Chapter 25 - The Early Bird
I woke up to see the moons already high in the sky. It wasn’t until my stomach growled loudly that I realized what roused me from my slumber: the smell of bacon and eggs was wafting through the air, the promise of real food chasing away any fatigue still clinging to my thoughts.
I sat up only to see a campfire not ten feet away: a blue campfire underneath a hovering sheet of metal, on top of which were at least twenty strips of sizzling bacon and a mass of scrambled eggs.
A robed figure sat nearby, occasionally poking at the food with what appeared to be a wand. He looked up at me and grinned, pausing a moment to take a puff of whatever he was smoking before he said, “’Sup, dude! Munchies’ll be ready in a sec.”
“Smokes?” I said incredulously, wondering if I was still dreaming.
Some of the bacon grease popped as I drew near, singeing my hand. No, I thought as I hurriedly wiped my hand on the back of my shorts, this was real.
Smokes waved at a nearby stone. “Take a load off, man!”
As I sat down, he started to flip the bacon. “It was a bitch finding you, y’know. Can’t believe you just left me, man. I mean, after all that stuff in the center, I thought we were like comrades or something.”
“We tried to find you,” I said, “but no one knew where you were.”
He grinned at me. “S’okay. I totally understand. Seed filled me in once they pulled me out of the tree. Still can’t believe Zig’s gone nutty Glyche on us.”
“The Cleftans have him in custody.” I said. “They’re purging him of the corruption right now.”
“That’s good. Wait, Cleftans? What Cleftans?”
“The Cleftans who live in the town above this place.”
Smokes gaze drifted upwards, where the lights of the city of Erris could be clearly seen in the night sky. He shrugged. “Oh well. Job well done then.”
“Smokes,” I asked, taking my attention away from the food with no small amount of difficulty, “Not that I’m not absolutely thrilled that you’re here, but how did you find me?”
Before I could ask, he snapped his fingers. Two plates made of smoky blue glass appeared in midair. He doled out a fair amount of eggs and about half the bacon onto each, and offered me both, “Like, pick a plate.”
I took the one that looked as though it had minutely less food out of politeness. After sitting back down, he glanced at my untouched food and said, “No need to stand on ceremony dude. We’re in the jungle. Dig in.”
He didn’t have to tell me twice. I was starving, and having real food in front of me was too much even for my dignity. I scarfed down the bacon almost as fast as Smokes, and when I got to the eggs I watched Smokes eat his with his hands for a moment before following suite.
The plate vanished just as I was setting it down. Smokes wiped his mouth on his sleeve before letting out a great belch. “Aaah. That was great. Damn sight better than rations, eh?”
I nodded; mine were probably soaked with mud and lake water at that point anyway. As we sat back, Smokes made two trees spring up behind both of us. Again, I was impressed (and a little daunted) by the power he displayed.
Smokes took another puff of his joint before offering it to me. I shook my head, saying, “No thanks.”
He shrugged indifferently. “It’s an acquired taste. Hey, at least it’s not bad for you like that nicotine crap from Earth.”
“What is it, exactly?” I asked.
He tossed me a small pouch. I opened it to see a fine powder with little sparkly flecks in it. Just the smell was enough to make my head swim. Tossing it back, I asked, “Crystallic?”
“Among other things. I’ve been experimenting with the blend, trying to negate some of the side-effects associated with the more … er, special ingredients. This batch has been great; I’ve got a good buzz, yet I’m not so stoned that I don’t know where I am.”
He let out a sigh. “Anyway, what about you? What are you doing in the jungle?” He eyes my clothing. “Going wild?”
I shook my head. “Chasing after a Cleftan prototype, which would be great if I wasn’t the one getting chased.” Seeing his questioning glance, I added, “Apparently, there’s a bit of a problem around here with giant chickens.”
“Ah, yeah, I saw a few of ’em. Make a nice batch of chicken strips with a bird that size. It’d take a hell of a lot of flour, though.” After taking another puff on his joint, Smokes asked, “So where you from, man?”
“The Saybaro.” I told him.
“No shit? Damn, man, that’s like the middle of nowhere. No offense, of course. I’m guessing Immigration Employment Initiative?”
“Yeah.” I said, my thoughts drifting back to the thirteen years I spent watching over a tiny bridge.
“Hey, it’s how I started out too, y’know.” Smokes said. “Care to take a guess what job his nuttiness assigned to yours truly?”
“Cloud control.” Smokes took a puff and continued, “He thought there were too many clouds that particular day, so he gave me a battery-powered hand-held fan and ordered me to chase clouds away from Iniagusville.”
