THE CRAVE GAMING CHANNEL
V'lanna
 

War of the Magi

By: Tomm Hulett
Kupan@aol.com

PROLOGUE

A silent hallway. The stone walls stood firm, despite the storm raging outside. The only light in the hall originated from small floating flames suspended by invisible magical force. The wind outside could be heard howling, and there was a definite chill. The door downstairs opened and then quickly shut. Footsteps climbed the stairs to the hallway, and a lithe figure ran quietly along the stone floor. It was all black, and its head was hooded in black cloth. The figure came to the door at the end of the hall. It knocked twice quietly and another hooded black figure appeared. Not nearly as lithe--or as tall. "Thank you Gaia," said the second figure, taking a scroll from the one called Gaia. "I'm sure Thanatos will be happy you completed your mission successfully."

Gaia turned from the second figure after quickly saluting, and ran back down the hallway. The figure waited until it heard Gaia shutting the door before turning back to the room whence he came. Walking by a crude window, the figure looked out. The storm raged along the landscape; lightning crashing and thunder booming. As the gate to the human world shut, marking Gaia's exit, the storm calmed a bit. The figure continued on through a large door.

The figure walked over to a much larger figure. "Master Doom," it spoke. "Here is Thanatos' report!"

"Thank you Brooks," Doom said. "You always were a good servant. Don't let that change."

"Yes sir," Brooks bowed slightly and moved next to Doom's throne. The other door to Doom's chamber slammed open. Two more large figures stood in the doorway.

"DOOM!" shouted one sternly. "What might be on that piece of paper your servant gave you?"

"Nothing dear sister," Doom said. "Just something concerning the humans."

"You know we aren't supposed to meddle in the human world," said the other figure. "We weren't banished here to deal with the mortals."

"Poltergeist, you fool," chuckled Doom. "You know as well as I do that we DON'T know why we were banished here."

"Stay away from the humans," said Doom's 'sister'. "Dealing with them can only end in disaster. We are in THIS dimension for a reason."

"Goddess is right," Poltergeist added. "We should stay in this world, and let the humans stay in theirs."

"As you wish, siblings," groaned Doom. "I won't meddle with the human's lives." Satisfied, Goddess and Poltergeist left the room.

"Does this change the plan?" Brooks asked.

"Not at all," Doom smiled an evil grin. "Not at all."

10 YEARS LATER

Matthew sat in his tree-house. The young boy was thinking about how great it was living in this age. So many new things had been invented recently. The armies had gotten new technology and passed some of their 'secrets' onto the general population. This caused many to invent new things. Among them the "radio" that alerted them to news. Although usually the radio only gave off static, and even when it did talk it sputtered. But it was still a neat invention. Of course, Matthew's favorite was the bicycle that now sat at the foot of the tree. Matthew enjoyed riding around, ringing his little bell. He felt as if he could go anywhere, do anything--this truly was the age of opportunity.

"Matt!" called Matthew's mother. "It's time for dinner! Hurry up or your father will eat everything!"

"Coming, ma!" Matthew leapt down from his tree and hopped onto his bicycle. He rode back to the house, ringing the bell all the way.

When Matthew arrived back at his house he left his bicycle outside the door, walked inside, and sat down at his dinner stool. "Matthew," his father scorned. "You have to wash your hands, boy."

"Yes, da," Matthew walked over to the sink.

The boy's mom looked up. "Turn on the radio on your way back over, son," she said. Matthew did as he had been told. "Thank you very much, Matt," said the woman.

The radio sputtered a might and then began talking. "Today in Anchyron," said the radio. "Another Esper attack has frightened the populance."

"They're attacking the CAPITAL now?" Matthew's father was in shock. "Before we know it they'll be here in Maranda."

"This is the third Esper attack this month. Yet we scarcely know what they are...why can't the Anchyron armed forces take care of this?" Matthew's mother saw her son's quizzical glance at the mention of Espers. She didn't want her son frightened to death with these stories of slaughters and madness. "Go wash up for bed, Matthew," she said. The boy did as he was told.

 

Later that night, Matthew's mother peeked into her son's room to make sure he was sleeping soundly. The small boy tucked snugly in his bed caused the woman to smile. Sleeping children were so peaceful looking, it was hard not to be calmed by them.

"Mom," Matthew began, obviously he hadn't been asleep. "What are Espers?"

"Oh, honey," she replied, walking over to his bed and sitting down next to it. "You don't want to hear about Espers..they'll give you nightmares."

"No mom," Matthew retorted. "I do. I do wanna' hear 'bout Espers. They sounded important on the radio."

"I guess..." Matthew's mother took a deep breath and then sighed. "No one really knows that much about Espers, Matthew. But they have powers that people don't. They look like beasts...and they've been attacking cities around the world for no reason."

"Are they bad, mom?" Matthew questioned.

"They're monsters, Matthew. And they live to destroy things."

Matthew thought for a moment, his finger in his mouth. "Where'd they come from?"

Matthew's mother sighed as she thought for a moment as well. "Nobody knows. But after you left the room tonight, the radio said that Anchyron is organizing troops for an army to fight the Espers. So they should be gone very soon." Matthew's mother stood up. "Now, dear, get some sleep. You shouldn't worry about Espers too much." She shut the door after she left the boy's room.

"Wow," Matthew thought to himself. "Espers sound scary...and there's a whole ARMY that's gonna' fight 'em. Maybe I can help," Matthew decided. "I need to find the army men and help them..." The boy waited for an hour, then snuck down to the dark kitchen. He gathered up some food in a bundle and tiptoed out the door to his bicycle. Matthew rode away from Maranda on his quest to help the army.

EVILS

Zozo. A great and prosperous outpost city in the mountains. Many adventurers would come to Zozo to trade their valuable findings and treasures. The streets sparkled as if made of metal. The majestic buildings reached many stories up into the sky. Although not nearly as grand as Jidoor--Zozo surely didn't appear to be a trading town. Few would have suspected that hidden in the bowels of the city lurked a great evil; an Esper of great power.

The purple cloaked figure strode into the grand chamber, his two servants waiting for him to arrive. Ultros was the second strongest Esper in the human realm, second only to Thanatos. The wizard was similar in shape to a human, albeit an eight foot tall human. He was clad in great purple robes, which were meant to symbolize his power. The hood of his robes always covered his face, and all that shown were his glowing red eyes.

"Phunbaba, DoomGaze, have you gained the right to stand by my throne before I've arrived?"

The blackness on one side of the throne flowed like a dark river to the side of its master. A misshapen skull turned to face the great wizard; a look of sorrow ever embedded in its empty eyes. "Forgive us," it pleaded in a hiss.

A grunt came from the other side of the throne, the hulking green figure which stood there looked up. With a series of lumbering stomps, Phunbaba made his way toward Ultros. "We were awaiting you," he spoke slowly in his bestial tone. "We knew not of your arrival."

"Very well, I forgive you," Ultros flung his arms out to his side before striding to his seat. Bolts of energy crackled and struck the two servants, sending them into spasms of pain. "Pray I don't have to forgive you again." The Esper sat in his grand throne and stretched a bit. Soon a sickly black thing arrived with a platter of food. Ultros took it and glared angrily at the shrunken figure, who quickly scuttered away. DoomGaze slowly recovered from his master's punishment and again shifted his shadow-made-flesh body across the room to the wizard's side.

"We have news of Thanatos," the demon relayed.

"Yes?" Ultros' speech was interrupted with the noises of chicken being chewed into paste. "Tell me," he swallowed the bite.

Phunbaba took his place as well, limping slightly on a gnarled leg. "He has delivered fifteen new Espers to our master, Doom."

Fire blazed in the eyes of Ultros. Thanatos and he were both charged with the duty of creating more Espers like themselves; as a result, they were both very competetive for the favor of Doom. "I don't like this," Ultros growled.

"But, master," DoomGaze interjected quickly. "Thanatos' servants are sloppy. They're attacking the populance and alerting them to our existance...that can't please Doom, can it?"

"Perhaps we can use their foolishness as their own downfall," Ultros stroked his chin. "If the world finds out our plan through Thanatos--Doom will surely kill him." The wizard continued to ponder before a look of rage tore his features and he wrathfully stood up, flinging the platter across the great chamber. "FOOLS!" Phunbaba and DoomGaze shrunk away. "The entire reason that Thanatos sends his minions to attack the world is so that people will be afraid to travel." The confused looks on the faces of his audience only enraged Ultros further at the necessity to elaborate. "Zozo is our way of finding people to convert into Espers--if people are afraid to travel, they won't visit a trading city!"

"You think that Thanatos is purposefully trying to stop us?" DoomGaze hissed.

"HIS ENTIRE LIFE PURPOSE IS TO STOP US!" Ultros ranted. "If he can thwart us, then he will reap all the benefits from Doom." The Esper shot an energy blast at a nearby wall, causing it to crumble into peices. "I want you to find Thanatos' lair and kill him," he commanded DoomGaze. "I don't care how long it takes, or how you do it--but I want him DEAD."

CONFERENCE

The sun shone brightly down on Tzen. A burly man wearing a trader's uniform stretched to place the canvas sun-shade over his small corner of the wall where he'd set up shop this week. Tzen was one of the most trade intensive cities on the central continent--so Stave figured he could get a few customers. The bright blue and green booth was sure to attract some attention.

"Honey," Stave's wife appeared from the entrance to the tent where they lived. Their daughter, Lila, was subtly breast feeding in her arms. "Can you turn on the radio? There's going to be a conference today with the King of Anchyron."

"Yes, dear," Stave turned the leftmost nob on the small box to its maximum position as his wife disappeared back into the tent. He sat down in his booth, leaning his head on one hand, awaiting the day's first customer.

****

"YOU AREN'T LISTENING TO ME!" the King of the largest Kingdom in the world shouted. "The Esper attacks are going to keep getting more and more frequent! We have to protect our children and stop the threat NOW. We have to ORGANIZE." He was sitting at a large gold painted table. Reporters and collegues were crowded around him. They were supposedly there to take in his every word, but instead they were arguing and second guessing him.

"Sir, I find it highly unlikely that--"

"If we don't organize a human resistance against these...these THINGS...then we're all dooming ourselves!" The King pounded his fist on the table.

"Haven't you already organized a force to take on these Espers? I doubt that more action is needed." A young reporter shoved his mic into the face of the royal member for a response to his question.

"We need a human Empire," the King growled to the mass. "All the kingdoms of the world must unite to stop this evil force. Only together can we destroy these monsters."

The conference exploded into a jumble of comments and opinions.

****

On a completely different radio station, the reporters had been unable to reach the conference room. They stationed themselves outside with those awaiting the results. "We're live with the queen," a female reporter proclaimed proudly. "Ma'am?" she inquired. "Do you support your husband's decisions?"

"I'm behind anything he says one-hundred percent," the woman responded. "I will not answer any further questions."

"Do you think that the Espers are--"

"I WILL NOT ANSWER ANY FURTHER QUESTIONS," a screeching sound was broadcasted over the air waves as the King's wife smashed the microphone against a wall.

****

Keith sifted through the great bookshelves of the Zozo Academy. One of his fellow students had just turned off the radio that sat on a table behind him. It had just finished playing a recorded broadcast of the conference heard earlier that day. "Here we are," the young man said to nobody as he clutched a book. He blew dust off the ancient volume and opened it for perusal. "Ancient creatures." He carefully turned to the 'E' section and looked for the word that was on everyone's mind. "Esper isn't even IN here...what ARE these things?"

"Monsters," Benjamin replied, coming back in with a beverage. "That's how everyone else describes them."

"But where did they come from?" Keith wondered aloud. "Why did they come HERE? Why are they destroying things?"

"Monsters," the second teen began pouring over a book on arithmetic.

Keith silently vowed to find out everything he could about Espers and their purpose. He also decided it was time to go to bed, as his tired eyes had begun to play tricks on him. He could have almost sworn that he saw a shadow in the corner of the room moving...

LEGACY

Garth Figaro strode along the cliffside with his friend Hagol. The moon lit the night sky and cast eerie shadows behind them. The mountains glowed a strange blue color as the two men talked. "Our clan is losing it's footing," Hagol muttered.

"Don't be so over-dramatic, Hags," Garth smiled. "A group of wanderers can't lose footing."

"You're our leader," the man sighed. "You know as well as I do that the numbers of our 'tribe' have surpassed the populations of many cities." The muscled figured kicked a small rock that went tumbling down the cliff face.

"What do you expect me to do?" Garth looked up at the moon; as if the answer was splain across it in common speak. "You think a kingdom is going to allow us acreage for residence? A bunch of wanderers?" The leader of the band of families known as the Figaro clan picked up a stick and threw it into the valley below.

"Don't get upset," Hagol frowned. "I know we can't do that...but...we at least need to move on to a more abundant food supply."

Figaro stared out across the land below, sorrow in his face. "One day," he began. "One day we'll make a difference. One day, Figaro will be known as heroes."

"Sir! Sir!" a boy about fourteen years of age charged up the hill to the two men. "It's a girl...you have a daughter."

Garth's face exploded in joy as he sprinted down to the tent where his wife would be awaiting him--with their daughter...

****

"Ah, DoomGaze," Thanatos smiled. "Come out of those shadows. I've been waiting for you." The death-Esper's helmet was a grim dragon's skull--horns reaching three feet out on either side. His armor was as black as night, and his crimson red cape signified the blood and anguish he had caused upon the world. Only a portion of what was to come.

"Sss...." the shadow being called DoomGaze sifted in front of its opponent. "Ultros has ordered your death."

"Ah..and you're going to be my murderer?" Thanatos grinned as his eyes flashed in anticipation. "I normally wouldn't bother with you, but since Zarthes and Gaia are both attending business elsewhere, it seems I am forced to do the work for my servants."

"Don't mock me," DoomGaze shifted his shadowed body to show his entire form. The mouth of his skull opened in a threatening grimace, and the horns crowning it glimmered in the faint light. His bony claws reached out towards the death Esper and a primal growl emerged from the creature.

Thanatos simply smiled, outstretching a hand. "Ultros has trained his servants to be haughty." Flames jumped from his fingers and drove towards the attacker. Little damage was done--little damage was desired at the moment. "Ultros is destined to lose our little contest," the booming voice of the Esper replied. "This is why my servants are also Espers...but his servants are...petty monsters."

DoomGaze's eyes flashed with anger and hatred as he charged at the black figure. Thanatos, tired of this match already, clenched his outstretched fist. Unholy energies gripped the monster and tore him in two. DoomGaze screamed in agony. Where once was a lower torso and legs, was now only ebony flesh rended to ribbons.

"Tell Ultros this is the fate of those who cross me," Thanatos said, reclining in his tangled throne of black marble. "Tell him of my death legacy..."

INNOCENCE

Mathew rode his bicycle into the streets of Mobliz. Mostly a supply camp, Mobliz was bussling with people. Elderly people wandering about, parents ushering their children to and fro, teenagers trying to sneak off where they could be alone. To a young boy, this looked like the best place to ask around about the Anchyron army.

Canvas tents were everywhere, a few cabins were set up near the edges of town. A caravan of people had been leaving just as Matthew arrived, and the space where they had been the previous night was now empty, despite a few metal cans they had dropped. On the opposite side of town were shops and other more metropolitan things.

"Hi," smiled another young boy about Matt's age. "I'm Phillip."

"Hi, I'm Matt." Matthew and Phillip shook hands like they'd seen adults do so many times. "Do you know that the army is gonna' fight Espers?"

"Yep, I sure do," Phillip smiled proudly and motioned to his father, who was trading with another camper a few tents down. "My daddy's gonna' enlist." The boys ignored the loud noises of the camp. Clanking ladels against breakfast pots, children playing, adults arguing over prices or where they'd stop for the night.

"Wow!" Matthew's eyes lit up. "He's gonna' kill Espers?"

The boy raised a brown eyebrow. "I...guess so," he fumbled in his pockets and produced two candy suckers that he'd gotten earlier that day. "You want one?"

"Thanks," Matt placed it in his mouth and was greeted by the fruity taste of cherry. "He's gonna' have a sword and everything?"

"Daddy doesn't think swords work on Espers," Phillip said. "Uh oh..it looks like he's done--I better go."

"Bye," Matt and Phillip waved to one another as the latter disappeared into the crowd of people. The boy hopped back on his bicycle and rode further into the town. The sun was high in the noonday sky. "Maybe I could follow them," he thought. "I'll have to watch and see when they leave."

Seeing the door open at the inn, Matthew decided he could go in and ask some adults about the army. He rode quickly over and entered, leaving his bike at the door. "Do you know anything about the army?" he asked the Innkeeper.

"Uh..sure, kid...I got customers, though; so I'll talk later." The unshaven man turned to a family of four that had approached the counter.

Matthew walked over to a fluffy red couch. He sat down to wait for the man's shift to end. Slowly, however, the sitting position turned into a reclining one. Then Matthew's eyes slowly began to close.

The door shut with the jingle of attached bells. Matthew awoke quickly, glancing around for the man at the counter. Instead of the large, gruff man, there was a skinny, lanky man. Gazing out the window, the boy saw that the sun had long since set, and the stars risen to take it's place. He charged out the door and jumped onto his bicycle.

The lad's legs pumped furiously as he rode around the quiet town of Mobliz. His direction wasn't as keen as it had been when it was daytime. He was soon staring at a deadend in a dark alleyway. Wooden boxes stacked up on either side of the brick buildings that rose up next to the small boy.

"Lost?" came a low and husky voice. It was almost a hiss.

Matt swung around, gazing into a shadowed figure with burning white eyes. "Not really."

The boy could now see tattered black cloth hanging from the lithe figure that stood in front of him--pure blackness. "Why are you out so late at night?" The voice seemed to whisper, yet it seemed louder than possible in that tone.

"I'm going to find the army and help them kill Espers," Matthew had now turned his bike around and was prepared to ride away as soon as this strange man moved.

"Why would you want to kill Espers?" the figure asked, revealing foot-long claws that were razor sharp. His evil grin also shone long, deadly teeth.

"They're monsters!" the boy shouted. "Everyone knows that!"

"Monsters?" the dark figure approached Matthew. "Then aren't humans monsters as well?" A black gleam shone on an outstretched talon. The being of pure shadow rose to it's full size.

"You...you're an Esper!" Matthew's stance did not waver, however, but became more defiant. "You're bad!"

"I am Gaia," the shadow replied with a sadistic smile. "I am the world." Faster than light, the demon darkness swung a dagger claw at the defenseless child. The boy crumpled to the ground as the Esper removed its bladed hand. "I will swallow you up..."

BOOK TWO

A look of concern passed over the benign face of Goddess. "Bahamut..come to me."

A large dragon gracefully glided across the floor to his master. "What is it, your Majesty?"

Goddess smiled slightly. "You came to me as the King of Dragons," she spoke. "As a safeguard, I granted you the powers of an Esper. That was sixteen years ago; when the Esper attacks on the world began increasing."

"M'lady," Bahamut replied with a questioning growl. "I know all of this."

"Now, I'm afraid, you must go out and create an army of Espers."

The Dragon was taken aback with shock. "Goddess--you vowed you would never do such a thing..."

"I know," she waved her hand in a gesture whose meaning was lost. "I have proof that Doom is the creator of the Espers that are tormenting the humans." A sigh shook her body before she again composed herself. "Doom controls the force of 'Power'."

The Dragon folded his wings across his back and sat down to listen. He noticed that the storm outside was raging, lightning crackled not far from the tower where the two figures now stood.

"I control 'Courage' and my brother Poltergeist controls 'Wisdom'."

"Why must I create Espers?" Bahamut questioned. If dragon eyes could tear, Bahamut's would be doing so. Why was he called to bring more destruction and horror on the world? Would the history books say that the majestic Dragon King was responsible for the downfall of the world?

"You aren't creating them for me," Goddess looked forlornly out the window. The woman obviously comprehended the consequences. "You're creating them for Poltergeist. He is far too peaceful to initialize any action. I want you to create Espers and then present them to him as soldiers. Give him my regards."

"You won't do this yourself?" Any regal tones had been dropped from Bahamut's speech. "Where will you be that you can't present the army to Poltergeist?"

"Making my own army, dear Bahamut." Goddess' once emotionless face was wracked with sorrow. "There will soon be a great war. Only the forces of Courage and Wisdom can stop the evil Power that has been long spreading across the human world."

"Fighting Espers with more Espers?" Bahamut asked. "More mindless creatures to rend the human world into tatters?"

"Our Espers aren't mindless creatures," Goddess shook her head. "Doom's Espers are pawns. Ours are to be soldiers."

"The eye of the beholder, my--"

"You are to create Espers with free will."

YULE

Phillip stood on the ramparts of Anchyron castle. He looked longingly out over the plain below, his eyes focused on nothing in particular. It had been little over sixteen years since his father had joined the army battling Espers. Sixteen years since his father had fallen in battle.

The snow was falling gently onto the ground. It slowly built up on the castle walls as well. The chill began to reach inside the knight's armor, but he cared little. Tomorrow morning--on the Yule holiday--Phillip would march out onto the battle field just as his father had. The man wondered how much had changed in those sixteen long years. Supposedly the military was working on top secret technology. A few months ago, a Bounty Hunter named Blain had discovered the remains of a dead Esper. The military had used it to give ordinary humans magical powers. Now they could cast spells just like the Espers could. These humans were called 'Magi' now.

The knight stared out across the plain--his gaze seemingly reaching where the rocky ground would turn into desert sand. He felt empty, imagining the death that would no doubt sweep upon him in the battle. Phillip had heard many tales of Esper battles. None of them involved words like 'victory', 'luck', or even 'hope'. More often the words 'death', 'destruction', and 'slaughter' were spoken from frightened lips. He realized that the privilage to tell stories after the battle was most likely more than he'd recieve. Phillip was almost sure he'd die.

Another Anchyron soldier come onto the rampart. "Hey, Phil...looking forward to fighting?"

"Yeah, Rihk," he forced a smile. "Can't hardly wait."

"I'll bet you're really aching to show those bastards what they get for knocking off yer dad." The soldier called Rihk leaned against the wall as Phillip was doing and stared off into the distance.

"Merry Yule to you too, jerk," the knight smiled with mock playfulness.

"Hopefully the Magi can do some damage," Rihk sighed hopefully. "Otherwise I think we're sunk."

"Why the hell do they send us anyway? They KNOW knights can't do anything." Phillip moved to go back down to his chambers. The snow was coming a bit harder now, caking higher and higher on the stone walls.

"General says we just aren't trying hard enough," the second soldier said sadly.

Phillip's response was the slamming of the door as he descended to his bed.

****

The port city of Albrook. A rag-clothed man with scars covering his youthful arms leaned up against the window sill of the town inn. On the other side of the window, a young girl leaned at attention. She was listening to the young man's tales with wide eyes and an anxious smile. Her medium length red hair was being twirled between her fingers and she swayed back and forth as they spoke.

The young man, a bounty hunter, was clothed in tan colored pants and a once white shirt--the sleeves ripped off. Many pouches hung off his belt, along with a dagger sheath, and his pants were patched in numerous places. He had a cocky expression on his face. The light from a candle flecked light onto the two young faces. "Yeah..so I see this gem thing and I figure I should show it to someone, so--"

"Lila! Get away from that ruffian!" A burly, older man burst into Lila's room and stomped over to the window.

"Daddy...I was talking to Blain about--"

"I don't care if you were discussing the fate of the world...I want him as far away from you as possible." The man, Stave, was a trader. He'd seen enough of these fly-by-night romancers to know what this one really wanted.

"Listen, guy," Blain smirked. "I'm not a ruffian. I discovered the first peice of Magicite--that means a DEAD ESPER. If not for me, we wouldn't have any hope at all in this war."

The older man's brow furrowed angrily. "I suppose you're going to tell me you killed it yourself? Bare handed, eh? Leave my daughter alone."

"Bare handed? Killed 'im myself? Hm...not a bad addition if I do say so myself." The Bounty Hunter winked at the lass and then turned to go. "Catch ya' on the side, darlin'."

Stave shut the window roughly and turned to his daughter. "You are NEVER to talk to that boy again, understand?"

Lila's lower lip quivered. It was hard being a trader's daughter, moving from town to town, never having any friends. Blain had talked to her on numerous occasions, and to have him taken away by her father wasn't something she looked happily on. She pounded the walls with her feminine fists before running out of the room. "I love him, daddy!"

The man huffed. "Don't even know what love is, girl," he growled. "Don't even know."

****

"No idea whatsoever about Espers, young man." The mayor of Jidoor spoke down at the figure before him--even though the figure was obviously over thirty.

"But sir...I know they've attacked your town on more than one occasion..you must know SOMETHING..." The figure was Keith, a scholar who was devoting his entire life to finding out as much about Espers as possible. Knowledge was the only way to stop them. "The Zozo academy would do anything for any information you might--"

"The only information I have is that any attacks were foiled by the Anchyron forces," the mayor waved his hand. "Now if you'll excuse me, I have a very important meeting in the next room with the KING of our fine land."

"I...I'm sorry, sir." Keith gathered his notes and began to leave. "I apologize for taking up any of your time."

"As well you should," the bearded man said audibly. "Now," he got up from his seat and walked into an adjoining room where his colleagues awaited. "King Anchyron! It's a pleasure."

"Ah, Edwin!" the King shook his hand heartily. "We were worried that your other meetings were going to delay you further." The king sat down again in his seat, folding his hands in front of his face.

"They would have..but I couldn't delay such an important meeting." The mayor, Edwin, walked to the head of the table and sat down. "Why have you called an audience?"

"I'm starting an Empire, Edwin," said the King simply. "A human Empire allied to stop the Esper attacks."

The Mayor of Jidoor stroked his beard. Several thoughts played through his mind, but only one came to his mouth. "Ridiculous. There is no need for such a force, your own army is doing a fine job. The three times my city was attacked, they fought off the demons."

"Fought off--but did not slay." Anchyron rose and leaned over the table. "We have to kill these things. The only reason we've 'beaten' them is because they killed enough of our men to be satisfied with the bloodbath."

Jidoor's Mayor stood as well, "I suppose you've chosen me to be in your Empire so I can tax my people for your funds?"

"Partly," the King replied. "Also because you've been a humanitarian in the past. You might want to keep your image."

"Humanitarian?" he fell back into his seat with a sick grin plastered on his visage. "That was two images ago, you should learn to keep track." Checking his watch, a new time-telling invention, Edwin stood to leave. "I need to get my rest for the tomorrow's holiday. You'll excuse me?"

"Doma has also signed the agreement." The King was stern. "Our base is to be on the central island..."

"You'll excuse me?" the Mayor repeated, anger in his tone.

Anchyron turned to his guards and fellow Empire founders. "Let us be gone. We shall return to this town as soon as it is destroyed by the Espers...or I don't know Edwin."

****

The sun rose with a golden crown early the next morning. From his farm in Kohlingen, Will stared out across the meadowland. The powdery snow that now covered the ground would hopefully melt away by the next day, so that he could start his planting early. This way he could have the best produce.

Suddenly, the snow nearby began to melt--but not because of any natural phenomena. A demon, looking like it just stepped from the black abyss, was tromping across the land. Will hurriedly darted for some nearby trees where he could hide. The new technological farm aids he had recently bought were smashed by the beasts's foot. The man carefully gained a position where he could examine the creature.

Standing several yards tall, the monster was green and had two huge horns growing out its head. Tassled furs garnered its waist, wrists, and ankles. Long wirey hair hung from its head. If he didn't know better, Will would have claimed it was Jinn, a fire demon of legend. The creature was soon gone, however, walking east.

The farmer cautiously left his shelter and again stood at the head of his field. His mind turned from Espers to the proper formation of this year's rows, and which section to leave fallow. Water shouldn't be a problem; it smelled to be a rainy year.

****

Miles away, another figure was gazing at the rising sun. Blain sat down on the edge of the peak where found himself. "Stupid jerk," he spat. "I am not a ruffian..."

The bounty hunter leaned back on his hands, looking up at the disappearing stars. Through his thin shirt he could feel the dusty earth of the mountain. "I try to protect his people and he curses me," the young man fingered his dagger. "Ah...nice and sharp. I should head back down soon--there's a caravan heading through today out of Tzen."

Blain enjoyed his daily task of making sure that travellers were safe from any monster attacks. He hadn't yet met one of these fabled Espers, but it was true that he'd found the corpse of one. Normally he fought the regular creatures of the area. Caravans and bands were completely safe if Blain chose to guard their travelling party--occasionally he'd do it for money; and the boy was known to take a mission or two if the price was right.

"Just doing what's right," he frowned, bringing out the day's breakfast. "Hardly deserve to be called a ruffian." More fit than most nineteen year old boys, Blain was also known to play the womenfolk. Still, there was something about Stave's daughter that spoke to the teen. Not to him directly, but to some inner part of the young man. He held up his ration of dried meat. "Bon apetit," he sighed.

****

"Lookout! You almost ate it!" the Imp shouted to his friend.

"Blast it, Jak!" the girl shouted back as she flipped in midair. "You don't think I know that?" She landed quickly and used her rapier to spear the two wolves who were still in descent. "Behind you."

"Eh?" the Imp named Jak looked confused.

"BEHIND YOU," the girl leapt over her companion's head and gave the wolf behind him something to think about.

