Oddly enough, the thunder didn't wake him. It was there when he awoke, as the odious background noise of a fading nightmare. It was not in itself, however, the stimulus to bring him back to hear it. His twilight consciousness could not discern the cause in fact--it was like some shadow in the corner of your eye that darts away when you turn to look.
The wizard thought he sensed someone, and was then wide awake to find that one, but there was no one for his eyes. Feeling rather sore, he tended to his condition before minding his location. He slouched back on one arm, fitted his brow into the seat of his other glove, sighed, and massaged his temples. When he was fit and ready to explore his environment, he let it know by rising and sweeping it with a brisk glance.
This place is new. He was... in a cave? It was dreary with the dark, monochromatic slate that decked the room. It was also, at the same time, vivid with the color of the sea, as such blue light filled the room from a pedestal behind the wizard that there was the impression he was underwater. He turned and approached the glowing anomaly, intensely curious.
There were pillars around it, crafted from chalky stone, and between the pairs of them was a mounted... globe? It was a ball of electric sapphire, with silver rings in orbit about it--four to count, including a fixed tread for the outermost. His gaze traced the lustrous ciphers along the rings. Familiar runes, yes. He once had a book in his castle with many of their kind. It was a powerful spell book--gone now, of course, when he abandoned that dreadful citadel. He had borrowed its incantations to summon Lavos for a duel. Things went awry from there and... Well, he should not digress. Fate only knows where that book is, now.
The present insisted that there were these inscriptions before him now, and their rings encapsulated... well, he would have called it a globe, if the wizard didn't have a better comparison for it.
It looked like a gate.
A very strange one, though, to be contained like so. Gates were natural things, or at least random phenomena, he thought. Of course, he also thought them extinct, having died with Lavos. Was this one... created? Who would do this?
He reflected on the course that led him here. He had been locked in battle with that water-bound brute! It had done something to him, and now he was here. It was strange, he noticed, that he was completely dry, even down to the skin, as if he had never taken the plunge. Perhaps funny, as well, that he was still alive. Not a scratch marred him... not from that encounter, at least.
It was safe to conclude regardless that whoever or whatever rendered him unconscious was also responsible for sparing him, and then depositing him here... /when/ever here was.
That would be a good thing to find out first. The buzz of rain and thunder leaked into the chamber, and from the other corner a wan flash set his path aglow. He followed a bent, choked passage to the outdoors, where the luxury of staying dry was decidedly short-lived.
He emerged into a verdant world: green grass, green trees, and green shrubs--even slight puddles whose reflections were adorned in leafy celadon. He sauntered to the brink of a dull cliff, where the grassy carpet was sawed off and the mottled clay beneath cascaded into a flowing broth that cut the high lands deep and ran away behind a corner. Staring down into muddy trench was like peering over the event horizon into the canyon's raging singularity. That and the ashen sky were the only relief from green.
It must have been raining for some time, else he could not have been watching the rampaging mudslide below. The proliferation of water aside, there weren't sufficient clues here. He took to the sky, employing his skill to hover, and absorbed the landscape with a bird's eye.
Trees, grass, rocks, stream, more trees, lightning, village, still more trees...
As he soared that way, clusters of buildings materialized from behind the curtain of rain in increasing numbers, gradually gaining the force of a small city as opposed to a humble village. Country roads merged with paved streets and linked the town houses and cottages to the shops and meeting halls. Balloons of smoke were tethered to chimneys. A long pier stabbed into the eastward sea, and to the far south, just close enough to stand defined amid the watery haze, was the other edge of this piece of continent, and an island offshore.
The wizard touched upon a deserted block of civilization just north of those places better trafficked. The plot of land was pressed smooth with coarse bricks in the mold of squished potatoes. It was a spacious lot, its open field of cobblestones brimming with mosses and infant weeds. The granite's mica freckles shivered under the alabaster firmament with every striking raindrop. In nooks that branched from the central square, clinging vines and minty shrubs flowed over the border fences and chained the wooden picnic tables to the rocks.
