The Phoenix Chronicles
Planting Seeds


They were watching.

They had always been watching, like a shadow keeping with its host. They had seen the great fire falling from the sky. They had seen the land turning to ash, and ash turning to snow, and snow turning to rivers, and cities rising from the shores. These things they witnessed in leaps, bounds and snapshots, like cosmic tourists.

Now they were going to see the end of the long journey. By following the ones that would not sit and wait for the hour to come, they arrived at the Day of Lavos. This was the day that would bring the end of civilizations, and either leave them born anew or gone forever. This was the day they had been chasing.

The world-parasite loomed over its own volcanic crater, deceptively inert. It was massive; a village could easily be lost inside. Lavos was composed like a tick, with its feeble legs and stumpy head crowded before its swollen abdomen. Its giant, armored quills fanned the clouds with the monster's thrumming breaths. Lavos had crawled from the pit of the earth to do battle with the heavens, and that is precisely what came to it. The magnitude of its harvested life energy charged the atmosphere, and lightning danced in the dismal pall overhead. Soon it would rain, but whether fire or water would kiss the ground depended on the outcome of this struggle. Its initial confrontation with them left a twisted gash in its shell--an ugly scar on an ugly wart--and the brunt of combat was presently taking place deep within, where it was not safe to follow.

They were an impetuous lot, determined to do what was not meant to be done and break a cycle of time and death that had been rendered steadfast for countless millennia. Barnath and Bairith, on the other hand, were merely rapiers--spectres--spectators, even, but not fighters. It was not their obligation to interfere with their quest--rather, to watch, follow, and lie in wait.

So, they watched.

Bairith already had an eyeful of Lavos, so he instead surveyed the machinery strewn over the field. Chips and bits of scorched metal stuck into the ruddy earth like a robotic graveyard. He perched on a dilapidated altimeter, its gauge still wobbling fluidly in its glassy socket.

"I can't believe they wrecked their time machine," he spoke at length.

Beside him, his brother assumed his default form, rising from the charred rocks like smoke. Rapiers were an extrasensory breed, able to transcend the material plane, although their dog-like statures and vaporous compositions often likened them to ghosts. The brothers preferred to believe their influence over mortals was more tangible.

Bairith tipped his cool blue eyes skyward, as if to propose to the gods. His tone matched his shape, sleek and refined. "The time of Darkness is coming... Can you not feel it, brother? Master's presence is very strong in this age."

Barnath blinked a pair of lurid red eyes, the two bright spots the only fixed features on his gaseous complexion. His voice was a bitter rasp through hazy fangs. "Yess... It is very soon, here. Master will be victorious. There's nothing Bahamut can do." He broke into sardonic laughter. "I'd like to see him try."

Bairith stared distantly into the shattered maw of the devourer of the planet. "He already is."

Barnath huffed at the remark and endured a reverent silence.

"Suppose they succeed, brother." Bairith's voice was so soft that its hypothetical ring was lost.

The other harrumphed. "I hope not! I hope Lavos boils the skin from their bones and brings doomsday to this forsaken planet." He grumbled in an afterthought, "I can't wait to leave."

"I am not so confident."

"I'll be damned the day filthy humans win over the powers of Darkness!"

"You said the same about the Reptites, brother," Bairith pointedly recalled.

Barnath growled. "That was different!"

"Really?"

"Yes, really!" he shrieked. "I am beginning to despise your skepticism. What makes you think those miserable mortals stand a candle's chance in a hailstorm against the spawn of the Dark Lord?"

"Yes," Bairith yielded. "I suppose their odds of survival are very slim indeed. Nonetheless, what if Bahamut tries again?"

"Ha. Like I said, he should be lucky enough to try. It's too late. You just said yourself that the Age of Darkness is dawning. He won't have enough time to regroup and start over."

When the rebuttal was late, the spiteful one asked after his brother's doubt. "What's the matter with you, Bairith? You sound as if you don't have faith in our plan."

"Oh, my faith is not misplaced, brother," Bairith assured. "I just like to leave my options open..."

Inferring treachery, Barnath's crimson eyes narrowed. "You wouldn't dare..."

Bairith reared into a defensive posture not unlike a cobra's. "Dare what? Don't be ridiculous, brother. I only mean to say that, if things don't quite go as we planned, we should be thinking ahead. It would be foolish to assume the outcome of things so early in the game."

"Well, that's why we are here," Barnath noted scathingly. "Just in case."

"Yes, that does remind me," Bairith's tone lightened. "Our little experiment should be ripe by now. What do you think?"

Barnath regarded the other for a quizzical moment before catching his drift and grinning malevolently. "Ah! Yes, I think it's harvesting time."

Bairith smirked. "Let us be off, then, before Lavos makes done of things."

The spectres hitched onto the wind and departed, leaving the world's leech to its duties.

They were taking advantage of time travel--it was an inspired process. When stalking the heroes of time, one could pick up a few tricks concerning ancient relics.

The Sun Stone, a magical rock imbued with sunlight's pure potential, was once procured from its hiding place, transplanted to the prehistoric Sun Shrine, and left to bake for several aeons until its latent properties matured. A quick hop in the time machine, Epoch, was all that was needed to forego the tedious wait and obtain the artifact's awesome solar energy. Unbeknownst to the human adventurers, Barnath and Bairith happened on a similar procedure, albeit with a darker effect. Just as a place could exist where the sun always shone, so could there be places of perpetual shadow...

