E-mail me at, for a continuing lack of a working personal box,
and I'll try to check daily.
"Sometimes villains make history.
"For we belong in the sun
Other times, history makes villains."
"Could there possibly have been more behind this kidnapping?"
When the author of Final Fantasy's instruction manual wrote that, he was probably referring to the Lute.
But that single line mentally opened up worlds for me. That single line inspired the story that you're about to read.
Now, if you think about it, in war, the victor always decides who was the villain. Because the loser isn't there anymore.
This started out as a between-projects sort of thing for me. It's blossomed into the fanfic of mine that I'm most proud of. It's a story about lies, deception, war, truth, revelation, arcana, and love. But most of all, it's a feeling.
I listened to Rusted Root's "Sister Contine" while I was writing the last scene. It seemed so much more appropriate that way. It was only then did I realize what kind of story I'd written. It wasn't an action-packed war story anymore. The subplot had become the most important issue.
So either you'll think I have no idea what I'm talking about, or you'll never look at Final Fantasy the same way again.
In the sun
For we belong in the sun
In the sun
Well is it hard to run
In the rain...."
-Michael Glabicki (of Rusted Root,) "Sister Contine"
I think you might like this.
"For we belong in the sun
4 September 3562
Coneria is the dream city, that's what they tell me.
I find it hard to believe.
The healer's clinic is cheap. The inn is cheap. The magic isn't worth the price, not that it matters to a Knight. That's what I am. A Knight. And I've noticed that the equipment they sell here is military runoff, things that even a starting fighter would think were jokes. Fortunately, I brought my own Rune Blade.
Well, that's what I thought, anyway, until I saw the troops. I thought when people referred to the "rapiers-and-wood" set, they were talking about thieves. Coneria probably doesn't like to think of its own government as thieves (or maybe, 'a' thief, I'm not sure exactly how you would pluralize that, or if you wouldn't,) but if the "Honor Guard" (I'm sure, somewhere, some villain is trembling at the name) is equipped in the same things that the bargain-basement surplus stores are pushing on the mercenaries and bounty hunters that generally roam freely around this place, I'm sure that someone unscrupulous is pulling the strings, armory-wise.
I guess it should be an honor to be here, especially working with a high-profile unit like the Sky Warriors. They're something special. Of course, I'm only an honorary member.
Agh. No. I'm not really a member at all. The people want a new, hot rookie, and a 21-year-old Academy graduate who has been in some 'popular' battles like me is the perfect thing to satiate the people's hunger for a hero.
Every war hero is a hero because he killed the other side's prospective hero.
Every villain in war is a villain because he was murdered.
This is probably not a good attitude for a Sky Warrior to have. These are probably not good things for a prospective 'hero' to know. But what am I supposed to do, forget about them?
The king has called me to his audience tomorrow for an introduction. I guess I should get ready.
The Knight that entered the room was... was a surprise.
He was young, twenty-one, like the King had heard, an honors Academy gradute. But he didn't look like a fighter.
First, the knight was more slender than muscular. He had the figure of... not a mage or wizard, exactly, but he didn't look like the typical fighter. He also wore an atypical outfit: bluish fragments of armor over brown pants and a brown tunic, with a white hooded cape to complete the look. His hair was brown with a twinge of red, and was swept to the sides in front but hung down to the bottoms of his ears on the sides. A sword was sheathed at his side.
There was momentary silence in the throne room, and then the king began the ceremony.
The throne room was intimidating.
White marble walls. Black marble floor. Red carpet. Ornate, plush golden throne. Gold dragons situated on either side of it. What looked like the entire Honor Guard, and then some. The royal family; the King, the Queen, and their two daughters. The Sky Warriors: Galen, a muscular Knight in tan, weathered armor; Heon, a Grand Master in a tan robe, with a shaved head; Shade, a Black Wizard with all but his face hidden by a night-blue robe; Liza, a White Wizard dressed in unmarked robes with purple-tinted hair and a pendant around her neck; and the leader, the mysterious Nero. Dressed in gleaming silver armor with a horned helmet and flowing red cape, wielding a long, curved blade, he was an intimidating figure to say the least.
"Welcome," said the king. The young Knight's attention was focused elsewhere, but he turned his eyes to the aging, bearded, red-robed man in time to accept the helmet and cape that were given to him, replicas of Nero's, but the cape was purple rather than red. The gift was accompanied by the speech:
"For your outstanding valor and skill on the battlefield," began the king,
--and my sudden popularity which will be gone in a week,- thought the Knight.
"--it has been decided by the Sages--"
Do the sages have to be involved in everything?!
"--and the Sky Warriors and the ruling counsel, that you shall become an honorary member of the Sky Warriors. This rank is the highest honor that can be given to any member of the Royal Conerian Honor Guard. Do you accept this title?"
The Knight nodded. "I accept this honor and all of the privileges and responsibilities thereof."
The king was momentarily taken aback. He hadn't expected the Knight to respond in the official manner.
"Then I present you with your armor." Two attendants rolled out an ornate golden cart with red cushioning from the back of the filled room, on which lay a set of silver armor to match the helmet and cape, also a perfect replica of Nero's. "You are hereby decreed an honorary member of the Sky Warriors, Sir Garland."
The honor was as superficial as anything (a new suit of armor; how nice.) But there was something else that held my interest more than the quick and artificial dumping of undeserved honors on me.
What am I thinking? Right, as if I'm going to... She's probably set up to marry some royalty or something. The Prince of ElfLand? No, King Coneria is not particularly... fond... of other species. There aren't too many other monarchies around anymore, though. Here, ElfLand, maybe Cardia and--
what am I doing? I can finish that thought now: As if I'm going to talk to the King's daughter. Yeah, I can just see that now. Ha.
But there's nothing else for me here. The Sky Warriors. What a joke.
We leave for Melmond tomorrow. My hometown.
6 September 3562
By boat. Stinking, putrid, rotten, wooden boat.
Garland surveyed the deck, and, all around them, the vast, endless blue ocean. Sheets of white clouds came up over the horizon that encircled them and melted into each other overhead, sending the sunlight down from above in shafts, illuminating the blackened wooden floorboards of the War Hammer, the Conerian war ship that was to transport the Sky Warriors to Melmond.
