THE END OF DAYS
BOOK FOUR | WRATH OF MACHINES
PART TWO | Tracing Lines
Chapter (?) | Returning
Section 2 - Hidden Eyes
I wheeled around and came face to face with the man in the bowler hat. Everything happened within a second: I moved my arm to point the gun in his face; he swatted my wrist and disarmed me; he was pointing my gun at my face. I threw my hands up. His hat was tipped down over his eyes, but he was grinning. I thought I recognized…
"C-3073 Haztmeister pistol, chambered for point-thirty Haztmeister cartridges, ten rounds," he said in a heavy Angli-Kinallan accent. "Nice." He turned the gun over and over, examining it. "Huh, the waterproof model. Must be Deidreich's design. Eh. Fan of Haztmeister much?"
I looked from him to the pistol from under my eyebrows. "Not exactly. The name doesn't ring well where I'm from." I was thinking of the Haztmeister firearms that Legumlatoris had snuck into the Drackon Kingdom. "But I'm sure it will do the job." My fingers tingled, ready.
"Sure will," he sneered and then pointed the gun back at my face. "Now wotcha gonna do, girlie?"
I ducked down and shot my palm toward his abdomen. I caught his expression as the controlled burst of air lifted him up and blasted him backward. I watched the gun sail away as he landed in a heap several yards away. I went forward and grabbed the pistol up and rolled deftly behind the burn barrel. As he tried to get up, I realized my pistol had the safety on. I ticked it off and pointed it at him.
"I'm gettin' too old for this." He spat some dirt out and sat on his side. His bowler hat had fallen off, revealing a head of carrot-orange hair and pointed ears. He squinted at me through the sunlight, and his scarred face seemed to be more disfigured when he grinned at me again. "Not bad, girlie. What ya need a gun for if ya still got that air power stuff goin'? Feh. I was wonderin' when you were gonna turn around. You're gettin' better, though, eh?"
My eyes widened. "S… Skullcap?" I stood up. "I'd thought it was you."
He straightened up too and jammed his hat back on. "Yep. It's me. How you doing, girlie?"
I stared as he dusted his trench coat off and regained his composure. I could not believe it was really him. But no one in Sanctus had the orange hair, wild eyes and crooked grin that old Skullcap did. He was the same Skullcap I always saw drunkenly swaggering around all the streets of Sanctus with no shirt, pants falling down, and a heavy drink in one hand. Not unlike many of the other residents of Sanctus. But Skullcap knew every shortcut through the city, every drug route, every bootlegging service and every dirty secret any significant person in Sanctus had. And here he was decked out in a trench coat, boxy pants, bowler hat, and a badge on his chest. And sober. I would think that the sun would burn out before I would see Skullcap in uniform and sober.
"So… you're a PI now?" I said cautiously. "You're going to get yourself killed."
"Pssh, naw," he shook his head around and pulled a case from the inside of his coat. He looked up. "Or not anymore, at least."
"You're sure of that?" I was still nervous and I still pointed the gun at his face. Skullcap had always done favors for the Rebels, but he also knew a fair amount of sensitive information about me. "You're not following me?"
He produced a cigar from his case and lit it up. "Yes and naw, not really. See girlie, the PIs saw me out of the whole thing, eh? Got rid of me. I knew too much about 'em, I did."
"So you used to be a PI," I said, digging a tooth into my lip. It made sense now. Only a PI would take it upon himself to learn the ins and outs of an entire city. Or a crime lord would. I was still suspicious. "But you're dressed as one now. Why is that?"
Smoke gushed out of his mouth. "Cuz I'm doin' business with a client with good money and they ain't gonna pay any old graywater-lookin' shmoe to do the job, girlie. So I dug the old uniform out."
"But you're not a private investigator?" I wiggled the gun at him. "And you're not following me? Then why are you here?"
"Slow down, doll." He held up his hands and spread his fingers with the cigar tucked between an index and middle finger. "Look. I am a private eye. I'm not working with the Sanctus City Private Investigators anymore. I'm not workin' for tha police, or the Gold Strip richies, or city council or anyone like that." I kept my eye on the cigar waving about. He seemed so strange being sober. Too serious.
"Then who's your client?"
He shook his head. "I can't tell ya that!"
"Who is it?"