He strolled south, drawing in the empty wet. His heavy footsteps carried him down a clump of stairs and brought him before a lonely edifice. His scowl mopped the two tall stone supports that fused at its peak in an arch and suspended a bronze bell by iron rings and braided cords. At the structure's base was a profound little plaque of a like metal--fresh and clean, its oxidation not yet matching the infringing greenery. It was still plainly readable:
May our prayers for peace ring on for eternity...
He knew this bell. He knew these grounds. He knew this time. And now, he knew what he was going to do about it. He went south.
It was time to make a house call.
The earth rumbled like a drum, throwing thunder's voice back to the clouds. Man's shelters wavered under the assault, their windows quivering with each booming note.
In a high window, panels of framed glass rattled in their skeletal casement, startling Alfador in his cage. He shrank away from the meshed wire closing him in like ribs around a squirming heart and buried his chubby snout in a nest of paper shavings. The next grand crash plucked his water bottle from its hinges and brought the wet chaos outside someplace more immediate, splashing his enclosure with a sample of rain and stirring the walls of stringed tin into a ringing clamor. The bottle plunked to the floor of the cage, Alfador screamed piteously, and his master at last awoke, starting from the desk she set her head upon with a drowsy yelp. She discovered Alfador in a frenzy, released her captive breath, and then in turn the hamster, flicking open the petite lock to the cage at her side and scooping the shivering ball of fur into her hands. She held the rodent to her neck in a gentle hug, cooing softly. The hamster wiggled onto her shoulder and took refuge in her hair, which was a shade of purple that suited his fur well enough for hiding.
The girl slouched in her chair with a weighty sigh and rubbed her eyes. The papers she had used for pillows were splayed over the desktop before her in a blurry collage. She numbly reached for her glasses, which she curiously had the foresight to remove before "accidentally" falling asleep, and skimmed over last night's work.
As ambitious as her project's roots might have been, the planning stages appeared to end rather tragically with a doodle of a small bird being slaughtered by crude artistry. Its graphite blood streamed off the edge of the page in jagged, dizzy lines that apparently terminated alongside her consciousness. Animal cruelty aside, the notes comprised the schematics for an idea that had miraculously germinated in her lately entropic mind.
At the time it had occurred to her, she was rather excited; she had not drawn up an idea for an invention since her Telepod... debacle, and that was nearly three years ago. This new machine would hopefully endure a more successful test run, but of course she'd have to finish planning its construction, and then assemble the parts, and... oh...
She shook her head, quelling the euphoric fever that always bubbled up with a new idea. The fact of it was that she was so excited over building something new that she exhausted herself with its conception, and here she was now, waking up to a pile of sketchy papers and eraser shavings. She was brushing the latter from her lap when she spied her reflection in a hand mirror propped between the table and the wall. She grimaced at her disheveled hair and leaned into the mirror's eye to examine the blush streaks across her cheeks, doubtlessly impressed by the sleeve of her shirt. "What a mess," she grumbled at the scene collectively.
It was all her mess, of course. The only semblance of neatness was found on her bed, which was lying beneath the window, across the room. It was ironically made up smooth and orderly, while the rest of the quarters suffered organizational problems. The bookcase, cowering in the corner near the bed, was the last place to find her books, which instead segregated into related cliques that populated their own haphazard corners. Notebooks filled with sketches and diagrams of the like that cluttered her desk clung to the outskirts of the books' neighborhoods.
And those were the sane things. Other items less explicable blanketed the shelves and worktops: beakers frosted with acids and sulfates; screws, nails, wrenches and hammers; a box opener; a spilled jar of fuzzy pipe cleaners; another jar entombing six bees and one dusty moth; a dismembered wristwatch, its minute components strewn over the bed table; a lampshade scarred with a burn hole that conveniently fit its contained bulb; tin trinkets with arms and legs and swinging joints; a cigar box brimming with the trimmings of copper wires; and, appropriately, a fire extinguisher, its holding clasps on the wall wrecked with use, leaving duct tape to hold it aloft.
As she wondered how only her left eye became bloodshot a fleeting shadow blotted the mirror's background. Her sluggish reflexes spun her around in her seat and found the clandestine intruder.
She screamed and scrambled to her feet, ignoring the prickling pain as Alfador's tiny talons missed the collar of her shirt and dug into her neck. With a desperate swipe she took up a pencil for a weapon and pointed it at the lurking shape that had appeared in the middle of her bedroom, standing on an island of clean walk space and glancing about the quarters with a decidedly oblivious expression.
