Ravages of Glory by Josephus
Chapter One The Assailant
Down the spiral stone staircase, through the granite halls and branching corridors, into the circular chasm of the central commune, into the heart of this stone fortress... with some difficulty he made his way, despite the intense spasms of pain pounding in his chest, from wounds still fresh and raw... struggling to stay afoot as the ground shook violently from below.
Bodies were strewn all about the commune. Perhaps he was still groggy from last night, however he felt a pure vacuum of life in the grim site before his eyes, unable to distinguish between the still dying and the myriad corpses which now lined the floor of the great hall... a pool of death... as cold as the blue-gray stones beneath it.
Another tremor jolted the room. He staggered forward toward the center of the commune, the echoes of battle cries and clanking armor from outside resounded eerily through the hallways. The room shook once more, this time with greater ferocity than had been felt before, and he found himself to weak now to even support his own weight, falling to the polished stone floor below. He managed to raise his head up from ground level, reeling from the pain in his chest, and peered around once more, the screams reverberating from without... the silence of death from within. He knew immediately what was occurring... what brought such death and destruction; such screaming, such shaking... such silence.
"...Espers." he said aloud, in little more than a dull whisper.
Suddenly, a new sound came rumbling through, closer and closer... He watched as several dozen swordsmen, archers, mage warriors perhaps (?) jogged past his position, boots clamping, armor clanging... He could only think of the screams that would follow. The screams and then the silence.
Struggling to rise back onto his feet, he now recognized the sounds of a familiar and for all purposes, comforting voice approaching. A scrawny yet commanding figure now stood before him, entirely leather clad, sporting a pair of strong burley boots, a tightly strung layered tunic, a lightweight waist-length cape flapping in back, and his enormous trademark leather gloves, which ran all the way up the man's elbows, and where at least ten sizes too large. Along with his deep hazel eyes, and a mass of frizzled dark hair, the entirety of the man's body was a jumbled mass of various shades of chalky brown and white.
"Tresk..." the man began, with a slightly disapproving gaze at the figure below, offering a hefty gloved hand, which he took gratefully, rising at last to his feet again.
He stood more confidently now, suppressing the pain inside with all musterable might, yet found it impossible not to stagger and sway awkwardly as the commune shook once more.
"You are in no condition to be out here, Sir Tresk!" the leathery man began again, a look of worry and agitation on his face, as he struggled to retain his baring. "Do not worry, this situation... is under control... but it is dangerous for you to be wandering away from bed... you must return the infirmary... do you hear me, Tresk?"
He slowly lifted his head to lock eyes with the man standing before him, letting out a labored gasp of air, and then turning toward the great oaken doors set in the entranceway nearby.
"There are... Espers... I am needed." he at last to let out, clutching his chest in agony once more as another tremor shook through. He staggered backwards a bit, but held his footing, his mind determined to reach the threshold which lie forward.
"Tresk... Tresk!" the man approached him, and finally relenting, "Oh all right... you want to go outside? Fine. At least I allow me to keep you from killing yourself before you reach the exit way..."
The man sighed, taking hold on one of his arms, and placing it over his shoulder. The man carried him to the corridor, kicking the wide oaken doors outward with a leather boot. They both were quickly immersed in the pervading glow of sunlight from above, and the man let him from his grip. He strode forward, now ignoring the cutting pain at the side of his chest, his eyes greeting a truly horrific scene, indeed.
Standing on the lower section of the west promenade, which bisected the south wall, now outside of the complex's inner chamber, he stared back at the plight gripping this stone fortress. Both intrigued and aghast at the site before him, he now walked along the southern rim of the promenade to gain a better point of vantage.
Of the five main towers comprising the upper complexes and defenses of the fortress, two of these, located on the far ends, were now fully engulfed in flames, thick clouds of smoke billowing above, while the scent of black ash and burnt flesh hung in the air. The western tower had collapsed in on itself; an avalanche of stone, dust, and bodies cascaded off the north castle wall, with no signs of life anywhere in the surrounding area. The main central tower was largely in tact, which was relieving to know, as was the eastern tower, on top of which stood a large disk-shaped mirror reflecting back and forth methodically. Directly above him lay eight strategically placed turret platforms, each sporting a mounted heavy crossbow, manned by half or dozen or so soldiers each. Iron crossbow bolts jetted through the air at an elusive foe he had yet to even see.
It was outside of this stone stronghold however, that the real horror unfolded. In an open grassy field near front of the castle, hundreds of foot soldiers could be seen scattering in all directions, while scores more lay dying or wounded on the battlefield. For a brief instant, he saw a large smear of color rip through the air and back again.
"Was this the Esper?"
He was mesmerized by the speed and agility of a creature, which appeared to be enormous in size, watching helplessly as barrages of strange fiery balls of energy rained down upon the unsuspecting troops below. Columns of the soldiers were quickly blown away, vaporized it almost appeared, as the bright orange spheres speeded downward upon their intended victims, then exploding with a tremendous, yet highly concentrated force upon impact, littering the field with dozens of ten-foot wide craters.
Still gazing out onto the expanse before him, he heard the footsteps of the leathery man approaching, and now felt a strange sensation, a hand gripped his shoulder.
"I see you've managed to find your way outside the confines of your bedchamber," he turned around slowly to see the familiar figure of a soldier standing before him. The soldier let out a grin, which he obviously could see as a vain attempt to conceal the pain and worry, sadness and perhaps even fear, which weighed heavily on this warrior.
Standing tall and with unwavering confidence, tattered rectangular shoulder plates rattling with unease, a bloody gash along the right side of his unshaven face, the soldier now removed his hand from his shoulders.
"Gare...!" he began, comforted at the site of his comrade, "How has this happened?" he entreated, almost in tears. "How have the Espers broken through? We are at least one hundred miles from the front lines, are we not…?"
The smile dropped from the soldiers face, now turning to greet the leather clad man who had finally caught up with the two.
"I am TERRIBLY sorry, Sir Garo!" the leathery man pleaded, "But he insisted on coming out here..." another tremor jolted the fortress.
