Ravages of Glory Chapter 3 and 4
by Joe Sephus
Chapter Three -- Secrets
A long, deep shadow was cast over the great white city from the large tower which adorned its picturesque central plaza.
This was Mindova, the pearly white jewel of southern Sabylia. Long had the village stood as a crossroad for travelers and merchants and wanderers of the realm, standing at the foot of the valley road that led (some 40 leagues to northward) to Koltsgard. It was now a bustling metropolis, sporting an impressive architectural façade, comprised almost entirely of various shades of pale and white.
Mindova was also the intellectual heart of the kingdom, due to that same giant monolith that now covered a radian of the city in temporary nightfall, the Athenaeum.
The great library tower stood as a beacon to showcase Mindova’s splendor and wealth and influence for miles around. But more than that, the Athenaeum was a center of learning and study for those crafts of very select interest in the kingdom. It was a tower of magic.
At the highest floors of the tower there was a large, spherical chamber where resided an institution of scholarly study dedicated to the world of magic, led by the punctual and somewhat eccentric Professor Ceyvus. A dozen young pupils comprised his staff of scholarly apprentices.
Now, all of the young scholars stood in the high central chamber, captivated by a strange, unworldly object, which up until now they had assumed to be little more than ornamental.
All, that is, save for one individual, who stood near an open window on the far side of the chamber, skimming through an ancient text. His name was Lethe, a tall, lanky boy just past 19, with a mat of frizzled dark brown hair, long sideburns, small circular spectacles that always drooped on his outwardly inclined nose, and sporting the traditional crimson-white robes that always seemed to fit him more awkwardly than the other boys.
“What do you make of it?” inquired one of the apprentices, gazing into the object as it spun. “It’s been doing this all morning, so they say.”
The object of the boys’ bemusement was an oval shaped, crystal-like rock, about thrice the volume of an egg, which sat on a small table in the center of the chamber. It had been there, as far as the apprentices knew, since the tower itself had been built.
The stone was mostly green, with a definably red horizontal stripe running across its middle section. The professor had never disclosed to them what exactly the object was, but its stature among the relics of the ancient tower betrayed a position of much importance.
As of late (the previous night, to be exact) it had taken on some most peculiar characteristics (which was saying quite a bit, considering the plethora of unusual objects Professor Ceyvus had adorned the chamber with). The stone was now hovering a few inches off of its table, and spun counterclockwise in slow, methodic revolution. Occasionally, it could be seen to shimmer, as though it reflected some distant source of light.
“It has to be a sign,” one of the pupils began, moving his head to examine the item more precisely. “We should probably look at the stars tonight—something is probably amiss in the cosmos.”
“You dunderhead, astrology’s got nothing to do with this,” another stated bluntly. “This is all about magnetism… the rock must be some sort of compass that we’ve activated. Look, it’s pointing north!”
“Astrology, no. But that’s in the right direction,” a third boy let out. “The professor never told us where this thing came from. It could be from the heavens, and it’s trying to get back to the sky before some celestial catastrophe.”
At this, a flurry of conversation erupted in hot deliberation of the mysterious crystalline object’s origins. After the frenzy died down, Lethe stepped forward, text still in hand.
“Look, the answer to this riddle isn’t going to be found by just speculating. We’ve got to turn to the texts for truths. Listen to this…” Lethe paraphrased the script as he translated it into modern tongue.
“Long ago… in the realm of the Goddesses…the creatures of magic were forged… each embodying—”
“Lethe, you’re not going to lecture us about espers again, are you?” one of his colleagues interrupted. The others groaned.
“Look,” he retorted. “We’re scholars of magic, and this object has a connection to the old realms of magic, I’m sure of it. So we have to look at the origins of magic in order to understand magical processes still going on. Doesn’t that make sense?”
The other pupils looked at each other briefly.
“So we’re in agreement,” one began again, “it’s a moon rock.”
“A moon compass.”
“That predicts the future!”
“You know, guys, it could just be a petrified chocobo egg or something.”
“That hovers and spins?”
“Maybe the poor bird’s still trapped inside…”
Lethe sighed. He set down his text—resolve in his eyes—and approached the object. He cautiously extended his arm forward.
“Lethe! What are you doing?” one of the boys grabbed him by the shoulder. “Be careful, that thing could be dangerous!”
“Don’t you all get it?” Lethe replied, his gaze fixed on the object as he continued to motion forward. “There’s a life force to this thing.”
Seemingly mesmerized by the item’s mysterious beauty and intransigent self-orbit, Lethe reached his hand out and touched the tips of his fingers to its polished surface. Almost immediately, he felt an intense pain, as a large flash of blue light emitted from the object, throwing Lethe backwards onto the floor and shaking the entire chamber violently. The stone continued in its rotation cycle.
“Are you okay!?” The entourage of pupils ran over to where Lethe lay, and helped him to his feet.
Lethe felt dazed, but otherwise unhurt. He noticed the fingers of his right hand (where he had made contact with the stone) twitching sporadically.
“I feel… fine,” he let out at last, knowing the worst would come when the professor found out about the incident.
For this he did not have to wait long, as the large oaken doors of the chamber entrance were swung open almost immediately, revealing the shape of a shaken old man in fine scholarly robes.
“You know, I think I feel kind of queasy.”
Professor Ceyvus was a small, stout man, nearly bald except for a few dozen white hairs combed over the crown of his head, in what seemed like a futile attempt to cover his alopecia. His face was slightly chubby, but always carried a look of defiant resolution, sporting a pair of darkened ovular glasses that shimmered in the light. His robes were much like that of his pupils, only with more radiant colors and fine silk lacing.
The professor only gazed around the room briefly, at the stone, at the boys, and at Lethe, before seemingly deducing precisely what had taken place. He nodded and made his way quickly down the central staircase into the main floor where the others stood frozen in fear.
“Professor, I—” Lethe began, but the old man silenced him with a wave of his hand as he continued towards the where the stone resided.
He examined the object closely, and, not shifting his glance, spoke out at last.
“Continue your explanation, young Lethe.”
“I’m truly sorry, Professor. I know I acted foolishly but—” His apology was again cut off.
“No. Continue your explanation of this stone. And of the origin of magic.”
“Oh,” Lethe was surprised by this request (and unsure how the professor had been listening to the boys’ deliberation). “Well, as I was saying, the goddesses created magic as an ethereal life force of the world, one they used to create beings of immense power, called espers.”
“And what does that have to do with this stone, my wise young apprentice?”
“According to the texts,” Lethe swallowed as he tried to remember what he had read that morning. “The magical energy of an esper after its mortality had expired, needed a way to manifest itself.”
“So,” Ceyvus turned and looked directly into Lethe’s eyes. “What,” He motioned toward the stone. “Is this?”
Lethe hesitated for a moment, and then spoke.
“It’s a dead Esper.”
The boys stared, mouths gaped in varying heights of awe at the spinning corpse before them. Ceyvus only laughed and turned back to the shimmering crystal.
“I believe that will be an excellent segue to begin our lesson today. Lethe, once again, your academic prowess has proven both impressive and incredibly foolish.” Lethe wasn’t sure how to take that, so he only nodded his head in recognition.
“This morning I received a letter from Koltsgard, of which I can now confirm the validity by virtue of our most animated esper corpse.” The professor motioned again toward the stone. “Within the next few days, a truly historic meeting will take place in this very kingdom; one that I, and you too, my young ones, should watch very closely.”
The apprentices appeared only further confused, but were by now accustomed to Ceyvus’ equivocations.
“This… Magicite.” the old man put his hand directly over the stone, and closed his eyes. “Even after death, they can sense the presence of their own kin. But there is only one among the esperkind who would inspire such exertion.” The stone began to glow and pulsate.
“Yes… all the signs are quite clear to us now.” The professor’s spoke as if not with his own voice, but almost as though we were a medium for the magicite stone.
The red glow of dying sunset pervaded on the western sky, falling below the valley wall as dusk set upon the land below. Along the wide valley flat ran a small, but surreally impressive brook. Scattered trees and bushes dotted the landscape, and the grass grew short as the days grew warmer.
The valley was quiet and unmoving, save for a small fire burning near the edge of the brook, and the occasional squawks of a large, pale chocobo.
Treskyn knelt by the stream and filled his carton. He then bathed his hands and face with the cool mountain water, stood and returned to the camp.
The boy started to unload the supplies from the pack on the great bird. Food, blankets, an old map, all strewn about the camp as the fire picked up in intensity, crackling against the darkening sky.
Relieved of its load, the chocobo nestled into the grass and tucked its giant head on top of its left wing. Treskyn tossed the bird a scrap of dried meat he had in his pack. It was poor sustenance considering how worked the creature had been, but the food was devoured speedily nonetheless.
The boy examined the crumpled map briefly, and then looked up, gazing upon the figure of the mysterious girl with the ravishing blue-lavender eyes and skin as fair as the moon in the night sky. He swallowed hard.
“You know, you haven’t said a word to me all day,” Treskyn let out, chewing on a piece of bread as he spoke.
The girl turned around to face him, her golden hair waving in the wind.
“I’m sorry,” she said at last. “I don’t know how to thank you for what you did for me back at the castle.”
“Don’t mention it,” Treskyn responded proudly, standing and walking to where she stood near the fire. “But you could start by telling me your name. Mine’s Treskyn,” he extended his arm. “But you can call me Tresk. Everyone else does.” She smiled at him.
“I’m Chrissa,” the girl stated. She looked at his outwardly extended hand awkwardly, not aware of the custom of handshaking.
“Chrissa… that’s a pretty name.”
Realizing her confusion, the boy put his arm down, embarrassed. He tossed the remnants of the bread into the fire.
“What were you doing scaling the castle wall like that, anyways?” He couldn’t help but stare into her eyes as he spoke. They seemed almost to bewitch his senses with their radiance.
“I wanted to see the Esper.”
“Esper? How did you know about that?” She turned away.
The boy realized he would have to tread cautiously if he was to get any answers out of her.
“Er—I mean… where did you get the idea that there was an esper in Koltsgard?”
“Oh, there isn’t one. Not yet anyways. But she’s coming! That’s what they say.” The girl turned back for a moment. “I just had to see it for myself. I’ve never actually seen one before.”
“Few have,” Treskyn replied, more to himself than her.
The fire crackled as it began to fizzle out from lack of fuel. The first stars of the night could be seen appearing as the last dying rays of light from the sun faded behind the mountainous horizon.
“Chrissa…” the boy began again. “Why did you ask if I was going south before riding with me?” The question had perplexed him since their journey had been undertaken the previous night.
“Because,” the girl turned around and looked deeply into his eyes as she spoke. “I had to be sure it was you.”
“I was told that I would meet a boy heading southward from Koltsgard. That he would rescue me from danger, and that he was to journey South to the caves of Tyr to speak with the Oracle.”
Treskyn’s confusion was only furthered by her answer.
“Who told you this?”
Chrissa turned away. Then spoke once more.
“The same person who told me the Esper Freyja would visit Koltsgard.”
