XXVI

Hovering over the alleyway's cobblestone, a scene almost made as the lumbering oaf took to crouch intent, Hell's Grand Duke sat fixed with the sliver of scrap within its fussing hands. Half an Earth hour possibly passed, the sun shifting its way, subtly, it did not matter to Nyx. The thick, cool shade was more than what for he could ask.

"Tell me, Astaroth." Nyx simply said. "What exactly are you doing…?"

"Shut it!" the golem snapped. "For this to work, I need absolute concentration…."

"If you were to actually clue me in," he let his eyes roll; it was becoming a habit, "I could be of some use. Pf – like I'm useless in the first place. Yeah right…!"

"This isn't something a newcomer to Souls and Swords would know." Astaroth said. "Fragments appearing no different from those in a salvage yard, a possible fragment of Soul Edge needs to be appraised. I have to test it somehow."

"Explain yourself, Astaroth." He frowned. "Your instinct advised you to head for that temple, urged you to beeline for one of those plaques above the columns – demanded you rip off the most important sliver of that plaque before this city's authorities arrived. After that had passed, you mean to tell me you're not sure?"

"Typical newcomer." The hunched cloak mumbled. "You just don't understand these things till you're deep in the abyss. Gems and other precious stones have the tendency to inherit traits of other minerals surrounding them, if I recall, correctly – yes…?"

"You know of other things outside of cracking skulls?" he blinked. "Whoa – isn't this a surprise…!"

"You're about to know Kulutues in a minute!" the cloak snarled. "As I was saying, crystals tend to absorb traits of surrounding minerals, right…?"

"Yeah." He nodded. "And…?"

"Edge fragments are almost the same." Continued the golem. "Around other metals or objects, its aura tends to spread to them. A few objects may resonate the same spirit energy, may have similar effects yet one or none could be Soul Edge fragments."

"So the trip to the temple could be for naught." He frowned again. "This is all we need…!"

"So far, yeah…." The thick cowl bobbed. "Don't hold it against me. I felt something familiar, and I just had to jump at it."

"Yeah, I remember!" he sighed. "Almost brought the whole city down on us, too."

"Oh sure – like these little 'disguises' of yours were inconspicuous…!"

"Big word there, Astaroth." He chuckled. "Sure your brain isn't hurting?"

"Kulutues can make sure yours will!" it snapped, unrolling from its hunch all the while. "Stop acting like I'm a damn idiot all the time!"

"But you leave yourself wide open." He grinned. "I just have to give you a prod."

"Fine, then!" Astaroth's cloak wisped across his face as it turned around, heatedly. "Since you act like you're so frigging smart, why don't you tell me what's up!? What's our next move – do you even know!?"

"Actually, my simple friend," he nodded, "I do have a heading I'd like to test."

"Alright, Boss." Flesh around those dull orbs of curdling milk stretched and creased. "Lay it on me."

"The sliver you removed may or may not be a true fragment but its still contains it aura. Does that ring true?" he asked.

"Yeah." The hood bobbed. "And…?"

"Can you tell the effects of a true shard from a counterfeit, differently?" he pressed.

"Yes." The golem agreed. "What're you getting at?"

"Astaroth, you're so simple." He laughed. "For any contaminated shards we come across, I propose a simple test. Using a hapless, witless volunteer, you can see for yourself whether a fragment in question is Soul Edge's or not. Meanwhile, we'll continue to collect as many shards and fragments using the one we have and you yourself."

"Interesting idea." Affirmed Astaroth. "Are you willing to travel to the ends of the Earth for it?"

"We've no other choice but to." He said. "Time's always against us and rivaling parties are ahead, most likely. If you're done fussing with the shard, let's get a move on—"

In their stretch of alley from behind, a voice forced and hoarse demanded cessation! Challenging the very power prodigious of eternal night, had to turn on his heels for this dubious contender.

"Hold IT!"

Knee-high boots impossibly tight, the tacky fishnets could not contain the sheer mass of those fat thighs of green scales…! Neither disease nor flaky flesh, it was rather reptilian. That disgustingly tight tank top could barely contain its bosom large and able bodied; a single breast could pop the cloth by the simplest of flexes. Its head a pustule ready to pop by that choker, the stupid cap with single spire would not contain that burst. Pupils dark slits locked, perpetually in a glare, it seemed the odd creature meant a sort of business.

