Dark clouds gathered ominously, casting the world in shadow as Lina approached the grave. Thunder cackled menacingly in the distance, almost as though some ancient god were laughing sardonically from above. The grave became illuminated by the brief flicker of the lightning as Lina drew closer, and she gasped as she saw Luke's name etched on it. But how? There had been no body to bury.
Lina shuddered as the heat left her body as the feeling arose that she had walked through a ghost. Lightning flared with such intensity that Lina was momentarily blinded, and when her vision recovered her eyes fell upon the mound of dirt in front of the gravestone, which was currently bulging out of the earth as though it was going to erupt. When the ground did part, a skull rose from the grave, followed by a body. Lina felt her heart race as she recognized Luke, desiccated and decomposed, his eyes flashing red as he said accusingly, "How dare you celebrate at my grave!"
Lina cried out as she bolted upright in her bed. She brought her hand to her mouth as she choked back a sob as she struggled to get her bearings and determine what was real and what was a dream. From beneath her bunk she heard Gourry shift as he got out of bed. Damn, she wondered as she suddenly felt incredibly self-conscious, did I wake the whole house with my silliness?
"You okay?" he asked as he put a hand on her shoulder.
She took a deep breath and struggled to compose herself. "Just a silly dream. I didn't mean to wake you."
Lina turned to get out of the bunk as Gourry looked as clueless as ever as he leaned against her bed, "I was having a bad dream anyway."
Lina spun on her heels to look at him, "You were not!"
"How would you know?" he asked.
"Because I do!" she yelled, which resulted in one of her parents banging on the wall from the room over. She sighed, "Let's go for a walk."
As she pulled her boots on she reflected that she felt a little better now. The fear was gone. The sadness was another matter. She exchanged a brief glance with Gourry, and the two of them left. Lina felt a weight lift from her as they stepped outside. She had forgotten how claustrophobic her parents' house was. No wonder the road had beckoned from such a young age!
They climbed down the stairs, and Lina noted that they had a few hours before dawn. Hopefully this meant that the town would be deserted and that they wouldn't be swarmed with people. Indeed, the not a soul could be seen as they started to walk the streets. Better enjoy it while it lasts, Lina told herself.
Gourry wrapped an arm around her as he casually asked. "What did you dream about?"
Every so often, Lina marveled at how comfortable she was talking to him about anything that made her appear weak. But then her sister would have tormented her mercilessly for letting a stupid dream bother her so. Gourry had a way of making it seem like no big deal. And she desperately needed to talk. "That Luke came back from the grave to tell me what he thought of me being made a hero because of his death."
"It doesn't seem right."
Gourry was quite for a moment before he said, "He wanted us to do it, you know. Called us. He wanted our help."
"I know that." Lina snapped, "And…when I remember that part of it, I get so mad at him for it! Furious that he forced my hand with it!"
"It's natural that you would be mad."
Lina calmed down a little as she continued, "But then I think about how he's dead. Because I killed him. And I'm back to feeling guilty for even being mad at him!"
"And I sometimes I get mad at him for putting you through this." Gourry said, "But then I think, he was overpowered by Shabranigdu. What would I do in his situation? I'd call for help, someone I trusted to do the hard thing. So really I have to get mad at Shabranigdu, not Luke. And that's why we're going to keep up the fight."
Lina smiled a little at the implication in his statement that he planned to stick around. But still. "Of course we're going to keep the fight up. It just feels as though I'm getting rewarded for…" she took a moment and then finally spat it out, "killing my friend."
She braced herself for a series of protests that she shouldn't think like that. Instead he said quietly, "I felt that way, after I left home with the Sword of Light. My intentions were good, to stop everyone from killing each other. But by doing so, I had in my possession the object that everyone was killing each other for. Sometimes it seemed that if I wanted to truly be selfless I should have thrown it away, but I didn't. I kept it."
"I hadn't thought of it like that." Lina commented slowly. Somehow it did help to know she wasn't the only one struggling with a sense of guilt.
"And we wouldn't be here if I hadn't done it, would we?"
Lina thought for a moment, and then leaned her head and rested it against his shoulder as they walked, and not even the fact that the street was starting to wake up as lights started to come on and merchants started to get their shops ready could detour her from her public display of affection. "Oh look, a pair of lovebirds." A woman said as they walked past.
"We've been spotted." Lina muttered.