“Who!” His tone was harsher than he had intended, and his query was echoed across the valley.
“All will be answered when we reach the caves.” She smiled and put a comforting hand on the boy’s arm. He was caught off guard by this gesture and thus found her reasoning hard to argue with. “But I must accompany you. I’m not entirely sure why either, but I know that it is my destiny to do so.”
“You… you’re something else.” Treskyn laughed and stooped down next to the fire. “I guess I can’t convince you otherwise.” The girl smiled at him, and nodded.
“We’ve made good ground so far, riding all night last night and all day today.” Treskyn studied the map before him, unsure exactly whether he was reading it correctly. “We should be able to make it to Tyr by this time tomorrow if we push ourselves come daylight.”
At this the great chocobo snorted, as if knowing that he was the one who would be laboring for their expediency.
The girl wrapped herself in one of the blankets and fell to sleep on the grass almost immediately. She looked so peaceful, so beautiful in the moonlight, Treskyn thought to himself. The boy tossed a handful of dirt onto the dying fire, snuffing it out for the night, sat upon the grass and held his sheathed sword across his lap, knowing he would sleep very little that night.
Many strange and unfamiliar noises echoed through the valley as the night wore on.
“This is what I get for wanting to leave the castle,” Treskyn mused to himself.
“Ha!” “Ah!” “Ow!” accompanied sounds of armor and swords clanging, soldiers grunting and egos bruising.
Rain clouds began to gather above the great stone city, as the rising of the morning sun was blotted out in gloomy overcast. Nevertheless, the exercises continued.
In the main courtyard of the inner wall of Koltsgard, some several dozen soldiers now sparred in mock battle with one another. They fought in full battle attire, taking to their business with the utmost seriousness.
From a balcony ledge above, the watchful eye of Sir Drake supervised the morning drill. He had decided to pit the newly knighted soldiers of the king’s army against some of the older, more seasoned knights—both to test the potential of the newcomers and determine the obsoleteness of the more archaic members of the soldiery.
A few raindrops could be heard pattering off the old knight-general’s glimmering armor.
“Ha!” came the cry of one particularly daring young soldier as he felled his opponent to the ground with a quick sword thrust across the midsection and jab into his chest plate. He placed his sword to the fallen soldier’s neck.
“Gah! I’ve had enough of you,” the old warrior bellowed as he knocked the blade aside and stormed off.
The rain thickened slightly, and the young swordsman smiled as his shaggy blonde hair was wetted by the morning drizzle.
“How many’s that? Four now?” Garo smiled at his ease in taking down the older soldiers, all of whom outranked him.
Drake cocked an eyebrow as he watched the unfolding scene, made for a nearby spiral staircase, and emerged on the sparring grounds in a matter of seconds. The field fell silent and motionless as the general approached.
Now the rain began to poor much harder.
“That’s enough, all of you!” Drake let out, and ordered the lot of them back into the castle barracks. “Wouldn’t want to rust the king’s armor in this downpour. Everyone inside… except for you there.”
To his amazement Garo found Drake pointing directly at him.
“What have I done now…?”
Garo found the general an imposing, intimidating figure, and was quite surprised when he found the old soldier’s armored hand firmly gripping his shoulder plate. He was smiling.
“What’s your name, son?” Drake inquired, tightening slightly his grip on the young soldier’s shoulder. Garo was almost caught off balance by the strength of his hand.
“Garo, Sir,” he replied, trying to maintain a posture of dignity, as well as his equilibrium. Drake let loose his grip at last.
“Well, Mr. Garo, you’re quite handy with the blade, I see.” The general began walking towards the barracks and bade Garo follow.
“Thank you, sir…” was all Garo could let out in reply, still shaken by the general’s approach.
“Damned good, in fact.” Drake stopped, adjusting his silver hand-plating as the rain continued to drench the both of them. “Mr. Garo, we’re going to need tough, young soldiers with your ability in the near future. These days, it’s hard to tell whom to trust anymore. Even in your own army.” He paused.
“Can I trust you, Mr. Garo?”
“Unconditionally,” the proud young soldier let out. “I would follow you into certain death without hesitation if you so ordered it, my lord.”
Drake smiled and patted Garo on his armored back with forceful strength.
“Good then,” he began. “As of tomorrow, you will be receiving a promotion, Mr. Garo.”
Garo stopped in his tracks, nearly fell backwards over on the wetted cobblestone.
“B—but sir, I’ve only been on the force for two days! Not that I’m questioning your will, but—”
“That’s just it, Mr. Garo,” Drake interrupted the anticipated objection. “You’re young, full of potential, full of ability and loyalty to this kingdom and all it stands for.” Garo followed intently his every word. “It would be a great loss if you were allowed to become so aged, and worn, and slovenly, and cynical as so many of our veteran soldiers.”
“I’m just not sure that I’m ready for—”
“Time is a luxury, Mr. Garo.” Drake stopped him and stared directly into the young soldier’s eyes. That stare was incredibly intimidating. And terrifying. “And this order is not open to debate. As of tomorrow, you are to join the elite guard known as the Order of the Blue Shield, operating directly under my command.” Garo listened in silence. “Right now, I need you Mr. Garo. This kingdom needs you. This is your opportunity to prove your loyalty. I sincerely hope my trust in you is not misplaced.”
“It is not, sir.” Garo replied directly.
“Excellent.” Drake began to walk away from the youth as he spoke. “You’ll find a more appropriate uniform in the barracks. Your duties and your destiny begin tomorrow.”
The young soldier jogged back into the castle hall, both shaken and elated, while the old general ascended an outer staircase onto the balcony ledge where he had stood previously. Waiting just inside a doorway near the ledge was a shadowy, blue-cloaked figure.
“Are the arrangements made?” the cold, raspy voice of the wizard let out.
Drake reached the balcony ledge, removed his helmet piece and shook his black rain-soaked hair. The two of them walked into the main torch-lit chamber of the upper barracks. They were alone.
“They are made,” the general let out in a drone. “Two dozen of the finest, young, idealistic soldiers have I impressed to our cause. They’re as naïve as they are loyal, and they won’t ask any questions if I tell them not to.”
The sorcerer removed the cloak from his hairless head, which shimmered in the dim light of the chamber. He looked far more youthful than the tattered, worn general, but Drake imagined him to be much older. He had never been so bold as to ask.
“That is the least of our concern,” Murdock stated poignantly. “This is to be an operation of delicacy and swiftness. Blunt soldiering will not do.”
“Murder is hardly what I’d call a delicate operation,” the old soldier retorted, laughing.
“This is no joking matter.” Murdock lowered his voice to stress the severity of his tone. “The fate of the entire kingdom rests on our discretion in this matter. To kill an esper is akin to a declaration of war in their realm.”
“Well, I don’t see why we couldn’t have avoided the whole incident in the first place!” Drake stated bluntly. “If you had stood with me, in the dining hall, we could have convinced his majesty to cancel or delay this idiotic meeting!”
“The king was resolute in his purpose. I doubt we, even together, could have dissuaded him,” the mage replied calmly. “And it is no matter… for we are now given a momentous opportunity. To refuse it now would be madness.”
“But as you said,” Drake began again, unconvinced of the severity of their actions. “The espers will retaliate after the murder of their emissary, will they not?”
“Of course they will,” Murdock replied, almost in delight. “In fact, I’m counting on it. They will send the fairest among them, the Esper mistress Freyja to Koltsgard, and upon discovering her death, they will no doubt be launched into a vengeful craze.
“But it will be of no consequence. For we will have the magicite of the most respected and influential among them once she is dead. She is their sense of reason, of balance and passivity. Without her, they will lack a cohesive effort. We will easily defeat their hordes and thus acquire more power until the entirety of the esper race resides in magicite form. Can you imagine what that would mean? Do you have any idea how the force these espers carry within their spirits can be wielded? We will be gods.”
Murdock was breathing heavily and small bullets of sweat could be seen streaking down his forehead. His hands shook slightly. Drake was watching silently and wide-eyed. He had never before seen such a display of emotion from the usually stoic sorcerer.
“And what about his majesty?” the general inquired at last. “What will be his recourse when he discovers that two of his closest advisors have been conspiring against his will?”
“He will have but one recourse,” Murdock stated slowly. “When the espers attack, the king will be bound by his oath to defend the kingdom.
“We are all but cogs in the great machine of war.”
By dusk that day the rain had subsided as the great gray clouds blew steadily northward. The sky again began to turn brilliant shades of red and crimson as the sun dipped below the horizon of jagged mountain ridges to the west.
Making quick tracks across the firm but still moist grass of the southern hills, a lone chocobo carrying two travelers jaunted along, picking up speed as the day wore onto night.
“Are you sure this is the right way?” an increasingly concerned female voice asked. “These hills look awfully familiar…”
Her concern was, at least, partially merited, considering the monotonous and often redundant geography of the southern foothills. Also, the trio had earlier spent that morning navigating successfully around one particularly large hill a total of four times before discovering their error.
“I sure hope so,” an increasingly uncertain voice replied. Treskyn glanced up idly as the first stars of the evening began to appear.
“You hope so? I thought you were supposed to be my guide!”
“That’s funny,” the boy began, “I thought you were supposed to me mine.”
They both laughed, trying to belay the growing sense of doubt on both their minds.
A few moments later, the great chocobo stopped, glanced around and let out a piercing squawk.
“What is it, Jodo?” Treskyn patted the creature’s neck, trying to comfort the agitated bird.
As if guided by some external force or avian intuition, the chocobo took off at a full gallop toward one of the far hilltops. The two youths held on for their lives.
The bird stopped again at the foot of the hill, glanced around, squawked again (with much lower intensity this time) and began jogging towards its peak. As the hill crested, the pair gazed upon a truly surreal scene before them. Not much further southward, the foothills ended and the valley spanned wide and far as it flowed towards the sea. In the distance, the great library toward of Mindova could be seen, standing as a lone, white pillar on the mountainous backdrop. Just to the west, an equally impressive façade was visible, comprised of jagged boulder protrusions, jutting out of the earth with unnatural ferocity.
The three of them stood motionless for several minutes, breathing in the scene before them. To the southwest, they knew precisely what lay before them, and no doubt lingered as to their location.
Treskyn spoke, his words calm, slow—and with the slightest hint of fear—but nonetheless, resolute.
“So lie the Caves of Tyr.”
Chapter Four – Prophecy
A sapphire blue moon hung brilliantly above the Sabyl plain, illuminating valley floor and countryside and city street to every citizen of the earthbound kingdom under its watch. At the White City, many lights in the many buildings and apartment dwellings remained on despite the late hour. In particular, one glowing luminescence stood out among the rest, as it hung high above the streets of Mindova, glowing watchfully upon its perch as perhaps a lighthouse would over a darkened harbor. The great tower Athenaeum reflected the moon’s gentle gleam as the evening star at dusk.
Inside the upper floors of the tower’s spherical chamber, precisely thirteen fairly groggy individuals—all but one of them no older than 20—stood round a glowing piece of magicite, listening to their nightly orator.
