Chapter 13: The Monk's Tale
It was no coincidence that Free Spirits were often drawn to magical worlds. Realities in which magic thrived were so much easier to adapt to and interact with without damaging its laws of physics. Because he could manipulate the flows of mana effortlessly the dragon avatar of Bahamut was believably the most powerful magician on the planet Effeffeye. But while he appreciated the presence of magic, Bahamut did not approve of its use by mortals. Magic was a short cut that allowed lesser people to bypass the most important lessons that social beings must learn to coexist with each other. Too often had the dragon been forced set its claws upon the paths of power-mad sorcerers.
When travelling between two far places a person should experience the strain and tiredness that resulted from the journey. To simply teleport in an instant was to rob the person of a valuable life-experience. That was why Bahamut did not simply warp Yura directly to the Light Warriors' vicinity. Instead he found a nice overgrown spot in the wilderness that led through much difficult terrain before crossing the heroes' trail a few miles south of the Spider Marsh.
It was also possible for Bahamut to simply destroy the Four Fiends himself, without even needing to leave his domain. But that would do nothing to help prepare the four heroes for their final journey. Once the Light Warriors followed the Defiler's trail into the past, they would be outside Bahamut's area of influence. More fitting that it should be this way, regardless. Bahamut disliked shortcuts, and when a Free Spirit dislikes something it is comparable to the most wroth-filled loathing of a regular mortal. This game of fate was meant to be challenging; Bahamut would not have it any other way.
The dragon servants were native to this world, unlike their master. Bahamut was not proud of the fact that they'd come to revere him as a god. True, he possessed many of the qualities that mortals come to expect of their deities, but it did not fit him to claim credit for the evolution of the sentient dragon race.
”Oh, lord Bahamut, please grant us your divine guidance.”
How very dissatisfying. This unique species was the most interesting Bahamut had found on this planet - the first dragon race to develop past their savage nature, and discover culture. Seeing them lower themselves like this in his presence was stymieing their growth as a people.
”Do as you please,” was the best advice he could give them, but it seldom satisfied their expectations. Instead he usually gave them simple tasks without any real impact on the fate of the world. ”Investigate the progress of Tiamat's forces around the Lufenian border,” for example, was the kind of advice they liked to hear, though it was a completely pointless objective.
The best course of action a true god could take, Bahamut believed, was to do absolutely nothing. If mortals were given all that they wanted, then how would they ever learn?
Better for mortals to learn responsibility...
Yura had to wonder about their Divine Guide...
There was no doubt that Lord Bahamut was wise and powerful. Only, Yura was coming to question how good his aim was. According to the magical map he'd been given, the monk should be nearly an inch further up than the flashing red dot that represented his location.
He was here on the southern cape of the marshland, and the Light Warriors were there right by the entrance to the Marsh Cave. What were they doing there? Those haunted ruins were one of the most dangerous places in the world, which certainly didn't help Yura's duty to ensure that nothing bad befell them. Oh, why would Lord Bahamut place him in such an impossible situation? He had no hope of reaching them before they entered that horrible place.
Yura was a highly skilled martial artist, and an excellent student. If he had a flaw, it was his inability to perform well under high pressure. Throwing the Way of the Phantom aside, Yura dashed as quickly (and noisily) as he could through the musty overgrown forest towards the Spider Marsh.
The sun had almost completed its trek across the sky by the time a sweaty, gasping young monk, covered in slime and broken branches, finally made his way to empty bog that surrounded the entrance to the Marsh Cave. More than once he misstepped and got his foot sucked into the slimy bog. By the time Yura made it to firm ground his blue outfit was covered with brown dirt and the intricate textures on his headband had started to come unstitched. He allowed himself only a short minute to catch his breath before following the Light Warriors' trail into the darkness.
His fears were confirmed all too soon. Ranks of undead were clustering around the ruined buildings, gathering into a single army. Yura didn't have to guess the reason why the amassed force was determinedly moving inwards. His main concern was how to get past them. The undead didn't even seem to notice him. In fact, not a single one was facing the entrance. Yura realised that his best hope was to distract them, and maybe give the Warriors a chance to escape.
”Hey! You...unkind...bony persons!!” he yelled, shaking his fist. One might notice that monks seldom had much in the way of a vocabulary of swearwords. ”Doers of evil!” was about the best they could manage.
