Legends told that whoever held the Lunar Jewel over their heart had their wish come true—so naturally, Maya Schrodinger was after it. Along the way, she would meet an old… friend.
It began as a tale, spun by people who didn’t know how close to the truth they really were. They said it was a remnant of a shard of the moon, a part that had fallen off during prehistoric days, when Filgaia was still an infant. Stray meteors had smashed into the moon, scattering dust and sending particles flinging towards the earth; most had burned up, but some had smashed into the soil and created craters, mountains, lakes, caves. Ancients long ago had taken any nearby stones and worshipped them; they carved jewels and idols from its craggy surface. Time, wars, and treasure-hunters had wiped out most of them, but one remained as a pure, virginal piece of mythology: humbly called the Lunar Jewel.
Timeless records spoke of lunar treasures bearing unbelievable powers, and it was upon this basis which many people perceived this certain Lunar Jewel to wield such force. Fact became obscured as the years passed. People began to suspect the legendary treasure could grant wishes, so long as it was worn around the neck, over the heart. One-hundred fifty-two people died in one year alone just to find it; eighty had perished simply by looking for a map to its location. Some said the pursuit was madness, others reasoned that the power to grant wishes was worth all the lives.
Virginia Maxwell first heard of the jewel from her mother during a soft bedtime story, then from Jet in a passing mention, then Janus during a bloodless encounter. Drifters soon began talking of the jewel again, as if the gossip were a wind that came and went. To be able to grant wishes—and Virginia had many wishes. Yet only the treasure was there to hunt, no sense of morality or salvation, no justice, nor anything even positive—pure selfishness.
Perhaps it was the greed that killed people.
Virginia spent the better part of three isolated days justifying the hunt. And all of her Gella buying what she hoped was a map.
Maya Schrodinger had to pay a far dearer price.
Alone, Virginia expressed her thoughts to the sky and herself as she rode to what she hoped would be the lost Temple of the Moon. So many people had sacrificed their lives for these lunar treasures! History had long forgotten the sheer numbers; there were actual laws in some areas forbidding people to search or even gain knowledge about it. Many brave Drifters had already tried, braver and stronger and more legendary than Virginia, and they had all failed. Many wandered lost in the wasteland, never to be heard from again. Several died, whether naturally or by foul play. A handful had lost their sanity, or their fortune, or their standing. All for a trinket carved from moon-rock. Even the Prophets had shuddered after having it mentioned to them once.
Yet there would always be one whose fire burned and wings spread out towards the impossible goal—because the heart of all Drifters knew that impossible was… well, impossible. And now, Virginia dared to try her fate, as she had dared countless times before, and though she didn’t know it for certain, something told her that she would not be alone in her hunt.
In her heart of hearts, the rival knew she would meet her again.
“Ten days starting from the pit of nowhere, going in the direction of the moon’s setting and rising—the jewel calls it down. After ten days, follow the swirling lands, then across the bone cemetery where ancient creatures lay in rest, through the earth’s mouth into a land of rotting green. Find the standing tree, and cast its leaves—they point towards the temple. Follow this path for a day, and choose the valley where the wind sings. The temple lies in the deepest part; its doors open cautiously.” That’s what the map read. Virginia had to spend a day just figuring out its vague clues.
Maya knew that the “pit of nowhere” was where one of the meteors had struck, forming a crater, but she didn’t know where it was exactly. Astronomers were a rare breed in Filgaia, and it took her a week to find even a small cluster of them. They speculated, from years of researching Filgaia’s sandy crust, that there were only about seventeen such pits left in the world, versus the countless number that had once dotted the land. Naturally, Maya screamed in shock: seventeen may as well have been seven million.
Virginia found out that in truth, three of the holes were of actual consequence, since nearly all the remaining ones were lakes, or forest, or covered by towns. One was a small crater somewhere in the northwest, but there were no swirling lands, cemeteries, caves, or valleys anywhere, just endless desert for weeks. Another was a dried-up lake, still another a former mine. Choosing between the two pits was like choosing which of her hands she would rather keep, and which to throw away.
The mine was close to population. The lake, distant. Drifters had started from both points, and several of the other seventeen possible beginnings. The number of dead or failed attempts seemed even on both fronts. No book, map, legend, or eyewitness account favored one over the other. Maya took her biggest leap of faith yet and chose the mine, since she believed the “pit” referred to a deep place. Virginia chose the dry lake, concluding it referred to the “nowhere” in the map.
They were both right.
Virginia had been following the rising and setting moon for exactly ten days, resting during daylight so as to not miss anything. Luckily for her, the moon was just in its waxing phase, and would not disappear into a new moon for nearly a month. In ten days, it would barely be halfway full, so she had started off well (the map never specified a time to start, although going during a waxing-crescent phase was wisest). After spending such a long time in the desert, she was filthy and wan, but her energy and zeal kept her going.
Maya clutched her hat as she fought against the winds of the swirling lands. As far as her eye could see, sandy whirlpools dotted the landscape, slowly sucking down grain, air, and life—but not her. And not the creatures that had made it through; the bone cemetery up ahead (as promised) indicated something had survived, or at worst, something had populated the area before the land turned into a hungry vacuum. Her horse trotted backwards in fear, and she could not coax it to go on any further. But she was not beaten—the map did not say she could not go around the danger.
