Chapter 7 Statues on the Bluff

If eternity had seemed spooky, the Shumi Village was simply alien. Peaceful, yes, and in general so quiet that Zell was tempted to bring a boombox just for something to hear, but neither welcoming nor unwelcoming. The Shumi were humanoid, but not human. But they were, without question, the greatest craftsmen on the face of the earth - or under it.

The others always loved to visit; the place always made Zell restless. Too quiet - nothing ever changed here but the Shumi themselves as they evolved. Entering the overdome, they said their hellos to the Shumi who guarded the Ultima draw point, and opted to pay the fee to draw some. Zell was surprised to find he could draw twenty Ultima spells from the point; usually his luck was awful with draw points.

Have you forgotten us so soon? came Leviathan's watery voice. We are gifted with magic; therefore, so are you now.

Zell blushed, earning curious looks from his companions. Sorry, forgot for a minute there.

He would have continued, but Leviathan didn't appear to be feeling chatty - it was just annoyed that he hadn't realized where the power had come from, it seemed.

"Done chatting?" came Irvine's voice - the other two had started walking for the lift.

"I was just taking it easy," Zell laughed. "I'll still beat you to the lift." Since it was the last chance to have a little fun before entering the Village proper, he sprinted for the elevator door, easily beating the other two there. He was mildly pleased to find he wasn't the slightest bit out of breath.

The trip down the lift always took too long; Zell opted to challenge Bella to a little fighting practice to kill the time. Irvine stretched out on the seats with his hat over his eyes; something was bothering him, but he didn't seem to want to talk about it. When the lift stopped, he surprised Bella and Zell by being the first one at the door.

"You two settle down while we're here," he said. "This is the only place where that gun could've been made, but I've never known the Shumi to go in for weapons manufacturing. We don't want any trouble until we find out why they made an exception."

As they stepped out into the light of the underground Shumi Village, Zell asked, "How do you know it was made here, then?"

"Because it shouldn't have worked at all, but it did. Only the Shumi could build a gun that decorative that would still shoot that straight."

They went past the hotel and a few Shumi houses and people, who seemed to be as friendly as ever. Irvine made a beeline for the Elder's house, the red furred moomba at the door making welcoming noises as they entered. The Elder was standing, watching a scene on the screens built into his wall.

"Welcome again," said the towering figure of the Elder. "What brings you back?"

Irvine was suddenly reminded of their last trip here, when they had helped Sculptor build a statue...of Laguna. Oh shit, he thought. They don't know, and I hafta tell them. He cleared his throat; as the team leader, he had to be the one to speak.

"I...oh, damn," he said, giving up. Squall could pull off a formal announcement, but Irvine couldn't help thinking it would sound too cold. "I hate to be the one to tell you this, but a few weeks ago Laguna was shot - and the weapon that shot him had to have come from here. We're hoping you can tell us who made it, and for who, and why."

The Shumi Elder's large eyes seemed to express sorrow very well, as it nodded acknowledgment. "He is dead now, from your tone." It was a question, a request for confirmation.

"Ah, well...yes," Damn, being a leader sucked.

"That is worthy of regret. He was a special person. But tell me - why do you think we manufactured the weapon that killed him? Could you describe it for me?" The Elder moved to take a seat, apparently realizing that not having to look up a few feet to address him would put the SeeDs more at ease.

Irvine took a deep breath, fighting the urge to pull his hat down over his eyes so he wouldn't have to look the Elder in the face as he laid out evidence that was tantamount to accusation. "Well, when Laguna was shot, Zell here was there. He told me about the gun; he got a good look at it since it was shooting at him too. Nobody makes guns like that that I know of, and I know the market pretty well. The thing was really decorative; lot of wood and brass, lot of carvings and etchings. But what clinches it is the sight; you look down a heart shaped cleft and line it up with an animal tooth. You shouldn't be able to hit the broad side of a barn looking down a sight like that. But this guy had pinpoint accuracy. Only the Shumi could make a gun that pretty that would work that well."