Several things occurred in her racing thoughts, and they all wrecked into each other like a pile-up at a busy intersection. First, she had been taken off-guard, and even if that was entirely warranted (considering it WAS her bedroom and she shouldn't have to have her guard up all the time in the privacy of her own home damnit), she berated herself for letting it happen. Second, how the hell did this person get in here? No windows or doors were left open and she would have heard someone coming up the stairs, since the steps creak miserably at the slightest provocation. The third realization more-or-less took care of the second: the person standing before her was none other than the Magus, and if her assessment of his personality served her well, he went wherever the hell he wanted whenever he wanted regardless of technical obstacles like, say, doors. Or time eras--which brought her to the fourth, and perhaps most important query: what on Earth was the-/freaking/-Magus doing in her home, in this age, at this time of day, his war-beaten armor dripping a steadily-growing rain puddle onto her dusty floor.
Her breath was too busy keeping up with her heart to form any of these questions. Unfortunately a third party intervened, the voice of concern belatedly drifting into the room from some obscure origin downstairs.
"Lucca, was that you? Is something the matter?"
Oh yeah, she had screamed. That was probably not the most rational reaction. Magus at last seemed to acknowledge her existence, turning a covert glance her way that suggested she do something.
Quick, bullshit excuse! "Uh... no!" she shouted back down the stairwell, "It was just... a spider!"
Her mother sounded satisfied, although frankly, Lucca was still too dazed to call to mind what she exactly said; as long as it didn't mean her mother was coming up here to see for herself, the young inventor really didn't care.
That handled, Lucca turned her energies on the intrusive mage, setting down the pointy pencil and tuning her voice to the confines of the room. "You! What are you--how did you--what the hell--what are you doing here?!"
To her never ceasing amazement, the wizard ignored her. He began to shuffle through the mire of belongings, trampling wayward stacks of paper and overturning shoeboxes she had piled into the corner beside the staircase. As she watched him violate her room a curious attitude overcame her. She was gradually moving from shock, to dumbfounded surprise, to an inquisitive stupor, to a irritable humor that was threatening to find a voice.
What's he doing to her room?? Who does this guy think he is?! Already knowing the answer, she didn't let appreciation of his unbridled (albeit justified) arrogance defer her temper.
"Hello!? Just what do you think you're doing?!" she at last spoke up.
She would have wagered that the sheer impudence of her outburst at last won his attention. The wizard straightened and shifted as if to face her, although it apparently merited some egocentric "body language victory" to not meet her entirely.
Somehow, in the time since their farewell, she had managed to forget how intimidating the wizard truly was. He was uncannily tall and broad, with an aura of strength that was paradoxically enhanced by his cloak rather than masked by it. Although she thought it blue once, she could see now that it bore a rich purple when soaked. Its waterlogged fibers stuck to his clean, pasty shoulders, embossing their vivid contours in dirty velvet. His leather gloves and cured pads of armor were painted a wetter shade as well, and the shape of his mane was damaged by the weather to an almost comical degree, had the face it was framing not been delivering the most chilling leer since Medusa fell out of her stony habit.
She wavered under the stare, her hands taking the edge of her desk for support, but she didn't otherwise yield to the wizard, much less retract her question. After a grueling wait, he answered... sort of.
"Where is it?"
His voice was like molasses; it was thick and uncompromising in a way that sounded as if he were choking on his own rotten disposition. Lucca was tempted to visualize him coughing up a hairball of evil any minute. She repressed the ridiculous imagery with a forced blink.
"Where is /what/?" she responded, still annoyed.
He displaced some junk with his toe and whisked a glance over the room again. "That key thing."
She regarded him bitterly. "Beautiful terminology, there. That could only be anything/. I'm going to assume by the fact that you're even standing here in front of me--which /should be impossible without a gate--that you're talking about my Gate Key."
"You know what they say about assuming," he retorted flatly, rummaging aimlessly all the while.
If he was trying to be funny, his wit wasn't appreciated. She didn't even want to know where he had picked up that colloquial adage; it was modern, and he was certainly not... unless that joke was much older than she thought. "Would you quit throwing my stuff around??" she snapped. "You're not going to find it there anyway."
