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A Pack of Cards

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Croma was sitting on the swing in the park, watching the clouds drift by. As it was a warm day, she had unbuttoned her jacket. She had taken off her straw hat as well and placed it on the grass. Her staff lay next to it, its blue crystal glistening in the sunlight. Roddy and Claire kept glancing at it, not-so-secretly wishing to try it out and see whether a staff alone allowed one to cast spells, even without any magical knowledge.

That she wasn't actually swinging, just occupying the swing somewhat annoyed Roddy, because he wanted to have a go. He didn't say it through. Real men didn't ask girls for favours. Even if they are twice as old as them, incredibly powerful mages and really wouldn't mind at all. Besides, his sister wanted him to join her on the seesaw.

Suddenly they heard a series of shrill screams, filled with fury and indignation. Everyone turned to see where they came from. The screams seemed to come from Mog's house, in the mining district. That little moogle sure had a loud voice.

Croma leaped off the swing. Obviously, she had to help. She grabbed her staff. Perhaps a monster had escaped from the abandoned mine. Despite impersonating any number of heroes, Mog probably wouldn't last long if he actually had to fight.

She concentrated on casting a teleportation spell. After speaking a few arcane words, she took a step forward and reappeared in front of Mog's door. Before forcing it open, she glanced over her shoulder. She was glad to see Freja running up the stairs. She was holding a long metal pole in her hands and trying not to trip over it.

Croma reminded herself that she had no need to even worry and pushed down the latch. The door swung open effortlessly. She stepped inside, holding her staff in front of her, to have some protection from any lunging monster. She was ready to fight. Any monster dumb enough to trifle with her would be met with Flare. She'd only need a moment to cast the spell.

But there were no monsters in sight, unless you counted Mog, who could be pretty monstrous at times. He was lying on the ground, pounding his paws against the wooden floor.

By now, Freja had arrived as well. Seeing that everything was more or less alright, she leant the pole against the wall and knelt down next to Mog. She scratched him behind the ears. "Okay… Calm down. If you tell us what's up, maybe we can help you."

Mog leaped into the air, as if he'd been stung by a bee. He pointed an accusing finger at Freja, who stood up and took a step back. "How dare you act like this were some trivial thing, kupo? This matter is of great urgency, the Pop-Up deck has been stolen, kupo!"

Croma sighed. "All this fuss about a few cards?" Then she laughed. "We've survived the Destroyer and you're making all this fuss about some cards?"

Mog scowled and crossed his arms. He shook his head vigorously. "No, no, no, no, no, kupo! It's not just some cards, kupo! It's my- I mean Pop-Up Hero X's legendary Pop-Up Duel deck, kupo!"

Freja yawned and stretched. She gave Croma a nudge. "You'd think that something like this wouldn't happen to someone who is- oops… knows so many heroes."

Croma added, "Have you looked everywhere?"

Mog didn't answer. Instead, he stared at the ceiling and started tapping his foot impatiently.

Thinking that the matter was settled and he would start looking properly once they had gone, the two girls turned to leave. But before they reached the door, Mog shouted, "Stop, kupo!"

They turned around. Mog had used the moment their backs were turned to change into his Dungeon Hero X costume. Seemingly he had a lot of practice in doing that. "Smarter than Sherlock, more analytical than Dupin could dream of, I am none other that the amazing Detective Hero X, kupo!"

"Who are those meant to be?" Croma asked.

Freja rolled her eyes. "Then why are you wearing Dungeon Hero X's gear?"

"I still have to sew a costume, kupo!" Then he turned away and mumbled, "Ack! The Bell of Oblivion sure did have its uses, kupo…"

But he wasn't about to be stopped. He fluttered to the door, past the mildly amused girls. He inspected the latch before turning to face them. "The entire flow of events is now clear to me, kupo! You two are the thieves, kupo! Do not deny your guilt, for I have found your fingerprints on the door handle, kupo."

"That must have taken some amazing detective skills, considering that we both wear gloves." Freja drummed her fingers against the wall. She was getting bored fast. Besides, she still had work to do in the forge.

"Shut up, kupo! Details, kupo! You removed them when you sneakily broke in, so that nobody would suspect you because you wear gloves the rest of the time, kupo."

"You don't actually know how our fingerprints look like," Croma said, but she was ignored.

"Besides, as you were the first to arrive, you must have been near-by, so you were the ones who stole the cards as whoever did also had be here to steal them in the first place, kupo."

"I live next door, imagine that…" Freja made no attempt to hide her irritation.

Detective Hero X just continued talking. "And the reason you came was that if you arrived at the scene of the crime as helpers you would remove all suspicion from yourselves, kupo. But you can't fool me, kupo!"

