After his statement of recognizing the valley, Netto had become uncharacteristically silent once again. It hadn't taken long before the kid, lost in his own thoughts, started to wander away, following the stream until it reached the much larger river and then going upstream from there. He was completely unaware of Forte following him from a distance or of the dragon drawing large circles high up into the black sky as she kept an eye on him. It was only when he reached a point past one of the sharper curves of the valley that Netto stopped to stare at what laid ahead.
Perched against the cliff side, the city sloped gently until it dipped in the river with its harbor. All was made of the same stone as the desert, but the many trees and flower plants lining the streets and balconies were creating a beautiful and colorful patchwork.
Netto smiled, the feeling of accomplishment lifting his spirit like nothing had ever done during the past days. He looked at it for a few more moments, then sprinted towards it, ignoring Forte's calls and whatever obstacle appeared in his path.
Nimbly stepping around trees and rocks, jumping over ditches in the terrain and swatting away large leaves, the boy quickly covered the distances that separated him from the city. He stopped only when he reached the first structure, a giant arch of stone decorated by hundreds of sculpted leafy motifs.
As he stared up at the imposing structure, a whisper of a bird's song filled his ears and he found himself trying to replicate the sound. He was so absorbed in his own thoughts that he never noticed Forte walking up to him, fairly peeved to have been left behind.
"You going to stand there gawking or are you going to finally explain to me what's gotten into that head of yours?"
Netto snapped out of his reverie and turned around to look at his friend, an embarrassed expression well visible on his face. "Sorry," he paused and then frowned. "Wait, you were following me? I thought you were still where we landed..."
Forte had his arms crossed and his left eye was twitching occasionally. "And leave you to your own devices?" he asked, repressing an insane amount of frustration. "I know you too well, Hikari. If I leave you alone for five seconds, you get in trouble."
Slumping his shoulders in defeat and pouting, Netto turned around and regarded the city once again. "Fine, fine... I got it," he muttered. "Anyway, welcome to a city which I know the name of, but I can't pronounce it at all..."
Netto rubbed his eyes at the absurdity of the situation, then motioned for Forte to follow him through the city. He didn't speak as he walked along what obviously was the main road, preferring to observe the empty buildings and acknowledge how everything seemed to evoke a distant memory that he never knew was there until that moment. He didn't fight the feeling of familiarity, nor did he try to ignore the whispers of the singing birds. Instead, he followed them to a large, circular plaza right in the middle of the city. Netto looked left and right, then his eyes rested upon the big statue in the center.
It was a bird unlike any other Netto had seen before. Painstakingly crafted to the smallest of details, the creature was standing on its clawed feet and had its wings spread wide open to create a sense of wonder and reverential intimidation. Its body was entirely covered by small scales made of a crimson stone, very similar to a ruby, that became elongated on the wings. Something that was repeated on the reptilian tail. The single horn on the bird's forehead and the beak looked like they could cut through steel, but they paled in comparison to the eyes.
White with no pupils and surrounded by a black outline that made them stand out, they seemed to stare at Netto with an intense gaze. The boy knew that it was absurd to feel observed by a giant stone statue and he tried to ignore it, but as he kept gazing in the eyes of the bird, he could just not ignore it. The whispering singing grew in tone, becoming so loud that Netto's ears started to ring and he could focus on nothing but the mantra. And before he even realized it, he was being showed against a wall. His back collided with the stone and the sharp pain woke him up to a very pissed Forte.
The navi was holding him by the shoulders, shaking him repeatedly and saying things that Netto could hear but not understand. It took the boy a few seconds before the words started to make sense and a bit longer to connect his brain with the rest of his body.
"What happened?" he asked as soon as Forte had stopped his angry tirade. His mouth felt dry and his body felt like it wasn't exactly there, as if he was in a dream. Perhaps it was a worsening effect of the lag they were experiencing. He looked past the navi's shoulder and noticed that now they were on the opposite side of the plaza, with the bird statue giving them its back. "How did I get here?"
Forte released the boy and crossed his arms. However, he did not move from where he was standing. "That's what I'd like to know," he said. "One moment you were staring at the statue, the next you were walking around in a trance, muttering 'follow, follow, follow' to yourself."
Netto didn't reply, still too confused to give a satisfying explanation for his weird behavior. He looked around, his eyes focusing and unfocusing repeatedly as he tried to locate whatever he had been following.
