After the news about Peach on top of what happened with Poppi, the mood among the Seekers was grim just about to the point of being disastrous. Zenkichi only felt more morose, probably finding a way to blame himself. Even Pit couldn’t offer words of encouragement this time. Susie, if she cared, said nothing. Roxas had gone off by himself to wander, and Giovanna doubted she could’ve stopped him even if she tried. With him out of the picture, Bo taken away to recuperate at the nearest clinic, and Tora unresponsive, things felt pretty bleak between the five who remained. The secret agent waited in deadpan silence until she received her drink. This is exactly why I’m not a leader,
she thought. Managing people and morale is just too much work.
Fortunately, in the course of the morning’s ill-fated expedition, the Seekers had picked up someone who made it his life’s mission to lift others out of whatever hopeless depths they found themselves in, whether emotional or financial. When Partitio spoke up, trying to rouse the glum heroes’ spirits, Giovanna flashed him a grateful smile. Even if he sounded cheesy, he wore his heart on his sleeve. Though it felt kind of like a eulogy for someone nobody wanted to believe was dead, she joined in Partitio’s toast, and took a good long drink from her glass. For better or worse, this man was the genuine article, and if he planned to join the Seekers for the long haul she wouldn’t say no. A never-say-die attitude was just what the team needed right now.
Of course, more than anything they needed to get their minds off the day’s losses. Rather than be allowed to wallow in their misery and sink even deeper, they needed something to do. As long as these hero-types could see the light at the end of the tunnel and strive for a happy ending, they could probably forge onward. With that in mind, she excused herself after finishing her drink, and made another glyph call. She called up Goldlewis with low expectations, only to receive a one-two punch of critical information out of the blue. It hadn’t been half an hour since their last conversation, but as it turned out, a lot could change in a short amount of time. And this time, it had changed for the better.
After a couple minutes she returned to the others, a sense of purpose in her stride. “The situation has changed,” she announced, carefully lifting up Tora. Roxas was back, which was good. Simplified things a little. “We’re heading topside. We’ve got an appointment in the City of Glass.”
“City of Glass?” the Nopon asked suddenly. “As in high tech city of super-richypons where androids get made?”
Giovanna nodded. “That’s the one. We’re meeting Goldlewis and the others there, so let’s get a move on. We don’t wanna be late.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, none of the others could really offer an answer to the question posed by Goldlewis. Despite all they’d been through, they were still very new to Midgar in the greater scheme of things, and the city -practically a nation unto itself- was both overwhelmingly vast and complex. When it came to the Seekers’ quest for answers, the needle-in-a-haystack similes wrote themselves. Still, the events of last night and this morning offered a couple clues, and where to go next was a question predicated on what the heroes wanted to do, so Goldlewis cast his mind over everything they’d learned in an effort to put any twos that had fallen through the cracks together.
Before he could get anywhere, a couple more guests crashed the Seekers’ party, but at least these new arrivals were welcome faces and eagerly anticipated. “There y’are!” Goldlewis exclaimed the moment Midna and Raz arrived from the princess’s portal. Normally he’d be madder than a wet hen that two teammates had hurtled off into dangerous, uncharted territory with neither plan in mind nor means of communication, but for the time being he decided to count his blessings. “I ain’t about to say you’re a sight for sore eyes, but we missed you somethin’ fierce. Where in sam hill did y’all run off to?”
Both of them could scarcely wait to spill the beans, and what beans they were. What they’d listened in on in that truck helped fill in some serious gaps left in the Seekers' understanding by the rapid-fire turn of events back in the underground nexus. The troopers’ candid conversation revealed that the entire operation -ordered, planned, and carried out in such a short span of time- hadn’t just been a PR stunt to boost Shinra’s approval ratings during election season, but a method of suppressing internal dissent, as ruthless as it had been efficient. Icing real Others had only been icing on the cake when it came to neutering the rebellious Seiran Garrison. By now almost everyone had heard rumors about the lasting contention between the upper and lower halves of Sector 05, but this turn of events escalated the conflict higher than Goldlewis could have ever guessed. “Sweet mother o’ pearl,” he murmured. “This is gonna get ugly. Travers, you damn fool, if you’re on the side o’ justice why’d ya have to waste time talkin’ riddles?”
After a little thinking he cleared his throat. “I was just about to recap what we know, so y’all dropped in at just the right time. Let’s add all that to the mix and go over everythin’ real quick.”
“So,” he began, his arms crossed and his brows knitted together in thought. “Since yesterday, we done tangled with all three parts of the Ever Crisis between our two groups. The Others, the Chimeras, and the Machines. We also ran into all three branches of Midgar’s defenses, that bein’ Psych-OSF, DespoRHado, and Neuron. To stop the Ever Crisis, we gotta figure out what’s causin’ it, and why the people here ain’t able to turn the tides.”
He held up one finger. “First, the Chimeras. Simple enough, they come from the Astral Plane, another dimension fulla all kinds of strange matter. Gates can open anywhere, and once they are, red matter starts corruptin’ everythin’ in its path, like we saw with them awful Aberrations. The Chimeras are the main problem, ‘cause spread a shitton o’ red matter with their attacks, and abduct poor folks back to the Astral Plane, where they turn even faster. Neuron fights back usin’ Legions, which’re Chimeras they somehow turned to their side.” He sighed. “Doesn’t seem like there’s any concrete way to stop the Gates openin’. But maybe Neuron knows more.”
