41.0 Grayscale_Chapter 16: Smoke

“I suppose that migraine was a blessing in disguise. And here I was, disappointed that I couldn’t attend the Exhibition. Praise the Goddess, her foresight is magnificent,” said the Queen.

“Mother?” said Gale. “These people aren’t bad. You don’t have to-”

“Hush boy! Letting yourself get kidnapped so easily. And inside the sacred shrine of all places! Disgraceful. I’ll need to redouble your training since it is so obviously inadequate,” she snapped.

Gale’s face paled and he dug into Kai’s side. It said a lot about someone if their own kid would rather stick to their kidnappers than their own mother.

The Queen frowned. “Silly boy. Guards, apprehend these criminals and rescue the king!”

The guards readied their weapons and charged at us. Some of them held torches, shedding a flickering orange glow around the room. The shiny, metal ceiling reflected the torchlight, casting rays of light across the somewhat dimly lit room.

Kai blew out his own torch and threw it away. “Anyone wanna watch a little magic trick? I’m about to make myself…”

He waved a hand and all the torches blew out.

“…disappear!”

The room was engulfed in darkness again. I felt a strong pull around my waist and barely managed to hold in a shout of surprise as I was hurtled through the air.

“Go! I’ll hold them off. You need to get to the top and destroy that master-key. And don’t worry about me, I’ll be fine,” shouted Kai.

He pushed me forward and I found my hands resting on two shoulders. I resolved myself and ran forward while urging the kids to follow me. We carefully made our way up, feeling out the stairs because it was too dark to see.

Despite being the most technologically advanced kingdom on Erath, the Air Kingdom never managed to make a freaking light bulb. Guess science doesn’t work the same way everywhere.

“We’re here,” said Gale as he pushed open a small wooden door.

The door swung open, revealing a lavishly decorated room. A rich carpet, intricately embroidered curtains, an ornately carved wooden bed and expensive sheets and furniture; just what you’d expect from the room of the king.

However, there were quite a few surprises inside that made it apparent why no one but royalty could come up here. Next to sophisticated oil paintings of ancient kings and queens hung posters of famous singers and celebrities. The rich carpet was stained in several places, the curtains had holes in them and the bed sheets were in disarray.

And of course, there was something downright strange inside.

“Your Highness!” We were greeted by a familiar voice.

“Ezu?” Gale said, dumbstruck.

Floating in the center of the room was a translucent head. It belonged to the scientist who had been hosting the Exhibition at the shrine- Ezure Taiker. The projection was coming from a communications prism that was embedded inside the coffee table in the center of the room.

Do they have cameras on the kid too? That’s just creepy. A little sad too I guess. The king’s a prisoner in his own castle.

“Your Highness, please listen to reason! You know why we can’t let these terrorists-”

She was interrupted by the sound of something breaking. Sparks flew out as the communications prism broke into pieces.

“Shut up!” cried Zoe, still pointing her air gun at the coffee table.

Gale stared at the empty air where the hologram had been, then he stared at Zoe with a blank look in his eyes.

“Stop wasting time. Where’s the key?” said Zoe.

“There should be an attic up there,” I said, pointing at the ceiling.

Zoe nodded and before Gale could protest, she fired her air gun at the ceiling. Chunks of stone and wood fell on the ground, littering the room. A cloud of dust filled the air, making us cough.

As the dust settled, several holes appeared in the ceiling. We couldn’t see anything inside but I could barely make out a dull glow on the edge of one of the holes.

“No ladder? How do we get up there?” asked Zoe.

I walked over to them. “Like this.”

I grabbed them and jumped towards the ceiling. The hole I’d chosen wasn’t wide enough so I hugged Zoe and Gale tightly to my chest and crashed through the stone bricks and wooden paneling.

The attic was dark and damp. The roof was full of holes and water dripped into pools on the dirty stone floor. There was no window so the only source of light were the holes in the roof and the big glowing thing in the back of the room.

It was a strange contraption; kind of like a mix between an old school radio and a giant locket. It had an antenna that wound its way up a chain and was swiveling and rotating in a seemingly random pattern. The chains connected the lower half, which had buttons and knobs on it, to the upper half where a large gray colored stone lay glowing brightly inside a glass case.

