A/N: Hey, sorry for the delay. Not much to say here. I went back and corrected some things in the last few chapters, but I probably didn't get it all. I usually use a beta reader, so I'm hopeless! Anyway, this chapter is also long. Geez, 6 chapters already and Blue still has three more cards to go plus Light and Time magic (durr, I'm spoiling my own story) this thing is going to be epic!
"But, you can't leave me here, you j-just, c-cant!" Blue had his back turned but it was hard to ignore the argument going on behind him.
"Thunder, just listen to me—ugh, don't cry! This is hard enough."
"I can help! I know I can! Wasn't I great back there?"
"Yeah! Yeah, of course you were. Believe me, there's nothing I'd like better than to take you along, but someone has to look after Ma!" Lute's soft voice was a bit muffled by the loud snorts and sniffs coming from the monster beside him.
"I know…I'm sorry, you're right. I promised to," it sounded like the beast had stopped crying and Blue dared to look over his shoulder. The brothers were sharing another hug and Lute was almost completely hidden underneath Thunder's massive arms.
"Thanks. Cheer up, okay?" Lute pulled away from the embrace and stood on his toes in order to ruffle Thunder's hair affectionately. Blue was really trying to give them some privacy, but it was hard to tune out the very loud and unique sound of a distraught ogre.
They said their goodbyes and Thunder trudged back up the hill towards the great windmill. Inwardly, Blue was just a bit disappointed considering how useful Thunder had been, but decided that Lute was probably making the right choice. Have a giant beast at his disposal was definitely handy but it would likely draw a lot of attention, and that was something Blue didn't want.
"That was a bit…awkward," Blue said to Lute now that they were alone.
"Sorry, Thunder can get very emotional. That's one of the reasons why I don't want him getting involved," Lute said, sounding much more mature than usual. "Anyway, he's still just a kid. Thirteen, y'know, and—
"Thirteen?" Blue screeched with a voice that was a lot higher than he would have hoped. "You mean to tell me he's not even done growing yet?"
"Well, yeah, what did you expect? He's actually pretty small by monster standards. Anyway, I think puberty has made him even more unpredictable; it's for the best that he stays here." Blue shook his head in amazement and then pulled something out of his robes.
"Hey, what's that?" Lute asked as Blue unfolded something that looked like a plain piece of paper. It was his turn to be shocked as a three dimensional map popped out of the thing.
"Region Map, it's the only way to travel," Blue explained and began prodding the sphere-shaped map with his finger. The map shifted and rotated the assortment of regions that were represented as Blue tried to find the one he was looking for.
"Where are we going?" Lute asked as he watched the unusual map with interest and maybe a little trepidation.
"Wakatu," and as he spoke it, the little marble sized region conveniently labeled 'Wakatu' shifted to the front of the map.
"Wakatu? But we can't go there! It's been destroyed, and I hear there's nothing but ghosts there now!" Lute shuddered but Blue ignored his protests and jabbed his finger at the map again.
"Don't be stupid. There's no such thing as ghosts," Blue growled in frustration and poked at 'Wakatu' again. Usually it only took a gentle prod for the portal to open, but this region was being particularly difficult. "Come on, damn you, I said—oof!" Blue was flung backward a few feet to the ground as the Region Map disappeared with an angry 'pop'. The plain piece of paper fluttered to the ground innocently and Blue stared at it dumbly.
"Maybe it doesn't like be sworn at?" Lute guessed. For being such an idiot, he sure had this annoying habit of being right all the damned time.
"I don't get it, this has never happened before!" Blue glowered from his spot on the ground. This was the second time he had found himself on his ass since he'd arrived in Yorkland, and he was beginning to think he should just at the whole town to 'The List' and save himself a lot of trouble.
"All right there?" Blue felt a pair of hands yank him up before he could protest the manhandling. "Maybe we should just head to the port, a flight should be leaving soon." Blue turned his head to glare and Lute realized he still had his hands underneath the magician's arms. He pulled away belatedly and then pointedly found an interesting cloud to study.
