Hi again! Yay, a chapter that didn't take years to post XD. But I expected that: this chapter didn't really need any changing, and is much shorter than the benemoth the last chapter was.
Believe it or not, this chapter (and the majority of the next couple of chapters) should be fun XP
62nd Shot: The Walking Jigsaw Puzzles
"Oh man, my head," Dalios moaned, as he sat up and starting rubbing his forehead. "And what-" Then he remembered everything, including his failure and his guilt. "Everyone…"
Then Dalios took a good look at his surroundings. He was in the middle of a hallway with various items crowded on the walls and even the ceiling. On one side were bird statues, each one different, and on the other side were lion statues, all also unique.
So I'm back in Pharos's palace? Dalios wondered, before shaking his head. …No, this must be another memory world. A memory world based on…me? But wait, why am I still conscious and free then? I should be locked away somewhere in this world, like everyone else was in their own memory worlds.
He gasped and quickly got onto his feet, headache forgotten.
And if I'm still free, maybe the others are too! Dalios thought hopefully. I just need to find them. He took a deep breath. "Rolly!"
At first there was silence. Then there was the pitter-patter of little feet rushing down the hallway.
The pitter-patter of many, many feet.
A mass of orange-and-white corgis burst through the doorway, knocking a bewildered Dalios off his feet. The white-haired boy felt himself being carried on top of the "wave" of fur, which carried him helplessly out of the hallway and into the laundry room. The many washing machines were all running, despite having no clothes in them. Here the dogs spread out, leaving Dalios on the floor in a daze.
"…What the hell?" muttered Dalios, as he got onto his feet again. There were dozens, maybe hundreds of dogs present, all yipping, panting, growling, barking, and whining at all once. They covered the entire laundry floor, there were so many. And they all looked exactly like Rolly.
This is ridiculous! thought Dalios, as he gawked at all of the "Rollys". Why are there so many? And which is the real Rolly?
Dalios picked up a random "Rolly" out of the sea of orange. The mutt whined and trembled at his touch.
"Not this one," said Dalios, putting the corgi back down and lifting up another one. That Rolly tried to nip his nose and growled at him, so he released that one as well. "Not this one either…" The third Rolly yawned loudly and almost fell asleep in his grip. "That's not him…Man, how am I supposed to tell Rolly apart from all these copies?"
Then he studied the "Rollys" around him more closely. No, they're not copies…they look the same, but they act totally different from each other. And each one sort of reminds me of Rolly, but not quite…almost, as if…
Dalios's eyes widened, and he almost dropped the "Rolly" he was holding. Instead he set the corgi pup down very carefully, and gazed out upon all the dogs present.
These are all Rolly!
Dalios heard a low chucking and slow clapping behind him. He spun around to see Valium standing, or rather floating, nearby. His thin body and beaky nose reminded Dalios of a stork without wings.
"Very good," said Valium with a grin. "They are all Rolly. Do you know why, familiar one?"
"…You broke him apart," Dalios answered. "You split him up into all his personality traits. And you did the same thing to everyone else, didn't you?"
"Yes, them too," responded the beak-nosed man, still smiling. "I broke down their minds to the most basic components." He then raised one finger, expression still the same. "But I'll let you in on a secret. If you can find the key piece of their minds, the core that defines who they are, you can pull all of those fragments together to that core and meld them together into one mind again. But no other fragment will do: it must be the core. Otherwise it will be useless, familiar one."
Dalios narrowed his eyes. "Why are you telling me this? And why do you keep calling me familiar one? What does that even mean?"
"I'm telling you because a game is more fun to play when you know the rules," answered Valium. "As for my name for you…well, given enough time in the game, you should be able to figure it out yourself."
Dalios folded his arms, not satisfied, but not expecting anything clearer than that either.
"So tell me, out of all these Rollys, which one do you think represents his core?" asked Valium, making a sweeping gesture toward all the little dogs in the room.
