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Somewhere in the World
My candle burns at both ends;
"It was a pleasure to burn."
Panting from the physical strain, Icantus again parried with the wooden practice sword in his right hand, simultaneously lunging forward with the similar weapon supported by his opposite arm. His opponent sent the weakly-held sword flying with a single flick of the wrist, and Icantus had to jump backwards to avoid yet another flurry of strokes.
Crap, on the defensive again. He could almost feel Anvanit's mild irritation as he concentrated on sidestepping the relentless barrage of blows. No, on the run. Rolling along the ground to dodge a smash aimed at his mid-section, the young ninja trainee felt a boot clamp down on his right wrist. The hand and sword were pinned limply to the ground; the opponent's face grinned with triumph.
Icantus smirked in return, thoroughly puzzling the apparent victor who stood above him, then mumbled an incoherent phrase.
A wall of flame erupted from Icantus's left hand, its force pushing the opponent to his knees. If not for the protective barrier Anvanit had created for the duelers, nothing would have been left of the ninja that could not have been blown away by the wind.
"Concede," stated the surprised warrior, and Anvanit entered from outside the circle drawn to designate the combat area.
"Excellent!" the aging but sharp master declared, clapping both young men firmly on the back. "Icantus, Drort--gather your weapons and return home. We will continue tomorrow morning, an hour after sunrise."
"Your damn magic wins," Drort sighed, though he obviously held no hard feelings toward his friend.
Icantus extended a hand to help his training partner to his feet. "I should give up the swords," he grumbled. "What's the use, anyway?"
Drort unfastened his headband, running a hand through the long blond hair that fell from his face. "You were made from a different mold than the rest of us." He laughed and did a sword flourish before taking the weapon beneath his arm. "A real wizard from Eblan, beyond just using ninja magic."
"A wizard," Icantus mumbled to himself. It had a nice ring to it.
Anvanit bowed to the figure seated at the throne. "Your Majesty."
The King of Eblan nodded in response, his indigo ninja garb sharply contrasting with the royal violet cape thrown over his shoulders and the shimmering crown atop his head. "My people have told me about the business you have to report."
"Yes, Your Majesty. It concerns the ninja trainees."
"They are all coming along very well, Your Majesty."
"I am glad to hear that."
"Thank you, Your Majesty." Another bow. "But, there is one--his strength lies in a discipline we cannot train properly in Eblan. I recommend that he be given an education in Mysidia, with Your Majesty's support, naturally...."
The youthful monarch rubbed his chin in thought. "So it shall be. Chamberlain, make the necessary arrangements for this student."
"Thank you, Your Majesty. This man will eventually have a great impact on this kingdom, I am sure."
The five-year-old crown prince of Eblan was building a crude castle with a set of blocks in a quiet corner of the throne room, so it was quite a mystery as to why he suddenly felt a chill run through his heart and down his spine.
1. Mystic Mysidia
Icantus bade farewell to Drort before the ship bound for Mysidia. "Well, my friend, it looks like we won't be fighting together anymore."
A snort, probably to cover his emotions. "Damn straight. You can attack your own kind out there in wizardville."
In truth, Icantus felt completely alone now, isolated from the Eblanese he had felt himself kinsmen to since birth. It didn't matter that he was going to a place where his powers would fit in and he would make the most of his abilities--his homeland was still Eblan, and he was leaving it now, for the first time. As his shining green eyes stung, he felt almost as forlorn as when he had learned his parents would never return to him, killed before Icantus reached his twelfth birthday.
"Just watch over Merla for me," Icantus managed. The thought of the fair daughter of Anvanit calmed him, as he imagined her throwing a playful smile at him over her shoulder, tossing her dark hair behind her flippantly. God knew he wanted to win her over, but now he could only hope she would still be there when he returned.
Drort laughed heartily--perhaps a bit too enthusistically--and reassured, "You'll be sure I'll keep her out of trouble. Have a good trip, man."
Icantus didn't think it would happen.
The wonder Icantus felt upon arriving at Mysidia was exceeded only by his confusion at the entirely novel setting. He was met at the dock by an arrogant black wizard, draped in an oversized blue robe and huge straw hat, then taken to the training hall. Unlike facilities in other towns, this was devoted purely to magic: no massive swords and spears, remnants of ancient battles, graced the walls; instead, rods, staves, and spellbooks reigned supreme. Here, he was asked a battery of questions.
"Seventeen years, three months, and--"
An involuntary shiver. "It is of no matter."
There was a pause, as the white-cloaked mage behind the desk sized up his appearance. Tall and lanky, not at all imposing or intimidating; eerily bright green eyes, with ambition flaming behind them; the clothing of an Eblanese ninja--no, no; that would never do in Mysidia. "Magic specialty?"
"None. You see, I studied ninja incantations, and--"
A tiny flutter of magic, so minute that Icantus doubted his own sensation of it, struck his forehead. "I'll put you as Red." The wizard looked sharply again at the native of Eblan. "You will live in the dorms, upstairs, with the others taking Black. Take this."
A set of clothing and a thick textbook were shoved in his direction. He looked at its cover: "I Must Calm Myself to Cast Black Magic," followed by the subtitle, "a comprehensive guide to the beginning study of the Mysidian arts, Volume 1,"
It was the regulation book issued to all new students.
And so it began.
2. A Long Way to Go
Icantus roomed with three other wizards who had newly entered the academy: they ranged from three weeks to two years of study and were all his age. All three were Black, as Reds were rare of late; the one who had irritated him at the dock was one of them. Icantus couldn't remember this mage's full name--it had been something Agartian and unpronouncable--and called him Orisk like the others. The others were Gord, a talkative and fidgety pransker, and Lance, a withdrawn student who seemed to disappear into the background when surrounded by rowdier young men.
He began training the day after arriving, finding that magic was taken quite seriously in his new home. Half an hour of meditation after breakfast, carefully monitored by instructors who wouldn't accept sleeping as an calming alternative. One hour of reading from "The Mysidian Spellbook, level 1," followed by two hours of lecture; today's was on the casting of "Venom- and Virus-family spells. A half an hour break, then independent practice of magic, and so on....
It was no less draining than a day of swordfighting, that much he would venture, and even the experienced students left with weary steps. But a sort of reassuring peace fell upon his psyche as he trudged to the adjacent compound that night. For once, he wasn't at the bottom of the hierarchy, the weakest scapegoat whose weapon always dropped helplessly from his hand. No longer did he struggle to comprehend the lessons others easily absorbed; he had potential now. Yes, Anvanit would have been proud.
Icantus only wondered about Merla as his head touched the pillow that night, half a world away. He had sent her a letter upon arriving, one of the first things he had done after registering. Disappointment would sink in after a month without a reply, frustration after a second unanswered letter two months after that. But for the time being, on this first day of Mysidian training, he was hopeful and eager, his tired but contented mind flitting back to recall Merla's pleasant visage.
He smiled and was asleep the next instant.
Icantus's plan began to take shape after the novelty of living in Mysidia began to wear off, some four months after his arrival, after his experiences there began to change him.
His self-confidence was slowly built up, one magic-using success at a time; his reputation as a talented--though still largely untrained--wizard spread among his classmates. He breezed through his lessons and was promoted to the next level of study in a third of the expected time. He made the acquaintance of others at the training academy, including Orisk, though the latter's pompous attitude occasionally grated on his nerves.