It worked, in a way. A dozen or so skeletons with swords and spears turned away from the army, and came towards him. These, the remains of the front lines, had died in the heat of battle and so carried with them their blood-thirst even in death. They were Blood Bones, and powerful ones at that.
Yura felt a slight twinge of doubt. He wasn't certain if his ability to smash bricks with his hands was comparable to numerous rusty weapons thrust at him with inhuman strength. At times like this, Yura let his faith rest in his training. He silenced his thoughts, and stood ready, awaiting the first strike.
He ducked the skeleton's slashing attack, thrusting the edge of his hand forward from underneath, breaking its spine. Then he threw his weight onto his other hand and sent his heels through the kneecap of both the Blood Bones standing on either side of the one he'd felled first. Adjusted his weight to both hands and backflipped out of the remaining undead's reach, onto his feet. Let them chase him to the nearest wall, then use the vertical surface to bounce off and send a flying kick that shattered the skulls of another three. Land in front of a still-undamaged Blood Bone, raising its sword to strike, dodge the blade and retaliate by bursting through its ribcage. Allow the next two to believe themselves capable of sneaking up on him, and then duck at the last moment so they accidentally attack each other instead.
It was working better now. He was drawing a lot of attention, enough to persuade around fifty of the skeletons to break away and converge upon him. Yura brushed the bone dust off his hands and looked up to see far too many pairs of glowing yellow eyes focus upon him.
His limited range of swearwords prevented him from properly expressing his opinion of the situation. ”Oh, manure,” was about as close as he could get.
The monk found it best to pick up the pace. The loud cracks of bones breaking were all that proved that the battle was still going. The crowd of skeletons was growing too thick to tell if Yura was still going in the middle of it.
Yura grimaced. He was growing exhausted of this. Punching, kicking, head-butting, kneeing and elbowing the armed monsters before they could stick any sharp implements into his body, Yura was closer to despairing than he'd ever been, except for that time he accidentally scratched Master No-Fu's staff.
He couldn't hold them off much longer...
The monk opened one eye. The skeletons standing around him had paused in mid-stabbing. With a sound like a thousand leather boots stamping at once, the army lowered their weapons and turned to face in one direction. Yura experimentally crushed the pelvis bone of the nearest undead, but nothing happened.
Yura slipped out of the cluster and surveyed the skeletons from outside. Something seriously strange was going on. Did this have anything to do with the Light Warriors? Starting to move very cautiously, he began walking. This time he did use the Way of the Phantom. Usually the Way of the Phantom was an ancient stealth-technique that allowed one to blend with the shadows and move with the wind. Having an armlet of invisibility was not necessarily a part of it, but it helped.
”We can't leave him behind!”
Yura heard the voices in the distance. He'd been running silently for nearly half an hour before he found any sign of life in the cave. He moved to the side of the subterranean road, and watched three people come running up the stairway to the deepest level.
”We don't have a choice,” the red-haired man in bronzed armour responded.
”But we can't just...” the woman in the white mage robes complained.
Yura felt honoured. Three of the legendary Light Warriors were standing right in front of him.
”You heard him, Ally,” said the third one, presumably the thief.
”No! I won't leave him behind!” the woman shouted and turned around resolutely.
Yura felt very ashamed for what he did next. To stick his leg out and trip the woman was a cowardly act, and he wished he had time to think of a better way to deter her foolishness. His mission was to keep them out of danger. Though he did not understand why she was so insistent on heading straight back into the lion's den, Yura felt he couldn't allow it.
Fortunately, she wasn't hurt, just more frustrated. The thief and warrior apparently saw no other choice than to grab her and force her to come along with them. After a while she gave up struggling, and Yura watched them leave.
But where could the fourth Light Warrior be? Oh, no! Yura felt his stomach harden as he realised the meaning of the white mage's tirade. The black mage was still in there!
Yura ran again, faster this time. He didn't waste time sneaking around the still standing skeletons, but pushed them brutally out of his way. At last he came to the ruined royal buildings, and witnessed an awe-inspiring scene.
More than a thousand skeletons stood assembled before the steps of a high ruined building. They were all looking up at the dark figure standing alone on the top of the steps. The young man looked like an elf, but had black skin and pure-white hair. He was wearing the traditional robes of a black mage, and his stature was proud.