Goldlewis held up another finger. “Second, the Machines. Buildin’ huge armies out in the Valley of Ruin from their hidden factories, they invade Midgar in a more conventional sense, relyin’ on firepower and sheer numbers. Now we know they got a virus o’ some kind that can turn our machines against us. But that don’t make sense, ‘cause DespoRHado uses nothin’ but cyborgs and androids to fight ‘em. Makes a man wonder…how’d the hell they get some kinda immunity? Did someone at DespoRHado crack the code?”
Finally, he held up finger number three. “Lastly, the Others. Well, we already went over how they come from the Extinction Belt, but now we know humans can be metamorphosed into ‘em too. Not just that, but it’s Psych-OSF that’s doin’ it, or…at least a small part, anyway. I wouldn’t guess most of the soldiers know about it, just those in the scoutin’ team the rebels mentioned and whoever’s callin’ the shots. Which normally would be the top brass, but we met the top brass and he ain’t havin’ none of it, which leaves the people even higher up the chain.” He frowned deeply. “Grand Head Zanotto, PubSec boss Konoe, and Shinra himself.”
He stroked his beard. “I dunno ‘bout y’all, but I’m startin’ to see a pattern. All three ‘kinds’ can turn people or robots into monsters, or at least make ‘em lose their minds. And all three ‘branches’ seem like they have somethin’ deeper to do with their respective ‘kinds’ than just fightin’ ‘em. Its almost like they’re all usin’ their enemies against ‘em, or against other people. Maybe I’m just spoutin’ out nonsense, but….ya gotta wonder. Is the ‘source’ that Organization mentioned out in the Valley? Or…” He stared through the hideout's window.
Soon enough Goldlewis got another call. It hadn’t been long, but he had a lot to catch Giovanna up on, and when the two put their heads together they came up with a plan. When Goldlewis returned to the others from the other half of the hideout, he seemed more animated than before. “Listen up, folks. It’s time to hit the road. In case y’all don’t remember, Sector 06 is the City of Glass, the most restricted sector in the whole doggone city. Home to titanic corporations like Memorize, CyberLife, and Vandelay. And Dendenmille Showcase Theater, which ain’t just where tonight’s debate is, but also smack-dab in the middle of Vandelay’s campus. Giovanna said Tora’s highly suspect o’ CyberLife on account o’ their tech, and since we’re headed there anyway, might as well use the extra time to get as close a look as we can.” Grabbing his coffin, Goldlewis pulled open the hideout’s door. “So let’s mosey.”
Midgar - Sector 06 Hublink
The two halves of Black Team set out at approximately the same time, Goldlewis and his crew up from Seiran to Suoh and then along the same path they’d taken out of Sector 05 last night, while Giovanna’s retraced its steps up to the Sector 07 Plate and toward the same destination from the opposite direction. While the journey took a few hours, it could’ve been a lot worse; maintenance and law enforcement had evidently moved at breakneck pace since last night, either repairing or rerouting around a lot of the Chimera-induced damage to keep Midgar’s interplate traffic flowing. Thanks to a call put into the SOU headquarters, the team’s tech consultant Mr. H was not only able to forge a fresh GridLink for Partitio to ensure his safe passage, but also update those of Sakura and Raz to make sure their identities reflected their new status as Psych-OSF soldiers. With no major issues at security checkpoints, the two halves both succeeded in ascending from undercity to plate, then traveling from their respective plates’ hubs to Sector 06’s via hub tunnel, all by bus. It was only when they both reached the Sector 06 Hublink that things got difficult.
The City of Glass did not permit traffic from outside–of any kind. It all came to a stop at the Hublink, a sparkling, airport-like travel nexus of polished white floors and glittering glass domes. Past the parking garages and renting lots for commuter vehicles, and the pickup and dropoff lanes for public transport, lay the semicircular superstructure.
Before dealing with anything else, the two halves of the team met with something of critical importance: one another. Goldlewis, Giovanna, Blazermate, Susie, Geralt, Zenkichi, Sakura, Karin, Pit, Roxas, Benedict, Partitio, Tora, and Raz all met in the vast open space of the HubLink’s atrium, dappled in myriad colors refracted through the magnificent, towering glass sculptures that stood around the spotless tile like museum pieces. Given the circumstances there wasn’t as much rejoicing as one might expect from a grand reunion, but it was good to see everyone else again, even if it highlighted the two who weren’t here. Anticipating a better working environment, Tora had dried his tears and stowed his equipment in his toolbox. Without the Drill Shield, Mech Arms, or Variable Saber on his person the Nopon looked almost naked. Only his hammer remained; though their hearts went out to him, both SOU members knew that the team’s best tank wasn’t fit for combat.
That led straight into the matter at hand. On the other side of the atrium from the transport hub lay a massive security checkpoint. An extravagant, almost needless abundance of Cyberlife robots could be found throughout the place, and not the humanoid service androids popular throughout Midgar, either. SBR
, and AIR-1N
units were the most common, but there were also a number of ES-101s
and hulking BA-B00s
. Over all of them stood an impressively well-armed duo: the mighty pairing of HG-0M
. That was a problem for one simple reason: so far the team’s forged GridLinks had worked a treat, but the buck stopped here.
“We got enough press passes to see six of us through,” Goldlewis explained, well out of earshot of security. “But that leaves eight of us left over, and the GridLinks we got ain’t gonna cut it with real security like this. so we’re gonna have to get clever. No causin’ any big scenes and gettin’ us in trouble, y’hear?”
