Warning: rants ahead. Proceed with caution. Or skip them. Really, it's up to you. Beware!
Now's the part where I apologize for being slow in updating. I'll give some excuse, such as, 'I've been working on other projects,' or 'the inspiration was slow in coming,' (both true, by the way) and go on to keep on saying how deeply I regret not working on this faster. Which is also true. Does it help that this one's longer? Really? It doesn't? -sigh- The thing to know is: I'm not normally a comedic writer. I'm more prone to spouting drama, angst, and, at best, dark humor. I don't do "funny" very well while punching a clock. But, we'll see what three cans of Diet Coke at 3:00 am do to my funny. Be afraid. Be very afraid.
A fair warning: I am a subscriber to the theory of Hugo-as-Flame-Champion. This is primarily because, if he's not Flame Champion, he becomes Mr. Afterthought, shunted with whichever Rune the other two don't want, and generally not getting much screentime. I mean, at least Chris and Geddoe have really awesome teams going for them. Without True Fire, Hugo has nothing at all to make you want to use him. --Ducks a hail of vegetables-- It's true and you know- ow! Okay, who threw the jar of pickles?
And next, thanks to all those who reviewed! Especially those who gave me suggestions! (Oh, my subtlety knows no bounds…) You all get virtual hugs. Or better yet, I'll steal some virtual cookies from PsychoLeopard! I can do that; we're related. --Evil grin--
And finally, if you notice anything about a certain True Rune, bear with me. I make mistakes sometimes. Well… Most of the time, actually. Anyway, on with the show!
I do not own Suikoden or any of its characters. If I did, Landis would just be called "Sid." I mean, really, who do they think they're fooling?
Lesson 3: Affix Runes Wisely
It was just before dawn at Budehuc Castle when the skies opened up and it started to rain. By midmorning, Stars and NPCs alike had retreated to the nearest shelter. Castle staff worked diligently to keep the rain from leaking into the various holes throughout the castle, while Sebastian puffed his way from room to room, futilely trying to keep the dogs from tracking mud all over the floor.
It had taken Rico an hour's intensive search of the castle before she could admit to herself that she had fully and thoroughly lost Fred. She couldn't figure out where the Captain of the Maximillian Knights might have gotten to. After all, he wouldn't be foolish enough to go outside in the rain, right?
Rico stumbled to a halt. If there were a reason, Sir Fred most certainly would go tromping out into the rain. Any reason would do it: a lost maiden… a flustered gardener… a slightly-damp kitten…
Suppressing a fond sigh, Rico trotted down the hall to the main entrance. She came upon Mua, who was attempting to drag a drenched Barts through the front door. The farmer tugged and yanked like a trapped animal, crying that his "babies" needed to be properly covered, whatever that meant.
Rico stopped in front of Mua as the knight threw Barts unceremoniously over his shoulder. "Sir Mua, did you see Master Fred out there?"
Mua was too caught up in the fidgeting bishonen to spare her much more than a glance. "Think I saw someone with Futch and Bright down by the stables."
Rico nodded her thanks and ducked through the front door. It shut with a thunk, muffling the end of Barts' agonized cry of "MY TOMAT-"
Rico stood in the rain for a moment, looking around. Everything was quiet and still, reminding her of a story she'd once overheard Landis telling. Gathering her courage, she marched her way alone across the yard.
She spotted a black-haired figure standing near the courtyard fountain, and burst into a run. She slowed down when she saw that it wasn't Fred. It was Rody.
And he was standing in the strangest position: back straight, hands extended in front of him so his palms formed a cup to catch the rain. His eyes were fixed intently on his hands. He didn't move at all as Rico approached.
Rico peered into his cupped hands, wondering what he was looking at that was so interesting. But there was only water. She watched him closely, but he was as still as a statue. Finally, she found the courage to ask, "Um… what are you doing?"
That was all he said. Rico, growing uncomfortable, started bouncing from foot to foot. "In the rain?"