The brothers slinked beneath the planet's crust, exploring buried ruins. Tyrano Fortress was where, many ages ago, "big fire" struck the earth. Hidden underground ever since, the citadel remained a monument to the world that could have been, if evolution ran its intended course. However, Lavos had intervened, and that piece of history was forever poisoned. Pyroclastic ruts in the lair's supports were owed to the ancient monster's forced entry, skeletal fossils were embalmed in the walls, and the obsidian cobbles that paved the dungeon teemed with the demon parasite's influence. Unnatural emerald torchlight pervaded the halls, yet as the twin spirits crept into the heart of the dinosaur lair, shadows consumed even flames of Darkness.

Bairith sniffed along a narrow passage and turned a corner, entering a cold tomb. The chamber harbored an igneous shelf littered with bones, as well as lapilli shards that glistened with the pulse of Lavos's chaotic aura. The spirit smiled, pleased with the find. "Here it is."

His brother followed, beholding the nest of cursed jewels. "Yess... Here they are! They've been feeding on Lavos's energy for millennia, and now they're ripe!" Barnath approached with a rapacious grin, but as he moved to inventory the dark fruit, his expression dropped and his hackles fumed.

"There's only two! What's the meaning of this?!"

"Relax, brother. It's very difficult to cultivate just one Dark Seed. We're lucky to get what we did."

Barnath pouted. "Well, I suppose... Two should suffice. That's all we need, right? One for each of 'em."

Bairith nodded and swept a misty tendril over the lot. "That should be more than enough. Now be quick and take them. We should get going."

Barnath slid up to the dark altar and unhinged his jaw, consuming both trinkets--each no larger than a thumb--in one clean swoop. They settled instantly in his flimsy bowels and tinged his form fluorescent purple. The rapier blinked at his transfiguration. "How do I look?"

"Like a black light," Bairith answered tersely. "Now come along."

"Oh, fine. Don't be in such a rush all the time, Bairith. It's not as if Lavos is going anywhere," he grumbled while climbing to catch up with his sibling, already en route to the surface.

***

The afternoon was aging fast when the brothers returned to that fated field. It was as pristinely disturbed (and the weather just as ominous) as they left it, the rain not ready to fall, just yet. It was curious that the locals--leagues away as their city might have been--weren't already buzzing around the crater and its alien ant lion. It wasn't as if Lavos made a quiet debut, and mankind was a notoriously inquisitive race, yet not a single soul had arrived to gape and wonder at their reaper--or at least at the demolished aircraft plunged into its eye. The rapiers weren't about to question any good fortune, however, so no comment passed on the lack of human interference.

Together again, they sat on the rim of Lavos's crater, once more passively observing. Bairith's expression was grave as he reflected on the longevity of the battle.

"Are they still fighting?" Barnath broke his meditation.

"It would appear that way."

Barnath reviewed the potential outcomes. "Maybe they're already dead, and Lavos is recuperating."

"No..." refuted the other as he acquired that detached stare again. "I can still sense them."

"But they couldn't...!" The possibility was ineffably outrageous.

"No... I can still sense the spawn, as well."

Barnath was momentarily pacified.

"I wonder..." Bairith entertained his brother's temper. "The humans may win this battle, yet. What say you to that?"

Barnath snarled venomously. "I say Bahamut can keep his petty victories! We will still have the last laugh! Stupid stinking bat droppings, pathetic espers, meddling kids..." His vehement outburst degenerated into muttering, and Bairith lost interest. He shrugged away and scoured the vestiges of the Epoch for something salvageable. It did not take long to uncover his muse. He crouched over it, scrutinizing its metallic stalk and glassy petals. It looked like a mechanical flower, or a calcified dragonfly.

"What have we, here?" Bairith mulled out loud in a perfumed accent that immediately attracted his brother.

Barnath pounced on what would have been Bairith's shoulder. "What? What have we? Don't hog it for yourself, Bairith."

"I won't if you'd step off," Bairith coolly snapped, while the other examined the captivating object.

"Hey, it's that key-thing... um... you know!"

"Gate Key," Bairith refreshed him.

"Yes!" Barnath chirped, as if he knew all along. "The Mii Sci Kee must have dropped it during the impact," he surmised, referring to the Epoch's last flight.

"I would assume so," Bairith flatly concurred. "What should we do with it?"

Now presented with an opportunity, they began to plot a way to capitalize it. However, in these matches Bairith's intellect always won. "...Ah! Let us make for the End of Time, and await the outcome there."

Barnath grimaced. "What in the world for?"

"We'd stand a better chance to watch how things play out from there, methinks."

"How's that?"

"Well, not to say this much for you, with your limited... capacities..."

Barnath scowled at his brother's condescension.

"But I could much more easily monitor the humans from outside the time stream--and much more safely, if I need make that point. If Lavos does indeed make a comeback, would you really want to be mucking around here, on the front lines? It's dangerous."

Barnath scoffed. "You're the one convinced the humans are going to win. Don't you want to wait here, in case they crawl out of there? We could miss them leaving."

"With the Epoch out of commission, our quarry has to pass through the End of Time in order to go home. Try to think for once, Barnath."

"Not without the Gate Key, they can't."

Bairith paused, feigning to scratch his chin. "Ah. A minor setback. Well, if we must, we can throw the key back through the gate for them to find later. Come now, brother, I itch for something to do, and the monotony is enough to bear where we are."