Like all of Nadia’s spur-of-the-moment harebrained ideas, or at least a majority of them, her scheme to get the Koopa Troop’s attention went off flawlessly. Oh, and Sectonia was here, too! With the big bug in tow, the curious quartet began to make their way into the Terminal, and they soon queued up at the main counter to place their drink orders. It wasn’t just coffee and snacks on offer, though, and Junior’s curiosity drove him down a detour that involved petitioning the help of one of the cafe’s skeletal customers. Rika, meanwhile, couldn’t help but take in the unique, cozy atmosphere of the latest stop on her journey of non-stop wonders, going strong ever since her defection from the Abyssal Fleet opened her eyes to the world beyond the waves.
Between the two of them, and Bowser requiring some shrinkage, it would be a couple moments before the new arrivals joined Nadia and Primrose at the table, but she didn’t mind. With its cozy atmosphere, the soothing ambiance, and plenty of good company readily available, this place invited all its patrons to take their time. Nobody could stay at the Terminal forever, but it was a lovely place for people to linger as long as they could. In fact, many of the people here seemed reluctant to move on, grasping for every second as they wished that ‘now’ could last forever. As she nibbled her last scone, Nadia thought about what Primrose said before. Isn’t this who we are, now? Everyone changes…
It wasn’t just reassuring; it was true. None of the changes she’d gone through so far felt a fraction as drastic as those that befell her on that fateful night. And yet, even after all that, she’d still been the same Nadia deep down. Hopefully nothing in this world could change that, either. Compulsively she tried to brush back the hair that now lay across her left eye, but it stubbornly slid back into place.
Soon enough the Koopas arrived, starting with Rika, and the girl did not hesitate to tell the team all about her misadventures in Crumble Caverns. Hearing her describe an entire underground biome of cheese left Nadia slack-jawed for a moment. “You’re kitten me. That’s crazy! I’ve gotta go see that sometime.” A toothy grin spread across her face. “Fair warnin’ though, once I do it’s open season on cheese puns for, like, ever. You cheddar brie-lieve it!”
Rika’s comments on jobs also got an approving nod. “Yeah, exactly! Why bother earnin’ anythin’ for yourself when you can just steal from someone else?” The lack of sarcasm in her voice made it that much harder to tell if Nadia was joking.
The conversation shifted toward the journey yet to come, and what the new information everyone now possessed meant for it. Nadia didn’t particularly care to contemplate the whole subject of Lifelight and how it related to the Flame Clocks, since it hadn’t seemed relevant to the Seekers’ campaign up until now, but the way the others described it reminded her of something from her not-so-pleasant at the Sanitarium. “This Clock thing almost sounds like those weird bags they had at the hospital,” she mused. “When you’re hooked up to one, it pumps ya fulla blood and stuff ya need to live, but the bag needs someone else’s blood to fill it. Then once you’re taken off it, you’re good all on your own.” She shrugged and popped the last bit of her scone in, then talked with her mouth full. “Course, my blood jusht refills itshelf, sho what do I know.” She washed the crumbs down with a drink of coffee, wondering about the implications of the demise Sectonia attributed to P. Dying without even leaving a spirit sounded kind of terrifying. Like a final death.
As the conversation continued, Rika suggested going deeper into Crumble Cavern. That suited Nadia just fine; both of her brain cells were already working overtime on cheese puns. Kamek, however, suggested staying in for the night. “Huh? You wanna be done for the day?” Looking bemused, Nadia reached a hand around to scratch her back. “I mean, I get wantin’ to sell your stuff off and all, but it ain’t even dinnertime. The night’s still young! Can
people even sit still that long?” The hair brushing her cheek tickled a little, but when she tried blowing it away it settled right back down into place. “I sure can’t,” she continued. “Just call me a me-owl, ‘cause I’m always up at night!”
She found herself looking at the map while the others talked about selling things, and after a little more studying her eyebrows suddenly shot up. “Oh, hey! Sectonia, you said you’re looking for a king or somethin’, right? Well, lookie here!” She tapped a spot in the corner of the map of the Home of Tears: King’s Station. “It’s your lucky day! Why not just go there?” Unfortunately, it really seemed like she wasn’t joking this time.
At some point Therion had arrived, his natural stealthiness helping him blend in until he helped himself to baked goods and started making suggestions. He mentioned a previous train ride he’d taken alongside Jesse and Raz and the place it deposited them in the Under, which according to the map seemed nearby. Heading there sounded about as sensible as any other suggestions thus far. Nadia just wanted to get a move on from the Home of Tears before the rain started wearing out its welcome. “Might be nice to go somewhere dry for a change,” she piped up.
Her ears swiveled at the sound of well shod footfalls, and Nadia turned to see Ichiban a moment before he asked his first question, which left her a little confused. They were drinking coffee, reading maps, and chatting, what else? The broader scope of his question quickly became apparent, though. She shifted her chair to make room for him at the table, mulling over his words. Honestly, she felt pretty inclined to brush it all off as the typical disorientation that followed someone’s ‘awakening’, and his usage of unfamiliar jargon didn’t help his case. “I dunno what some of those things you mentioned are,” she admitted. “Things are bound to be confusin’ though. Given just how many worlds got caught up in this mess, coincidences are gonna happen sometimes, right?” Shrugging, she leaned back in her chair. “Heck, when I first saw Limsa, I thought for sure it was Little Innsmouth. That’s where I’m from,” she added proudly. In regards to Primrose’s question, she very much did not
want to explain things to Ichiban. Someone else could do it, probably Kamek. Old guys love explainin’ stuff,
Rubick showed up, followed shortly by an unfamiliar knight whose acquaintance the magician had evidently made. “Oh hey…you!” Nadia greeted him. This table wasn’t nearly big enough for everyone, and the group was beginning to attract attention.
