Yes, at last, a new chapter. Short, but hey, I've had a bumpy road. Hope you enjoy it, and thanks to felicia13, my fantastic beta!
Noca shifted. The soft surface on which she lay was somewhat itchy, but now it wasn't as bothersome. Her eyes were closed; when she fluttered them open for the briefest moment she saw what she had seen when they were closed: Darkness.
From her neck down she was covered in a pleasant warmth in the form of a thick blanket. Her forehead was damp and had some weight pressing down on it; upon investigation she found a damp cloth, folded once and laid across her brow. Mild pain came from her leg and side, but nothing unbearable; from what she could feel they had been bandaged. As her breathing elevated the blanket, her only action was thought.
She remembered glimpses of things; green light, white fur, Miko's voice…
"They took her."
Her breath caught in her throat for a moment. She forced it out in a cough. Kunesa…Kunesa had been taken. Kidnapped, stolen away by Star and Craft as they fled. She sighed inwardly. If she had never made Kunesa come along, had simply brought her back to her home, she would be safe. Now she was in the hands of their enemies and subject to whatever fate they thrust upon her.
Noca swallowed. She wanted to rise, to find Miko and Saya and continue their journey, but she hadn't even the strength to turn over. A debilitating bolt of pain sprung up from her side when she tried.
Flame… she thought, desperate for vitality. Help me.
Wake up, Noca.
Miko sat outside of her room. He, Saya and Noca were in Sonya's shop, accompanied only by a sleeping wolf pup curled underneath the counter in the lobby and the dim glow of the paper lanterns. Liu was deserted; at the destruction of the Black Temple nearly everyone had immediately fled, elated at their liberation. It had been ten hours since the trio's escape from the temple, and the rampant crowd's dust was still settling.
Noca had been unconscious the entire time.
Miko stared at the floor, his hands cupped behind his head and his black hair falling around his face. A circle of metal pressed against the back of his head; in his hands he held the Millennium Bracelet, the retrieval of which had caused the temple to implode.
Momentarily overtaking his worries about Noca were thoughts of their predicament. The East-West war…it seemed like so long ago that Miko had stepped into his home to learn of the news, so long ago that the palace was destroyed. Yet it had only been about three days.
Even with the war to preoccupy him, something still nagged at Miko's mind. Star and Craft…the strange duo had shown up out of nowhere to stop them from entering the Black Temple, and then again to stop them from taking the Millennium Bracelet. What were they trying to protect? Who was their master? And why had they taken Kunesa? Was it premeditated or a spur of the moment action?
He straightened himself and looked at the artifact. He turned it in his fingers. It was all silver, two inches thick at the top and tapered on both ends until two blunt points met opposite the top. It seemed feminine in its craftsmanship.
A blinding light suddenly shone from the silver. Miko squeezed his eyes shut and dropped the bracelet. It hit the wooden floor and began to vibrate. A low humming sound reverberated from the boards beneath it as it quivered and shook, dancing on the floor for a few moments and then stopping abruptly. Miko slowly opened his eyes.
Saya's footsteps replaced the sound of the bracelet. She had been pacing in the lobby. Now she stood at the head of the hallway in which Miko rested and where Noca's room could be entered. "What happened?"
"I've no idea." Miko reached for the bracelet. As his finger touched the silver a small shock went through him. He recoiled briefly, then grasped it in his hand.
"May I see it?" Saya asked him. Miko handed it to her and she took it in both hands.
"We don't have time," Miko said. "I don't want to rush Noca's healing, but not only are we hurried by the impending war, Kunesa is in very immediate danger."
"Noca needs a doctor," Saya said. She slipped the bracelet onto her left wrist, admiring it. She had treated and dressed Noca's wounds, but there was nothing more she could do.
"Sonya was the only doctor in Liu."
"Yes…" Saya frowned thoughtfully. She looked up. "The Flame. We could use it to go back to the main continent, fetch a doctor, and bring him here to treat Noca."
Miko's eyes lit up. "Yes! The doctor could tell us what Noca's condition is. Then we could send him home, pockets heavy with gold."
Saya nodded and smiled. "I'll go," she offered. "You stay here with Noca."
"Okay. Thank you, Saya."
Saya closed her eyes and let out a long breath, focusing on drawing the power of the Eternal Flame to her. "Flame," she said quietly, "take me to Harsen."
A piercingly loud ting! of metal shot through the room. Miko slapped his hands to his ears and the wolf let out a startled yip from beneath the counter.
Saya's left arm was shaking violently and the bracelet twinkled upon it, shining with the same light it had when it jumped out of Miko's hands. The artifact seemed to be squeezing her wrist and was jolting her with strong energy. Saya's face was twisted into a grimace of pain and she dropped to her knees. She slammed her left palm against the wooden floor in an effort to stop its quaking.
It's the bracelet! Miko dove toward Saya, reaching for the bracelet to pry it off of her. When his fingers touched the metal a powerful shock drove through his body and he stumbled backward.