Freja threw up her arms. "We came because you were screaming! I thought you'd fallen into the machinery!"

Detective Hero X turned to her. He looked unimpressed. "If that had happened, Super Hero X would be here, not me, kupo."

Freja muttered something under her breath about him being bloody pulp if that were to happen. Croma could hear it quite clearly anyway, but Detective Hero X either didn't or pretended not to have.

Against evidence and her better judgement, Croma decided that a master detective might just listen to reason. "What use would we have for the cards?"

She was wrong. After thinking for a moment, he gestured dramatically. "The lack of an obvious motive always compounds the guilt, kupo! Any detective worth his salt knows that, kupo!" He folded his arms and nodded, highly satisfied with his reasoning.

By now, Freja had had enough. She picked up her pole and tried to walk past Detective Hero X. But he blocked the door to the best extent his small stature would allow. "Nobody leaves until I get the cards back, kupo!"

Freja gritted her teeth. Humour that moogle for a second and he'd blow it totally over the top. But she decided not to go ballistic quite yet. "Cut it out. I'm a busy person. I don't have time for this!"

Detective Hero X balled his fists and punched the air a couple of times. "No getaway for you, kupo! I've caught you red-handed, kupo!"

Freja decided to try one more time before finding out whether being the Oracle of Fire allowed one to shoot flames from one's fingertips. She also considered hitting him over the head with her pole, but she didn't want to dent it. The pole, not his head, obviously. "We don't have those stupid cards." The words came out as a snarl.

"Ha! Every criminal denies their guilt, kupo! How would you know that they are stupid if you didn't steal them, kupo?"

With that, Freja smacked her forehead and muttered a barrage of swearwords.

Detective Hero X rubbed his chin. "But what you say may be true, kupo! My analytical instinct tells me that you aren't lying, but aren't telling the whole truth either, kupo. Maybe you really don't have the cards, because you've hidden them somewhere else, kupo! So one of you can go and fetch them, but the other must remain here under my watchful eye, kupo!"

Freja clenched her fist. It would take intervention from the gods themselves to stop her from punching Mog.

Croma decided to act before the situation slithered into excessive amounts of stupidity. She smiled. "Would it be enough if one of our shadows stayed?"

Detective Hero X looked at her with a puzzled expression on his face. He scratched his head. Then he turned away from the girls and started talking quietly to himself. "A person needs to be there for their shadow to be cast, so if their shadow is there, one can assume that they are also present, kupo." Just before Freja managed to sneak past him, he turned back. "It's fine with me, kupo!"

"Good." Croma smirked. She silently mouthed several strange words, careful not to miss a single syllable. Once the last word had been spoken, she swung her staff in a half-arc. A shadow copy of her appeared in front of the "Bat Basher" game machine. It assumed a combat stance.

"Stand here and do nothing until I or Mog dismiss you," Croma commanded. The shadow didn't respond. Satisfied, Croma turned to the door.

But Detective Hero X wouldn't budge. He waved his arms about wildly. "That's not fair, kupo!"

"Yes, it is!" Freja swiped at him, but he ducked.

He stepped to the side and held his paws defensively in front of him. "Okay, okay, kupo! But no funny tricks, kupo. Or I'll keep your shadow for ever and ever, kupo!"

The girls hurried out before Detective Hero X could say anything else. He slammed the door behind them.

Freja turned around, shook her head and laughed. She heaved herself up onto the left of the two wooden barrels. "Talk about 'The boy who cried Leviathan'!"

Croma just nodded.

"Thanks for solving that anyway." Freja looked at her friend's feet. "Is it err… inconvenient not having a shadow? I read in a story once…"

Croma waved dismissively. "Not as far as I've noticed. I'll try to get his silly cards back anyway. But only because it looks weird, not having one."

"That's good then." Freja pushed herself up. "Just tell me if you need my help. Otherwise, I'll be back in the forge. That damn moogle has cost me enough time already." With that said she bounded down the stairs and crossed the street to her house. As she had left in a hurry, the metal door still stood wide open. Before going inside, she gave Croma a wave.

Once Freja was gone, Croma walked down the stairs, but at a far more sedate pace than her energetic friend. At the bottom of the steps, she fastened her staff to her belt.

She sighed. How in the world was she meant to find Mog's cards? Particularly as they were probably inside his house. And as he was fixated on them being stolen, it was unlikely that he would actually look for them. A part of her wanted just to go back to him, dismiss her shadow and be done with it. But that wouldn't be nice. Besides, he'd probably start looking for them on her aunt's farm. He already had a permanent base in the silo.

