Categories > Games > Chrono Trigger > Awakening the Hero

Prologue: Planting Seeds

by Myshu 0 Reviews

The storm brews and the beast slumbers, but no one can make any sense of it. Will the heroes of time be able to save the world again? (part of The Phoenix Chronicles)

Category: Chrono Trigger - Rating: PG-13 - Genres: Action/Adventure, Crossover, Fantasy - Characters: Ayla, Chrono, Frog, Kino, Lucca, Magus, Marle, Robo - Warnings: [!!] [V] - Published: 2005/05/11 - Updated: 2005/05/12 - 10273 words

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(disclaimer) You know how this works. Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy belong to Squaresoft (now Square Enix.) Pokémon belongs to Game Freak and Nintendo. The Legend of Zelda belongs to Nintendo. Good for them.
This will be a CT fic at heart, with some concepts and races borrowed from the other games (FF7's Lifestream/FF9's cycle of souls, FF6's Espers, Zelda's zoras, the pokémon Umbreon, Espeon, Mew, etc.) It's not necessary to be familiar with any game outside CT to understand this fic (I hope,) but it might enhance your enjoyment to recognize a few alien scenes/characters.
Furthermore, I should rightly say that my rapiers were inspired by creatures of the same ilk invented in Keith Adams' Chrono Trigger: The Shadows and later in Jerm's /Chrono Trigger Dimensions/Invasions/. Both fics can be found at www.icybrian.com. They're very fun stories.
Also, thanks to my sister, who is always nice enough to proof-read my chapters (even when she's sick and tired). She translated some dialogue into French for me, even though I later turned around and decided to use Spanish, and THEN cut my pathetic trilingual crap altogether... sorry sis! All that work for nothing.(/disclaimer)


The Phoenix Chronicles
Awakening the Hero

Chaos.

runs like....the wind....fury....attack like....the cat...

Evil Star.

arrows....sheer....like ice...

Dark Matter.

shadows....consume....void...

Shock.

such power....the future....holds...

Grand Dream.

strength...of the knight...

Luminaire.

cuts with....a blade....like lightning...

Flare.

to ashes....from the ashes...

Tragedy.

---
They were watching.

They had always been watching, like a shadow keeping with its host. They had seen the great fire fall from the sky. They had seen the land turn to ash, and ash turn to snow, and snow turn to rivers, and civilizations rise from their banks. These things they witnessed in leaps, bounds, and snapshots, like cosmic tourists.

Now they were going to see the end of a long, perilous journey. The Day of Lavos had come. This was the day that would bring the end of the civilizations, and either leave them born anew... or gone forever. This is the day that would have never been for them to see if they were not following /them/.

They were an impetuous lot, determined to do what was not meant to be done, and break a cycle of death and loss that had been rendered steadfast for countless millennia. It was not their obligation to interfere with their quest--rather, to watch, follow, and lie in wait.

So, they watched.

The shell of the global parasite loomed over its volcanic crater. The magnitude of its harvested life energy imbued the encompassing atmosphere with a pitched charge, and lightning danced in the dismal pall overhead. It had crawled from the pit of the earth to do battle with the heavens, and that is precisely what came to it. Soon, it would rain, but whether fire or water would kiss the soil was pending on the outcome of this fight.

One of them pensively observed the husk of the monster. It was massive; a small town could easily be lost in its girth. It was composed like a tick, with its feeble legs and stumpy head crowded before its swollen abdomen. Its armored quills flared away from its sloping brow and fanned the clouds with the beast's quivering breaths. It could shudder... could it fear?

If it could, it would fear now. The wreckage of its initial confrontation carved a piercing dent into its face, smashing it into a twisted, concave exoskeleton--an ugly scar on an ugly wart. The heat of combat was presently taking place in the heart of the beast, where it was not a safe dare to follow.

Having had an eyeful of the grotesque creature, he then surveyed the machinery strewn over the field. Chips and bits of scorched metal stuck into the ruddy earth, littering it with lustrous pickets that could mark the graves of a hundred robots. He sat on the heel of a dilapidated altimeter, its gauge still wobbling fluidly in its glassy socket.

"I can't believe they wrecked their time machine," he at last spoke.

The nothing beside him took its default shape, rising from the rubble like smoke. It turned a pair of lurid eyes to the speaker, the two red spots the only fixed features on its gaseous visage. The one instigating the conversation was a mirror of his sibling, if his misty muzzle was not drawn longer and his tone not smoother and more refined.

Bairith smacked his insubstantial lips and perused the firmament, as if to propose to the gods. "The time of darkness is coming... Can you not feel it, brother? Master's presence is very strong in this age."

They were of the breed that most apparitions would adhere to, although to label them ghosts would surely induce offense--they liked to believe their influence over the living was more prominent. The pair squatted over the ground like small dogs, looking nonetheless like vaporous charcoal slugs.

"Yess..." Barnath answered solemnly. His voice was a bitter rasp that pressed a sibilant hiss between his hazy fangs. "It is very soon, here. Master will be victorious. There's nothing Bahamut can do." He broke into sardonic laughter. "I'd like to see him try."

Bairith stared distantly into the maw of the devourer of the planet.

"He already is."

Barnath huffed at the remark, turned to the ghastly monument, and endured a reverent silence.

"Suppose they succeed, brother." Bairith's voice was so soft that its hypothetical ring was lost.

The other harrumphed belligerently. "I hope not! I hope Lavos boils the skin from their bones and brings Doomsday to this forsaken planet." He grumbled in an afterthought, "I can't wait to leave."

"I am not so confident." The translucent being donned a distracted look.

"I'll be damned the day filthy humans win over the powers of darkness!"

"You said the same about the reptites, brother," Bairith pointedly recalled.

The brother's retort carried a growl. "That was different!"

"Really?"

"Yes, really!! I am beginning to despise your skepticism. What makes you think those miserable mortals stand a candle's chance in a hailstorm against the spawn of the Dark Lord??" For Barnath, it was an offensive notion to consider.

"Yes," Bairith yielded, "I suppose their odds of survival are very slim indeed. But... what if Bahamut tries again?"

"Ha. Like I said, he should be lucky enough to try. It's too late. You just said yourself that the age of darkness is dawning. He won't have enough time to regroup and start over."

When the rebuttal was late in coming, the spiteful one asked after his brother's doubt. "What's the matter with you, Bairith? You sound as if you don't have faith in our plan."

"Oh, my faith is not misplaced, brother," Bairith returned. "I just like to... leave my options open..."

Inferring the most treacherous connotations, Barnath's crimson eyes narrowed. "You wouldn't dare..."

