Lloyd's room was crowded. One large white and red mana beast that was alternating between chewing on the vines growing all over the wood in the room and squirming around for more space, one green-clad automatic doll with a soul thrashing about while pinned to the wall, and a semi-exiled Wonder Chef on the verge of using a near-nuclear cooking spell on the house quickly made enough noise and damage to draw the attentions of the three occupants of the house.
"Get off of me! I can't breathe!"
"Can somebody tell me if I'm looking at the gates of heaven or Pepper's rump?"
The wood under the mana beast creaked, then collapsed as one of Peppermint FireBlossom's massive paws broke through. She squawked in shock and began thrashing, free meal of greenery forgotten as she tried desperately to free herself from the floor. The Wonder Chef, known to family as Adam Voraci, and to Caleb as Wren, crawled out as best he could from under the mana beast and looked around. Caleb himself, the automatic doll built to look just like the former Chosen, Zelos Wilder, pulled his legs up and squirmed harder, finally sliding down with a thump onto what was left of the floor.
"We'd better get out of here before we attract any unwanted attention." Wren told the doll.
"Bit too late for that." Caleb remarked with a hesitant smile as he pointed over Wren's head. The chef looked back and turned red at the sight of three grumpy swordsmen glaring at them.
"I said I needed more fiber in my breakfast, but raining splinters into my omelet isn't what I had in mind." Zelos grumbled.
"What did you do to my room?!" Lloyd Irving Aurion yelled, "My Dad's gonna kill me if he sees that hole!" Kratos Aurion was last to enter the room and merely rested his chin on the floorboard from where he stood on the stairwell, a piece of toast held between his teeth. He gave the group a strange look, then humphed and disappeared down below to finish his breakfast.
"H-hey, guys! Uh, good morning!" Caleb greeted brightly, hoping neither of his two groups of friends decided to have at each other for the sake of relieving irritation.
With introductions and explanations out of the way, and Pepper busily playing outside with Noishe, who surprisingly enough wasn't afraid of the mana beast, Caleb asked Lloyd about the layout of the Iselia Ranch south of the little house.
"Ah, it's big and empty. And there's a lot of rooms full of stuff I can't figure out." the dual swordsman answered, scratching his head in confusion.
"That's not much help, Lloyd." Caleb sighed, "But the fact that it's empty is somewhat reassuring. We won't have to deal with any monsters or anything." He looked over at Wren, who was currently trying to cook a replacement meal and ignore Zelos at the same time but failing miserably at it. "Which is a major plus in my book as I worry about Wren."
The group looked over at the kitchen area, watched the original redhead come running out with several riceballs being thrown after him, then looked at Caleb with droll expressions. Caleb laughed nervously, scratching at his cheek.
"I see no need to worry about the Wonder Chef. If push comes to shove, he can always just turn himself into a basket of toys and no monster will be the wiser." Kratos muttered, poking at his plate.
"That's not why I worry." Caleb grumbled and shot a look at the other redhead now eyeing the silver gem the automatic doll had placed on the dinner table. "And you leave him alone. I've seen him take out bigger idiots with that fork of his."
"You can sell this thing and make a lot of money, y'know." Zelos remarked and grinned, "Then you can get all the food you want!"
"If this data crystal really is magitechnology developed by the half-elves, then Cruxis would definitely have records of it, and may even have used it themselves." Kratos announced with a matter-of-fact tone, "Though I personally haven't had contact with such a thing and thus have no idea where to go looking for a reader... But, the idea of searching Iselia for such a device to read this crystal seems to be the best option."
"Well, if that's all the information you have about Iselia Ranch then Wren, Pepper and I will be on our way." Caleb remarked as he stood up, "Also, Genis sends his greetings from the Yggdrasill Tree, where he's conducting a study on mana beasts." He looked towards the kitchen and watched the blonde chef emerge with two pots, one he set on the table and the other he kept on hand. "Ready to go, Wren?"
"Yes. This is in case the doors to Iselia Ranch have been locked or barricaded in any way." Wren replied, holding up the second pot.
"Hey. Here's a new recipe I came up with that you might like to try!" Zelos remarked with a grin, "Mix wine and women for a real good time!"
"I'll be outside." Wren grumbled and stomped out, followed by Caleb as he called out for him.
"Man needs to loosen up some." Zelos ended with a sigh and got up to see what was in the pot, "Hey! Spaghetti!" Kratos and Lloyd fled the table.
Iselia Ranch was considered by many to be the trigger to the World Reunification journey. It was here that the Lloyd witnessed the atrocities that befell a poor old woman named Marble that urged him onto his journey to change the world. Now, silent and devoid of life, the ranch didn't seem that historical. But, as Wren had thought, the gate was locked and Caleb watched in awe as the Wonder Chef poured a portion of the broth in his little cauldron onto the bar that blocked the way. The broth melted through the iron, eating it away and dropping the pieces that were left to the ground.
"Like a hot knife through butter!" Wren remarked with a smile and walked past the fallen pieces to push on the doors, "Nngh! This thing's... heavy!"