Garland had probed hard to find out why exactly they were going, and the story tthat he had eventually gotten was like this: There were ten or so reports of a strange robed figure inhabiting the outskirts of Melmond, coming by only at night and frightening the people of the city. It didn't seem like a job for the Sky Warriors.
Which was why he hadn't been too surprised when he'd asked Nero for the real story, and the massive Knight had said in his low, gravelly tone:
"Five slayings. One of them was a child. Another one was the city's healer. Three of which were maimed horribly. All completely drained of their bodily fluids. Dried up as if they had been dead for weeks. Trade to and from Crescent Lake and Pravoka are cut off. People are afraid to leave their homes or to go to sleep at night. We are talking about a very high-class Undead here."
That was another blow. "UNDEAD?! Every government has denied their existence for... ha. This is the Sky Warriors. Not the Honor Guard, for Godsake. I should have guessed that you would have access to some information that the general populace doesn't."
"Correct," said Nero. "Of course, you are sworn by law not to reveal any of this."
"Right," said Garland. "Just out of curiosity, how many other people know?"
"The King and the other Sky Warriors," said Nero. "No one else. Actually, we think Lukahn and Sarda know as well. They generally keep nice and quiet, however."
That was enough for Garland. He walked to the railing to see, off in the distance, a three-masted schooner apparently sailing in the same direction as they were, towards Melmond, but they would have come from Pravoka.
"Eh... sir?" asked Garland, not exactly sure how to address Nero. "Trade may be doing fairly well. There's a schooner out here that's also headed for Melmond."
"Let me see." Nero stepped to the railing as well. "We have a problem."
"What do you mean?" asked Garland, though he was fairly sure he already knew.
"Look for yourself." And then, turning to the deck, "Get the telescope over here."
Heon tossed the instrument from the upper section of the deck, and Garland gazed through it to see...
The schooner had an emblem on its side. A painted blue shark, turning as if spying a morsel of food or other creature to attack to its side, a murderous gleam in its eyes.
"Bikke's crew," said Garland. "What they would be doing in Melmond now is beyond me, but let's intercept. They're max priority on the military objectives list."
"They're number four on ours," replied Galen, who was standing a few meters behind him. "Behind our Vampire here at Melmond, Astos the Dark Elf, and those Zombie Dragons. Leave them alone, we'll get sidetracked."
Garland was aware that Nero had absolute authority. "Get them. The corporal--" Garland's rank- "--is right. We don't want the people of Melmond any more scared than they are. Besides, if a report of our passing up a pirate gang gets out, people will begin to suspect things."
The War Hammer slowly made a turn towards the pirate vessel.
"War Hammer is turning toward us, Captain. They probably intend on apprehending our crew," Bikke's first officer informed him.
The pirate turned from his resolute position gazing at the Conerian craft. "Counter offensive. Ready crossbows. They came for something bigger than us."
"Sir, we're still first on the--"
"Do you think the Conerian government really tells everyone what its priorities are, Officer?"
As they got closer, Garland could see the deck of Bikke's craft. He had heard about the pirate- one of the most vicious and ruthless mercenaries alive, if what he'd heard was to be believed- but he'd never actually seen the man.
Bikke was dressed in the Pravokan style- loose light blue clothing- but him variant included patchwork armor and a cape. He had an eyepatch over one eye and black hair that was close-cropped on the top and was trimmed into a short beard on the bottom. He held a military saber- probably a rapier- at his side.
"So I've attracted the attention of the Sky Warriors," said Bikke with confidence that Garland doubted he actually felt. "An honor."
"Surrender all of your stolen goods and money and admit to capture, and we will not harm you," replied Nero, his impenetrable helmet giving him a menacing air. Garland put on his helmet and drew his sword in anticipation of a fight. Others were preparing behind him as well- he knew better than to divert his attention from Bikke, but Garland could her the sounds of weapons being unsheathed and armor being snapped into place.
"Now, now," said Bikke. "Your ship really isn't set up, ballast-wise, to handle all of my crew and all of the loot that you're demanding." He knew his stuff.
Nero was momentarily stunned, but he replied anyway: "Submit to towing or we will attack."
"Go ahead and do it."
At the sound of the pirate captain's voice, at least thirty other mercenaries with armor and crossbows sprung up from behind barrels, masts, and other objects.
"Now you seem not to be in much of a position to give me orders." Bikke was well aware of the advantage he was at.
"You leave me no choice," said Nero coldly. "Shade."
"Nuke," the wizard called out from under his hood.
Garland didn't see the explosion; he felt it. It rumbled on the ocean floor, sending up a bright shaft of light between the two ships, and pushing them apart, knocking both crews to the floorboards.
Waves erupted from the surface of the water above where the explosion had occurred, hammering against the War Hammer's side. The Conerian craft could take it, but Bikke's unidentified ship was pushed further out.
"They won't be bothering us for a while," commented Nero.
The Sky Warriors have that kind of power?! thought Garland. He wasn't even aware that such power existed. Well, officially, it didn't; 'Nuke' was sort of a lost art. As far as most governments wanted their people to know, it had never existed. It probably shouldn't exist; its power could decimate entire cities.
The War Hammer turned in the direction of Melmond and resumed its steady voyage.
7 September 3562
We've arrived in Melmond's port. It's about half a klick from the city proper, so we'll be there in a few minutes. I wonder how my family's doing.
It's hard to stop thinking about Sara. She smiled at me, didn't she? I'm sure she did... regal courtesy probably, but that time... it was somehow different...
Here, I'll describe her. Not a lot of people have gotten close enough to the King's daughter to really see her face, at least not clearly. She has golden hair; not blonde, darker, twinged with auburn in a couple of places. Her eyes are a deep brown. She's got a sort of warm, cheerful (well, not cheerful, not really, that's not the right word to use, but something like it,) generally casual, demeanor. Answers to nobody.
Maybe that's what I found myself liking about her. I was an 'A' student at the Academy, mostly from reading a lot in my spare time, and fast, and strong, and... it was like people were in _awe_ of me. It was nice, but... I didn't feel human. I felt like some kind of distant superman.