A concern of business for he could rather care less.

"Yes…?" he blinked. "May I help you…?"

"Yeah!" it forcefully spoke, femininity but a hint. "I'm wondering if you guys know a good bar 'round these parts? Me and the gals are new to this chunk of the planet, after all."

"I don't believe you'll find one in the alleyways." He shrugged. "Have you tried near the Taksim Square? I'm sure there's a place that may serve alcohol."

"I guess that works." S/he – it shrugged. "You guys have some bank you could spare for an Orion's Angel like me, would you…?"

"Actually, no." he said. "We've no money at all. Wherever we go, we walk… or in Astaroth's case, hop."

"Yeah…." S/he frowned. "See, that really doesn't work for me or the gals. It's been a long drive from the other side of the planet, and we're just not in the mood for the word 'no'. So just pony up whatever you have, and this'll go nice and easy for both of us."

Its green, pudgy digits snapped; several more freaks of similar species rounded the corner just behind it. Dressed in similar garb, bedecked by each one's personal sense of style, yet most wore a tacky cap of single spire except the unfortunate naked, chained to the first by the choker. A grungy grouch, a massive, token oaf, and one somewhat a dame neither repulsive nor fair – all in search of fresh conflict, the fates conspired this confrontation for a reason of which he was at a loss.

Astaroth stepped a boot forward with a huff; his hand met the golem's chest.

"Like I've said before, we've nothing of value to offer you." He smirked. "We're new in town, as well. But since you've come all this way, I feel you all deserve some consolation.

Hand at the golem's chest, he simply upturned his palm.

"Astaroth." He grinned. "The fragment, if you please…."

---

City ancient of robust walls of stone, it had been easy getting lost within its winding, stoic embrace. The only thing of what she could certain was that large dome of gold had to be some sort of focal point for the native, walking bags of meat. Either those darkly dressed with the hats of round bills or those loosely swathed wearing patterned blankets atop their heads, Vexus did not care in the slightest.

Nyx is out on this mud ball somewhere… It was her ghost's current process. I have to settle the score! And perhaps this 'Soul Edge' could be the key – my key…!

Her farewells beckoned, meat bag Murad humorously waving the wrong way, the country of Iraq choked on the dust and grit in her wake, odd sword in hand. It may not have been much compared to a plasma blaster, but it will have to do until something better her way came. Iraq's police services along with Skyway Patrol possibly on her trail, Murad had tossed her a black, full-body gown that draped over every extremity – even her mask!

Certainly, she gave the locals from Mosul on west a heck of a show once her brand new wings parted on their first spread.

Now her boots touched her down here, in this winding labyrinth of imposing walls of similar stone. It took an act of the Cabinet for her to find a decent heading.

Even with city contemporary beyond the walls away an arm's throw, almost every structure had been dappled in primitive glyphs, characters no more than three strokes of the brush, mostly square, and had the tendency to read from right to left – so watching the locals' eyes told her. A computer shop had been not far off, thankfully; the proprietor certainly would be a little more than miffed after missing a couple of language disks.

Local language acknowledged and understood somewhat; a newspaper square on its rack gave her a byte to process as by she passed it. Once a temple in mud ball's antiquity, today but a museum in a city hailing far away, it had been crudely vandalized by fire and forced removal of an ancient plaque. No damage truly permanent, it could be repaired sometime within this mud ball's week, though that same plaque might take longer.

It was missing a sliver…!

Her destination set, the mud ball's city of Istanbul within the territory of dubious "Turkey"… she would have to make it out of this maze, firstly! She was certain she circled that looming dome of gold sometime before, shortly.

"Damn it!" she cussed, quietly; walls looming as these, they surely had tympanums or ears. "I've been going in circles for the past hour! Where the heck am I?"

"You are wherever you're to be, 'almah."

Behind, someone cutely mused; she turned on her heels to see a simple old meat bag sitting on a bench, flashing her his small cap of black whilst gnarled, shaky hands fiddled with the cigarette between his loose, pursing lips. Weathered, weary eyes rolled for her, cynically.