"You needn't worry about it, Rueben," the soldier nodded briskly at the man, now turning again to face him. "We haven't a clue how this Esper has broken so deep past our defenses...undetected," the soldier turned his head at the scorched battlefield below him, "I have never come across an Esper of this power before. It apparently can take flight, my men on the field have been unable to even touch it."
"…And you have no aerial support?" he quickly interjected. The soldier only pointed briefly at a mass of burning wood and cloth.
"I'm afraid Aerothopters aren't capable of much in this situation..." the soldier gripped his arm as the castle was jolted once more. For the first time, he saw a look of hopelessness and despair building in the soldier's eyes.
"This Esper is of incredible determination... and rage. It has taken at least a dozen crossbow rounds in the chest... and appears only further agitated by each injury."
"Perhaps it would be best if Master Tresk retired to the infirmary once more..." the man of leather beckoned him away from the bloody fray.
"Gare, you know what must be done." he let out, ignoring the other man's statement.
“No!” the soldier stated definitively, turning away from him, “I will not resort to such measures.”
"…Be there any sign of reinforcements, Sir Garo?" the man in leather asked, attempting to add some cheerful optimism to the situation.
"Not as of yet..." the soldier stared at the shimmering signal mirror above. "I will gather the remainder of our ground forces and storm the field once more... if our mages can bring the creature to our level... hopefully... we'll manage to subdue it..." the soldier said unconfidently, wiping a ploom of blood from his face.
"Suicide." he let out, scorning the soldier's plan. "You know we have no choice now... there is only one hope to save the fortress... to save the Queen... to save the entire Eastern front!"
The soldier finally turned back to face him, "That's enough, Tresk. I will hear no more of this... the power within that relic is too great for any to wield... It shall NOT be unleashed!"
He stood his ground, now standing fully upright, ignoring entirely the pain within his chest, "I like this none better than you... but dire times call for dire measures... that relic is our only hope!"
The soldier stood, angered slightly at this compromise of his authority, yet kept his calm demeanor, "The force within the item cannot be controlled, even by the mightiest of mage warriors... thousands of lives hang in the balance... I will not damn them by unleashing a power we know nothing of and cannot control," the soldier put a comforting hand on his shoulder, "Your thoughts are not rational, my friend. Your mind is still deluded from the effects your injuries. We shall handle the situation at hand... you should best return to your chamber."
He backed away from the soldier's grip, turning his head toward the field below.
"Look," he beckoned to the soldier.
The soldier obeyed, turning to greet the scene below. There was no more movement on the blood-ridden battlefield... no more scattering of soldiers... no more clanking armor... only stillness and silence. Bodies, hundreds of bodies lined the grassy field, piled in the smoldering craters. The last moans of the dying echoed quietly... and then… silence.
"Is this what you shall lead us to?" he entreated morbidly, still fixated on the outward field, "You said yourself... 'thousands of lives hang in the balance'... is this what shall become of them as well...? Is this what fate shall befall our beloved Queen? Or perhaps humanity itself...?" The soldier remained silent. "These creatures shall not be subdued by cautious strategizing. We have but one final option left-"
"That's enough!" the soldier finally interjected, his face hardening, "I will hear no more of this. You will escort yourself back to the infirmary or I will have one of my men do it for you." The two men locked eyes, both unmoving.
The leather clad man tried to calm the atmosphere a bit. "Perhaps it would be best if-" but he was soon interrupted by the sound of a tremendous roaring from above.
All three gazed up to see the east tower consumed by a dark orange burst, flames spreading outward. Another explosion rocked the tower from below, and all of the men could now clearly see a third fiery ball raging through the sky and impacting the crippled structure yet again, this time delivering a death blow, as the tower swayed, began to collapse from within, stood for a moment, and then toppled over the castle side with an ear shattering CRASH, granite blocks and rubble tumbling in all directions.
The soldier quickly ran toward nearest turret platform and began climbing up the shaft, all the while shouting orders to the men above. He looked up once more to view a ghostly figure streaking through the air just above, with what appeared to be a silvery blade extended from the creature. The Esper swung forward at the platforms, a frenzy of crossbow fire launched in haste, and then a blinding flash cut through the air. He covered his eyes briefly and then turned to hear the shouts of soldiers above as all eight of the turrets came crashing down over the promenade. He shielded himself with his arms and soon found his entire body covered in small stones and thick dust.
Brushing the debris off, and rising to his feet, he looked around desperately for where the Esper had eluded to. A crash came from behind, and he turned once more to view two fiery explosions rocked the south wall.
A scream was heard nearby, one that he immediately recognized, calling out as the carnage continued, "Rueben!" Suddenly, he saw a large leather glove gripping the stone masonry of the south wall from the other side. "Hang on, I'm coming!"
He sprinted towards the wall, the pain in his chest now slowly resurfacing, and grasped the leathery hand with his. "Give me your other hand!" he called out, yet no answer came.
Rising over the edge of the great wall, he suddenly gasped in horror, almost losing his grip. Attached to the leather glove was a blackened and charred skeleton, parts of the corpse still burning, with tattered pieces of leather strewn about its remains.
"Reuben... No..." he gaped horror-struck, and then quickly scrambled backwards, releasing the icy grip from his hands. Another figure now came into view, this one nearly entombed by toppling rubble. "Gare... not you too...!" he ran to the where the soldier lay, unsure of his condition, yet now realizing the sense of urgency to the situation.
"Forgive me," he said aloud to the fallen soldier, heaving his body from the granite stones, and searching through his pockets, eventually gripping a rusted, iron key; he examined the object briefly and then pocketed it himself. He rose to his feet and turned toward his fallen comrade once more, "...but I must do what I believe is right."
With that he started off, but something caught the corner of his eye; he turned around instinctively, and soon found his entire body paralyzed with fear.
"No... It can't be..."
Rising slowly from below the stone ridge, the enormous figure of The Esper stood directly before him. The creature seemed almost human at first, though the true nature of the beast soon came to light. Fully dressed in what seemed to be a thick suit of armor, stopping only at the Esper's head, which seemed demonic and twisted, with huge jagged horns rising from it. The creature held a large rounded shield in his right hand, and a long single-edged sword in the other, which curled with cracks and rivets in its blade, peaking at a sharp piercing point. The Esper seemed to be just as interested in the human figure standing before him as he. However, his more rational side quickly got the better of him, as a small but distinct voice inside commanded, "Run."