“I apologize for rescheduling our lecture for such a late hour,” Professor Ceyvus began, visibly wearied at the task of starting a lesson this time of night. “But events are proceeding much faster than I had anticipated.” The students weren’t entirely sure what this meant. His equivocal statements about espers and current events from the previous afternoon had never been elucidated on further, but for either lack of energy or lack of will they did not ask him to clarify.
“I have been invited to attend a banquet in Koltsgard tomorrow night as an expert on the history of magic.” As he spoke, the professor was trying on various pieces of an ensemble: a silken over-tunic, gray frock coat and a dusty, powered wig. “This is a great honor—albeit one it would have been nice to have known about more than two days beforehand…”
“Professor…” one of the students cut in, fighting off a yawn as he spoke. “Forgive me, sir, but… was it really necessary to carry on the lesson now? Couldn’t the lecture have waited, sir…?” A chorus of tired groans followed in agreement.
“Normally I would agree, Mr. Kinnis.” He struggled to keep the hairpiece from falling of his normally hairless crown. “And I share your sentiments. But things are happening, and at a speed that does not allow for delay in concluding our study of espers just right now.” The professor’s head angled itself to the side as the wig began to slide the opposite direction. “I could be gone for weeks, and you need to know all that I am about to tell you before I depart. The future of science depends on it…Agh!” With a quick bow of his neck, Professor Ceyvus discarded the wig and proceeded unfazed to the hovering magicite stone.
“This, this is the problem.” The man leaned in closely to inspect the object.
“Is it dangerous, professor?” One student chimed in.
“No, no. Well, not axiomatically. The continued survival of our colleague, Mr. Lethe here should evidence that well enough.” He directed his gaze briefly at the boy, who nodded wearily in acknowledgment of his folly the day before. Returning to the glowing crystal, “But symbolically. Historically. Presently, what this rock represents is quite dangerous, indeed.“
“Professor, there’s something I don’t quite understand.” Lethe decided so long as attention had already been directed to him, this was a good time to probe some of his questions on espers. The professor gestured for him to proceed. “I read in the texts that espers live unnaturally long lives; that they’re not supposed to die.” He fumbled with his glasses, shaking the tired out of his eyes. “But if that’s true, how did this esper die?” All eyes honed in on the magicite stone.
“Once again my dear Mr. Lethe, you have cut straight to the crux of things.” The boy might have felt pride if he weren’t so groggy. Why do I have to spend so much time in the archives at night?
“The problem is death, a problem that generally facilitates much in the in the lives and ends of every instance of humanity.” The pupils were not warm for abstractions, but they listened on.
“But for the esper race, death is not a natural function of their life cycle. From what we understand of their kind, they do not age, they do not wither or weaken over time, and if undisturbed, they live—so far as we know—forever.” The thought was as astonishing as it was terrifying, but the students were less preoccupied with the consequences of immortality than perhaps they would be at a humane hour for a lecture.
“It is interesting,” The stalwart professor proceeded. “We find great ruins scattered along hillsides and farmland all throughout this continent. We know in the ancient times there was a great civilization all across this realm. As you are all no doubt eminently aware, the ancient language is still taught to all the scholars and noblemen of our day.” They were aware, indeed. Lethe could remember practicing recitations of the ancient runes since he was 12. “Yet it is one of the great mysteries of historians today as to what happened to that culture. Well…” The lanky academic kneeled to be at eyelevel with the nucleus of the stone. “The answer stands before us, I believe. Take heart, young pupils, for this is the hidden strife of our age.
“In the ancient times, espers lived all throughout this land. Indeed, they lived in every corner of the world, alongside humans and all the other flora and fauna we share our existence with. In earlier times, it was a symbiotic relationship. The espers used their abilities to aid men in their lives, to help feed and heal and build all the great structures of antiquity. In return, the espers lived peacefully among their human kin, each respecting the other’s place in the natural order—or so the story goes.
“In truth, there were always tensions between humans and espers. Men feared the great power wielded by their magical counterparts, and espers feared man’s proclivity for belligerence, violence and power. In addition, many people resented this dependence on esper magic, and began to seek other means of furthering their civilization. Steam-powered mills and locomotives, tempered steel and crossbow weaponry, airships and great legions of war—these are the fruition of that effort.
“But this tension would need not have led to open hostility if not for one, glowing complication.” He gestured with arms around the spinning crystal, as if to embrace it. “Because although an esper need not ever die, it will if men have the will and means to kill it. With their ever-growing technology and organization, men were acquiring the means. But the motive would not only come in the form of fear, but greed.” Professor Ceyvus stood now, putting his back to the stone to lecture in his usual pacing back-and-forth manner. “Put an ivory tusk on a mammoth and it will be hunted. Put a pearl in an oyster and it will be sought after. Make a precious, powerful stone the end result of an esper’s life, and yes, that life will be ended, one way or another.”
“So what does it do?” It was a curiosity they collectively shared.
“Ah.” The professor paced with his arms behind his back, examining a few archival volumes as he went on. “That is a mystery only the espers truly understand.” A look of disappointment swept across the tired audience. “We do know that magicite is a stone of incredible power. The ability, strength and life force of the departed esper are all harnessed in this fossil. We know that the stone plays a crucial role in developing the powers of a magus, though that is all we know in regard to human sorcery. From an historical perspective, what is important is that men of power have worshipped and prized these gems whenever they surfaced. It was believed that in magicite you had a kind of magical genie—an esper-in-a-bottle, if you will.
“And so, some centuries ago, by a combination of fear and ambition, espers began to be hunted by the ancients.” This time he did not need to gesture or even look at the hovering gemstone. “This is how our most animated relic came into being.” The glow from the magicite crystal was pervasive, lighting up the chamber far more effectively than the row of torches overhead. “At first, the esperfolk did not know how to respond, fearing reprisal and more conflict if they used their power to retaliate. Despite their restraint, things quickly began to spiral out of control.
“Somehow, a handful of men acquired esper magic. This troubled the magical creatures even more than sporadic violence, because they feared humans would not exercise the ancient power with the same wisdom and discretion as they. This fear was justified. Magic changed the political landscape of ancient Sabylia. Wars broke out, whole cities were leveled, men and women massacred by the thousands. The introduction of magic would prove to be the end of the ancient civilizations. Its destructive power was too much for even the most powerful mage to control. Eventually, the espers decided they must intervene. They killed as many mages as possible before disappearing across the Eastern Sea. There they still live in concert with humans, in the eastern realm of Thamas.”
The moon, pursuing its nightly migration across the stars, found itself aligned with a window of the study chamber. The hall was filled with an onrush of pale illumination. The magicite sparkled dazzlingly as it spun in the exposed light.
“So remember, my pupils—whenever humans and espers encounter one another, there is the potential for conflict and destruction surpassing that wrought in the legacy of the most belligerent tyrant, most bloodthirsty warlord or cutthroat murderer. Magic is the most destructive force ever wielded, and those who do not respect its power are destined to incur its fury.” He stopped. “That’s all I have for you tonight. Get some sleep, and we’ll continue in a week or two, upon my return.”
A collective sigh of fatigue and relief swept through the chamber. The moonlight left them. Each of the twelve students filed slowly out of the chamber toward the monstrous staircase that would deliver them to their dormitories. All, except for one.
“Lethe, can I speak to you a moment?”
The youth turned back around. What is it now? He approached the professor, glancing back at the optimal place in line he was ceding. “Yes, professor?”
“Lethe, my lad, I need to ask you a favor…” He directed the boy toward an area of the chamber where they could talk without being overheard. “You are no doubt my brightest and most accomplished pupil, Lethe.” The boy cocked his eyebrows in surprise. Should I… thank him? He decided to let the professor proceed. “I need you to take on a special responsibility for me while I am away. That crystal…” He cocked his head at the magicite. “I need you to watch over it. Protect it. Watch it for anything… unusual.”
“I don’t understand, professor…”
“Lethe, I didn’t want to alarm the others, but I do not go to Koltsgard for academic reasons. I go because an esper is coming to the city tomorrow.”
“An esper!” The idea was disquieting.
“Keep your voice down!” Ceyvus responded in a harsh whisper. The last student to file out glanced briefly over his shoulder at the pair before disappearing into the staircase. “The other historians and I were informed just yesterday that an esper is arriving to speak with the king. We were invited to attend the ceremony. That is why the magicite stone has exhibited such unusual characteristics. It can sense the coming of its own kind.”
“This is amazing, professor!” Lethe tried to catch up with his thoughts. “But, I still don’t understand… why do you want me to keep an eye on the crystal?”
“I’m sure you’re aware of the Oracle’s prophecies. Particularly the verses dealing with the occasion whence the ‘creatures of magic return.’” His voice was severe and direct.
“You don’t take that stuff seriously, professor?”
“I would not so easily discount the Oracle’s predictions as those of superstition, my boy. He has abilities that transcend ordinary priesthood. And he has been right before. More than that, however, I have history as my guide, and I know that there are many in this kingdom who would view the arrival of an esper as an opportunity to further their own power…” Lethe did not have to look at the magicite shard to know what he was referring to.
“I’m trusting you for this task, Lethe. You are as learned as nearly any scholar in the Athenaeum, and you are certainly quite aware of what this stone is capable of.” The slightest of grins cracked on the old professor’s lips. “At the first sign of trouble, I want you to take the magicite crystal and leave the tower immediately. Go someplace safe, send word to me via carrier pigeons and wait for my reply. Do you understand?”
“Very good, my young pupil. Goddesses willing, I will see in a week.”
By campfire light, upon a vista in the southern plains of Sabylia, a pair of weary travelers made one final rest before pushing on to their destination.
Treskyn gazed at the sleeping figure of a girl who had so improbably influenced the destiny of his recent days and nights. The three of them had made very good time, riding more than an hundred miles in under two days. It was an obvious drain on Jodo, their faithful chocobo, but his fatigue at the end of their rides now made his once vocal squawks of protest a difficult expenditure of energy.
The young prince took pride in their efficiency, and still reveled (in his mind at least) at the opportunity to serve in this quest for the king. But as of late, he was starting to feel uneasy about the state of things.
He had spent the entirety of two and a half days in close quarters with this mysterious girl, but he still knew next to nothing about her. Where did she come from? What was she doing scaling the walls of the castle? Treskyn could not keep himself from considering the possibility that his traveling companion was some criminal or malcontent, or perhaps even a spy sent to sabotage his mission.
Yet for the vast majority of their travels, all the youth could think of was the girl’s intoxicating beauty. In King Sabil’s court he had seen many dolled up maidens and noblewomen, but not even the fairest countess could compare to the creature laying not two yards away. Despite his suspicions, the girl’s arms over his torso during their long rides did not allow him much time or motive for objective consideration of her character and background.
He scanned her slender figure, lying unblanketed in front of the fire. His obsession had only grown since the night he first peered at her from the castle balcony. Should he say something? The chancellor prince had little experience with women, outside of the hollow flirtation expected in social events.
What was it about her?
