Mystic War start without doing something."
"I never said anything about war," Darma pointed out. Lucca just glared. "Okay, so that pretty much goes without saying. Regardless, it isn't as urgent as you think. Choras has known for a long time. I don't know exactly why they haven't been more open with Guardia about it, but it isn't like Guardia has been entirely clueless. I'm sure the queen is aware that the Mystics may be a threat and is acting accordingly."
"Choras knows?" Darma nodded, reaffirming it. "What was the point of this stink over me if they knew that the Mystics are looking for a fight? Do they know about you?"
"Some of them," Darma said evasively, "but let's not get into that. The point is, there's nothing for you to do or worry about right now, okay? It really is for the best if you sit tight for a while. I can't let you go yet, but I promise I will as soon as your friends need you."
"But..." Now that she knew the source of all this for certain, her plans would have to change. Figuring out the Purge would have to go on the back burner, along with her trip to the Sun Keep. What if the Mystics tried to invade Guardia while she was gone? That made another question spring into her mind. "Why did they only get me out of the way? What about Crono and Queen Nadia?"
Darma could only shrug. "The Mystics were able to work out a fairly easy and convenient way of dealing with you through me. Trust me, they know that you, Crono, and Nadia could be major problems for them. I imagine they're counting on Nadia to be tied up with the state. If they have plans for getting Crono out of the way, I'm not a part of them."
This still felt so bizarre, so wrong. "We've been trusting the Mystics for so long. If some people knew, why didn't they do something?"
"I'm not on anyone's side here," Darma said. "I do what I do for my own reasons, so try not to hate me for this. Look, I think you need to have some quiet time to yourself for a while." A map of the complex appeared on a nearby monitor. One room shone red. "Your room's there, on the next level up. The lift is the third door to the left from here. Get some rest, and we can continue this debate in the morning. I could use some sleep, too."
"Fine," she answered distractedly. "I don't understand where we went wrong. This isn't what was supposed to happen." She sighed, a deep, quivering sigh. "It's all falling apart, isn't it."
A firm grip on her shoulder pulled her away from her thoughts. She met his gaze. His one good eye was a soft blue-grey. The dark circles and tiny wrinkles suggested such pain, such frailty. Yet, it shone with something truly rare, something that Lucca had no name for. In his eye, she saw that, if she could trust anyone right now, it was him. It was strange. Logically, she had no reason to believe anything he told her. "You didn't go wrong anywhere," Darma told her. "Just get some sleep. We'll worry about it in the morning, I promise."
"Alright," she murmured. She stepped over the twisting cables as her thoughts burned in her mind. "I do need sleep."
Darma watched her stumble away. He'd promised to be honest with her, and
he would. But it could wait until morning. He was tired, too.
The next morning, Lucca awoke to the white paneled ceiling of the room that was now hers. It was a simple room, light on space and furniture but comfortable enough. Moving to the adjacent bathroom, she surveyed her appearance in the mirror. Her hair wasn't too dirty, and it was still sitting more or less properly on her head. She sniffed her clothes, discovering that the fresh smell still lingered. After brushing her teeth with supplies that had been left out for her, she declared herself presentable, though her current company hardly seemed the type to care, if his own appearance was any indication. She took a moment to stretch, her muscles stiff from several days of inactivity.
She walked to the lift and punched the button to send her back down to the level below. The lift was large, slow, and poorly illuminated. It was clearly meant to move heavy equipment from floor to floor. As the lift moved steadily down, its motors throbbing with power, Lucca straightened her tunic for at least the third time. Perhaps she should have bathed this morning. At any rate, she had resolved to pry every drop of information out of Darma today. This of course would require finding him, a monumental task in itself, considering the unknown size of his home. It certainly couldn't help that Lucca had no idea how to find her way around.
With the screech of old gears, the utility lift ground to a stop at the lowest labeled floor, the seventh. A full day was indeed ahead of her.
If all the floors were as large as this, finding one person would take an incredible stroke of luck. Lucca wandered the halls of the seventh floor, finding no sign of anything even abstractly alive. She had hoped to hear voices or the sound of machinery to guide her, but her echoing footsteps were the only noise. The floor might be empty, or the walls might all be soundproof. "Probably both," she grumbled. Her wanderings took her past Sickbay twice and through the kitchen more times than she cared to count.
Giving up, Lucca blundered her way back to the lift, a feat in itself, and smashed the button for the sixth floor.
The building was filled with the incessant patter of rain against the high roof. Outside, water was pouring down in sheets, turning the forested hills into great mounds of thick mud. Lightning had ignited a tall pine nearby, starting a minor forest blaze. An orange glow crept in through the open doors, along with several inches of water. Moonlight streamed in from high windows, reflecting off the water and covering the walls in faint, rippling patterns. Carved reptilian figures, coiling up the columns set in the walls, writhed in the reflected light like the spirits of the Mystics driven from here centuries ago. A single, colossal statue of a Mystic loomed at the far end, watching the doors with its fearsome, jeweled eyes.
Undeterred by the ominous atmosphere around him, a short, scrawny boy dashed back and forth across the immense chamber, splashing water with each kick of his wiry legs. His actual age, perhaps in the late teens, was revealed only by his taut, pale face that was almost hidden beneath a pile of unruly black hair. His eyes flashed with an awareness unbecoming his apparent years. His behavior was equally unbecoming of his age, though in the opposite sense. He was accompanied in his noisy antics by a bronze ball about the size of a cantaloupe which hovered around his head, scolding him for his childish behavior.
Not far away, a dark-haired man leaned against the cold stone wall, almost invisible in the shadows. "This is so retarded," he grumbled.
A woman with a heavy cloak draped around her shoulders stood near him. She, too, was feeling irritable. "I know, Windex, but Shellac insisted. He really feels that this is important." Seeing his glare, she continued, "I know you don't put much faith in anything Darma says, and I don't either, but Shellac does. The least we can do is humor him this once."
"Are you forgetting so soon, Lysol? The last time we listened to that kid, we spent seven months chasing down a chicken that he claimed was a...whatsit dot."
"Maybe it really was a minor nodal point. It's not like any of us understand that stuff Darma talks about."
"That's because it's all bullshit," Windex said. "Seven months for a chicken dinner, while potential jobs slipped by."
Lysol thought for a moment. "You know, if we hadn't eaten the chicken, it might have proved useful later on. I imagine most nodal points are useless after you barbeque them." Windex only grunted in reply. "We were humoring Darma that time. This is for Shellac, okay. If he wants to listen to Darma's nodal nonsense, who are we to stop him?"
"People who still have some sense left."
"I don't like this either, okay, but not because I think it's wasted time. Darma says he's never seen a nodal concentration so strong before, and Shellac seems to agree that something is up. It all feels rather ominous to me."
"Some quack has the audacity to ask to join us, and all of you fall to pieces." He pointed to Darma, who was rolling in the dirty water. "We're taking care of the kid, aren't we? Isn't that enough recruiting?"
"It isn't that this feels wrong or bad," Lysol said. "It just feels strange. Something is odd about it, and I think we should at least hear what he has to say."
"Whatever," Windex said, glaring across the room at Shellac. The scarecrow was playing with a box of matches, letting each one burn until his fingers ignited. There was something truly bizarre about a pyromaniac made of straw, but Shellac's regenerative abilities prevented any permanent damage, just so long as he didn't get carried away. He often set himself ablaze for fun, a trick guaranteed to liven up any party. Windex pushed off the wall. His hands felt for the hilts of his swords. "I've heard things about this guy," he said to Lysol.
"We've all heard the rumors flying around," she said. "It's more than that, though. I hate to admit it, too, but Darma could very well be correct this time. We can't just ignore it."
"Look," Windex said. His expression was uncharacteristically serious. "I have seen this Draino guy before. It was in Porre, after the last Mystic assault. He's a nut. Crazier than a sack full of assholes. Pure, honorless scum."
"But you've never spoken to him, have you? You can't believe all the rumors without some sort of proof." She wrapped an arm around his shoulders, leaning her head near his. "It will only take a little while."
"Oh, come on! We aren't here to make a new friend! Shellac!" he called.
The scarecrow extinguished the small blaze that had spread up his arm. "What's bothering you now, Windex?"
"Tell her," he said, pointing to Lysol, "that we are not trying to be all buddy-buddy with this guy. We're just going to see how psycho he is, then maybe kill him. It'd do the world a favor."
"Actually," Shellac said, "I don't know what we're going to do." He ignored the incredulous looks from Windex. "Draino has something to say to us, so we will listen. Then we decide what to do."
"Hmph!" Windex shrugged off Lysol's arm and crossed the chamber to brood in a different shadowy corner.
Off to the side, Darma wrestled his bronze companion in the rain water. Pulling Demi close, he said in a hushed voice, "Can't you feel it, Demi? The point is so very close. I can feel the world distorting around it. It's warping everything to its purpose." His eyes flashed with wonder. "It's coming closer. Ever closer."
Demi wriggled in his master's hands. "What are you talking about, Master Darma? I don't sense a distortion of any kind."
"But it is there," the young man insisted. "It's so dense, so powerful! A point like this is so rare. The only other I've ever seen like it is..."
"What?" Demi pressed.
"HIM! The one down below. The one that sleeps, waiting, waiting...always waiting. It never moves, yet it touches everything."
"Do you mean Lavos?" he asked. "You never said there was a node associated with it."
Darma stood now, still gripping Demi in his bony hands. Water streamed down from his hair, splashing against the orb's bronze casing. "Lavos, deep down below us. What does it want? Why does it have so much power up here? Hmm?" He stared into Demi's large black photoreceptor. "Could it be...God? Or maybe the Great Kilwala?" He couldn't help but smile at this. "Deep inside him, there's a giant furball! It eats our sorrows, and sends up miracles in bright little packages, like stars!"
"Now you're making up nonsense, Master Darma."
"Do you know if it's true or not? Maybe it isn't even down there at all. I've never seen it, and neither have you." Finally, he released Demi to float freely. His hands were shaking. "Closer and closer and closer..." he whispered.
There was indeed something in the air that night. From his corner, Windex shivered as some alien feeling crept into the marrow of his bones. Fear? Grief? Fate? Lysol twitched. She too felt something she could not name. Shellac, his empty eyes vacant of any discernable feeling, reached out and placed a rough hand on Darma's shoulder, easing the young man's nervous twitch.
All heads turned to the single doorway, framed by stone sentinels of another age, through which poured the rain, the thunder, and the burning light. Through the noise of the storm, the sound of footsteps in the water echoed in the chamber. Someone was finally approaching. Darma was now on the brink of convulsions. They waited, and the steady splashes grew ever louder, ringing stronger against the ceiling. Two long shadows slid through the doorway. The longer belonged to a tall, hulking figure. Its heavy feet sent waves through the water with each step. The second figure was smaller, the size of a normal man. His silvery hair caught the orange glow from outside and the ripples of reflected moonlight. He stepped lightly across the surface of the water, creating not even the slightest of ripples.
Watching the display, Windex snorted his disapproval. "Had to make an entrance..."
Draino stopped, still standing on the water's surface. His eyes scanned over the chamber, pausing at each person before him, taking them in for the first time. The hooded figure behind him stopped as well, and the deep puddle slowly calmed. Carefully kneeling down, still not disturbing the water, Draino produced a large case from the folds of his cape and set it adrift on the current. All eyes watched as it moved across the room. The case spun in slow circles, coasting along as the flow of water in from the door pushed it ever onward.
With an echoing crack, the lock on the case released, and the lid swung open, dying the room with the slightest hint of green. Shellac craned his long neck to see the luminous contents. Inside, lined with dark, glossy velvet, were nine identical round depressions. Three were empty.
Filling the others were six perfect spheres of green stone.
"Hey," Darma said, waving to the figure clutching at the open doorway. "What's up?"
A wheeze was the only greeting Lucca could manage. Her host was, conveniently enough, working in some manner of machine shop on the first floor. While her self-guided tour of every floor had been entertaining, her legs were organizing a strike. Stumbling, she moved to a chair near Darma and sat. Contented, her legs abandoned the picket lines and went on vacation. She had no intention of moving from that chair anytime soon.
The room was large and loud, filled with the whirring and clatter of heavy machinery. Darma had his arm buried to the shoulder in a vaguely humanoid machine. Amazingly enough, it wasn't chrome, but rather a dark, scuffed grey. A thick central body rested on two short but sturdy legs. Two limbs hardly flexible enough to be called arms, ending in clumsy, three-fingered hands, attached with joints of thick cabling. A removed panel revealed the sinewy cables within the blocky body. It took no great stretch of imagination for Lucca to realize what it must be for. "This is a combat robot, right?"
Darma stepped back to admire the mecha. "More or less, but most of the weapons aren't even working right now."
A single eye unit in the chest rotated to watch them. Its bronze casing stood out against the grey body. "It's good to see you this afternoon, Mistress Lucca."
"This is Demi's combat body," Darma explained, "but it's in desperate need of an overhaul. I've been a tad lazy about it."
The mecha tried to nod, but an actuator froze, locking the body in a precarious angle. "You most certainly have, Master Darma," Demi complained. "I consider myself lucky if I can get this brute to walk in its current condition."
"Don't whine about it," Darma said, reaching in to fix the troublesome part. "I'll try to work on it more often. You can't blame me for neglecting it, Demi. Ever since the wars finally calmed down, you haven't had many reasons to use it."
