Chapter 9 - A Slight Problem
We spoke at length as we waited beneath the tree for the rain to stop. It was strange; after her brief appearances during the whole dragon incident, talking to her for an extended period of time felt oddly surreal. We didn’t discuss anything particularly important; mostly movies, music, and some of the memories of her childhood she had shared with me through our bond.
I had never been to Longshore before, yet through her, I felt as though it were a home I hadn’t visited in a long time. Her hometown was a quiet, cozy little place on the edge of the Inaal Fields known as Kanik. As a child, she spent hours running through the open grassy fields with reckless abandon, sometimes with some of her brothers and sisters and sometimes alone. Her favorite memories were of watching the suns as they set, her mind a million miles away. I smiled, thinking of how many times I did the very same thing from the vantage of my bridge.
After about an hour or so, the rain finally stopped. As the suns broke through the rapidly thinning clouds, she let out a sigh. “I guess it’s time to get moving again.”
I helped her up, saying, “Where are you heading this time?”
“Nowhere.” She replied, keeping hold of my hand. “I’m staying with you.”
I hugged her close, my heart swelling in my chest. “I’m glad.”
Her eyes fell on Glint. Immediately, I felt something strange; an odd feeling I couldn’t quite place. “You’re still using that old thing?”
“It’s my family’s ancestral blade.” I told her, a touch of pride in my voice. “Passed down for generations. Bethany tells me that it’s the same katana Mick Sakamota wielded … my ancestor, not the core unit.”
“I understand, but … well, it is a bit old.”
“True. Worked well enough against the dragon, though. In fact, I just found out that-”
A loud snore shot through the air, interrupting our conversation.
Terra glanced around the tree, where Terry was still sleeping blissfully unaware of the rest of the world. “He’s still sleeping?”
I glanced at him myself, not sure what to say. Part of me wanted to let him sleep, but it was already noon.
“I’ll wake him up.” I knelt beside Terry and tapped on his pauldron a few times. When that brought no reaction, I hit him a bit harder. “Rise and shine, Terry.”
He rolled over, mumbling something I didn’t catch. I let out a sigh and shouted, “Atten-shun!”
Terry shot to his feet in an instant, his back straight as an arrow. “Sir, yes sir!”
Terra’s giggling made him turn his head. She smiled at him and waved. “Hi there! You’re Terry, right?”
“I, uh …” he shook his head, no doubt still a bit drowsy. “Yeah, that’s me.”
“Terra’s going to be joining us on our little mission.” I told him. “You okay with that?”
“Of course, sir. If you believe she will be an asset, I will be more than happy to welcome the shadow to our team.”
There was a stiffness in his voice that bugged me, and I could tell it wasn’t because he was groggy. “Terry, you know you can speak freely. If you have concerns, I want you to voice them.”
“No concerns sir.”
I raised an eyebrow at him. “Are you sure?”
Terry pursed his lips. “I do not question her abilities.”
“But …” I pressed, only for Terra to brush past me.
“You have a problem with my relationship with your commanding officer?” She asked coolly.
“I’m concerned about how reliable your assistance will be on the mission. Your erratic appearances and its effects on Jimmy aside, you weren’t even there to help us fight Cid’s dragon.”
“Jimmy had the matter well in hand.” She replied, a touch of anger in her tone. “Besides, I was on my way to Iniagusville to get backup; I didn’t expect you all to actually take on that thing.”
Terry didn’t reply. I must admit, I was a bit stunned at his behavior; as one of the Queen’s Shadows, she technically outranked him. I honestly didn’t think Terry had it in him to be openly disrespectful to
“Is this going to be a problem?” I asked uncertainly, hoping I wouldn’t have to choose.
“No sir.” Terry said, turning back to me. “I trust your judgment.”
Without a word, he started walking toward the tower. Terra looked more annoyed than anything.
“Is everything okay?” I asked in hushed tones.
She nodded, her cheeks still a little flushed beneath her pale fur. “I would’ve helped, Jimmy. I swear to you, I would’ve been there if-”
“Hey, it’s okay.” I took her hands in mine, saying, “Everything turned out fine.”
“I guess so. I just … I don’t want you to think …”
“I don’t.” I assured her before giving her a kiss.
She hugged me tightly. “Thank you, Jimmy.”
Our journey continued. I walked next to Terra while Terry marched in front of us a short ways. Terra and I passed the time with some conversation regarding the Saybaro repairs; it was nothing of importance, which was just as well; I sensed she was still a little bothered by Terry’s earlier remarks.