Virginia took the long way, cautiously giving the death trap a respectable berth. Her horse stepped with care, as if walking on ice. The nearest whirlpool was ten meters away, but there was always the suspicious danger that one would pop up right beneath her, burying her prematurely. She barely breathed. The wasteland stretched for miles and miles, and at her slow pace, it took nearly a whole day to trek around the perils. She made it, though, and breathed in relief once the last whirlpool was well behind her.
The cemetery grimly awaited them both.
It was something like a forest, where naked trees of bleached white poked out of the ground. There was more soil and less sand here, and on occasion Maya could see the carcass of a tree, neighboring the strange dead beasts that were strewn around. It reminded Schrodinger of a ghastly picnic, where gigantic diners tossed fleshy bones aside to waste away. The stink of decay had left long before her grandfather’s birth, but she still grimaced and held her face, perhaps out of horror. Her greatest, and silliest fear, was the thought of one of those skulls suddenly turning around and smiling at her. She had to remember to breathe and keep her cool, even when staring down the lot of teeth and empty eyes.
The “earth’s mouth” was a cave, a welcome relief from the hot. Virginia ducked inside the mouth, walking aside her horse as she led it into the darkness. Whatever fears the cave may have brought, they were brief and small, for already she could see the light at the end. T’was a small hill that this hole had cut into, and it was cool and slightly damp. Virginia rested inside, and ate, and found a small pool where she could bathe before continuing. Up next were rotting lands, an area still sick from whatever disease had inflicted Filgaia.
It was similar to the graveyard, thought Maya, though here it was darker, and more frightening, and the stink of death was nearer, more personal. A fog lay dormant around the dead land. Haunting apparitions of plant life screamed against the bleak sky. Insects crawled on the surface, their many legs skittering; Maya shrieked and held up her long tresses to yield the more frightening ones. She wished for some company, even for an enemy, just as long as there was something else there, something to dull the loneliness, the darkness, the feeling of dread and evil.
As Virginia spotted the single living thing in that wasteland, she just had to wonder what Maya was doing. Was she around? Was she following? Ahead? Had she died? Had she found the treasure? Was she even interested, or else off finding something else? With every step she made, Virginia became more and more sure that she would meet Maya again; it was as if fate liked seeing them together, fighting and bickering and, rarely, cooperating. They drew towards each other like a bullet to its gun, a pencil to its paper, a key to its lock. That particular thought caused Virginia to wonder:
Did she and Maya need each other?
Her naiveté was annoying but sweet, endearing. It made her feel like her old self, before all the wrong things started happening. It was that thrill, like the thrill of a first victory, that spark that set off the flames of passion, of excitement. Virginia reminded Maya of herself, an awful lot, at least the kind of person she had once been, before the desert and the truth of Drifterhood sunk in and snatched her. Did she need Virginia to assure herself that it was not all serious, it was not all stone and steel, that some pure romantic adventure was still there, that she could go after something more opaque?
Maya was the whetting stone that sharpened her. She had to admit it. Without her, Virginia would be dull, soft, still innocent of the dangers around the world. She would be a selfish brat, concerned with something so indefinable that it could only be a word, not an action or an object—something, in sense, worthless. Or she could be dead, defeated by some lowly animal or man that this Virginia, the sharp and wary Virginia, could take down with a stare. She began to realize that she owed Maya a lot.
Maya was reluctant to admit it, but she needed Virginia a lot.
First things first, though. The Lunar Jewel awaited.
Maya cast the leaves from the only living tree into the air, and watched where they landed. Northeast, every one. She followed them with a clenched jaw. The next day, she came upon a forked path where both ways led into a jagged cleft, each going inside of a half-mountain, dug into it by unnatural forces. Magic was thicker than oil, and it abounded all around. Maya walked closer, remembering the words of the map. One of the canyons was silent as a tomb. From the other came a haunting whistle of wind, almost like a voice beckoning her. The sound frightened her, but she cast one foot in front of the other anyway.
Deep inside the canyon, when most light had been extinguished by the rock, Virginia found the temple. Its doors were closed, protected by words she could not read. She slowly touched them with her hand, wondering what the map had meant by “its doors open cautiously”. She attempted to speak her way into the temple, using all the languages she had picked up in her years, but the barrier was stubborn. She pushed. She tried pulling. She flung her fiery cards at it. She kicked it. She even tried rubbing it, remembering a tale where a boy had found his way into a secret chamber by rubbing the door.
“Open sesame,” said Maya. Nothing happened. It was worth a shot. “Please?”
Virginia frowned and turned around, reasoning it would be good to rest her mind and body for awhile. The canyon was well-sheltered, and she had enough supply for a week. Her horse, loyal but shaken from the journey, was now peacefully standing aside, watching. As Virginia turned, her gray shadow fell upon the door. It began to grind open. She jerked around, and it slammed shut. Her heart skipped a beat as she slowly understood the map’s cryptic message.
The door only opened when it knew nobody was looking. Maya carefully turned around again and let her shadow trail across the barrier. Whether by magic, advanced mechanical devices, a patient guardian, or some other means, the door rumbled open, creating a low grinding sound. It came to a halt, Maya’s back still to it. She risked turning her head, and it quickly shut itself. She turned around again, and just as before, the door opened. Logically, this was too easy.
Virginia took a step backwards. The door remained open. She took another, and another, and another. It was open. She back-walked all the way through, and turned around to face the inside of the temple once the door was beyond her. As she did, it closed on its own. She had to wonder, briefly, if Maya was making the same journey, or if she had already went through it. Facing her was almost certain; she would’ve been shocked not to see Miss Schrodinger somewhere in the temple. There had been no clues of somebody going ahead of her, so for all she knew…
For all Maya knew, she was the first one inside. And deep down, she hoped she would have company.
