A bleak layer of ash now hung in the air over the port. Searching the burned out remnants of The Naughty Ottsel could reveal little about the events that truly happened there; everything was too blackened and scorched to even be identified (everything that was still left in one piece anyway). The misty daylight illuminated the scene but brought with it no sense of ease or comfort, and the crowd that stood outside the barrier around the dead building could not bring themselves to fully comprehend the situation. Most of them were loyal bar patrons who had come for their regular morning brew, but now found themselves at a loss upon arriving at the carnage.
The Freedom Guards that were left kept them back with no difficulty, and once Samos was sure that there was no substantial evidence left to be found at the scene, he gathered together the highest-ranking soldiers and city officials in the area for a quiet word.
The decision was made amongst them to announce the destruction of Idandi to the people in the coming days, as after last night's tragic events, they needed something to distract them enough from the grief and instil more hope. The fire at the black mountain still burned tirelessly, and scouts frequently radioed in updates, observed the flames and explored the surrounding area, building up a map of possible events that may have caused this mighty fire. Of course, there was still no clear theory in anyone's mind, but a new unavoidable possibility now stalked the thoughts of everyone involved like a disease. What destroyed Idandi may have also been responsible for the fire at The Naughty Ottsel, and whatever or whoever that was may still be in the city. Rumours would quickly spread around the people with all the ferocity and heat of the fire itself, and nothing would extinguish the interest once it had started.
Samos gave his orders that were to be followed exactly; every guard would be informed to avoid speaking too openly on the matter to civilians, so as to not reinforce the ideas growing in their heads. In a time like this, calm and order had to be maintained. But before the word was dispatched, Samos felt the need to add something else that was poking at him from the corner of his mind. He said it without emotion or enthusiasm, but giving the order triggered a hidden feeling inside him that made him feel humble and considerate and warm.
"And send another team out to sweep Haven Forest," he said. "Check for any remaining hostilities. I have a feeling we may need the area again soon. But now I need to check on my daughter."
He left the port in the nearest cruiser and returned to the Freedom HQ Building in the north, whence he walked back home. Inside it was quiet, and at first he could see nobody. Then he noticed Tess still lying on the couch asleep, but she began stirring softly as he stepped further into the house. She awoke slowly and naturally as if nothing had ever happened, but then sat bolt upright with enough force that she nearly launched herself off the couch. Samos stepped forwards hurriedly.
"The Bar!" she cried.
"Shhh," hushed Samos. "You're safe. How are you feeling?"
"A little confused," she answered, looking around the room. "How did I get here?"
"We rescued you from the port," explained Samos. "Keira helped. She's fine by the way, and Azyma is getting better."
"Rescued?" said Tess. "What happened? I remember... fire and glass shards..." Then the terrible comprehension started to dawn on her.
Samos exhaled before confirming the bad news. "I'm afraid The Naughty Ottsel has been burned to the ground."
Tess bowed her head and put her hands to her face. She said nothing and breathed silently for a few seconds, trying to take in the words she had just heard, and scanning her transparent memory for any confirmation. It began to come back to her slowly, and she once again saw herself sitting on the concrete staring at the blaze. Coming back to reality, she spoke again in a sad, rough voice. "I remember now. All that time spent in there... so many memories... I can't believe it's gone. What am I going to do now?"
"Right now you can stay here and rest," said Samos, and Tess jumped as if she hadn't been expecting an answer. "Take as long as you need."
Samos left her and went upstairs to look for Keira, listening to Tess's quiet mutterings as he went.
"Daxter would be absolutely devastated..." she whispered sadly to herself.
Upstairs, Samos knocked on Keira's door and quietly entered. He saw Azyma tucked up in Keira's bed, and Keira herself was sitting on the floor with her back to the bed and her head resting on her knees. She looked up as Samos came in.
"Are you alright?" he whispered.
"Hmm," Keira hummed in a sign of acknowledgment. "Just tired."
Samos looked again at Azyma. "And how's Azyma coping?"
"She got up actually," Keira answered. "But the guards think she's suffering from post-traumatic stress. I'm helping take care of her, but I'm no therapist..."
"Do not worry about it," said Samos. "The eco will help. Tess is awake as well now, and she's sitting downstairs trying to come to terms with it all. I'll keep an eye on her, you just get some rest."
"OK Daddy," whispered Keira. "Thanks."
Samos left the room quietly and returned downstairs to find Tess unmoved. However, she looked a little less sad than she had been earlier. It turned out that she was starting to cope well with the loss. She needed a break; she worked so hard to keep the old pub maintained by herself while Daxter was gone, often working for long hours every day. Azyma had helped to keep the job manageable, but even then it was still tough going. She was actually feeling relieved now in a way; she wouldn't have to wake up early anymore to open the doors, or worry about supplies or cleaning up. She felt free now, and had a good friend looking after her. By midday she was up off the couch and walking around the house.