Then, with a brief twitch of his retina, the boy noticed something he had never seen before. Along her waist, the girl had sheathed a long, curving dagger, beautifully embroidered with figures of the ancient runes.
How could I have missed this? She’s been right by my side for days now…
Treskyn leaned in closer, examining the figures on the leather sheath more closely. He remembered back to his lessons in learning the ancient tongue and its alphanumeric system. With slow and meticulous focus, he translated the runic letters.
It was a name. A girl’s name.
The name was familiar somehow. He struggled to remember the etymology of similar names he had studied in the history of the ancient times. “Iliana…” He tested the name on his tongue.
Immediately, a pair of bright, lavender orbs unsheathed themselves and bore into Treskyn’s skull. She had awoken. His pulse quickened. Those eyes… what was I thinking about before I saw those eyes? Those radiant, mind-numbing eyes… He struggled to regain his train of thought, visibly twisting and contorting his face in the effort. Chrissa sat up, a look of concern on her face. She moved cautiously closer to the boy with unblinking, unfathomable eyes.
“Are you all right, Prince Treksyn?” She blinked once. It was all he needed.
With two swift and seemingly effortless motions, Treskyn reached out with one hand and grabbed the girl by the throat, pulling her in close. With his right hand, the boy felt for his sword, grabbing the blade from his bag by the hilt and pointing the sword-tip directly under her chin. She struggled to speak, but his grip was tight, allowing for only shallow breaths and muffled fragments of speech.
“How did you know I was a prince!?” he demanded, prodding the sword against the nape of her neck. His grip was loosened to allow a reply.
“I—I just a—assumed it when I s—saw you coming out of the…” her voice trailed off as she struggled for air. The fingers on her neck loosened enough to let her speak and breathe unhindered. “You were dressed with a fine tunic and cape, and you came directly from the inner chambers of the castle. It was just a guess. Please let me go. You’re hurting—“
“I could have been any nobleman! Just like I could have been heading anywhere…” He tried not to look directly into her eyes as he spoke. “But you knew exactly where I was going, and you knew exactly who I was. Why is that, Chrissa? Or should I say, Iliana.”
The girl was remarkably calm through the interrogation. She spoke quickly and directly, trying furtively all the while to make eye contact with the youth.
“I told you, I was forewarned of my meeting with you. All will be revealed when we arrive at the caves—“ She was cutoff by a tightening pressure on her trachea.
“Of course, everything will be revealed when we get to Tyr, I know!” His anger was palpable. “Isn’t that convenient? Maybe you’re laying a trap for me… somewhere where there are no witnesses. You just keep me distracted until we reach our secluded destination, and then slit my throat with that blade of yours.”
“No it’s not like that—“
“You’ve been lying to me this entire time. That dagger on your side is not ornamental; it’s used by someone who knows a thing or two about weaponry. You didn’t need my help to be rescued from those guards. But you did need a convincing story, and a bit of theater—a daring rescue scene—for me to act my part in. Isn’t that right, Chrissa?“
The strength of his hold did not permit her to answer.
“You’re here so you can distract me, keep me from finding something out. I let down my guard just long enough for you to pull off whatever treachery or evil deed you were sent to complete.” He kept his pupils trained just above her brow. “And those eyes of yours. They have some enchantment or bewitching quality, don’t they, Chrissa?” Even in his rage, Treskyn could not help but think of how entrancing those lavender discs were. “You’re a seductress, plain and simple. You used some combination of knavery and parlor tricks to deceive me, didn’t you, Chrissa?”
Through much effort, the girl managed a reply. “Y—You have to believe me, Treskyn. I d—did this b—because—“
“Because you are a liar! Because you know I am naïve and inexperienced in matters outside the castle. Right, Chrissa? Well, I’m through playing games. I want some answers, now.” Thick beads of sweat crawled down his face as he spoke, but his captive remained quite calm. “I want to know where you came from and just how you knew everything you know about me.” His grip did not allow for reply as his spoke. “I want to know what sorcery this hypnotism of yours is and where you came to acquire such abilities.” He gestured with his sword toward her eyes. “And I want to know what in the name of the goddesses you were planning! You didn’t need my help. You didn’t need my companionship, did you, Chrissa? You’re using me, for some sinister or unwholesome purpose, aren’t you, Chrissa?” He spat as he mentioned the anonym. “You were going to sell me to some mercenary who would ransom my uncle for my life. Or sell me to Sabylia’s rivals for the highest bid. Or try and extract secrets of the kingdom after brainwashing me with that demonic gaze of yours, weren’t you C-H-R-I-S-S-A?”
For one crucial fraction of a second, the boy caught sight of her violet-blue retinas and forgot his grip.
“Stop CALLING me that!” The girl took advantage of his laxity, unsheathing her long dagger and swiping it across the youth’s face in one swift motion. His chokehold was lost altogether and he recoiled as blood billowed from a deep gash across his left cheek.
“Treskyn, I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to hurt you…” Her voice was drowned out by the sound of metal being drawn.
“You have a lot of nerve, trying to regain my trust and submission after I find you out for the fraud you are.” Treskyn took up a dueling stance opposite the girl, his sword raised threateningly. “What mock sympathy is this?”
“I’m being sincere, Treskyn. I promise you! You must listen to me, we cannot fight each other. This isn’t how it’s supposed to be.” Despite her calls for a truce, she was brandishing her own blade with equal menace. The dagger was exceedingly long, about the length of a man’s forearm. It could have been mistaken for a short sword if not for its narrow, curving design.
“You think I will let my guard down because you’re a girl? Give me one good reason I shouldn’t kill you where you stand.” They circled each other cautiously, each trying to gain an advantage in footing and position.
“No, Treksyn, really—“
“I said be quiet!”
All at once a force of incredible power impacted Treskyn’s side with a terrible force, knocking the boy at least twelve feet from where he stood. It felt as though he had been hit by a massive boulder, or an entire herd of chocobos at full gallop. Dazed, and excruciatingly sore on the right half of his body, he picked himself up and stumbled in a vaguely circular manner, waiting for his head to catch up with what was happening around it. His sword was gripped limply in his bruised and tender right arm, its tip tracing ellipses into the dirt as he stumbled.
There was a massive green blur directly in front of him, blocking the light from the fire, and, it seemed, just about everything else. It took another second for his vision to take focus.
Despite his injury, the boy lunged to the side just as a massive, claw-like horn crashed into the ground where he had been standing. It must have ambushed me while I was fighting with Chrissa. Or maybe she summoned the wretched thing. With his equilibrium returning, Treskyn took a more cautious stance in front of the great creature, which stood more than four feet above his height. It was a male, massive and hulking; a row of three-inch canines gleamed ominously in the moonlight.
Okay, I can handle this. These things are nasty, but they have terrible vision. The boy blinked his own eyes methodically, trying to reconcile the two blurred creatures orbiting each other in his mind. I can outwit it if I’m quick enough. He rolled to the right just as the beast barreled his head into the ground, shoveling a clump of dirt its lower jaw as it stood upright. Poor vision or not, the thing was truly impressive. It could outrun and outmuscle just about anything that lived in the plains. And they were as foul tempered as they looked.
Treskyn dodged another attack, and then struck with his sword, striking the hard, dark green armor on the creature’s back. The sword bounced off harmlessly. He realized his arm was hurt worse than it felt, for he had trouble just holding up the weight of the blade. Well, let’s see if I can do this left-handed. The boy switched hands and struck a more decisive blow on the lizard’s lower torso as it reared up again. Recoiling in pain, the rhinotaur gave out a deafening roar, and then, clearly angered, it charged straight toward the wounded prince.
Treskyn braced for the impact, his sword directed outward, knowing he could not out maneuver the beast in his present state. But only a few steps into a run, the rhinotaur again reeled up in pain, a long, slender dagger protruding from one of its hind legs.
“More theater, Chrissa?”
She did not have time to respond. The creature knocked her backward with a butt from its horned skull as she tried to pry her weapon from the scaly hide. This distraction removed, the rhinotaur returned its lizardine stare to Treskyn and charged at full speed. The boy stood up to strike, but he was a second and a half too late. The rhinotaur gored him at full charge, the deadly horn piercing his stomach and tearing into the flesh underneath. The pain was unbearable; Treskyn yelled every curse he knew in desperate screams, tears running down his face as the ivory spear finally tore through his innards. The rhinotaur was still running, with Treskyn firmly lodged on the creature’s horn. He realized he had to act quickly or he would surely die. The sword was still in his hand, his grip firm from the agony of his injury. With his last ounce of strength, the boy raised his blade and plummeted directly into the rhinotaur’s left eye, blood spurting in a great fountain of crimson as he pulled it back out.
The creature was maddened, and went berserk. It thrashed about in every direction, throwing Treskyn to the ground as it tossed its head in agony. The rhinotaur’s screams were deafening, but Treskyn could feel his hearing, along with his other senses, leave him in a vortex of color and sound and then silence. He coughed up a pint of his own blood. The last thing he saw was the figure of a girl approaching where he lay, dagger still in hand. He tried to reach for his sword, but the boy could not find the energy to move arms, or his hands, or his eyelids...
There was a blur of lavender. And then everything went black.
Morning over the capitol city was still and quiet. The late summer wind had brought a blanket of clouds along with it, covering the sun's approach with billowing gray-white pillars. A thin mist hung across the entire valley. Autumn was still nearly two weeks away, but overnight, it seemed, the temperature had dropped considerably, fermenting grayness and wetness with the uplift of warm air and the onset of cool breezes from the north.
The hour was early, but already Castle Koltsgard was abuzz with activity. Particularly, in the top floors of the palace barracks a group of young soldiers were donning their armor in preparation for some exercise or another--so they surmised.
Garo examined himself in a waist-height mirror mounted at the far corner of the barracks. The uniform he had spent the last 20 minutes clothing himself with was of the finest armor he had ever seen, let alone worn himself. The breastplate was of a light, amazingly sturdy material he had never encountered before, finely decorated with silver trimmings, and augmented by custom-tailored rectangular shoulder plates, steel gauntlets and a full-length cerulean cape. The leather-padded armor clung effortlessly to his lower body, protecting ever inch of his person and allowing for complete freedom of movement, save for the steel greaves, which were a little tight.
Finally, he donned the matching helm, a tenacious looking item fashioned in the style of a sallet, with a thick, gold emblazoned rim running round the crown of the headgear from the open face of the front to the tail visor in back. To complete the ensemble, Garo slung his sword to the leather strap on his side and picked up the rounded metal shield, which was itself donning a blue, coat-of-arms style shield, the insignia of the elite soldiery to which he served.
It was an impressive display, even for this knight who only just two days earlier had completed his apprenticeship. This weighed heavily on Garo's mind, and he vacillated between pride and self-doubt while staring through reflective glass at the imposing figure before him.
He was troubled by more than just his own inexperience, however. Looking around the barracks, Garo had realized rather quickly that none of the members of the Order of the Blue Crown could have been more than a few years above his age. Indeed, most of its membership had come from his graduating class. Why was this? What happened to all the veteran knights who had served Drake in this exclusive guard? Garo had many questions, but he knew enough about his place in the chain of command to keep them to himself.