The monk blinked several times. Some unknown light was getting into his eyes, preventing him from seeing. When he was at last able to adjust to the sudden brightness, Yura found himself in a different place. There were people here. Black elves, just like the one atop the steps stood in revering silence where the skeletons had been. The buildings were different, too. They were whole, and free of dust and cobwebs. Healthy growths of blue moss populated the ceiling, generating a light almost as that of the sun.
”This is my world,” said the youth atop the steps in a loud clear voice, ”as it was.”
Yura suddenly realised that he was being spoken to. The leader's eyes were looking away from the assembly, at him.
”Yes, I can see you, monk,” he said. ”Won't you join me?”
Not knowing what else to do, Yura approached. The people stepped aside to let him through, but kept their gaze upon the speaker.
”What do you think?”
”About what?” Yura asked nervously. He'd removed his invisibility armlet as he climbed the steps. There didn't seem any point in keeping it on, and that way he could at least see his own feet.
”This is your home?”
The youth smiled sadly. ”In another world, yes. Though I have no memory of it, I can feel the familiarity lingering in this lost city of the dead.”
”What is your name?” Yura asked. The black mage robes were causing him to be suspicious.
”My name is Rand. Light Warrior. I'm the bitchy one,” Rand grinned.
”What's happening here?”
”This is their memory.” Rand nodded towards the crowd. ”My being here has got them remembering the good old days. Xaraphima in its prime, the grand capital of the Drow. This is the Marsh Cave looked like before the Black Shroud came.”
Yura breathed in. He knew more than enough about the cloud of evil. Looking down at the thousand sad faces he felt the terrible despair that permeated this place, and the loathing that bound these poor souls to the cold hard world of the living.
”That's right,” said Rand, reading his expression. ”For two hundred years they haven't been able to get over their deaths. I'm here to help them.”
”H-how?” Yura didn't know why, but the way the black mage spoke caused him to shudder.
Rand looked a little too self-confident. ”I've sworn to settle the conflict between the two elf races, and punish the true villain behind their downfall.”
”But what if you can't?”
”Then they can have my soul. It's not like I ever really needed, so it's a fair deal, right? Geeze, I'm kidding. What's wrong with you?”
”Ah, nothing.” Yura felt his throat go dry.
Rand walked to the edge of the steps. Yura could see how the Drow below followed his every movement with their eyes.
”There's a key to ending their imprisonment. If their last surviving descendant forgives the light elves of his own free will, then their souls will be free from this rotten place. They want to speak with him, and I'm going to be their link to the outside.
”Relax, I don't mind it. Call it my duty to king and country, or whatever. I don't need an excuse; I'm doing this because I want to!”
”You'd willingly let yourself be possessed?” asked Yura, who wasn't as dim as he might come off sometimes.
”Why not? I'm sure wet mage won't even notice the difference. And those two muscle-heads are happy as long as they get to kill monsters along the way.”
It was strange that Rand sounded perfectly happy as he insulted his companions. Was he angry with them, or was it merely in his nature to taunt his friends?
Yura didn't know what to do. He was supposed to protect the Light Warriors, but not interfere with their quest. How could he let the black mage risk allowing his soul to be swallowed by invasive ghosts, even if it were of his own choice?
”You know, you're damn easy to read, monk-boy?” said Rand. ”Who are you, anyway? Why so worried about me?”
”Ah,” Yura swallowed. How miserable he must look to the great dragon god, to have failed in his mission so soon.
The bright light disappeared so suddenly that Yura was left in total blackness, until his night vision returned. Stumbling around in the dark, his foot found only empty air where the floor was supposed to be. After falling halfway down the long steps, the monk raised his head to find nothing more than thousands of broken bones scattered around the foot of the steps. The buildings looked just as decrepit as they had before, and the black mage was gone.
Yura attempted another swearword.
The monk knew he had no choice but to attempt to at least follow the other three Light Warriors. Hopefully the foolish fourth one would return in time.
Chapter 14: The Saviour of Melmond
Melmond village was little more than a graveyard. The remains of the city walls enclosed a cluster of tombstones and markers, taking up more space than the derelict buildings. On a clear day such as this the streets should be filled with people, but all that greeted Koren upon his arrival was the emptiness of a ghost town. This was grim foreshadowing, he realised. The rot of the Earth wrought famine and plagues to all Man that dwell upon it. If the Earth Fiend was allowed to regain its full power...
