Chapter Two: The Old Homestead
The mountain that had stood over the doors to Qiao's old homestead had never been much of one, height-wise. Cartographers could argue endlessly about whether it was a high hill or a low mountain. But it had shrunk over the eons as weather and seismic activity whittled it down stone by stone, littering the island around the base of the mountain with gigantic heaps of broken rock. If the mountain had an ego to nurture, it could take consolation in that it took up seventy percent of the island and that it had such sheer slopes that only the heartiest of mountain climbers would dare tackle it – assuming any wanted to bother.
Qiao had witnessed the steady erosion of the mountain over her young life. Every time Alche took her out to explore the world after a "jump", the mountain always seemed a little shorter, the rock piles a little larger. But the doors to her home were never touched by the rockslides, no matter how numerous they became. The same magic that preserved the ancient home of the Alchemist had deflected the rocks to the side. The doors were always free of debris. They opened every time.
As Qiao stared at the open doors to her old home and regarded the malformed boulders that now littered the pathway, she knew the magic was gone from the place. Never had the doors been laid open for the entire world to see. Never did the rocks gather to obstruct the path.
Alche wasn't here any longer, and she'd taken "home" with her.
"A magnificent doorway, Qiao," remarked Captain Linebreaker, standing next to her in his flowing outfit, his hands on his hips. "I doubt an army of battering rams could breach those doors, had they been sealed."
"I don't know," said Qiao. "We never had an army show up to try."
The doors were deliberately plain, painted tan as so to blend in with the rocks. The doors were utterly boring to look at. Qiao understood Linebreaker's comment was more for her benefit than an honest statement. So far, this homecoming was proving very different than she imagined.
"Shall we see what the others have found?" asked Linebreaker. "Or do you wish to stay out here and take watch?"
"Watch for what, rabid seagulls?"
Linebreaker laughed at the jest and began threading his way to the doors. Qiao shrugged and followed, having to be extra careful not to get her new bow caught on the wayward rocks. Like her old bow, this new bow (what she called the Dragon Fire bow because, well, why not) accompanied her everywhere, and it was especially important to have it handy when you were in enemy territory, even when enemy territory used to be friendly.
The hard dirt of the path felt very reassuring to Qiao, who was very much sick of sea travel after spending the last two weeks stuck on Ship with a sulky dragon and a frost queen of a Seer. All those days of travel had been required to find the island, delays caused by weather, supply requirements, and because Qiao had forgotten some of the landmarks. In her defense, it had been four years since she'd gone home, and she wasn't much of a navigator. They also took a day to circle the island at long range so they could spot any signs of a base or fortress, something that indicated habitation. They wanted as few surprises as possible before walking up and knocking on the door.
Arc had scouted around while Shrouded, and he hadn't detected any threats. Not a single Hunter Platform or an archer's tower with archers scrambling about or any ominous fog banks. Not a single solitary sign of the Alchemist or her forces. As Arc rightly pointed out, a ship the size of the Zenith needed a substantial dock to launch from. Even if the dock was destroyed after the ship was built and launched, there should have been remnants and ruins left behind.
At least the doors were still standing, so Qiao had the right island. But Alche must have anticipated Qiao spilling the beans about home sweet home and had set up shop somewhere else. Another deserted island, most likely, as the coasts were too heavily traveled to keep a secret base secret for long.
She reached the threshold of the doorway, stopping to peer inside and see what there was to see. The ceiling rose to around fifteen feet high, the stone smoothed out neatly and efficiently and with minimal decoration. Alche eschewed home decorations; she filled her living spaces with artifacts and inventions, but rarely did she hang anything on the walls or paint a fresco. Her fellow Artisans had plenty of love for art and ambiance; to Alche, if it didn't have historical or conventional usage, it was unnecessary.
It was why Qiao was bewildered by the sheer emptiness that loomed before her. Outside of Arc, the Thunderchild Hyperion who was poking his long neck into every corner of the main hall, and Saga, who seemed content to stand in the middle of the room with her eyes closed, there was absolutely nothing else in the hall. Much of the room was shadowed, though the bright sunlight streaming through the doorway kept the shadows from becoming total. But shadowed or not, it was obvious Alche had clean it out and left it in the dust… literally. A thick layer of dust had settled over everything, mostly dirt blown in through the open doorway. It was marked by the footprints of human and dragon explorers, as well as numerous small critters who might be residing in the cracks and recesses of Qiao's former home.