Bairith straightened, assuming a defensive posture not unlike a cobra's. "Dare what? Don't be ridiculous, brother. I only mean to say that, if things don't quite go as we planned, we should be thinking ahead. It would be foolery to assume the outcome of things, so early in the game."

"Well, that's why we are here," Barnath noted scathingly. "Just in case."

"Yes, that does remind me," Bairith's tone lightened. "Our little experiment should be ripe by now. What do you think, Barnath?"

Barnath regarded the other, learned his implication, and grinned malevolently. "I think it's harvesting time."

Bairith reciprocated the smirk. "Let us be off, then, before Lavos makes done of things."

The spectres hitched onto a draft and dissipated in the wind, riding a jet stream across the world and leaving its leech to its duties.

---
They were taking advantage of history--it was an inspired process. When tailing the heroes of time, one stands to pick up a few "tricks of the trade," particularly concerning relics.

The Sun Stone, a rock with marvelous solar potential, was once procured from its ancestral hiding place, transplanted to the prehistoric Sun Shrine, and left to cook for several million years until its latent properties matured. A quick hop in the time machine, Epoch, was all that was required to forego the tedium of nature and obtain the artifact's awesome magical energy.

Unbeknownst to the human adventurers, Barnath and Bairith had discovered an identical procedure, albeit with a negative effect. Just as such a place could exist where the sun always shone, so could there be a place of perpetual darkness...

The brothers slinked and crawled along the nether cavities of the planet's crust. Their latitude was precise; it was only a matter of patience before they reached their harvest. Their destination marked where, many ages ago, "big fire" found the earth. The caves had hitherto been a tyrannical citadel, and henceforth stood as a ruined monument to the world that could have been, if evolution ran its intended course. However, Lavos had intervened, and something malignant dwelled in that corner of the world, ever since. Pyroclastic ruts in the castle's supports were owed to the ancient monster's forced entry, and the obsidian cobbles that paved the dungeon teemed with the demon parasite's influence. Tyrano fossils were embalmed in the sedimented walls, and as the brother spirits crept into the heart of the dinosaur lair, shadows consumed even torches.

Barnath emerged from a shallow spring, discharged its residue from his essence, and sifted out of the dewy puddle he impressed on the stone floor. "Such a foreboding hole," he remarked passively.

"Would you have it any other way?" Bairith quipped.

"Of course not," the first sang.

Bairith rounded the next corner into a slender passage. The chamber beyond sheltered a short igneous shelf, encrusted with lapilli shards that glistened with the pulse of Lavos' chaotic aura. The dark spirit was pleased with the find. "Here it is, Barnath."

The brother followed and beheld a nest of cursed jewels upon an altar shimmering with cool, dim hues. "Yess... Here they are! They've been feeding on Lavos' energy for millennia, and now they're ripe!"

Bairith nodded and swept a thin tendril towards the stone table. "Please, do the honors."

Barnath approached the treasure trove with rapacious awe, but as he moved to inventory the evil fruit he noticed an arrears. His expression dropped.

"There's only two! What's the meaning of this??"

"Relax, brother," Bairith quelled the other's flaring dissent. "It's very difficult to cultivate just one dark seed. We're lucky to get what we did."

Barnath's pout relaxed as he heeded statistics. "Well, I suppose... Two should suffice. That's all we need, right? One for each of 'em."

"That should be more than enough. Now be quick to take them. We should be going."

The spectre slid up to the platform and unhinged his jaw, consuming both trinkets with a clean swoop. They instantly dissolved in his flimsy bowels and tinged his form with fluorescent purple. Barnath blinked at his own transfiguration. "How do I look?"

"Like a black light," Bairith answered tersely. "Now come along."

"Oh, fine. Don't be in such a rush all the time, Bairith. It's not as if Lavos is going anywhere," he grumbled while climbing to catch up with his sibling, already en route to the surface.

---
The afternoon was aging fast when the brothers returned to that fated field. It was as pristinely destroyed, and the weather just as ominous, as when they had departed. The parched ground reserved its thirst for that which had not yet come.

They might have been startled to realize that local activity didn't buzz about the crater and its alien ant lion--in fact, not a single inquisitive soul lingered to gape and wander at the arrival of their reaper, or at least at the demolished craft plunged headlong into its eye.

As it was, the brothers weren't surprised; the nearest vestige of civilization was leagues away, far on the outskirts of media, and it only seemed to pass hours when one had only to wait.

The brothers warily crept towards the event horizon and peered over the rim into Lavos' hovel. Bairith's countenance was grave as he reflected on the lifespan of the battle.

"Are they still fighting?" Barnath broke the meditative mood.

"It would appear that way."

Barnath reviewed the potential outcomes. "Maybe they're already dead, and Lavos is recuperating."

"No..." refuted the other as he acquired that detached stare again. "I can still sense them."

"Then they... They couldn't...!" The possibility was outrageous, and nearly ineffable.

"No... I can still sense the spawn, as well."

Barnath was momentarily pacified.

"I wonder..." Bairith's tone echoed humor as he entertained his brother's temper. "The humans may win this battle, yet. What say you to that, brother?"

Barnath snarled venomously. "I say Bahamut can keep his petty victories! We will still have the last laugh!" This affirmation then degenerated into vitriolic mutters aimed at that figure who diametrically opposed the brothers' master.

Bairith flaked away from his disgruntled relation, voting to explore the desert for some salvageable interest. It did not take long to uncover his muse. He crouched over it, scrutinizing the gray metallic sheen of its arm and its wide, flat fingers beaded with crystal nails. It was much like a mechanical flower, or a calcified dragonfly.

"What have we, here?" Bairith mulled out loud in a perfumed accent that immediately attracted his brother. Barnath pounced on what would have been Bairith's shoulder, spouting an interrogation before he could see for himself.

"What? What have we? Don't hog it for yourself, Bairith."

"I won't if you'd step off," Bairith coolly snapped, and the other recoiled before examining the captivating object. His memory reluctantly conjured its identity.

"It's that key-thing... um... you know!"

"Gate Key," Bairith refreshed him.

"Yes!" Barnath chirped, as if he knew all along. "That girl must have dropped it during the impact," he surmised, referring to the Epoch's last flight.

"I would assume so," Bairith flatly concurred.

Now presented with an opportunity, both siblings plotted methods to capitalize it, but in these matches Bairith always won. "...Brother! Why not make hay with this, so-to-speak. Let us make for the End of Time, and await the outcome there."

Barnath could make no sense of the idea. "What on Earth for?"

"We'd stand a better chance to watch how things play out from there, methinks."

"How's that?"

"Well, not to say this much for you, with your limited... capacities..."

Despite his brother's delicacy, Barnath smirked at the insinuation.