Barnath sputtered. "And it's not monotonous there?? There's nothing but a big, black, empty wasteland and an old geezer! Besides, won't it seem strange to them to find their key lying conveniently beside a gate?"

"They should think themselves lucky as usual, and be on their way," Bairith glibly countered. "Oh brother, do be agreeable, this once."

Barnath grudgingly consented. "Fine! But how do you propose to manipulate that thing--" He gestured to the key. "--without a host?"

Bairith grinned cryptically and began to drift away. "Well then, I suppose we should find ourselves some."

***

He was a rat.

It was the best Barnath could find. 'Something quick and portable,' Bairith had vaguely recommended. Barnath was repulsed by the mangy fur and the personal circus of fleas, but it was the first picking in a sour buffet. He had hoped to catch something more... advanced, but the rat was the highest thing on the food chain in this desert, and humans were simply out of the question. It was as much a principle as a matter-of-fact; Barnath's spiritual chemistry prohibited it, and his abhorrence of the race of men repelled the notion just the same. At least the rat's mind was feeble enough to permit a full possession of its assets, and mobile enough to make the trip to their rendezvous without complications.

He sat on his plump haunches, scanning the horizon for his brother and whatever guise he had assumed. Behind him, a pinhole in the fabric of space-time flickered like an electric candle. It was difficult to imagine how an anomaly the size of a bowling ball could be a gateway to the fourth dimension. At the touch of a special key, however, it was that and more. Time travel was a quirky business, Barnath mused. He didn't quibble over its mechanics or paradoxes, however--as long as he could get from point A to point B in the timeline without the universe imploding, it suited him just fine.

His hair prickled up his spine as fleas convened at the peak of his shoulders, just above reach. Barnath's eye twitched irritably as he suppressed the urge to roll over the rough ground in convulsions. 'This world has vermin upon vermin! These fleas are intolerable,' he brooded silently.

As soon as he succumbed to scratching, a swift shadow dropped in, appearing in Barnath's unfocused vision as a flourish of dark webs raking the sky. With as natural a scream as he could utter, Barnath flopped awkwardly onto his back, his foot still stuck in his chewed ear.

The hovering menace addressed him in the voice of the mind. 'What are you loafing around for?'

The rat choked on his surprise. 'Bairith!' He promptly recovered and riposted, 'You're late!' Then, finally paying attention to his brother's vessel, the rat relapsed into shock. 'What the hell are you?!'

It had the tanned yellow hide of a lizard, the body of a small ape and a pair of bat-like wings, although instead of a proper face it had only a single, enormous eye--it looked as impractical as it was unnerving.

'They're called scouters,' Bairith succinctly replied. 'You do remember them, brother--they encountered many in the Ocean Palace.'

'Yes, but--' For a moment Barnath forgot himself and tried to work the rodent's voice box. When it failed to do more than sputter, he scowled around a set of buck-teeth. 'There aren't any of those around here!'

'The sewers would beg to differ,' Bairith rebutted.

'Sewers!' Barnath squeaked. 'What sewers?! How could you have been in a sewer?? There isn't a city for miles around!'

'So?'

'So!? But you, I mean, how, I mean...' His argument collapsed, and Barnath sighed with defeat. 'Oh, forget it! I don't even want to know. Do you have the Gate Key?'

Bairith produced it in one of his paws. 'How could I forget? Now, are we ready?'

'Oh, I suppose so. Let's just get on with it.'

A soaring hum sounded in the distance, and it intensified gradually, as with something approaching. Barnath's nubbly ears attended it with suspicion. 'What's that noise?'

'Aircraft, I believe,' Bairith guessed. 'Seems the humans are finally catching up with what's going on.'

'Better for us to be gone, then, eh brother?'

'Indeed. Let us go.'

Bairith pointed the key at the dormant gate and clicked a button on the wand to activate it. The glowing orb flared outward with a blast of wind that knocked Barnath into a tumble. Spitting bite-sized curses, the rat turned to face the brilliant blue portal. It was as tall and wide as two stacked men and throbbed invitingly, a seething vortex of what is, what wasn't, and what will be.

Bairith dove inside, and Barnath scurried after him. With a blink of lightning the rat, scouter and key vanished into the gate, the eerie portal shrinking closed behind them.

It was a quaint vestige of civilization; it was a heathen island. It was the culmination of all places and times; it was a monument to nonexistence. It wasn't made for anyone or anything but passing through.

The End of Time was a crossroads in history. Amid a bleak expanse of nothing was a cobblestone landing, punctuated at its origin by a vintage lamppost. The beacon was fueled by oil that never exhausted, and partnered with an old man who was never too weary to lean against it and greet stray travelers in time with a droning snore. He was a character so acclimated to oblivion that not even the dust on his old brown bowler and trench coat weighed him down. A wrought iron fence bordered the block of pavement, some buckets of spring water waited in a corner, and a rickety wooden gate led to a platform of luminous columns--each a time gate to elsewhen. Behind the dozing man was a plain door that appeared to lead into nowhere.

Barnath and Bairith emerged from an obscure gate planted in a bucket (they always thought that strange, but never asked about it.) Despite the clamor of Bairith dislodging his brother's fat rat rump from the rusty pail, the old man did not stir. The possessed beasts eventually composed themselves and looked around.

'See? I told you there's nothing here. I don't know why we bothered.'

Bairith was unresponsive. Barnath's pointed glare withered before Bairith's vacant stare. He wasn't sure if something was the matter, or if scouters were predisposed to look that way.