The good thing about the Temple of the Moon was that, in spite of being legendary and lost, it was a very small place that boasted only a few large rooms, and several anterooms that connected them. A person could walk through it in fifteen minutes at leisure, but therein was the mistake: brief, but deadly. All five of the major rooms had vicious traps to protect its jewel and ward off robbers. Naturally, they succeeded, and if Virginia had had a thousand lives, she might’ve wasted them all trying to reach the jewel, and still meet with failure. But she was not alone.
Maya Schrodinger was there, contemplating the first room. A single movement might’ve meant death for her, so she studied everything around her with great care. The room seemed bare and even pleasant, but she knew better than to be deceived. The floor had tiles scattered in patterns, no discernable trait or give-away lever to assist her. Every sense would have to be on full alert. She took a careful step forward.
A guillotine blade came straight down from the ceiling, falling right towards her. With no time to even shriek, Maya jumped to the side—and found another guillotine blade waiting for her. She jerked out of its way—the whole room had blades coming down after her! She had to run quick and ignore the painful burn in her chest; if only her dress were not so bulky! She considered ditching it, but the inevitable meeting with Virginia meant she had to be at her best, or not there at all. So she gathered her clothes tight and made a break for the door—not the exit, but further in. It was a death wish; she would’ve been safer in the room of falling blades.
Virginia Maxwell wheezed herself back to sanity as she leaned against the safety of an archway. Still alive! She had the wits scared out of her and some of her clothes torn, but escaping that deadly place intact was enough of a miracle. She actually prayed a word of thanks to God, or god—or Whatever, and waited until she was ready to move into the next room. It looked awfully dark, but luckily, she had a way of enlightenment. Taking several unsure steps forward, she poked her head into the next large room and found herself lost in fear.
Total, complete darkness, everywhere she looked.
She had to fight to breathe, the black air was so suffocating.
Virginia found her special flaming cards, then tossed one directly below her so as to not disturb anything. The brief flash of light was heavenly; she saw her immediate area, and was relieved, although what she did see was hardly pleasant. The light provided a second dread: the room was littered with various traps: nets to bind her, pitfalls to swallow her, pikes to impale her, pillars to crush her. To wander through this in the dark was madness. Virginia sacrificed a good deal of her deck in picking through most of the chaos: she slashed through nets, jumped over pits, sidled past pillars, and weaved around the pikes. The light made this room easy; her heart raced in fear as she thought of Maya. Did she have a means of getting through this nightmare?
Schrodinger groaned wearily as she passed the last trap. Just barely! Her beloved electric torch, bought at the cost of a sack full of jewels, had gone out during her trek across the room, but thankfully it lasted until the very end, and no longer—perhaps a means of telling her she would not need it again. She hoped she wouldn’t. The cost would have to be worth it, because Maya wasn’t about to stop just yet. Legend had it that there were three rooms yet, each one worse than the one before.
Virginia walked down the path that led her out of the darkness.
Maya saw the light clear as day. She smiled in relief.
They were almost out. A small Y-shaped anteroom awaited them.
And, oddly enough, each other. They shouted the same words at the same time upon arrival.
“Well, what do we have here!” exclaimed Maya, trying so hard not to smile for joy. She ended up twisting it in that same cocky, bratty way she always did when she met Virginia, probably because it was the only way she was comfortable expressing her happiness. She crossed her arms and put her nose to the ceiling. “If it isn’t Justice Jane and her six-shooter of Salvation! If fate doesn’t just have plans for us!”
“I expected you to be here, Maya,” replied Virginia evenly. “And I must say, as slightly odd as seeing you here is, I am glad you’re okay. Have you had a tough time as well?”
“Tough!” yelled Shroedinger in outrage. “Are you kidding! I’ve had naps that were more difficult! Talk about easy! What, and you’ve been struggling? Honestly, I thought you knew better!” Virginia started to scowl in that adorable, defensive way, and Maya would’ve found it endearing if the other woman hadn’t taken the comment so personally. Really!
“How can you say that? If you’ve been through everything I have… and speaking of which, why haven’t I seen you before? As far as I know, there’s only one way into this temple, and I went through it alone! How come I never even spotted you, or clues you had been here before? Do you think…”
“No, I don’t,” snorted Maya. She knew Virginia was going to say, “do you think I beat you here”, and she knew the answer was no. “For all I know,” she said, “I was the one who came here first. It was you that took the odd way in.”
“This makes no sense,” murmured Virginia, rubbing her chin in thought. She shook her head and decided, whatever, they were together now, and obviously after the same thing, again. Maya would probably want to fight. “So where’s your crew?” she asked.
“I could ask you the same.”
“They had… other affairs. Gallows and Clive are not crazy enough to come near this place, and Jet… well, for once, he did not care about this treasure, probably because he thinks the legends aren’t true.”
“Yeah,” groaned Maya empathetically, almost sounding agreeable, “my brother and Todd said this place was too dangerous as well, and that cat… ooh! More like scaredy-cat! Anyway, I can do solo missions, so it’s not like I can’t get along without them. I see that at least you can stake out on your own now and then. Pretty impressive.”
Virginia did not thank Maya, out loud.
