But the most surprising development was between Zoe and Gale. At first, they avoided each other. Zoe still gave him a cold stare whenever they met and Gale flinched and ran away when he saw her walking towards him alone.
Yet, there was something different. Zoe could stand his presence now and as long as other people were around, Gale could stay in the same room with her without trembling. They weren’t exactly friends but it was a step in the right direction.
But I doubted whether it would stay that way for long. Zoe may be willing to let him go but would she be so forgiving for the other people responsible for her suffering? She wanted revenge, I could feel it. She was bottling it up for now, enduring as long as she could but she would erupt and she would go for the heads of her tormentors.
Unfortunately, most of those tormentors were Gale’s friends and family. He wouldn’t just stand by and watch them be killed.
Then again, we weren’t planning on killing anyone. Or at least I wasn’t. Couldn’t be sure about the rest.
Runir didn’t seem to care and since he came from Earth too, he probably didn’t share the weird morality of this world either. Amy was kind and caring so she probably wouldn’t do anything drastic. Kai was unpredictable but I didn’t think he would kill people. After all, he didn’t even let us kill monsters.
Even though I knew that none of them were the type who would kill people, perhaps Zoe could get through to them? But in that case, the person most likely to be affected would be me.
I could sympathize with Zoe, I could understand her anger, her desire for revenge, for justice. I’d felt it too. I had people I wanted to settle scores with too. If I saw an image of myself in her, would I be able to stop myself from helping her get her revenge? Was it fair of me to want to rip out my hometown mayor’s heart but stop Zoe from venting her anger on her tormentors?
“Lily, did you hear what I said?” asked Runir, jolting me from my thoughts.
“No, sorry. I zoned out,” I replied, apologetically.
Runir sighed. “There’s no point in having a strategy meeting if you guys aren’t listening. You don’t even contribute at all. Hell, Zoe’s been a bigger help than you in finalizing the plan! Can’t you at least stay focused?”
I shrugged. “Well what can I do, I’m a thief. I could help us sneak in but Kai’s disguises make most of my skills useless. I could help steal keys but I’m sure we can break down any doors we come across. More importantly, your Ability is only good for planning stuff so why should I take away your only chance to shine? You’re worthless otherwise.”
“How many times have you been rescued again? I’ve lost count,” Runir retorted.
“Focus please,” said Amy. “We can’t afford to mess this up.”
“Fine, let’s go over this again,” said Runir, grabbing a marker and a piece of paper. “The capital is just like any other city in the Air Kingdom, only bigger. Kai will help us get past the checkpoints like he always does but we don’t want to draw any attention to ourselves so we need to avoid all the groveling. Can you do that Kai?”
“Sure, we don’t have to impersonate royalty every time,” answered Kai.
“Wait, you made them think we were-”
“We’ll be merchants this time, don’t worry.” Kai smiled.
Runir sighed. “Whatever. Anyway, after that we have to get inside the palace. Luckily for us, a lot of the most powerful people in the kingdom are at the shrine right now. This includes most of the royal guards, since they were accompanying the king. However, the entire kingdom is currently on high alert so the palace is probably on lock-down. We can’t just walk in, we’ll need to sneak in.”
Yes! Finally something I can do!
But before I could offer my assistance, Runir gestured towards Gale, who was sitting next to Amy.
“Fortunately, we have the king with us. Gale will guide us inside through one of the palace’s secret entrances. Won’t he?” said Runir.
“He will,” said Zoe, glaring at Gale, who nodded quickly.
“Perfect! Now we just have to figure out where they keep the master key and-”
“What master key?” I asked.
“The laborers’ collars have mana signals similar to the kind used by communications prisms. These signals all lead to the same source. My Ability suggests that this source serves as a master-key that ties down all the laborers. It’s probably a way for the king to prevent anyone from amassing an army of absolutely loyal soldiers. As such, it should be kept somewhere in the palace. Gale, do you know where it is?”
“No, I’ve never even heard of something like that,” said Gale.
Runir stared at him for a while before sighing. “Like I thought, even though it was supposed to be a way for the king to retain control over the laborers, it’s probably meant to keep control in the hands of Breize Labs. They manufacture the collars, after all. Guess we’ll have to do this the old fashioned way. Kai, do you still have Zoe’s collar?”
“Yes,” said Kai as he took out the collar from his Storage.
He passed it to Runir and I noticed Zoe’s eyes follow the collar.
“We’ll have to search the palace on our own by following the signal to its source. Of course, something this important wouldn’t be left unprotected so we should be ready for anything.”
“Is that it? Are we done?” I asked.
“No,” answered Amy. “I don’t think we should take Zoe and Gale along.”
Zoe frowned and Gale looked surprised too.
“I know they’re weak, but I don’t think it’ll be hard for us to protect them, considering how strong we are,” said Runir.
