Chapter 26 - The High Life
We reached the outer wall of the basin around mid-day. The air was slightly cooler near the edge, where the wind could reach us without having to brush through the trees.
“Finally!” I exclaimed, wiping the sweat from my brow so I could enjoy the nice cool breeze for a few moments.
“Indeed.” Smokes said before blowing a thin wisp of stream into the breeze. We watched as the little blur of light was carried around the edge until it dissipated.
“Now,” Smokes said, clapping his hands, “Where’s this elevator thingy?”
I didn’t know. As they were elevator doors, I assumed they would stand out like a sore thumb, but I didn’t know that for a fact. It may very well have been disguised as part of the mountain. I kicked myself for not paying attention when we had left the lift earlier.
As if reading my mind, Smokes said, “Ah, I’m sure we’ll find it. C’mon, let’s just pick a direction and go.”
It was much easier going along the wall. No trees, no low-hanging mist, and most importantly, shade provided by the basin walls. It was still hot and humid, but not nearly as bad as before.
We were able to see a good ways off without trees blocking the view. This was an extremely good thing, for if we hadn’t been able to see so far, we would have never noticed the chickens.
There were dozens of them, all standing around the outer wall. Several were pecking at the stone wall, as if trying to get at something.
Squinting, I said aloud, “Taking into account my luck as of late, I’m guessing the elevator’s right where they’re scratching.”
“Wow. Your luck really sucks.”
I glanced balefully at Smokes before turning back to the chickens. They had yet to notice us, likely because we were so far away. Still, that wasn’t a great help if they were blocking the only viable way out of the jungle.
“Maybe if we just wait, they’ll give up and go away.” Smokes said hopefully as he refilled his pipe.
“Yeah.” I said, wanting desperately to believe that he was right, “I mean, they may be big, but they’re still chickens. They’ll get bored and wander off soon enough.”
Several hours later, Smokes admitted, “Maybe we were being a bit too optimistic. Who knew chickens had so much determination?”
Though most of the chickens disappeared back into the jungle, there were still three of them standing in our path. I noticed one of the three scratching at the walls was the one scorched by the exploding device Neeko had been carrying. Maybe it was my imagination, but it still looked quite angry.
I glanced at Smokes, who was stacking rocks on top of each other for reasons unknown to me. I had seen the guy melt a door by just pointing at it. He could undoubtedly get us to the elevator if he wanted.
As his pile fell, he cursed beneath his breath and started again.
“Uh, Smokes? I don’t suppose there’s anything you can do about them.”
“I’m trying, but they just won’t stay up.”
“No, I mean about the chickens.”
Sighing, I pointed at the three chickens in the distance.
“Oh! Right. Yeah, I can think of something.”
Much to my horror, Smokes rose to his feet and started chucking rocks at the chickens. Magically enhanced, the stones easily cleared the distance and hit their targets. He had managed to hit all three before I stopped him.
“The idea would be to get them away from the elevator and keep them away from us, dude.” I told him, trying to feel if the ground was vibrating at the chicken’s approach.
“Yeah, and now they’ve gone back to the forest!”
A quick glance behind the rock proved that Smokes was actually correct; the chickens were gone … or were they?
I noticed quite a few trees rustling in the jungle near the lift area. “I bet they’re waiting.” I said, moving to put my hand on Smokes shoulder.
My hand closed on mid-air; Smokes was gone. It didn’t take long to find him; he was running as fast as he could toward the elevator.
I ran with all my might to catch up with him, my eyes on the forest the whole way. Every little twitch of the distant branches spurred me to close the distance until I caught up with him only a few steps away from the lift.
“Aw, come on, man! How could something that big possibly hide?” Smokes chuckled at my paranoia as he pressed the elevator call button. I continued to watch the forest. Was that the glitter of one of the chicken’s eyes?
The battered doors of the freight elevator slid open, allowing us to enter. I backed in, my eyes still on the woods. Something was starting to stir in the trees nearest the forest edge.
“Goin’ up!” Smokes said, jabbing the button with the up arrow. As the doors closed, I thought I was just able to make out a feathered form emerging from the woods. However, it was too late; we were already on our way up.
I slid to the floor, sighing with relief. Smokes slid next to me with a sigh of his own. “Ah, air conditioning. Heaven.”
Now that we were in the clear, I wondered about Jenna and Neeko. I guessed that they had come through earlier, which was probably why the chickens were outside the elevator shaft.