'What's with you? That way you stare is... disconcerting!'

Bairith blinked and his (very singular) visage cleared. 'Hmm? Quite sorry. It was just that, when we left that era, I...'

'What?'

'I sensed a gate.'

'Well I would hope you did,' Barnath uttered dryly. 'There are many gates here. They're quite obvious.'

'No, no...' Bairith brushed aside the sarcasm. 'I mean to say that, when we passed out of the Day of Lavos, some great force caught my senses. It was not unlike a gate.'

The rat raised an eyebrow, less than amused. '...So?'

'So, with this gate, I could sense... something else... I was not sure.' He started with a pang of excitement. 'Brother! I just had a thought.'

'Good for you.'

Bairith moved to slap him, and the rat ducked beneath the sweep of a wing. 'Tsh. Allow me to speak. Brother, why thinks we to kill one bird with two stones?'

Barnath squatted on the riddle, scratching his ear. '...I don't follow.'

'Well, follow this: how far can a bird fly with but one wing?'

'Not very far, I'd imagine.' Hearing his own answer was the key, and the rat finally deciphered the scouter's conceit. 'I think I see what you mean. But what should we do with the other Dark Seed?'

'Methinks...' Bairith looked asquint at his brother. 'There are more ways, yet, we can carry on our master's work.'

'Your semantics bore me,' Barnath undermined his melodrama. 'Would you quit being cryptic and just tell me what you intend to do?'

The scouter grimaced (as much as a creature without a mouth could), but any shade of injury passed as Bairith adopted an informative air again. 'The good news is, judging by the future's evidence, our original plan should work. The bad news is that Bahamut should anticipate his failure, and try to compensate.'

The rat snarled again at mention of their adversary. 'Damnable Bahamut! We'll make him regret it. So what's the plan?'

'Let us seek this gate. I sense the esper king is trying to make the future his. We shall plant our influence there, so as to prevent it.'

'Ah! I see. Wait... The future? We were just there! You tell me we can't take the same gate we just came out of?'

'We cannot. This gate is different. It is... otherworldly.'

'What do you mean, otherworldly??' Barnath asked as Bairith hobbled off a sidewalk and into the abyss, juggling the Gate Key between his free hands.

'Hey!' the rat squeaked at his back. 'Where are you going?'

'I told you where I am going.'

'But there's nothing out there!'

'That's what you say, brother.'

'What about the key? You said we were going to throw it back through the gate!'

'We can do that later.'

'Well then what about Lavos? You said we were going to watch the fight!'

'Lavos can wait.'

Barnath knew by now that his argument would not prevail, so he chased after his brother, muttering a rodent's rendition of, "we're gonna get hopelessly lost."

***

An arid fog shrouded the vast, empty terrain. The ground was flat, featureless, devoid of texture or temperature, and absorbed all light; it might as well have been a solid sheet of air.

Barnath had resigned long ago to the fact that Bairith could see things that were not there, and once he caught the scent of the paranormal, there was nothing to dissuade his pursuit. The rat had no idea how long he trailed behind while Bairith cut a winding path in the uncharted sea of the fourth dimension--the End of Time kept no clocks, for understandable reasons. The lamppost with its old man shrank into a distant buoy, and although there was no true daylight, Bairith's figure was as plain before him as though there was.

At any rate, Barnath was fed up with his vessel and its incessant itching. He slipped out of it for a spell to catch his breath. "Bairith! I could find rabbit holes more interesting than this dump. When are you going to find this alleged gate?"

The scouter pitched a glance back at his companion. 'Patience, brother. ...Where is your vessel?'

"What?" Barnath barked indignantly. "I'm taking a break--give me one!"

'Fine. But I believe your rat ran away.'

"What?!" He faced about, and once he saw this was true, the spirit concocted a string of profanity that would have shaken the Devil from his throne.

"...rat-chewed dog-piled crab-infested son-of-a-BITCH!!"

Somewhere not as remote as the underworld, a bubble of mucus popped from under the old man's nose.

'You didn't put it to sleep before you left it, did you?' Bairith chided him. 'I can't believe you were so careless. Look, it's getting away. See?'

Barnath was alight with the search. "No, where??"

'Precisely.'

The neglectful rat owner glowered at him. "Shut up!! Who cares, anyway!? It's just a rat. What's it going to do, shit all over infinity?!"

'I suppose,' Bairith said neutrally. 'Now if you're finished with your tantrum, I believe I have found our gate.'

This announcement only further vexed Barnath. "What? Why didn't you say so before?!"

'Because you were busy telling all things holy to go to--'

"--Okay! Whatever. What are we waiting for, then? Are you going to open it or not?"

'Of course.' Wielding the Gate Key in one paw, Bairith drove it into the figurative earth like a stake. Glittering ripples issued from the puncture in the temporal fabric, and as the gate expanded beneath his feet Bairith hopped onto his wings, floating over the wormhole.

'Hold fast to me, brother! Here we go.'

Very aware of the instability of such portals and the necessity of anchoring himself to a mortal creature in order to traverse one, Barnath didn't stall with his usual objections. He tagged his essence to the scouter and accompanied Bairith through the unknown, long-winded gate. Once the wormhole finally unravelled, the scouter rocketed out the opposite pole, falling up into a biting breeze. Its broad flaps of skin clutched the wind and steadied Bairith before the Gate Key was flung from his dizzy grip.