The Elder's eyes closed for a moment, thinking. "Not quite true," he said. "The Grease Monkey of Fisherman's Horizon studied from us; he could also build such a thing. However, your guess was accurate. We did build such a weapon, several years ago. I am sorry to hear it was used in this way."

Irvine turned to Bella; she unshipped a pencil and a notepad. He asked, "Could you tell us about it, and who you made it for?"

"I, no," said the Elder. "But Artisan could tell you - Artisan was the one who designed and made the gun." And the Elder fell silent, apparently unwilling to continue the conversation.

After a few minutes, the three slipped out. Artisan's house wasn't far, and they entered to find Artisan working with one of his model trucks. When he saw them standing in the doorway, he said, "Come in, come in! Do you bring me more news from Fisherman's Horizon?"

"No," said Irvine, and nerved himself to repeat the story he'd told to Elder. "Could you tell us about this gun, why you made it, and who you made it for?"

As he'd filled Artisan in on what his work had done, the Shumi's welcoming expression faded into one of sorrow. "Sculptor will be so angry with me," he said sadly, "that my gift makes his useless, that it did such harm. I am sorry to have made such a destructive thing."

Irvine asked, "Well, why did you then?" noticing Bella quickly readying her notepad behind him.

"Some years ago...perhaps five, perhaps eight...a hunter from Winhill found a badly injured moomba buried in a rockslide. He only knew moombas came from here, from Shumi Village. He did not know anything else about them; how to treat them, anything. But he used all his money to bring the moomba here for treatment, as fast as he could come. I wanted to express our gratitude for such kindness, and asked him to name a reward. He was a hunter, from a family of hunters, and said he wanted a gun. A special gun; something his family could display with pride when it was not being used, but one that would be of great help on his hunting trips. He described it to me, and I made it. I had never made a weapon before. I do not think I will make another."

"Do you remember the hunter's name?" asked Irvine, hating himself for having to get more out of the obviously upset Shumi.

"Klev, was the name he gave to me," said Artisan, and stood up. "Would you...would you tell Sculptor I am sorry? I must go to Elder, to see if he will advise me on what I may to do make up for this." And the Shumi shuffled as fast as it could out the door.

Irvine blew out a long breath. "Did you ever think there were some days it just wasn't worth it to get out of bed?" he asked.

The other two nodded. "More and more of 'em lately, too," said Zell. The three SeeDs filed out, heading for the last house; Sculptor's house.

The bustle here was nonstop, but the best work went on in Sculptor's corner, in the far back. His masterwork stood there; a life-size statue of Laguna as he had been when he'd visited the village, some years before becoming President of Esthar. It gave Zell a bit of a shock to look at it; it really did capture the man's irrepressible personality. Then he heard Irvine's sharply intaken breath and looked beyond.

Sculptor was working on another statue; this one was of Squall and Rinoa, again as they had been when the Shumi had seen them last. It wasn't finished, not even half-done - only their heads and chests had so far been freed from the marble. But every detail was perfect. Rinoa's face was openly happy, practically glowing. Squall bore his usual impassive expression, but his eyes blazed with passion and certain lines of his face gave an impression of peace, contentment. Zell felt a quick surge of conflicting emotion from Griever, then its presence faded. It seemed to be embarrassed. Zell was trying to shake the feeling someone was walking over his grave. He felt certain that the finished statue would represent them as they had been on that last morning, just before they had Joined. He wondered how Laguna had described it to Sculptor, for the result to be this perfect. He had a sudden desire to go pry Selphie's copies of Timber Maniacs away from her, to see whether Laguna's language skills had really been that good.

Sculptor heard Irvine's gasp - even over the bustle of his studio - and shuffled over to greet them. "Hello, hello!" he said. "Do you like it? I have a long way to go of course, but it seems to be coming along well."

"Umm...yeah..." managed Irvine. "Why are you carving them?"

"Oh, this is a special request," said Sculptor. "Laguna visited here once a few years ago and saw my statue. He was so pleased with it, he asked me to try making one of your friends, that he could take back with him. I wasn't sure how it would work but I agreed. So far, it seems to be coming along nicely, don't you think?"