"Urgh," Skullcap grunted and put a hand behind his neck and leaned his head back. "It's someone from outta town lookin' for a little info about Sanctus. I'm supposed to meet 'em tonight at the Golden Anchor. Stupid place to meet if I ever… I suggested the Old Strip but he thought it was too dirty…"
"You can't tell me his name?"
He pulled the cigar out of his mouth and looked down at me. "I can not tell you that. 'Gainst the code of the private eye."
"And yet you're comfortable telling me where you're meeting this… client."
"Yep." He eyed the gun.
"Why is that?"
"Cuz you ain't gonna tell anyone else and you sure ain't gonna follow me there," he smirked. "You're leaving town."
I looked at him sideways. "How do you know I'm leaving town?"
He put his arms out. "You're here. Here at the station. None of these buses are takin' you to the swamp. Or the carnival."
"You're here too!" I raised my voice. "You followed me! Why?"
"I's just curious. And I was bluffin' yeah?" He shook the cigar at the pistol.
"Are you sure someone else isn't curious about what I'm doing, and you're not answering to them?"
He shook his head and looked me dead in the eye, brow furrowed. "Stop," he demanded. "Look 'Eris. We're friends. We drank at the Matchbox, we drank on the ships and in the hobo camps and all the bars and streets everywhere. I wouldn't turn on ya. I know you're a good girl. You've done good things. You've gotten me out of tight spots. I jus' wanted to make sure no one else was curious about your leavin,' hon'."
I blinked. He was trying to see me off safely. I would never have expected anything like that from Skullcap. This was almost too weird, even from him, but I appreciated every bit of it since he was one of the first people I met in Sanctus… and a friend.
"And I noticed," he continued. "I notice everythin' in this town. I notice you ain't been hangin' out with the Rebels anymore. You been keepin' to yourself and you hain't been lookin' too good neither. I seen you get rid of all your stuff today. I know what that means, hon'. Two things. You're gettin' ready to leave… or you're gettin' ready to die. You answer me this: Which one is it?"
I lowered my gun and looked down at the dirt. "Both. I'm leaving for Rapsiris again."
Skullcap almost snarled. He knew what that meant. "Why in the hell would you wanna go there?"
I looked up, trying to keep my face straight. "There's someone there I'm looking for. I'm looking for a lot of people, I think. I left someone there in Rapsiris and I need to make sure he's still alive."
Skullcap jerked his head. "Who is he?"
"His name is Jovius. He's… he's my son."
Something inside of me broke. I never called or even openly considered that Jovius was my son. Skullcap was taken aback. "You 'ave a son? When'd you do that?"
"I…" My face cringed. "I don't like to talk about that too much. It wasn't to my will, if that's a way to put it."
"Oh." His face darkened. "Damn. I'm sorry about that."
"You don't have to apologize," I sighed and looked back up. "I'm going to find him. I saw him last in Maverick City. I left him with a friend when I went to find some help…"
"You haven't gone off to look for him sooner?"
I grimaced. "I was caught-up. I didn't exactly expect to be laid out and chomped in half by a chaos monster and picked up by Burnheart Laboratories. And I…" I swallowed. "I've thought he would be dead by now."
Skullcap looked thoughtful. "Ya know, Maverick ain't as bad as most places in Rapsiree'. They say the further south you go, the better it gets, eh? Pretty sure your boy's still alive if he's in good hands."
"I… I wasn't aware of that…" I stammered. So Maverick was not so bad. This gave me a bit of hope. It also made me feel ashamed.
He dusted his cigar. "Well damn, girlie. Your boy needs ya, and I respec' you for goin' back to find 'im. But ya seem to be going this solo."
"The journey is mine alone."
"Playin' the lone wolf eh?" Skullcap snickered. "Yeah, well… There's always the Rebels. You know what they say—"
"I don't want the Rebels to go with me."
"Aw, not even your little boyfriend? Alex?"
I looked away and sheathed the gun. I looked toward the sun as it slipped behind a cloud. "I'm not even sure he's my boyfriend. He's too young for me."
My thoughts were scattered. The wind picked up more dust and whipped our coats around as we stood there without saying anything. Though it was hot out, I felt a shiver run down my spine. I stared up at the emptying blue sky. I saw frayed silk strings and bullet holes. I felt alone, completely alone. Skullcap was right; maybe I should not do this journey by myself. But there was no one who I could trust enough to go with me.
