Squared Circleby Lothar Goldfist
Chapter 1"Squared Circle"
This tale of mine has a beginning.
Not many people seem to think so. If they do not see something with their eyes or read about it in their textbooks, it never happened. Ignorance. Truly, it is the only real opiate of the masses. Let them ignore what they wish to ignore. It makes it that much easier for this whipping boy to slip the knife when no one is looking.
My reign of terror was born out of ignorance. Thousands would fall by my hand, and it would keep getting funnier each and every time I bore witness to it. But death, in its own right, was never enough to amuse one as restless as myself. So the thousands became hundreds of thousands, and then unto millions, until the sheer enormity of death carved furrows into the earth, sank and tore civilization asunder. My world, my legend . . .
Legend. Man does not know the meaning of the word.
Legends are not made by men of morals. Clemency? Good will? They are not the things that raise statues or write history books. Legends exist to endure, to conquer, to rip apart and tear away the weak so that they may sear their way into heart and stone alike for all time. This was my legacy, my beginning.
It was also my end.
All things end, however, so that they might begin anew in some other way or form. Ignorance will come again, and that ignorance will be my ticket home . . .
* * *
The matron mother tried to smile as her eyes, clouded by cataracts, passed along each of the mementos of her room at the former orphanage. The painting on her wall, the clock at her bedside, the sword that hung around her headboard which she may have wielded when younger. Once upon a time, she might have been able to associate each trinket with a face she had known in her early years, some place she had once explored that no longer existed. Now she afforded none of them much more than a passing glance, scrutinizing their meaning as though they belonged to a total stranger. Insofar as she knew, they probably did.
Take only what will sustain you on the trip. Those had been the words of their caravan's leader. But who was to say what sustenance meant anymore?
A worn and crooked limb, spotted with age, finally emerged from the sea of voluminous black velvet that was her traveling cloak. Wrestling for a moment with small hands that quaked from arthritis, she was finally able to pick her faded leather knapsack up off the floor. All of her effects were in order. There was no point in bringing anything else. Whatever power those knickknacks once held over her, they were no longer present. That was another person now.
"Matron! Is there anything I can help you with up there?"
She paused for a moment at the sound of the woman's voice, consciously struggling to find some context in which she might recognize her caretaker of over thirty years. When remembrance once more eluded her, all she did was shake her withered white head in defeat. With slow, measured footsteps, the matron eased her careful way down over the rickety stairway. The whole house around her appeared as every bit infirm as she was, from the creaky oak steps which bore her up to the worn yellow planks of the walls she now turned to for balance. She was glad that the day was calm. One stiff breeze could have been more than enough to take the house right out from under them.
"What? Matron!" The middle-aged woman by the stove turned heel in a flurry of panicked activity, helping her down over the last few risers of the stairway. "You shouldn't go doing that without my help, especially in your condition. It's dangerous!"
"Oh, please," the old crone barked, suddenly regaining some of her lost wind. "I'm not a complete invalid yet. I can still do some things for myself, you know."
"Yes." She sighed the word more than spoke it. "Yes, I know."
The matron of the house studied her reaction. She had to have been in her early forties, with a refined, windworn look about her face. Crows feet teased at the corners of her eyes, while the tawny brown of her shoulder-length hair was beginning to show traces of gray on and about the widow's peak. Had her contrary nature and intermittent forgetfulness put those features there?
"Did you forget anything?" her caretaker quickly put in.
Everything, she felt like saying, but shook her head instead.
"Well, that's good." She helped the senior settle herself into a chair and went to pour her some broth from the pot. "You'd best eat up, then. We have a long trek ahead of us, and you're going to need your strength."
She fought briefly with the spoon before finally succeeding in getting some of the soup and vegetables into her mouth. "Where are we going?"
The woman kept her convalescence, more than aware of her failing mental health. "To the new city, mother. Don't you remember? There's a nice scientist waiting for us who can help you with your condition."
The details of their journey were already forgotten. "Mother? I'm your mother!"
"Yes," she replied, then added, "I mean no, not technically. You were the mother of the orphanage before we all grew up. You took care of us, and now we're taking care of you."
The old woman stared at her for one long, silent moment. "What's your na--"
"Poline," was her reply, even before the question was entirely off of her tongue. She knew this game, knew it all too well. Discussion of any kind was always the catalyst, forcing synapses into firing where few were still functional. As a result, the more questions she asked, the more information she forgot. It was an ugly cycle that Poline and the others sought desperately to end. "My name is Poline, mother. Now, please . . ."
"What's the name of this city we're going to?"
"What? Well . . . Midgar."
"What's my name? And what is this place we're in? Where is every--"
"Mother." Poline reached across the table and took the matron's wrinkled face into both her hands. "You're confused right now. Okay? And I know that must be very frightening, but none of us are going to give up on you. That's why we're taking this trip. Now, drink your soup. Please? For me?"
The woman's eyes became pleading, even close to tears at having to see one of her oldest friends reduced to this state. The matron at last took her spoon back up, humming with fright and teetering back and forth on her chair as she fought to finish her meal. When it appeared as though the herbs were succeeding in somewhat pacifying her, Poline picked herself up from the table and made way for any sanctuary that didn't have half-timbered walls.
A little ways away from the house, strewn off to the side of a beaten-down footpath, a herd of chocobos with manes of blue and black warked and scuffed at the ground with quiet impatience. Each one was reined comfortably to a series of tented coaches, where the last of the town's orphans scuttled back and forth to make certain all of their cargo was secure for the trek. In spite of their mother's failing health, their spirits were dauntless. Maybe it was just the thrill of finally leaving the nest that excited them so. Poline just couldn't find it within herself to share in their enthusiasm.
"Watch it with those perishables!" her husband roared at one of the younger ones. "You smash that crate and that's a day's worth of rations we'll be without!"
"Thom, don't be so hard on them." She rubbed a hand up against the back of his tunic as he tossed another bedroll into their coach. "Have you forgotten already how the matron used to care for us?"
"Quite the opposite." He turned back around to face her, his thick peppered beard doing little to mask the sunken tiredness of his face. "The matron is the only mother I ever had, and I don't want anything to happen to her."
The troubled look on his face mirrored her own, and for a moment the entropy of the situation made the other orphans stop what they were doing. A simple look from their caravan's leader sent them all scurrying back to the task at hand.
"I take it from the look on your face," he said, "that things aren't going any better between you and her."