“Did you see your room?” I asked her. “I had to make a few guesses about what colors you’d like.”
She rubbed my cheek, saying, “You did it right. I’ve always liked purple; y’know, I considered joining up with the Strand Saints when I was a teenager.”
“Really?” I knew of the Strand Saints by reputation only; some called them pirates and gangsters, but they had proven themselves time and time again as protectors of the strands. They were a bit unorthodox, but they never hurt innocents and only stole from crooks and thieves.
Terra laughed at the look on my face. “I was looking for a way to rebel. I was just a kid, after all.”
“Couldn’t be any stranger than immigrating to Wenapaj and guarding a bridge for over a decade.”
She looked at me curiously for a moment before chuckling. “I suppose not. I still can’t believe you stayed there alone for thirteen years.”
“I wasn’t completely alone.” I told her. “Devon dropped by every now and then, and every now and then I’d get a few tourists.”
I slipped a hand around her waist, adding, “Still, I’m glad I have friends to share my home with.”
“Oh, I’m just a friend?” She asked, laughter in her eyes.
“I didn’t want to make an assumption, my love.” I kissed her on the cheek, making her blush.
After a few moments of walking in silence, I asked, “Did you have a good trip home?”
“Yup. It was nice to be home, even if just for a little while.”
“And your mother?”
“We’re good. Like I said, our fight was silly, and we both knew it.” A smile spread across her face. “Mind you, she was over the moons when I told her about us.”
“So,” I asked, feeling a bit nervous at what her mother would think of me. “What did she say?”
“About what I expected. She was so happy that I found someone, and went on and on about when she met father, and asked when we were gonna get married.”
“Married?” I asked, more amused than surprised.
Her face went crimson. “She was just being a usual mom, y’know?”
Well, I didn’t, seeing as my mother had tried to turn me into a cyborg zombie when I was seven, but somehow that didn’t seem the right thing to say.
“Should we talk about it? Marriage, I mean.” I asked, sounding far more calm than I felt.
She looked at me for a moment, her mouth slightly open as though she wanted to say something but wasn’t quite sure what.
“Sir!” Terry said, stopping abruptly. “The tower!”
We all looked at the tower; the walls were radiating a strange red aura that traveled quickly up the tower.
“That’s not good.” Terra murmured, her hands slipping around the hilts of her spurs.
A massive fireball erupted from the clouds and shot toward us like a rogue comet.
“Scatter!” I pulled Terra with me as I dove out of the way, turning so that my body would shield her from the blast if it hit us.
The fireball abruptly swerved in mid-air above our heads and shot back the way we had came. After a few moments, the light emanating from the tower faded back into nothingness.
I rose to my feet and helped Terra up, asking, “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine.” She rubbed my hand, adding, “Good reflexes, sweetie.”
I smiled at her before calling out, “Terry? You good?”
“Good enough.” He grumbled, pushing himself to his feet.
As he brushed himself off, I stared back at the path the fireball had burned through the forest. Thankfully, the woods were still wet from the previous night’s shower; had it not rained, the entire forest would’ve went up like a tinderbox.
Still, it was clear where the fireball was headed. “Brigsonstrat.” I said. “Creator protect them.”
I turned to see Terry facing me, his mouth set. “Requesting permission to return to Brigsonstrat.”
“That pop gun of yours isn’t going to do much against that fireball or an exploding reactor.” Terra told him.
“Then maybe I can help shore up the city’s defenses or something.”
“Wouldn’t it make more sense to try to deal with the witch?” I asked. “We’re not far now.”
He opened his mouth to argue, but nothing came out. After a few moments, he said, “I … understand, sir.”
I looked at him for a few moments; I may not have been able to see his face, but I had grown accustomed to his mannerisms.
Sighing, I said, “Go.”
“Sir?” He said, sounding genuinely surprised.
“Head back and coordinate some defensive measures; if Meryli’s there, use the Ascendant to coordinate with Bethany as well.” I paused and added, “Do what you have to do to protect Jeane and Traysia.”
“Sir!” He paused a moment before saying, “Thank you, Jimmy.”
As he hurried off, Terra asked, “Do you think he’ll be able to help?”
I shook my head. “I think he’ll be more comfortable with Jeane and Traysia than he will with us. Besides, if we approach the tower with a big group, it may set the witch off. This way, we just look like a pair of wanderers.”
“Indeed. One look at you, and the witch will definitely not consider us a threat.”
I glared at her, only for her to chuckle and kiss me on the cheek. “C’mon, Mister adventurer. Daylight’s a-wastin’.”
