An Aah! Megami-sama / Bishoujo Senshi Sailor Moon / Ranma ½ crossover story
by Jeffrey Vasquez
Disclaimer: All characters and settings are used here without permission. Ah! Megami-sama was created by Fujishima Kosuke, and is licensed to Kodansha and AnimEigo. Ranma ½ was created by Takahashi Rumiko, and is licensed to Shogakukan Inc., Kitty, Fuji TV, and Viz Communications Inc. Bishoujo Senshi Sailor Moon was created by Takeuchi Naoko, and is licensed to Koudansha, TV Asahi, Toei Douga, and DIC Entertainment, L.P. Forgotten Realms was created by TSR. Inc. and is owned by Wizards of the Coast. All original characters belong to me. Please drop me a line if you want to use them. (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Foreword: Special thanks go out to all of my faithful reviewers at Fanfiction.net and those that have taken the time to send me your thoughts and comments. Your positive support has made it possible for me to keep writing in spite of the hardships that real life has thrown at me this past year. I hope you enjoy this new installment of Realms! Enjoy!
Phaele Aligaurde, High Dweomerkeeper to the Temple of Stars, ran through the halls of Mystra's primary temple in Daerlun, intent on finding the Keeper of Mysteries. The hem of her robes was hiked well above the knees, exposing her long, shapely legs for all to see. Many of the acolytes paused to admire the all too brief flash of skin as Phaele followed the spell-guide the Keeper had cast to summon her.
She climbed the stairs three at a time, ignoring the angry yells of more than one priest who had been jostled or bumped in her passing. The dark and stormy expression on her face was enough incentive for the younger journeymen to leap out of her way. Her long chestnut-colored hair whipped in her wake like a pennant in an angry wind.
Why the Keeper had summoned her in this manner was beyond her. The spell-guide prevented teleportation of any kind, and the speed it was traveling at made it impossible for Phaele to cast anything that would aid or ease her own progress. Knowing the Keeper as she did, Phaele could already hear the rebuke from her mentor.
"Mystra's Grace is not an excuse to let your body grow fat and weak. She gave you a body for a reason, so you should care for it as much as you care for your spellbooks."
The fact that the old half-elven codger could outrun, outwrestle, and out-eat anyone in the temple at the ripe old age of three hundred and seventy was something to admire. The fact that he took a wicked pleasure in pushing everyone to rely as much on their own bodies as their magic made more than one of the faithful grind their teeth in frustration. He seemed to take special pleasure in picking on a certain few, and Phaele was undoubtedly his favorite — most likely because she was the Keeper's only daughter, which was in itself a dubious distinction that brought more problems than it usually solved.
As the young half-elven sorceress topped the last landing, the spell-guide paused before the large, ornate doors of the main chapel, allowing her to catch her breath and collect herself before entering. Phaele smoothed her robes, and settled her hair with a quick spell, before approaching the heavy duskwood doors. The gilded, rune-covered doors parted for her, silently opening outward. The room — if one could call it that — on the other side of the doors was enchanted to resemble a dark blue void. A winding red path of mists lead from the entrance to an altar surrounded at the cardinal points by eight blue-white stars. The addition of the eighth star had come only a few weeks ago, surprising the entire populous of the temple. Correspondence with other temples had revealed that their altars had been changed as well. It was a great mystery that as yet remained unsolved. It was a fitting challenge for the clergy of Mystra, but one that was no longer the sole concern.
Other symbols floated throughout the chapel, each representing a deity of magic or an ally of the Mother of Magic. Azuth's hand, pointed ever upward and surrounded by blue fire, no longer floated in its customary place to the right of the altar, but had displaced Savras' thousand-eyed crystal ball to float on the left. To the right, where Azuth's token should have been, a new symbol floated. It was an oddly plain symbol: two circles, one large and one small, bisected by a discordant, slightly curved diagonal line. The smaller circle was situated at the direct center of the larger. One half of each circle was filled with an opposing color that shifted constantly — black opposed white, red opposed green, blue contrasted orange. Even as she watched, the circles began spinning contrary to one another, creating a sphere of flashing colors. The symbol's movements mesmerized Phaele. She felt drawn to it in a way that had never happened before when she looked upon the symbols of the other gods. It was disconcerting, to say the least.
"Fascinating, isn't it?" Phaele jumped at the sound of her father's voice. "It appeared last night just after the moon set."
"What, or rather who, does it represent?"
"That has yet to be revealed." The Keeper of Mysteries quirked his mouth in an odd grin that spoke volumes to Phaele. It was the same grin that appeared every time a new mystery presented itself to her ever-curious father. "Mystra has been silent on the nature of the symbol, but I suspect that the world will know soon enough."
Phaele nodded and turned her attention back to the symbol. She began to comment, but her father's voice interrupted her thoughts.
"Did you dream last night?" It was an odd question, but she nodded. "Tell me about it, if you would."
"I saw a man that was not a man. The being was male and female, elf and man…." She paused uncertainly. "It wasn't very clear to me, to be honest."
The Keeper of Mysteries nodded quietly and turned his attention back to the new totem. Phaele again opened her mouth to comment, but her father interrupted her questions again, much to her frustration. She knew better than press him for information. He would reveal himself in his own time, and it was pointless to force things.
"It's strange, the more that I look upon it, the more eager I become." The Keeper's voice was soft. His eyes narrowed slightly as he watched the symbol spin in wild and unpredictable patterns. Every so often, a bolt of silver or purple energy would lance out from the symbol. The energies would mix, becoming an iridescent indigo that would reach out and connect to Mystra's symbol briefly.
"There is an underlying heaviness about it…." Phaele noted.
"What does it feel like to you?" the Keeper prompted.
"Like… like the air before a thunderstorm." The High Dweomerkeeper's eyes narrowed as she continued to stare at the symbol. "There's something else as well…."
"It's like a shadow… cool and peaceful, but dark and dangerous as well. I…" She shook her head. "I can't explain it adequately."
The Keeper nodded, smoothing his neatly trimmed, graying beard and mustache. His tapered ears twitched anxiously.
"I felt something similar."
"What shall we do? There will obviously be questions from the rest of the temple."
Before the Keeper could respond, one of the indigo tendrils stretched out and caressed Phaele's hand. Her eyes widened and she opened her mouth to call to her father, but no sound came out. Her knees gave out, but she didn't hit the floor of the chapel as expected. She simply hung in the air, fully supported by the iridescent blue thread of light. She looked to her father fearfully for a moment, and then the void of the chapel disappeared.
Phaele was uncertain who the handsome young man floating before her was. The one thing that came to mind was that this person was a force to be reckoned with. She tried to call to him, but found that she had no voice. Images flashed before her eyes too fast to follow, and then an ageless, heavenly voice filled her mind.
"Uh… hi. You're Phaele, right?"
"Who are you?" she asked breathlessly. The man smiled, and Phaele's insides warmed. Her heart beat quickly and filled her with an undeniable sense of love.
Hadrhune, The Prince's Hand, parted his essence from the shadows of the Most High Telamont Tanthul's private throne room. He quickly knelt before his ruler, ignoring the strange symbol floating before the ruler of the City of Shade. The Prince's Hand knew the sigil very intimately by now. Every altar and temple dedicated to the Dark Goddess was now adorned with the mysterious icon.
"Rise, son of my heart." The aged voice of the High Prince seemed to echo as much in Hadrhune's mind as it did throughout the rest of the room. Hadrhune rose immediately, in a smooth, flowing motion that defied gravity. Hadrhune's dusky-black skin seemed clouded by a shadowy mist that leaked from beneath his voluminous robes. He, like the rest of the Shadovar, had become something more and less than human during their time away from Toril — a being of shadows and darkness.
"Speak freely, child."
"Our auguries have failed, my Lord Prince. Shar is silent, and the outcome of her battle with Mystra is uncertain. However, our sudden inability to access the Shadow Weave does not bode well."
The High Prince nodded, burying his concern deep beneath a mask of indifference.
"Are the Mythallar still unaffected?"
"Yes, my Lord. It seems all artifacts keyed to the Shadow Weave continue to function as intended. It is only our ability as individuals and groups that seem hindered."
It was difficult for Telamont to keep the frown of displeasure from his face. For a society structured around one's magical strength, the sudden loss of power was something of great concern. The High Prince tapped the arm of his throne and fidgeted, something that he had never done in the two thousand years of his long life.
"And the youth from the visions?"
"None have been able to identify him, although many of the clergy have seen an untamed stallion associated with his image." Hadrhune pulled a fist-sized piece of smoky gray quartz from his robes and whispered to it. "Hazzath."
Once the trigger was spoken, the quartz began to glow. Hadrhune let his hand fall away from the magical artifact, letting it float freely in the air between Telamont and himself. Above the gem, numerous images recorded from the dreams of priests and seers played out for the High Prince.
"What is the significance of the red-haired she-elf?"
"Unknown. The divinations we have cast have been chaotic and unclear at best. Some believe her to be the youth's lover, others insist that she is his twin, while a very small group maintains that she and the boy are one and the same being."
Telamont looked from the images of the dark-haired human and the red-haired elf, and refocused his attention on the symbol floating before him.
"The human is the crux of this dilemma, Hadrhune. I want this mystery solved." He paused and looked down at his attendant grimly. "Confiscate every wishing device within the city if you must, but I want him brought to me."
"It shall be as you say, my Prince." Hadrhune paused for a moment until Telamont dismissed him, and then melted away into the shadows again.
Velprintalar, Capital of Aglarond
It was a rare event, one that hadn't happened in almost a century or more. Seven of the world's most powerful individuals had gathered themselves around a single table and were celebrating the rebirth of one of their own. The revelry began a number of weeks past when Sylune, the First of the Seven, was renewed to mortality. Her return had been marked by a number of raucous parties, stately masquerades, bawdy songs, decadent feasting, and of course a hunting expedition or two. This last activity was a bit strange by anyone's standard, as the Simbul convinced her sisters to join her in an excursion into Thay.
To the Simbul's mind, hunting Red Wizards was the true sport of queens, and Alassra had long since perfected it.
Many foolish Thayan wizards died during those weeks of revelry in Velprintalar, and the ranks of the Zulkirs were thinned considerably under the dutiful attentions of the Seven. Sylune happily rebuilt her magical stores from the labs and treasure vaults of the enclaves, and her sisters gifted her with the choicest pieces of their own booty in honor of her "rebirthday".
Tonight's party was to be the last, in light of the weighty responsibilities that the Seven had assumed. Needless to say, it had begun as the most boisterous of their celebrations, but as night became early morning, the pace had slowed and passions quieted. Storm enchanted a lyre to play a quiet tune that Sylune greatly favored, while the Seven cuddled on an oversized bed, sharing stories of their childhood and recollections of memorable lovers. It was in the midst of this reverie that the Seven felt the shift in the Weave.
They stiffened as the power surged through the room, and with spells of death and destruction on their lips looked as one to the crackling fire in the hearth. Yellow flames became blue, and blue became silver. Seven floating embers lifted from the hearth, becoming a set of orbiting stars circling around the main body of the fire.
"Mother of Mysteries," Alustriel whispered reverently.
The hearts of the Seven knew joy as Mystra, in a rare and unprecedented manifestation, reached out through the stars to fill their hearts with her love. One by one they fell to their knees before the divine symbol, worshipping their goddess with vocal prayer and reverent thought. Images filled their minds as the goddess touched each in turn with a tendril of silver fire. Each saw themselves in a new light, or rather from a new perspective, and were humbled by what they saw.
"Rise. Be not afraid."
The words were felt more than heard, and the sweetness of their sound left tears in the eyes of the sisters as they obeyed their goddess. To have pleased their goddess and found favor in her eyes… it was a dream come true.
"I am Mystra. The Weaver. The Road Ascending. The One True Way." The voice of the goddess paused, and the blue fire in the hearth flared, shaping itself into the form of a beautiful woman of flames. "You are my daughters; seven bright stars among my Chosen, brought forth from the womb of my beloved Elue, Lady of the Gate, she who harbored my spirit for a time. You, like your mother before you, have brought me great comfort in your fidelity and please me with your service."
The flaming avatar moved forward to stand before each of the seven, beginning with Sylune, touching each woman's forehead with a blazing kiss that held no heat, but a great deal of power. Each of the seven were blessed and felt empowered with strength and knowledge.
"I have watched you often, enthralled by your daring and humbled by your love for me."
The thought of a goddess being humbled by a mortal seemed alien to the Seven, and Mystra perceived their wonder.
"Be not amazed, my daughters. All creatures, be they mortal or immortal, are subject to some of the same laws." Mystra's fiery smile softened as she passed before each of her Chosen until her circuit came full circle, with her again standing before Sylune.
"I come not to astound you, but to share in your love and celebration, and to bring you understanding and knowledge." Her face became solemn as she looked at the eldest of her daughters. For no reason that she could pinpoint directly, Sylune felt very uncomfortable about the expression. "First, you must realize that Sylune's gift was not orchestrated by my hand, nor was it ever my intent to restore her to a life of flesh and bone. Passing through Kelemvor's Veil is but another step along the path of life, nor is death a true end for those in my service. My plans for Sylune required that she walk the face of Toril as a spirit, serving the interests of magic where a corporeal agent could not."
Expressions of fear and trepidation were prevalent on the faces of the gathered sisters, as each looked to Sylune. For her part, the eldest of the Seven simply closed her eyes in silent acceptance of her fate, waiting for the inevitable touch of death to claim her anew. Mystra had never felt so loved by any of her supplicants. It was a faith that she meant to honor and reward. As the Seven waited in solemn silence, Mystra held up a flaming hand to ease their concerns.
"Rest easy, daughters. The gift was given by another and it is not my right to take it away."
Storm clutched her sister to her tightly and her joyous tears marked her sudden relief.
"Do not think me cruel, for my love knows no bounds when I look upon you. Each of you serves a purpose, one that you cannot fully know or understand while in the flesh. Sylune's purpose was to be a silent servant, but the time of that service is now done and she has been set upon a new course." Mystra fell quiet and allowed the sisters time to digest what she had said.
"What course, Mother of Magic?" Sylune asked reverently.
"That I cannot say, dear Sylune, for it was not my hand that restored you."
"The boy…?" Sylune and Storm shared a look.
"This name… it is known to us." Storm spared her sisters a quick glance. They had all dreamed of this dark-haired boy of late, but he had a more potent effect on those that practiced sorcery than those who did not. Alassra, Dove, Storm, and (not surprisingly) Sylune in particular had experienced vivid visions of this dark-haired, stormy-eyed boy. Storm and Sylune readily confirmed that he was the same being that had restored her to life.