Well, so far the party ten had neither reached a consensus nor fallen in line after someone’s insistence, so the team stood at an impasse. Plus, even if they did make a decision, that still left a number of team members in the dark. Jesse, Ganondorf, and Omori weren’t here, and Nadia didn’t have the slightest idea where the boy might be. Whether he intentionally left the others or just got lost was anyone’s guess, too. “Ever since we fell down here we’ve been gettin’ separated nonstop,” she thought aloud. “I mean, did anyone even see where that ‘Adventurer’ guy went? It’s a miracle we all made it to the city to begin with.” After looking down at her nearly-empty cup, she sighed and downed the rest of her coffee. Then the feral stood up. “Well, if you guys are plannin’ to stick around here sellin’ loot and whatnot, I’m gonna go stretch my legs.” Stretching one arm and then the other, she grinned at Sectonia. “I’ll go check out King’s Station and see if I can find one to rule this place for ya. If I do, it’ll be a ‘crowning’ achievement, right? Nyahaha~” With that, she folded up her map, pulled her hood up to shield against the rain, and went to leave, waving goodbye as she did. If anyone wanted to come with, she certainly wouldn’t object. “Smell ya later!”
Luckily, the map put King’s Station directly adjacent to the Downtown district of the Home of Tears, so it wasn’t a long journey, especially by water. After heading to the waterside Nadia airdashed to and commandeered one of the city’s many self-piloted giant paper sailboats on its circuitous journey from Fountain Central to the station landing and back again. Once back on terra firma, Nadia did not hesitate to step inside, though the first impression she got of the place once in left her a little let down.
Contrary to its name and perceived prestige, King’s Station looked pretty derelict. Threadbare banners hung in tatters over a rubble-strewn floor with entire sections of it torn up and the earth beneath clearly visible. A once-austere wrought-iron bench lay broken in half, and the station’s lower sections were filled with water. In front of the closest flooded track, a brass bell rested at the foot of the post it once hung from. Nadia crouched down to lift it up in hopes of putting it back, but she found it cracked and useless, so she discarded it again just as quickly. “What a dump,” she muttered. “No way any kings are hangin’ out in a place like this.”
Unless they were waiting deeper in. Something about this place told Nadia that there was more to it than met the eye. She stood and jumped over the flooded track, heading further into the decrepit station. All around hung tablets scrawled with arcane-looking white runes, and the echoes of dripping water resounded through the pitch-black tunnels. If not for her experience in the Soul Sanctum, she would have found this place pretty creepy. After another minute or two of exploring, she hit a dead end in a pretty big room full of all kinds of crabs. Mud crab
, king crab
, even a magic crab
. At one point Nadia almost got nipped by a statue that turned out to be a Rock Lobster
. On the other side of one last channel lay a large, important-looking doorway labeled ‘B’ by a nearby sign, the way tightly shut by interlocking metal bars. Even if she detached all her parts, Nadia didn’t think she could wriggle her torso underneath or between them.
It intrigued her less than its surroundings, though. Unlike the other flooded channels that ran through this place, the one here seemed deliberate. It not only featured a stalled waterwheel with a dry channel poised above it, but flowed at an appreciably fast pace toward the right side of the room, where it then proceeded into what looked like a pitch-black abyss. A sign there read ‘Danger - bottomless pit’, which earned a scoff from Nadia. “No such thing as bottomless,” she snarked. The Bottomless Sea sure hadn’t been, what with all the rocks and even an island that she’d seen rising from it. Upon further inspection, the flow of the water seemed to be blocked. With furrowed brows, Nadia scratched her chin. “This seems like a puzzle,” she mused, her tails swishing restlessly. There had to be something good in here to go to all this trouble for it. A king’s ransom, perhaps?
Enticed by the prospect of riches, she set about trying to figure the puzzle out.
By just about anyone’s account, it was a stunningly beautiful day. The sun smiled down across the countryside, its radiant rays of light bathing it in a pleasant warmness perfect for dozing, yet a refreshing breeze blew through the leafy boughs and rolled across the grassy plains. While stormclouds churned far to the north, casting the regions west of the Sandswept Sky’s border mountains in a heavy rain shadow, the sky over the Land of Adventure couldn’t be more blue. But the land that sprawled out beneath it was not the same as yesterday’s. Gone were the bountiful fields of gold that surrounded Morgensloft farm, the lake of Pelagics where the Watertop Land of Fantastication floated, the forest temple with its baffling puzzles, the gorgeous-yet-alien Coral Highland, and the blighted pastures of the Ancestral Farmhead. The Hamlet, with its amicable porcine population, never stood a chance. Even Lumbridge, robbed of the World Anchor that sustained it for so long, was no more. Only Haven remained, its own World Anchors left untouched by its ruler. Other than that, the past -the very land itself- had been scrubbed away.
And yet, that was only the beginning of the loss that today had seen.
For Alcamoth’s survivors, not even a stunningly beautiful day could lift their spirits. Only the fact that some survived gave them solace–yet the guilt that haunted them, like vengeful spirits left behind by the dead, hurt some of them worse than death. Still, the fact that they still lived endowed them with a responsibility. If the Consuls believed that all of Alcamoth’s people had been destroyed alongside it, they were off their enemies’ radar. Though Smash City’s desperate struggle had ended in catastrophic loss, their sacrifice bought the survivors some time. Time enough, hopefully, for a new beginning. Within one week, before the Land of Adventure re-generated again, they would need to find a new foothold in this new, different country.