The Yorkland ship was always crowded; after all, it was the only transport that made regular stops to the town. After a variety of colorful threats, Blue managed to secure two seats on the vessel and they strapped in for a jerky launch.
After everyone had settled their stomachs and managed to climb out of their neighbor's lap or the floor, the flight progressed more smoothly. Blue reminded himself for the thousandth time how he hated non-magical travel. How anyone else put up with it, he didn't know. And that wasn't even counting the closet sized stink-hole they called a bathroom.
Lute didn't notice his companion's decidedly green completion and instead pulled out a now well-used journal. It had been awhile since it had been updated, so he still needed to detail his recent adventures with Riki, as well as his new enslavement—for lack of a better word—to Blue.
"A 'duel of destiny'?" Blue snorted and Lute jumped as he realized Blue had been reading over his shoulder.
"Hey! These are my private thoughts!" Lute shouted and clutched the book to his chest.
"Well, your private thoughts better stop making my life sound like a soap opera. What are you doing with a diary, anyway?"
"It's a journal! And I enjoy writing."
"What a waste of time," Blue scoffed and Lute tucked the journal away. He enjoyed a few more minutes of silence before Lute began plucking the strings of that gaudy instrument he carried around. "What are you doing?"
"Out of tune," Lute said distractedly and plucked a few more experimental notes. The horrible twangs began to slowly sound more melodious as Lute's keen ear separated the sour notes from the correct ones. A few moments later he was able to strum a few lovely chords.
"That's the hardest I've ever seen you think. Did it hurt?" Blue teased but Lute ignored him.
"Still haven't figured out a decent chorus for this one, it's really annoying." The upbeat tune was disconnected in places where Lute kept changing his mind, but it wasn't wholly unpleasant. Blue allowed it for a few minutes before he realized people were beginning to stare.
"Knock it off."
"No. I think I'm on to something," the music sped up a bit and it was catchy. One of the passengers seemed to be enjoying it and dropped a few credits on his way to the bathroom—the poor soul. "Hey, cool!" Lute stopped so he could pick up the cash, not at all insulted by the fact that the guy who gave the charity probably thought he was a beggar.
"I'll take that." Blue enjoyed the affronted look on the musician's face as he tucked the cash away. "You're working for me now, remember? Of course, these measly credits hardly make a dent in your massive debt to me, but at least it's a start."
"Right, how could I forget," Lute said glumly. "So, what's the next plan of action, oh mighty leader?"
"We'll land in Koorang and see if there's a ship going to Wakatu. If not, we'll just have to save it for last, I suppose."
Just then the ship lurched unpleasantly and the lights flickered. A male voice emitted from the intercom. "Passengers, we are experiencing some turbulence. Please remain calm and—holy shit what is that thing?! It's getting closer!" The intercom crackled and there was the muffled sound of shouting.
People were thrown from their seats as the ship shuttered and shook, and the cabin was now completely dark. Screams and horrible sounds of the ship creaking and breaking around them pierced the air and Blue clutched at his seat desperately. There was a final, forceful crash as the out of control ship came to an abrupt halt, finally losing it's battle against gravity and whatever the 'thing' was that had shaken it off course.
The crash sounded and felt a lot worse than it actually had been. The passengers were being lead out of the ship by direction of the captain. The ship was still in one piece but obviously not operational, and most of it's passengers were not seriously injured.
"Lucky to be alive, really," Lute mumbled as he and Blue followed the line out. The rest of the passengers formed a group outside the crash site, taking in their surrounding with general confusion. The ground, plant life, everything seemed to be swelling and contracting subtly around them. They appeared to be in some sort of strange jungle. Blue thought it was very much like being back in the swamp. It was almost unbearably hot, humid, and the stench—it made the moldy smell of the swamp seem like a flowery spring garden in comparison.
"Everyone please remain calm. Our technicians are working on repairing the radio and we'll send a distress signal then."