Jak sighed, "thanks a load, Gwen." He darted on his little feet over to a nearby rock. "I'll just hang out here till yer done."

"Like the abyss you will," the lithe young woman leapt again into the air. Several reptilian creatures had run out to claw at her.

Below the two fighters, two other figures spoke to one another. "Well, Garth, your daughter sure is something."

The second man watched his daughter proudly. "She sure is," he stroked his moustache with pride. "She'll be our clan's new leader."

"We need land," the first man replied in frustration. "You KNOW that."

"Still singing the same song, eh, Hagol?" Garth Figaro chuckled. Looking back towards the cliff where his daughter was practicing for her test, he waved the torch in his hand. "Gwen!" he shouted. "It's time you come down!"

"Right behind you, daddy," the girl spoke from her said location.

"Wha-" the father turned around. "How'd you get there so fast?"

"Jumped."

"Waa~aaaa~aaaahh!!!" a little green mass plopped at Garth's feet after tumbling down the mountain. "Hello sir," Jak smiled weakly before collapsing.

"No matter," the man looked back to his daughter, patting his wide stomach. "The night's Yule festivities have already begun--we should hurry lest we miss the food!" He chuckled in a jolly manner as he made his way down the path to the blazing campfire.

"I know we need land," Gwen spoke seriously to the clansmen called Hagol. "But first this Esper nonsense needs to calm down--or no one will have land."

"You worry too much of outside affairs," the larger figure frowned. "The clan is what matters."

Gwen leaned down to pick up her green hued companion so she could join the festival. "Think what you will." Her tone changed suddenly, "isn't it cool that I'll soon be a clan elder? All that remains is my final test of womanhood!"

Hagol laughed. "Remember that it is, in fact, the test of manhood--only with a name that your father changed."

"Yes," Gwen shook Jak to revive him. "Or perhaps you're blinded by jealousy because your son wasn't chosen to test this year." The girl smiled devilishly. The man was speechless, and simply frumped his face in an unpleasant expression. "And there's no way in this wide globe that I'll marry him," the young woman bounced happily towards the campfire.

The Imp who sat on her shoulder stuck his tongue at the older man, who trod frustratedly behind them.

****

It was eleven o' clock at night on the Yule holiday. The Queen of Anchyron sat at her fireplace, writing a letter to her husband who was away on royal affairs. The flames crackled and jumped beside her, casting their crimson glow about the room.

Everything else in the royal bedroom was absolutely still. The large bed, covered in fluffy blankets and warm comforters was quiet. Nothing stirred about the high backed chairs or fabulously carved tables that were scattered throughout the room.

Silently, the figure of an unclad female appeared in the room. It floated feet from the ground and moved towards the human woman. "Greetings," it spoke.

The Queen turned in shock, believing she had been alone. When she saw the translucent vision before her, her mouth opened wide in surprise. If she could have spoken, she would have called for the guards.

"I come to help you," the womanly figure whispered purposefully. "I can help you stop the Espers."

"How?" Queen Anchyron's response had been louder than planned, and echoed through her bedchamber.

"It is my brother who sends them to damage your world," Goddess spoke in a pleasant tone. "By creating my own, good Espers, I believe I can stop him." The expression on the royal female's face told the benign figure that more explanation was necessary. "I need your kingdom's support both physically and mentally."

"Basically you're saying that together we can defeat your brother's monsters?"

"Quite," the female figure faded slightly. "Hopefully our armies can soon march side by side in victory."

"I hope you're right," Queen Anchyron said as Goddess faded from sight. "I hope you're right."

BATTLES

The day after Yule, Anchyron's army was assembled on the battlefield. The snow had melted in the desert heat, and the ground was now a moist muddy texture. The Anchyron Military prepared in a large group. Soldiers checked their weapons, generals organized their troops, and tacticians tried to plan the possible scenarios.

Phillip sat, polishing his sword. The boy looked up at the expanse stretching before him. The sky above them hung a dim gray, and the ground they would battle on was a sandy brown. He imagined it tinged with the crimson of warrior's blood. The young man's outlook was grim, and his expectations low. He looked at the sword in his lap; the sword that would glance harmlessly off Esper hide.

Several high ranking officers chatted near Phillip. He tried to hear as much as he could without being obvious. Polishing his sword with a rag and running a rock along its edge to test for sharpness; he tuned his ears into the conversation.

"We're assuming the Espers are coming from the east?"

The second officer thought. "That's what our informants said."

A frown built on the face of the initial speaker. "These things are huge--it would take them two minutes to alter their approach." He looked towards a tent at the edge of the battleground. "Do we know what element these Espers are?"

"They're big and powerful--why would they NEED to alter their approach? They have nothing to fear."

A third man, this one wearing a thick robe made of heavy cloth, approached. "Fire Espers," he said without emotion. "We're completely prepared."

The second man spoke in a hush as the robed figure walked towards the tent. "Who in the abyss was that? What was he talking about?"

The first official smiled with pride. The cape he wore flapped near the ground as the wind picked up slightly. "The head of our Magi regiment. He studies the elements--each Esper draws power from a specific element, and if you use the opposite element against it, then it can be defeated."

"You know this how?"

"We've been researching these things for sixteen years, Larson," he chuckled gruffly. "Just cause we keep something a secret doesn't mean we're uneducated on the subject."

A hair falling in the way of his eyes, Larson brushed it away and continued speaking in his patronizing voice. "So we're going to defeat Espers using magic that we got...from Espers?"

"Fighting fire with fire, young man," the older rank said, straightening his face. "Or fighting fire with ice, I believe."

Phillip, at his station a few yards away, continued preparing nonchallantly. "Secrets?" he thought, less than calmly. "They're keeping secrets from us?"

****

"Hurry up, Jak, you'll miss the fun!" Gwen Figaro crested a large rock and leapt down to take on the next obstacle. Soon her small Impish familiar crawled over the same rock and panted, falling to his stomach.

"Slow down or I'll miss my next birthday," the green humanoid choked.

"Sorry, buddy....but it could start any moment." Gwen slowed down and sat on a ledge to wait for her companion. "Though I hear Espers are big..we might be able to see them from here." Small stones could be heard sliding along the rocky ground as Jak rolled down another small cliff face. "Come on," Figaro sighed and hefted her friend up onto her shoulders. "Somehow I always end up carrying you."

"What in the world is that supposed to mean?" the Imp wailed, grinning as he leaned against Gwen's head. "You hardly ever...uh...hm...there it is."

Gwen quickly brought herself to a lying position on the rock, looking out over the battlefield below. She saw the assembled Anchyron army, lining up to prepare for the assault. The sixteen year old girl smiled widely; watching the strong men down below preparing to test their strength. It was very exciting.

"I haven't known you to be one for romance," Jak quipped, seemingly reading her mind.

"What's that supposed to mean?" she cuffed the imp's ear playfully.

The little green figure scowled in jest. "Excuse me, Miss Tomboy. 'I want to fight!' 'I'll go out with the war party!'."

Blushing, Gwen looked longingly out at the army. "A girl can get emotional every once in awhile, can't she?" Her dirty blonde hair whipped about along her back and occasionally against the rock. The cliff that the two were positioned on provided no breakwall for the harsh elements.

Three huge shadows fell across the land. Gwen gasped in uncharacteristic terror and Jak's beak dropped. The Espers descended to the battlefield, all three of them engulfed in flame. Two of the creatures looked similar--green skin and long, slightly curved horns. The third resembled a cross between a man and a Behemoth. Its skin appeared to be made of molten lava. They screamed in rage as they rushed the standing army.

****

Generals shouted to their men as the Espers swooped past--too swiftly to utilize any strategy. A rage of vengeance shone in Phillip's eyes as one of the twin Espers buzzed towards him. Instead of scattering like the others, he raised his sword and slashed at the demon's arm as it began a sharp ascent. The young soldier soon realized his error as tongues of flame emerged from the wound, engulfing his own arm. The heat baked through the armor and sensations of excrutiating pain shot through the man.

Phillip fell immediatly to the ground, the soft mush of earth comforting him little. Cringing on the ground, he heard one of the officers shout the call to attack. The other soldiers, knights, mercenaries, and other fighters rushed towards the monsters with their weapons drawn. Like pigs to slaughter, they advanced upon the unbeatable adversary.

"Magma," one of the horned Espers, said.

The lava skinned beast turned, "what is it, Ifrit?"

"One of those humans managed to hurt me." The green monster lifted his arm; where Phillip's sword has slashed. "Vengeance."

"It will have to wait, my friend," Magma gurgled menacingly. "You know that Doom demanded we defeat the humans. Prisoners and torture aren't required."

Frowning, Ifrit turned ragefully back towards the battlefield. "Come, brother Jinn," he fumed. "Let us inspire fear through blaze."

Looking over the charging forces, the second horned Esper, Jinn, charted a path. "HELLFIRE!" he shot as a cannonball through the human ranks.

Phillip stood, taking his sword into his left hand, and saw his friends fall to the ground on fire. The flames danced in victory, taunting the young knight and calling him to throw his life away as well. They struggled to stand against the pain torching both their tendons and their will. Death won out, however, and the brave men waving weapons in vain fell to the moist earth.

The flames consuming his allies reflected as rage in Phillip's eyes. He stared coldly at the three demons who had just claimed the hopes and dreams of everyone he knew. The burning pain underneath the armor on the young man's right arm increased. He raised the sword in his left hand and shouted angrily.

"Look at that one," Magma grinned cruelly. "He challenges us."

"Come!" Phillip screamed. "Fight! Don't sit up there like cowards!"

"What'd he call us?" Ifrit growled as a cat growls at its mouse. "Cowards?" Playing with his prey, the huge horned Esper flew down to ground level, leaned his head to the earth, and stared at Phillip.

"Bastard," the knight spat. He swung his sword in a crosswise slash, cutting across Ifrit's nose. "You killed them."

"Gah!" the Esper recoiled, lifting his head away from the scene. "And I'll kill you, human." The green skinned hulk clenched his fists as his eyes went red with crimson death. Heat came off his body, eventually changing to fire which spread slowly outward.

Jinn returned from another run at the troops into the air where Magma was surveying the carnage. "What is my brother up to?" he asked.

"Let it play out," Magma smiled. "It seems there's a human who doesn't fear us."

From a little down the battlefield, the high ranking officer Phillip had watched earlier was now watching Phillip. "Men," he spoke quietly to the soldiers who were still alive. "Charge that Esper, NOW." The small group did as they were told. Quickly reaching the huge beast, they attacked with their numerous swords, axes, and spears. A few of the weapons connected, a few of that number managed to penetrate. Ifrit turned and swept his hands across their ranks, lighting them ablaze with the fire that coated his skin.

One of the soldiers made it around to the Esper's front and grabbed a startled Phillip by the shoulders. "Come on, let's go," the man shouted over Ifrit's roaring. "We have to get outta' here."

As Phillip and the other soldier sprinted away from the battling Esper, there was a dull rumbling noise. The young man closed his eyes and pumped his legs faster than they wanted to move. The washed ground threatened to slip out beneath Phillip's feet as he ran.

The rumble soon became a roar, and the roar soon became an explosion. Fire erupted from Ifrit's body and fried everything within several yards. The soldiers who were still fighting the Esper no longer existed. He triumphantly flew into the air.

"General Magma," the horned one smiled grimly. "Lord Doom shall be pleased."

"Yes," replied the molten demon. "This should extinguish any remaining hope the humans possess."

Standing up from the muddied ground, Phillip and the knight who rescued him turned to watch the high officer. Never looking worried, he motioned towards the Magi tent--a look that resembled cockiness spread his features. Slowly the tent flaps opened, and nine blue-robed men strode calmly into the front.

"What in Brooks' name is this?" Jinn scoffed. "Let me take these humans." Before anyone could protest, the ogrish Esper dove at the Magi below.

Their eyes covered, sullen smirks were displayed on the faces of the wizards. Slowly but uniformly, the wind lifted their cloaks subtly off the ground as they motioned their hands.

"Fire with ice," the General's words echoed in Phillip's head.

Just as Jinn was about to set fire to the men, there was a bright blue flash and the air became frigid. The air around the fight assumed blizzard conditions as snow and ice swirled in a chill gust. Ice had surrounded the Esper and a beam of sub-zero air had solidified into a blade of ice. As the magic attack intensified, Jinn let out a cry of agony; the Esper fell roughly to the ground and lay motionless.

"DEAD!" foamed Ifrit from above. "Those vermin will pay for such an outrage!"

"Calm yourself, Ifrit," Magma put his flowing hand on his charge's flesh shoulder. "There will be time for revenge later."

"I cannot wait for Doom's plan to come to fruitition--I must avenge my brother NOW."

"If you do not calm yourself, Ifrit," the Esper General spoke dangerously. "Then I will avenge your insubordination." Magma began to fly off.

"Trying to prove your military skills above that of the humans," Ifrit muttered angrily.

"LISTEN," the lava Esper's eyes burned with anger. Even from yards away, the green demon could feel the intense heat from his superior. "Doom gives me orders, I make sure you follow them--understand?"

"Sir," Ifrit submitted, silently vowing revenge against the mortals for their outrage.

Back on the battlefield, there was a makeshift celebration occurring. Phillip finally found the legs to stand from his position. He looked to the man who saved him--who he now recalled as Larson--and tried to read his thoughts.

"Truly," Larson began, staring only at the downed Esper. "Truly this is a war of the Magi."

Turning back to see the army's leader, Phillip started in his direction. Thinking to check his appearance, the boy looked downward at his armor. It was scored and burnt all over, chips missing from the plates. In a few places the metal had strangely melted onto his undertunic. The strap on his boot threatened to snap as Phillip jogged to his superior.

The leader turned to the young soldier and smiled. "The Magi did the job well." He beamed with pride. His smile turned to a concerned glance--or at least that's how it seemed. "You were lucky to survive."

"I was lucky?" Phillip threw down his sword--a sword whose sheath had been scorched to ashes of nothingness. "No disrespect, sir...but you knew the Magi could kill an Esper the whole time, did you not?"

The officer nodded, smiling with pride at his strategy. "The Elementalist was perfectly correct in his theories."

"If you knew this, then why did you send out the foot troops first? You knew they'd die."

Thinking for a moment, the man answered. "We had to try."

"They died in vain!" the young man was enraged.

The general, obviously humored by the comment, chuckled nervously. "They signed up to the military--just like you."

"I didn't sign up so that I could die meaninglessly," Phillip growled. "I don't need to be a member of your death patrol."

"Fine, young man," the officer huffed. "You're correct in assuming you're expendable. If you would rather be stationed in Castle Anchyron--you're welcome to it."

****

"Let's go, Gwen," Jak pleaded, pulling on the thin material of the girl's over-vest. "Your father was planning that surprise at campfire tonight."

"Jak, you Impish goofball," the young woman joked with her friend. "Campfire isn't for hours."

"First of all, young lady," the Imp reprimanded, only half in jest. "When night falls here in the Narshe mountains, there's bound to be some nasty beasts."

"Like the ones we creamed the other night?" she wondered.

"PLUS...everyone in the Figaro Clan probably noticed Espers flying overhead. No doubt they're wondering where you are through the uproar."

Gwen Figaro pondered for a moment, then leapt up and broke into a sprint back towards camp. "You may be right his time!" she called. "You may be in big trouble for this!"

"Wha? ME?!?" Jak stumbled as he tried to keep speed. "You're the one who wanted to watch the battle."

"And who went along with it?"

"I was...uh..." Jak frowned his Impish beak. "Just GO."

****

The King had just arrived back in Anchyron, and he was immediatly assaulted by crowds of radio reporters. "Sir! Sir!" they shouted. "A few words on the victory?"

"There WAS no victory," Anchryon shouted at the microphones in his face. "We defeated ONE Esper. That is all."

"Sir? Is there any report of Magicite? Will we harness it?"

"THAT," he replied. "Is up to General Fields."

"Any words for the Espers?" a young reporter pushed to the front of the group. "Threats? Ultimatums? Warnings?"

"We did not win today," the King gruffly repeated. "We defeated one of them--they defeated nearly all of us. We LOST."

Still, the hysteria of a slain Esper permeated and controlled the mass. "Any comments before you leave?"

"Please! Sir!"

"What are your feelings on reports coming from Doma?"

"NO COMMENT!" King Anchyron yelled as he waved his arms defensively. "Leave me be."

****

The foot guards of Phillip's armor clicked steadily against his boots as he heavily trodded through the battlefield. It had been several hours since sunset, and large torches had been placed in the ground at intervals along the field. They illuminated the burnt and mutilated bodies of the brave soldiers who had sacrificed their lives for near-nothing. The flame-light also shone eerily the grim expression across the knight's face. His mouth was set, and his eyes glowed empty. Inside him was the same void; everything he knew as truth was gone.

The army was a secretive death trap. All his life he had waited to face an Esper. That day had come at the cost of all his friends, his enemies, and his casual aquaintances. He drooped his face to look at the bodies of his comrades that lay scattered--many died to save him. The young man saw the charred marks on the earth and realized he was standing where the Esper Jinn had been slain. The body had long since crystalized as Magicite and was hauled away to Anchyron. Was Phillip the only one to mourn these dead?

He gloomily watched as parents and other loved ones filed through the rows of fallen to find familiar faces. A grim-faced man and a woman who was presumably his wife wandered among the bodies, looking carefully at faces.

"Matthew?" the woman asked, looking at another body. She turned back to her spouse, "I don't see him." The woman's eyes teared and she started to sob uncontrollably. The man comforted her.

"There's still a chance he didn't join the army. Maybe he's out there making us proud."

Shaking her head and wiping her tears in the man's coat, the woman attempted to compose herself. "He's alive..he has to be."

Phillip made one last scan of the lifeless soldiers. His friend, Rihk, was not among the identifiable bodies. This meant that somewhere in the mass of burnt flesh and rotten ash was his comrade in arms. Phillip remembered how optimistic Rihk had been nights before--and how he himself had been cynical towards the coming tempest. Strange how optimism seemed always to die first...only to be born again later. The second half of the equation didn't seem likely this time, though. Many things pondered themselves in the boy's mind.

"Matthew?" it was the woman again. This time closer to Phillip.

"He's not here," the father begged. "He's....alive, somewhere."

"Alive?"

Phillip could almost see the wife's hopes raise into the sky and then crash down again.

"Matthew?" she questioned. She appeared almost to be asking the bodies themselves. "Matthew?"

Stranger still, somewhere beyond time and memory, Phillip thought maybe he should know that name. Somehow their lives intertwined, and perhaps their fates were shared.

WAR

A faint tinge of cool air blew into the battlement. Located North of Doma, Maduin gazed out of his small fortress. The brave warrior had been stationed here as a bastion of Doma's power. If one drew a line running north of Doma, and a line running east of the Narshe range--then the lines would connect at Maduin's station. It was a very tiny fortress: a square shaped tower maybe twenty feet high and fifteen feet across.

The winds blowing from the West were cold because of the Narshe snows. Sir Maduin drew his cloak closer about him. He spied through his telescope the figures he'd been waiting to see. "YURA!" the soldier called. "How goes the chase?"

"Your stupid army is right behind us," the head man in the coming force grinned. "I hope we lost them in these foothills."

Maduin stepped out of his fort, walking with his large halberd. "They should give up after a few slopes...they have no need to track you down when you're this far away." The soldier used his telescope to scan the area quickly.

"They are your soldiers," the man, Yura, commented. "They might come to your post here to ask about anything suspicious."

The knight grinned largely. "Doma's armies have no worry of rebels when there are Espers on the rampage." He then motioned to his fortress. "Come inside...whoever will fit, that is."

"Remember," the rebel leader scowled half seriously. "We wouldn't need to be rebels if your king would be more civil to our villages."

"Yura, old boy," Maduin started back to the fort entrance. "If I thought my king was justified--would I be feeding your rebels information of supply shipments?"

"Keep in mind that information doesn't actually feed my troops."

The cold waft of air shifted outside the fortress entrance. A beautiful woman, translucent at best, appeared hovering in the air. Maduin and Yura both turned to her, marveling at her beauty. A lovely blue ribbon wrapped loosely about her form, waving in the gentle wind she created about herself.

As Maduin marveled at the vision, Yura drew his sword. The rebel leader pointed it towards the throat of the nude woman in front of him. "I shall not be tricked."

"TRICKED?" Maduin was shocked back to his senses. "What in the world are you talking about?"

"We know about Magicite, Mad," Yura frowned. "One of my men...I don't even know his name...we lost him cause he went to grab some of Doma's Magicite stash. We all heard 'bout its power. He wanted some for himself. That's how your army is tricking us now."

"My army is tricking us with a naked woman who is twice our size and hovering in midair?" Either his sentry-hood had driven him deaf, or Maduin had just heard Yura suggest the most absurd idea on the face of the planet. The knight moved to stop his friend. "Stop this."

The rebel pushed Maduin's arm away. "You stop this. My people's makeshift villages and shelters on the Veldt were destroyed either physically or financially by your king!" The desperate man waved his sword around in the air. "I will not lose anything more." He looked strongly at his friend. "She's an Esper!"

"I am far from Esper," the woman spoke to the surprise of both men. "I am of the race whence they were spawned."

At this, Maduin became distrustful. He held his halberd carefully.

"I have come to stop the destruction," she said in her soothing voice. "I ask you to leave your guard post, and your rebels, to aid my purpose. The coming war is not for country or freedom--but for humankind itself."

"So you want us to...what?" questioned the Doma sentry. Yura wasn't quite so respondant, and scowled fervently.

"You are to become my guards," the floating entity answered calmly. "Later you shall serve as my generals."

There was something in the woman's voice that alleviated all fear, instilled a truth in each of the men. Something occured to Yura. "You wish us to become Espers, don't you?"

"I shall not lie to you." The female spirit nodded.

Neither man objected to this development, strangely enough. She began the transformation process immediatly. The thought occured to Yura that they were under a spell, and that their will was gone. Maduin, oddly enough, spoke to the rebel's mind and assured him they had made the decision of their own will. Something deep in their soul had spoken when their voices were silenced. The muscles of both men became more pronounced and darkened. Horn-like spikes protruded from their bodies. Fingers and toes turned into sharp claws, their eyes narrowed, and their hair became long and clumped; spikes interspersed within it.

****

The sun was rising on the large expanse of the Veldt. From the West, still draped in blue shadows, Thanatos stood resolutely. "Will he even show?" Zarthes asked from next to his master.

"He'll show," the Esper of death said behind his grim mask. "He's waited his life for this."

Capping the hill in front of them, the two surveyors saw Ultros and his two servants. The Esper strode confidently, Phunbaba beside him limped on his bad leg, and DoomGaze floated just above the ground with shadow following behind. The high grass of the Veldt area waved casually in the morning wind.

"When does it start?" Phunbaba asked his master.

"It starts now," Ultros silently motioned his hands at the beginning of a spell.

"Isn't that cheating?" DoomGaze hissed through lifeless eyes.

"There are no rules to begin with for Thanatos," the purple cloaked Esper completed the spell. "Only DEATH!" Ultros swung his hands forward and a huge beam of black energy ripped across the plain.

"Ah, Ultros!" the opponent created a shield with more than enough time. The beam deflected harmlessly off the force field. "I see that again the art of trickery has escaped you." The Esper of death shrugged off the cape that had draped over his armor: black armor, dark as the darkest night. Arcane demonic runes adorned the plates of the armor, glowing silently. As always, the creature's horned dragon skull mask adorned his head. "This is your last chance to stop this battle. If you continue, you may end up like your friend DoomGaze."

Ultros glanced over where his servant's body had once been. Now only tatters of the shadow skin remained. Rage burned in DoomGaze's eyes at the remark as he remembered that time so many years ago when he had been mutilated by the power of Thanatos. The Esper in the violet robes looked back towards his enemy. "As such, this is YOUR last chance to stop this battle."

"Well," Thanatos shifted his glance to all angles of the plain. "Since my side is all assembled, I'm ready to fight."

"As are we," Ultros prepared another spell.

"You'll have to excuse my force's number," the Dark Esper grinned while drawing an evil looking blade. "Gaia can't be here, as he's on business. Being an assassin and all, I wasn't expecting him to be available anyway."

"You can stop trying to sound like a human, Thanatos," Ultros growled. "Prepare yourself!"

The insult had taken its damage to the Death Esper, who felt rage build up inside. "Human?" he scowled. "Zarthes--your dragons."

The Dragon Master waved his arms and eight dragons were immediatly at his side. From air, sea, even the earth itself; the dragons came to their master. He hissed at them in some foreign tongue, and they began to charge Ultros and his beasts. Zarthes turned back to his master "M'lord."

"Excellent." The usual arrogance had returned to the cold voice.

"Charge," muttered Ultros, throwing his arms out in front of himself once more. A larger beam of darkness shot towards Thanatos. The Master of Death deflected the attack with a deft swing of his saber. Once more he restrained from counterattacking.

Phunbaba was already charging across the battleground towards Zarthes--the keeper of dragons. The dragons themselves were the focus of DoomGaze's attack. Ultros teleported himself next to his nemesis.

The robed Esper charged his hands with the same dark energy he had fired in beams earlier. He punched at the armored Esper strongly. His blows were easily blocked and deflected. "Had you eight arms," Thanatos laughed. "You still could not best me."

Ultros' eyes flashed devilishly and lightning struck down into Thanatos, who was caught off guard. The purple cloaked one took this opportunity to unleash a magical barrage. Fire blazed into the monster, just as Ice cascaded onto him. Lastly, the Esper directed the earth to swallow him up.

Partially deflecting the fire and ice attacks with his dark sword, Thanatos then drove the blade into the ground to cease the earth strike. He then circled the sword in the air and drove it towards his assailant. Ultros dodged backwards and sent electricity through the adamant of the blade. Thanatos absorbed that attack and channelled black energy back to the source. Ultros was struck in the chest and fell backwards.

Making a path for his ally Phunbaba, DoomGaze flew through the air and battled with the dragons. One of the monsters shot fiery breath at the shadow creature, who passed through it and slashed the beast's face. One of the larger dragons got in the way of the black fleshed creature and was rewarded with a gash in its chest. DoomGaze roared in triumphant fury. The dragon that had been struck down shimmered in a dark, evil light. It rose back into the air, now a dragon skeleton, and moved to gain its vengeance.

"So the beast attacks the beast master," Zarthes mocked Phunbaba.

The green hulk roared and charged at his enemy. The Dragon Master Esper snapped out a whip and pulled a scimitar. As the emerald beast's hands clenched around his prey's neck, the Esper slashed Phunbaba's arm with his blade. Landing on the ground, he then lashed his whip about the monster's neck. He pulled Phunbaba to the ground.

"You submit?" he asked.

"Graaahhhh...." Phunbaba struggled, straining to reach his attacker.

"A stubborn beast is something I have no use for." Zarthes raised the scimitar for a death blow. At the moment of imbalance the creature stood up, pulling on the whip and causing the Esper to tumble onto his backside. Phunbaba advanced...

Ultros' royal cloaks flowed in the morning breeze in the stripped area of the plain. He stood above a downed Thanatos and laughed. The armored Esper on the ground stirred; faster than the purple being could see, the black Esper flipped to his feet and sent a beam of energy at his opponent. Ultros fell.

Holding his cragged sword at Ultros' throat, Thanatos spoke. "I shall let you live only because I enjoy your petty attempts to topple my reign." He sheathed his sword after a great motion with it in the air. "Perhaps next time we meet you shall have dropped your childish methods and have gained true power." His black armor clanking, the skull-headed figure called across the field. "Zarthes! Bring your dragons. We have no more time to waste on these fools."

****

The barracks were crowded with the clanking sounds of soldier's armor as the troops moved about the room and talked with each other. It was break time for the guards as the survivors of the battle had returned, and they were exchanging stories. All ranks were present, and they were all taking a needed break.

A gust of cool air blew into the room and a beautiful woman appeared, flanked by two rather demonic looking men. She was unclothed, at least twice the size of a human being, and glowed with a sort of heavenly light. The two men were horned in numerous places, were each larger than a man, and had very tan skin. It was as if angel and devil had simultaneously entered.

Phillip watched the mysterious visitors in wonder. He recognized, or at least speculated, that the two demons were Espers. But the woman radiated some strange feeling around the room that told the soldiers she was something more. After a strange period of silence, the beautious creature spoke.

"Until now, there have been only evil minded Espers."

The troops were still silent, but their minds began turning in attempts to decipher the woman's meaning.

"I am creating a force of good minded Espers with their own free will to combat and defeat the horrible creatures my brother has spawned."

Despite the possible ill meaning of her words, the message was translated into the men's minds through something deep in their soul. They immediatly trusted and had faith in her good intentions. One man retained an incling of uneasiness and spoke up. "What about those demons at your side?"

"These Espers were once humans, like you. For the good of your race, they offered themselves to become my guards and generals." She motioned with her arms towards Maduin and Yura. "Now, I have come to assure the forces of Anchyron that I will provide my aid in the coming war. I trust that you will all provide yourselves as allies to my forces."

The men, not consciously but somewhere deep inside themselves, vowed their allegiance to the forces of good. The three mysterious figures in front of them were no longer intruders, but a symbol of hope against the Espers that currently plagued the land.

"As proof of my promise," the woman spoke again. "I shall change your bravest knight into an Esper. He shall be granted the sharpest sword, the strongest armor, and the fastest horse."