"What is his role in all of this, Mother? There are many within my kingdom that have seen his face in the night, and have his name on their lips during the day." The Simbul looked almost feverish in her need to understand the mystery surrounding the boy in her dreams.
"One that you must uncover for yourself, daughter. His intentions and his counsel are his own to keep, and I am not privy to his mind." Mystra paused and touched her bottom lip with the tip of her flaming finger. "Suffice it to say that he is tied to the Weave… more so than most." She looked to Alassra, Dove, Storm and Sylune pointedly, and smiled warmly. "I will not take offense if you pursue his attentions; do so with my blessing. But be patient in your seeking. He may not answer you as I have."
The goddess of magic again paused, giving the sisters time to process this information. Each looked to her in turn, pushing the mystery of the boy Ranma aside for the time being in favor of hearing her next words. Rather than speak, the seven stars orbiting her head shot outward, hovering above the hearts of each of the sisters. The spectacle was startling, but each of the Seven held their gaze on the fiery avatar of their goddess.
At the center of the apparition's chest, a bright light appeared and slowly descended through the goddess' body until it settled in her womb. From there the light broke free, becoming an eighth star that rose to orbit the crown of the goddess. The other stars flared brightly in turn and sped back to their places, forming a tiara of tiny floating suns.
"An eighth star, long lost to Toril's Weave, has returned. A Silver Princess of Serenity. She comes seeking a way to return to home and hearth, not knowing that she has already found it." The avatar looked pointedly to Alustriel and smiled. "Prepare the way for her arrival, for she will be among you soon."
Stunned and unable to do aught but stare at one another, the Seven watched the flaming body of their goddess melt back into the hearth. The stars circled the embers eight times before vanishing in a series of rapid flashes.
With nothing to say on the matter, Laeral, the Lady Mage of Waterdeep, demonstrated a certain amount of practicality in pouring herself a large glass of the strongest alcohol she could find, and toasting Qilue Veladorn. The rest raised their glasses in tribute to the drow priestess of Ellistraee and Mystra.
"To Qilue, who shall never more be the baby among the Seven." Qilue raised her glass in good mirth and smiled broadly.
The night grew longer still as plans were made for the next great meeting of the Seven, soon to be Eight. This up-and-coming revelry already seemed to outstrip Sylune's "rebirthday", and should it fulfill a mere half of its itinerary, nations would tremble. It would be a celebration of legend. Thay might survive, but truly there was no guarantee.
Keiichi smiled as Duncan rolled on the floor of the Steelwater living room, and tried not to blush. Not that anyone would really notice a difference in his complexion, what with his new purplish-blue skin tone. He'd become quite used to the fallout from Urd's helping hands, so a little public embarrassment didn't bother Keiichi as much as it probably should have. If anything, Urd had helped him develop something of a sense of humor about such things.
Poor Sam, to her credit, wasn't sure how to react to the sight of her bald-and-blue houseguest. She bit her twitching lips and kicked her hysterical husband viciously in the ribs. Duncan snorted, winced, and upon seeing Keiichi again, lost it again. The young man took it all in stride, waiting patiently for the dwarf to gain some semblance of control before speaking. It took a couple more kicks and a wicked smack from Sam's marble rolling pin before Duncan finally settled down and apologized. The dwarven matriarch dragged her snickering husband into the kitchen to prepare tea and cookies, giving Keiichi a moment to gather his thoughts. When the pair returned, Keiichi accepted his cup with a serene smile that dampened Duncan's mirth.
"I got an answer."
"And a bit more, from the looks of things." Duncan smirked, earning him a poke to the ribs from his wife. Keiichi nodded and held up the book.
"What's that?" Sam moved forward to get a better look at the tome.
"Ideas… theories… inspiration." Keiichi couldn't help but grin in anticipation. He held it out to Duncan. "Would you care for a look?"
The dwarf's mirth evaporated, immediately replaced by a stony frown.
"Don't tempt me, lad. That's the answer to yer prayers, not mine. Gond will favor me with me own inspiration if I'm worthy of his blessing."
"I'm… I'm sorry, Duncan. I didn't mean to offend…."
"No offense taken, lad. But it's best that you remember this bit of advice: a gift from the gods is something sacred, an' more often than not, something that sacred ain't meant ta be shared with every pair o' eyes that comes along." Duncan paused to knuckle his mustache. "No one, and I mean no one, will understand and appreciate the significance of the gift like you will, so don't cheapen the ore by givin' it ta the dog. Understand?"
Keiichi nodded thoughtfully.
"Now then." Duncan swallowed the rest of his tea and grabbed a handful of cookies. "You'd best be off ta the bath before Sam fixes lunch. We got ourselves a lot of work ta do, an' not a lot of time to waste. In the meantime, I'd best be communin' with me own god. I'll be waitin' for you in the shop, when yer ready."
Keiichi nodded and tucked Skuld's tome under his arm. "Thanks for the tea and cookies, Sam. They were great."
Sam patted Keiichi's arm and shuffled him towards the stairs. "Off to your room, Keiichi. I'll see to drawing your bath."
Rather than protest, Keiichi let himself be nudged up the staircase. Once safely tucked away in his room, he allowed himself to settle on the edge of the linen chest at the foot of his bed. Excitement gripped his chest like a vise as he stared down at the book in his lap. He could feel the potential hidden in the pages, waiting to be unleashed upon the world. It was little wonder that Skuld tended to be so hyper with her gadgets. He felt more than a little giddy himself at the thought of bringing a new concept into the world. Maybe he'd find something in here that would really change the way things worked! Without further hesitation he opened the book and began skimming through the entries.
Skuld's handwriting was what one would expect from a little girl — multicolored ink, neat, and very loopy. She even used little hearts for punctuation. The cuteness factor nearly overloaded his brain at first glance, but after a moment he was able to detach himself enough to move forward. With each new entry, Keiichi could only shake his head in wonder. Celestial Mathematics, Quantum Mechanics, Divine Citation and Grammar, Multiplanar Geography — for the first time Keiichi saw Skuld for the goddess she truly was, and by virtue of that realization he was able to see Belldandy in a whole new light as well. A sudden sense of inferiority overwhelmed him at the thought of the gap that existed between him and his goddesses. Skuld was no longer the sometimes-bratty little sister of his girlfriend; she was a sun to Keiichi's candle.
He had so far to go… but they thought he could make the journey. Even Skuld. He wasn't about to waste the faith that they placed in him.
It wasn't until he hit the entries for third grade that his mind almost shut down again. Ignoring the scattered comments about how handsome Apollo was, Keiichi quickly paged through the notes and schematics.
"You've got to be kidding me!" If it had been anyone but Skuld, Keiichi would have laughed out loud. "Lightsaber… Astromech… X-wing! No way… Deathstar? Jeez, I'd always pegged her as a Mazinger or Macross fan!"
Keiichi shook his head and continued reading, cataloguing the possibilities.
"Time Machine… too many headaches… Genetic Reconfibulator Mark VII… not in a million years! Knowing my luck, I'd end up as a chicken or something. Alternate Power Sources… sounds promising. Mr. Fusion? You've gotta be joking! Oooh… Plastics, Polymers, and Plexiglas the Medieval Way."
The sound of Sam's knock startled him from his studies. "Bath's ready for you, Keiichi."
"Thanks, Sam. I'll be right out." Tucking his finger in the book to mark his page, Keiichi quickly gathered his toiletries and a change of clothes.
"Lunch will be served in about an hour, then. Mind that you don't fall asleep in the tub."
The young man grunted an affirmative as he juggled everything into a better position for easy reading. He sped through his bath, barely closing the book to clean himself. The only thing that kept him from reading in the bath was the thought of what Skuld would do to him if the book got wet.
By the time he'd come across the fourth grade entries the book stopped being a book altogether. The rest of the pages seemed fused together into a solid form, becoming a high-powered datapad. Keiichi shook his head as he read the small sticky notes plastered around the foldout screen. Skuld was truly ahead of her time.
He touched the screen in the place Skuld's notes instructed, and smiled as the device powered up. A stream of red light shot from the middle of the screen, pinpointing a spot on the middle of Keiichi's forehead. It was a bit of a surprise to hear the book speak to him in Belldandy's voice, but he wasn't going to complain about or mock Skuld's choice in narrators.
::Aural Pattern recognized. Quantum Signature verified. Greetings Morisato Keiichi. Please state the nature of your need.::
"Um… can you give me a general guide of topics to choose from?"
The list was huge and moved at a pace that Keiichi could barely keep up with, but something jumped out at him from the scrolling text.
"Stop please!" The book complied, stopping on a list of entries on, of all things, ice cream. "Can you slow down a bit and back up to the section on 'Vehicles and Transportation'?" The text on the screen began scrolling back at a slower pace, and Keiichi's smile began to grow exponentially with each entry.
"Metamorphic Robotic Vehicles, Clockwork Transportation, and Interstellar Battlemechs for a new age… hmmm…."
Lunch was a quiet affair, with only Keiichi and Sam sitting at the table. The young man ate his soup in silence, his nose still buried in Skuld's book. Rather than jump right into things, he thought it best to continue browsing in a linear fashion. It was always best to build off of the fundamentals, rather than start a project that was way over his head. The end of the fourth grade was where things seemed to get really interesting, introducing the young goddess to Causality Mechanics and an initiation into the Alpha and Omega programming language.
While he was certain that this universe operated on a completely different set of rules, according to Skuld's notes it didn't matter where you went in the multiverse; everything had the same basic materials. She called them "Intelligences" and gave a detailed brief on how these spiritual building blocks worked together to create… well… everything. There was a small set of sidenotes, complete with tiny thumbnails sketches, of something called a "Seraphic Engine", whatever that was. Keiichi couldn't make heads or tails of the schematics, but he made a point to bookmark the pages for later study. That is, if he'd have time for later study.
There was no way in the world that he'd be able to get through the whole book before Skuld took it back in ten days time. He sighed and shifted the book to better catch the light, when something fell out of an earlier chapter.
"Eh? What's this?"
Keiichi picked up the well-worn, folded piece of brown parchment and carefully opened it. Rather than a single piece of parchment, the paper turned out to be a small booklet of plans, diagrams, and schematics detailing the creation of the portable databook. There was a book copier/note-taker function that wasn't present in this copy, though. The dedication on the inside cover made Keiichi shake his head.
"'To my favorite little Goddess of the Future. Athena swears by this little gizmo. Hope it helps in your Secondary Studies. Love, Big Heph.'"
Keiichi grinned and began pouring over the list of materials he'd need to create the gadget. He wasn't sure if he'd be able to come up with all of them naturally, but with Skuld's notes on elemental fabrication, Keiichi was certain he'd be able to build the little machine. It would eat up a few days of his time, but in the end it shaped up to be a solid trade-off.
Without further ado, he slurped down his soup and gathered up his new study guide. Sam received a quick hug and a hearty "Thanks!" on the way out to the workshop. Duncan was right, there was no time to waste. He needed to get to work.
Keiichi opened the inset door and started to call out to Duncan, but stopped short at the sight of the dwarven Gondsman kneeling before his main anvil. It no longer resembled an anvil at all. It had been transformed into an altar. Mystic and holy runes adorned every possible surface of the makeshift dais, and to Keiichi's surprise he could read them. Prayers to and loving declarations of Gond the Wonderbringer decorated the anvil, and to Keiichi's further admiration, Duncan was chiseling more into the iron as he murmured a prayer under his breath.
The light from one of the second story windows highlighted a number of small splotches and smears of red on the main hammer-plate. Keiichi could only stare, mesmerized, at the careful and deliberate manner in which Duncan worked. A sudden sense of uneasiness fell over him and he couldn't help but feel like an intruder on the intimate moment. He wasted no time in silently backing out of the workshop.
After a moment of serious thought, Keiichi came to a hard decision. Duncan was in this mess partially because of him. Therefore, in order for his friend to return to the good graces of his peers and his god, it stood to reason that Keiichi had to step out of the picture for a while. The question was, where to go? He didn't want to go back to the Temple of Oghma, and he couldn't think of anyone else that would give him the space he needed.
Gathering the notebook under his arm, Keiichi made his way back to the house to talk to Sam. At the very least, she might be able give him a push in the right direction. The clock was ticking, after all.
Fendrellinor, the Pools of Sorrow
Elminster and Valor had cautiously entered what was left of the once-fabled Myth Drannor. They had been feeling the pull of Elminster's quest spell growing as they moved forward, but there had been something else tugging on the hem of their spirits as well. For the Old Mage, it was an annoying itch, much like a mosquito bite on the middle of one's back. For Valor, though, the pull was almost undeniable. The only thing that had distracted her from the need to move forward was the amount of destruction that she and her patron were passing through.
Elminster, who had been present at the founding of the Mythal of this lost elven capital, was visibly shaken. He had, on too many occasions, ventured into the corrupted forests of this place that he had once called home. In comparing the demonic woods to this devastation, El wasn't sure which was worse. Everything had been utterly destroyed. The outer ring of the destruction had been disconcerting, with trees and terrain uprooted and tossed about haphazardly. The closer to the center of the city they came, though, the worse the scene had become. Trees and stone alike were powdered ash and, due to the rain, had become a fetid mud. It sapped the strength to remember the beauty that had existed here, only to see it replaced by this.
The pair walked in silence for quite some time, leading their nervous horses carefully through all the debris in reverence for what had been lost. The closer they drew to the heart of the destruction, though, the edgier Elminster was feeling. There was a sense of chaos in the air that the Magister had never felt before. It wasn't evil, nor was it good. It just was.
It felt as if all of the possibilities in the universe had decided to congregate in one place. The sensation was enough to put El's sense of danger into overdrive. The itch he had been experiencing before became a buzzing that filled his body with a need to find the heart of this place. Valor seemed to feel it too, but no matter how hard he tried to prevent her from moving forward, she shook him off. Magic seemed to have a mind of its own here too. Elminster had attempted to restrain his scribe through magical means, and only succeeded in binding himself to her, thus allowing himself to be dragged along behind her as she advanced.
Upon reaching the center of the ruined elven capital, Elminster's breath was taken away. A grove unlike anything that the mage had ever encountered before had sprouted and miraculously grown over a lush carpet of emerald grass. To his absolute astonishment, at the center of the grove, the largest and most majestic Shadowtop tree he had ever seen towered over the hundreds of small pools of water that dotted the landscape. It was easily three hundred to three hundred and fifty feet high, and its branches spread out over the pools like a lady's parasol. A lone sapling stood out from the center of many pools, almost as though in memorial of something. Elminster had felt insecure in many locations during his travels, and although this wasn't hell, this place gave him the willies something fierce. The horses were in wholehearted agreement with the mage, and made it quite clear that they preferred to be as far from this place as they could. It took some time to calm them, but in that time Elminster got a very good look at some of the magics surrounding the area. He made a mental note to write his observations down at the first viable opportunity that presented itself.