Dalios studied the sea of orange-and-white fur around him. Then, wading through the mass of yipping mutts, he moved to an especially happy-looking Rolly sitting on one of the washing machines. The corgi cheerfully and patiently waited for Dalios, wagging his tail. Dalios paused before the orange mutt for a few moments, looked around one last time, and picked him up.
"This one," Dalios spoke with confidence. "Rolly has always been happy and loyal. It takes a lot of effort to make him mad or sad. So this must be his core."
Valium paused, ever smiling. Dalios wondered if that smile was permanently cemented to his face. "And you would be wrong."
Suddenly the false Rolly bit Dalios hard, causing thee white-haired boy to yelp and drop the dog. It scampered back into the vast pack of mutts.
"Well, I suppose it is a bit hard to tell with a dog," Valium stated, pointing at Dalios's wounded hand. A bright blue bandage with yellow stars instantly materialized over the bite. "So I'll give you a freebie this time. This is more of a tutorial than anything, after all. And his nose will be useless to you here."
Raising a thin, bony hand over the dogs, several silver strings shot up from over the floor, floating aimlessly in the air. With a forceful swipe of his hand, the strings all connected to one dog. Which one Dalios couldn't exactly tell, for all the orange-and-white fur blended into one another and made it hard to tell each individual dog apart. The other ends of the strings then bound themselves to all the other dogs, looking like a water fountain put on pause. Then all the other dogs melted into fantasy, which flowed up the silver wires and melted into the one dog, as if the fountain was put into reverse to absorb the rainbow liquid. When all the color had been absorbed, the strings dissolved. The one dog, Rolly, shook his head before happily running over to Dalios.
Valium turned to Dalios. "And that is how it's done."
Dalios bent down and examined Rolly, who was wagging his tail but still looking a bit confused.
"Of course, minds can only stand to be fragmented for so long," Valium added. "After a while the fragments begin to think for themselves and become their own separate consciousness. Then the mind can never be united. So if you want to reassemble your friends, familiar one, you'll need to hurry."
Dalios looked back up from Rolly, leering at Valium. "Why do you do this kind of thing to people? Tearing open old wounds and scattering their minds? Is it really just a game, or do you gain something else from it?"
The bird-like man laughed. "Always so logical, familiar one. Why do people take apart clocks and animals? To see how they work. And each mind is so different. It's endlessly fascinating and entertaining to see what happens when a certain something is added or taken away, to see how they grow stronger, to see what it takes to break them and to watch how they fall to pieces. I have done this countless times, yet I am always surprised and I never know what to expect next." He giggled like a delighted child.
Dalios snarled. "So people are nothing but toys to you, toys to play with until they wear out and break down. You don't think of them as real living beings."
"What is reality? What is real?" Valium questioned in a whimsical tone, spinning around in one place. "But what are you standing around here for, talking with me about meaningless subjects? You have friends you want to save, don't you?" Valium dissolved into golden dust, which quickly thinned into nothingness.
Without further hesitation Dalios and Rolly ran through the place Valium had been standing moments ago, and out of the laundry room. When Dalios entered the next room, he couldn't help but stare, even though it was exactly what he expected.
It was a restaurant, though Dalios didn't remember there being a restaurant being right next to the laundry room. There were about a dozen people in the restaurant, but all of them were copies of people he was searching for. Half of them were Cassis, some of them were Razekar, and a few were Jing.
It wasn't quite the same as with Rolly. They all wore different clothes, though each Jing also had the signature orange coat draped over their outfits. The Jing that walked up to Dalios, for example, had a black-and-white waiter's suit on underneath the typical Jing coat.
"Hello there sir," the waiter Jing spoke with a pleasant smile but nervous tone. "Where would you like to sit, sir?"
Not the real Jing, Dalios thought with amusement. "Take me to one of the tables in the middle."