“You know,” she said at length, “I don’t think it’s wise of us to fight from here on out. This place is dangerous, whether you want to admit it or not, so maybe we should call truce again and work together—or at least not sabotage each other. We’ll have enough problems without all our quarrels.” Maya frowned, seemingly in conflict with herself whether or not to agree. Virginia was not always sharp, or tough, but sometimes she had wisdom and a strength even Maya had to appreciate (or admire), and she had her Moments.
“I do agree with that last part,” she murmured humbly. “And it hasn’t been pretty, I’ll admit. Perhaps for once, I’ll play by your rules. Let’s just stay out of each other’s way and race to the end. Whoever gets the jewel first, keeps it. Loser goes home with their life, and that ought to be precious enough.” Virginia smiled very brightly, almost disgusting Maya with her gaiety. She thanked the blonde, actually bowed, and waved very casually as she walked towards the only other door in the room. Maya’s face flashed in surprise.
“Hey, wait a second! Where do you think you’re going! Come back here!”
The third major room was disappointingly empty. It had two levels, a high and a low, with several shady-brown columns holding up the second level. Two straight staircases led up, one on the right and one on the left, and in the center of everything—the room, the levels, the stairs, the temple itself—there was a statue of an armed warrior, bearing lance and shield. It towered over the two women as they walked into the room, and other than a few flickering torches, nothing else moved.
“This can’t be a dead end,” said Maya, mostly to herself. Virginia was studying the room carefully, paying particular attention to the statue. Something did not seem quite right with it—perhaps the ruby eyes it had? The way it seemed like it was not quite stone? How it looked like it protected the second half of the temple? How it signified the very center of the entire place, and was probably of immense importance?
“That statue,” she observed quietly. Maya looked at it.
“What of it? It looks like it’s centuries old.”
“I think… it’s something important.”
“It may come alive and attack us. We’ve both seen things like that happen before.” Maya was right, more so than she knew, and not about their previous encounters. When Virginia got close enough, the red jewels sparkled violently. The ground shook. She screamed as the spear was lifted with incredible speed, the statue came to life, and leaped off its pedestal. It took two solid steps forward, hardly rusty from decades of rest, and smashed the sharp end of its shield on the floor, putting the women on their behinds.
It thrust its spear at them with no regard to mercy, fair play, or it’s victim’s reactions. It just killed—its only objective was to kill anything that had came that far.
Virginia rolled out of the way, pulled out her six-shooters, and shot.
Maya jumped backwards, unsheathed a mighty Gatling gun, and fired.
Their bullets grazed by and made little holes in the stone, but otherwise did nothing.
“We’re in trouble,” observed Virginia, her voice tight. Maya was sardonic.
“Yeah, yeah, as usual. Got a strategy, Justice Jane?”
“You know I hate that nickname,” stated Maxwell as she ran to hide behind a pillar. It buckled once under the statue’s shield blow, and nearly collapsed under a second. It would not survive a third, and Virginia could not keep hiding under them forever. Maya was firing at its back while it was distracted, but it was like trying to fell a tree with a slingshot.
Virginia took a dive away from the column as it fell, and concentrated on crawling, then stumbling, then awkwardly running away from the statue’s blows. It was relentless; even if she had any Guardians with her, she would not be able to get off a single attack. Maya was doing a poor job of distracting it, because it seemed only interested in Virginia. Take them out one at a time—that must’ve been its deadly strategy. Ignore the other. Kill the first.
Virginia was blown off her feet by a glancing crash from the giant’s stone javelin. She tumbled and bumped into the wall, and screamed as the creature lunged towards her. It missed completely, striking the wall itself; Maxwell remained curled in a ball, hoping the smaller size would make it harder to strike her. The statue came closer. It struck the wall again, and again. Virginia froze as she wondered why she had not been turned to mush yet. What the…?
Her back stung as several loose pebbles and rocks fell on her from above. Her eyes bulged as she realized what the monster was doing: it wanted to bring down the entire wall on her body! She yelped and tried to scramble away, but the creature was quick and caught her in its hand. Whether any true mercy existed in it and she would be crushed instantly, or toyed with and gradually tightened inch by inch, she dared not think or hope. She struggled to loosen one arm as the giant raised her to its red-eye level, and fired off a futile shot to its face. The bullet struck its eye, and the giant suddenly recoiled.
She fell and struck the floor hard when it released her, and while a bone might’ve been upset and her tender flesh bruised, she was alive and breathing, and wiser for the experience. The eyes! They were its weak spot! Coughing, Virginia used the wall of the room to climb to her feet, then parted her loose strands of silk-brown hair from her head as she stared hard at Maya, still firing away.
“Maya!” she yelled. “Aim for the eyes! Hit the eyes! Maya! Its weakness is its eyes!”
“What! And break those jewels?”
“Okay, okay! I’m just kidding anyway!” Virginia was not in the mood for jokes. Maya raised her gun and let loose against the creature’s face, but if anything actually hit it, the stone showed no weakness. It lumbered on, now focused on Maya, believing its former victim to be dead. Virginia felt awful from her fall still, and a bit of her didn’t really like Maya that much, but Something inside made her walk over and help that woman anyway, in spite of the verbal retribution she would receive. Cringing in pain, she raised her bruised arm, squinted one eye, and took careful aim.
Tomato can on the fence. Warm day. Daddy’s hand. Bang.
Virginia grinned triumphantly. Bull’s-eye.
