Chapter 19

Michael watched, horrified, as June and Gulf backed submissively out of the room and shut the door. They weren't going to leave him with this guy, were they?! And why was he so irrationally frightened all of a sudden? Chaballa loomed before him, exuding power without decadence or superiority. He gestured calmly to a large, wing-backed armchair.
"Sit," he said. Michael sat.
Chaballa swept over to the chair opposite and lowered himself into it, his robes rustling around his feet (or, where his feet would have been had there been any evidence that he actually had any). He leaned back, wide sleeves tucked into each other as with a kimono. "So," Chaballa said comfortably, seemingly unaware or ignoring Michael's half-dazed, half-deer-in-headlights stare, "tell me about yourself. I believe you were summoned here by an entity you know as 'the Woman in White'. Did she mention her real name?"
Michael tried to concentrate and felt his house keys poking him from inside his pocket. "Key," he said absently. He shook himself. "She called herself Lady Key. She wanted me to bring her something, but I don't know what she was talking about... Gulf said she wanted to talk to me or something. Do you know what I'm doing here? Where am I?"
And now a momentary panic was beginning to make itself known in Michael's chest. A chill traced his breastbone, his spine. The comfortable surroundings of Chaballa's study now flickered ominously in the candelight, as if the room would snuff itself out, leaving him alone in the dark with this... this...
Chaballa didn't move, but his voice thrummed warmly around the confines of the study. "You are presently miles below ground, under the expanse of wasteland and clockwork we once called home. You will make its aquaintance someday soon; June, Gulf and certain others under my command have established temporary residence there. They will be more than willing to give you the 'excursion grande' above ground."
"And now, Michael-" Chaballa appeared to be steepling his fingers inside his sleeves, shifting into a more concilatory position, "-I think it's time you and I really got down to business."
Michael, fears warily consoled by Chaballa's enticing voice, asked timidly "What do you want to know?"
Chaballa chuckled like the Chesire Cat. "Hrrrm... This is not an interrogation, Michael Sain. This is an opportunity for you and I to... ah... understand each other better, as it were. You are confused and worn, and it will not be long before you are safely tucked away in your own quarters for the night; but I am not the kind of person who stops to indulge themselves in the luxury of time, when one can aquire it. I believe in the immedient use of every precious second allotted to me. One cannot sit and stare at the hourglass until the sand has all but run out.
"But I waste time as we speak, Michael, and so must say this one thing at least: We are indeed running out of time. The recent disappearing of Lady Key has set my plans further back than I had anticipated. However, all is not lost."
Chaballa craned forward, almost eagerly, his voice taking on an almost infectuously persuasive tone. "Michael, you have been part of this machination for its entirety. Though you may not have been aware of its beginning, we are determined-" Michale noticed Chaballa's shift in pronouns from 'I' to 'we'- "-that you see it through to the end. And this is the crux, the bulk and the burden of what I am about to tell you now."
Chaballa seemed to expand fractionally, as if drawing the strength for his next words. Candelight flickered across his broad shoulders but died as it reached the shadows under his hood. Michael slowly raised his head.
"The rules are these, my friend: You must not know the intricacies of the role you are about to play. You cannot force answers from anyone save yourself. Never ask 'where am I', but 'what will I do here'? You are limited to but one piece of the puzzle, and chances are you will never find all of them. Aquire the pieces you can, and the holes will fill themselves.
"Collect your clues. Remember, nobody can help you but yourself. It will do no good to try and squeeze blood from stones; the enemy- and there will indoubtably be one- and even those around you will provide you will glimpses of the pieces they hold, but if they cannot give them up, you will have to decide for yourself what is important.
"Choose your battles wisely; you will not be able to hold everything in your pocket at once. Sacrifices must be made. People will be killed, even your memory of them washed away, but do not let that stop you. Memory is fallible. Sometimes things become clearer after forgetting.
"Explore not only your surroundings, but yourself. Your actions have more impact than you think, and your reasons for those actions even moreso.
And lastly, remember this: No matter who you meet, you are your own worst enemy."