“So we just have to break this?” said Zoe, raising her gun. “No wait, I want to enjoy this.”

She walked over to the machine and flipped the air gun in her hand. She raised it and got ready to swing it at the glass covering the stone.

“Wait!”

“You again?” said Zoe, glaring at the floating head that appeared next to her. There was a communications prism on the machine too.

“Your Highness, please listen to reason! You know the numbers. You know the stats. You know what will happen if you do this!” pleaded the floating head.

“You really need to shut up. Gale knows what’s right. He’s not going to listen to your crap anymore. Goodbye!” She swung the back of her gun at the communications prism.

“My king, listen to me! Trust me! I’ve taken care of you since you were born. Please, trust me!” she shouted desperately. “You’re the king. You can’t let yourself be tricked by these criminals! Please little Galey, listen to me!”

“Stop!”

Zoe froze, the end of her gun inches from the machine. Her eyes were widened in disbelief. She tried to move the gun but she couldn’t. She tried to struggle, tried to flail but she couldn’t move anything but her eyes.

Several emotions flickered in her eyes. Anger, frustration, unwillingness and disbelief. She shifted her eyes to glare at Gale reproachfully. She knew she’d been frozen against her will by the king’s orders. She was a citizen of the Air kingdom so Fate forced her to follow the king’s orders.

“I’ll hear both of you and then I’ll make a decision,” he said, raising his quivering chin. “You first Zoe.”

“You back-stabbing piece of-”

“Stop.” Zoe’s mouth froze shut. “Insulting me isn’t going to help. You need to convince me through logic and reason. Give me an argument. Persuade me!” He gestured towards the hologram. “Show her how it’s done Ezu.”

“With pleasure, my king. The bonded laborers are the backbone of our society. Our manufacturing industries rely heavily on the laborers to produce our products. Releasing them from their contracts will not only cripple our economy and send thousands into poverty, it will also be a regressive step for science and innovation on Erath. Our progress over the past few centuries has improved the quality of living of millions of people on Erath and our inventions are used all across the world.” She took a deep breath.

“Screw that! Have you seen what the laborers go through? Can you seriously say that you’ve improved the lives of people while you make so many of them live a life like that?” I interjected.

“Stop, please let her finish,” said Gale.

“Thank you, my king. Our productivity has increased by over one-hundred and fifty percent in the last quarter century alone. Childhood mortality rates have halved since the discovery of facilitated breathing techniques and the creation of machines that enable better quality medicines to be produced. Harvests in the fields of the Light kingdom tripled after they adopted our machines. This increased the overall agricultural production of Erath and helped feed hundreds of thousands of people. International trade revolves around our products and presents the best possible route for peace- or whatever semblance of peace we can maintain within the restrictions of Fate- and above all else, our products are an essential part of the lives of millions of ordinary people around the world. Take away the laborers and everything we’ve built will collapse! The whole world as we know it will cease to exist!”

Gale nodded. He turned to Zoe.

“Your turn. Please keep it civil.”

“Fuck you!”

Gale sighed. “Whatever.”

Zoe cursed him a few more times before finally calming down a little.

“I thought you’d learned your lesson. Knew we should have tossed you off the ship,” she grumbled. “Have you forgotten everything we talked about? Have you forgotten what you saw in my room that day? Hell, have you forgotten what’s on your back?” she spat.

“But Ezu’s right too. I’m the king, I have to look at the big picture. I-”

“Fuck, what kind of king lets people live a life of misery and pain? Besides, what right do you have to make that choice for us?”

Gale blinked. “I’m the king. It’s my duty to lead my people-”

“Your people are just fine on their own! Keep your god damn hands to yourself. We don’t need you to choose for us. You’re not the one who has to spend years breaking rocks with a hammer. You don’t have to get whipped for dropping something by accident. You don’t know what it’s like to keep doing the same thing over and over again without food or sleep because you keep getting pumped with crap that keeps you going forever!” she cried. “You don’t know what we go through. What I went through. So shut up and let me do what you’re too stupid to do. Let me do the right thing!”