"It's for a Flowing Rune. I have to keep the water in my hands without leaking any onto the ground."
"Oh." Rico looked back at the water in Rody's hands. "But… you don't have a Flowing Rune…"
Rody nodded sagely. "I need to learn how to use it correctly before I can have one."
"But… I have a Water Rune, and I'm not as good a magician as you."
Rody finally looked at her, eyes widening slightly. "I'm not… I mean… I'm just an apprentice…"
Rico smiled, surprised that he was so flustered by that. "And I'm just a squire, but Master Fred lets me fight by his side all the time."
Rody's hands drooped slightly, letting water stream through his fingers. "Fight by his…" Noticing the water that he'd let fall, his face contorted in a look of utter horror. "Oh NO! The water's LEAKING!" He tightened his hands into a rigid bowl again, eyes once more intent on his hands.
Rico frowned in thought, worry over Fred moving temporarily to the back of her mind. "But that's not how you learn water magic."
"Of course it is. My mistress says so."
Rico shook her head, knowing from experience what a bizarre person Estella could be. She gathered herself and prepared to take matters into her own hands. Grabbing his arm, she led him toward the rune shop. He stumbled after her, still trying to catch rainwater in his palms. "Let's get you a Rune first, then you can train with it."
"Wh-what? But… I can't… My mistress…"
"It's okay. I'm sure she won't mind." After all, Fred was always proud of her when she surprised him with a new skill. She liked that.
With that, the two burst into the Rune shop. It was a mess: boxes stacked haphazardly against the walls and sheets of paper scattered everywhere there was a flat surface. Jeane sat behind the counter, studying something, while Hortez VII rifled through a stack of scrolls on the floor.
"I-I shouldn't be in here! Estella never lets me come in here!" Both shopkeepers looked up at Rody's cries.
Rico tried tugging him away from the door, but he seemed rooted in place. "Why not?"
"The Rune Goblins!"
"The…what?" Rico stopped tugging.
"Rune Goblins! They gather wherever there are too many Runes in one place! Only an experienced spellcaster like Estella stands a chance against them!"
Rico stared at him. Rune Goblins? She'd never heard of them, and Fred had taught her everything he knew about evil monsters.
"Heh heh." Rico looked up at Jeane's low chuckle. The Rune Sage looked, if anything, amused. "I wonder where he might have gotten a notion like that." She seemed to be addressing the other shopkeeper, even though Hortez VII was back to work, apparently forgetting any of them existed.
Rico frowned at Rody. She never liked to see people distressed, and he looked terrified. "Well… Miss Jeane is an experienced spellcaster, too."
Rody blinked, thinking it through.
"Don't worry," Jeane chuckled. "I have plenty of goblin traps in case of an emergency."
Slowly, Rody nodded. He started toward Jeane's desk, hesitantly studying the Runes she had for sale. Rico smiled.
"Don't drip on the scrolls!" Hortez VII shouted suddenly, making Rico jump. She checked around her, making sure there weren't any scrolls nearby.
"Some of those are fire scrolls!"
"Are you saying I don't know what a fire scroll looks like?"
The scrollmaker suddenly stood, gathering a bunch of papers into his arms. "I can't take this sort of abuse! I'll be taking these scrolls into the safety of the back room!"
Before Rico could protest, he'd shouldered his way past her…
…and left straight out the front door.
Rico started after him, stepping out into the rain. "Mister Hortez! Wait!" She watched as he stalked purposely across the yard, the scrolls in his arms getting wetter and wetter. He didn't seem to hear her at all.
Some of these people were so weird…
She jumped as a cry came from inside the rune shop. Thinking something terrible must have happened, she ducked back inside.
Rody was leaning over the counter, a look of delight and awe on his face. "Is that a Pale Gate Rune? A real Pale Gate?"
Jeane smiled at him, leaning back. "It certainly is."
Rico stood for a moment, confused. "Did someone cry out?"
"That was me…" Rody admitted bashfully. "It's just… a Pale Gate…"
Rico knew very little about the matters of magic. "Oh."