Mumbling permeated the soldiers as they gave reasons to one another why they weren't good enough to become an Esper. Mostly spawned out of fear, most of the men's reasons were very similar. Phillip despised the idea of becoming an Esper--a wicked creature who killed for the joy of blood.

One man pushed his way to the front of the ranks. He raised his hand bravely and gazed into the eyes of the woman. "I will," are the only words he spoke. She examined him closely. He was of muscular build, his chin square and brissled. His eyes glared with a warrior's spirit, and his expression was noble.

"Excellent," she spoke ambivilently. "What is your name?"

"Odin," he answered, kneeling.

"Odin shall return after his metamorphosis," her voice echoed throughout the room. As the four beings began to fade from veiw, one of the soldiers pushed his way into view and spoke.

"M'lady!" he shouted. "You said that your race created Espers. What is your race?"

The beauty pondered for a moment, having been unprepared for such a question. Humans were wonderfully surprising in their unpredictability. Not exactly sure what her 'race' was, she opened her mouth to speak. "I am called Goddess."

VOYAGE

Blain frowned at his situation as he hung onto the ship's rigging. The adventurous young man currently found himself grasping the mast of a boat bound for Nikeah. He was also dressed as a deck-hand.

"Blast it," he cursed himself. He had no idea why he was doing this; jumping on a boat and travelling halfway across the world to protect a moving caravan. No, he knew why he was doing it: Lila. The old man Stave, his wife, and his daughter had gotten on board this ship so they could move their trading to the city of South Anchyron. Strangely enough, the city of South Anchyron was without a port--so any ships were forced to land in Nikeah and then the passengers would travel overland to their final destination. Blain knew this, and also anticipated an attack.

The young man scowled in self aggravation. He wasn't doing it for the safety of the entire trading party as much as he was for the safety of one girl. "Lila..." he said to himself. "Why do you have to be so beautiful?" He quieted himself as she walked out onto the deck below him. He knew he shouldn't reveal himself; but the urge was so strong. Still, he clutched the mast and rigging and held fast. "Stupid jerk," he insulted himself. "Blain? You are hopeless."

****

"Welcome, Brooks...what brings you from the humble abode of our master?"

"Quiet yourself, Thanatos," the dark figure spoke demandingly. "Doom was less than pleased with your unauthorized dealings with Ultros. Our creator WAS, however, interested by it. His two prized underlings competing and such. He was angered by your sparing of that fool's life."

"Fool?" the Death Esper was interested. "I'm assuming that word was your addition?"

"Yes, it was," Brooks sneered. "If you and Ultros come to blows again--make sure that one of you dies."

"Not a problem," Thanatos grinned devilishly at the thought. "I doubt that's the reason you've come, though."

"All too true," Doom's right-hand Esper revealed. "There is a trade party currently headed for South Anchyron by ship."

"That's fantastic," sarcasm permeated the dark one's voice. It was odd to be talking in a cave so dark that neither figures were even partially visible, save for their own black eminations.

"Ultros' magic must have shorted out your brain--there are no direct ship routes to South Anchyron." Brooks sounded hurried, almost afraid of something.

"Is that fear I sense?" Thanatos grinned thoughtfully. "I assume you want my partners and I to stop this trade party? What are they carrying?"

"They're carrying something that is potentially detrimental to Doom's machinations."

Dripping water could be heard in the distance of the cave. Something loafed past behind Brooks--a creature of these caverns, no doubt. Still, the darkness allowed no sight and the beast's identity remained mystery. "It's the human empire, isn't it?"

"Yes," Doom's assistant confided. "One of the party is an agent of the human empire. We aren't sure which one--but we want them dead."

"Consider it done," Thanatos motioned his fingers and hellfire erupted from a few 'torches' scattered about the cavern. Brooks had already vanished, as had the lumbering creature. "Zarthes!" the Esper called into the air. "We're needed."

****

The fire crackled and hissed at its fuel as it stretched its orange fingers into the blackened night sky. Rich smoke rose into the air and the children of the Figaro clan watched it in wonder.

"You are moving on from childhood to adulthood, my daughter," Garth Figaro spoke. "As you know, the warriors of our tribe must undergo a test."

"And I'm a warrior of our tribe," Gwen stated.

"You must journey out into the world, and return with proof of your adulthood."

"What might that be?" Jak butted in. "How do we find the proof?"

"That, small Imp," Garth smiled. "Is for Gwen to discover."

As his daughter returned to her tent, no doubt planning for her coming journey, Figaro strode to his friend.

"We have no need for tradition anymore, Garth," Hagol scolded. "You're so occupied with nightly campfires and your daughter's ceremony that you've ignored our most important needs. The first of which is land."

Garth took a moment to view the entire camp. Currently sheltered in the Narshe mountains, the huge cliffs rose up in a protective circle about the camp. Tents were positioned on the ground and along the rocky crags themselves. The clan was certainly larger than it had ever been. "Still singing the same song, Hagol?"

"Dammit, Garth," the burly man stamped his foot angrily and turned away from the clan leader.

"Hagol..I'm sorry--but I have faith my daughter will be the salvation of our tribe."

Readjusting his fur lined jacket, the second man huffed and prepared to leave. "I'll grant you your last chance, Figaro," he muttered. "But right now I dismiss it as foolish arrogance."

Meanwhile, in a small tent, Gwen Figaro shoved a few supplies into her travel bag. Jak woke up from his quickly fallen slumber and rubbed his eyes. "I thought we were sleeping--we have a journey to start tomor--"

"Tonight," the girl interrupted. She shed her night clothes in favor of travelling garb. "We're leaving tonight so we can have a head start."

"A head start?" the Imp crawled from his bedroll and frowned sleepily. "We don't even know what we're looking for--WHY would we need a head start?"

"Listen," Gwen tied the strings that fastened her pack. "You can either come with me now--or stay here with the adults." Thinking a second, she added "and Hagol."

Without further protest, Jak grabbed his own small pack and stuffed it with supplies.

****

Keith surveyed the grounds. The young scholar was standing in the area where the Anchyron army had battled Espers only days before. He scribbled notes on his paper pad while gazing at the numerous marks of battle. The ground was scorched black in places--devoid of life and not hoping for any. Scattered here and there were some of the unclaimed--or unclaimable--bodies.

The man knelt down in one scorched patch where the ground had been shifted away...like something large had fallen. There were some shining shards of something crystalline, and the researcher carefully placed them in his pouch. A very odd sight, this battleground. What sort of creature could have the power to set fire to an entire patch of earth? Keith already knew the answer, however--an Esper.

****

The coach rattled its way down the forest path. No chocobos lead the way, as this particular coach had small machines attached to the spokes which caused the wheels to turn of their own accord. Aside from this fact, it was a completely normal enclosed cart.

Inside, the King of Anchyron stroked his beard. Across from the monarch sat the King of Doma as well as another, heavily armored, man.

Lord Doma was the first to speak. "Fascinating...this technology."

Anchyron huffed. "Those are merely spokes. If that blasted Edwin would just fund our scientists, we could use advanced technology for the military."

The coach jolted a bit when it ran over a stone in the road. "Well we don't have his funding," Doma frowned. "What would you spend it on, anyway? Self driving carts can't destroy Espers."

"You literal fool," the first King said under his breath--only partially making sense. "One of my intelligence agents had an interesting theory. We could use both Magicite AND technology to create the ultimate weapons. The weapons of human salvation." Anchyron looked slightly upward, gazing into space, and snapped his fingers a few times trying to remember something. "Cid, was it? Something like that." He smacked the side of the coach with his fist in frustration. "But there's no way we can afford something like that without Jidoor's funds pooled with the Empire."

The third man, probably some high ranking knight, looked at Anchyron. "Sir? Don't you ever miss your wife when you're out here recruiting for our human Empire?"

"No, Garamonde," the King said wistfully. "I'll have plenty of time for the queen when I'm finished saving the world." The coach sped along on the path.

****

The vagabond shoved his back to the wall as he rounded the corner. Doma's sewers were not a friendly place; especially when the Doma guards had chased one there. He crouched slowly as he looked back around the corner to see if they were still in pursuit. The man saw nothing and began to proceed.

Hearing quick footsteps splashing through the shallow water of the maze, the figure darted into a nearby shadow, hoping to evade attack. He had broken away from his fellow rebels to find something hidden here in Doma Castle. That something would elevate him above the others. His goal was something called Magicite.

Though he had heard only rumors, the vagabond knew that Magicite came from Espers. It contained their power and energy, and one who used the Magicite would wield the ultimate power. All his life this man had hidden in shadows as he was doing now; he had always been forced to pick from the smallest scraps and worst pieces to survive. The bottom of any social ladder, this man had gotten used to the worst. It was time to take charge and elevate himself to the highest.

This poor soul had joined the rebels in hopes that they would ultimately show Doma's king that they were not his footstools. Show the king that they were important as people, and deserved such treatment. As the citizens of the poor towns in Doma's territory banded together, this man realized he still didn't fit in. Being the poorest among them, having less than no food, and wearing the only clothes he owned, they ostracized him. He became the joke of the rebel camps, the laughing stock, and the "poor soul". Tired of having poor people call him poor, the vagabond finally decided to do something about it.

One of the rebel force's spies had reported that the castle was holding some of the fabled Magicite. Seeing this as the key to his revenge, the man told Yura he would attack the castle and get the Magicite. Too bad the rebel leader didn't realize he would keep it for himself. The figure chuckled to himself. No one would laugh at him anymore--he'd show the world how strong he was. The Magicite would allow his only wish to come true...he would at last have the power to show the world his rage.

Something called to the man's mind. The Magicite? Could it actually sense him and his intent? Yes...it was definitely the Magicite. No longer caring for stealth, the man splashed through the sewer tunnels on the path he now knew by heart--the Magicite was here. Rounding the last bend just as the soldier's shouts came into earshot, the poor vagabond saw the crystalline solace that he had sought.

Clutching the Magicite in his hands, the man noticed how it shimmered with a beauty not of this world. He held it against his chest and the sounds of approaching soldiers vanished from his ears. A warm glowing feeling spread throughout the vagabond's body and he smiled demonically. His synapses began to burn and his vision turned white. He felt like screaming. The power flowed throughout him and his mind left this world on a journey into pure energy.

ARRIVALS

Slamming the crate to the ground because of its great weight, Stave wiped his brow. "There," he said to his wife and daughter in a satisfied tone. "That's the last of them. Let's load up with the rest of the caravan." The man dragged the crates he had just unloaded along the ground towards the wagon so that they could be loaded for overland travel. Trading wasn't an easy life--but with the new weapons and potions that Stave had procured, it was a sure thing all his stock would be sold.

Lila tarried behind a bit, looking at the men and women of Nikeah. There were dozens of trade stands, some improvisational establishments made up of produce crates turned on their side. She was happy that her father wasn't trading here--too much competition. The girl giggled slightly as she ran her hands along the front of her dress to straighten any wrinkles. At the moment she wore a dull brown outfit, fancied only by a few ruffles about the sleeves and hem.

Before long, however, she would own closets and closets full of princess gowns. Blain had promised it to her. She spun in a circle once, laughing happily at the thought. Her rosy cheeks accented the innocent girlish smile she wore. Noticing that her parents had distanced her in the direction of the carts, she hurried along on her way to join them.

The Bounty Hunter watched from a nearby shadow. He conservatively removed the boat crew garb and replaced it with his usual hodge-podge of ragged clothes. Blain was going to a lot of trouble for this girl, and he hoped it was worth it. Watching Lila run to catch up with the adults, the young man's mind began working furiously to come up with a method of being with her while avoiding notice from her father. Stave was quite a strong man, though educated.

Worrying that time would be lost, Blain leapt to the wall across the alley. Kicking off his foothold, he shot across the way to the previous wall. Kickstepping like this, the Bounty Hunter was soon perched on a roof. He leapt from house to house until the caravan came into veiw. They were moving out, and he noticed Lila sitting near the rear on one of the center carts. As they moved out of sight a more urgent problem presented itself to Blain: how to get down.

****

Riding towards castle Anchyron on his steed Sleipnir, Odin watched as the soldiers came to greet him. They gazed in amazement at the warrior. Larger, stronger, and better equipped, some wondered if this was the same Odin they had known. His countenance and sureness of action assured them it was.

"Goddess has given me the power of an Esper," the noble warrior called to his comrades. "I have been given the charge to protect this castle at any cost."

Mumbles of "He's serving WITH us?" and "Shouldn't an Esper be RULING?" and the like circulated among the throng of knights and sentries.

"I intend to fight alongside you just as I always have," Odin announced to the excited crowd. "I shall not fail Goddess, or my home!"

The men cheered loudly as their hope strode proudly into the castle gate. From the window of a high tower, the Queen watched the spectacle. Something inside her had leapt at the voice of Odin. She dismissed it and sat back down on her bed, gazing at a portrait of her love--the King.

Later that night, the soldier named Phillip sat at the desk in his room. He was writing a letter, but wasn't really sure who it was to. He didn't have any family or any girlfriends like the other knights. A fire burned in the fireplace and he pondered how lucky he was to have been in the right place at the right time. The barracks were overcrowded, as the entire force was present in the castle at once. When the Magi entered, a few of the soldiers were unwanting to share a room with them and left. Still, though, the beds were all taken and so was much of the floor space. Phillip had wandered out into the castle chambers when one of the nobles revealed he was leaving for a few days and was willing to rent out his room. The kind man had seen Phillip and offered the lodging to him. Warm and comfortable, the warrior wasn't quite sure if he was happy or not. He looked at the letter. It basically described his outrage at the needless slaughter of his fellow troops. It also symbolized how alone he was, as there was no one to recieve it. The thoughts looped themselves in the young man's mind. Hearing something outside, Phillip rushed to the window.

"Be quiet, Jak!" called a definite feminine voice. "The guards will hear you."

"Well if you hadn't dropped me," a tiny green figure shot back. "Then I wouldn't have yelped."

An Imp; that was odd. Phillip leaned further out his window trying to get a better glance. A woman in a skimpy outfit was the human figure. She was carrying a rather wicked looking spear that was lashed to her back for easy access. "You there!" the young man called. "Who are you?"

"See?" the girl scowled harshly at her companion. "Now we're in trouble for trespassing."

"Where are you going?" the soldier tried to sound as non-threatening as possible.

"I'm Gwen Figaro and this is Jak," the woman called without fear. The Imp, however, seemed to be attempting to vanish. "I'm on a coming of age test for my clan. We're only passing through."

A fanciful thought entered Phillip's mind. "Can I come with you?" he called. The young man had leave that he had never taken, and after that battle with Espers, Anchyron was the last place he wanted to be.

The girl seemed taken aback. She glanced to the Imp she was with and then looked back to the window. "Uh...I guess so."

"Go around to the drawbridge," Phillip waved his hand in the direction he spoke. "I'll meet you there!" The young man turned away from the window and glanced about the plush room. The fine carpet, rich tapestries, and warm fire were nothing to him anymore. What he needed was an escape from the confines of the castle and his duty to it.

"Remind me why you told him to come?" Jak questioned as he and Gwen walked around the fortress to its front.

"There are weird things out these days, Jak," the girl replied seriously. "A military companion would be useful to have around on a journey like ours, don't you think?"

"And you thought he was cute."

"And I thought he was--HEY!" Gwen scowled at her friend. "Shut up."

"A female warrior is still a girl at heart," the Imp droned philosophically.

****

The three did meet up at the drawbridge, and after journeying through the desert for two hours, Gwen insisted they set up camp. An hour later, the warm fire roared and crackled as the two warriors sat awake and talked. The Imp had long since fallen into deep slumber a few feet away from Figaro.

"And that's why I'm rather upset with the way of things," Phillip finished a story. He rubbed his hands together near the fire for warmth. When the hot red feeling spread to his skin, he pulled back to his seat.

"Must have been rough growing up without a father," Gwen spoke from the other side of the fire with sympathy in her tone. "Though much like you, my duty to my people wouldn't allow me to see much of my mother. I wonder if dad had wanted a boy."

"Not from what you've told me of him," the knight chuckled slightly. "It sounds like he's proud of everything about you."

The young woman sighed wistfully, glancing up at the stars in the night sky. "Though I'm happy with my life, there are still very rare moments when I wish I wasn't expected to be a warrior and clan leader." She turned her attention back to the fire, and then to Phillip. "And WHY am I telling this to YOU?" she snapped. Mysteriously frustrated, Gwen began to smother the fire with sand. "We should sleep now."

Phillip blinked in confusion. The young man then spoke as he warily began to aid Figaro in her task. "Indeed, we still have much desert to cover tomorrow."

****

Only a few miles east, along a small path through the mountain range, another campfire was coming to a close. The members of the trading caravan bound for South Anchyron were gradually dispersing to their own carts to sleep. Two particular caravan members talked as they strode to a cart on the far end of the line. "That was fun, daddy."

"Sure was, Lila," Stave smiled. "Caravan campfires usually are. Though I wouldn't expect you to remember--the last time you were in a caravan was when you were a wee little girl."

Reaching their destination, Stave opened the door for his daughter and she crawled into the cart. He looked up at the sky for a brief moment before climbing into the small area with his wife and daughter.

Not too far away, on top of the next crest, a young man huddled to himself. The frigid night winds whipped about his body, causing him to shiver and his teeth to chatter. "Blain," he spoke. "Why in the world are you doing this?" There was obviously no answer, and the warrior closed his eyes in an attempt to sleep. "That caravan better hope they don't get attacked at night. I'll be frozen stiff and won't be able to help." He smiled even though there was no humor and put his head on the cold ground.

CATASTROPHE

Still confused at Gwen's sudden outburst the night before, Phillip pondered the situation to himself as they traveled. The girl had seemed nice enough, talking about herself and asking about him. Then in the middle of saying something, she got angry and stopped talking. The young man couldn't understand it, though he rarely understood women, and decided to write it off as an isolated incident. Since they had woken up, she was acting fine again.

Jak wiped the sleep from his eyes. He was once more perched on Gwen's shoulders. After waking up that morning, he had walked for the distance of about a mile before becoming tired. Since then he had been dozing on his companion's shoulders. During the course of his slumber, the trio had left the desert and almost finished passing through the mountain range.

"Awake so soon?" Figaro questioned sarcastically. "I'd expected you to sleep for at least five more hours."

"Shut up, Gwen," the Imp smiled. "Just cause you fell for my tired act is no reason to be bitter."

Dropping the green being to the ground, the girl continued without missing a step. "We're almost to South Anchyron already."

"Why in the world are we going there?" the Imp asked, scurrying along to catch up. "Now we're going to have to backtrack. Unless you want to include SWIMMING on our agenda."

"Phillip said that we'd need supplies. Phillip was right." Gwen glanced forward at the man walking several yards in front of her and the Imp. "Unless of course you want to continue the journey with a rake and maybe a few turnips from Kohlingen. Now come on!"

As he ran quickly to reach Gwen and Phillip, Jak silently noted that the girl was speaking of towns that she once barely knew existed. Her and that knight must have spoken to each other quite a bit for her to seem that sure of which towns were trade cities and which specialized in farming. The Imp wiped sweat from his brow and clenched his beak as he exerted himself to speed up.

Phillip stopped walking at a spot where the path went down the final hill into the valley that led to the city. Gwen stood beside him, though a few moments passed before Jak joined the two. The Imp leaned against the girl's leg and looked up into the blue afternoon sky. Something else entered his sight.

"I...isn't that an Esper?" he asked nervously. "It..that Esper is heading for that caravan...." the emerald hued creature pointed to the valley where a row of carts moved along the plains.

Phillip said nothing, a rageful scowl crossing his features even faster than it took for him to break into a sprint down the path. Gwen followed the soldier into the valley. "Come on," she commanded Jak. "We need to help them."

****

Oblivious to the creatures approaching overhead, Lila happily whistled while sorting some blankets her father wanted to sell. They were absolutely beautiful. Fantastic designs ran across fabrics which were every color of the rainbow. The young woman folded each blanket neatly and placed it on the rack with similarly colored ones.

A roar ripped through the caravan, bringing a great wind and knocking over a few carts. Lila shielded her eyes with her left arm and stepped away from her father's stand, hoping to see what was going on. Just as soon as she did, though, Stave ran to her and pushed her back. "Espers," was all he said.

As her father returned to his position, Lila pondered. The girl knew that it was dangerous, no doubt life threatening, to go out into the open. However, the urge to see Espers was so strong that she was unsure which choice to take. The draws of curiosity finally won out, and she trotted up a few carts and peered along the side of the caravan.

There were two Espers standing like statues on the plain. They were both very dark and very large. One of the monsters had a huge skull for a helmet. He was heavily armored and his cloak fluttered in the wind he had created. The second Esper was just as heavily armored, though his mail jutted out at odd angle to form spikes in numerous places. The plates were crested with lines of red, and he held a whip at his side. A number of dragons circled above the two towering figures, emitting piercing shrieks and horrible roars.

Lila desired a still better view, and moved a few steps away from the cart stands. Once again, though, she was pushed back. This time a huge burst of flames erupted in the spot where she had stood only moments before. The dragon who had attacked ascended back into the sky. Its great scaly wings beat against the air, making deep sounds with each flap.

The voice of the man who had saved Lila entered the girl's ears. "You okay?" he asked. "You shouldn't jump out in the open like that."

Her head turned towards the speaker as she stood up and brushed off her dress. As the realization of who had spoken entered her mind, she gasped. "Blain?"

"You bet," the young man winked. "Told you I would see you again."

Smiling girlishly, Lila's mood was interrupted by a thought. "Father...he--"

"Stave!" Snapping out of his swoon, Blain did a backflip to land on his feet and ran down the row of carts. The bounty hunter yelled, leaping into the air and drawing his long dagger. He whipped it quickly sideways, thus slashing a dragon's face. Acrid green fluid trailed the blade as Blain's feet landed on the ground, making a scrunching noise in the dirt. "Watch yourself, old man!"

Stave turned to face the young man who had saved him from being clawed in the back. "I don't need help from a rabble pup like you, Blain!"

Facing another beast with his dagger, Blain spoke over his shoulder. "I'm honored," the hunter managed a grin. "You remember my name."

The large merchant wrestled with his own dragon, attempting to grab its head. "It's all we can do to make Lila shut up about you," he shouted back over the roaring.

The young man dashed from side to side, slashing dragons each time he turned around. He hoped he could wear them down by attacking quickly, numerous times. "Perhaps saving you from dragons is part of the courting ritual?"

Stave growled at his reptilian opponent and snapped its neck in two. Dropping it to the ground, he flashed Blain a look before turning to a new attacker. "If you don't watch yer mouth, then I'll make sure you end up like that last dragon."

Watching the humans run to and fro trying to save themselves, Thanatos grinned sadistically. "Your dragons please me, Zarthes."

"Yes," the Dragonmaster spoke in his washed out voice. It was the type of tone that could grate a human's mind. "They live only to please you and Master Doom."

Pleased even more, the Death Esper grinned wider and chuckled. "We hardly need to lift a finger." This, however, was not Thanatos' style. The imposing figure threw his cape back to reveal the sheath of a huge sword. He slid it from the casing and held it straight in front of his body. The jet black metal glistened in the daylight. The air around the blade almost seemed to darken. Thanatos gripped the hilt tightly and flames burst from the caravan wagons.

Blain's ears caught a frightened scream coming from the line. He recognized the voice as Lila's and swung around to face Stave, who had also heard her. "Don't worry, I'll save her," the Bounty Hunter spoke seriously. He was then gone like a crossbow bolt.

Knowing that Blain was the only one who could reach Lila in time, Stave didn't object. He did, however, pretend to. "Stay away from my daughter!" he called to the sprinting youth. Then, whispering to himself, "Keep her safe."

Gwen came to an abrupt halt, causing Jak to tumble from her shoulders. The Imp landed and bounced a few times with an impish grunt. Phillip's arm was stretched out sideways to block the young woman's path. "Careful," the knight warned. "Espers are dangerous."

"I know," the young Figaro replied. "We've seen you fight them."

Not taking pause to figure out how the two had seen him, the young warrior resumed his charge. Gwen and Jak followed. How would Phillip let the two know that their weapons couldn't damage the Espers? He was not looking forward to the telling moment when the unharmed beast would fell them because they had no way to attack.

One of the smaller Wyverns spotted the running green Imp as easy prey. The winged reptile swooped down the ground level and squawked at Jak. Whipping a tiny dagger from his pouch, the green creature leapt towards the assailant and stabbed it in the eyes.

The Wyvern was finished as Gwen impaled it to the ground with her pike. "Great...dragons," Phillip gazed into the sky forlornly. "And they're coming towards us." He started to run forward but was forced to a halt rather than running headlong into two other figures.

"A knight? Where'd you come from?" asked a rather ragged looking young man. A frightened girl held tightly to his arm and wept in fear.

"Right now, we need to be anywhere but here," Phillip clenched his teeth. "Let's GO!"

The five of them beat a hasty retreat back towards the mountains where they could find shelter in the low hills and crags. It wasn't too long a wait, though, until the Espers disappeared from the attack and the dragons began to fly back to where they had come from. That time had been spent calming down the girl, whom Phillip had heard the young man refer to as Lila. After a little while, she had fallen asleep in his arms.

"I'm Phillip," the knight introduced himself. "Of Anchyron."

Starting from her thoughts, Gwen followed the man's lead. "I'm Gwen Figaro of the Figaro Clan."

The rough looking youth glanced up from the girl in his arms. "Anchyron I have heard of. I'm afraid I do not know of a Figaro." He looked at the two again, seeing no recognizable reaction. He then realized he had forgotten something. "Oh...I'm Blain, a bounty hunter."

"Blain?" Phillip looked at the young man. "You're the one who found the Magicite!"

Remembering what the knight had told her about such things, Gwen silently mouthed the word 'wow'. Jak leapt to his feet and bowed lowly. "I am Jak. Lady Gwen's personal bodyguard." The said lady stifled a laugh.

"I did not expect you to talk," Blain smiled. "Though I'm sure you are a fascinating creature."

"I assure you that I am," the Imp continued. "Gwen and I are--"

Not paying attention to the Imp any longer, the young bounty hunter spoke once more. "This is Lila. She is a trader's daughter and a member of that caravan."

The low hanging sun was casting long shadows from crag to crag. No animals moved about; no birds sang. Gwen stirred uncomfortably before she finally stood up and stretched. "We are on a journey," she explained. "And would be glad to have both of you along."

Blain said nothing, looking again at Lila. He simply nodded in agreement.

"We shall begin at first light tomorrow, then." Phillip stretched as well now, readjusting his swordbelt and checking the fit of his armor.

It was at this that Blain spoke, and was very determined in doing so. "If it is all the same, Phillip of Anchyron," the hunter's eyes explained there was little choice. "I would prefer to be past the caravan site by the time Lila wakes up. It shall be far easier on her nerves if she doesn't have to be there when we walk past the wreckage--taking into account the chance of her family's death."

Nodding in assent, Phillip gathered up his pack and began walking without another word. The party followed him, Blain cradling Lila in his arms.

****

King Anchyron turned up the volume knob on the radio. The coach he had been travelling in had been delayed by some road obstacles and thus he had not made it back to his kingdom on schedule. Anchyron, Doma, and Garamonde were currently lodged in a farmer's house near Kohlingen.

Various news stories played themselves over the radio, the three royal figures only half listening. The owner of the house was off to the side preparing a meal for them. It was not every day that two kings and a knight strode into one's dwelling. Anchyron recalled the man saying that his name was Will.

"...a caravan en route to South Anchyron was destroyed today by a group of Espers." All the figures in the room perked up at the radio's current message. "There was nothing extraordinary among the goods; it is a mystery as to why this merchant line was assaulted. This reporter guesses it was just another random act of violence."

"Random? We know very well there is no such thing with Espers," Doma raised an eyebrow at his two companions. "But I suppose thinking that Espers are mindless monsters keeps the populance somewhat at ease."

The High King of the land had a seperate ponderance as he balanced his chin by a finger. "We had Empire organizers in that caravan," Anchyron said gravely. "The Espers know."

"All due respect, sir," Garamonde stood up roughly. "There is no way in the abyss they could have gotten into our intelligence system."

"In a related story," the radio continued, oblivious to the conversations of men or monarchs. "It is reported that an Esper-like creature appeared in Anchyron. Claiming that it came for the benefit of humanity, the creature revealed herself as a 'Goddess'."

"That's how," Anchyron frowned. "That...Goddess told them."

"But sir," the knight again spoke, this time holding out a parchment. "The letter that your wife sent...she claims--"

"She could have easily been swayed by outlandish promises." The King sipped from a goblet of wine recently placed within his reach. "Being told of Espers that would help, blind to the fact that perhaps they would sooner be a hindrance."

"The letter also reports that these...Goddesses created the Espers." Greeted by an uncaring glance, Garamonde expanded the idea. "Why would the beasts send their creator as a spy?"

Blowing out a huff, the King grinned mirthlessly. "So the Goddess spies and gives orders at the same time. This changes nothing." He then turned to look at his friend, who had tuned a very attentive ear to the radio once more. Doma appeared quite shocked by the news.