No… there was no one I wanted to take to Rapsiris only to see them die. I did not want the thing that happened to Syntereth to happen to any of my friends. I imagined laying Alex Lo's bloodstained body down to rest, kissing his sleeping face goodnight. I could not bear the thought. I still loved him. I knew he loved me enough to follow me. But I could not let him do that. I was not strong enough to protect him from what lay ahead.
I watched Skullcap put his cigar out on the metal siding of the building. I heard a toilet flush from somewhere inside. I thought about the finger bottle of vodka in my coat pocket and my mouth dried.
"Does that say 'Mashinovna'?"
I looked up at him, confused. Then I remembered he was referring to the print on my coveralls. "Oh yeah. It does. You can read it? Hey… you wouldn't know someone by chance, someone named—?"
A roaring sound shook the area around us. The two-story motorhall trundled into view with its many wheels, throwing dust everywhere. I watched as it made an arc around the building and then drove into the bay under the roof.
I looked around for Skullcap. He disappeared again! But I turned in time to see the tail of his coat slip around the edge of the building near the restrooms.
"Herschkov, Drakonlandia," a disembodied female voice rang though the whole station. I jumped and ran back into the building through the bay area. The other passengers were already loading up into the motorhall.
But there was a problem at the door: someone's traveling case had fallen on the steps and busted open, spilling their belongings everywhere. A fat lady was fussing and trying to put everything back inside her traveling case. Her face was red. The motorhall driver and several other people were offering to help the lady pick up her things, but she declined. I entered through the rear door instead, where a man in a shirt that read 'Sanctus City Pirates' stood to take tickets. I showed him my pass and he nodded and let me inside. Lando's handiwork did not fail me.
Once inside, I immediately climbed the steps to the upper floor. This area was carpeted blue, and I enjoyed the feel of it under my boots. I was elated. Traveling on the motorhall always raised my spirits. I could not help but smile and look around out the windows. A figure in his bowler hat stood just at the end of the bay area outside the motorhall. I gawked and went to the window and pushed it open.
"There you are!" I gasped. "I was trying to ask you something."
The motorhall shifted noisily and started moving slightly.
"Yeah?" Skullcap yelled back over the engines. "What's that, girlie?"
"Is the name Mashina familiar to you? Mashina. Do you know anybody with that name?"
He walked with the motorhall as it went. "Can't say it is, hon'. Why you askin' me?"
I was disappointed. "I figured since you get around so much, you might know."
"Mashina. Is he important to you?" He was forced to break into a run. "I'll keep it in mind for ya."
"Yeah," I struggled and leaned halfway out the window. "I believe he's my father. I'm trying to find him."
"Well, I might know someone who would know, ya know?"
"Really?" I yelled hopefully as the motorhall came to a halt at the front gates.
"Heh, nope!" He winked at me.
I stared and scoffed. This new secrecy of his was maddening. But I supposed he had his reasons. "You know what, Skullcap? Whatever. Just don't tell anybody where I went, you hear me?"
"I won't. I won't…"
"Here." I pulled the finger bottle out of my coat pocket regretfully. "Take this." I threw the bottle down to him and he caught it. "Thanks…" I smiled mildly. "Thanks for everything, man."
He stowed the bottle away and grinned his crooked grin. "It's nothin' hon." He always accepted a free drink where he could get it.
I grinned too. "You look sharp as a private eye, Blair! You shouldn't do that too often!"
"Naw! Nawww!" He shook his head angrily. "You shut up, you little scamp!" Blair was his real name, and I knew he hated being called that.
I laughed aloud. "Take care!"
He saluted with a smile and walked away down the sidewalk. The motorhall started off again and rumbled past him. I wondered how he did not get caught by the canine lady in the ticket booth nearby. But then I remembered that Skullcap got around everywhere, and the booth lady probably already knew him. Skullcap tucked the bowler hat down over his eyes again and put his hands in his pockets. He looked exactly like one of those legendary private eye detectives in old movies. I waved and watched him grow smaller as the motorhall sped away.
