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Old April 20th, 2013 (02:18 AM).
Cutlerine
Gone. May or may not return.
 
Join Date: Mar 2010
Location: The Misspelled Cyrpt
Age: 21
Gender:
Nature: Impish
Chapter Eighteen: A Smell of Petroleum Prevails Throughout

Needless to say, Smythe's plan had not exactly worked out.

Escape from a solid stone sarcophagus with a two-tonne lid was, as he might perhaps have expected had he been thinking properly, not really possible, and he had lain there, exhausted from his exertions, for several hours before he saw light again.

The lid was removed by a pallid gentleman with bad teeth and a cheery grin; he did not require assistance to move the stone slab, Smythe noted, and so he chose not to attempt to overpower him as he was hauled from the tomb.

“Your master wishes to speak to you,” the merry stranger told him. “Through there.”

Smythe's eyes followed the pointing finger to a doorway some way off to his left. It punctuated a worn stone wall; his current location was uncertain, but that wall indicated he probably wasn't at the Party HQ in Castelia. He looked around for other clues, but found none; the sarcophagus was located in a small stone room lit by the fitful rays of a guttering torch.

He had no idea where he was, but presumed it was Weland's base of operations.

This did not bode well.

“Through there,” repeated the man. His smile did not waver. “Now.”

Smythe gulped, and went.

The adjoining chamber was slightly larger than the first – it required two spooky torches to light it fully – but otherwise indistinguishable. There seemed to be no door; Smythe wondered how he had been brought here. A second smiling man, slightly thinner than the first and just as sallow, stood before him; while the one who had extracted him from the sarcophagus stood at the door, this one stepped forwards in spoke in the rich, unmistakeable voice of Ghetsis Harmonia.

“Hello, Smythe.”

Smythe's eyes widened.

“Sir...?”

The grin deepened.

“Weland has kindly granted me this proxy to interrogate you through,” he said, still in Harmonia's voice. “You're quiet far from civilisation at the moment, you know. I can't possibly come all the way down there to talk to you in person.”

Down there...

Smythe felt the prickle of sweat forming on his forehead. He glanced up involuntarily; how far down was he? Was this one of the antechambers of Hell? Did Weland lurk beneath his feet, a hideous anvil on which the immense weight of earth above would crush him?

“Christ,” he muttered weakly.

“Quite. Now, Smythe,” said the smiling man, “you are going to tell me everything you know about the woman you brought to the Striaton Gym a couple of days ago.” (A couple of days? He'd been here that long?) “The same woman who wrecked our Museum robbery yesterday.”

Despite his obviously parlous situation, Smythe couldn't help but grin. That was Niamh, all right; he knew some of the details of that operation, and it would have taken someone truly extraordinary to scupper it.

“Glad you find it so funny,” snapped Harmonia through his proxy's smile.

“The way you're grinning, so do you,” replied Smythe in his momentary good humour, and instantly regretted it.

The man froze.

“Well,” said he. “Well, well, well. It's clear where your sympathies lie, isn't it?”

“Um, well, I—”

“Tell me about the woman.” The man lurched forwards with the clumsy power of a clockwork toy. His face was very close to Smythe's now, and with a thrill of horror he realised that no breath issued from between those greying teeth.

“N-no,” said Smythe stubbornly.

The man stared. His eyes had no lustre.

“What?”

“No,” repeated Smythe, voice growing stronger. “You said it yourself, you know where my loyalties lie. You'll get—”

A freight train drove into his belly – or at least, that was what it felt like; Smythe shot backwards like a cork out of a bottle and hit the wall so hard he bounced.

The grinning gentleman stepped forwards, towering over him as he unclenched his gloved fist.

“Now, Smythe,” said Harmonia, voice dangerously soft. “I think we'll have to try that one again...”

---

I stared.

“But – how... how old is this book?” I asked, voice trembling slightly.

“About six hundred years,” replied Cheren. “Modern Unovan – just about intelligible. More than that, the drawing is of a legend that seems to go back as far as the Twin Heroes – maybe further. Bronze Age, perhaps.”