"And what's that supposed to mean?" she frowned from the safety of her veil.

"It can mean whatever the dreck you want it to mean." The loose sack of flesh sighed. "Do your own thinking and make the nexus yourself. If you don't want to heed the words, I don't really care. We've free choice – you make a decision."

"My, aren't you the chipper one?" she chuckled. "What made your day so damn bright? A bad day at the office?"

"Bad day…?" the old coot blinked. "I used to have bad days…. I used to have bad days when several sheep kept wandering away from the flock, when I had to break their hind legs and carry them until they didn't wander anymore. I used to have bad days when the tax collector came knocking on my door. I used to have bad days… when the powers that be put Herod in charge. So if those were bad days, then what kind of day is this?"

"Apparently, a bright day." She said. "Your sun is high and shining with hardly a cloud in the sky, though I process – THINK – I think this land's due for some rain come the next few days."

"Don't play dumb with me now." The coot further creased its already furrowed brow. "Don't mistake seniority for senility. Underestimate your enemy and you die! You should certainly know better, right, Cluster denizen…?"

Murad's blade beneath the cloak at her side, she could not get to it. With clusters of various meat bags caught in the midst of coming and going, a ridiculous scene was not was she needed. Already, she caught a male giving her an awkward eye as it rounded the angled corner.

"Self conscious are we?" the old and dying animal asked. "Perhaps it would do you best if you were a little more."

"Damn it!" she cussed again; the coot's weary glare narrowed. "How'd an old timer like you possibly know…?"

"With ears and a long memory as sharp as mine," embers on his chute crawled closer to those loose lips, "hardly a thing can get past me. My hearing isn't what it once was, but only the dead couldn't hear the racket you were making, Ms. Metal Shoes!"

"That doesn't mean a thing!" she snapped. "My boots have metal in them – so what?"

"Metal shoes, yes." The old timer said. "But a certain clanking I caught while you stand in front of me, a low buzzing in your voice, a voice that just has to be digitized, and those eyes… only an idiot wouldn't see that you're of the robotic persuasion. Considering little of Earth technology has the capability for such complexity, the epitome of it probably off on some crazy adventure, it would lead me to believe that you're not of this world at all. Ten to one, I'd bet my shekels on Cluster Prime."

She huffed.

"Then again, I did catch word of a mutiny all the way up there." The bag of dying meat said. "Something about its monarchy being deposed in favor of some form of representative republic or of the like. Due to circumstances, I guess you're living in exile. You must've been elite or high in the former chain of command, we're you not?"

"You could say that…." She sighed. "And keep your voice down!"

"Earth still isn't over the Cluster's last 'police action'." It nodded. "Especially the States! Making this planet's dying superpower look like the bunch of fools everyone else believed they were. Ken… they're not happy at all. For showing up at the last minute – so-called 'dereliction of duty', they almost had the GRUXJ9 terminated."

"Gee, what a 'shame' that would be…." She groaned.

"So you don't like the GRUXJ9." It nodded. "You must've been high up in the Cluster monarchial government. Typical imperialist. Why can't you just let others exist the way they choose – are your kind that much of total control freaks?"

"We did whatever the monarchs told us to do." She sighed, wisely, tacitly. "They put you in charge of a unit, they put weapons in all our hands – even mine – and we asked, 'how many'! If we didn't, we were the ones they shot at instead. I lost my partner that way…! He just didn't… do what was 'expected' of him."

She would have grinned, but this sack of meat… aged proportionally to his years and even beyond yet those senses are faultlessly sharp. She would have to be more than careful.

"You starting to bore me, denizen." The coot frowned. "As much as I would like to believe that, I cannot. I've lived far too long to not to know when I'm being lied to. Fool me once, shame on you – fool me twice, shame on me. Much as I would like to continue this banter, I'm afraid I've other things that better need my attention. I'd better head for the shuk before all the coos-coos is gone…!"

Smoldering embers but a digit's width from those loose lips, gravity had them meet the cobblestone walk in half a second's time. The dying meat bag smothered them with his shoe, wisps of fleeting gray a farewell wave. It did not take long for the olden flesh wearer to lift himself off the bench, making his slow way against the filtering crowd already.