I sighed and sat back down in the seat and closed the window. I was going to miss seeing him. I was going to miss seeing everybody. After all these months here in Sanctus, I had grown attached to the place. I found it hard to believe that I was sitting comfortably in my apartment with all my things around me just yesterday. Now I was on my way to Drakonlandia. Everything was happening so fast…
The air conditioning was delightfully refreshing. I removed my overcoat and laid it over my knees to dust it off. I needed to remember to look behind me more often when I felt like I was being followed. I still could not believe Skullcap took the women's restroom as I was walking by. Walking backwards, even. Missing a detail like that in a more serious situation could get me killed.
I sat back in the seat and relaxed. There were three other people in the upper floor with me. One of them was the fat lady who dropped her luggage earlier. The other two were a couple trying to get their portable radio to work. I noticed a fourth person sitting at the far end by himself, reading a newspaper.
The girl said something and took the radio away from the boy next to her. She hit it a few times. He tried to get it back but stopped when he realized that the radio started working. It was catching a shortwave channel that was playing electro-house music. I recognized the song as one by an artist in Los Gatos, DJ Terminite. I remember hearing Alex play this song on the big radio in the den of the Rebel House. He even danced to it, and I can recall standing up to dance with him. We had a good time then. Alex and I always had good fun, and we even fell in love over time. What went so wrong?
I let out an aggravated sigh. I was twenty years old, going on twenty-one. Alex just turned sixteen. He was too young for me and I felt it was wrong to be with him. Because of that frustration, I said the wrong things to him. Things I knew I could not take back. It was too late for that. I remember worrying back then that he would lose interest in me, and that he would move onto someone else when he finally figured out what he wanted in life. I should not have said what I said then. I remember what I told him yesterday, and hearing those words again in my mind bit hard at my conscience.
"Alex… Remember what I'd said about you growing out of me?" I said to him yesterday. "I was wrong. I'm the one who's grown out of you… I'm sorry babe. I'm going to have to let you go." He cried on my shoulder afterward. He was such a baby. He made me feel more like his mother than his girlfriend, and so I was not really ever his girlfriend.
I said what I said to let Alex go. I said what I said because my conscience finally caught up with me: I had neglected my only son and left him alone in Maverick City. I know I left him with Reeven, but how long was she going to tolerate caring for him? It had been too long. And I now had only two excuses for not returning to Rapsiris sooner: I was distracted by my romance with Alex and I imagined that Jovius was already dead. Mistake after mistake. I wished I had gotten away from the Pahana's Sorrow cult before Jovius was conceived. I wished Syntereth and I never tried to fight against Pahana's Sorrow. I wished we were never exiled to Rapsiris by Legumlatoris. I wished I had never joined Spear City Intel in their fight against Legumlatoris. How stupid of us to do that. I wished I had never joined the Ashes, who then got me involved with Spear City Intel. I wished I had listened to what my mentor had said about never speaking to the Lord of the Fall, who in turn got me involved in the fight between his administration and the Ashes. If only I had listened to my mentor, Glacialus Sadriel, at all. I needed his guidance now more than ever, and he was no longer around to tell it. I felt I was at fault for that. There were so many things to regret. But now it was all useless but glaring information about my past. And the only one who had to live with it now was me.
I was also the only one who could mend at least some of the damage. I was going to find Jovius, whether he was dead or alive. Finding the man named Mashina could wait until later. I also did not need to look for any history on Imogen Esidaust. How stupid of me to think I could stop by in Lunasoye and shake up a few locals to see if anyone remembered him. Sifting through the ashes of the house was a stupid idea too. He died too long ago for anyone to really remember, and that kind of search was going to take too long. Finding Jovius was now my first priority. Everything else could wait.
I pulled out my compact phone and started to tap out Alex's number. I needed to talk to him. I needed to tell him the truth… or most of it. I could not leave without saying something. This was all so foolish. To my disappointment his voicemail came up immediately. I tapped out the number to the Rebel House landline.
"Hello?" someone answered. It was Lando's scratchy voice. I wanted to clear my own throat every time I heard it.
"Lando! What's up, guy?" I said, looking at the window.
"Not much, and you?" he said after a sucking sound. I could almost see him puffing on a cigarette near the television, looking disgusting in his greenish skin and dreaded hair.
"Just doing some riding around, ya know. Say… is Alex there?"
"Yeah. He's upstairs."
"May I speak with him?"
"Sure. Why didn't you call him on his phone?"
"I think he's turned it off. So I called the house."
"Alright. Hang on a sec… ALEX!" I pulled the phone away from my ear. "ALEX! Get your geeky ass down here, you freaking nerd."