“So... it's a coincidence that it looks like N?”

Cheren smiled grimly.

“Let me read it for you,” he said. “In the days of the ancients, before the Heroes brought the warlords together under the banner of the dragon, there were a certain people in the west, who dwelt in halls of granite and porphyry, and had all about them the semblance of the great and noble ones who went before. For once their empire had been vast and its towers numerous beyond imagining, but now they remained only in their halls in the west, a fragment of their former might, reduced thus by the predations of the unworthy and the tyranny of evil men.

“Their king was as to men as men are to beasts, and to beasts as a brother; his sagacity and might were—” He broke off. “I'm modernising the trickier words as I go along,” Cheren explained, “but I don't know what buorag means. It's not an archaic form of a modern word, it's just completely alien.”

“Never mind,” I said. “Go on.”

“I think it's 'unrivalled' or something like that,” he said. “Anyway. His sagacity and might were unrivalled by any who came after; the kings of today were as nothing to him, for he was the last of the noble scion of Sondjr, and his name was Naudri, the Keeper of the Peace.”

Cheren lowered the book.

“Naudri,” he said. “Fifteenth letter of the Unovan runic alphabet. In Roman script: N.”

“And... and that's his picture?” I asked, pointing at the drawing.

“Yeah,” he replied. “It's taken from a statue from the western halls where these people were meant to live, I think – but the story goes on to recount how Naudri's people were overrun by the Heroes' armies when they refused to submit to them, and the city was razed to the ground. The statue's gone.”

There was a brief silence.

“So... who is N?” I asked tentatively.

“We don't know,” replied Cheren. “But one of this legendary King's titles was 'King of All Humans'. I think N sent Teiresias to speak to you, Lauren – and that means he's connected to Harmonia.”

“Teiresias said the King would stop Harmonia chasing us,” I said, suddenly seeing the ilght. “And that means N has—”

“Quite a lot of influence with one of the most dangerous men in the country,” finished Cheren. “Yes.”

There was another silence.

“Well,” said Bianca cheerily. “I guess we'd better go find N.”

---

When we left the building shortly afterwards, it was noticeably brighter than before; it looked like the weather might finally be warming up a bit.

“How long was I unconscious?” I asked, looking around. A tangle of police tape blocked off the whole street to the left; a pair of Conkeldurr with white city council sashes lumbered about beyond it, clearing debris and patching holes with concrete.

“Not long. Half an hour, perhaps? Munny said you were only sleeping, so we didn't take you to hospital.”

I looked above Bianca's head as she spoke, and saw the Munna hanging there, inscrutable as ever. I gave it a smile and it blooped back at me.

We stopped for lunch at a small café on the way back, where I had half an excellent prawn mayonnaise sandwich, the remainder of which was stolen by Candy; as we were leaving, my phone rang, and, seeing who was calling, I answered with some trepidation.

“Hello, Mum,” I said uneasily, and was immediately bowled over by a battering ram of anger, love and parental concern. It hammered relentlessly at my ear for three whole minutes without giving me a chance to respond, and then cut out abruptly as my phone battery died.

It wasn't quite the conversation I'd had in mind, but at least it proved that everyone at home was OK – something I'd been more than a little concerned about, given Teiresias' tireless determination and total lack of morals. I had thought that perhaps it might have crept back to White Forest in the dead of night, slipping through the shadows like an eel through wet grass, rising above my brother's bed with those white eyes smoking in the skull—

I put the thought from my head. Enough, Lauren. It hadn't done that. Harlow, Cordelia, Mum, Dad – all fine, I was sure.

“Everything OK?” asked Bianca.

“Yeah,” I answered. “I think so, anyway.”

“Good,” she replied, and I felt she really meant it. She turned the conversation tactfully away to the subject of locating N, and shortly afterwards Halley had an idea.

“He gave you his number, didn't he?” she asked. “Just call him and find out where he is.”

I felt a little silly for not having thought of that immediately, but I accepted it with good humour and decided to give it a go when we got back to the Centre and I could charge my phone up again.