"A purposeless life." The coot muttered, bitterly. "Almost the same as being deceased…! So much for the prophets and the evangelical nuts, HaShem's long since abandoned His creation. If I knew He wasn't coming back, I should've run myself through with that sliver of sword I'd found—!"

"Rega!" her database recalled, holding up a hand. "REGA! Mah atah meetkaven?"

"Trying to blend in, are you?" the meat bag scoffed. "You'll never get far with that digital reverb."

"Sliver of sword, you said." She said. "What did you mean by that?"

"Sliver of a sword long since forgotten by man and history." The weathered piece of flesh mused. "Yet should one seek to restore its terrible power, it never fails to make another appearance. Corpses of the unfortunate its undulated path, horrible terrors lie in its wake. Though through the unspeakable madness burdened by every swipe of the blade, its purified counterpart will not be far behind. The waltz of endless strife continues."

"You're speaking of Soul Edge, aren't you?" She sternly said. "If you know more about it, tell me. Dead ends aren't really my desire."

"Cluster denizen in search of the Sword of Dubious Salvation?" the coot blinked. "Why…? What's your outfit?"

"I seem to be the dope banished here to aid this worthless mud ball." She shrugged. "It could be worse. Would you rather some other being retrieved it, praying he's not a bigger threat than I?"

"Shtup." It cussed, most likely. "What the hell are you babbling about?"

"If you don't want to help me – fine." She frowned. "I don't really care anymore. I'll just find it another way. Thanks for nothing, meat person!"

Away she turned on her heels, heading for wherever this winding stretch would lead. The coot knew something, definitely, something she would probably need; there had to be a way to coax. If not… this city had plenty of flesh wearers adorned with similar attire. Would the authorities in the load-bearing vests blink twice if they missed one who had a few years left?

I don't process so.

"Rega, denizen!" that meat bag called. "Rega! Where do you think you're going so damn fast?"

"Why, I'm going to find Soul Edge before some other beats me to it." She called back, blindly. "Go off and have this 'coos-coos'… or whatever. I'll be fine on my own."

"You probably don't know what it looks like." It argued, gently. "How do you expect to find something like that? Your journey into dark territory has 'red herring' written all over it!"

"So you do know something after all!" she frowned. "Spill it!"

"I'm afraid I can't." it said, simply.

"Why not!?" again, she spun around; a growl found itself caught in her speaker. "'Crisis of conscience' is not a good answer!"

"You really are serious about finding this blade, aren't you?" it noted aloud, needlessly. "A Cluster denizen focused on something other than galactic conquest, I thought I would never see that day, and I've serious time on my hands. 'Oodles' would be an understatement."

"This is getting ridiculous!" she frowned. "Are you going to help me or not?"

"Alright." It tossed up a hand. "If you're serious of finding the Sword of Salvation, then join me for lunch."

"Lunch?" she blinked.

"Even a man as old as me has got to eat." It chuckled. "It is said about breaking bread with strangers somewhere, either Torah or Tenach. I've stopped caring since the Intergalactic War, yet come anyway. Break bread with me."

"As you wish." She said. "I could use a shot of lube myself – but this better not be a façade! Intimidating as the authorities in the dark vests are, I can handle up to twelve after my latest upgrade."

"Number of divine order, if I'm not mistaken." The coot shrugged. "I don't care anymore. Anyway, let's get going before the local Arabs get upset. Jewish man converses with a female in Muslim garb…. Despite the formality, if that doesn't start a riot then I don't know what will."

"Whatever you say." She shrugged. "Let's get going."

---

Finally docked somewhere on the Golden Horn, Jenny's knee-highs clanked her down the narrow ramp behind her motley crew. Thin boards underfoot groaning creaking by her every step, it was a miracle none of them snapped; the churning water below trapped between the hull and the dock, yet it lapped at her, hungrily. The process of gracing even one of the three surged within her, wrongly.

"Come on, Jen!" Bradley called. "Let's get going. Daylight's a wasting!"