"Where did you get it?" Rody asked the shopkeeper excitedly.
"The Flame Champion brought it back with him when he returned this morning."
"The Flame Champion's back?" Rico wondered aloud. Hugo had been gone a long time, out recruiting and training. Fred would want to know he'd returned.
"Who do you think it'll go on?" Rody chattered uncharacteristically. "Or did he already tell you? Who will get it?"
Jeane leaned forward, putting an elbow on the counter and managing to show off her ample bosom more than usual. "He simply told me to affix it to the one most capable of wielding it."
"Who is that?"
Rico started bouncing from one foot to the other. "I should get going… Master Fred might need me…"
Rody didn't even glance over at her. "You already know who's the strongest in Pale Gate? Why haven't you affixed it yet?"
"I just have to wait for her to come around."
"'Her?' It's my mistress, isn't it?"
"Bye…" Slowly, Rico opened the door to leave.
"Estella's great at every type of magic! It's her; I know it!"
As Rico closed the door behind her, she thought she heard Jeane mutter, "If only…"
> > > >
Fred nodded at a job well-done. Futch sighed, stroking his dragon's glossy—and dry—scales. "I simply can't thank you enough, Fred. Bright's just so sensitive to cold showers like this one."
"It's the least I can do. It's my duty as an honorable Knight of Maximillian."
An odd look crossed Futch's face at the last part. He looked about to say something.
"Do y'all have to keep him here?" Kathy interrupted. She was slumped against the wall of an adjacent stall. "He's scarin' all the horses."
"It's the only dry place they'll let him into," Futch explained, for the fifth (or was it sixth?) time. "I don't understand why… He's such a sweety…" Futch fell silent, gazing fondly at the dragon.
Fred stood a couple feet from the dragon, damp towel still thrown over his shoulder. He had been accosted by a distressed Futch half an hour ago, and the two had been toweling Bright since. Futch kept repeating something about the dragon's blood being cold…
"Master Fred!" Fred looked up when he heard Rico's voice, and saw his attendant trotting through the stable door. Once she got in front of him, she stopped and panted as if she'd been running.
"Rico! What are you doing out here?"
"I was looking for you. No one else is out in the cold. I need to get you inside before you get sick."
His attendant's concern touched him. "If Futch has no more need of me…" Fred glanced at Futch, who was talking softly to his dragon, by this point.
"No way: not him too!" Kathy's voice cried.
"Duck, Master Fred!"
Fred was so caught up in studying Futch that he didn't notice the new arrival until he was flat on his back on the other side of the stable.
"Uh…sorry, Fred." Franz peered down at him somewhat-bashfully from his saddle. "Ruby was in a rush to get out of the rain." Ruby merely buzzed irately.
Rico was quick in giving Fred a hand up and checking him over. He seemed to be in good condition considering he'd just been run over by an insect the size of a bear.
Kathy made an impatient noise. It was so unlike her that all three young men looked at her. "I can't be keepin' a dragon and a giant bug in here at the same time! It ain't gonna work!"
"'Giant bug?' What do you mean, 'giant bug?!'"
"Oh, don't worry," Futch assured her. "Bright and Ruby get along just fine."
"I mean for the horses!"
Futch looked blankly at Kathy as if he couldn't comprehend why she'd be worried about horses when there was a dragon involved.
Franz looked genuinely distressed, so Fred said, "She didn't mean it, Franz."
Franz ran a hand through his wet black hair. "You're right… Of course not…" He gave Ruby a pat. "It must be the weather, throwing everyone off."
"So, what are you doing in here?"
The Mantor Trainer still looked distracted. "Same thing as Futch and Bright, probably. The rain's coming down too hard to risk Ruby's wings getting stiff."
Fred nodded. "We've got to look after our charges."
Franz glanced at him. "Of course… But… uh… isn't Rico allowed inside the castle? Why did you bring her out here?"
All seven Stars present were silent for a long moment, eyes trained on Fred.