And Sara doesn't care about any of that. It's strictly a person's personality to her, that's all that matters. More people should be like that. I wish they were.
Back to Melmond. We're getting close now. Nero told me that my family was intact, he gave me the names for the slayings. I didn't recognize any relatives. I was scared for a moment, there, though, because I had a cousin who was going to be a White Mage and I was afraid that he might have been the healer that was killed.
I have one sibling; a younger brother who's going into his first year at the Magic Academy in Crescent Lake. I should clarify this: the Academy that I keep talking about is the Military Academy, which is in Coneria itself. The Magic Academy is a seperate thing, and located in Crescent Lake as it is because the most powerful known magic users alive, the Sages, meet (and probably live) there in Crescent Lake. (No one is sure exactly where they really do live, though there's one disgruntled one, Sarda, who's taken up residence in a vacant cave five or ten klicks west of Melmond, through Titan's Tunnel.)
Here, we're nearing the city gates, and oh my God--
"--what did he do to this town?"
Melmond was devastated. Garland couldn't see any grass except clusters of weeds jutting out of the parched, sandy ground. Entire buildings were collapsed in on themselves. The graveyard had grown considerably. The Healer's Clinic was in ruins, with timbers snapped and splintered and loose dust and stones everywhere.
"Put on your helmet," said Nero, ignoring the question. Garland did so.
"What happened here? One Undead?"
"A small-scale attack," commented Liza. "Designed to take out key structures. This is methodical. Look."
She was right. Very few residential buildings were harmed in any way.
"Any idea where we should start looking?" asked Heon.
"The creature comes by every night at ten. We'll be waiting for it." Nero was a true professional.
"Good," said Garland. "I'll have some time to see my family."
Nero reached into Garland's backpack, withdrew his helmet, and put it on the younger Knight's head.
"No. You can't do that, I'm afraid. If you die, we don't want them to know that it was you. That is the way it works. You'll have to get used to it."
Garland wasn't happy- did NERO have family in Melmond?- but didn't bother to reply. He couldn't bring himself to break a rule as set as that one.
Plumes of smoke curled from buildings and wells, cast in a blue glow by the moonlight. Few sounds permeated the night darkness, but the constant crunching of boots on dirt sounded down the path that the Sky Warriors took to the western edge of town.
They waited for a few minutes before Garland spied a lank, hunched-over, robed figure silhouetted against the moonlight in the distance. Shade cast a small Ice spell on his torch to blow it out.
"Ready," whispered Nero.
The others agreed. "Ready."
Garland went over the tactics that they'd rehearsed in his mind. He crept behind a row of buildings and then into the open field behind the figure. He saw the others appear as well.
There was a cut-off "Baaa--!" as the figure tackled one of the sheep in the field. One hand raised toward the moonlight, and Garland glimpsed bony, clawlike fingers that cut into the sheep's throat, spewing forth the silhouette of a spray of blood. His stomach turned. This was nothing human.
There was a thunk-as Nero's sword stabbed into the earth. That was his signal.
Garland ran across the field, preserving what little stealth he could. The figure raised its eyes in the opposite direction to see Nero, Heon, and Galen sprinting for it. It slowly rose to its feet--
--and Garland tackled it, hitting decomposing cloth of some sort over a thin, bony frame. The creature hit the ground, still in the dark. Garland raised his sword, preparing to stab--
--and a blast of white light came from the creature's right claw. Garland fell back, trying madly to clear the afterglow from his eyes, when the creature jumped on him.
"Fire!" came Shade's voice. His torch lit, and as the Black Wizard came nearer, Garland saw the creature's face.
It was like looking into the eyes of a demon. Pure white skin. Hair slicked-back with blood. Glaring red pupilless eyes. An open mouth, black but for the bloodied fangs in it.
A VAMPIRE! thought Garland. Five people drained of blood....
The Vampire raised a claw to attack, but Garland had a trick of his own ready.
A fireball shot from the fingertips on Garland's right hand, hitting the Vampire in the chest. It reeled back.
The Vampire was alternately pummeled with purple lighting and streams of flame. It ran, as Galen threw another Fire spell at it, Heon ran to catch up--
--and Nero stepped out of the shadows. The Vampire tried to dodge his attack, but wasn't fast enough. The blow didn't cleave it in twine, as Nero had attempted to do, but it did lop off the Vampire's left arm with a heavy thud. The wound didn't bleed at all, and didn't deter the monster as it ran toward the west. A few more spells were flung at it, but none hit.
"It's not coming back," said Nero. "We've studied Undead mentalities, and we know that it's gone for good. Mission complete."
Later, on the War Hammer:
Heon: "You didn't tell him that his parents had died of the earthrot spreading from the Earth Cave."
Nero: "No. I didn't."
Galen: "You know what? You're one callous son of a--"
Nero: "Yes. I do."
21 September 3562
Two weeks since the Melmond thing, and Sara and I have talked several times. I ask her about palace life, what it's like to be royalty, exactly what she does all day, etc. She asks me about the life of a soldier, and about my life in Melmond. She doesn't go into town much-- her father doesn't like her associating with "street people"-- and so she's not sure exactly how other people generally live.
Sara is nice, smiles a lot, has a warm personality- and I can't stop thinking about her. (Not that I often try.) Of course, she also has a hard edge- I have to say I smiled inside when she cursed out Lukahn (he's in town now, the arrogant... ah, forget it) when he suggested that she shouldn't be associating with soldiers. I told her that I like to paint; that interested her. My paints, easel, and canvas all taken together cost me about 50 gil, but they work. Even if they aren't exactly professional-quality.
She laughed at that. And smiled.
It's ten o'clock now, exactly two weeks after my first horror, in Melmond. I've seen some things that I can't even describe since then. I've come close to the edge more often than I would have liked to. This is why being a Sky Warrior is hard- even if I'm not a full member.
I think I'm going to ask her out tomorrow. Not the King nor the Queen nor the Prophet are going to be happy.
That's why I'm not going to tell them.
22 September 3562
I'm probably now classified as one of the luckiest people ever to walk this earth.
I didn't think it was possible, I didn't know, I thought she was still with that Elf royalty character...