The statue’s head rocked back from the blast, and the eye that had been hit cracked. Maya screamed at Virginia, naturally, and vowed she would never be outdone by the “novice Drifter”. She yelled out a vicious battle cry and sprayed the creature’s face, pocking stone and glass and jewel; the monster screamed and tried shielding its eyes. Virginia limped directly underneath it and took special aim, firing directly into its groin.
That produced results.
Maya screamed happily as both eyes blanked out, and without vision, the statue seemed to lose its power. Life left the stone, and with only weak knees to hold it up, courtesy of Miss Maxwell, it fell and crumbled into pieces. Dust scattered. Faces were shielded. Minutes came and went, until there was silence. Maya whistled.
“Not a bad fight,” she admitted, tipping her hat a little. She looked to Virginia and gave her a rare smile of camaraderie. “You did pretty well back there, Ginny. You took all that abuse like a real Drifter and managed to take down something hopelessly more powerful than yourself. It’s your hour, so soak it up.”
“Don’t mind… if I do,” she managed through burning lungs. She slumped down on the ground, smiled, and asked, “You wouldn’t… happen to have… any Heal Berries… on hand, would you?”
Maya had been gracious, civil, even friendly and warm as she healed her rival. Virginia had taken a beating from that fall, and by all logic shouldn’t have been able to stand for a day, much less walk and fight. Secretly, Maya wanted to burst from pride and happiness—Virginia Maxwell, that inexperienced little novice of a wannabe Drifter, had surpassed her expectations several times over, very nearly equaling her in every field. Respect for the young woman was the least of her emotions; if Maya didn’t know better, she would’ve…
She had to push that thought out of her head. Not until she had the jewel. Only then. But she was nice, for awhile. Once Virginia had recovered—that is, once Maya had a worthy opponent again, all bets were off and the race started anew. The fourth room awaited them. It was similar to the third, except it was completely level, there were no stairs, no guardian, and no other door, except the one they came out of. The girls were at a loss for awhile, so they each suggested taking a meticulous look around, checking for hazards.
Virginia found something first, a lever close to the door they came out of. Knowing better than to press it without having the whole room checked, she noted its location and kept searching. Maya also found a lever, on the opposite side of the room, but opted to looking deeper. At the end of fifteen minutes, they found a third lever, more like a button, in the center of the room, and nothing else. They both stood and thought.
“Well, this is tricky,” said Maya. “Who knows what those things do? I’ll tell you what: you pull yours, and I’ll pull mine, and if anything bad happens, we both race for that third.”
“I have a funny feeling we’ll have to look out for each other from now on,” said Virginia gaily, her mouth twisted in a smirk. Maya made a face, but she didn’t exactly disagree. She and Virginia positioned themselves on opposite sides of the room, nodded, and braced themselves.
“You first,” said Maya. “You won the third room, you should pull the lever.”
“Well, you broke the jewels, so you should pull it.”
“You’re closer to the door,” whispered Maya, strong hope and conviction in her voice. Virginia shuddered. Maya had never sounded like that before: selfless. She sounded utterly and completely Not-herself, and for awhile Virginia was shocked. She could see the look in her rival’s eye, though, and began to understand, just a little, the mystery of Maya Schrodinger. Just a little.
Virginia resigned herself to fate and pushed her lever. The only door available to them shut tightly. She turned pale.
“It’s all right,” said Maya gently. “It’s not your fault. We’re bound to run into minor problems like this, and we’re not in danger yet. Let’s see what mine does.” Maya pulled hers, and at once, something happened: the ceiling shifted, and gradually lowered. It was very high up, but not so high that the girls could stand there idly watching it. Now it was Maya’s turn to pale.
“The other one!” Virginia scurried towards it at the same time Maya did, and both girls reached it at the same time as well. Both their feet pressed down on the large button, and to their relief, a door that had been hidden on Maya’s side of the room rushed open. The girls exchanged sheepish smiles.
“I guess we should’ve used this one first, but there was no way to know. Let’s go!” Maya and Virginia dashed off for the door, but once their feet were off the button, it closed again—boom. The ceiling kept getting lower, churning softly and scraping against the wall. Panic set in.
“What the…?” Virginia stepped on the button, the door opened. She released her foot, it closed. She took a delirious breath and said, “Now we’re in trouble.”
“Don’t say such nonsense, we’ll get out of this! Do you have anything heavy?” Virginia immediately understood her rival’s angle and searched through her belongings. She had food, but she couldn’t leave it, and her weapons, but no telling if there were more enemies along the way. She had a spare change of clothes, a purse, and some items, but combined they would not suffice. Maya had nothing either, at least nothing expendable.
“We’re still not in trouble,” she said, though even she sounded edgy. The ceiling got lower, while the closed door mocked them. They both tried turning the other switches, but some evil force kept them locked, so neither mechanism worked to free or save them. Only the button functioned, and something would have to stay behind. Virginia did not want it to be Maya. Maya did not want it to be Virginia. Not even their worst enemy…
“My god, look!” exclaimed Maxwell suddenly. Off in the distance was a miracle, a stone! It was large and roughly round, though flat on one side; it looked perfect. Maya nearly sang.
“Excellent! I’ll go get it and meet you midway to the button; it’d be faster that way. You can put it on and we can escape together!”
“Wait a minute!” she retorted sharply. “How do I know you won’t betray me and run off? This ceiling looks like it’d collapse before I got out! Why can’t I get the stone while you meet me midway?”
“Look, Virginia, there’s no time to argue! I don’t care what arrangement is done, as long as it’s done! I know you’re going to find this hard—me too—but we’re going to have to trust each other on this! Please!”