In his spare time, he wandered the vast underground library below the academy, venturing into the dusty recesses of the ancient sections, where the volumes were rarely touched by the hands of students. He would gently slide a book from its place, his palm print leaving a damp smear on the dust of the broad spine. His fingers would carefully turn the yellowed pages, touching phrases here and there; he would smile to see the words "Mysaedya" or "Aeblain" in faded archaic script.
Not that he understood much of it, of course. This was the realm of sages and experienced scholars who had studied the history of magic for twice as many years as Icantus had been alive. He did learn of the existence of ancient magics, though--spells that protected casters from the elements, inflicted harm on the undead, or sent enemies to unknown dimensions. They were outdated and no longer taught, he found out from a professor, but who was to say they still couldn't be cast?
But suffice to say that the master wizards at Mysidia, the instructor added, weren't willing to risk their valuable necks on attempting magic that might ruin their careers or their health.
But back to his plan. It emerged one cloudy morning in late summer, as he stood apart from a crowd of Mysidians in a marked field just outside town. Icantus was scheduled to compete in his first magic tournament, against a student of Black he knew only remotely, by the name of Raltin. Perfect from a strategic standpoint: no reluctance to harm a friend or judgment clouded from hate existed. In truth, he had something of an upper hand, with his slight knowledge of White.
The green-eyed man stood mutely apart, his gaze fixed on the grass, his thoughts distant. He remembered the last public duel he had been in, back in his days at Eblan. The same grass, the same crowd of warriors-in-training, instructors, and friends; the spirit was the same, though the exact form was different. There he stood near the center of the circle of watchers, practice swords drawn and ready, facing a grimly sneering opponent.
And he was losing, being beaten back as always. There was Anvanit, fingers stroking thoughtfully at his beard, wondering what to do with his struggling student. A sympathetic small group of friends cheered him on, their familiar cries giving him strength. The opponent's supporters jeered at his clumsiness, disheartening him, overpowering the friendly voices. And Merla, with a group of girls, her eyes sad. What was that reflected in her eyes, pity, contempt, or encouragement?
"Icantus," a voice said, shaking his shoulder.
It was his Mysidian roommate Lance. "Yeah," Icantus answered blankly. "Sure."
"You're up next, y'know."
A professor pointed him toward the center of the ring and announced the match. The protective magical barriers were cast around the two by mages who stood near the judges; a high-level white wizard watched to one side, but it was doubtful he would be needed.
Icantus faced Raltin, blood and adrenaline beginning to flow fiercely to his head. He struck first, with a weak bolt of thunder that was easily dodged. Moments passed before he felt a stream of deathly cold ice approach him. He tried to dance out of its path, but it grazed the barrier and was left embedded in its side.
The barrier protected him from permanent injury but not from pain. He clutched at his stomach, casting a mild healing spell that relieved most of his pain. At the same time, the opponent launched a mid-level virus spell that threatened to slowly suck the strength from his body.
Icantus thought back to his days as a ninja trainee, heart blazing. He wouldn't suffer the same humiliation again, not unless they killed him first! It was an ideal opportunity, he thought idly, now that their abilities were evened out but he appeared to be at his weakest.
The decoy of helplessness. Icantus ignored the lightning spell he subconsciously felt jolt the left side of his body, beginning to chant. He finished and released a fire spell--huge, for his level of study--that made his opponent cry out in pain and tumble gracelessly to the ground.
And it was over. The other wizard-in-training lay stunned, curled into a motionless ball. Apparently, the Fire 2 had partially broken through the barrier. Two white wizards tended to Raltin, healing his wounds and helping him into a sitting position. Icantus extended a hand to the defeated, simultaneously seeing a second image--that of a similar hand being offered to him a year earlier as he writhed in agony under the critical gaze of dozens of spectators.
He shuddered as his hand made contact with Raltin's clammy palm. For he imagined himself slumped on the grass as before, filled with disappointment and shame as he looked up into Drort's victorious smirk.
The rest of the day passed quickly for Icantus, dazed but faintly filled with a confidence and joy he had never experienced before. And here his plan was set down in his mind, as the professors and graduating wizards gave their long speeches and awards were presented. He would study magic like it had never been studied before, with determination and a vengeance. Yes, he would definitely return to Eblan triumphant and have a chance to grin back at Drort and the others who had taunted him. He would dazzle them with his magic and impress even Merla, then maybe settle down in the service of the king....
"Hey, Icantus, wanna go get a drink with the rest of us?"
It was Gord, representing a group of academy students who were already headed in the direction of a cafe in town.
Icantus only took a moment to think. "Nah, thanks, but I'm kinda busy already."
He went back to his room and lit a candle against the rapidly falling twilight. "Casting high-level destructive-group spells, p. 347," said the index.
He started to memorize the words for Quake.
3. Into the Darkness
Soon, others at his dorm knew better than to ask him to leave his room. He received a few joking comments about it--"Bet you're sneaking girls in while we're out, Icantus?" (laughter and eyebrow-raising followed)--"Hey, don't kill yourself, 'right?"--but was treated with considerable respect and understanding. Meaning: they weren't willing to face his magic.
One exception came about four years after he first arrived at the academy. It was a Saturday afternoon, and Icantus was naturally using the time to pour over his texts. By now, he knew close to all the black magic the academy could teach, save Nuke and a couple other high-level spells, and it appeared his future lay with the antiquated library downstairs, or perhaps with an associate professorship and study under a Master Wizard somewhere in Mysidia. It was the ancient magics that had fascinated him the most the last few months, however, with their twisting words and faint aura of mystique drawing him in more than any faraway Meteo or White.
They could be cast, this he knew; a couple of simple spells, largely forgotten for centuries, had proven viable when he tried them in private. Effective, though unneeded, as he could think of numerous modern ones that served similar purposes. The one he studied now, however....This one was a real doozy, one with a long incantation that rivaled Fatal in difficulty, and that was one that had eluded him for almost eight months. But he just about had it, if he could tackle the last few words....
He finally closed the volume, sending up an invisible cloud of dust that made him sneeze twice. A spider skittered across the wall, stopping in a corner at the opposite side of the room. Icantus smiled, leaning back in his chair, then closed his eyes and began to chant. He strained at times, feeling his forehead crease in thought, holding his concentration on the form of that tiny spider. The final words spoken, he released his spell and crossed his fingers.
He watched its effects, his reaction first wonder, then glee, then...unrestrained laughter. Yes! It was done, for the first time in modern history!
Icantus's moment of exultation was interruped by the entrance of Orisk, his arrogant roommate. With a somber, unreadable expression, the latter said bluntly, "Gord's in the infirmary. I'm going to see him now."
Icantus, moved to seriousness by Orisk's mien, took that as an invitation to follow, which he did. Gord was lying in a bed, eyes closed, a tight expression on his face that indicated pain, a bruised right side of his face, and a swollen lip.
"Gord! What happened?" asked Icantus, a momentary panic fleeting through his mind, imagining trolls and mythical dragons.
The injured man opened his eyes with some effort and, after nodding at the visitors, shrugged in response. "A little accident is all. I was walking home late last night, a bit plastered, maybe." He coughed, bringing a bandaged hand to his mouth. "Another careless academy kid, eh?"
"Who did this to you?" (Imagining vicious pickpockets, potential kidnappers.)
Another shrug. "Damned if I'd know. I don't remember a thing. One minute walking next to a gutter, the next...."