"...But I could much more easily monitor the humans from outside the time stream--and much more safely, if I need make that point. If Lavos does indeed make a comeback, would you really want to be mucking around here, at the front lines? It's dangerous."

Barnath scoffed. "You're the one convinced that the humans are going to win. Don't you want to wait here, in the event they emerge victorious? We could miss them leave."

"With Epoch out of commission, our prey must pass through the End of Time if they are to ever get home. Try to think for once, Barnath."

"Not without the Gate Key, they can't."

Bairith paused, struck by the flaw. "Ah. I see. A minor setback." He tried to accommodate the proposal, regardless. "Well, if we must, we can throw the key back through the gate for them to find later. Come now, brother," he pleaded, "I itch for something to do, and the monotony is enough to bear, where we are."

"And it's not monotonous there?? There's nothing but a big, black, empty wasteland and an old geezer! Besides, won't it seem strange to them to find their key lying conveniently beside a gate?"

"They should think themselves lucky, and be on their way." he glibly disregarded the other's point. "Oh brother, please. Do be agreeable, this once."

Barnath grudgingly consented. "Fine! But how do you propose to manipulate that thing," he gestured to the key, "Without a host?"

Bairith grinned cryptically as he began to drift away. "Well then, I suppose we should find ourselves some."

---
He was a rat.

It was the best he could find. 'Something portable, and with good teeth,' Bairith had vaguely instructed. Barnath was repulsed with the gnawed fur and the personal circus of fleas, but it was the first picking in a sour buffet. He had hoped to catch something more... advanced, but apparently mystics were as extinct in the modern age as reptites had been for millions of years, for he couldn't track a single one.

Humans were simply out of the question. It was as much a principle as it was a matter of fact--certain components of Barnath's physiology (or the lack thereof) prohibited it, and the brothers' strict abhorrence of the race of men repelled the option just the same.

All this considered, the best Barnath could procure within such a limited scope was a mite-infested morsel of the bushes. At least, the spirit consoled himself, the rat's mind was feeble enough to permit a full possession of its assets, and just mobile enough to make the trip to their rendezvous without complications.

He sat on his plump haunches, scanning the horizon for his brother and whatever guise he had assumed. Behind him, a pinhole in the fabric of space-time flickered like an electric candle. It was difficult to imagine how an anomaly the size of a bowling ball could be a gateway to the fourth dimension. At the touch of a special key, however, it was that and more. Time travel was a quirky business, Barnath mused. He didn't quibble over its mechanics or paradoxes, however--as long as he could get from point A to point B in the timeline without the universe imploding, he was suited just fine.

A flurry of tiny pricks climbed his spine as fleas convened at the peak of his shoulders, just outside scratching range. Barnath's eye twitched irritably and he suppressed the urge to roll over the rough ground in convulsions.

'This world has vermin upon vermin! These fleas are intolerable,' he brooded silently.

As soon as he succumbed to the temptation to relieve himself, a swift shadow dropped upon him, appearing in his unfocused field of vision with a flourish of dark webs clawing at the sky. With as natural a scream as he could utter, Barnath rolled awkwardly onto his back, his foot still stuck in his chewed ear.

The hovering menace addressed him in the voice of the mind. 'What are you loafing around for?'

The rat choked on his surprise. 'Bairith!' Promptly recovering, Barnath riposted to preserve his dignity. 'You're late!' Then, at last observing his brother's vessel, the rat lapsed into shock again. 'What the hell are you?!'

It was a giant flapping eyeball, for all Barnath could discern. Two flailing wings clumsily held aloft one vacuous gazing orb. Pairs of legs only reliable for grasping a perch framed the unnerving centerpiece. The eye socket alone would have been spacious enough for the rodent to curl up inside.

'They're called scouters,' Bairith succinctly replied. 'You do remember them, brother--we encountered many in the Ocean Palace.'

'Yes, but--' For a moment Barnath forgot himself and tried to work the rodent's voice box. When it failed to do more than sputter, he checked his speech and realized his folly. 'There aren't any of those around here!'

'The sewers would beg to differ,' Bairith rebutted.

'Sewers!' Barnath squeaked. 'What sewers?? How could you have been in a sewer?? There isn't a city for miles around!'

'So?'

'So!? But you, I mean, how, I mean...'
His argument collapsed. Barnath sighed with defeat. 'Oh, forget it! I don't even want to know. Do you have the Gate Key?'

Bairith produced it from one of his talons. 'How could I forget? Now, are we ready?'

'Oh, I suppose so. Let's just get on with it.'

As he resigned to this, a soaring hum sounded in the distance, like wailing clouds. Its roar intensified gradually, as with something approaching. Barnath's nubbly ears attended to it with alarm. 'What's that noise?'

'Aircraft, methinks,' Bairith guessed. 'I believe the people of this era are finally catching up with what's going on.'

'Better for us to be gone, then, eh brother?'

'Indeed. Let us go.'

Bairith deftly pointed the key at the dormant gate and click a button on the wand to activate it. The glowing ball flared outward with a gust of wind that knocked Barnath away in a tumble. Spitting curses, the rat righted himself and turned about to inspect Bairith's efforts.

The gate's brilliant iridescent maw opened before them, as tall and wide as two stacked men. It was a seething, swirling vortex of what is, what wasn't, and what will be. The wormhole throbbed invitingly, its dancing palette beckoning a crusader of time.

Bairith picked himself up on a spray of air and dove inside. Bairith scurried after him, and with a blink of lightning the rat, scouter and key vanished into the gate, the eerie portal shrinking closed behind them.

---
It was a quaint vestige of civilization; it was a heathen island. It was the culmination of all places and times; it was a monument to nonexistence--there was an eccentric fellow once who might have fancied it, but he was just a clown.

The End of Time better served as a rest stop than a destination; it was a crossroads in history. Amid a sea of bleak nothing floated a cobblestone landing, punctuated at its origin by an antique lamppost. The beacon was fueled by oil that never exhausted, and partnered with an old man who was never too weary to lean against its slender stalk and greet stray travelers in time with a droning snore. He was a character so acclimated to oblivion that not even the bubble of mucus that ebbed and filled with his nasal breathing fazed him slightly.

A waist-high wrought iron fence embroidered the edge of the block of pavement; some buckets of spring water waited in a corner; a rickety wooden gate opened to a platform apart from that of the elderly patron, and upon this a grid of mysterious luminous columns marked the many avenues one could take from here. Behind the dozing man was a plain door that appeared to lead into nowhere.

Barnath and Bairith materialized from an obscure gate planted in a bucket (they always saw that strange, but never asked after its design). Despite the clamor their entrance aroused as Bairith dislodged his sibling from the rusty pail with a clap of his ponderous wings, the old man did not stir. The possessed beasts composed themselves and reviewed their locality.