He ran. He ran without a second thought away from this creature, looking back only briefly to see the Esper swing his enormous blade, and the blinding silver light that proceeded. He ran back around the promenade, and through the great oaken doors, just as a great tremor rang through the halls, which he could assume had been the south wall collapsing. He waded through the bodies in the commune, and turned to greet a large iron door just off to the side. As another shaking jolted the castle, he pulled forth the rusty key acquired from the soldier, and, his hands shaking with anxiety, a similar key from his tunic. Placing and each in its respective locks, the keys turned themselves, opening the sturdy iron door slowly. Inside stood a square stone room, which light from outside cascaded into, right onto the room's centerpiece, a great wooden treasure chest.
He now moved to stand in front of the chest, slightly hesitant to unleash a power, as the soldier had accurately put it, which he had no means of controlling. The violent shaking of another tremor from underneath quickly belayed this doubt.
"Thousands of lives..." the soldier's words echoed in his head.
Extending an arm outward, he opened the palm of his hand, calling forth, "I call upon thee..." he thought for a moment... "Er... Re- Rema... Ra- That's it!" he let out, triumphantly, "Ragnarok!" At this, he fully expected, as had occurred the last time he summoned the great weapon, for the great sparkling blade to emerge from its wooden chamber and rest at his palm... but now the chest was still, completely unmoving. He stood there, arm still outstretched, and called out again, "I call upon thee! Ragnarok!" Still, his words had sparked no reaction from the object. He yelled out once more, this time almost in desperation, "Ragnarok! I CALL UPON THEE!" he fell to his knees, stunned and unsure how to proceed. Another quake shook the castle, and to his amazement, the wooden chest opened, falling off one of its hinges, covered in scorch marks and splinters from within. It was empty.
He stood up, shocked at the site in front of him. "This weapon... this savior... gone...? It cannot be..."
Suddenly, from above a great crashing came, as the entire stone ceiling was unroofed with a silvery flash. A dark creature flew past, and he noticed briefly the tail of a fiery energy ball speeding right towards him. He ran from the square room just as a great orange explosion engulfed his surroundings. In desperation, he tried to shield himself by slamming the iron door shut, but the blast shot both the door, and him, hurdling backwards.
He landed on his back, as small tentacles of pain worked their way through his body; he cried out in agony as they reached his chest, shaking profusely. Gritting his teeth hard, he managed to grasp a small glass vile hanging from his belt, uncapping it and drinking the white fluid inside. The pain subsided, but he could no longer feel the left half of his body.
With some difficulty, he dragged himself along the stone floor back into the commune, where he perched his head upon the coldness of the granite wall, sweat dripping from his face, and simply lay there, unmoving. The great hall shook once more for several seconds, which he imagined was the sound of the central tower collapsing, and then silence fell. "The Esper has entered the castle..." he told himself, yet it seemed really to matter little. He knew not who, if anyone had survived the assault, yet that as well did not occupy his thoughts for long.
Lying there, amongst the many corpses and bodies of the commune... this was a scene he by now knew all too well, yet had never become accustomed to it... he could never get used to a scene so horrific... so silent.
"What have I become...? Am I just as they... just a pawn to this wretched war...?" he pondered, "When will it end? If ever...? How many more friends must I lose...? How many more battles shall be fought and mass graves dug before these creatures are vanquished...? Or perhaps it is we who shall be defeated... perhaps then might peace resound...? Peace in death, yes! But must there always be death to achieve peace?"
His head began to spin; such questions had troubled him before, but he knew there was no escaping the harsh reality before him... This was his life now... and perhaps would even be his death.
As darkness fell from outside the stonewalls, his thoughts turned away from the future... away from the pain and suffering it held... and to the past... which once... he recalls... did hold a shred of sanity to it...?
He thought of how he came to this point in life... how this war had all began... Had it been months now... years? It didn't matter. He thought back, before this war which had consumed his world, enslaved his existence, tortured him from within.... This war for which only death and pain and silence have come... This war fought between humanity and the creatures known as Espers... This war of madness... of futility...
This War of the Magi.
Chapter Two The Proposal
Two years prior...
A single ray of sunlight, blotted out by earlier clouds of the day, now shone down from the heavens, passing through the stone castle window into the chamber where a solitary figure dwelled, deep in thought.
Treskyn lay on his stomach on top of the fair silk carpet which laced the floor of his dormitory. Three or four open books and manuscripts lay about, the boy skimming the pages of a particularly large volume. He read but had no passion for this study, day-dreaming whilst lazily reading through texts of history, social theory, the arts and sciences.
The radiant light from outside ran quickly across the small chamber, blinding the boy mockingly as he read, beckoning the lad to greet the day outside while he knew his confinement inside these stonewalls to be absolute. How he wished he could escape this captivity, to walk freely under the open bright sky, as everyone else was able.
No, he wasn’t a prisoner; at least, not in the traditional sense.
He was the nephew of King Sabil, ruler of the greatest and mightiest kingdom known to all the five continents, Sabylia. Treskyn’s father had served as Chancellor to the king before he had died while the boy was still very young, which made Treskyn, at the tender age of 17 now, Crown Prince of the Chancellery. He was to take on his father’s position in less than one year’s time.
It hadn’t been an easy life for him, though. Treskyn grew up in tenure of sheltered nobility, studying constantly, making few friends and seldom engaging in normal social endeavors; he rarely ventured outside the walls of the castle, Koltsgard. The boy had spent many a night yearning to taste the same freedom the common folk out there took for granted, to savor the ability to fulfill one’s heart’s content. But it’s not as though he had a lot of say in the matter.
“Enough of this.” he said aloud, discarding the still open book and exiting his dormitory chamber.
The boy walked along the narrow stone hallway to where it bisected the wide flat of the castle’s main promenade. He casually glanced around, noticing a few guards milling about, and eventually recognizing one armor-clad individual who moved toward the youth as he entered the hall.