It's 6:00 now. I'm supposed to meet her at 7:00. I told her that I knew where we were going. She was intrigued- asked what kind of place it was.
It's a nice place, I said.
22 September 3562
Garland pushed open the door to the Iron Cellar and let Sara take in the sights. She had been a little concerned when they'd entered the non-dream part of Coneria, and a little more concerned after seeing the place's name. She didn't seem to concerned anymore.
Garland had suggested that she wear something fairly plain so as not to attract attention, and Sara had complied, now wearing a mid-calf-length sky blue button-down dress. (Garland himself wore brown pants and a black tunic, normal attire for the near-slum areas that they were entering.)
No one seemed to recognize her as the Princess as they walked in the door- but then not too many people were paying attention. Mages and fighters lined up at the bar were watching the chalkboard posted up on one darkened wooden wall for horse race standings. Several people were eating at makeshift booths and tables lined up on the walls. Several patrons shook Garland's hand, clapped him on the back, or gave him a call of recognition.
"This place has become like a second home to me," he told Sara. "It's very friendly."
"But..." she said. "These are middle-class to poor people... I kind of doubt that they care much for aristocrats."
"There are a lot of people here who think the government does a good job, Sara. I'm not one of them, granted," said Garland, "but I care more for the individual than the bureucracy. And besides, to the people here that don't like you, you're not 'Princess Sara'; you're 'Garland's date.'"
"Right," she said. "Let's sit down."
She chose a small table in the northeast corner of the room. The southeast corner had the entrance. The bar forced the area between the southwest, southeast, and northwest corners into an "L" shape. On the center of the table was a wine glass that had once been modified as a vase, but the flower was gone and only a few pink rose petals remained. The chairs were small and rickety, but Garland didn't care, and doubted that Sara would.
"There's a painting on the wall here," she noted, looking at what appeared to be a sketch of a sword stuck into a grassy field. Around the sword was a tangle of ivy with thorns and rosebuds. It was painted in sort of a strange, dreamy style, as if the colors were blurring.
"That's one of mine," said Garland. "Do you like it?"
"It's very nice," she said, sincerely. "Are the colors a stylistic thing?"
"They didn't start that way. I wasn't very dextrous with the brush," mused Garland. She laughed, a sound that Garland loved to hear.
Garland turned to see the person that had come up behind them- an eighteen-year-old girl with shoulder-length red hair, dressed in a slightly revealing red dress.
"Arylon," he replied. "Things all right around here?"
"They are," she agreed. "And who's with you?"
"This is Sara," said Garland, smiling now.
"Sara. You have the same name as our Princess, did you know that?"
Sara smiled politely. "Yes, I did."
"So, what'll it be?" asked Arylon.
After they'd placed their orders and Arylon had departed for the kitchen, Sara turned to Garland a little angrily.
"You have another relationship here?! A dancer?!"
"That's my cousin," said Garland. "I probably should have mentioned that, shouldn't I have." It wasn't really even a question.
"Oh." After a few moments, the conversation resumed, and turned to what Garland had done since arriving here and what battles he'd fought in. Then:
"So what happened with the mysterious character at Melmond?"
"We scared him off."
"What was he?"
"Just a guy camping out who was making some trouble." Garland's insides curled up in a knot.
"Hmm. The Sky Warriors for that?" she asked.
Garland closed his eyes and rested his chin on a hand for a moment. Then:
"You can't tell anyone."
"Nero fed you the line about the camper, didn't he?" she asked.
"Yes. I have a feeling even he didn't tell me the whole story. But here's what I know: it was an Undead."
Sara gasped. "They don't-... they EXIST?"
"They do. A very well-kept secret. And it had killed five people. It was a Vampire."
"A Vampire," she repeated, stunned. "I'm going to need a little while for this to register. Let's talk about something else."
Then the food came.
Sara took a few bites and said--
"--this is great! What did you get this for?"
"20 gil for both of us. That includes the drinks."
"There have been hundred-thousand-gil royal banquets that I didn't like nearly as well as this! You were right; this is a great place. It's like everyone knows everyone else, or at least is nice to them."
"That's what attracted me to it, too," said Garland. After dinner was through and had been paid for, Sara asked if Garland had any more works in here. There were two- a picture of a dark globe, which mildly interested her, and a picture of the sun setting over the ocean, a lone tree in the foreground.
"Garland," she said. "It's beautiful."
"Well." He smiled. "Thanks. If you liked that, there's something I can show you that I think you'll like as well."
Seeing them leave, the owner of the bar, a rotund, mustached man who looked like a blacksmith of sorts yelled to Garland:
"Could you throw that thing on your table in the trash?"
Garland picked up the glass, but didn't throw it away. There was something about it that he found interesting- the petals. He just thought they looked interesting, artistic. Garland took the glass with him.
"All right. Now we cross the bridge."
Garland had led Sara north out of Coneria and to the river formed by the Aldi Sea as it flowed into the northeastern sea. The sun was beginning to set in the west.
"It's getting late," said Sara. "We might need to turn back soon... what bridge? They took down the old bridge here and they're going to build a new one sometime soon, but there's no bridge."
"We're almost there," said Garland. "Now you might want to take your shoes off for this."
He indicated with his finger a place where the river sturned into a shallow stream, with a line of smooth rocks dotting the mud at the bottom, letting them cross to the north.
"This in itself is fun," he said, removing his own leather shoes and walking across the rocks. "Your turn. Just leave your shoes on that side; we'll be going back in a minute."
Sara took off her own simple leather shoes (again, worn to avoid attracting attention) and stepped across the row of stones.
"Now," said Garland, "step up to this tree." She did.
"Do you want to close your eys until it's ready?" he asked. "Otherwise it might be a bit of an anticlimax."
"All right," she said. Sara shut her eyes, facing toward the tree.
"Then," said Garland, "I'll guide you to it."
She felt his hands on her shoulders, and he turned her toward the west.
"Now," he said, "you can open your eyes."
It was liked she had stepped directly into the painting. There it was; the sun setting over the ocean in the distance, bathing everything in its warm glow, turning the clouds into wisps of red and purple in a beautiful pattern that stretched overhead seemingly forever.
