Locke Cole and the Phoenix Egg

The thug's head bounced down the stairs and rolled to a stop at my feet. Something above had cleanly severed his thick neck. His death-frozen expression looked like surprise, not terror; he'd never seen it coming.

Couldn't say I wept for the guy; more, that his buddies hadn't suffered the same fate.

Especially on account of who said buddies were liable to send up those stairs next: yours truly, Locke Cole, Returner agent and treasure hunter extraordinaire.

A deep, deceptively melodious voice at my shoulder said, "Apparently, our thief was not lying about the danger."

I gritted my teeth to keep from correcting him - it's treasure hunter, dammit! But, I'd gotten fists like iron ground into my face and stomach for complaining too many times over the last few weeks.

The speaker was Dadaluma, one of Zozo's most notorious gangland bosses. Which, if you've never been to Zozo - lucky stiff! - says a lot. A whole lot. He was quite a guy; six foot six and easily three hundred pounds of solid muscle wrapped in swarthy skin and no body fat to speak of, with a grin that glowed like the sun and eyes that gleamed like the fires of hell.

His attitude matched the latter.

I'd gotten mixed up with Dadaluma a little over a month ago, when I caught wind of a rumor that the crime boss had found the legendary Phoenix Egg, a relic from the War of the Magi said to be able to raise the dead. I needed that egg - or rather, Rachel needed it.

Trouble was, Dadaluma didn't have it. Yet.

Unfortunately for yours truly, I only found that out after I broke into the crime boss's armored compound in Zozo looking for the thing. Normally, I don't do that kind of thing, being a treasure hunter and all, but I figure stealing from a thief isn't exactly thievery, and besides, with my best girl's possible return to life on the line, I wasn't exactly as scrupulous as I might have been.

Normally, I don't get caught, either.

Whole thing went abnormal in a hurry.

Dadaluma was a slick bastard, give him that much. Had to be, to have risen through Zozo's dog-eat-dog underworld. He baited a trap for treasure hunters and… and yours truly fell into it like a rat after cheese.

See, Dadaluma wanted the Phoenix Egg, too, though I was willing to bet his motives were a lot uglier than mine. He had a map to a place it was rumored to lie. All he needed was a professional of my caliber to go into said place, evade the traps and guardians invariably surrounding a War of the Magi relic, find it and bring it back.

Which brought us back to present circumstances: standing in the courtyard of some kind of temple on a roughly triangular island on the rear end of nowhere, staring at the severed head of one of Dadaluma's thugs.

"You're next, thief," Dadaluma said. "I trust you'll be more careful than when you snuck into my compound."

"No problem," I said. My voice sounded a little shaky. I tried not to look at the head; it seemed to stare back. Which wasn't exactly impossible. "You'll have to let me go for me to pull this off, though.

"Unless," I added with a forced grin to the two brawlers whose iron grips locked my arms, "you boys want to go in with me?"

To their credit, they only exchanged nervous glances until their boss rumbled the order to release me.

I stepped forward - removing the head from view, thankfully -, rubbed my arms, cricked my neck. "Okay," I said. "See you in a few, Dadaluma." A few what? Minutes? Hours? The temple seemed to be built into the face of a mountain; who knew how big it was?

"A moment, Mr. Cole," Dadaluma said.

Reluctantly, I turned.

He said, "You do not honestly expect me to let you go in there alone, do you?"

"Since that's what you pay me the big bucks for, yeah, I kinda do." Not that I was actually getting paid, mind; Dadaluma considered it adequate payment to let me live after I tried to steal from him, and frankly, I didn't expect him to follow through with that, either. "From the looks of this place, your pals won't be able to make it through."

"My men, no," Dadaluma said. "Even I could not do so unaided. With you leading the way, however…"

"You're coming yourself?" I suppressed a gulp. Truth be told, I'd kinda planned on double-crossing the crime boss given half a chance. He wasn't the type to give said chance. "You sure that's safe?"

"If I were concerned for safety, Mr. Cole," Dadaluma said, "I would not be in the position I am today."

"I mean, what if your boys get spooked and decide to dump us both?"

A half-dozen glares burned into me. I heard the swish of fabric as long knives slid from sashes.

"Uh, not that I think they well, or anything," I mumbled. "It was, um, just a thought."

"You credit it more than I would," Dadaluma said. "In any case, you do not live to think, Mr. Cole. You live to hunt treasure for me; fail, through fear or negligence or lack of skill, and you will not live any longer."