'See? I told you there's nothing here. I don't know why we bothered.'

Bairith was unresponsive. Barnath turned to give him a glare that would underscore his remark, but hesitated upon meeting a vacant stare. He had trouble knowing if something was the matter or if scouters were predisposed to look that way.

'What's wrong? That way you stare is... disconcerting!'

Bairith blinked, and in the transition his vision cleared. 'Hmm? Quite sorry. It was just that, when we left that era, I...'

'What?' Barnath picked up the discarded predicate.

After suspenseful repose, the other announced in deadpan, 'I sensed a gate.'

'Well I would hope you did,' Barnath said dryly. 'There are many gates here. They're quite obvious.'

'No!' Bairith bunted aside the sarcasm. 'Heed me. I mean to say that, when we passed out of the time of Lavos, some great force caught my senses. It was not unlike a gate.'

'...So?' his brother drawled, less than amused.

'So,' Bairith declared, 'With this gate, I could sense... something else... I was not sure.'

The rat perked one disparaging brow. Bairith ignored him until a scheme fermented inside the scouter's blinking globe. 'Brother!' he exclaimed with a pang of epiphany. 'I just had a thought.'

'Good for you.'

Bairith feinted to slap him and the rat nimbly ducked beneath the sweep of a wing. 'Tsh. Allow me to speak. Brother, why thinks you to kill one bird with two stones?'

Barnath sat on the riddle. '...I don't follow your meaning.'

'Well, follow this: how far can a bird fly with but one wing?'

'Not very far, I'd imagine.' Hearing his own answer was the key to the puzzle, and the rat finally deciphered the scouter's conceit. '...I think I can see your words behind this. But what would you do with the other seed?'

'Methinks...' Bairith looked asquint at his brother and acquired a sinister mask. 'There are more ways, yet, that we can carry on our master's work.'

'Your semantics bore me,' Barnath curtly undermined his melodrama, 'Would you quit being cryptic and just tell me what you intend to do??'

The scouter nearly grimaced, but the shade of injury passed as Bairith adopted an informative air again. 'The good news is, judging by the future's evidence, I suspect our original plan (yet to be carried out, mind you) should work. The bad is that Bahamut should anticipate his failure, and try to amend it.'

The rat snarled again at mention of their adversary. 'Damnable Bahamut! We'll make him regret it.' Shifting to enthusiasm, Barnath enquired, 'So what's the plan?'

'Let us seek this gate. I have a strong feeling that the esper king is trying to make the future his. We shall plant our influence there, so as to prevent it.'

'Ah! I see. Wait... The future? We were just there! You tell me we can't take the same gate we just came out of?'

'No, brother, we cannot. This gate is different. It is... otherworldly.'

'What do you mean, "otherworldly"?'
Barnath tried to ask before Bairith hobbled away on his infirm limbs. The Gate Key was juggled between his free hands as he shuffled down a sidewalk that dropped into the abyss.

'Hey!' the rat squeaked at his back. 'Where are you going?'

'I told you where I am going.'

'But there's nothing out there!'

'That's what
you say, brother.'

'What about the key? You said we were going to throw it back through the gate!'
Barnath argued.

'We can do that later.'

'Well then what about Lavos? You said you were going to watch the fight!'

'Lavos can wait.'


Barnath knew by now that his logic would not prevail, so he chased after his brother, muttering a rendition of "we're gonna get hopelessly lost" through buck teeth.

---
Barnath had resigned long ago to the fact that his sibling was possessed of the ability to see things that were not there, and once he had the scent of the paranormal there was nothing to dissuade his pursuit. Barnath had no idea how long he trailed behind his brother while Bairith hounded over a winding path in the uncharted sea of the fourth dimension. The End of Time kept no clocks, for understandable reasons.

An arid fog shrouded the vast, empty terrain. The ground was smooth, flat, and reflected nothing; it might as well have been a solid sheet of air. It was a nebulous, overcast limbo, and the lamppost with its old man was a distant buoy. Although there was no sun, Bairith's shape was plain before him as though there was, the cloak of mist notwithstanding.

Barnath was worn with his vessel and its incessant itching. He stepped out of it for a breath to catch relief. "Bairith! I could find rabbit holes more interesting than this dump. When are you going to find this alleged gate?"

The scouter pirouetted to pitch a glance at his companion. 'Patience, brother. ...Where is your vessel?'

"What?" Barnath barked indignantly. "I'm taking a break--give me one!"

'Fine. But I believe your rat is running away.'

"What?!" He faced about, and when this was shown to be so, the spirit concocted a string of profanity that would have shaken the Devil from his throne.

"...Son of a BITCH!!"

Somewhere not as remote as the underworld, the bubble of mucus popped from under the old man's nose.

'You didn't put it to sleep before you left it, did you?' Bairith chided him, 'I can't believe you were so careless. Look, it's getting away. See?'

Barnath was alight with the search. "No, where??"

'Precisely.'

The deposed rat owner glowered at his fellow fiend. "Shut up!! Who cares, anyway!? It's just a rat. What's it going to do, shit all over infinity?!"

'...If you say so, Barnath.' Failing to sound neutral, Bairith's brother snapped, "What's that supposed to mean??"

'Nothing... Now, if you're finished with your tantrum, I think I have found our gate.'

This announcement only irked Barnath further. "What? Why didn't you say so before??"

'Because you were busy telling all things holy to go to--'

"--Okay! Whatever," Barnath hastily passed over the excuse. "What are we waiting for, then? Are we going to open it or not?"

'Of course.' Wielding the Gate Key in one extended paw, Bairith planted its rod into the figurative earth with a definitive stroke. Glittering ripples blossomed around the puncture in the dimension's temporal fabric, and as the gate expanded beneath his feet Bairith hopped onto the support of his wings, floating over the wormhole.

'Hold fast to me, brother! Here we go.'

Very aware of the instability of such portals and the necessity of anchoring himself to a mortal creature in order to traverse one, Barnath didn't stall with his typical score of objections. He tagged his essence to the scouter and accompanied Bairith through the unknown gate.

---
The strange gate was long-winded and vertiginous, but it unwound itself eventually. Bairith erupted from the other pole of the wormhole, falling up into a biting chill. His broad flaps of skin clutched the wind and steadied the scouter before the Gate Key was flung from his grasp in the dizzy ascent.

A snap of light later the gate blinked shut beneath him, and a new world was unveiled.

Bairith twirled in circles, panning his eye over the edge of existence. Tears stung him as he turned into a prevailing icy gale, and he squinted to see the night sky. A steely horizon defined where the ocean and its minor islands were pitted against a blue moon and its legions of stars. Aquarius was at the front lines, pouring waves back into the rebellious sea.

