Chapter 36:

Chapter 36 - The Ol’ Sarada Charm


Roulette ascended, blinking, into the light of the afternoon sun. Of the howling gales that had driven them down the darkened staircase in the first place, only the slightest gusts remained. Miniature flurries of sand could still be seen, here and there, churning among the dunes, but they were a far cry from the overwhelming sandstorm that had grounded their flying machine mere hours ago.

The girl stepped away from the mouth of the dune-cave, supposing that the arcan node she’d found just inside its heavy stone doors would keep its charge long enough for the rest of the party to make their exit. She meandered in the direction of the chopper-wreck and looked it over with her hands on her hips. What a waste, she lamented. That thing was slicing through the sky like an arrowhead. Slugs to sandwiches we’d have made Sebastopol by now if it weren’t for that storm.

The sound of clinking from the doorway caught her attention. She looked back to find Morgan squeezing on through with his ridiculous improvised treasure-sling: a tangled mess of bandages he’d slung across his shoulders to act as a makeshift cradle for the baubles he’d felt fit enough to carry.

It’s amazing, the weight that man can haul without complaining when it suits him, Roulette thought, smiling wryly. If Marka were made of gold, I bet he’d have volunteered to carry him up the stairs on his back without batting an eye.

Marka followed behind him with his great arcan-hewn rod in-hand. Morgan had tried to get the big man to take a trinket or two for the road, but he’d staunchly refused, citing the fact that a group of five would surely benefit from the extra light Voidthrower could provide when it came time to climb the stairs.

She suspected that he’d said this out of worry for their newest companion–an older woman who’d nearly succumbed to suffocation inside her cloth strip cocoon. Thus far she’d proven too weak and winded to say much, but Roulette had the impression that Marka knew her from somewhere; he acted tenderly towards her, and had said the word “Anua” the moment he caught a glimpse of her face. Whether this was the woman’s name, or simply a respectful Truvelan term of address, she wasn’t sure, but the old gal was definitely important. That much was obvious.

“Don’t strain yourself, Master,” Mimi fretted as she guided her mentor into the sunlight. “We’re on flat ground now, so you can sit down if you’d like. In fact, I insist–go ahead and settle down right here, okay?”

The woman nodded gratefully and lowered herself into a comfortable sprawl. Mimi hovered uneasily at her side as if desperate to be of service. Roulette looked on thoughtfully. Wow, she sure is being nice to her. What do I have to do to get that sort of treatment?

Morgan sidled up to her, then, the contents of his treasure-sling jingling conspicuously. “What do you reckon?” he whispered, indicating the two women with a subtle tilt of the chin. “Can we trust ‘em?”

“Well, I’m no fan of the young one,” she admitted. “She’s a real piece of work. She said somethin’ about havin’ come out here to deliver a gun to its rightful owner, though. You know what that means.”

He narrowed his eyes at the blonde. “Gunsmith.”

Roulette nodded. “She caused the whole mess down there. Insisted on deliverin’ her weapon into the mageling’s hands…”

“...And almost got her boss killed in the bargain.” he finished.

She nodded again, then waved Marka over as subtly as she could. Fortunately, Mimi didn’t notice; she’d busied herself with rubbing the older woman’s back. Marka limped his way toward them with his brow already knitted, as if he’d been worrying over the woman’s fate as intensely as her young charge.

“What is it?” he asked, coming to lean on his rod at her side.

“Do you know that lady, Marka?”

“Of course,” he said, looking off in her direction with a wistful smile on his face. “She is the most renowned Gunsmith in all Truvelo: Anua Denel. I have not seen her in many years–not since I was little more than a child.”

“How’d you two meet?” Morgan inquired. “She didn’t make that fancy gun of yours, did she?”

“She did indeed,” he replied. “The Call drew her to me after she had finished crafting Voidthrower. I was young at the time–barely of age to serve the family as a full member. I was… Spirited back then. I believe she came across me bullying other youths.

“She intervened. She was quite beautiful, then, and I recall that I could barely speak when she pressed the weapon into my hands. ‘Wield it with wisdom,’ she told me. ‘I do not know what it does, but I know that it is final. Such responsibility can weigh heavily on young shoulders… So take care, will you?’”

