Chapter 13

"You’d think that rusty ol’ sword coulda at least told us he’d be goin’,” Viktor groused.

“If he was in a good enough mood to speak to us, he wouldn’t have left,” Flik said.

Locke looked back and forth between them. “Shouldn’t you guys be a little, I dunno, more worried about the Star Dragon Sword leaving?”

“Worried?” Viktor shook his shaggy head. “Hell, I’m just mad at ‘im. It ain’t the first time he’s up and left, but it’s sure the busiest.”

“I’m more worried about how we’re going to get paid for this.” Flik patted the leather sack they’d put the True Rune in. “I can’t make the trip, not on this leg. Viktor?”

“You know I ain’t gonna. That Dyne guy’s a real first-class jerk, no two ways about it. I swear, I’m as likely ta take his head off as get paid by him.” Viktor’s hand drifted down to where he normally wore his sword. “’Course, I’m not gonna be takin’ anybody’s head off now.”

“I’ll do it,” Locke said immediately. They’d worked hard to get the Rune, and he wasn’t about to let it just sit there. Besides, if he got a chance to talk to their boss, who sounded like a pretty connected guy, maybe he could find something out about Celes or Ghaleon.

Viktor and Flik exchanged glances.

It didn’t take much for Locke to figure out what they were thinking. Could they trust him not to just take the money and run? After all, there wasn’t enough difference between a treasure hunter and a thief for Locke’s comfort. Or theirs.

He would have felt the same way if he’d been in their position, so he didn’t mind. He hoped he’d have come to the same decision, too.

Viktor handed him the bag with the True Rune and grinned. “Hurry on back, will ya? That’s our drinking money.”

“Fast as I can,” Locke said. He shoved the bag into his pocket and ran to the inn’s door.

Locke’d been born in a small town, but he’d lived his whole adult life in cities a hell of a lot bigger than Greenhill. What everybody, even Viktor and Flik, called a crowd here wasn’t much to Locke’s eyes. Hell, after Zozo, Vector or South Figaro, the streets were pretty much dead.

He slid, pushed and once in a while elbowed his way through the crowd faster than a man twice his size could have. He spotted four pickpockets on his way, and that was rushing. He figured he must have been that obvious when he was seventeen and had just gotten to South Figaro, but he sure hadn’t been a month later.

In Greenhill’s Old Town, the streets were more than pretty much dead. The few students and teachers going from class to class didn’t even count in Locke’s book, since most of ‘em didn’t go more than a block before they went into some other building.

He couldn’t have taken more than fifteen minutes to get to the main Academy offices. He thought it was a little weird to have a school and a government with the same bureaucracy, but who was he to tell ‘em it wouldn’t work?

It had sure worked well enough to make some real nice buildings. Some of the manor houses in Jidoor were - maybe - as nice as this one, but then again, maybe not. The doors were sturdy wood, carved and coated with enough gold to buy a whole house in Figaro, and their ivy-covered stone frame was no piece of junk, either.

The doors were open all day, so he could see inside. The Academy’s main office was about half the size of Figaro castle, but more than half of that was taken up by the entrance hall. It looked more like a church than a school.

“Um,” he said, looking around the hall.

“May I help you, sir?” asked the receptionist. She pulled her glasses down her nose a bit and gave him a look that said something more like ‘why is a guy like you in a place like this, and how can I get you to leave’.

“Um,” he said again. Why the hell was he in a place like this, anyway?

His fingers closed around the True Rune in his pocket. “I’m, uh, here to see Mr. Dyne.”

“Oh,” she said, still giving him that look.

“It’s about a True Rune,” he said. He started to pull it out to show her.

“Oh.” She looked down at the papers on her desk. “Well, his is the second office on the right, third floor. Second office on the right,” she added, to make certain that he’d heard.

“Second office,” Locke said, nodding slowly.