We continued toward the tower at a brisker pace. We were getting close, and the fireball incident had us both a little anxious. We stopped every now and then for a small break and a drink of water.
It was during one of these rests that Terra asked, “You’ve been quiet. Flick for your thoughts?”
“Bah. I’m just thinking.”
“Tell me about it. I’m a good listener.”
Seeing her look at me earnestly lifted the gloom from my thoughts. Smiling kindly at her, I said, “I was just thinking of how little I know about Terry … and you, for that matter.”
“Me?” She asked, feigning surprise. “My life’s an open book. Besides, I’m not the only mysterious one, Mister Bridge Keeper.”
“I’m hardly a mystery.” I replied.
“A survivor of the most recent Corruption runs away from a promising apprenticeship under the sister of the president and owner of one of the largest corporations in this galaxy, only to guard a bridge in the middle of nowhere. He has considerable technical know-how and promising skill as a streamer, and yet he remains devoted to his duty despite the fact he could make a name and better life for himself either back in Rimstak or by training at the Center.”
“I wanted to stay at the Saybaro.” I told her.
“But why? I mean, it makes sense now, what with the Glyche facility and all, but you didn’t learn about that for ten years.”
I didn’t know what to say. She was making some very good points, and ultimately she was right in that I could’ve stayed with Uncle Ann or become a researcher at the Center like Arc.
After a few moments of silence, Terra glanced at me, looking a little worried. “I’m sorry, Jimmy. I didn’t mean to …”
“No, you’re right. I don’t know why I stayed there for so long. Maybe I was just ready to get away from the crowds. Maybe I just wanted to prove that I could make it on my own.”
“Or maybe it was the first place where you felt you belonged.” She took my hand in hers. “Well, whatever the reason, I’m glad you stayed.”
“Me too.” After a few moments of silence, I pulled a folded piece of paper out of my pocket and handed it to her.
She took the paper and unfolded it. On the front of the paper was a picture of her, drawn as well as I had been able to manage.
She looked back at me, surprised. “This … this is me. You drew this?”
“It’s just a hobby, “I said, feeling my cheeks grow hot, “Drawing’s just something I started to pass the time while guarding the bridge. When I got back to Saybaro after the dragon incident, I drew this so I’d have a picture of you.”
“So you’re an artist as well as a samurai.” She said, her eyes still on the picture.
“I guess so. It just felt proper to do something creative with my time, and drawing just came naturally.”
Terra dug into one of her side packs. In moments, she produced something I didn’t recognize, and held it between her hands. The sound that issued forth was gentle and soothing, yet seemed to pass through my very being.
She played a small melody that brought back vivid memories of when I was just a boy in Rimstak. I used to take the lift up to the top of the Big Cog, and lay on the top of the pinnacle station. I would stare up at the stars for hours, sometimes even falling asleep.
When she lowered her instrument, I said, “That was beautiful. What is it?”
She blushed, saying, “It’s a suon. I don’t understand the technical stuff, but it’s supposed to amplify thoughts and emotions, and represent them as sounds.”
“Can I try?” I asked.
She handed me the disc and showed me how to hold it properly. A very different sound came out, very much like the wind blowing through reeds. It reminded me strongly of days spent at my bridge, watching clouds pass overhead. It wasn’t as refined as Terra’s music, but I’d like to think it wasn’t unpleasant to listen to.
As I handed it back to her, she said, “My mother taught me how to play. She thinks I could have joined the Longshore Chorus, but I wanted to spend time with dad.”
“Tell me about your parents.” I asked. “I mean, you told me they met while foiling an assassination attempt on King Iniagus, but I was hoping you’d tell me a little more about it.
“Oh, they hated each other at first. Both were too strong-headed to want help, but ultimately they were forced together to save the king. After working closely together, I guess it was only natural that something would form between them.” She laughed. “Of course, to hear Mom tell it, Dad was smitten with her at first sight. Dad says there was something between them from the get-go, but that Mom was too stubborn to give him the time of day.”
Shaking her head, she continued, “The day Dad was going to return to Wenapaj with Iniagus, Mom just went up right in front of the king and kissed dad, right then and there. She never was shy about making it clear what she wanted.”
“Sounds familiar.” I said, slipping my hand into hers.
She smiled shyly, squeezing my hand. “After they got married, they tried to live in Wenapaj for awhile, but …”
“Iniagus?” I asked.
She shook her head. “No, it wasn’t just him. Mother grew up in Kynse: wide open spaces, small, tight-knit community, simple living. Going from that to a big bustling city was hard on her. Eventually she couldn’t take it anymore. I used to alternate years between her and my father until I got the offer to join the Queen’s Shadows.”
