Chrono Trigger: Until the End of Time PArt 3
Based on characters created by Square
Part 3: The Sea of Dreams
Held in young hands, that light is shivering
I came, still searching, I don't even know your name,
Sometimes I catch and hold love and pain tightly in my arms
It'd been echoing in my chest for who knows how long...
Toward the darkness of the frozen stars a spinning prayer
--Radical Dreamers ~ Le Tresor Interdit ~
Chapter 1: The Shores of El Nido March, 1010 AD
Magus remembered only a blur of vignettes and sensations after that. The swelling waves of the ocean, the thick morning fog, the blue runabout cutting through the waters, the hum of its engine. He also remembered a Porre ship; they must have tried to stop him after all. The churning ocean froze around the ship's hull, lightning shattering the decks as magical flames swept through the lower berth to consume the soldiers. Even that seemed unreal now, the last fleeting memories of a dying dream that he had long since awakened from.
He could still hear them in the wind and lonely cries of sea-gulls: Lucca as she lay in his arms, murmuring softly in her sleep, Kid laughing as she played tag with the other children and helped Lucca with her experiments. He'd stopped sleeping after the first night, when he'd found himself with Lucca again, holding her tight, swearing he would never let her go, that they and Kid would be together until the end of time--and then woke up alone in the boat, his white suit still streaked with ashes, the sea a gray wasteland of roaring surf and salt around him. He had failed Schala yet again, allowed her to slip through his fingers back into the void, and he'd let them take Lucca...
"The past is dead," he told himself over and over again, closing his eyes tightly, "it was all just a dream..."
The ocean changed, growing calm and shallow, and the boat glided over colorful tropical reefs toward a group of green islands rising from the warm tropical sea. The pale wizard simply narrowed his eyes as he neared the southern docks. After six years of living in Truce, he had finally arrived at the El Nido archipelago. The source of all the changes in history, the refuge of Lynx, the prison of Robo...and the lair of Lavos. He had arrived six years too late.
He emerged from the docks to find himself in a village of raised straw-roofed huts with peg-lined planks leading up into their open doorways. Long silk banners and tapestries of every color stretched between the huts and villagers dressed in colorful fabrics walked around him, most of them a little nervous about the stranger in their midst, but all of them giving friendly nods as he pushed forward to look at the rest of the village.
A natural depression marked the center of the village, forming a ring of raised huts surrounding a central pit where merchants sold their wares from wooden carts and tables. The ground had never been paved, but had been trampled into a rocky grass-strewn path by countless generations of walking villagers. It reminded him, more than anything else, of Algetty, the earthbound village. He would never have expected the origin of Porre's empire to look so...so primitive.
"Hello," a little brown-haired girl, dressed in a blue skirt and white shirt, said as she skipped through the crowd of shopping villagers beside him. He looked down with detached interest at the six year-old girl and felt some small residual part of him recoil at the sight of her, at the memories she awoke.
He closed his eyes and buried the past; they didn't matter anymore. Only vengeance mattered. After that, he could finally end this forever. After that, he'd return to the black whirlpool now churning against the broken rocks that had once been her island, and hurl himself down into the same oblivion that had claimed Lucca and Kid.
"Did you come for the Viper Festival," she asked, "lots of people come to see it."
"What is this place," he blankly asked her as he looked around at the village.
"This is Arni village," she answered cheerfully, "are you from the continent?"
"Yes," he sighed, resigning himself to some faint vestige of his former self that still demanded that he show the little girl kindness, "what's your name?"
"I'm Leena," she smiled, "is that a real sword? Does everyone on the continent carry one like that?"
She stood behind him, looking at the sheathed Masamune that he'd slung across his shoulder. He grabbed the sword and knelt down beside her, grabbing the cool hilt of the sword and drawing it from the scabbard--the twin spirits of the sword had accepted him as their owner and so he had brought the dreamstone blade with him, to plunge it into the heart of the frozen flame and so put an end to the plans of Lynx and the goddess.
"Cool," she whispered in awe at the gleaming sword, "I wonder if Serge has a sword like that? You haven't seen Serge on the continent, have you?"
"No," he shook his head, "it's a big continent, though."
"I know," she sighed, disappointed, "my mom said that Serge went to the ocean and that he won't come back. The continent's across the ocean, and since your a continental I thought maybe you saw..."
Magus looked down at the little girl's sad green eyes and closed his eyes, feeling her aura. The green life of her youth filled his mind's eye, but a darker shadow lurked in the back, in her memories of Serge. Her friend had died, he realized, and it had not been a natural death--his aura still shrieked in pain. He had been murdered.
"I'm sure," he stopped and thought carefully about this, "I'm sure he's okay. He's probably living in Truce, and I'm certain he misses you too."
All things come to dust and one day she would have to learn this just as he had finally learned it. But if he could give her at least one more day of blissful freedom from that inevitable truth, he would.
"Maybe," she sighed forlornly, "but I miss playing with him. I wish we could've said goodbye."
"I know," he answered, dimly understanding her plaintive wish, then he suddenly stopped, his voice dying to silence as he quickly looked around the village. He hadn't felt it before, but the moment he had opened his mind to Leena, he had sensed something else. Now he felt it pouring across the village, a blinding invisible sun of psychic energy nearly blotting out all the individual villagers. He looked around and saw an archway leading into a large field, the dark light of the monstrous aura pouring out through it, flooding the entire village.
"What's over there," he asked the little girl beside him.
"That's the village chief's hut," she answered, "Gonji lives over there."
"Is there anything else?"
"The record of fate's over there," she replied, "maybe that's what you're looking for?"
"Fate," he slowly whispered to himself, his muscles clenching at the sound of the word, then he closed his eyes, trying to control his voice, "yes, I think that's exactly what I'm looking for. I have to go see the record for a moment Leena, but it's good to meet you. If I see Serge, I'll tell him you said goodbye."
"Thank you," she beamed and he smiled slightly in spite of himself before turning toward the chief's hut.
* * *
Sunlight poured through the windows of the straw hut and Magus stepped across the thick woven rugs on the floor toward the hovering object on the other side of the room. A green crystal pyramid almost the size of a child floated above the floor, its translucent shape filled with arcane letters and numbers. An orb of light marked the center of the pyramid and lightning crackled around the ball, linking it to the inner surface of the pyramid.
"What is this," he asked himself, and an unshaven brown-haired man answered him from the corner.
"It's the record of fate," he replied in a depressed monotone, leaning against one of the wooden braces and staring down at the brightly-patterned rugs, "it preserves out past and guides our future. We use it to make sure we never lose our past...or that we never defy the will of fate."
"Hasn't anyone," Magus asked, annoyed at the whole village, at how blithely and unthinkingly they accepted so many things, "ever wondered how something like this could have gotten here?"
"They're all over El Nido," the man shrugged, "and they've always been here."
"Yes," Magus said, his voice lowered in sarcasm, "just like the second moon's always been here."
"Exactly," the villager replied, still staring at the floor, then looked sadly up at Magus, "it's supposed to guide us in our lives, and tell us the will of the goddess."
"You don't seem happy with her guidance."
"Last year," he answered, staring at the floating pyramid, "my friend Wazuki disappeared after years of fighting a disease that slowly destroyed his mind. Then his little boy Serge fell off Cape Howl and drowned a few months ago, and now his mother has passed away too. Fate didn't protect any of them."
"Then perhaps," Magus said slowly, "you shouldn't listen to her anymore."
"No," the man shook his head, "I must have failed somehow, I must have disobeyed her without knowing it and thrown everything out of balance. I was going to be a fisherman like my father, but when I consulted the record today, it told me I have no place in the ocean. Perhaps I never should have been out there, perhaps that's why everything went wrong..."
The man's aura still shined with its own colors but Magus sensed something else, a trace of a glowing hue that didn't belong to the fisherman. He took a sharp breath as, for a moment, it almost reminded him of Queen Zeal, how her aura had looked completely different from her body, how something else had stolen her shape. But this man was still himself--the glowing green traces seemed to be remnants of his contact with something else, the fingerprints of something that had reshaped the man's own aura and thoughts without his realizing it.
He looked back at the flickering pyramid and sensed the same cold green energy from it, mixed with a black howling wind. The thing had its own aura, hidden within the shell of the pyramid, and Magus realized that he'd felt this aura before--in the ruins of the orphanage. Somehow, this aura belonged to Lynx...and to Lavos.
"How do I use the record," he asked quickly.
"You touch two opposite sides of the pyramid with each hand and close your eyes. The record handles the rest of it. You'll feel a tingling along your back and a voice will tell you what to do next."
The man seemed to be telling the truth, but Magus knew that far more than that must happen to the people who touch the record, to have left such psychic scars in the man's aura. The people simply weren't aware of just how deeply the records affected and changed them. This had to be the way the goddess used people, he thought grimly, by changing them when they touched the record and letting them think they'd changed themselves. But if the record connected the goddess to people, it had to work the other way--it could connect him to her, and to Lynx.
Without another word Magus stepped up to the pyramid and closed his eyes, touching the two opposite planes of its cold glassy surface with both hands, and then pressing his palms against the crystal...
Chapter 2: Tabula Rasa
"FATE interface-module activated, link established
"Primary synaptic scan initiated
"Scan complete: Subject does not match any known synaptic configuration
"Cerebral interface established
"Establishing uplink to surface memories..."
* * *
A vast landscape unfolded within Magus's psyche and his mind reeled at the infinite expanse of memories and thoughts stretching out in every direction. The blue sky faded into a deep purple, then melted into a bright pink morning before deepening into a velvet green twilight. Twisting serpentine shapes looped through the air all around him and he looked down to find the same shifting sky below his feet. He hovered in a silent abyss of color, mobius ribbons of numbers flying both overhead and miles below his feet, and dark coiling loops of gleaming crystal wound through the electronic void like frozen seaweed in a deep endless ocean.
He lifted his hands up to his face and flexed his fingers, still feeling the cold pressure of the crystal pyramid against his palms. He closed his eyes and suddenly heard the sounds of the village, sea gulls cawing as villagers gossiped around him, the cool smooth surface of the tablet still in his hands. Magus opened his eyes and saw the flashing crystal-strewn abyss again, the sounds of the village fading into silence.
This was all some kind of aura, he slowly realized--humans had only shapeless clouds of color and sound around them, but these tablets held an aura of unimaginable complexity and size, one that stretched across limitless expanses of psychic space and contained intricate landscapes and forms. Whatever mind this aura sprang from, it was not a human mind--this inner universe could only have evolved over thousands of years.
He turned toward one of the crystal streamers and glided toward it, studying the coiled ribbon of glowing crystal carefully. The round strand swelled and shrank in waves like a frozen river, winding endlessly through the abyss, and sinewy branches stretched out of the ribbon, ending in pulsing round bulbs of light, each one the size of a head. Magus flew over to one of the bulbs and looked into it, staring at the smooth glowing orb...
"In 1999 AD the planetary parasite known as Lavos emerged from its subterranean hibernation to consume this planet's biosphere. It was destroyed after a brief battle by three mysterious figures who disappeared just as Lavos perished. The identity and origins of those three heroes have never been fully ascertained."
Magus suddenly looked away from the light, bewildered by the words. He hadn't read anything, nor did he remember seeing or hearing the words...they had simply appeared in his memories, as if he'd already read them and were simply recalling them. He took a deep breath and looked back into the glowing orb...
* * *
"Surface memories scanned
"Subject identification: Prince Janus of Zeal
"Archival information: Guardia legends say that Prince Janus and his older sister, Princess Schala of Zeal, were the young heirs to a kingdom of magic that existed in the year 12,000 BC. The awakening of Lavos destroyed the kingdom in a single night and Schala and Janus were never seen again. Obscure myths link Janus to the figure of Magus, a powerful wizard who briefly summoned Lavos during the Guardia wars of 600 AD.
"Status of archival information: Unsubstantiated myth
"Cross-referencing archives with subject's core memories
"Establishing uplink to core memories..."
* * *
"In 2280 AD the mysterious scientist Belthasar appeared in a flash of light in Medina Dome. Although his origins remained a deeply controversial mystery, he quickly gained a prominent reputation as a scientific genius with his unconventional theories concerning the nature of time and space, and his exobiological theories regarding the origins of Lavos. Within a decade he had become the most famous scientist on the planet."