"Of course sir," answered the waiter Jing, leading Dalios and Rolly to a small table in the center of the restaurant. The white-haired boy sat in the plush green chair while Rolly hopped up to the purple chair across from him. Rolly was used to equal treatment in Pharos's palace.
The waiter Jing fumbled for the menus and his notepad. He gave Dalios a sheepish smile. "Sorry. I haven't done this kind of job much."
"Take your time," Dalios replied.
Seated at the table on right was a Razekar dressed in a purple suit and feathered hat. He was sipping a Blue Motorcycle while he chatted up the five girls sitting with him. A few tables back a Cassis in a sky-blue dress stared dreamily at the item-coated ceiling, her glass of water and vanilla ice cream untouched. To the left another Cassis with sunglasses was cheerily yapping away with yet another double of herself, who was trying to read a book on narcissism. A Falcon dressed like a clown was happily juggling balls onstage, only to get pulled offstage by a Falcon in red. The black-and-white-striped curtains abruptly closed.
Dalios quietly observed it all. This is going to take awhile…
What would you like, sir?" the waiter Jing asked, having finally gotten his notebook ready.
"Get me an apple and Rolly a bone," Dalios answered casually, handing the menus back.
"Will that be all, sir?"
"Thank you sir," he replied, dashing off and nearly bumping into a Razekar wearing an oversized green shirt and loose slacks.
The stage curtain rose again. It revealed a Jing with a magician's outfit under his orange coat, and a Cassis with the gray eyes and darkened skin of a Chesirian. Both of them bowed toward the cheering crowd, however sparse it was.
With a snap of his fingers, the magician Jing filled the stage with multi-colored fire, which the Chesirian Cassis evaded with the grace of a dolphin in water. The inhabitants of the restaurant whooped and whistled loudly. Even Dalios, an outsider, was impressed. Rolly yipped at the fire-dancers eagerly.
Then Dalios noticed out of the corner of his eye a group of people who were not clones of his friends sitting down at the table next to him. The first was Pharos, in all his golden-robed glory. The second was Neirnyx, her scarlet plumage as vivid as ever. The third, to Dalios's only mild surprise, was a younger version of himself, maybe seven years old. The fourth, to his great surprise, was Valium, but with brown hair mixed with silver, and a lean but not bony body.
At first the emerald-eyed boy figured that it was the real Valium in a thin disguise. But the more he watched the group, the more his gut told him that this Valium was just as fake as the others seated with him. No, not fake exactly, but memories. His memories, he realized: technically this was his memory world, however twisted its rules were.
Pharos smiled and clapped in delight as he watched the show on stage. Neirnyx gave loud, approving shouts next to him. The younger Valium merely leaned back and watched with a cool grin. The young Dalios was silent and uninterested, gazing at the shiny black table instead.
Why? Why is Valium in my memories? Dalios thought with confusion and irritation. I never even met him until me and the others got sent to this crazy place! But he's hanging out with Magnus Pharos and Neirnyx like they're old friends, and I'm even there! Why don't I remember this?
Rolly whined, putting one paw on Dalios's leg.
Dalios shook his head. No, this must be a trick. Valium controls everything here. He can probably insert a fake memory of himself here if he wants. Yeah, that must be it.
But then he thought of the scene with himself and Razekar back in Razekar's world. Was that a trick too?
As the magician Jing painted detailed images of horses in the air with an oversized brush and the lingering smoke on stage, Neirnyx cooed and groomed the young Dalios's hair with her long beak. The other Dalios remained expressionless as he dully watched the many smoky horses merging into a giant horse. The wispy horse then galloped about the stage, and then just over the amazed audiences' heads.
Neirnyx's show of affection did not surprise Dalios. He had always been favored by Neirnyx, who would randomly perform shapeshifting tricks for his entertainment, or bring him presents. Rolly was one such present, actually, when he began to complain about not having a dog of his own. He would often take advantage of her favoritism when someone was harassing him, or when he couldn't get what he wanted on his own. He was around Neirnyx more than his parents, actually, who were strangely ordinary people in a collection of extraordinary beings.