"Gotcha," I said. Winning personality, isn't he?

He swept a ham fist toward the yawning maw of the temple above. "Now, Mr. Cole - lead on."

Considering the six brawlers ready, willing and very, very able to cut me into new and interesting shapes if I dallied, I turned to the stairs and started up without another word. Dadaluma's footsteps, deceptively quiet for such a huge guy, sounded at my heels.

The temple stairs were carved straight from the native stone and mostly overgrown with the thick, ropey native vegetation. After at least a thousand years of disuse and the elements, I could only tell one from the other by the roughly even ridges where I walked. They would've been a Zozo skyscraper's worth if they'd wound around in flights.

Dadaluma's first, unfortunate thug had made it all the way to the cavernous entryway before something took his head off. Wouldn't make much sense to trap the stairs, I figured, and anyway, any dangers aside from slipping would have worn away over the years. I saw no reason not to sprint to the top.

I slowed down as I approached the entry, looking for either the thug's body or some indication of what had killed him.

I didn't see either.

Vines choked much of the entrance, cobwebs the rest. I'd have bet on some kind of giant spider or plant monster if the cut hadn't looked so clean. Either way, it was dark and spooky as all hell.

Dadaluma joined me at the summit. "Well, Mr. Cole?"

"No sign of your boy."

Dadaluma peered into the darkness and scowled. "Then you'd better find what killed him."

Guardian golem, maybe? Metal and magic monsters predated the Empire's magitech armor by a thousand years, though they weren't anything like common.

I took a cautious step forward, keeping my head low. When nothing swung out to take it off, I risked another, my eyes sweeping the floor as I crept across it.

It was too dark to see inside, but I was sure the thug's corpse wasn't in the chamber. I smelled blood, but no dead flesh.

I reached into my pack, pulled out an oil lantern, lit it, and held it before me.

I gulped.

Four archways led from the room, counting the one I'd come through. All three interior passages were choked with dust - except where it was smudged in one of them by the broad, red-slicked outline of a body being dragged.

Behind me, Dadaluma muttered a curse.

I almost let down my guard. Traps didn't drag their victims away after they killed them.

Fortunately, my instincts were smarter than I was. I kept creeping forward, so the reddened blade that swung from the wall beside me cut only air. I fell backwards and stared at the space it had passed through.

"That's what killed him," I said. "But something else dragged his body off."

"What," Dadaluma asked.

If I knew, I thought, I'd have told you. Also, I'd feel a lot better about this mess. "Monster, maybe. Something big enough to carry his weight but short enough to prowl under the traps. Maybe designed, maybe wandered in."

"Charming," Dadaluma said. Hell of it was, he actually seemed to mean it. Probably figuring out how he could sell the thing if we survived meeting it.

I preferred not to meet it at all.

The trap, I figured, alerted whatever lurked in the temple to the presence of intruders. Staying low and sweeping the lantern more carefully over the floor, I sprinted toward the center interior passage.

I spotted the next two pressure plates on the floor. Reluctantly, I pointed them out to Dadaluma. Guess I'm just a softie at heart.

Either that, or I didn't want to face the temple's guardian without the crime boss's muscle and martial skill backing me up. Don't get me wrong, I can hold my own in a brawl or a knife-fight, but I'm no warrior by trade. Arvis, my Returner contact, was always bugging me to bone up on my swordsmanship or buy a pistol or something; maybe he was right.

Not that Dadaluma and co. had seen fit to leave me with either sword or gun, or even knife. I'd been their pack mule on the trek from the island's triangular shoreline to this temple, but they'd kept what weapons they carried on their persons. I had no idea where the knife I'd brought to Zozo ended up.

I crept down the passage, checking for the telltale marks of mechanisms, or monsters. The former seemed very much in evidence - pressure plates on the floor, trip wires above them (long ago snapped from alternating moisture and dryness, heat and cold), traps ranging from pits to darts to more of those still-sharp blades. I'd been calling the place a temple, but now I wondered if it was more of a vault - or a military facility primed to fend off attackers. From what little I, or anybody, knew of the waning years of the War of the Magi, it might have been all of the above at the same time.

So far, none of the dangers had been alive or magical or both. They'd be harder to spot, and a lot harder to foil.