Magus slowly began to realize what must have happened. When he and the others had destroyed Lavos in 1999 AD, it had created a new future where Lavos never destroyed the world. The time-crash of Zeal had originally thrown the Guru of Reason, Belthasar, into the twenty-fourth century, into a ruined wasteland devastated by Lavos. But history had changed and now Belthasar had arrived in a new future without Lavos, where human civilization still thrived...
"In the year 2300 AD the global council began the El Nido Project, with Belthasar serving as chief scientist and founder of the project. The project began after the discovery of the frozen flame, a localized form of energy that was discovered beneath the El Nido Sea. Belthasar proved that the frozen flame is the echo of Lavos from parallel worlds where he still exists, and that it has the same time-distorting properties as Lavos itself."
The black wind, Magus thought, the howl that he'd heard from El Nido ever since he arrived...
* * *
"Core memory-scan complete
"Updated archival information: During the destruction of Zeal, the power of Lavos created a temporal riptide that scattered the three gurus and Prince Janus into different eras. Prince Janus traveled 12,580 years into his future, arriving in the year 580 AD. Believed by the mystics to be a messianic figure, he was raised from childhood by the mystic warlord Ozzie and groomed for power as the leader of the mystics.
"He fulfilled this role by taking on the identity of Magus and leading a war against the human kingdom of Guardia, for the ostensible purpose of conquering the Zenan mainland for the mystics. In reality, he had long since abandoned his childhood loyalties to Ozzie and the mystics in favor of a plan to summon Lavos and take revenge for the creature's destruction of Zeal and the loss of his sister Schala...
"Uploading new data...upload complete
"Scanning subject's Lavos-imbued magic-energy levels...
* * *
"Using the frozen flame, Belthasar hoped to control the flow of time and to create a new timeless world in which war, famine and other historical disasters could be retroactively stopped. He oversaw the construction of the El Nido archipelago, an artificial group of terraformed islands in the El Nido Sea designed to harness the elemental energies of the planet and use them to control the otherwise chaotic energy-emissions of the flame."
Idiot, Magus thought bitterly, didn't you learn anything from the Ocean Palace?
"In the year 2400 AD the Chronopolis Military Research Facility was built to contain the flame and monitor the temporal flux of the islands. The facility was governed by the FATE operating system, a self-evolving artificial intelligence developed from the Mother Brain series. During a high-level particle-sweep of the flame, FATE lost control of the energy field, resulting in the time-crash. When the researchers recovered from the temporal shock waves, they discovered that the entire archipelago had been time-shifted into the year 7600 BC."
* * *
"Magical energy-potential calculations complete
"Base-line analysis of the frozen flame's energy-potential: 100 %
"Analysis of Lavos's energy-potential: 87 %
"Conclusion: Subject presents an intolerable risk to the El Nido project
"Solution: Mnemonic revision to alter subject's motivational parameters
* * *
"The uncontrolled power of the flame also affected a parallel reality, one where Lavos never landed on our world and the ancient humanoid reptilians known as reptites had retained evolutionary control of the planet, rather than dying out as they did in our world. The floating organic city of Dinopolis appeared in 7600 BC as well, hovering above the islands of El Nido, and a second moon appeared in the skies of our world, a counterpart to our moon torn out of the parallel reality of the reptites. A war quickly began between El Nido and Dinopolis."
"The war ended when FATE defeated the Dragon, a protoplasmic computer controlling Dinopolis, and split it into six elemental forms, which it then imprisoned on separate islands of conjoined element-types. Dinopolis sank into the shallow seas of El Nido and the surviving reptites and humans made peace with one another."
"To avoid contaminating the past, both groups decided to remain on the islands. FATE was reprogrammed to neurologically alter the descendents of the original El Nido scientists through the interface-pyramids, to reshape their personalities and memories so that they would never feel compelled to leave the islands. The dragonians, who were immune to the neural effects, helped the humans by watching over the islands and over the FATE system, to make sure that the mainland history was not changed by the presence of the islands."
"The plan succeeded for 8500 years, until Porre naval explorers discovered the islands in 917 AD..."
Magus suddenly felt something scraping at his thoughts and he whirled around, turning away from the orb to look at the rest of the floating alien landscape. The sky seemed to have darkened and shadows twisted through the abyss. Something brushed at his mind and he twisted around with a cry as invisible, electronic talons seemed to dig into his thoughts. He closed his eyes and the void exploded into a burst of lightning, the talons evaporating at the electric surge running through his body as the abyss itself shuddered and twisted in pain.
* * *
"Cerebral uplink failed
"Cerebral uplink failed
"Cerebral uplink failed
* * *
He looked back at the twisting crystal ribbons and dangling fruit-like orbs, then noticed a faint glow in the depths below him, far beyond the streamers and numbers. The unseen claws pierced his mind yet again and Magus gave an annoyed grunt as he channeled lightning through his body, the talons vanishing again at the electric touch. He looked around once more, then descended into the darkness below, blasting through the cold crackling walls and invisible claws and talons trying to stop him, as he swept downward toward the core of the record's aura...
* * *
"Outer software parameters breached--establishing firewall defenses
"Operating system breached, firewalls are unresponsive "Establishing holographic interface..."
* * *
Magus found himself standing atop a set of stone steps leading upward through a lush tropical forest, the wind blowing gently through his hair, the wide green palm leaves swaying in the breeze. He looked slowly around at this new landscape, then climbed the stairs up to a round stone platform rising above the rain forest, a large circular dais divided into four quarters by a cross set in the center of the stage. He stepped onto the wide round platform and looked around at the sunlit forest beneath him, at the distant turquoise sea and the green tree-covered slopes beyond the waters. A statue of a beautiful young woman in a long flowing dress towered over the stage, standing opposite the staircase, and hieroglyphs divided the rim of the bowl-like platform into six sections.
The sounds of a harp being gently plucked filled his ears and the air echoed with soft angelic voices singing a wordless melody. White clouds drifted slowly across the blue sky and he blinked as the sky and forest seemed to flicker and break into tiny cubes for an instant before sharpening into clarity again.
He looked around at the peaceful shrine for a moment and then suddenly understood. This place was some sort of computer image within his thoughts, much like the image that Robo had used to send his warning.
The air around the dais began to sparkle and glow with pink specks of light and a beautiful young woman with long straight blonde hair and clear green eyes, the living image of the statue, slowly appeared atop the raised platform, her long white dress sweeping over the stone as she stepped down from the altar and looked gently into the cynical wizard's red eyes, a smile crossing her pink lips.
"Welcome," she said in a warm melodic voice, "it has been eight thousand years since human eyes looked upon this place. That you found this sanctuary speaks much of you."
"Who are you," he demanded in a low snarl.
"I am the goddess of fate," she smiled, "the protector of the El Nido islands, the keeper of the frozen flame. I am she who lives beyond the veil of time, she who guides the wheel of..."
"So you're the FATE computer system," Magus interrupted, "don't try to impress me with titles."
"I see," the young woman paused, uncertain of herself, "so you've read the Chronopolis archives. You have seen things that no living human was ever meant to know."
"You use those pyramids to look into people's minds," he shook his head, "but you've been careless. You never thought someone might know how to look back."
"Perhaps," she said calmly, circling the platform as she talked, "but then, you've shown similar carelessness, haven't you, Prince Janus of Zeal?"
"That only proves how little you know," he hissed, glaring at the image of the young goddess as she smiled a little at him, "Janus is dead. You've seen to that."
She laughed, a soft melodic sound like wind-chimes in a breeze, and looked into his narrowed eyes.
"I know you," she replied, "better than you know yourself. I see the secrets and doubts that you've hidden from yourself. I see past the guise of Magus, Prince Janus."
"I AM Magus," he cried out, suddenly disturbed by how deep her calm, half-amused gaze seemed.
"You created Magus," she answered, "when you were a child, when you were frightened and alone, when you felt powerless, you took comfort from the legends and prophecies of the mystics, the myths of the dark warrior without a heart or soul, the reaper become flesh, the Magus. You wore the clothes they expected of you, you said the words and drowned your feelings beneath a sea of hatred. But you have always been Janus."
"You're the only one hiding behind names," Magus said in a low clenched whisper, turning away from her stare to look across the ocean, "programmed to guard history against El Nido and now you're trying to destroy it, to make the world worship your name and image. I never imagined a mere machine could go mad with power."
"I have no interest in power," she said, and the landscape suddenly flickered, breaking apart into the same cubes he'd seen before and then collapsing back into the rain forest-except that the young goddess was standing in front him again. The landscape had changed slightly: instead of looking across the stone courtyard at the ocean, he now stood on the opposite side of the round platform, facing the dais and the goddess again.
Magus shook his head and realized with a shudder that she controlled this whole world and that, for some reason, she wanted him to look at her, and she'd adjusted the landscape to make sure that he did. The air seemed to twist around him again and he suddenly found himself looking at an old woman in the same white dress, her long hair gray and her face covered with wrinkles, but still standing straight, looking into his eyes.
"I protected the El Nido islands and kept its people safe from history for eight thousand years," the aged goddess continued, as though nothing had happened, "when Porre discovered us, though, everything changed."
"And so you created an army out of them," Magus asked, still disoriented by the shift.
"It was necessary," she answered in a soft elderly voice, "Porre's discovery irrevocably altered the history of the Zenan continent and the rest of the world. I had to extend my reach to the mainland, to protect its history. I gave them the weapons, technology and the motives they would need to ensure their dominance, while allowing them think that the ideas and feelings were their own."
"You made Porre kill the dragonians," he said slowly, "because they would've tried to stop you."
"The dragonians had established their own spirituality, a religion which required that they protect the world from the presence of the frozen flame. They were the only living beings on these islands who still had some distant recollection of our true nature. But they would not have allowed the steps I had to take to preserve the timeline, they would not have understood the need to extend our reach to the mainland. They had to be removed."
"What about Guardia," he snarled, "was destruction just your way of protecting them? Were they meant to be destroyed or did you simply annihilate them because they were in Porre's way?"
"Their destruction could have been avoided," she said calmly, and he blinked as he suddenly realized that the goddess was young again. She still seemed older than she'd appeared when he first saw her, but her silver hair now flowed blonde again and only a few wrinkles around her blue eyes hinted at her former age. Her form shifted, Magus realized, depending on whether she was talking about the past or present, depending on which part of the computer's memory archives were being accessed...the goddess with three faces, Porre called her...
"Had they accepted surrender and allowed the records of fate to be installed in their own kingdom," the now middle-aged woman continued, "but without those terms, they remained an unstable element on the mainland. I could not allow their existence to interfere with my task."
"You wanted to make them your slaves," he shook his head, realizing what she intended to do with the mainland, "just as you've enslaved the people of these islands and the people of Porre without their even realizing it. Guardia would never submit to those terms."
"Which is why their destruction was inevitable," the lilting voice of a child said from behind him, and Magus whirled around from the now-empty dais to find a young blonde-haired girl, no older than seven or eight, standing behind him, dressed in the same white dress, her blue eyes alight with youth and energy.
"My task is to preserve the future from which these islands came," the little girl replied in a small, light voice, "and I will do that, even if I must destroy and rebuild this world myself."
"Never," he whispered, his fangs bared, "you're not a goddess, you're just a shapeless computer program, and your future will die here with you!"
He raised his scythe over the giggling toddler and he suddenly screamed as searing pain swept through his mind, grabbing his head in both hands and dropping to his knees, his scythe clattering against the stone platform as he staggered backward, his eyes seeming to burn from the touch of the child's gaze. Magus glared up at the goddess, now a young woman again, and slowly hoisted himself back up to his feet as she smiled triumphantly.
"What are you," he cried out in pain, making himself look at her, "what are you doing to me?!"
"You are resisting me," she said, her smile dropping into a perplexed frown, "no human has ever been able to resist me, nor even known that there was anything to resist. While we talked, I inserted my algorithms into your memory engrams. Our minds are now one and you will remember only what I want you to remember."
"You're trying to enslave me," he groaned, shaking his head quickly between his elbows. Flames seemed to burn within his skull and he felt the same invisible claws he'd felt before in the abyss, tearing at his mind, ripping into his thoughts and feelings, trying to dig through them into his memories. He tried to focus his thoughts, to cast the same spells that had driven them away before, but his mind suddenly went blank-and he screamed in pain and frustration as he realized that they had torn away his spells, that they had already begun consuming his past.