Under his feet, a large ivory dome shone like a jewel, its brilliance overwhelming the nocturnal heavens. Its matrix of crevasses leaked forth the iridescence of the supernatural. It was a shimmering, opal tortoiseshell drifting in mundane waters.

'Sweet spawn of nethers!' Bairith exclaimed. 'This island is simply glowing with spirit energy! It is no wonder a gate formed here.'

"It's bloody cold here!" was Barnath's only observation.

'Oh hush. You don't even have a body.'

"Well if I did, it'd be bloody cold!" Barnath weakly rebounded. "So where are we?"

'Not sure...' Bairith answered honestly. His slitted gaze found a jagged front where mountains protruded into the skyline, and upon studying the distant coast his pupil shrank portentously.

'I know it surely now! He is here.'

"Who? Where? What are you going on about, this time??"

'I thought I did sense him, even from the End of Time, but was not sure 'til here I am, able to sense him so near!'

"What?! Start making sense! You need to quit jarbling your words when you get excited."

'It's not jarbling! You have no sense of verse--nor any other suitable sense, for you would have surely felt his essence by now, as well.'

"Who?? You have yet to tell me! You know I can't sense these things like you can, Bairith."

Bairith's voice was painted with subdued veneration, as if it were blasphemous to utter the name with too much force.

'...The Rut M'blanca.'

Barnath was stumped by the appellation--initially by its language, typically spoken only on the tongues of dragons. When its worth was translated, Barnath then failed to comprehend its significance, and when he finally achieved that much, he refused to accept it for truth.

"A Great Esper? Here? Alive?? That's a joke! The last of Bahamut's siblings have long been cast into the next world! There's no way one could be dwelling with mortals, especially in this age."

'You forget the Phoenix, brother.'

"Don't twist my words! I was just about to say, 'except for that.' You forget, yourself, that that won't be true for much longer, anyway." This reminder stirred a iniquitous laugh from Barnath.

'I think that is exactly my point, and our reason for being here.'

"Eh? Explain."

'You see, my simple brother, it is the matter of our success that brings this issue up now. With the Phoenix eliminated for posterity, Bahamut seeks a last resort. I believe we have uncovered that now.'

"You mean that Bahamut was thinking to use the Rut M'blanca in the Phoenix's place? Er, or will think, or... whatever. What era is this, again? This time travel crap is confusing me."

'Just let me do the thinking.'

"Whatever," apathy brushed the snub off. "We're going to find the Rut M'blanca now and, eh, 'plant our influence,' as you say, aren't we? If so I'd like to hurry up about it. I don't want to be sitting out here in the cold all night. Floating. Flying. Whatever."

'I couldn't agree more. It's this way,' Bairith informed his brother as he carried off towards the snow-capped continent.

---
The frozen land breeze was no more relief than the frozen sea breeze. It cascaded down the lofty glaciers and picked up tufts of alabaster powder that tumbled across the beach and integrated into water's larger, perpetual whole. Bairith struggled to keep his pace against it lest he fall adrift in the blizzard.

In time, the storm abated, or he departed it--it was not cared which. What appeared in a niche between the coastal plains, a quiet volcano, and the waning moon was a mound of civilization overlooking the icy wasteland. Ready to rest his wings, Bairith alighted on a circumfluent border of stairs that stopped upon an elevated courtyard. He meandered up what few steps remained until the face of the shrine was within his sights... sight.

It was best described as a shrine, he would say, but to what and why in so desolate a locale he couldn't fathom. Across a plaza of iced stone populated only by bird droppings, the ornate front gate welcomed them, its alien murals whispering of things hallowed within.

Bairith didn't know why, but as he looked upon the structure he thought of lampshades--steepled ornaments with ivory ridges ruffled into the sheer cloth. It was really a terrible analogy, but the pale marble columns ridging the rounded walls gave that first impression. A large lamp in the center looked to be the hub, with two smaller adjoined abreast, as wings North and South... or was it East and West? He didn't like to admit he was cardinally disoriented.

If the classical architecture and naked windmills churning over empty wind like children's toys were any indication of the temple's contents, the brothers were assured to find something extravagantly inane. It must have been inhabited, Bairith observed, unless the short flames belched from the top of the temple's domed roof were residuary of the volcano's latent activities. He doubted anything so natural could be so contained, however, and he proceeded with his brother to the entrance.

The scouter wedged apart the decorative slabs then shuffled awkwardly to fit his bulbous shape through the doors without them clamping shut on his digits. As he contorted the beast to accomplish this, Barnath freely seeped beneath the squirming eyeball and emerged inside. Bairith at last determined that the effort was not worth the cause, and he abandoned his charge in the open door, the Gate Key still clutched in its sedated talons. Bairith scaled the shadow-shrouded steps of the entryway and approached his sibling as himself.

"You're just going to leave it there," Barnath said in amazed reproof.

"So?"

"It's sticking half-way out the door."

Bairith glanced back at the scouter; this was indeed the case.

"So?" he repeated.

"So!" Barnath hiccupped over it. "And you call me careless."

"At least it's sleeping this time--and it will stay so as long as I will it to," Bairith singed the other's pride. "It'll make a nice doorstop in the meantime."

"A doorstop! You just think you've thought of everything, don't you?" Barnath fumed in the background as Bairith floated upstairs into the main chamber. The cool-headed spirit didn't waste a retort and instead engaged in a study of the shrine.

It was a gilded sanctuary immersed in the glow of firelight. Blue stone and copper colored just the same paved the floor and raised the totem poles that supported the vaulted ceiling. An iron guardrail fended passers-by off the walls and their shelves of candles.

The centerpiece was... the brothers couldn't label it, but it was certainly abstract. It was a tapered pillar of tiered layers, with each successive row housing a diminishing circumference of candles until the top could hold just one. Neither brother could ever vouch to have seen a wedding cake so tall or a birthday cake so laden with flame. It was regarded by both without comment--the art of mortals was inexplicable to them.

Fire hazard aside, the foyer was dim and deserted; an envoy of the darkness might have been right at home.

"What a hole! It reeks of human!" Barnath scowled.

"Really? It appears more convex to me," Bairith disregarded the vernacular to state the obvious.

"Quit being a smartass."

Bairith's quietism closed their semantics again as he panned his search about the surreal icons. The great hall was where the outlets of the other wings converged, like many streams into a pond. Candlesticks were arrayed like dominos inside the outer arches, and lit posts guarded every bend and exit, spare one. Bairith peered thinly into that selected route, keenly interested in its secrets.

"We should be quiet," he belatedly noted.

"What for?"

"Better to keep the element of surprise, brother. Besides, if you ever wanted proof that the Rut M'blanca is indeed here, it's over there."