"Where are we?"
"How long until the radio is repaired?"
"Is there a doctor aboard? I think my wife has a broken arm!" The various frightened complaints and questions fizzled out as a group of strangers appeared on a near-by cliff.
"You are in the belly of Tanzer," informed a cool, female voice. A few people gasped and Lute turned to Blue.
"No way! I thought that was just a story people told to scare kids!" Blue nodded in agreement. He had heard the stories too, about a massive monster that floated between regions, surviving only on devouring ships whole.
The mysterious woman jumped down from her platform, aided by a few unsavory looking men who appeared to be her lackeys. The woman was busty, blonde and attractive if you could ignore the treacherous smile spread across her red lips. "You're in for a long stay. However, I'd be willing to make it more comfortable if any of you have some decent loot," the passengers eyed her warily as she spoke. The hesitation did not please her and the falsely polite tone quickly turned vicious. "Go on then! Bring your luggage forward, you're only making this more difficult!"
"Stop!" The group of people turned their heads away from the woman as another figure appeared from the shadows. It was almost like watching some bizarre play. "Don't go with that woman. She's the infamous crime-boss Nomad!" he declared, and as if on cue, the audience gasped again, startled by this new information.
"Intruding on my territory again Fei-on? Honestly, can't you put that muscle head of yours to better use and stop making up vicious lies about me?" the woman snapped. Fei-on ignored the woman and her thugs hissed threats as he approached the shipwrecked group.
"You're all welcome to follow me. I can't supply much food and water, but you can take shelter with the rest of the villagers in the south."
"Ha! What a weak offer," the devious woman scoffed. "Fine then, you can go with this fool or come with me, your choice." The woman disappeared but none of the passengers followed. Her nasty attitude didn't make the choice too difficult.
"Here we are. Everyone make yourselves comfortable," Fei-on said and sauntered off. The makeshift village was full of the same bulging veins and pulsing organs as the rest of the place, but at least it gave them some stability. The group mingled in with the rest of the weary looking inhabitants, except Blue who followed Fei-on.
"Can I help you?" the nearly bald man asked as he realized Blue was tailing him.
"You appear to be in charge here. Could I have a word?" Blue asked and Fei-on nodded.
" Step inside my office," Fei-on disappeared into a pulsing hole buried under a flap of skin. Blue and Lute exchanged looks. 'Wow that's disgusting' and 'he calls that an office?' didn't need to be spoken. They were both thinking it and were for once in total, though silent, agreement.
Inside, they were greeted by a surprise. Said surprise had chosen to launch it's furry self at Lute, and the musician was currently attempted to get to his feet with Riki latched around his middle.
"So we meet again," Blue said blandly, eyes straying from Gen, who was standing with that weird robot, and then to Mei-ling who was trying to calm Riki down. He was not at all happy about seeing the familiar faces, rather, he was starting to wonder if the embarrassing group had began stalking him.
"Lute! You're alive! Mei-ling said that guy was evil and albino looking and was probably going kill you or something!" Riki shouted loudly and ignored Mei-ling, who was trying to stop him and looking uncomfortable about doing so.
"Ahem," Blue cleared his throat and the little monster yelped as he realized the creepy man Mei-ling had told him about was now in the same room. "Fei-on, I believe I requested a word with you?"
"Yes, and as you can see, I'm a bit busy. I promised Mei-ling I would take them into the depths of Tanzer. You can wait here, if you want, until I get back."
"Mei-ling said there is supposed to be a ring here!" Riki explained happily. "But baldy wants us to help get rid of that wicked old lady who lives here, too. Hey, Mister Evil Magician, you want to come too?"
"I'm not interested in rings or fighting petty criminals," Blue sneered at Riki and then faced Fei-on again. "Just tell me how to get out of this vile place and I'll leave you to your duties."
Fei-on, who previously had appeared to be the strong silent time, actually laughed at this, which Blue did not appreciate. "A way out? Don't you think if I knew that we wouldn't be having this conversation right now?"