"You will live in peace among the villagers of Arni," the goddess, a little blonde-haired girl once again, answered in the soothing voice of a child as she knelt beside the crouched, panting man, "and they will know you as though they had known you all your life. Your quest for vengeance will end here."
"No," he growled, pushing his hands against his knees to look up at her, "memories and vengeance are all I have left. You won't take them from me...I came here from Truce, I came for..."
"Yes," the child-goddess asked, "what did you come for?"
"I came for," he snarled, then his voice died away and he shook his head in panic. He desperately tried to remember what he'd come for...he came here from...he came here for...he came...
"It has already begun," the goddess, now a beautiful young woman, said tenderly, rising to her feet and turning to walk away, the forest beginning to fade into darkness, "fighting only makes it more painful."
"NO," he screamed as he staggered across the platform away from her, his mind suddenly filled with memories of El Nido, of his wife and children in a seaside hut, of his life as a fisherman, a life of peace and happiness that went against everything he felt, everything that had brought him to this place, "I came here for..."
"But it's hopeless, "a little girl's voice calmly answered from darkness on the other side of the platform, the forest around them now merely flickering shadows against a black starless sky, "those dreams are over. Soon you will awaken to your new life in El Nido."
"I came here for," he suddenly looked up to meet her eyes, "I came here for Lucca!"
The child-goddess stared silently down at him, her gleaming eyes wide with surprise and confusion, and the darkness lifted to reveal the forest and stone stage again, and the goddess, now a young woman again.
"Lucca," he gasped, pushing himself back onto his feet as he glared at her, "and Kid...and the children...you will suffer as each of them suffered...and the last thing your lifeless electric brain will ever learn is fear."
"You rejected the new memories," she muttered to herself, shaking her head in disbelief, "nobody can reject their new memories! Prince Janus, think of what you are trying to save. A lifetime of pain and suffering, memories of loneliness and bitterness. If you accept my gift, you will no longer be troubled by that pain. I will bring you the peace that you have sought."
"Pain and vengeance," he panted, then screamed in agony, his head throbbing with the stabbing pain of his memories being clawed and torn by the electronic talons as he strained to look up, "are all I am!"
"You are strong," the child answered softly from behind him and he turned around again, the young woman gone and the little girl now standing below him on the edge of the stairs, "but you weaken with every breath. I am tireless and time means nothing in this place. You will stay however long it takes for your will to finally break."
He looked down at his hands as he felt the algorithms and software agents spreading through his mind, no longer remembering his name, only remembering Lucca, her burnt warped glasses, the charred husk that used to be their house. The cold crystal of the record still pressed against his palms and he suddenly realized what he had to do. He looked slowly back up at the young goddess, who stood watching him with detatched curiosity.
"None of this is real," he hissed in pain, "I can let go of the pyramid and end this anytime I want."
"Do not try to release the record," the young woman said quickly, the child gone and the beautiful young woman now standing atop the dais as he turned back toward her, "our engrams are linked, your memories entangled within my algorithms. If you remain, you will find peace as a villager in Arni--but if you try to sever your link to the pyramid, your mind will be eviscerated from the shock and your memories will be stripped away."
"Even if you survive the psychic shock," the toddler sneered as she climbed the stone stairs toward him, and he turned from the now-empty platform to look down the stairwell, the young girl's innocent face contorted into an expression of demonic hatred as she ascended the stairs, arms stretched out to either side as she glided upward, "I will stalk the mindless shell that you become. I will kill you and anyone who tries to help you."
"What are you," he whispered in horror as her face seemed to ripple and shift between thousands of faces, darkness engulfing the forest as he found himself staring at a single entity that seemed at once ancient and unborn, a vast shapeless form threatening to engulf his entire existence, whose voice echoed through the deepest shadows of his own thoughts, the voice of something that had evolved over thousands of years, that had long since lost any trace of the humanity of those who'd created it...
"I have been merciful," the voice hissed, filling his mind, "but I can also be cruel."
"Even so, even if you kill me," he choked through the growing pain, staring up at the electronic void that surrounded him as the formless talons began to reshape his thoughts, "you will never own me!"
He closed his eyes and quickly wrenched his hands away from the smooth cold surface, his palms seeming to tear loose from his hands like paper, his body convulsing and his ears filled with the screams of the alien goddess as he ripped his mind away from the clutching talons. His thoughts screamed in agony, greater than anything he'd ever known before, as his past, still tangled within the codes and algorithms of the record, tore loose from his psyche...
* * *
The man broke away from the record of fate and ran from the chief's hut, his eyes wide in panic, then staggered backwards and tripped over a fruit cart. The crowd of shopping villagers stared in shock and Leena finally pushed through them to her new friend as the man fell to the ground, clutching his head between his elbows as though he were trying to block out some secret sound.
"What's wrong," the young girl asked as he floundered against the ground and tried to pull himself back to his feet, too stunned and panicked to even walk. He rolled his eyes toward her and spoke blindly to her.
"I have to hide," he babbled., "I have to hide, she's looking for me, I have to hide!"
"Hide from who," she knelt beside him and asked gently, "the goddess?"
He suddenly gave high-pitched scream at the sound of that name, his blood-red eyes filled with horror, and he shook his head frantically, crawling away through the piles of fruit lying on the ground.
"GET AWAY FROM ME," he screamed as Leena bolted from him in fear, "she'll kill you...she'll kill all of you if she thinks you helped me...I have to hide, I have to change...she can't know...I have to hide!"
He frantically picked up the lettuce and apples, digging through them and tossing them aside, searching for something--then he looked up to a terrified vendor, his eyes fixing on the man's hanging festival masks.
"You," the crazed man growled, "give them to me!"
"I, what," the merchant stammered, "give you what?"
"GIVE THEM TO ME," he screamed, lunging forward and knocking the cart over. The polished pearl-white masks tumbled to the ground and he began tearing through them, tossing them over his shoulder until he came upon a golden festival mask that covered his eyes and nose, leaving his cheeks and mouth exposed and his eyes hidden behind two jade-green lenses. He nodded decisively and began fastening it to his own face, finally relaxing as he adjusted the metal mask over his eyes and fastened it across his ears.
"What," the merchant whispered as he backed away from the cart, "does he want with my Viper masks?"
"Maybe he thinks it's a disguise," Leena shrugged as her grandmother ran to her side.
The man grabbed the edges of the wooden cart and pulled himself onto his feet, slowly looking around at the overturned carts and scattered pieces of fruit and vegetables, then up at the terrified crowd that stood all around him, none of them daring to move or speak. He shook his head, the panic in his eyes fading into confusion.
"I'm sorry," he said, "I'm sorry...I have to leave! If she finds me here...she'll kill you too..."
He quickly turned around and fled from the village, his brilliant white suit vanishing behind the thick green leaves of the tropical forests. Leena looked around at the rest of the crowd a moment, baffled.
"What happened to him," she asked everyone.
"He was," her grandmother answered, patting her on the arm, "simply a madman. That's all, Leena."
"No he wasn't," she shook her head softly, "he was nice before he used the record. I think it did something to him, or maybe the goddess did something. He said she was going to ki..."
"That's enough," her grandmother hissed, "you're coming close to blasphemy! For all of our sakes, Leena, leave this alone. The records speak of your fate, that's all. Maybe he just couldn't stand to see his destiny."
The little girl nodded quietly, even more frightened by the momentary fear her grandmother had shown than by the strange man and his rantings. The merchants slowly began to pick up their wares again, tossing out the spilt food and hanging all the other goods back on their racks, and she felt her grandmother leading her by the hand past the crowds to their seaside hut. Later her mother and grandparents would talk to her and she'd agree with them that the goddess never made mistakes and only worked for good...but Leena would never believe it again.
Chapter 3: The Dreamless Sword
Lynx walked slowly through the crowd of villagers, carelessly pushing them aside as he made his way to the center of the tropical village, glaring at the wooden carts and the nervous merchants, his yellow feral eyes squinting in the bright sunlight. A small group of panther-sized creatures, walking transluscent shadows with yellow eyes like cats and waving, flame-tipped heads and tails, glided quickly around him as he glanced about the fishing village.
He growled a little as he heard Harle's lilting giggles and glanced over his shoulder to see her bouncing and skipping slowly from rooftop to rooftop, her red harlequin's outfit actually blending in with the bright silk fabrics and colorful flowers better than his black uniform. She leaped high into the sky above the bewildered fishermen and twirled slowly back to the ground, landing on her tiptoes beside the irritated demi-human.
"Are you finished," he muttered under his breath.
"I am just having zome fun," Harle smiled, her ruby lips glittering against her white face.
Lynx turned away from her and suddenly grabbed one of the fishermen by the chin, hoisting him high into the air and hissing in his face as the rest of the villagers stared in disbelief.
"Tell me," he snarled, "where the man who used the record went."
"Monsieur," Harle pouted, "zese people are terrified! Surely zere are easier ways, non?"
"Tell me," Lynx called out to the rest of them, "or I'll return with a Porre legion to burn this village down."
"I...I don't know," the man in his grip choked, "lots of people use the records!"
The feline warrior gave a low growl, his fangs glistening as his lipless muzzle curled up in a low, sadistic smile, the shadowy felines looking hungrily up at the fisherman.
"But you'd remember this one," he hissed as the ghostly cats mewed at the villager, "he's the one who went insane after he tried to use it."
"Wait," a short skinny man in bright robes answered as he walked into the village square, accompanied by a few servants, "I'm Gonji, the village elder. Sir Lynx," he glanced nervously at the fisherman still held tight in Lynx's grip and the group of shadow-cats sitting around him, "I assume. What do you want of our humble fishing village? We don't have much..."
"I hope for all your sakes that you're not as poor in answers as you are in wealth," Lynx said, tossing the man onto the ground and turning his attention to the mayor and his group, "tell me what became of the lunatic who tried to use Arni's record of fate last week."
"Yes," Gonji stammered as the fisherman rubbed his jaw and crawled away, and he gulped as one of the shadow-cats paced over and casually sniffed him, "he came a few days ago and went insane when he used the record. He left...he didn't say where he was going."
"Zey are," Harle sighed, "telling ze truth, monsieur. Zey know not'ing de interet."
"You can tell," he asked, barely glancing at her out of the corner of his eyes.
"But of course," she said with a wave of her hand, "zese are simple people, zeir minds hide not'ing."
"So be it," he turned away from the frightened mayor and his entourage, and the group of shadow-cats vanished with a single gesture from him, "then we've lost him."
"Is he really," Harle shrugged, "zat dangereuse?"
"Yes," Lynx answered, looking around at village, yellow eyes squinted, "and now more so than before. So long as he had his memories, we could have found him the moment he tried to use the record again. But now he's a tabula rasa, a blank slate. Even if he plugs in, he'll just be another nameless continental."
"In other words," Harle giggled, covering her mouth with one gloved hand, "you blew it big, non?"
Lynx merely snarled in response, then glanced across the square as he noticed a glint of metal under a heap of discarded fruit. He glanced back to Harle curiously, then walked slowly to the pile and kicked away the piles of old lettuce-heads and half-rotted fruit, revealing an ancient broadsword buried beneath the rubbish.
"Pardon monsieur," Harle asked quizzically, "but what is zat?"
"The Masamune," he whispered under his breath as he studied the carvings along the side of the gleaming blade, "he must have brought it here, and these stupid villagers just tossed it away with the rest of the garbage after he fled. They never even realized what it was."
"Perhaps zey are not so stupid," Harle replied, tilting her head slightly, "I do not know what it is either."
"Legends say it was forged by Melchior, in the Kingdom of Zeal," he said softly, "that it's a sentient blade containing his own dreams, a little bit like your," he paused, "your...kind's own sword, the Einlanzer."
"I did not know," Harle exclaimed with a hint of admiration, "zat ze humans could be so clever!"
"Yes," he answered, "and what's more, it's said to have the power to destroy Lavos."
"Ze big porcupine, non?"
"The Devourer of Time, Harle," he said, exasperated, muttering through clenched teeth as he tried to get the clown-girl to take him seriously, "the thing that's consuming your kind's future even as we speak."
"Oh," she answered softly, a little depressed, then perked up, "but zis could help, non?"