“That thing's bloody useless,” muttered Halley. “Runs out of battery so frequently you'd think it did it on purpose.”

“It's old,” I said. “Leave it alone.”

“All the more reason to attack it,” she retorted. “Now, Jared, he had a nice phone – iPhone, you know, all the bells and whi—”

“Who's Jared?” asked Cheren.

“Uh, someone I know,” I replied. “More into technology than I am.”

“A guy who knows when to talk, and when to hit stuff with a stick,” pronounced Halley. “My kind of guy, in other words.”

“How come you both know him?” Cheren asked, eyes narrowing a little.

“He lives in White Forest,” I answered, feeling my cheeks redden. “We passed by on the way out.”

“Hm,” said Cheren, raising his eyebrows. “All right.”

I had a feeling that that might have been my opportunity to segue into the topic of the Dream World, but it seemed I'd fluffed it; I hoped Cheren would probe further at some point, since he obviously wasn't satisfied, and I didn't know how to broach the subject on my own.

Presently, we arrived back at the Centre – where we were told by the receptionist that Shauntal's Ghost had reconstituted itself with a roar of anguish, cursed our names and departed for the League in high dudgeon, which seemed only fair after what we'd put it through – and after a couple of minutes of charging my phone was capable of making calls again. I put it on speakerphone so that everyone could hear, and called N.

It rang for a long time.

Eventually, there was a click, and that smooth, familiar voice said:

“Yes? Lauren?”

“N,” I replied. “Uh...” What did I actually say to him? I couldn't outright accuse him of being the reincarnation of a two-and-a-half-thousand-year-old king, could I? “We've been doing some research,” I said at last.

He knew what I meant immediately.

“Ah,” he said. “Yes. Yes, I suppose you would have done, after all that happened yesterday.” He sighed. “Then I suppose you're asking me for answers?”

“Well, yeah. Basically.”

“That isn't going to happen, I'm afraid,” he replied. “It's not that I don't know. It's that it's not how these things work.”

“Opposites,” I agreed, not knowing where the words came from. “Division and unity.”

“Quite. You're divided, I'm united. I shall unite; you wish to maintain the divide. Do you see how it works? We can work together, but neither of us can inform the other. Reality wouldn't permit it.”

“I see,” I said. “What can we do, then?”

“Chase me,” replied N. “Chase me, and you'll learn. Chase Harmonia, learn his plan; chase me, learn my goals; chase the dragons, and find the thief. I have the information already because I'm united – all strings in the web lead to me. You are divided, however – at the wrong end of the cord, on the fringes of the web. You'll have to do the searching, I'm afraid.”

“I see.” I really did. It was blindingly obvious: this was the way the universe worked. I stood for division; N for unity. Everything else followed on from that. “All right, N. Thank you.”

“It's no problem, Lauren,” he said. “I'm sorry I can't say more.” I could almost hear his grin down the phone line. “I'm looking forward to this.”

“I'm scared,” I admitted frankly. “I can't imagine I'm going to like it.”

“It's what you were born for,” he replied. “When the time comes, you'll be ready. It's the way of things.”

“Yeah, I suppose...” I sighed. “OK. Well, I shouldn't keep you. I expect you're busy.”

“Very,” he agreed. “I'll see you later.”

“Bye.”

“Goodbye.”

I put the phone down and looked up. The others looked like they hadn't been able to follow the conversation at all, and I didn't blame them.

“You stand for division?” asked Bianca, puzzled. “What does that mean?”

I looked at Halley.

“Halley,” I said pleadingly. “Help me explain. I still don't know how to do this.”

She jumped onto my lap and cleared her throat.

“Always happy to blow apart someone's expectations of reality,” she said cheerily. “Gather round, kids, I got a story for you...”

---

Teiresias smouldered.

It lay on a rooftop, all bilious fogs and noxious fumes, and thought.

Why was it no longer allowed to chase White and Halley?