“Tresk!” The lightly armored guardsman jogged the rest of the way to greet the visitor. He was beaming with pride.
“Geez... Gare, look at you...” Treskyn examined his friend’s new attire. “A full-fledged soldier now, huh?”
The swordsman only smiled.
Garo was a year older than Treskyn, and had spent the last seven years of his life in knight apprenticeship. He was also the only friend the prince had to speak of, and given his present condition, Treskyn was mad with jealousy.
The boy shook his head, almost disbelieving. “You made it through, Gare...” He stopped for a second. “You don’t know how much I’d give to have what you’ve got, my friend.” Treskyn grinned, with a touch of irony.
Garo laughed a bit at that last comment. “What are you talking about Tresk? Heck, you’re the Crown Prince Chancellor. I’m just a soldier...” The boy still said ‘soldier’ with an obvious tone of haughty disdain.
“Just a soldier...” Treskyn echoed his friend’s statement. “Well look, it’s not worth getting into. I’m happy for you Gare, I really am.”
“Thanks, Tresk.” Garo pulled off a silver-buckled glove, “It’s been a really exciting day so far. I keep thinking... remember when we were kids, little kids? And we used to dream about being knights in the king’s army when we grew up, and-” He stopped, noticing the look on Treskyn’s face, “Er... I mean...well, never mind...”
Treskyn tried to change the subject, “I’m sure you’ll make a fine soldier Gare. You never had any trouble taking me down.” Treskyn took up a fighting stance for a second; both boys laughed.
“Well look, I’ve got to run. Technically, I’m still on duty. I’ll catch you tonight or something, okay?”
Treskyn only nodded in response and raised a hand to wave, but turned it into a two-finger salute as the soldier turned and walked briskly down the rest of the promenade.
The boy strode across the great hall to a nearby doorway which led outside to an overlooking balcony. He followed the path before him and gazed out upon the city below, the castle towers and stonewalls above and around; he felt the warm summer breeze across his face and looked longingly to the myriad houses, streets and buildings strung about below.
Then, something caught his attention. Along the outer walls of Koltsgard, the boy saw something, no some one trying to ascend the outer fortifications and climb into the main courtyard.
He reached into his left tunic pocket and took out a small, telescoping eyepiece, which he extended and gazed into at the valiant soul below.
It was a girl. Not just any girl, though, Treskyn noted. This was a girl of a beauty the boy had never seen before, with the fairest milky white skin, a slim figure, exotic, silky shoulder-length golden hair, and the deepest, most radiant blue-lavender eyes he had ever seen. Treskyn could feel his heart beating away in his chest.
“That’s the most gorgeous creature I’ve ever seen... Goddess herself could not rival such beauty...” The boy felt his thoughts and his heart melt away in the presence of this girl, this girl with the eyes that could turn a man to ice if she so wished it.
And then, she was gone.
Treskyn was startled by the girl’s sudden disappearance and darted the eyepiece frantically around the area where she had last been.
“Argh! Where’d she go!?”
The boy heard footsteps approaching and quickly turned around to see a servant fully clad in leather standing before him across the balcony threshold, whom he had immediately recognized by the squeak of his leather boots as he approached.
“Oh, Reuben, what’s up?”
Treskyn pocketed the eyescope behind his back.
“Forgive me, Master Treskyn, but I’m afraid your... bird watching will have to wait for another time, as your presence is requested in the dining hall.”
He bade the boy follow him back inside onto the promenade, which Treskyn quietly obeyed. He grinned to himself.
Candlelight radiated from either side of the dining hall, and a gold-laced chandelier illuminated the enormous table below, which was the centerpiece of this great chamber.
The dining table was a long, rectangular wooden frame with wide convex outer wings on both of the long sides, designed to accommodate a fairly large number of people at once. Here, only the highest regarded individuals of the realm dined; everyone from delegates to the King’s top advisors, ambassadors from Thamas and Albryk and Crescyn and every known kingdom and city-state on the five continents, every human civilization known had a representative at that table, save only for the roaming tribes of Domania. All of them, some forty in number, would dine at here, in this chamber, at this table.
At the far end of the table sat the king and queen, easily visible from every other angle of seating (though as of now, those seats lay vacant). To right of the king, where the long edge of the oval semi-circle began, sat the Knight General, Sir Drake. He was a largely built man with three or more decades of experience behind him and a stoic sense of duty toward his position. Drake was also one very intimidating figure; the man kept a trimly cut beard that hung on his round face, and was the only one of the king’s high officers who insisted on wearing his full battle garb while in the dining hall, the bulky armor gleaming while he ate.
To the left of the queen, in a similar position to Sir Drake, sat the kingdom’s only mage, a sorcerer named Murdock. He was a quite, mysterious man, dressed in fine robes of various shades of metallic blue. The man was also completely bald, the only hair noticeable on his head being a pair of thin, but unusually long black eyebrows which curled upwards the ends. Murdock seemed to have an attitude of intent indifference towards everything that came by him, never showing influence of anger or fear, happiness or contentment.
The seat at the opposite end of the dining table was usually reserved for the Chancellor, but seeing as that title would not befall him for another ten months or so, Treskyn sat now in an obscure position somewhere amongst a throng of delegates and diplomatic envoys. He wasn’t even sure why he attended the dining sessions; Reuben had called it an ‘exercise in social etiquette’, though the boy would certainly have preferred a more traditional form of exercise considering his likely confinement to that table for a good two hours.
Treskyn took a swig of mead from his goblet, noting the light air of conversation around him. He could not recall having ever, during the course of this nightly ritual, actually having spoken anything. It’s fair to say the boy probably assumed his voice was not valued here, his opinion not respected by the other attendants. And it’s fair to say that this was probably so. But after a few minutes at most, a silence came over the chamber, dwarfed only by the resonance of a single voice.
“In the name of His Majesty, King Sabil, this banquet is hereby come to commence,” the voice of a food servant called out shrilly, his well-rehearsed statement meeting with scattered applause.
Then, from a side doorway, flanked by two more servants, the King and his wife entered, arms locked together, striding to their seats gracefully, while everyone else present rose in respect.