Valor gasped, drawing her companion's attention, and pointed to the root of the gargantuan tree at the center of the pools. Elminster strained his eyes to make out the slender form of a drow male, sitting on a root and carving a long, crooked branch of wood. When he noticed their presence he lifted his hand and waved to the pair in a welcoming manner, beckoning them closer. Valor, unthinking or unable to resist the call, started walking forward. Her horse followed behind her, and Elminster, still bound to the drow, could only follow her helplessly. They made it two-thirds of the way to the center of the grove when Valor slipped on a pile of wet leaves and tumbled into a pool. Had Elminster not been behind the horse, or without his staff for that matter, he would have joined her.
And from the looks of things, that would have been a bad thing.
Elminster looked up from the sputtering and hissing form of what had once been a shapely female drow, immediately on his guard. The drow seemed nonthreatening and in fact, he was reaching his crooked pole into the water to aid in Valor's rescue.
"Spring of Drowned Tressym?" Elminster asked, bewildered
His poor companion was no longer humanoid at all, having been changed into what resembled a wet housecat, if the cat in question had wings. At the very least, she was a creature that he was familiar with. The Tressym was a rare creature that he'd seen a number of his good-natured colleagues keep as familiars.
"Your companion has been surely blessed!"
Elminster was more than a bit anxious at the complacency of the drow, but his true anxiety was only heightened by his proximity to the other pools. Any mage worth his salt could see the way the Weave was being bent here, and from what he could tell no amount of magical protection was going to guard a person that from being changed if they fell into the waters. Under different circumstances, and perhaps with more time to prepare, Elminster might have been intrigued by the place. "Might" being the key word.
"Ye call this blessed?" He tried to keep the hysteria from his voice; and to his satisfaction, he was moderately successful.
"Certainly!" The drow deposited the wet ball of hissing fur and feathers at Elminster's feet, causing the mage to jump, and began trawling for her clothes and belongings. "Glauenthiel could have easily cursed her to be a slug, or a chicken, or…" The drow shuddered. "…a pig."
Elminster shuddered too at the image of being stuck as a great fat pig, waiting for the butcher.
"I don't understand…." Elminster began.
"Of course you don't!" the drow scoffed. "Who could possibly understand the mind and will of the Weave Bender?"
"Weave Bender?" Elminster ventured. The drow nodded and produced a towel from seemingly nowhere, stuffing it into the mage's hands. El bent down and collected Valor into his arms, gently drying her fur and wings.
"Come, and I will tell you of the greatness that is Glauenthiel." The drow reached out and took Elminster's hand and placed it on his shoulder, keeping it in place with his own hand. "Let me start by telling you about how I first came to know Glauenthiel. My story begins on a night not so long ago, when a flaming-haired goddess fell from the moon."
Elminster listened intently as he looked out over the pools. Something about all of this seemed terribly familiar. Valor's horse neighed in panic, and there was a loud splash behind them. El and the drow looked over their shoulders in time to see a shapely naked woman with a bridle in her mouth and a saddle on her back, struggling to get out of the pool.
"Well, that was lucky." The drow paused in his tale and patted Elminster's hand. "Stay here a moment, will you?"
The mage watched as the good-natured dark elf helped the long-legged woman stumble from the pool. Where she was clumsy and wobbly, he seemed self-assured and confident in his balance. The poor woman seemed terribly confused, something that Elminster could readily identify with. After all, not a moment before she had been a majestic horse. Looking about the pools again, he felt their pull on him and desired nothing more than to teleport himself and his scribe as far from this hellish place as he could. It was during his daydream of escape that he remembered why everything seemed so familiar. He had read about it recently and had seen a similar magic in play on a very disturbing young man.
"Ho! Ho! So you have heard of Glauenthiel after all!" The dark elf appeared at Elminster's side as if by magic, slapping the mage smartly on shoulder. Distracted as he was, El had little chance. Valor was tossed into the air, and thanks to her new wings, stayed there. The magister, however, succumbed to gravity's inevitable pull. On the other hand, it might have been the pool doing the pulling, instead of gravity. Either way, Elminster's earlier prediction about magical safeguards and protections was correct. The ring of levitation didn't do squat for him. In the end there was only one thing that he could do….
"DAMN YE, RANMA!"
Rodbury Hearthman was a fallen man. He had waited in the cave while the gnoll and its band attacked the chit of a girl and her scraggly mob of refugees. He had heard the echoes of battle from afar and exulted in them. He had given the gnoll explicit orders to bring him the "Silver Princess" alive and unspoiled. The rest were of little concern to Hearthman.
Once he had regained control of his holdings, he would, of course, be required to move against Thistlebuck and the rest of the mewling counsel, something he'd been looking forward to for a very long time. His patrons would need some serious placating, but he figured that if he could deliver the whole of Hemmerling to them… well, he just might be able to keep his head attached to his neck. On the upside, they just might reward his initiative and let him stay on as the Lord Mayor. Either way, he was intent on breaking that little white-haired slip before doing anything else.
A sound from the mouth of the cave near dawn caused him some concern. The bandits, had they been successful, would have been a bit more lively upon their return. So, rather than reveal himself to whoever or whatever was lurking out there, Hearthman slipped further into the cave and hid behind a rather large rock until he was certain it was safe.
The figure of Olin Breambur, holding a shining crystal shard high above his head for light, moved into Hearthman's line of sight. His right hand held a stout and extremely deadly looking short sword that caused Hearthman to shiver, especially when Breambur's eyes locked on Rodbury's position.
"Come out, Hearthman." The man's voice was as cold and hard as the rocks, brooking no disobedience. "We've much to discuss, you and I."
Rodbury held up his hands to show that he was unarmed, and began to stammer, his jowls flapping grotesquely. Breambur stuffed the crystal into a small alcove, freeing his hand.
"Olin, I… I… I can explain!"
"Save your excuses, Hearthman. Your stupidity has cost us a very lucrative operation here, and you know as well as I that the Black Network is not the most forgiving of benefactors."
Rodbury fell to his knees before Olin Breambur, clasping his hands to his chest. "All is not lost! I can reclaim what Raelin took from me! By this time tomorrow all of Hemmerling will be yours! You'll see!"
Olin's fist smashed into Hearthman's temple, sending the man sprawling to the sandy floor of the cave. "I'll see nothing, fool! What do you think to do? Kill Thistlebuck? Murder the rest of the Council?" Rodbury's mouth was agape, looking for air to form some verbal defense. Olin reached down and hauled the fat man to his knees. "Stupid, short-sighted, heavy-handed IMBECILE! Ten years of careful planning and caution, all but undone in just one day because a fool could not keep his lusts in check."
Olin shoved the man back to the floor, and turned away from him to look out into the night. "I will not allow the Network to lose Hemmerling. I will not let the last ten years be for naught. You got us into this mess, Hearthman, and I'll be damned if you're not going to get us out of it."
"W-What do you expect me to do?"
"Do, Hearthman? I don't expect you to do anything but die."
Olin Breambur's short sword flashed out in the weak magical light of the crystal, cutting Rodbury Hearthman's head clean from his shoulders. The severed head bounced hollowly out of the cavern and came to a rest at the base of a large elm. It took Breambur little time to arrange the scene to his satisfaction. This, coupled with the clues left at Hearthman's estate, would lead Raelin and his investigators to believe that Rodbury had fallen afoul his Zhentarim employers — which was completely true. Creating a clever trail heading east would lead the rest of the council to believe that the murderers had left for greener pastures.
Olin would, of course, have to send a report to his own superior, explaining the situation. All in all, it would most likely take another year or so to rebuild what they had lost here — assuming that he could somehow convince the Tsukino woman to sell him Hearthman's shop. If he couldn't, then he would have to come up with another lucrative operation that would keep Hemmerling — and more importantly himself — safe from reprisal.
Had Olin been more observant, he would have noticed a silvery pelt hidden among the foliage. Had he been more observant, it would have spared his life when Raelin Thistlebuck confronted him at the edge of the treeline. Had he not been so tired and distracted, he might have been able to make good on his plan to restore Hemmerling to the hands of the Zhentarim.
Sadly, Olin was more than a bit distracted today. Unfortunately, he wasn't ready to meet up with Raelin Thistlebuck on the road back to town. With blood all over his tunic, and a great deal of sensitive items in his saddlebags, there was little to do but curse and run. He'd made it a quarter of a mile before a silver-pelted creature pounced on him from the trees and drove him from the saddle, only to disappear into the underbrush without a trace. Raelin's horse arrived almost immediately, leaving Olin no choice but to fight for his life and freedom. Breambur had never known that Raelin had once been a highly-trained Royal Guardsman of Cormyr. It was a short confrontation, one that left the town of Hemmerling relatively free of the Zhentarim.
With limited funds and a number of unwilling or unreasonable realtors, Keiichi had explored a large portion of the rocky beach as Sam had suggested. Unfortunately, he hadn't found the cave she mentioned and had been forced to return to the house for further instructions. Ruthart and Sister Maerdith were there, and rather than waste more of Sam's valuable time, he asked them if they wouldn't mind showing him the way. Their reaction to his new skin color and lack of hair was much politer than Duncan's, but it did take some time for the laughter and humorous comments to stop.
When Keiichi explained his quest again, Ruthart, having nothing better to do since Duncan had locked the workshop up tight, was more than glad to lend a hand. Sister Maerdith, on the other hand, was less enthused about the idea of Keiichi setting up shop in the seaside cavern, and she had felt the need to expound on all the reasons for finding a warmer, drier place to work.
Her discourse lasted throughout their trip to the market, through the selection of a pair of anvils, and well past the purchase of a sturdy handcart and a rather impressive set of clockmaker's tools. She was still clarifying the finer points of her arguments when Ruthart and Keiichi uncovered the mouth of the cave beneath some serious shrubgrowth and debris. They went to work immediately, piling the dried brush and seaweed into a heap on the sand and stone while the Oghmite priestess continued her rather exhaustive discourse.
"…and you honestly cannot know what has decided to take up residence in the place. All manner of beasts best left alone could have claimed this place for their home."
Keiichi nodded and shifted his backpack and tool belt to sit better before turning to Ruthart. "What do you think, Ruthart?"
The young gnome shrugged his shoulders and pulled one of the two handcarts closer to the mouth of the cave. "For whatever the reason, no one in town's ever claimed the cavern for themselves, but Sister Maerdith has a point about creatures and whatnot making a home of it." He shrugged again and looked into the mouth of the cave without further comment.
"Well, there's no harm in taking a peek. If someone or something has decided to make this their home, I'll look for somewhere else to work."
"But it's late afternoon!" Maerdith protested. "It will be dark and cold soon!"
"You don't have to come with us, Sister Maerdith. Ruthart and I can manage." Keiichi smiled at the young gnome and winked.
"Nonsense! Of course I have to come!" The priestess folded her arms and looked into the cave nervously. "There's no telling what trouble you'll get into without me. Besides, you've yet to tell me how you came by your new blueberry coloring."
Keiichi grimaced and shared a look with Ruthart. Both shook their heads. The group wasted no time in pushing the handcarts into the mouth of the cave and pulling out their hooded lanterns. Keiichi heeded Urd's warning about open flames and allowed Ruthart to light them for the group. The cave entrance was rather narrow and turned after about ten feet; beyond that neither Keiichi nor Maerdith could see. The priestess gripped the handle of her mace nervously and looked back to the mouth of the cavern.
"There's a large sized chamber at the end of the tunnel," Ruthart pointed out. "…and beyond that are a few other rooms of varying sizes. One of the moderate sized ones has a natural chimney. One of my friends, Dickey Dunweather, got stuck in it as a kid on a dare from Ferin Gullywarden. It took almost fifteen hours and a boatload of axle grease to unstick him."
"It sounds perfect for my needs." Keiichi grinned.
"Before Highden was founded, a bunch of pirates and smugglers thought so too," Maerdith groused.
Keiichi and Ruthart glanced around the sandy floor nervously for signs of recent use, but found nothing out of the ordinary. "Well, let's just hope for the best, and pray that they've moved on to bigger and better caves, shall we?"
Keiichi and Ruthart secured the handcarts, draping the seaweed and tangles that had covered the cave's entrance over their belongings, while Maerdith swept up the cart's tracks in order to hide their progress from any unfriendly eyes. The young gnome lit a lantern, and after handing it to Keiichi, followed the blue-skinned man's lead. Sister Maerdith tossed her hair with a snort and stomped into the cavern behind the two.
It is said of the ambitious, those fools who would be gods, that they learn a valuable lesson when confronted with true divinity. One might achieve a god-like outlook through the acquisition of power and influence, but that doesn't necessarily make them gods. True godhood cannot be obtained easily or quickly, for such paths lead to madness and self-destruction. Gods grow in power and understanding, line upon line and precept upon precept, a growth that takes thousands of lifetimes to fully mature. Gods exist on many levels and their magnificence is spread over many planes. They are far beyond the ken of mortal man, and their complexity makes mortal-kind seem like single-celled organisms by comparison. There are, of course, exceptions to every rule and loopholes that are exploited. Mystra in all of her incarnations has always been one such exception.
When Midnight was chosen as Mystra's heir and successor, she was quickened in an instant. The Weave became her memory and Toril itself an extension of her body. The Chosen harbored her humanity and her conscience, and thus she became the goddess of magic. Cyric and Kelemvor both had aides and mentors to guide them into their roles as well, as their awareness was tied to the worshipers that lauded their names and venerated their chosen tenets. That is not to say that the transition was an easy one. None could truly say whether Cyric had ever been wholly sane to begin with, and in light of recent ambitions, that sanity was truly in question.
The true point, when all was said and done, is that being a god is hard. Really, really hard. Ascending requires a certain preparation, and those not prepared for it usually don't survive the process without aid.
Sadly, Ranma had no such buffer at the moment, and his mind and spirit drifted along the Weaves of Toril's magic like a piece of driftwood in the tide, lost in the dreams and yearnings of those who were a part of or could tap the essence of magic. He touched the minds of millions of life forms simultaneously, yet had no way of conceptualizing the experience. Some were benevolent and beautiful, while others were demonic and profane. The former he smiled upon and encouraged as best he could, while the later he turned away from in complete disgust, taking his gifts with him as he went.
He became a part of those races that were magic, dragons and elves and fae creatures like unicorns and dryads. He knew them and lost himself in their existences for a time. Each time he saw and felt something new, a familiar war was waged to hold on to what he had been. It was worse than before… much worse, for there was nothing to ground him. His body had been consumed at the Pool of Radiance and his spirit was freed. There was no safe harbor to hold him and no hand to guide him to security.