"We'd best get back to your parents. Catch a few more hours sleep." Gourry said quietly as they turned around. Neither of them felt like being mobbed before breakfast.
"Not so fast." And Lina felt gooseflesh erupt on her neck as she recognized Luna's voice.
"Sis!" Lina said as she turned around, "What are you doing up so early?"
"Going to work." Luna explained as she straightened her apron.
"Ceiphied's Eats serves breakfast now?" Lina asked.
"Yeah, we realized so many travelers were moving out before lunch." Luna replied. "Come on, I have something to show you."
Lina exchanged a look with Gourry, and they both fell in step with Luna. "So, will we get a discount on breakfast?" Lina asked.
"Nice try." Luna snapped.
"Meanie." Lina replied as she did her best to hide how nervous she was. She'd never visited Ceiphied's Eats while growing up. Between Luna and the other Ceiphied Knights who worked there, it was a big reminder that there was an elite, powerful club within the city that she could never match. She hated feeling out of her league. Still, if Luna was going to insist that she go, she would be suicidal to refuse.
Eventually Luna stopped before a small restaurant that was painted blue and had a sign with a dragon wearing a bib and holding a fork and spoon on it and unlocked the door, and the relocked it once she was inside with Lina and Gourry. "Chef." Luna said in acknowledgement to a middle-aged man as they entered the kitchen.
"Luna." He replied without looking up from his prep work as Luna pulled open a door built into the floor and climbed down a set of stairs therein. Lina and Gourry quietly followed her as Luna stopped to light a lantern and brought it down with her.
"I could do a light spell." Lina said.
"Then do it." Luna replied as they reached the ground floor and entered what could only be described as a war room.
"Wow." Lina said as she saw a large table in the center of the room with a map of the Inner World laid out therein.
"As you can see, aside from some activity along the border of the Elmekian Empire and the Desert of Destruction things are mostly quiet now." Luna said as she indicated some flags. "You should have seen what this looked like when Shabranigdu was active."
"How up to date is this?" Gourry asked as he stared over the map critically.
"Well, as can be expected, the closer we are geographically the timelier our information is. Now, some places where there are larger populations of sorcerers and we can communicate with them using the Vision spell this is rather accurate. We have contacts in Saillune, Sairaag, Sellentia and Atlas City. But aside from that most of our information comes from travelers. It's a skill, asking about attacks and strange occurrences. Most are happy to fill you in if you keep their drinks topped off." Luna explained.
"What's going on here?" Lina asked as she pointed at a series of flags around Gyria City.
"Dynast infiltrated so deep there that it continues to be a beacon for Mazoku activity, especially as no stable leader has emerged to rule the kingdom." Luna said, "I don't know how that kingdom is ever going to rebuild. Right now the King of Ralteague is looking at it with hungry eyes."
Lina moaned, "That can of worms is not worth it."
"We're keeping a close eye on it." Luna said.
Lina was about to ask another question when her eyes fell on a large volume on a bookshelf. "What the…" she said as she saw the words LINA TRACKING on the spine, "What's this?"
Lina dashed across the room and opened it. "Well, did you honestly expect me not to keep tabs on you?" Luna asked as Lina looked through the bundle of papers.
"Notes on where I've been!" Lina screeched as she saw a log with dates, where a certain traveler was from, and what information he'd heard.
"Yeah, I'd ask travelers about you and then I'd write well known people in the area for information." Luna said casually.
Lina flipped a few pages over, and found herself staring at King Philionel's official seal. "Letters from Phil!" She flipped it again, "And Sylphiel? And wait a minute, how the hell did you track down Naga!?"
Luna shook her head, "Considering how pathetically little useful information she gave, it was so not worth the effort put in to track her down in the first place!"
"You were spying on me!?" Lina exclaimed.
"You were on the front lines." Luna replied.
Lina flipped to another page and felt her jaw drop. "You wrote to Milgasea!?"
"He was perfectly happy to write to a Ceiphied Knight. He had some questions himself." Luna responded.
Lina closed the book and wondered how she could create a diversion so she could swipe it and read it at her leisure when her eyes fell on a different book on the shelf labeled with Gourry's name. "And it looks as though you did some background checking on Gourry."
"Huh?" Gourry said as he looked caught off guard.
"Do you want to read it?" Luna asked casually. "We have some information on your family since you left."
Gourry exhaled, "No." he said quietly, "I closed the door on that part of my life. I'd much rather not open it."