Zell blinked. They had made a state visit to the village a few years ago. Well, this explained where Laguna had slunk off to while Zell had been catching Artisan up on recent events.

Irvine said, "Um, yeah," he managed, trying to pull his eyes away from the statue. "Look, I don't know how to say this, but..." and he filled Sculptor in on the assassination. As he finished, Sculptor reached for a chair and sat down.

"So my statue is all that is left of him," said Sculptor sadly. "Artisan is right to feel upset; he should not have made a weapon, not for anyone. And what about this statue?" he indicated the work in progress. "What will we do with them now?"

"I have an idea," said Zell suddenly. "We'll put them up in Winhill...up on the bluffs. For Ellone." Ellone had loved the statue of Laguna when she'd finally seen it. And she'd probably like the new one, too.

Irvine looked over at him appreciatively. "Hey, that's a good idea," he said. "And we're heading for Winhill anyway - we could take the Laguna statue with us. If it's okay, Sculptor?"

Sculptor looked at his finished work. "We made this statue for the Shumi, to learn about Laguna a little more," he said. "But now...perhaps it is time to share. I can make another statue to keep here in the village. Yes, you may take it with you. I will have it boxed up and it will wait for you at the top of the lift. I will let you know when the other one is done."

Trying to keep from looking at the statue again, the three made their way back out into the village. Irvine put a hand on Zell's shoulder. "When you the party...what they were like," he said quietly, "were they like that?"

Zell nodded. "Exactly like that," he said. "You see why I didn't wanna argue?"

"Yeah, buddy," replied Irvine. "I don't think I would have, either. Was Sis there?"

Zell shook his head. "Just Laguna an' me," he said. "How he described them to Sculptor so...I wish I knew how he did that."

"Remind me to lend you the Timber Maniacs Sefie's got squirreled away sometime," said Irvine. "Ego the size of a planet, but the guy could write."

"If you two are finished walking down Memory Lane," teased Bella gently, "then perhaps we can get on with this. We've still got Winhill to cover."

Grateful for a chance to laugh, Zell responded by tackling her to the ground, curving himself so she landed on top of him.

After a few minutes, Irvine felt compelled to say, "Either you two let me join in, or quit playing laughing maniacs without me. We really hafta get going, you know." He put on a mock serious face to make the point.

"Oh, all right," laughed Bella breathlessly, dust from the path in her hair. "I just needed to knock the seriousness outta laughing boy here."

"THAT'S IT," roared Zell with a grin. "I'm carrying you back to the Ragnarok - you are now my prisoner!" After a brief tussle, Bella was scooped up over Zell's shoulder, laughing and kicking like a prisoner of King Kong.

As he hauled her away, Irvine said, "You know, that probably counts as a breach of regulations. But if you don't say anything, I won't."

* * * * * *

By the time the trio reached Winhill, they had calmed down considerably. Partly this was due to the strain of carrying the statue from the top of the lift to the Ragnarok; marble wasn't exactly the lightest of substances to cart around. Unanimously they decided to leave it on the ship until they'd talked to Ellone, so that they'd only have to move it once. That they were going to talk to her wasn't even an issue for discussion; the people of Winhill were at least as insular and xenophobic as the people of Esthar, and probably wouldn't answer any of their questions without her help.

Winhill was spread out, a collection of solitary houses along a single crossing of streets. Ellone lived next door to the building that had once been Raine's home and bar, the old house Laguna had lived in when he had stayed here. With her share of inheritance, she was busy renovating the old house; given that she'd only been here a few weeks she'd done remarkably. At the moment, she was pencil-marking a board, preparatory to cutting it. Irvine's jaw dropped.

"Wow, Sis, I had no idea you could do that," he said, amazed.

Ellone looked up and smiled, though they could see she'd been crying. "Irvine," she said, "Zell. It's nice to see you again. What brings you to Winhill?" She set down her pencil and measurements, and came over to give them a hug. Bella watched curiously as Zell gave Ellone a hefty bearhug. He noticed her look and grinned.