Lucca nodded. "So this is the 'something bigger' reported at some of the attacks, right?"
"Well, there is that," Darma said uncomfortably.
Demi's single eye blinked nervously. "I haven't been trying to kill many people, honestly, but I'm afraid that I am dangerous in this thing. If Master Darma kept the control circuits in better repair..."
"I get the point," said Darma. "I'll get the thing fixed."
"Just don't make it chrome like everything else."
"There is nothing wrong with chrome," Darma said defensively.
Lucca was up again, unable to resist the draw of a new mechanical toy. Mere fatigue couldn't override her curiosity. This mecha was marvelous. Its crude, bulky chassis was hardly refined, yet it had its own rugged charm. The thick limbs looked frightfully powerful. Surely the massive paws could uproot trees with ease. She watched as it struggled to return to an upright posture. Whatever Darma was doing helped, but it was still slow work. "How's this?" Darma muffled voice called. He was now in down to his waist.
The torso snapped to attention. "Finally," Demi sighed. "The only problem is that now my left arm is locked up! You must have damaged something else while wriggling about in my innards!"
"Don't throw a tantrum," Darma cautioned. "I'll find it eventually."
Pressing her hand against the cold metal of Demi's right arm, Lucca asked, "What sort of weapons does this thing have, assuming that they worked?"
Darma answered from within, "Guns, rocket launchers, that sort of stuff. All the weapons are concealed under panels, mainly to keep dust out."
Her finger traced the seam of such a panel. "Did you make this originally?"
"Of course. Just about everything here is of my own design." With a grunt, Darma pushed his small frame out of Demi's metal entrails. His clothes were stained with leaked fluids. "I'm sorry, Demi, but that's gonna have to be it for now. Seeing all the work I'll have to do gives me digestive disorders." His good eye suddenly widened, and a fresh grin spread across his oil-smeared face. "I've had an idea."
"Wonder of wonders," grumbled Demi, still bitter over his master's negligence.
"Who's up for some fresh air?"
The utility lift clambered up beyond the first floor, carrying her to the surface. Trapped deep underground for an uncertain amount of time, Lucca hadn't seen the sun lately. The promise of sunlight and fresh air was worth being deafened by the grinding lift machinery. Demi's body wasn't the only thing in need of repair. At the very least a little oil would go a long way.
With a final shriek of anguish, the lift halted. The doors parted, flooding the dark lift with intense sunlight. Lucca blinked helplessly as her eyes strained to adjust to the powerful, natural light. The warm rays felt wonderful on her skin and quickly soaked deeper, thoroughly warming her insides.
Stepping out into the full sunlight, she found that the warmth was short-lived. The year was waning, and winter was asserting itself. The sun helped, but Lucca still felt chilled by the light breeze.
"Nice day, isn't it!" Darma waved up to her from the far end of the path. Now dressed in overalls and carrying a large chrome bucket, he disappeared into the garden. The lift opened on the top of a low hill, and the gardens were to the north, at the bottom of the slope. Lucca strolled down, finding a simple pleasure in the sunlight and fresh air, which had a strong, woody smell. The view around the garden was blocked by thick forest, so she couldn't begin to guess how far she was from civilization.
The garden proved to be quite nice. An odd variety of plants, ranging from flower bushes to soybeans, grew in neat rows. The task of maintaining the plants fell on the menagerie of exotic, chrome robots that wandered purposefully through the rows, each performing its particular job in silence. In the center stood a large chrome totem, perhaps Darma's answer to a scarecrow. Its menacing faces were wasted on the wildlife. Birds nested in every mouth, nostril, or other orifice that was roomy enough. She followed her host through the rows to a line of potato plants. Kneeling down, Darma began harvesting, pulling the plants out of the soil, dusting them off, and dropping them in his shiny bucket. "The robots don't do that for you?" Lucca asked.
"Well, normally they do," Darma explained, brushing an earthworm off his glove, "but I like to do some gardening myself now and then." The spidery robot who was supposed to pick the potatoes had arrived, and it was soon joined by a second robot, a walking bucket. Neither seemed too pleased that their master was interfering with their work.
"How do you keep this place hidden?" she asked, deciding to evaluate her situation. If his security was really so careless, maybe running for it would be a possibility later on. "I don't even see a fence."
"It really isn't a problem," he said, heaving another giant potato into the bucket. Most of these vegetables were of horrendously abnormal size. Darma must have been feeding them outrageous amounts of strange fertilizers. "There aren't people anywhere near here, so no one is going to wander into my garden by accident, and there are patrols in the woods, just in case. I've had to accost the occasional cartographer, but other than that it's very quiet."
That sucked. "Exactly how far are we from a city?"
Darma thought about this for a moment, then answered, "Let's just leave it at 'very far.'"
Well, that settled it. She was officially stuck here and at her host's mercy. She'd be an idiot to try and run for it on foot, not knowing which way to go or how far. Resigned, she sat down on the cool earth and watched the two potato pickers move down to the other end of the row and begin work, yanking up the bloated tubers much faster than Darma. "I don't think your robots like you getting in the way."
Darma didn't answer immediately. He was too busy giving himself a hernia trying to pull an especially well-rooted potato. With a final grunt he let go, nearly rolling over backwards. Rather than complaining, he was laughing. All the robots nearby stopped to watch their master roll in the dirt and laugh until tears streamed from his good eye. Lucca wondered if he always made such a spectacle of himself while gardening. Perhaps the robots enjoyed the show.
Recovering, Darma tried to get back on his feet, only to fall down again. "Sorry," he said to Lucca. "I guess I had a bit too much fun." He managed to sit up, but thought it best to wait a few minutes before trying to stand again. "I wouldn't bother with the gardening, except that I can use the exercise. And it can be an awful lot of fun," he said, suppressing another wave of giggles.
Hard as she tried, Lucca couldn't hide her own amusement. Darma had such a disarming personality, she still found it hard to see him as some sort of warrior figure. It may have been his myriad robots that did his fighting, but he still controlled them. As if on cue, one of the chrome spiders, mandibles clicking, darted from the row of tulips, only to disappear just as quickly among some giant ferns. The spiders were all over the compound, constantly watching, always reminding her why she had to stay here. It occurred to her that Darma might be less likely to initiate more attacks against Choras if she continued to occupy his time. Perhaps she should spend as much time as possible around the goofy puppet master. So far he appeared to be easily distracted.
"You know," Lucca began, "I still find it hard to believe that places like this have been hiding out here all this time." Her eyes scanned over the gardens again, still marveling at the sheer unreality of the place. "It never occurred to me that the boring world I grew up in was full of so many unbelievable secrets." She paused, considering her words. Seeing that she had more to say, Darma continued with his gardening, waiting for her to go on. "I take that back," she said. "I think that it did occur to me that there were secrets out here, and I dreamed of finding them, but I never really believed it." She couldn't help but smile at herself. "While the other girls dreamed of their knights in shining armor, I dreamed of making some great scientific discovery or going on epic adventures. But those were the sort of distracting daydreams you can't help but obsess over, even knowing from the start that they're impossible. Interesting things never happen in real life."
"Technically," Darma pointed out, "your epic adventure daydream came true."
She couldn't argue with that. "But that's my problem lately." Darma looked up at her, his good eye interested. She hesitated, then explained, "I don't mean to bore you or talk your ear off..."
"Please," Darma insisted. "Remember, the agreement was that both of us would be honest and open. If you have something to say, say it! Then I'll give you my honest opinion. Besides, I've already lost an eye, so what's an ear or two?"
Lucca started slowly, choosing her words with care, "That year, or almost two years if you count the time I've been back in my own time, was literally a dream come true. Exploring the unknown, feeling the rush of battle, it was those crazy daydreams incarnate. But it was more than that." Here she paused again, composing her thoughts. She had done plenty of thinking on the subject, but it was still hard to express those thoughts out loud. "When I was young," she said slowly, deliberately, "I threw myself so entirely into science because of an accident that cost my mother the ability to walk. Before, I'd found Taban's work mildly interesting, if I was bored, but I didn't take it seriously. But after the accident, my perspective changed. I blamed myself, my inability to help Lara, so I devoted my life to becoming better. If the need arose, I wanted to be able to protect the people that mattered to me.
"The years went by, and that urgency faded. My mother resigned herself to her limitations, and I lost that original momentum. Of course, I stuck with the science; it had become my life. But I didn't have the motivation anymore, the reason to devote myself to my work. I think that's what the daydreams were really about."
Darma asked, "A reason to stick with your work?"
"More than that!" Lucca answered quickly. It was a moment before she went on. This was the most important point, and the most difficult to express. "Not just a reason for science, but a reason to live! A reason to strive, to struggle, and to fight, if that was the case. I started out wanting to protect my family, but as a I grew older, I needed more. The old reasons just didn't seem like enough. I wanted something to believe in, you know? Something to believe in so thoroughly that I could throw my entire being into it."
An understanding nod was all Darma could offer at first. Lucca's audience had grown. The potato pickers had met Darma in the middle, and now sat on either side of their master, listening to the story. "And so we come to your crusade against Lavos."
"Exactly!" Lucca said. "As much as I hate to admit it, I loved it! On one level, I know I was risking my life and should have been terrified, and I do feel bad about the killing, when we couldn't help it. But on another level, it was the greatest year of my life! For crying out loud, I had a reason to get up in the morning! I had friends to protect and a purpose I could believe in. But then..." She trailed off, unable to continue the thought.
Her three listeners all nodded, seeing were this was going. "Then you succeeded," Darma said, "and now here you are, back where you started."
Lucca finally sat down in the dirt, her knees weakened by the weight of her dilemma. "It's 1001, almost 1002. I'm seventeen years old. My life hasn't even begun, but I've already lived it. The battles are won, the world is saved, I did my part for the greater good, yet now I'm back in the miserable place I always dreamed of escaping. Is fate not a bitch?" she asked. "Is this any way to thank me? You'd think that after you saved the world, you'd get treated with a little more respect. The people I have to live with now, day after day, don't give a flying flip that I helped stop Lavos. What does that do to my self-esteem? I devote myself to helping the world, and I get nothing in return. I don't want a statue or parades or anything, but you start to feel like a real dope after a while. All the indifference really erodes your confidence."
Realizing that she was rambling, Lucca stopped to collect her thoughts again. "Now we get to the sticky part. It's been almost a year, and my future has been looking pretty bleak. I just have a hard time picturing myself living out the rest of my life here. But things are different." She fixed Darma with an accusing gaze. "All of a sudden, I'm learning things I never knew, things I never noticed while hopping through time. There seems to be this weird group of people, going by the name of the Purge, who seem to have been around for a while. The Mystics seem to be harboring hard feelings after all. The great Master of War has children, and rather odd children at that." She was chuckling now. "And to top it all off, the Lavos in this time period has been talking to me in dreams, and he doesn't seem so sure that I stopped him in the future."
"Perhaps," Darma said, his voice unusually flat and serious, "this great epic of yours isn't quite over." He shrugged. "If Lavos was not dealt with entirely, then maybe you still have something to live for. And there is this slight matter with the Mystics."
"Let me be honest," Lucca said seriously. "I am truly sick of this place. The Mystics, Guardia, all of it can rot for all I care. Marle would kill me for saying that, but it is the truth." She sighed. "Still, I'll protect Guardia if it comes to that. The place is my home, and that still means something to me."
Darma considered her latest comments. "Does this mean that you'll lay off me about this whole Choras nonsense?" He hit her with one of those pathetic grins.
"Oh, of course not," she answered without hesitation. "I'm on an errand for Marle, and I won't let her down."
"Well, I can hope," Darma said, but he wasn't angry. "Getting back to the subject, how many people have you talked with about all of this?"
"Not many," she admitted. "I can't talk to Taban and Lara about this stuff. I may have tried to explain the whole Lavos thing to them, but they certainly didn't understand it all. Lately I haven't wanted to trouble Marle. She has enough of her own problems to deal with. I guess Crono's the only one I've really talked to. He feels the same way, more or less. If a gate opened again, I think both of us would dive in without hesitation, just to be away from here."
Darma gave an absent-minded nod. He said, "You call your parents by their
first names." He met her incredulous stare. "That's really weird."
Five days after her experience in the garden, Lucca found herself in the clearing to the east of Darma's base. At the moment, she was in fact crouched in a trench under the protective shadow of large earthworks. Peering over the top of the mounds of dirt, she watched Darma do a final check on Demi's combat body. With Lucca's assistance, Darma had repaired most of Demi's malfunctioning systems. The bronze melon now had reliable control over his body, so long as he just wanted to move. The weapons were another matter. Today would be the first firing test. Darma was fairly confident that Demi wouldn't explode if he fired a weapon, but beyond that...
Satisfied that all was well, or as well as could be expected, Darma jogged back to cover. Dropping into the trench beside her, he produced a clipboard and pen. "Final adjustments...check!" he said as he marked off the first item on his checklist. "All that's left to do now is hunker down and hope that nothing too unexpected happens. Exciting, isn't it?"
