When the waterfall spat him out--into the pool, thankfully, and not smack into the ground--he had just enough strength to slosh up to the shore and stagger towards the half-shelter of a bunch of pine boughs before his legs failed him. That he was able to stand at all he knew ought to be a mark of pride--hours and hours of climbing stairs and bearing his shield up against the press of dragons' claws and swinging his blade again, and again, and again....The last sleep he'd gotten had been three and half days ago in the corner of a room in the Tower of Dime. IF YOU CONTINUE ANY FURTHER WITHOUT RECHARGING YOU WILL SUFFER SERIOUS MALFUNCTIONS, Marcie had said, and, unable to argue, he'd sat himself down in the corner of one of the empty rooms and closed his eyes for--two hours? three? Marcie, patient, had watched the room's doors and paid no attention to the sounds Sumo made as he jerked awake more than once from nightmares of Fuji watching with a glassy stare as he fell further and further away from her, or of her sprawled and still on the ground.
Fuji hadn't died. She was--alive. What she was now--you couldn't call it anything other than being alive, could you? And she had waited until he was out of sight to do whatever it was she’d had to do. He’d taken one last look back as he rounded the curve of the path that would lead him back to the temple and had seen her there, still herself, a faint smudge of lighter blue against the shifting flow of the waterfall, facing--he thought--in his direction and watching him go.
Exhaustion, put off for too long, was pushing him down with more force than he could fight against. His body thankfully had enough sense to let his pack drop from shoulders, pull his bedroll loose, and topple into it face-first. It smelled musty; he didn't have enough energy to turn over and away from it. He managed to drag his hand up to undo the chin-strap of his helm, and lifted and shook his head enough to rattle it loose and then up and off entirely. Then he put his head down and closed his eyes for a long, long while.
Hours passed. He knew they passed; more than once he rose up out of blackness just enough to realize he was still alive, and let himself drop back down into sleep again. When he opened his eyes again for real, it was day still--or again? It must be 'again'; the sun was lower in the east than it had been when he last saw it. He had slept through the rest of the yesterday and the whole night without waking once.
He turned his head a little and saw that his helm had rolled a ways further under the pine boughs. A squirrel was curled into the bend of its interior, nose to reddish-brown tail. Sumo shifted his weight--not a movement, just the beginning of one--and the squirrel opened dark eyes to stare at him.
He ought to get up and start moving. It wouldn't even take five minutes to sit and gently tip the squirrel out of its napping place and fold up his bedroll. A few quick actions, so familiar now he wouldn’t even have to think about them, and he'd be heaving his pack onto his shoulders and beginning to make his way towards the cliff's edge, and the long climb down. He had things to do now, surely, though it was hard for his mind to catch hold to them. Places to go, people to talk to. He could make himself sit up, no matter how heavy he felt.
Go on, get up, echoed in his head, faint as a whisper, buried so deeply it was barely a pinprick to his heart.
The squirrel regarded him a moment longer, then closed its eyes and tucked its nose deeper into its tail.
Well. Sumo didn't really need the helm now, anyway.
His let his head drop down again, and waited for the sound of the waterfall to carry him away.
Time drifted by in a soft haze, over-warmed by the lingering heat of late summer. In the first few days he slept more than he probably had in weeks, and when he was surfeited on sleep he more often then not stayed in his bedroll, eyes closed, thinking of nothing as much as he could. There was something centered in his chest that was half weight and half open wound, and any movement he made jarred it and sent a dull pain throbbing through his whole body. Even when he was awake he took to settling himself into stillness, sitting in one spot for hours until necessity compelled him to move. He sprawled at the edge of the pool and watched the shifting spray of the cataract for hours, and if that palled he let his head loll back and studied the clouds drifting through the sky until the sun began to set. The noise of the waterfall drowned out most everything in his mind; when the occasional thought began to surface that the rations of bread and dried fruit he'd bought in Ish were running low, it was not difficult to push it away. The cataract's water was clean and the pool itself was full of sleek, silvery trout that cooked quickly and well over his scraped-up firepit.
Every now and then a batling or a rabite picked its way up the cliffside, drawn by the scent of roasting fish or Sumo himself as prey. The ones strong enough to present a fight he subdued as quickly as he could, while the weaker ones--of which there seemed to be more and more, thin and weary--he drove off with the flat of the dragon-hilted sword. Excalibur he left in its sheath and wrapped; the leathery click when he drew it from its scabbard echoed oddly in his head, and the sight of the blade as a whole felt too keen to his eyes. It was better not to look at it right now.
Once or twice he felt that tiny pinprick, sometimes in his heart and other times in his brain, saying I should, I should-- But what should he, and why? There was no approach to the Tree other than the waterfall. There was nowhere else he needed to be now.
On the tenth day--or it might have been the twelfth, or the fifteenth, or the twentieth--there were no clouds to watch, and the sky was a deep blue from end to end. Eventually the ever-tumbling spray began to pall, and he began to feel thoughts creeping in on him, sharp and babbling loud enough to overwhelm. He hauled himself to his feet, and as the sun began to crest over the treetops, he made his way through the little copse of trees and towards the grey bulk of the Dark Lord’s fortress.
The portcullis was up, and the silence of the place rang in his ears. Whoever had been here--hangers-on, servants, slaves--had fled. He walked slowly through the front halls and down the stairs and winding corridors until his feet hit the sand of the arena. The underlayers were hard-packed, but the topmost was gritty and loose and entirely bare of footprints. Whatever fighting had been going on here last--slaves against beasts? slaves against slaves, or guards?--had been tumbled away by the wind.
The gate to the slave cells stood open. Had whoever been left in there forced the door open, realizing that now was their chance to escape? Had some servant or guard felt a moment of pity and pulled the bolt, swung the gate wide, yelled for any of those who hung back to run for it while they could?