"Let's go," said Orisk quickly, catching Icantus's elbow. "We're going to let the man rest."
Once outside, the red wizard turned to his roommate, following him and showering him with questions. "What happened to him? How could that happen? He was out late, but who would have attacked him for no reason?"
"I left the cafe early," Orisk answered. "I didn't see it. I hear he got too talkative and pissed one of the others off, and the group caught up with him later."
"He deserved it," came the short reply. "If you'd been around the rest of the world, you'd have known that this kind of thing happens almost every other day."
Icantus pondered in silence, silently cursing himself for his naivet. His idea of retribution was ostracization, or perhaps a fair fight in the forest outside town--certainly a group against a single perpetrator fell into the category of unjustified violence.
Orisk's voice broke into his musings. "So you coming for a drink with us?"
In an effort to make conversation: "What was up in your room a couple minutes ago?"
A faint smile touched the corners of Icantus's lips. "Learned a new spell, that's all."
"Your unending enthusiasm," Orisk replied sarcastically.
Icantus whistled a light little tune as they walked to the cafe.
Two hours later, the cafe was filled with talking and laughing Mysidian youths, and Icantus was in a bemused state, having had more beer than was typical (none) of him. So he didn't completely believe it when Lance entered, spotted him, and asked him if he wanted to go to Eblan.
"Eblan? Just like that?" asked Icantus, his thought processes rather muddled.
"We're going--me a few other final-yearers--t'observe the learning system there, and t'talk to the kids, see if any wanna come here to Mysidia, a student exchange thing, y'know. Another guy here--think you know him, Brent, I think--his mother came down sick last night, pretty bad, so he can't make it. No catch. Except y'hafta be ready tomorrow morning, nine. They'll take care of missing class. Whadyasay?"
"Well, sure," he answered, "just sign me up."
He laughed uproariously to himself, muttering unintelligably in between, so that the server considered bringing him nothing stronger than milk the next time around. What perfect timing! He could show his newly-learned spell to the other wizards and have them ooh and ahh in the presence of Eblanese higher-ups.
Just then, he noticed a bit of an argument brewing between Orisk and a stranger, an out-of-towner with a merchant caravan, it would seem, based on his clothing. It was evidently over a servingwoman who happened to be Orisk's girlfriend.
"So what, I gave her a comment on how she looks," the stranger defended himself.
"Get your eyes back in your head and shuddap," Orisk spat back, throwing in several other colorful comments in between. "Or you might have trouble finding them."
The foreigner grumbled and knocked his glass onto the table with an elbow but didn't seem to care, stamping out after yelling complaints about the drink and the atmosphere.
Orisk seemed to exchange glances with some of the others, and they stood up en masse, gesturing for Icantus to do the same. "What's going on?"
An ominous chuckle was issued from several throats, but Orisk was the first to speak. "Remember what I said about people getting what they deserved?"
Justified violence. Yes, but what was justice? And who could administer it, Orisk with his own clouded judgment?
His head unclear, Icantus followed his companions outside, the sharply cool air reactivating the keenness of his senses. They moved down the street menacingly, following the path of the solitary retreating figure.
Icantus could only imagine what the man thought as he turned and focused unsteadily on the eight twentysomething wizards stalking behind him. He reached into his doublet, pulling out a knife that gleamed fiercely in the light of the full moon, but one of the mages slapped it from his grip from a distance of five yards with a quick incantation, whereupon the visitor fled desperately for the nearest building. Another spell--this one a Stop--paralyzed the victim, and the group was upon him.
Orisk delivered the first blow, slamming his fist into the man's face with rage in his now predatorial eyes. Icantus was right behind him, heady with liquor and excitement, holding down the victim's arm and delivering a kick to his hip, ignoring his groans and gasps of pain as the others swarmed in around them.
The wizards weren't the first ones to draw pleasure from hitting others in the jaw or side; it was a universal rush of power a number of people had felt since time immemorial. Justified violence, Icantus thought viciously, stepping back when a grinning Orisk gave a signal. Who was to say the lowlife lying on the pavingstones wouldn't have done the same to them or worse?
They left him unconscious outside an inn, with nothing splints, salve, and a couple months in bed couldn't cure, except for a bitter taste in his mouth associated with the gentle citizens of Mysidia.
4. Illusionary World
Icantus walked silently through the streets of Eblan, glancing sideways at the lights that shone from within the cozy homes. No fanfare or welcoming committee had greeted the group of wizards when the ship landed, and certainly no one expected him. His red mage's cloak pulled around his frame, Icantus headed in the direction of his closest friend and advisor in all Eblan.
Anvanit's house stood apart from those of his neighbors, near the woods of the town's outskirts. From far off, Icantus saw a small figure slide from the back door, closing it slowly behind her.
It was Merla. That was her blue-black hair, falling across her slim back, and her light step moving furtively away from the house. He felt tender emotions rise to the surface and longed to run to her, yet just as quickly, the questions sprang up. Where was she going? More importantly...who?
Icantus felt himself choke silently, slowly--his heart being clamped down on by the gaping mouth of a piranha. Muttering a few words, he spun a shield of invisibility around himself and followed her into the forest. He stayed some distance away, not wanting any sounds to alert her to his presence.
She met him a minute later, a ninja leaning casually against a tree who pressed the back of her hand gallantly against his lips. His face was obscured from Icantus's vision, but he was fairly certain he wouldn't have recognized it anyway.
"Let's go," the ninja seemed to be saying--Icantus couldn't tell from this distance--to a reluctant Merla, who looked cautiously back at her house, visage cold and uninterested.
"Come on, they won't notice you're gone," he encouraged, pulling on her hand.
"Leave me alone!" She jerked her fingers from his grasp.
Icantus almost ran toward them to attack the ninja, he almost screamed out. Nobody--nobody in the world--should treat Merla like that! He remembered all those dreams, those images he conjured with her lovely laugh, her radiant smile, her happiness--what were they now, if he were to watch her being taken advantage of?
He began to whisper fiercely, lips automatically guided by his years of Mysidian training and the rage boiling in his head. The ninja continued trying to convince Merla to follow him somewhere--where, Icantus didn't know or care--unaware of the danger lurking behind a Blink spell.
The red wizard neared the end of his chant. There was still time to turn back, a part of his mind thought tentatively, but something else within him, infused with a sort of animallike vengeance, drove him forward unceasingly.
And it was done; the ancient enchantment's power was ready for him to use, for only the second time in the last three centuries, if only he would speak the final word.
It came out as a dry croak: "Rub."
A huge ripple of energy escaped his outstretched hands, stiking the ninja and bringing him to his knees.
And he began to disintegrate.
Atoms, molecules, cells fell away in a wave, starting from his feet and moving up through his body. He looked down in horror at where his legs once were, just as his hands started disappearing. Beside him, Merla clutched desparately at his shoulders, as though her pulling him to his feet would bring back the matter that had been sent into oblivion. She screamed once, twice, shaking with fear.
Now there was nothing left but the face, contorted into a mask of agony. It thrashed to the side, staring with its last moment into the face of the murderer, then vanishing to a forbidden dimension.
Icantus clutched his hands together to quiet their sudden trembling.
Drort. The ninja Drort Ellizy.
The red wizard ran from the scene, not caring that he had let his Blink spell drop, to escape the terrified shrieks of the shocked Merla.
