The Princess in the Tower
The stairwell went up and up and still further up. There were no windows or signs to break up the monotonous gray walls linking the stairwell, so it didn't take long for me to wonder if we were making any progress. Just as I considered turning back, the stairwell opened to a circular room with a single unmarked door.
“Thank the Creator.” I said as I walked up the final steps. “I was beginning to wonder if that wasn't just another trap.”
“Spinning staircase, never going anywhere?” One said. “Yeah, me too. Still, after all those stairs, we have to be back at the castle, right?'
We stared at the single door present in the room atop the stairwell. It looked rather benign, though after the rest of my day thus far, I wasn't going to assume anything.
“Only one way to find out.” As I reached for the handle, I heard the sound of footsteps approaching from the other side.
“Incoming!” I stepped away from the door, swiftly drawing Glint and readying myself for whatever might try and enter the room. I raised my blade as the door opened only to immediately lower it when Mick rushed through the doorway and shut the door behind him.
“Mick!” I said, “It's good to-”
Mick held a finger to his lips. Motioning for me to move closer to him, He opened the door ever so slightly. I peered through the crack; after a few minutes, a suit of armor with energy blades for hands came walking around the corner.
“Hiding from Joe, are you? Ha! You'd better choose your hiding place well!” The armor proclaimed. “For Joe is the mightiest of knights, the most stalwart of warriors, and the deadliest of foes!”
The Joe-bot clipped the leg of a small decorative cabinet. Joe spun around and reduced the offending furniture into sawdust with a flurry of energy blades.
“Ha-ha! Solo EXP!” Joe shouted, raising an energy blade skyward.
“What the-” One said, only to have Mick clamp his hand around the doll's stitched mouth. Fortunately, the armor didn't hear him.
It walked down the path it had come, its synthesized voice echoing through the hallway. “So fall those who challenge the might of the great Joe!”
Once the Joe-bot was out of sight, Mick said, “I figured you'd be here by now, so I came here to assist; unfortunately, Joe caught me while I was lowering the drawbridge to the Bizarre Bazaar and has been flowing me ever since. Frankly, I'm amazed it's still in working.”
“What about Casey?”
“Back at the Main Gate. She was still a bit shaken from her entrapment in the Aetherial Plane, so she wanted a chance to take a break.”
“Fair enough.” I said. “Creator knows I could use a break myself. I had my own robot troubles earlier.”
“No, just animatronic pirates. Apparently, someone named Cid fixed them up and gave them a basic AI.”
“Fascinating! He must be quite the programmer.” Mick said, “Is this Cid our kidnapper?”
“I think so. He definitely has the expertise.”
Mick gave me an odd look. “Hold on a minute; wasn't One here a minute ago?”
I glanced at my shoulder, only to find that the One doll was indeed gone. “That's odd. I wonder where he went?”
We looked around the nearby area, but found no sign of the possessed toy. Eventually, I sighed and said, “He's gone. Again.”
“Thomas often described One as being a little unpredictable.” Mick said.
“Might have had an emergency, I suppose.” I said. “Or perhaps Luck was ready for another round. Doesn't explain where the doll went though.”
“Another round of what?” Mick asked, genuinely curious.
I sighed and shook my head. “I'm sure he'll catch up with us later. Come on; we need to get moving before Joe's patrol takes him this way again.”
The corridors of the castle were pretty much what I expected: walls of stone bricks, tapestries, a wide strip of red carpet in the center of the corridors, and the occasional suit of armor. We gave the armor a wide berth, but otherwise had no difficulties.
I'm not sure if we were just lucky or were walking head-first into a trap, but we managed to find the right stairwell (ironically labeled 'To the Tallest Tower') without any additional trouble. Unfortunately, this meant another spiraling stairwell.
“I could go ahead of you to see if I she's really up there.” Mick said.
“No, it's probably best that we stick together. No telling what's waiting for us up there.” With another sigh, I started up the staircase.
After what felt like hours, we finally reached the top. By that time, I was well out of breath.
“Thank the Creator.” I said, falling to the floor and resting against the wall. “No more stairs, please.”
“Are you all right, Jimmy?” Mick asked, kneeling beside me and putting a hand on my shoulder.
I looked up at his concerned face, and smiled. “It's okay. I'm just tired. It's definitely been a long day.”
We sat there for a while as I caught my breath, staring at the door that hopefully led to Princess Sera. It was a heavy oak door with steel reinforcement. As my eyes fell on the keyhole, I let out a groan.”
“What is it?”