"The Rut M'blanca??" Barnath was suddenly alert. "Where?"

"No," Bairith corrected his assumption. "Look into that hall, and see."

Barnath was shown a passage unmarked by a shining brazier and tucked behind an escaping flight of stairs. A pile of golden rings sat in its maw. They shifted ever slightly, growing from and shrinking into black folds, as if a hole there consumed even light and it was the best the rings could do to hold on to this dimension. This curious anomaly was given a second look and Barnath noticed further that these rings glowed under their own power, rather than with the reflected emanations of the scattered torches.

"One of Bahamut's agents," Bairith explained before Barnath gave it an expletive. "Surely he guards where our quarry dwells."

"How do you know this? It could just be some mongrel... or a pile of soot, or something."

Bairith gave him a sharp glance that conveyed his sensory omniscience. Barnath rolled his shady brow, conceding the point. "So, what of this thing? We sneak past it?"

"Unless you have a better idea, Barnath. But we should need new vessels. That whelp might sense us if we don't use some stealth."

Bairith received an incredulous smirk. "You don't expect us to find anything in this shanty."

"Be resourceful," was Bairith's only advice, and he was gone like transient steam. Barnath, left on his own again, quested after a suitable creature. He sifted, crawled, and drifted along and between columns, slinking around candelabra and sliding into cracks in the mortar until something very quaint touched his feelers.

"What a joke," he muttered at the simple arachnid, but the more he considered it the more it seemed perfect. It was small, inconspicuous, and with fangs just right...

He decided in favor of taking it. It was arduous to compress his spirit into the cramped exoskeleton, but once the spider was his he staggered out of its cobweb and rallied its functions.

'So many legs!' He blinked. 'And so many eyes!' It was like staring into a broken mirror through a prism. 'How does this miserable creature ever get anywhere?' Barnath at length concluded that it didn't--that was why it pitched a web and let the food find /it/.

He stumbled like the tiny oaf he was over the floor of the great hall until some method of linear locomotion occurred. When he learned his position and his destination, which was thirty seconds away by eight legs, he paused to wait for his brother.

'Hrmph. He's late! I win! And I dare him to find something better than--'

A brisk swipe tickled his hind legs, and Barnath jumped in a circle. Before him was a great, pursed jaw and two gleaming, slitted eyes.

'Ahh!'

A forked tongue leaked out of a notch in its upper lip and brushed the spider's heels again. 'I'm what now, brother?'

Barnath recoiled from the snake, trembling with outrage. 'You bastard!'

'I think you're jealous.'

'I'm not! I just--I swear--how?! How do you keep finding these things??'

It was a nondescript garden serpent, but nevertheless an accomplishment. Bairith began to slither towards that fated hall. 'I guess I have a sssnake sense.' He hissed like a snicker. 'Do you get it? Snake sense. Oh, funny.'

'Not funny!' Barnath shot, and he scurried to keep up.

Together they stalked around the esper sentry, which was evidently sleeping on the job--to their benefit, of course. The passage beyond was dimmer still and stitched with doors. Each was either left ajar or open by design, which was very backwards in light of security but again to the brothers' advantage. Moonlight spilled onto the floor from the portals on the left, stabbing into the murky corners and highlighting the trespassers' many options.

'Well, Bairith?' the other ventured to ask. 'Is he here?'

'He is very near,' Bairith confirmed and moved down the stretched corridor towards the nearest doorway. He was a lithe shadow conforming to the ambiance as he glided along the brim of the left wall.

Barnath, on the other hand, could not have been more blatant. The energy of his ingested seeds was so compacted that the spider was overpowered in black light. The irradiated arachnid traced the serpent's path, toying with an allusion.

'Spider-me, spi-der-me, rad-i-o-act-ive spi-der-me...'

'Do be quiet, Barnath. I'm trying to concentrate.'

'Oh, whatever.' And he quit.

Bairith peeked into the first room, his sensitive tongue darting in first, and his head behind it. Two plain beds were pushed into the far corner, one basking under the window's gaze and the other hugging the adjacent wall. The small room was haunted by a moon that spied on its occupants through the clear glass and played on the laced curtains.

'These are sleeping quarters,' Bairith realized, without much surprise. He stole into the room and encroached upon its resting persons. One filled each bed, and Bairith was very curious about their identities. He corkscrewed up a wooden leg and climbed onto the nearest mattress.

Upon it he discovered a corpulent mass of flesh with the mask of a jester and the accoutrement of a chef. Its pale face was cleaved in twain by a stupid, fixed grin that allowed its obscenely long tongue to drape over its shoulder like a sash. Its pink apron swelled and receded with thick, obnoxious breaths. The thing's companion sank into the crease between the wall the sheets: a giant spork.

'By nethers, what the hell is this?'

'Is it he??' eagerly enquired the other from the peanut gallery below.

'Thank sanity, no. Just a blue mage. ...Very bizarre.'

As Bairith turned away from the first reject, he heard his brother encounter the next with a squeal of disgust. 'Bairith, look at this one! It's a giant rat!'

The minute spider was quick enough to scale the bedside and meet the rodent before Bairith could cross the night stand linking the bunks and see for himself.

'Isn't it disgusting?'

It was indeed a tall, anthropomorphic rat, slate of fur and silver of hair.

'You think all living creatures are disgusting,' Bairith responded.

'...True. But my point still stands,' Barnath retained his argument.

Bairith inwardly sighed. 'This isn't what we're looking for, either. Let us move on.'

They abandoned that room and advanced to the next, across the hall. It was an identical space, if angled away from lunar infiltration and with unique inhabitants of its own. Again, Bairith took the closer bed, and Barnath sought the window.

'What do you have?' the latter asked.

A dainty form, with purple hair and a pearly little horn. 'A little girl. Human. A caller.'

'Good for her. Stupid callers. I hope they burn in hell with Bahamut, the whole lot of 'em.'

'That's not very nice,' Bairith facetiously remarked, a grin in his voice.

'I'm not very nice. ...Is she the one?'

'...No.'

'Then screw 'er. I've got a girl over here, too. I think she's a white mage.'

Bairith slid that way and immediately sensed that much. She was an older lass, with rich black locks falling over her brow. Striking the serpent's alarm was a trinket worn from her neck. It was white and clear like quartz, and bore the secant groves of something broken from a greater whole. He craned to taste it, and then jerked back with an acidic hiss.

'What?? What is it, Bairith? Is she the one?'

'That pendant...! It is like him. His essence is all over it. It is like...'
Bairith whipped around, turning his backside to the trinket's caustic holiness. '...No, that's impossible.'

'What's impossible?? Hey, wait! Is it her or not??'