And how different it was. Rivers cut through the landscape like the strokes of an artist’s brush, dividing in into chunks, and only some even remotely resembled the rich green countryside of yesterday. Vast sections of the region appeared to be woven from wool, yarn, and canvas, including their foliage and many of their inhabitants. On their trek west from the button-speckled wood
on the central island where the teleporter left them, the survivors stepped over a rich two-dimensional tapestry of life knitted into the ground itself. Its two-dimensional denizens went about their business with one another as if they didn’t even notice the survivors ‘above’ them, traipsing around in a dimension beyond their ken. By the same token, though, tearing into and altering their fabric of reality was so easy that some of the travelers did it accidentally. Quickly and carefully they hurried on their way, journeying southwest over taffeta tropics
, felt fields
, textile tech
, and tweed treats
. At great length, however, the cloth landscape gave way to ordinary dirt, grass, wood, and rock. There the trek finally stopped, at a city lodged in the mountains: Markarth, the City of Stone.
Upon arrival, the survivors dispersed through the city, looking for food, lodging, or just a place to rest. Despite their fatigue and misery, Vandham urged each and every one to be on their guard. Far removed from Alcamoth’s resting place Markarth might be, but at the end of the day, it was all still the Consuls’ domain. Then, rather than follow the others into town, he seated himself in the shade of a leafy tree on a cliffside overlook, next to the man who’d saved his life.
“I really am grateful, y’know,” he began after a few moments in his characteristic Australian accent. “I thought ya robbed me, at first. Of my chance to make a difference. I was ready to sacrifice myself, thinkin’ that if I could save even a single life by layin’ down my own, it’d be worth it. It woulda been a ‘elluva lot easier than dealin’ with the grief, and pickin’ up the pieces, heh, ‘specially knowin’ ‘ow cruel this ‘ere World o’ Light really is. But I thought about it long’n ‘ard ‘bout it on the way ‘ere. The Seekers are still out there fightin’. As long as there’s a chance we can set things right, I’m gonna keep fightin’ too, and I en’t gonna throw my life away just to go out like a ‘ero’.” He held out a fist to his savior. “So. Thanks, mate.”
After a moment, the other man bumped his fist, but his face was anything but happy. “I scarce deserve your thanks,” he said, his Indian accent thick with anguish. “Twas my folly that helped bring about this tragedy in the first place. My regrets, my sins…they weigh upon my soul, heavy as the mountains old, more numerous than autumn leaves. I’ve turned a blind eye to it all for so long, the depravity and injustice. How far I have fallen from those glorious elden days, before I resided in the now.”
Vandham put a reassuring hand on the shoulder of the man’s grape-purple suit jacket. “I can’t say I understand your situation,” he told him, “And I en’t gonna pry. But I do know we all make mistakes. Long as your ‘eart’s in the right place, you can work to make it right. I sure ‘hope ya do too, ‘cause we could really use more o’ that ludicrous ‘ealin’ goin’ forward.”
The healer gave a wry smile. “A stouthearted sentiment, Vandham. One worthy of a hero, and a mentor. I can see why you meant so very much to him.” After adjusting his gray tie, he stood to his feet.
“Him? Y’mean Rex?” Vandham raised an eyebrow. “Oi, where you goin’? You en’t leavin’, surely?”
“Hm? Oh, no.” The healer shook his head. “I thought only that I might better acquaint myself with this place. We have much and more to do, and time is not on our side.”
Vandham left to check in on the others, and the healer descended to the bottom level of Markarth, observing everything that he could. As with every location in the World of Light, this city existed as a fused-together mishmash of shapes and ideas from various worlds. Its unifying theme appeared to be medieval fantasy, which suited him just fine. There were humans, beastmen, dwarves, and even elves, so with his own long ears the man fit right in. He passed by a row of grocers with various unusual wares, from vegetables like the Humming Cabbage, Razzle Basil, and Juicy Steakplant to fruits like the Heart Peach, Spicy Banana, and Dance Apple. Were it a better day the sight of cube-shaped strawberries and upside-down upgrapes -not to mention the fuzzy pink Nopon
selling them- might have brought him a smile, but he soon moved on. Fresh meat sourced by a local hunting party could be found at the butcher stall of surly Hogni Red-Arm
, and Blurberry’s Bar
dispensed all sorts of gnomish grog, but the healer passed them by. The city’s elaborate, almost ceremonious forge
, recessed into a mountain where it could utilize both molten-hot lava and snowmelt water, caught his eye for but a moment, and he didn’t bother to look into the tailor–he knew he’d never replace his purple suit. He only lingered at the ‘Petpet Shop’, where a variety of heart-achingly cute little critters caught his eye. It made him miss his Opo Opo. Soon enough, though, he found himself at the riverside.