There were other rooms in the place, but they were no doubt just as empty. All she would find here were memories of her childhood amidst the dust and shadows, memories that couldn't help them with their current problems.
Bewilderment gave way to anger as she lingered in the doorway. "How could Alche toss aside our home so easily? She didn't even bother to close the doors."
Linebreaker was too engrossed in exploring the domicile to attempt comfort this time. That task went to Arc, who strolled up to Qiao with a contemplative look in his eyes. Comfort, however, was not in his job description.
"Did you not abandon this place as well?" pointed out Arc.
"Well, yeah, but I was leaving it in Alche's hands. I knew she'd take care of it." Qiao threw up her hands in resignation. "One more thing I was wrong about."
"If this is difficult for you, you need not stay any longer," advised Arc. "None of us need to."
"I beg to differ," replied Saga, who hadn't moved from her spot in the middle of the hall since Qiao had arrived at the door. She apparently found that one spot very interesting, because right as she declared her opposition to leaving she also sat down and crossed her legs, adopting her traditional meditative stance.
"I feel something here," clarified Saga. "This room once held something of great power, did it not?"
"It held a lot of things," said Qiao. "Books, artifacts, Alche's collection of exotic candles, the T-Node…"
"The T-Node," interrupted Saga. "The trace is similar to the feeling I experienced back in the Repository, when you were showing off the artifact in question. The artifact seems to warp reality around it to a degree. I feel closer to my vision state the longer I stay here."
Arc said nothing, but Qiao could see his interest pique at the mention of the device, the one that had spirited Nestor, Hiccup, and Toothless away from the Repository. Qiao knew how badly Arc wanted to go searching for Nestor. The dragon was nowhere near as good at concealing his feelings as Saga, who had gone full-on ice queen after Astrid's death and had maintained her frosty demeanor ever since. Qiao had caught Arc sulking up on the deck of Linebreaker's vessel on numerous occasions, Arc looking out to the horizon like it was beckoning him.
Qiao had wanted to tell him to get on with it. Forget duty and saving the world and go find his wayward apprentice. She wanted to tell him that, but she never did. She knew he wouldn't listen, might even take offence at the notion of abandoning those around him for his own selfish pursuits. Truly noble people, dragon or human, were also truly stubborn people.
"I wish to remain here for now," continued Saga, closing her eyes and bowing her head as if the discussion was already over.
"Is this really going to do us any good?" questioned Qiao.
"Let her try," said Arc. "We have nothing else to go on. Let us leave her to her meditation."
"What if there's something hiding in the other rooms? We can't leave her unguarded."
"I smell nothing dangerous. She is safe in here," Arc reassured
"I still wish to explore this place, though," said Linebreaker, preparing a torch for lighting. "Who knows? Perhaps the Alchemist left behind some old clothes that I might steal some dress ideas from. If you two wish to be elsewhere, I will watch over Saga."
Qiao decided the offer was good. She really didn't want to stay any longer. Even spending a scant five minutes in her old home brought up too much old junk, and unlike Alche she preferred to keep history in the past.
Not far from the entrance, Qiao found a suitable rock to park her rear on that also gave her a good view of the surrounding island. From her elevated position, it would be nigh impossible for anyone to sneak up on her… unless they were Shrouded or invisible. Which was why she had Arc around to cover that angle.
The lean, green dragon found his own perch and settled down on his stomach. He gave the immediate area a good look and seemed satisfied that they were safe. He also checked on Ship, which was beached at the one sandy spot on the island. Arc would have no trouble pulling it off the beach later, or so Arc claimed.
"You were quick to let Saga do her thing," said Qiao to Arc. "I thought you didn't put much stock in visions."
"Young Saga has proven exceptional," said Arc. "I see no harm in letting her try."
"Or maybe you're being nice to her," said Qiao with a sly smile. "Admit it, underneath all that dragon scale and stoic attitude, you're a softie." Qiao's smile widened when she got a decent eye roll out of the dragon.
"I merely wish to keep our ally in fighting shape," he replied. "She has taken Astrid's fall and Nestor's disappearance hard."