Hearing some encouraging clue, he finally heeded her and desisted. "Well then? Where is it?"
She opened her mouth, armed with a snippy answer, but instead muted it, thinking better than to say something she might regret. A considerate moment crossed her in which the mage was sure he would draw out the information he needed. However, as compelling as the impatient warlock standing in her midst might have been, she suffered a change of heart. She fell onto the spine of the chair at her back, loaning her slight weight to it until it tilted into the desk's embrace. She sat in a shrug this way, her lips pursed in a coy smile that furrowed the mage's brow.
"I don't think I'm going to tell you."
Her wit apparently succeeded over his. He studied her with a squished gape, as if he were hard of seeing insolence, before at last replying in such a deadpan that the ring of a question was lost.
She crossed her arms before her, inflating like a rooster. Her defiance disgusted him. "You heard me. I don't see one good reason why I should tell you anything, much less where I keep my Gate Key. I mean, I don't even know what you intend to do with it once you get it. How do I know I'll even see it--much less you--again? Forget it."
In a stride and a half he was looming over her, his voice even more venomous up close. "I'm not asking. If you don't tell me where you're hiding it, I'll find it myself--and you won't like my methods."
"If you'll try to be reasonable, we can both get what we want without you tearing my damn room apart."
"Who says I'll stop with your room? I'll destroy this entire house if I have to. I want that key."
"Ha!" She scoffed at him. "And you think your luck'll be any better that way? What're you gonna do? K--"
"--Kill you," he cut in, lethally serious.
She flinched, but any fleeting fear soon abandoned her, unchecked anger filling its hole.
"Oh really?" the girl countered, "And then what? Good luck finding the key after that! I'm sure as hell not going to tell you where to look if I'm dead. Maybe you'd better think again before you get all pissy and start throwing your magic or whatever around here."
"Lucca? Who are you talking to?" called from downstairs. The girl bit her lip, realizing that she had let her voice rise too high again. The two magicians held their breaths until the hailed one hesitantly tossed back a shout. "Um... Alfador!"
After receiving a prying look from Magus, she explained in a quiet aside, "My hamster." Mentioning it reminded her to remove the critter from her shoulder and loose it on the table, where the rodent was happy to take repose on a stable surface.
"Well don't talk to your pets so much," downstairs returned. "It's strange."
"Yeah, well, I'm strange..." Lucca muttered into the hand mirror, which blinked at her from the desk. Turning once more to the demon still lingering in her personal space, she discovered that keen leer interrogating her still.
"Yeah, I named him Alfador," she defensively admitted. "I thought it was a good name. What, you wanna fight about it?"
Magus huffed in his contemptuous way and let the matter go, resuming the topic at hand.
"Maybe..." He threw an insinuating look down the stairwell. "...You won't treat my demand so frivolously with someone else's life at stake."
This, at last, paused her. For a long turn she didn't meet his eyes, staring rather around him, at the nearest bedpost. Then, with a deep, resolute breath, she faced him again.
"Well then. Have it your way. Kill us all if you want. I haven't changed my mind."
"You feign to negotiate with me? Do you know who you're dealing with, little girl?"
As recklessly as ever, she shot back, "I know exactly who I'm dealing with; I remember who you are. I also know that it's going to be pretty damn hard to find that key without my help."
As easily as the wizard could pause to develop a rebuff, she slipped out of his burrowing glare and moved to rearrange the demolished towers of books, continuing to cut him down as she worked.
"You know, Magus, you've got to learn to deal with people. Not everybody's gonna just bow down to you and let you do what you want all the time--that's why I've got conditions. If you play fair and agree to them, I'll let you use the key."
The mage's head ticked to consider it.
"And these... 'conditions' are going to stop me from killing you and burning this house to the ground once I get what I came for?"
She stood straight and whirled to him, her hands on her hips. "Have you ever been a civilized human being, like, ever?? Or have you just killed and blown up everyone and everything in your way?"
He didn't answer.
"Do you want the Gate Key or not?"
He smirked and humored her. "...What are your conditions?"
"Ah, yes--that's the spirit," she chimed, picking up her half-hearted cleaning. "I have three, actually. The first is that you let me come with you."