"You know, we should have a karaoke bar," suggested the younger Valium, gulping down a bottle of a bright green liquid. "Watching people trying to sing to a song in another language would be most entertaining."
"Hmm…I was thinking we'd need a fourth wing first," Pharos replied, popping a cherry into his mouth. "We could always build your karaoke bar in there."
"True, that could work," said the younger Valium. "Though I thought we just built a new wing."
"Yeah, a couple months ago," answered Pharos. "But it won't take long to fill up."
"But building just a new karaoke bar would be a lot less of a pain. I'm tired of massive construction work," Neirnyx chimed in, gobbling up grapes before turning to the young white-haired boy beside her. "Now what do you think, Dalios? Should we have a new wing or just a new karaoke bar? Hmm?"
Dalios's young double looked up to Neirnyx drowsily.
Pharos and Valium chuckled together.
"That's a little advanced for your little pet, isn't it?" Valium questioned with a sly smirk.
"Har-har, beak-nose," the scarlet phoenix growled, putting a wing around the mildly confused child. "One day he will be perfect, certainly more perfect than you. Right, Dalios?"
"Si senora Neirnyx?" the other Dalios asked, green eyes still sleepy.
The two men began guffawing while Neirnyx silently seethed.
Dalios watched for a couple moments more, and then rose from his seat. This isn't getting me anywhere. I need to find the others first. This memory thing can wait until then.
"Is something wrong?" the waiter Jing asked worriedly, having just arrived with their meal. "Do you want your meal to go?"
"Sure," replied Dalios, picketing the apple and tossing the bone to an eager Rolly.
"Thank you for your-" the waiter Jing began, but by then Dalios and Rolly were already leaving.
The first person Dalios saw in the next room was a Razekar in the tuxedo outfit from his memory world. He was bound by ropes and being grimly escorted by two Falcons. The first Falcon was dressed in a police outfit, and the other was clothed in a white bearskin. Several Kirs were floating around them curiously. The other albatrosses were preoccupied by different distractions, mainly Stirs.
A Falcon in red clothes stomped over to the other two fair-haired fighters. He yanked them away from the tuxedo-wearing Razekar despite their loud protests, leaving the tuxedo-dressed Razekar by himself. He instantly eradicated the ropes binding him with a few jolts of electricity, and then walked away.
Some of the electricity went astray and shocked Dalios, causing him to fall over stunned. Rolly hurried over to him and started whining, and Dalios gave him a few pats to let the worried mutt know he was okay.
The tuxedo-dressed Razekar never looked back at either of them once.
Dalios grumbled as he sat up and began to flatten his hair, which was standing on end from the unexpected zap.
"Hey, you okay?"
Dalios looked up to see a Jing dressed in the usual Bandit King outfit of an orange coat with dark gray clothes underneath, looking concerned. His nose was unusually long and his hair was more dark gray than black.
"Yeah," Dalios replied, getting back up on his feet. "So which Jing are you?"
"The real one of course!" announced the long-nosed Jing, straightening up and folding his arms, a proud smile on his face.
Dalios studied him with a cynical expression. Which means he's probably not the real one. Now that the white-haired boy was standing again, he noticed that this Jing was shorter than the others.
"Yep, I'm the greatest Bandit King that there ever was!" the long-nosed Jing blathered on. "Nobody can ever catch me! Not the guy who can steal the very stars out of the sky!"
Then he took one step forward, tripped over his own coat, and fell flat on his face.
Dalios barely refrained from laughing.
Nope, definitely not Jing.
The obvious fake picked himself off the ground and held his long nose, muttering about how bad it would look in front of the ladies.
Dalios examined him closer, his amused look fading into astonishment. No…definitely not Jing at all. "Kir?" he asked, some mirth seeping into his voice despite himself.