"I came here," he said, "on the way to Coneria, and I felt like I had to recreate it for other people. But I never thought that I would be watching it one day... with someone like you."
Sara turned back to Garland and put her arms around him. He returned the embrace.
30 October 3562
It's been a little more than a month, and Sara and I have gone out twice more since then. Both times, great. Both times, in secrecy, which is something I don't like. But given the choice, secrecy it is.
As for the Sky Warriors, we've been through hell and back and I still don't feel like a real official member. Sure, I've done my part, but the fact is that I'm not an official member. Everyone's still nice, but they seem kind of distant. Well, Nero just seems distant.
Today I found out that my parents had both died of earthrot. Nero was just BSing everyone as usual. I get the feeling that there are some things only we and the king know. Then there are some things only the official Sky Warriors and the king know. Then there are some things that only Nero and the king know.
Then there are some things that only Nero knows.
Which isn't the way it should be. Not that I'm much of a man of monarchies, but a sixty-year-old man is markedly less dangerous than a plate-armored swordsman who could walk through a Nuke and come out the other side running.
Tonight, we head into the forest. I don't know why. Nero doesn't like to tell us until the last moment.
"I'm here," said Garland. "Did I-- what's going on?"
All of the Sky Warriors had their weapons drawn. Heon, who didn't use a weapon, was in attack position. Nero held the hilt of his sword with both hands, pointing it into the ground like the blade from Garland's painting but not leaning on it.
"We understand that you have been seeing Princess Sara without the king's consent. On several occasions."
"Who told you?!" asked Garland.
"We overheard a conversation in which a dancer told another that her cousin had come into the bar where she worked several nights ago with a girl that looked like the Princess. A background check revealed that the dancer is your cousin. We found that on that night you were missing from the castle, and Sara was as well. Since then, we have closely monitored your departures from and entrances into the castle."
Arylon, you--!!! thought Garland. You couldn't just shut up about it...
"As such," continued Nero, "we are lawfully in a position to exectute you."
"Right," said Garland, now clad in full armor and wielding his Rune Blade. "Which law is that? Or did the king tell you to do it?"
"Nobody told us," said Nero. "The Sky Warriors act for the safety of the royal family and the people.
"This can be done with a minimum of suffering if you surrender."
Garland took off back into the forest. He ran right into Heon, who grabbed him by the arm and lifted him up.
"Not one of your better ideas," the Grand Master stated.
"Are you sure?" Garland sneered.
Nero approached from behind him. Garland craned his neck to see.
"Warp Temple of Fiends!" said Garland, invoking the name of an ancient shrine that they had come by onan earlier mission.
And just like that, he was gone.
"Northwest. Now," said Nero.
"Warp Coneria Palace," said Garland. His last thought before the world went white again was that the Sky Warriors were not very adept at thinking on their feet.
Sara woke up to see the door to her room being pushed open. She reached for the dagger under her bed-- and then saw that it was Nero.
"Nero?" she asked. "What the--?!"
"It's me!" he interrupted her. "Garland. Sky Warrior armor edition."
"Garland! You're here because...?"
"Lets just say that Nero found out that we were going out and apparently has a little virtuoso thing going. The Sky Warriors are now trying to kill me." He realized that he was panting. "I gave them a false trail to the Temple of Fiends, but then they'll come here. I need a safe place to stay. Does this door lock?"
"Well, yes," she said, "but you know..."
"Yeah, yeah, right, I know, I just need somewhere to stay. Please."
He wrapped his arms around her. "Thank you. Thanks so much. I really couldn't have--"
"--be quiet," said Sara, drawing him into a kiss. "Just.... be... quiet..."
31 October 3562
The first thing that registered in his mind was the was flesh touching his. The second was the room he was in. The third was that someone was pounding on the door. He near-lept out of the bed.
"Let us enter!" An Honor Guardsman.
"Sara!" He nudged her shoulder, surprised that she hadn't woken up already.
Garland pulled on his clothes and armor and readied his sword.
"God," said Sara, looking at him while putting on her own red dress. "You look like a different person."
"The king is going to be very displeased with you, Princess Sara!"
"How did he-?" began Garland.
"We didn't go to much of an effort to be really quiet," said Sara. "I wonder how long they've been camped out here. I can cast a Warp spell."
"No," said Garland. "They could follow us. We need to get out on our feet."
He opened the door and the yelling Guardsman stepped aside to reveal--
--Nero. Not in a good mood.
The larger Knight swung his sword in a silent downward arc toward Garland's head. Garland threw up his blade in a parry. The two swords became locked together, each knight pushing.
And Garland knew that Nero would win.
"Nero..." he said, straining. "One thing about the Sky Warriors... one of the many things I didn't like... was that you never were able to think fast on your feet."
With that, Garland kicked Nero in the abdomen. The Knight fell backward and toppled to the floor. Garland took off at a dead sprint, grabbing Sara's arm to pull her with him at first until she was running as well. They got out of the castle and town without incident.
"Let's go!" he said. "Northwest- the Temple of Fiends- it's safe there."
"Sire, they escaped," stated Nero plainly to the King. "I do not know where they are headed."
King Coneria sat grasping his chin, looking straight ahead. After several long moments he spoke, not diverting his gaze to Nero.
"This," he said, "was a kidnapping. Garland was taking her as a hostage for money. We all fear for her safety. Learn that, and drum it into all the Guardsmen involved. I will tell my wife and other daughter this. Otherwise we don't have a chance."
Garland pushed open the door to the temple. It creaked open on its rusted iron hinges and revealed a dusty mess of stonework created in the pattern of a central room with a hallway running its perimeter, with rooms at all four corners.
Garland pulled off his helmet. He and Sara ventured into the hallway.
"They probably won't find us here," he said. "They'll think we went east. There's no bridge there--"
"--but what is that going to matter to a couple of- effectively- fugitives?" she finished.
Garland chuckled. "You just might have spent too much time with me for your own good."
"Really?" she asked, sliding an arm around his waist. "Because I don't regret any of it--"
The door came flying down the hallway with a tremendous crash. Garland pulled Sara to the ground and the corroded iron gate slammed open the pair of wooden doors behind them that led into the antechamber area.