Lina looked at him. He'd told her the bare bones of what had happened, but she had a feeling she'd yet to grasp the full horror of it. If Gourry wasn't wanting to check up on his family, then whatever happened must have been really bad. Lina then looked at the volume wistfully, her curiosity rising. As if she didn't have enough innate curiosity, the fact that Luna likely knew some things about Gourry that she didn't was enough to drive her mad!
"Likely for the best." Luna said quietly, "You need to focus on the future."
That bad, eh, Sis? Lina thought.
"What about you, Lina?" Luna asked as she grabbed the book and held it out to her.
Lina exhaled. Well, you had to give me a choice. Lina looked at Gourry, who looked at her stoically but did not give her any indication what he wanted her to do. A lot of memories flashed through her mind, of Gourry telling Zelgadis, Amelia and Xellos that if she was traveling with a Mazoku then she must have had a good reason for it, essentially communicating to them that he didn't care how bad the situation looked, he trusted her enough to know that she planned to do the right thing. After he had given her that voice of confidence at a time when she well expected her friends to kick her to the streets with Gaav on her tail, how could she ask to read up on the dirt on him?
Besides, if there was something incriminating, Lina was fairly sure she would dismiss it. Lina could easily see how someone could look at a file on her and come to horrible conclusions about her if they simply saw that she killed her friend in battle without knowing the circumstances of her final encounter with Luke. And, like Gourry had said this morning, he'd felt guilty that he had even had the Sword of Light, so there very well could have been similar things in that file, things that looked bad on paper that you couldn't fully grasp if you didn't know the entire situation, or if you weren't there making the hard choices in the heat of a moment.
Did she really want to give the word of some else so much weight? Especially if that someone had an axe to grind with Gourry?
"I know the man I've been with these past few years." Lina finally said as she folded her arms across her chest decisively.
Gourry smiled a little as he patted her on the head. Luna looked at them neutrally, and Lina wondered if she thought she was being foolish or not. But then Luna nonchalantly put the book away, "Really we don't have much in the way of sources in the Elmekian Empire. Mostly it's a lot of boring stuff about the war you fought in." Luna said, and Lina gaped at her as Luna spun around and started towards the stairs, "This joint is going to open in ten minutes, I need to get up there. Come on, and put your book back where you found it."
Crap! Lina thought as she returned the volume of her deeds back to the shelf beside Gourry's. She then looked around the room longingly. So much information! And the likelihood that Luna would ever let her in here to peruse it at her leisure was small. Still, Lina reflected as she walked up the stairs, there was a reason she had gotten so good at picking locks.
Luna lived in a nice cottage close to Ceiphied's Eats. While it was certainly no palace, it was spacious enough that even with two small boys Gourry wondered why he and Lina hadn't stayed with her. Especially since, as Lina's meeting with the Eternal Queen had already successfully taken place, Luna seemed to have resumed the nurturing older sister role as she doled food out on their plates. It wasn't home cooking. Luna apparently brought dinner home from Ceiphied Eat's every night and simply didn't cook herself. But it was still good food.
As the sisters gabbed pleasantly, Gourry regarded Luna's husband, Harold. "So, what do you do for a living?" Gourry asked.
"I procure rare items for the Sorcerer's Guild." Harold explained as he took a sip of his wine.
"Oh, so you travel a lot?"
"No, when a group of merchants pass through Luna or one of the other waitresses directs them to me, and if there's anything of value I give them an offer they can't refuse."
Gourry frowned, "Valuable in what way?"
"Rare magical items, swords, anything that can be used to boost magical power. That sort of thing." Harold replied.
"What if the merchants don't want to part with those items?"
"Everyone has their buying price." Harold replied, wincing as one of his sons started to paint his arm with ketchup. "That's enough Freddie!"
Freddie grinned mischievously as Luna grabbed a washcloth and started wiping down his hands. Quietly Gourry said, "I wouldn't have sold the Sword of Light, no matter how much money you gave me."
"We wouldn't have needed you to sell it." Luna said as she stared distastefully at the wash cloth, "We would have done essentially what we already have, offered you a plum position with us and let you keep your weapon."
"What if I still refused?" Gourry asked.
Luna and Harold shrugged nonchalantly, "You're not going to get every deal."
"It's just that you put so much thought into this." Lina said.