"Indeed," Lucca answered. And it was true; she was trembling with excitement, though she tried not to show it. Repairing Demi was a like a second chance to work on Robo. She desperately missed that rusty tin can. Since she'd settled down again in her own time period, she'd wanted to make something as complex as Robo, but so far the laughable Gato was the best she could manage. Design wasn't a problem: she had Robo's specs memorized and could rebuild an R-series robot from scratch if she had the parts. She didn't, though. Some of the materials Robo used just weren't available yet. She couldn't make microcircuits and battery cells comparable to the sort used in 2300, and could find no substitutes.
Darma had these things. Darma had, buried out here in the wilderness, the means to manufacture electronics that would put Robo's processors to shame. In a matter of moments, Demi was going to fire a slug of metal at nearly 7000 feet per second (or so Darma claimed), and would probably hit within half an inch of his target. He had explained that most of the equipment he used was readily available when Zeal was at its height, though he had greatly improved on much of it over the years. It was a reasonable explanation, but Lucca found it difficult to accept that technology had progressed so far in past ages. She'd seen Zeal, admittedly during its decline, and had seen no trace of such machines, only the pervasive use of magic. The machine was replaced by magic, Darma had explained, and was largely forgotten. When magic was lost, the world was left without either, and had to start anew.
Lucca had so far refrained from mentioning that Darma himself had preserved a great deal of the ancient science, and could have at any time shared it with others. She knew that he'd stutter and change the subject. It wasn't in his nature to consider such things.
"Take aim!" Lucca returned her attention to the present. At his master's command, Demi had raised his left arm and pointed the gun barrel mounted on his forearm at the large, chrome bull's-eye at the opposite end of the field. Beyond the shining monolith and just within the forest, Biggs and Wedge cowered behind a pile of fresh targets.
Checking one last time that no one was out of place, Darma got down with his back to the bulwark. "Fire!"
The sound of the shot itself was covered by the thunderous crash of impact. The noise left Lucca stunned and her ears ringing for several minutes. Before she could recover her wits, Darma was already out of the trench. As soon as she came out of her daze, Lucca peered over the earthworks to see what had happened.
Demi's aim was true. The shot had hit dead center, boring a hole deep into the thick metal of the target. The rim around the hole was melted from the heat created at impact.
"That almost went straight through," Darma observed as he took notes on his clipboard. "Targeting systems seem to be working fine, too. I was a little worried about that. How are you?" he called to Demi.
"The point of impact is an inch further to the left than I expected," Demi said. "It's the recoil. My actuators aren't compensating well enough. If the target had been at maximum range, I would have missed. I recommend either slowing muzzle velocity or strengthening my arm. Also, the coolant system is hardly working. At the current cooling rate, I'd overheat the gun after ten shots." He paused to let Darma catch up with his notes. "I think I'm good for another shot, as soon as the gun cools." The bronze eye swivelled to Lucca. "It was quite impressive, wasn't it, Miss?"
"Very," she answered. Despite the ringing in her ears, she was looking forward to the rest of the test. While she could do little to help right now, Darma had promised to go over the results with her, so she'd understand what it all meant. He could have explained the weapons to her in more detail before, but he'd been in a hurry to run the first tests. Lucca understood. Not only was a firing test the best way to find out what was still broken, but it was also lots of fun to blow things up.
As Crono frequently pointed out, she had a weakness for big guns.
"Right. Set up the next target, you two," Darma called to Biggs and Wedge.
The pair emerged from cover with caution. "You didn't say it was that powerful!" Biggs yelled across the field. "If Demi had missed, we would have been fucked!"
"Just put the new target up," Darma answered. Ignoring the new string of expletives floating across the clearing, he dropped back into the trench. "Biggs and Wedge complain...check." He scanned the list on his clipboard. "Unnecessary delays because of bitter robots...check."
"I wouldn't want to be standing over there either," Lucca told him.
"Oh, they're fine," he said as he flipped to a different sheet on his clipboard. "They know I'd put them back together if anything happened."
"Would anything be left of them?" she asked, looking again at the deep pit in the used target.
"Their brains," Darma said. "Those are armored enough to survive the hit, but nothing else would. It wouldn't be the first time. Wedge is already on his second body, and Biggs is on his fifth. I think it's because he's taller," he explained. "He doesn't seem to know when to keep his head down." There was still a steady stream of foul language, but the two were now yelling at each other.
"While we wait, I've prepared a list of questions to ask you," Darma said. "I'm quite interested in your experiences while time traveling. I never have myself."
He makes it sound like a boat ride, she thought. "Fire away," she said. He'd been fairly good about answering her questions so far, so she was prepared to do the same in return. "But what exactly do you want to know?"
"Just general stuff. Here's the first one: Is there an 'End of Time?' It's something that the Gurus of Time speculated on for centuries, but none of their writings fully explain it or give any proof of its existence."
"Of course there is." That was something she'd taken for granted. It seemed odd that Darma wouldn't know, but then he hadn't ever been through a gate. "In fact, there's a Guru of Time stuck there, Gaspar. He was the last, right?"
Darma nodded as he scribbled notes. "Right. You met the last of the Gurus, all of which are stranded at odd points in time. I know Melchior appeared here a few years ago, but I never heard news of the others."
"Gaspar is at the End of Time, and Belthasar is in the 2300s. Have you met Melchior?"
"No, but he hasn't tried to hide. Plenty of people know who he is, they just don't realize that there's more to him than black smithing. Describe the End of Time."
As Lucca pondered, a fresh burst of cursing exploded. The used target had tumbled over onto Wedge's foot. "You really have to see it," Lucca began. "All there seems to be is a street corner surrounded by nothing. I could never get much explanation out of Gaspar, but I suspect that the street corner setup wasn't always there. I think he made it, or maybe it was Spekkio."
Darma perked up at the mention of Spekkio. "The Master of War also lived there, right?"
"Yeah. I still don't know what Spekkio is exactly."
Darma paused in his notes. "I have my guesses, but I don't know for sure. He trained you in magic, correct?"
"Trained isn't the word," she said. "He gifted power to us, and we just had to figure it out for ourselves. I always assumed it was the same as magic in Zeal, but-" She halted on the verge of going on and looked away. Lavos had told her much to shatter her old assumptions. If asked directly, she would have refused to share the details of her dreams. The topic was still too...personal. Yet she had almost opened up, without even realizing it. Again, she told herself that she would not discuss it. Not yet.
Darma made a few more notes. "Explain how you first arrived there."
She turned back to him, inwardly grateful for his smooth change of subject. When he made an effort, Darma could be very perceptive. "We took four people into a gate at once. Gaspar claimed that was the reason, but I'm not sure. It seems like an odd explanation."
"Did you ever see anyone else there?"
"No," Lucca said. "And Gaspar even told us that he was seeing people there more often." She paused, mulling over what she had just said. "Not that there was any normal passage of time there. It was weird. I don't know what Gaspar would have considered recently, or how long he'd been there relative to us."
Darma only nodded. "How much do you trust the Gurus?"
Her expression darkened again. A foul taste entered her mouth, a taste that carried with it the cold wieght of a body pressing down on her, the violation of knowing that something could see her thoughts. She couldn't answer that question without mentioning her dreams. Yet, she needed to answer it, for herslf at least.
"I don't know how reliable the source is," she said, speaking softly. "Someone has suggested to me that Gaspar may have been dishonest, or at least that he conveniently omitted some facts. Spekkio, too."
"Then I ask again, how much do you trust the Gurus?" Darma's voice was calm, but persistent.
"I trust Melchior," she said. "He's never given me reason to doubt. Belthasar had little influence on me. He also never gave me reason to distrust him. Gaspar was always vague. He wanted to help me, that was clear, and I trusted his help." She said very seriously, "I want to trust him. I want to trust Spekkio."
"Do you trust Lavos?" From what she had already told him, it took no great insight to guess.
"Not for a minute. But..." She was drawing into herself, sorting through her feelings and memories. "I don't think Lavos has lied to me. I don't trust, but I believe."
Between bursts of profanity, they could hear the two dented robots struggling to put a new target up. Demi continued to stand in position. His grumbled complaints about Biggs and Wedge were too soft to hear clearly.
"I'll tell you what I knew of the End of Time, and we'll see what you make of it," Darma said. "The Gurus were hypothesizing over a possible temporal nexus, some sort of center, stable point of the time stream. The place of least resistence, I believe they usually said. Obviously, this is all very theoretical, and based on models of time that may or may not be right. Now, one of the past Gurus thought that it would be more than that. The center of Time would be common to all dimensions, so the End of Time would be a nexus of our Time and every other Time which existed. Don't even get me started on whether or not other 'dimensions' may exist. One world is hard enough to figure out without adding the possibility of more. The point is, the End of Time would also be a connection between dimensions. Now, as for how one got there, none of the Gurus had ever seen a Gate, so they certainly said nothing about sending too many people through a time distortion. Honestly, that seems ludicrous to me.
"I'm sorry if that made no sense. That's the short, short version, and I don't claim to understand it either. It may all be wrong. The Gurus never proved any of it was true, and I'm guessing that Gaspar only assumed that he had found it. Though he is certainly somewhere, I assume he still has no proof that it is the hypothesized End of Time."
The explanation had flowed easily enough from the Guru's lips. "He was eager to tell us that it was."
"I'm sure he believes it is, but again, who can say?" He paused to take more notes. As he wrote, Lucca attempted to fit anything he had just said to her own experiences.
"The plot thickens," she said at last. "Spekkio isn't trapped there. He brought his children to stay with us, but didn't explain how he was still free to move through time. The gates are supposed to be closed. My assumption was that he and Gaspar would have figured out some way to continue to travel, since they had so much free time to work. No much happens at the End of Time. Of course, I'm only assuming that both can. Perhaps it's only Spekkio." She searched for any other clues in her memory. She couldn't remember Spekkio ever leaving the End of Time by a gate, much less through some extraordinary means.
"Shortly before you were kind enough to kidnap me," she said, "Hops, Spekkio's son, mentioned going through a gate I wasn't familiar with. It was at the bottom of a well in Zeal. Could Spekkio possibly make his own gates?"
"I certainly don't know enough to explain it." With a flourish, Darma stopped writing and showed Lucca the clipboard. "Look, we've filled a whole page!"
Lucca squinted at the tiny writing plastered over the paper. "Can you read that?"
"Oy! Stop ignoring us!" Biggs had directed his shouts at Darma again. He'd been yelling for a few minutes, but Darma and Lucca both had been too engrossed to notice. "I said the target is ready!"
"Like hell it is!" Wedge yelled. "You dropped this one on my foot, too, and I'm still stuck!"
It seemed Darma only half heard them. "Take Aim!" he called, not bothering to look up from his clipboard. Now that he looked back over the page, he could see what Lucca meant. In his haste to write everything down, he hadn't been very organized. His notes twisted across the page in dizzying scrawls, and he was becoming quite confused. "Oh dear," he mumbled to himself.
Demi, who had waited through all of this patiently, was at a loss. "But, Master Darma, Biggs is standing in front of the target."
"What?" With a sigh of annoyance, Darma bounded out of the trench. "What's so complicated about switching the targets? Everything looks ready to me."
"My foot!" Wedge wailed. "The ass monkey has trapped my foot under a several-ton block of alloy!"
Darma was unaffected. "I can make you a new foot, you know. Just rip it off and get out of the way."
"You heard him," Biggs said. "Rip the fucker off."
"It's my FOOT! How can I get out of the way if I don't have my foot. Hop? Roll? I can feel it, you know!? You don't just rip off your own limbs! I'd like to see you cut off your-" Wedge stopped his hysterics. As he had been complaining, Demi had marched across the clearing and now towered over the smaller robot.
Demi reached out and gripped the target with his massive hands. It took little effort for him to lift it. "Move your foot, please." Wedge complied, and Demi let the target drop back to the ground with a thump. He turned and marched back to position. Lacking anything else to gripe over, Biggs and Wedge retreated to their cover.
Glancing at his clipboard, Darma said, "Biggs and Wedge complain...double check."
Lucca, for her part, watched the preceding with amusement. It was a wonder that this dysfunctional family of sorts ever accomplished anything. "You know, Darma," she called, "you only asked me your first question. If we keep getting interruptions like this, we'll never get done."
"Too true," he said, dropping down beside her. "Of course, you answered several of my questions already. Here's another: have you heard anything about Magus since the Gates closed? Take Aim!"
Honestly, Lucca hadn't given much thought to Magus since they had parted ways. The wizard was a pain in the ass, though a powerful one, and she was glad to be rid of him. "No. Did you think I had?"
"Not really, but I felt compelled to ask. There are still a couple of puzzles left in the past that I have yet to sort out, for my book of course, and he's one of them. There seems to be something unresolved with him still, some weird play of the data." He paused, searching for the right words. "Do you get what I mean?"
"He intended to continue his search for his sister. Could it just be that he never found her?"
"No, it's not like that. He would have died, and that would have concluded things quite neatly. In fact, he did die. I've come across fairly trustworthy accounts of it. He went back to about 12,000 BC, lived for a few more decades, and passed away. Fire!"
The second shot was much like the first. As Lucca tried to ignore the ringing in her ears, Darma started a fresh page, making an effort to write large and in straight lines. Demi claimed that he was two inches off, and that the coolant system was getting worse.
"One more shot," Darma said. "And Demi, could you change the target yourself this time?" Across the way, Biggs and Wedge fighting with each other over some new grievance. Probably Wedge's rather flattened foot. "It'll make things go faster."