“Key.” I said, pointing. “Given the rest of this place, I'll bet Glint that we're gonna need a key to open that. He's probably hid it somewhere in the castle … or the park.”
Eyebrow raised, Mick rose to his feet and approached the door. After glancing at the keyhole for a few moments, he dug his fingers into the hard wood and ripped the door off its hinges.
I stared as he set the door carefully against the wall. Dusting his hands off, he smiled at me and said cheerily, “Shall we?”
Shaking my head, I stood up and approached the open doorway. The room beyond seemed to be very … well, I know princessy isn't a word, but that was the best way to describe it. There was an exquisitely carved four poster bed with a cushy pillow-top mattress, a gold-trimmed full body mirror, an armoire, and even a beautiful, silver and gold harp in the corner.
Unfortunately, there was one thing missing; the princess. There was, however a figure in the window; a wooden mannequin that the kidnapper had dressed in the female royal guard uniform.
I rubbed my temples; while I'd known her presence in the tower was unlikely, I couldn't help but feel intense annoyance at being right back at square one: a massive park with no clue as to the locations of either the kidnapper or Princess Sera.
“Jimmy?” Mick asked.
“That's not the princess.”
“That's very observant of you.” I said, unable to keep the sarcasm from my voice.
After a moment on contemplative silence, he said, “Then this was a farce after all.”
“Looks that way.”
“Huh.” Mick said, scratching his head.
As there was little else to be done, I poked around the room in a half-hearted attempt to search for clues as to the princess's whereabouts. I checked under the bed, rifled through the armoire (which was filled with costume-quality gowns and dresses) and thumped the floor in case there was a secret hatch. I even plucked a few strings on the harp. Other than discovering the harp was badly out of tune, nothing seemed out of the ordinary.
“Nothing.” I said. “This was a complete waste of time.”
“Maybe” Mick's eyes narrowed. “Or maybe not.”
I turned just as Mick plunged a hand into the bed. With a mighty yank, he tore a metal device about as large as my hand from the bed.
“Aha!” He clenched his fist around the device, reducing it to a handful of scrap. “Jamming device. Try your radio, Jimmy.”
I did so immediately. “This is Jimmy Sakamota. Can anyone hear me?”
“Jimmy!” Terry's voice soon responded. “Thank the Creator! I was about to go looking for you!”
I didn't have time to reply before the radio activated again, this time broadcasting Casey's voice. “I hear you too; did Mick catch up with you?”
“Yes.” I said. “Are you with Terry?”
“Not yet, but-”
Terry's voice cut in. “I can see her! Casey, I'm by the hot dog stand!”
“Good.” I said. “Arc should be on the way to your location as well. I'm in the castle right now; the dragon machine's here, so if at all possible, I'd like Meryli to hurry this way and disable it.”
“Uh, problem.” Terry said. “Meryli's-”
“Gone missing, hasn't she?” I finished, a sinking feeling in my chest.
“Sorry, sir. I didn't realize she was gone until checked back with the Ascendant a few minutes ago. No signs of struggle, no note … she's just gone.”
I rubbed my eyes. “Great. So she's either captured, or Terra was right and she's a traitor.”
“Terra warned you about Meryli?” Terry said, reminding me that I still had the radio on.
“Yeah.” I said, feeling embarrassed. “She left me a warning last night. Watch the tekker.”
“You didn't say anything to us.” Mick said, sounding legitimately surprised.
I couldn't help but sigh. “What was I supposed to say? My imaginary girlfriend left me a warning?”
“Is she blonde?” Mick asked.
I stared at him for a long moment before managed to say, “Why would you ask that?”
He reached out and touched the lock of hair hanging from my neck. “I noticed you wearing this earlier, and have been wondering where you came by it. It's not the same shade of blonde as your hair, and the only other person with blonde hair is Terry.”
“What?” Terry said over the radio. “When did you see my hair?”
“I caught a glimpse of it back in Wukice, in the power station. Still, while closer in shade to yours, it's still not the same. Jimmy, if you'll lend me a hair, I may be able to put this to rest once and for all.”
“Is this really the time?” Terry said.
Terry was right, of course, but the temptation of an answer was too much for me. Reluctant but hopeful, I held out the makeshift amulet. Mick carefully pulled a single golden strand from the lock and pulled it taught between two fingers. All thoughts of the princess and the dragon were gone from my mind as I held my breath.
After staring at it intently for at least a minute, a sly smile spread across Mick's face. “My, my. Isn't that interesting?”
“What?” I asked, unable to keep desperation out of my voice. “What's interesting?”
“According to my genetic profiles, it's a near-match.”