"So you did know about those two," said Qiao. "Nestor and Saga."
"Yes," grumbled Arc.
"Hey, what's with the disapproval? I figured you'd want Nestor to find someone."
"I fear Saga isn't capable of giving him what he deserves," he explained.
Qiao chucked lightly. "I get it. Dad's being protective of his son."
Arc gave her another irritated glare. "He's not my son, Young Qiao."
"Keep telling yourself that. But for what it's worth, I think Saga is capable, in her own way. She just needs time to come back out of her ice shell again."
Arc looked at her funny. "You're defending Young Saga? You?"
Qiao shrugged. "We're not pals, Arc, and I know she doesn't have a high opinion of my line of work, but I don't wish anything bad for her. Besides, the happier she is, the more tolerable she becomes."
Arc accepted this without further argument. "Sometimes, I think you're more enlightened than I am."
"Me?" Qiao let out a snarky laugh. "I don't know anything. I just feel like I owe Saga and you and everyone big time. You guys came and saved me, a petty thief with only a colorful history to my name."
"That's not all you are, Young Qiao," said Arc.
Now Qiao was looking at Arc funny. Something about the way he said that triggered remembrance of a meaningful subject that Qiao had held off on until now.
"What do you mean by that?" she asked, almost accusingly.
Arc seemed caught off-guard by Qiao's response, and he paused to think up the right response. "I was merely attempting to reassure you."
"Yeah, I don't think so," said Qiao, giving Arc a suspicious glare. "You know, I've had a lot of time to think on Alche and why she kidnapped me. She had me stand on that locking mechanism to the Repository door. That's the only thing she needed me for. And while I was standing there, I noticed a bunch of writing on the floor that I'm pretty sure was Ancient Artisanae. Alche never taught me to read it, but I did notice that the writing under my spot wasn't the same as the writing under her spot. Two different requirements to opening the door. At the time, all I was caring about was living to see another day, so I didn't think about it much.
"Later on, after Alche found her zanick stone, the thing she had gone through all that trouble to recover, she tells me about Ancestors. No reason for the subject to come up, or so I thought. She tells me that the reason they got along so well with the Artisans was because they looked human. Their natural talent was to shapeshift to resemble a human, to walk among them like another warm-blooded hairless ape. She said that Ancestor babies started off looking human and had to learn how to shapeshift into a dragon form.
"I'm not Alche, Arc. I don't figure things out as quickly as she can, and I've had plenty of other things on my mind lately. But I do pay attention, and I don't forget things quickly. Just like I know that you were the one that opened the doors to the Repository after Alche closed them again. Which means you know why Alche needed me, or at least you have a good idea why. I haven't asked until now because we're trying to find Alche's old base and stop her toys from falling into the wrong hands. But I don't think I can wait any longer for an answer."
Qiao fixed Arc's reptilian eye with her own, a silent plea contained in her stare, a plea for a real answer and no more riddles. "Arc, am I an Ancestor?"
Arc didn't look away, didn't dodge the question or even look uncomfortable in the slightest. His causal demeanor faded away and was replaced by his Hyperion nature – stern, knowing, all business. Perhaps it was the only way he could approach such a profound and touchy subject, and even before Arc spoke Qiao had already determined what his answer would be.
"I have only my suspicions, Young Qiao," he said, "but… yes, I believe you are."
Qiao took the news better than she imagined. She had already half-expected an answer in the affirmative. She didn't feel like panicking or flipping out or dramatically running off into the wilderness to cry her eyes out. Honestly, she didn't know what to feel.
The first emotion that came to her was betrayal, not from Arc but from Alche. Her adopted mother, who had looked out for her in so many different ways, had kept this important detail secret all her life. Alche, who had raised her as human, who had claimed that the Ancestors were as extinct as the saber-tooth tiger, had lied to her about her true nature.
Betrayal became anger, and she had to look away from Arc as bitter tears began to form under her eyes. She gazed out at the calm sea, hoping to find something floating out there that might turn her mind away from the pain of Alche's actions. But there were only rippling sea waves and lines of drifting kelp. Nothing to divert her mind from the hurt.