"Bradley…!" a buzzing in her head while around her sockets her eyes took a lap. "Some of us here aren't exactly buoyant! One step wrong – I'm good as totaled."

"And just whose fault is that?" Brad inquired. "Is it our fault Wakeman didn't bother to waterproof you? No, it is not! Now, will you come on? That ramp can probably handle a hundred people coming and going."

"But can it handle someone who's their combined weight in one, slow-moving mass?" Sheldon asked. "What if it doesn't? Do you really want to spend the rest of the day just fishing her out?"

Breeze gentle brushed at her tympanums and nothing else; a smile tugged at her lips, softly.

"We can leave that for Captain Casque and crew." She shrugged. "Maybe even Brittany and Tiffany. Speaking of which, I haven't seen them at all. Where the heck they've been all morning?"

"The cabin, where else?" Brad shrugged. "Probably getting ready for another shopping spree despite the injuries, by the looks of it."

"I actually talked with Tiff at breakfast." Sheldon noted. "She and Brit wanted to do something for you tonight after saving their skins from that zombie pirate. A makeover, some clothes, or what have you. Whatever it is, I think you might like it."

"Are we really certain that they've changed?" she asked, honestly. "Or is this another one of their cute little setups? If I find out they'll just toss a rat in my shell, I'm going to be a little more than miffed!"

"I wouldn't worry 'bout it, Jen." Shell said. "I believe that Tiff's changed for the better. Brittany, on the other hand, I'm not so sure. Maybe she'll come around after she fully recovers."

"Heck, if I'm certain." She shrugged as her wide soles finally scratched at the firm cement. "Anyway, where's our car at?"

Flanking the ramp sat that very car, taking acts of God and Congress alike to have it moved from cargo to the dock. The crewmen clustering and scattering way from deck to dock, it had been quite the production. Their labor bore little fruit when that set of black rubber finally touched cement; soon, Captain Casque had hailed them for some other wicked task for which anyone could not care less.

Square on its four rubbery feet stood the beast of burden for the day. Seats for four, possibly a fifth should someone unexpectedly tag along, all encased within a body of panels accessed by a pair of doors. No longer than a couple meters, width a little over half of it, it appeared to be like any other vehicle on the road; Jenny did have to wonder, concerning herself.

"Suspension better not be bedsprings." She mumbled.

"Don't worry 'bout it, Jen." Bradley said, nonchalantly. "With your alloys, it should be no problem. Just let your cares melt away while I'm behind the wheel – enjoy the ride!"

Weathered loafers carried him for that coveted side, the vehicle welcoming him by a wide open door. Limbs absconded from open view, she still could see Bradley fiddling with the driver's visor – something shiny falling into an open hand from that movable flap. Hands hidden below the dashboard, shoulders taking turns peaking and falling… nothing happened.

"So what're we supposed to do again, Brad?" Sheldon made his way for the slumbering beast.

"Just… shut up." The auburn bared his grinding teeth. "Stupid piece of—! When I turn your key – you START! Not a debate, just do IT!"

"Gee, hot shot!" Shell peered inside, giving his head a simple shake. "Maybe the fact that it's manual has something to do with it?"

"What??" Brad's large eyes boggled. "Manual?"

To his right and down, Brad stole a glance; even her tympanums could catch the bang of his forehead on the steering wheel. She could not help but let out a giggle.

"Great!" Maybe Brad should have cussed. "Just great…! This is all we need."

"Calm down, Bradley." Shell groaned. "Nothing's for naught just yet. Other options still remain open."

"What?" Brad lifted his head straight. "Can you drive a stick, Sheldon?"

"Lord no!" the Asian eased back a step. "I tried that only once. It got really ugly and I almost killed myself. Besides which, I don't even have my license yet. But I can think of someone here who could pass himself off as competent – rather herself…!"

Eyes few around rolled for her; a simple blink was her only reply.

"Oh, Jenny…!" Bradley called. "We've a little favor to ask…!"

"Who," she shook her head, "me…? Oh – ho… no! Not me! I'm not piloting that thing! I don't have a license either – who knows what kind of trouble we could get!"

"We're not asking you to drift race, Jen." Bradley stuck his head out the odd doorway. "Just to drive us around town, discreetly."