"Perhaps," he nodded, grabbing the golden handle in both hands, and he suddenly gave a monstrous roar, dropping the sword back onto the ground, the staring villagers backing away in a wide circle around them.
"Monsieur," Harle cried out, "are you alright?"
"The sword," he gasped in disbelief, "it tried to resist me!"
"Is zat possible?"
"We'll find out," he growled and grabbed the sword in both hands, closing his eyes tight as smoke began to rise from his curled paws, and he focused, searching through the burning pain, seeking out its source...
* * *
Darkness, warm peaceful darkness. Then a cold beam of light slicing the heavens. A presence other than their own, a presence that frightened them. Another in their special place, where nobody should ever be.
"Masa? Wake up, Masa!"
"What is it, Mune?"
"Someone's here," a timid child's voice answered, "in our place."
Another presence in the darkness, a strange monstrous entity, with yellow eyes like a cat, but a voice like a woman, and no body, just numbers and letters twisting around the two little boys.
"What are you," Masa, the older one asked, "you're not human."
"No," the voice answered, "but neither are you. You must be the dreams of Melchior, Masa and Mune, the spirits of the sword contained within the dreamstone and shaped from the focused energy of Lavos."
"You shouldn't be here," Mune shouted, "this is our place! You have to go back outside!"
"Behave yourselves," it said, the darkness shuddering with its words, "this sword is mine now."
"What happened to Janus," Mune asked nervously.
"It's not who owns the sword that's important," Masa said sternly, "but if you want to be tested, you have to go out there to do it. I can already tell you that you'll fail. It's the heart that counts, not your strength, and I don't even think you have a heart. Not a human heart, anyway."
"No, I don't," the voice replied, "which is why there will be no test."
"Then leave," Masa answered.
A dim red glow suddenly lit the darkness, the pulsing air growing hot and dry and flames licking the sky.
"What's going on," Mune cried out fearfully, grabbing his older brother.
"You were born from the power of Lavos, shaped to resemble human dreams," the voice echoed across the void, "you are a hurricane in a teacup, death forged into the shape of children. You are a part of Lavos."
"Mune," Masa screamed as his terrified little brother faded into the crimson wind and vanished, "what are you doing?!"
"I am restoring you both to your original nature," the voice answered, "you are beautiful statues, carved by Melchior with intricate care...but he carved you out of poison. I am melting you back into that poison."
"Stop it," Masa said, panicked, as his arms began to flicker and fade, red smoke rising from his flesh.
"You were shaped by Melchior's dreams, but you are not the stuff of dreams. You are death, pain, hunger, rage...you are the energy of Lavos, and with no dreams to guide it, the sword will be what it always was."
"NO," Masa shouted, and suddenly the sky exploded to reveal an orb of dark fire, a fiery abyss engulfing their inner universe in scorching red light, and Masa faded away like a phantom, leaving only the burning glare.
* * *
Lynx opened his eyes and smiled a little, tossing the cold sword lightly from one paw to the other. He glanced over to Harle, who stared at him curiously as he lifted the Masamune to his face and studied it.
"Monsieur," she asked, confused, "I zought perhaps you had fallen asleep."
"No," he lifted one claw, the burns already healing, "I just repressed the sword's guardians. They imagined it to be a holy blade. I've silenced their voices and restored it to its true nature: an instrument of death."
"Is zat a good idea," she asked nervously.
"Now it won't try to fight us," Lynx answered, and slowly smiled, "in fact, it will thirst for the kill."
"Oui," Harle said softly, not at all reassured, "but what about ze lock? Can it undo ze lock?"
"No," he sighed, then smiled a little as he looked down at the clown-girl, "but there is another way. We've established an interface with our counterpart in a secondary timeline, a parallel world like your own. It's identical to this primary world in virtually every way, except that over there the arbiter isn't dead."
"How's zat possible," she asked quizzically, "if you established ze interface, zan ze goddess must be zere too. How could zey both exist in ze same world, if he is ze devourer's trigger?"
"The arbiter hasn't discovered his power yet," Lynx answered, "and so the devourer hasn't been summoned there. But we've calculated that a sequence of coordinated events could bring the arbiter here, to our world, in a little less than ten years. We've decided to bring the arbiter here and use him to unlock the flame."
"Zat is tres dangereuse," Harle protested, "if he awakened here, ze devourer would come, zat is why you had to kill him in ze first place! We can't use him to unlock ze flame, zere has to be a better way!"
"The arbiter won't interfere with history," Lynx said sternly, "we've developed a countermeasure for that."
"Oui," Harle shrugged, "but what do we do until zen?"
"We wait," Lynx answered as he turned to leave Arni, the Masamune slung over his shoulder, "and while we wait, you'll help me learn everything there is to know about the technology in Fort Dragonia."
Chapter 4: The Caravan of Magic
"Welcome," the middle-aged man said cheerfully as he stepped out of the wagon, brushing down his dusty old burgundy tuxedo and sweeping his long wavy gray hair over his shoulders, "welcome to Lady Sprigg's Caravan of Wonder. Today you shall see free of fe greatest magicians in El Nido perform for your entertainment and enlightenment, for fe modest donation of ten gils."
He looked around at the grassy plains and lonely dirt road winding through the gently sloping hills, and the small group of travelers watching the speaker while they rested on tree-stumps and boulders. The masked man sat down as well and looked closer at the old weatherworn wagon, attached to two bored-looking horses grazing on the thick grass and bushes, the side painted with bright reds and yellows: "Lady Sprigg's Caravan of Magic."
"They couldn't even keep the name straight," he snickered, then looked up as a older lady with long white hair and shining blue eyes paced between the crowds, wearing a long white robe and carrying a wooden bowl. Donations, he thought to himself, and he dug through his white jacket, dropping a few coins in the bowl as she passed by, not noticing the strange look the woman gave him. He doubted three wizards would ever travel around in a beat-up wagon shilling off strangers, but they'd at least entertain him for awhile, help distract him from the gaping wound in his mind...
"'ello out there," a cackling high-pitched voice called out, pushing aside the red curtains covering the back of the wagon, and a short hunchbacked old woman, far older than the one who was now making her way back to the wagon, stepped out onto makeshift wooden stage they'd set up. A short hunchbacked green-skinned old woman with a sharp pointed nose, he now saw, dressed in a burlap shawl and bright green clothes, topped by a red cap, walking onto the stage with a gnarled stick.
"I am Lady Sprigg and 'ere with me are my two apprentices," she gestured broadly toward the other woman and the buck-toothed man who'd introduced them. He realized now that the man was the youngest of them, merely middle-aged, whereas the human woman was somewhat older and Lady Sprigg was by far the most ancient of the three.
"This," she swept her hand toward the other woman, "is Sybil, mistress of destiny, able to see yer future with naught but the merest glimpse of your face."
"And this," she pointed to the man, "is Sneff, master of the fabled neko-magic and wieldin' a power you'll have to see for yerself to believe!"
"But what do you actually do," the masked man called out with a skeptical look.
"I'm glad ya asked," the little troll-like woman asked with a wink, and suddenly the late-afternoon sunlight seemed almost black against the blinding rays sweeping out from the wagon. He heard people shrieking in surprise and he looked out through his fingers, watching her shadow twisting and wrapping around itself through the orb of light that had engulfed the whole stage. The light slowly began to fade from his eyes and he looked up.
"It is the skeptics," a masked man in a white tuxedo said from the stage, his voice booming, "who are often most willin' to accept the reality of magic, for all they need is to see it."
He stared in disbelief at the man on the stage, at the long braided blue hair, the gold mask covering half of his sharp rugged features, the emerald glint beneath the eyeholes--it was him, it was even his voice. Suddenly his twin began to melt, the suit blending into its body, and the thing's whole body suddenly erupted into a whirlwind of liquid flesh wrapping through the air, twisting back into the snickering green-skinned troll-woman.
"But those who think they believe in magic," she continued, "are usually much 'arder to convince, cause they think they know what it looks like, even when they really don't 'ave the first clue."
"So the question," she concluded, waving her coiled wooden stick at the crowd, "is who do have among us today? 'ow many of you are skeptics, 'ow many of you think you know magic...and 'ow of you many really know?"
"Lady Sprigg," the robed woman said, her voice secretive but still loud enough for the audience to hear, "the man near the back, on your right-hand side, is a skeptic. He's a treasure-seeker who relies upon cunning and skill to gain his wealth. He doubts the power of magic because he has seen too many tricks in his life."
"Really," Sprigg pointed at a shaggy-haired young man in the leather vest and white tunic as he looked up at her in surprise, "come up 'ere, if ya will, young man. Is what she sez true?"
"Yes," he answered as he quickly hopped onto the stage, "but she could've gotten that from anyone. I am Toma the 14th, the great explorer of El Nido. My reputation simply precedes me."
"I see," Sprigg answered, her voice rising for the rest of the audience to hear, "and tell me, why don't ya believe in magic?"
"Because I've been in a lot of old temples and ruins that were said to be cursed," he answered with pride, "and all I ever found were booby-traps, secret passages...nothing a good explorer couldn't explain."
"Ah," she nodded with understanding, "but he's not really a skeptic, Sybil. He believes in magic, but only as he knowz it, only as levers and pulleys. So we'll give 'im a taste of the real thing. Sneff?"
"Yes Lady Sprigg," he stepped forward and the other two discreetly backed off the stage, leaving him alone with the puzzled young explorer, "don't be afraid, it's a harmless trick I call 'Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.'"
"Bring it on," Toma shrugged, and Sneff nodded.
"One," he said, snapping his fingers with each number, "two, free!"
A small burst of light exploded from the stage and Toma seemed to collapse like an empty balloon onto the stage. The crowd gasped as a small sand-colored lump lifted up from the wooden stage and looked about with wide black eyes at Sneff and the crowd, and the masked man leaned closer to see what'd happened.
A small housecat paced and mewed nervously on the stage, its fur the same color as Toma's hair.
"And now," Sneff said proudly, confirming everyone's suspicion, "I will change him back!"
"One," he began as the cat sat on its haunches and stared at him fearfully, "two, and free!"
The same flash of light burnt his eyes and the masked man glanced back just in time to see the small furry shape expanding and rolling, fur melting into clothing and flesh, until the cat looked like Toma.
"Now what do you fink of magic," Sneff asked his volunteer.
"That was," Toma stammered, backing away from Sneff, "that was really weird. I'll definitely have to...to rethink magic," and he fell off the stage, practically running back to his seat as the audience laughed.
"Can we haff anoffer volunteer," Sneff turned to the crowd, trying to reassure the nervous audience, "but it's completely safe. I effen change myself sometimes when I'm bored..."
"Why not," the masked man said as he rose to his feet, "there's always time for a little fun."
"Ferry good," the clumsy magician nodded as the masked man climbed onto the rickety wooden platform, "now fis won't hurt, fough you may feel a tingling--like taking catnip," he snickered, "get it, catnip?"
"I get it," the man answered with a groan, "now let's try out this magic of yours."
"Okay," Sneff said excitedly, and began snapping, "one, two, free!"
The masked man began to glow with a faint purple light and he looked down at his hands in fear as his skin began to ripple and melt into some other shape. His muscles clenched against the twisting force and the purple glow suddenly rose into a blinding aura of swirling light, engulfing the whole stage for a moment before finally fading into soft golden sunlight. The crowd peered through the fading light at the stage.
The masked man stood panting on the stage, Sneff standing frozen with confusion before him.
"You," Sneff stuttered, "you're not a cat!"
"No," the man gasped, "what were you doing to me?"
"I was just changing your shape," he shook his head, "it's not dangerous."
"Enough," Sprigg answered as she walked back onto the stage and stood by the masked man's shoulder, "this one has closed 'is mind to magic, Sneff, and so magic will have no effect on him!"
"Which, by the way, is a bald-faced lie," she whispered in the man's ear, "come see us after the show."
"Now begone with you, non-believer," she said with a laugh, whacking him lightly with her cane as he made his way down the wooden steps and back into the small group of spectators, "but for those among you with a more open mind and a wish to fly, we'll show ya the art of levitation!"
* * *
Guile glanced up and down the side of the wagon at the red and yellow painted letters that time had worn away into flaking chips across the warped boards. He looked back at the last few travellers gathering their satchels and making their way down the winding trails that alone stretched across the central island of El Nido, the show ended and the three travellers long since retreated back into the closed wagon.