Icantus plodded to the inn, where his bags had been sent, and rented a room. There, he slept immediately and with a purpose: to quiet the awful ache in his chest, to forget the horrible void that was more frightening than any man alive, because it represented one who had once been but had been wiped mercilessly, hauntingly from the surface of the earth.
The expected crashing in of the door came just after dawn. "Royal orders! Get up, and don't put up a fight!"
Icantus stepped from his bed, still wearing the red wizard's clothing from the previous night, already prepared for what he knew he would need to face.
"Surrender your weapons."
That was simple enough. He had none, if you discounted whatever powers were held in his mind and in his words.
He went sedately, eyeing the drawn swords of the soldiers and smiling at the wide-eyed citizens he recognized as they passed.
Eblanese ninjas held the eager throng of townspeople back from the center of the town square, where the king and a small flock of his administrators presided in the setup of a public trial. Standing calmly before the spectators for the "trial of the century," as curious housewives had dubbed it, was the suspect, the defendant, the Eblanese wizard Icantus Drefflin.
He had been called to give his story and now stood before the king--who always ruled in high-profile cases such as this one, as human interest stories were rare in the out-of-the-way city--as the royal guard attempted to hush the overflowing pool of gawkers. During this wait, he turned and scanned the faces, not finding the one he searched for, though he did spot Anvanit near the front. The aging ninja instructor appeared stern but tired, meeting Icantus's eyes for a second before turning sharply away.
"Your testimony, Mr. Drefflin," the chamberlain ordered, after a brief history of Icantus's life had been read.
Icantus related the events steadily, not hiding his intentions or crime. The crowd had to be quieted several more times in the course of his statements, but he plunged relentlessly and shamelessly on.
Justified violence, he thought, as the administrators standing to the side exchanged rather disturbed glances at his lack of remorse. Justified according to himself, of course, but fulfilling justice nonetheless.
The few pieces of outside evidence were brought in, including a damning written statement that had been dictated sometime in the week that had passed since Drort's death by the absent Merla--as though his own confession were not enough. Despite the simplicity in everything, the trial dragged on until past noon, the midday sun driving many of the watchers back to their homes and chores.
King Eblan, his sceptor held regally at his side, finally stood and gave his official verdict and sentence. "The accused, this Icantus Drefflin, is indeed guilty of the murder in question. He will be put to death by hanging tomorrow morning at sunrise, in this very town square. That is all."
The townspeople who were left buzzed with excitement, but Icantus was relaxed and somewhat pleased, in a twisted way: he had finally gotten his day of fame in Eblan.
Lance and the other traveling Mysidians visited him briefly in jail that afternoon, appalled but somehow not surprised by the green-eyed wizard's actions. He had always been an odd sort, seldom associating with the others, and you know what they said about still waters? That time spent alone must have bred trouble, or was a sign of it, but hindsight was always twenty-twenty, wasn't it? In any case, they wished him well and bid him their solemn farewells before ducking out for the comfort of the local inn.
Then came Anvanit, looking old and stressed as Icantus had seen him earlier, with the omnipresent question, "Why? Why did you do it, Icantus?"
"What else could I have done?" came the cold response, and Anvanit knew that he was speaking to a sad, bitter man who had secretly been that way since his parents died or earlier.
"How could you have done that to Drort? And how could you have done that to Merla?" This time, his voice was soft, as though Icantus were the son he never had.
"Merla?" His head snapped up. He had thought of her often while alone in the tiny, dark cell that reminded him of the lonely depths of the earth.
"She was in bed for three days because of the shock. She's still at home, crying in her room." A hint of steel entered his tone.
Icantus could think of nothing to say.
"She's sorry this had to happen." A pause, then a sort of sigh. "She loved you, you know."
He suddenly turned to study the older man. Anvanit read the flash of emotion and continued, "Why else would she have waited for you for so long, holding Drort at bay for four years? She talked with him about ninja training and thought of you training in Mysidia every time. Didn't you know that? She had no idea that you were the red wizard she saw. If she had known...."
"But...but she never wrote," Icantus stuttered falteringly, his stay suddenly unbearable. Oh, to walk free in the streets again!
"She did, but you never responded."
What neither man, nor any other living person, knew was that a certain long-haired ninja had promised to deliver the letters to the post office but had gotten them only as far as the nearest fireplace.
"It's too bad this had to happen," Anvanit finally said. "You had such a promising future, Icantus."
The ninja instructor walked down the corridor, his shoulders slumped in a way uncharacteristic of him.
"Tell her I love her," Icantus cried down the hall, but his response came only in the form of the echo of receding footsteps.
Four soldiers trudged into the dungeon, their plate armor--quite unusual in Eblan, clearly present only for ceremony and for the sake of keeping up with the rest of the world--clanging lightly to declare their arrival.
"So damn early," one said, yawning, as a second guard fished for the correct key to open the barred iron door.
"Shoulda become an executioner, then," the one struggling for the keys--apparently the leader--grumbled, and the others laughed nervously, glancing at Icantus. The prisoner sat on the hard cot near one corner of the cell, again in his red wizard's clothing.
He had paced the cell late into the night, thinking of his life on that, his supposed final day, and thinking of what might have been. He thought of the biggest mistake of his life--for he saw it with regret, now--and of how it had forever branded his name with infamy. It was an act that he wished would never be forgotten, to him or to anyone else, since it was a lesson for all.
Icantus would personally make sure his deed would never go forgotten. He would brand that dreaded Rub spell into his very identity, as a reminder never to act out of emotion again.
He would call himself...Rubicantus.
No, that was far too clumsy; just plain Rubicant would do.
He somehow didn't think in a way fitting a man expected to die at dawn.
The soldiers didn't know any of this, or care, for that matter; they had their job to take care of for their 250 GP per week and benefits. The leader managed to get the door open and gestured for Icantus--Rubicant now--to get up. "C'mon, prisoner. Get ready to go. We can't keep the executioner waiting."
He fell to the ground in feigned agony, clutching at his stomach and moaning theatrically.
The guards exchanged tired glances. They had seen this before, the shock of staring ahead at the tunnel that represented one's life and seeing the specter of death looming only minutes away. "You have five minutes," one stated blandly. To one of his fellow soldiers, he asked, "His name's Drefflin, or something? Icantus Drefflin?"
Rubicant began to convulse, his limbs thrashing against the cold stone of the cell's dusty floor, eyes jerking wildly.
The first guard began to worry, cautiously approaching the twitching figure, fingertips against the sword at his belt as a precaution. Then, when he moved in to examine....
The massive fire spell virtually melted the two guards closest to him, and the other two were scorched almost fatally, their armor softening, clothes and skin charring beneath.
"The name's Rubicant," the former prisoner whispered. He had never seen mangled corpses from this close and turned away, sickened by the scene he had created.
Ignoring their yells, he ran down the dimly-lit corridor, skidding to a stop as he rounded a corner. For there a guard, who had come to inspect the source of the noise, stared at him for a moment, surprised that the sunken-eyed prisoner had been able to escape. Rubicant stared back, afraid of what he might have to do, already upset by the first deaths, the human life he felt was crushed and smeared by his stained hands.
The Eblanese guard acted first. He drew his sword and swung it in Rubicant's direction, but the latter recovered quickly enough to create an invisible barrier, weak from short notice but strong enough to ward off the blow. The sword stuck into the field with a hollow thud, and its wielder struggled to pull it free. Then Rubicant dropped his spell, causing his enemy to stumble backwards. Tired of magic and its destruction, Rubicant's old ninja instincts took over.