The cells themselves--
They ought to feel different. He had walked and ridden more than a thousand miles now, set his feet in places he still couldn’t pronounce right, seen wonders he still couldn’t understand. This place, where he’d spent so much time, ought to feel smaller now that he knew the wideness of the world. But it was only himself that was smaller, small enough that the walls and roof loomed high and heavy enough to seem as if they’d topple in on him if he made any incautious move.
He knelt and put his hand against the stones where Will had died--but then, he thought, a little dully, it might have been a few feet to the left or to the right. The mortar around all the stones was thicked through with dirt, and it was always hard to tell old blood from the plainer grime that came from living and dying. Will, he thought. And Amanda, and Marcie, and Myritt, and Dalle, and all the others whose names he’d forgotten or never learned, who’d died choking in the arena’s sand or ended their time in some dark place underground with no one but him to know where they rested. That ache in his chest grew and grew; it seemed like it was a mass of pain and a sickening absence of it at the same time.
His left arm bore a mass of scarred white flesh near the shoulder, courtesy first of a tigerling's clamped teeth and then later a series of lucky sword blows meeting a weak joint in his armor. On good days he could press his fingers to the spot and feel faint pressure; on bad days, he'd feel nothing at all. If the world had any fairness to it, he thought, the part of you that felt loss should be the same; being wounded there again and again ought to leave it toughened and dead, so that eventually any blow that struck there couldn't hurt you at all.
Maybe now the world would have that sort of fairness to it. Maybe now, with no more Dark Lord or remnants of Vandole, the world could be true and right for those who deserved it, and if the only price was that it wouldn't be that way for him--
He stayed kneeling a long time, waiting until he he could bear to move against the pain.
That night he bedded down under the trees as usual, and dropped almost immediately into a thick and unbroken sleep. When he opened his eyes again it was to the dim glow of false dawn. There was a scent of fresh dew on the air, and he turned his head on the folded bundle that served as his pillow.
Fuji stood at the edge of the pool. Even in the weak light he could tell it was her--the gold of her hair, the thinness of her shoulders, the hem of her blue gown half-tattered from too much walking through rough terrain.
She sent a pale rock skimming along the surface of the water. The bend of her arm and flick of her hand had the sharpness of a knife cutting through the air. "I don't think," she said, without turning, "that your vow of protection included the provision that you had to stick yourself here like a statue at a temple doorway." Her voice carried clearly over the waterfall's roar. The rock she had thrown made three quick hops across the water and then was gone.
"I," he said, and was surprised to find his mouth worked. "I wasn't told not to, either," he said. He tried to push himself into a sitting position and rose easily, then stood without any hindrance. He took a deep breath in, and felt lighter than he had in days. Dreaming, then. Of course he was; it was the only thing that made sense. "If you've only got one person left to defend something, you find a good bottleneck and you put him there."
"Protecting the Tree doesn't only mean whacking anything on the head when it happens to wander this way, you know. It’s not even the most important thing," she said, and scooped another stone off the ground. "The world always renews itself for a time before it falls to chaos again. What people need to know now is that there's still a Tree, and that it has a defender. Only one person can let them know that." The stone was white in the moonlight as she tossed it from hand to hand. "It’s more weight than any one person should have to carry, I know, especially after what you've lost getting here. But you’ll never learn how to bear it if you go on this way." She gave the stone a squeeze, then lobbed it towards him. "And my mother tasked you with a message to pass on. You ought to at least do that before you think of planting yourself here like a mushroom."
"Like a tree, you mean." He caught the stone with a solid thwop. If this was only a dream, there was no reason to speak to this dream Fuji as though she weren't the real one, no matter how pointed and formal her words were. "An ordinary one. Or maybe a shrub--one of those with the pointy leaves that goes all reddish when the weather turns. There's too much light here for mushrooms."
He crooked his arm back and let the rock fly; it bounded across the water with four leaps, made one last little jump, and sank.
Fuji daintily swung her leg across the grass, leaving a dew-spattered and flattened swath under the press of her foot. "It's dampness that sets mushrooms to growing, not darkness, and this spot--" She stopped, and shook her head. "You might skip rocks better than I do, but you never did know anything about plants, did you?"
That fished a memory out of his head--in one of their first days together, when he'd scouted ahead and half-stumbled over a hollow grown full of vines with thick, pointed leaves and blossoms so bright a red they'd nearly glowed in the sunlight. He'd thought of the delicate pink blossoms in Fuji's hair, and pulled his knife to cut a handful of the vines loose.
"Fuji," he'd said, after making his way back to her. His smile had been stupidly wide; he couldn't help it. "Would you like to wear these in your hair, for a change?"
Her eyes had gone wide as she'd taken in the proffered handful of leaves and flowers, and her mouth had opened once or twice without speaking. So happy she's speechless, he'd thought, and then she'd said, with a slight quiver in her voice, "Sumo, those are Devil's Kiss flowers and you really shouldn't be touching them with your bare hands."
He'd felt his face drop with dismay, and the quiver in Fuji's voice grew into full mirth as she giggled, and then clapped a hand over her mouth to hide her full laughter, the first laughter he'd heard from her since he'd found her. And later, when his hand had sprouted up in blisters where the vines had touched, she had pulled a handful of leaves from an unassuming little plant by the path and salved the welts until they no longer stung, still with the faintest hint of a curve at the edge of her mouth.
Now, in this dream, she looked as though she was remembering the same thing. (Of course she was--he was dreaming her, she’d be thinking whatever he was thinking.)
"It was funny, and awfully sweet," she said. "That you tried, I mean, and that it went so wrong for you. But I don't think injuring yourself for my amusement is a tactic you should stick to." Her blue eyes were piercing, and brighter than they ought to be in the light of the moon. "This place isn't going anywhere. You can grieve as much as you need to, but tree or toadstool, it's me who's been tasked to put down roots, not you. You might remember that and take advantage of your feet, while you can make use of them."