“That’s not what she means,” said Kai. “Can we trust them to follow the plan? To keep their emotions in check?”
That was true. Zoe might just jump at someone with a dagger and Gale might run up to a guard or something.
“You don’t have to worry. I know what’s more important. We free the other laborers and then I can get my revenge,” said Zoe with a smile.
“I have already decided that the laborers must be released from their bindings. I hope that we can come to an agreeable arrangement afterwards, but I’ll follow your plan with the expectation that you won’t just blow up the palace when you’re done,” said Gale.
So he was finally acting like a king? Not that surprising, considering how he’d probably been learning how to be a king ever since he was born.
“Zoe, we’ll discuss what to do with the people involved in the laborer business later. Until then, you are not to try to take revenge on your own,” said Kai. “And Gale, don’t worry. If we wanted to blow up the palace, we would have done that ages ago.”
“That’s…” muttered Gale.
“Fine,” said Zoe.
“Good. Here’s your reward for being so understanding!” He tossed them small, brown boxes.
They looked at the boxes with confusion.
“Damn, so lucky…” muttered Runir.
“I want another one too…” murmured Amy.
I admit, I looked at them with envy too.
“Glad you liked them. Now then, we’re almost there, so let’s go admire the view.”
Most large cities on Erath were sprawling messes. Centuries of unchecked urban growth would inevitably lead to slums and poorer districts popping up around a richer central area that had existed since the Haze, making most of the capitals of the kingdoms incredibly fragmented.
But not Laput. The expansion of the capital of the Air Kingdom was completely planned out. Rings of newly developed districts lined older ones in an oval pattern surrounding the palace in the center.
Although there were no walls for the city itself, the palace was surrounded by large steel walls and barricades. Air guns were mounted on top of the walls and a few holes betrayed the locations of hidden guns and peep holes. Of course, there were probably far more that were better hidden.
We touched down on a hill several miles from the city and I put the airship into my Inventory, since it couldn’t fit in the others’ Storage. For some reason, it felt like this was the only time where my Hero status had actually helped us.
That was a sad thought.
We’d also made sure to distract Zoe and Gale while I did it and told them that Runir had put it in his ‘Inventory,’ since we couldn’t tell them that I was the Hero.
So now they wouldn’t appreciate the one thing that I did do.
Whatever Lily. Being a Hero is about making sacrifices. Yeah, sacrifices, I consoled myself.
Kai pulled out his magic paper like always and we were let past the checkpoint without fanfare. We spent some time shopping and touring the city.
We saw the perfectly kept gardens and the bustling cars and buses. It was a holiday because of the Exhibition, so the amusement parks were full of parents taking their kids out for fun and couples going on dates on the Ferris wheel.
There were restaurants selling all kinds of food. Stands full of snacks and trinkets. A vendor blew bubbles at a crowd of kids in a playground. An old lady sat on a bench, throwing breadcrumbs for the birds chirping and pecking on the ground.
We walked over to a fenced off building in the middle of one of the wealthier districts. There was a sign saying it was owned by Breize labs but we ignored it and stepped inside.
It was only when I saw the words ‘Breize’ written on a glowing sign that I realized that something was wrong about this city. We’d seen everything you’d expect from a city in the Air Kingdom.
Everything, that is, except for a factory.
I knew I couldn’t be the only one who’d noticed this and the grim atmosphere around our group confirmed it. Something wasn’t right. A city this size couldn’t run without factories full of bonded laborers firing off magic to charge Breize stones. There were no factories outside the city either, at least we hadn’t seen any on our way over.
But if that was the case, where were they?
We sneaked into the building through a hole in the fence, avoiding the guards standing outside the entrance. Gale led us to an open sewer-because secret entrances always went through the sewers- and we dropped down into the darkness.
Kai took out an old torch and lit it with a piece of flint. We couldn’t use Light or Fire magic in front of Gale or Zoe, after all.
Gale and Kai led us through the sewers while Amy and Zoe walked in the center and Runir and I brought up the rear.
Other than the awful stench, everything was going according to plan. Runir’s plans were always uncomfortably perfect. We’d planned everything that had happened at the shrine, and I remember feeling like it would all go wrong any second even though it never did.
But maybe I’d jinxed it this time.
Gale stopped and pointed at the ceiling. Amy climbed the ladder by the walls and bent open the barred iron grating before climbing out. The rest of us followed.
“Hey Lily,” said Kai, putting a hand on my shoulder as I stepped onto the ladder. He’d stayed back because he had the torch and Runir had just climbed out so the two of us were the last ones left.
“What is it?” I asked.
“Nothing, really. It’s just that…I think you shouldn’t worry so much. About being a Hero or doing heroic things. Your roles in this world don’t define you. They shouldn’t define you. You don’t have to be a hero. You never chose to be one.”
I was taken aback. Had it been that obvious?