The mud-encrusted sign lying on the ground read; ”The Sweet Cherry Inn”. Koren looked up at the dilapidated building. Its muddy walls and boarded-up windows failed to fit the description.
”Ho! Weary traveller seeking refuge!” Koren shouted, hammering on the locked door of the inn.
Koren hoped the villagers wouldn't make too much of a fuss over him. It was understandable that they would be happy to see their long-awaited saviour, but it wasn't as if he were a real hero, just a young man in the right place at the right time.
”Go away!” a hoarse male voice shouted. ”Leave us in peace, you fool!”
”But I have come to aid this village!” Koren shouted back.
”Go back wherever you came from!”
Koren took the loud scraping noises coming from within as a sign that he wasn't going to be able to convince the unseen resident to let him come inside. Maybe he could try the local House of Healing. Unfortunately, according to the description he'd received from the captain of the cargo ship, the location of the Healer's House matched the charred wreckage he came across in the centre of town.
He tried knocking on a few more doors around the village, but the result was the same. Those that dared to respond had nothing to say beyond the lines of ”Go away!” and he soon became tired of listening to heavy furniture being moved to obstruct his presumed breaking and entering. The Melmondians certainly weren't a social group these days. It wasn't even as if Koren could go back to the ship. The captain had warned that they planned to leave port as soon as humanly possible, so they were likely far out to sea by now.
Resigned to being left out in the cold (a warm and humid day, though it were), Koren found a place to rest in the empty village stables, unequipping his gear to take a rest before he set out in search for the Fiend's lair. No sooner had he pulled his hat over his eyes than did he hear the sound of many footsteps outside, as well as a very unexpected voice.
”Excuse me! How dare you address me as such? Do you know who I am!?”
Koren tried to get up in a hurry, accidentally stepped on his cape, and knocked over a stack of old rusty buckets. Only the bucket stacked on top wasn't empty. The red mage didn't care about the commotion he'd just made, as much as the awful sensation of getting splashed by milk several weeks past its expiration date.
”Blimey!” the voice reacted. ”Is there someone there?”
Koren made an effort to regain his composure before the stranger found him. He might have succeeded, if it weren't for the dried-up pile of horse manure, which, naturally, was still fresh on the inside. Hopping on one foot, trying to shake the shit off his boot, and wringing sour milk out of his cape, was how the gentleman found the long-awaited saviour of Melmond.
”I say, are you all right, sir?” asked the man in the expensive suit.
”I'm fine,” said Koren. It was for the best that the red mage wore a red scarf over the lower half of his face, so the newcomer couldn't see his expression.
”Ah, yes. I'm doctor Phillip Christopher Unne,” the gentleman introduced himself. ”And who might, er, you be, good sir?”
Unne was clearly thrown by Koren's clothing. He couldn't tell if the man in red was an upper-class person or a commoner. Mages, by definition, were to be respected, but no one outside of Crescent had ever seen a red mage before.
Because he couldn't imagine a servant of darkness wearing a grass-green bowler hat, Koren didn't attempt to disguise his identity. ”I am Koren of the Crescent Sages,” he said with as much pride as he could summon under the circumstances.
The good doctor immediately lit up, as his brain reached the conclusion that Koren was indeed someone worth his valuable time.
”What are you doing here, Dr Unne?” Koren asked, readjusting his hat.
”As I'm sure you know, I am a renowned professor of higher learning, including archaeology and ancient languages...”
”Yes,” said Koren, who'd never heard of the man before.
”Of course you do. Everyone knows the great Dr Unne,” said Dr Unne unashamedly. ”Well, I've discovered that many ancient Northern civilisations had contacts with our continents sometime in the last two millennia, even building cities as far south as Mt Gulug.”
”Fascinating, isn't it? But what really peaked my interest is the idea that the Lufenians buried one of their skyships somewhere in our part of the world before the Great Divide.”
Koren couldn't prevent himself from laughing. Instantly, as if they were part of his face, Dr Unne's glasses slid down to the tip of his nose. In one calculated movement the doctor pushed his glasses back, as if saying ”Obviously, this sort of thing is far beyond your limited intelligence, so why don't leave the speculation to your peers, wiz me?” Koren tried to assume as straight face. To his mind the idea that the people of the North possessed ships that could fly on the clouds was no more than a wistful children's story.