As Virginia Maxwell looked into Maya’s desperate eyes, with death looming above and only one way out, she knew she could have no room for doubts. A quick idea came to her head before she committed to anything, and she hoped it would please them both.
“Let’s get the stone together.”
“This is foolish.”
“No, let’s do it! That way, neither of us will have an advantage!” Now Maya was silent; her eyes were clear, and in the noise of the room, she and her rival exchanged looks and feelings and pieces of their selves that nobody else knew of or had: they connected as only intense rivals could.
“You know,” she said gently, “you can really be clever sometimes. All right, by your rules it is. Here’s hoping it’s light!” The girls ran over to the rock together and lifted it, finding it light with their combined strength. They carefully hefted it over to the button and weighed it down, then neck-and-neck, ran for the exit. Virginia dove through the door and tumbled into safety while Maya slid through it, though not completely. She felt the loss of her hat, emitted a yelp, and poked her hand back into the room to jerk it out just as the ceiling crashed down on the floor—thud.
Whew. One left.
The worst one. The last one. The only remaining obstacle, the end of the road, the final chance for them both to be utterly wiped out. The brunt of the Temple of the Moon would now be cast upon them, doom beyond doom, danger beyond danger.
“Well!” shrieked Maya, squeezing her hips and crunching her eyebrows into anger. “Where is it?” The room was thin, wide enough for four people to stand shoulder to shoulder, and long, at least twenty meters. Torches lit the hall-room well, casting a golden glowing light. At the end of the hall was a statue—totally stone, totally inanimate, totally harmless—a statue of a woman, or maybe a lion, or maybe an eagle. It was actually all three: lion’s body, eagle’s wings, woman’s face. Both of the girls recognized it at once, having seen fanciful pictures of it before. It was a Sphinx.
“Is this it?” wondered Maya, sounding a tad less cynical. The Sphinx was infamous for giving difficult riddles to travelers, and answering them usually wielded prizes or fame. If this statue was anything like the myths…
“Maya,” said Virginia, “I think we’ll have to use our brains for this one.”
“Ahuh.” Maya crossed her arms and glared right into the Sphinx’s face. “Well, give it to us. We’re waiting. We don’t have all day, ya know!” Virginia smiled and masked a chuckle, not because Maya was funny, but because they both kept on using plural words. Us. We. Our. As unlikely as it sounded, the two rivals were now working as a team, and Virginia was loving it. Now if only Maya agreed to do this more often. Stubborn girl.
Eventually, the statue spoke to them, or rather, words came and the girls were able to hear them:
To have come so far, you must have greatness. Great strength, great speed, great wits, and great friends. One cannot make the journey alone. Now, in groups or alone, as a single entity or as a single voice, may you succeed in this final test or die in final failure!
Immediately, a powerful force slapped steel braces around both their ankles, immobilizing them. Not only could they not move, but both girls were also linked to each other, so either in victory or defeat, they would share it all. They panicked until the unspoken words calmed them and instructed them:
Together you are now, for better and worse. Five riddles you shall hear; answer them all correctly, or fail and die. Best of luck, travelers.
At this, something dreadful happened. A large rolling-object, wide as the room and heavy as a mountain, gradually wheeled towards the girls. In mere minutes they would be flattened, and they could not escape no matter how hard they tried. The Sphinx calmed them again with its first question, which they had no choice but to answer:
The first riddle. I am in the sky, by and by. When I am close, you cannot look, but far away, I am everywhere. Yet when I am close, things are brightest—darkness reigns far away! What am I?
“Stars,” said Maya, who had deduced it easily. The rolling-object coiled backwards a fraction, paused, and resumed. The girls now had more time on their hands!
“I know, I saw it. Just concentrate on the riddles. Next?”
The second riddle. Net-maker I, patiently I fly, yet with no wings. Smaller than thou, yet elder, the octave of my step echoes quietly when I hunt. What am I?
Now this took the girls some thought, for it was a trickier thing and at first, they didn’t believe it existed. But Virginia, having grown up very rurally, understood the meaning of the words and called out to the Sphinx, “A spider!”
The rolling-object recoiled and paused, but not as far and not as long. Both girls swallowed.
The third riddle. I am seed, I am flesh, I am soul, yet I never live. I can take any shape, I can penetrate air, I can transform. I am life, and death, and spirit. What am I?
This was a brain-twister. Maya was never much of a spiritualist; Virginia barely understood the seed-to-soul stanza. Take any shape? Penetrate air? Life and death? They had no idea. The rolling stone of death edged closer. In the heat, Maya began to sweat and wished she had a drink—
“Water!” she exclaimed. The rolling object inched backwards only slightly, and paused for only a second.
The fourth riddle. I can weigh every world, yet I am light. I can broaden any horizon, yet I am small. I contain knowledge, yet it is never mine. What am I?
“Drat,” whispered Virginia. She knew the answer, she just couldn’t get it out in time. “Uh, um, uh, uh… what was it? What’s it called, what is it?”
“You… you…” She tried to pantomime the object, but it was hopeless: Maya couldn’t understand her at all. Finally Maxwell blurted out the answer in a fit of anger. “Uh, uh, a book!”
The rolling-object merely paused this time. It did not roll back.
The final riddle.
The roll pressed forward. It was very near, almost within touching distance.
I have defeated and conquered more souls than all wars.
Virginia and even Maya whimpered as the stone crept closer.
I am mightier than the dark, mightier than the light.