'No. She's not. I almost was tricked to think so, but... she is just another caller. Let's go.'

'What? Hey, I said wait! Curse you, brother, you never tell me anything...'
Barnath grumbled as he dropped from the bedside and raced to catch his sibling.

Next-door could have sooner been an armory than a bedroom. Just inside the entrance was a mess of plated armor and chain mail, with a plumed helmet and a sheathed broadsword heaped on top. A pair of steel-clawed gauntlets hid behind these in the corner. In accord with routine, Bairith claimed the wall-side bunk, and later came Barnath to the window-side.

'This man stinks like rust,' the spider observed huffily.

'This one doesn't smell much better... And hardly a lick of magic between them. We're wasting our time in this room,' Bairith declared, and they were away across the hall the next minute.

Their final stop was claimed by two more, and the brothers took their turns with the residents like before. Bairith sniffed the childlike figure on his chosen bed with acute interest. It was a bundle of baggy clothes capped with a supple spire of leather that flopped over the empty void of its face. It slept quietly, its entire body impressively structured and maintained by pure magic.

'Well, I'll be... If this isn't a curious little specimen.'

'What?' called the other, not caring to look over the equivalent of his shoulder.

'It's a... oh... I forget. It's a golem, I think. It's packed with black magic.'

'Odd to find that here.'

'Indeed. Although, I wouldn't be quick to say anything we find here is odd, brother.'

'Good point. So, that golem isn't the Rut M'blanca either, I'm supposing.'

'No, of course not. But it's still interesting. What have you?'

'Just a boy. You might want a look at 'im, yourself.'


Bairith slithered across the bridging table and joined his brother. He tasted the boy's aura, then started, and then blinked slowly. He tested his senses for ten seconds or more before returning to a more conscious state and communicating with Barnath.

'...He is.'

'Really? This one? Are you sure??'


Bairith slapped the spider with his tongue. 'I am sure of nothing but this! Don't doubt me.'

Barnath flinched from his brother's sting and then teetered towards the dozing boy, scrutinizing his subject. He was barely of age, fair of hair and, as much as he could appear lying flat, small of stature and build. His simple sleeveless shirt exposed lean muscles and a light tan. He was splayed on his belly over the crumpled sheets, his left arm at his side and its fingers twitching with the exertion of dreams.

The spider began to laugh cynically. 'Ha, ha, hahaha! You're joking! This is a mere child! That old bat Bahamut must have lost his mind!'

Bairith glided to their victim's feet, taking a watchman's vigil at the bedpost. 'That may be so, but it doesn't change the case. Go on now, brother. Be on with the job, before someone wakes up.'

'Oh, fine. If you insist...'
His closed mind persisted with chortles as Barnath hoisted his light frame onto the boy's limp arm. 'Let me just find a good vein...'

The spider nosily prodded about the lad's flesh, at last stopping just below the shoulder. With a furtive stab he pierced the meat and injected the vile seed, which dissolved beneath the skin to leave a soft luminescent trail.

The spider hopped in place triumphantly. 'Ha! I did--'

The prick touched his prey's subconscious and the boy outwardly winced, curling his forearm up to his chin and moaning groggily. The spider, to his misfortune, fell into the crook of the flexed arm and could not free his hind legs, pinched as they were.

'Akk! Bairith! I'm stuck!'

The snake snorted disdainfully. 'Oh, honestly.'

'Yes, honestly!'
Barnath wriggled furiously, trying to break free. This only exacerbated the predicament as one of the boy's spare limbs was called to swat at the itch. His wiry, furry tail emerged from the concealing blanket and swiped at his elbow. Barnath cringed to escape its wrath. 'Ahh! Tail! Help! The monkey attacks!'

Laughter was the most flippant reaction Bairith could produce, and this he committed heartily.

'Quit laughing, you oaf! Help me!'

Bairith paused to breathe. 'Help you?'

'Yes! Do something, damn you!!'


Bairith blinked in a contemplative fit. Had he shoulders, he would have shrugged. 'Your call.'

The barracks resonated with a hard scream. Everyone was awake at once. The black mage started from his bed with an echo of the monkey's yelp.

"Ahhh! A snake!"
"What's going on?" drifted out from the girls' room.
"Your Highness!" A riot of clanging metal was across the hall.
"A snake? Where??"
"Right there!"

Bairith was kicked to the door in the chaos that ensued. Barnath tumbled until his legs found the floor, and then scurried for his life.

"What's wrong?" The two girls appeared in their doorway, inquisitive and frightened.
"Stay where you are! There's a snake!"
"Oh, bother. Is that all?"
The tiny girl noticed the serpent's retreat down the hall, and shrieked. "There it goes!"
"I'm coming, Your Highness!" bellowed the rusty man as he offered a bumbling headlong charge into the wall of his room, stirring the mound of armor into a din. A magic wand loosed from the debris and rolled into the hall. Bairith streaked towards the exit, taking cover in the bedlam.

"Rapier!"

When the snake heard the name given to his breed, he knew he'd been caught. He skidded to a halt at the mouth of the corridor, where he was intercepted by a growling--and very awake--agent of their nemesis.

It was the size of a dog, yet composed like a feline, or some hybrid of a fox. Its black fur was accented by golden rings around its limbs and ears, and one more was stamped to its forehead, glowing ominously in tune with its leering tiger eyes. When its mouth opened, it barked angrily to mortal ears, but to those who can hear the ancient dragons, its warning was more profound.

"Anuc v'te Rut M'blanca sez!"

'Damnit,' Bairith cursed to himself. 'I don't have time for you!'

Its hackles piqued, the guard dog reiterated. "Anuc v'te Rut M'blanca sez!!"

"Bithie tres," the serpent tested a response in the old tongue. The guard was less than satisfied.

"Rapier!! T'yno!" it roared.

Surrender? Forget it, the rapier thought, but held enough tact not to say it. Bairith opened a telepathic channel, trying to reach the animal on his own terms. Perhaps a little persuasion will go a long way...

'You are the esper sprite, Umbreon, are you not? You are in line with the dark elements, and yet you squander your potential, serving that cretin Bahamut? Our master knows much better how to nurture and bolster your abilities, lying potent yet latent within your spirit. Your place would be so much more fitting with the dark lord, who can give you the position and power you deserve!'

"Karatosh!" Umbreon spat. He would not listen. What a pity.

The uproar environed them.

"Snake? I eat!"

Barnath was somewhere lost, running into trouble. Now was not a good time to fight...

"That son of a bitch bit me!"
"Watch your language!"

'If you will not join us then you will let us pass, or know our master's wrath!'