He stood there a short while, just breathing in the crisp highland air as he tried to clear his head, until he happened to catch a whiff of a tantalizing smell. A jolt of nostalgia hit him like a Landslide to the face, and appropriately enough it nearly sent him tumbling over the river’s edge. He managed to catch himself in time, however, and after a moment he tentatively sampled the breeze. “No…surely not…” But after a second sniff there was no mistaking it. The healer took off at a run, sprinting along the riverside past confused and startled Markarth citizens. In just a few moments he arrived, his mouth ajar as he took in a hauntingly familiar sight. It was an outdoor restaurant situated on a raised wooden platform by the crystal clear pond where the Markarth’s two rivers joined together before spilling out through the sluice beneath the city walls. Above it stood a very high trellis, with patterned rugs stretched across their lengths, as well as hanging brass planters and lanterns. With square tables and stools beneath all the dangling plants and such, it gave off a rather naturalistic and outdoorsy touch, perhaps befitting a garden luncheon on some noble’s grandiose estate. The healer ran a gloved hand over his slicked-back, dark-brown hair, breathing slowly despite the rapid beat of his heart. “Even if it is,” he reasoned, “Surely it cannot be the same…”
No harm in trying, though. He seated himself at a vacant corner table and perused the menu. Some of the dishes on offer he didn’t recognize, but he quickly locked in on one item in particular, and he knew in that instant he could accept no alternative. When the waitress arrived, she found the classy-looking gentleman practically tripping over his own tongue as he tried to place his order, apparently from excitement, though he quickly simmered down once he stopped to remind himself of the circumstances that brought him here. Still…even if this came about as the result of random chance, it felt like fate. His first order did not take long to prepare, and after just a moment the waitress placed his plate down before him. For a few moments, the healer just stared, moving only to wipe his glasses as they began to fog up. There they were, in all their shiny, purple, angular glory: crystal grapes
. Carefully he slipped off his black gloves, raised the polyhedron to his lips, and took a bite. Sweet. Juicy. Tart. Like grapes, but crystalline in shape. Every bit as good as he remembered them. “Ohh,” he sighed, his brows upturned above closed eyes. “How I’ve missed you, silly grapes.” He took another big bite and relished every bit of it, flavor and texture alike. “Truly, absence makes the heart grow…”
The moment he opened his eyes, he’d frozen, still as a statue. He’d locked eyes with a woman a table away, who’d just sat down herself. She had short white hair with point cat-ears, blue eyes, tan skin, and red streaks on her cheeks. Her garb was a modest affair for her world, though still complex by conventional standards for a white jacket and blue pants. She even had that stupid twig at her waist. No. Not again.
In contrast to the man’s utter shock, this woman seemed amused by his reaction, raising an eyebrow with a smile. After a moment, the healer realized he’d accidentally dropped his grapes into his lap.
“Godsdamn,” he muttered, quickly placing the food back on its plate before dabbing at his pants with a napkin. When he looked up again, he got another shock, for the woman he’d seen before now sat directly opposite him. “Ah! Oh, goodness. Er, my apologies, madam.”
“Are you quite alright?” she asked, her lovely English voice playful. “You looked at me as though you’d seen a ghost. Or is it love at first sight, perchance?”
Swallowing, the healer instinctively worried at his soul patch, clearly uncomfortable. His dark eyes were “Forgive me. You just so happened to remind me of…of someone I used to know.”
“Ah, a classic,” the catgirl smiled, though after a moment she tilted her head. With a slight squint she rested her head on her hand. “You know, though…there is something oddly familiar about you. Are you sure we haven’t met before, mister…?”
A tense second passed. Though it pained him profoundly, the healer shook his head. “I…think not, madam. Loathe though I am to admit it!” He gave a nervous laugh.
“Again with the ‘madam’. What am I, an old lady?” the young lady chided jokingly. “There is something about you…but I suppose not. I’m rather good with faces, so I daresay I’d remember.”
The man put on a wry smile. “One would hope.” He bowed his head in apology. “Again, sorry for the interruption. Please enjoy your meal.”
“I shall,” his acquaintance said, standing to leave. “There certainly isn’t anywhere else around here I can, by the Twelve.” The white-clad catgirl
went on her way and, not wanting to distress the man further, headed past her original table to one farther off.
Meanwhile, the gentleman slumped down in his chair. A waitress stopped by, asking if everything was alright, and after assuring her he put in a new order. “One cheeseburger, please.” Once she left he removed his glasses, set them down, and rubbed his eyes with his palms. “Such illimitable torment,” he moaned after a few moments.
Startled for the third time, the man opened his eyes to see another familiar face. Dirty blonde pigtails, pinned-back bangs, camo atop a black jumpsuit. “Ah, Shania,” he muttered, putting his glasses back on. “It’s nothing.”
“Sure it is. Who was that?” When the gentleman didn’t reply, the young woman
huffed and walked around the table.
“Just…someone I used to know,” he told her, his expression thoroughly morose. Shania raised an eyebrow as seated herself across from him, and he gave a dismissive wave of her arms. “It’s a long story.”
Shania crossed her arms, her expression a little annoyed. “Try me.”
The healer took a long, slow breath. This had never worked before, but why not? “Well,” he began, clasping his hands as he placed them on the table. “I first awoke in this world from darkness, finding myself imprisoned in a strange, ethereal gaol. After a time, however, I was freed to wander, anchorless and alone in this strange, new world.”
“I had but one thought on my mind,” he continued. “To reunite with my companions, with whom I had shared many an adventure, overcome countless ordeals, and even saved the world. With them by my side, I knew I could do anything. And yet, when I finally found one, I experienced soul-rending horror.” He narrowed his eyes, as if in pain. “He did not remember me. Nor did the next I chanced to meet, nor the one after, nor any of them. Not friends, nor even passing acquaintances I encountered. They recalled a face, a name, a history, but they weren’t mine. It was as if I had never existed.” Muscles going slack, he stared up into the sky. “I wandered the land like a ghost, alone and in despair. Trying in vain to rediscover and reforge all that I had lost. Everything I had ever known, or loved, or achieved, all those precious memories, even my very name… dust in the wind. I tried, and tried, but it was all for naught. Nothing could fill the void. Until the last I lived in fear of death, a broken man scrabbling for every second. Praying for more time.” A hollow, rattling laugh escaped his lips as his voice dropped to a whisper. “...If only I had known.“
Shania stared at him, her face a mix of surprise and bemusement. “Didn’t expect you to actually reveal anythin’. Guess everyone’s got a sob story, huh. Real cryptic, too. Can’t help ya, but I hope ya feel better gettin’ that off your chest.” She crossed her arms. “Now I’ve heard you out, maybe you’d like to return the favor, eh? You owe me, after all.”