King Sabil was dressed in his usual fine royal robes with gold trimmings, a jewel-encrusted, open-faced crown adorning his head. The king was a large man, though still fit and able, impressive in stance and presence. His accompanying partner, Queen Sabil wore an eloquent silver silk gown, her long, flowing brown hair bundled in its usual fashion, highlighting her dolled up face.
She was beautiful, Treskyn had always thought to himself, but unimpressive tonight, at least compared to the girl he had seen in the courtyard a few hours ago. She still languished in the back of his mind, he realized, taking another drink from his goblet.
There was something unusual about tonight’s proceedings though. While everyone else had sat in their places, the king remained standing, his eyes scanning the expression of the assembled guests. Eventually, a long silence developed, all eyes turning toward the ruler in anticipation.
“Countrymen...” he began at last, “Honored guests...” the king bowed respectfully at the entourage of ambassadors. “...After much personal contemplation and deliberation, I have made a decision, which I believe shall ensure this day to be remembered as an historic point for all mankind; I am truly grateful to be able to say I have had you all in my company.” King Sabil sat down now, and after a short pause, continued with his oration.
“The kingdom of Sabylia is the most powerful and prosperous nation this world has ever known; we’ve built great cities and expanded our borders, tamed the farthest frontier and enjoyed a peace throughout the realm since the days of my grandfather. Truly a golden age, my friends...”
At this point, Treskyn had put his attention elsewhere entirely; he knew very well of the King’s ability to ramble aimlessly into the night hours. The boy had instead pulled out a quill from his pocket and was trying to draw a rendition of the blue-eyed girl on a napkin in his lap. He struggled to recall her image, her slender torso, her creamy skin, the grace with which she scaled the castle wall...
“...But all of it, all of it my compatriots is for naught, for we are ignorant of the world which we claim to dominate.” The king paused briefly and emptied his mead goblet in one motion, “...There is another realm within our own. Another world we know next to nothing of, yet has a potential for knowledge, wealth, and even power, that is simply incalculable, but has remained untapped since long before the Sabil dynasty rose to grandeur. But I intend to change all of that, friends. No longer shall we remain isolated from and unknowing of the world which is known by men to be the land where reside the Espers.”
At this, everyone present in the dining hall flinched a little, including Treskyn, who now paid devout attention to the sovereign’s words.
“Espers…?” the boy thought to himself, recalling his studies. “Magical creatures, created by the Goddesses as instruments of war, millennia ago... What would the king want with them?”
“There is much we can gain from these beings, these people,” he continued on, “Which is why I have offered invitation for one of them to join use here, in Koltsgard.”
A frenzy of conversation erupted after the king’s statement, which quieted down slightly as the ruler gazed upon them once more. One individual could not contain himself, however.
“Sire, are you SERIOUS in this pursuit!?” one of the delegates cried, leaping to his feet.
“I speak with the utmost serious of intentions, good sir,” the king replied, “We can no longer allow ourselves to be...” but his voice was drowned out by the shouts of another.
“Majesty, with all due respect, what you are proposing is madness!” Sir Drake rose from his seat, interrupting the king as he spoke. “These Espers... they are demons, terrible creatures. We cannot allow them into our fair and noble kingdom, let alone the capitol. These beasts are not to be trusted!”
King Sabil looked up at the armor-clad Knight General, waiting until he had finished, and then replying, in a very calm demeanor, “You speak with the prejudices of our times, noble sir. But tell me, Sir Drake, have you ever actually seen an Esper? Have you for yourself witnessed the claims which you so readily dispense?”
Several tense seconds passed by in utter silence.
“...No, majesty, I have not.” The soldier slumped into his seat again. “But if I may so entreat, sire; have you?”
“Nay, I have seen no more of the creatures as yourself, my good knight,” the king shifted his gaze to the left as he spoke, “There is only one among us who has. Perhaps he can enlighten us to the truth of the matter.”
Everyone present knew of whom the king referred to. They all watched as, slowly but gracefully, the mage-lord Murdock rose to his feet and stood. In a calm and eerily quiet voice, he responded.
“I have spent eight long years living in the kingdom of Thamas, where Espers and humans have forged a peaceful coexistence which has lasted for centuries. The Espers are creatures of great power; yet possess a hesitance to exercise it. All mages have been trained in that land, among those creatures, and have enriched the well being of the kingdoms which they return to afterwards. It is not in their [the Espers’] nature to deceive, and I’m sure, as the ambassador of Thamas will confirm, they mean no harm upon humankind or us.”
The Thamasian envoy only nodded in response. Murdock sat.
“You see?” the king began again, “We have only to gain from this experience... Now, the Esper emissary will be arriving within three days’ time, and I expect preparations to be fully made to Koltsgard before then...”
While the king spoke, Drake, infuriated by his dishonor, threw down his cloth napkin, rose from his seat and left the dining table.
Treskyn wondered why the king tolerated this kind of disrespect, as he continued speaking as if nothing had occurred.
“A ceremony for the arrival will be arranged, and I hereby decree that our guests shall be respected as you would regard myself or the queen in a similar situation…”
Quietly, the sorcerer Murdock also departed from his seat and quickly made his way to where Drake stood near the chamber exit. He tapped a hand on the knight’s shoulder plating and whispered something inaudible into his ear. They both left the dining hall.
The king stopped, “I trust there are no further concerns?”
One of the delegates stood and addressed the assembly. “Forgive me, sire; we will carry out your will if you so decree it...” The king nodded approvingly at this. “However, many of us are uneasy due to the fact that the Oracle of Tyr prophesied many years ago that if the creatures of magic ever returned to Koltsgard, the kingdom of Sabylia will fall to ashes…”
Solemn nods came from many of the assembled as the delegate finished.
A long pause followed, ending as the king finally laughed aloud at what had been said. “Is this what upsets you all so? Why, the Oracle has not been consulted for decades; fate may be altered as time progresses, mind you.”
“Sire,” the delegate spoke again, “The Oracle has never been wrong.”
“...Then perhaps the Oracle’s message was misinterpreted.”