Dadaluma kept his mouth shut and his eyes open, walking where I walked and listening to my whispered warnings. I wasn't sure whether to be grateful for him not interfering or sorry not to see him meet his fate at the temple's hands.

After almost a dozen interlocking passages and chambers, we emerged into a larger room. Had to be deep in the mountain, because we hadn't see a roof on the temple from outside and the ceiling here sloped up to a point way above my lantern's range. I didn't like that one bit, since it meant I couldn't inspect the ceiling for dangers. More promising was the raised platform at the center of the chamber. From my angle, I couldn't see what was on it, but it was the sort of place those old time types liked to display their glories.

Behind me, Dadaluma gasped.

I spun around, worried he'd stepped where he shouldn't have or maybe been caught by our mystery monster - worried, mostly, because in the latter case I was liable to be next.

He wasn't in trouble. He was staring up at the platform.

Of course - he had almost a whole foot on me; his angle was better.

I asked, "What's up there?"

"The Phoenix Egg," he breathed.

And took a step forward.

Ah, hell.

Pure instinct took me over; if I'd had half a brain, I'd have let him walk into his own mess. But I didn't, so I ended up slamming face first into a wall of muscle, hard enough to smash my nose and send us both tumbling to the floor.

Dadaluma came up swinging. He batted me off him almost casually and tensed to leap after me and kill me in one of the interesting ways he'd described during our too-long acquaintance.

Then he saw where he'd stepped.

A symbol carved on the flagstone projected a roiling pillar of white flame; it twisted and crackled and snapped like a living thing, it didn't seem to consume any fuel, and it didn't make a sound.

I knew magic when I saw it. Felt it, more like. It made my skin crawl. I'd seen old sorceries and relics from the War of the Magi before, but this felt stronger, stranger. I wondered if it was real esper magic. I wondered if that was a good sign; some of the legends called the phoenix an esper.

"You dove at me," Dadaluma said, "to spare me that death?"

I rubbed my sore face and sorer back. "Damned if I know why, but yeah."

"Impressive," he said. "Incomprehensible, but impressive. Perhaps I misjudged you, Mr. Cole"

"How's that?"

"You are not a common thief," he said. When I started to grin, he beat me to the punch and added, "You are an uncommon one."

Real funny, I thought. Your gratitude warms my heart. Don't thank me, or anything. Don't put yourself out offering to let me use the Egg on Rachel. Or just plain letting me go, for that matter.

I said, "Let's just get the Egg and get the hell out of here."

"I will let you handle the former." Dadaluma snapped to his feet and folded his massive arms over his chest, managing to look stately and reserved and in control when I knew for a fact the only reason he wasn't still making a beeline for the platform was fear of more traps.

I didn't acknowledge his order. Bad enough I had to obey it.

Holding my lantern low to compliment the light from the fiery pillar, I picked my way across the chamber and reached the edge of the platform, passing a dozen more rune-inscribed traps. I held my breath with each step; if my foot brushed one of those killing stones, or if the temple's designers had decided to put in the occasional unmarked trap to foil cleverer infiltrators, I wouldn't be worrying about anything for long.

After what felt like hours but couldn't have been five minutes even at my careful, measured pace, I reached the platform.

It presented another challenge. The ancients who built it must have used their magic to reach its summit, or else been even taller than Dadaluma. Mere mundane mortal I, I'd have to climb. I didn't mind climbing - you get used to it in my line of work, and at least I wouldn't have to put up with the constant, stinging, slicking drizzle I'd faced when climbing into Dadaluma's Zozo compound - but it meant leaving my lantern or dousing it.

I glanced back at the pillar of flame. I assumed it would eventually go out, but couldn't know when. Anyway, it wasn't bright enough for the close-in work I'd probably have to do to secure the Phoenix Egg.


"Locke Cole," I muttered, "you're either a genius or an idiot, 'cause there's sure nobody in between crazy enough to try this."

I lowered my lantern to the floor and inspected one of the symbols: a stylized thing that might have been a flame, surrounded by a five-pointed star. The next one I looked at appeared identical.

Dadaluma hadn't even gotten singed when I shoved him aside. Apparently, it took the traps at least a fraction of a second to work their mojo.

Unless the first one started slow from centuries of disuse.

I really wished I hadn't thought of that.

My foot snaked out toward one of the stones the symbols adorned. I gulped. I fumbled through prayers to a couple of the local gods I'd run across in my travels, the Three Goddesses of Magic everybody knows about but nobody takes much notice of, and Kohlingen's home grown set of benign and possibly mythical spirits.