Arc kept silent as Qiao dealt with the revelation, patiently waiting for her to make the first move. He predicted she would need some time alone to sort things out, that her first response would be to ask him to leave. He almost offered to do so anyway, but his desire to remain kept the words in his mouth.
"Was I nothing but a key to Alche?" Qiao finally said. "All that mothering and adventuring and tutoring and everything she did for me, just so I could open a door down the road?"
"Does that make sense to you?" Arc quietly asked.
"No, it doesn't. So what did she want for me?" Qiao wiped her face, still staring at the sea rather than face the dragon and his all-knowing gaze.
"Perhaps she didn't want anything from you, Young Qiao," said Arc. "Perhaps she really did care for you."
"Or perhaps she was doing what she always did – keeping all the secrets so she could keep all the power. Seriously, who keeps a secret like that from someone they care about?"
"I can't answer for the Alchemist, Young Qiao," said Arc. "I can't tell you if she had the best of intentions or only her own. But I suspect that she believed you'd be better off not knowing."
She laughed ruefully. "You're right about that. What am I supposed to do with this, Arc? I don't know what it means to be an Ancestor. Not a single thing. I suppose you could give me pointers…"
"I cannot," Arc interrupted. "I wish I could, but the Hyperion essence I wield contains little direct knowledge on the Ancestors, and the other Hyperion can offer little more. When the Ancestors created the Hyperion, it was to preserve their knowledge, not themselves."
Giving up on the sea as a source of solace, she finally looked at Arc, her anger slipping away as an uncomfortable feeling of helplessness moved in. "What happens now? What if I'm walking down the main street of Riki Poka and I suddenly sprout scales all over my skin and claws shoot out of my fingers? Will I look like you someday?"
Arc smiled at her supportively. "Young Qiao, if you haven't sprouted scales yet, you probably never will. Shapeshifting is a conscious power, one that has to be learned."
"But what about magic and all that junk? Weren't the Ancestors so powerful that they were kicking Artisan butt all over the place?"
"They were, but much of their power came from skill and knowledge. There is an innate quality to the Ancestors that made the mystical arts easy for them to learn and control. I imagine that you have the same quality, and that may be the reason why your new bow responds to you as it does."
Qiao looked at her bow, which rested on a nearby rock, and shrugged indifferently. "So… you're saying I'm special, but not really."
"You're the same person you were ten minutes ago," said Arc. "The same person you were when you got out of bed this morning. The same person who arrogantly entered my campsite a month ago looking for excitement and a trinket to collect. The same person… that I gladly call a friend."
Qiao couldn't help but smile at Arc. Most days, Arc was as comforting as a blanket embedded with wood slivers. But when he pulled it off, it was very effective.
"What about you?" she asked, her tone having lost its severity. "Don't you get the heebie-jeebies being around the last member of the people who created the Hyperion?"
"You didn't create anything," said Arc. "But… it is somewhat disconcerting, nonetheless."
"Really? Are you feeling any urges to worship me?"
Arc rolled his eyes once more. "No."
A genuine laugh escaped from Qiao. "It was worth a shot."
Several hours went by as Qiao and Arc set up camp near the doors, clearing a spot for bedrolls, building a fire pit, and preparing a catch of fish for dinner. The weather looked questionable in terms of potential rain, with storm clouds skirting the horizon to the east, but all had agreed that a night of slumber on dry land was worth the risk.
Every hour, Qiao or Arc went to check on Linebreaker and Saga. They found the same sight each time – Saga sitting as quiet as a tombstone in the middle of the entrance hall and Linebreaker questing for a trinket from the recesses of Alche's old home. So far, Linebreaker's efforts amounted to a torn rag from what he believed was a storeroom. That, and a few empty, rotted barrels, was the extent of his success.
Saga didn't respond to Qiao's offer of cooked trout. So absorbed in her meditation was Saga that she didn't flinch at all when Qiao tapped her on the shoulder. Arc wasn't worried about it, so Qiao didn't press the issue. But they couldn't let her stay like this forever.
After sunset, the old entrance hall began feeling ten times as spooky as before, with every shadow growing bigger and deeper. Linebreaker gave up his treasure hunt and took turns with Qiao and Arc on guard duty. Two of them stayed at the camp while one of them sat with Saga, using torches to keep the darkness at bay. Since these kinds of long trances were outside Linebreaker and Qiao's area of expertise, all agreed to let Arc determine when Saga's meditation had gone on too long.