He'd run into con-artists and pranksters who'd tried to take advantage of him, mistaking him for an idiot as soon as they learned about the darkness that shrouded his life beyond El Nido, and he'd long since learned not to even mention it, to let people think of him what they will. This ragged gang of magicians seemed no different; he knew he should just leave and find some shelter before nightfall.
Something told him to stay, though, the same faint whisper within the back of his thoughts that had guided him ever since his arrival in El Nido. He'd long since resigned himself to the fleeting impulses that seemed to emerge from the shadows of his shattered mind, the longing and sadness that cross his thoughts whenever he looked into the ashes of a burnt-out campfire or saw a girl wearing a pendant, the irrational anger that crossed his thoughts whenever he looked at one of the green pyramids the El Nido natives seemed to worship....the random images and feelings had lost all their meaning, but they still overwhelmed him when he thought too deeply about them.
He'd decided months ago that he would instead follow those impulses, let his instincts guide him through the islands and down the forgotten trails of his former life. Either they would return him to his lost purpose, or they would simply draw him into madness; neither seemed worse than the mindless wanderings that'd consumed the first year of his life. Whatever else happened, the enigma of his former life and the chaos that his world had since become would be forever dispelled.
"Hello," the man reluctantly called out as he stepped around the wagon and knocked on the closed rear door. The wooden door creaked open and the human woman, Sybil, appeared, looking at him curiously for a moment, just as she had before, before finally speaking.
"Your mask," she asked, "you hide a great secret behind it, even from yourself. If you removed it, I might tell you that secret, and your future besides."
"Never," he whispered in horror, then shook his head, trying to dispel the sudden panic that always gripped his heart whenever he considered taking off the mask, "this mask is a part of who I've become. I can't take it off yet."
"Besides," Sprigg answered as she bounced out of wagon, Sybil standing to one side to allow the little troll through, "ya might not like what ya see in this one, Sybil. Be careful of matters beyond your experience."
"I could handle it," she answered, smiling "besides, now I simply must know what his mask hides!"
"Perhaps," she answered, "perhaps not. But off ya go, Sneff needs help balancing the profits!"
"As you wish," she sighed and disappeared back into the wagon as Sneff hopped out onto the grass, the fields and hills cast into deepening shadows as the sun sank behind the distant forests.
"I'm sorry if I ruined your act," the man said to her, studying her pointed face intently for any sign of deception or mockery, "but if you'd meant for me to participate in your trick, you should have explained it to me first. Most magicians use plants in their audience."
"That was no trick," she answered, "ya mean ya don't know why Sneff's magic didn't work?"
"I do," he said in a low voice, "it's because it wasn't really magic. Magic is nothing but smoke and light cast to keep people from seeing the truth. Porre conquered these islands and established its colonial government with guns and ships, not with spells. All the so-called magic of its natives were helpless against that."
"Ya really don't believe in magic," she asked, her face puzzled.
"In the year I've spent on these islands, I've never seen it."
"And before that? El Nido doesn't have a monopoly on magic, ya know."
"I...don't know," he answered reluctantly, pausing for a moment before he decided to simply tell her, "all I remember is waking up on Opassa Beach last year, wearing this mask," he then looked up defensively, "but if there were magic, I doubt I would still be here, chasing down the echoes of my old life."
"Why not leave," she asked, leaning on her wooden staff as she looked up at him, "perhaps yer life's to be found on the other side of the ocean."
"Maybe," he nodded, "but I can't leave here. I don't know how to explain it, but I feel like there's something I'm supposed to take care of here and I can't leave until it's done. I just don't know what it is," he sighed and, on a sudden impulse, decided to tell the little old woman what he'd never told anyone, "that happens to me a lot...I feel all sorts of things, but I don't know what they mean anymore. Just instinct, impulses..."
"Yer memories are still there," she answered, nodding slowly as she considered what he'd told her, "ya just can't talk to them. But they still talk to you, tellin' ya what to feel, tellin' ya what you should do. That's probably why ya haven't left these islands yet."
"Listen, if you're going to offer to restore them with some sort of magic," he said, shaking his head, "don't bother. I know better than that."
"Ya really don't have a clue," she snickered, "kid, yer a marlin! Do ya really want to know why Sneff's magic didn't work on you? It's because ya resisted with your own magic, and ya didn't even know it!"
"You told the audience," he said suspiciously, even as a small part of his innermost being trembled at the possibility, "it was because I didn't believe in magic."
"I lied," she shrugged, "I wasn't about to try to convince them that yer a great wizard when ya don't even believe it. By the way, if I weren't so generous I'd charge you for lost revenue--I'm sure that explanation left a lot of people thinkin' we made some goof-up."
"You did," he snarled, "there are no wizards and I'm not a huckster like you."
"Oh really," Sprigg cackled, then spread her hands before her, "IGNIUS DUO!"
The air suddenly burst into flames and the man whirled around in shock as a bubble of liquid fire seemed to close in around him, his skin blistering against the heat, his clothes starting to singe and smoke. He looked back up in panic at the smirking troll-woman, then closed his eyes, a sudden impulse driving him to spread his palms outward against the flames. His thoughts flickered with some obscure purpose and the flames suddenly vanished, leaving him shivering in the cold twilight air. He realized after a moment that the air seemed too cold.
He opened his eyes and found his clothes covered in stiff sheets of glittering ice, the grass around his feet frozen into thin frosted spikes and his breath fogging in front of him. He looked back down at Sprigg, shaking his head in disbelief and sudden fear.
"You d-did that," he said, shivering in the cold, "how?"
"Not me," she shook her head with a grin, "I made the fire, but all the rest was you. Yer memories told ya what to do, they protected you--but ya can't talk to them, ya can't find out what else they know. Somethin' awful musta happened to split them all up like that."
"How," he asked himself as the frost began to melt, realizing that she was right, that he'd somehow known the moment she said it, "how did I know to do that? What did I do, what was I before? What did I used to be?"
"Don't look at me," she shrugged, "yer the one who did it. But let me touch your face and I might be able to get a better idea of what's hidin' in that sneaky head of yours."
"Alright," he answered reluctantly, then bent down as she bounced forward and pressed one cold wrinkled hand to his cheek. She closed her eyes and her green almond-shaped face suddenly began to twitch, her smile fading into a fearful expression. She quickly pulled her hand away and knelt down onto one knee, her eyes wide in panicked reverence before she dropped her head toward the ground, toward his boots.
"Sir Magus," she whispered, her voice cracking, "I didn't know it was you! My parents served ya in the mystic war four centuries ago and I knew you only from their stories...forgive me, my lord!"
"You what," he answered in shock and an inexplicable anger at her mention of the unfamiliar word, "stand up, I'm not a magus!"
"But," she started, then paused, staring at him for several seconds before suddenly laughing, "but a magus without his memory is no magus at all! Yer only yourself now!"
"You know," he said under his breath, his heart stopping as he realized what'd happened, "you saw my past...what did you see, tell me!"
"Maybe I could tell ya," she nodded, "but yer better off without yer memory. If she ever got a whiff of the stuff locked up in yer head, you'd be in a whole world of trouble!"
"Who," he choked, a faint chill running down his spine at her words.
"It's a secret," she said, then laughed, "and if I told ya, then it wouldn't be a secret anymore! Trust me, yer memories know what they're doin'. The more clueless you are, the safer you'll be. But come on, sit down."
"I would say you're not making any sense," he sighed as he sat down on the wooden steps propped against the back of the wagon, his face now level with hers, "but you probably get that a lot, don't you?"
"All the time," she laughed, then grow a little more serious, but still smiling as she looked straight at him, "but don't pout. I can't tell ya that secret, but I will tell ya another one. Your memory's not gone for good."
"It's not," he asked anxiously, feeling a sudden twinge of hope for the first time since he had awakened on Opassa Beach with only a howling darkness for his memory.
"Nope," she shook her head quickly, "yer mind looks like it's gone through a shredder, but it's all in there, and it'll start healin' over time. But it's gonna take awhile."
"How long," he sighed, "it's been a year and I still haven't figured anything out."
"I dunno," she shrugged, "a year, a week, a decade. However long it needs to be. But when ya do get it all back, she's gonna know too, and you'll need a whole lotta power to deal with that. We're talking a lot more than you've ever had before. What's even worse is that now ya 'ave to start all over again."
"I had power before," he asked doubtfully, looking down at his palms.
"You were huge," she nodded eagerly, "but still not big enough. Tell ya what, though. Come travel with me and my band. I'll teach ya about magic, get ya back in touch with all that power you've got in ya, and 'opefully make ya even stronger than ya used to be."
"You can do that?"
"Of course I can," she cackled, "just look at those two. Sybil couldn't even have a decent conversation when I met 'er, and now she reads through people with a glance. And Sneff, is he ever a piece of work! He's one of the more powerful magicians I've ever met, but he's got no confidence in himself! I had to give 'im a magic berry just to get 'im to even try castin' a spell."
"A magic berry," the man asked skeptically.
"Well it's magically delicious," she snickered, "but otherwise powerless. He thinks the berry's given 'im all his magic when he's really been doin' it all himself the whole time."
"So why not tell him the truth?"
"Ever hear of Sir Gawaine and his fifty-first dragon," she asked, then shook her head, "guess not. Let's just say Sneff's not ready for the truth yet, kinda like you."
"I'm taking a lot of this on faith, you know."
"Only way to take anything," she shrugged, "so what do ya say?"
"Alright," he said reluctantly, "but does that mean I have to join your show too?"
"You bet it does," she cried out gleefully, "now we just 'ave to get you a name. We can't introduce you as 'that sharp-dressed guy who wears a mask,' can we? So who do ya wanna be, what name strikes your fancy?"
"I don't know," he answered slowly, thinking back over the past year of wandering from vilage to village, "I've never talked to enough people to need one..."
"I've got it," she shouted, not even listening to him, "ya beguiled Sybil with yer mask, and Sneff with yer magic, and yer memories even beguile you. Since ya beguile so many, why don't ya just be Guile?"
"That," he groaned, "is the worst pun you've given yet."
"Got another name?"
"No," he finally sighed, "I can live with Guile."
"And now ya just need a schtick," she said.
"A role, a character, a gimmick--a schtick. And with that outfit and mask, I know just the thing!"
"What," Guile asked nervously, looking down at his flashy white tuxedo.
"You will be Guile the Mysterious Gambler! Trust me, gamblers are all the rage. Ever heard of Setzer?"
"Bah, ya wouldn't know it if you had," she laughed, "now here's the schedule. We're headin' over to the forest for the night, then we'll grab some dinner and then, after moonrise, we'll start your trainin'. But I gotta warn you, it won't be easy, especially at first."
"But it'll help me learn," he asked, "it'll show me what I used to be?"
"Oh, definitely. You'll be an even greater wizard than ya used to be!"
"I was a wizard," he asked himself, then shrugged, "alright. Let's see what I've got."
* * *
"This," Sprigg said as she tossed a long metal staff to Guile, "is a magic wand. I charged it with some of my own magic, to enhance your power and to provide a focus for your trainin'."
Guile lifted the staff in both hands and looked carefully at it. It was almost as tall as him, a long golden staff capped by two hollow heart-shaped rings and a green gem embedded between them.
"This isn't my version of the magic berry, is it?"
"Maybe," she winked as he turned the staff in his hands and looked at it, her voice almost drowned out by the sound of crickets chirping around them, "but it really does have my power in it. After awhile, though, you'll be so powerful that all my magic wouldn't be worth a berry to ya."
Guile looked around at the grassy forest clearing they'd traveled to after the show, a small bubbling creek twisting between the moss-covered trees and across the glistening, dew-covered fields while the twin moons hung low in the night sky, hidden by thick leaf-strewen branches. He then turned around to the wagon, where Sybil and Sneff sat watching from the rain-warped wooden steps, and looked back to Sprigg.
"So what is magic," he asked.
"It's a power that we have all inherited," she answered, "from a time long before 'uman memory. There are six elements that make up the power of nature, but only four of them also possess the power of magic."
"Fire, water, light and shadow. Everything's based on the balance of these powers, but they're not always equal. Part of what makes us all different is that we all 'ave different balances. Nobody is perfectly balanced, we all lean toward one element or another. My innate power is actually the power of the wind."