It’s a little sad how I didn’t question the validity of his assignment for even a moment. I suppose after Ell and his ‘border painting’ job, there just wasn’t much left to surprise me.
“I was just a kid at the time, so I didn’t question it for a second; nearly a year I spent running around Iniagusville with that little fan. I even started thinking I could control the clouds with my mind.”
Smokes and I shared a chuckle at this. Shaking his head, Smokes continued, “Mind you, the minute I start to relax, I get a message from the king telling me to go to the Center and aid their efforts in warding off the nimbus army. It was Seed Thamasa who finally spelled out the truth of the matter.”
“Ironic.” I said. “I mean, seeing as he looks like Iniagus.”
“Yeah. Well, he had me tested while I was there. I came back as a major positive for manipulative magic. I wasn’t fooling myself about the clouds after all; well, apparently I impressed Seed Thamasa enough to get a full scolarship.”
“I see.” I said. “If you don’t mind me asking, how did you start your experiments?”
“Ah, stream augmentation.” Smokes said, eagerness filling his eyes. “It started when I started thinking about Calliban’s Crystallic. You ever try any?”
“A few times.” I said. “It was popular among my friends. I wasn’t a fan of the flavor, but-”
“-but you ate it anyway so you could breath ouf multi-color clouds of stream energy. Yeah, we did the same thing when I was a kid.” Chuckling, Smokes continued, “Thing is, it started off as a pick-me-up for mages. The stream breath was just a side-effect; your body expelling excess stream energy. That got me thinking; how much of of the energy produed by the breakdown of crystallic is just wasted? What if there was a way to increase the body’s absorption of that energy, or to create the same amount of rejuvenation with less crystallic?”
He took another puff before blowing out a thin stream of bluish-green energy. “So I started researching alchemy, potion-brewing, herbology ... anything that could be added to crystallic in small amounts to effect the way the stream energy was absorbed by the body.”
After taking a final puff, he flicked what little remained of his joint into the murky water of the lake. “I’m still working on it, but right now I can retain seven times as much stream energy from a tenth of the crystallic contained in a standard vial of Calliban’s Crystallic.”
“Which is why your magic is so strong.” I said, nodding. “You can pull from a much deeper resevoir of stream energy.”
Smokes beamed at me. “Hey, you do get it! Yeah, it’s been pretty successful so far. Still, that much stream can be a bit intense.”
“I remember.” I said, thinking about runoff experience.
As the suns began to rise, so did Smokes. “Well, I guess we’d better get moving. Don’t want to be stuck in this place all day.”
I hopped up as well, feeling strangely invigorated after my rest and the warm meal.
“You know the way out of here?” I asked hopefully.
He shook his head. “Not really. I used you as a focus for the teleportation. Fortunately, you had been asleep for a few hours and were far enough away to avoid any teleporting mishaps.”
“How long was I asleep altogether?”
“Oh, about eight hours or so. I didn’t bother you; you looked like you’d been through nocturnes.”
“Or something very much like it.” I wondered if Neeko and Jenna were okay.
Smokes noticed my worried expression and slapped me on the back. “Null worries, dude! We’ll get out of here, no problem!”
I tried to remember; had Neeko said southeast or southwest? Even if I was off the trail, once we reached the outer walls, all we had to do was walk along it until we found the lift.
“Southwest.” I said aloud with more certainty than I felt. “The lift to Erris should be to the southwest, against the basin wall.”
“Well then; adventure away!”
We fought our way through the thick jungle growth. I found myself wishing One was still around to do whatever he had done before to make the plants move out of the way; Glint was too dull to be very effective at cutting the undergrowth.
“Say,” Smokes asked curiously after a few minutes “That bunny-girl with you?”
“Terra? Nah, she’s in Wukice.”
Trying to sound nonchalant, he asked, “You and her bonded already?”
“Ah. Damn.” He perked up, asking hopefully, “She got a sister?”
“I’ve seen a few faces in the thoughts and memories she’s shared with me.”
This seemed to make him happy. “Really? Y’know, it’s strange, but I never really considered fional as potential girlfriends ’till I saw you and Terra. I mean, they’re pretty enough, but all the fional in the Center are so secretive.”
“Terra was much the same.” I replied, “Can’t blame them for being cautious after they were nearly wiped out.”
“Sure, but you’d think they’d stay put long enough to let me try and make a pass. I swear, I light up to calm my nerves, and when I turn around they’re just gone.”
A thought occurred to me. “Perhaps it’s the smell.”
“Fional have very sensitive noses. Maybe they’re not so much running from you, but the smell of your experiments.”