I slammed my foot into the stone and swept it away.

A pillar of magical fire erupted inches from my shaking, sweating face, coming within a hair of catching my foot. The light was almost blinding, the otherworldliness almost nauseating.

But I didn't burn up.

"What are you doing," Dadaluma demanded. "Do you mean to die here? You were already past that one!"

"Trust me," I called back.

Something about the first pillar of fire had bugged me; standing right next to this one, I realized what it was. The pillars were impressive and scary as hell - but they didn't put off any heat.

I reached into my pack and withdrew a metal pole. It was a Returner device I pegged as a gift from the Kingdom of Figaro, spring-loaded clockwork. If Dadaluma's brawlers had known what it could do, they'd have taken it from me in a heartbeat, but it blended with the other tools of my trade. I twisted the dial on its side and held it toward the pillar.

With each tick, it extended toward the seething white flames.

It didn't get any hotter.

I glanced at the now better-illuminated floor. I laughed.

"What is so funny, Mr. Cole," Dadaluma asked.

"The pillars," I said. "They aren't traps."


To prove it, I cranked back the piston and tucked it into my pack, replacing its presence in the pillar with my own hand. It was pure light given the appearance of flame, at most pleasantly warm. "It's just lighting," I said. "It makes sense. Back when this place was built, a magic trap would've been a waste of time; anybody worth defending against could've sensed it a mile off."

"Then we are out of danger?"

"How should I know? All I can tell you is that these pillars can't hurt us on there own. They may trigger some mechanism that will if we turn them on in the wrong order. Or they may turn the mechanism off."

"You're the treasure hunter," Dadaluma said. He almost sounded like he gave my profession an ounce of respect now. About time, if you ask me.

I went after the pillars with more gusto; Dadaluma joined in at his end. We met at the middle of a corridor of dancing lights that illuminated the vast pyramidal ceiling. I eyed the carvings there; they definitely seemed to have a pyromaniac theme, and I saw enough birds to give me some hope that Dadaluma was right about seeing the Phoenix Egg.

Now, I just had to figure out how to get it to Rachel rather than the crime boss. I didn't expect his newfound respect would extend to letting me use the prize he'd recruited me to get.

Also, how to get it off whatever was holding it. I hadn't asked Dadaluma because, for one, I didn't trust him to tell me the whole truth and nothing but, and for another, he wasn't a treasure hunter. Even with the best of intentions, which he surely didn't have, he'd be as likely to hurt as help.

Yours truly had to eyeball the situation close up.

"Back in a flash, Boss," I told Dadaluma. I hadn't called him by the Zozoan honorific before. From his subtle flash of white grin, I gathered he caught it this time, and thought it meant I trusted and respected him. The latter, I actually sort of did; the former? No way in hell. Letting him think I'd dropped my guard would be about the only way to drop his.

Told you I'm not as big of a fool as I look.

I wasn't working off any kind of a plan, mind. I made up each new trick as I went along, same as always. So far, my tricks had cost me a reason for living, but they'd also kept me alive and given me a shot at a chance at getting said reason back.

I sprinted across the now brightly lit chamber and resumed my inspection of the wall. No mechanical traps awaited me, or at least none I could find. I didn't expect magical shenanigans; my explanation for why I hadn't seen any so far made too much sense. Satisfied, I scrambled up, agile as a squirrel.

I straightened up on the platform.

Two strides away, a roughly-egg-shaped gem floated in thin air. White fire burned almost invisibly at its heart, perceptible more for its faint motion than any illumination it gave off. I felt comforting warmth flowing through me just looking at it, and desire so hot and fierce it seemed to sear into my soul.

Gods and espers - the Phoenix Egg!

I'd spent years searching for the damned thing, and until then, I guess I didn't really believe it existed. Rather, I believe it because I had to, because it was the only hope I had of seeing Rachel alive.

It was real. It was here. Had to be! What else could this thing, lost to time since the War of the Magi, the pot at the end of Dadaluma's crazy rainbow, trapped and guarded and magical, be?

I almost leapt at the Egg to clasp it to me, heedless of the danger.


Maybe some higher power had heard my earlier prayers, or maybe my instincts remained a lot smarter than I was. Whatever; I hesitated.