"Master Fred didn't bring me out here," Rico explained. "I came out to get him back inside so he doesn't catch a cold." She gave him a worried glance.
Futch nodded. "That's a good instinct, Rico."
"Just how an attendant should act," Franz agreed.
"Make sure he gets some dry clothes on."
"And maybe get something hot inside him."
"But not too hot…"
"And get the stiffness out of his wings…"
"And dig the mud from between his claws…"
"And make sure there's no ice on his shell…"
Both young men tapered off into silence, looking thoughtfully at their respective beasts, Fred apparently forgotten.
Rico tugged on his arm to get him to follow her out of the stable. She seemed to be laughing quietly, but Fred had no idea why.
She was odd, like that.
> > > >
Rico breathed a sigh of relief when she finally got Fred inside the castle. The tunic under his armor was sopping, and his hair was a matted mess that made him look something like a drowned puppy.
Dripping water onto the entrance tiles, they started for their quarters on the ship. Halfway down the stairs, however, they stumbled across Kidd.
Or, rather, Fred stumbled over Kidd, resulting in a series of crashes as both tumbled noisily to the landing below.
"Master Fred!" Rico sprinted down the steps and knelt beside him. He sat up, groaning and rubbing his head.
"Argh!" Kidd growled. "Now look what you've done! You've ruined my investigation!"
Rico nearly gave Kidd a mean look. "You could have hurt someone, hunched over like that!"
"For your information, I was trying to conduct research on my prime suspect for the Case of the Murdered Puppet!"
"The… what?" Fred asked dazedly, still rubbing his head.
"I've whittled down the clues," Kidd explained excitedly. "It took me all night, but I know who killed Branky!"
"Who?" Fred asked.
Rico tried to help Fred stand up. "Master Fred, we have to go!"
"Why Little Viki?" Fred seemed to actually be interested.
"Why, she was out with the Flame Champion until he returned this morning! She has the perfect alibi! A little too perfect an alibi, if I say so myself!"
"Wait… The Flame Champion's returned?" Fred stood so abruptly that Rico lost her balance and fell at his feet.
"And what did she do when I asked her about it? Why, she--"
Fred grabbed Kidd by the collar of his blue jacket, peering into his face. "The Flame Champion's back?"
"Well… uh… yeah."
"Where is he?"
"You're a detective. I'm asking a question."
"L-last I s-saw him, he w-was in the l-library…"
Fred nodded, dropped Kidd, and bounded back up the stairs without another word.
"He's kind of scary like that," Kidd said offhandedly, writing furiously on his notepad. Rico frowned at him before sprinting after Fred.
She caught up to him just outside the library door. "Master Fred, we shouldn't go in there while we're still so wet…"
"Don't worry so much. It'll only take a minute." With that, Fred pushed his way into the library.
Ace and Eike were conversing over something that looked like a manuscript, while Billy was pressed against one of the bookcases, eavesdropping on the conversation going on behind it.
"I'm sorry, Hugo. I just can't teach you anymore!" Ernie was saying.
"But I'm the Flame Champion! Shouldn't I be able to consume the Destroyers with flames by now?"
"It's not that the True Fire Rune isn't powerful… It's just… You're not very good at it."
"But I'm the…"
"I know… But you're just… so… incompetent!"
Billy let out an amused snort.
Everyone looked up at the sound of Fred's gauntleted fist connecting with Billy's jaw. Rico looked at the Maximillian Knight in horror. "Eavesdropping is an evil practice," he explained simply.
Hugo and Ernie came around from behind the bookcase. "Oh, it's you, Fred."
"Good morning, Master Hugo."
Ernie adjusted her spectacles and turned back to Hugo. "You know, your mother is good with Fire Magic. Maybe you should lend her your True Rune until we win the war."
"I…" Hugo blinked warily. "True Runes don't work like that."
Rico shivered suddenly as a shadow fell over her. She turned around to see Eike looming over her silently. "I'm sorry. We were just leaving… Master Fred, we really should go…"
Fred shook his head. "I'd like to speak with the Flame Champion first."