"Of course, Master Darma. I don't see why you had those two incompetents working in the first place." With that, he trudged off to do the job himself.
"Anyway," Darma continued, "I just wanted to ask about him. It could be that I need more time to sort it out. I may be missing something crucial, or just be too focused on it. Honestly, I wish I understood my data-reading better. I really am working mostly on instinct."
"I'm still amazed that you manage it at all," Lucca said. "Do you really think it works?"
Darma gave her one of his trademark goofy grins. "Of course it works! I'd have given it up long ago if it didn't work. I'm just not perfect at it. Or it isn't a perfect technique." He shrugged away his concerns. "Here's my last question for the day, and then we can take a break. I need to go over all the stuff you've told me."
He now watched her intently with his one eye, looking to see how she reacted to this final question. "Would you want to go back in time again?"
While her clothes were still covered in the blood and dust of the final battle, Lucca sat beside her mother, looking out the bedroom window until the sun sank low to the horizon and the sky blazed with orange and purple fire. They had not shared such a moment in years.
It was cool day, but neither was uncomfortable, even with the chill air entering the open window. Taban was away on business, and the house was silent. No words passed between them. Lucca could feel her mother's warm hand over her own.
She would treasure those moments for the rest of her days. During that time, all feelings of failure and doubt left her, and she was content in way she would never be again.
"No," Lucca said at last. "I'd rather go forward."
Darma merely nodded and scribbled in his notes. "Take aim!"
Still muddled by sleep, Lucca struggled against the blankets to extract herself from bed. Her bare feet slipped to the cold floor, sending a chill racing up her body. She jolted upright, then stumbled until she found her balance. Her eyes slowly focused on the world around her, but the pounding in her ears came and went. It took her several moments to realize that it wasn't inside her head but outside the door. Another wave of metallic clangs assaulted her, and she almost lost her fragile balance. One hand reached out for the glasses on the desk, and the other stretched to the door release.
Biggs made a valiant effort not to fall through the doorway, but failed extravagantly. The crash he made rattled in Lucca's head, causing her to slip to the ground as well. This was truly a horrible way to start the morning. Biggs managed to get up easily enough, but it was clear that he could drop again any second. "Master Darma requests that you ready yourself and pack your things, then take the utility lift to the first floor," he informed her, nodding his dented head. "He will meet you there." Bracing himself against the doorway, Biggs set off down the hall.
Her glasses on and her surroundings more distinct, Lucca crawled back to the bed, reaching underneath for her bag. Everything she owned was either packed or on her person. She didn't have a change of clothes, aside from the floral tourist shirt she had bought with Hops, so Darma had made Biggs and Wedge wash her clothes every few days. She could get quite dirty working on Demi's body or wandering in the gardens.
She decided to clean up a bit before she left. After taking a quick shower and brushing her teeth, she left her room for the utility lift, her hair still wet but combed neatly. It was odd not having the large helmet she normally wore. At first her head had felt too light, but she was growing accustomed to it. She had caught Darma staring at her when he thought she was distracted, his attention usually focused on her shining purple hair. Well, usually shining. It lost its gleam after a couple days without being washed, a frequent occurrence. It was also getting longer than she usually allowed it to grow, but she hadn't found the time for a haircut. Darma would undoubtedly cut it for her if she asked, but she feared the results.
As the utility lift lurched upward, she tugged at her tunic and her baggy green pants, trying in vain to make them look less trashy. It was hopeless, though. The clothes she wore weren't especially old, but they had seen more use lately than they could bear. Her tunic hung limply on her shoulders, and the green shirt beneath had faded to a vomitous hue. She had to tighten her belt to keep her pants on now. Darma, always ready to cook his casseroles, had hardly starved her, but she had still lost a bit of weight. Between the increased exercise and inconsistent food supply, she had trimmed up considerably during her time travels, so the continued trend didn't surprise her.
The lift finally halted, opening onto the first floor corridor. Darma waited there, absolutely beaming, with a sack of his own over his shoulder. Demi, clad in his newly refurbished body, towered beside his master. His blocky form was unfortunately still covered by a worn layer of grey paint. While repairing it, Darma had offered to give it a chrome finish, but Demi had refused. Despite the lack of change in outward appearance, Demi now had flawless control of all his limbs, and several functioning weapon systems.
"Today is a special day indeed," Darma said in greeting. He held up a hand to stop her from leaving the lift as he and Demi moved to join her. He pressed the button for the surface. "We're going on a field trip today."
"Really?" Lucca asked, raising an eyebrow. She hadn't been allowed to leave his compound yet. "Are we going far?"
"Quite," Darma replied. "I dare say we'll be gone for at least a few days." He grinned to himself as he watched the look of joy blossom on her face. "I know I haven't let you out much at all," he said apologetically, "but maybe this will make up for it. I think you'll enjoy the trip."
Certainly, Lucca thought. While she had come to tolerate her imprisonment here, she longed for a change in scenery. This would be a welcome chance to stretch her legs and possibly get news from the outside world. "Sounds wonderful to me," she said. "Not to insult your home, but any place can wear on you after..." Her voice trailed off. To be completely honest, she wasn't sure how long she'd been here. The days underground had blurred together, and she had quickly lost track.
"Approximately one month," Demi offered.
It hit Lucca hard. A month? Had she really let that much time pass?
"Time sure flies, eh," Darma said with a chuckle.
"Are you serious? Do you realize how much could have happened in a month?" The next realization hit her harder: she had left a twelve-year-old boy alone for a month. "What kind of a temporary parent am I?"
"Huh?" Darma and Demi looked at each other, confused.
"I haven't seen Hops in a month!" she hollered. "He could be starving, panicking, or dead in a gutter for all I know!"
"Oh, the boy!" Darma finally understood what she was babbling about. "You don't need to worry about him at all. He's been in good hands since I sequestered you."
"Good hands?" she asked. Darma nodded reassuringly, but the eternally goofy look in his good eye made her doubtful. His definition of child care probably involved a healthy dose of unintentional negligence. "I'm just going to assume that you aren't planning on telling me where he is." Darma was upholding the honest part of his bargain, but his definition of open seemed awfully closed to her.
"Not yet, at least," he said. "But I assure you that he's been treated well." His words conjured up visions of dark prison cells and traumatized woodland creatures, but she let it drop.
The lift doors ground open, revealing the gardens bathed in predawn light. The sun had not risen, but the sky was beginning to brighten. They stepped out onto the dirt path, and Lucca paused to breathe in the moist, bracing air. She could see her own footprints in the dirt, signs of her many trips to escape the windowless corridors below.
"Well then," Darma said, throwing his sack into the small storage space in Demi's back, "we have a full day of travel ahead of us, so we'd best be off." He clambered up Demi's left arm to perch on his shoulder. Lucca followed his example, stowing away her belongings, and with a boost up from Demi, found a comfortable position atop his right shoulder. Convinced his passengers were secure, Demi advanced at a medium pace toward a rough path in the trees beyond the gardens. Lucca couldn't tell if she was shivering with cold or excitement. She swore that no matter what this was about, she'd make the best of it.
Once on the forest path, Demi sped up to a fast jog. Lucca and Darma were both jostled about on the machine's shoulders, but it wasn't enough to unseat them. The morning progressed like this, with Demi following the trails as they cut through the trees, his passengers riding in silence and relative comfort. She tried endlessly, but Lucca could spot nothing through the trees to give a clue about their location. The forest was thick and shadowy. She could see that the land was irregular. For the most part, the ground sloped up to the left of the path, possibly to hills or even mountains that she couldn't see. The right side was either level or sloping down. Sometimes it was as if the land disappeared at the path's edge, with only the green of more plants to prove that there was dirt far below. In her precarious position, such places made Lucca hold her breath and grip Demi's grey carapace until her hands ached from the strain.
Time passed quickly as she took in the scenery. She remembered the sun rising close to its highest point, but she must have dozed around that time. She awoke to find herself sprawled across Demi's top, hugging tightly even in sleep. It amazed her that she had managed to sleep balanced on a moving object. She squinted out into the gloom of the forest. It must have been late evening already. The sun had disappeared behind the trees on her left.
Darma turned her way and, with a gleaming white grin, asked, "Enjoying the trip? You took a bit of a nap." She had no difficulty hearing him. Despite the bulk of his combat body, Demi moved quite soundlessly.
"Of course," Lucca answered, doing her best to match his smile. "It's gorgeous country. I could ride like this forever."
"Well, I'm afraid we have to stop at some point. In fact," Darma said, giving Demi a tap on the head, "our first stop is just ahead."
Demi slowed as they approached a small footpath, barely noticeable in the shadows, running down the slope to the right. Demi lifted his large arms to help his passengers down to the soft earth. Lucca wondered why the tinny voice had stayed uncharacteristically quiet today. Before she could ask if something was the matter, Darma led her into the wood. The path was clear enough, but the branches above didn't provide much head room. Her guide managed to stumble over every root and rock, and sometimes his own feet for good measure. She wanted to offer a hand in assistance, but held back. Over the last month, if that was really how long it had been, she had seen just how frail her captor was. Even so, he had never asked for help, even from his robots. While she only wanted to help, she was afraid to offend him. That thought gave her pause. Was one usually mindful of the feelings of your kidnapper? Of course, her imprisonment had not exactly been miserable, and she could have overpowered her warden at any time. Yet she had stayed, aware that she didn't know the way back to Choras, and Darma would only catch her again soon enough.
After perhaps ten minutes of Darma's stumbling the trees parted, revealing a small pool with stony banks and dark depths. A small stream fed into it from the opposite side, making tiny ripples roll across the surface. The only sound was the trickle of water, the hum of insects, and their own steady breathing. "It's very nice, Darma," she said, her voice barely above a whisper. She feared breaking the stillness that hung, almost tangibly, over this pocket of the forest. Carefully she stepped onto the slick rocks at the edge to kneel and peer into the water. Her reflection stared back, trembling on the surface. Beyond that, the pool dropped away into darkness, its depths hidden in the gloom.
"It's a fairy spring," Darma said, keeping his voice soft as well. "Or at least, that's what people call it," he explained when Lucca gave him a puzzled look. He joined her at the edge. "I'm not so sure myself. Lysol could always make the little buggers appear, but knowing her it could have been a trick."
Noticing the name, Lucca dared to ask, "How long were you with them?"
"Quite some time," Darma said. Nodding, he thought back to those times, times which he rarely pondered these days. "Quite some time," he repeated. "I suppose I miss them. I liked being with the Purge, but after a while I drifted away from the group and set up here."
Her fingers dipped into the water. It was cold, not surprising for late autumn, but she supposed that it stayed cold year round. "How long ago was that?"
"Not very long ago. Long enough for me to have made some contacts in the area and dig in pretty well. I haven't spoken to any of them since I left. While traveling with them, it always seemed like I was a burden." He smiled. "None of them believed my nodal point theories, except Shellac. Shellac would sometimes take me seriously, but I suspect it was only when my prediction matched his own. I was wrong a lot back then."
"How reassuring," Lucca said, still trying to see deeper into the pool. "Am I supposed to believe anything you say now?"
"I have improved over the years. When I started, it was mostly working with hunches, but while living out here, where it's quiet, I've been able to refine my methods."
Lucca turned to her captor, who was now squatting beside her. "You're still full of bullshit," she teased.
There! Lucca leaned closer to the water, her eyes scouring the black depths for the glimmer that she thought she had seen. "Did you notice anything in the water?" she asked.
"No," Darma answered. He too peered into the pool. "A fairy perhaps?"
"Hmph!" Lucca certainly couldn't deny the existence of magic, but she sensed nothing magical about the spring. She continued to search, though, to find what had caught her attention. Again, a hint of movement and light registered in the corner of her vision, but there was nothing when she looked. Her eyes darted over the pool, hunting for anything beneath the surface. It was growing steadily darker, and more of the pool was consumed in shadow each second. She was almost tempted to ask Darma for a flashlight or some matches, but if it was a creature, light would surely frighten it away.
Her breath caught in her throat. There, in the center of the pool, was a faint glimmering. Unconsciously, Lucca leaned further, her hands tightening their grip on the slick rock. It was barely visible but certainly there. Not a creature, just a tiny point of light. Perhaps something reflective on the bottom, catching the weak light at just the right angle. Transfixed, she watched the light shimmer as the surface of the water rippled. She leaned closer, desperate to see what her discovery truly was. Her breath was creating its own small waves on the pool. As she watched, the tiny glimmering seemed to become two. Lucca blinked, in case her eyes were going out of focus. The two spots remained distinct. The chill of the spring tickled her nose, now mere inches above the uneven surface. A sense of anticipation seized her, growing with each moment as the lights stayed, unwavering. Something else was going to happen. Indeed, the lights soon changed again, shifting from white radiance to that familiar, unearthly green. Two shining green eyes stared back at her from the black depths. His eyes. Her body jerked from the shock. Anticipation gave way to revulsion and terror. Lucca struggled to turn away, to escape those horrible green eyes, but they held her fast. She tried to scream, to attract the attention of her companion, but the world around her had ceased to exist. The light drew closer, rising from the depths to fill her vision, to consume her and all reality.