There was nothing out of the ordinary, though. Everything appeared as he felt it should be, no navis or Mr. Programs were walking around and no glistening of fragmented data. Even the whispering of bird songs was gone, leaving the air empty and making the city appear 'not right' in his eyes.
But then his gaze rested on large double doors a couple of buildings to his right. Instantly, he knew that whatever was behind them was something important. "Have I been manipulated, Forte?" he asked, slowly making his way to the closed entrance.
Not trusting Netto's current state of mind, Forte followed closely and watched as the kid stopped in front of the doors. They were made of some sort of wood, probably the same of the trees in the valley, and he wondered who would go as far as to replicate real world matter in a place within the network where no one would see it.
"All I've been doing these past months..." Netto continued. His eyes then rested on a particular on the wood, something that he had thought that he would never seen again and that brought back memories. "Maybe even before that... I wonder if it's all a coincidence..."
It was barely visible, more like a faint engraving than a true sculpting, but the symbol taking up the entirety of the double doors was unmistakable in Netto's eyes.
The Crest of Duo.
Once he had believed that it was nothing but something used to keep track of his actions. To keep him apart from the rest of the world and mark him as one of the few people that were willing to take on the alien navi's challenge. Now, however, it was more than that. Perhaps not even Duo himself knew the true meaning of his Crest.
Netto fell to his knees, laughing to himself as he looked down at his hands. As the realization that everything was connected, memories started to return. From the time of the incident that had fused him and Forte together, to the month spent as Dark Mu's prisoner until his escape. It was during that frenetic run to gain freedom, when they were still mentally merged, that they had stumbled upon a chamber located right under the ancient city of Mu. As large as an entire house, as tall as a skyscraper and with thousands of supports to hold it up along its length, the Murian Central Server had been an imposing sight.
"We were uninterested in it," Netto whispered to himself, not caring if Forte remembered the same things he was remembering or if he understood what he was saying. "But Duo's Crest reacted with the server, activating it, forcing a broken knowledge in my head... and now I have these... 'memories' that are not mine... That's why this place is familiar even if I was never here before..."
Forte crouched in front of the boy and stared at the rapidly shifting expressions he was showing. One moment he was amused, the next he was sad, angry, scared or happy. "Hikari," he said, grabbing Netto by the shoulders and shaking him. "Keep it together."
But his warning fell on deaf ears as Netto was too far gone to register anything that was happening around him. He kept muttering to himself, occasionally laughing or screaming loudly at how everything loved to make his life a living hell.
"Dad's gonna flip when I tell him this," Netto chuckled humorlessly. "That the ancient civilization of Mu is nothing more than alien tech and that Duo hails from the same planet? Oh, the face he's going to make! The fun thing is that when Duo gave me his Crest, he never thought he would give me full access to Murian technology and its knowledge!"
Standing up and walking around Forte, Netto pushed the double doors open to reveal a dimly lit corridor. It was bare of any particular save for a thin line of azure light in the middle of the floor. "When their planet blew up thanks to Duo, they decided to recreate... a copy," he explained as he followed the path. He laughed again, feeling that the knowledge he had was overwhelming him and not caring if he was starting to sound like a lunatic. "The place everyone calls Undernet? It's part of it. A... side server of sort? It was the first to be activated, but for some reason, they never got to complete it. And guess what? There are more servers around the planet! And the viruses? Most of them are nothing but the recreations of animals that lived on the Murians' home planet!"
The navi followed, observing how Netto started to ramble with a mix of excitement and exhaustion. He watched how he laughed and swayed left and right every time he spoke. There were time where the boy paused in his walk and brought his hands to his head, shaking on the spot so badly that it was a wonder that he could still stand. "Is that the reason you were able to control the virus?" he hated how things were developing. "Or why you can do things you can't explain?"
Netto turned around and pointed at the navi with a large smile on his face. "Bingo!" he hollered so loudly that his voice echoed in the corridor for several seconds. "The knowledge has always been there, but I just couldn't reach it!"
Forte's eyes narrowed. Whatever had given Netto all that knowledge knew what would happen if he gained access to it all together. It would have worked fairly well if the boy hadn't suddenly remembered and connected all the dots together, creating a huge mess in his already unstable mind, pushing him to near breaking point.