Halfway though the night, while Linebreaker and Arc slept at the camp, Qiao was in the hall with a non-responsive Saga when her patience finally gave out. She wanted a lead on the Alchemist's hidden base as badly as Arc and Linebreaker, but Saga's comatose state was starting to freak her out. It'd been almost twelve hours since she began. She should be hungry, thirsty, keeling over from exhaustion, complaining that her legs had gone asleep. This was not normal, even by Qiao's standards of normality.
Qiao adopted a new strategy – do something Qiaoish and then feign ignorance when it inadvertently disturbed Saga. And there was nothing more Qiaoish than archery.
Using a torch and some ash from the campfire, Qiao marked three crude bull's-eyes on the far wall of the entrance hall. She stood just ahead of Saga so that there was no chance of hitting the Seer with stray arrows, but the whole practice session would be right there in Saga's face.
"See if you can ignore this," said Qiao.
The hall lit up as strings made of pure energy formed on her bow, connecting her fingers to the ancient weapon. She felt no tension from the magic strings, which had initially distracted her until she got used to it. A child could wield the bow as easily as an adult, a frightening concept considering the power of the arrows it launched.
One such arrow formed in the bow's center. Qiao aimed and let fly, the energy arrow zooming out and pegging the first target dead center with a loud smacking sound. The arrow stuck right in the hard stone as easily as a regular arrow penetrated a tree trunk… and there it stayed, as opposed to exploding.
Qiao glanced Saga's way to note any response. There was none. Qiao grunted and fired another arrow and pegged the next bull's-eye, the impact reverberating through the empty sanctum. Saga ignored it just the same.
"You should be impressed right now," Qiao said loudly. "I figured out how to create arrows that act like real arrows, not the exploding kind. They last for a few minutes or until I wish them gone. It's what you call precision, something you talk about all the time. But no, you're just going to sit there like the pain in the butt you are and check out of life."
Qiao turned around and faced Saga directly, scowling in disapproval at Saga's continuing silence. "You're going to make me do this, aren't you? Get all touchy-feely." She sighed. "Fine. Look, I know it's been rough. You lost a good friend, and I know you don't have many good friends, what with your winning personality and everything. And even though Arc keeps saying Nestor's alive because he still feels the connection, Heaven knows that wouldn't be enough to make me feel better. Just don't use all that as an excuse to sleep for the next year or two. You'll never hear me say this again, but we need you. So… stand up already so we can get out of here."
Saga remained unresponsive, and what little patience Qiao had to begin with was now fully used up. "What gives, Saga? I know you wake up when Nestor asks you to. What does he do, snap his fingers?"
To emphasize the point, Qiao snapped the fingers in her right hand. Simultaneously, the two energy arrows sticking in the wall behind her chose that moment to detonate.
The resulting wave of force shoved Qiao forward, right into Saga. The room went full dark as the torch stand fell over, a thick cloud of smoke obscuring the fallen embers. Qiao had the presence of mind to cover Saga defensively with her own body, though the move proved unneeded as nothing bigger than a pebble smacked either woman.
After waiting for the ringing in her ears to lessen, Qiao stood up and activated the strings on her bow, giving the room some needed light. Through the flickering wafts of smoke she saw two holes where two bull's eyes used to be. Not so wide as they were deep, as the arrows tended to funnel their explosive power forward, but the wall would need serious repair.
Qiao let out a half-laugh, half-groan. "Well, I've always told Alche that wall needed more character."
"It appears your control over your weapon remains a work in progress."
Qiao turned around to find Saga sitting on the floor, wearing a new layer of dirt on her uniform and an amused smirk to boot. Qiao kept the groan forming in her throat from getting out. It never failed – try to be a friend, no dice; give Saga something to lord over her for the next few whiles, she's wide-awake.
"How was I supposed to know that making hand gestures did that?" defended Qiao. "Alche didn't leave an instruction manual with this thing."
"Then it is best you understand your weapon more intimately before long," said Saga, standing up and brushing off loose debris from her clothes. "The sooner, the better."
Qiao caught the veiled implication in Saga's words. "Does this mean you have something for us?"