Between one long blink the next she was gone, and he was waking up in the proper light of morning.
He sat up, and looked towards the waterfall pool. The muddy ground held no footprints other than his from the day before. The dewy grass stood straight and untouched.
Of course it did. Of course. But for just an instant he'd thought--
The weight of pain pressed on him, and pressed again until he had no breath. He bent his head and put his hands to his eyes.
I can't bear it, he thought. No one could. He could see another forty or fifty or sixty years stretching out before him, every day full of this pain and his clumsily efforts to stamp it down or sidestep entirely, the wound in him bleeding until all the life ran out of him for good. What was the point of using his feet, when he'd never be able to go anywhere to escape from this?
But--he had promised. And she--and his dream had been right: this place would still be here. He could drag himself up, make one last round, and come back.
Eventually raised his head again. His eyes ached and his temples throbbed badly. But the sky was overcast today; there’d be no glare of sunlight to make the headache worse no matter which direction he happened to be facing.
He toasted the last of the trail bread over the banked fire and ate every bite, swallowing carefully around the soreness in his throat, then gave his face and hair a good scrub with cold water. His bedroll and the rest of his meager supplies went easily into his pack. The helm he left under the trees for the squirrel, who had already filled the bottom of it with pine needles and tattered leaves.
When he shouldered his pack he let himself take one long second, stretching out between heartbeats, to feel the heaviness of it against his shoulders.
Then he made his way his way out of the waterfall glade and to the cliffs, and began to think about how best to pick his way down to the rest of the world again.
Jadd turned out to be the hardest place to revisit.
By all logic it should have been otherwise. But in Wendel when Cibba sat him down and questioned him on every detail of the events and what he’d seen, the process of pulling the pain out into words drained some of the sharpness from it, and the placid silence of the temple halls laid balm against the ragged edges of his thoughts. Ish brought the surprise of Sir Bogard up on his own feet again--with a cane, and moving slowly, but walking--and Bogard himself knew well enough what to ask and what not to ask. When Sumo had repeated Fuji’s mother’s message to him, he had sat quietly for a while, looking out the window to where a breakwing bird had been plucking berries, one by one, off the bush outside.
"It won't bring you much comfort now, I know," he'd said at last. "But even if they never fade, the hurts do ease."
It was like a dash of cold water, remembering that Bogard had borne up under the weight that Sumo felt now for longer than Sumo had been alive. It was hard to set his own suffering against that.
Compared to them, Jadd should have been easy. The desert sun might roast him in his armor and the chocobot's usually brisk lope slowed to a crawl as she picked across the unsteady footing of the dunes, but he knew he'd never pass a spot and think This was where Fuji and I camped for the night and she told me about when she first met Hasim or Fuji caught the hem of her dress on that cactus and I had to help her pull it loose. When he'd been here she'd been caged in that airship, heading north. She had, as far as he knew, never had the chance to see a desert in her life.
That was what undid him. He had planned to tell her about it, when they were together again and had moment to themselves to breathe. He had been storing up everything he saw and heard, all the details that he knew would make Fuji’s eyes light up and her face shift into curiosity or surprise or delight. He was going to ask her about all the things she'd mentioned or half-referenced and never had time to explain, everything about the tiny village where she’d grown up, about the time her neighbor’s cat got loose and she spent the whole day trying to catch it and the festival each year where everyone turned out to pick apples, and he was going to give her all the pieces of the world he’d seen while he was searching for her, so she could choose where she wanted to go see herself. To the east there’s a place where the ground’s covered with shells that shine like pearl when the sun hits them, and not too far from that a plain where the rocks float above the ground--and there were dragons and a man made out of fire, and a crab, Fuji, a giant crab built all out of metal.... She’d laughed at the little crabs scuttling back and forth on the shore near Wendel, when they’d stopped to look at the tidepools. "I didn't know they were so funny," she'd said, gently nudging at the crabs with her toes as the little waves lapped around her ankles. "I'd never seen the sea at all before today."
The memories piled on him, heavier and heavier; if he had been on foot and not on the chocobot, he would have been trudging in slow half-steps by the time he reached Jadd's gates. The city itself, he noted dully, was doing far better than he was, and recovering from Davias’s influence in every way possible. The second he passed through the gates he could see that the streets were busier, and buildings that’d had their windows shuttered or blocked when he last saw them now stood open to catch the occasional breeze.
Lester still kept his spot at the northern plaza, with a small crowd gathered ‘round to listen. When he caught sight of Sumo his face looked glad, then shifted a little into something both closed and curious.
The song finished in a rippling run of notes to a round of applause, and the people began to scatter as Lester wove his way through them towards Sumo.
"I thought you must still be alive," he said, and clasped Sumo’s arm with a friendly hand. "But it’s good to know it now for sure." His gaze flicked to Sumo’s side and behind him, then returned to his face. “By yourself?"
Lester’s mouth pressed together in a line, and he gave a quick nod in return. "I’m sorry," he said. "You’ve come a very long way. Let’s get something to eat and sit for a while."
They ate an early supper at a tavern near the plaza under the shade of a green and white awning. The servers brought out cups of cool water, and braised lamb and thinly sliced bread and pale green fruit on small platters that Sumo could eat from or leave as he chose. The heat, once out of the sun, was still strong but not so draining. More than once Sumo found himself trailing off into silence, but Lester made no attempts to push him back into conversation, sometimes plucking out a random, gentle run of notes on his harp to fill in the quiet. When they did speak, it was of easy, general things: the condition of the roads to and from Wendel; what the residents of Jadd were going to do about Davias's now-empty mansion--apparently there was talk of turning it into a hospital, once the remaining monsters into the dungeons were cleared out and the tunnels sealed up.
"You'd be welcome to stay and help, if you wanted," Lester said, setting his cup back on the table. “If...if you need something to put your mind and energy to for a time."