He fought on, though, looking for a way to overcome, just as he always did. Eventually, he found what could be considered a door deep within him and, with all the strength left, pulled himself back to the fortress in his soul. Broken and tattered, his spirit crawled into the edifice and sequestered himself there, guarding against further loss of self, and slowly began rebuilding who he had been.
It was in this time of sanctuary that the gods came knocking at the gate of his Indigo Palace. They knocked and knocked, but he refused to answer. One by one they left until only a single being remained.
She was dressed in stars and her hair was as black as the vault of night. Her dark beauty was veiled in mystery and secrets, but the look in her eyes was filled with love and understanding. She waited patiently through the boredom and silence, and braved the furious storms he sent to drive her away. She refused to be moved by his booming voice or his caustic rage. She weathered it all until at last the gates of the Indigo Palace could no longer keep her out. She gently pushed through the portal and entered the sanctuary with great care and reverence.
Broken and worn down, the edifice reflected the state of his soul. The stones were aged and tumbling, the polished wood had lost its luster, and the building itself was a grotesque amalgamation of a thousand different styles. The chaos it represented hurt the senses and shifted constantly. Yet, the goddess walked on, unmoved by her environment.
He allowed her to wander through his halls; he could not stop her even had he wanted to. He let her face the demons of his madness one after another, unable to warn her or aid her in the battles. She fought them all, winning past each and every one of them. She healed the wounds they inflicted on him with her blood and allowed her once perfect body to be bruised for his sake. She moved on and on until, at long last, she arrived at his throne room. He wondered at the loving smile on her broken and bloody face as she stood before him, and shook his head.
Nine days passed in relative chaos for the citizens of Hemmerling. The owner of the general store had been stripped of his property and subsequently found murdered. The murderer turned out to be a highly respected member of the community, who had ties to the greatest criminal cabal in Faerun. And all of this came to light due to a beautiful and enigmatic young woman called Usagi Tsukino — a woman that the residents of Hemmerling had taken to calling the "Silver Princess", along with the rest of the countryside.
Usagi, for her part, had wanted nothing to do with the name or the people associated with it. Unfortunately, the residents of Hemmerling were hard to ignore. They brought her pies and cakes, chickens and goats, handmade clothing and the occasional set of precious jewelry… all in thanks for her heroic defense of their town. Her confrontation with Lord Kelemvor had been blown completely out of proportion, making her out to be some sort of one-woman army that had stood against an innumerable horde of undead that had come to claim Hemmerling's sons and daughters. Some people had taken to all but worshiping her when she passed by; something that she put an immediate stop to when she encountered it.
Raelin made the transfer of the estate legal when, upon hearing about his injuries, Usagi made a special trip to town. She healed his grave wounds, much to the amazement of the populace, earning herself even more notoriety among the locals. She fled the Council Hall with all due haste the moment that Raelin had offered to step down as mayor. When one of the Council members insisted she forego the office of Mayor completely, in favor of stepping into the role of the Lady of Hemmerling, Usagi wanted to scream. She didn't understand these people or their sudden affection for her. In fact, if she didn't know better, she would have said that they were all quite insane.
Ulin decided to step in at this point; making it clear that Usagi was planning on spending the winter in Silverymoon, to Usagi's dismay and anger. She didn't decline the offer outright, though. When the displaced Moon Princess made her displeasure known, the earth Genasi chuckled and told Usagi to always keep her options open. In turn, the "Silver Princess" told Ulin where she could shove her "options" as she stormed back to the estate.
This all came to pass within the first five days after the confrontation with Kelemvor. On the sixth day, one of the maids tried to assassinate Usagi as she was going to dinner. Shandri Dunhill, who through her selfless sacrifice was wounded in the process, foiled the attempt and inadvertently triggered the power of the Ginzuishou. Thus Usagi was blessed to receive her second Senshi, and another slew of headaches. The seventh and eighth days were spent searching the estate from top to bottom for spies, assassins, and deathtraps left in Ronald Hearthman's wake.
Thanks to the help of Grrlixi and the Loras, three men and one woman were found hidden away in a secret basement, along with a number of ledgers and a journal of contacts from Hearthman's shady business practices. Usagi was uncertain what to think of the beautiful, silver-furred creatures. They still resembled large humanoid hyenas to Usagi, but their temperament seemed a lot less aggressive. If anything, Usagi would say that the group seemed more like a pack of puppies: loyal, playful, and obedient to the point of excess, and they had elected her to be their owner. Grrlixi, being the most intelligent — relatively speaking of course — had taken to literally worshipping the ground that Usagi walked on, and no matter what she did to disabuse him of the practice, the pack leader wouldn't stop. He had become so fervent in his adoration that it was starting to spill over to the other Loras, who seemed to hang on her every word and looked to fulfill her every wish. Usagi made certain to do everything in her power to avoid the creatures as best she could, but when confrontation was inevitable, the "Silver Princess" made certain that her mouth was firmly shut.
Other events happened that, if possible, only complicated Usagi's life more. Garl Blackhammer had set out to delve the abandoned mine on the third day, along with a handful of volunteers from the body of the refugees and townsfolk. The hunt for stragglers had been fruitless, but a number of crates of stolen goods and contraband had been uncovered on the first day of exploration. This large stash was given to the townsfolk of Hemmerling to sort through and return where possible. Raelin and the Council, on Usagi's suggestion, took the rest and distributed it among the less fortunate families.
Garl was unsatisfied with the first day's discoveries, and decided to delve further into the mine. His original team accompanied him, prepared for a week's worth of exploration. They returned in the early morning hours of the eighth day, bearing surprising news. The silver mine had once been very active, and had been the reason for Hemmerling sprouting up where it had. But due to a number of unusual deaths, the mine had closed and been dubbed "haunted" by the local populace.
Master Blackhammer was a veteran miner, and immediately picked up on the truth of the haunting. The inexperienced miners had hit a vent of bad air, and without a solid ventilation system in place had basically poisoned themselves. Garl had gone deep into the mine and returned with a number of ore samples that made the town whoop and holler. The mine had gone from being a simple silver dig to being an excavation of silver, iron, and platinum. The veins themselves were small, but moderately numerous, although the latter only had one or two veins at first glance. Still, Garl was hopeful that where there was a little ore, more was sure to follow.
This auspicious news had set the town on its ear, and again Usagi was given the accolades, much to her disgust. Ulin met with Garl and the Hemmerling Council on Usagi's behalf and arranged for the mine to reopen. The dwarf seemed happy to be in his element again, and was assigned to be the foreman of the mine. True to his nature, Garl wasted no time in beginning the renovation of the mine, bringing it up to dwarf standards. With the pace he was setting, Usagi had little doubt that the mine would be up and running within two months time.
Usagi, for her part, was still reeling from everything that had happened. She had gone from destitute to suddenly having more wealth than she had ever had in her life. This overnight success left a sour taste in her mouth, so she set about spreading the joy around as much as possible. Most of Rodbury Hearthman's opulent excess was packed on trade carts and prepared for the markets of Everlund and Yartar. The majority of the proceeds from these sales were slated to build and furnish homes for the refugees on the estate, as well as supply the mine with much-needed equipment.
Ulin, against Usagi's wishes, hired a trustworthy house staff to replace Hearthman's, most of whom left after hearing of their master's murder, afraid that they might be next. Those few servants that had stayed on were magically screened by Ulin to ensure that their intentions were above-board. The only one not to make the cut was Hearthman's doorman, who had a larcenous heart and had been caught pocketing a number of Usagi's new jewelry pieces. Raelin had come to personally escort the thief to the town jail, where he presently sat awaiting trial.
Usagi had spoken up for the man, asking clemency of the Council. But as they had sent to Tradesburrow for an impartial magistrate, the matter was out of their hands. They told her that the request would be noted on the record for the visiting dignitary to review, but they made no promises.
To say that Usagi hated the way that her life was unfolding was an understatement. Today was the morning of the tenth day, and while she enjoyed breakfast in bed a great deal, and help dressing was always welcome, the constant pampering was starting to wear thin. Every time someone called her "milady" or "your highness", Usagi growled audibly, and not in a nice way either. She had politely told off more than a dozen servants when they came to do something for her. And rather than acknowledging her wishes and desires to be left to her own devices, the people simply smiled and ignored her! It was enough to make her scream.
And in fact, she had. Loudly. So loudly, in fact, that both Ulin and Shandri had descended on the scene with magic flaring. For Ulin, this was nothing too surprising. But poor Shandri nearly fainted when she learned that she was, now and forever, an honest-to-goodness magical girl. Ulin had called her a sorceress, but Usagi still felt that this was breaking with tradition. She kept her mouth shut, though, for Shandri's sake, seeing as how the girl had gained a whole new level of confidence and all. Case in point: some of the staff had been overheard whispering about Shandri's bold cornering of that handsome Viet Lackman in the broom cupboard on the third floor. There was no way that Usagi was going to step in the way of love by correcting Ulin's choice of titles. At the very least someone in this godforsaken nightmare should be happy, and Usagi couldn't think of a better person for it to happen to. It sure as heck wasn't going to happen to her anytime soon, that was for darn certain!
The displaced Moon Princess sighed as she descended the main stairwell on her way to the sitting room. She had seen something resembling a piano there, and was intent on sequestering herself in the room and proving her old piano teacher wrong. Tone deaf or not, Usagi was going to play the stupid thing until she got good. And if she were truly bad enough, maybe the stupid house staff would run away and leave her the heck alone!
As she rounded the long curve of the staircase she came into full view of the entryway, and saw that it was packed with three large stacks of luggage. Ulin was speaking with Faim and Marcus, handing them a sheaf of parchments and a small lacquered cherrywood box. Shandri and Viet were standing behind the jade-skinned woman, holding hands and looking positively adorable, while Heb stood on Ulin's far side.
Of everyone, Heb had changed the most since the night on the road. The man had lost his edginess, and a palpable aura of peace surrounded him now. He still couldn't speak directly to Usagi, but the fear was decidedly different now. He still stammered a lot, but a cute little blush would spread across his cheeks whenever she made eye contact with him.
Everyone looked up as she made her way down the final third of the staircase, and Usagi watched as a number of men entered the front door and started to pick up the luggage, until they noticed her presence. Upon seeing her, the men snapped to attention and bowed deeply to her, much to her annoyance, and only continued with their work after she nodded to them. Ulin shooed everyone else away to their appointed tasks, and then made her way to Usagi's side.
"Are you leaving me here to my doom?" Usagi asked.
Ulin snorted and shook her head. "On the contrary. I'm rescuing you from your lonely tower, Little Princess."
Usagi chuckled and watched the men lift another trunk. "That's a new one. The dragon rescuing the princess."
Ulin bowed deeply. "We aim to please, milady."
Usagi growled and cuffed Ulin on the shoulder. "You were warned not to use that horrible word with me. Now you're going to have to suffer the consequences." Usagi started walking towards the main door, intent on seeing what was going on outside, but Ulin looped her arm in the young woman's and redirected her towards the drawing room.
"Your vengeance terrifies me, highness." The Genasi's smirk was filled to the brim with cheek.
"You are really asking for it today, aren't you?" Usagi's eyes narrowed sternly, making her look more cute than intimidating.
"I ask for it every day, in some form or fashion, but you've yet to deliver." The sorceress slid the drawing room doors open, revealing a well-adorned study with tall, floor-to-ceiling windows.
"I'm just trying to think up the appropriate punishment is all. If you'd just let me catch my breath, I would give you what you so richly deserve."
"Promises. Promises." Ulin gently pushed Usagi into a plush leather chair behind a large oak desk and handed her a quill.
"Thank you." Usagi grinned. "Now tell me why I'm sitting here so that I can add it to the growing list of your crimes."
Ulin smiled back and produced a small stack of papers. "These are the contracts that you requested drawn up between the town and the estate." She shifted the top papers to the bottom of the stack. "This grants Faim and Marcus the power to act in your name while you are away. And lastly, this is a letter to Her Majesty, Alustriel, Queen of the Silver Marches, stating that you will be visiting the city."
"Is that really necessary?" Usagi whined. She read over the letter, grimacing at the flowery language and the cursory titles at the bottom. "And since when am I the Lady of Hemmerling?!"
"Since the Council convened last night and unanimously voted to name you such." Ulin smiled benignly and motioned for Usagi to start signing.
"Why don't I get a say in this?"
"Because you are now nobility, dear heart. You are expected to grin and bear the expectations of the commoners you rule."
"This sucks." Usagi pouted.
"Invariably. But there is little to do about it if you intend to retain the property."
"You said that I had to keep the property for the benefit of the refugees!" Usagi protested.
"No. I merely stated that until things settled, it would be a good idea to leave things as they were. Once the people of Hemmerling got used to the idea of the refugees living near them, you could then sell the lands to the people and be done with the whole affair."
"But… but this isn't right! No one asked me if I wanted to be the stupid Lady of Hemmerling! Isn't there a law against this or something? I mean there wasn't even a vote or anything!"
"Sadly, there is no law against embracing a new leader over a community. There was, as I said earlier, a vote last night. And I should mention here that it was unanimous in your favor. Raelin seemed quite happy to step down, too."
"You mean to tell me that you were there!?" Usagi screamed.
"Of course I was there." Ulin crossed her arms and raised an eyebrow. "I might have arrived too late to stop the vote, but I made sure that the Council understood your intentions to return home."
When Ulin didn't continue, Usagi's foot began tapping with a soft thud on the thick carpet beneath the desk. "And?"
"And what? Do you honestly think, for one minute, if they choose to ignore your protests, that I would stand a better chance of getting through to them?"
Usagi screamed in frustration and leapt to her feet. She paced back and forth in front of the empty fireplace, clenching and unclenching her fists. Ulin settled herself on the edge of the desk and waited until Usagi gained some semblance of control before saying anything else. "I don't think you should worry so much."
"Not worry?! These people want me to be some sort of ruler for them when all I want to do is go home! They've made me responsible for them, for crying out loud!"
"I already told you, dear heart, that you are your own woman. No one can dictate to you what you will or will not do."
"But they are shifting their responsibilities onto me!"
"So? Shift them back. Make Raelin your regent until you come back. Put in provisions to name a new regent in the event of Raelin's death and your immediate absence. Lay out a document of intent for your current property in the event that you are able to return home." Ulin rested her hand on Usagi's shoulder. "You are only a victim if you allow yourself to be, Usagi."
The young woman sighed and nodded.