He threw a punch at the off-balance soldier's face, connecting solidly and sending him reeling back, nose bloodied. Rubicant hoped that would be enough to let him get away, but the guard recovered and rushed suddenly in his direction, honed blade flashing in the feeble light.
Rubicant had no choice. He tossed a fireball at the man before him, catching the guard in the face. The sword fell loudly the floor as he clawed desperately at his face, skin and hair still aflame, kept burning by the wizard's powerful magic.
Rubicant gagged at the sight and knelt to pick up the guard's sword, ready to finish the task and put the man out of his misery. A droplet of fiery blood from the struggling man's nose landed on Rubicant's face. He wiped it away and felt it singe his hand, taunting him with its parody of his magical skills.
The red wizard slammed the sword into the soldier's unprotected neck and shoved the dead figure backwards. Then he continued down the corridor.
He met and burned four more soldiers who stood guard near the entrance, then easily took care of three others waiting outside. Luckily, the jail stood near at the very edge of town, because his ability to cast magic was tiring.
Rubicant sprinted desperately for the caves west of Eblan, never turning back to see the melee that was developing far behind him. When he neared their gloomy entrance, he took a fallen branch from the ground and lit it as a torch with a weak fire spell. The temperature dropped ten degrees inside, and he was greeted by cool mustiness and the distant sound of squeaking bats.
He would be safer deeper within the twisting passages, and so he pushed forward, hoping he would be able to find his way back. That is, if he survived long enough for that to become a necessity. Glancing cautiously behind his shoulder, he stumbled into a wall. But it wasn't exactly a wall, since it gave slightly from his weight....
Rubicant jumped back, his body and mind tensely ready, as the black-clad figure advanced. "Who are you?"
The armored man chuckled, his deep voice almost rumbling within the cavern. "I have been watching you for some time, Icantus. Your services would be very useful to me. My name is Golbez."
7. Golbez Clad in the Dark
Rubicant had never heard the name of this enormously powerful wizard before, nor was he familiar with many of Golbez's spells. Golbez had warped them to a windowless study--somewhere in the world, Rubicant thought, though he had no idea where--and had been describing a few of his skills. "Lunar shock," he said, leaning backwards in his chair, full goblet of wine in his hand. "It sends a bolt of energy through the subject's body, pushing him back and sending him into temporary paralysis."
The red wizard glanced down at the drink in his own cup, observing that it was two shades darker than his wrinkled clothing--prison tended to do that, he thought wryly--and looked back at the figure before him. This Golbez was only a few years older than Rubicant, though the hollow depth of his dark eyes displayed a hauntedness even the latter's anguished soul lacked.
"X-Warp," Golbez continued, nonchalantly studying Rubicant's subtle reactions. "It sends the subjects to any place in the world, given its location in relation to the moon's current location."
"Ah, the second, of course."
"I understand the power you hold," Rubicant said bluntly, his mind not dulled by his weeks of trouble. "Now, why do you bring me here?"
A low, rumbling chuckle was the first response. "A simple occupational concern, and nothing more. You would make a good...."
Golbez again leaned back in his seat, remaining silent until Rubicant responded, with inadvertent harshness, "Henchman?"
"No, wizard and commander. That and more." Another strategic pause, during which time Rubicant restrained himself from leaning forward in anticipation. "You see, my master needs help for his mission, and you have the power to make a difference."
"What is this mission?"
"It is something few people on this world understand. You know of the crystals?"
"Of fire, water, earth, and wind?" For a moment, Rubicant wished he had more knowledge of the crystals; black magic was his field of specialty, not ancient history.
"Yes, and the others as well--the underground and lunar crystals. You see, they hold more power than most can imagine. The nations guarding them have long forgotten their uses. At any moment, a wise but villainous mage could seize them and exploit their energy.
"My master is one of the chosen few who remembers....He wants to prevent any destruction from occurring. My task is to build this tower as a keep for the crystals, then take them from the clueless monarchs. When all the crystals on this earth are collected, the way to the moon will be opened, and we will seize the lunar crystals. Otherwise, the evil stirring in the world will gather them before us, and hold my master captive. He embodies great wisdom and magic--if that were to happen, our planet's life would be in grave danger."
The black-clad figure stopped. "You may join us on our noble quest or return to the Caves of Eblan."
Rubicant ran the alternatives through in his mind. He had little choice other than to accept the terms presented, unless he wanted to again face capture and execution in Eblan, this time without opportunity or help for escape. But he could always flee to a far-flung region of the world and live anonymously, perhaps in Silvera or Kaipo, wiping his past clean of the imprints of death they had accumulated....
"I--want to help," he said, feeling his lips move of their own accord, while his heart wrenched suddenly.
"Good," Golbez almost purred, extending a hand in friendship. "I knew you would understand. Now, I will show you the room I have prepared for you...."
And so Rubicant became Golbez's first lieutenant, both in position and in chronology, one of the initial building blocks for the foundation of the mysterious man's empire. He also became his close friend, or as close as two equally distant wizards could be, out of the common bitterness each man felt. Here they lived as scheming outcasts, in quiet rooms of a half-built tower, hidden miles above the earth, above the clouds, surrounded only by dumbly compliant goblins and monsters of burden, isolated from the worlds they wished to understand and control.
Yet Rubicant knew nothing of the darkness slowly seeping into his soul, teaching him to gradually accept the plans his masters were creating. They were simple ideas in the beginning: a dispatching of imps to gather news, floateyes to protect them, and so on. But they grew rasher and bruter, into full-fledged operations of intimidation and assassination, of large-scale invasions and takeovers.
Golbez spent much of his time away from the tower (which Rubicant learned was known as Zot). What he did was anyone's guess; in rare moments of conscience, Rubicant mused over what evil he must have been plotting. Most of the remainder of Golbez's time was spent in his own room at the top of the tower. The door was closed and he was alone, but he was always speaking to his master, learning spells and describing what he had accomplished on the Blue Planet.
In those few hours between his other work, Golbez taught his new assistant lunar magic. Rubicant again felt like a young and eager wizard, entering a new world of seemingly mysterious incantations and gradually unlocking the powers they held.
But Rubicant spent most of his hours alone. Not alone in a physical sense; there were always various beasts from Golbez's army around Zot, completing their building of the floating masterpiece and maintaining the functional areas. Perhaps that was worse, having only such mindless monsters about: Rubicant felt himself drift farther away from humanity, with only the thought of mastering it, not returning to it, crossing his mind.
This gave him more than enough time to think to himself and contemplate the decisions and events of his life. Here he was, split between two identities: one of a sworn minion of the dreaded Golbez, the other, discarded like a soiled piece of undersized clothing, attached to the persange of a wanted murderer.
He didn't know which one was worse.
And he began to remember what Icantus had tried to forget.
His parents, hurrying out of the house to visit a sick aunt living across town, his mother tweaking his ear good-naturedly and telling him to keep himself out of trouble. He and Drort and a few others playing the game of "Baron vs. Fabul"; he was pretending to be a karate master, if he remembered correctly. They were playing in a field just outside the city, where the patches of high grass and nearby strand of trees were perfect for ambushes.
The ground shaking beneath them, trembling with enough force to bring Icantus to his knees, effectively ruining his plan to sneak up on a Baron dragoon in the waist-high grass.
Clawing at the debris that was once his aunt's house that night until he was dragged away by neighbors, a shocked stupor fallen over his sentience.
