Fear and Loathing in South Figaro Chapter 6
Of all the things I've gained and lost in this crazy world of mine, I miss my mind the most. My ill-fated chocobo, I suppose, would come in a distant second. But as far as that slipshod assistant of mine was concerned, well, if I never saw him again for the entire time I was out on this goddamn mission, I'd die a happy man. He caused enough trouble without me around to go tear-assing through South Figaro high on ether and wanting to kill anything that looked at him the wrong way.
But he was probably right in assuming that Owzer was a liar from the first moment we saw him. Maybe there really was nothing going on between Celes and Leo and she was just looking for the opportunity to observe the druggie in action. Maybe she and Owzer were in on it. I'd never know. All I knew was that I had to get out of Figaro as soon as possible before the others hunted me down like a wild Buffalax.
I went back to my room and comported my wares to the best of my ability. There was no point in trying to tidy the place up; it was beyond hope. Several grapefruit were still intact, despite the skirmish the previous night, and I stashed them away in my duffle. What Returner interviews I had completed were thrown helter-skelter into my bag as well. No point in wasting time composing them, I thought. I'd have plenty of time to take care of that once I hit the road.
But where was I going?
Ah yes. I had to get to the race in Figaro desert! Terra told me she would be heading in that direction, so maybe I could just meet up with the rest of them there and finished this goddamn story. I stopped just short of the stairs when I realized what a spectacle I'd make of myself by stepping out into the lobby. He was scamming out on the bill, they'd think. With my luggage over my shoulder and sweating more profusely than a concubine in heat, they were sure to suspect something.
So, I pivoted ever so casually in the middle of the sun-filled hallway. Don't run, I told myself. They'd like any excuse to interrogate you. Just pretend you're admiring the tapestries adorning the corridors like all the other yuppies from the hinterlands.
That a boy.
There was an open window sill at the very end of the hall - the light at the end of the tunnel! I walked on, on passed the Albrook tourists and the Tzen natives who failed to receive any blessings from their saviors. On passed the bellhops who were trying to salvage the disrepair of room thirty-two. Quietly, I chuckled in retrospect. They were going to need some backup on that one.
When I was sure the coast was clear, I pried open the window pane and gazed down over the threshold. I probably wouldn't survive a two-story plunge to the cobbled streets below, but the canal might help soften the blow a bit. Even if I landed on one of those foolish skinny dippers, I'd fare relatively well. One leg over the other, I stepped out onto the ledge, hoisting my duffle high so that it wouldn't take on as much water and destroy my stories.
And then, I was airborne!
The ground shot up incredibly fast. I could hear odd gasps of awe and bewilderment as I fell from grace. The splash knocked the wind out of my lungs and eddies from the distant waterwheel sucked me under, spinning me in all directions. Several naked bodies flew passed me as I sped for death at full force. I'd be ripped apart in the current. It would probably be over in a few minutes. Maybe I should have thought things through more carefully, or at least concentrated on landing in the swimming area - AWAY from the current!
Suddenly, I was pulled back up to the surface. Gasping and sputtering, I gained and lost my breath in the same instant. A lovely blonde woman, naked and smiling, had saved me from a premature death. "Cool dismount, man! Your toes were curled, but I'll give ya a nine point six!"
Great. The gullet of the hippy crowd.
"I assume you have clothing, right?" This I asked as I examined the contents of my duffle. My writings seemed to be intact.
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"Oh. Well. . ." Now, now. Try to dissuade any lying and just give it to her straight. "Well, you see, I'm a doctor of journalism. I'm on my way to cover the big race in Figaro desert."
"Okay. . ." That's when her eyes lit up with recognition. "Hey, wait a sec! Aren't you Lothar Goldfist?"
"Yeah, that's right!" It was all quite overwhelming. A near-death experience and a fan of my work all at the same time. "I was hoping you could help me. See, I need a chocobo to get down there to the race. Mine was injured and isn't worthy for travel. You suppose you could help me?"
She pulled on a black tunic and leather trousers that lay neglected off to the side. "Of course I'll help you! You're an inspiration to us all!"
"Yeah! Me and my friends! You see, we're Surf Chasers! You remember that little bit you wrote about us back in Jidoor, don't you?"
"Oh yeah! Of course!"
And I did. Surf Chasers. Besides the Returners, they were probably the most paramount breed of all freedom fighters in the known World of Balance. Of course, they had never resorted to underground operations or conspire to kill any Imperial gigas. No. It was their nature, their sense of peace and well-being that set them apart from all the control freaks and dictators of the world.
And if they never found a gold piece or picked up a sword for the rest of their lives, they'd be happy.
"We came here in a caravan," she went on to say. "We never use the stables, though. Our chocobos won't get along with the others. They're not tame enough."
The girl had done her homework.
"So," I said, finally pulling myself out of the moat, "you think there's enough room in that caravan for one more?"
"Sure," she said, shrugging. "There's just one condition." So I told her to name her price. Guess what she said? "I want you to include us in your next story."
"We want to be in your next story. Is there a problem with that?"
"Well. . ."