"It's okay, Bella," he said. "Ellone here is Squall's sister. Sorta everyone's sister, from the orphanage anyway. Ellone, you might not remember but this is my girlfriend Bella."

Ellone reached out a graceful hand and Bella took it. "Of course I remember Bella," said Ellone. "She was the only reason you ever went on leave. Laguna ... thought that was very sweet. But I can guess why she might not remember me; you were always so eager to get away I think you forgot to introduce us. But still - why have you three come to Winhill?"

"Well, it's SeeD actually," said Irvine. "We're tracing the gun that shot Laguna, and right now the trail leads here."

Ellone stiffened briefly and closed her eyes, evidently fighting off tears. "" she asked, almost whispering.

"Hey, it's okay Sis, if you want to cry," said Irvine. "We wouldn't bother you with this if we had any choice, you know that. But this town's so down on strangers..."

Ellone backed up a step, the back of her hand in front of her mouth as she tried to keep a handle on her grief. "No..." she said shakily, "it's all right. If I can help you catch him...I'll do anything I can. What did you come here to learn?"

Irvine led her to a bench, and had her sit down. "We're here looking for a hunter named Klev, if you know of him? He owned the gun that did the shooting - at least, it seems to look that way."

Ellone blinked away a few tears, and said, "I know Klev. He's a hunter, yes, but no killer. Not of people. He's one of the ones that hunts monsters near the village borders. He's very proud of his work. I think...I think I'd better go with you. He wouldn't react well to being accused of murder, especially by strangers. But he'll talk to me."

" sure you're up to it?" asked Zell worriedly. "You look kinda pale..."

"You sound like Laguna," said Ellone shakily. "No...I'm fine, really. Once I can stop crying. Give me a few minutes, then we'll go, all right?"

The three SeeDs opted to join her on the bench; Irvine to her right, Zell to her left, and Bella to Zell's left. Irvine said, "Sis, we brought you a present. D'you remember the statue of Laguna at the Shumi Village?"

"Yes," said Ellone. "It was beautiful."

"Well, when they heard what happened, they gave it to us. We thought you might want it."

Ellone laughed, still a little shakily. "Oh, my," she said. "I'd love to have it in the square, but the villagers never did like him much. I think...I think it should go up on the bluffs." She turned to Zell. "Did he take you to the bluffs, Zell? It's beautiful there, this time of year."

He nodded. "Yeah, we went there a few times. I let him go up there alone though. He didn't look like he wanted company."

"Well then, before you leave, you should go there. Once I have this done," and she waved a hand in the direction of the house, "I'll set up a memorial there...someplace the statue could go and not get worn by the weather."

Irvine commented, "Better make it big, 'cause the Shumi were working on another statue, too - and when it's done they'll send it here."

To their surprise, Ellone nodded. "Yes, Laguna told me he had asked them to make another statue, but he wanted it to be a surprise. Don't tell me, if you know what it is. I'll wait." Her voice had grown mostly steady. "I think we'd better get moving," she said. "I can't seem to help going all to pieces sometimes." She stood up, and waited for them to join her. "Klev's house is this way," she said, pointing southward. She started walking, and the SeeDs easily kept pace.

Klev's house was near the edge of town, as befitted a monster hunter. He seemed to make a point of using anything he could from the monsters he killed, which resulted in quite an unusual decor. But the people of Winhill did not like letting things go to waste, so it seemed to them to be right and proper. When Ellone knocked on the door he opened it, but scowled when he saw the SeeDs. It turned out Klev was a dark-haired man in his late thirties, sporting a loosely tied ponytail that fell to his waist.

"Anything I can do for you?" he asked while standing in his doorway, pointedly not inviting them in.

"Klev," began Ellone, "These are some of my friends, SeeDs from Balamb Garden. They're here to ask you about your gun."

"You're acting like I only own one," the man snapped. "Be specific - which gun? Or were you looking to buy one?"