Her bottom lip quivered slightly, but she suppressed it. "We'll have to leave soon if there's any hope left of helping her at all. We'll start out just as soon as I take her up to the cemetery one last time."
The coldness started to creep back into her husband's voice. "What possible reason could have have for taking her up there?"
"She asked me once when we were younger that if it ever came down to it and she started to forget the ones she had already buried, I was to take her up there one last time to say goodbye to them."
Thom smiled, his cold shoulder having suddenly thawed. "Does she remember the promise you made to her?" he asked, not at all sounding bitter or sarcastic.
"I remember," she told him. "That's all that matters."
The afternoon dwindled quickly, with a pale white sun constantly punching at the sullen gray skies but never able to penetrate them. Thom waited down at the base of the promontory while Poline lead their ageless matron arm-in-arm up towards the top of the rockface. At its zenith, small cairns with simple headstones ran in a circle along the verdant ground around them. Wincing slightly from the bitter sting of the wind, the more elderly of the two bent on wounded knee before the marker closest to them.
"I've . . ." she began, then closed her eyes as though looking within for the proper memory. "Have I been here before?"
"Many times," Polina said to her, trying to lighten the emotional blow as much as she could. "Each time another friend leaves for the next world, you say goodbye to them here."
She could feel the memory. It was close by, with its hand lightly brushing her shoulder but never squeezing it in support. It simply lingered like a shade, only barely conscious of its own existence. The matron's hand probed the headstone, trying to make out its inscription. Too many decades of wind and erosion wore the cracked tablet thin, the name and epitaph all but erased. Her jittery, palsied fingers skirted lower down the marker, pushing back the dirt and moss where exposure to the elements was lessened. Her nails traced out what words were still readable, and an incalcuable grief abruptly tore at her chest.
. . . pure as snow . . .
"I'm ready to leave now," she said to Poline without turning to face her.
"Now!" Sadness cracked her voice.
Thom watched the scene unfold with silent sympathy. When it appeared as though they were through paying their respects, he gave their town one last look. Nature was already laboring overtime to take downwhat was left of the old, two-story townhouses. Most of their foundations bent and leaned at strange angles, with alders and vine already creeping across unswept porches and staring windows. Nothing much remained of it now but memories and soon, he realized, they would fade too.
* * *
Hojo watched with quiet vigil and laced fingers down upon Midgar from the 42nd floor, expecting to see something stew within the milling masses that was worthy of his attention. This floor was, as alleged by the tower's architects, to be the floor where one could ‘see it all happen'. Not quite near the top nor the bottom, it gave spectators a nominal view of each of the city's eight sectors without being too far above them to make it all seem frozen in time. Even through the jungle of steel and asphalt that latticed each plate, he could see men walking their dogs in sector five, an old man haggling for produce in sector two, even a lovely, dark-haired girl trying to peddle flowers in sector three. It was, simply put, the perfect place to keep an eye on everything.
So the architects had been right, he thought someone contritely. What of it? It wasn't as though they had constructed the spire themselves, despite their insistence that they had. Everyone knew the tower had been found abandoned decades ago and that a city grew around it brick by brick ever since. He hated it when others took credit for things which they, themselves, had not achieved.
"Mr. Hojo . . ."
Speak of the devil.
"Mr. President," he replied, ignoring the fact that he had not been addressed by his official title. "I'm glad that you could see me on such short notice, sir. You have a wonderful view."
"I haven't any time for pleasantries, Hojo, I'm a busy man." Which, thought the doctor, was evident from the man's rotund waistline and toro-red armani suit. "You've done an admirable job with ‘Project: Lifestream', but now I need to know exactly how plans are proceeding for the protection of our investment."
Hojo visibly strained against the impulse to hit him. The mako industry had not yet been a decade old and President Shinra was already holding a monopoly over resources which he, himself, had perfected. Once more, he placed his hostilities for this man to one side.
"Yes," said the doctor, "Of course, your insurance policy. Well sir, competition in the mako field is minimal at the moment, seeing as how all files for mako extraction are under lock and key. And while Turks, practical though they may be . . ."
"Skip to the end, Hojo."
The doctor nodded. "The plan, sir, is to step mako research up a notch . . . with experimentation on another humanoid."
President Shinra reacted this time, as though Hojo really had struck him. "That's a bit of a drastic step to take, given the circumstances. I mean, can those principles really--"
"They can." Hojo smiled, unfastening the topmost button of his labcoat so that his chest might swell out more easily with pride. "And if all goes the way I think it should, this next one will be ready in a matter of days."
The president was positively flummoxed. His jowels almost seemed to contract back in along either side of his jaw.
"Is it a he or a she?"
"He," Hojo repeated. "A very special ‘he'. His primary gestation period has come and gone already. I'm confident that in the next couple of days, we'll see his power unfold firsthand."
Contempt burned in President Shinra's eyes. "And you've been holding him back all of this time? My administration needs to be advised of these kind of experiments ahead of time, Mr. Hojo. Any unexpected side effect, even a small one, could compromise everything."
"I'm aware of the risk, sir." Across the large panaflex room, two Turks still with their sunglasses on shifted along either side of the door they guarded. "And with all due respect, greatness has subtle beginnings in Midgar. You can rest assured, though, that Project Palazzo will not be a liability to your investment. In fact, he may pleasantly surprise you."
"It has a name then, does it?"
Hojo beat back a bang of his dark, cropped hair in mild frustration. "Yes sir, he does. It's customary, after all, for scientists to label their experiments."
If the doctor had been hoping to elicit another surprised or disgusted look on the president's face, he would be disappointed. He merely turned on the balls of his leather-clad feet for the exit while the two Turks held the large double doors open for him.
"If I regret this, you regret this Hojo," he replied over his shoulder. "And I'll have that ‘project' of yours put down like a rabid dog."
Hojo wouldn't let his closing remark faze him. He merely returned his gaze back to the cluttered throughfares and seething smokestacks of downtown Midgar.
"Not likely," he replied calmly to his reflection.
* * *
"Are we close?"
Poline frowned at the young boy's question, having heard it being asked at least three times a day for four days straight. Having to endure the nettlesome rationing of sundried preserves as well as the scorching touch of a crimson sun made it all the more difficult to tolerate. Thom strode aside her in the coach at her left flank, breaking the monotony of squeaky axles and trotting hooves whenever it was the inevitable question arose.
"We'll get there when we get there, Jacob," he barked without turning askance from the trail ahead. "The city's not going anywhere."