The stars shone in all their glory here, far from any cities. Lucca watched them through the gaping hole above her. Sometime, perhaps during the Mystic War, the roof of this structure had been blasted apart, leaving the large chamber open to the sky. She leaned closer to the crackling fire and tightened the blankets around her shoulders. Though mostly dry now, she was still chilled. Darma stood by in the shadows near the large entrance, chatting quietly with Demi. Her mind drifted back to the spring, to perhaps half an hour ago. The shock of cold that drew her out of her trance. The confusion and fear as she fell headlong into darkness. The strong arms that embraced her and pulled her back, even as she fainted, overwhelmed by the hallucination and the cold.
Footsteps echoed against the ancient walls. Darma approached, his figure becoming more distinct as he neared the fire. The goofy grin had returned, and he paced around the light, studying the high walls. "This place always brings back memories," he said.
"You come here often?" she asked, her voice still weak.
He nodded, then pointed all around with a broad gesture of his arm. "This is a place we frequently used as a base of operations, back in the day. It had a roof then, of course, but it still flooded when it rained." He paused, noting her troubled eyes. "I don't mean to pry, but did you see something in the spring?"
Lucca nodded, but didn't offer a description. Patient as always, Darma sat opposite her by the fire and waited. The fire crackled, and Demi's parts whirred as he patrolled outside.
"I saw his eyes," she said finally. She spoke deliberately, as if each word taxed her spirit. "At first, I thought they were some of your fairies. An illusion perhaps, but no, they were his eyes."
Another nod. "He's never spoken to me while I was awake. I thought he could only affect my dreams, but now its obvious that he's just holding back. He doesn't want me to know everything he can do." She looked up, meeting Darma's gaze over the flame. "He's getting insistent. Desperate, maybe. He taunts me with bits of truth, then leaves me more confused than ever."
"What does he want?"
"Me, I think. He wants something of mine, but I don't know what. He says that I've been deceived, used. That I don't fully understand the power I was given to defeat him. In my last dream, he said to go to the Sun Keep. He said my answers were there." Darma's good eye was glazed, distant. He was considering something, but she knew not what. "I'm not sure if I should go. It could be a lie, a way to get me where he needs me. To the Sun Keep, or away from the truth, I don't know which." Her lips twisted into a strange, slightly wicked smile. "If he thinks he can play the great Lucca for a fool," she said with renewed spirit, "then he is making a grave mistake."
She fell silent again and lowered her head, hiding her face in flickering shadow. Darma may have been on the verge of speaking, but he was interrupted as Lucca stood, throwing off the damp blankets, and with blazing eyes continued, "Forget everything I just said. I don't know what he wants, why he wants it, or how I factor into his wants. I don't know, and I don't care."
She stalked back and forth before the fire, her voice rising. "Let him torment me! The wretch! Begging and pleading, lying and whining, all because he can see his own death through my eyes! He mocks me, mocks my ignorance. I know that I'm ignorant! I don't understand the depth of my situation, the hidden truths that you all deny me. Lavos, Melchior, even you," she said, pointing an accusing finger. "You all dance around the meat of it with vague hints and half-truths. You're all afraid of the truth, avoid it and hide it as if to speak it would tear the very fabric of existence, all while a giant tick does just that with impunity! Is it so important that I remain ignorant? What do they all have to hide? Do Spekkio and Gaspar fear me? Do they fear what I would do if I knew the truth of how they used me? And yes, I believe Lavos. There is no doubt in my mind that those two used me. But why? Why is any of this happening? Can the truth really be so much worse than this terrible ignorance!?"
The impact rang throughout the chamber, rattling away into the night. Lucca drew her fist back from the wall, surprised to see bloody scraps on her knuckles. She'd acted without thinking. She couldn't see the color in the weak light, but the carved serpent's head, ready to strike if only it were more than stone, was wet with her blood. "I don't know how they've all abused me, but it doesn't matter now. Lavos is a threat to those I care about, and as long as he is a threat I will kill him again and again, on into eternity if I must. The Purge, the Gurus, the Master of War; if they are threats, then I will fight them, too, because that is all I know to do anymore." Darma stood near her now. She turned and met his eye, staring him down with all her anger and frustration. "I'll fight them all and die if I must, because so long as I draw breath I will not fail again." Darma's hand gripped her shoulder. The sudden human contact shocked her out of her rage. Her strength left again, and she fell to her knees, choking back the sobs that desperately wanted out. Her captor knelt with her, never releasing his grip on her trembling shoulder. "What else can I say?" she asked, her voicing broken by dry sobs. "What else matters?"
She could feel Darma's closeness, his breath toying with the strands of her purple hair. "Long ago," he began, "before the continents of Zeal were raised, someone made the Eyes of Lavos. Someone of great skill and knowledge. The Eyes came to Zeal in the Golden Age, but were lost after the fall. Much later, a man named Draino set out to find them. He found six out of an original nine. He sought the Purge, desiring their connection to the past. He hoped they would have knowledge of the Eyes, or at least be able to help him find such knowledge. Shellac once told me that he allowed Draino to remain with us because the man needed to be watched. He could not be trusted to wander unobserved with the Eyes. I left them shortly after Draino joined, so I haven't had too much contact with him. He always struck me as mad, but not dangerously so. He was obsessed. I never found out from him what he wanted from the Eyes. They are indeed connected to Lavos, but I don't know how they work. I don't know how they were made or what they can do. Draino and Lysol are probably the most knowledgeable about them. The Gurus, particularly Gaspar, may have learned much of them by now, but that's only speculation.
"Understand that the Eyes were a myth to us. When Draino offered them to us, we had no idea what to expect. We had no idea what they could do. We also didn't think that we could take them from Draino by force. He's held onto the Eyes longer than anyone else, and he has grown strong.
"Three are still missing. They may have been destroyed long ago, or be lost where no man can ever find them again. They are unknowns. If you wanted to destroy them, you could never be sure of success until all nine lay shattered at your feet.
"As for your dreams, Lavos is alive and well below us. He won't die for another millennium. I have no idea how he thinks, or what could motivate him. The intricacies of Time and Lavos are beyond my knowledge."
He squeezed her shoulder again, steadying her as her chest heaved with sobs.
"I promised you that I would be open and honest, and now I have."
"A thousand steps."
"That might be an exaggeration."
"It's close enough," Lucca said, eyeing the endless steps before them. Somewhere at their zenith, in the clouds by the looks of it, was the current center of Choran government. Situated on top of a hill just north of the capital city, it was a complex of temples and meeting halls. Only the royals lived on the hill. The residence was a recent addition, a fair manor called Enhasa, a reference back to the legendary City of Dreams. Lucca had been to the original, and she was willing to bet that this manor bore little resemblance.
It was grey and overcast that morning. The light rain had started just before they had left the ruins. From there, it had been a short trip to the hill. They had taken the long way around, avoiding the city, and had approached unnoticed. As far as Lucca knew, word had still not spread that ancient machines were plaguing the frontier. They might not have created immediate panic, but the sight of a large robot with a rider perched on each shoulder, stomping down the avenues, would have drawn unwanted attention. At the moment they were avoiding the rain, standing underneath the tall arch of the gateway. Lucca could see an identical archway at the top, a faded, ghostly image through the rain. If it was as large as this gateway, then a thousand steps might be a fair estimate.
"So this is where you were taking me," Lucca said with a shiver. The air was brisk and damp. Breathing it in brought a sharp chill to her insides. Darma did not seem to notice, and Demi, metal construct that he was, was oblivious. "Did you decide to turn me in?"
"Hardly," Darma answered with a typical grin. "I said I'd only keep you until you were needed elsewhere." He mounted the polished stone steps and began the climb upward.
Lucca followed behind, her bag of belongings held above her head to ward off the rain. Glancing back, she saw Demi remain below. His attention was focused on one of the ornamental suits of armor that stood just inside the gateway. She couldn't begin to guess why. A more important question on her mind was, "Why am I needed here?"
"Because," Darma explained, "you'll be needing to get back to Guardia soon. However, you need to come here first. Her majesty asked to see you."
"Lady Tyria?" Lucca asked. She had seen pictures of the beautiful and reclusive monarch of Choras, but she had never met her. Marle had made a single trip to Choras not too long ago, but she hadn't had much to say about Tyria.
Darma nodded. "The last time I spoke to her personally was about two months ago. I got word from her just a few days ago that she wanted you brought here. She said it would be more convenient."
"Convenient for what?"
He could only shrug and grin. "Not sure. By the way," he added, "you're little friend has been staying with her. I told you he was okay."
That was one problem solved. It had occasionally crossed her mind that she had left Hops on his own. The boy had an independent nature and a knack for taking care of himself, so she hadn't been too worried. She could imagine what Spekkio's reaction would have been if she had lost his son. "Drunken indifference," she mumbled with a wry smile.
"Hmm?" Darma had turned and was now walking up the stairs backwards.
"Nothing," she answered, waving it aside. "I was just thinking about Hops. You know," she said, her smile returning, "you're going to trip if you keep walking like that."
"It won't be the first time," he assured her. "Tyria always finds it incredibly amusing when I show up on the doorstep, scrapped and bruised, and usually late. No idea why. In fact, we're a day late. I was supposed to have you here yesterday."
"Were we supposed to get here last night?"
"Well," he started, his eye darting about evasively, "I gave the toaster a new chrome finish, and that put me in a bit of a chroming mood, and I tried to chrome the bonzai trees I keep in the third floor bathroom, and that just wasn't working, and Demi wasn't speaking to me because I had tried to chrome his combat body while he wasn't looking, so there was no one to remind me...EEP!" Darma stopped, not because he was out of excuses, but because he had tripped and rolled back down a dozen steps.
"I warned you," Lucca said. She trudged onward, not waiting for him to recover.
Laughing as he struggled to his feet, his clothes smeared with filth, Darma was unfazed. "Tyria should be pleased," he said to himself. He took the steps three at a time to catch up, brushing wet grime from his clothes.
By the Great Kilwala, Lucca thought, we're almost there. The top of the stair was approaching fast. It was just as well. Her legs weren't used to climbing so many steps.
"At any rate," Darma said, now matching her pace, "I wouldn't worry too much. Tyria never suspected you."
"Because she already knew you, right? Why the stink then?"
"Well, Tyria couldn't tell her country about me. I'm rather thankful for that, to be honest. It'd be a real bother if everyone knew I was living out in the woods. Strictly speaking, history says I'm long dead by now, assuming I ever existed at all." He grinned to himself. "Gosh, that's weird."
"Why are you still here?" Lucca asked. It was a question she had pondered before. How was it that the Purge still lived in this time? Melchior had dodged the question.
"You know that the Gurus of Zeal, long before the Zeal you saw, trained the Purge, right?" Lucca nodded. "Well," Darma continued, "do you think the Gurus would let their swords break before their battles were done? The Purge will be around as long as they have a task to fulfill." With another big grin, he shrugged and set his good eye on the top of the steps.
Not much of an answer. Darma was just about as vague as Melchior. "Yes, that makes sense," Lucca said, "but how are you still here? You only gave me a reason why." Darma managed a nervous laugh. "What happened to 'open and honest?'" Lucca pressed.
"Honestly, I can't say that I know for sure," he answered.
"And technically, I'm not even connected to the Gurus, remember?" Darma smirked. "So, how indeed?"
They'd reached the top of the steps. The hilltop had been leveled flat to provide even ground for the complex. Passing through the upper gate, Lucca tried to guess the uses of each building. It was hard to be sure for most. They were uniformly large, expensive-looking, and red, a color favored in Choras. The grounds were carefully maintained, with every tree trim and neat and every stone path swept clear of dirt and fallen leaves. They were on the widest path, heading for the center building, a large, white structure with a many-columned facade, a ghostly presence in the rain. It didn't resemble any of the others.
"Enhasa, no doubt," she said.
"Yep," Darma confirmed. "Silly name. I told Tyria to call it Central Command. She ignored me, of course, and named it as she pleased. I offered to give it a nice chrome exterior." He shrugged. "Tyria ignores my opinion on most things. She insisted that I not chrome her sentinels either."
"Sentinels?" Lucca asked. She hadn't seen any sort of security here.
"A pair of bodyguards that I made for her. They look like suits of armor. One of them was guarding the lower gate. You may not have noticed it."
She had, but had assumed it was decoration. If the thing had wanted to harm her, she would not have been able to put up much of a fight. She couldn't help but feel a little more nervous.
"It was the red one, with the feline face mask. Atril, I think. The other, Tabanne, is green and looks more like a dragon." He pointed to the house. "See?"
A suit of green samurai-style armor had indeed emerged from the front doors and blocked the entrance, watching them. Its demonic face mask had a thin, protruding snout and narrow eyes, the classic image of a dragon. To Lucca it looked like one of the less intelligent breeds of Reptites.
There were more steps up to the porch, but Lucca withheld any complaints and ascended in silence. The long climb up to here had her irritated with this whole situation. Finally, she and Darma stood level with the door, waiting for Tabanne to let them in.
No part of its face moved when it spoke. "Lady Tyria sends her greetings. She is sleeping in today, but will be ready to meet with you soon." Tabanne's voice was comically high and singsong, but Lucca didn't dare laugh at her. Her fingers sported wicked claws to match her reptilian face. Tabanne turned and went indoors, expecting them to follow.
"Did you give it that voice?" Lucca asked quietly.
"Tyria insisted. They both sound like that."