“Did they divorce?” I asked hesitantly.
“Oh, no. They’re still married and still very much in love. I have a bunch of little brothers and sisters that can attest to that, and more on the way. No, mom and dad are still together; they just don’t get to see as much of each other.” She sighed. “Most of their communication is through the mail. Kinda sad, isn’t it?”
I slipped my arm around her and held her close. “Not at all.”
She rested her head on my shoulder. “So how about you? Did you ever get in touch with Uncle Ann?”
“I did.” I said. “We traded a dozen or so messages before she and Bethany got the cloud cutter working.”
“Uncle Ann’s name for it. It lets her cut through the natural interference around Rimstak and establish a communication channel with Bethany. We’ve only used it once, but it seems to work well.”
“Good.” She said. “I’d really like to meet her.”
“I’m sure she’d like that.” I stopped walking and added, “Oh! We’re here.”
“Huh?” She glanced forward and noticed the same thing that I did; we were so caught up in the conversation that we had reached the tower without realizing it.
The tower was surrounded by a large moat. I didn’t see anything living in the water, but given that the resident of the tower was a witch, appearances were likely to be very deceiving.
The tower itself was an impressive construction that seemed to stretch up past the clouds. At the base, most of the walls were brick. About four or five stories up, the walls were made of stone. Higher still, I could make out what looked to be obsidian.
I stared at a gargoyle that leered down at us from the second floor, looking quite out of place on the brickwork. “Well, this witch certainly has a style all her own.”
“Let’s walk around. There’s bound to be a bridge or something.” Terra suggested.
She tripped almost immediately, her foot catching a clump of dirt obscured by the tall grass. I caught her before she could fall.
“Thanks.” She said, blushing as she regained her footing.
“So,” I asked as we continued, “I don’t suppose you have any insight on this whole witch thing.”
“I’m afraid not; magi register through the Center, not the palace. Y’know, Naidyr’s a few days north of here. We could probably check up on her there if we need to.”
I shrugged. “Worth checking if we can’t find a way in.”
As we continued walking, I said, “Y’know, if it weren’t for the fireball earlier, I’d still think this was all Arc’s doing.”
“Arc Skylad? The kid with the giant sword?”
“One and the same. He’s been oddly antagonistic during this little adventure; he stole our floater and told everyone in Brigsonstrat that I was a demon.”
Terra put her arm over my shoulders and rested her head against my shoulder. “S’okay, Jimmy. I’ll be here to thwomp the little twit if he tries something like that again.”
I leaned my head against hers. “Sure you’re not going to disappear again?”
“Of course not. I ... woah!”
I caught her again as she stumbled forward.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
She laughed at herself, her cheeks rosy. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me today. I’m usually not such a klutz.”
I glanced back. She had tripped over another clump dirt obscured by the tall grass … or at least that’s what I thought at first. I glanced at the clump and saw two spots where her shoe had dug into the edge.
“It’s the same spot as before.” I said, my eyes narrowing.
We glanced at the tower, undoubtedly thinking the same thing.
“Terra ,” I said, “You head to the right. I’ll head left.”
Sure enough, we eventually met on the opposite side of the tower. Neither she nor I had noticed any bridge or path over the moat. On further examination, there was no door either; there was apparently no entrance into the tower, at least none that we could see.
“This could be a problem.” I said, scratching my head.
Frowning, Terra asked, “What can we do?”
Something rustled the distant leaves of the forest. I reached for Glint as a large figure approached along the same path as us. As he drew nearer, I realized that he wasn’t alone; a yulias was walking alongside him.
I had heard a little about the yulias before; winged felines the size of house cats as intelligent as any other native Vintan. They lived in colonies within select forests, usually near areas of heavy magical activity, but their natural curiosity led many of them to wander the world on their own. This yulias, however, was familiar, as was the bear of a man.
“Huh. I’ll be damned.” I murmured. “Didn’t think I’d see them again.”
“I ran into them in Wukice during my little foray into show business.” I cupped my hands together and called out, “Hey there!”
The man and his cat looked up instantly. The man reached for the massive spear on his back, but the pink yulias quickly climbed up on his shoulder and stuck her nose in the man’s ear. After a few moments, the man let go of his spear and jogged toward us.
“C’mon.” I said, patting Terra on the back, “Let’s go say hello.”
“I’m not sure about this.” Terra eyed the two suspiciously. “I’ve never seen a yulias travel with anyone before.”