"What I need," Sumo said. The idea of it was too strange to hold in his head at all. Sir, what should I do now? he had asked Cibba back in Wendel, and Cibba had only been able to say My boy, now we and the rest of the world must work to find our own way. "It's not--it shouldn't be what I need at all. There must be things I ought to be doing now, plans I ought to be making, but the only thing I know is that she has--the Tree has to live past me." His hands wanted to clench; he made them lie flat against the scarred wood of the table. "There needs to be someone to protect it after I'm dead, and someone after them, and someone after them. She deserves that."
"You cared for her very much. Well, of course I knew you did," Lester said, as Sumo looked up in surprise. "I could tell from what you said before you left last time. Anyone could have. I'm only wondering...what was she like. What sort of person inspired that kind of devotion. Was she anything like Amanda?"
Sumo blinked, a long blink, and thought of Fuji with her flowing dress and pale, smooth hands, and then of Amanda, driving her daggers into a beast's eye in the arena, her scars and her well-worn boots. "No," he said, and then, "Yes. Not at all in many ways, but in their hearts and--and what they were willing to do. And to look at her you'd have thought she'd crumple up at the first sign of anything rough, but she never complained, never acted like she couldn’t keep up or do her part. One morning it was pouring rain and we’d barely had any sleep at all--she'd spent all night locked in a coffin--we had to go tromping through a swamp and I thought she’d put up a fuss, but she just took off her shoes and tucked up her skirts and waded into the muck like it was nothing." He stopped, a little startled. That had been more words than he’d meant to say.
"I'm sorry they didn't meet," Lester said, and then "I'm sorry I didn't get to meet her." His expression was thoughtful. "I think--if it’s all right with you--I think I'll play for her memory too."
"It’s not my objection you’d need to worry about." There was a little tightness in Sumo’s throat, and he pushed it down as best he could. “And I don’t think she’d mind at all."
"Something old, or something new?"
He had never talked about music with Fuji. Every now and then when they'd been moving along at a pleasant, easy pace, he had heard her hum a tune under her breath, lively and with the feel of a dance in its rises and falls. I should ask her what song that is and where she learned it, he'd thought more than once, and never remembered to when the chance came. What would she have liked to hear, if she had the choice?
"New," he said at last. "Something new, and not too sad."
He stayed the night in Jadd; Lester kept house in a small and neat building near the town's central fountain, and let Sumo have the spare room. The furnishings were sparse, but the room itself was well-swept and dusted, and the bedding was clean and soft.
He lay awake for several hours, his thoughts turning in too many circles for his mind to settle properly. When sleep finally dropped over him it was sudden and swift, and this time when he began to slip out of his doze he knew he was somewhere else from the first breath, his nose filling with the dry, ticklish smell of old sheets and dust. It was the scent of the bedding in Kett's mansion.
The night he and Fuji had stayed there he’d still been unused to beds at all. After years of sleeping in nothing but straw over stone a proper bed with a pillow to sink into and sheets to tangle up his legs felt half like a cheat and half like danger. He’d spent an uncomfortable hour trying to find a spot where he wouldn’t feel all the dips and rises in the mattress and fretting he’d roll off the side of the bed in his sleep, until at last he’d heard the rustle of sheets across the room, and Fuji had sat up in her own bed.
She’d wanted him to learn her curative spell, she’d said, tumbling barefooted out of her bed and coming across to his. "It’d be better if the both of us know it, in case anything happens," she’d said, and pressed the open grimoire into his hands.
He’d looked down at the stained white pages covered in even black lines. A handful of the shapes tickled something in the back of his head, and he knew them as letters, a and m and u letters he’d learned and near-forgotten from disuse, but the rest—he’d looked back up her face, which showed nothing but honest inquiry.
"Fuji, I don’t know how," he’d said, and felt the shame at failing her settle over him like a chill.
Her face had softened. "It’s--it’s all right," she’d said, and he’d known she was trying to make it sound comforting instead of pitying, which was kind of her. "It is, really. You need to be able to say the words more than you be able to read them." She took the nearer side of the book in her hand and dropped down next to him. "I’ll help you, it’s not at all hard to memorize--"
They’d sat side by side as the night spun through its early hours, him with the grimoire in his lap and she tracing the words with her fingers, saying them over and over until he could burn them into his mind in the proper order, the sound of them minted in her voice. He had never quite been able to chant the spell without thinking for an instant of all the sensations of that moment, the musty smell of the bedding and flicker of the light on the page and the press of her arm against his. And with each new grimoire he’d come across after that he’d been able to call up that memorized chant and the shapes of the letters that had made it up, and match them bit by bit to each unfamiliar scribble until they formed into words.
He was not surprised at all now, in this new dream, that when he glanced over he saw that she was here too, propped up comfortably the other bed and leafing through a book--not that same grimoire, but some massive tome that looked like it had been left out the dirt and the damp for a lot longer than was good for it.
"The music was beautiful," Fuji said, without looking up. Her face looked peaceful, and the light from the oil lamps flecked the tumble of her loose hair with gold. "That was kind of your friend."
"He’s kinder to the world than it has been to him. I--" He shifted, then pushed himself to sit up against the headboard. "I was glad to he see was doing well, and that Jadd’s getting back on its feet." He let his head drop back a little against the pillows behind him and thought of the falling water of fountains sparkling in the sunlight, the stones of the buildings and walkways seeming brighter now, the old gloom swept entirely away. "I’d have been sorry not to see it again."
"That's very sensible of you," she said. "The world is always going to be changing, you know; there's no reason for you to miss out on it." There was a shuffling of paper. "You ought to look at this, too. I think you'd find it interesting."
He peered at what he could see of the book from where he was. "I don’t think I need another grimoire right now, Fuji. Did you know--" well, of course she knew, ‘she’ was only in his head "--this strange professor sent me to an island up north so I could find the spell that would let me make things explode--"
"Which is just what you needed, I’m sure!" She had that waver in her voice again as she stood, the one that meant she was muffling a laugh. “But this isn’t a book of spells.” She held the book towards him, still open.