"...Doma Castle. A vagabond from a nameless group of nomads found the Magicite that King Doma had ordered to be placed deep in the dungeon. In the events following, the man used his newly gained Esper power to massacre the pursuing Doman troops and level one of the castle towers." Reception fizzling, the Eastern King pounded his fist on the table in frustration. A few moments later, the words were once again understandable. "....vagabond escaped from Doma and has since eluded capture."

Grief washing over him, King Doma slumped in his chair. "The last thing we need," he mumbled. "The world has gone to hell." The lines of worry stood out on his forehead and his exhalations were audible.

"Your majesty," the dutiful knight moved to help Doma. His aid was waved away.

"I am deeply sorry," Anchyron sympathized. "Domestic problems are the last thing we need right now." The High King placed his goblet back on the table and twirled a lock of his hair between hardened fingers. "I hold fast to the ideal that a Human Empire could be the solution. Unifying our troops as one force to quell the threat of Espers and Magicite."

"Save your speeches for the likes of Edwin," Doma forced a slight grin. "The truth is, we can't have an Empire if our intelligence network can be discovered by Espers."

"They seem to know exactly where to look," Anchyron replied coldly. "It is fairly obvious because of the fact that any Empire information is communicated between the two royal houses. We need to have a network that wouldn't be suspected."

There was a small sound as Will stepped forward. "Pardon if I'm speaking out of turn, m'lords." The farmer bowed deeply when he spoke. "I would be willing to collect information for this Empire. Perhaps a network among seemingly common folk would be able to go without suspicion?"

"Yes," Anchyron's eye had a strange glimmer. One who had remembered such a thing from days past would claim it as hope. An awkward smile appeared on his visage, "I do believe you can help us."

****

The purple robe hung from the seated figure, moving not an inch. It suddenly whipped from its position as Ultros flung a platter of food across the room and then shattered the tray into a million peices with his magic. "He spared our lives."

Phunbaba looked up from where he was gnawing on the bone of a large animal's femur. "Isn't that good?"

"No," came the Esper's reply. "It's bad. Very, very bad." The master stood and paced about the room. A glowing aura shown around his body. "We did not even die honorable deaths--but were pitied by our enemy. The next time we meet we must crush Thanatos like a bug."

"The power that would take is unimaginable," DoomGaze flowed as shadow out from his hiding place. "He defeated you, great Ultros."

"The power exists," the violet robed figure growled, sitting back in his throne. "I shall take hold of it and use it against our adversary. We need to earn the favor of Master Doom....and being spared by pity is not the way to do so." There was silence in the room. There was silence except for a radio in the distance squawking off the news stories of the day. A particular scoop caught the ear of the robed Esper and a grin found its way to his face. Ultros stood once more and spoke to his monsterous servants. "We're going to Doma."

MORROW

Anchyron's High Military Officer stood with his hands on his hips. Larson, at his side, stood in salute to the man before him. Cid, the head of technical science, was holding a long metallic cylinder at his side. The engineer was explaining the use of his newest invention, the two military men opposite him listening intently.

"Magicite shards placed in this end are charged by high energies," he spoke excitedly from a cleanly shaven countenance. "A beam of that power is then transferred through this shaft and fired to a great distance. I call it a 'gun'."

"So this...gun...it fires magical energy that we've taken from Magicite?" The High Officer stroked his short beard in thought. "What good is this?"

"The troops, sir," Cid faltered only for a moment before continuing on at his fast pace. "The ones who are not Magi. Using guns, they can help damage the Espers. All they need to do is use guns of the proper element, just as the Magi are chosen. Guns of fire and ice have already been produced--there was a small problem with the electricity of the bolt guns. However, in a week or two we will also have those weapons fully ready for battle. Also, when funding is high enough we believe that we can outfit mechanical suits of armor with these guns."

"Perhaps we could have a demonstration?" Larson questioned. He had been near enough to an Esper in the previous battle that he wanted to make sure any claims Cid made were absolutely true before he took a 'gun' into battle.

"Indeed!" The eager engineer trotted a few yards away. He spoke into a small reciever to his men on the other side of the training field. "Is the target ready?" A response squelched through; Larson assumed it was a positive one when Cid held the gun up to aim. After a two second hum, the sound of energy cutting through air could be heard. The target that had been set up exploded into a fiery blaze and the technical soldier skipped back with a smile on his face. "Is that satisfactory?"

The Commanding Officer of the Anchyron army grinned widely. "Excellent," he beamed. "Outfit all footsoldiers with these guns by the end of the week."

"Sir!" Cid saluted starkly. "My researchers and I are almost ready to unveil our top-secret project. Perhaps the next time we meet...?"

"If this is the same top-secret project that will allow us to win this war with the Espers, then I would have to agree." Saying no more, the High Officer signaled to Larson and the two men strode from the training field.

****

The city of South Anchyron bustled with activity in the cloudy afternoon. A knight walked confidently down the streets and avenues filled with people and trading carts. He was accompanied by a strong looking female and two others. One of the others looked to be a bounty hunter, clad in rags and sewn together nothings. The fourth person in the group appeared to be just an ordinary girl; a small Imp could sometimes be seen among their number.

"It looks as if we shall have a hard time going unnoticed," Blain said in consideration.

"Sometimes crowds are the easiest places to hide," the young knight passed on. "I don't think we'll be troubled. Even if we are, it's not that big a deal."

"There has been talk of people speaking with Espers," Blain frowned. "Citizens are always prone to jump to superstitious conclusions."

Unnable to contain herself for a second longer, Lila laughed. "Blain?" she smiled largely. "Why are you talking funny like that? These people are friends."

Blain tried to look as if the girl was making a joke. Gwen smiled wryly as if a suspicion of hers had just been confirmed, and Phillip stared dumbly at the party.

The teenaged female giggled once more. "You can talk in your normal voice for goodness sake."

"I couldn't be sure," the warrior slumped his shoulders in frustration.

"They saved us from the attack," Lila reprimanded. "That should have given you a clue."

"I was just tryin' to be careful, Lila."

"It's quite alright," Phillip finally laughed too. "We understand."

Jak peered over his master's shoulder, shaking his head in pity. "Humans," he sighed.

By now a few peddlers had turned to watch the youths laughing in the street. There were more than a couple windows open, housewives and innkeepers peering out. "We're sorry," Gwen called to the watchers. "No need to be disturbed." She then suggested to the party that they hurry along on their way. Attracting attention was one thing, appearing to lack sanity was another thing entirely.

****

King Anchyron stood outside his castle as Doma and Garamonde climbed back into the carraige. The man waved and smiled, hoping they would have a good journey. "Thank you for joining me."

"My pleasure," the king of the east made a small bow. "But I've been too long absent from my kingdom. Let us hope the Empire will come into being soon."

"Give the queen my regards," Anchyron smiled. "A safe journey to you."

The large knight in the carraige signaled and the mechanically driven wheels began to turn. The carriage gradually gained speed as it rolled off towards Doma. When the cart finally disappeared on the horizon, the King turned to enter his castle.

Turning back from a high window carved into the stone wall, Queen Anchyron wiped her lips daintily with a napkin. Her cup clinked as she set it back on its saucer. "I'm afraid our tea must be cut short, Odin. My husband has just arrived and I should be down to greet him."

Slightly disappointed but hiding it well, the huge knight Esper stood from his chair, bowing low. "It has been a pleasure, your majesty." Taking the queen's hand, Odin kissed it gently and then left the chambers. The queen watched him until he had shut the door. She sighed heavily and fell back in her chair, unsure of what she had been thinking. Gathering her robes up quickly, Queen Anchyron hurried to the courtyard where the king would be waiting.

****

Gwen Figaro walked assuredly across a street in South Anchyron. The young woman's spear was still lashed to her back skillfully, and the green Imp sat atop her shoulder. Jak's small arm was held around the back of the girl's head. The blonde hair from her topknot would brush against the creature's face every few steps. Gwen's top was a brownish fabric, not thick enough to keep out any of the elements. It covered enough of her to be decent but allowed veiw of her neck and midriff. From the back, it allowed anyone to see the slight build of her body.

Beneath her waist, Figaro was clad in a skirt of sorts made of the same fabric, though dyed in places. On the left side, the skirt hung to the girl's knee, while the right side only covered down to mid-thigh. A tattoo band rung her right bicep, and there was an shape on the girl's left leg that Phillip couldn't recognize. The woman didn't seem to mind how much of her skin was revealed; the knight guessed that it was customary in her clan to dress so.

Stopping in his tracks, Phillip shook his head slightly from side to side in frustration. Gwen strode in front of him and he watched the gentle glide of her hips. Stopping himself once again, the warrior asked himself why he was thinking such things. Not that she wasn't incredibly attractive, but the knight couldn't convince himself that Figaro clan members could marry outsiders. "She probably doesn't even like me," he thought. Writing it off as an effect of spending his teen years in training, almost devoid of female contact, Phillip picked up his stride behind Gwen.

"Phillip," the young woman asked over her shoulder. "Do you think we can trust Blain and Lila to meet us back at the time we told them?"

"I'm not sure," he answered her, the scent of her soft skin drifting back. It twisted his mind and confused him. It was such a wonderful smell, drawing him to her. Phillip blinked hard to straighten his thoughts. "They didn't seem that prone to flight, but I can't be sure. Blain apparently was acting until earlier today."

"True," Figaro chuckled. "Badly."

"That trader girl, Lila...she would probably go with the bounty hunter wherever he asked her to." The Anchyron knight couldn't shake the thought of how lucky Blain was. He took a few big steps to be slightly in front of Gwen--hopefully he would be able to have more control.

The clanswoman noticed the warrior stepping out in front of her. She smiled to herself, seeing his broad shoulders and sureness of step. "Lila seems to be very much smitten; mooning and falling all over that hunter." The girl frowned. "Blast...just as I should be. I should be just as giggly and taken as Lila. If I were someone else, I would be allowing all likely suitors to be waiting on me hand and foot. Sometimes I hate my duty to the clan...I just want to be a normal girl."

Phillip outstreched a gauntlet-clad hand, indicating a shop on the corner. "We should be able to get supplies there," he managed, still feeling strangely.

****

"Oh Blain," Lila smiled and grabbed at the man's arm. "Look at how beautiful it is!" The dress hanging in the window all but sparkled from beauty. It was a light blue, trimmed with rich fabric and made of a very soft material. The young woman beamed at it in wishful anticipation.

"It's very beautiful, dear," the young man replied. "Just like you."

"You said you would buy me princess dresses, Blain! Will you buy me this one?"

"It's awfully expensive," he explained sadly. "We can't afford it right now. But as soon as I get the money, I'll line your closet with dresses even more fantastic than this one."

Slightly disappointed, but smiling with the aspect of even more dresses, Lila walked away from the store. Spinning playfully, she giggled and looked at Blain. His slightly sullen face caused a look of concern on hers. "What's the matter?"

Not wanting to admit he wasn't ready for the step he'd taken, Blain tried to smile. It hadn't worked. He tried again--he couldn't let Lila know that he was unable to care for her on his own. The girl was so happy and optimistic, maybe if he pretended things were okay then they would be. "Nothing's wrong," this time he achieved a happy expression. "I was just thinking."

"Oh Blain, you're silly." The girl bounced on the balls of her feet. She was beautiful. Her medium length, full hair bounced with her, cascading about her shoulders. Her big brown eyes looked happily at the bounty hunter, and that filled him with joy as well.

The youth strolled over and kissed the girl's forehead. She sighed and nuzzled her head into his chest, giggling once again. Blain had never kissed Lila on the lips, and he wasn't sure why. He had kissed other girls on the lips...he had done lots of things with other girls. Still, a kiss on the forehead or cheek seemed to satisfy Lila, so Blain didn't worry about it.

After a short embrace, Blain continued to the door of the local tavern. It opened easily, though with a loud creak, and the two entered. Down a short flight of stairs near the entryway spread a large main room. Men and women alike talked, drank, and participated in any number of goings on. The waitresses walked smoothly from one table to the next, deftly avoiding the hands of daring or drunken patrons.

A few tables away from the stairs, a few men were bidding on something. Blain strained his ears to hear them. The main speaker hushed his voice lower than it already was. "Didn't you hear me?" he asked the others. "I said this was Magicite. The stuff won't come cheap."

"And you're telling us we'll be Magi if we have this rock?"

"Dammit," the original speaker cursed. He was a very burly man with thick facial hair and a merchant's way about him. "You can. This is the same stuff that the Anchyron forces use."

A third man, skinny and pale, leaned closer to the center of the table. "Just how did you come upon this Magicite?" The other men were startled at first, but then adopted agreeing looks and glared at the first man. "You been thieving from the military?"

Beard bristling, the merchant growled. Tightening his grip on the bag he claimed held Magicite, he acted as if he would leave. "I was walking through the mountains a few days ago and there was a huge white dragon fighting with a large boar. They were Espers! The boar won and then disappeared. I went to investigate the scene and found this crystal there--the Magicite of the Mist Dragon."

Blain's mind spun. Ordinary people couldn't be trusted with the power of Magicite. The bounty hunter had had qualms about entrusting it to the military--he surely couldn't sit by as ordinary men bid on such an item. He lifted his foot and braced against the railing near the entrance. By now, several new patrons had entered and were shouting at the young man to go down the stairs so that they could get in. Lila lifted an eyebrow as she tried to decipher what her love had in mind.

"I'll give you five-hundred gil," the skinny man whispered. Before the merchant could curse him, the table gave way.

Opening their eyes, the five men who had been bidding scowled. A bounty hunter was perched atop what was once the table, and he held the Magicite bag in his clenched hand. They leapt to their feet and pulled out weapons--small daggers mostly--and advanced on the boy.

"Sorry to disappoint you fella's," Blain smirked wryly. "But I can't let you guys keep this treasure." The table top teetered slightly. The young man had hoped it would have been able to support his weight, but it had collapsed rather roughly instead. Not wanting to get involved in a barroom fight, Blain jumped over the lead man and flipped back to the entryway. He grabbed Lila roughly and pulled her out the door.

Circling around back to escape, Blain and Lila came to an abrupt halt. The original five men had been joined by a few others and apparently knew of a back way out. The merchant stepped forward from the group and grinned. "One more chance for you to give that back," he spoke through gritted teeth.

"You know I can't do that."

"On him!" The mob rushed forward with their weapons and Blain pushed the girl back so that she wouldn't get hurt. As he did so, he shifted the pouch holding the Magicite from his arm to hers. The bounty hunter drew his long dagger and flashed it dangerously towards his assailants. Without a second thought, he dove right into the fray.

Steel flashed in all directions, darting in to bite at Blain's flesh. He concentrated on avoiding it, lashing out with his own weapon once in awhile. One man had brought an axe--definitely not a welcome addition in Blain's mind. The young man focused on not getting cleaved in two, slicing at the wielder's wrist. In tandem with the numerous weapons, several hands also grabbed at the warrior. He threw in his own limbs, taking a man down using a sweep kick before leaping into the air and kicking another.

Gasping in surprise, Blain took a knife blow. He stumbled, allowing a few more to land. The boy leapt from his stupor just as the axe tried to lift his head from his body. The angry bounty hunter gashed one of his attackers across the chest, meeting another along the arm. They yelped as they fell to the ground to clutch their wounds. Using their falls as an opening, Blain darted back to the girl. "Let's GO!" he commanded, breaking into a hasty sprint.

Phillip finished fastening the straps on the supply pack, scolding himself for the goofy smile he had just flashed to Gwen. His cheeks were red, but he had turned away from her so she couldn't see. The color disappearing, he snapped his head up as he heard a familiar call. Lila was charging down the street, Blain behind her checking over his shoulder.

"Help!" the woman cried. "We're being followed."

"....mob," managed the warrior. "Coming fast."

Phillip drew his blade while Gwen's pike was unslung. As opposed to drawing a knife, Jak hobbled down to hide in a shadow. The two youths being chased ducked behind their traveling companions and into an alley. Blain collapsed onto the cobbled street and clutched his wounds.

The rabble rounded the corner and stopped, glaring behind the knight and clanswoman. "We have business with your friends."

"Then we have business with you," answered Phillip, shifting his grip. Six against two wasn't very fair odds. "If you don't kindly walk away, then Gwen and I will convince you that you should have." The knight figured this was a good job of sounding tough. He also decided the locals must be used to brawling soldiers, as the passerby didn't seem to look twice.

"Lookin' at the lass," the bearded merchant grinned. "How bout you let me do a little convincing of my own?"

Gwen snarled slightly, quickly swinging her spear and landing its butt securely into the man's face. He stumbled back, clutching his shattered nose and hiding his tearing eyes. "You," she spoke with an air, "would need several fortunes to convince me of THAT."

Watching the display nervously, the mob gradually deteriorated until the party members were the only figures on the street. Phillip and Gwen wandered back to the injured, as Jak emerged from his hiding place.

"What was that about?" questioned the Imp.

"They had Magicite...so I took it," Blain answered, his breath ragged.

Phillip wondered aloud. "Can't seem to keep your hands off that stuff."

"You don't understand. Magicite is much too powerful for humans to use, especially ordinary townspeople. Since it wasn't his anyway, I saved the world that much heartache."

"Who gets it now?" Gwen asked.

Before he could answer, the bounty hunter was shaken by a spasm of pain. Lila removed her gaze from the slash on his shoulder to a different wound. Her mouth dropped open in worry as she saw a huge gash cutting across his stomach. Blood oozed from the opening and dried near the edges. "Blain," she replied, lower lip quivering. Left hand searching desperately through the sachel for anything that might help, Lila placed her right hand on the young man's chest. She couldn't locate anything in the pack for medical use. She burried her face against his chest, sobbing uncontrollably.

Tears streaming from her closed eyes, the girl turned away from the wound, not wanting to see the pain. The rest of the party, however, stood in shock as a small glow shone around the female's hand. They stared in disbelief as the wound began to heal.

OUTSKIRTS

Gale winds slashed against the stone structure, battering it in vain. Inside, Poltergeist folded his arms over his chest and let his wings rest gently against his back. He had brought out a large halberd but placed it against the back wall, refusing to use it. In front of the being, Bahamut hovered lightly, flapping his wings in the silent air of the chamber.

"So Goddess wants me to join this petty dispute in the human world?" Poltergeist spoke after the long silence. "I understand that you have formed this army for such a purpose."

"Such is true, Master Poltergeist," the King of Dragons bowed his head. "She believes that by combining your power with hers, that Doom's influence can be cast out."

"I see," the large figure turned and walked a few steps. He gazed out the window into the stormy night, frowning pensively. "It is true that Power without Wisdom is dangerous. But my sister seems to have forgotten that Courage without Wisdom can be just as harmful." The being turned back to cast his gaze upon the assembled Espers. The creatures appeared in all shapes and sizes. Several birds, a snake or two, and more than a couple that appeared to just be random animal parts thrown together. Poltergeist turned back to Bahamut, "I understand that Goddess has appeared to the humans?"

"I believe so, my Lord."

"I will use this army she has ordered for me," the huge figure strode to the corner to retrieve his halberd. "Though I fear that I must fight my sister as fervently as I battle Doom."

****

Several children ran happily through the camp. One of the girls was wearing a cute yellow dress, flowers embroidered into the side and ruffled lace along the rim. She giggled wildly as she chased three boys in a game of tag. The child's cheeks were highlighted with red from the cold; her big eyes sparkled as the stars in the sky.

Garth Figaro smiled as he watched the children play, absent mindedly tracing a circle in the dirt with his fingers. Kids always brought a grin to this man's face, especially the boys and girls of his clan. It made him happy inside to know that the future of the Figaro clan were growing up joyous and content.

"You worried about Gwen?" Hagol asked upon his approach.

"Ah, Hagol!" Garth stood up, patting the dirt from the backside of his pants. "I didn't expect you today, though it seems that nowadays you spend more time speaking with me than you do to your own woman."

The man recoiled, looking a bit hurt. "I was concerned about your daughter, Garth."

"I know," the first speaker apologized. "I am too, after she disappeared the night before her test was to begin. What do you suppose could have possessed her to start early?"

"That damned Imp, probably," Hagol frowned. "I told you not to let them become so attached to each other."

"Jak?" Garth suppressed a laugh. "I would be inclined to say it was the other way around." Figaro began to walk towards his tent, weighing a small rock from one hand to the other. He tossed it to the side of the road and ran a finger through his hair, taking time to scratch his head in the process. He wasn't quite sure what to think about his daughter, though he was sure she would be perfectly safe. "I hope she's okay," he replied, hoping it would bring Hagol off the subject. Garth realized that it wasn't settling when his friend wasn't harping about the necessity of land.

****

A small village in the Doma provinces, a vagabond crouched in the corner of an alley. He had been running for what seemed like hours, and that had only been today. Ever since he had grasped the Magicite in his hands, this beggar had been on the run. Days, maybe even weeks had passed since then.

A host of soldiers marched bravely to the mouth of the alleyway. The lead soldier turned to the armored knight next to him. "We will be highly rewarded for destroying this menace. The King will be back in Doma shortly."

"True," spoke the second. "I can hardly wait."

With this, the small troop advanced towards the vagabond. It is said that a cornered animal is the most dangerous animal of all, and the phrase rung true. With a narrowing of his eyes, the poor human summoned up a gusting wind which cracked several of his pursuers on the rocky walls of the surrounding buildings. With a motion of his hand, the remaining men were embraced by a cutting energy beam.

Only three would survive the attack, only two of those would live through the night. Time wouldn't reveal these facts until they occurred, but the vagabond knew them in advance. It was only a matter of time before a new army was summoned to destroy him; he silently flew to a haven where he could rest up for that time.

****

Smoke rising up in gentle columns, the fire struggled to exist. It sputtered out briefly before resuming its flame as Stave added two more logs. The large man cracked his knuckles and watched the tongues of orange lick at the darkness. He soon turned to walk back to where his wife was sitting.

After the Esper attack, the survivors of the caravan banded together and gathered what they could. What they had collected was nearly less than nothing, but it was enough for them to survive the journey to South Anchyron. Traveling was slow going, however, as it took a long time for such a large group to move at a pace that they could keep up with. The children among them slowed them down a great deal.

It was only one more day to the city, however, and then they could all sell what they had left and buy new supplies. The group concensus was to try and forget what had happened, forget the family that they lost and the lives they would have to rebuild. Stave had gained hope when he found out that Blain's body was not among the dead. It gave the father hope that Lila was still safe, and he made sure that his wife had that hope as well.

"Do you think that Lila still has what you placed in her pack?" Stave's wife asked.

"I think so," he replied. "But I fear perhaps the Espers will track her down for it."

The woman looked concerned. "You believe that's what those monsters attacked us for?"

"I can't think of any other reason."

Though she probably should have been angry that her husband had endangered their only child, the mother folded her hands over her knees and wept. Stave came to comfort her, and she fell into his arms, tears streaming freely. Their daughter would survive, she had to survive. The two couldn't deal with the loss of their daughter, it would just be too much.

****

A low rumbling filled the chamber as Doom growled. Goddess had entered and begun to lecture him. The rest of the world was silent--it always was when the door to the human's realm was shut. There was a complete absence of any kind of noise. The being turned his attention back to his sister.

"Doom, this is your last chance to remove yourself from the human world." Goddess floated gracefully through the cavernous room. A faint glow of light eminated from her skin. "You've created enough chaos and I won't let you harm that realm further."

"Oh, dear Goddess," Doom grinned evilly. "After you've assembled your darling little army? I wouldn't want all that effort to go for naught." The omnipotent being used mocking words to taunt his sister.

Goddess scowled. She hoped that Poltergeist would be willing to fight against their brother, as it would be impossible to destroy Doom on her own. She didn't let that knowledge show on her face, however. "So be it." She strode angrily from the chamber, no doubt to return to the human world.

"It seems she's taken a liking to those mortals," Brooks spoke as he entered from a small adjascent room.

"Indeed," Doom's eyes shown darkly in the dim light. Shadows not only covered, but permeated his form. "Tell Thanatos to focus on battle intensive Espers."

"Yes my Lord," the servant bowed, "shall I take a message to Ultros?"

Doom didn't even waste time to think. "No, that whelp will either earn my favor once more, or die."

Bowing again, Brooks shuffled away from the main room. He scurried down the hallway leading out of the fortress, smiling to himself with intention. He saw that the world was peaceful when he checked out the jagged window carved into the stone wall. He was sure that when Thanatos destroyed Ultros and the Espers overran the human realm that Doom would grant him power. Enjoying the thought of that prospect, Brooks detoured down a side hallway. A large dragon was moving his way.

"Hello, Shadow Worm," Bahamut growled.

"May that blinding light release its grip on you, King of Dragons," Brooks snarled back. He hated the Espers that Goddess created, and utterly despised her own servant.

"The darkness that you dwell in will one day swallow you up," the reptilian beast warned. "Be careful the paths you walk."

Doom's servant quickened his pace as he passed the other creature. He drew the hood up to cover more of his face and scowled deeply, eyes burning. "I'll see the fires of the abyss swallow you up and devour your flesh." The shrivelled shadow muttered several more severe oaths, Bahamut not responding as he took leave of the fortress.

SEVERAL DAYS LATER

It had been a hard journey to pass Anchyron Castle without being detected; all of the scout troops were out in full force. Continuing for several days on foot wasn't exactly easy, either. Every once in awhile Blain would carry Lila, and there was hardly a time when Gwen wasn't carrying Jak. Being delayed by monster attacks, the party was forced to ask to stay at a farmhouse a few miles outside of Kohlingen. The owner of the farm, a man named Will, was happy to help them out.

Seated near the fire, darkness outside displaying night's presence, the party relaxed. Phillip carefully polished his sword, taking care with even the smallest area. Gwen stretched out on the floor nearest the fireplace, allowing the warmth to cover her body. Blain and Lila were both unloading their packs to sort the contents, taking care not to place the Mist Magicite where Will could see it. Seeing a parchment sticking from the opening of the girl's pack, the farmer nonchallantly strode over and took it in his hands.

"You say you come from the attacked caravan?" Will questioned, remembering.

"Yes," Lila frowned. "I was with my parents."

Sure that the parchment in his grasp was the lost Empire message, he opened it. To the man's surprise, it was a simple checklist of shipped goods. Will frowned and returned the paper to its owner. "The Empire had a messenger in that caravan, so I hoped..."

"Sorry, my friend," Blain chuckled and eyed the farmer distrustfully. "Life isn't that ironic."

Will sadly sauntered away from the room, muttering about going to sleep. The party resumed what they had been doing previously. Finally completing the polishing job, Phillip slid the weapon back into its sheath and propped his arms back behind himself. Feeling a tap on his right wrist, the knight turned to see the Figaro girl grinning strangely and giggling quietly. He flashed her what he later decided was a bizarre look, and she blushed. Gwen turned her attention elsewhere, though she hummed to herself and sighed contentedly.

Blain sat stark upright in astonishment. "I thought you put that in the small pouch," he spoke to Lila.

"I did," she responded, holding up a crystal of Magicite. "I think this is a different one."

"Well where did you get it?" By now, the rest of the party had assembled around the girl and the bounty hunter.

"I'm not sure," Lila's cheeks were red, but she examined the Magicite more closely anyway. "I think it was already in the pack."

Blain sighed in frustration and jumped up from his seat, moving to stand by the fire. Jak let out a frightened squeal and fell from the couch onto the floor. Gwen and Phillip moved in for a closer look, the knight noticing once more the enticing scent of the clanswoman. He swallowed hard before speaking. "What...what Esper did it belong to?"

Lila took the Magicite into her right hand. With her left hand, she felt along the gem, stroking the surface gently. With her eyes closed, she concentrated on the Magicite itself. The girl could feel every facet of the crystal, she was one with the Magicite, feeling the warmth of its power and the glow that it emitted. The object took her in and welcomed her, flowing over her and allowing her to control it. Energies were transferred and Lila opened her eyes. "Indra," she announced. "It lets me cast lightning magic."

"Lightning," Gwen smiled. "That's fantastic, Lila. Now you can help us when the monsters attack." The merchant's daughter smiled at this.

"Gwen..."

Figaro turned to the Phillip. "We need to encourage her," she whispered, "it must be very scary for her. We need to let her know that nothing's changed."

Blain lifted his head from where it had been resting in his hand. The bounty hunter was leaning over the fireplace, his elbow propped on the wall. This had been so much more than he had bargained for. Esper attacks, city brawls, Magicite....yet he would do all that and more for Lila. He felt his stomach--there was absolutely no sign that he had been cut with a knife. Magicite was amazing, but he didn't quite trust its use; it worried him whenever Lila touched one of those Esper gems.

Phillip stood, hanging his sword belt on a peg in the wall. "We should get started early tomorrow so that we have time to spend in Kohlingen."

Gwen rose as well, stretching with a large yawn. "So it's Lila and I in a room, and Blain and you in the second room?"

Lila looked up, disappointed but obliging.

"If only she knew," Gwen tried to smile, noticing the young woman's expression. "I'm just as reluctant as she to be parted from the men."

Nodding, Phillip led Blain to the their room. Gwen and Lila soon went to theirs, the fire left to burn itself out.

****

The Kohlingen chocobo stable was a small establishment. It smelled thick of hay and bird feathers. Phillip turned to Gwen as they looked over the choices. "Why do Blain and Lila get to go on a date again?" he wondered, "since I'm the eldest male, shouldn't I be the one to tell you guys what to do?"