He fell silent, then, and gazed off toward the horizon before continuing: “I told her that I would… Yet, for many years, I used Voidthrower in anger. In ignorance. To remove any problem in my path, no matter how small. I thought that doing so would win me power… Prestige. But, in the end, all it won me was emptiness. By ignoring her words, I shamed myself. I destroyed all that was good in my life. What would she think of me now, I wonder… Knowing that I have disgraced her gift so completely?”

Roulette reached out to lay a hand on his arm. The man was prone to melancholy these days, and she felt honor-bound to guide him through it. “She sounds like a kind and understandin’ soul, Marka. I’m sure she’ll forgive you after hearin’ what you’ve been through.”

“...Yeah,” Morgan said at length, his voice catching ever-so-slightly, “Besides, we’ve all done things we’re none too proud of. No use dwellin’ on it when there’s amends to be made.”

Marka brightened up a little at the encouragement, looking to them with a small smile on his face. “Thank you. Both of you. I hope you will consider speaking with her, too; I am sure she would enjoy meeting the Wessoners who succeeded in turning me from that path.”

“Aww, shucks Marka! You did that your own self,” Roulette replied, grinning brightly. “If we’re goin’ to have that chat you mentioned, though, we’d better see to our travel arrangements. Think you can figure out where they’re headed? Maybe put in a good word for us? Don’t think we’ll last long out here on our own without supplies.”

Marka blinked. “Me? I know Anua fairly well, but she is in no condition to speak with me at length… And I do not believe that her shrill apprentice cares for me much. It is she we must convince, I would think.”

“Hmm. Good point,” Roulette agreed, turning to Morgan with a smirk on her face. “Hey, Morgan… I think I saw her makin’ eyes at you a little earlier, didn’t I? Right after you sprung her from those bandages?”

The man scowled back at her, plainly incensed. “Why’s it always me, huh? Answer me that. Why’s it always me who’s got to lug around giants and negotiate with harpies? When’s it gonna be my day? When’s ol’ Morgan goin’ to get his due?”

“I’ll tell you what,” she began, “If you mosey on over there and make Mimi think you’re sweet on her, you can have all that treasure to yourself. No shares, no splittin’ it up. If you can find a way to hock it in Sebastopol, the slugs are all yours.”

He gave her a sidelong glance. He still looked grumpy about the state of affairs, but she could tell she’d piqued his interest. “You mean that? You won’t get up my nose about it, even if I blow the proceeds on booze?”

“You have my word.”

“Well, alright then!” he said, straightening his belt. “Time to apply some of the ol’ Sarada charm…” With that, he strode on over toward Mimi without further ado, his treasure-sling clanking with every step.

“...Do we not need that money for an airship?” Marka murmured.

“It’s fine,” Roulette reassured him. “I’ll find some way to bully him into sharin’ later on.”

They watched as Morgan made his approach and came to a stop within arm’s length of his target. “Well, hey there,” he drawled, bracing his hands casually on his hips. “Y’know, I couldn’t see it so clear down in that dark, dusty dungeon… But I can’t help but notice that you’re, uh, quite the looker. What say we travel together a little, maybe get to know eachother better?”

Mimi looked up, clearly chuffed to have her personal adonis coming on to her so obliquely… But her eyes shot in her rival’s direction just as she opened her mouth to speak. “Oh, really? I assumed you were involved with that one, over there.”

Roulette? Hah!” he guffawed, a little too sincerely for Roulette’s liking. “She’s nothin’ to me. I’m on the lookout for a real woman, understand? Ain’t got time to waste on little girls.”

Roulette almost bristled at that, but somehow managed to maintain her cool. Mimi rose to her feet with a confident smirk and gave Morgan her undivided attention.

“Well, alright then,” she said. Then she lifted her fingers to her mouth and issued a sharp whistle. It resounded throughout the immediate area so loudly that it was almost deafening… But, after a short wait, its purpose became clear. A couple of hairy, big-eared, long-snouted mammals tromped out from behind the leeward side of the dune, where they had no doubt retreated in order to ride out the storm. And, to her delight, Roulette noticed something dangling from their saddles in abundance:

Row upon row of bulging waterskins.

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