I heard someone in the background. It sounded like Kaan telling Lando to shut up.
"Hey Lando… don't tell Alex it's me."
"Okay." I heard some scuffling noises. I waited. "Hey Alex, it's… someone. It's for you."
I heard Alex's voice. I held my breath at the sound of his voice. It was always so clear and boyish, no matter the situation. "Thanks, Orlando. But who is it?"
"Someone. Just… here. Take the damn phone."
More scuffling. Then: "Hello?"
I almost could not say anything.
He was silent for a moment. "'Eris?" he said slowly. "Uh… hi."
"Hey Alex." I was staring at my reflection in the window. "How are you?"
"I'm fine," he said in an offhand voice. "You?"
"Okay, I guess."
"Cool. How's the apartment?"
"It's good now," I said, and then took a deep breath. "I've moved out. I'm… heading north right now on the motorhall."
"…You mean the bus?"
"Yeah, the bus thing."
"Yes, Alex. I've already left." I tried to laugh it off.
"…Well you never said anything. You never said you were leaving. Where are you going? The Fall? Drackon Kingdom?"
"Why are you going there?"
"It's my last stop before I take an airship. I'm going back to Rapsiris."
I heard Kaan's deep voice nearby. "What's going on?" I could almost picture Kaan's stout and muscly self sitting on the couch in front of the television with a beer. Kaan almost always had his feet in a pail of water when he was on the couch.
"Give it a bit," I said. "Let me explain."
"Hold on, Kaan. Go ahead, I'm listening." Alex was upset.
I sighed and continued to stare at my reflection. Clouds seemed to pass right through me. "Alex, do you remember me ever mentioning a little something about me possibly having a child somewhere, and that it was most likely dead?"
"I'm starting to believe he's alive. And I'm going back to Rapsiris to find him."
"…And you're telling me this now?"
"Yes, I'm telling you now."
"Why didn't you say anything sooner? We could have helped you… I could have… I would have gone with you, if you asked!"
"That's just the thing," I said with an expression he would never see. "I don't want any of you guys to go with me."
I was staring insipidly back at myself. I felt so empty, so lifeless, while telling him this.
"Well… why not?"
Kaan was saying something I could not hear. Alex started talking to him. I then heard Kaan's voice clearly. Alex handed the phone to him. "Hello?"
"Hey Beef. How's Nazzy?" Our nickname for Kaan was 'Beef.'
"Atheris, what are you doing?" Kaan said calmly. I heard a prompt from Alex, and he and Kaan exchanged a few more lines. "You've got a kid? In Rapsiris?"
"Yeah. I'm going to go look for him."
"…Why didn't you ask for our help? I told you. You're one of us. And if you needed anything, you just let us know."
"Look Beef. I'm… not even sure if I'm one of you."
"I… I don't have it all together here. I don't think I have what it takes."
"…Of course you got what it takes." Kaan's voice was almost tranquil, and certainly reassuring. He was the true leader of the Rebels of Swin, although he did not want to admit or even accept that title. "You've listened to the earth and you can hear the plants. You defend what you love and that's all it takes. You're one of us."
"Heh." The clouds passed through my eyes in the reflection. "Thanks, Beef. Look, I'm sorry I didn't ask for help. But the journey is mine alone, not anyone else's. My son is my responsibility and I'm going to find him myself."
"Oh… Well, you realize we're like family, right?"
I seethed at my reflection, almost daring it to start tearing up. "I…"
"We've taken care of each other before. And you know that your family is our family, too, right?"
"Beef, I…" My voice was breaking up. A tear rolled down.
"You've gotta let us help you, okay?"
"Yeah, but…" I sounded so feeble. "I've got to do this on my own."
"I… I don't know." It was true. I had no idea anymore. Or I could not bring myself to say it.
"Look… you've got to put that pride aside and let people help you," Kaan reasoned. "If you don't, you're not going to make it very far. We're here to help. Remember that."
"I know… thank you, Kaan." My breathing was shallow. "You… you guys are the best, really. I don't… I…"
"Just…" I took a deep breath. "Just let me find him, alone. If I find my son, I'll bring him back. I'll come back to the Rebel House. I'm gonna need a lot of help raising him. I can't do that on my own. If I don't find him… I'll be back anyway. I don't have anyone else… really."