But our train of conversation took a dirt road when I heard a cantankerous yell from across the terrace. It was the same person who had alienated my field the night before last. The one whom Zen had gotten revenge off of in destroying the livery.
The disgruntled stableman!
"Jesus God Almighty! We gotta get outta here quick!"
I shot to my feet but the girl only shook her head. "Not until you give me your word!"
"My word? You're already in the story, aren't you?"
And so, here you have it - the tale of a lovely young skinny dipper I met in South Figaro.
The girl's name was Xantcha and she was orphaned in Narshe at a very young age. Since then, she was bounced all around the World of Balance, searching for meaning. She set herself up as an apprentice to some crackpot alchemist in Kohilegen at the age of sixteen, though it ended prematurely when a Sylkis concoction took out the entire eastern wall of the man's cottage.
Seven years after that, she found Banon and joined the Returners. She conceded that there was more chemistry going on with them than there was with that lunatic from Kohilegen. Nevertheless, she would go on to leave after only a year of service. Something that had to do with the esper rampage limiting the lifespans of Banon's acolytes. But it was one of the wisest decisions she ever made. Less than three weeks after her resignation, the world was destroyed by Kefka.
But Xantcha was quick to understand that the direction of her life wasn't nearly as important as the journey itself. Over the years, she had traveled to many places and learned a lot of worthwhile skills that defined her as a Surf Chaser. She was a good diplomat, had more than an inside knowledge of herbs and other healing implements, even knew the lingo for a majority of what townships were still standing. A quintessential renaissance woman.
Such talents earned her the respect and companionship of others who were similarly transfixed with the free-as-a-falcon notion. Take Ratepe and Urza for example. Both had been abandoned at very young ages, just like Xantcha, and like Xantcha they struggled to establish a classless society in a world founded on Imperialism. But the similarities stop here, for each one of these incredibly gifted and unfathomably bright youths have their own stories.
By and large, Ratepe had a reputation as the party's comic relief. His cheap wisecracks and tendency to reminisce always kept spirits high, brightening the glow of any campfire. A native of Albrook, Ratepe also showed remarkable prowess in the field of peddling. Give him an hour and he'd make a killing selling dead Oscar carcases to some insane taxidermist. Such profit was what always gave sustenance to Xantcha's party.
Urza was different. Unlike Xantcha and Ratepe, he was far more eloquent and well-versed in antiquated literature. Give him the time of day and he'd recite 'Chronicles of the Magi' to you word for word. He tried entertaining me with such knowledge during our trip, and I had to give him all the spare change in my pockets to make him shut up. Definitely a Thamasian, I thought. Only one of their breed could actually take pride in such knowledge.
My first impression of them was that they had probably grown up on the Veldt somewhere, despite intelligence which suggested Vector spies. It was very hard to trust them all at first.
But then, of course, I got to know them better. . .
I can still hear the low but resonant whistle emanating from somewhere in the back of the chuckwagon. It was Ratepe's futile attempt to reproduce 'Johnny C. Bad', an upbeat Coliseum number northern Figaro had inherited after the World of Balance. It was kind of pathetic, really, for the actual melody was impossible to replicate at a whim. You could have lips like a politician and even the speed of all your flaming worldly propaganda would be no match for synthesizing such a complex rhythm.
It was hard going on the Figaro trail. At least when Zen and I first made headway for South Figaro, we had the luxury of riding bareback chocobos. The rigidness of the caravan's wheels across the arid scrublands, however, robbed me of any respect I may have originally had for this mode of transportation.
"Don't worry!" Urza yelled over the thunderous galloping of chocobos. "As soon as the shoreline opens up, we'll have it a lot easier."
He sounded confident in his forecast of silken trails. I, on the other hand, was growing tired of the endless bumps and crevices we were careening over. The caravan had come close to capsizing on several occasions and I was that close to hopping off entirely and taking my chances with the hyenas and vipers.
"How long do we have?" I heard myself ask.
"Two hours at most!" Urza yelled back. "The chocobos are usually a lot faster than this. I don't know what it is that's spooking them this afternoon."
I looked up at the orange and turquoise skies. "Probably those goddamn bats. You wouldn't happen to have a sword beating around here anywhere, do you?"
Before he could answer, Xantcha's prim face shot out from the dark recesses of the wagon, eyes dilated and breath reeking of Reagen. She looked like a gazelle that was on the lookout for any predatory birds. "How fare we?" she uttered in mock concern.
Urza changed hands with the reins. "Another few hours. Just give me a minute!" And suddenly, the vehicle ground to a halt, catapulting Xantcha out from the wagon and over my head. "I just gotta feed the animals."
"What?! No!" She wrestled to find her footing. "Wait! We can't stop here! This is bat country!"
She was right. I had traveled this road before.
"Come on!" She grabbed my arm and hauled me back into the chuckwagon. "You gotta try some of this stuff!"
Now naturally, one has to always remind themselves to never take drugs from strangers, particularly those whom you had met in the course of getting away with a felony. Then, I thought to myself 'Why not?'. I had already pushed the limits of my potion-popping antics back in South Figaro, and they had, after all, helped me in my hour of need, even when they didn't have to.