Saga nodded solemnly, her face rigid and professional. No hint at anything positive to say, it seemed, and that bugged Qiao more than having Saga ignore her juvenile disturbance attempts. Qiao thought she'd feel relieved at this point, but she now had the sinking feeling that they were really in for it, that Saga knew where to chart their next course and that their destination involved a hornet's nest, a cliff, a waterfall, or a combination of the three.
Maybe she should've let Saga meditative longer.
Qiao once joked that Saga was a machine, a bunch of cogs and wheels and pulleys cobbled together to look like a human. A weapon made of flesh and bone instead of wood and steel, one that happened to have a brain stuck on one end so it didn't have to be operated or wielded. It explained a lot of things about Saga's demeanor, and it gave Qiao a new way to poke fun at Saga.
These days, Saga wished such a jest was the truth. Weapons had no emotions. Weapons didn't feel.
Try as she might to make it otherwise, the emotionless act she had put in place since Astrid's fall and Nestor's disappearance was only an act. A few months ago, she wouldn't have had any difficulties dealing with the loss of her comrades in battle. The Gunnarr were a cold people, more so than most Viking tribes. You expected death in battle, you yearned for such a fate, and so you didn't become attached to your fellow warriors. The role of the Seer was even lonelier. The power to see the future drives away the faint-hearted and the superstitious, while it attracts those who would seek to use the visions for their own selfish ends. To be the Seer was to be isolated, alone.
Saga had gotten used to it, had prepared for a life of duty to her people. But then the Dragon Rider had come into her life. Then Astrid befriended her. Then Nestor went and changed everything else. Suddenly she wasn't alone any longer, and instead of being scared and on guard against betrayal, she found pleasure in the company of others, of using her power as a tool to help others. They did not worship her, nor did they fear her. She was not the Seer any longer – she was Saga.
And they were all gone, and it hurt. A warrior couldn't afford to feel such things, not if she planned on surviving the next battle. She understood the wisdom of her Gunnarr heritage, and she sought to turn her thoughts to ice and her feelings to stone.
It was easier to be the Seer. Being Saga hurt too much.
But she couldn't quite get back to being the Seer. Every time she caged up the grief and anger within her, it found a way out. Sometimes it came as a memory of Astrid's feeble but unwavering attempts to best her in sparring. Other times it was Nestor's feeble but unwavering attempts to get Saga to lighten up. It was the memories with Astrid that hurt more, because while she could convince herself that Nestor still lived, there was no reassurance for Astrid. She had fallen in the Repository, and the ocean had fallen in after her. She was as gone as gone could be.
So all there was for her was the present now, where she sat on a lumpy rock with a mug of water in one hand and a flap of cooked fish meat in the other, her eyes on the dying fire in the center of the camp. The fire helped to focus her thoughts on the matter at hand, instead of the other matters she didn't want to dwell on but always came back to.
Arc, Qiao, and Linebreaker sat around the fire, listening to her recite the basic thrust of her vision quest. She did not tell them that much of her meditation had been her exhausting efforts to quell her troubled spirit to the point where the vision state would take hold. She had lost all track of time in the process; it had been one of her longest stints of meditation. The sun had been high in the sky when she started. Now only the faintest of sky glow could be seen in the east. She was fatigued from her session, but sleep would not find her until she told the others what she knew.
"I was shown many things in the vision state," she explained, "and while it was more jumbled and incoherent than usual, like I was watching a performance troupe run several plays at the same time, all on the same stage, I understood one troubling certainty – the sky is still fated to come alive, and soon."
"That is not surprising," said Arc, managing to keep the skeptical tone out of his voice for a change. "The Alchemist's power remains in Cervantes's hands. With time, he will learn how to use it, and I doubt he will pass up on using such a potent weapon as The Scouring."
"I… I am not sure about Cervantes," said Saga. "He is part of the problem, but he did not feel like the force of destruction he was in my previous visions, back when he vied for the Monolith. Someone else was there, leading the charge, though I could not see the person's face in the maelstrom of images. Some things were clearer than others - I saw powerful vessels in the ocean, similar to the Zenith but not as formidable. I saw terrible, chaotic battles, on the ground and in the air. I saw two Night Furies locked in mortal combat, one covered in scales and the other covered in metal. I saw a city that could only be Riki Poka, and it was disintegrating under the might of the Scouring. I saw so many faces… too many to tell apart."