"What," he fell on that default note of surprise.
"That's right; I want to come along. I think I have a right to know what's going on around here." She stuffed some miscellaneous papers under her bed and stepped back to her worktable.
Even his voice scowled. "Don't be ridiculous. This is none of your concern."
"Oh, that's right--It must not be. That's why you've come through a gate to my time, showed up in my house and demanded that I give you the Gate Key I created. If this doesn't fall under the category of 'my business,' I don't know what does."
"It'll be dangerous."
She exaggerated a quiver to mock him. "Ooo, danger." Then, sober as business, "What's your point? You say that as if I'm some lightweight. If you'll care to remember, I was right there beside you when we took down Lavos. I think I can handle a little so-called 'danger.'" She shielded a grin from him and pretended to organize the clutter on the table. "Although, your attempt to talk me out of this is commendable."
Magus would not play with her. "This is not a game. I don't have time to baby-sit some little brat."
"Oh that's funny. You didn't seem to mind putting up with some 'little brats' the last time. Don't think of it as 'babysitting.' Think of it as..." She waved her hand, as if conjuring a euphemism via magic. "...taking on a traveling companion."
His position was as steadfast as his posture. "I'm working on this alone. I don't want or need company."
Lucca again turned away from him and floated to the other end of the room, putting up an indifferent air. "That's too bad... I guess you might as well kill me and be on your way, then."
"You've got some nerve," he darkly spoke, his voice thirsty for a violent resolution that only a conversation like thus could invoke. "You must not value your life very much. Who says I won't do just that?"
"Oh... just a hunch," she quibbled, meandering back to the desk. "As for my life..." She trailed off and took a candy from a formerly inconspicuous drawstring pouch, popping it into her mouth. She finished in a near-murmur once she swallowed it, not meeting the wizard's eyes, "...Let's just say I've recently fallen into the position to take some liberties with it."
Her abruptly somber demeanor, coupled with her words, vexed the wizard, but this reaction manifested quaintly in one perked eyebrow.
"For a so-called 'scientist' you're not being very reasonable."
"Ah!" Switching to an upbeat note, she spun around to eye him and punctuated herself with an upturned finger. "But there's a method to my madness. So, what do you say?"
The wizard glanced to the window and briefly read the cloud cover outside. "...Fine," he answered distantly. "Come if you wish. It's your funeral."
He looked back to the girl when he thought he heard a cynical, "We'll see," masked in a cough. He moved on without touching it. "What's the other condition?"
The scientist began to sort through the items of her workspace in earnest, taking a pale cloth purse from a drawer and busily packing it with papers, pencils, and the aforenoticed pocket of candy. "Well, the second really ties in with the first. As long as we're going to be traveling together, the key might as well stay in my custody. At all times. I don't want anyone else--especially not the likes of you--handling it. Call me paranoid if you want."
Magus growled under his breath. "Forget it. You're pushing it. I don't need some kid laying down rules for me. I'd take a fool..." As he spoke he watched her sweep a bundle of supplies into her bag, and the shadow of a smile muted him. She slung the purse over her shoulder and bluntly responded, "Hey, you're free to kill me and take it from my cold dead fingers anytime you want, but that's my condition, so agree to it now or /get bent/."
The wizard fleetingly wondered if this girl wanted to die.
"...Fine," he relented, not willing to reason with madness. "But I'm still in charge. We're going where and when I want to go. Got that?" he insisted, stressing the double entendre time travel introduced.
"Fine," she easily allowed. Perhaps too easily? "You're the boss. As long as you agree."
Somehow he didn't feel like the boss, and a repressed part of his soul was furious. As she walked around him he tensed irritably, seeming to grow even more foreboding with raised hackles. As it was she coolly ignored him and slid around the indignant mage, taking up a peg-legged footstool. She carried it with an awkward stalk towards a wayside door off the top of the stairs, stepping over the disarrayed papers and mechanical miscellaneous like a crane through a reedy marsh. Shuffling the stump to one arm, she cracked upon the door with the other and kicked the exit wide with one heel, knocking aside a stack of books that once barred it shut.
Cursing the shambles, she left her room for an indoor balcony that overlooked the main floor of the house. Planting the footstool squarely in its middle, she glanced back to the waiting wizard and gestured for him to follow with a subtle flick of the chin.
