Chapter 25: Epilogue
"The challenge is concluded." The old woman said, stepping forward from her two peers. She was trying to speak calmly, but at the same time seemed to be out of breath. Turning, Lina looked over the six bodies laid out across the chamber just past her, already covered in white funerary sheets. She noticed that one was wearing a colorful jacket, and a green cap with goggles, but gave them little more attention than that.
"So, what happens now?" Lina ventured.
"As we have witnessed, challengers Lina Inverse and Luke were the last surviving participants." The old woman said, to the murmured agreement of her two compatriots. "Therefore, we declare you to be the lawful victors, and all charges have been dropped."
"In addition." She continued. "Though we have never seen a challenge such as yours before, it has become evident to us that you were not the perpetrators of the initial crime, and the challenge law was applied incorrectly."
She paused briefly and slowly shook her head. "We cannot undo what has been done, and so we apologize for putting you through that ordeal."
"Yeah, guess so." Lina said, keeping her expression carefully neutral. She supposed that since it had been a frame-up, the trial wasn't really the old woman's fault, even if she was the one who had made the challenge happen.
"So then, we can go?" Lina asked.
"You are free to leave any time you wish, and we have sent out instructions in this regard." The old woman replied, the corners of her mouth curling up into the beginnings of a smile. "Plus, anyone who would have obstructed you would surely have had a change of heart after what your three crewmates did for us."
Lina noticed Amelia grinning slightly at that, and filed it under the list of things to ask about later. She turned toward the exit, wanting nothing more than to be off and away as quickly as possible.
"Ah, wait, there is one more matter." The old woman began. "The incantation of yours that opened the barrier, was that what you learned from reading the Poneglyph at the center of town?"
Lina froze, then whirled around to stare at the old woman. Her friends did the same, and Lina could see the relief melting from their faces. Her mind raced, trying to think of something to say. Her fingers twitched. No way were they going through with this again.
Noting Lina's apprehension, the old woman raised her hand in a placating gesture. Standing a little straighter, she took a deep breath, and forced some authority into her voice.
"We are the descendants of the people who created that artifact." She said. "And though we do our best to preserve as many of their traditions as possible, we have long since lost the ability to read those symbols."
"And that is as it should be, for we know well what happened to Ohara." She continued. "The World Government forbids all study of those blocks, and because of that, there are notable gaps in the historical record. What do you think of this?"
There was a brief silence before Amelia spoke up.
"That isn't right, erasing history like that." She said. "Doesn't that mean they could be hiding something?"
Lina quirked up an eyebrow when the old woman's expression bloomed into a satisfied smile.
"If that is what you believe, then go on, and do as you will." The old woman said. "And perhaps some day it will be you who ties together the broken threads of history."
The evil red clouds spawned by Shabranigdo's power were gone when the crew emerged from the mountain, and Amelia was surprised to see that it was noon. Her last memory of the challenge had been at the dead of night, and remembering it still brought a chill to her spine. She glanced out across the island, to where the dorsal ridges of one of the attacking sea kings could be seen jutting from the water. She and Zelgadis had merely driven theirs away, but Xellos hadn't been so merciful.
With food already stocked and the log pointing to the next island, the crew wasted no time setting out to sea. The winds were favorable, the waters calm, and the ship echoed with the sound of boots on the deck as everyone pitched in to drop sails and secure the rigging. The island grew smaller as the hours passed, until at last the summit of the central mount dipped below the horizon.
Amelia took up her usual spot on in the ship's crow's nest, and from her perch she could observe the odd habits that some of them seemed to have developed. Normally Zelgadis preferred to remain in the cabin, but he had dragged his tools outside for the day, tinkering with his firearms out on the open deck. He had even flown up to check up on her a few times, even though nothing unusual had happened. Luke hovered even closer to Milina than he normally did, and where normally he would've received a rebuke, now none seemed to be forthcoming. Only Lina and Gourry seemed relatively unaffected, and Lina was quick to pick up on the changed in behavior.
"Hey guys, I know that old lady said they totally restored our bodies to normal and all, but it we still spent basically two days eating nothing but boiled berries." She said, making a face.
"How about we break open all that food we got, and have a nice dinner that'll help us forget all about this."
No one needed to be told twice.
"So, Amelia, what did you guys do that had all of them so grateful anyway?" Lina asked over a mouthful of fish. She stood up, leaning across the table to carve off a slice of ham, then passed the knife to Gourry beside her.
"Well, some sea monsters attacked right before you guys got out." Amelia replied. "And so I got Mr. Zelgadis and Mr. Xellos to come with me to fight them off."
She paused. "Because all the things that happened to us still isn't the fault of the people in town."
"Sea monsters huh? Well, I guess that makes sense with what happened inside." Lina said, gulping down the contents of her mug.
"Speaking of Xellos, it's nice to see that joker doing something useful for once." She added before standing up to pour herself another drink.
"So Miss Lina, was it you that beat the last of those bounty hunters?" Amelia asked once Lina had seated herself back down.
"No, that was Luke." Lina replied, gesturing across the table at him with a fork. "Luke was the one that got rid of that creepy chameleon guy, so if you wanna thank somebody for us winning, it's him you want."