"Now then, our coach will be ready to leave in the morning. What do you say to working out all these details before dinner, and then we'll turn in for the night, eh?"
Usagi nodded her head and began reading over the paperwork. There were no immediate changes, and she signed everything without hesitation. The only exception was the letter to Alustriel. That, she fought tooth and nail to bypass without signing. Impolite or not, the last thing Usagi wanted was to be seen and acknowledged as the Lady of Hemmerling. Sadly, Ulin was a stickler for propriety, especially where Alustriel was concerned, and Usagi was forced to sign and magically send the letter herself.
The rest of the day and part of the night was spent discussing how best to shove all the responsibility of running Hemmerling back onto the shoulders of the Council and its elected mayor, Raelin. Ulin had enough political savvy backing her to write an ironclad Declaration of Intent. She sent the document to the Council, with Viet and Shandri acting as couriers. That would get the lovebirds out of her hair and make her intentions known to the people who had dumped their problems in her lap. By the time they were finished, Usagi was pretty much completely free of all day-to-day concerns. She continued to receive the occasional report or missive, but by and large, the invisible weight had been returned to where she felt it belonged. When dinner rolled around, the affairs concerning the estate had been drafted and Ulin promised to have it complete before they reached Tradesburrow, so that it could be filed with the Magistrate's Office and made official.
In spite of starting off her day in the middle of a nightmare, Usagi went to bed happy and content. And as she slept the sleep of the moderately innocent, she dreamed surprisingly clear and memorable dreams, filled to overflowing with images of a pigtailed boy dancing among the stars. It was the same yummy dream she'd had every other night for the last ten days.
When she woke the next morning to breakfast in bed, it was with a guilty smile on her face. A smile that was only partly inspired by the fact that she was escaping this outlandish experience. After all, being enveloped by the strong arms of a stormy-eyed boy would leave a smile on just about any girl's face, right?
Had she taken the time to think about it, she would have been concerned that it had been a very long time since she had thought of Mamoru Chiba. A very long time indeed.
Keiichi's cavern turned out to be quite deserted, with the exception of a crab and a bat or two. They didn't seem to mind sharing, and so Keiichi claimed the place as his own. By the time they had fully explored the small cavern, night had fallen, and rather than chance a trip back to town, the trio decided to spend the night in the cave.
Ruthart and Maerdith set about collecting driftwood and the remnants of broken smuggler's crates for a fire in the chamber with the chimney, while Keiichi began unloading and arranging supplies. Dinner was a quiet affair, with Keiichi telling an abbreviated version of his visit with Belldandy and her sisters. Ruthart was enthralled by the tale and Maerdith was conspicuously silent as she scribbled notes in a small diary that Keiichi had taken to calling "The Book".
After dinner, Keiichi and Ruthart went back to unpacking and arranging supplies, while Maerdith made up for her earlier silence by blitzing the blue-skinned man with all manner of questions about the event. By the time everything was unpacked and in place, Ruthart and Maerdith were droopy-eyed and sagging. Keiichi however, felt fresh and wide-awake. A bit sore in places, perhaps, but nowhere near as tired as he should have been. He wasn't certain whether he should thank Belldandy or blame Urd for this boon, but regardless of its origins, Keiichi meant to capitalize on his good fortune.
By the time morning came, the young man was well into making his own databook, using the plans Hephaestus had given Skuld and the Norn's own notes on alchemical processes. He did not pause to eat or sleep until Maerdith forced a bowl of stew under his nose at dusk. The look of open concern in her eyes and the expression of awe on Ruthart's cherubic face made Keiichi feel very uncomfortable, and when he made note of his progress he understood why.
One part of the room had become a foundry, complete with molds and metalworking tools neatly arranged near a well-crafted firepit beneath the room's chimney. The only thing that the forge lacked was a method for venting the smoke and heat into the chimney better. He vaguely remembered stacking the stones around the forge, and the anvils had been difficult to move on his own. But when had he had time to blow the glass beakers and set up the chemistry set?
Keiichi looked about the rest of the room, both dreading what he saw and amazed at what he had accomplished. The setup was nothing short of incredible, and the sheer volume of work miraculous. He numbly sat on an overturned bucket and tried to take it all in. The data journal he'd been making wasn't anywhere near done, but he had over a third of the pieces manufactured.
It was all so impossible!
He stared blankly at the bowl of Maerdith 's stew for a time, uncertain and scared of the way his life was spiraling out of control. One would think that he'd become used to it by now, yet even after all that he'd seen, done, and experienced nothing like this had ever happened before. This was something positive… something that, if he were honest with himself, excited him.
His mind was racing with all the possibilities that were unfolding before him, and without realizing it, he felt himself getting up and returning to his tasks. The bowl of stew was emptied within three steps, cleaned in one and delivered back into Maerdith 's hands before he'd taken his fifth.
Had he been able to see through Maerdith 's eyes, the fear he'd felt a moment before would have become terror. The Morisato Keiichi he had known all his life was rapidly being replaced by a blue-skinned blur, whose every step was certain and full of confidence; truly a far cry from the bumbling young man he had been not too long ago.
Maerdith and Ruthart refused to leave Keiichi's side, something that Keiichi would have appreciated more had he been cognizant of anything beyond the projects he was working on. Maerdith catalogued the changes in Keiichi's demeanor as well as some of the more revolutionary ideas he was implementing… Well, the ones that she could readily understand at least. Ruthart made himself useful by attending to the needs of Sister Maerdith, where he could, and organizing the other rooms based on his earlier conversations with Keiichi when he had free time.
The data journal was completed in five days time, at which point Keiichi paused long enough to eat a rushed breakfast before moving on to test his new creation. Skuld's book was scanned and downloaded within an hour, leaving Keiichi smiling triumphantly at his friends. Five minutes later he collapsed into a heap, knocking poor Sister Maerdith to the floor when he fell on top of her. He woke a day and a half later, ravenous with hunger, but elated that he had accomplished what he'd set out to achieve. It was a hopeful sign of things to come.
His celebration was short-lived though, as he had to endure a seven-hour lecture on pacing himself from the Oghmite priestess. Ruthart, it was later noted, demonstrated his intelligence by leaving the cave in order to replenish their supplies before the priestess had built up any significant steam.
All in all, Keiichi was anxious and pleased with the way things were progressing. Sure, the cave could use a bit more work, his skin was still a bright purplish-blue, and he intermittently belched out bright, randomly colored clouds of smoke that smelled like blueberries from time to time, but for the first time since arriving in this strange and fantastic place he felt hopeful that things were going to turn out okay. Now all he had to do was find a way to help Duncan, find the other two people from Earth, and somehow become a god so that he could go home to Belldandy. Piece of cake.
Mystra's path through Ranma's soul was much harsher than it had been when she and Shar had entered it the last time. There were no locks and chains to bind his pride and insecurities. There was nothing to hold back his fears or the wounds inflicted upon him by the carelessness of his family and acquaintances. Every emotion was raw and every experience fresh. Couple with that the ties he'd made to Toril, and Mystra had a great deal of obstacles to overcome in getting to Ranma's core. The path was long and arduous, and her battle with his Ego had been a close thing. But she had won through, and rather than heal the wounds she'd taken, she left their mark upon her so that he could see her dedication to him first-hand.
When she passed through the final portal and came to the center of his Palace, she was surprised at what she found. For there, sitting on a throne of ivory and jade, sat a child of no more than four or five summers, whose body was as bruised and broken as her own. He was but a babe before her womanhood, and yet she felt her love for him grow all the same. Age had no bearing in this meeting of souls. She knelt and opened her arms to him and, to her wonder and relief, Ranma ran into her comforting embrace. She asked nothing from him, choosing instead to give. Rather than inflicting wounds for his theft from her, she kissed his bruises and healed the lesions in his soul.
When his spirit-body was healed, she reached into her breast and pulled forth the memories and shards of his soul that had been left to her. She gathered the scattered remains his consciousness, piece by piece, and returned them to him. There was nothing she could do about the experiences he'd gathered, but hopefully the memories of his past would anchor him enough to adjust.
With each small gem of memory and crystal of personality that she returned to him, the child's body grew, reclaiming the appearance of the young man that "Ranma Saotome" had been.
He asked her why she had done this thing, but she did not answer. Instead, she kissed him as one lover would another, and smiled an enigmatic smile that quickened the heart. She made love to him, allowing the silver fire of her essence heal the few scratches and cuts that remained on him, while healing her own wounds. Their bliss was mutual, and a sense of wholeness overcame them both with their joining. The Weave surged in places all throughout Toril at their climax and new wonders came into being at their moment of joy. The majesty of the event left Mystra feeling strangely complete for the first time since her conception. Time, such as it was, passed all too quickly for them both.
Then, taking him by the hand, she walked with him through his Palace, showing him the width and breadth of Creation in each room that they passed through. Some doors were barred and locked as they passed into the next, others were simply closed against the day they needed to be opened, while still others remained open and accessible to him. By the time they returned to the throne room, Ranma had found a measure of peace again. Voices still whispered in the night, but he no longer feared them. It was amidst these whispers and pleadings that she turned to him, with concern in her eyes and worry in her spirit.
"What is it?" he asked.
"You are being summoned." She held out her hand to him and motioned to a new door that appeared opposite the throne. He started towards the door, but Mystra pulled up short. "You must make this journey without me."
He nodded, and squeezed her hand before starting towards the door alone. She watched as he opened it, revealing an expanse of blackness so complete that it seemed to absorb the light from the room they were in. With one last cocky smile tossed in her direction, he stepped into the darkness and disappeared.
The Everlund Road
Tradesburrow came and went. Their business with the Magistrate was short and sweet, and Usagi found that she rather liked the grizzled old ranger, Hap Roue. He was a stern-faced, round-bellied, no-nonsense man, who had treated her just like everyone else. She could have kissed him for his kindness, but refrained… Well, mostly. Kissing his cheek for endorsing the estate papers didn't seem like such a breach of etiquette. They left the Magistrate's office amidst a storm of goodnatured blustering and grumpy blushing, and were on the road soon afterwards. She had even gotten her own neat little seal! How cool was that?
Feldrin Avenry, a bright-eyed and exuberant redhead of obvious half-elven descent, joined the small company of travelers for the trek north. She reminded Usagi of a mix between Minako and Haruka — giddy and mischievous, with a healthy competitive streak. She wasn't shy, and having been raised by and around the Rangers of Tradesburrow, had very little in the way of feminine modesty or restraint.
Of the half-elf, there wasn't much to know. With her it was easily "what you see is what you get", and she explained her reasons for joining Usagi's caravan without shame or tears. Feldrin's father had been a burly bear of a man, who had fallen in love with a Moon Elf woman. She had lived long enough to have Feldrin, but the rigors of childbirth shattered her health. Feldrin's father cared for her until the day she died, and then leaving his new daughter in the care of neighbors, took his wife's body back to the Moonwood and never returned. Some thought he'd died of grief along the journey. Others thought he fell to giants in the Everlund Pass. Feldrin admitted she had no clue either way, but she was intent to find out. Usagi loved her, if for no other reason than she rattled Ulin's cage so very easily.
The company was fairly small, at Usagi's insistence. Viet and Shandri became her footman and handmaiden. Shandri's mother and sister begged to join the trip, the latter for the excitement and the former to keep a sharp eye on her daughter's budding romance. Heb had quietly shadowed Usagi's company for a day, until Usagi caught sight of him and had Viet collect him. He joined Stedd Greycastle and Taeghen Amalith in guard duty and driving the coach. Ulin was present, of course, grilling Usagi on magic as they had for the first half of their journey, but added to her studies was a healthy dose of reading, politics, and statecraft.
And keeping well out of sight of everyone in the township of Tradesburrow were the Loras. She had only seen a few glimpses of the silver-furred creatures, but she felt their protective presence hovering near, just out of sight. In an effort to avoid any misunderstandings, Usagi made certain to mention the odd creatures to Hap Roue, in order to ensure that no one started hunting the Loras. The last thing she wanted was a conflict between the good people of Tradesburrow and a group she felt responsible for. Roue sent out runners along their path to warn the homesteaders and woodsmen of Usagi's unusual friends, giving word that they were to be given free passage through the territory. And with that, the company was on its way to Everlund and from there, on to Silverymoon itself.
Three days out from Tradesburrow, the coach was forced to stop because one of the horses tossed a shoe. They'd already eaten lunch, and if Stedd was good to his word, they would make Everlund by nightfall. That left Usagi with nothing to do for the moment; she was more than willing to pause in her studies and take a stretch, but the road was already getting long and monotonous.
"What I wouldn't give for the Shinkansen," she grumbled.
She looked around the milling group of people and tried not to yawn. When she saw Ulin coming out from behind the coach, she immediately recognized the intense look on the Genasi's face. That look always meant trouble, inspired by Feldrin no doubt. Usagi tried to pretend to ignore her mentor, without much success.
Oh, dear sweet Heaven! If Ulin was using that tone of voice, this was likely to be an uncomfortable encounter.
"Yes, Ulin?" Be sweet. If she thought happy things, maybe this wouldn't turn out to be so bad.
"Master Greycastle found a split in one of the coach's wheels. It seems that we will be spending the night here."
"Since we have more time on our hands, we should make the most of it and move onto our practical sessions."
"With that in mind, I consulted with Miss Shandri and she suggested that we familiarize ourselves with our new magic."
Sure she did, Usagi inwardly groaned. You're just wanting to blow off some steam. Showing off a little for Feldrin doesn't hurt either.
Usagi fixed a strained smile on her face and nodded. "That sounds like a wonderful idea."
"I have found a suitable place nearby where we will be able to practice without damaging the area."
Usagi nodded with a sigh and followed the woman away from where everyone was setting up camp. Shandri must have been desperate to escape from her mother's watchful eye, to willingly endure the grueling reality of Ulin's lessons. Usagi felt like a woman going to prison and had there been an acceptable alternative, she would have taken it.
"Where you off to, Lady Serenity?"
Usagi grinned at Ulin's noticeable cringe. "Magic practice." An evil thought occurred to her then. "You want to come watch?"
If she had to suffer, then why not spread the love? After all, Ulin needed some payback for all the crap she was putting Usagi through. The sorceress looked down at her pupil with an expression of intense distaste.
Feldrin yawned and shrugged, obviously feigning boredom in order to hide her interest. "Sure. I don't have anything better to do right now."
"My Lady," Ulin growled. "I don't think that this is such a good idea."
"Oh, don't be silly! I'm sure that Feldrin will stay out of the way, won't you, Feldrin?"
The ranger waved and nodded inattentively. "Sure, sure. I won't be a nuisance."