On the surface, it knew the answer: the King had decreed it; it was part of his plan, he said, and the Regent was not to worry, for the thief would be found soon enough by the workers in his great web. Harmonia hadn't liked that, but he had to admit that his own efforts to grab Halley and White had been attended at every step of the way by failure, and had grudgingly allowed the King to use his own methods to locate the stolen artefact.

Besides, the King had said, there was no need to rush things. The election wasn't the point, after all. Harmonia hadn't liked that, either – but he couldn't very well argue, not when he wanted to keep the truth from him. And Weland had backed the King, as well, telling Harmonia that there was more than one way to take power, and a general election was possibly the most pathetic way imaginable.

But even knowing all that, Teiresias felt something was wrong.

It wanted Halley, it realised. It needed her for... something. There was information it might be able to extract from her that it needed, in order that it might find... them.

Teiresias' surface frothed into a veritable maelstrom of anger. What? Who was this mysterious 'them'? And why did this thought bother it so much?

It did not know, but as it rose into the skies, it knew where it was going.

It was going to find Halley, and she was going to tell it the truth.

---

“There are two worlds?” asked Cheren. “Two entirely separate, twinned realities that switch over each night?”

“At midnight, yeah,” confirmed Halley. “One day you have what I like to call White Unova – this one, where everything is technologically backward and there's a forest in the Grimveldt – and then the next you have Black Unova, which is a global superpower on the cutting edge of technology and has a megalopolis where White Forest is.” She jumped down from my lap. “But they're not entirely separate. They're linked. What happens in White Unova alters what happens in Black Unova, and vice versa – history rejigs itself a little to fit the new world when they swap over. And there are little lumps of reality that sometimes get left behind, like flies preserved in amber. Harmonia's eye, for instance – nowhere in White Unova is there anyone with that technology, is there?”

Cheren blinked.

“Well, no, I mean— Actually, where the hell did he get that?”

Halley grinned, displaying a large number of sharp white teeth.

“See? There's also the matter of the state of Training in White Unova. It shouldn't be failing this badly in a traditionalist country – I think it's doing it because modern society has swept it away in Black Unova, and it's carrying over here somehow.”

“Thunor,” breathed Cheren. “You're right... It's been puzzling people for years. There's no obvious reason for the decline...”

“Then, most interestingly, there's my pet human over here.” Halley leaped up onto my head, which Candy didn't like but which she put up with, fearing feline reprisal. “As I said before, in White Unova there's a girl named Lauren White. Shy, easily scared, introverted and with poor taste in mobile phones. In Black Unova, there's a boy named Jared Black, who's outgoing, almost idiotically courageous, and has no trouble picking the best and most expensive mobile phone going. Lauren's a girl, Jared's a boy; Lauren's gay, Jared's straight; Lauren's athletic, Jared's not – I could go on. The point is, everything around the two worlds centres on them. These two people occupying the same point in reality – they symbolise every aspect of the division of Unova.” Halley jumped down onto my lap. “They even drew you two towards them: Cheren, whose name means 'black', and Bianca, whose name means 'white'. That ain't coincidence, kids, that's f*cking fate.”

“Halley,” I muttered, but my heart wasn't in it. It was oddly distressing to hear myself compared so thoroughly to Jared; it made me think uneasily about whether or not I had free will, whether I had chosen anything in my life, or whether the universe had picked it out purely so as to be opposite to Jared.

“In case you hadn't noticed, I stopped caring about that a while ago, Lauren.” Halley turned back to the others. “Now. Compare that to N. He's absolutely one. He's right: he's connected to Teiresias, to Harmonia, to the riots, probably – in other words, he sits in a spot in reality where every single line of information converges. He's the absolute opposite to the Jared slash Lauren entity. Now, I don't know about you, but that and the way they react to each other suggests to me that there's some serious reality-bending fate-of-the-universe sh*t going down here.”

“I don't know,” began Bianca, but Cheren held up a hand for silence.

“No,” he said. “No, I think... Thunor, I think she's onto something.” He looked at her askance. “How long have you been working on this theory?”

