Our Heroes were hoping for some answers...
"Come on, Poplock! The King says Willowwind is ready!"
"Mmmph!" It was difficult to reply with a struggling hornbeetle in your mouth, especially when it was trying to poke you in the eye. Poplock bit down harder and bashed the beetle against the nearby wall a couple of times; stunned, the insect went limp and the little Toad was able to cram it down. "Coming!"
It's odd, he thought as he leaped up to Tobimar's shoulder, how… comfortable this is. It's not exactly like that "familiar spirit" bond that I hear some of our people have indulged in, but there's something like a connection between me and Tobimar. The thought firmed his resolve to stick with the exiled Prince. I'll keep this extra set of eyes out for him, and maybe the two of us will live through the messes we keep getting into!
Willowwind was in the same room where they had first met him, but … well, he has been working here for a week! Shelves which – upon their first visit – had been essentially empty, to the point of being unnoticed, were now filled to overflowing with notebooks, vials of sands and metals, packets of herbs, random assortments of small gems and other objects that were less immediately identifiable. Scribbled symbols, half-erased and then written over, were all over the room – pentacles on tabletops, the Seven-Star on one area of the floor, the four-pointed device that Poplock irreverently thought of as "Chromaias' Caltrop", and endless repetitions of variants of the elemental symbols – Earth and Air most prevalent among them. Over much of the floor, like a drift of leaves, were wrappings and boxes showing that the huge Toad had been taking most of his meals here as well.
"You've succeeded?" Tobimar asked as they entered, clearly doing his best to ignore the startling clutter.
Willowwind's deep chuckle echoed around the room and into the corridor before Toron shut and locked the door behind him. "I have done as much as can be done by any mortal agency, I think." He bobbed side to side uncertainly.
Toron looked at the hexagonal crystal viewmirrors. "Are you saying you have not retrieved all of the information?"
"All?" The Guardian of Eonae made a rude noise with his throat-sac and tongue that made Tobimar jump, almost upsetting Poplock. "Far less than I might have imagined. This… 'Toshi'… wielded his mystical sledgehammer with far more cunning than even I had suspected. I have more information, yes, but it falls very much short of what I had hoped."
"He was that powerful… or that good?"
"Both, young Tobimar. Were he not powerful, he could have done nothing at all in those cells; were he not astonishingly adept at making use of his reduced powers, I would have had no difficulty reconstructing that which he sought to obsure. As it is," Willowwind made some gestures and images began to materialize in the crystals, "I have been able to retrive a select and very much limited set of additional information. Most of it is in fact Toshi's own words; when he spoke, I deduce that he had to at least to some extent reduce his mental focus on the techniques he was using to obscure the conversation."
As the events in the Star Cell from weeks in the past began to replay, Poplock found the effect quite eerie; five young people were having a conversation, but mostly in what was reasonable-sounding gibberish… with one voice often suddenly coming clear. It was… it was like hearing only one side of a conversation in a crowded room, but as though the person was talking to someone not in the same room. Unsettling.
"All right, I think… that … does it."
A mumble that almost made sense from the moonlight-haired girl. "I think so, Nike." Toshi glanced at the others. "I'm scrambling… the air. They can't use active magic… inside the cell."
It was clear that even when he was talking, Toshi was concentrating on something else; the slow speech and off-timed hesitations showed that. The others began speaking, and he raised his hand. "Slow down! I have to… keep this working. No, the suppression field… seems to work on everything. Almost. So their bugs… have to be listening just like us, seeing like us."
"Um… 'bugs'?" Poplock asked.
"Appears to be a term they use for covert observation magics," Willowwind answered, pausing the images. "They have a number of such… unique phrases and idioms."
The boy called Gabe asked something, raising an eyebrow; Toshi gave a sharp, almost smug grin. "Mess with the air… enough, it'll work. Impressing an encryption frequency… on the noises… distorting the images just enough… Guards already busy. If no one comes busting in on us… in the next few minutes… should be safe to talk for a while."
"So let's skip those minutes – they just waited – and then…" Willowwind made a pointing-dragging gesture and the images whipped forward in time, stopped when the Toad stopped his pulling gesture. "There we go."
"Okay. Think it's good enough. Nike, why don't you start?"
More half-comprehensible mumbles. Toron grimaced. "And he goes around the group that way, doesn't he?"
"You begin to see the problem," agreed Willowwind. "For the next hour or so, he orchestrated a conversation among the other four, which I cannot interpret, and his only contributions were almost meaningless; all that I derived from that hour that was of any use was confirmation of all the names of our subjects. The one called Gabe is named Gabriel; the green-haired girl is Aurora; the smaller girl is Nike; and the other black haired boy is Xavier. I believe Xavier's family name is Ross, and Nike's is Engelshand, but the other familial names have not yet been mentioned." Once more the images sped forward. Poplock felt Tobimar's shoulders tighten, saw the head turn. Something's bothering him. Maybe more than one something.