“So now that we’re out of crazy giant chicken country, it’s time to call it a day, yeah?” Smokes asked, rolling another of his experiments. “I mean, if Cid’s done with his purge and all, we can head back to the Center.”
“Assuming Jenna and Neeko are back and One managed to get the Zelestra back to Thyme, yeah.” I paused and added, “And after we make a pit-stop to Wukice; I want to pick up Terra on the way back.”
“Miss her, huh?”
“At least this time she didn’t have to save me.” I said.
He gave me a glance-over. “I’d love to have someone watching over me like that, man. Does it really bother you?”
“A little.” I admitted. “I want her to know I can hold my own, but she doesn’t seem to put much faith in my skills.”
“Dude, you took on a dragon.”
“Fake dragon. Two of them, actually.” I added.
“Not the point. You’re definitely capable, man, on your own and as a leader.”
“I suppose.” I let out a sigh as I leaned against the elevator wall. “I dunno, I guess I always thought that when I found somebody, I’d be the protective one in the relationship.”
“Hmm. Terra’s a strong girl, all right.”
“She’s one of the Queen’s Shadows.” I told him. “Probably had years of training. All I ever had were tech manuals and holograms.”
“Don’t sell yourself short, dude. It takes most Streamers years to develop their skills with even the most basic Force techniques. Your Force Edge is way more potent than the streamers we’ve got training in the Center, and you learned Force Blast like it was nothing. Heck, you’re not bad with that battered sword of yours either. You ask me, all you need is a little proper training, and you could easily be the next Solstice.”
“Not looking to join the Eternian Star.” I said, unable to stop a pleased smile from spreading across my face.
“Yeah, probably not a good idea. You attract plenty of trouble on your own.”
The elevator was almost back at Erris by the time I finished changing back into my hakama and keikogi.
“Finally.” I said as I tightened my belt. “I hate to get these dirty, but I’d rather not parade around in that goofy getup.”
“Null worries.” Smokes told me. “If anyone has clothing stores aplenty, it’ll be Cleftans. Besides, it’s not like Terra’s here for you to impress.”
As the elevator doors slid open, a white blur dashed through and pressed me against the wall. All doubts as to the identity of my assailant faded as she pressed her lips against mine.
Smokes looked away, a big grin on his face. “Hey, we were just talking about you.”
When she released, I caressed her cheek, asking, “Miss me?”
Her expression quickly turned to anger. Jerking away, she said, “I can’t believe you, going into a place like that! You should have sent a message to Wukice and let me now the instant things changed!”
“I’m sorry, Terra, but …”
“I mean, it’s one thing to go into a place like this with backup, but to just wander in alone …”
“I had Jenna and Neeko with me, and Smokes has my back now, right Smokes?”
Smokes nodded, smiling pleasantly at Terra. “Yup. Back, front, and sides, all protected!”
Flustered, Terra opened her mouth to say something, but she was interrupted by the appearance of a relieved-looking Jenna. “Jimmy! Oh, thank the Creator! We thought you were being digested!”
“Almost was. Glad to see you made it too; is Neeko here as well.”
“Yeah, she’s over there talking to Thyme.” Jenna’s eyes moved to Smokes, who gave her a small wave.
“Jenna,” I said, “You remember Smokes.”
“How could I forget?” She smiled pleasantly at him, a gold tinge in her cheeks.
Terra slipped her arm around me as we stepped out of the elevator. She was more relieved than angry, though I had a feeling we’d be having a little talk about it later.
As the lift doors closed behind me, I asked, “Did you manage to catch the zelestra?”
Jenna shook her head. “We were too busy running. I saw One zip by me a few times while I was running, but I haven’t seen either of them since we escaped.”
I was more worried about the One doll than the zelestra to be honest. Thyme and Neeko were approaching us, however, so I let my thoughts remain silent.
“Good show, Jimmy!” Thyme said cheerily, “A shame not finding the zelestra, but Neeko convinced me it was for the best.”
“Wish she could’ve done that before we went down there.” I muttered so that only Terra could hear me.
Thyme shook his head. “Oh well. Back to the drawing board, I suppose. Perhaps if I installed some kind of containment field in my workshop?”
Smokes coughed, though I couldn’t tell whether it was the smoke or if he was trying to get their attention. “So, you’ve got my buddy Zig all stored away, right?”
“Zig is in stasis, yes.” Thyme replied. “The Purge was successful, but your Seed wishes to run some additional scans just to be sure. We’ll be happy to teleport the lot of you straight back there as soon as you’re ready.”
“This teleporter, it’s not a prototype, is it?” I said, hoping Thyme wouldn’t take offence.