Treskyn followed the conversation closely, thinking to himself, as another long pause followed, none among them willing to speak.
“…W-Well, perhaps some one should consult the Oracle again!” the 17-year-old boy cried out, rising to his feet. All eyes suddenly turned on him, and Treskyn suddenly felt a bit uneasy about his sudden outcry. But he couldn’t back down now.
“M-Majesty,” the boy turned to address the thoroughly frustrated king, “I volunteer to ride to the caves of Tyr and ask the Oracle of the true fate that awaits.”
Another commotion stirred up with the boy’s statement. Treskyn tried desperately to retain his composure.
“This boy?” the delegate still standing let out a disgusted laugh, “We are to entrust the fate of the mightiest nation among the five continents to an incompetent child such as this unseasoned lad?”
Ouch. Treskyn suddenly felt as though his surroundings had become very hot, and he found himself sweating profusely, wishing to the Goddesses he hadn’t spoken out…
“This boy,” King Sabil began, rising from his seat, “Is to become the Chancellor of this kingdom, and I suggest you all bay him his fair entitlement of respect.” The king gave a harsh stare at the delegate, whom had already sat back down.
“Treskyn,” the boy flinched as the king addressed him by name, “Nephew, I have watched you long since your father’s death. You have grown much, young one, matured physically as well as mentally.”
Treskyn could only manage a nod in response, but listened intently.
“I believe it would be a fine test of your character and ability for you to embark on this journey. Go you to Tyr, and speak to the Oracle of the caverns. Ask what is the fate of my kingdom and myself.”
At these words, Treskyn couldn’t help but smile widely and proud. “It will take me two days hence to arrive, Sire.”
“Then I suggest you depart immediately.” The king’s tone turned earnestly serious once again.
“As you wish, my liege...”
From within the darkness, five solitary shapes moved effortlessly forward into the circular cavernous chamber, the very center of their world, practically gliding as they went, through the blackened scene.
From above, a bright luminance lighted the room below where the five patron Espers stood in council, forming a pentagonal circle in their stance. On a separate elevated platform within view, the three Goddesses of creation stood, motionless, entombed for all eternity within their stone frames.
On the far left side of the council assembly stood Odin, leader of the warrior Espers. Next to him was Ramuh, elder of the elementals. To right stood Necromancer, lord of the dead and death stricken Espers. Across from Odin lay Bahamut, king of dragons and beast Espers. And at the head of the assembly stood Freyja, Esper of beauty and serenity, she was the fairest of the Espers; and though their society had no one ruler, all looked to her for guidance, held her word above that of any other.
An eerie light emanated from within each of the magical creatures, turning the chamber into a brilliant glowing hall worthy of the admiration of any Goddess.
"...It is time..."
Freyja's remark resounded across the chamber, her calm and eloquent voice retaining the attention of every Esper in attendance. A brief silence followed, and then one voice rose from the others.
"Mistress Freyja, are you certain this course of action is of the strictest wisdom...?" the loud, booming voice of the warrior Odin queried. His inquiry was followed by a further silence, as all eyes gazed upon the fair Esper beauty, awaiting her response.
"Patron warrior, your concern is admirable, but unwarranted." A smile came upon Freyja's face as she spoke. "We have been invited to attend the court of the highest human realm. There is much I believe our two parties can benefit from each other, and are granted now an opportunity to examine the humans as has never been possible. It would be unwise to turn down such an opportunity."
"The humans are a vile, belligerent race, who seek the destruction of that which they do not understand or control," hissed the voice of the death Esper, Necromancer, "I sense much death from them. Leave them to their primitive and violent ways."
Murmurs of agreement were heard from all those present, save for Freyja herself, who retained her impressive composure and spoke out now to address their concerns.
"My brothers," she began, looking each of them over individually," Our fears and ignorance of the outside realm are no justification for furthering our isolation from it, am I not correct?" Silence was their only response. "In every new discovery, every new endeavor, there lies a danger to those who chose to follow untrodden paths. But if we allow ourselves to be consumed by our petty fears and misgivings, allowing what we do not understand to remain so, then are we any better than the humans whom supposedly embody such flaws...?"
“I would not call it fearfulness, Mistress, but better judgment” the wise and reasoned voice of the elder Esper Ramuh called out. “I am not certain our two peoples were made to inhabit the same world.” The others nodded as he spoke.
“History has shown us that different as our cultures may be, we are capable of seeing beyond the face value of any individual, human or Esper,” Freyja motioned her arms in an outward gesture as she spoke. “In Thamas, our two peoples have lived side-by-side for centuries without incident. And we have gained an invaluable understanding of the other world in that progression. Please understand me, I myself must go; I accept the accompanying risks, but my heart is set on this recourse.”
It was obvious her stance was unwavering and could not be shaken by the others, all of whom worshipped the word of Freyja.
“If you must, fair Mistress,” Odin stepped forward as he spoke, “Please allow me to accompany you, to ensure no harm comes to the fairest among us. Allow I, the warrior Esper, to escort you to the human realm.” He bowed.
Freyja put a hand on Odin’s enormous left shoulder, “If it does so please you, patron of warriors, you may accompany me.”
Odin rose from his stance and stepped backwards, “I swear by the Goddesses to ensure the protection of our fair Mistress Freyja from harm. The Esper Maduin shall take my place during this absence, as chieftain of the warrior clan.”
“Then all is settled. We depart for the human world immediately.” As she finished, darkness fell upon the chamber of council once more, and the high Espers of their world parted, knowing in truth that the seeds of a new age had been sewn, the nature of which however, was still a mystery.
“You’re going where?”
The knight’s tone of apprehension had risen steadily throughout the evening.
“I told you, Gare,” Treskyn responded, stuffing a wool overcoat into his pack as he spoke, “I’m riding tonight for the southern caves of Tyr to meet with the Oracle of Sabylia.”
Garo frowned, “But... you can’t do that... I mean, what if something happened to you? They’ll be no heir to the chancellery and...” He stopped as the other boy shot him a look of disdain.
“I thought you were my friend,” Treskyn retorted, tightening the strap of his pack shut, “Not my mother.”