“Since I woke up after the first day and found the worlds had swapped around,” replied Halley. “You know,” she added acidly, “despite what you might think, I'm not dumb. It takes a smart girl to be as acerbic and hilarious as I am.”

Bianca raised an eyebrow.

“I think you forgot arrogant,” she said.

“That too,” agreed Halley, who apparently didn't take that as an insult.

“It explains everything,” Cheren said, typing something frantically on his phone. “I'm sure I read it somewhere... ah! Yeah, here, in an article in the New Unovan a few months ago. It's about research into the Dream World – says that in every case of Unovans monitored during sleep, REM sleep patterns start occurring at midnight exactly.” He looked up, and Halley looked back.
“Yep,” she said. “You only start dreaming when the worlds switch over. It looks like you're subconsciously aware of it, even if you can't really process it.”

“Oh!,” cried Bianca. “And it explains that weird feeling you get sometimes, when you suddenly feel life is a lie and there's some huge secret being held just out of your reach.”

“Nah, I'm pretty sure that's just teenage paranoia,” replied Halley. “You'll grow out of it. Although after that you'll get adult paranoia, which is less angsty but more soul-sapping.”

“Oh.” Bianca's face fell.

“Never mind that,” said Cheren. “This is... this is much more than that. This is...” He looked at me. “You're the kind of hero you only get in legends,” he said frankly. “Halley's right. Lauren, you're the centre of the universe.”

---

Naturally, I couldn't really accept that.

The thing was, I couldn't really deny it, either.

Centre of the universe. Me. Lauren White, perhaps the very definition of unremarkable.

Then again, did the centre of the universe have to be remarkable? After all, there was nothing special about the centre of a circle. It was just a point that happened to lie in the middle of it. Perhaps that was me: I simply happened to occupy the spot in reality that formed the centre.

Nothing special. Just random chance. It could have been anyone.

I didn't believe myself.

It wasn't true, it just wasn't – I really was different. Every time I spoke to N I felt it in my bones: the humming of reality, the buzz of space folding and dividing around me. Frige only knew what would happen if our conversations lasted longer; I almost thought we might destroy time.

It wasn't luck, or random chance. It couldn't have been just anyone.

I was born to this, and instinctively I shied away from it. Too big. Too much. Perhaps appropriate for Jared Black, but not for Lauren White.

Or was I Jared Black? We were the same person, after all. Were we incomplete individually, each forming half of some greater personality? What was I? Who was Lauren White? Being the centre of reality seemed to destroy any personal existence I might have; I couldn't be that and still be me.

Or could I?

All this and more flashed through my head in the seconds after Cheren spoke, posing question after question and answering none of them; with a concentrated effort, I pulled myself together and managed to reply.

“I don't know,” I said forlornly. “I... I can't—”

That was when I started crying. I couldn't take it – couldn't stand it – couldn't be something less than real – couldn't be...

Bianca hugged me, and I felt Candy put feathery arms as far around my neck as they would reach; I leaned into both of them, feeling all the strange emotions that had been building in me since I had first met N finally boiling over and flooding out, and wept.

“I'm sorry,” I heard Cheren saying, over and over again. “I'm sorry, I didn't mean to – but it's true, you are—”

“Shut up, Cheren,” muttered Bianca in exasperation. “Just shut up for a minute...”

“Sorry,” I said abruptly, pulling away. “It's – it's stupid of me – ah, sorry...”

“It's not,” replied Cheren quietly. “Believe me. It calls a lot of things into question. About what you are, who you are... about free will. It isn't stupid to react like that. It's just... it is true.”

“I know,” I replied, staring at the floor.

“Ark,” chirped Candy consolingly, burying her beak in my hair. I reached up with one hand and rubbed her flanks. “Crawk ark.”

“You too,” I told her, kissing her on the forehead. She went cross-eyed trying to follow my face and fell off my shoulder with a surprised squawk. Despite myself, I had to laugh; it couldn't have been funnier if it had been scripted.