The false Bandit King gave a start, and two small black wings popped out of his back. "W-What are you talking about? I'm not an albatross! I'm a king! A Bandit King! Bandit Kings are way cooler than albatrosses!" He began laughing nervously.
Dalios grew more serious. "A Burdensome Gun is literally shaped by their master's personality and will before they even leave the egg. So their master is everything to them."
The flighty smile left the albatross boy's lips, replaced by a more somber, almost sad expression. "…You wouldn't to happen to know where he is, would you?" A Jing wearing a cowboy hat passed, but the albatross boy took no notice.
Dalios smiled. "No, but you can help me find him, Kir."
Dalios raised his hand into the air, causing several silver strings to shoot up from the supposedly solid floor. The emerald-eyed boy twisted his wrists, and the strings attached to the Kir-Jing. With another twist of his wrists the free ends of the many silver filaments attached to the other Kirs in the room, with some of the strings extending beyond the room. He clenched both fists, and all the other Kirs melted into fantasy and joined with the Kir-Jing. The hues wrapped into a cocoon around him, and eventually molded itself into the shape of the original Kir.
Dalios let out a sigh of relief. So he was right. "Welcome back Kir."
The black albatross gave Dalios a blank stare. "Welcome back? Welcome back to where? And where is every-" Then he gawked at the sight of the multiples of his friends walking about them casually. "Huh? What's going on here?"
"It's a long story…" Dalios replied with a long sigh. "Let's just say that everyone needs some help pulling themselves back together thanks to Valium." And my failure.
"But how are we supposed to do that?" asked Kir,
"Just leave that to me," stated Dalios, snapping his fingers to summon a few strings. "I can use these to gather them back together, but I need to find out which one of these fragments walking around is their "core" piece in order for it to work. Raze and Falcon I can figure out easily enough since I've known them for a while, but you know the others better than I do."
"So…you just pulled me back together a couple seconds ago?" Kir asked. "I don't really remember anything. I hardly remember anything about the last world, for that matter."
"That doesn't surprise me. It was a big mess," Dalios said. Understatement of the century.
"So how do you summon those strings and stuff anyway?" asked Kir. "I don't remember hearing about that from Razekar or anyone else back at Pharos's place."
"It's a power that just emerged when I was in Razekar's world," Dalios explained. "I…don't really know how it works, really. I just automatically seem to know what to do. It's…kinda hard to put into words. I know it's weird." He himself was bothered by how little he understood his new abilities.
"Whatever, as long as you know what…" Kir began, before pausing and staring at something over Dalios's shoulder. "Hey, ain't that you over there?"
Dalios turned to see a younger version of himself standing next to a younger version of Valium. They were a couple years older than they had been at the restaurant scene. The two of them were looking at a black-and-green plant in a dark red pot. It was a gnarled, thorny thing that bore a single bright red bloom.
"Plants are really wondrous life-forms, aren't they?" spoke the brown-haired Valium, bending over the short vegetation and smiling warmly. "They don't make noise, they don't have or need emotions, and they only complain when they aren't getting the nutrients they need. They just stay in one place and slowly expand, concerned only about their own survival. The world would be so peaceful if there were only plants. Right, Dalios?"
The other Dalios looked up at Valium, and then back to the plant. "…Animals are more fun, though. Plants are boring. All you can do is look at them and water them."
"Ah, but you can watch them grow," said Valium.
"They take forever to grow, though," Dalios replied, his flat tone containing the slightest traces of irritation.
Valium gave a low, dry laugh. "That's so they can outlast the animals."
The current Dalios watched as both the younger Valium and other Dalios walked away.
"Who was that guy the other you was talking to?" asked Kir.
"That was Valium," Dalios stated simply.
"That was Valium? The guy we're supposed to be after?" Kir exclaimed, feathers standing on end.
"Well, that Valium was a memory, but the real him is around here somewhere," explained Dalios. "Everything is especially strange here. This is really supposed to be my memory world, but I don't remember any of this stuff at all."