“...Hm? What do you mean?”
“Look, jackass,” she said suddenly, curling her lip. “I risked my sparkin’ life tryin’ to get all those people out. We walked all day, and my feet are one more cetri from fallin’ right off. When’re you gonna fulfill your end of the snuffin’ bargain?”
The healer sighed again, annoyed by the girl’s lack of gravitas. “I’m afraid I cannot keep my promise.”
Shania blinked twice, taken aback. “You what
? Ugh, I knew it, you double-crossing mudder! You promised you’d-!”
“After that bloodbath, do you really think you deserve-” he cut in, only to be interrupted himself.
“SHUT UP!” Shania yelled without warning as she stood, drawing looks from all around the restaurant. She looked around angrily, as if daring anyone to speak, before focusing her ire back on the healer. “You think I care? Whatever happened, you
put me up to it! You
came to me after those sparkin’ Seekers destoried me, then told me the only way out was to help you. You’re
the one who brought those Consuls down on us! Don’t blame me just ‘cause you’re feelin’ regretful!”
The gentleman stared at her impassively, his grief replaced by stoicism. “I made a critical miscalculation. The shame of that truth weighs heavily upon me. Yet you lack even that, and still you shirk your complicity. You knew from the outset that you were selling them all out, but that did not matter so long as you got what you wanted.”
“We had a deal, and I did my part!” Shania gritted her teeth, seemingly on the verge of tears. “The spark do you know about me, anyway?”
Her acquaintance frowned. “This world is full of records. The Spirit Board was but one source. I know that you hate yourself. But that you also dread the thought of a futile, meaningless, permanent death.” He stared Shania right in the eye. “That you would do anything if it meant you got another chance at life. Was I wrong?” He then leaned back in his chair. “Twas a gamble, but you did it before. So I believed you’d do it again. ‘Tis the extent of it.”
That left the girl speechless for a few moments, but then her fire burned again. “That’s crap!” she spat. “How could you know that? You tricked me! I…I wouldn’t-!”
“Do you believe in destiny?” the man asked suddenly.
When Shania didn’t say anything, he took a deep breath and continued. “Every one of us has a path laid out before us. Or…perhaps I could better liken it to a river. Not a road we walk of our own volition, but a current that carries us along. We may believe we have agency, but we do not. Every choice, predetermined. Every outcome, ordained. Like it or not, believe or disbelieve, we are all helpless against the flow.”
He looked around at the other restaurant patrons, back to minding their own business. Their eyes all gleamed with the blood-red glow of lifelight. “Some more than others, I suppose. Most are as sheep, the wool pulled thick over their eyes. Yet there are those who can struggle against the currents–the destoried. Like you. Those from Alcamoth. And…hopefully, I.” Exhaling, he hung his head. “I truly do sympathize with you, Shania. How blissful ignorance would be. But I haven’t that luxury. I don’t have another life to live. I must achieve my goals -or get as close as possible- with this one. Before I get what’s coming to me.”
Shania took deep breaths. Though not extinguished, her anger had subsided. “So…what? Thought you’d rope me on in it? That we’re the same? ‘We’re not so different, you and I’, is that your game?”
“A foolish thought, maybe…” the gentleman grimaced, his eyes falling to his half-eaten grapes. “But…should we not choose life? We can do better. Be
better. Rather than turn our backs, saying ‘next time’, ‘next time’, should we not seek the future we desire, starting today
? With these lives?” His expression was pleading. “Only those who start today have a tomorrow.”
A quiet moment passed. Then Shania replied through gritted teeth. “There is no ‘we’. There is no ‘our’. You’re just projecting,” she snapped at him. “All I ever wanted was another go. You can stuff your ‘records’, I didn’t do anything until you
used me.” Turning up her nose, she crossed her arms. “The life I have isn’t enough. Now, are you gonna kill me, or what?”
The man put his hand to his head. “Shania…I am sorry. If only you could remember. My dilemma comes down to this: I am loath to take the life of an innocent, and if you are guilty, you too must earn that release. You deserve better than this cruel reality, I know. We all do. So even if the light hurts us, we cannot wallow in the comfortable darkness forever. Not when that light may yet illuminate a future–a future that’s in our hands.”
Groaning, Shania plopped down onto her stool, then laid her head on her crossed arms on the table. “Spark’s sake,” she croaked. “I just can’t have anythin’, can I? I’m just not allowed. Why’s it always me?” Tears began to form in her eyes. “Standin’ here on my own?” She sat up in her chair suddenly, her face twisted in fury, though not helpless anger. “I’ve had it,” she snarled. “I’ve had it up to-!”
“Well, I’ll be damned,” a venomous, sardonic, drawling voice interrupted her. A pointy-eared man in black swept in, his garb streaked with pale gold and neon green, and seated himself on one of the stools at the table with the two survivors. His green-scaled tail curled up behind him; both his bejeweled horns and wingtips shone like emeralds. “To think you’d be so cruel as to keep the poor girl awake against her will! Surely you didn’t think any of these insects could ever relate to you? It’s even more sad than it is cruel–I’d laugh if it wasn’t so pathetic.” His look of utter condescension quickly morphed into one of glee. “Oh hell, I’ll laugh anyway. Bahahahahaha!”
In an instant, the atmosphere had changed. Goosebumps raced across Shania’s skin as she eyed the newcomer, a scowl on her face as she kept her hands hidden beneath the table. The gentleman, meanwhile, fixed the newcomer
with a baleful stare. “...M,” he hissed after a moment. “I must confess, I’d rather hoped I wouldn’t see you again for a good while.” He pushed up his glasses, then put one arm on the table, wearing an imperious frown. “Is that really your true face? I must say, ‘tis a most fitting visage. Precisely how I envisioned you.” He stroked his chin, thinking. “An irredeemable, egotistic, vulgar arsewipe.”