What could happen?
The wagon was on the move again when I entered the darkness of the coach. Until then, I had always chosen to ride shotgun with the navigator (whoever that might have been). Ratepe had long since given up on trying to whistle the Coliseum melody and found that he was far more content with 'Into the Darkness'. Now, there was an ironic tune if there ever was one. Where they got this music from I'd never know.
"Pretty cool, huh?" Xantcha asked, proudly presenting their sanctuary from the World of Balance to me.
It looked like a caricature of some Troian bedroom suite, full of duffles overflowing with empty ether flasks. Polychromatic throw pillows lay in decorative heaps all around us. Prismatic tapestries strung along the odd cuts among the wagon's tarpulin, transmuting the faint tendrils of sunlight to a beautiful spectral radiance. "The drapery was my idea," she razzed.
I was bewitched. "It's beautiful," I said, "Has a certain dreamscape ambience to it."
"Wow!" Xantcha sighed. "The great Lothar Goldfist just called our coach a dreamscape. Isn't that just the coolest, Ratepe?"
No response. The glazed look in the man's eyes said that he was already beyond the physical, beyond myself and Xantcha, beyond even the Reagen toke that was rolled up between his chubby digits.
"Ratepe!" she shouted, snatching the joint from him. "Where are your manners?" She, then, handed the smoking toke over to me. "Save some for our guests."
"Sorry, dude," he replied, and promptly passed out on the floor.
"And this is?" I asked, casting a nervous glance to the subconsciously whistling Ratepe.
"Just give it a try," she said, "but try it sitting down. It might be a little safer that way."
I hadn't much of a choice. The vibrations of the caravan were getting extremely nasty and the fumes of the drug had already begun to narcoticize me even as I just stood there holding the toke. She helped me to cushioned floor, urging me to hurry so that she could get a hit herself. So, I plucked the burnt-out butt of a cigarette from the holder in my mouth and quickly replaced it with the red Reagen joint.
The wagon seemed to stop moving almost the second I inhaled the smoke. The variegated tapestries began to glitter and waver with a life of their own. I exhaled ever so gradually, only to find that the smoke had begun to take on terrible mutations in the blind hazes of midday. My heart jumped.
"It's okay," Xantcha said, lulling me as she took the joint from my lips. "How do you feel?"
An understatement to say the least. Of all the narcotics and hallucinogens that had come and gone over my many exploits in journalism, nothing was nearly so pacifying as a hit from a Reagen joint. I never even realized my juxtaposition on the floor until I felt Xantcha nestle into the crook of my shoulder. And so we lay there, unmoving for the longest while as espers and chocobos trailed smoking curtsies over our heads.
"Look at that one," I said, gesturing heavenward. "Kinda looks like Ifrit, doesn't it?"
"Oh yeah! Look at that!" She giggled like a schoolgirl. "And that one over there?"
"No, that one! Yeah! Looks a little like Bahamut, doesn't it?"
"So, it does!" I put my arm around her. "So, it does."
It was, indeed, a small victory for the average journalist to find themselves aground with a beautiful woman and high as a gambler on Reagen Greens. But I'd like to think that I deserved this small victory of mine. The South Figaro conference was, after all, a clear indication of how muddled things can get when you take things too seriously. After a while, I didn't even mind the odd Dream Stooge that skulked into our sanctuary from time to time, with their lanky frames and shameless togas and impromptu invitations to go bathing down by the radiant coastline.
But this was my moment. My sunset. My waves lapping up on my sandbar. But more than anything else, this was my Xantcha, in her wonderfully angelic slumber at my side. Forget about that under-funded race for the time being, I thought, at least just for one more day. . .
What races were scheduled for that evening were cancelled due to severe sandstorms. Harsh Narshe currents had completely ravaged the course that day, with the resulting lack of visibility employing only an eighty-yard radius, which wasn't even beyond the hay bales at the end of the pit area. It was the perfect end to the perfect day. I had missed nothing at all by the time my chauffeurs had finally reached Figaro desert.
"Ya sure you're gonna be okay?" Xantcha asked as I stepped out into the gale storms of dust. "You can stay with us for a little longer if you'd like."
"I wish I could," I replied, casting a wayfarer's glance to the large zepplin looming up out of the sandy limbo. "But I gotta finish this story before the Returners take off on me again. And you know how it is with Returners. They're faster than green chocobos on acid!"
She giggled. It was the same laugh I had heard back on the Figaro trail somewhere. "Can't wait to read your next story, Lothar. Good luck!"
She reached out, wrapped both arms around my neck, and kissed me. Her breath was warm and still redolent of Reagen Greens. Then, like cowboys in the sunset, the Surf Chasers vanished in the spinning darkness. In the dust, the track was completely barren. The only sounds amongst me were the endless checkered flags waving about in the gale. Throwing my duffle over my shoulder, I made way for the nearest tent I could find, knowing only too well that tomorrow would be just another day of stalled retreats and burning the locals.
Of buying the ticket and taking the ride.
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