"This seems unhelpful," said Linebreaker. "Why would those who grant you these visions make it so difficult to decipher them?"
"Most days, the visions are clear," replied Saga, "though often incomplete. When I see too much all at once, it means the future is in utter chaos. Too many potential possibilities, too many forces at work. As we get closer to a definite future, my visions tend to grow calmer."
"Don't tell me we have to wait around until your visions sort themselves out," said Qiao. "That won't give us a lot of time to stop the end of the world."
"We do not have much time, regardless," said Saga. "But fear not. One of the clear moments in the chaos told me of the location of Sanctuary, as in the Alchemist's current headquarters."
"You mean former headquarters," said Arc.
Saga looked at the dragon as if thrown off by his clarification. Then she made the face people made when they thought they weren't wrong about what they said, yet couldn't come up with any memory or evidence to support it. Saga felt like what she'd said was correct: current headquarters. But the Alchemist was dead, and her visions offered no direct evidence to the contrary… although, a few times…
"Saga?" asked Qiao. "You still with us?"
Saga jerked herself out of her ruminations and nodded. "Yes, former headquarters. That is where we must go, and now I know where we must look."
Qiao frowned. "No hints about what to expect when we get there? Because I really don't want to blindly walk into an enemy camp, especially one Alche used to run."
"Some things will come back to me as we near our objective," said Saga. "As I have said, the future becomes clearer as time goes on."
"Then let us not waste any more time," said Arc. He had in one claw-hand a nautical map that Linebreaker used for navigation, one he'd been studying for potential islands that could support the Alchemist's operation in the area. It was this map he now placed at Saga's feet.
"Can you point to it on the map?" he asked expectantly.
"No need," she stated. "We do not need a ship to get there." Her eyes left Arc and settled at the top of the old low mountain that they had been camping by for almost a day. The others looked at the mountain as well, then back at Saga, then at each other, then in random directions, then finally back at Saga once they all realized what she was saying and how little sense it made.
"In the mountain?" asked Linebreaker.
"On top," clarified Saga.
"Impossible," said Arc, his skeptic's voice returning. "I flew all over this island, including the mountain. There were no indications…"
"This is Alche, though," Qiao said, studying the mountain more intently than before. "It's also her style. It's out of the way and hiding in plain sight. Anybody who knew about her old home, like me, would assume she left the island completely, not just moved to a higher elevation."
"She has a ship, Qiao," said Linebreaker. "She'd need a dock to secure it."
"This is Alche! Trust me, she likes poking fun at quaint realities like ships needing dockyards."
Arc remained unconvinced. "I repeat, there was no sign of habitation up on the summit."
"Did you actually touch down on the summit, Hyperion?" said Saga.
"No, I didn't," shot back Arc, yet the simple observation made him revaluate his conclusions. "It was an empty, barren summit… very empty…"
"A little too empty?" said Qiao. "Now that we mention it, the mountain looks a little bigger than I remember it. I thought I was having home jitters from being away for the last few years, but the mountain just doesn't seem right."
"So we're mountain-climbing, is that it?" asked Linebreaker unhappily. "I fear mountains and I don't get along."
"Why climb when we can fly?" said Qiao, gesturing to the large green dragon in their midst.
"We cannot, I fear," replied Arc. "If Sanctuary is on, or in, that mountain, then there are eyes watching the skies. My Shroud protects me from a distance, but it will not hide my riders."
Qiao's eyes got nervous all of a sudden. "By that logic, they may have seen our camp already. They may know we're here."
"I doubt it," said Linebreaker. "You don't post patrols or sentries in a location you want to remain hidden from the outside. That's smuggler's logic."
"We would have been attacked by now if we were being watched," said Arc. "I think we are safe for now, assuming there is anything to be safe from."
"There is," said Saga, as sure of this as she was of anything in her life. "For better or for worse, our answers lie on the mountain."
After naps were taken, the catch of the day devoured, and a few odds and ends acquired from Linebreaker's vessel, the camp was struck and cleaned of all incriminating signs of prior use. If surprise truly was on their side, they wanted it to last as long as possible.