He never got the chance. At that moment, four of the five castle dogs burst into the room, Sebastian and Cecile both hot at their heels.
The ensuing chaos made of the library forced everyone present to evacuate and flee to safer quarters.
> > > >
That afternoon, Fred relaxed on his bed in the quarters he and Rico shared. He'd taken a long hot bath, courtesy of Goro, and had managed to snatch the Flame Champion away from Ceasar long enough to make sure nothing noteworthy had happened in the fight against evil. Now, he stretched out in a clean tunic while Rico cleaned his armor on the floor below him.
"I feel so useless, when they leave me behind like that," Fred sighed.
"I know, Master Fred, but that's only because you don't need as much practice as everyone else."
"You are the Commander of the Maximillian Knights."
He thought that through for a moment. "That makes sense, but… nothing ever happens here. How can I be fighting against the source of all evil when all I do is stand around all day?"
"You're sitting, now, Master Fred."
"Hm… You may be on to something there, Rico…"
There were a few moments of silence. Distantly, Fred thought he heard singing.
Then he heard a voice shouting, "Everyone to arms! Monsters are attacking the castle!"
Fred jumped off his cot, blood racing. "Ah! Evil shows its face at last!"
"That was conveniently timed."
"Huh? Did you say something, Rico?"
"Nothing, Master Fred." She made quick work of fastening the newly-cleaned armor over his tunic.
Once she was done, Fred grabbed his sword and started out onto the deck of the ship. "Come on, everyone! Chief Lucia! Belle! Weapons out! We've got monsters to slay!"
The Karayan gave him a nasty look as she sprinted out of her apartment. It was almost as if she didn't appreciate his words.
Meanwhile, Belle knelt over that odd contraption of hers, banging at it repeatedly. "I would if I could! There's rust in his joints! Stupid weather!"
Confused by her behavior, he decided to leave her to her odd partner. Some people had dependency issues. "Rico, hurry up!"
"I'm coming, Master Fred!" She came bounding up, backpack slung over her shoulders. "Where is the trouble?"
"I suspect we should follow the noise of battle."
Both fell silent as they walked from the ship to the castle, listening.
"Master Fred, I hear… singing."
"Me too…" It was an eerie song, sung by dozens of voices. "They sound like… Sirens!"
With that, he took off toward the castle entrance. The castle itself was packed with villagers, shopkeepers, and support characters, but all capable of fighting had left.
Fred crashed to the floor for the third time that day, skiddingacross the slick tiles of the entrance hall. This time, the culprit was a sleepy castle dog.
"Oh dear! This mean man's just stepped on Connie!" Elder Viki squeaked, hands over her mouth.
Fred was an inch from lashing out in frustration at the drowsing dog, but ended up glaring at Viki instead. "Shouldn't you be out fighting?"
"But… Why would I go out to fight when there's so much violence inside?"
"Because you're a spellcaster! All spellcasters should be out defending the castle!"
Rico helped him up from the ground. "Come on, Master Fred." He cast Viki a final glance and then sprinted outside with Rico.
Fred burst out the front door and paused to stare through the rain. At least two hundred Sirens were milling around just outside the castle defenses, singing half the Fire Bringer to sleep.
"The weather must be driving them out of North Cavern," Rico said quietly.
"Why do say that?"
"Well, that's an awful lot for a random encounter, even for someone really unlucky."
"I say, who cares why they're here! We must extinguish them!" Raising his sword, Fred charged into the midst of the battle.
He proved to be difficult to sing to sleep as he hacked his way through the monsters. Somehow, he ended up fighting beside Sir Leo. The Zexen Knight proved equally hard to lull.
"It seems, Sir Fred," Leo panted between battles, "that your skull is as thick as mine."
"Yeah?" Fred rapped his knuckles against his head, not quite understanding the reference.
Leo just chuckled and went on swinging his axe.