"A fancy gun with a lot of wood and brass and fancy carvings," said Irvine in a polite tone. "A gun with a sight made of a heart and an animal's tooth, made by the Shumi."

Klev's eyes widened. "You found it?" he asked incredulously. "Which thief'd you nab it off of then?"

"Found it?" said Zell. "Yeah, found it - found it pointing at me. Whaddaya mean, what thief'd we nab it off of?"

"I mean that gun was stolen, a year and more ago," said Klev. "Some rich buggers from Deling City made off with it while they were vacationing here." He held up a hand. "And don't tell me they didn't do it; I had the gun before they came, and I didn't when they left. And there's no thieves in this town. Besides - who could hide a beauty like that?"

"Could you tell us about those people, Mr. Klev?" asked Bella, unshipping her notepad and pencil. "The gun was used in an important crime; we need to find out who has it."

"Long's you return it to me when you're done putting that thief behind bars, sure," said Klev. "The head of the house had dark hair, was kinda oldish, real big on his dignity. There were two kids with him, but I couldn't tell you whether both were his. You know rich folk, they just drop their kids off with a friend if they want to go on holiday. They both had dark hair, but that's not odd when you're talking about Deling City people. Oh, yeah - the guy had military insignia. Probably a general or something, but I don't know a lot about Galbadian military so that's just a guess."

"You wouldn't have anything more...definite, sir?" asked Bella.

"No," Klev growled. "Everyone left them alone, they like it that way, we like it that way. But one of those kids was a thief; my gun was hanging on its hooks when they got here, and it wasn't when they left. Now if you've nothing more I've got dinner cooking and I'd like to get back to it. Good day!" And he ducked inside his house and shut the door - almost, but not quite, a slam.

Ellone shook her head. "I probably shouldn't have said you were SeeD," she said sadly. "That's one step below soldiers to some people. I just wasn't thinking..."

Irvine put a supporting arm around her shoulders. "It's okay. We did better than we expected to; at least we have somewhere to go. We can ask General Caraway if he knows anyone that might fit that description, then check to see if any of them have the gun. We'll find the killer, don't you worry."

Ellone sniffled a bit, but smiled. "How fragile I must seem to you all - you always seem to want to protect me. I'm staying in the hotel until the renovations are done, or I'd offer you a place to stay tonight. As it is, you're probably better off in your ship. Will you...keep the statue with you for now? I'll let you know when I've gotten a memorial ready to house it." She laughed sadly. "I'm probably the wealthiest person in Winhill now, thanks to Laguna." She paused. "I' you to come to the bluffs with me tonight, if you would. Maybe you can tell me if what I've done is right - whether the others would mind."

"Sure," said Irvine, and the others agreed. "Whenever you're ready."

* * * * * * * * *

The four took the Ragnarok to the base of the hill, choosing not to land on the hilltop itself by common, silent agreement. There was a slight track leading up the slope, which they followed.

The view from the hilltop was magnificent, laying out the entire village of Winhill, and providing an excellent vantage for watching the stars. A slow, steady wind always blew here, carrying a slight mist from the distant sea. The grasses were kept clipped short here, so that the plaques could be read. There were two of them; one for Raine and one for Laguna, set side by side. They carried no inscription other than the names and dates of birth and death, but they seemed to fit perfectly together.

"I couldn't think of anything to say," said Ellone sadly. "It would never shrink down small enough to fit on a headstone."

"I don't think he minds," said Zell, thinking of his ring. "I think he decided he's said all he needs to." He felt a slight feeling of approval; evidently his guess was right.

"Selphie could probably think of something, if it bothers you Elle," said Irvine.

"I may ask her, when I do the memorial," said Ellone. "But that wasn't what I brought you here to see." She indicated a space set apart, where they noticed a small stone statue. It was an angel, wings spread into the breeze, watching the stars, and at its feet crouched a lion, its stern visage watching the fields below. There were no names, but there didn't need to be.