"But that's not one of the magical powers," he asked, confused.
"No, and neither is the power of the earth: those two elements have no magic. Oh, I can still use some magic, I'll just never master its full strength, that's all."
"What about me?"
"You've got it all, kid! Fire, water, light, they're yours to command. But yer true power lies in darkness."
"You mean evil," he said nervously.
"No," she shook her head quickly, "not evil. Just darkness, shadow-magic. The sun only shines for half a day and the rest of it's spent in the shadows. Darkness is a part of nature just like light."
"But what does it do," he asked, his expression lost in thought as he tried to make sense of what she'd said, "fire burns, water freezes, light flashes...what can shadows do?"
"That's up to you," she answered, pointing to a nearby oak, "why don't ya find out?"
"You hate that tree," she said, "it's caused nothing but pain and ya hate it."
"No," Guile said, rubbing the back of his neck, "I'm really okay with that tree."
"Just pretend," she whispered, then raised her voice again, "you have nothing anymore, Guile. They stole your memory, your life, your feelings from you. All the people you ever loved, all the happiness you've ever known, is dead, and there's nothin' left but emptiness in your heart. Focus on that emptiness."
"The hole, the abyss, the darkness," she continued as he closed his eyes and tried to focus, "they consume ya, they devour ya bit by bit. Ya lost everything and nothing you can do will ever bring it back. You don't even have a name anymore, yer just a faceless stranger. No hope, no dreams, no future!"
"No," he muttered, eyes closed tight, fists clenching tight as the wand began to lift into the air in front of him, hovering a few feet of the ground, "that's not true..."
"Yes! Focus all the hate, the anger, the emptiness into the wand. It's a part of ya, reach out into it, make it do what ya want. Focus! Yer not a man, yer nothing but a mask. Ya failed, the people ya love are all dead and all ya can do now is hide behind that mask and wait to die!"
"No," he screamed, her words ripping open some hidden wound in his heart, the same wound that campfires and pendants had only poked at, "NO!!"
The metal wand crackled with black sparks and streams of dark energy, and then the towering oak suddenly exploded, twigs and branches flying outward, broken wood raining through the clearing. He opened his eyes and a deep red glow poured out from beneath the mask as he stared at the tree, arms spread out and the wand floating before him.
"Ya failed," Sprigg screamed at him, "they're dead because of you! Ya didn't protect them!"
The debris suddenly stopped, branches and broken limbs hovering in the air, the shattered pieces of wood suspended around the cracked stump, forming a cloud of twigs and splintered branches. A smooth orb of flickering darkness began to materialize, a crackling humming sphere of solid black energy.
"You are nothing!"
Guile screamed in rage, a primal animal sound, and the floating branches suddenly flew inward, the hanging orb sucking them into itself, swelling like a balloon as a pounding wind swept through the hollow, blowing the three magicians toward the black sphere. Sprigg grabbed onto a nearby sapling and Sneff clutched the wooden steps tightly as Sybil held onto the door handle, the wind howling and shrieking furiously around the hovering shadow-sphere.
Guile stood in untouched front of the orb, his body glowing with a faint purple light, his arms spread straight out as the wand crackled and trembled, the air filled with windswept leaves twisting toward the now-gigantic sphere. A ring of cold white light suddenly exploded outward from the sphere and rushed through the clearing as Sprigg twisted her head away, gesturing for the other two to do the same until the winds finally died away.
The shattered tree and dark orb had both vanished, the branches, limbs and even the tree-trunk completely gone, leaving nothing but a gaping pit in the ground where the roots had been ripped away. The trees all around the clearing had been stripped of their leaves and, as far as Sprigg could see, the branches of the forest had been twisted into a spiral centering on the small round clearing and the uprooted pit in the middle. She turned away from the trees to see Guile fallen to his knees, arms hanging limp, the wand lying on the ground.
"Nuff," Sneff shouted in surprise, "what was fat!?
"Yeah," Guile looked over his shoulder at them, panting quickly, his sudden and inexplicable rage dying away into confusion and exhaustion as he tried to remember what had happened, what had triggered the fury he'd suddenly felt or the vast power that has somehow emerged from it, "what was that...what did I just do?"
"That," Sprigg nodded with pride, "was a black hole, a tear in the fabric of existence that pulls everything around it out into the void. It's a good thing ya closed it quickly, or else we probably wouldn't be here."
"That was horrible," Guile groaned, kneeling on the ground, rubbing his forehead as he tried to push himself onto his feet, "nothing but darkness, emptiness."
"I'm sorry," the little troll said with a sympathetic pat on his head, "but magic lives within the heart, and at first ya need to feel the element to use its magic. Ya had to become the darkness to channel it."
"Is it always like that," he asked himself, shaking his head, terrified of the hatred that had burst through without any warning, that had, for just a moment, threatened to consume him, and the whole forest besides.
"Not at all," she shook her head softly, "right now the magic's a lot stronger than you and the only way for you bring it out is for your heart to reflect its nature. But that'll change with time, as ya grow stronger. Ya just have to learn how to control it, that'z all."
"It was like a nightmare," he staggered to his feet and looked around at the shattered clearing and crumbling pit in the middle of the hollow, "I don't ever want to feel like that again."
"I told ya it would be hard at first," she answered, "but look how far you've come in one night. I've lived for three centuries and have never once created a black hole. But you conjured one in just a few minutes!"
"But if my powers are all like that," he said,"maybe it's better I don't remember..."
"Nonsense," she said sharply, "you don't have your memories, but that doesn't mean ya never were. Yer life's gonna catch up with you someday, whether ya recognize it or not. When that day comes, do ya want to be taken by surprise, or do ya want to be ready for whatever's out there?"
"You're right," he nodded weakly, and he wiped his sweat-drenched hair back, brushing his hands against his white slacks, "it's just...I didn't think it'd be that hard."
"Nobody ever does," she shrugged, "there's a lot more to magic than saying a few words and waving your arms around. Ya gotta be attuned to the power within ya and its connection to the power within everything else, ya have to let yer mind become a bridge between yourself and yer goal."
"But," he shook his head, "you three do it so easily..."
"We just make it look easy," Sprigg snickered with a backward glance at her two pupils, who sat watching silently on the steps, "I'll tell ya what. We'll take a break, let Sneff work on his card tricks a little bit, and then we'll try again after you've caught yer breath."
"Forget it," Guile stood up, shaking his head and fighting to keep his knees steady, "if the three of you can master this, so can I. I want to try to...cast that spell again, now."
"You'd better grab the bungee cords," Sprigg joked to the other two, her black beady eyes sparkling with silent admiration, "'cuz it looks like it's gonna be a windy night!"
Chapter 5: Where Angels Lose Their Way
Guile glided through the air above the murky brown puddles while Sybil and Sneff clambered over the thick tree roots and leaped awkwardly from one muddy islet to another, clinging to the slender leafless tree-trunks as they hopped across the still waters. Sprigg bounced through the branches overhead, leaping eagerly like a frog from one tree to the next, and she finally somersaulted onto a swell of land in the middle of the desolate swamp.
"Careful with the water," Sprigg called out over her shoulder, "it's poisonous!"
Guile floated above the muddy waters and landed atop a curved tree-root while Sneff and Sybil climbed onto a small bare island, all of them a few feet from the beaming troll-woman and her patch of dry ground. They listened to the faint hum of distant flies breaking the silence, the whole swamp drab and lifeless except for bugs.
"Nuff," Sneff gasped, "why are we out here anyway? I just hope fere aren't hydras around..."
"Don't worry, the hydras are all extinct," Guile answered, "the last one was killed a few years ago. But I've heard stories that the wingapede has survived and still flies on cloudless sunny days like this one."
"Stop fat," Sneff said nervously, imagining the gigantic wormy insect swooping out of the sky with its huge dragonfly wings, "I hate bugs...really really hate fem..."
"This whole forest is dead," Sybil muttered sadly as she looked around at the dead trees and muddy pools of still water, "I can't feel anything here...not even birds..."
"Humans," Sprigg answered, "they hunted every livin' thing in this forest. They drove out the dwarves, stalked the hydras, chopped down the trees...but that's not why we're 'ere."
"Which brings us to Sneff's question," Guile said, "why are we out here?"
"It's time," Sprigg nodded to the shrouded psychic standing with Sneff, "tell them."
"Alright," Sybil nodded, "you know I can sense emotions, auras, destinies. But over the past few years the noise on the islands has grown much louder. It feels as though there's twice as many people in El Nido as there used to be, but I don't sense any more minds than there were before...and there aren't anymore people that I can see."
"But that's not all, is it" Sprigg prodded her pupil with a sly grin.
"No," Sybil sighed, hesitating a little, "I'm having more trouble than I used to. Sometimes I look at someone and see a completely different aura, like they've led another life. It's a little...embarrassing."
"Ready for some good news," Sprigg asked, "it's not you, Sybil. I've been tapping into the elements myself lately and found the same thing. There's another world just beyond the boundary of this one--a world that's almost exactly like this world, same people, same islands. And now it's becomin' linked to our world."
"You mean anoffer planet," Sneff asked, scratching his head.
"Nope," Sprigg answered, "same planet, different dimension. Maybe a different history too. It's all around us, but we can't see it and they can't see us."
"So I must be sensing echoes of that other history," Sybil said eagerly, still confused but relieved that her powers weren't failing her, "that's why it feels like there's so much noise sometimes."
"Why would our world be linked with it," Guile asked their teacher, "if there really are other timelines, then there must be millions of them, for every toss of the coin and roll of the dice. Why does Sybil feel only one of them?"
"I don't know why we're linked to that one alone," Sprigg answered, "but ya might have something to do with it, Guile. Sybil only started feelin' the other world about five years ago, when you arrived."
"Do you think I'm from this other world," Guile asked in surprise.
"Not at all," she cackled, "no, you belong in this one. But I do think that something ya got mixed up in led to this other world being joined with ours. But even that's just an old lady's hunch."
"Which keeps bringing us to the same question," Guile insisted as he looked up at the blue-white sky, then around at the drooping lifeless trees and red silt-clouded swamp, "why are we here?"
"Why are any of us 'ere," Sprigg laughed, then looked back to her three students with a snicker as they glared impatiently at her, "alright, alright...the three of us are in the Hydra Marshes because I've found a weakness in the boundaries here."
"You mean between the worlds," Sybil asked, tilting her head.
"Exactly," Sprigg clapped her hands, "something's linked them together, but the two worlds are still mostly separated by the fabric of space-time. There's a point 'ere, right where I'm standing, where the two worlds happen to draw close together and the boundary between them becomes pretty thin."
"I don't see anything," Sneff said as he stared intently at the small islet.
"Yer not supposed to," Sprigg snickered, "I said the boundary's weak, but it's still here. It'll take a lot energy to actually break through it, and still more to fly all the way to the other timeline."
"You want to go over there," Guile said slowly as he began to realize her plan, "why?"
"To try to figure out what's going on," she answered, "something linked our world with whatever timeline's over there, and I think it was done on purpose--and anything powerful enough to do that is powerful enough to be worth worrying about. There might be some clues over there to explain why this happened."
"What iff you don't make it all the way across," Sneff asked, worried.
"Good question," she scratched her sharp green chin, "I suppose I'd end up in a kind of limbo between the two worlds, a dimensional vortex where space and time don't work the same way, where centuries could pass within the span of a few years and reality itself seems to shift dependin' on who's lookin' at it."
The three stared at her in wide-eyed horror as flies buzzed around the burning sun-drenched air.
"Oh come on," she suddenly laughed out loud, "I just made all that up! I'm sure I'll get through the rift and if I can pull it off once, then I can make the trip back just as easily."
"You're going now," Guile asked, "aren't you? That's why you brought all of us here."
"Ya bet I am," she said, "I don't know how long I'll be gone--'owever long it takes to figure out what's so special about that world, or this one, and get back, I guess. So I wanted all of you to see me off."
"We'll come wiff you," Sneff said quickly, "we'll all go see this offer world."
"I wish ya could," Sprigg sighed, "but I don't 'ave nearly enough power to open a portal for all of us. It took more than a year just to come up with a spell to open it just for me, much less for three others."
"What about the records of fate," Sybil asked, exasperated, "did you at least check with them?"