Living with that old lady down the street, kindly but slightly hard of hearing, until he moved to the barracks reserved for ninjas-in-training.
Meeting the respected ninja instructor Anvanit, a formidable warrior in his own right in his youth, who ironically had three daughters but no sons, and taking him as a fatherly role model.
And as he remembered, he began to understand. The shortcoming of humans, the reason why most of them failed to become great or epic: Emotions only led people to act in a silly, irrational way, following whims that had no more logical basis than the air had solid substance. They were constantly prodding people's ambitions from beneath the surface, urging mortals to act out of rage, sympathy, guilt...or love.
It was with this revelation he would free himself.
Rubicant emphasized his silent resolution with a fist slammed on the arm of his chair. Then he stepped outside and woodenly regarded the imps patrolling the hall, feeling his humanity slip farther and farther away from him, becoming a veritable mote on the horizon. And he turned his back on this speck, content to leaveit a hemisphere behind as he traveled the world, content to let it slide out of his life forever.
Rubicant never chose his path directly, or so he personally believed; he had slipped in the direction through his own follies. His future would be different.
He wondered whether he was going insane. Even if he was, he felt more empowered than ever before, more in charge of his destiny.
Insanity was a small price to pay for control.
8. The Prelude
"Sit down," Golbez urged, his voice more pensive and preoccupied than normal. It was seven months since he had rescued Rubicant from the pursuing Eblanese forces.
"What do you have planned?" Rubicant said, with slight apprehension.
"Master Zemus has shown me a way to increase your powers, by giving you a strong connection to the force you're most skilled at using."
"And what's that?" His voice was flat, the curiosity behind it hidden.
"Fire, of course."
"Is something wrong?"
Yes! he wanted to scream, but his lips wouldn't move. Something was wrong, very wrong.
He hated fire.
He hated the smell of charred flesh, the cackle of flames against vulnerable dry wood, the surge of magic that preceded it. Why, then, did he always use fire?
To punish himself for his weakness. It was the same reason he forced himself to use the name that so represented his past sins, torturing himself each time he heard the accursed word uttered.
The words formed themselves without his approval. "No, nothing's wrong at all."
"Good," Golbez smiled. "This spell will only take a few minutes."
The black-clad leader began to chant in the ancient, lyrical language of the Lunarians, casting a spell Rubicant did not recognize. Many of the phrases were similar to those of a spell used to summon bestial henchmen, and a few were used to read the minds of others, he noticed--
A wave of horrible pain struck him. He couldn't place where it emanated from, but he suspected it hit each individual cell in his body simultaneously. It was like millions of tiny sabers piercing through every square inch of his body, or like being immersed in lethally strong acid while being kept alive against all logic.
Rubicant stiffened, his shoulder blades smacking against the back of the chair. Behind the wall of torment, he vaguely sensed that Golbez was continuing to hold the spell in place, face tight with concentration.
And then it ended, as abruptly as it had started. Rubicant fell from his chair in relief, feeling slightly numb and dizzy.
Golbez offered him a hand up, and Rubicant saw that his face was lined with sweat. "It's done, it's done," Golbez panted, a hint of glee rising in his exhausted voice.
"What's done?" the wizard managed to choke out.
"The bonding. Channeling the power of Master Zemus, I bonded you with the Crystal of Fire. Now, whenever you cast a fire spell, you'll be drawing a fraction of its power. Not enough to have an effect on the crystal, you see, but more than enough to strengthen your attacks by several magnitudes."
Now displaying a rare moment of excitement, Golbez continued, "I never thought it possible. The only other type of bonds that have been created through magic are between the caster and nature or the caster and the summoned...."
Rubicant did discern a slight difference, a sort of warm throb pulsing through his flesh. He couldn't sense the crystal, but he felt in command of an enormous power, beyond anything he had ever imagined. Not even a council meeting between the wisest and strongest of the Mysidian sages gathered this immensity of power.
Yet he knew that the forces that had given him this gift held even greater power: Golbez, Zemus, and...the crystals.
Rubicant's metamorphosis from an ordinary wizard to a fiend was now completed with his physical transformation. That, along with the reckless abandon and frigidity that had entered his mindset, fully separated him from the personage of Icantus.
He wasn't the only one experiencing a radical alteration.
The years passed, filled with the study of magic, monsters, and solitude. Rubicant watched Golbez gather more devoted servants: A twisted, deformed wizard named Scarmiglione. A master of the arcane shapeshifting arts named Kainazzo. An outcast female Dragoon named Valvalis.
And Rubicant watched Golbez become the personification of evil he later appeared to be. At the beginning it was always, "Master Zemus requests" or "Master Zemus has planned...." As time went on and Golbez's influence over the Blue Planet's dark forces and monsters spread, his mind was gradually taken over by the force of hatred Zemus embodied, until he was Zemus.
He was hatred.
"The restoration of the Tower of Bab-il is almost complete," Golbez said flatly to Rubicant. "I have made plans for you to move there shortly."
"Me?" Rubicant was taken aback. He knew that Golbez planned to used the tower as a storehouse and fortress for his precious crystals--the Tower of Zot, Golbez had recented decided, was far too vulnerable to the whims of the machinery that kept it aloft--once they had been acquired, and assumed Golbez himself would guard them.
"Yes, I have other plans for myself."
Rubicant thought for a moment. "When do you want me to leave?"
Golbez held up one hand, signaling to Rubicant that he was not finished. "Before you do that, you must take control of the castle nearby, in order to prevent future attacks against you from having a base on the continent." He paused momentarily, as if he wanted to gauge his minion's immediate response. "I want you to destroy Eblan."
Rubicant shuddered, then felt himself go deathly calm, his defense mechanism. "Yes, sir. I will start planning at once."
The black-clad leader nodded slowly with approval. "I can always count on you. I'll give you..." He began to detail the exact nature and number of the forces Rubicant would be allotted.
Rubicant's mind worked frantically--figuring battle strategy against the people of Eblan.
Rubicant sat within a large tent far from the front lines, finished giving final orders to his commanders. From far outside came the rumble of catapulted rocks against the walls of the castle. Without looking out the tent flap, he knew that a contingent of wyverns and gargoyles was dropping foot soldiers--imps and chimeras--into the castle's upper levels from the air, where they would hopefully do damage while some of the Eblanese were occupied with the army just outside the walls.
He was glad he didn't have to watch the battle from up close; he was fairly certain most of the badly outnumbered ninjas would be slayed. Stepping up to the opening of the tent, he started to....
Wait. What was that sound he heard?
Rubicant's ninja reflexes told him to duck, which he did, in time to see a thrown shuriken tear through the canvas wall behind him. Luckily, there were four ogres guarding the tent, who rapidly stormed outside to investigate.
Rubicant followed and saw a lone Eblanese ninja outside, doubtlessly sent as an assassin to destroy him, the leader. The ninja's three comrades were dead on the ground, lying scattered around the tent. This last one, part of his face already cut and bloody, took a glance at Rubicant and his guards, then cursed and began to chant a warp spell. He disappeared, but not before one of the ogres managed to tear off his right arm.
Returning to the quiet of his tent, Rubicant ignored the large rips in the wall. He still preferred it to the battle outside.
9. Cry in Sorrow
Rubicant suddenly sat bolt upright in his bed sometime before dawn, trying to remember the dream he had just had. Or rather, trying to forget the nightmare.