“It is not the right thing! It is the most illogical, irrational, and detrimental course of action we could possibly take!” shouted Ezure. “My king, we have the numbers and the data, you’ve heard her argument, she has nothing! No facts, no logic. All she has is an irrational appeal to an intangible sense of morality. I know I’ve taught you better and I know how talented you are. I trust you’ll make the correct decision.”

Gale gestured for both of them to be silent while he closed his eyes, seemingly lost in thought. I remained silent but I was lost in thought too. If Gale chose to go back on his promise, then I’d have to get over my disappointment real quick. He may not know what the right thing was, but I did and I had to make sure that all our efforts weren’t in vain.

Gale sighed. “All right.” He opened his eyes.

“Ezu,” he said, facing the projection. “You’re right. Our economy depends on the efforts of the laborers. The world is, overall, a better place because of our system. Our progress, our development, our achievements in science and technology are worthy of praise and respect and none of it would have been possible without the system.”

“Thank you my king. If you can just hold them at bay for long enough, the guards will come apprehend them-”

“No.” Gale looked away. “I understand all of that. I know what the science says. I know what my head says. Everything points towards it but I can’t do it. After everything I’ve seen, after what I know now. Ezu…I’m sorry.”

“My king, don’t! Don’t do it!” shrieked Ezure. “Don’t do it Galey!”

“Zoe,” said Gale.

Zoe looked up at him.

“Do it.”

Zoe’s lips curled up into a smile. “Finally!”

She brought the gun down on the glass. It cracked but didn’t shatter. Zoe grunted and pulled back the gun again.

“My king! Please don’t-”

“Ezu, I’ve made my decision,” breathed Gale as he looked at Zoe.

His fists were clenched and he was staring at her hard. He was still conflicted. The gun came down again and the glass shattered. However, the stone was still glowing and the antenna was still moving. The gun was raised again.

Zoe brought it down even harder this time. All of her frustration, all of her anger, she was letting it all out with this strike. This was it. This was her revenge.

“The mines are empty!”

“Stop!”

Zoe froze, the gun inches from the glowing stone.

“What do you mean?” asked Gale.

“The mines. The Breize stone mines,” said Ezure, her eyes staring downwards. “It’s a secret we haven’t told anyone. Not even the royal family…”

She sighed. “The mines are empty.”

Gale frowned. “We’ve mined them all up?”

“No.” She’d gotten him to stop but she still looked defeated. “They’re empty. They’ve always been empty.”

Gale paused. “But the stones…we’ve been using them for five centuries! If we weren’t mining them, then where-”

“We’ve been mining them. Just not at the Breize mines.”

“Is that why no one was allowed there? Only laborers and priests from the shrine?” Gale said. “But my ancestors saw the mines! I’ve read the books-”

“The books I made you read?”

Gale froze. “Oh…”

“That doesn’t change anything,” I said. “In fact, that just proves you can’t trust them. Let Zoe break the damn thing already. We can deal with their lies later.”

Gale looked at me and nodded slowly. “Right, this changes nothing. I’ve made my decision. Zoe, go ahe-”

“We mine them from the bottom of the island. Right here in Laput,” interrupted Ezure.

Gale snapped. “So what! Just let it go already Ezure! I’ve made my decision and…oh” He froze.

“It’s good to see that my hard work wasn’t wasted. At least you can still think,” said Ezure, testily.

“You mine them from the bottom…”

“Yes, my king. Now please order these criminals to stand down. The guards are almost here.”

Gale hesitated. Then, he nodded slowly.

“Sorry Zoe, I can’t let you do this.” He didn’t look at her. He couldn’t. “I’m so, so sorry…please, step away.”

Zoe’s eyes swam crazily. While her body walked over to Gale smoothly, her eyes flicked between both of the objects of her captivity. But she wasn’t the only one who was unwilling to let things slide so easily.

“What the hell? I don’t get this. So what if you dig up those damn stones from the bottom of the island?” I said, frustrated.