A clap of light later, the gate shut beneath them, and a new world was revealed. Bairith twirled in circles, panning his eye over the strange horizon. Tears stung him as he turned into a prevailing icy gale, and he squinted against the fresh night sky. To the south, a steely edge parted the ocean from the red moon in the heavens, and to the north a snowy ridge of mountains rested beneath a blue moon.

Below his feet, a craggy, ivory island shone like all the stars combined, iridescent steam rising from its crevasses. It was a shimmering, opal tortoiseshell adrift in the mundane waters.

'Sweet spawn of nethers!' Bairith exclaimed. 'This island is simply glowing with spirit energy! It is no wonder a gate formed here.'

"It's bloody cold here!" was Barnath's only observation.

'Oh hush. You don't even have a body.'

"Well if I did, it'd be bloody cold!" Barnath rebounded. "So where are we?"

'I am not certain...' Bairith answered honestly. As he studied the distant coast, his large pupil narrowed with alarm. 'I know it surely now! He is here.'

"Who? Where? What are you going on about, this time??"

'I thought I did sense him from the End of Time, but was not sure 'til here I am, able to sense him so near!'

"What?! Start making sense! You need to quit garbling your words when you get excited."

'It's not garbling! You have no sense of verse--nor any other suitable sense, else you would have felt his presence by now, as well.'

"Who?? You have yet to tell me! You know I can't sense these things like you can, Bairith."

Bairith's tone dipped portentously low. '...The Rut M'blanca. He is alive.'

Barnath was stumped by the appellation--initially by its language, reserved for espers and dragons--and then by its impossible significance. "A Great Esper? That Great Esper? Here? Alive?! That's a joke! He's one of Siren's lot! There's no way he could be--with mortals--in this day and age!"

'So, this is the world he was banished to...' Bairith mused, oblivious to Barnath's tirade.

Barnath materialized in front of the scouter, his poker-hot eyes demanding attention. "You can't be serious! There must be some mistake! Are you sure it's not some other esper?"

The scouter imperceptibly sighed. 'Oh, Barnath. Must you doubt your only brother? Have I ever been wrong in these matters before?'

"No, I guess not, but--how--why--who would be stupid and crazy enough to give the Rut M'blanca a vessel? You can't tell me it's Bahamut."

'I cannot say, but we should not underestimate the espers' desperation. That is precisely our reason for being here.'

"Eh? Explain."

'You see, my simple brother, it is the matter of our success that brings this issue up now. With the Phoenix eliminated in the inevitable future, Bahamut seeks a last resort. I believe we have uncovered that now.'

"You mean Bahamut was thinking to use the Rut M'blanca in the Phoenix's place? Er, or will think, or... whatever. What year is this, again? This time travel crap is confusing me."

'Just let me do the thinking.'

"Whatever!" Barnath shrugged off the snub. "We're going to find the Rut M'blanca now and 'plant our influence,' as you say, aren't we? If so I'd like to hurry up about it. I don't want to be sitting out here in the cold all night. Floating. Flying. Whatever."

'I couldn't agree more. It's this way.' Bairith's wings grabbed a northbound wind, carrying them towards the snow-capped continent.

The cold land breeze was no more welcoming than the cold sea breeze. It surged down lofty glaciers and kicked snowy tumbleweeds across the beach. Bairith struggled to keep his pace, lest he fall adrift in the blizzard. Eventually they left the coast behind and happened onto a mound of civilization in the frozen wasteland, set in a niche between a watchful mountain and a sleeping volcano. Ready to rest his wings, Bairith alighted on some granite stairs, ousting a flock of pigeons. At the top of the twisting, cliff-hugging steps and across a plaza smattered with ice and bird droppings, an ornate front gate greeted them, its alien murals whispering of things hallowed within.

'This is a temple,' Bairith thought offhandedly, and Barnath had to question it.

"How can you tell?"

'I hear the mad murmurs of humans--that thing they call praying.'

The scouter wedged open the heavy wooden slabs of the entrance with its tiny limbs, and then shuffled to fit his awkward shape through without getting squashed. While Bairith contorted his way inside, Barnath's free form seeped beneath the squirming eyeball and entered the hall. Eventually deeming that the effort was not worth it, Bairith abandoned his charge in the open door, the Gate Key still clutched in its sedated talons.

"You're just going to leave it there," Barnath said in amazed reproof.

"So?"

"It's sticking half-way out the door."

Bairith glanced back at the scouter; this was indeed the case, and an occasional chilly gust would whistle through the moonlit crack. "So?" he repeated.

"So!" Barnath hiccupped resentfully. "And you call me careless."

"At least it's sleeping this time--and it will stay so as long as I will it," Bairith singed the other's pride. "It'll make a nice doorstop in the meantime."

"A doorstop! You just think you've thought of everything, don't you?"

Not deigning to respond, Bairith passed over his hotheaded brother, floated up the secluded stairs of the foyer and into the temple's main chamber. Cool blue stones and copper foil spiraled up the columns that supported the drab, vaulted ceiling, and an inscrutable tile mosaic adorned the floor. An iron guardrail fended passers-by off the walls and their layers of murals. Aesthetically arranged candles lent their brass holders a gilded sheen while pitching the rest of the hall in quiet, subtle shadow. The foyer was dim and deserted; an envoy of the Darkness might have been right at home.

Barnath scowled. "What a hole! It reeks of human!"