The hesitation saved my life, because as soon as my hand started to stretch toward the Egg, the floor under it moved. It was a blur, glimmering white silver in the light of the flame pillars. I didn't understand what the blur was until I felt a pain in my outstretched fingers.

I pulled the digits back and looked them over.

The tips of the two longest slid slowly, cleanly off.

I stared, gaping, as my blood ran down from the smooth-cut fingertips. If I'd stepped forward, I would have been dismembered literally before I knew it. Maybe the mechanism wasn't magical - though how it could detect my approach otherwise I didn't know - but the blades it commanded sure as hell were.

Hastily, I pulled a potion from my belt with my unblooded hand. I poured a little of the blue-tinged liquid onto my fingers and a little more into my mouth. I only had three, assuming none had broken.

"What happened," Dadaluma called. He apparently hadn't noticed the blades at all, which didn't surprise me.

"We've got a problem," I said. "Another trap. A nasty one."

"Remove it or avoid it," Dadaluma said.

And here I was planning on just stepping right through, maybe whistling a little tune. Geez. What did he think I planned to do? The answer came almost before I asked myself the question: he expected me to quit.

Told me a lot. First, that Dadaluma, whatever his strengths and failings as a person, numbered his subordinates among the latter, probably with good reason. Second, that Dadaluma thought, or maybe knew, I could quit.

Third, that the temple rattled Dadaluma worse than it did me. Outside, and especially in Zozo, he'd been completely in control. Control meant the world to Dadaluma; he practiced a philosophy and a fighting style based on controlling his body and mind, and excelled at a dirty business based on controlling his territory.

The temple on the triangular island put the control in the hands of its builders - and the treasure hunter who had so far beat them by wits and instincts and luck.

I grinned to myself as I knelt to inspect the trap. The potion had already stopped the bleeding from my fingers and left them with a thin, blue protective film. I hadn't used enough to numb the pain, though; I might need all the feeling I could get, pleasant or otherwise.

I couldn't see the gaps the blades emerged from. They had to be perfectly fitted, their cracks smaller than the human eye could see. I had a magnifying glass in my pack, but didn't want to stick my head close enough to use it.

I couldn't see a mechanism controlling the blades, either. No pressure plates, no tripwires. Didn't mean there wasn't something; I'd seen traps triggered by body heat before, others by breaking a beam of light.

I could test both. I pulled out the matches I used to light my lantern, struck one on the stone I knew was safe. Slowly, carefully, I pushed it forward. When it got farther than I was comfortable pushing it by hand, I took the matchbook and used its edge to push the match. It slid farther than I could have stretched my hand.

I let the match burn out while I returned the book to my pack and pulled out a blanket. I cracked the coarse fabric in the air before me like I was making camp. It settled harmlessly onto the stone, halfway between the Egg and I and a lot closer than my hand had gotten.

So - neither light nor heat.

I was getting increasingly worried the mechanism was magical. I had no way to disarm it if it were, and no reliable way to avoid it.

I rolled the blanket back up and returned it to my pack.

"I suggest you hurry, Mr. Cole," Dadaluma said. "I need not remind you that we share this place with some manner of guardian beast."

I wished he hadn't mentioned the monster. I needed time to handle a trap like this; rushing would get me killed, which would do neither Rachel nor I any good - nor the Returners, nor even Dadaluma. A monster might make taking my time just as lethal, though.

I ran through the possible mechanisms. Nothing leapt to mind. Hell, the blades themselves might be some kind of crazy spell. Who knew what the scions of the War of the Magi, esper and once-human alike, could achieve? The temple builders even had good reason to use magic here. They could bind and loose it at need, allowing them to use the Egg when they wanted to.

Still, enemy sorcerers could have done the same; espers could probably have passed without any harm at all. I didn't even know if this temple once belonged to espers or mage knights or some forgotten minor faction from the time of myth; I figured they'd had their Dadaluma's - and their Lockes - as well as their Vectors and their Figaros, same as any other time. History remembered the big players; most men slipped through its shadows, forgotten and gladly so.

I looked up at the Phoenix Egg again. I felt the same things I had before. If I closed my eyes, I could imagine sitting by my family's fireplace as a little kid, wrapped in a warm blanket and nursing a cup of hot chocolate. Or at the same fireplace a decade later with Rachel sharing the blanket, planning the big dig that would've financed our wedding if it hadn't taken her consciousness instead.