There was of course an off chance that he had lost them during one of his many heroic adventures. In that case the best way to find them was to consult a crystal ball. In other words, to ask Goblin. His advice was utterly useless most of the time, but it still was better than Detective Hero X's deduction skills. At least Goblin was right, although his information tended to be utterly irrelevant.

After retrieving her hat from the playground, Croma walked to his stand on the other side of town. She arrived about quarter of an hour later. Goblin was sitting outside, next to a soft toy tonberry, which was hanging on a string. A shattered mirror stood behind him. He was consulting a crystal ball, a pack of tarot cards and some tealeaves at the same time.

Croma tapped him on the shoulder. He looked up and readjusted the cooking pot that he wore as a hat. "Me smart, me read your future. Do you want to hear it?"

"No, thank you."

Goblin's face fell. He gave his toy tonberry a push. It swayed to and fro a couple of times before coming to a halt again.

"But could you tell me where Mog's cards are?"

Goblin scratched behind his ear. He smiled, but as he was a goblin it seemed more menacing than friendly. "Hmm… Divination is very tricky. But me give it a try."

He stared intently at his crystal ball, muttered a string of nonsense words and waved his hands in a mystical manner. Suddenly he was lifted into the air by an invisible force. He hovered there for a few seconds, shaking violently, before he fell back onto his chair. After taking a couple of deep breaths, he started to talk. "Unlucky. Antidote-"

But Croma was already walking off. She had heard enough to know that Goblin would be no help whatsoever. Perhaps she could find a lead at Dardola's. That was highly unlikely, but she could definitely find a good cup of coffee.

Mog was pacing up and down the room, getting increasingly irritated. He wished that those thieves would hurry up and return the cards.

To make matters worse, he hated having Croma's shade around. Its mere presence sent cold shivers down his back. He kept looking over his shoulder to see what it was doing, as he was under the impression that it could leap to attack at any moment. How he wished that he hadn't agreed with Croma's suggestion! As if this wasn't bad enough, he couldn't change secret identities while being watched.

Mog could take it no longer. There had to be a better way to force Croma and Freja to return those cards. He walked up to the shade, pointed his paw at it and shouted, "You are dismissed!"

The shadow vanished into thin air before he had time to say "kupo". He sighed with relief and pulled off his mask. It was starting to itch.

After giving himself a good scratch, Mog decided to focus his efforts on Croma. She was far less likely to hit him with a blacksmith's hammer.

Mog left his house. Before going, he made sure that he locked the door behind him. He also spread some glue onto the latch. If those thieves had the gall to return, they would be so incredibly sorry. He hid the tube of glue under a flowerpot.

He walked over to Stella's Ranch. Shirma was sitting on the tree stump just outside, listening to Chip the hamster's heroic tales. That reminded Mog. He wanted to ask Chip whether he wanted to become his trusty sidekick. After all, every hero needed one.

Mog ran over to Shirma, waving his arms frantically. "It's terrible, kupo!"

She immediately looked up from Chip's tales and turned to face him, her eyes wide with worry. "What's wrong?"

"Your sister has stolen Pop-Up Hero X's cards, kupo!"

Shirma gasped. She touched her upper lip. "Croma wouldn't do that!" She took a couple of deep breaths and shook her head in disbelief. "She's too nice. Besides, she doesn't even play pop-up duels!"

Mog shrugged and looked into her eyes. "I don't understand either, kupo! But I know it was her, kupo. I've got evidence, kupo!"

"But, but…" Shirma stammered. Then she jumped up and ran off towards the town. "Sorry, but I've got to see to something!"

It was clear to Shirma that there had to some mistake somewhere. She knew that Croma wouldn't just have taken them, there had to be a good reason behind her behaviour. Croma might have merely borrowed the cards or perhaps there was some dark secret behind them. A demon sealed in a playing card… That sounded silly, but so does a fluffy yellow bird saving the world. In times like this, it didn't help that Croma had to be a mysterious Black Mage.

Once in town, Shirma stopped to wonder where she should look for her. She decided that Dardola's was always a good place to start.

She walked over to the café and slowly pushed open the door. She peeked inside. To her relief, Croma was sitting at the bar, seeming quite relaxed. Shirma walked over to her.

Croma looked up from her cup of coffee. She gave her sister a wave. "Do you want something to drink?"

Shirma shook her head and walked over to her at a brisk pace. She touched Croma's sleeve. "Mog told me you stole his cards…"

She laughed. "So he did now? Well, I suppose as it is Mog, he can't possibly be wrong." Seeing just how worried Shirma looked, she decided to stop fooling around. She grabbed her shoulders. "No, seriously, I haven't touched his cards. Why would I?" Croma waited a moment before continuing. "He's bound to have lost them. They'll turn up sooner or later."