Usagi heard Ulin mumble something incoherent under her breath before turning back to the small game trail that lead into the woods. Usagi winked at Feldrin mischievously, soliciting a quiet giggle from Shandri. The ranger grinned and wrapped her arm around Usagi's shoulder.
"You're my kind of girl, Lady Serenity." She returned Usagi's wink and poked Shandri in the ribs with a finger. The girl giggled again.
"Please, call me Usagi-chan. Both of you."
"But that wouldn't be proper!" Shandri gasped. "You're a lady!"
Usagi gritted her teeth and shook her head. "I didn't ask to be a lady. And if I could get out of being a lady, I would in a heartbeat." Usagi wrinkled her nose in distaste, earning a belly laugh from Feldrin. "Now please, call me Usagi-chan. All my friends do."
Shandri looked aghast at the very idea, but Feldrin wrapped her arm around the young girl's shoulders and pulled her close. "She shouldn't have to be a lady all the time, should she?"
Shandri looked up at Usagi ponderously, weighing the merits of being so informal with the woman she was supposed to be serving. "Well, I guess not."
"There you go, then. In private, you can treat her like a real person, and when you're in public you can go back to treating her like a stuck-up snob." Feldrin grinned and squeezed Usagi close, only to have the young woman stick out her tongue in retribution.
Ulin reappeared at the head of the trail with her arms crossed and a frown firmly in place. "Are we going to practice, or are you going to jabber like a flock of geese all day?"
"Oh, go on, greenie! Don't get your shift in a bunch!" Feldrin winked at Shandri again, who was trying her best not to giggle.
"We're coming, Ulin. We're coming." Usagi gracefully slipped free of the ranger's arm and moved up to hook her arm around the Genasi's, tugging the sorceress away from the potential conflict.
"She really is a dragon lady, isn't she?" Feldrin's voice drifted up to Usagi's ears.
She felt Ulin tense slightly and then slowly relax. Usagi rubbed the jade-skinned woman's arm and smiled up at her comfortingly. Her efforts were rewarded with a small smile from the beautiful woman.
"She's not so bad, really." Usagi was forced to let go of Ulin's arm as the trail narrowed.
"I know. She's a bit more flippant than I'd care for, a trait common to her mother's kind." Ulin held up a branch for her friend to pass under. "I have nothing against elves; in fact, I have many elvish friends. Feldrin is like a number of people I have come across in my travels. I know not of her prejudice against me, nor do I care, really. Her constant needling is tiresome, though."
"Do you want me to speak with her?" Usagi asked.
"No. There is no need. We will come to an understanding sooner or later."
"Hopefully sooner than later," Usagi noted with a smile. Ulin nodded but said nothing else on the subject.
They walked for approximately five more minutes before the trail dipped, and then after another rise, descended into a large bend in a creekbed. Past flooding of the area had stripped and widened the channel to be approximately fifty yards wide and over thirty feet long. It wasn't what Usagi would call an ideal training spot, but there certainly wasn't much outside of mud and sand to get in the way. The sorceress waited until Shandri and Feldrin appeared before asking Usagi to instruct them. Usagi blinked, somewhat shocked that the more experienced woman was deferring to her. The ranger found a nice exposed tree root to lounge on and waited for the "lesson" to begin.
"I'm not sure where to begin." Usagi looked around nervously for a spot to settle.
"Can you explain the basis of the magic?" Ulin asked.
"Well, where I'm from, the Senshi were tied to other planetary bodies in our solar system."
"Planetary bodies? Solar system?" Shandri looked extremely lost already. Usagi sighed and looked around for some sort of visual aid to work with. She found a nice stick and a number of stones, and then proceeded to draw an extremely large, smiling sun in the sand.
"Okay. Astronomy 101. Let's see if I can do Haruna-san and Ami-chan proud. This is the sun." She pointed skyward and then back at her drawing. "It is the greatest source of light and heat for the world. It is the center of the solar system."
Usagi started dropping stones around the sun at varying intervals and drawing large looping circles around the sun to demonstrate their orbital paths.
"Um… the sun also produces gravity by spinning in place, and…"
"What's gravity?" Feldrin asked. The ranger was notably intrigued.
"The, um, invisible force that keeps your feet on the ground." The ranger looked at her quizzically but nodded. "Now, pretend that these stones are planets, or worlds like Toril. Each one of them orbits around the sun. The number of planets and other stuff orbiting around a given sun is called a solar system. Understand?"
The group nodded.
"Now, where I'm from, each of the Senshi represented and drew their power from a planet." She pointed to each stone and began naming them. "Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune, Uranus, and Pluto."
"Why planets?" Ulin asked.
"I'm not sure. I can't really remember the reason why, but eventually the planets were populated and the Senshi were given the responsibility to govern over them."
"You mean there is life on other worlds?" Feldrin asked with a mocking grin.
"Sure. I mean, it's pretty conceited to think that you're the only life in the universe, don't you think?"
Ulin also took the opportunity take a jab at the ranger. "There are more worlds beyond your little woods, dear Feldrin, than there are leaves in all the trees on the face of Toril."
"And I suppose you've seen them, then?" The ranger pressed.
"More than a few," Ulin said smugly.
"Well, then. That makes one feel mighty insignificant, doesn't it?"
Shandri nodded, wide-eyed. The expression caused Usagi to break out into a fit of laughter that the others joined in on. When the laughter had ended, Ulin rose to her feet and paced around the diagram Usagi had built.
"So, this magic is based on these planets you are showing us, then?" Ulin asked.
"No. I mean, I'm not certain, but I don't think so. First of all, we're not in the same solar system as these planets. So I'm guessing that you will be tied to planets that orbit your sun. Do you guys know what the names of some of these might be?"
Shandri immediately shook her head, but it was Ulin who finally answered. "There are the Dawn Heralds, Anadia and Coliar," She looked to the sky thoughtfully. "The Tears of Selune, and the Five Wanderers: Karpri, Chandos, Glyth, Garden, and H'Catha."
"You mean to say that the stars in the sky are these planets of which you speak?" Feldrin barked a laugh. "There are millions upon millions in the night sky!"
"Not all of those are planets, silly. Most of them are suns!"
Feldrin's laughter died beneath the serious tone in Usagi's voice. "But that would mean that…."
"Yes. There are lots and lots of planets out there," Usagi said.
"As enlightening as this all is, it does not explain how these powers work." Ulin stepped back to her original place and used her magic to conjure a seat out of the sand. Shandri looked on in amazement. "Now, you mentioned something about the magic being tied to these planets?"
"Yeah. Ami-chan, one of the other Senshi, said that we drew our powers from the planets themselves. Something about wells and conduits. I don't know how it is all supposed to work, really. All I know is that the magic tended to follow elemental patterns."
Understanding dawned on Ulin's face and she nearly lost control of her construct at the thought of how much power that had the potential of being. The Harpell in her immediately wanted to start studying the possibilities, while her more logical half made it a point to keep this information out of the hands of her kin. Who knew what chaos would ensue if her cousins ever got wind of a planet-sized magical battery?
"Mystra preserve us! Do you have any idea of what this power could do?"
"I haven't really thought about it, to be honest."
Ulin began mumbling about safeguards and burnout, and something about a Karsus… whatever that was. Usagi just shrugged and looked back to the other two.
"So, my L… Um, I mean Usagi-chan…." Shandri blushed. "How do we use this power?"
Usagi tapped her chin thoughtfully, trying to remember everything Luna had taught her about transforming what seemed like a lifetime ago. After a moment, she adopted what she hoped was a wise demeanor. It turned out looking like she was constipated and Feldrin told her so.
"With great power comes great responsibility. We only use our power to protect the weak from monsters and bad guys."
"That's not what I…."
"Who are the bad guys?" Shandri was cut off mid-thought by Feldrin's somewhat defensive question. "Monsters I can appreciate, but what makes a bad guy, bad?"
"People who like to destroy things is generally a good sign that they're bad."
"Gotcha. People clearing forests to put up homes are bad," Feldrin nodded.
"No! That's not what I meant."
"But they're destroying the forest. Isn't that bad?" Feldrin asked seriously.
"There's more to it than that…" Usagi thought more about the question before answering. Ulin had presented her with a similar question a day or so back. "I think a better way of judging who the bad guys are, is to look at their intent. If it's morally wrong, like hurting people for personal gain, then it's bad."
That sounded much better.
"So in order to use this power, you have to be morally correct?" Feldrin asked. "Like a following a paladin's code or religious tenant?"
"No. The power can be abused." Usagi looked a bit troubled, as if seeing something for the first time and not being able to come to terms with it. "But Shandri asked how it should be used, so I'm laying down the guidelines on how I hope she and Ulin will use this power. It was meant to serve and protect, not for personal gain. If one of you used it to hurt innocents, I would try and find a way to take it back."
Feldrin's eyes narrowed, thoughtfully regarding the young woman before her. Ulin nodded in agreement. Shandri just looked confused.
"Now, in order to actually call on the power…" Usagi paused and squinted her eyes stoically.
"Yes?" squeaked Shandri. Ulin leaned forward and Feldrin twisted on her branch, waiting for the great secret to be revealed.
"I have absolutely no idea."
Feldrin toppled off of her log and Ulin's sand chair collapsed under her completely. Shandri blinked and stared, uncertain if she had heard that correctly. Feldrin began laughing uproariously, while Ulin looked as if she had bit into a sour persimmon.
"What do you mean you have no idea?" Ulin demanded.
"Well, it's tough to explain!" Usagi countered.
"Well, try! How do you expect us to use this magic if we don't know how?" Ulin growled. "What happens if Shandri needs to protect herself, or you for that matter?!"
Not for the first time since arriving on Toril, Usagi had a flashback to happier times. Visions of Rei blasting her with her fiery tongue made her eyes well up with tears and another wave of homesickness swept over her. Ulin looked uncertain and unsure of herself. It hadn't been the first time Usagi had gone weepy on her, but it did seem a bit more serious. She wasted no time in gathering Usagi into a comforting embrace. "I'm sorry, dear heart."
"No. You're fine. This just reminded me of my home." She smiled up into the woman's exotic face. "My friend Rei would have been screaming at me to grow up right about now, or at the very least to get serious."
"Sounds pretty mean," Feldrin pointed out.
Usagi shook her head. "Not really. She just had no patience. Her element was fire, so it fits that she would be exploding all the time." Shandri giggled. "Besides, I know she only wanted the best for me and she was usually right. I needed to grow up."
She sighed and stepped from Ulin's embrace. "Like I said before, I really don't have a clue how you will access your power. Luna only told me to look deep in my heart and say the first thing that came to mind. That is the best advice I can give you."
A silvery glow began to pulse at the center of her chest until her broach seemed to melt through the bodice of her dress. The light bathed everyone in the creek bed in the rays of a miniature moon as Usagi held her hands aloft. "MOON ETERNAL POWER, MAKE UP!"
The transformation inundated the area in waves upon waves of raw power. Light spilled forth from Usagi, masking her suddenly nude figure. Feldrin was glad that she had fallen from her perch, for if she hadn't, she knew that this shock would have made her earlier tumble a lot more painful. Shandri, having seen the end result, simply sat in awe as the magic formed the bodice, skirt, and gloves of Sailor Moon's uniform. Ulin felt the whole thing was not only a waste of magic, but highly impractical. What enemy in their right mind would wait for the transformation to end before attacking? She needed to study this magic closer and find a way to manipulate it better.
Once the transformation ended, Sailor Moon stood in all her power and glory. Shandri applauded, Feldrin whistled, and Ulin frowned thoughtfully. The Genasi stepped forward and closed her eyes in concentration for a moment, before raising her fist high above her head and calling out.
A broad pillar of amber light engulfed Ulin's body completely and then shot heavenward, causing the ground beneath everyone else's feet to rumble and quake ominously. The column thinned after an instant, revealing the armored figure of Anadia, first of Toril's Senshi. The silver armor was still thin and flexible, with etched runes and gems decorating the amber trim. There were no bows and no frills whatsoever, although there was a veil and an odd circlet that encircled her head. Likewise, she wore amber bracers that Usagi hadn't noted the last time Ulin had transformed. All in all, the outfit was very practical in its defenses, without taking away from Ulin's exotic beauty.
"The power… it's incredible!" She made a fist and looked to Sailor Moon in awe. "I feel like I could do just about anything."
"That's what it felt like for me the first time I changed, too," Sailor Moon said with a grin. She saw Shandri jump to her feet excitedly.
"Can I try now, Usagi-chan?"
Usagi barely got her nod out before the young woman's face scrunched up in concentration.
An odd sigil etched itself on her forehead, and then a spiral of gray clouds rose from the ground obscuring her body from view. A crack of thunder pierced the air almost knocking everyone flat. Feldrin's eyes were wide and excited, and it was impossible not to see the longing she obviously felt.
Coliar had the same type of armor that Anadia wore, but the runes were very different and the gems tended to be blue sapphires and turquoise. Her metal skirt was banded in something akin to lapis lazuli, and where Anadia wore open-toed sandals, Coliar had a pair of slippers. The wild grin on the girl's face was contagious and the smell of rain hung heavily about her.
"Oh, Silvanus! What I wouldn't give to join you girls."
Usagi's eyes widened as the heartfelt wish was spoken, and she felt the familiar tug at her breast as the Ginzuishou flared to life.
"DANG IT! NOT AGAIN!"
Deep beneath the vale, Old Snarl, the Dragon of the North, chuckled at the sight of yet another Senshi joining the Court of the Silver Princess. Klauth's chuckle grew to full blown draconic laughter at the look of dread and surprise on the young woman's face. He had been watching her exploits carefully since her appearance. After all, it was pretty much the only thing the wounded dragon could do while he healed from his near-death experience. That, and ponder the majestic event he'd experienced at the hands of the Silver Princess.
He, like those refugees from Goruch's mines, had been touched by this pure young woman… touched and changed irrevocably. To think that this marauding monster, which had razed whole cities and devoured the unborn children of his kin, could know the touch of love and forgiveness? It was astonishing, to say the least. So he had taken to watching this young woman who had pierced his blackened and shriveled heart with her purity. Day and night, he studied her from the confines of his lair, and with each passing moment he fell more and more in love with her. He memorized her every nuance, from the sultry pout of her lips to the glistening sway of her silvery hair. Lust was not something a normal dragon understood all that well. Coveting, however, was an emotion that this dragon was very intimate with.
Klauth was different from his kin, though, in that he had studied humanity in all its forms and understood their habits very well. Thus he knew that coveting such a gem as the Silver Princess was nothing short of self-inflicted torture. In order to truly win her love and affection, Klauth had to become something he was not: virtuous. He had seen that when she faced off against the Lord of the Dead himself.