"Forgive me for overestimating your intelligence," Blue rolled his eyes. "I would think, considering we are inside of a massive beast and presumably somewhere in it's digestive system, that the proper route of exit would be obvious," even as Blue said it, he felt a little sick considering it, but what choice did he have? "I was only hoping you might be able to point me in the direction of the lower intestine."
Lute made a face at what Blue was implying but Fei-on shook his head. "I think you'll find it's impossible, much too—er—messy. No one's been able to navigate their way through properly. Besides, what were you planning to do after you got out? You're going to need a ship otherwise you'll have nowhere to go. Tanzer doesn't make land anywhere, he wanders the void."
Damn, Blue had forgotten about that part. They would have to wait until the ship was repaired if they any chance of getting out of here. And it was no use tying to use the Region Map now, that thing was still mad at him.
"If you'll excuse us, I think we'll be off," Mei-ling cut in, sounding annoyed and the group obediently began to follow her out of the hole.
"Wait, we'll come with you," Blue said and Fei-on halted, looking surprised. "I mean, it's not like I have anything better to do at the moment…I can help." Mei-ling narrowed her eyes and it was obvious the last thing she wanted was the snotty magician's help, but Fei-on nodded.
"Thank you. We'll be making our way to Nomad's lair. She has captured a few of the villagers. She has many followers, so I need as much help as I can get." Blue shrugged as Fei-on rambled on, looking unconcerned and bored. Lute, on the other hand, was thrilled and used the time to catch up with his old friends.
They set off with Fei-on leading the way. He had obviously been trapped inside Tanzer for a long time because he could navigate the throbbing, slippery caverns of their flesh terrain with ease.
They encountered a few interesting monsters ("Tanzer's immune system?" Mei-ling suggested when they all wondered where the monsters had come from) but nothing that was too hard to handle. Gen's impeccable swordsmanship along with Blue's advanced magic had dispatched most of them before the rest of the group could get a chance. Riki was having a grand old time feasting on their remains to gather strength (Blue shuddered as he watched these displays. Were all monsters cannibals?) and Lute took the chance to practice some amateurish sword attacks and finish off the ones that were still moving.
"Hey Lute, how is the cross-dresser treating you?" Gen asked once they were alone.
"Gen, I think those are robes he's wearing, not a dress," Lute defended but still couldn't keep from smiling. "Anyway, he's not that bad."
"He sounds like a pompous ass to me," Gen shrugged.
"Yeah, well, he's got a lot on his mind…" Lute trailed off as he recalled Blue's horrific mission. The knowledge of it was enough for him to forgive Blue whenever he got especially nasty, but he wasn't about to share those details with Gen. It wasn't his place to go blabbing about Blue's business. "He's, um, under a lot of pressure."
"That's not much of an excuse," Gen said gruffly and took a swig from his hip flask. "At least he's good in a fight, though," Gen remarked thoughtfully.
"Oh, yeah. You should see some of the other stuff he can do. He's got this cool magic map and—er, why are you looking at me like that?"
"Sorry!" Gen laughed around the lip of his flask. "Sorry. It's just, it almost sounds like you have a crush or something!"
"A WHAT?" Lute flinched and then looked around to make sure no one noticed his outburst. He started again in a whisper, "I do not. Are you nuts?"
"I know, I know. Just kiddin' with ya, shit," Gen said but it didn't ease Lute's mind. What kind of joke was that to make? Everyone knew that Lute preferred woman, he was typically very vocal about it whenever he happened to see one that caught his eye. And so what if Blue was kind of pretty? Lute was sure he wasn't the only one who thought so. Anyone could see that the magician was strangely feminine. It was probably some sort of weird Magic Kingdom thing.