Smokes pulled the hand-rolled creation from his mouth and looked at it thoughtfully for a moment. “Huh. Never thought of it like that. Perhaps scented wrappers that put off a better smell when burned? Oh, watch out for the hole, Jimmy.”
I glanced down just in time to stop myself from stepping into a dark, deep hole. The creatures of the jungle’s surface were bad enough without me wondering what might be living beneath the horrid place.
I really enjoyed Smokes company as we trekked through the woods. Despite the fact that he was sweating worse than I was (he was wearing a robe, after all), his mood was definitely cheery, even as the effects of his mixture wore off. Of course, he always lit back up within thirty minutes or so, but oddly enough, I was starting to get used to the smell. It wasn’t bad as much as it was strong, and he seemed a lot more coherent while using it than he had at the center.
“The big break through was kinda an accident.” Smokes told me as I pulled him over a particularly large fallen tree, “My first experiments were basically just modifying the original candy. I tried making lollipops, using it to flavor drinks, making a sort of crystallic sauce for cake and ice-cream and stuff. I dunno; I just thought of it as being something dessert-y.”
He let out a chuckle. “Wouldn’t you know it, but the breakthrough came via prank. I needed something to help me relax during my final exam, so my friend gives me this joint, claims it’ll calm me down. Turns out the joint was just crystallic dust with a little cinnamon for smell; he thought it’d just start spewing stream energy everywhere. He had no idea that heating the crystallic would amplify its effects, especially to the degree they did. To be honest, I don’t remember much about what happened, but I woke up three days later wearing a toga and straddling a large statue of the mayor of Naidyr.”
I chuckled at this. “I’m guessing you didn’t pass your test.”
“Oh, no. I passed with flying colors, even though I can’t for the life of me remember even going to the classroom. When I fully recovered, I realized that there might be something to our little accident, which led to my research proposal. The Seed was intruiged and hired me on full-time as a researcher. That was years ago, and I’m still experimenting to find the perfect mixture to bring power, relax the user, and yet still allow them to retain use of their faculties.”
“You said this mix was working well.”
“Well enough, but it doesn’t augment my magical skills as much as I’d like. Nah, best batch was thirty-seven; I swear I could feel the flow of lifestream at the tips of my fingers. Unfortunately, it destabilized my powers a bit; I ended up setting fire to every pair of shoes I had.” After taking a final puff, he tossed the remaining experiment and ground it into the dirt. “Oh well; I’ll get it eventually. It’d help if the other researchers would take me seriously, though.”
It was strange; I’d written Smokes off as some pot-head flake, but now I found myself regretting that labelling. He was devoting his life to something that could be of great use to mages all over Vinta, and was putting himself at risk to test it out. Besides, there was something about Smokes that was just innately likeable. Whether it was a side effect of his experiments or just the way he was, I found myself enjoying his company.
I suggested, “Y’know, maybe what you need is a pipe.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“A pipe. For your mixture; smoking from a pipe seems more respectable than smoking a joint. Maybe it’d help with your image.”
Smokes considered this for a moment, saying, “A pipe, huh? Hmm. Maybe you’ve got something there. Mind you, we’d need some material with a high stream-saturation. Normal wood melt with that much exposure.”
“What about these trees?” I asked, waving at one of the mossy vine-covered trees. “Stream energy’s pretty rampant down here, yet these trees seem to be thriving.”
“Hmm.” Smokes rubbed his chin, a thoughtful look on his face. “Worth a try.”
He approached a nearby tree and knelt down beside a large fallen branch. The wood gave at his touch, as malleable as modelling clay in his hands. In a matter of moments, he’d shaped himself a respectable-looking pipe out of the dark wood. A quick burst of fire glazed the wood, giving it a polished sheen.
“All right. Here it goes.” He said, pouring the contents of one of his experiments into the bowl of the pipe. He flicked his thumb until a blue flame appeared above it and slowly lowered it toward the bowl of the pipe. The mixture flared blue-green for a few moments before the flame died, leaving a thin wisp of stream energy rising from the pipe.
“Hmm. Gives it a slightly smoky taste.” Smokes said after taking a deep puff. “Not unpleasant, actually.”
He took another puff. “Yes, I could get used to this. It makes me feel quite ... introspective.”
Without warning, he suddenly rounded on me. Poking my shoulder with the stem of his pipe, he demanded, “Where have you hidden the jewels?”
“What jewels?” I asked, taken aback.
“I dunno. It just seemed like a natural thing to ask.” Taking another puff from his pipe, he said, “Shall we away?”
“Er, yes.” I said, resisting the urge to chuckle. “Lets.”