"It reeks of our quarry," Bairith corrected, and he panned his searching gaze around the great hall. He could already discern from the outside that this was where several other wings of the building converged, like many streams into a pond. Braziers were set in the arch above each path, their coals burning through ornamental copper eyes. Bairith peered carefully into the eastern hall. "We should be quiet," he noted.

"What for?"

"Better to keep the element of surprise, brother. Besides, the Rut M'blanca is just down that way."

Barnath flung himself in dizzy circles. "How are you sure? Every way looks alike!"

Bairith threw him a sharp glance that conveyed his sensory omniscience. Barnath rolled his shady brow, conceding the point. "Fine, so let's go get him."

"Hold a moment; we should need new vessels. That whelp might sense us if we don't use some stealth."

Barnath gave a disparaging frown. "You don't expect us to find anything in this shanty."

"Be resourceful," was Bairith's only advice, and he vanished like a puff of steam. Barnath, left on his own again, quested after a suitable creature. He crawled around, slinking around candelabra and sliding into cracks in the mortar until something very quaint touched his feelers.

"What a joke," he muttered at the spider, but the more he considered it, the more it seemed perfect. It was small, inconspicuous, and with fangs just right... He decided to take it. It was difficult to compress his spirit into the miniature exoskeleton, but once the arachnid was his, he staggered out of its cobweb and rallied its functions.

'So many legs!' He blinked. 'And so many eyes!' It was like staring into a broken mirror through a prism. 'How does this miserable creature ever get anywhere?' Barnath had to postulate that it didn't--that was why it pitched a web and let food find it.

He staggered over the floor of the great hall until some sort of linear locomotion occurred. When he learned his position and his destination, which was thirty seconds away by eight legs, he paused to wait for his brother.

'Hrmph. He's late! I win! And I dare him to find something better than--'

Something tickled his hind legs, and Barnath jumped in a circle. Before him was a great, pursed jaw and two gleaming, slitted eyes.

'Ahh!'

A forked tongue leaked out of a notch in its upper lip and brushed the spider's heels again. 'I'm what now, brother?'

Barnath recoiled from the snake, trembling with outrage. 'You bastard!'

'I think you're jealous.'

'I'm not! I just--I swear--how?! How do you keep finding these things??'

It was a nondescript garden serpent, but nonetheless an accomplishment. Bairith began to slither down their fated hall. 'I guess I have a sssnake sense.' He snickered with a hiss. 'Do you get it? Snake sense. Oh, funny.'

'Not funny!' Barnath shot, and he scurried to keep up.

The passage beyond was stitched with doors. Each was either left ajar or open by design, which was very counter-intuitive in light of security but again to the brothers' advantage. Starlight spilled onto the floor, stabbing into the murky corners and highlighting the trespassers' options.

'Well, Bairith?' the other ventured. 'Which one?'

'He is very near,' Bairith vaguely confirmed as he passed through the nearest doorway, gliding along the left wall as effortlessly as a shadow.

Barnath, irradiated by his ingested Dark Seeds, traced the serpent's path with a much less surreptitious glow. Together they surveyed the two plain beds pushed into the far corner, one basking under the window and the other hugging the adjacent wall. Bereft of candlelight, the small room was haunted by a moon that spied through the frosted glass panes and laced curtains.

'These are sleeping quarters,' Bairith realized without surprise. He then corkscrewed up a wooden leg and climbed onto the nearest mattress. Upon it he discovered a corpulent mass of powder-white flesh with the mask of a jester and the accoutrement of a chef. Its pale face was cleaved in two by a dopey, fixed mouth that allowed an obscenely long tongue to drape over its shoulder like a sash. Its pink apron swelled and receded with thick, obnoxious breaths. The thing's companion, a giant spork, sank into the crevice between the wall and the sheets.

'By nethers, what the hell is this?'

'Is it he?' the spider eagerly asked from the peanut gallery below.

'Thank sanity, no. Just a blue mage. ...Very bizarre.'

As Bairith turned away from the first reject, he heard his brother encounter the next with a squeal of disgust. 'Bairith, look at this one! It's a giant rat!'

Bairith crossed the table between the bunks to see for himself. It was indeed a tall, anthropomorphic rodent, slate of fur and silver of hair. It didn't stir in the slightest, its slumber placid and dignified compared to the snoring blue mage's.

'Isn't it disgusting?'

'You think all living creatures are disgusting,' Bairith retorted.

'Touché. But my point still stands,' Barnath retained his argument.

Bairith sighed. 'This isn't what we're looking for, either. Let us move on.'

They advanced to the next room, across the hall. It was an identical space, if angled away from the moon and settled by unique inhabitants of its own. Again, Bairith took the closer bed while Barnath sought the window-side.

'What do you have?' the latter asked.

An impish lump, its purple hair and ivory nub of a horn peeking out of the covers. 'A little girl. Human. A caller.'

'Good for her. Stupid callers. I hope they burn in hell with Bahamut, the whole lot of 'em.'

'That's not very nice,' Bairith facetiously remarked, a grin in his voice.

'I'm not very nice. Is she the one?'

'No.'

'Then screw 'er. I've got a girl over here, too. I think she's a white mage.'

Bairith slid that way and immediately sensed that much. She was a young woman, with rich black locks falling over her sleeping brow. Striking the serpent's attention was a trinket worn around her neck. It was white and clear like diamond, and bore the secant grooves of something broken from a greater whole. He craned to taste it, and then jerked back with an acidic hiss.

'That pendant...! It is like him. His holy essence is all over it. It is like...'

'What?? What is it, Bairith? Is she the one?'