"This isn't working!" One of the Alma Kinan girls shouted. Yuiri: that was her name. "Would someone bust out a True Rune, or something!" And in that inexplicable way that happened during pitched battle, everyone on the battlefield heard.
"Can't!" Geddoe cried from down the field. "I used up my more powerful spells yesterday, and they haven't restored yet"
"Can't!" Someone else shouted. "Chris fell asleep!"
"LADY CHRIS!! GET BACK, YOU WITCHES!"
"Borus! She's with Mio!"
"Can't!" Hugo yelled over Borus' cries. "If I tried, I'd blow up the lot of you!"
"WHAT WAS THAT, BARBARIAN?"
"Not that certain Ironheads wouldn't deserve it for TORCHING KARAYA VILLAGE!!"
Suddenly, Rico shouted, "Wait a minute! Who has the Pale Gate Rune?"
"We have a Pale Gate Rune, and I wasn't informed?" Little Viki yelled hotly.
"I don't have it!" Piccolo shouted in a cracked voice.
"I don't either!" Mel huffed.
"I'd like to have one, right now," Joker yelled.
"I don't have it, either!" Alanis yelled. Fred was surprised someone that young would be trusted with magic in the first place.
"Nor do I." Estella's voice was almost too low to carry over the battlefield. But not quite, since conversations could be heard from miles off whenever they were in war mode.
"Then where the hell did Jeane put that Rune I gave her?"
Fred was starting to get tired from the fight. "Viki's still inside, you know!"
"WHAT? Jeane couldn't be stupid enough to put something like that on Viki!"
"I resent that, you Karayan toad!"
"The other Viki!"
After a few seconds, Apple came running down the castle steps. "I called for everyspellcaster still in the castle to come out!"
Fred leaned on his sword for a minute to catch his breath. He paused, hearing a low rumbling thunder. Then, when he looked up, the sky was oddly dark, and a gigantic ghost ship was flying through the air toward them.
And it had stopped raining.
What sorcery was this?
"EVERYONE, DUCK!!" Joker shouted.
"NOT YOU, RHETT!"
Fred ducked, mainly because Rico barreled him to the ground.
"What… is this…?" he gasped.
"Empty World," Sir Leo panted nearby. "Pale Gate Rune magic."
The ghost ship began firing great canon blasts over the field, making Fred flinch. When the giant skull at the head of the ship began to glow red in the eyes, Fred decided it was a good idea to cover his head and whimper.
There was a long moment of blinding light, and then it was over. Fred looked up as he became aware of rain once again falling. The battlefield had a newly-scorched look to it, but all the Sirens were gone.
"Ooh! Did you just see Connie's new trick?" Elder Viki's voice came from the direction of the castle. "Do it again, girl!"
As one, all of the Fire Bringer not currently asleep, unconscious, or running in terror looked up at Viki and Connie.
It hadn't been Viki who had cast that spell.
"Heh heh," Jeane chuckled, poking her head around the battlements to regard them all. "Perhaps affixing Runes to animals isn't so bad after all. Hugo, bring me that griffon. We'll see if that True Rune of yours will protest to a newer, more competent, and fuzzier bearer."
Rico met Fred's eyes. "I didn't think dogs knew magic," she said quietly.
"Neither did I. Maybe I should scratch Koroku behind the ears more often…"
"I think that would be pretty wise, Master Fred."
"I thought so."
Author's Notes: Forgive me for a certain error in timing. If you noticed it: congrats, you're even more obsessed than I am! If not, don't worry. I won't do it again. I'm only going to say that this fanfic is written under the assumption that all 108 Stars have been recruited and are living at Budehuc, including the late ones. I'm sorry and I should be punished, by reading Erk's Adventures, or listening to one of Piccolo's fortunes. I'm just that sorry.
Anyway: Review! Review! Now that you've read it, review it!
And the best part about the whole thing is that the Connie thing is completely true. The dog could almost match Sarah in Pale Gate Magic. That, my friends, is the beauty of Suikoden.