Garland ran for the antechamber- Sara didn't need to be told to follow him. He hunched down behind the ancient golden throne near the door and Sara stood out in the open.
"Princess!" boomed Nero's voice as he strode into the room. "We have found you, at last. Sir Garland will, I assure you, face a severe punishment- kidnapping, resisting arrest, corrupting a Princess. And the King will be displeased with you as well--"
Garland leapt over the throne and knocked Nero to the ground, holding his sword over Nero's throat. The older Knight snatched away the sword with a sudden hand movement and rolled forward forcefully, knocking Garland back and sending him toppling over the throne.
"He didn't kidnap me!" Sara protested. "I wanted to come here! He resisted arrest because you wanted to unlawfully kill him! And as for the 'corrupting' charge--"
"Shut up," came Galen's voice. The whole entourage was here.
"What the king says is what we do." That from Liza.
Garland backed up against- against the black orb.
It was a crystalline orb resting on an altar in the center of the room. He had painted it when the Sky Warriors had come by here before. It seemed not just to have no light in it, but to actually radiate darkness, something that frightened and intrigued him.
"I CAN HELP YOU."
What was that? they all thought.
"YOU, GARLAND. DO YOU WANT MY HELP?"
"Who-- what are you?" he asked. He couldn't tell where the voice was coming from- it filled the entire room, deep and booming.
"DO YOU WANT MY HELP?"
"I don't even know who you are--"
"THIS IS YOUR LAST CHANCE. DO YOU WANT MY HELP?"
Garland saw no other way to win.
Everything went white.
Garland felt as if he was falling through sand. Then, he was buffeted by strong winds. He fell through a scorching wall of fire, and finally landed in a pool of water. He swam furiously for the surface but found none until--
--everything flashed white again.
Garland found himself sitting in an empty, dark room made out of brown stone. The pillars and designs suggested that he was still in the Temple. His armor was gone, and the floor was cold against his bare skin.
"Where am I now? Are you here?"
Two white slivers lit up in the blackness that covered the entire wall opposite the door.
"YES," came the voice. "I AM."
Garland backed away, still on the ground. "Where am I, and who are you?"
"YOU ARE IN THE TEMPLE OF FIENDS. IN THE YEAR 3162."
"You took me through TIME?!" Garland was incredulous.
"I DID. SUCH IS THE POWER OF CHAOS."
"And you're CHAOS. And you use that black orb for time travel." Time-travel is ridiculous, he was thinking, but he was talking to a four-meter tall thing cast in all in shadow, so he felt that nothing was beyond possibility.
"YOU THINK VERY QUICKLY, GARLAND. THAT IS ONE OF THE REASONS I CHOOSE TO BESTOW MY GIFT ON YOU. IF YOU CAN COMPLETE MY CHALLENGE."
"I don't care about any gift. Just send me back to Sara."
"WHETHER OR NOT YOU TAKE THE CHALLENGE IS NOT YOUR CHOICE."
"I don't want to have anything to do with you! I'm getting out of here."
"IT IS ALWAYS 3162 ON THIS FLOOR OF THE TEMPLE. LEAVE NOW, AND IT WILL BE 3562- AND YOU WILL AGE 400 YEARS. IN OTHER WORDS, YOU WILL BE DEAD."
There was no way out. "Explain time travel."
"AFTER YOU COMPLETE THE CHALLENGE."
"Then bring it on!"
The door opened, and there stood the Sky Warriors, fully clothed and equipped.
"What?! How are they able to- YOU DID THIS TO ME!"
"YES," agreed CHAOS. "PHYSICALLY DAMAGED, NAKED, WEAPONLESS, UNABLE EVEN TO STAND, YOU WILL DIE. UNLESS I HELP YOU."
"Then help me!" Garland inched back toward CHAOS as the Sky Warriors advanced.
"IF YOU AGREE TO BOW DOWN TO ME. BE SUBSERVIENT TO ME. AND CARRY OUT MY PLAN."
"Will I see Sara again?"
"IF YOU WISH."
Nero raised his sword over his head, preparing to strike.
CHAOS extended a single golden finger from the blackness. Garland reached out and touched it with a finger on his left hand.
Nero's sword came in a downward arc--
--and CHAOS' thunderous roar echoed throughout the chamber as the Sky Warriors disappeared in a white flash.
"Now?" He faced CHAOS.
The white of time-travel overcame him again.
The door opened.
Before Lukahn the Prophet had departed to join the other Sages at Crescent Lake, he had prophesied one last thing- the arrival of the Light Warriors. The King of Coneria had outwardly scoffed at something so presumptuous, so deeply rooted in legend that most likely it was untrue. But inwardly, he had hoped that they would arrive. He didn't fear for his daughter's safety when she was with Garland- in fact, it was more that it was too much to the contrary.
Looking at it objectively, he realized that his problem with Garland was that he hadn't asked. He hadn't conceded. He had always so dutifully and carefully obeyed the rules so far, had adhered to the law, that it came as something of a shock.
The door fully opened. The new arrivals- mercenaries, from their appearance- all looked in the eighteen-to-twenty-year-old range. The first was a young man in red armor with messy red hair. The second, a tan-skinned man with almost shoulder-length hair, wearing a karate gi. The third, a young woman in a White Mage's robe, also with red hair; and the fourth, a Black Mage who's face was hidden in the shadow of his high straw hat.
"Welcome," said the King. "Are you the Light Warriors?"
"That we are," agreed the red-haired man, a Fighter and apparently the leader. "And our credentials-" he drew a grey orb from his backpack, and the others followed suit- "are as such."
The King was incredulous. It was true! The legend was true- Lukahn had been right.
"Light Warriors," he began. "Just as in Lukahn's prophecy. Garland has kidnapped the Princess. Please help her!!"
"Where is she?" the Black Belt asked.
"The Temple of Fiends, to the northwest."
"Let's discuss pay," said the Fighter. "We'll want, at minimum, 400 up front and 100 on the return."
"300, all up front," replied the King.
"300 up front and 200 later."
"200 up front and 200 later."
"400 up front."
"You have yourselves a deal," said the King. He passed the leader four 100-gil chips.
"Nice doing business with you," replied the fighter as they walked out.