They clasped hands. This was The End, they knew it.
I make people kill, yet more adore me than anything else.
Their grip tightened. If they were going to die, they wouldn’t have wanted anyone else around. Nobody else could’ve understood them any better than each other, closest of rivals, noblest of enemies.
What am I?
Virginia and Maya met in a hopeless gaze. Oddly enough, the answer was right in front of them.
“Oh for the love of—“
The stone stopped. Permanently. The Sphinx seemed to smile.
I congratulate you, travelers. Stand fast, and you shall reap the benefits of your struggles. May your fondest wishes come true.
The voice died. Their legs were still bound. They began to sink. One of Maya’s few great fears was being buried alive. Virginia whimpered as she sank into the sand. The two rivals held onto each other, hoping that their faith in the statue’s words would see them through—and if not, their faith in each other.
Effortlessly, they were baptized in the sandy underground, together.
Virginia and Maya found themselves spat out onto a rough, sandy surface. The ceiling above closed up, like a mouth disgusted by the taste of the traveling Drifters, and became solid stone again. They were covered with sand, and had a bruise where they had landed, but otherwise they were safe, albeit in the dark. The room they had landed in was very small, with a sandy floor and only four torches, one in each corner, to light the place. At the far end of the room was kind of a dais; against its wall was a plaque, holding the Lunar Jewel which they had both fought for. It was distractingly beautiful in the dark; the girls got the feeling it would have immense glitter in the light.
“That’s it,” whispered Maya. Virginia nodded, and they both stood to their feet, numbly dusting the sand off. They could not take their eyes off the Jewel: it was in the shape of a waning crescent moon, pale green like emeralds in the dark, and it was set in a stone that seemed to be both black and green at once. A chain of a fine, unknown material strung around it, hanging by a hook on the plaque; Virginia wanted more than anything to touch it.
But there was only one.
“Well,” said Maya, but she didn’t finish her sentence.
“This is odd,” commented Virginia. “We both arrived here at the same time, so we’re both entitled to it.”
“Who says?” wailed Maya, crossing her arms haughtily—once again, that same old look of hers. Virginia braced herself for the worst. “As far as I know, I still beat you here! And okay, so half the temple was cleared by our teamwork, but I know the trek here and the first half was done by me!”
“That is odd,” repeated Maxwell, covering her mouth. “Because I could have sworn the same thing…” Unfortunately, during her aside, Maya took her chance and sprinted after the jewel, devil may care and screw those in her way. Virginia shouted after her, but she was too late: Maya caught the talisman in her hand and held it up triumphantly. She even laughed.
“It’s mine! At last it’s mine! So!” she snapped, turning to her rival, “All your justice for empty hands, eh? How do you like it? It’s always the fastest ones who survive, Ginny! Don’t forget that a moment’s distraction may turn even your friends into foes!”
“Maya,” she replied with the same tired conviction, “I don’t believe you. Trusting in somebody isn’t a weakness, and selfishly going through life is no way to live. I’d rather place a little belief in somebody, even if I think they’ll betray me, than always suspecting everybody of the worst. You said not long ago that I should trust you, and I did.”
“But only one can have this jewel!” exclaimed Maya, and she pointed to Virginia, accusing her of some loopy crime. “I was hungrier, I was faster—in that moment, when it came down to it, I wanted it more and was willing to make sacrifices! You can never trust somebody totally, Virginia, even if they are your own kin! In the end, the person who takes care of themselves is well taken care of.”
“Maya…” Maya hated seeing that pathetic, strong sad face whimper up at her, so she pulled out her smaller gun and did the only thing she knew how in that situation: threat by force.
“Enough of that! It’s nothing personal this time, Virginia—and I do owe you a little, so let me pay you back!”
“No!” Maya fired, and struck her rival hard. Virginia collapsed on the sandy ground, and her vision blackened.
Virginia Maxwell woke up with an angry stomach, some spare pieces of grit still wedged in uncomfortable places, a dry throat, and a headache that could’ve set a record—but she was alive, and in bed. Maya’s bullet must’ve stunned her, she deduced, and somebody had taken the pains of bringing her there to that bed, wherever it was. Had Maya done that? Was she, in her piggish way, still kind enough to hoist her unconscious rival and carry her all the way back to the nearest inn? Had she already paid the innkeeper? Thinking hurt too much, and she was exceptionally weary. Virginia felt like she could sleep for a week once she rose; perhaps rest and free room was Maya’s thank-you gift?
She managed to get out of bed only because she smelled awful. The bath she took was hot, heavenly, and free, and her clothes were carefully cleaned, ironed, and repaired by tailors, perhaps another one of Maya’s “gifts”. Once Virginia dressed, she found herself less tired and less irritated at her rival. Maya could be a pain, but her honor in this case made her seem almost sweet.
Virginia returned to “her” room and decided to undress a little for a nap, since she still felt groggy. She had taken some medicine for her head, but the effects would probably not dull anything until she was asleep. Without so much of her elegant violet clothes on, she slept easier and spent most of the day recovering, and wondering about Maya.
She betrayed me after all, and I thought we had come so close to that elusive thing, to trust and friendship. What was she thinking? All right, Schrodinger, what’s your lesson for today? Never trust anyone? But if you can’t trust anyone, what’s the point in doing anything? Do you trust your family, your companions? Do you trust me? You asked me to trust you—God, Maya, you’re so confusing. I wish I understood you better.