“I think she talks for the big guy, actually. He seemed like an okay fellow, at least when he wasn’t trying to crush me.”
“Not exactly reassuring me, sweetie.”
The large fellow reached us a few moments later, not even breathing heavily from the run. He was a massive man, bigger than any Galden I’d ever seen and easily as large as your average Tauren. His dark hair and stoic expression were offset by strangely soft blue eyes that seemed to pierce into my soul.
His armor had a fair share of dings and scratches, signs of battles that no doubt would’ve put my fight with Cid’s dragon machine to shame. The spear on his back was easily as large as Arc’s Kindred blade, if not larger. I doubted I could even lift the weapon, let alone wield it. Clearly, this was a seasoned fighter, perhaps even a combatant in the arena down in Hersche.
The yulias, on the other hand, was typical of her kind; cute, furry, and winged. Her fur was soft pink, and she wore a silver collar with an intricate design on the back, as well as a small blue bow tied to the tip of her tail. Her hazel eyes had a hint of mischief about them … then again, she did look like a cat, albeit one with furry wings.
He nodded at us both in turn before glancing at his small companion.
“Jimmy Sakamota. Didn’t think you’d see us again, did you?” The yulias asked, grinning like … well, a winged cat.
“I can’t say I did.” I replied, “I’m terribly sorry, but I don’t remember your names.”
“Small surprise, seeing as we were never properly introduced. I am Fliperjiwit, and the big guy’s Ellypsis. Flip and Ell will be just fine, and before you start in with that ‘it’ stuff, you should know I’m a girl.”
I bowed my head, gesturing to my side and saying, “Indeed. Well, as you know, I am Jimmy Sakamota. This is my girlfriend and traveling companion, Terra.”
Terra held out her hand, a touch of nervousness in her voice as she said, “Terra Branford. Nice to meet you.”
The cat shook her hand. Ell seemed a bit more reluctant; I got the distinct impression that he wasn’t comfortable with physical contact.
“So, what’s up?” Flip asked, her long ears perked. “Another dragon running amok?”
“Ugh. I certainly hope not.” I jerked a thumb at the tower. “People in Brigsonstrat are terrified that the witch who lives in that tower’s up to something bad. We had a rather nasty scrape with a fireball earlier ourselves. We came to make sure everything’s okay, but we can’t find a way into the tower.”
Glancing back at Ell, Flip’s ears wagged twice. “Really? Well, what a coincidence! That’s why we’re here! We went to Brigsonstrat to pick up some groceries, and the people were all like ‘there’s a witch in the tower’ and basically stalked us until we agreed to go check!”
“Sounds a lot like my experience.” I said with a chuckle. “Still, how did you end up behind us?”
Flip and Ell exchanged glances. Flip giggled and said, “Well, let’s just say Ell wasn’t gonna help at first, then had a change of heart.”
“I don’t suppose you know a way into the tower.” Terra said.
Looking sheepish, Flip said, “Well, to be perfectly honest … no. Townsfolk told us about the tower and the witch, but they never said anything about how to get in. We thought it’d be obvious when we got here, but …”
We all stared at the tower. There weren’t even any windows to climb through, at least as far up as I could see. Scaling the tower was out, as I couldn’t even see the top, and somehow I doubted that we’d be able to force a way inside.
“Hmm. We might have to fall back on plan B.” I said.
Flip cocked her head to the side. “What’s plan B?”
“Research.” Teria said, nodding in agreement with me. “The witch must’ve registered with the Center, especially if she’s conducting experiments. In the very least, we should be able to find someone who can ...” she waved at the tower for a moment before finishing, “Magic a way in for us.”
“Oh, awesome!” Flip said, doing a flip in the air. “I’ve always wanted to see the Center!”
“You’re coming with us?” Terra asked. I could tell she wasn’t comfortable with the idea. I hoped she wouldn’t run off again.
“Why not? We’re both after the same thing, right?”
Ell bowed his head respectfully to Terra. Flip looked intently at him for a long moment before turning to Terra. “Oh, I get it. You aren’t comfortable with strangers. Ell’s a bit of a loner too. Well, that’s okay; we’ll go on our own.”
“No, it’s fine. I need to get used to having more people around if I’m going to live at the Saybaro.” She slipped her hand into mine; I squeezed it, smiling back at her.
Flip wound around Terra’s legs, purring. “Oh, I’m sure we’ll get on. I mean, we girls have to stick together, right?”
To my surprise, Terra laughed. “I suppose we do. In that case, welcome to the team!”
With that, we turned our back on the tower and headed north toward Naidyr and the Center of Knowledge.