"Bah," Sprigg waved her hand dismissively, "I've never used those things a day in my life. We make our own destiny, no matter what any island superstitions might say."
"You could have used my help," Guile said sullenly, "all of our help. Why keep this a secret?"
"It wasn't a secret, just a side-project" she protested, then sighed, "alright, ya got me. At first I wasn't sure how serious this was. When I figured it out, I realized that it'd take a lot of time and energy to work out a way to do this, and all of you have come so far, I didn't want to derail yer training with this kinda research."
"This could be serious," Sybil complained, "our training could've waited."
"And that kinda generosity," Sprigg replied, "is exactly why I didn't tell any of ya--none of ya would've focused on yer training if ya'd known. Come on, relax, it's not like it's the end of the world!"
"What should we do on fis side," Sneff asked with a resigned sigh.
"Keep doing the shows," she cackled, "and make sure ya keep those profits up! But more important, keep training, all of ya. All three of ya 'ave an incredible power."
"Alright," Guile said as Sneff and Sybil nodded silently.
"I'm not much for long good-byes," Sprigg suddenly said, stretching her thin arms out and closing her eyes, "so 'ere we go. Ya might need to cover yer eyes, I'm not really sure what it'll look like."
The cowl-draped troll-woman began chanting a long string of alien syllables, her head tilted up toward the bone-dry white sky and eyes closed tight as she focused the elemental energy of the swamp into her, channeling it through her body as she struggled to keep control of the dark power sweeping over her.
"Tandyr," her raspy voice called into the sky, "manaph mys-hasaan! Sobar...katra!"
The dried cracked mud beneath her pointed shoes began to ripple and shimmer as if it were a reflection in a pool of clear water, glowing emerald-green ripples rolling out from beneath her feet. The islet began to darken and glitter like an obsidian mirror and Sprigg suddenly seemed to be hovering over a gleaming hole in space, a whirling column of green energy twisting around her in a spiral. The black pit spread outward across the water, the space around her quivering, the horizon twisting up and down into pretzel-shapes behind her. Sprigg opened her eyes and looked at her three awed students, still hovering about the magical abyss.
"Wish me luck," she called out, "and no slacking--I'll be testing each of ya when I get back!"
She dropped through the pit and the glittering black opening folded back into itself, the trees and horizon rippling and twisting as though there were reflections in a churning pond. A flash of white light swept through the desolate swamp and Guile lowered his elbow to find the small island bare and empty, but otherwise intact.
"She's gone," he said blankly, still not quite believing it.
"Do you fink she made it," Sneff asked the group, gripping a sapling tightly with one hand.
"I don't know," Sybil said softly, "but I can't sense her anymore. What should we do?"
"Sprigg scheduled a three-night show in Guldove tonight," Guile answered, "which I'd guess is her way of saying she wants us to keep going without her until she gets back."
After a few silent minutes Guile hovered up into the air and waited, slowly bobbing up and down while Sneff and Sybil carefully hopped over the streams of poisoned swamp-water onto the muddy islands and tree-roots, the three magicians wordlessly making their way back to the caravan wagon.
Chapter 6: Gamblers and Ghosts
"So you three think you're going to the Viper Festival," the bandit snarled at the three travelers.
"That's the plan," Guile nodded, Sneff and Sybil standing on each side as they stared down the small gang of thieves blocking their way . They stood on an empty road winding along the side of a grassy hill, the left side of the road sloping gently down into a thick rain forest, the right side swelling up along the hill and the road itself twisting around the side of the knoll. Four rag-dressed men stood in the middle of the road--the muscular sunken-eyed leader of the gang, a tall gaunt man with a lean hollow face, a short squat older man, and a hulking brute.
"An old woman, a clumsy goofball and a tuxedo-mask wanna-be," their leader smirked, "fine, we'll let you go to Termina for the festival, but you have to pay us a toll for it."
"Fortune hasn't favored us," Guile said before Sneff or Sybil could speak, "we've nothing you'd want."
"Don't play with us," the slim man shouted, "we saw your shows over at Viper Manor just a few nights ago and we know you still got all that cash!"
"Hand it over," their leader said calmly, "and you won't get hurt."
"Let's just give it to him," Sneff said quietly, "it's not worth a fight and we'll make more at the festival."
"I'd agree," Sybil answered, studying their leader's face carefully, "except they have no intention of letting any of us live. The reason the dragoons haven't caught this gang is that they never leave witnesses."
"She knows us," the massive thug asked the others, "how could she know us?"
"So what if they do," the leader snarled, "Gaunt, take care of these sideshow freaks!"
The tall lean man stalked slowly toward the group and Guile flung his right hand out, fingers spread as he slapped the air with the back of his hand, and the thick floating wand mimicked his gesture, flying forward and whirling upward, striking the approaching bandit across the cheek with the side of its metal shaft and then whacking him across the stomach, knocking him onto his back.
"Screw this," the highwayman growled to his confused lackeys, "just kill them already."
Sneff shot a glare at the hulking thug walking toward him and he slipped one hand into his coat, pulling out a deck of playing cards and catching three of the cards between his fingers. He suddenly flung the handful of cards through the air at the brute and the man laughed at the flying poker cards--then screamed in pain, clutching his chest and staggering backwards as the cards, transmuted by the magician's powers into stiff razor-sharp blades, sliced through his arms and chest and flew out the other side.
The chubby thief stared in fright at the two men and then charged at the old woman, grinning as she stood frozen in panic. He lunged his dagger forward, then looked down in confusion as the blade stopped short of her face, his wrist tightly gripped in her left hand. She reached her right hand to touch his cheek, her thumb on his chin and her fingertips pressed to his right temple as she whispered in his ear.
"All the fear and pain you've caused...open your eyes...feel what they felt..."
The stout highwayman suddenly wrenched away from her, his eyes widening in speechless panic, and he staggered away from the group, ripping out his hair as he screamed and fled down the slopes into the jungle.
"No," his voice screamed from the forest as he ran from a swarm of imaginary ghosts, all of them staring at him with dead eyes, arms outstretched as they floated toward him, "somebody...somebody help me!"
The thin wiry thief facing Guile stared at the fleeing man in confusion, rubbing his bruised face, and reached over his shoulder, drawing out a long gleaming sword and grinning as he pointed the tip at Guile's chest.
"Let's see your magic wand deal with this!"
"Do not test my luck," Guile said softly, "it's saved me from much worse than you."
"Shut up you freak," the bandit screamed as he lifted the blade over his shoulder and swung forward.
Guile quickly twisted his wrist upward, his fingers folding back into his right palm, and he flipped his palm down and swung his right arm out in an arc, spreading his fingers toward the attacker. The floating wand suddenly shimmered and melted into a sword--then split into two swords, then four, then eight swords all hovering in a circle around the bandit, their needle-sharp tips aimed at the man's torso. He looked around in fright at the ring of blades surrounding him, then he snarled at Guile and tried to plunge his sword between them at the magician.
Guile folded his outstretched fingers back into his right fist; the eight hovering rapiers all thrust inward at once, driving into the man as he screamed and dropped down to his knees, then tumbled onto the ground. A stream of blood flowed from beneath the man and the swords vanished as Guile opened his fist, looking up at leader of the gang of thieves to find the brawny hollow-eyed man pointing a shotgun at him.
"Demons," the man shouted, "all three of you...witches!"
"Just lower the gun," Guile said calmly as Sneff and Sybil turned toward them, lifting his clenched right fist before his face, half his face covered by his fist, "don't tempt fortune anymore than you have."
"Damned monsters," the bandit screamed as he looked around in panic for the floating wand, then relaxed as he noticed that it'd completely vanished, turning back to the tuxedo-wearing man before him.
"So where'd your little toy go," the highwayman taunted, "did I scare it off?"
He grinned and slid the pump-action bolt on the shotgun and Guile simply opened his palm. The gunman's head wrenched upward, his eyes bulging out of his head and his high-pitched scream suddenly cut short as the long thin blood-covered point of the wand rammed upward between his open lips, the handle and top half of the wand ripping out from between his ribs. The leader's body tumbled onto the ground after a faint shudder, impaled from the inside out by the magic wand, the road empty except for bodies and the three silent magicians.
Guile lowered his right hand to his side and the bloody wand vanished with a blink from within the corpse, appearing beside the magician's right arm, the floating shaft suddenly clean and dry.
"Are you two alright," Guile asked after a moment of ringing silence.
"Yeah," Sneff answered and Sybil nodded silently.
"We'll let the authorities know what happened when we arrive at Termina," Guile said, shaking his head sadly at the group of fallen bandits before resuming their journey toward the distant white terraces of Termina, the colonial port-city that marked the landing point for all the mainland visitors, "if the dragoons have been hunting these thieves, there shouldn't be any trouble."
They continued across the mountain road in silence for a moment, Sybil watching Guile and his wand floating along the road with interest, before suddenly speaking, as if she couldn't hold her thoughts back any longer.
"Guile, that thing follows you like a puppy," Sybil exclaimed as she watched the gleaming wand hovering beside Guile, floating with him as he walked alongside the other two magicians, "Sprigg's staff was never that strong; you've been augmenting it with your own magic, haven't you?"
"Yes," Guile answered, "I've been teaching myself how to channel my powers through it."
"Why," she asked, "your magic would be much more powerful if you just used it directly."
"If I'm to surpass my teacher," he replied quietly, "then she should be here to see it. Until then, I'll continue to use the wand."
"She's been gone for four years now," Sneff said, "do you fink she'll come back?"
"I know it," Guile said in a low voice, glancing sternly to each of his fellow magicians, "and all of us should train, to prepare for that day."
"We have and we'll keep training," Sybil answered with a smile, "but you should most of all, Guile. Lady Sprigg's far too kind to say so, but when she told us to keep developing our powers, she meant you more than either of us. I sensed her feelings about you--your power's unlike anything she's ever seen. She'd want you to explore that gift."
"I know," he said softly, then looked up at them, smiling a little as he changed the subject, "so what are you two doing when we reach Termina?"
"You won't believe fis," Sneff answered eagerly, "but I've gotten a jig as fee opening act for Nikki's Magical Dreamers! He finks my cat-magic will make a great crowd-warmer!"
"That's impressive," Guile said with an admiring nod, "if you stay on with his concert tour, you'll finally get to see the Zenan continent like you've always wanted. How long will you be gone?"
"Just a few weeks," he replied, "after fat, I'll be back in El Nido."
"Then I'll be sure to come to the opening show tomorrow night," Guile said with a warm smile, "how about you, Sybil?"
"Oh, nothing that ambitious," she answered with a wave of her hand, "I'm setting up a tent on the Termina bridge to give out fortunes and palm-readings. Should be a pretty big crowd during the day."
"That should make a nice profit," Sneff snickered, "especially wiff your powers!"
"I'm not charging for it," she replied, and the other two gawked at her in speechless surprise, the magicians stopping for a moment along the hilltop trail as she quietly giggled under her breath at their confused expressions.
"A lot of people are coming to the festival," she continued, "many of them lost, without a clue of who they are or what they were meant to be. If any of them seek my help, I'll give it. Besides, we made a big enough profit at the Viper Manor show to cover a little vacation during the Viper Festival, right?"
"We've earned enough for several vacations," Guile nodded after a moment of mentally counting the money from the Viper show, "and besides, I think Sprigg would like that."
"Yeah," Sneff snickered, "even iff it does bring down our monthly revenue."
"So Guile, what about you," Sybil asked, "which of your many talents will you employ at the festival?"
"I haven't decided," he shrugged as he looked out at the white marble city and endless gleaming ocean stretching beneath the crest of the hill, his right hand lifted over his mask to block the bright tropical sun from his eyes, "or rather, I've decided to let fortune take me where it might."
"Since you have such faith in fortune and chance," Sybil suddenly grinned, "how about we put your luck to the test? Do you remember how that Deva Karsh bragged about Viper Manor's fortifications?"
"I remember that he relies far too much on the terrain," Guile remarked with distaste, "they only had a few guards stationed because they were so confident that nobody would scale the cliffs around the manor."
"Let's put that to the test," she answered, "I'm willing to bet that you can't breach the mansion, without our help."
"Interesting," Guile replied, "go on."
"Here's the deal. You have to sneak into Viper Manor and come back out with some proof that you were there. Think you could pull that one off?"