The five had shifted around; Toshi was leaning against the wall casually, while Gabriel had seated himself near the two girls and Xavier was sitting in a strange cross-legged position on the floor. The discussion seemed to be getting energetic, possibly even acrimonious, judging from the expressions. Finally Toshi's voice cut through the incomprehensible babble. "Yamero! Stop it! We can… go around forever on that line. We aren't on Earth any more."
Toron glanced at Willowwind, who nodded.
"What's this Earth?" Poplock asked.
The great Toad and the Ancient Sauran both looked grave. "The word 'Earth', used in that context," King Toron said, slowly, "is one of the names for the world we call Zahralandar."
Even Poplock found himself momentarily stunned; one of the most ancient of legends, suddenly come to life? "Zarathan's sister world? The one cut off from us, they say, during the Fall?" Too late he remembered he shouldn't refer to it that way around a Sauran.
Fortunately Toron either did not notice, or was unbothered by, the unspoken "of the Saurans" that trailed, unvoiced yet ominously present, after the naked words "the Fall". "The very one. And by that speech, it would seem that these five are from Zahralandar, something that I should have said was impossible."
"So how did they get here, then?" Tobimar asked. Still his eyes… shifted, as though he was not entirely paying attention to the conversation.
"Indeed, that is the question. One of many to which – as yet – we have no answers."
Poplock edged closer and whispered, "What's wrong? You look like you have a bug buzzing your ears just out of tongue-reach."
Tobimar gave a small snort of laughter. "Ugh," he whispered, responding to the simile with typically human disgust. 'Just… a feeling. Off and on I've had it for a while, but now… I keep getting a feeling of being watched, even though there's nothing here." He took a deep breath, forced himself to sit down and relax as the images re-started.
Toshi was continuing after other dialogue. "We can… look at it that way, yes. But… we've been here a while. No one's come to see… us. And what little we've heard… sounds like they have even more problems.
He looked grimly at his friends. "We were the last group present before their king was killed. That kind of thing means it was an insider's job. And the best insider to do it? That talking T-Rex that was the major-domo, captain of the guard, whatever, the one that brought us in, and then left us outside in the hall alone before he came back out and let us go. And then sent people out to catch us." Toshi paused, both to regather his concentration and apparently to let that sink in.
"He's got a point," Poplock said, looking at Toron. "From where they sit, you're the top suspect."
"I can hardly deny it. Especially when in a way they are absolutely correct; the 'Toron' who was with them in the Throne Room was, in fact, the murderer of my brother."
"So think about that," Toshi said finally. "What if he's the killer? We make a perfect set of scapegoats. Especially if we don't get to talk to anyone else." The small pale-haired girl spoke, followed by Gabriel and Aurora. Toshi's smile was cynical. "Yes, they could be perfectly fair, but just because it's all a sparkly magical kingdom doesn't make this a Disney adventure. Or it could be, and he's the Grand Vizier. They've got advanced magic, but they've got a monarchy – maybe a dictatorship, I don't know. This could be … as bad as any banana republic." The others said something. "Yes, exactly. Sure, they've treated us okay – even if isolated – so far, but that means nothing. Remember what we were told…" Toshi's brow furrowed even more, and now his voice blurred out as well.
Toron turned to Willowwind. "I don't think we can keep taking the time to watch all of this. They don't leave immediately, correct?"
"No. They remain for another week and a half," Willowwind confirmed.
"Great Sixteen!" the King said involuntarily. "Are you saying that the cell was empty for more than two weeks – nearly three – without anyone recognizing this?"
"I am saying exactly that. I cannot say exactly how that is possible. I do know that they discussed methods as to how they would leave – but the details are always obscured by his clever tactics; he is clearly aware that if anyone could read through his tricks, they would be hearing his voice, and therefore he avoids, for the most part, saying anything that means anything out of the context of his conversation."
"It would seem, however," Toron said finally, "that they are definitely not involved in the overall plot; they were intended as distractions. Yet… they are also so unique, they must be part of something far greater in and of themselves. They were 'told' something by someone –"
"Ah, yes. There were some other similarly cryptic references," Willowwind said, "but taken together… yes. They were assembled together and given some sort of instruction. By someone known to at least the one named Aurora, who does not hold this unknown in great esteem, and possibly by the one named Nike, who, conversely, does."
Toron sighed heavily and sat down. "A terrible mess, and a mystery. I wish I had a chance to speak with them – any of them."
With the viewmirrors no longer showing anything of interest, Poplock was looking idly around for any leftover bugs or flies, not that someone like Willowwind was likely to have missed anything. But because of that, it just happened that he was looking directly behind Tobimar when the boy named Xavier simply… appeared from thin air.
The little toad had no time to voice a warning or even surprise, for Tobimar Silverun leapt to his feet, spinning and drawing his swords in the same motion, sending Poplock tumbling to the floor.
A clear double chime resounded through the room as both of Tobimar's blades were met in perfect counter by a pair of leaf-green swords. The two youths seemed frozen for an immeasurably short second, eyes of sapphire blue locked in furious glare into eyes of stormcloud gray.
And then the tableau dissolved into a whirlwind of blades.
That was a more violent ending to a conference than one usually expects. Though I'm sure all of us have sometimes been tempted...