The tarpaulin of the wagon behind him was suddenly pulled to one side, revealing a plump young girl with olive skin. "Uncle Thom! It's the matron! She's not well!"
Both coaches ground to a dusty halt, with Poline already up over the stage and crawling in behind her husband in frenzied distress. The matron rested as comfortably as she could in a bedroll aboard a constantly shaking wagon, only now she seemed comfortable enough to be comatose. Thom checked for breath. Then, for a pulse.
"Get back!" he told the others, pulling the worn leather jacket from his shoulders and bunching it into a crude pillow beneath her head. "Poline, get some remedy!"
Bodies moved around him in a confusing waltz as the bearded townsman fought death itself to spare his surrogate mother. He pushed a solid breath in through her lungs, then several stern axehandles down upon her chest. When he found that his actions were for naught, he repeated them with a longer, more desperate momentum. From somewhere nearby, he could hear sniffles and strangled sobbing. He couldn't be certain if it was some other orphaned child or himself letting emotions get the better.
"Confound it all! Don't you leave us yet!" Poline was back by his side with a bottle of dark fluid clutched in her hands, hands which now trembled no less than their matron's did on the best of days. "We still have a debt to repay to you! Don't do this to us!"
At last, her withered eyes flung open, with century-old lungs sucking in dry, stapled breaths. Relief washed over as Thom and Poline sat her up on the cushion, spoon-feeding her serum which would help to preserve her life for several more days.
"Mother?! Speak!" Poline touched her shoulders, searching the vacant stare for some sign of recognition. "Give us some sign that you're okay, please!"
The matron stared, as though noticing the man for the first time, then relinquished the stare in bitter defeat. Angered, Thom stormed back out over the stage, his patience in the whole ordeal worn to its breaking point.
"Stay with her," Poline told the others.
Heading out herself, she found him standing some yards away, out upon a cleft ridge of rock that looked out over the grassy valley below. Even from a distance, she could make out the gleam of a small, silver flask that juggled to and fro between his hands.
"You promised me you were going to quit," she said, not moving from her spot.
"Same as I promised her," he replied, his face torn by guilt and sorrow. When at last he turned around, his smile was almost transparent. "Guess I was just hoping you'd have forgotten as well."
"Come on, Thom. Don't be like that." She went to his side, taking the hand that wasn't currently holding the flask. "The day was going to come sooner or later. We should have been preparing for it."
"I don't want her to leave until we've had the chance to repay her, to give her back the memories she's lost. It's the least we can do for all she gave of herself for our well-being."
"You're not telling us anything we don't already know, Thom. But we don't have control over these kind of things. No matter what we do, these may very well be her last days." She sat down upon the outcropped stone, legs hanging out over the precipice. "I blame myself, really. The second we caught wind of Gast's research on memory retrieval, we should have made tracks for Midgar. Now, we may be too late."
Thom had had similar sentiments as to their delayed departure, though decided it was best not to say anything about it. There'd have been no way to voice such frustration as his anyway. Most all of what was left of their legacy was drifting lazily along each of the eight winds now, holding no ties with their past whatsoever. His marriage with Poline, while never unhappy or heated, bore them no children. And now his caretaker, the only mother he had ever known and only connection any of them had with the past, was about to leave forever.
Their legacy was about to end, and there was no feeling in the world quite so intimidating.
"Are we close?" Thom heard himself say.
Poline squinted at the relentless light of the horizon, trying to gauge distance in the wake of the failing sunset. Against the disparity of coming dusk, she glimpsed what appeared to be a large spire, eclipsed with gray mist. Crouching low to the rockface, she could start to make out the four pronged logo of Midgar's epicenter of operations.
"We're pretty close," she assured him, heading back for the coaches.
* * *
The journey weary caravan hadn't come within half a mile of the gargantuan city of metal before they took notice of the sky darkening. Still mid morning, this came as unusual to both Poline and Thom - until the smog and reactor emissions brought about fits of uncontrolled coughing from the group. Thom stopped his animals in mid gallop for one brief moment, his head sinking into his lap as he shifted the keffyieh around his neck to cover his mouth and nose. He called out to the others to do the same.
"And make sure those tarps are stretched tightly across the coach!" he called to Poline, voice muffled beneath a thin film of bandana. "I don't want the Matron breathing in any of those fumes until we're well beyond the outskirts of Midgar!"
"Do you think that will really make any difference?" Face partially obscured by the sky blue of her own keffyieh, Poline joined her husband on the ground as they moved to walk their beasts the rest of the way to the city threshold. "It could only be worse as we go further and further into Midgar."
"I know," Thom said to her. "Wouldn't that be the day? If time doesn't take the Matron Mother from us, a couple polluted byways could."
"We don't have to settle for this place, you know." She regarded her husband admiringly out of the corner of one eye, unable to turn entirely away from the sheer size of Midgar's entryway. "The inhabitants of Cosmo Canyon are well-known for their herbal medicine. They may be able to help better than Midgar can."
Thom's eyes watered slightly in the wake of airborne toxins. "That's too far to the west of us. The Matron may not have that long. No, this place is her last hope."
And so, they pushed on.
Entry into the vast, sprawling metropolis was no trouble for them. Still a city in need of expansion in its many employment sectors and para military branches, considerable bodies of men and women still commuted into the city each week. Rumor had it that once Midgar's need for populace was met, it would effectively end its open-door policy. As of yet, no such problem existed. The first ten feet of Midgar was evidence of the contrary for Thom. People were everywhere in those dimly lit streets, clogging up commons and throughfares, some with large crates held aloft over their heads, others uttering profanity behind the wheels of cars as they made their way across the sector - all of them faceless and in desperate need of retreating from wherever it was they were. The sun, they were all quick to realize, suddenly vanished from the sky. The first thing to cross Poline's mind was that they were having an eclipse, until the clamor on the plate above theirs told them otherwise.
"This place is a zoo," she said, unsettled by the scheme of the place. "How are we supposed to find anyone in this mess, much less a doctor?"
"Keep watch over the wagons for a moment." So replying, Thom handed the reins over to his wife before crossing the street they were on. The first one he was able to single out among the masses was an oriental man on the corner trying to sell poultry. "Excuse me . . ."
The short, beady-eyed man reared upon Thom in an instant, holding up a grilled chicken as though it were his most prized possession and gibbering in a thick Wutai dialect that was practically incomprehensible.
"Twenty-five gil!" was the only thing spoken which Thom could readily understand. "Buy or go!"