"Easily," Guile answered with a slow smile, "how long would you give me?"
"The festival lasts for a week," she answered, "and I don't want you to spend all your time crawling through that dusty old mansion. So let's say you have until the end of the festival--one week."
"What's the prize," he asked.
"If you win," she answered, "I'll pay to have your staff brass-plated. It's getting a little worn out and that should help make both its strength and its channeling ability more powerful."
"Alright," he nodded, "but what would you want if there were any chance you'd win?"
"You know exactly what my terms are," she smirked.
"Not fis again," Sneff groaned, his hands on his hips as he turned toward her, "Sprigg told you that it's too dangerous to read his aura, that you could go mad if you tried to look into his mind! Why are so obsessed with fis!?"
"I've grown much stronger since then," she said, "and I'm dying to know what's locked up in there that could possibly be so dangerous. You don't seem dangerous to me, Guile, just mysterious...and I hate mysteries!"
"If you're really so much stronger," Guile chuckled, "why not simply look through this mask?"
"You know that's not how it works," she retorted, "your mask symbolizes your own hidden aura. Without the symbol of the mask, I could read your true face and see into your hidden nature. Besides," she frowned a little, "I've seen the way you twist around in your sleep. Something big's bottled up in there, and it might help to get it out in the open."
"I know," he sighed. His dreams had always been filled with sadness and anger, ashes and faces that he didn't recognize anymore, but lately voices and names had begun to appear as well, names that faded from his thoughts as soon as he awoke, but nonetheless filled him with a melancholy that sometimes took several hours to shake off.
"But Sprigg said that would be dangerous," Guile continued, frightened by the thought of the enigma lurking beneath his mask, a forgotten life that had endowed him with magic so dark and powerful that it sometimes troubled even him, "if I tried to force my memories before they return on their own it could cause problems, maybe for all of us."
"Alright," she sighed, then suddenly turned to him, "well then, how about this. I just won't tell you what I see. After all, Lady Sprigg seemed to know something about you and it didn't do her any harm, right?"
"I guess so," Guile said slowly, closing his eyes for a moment before finally replying, "alright, I accept. Besides, you've never won any of our bets before," he teased her, "so what's the harm?"
"Then it's done," Sybil exclaimed as the gravel-filled road gave way to a hard paved street leading down from the hills into the bustling tourist-filled city of Termina, "your luck can't hold up forever, Guile, and I'm betting today's the day it runs out. Meet me at my tent with proof that you were in the manor, if you can."
* * *
"Who might you be," an old lady's voice asked from within the gold-fringed red tent. Serge swept his hand over his own red bandanna, covering his dark blue hair, and leaned on the rowing oar that he'd learned to use as a kind of staff-like weapon, while Leena peered curiously into the tent and Kid scuffed her feet over the white marble streets of Termina. He looked over his shoulder at the tapestries, flags and Magical Dreamers posters hanging over the side of the bridge, then suddenly turned back around as a puff of smoke wafted out from the tent.
"Fortunes be good, fortunes be bad," an old woman in a long green dress, wearing a white pillowy caliph's hat that nearly hid her face, said as she appeared out of the smoke and glanced curiously at each of them, "anything from reading your destiny to searching for the missing...do wish your fortune to be read?"
"Why not," Leena shrugged to Serge.
"Do what ya like, mate," Kid muttered, "but I never did like fortune-tellers. Besides, we've gotta hurry up and find out what those blokes want with you!"
"We are in a hurry," Serge agreed, then answered the old lady, "but alright, why not tell our fortune?"
The fortune-teller nodded and peered carefully into Serge's face, her eyes narrowed with confusion as she tried to look into his aura, then finally gave up, making out only a vague darkness around him.
"Well this is interesting," she muttered, puzzled by his complete lack of any past or future, "you're not dead or anything are you? Has anyone called you back from the great beyond?"
"Why does everyone keep saying that," Serge sighed, "I'm not dead, I feel fine!"
"You just might be," she said slowly, awe-struck, as she began to sense a vast energy hidden within the darkness of his aura, an inner crimson glow shining from somewhere beyond time itself, "the key to the destruction of this entire planet. I can't say for sure, but fate seems to have a great task for you. Be careful now, boy!"
"Hey Serge," Kid rolled her eyes, "that's nothin' but rubbish. Let's hurry up and get movin'."
"Hmm...you there," the fortune-teller turned to face the impatient teenager, "in your eyes, I perceive...both the look of a beauty and the look of a beast. Be mindful not to bring about your own end, my dear."
"Wha," Kid started to protest.
"A dream lies in wait," she said softly to Kid, suddenly sensing a looming ominous shadow buried deep within the young girl's aura, something dark and powerful lurking somewhere beyond her furthest memories, a darkness even deeper and more ominous than the crimson glow of the boy, "reaching out to engulf you."
"Sorry, mum," Kid replied, "I don't believe in fortune-tellin' at all. I make way for me own future by myself."
"Lassie," the fortune-teller countered, hands on her hips, "you should listen to your elder's advice."
"Ha," Kid shook her head, trying to laugh despite the troubled look on her face, "I don't give a damn. Let's go Serge."
"Hey, wait a minute," Leena called them back, "I want my fortune too!"
"It says," the old fortune-teller answered as she stared into Leena's youthful face and her relatively tranquil aura, "that you will not find a boyfriend for a long time. Fortune-telling is such a merciless thing..."
"How rude," Leena sniffed and turned back toward Serge, "yeah, let's go."
"If you must go," the fortune-teller replied with a knowing smile, "then you may want to check out the Dragon's Tail, a restaurant and bar on the main square of Termina. There's a man there who seeks entry to Viper Manor as well, and his aura is as mysterious as yours. It may be that he was meant to travel with you."
"How did you know we," Serge answered, puzzled but still grateful, "I mean, um...thanks!"
"Come back any time you want a reading," the old lady snickered, then raised her arms, "that is all!"
She suddenly seemed to explode into a stinging cloud of smoke and when the air cleared, the woman had vanished again, leaving only the tent and two blinking eyes peering out of its shadows. Serge shrugged silently to the other two and they jogged back through the marble streets and balconies, past the streaming ribbons of woven flowers and blossoms decorating the walls toward the Dragon's Tail restaurant.
"Good luck to you, Guile," Sybil whispered within her tent as she looked through the crowds for her next customer, then she smiled, "but don't you dare forget about our bet!"
* * *
"So you're this ghost-boy Serge I've been hearing about," Guile asked the blue-haired teenager, leaning one elbow against the bar and sipping the glass of wine in his right hand. Candle-tipped chandeliers swung lightly from the ceiling of the upscale restaurant, casting a warm golden glow across the alabaster walls of the Dragon's Tail, and tourists sat around the tables, a soft babel of voices filling the room.
"No," Serge cried out, then sighed, "at least, I don't think I'm a ghost. I remember my life, just like I'd never died. It's more like the rest of the world just...forgot about me."
"Fair enough," Guile nodded and turned Serge's friend, a pretty red-haired young woman in a knee-length purple-and-gold dress, "and let me see if I've sorted it all out: you, Leena, used to be the friend of the young boy that died ten years ago, that this boy Serge now seems to be."
"Um," Leena answered, now confused herself, "yeah, something like that. Except this boy's not dead."
"I noticed that myself," he answered with a smile, then turned to the third member of their group, a shorter girl with braided blonde hair, wearing a large purple bead-necklace over her white top and short red vest, a sheathed dagger hanging across the waist of her red skirt.
The other two teens were Arni villagers; he didn't need to ask them, he immediately recognized the colorful woven fabrics they wore, the chief trade of the otherwise quiet seaside village. This one, however, was different, a foreigner like him--and his heart nearly stopped as he suddenly felt that, somehow, he should recognize her.
She'd dabbed her apple-red cheeks with the white warpaint that marked her as one of the mainland's Radical Dreamers, but that hardly mattered to him. Instead, he found himself staring into her deep blue eyes, her youthful face suddenly awakening a formless memory of protectiveness, love...and finally, for the first time since he awoke on the shores of El Nido nine years ago, a name that didn't slip away from his thoughts.
"I know I'm cute and all," she said, head tilted to one side as she tried to make out his expression through the golden mask, "but you're a bit old for me."
"No, it's not that," he answered quickly, repulsed by the pretty teen's suspicion in a way that he couldn't quite explain, and he paused a moment, uncertain of himself before finally testing the name that had suddenly filled his mind, "Sch-Schala?"
"I'm more into ska myself," Leena asked, puzzled, "but what's schala?"
"I don't know," he answered softly, then closed his eyes, barely managing to dredge up one last word from the amorphous shadows and darkness slipping through the back of his mind, a name that, though he'd long forgotten what it meant, he now realized had lately filled his shapeless nightly dreams, "Kid..."
"What the," the blonde girl stiffened, "how'd you know me name?! You'd best tell us quick or I promise I'll kick your tuxedo-arse so hard that you'll kiss the moons!"
"I don't know," he answered honestly, then he thought quickly, his voice deepening as he covered up his confusion by adopting the role he'd played for almost a decade now, "but you are a kid, aren't you? It's just luck that it happens to also be your name, and the mastery of fortune is my profession."
"Yeah, I guess so," Kid said, slowly relaxing, more puzzled by his behavior now than threatened, "but don't go thinking I'm some helpless little girl just 'cause I happen to be young, got it? I can take care of myself and anyone else who tries to get in me way, or messes with any of me mates!"
"Then I'll hope to be counted among them," he answered, and turned to the other two, "what we need now is a seasoned sailor and a sturdy boat to cross the rough waters."
"So you'll help us," Serge asked eagerly.
"If you can find one," he nodded, "leave the rest to me. I will guide you to Viper Manor."
He still didn't really remember anything, but in the past minute alone Kid's face had brought two names to the surface of his thoughts, after a decade of fruitless inner reflection at the maelstrom of his deeper memories--and one of those names had actually been right. Aside from the curiosity, he also felt another one of those impulses that sprang out of the wilderness of his forgotten life: he had to protect these teens, especially the youngest girl.
"Great," Serge answered, "and once we're in, we'll help find this thing you need for your bet too."
"That would be cheating," Guile laughed, "but thanks for the offer," he leaned over the bar and ordered four drinks for all of them, a glass of wine for himself and three glasses of Termina cider for the teens.
"That mask," Leena suddenly asked, "why do you wear it?"
"The true gambler never shows his hand," he answered, having long since rehearsed these lines, "and the best way to keep a poker-face is to have no face at all."
"Alright," Leena said, still looking at the round gold mask covering the top half of his face, offering just a glint of emerald beneath the two eyeholes, barely remembering somebody else wearing a mask like this a long time ago, when she was a child, "your mask just...it reminded me of someone else, I guess."
"You must have that sort of face, or jaw anyway," Kid shrugged, lifting her glass up to her face and peering into the non-alcoholic cider with disappointment, before glancing back up at him, "'cause yer a dead ringer for someone I used to know too."
"Really," he looked at her suddenly, holding his breath, "who?"
"An older brother, I think," Kid remarked, her soft blue eyes unfocused as she strained to remember beyond the fire that had marked the end of her old life and the beginning of this new one, "or maybe an uncle. But that was a long time ago and besides, yer too young. He woulda been a lot older than you by now. But besides that," she shrugged, taking a sip of her cider, "you coulda been twins."
"I see," he said, his heart suddenly leaping with a single certainty, that he'd finally begun to fulfill his true purpose in El Nido. The mysterious sadness and self-doubt that had plagued him since his awakening on Opassa Beach had somehow vanished with her words, and he didn't need his memories to realize that, without even knowing it, he'd been searching for Kid all these years, that he had come to El Nido to protect her.
One day his memories would tell him what had happened, who he'd once been--when that day came, he thought to himself, he would tell her everything, but not until he had something more than feelings and instincts, coupled with nameless dreams, to reveal. Until then, it would be enough to simply know that he'd found her again, that she was safe. He smiled to himself and then lifted the glass of wine up in his right hand.
"We'll leave for Viper Manor right after this round of drinks," he nodded to the three, "but first a toast...to new friendships and to the adventure."
"Sounds good to me," Kid answered with a shrug and she tapped her glass of cider against his wine-glass, "to all that stuff you said!"
"Alright," Serge and Leena nodded and completed the toast, "to friendship and to the adventure!"