He chuckled good-naturedly. “It’s Rimstakken tech: tried, tested, and true.”
“If you don’t mind, I’d like to get cleaned up first.” I said, looking down at my muddy hands and feet. I could already see splotches of dirty water seeping through my keikogi and hakama
As we started to walk away, I heard the elevator ding behind me.
“That’s odd.” Neeko said as we all turned, “I checked the records; no one else is supposed to be down there right now.”
A nasty thought occurred to me. “Could one of the chickens have figured out how to operate the lift?”
Smokes scoffed, “Don’t be ridiculous! They’re just chickens, after all.”
The doors slid open, revealing nothing but smoke and darkness; something had destroyed all the lights inside the elevator. Moments later, a single massive chicken claw emerged from the darkness and slammed into the ground.
As the rest of the chicken emerged, I saw the burned feathers around its beak and realized that it was the same one we had injured previously. It glared at all of us before letting out another earsplitting ‘Bagawk!’
Terra clapped her hands over her ears; her hearing wasn’t as augmented as a full-blood fional, but it was still very sensitive.
The chicken’s head darted toward her instantly, flashing through the air like a white blur. I shoved her out of the way and drew Glint, wondering for one wild moment exactly how to parry a giant beak. As I only had a second, I just swung wildly, hoping that I would hit. My swing was hard enough to deflect the chicken’s aim, but I was bowled over and the shock of the blow sent Glint flying out of my grasp.
My attempt to be gallant bought Terra enough time to draw her spurs, but the chicken butted her aside with a twitch of its head just as she took aim. She hit the side of a nearby building with a sickening crunch, her body landing on the ground with her right arm at an odd angle.
“Terra!” I tried to rush over to her, but the chicken got between us.
“Stand back, Jimmy!” Jenna shouted, her arm reassembling into the Glyche blaster configuration. She took aim, the reciprocating cannon stabilizers on her arm spinning as they charged lifestream energy into weaponized form.
Nothing happened. The energy just seemed to fizzle out. “Damn it!” She said, looking at her arm in horror.
Smokes pulled out his wand. “I know how to deal with this! Figgelty piggelty boo!”
A small puff of white smoke shot from the end of his wand and hit the chicken full in its face. Unfortunately, this only seemed to anger the chicken even more. It slammed a foot toward Smokes, who promptly disappeared, only to reappear on a nearby rooftop.
“No, that wasn’t right. Hang on a sec.” He started flipping through a tattered old book, muttering under his breath.
Meanwhile, the chicken had returned its attention to Terra as she stirred. She sat up, clutching her right arm, a pained expression on her face. Before I knew what I was doing, I was running toward the chicken. It pecked toward me, but I instinctively flung myself aside, picking up Glint from where it had landed. With another leap, I attacked.
The blade buried itself about an inch into the chicken’s massive leg. It wasn’t nearly enough to cause any sort of serious injury, but it definitely caused the massive fowl some pain. I wrenched my blade free and dashed back as the chicken tried to step on me.
I focused some stream energy and jabbed forward with Glint. The resulting Force Blast hit the chicken in the chest hard enough to knock it back a few feet and send a rush of feathers into the air.
I looked around for Thyme and Neeko, but they were gone. Jenna had just picked up Terra and was carrying her limp form away. She stopped, and gave me a concerned look.
Keeping my eyes on the chicken, I shouted, “Go on, get her out of here! I’ll take care of this!”
She nodded and hurried off. I could see Terra protesting, but her arm had to be broken. She would be a target, perhaps not an easy one, but I wasn’t going to risk it.
The chicken rushed forward, its head low and its beak open. I rolled aside, swiping Glint across the side of its head as I passed. Again, it didn’t do much damage, but it did leave a thin line of blood where it passed. The chicken squawked in pain and lashed out with a clawed talon as I leapt back.
The talon caught my left shoulder, sending a jolt of pain through my arm. I was sent spinning to the ground, blood streaming from the wound as Glint clattered to the ground beside a nearby generator. The chicken reared back to peck me, but as its head darted down, something grey and green zoomed by and hit it full on the side of its face.
The chicken staggered back as the blur made a wide circle in the air and stopped just short of me. It was One and the zelestra!
“Hey, Jimmy!” One said, grinning as widely as his mount. His legs were propped over the front of the zelestra’s wing joints, and he appeared to have suction cups on his hands.
Smokes pointed his wand to the sky and shouted something I didn’t catch. It must have been some kind of incantation; a moment later, a brilliant light shot from the tip of his wand and zoomed to the heavens, spreading like a cloud above us.