Yet, what knew he of virtue? Was it not a weakness? Was it not a folly of men to be exploited? It was madness that one such as he could be so moved by a woman like Serenity. He disliked the name Usagi. It did nothing to promote the true woman he had known in that brief instant before his spirit looked into the afterlife and saw hell. He saw his goddess Tiamat, her great devouring maw awaiting his spirit's coming with great anticipation. He knew that she would consume him, adding the power and majesty he had built in this life to her own greatness. Before knowing the sweetness of Serenity's touch, Klauth would have gone to his death gladly, but now he was afraid to meet his end. He was terrified that he would never again know the sweetness of peace and love that the Silver Princess represented. Was this what Bahamut offered his children?
In spite of his conflicting emotions, Old Snarl yearned for the day when he could win the love of this woman. It was all he lived for. If she would but share his heart, everything that he had would be hers.
Klauth sighed and shifted his great bulk tenderly. Over half of his body was not healing as fast as it should have, but it worried him not. His full attention was fixed on the life playing out before him, and wondering how he might drink again from that bottomless well of love.
Keiichi sat on an outcropping of rock overlooking a tidepool. Skuld's tome sat on a box, neatly wrapped in a bolt of wispy blue-gray silk. In his lap lay an almost finished letter to Belldandy and her sisters, describing his adventures so far. He wasn't sure, but he suspected that they probably knew everything that was going on in his life right now. It was a fulsome thought that three goddesses would take time out of whatever it was that deities did to watch over him. But it was a notion that offered him some semblance of comfort all the same, comfort that he sorely needed.
The stress associated with this daunting quest was starting to weigh on him more and more; especially in light of all the new changes he'd found himself going through. He was still a bright blue, but only in a few places. He'd discovered that carrots helped tone his skin color down greatly. In the nine days since the event in the grove, Sister Maerdith had taken to cataloguing the changes and jotting notes down about her ideas and conclusions. He'd surprised her and himself one evening by pointing out an error in her recounting of his experience in the grove. The correction in and of itself wasn't so noteworthy; the fact that her notes were being written in an obscure elven dialect was what got everyone's attention. After that incident, the Oghmite priestess returned to her library and returned with a number of books and scrolls to test Keiichi's ability to read.
Not only had Keiichi been able to read them, but he had perfect recall of everything he'd read. It wasn't so bad, although the rather lewd elven ballad written by Feherenthol Erfenvhol didn't sit well with him. Crass humor had never been something that he preferred to begin with, and now that he couldn't seem to forget the thing. Having a photographic memory was turning out to be a double-edged blessing. Sister Maerdith was giddy to the point of excess when her theory tested true, and had begged him to set aside a few hours a day to translate some rather archaic tomes that were lying around the abbey. He'd agreed, of course. It was the least he could do to repay their kindness to him, after all.
Still, the fact that he was ready and willing to help put a spring into old Father Ellosin's steps, and rumor had it that the head of the Abbey had sent out a number of communiqués to other libraries and monasteries, inviting them to join the fun. Bertrold had stepped in as Keiichi's official agent at that point, and made certain that the young man would receive his just due for translating services. Keiichi didn't care so much about the money, but Bertrold pointed out that money put food on the table, a roof over your head, and bought materials for the workshop. The first didn't seem quite so important now, but then again, he hadn't tested the limits of his stomach yet, so there was no way to be truly certain if he was truly free of the need for food or not.
Bertrold had made it a point to begin the process of buying the land that the cave was on at Sam's insistence, in order to avoid any legal issues later on. It was better to err on the side of caution, after all, and it was definitely less time-consuming to buy supplies rather than make them yourself. So in the interest of making things easier for himself, he allowed Bertrold to negotiate a standard fee for his services. The whole affair cut into his worktime, but the Festival was still a ways off, so Keiichi wasn't too concerned.
The young man sighed and looked back at the letter in his lap. The epistle itself was another miracle unfolding before his very eyes. Skuld's tome had a rudimentary breakdown of Celestial grammar, which Keiichi had picked up fairly quickly in spite of his earlier linguistic struggles under Sister Maerdith's tutelage. He knew that there was probably more to the language that Skuld's book hadn't expounded on, but it was enough to help him say what needed to be said — and it was nice to be able to write in Belldandy's native tongue, even if he sounded like a little kid. Hopefully Urd wouldn't laugh at his penmanship too much. Celestial Runes made traditional Chinese and kanji look like chicken scratches.
Noting the position of the sun, Keiichi suspected that Skuld would be arriving sometime soon to collect her tome. That meant that he needed to hurry to finish the letter. He wasn't sure if she would be coming herself, or if she would just recall the book to her. Either way, he didn't want to miss her. He bent back over the page and began writing again, requesting that Belldandy look after Megumi and hopefully deflect some of the problems that his absence was no doubt causing. He was almost finished when a shadow fell over his page.
"Greetings to you, young Master Morisato." The voice of Haroun Mostana was every bit as smooth and oily as his neatly trimmed beard. It left Keiichi feeling unclean. When he looked up at the priest, it was obvious that the gnome was trying hard not to stare at Keiichi's skin color and lack of hair. The jerk.
"Good afternoon, Mister Mostana."
"Artificer Mostana, if you please," the gnome corrected.
Mostana again wore the official saffron-colored robes of his office, decorated with gold cogs and silver gears along the hem and sleeves. His soft slippers seemed incongruous with the footwear that most worshippers of Gond preferred, and Keiichi noted from the way the gnome shifted uncomfortably that the trip along the beach had been rather taxing for the fastidious priest. His four gnomish companions seemed less put out by the environment, but the trip must have been quite distasteful.
"What can I do for you, Artificer?" Keiichi smiled politely. "Would you care for some tea?" He pointed to a large thermos, yet another successful albeit simple invention he had brought to the people of Faerun. Haroun's polite mask slipped for an instant, but slid back into place almost immediately.
"No, thank you. I've come on official business, I'm afraid." Haroun's companions shifted slightly, positioning themselves in a semicircle that blocked Keiichi's path back to the cave. It seemed innocent enough, but Keiichi's guard went up all the same.
"Oh? What business would that be?" Keiichi leaned back, casually putting his hand over a loose stone, just in case things weren't so aboveboard.
"I've come at the request of High Builder Maverly to ensure that you were properly informed of the etiquette and tradition surrounding the Festival of Creation."
"Thanks for the concern, really, but the Steelwater family has already brought me up to speed on that." Keiichi smiled.
"Truly? Well, I am glad to hear that Builder Steelwater is taking this matter seriously."
"He takes his religion seriously." Keiichi set his lapdesk aside and set a stone on his letter to keep it from blowing away. "I admire his faith and dedication."
"He is a dwarf, Master Morisato. Their lives are not lived by half measures." Keiichi's smile disappeared as Haroun settled himself on a rock nearby. The gnome picked up the thermos and opened the lid, sniffing the tea inside. "Yulith tea. One of my favorites. Very soothing."
"It's growing on me."
"I think that I will take you up on that offer of tea. Would you mind?" He motioned to the thermos cup. Keiichi nodded. Haroun poured himself a small cup and breathed in the vapors before he sipped. "This is a remarkable achievement. Such a simplistic design, yet very straightforward in its practicality."
Keiichi took the compliment, rather than offending the gnome before him.
"I should think that this is a reflection of the character of the creator, am I correct in my assumption?"
"Sure. My teachers always taught that we should keep things simple. The more complex the solution to a problem, the more troubles you're likely to encounter later on."
"Well said. Well said." Haroun sipped his tea thoughtfully, staring out at the sea. "I will be frank with you, Master Morisato. Rather than continue this infantile conflict with Builder Steelwater and yourself, I am willing to retract my grievance if you would simply acknowledge the source of your inspiration."
Keiichi frowned. "And how do you propose that I do that?"
"Nebelun, or Gond as you humans call him, has truly blessed you, Master Morisato. He is the Wonderbringer, and you have become something of a wonder among the Lantanese. Your designs have inspired a lot of talk and innovation among the inventors and clergy alike. My question to you is this: have you thought of repaying Nebelun's infinite generosity by putting your intellect and talent to service for his causes?"
Keiichi shifted nervously. Mostana had backed him into a corner and there was no way to avoid a confrontation. "With all due respect to you and your beliefs, Artificer, my inspiration doesn't come from Nebelun or Gond. My inspiration comes from love."
"Ah, but Gond is love, Master Morisato. The love of innovation, the love of exploration, the love of creation."
Keiichi shook his head. "You miss my point, Artificer. I don't create or invent for the love of inventing. I'm inventing and creating in order to return to my home and the ones I love. Belldandy is my inspiration. She is the reason I create."
"I have heard stories of this… Belldandy, from others in town. She is your goddess?"
Keiichi nodded. In the strictest sense it wasn't true; he didn't formally worship Belldandy as the Gondar worshipped Gond, but she had devoted herself to him and he to her. In the end, he felt Haroun didn't need an explanation of how things really were. Mostana seemed thoughtful for a moment before slapping his knee.
"Well, that is too bad really. I would have enjoyed introducing you to the wonders of Gond." His dark, beady eyes seemed to glisten like obsidian as he looked at Keiichi. "Still, I cannot come between a man and his religion. Perhaps then I should restate my offer to you with new conditions. After all, I've really no desire to pursue this frivolous litigation against Builder Steelwater any more than you do."
"And what would those conditions be, Artificer?" Keiichi was glad that the gnome wasn't trying to convert him any longer, but at the same time there was an unhealthy gleam in Mostana's eyes that didn't sit well.
"A single condition, really. Nothing so terrible when you sit down and weigh the benefits. If you were to break with Bendlebranch and sign on with me as your patron, I would happily retract my suit and leave Builder Steelwater and his wife to live free and unmolested."
Keiichi frowned at the unspoken implications in the gnome's words. Mostana shifted forward abruptly. "Think on it! My contacts are vast. With the church backing you, you would have the official sanction of Gond and all the influence it brings. Between your inventions and my network, the riches to be had go beyond mere wealth! With the money you made, you could hire a dozen mages to work on your problem and be home in no time at all."
The more Mostana spoke, the more ill Keiichi felt. The gnome was a vile poison wrapped in the trappings of holiness! And the most terrible thing of all was that Keiichi was actually tempted for a moment to say yes! It would be so much easier to follow this path, instead of floundering around blindly as he had been. Mostana was certainly the type of person that had friends in high places, which would definitely open a number of doors for Keiichi that would otherwise remain closed. All he would have to do is betray the kindness and love of the people that had sacrificed so much for him. Logically, it was the best chance, but morally it was criminal. Belldandy had always told him to follow his heart, and his heart hated the price associated with Haroun Mostana's charity.
Despite his feelings for the Gondar priest, and his offer, Keiichi was Japanese. His rejection was polite yet firm.
"Your offer has a great deal of merit, Artificer Mostana. However, I am afraid that I cannot accept your terms." Keiichi looked skyward and smiled. "Belldandy would be sadly disappointed in me if I repaid the kindness Master Bendlebranch has offered me with such disloyalty. I am sorry, but I must decline your offer."
Haroun Mostana's face became very stony and he frowned as he looked to his companions. "Is that your final word on the subject? Do you not want to take some time to think about what you are passing up?"
"I thank you for the offer, but there is no need to think it over. Wealth and fame are nice, but all the gold in the world cannot buy a true friend."
"I am sorry to hear that, Master Morisato. I was certain that you were a man of opportunity. I am afraid that this is a one-time offer and when I leave, it leaves with me. Will you not reconsider?" Mostana set the thermos cap aside, then stood and brushed off his robes self-importantly. He motioned to his companions and Keiichi had to fight down the sudden welling of fear in his gut.
"No, sir. I am a man of integrity." Keiichi felt his heart leap in his throat as the words slipped free. He wanted to slap his hands over his mouth for letting that thought escape. He'd never had the spirit to insult someone like that before, and now he was certain that he was going to get beat up over it.
When the Gondar turned around again, his face was schooled and surprisingly smug. It was obvious that Keiichi had just drawn the battlelines, something he had hoped to avoid completely.
"Before I take my leave of you and your integrity," The word twisted nastily off Mostana's tongue, "might I inquire if Builder Steelwater informed you of the registration procedures?"
Keiichi frowned thoughtfully, trying to suppress his nerves. "Well, his wife said that all Gondar wishing to display their entries for judging had to register, and I did see him working on the registration forms…." Keiichi could easily see where this was going, and knew that the other shoe was about to drop.
"Then you were informed that you were required to submit your own registration form as well?"
"No. I was not so informed."
"Oh, that is too bad." Haroun's smile took on a triumphant gleam as he shook his head in mock sadness.
"When is the deadline for registration?" Here came the shoe.
"Sadly, the deadline was this morning." Keiichi's heritage came into play, as a life of social etiquette and cultural politeness kept him from jumping up and screaming at the gnome. "However, I'm sure that there are a few strings that I can pull on your behalf. For a favor or two."
Keiichi's anger was truly testing the bonds he'd set on them as he looked up at the gnome. The Gondar priest just insisted on dragging this confrontation out. Keiichi silently raged inside as he looked for a way to avoid falling into Mostana's debt. Keiichi smiled as a thought hit him.
"Didn't you say earlier that High Builder Maverly gave you the responsibility to see that I was informed of the proper etiquette and tradition of the festival?"
"Yes. I did."
Keiichi's smile broadened. "Then perhaps you can answer a question for me about the competition associated with the Festival of Creation." Mostana nodded, folding his arms. "Has the registration process always been a part of the festival, or is it a recent tradition?"
Mostana's frown looked to be a permanent fixture of his stony face now. "It was instituted by the Wonderbringer when he came to us during the Time of Troubles, so that there might be a proper record made, and preserve the ideas presented in the celebration."
"So, as a participant it is required to register in a timely manner? It would be bad etiquette to register late?"
Mostana nodded gruffly.
"Then I'd better get busy and write an apology letter to High Builder Maverly. If I explain the situation, maybe there is a way that I can register late. Don't worry, I'll let him know that you were really busy and couldn't get me the information in time to register."
"Why didn't Builder Steelwater inform you? Didn't you say that he had brought you, how did you put it—? 'Up to speed' on things?"
"Well, poor Duncan has a lot on his plate right now. Besides, I'm certain that he would have told me had the High Builder asked him." Keiichi was starting to feel invigorated by this whole verbal sparing thing. Megumi would have been so proud of him!
Mostana snorted, then without further comment, turned on his heel and stormed off down the path back to town, leaving Keiichi and the priest's companions staring at one another lamely. He shrugged and smiled at their scowls as, one by one, they filed off down the path.