Saya's eyes were squeezed shut. She had her right hand wrapped around her trembling forearm, fingers digging into her flesh.
Then, with the same suddenness that it had before, the artifact ceased its motion.
Miko regained his balance and went to his knees beside Saya. "Are you all right?"
She was looking at the ground, her hair untidy and concealing her face. Slowly, her head rose. "Yes," she said. Her breathing was harsh for a moment but soon regained normality. "Yes, I'm fine." Her arm shook slightly.
There was a series of clicks as the wolf padded his way across the floor to Saya. She turned and sat against the wall and the pup set down next to her, looking up at her as she brushed the hair from her face.
"I think it was the Flame," Saya said, breaking Miko off. "I tried to summon the Flame's power and the bracelet blocked it."
Miko glanced to his right. The chair in which he had been sitting was gone. "It deflected it."
Saya brought her right hand to the wrist with the bracelet on it and tried to take it off. It didn't budge. "What…" She tried to dig two fingers underneath the silver, but it was immoveable. It was as though it had been a part of her from birth. "Oh, wonderful," she sighed. "We can't even leave this impediment behind."
"Cursed artifact," Miko said quietly. "We should have expected something like this with an object from the Black Temple."
Saya looked to where he was and frowned. "If trying to use the Flame activated the bracelet this time, what caused it before?"
"I don't know."
She shook her head and stood. "We'll find out somehow. Right now, though, we must continue. We need to find Kunesa. Then we need to find other artifacts."
"Yes." Noca was hurt, but they couldn't wait for her to heal fully. The war was only postponed; not stopped.
"We need a map."
That was true. They hadn't seen once since they had been in Tarsona, and they needed to have a destination in mind. "I will go out and see if there is anyone left who
might have a map to lend us."
"I'll keep an eye on Noca," Saya said. The pup woofed. "Him, too."
"Thank you. I'll return shortly." He walked toward the door, leaving Saya as she looked at the bracelet on her wrist.
Liu was the same as it had when they had first arrived; dark, quiet, and unpopulated. The dark blue curtain of night had settled gently upon Liu and the surrounding hilly landscape which glistened with moonlit grass.
Miko stepped off of the stone slab that laid before the door to Sonya's clinic. Not even the common sounds of night, crickets or whistling wind, occurred. All was silent and still.
He doubted that anyone was left. As soon as the Black Temple had collapsed, most had chosen to flee immediately, gathering only what they could carry or nothing at all.
Miko started down the road, choosing to go right. Before him lay a small stretch of dirt path with two right turns; one at its end and one forty yards ahead. He mentally chose the closer path, which would lead him into the area of Liu filled mostly with homes. If anybody is left.
He started to walk. The sound of his footsteps was so loud in the still air it almost reached the point of ambience. Miko had never felt so alone; the absence of life, of feeling others' presence, was chilling.
Okay, Miko thought as he walked toward the first turn, I'll obtain a world map. From there we…we can what? We haven't the slightest clue where Kunesa might be; that pair said nothing as to their whereabouts, nor their master's. We're in a world we've never known…
He turned onto the next street. A fairly long way down it, soft light glowed from a window on the right side. It was like a beacon amongst the cerulean night. Miko broke into a run when he saw it. Desperation for answers when he had none was suddenly all based upon that light. Dust billowed around his footprints and merged with the air, shrouding him in a haze.
The light flickered and faded in the dirty cloud. The particles settled back to the ground to reveal a folded parchment square lying in the light. Miko looked to the window; a candle let down yellow light that painted a larger square around the object. The one-room house was empty; the only light was the single candle sitting in the window. Wax ran in thick drops down its sides to harden on the wood beneath it.
Miko knelt down, eyeing the parchment. It sat alone in a deserted town, resting in the light of a single lit candle. He looked closer. There was writing on the back. Without touching the parchment, he read the words.
For the guardians:
You're in quite a bit of trouble, aren't you? One of your rank is gone and another has been hurt.
Don't worry. She's not injured too badly.
As for your kidnapped…she's been taken to a small cluster of islands.
I can't believe such powerful beings as yourselves don't have one of these! Take it. It should help.
Oh…and don't tamper with that bracelet. It's quite a powerful object. If you already have, then I can't help you until we meet face-to-face.
Good luck. I'll be waiting for you.
Miko drew in a long breath and reached for the folded surface on which the message had been written. The message disappeared behind the first unfolding, and after several more Miko found himself staring at a map of the world.
"That makes four."
Miko looked up at Saya. The two of them sat in the lobby; Miko had given Saya his finding. "Four?"
"Four," she repeated. "Star, Craft, their master, and this person. Four other players in this grand scheme."
"What do you mean?"
"Come now. Don't tell me you haven't thought about it. I don't think this is about us, or even the main continent, anymore. Others, even stronger ones are involved, and they're pulling the strings."
"I…" Miko began. It was true. He had thought about it, not even that long ago. When he was sitting outside Noca's door, waiting for her to stir, he had wondered.
"Hey…" Saya had unfolded the map and was looking at it. "Look at this."