A woman had screamed--no, her voice was barely audible, a weak whisper, but the sound reverberated between his ears until it was magnified a thousandfold. The word she breathed chilled him as much as her voice itself; he felt himself losing control, going mad, slipping into the long since abandoned realm of emotion, with each time the word vibrated within his mind.
Throwing on a set of normal clothing and a black, hooded cloak, he cast a warp spell.
The underground town of Eblan was dimly lit, as always, and as was expected at the hour. A lone guard stood watch, shivering slightly with the morning cold, not noticing the dark figure standing stiffly in the shadows. And even if he had noticed Rubicant, he would hardly have started: the caves were too deep and too treacherous for either friends or foes to navigate; he was there simply to watch for monster intruders.
Rubicant carefully kept his anxiety in check and sent out an invisible beam of faint magic. It returned, and he followed its path to the door of a room that was, like all were in the caves, merely a natural crevice in the miles of stone. The door was unlocked, and it swung open silently when he touched his fingers to the knob.
She was lying in the bed, face as pale as the white sheets, propped up by a retinue of pillows. As he noiselesly closed the door behind him, he thought of how young she still appeared, as though the one-and-a-half decades that had passed since he last saw here had not been spent, but instead were hiding beyond a cloud or at the ends of an ethereal rainbow, ready to rewind themselves with the proper command.
Just then she opened her eyes slowly, as if waking from a centuries-long slumber, and murmured, "Dalen, is that you?"
His stomach lurched, and he remained still. But her eyes seemed to focus and she cried out, "Icantus! I knew you would come!"
Rubicant stepped forward, lowering the hood from his head to reveal his face, on which time had been less kind. Old emotions, unfelt for years, ran through his chest. "Merla," he said calmly, almost disbelievingly. "Merla, you're...here."
Her initial show of excitement appeared to have drained much energy from her. "Here, but not for much longer," she whispered before breaking into a short fit of coughing. Recovering, she continued, "I've suffered for all these years because of you, while you're far away from the curses that have fallen upon Eblan."
Rubicant looked into her eyes and saw that she knew the pain he, too, had experienced--and was still experiencing. Nonetheless, he said, "You know that's not true."
Merla sighed a bit and coughed some more. "I'm so sorry....Back there, I didn't know it was you who...killed Drort. It was...it's been too long."
She paused for a minute. "Just...give me your hand," she managed to say. "I need something to hold on to."
He knelt on the ground at her side and cradled her thin fingers in his. "You're so warm," she mumbled. "These caves...I don't know if I've ever been warm in them, even after almost a year to get used to it."
Her words unintentionally stung him, reminding Rubicant of who he really was: Golbez's top lieutenant, not a young, lovestruck wizard free to act as he pleased. Still, years of denial had not washed away the fact that he...loved...Merla with this very being.
He heard the running of water in the next room, and a man's voice called out, "Merla, is there someone in there?"
The door to the next room opened and a war veteran strided in. His left cheek was crisscrossed with faint scars suffered in the battle the Eblanese had waged against Rubicant's invading horde of monsters.
And his right arm was missing.
His face turned scarlet with rage when he saw Rubicant's face. "You...you're...."
Rubicant stared back intensely, gripping Merla's hand more tightly. "I know who he is, Dalen," Merla said tiredly, though she really didn't. She and Dalen each knew something about Rubicant the other had no clue of. "Now, please...."
Dalen took the hint, nodding curtly, and swiveled on his heel, leaving and slamming the door behind him. "My sister married that war hero," Merla explained, her eyes jerking in the direction in which he had gone, "before he was a hero, of course. He was just a soldier recently arrived from Agart back then."
Rubicant was too unnerved to comment. Finally, he asked, "How is your father?"
"He's gone," she whispered, "dead from Golbez's attack. He would have wanted to see you again, to see that you're still alive and well."
Alive, he mused, but not exactly well. His uneasiness grew. Reluctantly, he said, "Merla, I must go. I can't stay here any longer."
"No! None of them remember you, and those who do are willing to forgive." She began to cough, squeezing Rubicant's hand as if to keep him at her side. Meanwhile, he wished there was something he could do to help her--but this illness wasn't a wound or broken bone, easily cured by magic, but something internal that was beyond the scope of what even the most talented of white wizards could accomplish.
When the spasm ended, she added softly, breathing hard, "I don't want to die in these caves. Take me with you when you go."
The door suddenly burst open and Dalen reappeared, followed by four armed men. "This man is a fiend!" he declared, raising his good arm to point in Rubicant's direction.
"No, get away from here! All of you!" Merla exclaimed with the last of her energy. She strugged for breath for a moment, then mumbled, "So...tired. Please, just leave me alone, Dalen...."
Her head lolled limply to one side on her pillow, and her grip on Rubicant's hand faded.
A woman Rubicant recognized as Merla's sister pushed her way past Dalen's line of soldiers to the bedside. She whirled around to face the others in the now-quiet room. "What have you done? All of you?"
Dalen was silent for a moment before commanding, "Get him!"
But Rubicant was out of the door in the time it took the soldiers to respond. Although he thought himself out of practice in white magic, he turned and cast a sleep spell on all of them. It was adequate; behind him, he heard the thudding noises they made as they hit the floor.
He strolled, unopposed, into a passage that led deeper into the caves, finding the need to think to himself.
She was gone. He was too late. He couldn't turn things back to the way they should have been, not this late in the battle.
Rubicant nearly laughed aloud, reflecting on the accuracy of his past prediction. The uselessness of emotions: that was certainly proved by this absurd, sentimental task.
Almost idly, he killed a few Eblanese guards stationed in the torchlit outlet, not stopping to wonder what they were doing so deep in the caves. Rubicant had almost reached what appeared to be an exit when he was stopped by a voice.
"Rubicant! I've been waiting for this day."
Rubicant turned to face a man dressed in the dark blue clothing of a ninja, boomerang in one hand, the other hand on the hilt of his sheathed sword.
"Have I met you before?" the fiend asked, still slightly occupied in his own thoughts.
"I'm Eblan's Prince Edge!" was the indignant reply.
"Eblan? What's that?"
"Don't play the fool with me!"
Edge stepped forward and chanted a spell Rubicant recognized from his training in Eblanese magic. This would be quite fascinating.... "Flame!"
The fire licked at Rubicant's cloak, replenishing him with its pleasant warmth. He hadn't been bonded to the fire crystal to no consequence, naturally.
"Was it flame?" Rubicant asked in a mockingly surprised tone. "I'll show you how it's done properly!"
He cast his powerful glare incantation, bringing Edge to the floor with its strength. The ninja rose to his feet momentarily, cursing the wizard.
"Indeed you're strong," Rubicant conceded, "but still no match for me. Challenge me after you've become strong enough!"
With that, he teleported himself back to his tower; he had wasted enough time in Eblan.
10. The Final Battle
A knock at his chamber's door roused Rubicant from a restless sleep. He sensed a tense urgency in the air, one that vibrated through the rear of his skull--where he felt magical power eminating from others--and made its way into his tight stomach.
"Yes?" he asked shortly, still cross due to the hour.
"Master," said a harsh, deep voice belonging to an ogre guarding the tower, "we are under attack."
"Where?" Rubicant was instantly reaching for his cloak.
"From the side tunnel on the main floor."
"The tunnel from the caves of Eblan," the wizard murmured, his uneasiness growing. "Send all available forces to intercept them."