“It doesn't necessarily change anything,” Cheren said. “You know that, right? You're still Lauren White. You've always been this way – only now you know it. Whatever the truth is, it has no bearing on how you have to act.”

“I suppose not,” I agreed, wiping my eyes. “I suppose not...” I looked up at him and smiled. “Thanks.”

He blinked.

“It's fine.”

Not exactly the most appropriate response, but this was Cheren I was dealing with; he was more an adventurer and tactician than a people person. I took his reply for what it was intended to be, an honest acknowledgement of my thanks, and nodded at him.

“OK.” I wiped my eyes again and sniffed deeply. “OK. Um... So this... doesn't change anything, does it? Not really.”

“No, not really,” he replied. “We still keep going after N, I guess. There's no other choice, whatever you are.” He smiled. “So. I propose we go to Castelia.”

“To Castelia? Why... oh, because of the Green Party?”

“That's right. Harmonia's based there, and Harmonia's the easiest way into this web of information that N talked about. We know where he is and what we can do to find him. It's the logical entry point.”

“Go to Castelia and infiltrate the enemy base? Now that sounds like fun,” said Halley. “Can we get some of those little radio earpieces and a guy in a darkened room hacking the cameras and talking to us?”

“Probably not,” said Cheren. “But we'll do what we can.” He glanced at his watch. “It's four now... Should we wait until tomorrow, or go today?”

“No point hanging around,” said Halley. “Come on! Let's go go go!”

“I think maybe Lauren might want to rest first,” pointed out Bianca, but I waved her concerns aside.

“No,” I said. “No, I want to know what's going on.”

I felt stronger just for having said it: I was finally taking some control, actively seeking out information where I'd previously been following others, as passive as you can get. I might not be Jared Black, but I could at least take some initiative here. It didn't matter whether or not I was a tool of the universe – I didn't necessarily have to act like one.

“See? She hasn't got a problem with it,” said Halley. “Come on! To the big city, boys and girls!”

“All right, all right,” said Cheren. “Well, then, I suggest we head back to our rooms, Bianca, and pack up. It looks like we're going to Castelia.”

---

“So.” Niamh looked at Ezra. “What do we do now? Head over to Castelia and get into the Party HQ?”

He nodded.

“I suppose so,” he said. “That's probably where your friend Smythe is, at any rate. Although...” He twisted his mouth in thought. “Harmonia tried to seize the dragon. That worries me. You know, there is another one out there somewhere; he may try again.”

They were talking over the remains of a late lunch outside a restaurant on Vine Street, in Shadhall; Niamh wasn't sure she approved of all this lounging about and eating, but apparently the effort of maintaining a human form was quite taxing for Ezra, who had, it seemed, never been the best at altering his shape. Privately, she was beginning to wonder if Ezra was any good with any of his demonic powers, but she didn't say so; for now, at least, she needed his help, and that was probably dependent on his goodwill.

“I'm guessing it's a bad thing if he gets hold of them, right?”

It seemed a fair assumption. The Twin Heroes had destroyed entire cities when they pitted the dragons against each other in battle; even one of them would make a formidable weapon.

“Yes,” said Ezra. “It would.” He paused. “Not only that, but the fact that he wants them implies he knows how to wake them. Where did he get that knowledge? Certainly not from Weland; none of my race know anything about how the dragons work.” He blew a meditative smoke-ring. “This is bad,” he stated. “Harmonia evidently has other Powers than Weland at his disposal. To stop him and get at Weland, we'll have to find out more...”

“I see,” said Niamh. “If there's information anywhere, though, it's going to be in Castelia. They're a political party: they must be swamped with bureaucracy. Their HQ is probably filled with paperwork detailing pretty much everything we want to know, in one form or another.”

“An excellent point,” agreed Ezra. “To Castelia, then, Niamh!”

He held out a hand, and she regarded it with some trepidation, remembering her last trip along the dark paths; her hesitation was momentary, however, determination winning out over nerves, and she took his hand as the world folded in on itself and compacted to an imperishable blackness.
__________________

For information about A Grand Day Out, a bizarre short story in video game form, click here.
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