Bairith whipped around, skidding past Barnath and abandoning the bedside in a wordless fit.

Barnath drummed a flustered tattoo with his many legs. 'Hey, wait! It's like what? Finish your sentence, damnit! Is it her or not?'

'No, she is not. Just another caller. Let's go.'

'What? Hey, I said wait! Curse you, brother, you never tell me anything...' Barnath grumbled as he dropped to the floor and raced to catch his sibling.

The next room could have sooner been an armory than a bedroom. Just inside the door was a stack of plated armor and chain mail, with a plumed helmet and a sheathed broadsword heaped on top. A pair of steel-clawed gauntlets hid behind these in the corner. Out of routine now, Bairith claimed the wall-side bunk and Barnath went to the window-side.

'This man stinks like rust,' the spider observed huffily.

'This one doesn't smell much better... and hardly a lick of magic between them. We're wasting our time in this room,' Bairith declared, and they were across the hall the next minute.

Their final stop was inhabited by two more, and the brothers took their turns like before. Bairith sniffed the childlike figure on his bed with acute interest. It was a bundle of baggy clothes capped with a tall, supple leather hat that flopped over the empty void of its face. Its entire body was amazingly structured and maintained by magical threads.

'Well, I'll be... If this isn't a curious little specimen.'

'What?'

'It's a... oh... I forget. It's a golem, I think. It's packed with black magic.'

'That's weird?'

'Indeed. Although, I wouldn't be quick to say anything we find here is weird.'

'Hrmph, you can say that again. So that golem isn't the Rut M'blanca either, I'm guessing.'

'No, of course not. But it's still interesting. What have you?'

'Just a boy. I sure as hell can't smell any magic on him. You might want a look, yourself.'

Bairith joined his brother, taking a perch on the bedpost. He tasted the boy's aura, then started, and then tipped his head bemusedly. He tested his senses for another ten seconds before relating to Barnath, '...He is.'

'Really? This one? Are you sure? But his blood stinks of neiphiti!'

Bairith lashed the spider with his forked tongue. 'What did I say about doubting me?'

Barnath flinched and teetered forward in a huff. 'Alright, all right! Let's take care of him, then.' He held back a moment, appraising their subject. The young man was barely of age, fair of hair and small of stature. His sleeveless shirt exposed lean muscles and a light tan. He was splayed on his belly over the crumpled sheets, his left arm at his side and his fingers twitching with the exertion of a dream.

The spider began to laugh cynically. 'Ha, ahaha, what a joke! Bahamut picked this scrawny monkey? The old bat must have lost his mind!'

Bairith trained one keen eye on the door. 'That may be so, but it doesn't change the case. Go on now, brother. Finish the job, before someone wakes up.'

'Oh, fine. If you insist...' Barnath hoisted his minute self onto the boy's arm. 'Let me just find a good vein...' The spider skittered along his pulse, finally settling just below the shoulder. With a furtive bite he pierced the flesh, injected the vile seed and watched it dissolve beneath the skin, leaving a soft luminescent trail. The spider hopped in place triumphantly. 'Ha! I did--'

His subconscious pricked, the boy winced, curling his arm and moaning groggily. The spider slipped and fell into the crook of his shirt.

'Akk! Bairith! I'm stuck!'

The snake snorted disdainfully. 'Oh, honestly.'

'Yes, honestly!' Barnath wriggled furiously, trying to break free, but his hind legs were caught in a pinch. That's when one of the boy's spare limbs--a wiry, furry tail--emerged from the blankets and began to swat at the itch. Barnath cringed to avoid it. 'Ahh! What the hell, a tail! Help! The monkey attacks!'

Bairith made a strange, raspy, chortling snake sound.

'Quit laughing, you oaf! Help me!'

The serpent paused to breathe. 'Help you?'

'Yes! Do something, damnit!!'

Bairith tilted his head one way and then the other, contemplating it. Had he shoulders, he would have shrugged. 'Your call.'

The sleeping quarters resonated with a quick, hard scream, and the black mage jumped from his bed with an echo of the monkey's yelp. Everyone was awake at once.

"Ahhh! A snake!"
"What's going on?" drifted from the girls' room.
"Your Highness!" A din of clanging metal sounded across the hall.
"A snake? Where?"
"Right here, godsdamnit!"

Bairith was kicked to the door in the chaos that ensued. Barnath tumbled until his legs found the floor, and then scurried for his life.

"Is everything okay?" "What's all that noise?" The two girls appeared in their doorway.
"Stay in your room, there's a snake!"
"Where??"
"I'm coming, Your Highness!"

The brothers streaked towards the exit, taking cover in the bedlam.

"Snake? I eat!"
"Is it poisonous??"
"I hope not! The son-of-a-bitch bit me!"
"Watch your language around the princess!"
"It's getting away!"
The smaller girl noticed the serpent's retreat down the hall and shrieked, "I see it!"

Bairith heard something split the air like a hot knife, yet before he could spare it a glance, a razor stuck in the back of his skull. The super-sonic edge ran all the way through, pinning the snake to the floor with a squishy, metallic twang, and Bairith instantly lost his grip on its nervous system. He slipped away in silence as his slayer sauntered into the hall, standing before the stunned audience of his seven companions. One burly, tattooed arm gestured to the kill while the other combed a tuft of red hair out of his face with a deep, dismissive grunt.