"Let me have at it." Caleb told him and stepped forward to take his place.
"No, don't...!" Wren cried as the doll put his hands against the gates. Smoke began curling up and Caleb yanked his hands away in shock, staring at the exposed metal and circuitry in them. The skin had been melted away! "I'm sorry! I forgot to mention what the stuff does!" Wren exclaimed, pulling the doll's hands forward for a closer look, "It's an old recipe for a broth that dissolves metal and other synthetic substances. I keep forgetting that you don't know about these things."
"What on earth is the Wonder Organization doing with acidic broth?!" Caleb exclaimed incredulously.
"When the Wonder Organization was still young, it wasn't known as the Wonder Organization but as the Royal Order of Master Chefs. The title of Wonder Chef was considered the highest one that could be attained, so there were multiple Wonder Chefs during that age." Wren explained as he tore off strips of cloth from the end of his cape to bandage Caleb's hands. "The Royal Order would send its members out a few at a time to test and find new recipes. And on some occasions, those same cooks and chefs would find themselves captured by those who would attempt to use the recipes to poison others, or hold them for ransom from the king. The very first Wonder Chef, Eru Tanreht, eventually developed a broth that could be made from ingredients that would be given to prisoners in their food and that broth would melt the prison bars or shackles that held the cooks prisoner." He looked at the bandaged hands glumly. "I keep forgetting that you aren't a Wonder Cook and that you're not human. Why do I keep making stupid mistakes like that?"
"Don't worry about it. I can't feel pain, so it doesn't hurt. I just need to find someone to replace the skin or find a way to do it myself." Caleb replied cheerfully, "Don't be so hard on yourself!"
"I can try to wash off the broth from the gates so we can both push them open." Wren suggested and dug into his pack, "It's going to reduce the amount of water I have, but we can always bother Lloyd for a refill." Taking the canteen he found, the chef poured water onto the metal gates, splashing it and watching the remainder of the broth cascade down and become diluted. "Okay, try it now." Both men pushed on the doors and the gates to the ranch finally opened to them.
The rooms and halls inside the Iselia Ranch were indeed empty. Power had been cut and few of the facilities were operational. Wren studied the consoles in one room as Caleb watched him with interest. Most doors were still open from the day Lloyd's group infiltrated the ranch to rescue a kidnapped tour guide and shut down the mana reactor to stop an out-of-control Kharlan Tree, which made things so much easier for the three friends to work through. Pepper didn't like the ranch for some reason but followed along inside out of loyalty to her friends.
"Nope, not a single response. We won't be able to do anything until we restore power to this place." Wren sighed after spending a few minutes pressing buttons and flipping switches.
"I didn't know you could work with machines." Caleb remarked, "Not many people outside of Tethe'alla's researchers and engineers know anything about magitechnology."
"That's because you're assuming I lived under the same conditions and restrictions as the people of Sylvarant and Tethe'alla when they were split apart." the blonde replied, "The Wonder Organization is neutral; we didn't bother Mithos and he didn't bother us, so we were able to keep our knowledge and way of life despite having the added difficulty of moving from place to place."
"Yes, well, traveling between dimensions always threw me off. That's how I got stuck on Exire. So where's the power source for this ranch?" Wren asked.
"That would be the mana reactor that's a bit deeper within this building. Every human ranch had one. If we can restart the reactor to this building, then we can get a better understanding of what it is we're actually dealing with." Caleb told him and began walking off, "Let's go, Wren! To unlocking the secrets of Moria!"
"Ugh, we did that already and nearly got eaten by a stupid green dragon." the chef muttered as he and Pepper chased after the doll.
Without a map and without much direction, both Wren and Caleb quickly got lost. They found empty chests that the Heroes of Union had once raided and poked around in hopes of finding something that had been overlooked. There were a few gels that were left behind and an inactive Cybit unit that Caleb pulled apart to examine. Wren picked up the lump of white silver that was in its shell and studied it.
"What does a machine like that need something like this for?" he asked in confusion. Caleb shrugged as he studied the pieces in his hands and pocketed a few of them. "And what are you doing with bits of that thing anyway?"
"I'm hoping I've got some compatible circuitry with this thing, just in case something breaks in me and I need to replace a circuit-board." the doll replied, "And who knows why Cybits want white silver inside 'em? Maybe they secretly want to buy their own freedom or something." Pepper looked down a hallway and made a strange sound of irritation. The two men looked at her. "Something wrong, Pepper?" the doll asked, concerned. The image of a tight ball of iridescent violet being held in a glass ball appeared in his mind and he blinked at his human friend, who rubbed his head in confusion.
"What does that mean?" Wren asked. Caleb thought about the image carefully.
"The ball seems to be shining. It looks kinda like Mana Fruit, so maybe that's Pepper's way of saying 'mana'. And it's contained, like someone put mana into a tightly sealed cage." he remarked and brightened, "Ah! The mana reactor! Pepper must be sensing what's left of the mana reactor!"
"If she can do that, can she lead us to it?" Wren asked, walking up to the doll and handing him the lump of silver, "It will keep us from getting lost and she might even be able to jump-start the reactor if it needs a mana boost."