Garland landed in--
--the same room. In the year 2562.
The difference now was that there was a pyre burning in one corner, a mini-tornado in another, a pool of water, and a crag of rocky earth in the other corners. The four elements.
The Four Fiends. A Sage story. Theoretically.
CHAOS stepped from the darkness. He was massive- humanoid. Smooth, lizardlike golden skin. Wearing a breastplate and knee-and-elbow guards made out of skulls dyed purple, with a necklace of the same skulls, and a loincloth, with huge golden bat-wings that spanned the entire chamber. CHAOS had a humanoid face, butt with sharp teeth and horns, the resemblance was only slight. Garland felt somewhat insignificant.
"Hello and- wait! You don't meet me for another 600 years!"
"I LIVE OUTSIDE THE TIME BELT, GARLAND. DO YOU STILL WISH THAT I EXPLAIN TIME TRAVEL NOW?"
"THEN YOU WILL HAVE TO MEET WITH MY LIEUTENANTS."
Garland didn't see the harm in that- he just wanted to get back to Sara.
"All right, but first, could you give me my clothes and weapon back."
"AS YOU WISH."
CHAOS extended a finger, and a gold liquid exploded fom the floor and covered Garland's body. Then it metamorphosed into his brown pants and tunic, blue cobbled-together pieces of armor, and white hooded cape.
"Not quite what I was looking for."
"YOU ARE NOT A SKY WARRIOR ANYMORE." It was both a reprimand and an explaination.
"NOW TAKE THIS."
A flow of gold liquid ran through CHAOS's fingers and then hardened into a sword.
"A NEW WEAPON. A BETTER WEAPON. THE CHAOS BLADE. IT IS YOURS."
Garland took the sword and experimented with it. It had an incredibly sharp cutting edge, but was very light, but at the same time felt very solid, sturdy, and powerful in his hands.
"Now," he said, pointing the sword at CHAOS. "Send me back."
"HAH. THREAT." Garland's clothes and sword turned back into gold liquid that quivered in place, in a state between solid and liquid.
"All right. I concede." Back to normal. "I'm ready to meet with your lieutenants."
"THEN TOUCH THE OBJECTS."
Garland touched the stone. It began to glow ethereally. He extended an arm into the pool, the pyre, and the tornado. All glew.
And then they all erupted into golden columns- and out of the columns came creatures that looked as if they were from the pits of Hell.
A Grim Reaper with a corroded skull for a face and fleshless wings of bone. A woman with red skin, six arms (all of which wielded scimitars,) and a snake's tail in place of legs. An octopus with jagged teeth and glaring eyes, with a head-crest that resembled some sort of perverse crown. A many-headed dragon.
"The Four Fiends! You made me free them!"
"Hush," cackled the Reaper, "for the Master has something of which he must speak."
"You would be best served to listen," intoned the woman in a soft, alluring voice.
"He can grant you power beyond your imagination," growled the octopus.
The dragon roared its assent.
"I CAN NOT ONLY REUNITE YOU WITH THAT YOUNG WOMAN WHO YOU DESIRE TO BE WITH, BUT LET YOU LIVE TOGETHER FOREVER," said CHAOS as a reaffirmation.
"All right," said Garland. "But first tell me HOW you plan to do this."
"TIME IS LIKE A DESCENT, YOU SEE. IT IS A BELT THIS WAY. THE BLACK ORB IS A POCKET WHERE THERE IS A FOOTHOLD IN THE DESCENT. NOT ONLY THAT, BUT THERE IS A LADDER BACK UP. IT IS THE ONLY SUCH KNOWN PLACE. AND HERE, REMAINING IN THAT FOOTHOLD, ONE CAN OBSERVE AND TRAVEL TIME AT THEIR WILL.
"GOING FORWARD IN TIME IS SIMPLER. I AND THE ORB HAVE THE POWER TO CHANGE THE MEASUREMENT OF TIME PROGRESSION."
"What does that affect?"
"IF I MADE THE MEASUREMENT BY HOUR, EVERYTHING WOULD MOVE ONLY ONCE AN HOUR. BUT GETTING BELOW SECONDS, IT ALL SEEMS THE SAME. BUT WHAT IF TIME MOVED IN INFINITELY FAST UNITS? THEN, ONE UNIT WOULD TAKE THE SAME TIME TO BEGIN AND END AS TEN THOUSAND. TEN THOUSAND AS TEN MILLION. TEN MILLION AS TEN BILLION. ON TO INFINITY. AND THE BLACK ORB, MY OWN CREATION, MAKES THE USER IMPERVIOUS TO THAT TIME CHANGE."
Garland thought about it and realized that it was true. He had never thought of it that way before.
"And to live forever?"
"EVERY TWO THOUSAND YEARS, PLACE YOURSELF IN THE FOOTHOLD. THE EXACT CALCULATION IS IN SIX DIMENSIONS AND INCOMPREHENSIBLE TO HUMANS. BUT IT TWISTS TIME INTO A LOOP FOR THE USER. AND THAT USER IS YOU."
"GO BACK TO YOUR WORLD NOW."
Garland found himself clad in his Sky Warrior armor, deposited neatly on the throne in the Temple of Fiends' antechamber. In 3562.
"What happened?!" asked Sara, running over to him.
"I went back in time- yes, time. The Sky Warriors went back as well. The Black Orb was created by this entity named CHAOS, who helped me- in return for doing his bidding. He's a demon."
"Are you okay?"
Garland realized how he sounded. "Yes. Really. Demons DO exist. Another one for the 'Nero's Little Secrets' file. He was the voice in the room, anyway, and he can time travel. You'll have to believe me here. Please. What else could have happened to the Sky Warriors?"
"They could have turned into bats," laughed Sara. "There are too many bats in here. But, on a more serious note, you're doing a demon's bidding?"
"No," said Garland with a wicked smile. "Screw him. He can't touch me now."
"One question- how did this all happen in a few seconds?"
"But it didn't--" and then he realized. "CHAOS must have sent me back to a time just a few seconds after he took me back."
But there were four of them. Mercenaries. "Get back," said Garland.
"We've come to take the Princess back," the leader, a red-haired Fighter said. The others: a Black Belt, a White Mage, and a Black Mage.