"Hikari," he spoke, maintaining a calm that he was not feeling. If he became angry or frustrated, Netto would only become more agitated than he already was. "Tell me something. That virus you tamed... do you know why it took us here?"
Netto frowned, humming gently to himself. "I..." he paused, uncertain, as he realized that it was really hard to think with all that weird information floating uncontrollably through his mind. Taking a deep breath, he closed his eyes and listened to the singing birds that had just returned. "She brought me here to finish the job..."
The navi refrained from shaking the boy and demanding further explanation. Instead, he watched as Netto suddenly calmed, his body relaxing visibly, and started to swing gently left and right to a tune that only he could hear. After a while, the boy gave a tiny smile and resumed walking to a destination that only he could be led to.
They went on in silence for a while, with Netto humming to himself and Forte following silently once he had decided that the best way to deal with the situation was for the boy to complete whatever task he had been given. Perhaps once he was done, he would be back to normal and they could just forget this had ever happened. The navi would not let his guard down, though. As soon as he saw any hint of danger, he would make sure to drag Netto away and tie him down somewhere if necessary.
"Oh, we're here," Netto whispered, looking ahead with a ghost of a smile on his lips.
The room in front of them was circular and bare, with a raised one foot tall platform in the center that supported the most amazing thing Netto had ever seen. His smile grew a bit as he started to walk around the platform, observing what could be described as a column of very soft yellow light containing particles of data and strands of code that slowly floated upwards and through a black hole in the ceiling.
We have waited thousands of years for this moment...
The singing birds were back, louder than before and with a strange echoing to them, but this time they weren't hurting his head. As Netto stepped on the platform and in front of the column, there was no doubt in his eyes. He wasn't even questioning why he could understand those voices better than before, or why he was doing what he was doing.
Our program was supposed to be activated long ago, to restore the lives of thousands, even if in a world within a world...
Forte looked around, his eyes scanning every part of the room in search of something. As soon as he had stepped inside, the feeling of being observed became so overwhelming that it took a lot of self-control to not blast everything to smithereens. If he focused enough, he could even hear a very faint whispering.
We have been watching you since the time you received the Crest from Duo, the voices continued. We saw your plight, we saw you suffer, we saw you hopeful. You are determined to stop he who is using our technology to bring harm to your world...
"You know what he has in mind?" Netto asked, looking at the lazily floating codes. He was not sure if the voices were coming from there or they were just inside his head, but staring at something felt much better than trying to find a disembodied voice.
The man that call himself The Emperor had originally planned to use our technology to destroy your networks and everything to it connected, the whispers answered calmly. And rule with the strength granted to him by Cross Fusion outside of a Dimensional Area.
Netto felt a cold shiver run down his back. "If that happens, then no one would be able to fight them," he murmured. He was angry at the idea of the madman causing so much trouble for something that several before him tried to achieve. At the same time, however, he felt really calm as everything was explained to him. "Not without the technology behind the Dimensional Area to support Cross Fusion..."
His original plan was wrecked in a single instant by your arrival. No one expected you to accidentally take his place, and no one expected Forte to use your mind to escape deletion... the voices sounded somewhat amused by their own retelling of the story. The Emperor is a man of precision. He had devised his plan for too long to have a little boy ruin it. He wanted this mistake fixed.
"And that's why we were taken to Dark Mu's main base somewhere in Ameroppa," Netto continued. He shifted his eyes onto Forte and felt glad that the navi had survived. Despite their initial difficulties, now they were good friends.
Your enemy has misused our technology for years with us being unable to stop him or call for help. It changed when he brought you very close to the Central Server. We are regretful that we could not free you sooner. Much pain could have been averted...
Biting his lip to stop himself from replying in anger, Netto turned away from both Forte and the pillar of streaming data. He took a deep breath, trying to calm his shaking body and spent a few seconds in silence to collect his own thoughts. "You have been manipulating us... used me..."
That is incorrect, the whispering of the birds answered quickly, a hint of worry and fear marring it. What we did was show you a path. To follow it was your decision alone. When you entered this city, we merely called you. You could have turned around and walked back home, but you did not. Why?
Netto sat down on the steps of the platform and stared ahead at the dark wall in front of him. He could hear Forte walking around to stand near him. It was his own way of reassuring him and the knowledge that he was not alone while trying to sort the mess he had found himself in gave him strength.