Their captain was a man named Durias, and Garo estimated him no older than 25. General Drake had taken a personal interest in the boy's career early on, taking over his apprenticeship and adopting him as a kind of surrogate son. For his part, Durias had welcomed this role, and was in many ways a mini-Drake: dutiful, belligerent and obedient to the last. Garo did his best to stay out of both of their ways.
They had risen early, before sunrise on the orders of Drake himself for some special training or exercise to take place later that day. Rumors abounded, especially among the lower ranking soldiers, with whom Garo still maintained acquaintanceships, that some kind of magical beast was heading towards Koltsgard, and that they were preparing for battle. How they obtained this information, Garo was not sure, and he paid little heed to their accounts of demons and dragonkin.
It was only moments after he had finished assembling his uniform that Garo spotted the Knight General himself making an entrance into the barracks hall.
"Attention!" Durias barked at the men. "Flag Officer in Quarters!" Three dozen bodies stiffened upright and faced the entranceway.
Drake gestured them at ease with a wave of his hand. "Captain Durias, I went these men battle ready within the hour. We will begin drilling and then advanced sparring matches until mid-morning."
"Yes sir!" The good captain chirped in reply. "You heard the general. Assemble with weapons and shields on the double!"
Drake was visibly tired. Normally he delivered far more personal abuse to officers under his watch, but now he looked as though he had trouble keeping his thoughts together. His hair was matted and his face unshaven. Deep lines ran beneath his eyes, and his normally regal uniform was tattered and loosely fitted; it looked as though he'd been wearing it awake all night.
"You men, Order of the Blue Shield, will reconvene in the lower barracks by mid-afternoon." Drake's voice tapered, and he took a recuperative breath before continuing. "There is to be an event, hosted by the King at that time, and I want you all combat-ready. Do not disappoint me." He was succinct and detached, an altogether different person than the genial mentor that had recruited Garo to this post just the other day.
"All right, let's go people! Form a line! Move out!" Durias ordered as General Drake disappeared through the entranceway. Just before he left, Garo thought he saw something in one of Drake's back pockets. Something metallic, cylindrical. It looked like a flask.
A disciplined column of spears, swords and shields followed instantaneously, with Garo taking his place toward the back of the queue. They marched in silence, down the stairs to the sparring ground with deliberate, rehearsed motions. Garo kept rhythm with his feet, wondering what exactly they would be training for this afternoon.
Darkness vanished from the room with the successive lightings of three separate candles, each placed to provide the most efficient illumination in the dungeon-like chamber. The candles themselves were quite plain, but the flames they bore burned a brilliant shade of cyan blue, bathing the bastillic room with brilliant luminescence, as though it were under an open sky. In point of fact, it was daytime, but the windowless room at the top of western Koltsgard spire was black as night without the triumverate of lit wax to brighten the chamber. Of course, this was a light not born from matches or oil, or any other earthly catalyst for combustion, but from magic.
Murdock surveyed his work chamber after igniting the last candle. With a snap of his fingers the pale blue light turned a more amicable shade of yellow. The sorcerer himself cast a long shadow across the stone floor. Rows of books, thick dusty volumes, lined the walls perpendicular to the dark entranceway. A long rectangular table housed a myriad of liquids, potions and other elements of alchemy, all flowing through glass tubes into boiling flasks and miniature cauldrons. On the opposing wall hung a map of the known world. All three candles hovered in a perfect triangle of light, held only by the invisible force that marked the purpose of this sequestered room.
The mage freed his glabrous head from a dark hood attached to his robes. Suddenly, he felt a strange sensation at the base of his forehead. A headache…? No. The feeling grew, spreading rapidly across his upper body as though he just had been immersed in cold water, head first. The light from the candles began to fade, until everything was as black as it had been at the dead of night, perhaps blacker. As the scene of books of cauldrons melted away, a pair of silver eyes appeared in the darkness.
"What do you want?" Murdock called to the shadows.
A high, raspy voiced gave reply. "The goddesses smile on your progress... Mage Lord Murdock of Thamas..."
"I thought we agreed to break off contact once the plan was in motion." The sorcerer spoke with a tone of annoyance.
"Complications have arisen…" the gray retinas replied.
"What kind of complications? Is she not coming?"
"She comes. But not alone."
"Odin, patron warrior of espers, insisted on accompanying her voyage to your land. The elders were hesitant to sanction her visit at all and Odin is resolved to protect her."
"I will deal with this intrusion." The mage worked out several scenarios in his head as the conversation continued.
"Also..." The eyes flickered, as though blinking. "We are aware that the king has dispatched a messenger to the Seer..." Another flicker. "He will know what is to come. He has predicted it before. It could undo our plans..."
Murdock waved off the objection. "The messenger he sends is a mere child. It is more a test of character than a service to the kingdom. King Sabil cares little of what the Oracle predicts. Actually..." A curl crept up the side of the sorcerer's mouth. "The boy he sends is the king's nephew. He will be at Tyr for another day or so. If you wish to truly incur the king's wrath..."
"He will not see Koltsgard again..." the shadowy voice hissed back.
"You understand your retaliation must be dramatic to warrant the necessary response," Murdock cautioned to the shadows.
"We are aware of what is needed." A long flicker of the gray orbs. "There are many in this realm who wish as we do... but they have not the courage to act while Freyja speaks for peace between our two worlds."
"That will not be a problem much longer." The mage was aware of a noise behind him as he spoke. It sounded like... someone was calling his name.
"Goddesses willing, Ragnarok is upon us,” The silvery eyes declared. “You understand… the next time we speak we will be enemies..."
"We always were, Esper."
With a wave of his arms the eyes vanished and the room around the mage returned, fully lit and animated. Immediately, he was aware of another presence. Turning around, Murdock saw the figure of a soldier, cheeks flushed and breathing heavily in the light.
"You look terrible, Drake."
The soldier was unfazed. "Why... did you not... respond...?” He steadied his breathing before going on. "I called on you for almost a full minute."
Murdock busied himself with a pile of notes at the foot of the oaken table. "I was speaking with our counterpart on the other side."
The sullen Drake produced a metal flask and emptied its liquid content into a glass beaker on the table. "Good news, I hope?" He took a swig.
Murdock shot the knight general a look of both disgust and disinterest in his alcoholism. "There is another esper coming, a warrior. You should prepare your men to take care of this."
Drake emptied the glass cylinder in a one motion. "They'll be ready. I've purged the Order of its older, wiser members in favor of the kingdom's brightest, obedient young soldiers. We can count on them when the time comes."
"Yes, but can I count on you when the time comes?" Murdock hissed, grabbing the beaker from his hand. "You stay up all night drinking the night before such a critical hour."
"I was readying myself..." the surly knight replied. ”And I was up burning a few documents in case things don't quite work out. If you haven't noticed, we're taking a considerable risk with this venture, my good mage. We could lose everything if we're found out." The prospect of it was enough to give the normally toughened knight a visible look of worry.
"Pull yourself together," Murdock directed the knight, examining his materials as he spoke.
"We have a war to plan."
On the edge of the world, a community of the most extraordinary beings—daughters of the goddesses—found their home in the eastern most continent. In the cave-riddled mountains to the north, amid the valleys and cliffs, was nestled a sprawling set of villages. At the nexus of this world, three statues set in silent assembly in the center of the highest peak, hollowed out so that their children could observe and honor these fallen deities.
Amid the cave dwellings, gardens and streams of the central village, an aging esper was walking, deep in thought to some unknown destination. His long white beard flowed to the end of his robes, no more than an inch from the fertile soil below. Much occupied the thoughts of this elder patron. The spiritual leader of their community had departed to an uncertain fate. Tensions were mounting all throughout the Eastern Realm between men and espers. And worst of all, the old man was sensing a growing evil on the horizon, one that seemed to threaten all that he held sacred and dear in this humble existence.
And then, a voice.
"Ramuh! May I speak with you?"
The old esper turned round just in time to see another one of his kin standing their before him. He was tall, lanky, clad in decorative armor and had piercing, silver eyes. The esper also sported a massive pair of feathered wings, kept tucked in at his side.
"Icarus." Ramuh gestured the esper to follow at his side.
"Can I have a word, patron elder?" The winged man replied.
They walked together, toward the village center. At first, their progression was silent, but after a few moments Ramuh beckoned the esper continue with his entreaty.
"I am concerned about our mistress, Freyja."
"We are all concerned for her fate, my young Icarus." Ramuh walked slowly, taking in his surroundings as they continued. "But the matron is resolute in her desire to make contact with these humans."
"Yes I know..." the cold, raspy voice replied. "But I have heard a disturbing rumor from the other side..."
"Oh?" His pace was unchanged.
"I hear that a group of humans are planning her death."
They both stopped.
"They are led by the king's own nephew..."
"Where did you hear this, Icarus?" The old esper's tone was direct.
"It is a reliable source." The winged esper turned, facing the village behind them. "Forgive me, Ramuh. In my haste, I sent the beast esper Tritoch to Sabylia, in case anything should happen to her..." The silver eyes returned to the bearded figure. "I don't know how I would go on if anything happened to her, Ramuh..."
The old man put a hand on the esper's shoulder.
"I am very fearful of this mission, Icarus. There is a reason our kind departed the western kingdoms... But you can't place too much stead in rumors. There will always be those who wish us harm, my young esper."
"Nevertheless..." His voiced replied in a hiss. "I would feel more comfortable knowing another is watching over her and Odin."
"It may not be a bad idea." Ramuh resumed his constitution toward nowhere in particular. "For now Tritoch may remain over the western sky. I will convene with the elders tonight and we will decide then how to proceed."
Icarus stood motionless in the village square, watching the old man walk away. He closed his eyes and reached out with a mental communiqué, revealing his silvery disks upon making contact with another mind.
Proceed to Sabylia... and stay out of sight until the word is given...
He felt an acknowledgement return. And an emotion: unease.
Stay ready, my comrade. The hour is late for the people of Sabylia... Tomorrow the fate of our world is decided.
And then, a parting thought.
Tritoch... I have another request for you, old friend... The king's nephew lingers in the south of the valley.
Make sure he does not survive.
With another blink, the connection was broken. From the mountain ridge on the village's edge, the entire Thamasian plain was visible, out to where it disappeared into the ocean. In another day, this entire domain would be transformed from the placidity of this gentle vista into something far more purposeful.
The waves shattered sand and stone as they crashed fiercely onto the shore. Without warning, a loose outcropping of boulders fell from their clay perch and tumbled down the mountainside, crashing and shattering as they fell earthward. It was as though the land itself shuddered at what was to come.
A single drop of water, hurdling down from the sky at the same rate of acceleration as if it were a colossal boulder, exploded into miniature fragments as it impacted warm flesh.