She visited Keira in her bedroom, hoping to talk, but Keira was curled up on the floor and sound asleep. Tess saw the state that she and Azyma were both in. Beneath the blankets of Keira's bed, Azyma was caught in silent but troubling dreams, and her unmoving face unconsciously showed her lingering despair in a frozen frown. Despite not actually being inside the building when it had been burning, Keira looked the worst. Still in the light clothing she had donned in last night's haste, her body rested peacefully but was limp. The grit from the pavement and the ash from the air still clung to her, and her hair was a tangled green mess, more resembling a long-abandoned bird's nest than actual hair.
Tess did not want to wake either of them, but noiselessly sprang onto the window ledge behind the bed to lay eyes on the city again. A thin spiral of smoke still rose from the port where her bar had once stood, and on the streets below people went unassumingly about their daily business. Some were lamenting the loss of the Naughty Ottsel, as it had been a favourite public attraction for all who inhabited the city. She once again thought of Daxter, and all the moments they had shared inside that building and out. Where was he now? It was a question she had asked herself every day, but she still had not an answer. Her thoughts then turned to her new life, however temporary it may be. She was actually quite looking forward to spending more time with Keira. A small smile emerged from her lips which would have been barely noticeable from a distance, but it was still a smile, the first smile since the disaster.
The next few days seemed to pass without much further significance. The destruction of The Naughty Ottsel had shaken the city violently, but fortunately had resulted in no deaths. The debris was all removed and a grey empty space now stood where the building had once been. Tess eventually found the heart to one day return to the location with Keira while Azyma still rested, and what she saw made her sad. A part of her life had been burned away, leaving behind a lonely void of ash and scarred concrete. Memories came flooding back to her as she stood before the empty space. She thought back to the times when she had worked as a barmaid to spy on Krew for the Underground, and had first been introduced properly to Daxter. Despite the pub's general unpleasantness in the hands of the old crime lord, she had always felt that the place could be used for something so much better. All the people who ever visited the place in those days had been criminals and gangsters employed by Krew, and the innocent citizens became wise to give the place a wide berth lest they find themselves suddenly in an undesired situation, which was always a great subduing fear in the Baron's reign. Krew didn't need their patronage; he could find his own money, and he always had plenty of it.
Then of course once Krew was gone, Daxter took over the place and made it his own. All those who once feared to tread near it now found themselves drawn to its charismatic new management. Besides, they needed some enjoyment after the end of the Metal Head Wars. But it was not to last, as the messy three-way civil conflict tore things up again, and it was closed to the public as the Freedom League commandeered it for the war effort while Daxter was out in the Wasteland.
Having made their quiet return to the city, Jak and Daxter had swung straight back into action and finally liberated the people once again. Of course by this time, Tess, still loyal to the old Underground, had found new work in munitions design. But after things had settled down and she had grown accustomed to her 'new self', she and Daxter had moved back in and set about making the place warm and happy again.
She shed another tear while standing before the empty space in the port. This was something she would not easily get over completely, but she would have to live on. Who knows, the pub may even be rebuilt in the hopeful future. Starting again for a third time would mean massive overhauls, but it was a job she was willing to undertake. Therefore she made the commitment on that day that she would somehow bring it back bigger and better than ever.
The truth behind the burning still remained elusive, and was currently labelled by the Freedom League as an unspecified accident until further developments had been made. Tess already had given her recount of what she remembered: she had been watching over the last customers before closing time, when an explosion had ripped through one of the back rooms and spread fire into the main bar area. She had hurried the people outside whereupon they all fled except those who were injured. She knew that Azyma had been in one of the back rooms, but by the time she was outside the flames had engulfed the whole building. Then things had got a little hazy with grief after that.
With her information, the Guard were able to piece together a clearer image of the events immediately before and during the fire, but all they needed now was word from Azyma. If the explosion had come from the back rooms, and she had been in there, she would likely know what would have happened. Some devious and uncertain folk even began to suspect that she was in fact the cause of the explosion, but Tess stood to defend her, asserting that she would never do a thing like that. But doubt was still abounding until she was well enough to prove her innocence.
Azyma's health was improving steadily. All of her physical wounds were now fully healed, and not even a scar remained on her now flawless and white skin. She had been inactive since the disaster, and had only awoken a few times for a short moment or two. Anyone who had been there to see her would have noticed a definite improvement with each stirring, even though she remained slow and lethargic. Keira managed to get her to eat something once, as she was beginning to worry about her strength. That seemed to really help, and after her first meal she arose from the bed more frequently. She kept eating and her vitality began to return. Keira, Samos and Tess always kept a close eye on her; Keira had set up a temporary bed for herself on the floor so that she could be with Azyma as much as possible in case she needed anything. Her stress levels had depleted to nothing, and she no longer suffered from any bouts of despair, and was slowly but surely returning to her old self.