The aroma of the roasted meat threatened to seduce the plainsman, but his concerns came back to the enfeebled woman waiting for him in his coach. "I don't want any chicken. I'm looking for sector seven. Do you know how to get there?"
"Want pheasant?" The vendor put the headless bird back on the rack and starting waving a slightly smaller one out at Thom. "Have pheasant! I sell for twenty gil! Buy or go!"
"No!" Thom growled, losing his resolve. "Not pheasant! Seven! Do you know how to get to sector seven?"
He was about to try and articulate each syllable when the sound of a gunshot had him scrambling for cover. Seething hot steam shot out from a flow valve just about the Wutain's stall, causing dozens of passersby to scream and push each other out of the way. The vendor tossed the dead pheasant to one side and, with wrench suddenly in hand, he jumped up on a stool and started tweezing the manifold shut again. Thom used the opportunity to slink away from the picture and back to where the others waited for him.
"Seems like info comes in small doses around here!" He climbed back about his wagon, untying his keffyieh in order to sop up the sweat that had since begun to bullet across his forehead. "Unless it's bought or bartered for, it doesn't exist."
Poline bit her lip in thought. "Maybe we could barter with the chocobos. That would probably get us as far as Hojo."
"No!" cried out of the younger ones inside the coach. "You can't give Boco away! We're friends!"
"Doria, I told you to keep those tarps closed! The matron can't breath in these fumes!"
Eyes wreathed in tears, she did as she was told. Thom and his wife exchanged a desperate glance as the harsh, frenzied ambience of the sector buzzed and flitted all around them.
"What do you think?"
The inquiring stare Poline afforded him only seemed to deflect Thom's question back at him. Unbeknownst to either of them, across the square and staring out with his only remaining eye from a shadowed alleyway, one lone Avalanche member heard everything. The ocular lens in his blue looking glass zoomed in upon the two weary-looking travelers. No one traveled anywhere by caravan nowadays, not in this golden age of automobiles and airships. From the state of their clothes and the shoddy workmanship of their wagons, he was able to put two and two together for himself. The right people . . .
But atrocious timing.
"Maybe there's a pawn shop around here somewhere." Thom pulled his packsack over a shoulder as he readied himself to do some more exploring. "You and the others should find an inn somewhere until I get some more information."
"No," Poline told him, "I'm staying with you."
The one-eyed Avalancher skirted hastily across the square, shoving people aside unceremoniously in the process. Panic seized him. Was she aboard one of those coaches? The blast would surely kill her if that were so, and steadily his pace quickened.
"Poline, it wouldn't be safe for the little ones, or the matron. We have to think about them."
The once-passive observer jumped over a fruit stand, littering produce and several patrons onto the cobbled square as he was going. His heart thundered in his chest. Very close, now. But close, he knew, only counted with horseshoes and hand grenades. If he failed her now, if he failed ‘them' now . . .
Thom turned in his place, his wife's heated arguing momentarily forgotten. Squinting, he was barely able to make out a dark-haired man with a patch over one eye cutting an anxious sway through the populace, beelining straight for them.
He spoke without turning. "Honey?"
". . .and die and we wouldn't even know what happened to you!" She momentarily put her lecture on hold. "What! What is it?"
But by then, the Avalancher had already caught up with them. Chest heaving, his words came out mostly as a series of harsh exhaling. "Thom . . . and Poline . . . I presume?"
They looked at each other, then back at the man.
"How do you know our names?"
Without answering, he was already pulling Thom's knapsack off and putting it back inside the coach. "There's no time to explain! We have to get moving! This whole square is rigged to explode in less than a minute!"
But Thom had seen enough of Midgar in the last ten minutes alone to question the man. He appeared easily ten years older than either of them and his face, while somewhat drawn and grisled, was just as sharp and notched as any sword. He pushed his way onto the coach with Poline, ordering for Thom to keep up.
"Hey! But wait! Who are you? Where are we going?"
The next moment or so passed by in a blur. The coach ahead steared its rickety way into an alley adjacent to them and was then dipping violently downwards as though over a steep ravine. The chocobos whinnied along the riven gravel path but stormed ahead all the same. Ahead of him, barely perceptible but nonetheless present, he could see their one-eyed assailant checking a bright green palm pilot where a figure was gradually recycling to extinction: three . . . two . . . one . . .
A fierce blast of hot air and white flame lashed at the tunnel walls, with force enough to rip the shaft from the earth completely. Frenzied screams and panicked warking followed for at least a whole minute afterwards, then a perplexing silence took lease over the cavernous recesses. Throughout it all, the one-eyed Avalancher stared with his one eye at the destruction he had wrought upon his adoptive city. Dozens, if not hundreds, would be dead. Half a city block would be decimated.
And Shinra would be one step closer in understanding her desire for peace.
* * *
Her desire for peace.
The matron could barely recall ever having put up the fight in the first place. Scarce could she be certain even of the jarring explosion that had rocked the coach surrounding her, even though it had been less than ten minutes ago. All she could be sure of now was whatever she could cling to or, as was the case for the sobbing, screaming children bouncing around the wagon, whatever it was that clung to her. She patted them reassuringly, able to somehow sense doing it before at some point but never fully capable of determining exactly when or with whom.
Minutes started to pass her by, with each one as new and undiscovered to her as the one which had come before it. The chaos which had eclipsed the minds of the younger ones in her midst began to find comfort beyond the dim echo of the passing explosion. The matron yearned for sleep, for some place where she might be unfettered from her undying state.
Death, the great release, was often compared to a journey, and the journey to a train. She strained visibly to recall the tale. Detached though she might have been from her memories, her guardians had spoon-fed her the parable of that train since she was old enough to walk. Surely, she could remember something as innocuous as the name of a train, of the vessel of souls to the next life...
. . . Phantom Train . . .
A chill suddenly filled her coach. She couldn't be sure, but somewhere, she felt a train derail.
* * *
As the thoughts of a long-forgotten savior drifted, the plates dividing sectors six and seven trembled with a forsaken and terrible power. The first district to feel it was the commons. Vagabonds and blue-collar commuters were quick to dismiss the racket as an imbalance of mako extraction. It was the way in which the Golden Age of materia typically worked, as most any wonder or oddity nowadays could be directly explained (and easily dismissed) through mako. Out with the old and in with the new. It was ever the cyclic way of things, vastly unpredictable and yet equally organic.
An unbroken cycle, until that very moment.