Treskyn awoke with a start, his eyes blurry and his mind numb. The boy was lying flat on his back, on a hard stone floor beneath a massive swirl of blackness. Another drop landed just inches away from the first, wetting the skin between his eyes as it dispersed upon impact. Gazing upward, a small opening in the darkness was visible some distance up. At the eye of this black haze, a mass of motionless gray matter--the source of the raindrops.
He pulled himself into a sitting a position and looked over his surroundings. The boy was obviously deep inside some immense structure, apparently carved right out of the mountainside. He found himself seated in the middle of a great circular chamber, dozens of lit torches hanging on the walls all around him. Treskyn searched his memory for some explanation of where he might be. Immediately, one came to him.
The rhinotaur! It must have dragged me back to its lair.
He scrambled to his feet as another two raindrops ricocheted off his shoulder. In a moment of haziness, and clarity, Treskyn examined the carefully placed torches, along with the fine marble floor below, before convincing himself that an animal probably wasn't the steward of this cavern. No, the far more likely explanation was simply that...
Suddenly, everything slowed down dramatically. The cave was still. The torch-flames flickered in slow, deliberate motions. Even the air seemed to move in imperceptible lethargy. Treskyn could feel his breath slacken; even his pulse became stagnant. He raised a hand to his eyes, and watched as minutes--it seemed--passed by before his digits waved past in unhurried migration. This was not just dizziness. Time itself had slowed to an unceremonious crawl.
And then, all at once, things sped up. In stop-motion-like frames, Treskyn's eyes started blinking at dizzying intervals. His heartbeat was like a snare drum roll. The flames of the cavern danced furiously as raindrops pounded his head until the boy's hair was dripping wet. He tried to wave his hand past again, but all he could see was a blur of color streak by as the subterranean chamber seemed ready to shake itself to pieces through his jittery eyes. A moment of panic took hold. The startled youth looked around, frantically, a sea of black and yellow swirling in his eyes. He felt himself begin to run. In an instant, the boy found a stonewall directly in his path, and then...
He was on his back again. A stream of blood fell from his broken nose. Linear time was convulsing all around him--stopping, slowing and speeding up at random intervals. He could not tell how much time was elapsing. Looking up, Treskyn saw a blur of white streak across the black sky. It was a dove, white as the moon. The bird hovered briefly and then perched itself upon an outcropping in the stone canopy. Another blur approached from the darkness across the chamber, stopping in front of the him as time slowed to a more hospitable pace. An aged hand reached down and helped the dazed boy to his feet.
The man standing before Treskyn was an ancient figure, clad in the simplest of white robes, with a matching beard that cascaded down to his waist. Despite his age, the man was limber and animated, walking with the aid (or perhaps ceremony) of an elaborately decorated staff. The boy could not have envisioned a more appropriately looking person for the part.
"Oracle, I am honored to meet you." Treskyn wiped the blood from his face with his wrist, noticing as he did that the bloody gash on his cheek from last night was no longer there.
"Indeed, you are. I hope you did not injure yourself?" The old man slowly cirlced the boy, scrutinizing him with cautious eyes.
"It's nothing," the boy retorted, testing the severity of the fractured bone with with his finger. "But how did..."
"These caves were carved out many centuries ago by the original inhabitants of this realm." The Oracle gestured to the rafters of the chamber. "The ancient Sabylians imparted special properties to these mountains. In here, time does not obey the linear rules and clockwork mechanics you are so accustomed to, my young prince."
"You know who I--"
"Of course I know who you are. I'm supposed to be some sort of augur or soothsayer, right?"
"Oracle," Treskyn clarified.
The old man gave a stiff laugh. "I have been called many things by many people. But my Sight is no act of superstition or trickery, though some would prefer to believe so." He brushed back a knot of white hair on his head. "Some of it is of my own design and acquisition. But much of my power comes from these ancient altars..."
"Mm." The old man's voice echoed toward the watery opening above as he spoke. "Temples of power, shrines of pure life energy. We occupy a tabernacle of magic, my young traveler."
"Are you going to repeat everything I say?" the old man quipped.
"Sorry. It's just..."
"Yes, in your world magic is not something that is spoken of. It is an anachronism, an exotic power only wielded in far off lands by mystical sorcerers." From out of nowhere--it seemed--the man pulled out a long blue cape, and strapped it to his shoulders. "Well, the legacy of magic in this land is more significant than you can know, young prince."
"I don't understand..."
"Of course you don't understand. That is precisely why you have come to seek my audience. And now that you are here, let us proceed with matters of time and consequence."
The purpose of Treskyn's visit suddenly came to him. He made to speak, but then stopped, noticing something else was not as he remembered... My injuries, from the rhinotaur... they're gone! He searched himself for signs of harm from the attack that had left him gored and unconscious just the other night.
"Of course, of course." The Oracle grinned knowingly as he observed the boy's expression. He raised an arm and gestured with two ancient fingers.
Out of the darkness, another figure appeared. Tall, slim, with violaceous eyes. Treskyn's pulse skipped a beat.
The boy felt for his sword, but it was not at his waist. The girl approached timidly, stopping just behind the old man's staff. Treskyn looked at the pair of them for a moment before realization dawned on him.
"You're behind this!" He threw an accusing finger at the old man. "You sent her to trick me, and now you've trapped me in this cave!"
Treskyn turned to run. The Oracle waved his staff and ripples of energy shot through the air. The boy found himself sprinting in slow-motion, barely moving an inch after a minute of exerting all his energy. With another wave of his cane, time returned to normal, and Treskyn fell to his knees, panting in shallow breaths for the effort he had extended.
"And... you're... controlling... time." He heaved himself back onto his feet for a third time, clutching his knees to catch his breath. The girl made to help him up, but was stopped by an outstretched arm.
The Oracle raised his arms to try and calm the agitated youth. "It was necessary to deceive you until you arrived safely. I sent Iliana to make sure you found your way here."
"Why... why should I... believe you?" The boy stood upright.
"Foolish youth! There are bigger things going on here than you!" The old man’s voice boomed with a loudness that betrayed his frail figure. "When I divined that you would volunteer to ride to Tyr a week ago, I also foresaw many dangers in your path." His voiced suddenly quieted. "Though many--the king included--regard your journey as a fool's errand, there are others who fear what you might discover..."
"I don't... understand."
"Let us begin with your first question. Iliana..."
The girl motioned with her hands, and a fire was produced in front of them, lighting the immediate area. The two of them positioned themselves on either side of the flame. Treskyn looked on entranced. Understanding dawned over him.
"You're magi. Both of you."
The old man nodded. Iliana kept her gaze focused on the fuel-less fire.
"I am a Time Mage. My kind have occupied these caves since magic left Sabylia with the departure of the espers so many centuries ago. Iliana is my pupil, the daughter of magefolk from the East. And you, Prince Treskyn..." A pair of sunken eyes scanned the boy's face. "Iliana, will you take care of that?"
The girl strode hesitantly foreword and reached a hand out toward's the boy's broken nose. He caught her by the wrist and pulled her in closely.
"You healed my wounds, from the rhinotaur?" He felt a scar on his stomach where the beast's horn had torn through.
"Yes... you were hurt very badly."
He released his grip, and with a glowing flash from her fingertips his nose was fixed.
"Oracle, forgive my belligerence." Treskyn bowed apologetically. "I have come to seek clarification of your past visions. There is an esper scheduled to arrive at Koltsgard today, and the king wishes to know what you foresee for our kingdom."
"So, it's true?" The girl looked up at the old man.
"I fear so..." He stared into the flames.
"The creatures of magic must not return to Sabylia," the man declared solemnly. "If the espers come, the kingdom will fall to ashes."
A silence gripped the chamber.
"Are you sure?" Treskyn inquired.
"That prophecy was made by my predecessor more than two hundred years ago." It dawned on Treskyn that Time Mages must have extraordinarily long lifespans. "It is often difficult to divine how the future will proceed. My skills are by no measure an exact science of prediction. But we can understand how certain causes will affect an outcome, and in this case the visions are quite clear...
"Espers and humans once lived in harmony together. In some parts of the world, they still do. But there is a fundamental relationship between users of magic and those who seek power that always leads to animosity between our two races. Even in Thamas, where men and espers occupy a stable coexistence, mercenaries and bounty hunters seek out espers for their abilities, leading to a tenuous climate that constantly threatens peace. Magic is a force created for destruction, and wherever its disciples go, destruction is sure to follow...
"But my purpose is not to philosophize. It is to use the Sight magic has given me to understand what is to come. Long has a dark and crimson shadow hung over the horizon of these lands. Fate is often a study into the inevitable, and I fear the coming chaos may be the unavoidable consequence of two worlds colliding into one. Look..."
The Oracle waved his staff, and in an instant, the great stone ceiling of the cavern turned to pure darkness. One by one, all the stars of the night sky appeared, shining as brightly as ever in this subterrestial planetarium. All three of them gazed at the splendorous sight overhead. Without another motion, a light from the old man's staff was shone directly on a distant-looking celestial object--a mysterious ball of blue-gray matter navigating its way between the stars with a fiery tail towing behind. It was unlike anything else in the sky, and seemed to evoke a sense of terrifying wonder.
"Already the Comet of Destruction is nearing with formidable swiftness, drawn by the increase of magical activity on this planet. The heavens themselves can sense the coming mayhem, and they have dispatched a messenger of chaos to witness the coming armageddon..."
The stars disappeared, and the cave above reappeared from the blackness.
"But I don't understand," Treskyn protested. "How is the kingdom going to fall to ashes? What exactly is going to happen?"
The Oracle closed his eyes and a look of concentration swept across his face.
"There is one image that has come to me again and again when I peer into this fate..." The flames seemed to recoil as he spoke. "I see a sword, an ancient blade, draining the life from some hapless victim... There is much uncertainty, many clouds on the horizon, but I sense that this sword will trigger a machine of unstoppable destruction..."
Treskyn felt a terror well up in him as he listened. What could one sword do that would cause so much havoc? A sense of resolve took hold as he remembered the purpose of this visit.
"I have to warn them," Treskyn declared soberly. The Oracle opened his eyes and walked several paces away from the fire.
"If you feel that is best..."
The old man raised an arm level to his chest. The white dove perched on the stone ceiling glided down on cue, landing gracefully on the Oracle's forearm. The two of them approached the boy and the old man produced a pen and parchment from a pair of long pockets on his robes.
“Write to your king and fulfill your duty. But do not place your confidence in hope. Events and circumstance are working against the preservation of peace."
Treskyn took the paper and pen. He sat on the stone floor and wrote out a brief dispatch explaining what he had learned, stressing the urgency and dire consequences of the prophesy. He wrote against his knees, as legibly as possible. Treskyn handed the parchment back to the old man, who folded, and then rolled it into a compact cylinder that was secured to the dove's leg. After whispering something only the dove was allowed to hear, the Oracle threw up his arm and the bird took off toward the cloudy portal at the cavern's ceiling.
"I still don't understand," Treskyn stated after a long silence following the dove's departure. "Who's trying to ignite this chaos? What's going to happen at Koltsgard when the esper arrives?"