He took hold of the lower edge of it. The left page was full of a swirling script, neat in its individual lines but riotous in its--letters? Symbols? And the right page was an illustration, a tree--the Tree, he realized, taking in the scale of it in the picture--sketched out in a dozen shades of brown-washed ink. "What is all this?" Page after page slipped through his hands, different types of paper, that tangled script in different hands, sometimes shifting a little but recognizably the same from sheet to sheet.
Fuji’s eyes were bright over the top of the book. "Histories. Traditions. About the Tree, and the line of Mana, and the Gemma Knights. Things you might like to know. Or someone else, who might follow in your path."
He turned another page. The script, fading in places, looped like vines across the pages. He didn’t know it--there was no way he could know it--but his eyes settled on one line in particular, the swirls latching into his mind like fingers gently curling. "...I can't read this one either, but..."
Fuji curved her head up to look at him, her mouth quirked. "I can only read a little of it myself," she said. "But that’s all right; this book doesn’t exist anyway. It was just the easiest choice to show you." She let go of her side of the book and he felt the full weight of it settle into his hands. "This isn’t for me to help you with. You'll have to find someone else."
He woke with his hands empty, and sunlight beaming through the room's thinly curtained window, and a slowly unfolding realization in the back of his mind.
It was much easier now to tell where the Tower of Dime had once stood. The whole stretch of sand now sat lower than it had before, and blocks of pale grey marble, some cracked and some still whole, were scattered like broken teeth across the dip and rise of the sands.
Sumo tried to keep an image of the tower’s size and width in his mind’s eye as he paced out the site, his footprints marking off a wavering boundary. He had no idea, really, of how deep underground the tower went when it retreated, though it had to be fairly deep or the shifting of the sands under the wind would have uncovered it on its own. But anything--anyone that had been at the top when it began to collapse and sink would have almost certainly been knocked off, and been buried in the upper sand around the area and not in the depths with the tower itself. And something heavy couldn’t have drifted too far away from the tower in its fall.
All this assumed he was lucky, of course. If not....
Trailing behind him, the young chocobo made an inquiring noise.
"No," he said in reply. "I suppose it doesn't matter too much where we start."
He set his shoulder to edge of one of the fallen rocks and began to push.
All that first day he moved stones. It was slow work, since the sand was too loose and sugary to make for easy shoving or dragging, but at least there was no risk of him falling into a sinkhole. Even now and then he would uncover the napping holes of little brown and grey lizards, which scurried away at top speed, and once a dust-colored snake that flicked a tongue at Sumo’s boot before slithering off towards the shadow of one of the shifted rocks.
After a little trial and error the next morning it seemed best to let the chocobos set their legs and claws to the digging, while he swept and shifted the turned-up sand away to keep it from tumbling back down. Bit by bit they worked away at the top level of the little valley between the dunes. He kept his hood up and his eyes shaded as best he could, and during the worst parts of the heat he and the chocobos sat and rested in the bulge of shade from one of the larger slabs. It was a piece of flagstone from the tower-top; he recognized the curving chip in the middle that he’d seen up close, diving to the floor to dodge a swipe from the garuda’s claws.
Mid-afternoon of the third day he stopped in the middle of dragging the ten-thousandth bucket of sand--or maybe twenty-thousandth--and took a long, deep breath. His clothes reeked of sweat, and he had grit so deeply worked under his nails and into his palms he’d probably never get them clean again, but he felt—he didn’t have the word for it. But there was something good about the warmth of the sun settling into his bones, and the chnnk and sssshhhh of the sand, and the motions of packing the sand and hauling it away over and over and over. It was good to see those little lizards digging themselves new nests under the rocks. And he had a quiet gladness that he was doing this here and not in the Desert of Palms, where the ground was half packed sand and half loose and you could never be sure of when it would change on you.
He had a sudden thought--the line of Amanda's boot-prints stretching away in broken lines over the sand--
No, he told himself, and closed his eyes. Amanda’s face, the turn of her head, her infrequent smile—the pain of pulsed, and then lessened. He kept still and let out a long breath. The desert heat washed over him in a wave. Absent of sight, the feeling of it against his skin was almost a physical thing, a warmth he could wrap himself in. Another breath and the pain receded a little more, and he thought--he knew--he could push the memories down to rest for the moment, without guilt or shame.
A sound jolted his eyes open--a wark from the chocobot, pitching up with the tone of surprise, and the shrill scrape of metal against metal.
He picked the shovel back up, and went to see.
It was well into the evening when Sumo hammered on the professor's door.
After a long moment it opened and the professor stuck his head out, blinking. He might have been asleep or he might not; his hair and beard were always in such a riot it was impossible to tell.
"Late for making social calls, isn’t it?" he said, and then his voiced died away as his eyes caught the patched-together sled behind Sumo and what was on it. Sumo knew what he was seeing without looking. The canvas wrappings had tumbled halfway loose and left Marcie's head bare and pointed towards the sky. The blue darkness of her cracked and deactivated eye was dotted with reflected stars.
The professor’s brows drew together. "Pull her around to the workshop in the back, and let your birds loose." He sighed. "No use in making them stand in harness while we talk."
Sumo led the birds around the side of the house, one last little effort after all they work they’d already done. The chocobot was used to bearing his weight in the saddle, and had been willing enough to wear the makeshift harness and pull, but the younger chocobo had warked sadly all through the slow trip back to Ish. "Sorry," Sumo said, giving his ear-feathers an apologetic ruffle. "Whatever greens you want for breakfast in the morning, all right? Both of you."
The chocobo nipped his hand sharply enough to be felt but not to draw blood, then butted him gently with his beak. The chocobot gave her feathers one last all-over fluff to shake off the press of the harness, and the two of them took off towards the city gate. That was fine; they knew well enough not to go too far, and it wasn't as though anything out there would bother them.