Had the ogre been human, he would have dubiously commented on their shortage of guards, a situation that stemmed from previous attacks and Golbez's preoccupation with other world events. As it was, he simply grunted in comprehension and left the room.
Rubicant knew his small army of monsters would do nothing to stop the intruders. He was the tower's--and the crystals'--last line of defense.
He would prepare for a last stand.
Shrugging on his wizard's garments, he went downstairs.
Rubicant stood at the teleportation device in the tower's control room, studying the switches and knobs of the panel before him. The mechanisms of the tower were obviously in disrepair; he knew that the circuitry for the remote door-locking devices had been damaged in the dwarves' assault weeks earlier. That Lugae had given him an unending string of problems, from the broken machinery to the unauthorized kidnapping of the Eblanese royal family. At least that mad scientist had remembered to build a pressure-sensitive trapdoor in the crystal room--that was perhaps his one redeeming action, one that might save their master's entire plan.
Still, Rubicant was irritated when he activated the teleporter, muttering to himself, "Wretched Lugae! How dare he...."
He might have continued with "put his own worthless experiments ahead of his orders," but he saw that the intruders had already reached his transport destination and were standing across the room, wary and prepared to attack.
And Rubicant was the Tower of Bab-il's final line of defense.
One of the figures took a step forward and narrowed his eyes angrily at Rubicant. "Rubicant!" he spat. "I'm never going to forgive you! Never!"
Ah, yes, that ninja-prince of Eblan, the fiend recalled to himself. You have ample reason to hate me for my past actions, I'm sure, and I don't blame you. I certainly don't ask for your forgiveness. Still, he felt as though he needed to clarify his role as a villain. "Lugae turned your parents into monsters on his own. I apologize for that." Staring into the ninja's face to judge his reaction, Rubicant continued, "I'm not like the others, you see. I want to play fair.
The response was so expected that Rubicant had to supress an involuntary chuckle. He settled for a less abrasive smile, which also served to hide the wistfulness that suddenly entered his tone. "How brave! But you'll never gain real strength as long as you are swayed by emotions."
The ninja took another step forward and shouted, "I'll show you the power... of anger!"
Rubicant sensed a sudden burst of increased magical energy from the prince but didn't acknowledge this. Instead, he called upon his lunar magic to send a curative spell in the direction of the group. "Now I restore you to full strength...."
The five warriors spread out in their battle formation, weapons held ready. Casting rapidly before they could attack first, Rubicant unleashed a Glare spell on their apparent leader, a Paladin who stood at the front, firmly grasphing an Ice Brand. He fell to his knees from the damage but was quickly cured by white-caped wizard who stood behind him.
The party standing before Rubicant disappeared in a shimmer of blue light. The air temperature fell several degrees, and a lavender-shrouded figure, at the center of the icy breeze, swept through the air toward him, hand raised to call down a scathing blizzard. Rubicant pulled his cloak to cover his body, feeling its infused magic absorb some of the attack's force. Still, it pushed him back, leaving him to struggle to keep his balance as the summoned monster returned to the land of monsters.
He dropped the protection provided by the magic of his cloak, beginning the chant for a spell of fire and simultaneously preparing himself for an imminent attack. Golbez, let your teachings fail me not. He stood his ground against the strokes of a pair of ninja swords and the glare of hatred that accompanied them.
"Slow!" he heard a white-clad woman cry, and he felt his lips stumble sluggishly, the words falling haltingly from his lips.
A dragoon's spear sliced his shoulder open, sending dizzying pain and the chilling agony of ice through his fire-infused body. Still, he continued to chant, trying to hurry the words along without losing the spell's accuracy. If only he had a magic barrier on him....
The sword plunged through the side of his chest, its blade icy against the warmth of Rubicant's streaming blood. Gasping, he clutched with one hand at where he knew his lung was broken, falling to the floor, fire spell forgotten.
The party stood silently back, weapons still drawn but at rest. "Well...now I see why Golbez had a hard time with you," he gasped, collecting his strength to speak. "Weak people can join forces....I admire you, warriors!"
He stared at the blurred image of the familiar metal ceiling that loomed far above him. _Where will I go now?_ he thought, struggling for air as the blood seeped through the crevices of his chest.
Would he see Anvanit, face stern but welcoming, and naturally Merla, hand stretched toward him in a gesture of forgiveness and understanding? Or would he be greeted by the cries of thousands of sinners at the pit of hell, where he would burn in agony as he had burned so many others in his life?
A wet droplet ran down his eye, coming to rest at his cheek. He feebly lifted a clean hand to wipe it away, feeling it flop limply against his face. He lifted it and saw a single drop of blood smeared upon it, burning with invisible fire.
His chest expelled a final choking breath of air. "Farewell."
The fire energy that had been infused in Rubicant's body, now unhindered by the control of his magic and his body's defenses, began to consume its host. The flames emerged from beneath his flesh, burning his clothing and igniting his spilled blood with golden light.
The party stood quietly in silent reverence for the fiend's death, watching the blaze turn his flesh into ashes. Then, even before the flames extinguished themselves, they moved forward into the crystal room.
The entourage of soldiers, engineers, and personal guards followed the King of Eblan and his two children through the halls of the ancient and now dust-covered tower, untouched for fifteen years.
"It appears that the structure is still quite sound," one of the engineers observed, running a hand along a long but superficial crack in the wall. "The earthquakes caused by the giant and the subsequent assault by the forces of the Red Wings and Dwarf armies seem to have caused only minor damage."
"It's lasted since the ancient crystal wars," the king said, looking around for what he'd been searching for, perhaps one of the few reasons he had even set foot in the cursed old tower.
His eyes fell upon a small pile of ash, a fading cream-grey, no larger than the size of his closed fist. He strode toward it, guards following and children close behind, leaving the engineers to marvel at the skill of the structure's advanced construction.
Edge knelt and blew the fine ashes, watching them settle between the cracks of the floor panels. "He was probably just some twisted human without values, virtually raised by monsters, living an empty life of destruction," the king intoned, the slightest hint of bitterness entering his tone.
The king wasn't sure what he'd expected. Perhaps he'd expected Rubicant, who had played such as huge role in his life for a year, to spring forth from his ashes, rising unaffected from the damage his elemental flames had done. He had been so obsessed with destroying the wizard, but now, he seemed so...ordinary, so mortal.
He turned to his son and daughter, who were watching him with puzzled eyes. "A fiend," he explained. "That's what he once was, a fiend."
"The four who worked under Golbez during the First Crystal War," Caitlin clarified for her brother. "There're rumors all around Eblan, old ones from the old cooks.... They say the fiend of fire was a ninja in Eblan. A ninja-in-training, actually."
"Rumors," said their father, "and nothing more. Nothing like that could come out of Eblan. We're like family here--and I couldn't imagine family doing anything so vicious and evil, could you?"
But as Edge looked into the faces of Corvin and Caitlin, he felt a chill run inexplicably down his spine.
Author's note: The title of this fic and each of its chapters comes from the names of songs on the FFIV soundtrack, if they sounded familiar. Special thanks to Andrew Vant, whose characters Corvin and Caitlin, from his fic "Dark Calling", were borrowed for the epilogue. There are a few inconsistences in this story, placed with artistic license in mind. ^.^ Most notably, I had Rubicant die--permanently--in his first battle with Cecil and friends, not after being revived by Golbez and sent to the Giant of Bab-il. As always, if you have any comments, please write me! :)
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