“A near match for what?” I asked.
“For-” Mick's eyes flicked upward, his voice dying almost immediately. “Uh, Jimmy?”
I felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. I slowly turned to see a very large reptilian eye staring at me through the tower window.
“By the Creator.” The words fell from my numb lips.
“What is it?” Terry said via radio. “Mick? Jimmy?”
It was Mick who finally said, “We've found the dragon.”
The whole tower gave a great shudder, knocking me and Mick to the floor.
Fortunately, the fall snapped me back to my senses. I raised my radio and shouted, “The dragon's active! I repeat, the dragon's active!”
After Mick hauled me off the floor, we promptly made a break for the stairwell. We barely made it down the first steps before the dragon's claws smashed through the walls of the chamber, showering us with stone. Mick shoved me behind him and produced an energy field that deflected the rocks.
The dragon hovered above the remnants of the bedchamber. For a moment, I again thought I had been mistaken about it being a fake; it certainly looked like a real dragon with its blue scales, the flames licking around its jaws and the glittering red eyes that stared down at us.
“You leave me no choice, samurai!” Shouted the same voice that earlier taunted me in the Bizarre Bazaar. “I will not let you take her from me!”
“Wait! Cid!” I shouted, “This doesn't have to-”
The dragon breathed fire at us. Fortunately, Mick was smart enough to haul me down the stairwell before I ended up as black as my clothes. Accepting that my attempt to be diplomatic had failed, I followed Mick down the stairwell moments before the dragon began to systematically destroy the tower in our wake. Being nowhere near as fast as Mick, I had to duck more than once to avoid having my head taken away with a segment of the tower.
We rushed out of the doorway that previously lead to the tallest tower and kept running. I glanced behind me just in time to see the rest of the tower crumble to ruins. The dragon thrust its jaws through the opening. With a roar, it let out another blast of fire just as we rounded the corner.
“The princess must be close.” I said as we continued to run, “I mean, he was playing with us before, but he seems really angry now.”
“Perhaps his jamming signal was blocking more than the radio. If we can get to the Ascendant, I can run a scan of the park. I'd link up to Bethany, but that would involve stopping, which wouldn't be a good idea at the moment.”
As if to make Mick's point, the dragon came crashing through the hallway behind us. “Sakamota!”
“We could really use a Dreamer about now.” I said as I pushed myself to my limit to keep up with Mick.
We raced through the castle with the dragon hot on our heels. I still don't know how we managed to stay ahead of it; perhaps a mix of adrenaline, terror, and the narrow corridors restricting the dragon's movement. Still, I had no idea where we were going, and was essentially trusting that Mick was more knowledgeable than I.
Fortunately for me, he was. The massive doors of the castle entrance were soon within our sights. I could see the drawbridge beyond the doorway leading to the familiar tents of the Bizarre Baazar.
Unfortunately, the Joe-bot was also there, standing directly in our path. Its helmet turned toward us as we slowed to a halt in front of it. We'd lost the dragon for the moment, but we could hear it growing closer.
The Joe-bot activated its energy sabers and shouted, “Aha! An enemy has appeared!”
We turned around to retreat, only to see the dragon smash through the passage through which we just passed. Stuck between the two threats with nowhere left to run, I drew Glint and prepared for a fight. That was when the plush form of One fell from a hole in the stone ceiling and latched onto the face of the robot.
The robot swung around blindly. “Status Ailment: Blind! Quick, someone toss some eye-drops my way!”
One climbed around the robot, yanked off its back panel, and quickly climbed inside the machine's innards. Joe twisted and jerked around, its arms incapable of reaching the possessed doll. “Hey! What are you … no, don't touch that! I'm not …”
Joe suddenly went still. After a few moments he turned back to us, now speaking with the voice of One. “There we go. Just like piloting a Dreadnaught. Now let's get moving before your friend catches up with us!”
The three of us rushed out of the castle. We made it to the drawbridge just as the dragon forced its way through the main gate.
The dragon gave out a hair-raising screech before taking to the air, the gusts caused by the flapping of its great wings nearly knocking me over. Just as it dove at us, a blast of energy caught it in the shoulder. With another shriek, it quickly changed its trajectory and headed back to what was left of the castle.
Terry rushed toward us, firing off another shot that unfortunately missed the dragon's wing by inches. Casey was with him as well, her camera at the ready.
“Come on!” She said, motioning for us to follow.
We wasted no time in following her and Terry into the Bizarre Bazaar. By the time the dragon circled back in our direction, we'd already disappeared among the circus tents.