When he was certain that they were gone, he sighed. There was little doubt that Mostana was going to cause more trouble because of this rejection. Keiichi made a mental note to tell Duncan about this as soon as possible, then turned back to his letter. The lapdesk was there, but the letter and Skuld's Tome were missing! He frantically searched the area for them, dreading what Skuld was going to do to him when she came for the book.
A cloud of thick purple smoke rose a few feet in front of Keiichi, knocking him to the ground. He blinked and coughed, trying to clear the offending stench and vapor from his face, when he noted that one of Haroun's companions seemed to have appeared out of thin air.
His skin was decidedly plaid, except for his face which was a dark purple hue, bordering on black. The word "THEIF" had been tattooed in large scarlet letters across the gnome's forehead. There was a crazed look in the poor fellow's eyes as he stared into space at nothing in particular. Still clutched under one arm and secured by the gnome's hands was Skuld's tome. It was vibrating wildly, so much so that the larcenous gnome's whole body was bouncing on the ground.
"What the heck is going on!?" Keiichi demanded.
Looking at the gnome, it was all too apparent that he was in shock. Having been on the receiving end of Skuld's ire, Keiichi could empathize. Served the idiot right, though. Everyone knew that they shouldn't steal. It was bad karma. Keiichi rolled his eyes and retrieved the tome, sliding his still unfinished letter from between the pages. It was a bit crispy around the edges, but otherwise intact. He slid it back into the book and dusted a bit of soot from the cover.
"I STOLE HER BOOK!" The gnome screamed, causing Keiichi to jump. "I'M A DIRTY ROTTEN THEIF!"
You are so gonna get it, Keiichi thought darkly as he recovered the disheveled package of gifts he'd gotten for his friends and family from a small bag at the gnome's hip. How had the little man gotten past him unseen?
He opened his mouth to tell gnome to get lost, when the water in the tidepool began to glow in a very familiar way. Before he could warn the gnome off, Skuld, in the same body of a mature young woman as before, leapt free from the water, and floated over to Keiichi with her wicked looking warhammer slung over one shoulder. She was dressed in the same form-fitting armor and plated skirt from the grove, and was wreathed in angry red flames. The amount of power radiating off her was palpable and wild, and it was hard for Keiichi to remember the bratty little girl that brained him in the bath on her first visit to the shrine when faced with this incarnation of the goddess.
"KERDEN BLOWBUTTON!" The gnome screamed and tried, unsuccessfully, to bury himself under a rock. There was nowhere to run from Skuld's eyes though. "I AM ASHAMED OF YOU!"
She looked down at the cowering gnome, noting with special interest the items that Keiichi had taken from him. Her face darkened and the light on the outcrop seemed to dim with it.
"I STOLE YOUR BOOK!" Kerden screamed with tears in his eyes.
"YES, YOU DID." Skuld's face was stern, and even frightened Keiichi a little. He couldn't imagine what the poor gnome was going through. "IT'S NOT NICE TO STEAL FROM A GODDESS."
"I'M A DIRTY ROTTEN THEIF!" Kerden was weeping now.
"YES, YOU ARE." Skuld's flames intensified for a moment. "AND NO, GOND CANNOT SAVE YOU, YOU NASTY LITTLE ROGUE!"
Kerden moaned and curled into a little ball.
"WELL? WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO DO TO MAKE RESTITUTION?"
Kerden rolled to his knees and immediately began begging her forgiveness in the most pathetic manner possible. It was so pitifully disgusting that Keiichi had to look away. He turned to Skuld and smiled weakly, but she didn't seem to notice.
"Hi, Skuld-chan. Come for your book?" She nodded absently, not taking her eyes off of Kerden for an instant. "Well, thanks for lending it to me. It helped a lot."
She nodded again as he handed her the book.
"There's a letter in there for everyone. Just try not to laugh too hard at my grammar. Celestial is going to take forever to master."
"You tried writing in Celestial?"
Keiichi scratched the back of his neck and nodded. "Wow. I'm… Well, wow." Her face lit up with excitement. "Did you find the plans Hephaestus gave me?"
Keiichi nodded again and produced his data journal. It was large and clunky, but sturdy and well-made. Skuld seemed duly impressed. "I can't believe you managed to make it. I didn't think you'd be able to. It looks a bit crude, but sturdy. Great job! ."
"It was tough," Keiichi admitted with a blush. "But I had fun. It's already come in handy."
"Yeah. You had some great ideas that I wanted to study some more, so I hope you don't mind that I copied a few pages here and there."
"You didn't copy any of the private stuff, did you?" The air seemed to grow thick again as Skuld's eyes narrowed and electricity arced off her arms. Keiichi shook his head and waved his hands, causing the present in his hand to sway. Her curiosity peaked, the air around Keiichi returned to normal. "What's that?"
"I found a few things that I thought everyone back home might like." He scratched the back of his neck again. "You know, souvenirs."
"You got me a gift?" Skuld squealed and clapped. "What is it?"
Keiichi motioned for her to open the box and watched with open pleasure as she carefully undid the silk.
"The silk was to be for all of you. I know there's not a lot there, but I thought that Belldandy might be able to make everyone a handkerchief or something from it. Supposedly it's elven, and enchanted against fraying. Sorry about the soot." He glared at the still prostrating Kerden darkly. "I wasn't expecting it to be in an explosion."
"Don't worry about it. Big sister should be able to do something with it." Skuld was about to continue when she found a carefully wrapped present with her name on it. With one quick look up at Keiichi she began unwrapping the cheesecloth from the large gift. When it was finally revealed, she gasped.
"It's an extra special, extra large ice cream bowl. Well, not really. My friend's wife, Sam, said that it's a dwarven washbowl." Keiichi grinned and pointed out the little hammer and runic designs decorating the sides. "When I saw it though, I thought of you and couldn't pass it up. I figure you can take it to Thirty-One Flavors, next time you go, and get a scoop of each."
Skuld squealed again joyfully and hugged Keiichi. When she realized what she had done, she backed off immediately, blushing. "Thanks."
Skuld folded her arms gruffly and wrinkled her nose at Keiichi.
"You realize that I have to give you another boon for this, don't you?" Keiichi shrugged weakly and shook his head. "Well, I do. It's stretching the rules a bit, since you're not officially my petitioner, but I can't just ignore something like this. Mind you, this is it. From here on out, you're on your own. I won't be able to do this again, and the Head Office has forbidden any more interference in your Ascension, so from here on out you can't expect any thing else from back home."
Keiichi nodded in understanding, and Skuld began tapping her chin thoughtfully. Kerden had paused in his groveling momentarily to watch the interplay, but when he felt Skuld's eyes on him, he redoubled his efforts.
"The question is, what should I reward you with? Something small for the silk and something super useful for the bowl?"
She snapped her fingers absently and stuck her hand into the air. Kerden gasped, as half her arm seemed to be swallowed by nothing at all. She dug around for a moment, pushing her arm deeper and deeper into the air, causing it to disappear up to her shoulder before grinning triumphantly.
"Ah ha! Here we go. Something small…." She produced a small, iridescent pearl-colored egg. It glowed and shimmered softly, even in the full light of the sun, as Skuld gently placed it in Keiichi's palm. "It's very fragile, so be extra careful with it."
"What is it?" Keiichi asked in wonder. "Is it an angel's egg?"
He'd seen a demon's egg once which, when it had hatched, had nearly killed Sayoko. This looked similar, but felt different. Skuld snorted.
"Don't be silly! You have to have your qualification in order to have an angel!" She rolled her eyes. "No, this is something else. I can't say more than that, or it will get counted against you. Just be patient, exercise a little faith, and follow your heart — you'll know what to do when the time comes. Now then, time for something useful."
Keiichi nodded as Skuld pushed her arm back into the nothingness. This time around, she seemed to know exactly what she wanted though, and pulled her arm back right away. In her hand was something that looked like a tiny pink-and-gold cellular phone, no more than eight inches long, and maybe three inches wide.
"This is my notebook for Secondary and Pre-Qualification studies." She pulled out a long, thin cord and hooked it into a port on the spine of Keiichi's textbook-sized data journal. "It's got about ten times the processing capacity of my initial notebook, and a few bells and whistles that Old Heph's design didn't."
She clipped the device to her hip and summoned a holographic keyboard. When Keiichi raised an eyebrow and asked her about it she just smiled and murmured happily about how wonderful Auntie Washu's code was. She then peeked at the still praying Kerden out of the corner of her eye as she continued to type, and nodded at the fact that the gnome hadn't slowed down.
"Okay. Father said that I could give you all my extracurricular notes and whatnot, but anything that had to do with mainstream studies was strictly forbidden. If you Ascend, then you'll get the orientation packet and the Qualification study guide. Most of the major stuff is all legalities and regulations anyway, which is something that really won't help you here since Lord Ao's set everything up on a different system. I don't know how much of this will be allowed by the local system and what won't, and on top of that, there's no telling what you'll be able to understand. I'm a goddess, and there were some subjects that gave me trouble. In the end, you'll just have to experiment to see what works."
She paused in her typing to fix Keiichi with a particularly penetrating glare. "Some words of caution up front: if it doesn't make sense, or you feel like your mind's hit a brick wall and can't move forward with a subject, leave it alone. The majority of this stuff wasn't meant for mortals anyway. Just accept the fact that until you shake off your present mortality, you won't have the faculties necessary to do certain things. If you press too far… Well, don't say that I didn't warn you, and don't expect me to come and clean up the mess." She shrugged and went back to typing.
Keiichi's curiosity gripped him and he ventured to find out more. "What could happen?"
"The possibilities are endless, Keiichi. Just trust me on this and don't mess around. Know and respect your limitations. The last thing we want is to lose you, and with some of this stuff… Well, suffice it to say that we can do a lot to put your pieces back together, but you'd never be the same."
Keiichi swallowed hard and shifted his feet nervously. "Are you sure that you want to give me access to the knowledge then?"
Skuld nodded. "If I had more time, I could separate out the higher level stuff, but my window of action here is strictly enforced. I've a foreordained amount of time to do my thing, and then I get pulled back to our Heaven. I'm encrypting what I can with the time available. Once you reach a certain level of power or understanding, it should unlock new things for you. It's up to you to discern if you're ready to explore. Just use your common sense. Father put it there for a reason."
The goddess of the future fell silent then, and focused herself on working. By the time she was done, an hour had passed and poor Kerden's voice was raw and hoarse. She handed the data journal back to Keiichi and stashed her own belongings back into the ether.
"There you go. You're all set." She paused, and tapped her lip for a moment before continuing. "Everyone back home says 'hi', and I'm supposed to give you a kiss and a hug from Big Sister. The hug you can have, but there's no way I'm kissing you."
Keiichi laughed and accepted the embrace warmly. Before he and Skuld parted though, he kissed her cheek, causing the young goddess to blush bright red.
"Pass that on to Belldandy for me?"
Skuld smiled and nodded. She looked to want to say something, but a bell tolled somewhere and she wrinkled her nose.
"Darn. I'm running out of time. Okay, real quick. If I can, I'll poke my head in from time to time to say hi. Its not for sure, but I took a peek at some probabilities down the line and… well, let's just say that things look hopeful that I'll have a reason to visit." She shook her finger at Keiichi in admonishment. "No more boons, though!"
"Gotcha," Keiichi said. "What are you going to do with him?"
"Crud, I was hoping that I wouldn't have to make this all official. Rules are rules, though." Skuld looked down at Kerden crossly and seemed to grow, becoming a twenty-foot-tall version of herself. The earth shook beneath Keiichi's feet and an aura of power exploded from the goddess. Keiichi reflexively fell to his knees and prostrated himself before the Norn of the Future.
"I AM SKULD, NORN OF THE FUTURE, GODDESS OF DREAMS UNREALIZED."
Skuld's body didn't change further, but her warhammer seemed to grow a bit larger, and if possible more menacing.
"BE AT PEACE, BELOVED OF THE NORNS. STAND ASIDE AND LET JUSTICE BE DONE."
Keiichi scrambled aside as he was commanded, and waited for the fire and brimstone to fall. Skuld surprised him, though, by simply reaching down and gently touching Kerden on the forehead.
"THY HEART IS KNOWN UNTO ME, SON OF GARL. I SEE ALL OF YOUR SECRETS AND KNOW ALL OF YOUR PLANS. THE THREAD OF YOUR LIFE IS STRETCHED BEFORE ME, AND I HOLD IT TAUT. SIN AGAINST ME AGAIN AND MY VENGEANCE WILL FALL UPON YOU SWIFTLY."
Thunder rolled in the clear sky above, and the earth before Kerden opened, spewing fire and dark clouds of smoke.
"OFFEND AND I WILL CUT YOU DOWN LIKE SUMMER WHEAT AT THE HARVEST. PLEASE ME AND I WILL REWARD YOU WITH THE MORNING DEW OF HEAVEN. HEED THIS WARNING, AND SHARE IT WITH THOSE THAT HARBOR ILL WILL TOWARDS THIS FAVORED SON OF MAN — HE IS PRECIOUS TO US AND NEITHER GOD NOR MORTAL SHALL STAY OUR WRATH SHOULD HE COME TO HARM."
Skuld pointed at Keiichi, and he suddenly felt full of love. She paused in her speech and turned to face him.
"AND IF YOU SAY ANYTHING ABOUT THIS TO URD, KEIICHI MORISATO, I'VE GOT A SKULD-BOMB WITH YOUR NAME ON IT!"
Keiichi shook his head frantically. This seemed to satisfy Skuld.
"Now, what am I forgetting?" The goddess tapped her chin and looked skyward thoughtfully. "Oh yeah!"
She snapped her fingers, causing a miniature sonic boom to shake the stones and cause the waves of the tide pool to splash.
"ACCORDING TO AO'S LAW, AS YOU HAVE STOLEN FROM ME, CHILD OF GOND, I CLAIM YOU FOR MYSELF, UNTIL THE DEBT IS PAID AND TRUE RESTITUTION MADE."
She quickly set to drawing a fiery rune in the air above Kerden's head and then touched his forehead lightly, causing a smaller symbol to appear beneath her finger.
"THIS IS MY SIGIL. LOOK FOR IT IN YOUR DREAMS, KERDEN BLOWBUTTON, FOR IT WILL BE THE SIGN OF MY COMING."
Skuld seemed to fade a bit, and just before she disappeared completely the goddess raised her hand to her lips and blew him a kiss. A sudden, giddy warmth filled him, and he heard Belldandy's loving voice singing in his ears. He lost himself in the moment so fully that he didn't see or hear Kerden stumble away down the path.
This day would have far reaching repercussions, but lost as he was in the present, Keiichi didn't care. All that mattered was the beautiful voice filling his ears.
To be continued.
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