"Hey, we've got it. If you find him, just bring him here. He'll be okay. He'll have all of us."
I smiled and laughed in relief. A huge weight was lifted from my chest. "Thank you… thank you Beef."
"If you're sure you've got it on your own, then that is what you must do. Rapsiris isn't a good place to be in. But if you keep a clear head and watch your back, you'll make it. You'll make it. But don't forget to come back if you make it."
"I won't. I won't forget."
"You wanna talk to Alex again? I think he wants to talk to you."
I heard some scuffling and the phone was handed back to Alex. "Hello? 'Eris?" His voice was quavering.
"Hey Alex," I said just as tearfully.
"I miss you." He broke down. I could not stop myself. I leaned against the window and cried to myself.
I finally regained my breath to speak. "Alex. Forget what I said yesterday, okay? I really love you."
"I love you too," I heard him say.
"I'm sorry I hurt you. I just knew I had this… responsibility and I didn't know how to tell you. I have to go for now, okay? But I'll be in touch. Alright?"
He sobbed into the phone some more.
"Please, Alex," I begged. "Please wait on me. Please. I love you. I miss you so much. I swear I'll be back. I'll come back to you, I promise."
"I'll wait," he said stiffly. "I promise, I'll wait. Please… stay safe, 'Eris. I need you. I wish I could go with you—"
"Shhh. I have to go it alone, babe. Rapsiris… isn't a safe place. You know that. I lost someone… very dear to me… when I was there last. And I don't want to lose you."
"But didn't you think about me?" he said painfully. "I don't want to lose you."
"It's okay, babe. I'll… I'll be fine." I gulped. "I've been through Rapsiris once. I can do it again. And I'll come back to you, I promise."
"I love you."
"I love you too. I have to go now, babe."
"No, please don't…"
He was silent for a few moments. I heard some more scuffling noises. I thought he had dropped the phone.
"Okay," he said. "I love you 'Eris. Watch yourself out there."
"You too, babe. I love you. Goodbye."
I tapped the off button on the compact phone and dropped it in the seat next to me. I leaned over my knees with my head in my hands and cried. When I finally dried up, I looked up to see the fat lady looking at me. I wanted to come up with a retort and tell her to mind her own business, but I could not find the strength to do so.
"Hey girl," she said kindly. "Could you use one of these?"
I looked up. She was offering me a bottle of beer. I smiled and took it.
"You… you snuck beer onto the motorhall?"
She shrugged. "Sure did. I dropped them all earlier and I… figured I should probably try to give them away before they go flat. Was going to take them to the family reunion. But ehh, most of my family is conservative anyway. Be careful when you open it. It might spew." She looked over at the couple with the radio. They stared right back. "You guys aren't minors, are you?"
"Seventeen," the boy said, square on the legal drinking age limit.
"Eighteen," the girl said.
"Twenty," I croaked.
"Thirty-three!" the man sitting behind the newspaper piped up. His voice was surprisingly low for his skinny frame. "You're giving away free beer?"
"Yep. All of it."
The man smiled. "We're gonna need more people in here. Hold on, let me go get someone from downstairs."
"Sure," the woman said. "Just don't tell the driver."
"Oh hell no," the man said as he descended the stairs. "That would ruin all the fun."
I happily sipped away at the beer. It was rather expensive and very good-tasting.
"So what's your story, girl? My name's Steffi." Her round face was friendly and her brown hair was very wavy and frizzled.
"I'm Atheris. You can just call me 'Eris. Everybody does."