…Wish? That’s right, the Lunar Jewel. It can grant a wish, supposedly. I wonder if it could grant something like that. What would she wish for? Probably a diamond the size of a mountain—but I know better than to second-guess her. What, what? What could it be? I suppose I’ll find out the next time I see her.
Virginia awoke early the next morning, feeling refreshed and relieved. Whatever toxin Maya had shot into her was gone, and she felt like eating a table full of food. She went down to the lobby of the inn, taking her time and enjoying the bright, gentle morning, and was greeted by a young boy.
“Um, are you Ginny?” he asked. She looked down at him and smiled.
“Yes. What can I do for you?”
“Somebody called Moira Sapphire asked me to give this to you. She said you’d understand it.” He handed her a scroll, smiling. Virginia thanked him and gave him a little tip, and walked outside to read in the fresh air. She had no idea who Moira Sapphire was, and the letter was even more cryptic. It just had a set of coordinates, located in some private area a few miles outside of town. She supposed she had to go there for something, but what? A suspicious feeling welled up inside of her, until she got a good long look at the name.
…More Sapphire? More jewels?
M.S. Maya Schrodinger?
Only one way to find out. Virginia hired a horse and set off for the location. She had a feeling that her next meeting with her old rival was not far off.
She was right. Maya was standing there, nestled underneath a shady tree, waiting patiently. She gave Virginia a cordial look, or as cordial as it got with her, and nodded in greetings. Virginia was more skeptical.
“I hope you didn’t bring me out here to gloat. Look, you got what you wanted, all right? You don’t have to rub it in my face.”
“I’m not going to do that,” said Maya, but her voice was much softer than usual, more… was it really? …Insecure? Was she turning SHY on Virginia! Heaven and Earth forbid. “Look,” she said, transforming back into her usual snotty self, “you can say what you will, but I did all that for a reason back there. I just did not want you to have that thing.”
“Why—do you think your wish is more important than mine?”
“I have… my reasons.” Shy again. Maya was frowning and casting her face down. She shook herself and glared softly at her rival. “Anyway, about why I called you out here. I need for you to do me a favor.” Virginia nearly fell down from surprise.
“A what? Are you serious? After what you did?”
“Don’t sound so self-righteous,” snorted Schrodinger, “just listen. It’s nothing big, and it’ll only take a second.”
“Fine,” sighed Maxwell, throwing her hands up in defeat. “What do I need to do?”
“Close your eyes.” Virginia looked more appalled than before.
“Close your eyes! God, you’re not stupid, Ginny—close them! Just for a second!”
“Is this a secret?” she asked as she reluctantly closed her eyes. Maya didn’t answer, and for a few seconds, she began fearing the worst. Was Maya going to do something dangerous, like attack or rob her? Would she do something immature and steal her horse? Or was this another silly game or point she wanted to make? Virginia couldn’t tell, but she had at least agreed to this one favor. She soon felt something being wrapped around her neck and shoulders—a noose? No, it weighed slightly against her chest; she could feel Maya’s presence as she put it on.
“Okay,” said her rival with expectation, “you can open them now!” She did, nearly rolling them in exasperation, and gasped at what rested on her breast, right above her heart.
It was on there. She was wearing it. Her mouth fell open in amazement.
“Maya… are you giving this to me?” Virginia didn’t look up, and good thing—she would’ve seen Maya actually looking bashful, uncertain, intensely hopeful and a little proud. And happy—very, very happy.
“That’s why I didn’t want you to have it, at least not at first,” she whispered tenderly. “I wanted… to give this to you. Even if we had never met, I wanted to give it to you.”
“But why?” she asked, holding the talisman up. She could feel the ancient power hum against her heart, her hand, her cheek as she touched it.
“So you can have your wish.”
“What wish?” It suddenly occurred to Virginia that she had wished for better understanding concerning Maya. Why did she do all those things? Why did she act that way, so superior and defiant? Why did she help or hinder at will? And why did she seem so much more alive and happy whenever Virginia was around? WHY did she give her that jewel, the one she risked her life for and paid for with a month’s wages, the one she betrayed her for? Maya was so, so…
At once, whether by the power of the jewel or her own blossoming wisdom, Virginia had her wish granted. She knew at once. Maya’s action had truly spoken louder than any word she had used.
“Thank you,” she croaked, her voice unsteady. Maya gave her a gentle smile. “So… just out of curiosity, what was your wish?”
“If I tell you,” beamed her blonde rival, “it won’t come true.”
“Did you at least use this… jewel on yourself?” she wondered. Maya’s face was now glowing with an alien light.
“Well… let’s just say that… my wish got granted a long time ago.”
When Virginia Maxwell awoke the next day, the only remnant of her rival was a small letter on her pillow, written carefully with an elegant stylus. She picked it up with a soft smile and read it quietly:
Sorry for the abrupt absence, but you know how these things are. Treasure and all. Riches and fame. I think I enjoy the hunt even more whenever you’re around—uh, forget I said that. Sorry. I don’t trust my words when I’m around you, Ginny, so this letter will have to suffice. I hope you understand—I know you will. I’ve done a lot so you can, and the least you can do is be grateful. Don’t worry, I know you are, so maybe you can do me another favor. I’ve left you some coordinates to follow, if you’d like to see me again. It would be a great pleasure to match wits with you, Ginny. Don’t disappoint me.
Poets say that the greatest thing in the world is a noble friend, and the next-greatest is a noble rival. I’m lucky to have both. Catch me if you can,
Virginia was dressed and out the door in moments.