It was decided that Saga would lead the way, as her visions had instilled within her knowledge on what trails to use and what pitfalls might assail them. Indeed, there actually was a trail up the side of the mountain, a faint one that the elements had almost eradicated. The fact that one even existed lent credence to Saga's story, as Qiao stated that she and Alche never had a need or a reason to climb the mountain themselves.
It really was a low mountain, a squat thing that offered a continuous array of broken rock and dead fronds. Even with the travel rough, they could easily scale the mountain in a day. They would have to spend the night on the slope, though, an unattractive idea but a necessary one if they were going to uncover Alche's headquarters.
While Linebreaker and Arc headed back to Ship to ensure it was secured for an extended stay, Saga and Qiao stood at the foot of the mountain at the beginning of the trail, staring up at it and hoping to see a clue to Sanctuary's location. A glint of metal, a fuzzy image suggesting an illusion, a gull mysteriously blowing up in midair – anything unusual or deceiving. Neither of them had such luck, nor did they expect to. The Alchemist had kept herself, Qiao, Dark Star, and all her fancy gizmos and devices hidden from the world for twenty thousand years. When it came to deception, she didn't make mistakes.
"We never did name the mountain," commented Qiao as she gazed up said mountain. "Alche thought names were for important things, and the mountain was never important. I wanted to call it Dark Mountain, because that's where Alche found Dark Star thousands of years ago. Alche didn't like the name."
"Interesting," said Saga. "She refers to herself by her title, but she named you."
Qiao hadn't thought about that. "Yeah… that is interesting." Then she gave Saga a questioning look. "You know you did it again, right?"
Saga responded with a blank look. "Did what?"
"You talked about Alche in present tense, like she's still around."
Saga thought about it. As before, present tense simply felt right. Again, she had no clear vision to back up her feeling. She shrugged in a tired fashion. "I have not slept very well as of late. Chalk it up to fatigue."
Qiao wasn't ready to let it go. Once? Sure. Twice? That was a pattern. "You'd tell me if you knew something, wouldn't you?"
"Yes," Saga emphatically said. "Why would you think I would hold back important information?"
"Well, honestly, you have that kind of face, like you know things. And I'm not sure you like me that much."
Saga looked back up the mountain, still seeing nothing to validate her visions. "When I meditate, I am not as closed off to the world as you may think. My mind exists in two places at once. Though I cannot see what transpires around me, I hear it quite well, though as if from a great distance. So I heard what you said to me in your old home… before you proceeded to destroy it."
Qiao tried to keep from looking humiliated at the remembrance of last night's follies. She did not succeed. "Yeah, about that…"
"We do not see eye to eye on many things, Qiao," said Saga, "but I do trust your intentions. I… I confess that I do not know how to deal with loss, despite having experienced much of it as of late. Rest assured, it will not impede my abilities."
"That's just it, though," said Qiao. "It should impede your abilities. You're human, Saga…" Qiao paused, feeling insecure at discussing what constituted human these days. "Humans feel and they mourn. You've lost a friend. It's okay to feel it."
Saga turned to Qiao, her eyes set firmly in her typical icy warrior persona. "Qiao, I have lost my father. My tribe has exiled me. My brother wishes me dead. I have not mourned during any of those events. Why would I start now?"
"Because I get the idea that none of that mattered as much as losing Astrid… or having the man you love disappear on you."
For a moment, something changed in Saga's eyes - a crack in the defenses, a wisp of emotion. Qiao had found a chink in the armor. There was a softer side to the warrior princess after all, despite Saga's best efforts to suppress it. But Saga was good at this game, and the crack sealed itself immediately, leaving only the Seer's frosty visage.
Then Arc's shadow passed over the two of them as he landed, and Saga used the moment to break off the conversation, discussing marching orders with a landlocked dragon. Qiao decided to let it be for now. Saga wasn't ready to talk. Besides, touchy-feely stuff really wasn't her area, and she'd screw it up eventually.
She gave the mountain one last good look. It was the same mountain she had lived by most of her life, but instead of being the boring landmark of her childhood it was something much more important… more dangerous… more sinister.
She had the feeling that this wasn't really a mountain. This was a waterfall running off a cliff where a bunch of angry hornets lived.