I wanted to reach out and recapture those memories.

Even if it killed me.

Which, I reminded myself, it certainly would.

Dadaluma was wrong to think I'd quit, though. I'd never quit. His service, sure. But looking for the legendary phoenix's power over life? Not on mine.

Reaching out would kill me. I thought about what reaching entailed. Stretching my hand out, but how could a trap know that? Shifting my weight -

Clever bastards!

Quickly, almost frantically, I pulled my blanket from the pack again. This time, I didn't unfurl it. I kept it tightly wrapped and used it to push hard on the floor.

The blades cut it about two feet from where I stood. I got no better look at them, but I didn't need one.

"Boss," I called, sticking with the honorific as long as I had to. "I need your help if you want to get the Egg."

"I will get the Egg," the crime boss said. "Only your help is optional." He sprinted forward and leapt up, pulling himself only the last foot onto the platform. Hell of a jump. "What must we do?"

"This whole platform is one big pressure plate," I said. "It's balanced like a scale. It tips - just a little, but enough - when somebody puts his weight forward. Then they die."

"You need me to balance the scale," Dadaluma said.

"Right in one, Boss."

"And what is to stop you from shifting abruptly and sending me to my death?"

"I'm not suicidal," I said, "or quick enough to get out alive. Besides, I want that Egg as much as you do, and it costs you nothing to let me test it on my best girl before you do whatever with it. Right?"

"You're changing the deal."

"I'm doing what I came to do. You can help or not, but if not…"

"So be it," he said.

I suppressed a sigh of relief. My pack wasn't heavy enough to balance my weight on its own.

I laid out the plan, fast and in broad strokes. Dadaluma was a bright guy, and for the moment motivated to keep yours truly among the living. He nodded along with me.

He would go to the far side of the platform. He would perch on the very edge and use his strength to keep it from shifting. I would dump my pack and anything I could spare and slip across while he balanced it out.

In my opinion, he got the better deal. If either of us screwed up, he'd only lose a hand or two. I'd be dead.

Sometimes, I thought, I thought too much.

Dadaluma descended from the platform and crept around to its other side. He perched on the edge and stretched his hands out like I'd asked - carefully. He held his weight on the solid edge and his hands so close to the stone I worried he'd get them cut off.

"Ready," he said. His voice sounded strained. No surprise.

I took a deep breath. Tensed.

Stepped forward.

The platform didn't move. I heard Dadaluma grunt faintly, so I knew he was holding it flat.

I slid my feet along rather than shifting my weight to walk normally. It was slower and more nerve-wracking, but anything else would dismember Dadaluma and leave me to starve in the middle of the platform.

I reached the Egg whole and hearty.

Normally, I would have inspected its pedestal for further traps, but since it didn't have a platform, or anything else visibly holding it up, I didn't see how hesitating would help me.

I reached out an grabbed it.

The warm, happy, hungry feeling I got from looking at the Egg doubled when I actually touched it. I felt like I could swim in air, like I could reach out and touch my memories, like I could take on the whole Empire all by myself - all in all, like I'd taken a dangerously potent cocktail of the narcotic philters and powders Dadaluma pushed in Zozo.

The last thought snapped me enough back to reality to stuff the Egg into a piece of cloth and the cloth into my pack.

The feelings left immediately; now I felt cold and wet and shaky and scared.

Good thing - because if I had brain one, I be all those things.

I glanced at Dadaluma. He nodded toward the side of the platform I'd come from.

At least he didn't try to persuade me to throw him the Egg. Still, I figured I'd go across head-first and pack-last; no reason to give him any ideas about separating the parts of me carrying the Egg from those not.

I'd almost made it to the edge of the platform when one of the white flame pillars distorted and cut off.

"The hell," I muttered.

Another, closer and in the same line, suffered the same fate. The one behind it sprang up. The process repeated, sooner unless I missed my guess.

I made another guess then - not one I liked.

"Uh-oh," I said as I jumped from the platform. To Dadaluma, I shouted, "Run!"

I hit the ground seven feet below, hard enough to send pain shooting through my legs and knees. For one horrible moment I thought I'd broken something.

The pillar two away from me distorted.

I sprang to my feet, badly bruised but unbroken, amazed at how fast I could move when sufficiently motivated.

"What's happening," Dadaluma shouted.

"Monster," I gasped. I dodged left, leaving a trail of previously unlit pillars. "Invisible. Big. Fast."