“Ooh, aren’t we frisky today? That’s not like you, do I sense a crack in that stone-cold facade of yours? Hehehe…” M chuckled nastily. “I do like this look though. Once I saw you dressing down, I figured I might as well join in. And don’t you look dandy in that lavish purple getup!” he snickered. “Though I think red suits you better, S.”
Shania, her tears quickly dried, turned her wary gaze on the man of many promises. Unfazed by the namedrop, S simply snorted. “Then you truly don’t know me, M. Why are you here?”
M’s grin turned into a deadpan stare, as if S were ruining his mood. “Y’know, you really baffle me, S. All this time, I’ve watched you try and get close to these…things. You know they’re not people, right? They’re our food. Our playthings. It doesn’t matter if one thousand die, or ten thousand, or ten million. You pick your favorites, sure, but you don’t really care about them. And now you’ve gone and, well, basically gotten a ton of ‘em killed. How can you keep pretending after all that? All this make-believe really do it for you? I just don’t get it.” He shrugged, shaking his head. “Why play at being good? None of it matters. This world is a cage for the strong. A mind-numbingly boring prison. All these toys are here for just one thing: our entertainment. My
entertainment. Maybe these flimsy bonds and fantasies of heroism are how you
ease the tedium of existence. But not me.” M stood to his feet, spreading his arms. “So, to answer your little question, I’m here to entertain myself. I want to know how you really feel, ‘partner’. So let’s start with the look on your face…”
As he raised his hand, a vortex of wind energy began to form. Then he lunged at Shania, a miniature storm raging in his palm. “As I clean up your MESS!”
The air became a maelstrom of whipping, cutting windblades. They sliced through and bashed apart everything in their path, from the restaurant’s wooden furniture to the structure itself. Its patrons screamed in fear and as they were flung from their seats, streaks of blood flying from deadly gashes. For a moment everything was chaos, but just as suddenly as it arose, the squall subsided. The Last Stand had been reduced to kindling, and the innocent bystanders lay whimpering and bleeding on the ground. That included the cat-eared conjurer from before, and the waitress, who’d been on her way to the table with a giant cheeseburger that now lay in halves on the ground.
But when the dust cleared, Shania was still standing. While she had a high-tech revolver in hand, she seemed just as surprised as M. Around her shone a cube-shaped barrier of shimmering blue light in angular shapes, a pink glint sliding across its ethereal surface. After a moment it faded, and the four strange, bladed instruments
that projected it from its upper corners floated back toward their owner. He looked at Shania, then across the remains of the Last Stand, his gaze finally landing on the burger. His
burger. His eyelid twitched, and he took a deep breath, as if surfacing after a long time.
“I suppose congratulations are in order,” S declared, his voice loud and clear. He raised his hand, his catalysts faced upward as they began to rotate around him, and a wellspring of blue-green light rays bloomed upward. “I rather pride myself on being an even-tempered man. It takes a lot to get under my skin.” The light washed over every person in the area, instantly healing them to full. “I’ve long suspected your aim in tormenting me so,” he confessed as the catalysts moved in to place themselves on his back in a neat, diagonal stack. “With no mountain left to climb beyond ‘power’s peak’, you couldn’t help but wonder. If another Moebius might give you the rush you’ve longed for. So, well done. You’ve made up my mind for me.” He tightened his fist and held it over his heart. “I’m done waiting. Today’s the day. Though sunken deep into the sands of time, I may yet claw my way to the surface. You wish to discern my true nature? Then ready yourself. I shall elucidate you.” His catalysts sprang into the air, their blades faced towards his enemy. “M!”
M’s grin had only grown wider. “Heheheh. Finally,” he chuckled. “I’m going to enjoy this. Snapping your bones, squashing your hope, and slicing your idiotic bonds to ribbons. By the time I’m through with you, it’ll take this city’s entire Flame Clock to patch you up, heheheh-!”
He grunted suddenly as a bullet struck him in the forehead, snapping his head sideways. He looked back the next second, the wound barely more than a scratch with just a rivulet of blood trickling down, to see Shania standing next to S. That wasn’t all, though. Drawn by the chaos, a massive shape leaped from a walkway higher up, crashed down next to them with hand scythes drawn, and a looming raptor
at his back. “Oi!” Vandham grunted, taking a fighting stance. He shook his head, but kept his eyes on M. “It never ends, eh?”
“...It may yet,” S replied, suppressing his surprise. “I will have need of your strength to finish this–this fell dragon’s reign of terror.” He assumed a stance as well, his catalysts dancing around him. “But you need not fear. My name may be dust in the wind, but I am a Sage, and so long as I stand, no ally of mine shall ever die.”
Shania gave a wry laugh and took aim, her revolver held tight with both hands. “We better sparkin’ not, or I’ll wring that long neck of yours myself.”
“A sage, hm?” A stone suddenly struck M in the chest, and he treated the conjurer who cast it to an annoyed eye roll as she ran up to join the group, her twig in hand. “Room for one more?”
For the first time in a long time, S smiled. “Now it’s a party.”
M flapped his wings and took to the air, his hands in his pockets as his tail thrashed behind him. “Send in however many weaklings you like,” he told them with a mad grin. “You think having friends makes you strong? I’ve got mountains of bodies behind me, rivers of blood fed by whole kingdoms, and I sure don’t mind adding a few more to the pile!” He held out his hands, and the air itself began to hum with power. “Show me a good time…S!”