Inside, the professor had brewed a pot of the dark, bitter tea that he liked to drink, and set out a dish of little honeyed pastries.
"Out there a while, were you? Your face is going to swell up a bit once that sunburn sets in." He tapped his own nose. "You should have gotten yourself a hat or a hood, or put a proper visor on that helmet of yours. I could have knocked something together for you."
Sumo sat and took a cup, letting the heat of it roll through his palms. "When I met Marcie in the Tower of Dime said you'd forgotten about her."
"Ah," the professor said, and behind the wild fluff of his beard and moustaches his face drew in a little. One hand busied itself with the mismatched crockery. “Sugar? No sugar? Can’t remember what you prefer.”
Sumo stared at him and said nothing.
The professor set the sugar bowl down. “All right,” he said. "I didn’t so much forget her as...shuffle her to a different part of my mind, you could say? I would have gotten back to her eventually." He stared down at the table, into his teacup. "Almost certainly."
He looked downcast that Sumo couldn’t keep his own expression stern. "Eventually' can be now, then. When she--before the Tower collapsed, she told me she couldn't work outside of it. That she couldn’t have left it even if she wanted to."
"Ah." The professor’s head came up a little of the glumness slipping off of his face. "She told you right. The MRCs were only made to function in the Tower of Dime. That way if anyone did manage to drag one of them out of the Tower--someone with ties to the Empire, some treasure hunter with more greed than sense--they wouldn't be able to put their skills to ill use."
"Could you change that?" He said it all in a rush, to get it out before he lost his nerve or felt too afraid of the answer to ask. "Put her back together and--and set her switches differently, or re-wire her circuits, or whatever it is you’d have to do?"
The professor’s face shuttered. He took a pastry from the dish and maneuvered it into his mouth. Those pastries came from the lady Sarah and her little niece, Sumo knew; they made a batch fresh every other day especially for him. He liked them so much, the little girl had told Sumo, because they were so sticky he had to eat them slowly, which gave him time to think.
So he let the professor chew as long as he wanted. His own cup of tea had cooled enough now that he could sip at it without burning his tongue, if he was careful.
After a few swallows, the professor cleared his throat. "Of course I didn’t think you went through the trouble of digging her up and dragging her back her just to set her up as a statue in the town square." He wiped his fingers carefully on a stray napkin; a half-sketched diagram of some wheeled contraption fluttered on the other side. "But I’m curious as to what you want from her that’d make her worth all this trouble."
"Everyone else I traveled with has their work to keep them busy, or is...gone," he said, and the last part hurt less than he thought it would. “She’d been in that tower for fifty years; she must have found and translated everything there was to find in there already. And--the Vandole Empire once covered far more land than this. There must have been other places with inscriptions or tablets, other writings from them, and other places besides the Tower with knowledge about the Tree and the Gemma Knights from before there was even an Empire." He made himself take another gulp of tea. "It might be things that you and other people would want to know, as history. And--if I knew it, it might help me with what I’m meant to do now."
"After what you've already done?" The professor's eyebrows climbed until they were lost in the fall of his hair. "I think you might know as much about being a Knight you'll ever need to."
"Even so," Sumo said, and let the sentence stand at that. There was nothing else he could add to it.
The professor studied him for a little while. "Even so," he said at last.
Over the next weeks the season rolled well into fall. They stood what parts of Marcie’s frame they could up in the workshop and hung the rest of the pieces up by braces and hooks for the Professor fuss with, and while he made notes for himself on any scrap of paper or cloth that came to hand Sumo was sent out on the chocobot with lists of things to buy or find or scrounge from wherever he could: metals to be cast for Marcie’s casings; new floatrocks to set into the joints of her arms and legs; crystals to repair her combat laser.
One morning he came back to workshop, saddlebags packed full of pure white sand to make a new eye-lens, and found Marcie's head-cap and chest-plate propped open and fragments of metal and thin cables spilled out across every flat surface of the workshop.
"Don't gawp at me like it's your guts I've pulled out," the professor said, his broad hands untangling a snarl of copper wires. Several of them had already gotten caught in his beard. "I put it all together in the first place, I know how it's all supposed to go back in. Once it's ready, that is."
"I'm not upset," Sumo said, and tried to look as if he wasn't. "It just...looks like a lot of work." Some of smaller gears were cracked or bent, and more than half the wires had been jaggedly sheered in two.
"Exactly." The professor sat back. "Which is why I'm going to do it properly, instead of trying to bang these bits back into shape." He squinted at the gear with a displeased eye. "One-point-seven grade steel? No idea what I was thinking."
So Sumo was sent off again, this time with a packet of folded papers to take to Watts and his colleagues, and Sumo spent most of two weeks lounging at the dwarven cave’s entrance listening to the clank and hiss of Watts working and watching the chocobot peck for grasses and bugs. He was still, but it was a stillness that left his mind awake, not the dull, blank absence that had laid him low weeks earlier. Every now and then he felt himself beginning to slide back to it, and then found his ear or eye caught by something: the high echoing sound overhead of geese flying south; the bending of grass under an early morning storm. It was a little easier out here than in the cities, here where there was nothing to press on him and he could feel the sun and the wind and have nothing in his ears but the rustle of leaves and the occasional buzz or chirp. Somewhere in the northern hills, he thought, the leaves were already burnished red.
He returned to Ish with the new gears wrapped in three layers of fine cotton, and spent another week fretting around the village as the professor installed them into Marcie’s new mythril-washed casing and did what he called ‘preliminary testing’. Sarah kindly took pity on him and asked him to help lay an extra patch on the weak spot of her roof, which kept him busy and out in the fresh air for most of the day; in the mornings and evenings he took walks round and round the village’s walls with Bogard, getting more and more strength back into the man’s legs.
Finally, one evening near the end of autumn, the professor said they might as well try to start her up properly.