"With other groups looking for Soul Edge," Sheldon noted, "numerous reports of a six-foot mechanical Galatea is the last thing our party needs. I'm sure there's a 'read-me' or a mpeg of working a stick shift somewhere in your ROM, right?"

"Right, but still—!"

"Thank you, Jenny!" Bradley shot an arm out the window. "Catch!"

A flick of the wrist, a bit of a twist, she caught the glint incoming in her POV. Twinkling in the sunlight, growing from speck to a hearty sliver, its crown struck her as black and shaped like a rounded rectangle; her digits snatched it easily by that crown. Processes many peaking and dipping, all erratic much like the jagged sliver in hand, what good could come from this little foray…?

Resigned to fate that her 'buddies' had in store, she let out a sigh.

This is going to be fun…!

---

"What do you know?" she chuckled. "This is kind of fun!"

Lever underfoot at her left depressed, ball in hand shifting slightly up-right, Jenny could not help but quench a little more of the thirst of the beast under the hood. She turned the tight, stony corner by practiced ease of an experienced; the mpeg in the back of her head a great help, after all. To process she had never tried something common as driving anytime before, she should have kicked herself!

"Yeah – that's great, Jen!" Bradley beside held the small handle overhead quite fast. "Do you mind slowing down…? You've kind of a lead foot."

A sigh, she let her brow kink, cynically.

"Oh – right!" Bradley's free hand met his crown with a slap. "Boots are metal…."

"Jenny!" Sheldon yelped from behind, from his curling cower. "Isn't there something in your ghost 'bout the road rules? This seems to be cutting it a little too close!"

"Relax, Sheldon." She downshifted, easily. "Everything I need to acknowledge is in my ROM. Laws local, state, and federal – even international, it's all up here. Contrary to what you're believing, I am going the local speed limits."

"Speed's not the only thing to worry 'bout!" Shell said, loudly. "This isn't the autobahn – it's Istanbul! Cramped roads, pedestrians everywhere, not to mention we don't even know the road itself! Many of these are cobblestone, Jenny, not asphalt and cement – been here since God knows when. What happens if you lose control? We can't afford to pay for damages regardless of what we found in that money pit!"

"I am in control, so don't worry 'bout It." She frowned. "I've GPS functionality in my basic OS just so Mom could find me if I suddenly shut down – I'm using it right now to find our destination. Traffic, road work, accidents, and closures, all cross referenced with local radio chatter, it's not a problem."

"Speaking of destinations." Rolling for the trunk of another car, Bradley took in a breath as soon as her boot eased off the gasoline. "Where the heck are we going in the first place?"

"Schwartz gave us a hint in the money pit." She said. "It took a casual talk with Captain Casque to fill in the blanks. It seems we're going to a museum."

"Another museum?" Bradley moaned. "Gee – I wonder what fun, little game Solomon's going to play this time…! Attack of the axe-bearing lizard men perhaps?"

"Solomon's still aboard the Adrian II, tending to Brit and Tiff's wounds." She said. "No cute, little pop quizzes at all, though he'd like to know what we find today."

"So what is this museum, Jenny?" Sheldon asked. "Is it the one I'm thinking of, already?"

"Depends on what you're thinking." She shrugged. "I'm processing over the one sitting somewhere on this Golden Horn that used to be an interesting church before it became a mosque and then a museum. I'm sure you've heard of it somewhere before, haven't you, Shell?"

"The Hagia Sophia?" those wide, dark eyes grew in the mirror rearview. "Are you really serious?"

Her boot fed the beast a bit more sustenance is midst of a gentle nod.

"Serious as sludge in my pacemaker." She let her eyes roll for her edge of the windshield. "And that over there… should be it!"

---

(That is it; I am out of chapters in reserve, so don't expect updates until I've finally gotten around to penning more satisfactory chapters. Speaking of which, words in of themselves seem to fail me, at the moment, stagnating the still-water of my mind. I need motivation... inspiration to help me continue! Should you, readers, have any ideas, lay them upon me in a review; I'll be here, knocking sense back into my head in the meanwhile.

(-Uzziel-)