The explosion rocked the boundaries of the two sectors down to their very foundations, ripping apart and vaporizing a large swath of sterile earth amidst heaps of metal scraps and rusted out locomotive husks. The infamous Train Graveyard of Midgar was momentarily awash with the color of lifestream as the riven landscape fought the uphill battle to heal itself. As it did so, tendrils of the mystic radiance started to weave together an amorphous shape within the terran geyser of power. Points of light and energy danced and converged, filling a suddenly humanoid form with mass - and then, volume. Iron boot heels only recently remade stepped out into the ashen ground, leaving a set of flaming red footprints in their wake.
Color soon joined with the empty vessel, as every conceivable tint of unrefined mako filled the empty recess: a cascade of curled amber locks reigned together, commanding the form's once-naked scalp; the gleam of ruby summoned life anew to its eyes, fanning out into a rictus jester grin across its pale face; and finally, lifestream itself swirled in a wide arch around the man's sculpted physique - sheltering him, completing him.
He looked around.
Memory was not so quick to reshape itself in the resurrected man's mind. Only half a thought, less than a spark enfeebled by cold shadow, would surface. Warcries - a battle! Yes. One veiled by thunder and darkness. What had become of him after that battle? The last thing he could remember seeing was some dressed-down relic hunter leaping into the air and lashing him across the midsection with a blade of golden light. The jester man winced inwardly, as though the sword still pierced his side. Could that miscreant still be around here somewhere? Could they all still be around here somewhere?
He took several more cautious steps towards one of the abandoned railway cars. It sparked nothing. Just a railcar. His eyes ventured, then, further away from the graveyard, noticing for the first time labyrinthine grids of metal gangways and python-like conduits which snaked down through the earth he stood upon.
Who could make such a nightmare of this land before he had a chance to?
"Shhhh, don't give us away."
The blond man stiffened, feeling his joints creak for the first time. It seemed like decades had gone by since last he had used them.
"Okay, okay. But I got dibs on his cloak."
He pivoted, spinning on the balls of his feet. Those voices. Where were they coming from? What did they want from him? Realization seized his bones. The Returners. They were still here, ready to finish the task they had started!
A stray body suddenly flung itself at him, knocking him off balance. A second and third followed suit, bearing down hard with punching fists and stinging daggers.
"Looks like you caught a train into the wrong part of town, stranger!" one of them jeered, earning him fits of laughter from the man and woman in his company. "But that cloak and those boots could buy you another day's impunity!"
The painted man puzzled over this statement. Maybe it was just dark. Maybe he was under one of their spells. Maybe the destruction he had wrought upon this world had been so great that his enemies were far worse off that he had realized. Assassins and plunderers, however, the Returners were not. Something was amiss . . .
"You will fail," he warned them, face twisted with rage, "Just like you failed the first time."
An amused confusion settled over the faces of his three assailants. The woman, her own face partially obscured by shadow, spoke first. "If we had jumped a circus freak like you before, I'm sure we would have remembered."
"Yeah, really," the third chipped in. "Kinda hard to forget a face as ugly as yours."
The jester was suddenly smiling. Because he knew. He could suddenly make out the forest from the trees. These were not Returners. They may have been suffering from the same deplorable fashion sense, but they were nothing other than vagrants - directionless, with no power to call their own. As if to demonstrate, he took hold of the blade held firmly against his throat and pulled it back with little or no effort. His attacker tried forcing the dagger back down again, an effort which split the blond man's face not in agony but with laughter.
Shrill, piercing laughter.
Vision blurred in the wake of the jester man's agility. Blinded by his own forward momentum, the thief who had first accosted the former tyrant felt his knife stray from target and disappear harmlessly into the dirt beside them. No time was wasted, as he then seized the vagrant into a vice-like headlock and hoisted him up off the ground. His legs flailed, sending a kick crashing into the face of each of his two accomplices and knocking them backwards. Reclaiming the lost knife, the jester straightened his helpless attacker with a hair-pull and slashed his throat out from under the jaw. A spout of crimson gore spewed out, killing the man where he stood.
This, thought the blond man with a hum of bliss, was sparking something.
The second of his male attackers roared and charged, wielding what appeared to be miniature pickaxes. He shook his head. His swipes were frenzied and chaotic, driven more out of hatred than any desire for striking true. He skirted left, then right, then left again. Not a single swipe found its mark. Finally, the sardonic looking clown locked wrists when the blades came around the next time, keeping the bloodthirsty man in his place. Spinning out and then away, he inverted the hold and jumped. A wretched cracking sound, joined with the roars of anguish, rent the air as the man's kneecaps shattered from the kick. With the grace of a trapeze artist, he flipped over the now-genuflected man - the pickaxes suddenly under his control.
Each one found their mark - into the man's eye sockets.
The lone woman of their company, now all that was left, saw not one second of the carnage unfold. She lay a little ways away from the jester's meddling, spread-eagled beside the remnants of a long-defunct diesel engine. Tears courses from her eyes, blood from her nostrils. It was everything she could do not to scream as she heard her companions become undone. She cried out for her mother, needing her now more than ever.
"Oh mother, I'm sorry . . ." A set of cold, tight hands made their way up across her face, smeaing the blood into a mask of horror. She willed herself not to look up at the man. "I'll come home, I'll be good from now on. Please help me . . ."
Caustic chuckling was the only answer she would receive. This time, she couldn't help but look up. He was there, upon her, with a look like fast culminating ecstacy rippling across his red/white face. Cold terror creeped up her spine.
* * *
Kefka lingered for the briefest of moments, nursing the dead, gory face between his palms, delighting in its clammy, bloody texture. Delighting in its lifelessness, in nothingness.
"Still got it."
* * *
Curiosness snaked back around the matron's world less than an hour later, and by then the steady gallop of their beasts had slowed to a trot. Up front, hushed, friendly words could be heard being exchanged between Poline and their one-eyed savior, pleasantries and explanations she would undoubtably forget before their trek ended. Her left side started to cramp up from lying in such a fashion for a prolonged period of time. The movement to try and reorient herself got the attention of several orphans nearby, who were quickly stirred into assisting her.
"I think she's coming around," Doria called out to the drivers of their coach.
"Let her know we'll be there shortly." Poline pulled the flap tight, so that none of the little ones would hear her. "Not that she'll really remember being told in the first place."
"I must apologize for the deception," Tedrin remarked without looking at her. "You and your caravan have been through too much to be lead around by people like myself."
"So, professor Hojo never had any intention of helping us, did he?" Poline's eyes strayed across the slums of Midgar, given an all too painful reminder of the place they had once called home. "Tedrin?"