"You know the reason as well as I, Phillip," Gwen explained. "Besides having her entire life attacked and destroyed be Espers, the girl now discovers she can use Magicite? It must be very rough on her, and we need to make sure she has something to do to keep her mind off all that." Figaro held out her hand to a passing chocobo. It warked gently and moved closer. "He's right, though," the clanswoman thought. "I'm younger than Lila. I should be the one on dates while the rest of them scout for food and transportation." "I think this bird is good."

"That's three," he counted. "All that's left is to find mine." There was a chocobo on the other side of the stable walking with its neck straight and its head proud. It strutted like a noble animal about the small gated area. "Sir?" the knight called the chocobo farmer over. "Where did you aquire that bird?"

"A few weeks back it came in," the elderly gentleman replied. "Proudest choc I've ever seen. The fella' who gave him to me claimed it used to be a war bird."

"That's the one I'll take," Phillip announced.

Lila spun, watching her dress circle about her. She allowed her imagination to show her how fancy it was, adorned with the greatest finery available. She stopped and turned to a smiling Blain. "I love you," she giggled.

Blain's eyebrows raised and his smile dropped a noticable amount. That was quite possibly the last thing he had expected the female to announce. He was sure that she felt that way, but she had never told him that before; Lila had spoken with such a casual air, not at all distressed by the ease at which it came out. Resuming his smile, the bounty hunter hugged her and continued walking.

Lila frowned. She had just bared her feelings for this man and he hadn't responded in the least. She knew he loved her, but had wanted to hear it from his mouth. Knowing that such thoughts would sadden her, the girl changed gears. Unfortunately, the next thought to enter her mind was Magicite. Two was more than any one human had, and yet she wanted more. Ever since accidentally using the Mist to heal Blain, she had become attached to the feeling. When magic flowed through her, any other concerns melted away into nothing until the spell subsided. It worried her at the same time, and she tightened her pouch as if it would help keep the gems out of her mind.

"I care for you a great deal," Blain replied, a few minutes late. "I don't want anything to happen to you."

"Oh, Blain!" she embraced the man with both her arms.

Hearing a faint puffing, the pair looked up the dirt path to see Jak trotting towards them. It was several moments before the Imp reached them, as he stopped to walk. "Gwen and Phillip are finished," he said finally. "They're waiting on the other side of town with chocobos."

Lila's face brightened. She had always liked the large yellow birds, and the prospect of riding one of her own lifted her spirits higher than they already were. Blain picked up Jak and started on his way to follow the now sprinting young woman.

****

"Don't go, Odin," Queen Anchyron begged. "Goddess said that those Espers will be dangerous."

"All Espers are dangerous, m'lady," the large warrior bowed. Going off to battle was hard, as of late, as the queen worried to the point of sickness. Odin didn't like it when she worried. "I am just as dangerous as they. It be best that you stay away from me."

Tears welled in her eyes. "I can't do that, Sir Odin."

Grunting, the Esper knight knew that it would be best to turn and go. He knew it would be far easier if he could ride away and never return to his castle or its queen. The warrior knew, however, that he wouldn't allow himself to do so. "Do not worry, I shall be fine. You will be safe, as your husband the king is here." Odin knew that the queen cared nothing for her own safety, and that she was crying because it was he who was leaving. The feelings between them were impossible to deny, but that didn't stop him from trying.

Hugging the knight, Queen Anchyron finally pulled away and dried her eyes with the sleeve of her dress. She waved sadly as Odin mounted Sleipnir and her eyes flooded anew when he vanished from sight. After a long time of watching the darkness, the regal woman trudged back up the stairs to her bedchamber.

ESPERS

There was a roaring shriek in the sky as Phillip halted his chocobo at the entrance to Jidoor. Several Espers flew towards the city, creating a great din as they passed overhead. Somehow knowing that this conflict was unavoidable, Phillip waved his companions onward, kicking his own chocobo back into a run.

An explosion in the city erased any doubt that Espers were the creatures attacking. The affected building shattered to pieces, flinging segments of itself into its neighboring structures. Several huge monstrosities crashed into the city of Jidoor, scattering citizens and sanity in every direction. The party was greeted by crazed shouts and fearful callings as they rode further and further into the town. Phillip wasn't sure about the others, but his chocobo had tried to bolt on several occasions already, and it was getting increasingly harder to steady it.

"This is an interesting sight," Gwen began, attempting to keep fear from setting in. It would be hard, as she could feel Jak trembling against her stomach and trying to hide in the feathers of her mount's neck. Even so, she now held her spear tightly in one hand where it could be used in battle when the need arose. Lila appeared very worried, remembering what the Espers had did to the caravan and her life. Blain noticed the girl's reaction and growled to himself, furious at the monsters for hurting the young woman. Figaro rode closer to Phillip and spoke, "How do you suppose we'll fight these things?"

Wishing he knew, the knight looked to this sky. Practically in answer to the girl's question, several more Espers appeared from the opposite direction. They flew just as quickly as the others had, some diving to the city streets and others charging towards the first wave of Espers. At the lead of this second group flew a large mounted warrior, riding bravely into the battle.

"Odin!" Phillip's morale soared to dangerous levels, and his fighting spirit was renewed. Raising his sword above his head, the human knight gave the only battle cry he had ever known. "For Anchyron!" The rest of the party drove their own chocobos behind his.

Lila was the first to rein her bird in, staring straight ahead. A huge Esper that resembled a human in form trampled the buildings of Jidoor, causing great rumblings and tremors. The girl watched as the beast saw the party and pounded the earth with his fist, opening a gaping chasm that threatened to swallow them whole. Her eyes narrowing, Lila grasped tightly the Magicite she held in her pouch and yelled. She wasn't sure what it was that she called, but the girl felt power flow over her in a great wave. Her body shuddered briefly at the force before accepting it and channeling it outwards in a great explosion.

Lightning ripped down from the heavens and slashed into the Titan. Bolt after bolt of the force fried the Esper until he gave a great moan and collapsed. Slack jawed in surprise and exhaustion, Lila kicked her chocobo into a gentle trot and attempted to find the rest of the party.

Urging his mount to move faster, Phillip observed that these Espers weren't as large in size as the ones from the battlefield or the caravan. It was a detail that encouraged him, as he was sure he could destroy these smaller Espers. The knight clutched his sword tightly in both hands and swung skillfully while riding past a lupine Esper.

Fenrir wheeled, growling at the insolent human who had tried to hurt him. A wolf the size of a large man, this Esper did not take kindly to being attacked. He loped after the chocobo and its rider, letting out a hunting call. Fenrir's hunt was cut short, however, as a horned horse galloped from out of an alley behind Phillip. Unicorn whinnied angrily and smashed into the wolf with its horn gleaming in the sunlight.

Phillip paused, no Espers nearby, and let the realization slip in. The Anchyron knight saw the fact that this number of Espers had never been in the same place at one time before. He realized the sheer power that a single Esper commanded, and contemplated the repercussions of this many Espers wielding their power in one place. His thoughts shattered by a hiss, he turned himself around to stare face to face with an Esper. This beast was made completely of smoke, it seemed. Black, acrid smoke rose from the ground where the monster stood.

Phantom smiled. His magical abilities allowed him to be invisible until he came right on top of his prey. This human had been completely unprepared and now sat ripe for execution. The Esper raised a hand to strike Phillip down but felt a sharp pain cut through his side instead. The beast recoiled. Another slash found its way into Phantom's chest. Phillip stood unshaken, holding his sword at the ready. The Esper scowled. A human had dared to strike him--to wound him! Seeing Goddess' Espers coming quickly, however, Phantom had no time to exact his revenge. "Another time, human," he growled in rage.

"Luck seems to be on your side," a booming voice replaced the vanishing Esper. Phillip turned to see one of the huge demons that had accompanied Goddess during her appearance in the castle. "Be careful to guard your rage when fighting Espers. They aren't fellow soldiers that can be felled by a single stroke."

"Thank you," the knight managed, believing Maduin was what had frightened Phantom off. "Good luck to you."

Smiling down at the human, Maduin quickly changed his gaze to the sky. Odin flew above them, slashing Doom's Espers as they charged at him madly. "THE LIGHT OF GODDESS ILLUMINATES DARKNESS!" the warrior Esper bellowed from Sleipnir's saddle. The monstrous Esper flew from Phillip's side to join his comrade.

Gwen was soon there, reining her chocobo to a halt. "Are you alright?" she asked.

"I'm fine," Phillip looked frantically, finally locating his own chocobo--still standing proud, though in a sheltered alley. "That last Esper was on our side." The soldier ignored the clanswoman's distasteful grunt at the prospect of good Espers.

"I don't know what I'd do if--" Gwen was cut off as a dragon swooped down behind Phillip, maw wide for the kill. She jumped from her chocobo, spinning in midair and managing to drive her spear through the midsection of the beast. Pinned to the ground by the weapon, the serpentine lizard slashed and flailed its body about. Phillip brought his sword to bare and smashed it into the ground, reaming the beast's neck in a wide gash. Only a few more shudders escaped its body.

Brooks gazed down at the display. "It seems Zarthes has sent his dragons," he spoke to himself. "Thanatos is again disobeying orders from Master Doom. That fool must realize that there are eyes everywhere." The figure of shadow was shaken by a brief laugh. He would have more power than he had first thought. A hot gust of air met his whithered skin and he looked up with eyes of hate to see Bahamut.

"So you have revealed your true purpose, worm." The King Dragon's great wings beat against the air, defying currents and holding him in place. "The light shall not be kind to you."

"You do not know the light," Brooks spat at the Esper. "Opposing the darkness does not make you the light. Nor does it make you strongest."

Bahamut frowned and snorted loudly. His long, sharp teeth ground in angry thought. Before long, however, the scowl that showed on his face gave way to benevolence. "Time judge you fairly."

"Curse you, Bahamut," the darkly cloaked man shape growled in an unearthly manner. "Curse all of Goddess' creations and the humans she claims to fight for." He looked down, again allowing the cruel snear to weave into his features. Doom's Espers fought with an ethereal fury, no will of their own, living only to do their Master's bidding.

Jak held his tiny dagger in quivering hands. Before him stood a similarly sized creature, garbed in emerald cloth. Its skin was yellowed and sickly, its nose hanging long inches in front of its face. Beady eyes bulged from its face and the toes of its leather shoes curved upwards. Gwen Figaro's familiar quivered in laughter. "YOU?" he asked, tears streaming down his cheeks. "YOU are an Imp?"

"I am Imp," the tiny Esper said simply. It held a similar dagger to that of the emerald Imp, and shook it angrily each time it spoke. "I am the Esper Imp."

Jak laughed, allowing his hands to slip to his knees. He stood hunched, letting the hilarity control him. "I can't believe that. You think you're an Imp. I should probably be very insulted." A huge guffaw shook the tiny green creature before he sighed and wiped his eyes.

"I will fight you for this dishonor," the Esper said in the same way a child might defend himself after an insult. "I will kill you."

"I know I should be laughing at THAT," Jak answered, again holding his knife to bare. "But I accept your challenge." The Imp charged at his opponent, their knives crashing together again and again like a miniature sword duel.

Gwen was now seperated from Phillip, using her spear to both attack and guard against the Espers. More than once, the great beasts had called forth their fire, ice, lightning, or whatever other power they might command. The girl was lucky to have been actually struck as few times as she had been. She struck at the Espers whenever they came close enough for her to do so. Most of the time, however, she was dealing with the dragons that the Esper Zarthes had sent. The lizard-like creatures were fierce, but nothing compared to what the Espers themselves could do.

A wyvern had descended in front of Blain, who had long since dismounted his chocobo and taken to fighting on foot. The bounty hunter twirled his dagger threateningly, though it meant little to the animalistic creature he now faced. It hissed and whipped its tail from side to side, small tongues of flame escaping its nostrils. In one swift movement, Blain darted forward and slashed a long cut across the wyvern's back.

The young man continued his path, running at a fast clip. Turning a corner and hopping over some scattered produce boxes, Blain halted in front a huge wolf. It turned and snarled angrily, its eyes gleaming red. The canine Esper reared on its haunches and prepared to strike. The bounty hunter was about to close his eyes and accept his fate when the beast's head was struck sideways and blood spattered against the side of a still standing building. Phillip stood proudly in front of Blain.

"You again?" the knight growled at Fenrir. "I thought you had become too weak to fight."

The wolf regained itself, blood and spittle draining from its mouth and falling to the cobbled streets below. The Esper's eyes suddenly widened in shock as it beheld the weapon in the human's hand. "That is how you were able to harm us," Fenrir growled in a very garbled version of common language. A gutteral growl, part hate and part fear, eminated from the wolf. With a roar, it leapt towards the human--biting his blade. Phillip was taken aback in shock and tried to pry his weapon away. It tugged and pulled away from him in the Esper's mouth, but he held tight.

Fenrir withdrew his attack and howled long and strangely. As the horrible noise subsided, the wolf turned and bounded off. The last word it had slurred out had been strange. "Ragnarok."

"Thanks...for saving me," Blain muttered meekly, astonished by what he had just seen. "What the hell happened?"

"I don't have any idea," the knight replied, just as shocked.

A cold wind beat against Odin's face as he charged through the sky on his steed. He clutched his sword out laterally from his side and cleaved Doom's monstrosities in half. Underneath his helmet, the Warrior Esper's visage was as cold as stone. It infuriated him, the horrible things the dark Espers had done, and angered him that those things forced him to become one of them. He could feel the fear coming from the citizens of Jidoor.

As a human knight, Odin would be received as a hero. He would fight for this city and emerge victorious. Every family in town would offer up food, money, even their own daughters. As an Esper he was an abomination. They feared him and hated him, spitting at him behind his back and running in sheer terror if he turned around. He would never be accepted again--could never be accepted again. Even so, becoming an Esper was something that he had to do. It was the only possible way for him to protect his land; the only possible way for him to do what he loved.

Among the explosions and roars below, there was still one tall building standing. Perched atop that building, watching the battle in his own darkness, was Brooks. The lanky shadow hissed and smiled in cruel pleasure as humans were trampled and set ablaze by Doom's creations. Odin let loose a deep war cry and sped towards the creature. Sleipnir's hooves beat against the air, driving the Esper onward. Doom's servant turned to face the rushing knight and roared in rage. The sound was cut short as Brooks was cleaved in half, his black cloaked torso falling to the frothing chaos below.

Odin reined in his bestial horse, leaning against its neck and breathing in labored gasps. It seemed that the battle was drawing to a close, and the remaining dark Espers were fleeing to fight some other time. Though the decision had alienated him from all of humankind, Odin never regretted becoming what he was. It had just been one decision in his lifetime that led him towards the end--whatever that might be.

Blain charged through the streets in a full run now that the Espers were leaving. His face was frantic and he didn't notice the blood dripping down his arms and back from wounds. "Lila!" he cupped his mouth with his hands to intensify the sound. "Lila!" Paranoid, the young man whirled at the slightest noise. A shifting of rock, the footstep of a townsman, a bird fluttering nearby to sing after the carnage; everything startled him. "Lila!"

A chocobo, frightened from the onslaught, meekly stepped out from behind a rubbled building. Its feathers were puffed and pointing in every direction. It warked quietly to itself. On the creature's back, a young woman slept soundly, her head laid against her hands. Her chest rose and fell rhythmically. Blain ran to her quickly to make sure she was alright. "Lila," he said breathlessly. "Are you alright?"

"She's fine, human," a large demonic looking Esper was standing next to them suddenly. He had dark skin, ragged hair tied back into a rough pony-tail, and spikes protruding from his skin. "She is merely exhausted from the effort it took to destroy the Esper, Titan."

Destroy an Esper? "Lila did?" Blain asked stupidly. The Esper standing next to him was already distracted, and paid no mind to the quiery. Yura flew off without another word. The bounty hunter turned his attention back to the sleeping girl, lifting her gently from the saddle and placing her on the ground, propped against a smooth rock. He brushed her face gently with his hand.

Lila's eyes fluttered open and she smiled. Blain was there to watch over her. "You were worried?" she asked, "you came looking for me?"

"Yes," Blain kissed her forehead. "I'm glad that you're alright." The young man wasn't sure if Lila said that she loved him again; his eyes shut of their own accord and his head swam. Feeling the ground smack him in the face, Blain opened his eyes again and groaned. Lila's face filled his vision, her eyes clouded with worry.

"Oh Blain..." she sighed. "Why do you always have to get hurt like this?"

"For...for you...." the bounty hunter didn't realize he had spoken. He didn't know of the words out of his mouth then, nor would he later. A tear landed on his cheek, and he moved his arms to wipe it away. Unfortunately, it appeared he no longer had control over his limbs, as the one in use flopped strangely to one side. There was a faint remembrance of being struck there by a dragon. A million images flooded his mind, most of them resembled hellish creatures. Creatures of darkness that he had just spent a great deal of time battling. He groaned again, and heard someone else make a different noise. Was it Lila?

"Lila?" Gwen rounded a corner and rushed to the girl. "Is Blain alright?"

"Yes," the crouched female said with tears in her eyes. "He's just a bit swooned from the fighting." Lila was searching through her pack with one hand trying to find the Mist Magicite. The sleep had replenished her strength and she didn't want to delay in helping Blain.

Standing and turning away from the wounded, Figaro all but ran into Phillip, who had just arrived at the scene. His sword was still clutched in his now shaking hand, and he wiped his brow tiredly. "Is Blain okay?"

"He will be," the young woman sighed, walking to a nearby piece of wall and sitting down on it. "How were you harming those Espers? My spear didn't seem to do much of anything."

"I don't know, all I did was use my sword," Phillip looked at the weapon. Moving to return it to its sheath, he halted. His sword already hung at his side. The blade in his hand began to tremble. "Uh..." he stammered. "I must have...after I called the battle charge, I must have sheathed my sword and gotten this one somehow."

The weapon in the knight's hand continued to shake, vibrating with a low hum. Phillip almost dropped it when it began to speak. "I am an Esper," the sword said in a voice not of this world. "The wound Fenrir inflicted upon me is great. My life force is failing. I entrust my form to you, to use in justice." The color of the sword flickered briefly, and the Anchyron warrior could have sworn it shuddered. Then it ceased, and was again an ordinary sword.

"Espers just love us," Gwen noted, trying to keep the mood light. She was trying to ignore the pain in her lower back. The pain in her legs didn't escape quite as easily.

"Take THAT you jerk," Jak stumbled to where the rest of the group was assembled. A bloodied Imp Esper lay behind him in a heap, slowly crystalizing into Magicite. The live Imp's tone was sure and bold, though his stagger and bloodied skin told different.

Blain's body leapt upwards in a small convulsion. He felt tiny fingers of ice sliding along his body, but they were refreshing just the same. The life that had flowed away from the young man through wounds was now returning. He cringed from the cold feeling but embraced it all the same. He soon fell into the comforting blackness of sleep, able to feel his own chest moving up and down gently.

Turning then to the Imp, Lila's job was much easier. Jak was healed in a matter of moments, his tiny Impish eyes shut tightly and his beak opening and closing with each small breath. His dagger lay slightly away from his palm, dropped before the healing even began. Gwen smiled as she watched, knowing her turn to be cleansed was next. The clanswoman placed her long spear on a nearby rock, wiping the blade of the small amount of blood that stained it. Phillip had already walked off, and the young woman missed him. "Where is he off to?" she thought. "He better not go too far, he needs to be hea--" but Lila had already approached without saying a word.

****

"My husband!" Queen Anchyron ran up the steps to the throne room. The guards bowed to her as she passed them. The king turned his head to face his wife, a frown crossing his contemplative face. "Goddess has told me--"

"Goddess?" King Anchyron grimaced at the mention of her name. "Why does this creature feel the need to appear to you, but not to her king?"

"She is not your subject, my lord," the queen bowed to her husband out of respect. She hid a look of distaste from his eyes. Feeling that the king had something more to say but was holding back, she continued in her message. "There was an attack on Jidoor today. The city has been decimated. Perhaps you shall send relief troops?"

Anchyron's mood had perked up quite a bit in the last few moments. "I like what this Goddess of yours has done, dear Queen."

"My lord...SHE is not the one who--"

"It appears she has orchestrated her own downfall. This attack on Jidoor will give the Empire just the financial push it needs. It's only a matter of time, now." He stood from his throne with a great flourish, summoning the guards to his side. As the ruler of the west ordered a regiment of soldiers, his wife clenched her fists in helpless anger. When King Anchyron got an idea in his head, it was no easy task to get it out. He would sooner die than believe perhaps Goddess was there to help.

****

Phillip sat with his back to a shattered wall, eating a small piece of cheese he had saved for himself. After the initial shock of the destruction wore off, the task of steadying the townsfolk soon settled on the backs of the four party members. Most of their supplies had been kindly given to the needy, and they had been working all day to create whatever shelter they could for the survivors. Mayor Edwin had yet to emerge from his now ruined mansion, and a few older men stood outside its courtyard and called angrily to him for hours at a time.

The knight realized that the small figure limping towards him was Lila, and he smiled to the girl. She forced a smile of her own, trying desperately to hide the fatigue that clung to her. Though not even scratched in the battle, the job that Lila was required to do was perhaps even more taxing. She had begun to heal the wounded townspeople after she had done the same for Gwen. With only a few breaks to rest in between, the merchant's daughter had gone from person to person and clutched the Magicite in her hands, allowing the magical energies to flow from her and heal those in need.

"You escaped me in the beginning," she chuckled hoarsely. "But I've saved just enough energy to heal you."

Phillip looked up at her, hiding the pity in his eyes. He couldn't imagine expending such energies in such a way. Fighting hordes was one thing--there was adrenaline to keep a warrior going. Casting a spell, however.....the mere thought made the knight's head spin. "Don't waste a spell on me," he smiled warmly. "Worry more about your own health."

Lila wavered on quaking knees, shaking her head. Her eyes drooped and her mouth went slack for a moment. "You need to.....wounds...."

"My wounds are very minor, girl," Phillip outstretched his arms. She needed to rest somewhere warm, and his cloak seemed as good as any curtain rag or bedsheet that one of the wrecked houses would offer. "Just rest, now. Forget about me."

Looking for a second like she might again try to protest, Lila leaned forward and fell right into Phillip's arms. She hung in his grasp limply for a moment before settling against his chest. The girl was practically sleeping before she was even in a position to do so. The knight arranged her arms and head so that they were resting comfortably against him. He moved his cloak to blanket her body from the cold. The girl smiled, her face resting on her gentle hands. "I love you, Blain."

Phillip smiled at the sleeping girl, no doubt already emersed in a dream. "He loves you too, child. He loves you too."

REPERCUSSIONS

An uproar was taking place in one of the cities in the highlands of Doma. Pursued by a host of soldiers, a vagabond had ruined many cities across the countryside. The poor man had located Magicite and embraced its power, gaining amazing abilities and going a bit crazy in the process. Over a week had passed since he had found the Magicite, and the soldiers had finally cornered him once more.

"Calm down," Garamonde tried to sound soothing but sensed he wasn't doing a good job. He winced internally at the situation. He was the most experienced knight in Doma, perhaps in the whole world. A mere vagabond shouldn't have posed much of a problem. "You don't need to hurt anyone."

A crazed gleam shimmered across the vagabond's eyes. He braced against the wall behind him with his left hand, and flailed with the right, fending off attackers that weren't advancing. "Stay back!"

The soldiers began to murmur among themselves, some of them talking more informally than others. The sound of steel rose from the crowd as a few of the knights began to draw their weapons. Garamonde outstretched his hand in front of them. "Put your swords away," he commanded in a firm voice. The new rage in the vagabond's eyes abated, his chest heaving as he panted. The commander, satisfied that his men had calmed, took a few steps towards the cornered man. "It's okay," he reinstated. "We aren't going to hurt you...just give us the Magicite."

"So you can use it for yourself?" he growled, his left hand digging pits into the brick of the wall. "Take it from me? Steal my power?" A glow began to waver around the man, growing steadily in intensity. He ripped open his cloak, revealing the gem of Magicite embedded in his own chest. "YOU CAN'T TAKE IT FROM ME!" Garamonde backed a few paces away. "You're just like all the others," the vagabond spat onto the ground in anger. He hid his fear well behind the power. It was the soldier's turn to fear. "You're going to take away my worth and then lock me behind bars. Then you'll tease me like all the others. It's been that way my whole life--everone laughing at me and hurting me. NO MORE!" The ground rumbled.

"It's okay," Garamonde again drove himself in front of the soldier line, blocking any advance that a rogue knight might try. "Be calm. We aren't going to steal your Magicite. We just need you to stop killing people. We care about you..."

The vagrant's eyes turned red in sheer rage. "You don't care about me," he growled in a strange voice; the voice of a beast. "You don't care at all--none of you even know my name"

A hand raised near the rear of the crowd that had formed behind the soldiers. The purple robed hand waved and a voice accompanied it. "I CARE!" the figure shouted. The large man began to move through the crowd, pushing himself past the armored warriors and to the front of the line. His violet cloak was deep and rich, and he stood much taller than any ordinary human being. None of those assembled knew that this being was in fact an Esper. Ultros kneeled on one leg, looking sincerely into the eyes of the shivering vagabond. "I know your name," he outstretched a hand slowly. "Mr. Chupon."

****

Keith wandered through the ruins of Jidoor, glancing underneath rubble piles and looking diligently where Espers had fallen. The scholar had rushed to the city as soon as he heard news of what had taken place. Unfortunately any Magicite had been gathered and hidden away by the town law enforcement, and most traces of Espers had vanished. The man frowned and sat down on a piece of crumbled roof. "I always miss the Espers," the complaint wasn't directed to anyone in particular. "How am I supposed to study these things if I never see them?"

On the other end of the city Phillip sat on a rock, surveying the surrounding lands with a hand-held telescope. In the days after the attack, Phillip had gathered up all the able men and formed sort of a defense force. With the normal law enforcement locked in the Mayor's house out of fear, this rag-tag force was all that was available. Lila had spent her time healing the people until they were fit to survive without her spells. Gwen and Jak cleared the dangerous rubble away, revealing the ground that was always either burnt or muddied. Blain's job had been to run various tasks for the townspeople; from locating children to finding valuables among the heaps.

The buildings that still had walls semi-standing became the shelters for the citizens. Cloth sheets were hung over the tops to shield from rain and dust, and the people did what they could to the interior to make it livable. The streets were empty a great deal of the time, as most people chose to stay inside. Once in awhile a group of children would be playing with a ball they managed to salvage, or running about in a round of tag. Their parents would soon show up to usher them safely back inside.

The dust on Phillip's armor reminded him that he was among the three that stayed outside at night. Half of the knight's time was spent keeping watch during the dark hours, but the rest was sleeping on the hard ground because there wasn't shelter anywhere else. Lila was allowed a small corner of the house that was once the town herbist's shop. Blain would check on her at least five times a night, always refusing to admit it had been more than twice. There was room in the wrecked shop for Gwen to sleep there as well, but she always insisted on either keeping watch or sleeping near Phillip. Jak was all too happy to take his friend's place in the sleeping quarters.

The telescope showing a growing dust cloud in the distance, Phillip strained to see. An armored troop was moving quickly towards the town. The knight dropped the telescope and stood, drawing his sword and signaling to the other guards nearby. They all lumbered up from where they were sitting, adjusting makeshift armor and drawing any weapons they had managed to gather. The young man gazed down at his sword, the sword that had told him it was an Esper. Using this blade, he could damage and possibly kill the monsters that were threatening the land. He didn't know whether to be proud or scared. It was more than several moments before the approaching band actually arrived. When it did, the man at the head of the line calmly dismounted his chocobo and strode over to Phillip.

"State your name and the purpose of your arrival," the Anchyron knight spoke smoothly in perfect calm. The sureness hadn't come easily, asking haughty questions to a fully equipped regiment while he was the only armored man on his own side. "We can perhaps offer you haven, but not shelter."

"It is not haven I seek, lad," the leader slowly removed his helmet. Below the steel mask was the bearded face of King Anchyron.

Phillip's eyes opened wide in utter surprise and he fell to the ground in a low bow. "Your majesty."

The king nodded in recognition and then waved his forces in. The procession rolled past the guards and into inner Jidoor. They stopped outside of the Mayor's house, taking positions as if to guard it against attack. Phillip recognized a few of his friends among the ranks, but they didn't seem to take notice of him. The knight remained on the outskirts and took the telescope back into his hands.

"Anchyron!" Edwin practically ran across his chambers to greet the king. "I'm so glad you've arrived."

"None too soon," the armor clad royalty made a motion with his head as to indicate the crushed ceiling and collapsed second story of the mansion. The Mayor of Jidoor didn't seem to take notice. "You summoned me?"

The frazzled man wiped his face roughly with one hand. It had been a stressful last few days, hiding away in his office with the people outside in the ruined buildings. "I'm sorry, my liege," he bowed slightly. "I'm afraid that my poor mind is on top of itself." He lead the king and escorts over to his desk, requesting them to sit down. After doing so, he russled with a few papers and located a pen to write with. "I have decided to support your Empire with funding."

"Excellent," Anchyron's eyes gleamed before he lifted an eyebrow. "Any specific amount?"