I began telling her everything. I started from my days living in the Fall in the Drackon Kingdom. I went on about my training with the Damka Knights, and my involvement with the Ashes in Windfall and the Murder in Sadathan. By the time I started talking about the time I got between Magnes and Charina, the ill-fated lovers who lived in Sadathan, all of the other passengers were there listening and drinking beer, riveted to my story. I talked about the area fights in Sadathan and my involvement with Spear City Intel. I talked about the struggles against Thylacine interlopers and the traitorous Legumlatoris of the Drackon Kingdom. I spoke of Syntereth and our exile. I ran through the details of his death at the hands of Pahana's Sorrow. For some reason, it did not hurt to speak openly about it. I told them how I took down Pahana's Sorrow almost singlehandedly by defeating their master Bothimath, the chaos demon, and how I escaped to Maverick City with my son Jovius. I talked about my deeds alongside the great warrior Gabrielle and my triumph against the Thylacine Emperor, when I stabbed his eyes out. I spoke of the shining city of Seledigm in Rapsiris and the slum town of Atoktl below it, and meeting the Uropian Battle Droid named Daedron, who helped the Atoktlians escape from the slum world. I never really realized how much there was to tell until I retold it all to them. I also never really realized how great it all was until I saw the awed looks on their faces. Their cheers at my victories. Their tears at my failures. I told them about how I helped Daedron to rescue his regiment when they were pinned down in a Central Rapsirian city. I talked about my landing in Caelum Beach, Drakonlandia, only to be chased down by the revived demon Bothimath. I went into gory detail about how I lay there on the shore halfway submerged in the sea water as my legs lay further down the beach. I showed them the scars around my waist where Burnheart Laboratories put me back together. I spoke of my escape from the Laboratories and my involvement with the Rebels of Swin against the Royal Wing invasion and the Love Machine Virus, and when Blaze broke my trusty sword. I told them that I had lived in Sanctus for a while, gathering the funds to make the trip back to Rapsiris. I told them that was what I was heading to Drakonlandia for: to take the next airship to Rapsiris to find my son.
After a few beers, my experience of the motorhall trip was blurring. I needed to stop. I wanted to experience everything clearly, but the beer tasted very good. The two teenager's radio blared loudly, playing some familiar synth-pop. I was plain happy. Other people started introducing themselves and telling their stories. I would not be able to recall any of them if I tried, and that disappointed me. They told really good stories and were really good people. I should not be so paranoid, I thought.
My compact phone started beeping in a muffled tone. Steffi was sitting on it. She jumped up and started laughing. We all started laughing. The man hiding behind the newspaper nearly dropped his beer.
"I've gotta take this," I said, picking up the phone and moving toward the steps to the bottom floor. "I'll be right back."
I looked at the number on the caller identification. It was an unknown number but the area code was that of the Gothien Lordstate. I tapped the phone button after I dropped to the first floor, hanging onto the rail.
"Hello? Atheris?" The voice was female and sounded exceedingly familiar.
"…Who is this?" I looked around nervously. "Wait a sec… Riplie?"
"Yes Atheris. Where are you?"
"Riplie!" I inhaled. Riplie was a dispatcher of Spear City Intel who was assigned to be my guide during missions in Spear City. "I haven't heard from you in a long time! Oh my stars! What happened? What happened after I left? Are you still in Spear City? Legumlatoris! The King? Gracelyn? Intel? Windfall! What's… what's…?"
"I'm in Neogothien City, Atheris," she said in her almost derisive tone. "And I'll tell you everything later. Now where are you?"
"How did you get this number?"
"An anonymous source, Atheris. Now where are you?"
I stared. "…Yeah okay. I'm… I think we're in northern Swin. Yeah. We'll be crossing the border soon. That's what they said."
"Okay good," she said. "Listen, I'm coming. When you get to Herschkov, stay put. There's an inn near the station that I've reserved for us. Room fourteen. Show them your business pass and you're in. I'll tell you everything when I get there. I'm headed for the Terrain Station in Spear City right now. I'll see you there in a few days."
"…Well great!" I smiled. "It'll be so good to see you again! We've got a lot of catching up to do! You can't imagine all the shit I've been through…"
"Yes, that's all very nice."
"But…" I was staring at the setting sun. "You realize I'm not going back to Drackon, right?"
"Of course. That would violate your exile, wouldn't it?"
"Yeah. Well, I was going back to Rapsiris anyway."
"I know. I'm going with you."
I laughed. "No you're not."
"Yes, I am."
I shook my head around. "Look girl, you won't last a second in Rapsiris. I know you're… part thylacine and all, but you were…"
"Listen to me, Atheris," Riplie said, sounding rather bored. "All that stuff I said about being a native-born Dracknian? All untrue. I was born in Rhythm, Rapsiris, and I lived there my entire childhood and adolescence. I'm pretty sure I know how to survive in my own homeland."
I bumped my head against the glass of the window. The driver was looking at me through the rear-view mirror. "Are… are you serious? Why do you need to go with me?"