"No." Seeing an ailing child out of the corner of his one remaining eye, he smiled and tossed her the Heal materia he had looted from a brothel owner in sector four. She giggled and catched it. "Hojo's only passion is whatever specimen he works to perfect. He cares nothing for the troubles of others."
"So, does that also mean there's no treatment for the matron's condition?" At a place where the slum roads started to fork out, Thom finally found leverage enough to pull out beside them. "Hey!"
"Sorry," said the Avalancher, gyrating so as to acknowledge the plainsman. "My hearing isn't so good in this ear."
"A treatment!" he growled. "Is there one waiting for her?"
Tedrin was taken aback somewhat from the villager's hostility. He wasn't sure whether to consider it good or bad, whether their concern for the matron was genuine or just so overbearing that it would become a liability to her treatment.
"I wouldn't invite harm to a former savior of this world unless I knew for sure I could assist her. She means as much to me as she does to you." Taking the reins from his wife, Tedrin spurred their wagon to a slow gallop along down the westernmost route. "Go out on a limb of faith every once in a while, sir. You'd be surprised as to what kind of allies you stand to gain from the deal."
"It's hard to go out on a limb of faith," Thom replied, "when a city starts blowing up less than ten minutes after you set foot into it."
Several minutes of the quest passed by in blissful silence, as husband, wife, and their adoptive children took in the sight of the squalid landscape. Truth be told, however, there was little for them to see in the slums. No willow groves or wooded glens, no affordable tract housing or modestly kept piers overlooking any bodies of water. Just darkness and noise. The occasional playground would get passed by, though no children could be seen playing there. Every ten minutes or so, the roar of an L-train would careen across the wire-mesh platforms above, causing rails to thunder and halogens to flare out in static bursts overhead.
"Yes," said Tedrin, finally reacting to the auger-like stare he was getting from Thom. "I understand how unorthodox our methods must sound to you. We steal, we rig things to explode, we work in concealment. But these are unorthodox times we live in, and our enemies are ignorance personified. That is the reason we do what we do - that, and it's for the children."
"The children?" Poline asked, sounding confused.
He nodded, giving one of their black beasts a kick into its piscine hindquarter when it seemed about to tire. "I can't be sure of it yet, but your matron may be key to putting an end to all of this. Many of the early settlers of this city were brought up by your matron. But before she was mother to Midgar's ancestors, she was a great soldier. It was a whole other lifetime ago, in the battle of Judgment's End."
A moment passed as the facts set in. Poline broke the silence first. "I've heard tell of that battle when I was young. It was believed to have happened before the orphanage was even founded. But she never spoke of having been a participant in the battle."
"Most heroes and heroines tend to leave those details out in their old age. It's the anecdote itself which a listener tends to relate to, not the one who swings the sword."
"Enlightening," said Thom, sounding anything but enlightened. "But it's got to be something more than filial piety which drove you to help our mother. Is there something Avalanche would stand to gain from giving the matron those memories back?"
Poline bristled. "Thom!"
But Tedrin silenced her with a single upraised finger. "You're a sharp one, plainsman. Yes, as a devout Avalancher, there are certain boons which your mother's memory can yield for us. But not just for us. For all of Midgar. A tyrant in his twisted little tower was brought down by your matron a very long time ago. We hope that with her knowledge and understanding of that battle renewed, history may repeat itself."
"Your quest for peace," Thom bit back, "comes from a parable. It has no basis in reality."
Off to Tedrin's left side, Poline gave a harsh sigh of impatience. The Avalancher's lunatic calm couldn't be broken, however, as his bearded face craned high towards the harsh, moonless night of Midgar. Only barely visible, he could nonetheless make out the high rounded dome of Shinra tower in the smoggy distance.
"A parable," thought Tedrin aloud, "from which no one learns the moral to."
* * *
"Ever see anything like this before?"
Rosalind fought to get past the lump which had since begun to form in her throat. She had not been a graduate of Wutai a week, and already her trial mission as a Turk had her dealing with a forensic's worst nightmare. Neither Rude nor Tseng had any information of the murders waiting for her, as she was meant to dissect and analyze the crime scene for the finer details herself. All the same, steeling herself for the hands-on training of this job was not the easy task she had originally made it out to be.
Reno shook her, his expression seemingly strangled between amusement and sincerity.
"Yes," she finally answered. "It's just, well, it's a bit different from what they teach you at the institute. I'm not use to this level of . . . blood."
If Rosalind was expecting to receive any sympathy at this juncture, she would be disappointed. Reno was the type of colleague whereby appearance was actually an outward reflection of his own mischievous nature. The shock of his uncharacteristically red hair was impossible to ignore or predict, running and crashing in confused waves atop his scalp. The bemusement of his expression seemed as every bit set into his face as facets to a gem, never able to take real-life scenarios for anything other than face value. And yet, he was still somehow able to get through each mission the president entrusted them with.
"Every day's a new adventure in Midgar, isn't it?"
She nodded, then looked out across the area where other Turks were busy snapping photographs and questioning material witnesses. Though pretty much a no-traveled area for a very long time, Rude still considered it as prudent a precaution as any to cordon off the entire Train Graveyard out of fear their man was still nearby. Given the state of his victims, letting a psychopath such as this one drop below their radar was simply not an option.
"So who dunnit?" Reno heckled Rosalind over one shoulder.
"The perp?" Reno pushed his goggles back up along his forehead. "Any leads, any theories?"
"My theory," said Rude over his shoulder, "is that our greenhorn is going to be popping you one in the chops if you don't shut up and let her do her job."
"What?" The red-haired grease monkey straightened, shrugging as though trying to fool someone who didn't know better. "Merely putting our newbie through the paces, making her feel like part of the team and all that."
"She's more a part of the team than you are, Reno." He clicked another snapshot of the body who had its eyes punctured through with pickaxes, then swiveled her blond head part way around to face him. "She actually works."
Reno made a face, one that was entirely un-Turk-like, before skirting off to see if he could find another partner to annoy. Rude crouched down beside Rosalind, who seemed very distant from the whole scene around her.
"Don't pay any mind to him," he said. "He's always been a bit of a troublemaker."
"The flesh around this wound has been cauterized."
"Right here." Hands coated with latex gloves, she gestured towards the ruined man's throat. "The edges of the torn flesh became scorched when the blade came through. And yet the skin was neither blackened nor desiccated. The heat might have been generated by mako usage."