"As much as you want," the reply was quick. "It was so horrible...they were destroying my beautiful city..." The sentries that had accompanied the king exchanged smirks, seeing the mayor of Jidoor weeping and wallowing as such. "They started fighting each other. These Espers are animals, sir."

The king snorted, thinking of how the queen had told him that all Espers weren't aligned the same. Edwin blathering onward, Anchyron took pause to examine the surroundings. Piles of crumbled ceiling or wall were scattered about. Outside of a window without glass, he could see that this mansion had fared better than any other buildings. The royal man couldn't help but feel sorry for the people of Jidoor; that their wealth would go to the Empire instead of being used to reconstruct the city. However, once the Empire destroyed the Espers, the world would be rebuilt even better than it had been before. It would be a shining new golden age.

****

Zarthes stood at attention, having just given important news to Thanatos. A few of the Esper's dragons slinked through the shadows of the cave, but none approached the two powerful figures. There was a conniving smirk on the Death Esper's face, very pleased by what he had been told. "Brooks is slain?"

"By the hand of Goddess' own creation."

"This is better than we could have possibly hoped," a glimmer in Thanatos' eye shone evilly through the cloak of darkness. The Esper of darkness made his home on a strange island in the northeast. The island itself was triangle shaped, and powerful creatures dwelled there, keeping uninvited guests away. "When I destroy Ultros, perhaps Doom shall elevate me to the position of his personal servant."

Zarthes nodded, hissing a deep sound of approval. The Dragon Master knew that if Thanatos was elevated to Doom's servant, then he would take the Death Esper's place in the human realm. Sensing their master's pleasure, one of the dragons nearby gave a roar. Doom lifted an eyebrow.

"Keep rein over your subjects, Zarthes," the edges of his mouth turned upwards. "No one has risen yet." With those words, Thanatos stood from his throne and flourished his cape behind himself. "Without Brooks, we'll need to report directly to Master Doom. You stay here and watch the stronghold while I deliver our tidings." The ebony-armored figure strode off into the darkness of the cavern.

"Gaia hasn't been back yet," Zarthes droned to himself. His eyes shifted about the room to watch as his dragons gathered around him. "He has become much too independant." The leather of the Esper's glove made a tightening squeak as he clenched his powerful fist. Many of the dragons growled, and there was another roar among them.

****

"Full house," the Imp smiled wryly at the knight towering above him. Phillip threw down his cards and poked Jak with a gloved finger.

"You wouldn't be cheating by any chance...would you?"

"No...'course not. An Imp's word is his honor." The green creature flicked the cards competitively before gathering the rest of the deck and reshuffling. Gwen leaned over from behind the Imp and looked at Phillip.

"Cheater," she whispered, deliberately loud enough so Jak could hear too. "He has a whole pile of royalty back here...you'd think it was Doma."

"THANK you, Miss Figaro," the tiny emerald figure coughed. "But Phillip and I are having a kindly game of five-card." He began shuffling. "Unless he's afraid, of course."

The knight smiled, opening his mouth to speak; he was interrupted by a gauntleted hand on his shoulder. He turned around to see who had grabbed him. King Anchyron raised back to a straight-postured stance, looking down at the seated knight. Phillip hurriedly stood, bowed to his king, and then straightened up again.

"We are returning to Anchyron now," the bearded king said simply.

"Sir," Phillip dropped his regal pretense and sighed. "I'm on leave."

"Your leave has been cancelled. You are part of the Empire army now, and we are marching to destroy Espers."

There were tears burning at Gwen's eyes when the knight turned around to look at the party. She concentrated all her energies into speaking without a wobbly voice. "It's okay. Jak and I should get back to our quest..." Figaro turned away so that she could allow the droplets to stream down her cheeks. Phillip didn't notice the girl's shoulders shaking in sobs, as he had turned his attention to the other members. Tears of injustice burned at his own eyelids, but there was no option but to fight them back. Weeping before your king was to show weakness and inability.

Blain stood and strode to the knight, shaking his hand firmly. "I am bound to watch over Lila, but you will be sorely missed." Phillip smiled slightly, musing over the fact that the bounty hunter tried to speak formally when he wasn't alone with the girl. Lila curtsied, bringing the young man back to reality.

"I'm sorry you have to go," Lila frowned. "Maybe I'll see you again someday."

"I hope that you find your parents," replied Phillip.

Smiling a little, Lila withdrew back to the small campfire with Blain's arm around her shoulders. Phillip looked back to Gwen, who was still turned away in her own thoughts. He made a check on his belongings, making sure his sword was firmly in its sheath, and then turned back to the king, bowing again. "I am ready to serve, your majesty."

"Excellent! We leave immediately."

****

The air was thick in the basement of Castle Anchyron. Only the queen knew about this chamber, as she was the reason it existed. It was her haven, a place where she could retreat when the life of royalty became too stifling. This night, however, she was sharing it with someone special.

"Okay, Odin...you can open your eyes," Queen Anchyron giggled like a peasant girl at the Spring Festival.

"Wha-" Odin did as he was told and gasped. Spread out before him in the underground chamber were rows upon rows of flowering plants. Great green tendrils crossed the floor, walls, and ceiling. Flowers opened for bloom and leafy platforms were abundant. Exotic plants filled the room, completely erasing memory of rough stone walls and armored passages. "What is this?"

"This is my private chamber," the queen replied. "It's where I come to get away. The king doesn't know about it--he'd probably destroy my plants."

The Esper noticed the great sense of peace that hung over the surroundings. The queen walked over to water the greenery and Odin sat on a small chair nearby. He watched the woman at her task. The transformed knight noticed Queen Anchyron's slender figure, and the curves that subtly revealed themselves as she leaned over to feed the flowers further in. Her soft raven bangs fell gracefully in front of her face, and she daintily brushed them away. The rest of her glorious hair was tied back in a braid. She noticed Odin watching and smiled demurely.

The Esper leaned back, closing his eyes and breathing deeply. This haven was a welcome respite from the horrible battle he had led only days before. The blood and carnage seemed to be eliminated by the thick smell of vegetation and the peaceful aura of the area. "This is paradise," he mentioned.

"Yes," the queen's voice had come from much closer than expected, and when Odin opened his eyes he was surprised to find that she was only a few feet away.

"A life of war and bloodshed is worth it...if this is the reward at the end."

He took the lady's hand gently and kissed it.

The queen wasn't sure that Odin was referring to the chamber anymore. She pulled her hair from her eyes once again and smiled. Her cheeks rosied as she thought again of the Esper's comment. Forgetting herself, she sat down in his lap and leaned against his chest. Odin slid his muscled arm softly to the woman's back, embracing her slightly. She sighed happily and Odin smiled, letting his eyes close again.

PREPERATIONS

King Anchyron was displeased. It was apparent from the angered grunts he was making; that was if one didn't first see the sneer on his face and the redness in his complexion. Phillip had been somewhat of an honored guest once the king learned of his heroics back in Jidoor. Since that day, the knight had ridden in the front of the soldier column with the leader of the west. It was he who asked what was wrong. "My liege? What bothers you?"

"WHAT?" Anchyron let his speech come in an angered burst, "are THOSE?"

Phillip looked up at the Castle Anchyron, not more than fifteen minutes away. Everything at first seemed to be as normal as could be, but then the knight saw the source of the king's rage. Next to all of the Anchyron banners flapped light blue flags with the image of Goddess sewn into them. "It seems that the army is celebrating the Goddess alliance," he had spoken more to himself than anyone.

Anchyron looked at him with displeasure. "Yes, it does, doesn't it?" The words had been harsher than the man's eyes. The regal man continued, speaking to no one, "The queen knows that I disapprove of that ally. This outrage will not be tolerated."

The column proceeded on their course to the castle, the slow marching step replaced by a faster clip. Whispering drifted back through the ranks, as to why they were speeding up and why the king seemed upset. For the most part, the truth remained intact. The knights of the regiment usually frowned when they heard of the banners--none wanting to be present when their leader would punish the one responsible.

Phillip looked away from the bearded man, almost feeling the rage seeth off him in waves. He turned his attention back to the castle. Its great stone towers stood as sentinels to the surrounding land, and the great drawbridge was now lowering for their passage. The young man could almost hear it creaking now. Turrets and guardhouses stood up from the main wall, and arrow slits in the stone masonry would allow Anchyron to fend off an invasion. It was a very sturdy fortress, but Phillip wondered if it was enough to hold back the wrath of its own king.

****

The king had ranted through the castle for hours about the Goddess banners. His demands ranged from the removing of the flags to their burning into ash. One of the primary targets for his rage had been the queen, and at one point Odin had stepped in to defend her. King Anchyron became enraged by the Esper's interference, and had gone to sleep with the newly appointed Empire army.

Several days had passed, Anchyron's mood not much improving. This particular morning the soldiers had been told to assemble at the training grounds. The long stretch of dust and dirt spread far into the horizon. All areas of the Empire's army had been represented; footsoldiers, chocobo riders, the mysterious Magi, and even some leather-armored men hefting long metal cylinders that Phillip had never seen before. They all stood in their own portion of the field, commanders shouting orders or speaking with one another. Magi were meditating or handing Magicite back and forth.

Phillip clutched the handle of his sword, not sure whether he dare draw it. Though the Esper had died, its body was still the weapon that the young man planned on wielding in battle. It was an unsettling thought, and he doubted he was any better than the Magi positioned not far from his own fellow soldiers. He turned his attention to a different thought, hoping to forget about the mystical blade at his side. The knight wondered why they had gathered at the training grounds, being that there was no training equipment present.

At the blaring of a trumpet, all men and women stood to attention. The king strode confidently onto the field and met at the center with the troop commanders. After some meaningless reports, engineer Cid and the head of the Magi approached to speak. The first man, smeared with grease and grinning wildly, seemed almost too eager to walk properly. The other figure was cool and pristine, his robes hardly moving when the breeze gusted past. His face was stone.

"What is this tide-shifting report you have?" Anchyron questioned.

"It's fantastic," Cid answered. "Simply fantastic." As the engineer continued to gasp his speech, the king turned to the cloaked being for a more informative answer.

"We have found a way to channel energy more efficiently," he replied. "Two new weapons have been created with our findings."

"Tell me more, Eyfas," the king's expression remained straight. The thought had never before occured to him that these Magi drew their powers from dead Espers. He wasn't sure whether he should be vengefully pleased by this fact, or terrified of the power.

Eyfas cleared his throat, bringing Anchyron back to the matters at hand. "The first creation is a sword that utilizes Magicite. The gem channels the user's power into a sort of energy beam. The more power that the individual possesses, the greater the size and strength of the sword. Cid suggested that we equip your finest warrior with this energy blade."

Cid, who had been listening instead of thinking about his presentation, snapped to attention. He breathed deeply a few times to be sure he would not be the brunt of another comment from Anchyron. "The second weapon is an Esper."

"I have no need of--"

"A manmade Esper," Cid grimaced painfully when he realized that he had just interrupted his ruler. The softening of the king's face told the engineer that it had not been an offense, and he continued carefully. "We have taken the energy from Esper Magicite and placed it into a machine--a very large machine."

Eyfas continued on with the description, not trusting Cid to avoid any further mistakes. "Essentially creating our own monstrous creature, we can crush the Espers with a being just as powerful as they." The Magi smiled proudly. "We have dubbed both these weapons 'ATack MAchines', or 'ATMA Weapons' for short. The sword will allow humans to fight the demons, and the beast will fight Espers of its own accord. We assure you that the might of both these weapons is unparalleled."

"The ATMA Esper is unstoppable," Cid added, unable to remain silent. "The machinery inside of it is undergoing last minute alterations, but its power is unmatched."

"So," Anchyron was very pleased, though he tried to hide it. "You have this....ATMA sword with you?"

"Indeed," a knight approached and bowed deeply. Eyfas opened the wooden case that the man carried and removed a metallic hilt. There was no blade. Motioning for silence, the Magi held the handle out in front of himself and began breathing slowly and deeply. Before long, a translucent blue beam had emerged from the hilt, rising several feet into the air. The robed figure swung it around a few times to demonstrate its light weight. The blade then withdrew and was placed back into the case. The observing knight was so taken that it was several moments before he remembered to shut the case.

"I am pleased," the king replied. "You are both to be rewarded."

"To serve the great Empire is reward enough," the cloaked Magi bowed. Cid nodded in kind with a toothy grin. The engineer withdrew from King Anchyron's presence relucantly, slightly angered that Eyfas was allowed to remain.

The king had been about to say something when a messenger sprinted onto the field and ran to his majesty. "A message for King Anchyron!" he shouted, waving a small scroll in the air. The king turned to meet him. Taking a moment to catch his breath, the small boy opened the paper and began to read his message. "Queen Anchyron wishes for you to know that Goddess has said that her siblings will converge on the Narshe mountains with their respective Esper forces three days from now. It is in your best interest to keep away from the area, as the battle is between them alone."

"Goddess...." it was a growl. The king turned away from the messenger and to his advisors. "Is morale high?" With a positive answer, he continued. "Do we have enough guns to support our forces?" Again, the answer was positive. The decorated ruler turned to Eyfas. "Will you be able to complete the ATMA Esper by tomorrow?"

"Yes, my liege," the Magi bowed again, smiling inwardly.

Anchyron turned to the gathered forces of his Empire. "MEN!" he shouted, quiet falling over the entire field except for the man's voice. "THE ESPERS AND THEIR MASTERS ALIKE WILL BE GATHERED IN THE NARSHE MOUNTAINS NOT LONG FROM NOW!" The soldiers were not sure what to think, and awaited the command. "THE EMPIRE IS MIGHTY! WE SHALL MEET THEM ON THE FIELD AND CRUSH THEM AND THEIR DEMONS!" At this the men cheered, seeing that the end to the recent madness of the world would soon come to an end. Most of them chose to forget that the Goddess and her Espers had been their salvation not long ago, and were gripped now by the need to destroy the monsters. Anchyron grinned at their reaction, and finished his announcement. "WE WILL LEAVE THIS EVENING, AND A SUPPLY TROOP WILL FOLLOW US BY A FEW HOURS!"

The commanders returned to their respective charges, giving the order to prepare for the journey and the resulting battle. The king turned to the men remaining at his side and growled. "Goddess....Espers...in Anchyron. Sometimes I wish that the whole damned castle would collapse on them all." The regal man turned and strode from the field, the messenger tailing him. The king finally turned his attention back to the young man. "Go to the area surrounding Kohlingen," he commanded. "There will be a farmer named Will. Tell him to send a pigeon to the King of Doma requesting that he bring his forces to the Narshe mountains for the battle. Tell him that the Empire is assembled."

The messenger wrote the words onto his scroll before rolling it up and placing it inside his tunic. He was approached by the Magi, Eyfas, who strode almost motionlessly into speaking range. "You heard what the king said," the robed man spoke. His speech bent the messenger's will and twisted his mind. "About the castle collapsing and the end of Goddess. Fifteen of my Magi will accompany you to Kohlingen, and once the message is delivered you will return to Anchyron. There you will lay seige to the fortress and destroy any Espers inside." Eyfas smirked when the messenger nodded in response. The Magi began walking back to his forces, ready to choose the fifteen aforementioned Magi. "Doing your will is its own reward, my king..."

****

Lila rubbed the back of her chocobo's neck with her right hand. The reins were held lightly in her left hand, her mind wandering to different subjects. Heavy on her thoughts was the Magicite she had been granted on the journey. She used it for the benefit of others, and she knew that was good. However, the feeling that she experienced while using the gems and the power she realized they contained disturbed the girl greatly. Every spell she cast gave her the feeling that the force she controlled would envelope her. Even more frightening was the feeling that she would like for that to happen.

The sinking in the girl's stomach came from the knowledge that her newfound Magicite abilities seperated her from the rest of humanity. Whether or not the seperation made her better or worse off she could not decipher. It was an effort to keep the ends of her lips in a straight expression. She suddenly wished that Blain were closer to her instead of at the front of the line.

"What's that?" Gwen halted her chocobo and pointed at a bird drifting towards them on the air currents.

"Carrier pigeon," Blain replied, holding his hand out for the bird to land on. It lighted on his outstretched finger and cooed in a friendly manner. The bounty hunter took the note that was tied to the bird's neck and unfolded it. He began reading. "To the Zozo Trade Association, I am sorry to announce that I will be unable to deliver the requested goods at the arranged date. The caravan was attacked before reaching South Anchyron and destroyed. If you have an additional message to deliver, tie it to this pigeon and he will return to me in the Narshe mountains. Many apologies, Stave."

"Stave?" Lila stood in the stirrups and leaned forward. "My father?"

Jak smirked. "Unless there was more than one Stave in that trading caravan."

"Blain....we have to go see him," the girl was ecstatic. Ever since the attack she had told herself that her parents were alright, but the thought of their demise was always hovering on the brink of her thoughts. "We need to go to the Narshe mountains!"

The young man was stroking the message bird's neck. "It missed Zozo...there must be strong winds up there."

"If we hurry, we can even catch up with Phillip at the castle," Lila was bouncing in the saddle, holding the reins tightly. Her mount was more than a little confused.

Gwen shook her head in frustration as if she had finally come to a conclusion in a mental battle. "Forget it," she announced. "Forget this stupid test for womanhood. I'm going to follow my heart and do as I wish." She turned her chocobo in the direction they had come, her Imp sitting in her lap with a confused look. The sureness in her eyes burrowed into Blain.

"Phillip saved my life," he replied. "I owe him more than I could possibly repay. He made it possible for me to continue on my given mission--to protect Lila. I shall deliver her back to her father safely." The bounty hunter stopped, though, and sighed regretfully. "I doubt we'll be able to meet Phillip, though....the king sounded as if they would ride off to a mission."

"Royal columns march at a walking pace," Gwen explained. "Jak and I used to sneak off to see them when they'd leave the castle. If we run our chocobos hard for a few days and a night, we could probably catch up to them easily."

"It's settled, then," Lila said. The girl was practically leaving without them. "Let's go!" She kicked her bird into a hard sprint.

Blain followed suit, leaning down against the neck of his chocobo, feeling the feathers whip against his cheeks in the wind. "I'll see her home safely, Stave," the young man thought. "Just as I promised."

"Take care of yourself, Phillip," Gwen Figaro did as the others had done, nearly sending Jak to the ground in a tumble. "I'll be there soon."

****

The throne room of Castle Anchyron was empty save for two people. There were not many troops that were allowed to stay behind as guards when the Empire forces had left. The remainder of the soldiers could barely cover half of the castle grounds if they spread out. Odin looked down into the queen's eyes--eyes filled with sorrowful tears. "He shouldn't have treated you like that."

"He is the king, and I must serve him," there was more than a little bitterness in the woman's voice. "You shouldn't have gotten involved...it angered him greatly."

"I could not let him yell at you so," Odin put an arm around his queen. "You are royalty as well. Though even the lowest wench deserves better treatment than you recieved."

Her knees almost giving out, Queen Anchyron let out a large sob. Her face contorted into confused sadness and she lifted her hands to her face, though they could not comfort her. "Why did you try to help me?"

"You are my queen," the Esper answered sincerely. Sorrow quivered his own voice, though he tried little to hide it. "I shall protect you to my last breath." The woman sobbed more, tears flowing freely. Instead of rushing to help, Odin withdrew slightly, shaking his head angrily. The antlers on his helmet made for a forboding site; swinging side to side like the claws of a great beast. Imagining how he appeared, the knight cursed his monsterous likeness. He finally composed himself. "Do you love him?"

Not frightened by the Esper's appearance, the queen wiped her eyes slowly. "No," she finally said firmly. "I do not. I did not. I have only loved once." She straightened her dress, withdrawing from the situation for a moment. Looking satisfied with the garment, she returned to Odin's gaze. "I love you."

The great knight retreated a few steps, swinging a muscled arm out to one side in a protesting gesture. "You cannot," he boomed. His voice weakened and cracked as he fell to one knee. "I am an Esper....you can't...."

"I am a woman," she said simply. "I have done as I was told was proper for too long. The world is going to the abyss because everyone is acting proper and perfect and lying to themselves. I am a human and you are an Esper...and I love you."

"I am a monster," the phrase emerged as a growl that frightened Odin himself.

"You are beautiful." The woman stretched to wrap her arms around the knight's neck. They kissed deeply as Odin embraced her as well and lifted her against his armored chest.

The embrace lasted for what seemed like eternity. However, it wasn't nearly long enough for either of them. "I love you, too," the Esper tightened his grip on the woman he loved. "I love you, Sarai." He slowly set her back down on the ground, taking in happiness from her beaming face.

The moment was shattered as a guard rushed into the room, sword in his hand, screaming to Odin. "Sir Odin! Magi are attacking!"

The Esper was taken aback, and from the look on her face he judged that the queen was too. "Anchyron attacks his own castle? Insanity....we shall not let them destroy us."

"Yes sir," the guard saluted. "With Sir Odin on our side, we cannot be defeated." He rushed back out confidently to fight the oncoming Magi.

"You must hide, my queen...for your own safety." The large knight looked down at the woman that he loved. "Go to your garden."

"I cannot leave you here, my love," she fought back tears. "I cannot simply run and hide like a coward."

"It is not always cowardice to run," recited the Esper. "I cannot have you in this battle, for you would die. You must take shelter in your haven."

The queen finally gave in, and began to descend the stairway to her hidden chamber. Her eyes never left those of the knight, and she finally stopped walking and spoke. "I love you."

"I love you too," Odin responded, his voice nearly faltering in sadness.

"Come back to me, my knight," Sarai pleaded. "I cannot live without you."

"I shall return to you," his voice was resolute. "You have shown me paradise. I shall return there once I have vanquished these devils." He watched with sorrow as the queen disappeared into the underground passage. Ready to battle the attackers, Odin drew his sword and raised it to the heavens. There was a flash, and Sleipnir stood by his side. The horse bucked and reared, lightning bolts crackling from its nostrils with every breath. It was calmed when the Esper neared it to mount.

The Magi came in the door, seeming to float across the floor in their approach. Odin frowned at the fact they had broken through the outside defenses, and brought his sword to bare. With a roaring battle cry he leaned against the neck of his steed and charged at them. The knight felt small knives against his back as the Magi leapt on him to stop the charge. Some of them summoned fireballs to do their part, singeing his skin. However, Odin also felt his sword strike home, and when he turned Sleipnir to face his opponents they were all slain--cleaved in half.

Sleipnir reared into the air with a triumphant whinny, and Odin leaned in the saddle. He was concentrating to stop the pain that his wounds were causing. Some of the Magi had managed to reopen old wounds from the battle in Jidoor. Silently, one more robed figure glided into the room. Odin sat straight up and gripped his blade tightly. However, when he charged this opponent, it did not cleave in half. The sorcerer began to chuckle.

Meaningfully, the powerful Magi raised his hands, cloak falling to below his elbows. His arms were thin and bony, but Odin could sense the power that the sorcerer was summoning. He felt his wounds increase in their intensity and his joints stiffen as if he had been in bed for days. Sleipnir was not rearing or bucking any longer, and the knight glanced down to see why. He gasped in horror to see that his horse was now stone. Realizing that his fate was sealed, the Esper reached out desperately towards the secret passage, noticing several Magi filing down the stairs.

"No," his stone vocal chords cracked in vain. Gazing towards the garden paradise that he could not reach, tears welled in Odin's eyes for his lover. The stone made a horrible breaking noise as it enveloped the Esper's ears and covered his head. The stone cocoon, however, did not end his life soon enough to spare the knight from hearing Sarai's scream.

THE LAST NIGHT

It had been about the tenth hour when the messenger had arrived on chocobo to speak with the king. He informed the proud Anchyron that the castle had been attacked the night before by Magi and now lay in ruins. The king's face had lit up for a moment when he learned of Odin's death, but withdrew once more when he asked about the welfare of the queen. Convinced that there was no salvage from the battle, Anchyron had demanded to know who was responsible for ordering the attack. Eyfas had rode forward on his chocobo, revealing that he was only following the king's orders in destroying the castle to end the Esper's link to humanity. His majesty's face sunk as he blamed himself for the death of his kingdom and his wife.

It was now mid-afternoon. Phillip rode near the head of the line, his chocobo in line next to that of the king. Eyfas rode his own mount not far behind them, his smirk contrasting against his gaunt face. The knight couldn't decide whether or not the Magi had a hidden agenda, but found that quandary to be easier thinking than some of the others he had. Was Gwen safe? Would the Empire be triumphant? Would this Esper sword even be effective in battle?

The young man's mind was interrupted as Anchyron choked out words. "Why do you fight the Espers?" he asked. "I heard about what you did in Jidoor. How do you face such monsters?"

"They killed my father," Phillip shared without hesitation. "He served in your army sixteen years ago."

"How are you not consumed by vengeance?" the king questioned, slumping even further in his saddle. "My soul calls out for revenge, though it is my own self that I hate..." The man sighed and looked out at the horizon, not actually listening for the knight to respond. The distraught man soon rode slowly to the front of the line, leaving Phillip to his thoughts. Eyfas followed the king mysteriously, hanging back several yards to avoid being noticed.

Phillip glanced to his left, off into the endless desert. They had almost reached the edge of the sands and would soon be in a valley leading to the Narshe mountains. The man smiled, remembering the furs he had brought and thinking of how much he would need them in the cold Narshe weather. Snow seemed very surreal while traveling through a scorching desert. Something startled the knight and he squinted his eyes to see better.

Silhouette's waving in the heat from the sands, three figures approached from the west. Phillip didn't give alarm, as he doubted any humans would attack the Empire that was believed to be their salvation. He doubted that assumption upon seeing Eyfas cross the line to follow the king, but wiped the cynicism from his mind. Oddly enough, none of the soldiers seemed to notice the chocobo riders until they had come within a few yards of the column. So when the alarm went up about strangers, Phillip recognized the intruders as his companions. He calmed the alert.

"Phillip!" Gwen's chocobo was troubled to slow as the woman rode it near to her knight. "I knew we'd find you."

"We're headed for the Narshe range," was his response. "The Goddesses are going to gather there and the Espers will battle. It will be dangerous...you shouldn't be here."

"My father is in Narshe!" Lila said excitedly, not sure whether or not the knight's news should have frightened her. "We doubled back so that we could find him."

"It's good to see you again, Sir Phillip," Blain called, still far enough away to require shouting. "I trust that fortune sees you well."

"My friends have returned," the young warrior tried to hide his unsureness. "I cannot think of a better twist of fate."

Lila rubbed her bird's neck gently, rewarding the hard-working steed with a bit of comfort. Her skirt was divided for riding, and her face was eager to return to the journey. It must have been hard for her to be away from her family for so long, and now be asked to wait hours longer to journey at the slow trot of a military entorage. "I'm going to ride on ahead to meet father," she mentioned.

Blain hurriedly kicked his bird nearer to hers. His boots were muddied and his clothing had been torn in more than a few places by the talons of monsters, but he would have done anything to see the girl safely home. "I'll go with her. Will you two be joining us or are we going to haveta' worry?"

Gwen smiled that the bounty hunter was finally comfortable enough to use his normal vernacular. She looked hopefully at Phillip, but tried not to sway him with her eyes. "I will meet with my clan at one point or another. How quickly it comes truly isn't important to me."

The knight smiled at the clanswoman's brave words. Her eyes betrayed her, however, and the homesickness that she denied so fervently was almost visible. To top it off, Phillip heard the stomach grumblings of an Imp from Gwen's lap. Jak peeked his head up and wiped sleep from his eyes, seeming to take in the armored force marching down the line. Finished, he descended back to his resting position.

"Jak seems hungry," Figaro chuckled, her topknot bobbing in the air.

Phillip smiled softly, looking at the thin young woman before him. Her shining hair and soft skin urged his thoughts to wander, though the choice at hand was more important. She smiled up at him, awaiting his decision. The warrior kicked his chocobo into a run and began his charge towards the Narshe mountains.

"SIR PHILLIP!" called one of the soldiers in the military march. "YOU'RE GOING AWOL?"

"I'LL MEET BACK WITH YOU IN NARSHE!" he answered, gaining distance. "UNTIL THEN, I DON'T CARE ABOUT ESPERS, GODDESSES, OR THE EMPIRE!"

****

It had been a long ride, but didn't take as long as the youths had expected it to. At one point the party had questioned Phillip sadly about what had happened to the castle, as it was in ruins when they rode past. He explained what information he had been able to gather from the messenger, and they had been silent for a long while after hearing the news. "It seems," the knight had said, "that those with the most power must use the most discretion when exercising it."

Gwen led them through the tricky moments of the path and showed them the way to the Figaro camp. On the outskirts of the camp there were several trade wagons set up, cheap by design, but serving their purpose. Lila's eyes had seemed to double in size when she realized who's wagons they were. Not waiting for Blain to follow, the young woman had leapt from her chocobo and sprinted to the front of the carts.

Blain jumped from his bird as well, trying to run to where Lila had disappeared around the bulk of a wagon. He caught up with her just as Stave embraced the girl in a fatherly hug. "Perfectly safe," the bounty hunter announced proudly, hands on his hips. "Just as I promised."

The burly trader patted his daughter off in the direction of her mother, turning to the dusty young man. "It appears you do have a speck of honor, rabble pup," Stave's edged voice was overshadowed by his wide welcoming grin. "I suppose I can trust you. But that doesn't mean I have to like you." Blain smiled as the older man clapped a large arm onto his back in a friendly gesture. Stave laughed gruffly and spoke in a jolly voice. "We were just about to journey to the campfire of the Figaro Clan. I would be delighted to have you and Lila join us."