He wondered why she was smiling so; it was a cunning smirk that didn't fail to irk him. Nevertheless, he went her way... for now.
The girl balanced atop the stool and reached for the ceiling, where a flimsy square patch in the woodwork was easily propped open and shoved aside. With some puffy grunts she hoisted herself through the hole and climbed into the attic. "It's up here," the Magus heard from above.
The wizard paced in circles below the hole, considering it. He then took a magic lift up to the next floor, hardly stirring with the effort. Only when he nearly bumped his head on some exposed support beams did the magician care to duck. The attic was hardly tall enough for standing, but Magus found an ideal place to do so and waited.
It was a dark, dusty hovel. Like a tent, the roof fell over them in broad slants, giving itself to the floor on two sides and allowing for two plain, flat walls at the open ends. At one of these ends, light poured in through a round porthole posted above a store of large chests and cardboard boxes. Lucca crawled into the ashy spotlight and presumed to dig through the trash and things. She upturned a bulky crate, fanning away with a grimace the cloud of dust that sifted off its ledges. She pried ajar the lid with her fingers and began to pull odds and ends from the box in a busy search.
"Just a minute," she notified him. Magus idly looked around in the meantime. A weathered chest against the wall singed his sixth sense. He lightly trod over the creaking floorboards and stood over it, examining its petrified wooden slats and corroded hinges. He carefully cracked apart the lid with his boot and peeked inside. A glowing lustre wafted out of the chest as Magus glimpsed a large shining stone sitting in its bottom. When the girl shrieked his foot slipped from the lid, slamming the light shut.
"Oh geez!" Lucca exclaimed through gritted teeth as she scrambled backwards out of the charge of a renegade arachnid. "Spider, spider! Eek!"
The house spider, perhaps panicked as well, scurried up to the wizard in blind haste. Magus stared dully at the tiny critter for a moment before casually lifting his foot and ending its life. He looked at the girl with a disparaging smirk.
"I hate spiders," she grumbled in her defense and with trepidation stuck her hands back into the box of cobwebs.
Magus harrumphed and examined the attic moreover. A gold fleck winked at him from behind some extra boxes. He crouched near it and found a dusty tanned tome, emblazoned with a gilded, archaic seal. The wizard peered into its rusty pages; they were filled with stylized illustrations and hand-blotted ink. He carried the book to the window, catching its faded light and illuminating the text.
It was an indecipherable handwriting, as beautiful as it was enigmatic. The letters were clean and bold, but he knew the volume to be old. This was a familiar face. The magician skimmed through the pages with practiced thumbs to find a place to test his memory. Then, before him was his book-marked answer. He gazed with vacant shock into the majestic sketch of the most hideous of foes, and glanced over the margin of runes that cited its summoning.
This was the call of Lavos. This was his spell book, long lost to his castle.
What was it doing here? How was it so intact, after hundreds of years? Was it a copy?
He was lured away from his reading to look down at the girl. Despite his overpowering height, she still managed to appear condescending as she said, "You make a better door than you do a window."
He lowered his brow, mulling over the remark before he realized that his shadow was concealing the contents of her box. He silently shifted to the side and allowed her to resume rifling through the storage.
As he flipped through the relic some more, something unique to this edition was apparent. Between nearly every page was a loose sheet, its origin distinct and its contents not in the foreign script but in a modern language. These bookmarks, as he read them, appeared to not merely divide the passages but rather correspond to them. Translations?
"Impossible..." he breathed. Overhearing this, the girl piped up. "What?"
"Fine then," Lucca huffed and went back to business. The wizard furtively pocketed the entire book in a magic fold (another handy function of his cloak), just as the young inventor lighted on the subject of her search.
"Aha!" With a flourish she produced the Gate Key from the box. "Ta-da! And here we have it, sir," she addressed him with flippant courtesy.
When the wizard leaned as if to take it she retracted the item from his reach and thrust it into her purse. He frowned, but kept to himself.
"All right!" the girl declared excitedly. "Now just let me get ready, and we can go and pick up my third condition."
Magus gave her a hard, piercing glare. Lucca simply grinned.
"Last one, I swear."