"It's dead. Go back to bed." He then turned back into his room. The others exchanged a few muttering comments ("It was just a garden snake, for goodness's sake...") before doing the same. Barnath peeked out of a corner and beheld the gruesome end--that snake wouldn't be slithering anywhere ever again. 'Bairith! Bairith...! Oh shit.'

A spider-scaled earthquake rattled Barnath, and he next looked up into the face of the horned little girl.

"Eek! A spider!"

'Oh shit!'

The last thing his fragmented vision saw was a foot.

***

They regrouped outside. Barnath was flexing his gaseous composure, savoring the courtyard's open space while he awaited Bairith's return with the scouter. "Of all the rotten luck," he steamed, reflecting on the turn of events. At least he still had that one Dark Seed left, fermenting in his body.

Bairith finally appeared, their precious key in tow. 'Shall we go?'

Barnath was ready with a rebuke. "What the hell's wrong with you?!"

'Whatever do you mean, brother?' Bairith asked coyly.

"I mean, back there! We could have been killed! I mean, we were--I mean, our vessels--why the hell did you do that?!"

'You said, "do something." So I did.'

"I didn't say bite the monkey!!" Barnath fired back. He then wilted, his rage exhausted. "Oh, forget it. Why do you do these things to me, Bairith? Sometimes I wonder..."

'Oh, dear brother,' Bairith consoled him. 'You didn't really think our lives were in danger, now did you? You're being dramatic. Look on the bright side: we planted a seed in the Rut M'blanca, got away with the other one, and still have time to make it back to the End of Time before anyone comes looking for the Gate Key, fates willing. So, shall we quit moping and be on our way?'

"Fine," Barnath grumpily caved to his brother's reasoning once again. "Let's go."

***

"You should just throw them back through there, the way we first came."

They had navigated to the shining island and back to the End of Time without incident. The only lingering dilemma was how to relieve themselves of the spare vessel and the Gate Key. Barnath was suggesting the most direct means: opening the gate within the bucket and tossing their garbage inside.

'I know that, brother--I was just thinking on how to go about it.'

"You open the gate and throw them in! It's not complicated."

'I have to time my release just so, if I don't want to fall in with them. It's more tricky than it seems, Barnath.'

"Actually," the lamppost interjected--although after a disoriented second the rapiers realized the old man was speaking, for a change. "You can leave that key here. I'll make sure it's rightfully returned." He tipped his bowler into the brothers' corner, marking their positions with his deceptively frail sight.

"Er, well we, that is..." Barnath stammered, unaccustomed to being addressed directly by any mortal, much less the watchman of the End of Time. He had never acknowledged his and Bairith's trespassing before, so they had assumed he was oblivious.

'Thank you, dear sir,' Bairith returned more politely. 'We shall do just that.'

The old man chuckled in the pit of his throat and faced the other way again. At Barnath's insistence, Bairith opened the bucket's gate, discarded his scouter and closed the door in time behind it. They left the key on the floor and retreated to the platform of luminous pillars, so not to be overheard.

"So," Barnath proceeded to business. "That's one down, one to go. Now, which wing shall we clip? The Traukee, the Mii Sci Kee or the Tarow Kee?"

"I had been thinking on it," Bairith said matter-of-factly.

"I figured you would. That is why I asked."

"I had supposed that it doesn't matter. The advantage is just the same, either way."

"So, what? We flip a coin? Roll some dice? You know I don't have hands."

"Well, unless you have a preference..."

Having left that opening, Barnath pondered it. "The Mii Sci Kee," he said at length. "She's too smart. If any of 'em will screw it up, it's her. Besides, it would give me personal satisfaction for her to know the Darkness first... intimately." He cackled insidiously. "Mwa, ha, haha!"

Bairith raised one critical brow. "You're not making this personal, are you?"

"Hrmph, it's no fun if it isn't personal!"

"If you say so, brother." Bairith rolled his eyes, and caught a peripheral glimpse of a brown dust ball in the fog of time. He squinted through the fence and announced, "By the way, I think there goes your rat."

"What??" Barnath followed his gaze right up to the guilty rodent. It flicked its nose at Barnath, tittered and ran away. The rapier howled furiously.

"Screw you!!"

Bairith only laughed.

"Screw you too," Barnath snapped. Changing the subject, he diverted a glance to the lamppost and its stolid watchman. "I don't like how that old man was eavesdropping on us all along."

"Can't be helped. I don't think he knows too much."

"I hope not! Don't suppose there's much he could do about it anyway, right?"

"Of course not."

"Still, I can't imagine why he helped us, what-with that key."

"Was he necessarily helping us?"

"What if he was? I'd like to know."

"Because..." Like his previous outburst, the old man's interruption invoked startled silence. "...Your evil scheming will amount to nothing."

Barnath choked, inflamed by being overheard again. "What--did...you...say?"

The old man curved another glance to the brothers, his shrewd, dark eyes glinting beneath the brim of his hat. "Lavos will be defeated."

Bairith, for once, was lost for words. Barnath was never so gracious. "You're up shit creek, old man, if you think we care about what happens to that infant, Lavos. We serve a higher purpose!"

The old man did not respond, save to turn back towards the empty weather and resume his nap.

Barnath was just reloading when Bairith held his tongue. "Don't waste any more breath on him, brother. He doesn't know as much as he means to say."

The irascible rapier contented himself with a low growl. "You're right. Stupid old man. What does he know?"

Calm conviction issued from the heart of the square. "The Phoenix will rise again."

To this, Barnath and Bairith said nothing.


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