"This is where my abilities fail me, young prince," the Oracle replied. "So I must defer to conjecture and supposition. There are two reasons for violence between espers and humans. One is because men fear their power. The other is because they envy it. I fear King Sabyl is about to be betrayed..."
"There are many in this land that are afraid of espers and the abilities they wield, who see them as vile, demonic creatures that threaten the freedom of men. Fear of the unknown is palpable, predictable, and human. But there is only one person in this kingdom who knows enough about esperkind to look upon their power with envious eyes..." Before the Oracle had even finished his sentence, Treskyn knew to whom he was referring.
"Precisely." The old man returned his gaze to the billowing magical fire. "I do not know if he has a hand in this, but I knew him from his younger years, and he does not strike me as the kind of man to forfeit an opportunity to increase his power and influence as this esper visitation offers."
"Is this a prophecy from the Oracle of Tyr?" Treskyn inquired with a wry grin.
The Oracle returned a vacant smile. "It is the advice of a wise old man. Be wary of him, Prince Treskyn. He is powerful, ambitious, and has a hand in everything magical in this kingdom."
Treskyn nodded in reply. He looked up at Iliana, the girl who had conjured this firelight and healed his wounds. She had not spoken more than a few words during the entire conversation, and her gaze remained unshaken. He wondered what other mysteries she might be hiding.
"And now it is time for you to depart, my young traveler."
Treskyn returned the old man a look of confusion. It was ignored.
"Your chocobo and your gear are waiting at the entrance to the caves. You must journey south, to the city of Mindova, where you will wait until there are no more espers in Koltsgard."
"Because it is your fate to do so!" the Oracle replied harshly with a kick of dirt that put out the flames. "If you are to survive the coming days, you will do exactly as I tell you."
Something about the sureness in the old man's voice made Treskyn willing to trust his judgment.
"Iliana will accompany you to the White City, where you will take shelter until you are signaled to leave." At this, the girl looked up from the ground as if to protest, but refrained from speaking aloud when she met the old man's eyes. "I trust you have ample coinage on you to procure food and shelter? Good! Now, off with you." He beckoned both of them toward a dark entranceway across the chamber with a jab from his staff.
"Time is of the essence, my young companions. Do as I instruct, and you just may live to see next week."
And with that, the Oracle of Tyr disappeared.
Thick cumulonimbus clouds had coalesced above the capitol city Koltsgard. A barrage of raindrops fell from the sky onto thousands of densely-packed heads around the castle. The shower was light, but the billowing rain clouds threatened worse as the evening wore on.
Garo estimated there must be tens of thousands of people outside that rainy afternoon. And all of them—the entire city it seemed—were packed into two massive columns flanking the main promenade into the city. The road itself was completely empty, patrolled on its perimeter by a few dozen overworked palace guards. Behind the swelling throngs of onlookers, two regiments of the king's soldiers—four battalions in all—stood in rigid rectangles in front of the castle entrance. Behind them, four hundred knights, officers and gentlemen of the royal army. And on the steps of the castle entrance, Garo and his fellow Knights of the Blue Shield stood in proud display.
At the elevated courtyard leading from the steps of the citadel's entrance, all the noblemen of the kingdom (and their wives) stood talking and mingling in conspicuous gossip. And in the last row before the great entranceway into Koltsgard Castle, the generals of the kingdom stood in full regalia, led in the center of their row by the Knight General Sir Drake. Noticeably absent from this display were three important figures: the king, his wife, and the mage lord Murdock, who usually made it a point to attend all official functions of the kingdom.
Garo had never seen a sight such as this before. Even the grandest of festivals or national holidays did not merit such an assembly of personages and spectacle. Yet for all the impressiveness of the display, the young knight had no idea what it was for. Drake had told them nothing, as was usually his style when giving orders. The enlisted men knew nothing, and the crowds of common people seemed to attend out of pure curiosity. The king had declared a holiday and made a pronouncement that there was to be an occasion of some importance for the kingdom this afternoon, but no details had emerged as to what merited such grandeur and preparation.
Rumors had persisted that strange beasts from the eastern lands were heading towards Koltsgard through the sky, but Garo had great doubts as to the authenticity of such dramatic hearsay. He simply stood at attention, as he and the rest of the king's army had for nearly two hours now, while the rain continued to wet their steel uniforms.
Suddenly, a clammor rose through the enlisted men. It worked its way up though the higher ranks and eventually into the officers and knights. Garo looked casually at his compatriots in the Order, who looked equally uneasy but kept a disciplined stance under the watch of their captain, Durias. Dozens of hands from the soldiers, and now the crowd, shot up at distant movement in the clouds. Garo could see it too. Something massive was breaking through the cloud-line, moving at breakneck speed. All at once, the immense intruder broke through and descended from the sky directly in front of the city.
"It's an airship!"
A frenzy of conversation erupted as the massive vessel hovered in the rain, and then slowly landed in a field in front of the city gates. The airship was a striking dark blue with gold outlines along a fin that circumnavigated the air-chamber’s superstructure. Eight separate pairs of propellers, six vertical and two horizontal, controlled the craft's motion, while a pair of immense tail stabilitors controlled pitch and yaw as the hulking airship docked on wet grass. Garo recognized the ship's insignia as that of the Kingdom of Jidora.
From several hundred yards out, a half dozen figures could be seen emerging from the airship's wooden hull. Two were clearly soldiers, wielding a long pike each in front of the group. Two looked to be servants or other attendants, as they carried large trunks and other luggage. The six of them approached the open city gates and proceeded up the promenade, much to the delight and surprise of the crowd. Two of the men were finely dressed, and one wore a bejeweled crown.
Inside the castle, King Sabil was speaking with an aide as a troupe of servants walked about in frenzied preparation. The king was dressed in an elegant ensemble of gold and purple, with a magenta cape poised on his shoulders. The sovereign fidgeted with his many rings as he conversed.
"Yes, yes that will be fine. You don't have to bother me with every mundane detail, you know. Now off with you..."
A set of long, thin fingers embraced his chest plate delicately from behind. The queen stood on her toes to reach the height of her husband, and rested her opposite arm on his shoulder.
"You look weary, my husband." She spoke softly into his ear.
"I feel no better, to be sure," he candidly replied.
She smiled and caressed his bearded cheek, but the king's expression did not alter in its look of apprehension.
"Come, you have the whole city outside waiting to see what unknown extravagance is planned." She beckoned him toward down the hallway, but he did not follow, standing transfixed in the square of the castle throne room as another set of servants hurriedly entered.
"Sire, the king of Jidora is here," the leather-clad head of the group declared.
"Thank you, Reuben." With a breath of confidence, the king turned and took the queen under his arm. The two of them proceeded down the main hallway. Waiting at the castle entrance hall were a pair of foreign soldiers bearing a pair of ceremonial spears, a pair of servants bearing more than a pair of luggage, and a pair of noblemen bearing a pair of wry grins.
"King Jidrin! You fool, I can't believe you made it on time."
"I can't believe I accepted your absurd invitation, Sabil!" The finely dressed visitor replied with a smile. The two kings embraced and the foreign ruler kissed the queen's hand with a deferring bow. "And Lady Sabil, Queen of beauty and serenity, it is always a pleasure to see you."
From the open palace doors, the great airship was visible on the near horizon.
"Always like you to make an entrance Jidrin," Sabil quipped. "Although I can't say I'm surprised."
"I should conclude it is you who are the eccentric, my good king," Jidrin replied. "I get a cryptic message from the king of Sabylia two days—two days—ago, imploring me to attend 'an historic diplomatic function'..." The foreign king spoke with dramatic sardonicism. "I must say, I had to accept just to see what you have come up with, Sabil." The pair of them exchanged a round of laughter.
"Oh, and I thought I'd return something of yours while I was in the neighborhood," Jidrin continued, gesturing to the noble youth standing behind him. "It occurred to me that since the boy is going to rule this kingdom someday, he should probably spend some time seeing it."
"Claudio!" The queen rushed to the boy, kissing him on each cheak. She beckoned the reluctant youth forward, straightening his jacket as she looked him over. "How good of you to bring our son back, Jidrin."
"Welcome back, Prince Claudio," Reuben echoed.
"Mother, Father." The boy bowed his head curtly in acknowledgment. "I see everything is as it—Mother, please! I'm not a child anymore!"
"Ho, ho, I see you're still as livid as ever, my son," the king chortled. "I hope university life at Julipo has not seeded you with lethargy and idleness?"
"Please, Father, I'm only 22." The prince rolled his eyes at the objection. "Now what is this I hear about demons and foul creatures coming to the kingdom?"
"Yes, my kingdom is abuzz," King Jidrin echoed. "Is it true you've got an esper or some such beast on its way to Koltsgard?"
"I see it is impossible to keep secrets in this city," King Sabil observed. The pair of visitors stared at him blankly. Reuben and the other servants departed.
"You can't be seriously, Father?" Claudio replied incredulously.
King Sabil nodded and raised his arms to calm their objections.
"I have been in correspondence with a representative from the esper world for some time now. And they have agreed to meet with us, here, today."
"Do you realize what you're doing?" Jidrin replied with skepticism.
"I have weighed this matter heavily, my friend," Sabil responded. "And I know that we can foster a peace between our two peoples, one that would be mutually beneficial and with an extraordinary potential for us to better ourselves and our understanding of the world. Just imagine the—"
"Father, this is madness!" Claudio interjected. "They're monsters! If you let them in the castle, they'll kill all of us, and suck out the marrow from our bones!"
Reuben returned with a plate of wine glasses on a leather-gloved hand.
"Well, if you're crazy enough to go through with this Sabil, then I guess I have no choice but to be there right beside you," King Jidrin stated, snatching a glass from the tray. "Our friendship precedes either of our reigns as king, and I'm willing to trust your judgment if you think this is best." He downed the entire glass in one swallow.
"It is always good to have you at my side, old friend." King Sabil took a glass for himself. "This is to be a new beginning for mankind..." He trailed off, noticing a pale light reflecting off his wineglass.
Without a word, the four of them proceeded outside to the main courtyard along with the other nobles. Normally, the arrival of the king would have heralded the attention of anyone in attendance, but now all eyes were focused on mass of cloud matter just above the massive airship. A vortex had opened in the dense cloud-line, and an intense jet of yellow-white light was streaming down to the city's entranceway.
As the entire city held its breath, two shimmering figures emerged from through the portal, descending like fiery snowflakes onto the stone boulevard. As they drew closer, the look and figure of the two travelers became apparent. One was hulking and massive, a proud warrior dressed in full battle gear, with a pair of twisted horns upon his helm and riding on a colossal beast of white and gold. The man-like creature stood nearly nine feet tall, and the crowds recoiled in fear as he approached. The other figure looked to be a woman of unparalleled beauty. She was riding on a chariot pulled by a pair of massive cats, who galloped through the sky ahead of the warrior and his steed.