"Somehow, it didn't feel right," he murmured more to himself than to those that were listening to him. His eyes then focused onto the navi barely visible in the darkness. "When the Central Sever gave me all this knowledge... I didn't understand at all. I couldn't even remember until now. I still can't understand an inch of it. But when you called... I knew I had to come..."
The boy huddled on himself, hiding his face between his knees and folded arms. He felt like the entire world had collapsed on top of him, crushing him with the weight of an absurd situation that not even the smartest of minds could make heads or tails of it. It was like being the focal point of an interplanetary storm that was ready to blow up at any given moment.
It was both maddening and sickening to know that.
"Hikari," Forte's voice echoed loudly into the dimly lit room, attracting the boy's attention to him. "What are you going to do?"
"Thousands of years is a long time," Netto replied sadly after a moment. He felt really tired and he was slowly getting a headache out of trying to understand what was happening to him. "I could walk away, forget everything that has happened here, maybe hide in some remote place and wait until someone else solve the latest crisis... but I'd only be kidding myself..."
He stood up and turned around to face the streaming data, watching it in fascination. He was not exactly sure what it was or how it worked, but he had the suspicion that it was some sort of core database needed to complete the start-up of the desert server. Maybe initialize the others too, like a chain reaction of some sort...
Netto raised his right hand and placed it into the column of light. The feeling of being connected and in control of something immense was immediate and he could not help an amused chuckle. A lot of people would do anything to be in his place. However, he was sure they would not like it when everything disappeared into a blinding light.
"To awaken an entire world within yours without the consensus of others..." the voice was back. The difference was that, unlike before, now it was only one bird speaking. It sounded closer and without the annoying echo. "We are in your debt, Hikari Netto."
Upon hearing his name, Netto opened his eyes and looked at the blurred outline of someone standing in front of him. It reminded him of the stone statue he had seen in the plaza, only slender and walking upright like a human. "You're a Murian..."
"One of two races," it sang. Without the echo, the melody was truly beautiful and Netto felt like he could listen to the other talk all day and never get tired of it. "But that is not important now. We have been spying on your enemy since he walked into Mu, making it his base, and we recently discovered that he has gained hold of something that should not be reawakened. The beast that you humans created years ago, a digital creature called Alpha, must not be set free on the world."
Netto's eyes grew heavy and he fought against the pull that was dragging him away. "Wait... what's your name?" he asked. He started to feel his body fade, compress and be sucked through a very small hole. "Who's Alpha? How can I stop them? What's going to happen now?"
The bird tilted the elegant head, making the red scales of its long neck shine. "You might call me Isarinsi, Administrator of the Murian Desert," one long arm was lifted and long scales on it shifted, partially showing that it was also a wing. "As for what Alpha is, your father knows."
A clawed finger touched his forehead right between his eyes and Netto had troubles focusing on it. Then he was suddenly shoved backwards, into the pull that dragged him away from that bright void. Before disappearing completely, however, he cast one last glance at the Murian.
"Whatever you do, I am confident it will be the right thing," Isarinsi said with a fading voice. The brightness was increasing, shrouding the figure until it was nothing but a barely visible shade in a sea of blinding white. "Is it not what you always did to stop those who want to harm the innocents?"
There was a short pause, then the bird sung in a way that Netto interpreted it as chuckling. Part of him was angry at being shoved away before all his questions were answered while the other was glad to get out of that place. No matter if he was going to land into something worse. At least it wasn't going to be as confusing as that meeting that he had not seen coming.
"Know this, young one," the voice now was really faint. Barely audible. "When the time comes, we shall rise to fight those who used our technology to do harm. You are not alone."
That was the last thing the Murian had said before Netto woke up with a start, gasping and coughing loudly. There was a ruckus around him, but he ignored it in favor of fighting the several cables tangled around his limbs and body. Hands grabbed him, pinning him down, and someone was shouting as he tried to fight for freedom.
Then the confusion was lifted off his mind and Netto focused his gaze on the face of someone that he had tried to unconsciously avoid.
Stress, emotional disorder, memories that he would rather forget and the realization that something really ugly was going to happen finally made him crack. Tears fell from distressed eyes and Netto flung his arms around his father's neck, shaking.
A/N: Confused? Having a "WTF?!" reaction? Good. I was planning for that since involving Mu into the story. Yay for insane plot twists!
Anyway, really sorry for the extremely long wait. Been having one nasty writer's block. The kind where you forget how to write at all.