Faster than me, that was for sure. The pillars distorted faster than I lit them. I still couldn't see my pursuer, but I could feel its hot breath at my back. Guardian demon, I assumed. Real nasty one.

I slid to the side just before I reached the wall of the chamber. Something huge slammed loudly into the barrier, hard enough to smash the stone. The monster's roar echoed around the chamber.

Once I got to a straightaway, I realized, it would catch me for sure. Assuming the traps I'd evaded rather than disabling didn't do so.

Which meant I had to kill it.

I darted back into the center of the chamber. Now that I knew what to listen for, I could hear the clack of vicious claws on the floor as the thing gave chase. It wasn't bothering with the subtlety its apparently natural invisibility gave it, which made it easier to keep track of - and faster even than before.

I ran my mind through my resources. They didn't look promising. No weapons except a fancy Figaroan tool that I barely knew how to use. No defenses whatsoever. No idea where Dadaluma had gotten to, assuming he hadn't left me for dead. No idea what exactly I was fighting.

I wanted to say I'd faced worse, but truth be told, this monster seemed leagues out of my league. Big and athletic as a young behemoth, naturally invisible, probably hanging around since the War of the Magi?

Yeah, I could say I'd faced worse, but I'd be lying through my teeth.

I tucked into a roll as the flame immediately at my back distorted. A massive paw clipped me in the side and sent me careening like a ball toward the far wall. If I hadn't been rolling already, I'd have cracked my skull open; as it was, I just hurt like hell.

Two things cut through the haze of my shaken brain: one flame after another distorting as the monster charged, and Dadaluma's shout: "Throw me the Egg!"

Must've been too dazed or too scared to think straight, because I actually dug the thing out and pitched it toward the sound of the crime boss's voice.

From the sound and the distorted lights, the monster skidded to a halt. I felt something heavy smash into my side - a sliding foot, I supposed -, but it turned and bounded after its treasure.

Dadaluma had caught the Egg and sprinted to the far side of the chamber, his longer stride and the monster's poor cornering buying him a few seconds. I only knew where he stood because of the monster's trajectory.

On the far side of the platform.

Clever bastard!

The monster must have vaulted onto the platform, because it skewed enough I could see the tilting stone rise over the lip. And the blades flashing like silver threads in the white fire light.

The monster roared again; its blood, at least, was visible - and everywhere, thick and dark and foul-smelling.

I figured it was dead until it landed in a wet splat on the far side.

Dadaluma must have figured the same, because he hadn't started running again. The monster's impact tossed him into the air, the Egg glowing through his dark fingers.

He hit the floor on my side of the platform, and didn't move.

Ah, hell.

The distortions kept moving.

When the monster rounded the corner, I could see where it had been cut; ribbons of gory flesh hung from its invisible lower legs, confirming my suspicion it was some kind of behemoth. Its belly dripped gore. Apparently, only its skin was invisible.

And intact enough to keep its vital bits from falling out.

If I'd thought it would snack on Dadaluma, I might have bolted. But the monster and the crime boss and I wanted the same thing: the Egg.

I had no idea about the monster's motives, but figured if it had a dead mate and the brains to understand the problem, it would've used the Egg a long time ago. Far as I was concerned, that made my need for the relic the most pressing.

I charged.

The monster's poor cornering slowed it again. I managed to reach Dadaluma's shattered, still-moving body before it did.

I kicked the Egg, which had rolled from Dadaluma's fingers, into my injured hand. My good hand closed on the Figaroan device.

"You want this," I asked the monster, holding the Egg up. "Then come and get it!"

It did.

I waited until the last flame from me distorted, then a breath longer.

I flipped the release on the device.

Springs and gears snapped into action with such force I could barely hold on. A spike of metal rocketed from the tube, extending and snapping into place as it went.

It disappeared a foot from my face and reemerged a good five feet further, stained dark red.

The monster writhed on the impaling device. I let both thrash to the side, watching the latter's motion so I knew where my enemy was. After a long minute, it stopped moving. The blood pooling in seeming thin air outlined enough for me to tell I'd stabbed the monster through its mouth, straight up into its brain.

I whispered my thanks to whoever invented that tool. The man was a certifiable genius.

I turned my attention to Dadaluma.

The crime boss was in a bad way. He clearly had plenty of broken bones, and only his shallow breathing told me he was alive.