The soldier shook his head. “It’s a dangerous world out there, Trek... And you’ve responsibilities here... Maybe you should leave this to a trained knight, or at the very least let me accompany you there so that if anything should happen...” He decided not to finish that thought. “I mean, just at least listen to reason, Tresk, we’re both...”
“No, YOU listen,” a now angered Treskyn cut him off, throwing his pack to the ground. “You don’t know what’s it like, do you Gare? Having to sit in this castle, this stone prison for practically my entire life.” A brief silence followed. “You think it was easy for me? Watching my best friend go off and become a soldier, out there training and fighting monsters, while I was confined to studying day in, day out... I never wanted to be Chancellor... I envied what you had, Gare,” the boy’s voice calmed a bit as he spoke, “And I hope you can understand why I have to do this.” Treskyn picked up his fallen pack and slung the leather strap around his shoulder.
Garo was dumbstruck. “I... I never knew you felt that way, Tresk...” He looked to the ground, “I’m sorry... You must do what your heart compels you to do.”
Treskyn grinned, “Thanks, Gare. I know you’re just looking out for me like you always have. But anyway, it’s king’s orders.”
“You’ll miss the Esper, you know,” the soldier replied half-jokingly, returning the boy’s grin.
“Somehow I think I’ll manage.” Treskyn stood and turned for the door.
“Hey Tresk,” the soldier rose to his feet again, “Be careful, okay?”
Treskyn winked at his friend. The boy turned one final time, and, gear in hand, walked through the stone threshold into the night.
The night air was still and hung in silence. The pale moonlight radiated from above, lighting the courtyard enough so that the girl could catch every detail of it. She sat atop the outer wall, watching below as a solitary figure moved along a stone pathway away from the castle.
He was a boy, young, but on the fringes of maturity; about her age. He was wearing the finest travel garb she had ever seen: a finely sewn tunic which fit every contour of his body perfectly, fanning out at the shoulders, with a flapping half-cape on the back, a large pack strapped across his torso. He walked briskly, yet smoothly, as if having trod the same path an hundred times before.
She found him attractive; the boy was physically fit, tall and lean, with wavy, well-groomed blonde-brown hair, deep green eyes, and a sharp, well-proportioned face. She recognized him as the one who had watched her sneak into the courtyard from above.
After the youth had passed out of sight, the girl stood and moved silently along the wall’s top edge, toward the castle entrance. Suddenly, she felt her feet slip from underneath her, as she tripped over an unseen rock, hitting the stone below with a loud thud.
Small rocks scattered down the wall face as she rose again to her feet, and then ducked down, hearing footsteps approaching.
“Hey! Some one’s up THERE!” a guardsman yelled from a nearby watchtower to two other soldiers patrolling the courtyard grounds.
The guards quickly looked up and saw the figure of the blue-eyed girl crouching atop the wall perimeter. They ran for a nearby stairwell to her location.
Realizing her cover had been compromised, the girl ran to the far side of the wall and began to descend it from the outside, climbing down the stone face, using cracks in the masonry as footholds. She jumped to ground level a few feet from the bottom of the wall, and quickly disappeared into the night.
Treskyn halted his forward movement upon reaching a tall wooden doorway in his path, the entrance to a large rectangular building which glistened in the moonlight from above. The boy set down the pack he had been shouldering until now and rummaged through it, eventually coming upon a metal key, which he used to unlock the doorway before him. He re-slung the pack, pushed the wooden frame open and stepped into the lighted chamber within.
The boy walked through a long hall. On either side of him stood rows of fenced off stables, hay strewn all about; he could hear the occasional squawks of the chocobos who inhabited them as he passed.
At the end of the hallway, a particularly large pen stood, which Treskyn opened the gate to and let himself in. Under the dim lamplight, a young male bird could be seen sleeping near the far corner. The boy cautiously approached the chocobo, which jumped up rapidly upon spotting him.
“Hey, calm down there, Choki,” Treskyn called out to the bird, stroking its forehead.
The giant yellow bird let out a squawk as the boy fastened his pack to the creature’s back. Treskyn then turned his attention to a long wooden chest near another corner, partially covered with straw. He brushed the chest off and opened the cover, revealing a shimmering, polished sword within. The boy took the blade in hand, feeling its balance and grip, noting the ease with which it sliced through the air.
The sword had been forged for his father, but finished after he had died, thus falling to the hands of his only son. Treskyn had kept the blade hidden in the chocobo stable and came here secretly at night to practice wielding it. He was a self-taught swordsman, and this was the only weapon he had ever known.
The boy slung the blade in a leather mooring on his back and led the now anxious Choki from his pen, out the stable doorway and into the night.
Under the moonlight, Treskyn reexamined his belongings and tightened the pack onto the chocobo one last time. He turned to lead the bird down through the city streets, but paused and glanced around toward the castle, having heard a noise emanate from that direction. It sounded like a scream.
Then the boy saw movement; a girl on the far side of the courtyard wall was rounding a corner at full sprint, two guards pursuing her from not far behind. He only caught a momentary glimpse of her, but immediately recognized the girl as the one he had spotted earlier. The blue-eyed girl he couldn’t get his mind off of.
Without a second thought, Treskyn mounted the chocobo and rode off at a blinding pace toward the scene. He reached the outer wall and drove the bird right for the guards, stopping directly in their path. The soldiers nearly fell over backwards as the chocobo reared up in front of them.
“Hey you! Get out of the way!” one of the guardsmen bellowed, breathing heavily with fatigue.
“Sorry chaps,” Treskyn began, still blocking their passage, “He does get a bit excited around people.” The boy patted Choki on the neck.
Treskyn then spun the bird around and, extending his own leg, kicked one of the guards in the stomach, knocking the man onto his back. Noticing the other soldier was now brandishing a short sword, the boy pulled out the blade from his back and swiped low at the guardsman’s feet, knocking him to the ground with his comrade in one fell swoop.
The young man grinned at his success, but realized that time was now of the essence, as several more soldiers could be heard emerging from the castle barracks. He rode round the west side of the courtyard wall at a steady pace and then stopped alongside a figure crouching against the stone face. It was the girl.