"Wait, if we're inside your memories, how come you're still walking around and not trapped someplace?" questioned Kir, folding his wings in human fashion and raising an eyebrow. The other people were exiting the room.
"That's the other thing that's been bothering me," admitted Dalios. "Maybe things were so screwed up in the last world that this one didn't form properly. Maybe it doesn't work on me because I can manipulate the system of this place to some extent. Maybe I am trapped someplace and I'm just dreaming everything right now, though it sure doesn't feel like it…" Or maybe Valium let me be free on purpose, so I could play his little game. What's he really up to?
"This is making my head hurt," whined Kir.
"Yeah, mine too."
Suddenly the room around them transformed, twisting into a confusing mass of color. The chaos only lasted for a moment before it reformed into a giant ballroom.
"Great, this place is unstable too," muttered Dalios, as he and Kir took in their new surroundings. The shiny floor had alternating tiles colored mauve and gold, with a rainbow-colored chandelier hanging high above. The walls and ceiling were buried under a thick layer of random items, as could be expected of any room in Pharos's palace.
Waltz music drifted lazily in the air, as many people danced about. Most of the dancers were Jings. Some were partnered with others, with an even split between those who danced with a Stir and those who danced with a Cassis. Others danced alone, without a hint of loneliness. Most danced slowly along with the music, but a few danced crazily to their own unheard beat. Razekars were also plentiful. There were a few dancing Falcons, who were surprisingly graceful dancers at that.
"So, any ideas Kir?" asked Dalios.
Kir looked flabbergasted and overwhelmed. "There's so many of them! I don't know where to start!"
Dalios sighed. "Well, which ones do you think aren't the real Jing?"
Kir flew up and surveyed the room from above, studying a laughing Jing, a crying Jing, a sleeping Jing, an angry Jing, a silent Jing staring off into space. He quietly sank back down to Dalios. "I…I dunno…"
"What do you mean you don't know?" asked Dalios, folding his arms and giving the black albatross an annoyed look. "He's your partner. You've spent all your life with him. You should know him better than any of us."
"I know! I know!" Kir screeched, before settling down on the floor next to Rolly. "I should know him better than anyone else, but I don't. I thought I understood him, but I was wrong. Now that I know what really happened to his mom…he's like a completely different person to me now. I'm not sure if I could find the real Jing among fakes even if he was in one piece, much less find his core among all these fragments of him."
"Great…" Dalios muttered to himself. "Still, I understand what you mean. That's kinda how I feel with Raze and Falcon now. I never knew what they had gone through before coming to Pharos's palace. Makes me feel like a jerk when I think back to those times when I would whine to them about something stupid. I can be pretty pathetic sometimes."
"You don't seem pathetic to me," said Kir.
"That's because you haven't known me long enough," Dalios replied with a self-depreciating smile. "But this isn't getting use anywhere. The others are depending on us to be strong. Right, Kir?"
Kir grinned and gave him an affirmative nod. "Right."
Dalios scanned the room's inhabitants again, looking for conspicuous clues. But his mind wandered even then.
We should have never have come here. What this has done to everyone…it's horrible. I cannot trust anything here, but if these memories have even a grain of truth…Magnus Pharos, Neirnyx, why did you send us here? Why did you send me here?
Poor Dalios, he will be very busy these next few chapters (a total of 3 to 4, depending). Then the finale, which will be 2-3 chapters. The end is in sight! XD
So what do you thnk of this "shattering" development? Does it make sense at least somewhat? XP
Next chapter will be a little while, as I have other projects I am working on, but not too long. It needs a few adjustments and is a bit longer, but nothing too serious. It is the chapter after that (or the one that follows that chapter) that needs work: it's one of the areas where I still need to write some rough for it.
NEXT CHAPTER: Dalios continues to seek for the cores of his friends...though some may not need his help. Is he so busy looking for the fragments of others that he doesn't see a ragged shard aimed for his own heart? And then Jing is another matter entirely...