Pleased by Stave's newfound hospitality towards him, Blain gladly accepted.

****

"Nice to meet you, Phillip," there was a sparkle in Garth's eye that the knight couldn't quite decipher. The eldest Figaro seemed friendly enough, though his friend Hagol seemed rather ill-tempered. The second man had stood there glaring at the warrior ever since he had arrived with Gwen. The girl now stood proudly next to Phillip, talking to her father.

"We are going to battle the Espers tomorrow," she announced, the two clansmen recoiling in shock.

"You can't, Gwen," Figaro pleaded. "Those monsters will destroy you."

"I have made up my mind, father," she replied with pride. "I shall not leave Phillip's side again. This is my decision and I will not falter." Startling slightly, it appeared to the Anchyron knight that the clanswoman had remembered something. She frowned slightly and winced as she again spoke. "I regret to tell you, however, that I failed in my quest."

Hagol grunted something about insolence and punishment, crossing his arms angrily across his chest. Garth almost seemed to be stifling laughter. "Failed?" he asked. "It appears, my daughter, as just the opposite."

"What are you talking about?" Jak interrupted, jumping up from where he had been standing on the floor. "We didn't find whatever it was we were supposed to come back with."

"Come back with?" Figaro chuckled. "A strong will, bravery, pride, and sureness of action? I think Gwen has come back with more than I expected. Though she had many of these qualities before, she has now tempered them and is ready to lead our clan." The aging man smiled widely, hugging his daughter proudly. "Our clan will follow you into battle. You must be extra careful, however. Espers are no mountain wolves." He laughed again, as if there was a joke that he couldn't expel from his mind. "Come back with? Honestly, dear, did you figure that I wanted a rat's tail or some such?"

Gwen put on a mock frown and crossed her arms. Her Imp had joined in the laughter, forgetting completely that he had been more convinced than the girl. Hagol even allowed a few chuckles, moving closer to Phillip and doing so much as to smile at the warrior. It wasn't long until the young woman was laughing as well; the jovial moment being infectuous.

****

Blain sat behind Lila, holding her closely to his chest. The girl leaned back against her bounty hunter, smiling happily and staring wistfully at the campfire only a few feet away. Snow had fallen that afternoon, so the two youths had a blanket wrapped tightly around themselves. Lila was pleased to be back with her family, and she was even more happy to be there in Blain's embrace. She watched as the flames licked at the inky surroundings, never thinking of the immense power she could wield with the Magicite. Here in these comfortable surroundings such thoughts could not enter.

The young man pulled the young woman closer. After a long, hard journey they had finally arrived back safely with her parents. In less than twenty-four hours, however, they would again plunge into battle against the beasts which had plagued the land for sixteen years. The bounty hunter wondered if it was at times like this that military men evaluated their lives and emotions. His mind was certainly plodding along a similar course. Blain winced at the thoughts of what the next day might hold, wishing only to stay with Lila forever in peace. Her power gave her the responsibility to fight, however, and that meant that the young man would have to fight as well. He also chose to fight with a brave warrior like Phillip, and as much as he would have denied it, he fought for the sake of humanity as well.

The warmth of the campfire spread across Lila's skin, relieving her with its orange glow. It crackled and popped, tiny sparks rising like fairies into the night sky. She felt the softness of the blanket against her skin, and the firm yet gentle embrace that Blain held her in. She smiled and nuzzled against her bounty hunter.

Lila's subtle scent filled the young man's senses, overpowering the strong smell of burning that the fire emitted. He kissed the girl's forehead and snuggled her as his mind wandered. Discovering something inside himself, Blain spoke. "Lila?"

"Hm?" the sound was tiny and cute. All the same, it came off as attractive. Blain ignored this alluring quality of the response and continued.

"I love you too."

Smiling, Lila nuzzled further into her lover's chest. She was comfortable and happy....and Blain loved her.

****

Not far away from that very same campire, a distraught man huddled in a blanket and looked down from a rocky ledge. The smoky smell of the fire entered his nose and greeted his senses with a sizzle. King Anchyron spat bitterly on the ground, turning his gaze from the fire to the man sitting at his side. "They destroyed everything, Doma," he droned in a failing voice. "They killed her."

"Everything shall be fine," the Eastern king responded soothingly. He worried about his old friend but was by no means about to announce that. "The Empire is assembled fully, now. We will rise tomorrow and crush the Espers. Then all shall be right."

"Shall it?" Anchyron sat up taller in an abrupt jolt. Bile burned his throat and he choked it roughly. "My soul has been hollowed out, my friend. I am an empty man now. Always stay true to your just heart...don't become like me."

"Don't be ridiculous, Anchyron," the second king replied, a slight stern tone entering his voice. "You are just as noble as I am. You are far more decorated as a military man."

"Don't humor me. Even in awards you are not far behind. I am a coward. A horrible coward who is only idolized in fantasy. I am more like Edwin than you seem to know."

King Doma frowned, not pleased at seeing his friend act in such a way. It was a pity for a noble man to disintegrate into such a creature. "I hope that your warrior spirit will pull you from your despair." The lord of the East stood and walked away; the silent Garamonde following closely, his head bowed.

****

Phillip stretched out in the tent, clad in his undertunic. He had stowed his heavy armor in the corner of the dwelling, readying himself for slumber. The soft sounds of nighttime filled the knight's ears as he shut his eyes. The thick blankets that he had been given provided much warmth as he wrapped them around his body. It had been a good several nights since Phillip had been able to sleep without his bulky armor on, and his joints rejoiced silently.

A shadow fell across the tent entrance, and the young man sat up quickly. The flap slowly opened and a female face poked through, topknot undone to allow hair to cascade about her shoulders. The first thoughts in Phillip's mind gave him a thousand reasons why Gwen was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. She giggled as though his thoughts were splayed out on a scroll.

"Why are you here?" it was all he could do not to stutter.

"I finally managed to ditch the Imp," she replied, a wry grin on her face. "So that we could be alone." Gwen closed the tent flap behind herself and strode to the knight, sitting down next to him. Her slender figure had never seemed so beautiful to the young man as it did at this moment. He flushed and she giggled upon noticing. "I'm really glad that we met."

"S-so am I," the stutter couldn't be avoided. "I care a lot for you, Gwen." Phillip looked deeply into her eyes, somehow not surprised by what he saw. Before he had a chance to speak again, their lips were connected in an embrace of the souls. He absent-mindedly moved his hands to her waist where he carressed her lower back. She made an approving sound.

"You always treated me as an equal," Figaro continued once her mouth had been returned to conscious thought. "Another warrior....not just some half-naked girlchild."

"You are a warrior," Phillip smiled, his hands moving higher on her back. "You are also a beautiful young woman. However, I have always believed that the latter deserved the most respect."

Flattered, the clanswoman let out a contented sigh. She smiled, brushing her hair away for another kiss. This time the young man's hands worked to remove her top garment, an action whose success was not the least bit uncomfortable. Gwen took her turn to remove her partner's upper tunic, smiling alluringly as she did so. The two embraced once more, Phillip feeling the woman's soft white skin press against his chest. He fell back into a lying position, engrossed in a passionate kiss.

Breaking the bond for a moment, Gwen slid underneath her lover's blankets. "I love you," she spoke sincerely.

"I love you too," Phillip wrapped his arms tightly around the clanswoman and kissed her deeply once more. He was more than relieved that his emotions were no longer veiled. The young man was glad that dawn was a long time in coming.

THE BEGINNING

As the sun set the following day, the Empire arrived at the battlefield. They had spread both soldiers and Magi alike in a thick war column formation. The valley lead up an incline before them, spreading out into harsh cliffs not far beyond. The rocky outcroppings rose high above them on all sides but behind. The many troops had halted their march and awaited the battle call.

Espers spread out across the rocky mountains of Narshe. With a signal from their masters, the beasts collided in the rage of war. Doom smiled to himself as he observed the chaos, the moment of truth finally approaching. His own creations fighting against those of his siblings; it was beautiful. Goddess was greatly disappointed that Poltergeist had chosen to fight against her as well, but tried to lead her own Espers primarily against those of Doom. The horrible din of monsters clashing inspired fear in the humans below.

Near the rear of the Empire forces, another army had gathered. Clad in furs and decorated in war paint, the Figaro clan had gathered to fight for their land. The nomads had dubbed the world itself as their homeland, and would fight until their last breath to preserve it. Those clansmen who were unnable to procure weapons had been armed with whatever other useful tools were available. They stood with more pride than even the finest soldiers of the army.

The soldiers of the Empire began to get restless. Seeing the monsters rip at one another on the plateau above wasn't increasing morale. Mumbled comments could be heard amongst the ranks, even a few generals chancing a word or two. One spearman asked a blademaster if he had seen the things commanding the Espers. The swordsman replied that those must have been the Goddesses, and all the men standing within earshot inwardly trembled. It was easy to shout and curse at a foe that one had never seen, but very much more difficult to stand and watch that same foe demonstrate his power.

Seeing their king ride out to the front, the men were silenced. Anchyron was flanked by King Doma and the proud knight Garamonde. The figurehead of the west faced those who fought under him, his face grim and his attitude less pleasant. "Men," he didn't bother to shout, and had no care as to whether or not he was heard. Doma concentrated on looking confident, as did the stoic knight opposite him. "We are gathered here to do battle with the darkness that has pocked our land for far too long. Our Empire is a just cause and shall triumph over the evil that has met us here today." Knowing that the true darkness was in men's souls, the king turned his mount and charged into battle, shouting a great call. The warriors behind him followed.

In the midst of a struggle, the Esper Shoat noticed the humans' charge. The giant warthog snorted gruffly and turned to face their ranks, redirecting his attack to the soldiers. He descended quickly down the cliffs to the valley, his vision red with the anticipation of a slaughter.

King Anchyron smiled in bitter hatred as the Esper beast reared to charge him. It looked like a giant warthog, cruel tusks curving to point upward. The once noble man was unsure whether his rage was for the Espers or for himself. The monster who had killed his wife and destroyed his kingdom had not been an Esper. Espers did not rely on greed or lies to achieve greatness. The great magical beasts only relied on the urge to destroy. The man let loose a great roar, leaping from his chocobo while at the same time yanking the reins sharply so that the bird would escape injury in the charge. He mustered all his skill to draw his sword from its sheath and land in a sprint. Anchyron's eyes reflected contempt for the world-shattering monster before him.

Shoat grunted at the foolishness of these mortals, running towards a battle they had nothing to do with in the first place. Sticking their noses in places that they didn't belong was about to destroy them. The warthog let out a great squeal and leapt into the air, smashing roughly to the ground in the middle of the Empire's forces.

Having been affected by the beast's spell just as he had expected, King Anchyron raised his sword high above his head and let out a great cry. The disillusioned royalty welcomed death's icy fingers, hoping to inspire his men with his final roar. He felt his skin dry and crack, and stood proudly as his muscles became heavy. Becoming no more than a statue, Anchyron stood as a silent sentinel to the carnage that was about to rip through the valley and to the rocky ledges towering above. Just as everything he cared for had done, the leader of the west had turned to stone.

****

Ultros amused himself for a moment watching the humans run up the hill towards the middle of the Esper battle. When the beasts had seen them and charged, almost half the Empire forces bolted away from the melee. The Esper's violet robes billowed and pulled against him in the wind. The storm got stronger at the higher altitude, and its power somehow made the cloaked figure grin. He flourished his hands and called across to a figure positioned on the opposite side of the valley.

Thanatos drew his sword, watching the darkness shimmer on its blade in the failing sunlight. His polished ebony armor gleamed in a similar manner, only serving to make his already imposing figure even more frightening. His wide shoulder guards shifted as he turned to Zarthes. "Release your dragons," he commanded. "I think that the humans will appreciate a more damageable adversary. Give them a false sense of hope." With a wave of his hand, the dragon master had deployed his beasts, the reptiles shrieking away on the wind.

A shadow slinked to the Death Esper's side, darkness taking shape to become the lithe figure of Gaia. Thanatos smiled slyly. "I'm pleased you could join us, assassin."

The dark Esper ignored the displeasing sound that Zarthes had managed and hissed a reply. "I would not miss this."

"I am glad," his dragon's skull helmet reaching skyward, Thanatos removed his cloak so that the full of his armor would be revealed. The thick plates were blacker than night itself and radiated the presence of evil. Tasting the promise of blood, Gaia hissed in anticipation and turned his attention to the humans below. Zarthes shifted unneasily, keeping his whip close at hand for any opportunity that might arise to put the assassin in his place.

A call reached Thanatos on the wind, and the Death Esper looked to the ledge opposite his. The recognizable form of Ultros smiled back at him, a look of sureness on the purple hooded face. The black armored being called back. "You are a fool to have challenged me!"

"A fool, Thanatos?" Ultros cackled madly. "You shall not walk away from this battle!"

Before the Esper of death could manage a retort, he noticed something emerging from behind his opponent. There was a hideous pink beast lumbering its way through the air. A huge grin of sharp fangs plastered his horned head, and there was a second face near the monster's yellow back end. "T-Typoon!" Thanatos was taken aback and unnable to hide his shock. "How is it that Typoon fights with you? He was one of Doom's greatest Espers and died over a decade ago."

"It seems that Typoon's Magicite had been stored away in Doma," the wizard Esper clenched his fists to keep from crying out in victory. "Mr. Chupon here liberated the gem for me. He had started to fuse with it, however, so I helped along his transformation." Chupon shook with deep, grating laughter. Ultros looked back at him, smiling insanely, and let out a few chuckles. "Before I destroy you, how about we have a one-on-one fight to whet our appetites?"

Thanatos could not believe his eyes. Somehow a mere human had harnessed the power of Typoon and was now allied with Ultros. The Death Esper raised his sword high in challenge. "Zarthes, Gaia," he spoke to his servants. "Meet Ultros' dregs below on that ledge nearer the humans."

Nodding in agreement, the two dark Espers descended to battle with their opponents.

To start the ball rolling, Ultros waved his hand and sent a strong bolt of energy hurtling towards his nemesis.

****

Phillip tumbled to the ground, flung by the force of an energy beam far overhead. He leapt to his feet quickly and continued his charge, slashing a few of the smaller approaching Espers. He didn't worry about killing them, only about wounding them. It was the way of battle to do as much damage as one could in a single swoop, leaving the wounded enemy to be slain by the soldiers behind. The knight had been pleased to see that the "guns" apparently were effective against Espers, and so trusted the troops behind him to take care of the Espers he cut down.

Ragnarok sang through the air, striking home in the flesh of attacker after attacker. The thought had occurred to the young man to use discretion as to which Espers he cut down. By no means did he desire the death of Goddess' forces. The consideration had soon been dashed by the necessity of self defense, however. Phillip was being drawn near to the peak of the mountain. He wasn't sure what summoned him to that spot, but he fixed his eyes to the destination. Perhaps he would meet with his destiny at last. Seeing that there were no Espers in the immediate vicinity, the knight chanced a gaze to try and locate Gwen. He smiled when he saw her, stopping for a moment to silently wish her luck. Phillip continued on his way.

****

Gwen Figaro ducked underneath a swinging tail, much thicker around than many people she knew. The clanswoman leapt into midair and flipped to face the opposite direction, deflecting a talon with the shaft of her spear. "You okay over there, Blain?" she asked while driving her weapon into a dragon.

"I'm getting really used to fighting these things, if that's what you mean."

The young woman smiled despite the situation. The two warriors had changed the direction of their charge to meet the seething wave of dragons that Zarthes had unleashed. The beasts fought ferociously, seeming to be more fierce than the previous encounters. Blain's dagger flashed past Figaro's forehead, and she blinked as a clawed foot fell to the ground.

"Watch your head or you'll lose it," the bounty hunter advised with a large faked grin. "Daydreaming about Phillip won't help you here."

Insulted, Gwen frowned while she flipped over an approaching reptile. "I was not daydreaming about Phillip." It was true. If anything, she was remembering the previous night that she had spent with the knight. It was the most beautiful moment of her life, and the very next day she had been presented with the fear that it would all come to an end. Wars brought out strange feelings in all involved. "At least I'm not mooning over Lila."

"I'd hope not," Blain replied as his dagger sunk into the scaled skin of a blue dragon. "I don't like being in competition with my friends."

****

Lila had somehow escaped the watchful eye of Blain, and she wasn't sure she enjoyed being alone in the chaos. She had been using her Magicite to strike down whichever Espers strayed far enough from their personal battles to attack her. Stave had given her potions that would restore magical energy, and they clanked at her waist in flasks. She uncorked one dose quickly and took a small sip. There was a screeching noise behind the girl and she spun around, a frightened look projecting her feelings.

Through the death throes of a fire Esper, an unclad female Esper emerged. Her skin was a soft blue color and there was a similarly colored gem clasped in her hand. Her hair had the appearance of crystalized water. Her voice was calm, yet emotionless. "Hello."

The girl's mouth quivered, not sure if it had been her imagination. "Hi," she managed a tiny wave to accompany her words.

A great flapping sound announced the entrance of another Esper. This one had a serpentine tail, but appeared to be a feathered bird. Instead of skin, the creature had large dragonlike scales. Its mouth was a sharp hooked beak.

"Tritoch," the blue Esper said with a tone close to anger. "You are not long for this world."

"Your heart is colder than your powers, Shiva." The great scaled bird drew back his neck, craning to attack. The Esper he had called Shiva threw her crystal before her and a blizzard emerged from it. The cold winds whipped against her opponent with little result other than an accumulation of snow. Lila sensed that her help was necessary.

The human girl gripped the Mist Magicite firmly in her hands. Lila again felt the sensation of floating inside a great, cool expanse. It was light all around her, but there were hard walls that blocked her progression to the expanse that she could see beyond. The stray thought that it would require more than a simple spell to vanquish Tritoch floated through the expanse with her. The girl was clueless as to where it had come from. She concentrated harder, finally expanding her power outwards and shattering the walls that confined her.

Trembling with the gem in her hands, Lila opened her eyes. The temperature nearby had dropped especially low, and it had become hard to see on account of a thin mist that was rapidly distributing itself. Looking up, the young woman mustered all her strength to avoid screaming. There was a pristine white dragon hovering almost right on top of her. The beast made no noise, but opened its mouth and attacked Tritoch with icy breath.

The Esper twisted and bellowed. "No, human...you do not know--" Tritoch struggled against the cold. The creature's scaly skin was prominently blue now, and it seemed almost too stiff to move about. Ice began to form across its body. "You are making a mistake. You are being--" The great serpentine bird had been silenced by a prison of ice. The mass made a crunching noise as it fell to the earth and settled in the thick snow.

"Tritoch was right, you know," Shiva replied icily, turning to face Lila. "You WERE tricked." The female Esper again raised the gem that she held. The young human consciously felt the disappearance of the Mist Dragon, and somehow knew it could not help her. The gem in Shiva's hand sparkled mysteriously, a low hum could be heard.

Lila covered here eyes as a somewhat familiar screech was sounded. A great heat met the girl's skin. When the young woman opened her eyes, she saw that Shiva had fallen. Where the ice Esper had hovered now floated another bird like creature, this one with great wings of flame. The fire Esper that she had slain had risen from its ashes to claim justice. After a brief moment and another victory scream, Phoenix flew off to a different part of the battle. The girl brushed herself off best she could and frowned. The ice cocoon of Tritoch glimmered in the light that the stars had begun to cast as night had fallen. It was a horrible thing, human ignorance. A single tear froze itself to Lila's face.

****

Keith tried to clear his nose but failed. The chill had numbed most of his body, and he stumbled as he attempted to walk. The scholar had heard of the Esper attack and Anchyron's plans and had stolen a chocobo to ride to the battle. Midway into the mountains, however, the bird had frozen and died, and the man had been forced to continue on foot. Finally arriving at the great battle, Keith was more than a little worse for wear.

A bandanna whipped about the man's mouth, now frozen to his face from moisture. His vision was obscured by both the great blizzard and his own scarf, pulled up high in a vain attempt at more warmth. Realizing he had tumbled head first into a snowpile, the scholar fought his way stiffly to his feet and battled to stride onward.

Keith still had never caught glimpse of an Esper, and was sure that he would see more than enough at this battle. Once this happened, he could better evaluate what exactly Espers were and would then begin his in-depth study. He believed his findings would be monumental and serve to educate millions. Still, the scholar had never seen an Esper. It was a pity, as Keith also failed to see the lithe shadowed Esper that glided behind him, stabbing its long dagger claws into his back. He wept to himself, sensing his failure as the warmth of blood spread across his skin.

****

Zarthes growled a primal growl and slashed outwards with his whip. The end snapped, doing little to the shadow skin of DoomGaze. The battle had been going fine until Gaia had decided to slink away for no reason. The Dragon Master grunted, stabbing a hunting dagger into Phunbaba's thick hide. It snapped off at the handle, leaving cold steel deep in the monster's flesh.

The lumbering green creature had been at Zarthes' mercy when all of a sudden, the Esper felt DoomGaze's long talons in his neck. It was then that the armored figure realized that his partner had vanished higher up the mountain. The dragon master now struggled to stop two monsters with unsatiable rage.

The creature of darkness drove sharp claws into the Esper's chest; claws that tore through the thick armor and struck cold flesh. The green brute then smashed at Zarthes with his muscular fists, remembering the pain that had been inflicted earlier. Phunbaba gnashed his teeth through one of the Dragon Keeper's arms.

Zarthes screamed in agony, dropping his weapon and trying to push his attackers away. He called to Thanatos, hoping that his master would come to his aid, though no aid ever came. It was only a few moments before the Esper fell to the slashing and clawing of Ultros' monsters. When the task was finished the two victors lumbered and floated away, searching for more death to feed their hunger.

****

Jak had managed to position himself at a vantage point high above the battle. The tiny Imp watched from his hiding place as a small blue creature with a splayed tail and a ruby eye cast a glowing barrier around his companion Espers. The magical attacks from other Espers and the Magi alike were deflected harmlessly. The strange Esper flew past, floating underneath the Imp's platform of rock.

"No you don't," Jak growled, rolling himself off the outcropping and drawing his knife. He drove the blade into the creature's chest when they collided in midair. Carbunkle wheeled and spun in his flight, smashing headfirst into a cliff face. The Imp and the Esper tumbled into the fluffy snow below.

****

Doom spread his bat-like wings and grinned maniacally at the chaos that was ensuing below. His muscular chest shook as he let out a bellowing laugh, shaking peices of earth away from the mountain itself. The Esper's voice shook the earth when he spoke. "A beautiful masterpeice."

"You are twisted," Goddess spat, grimacing in pity as she watched the humans fighting valiantly in vain. "You are the cause of all this madness."

Contrasting the benevolent and gentle voice of his sister, the ebony being laughed once more. "It is foolish to scold the cat for catching mice."

"An adage I hardly expected to hear from your cursed lips, dear brother," with the clanking of his crimson armor, Poltergeist approached the two. He folded his wings onto his back, doing little to decrease his imposing size. His large halberd was gripped firmly in the wise being's hands. Poltergeist eyed the scene through the slits of his spiked helm.

He turned to face Goddess, frowning deeply. The glowing female did not withdraw, but stood up straighter than she had been previously. Poltergeist shook his head. "I am disappointed in you."

"Because I couldn't sit still and watch Doom destroy the humans and the world that they worked hard for?"

"Worked hard? Bah!" Doom made a grumbling noise. "They came upon the earth and began to reap it for everything it had. They deserve to fall like chaff under the blade just as they are doing this night."

"Then what shall you do?" Poltergeist interrupted. "What use to you is a burnt world that you helped to destroy? Is chaos and annihilation that key to your existence?" Neither of his siblings spoke. Turning his body to better view the horrific battle, the wise being wore a look of indifference. "Let us watch together and await the outcome of our actions."

Many things happened as the Goddesses watched the undoing of their own creations. Chimeras and angels worked to cure their companions, while sirens sang and golems protected. Yura dove at the small fairies that were draining Maduin's strength. Together, the two demons ripped into Magma, tearing his flowing skin away into nothingness. They fought bravely for their Goddess, facing all adversaries and letting none walk away.

There was a great burst of water, and Leviathan screamed into the air. The tidal wave carried the serpent into the main thrust of the battle. Like a flash, Bahamut's talons were gripping the softly scaled skin of the lord of the deep. The two dragons battled, lunging and tearing at one another. Each beast roared and snapped with their teeth. Leviathan attempted to wrap himself around his attacker, halting the attack when Bahamut landed a gash all the way down the serpent's tail. Breathing a fire burst to finish the kill, the great dragon flapped his wings and began to fly away.

Without warning, a great shadow settled onto the Esper and he thrashed wildly. Claws sunk into Bahamut's eyes and teeth set upon his neck. The flesh rended with a terrible ripping. He tried to counter with his claws and tail but it was no use. DoomGaze had defeated the king of dragons. The Esper tenaciously attempted to fight back as the darkness consumed him.

****

Several energy beams of varying elements ripped through the night sky, creating assorted light flashes. The humans who used the guns seethed like a living wave as they ran from place to place in the battle. When one of the energy shots connected with an Esper, the beast would become angered and attack the humans responsible. In such a manner, the Empire's ranks were thinning fairly quickly.

The soldiers who used hand weapons rushed on an injured Esper whenever the opportunity presented itself. Somehow they were able to damage the Espers, sometimes killing one before it utterly destroyed them. Most of the warriors who had come with the Empire were either dead, injured, or fleeing. The dedicated remained to fight the monsters, not letting any obstacle deter them from their purpose.

Among the armored masses fought other humans, sometimes clad in no more than a few skins. The Figaro Clan bravely continued on the melee, rushing the beasts with weapons flashing in their bloodied hands. The clansmen deftly darted from one attack to the next, bringing down many an adversary. The monsterous Espers had invaded their current home, and the nomads would fight until their last breath if that's what was necessary to keep their claim.

Garth Figaro and Hagol battled side by side, slashing at the dragons who swooped down to attack. The men fought with renewed vigor as if they were young again. The two clansmen fought without tire, their muscles aching and their bodies crying out for respite. They had a duty to humanity, however, and Figaros always fulfilled a duty.

Near the slope where valley became cliff, Garamonde faced down an Esper. The knight swung his blades in circles, testing his grip and the weight of the swords. His black ponytail blew in a snowy breeze. The brave warrior began his charge and the Esper reared back and fired an energy beam. Bracing for the blow, Garamonde moved his arms from his face and looked about when it never struck. On the snowy ground before him lay King Doma.

"My liege," Garamonde kneeled, offering a hand to aid the king.

When Doma didn't respond, the swordsman turned his friend over, seeing a large patch burned away. The king's armor and cloak had fused to his burnt skin. The knight ignored the reak. "Garamonde...." it was an ordeal for the royal man to speak, but he continued regardless of protest. "You....can't die."

"Your majesty," he wiped the king's brow with part of his cloak. "Why did you step in between that attack and I?"

"I couldn't let you die," Doma let a bit of blood drain from his mouth. He strained to lift his head, but finally admitted defeat and let it fall back to the ground. "You can do far more good than I. I cannot fight these Espers...I am a political man now. You are the greatest swordsman in the land."

It had actually become easier for the injured king to speak. Garamonde had watched enough of his friends die to know that the wise and detached tone signaled death. The knight's lips started to move in argument, but words failed him. With a last peaceful sigh, Doma's eyes closed and his head slacked to one side. Garamonde's face became stoic once more. "My family is forever indebted to yours, my liege." The swordsman bowed solemnly for a long moment before taking up his katanas once more. Before he could move, however, the ground shook and an Esper rose up from the earth. The creature was huge, appearing almost as a living castle. Its metallic joints creaked as it leaned against its thick arms.

"You are honorable, human," it bellowed. "I shall mourn the loss of your king just as you do. Together we will fight for justice." Opening a steel mask similar to the kind that a knight would wear, the Esper emitted a strong laser which caused the ground to erupt in a great blaze.

With a great mournful roar, Garamonde charged up the mountain through the flames to destroy any Esper that opposed him.

****

The duel had gone to no one. Ultros still wore a mad grin, and Thanatos scowled angrily at his nemesis. It was only a matter of time before Typoon's power was unleashed, and the Death Esper was unsure what he would do once that moment came. His answer was fast approaching, as the violet robed Esper ceased his attack.

"Thanatos," Ultros' face fell into a straight expression, though the sparkle was still gleaming in his eye. "Though my friend is rather taciturn, it appears you've angered him." The bellowing chuckle again came from Chupon, who bounced up higher into the air and inhaled a great breath. The pink marshmallow-like beast heaved a great exhale, shifting the direction of the tempest itself and driving it towards Thanatos.

The armored figure drove his black sword into the ground, hoping to hold his position. His response time was almost too sluggish to raise the blade back into the air to deflect Ultros' attack. At last the purple Esper's strategy had been revealed. Thanatos' eyebrows furrowed in hopelessness. Ultros would continue to barrage him with energy blasts while he was busy battling with Chupon's gusts. Sooner or later the sword would be in the wrong place at the wrong time and the Death Esper would at last be vanquished.