"So our killer is a materia user. That's great. We've narrowed the list of suspects so far to about three quarters of the entire Midgar populace." Rosalind seemed visibly shaken from Rude's reaction, and he quickly softened. "No kiddo, that's not what I meant . . ."
But Rosalind only shrugged. "Just trying to make myself useful."
Both heads of blond hair twirled at Reno's shouting as they rose to join him on the scene of the second homicide. The victim's upper face was horribly disfigured by his own blades, jaws locked open in the throes of death. It seemed somehow wrong to Rosalind that he should be jumping about and patting himself on the back from finding evidence around a man who had obviously suffered a very violent death. Then again, she had to remind herself that it was an Avalancher. They all were.
"What is it?"
"Looks like our guilty party is either a very snappy dresser or one of old Don Corneo's henchmen." He was handed a latex glove, but Reno waved it away - choosing to handle it with his bare hands. "Look at this guy's threads here: red; yellow; green. Guess victim number two took a couple clumps out of his attire while trying to fight him off. Could give us the edge we need to capture this clown."
Rosalind ignored the Turk's sudden breach of protocol, instead becoming intrigued with their topic of discussion. "Why bother stopping this person at all, then? Clearly, he or she has their sight set on doing away with Avalanchers. Maybe we have ourselves an ally."
"Or maybe a couple middle-class mutilations are just the tip of the iceberg for this creep." A couple yards away, Rude pushed back a mane of non-existent hair as he draped the last black tarp over a bloodied teenage girl. "No, we have to apprehend this one at all costs."
"That's no longer possible."
And then, everyone's head turned. A stalwart and fearless leader in many a desperate moment, Tseng now seemed quiet and resigned, eyelids half veiled in defeat. Gloved hands, once clutching a PHS in vehement verbal sparring, now moved to reorient the jet black of his ponytail. The habit did not go unnoticed by the senior Turks; they knew it was more than just an upset he was feeling at that moment.
"Sir?" Rosalind's voice pleaded.
"I just got off the horn with Verdot," he told them collectively. "The investigation is closed until further notice."
Reno only needed a second to mull over the contradictory nature of their orders. "But we were only just assigned this task. Why would the president rescind those orders after just giving them?"
"I'm willing to bet it was Hojo," Tseng said to her. "He tends to have his fingers in a lot of what goes on in this city."
"Hojo?" said Reno, bristling. "Who died and made him coroner?"
"That's irrelevant, Reno. All that matters is our reassignment. A serum was stolen from a Shinra laboratory recently by an Avalanche faction, believed to have been smuggled over into the sector seven slums. Hojo has ordered for us to return the serum to his lab at all costs. Rosalind, you and Reno were my first choice for this mission. Can I count on you?"
"Yes, sir! Absolutely!"
Her superior seemed ambivalent as to her eagerness to take on the assignment, as though he was hoping for them all to throw down their shades and mutiny as one against Verdot. Tseng mentally shook the thought free. He must have really been someone else this evening.
"Very well, then. You leave right away. Call as soon as you've recovered the serum. And please . . ." Tseng plucked the red and green fabrics from Reno's hand, testing it for substance. "No talking to strangers in cheap clothing."
* * *
He had not stalked about these avenues an hour, and the insects which flitted about him were as every bit complacent and convinced of their own security as they were when he had held them under his own thumb. Who cared if they were not the Returners he may have earlier mistaken them for? They were of their ilk all the same, having spewed above ground from their ghetto havens and formed a city at the site of his own undoing as testament to their power. Kefka's nose twisted up in revulsion as he shouldered his way past. They stunk of sweat and grime, their disposition hanging like milestones around all their necks.
It was of little consequence. Whether a corporate HR or a sector five slum lord, all would fall by his blade. It was all of question of finding the right blade for the task.
He spoke to no one, as speech would only lower him to their level. He would not dignify their existence by humoring them with a tourist inquisition. Rather, he would get the info he so desperately sought through fear: one alleyway; one stealthy pounce; one hapless victim at a time. He was surprised at how easy the task had since become. Eyes alight with flame, the shady streetwalkers and stonefaced muggers alike fell to his feet in mere minutes. Each one, overcome by the trepidation of the moment, poured heartfelt confessions, promises of wealth and luxury, anything it took to see tomorrow. Only when he was able to strangle the scattered direction from them did he finish them off.
In a city ruled by fear, any could monopolize it - if one were so inclined.
So it was that Kefka moved unimpeded across Midgar, around street corners, over the screaming trams, the bridges, the plates, the sectors . . . to this place.
He regarded it from a distance at first, busying himself in the flagstone street to rinse the caked-on blood from his face in the gently falling rain. The four-story building was in no less a state of disrepair as any other he had since come across in this city: half boarded up; pieces of the fire escape either in ruins or missing altogether; and fluorescent lighting on the inside that couldn't decide whether they wanted to be on or off. Expression unreadable, except by the red/white tint of his skin, Kefka allowed himself in.
"We're closed, stranger," said a bald and portly arms dealer behind his counter, securing a lock on his cashbox and throwing a moth-eaten coat over his shoulder.
"Your last customer," he said somewhat cryptically, "I guarantee it."
The dealer paused briefly, sighed, and cracked his cashbox open again. "Fine, let's make this as painless as possible then."
"I will try."
"What are you looking for?"
"A weapon," Kefka told him outright, eyes wandering around the shop. Pikes, halberds, flails, falchions, many which the former general was intimately familiar with. Others were new, a handful of them giving off preternatural glows on the many shelves and racks surrounding him. "Something stout and lightweight, something that won't notch or need sharpening after getting knocked around a lot."
"Claymore or short sword might be your best bet." The dealer spoke with the chafed tones of a warhorse, the words having rolled off his tongue entirely too many times before. Every customer to plod in through that door, whether some slipshod rookie or chiseled veteran, sought the same thing in a weapon. Lightweight and durable. "Two-handed blades aren't the bestsellers they used to be around here."
Kefka nodded, considering this a moment. "Any rapiers or sabers, something that can incise or has a sawtooth edge to it?"
The shopkeeper tried to smile. "Planning to dissect something?"
The sincerity of Kefka's reply chilled him, so he tried to offset the anxiety with as professional sounding an answer as he could manage. "We had some scimitars of that design once, imported from Mideel. They sold out this afternoon. If you'd like, I could put your name down for pre-order."