“Mr. Dyne does not have any appointments at the moment, so you may go in,” she said. “Please wait in his office if he is not present. And touch nothing.”

That done, Locke ceased to exist for her. He gulped. If the receptionist was like that, and Viktor had complained about the boss... Hell, Locke couldn’t think of anyone he knew short of Ghaleon himself who could be that bad.

The railing on the big grand staircase was just as ornate. Locke decided not to touch it - he didn’t want to find out what would happen if he smudged the shiny finish. They taught magic in Greenhill, after all.

He almost thought about going in the first office on the right, just for the hell of it.

Almost.

The second office on the right was about what he’d expected it to be - real nice decoration, big desk, lots of books. A hell of a lot of books.

No Mr. Dyne, though.

Oh, great. Just what he wanted. To be stuck in this place, scared to touch anything or even sit down in case there was some kind of magic ward on it. He shook his head. “You’d think the guy’d show up for something as important as this,” he said, patting his pocket.

He paced back and forth in the room. Where was the guy, anyway? He had gone in the right office, right? Yeah, second on the third floor.

Or was it third on the second floor?

Frustrated, he put his hands on the desk. Since it didn’t kill him, leaned forward a little farther.

There was an ornately framed picture on the desk. He looked closer. The woman in the picture was blonde and real aristocratic looking, especially in the fancy dress she was wearing.

He looked closer.

“Celes!” He grabbed the picture.

The door opened behind him.

He spun around to face the intruder.

Ghaleon stood in the doorway, his eyebrow raised. “Well, well, Mr. Cole,” he said, “Fancy meeting you here.”

Locke opened his mouth to say something, but Ghaleon shook his head.

“Please, do not spoil our oh-so-tearful reunion with your trivial accusations, Mr. Cole.” Ghaleon walked past Locke and seated himself on the desk. He pointed to the picture of Celes. “She looks quite well in that picture, wouldn’t you agree?”

“What the hell are you doing here?” Locke demanded. “And where is this Dyne guy?!”

Ghaleon sighed. “Truly pathetic. Not only did it take you a year to stumble upon my location, but even now you fail to understand what is going on. I, Mr. Cole, am Dyne. Ghaleon Dyne. Something of a conceit on my part to take the name, but you really wouldn’t understand.”

“Where’s Celes?!” Locke asked, shaking the picture.

“Quite safe,” Ghaleon said. “But let us not talk about her. I take it you have come on a matter of business with Mr. Dyne - myself, you will recall. Perhaps business relating to the True Rune you are carrying in your pocket?”

Locke looked down at his pocket. It was empty.

“Or, should I say ‘were’ carrying in your pocket? A thief should better protect himself from his own art.” Ghaleon held up the Rune and studied it. Then he turned back to Locke. “Now, shall we discuss your payment?”

“I’m not taking your money, you-” His voice trailed off. He clutched at his throat. No matter what he did, though, no words came out.

“Such vulgar language is simply not appropriate for a school, Mr. Cole. But then, I doubt that you would understand that, either, hmm?” Ghaleon chuckled. “Really, though, I must insist that you accept my generous offer. It wouldn’t do for you to have retrieved this and not been paid. People, Mr. Cole, would start to talk.”

Locke tried to reach across and throttle Ghaleon, but his hands hit an invisible barrier. “I’ll turn you in,” he said, surprised that his voice worked again.

“And you will be believed, of course,” Ghaleon said. “After all, the word of Lady Teresa’s most prized advisor is surely to be discounted in favor of that of a raving lunatic, spouting nonsense about other worlds and conspiracies, yes?”

Locke lunged.

He even got through the barrier, too.

Ghaleon raised a finger and smiled.

Locke hit the wall a hell of a lot harder than he could have hit Ghaleon. Harder than when he’d been fighting the monster in the ruins, too. He tried to get to his feet, but his muscles wouldn’t work.

The last thing he saw before he blacked out was Ghaleon’s laughing face.