"I'm not gay, you know," Lute whispered, and to prove a point, he searched around for the nearest set of breasts. Ah, that was better. His eyes rested on the comforting rise and fall of Mei-ling's ample bosom. She was walking several yards behind them, engaged in a heated argument with Fei-on, and her brisk stride had the pleasant side effect of making things bounce nicely.
"I never said you were. Blue might be, though. That's what Mei-ling thinks." Lute snorted at that.
"She probably only thinks that because he turned her down for a date," he and Gen shared a laugh at this and then few sips of gin. Ahead of them, Blue and Riki were also chatting amiably.
"We're both on a mission to save our homeland!" Riki exclaimed and held up his long fingers. On three of them sat rings, all identical in design but glimmering with different colored jewels. "I've already found three rings, and I've learned all about garbage and bad people! How about you, Blue?"
"Oh, I, um…still have quite a ways to go," Blue said distractedly as Riki waved a hand in his face. It was hard to get a good look at the rings when the monster was bouncing up and down like that. "I've heard many legends about the rings before, but I've never seen proof. Amazing."
"Thanks!" Blue nodded, a vague smile on his face. He let Riki scamper ahead of him and then approached Lute and Gen, who were still talking in hushed tones.
"Lute," Blue started but had to pause long enough to cast a quick Energy Chain. The hapless monster that had been sneaking up behind the two swordsmen shrieked and fizzled into nothingness. Lute's eyes widened and he managed an embarrassed thanks. Gen took another swig of gin. "Don't worry about it. Lute, can I…have a word with you?"
"Oh, yeah, of course," Lute said, eyeing Blue carefully. It wasn't often he was so polite, so must be something important. Gen gave a knowing smile, which Lute promptly ignored, and left the two alone.
"Riki is really serious about the rings," Blue started.
"Well, yeah. It's the only way to save Margmel."
"I guess it would have to be a last resort, then," Blue trailed off, a strange emotion on his face that Lute had never seen him use before. It almost looked like concern.
"What are you going on about? Blue, you're acting strange."
"It's just that…I didn't think they still existed."
"I was pretty surprised, too. But his elder gave him one, and I've even seen him use them before so—
"Yes, I know they're genuine," Blue snapped. Lute didn't get what he was trying to say. "You don't understand, but that's only to be expected. An ancient monster tribe forged the rings, so most humans don't have much knowledge about them. However, there is one story very well known and very much feared by the Magic Kingdom." Blue stopped walking and so did Lute. The seriousness of the magician's tone kept him waiting with baited breath.
"Go on," Lute whispered. The others were far ahead of them now. They were going to get separated if they weren't careful, but this seemed important.
"The rings are capable of great things, but they are also hard to control. Centuries ago, a woman gathered all of them together and came to the Magic Kingdom. That is where she joined them together and made a wish. She wished for heaven, but instead opened the gates of hell, and Magic Kingdom was almost completely destroyed." He paused to take a deep breath. This was a familiar story that he had grown up hearing, a story that struck fear and paranoia in the hearts off all his fellow children. A story that made sure each and every one of them knew their place. He really didn't like it.
"Since then every generation has produced a 'Master Magician'. Someone who could protect the kingdom should we be threatened like this again."
Lute was quiet for a long time. He expected Blue to go on, or maybe laugh at him and tell him it was all a joke, but neither happened. He just stood still with that deep, concentrated look on his face.
"So…that explains why outsiders are mistrusted so much there," Lute reasoned.
"Yes, and women. Since the catastrophe, only the men in our region are born with the gift for magic. It's the Goddess's divine punishment against all women for being insatiable. Ironic, huh?"
"Are you…going to tell Riki about this?" Lute asked, he couldn't figure out why Blue hadn't already. If the rings were dangerous then Riki should know.
"They're Margmel's last hope, right? Would you want to be the one to tell Riki that they're actually evil?" The aforementioned monster was very far ahead of them now. Lute could see him swatting away at some blurred enemy with his tail, looking like he was having more fun than anyone should ever be able to have in a giant's stomach.
"No…I don't think I would," Lute decided.