“Most of her memory wiring and the casings for her databanks were still whole,” he said, as he led Sumo into the workshop, “and I was as careful as I could to rebuild her core matrices without erasing anything. But she took a hard fall that probably rattled around the more delicate bits, and until she’s powered up I can’t say just how much she’s going to remember, or if she’s going to remember it the right way ‘round.”
“I understand,” Sumo said. His stomach twisted a little more tightly, and he pressed a hand to his belly as though that could make the knot of apprehension loosen.
Marcie was all in one piece now, standing free on the workshop floor with her knee-joints half bent but locked and shoulders in a bulky droop. Her chest-plate stood open, the masses of gears and wires and springy bits and who-knew-what all tucked back in, and--well, it still looked like a tangle to Sumo’s eyes, but at least it was all in a single place.
The professor hooked a stool out from under the worktable with his foot and sent it sliding to bump with a clatter against Marcie’s legs. Atop it he was barely a head taller than when he stood on the ground; standing on tiptoe brought his hands just within reach of Marcie’s head.
“I could find you a taller stool,” Sumo began--better to be hunting around for furniture than standing here digging his nails into his palms--but in one sudden upward movement he managed to nudge open the top plating of the head-cap, touch something inside that gave a faint click, and catch the edge of the plating to pull it securely closed again.
A tiny bead of white light up the dome of that single blue eye. Sumo’s breath caught as the light flickered--nearly went out--then settled into a steady glow and began to move in a slow sweep from left to right, over the walls and the Professor and the worktable and the half-empty tool racks, settling at last on him.
There was a pause; he could hear Marcie’s gears clicking away inside the depths of her chest.
GOOD TO SEE YOU AGAIN, KID, she rumbled, and he let that breath go.
Two days later Sumo stood in the little patch of dirt and grass outside the workshop and watched a metallic tangle that might have been a robotic leg foot sail off in an arc, trailing a few screws; a moment later Sumo heard the plink and clatter as it hit some unlucky person’s roof.
"Right," he said to Marcie. "I think we can be sure you won’t have any trouble punching things."
The professor, after making a quick and silent check under Marcie’s chest plate--possibly to make sure that she wasn’t about to explode or go on a rampage and blast any human or livestock that got in her way--had excused himself, shoving a crumpled sheet of paper into Sumo’s hand on his way out of the workshop. When Sumo had flattened it out it turned out to be full of closely written lines, and in picking through the words they all seemed to be things to do to check that Marcie was functioning properly.
Oh, he’d thought, remembering the man’s guilty look when Sumo had said that he’d forgotten Marcie. Of course he didn’t want to do this himself. Or maybe he thought that if Sumo was going to be dragging Marcie hither and yon, he ought to start learning just exactly how she worked.
So he’d spent the first day running through as much of the list as he could manage, from the testing dexterity of each of her finger-joints to seeing how well her arms and legs stood up to someone making a determined attempt to rip them off. Determine accuracy and effectiveness of combat protocols had been rather far down on the list, and lacking any proper training dummies—which Marcie’s lasers would have torched into embers after the first round of shots--he’d raided the dingiest corners of the workshop for scraps and propped them up on the low wall outside.
Most of the scraps—the ones that hadn’t been sent sailing off into other parts of town, anyway—were now half-melted puddles of slag, which probably counted as ‘accurate and effective’, so Sumo let his eyes go skimming down the rest of list. Not only was the Professor’s handwriting a scratchy mess, the paper itself was so heavily lined from folding that it had started to go soft in places.
"'Ensure correct functioning of translation matrix,'" he read. Though how he was supposed to do that without having anything for her to translate--he could always go ask the professor, or dig around again in the workshop and see if any of his other notes had--
“Wait a minute,” he said, as a thought struck him. On the back of the paper he scrawled out a single line, laboriously, stopping more than once to correct the size of a loop or the placement of a tail at the end of a squiggle. “Does this look like anything to you?”
Marcie grasped the paper delicately in one of her large hands, and stared down at the paper for several long moments.
IT READS ‘THE WATER FINDS THE PATH THAT IT REQUIRES’, she said at last. YOUR HANDWRITING IS POOR, BUT IT IS INDEED THE MANA SCRIPT IN AN ARCHAIC FORM. WHERE DID YOU LEARN IT?
"I don’t know that I did," he said slowly, looking at the marks. Even though the air was still, his skin prickled as if it were cold. "Do you mind," he said, "that I dug you up and got the Professor to start you up again to do this? I mean, you were--well, you finally had a chance to not be tromping around translating bits of stone just because other people had ordered you to. I don’t want to drag you around the world with me if you’d rather stay here and--and laser anything nasty-looking that gets too close to town.” He folded the paper back up and tucked it away. "Or if you’d rather be asleep, and just let me come back and wake you up when I want something translated."
Marcie turned to face him, and the light in her eye flickered quickly, the way he’d seen it do when she was staring at a particularly large tablet full of half-worn symbols.
I’D RATHER BE AWARE THAN DEACTIVATED, she rumbled eventually. AND I’D RATHER BE USEFUL THAN NOT. THAT MY ASSESSMENT OF YOUR BECOMING THE NEXT GEMMA KNIGHT WAS CORRECT IS AN OPTIMAL OUTCOME FOR US BOTH.
She’d been in that Tower full of monsters for fifty years, and though parts of her fallen into disrepair she’d still been tromping from room to room and looking for interesting scribbles and relics and frying anything dangerous that got too close to her for more years than he’d been alive. For more years than he might be alive. "Marcie," he said. How long do you think you’ll keep working? was the question in his head. Another fifty years? A hundred? Longer than I’ll be alive?
What he said was, “You’ll have to promise that, if you do get tired of tromping around with me and would rather come back here and--and be a roost for pigeons, you’ll tell me.”