This incited Umbreon to attack. He pounced on the snake like a mongoose and wrestled with the possessed beast. Bairith coiled around its legs and wound over its back, trying to peck at Umbreon's thick coat with his needle fangs. The guardian bucked and thrashed savagely until it snared Bairith's neck in its jaws and slung him to the cold ground. The snake flipped over to dodge Umbreon's following lunge and reared into the air to counterstrike when--

"Look out!"

A razor sliced the air and stuck in the back of Bairith's skull. The snake was carried to the floor with its momentum, whereupon his vessel's life was snuffed out as the sharp bit ran through its head and kissed the floor with a squishy, metal ring. Umbreon bounced away before the second impact, vanishing with a burst of black dust into an unseen realm.

The slayer sauntered into the hall before the stunned audience of his seven companions. His burly, tattooed arm combed a tuft of rebel crimson out of his face, and he grunted disparagingly at the sight of his ninja star, embedded in the quieted snake.

"Go to bed."

He disappeared into his room. The others exchanged muttering comments before doing the same. Barnath tiptoed out of a random room and witnessed the gruesome end. 'Bairith! Bairith...! Oh shit.'

A spider-scaled earthquake apprised Barnath of the beginning of his end. He turned and looked up into the face of a horned little girl.

"Eek! A spider!"

'Oh shit!'

The last thing his fragmented vision saw was a foot.

---
They regrouped outside. Barnath was flexing his gaseous composure, savoring the courtyard's open space while he awaited Bairith's return with the scouter. "Of all the rotten luck," he steamed, reflecting on the turn of events. At least he still had that one dark seed left, still festering in his body.

Bairith finally appeared, their precious key in tow. 'Shall we go?'

Barnath was ready with an assault. "What the hell's wrong with you?!"

'Whatever do you mean, brother?' Bairith asked innocently.

"I mean, back there!! We could have been killed! I mean, we were--I mean, our vessels--why the hell did you do that?!"

'You said, "do something." So I did.'

"I didn't say bite the monkey!!" Barnath fired back. He visibly wilted, his rage exhausted. "Oh, forget it. Why do you do these things to me, Bairith? Sometimes I wonder..."

'Oh, dear brother,' Bairith proffered some logical consolation, 'You don't really think our lives were in danger, now do you? You know we can't be killed so easily--I mean, here we are now. You shouldn't be so silly. Look on the bright side: we delivered a seed to the Rut M'blanca, got away with the other one, and still have time to make it back to the End of Time. So, shall we quit moping and be on that way, already?'

"Fine," Barnath grumpily caved to his brother's reasoning once again. "Let's go."

---
"You should throw them back through there, the way we first came."

They had navigated to the shining island and back to the fourth dimension without incident. The only lingering conflict once the brothers found the old man's haven was how to relieve themselves of the spare vessel and the Gate Key. Barnath was suggesting the most direct means: opening the gate within the bucket and tossing their garbage inside.

'I know that--I was just thinking on how to go about it.'

"You open the gate and throw them in! It's not complicated."

'I have to time my release just so, if I don't want to fall in with them. It's more tricky than it seems, Barnath.'

"Actually," a third party interjected. The brothers were hushed by the interruption that originated from the lamppost. "You can leave that key here. I'll make sure it's rightfully returned." The old man carefully turned about the pole and stared into the brothers' corner, marking their positions firmly with his sight.

They were shocked--first, that a mortal was privy to their words, and then that they had been seen by the same.

"Was he talking to us??"

'You're being fooled by his word games. He can't see or hear you,' Bairith assured him.

"Can't I?" the elder refuted the scouter's claim. "I may be old, but I'm not deaf yet. Not so sure these days about my eyes, though, heh heh. You boys can leave that Gate Key here. I'll return it."

Barnath was hurt by the intrusion on their privacy. "You insolent old--"

'Hush, brother.'

"But he--!"

'It's just as well. Thank you, dear sir. We'll do just that.'

The old man chuckled in the pit of his throat and faced the other way again. At Barnath's insistence, Bairith opened the bucket's gate, ejected his scouter into the future, and closed the door in time behind it. They abandoned the key on the floor of the haven and retreated to the grove of luminous pillars, so as not to be overheard again.

"So," Barnath proceeded to business, "That's one down, one to go, Bairith. Now, which wing shall we clip?"

"I had been thinking on it," he stated matter-of-factly.

"I figured you would. That is why I asked."

"I had supposed that it doesn't matter. The advantage is just the same, either way."

"So, what? We flip a coin? You know I don't have hands."

"Well, unless you have a preference..."

Having left that opening, Barnath thought in it.

"The Mii Sci Kee," he said at last. "Mind you, I loathe the Traukee just as much, but it would give me personal satisfaction for her to know the darkness first... intimately." He sneered insidiously, eager to fulfill the task ahead. "Mwa, ha, haha!"

"I do hope you're not holding a grudge over that little incident at Death Peak, Barnath."

"Oh, but that's what I do best. I'll make her pay for playing us for fools, snatching away our victory like that!"

"Oh, you say as if she did it on purpose. Think of who you're talking about."

"I don't care! My vengeance is blind, and she will be the first to know it!"

"If you say so, brother." Bairith rolled his eyes, and he caught a peripheral glimpse of some brown lump in the fog of time. He studied the landscape beyond their platform before announcing, "By the way, I think there goes your rat, Barnath."

"What??" Barnath peered into the mist until this was discovered true. The rat tittered, as if mocking him, and then ran away. The rapier was furious.

"Fuck you!!"

Bairith only laughed.

"Fuck you too," Barnath snapped. Opting to change the subject, he diverted a glance to the lamp and its stoic elder. "I don't like how that old man was eavesdropping on us all along," he grumbled.

"Can't be helped. I don't think he knows too much."

"I hope not! Don't suppose there's much he could do about it, anyway, right?"

"Of course not."

"Still, I can't imagine why he helped us so, what-with that key."

"Was he necessarily helping /us/?"

"What if he was? I'd like to know."

"Because..."

Like his previous outburst, the old man's comment invoked a stunned silence.

"...Your evil scheming will amount to nothing."

"What...did...you...say?" Barnath choked, inflamed by the notion of being overheard again.

The aged guru curved another glance to the brothers. "Lavos will be defeated."

Bairith, for once, was short on words. Barnath was never so. "You're up shit creek, old man, if you think we care about what happens to that infant, Lavos. We serve a higher purpose!"

The old man did not respond, spare to turn back towards the empty weather and resume his nap.

Barnath was just reloading when Bairith held his tongue. "Don't waste any more breath on him, brother. He doesn't know as much as he means to say." The choleric brother contented himself with a low growl. "You're right. What does he know?"

Calm conviction issued from the heart of the square.

"...The Phoenix will rise again."

To this, Barnath and Bairith said nothing.
>>
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