Miko came over and looked to where Saya was pointing. He hadn't noticed it before, but a group of islands had been circled in a thick black line.
"Lukiana," Saya read.
"That…that must be where Kunesa is being held!" Miko realized. He studied the map. Abittoir, the land they were on, was to the southeast of the mass of earth that was the main continent. These islands of Lukiana were to the direct west of the main continent and close to the coast. Very far away.
Saya looked toward him. "We must leave as soon as possible. Yet we are again without a ship."
"There must be another dock here. Abittoir isn't remote." Miko straightened. "As for Noca…" The message flashed through his mind. "Perhaps she is better, or at least healing. We will have to rouse her."
Saya set the map down on the chair next to her. "I will," she said, and with a smile, added, "It's not proper for a man to intrude on a sleeping woman."
Very close to becoming red in the face, Miko wisely chose to nod silently and took the map from the seat as Saya walked quietly towards Noca's room.
Kunesa beat at the hard steel in front of her. Her knuckles were bloody and bruised. She kicked at the door, screaming in rage and frustration and, finally, helplessness. Battered, she slumped backwards against the door and closed her eyes. It was dark anyway.
She didn't know where she was. The last thing she recalled was a tugging on the hem of her kimono and then she felt like she was being pulled into a space much too small for her. After that it was blackness, and she had woken up to the same.
Every word she said, from whisper to shout, reverberated off the cold steel of her prison. She knew that the surface she had been beating on was the door only by the smallest sliver of light had shining from underneath it. Other than that, as far as she could tell, the room she was in was six blank shells of unwelcoming metal.
Her swords were gone, too.
Kunesa brought her hands up to her face and slipped her fingers through her hair. It was frigid in the room, but she didn't notice. She stared at the dark steel before her, her mind a blank. There was too much to think about to think at all.
So she waited.
Craft stood outside the door to the master's room. He always knew when they returned; the fact that he had not come to hear the news of their mission was very odd. It was also a relief.
Star had been injured quite seriously. Craft had lain him to rest in his quarters. There he slept, breathing harshly, but she did not know how to treat him. His injuries were internal: broken ribs.
She curled her fingers into a fist and prepared to knock. Star was hurt and needed help, and they also had the matter of the prisoner, Kunesa. However, if the master had not come to meet them, then there must be a good reason and it would probably be a bad idea to disturb him. Her hand faltered.
No. This had to be done.
As she righted herself to knock, however, her foot slipped forward slightly and knocked against the door. It swung inward and lightly touched the wall behind it. Craft was looking at the master's quarters, three times the size of her and Star's own rather small rooms, and the master's quarters were empty. He was not here. That was the only explanation, for the master never left his quarters but to eat and to speak, however rarely, to her and Star. She had seen the galley, empty and silent as usual, on the way to find the master.
What could have made him leave so precipitously, without even a telling as to where he had gone? Without even locking his door?
A curiosity burned inside of her. They knew so very little about the master…and if he were gone, leaving his quarters open to, say, a little investigation…
Yes. Do it, she told herself. Discover secrets…weaknesses…why he is so powerful… He had reigned over them like a lord ever since he had saved their family heirloom, the sword that currently rested next to Star…their younger brother, Mengsk, had died at his hands because of the destruction of the glyph, and he showed not the slightest care for them; only indications that once their usefulness had been used up, they would not be welcome on Lais, the island of the headquarters, anymore.
She took a single step forward. All was absolutely silent; she could hear the blood pounding in her ears as her heart beat wildly at the prospect of walking uninvited into the most hallowed spot in Lais. She took a long, slow breath, unclenched her hands, and entered the room. In the furthest corner was an L-shaped gray desk that fit into the corner exactly. It was cluttered with papers and Craft noticed the map rolled up and set to the side. A bed, long and adorned with thick blankets, stretched alongside the right wall. Other than these and a chair which sat askew of the desk, the room was bare.
Craft ventured toward the corner. She hadn't noticed before, but the room was lit by a kerosene lamp that stood upon an upper rack of the desk. The glass ball glowed with fiery light. To have left the lamp burning, she realized, the master must have left in utmost hurry.
Standing over the desk, she gazed down over the papers and objects strewn before her. A bloodied knife pinned down what looked like a drawing of a miniature sun, a blank, rather yellowed sheet of parchment had scrawled upon it runes of a language Craft did not recognize.
Then something caught her eye. A good-sized book, bound in leather and resting just on the edge of the desk, boasted a shining gold-plated cover with the inscription, 'Legend of the Eternal Flame'.
Craft sucked in her breath. The master spoke of the Eternal Flame quite often. Never directly to them, but often as he talked to himself, often cursing under his breath, about the four who threatened them and saying what a fool Erun was for helping to create such a thing.
She ran her fingers across the cover, which was smooth and showed her a reflection of her own awed face. This book contains the answers to everything, she thought. The Eternal Flame, who Erun is…perhaps even some history written upon the master himself. He must be directly involved with it in some way.
Craft set herself down in the chair, took the heavy volume, and began to read.