"I don't have that kind of time." Eyes still adrift, he finally came across a particular piece of inventory that peaked his interest considerably. Somewhat rusted, the prismed blade was marked with a string of arcane glyphs in its broadside, glyphs Kefka recognized a mile away. And it hung just overhead! "Is that . . . a Runic Blade?"
"You have a real eye for swords, pal." He took it down off the shelf and handed it to him. "They sure don't make ‘em like that anymore."
Kefka tested the weight of the weapon, giving it a few expert twirls before noticing several hollowed out grooves cut into the metal of the blade. "What are these for?"
With each minute that passed speaking to this individual, the arms dealer was finding it more and more difficult to know what to make of him. "You born on a farm or something, son? Those are materia slots. You junction materia to each slot to unlock its innate mako potential. Of course, mako logists didn't have blades of that caliber in mind when giving it slots for Materia. Everyone who's picked that weapon up has never been able to–"
The dealer was suddenly beside himself, as he saw each glyph radiate with power in turn. Kefka exhaled from the strength the weapon gave him. Murder alone was enough to breed familiarity within him. But this was something else, some sensation above and beyond anything he had hitherto felt. The power of a Runic Knight rekindled - with an added bonus.
"Do what?" Kefka asked of the man's unspoken question. "Wield a Runic Blade? Has it really become so uncommon in this day and age?"
"Who are you?" the man asked.
"One like yourself should not go about asking questions if they're not ready for answers. Are you sure you're ready for a little premature enlightenment?"
Prepared or not, the dealer nonetheless received it - through the gullet, out along the back, hoisting him up off the floor until he stopped twitching. Only one such as himself, a general to an Empire which history had long since turned its back to, knew the nature of this mythical weapon. For he was among the first to receive training for such a blade, training which had first costed him his sanity. So deep did those ties run, Kefka never took notice of the emerald glow of a materia orb leaving the dead dealer's capsized pocket until it touched his boot heel.
"Well now," said the jester man, securing the orb into one of the blade's new slots. "When in Midgar . . . best to equip oneself."
Merely making contact with the unremarkable green sphere unlocked the urge to sizzle, scathe, and reduce to cinders whatever it was that stood against him. It was nothing he hadn't been able to call into being before. Clipped to a Runic warrior's weapon, however, made the sensation almost everlasting, that his adversaries would never stop smoldering, that the boundaries between him and the world would be reduced to ash.
And so, they were.
Nothing remained of the arms dealer's armory, erupting as it did in a hail of glass and stone shrapnel. The magically generated inferno soared and fought tirelessly against the night rain as a humanoid form, seemingly sculpted out of pure hellfire, strode calmly from the scene. As it did so, each trace of the caustic orange sorcery danced away from the destruction it had wrought, curtsying on the moist Midgar air, returning to the blade from whence it had come.
* * *
Thom and Poline reined each wagon to a standstill. So akin was one part of the sector seven slums to the other that it seemed to each of the pioneers that they had traveled nowhere at all. How it was this Tedrin person had found his way around in the maze-like squalor of Midgar neither could guess. Thom was the first to assume it must have been some brand of technology either invented or stolen by Avalanche which made the going that much more easier. The more time which passed in the presence of these pyromaniacal freedom fighters, the more Thom found himself questioning their true intentions - to say nothing about the Matron's own past.
"This place?" Down over a shallow knoll of dead earth lay a series of battered townhouses, each one no more than a story or two high. Some appeared to be assembled out of still recognizable automobile and airship components. Other appeared skeletal, unmanned as though waiting to be torn down. Of a sudden, Poline felt the chill of yesterday start to seep back into her pores. "It feels like the place we left behind us."
Tedrin payed their observations no mind, intent instead on getting their precious cargo to safety. Poline felt the coach jostle somewhat as the Avalancher's weight left the stage. Dusting off the pate from their hasty travels, Tedrin faded back into the rear of the rickety transport and threw back the tarpaulin. The sage-looking woman appeared rattled from the trek, but otherwise unharmed. The younger, dark-haired passengers of the wagon started to react as Tedrin hoisted the Matron up into his arms but Thom kept them at bay with soft words and tight embraces.
"Where are you taking her?" the one Tedrin learned was Doria demanded of them.
"Less questions," he shouted, spiriting the old woman off towards a shadowed, ramshackle hut into the distance. "Just keep up."
It was a two-story housing, though most of the upper level looked to have been sheered away either by some gale hailstorm or construction mishap. Through one of the grimy, barred-up windows, Poline saw a buzzcut youth in his late teens running for the door - or rather, the environmentally friendly Shinra billboard which passed for a door. A small strip of the entrance vanished, replaced with the teen's incriminating stare.
"What's the password?" he asked when Tedrin huffed to a halt.
"Courage." And the door swung open.
"Is she the one, then?" the teenager asked, suddenly rapt.
"We'll find out in a moment." Tedrin gave him a look, motioning with his head. The teen nodded, pushing the nearby table out of the way. "Has there been any word from our mole in Junon?"
"None as of yet." The youth, whom Thom and the others took to be Tedrin's protege, pushed old cushions and daveys together to make the matron as comfortable as possible. "We got on the horn with Barret over at sector three and were told that she reached Junon without incident. What's become of her since . . ."
"She'll succeed," Tedrin assured him, gloved hands fumbling with the combination lock of a nearby safe. "She has to. It's the only way to provide the distraction we need to get her to the president and talk some sense into him."
"If she is who we hope she is."
"Have faith . . ." The lean-to slowly started to fill with the orphan travelers from a town long forgotten, and Tedrin silenced the youth's unspoken question with an icy half glare. The latch on the safe clicked open, and a small stainless steel attache case with Shinra insignia glimmered from within. Tedrin seized it, unclasped each of its locks, and dug out a small syringe from its black foam interior. Its sharp, white fluid brought radiance to the entire room. Was this the vaccine their matron mother so desperately needed?
"How long does it take to sterilize a needle?" Tedrin asked.
"A minute, perhaps." The buzzcut teen very cautiously slipped the treatment out of Tedrin's hand, passing it over the flame of a quietly burning candle. "Maybe two."
Poline was already back beside her adoptive mother, comforting a crying toddler in one arm and wrapping a comforter around the matron with the other. "You're going to be fine now, mother. These people are here to help."
"Mother?" The black velvet of her apparel shifted, confusion still rimmed like kohl around the matron's eyes. "I'm . . . your mother?"
Poline's head swiveled. "Tedrin?"
The Avalancher moved without prompting. "Here it is!"