"Well, look at what happened in Saillune and Dils." Luna pointed out, "They were unprepared when Mazoku infiltrated their kingdoms. Fortunately you put a stop to things in Saillune before they got too bad, but Dils is in horrible shape. Humans simply can't trust that we're too inconsequential for the Mazoku race to ignore."
"I can see that." Lina said thoughtfully, "What are the other countries doing?"
"Saillune is wanting to follow our lead. They're even sending one of their princesses down."
"Amelia!?" Lina exclaimed.
"I believe so." Luna replied. "She should be here with her husband in a few days."
"Amelia got married!?" Lina and Gourry both exclaimed.
Luna laughed a little, "It was a shocker. She eloped apparently. Saillune is in an uproar about it, she was rather valuable on the marriage market after all."
Lina let out a low whistle, "I can see Amelia doing that. She'd get so caught up in the romance of it all. When will they be here?"
"Any day, depending on travel conditions. Bertie, stop that." Luna directed as her other son started to bang his spoon on the table. "There's one thing I need to talk to you about." Luna said.
"What?" Lina said.
There was an awkward silence, and no one had to ask Luna which spell she was asking about. It was obvious she meant the Giga Slave. He noticed Lina tense as she wondered if Luna was about to take her to task. "What about it?" she asked.
"How do you feel about teaching it to others?"
Lina exhaled in relief. "It's not exactly a spell I want everyone to know about."
Luna nodded in agreement as Lina continued, "But the world would have been destroyed if I'd not learned it. And restricting people's knowledge never ends well."
"Yeah," Harold piped in, "There's no better way to ensure that people learn about something then by making it restricted."
Lina nodded, "So I guess I'm going to have to be very careful about who I teach the spell to."
"I guess I'll just have to trust you there." Luna said as the menacing air returned, "And if you're wrong…"
"No pressure." Lina said with a little laugh.
Bertie, or was it Freddie, screeched as Gourry grabbed and tickled him as he roughed housed on the floor with them. Lina turned to Luna who was sitting beside her on the couch and asked, "How do you tell them apart?"
"Bertie is taller and friendlier." Luna explained. "And I usually put something blue on his clothes. Freddie has something green."
"Oh." Lina said.
"Is this getting that clock ticking?" Luna asked as she sipped her tea.
Lina blanched, "Is that why you invited me over?"
"Well, you're certainly slacking off with your nephews and letting your partner put in the hard work."
"I know very little about kids." Lina said. "Besides, I don't see you on the floor with them."
"Hey, when someone comes along who is willing to play with them, I know enough to sit back and enjoy the break."
"You're not exactly selling me on the idea, Sis." Lina muttered.
"What idea?" Luna said with mock cluelessness.
Lina shook her head in exasperation as Luna got out a bundle of laundry from somewhere and started folding socks. "Here." Luna said as she forced a tiny pair of baby socks in Lina's hands, "The boys have outgrown them. Save them for the future."
Lina brought the socks close to inspection and felt something strange happen to her as she noticed how cute and tiny they were! Lina felt her heart lurch as she noticed the knitted design of a little blue jellyfish on them and it was all she could do to keep from cooing in delight. What was it about seeing little socks that evoked such a strong desire to hold a tiny baby? Damn you Luna!
But then she smiled as a wicked glint formed in her eye and she said, "It's not fair that they were babies when I was off saving the world. Why don't you keep these socks and have a third? That way I can be there from day one to spoil him rotten!"
"It's on the agenda." Luna said nonchalantly, "After getting a raise and the twins out of diapers."
"Sure." Lina said.
"Do you want to stay with us tonight?" Luna asked, "We have a guest room so you two won't be crammed in like sardines."
Lina blushed a little, "Sounds good, I guess."
"How long until you go to Maninstit?"
"I think we'll head out tomorrow." Lina said, "The crowds here are overwhelming. I never thought I'd say it, but I'm looking forward to some quiet."
"I can't blame you." Luna replied, and then she leaned in close so that Gourry couldn't hear, "When he finally pops the question, don't you even dare think of doing what your friend the Saillune princess did and elope. The Eternal Queen plans to attend herself."
Lina felt herself heat with rage as she screamed, "Stop making assumptions!"
"Everything okay?" Gourry asked as he looked up from playing with the boys while Harold walked in from the other room with a plate of cookies.
"Fine." Luna said, unperturbed. "Everything is going A okay according to plan!"