"Let's give it a try. Pepper? That thing you found is something we want to go see." Caleb told the mana beast, stroking her snout, "Can you keep sensing it and lead us to where that thing is? There's a Mana Fruit treat for you if you can help us find and fix it!" The mana beast clacked cheerfully and nuzzled him so hard it knocked over the doll. Wren laughed behind his hands.
"That's some strong love, there! It swept you off your feet!" he joked.
"Wren, leave the love-related crap to the idiot former Chosen." Caleb grumbled from where he lay on the floor, "I'm barely dealing with your cooking puns."
"Still stewing over that, huh?"
"On second thought, I lied. I still can't stand cooking puns."
Pepper led the way down the winding halls and stairs towards the teleporter that would take them to the mana reactor. Caleb spent a great amount of time trying to explain to Pepper about the teleporter. The mana beast stared at him, then at the teleporter, then squeaked. She wasn't buying it.
"It's just going to move you from here to the place where the mana reactor is!" Caleb cried, "How do you expect to get your treat if you don't come with us?!" Wren spent his time waiting for Caleb to work things out with the mana beast by preparing a small snack for himself. After overhearing the exasperated declaration, the chef sighed and stood, holding the bowl of fruit cocktail in one hand.
"I am never gonna get another taste of this while I'm on this journey, am I?" he complained and walked over to the teleporter. The doll watched as Wren stepped onto the violet pad and held out the bowl towards Pepper. "Hey, Pepper! Want some fruit cocktail?" he asked cheerfully, "If you want any, follow me!" With that, he disappeared, warped to the mana reactor. Pepper squawked and leaped after him onto the teleporter, vanishing after him.
"Eh, whatever works, I guess." Caleb muttered with a smile and stepped onto the pad himself.
The mana reactor remained dormant as the three friends peered down into it. A huge pit that stretched down through the floor as far as they could see and contained a small mass of mana that remained static in an enclosed sphere connected to many cables and conduits, the chamber seemed just as dead as when it was shut down so long ago.
"So this is the mana reactor." Wren remarked at last, "This place is powered off of this thing? How does it work?"
"You mean, you don't know? I thought you knew how to work with magitechnology!" Caleb exclaimed, "I was depending on you switching this thing on after Pepper recharged the mana supply!"
"What do I look like? An engineer? I said I knew of it! I can make use of some forms of magitechnology, but not enough to be that confident about it." Wren shot back, "What about you? You have the entire library of Sybak in your head! Use that!"
"I put that in cold storage in the sections of my system that aren't used for my personal memories and programs. I can't just drop everything and access that information any time I feel like it; it takes forever to switch modes!" Caleb returned and looked at Pepper, "Pepper, can you fill that sphere down there with mana from the light or a fire?" The mana beast nodded and floated down to work on the reactor.
"Then I guess I'll try to figure out the control system here." Wren sighed and headed towards the nearby console. Down below them, Pepper perched on the clear sphere and focused on drawing mana from the dim emergency lights of the building. With the power at its low level, there wasn't much illumination to work with, making Pepper's job more difficult. The light freely gave what it could but it would take a while for the sphere to be filled with mana and reactivate.
After a few minutes, the lights flickered around the group. Wren studied the console and smiled as the gauges began to rise. Caleb peered down into the pit and blinked as Pepper circled the sphere, infusing more mana at a faster rate the more the lights came on and strengthened in brightness.
"Okay, we've got enough power to restart the ranch." Wren announced after a few minutes, "I'm going to try to reroute the energy to the buildings, primarily this one, then we can go and check the rooms for anything that can read the crystal."
"All right. Give it a shot." Caleb agreed and whistled for Pepper to return. Wren pressed his fingers against the touch-screen console, watching the graphs alter themselves accordingly as he picked his way through the various commands. Pepper landed by the doll and looked around warily as the lights continued to flicker. "I'm afraid to ask how you're doing." Caleb murmured, watching the lights with the mana beast.
"Then don't. I've almost got it figured out. We're lucky this is written in something I can understand." Wren told him, his attention still on the console, "Meantime, go out and take a look around. See if you can get a head start on finding the data crystal's reader."
"Will you be all right here on your own?" Caleb asked worriedly. Wren waved him off.
"Yeah, I'll be just fine! C'mon, there's nobody here to mess with us so we should be perfectly safe splitting up." the chef replied and returned to pressing at the screen as the lights stabilized.
"Okay, we'll split up for now and meet up again later. Where's the best place to reunite?"
"Dunno, but here's an idea. Pepper can project images into our heads, right?" Wren asked, still working with the computer, "Then, take her with you and when I give you the signal, have her send me a picture of the room you're in. Then I can just teleport there with the Wonder Fork."
"What signal will you send?" Caleb asked. Wren shrugged.
"I'll think of something. Now, get going!" he answered, "I can't afford to lose a lot of time trying to read that crystal and see if there are any recipes on it."
"All right. See you later then." Caleb sighed and signaled for Pepper to follow him. Wren only nodded, still pressing at buttons as the lights flickered once more.