He knew the reality of the Great Divide, though. According to the history scrolls, the Four Fiends joined forces to destroy all advanced civilisation and sever the connection between the realms of the North and the South. As the story went, the Fiends were forced back to their lair by the Lufenian skyships, where the legendary Light Warriors gave their lives to defeat them. After the Fiends were destroyed, the Lufenians withdrew to their own lands, never to be heard of again. To this day, very little was known about the Northern lands. Any ship attempting to reach the isolated continents would never be heard from again.
”So do your really think a skyship is buried on Melmond Island?” Koren asked, deciding to humour him for the sake of conversation.
”Perhaps.” Dr Unne shrugged. ”All I know at the moment is that the ruins of a Lufenian settlement were discovered during an excavation on this island. I was hoping to discover some engravings or preserved documents that could help lead me to the skyship's location.”
Koren wasn't a believer in coincidences, which was why he needed to ask. ”Where was that excavation?”
”A few miles southwest of here, around the Terra Peninsula.”
”Do you mean the Terra Cavern?”
”Hmm? Why as a matter of fact, I believe I do. Are you a student of archaeology as well, Sage Koren?”
”You might say that. I seems we have a common destination, Dr Unne.”
Dr Unne's next question had to be answered by a lie. The true locations of the Four Elemental Crystals were closely guarded secret, known only the highest dignitaries and magicians. Allowing only for a quick break to restore some sense of style to his clothing, Koren wasted little time convincing Dr Unne to show him his maps and sketches regarding the hidden location of the opening into the Terra Cavern. Naturally, the doctor was not travelling alone, as his type would never stoop so low as to carry their own luggage and equipment. The presence of all of Dr Unne's servants and carriers was enough to persuade the tavern lurker to open his place of business to outsiders - aided somewhat by the doctor's habit of allowing for more tips than he did eye contact.
”Official Sage business,” was the excuse Koren repeated every time he was questioned about his mission. The high secrecy of the Crystal's location was of course one of the most important reasons for his silence, but more than that he was worried about how people would react if it somehow came out that the Four Fiends were returning to life. First the people would flock to Crescent, demanding that they get off their lazy asses and deal with the rising forces of darkness, then they would rally against the Sages for failing to prevent the Wind Fiend and the Water Fiend from regaining their power, and finally total pandemonium would be unleashed once they learned that the third Fiend was even now rotting the earth. Just because the world was steadily being destroyed was no reason for people to start panicking in the streets... -no, actually, it was a VERY good reason to start panicking in the streets, but best to avoid the inevitable bloodshed and people getting trampled underfoot.
After the innkeeper pried his door open, the other villagers began to cautiously emerge from their hiding places. Koren was able to strike up a conversation with a few of the locals, thanks to a handy deck of cards he'd brought along to fight boredom during the long voyage. Through harmless-sounding questions he was able to learn about the decline of this formerly pleasant farming community. A strange disease that sounded disturbingly similar to the Shroud Plague that had claimed his parents' lives was haunting the village. He learned that far too many of the graves that covered every corner of the village belonged to children and infants. The disease seemed to have little effect on the older citizens, while youths and teenagers fell ill within days, never experiencing recovery. When he asked the villagers what they believed was the cause of their curse, he was given an answer far sooner than he'd expected. They said that a vampire had started attacking the village around the same time when the first kids contracted the disease. It came in the night, digging up graves and feasting on the newly dead. Koren remembered at once the wreaths of garlic he'd seen wrapped around the more recent graves, but hadn't paid attention to when he first saw them.
The ancient texts all failed to conclusively describe the appearance of the Four Fiends. Koren could only suspect that the Earth Fiend must have taken the form of a vampire in order to use the villagers to speed its recovery. The fate of Melmond chilled him to the bone. He went at once to tell Dr Unne that he intended to start out for the Terra Cavern at first light tomorrow. The doctor wasn't hard to sway, as he spent most of the following conversation complaining about how the mannerisms of the Melmondians, and how the depressing look of the village gave him the willies.
Koren had every right to feel nervous. For over an hour he lay wide-awake in his room, imagining the dangers he would face come tomorrow.