Darma obviously knew his away around. In the main foyer, he left Lucca alone with the green sentinel at the central staircase and disappeared upstairs. Tabanne turned right and led the inventor into the ground floor of the east wing. The suite of rooms they stopped in rivaled the royal chambers in Guardia Castle. This first room was furnished with a large sofa and several chairs arranged around a coffee table of dark wood. It was some pretty posh stuff. The walls were papered in red. There were two doors on the far wall, both of wood with inlaid gold.
"I will return for you later. Please keep to your rooms." With that, Tabanne departed, shutting the door as she went. Finally alone, Lucca took in the stillness of the room. The entire manor was possessed with an odd silence. There was no hum of electricity, no sounds of servants working in distant rooms. The house just didn't feel lived in.
The far door on the left opened, and Lucca sighed with relief. It was Hops. The boy was dressed in his usual clothes and had canned cheese in his hand. She couldn't gauge his own reaction upon seeing her. He just threw his head back, emptied the last of the cheese into his mouth, and added the can to a growing pile of empties in the corner.
Lucca couldn't help but smirk. "You seem to have done alright," she said.
"Where were you for a month?" His voice didn't sound concerned, or even curious.
Her answer didn't faze him. Hops gestured to the door behind him. "That's my bedroom," he said. "The other door leads to yours. Both have their own bathroom."
"And this room?"
"The sitting room," Hops explained. He sat in one of the chairs. "Which is about all it's good for."
It was a cloudy night, blocking out the sea of stars. Without the stars or the moon, and with no settlements nearby, the night was abysmally dark. It was as if the small area illuminated by the campfire was all that existed, a tiny pocket of fire surrounded by an immeasurable void. It was almost enough to make Windex feel a little claustrophobic.
The company wasn't helping. Lysol had turned in early, retreating to one of the tents just within the fire light. He would have felt better if she were by his side. A bit of human warmth would help against the oppressive darkness. As much as he wanted to join her, Windex found himself reluctant to go. In his restless state, the flickering flames held more appeal than the bland interior of a tent.
Shellac was miles away, somewhere beyond the darkness, perhaps seated beside a fire of his own. The scarecrow had left in search of a fresh contract, leaving the others to stew here in the wilderness.
Windex wasn't sure where the fourth member of their group was or what he might be doing. Old Dutch had wandered off several hours ago and had yet to turn up again. Not that this was unusual or unexpected. Windex made no effort to fathom the motivations of the large, hooded menace, choosing rather to accept anything Old Dutch did as exactly what Old Dutch ought to be doing.
That left Windex with only one person for company. Draino sat directly opposite him at the campfire, the brooding look on his face made all the more disturbing by the flames dancing in front of him. Even sitting, he leaned heavily on his staff, as if the dark thoughts in his mind were physically draining.
Of course, Windex was doing some brooding of his own, watching his silent companion. He had long since ceased to openly loathe Draino, but he continued to greatly dislike the man and still could, if he lacked anything better to do, dredge up a respectable hatred for him. He could see no benefit in keeping Draino around. Unfortunately, Shellac saw some need for him, so Windex restrained himself.
Imagining that Draino wasn't there proved more difficult than one would expect. Windex tried, quite often, but it always failed. The man had some sort of presence, a charisma that Windex couldn't account for. Something about that brooding exterior revealed an inner fire that subtly manifested itself to the world, commanding attention. It was, to Windex, the most disturbing aspect of Draino and the only reason why he offered the man a grudging respect.
He was suddenly startled out of these thoughts by the sound of a voice, though he did not register what it said. "Wha...?"
"I asked a question." It was Draino. The distance had left his eyes, and they now focused through the fire to meet Windex's. He spoke softly, but it carried easily in the silence of night.
"Well, what was it?" If Draino wanted to make conversation, Windex wasn't going to discourage him. Maybe the guy was human after all.
"Do you know why I sought the Eyes?" There was a hint of a smile on his lips. He asked the question very matter-of-fact, but something else was in his voice. A spark perhaps; a spark of that fire Windex could sense in him. That spark had never entered his voice before, and after this night, would appear again only once.
"The power of Lavos, right? You want it. All of it." For world domination, or some other stupid reason, he thought.
"Yes," Draino answered, but he paused afterward, as if he had more to say. He held that pause for many seconds, seconds filled only by the crackle of the fire. "And no," he finished, his voice barely above a whisper.
Windex, at a loss for what to say to that, waited for Draino to go on.
And Draino was going on, but before he spoke, his eyes lit with that spark in a way Windex had never seen, and would never see again. "I want to feel it," he said. The spark was now a fire of passion, or of madness. "Just feel it. Even for a second."
"Feel what, exactly?" Maybe he's finally going over the deep end, Windex thought. Maybe Shellac will let us ditch him.
"What it is like to be a god."
There was an uncomfortable tension at dinner, and Lucca suspected that she and Hops were to blame. The setting only added to it. It was difficult to relax in the deathly quiet of this mansion. The best comparison she could make was that it was like eating dinner in a haunted house. Yet there were no ghosts, only this eccentric queen and a meager staff. Lucca couldn't begin to guess how Tyria could bare to live here.
Lady Tyria sat at one end of the long, narrow table. It was a nice table, really. So nice that Lucca felt nervous about eating on it. Delicate glass tracery, so fine that a careless elbow might start it all shattering, lined the edges. Though it was clear that Tyria demanded the finest in all her possessions, it was difficult to tell if she took pleasure in any of it.
Beautiful beyond comparison, Lady Tyria sat with her back rigid and her hands neatly folded in her lap, resting on a bleached white napkin embroidered with the royal crest and a silver, cursive T. She wore several robes layered over each other, each uniquely patterned, and held tight by a wide silk sash. They were arranged loosely over her shoulders, exposing the creamy flesh of her shoulder blades, the well-defined edge of her collar bones, and quite a bit of cleavage. Framed by her long, blue-black hair, her face was soft and rounded. It was almost homely, though she clearly tried to hide this under makeup that accentuated her high cheekbones and eyeshadow so dark it made the whites of her eyes positively luminous in contrast.
To Lucca, Tyria appeared to be a stunningly beautiful woman who, in an effort to enhance that beauty, had made herself look like an expensive prostitute.
Through three courses, she had maintained a expression of calculated indifference. When she did look up from her dinner, her eyes almost always fell on Darma, who sat at the opposite end of the table. Lucca could tell that with each casual glance, the two were exchanging volumes. There could be no doubt that the elaborate setup which had drawn Lucca and Hops to this place had been orchestrated by Tyria and Darma both. Darma had explained his own motives, but what reason had Tyria to assist in a plot which would likely hasten a Mystic invasion?
To Tyria's left, on the long side of the table opposite Lucca, sat Hops. He, like everyone else, had remained quiet through dinner. Lucca was impressed to see him eating something other than canned cheese. He was avoiding her gaze, mostly glancing up at Darma, the least intimidating of them. Did he understand the situation better than her?
As the serving staff removed the last traces of the final course, Darma spoke up, as if unaware of how uncomfortable the others were. "Well, that was an exquisite meal. As always, my compliments to the chef, Tyria. It sure beats my cooking."
Tyria's lip twitched with something very close to a smile. "I don't know how you survive off the rubbish you call food." She very carefully wiped her mouth with the fine embroidered napkin. There was no awkwardness or hesitation in her movements. To Lucca, she said, "I must say, I have enjoyed the company of your young friend. I find his constant air of melancholy quite amusing."
"She hasn't let me leave the hilltop since I got here," Hops said. "And this building is damned depressing."
"Isn't it, though?" Her subtle little smile was twisting into something cruel. "It suits me, precisely because it seems to suit none of my guests. My city of dreams. I do enjoy watching people squirm." She looked to Darma again, who was still grinning. "Only Darma is thick enough to be entirely comfortable around me."
"Huh?" Darma asked, vaguely aware that his name had been mentioned.
"If I might ask, your Highness," Lucca began, letting more sarcasm slip into her tone than she'd intended, "why exactly have you brought us all here? Darma implied that you wanted to speak with me."
"Oh, is it such a crime to want to meet a celebrity such as yourself?" Tyria asked, meeting Lucca's sarcasm in kind. "I thought you might like to enjoy my hospitality for a few days. Dismal as it can be, it's luxurious compared to Darma's abode."
"I'm not sure I have the time," Lucca answered. "According to Darma, I need to leave for Guardia soon."
"Darma may have exaggerated the situation." She stood, seeming to float out of the chair. "Come," she said, waving for them to rise. "I have a better place to hold our palaver. This whole business is quite tiresome, and I'd prefer to be done with it tonight." With that, she glided out into the hall.
Darma was the first to clamber out of his chair and fall in behind her like an obedient dog. With an exchanged glance, Lucca and Hops rose as well and followed, a few steps behind their hosts.
Only moonlight was pouring through the windows. Lucca had noticed that there was no electricity in the mansion, so the only artificial light came from old-fashioned oil lamps. This hall, however, had no such lamps, only the windows along the left wall. Everything was cast in murky blue-grey. Tyria stepped with familiarity through even the darkest passages, leading them to some far corner of the mansion.
They stopped outside a pair of large wooden doors, featureless in the weak light. Tyria stepped aside, allowing Darma to enter first, then led her guests inside. It was a large, windowless cube of a room. As Darma moved about lighting oil lamps on the walls, knotty wood paneling came into focus on every surface of the room. Five uncushioned chairs were scattered at random in the center.
"Do take a seat," Tyria instructed. She settled herself into a chair, her posture as rigid as before. Those uninterested eyes watched the others pull chairs into a rough circle and take their seats. They made an odd sight, four figures in a disorganized group, the extra chair off to the side, in a room like a wooden box.
"As much as I enjoy toying with you," Tyria began, "time may be short, so I'll refrain from my fun and be direct. Anytime now---perhaps this moment, perhaps in week---an invasion force will be leaving Medina to attack both Choras and Guardia. If available intelligence is to be trusted, both states will be hard pressed to repel them."
"Then it's certain?" Lucca asked. "You've known about this and done nothing to help Guardia, not even give us a simple warning."
"I have done what seemed best," Tyria answered. With each second, she was seeming less like the idle beauty queen and more like the ruler of a nation. "This invasion is inevitable. It has been so for the last four hundred years. Instead of allowing it to happen at a time advantageous to the Mystics, I have forced their hand.
"Through Darma, I found out that the Mystics hired the Purge to feed unrest in Guardia. Over the last month in particular, they have been encouraging dissenter groups and attempting to start riots whenever there is the opportunity. The government is harassed and overextended. The kidnapping of the only heir rattled the state enough that Nadia has been forced to take the throne, even though the king still lives. Personally, I do not see King Guardia ever resuming power, but the uncertainty of Nadia's position is destabilizing.
"The Mystics approached Darma to cause unrest here in Choras. They also wanted him to abduct Lucca so that both she and Crono would not be in Guardia. Never for a second have they underestimated the slayers of Lavos, and they wanted you split up. They feared that simply killing you would force too close an investigation and reveal their plans too soon.
"When Darma told me of this, I decided to play along. I gave Ambassador Sarkin the absurd notion that Lucca was behind this, and allowed him to fetch her. I've tried to insulate my people from Darma's threat because a panic would have ruined my chances of defending against the invasion. All troops are at their usual stations along the coast, unaware of what is coming, but ready." Addressing Lucca directly, she said, "When you came here on your own, Darma was able to find you before I could."
The Mystics were trying to be as disruptive as possible before moving ahead, so that both nations would be unprepared to set up a defense. Lucca asked, "Do they realize that you are preparing for them?"
"The Mystics have been relying on Darma for information," Tyria said. "The bulk of their spies are tied up in Guardia, the main target."
Darma smirked. "They think that I'm having more of an effect on the government than I am."
"I can only assume that they know the military is protecting the coast," Tyria continued, "but they may not be aware of the actual numbers. I do not think Choras will fall to them."
"What about Guardia?" Lucca asked. "Have you abandoned us?"
"My country comes first, but I have tried to speed up the invasion, for Guardia's sake. They have been waiting on the death of the king, when disorder will be highest in the government. However, they are eager, and their plans have worked too well and too soon. They are anxious and will strike now, while the situation appears to be in their favor, rather than waiting and risking a reversal of fortune.
"Guardia will take loses in both people and land," she said, "but I think it will survive. Had I told Nadia that the Mystics would betray her, the Mystics would have lost their foolish confidence, and we would have a much bloodier war on our hands. As is, the invasion will be careless, and hopefully we will be able to make it through. We have enjoyed four centuries of peace, but I fear that peace can endure no longer, no matter what we do."
With a resigned sigh, Lucca accepted the truth she'd been anticipating for the last month. Part of her felt that her time had been wasted here, yet her experience with large-scale conflict was so limited. Could she have done anything more useful with her time?
All she could recognize in the jumble of her mind was the beginnings of a headache, and the overwhelming desire to get back to her home and her friends. She said, "What now? Are we going to just wait? I agree, that's all we can do."
"We all feel helpless right now." So sympathetic a statement seemed odd from the aloof queen. "You will be on a boat to Guardia as soon as I can manage it," Tyria told her. "The Mystics will think that you are still here, and the invasion will move ahead."
Hops had remained silent throughout. He had Spekkio's shot glass out again, and was rolling it in his palm.
"If I get to Guardia before the invasion begins, what do I tell Nadia?" Lucca asked.