THE POSSIBILITY OF THAT IS 0.012 PERCENT, Marcie said. BUT I WILL MAKE A NOTE IN MY DATABANKS TO INFORM YOU, IF THE SITUATION ARISES.
The night before they planned to leave a chill settled in early. Sumo finished his packing—rations, blankets, whetstone and armor oil, the small set of tools the Professor had pressed on him ("not that I trust you to do anything major, you understand," he’d said without a hint of malice, "but even you can twist a wrench if one of her joints starts to come loose")--and tucked himself into the nest of blankets and pillows in front of the Professor’s fire. Up early, he thought, and north to that desert cave where he’d triggered the Tower of Dime’s rise; that was enough of a connection that it might be worth the time for him and Marcie to dig into, and he’d gone through the place in such a rush that he’d surely overlooked any number of things.
This time the shift came slowly; he was aware of low rush in his ears, buzzing--no, it was falling water, that was the sound of the waterfall. Was he back there again? Had he been there this whole time, and everything in the past weeks an invention of his mind?
But the water--it sounded like there was more of it--
"Not that you don’t need rest," Fuji’s voice said, clear as glass bells over the water’s roar. "But you might at least look at me a little while you’re here."
He opened his eyes, and looked up into her face.
His head was resting on the bend of her folded knees; the fine cotton of her skirts tickled his ears. He could just see, rising over her shoulder, the Tree at her back. You couldn’t even call it a sapling yet, with those spindly limbs and tiny green leaves, but it was there and growing. And Fuji looked--just the same. The same as she had in the past two dreams; the same as when he had turned to leave her. Calm, but with a set to her jaw and her eyes and her mouth that was stronger than steel, sharper than Excalibur’s blade. Even if he had wanted to take her away that day he never would have managed it. She’d set her feet where she meant to stay.
"You’ve been working hard," she said. Her hand stroked through his hair, very gently. "Do you feel better than you did? Are you glad to have Marcie back?"
"Yes," he said. "Though I don’t know if what I’m doing counts as 'the path that I need'."
"Well, if it isn’t, you can follow another." She tapped him lightly on the forehead. "I’m sure you’ll find what’s right for you."
"Fuji," he said, remembering with a near-start. "That sentence. I gave it to Marcie to translate, and she said it was Mana script. It was a real sentence."
"Of course it was."
"But I don’t know that script,” he said. “I only ever saw it in the Tower of Dime, and it’s all squiggles to me. Why would I be able to dream up a proper phrase in a language I don’t even know?"
She only looked at him, her expression serene and a little amused.
Pieces began to fit together in his mind. "Fuji," he said. "Is this a dream?"
The curves at the corners of her mouth twitched upwards a bit more. "Well, you're asleep." Her hand brushed through his hair again, soothing. "It’s just that you’re not the only one who’s dreaming this."
He took that in, and let it settle. He ought to be shocked. He was shocked; he could feel the surprise very faintly, as though it were coming from far away--and confusion, and upset, and embarrassment about lying with his head almost in Fuji’s lap. But the peace of this place draped over him like a blanket. He could barely stand to disturb it by moving; it was beyond him to be angry. "You might have said something," he said, and even if he was too relaxed to manage a true glare he did the best he could with his eyebrows anyway. "Instead of--of skipping rocks like you were on a picnic, or being cryptic about books and messages."
"I could have." She closed her eyes in a long, slow blink, and sighed. "Maybe it was wrong not to. I wanted to offer you a hand to help you back onto your feet, not make you lean on me as a crutch." Her eyes pinned him. "I can’t be the one who guides every step of your life, you know. Especially since I don’t know much more about what I’m doing than you."
“I know.” He managed to dig down enough through the layers of calm to pull out the words and say, “Fuji--I’m sorry. Not for anything I did or didn’t do, but-- I had so many things I was going to tell you, and show you. I wanted you to see the world.”
Her face stayed smiling, but the smile itself shifted into wistfulness. "I’m sorry, too. We didn’t have the time we should have." A breeze caught her hair, and made the leaves of the Tree at her back flutter. “But I can see it now, if not in the same way. We're not going to talk every time you take a nap, but I’ll be there when you need me. Remember what you were told? The Tree is the source of all life for the world. I'm part of all of it now. Wherever there's something living I'm there too, with you." Her hand settled against the side of his face. "Now go back to sleep for real, because you’ll be needing it. You have a long way to go."
The warmth of her hand resting against him, and this time there was no sudden awakening from the dream, only a slow and gentle rise towards the morning.
"I won’t dissuade you from going," Bogard said, watching Sumo lift and fasten saddlebags the next morning. The chocobot was warking a quiet farewell to the chocobo. "Though I will say you might do better to wait through the winter before you head out."
"We’ll be keep to where it’s warmer at first." Sumo gave the girth on the chocobot’s saddle on last tug. "Even if we do hit a cold spot it’s not as though Marcie’s going freeze up, and after all those days of tromping through the snow fields, an ordinary chill won’t be much to me."
"Whether it's warm or cold, take care of yourself." The weight of Bogard's hand fell on his shoulder, and he gave it a rough squeeze. "You can't be replaced so easily, you know."
"I know," Sumo said. "Believe me, I do know."
It was early enough that there were few others out and about to see him and Marcie as they left, skimming through the town's gates at an easy lope. The coolness of the pre-dawn desert air settled across him; it was still dark enough that the glow of Marcie's eye casts a faint glow ahead on the path.
"Should I lead, or do you want to?" he said.
THE CHOICE IS IRRELEVANT TO ME, Marcie said. BUT AS YOU ARE THE ONE SEEKING, PERHAPS IT IS BEST IF YOU RIDE AHEAD.
"All right," he said, and let a deep breath of the cold air settle in his lungs. If he sat very still, under the whisper of the wind and the busy clicking of Marcie's gears he could hear the far-off flow of water, and the sound of the world rushing towards a new season.
He touched his feet to the chocobot's sides, and began to ride away.