“Thanks. Don’t worry, I never believed in any of this Fate crap anyways. I’ll do what I always do; whatever the fuck I want.” I smiled and climbed out of the hole.
“Right, we’re in the Western courtyard. The signal from the collar seems to go towards the center of the palace, presumably towards the King’s courtroom or the tower above it,” I heard Runir whisper.
“There’s a tower in the center of the palace?” I asked. That wasn’t exactly a normal castle design.
“Yep, the King’s quarters are at the very top. But from what I’ve heard from Gale, there’s an attic above your room that’s always locked. His ‘adviser’ from Breize Labs said that there was nothing important there and she even showed you inside once. What did you see?”
“Nothing,” answered Gale in a hushed voice. “It was empty.”
“They might have hidden it from you. My guess is that the master-key can’t be moved or else the connections will be severed, which explains why they don’t just shift it to the shrine,” said Runir.
“So we get to see your room Gale. Isn’t that sweet?” said Amy.
Gale nodded stiffly and looked away. Guess he was shy.
We carefully made our way to the central tower, avoiding the guards patrolling the hallways. It was late in the evening and the shadows were more than long enough to hide us in their dark embrace.
“This is it. The main doors are heavily guarded so we need to find another way up,” said Runir.
“Or we could just knock,” said Kai as he tapped the door before any of us could stop him.
Damn it Kai! What the hell are you doing?
“Who is it?” came a voice from inside.
“Hey pumpkin, your wife sent you dinner!” said Kai in a female voice.
“Oh right, I forgot.” The door opened. “Wait a-”
The guard fell on the ground. Kai retracted his hand and smiled.
Zoe and Gale gave him weird looks but the rest of us followed him over the unconscious guard’s body.
Was it strange that we’d gotten so used to Kai’s weirdness already? Judging by the way Zoe was choosing to stick to Gale, maybe it was.
Even though it was a tower, it was also the only way up to the King’s throne-room so the stairs were wide and well decorated. The walls were lined with jewels and ornate carvings and the grown covered with rich carpets and tiles.
But on our way up, I noticed that while many rooms and floors were designed or decorated differently, one thing remained the same-the metallic ceiling. It was strange because it felt so out of place; a silvery metal ceiling that sucked the life out of the vibrant, colorful rooms below.
It just didn’t fit.
We didn’t meet a lot of guards on our way up. Runir was right, most of them were probably at the shrine. In fact, Runir had predicted that the palace wouldn’t be too heavily guarded because most of the army and guards would be out searching for the king.
Runir’s plan was working perfectly, just like it had at the shrine. All that was left was to go to the king’s quarters, find a way up to the attic and break the connection from the master-key to all the collars on the bonded laborers.
Simple, wasn’t it? Everything was going according to plan. There were no complications thus far.
We opened the door to the king’s throne-room and I realized, one again, that no plan was perfect. There were always complications.
And the first one was standing in the center of the king’s throne-room, glaring at us through the goggles covering her eyes.
“So you’re finally here, you ignorant children.” She frowned. “And you brought a bunch of friends along too. Perfect, now please release the king and leave my kingdom. There is no place for irrational idealists and naivete in my kingdom of science.”
Her gray hair and robes blew in the wind even though there was none. Her eyes glowed as she raised her hands and aimed at us.
“Leave!” roared the Air Goddess, her voice echoing all around the room.
“Why should we? You can’t interfere with our plans. You’re bluffing!” said Runir with a smirk.
“I can’t interfere with your plans, true, but I’m not the only one here.” The Goddess smiled.
I had a bad feeling about this.
As if to confirm my suspicions, a gust of wind blew from above, blowing out the torches and engulfing us in darkness. I reached out to Zoe, who had been standing beside me, but I hit empty air.
Where did she go? Did someone take her away?
I reached out to the other side, where Runir had been, and grabbed empty air again.
A torch flickered to life in front of me. Kai’s face was highlighted by the torchlight but his eyes were cast in shadows, as if he was about to tell a scary story. And with how grim his expression was, it might just be a terrifying one.
He held Zoe and Gale in his other hand. How he’d gotten to both of them in time was beyond me.
More importantly though, Amy and Runir were nowhere to be seen. The Goddess was gone too. Instead, the room was now being filled by guards appearing through secret entrances spread across the throne-room.
They gathered beneath the throne, wielding their spears, swords and air guns and glaring at us menacingly. Sitting atop the throne was a gray haired old woman with frown lines on her forehead.
“As the former Queen and Regent of the Air Kingdom, I, Ganili Talbert the fourth, order you to release my son and surrender so you can be tried for your crimes against the state. If you submit now, I promise that your sentences shall be lenient,” said the old lady.
And that’s when I promised to never jinx a plan again. Things always went wrong. There were always complications.
And right now, we were surrounded by them.