Tyria was silent for a moment before answering. "Warn her that they are coming. Our intelligence is limited, but we suspect that they will destroy Zenan Bridge and occupy both sides of the channel. They will have a presence in the south to hold off reinforcements from Porre, and a foothold in the north, for pushing on to Truce and the castle. The north will be their priority. I should think that Lockton and Dorino are in the most immediate danger."
The chamber doors opened with a slight squeak. Tabanne, the green sentinel, entered and bowed. Her high voice said, "A man has arrived and wishes to speak with you, mistress. Demi and Atril are guarding the gate, so they must have allowed him to pass, for whatever reason."
Tyria did not seem surprised. Rather, her smile revealed again that cruel sense of humor. She said, "Perhaps this night will not be so dull. In all my planning, this is the only thing I left to chance. I'm most interested to see how it turns out. Yes, Tabanne, send him this way."
"Who is it?" Darma asked. Tyria had not told him about this.
"Really, my dear, did you think that your sudden reappearance in the world scene would go unnoticed?" She was calm, but Darma still looked nervous and confused.
The doors opened again, and a man sauntered in. He snagged the fifth, unoccupied seat and joined them, straddling the chair backwards, resting his arms on the back of the chair. He was grinning, and the only sound was the clink of a shot glass rolling out of Hops's hand and hitting the hardwood floor.
This stranger was a young man, in his late twenties perhaps. He had black hair and roguish good looks. He wore a dark jacket of military cut, but it lacked any name tags or insignia. Two belts, crisscrossed above his crotch, each held a sword sheathed at his hips. The blades were identical, except that where one had a large whole in the hilt design, the one on his right hip had that hole filled with a sphere of green stone that cast a weak green glow. Seeing the stone, the rest clicked, and Lucca knew who this man must be.
Hops reacted faster, yet summed up Lucca's reaction rather well. "Holy shit. You're Windex."
The man called Windex nodded, and his grin widened. He left his chair and advanced on Darma first. Darma's good eye was wide with amazement and horror, yet he managed to get to his feet. The two faced off, placing the newcomers quick smile and almost insolent manner against what little nerve Darma could manage. Windex moved first, taking a sudden step toward Darma, and before the smaller man could get away, hugged him.
"How the hell are you?" Windex asked, clapping his one-eyed friend heartily on the back. He stepped away to look Darma over again. "Look at you! We leave you alone for a while, and you stop cutting your hair and bathing. And your face! I told you again and again, if you weren't more careful with your machines, you'd end up putting an eye out. And sure enough, here you are, chrome eye patch and all!"
"It's good to see you, too, Windex," Darma managed. "What brings you here?"
"Oh, that." Windex was circling around the room now. "Draino sent me to kill you." Darma blanched. "The two of you didn't part on the best of terms, and he wasn't happy to find out that you're still around. But don't worry," Windex added. "Draino's an even bigger idiot than I thought if he seriously believed I'd off you. I mean, you're like the kid brother I never wanted! I couldn't kill you."
"That's awfully reassuring," Darma said, his nerves still on edge.
"Lighten up. I'm serious. Draino sent me to deal with you, but I came for my own reasons. For one, I wanted to see you again, do a little catching up, that sort of thing."
He stopped his circling near Lucca. To her, that wide grin suddenly looked like the maw of a shark. "I also wanted to meet this young lady." He loomed over her, still smiling. Lucca didn't turn away, but met his gaze evenly, waiting to see what he wanted. It had crossed her mind before that the other members of the Purge wouldn't be too thrilled with Crono and her. "I was told you were rather plain, yet here I find a beautiful woman."
"Wha...?" That wasn't exactly what Lucca expected.
"Spare us," Darma said. "I'll tell Lysol you've been charming other women again."
Ignoring Darma, Windex continued, "You have my respect, and that's a hard thing to earn. Shellac wouldn't allow just anybody kill him."
At a loss for how to answer, Lucca finally managed, "It doesn't bother you? He was your partner, right?"
"True, but from day one, I've always trusted his judgment. He had a weird way of showing it, but there was more sense in that straw head than I've ever had. If he wanted to die, that's his business." Windex stepped away, circling them again. "Of course, that's assuming he really is dead. I saw no body, so I can't say for sure."
Windex didn't stop by Hops, whose mouth was till hanging open, and he whistled as he passed Lady Tyria. "You're quite the woman, your Ladyship. Darma seems to have gotten himself quite thoroughly whipped." With a wry grin to Darma, he added, "Welcome to the club," though there was no bitterness in his tone.
Tyria seemed to ignore the comments. "Unless you have something important to add, our business for this evening is concluded. Do you intend to stay the night?"
"I couldn't refuse so kind an offer from so beautiful a lady."
"Don't push your luck," Tyria said with a small smile. "It wasn't an offer, but I'll take pity on you. You can stay in the suite with Lucca and Hops, though I fear you'll be sleeping on the floor." Tyria stood with measured grace. As she left the room, she cast a backwards glance over her shoulder. "Try to improve your manners before next time. I am royalty, after all. Come, Darma," she added. Sheepishly, Darma rose and followed her out.
"Yep," Windex said, "he's whipped. I do hope one of you knows the way back to this suite," he said to the only two people left in the room. He made a show of stretching and scratching himself. "Even if it is just a carpet, I could use a place to rest my head. I'm bushed."
Hops finally managed to find his voice again. "I know the way."
For the first time, Windex took particular notice of the boy. "Hops, right? The Master of War's son?" Hops only nodded. "If you don't mind, Lucca, could you wait in the hall? I'd like a private word with the kid."
"Yes, of course," Lucca answered, and stepped out with a nod to Hops. She didn't know how to react to being addressed so familiarly by so mythic a figure.
"Well," Windex began, "maybe I'm not the only one feeling out of time and out of place."
"I suppose," Hops answered in a small voice. He was watching Windex closely through the shade of his bangs.
"There's no reason to be afraid, kid. I think I can guess why you're here, and I sympathize. I've met your father a time or two, and I know he can be a right bastard."
"True enough," Hops said with a small chuckle, though his manner remained guarded.
"Here," Windex said, drawing the sword on his right. Holding it gingerly by the blade, he held it out to Hops, hilt first. The stone imbedded in the hilt cast a green shimmer on the boy's dark hair.
Hops was eyeing this man with greater skepticism now, though his gaze flitted to the green stone. "What makes you think--?"
"Just take it," he interrupted. "It's just a hunch, but I think it's what you want. I have no need of it. Never did." Again, he offered the hilt.
Hops was now staring at the green stone. Embedded as it was in the sword, it looked to be no more than a bit of decoration. He reached out and ran his hand over it from below. Cool to the touch, it fit his palm easily. Though it seemed secure, the stone dropped smoothly away, filling his hand with its weight.
"Thank you." Windex took a step back and returned his sword to his hip. "Now, if you'll show the way to our suite, I really am quite tired."
The boy hesitated, his attention still fixed on the stone. With the gentlest
tinkle, like breaking crystal, an Eye of Lavos shattered in his hand. The
shards fell to the floor, and he left them there to gather dust, or until
the cleaning staff swept them away. Without a look back, he led Windex out
of the room.
She awoke to the distant rumble of thunder. Only after she had lain awake in bed for a moment, listening to the constant drumming, did she realize it wasn't thunder at all, but the roar of cannon fire from the coast.
Her mind was still clouded by sleep, but her body acted immediately. She was up and dressing before she even noticed that it was still dark outside. Surely only a few hours had passed. There was noise coming from the sitting room, so Windex was probably awake, too. Belting her pants, she hunted in the dark for her bag.
Her door opened a crack, and a pair of eyes peeked in through the shadows. "Are you decent?"
"Yes," Lucca answered, waving for Windex to enter. "What's the situation?" She cursed the lack of convenient lighting. It was difficult to do a last-minute check of her handgun in the dark. She did what she could, then just jammed the thing into the waistband of her pants. Someday, she would take a break from crazy inventions long enough to make something useful, like a holster.
"This is a bit sooner than any of us expected," he said, remaining in the doorway.
Lucca pushed past him into the equally dark main room. Hops was awake, sitting at the sofa. He looked more out of it than usual. "What are we going to do?" she asked. "Tyria said she'd arrange passage to Guardia for us."
"I'll provide the transportation," Windex answered. He slouched into one of the chairs. "I suggest you sit down and relax. It will be a while before we go, and you'll need your energy. We have a long walk ahead of us."
Lucca ignored him and instead paced back and forth across the room. "How long?" She couldn't warn Marle now. Guardia was certainly under attack as well. If she could get there soon, she'd be able to lend a hand.
"If we left now, we might get there this time tomorrow. And that's if we run."
"What!?" Lucca stopped pacing. "It's that far?"
"It was a precaution in case the Mystics got here before we left. As you may have noticed, they have," he told her. "Still, we shouldn't run into any trouble on the way. The Mystics are only going to lay siege to the harbor for now. It may be days before they land troops. We just have to avoid the fleet as we leave."
Lucca glanced again at Hops, whose chin repeatedly dropped to rest on his chest, only to snap back up. She was just as tired, and only the panicked rise of her emotions kept her awake. "We can't get that far without stopping to sleep."
"I agree," Windex said. "It may take us as long as two days to get there." With a shrug, he added, "Doesn't matter, though. The boat's not going anywhere."
"Yeah, well I'd like to get home before the Mystics level my house." All this damn waiting! She'd waiting for over a month already, and she was really getting sick of it. "What are we waiting on anyway?"
"Tyria sent the red armor out to investigate. It should be back soon, and then Tyria can bore us with what little she's found out." He gave her a wry smile. "Maybe we can leave after that."
So they waited. Lucca finally tired of pacing and sat on one of the windowsills, leaning her head against the cool glass. Yesterday's rain had passed, and dawn was approaching. She could see the faint light on the horizon. She wondered what the coast looked like. She'd never seen any Mystic ships, yet Tyria spoke as if they had an armada. From just the noise, she obviously couldn't distinguish the enemies' cannons from the defenders', and she wondered who had more.
Now Hops was on his feet, pacing the same trails Lucca had trampled in the carpet. His mouth was moving, though an intelligible sound only rarely escaped his lips. "What am I doing..." he mumbled to himself, but loud enough for the others to hear. He didn't seem to realize it, or to care. "What am I...too much...why am I..."
"Hops." Lucca didn't lift her head from the window. "Come here." The boy visibly snapped out of whatever trance he had fallen in. He was suddenly aware of the others again, and sheepishly came to stand by Lucca. She patted the unoccupied part of the windowsill, and he sat facing her. "Lean your head against the window. It's cold. It'll keep you awake."
"Thanks," he said, taking her advice.
"Are you okay?"
"Yeah. I'm just..." He sighed heavily. "I'm distracted...and tired."
Lucca couldn't see his eyes, what with his bangs and the poor light. He was calming down from whatever fit of nerves had struck him. It was hard for Lucca to remember that she was looking at a twelve-year-old boy. So Hops is twelve, she thought, just like Windex over there is twenty-eight. Hell. There was another question that no one was inclined to answer.
She reached out in the gloom and gently brushed aside the boy's hair. Though she never saw anyone cut it, his hair seemed no longer than it was on the day they'd met. Those young, perfectly human eyes stared back at her. "I like to see your face," she said. "You shouldn't hide it."
"It just grows this way," he answered. "I'm used to it."
"We'll be in Guardia soon," she said. "A few days more at most. I'm not sure what's going to happen once we're there, but I'll make sure you're taken care of. Crono and I promised...we promised to watch out for you. You and Malt. We'll have to help Marle...we'll be busy...but we'll watch out for you...because...we..."
"Lucca." Her eyes shot open. Hops was smiling. Her hand had drifted away, letting his hair fall back over his eyes. "Now you're falling asleep."
"It would seem that I'm tired, too. And distracted." As she'd nodded off, still speaking words of reassurance, images of her home had filled her mind. She saw Truce covered in snow, as it might be later in winter. She could see herself making a snowman. She could hear Crono suggesting that she make it anatomically correct.
Fully awake again, or as close to it as she could manage, she imagined that it was all gone, crushed by a war she had never expected. Despite all that she had accomplished, she was still insignificant to the tides of time. She and everything she cared for could be swept away in a heartbeat, and the memory of her life would pass just as quickly. It would be as if she had never existed. How many lives had been lost to merciless Time, never to be remembered, and how many more would come and go, unnoticed, before the world was broken utterly, and nothing lived again?
"I'm so depressed I'm getting poetic," she mumbled.
"Angst fuels art," said Hops. "Or so I'm told."
Time crept by as they waited for news. From her perch on the windowsill, Lucca watched the sky brighten from black to a deep blue. Still the cannons roared, unabated. At last, Windex stood and spoke. "Let's go wait in the foyer. I think the scout is back." Glad for a change, Lucca and Hops followed him out of the room.
When they arrived, Tabanne stood waiting at the base of the stairs. She surveyed them with empty eyes, but said nothing.
"So eager to leave?" Tyria had emerged from some hall on the second floor, and now descended the stairs quickly. She was dressed in a gauzy, dark blue nightdress that barely concealed the figure beneath. "I'm offended."
Windex met her with a smile. "It's not our desire to be parted from so lovely a woman, but circumstances force us."
She responded with only a small smile. "Atril has returned?"