Riplie sighed. "Okay… remember how we fought to get the Gothien brothers back to their former positions as Lords of Gothien? Because they opposed the new patriarchal system that Legumlatoris and the Anthroantagonists have been setting the whole kingdom under? Well the Gothien brothers don't seem to like thylacines and Spear City Intel realized that my life is probably in danger. And I have to leave, regardless of whether I was born here or not. But the cat will be out of the bag soon and even Spear City Intel will realize that I was never born here. That'll be a big thing, won't it?"
"Whoa… I don't know what to say…" I was stunned.
"You can just say I'm headed home and you're headed back into your scheduled exile," she said flatly.
The overwhelming information coupled with the beers I drank was starting to give me a slight headache. "Okay then."
"So… be there in Herschkov. I've gotta go. Checkpoint is coming up."
My eyes widened. "Wait… how do you know I'm going to Herschkov?"
She sighed again. "Anonymous source, Atheris."
Skullcap. I knew it. He had more contacts than I could imagine. He must have contacted Spear City Intel and told them about where I was going; I probably told him about my connections with Intel when we were drinking together at some point. All this after I specifically told him not to tell anyone where I went…
"Oh… well that's awesome," I snickered. "I'm going to kill him when I get back."
"You're not going to kill anyone."
"Yeah, well…" I looked down at the print on my pants. "Oh! Can you… Do you know anyone named Mashina?"
"I don't know his last name." I scratched behind my ear.
"Well that doesn't help. I've got to go, Atheris."
"You've got your laptop there with you, yeah?" I was feeling crazy, desperate. "Do a people search, Riplie. Tell me something. Or I'm going to jump off this god damned motorhall out here in the middle of nowhere."
"…You aren't serious, are you?"
I glanced at the driver in the front and lowered my voice. "Look, I'm actually really drunk and I'm standing next to the emergency door. You don't tell me something? I'll cancel this trip right now."
"Oh my gosh!" she said frantically. "You're crazy! Okay, okay, hold on…" I heard her tapping away on her laptop. She started talking very fast. "Okay, I've turned up two-hundred fifty-six results in the Drackon Kingdom, thirty-two results in all of Mythos and six-thousand seventy-eight results from the Arslani North Rapid Empire, seven-hundred twenty in the Ilotoc Domain West, but that's not counting—"
"Perfect," I said. "We'll narrow the search down to Mythos. I think that would be the best idea since I was born in Kinalla. I don't know why I didn't think about this before."
"I've gotta go. Now."
"What? Wait, can you name them off in alphabetical ord—?"
She hung up. I sat there with my face pressed against the glass and the phone still on my ear. I mulled over all the information that Riplie had given me. To think that just yesterday I was feeling very stupid and equally sorry for myself, dreading my trip to Rapsiris. Now I felt I was on top of the world. Or maybe the beers... Either way, I was this much closer to finding Jovius and so much closer to knowing who Mashina was. What was more? I actually had a place with the Rebels of Swin and that felt great. I had only hoped Alex could wait on me. Knowing him, he would.
I yawned and peeled my face off of the glass. I was going to regret having so many beers. But I had no troubles on my mind. Not for now.
My eyes stung a bit as I rubbed them. This day was emotionally exhausting. I looked down at the floor. A small figure stood just there in the aisle, looking up at me out from under his cone hat and bushy eyebrows. I thought I was dreaming, but the little person sat there staring back.
It was a gnome. A garden gnome.
I stared and smiled, shaking my head. There was only one gnome I was familiar with: Mister Jones. He was the gnome that stood like a sentinel near the front porch of the Rebel House, pretending to be a fake plastic garden gnome. But he did not fool me. I watched him steal liquor from Kaan's refrigerator at night. In return, he often appeared randomly wherever I went only to stare at me but he never said anything. He gave me a fright every time.
"When the hell did you get here?" I said tiredly. First Skullcap, then Riplie, and now Mister Jones. My old friends were coming out of the woodwork.
Mister Jones stared at me with beady eyes. He twitched his brown beard once and clasped his tiny metal shovel to himself.
I sniffed. "You want a beer? Come on up. I'll get you the best beer you've had in a long time," I said loudly. I stepped up on the stairway and turned to make sure he was following. Mister Jones only went where he wanted to go.
When I did, I looked over at the motorhall driver. He was looking at me fixedly through the rear-view mirror. Oops. But he was also puffing away on a glass pipe. I smiled and went up the stair with Mister Jones at my heel.