She was still as beautiful as Treskyn had remembered her to be. Her deep lavender eyes glowed like the moon under the night sky, her fair golden hair resting on her sloping shoulders. She wore a suit of tight silk fabric, nearly the shade of her creamy white skin, with dark leather trimmings. He could tell by her expression, she was frightened.
“Come with me, there’s not much time,” the boy reached his hand towards her, still mounted on the chocobo.
She didn’t respond, but remained still, holding her knees close to her chest in fear.
Treskyn swallowed, hearing the clanging of iron armor growing ever closer. “It’s okay, I’m a friend.” He smiled, motioning his hand closer.
Reluctantly she rose to her feet, but didn’t move from her position.
“Are you headed south...?” she asked, her words hesitant with apprehension.
The boy was puzzled as to why she was so concerned with their destination under the present conditions. “Yes! South! Where ever you want, but we have to get moving now!”
Spotting a garrison of soldiers round the corner, she quickly took the boy’s hand and mounted herself behind him on the chocobo. Treskyn felt a bit uneasy as he felt the girl’s arms grip around his stomach for support, but retained his equilibrium and rode hard and fast from the courtyard, leaving the pursuing soldiers in the dust.
They rode down the center street of town; darkness falling as passing clouds eclipsed the moonlight. The three of them reached the city’s edge, passed under the immense stone arch which was its entrance, and jaunted out into the open countryside.
Treskyn smiled, noticing the girl’s head resting on his shoulder, asleep. He rode the chocobo more slowly so as not to wake her. Noting the position of the stars visible, he headed southward. The great towering city behind them soon appeared small and diminutive as they made distance from it and rode into the night.
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 few hundred miles 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. That 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 or so 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 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 relics 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 light source.
“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 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 moon, and it’s trying to get back to its homeland before the solstice.”
At this, a flurry of conversation erupted in hot deliberation of the mysterious crystalline object’s origins. After this began to quiet a little, Lethe stepped forward, text still in hand.
“Look, the answer to this riddle isn’t going to be found in shear speculation. 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 procured… each embodying-”
“Now, Lethe, you’re not going to rant on about those 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 magic today. 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?”
Lethe sighed. He set down his text, dismayed, 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’s dangerous!”
“Don’t you all get it?” Lethe began, concentrating intently 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, which threw Lethe backwards onto the floor and shook the entire chamber violently. The stone continued spinning.
“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.
“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.
“But… a little 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 at personal grooming. His face was slightly chubby, but had a look of stringent 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 didn’t mean to cause any damage, or-” But the boy was interrupted again.
“No. Continue your explanation of this stone. And 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 force of the world… and needed to represent every facet and power of that world… so, they procured the Espers from men and other creatures.”
“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 is this?” He motioned toward the stone.
Lethe hesitated for a moment, and then spoke.
“It’s a dead Esper.”
The boys gasped, almost in unison. Ceyvus only laughed and turned back to the shimmering Esper cadaver.
“I believe that will be an excellent segue to begin our lesson today. Lethe, once again, the wisdom of your deductive powers has proven quite impressive,” Lethe smiled proudly to himself. “It’s a shame you only lack common sense when dealing with objects of great magical potency.”
His smile was drowned out by snickers from the other boys.
“This morning I received a letter from Koltsgard, which has now been confirmed as valid,” 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 bid much attention.”
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 that would inspire such exertion.” The stone began to glow and pulsate.
“Yes… it is very clear to me now.” The professor’s spoke as if not with his own voice, but almost as a medium of communication for the magicite stone.
“She is coming.”
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, yellow 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 pale as the moonlight 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.”
“Ah, 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.
“I wanted to see the Esper.” Her eyes gleamed with a kind of youthful hope and giddiness.
“Esper? How did you know about that!?” She turned away.
The boy realized his approach to this inquiry was flawed and overly revealing.
“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. That he would journey to the caves of Tyr to speak with the Oracle.”
“Who told you this?” Treskyn’s confusion was only furthered by her answer.
Chrissa turned away. Then spoke once more.
“The same person who told me the Esper Freyja would visit Koltsgard.”
“Who…?” the boy’s voice reverberated across the valley as he again pressed her for an answer.
“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 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 who normally 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 moments. 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 retain a figure 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, I am hereby promoting you, Mr. Garo.”
Garo stopped in his tracks and nearly fell backwards in shock.
“B-but sir, I’ve only been on the force for a two days! Not that I’m questioning your will or anything, 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 deeply into the young soldier’s eyes. That stare was almost hypnotic. 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 Crown, operating directly under my command.” Garo was silent. “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 stated proudly.
“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 laughed.
“This is no joking matter,” Murdock lowered his voice but spoke far more fearfully. “The fate of the entire kingdom rests on our cautious 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 would be utter madness.”
“But as you said,” Drake began again, perplexed by the intricacy of the planning, “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 fairest and most influential among them once she is dead. She is their sense of reason, of beauty and passiveness. Without her, they will lack cohesion and we will easily defeat their hordes and thus acquire more magicite until the entirety of the Esper race resides in magicite form, which we shall harness to attain a power unseen in history!”
Murdock was breathing heavily and small bullets of sweat could be seen streaking down his forehead. His hands shook slightly. Drake was watching silently, bug-eyed. He had never before seen such a display of emotional intoxication from the usually intensely 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 duty to defend his 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 err.
“I sure hope so,” an increasingly uncertain young male voice replied, glancing up as the first stars of the evening began to appear.
“You hope so? Treskyn, 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, Choki?” Treskyn patted the creature’s neck, trying to comfort the agitated bird.
As if guided by some external force or ethereal intuition, the chocobo took off at a full gallop toward one of the far hilltops. The two youths held on for dear life.
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 the 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 even more impressive façade was visible, comprised of jagged boulder protrusions, jutting out of the earth with an almost fierce wildness.
The three of them stood motionless for several minutes, simply taking in the scene before them. To the southwest, they knew precisely what lay before them, and no longer doubted their location.
Finally, Treskyn spoke, his words calm, slow, with a twinge of fear, but nonetheless, resolute.
“So lie the Caves of Tyr.”