“Quiet you thug, your king has made his decision,” said Ezure.

I frowned. “Tell me Gale, you know what’s going on. The shrine just wants to maintain its power. You’re the king, why the fuck won’t you stand for what you know is the right thing to do?”

“Because it isn’t the smart thing to do! If they’re mining it from the bottom of the island, then…” he trailed off.

“Then what?” I asked.

Ezure interrupted. “You don’t need to bother with this thug, my king. Just order her to go-”

Gale raised a hand to silence her.

“The bottom layer of this floating island is made of mana crystals. It’s what keeps us afloat. And if our ‘Breize stones’ are actually those mana crystals, then judging by the amount we’ve used over the centuries…”

“You’ll fall,” I finished.

Gale nodded. “Right.”

“But what does that have to do with the laborers?” I asked.

“My king, why are you wasting your breath on this hooligan? Just tell her to-”

“Silence Ezure!” scolded Gale.

The floating head frowned but didn’t say a word.

“It has everything to do with them. All the laborers in Laput are stationed in the catacombs underneath the palace. They provide the mana needed to run the city. But if the mana crystals are being depleted, then they probably serve another function as well,” said Gale.

“Which is?”

“To keep us from falling back to the ground. If you break that master-key right now, you’ll send us crashing to our doom. The entire kingdom will go up in flames. Countless lives will be lost. Years of progress undone. So please, I beg you Ms.Lily, just come with me.”

He bowed his head. However, for some reason, I wasn’t affected by his pleading at all.

“My king! Why are you bowing your head to a worthless criminal? Just order her to stand down! She-”

“I can’t! Don’t you think I haven’t tried? I have no power over them. They’re not from the Air kingdom!” he shouted. He turned to me. “Please Ms.Lily, think of the consequences. This island is our home. It is the pride of our country.”

So what?

I jumped towards the machine.

“No! Didn’t you hear me? If you break that thing, hundreds of thousands of people will die. The Air kingdom will be severely crippled for centuries! It would be a disaster!”

I hesitated. Why had I jumped here so quickly? I’d let them all ramble for so long, so why did I suddenly jump over now?

I unsheathed my sword.

“Please Ms.Lily! Families and homes will be destroyed. Our livelihoods will disappear. Trust me, I’ll think of another way to power the mana crystal layer. We can hire paid magicians instead.”

I pointed my sword at the glowing gray stone inside the device.

Wait…why? Why am I doing this? I understand what he’s saying. It makes sense. If I do this now, a lot of people will be hurt. Hell, the people I’m trying to save will probably die too! Why am I…

“The Air kingdom will suffer! The Alliance relies on us for their weapons. Our machines power the Alliance’s wars. The Union will overrun the Alliance without our help. You used Earth magic, I saw it. I know you wouldn’t undermine the Alliance. Please step away, Ms.Lily.”

People are suffering. Yeah, that’s why I’m doing this…for the laborers. For the people like Zoe…right? Their pain can’t be ignored, right? I have to do this for them, right? This is justice! This is the right thing to do! I’m doing this because I’m a good person. Because I know what these people are going through. Because…because…

I’m the Hero…

I drove my sword through the stone, breaking it in half. Its light dimmed but it didn’t go out. I heard someone screaming in the background, heard things crashing and breaking as the ground shook uncontrollably.

I brought my sword down, cleaving the entire machine in two. The antenna swung uselessly to a stop. The stone dulled and crumbled. The master-key…broke. The shackles of the bonded laborers…broke.

I’d done it. I’d freed them. I’d done the right thing.

But then why did it feel so wrong?

The ground trembled and a rumbling sound resounded through the air.

Ezure’s head bobbed frantically. “What have you done! My king, we have to hurry. Send the guards to the catacombs, have them take over for the laborers. It should still take some time for the island to start falling. We can-”

The ground trembled and shook.

“Why is it…? The key was just broken! The masters should be able to keep the laborers under control for a little longer. Why is it happening so fast. Who-”

“What have you done?” came a voice from all around us.

Wind howled around us, sending dust swirling about in the air. A figure materialized next to the broken master-key. Gray hair, a pretty face and a gray robe with a tornado emblazoned on the back. The figure glared at us through her goggles.