The cloud immediately let out a downpour of rain over the area, including me, the roof where Smokes stood, and the chicken. The chicken shook its feathers and tried to move away, but the cloud seemed to be following it.
“Here it goes!” Smokes said, pointing his wand in the air again.
A bolt of lightning shot from the cloud and hit the tip of his wand, making it explode with the force of a small firecracker. A stunned and blackened Smokes, his hair now sticking out in all directions, fell backwards and slid off the back of the roof without protest.
The chicken turned to the last morsel left: me. I leapt back as the chicken took a peck at me. I tried to make a run for my blade, but the chicken reached out with a foot and kicked me into the air a good fifty feet.
Something gold shot into view as I began to fall; the zelestra was hovering just above me, as though waiting for me to take it.
I grabbed the flying ball without a moment’s hesitation. The zelestra pulled me up just beyond the chicken’s snapping beak. The chicken leapt up as best it could, but as with the one that had fallen in the lake back in the jungle, it didn’t seem to be terribly good at jumping. The zelestra lifted safely away each time, but each time it seemed to take a little more energy out of the thing.
I’m not sure why, but I glanced down at the chicken. I immediately wish I hadn’t; the sight of a great gnashing beak just a scant few feet away from making me lunch was very unsettling.
After a few more moments, however, a loud gurgle caught my ear. I glanced down again, my mind flashing back to Neeko mentioning that occasionally one of the giant chickens would drown itself while staring up during a rainstorm. Hope spread through my chest with the realization that I might survive after all.
Unfortunately, The zelestra had reached its limit. After one final flap, the wings flattened against the back.
Just as we started to fall, it occurred to me that the zelestra was a stream-based life form. It fed off of stream energy ... energy a streamer like me could readily access. I grabbed the zelestra with both hands, and focused as much lifestream as I could pull into the little ball.
The effect was almost instantaneous; the wings burst from the zelestra’s back and flapped so quickly that they were little more than a blur. The sudden burst of speed carried me well out of the chicken’s reach. Unfortunately, it also made the zelestra difficult to hold for more than a few moments. As the zelestra slid from my grasp, I braced myself for the coming pain of being eaten alive.
To my amazement, I landed on something soft and wet. After a few moments, I dared to open my eyes and saw a mass of feathers around me. The chicken was dead, a stream of water trailing from its open mouth.
I hurriedly jumped off, just as Smokes came staggering from an alleyway. Holding what was left of his wand unsteadily, he looked down at the chicken and muttered, “Stupid chicken.”
The zelestra flew past me, One once again riding it like a mount as it circled the dead fowl. “Whoa! It drowned itself!”
“Like I said: stupid chicken.” Smokes waved his broken wand at the sky. The storm cleared up a few moments later, the wand letting out one sad little spark. “By the Creator, I need a smoke.”
Thyme and Neeko came running around the corner, Neeko bearing an extremely powerful-looking firearm and Thyme inexplicably holding a roll of duct tape.
Neeko looked relieved; Thyme disappointed. “Oh well.” He said cheerily, tossing the roll of tape into the air and catching it deftly, “At least we know what’s for supper.”
“Terra!” I said, forgetting about the pain in my arm. I ran to the alley where Jenna had dragged Terra. She was in the corner, still wincing as Jenna emitted some kind of blue beam over Terra’s arm.
“Jimmy! You’re okay! By the Creator, your arm!” Terra tried to stand, concern on her face.
Jenna pushed her back down, saying, “I said don’t move! I need to make sure the bone regenerates properly!” Glancing at me, Jenna said, “You don’t appear to be dying, so just take a seat.
I sat down next to Terra, ignoring the stinging sensation in my shoulder. I truth, I’d forgotten about it completely until she mentioned it.
Rubbing Terra’s good arm, I asked awkwardly, “Are you okay? I mean, I can see that your arm, but …”
She looked somewhat embarrassed. “I’m sure Jenna will fix me up r-OW!” She bonked Jenna harmlessly on the head. “That hurt!”
“I told you to keep still, didn’t I? Stop fidgeting!” Sighing again, Jenna resumed healing the fional Shadow.
Still looking balefully at Jenna, Terra said, “By the Creator, am I embarrassed. I can’t believe I froze up like that.”
“Well,” I said cheerily, trying to ignore the growing pain in my shoulder, “At least it gave me a chance to save you for a change.”
She glowered at me, but wasn’t able to keep a small smile off her face. “Don’t get used to it, sweetie.”