On the fourth day, she expressed a desire to have a proper wash. Though Keira had managed to clean up her face to the best that she had been able, her clothes and her hair still bore the strong scent of smoke. It was the final transitional phase back to normality for her, finally ridding herself of that last detectable trace from the fire. Keira even went out to buy some new clothes for her. Azyma was given all the time she needed in Keira's bathroom, which she thoroughly enjoyed because it was much more spacious than her own one back home. It was during this moment when she noticed how pale she had become. True, she had always had a very light complexion, but this was way more than what she was used to. Looking in the mirror, she could also see faint tinges of grey streaked into her deep purple irises. Had she somehow sustained those in the fire, or was it an effect of the eco that had healed her? She couldn't know for sure, but hoped that it was only a temporary phase she was going through until she regained her full health again.
At last when she was well enough and felt confident to speak of that night's events, the others gathered in the bedroom and sat down around the bed to listen with full attention. She was about to give what could be the vital missing piece of the puzzle.
"Tell us what happened in the back rooms," Tess said gently.
Azyma closed her eyes and tried to picture the disturbing imagery again. She no longer feared to think about it, but still preferred to avoid doing so. Nevertheless, she revealed what she remembered.
"I was taking some supplies into the storage room," she explained, and Tess nodded upon remembering seeing her leave the main bar. "When I got in there, I had the strange feeling that I wasn't alone. There wasn't much light in there and I got a little creeped out. But then I saw...him..."
Everyone else in the room was intrigued. Keira's ears twitched, Samos raised an eyebrow, and Tess gasped silently.
"He emerged out of the shadows and came towards me. I was too scared to move..."
"Did he say anything?" asked Keira.
"Yes, but not much. He said..." She shuddered at the words she was about to repeat. "He said, 'I told you, didn't I? Don't do anything clever.' Then he threw me into the wall, and it nearly knocked me out. There was a loud bang and the next thing I knew the room was in flames and he was gone. I knew I had to get out, but in all the smoke and the heat I couldn't find my way. I was so terrified..."
She paused in silence and held her eyes tightly shut, trying to hold back the tears that were building beneath her eyelids.
"You don't have to go on if you don't want to," said Tess. "I think we've heard enough to know that it wasn't your fault that The Naughty Ottsel burned down."
Azyma remained silent but looked up again. Samos knew she had not been lying; he could see it in her damp eyes. Tess had a feeling that the mysterious man, whoever he was, was the same man who had harassed her in the street on her way home on that night. The words he had said in the pub related to what Azyma had reported he'd said on the night she was attacked. She was starting to piece together the information and suspected that this man had intended to kill Azyma in the fire he had apparently caused. Whether he knew his plan had failed or not was unknown, and his motives were still unclear. But she did not reveal any of this in front of the others without a sign from Azyma that it was OK to do so, but Azyma did not give any.
"This is troubling," said Samos. "It seems we may have a terrorist on our hands, and for all we know he is still out there. We must alert the guards right away and give them this information so we can find this dangerous man. He must not be allowed to remain a threat!"
Azyma spoke almost automatically in response, in a slow and blank tone. "He had long grey hair, and a stubbly beard. Metal teeth, and he wore all black. And he was tall, really tall, almost touching the ceiling..." She trailed off into silence from there.
"Well, now we have a description at least," said Samos. "That should make the job slightly easier. I'm sure there aren't many grey-haired metal-teethed giants wandering around here."
"Don't worry, Azyma," said Keira. "We'll get that guy."
Azyma was silent again, but nodded in thanks. The unconditional support she was receiving deeply moved her; she had not felt such kindness since before her days in the Underground, and it made her feel special, valuable and loved. Old and forgotten feelings were starting to reawaken inside her, and at last she felt part of a natural entity once more, like she belonged and had a purpose. A faint smile formed upon her lips, born from the knowing that she was surrounded by people who cared for her unconditionally. At last, she was part of a family again.
That night in the bedroom, when she was on her own, Azyma had slipped back into deep thought. There was something else she had not told her friends earlier that day; another forgotten memory that had stirred itself from the back of her mind, and now it was all she could focus on. Unlike last week, she now had a pretty good idea of who her stalker could be. So long ago it seemed, a dark day in her past was slowly revealing itself again, something she had tried to push aside and forget. There was something about that day now that seemed of the utmost importance again, most notably one of the people involved. Surely that couldn't be the same man? This returning memory troubled her, and she began to piece together a fragmented motive for her stalker's actions. Something told her that she was still far from safe, even in the warm comfort of her friend's home. As long as he was still out there roaming free, she could have no certainty of her security.
She felt a presence behind her, and she turned around faster than she had ever done before. Nothing. The window and the curtains were still open, blowing in a refreshing night breeze. Slowly she clambered over the bed and looked upon the city outside. The wind felt like a dark breath on her cheek, and gently ignited the unpleasant memory of the stinging pain from the cut she had suffered at the hands of her oppressor.
He knows, she thought, almost whispering the words to herself. He knows I'm here.