"That was what everyone called them," she said, sounding a bit embarrassed. "I tried, I really tried to think of something to say, but I just couldn't think of anything that I knew he would approve of. And I didn't really know Rinoa all that when I found the statue, I thought maybe it would do until I could think of something."

You let Ellone think you were dead? Zell thought at Griever. Now that is cold. I thought Laguna would have told her, so if he didn't it's because you told him not to. Damn, you can be a cold bastard sometimes.

Yes, we told him not to tell her, said Griever. Better to have her believe that we are dead, than to know we live and can never speak with her. She is not a SeeD, Zell, and she never will be. Garden would never countenance her possession of a Guardian Force, even if that Force were us. The voice was stern. Think about it, Zell. What would it do to her, to know we live, but forever beyond her reach? That we have a voice she will never, can never hear? She would never let go. This way, she grieves and she moves on. There was a rawness to Griever's voice, Zell noticed. Something that said this decision had cost them something. If there was one person besides Rinoa that Squall really did care about, it was Ellone. He did not like the idea of hurting her.

All right, all right, said Zell, but he didn't like it. What do you want me to tell her about the statue? You should at least give her that.

Griever's presence in his mind expanded, making Zell blink for a minute. Tell suits us, Griever said slowly. At least, it suits how we see each other, even if not how we see ourselves.

Boy, how convoluted can you get, thought Zell. I'll trim that down a bit so it fits in plain english, if you don't mind.

As you will. Griever's presence faded almost completely. It did not want to talk any further, it seemed.

"It's just fine, Elle," said Zell at last. "It suits them. They wouldn't mind, I'm sure."

Irvine shot him a look, but nodded. "Yeah...the others will probably agree with that. It suits them. Come on, Sis. It's getting dark, and I'd rather drop you off at Winhill proper than have you walk back in the dark."

They did that thing, and opted to sleep in the Ragnarok over staying at the hotel. Irvine was practically pushing Zell out the door.

"All right, what did they tell you," he growled the moment they boarded the ship. "I saw your face when Elle asked about the statue. You're damn lucky she wasn't looking at your eyes just then."

Zell pushed Irvine away roughly. "They wouldn't have said a damn thing if I hadn't asked 'em," he snapped back. "They didn't want Elle to spend her life missing them, so they told Laguna not to tell her they're a Guardian Force. I bitched 'em out about it, and told 'em to give me an opinion on the statue for her. That's all."

"And they had to go for a looksee, is that it? Your eyes looked like a cat's for a second there, and they sure as hell weren't blue. Don't you ever give me a scare like that again. I thought you were being possessed."

"Yeah, they had to see for themselves what it looked like," said Zell, "and I'm not planning on doing it again, okay? So just back off."

"If you two don't calm down, I'm going to call Seifer," said Bella. "You are both arguing the same side of the story; you don't like it that Ellone was made to believe Squall and Rinoa are dead. Fine, but we have a murderer to catch."

Irvine immediately calmed down, became almost frigid. "Well you have that right at least," he said. "I don't like having to keep stuff from Elle, and we do have a job to do. I hope you bitched 'em out good for this, Zell. She's a big girl, she could've taken the truth." And he spun around so quickly his brown trench coat flared out behind him, and stalked off for the sleeping quarters.

Bella gripped Zell's forearm firmly. "It's all right, Zell," she said. "It's just grief. He didn't like seeing Ellone so unhappy, and neither did you. But she isn't grieving for her brother any more. That was too long ago to sting as much. She's grieving for Laguna, and he really is dead. I think Irvine just wishes there were a way to undo that."

"I know," said Zell. "It's just...I'm not always sure they did what was right for everyone. It was right for them, yeah...but maybe not right for everyone. So it hurts. And Laguna was my friend, so I'm maybe a bit off-balance right now."

"Then go get some sleep," she said. "I'll take first watch."

"Thanks," said Zell heavily, realizing he really was tired. He gave her a halfhearted hug, and headed for the sleeping quarters - hoping Irvine would choose to pretend to be asleep.

Chapter 8