"Yes, Lady," Tabanne answered, genuflecting and lowering her face. "Atril gave her report to me and has returned to her post at the gates. She reports no major landings yet, as you predicted. The battle at the harbor is a stalemate. The Mystics lack the resources to overcome the coast with cannon alone, but we cannot overpower them either. On her way back, Atril spotted a lone group of soldiers on their way here: three of the machines and a commander, by the look of his garb. They were moving openly on the road."
Darma chose this moment to make his own appearance from the second floor. He hastened down the stairs, shirtless, and still fumbling with his belt. "Three machines?"
"Yours, no doubt," said Tyria. "Are they as useless as you claim?"
"Against Demi and Atril? They won't last a minute."
Tyria nodded and swept to the doors. "I'll wait for him outside, and see what this emissary has to say." As she passed through the threshold with Tabanne following close behind, she glanced back. "Then, perhaps, we'll test their mettle."
"Demi will be pleased," Darma said as he turned to the others with his ever-present grin. "He wasn't happy that I wasted time on such inferior machines, and now he'll get to destroy them."
"Let me guess," Lucca began. "You sold weapons to the Mystics, too? Kidnapping me wasn't enough?"
"Only some very substandard equipment," he answered evasively. "I had to keep their trust after all. I charged them far more than the stuff was worth."
Peachy. Guardia would have a mecha legion to contend with. Substandard or not, it was one more thing for Lucca to worry over. Shoulders slumped, she trudged to the foot of the stairs and took a seat. "Come on over, Hops," she said. "Take a load off. No doubt we'll wait around some more to see what the approaching Mystic has to say. Have anymore of that cheese?"
Hops dropped down beside her. From his bag, he produced a fresh canned cheese. "Brand new," he said. "Decided to try my vice?"
Lucca snatched the can, tossed her head back, and let it rip. The flavor of pressurized cheddar filled her senses. "Strong stuff," she sputtered after she had downed the first mouthful. Reaching into her own bag, she found one of her prized canteens and chased the cheese with a stream of poi. "Here," she said, passing the canteen to Hops. "It does the body good."
He took it without hesitation and proceeded to chug with the skill of a master. When he stopped, he was sputtering, too. "What is this again?" he managed. "It kicks like a mule!"
"A marvel of the elder days!" Taking the canteen back, she drank again. "Poi, pork broth of the gods!"
"Hey!" He had been absorbed in conversation with Darma, but Windex now took notice of them. "Take it easy on the strange foods, you two. You'd better be able to walk straight when the time comes."
"I'll walk my foot straight up your ass," Lucca slurred. She passed the canteen back to Hops. "Take another gulp and act drunk. We can annoy high-and-mighty mister immortal swordsman."
Unfortunately, their fun was cut short by a voice from outside. It was a bellowing roar, not unlike the voice of a large cat in anger. "TYRIA!"
"Ah, the herald's cry," Windex said. "How many times has it called me to battle? Bring your things," he told Lucca and Hops. "I expect we'll be on our way shortly." His left hand resting on the hilt of a sword, he strode to the exit with Darma, Lucca and Hops in tow.
The four emerged from the front doors into the weak morning light. In the east, the sun had not yet risen above the mountains. Far ahead on the stone path, Tyria stood under the upper gate, Tabanne at her side. As they approached, they heard her call, "You have the Lady Tyria's attention! What errand brings you to my city, kitten?"
There was a screech like a wounded panther. "Do not stir my wrath!" answered the booming voice. "General Lynx stands before your hovel! I come with an offer much kinder than you deserve. In the name of Ozzie VIII, I demand your surrender to the armies of Medina! Cooperate, and we may spare your human city!"
Now standing a few steps behind Lady Tyria, Lucca could see the small figure below. He was a Mystic of a breed she had rarely seen. He was shaped like a human, but his face was like a cat's. His exposed skin was covered in tan fur. He was dressed in a uniform of black, purple and gold. A half-cape hung from his shoulders, and a black and gold cap sat on his head between his large, furry ears. If he also had a tail, his clothes concealed it. Three clumsy mecha flanked him as an honor guard. They did look like frail toys compared to Demi, who stood with Atril in the shadows of the lower gate. Lynx did not seem to notice them, or paid them no mind.
The general's face was contorted in rage. He brandished a short-handled scythe encrusted with gold and jewels. "What will it be?" he cried. "Refuse me, and I will not stop until this continent is razed!"
"Do not threaten me, kitten!" Standing at the thousandth step, even dressed in her silky negligee Tyria was a majestic sight. Her beauty had become a mask terrible to behold. "You underestimate me. I know the insignia of a Mystic general, and you do not bear them. Run, Lieutenant, back to your masters with your tail between your legs. Let them see your empty hands and know what a fool you are!"
The lieutenant's fresh cry of anger rent the air and set Lucca's ears ringing. "Words alone will not stop me! What force have you to resist me that would make you speak with such confidence?"
"You live only so long as my hand stays the reaper," Tyria answered. "Your masters may think that the dregs of their might are enough to overwhelm Choras, but they have grossly miscalculated. If they take this land, every inch of soil will be paid for with their blood. Alone, you cannot force me to do anything. Go, kitten, and fight in your war. Die on the battlefield with delusions of glory in your heart, for only a dog's death awaits you at my door."
To Lucca's surprise, he didn't roar again. Lynx was silent, but his eyes smoldered with hate. Taking a step forward, he brandished his scythe again. "Surrender," he said, "or make good your threats."
"Let me." Tyria turned to the voice. Windex had moved to her side and was grinning at her. "Allow me to show our guest the door," he said.
Tyria studied him for a moment, sizing him up with eyes that would wither a lesser man. "If you insist."
Slowly, Windex began to descend the stair. His face was lowered, watching the steps, but he could feel Lynx staring up at him. He smiled. This might even be enjoyable.
"Is this who you send to dispose of me, Tyria?" Lynx was watching Windex very closely. The man looked like just another human mongrel, but Lynx would not be caught of guard. If Tyria believed this man could defeat him, Lynx would not hold back.
"Tell the machines to give us room." Still Windex did not look up at his opponent. "We should do this properly."
It was not without hesitation that Lynx signaled to the mecha, which backed away, leaving a large open space before the lower gate. "I sense some skill in you. I'll grant you an honorable death."
"Too kind," Windex mumbled to himself. At last he reached the bottom and stopped just past the gate. He looked up now and met the lieutenant's eyes. Within them he saw only arrogance. "I know your name, but you don't know mine. I'm most often called Windex."
"I know of two things that bare that name," Lynx said. "One is a substance for cleaning windows. The other is a person spoken of only in the legends of humans. You, sir, cannot be that Windex."
"You're the expert," Windex said with a shrug. "Shall we get down to business?"
"Certainly." Lynx dropped into a fighting stance. He was a hunter ready to pounce on his prey. "My father was Yameneko, and I wield his scythe, Hurricane, the blade of my ancestors, forged in the halls of Magus in ages past." He bared his teeth. "You cannot defeat me."
"My mother was a hamster, and my father smelt of elderberry. I got these swords from a pawn shop." Windex grinned wickedly. "They were a steal."
With a snarl, Lynx lifted his scythe and charged.
Windex dashed forward to meet him. His right hand rested on the sword at his left, but he did not draw.
From above, Lucca watched with interest. There wasn't much space between the warriors to begin with, and it was dwindling fast. She could see the bloodlust in Lynx's eyes, could hear the rage in his roar. Only a dozen feet separated them now.
In an instant, they met with a flash of steel and a blur of motion. Before Lucca's mind could sort out what she'd seen, they had passed each other. Windex came to a stop a few paces further on, though he did not turn around. His unsheathed blade glittered in the morning light.
Lynx managed another step, stumbled, and fell to his knees. A dark stain of blood was spreading rapidly over his right leg.
Neither spoke as the dust settled from their first exchange. Lynx was panting heavily, but he did not cry out. Nor did he stand. The cut was deep and painful. Moving now would only cause more damage.
Windex turned. "Get that bandaged before you bleed to death," he said as he sheathed his sword. The three mecha still surrounded him, but were unsure of what to do. "Carry him out of here," he said to one of them.
"Kill him," Lynx ordered through gritted teeth.
It was wasted breath. The words had scarcely left his mouth when a terrible thunderclap tore the morning air. Stepping out from the shadow of the gate, Demi had unloaded a single round into the first of the enemies, blasting it into unrecognizable scrap. Atril charged forth from her cover toward the second mecha. Whatever weapons it had could not stop the sentinel's razor-like claws and mechanical strength. Atril ripped her enemy to pieces.
The third took the hint. Windex did not hinder it as it moved cautiously to Lynx's side. With one last hateful look at the swordsman, the Mystic allowed himself to be lifted and born away. "Choras will not stand for long," he called, even as he passed out of sight down the road. "The strength of one man cannot stop the invading army."
"True words, my foolish friend."
"Lucca! Hops! We're leaving," Windex called from below.
At last! Lucca glanced at those around her. Tyria, standing proud and half-naked. Darma, shirtless, rubbing his arms to keep warm in the brisk morning air. Hops, watching her expectantly, waiting for her to give the word. "This is it," she said. "It was an honor meeting you, Lady Tyria." She made a short bow. Curtsies just weren't her style.
The imperious face Tyria had used on Lynx softened at last. "It was my honor as well, Lucca. Perhaps our next meeting will be under better circumstances."
"I hope so." She turned to Darma, but she didn't know what to say. He stood there, miserable in the cold, but still smiling at her with his usual warmth. Finally she decided on, "It's been fun."
"More fun than I have had in a long time," Darma said. He reached out and clasped her hand. "Take care."
"Of course." That left Hops. "Are you set?" she asked.
The boy nodded. "Lead the way."
As he moved to follow her down the steps of the hill for the last time, a hand gripped his shoulder, restraining him. It was Darma. He took the boy's hand as he had done with Lucca. "You take care of yourself as well," he said.
"I will," he answered. Darma was still a stranger to him, but he was warmed by the sentiments.
"Here." The one-eyed puppet master pressed something into Hops's hand. It was round and cool to the touch. Hops looked down at it, but the feel alone told him what it was: Darma's Eye of Lavos, another of the six that were not lost.
"Windex told me to give this to you," Darma explained. "He didn't say why, but I can guess. Do with it what you will."
The stone was light in his hand. Hops felt that he should say something, but he could think of no reply. He took a step back, then glanced over his shoulder: Lucca was nearly to the bottom of the hill; Windex was watching his exchange with Darma.
"Don't get left behind," Darma told him.
"Right," he said. He managed a weak, "Thank you," and then turned to leave.
Almost as an afterthought, he slipped the Eye into his pocket.
Two days later, they came at last to the coast. It was another chilly morning, and the dawn seemed more ominous this time. Would the light in the east bring hope, or a clearer view of the end? The noise of cannons had slackened through the night, and now the air was quiet and still. As they pushed through the last line of shrubbery between them and the beach, Lucca dared to mention the change. "The shots have stopped. Any idea what that means?"
Windex shrugged. He'd spoken little as he led them across miles of empty country. His mind seemed occupied, so Lucca had not tried to pester him. There had been no time for it anyway. Except for two short breaks for sleep, they had been on the move nonstop. "The Mystics may have fallen back for a while," he said. "Things may pick up again soon. It's also possible that they've finally landed troops. We're pretty far from the harbor and wouldn't hear ground fighting."
At last they breached the last line of bushes. From here, coarse sand sloped down to the waves. Lucca glanced back to make sure Hops was still with them. He had no trouble keeping up, but preferred to hang back. He, too, seemed occupied.
A rickety pier jutted out over the water. At it's far end, a rather familiar boat waited. A stout figure stood by the moorings, watching their approach. Even from a distance, Lucca could see the glint of sunlight on his thick spectacles. "You know Melchior?" she asked Windex.
"I hadn't met him before, but he believed me when I told him who I was," he explained. "I was looking for a ride, and his was the only boat heading this way. He'd just returned to Truce after bringing you to Choras, but he was glad to make another trip."
"You left him waiting here?"
"It's not like a forced him," Windex said. "He volunteered. Said his supplies could last him a month, so there was no rush."
Lucca took a cautious step onto the pier. It was in disrepair, isolated and seemingly forgotten, but it would last a while longer. Melchior met them half way. He hadn't lost any of his usual good cheer.
"Windex," he said with a nod to the swordsman. "It's good to see you again so soon, Lucca. And you, Hops."
Hops, who was still hanging back, gave a nod of greeting.
"He hasn't become any more talkative since you last saw him," Lucca said. "I guess this will make two round trips to Choras in a little over month."
"Indeed," Melchior said, "I should start charging you. But let's get off this breezy pier." He gestured to his yacht. "I dare say it's more comfortable onboard. You must tell me how you're stay in Choras went."
As Windex followed the guru down the pier, Lucca glanced at Hops again. He wasn't following. "Hops," she called. He looked up, as if startled. "Come on."
"On my way," he mumbled. His hand slipped into his pocket and found the stone there. He brought it back out, into the morning light, and turned it in his hand. Light...cool....flawless. It looked solid, not clear like glass, yet a weak light somehow emerged from it.
"Hops!" Lucca was further away. "We're going!"
He started down the pier, his eyes fixed on the boat ahead. As he walked, he cast a handful of green dust and stone fragments to the wind.