"I don't think so- not this time. No one touches Sara."
"I said NO ONE TOUCHES MY PRINCESS!"
"And I said: We do. We're the Light Warriors."
"LIGHT WARRIORS?! You impertinent fools."
"Who do you think you are, getting off saying that?"
"I know who I am," said Garland. "I'm Garland. And I, Garland, will--"
"What? What will you do? Knock us down?" He sneered.
"Knock you all down," replied Garland with a smile.
The fighter attacked first. Garland parried. Next came the Black Belt. Garland took a swing at the man, knocking him back. A fireball struck him and knocked him to the ground. Garland leapt to his feet, jumped over the Fighter and struck down the Black Mage. He turned to the White Mage to get struck with a slow-moving staff. His retaliatory shove (he didn't wound non-combatants, even if she HAD hit him with her staff) sent the young woman sprawling to the ground.
He felt his body moving into time-travel.
Garland was wearing his original clothes again, still wielding the Chaos Blade. CHAOS was present and staring him in the face. The Fiends were there as well.
"IT LOOKS AS IF I AM NOT SO 'SCREWED' AS YOU THOUGHT."
"Please," he said. "I love Sara, I want to get back to her."
"YOU'LL GET YOUR CHANCE."
Sara was in tears. The Fighter approached her.
"She's in shock," he said. "God knows what Garland did to her."
Loved me. That's what, you callous--
"Don't worry, we'll get you home safely."
What if I want to die, just like you just killed him?!
"Sara, can you speak?"
She wanted to scream at him, tell him how monumentally he'd just screwed up, run away, tell him NOT to call her by her first name, do anything. But she couldn't. All she could say was:
"Thank you for rescuing me."
I don't mean that!
But they were already escorting her out.
Sara had calmed. Outwardly. Nothing was different inside. Her father had told her to present a gift to the Light Warriors. She wanted to run, to get out of there, still to tell them their mistake, their terrible mistake.
But that was useless. It would all end the same way.
And so she gave the line given her, about how this lute had been passed down from generation to generation, and how she now gave it to the Light Warriors as a sign of respect and thanks.
She glared at them as they left.
And she cried for a long time that night.
CHAOS is not very happy. All of the Four Finds came back in defeat within minutes of each other. Though it was weeks in between the times that they were defeated, they all came back to about the same time.
The Reaper is Lich; the Lamia (which I learned is the mythological term for a creature that had the upper body of a woman and the lower body of a snake) is Kary; the octopus is Kraken; and the dragon is Tiamat.
For the Light Warriors, callous @#%^& that they are, it's been about two months. For us, it's been only minutes. They're a lot stronger now; a Knight, a Grand Master, and two Wizards (one White, one Black.) CHAOS has sent out the Fiends to meet them.
And I don't know what to do. CHAOS is evil. The Light Warriors are just irritating. But if I don't fight them, CHAOS will kill me. And besides, I could use a chance to get back at them. But can I kill them?... Well, I'll defeat them, at least. And then I'll defeat CHAOS himself.
"Tiamat dies. Again," said Garland. "It's up to me now."
"THEY'LL BE HERE SOON."
There was a strange hum from CHAOS's direction, and Garland turned to see that he was gone.
The rusted iron doors opened, and there were the Light Warriors. They looked almost exactly has they had before, but the Black Wizard now had his face uncovered. He had pale skin and short brown hair. The Knight's hair was combed. The White Wizard didn't wear a hood.
"Who are you?!" asked the Knight.
"Remember me? Garland?" he replied. "Your puny lot thought it had defeated me."
Garland, in a rage, launched into a spiel about what was happening- and how the Light Warriors would loose- and how he had lost everything at their hands, though he didn't go into specifics. Did he want to say? Of course, seeing the reality of the situation, he would rather assist them in turning on CHAOS, but now his words weren't his own--
--he changed. His clothes and blade turned back into their gold semi-liquid state, and swirled around him--
Garland was seeing through CHAOS's eyes. His body was CHAOS's body. And he wasn't in control.
If the Light Warriors lost, most of the world was lost.
If CHAOS lost, he would die.
The advent of the lose-lose situation.
I see it.
I don't exactly, not really. I see it with someone else's eyes. It's hazy. No, it's sharp. It varies from moment to moment.
It's like a dream.
In dreams, it's not often that you feel you're in control. You feel like you're watching yourself from inside your head. And when you go to sleep in the dream, you wake up.
I'm watching from inside my own head. Not my own head: my own mind.
Not in my body at all.
Like a silent set of images. It is silent, it is, let me note that. No. It just is.... I can hear, but it's peaceful. They scream. They bleed. They fight on. Rivers of fire flow down and the sound, there is some now, seems almost distant. Rivers of fire, swirls of clouds, brutal lows of pure energy. Like things from a book, but it is there.
And not accompanied by the brass boom of the orchestra, it is real, and there. Things I wouldn't believe, but for that they happen, and I see them, but they're so real. They're more real than the epic poems or operas or symphonies or plays would even have you believe. For the first time I watch these things objectively.
And then everything bursts into flame.
The ball of fire came so swiftly and unreally that Sara didn't see it until it was past its point of greatest swelling and size. It disappeared as quickly as it had come, giving her bedroom back its reality, as if nothing had happened.
Except for that now there was someone else there, the flames' passenger.
"Garland. Oh God," she whispered, stunned for a moment. Then she leapt from her sitting position on the bed and knelt at his side.
"Sara," he replied, also in a whisper, though parched lips. Hurt. Badly. He was wearing the clothes he had been the first day she'd seen him, in his ceremony for Sky Warrior membership. "Let me just... I'm hurt. Can't make it. But I want to say..."
"Hang on! I'll get a White Wizard, I can--"
"Don't... just prolong it... no, I want to say... here." He reached into his cape and removed the glass of rose petals.
"Remember me by this.
"Sara... I loved you. I still love you. And I will always love you. Don't forget that... Sara... goodbye..."
He turned his face toward hers, and Garland pressed his lips to Sara's in their final and most memorable kiss.
And then, with a last smile, eyes closed, Garland clasped Sara's trembling hand in his and died in her arms.