The exotic pair and their beasts landed on the city road cleared for their arrival and proceeded toward the castle. Some combination of astonishment, curiosity and horror gripped the faces of the stunned onlookers. The espers proceeded along the corridor until reaching the long, wide steps of the castle entrance. Here, the woman disembarked from her feline-driven chariot and the warrior from his steed, and the two of them slowly ascended the stairway through the ranks of astounded soldiers.
Garo caught a glimpse of the creatures as they passed his line at the top of the stairwell. The woman looked to be of equal proportion to that of a normal human, in stark contrast to her escort, who looked large enough to tear a rhinotaur in two. Her beauty was ravishing, and she wore a necklace of shimmering amber so magnificent, it looked as though its jeweled nucleus had been plucked from the stars of the summer sky.
King Sabil parted a way past the equally transfixed generals and noblemen of the court, and made his way to the summit of the great stairwell. There the espers stopped directly in front of him. For a long, tense minute no one spoke. The two worlds simply stared back at one another.
"I am the king of Sabylia. You honor us with your presence, distant travelers. On behalf of my kingdom and this realm I serve, I welcome you to Koltsgard Castle."
The female esper approached him, and nodded her head deferentially.
"The honor is ours, King of Sabylia. This is Odin, patron esper of warriors. We two representatives from the esper world come in the spirit of friendship and diplomacy. I have long looked forward to this meeting..."
"And I as well," the king replied. "Allow to introduce King Jidrin of Jidora, my son, Prince Claudio, and my wife, Queen Sabil..."
No one moved. Each of the introductees stared wide-eyed at the esper couple, as another pregnant pause gripped the conversation. After a moment, the queen stepped forward, curtsied and spoke as she stood next to her husband.
"Forgive us, we did not realize there would be two of you arriving," she explained.
Odin took two stairs with one step, so that he was equal with the female esper. "It is we who should apologize. I decided to accompany the mistress as escort and guardian, so that no ill fortune would befall the fairest among us."
At the foot of the stairwell, a few soldiers cautiously approached the strange beasts left by their riders. The two cats tethered to the chariot ignored them, curling up on the stone pavement lackadaisically. But Odin's steed reared up fiercely when a curious spearman approached, grunted and hissing demonically as the frightened men scattered.
"Odin," the king acknowledged. "We are honored to have you as our guest. I do not believe I recall your name, however, fair maiden?"
"I am called Freyja," she responded. "King Sabil, we have journeyed a great distance these past few days, and I am quite weary. Is it possible I might find some respite in your city before we conduct our business of diplomacy?"
"Of course, of course. Right this way." The king led the two espers into the castle hall, his entourage following at a conservative distance. "We are to have a banquet in your honor tonight, if you feel up to joining us, Lady Freyja."
"Thank you, you are a most generous host, but I must decline your invitation. My strength is quite tapped, and I must rest for tonight," she stated, matter-of-factly.
The king looked disappointed, but understanding. "That is quite all right. We will have ample time for festivities when you are recovered." A thought came to the sovereign. "Odin, say you will join us tonight?"
The great warrior looked at Freyja, who put a hand on his bulky arm, as if to say I'll be all right.
"I am honored, King Sabil." Odin hesitated for a moment. "I will dine with you tonight."
"Splendid!" the king declared. "Reuben, show the mistress esper to her room."
The leather-clad servant reappeared, and with a deferential gesture, escorted Freyja up a narrow flight of stairs at the end of the common room. As soon as they had disappeared, a haggard-looking soldier ran into the castle.
"K--King Sabil..." he stammered. "There is a... problem with the creatures the espers rode in on... Sire..."
"I will take care of them," Odin stated. He then walked briskly back out the castle entrance, soldiers and onlookers giving him an uncommonly wide birth, and disappeared down the stairwell.
With the two espers gone, the king's entourage returned, chattering and speculating among themselves as to the nature of this mysterious race.
"Well, my friend," King Jidrin spoke to the Sabylian King. "I certainly hope you know what you've got yourself into."
King Sabil nodded, hopefully. Without another word, he turned and proceeded back toward the throne room.
All across the Sabylian plain torrential rains drowned the landscape. The last rainstorm of summer had arrived, and it only grew in ferocity as the day wore into night. In the south, a trio of travelers tramped through the mud and showers toward an uncertain destination.
Treskyn led the way, towing the white chocobo bearing their belongings as the lavender-eyed girl followed a few paces behind. They both were dressed in thick hooded robes to shield them from the downpour. Neither had spoken a word since leaving the Caves of Tyr, and Treskyn had been waiting for an opportunity to speak his mind to the girl. After a brief lull in the storm above, he decided to speak.
"I'm sorry, you know..." He slowed, to walk evenly with the girl. "Sorry for accusing you of trying to kill me... among other things."
She gave the briefest of smiles, and then undid her hood to speak.
"No, I'm sorry, Treskyn," she replied. "I should never have deceived you like that, used my powers to manipulate you... It wasn't right."
"You were just doing as the Oracle told you," he stated. "I shouldn't have been so quick to judge."
She shook her head, and after a considerate pause let out a short laugh. "He's a saucy old hermit—the Oracle. Wise and powerful, perhaps, but he doesn't know how to deal with people. I should have trusted my instincts and just told you all along what was happening."
"Well," Treskyn continued. "It seems we started on the wrong foot. How about we start over?" He extended his hand. "I'm Treskyn, Prince of the Chancellory at Koltsgard."
"Iliana," she replied, smiling. "Mage daughter from the East."
"Is that what I should call you?" Treskyn inquired.
She thought for a moment. "No... only the Oracle still uses my full name. I prefer Jules, after my mother, Juliana. Chrissa is just a pseudonym I use while traveling.” Treskyn laughed at her plethora of titles. “You should think about one too,” she continued. “Being a prince an all."
Treskyn hadn't considered it.
"How did you come to know the Oracle? Are there many other mages in Sabylia like you? And how did you come to use magic? Were you born with it? Can you learn new spells?" His curiosity was insatiable. Iliana laughed at this barrage of questions, and Treskyn felt embarrassed, realizing how eager he sounded.
"I'm sorry..." he began again. "It's just, I've never really known anyone who can use magic. Well, except for Murdock, of course, but he rarely displays his abilities..."
"I became the Oracle's apprentice two years ago, when I first came to Sabylia. I was only fourteen then, and he said he could teach me to harness my powers if I studied under his guidance." She looked down. "He really is a brilliant sage, but... Lately, his visions have gotten so much darker... He used to be lively and cheerful, but his mood these past weeks has been somber and cold... I fear something terrible is coming."
Treskyn could see she was upset, a look of worry and frustration hanging on her youthful face. He didn't know what to say, so he put a comforting hand on her rain-soaked shoulder. She smiled weakly and they continued on their path.
"Mindova shouldn't be too much farther," he declared.
Darkness and rain obscured their view, but the great city was no more than ten miles away, the youth estimated. They would have camped for the night, but a lack of shelter and a surplus of rain made that idea untenable. So they trudged on, through the mud and wetted grass of the southern plains, unsure what fate awaited them when they arrived.
Over the capitol, the rain was relentless. Sheets of dense bullets pounded the castle walls and city streets with unnatural fury. Distant flashes of electrical discharge from the heavens dotted the western horizon, illuminating the blue, gray and blackened sky with phosphorescent blinks.
On a seldom-occupied balcony at the highest spire of Koltsgard Castle, the sorcerer Murdock stood defiantly against the tempest, his silvery robes thrashing about in the gale. The rest of the notable personalities of the kingdom were in the main chamber, dining with the recently-arrived esper per the king's decree. Murdock had excused himself from the event with a cryptic and vacuous explanation, but King Sabil relied upon the mage for advice in the matters of magic, and as easily deferred to his request now.
There were more pressing matters. The wizard's machinations were coming to a defining point, a do-or-die crucible, or perhaps uncertain precipice that would decide the fate—doubtless—of millions, leaving no room for error or hesitancy along its narrow ridge.
And yet... something was working to undue this carefully wrought plan.
At a distance still, but closing with remarkable swiftness, a blot of white in the charcoal sky soared precariously toward its destination. Murdock had sensed the intruder's presence and intent the moment it came within sight of Koltsgard, a whisper of unmistakable treachery taught into the sky-traveler's ear. There was only person with the ability and motive to move against the calculated machinations witnessed within the castle from so many miles away...
"You will not sabotage me, Time Mage."
Murdock raised his staff, eyes pressed closed, and whispered some ancient prayer to the elements. An aura of energy welled in the thunderhead above, and, respecting a moment of consideration, discharged a great bolt of white lightening.
The dove survived, and continued its odyssey, undeterred by its would-be murderer. The lightening had struck the ground several yards from the bird, leaving a smoldering mark in the earth somewhere beneath the torrent. Equally unfazed, Murdock raised his staff a second time, chanted silently another incantation, and a sequel burst of lightening tore through the night in the plain beyond the city gates. Again, disappointment greeted the magus.
Murdock could feel the Oracle feeding into his mind, toying with him, trying to distract the sorcerer as his airborne courier fluttered through the rain. Anger welled up inside Murdock. He cast the intruder from his thoughts and threw his arms skyward, dropping the orb-tipped staff as he yelled out another spell of destruction. Four more blinding flashes of lightening struck the sky, leaving four scorch marks in the ground, and a resolute white missile steadfast in its course.
The Oracle trained on his mind again, trying to calm and sooth the agitated mage—trying to reason with him. Murdock grasped at his hairless skull desperately, as if to wrench off some torturous crown. The Oracle's thoughts tore at him, confused him, turned wit and sense against his purpose. The sorcerer yelled into the night and forced his own thoughts to take hold long enough to fight back, allowing voice and thought to become one...
"You cannot dissuade me, Haruspex and Prophesier...” Murdock declared. “Destiny must fulfill itself, and even your powers of divination cannot stop the inevitable..." A voice fought back, piercing his senses with icy tendrils. But the mental defenses held. A fluttering of white was nearing the castle now, only a few hundred yards from safety...
"But you know you act futilely, old man..." A rare smile curled upon Murdock's lips, rain running down his face as he spoke. "You told me yourself... Delivered me the prophecy twenty years ago..." Now the smile had evolved into a breathy convulsion of laughter, growing steadily as the mage spoke. "You prophesied that my bloodline would rule this world after it was ravaged by a devastating war of magic..." The laughter turned to pure, maniacal mirth, shrieks of delight echoing into the storm.
"That war is about to commence, and there is nothing you can do to stop it! Because it is I, Mage Lord Murdock of the House of Gestahl, who shall own this planet, by a sword of thunder and upon a throne of magicite!"
A colossal jet of light erupted from the sky, bathing the entire city in eerie luminescence. A tentacle of molten lightening struck its target not thirty yards above the castle aviary. An explosion of white feathers dissolved into the rain with a fiery blast, shattering windows and knocking off shingles of nearby rooftops. The glowing shockwave from the blast dispersed across the city, leaving no lasting trace of its primal fury.
Satisfied, Murdock returned to the castle chamber.
That night a few brave souls journeyed out into the storm to see what had happened. All they found were a few charred bird feathers and the still-burning tattered remains of a piece of parchment, melting away in the rain.