I didn't need him anymore, right?

The smart thing to do would be to leave. I could find my own way off the island, or pilfer the boat and figure out how to steer it without Dadaluma's men.

On the flip side, did I really want to use an untested, possibly addictive War of the Magi relic on Rachel? The alchemist who had preserved her at the edge of death claimed her condition was terribly fragile.

I'd suggested Dadaluma test the Egg on Rachel because it was the only way I saw to get him to use it on her. Didn't mean I was comfortable with the idea.

Besides, Dadaluma had helped me out against the monster.

Guess I'm just a softie at heart.

I held the Egg over the crime boss and slowly unwrapped it. The warm, welcome glow filled my mind, so I looked away and made sure to hold it only through the cloth. I tried to think in its general direction, unsure how to activate it.

A voice echoed through the chamber, or through my head. "You are mistaken, Locke Cole."

I risked opening the eye further from the egg.

A half-visible spirit something, which might have been an ivory-skinned woman dressed only in white flame and might have been a woman made of white flame, stood or floated - or somehow both, I just couldn't tell - before me.

She smiled sadly, or projected the impression of a sad smile into my mind. "I am not the one you seek."

"You can read my mind?"

"I can read many things," she said, or thought. Her sad smile didn't seem to move when she 'spoke,' but then, I wasn't sure if her visible form even existed outside my confused, Egg-addled mind.

"But you're not the phoenix," I said. "The phoenix is a bird. Literally. Not metaphorically. 'Cause, I mean, where I come from, the slang for a girl can be 'bird,' but that can't be old enough -"

"It is not," she agreed.


She seemed to drift forward. Without ever changing posture, she gave the impression of leaning over Dadaluma. It was like being drunk - really drunk - and seeing doubles, except you didn't really see the doubles and what you did see didn't synch up with itself.

"Are you a goddess," I asked.

The answer was no, although I didn't hear her say it or see her shake her head - any of the heads I perceived at the edge of my consciousness.

"Esper," I guessed.

"I was an esper," she said. "Now I am a memory. But not, I think, much longer. The age is about turn once more, and I will be given up to the peace of forgetfulness."

I didn't follow that mystical mumbo-jumbo one bit. Turning of the age? Peace of forgetfulness? She creeped me out.

I managed to gather enough wits to ask, "Can you help Rachel?"

"She is beyond my power," the esper said. "I can promise only that you will find phoenix, and find peace, if you continue to look."

I gulped. The first part sounded good. The second? I wasn't so sure, considering that she seemed to be looking forward to a peace that was the human equivalent of death.

"Where will I find phoenix," I asked.

"At a place beyond the turning of the age."

She wove a web of white fire over Dadaluma while she spoke. Annoyed by her cryptic answers, I asked, "What are you doing?"

"Preserving one who keeps faith with my descendents," she said.

"Dadaluma? But he's a crime boss! He's -"

"He, too, mistakes espers for gods, as his ancestors did when I yet lived. He keeps faith. It is necessary he retain it until such time as my descendents require his services."

"But -"

I was talking to thin air.

The Egg - or whatever the hell it was - was cold in my grasp.

Only the fact that Dadaluma seemed to have recovered gave me any indication I hadn't been talking to thin air.

The crime boss - or whatever he was - pulled himself to his feet. He glanced at the pooling blood and the Figaroan tool and finally at me. "The monster is dead?"

I nodded.

"You appear badly shaken, Mr. Cole," he said. "I would have expected a man of your profession to be familiar with all manner of beasts."

"But not all manner of memories," I muttered.

Dadaluma frowned.

I tossed him the dormant Egg. It flickered with new life in his grasp. Apparently, the 'memory' was pleased to be back with someone who kept faith. Whatever any of that mumbo-jumbo meant.

Actually, I knew what it meant - to me.

It meant I had to keep looking.

"You have my gratitude, Mr. Cole," Dadaluma said. "You have proven very resourceful and very brave. Perhaps you would be interested in changing affiliations? My organization fights the Empire as often as the Returners and to greater effect, even if our reasons for doing so differ. And I could use a man with your talents. You could even use the Egg on your lady friend; as you said, it would be best for me to test its power."

"Maybe," I said, too exhausted to argue, or to explain that I'd already tested it.

After all, I so no point in turning him down until after his ship deposited me back on the mainland.

All That Glitters Is Cold 4 Fanfic Competition

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