Shirma smiled slightly. "Really?"

"Yes." She let go.

Shirma took a step back. She twirled her pink hair, a sure sign that she was deep in thought. After a while she said, "You know, maybe we should help him look."

Croma laughed again and had another gulp of coffee. It was slowly getting cold. "I'd rather not. If I hadn't tried to help him once today, I wouldn't be in this mess. Besides, he's returned my shadow. But if you want to go, feel free."

Shirma looked befuddled for a moment, but nodded anyway. She left the café, pleased that Mog had been wrong. Now she'd prove it to him by finding his cards. She ran over to his house.

Even before she set foot on the stairs, she heard Mog cursing loudly. Shirma touched her brooch for luck before walking up, holding onto the banister all the way. At the top, she saw him holding onto the latch with one hand and struggling. He was in disguise, but it wasn't making him any harder to recognise.

Shirma asked, "Are you okay? Is your key not working?"

Mog looked at her darkly. He shouted, "No! Don't you see that I'm stuck, kupo?"

She shook her head. "No, I don't. How can you be stuck? I don't see anything you could be stuck in."

Mog tried to pull himself away from the door, beating his tiny wings frantically. But his efforts were to no avail. "Not stuck in, stuck to, kupo! Some idiot smeared glue on the latch, kupo!"

"Who'd do something like that?"

Neither Mog's white fur nor his mask could no longer hide the fact that he was blushing. He decided to try to gloss over the whole matter. "That's irrelevant, kupo! Now help me, kupo!"

Shirma nodded. She grabbed Mog around the waist and pulled. After a couple of sharp tugs, he suddenly came loose. They both tumbled backwards down the stairs. Fortunately, neither of them hurt themselves. Shirma stood up first and brushed the dirt off her white robe.

Mog remained lying for a few seconds, hoping to earn some sympathy points. Seeing that he wasn't getting any, he too got up and rubbed his head. "So you've got the cards, kupo?"

"No. Croma doesn't have them."

"That's because she'll have hidden them at Freja's, kupo. They're partners in crime, kupo." Having to explain everything to the imbeciles was one of the curses of being a great detective.

Shirma shrugged and walked past Mog, up the stairs. There was no point arguing with him. She pushed the door open, careful not to touch the latch. Before stepping inside she called down, "But I'll help you look!"

"You won't find them here, kupo…" Mog muttered and quickly flew after her. He wasn't going to let anybody pillage his house without him being there.

Shirma looked around the room. Nothing seemed to be out of place. There were no cards in plain view. This would be a little bit more difficult than she had imagined. But she wouldn't give up. She walked over to the desk and started flipping through the folders that were lying on it. There were a couple of cards serving as bookmarks in one, but not enough for a deck. She showed them to Mog anyway.

But he shook his head. "These are really, really common newbie cards, kupo. Thieves wouldn't have to steal these; they're in every pack, kupo. Pop-Up Hero X wouldn't use them in his deck, kupo!"

Shirma put the cards back, careful to keep the places. Then she went over to the arcade games. She knelt down next to one of them and looked underneath. After a couple of seconds, she sneezed. It was really dusty down there.

But it paid off. Quite a few cards lay under the machine. She reached for them and pulled them out one by one. It was quite tricky as she could barely squeeze her arm underneath.

Mog grabbed the cards. He started counting. After a while, he reached a conclusion. "All fifteen, kupo! Pop-Up Hero X's Deck has been restored and the day is saved, kupo!"

Shirma stood up. "See? Croma didn't steal them."

Mog pulled a face. "You're wrong there, kupo. She's just too embarrassed to admit that she's a thief, so she told you to put them back and pretend that they were always there, kupo. You, Croma, Freja… You're all partners in crime, kupo! But being a hero and seeing how truly sorry you are… I forgive you, kupo!"

"Err… Thanks?" She decided not to argue. Mog was chuffed with his amazing detective skills, Croma probably wouldn't care that he considered her a thief as long as he didn't bother her and Freja would have forgotten about the whole incident soon enough. Actually, Mog was likely to forget about it pretty soon too. That left everyone pretty happy. Sometimes forgetting could be virtue, after all.

Shirma excused herself and left. Just after she closed the door behind her, she realised with horror that she had touched the latch. To her relief, the glue had already dried.

She was halfway down the stairs when she heard a shriek coming from Mog's house. After considering what to do, she crept back up and pressed her ear against the door.

"Argh! Someone's stolen one of my thirty-nine masks, kupo!" There was a pause. "Looks like a case for Detective Hero X, kupo!"

Shirma shook her head and walked home. Some moogles never learn.