"Don't thank me." Luke said, looking at nothing in particular. "No need to."
Amelia was starting to paint for herself a picture of what had happened in the end, and that combined with Luke's expression convinced her to abandon that line of questioning. The poor guy had obviously gone through an ordeal and then some.
Luke was jolted from his thoughts by a sharp clink, and he looked down, noticing Lina drawing back with a piece of chicken she had stolen from his plate.
"What? You were staring off into space and it was getting cold, so I figured you didn't want it." Lina said in response to Luke's glare.
"Well I did." Luke replied, raising his own fork. "And if you can steal my food then I can steal yours too."
Before Luke could make good on his threat, the sound of flapping wings entered the room, followed by a repetitive, high-pitched chittering. The others tensed, and Zelgadis's hands moved toward his guns, only relaxing when a small bat fluttered in from an open window, grasping in its two hind legs a sealed envelope that had the navy's symbol clearly displayed.
Amelia broke the puzzled stillness by reaching out with her hands, and the creature surrendered its package to her before flying away just as quickly. She tore it open, and there was the sound of shuffling chairs as everyone got up and crowded around to read.
"What, no way!" Lina exclaimed, gripping the back of Amelia's seat.
That night, Lina sat in the cabin, still clutching the letter that had arrived during dinner. It was her turn on watch, so she made sure to give the Log Pose a glance now and then to confirm that they were heading in the right direction.
The letter contained an offer, extending to her a seat among the government's Seven Warlords, privateers essentially. The terms of the position had been described, including a blanket pardon for herself and anyone she labeled as her subordinate, plus access to government facilities for as long as she held the post. There were responsibilities as well, an obligation to only attack outlaws and to fight for the government during major conflicts, as well as a tithe consisting of a portion of any plunder she happened to come across. The first was something she was had planned on doing anyway, and Lina figured she could probably just fudge that last condition whenever they weren't looking.
Lina pulled open a window, letting in a gust of chilly night air and taking a deep breath to help clear her head. A part of her wanted to refuse, to not be beholden to anyone, but recent events had put a bit of a damper on that sentiment. The others would definitely agree, even if nobody wanted to say it out loud. She was the one with the big bounty stamped on her head after all, and that was attracting unwanted attention and putting everyone else in danger. There would be responsibilities, yes, but she had responsibilities to her friends too, didn't she?
Summoning an orb of light in her hand and holding it close, Lina pored over the contents of the letter again. There was no mention of any collateral, simply instructions to bring the letter to a Marine base, at which point the higher government powers would be contacted to complete her induction.
Lina glanced at the Log Pose again. If the next island had such a base, then she would go through with it.
A flicker of movement outside pulled Lina from her thoughts, and peering through the open window, she noticed Xellos sitting on railing near the ship's bow. She hadn't seen any sign of him since they'd left the island, and seeing him now reminded her of something that the old woman had said. The broken threads of history. Well, she could think of some broken threads that needed to be tied up right now.
Pulling her hair back to keep it from blowing into her face, Lina stepped out from the cabin. Xellos turned as she approached.
"Oh, what a surprise seeing you out here at this hour, Lina." He said with his usual smile. "How might I be of help to you?"
"Yeah, yeah, just cut the chit-chat." Lina waved him off. "I think it's time you stopped being so coy with us about what exactly is going on here."
"Oh?" Xellos made a puzzled expression. "What ever do you mean?"
"Like the fact that we're in another world, and you can somehow read their ancient writings." Lina pointed out. "Which means there's some sort of connection. Plus there's that spell I used that we got from the center of that island."
"But I didn't see what happened." Xellos replied. "Perhaps you could elaborate further?"
"Well you remember when I tried to cast it the first time, based on the Dynast Brass." Lina looked down at her hands, repeating the words in her head.
"And that didn't work at all. But when I patterned the incantation off of the Dragon Slave, when we were inside that barrier, I was able to get it off."
"Very interesting. So you're saying you think the entity that that spell calls upon is a power on par with Lord Ruby Eye?" Xellos offered.
"Maybe." Lina replied. Her eyes scanned over her four talismans, and then a thought occurred to her.
"Wait, back when you sold me these." She gestured toward the artifacts. "I remember you telling me the names of the other three dark lords too. That's the connection isn't it? So this wasn't just some random world that was just out there somewhere."
"Oh it seems you're on to something, and I remember telling you their names as well!" Xellos clasped his hands together. "Would you kindly list them out for us then?"
"Well we can rule out Shabranigdo, and probably Dark Star since we've seen what he's like." Lina counted off on her fingers. "And I don't know if any of that stuff sounds like it would fit the one called Death Fog."
"So that just leaves us with..." Lina trailed off, glancing at Xellos for confirmation. His expression remained inscrutable, but he gestured for her to continue. Lina nodded, and counted off the last finger.
Author's Notes: Anyway, thanks to everyone who stuck with me until the end of part 1, and I hope you all enjoyed this installment of A Sea of Stars. I'll probably go on a break of a few months to polish things up and wait for the manga to progress, and then I'll see you again when we resume here with part 2.