“Was it worth it? Tell me, are you happy? Letting your emotions drive your actions, disregarding science and rationality. Tell me, is your heart filled with joy now that you’ve sentenced thousands to death and millions to poverty? You ignored the facts, the science, the logical reasoning. Tell me, do you still think you made the right decision?” asked the Goddess.

I hesitated. Now that I’d done the deed, I felt…conflicted. Like something was eating away at my insides. I’d come here to do the right thing. We’d hatched the plan to free the laborers living lives filled with cruelty and pain. Wasn’t freeing them the right thing to do?

“It was your fault! The only reason I had to make this decision in the first place was because of the way you were treating your people. Freeing them was the right thing to do. I broke that machine to liberate those people. To end their suffering. To make sure no one had to go through what Zoe went through, again!” I said.

The Goddess’ smile was full of disdain. “Really? Is that why you did it? Was that the motivation behind your actions?”

My mind went blank. I couldn’t respond.

The ground trembled again.

I did it because I wanted to free them. I wanted to do the right thing. I…I…

I didn’t do anything while Zoe was frozen by Gale’s commands.

The right thing, it was the right thing…

When did I take action?

Right thing…right…

I moved when I heard…

Right…right…

That it would cause the deaths of thousands.

Right…

And cripple the country…

I…

Cripple my enemies…

I am the..

I hadn’t broken that damn thing because I wanted to free the laborers…

Hero…

I’d done it because it would hurt my enemies. I’d done it not because I was a hero, but because I was the Hero.

The ground trembled again.

The Goddess stepped up to me. She whispered in my ear, “But you can still make up for it. I can hold this island up with my mana. I can take over for a few years if needed and we can come to an arrangement until then. Only…I can’t do that because I can’t interfere with your plans. Please…let me do this. Let me save my people.”

I hesitated. I wanted to do it. I wanted to give her permission but I couldn’t. The words wouldn’t come out of my mouth.

“Please,” she pleaded. “Just a yes. That’s all I need. Just nod your head, just once. And I can save hundreds of thousands of people. I’ll agree to let all the laborers go. I’ll take their place for however long I need to. I’ll even compensate them for their pain and suffering. Just please…don’t let my life’s work fall to ruin. Let me save my home. Let me save my friends and family. Let me…do the right thing…please.”

My mind was in turmoil. I wanted to, I desperately wanted to say yes. To nod my head. To give her some indication of how I really felt.

Do it! Save these people! Save your country, you damned Goddess! She was the Goddess. It was crazy that she needed my permission to help her people. It was messed up. This world was messed up. Fate was messed up.

I’d never really believed Amy and the others when they said that no one could resist Fate. I’d always thought that I could have fought it. That I would not be led around by some weird force that ran the world.

But I was wrong. I’d broken the master-key because Fate wanted me to do it. Or rather, it wanted me to hurt the Alliance. To kill my enemies and to cripple their resources. It wanted me to be the Hero. And now it forbade me from letting the Goddess save them.

It was forcing me to not only send thousands of people to their deaths but to refuse to save them as they died in front of me. To let the opportunity to save them pass me by just because I couldn’t nod my fucking head!

Tears streamed down my cheeks. The ground trembled again and the tower shook. The walls crumbled and the roof caved in. The last thing I saw was the sorrowful face of the Goddess.

Her eyes were sad and forlorn but more importantly, there was a hint of resignation in them. She’d come to plead to me, knowing that I wouldn’t be able to accept. She’d come to beg to me to let her save thousands of lives even though she’d ruined millions of them herself. She was a monster. A cold, cruel, heartless monster who had prioritized science and numbers over the well-being of millions of people over the centuries.

But right now, she was the one who wanted to do the right thing and I was the one who was getting in her way. Right now, she was the one who wanted to do something heroic.

And I was doing something evil. I was fulfilling my duties as ‘the Hero.’

The tower crumbled and my vision went dark as the roof fell on top of me. I felt someone take hold of my shoulders just as I faded into unconsciousness.

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