Thanatos realized that the power he had sought so long to attain was now out of his reach. Only the death he had controlled remained to claim him. Not about to let Ultros have the satisfaction of watching him yield, the Esper with armor like night itself fought onward. Blocking the energy and fighting against the tempestuous gale, Thanatos tired. Finally the moment had arrived, and one of Ultros' attacks struck home. The Esper faintly felt his body collide with the ground, and felt the lifeless chill of the snow. He remembered his dragon skull helm shattering on the ground somewhere, and a warm pain in his head. From a detached place somewhere between life and the abyss, Thanatos heard the shouts of battle and knew when his body had turned cold. His last memory of the living world had been the horrible bellowing chuckle of Chupon.

Insane laughter erupted from Ultros' lips. The Esper raised his hands to the night sky and shouted victory. His deep purple robes billowed around him in the strong wind, his chest heaving in great gasps that fed his laughter. Doom's favor was now his. Grinning contemptuously to himself, Ultros hoped that the great ebony-skinned being had seen the entire battle. The Esper hoped that his master had seen his victory.

****

Blain whiped the blade of his dagger as the wyvern in front of him slumped to the ground. He looked down to where he had heard a squeak and saw Jak. The Imp was confused, stumbling away from a bout with an Esper that resembled a black cat. The bounty hunter smacked the creature's cheeks gently until he came around. "You okay?"

"Uh.....I'm.....great?"

"Gwen! Yer little pal here is drunk."

Figaro trotted over to them, spearing a snow wolf who had prowled close to the scene hoping for an easy hunt. Under the female's gaze, Jak promptly fell over in a snoring heap. She giggled lightly and picked him up, putting his body into the leather pouch at her side so that his tiny Impish head hung out. Jak's small purple beak emitted snoring noises.

"I think the battle is pretty much finishing up down here," the clanswoman said, looking at the dragon carcasses and checking the skies for any more. "Everything left is Esper...meaning we can't do much." She attempted to wipe her skin off, but did little more than smear the dragon's blood that stained her body. "I think I'll go and try to find Phillip. Maybe you should look for Lila." Imp sleeping at her side, Gwen Figaro charged up the mountain to find the man that she loved.

Blain didn't have to run off looking for his love, however. His gaze was fixed on a fantastic spectacle, and all he could do in response was yell. "LILA!"

****

On a ledge high above, Lila had pushed her body up against the rocky cliff itself. She didn't hear the young man below calling her name, as she was concentrating on the Esper that had just emerged a hundred yards away. The creature resembled a cobra, albeit a cobra that had been enlarged about twenty times. It hissed, rattling the ground, and slammed its tail down. Great chasms opened up as tremors shook the mountain. In several places, the surface crumbled down into hidden chambers beneath the cliffs.

Terrato slithered to a new area and repeated the process, gradually destroying the hill and hoping to bury humans and opposing Espers alike. Lila realized that this earthquake Esper would take more than a few lightning bolts to destroy. Her mind drifted back to the Mist Dragon she had summoned earlier and her thin fingers closed around the Indra Magicite.

Concentrating, the young woman emersed herself in the jewel and brought out the powers hidden within. A bearded man appeared, clad in long flowing robes. He lifted a wand above his head and the clouds above congregated. Many bolts of lightening struck down to the earth, smashing into the snake Esper and charging its body with electricity. Charred into ash, the ground underneath Terrato gave way and he tumbled into nothingness.

An exhausted Lila collapsed to her knees and breathed heavily. She was too numb to feel the cold bite of the snow on her hands. When she opened her eyes, however, the bearded Esper was still present. She rubbed her face purposefully and looked again before noticing that his robes were a different color from Indra's.

"I am Ramuh," the Esper spoke in a knowing voice. "You have my thanks for allowing me to see my old friend one last time. I no longer fight to destroy other Espers, but for the sake of humanity." In a streak of lightning, Ramuh was gone.

Lila smiled and collapsed to the ground, her breath heaving in gasps. The battle was not yet over, but there was no more she could do. The girl had downed all of the tincture potion in order to use what magic she had, and now there was no strength yet to use it. The young woman rose to a sitting position, waiting for Blain to arrive at her position. She knew that the bounty hunter was coming, as she had somehow seen him running up the cliff when she had been using the Magicite. Huddled in her own warmth, Lila smiled. She would kiss Blain when he arrived.

****

The Esper seemed to be forged from darkness itself. Shifting like a shadow, Gaia hissed angrily and allowed his long claws to glisten in the moonlight. The human before him wielded a sword that could harm Espers, and thus would present a challenge. For more than sixteen years Gaia had searched for a human that would present a challenge. The demon had finally reached his goal.

Phillip stood now at the second highest peak of the mountain. It had taken him a long time to get there, and when he did the shadow seethed and formed into a lithe humanoid shape. An Esper of darkness now bobbed in front of him, shifting back and forth into the darkness. The knight frowned and gripped his sword tightly. He would be ready when the creature decided to strike.

The young man didn't have to wait long. Gaia leapt in as if reading Phillip's thoughts and struck with an outstretched claw. Ragnarok had deflected it and swung in seeking the taste of flesh. The Esper had blocked that strike and swung in with his full left hand. The knight managed to duck and swing the blade back around over his head to strike. There was a loud clang every time the Esper's claws met with the steel of the sword.

The duel continued for several minutes, neither participant tiring any great deal. Gaia finally ceased his advance, retreating a few steps and beginning to speak. "It's too bad," he hissed with a forked tongue. "About your father."

Phillip's only response was to clench his fists and glare angrily. This beast had no right to speak of such a brave man. There was a grunt as one of the demonic fire Espers that the knight had seen so long ago topped the mountain and flew a small distance away.

Gaia grinned devilishly and continued, his body shifting to hide in the darkness. "Back in those days we didn't kill the humans. We created Espers out of them." The young man didn't understand, and his scowling face said so. The Esper grinned even wider, the glint in his eye sparkling. "See Ifrit over there?"

Phillip glanced quickly, not wanting to risk treachery near those long glistening claws. He nodded in ascent.

"Ifrit was your uncle."

Realizing the ramifications of that statement and the result of his first battle with Espers, Phillip leapt forward in rage. Each successive strike was deflected, but Gaia didn't have a chance to retaliate. The knight eventually saw the error of his vengeful tactic and calmed, not wanting to risk a careless mistake. The Esper's claws swung dangerously close to the young man's face on more than one occasion. The dark Esper had retained his wry grin until the moment when he had been struck by Ragnarok. The wound made a slight sizzling sound, the shadow trying desperately to mend its wound.

The sly smile turned quickly to a rage-filled scowl. Gaia's fangs shone from his black mouth and his claws moved with twice their previous speed. After a powerful barrage, Phillip's blade was ripped from his hands and careened over the cliff, down into the chasm below. Gaia spat a bitter laugh and advanced, driving his dagger claws into Phillip's chest. The knight slumped forward, resting on the Esper's own hand until he was scraped off and fell into the snow.

The proud warrior forced himself to stand on shaking legs already devoid of feeling. He lunged clumsily at the dark Esper, blinking in confusion when the shadow dissipated and reformed behind him. The cruel cackle of the Esper echoed in the boy's ears as he fell too his knees in the pure white snow. There was a far away shout, and in moments Phillip was being embraced. Tears stung his face in the cold night air. They were Gwen's tears.

The woman cradled the warrior in her arms, brushing the frozen hair away from his face. The knight felt the blood dripping from his wound turn to ice as well, prickling the inside of his body. He smiled, choking out a chuckle at the fact that he could tell when certain areas of his body shut down. It seemed that now only his eyes could work. Phillip blinked.

"Phillip," sound had returned to Gwen's lips, which the knight had watched move without noise only moments before. Hearing was again gone, but returned promptly enough. "Please don't die. I love you."

"I love you too," to the man's surprise, there was no choking of words. His voice seemed strangely clear; only blocked by the chill of his vocal chords. "My father...."

"Yes," Gwen smiled, trying to make herself believe it would be okay. "You have fought Espers just like your father. You battled Espers."

"Espers....like father," a sob wracked Phillip's frame and tears burned in his eyes. He tried to beat the ground with his fist, but numbness prevented him knowledge of whether or not he had succeeded. "Father..."

Gwen was crying now, too. She was huddled down, almost laying on Phillip's chest. Her hands were rubbing his face harder now, and she shook with tears. The young man wanted to comfort the clanswoman and reassure her. She choked out a response, though, tears still streaming down her cheeks despite the cold. "He's proud of you, Phillip. I'm proud of you."

The knight of Anchyron lifted his arms to embrace his lover. The corners of his lips turned upwards in a slight smile and he opened a frozen mouth to speak. Before the words came, however, his life had gone. Gwen had watched his eyes close and his body give a final shudder. The young woman knelt in the snow, huddling over the body of her knight. She cried, the warm tears washing ice off of her face as they fell onto Phillip's body.

****

The snow of the valley had been trampled by a thousand feet or burned away by an errant energy blast. The slush had now mixed in with mud and was a mixture of dirty gray and brown. Every few feet there would be a red streak from a fallen body or a gaping wound. It was silent here where the humans had begun their charge. The battle had moved further up the mountain and left memories of them behind. The near silent crunch of canine feet interrupted the quiet as the mountain wolves stalked onto the scene to feed on the dead.

Further up the cliff, where the slopes became cluttered with rocks and rough footing, Larson put his hands on his knees and breathed deeply. Having nearly escaped a dragon, the commander had lost his weapon in the snow bank. A few feet away, he noticed the dead body of the Empire General fallen in the snow; head smashed in like a dropped melon. The gilded hilt of the ATMA sword rested in the snow, having fallen from the slain officer's hand.

The lower ranking soldier wiped his eyes, staring at the opportunity before him. The chance to slay Espers and become a hero. Larson leaned down and took the ATMA sword in his trembling grip, concentrating. The blue laser blade buzzed into existence, standing only half its regular size and flickering from visibility. Before the soldier could ponder why it seemed to have such low power, an Esper slammed into him from behind and he smashed into the ground. Life left Larson too quickly for the man to realize it was gone.

ATMA's hilt landed in the snow with a muffled thud at the feet of a Magi. Eyfas stood in shock from the violent scene before him and grasped the handle, placing the weapon into his sachel. The robed man fearfully waved his hand, signaling to the engineers who had come with the Empire to the battle. They all knew what the signal meant, and began to run back down the mountainside to the bottom.

Ignoring the bodies of the fallen warriors and the hungry growls of the wolves, Magi and engineers alike descended. They stopped when they reached a large mound, covered in a thick cloth. After much tugging and pulling they removed the cover, revealing the creature beneath. The terrifying sight inspired fear even in those who had helped to create it. Huge tendons twisted along the skin of the great weapon. Sharp teeth glistened inside of the gaping maw. Spikes jutted from the monster's tail, smaller points showing on its head and back. Great trunklike legs fastened the being to the ground, its eye sockets empty and chest motionless.

Struggling to banish their terror, the engineers began to climb about on ATMA, connecting wires and flicking switches that would give the great creature life. The Magi were silent, concentrating to enchant the beast and spark the flame of existence. When the mechanics had moved to a safe distance, the magic users let loose their spells and there was a burst of light. There was a metallic grating as the gears inside of ATMA started to turn. The beast's front right leg slowly and purposefully rose into the air, slamming down in its very first step. The creature's eyes emitted an eerie white light, glowing as they activated. Tongues of blue-white flame burst forth from ATMA's mouth as it opened its jaws in a great mountain shaking roar.

The clublike tail swung up into the air and violently slammed back down, crushing a large portion of the Magi who had just given life to the creature. The attack left a bloody trail in the air as the tail was again swung upwards. ATMA roared again, smelling the blood it had caused. Its mechanical innards speeding to match its heartbeat, the cruel beast gnashed angrily at the engineers who had approached it. The human bodies crunched in the monster's mouth.

The manmade Esper struggled to reach a running pace and lumbered up the jagged cliff to where the heat of the battle was. Any soldiers who got in the creature's way were smashed into paste underneath its huge clawed feet. ATMA shrieked again, spewing white-hot fire into the chaos of Espers and gun wielding humans. Attacking with long claws and swinging its tail dangerously, ATMA entered the fray.

The hope of mankind had been placed on the shoulders of ATMA: the creature that humans had created, the organism that owed its existence to the people it was built to protect. It had been a great achievement, synthesizing life itself. Though it appeared that when man played God, the creations would strike down heaven. Now the last hope that the humans had to win the war was dashed. ATMA let loose another fiery bellow. Hope and the future were erased in a red rage of anger and hatred.

BOOK THREE

Several decades had passed since the bloody battle in the Narshe mountains. The human side sustained far greater losses than the side of the Espers, but the magical beasts were still much weaker than they had been previously. The dead had been buried where they had fallen, the stone visage of King Anchyron gazing out on them all. King Doma was buried at the statue's right, and the Empire's General was layed on the left. Gwen Figaro had insisted on burying Phillip on the peak where he had been slain. Garamonde returned to Doma where the prince ascended the throne. The Esper Alexander had fought bravely for the eastern kingdom until the Empire found and destroyed him. Blain and Lila returned to the trading caravan and lived with the girl's parents. The happy couple were married only a few months after the battle, and the bounty hunter fulfilled every dream that the young woman ever had. Gwen became the head of the Figaro clan, now a distinguished people for their role in the great massacre. The nomads welcomed the scattered soldiers that had bravely fought with them and moved to the great stretching desert, where they constructed a castle. Built halfway between the two areas, this fortress signified the joining of the great warriors of Anchyron and the wandering clan that had taken residence in Narshe. Gwen herself was a good queen, half-jokingly appointing Jak as her Chancellor. She bore healthy children who ruled justly after her.

The Empire itself fell under new leadership, and fanatically eliminated any Espers that it could. For their betrayal of the great King Anchyron, the Magi were expelled from the Empire's forces and shunned from society. The children of these wizards were greatly feared, as they didn't require Magicite to use magic. Great cullings took place, and the Empire attempted to purge these children from existence. Banding together, the spawn of the Magi dubbed themselves 'Mage Warriors' and founded their own city far away from the rest of civilization. Locked in an eternal path of destruction, ATMA raged on across the countryside. The threat of the manmade demon cast dark shadows of fear across the countryside.

The stone walls of the fortress stood unmoving, torches silently filtering light into the chamber. A shadow drifted along the cold gray wall as Doom strode into the room, his bat wings folded to his sides. Goddess and Poltergeist already stood in the room and they glared at their sibling as he entered. The windows outside indicated that the perpetual tempest was calmed.

"We have caused great destruction," Goddess noted without anger. "We have ripped the world asunder."

"I believe it was the humans who did that," Doom growled with his deep ethereal voice. "The humans and our Espers."

Poltergeist stretched his wings, musing on the destructive ATMA that managed to cast fear even into the hearts of Espers. "When will the mortals learn that when they create something out of rage and hatred, rage and hatred will be all that the creation is capable of?" The crimson armored being strode closer to his ebony skinned brother. "How long do you plan on allowing your monstrosities to run amok?"

Responding to the angered grimace on Doom's face, Goddess interjected. "Because of your meddlings in their world, there are now humans who are born with the ability to use magic. You have succeeded in isolating a portion of mankind's population."

A thought occurred to Poltergeist, and he pondered it aloud. "Mage Warriors are born from the union between two magic users. Generations of these gifted humans have already lived full cycle. The majority of Mage Warriors are currently entering their midlife. For this to be possible, Doom's machinations must have begun far earlier than we suspected."

It was the ebony entity's turn to smile. It was a look of contempt for his siblings, and a grin of triumph for himself. "I have been creating Espers in the human world since before we were banished."

Goddess snapped. In a blind rage, the female rushed her brother and attempted to attack. Doom put up a barrier and dodged to the side for good measure. The woman spun around. "YOU are the cause of our banishment. It is because of you, Doom, that we have been forced to live forever in this bleak, tempest rocked dimension."

"Oh dear Goddess," the sarcasm dripped from the dark figure's words. "You sound as if you dislike it."

The normally benign woman had the urge to summon energy. Enough energy to destroy her brother and this horrible existence that they were forced to deal with. She was such a fool. To stop Doom, she had done the exact thing that had caused their banishment in the first place. Such ignorance as to let her sibling carry on his dark schemes all the while assuming he would reform. It was too much to bear. She spat on the ground uncharacteristically as Doom reminded her of her folly.

"Besides, your Espers were created just as mine were. These Mage Warriors are as much your doing as they are mine."

Poltergeist cut in before Goddess could retaliate. "Well then, Doom," he said coolly; his eyes shut and thoughts tuned to the events of the human world. "You will be pleased to know that one of 'our' Mage Warriors is about to destroy your right-hand servant."

THE DUEL

Two figures stood opposite each other on an island peak slightly off the coast of Thamasa--the town of the Mage Warriors. One was a human, thick red hair mopping his head and forming a thick beard across his face. He was tall and strongly muscled, holding a large sword with both hands. The light blue beam forming the blade of the sword hummed and pulsated slightly. Ebot was the leader of the Mage Warriors, and the wielder of the fabled ATMA sword. His tunic was moist with the sweat of a battle just started, and the sun lent to his beard the apperance of being ablaze.

The second figure was an Esper. An Esper forged from the fires of hell and clad only in shadows. His form flickered and wavered as he stood, the darkness that composed his body shifting from one intensity to another. Gaia groaned a deathly noise, clashing his claws together to create a clanging sound. His evil grin was marked with sharp teeth and the gaze of eyes glowed red. It had been a very long time since this Esper had found a worthy opponent, and this time there would be no playing beforehand.

Gaia had to dodge as the Ebot growled and leapt in swinging his weapon. The Esper could feel the energy coming off of the sword and knew that it would have to be avoided at all cost. The creature of shadow snaked around the warrior and swung with a daggered claw. The man moved away and swung again with his sword. Gaia slinked low to the ground to move away in time, rising back to full height to lunge once more. His manuever as cut short as ATMA forced him to halt and sidestep deftly.

"You'll have to be doing better than that," Ebot chided. The leader of the Mage Warriors grinned a wide smile. The fiery hair lining his face fit his personality well. He lunged in with his blade, swinging it furiously to both attack and defend. Sweat rolled down from his forehead and also slicked the palms of his hands. Most of his people would summon a great spell to destroy the opponent: a blazing explosion or perhaps a meteor. Ebot was different, and always fought with his hand-to-hand skills alone. Realizing he had allowed his mind to stray from the fighting, the human snapped back to reality and slashed downward. Gaia had anticipated the move and snapped a long talon towards the warrior. Ebot retreated several steps and smiled. "Aye...that's more like it." Seeing the beast's hesitation, he added, "You should fear your opponent, not his weapon."

Enraged, the Esper dove straight towards the man and felt an exploding pain as ATMA sliced off two of his claws. Ebot grinned at his success, spitting onto the ground gruffly. Gaia scowled and hissed, no longer caring if he was struck or not. The shadow creature drove his clawed hands through the man's chest until the sharp tips could feel air on the other side. Managing a determined growl, Ebot raised the ATMA sword and used it to slice Gaia in two, the body of darkness slumping to the ground and the claw sliding from the human's chest.

"I have faced thee, demon," Ebot stumbled, supporting his weight by driving the sword into the rocky ground. "Your body lay lifeless before me." The crimson bearded man felt his life fluid gushing down his chest from the horrible wound, stealing the warmth of his body. The leader of the Mage Warriors sunk to his knees, but struggled to raise the blue bladed sword into the air as a final sign of his victory. The sky was red with sunset as Ebot drew his final breath.

DECISIONS

Doom stared at his siblings without emotion. "So we have decided to end this?"

"Yes," Poltergeist replied. "We will bring all of the Espers to this dimension and then seal ourselves forever in stone."

Goddess stared sadly at the ground, shaking her head slowly in disbelief of the situation. "The ones who banished us here are probably laughing." She put her head in her hands and wept. "We have made so many mistakes."

The storm roared to life once again as the three entities opened the huge gate seperating dimensions. "And so it ends," spoke the feather-winged being, halberd at his side. "To atone for our errors we must seal ourselves away from the rest of the world, never again to awaken."

Doom flapped his leather wings angrily up and down, scowling at the entire situation. The ebony skinned figure found his siblings to be fools, running to hide because of a few simple mistakes. If he had his way Doom would continue to ravage the world, destroying the humans until only his Espers remained. Truly then he would have ultimate power, dealing fate to all life on the earth. However, he could not argue with the other two now, and was sure to get no sympathy from either of them. It was true that he had made the mistake of getting them banished to this forsaken rock, and he hated himself for only being able to crack this new world to peices.

Tears streamed down Goddess' face, raining onto her cheeks and sliding down to her neck. The opened gates before her beckened the woman to enter the human's world once again, this time to end the madness her brother had begun. She supposed she truly was just as guilty as he had been, attempting to fight fire with fire and causing the blaze to spread and engulf the world. Her unclad body trembled as she felt the iciness of nothing in the space between dimensions. The once shining light of the mortal realm swallowed her as she entered it, seeing the ravages that Doom had unleashed.

****

The Espers were gathered in great numbers, huddling in a cave where the Goddesses had summoned them. Seething bodies of all shapes, sizes, and colors emitted various noises and struggled to see their masters. The only thing that the creatures were not doing, for once, was tearing at each other's throats.

Goddess stood bravely before them, her glowing skin illuminating the dark reaches of the cavern. It was near Thamasa, where they had gathered; close to the Mage Warriors that they had unconsciously created. For the first time in a great many years, the humans were free from chaos and horror--all the Espers were assembled in this rocky chamber. The female entity motioned the creatures to silence themselves before she spoke. "Espers," her pretty voice had achieved its old peacefulness. "We have gathered you all here today to state our decision." Confused, many of the Espers grumbled amongst themselves. Doom's Espers had just been granted their free will, and were exercising it by shouting some rather cruel remarks.

"We have been a great blight on the land," Poltergeist stepped forward. The arcing blade of his halberd discouraging any protest. "The time has come to atone for our sins by leaving this world forever." For the most part, the Espers of Goddess and her wiser brother were silent, accepting fate as it came. The dark Espers, however, shouted and carried on, some even daring to claw their way towards the great entities. Their punishment was quick: an energy beam to fry their synapsis. "This choice has not come lightly."

Doom stood from the throne shaped rock where he had been seated. An uneasy silence spread across every creature in the room, gazing in fear at the ebony skin of darkness. "Once our task is complete," he began. "We will seal ourselves into stone for eternity. Though the powers all of you wield are too great for this realm, we are the ones who have created you. We must be punished accordingly." There was no sound coming from the throng. Taking this as a sign of acceptance, Goddess motioned to a corner of the large cavern.

Maduin and Yura emerged, dragging a huge crystal cage behind themselves. With a great effort they managed to bring the cage to where the three entities were standing and then take their places on either side of the cage. Inside the gem encrusted cell were several creatures. Eight dragons gnashed and crowded against each other, each beast different than the ones on either side. Also chained in the bars was a huge green-skinned beast with a rounded head and long straight horns. One of its legs was gnarled and a single spike adorned the tip of its tail. The second non-reptile was a being of shadow, his face a cruel grinning skull. The being of darkness had long since been torn in two, and he no longer cared for his bottom half. DoomGaze and Phunbaba lunged at the crystalline columns to no avail.

"These twisted creatures are the designs of Espers," Poltergeist announced in a pitying tone. "The creations of our children seem only twisted and ugly, unnable to do anything but destroy. These are the last dragons remaining from the hordes that Zarthes once commanded." At the mention of the legendary Dragon Master, most of the Espers commented to the others nearby. Every creature present had heard of Thanatos' commander, though that name was also hallowed and feared.

"Again," Goddess quieted the masses. "I restate that we are ending this so that no more mockeries of life shall be created. The cycle of death beings has no place in this world and will be finished here and now." The three entities strode into the crowd of monsters. Each returned to the front with a single being in their care. "We have chosen three of you to be reshaped in our image. These three Espers shall be christened 'Crusader' and will be sealed deep in the earth with these monsters. If ever they should be set free, it will be the task of Crusader to seal them anew." She turned to the trio of selected Espers. "Do you accept this responsibility?"

The three Espers nodded, unnable to deny the sincere wishes of their masters. The great entities concentrated their energies into the figures before them. The one standing nearest Goddess was humanoid to start with, and she became armored and grew long flowing hair. The Esper before Doom changed to a fearsome warrior, its muscles growing and its skin transforming into thick plates of armor. Poltergeist's candidate was morphed into a strange beast, long claws garnering both arms. When the transformations were complete, the powerful Espers strode to the cage without a word.

The entitites continued to concentrate, the energy level in the rocky chamber growing exponentially. A radiating light surrounded the cage, causing it to flicker in and out of view. With a great boom, the cavern shook violently and the crystal bars vanished, as did Crusader and the imprisoned monsters.

With a few grumblings, the crowd of Espers parted to make way for a violet clad being who was cackling insanely. Ultros shouted to the three entities who were now giving him their undivided attention. "You made a huge mistake," the madman shouted. "You sealed those monsters deep in the earth without first capturing me!" His violet robes shook violently as he hopped about the room in a rageful rant. "I shall destroy every last human on the face of the earth. You are crazy to believe that I will lock myself inside that bleak, empty dimension of yours and rot away. You have erred greatly."

"Ultros," Doom sighed a sigh that was mostly growl. He looked away, ashamed of his own creation.

"You wish to dwell in the human world," Poltergeist smiled inwardly, but kept his outer composure strict. "We shall let you." There was a loud crack, and smoke surrounded the purple Esper. When the acrid billow dissipated, the room gasped. Eight suctioned tentacles grew out of Ultros' robes, replacing his arms and legs. His body and head became one bulbous growth, shrinking his size greatly. Scraggling away from where the proud Esper had stood was an octopus. It would be a long time before Ultros regained conscious thought.

The spectacle finished, Goddess addressed the Espers. "The time is upon us. You must now all go to the other dimension, locking the gates behind you. We entreat you to never unseal the portal, as the results could be disasterous."

"My lords," an Esper had emerged from the throng, three small statues held in his hands. He bowed deeply before standing back up. He had the appearance of a simian, great brown skin stretched and wrinkled in different places. His chin was adorned with a billowing white beard, and great feathery wings spread from his back. He was clad in deep robes. "We present you with these stone figures. This gift represents our vow to let you sleep in peace forevermore."

All three of the entities were pleased, and bowed to the Espers. "You demonstrate great wisdom, Hanuman," Poltergeist smiled slightly. "It is such forethought that has earned you the position you must now take up. You will serve as the Elder of the Esper world. Rule fairly and with justice in your right hand."

"Your first task," Goddess continued. "Will be to imprison Chupon and ATMA deep in the new land. Those twisted, merciless creatures must never be allowed to be unleashed once more on the world of man."

Bowing in great thanks, Hanuman laid the small statues on the ground before his masters. He then withdrew and led the other Espers to the dimension where they would live. They filed out slowly, none of them complaining. It seemed that all the Espers finally realized they did not belong in the mortal realm. The three entities followed far behind, going immediately to the main hall of their great fortress upon returning to the tempestuous land.

Alone in the broad chamber, the three beings faced one another. "So this is what it comes to," Goddess raised her arms to prepare the spell.

Poltergeist followed suit. "And thus, we atone for our transgressions. We leave this world far more humble than whence we came."

"May eternity be merciful to us," Doom finished the enchantment that would lock them away from the living. The proud creatures felt the rocks of the earth become one with them, their skin turning to stone. Wordlessly they accepted their fate, soon becoming no more than statues.

EPILOGUE

A silent cavern suddenly blazed with the light of lanterns. The call of a train whistle soon shattered the silence, causing the station to become a center of activity. Finally released from the magical bonds which had bound it for decades, the Phantom Train was allowed to once again make its journey to take souls to the 'other side'.

Groups of souls strode down the train cars, sitting where there was room. It was very crowded, as it always was after a war. However, the train had also been hindered from travel the entire time by the barrier of magic. Large groups of ghosts were forced to stand when there was no longer seating, and kind souls gave up their space for the younger dead.

Outside the train, a cold cement walkway spread out for a long distance. Street lamps stood every few yards, lighting the tracks that the mystic train would travel. The voices that reverberated throughout the cavern ceased as the last of the passengers filed on board. A great clock's long hand reached twelve, striking the toll of midnight. The booming chimes were not yet over when the wheels of the train began to turn. The metal squealed from lack of use and the numerous gears and cogs strained to the life they had yearned to regain. Slowly picking up speed, the Phantom Train chugged down the track, emitting an ethereal mist with each lunge of the wheels.

The walls of the cabin managed to dull a majority of the noise, letting the passengers appreciate a quiet and fairly comfortable ride. In one of the less crowded cars, a knight wearing the crest of an Anchyron soldier sat next to a small boy whose legs dangled over the edge of the seat. A man clad in a ragged tunic sat up from slumber on the other side of the knight, running a hand roughly through his brissly red beard.

A scholar carrying a scroll and a quill pen approached the three passengers, standing before them. "I can't help but shake my notion," Keith said shyly. He hoped that it would finally be time for him to gather some information on Espers to use in his studies. "Do any of you know anything about Espers?"

The young boy turned away, hiding his face in the knight's chest. "Espers are scary," he whined. "They're horrible monsters..." Matt tried to avoid the gaze of the scholar who had asked the question.

Phillip put his arm around the lad to comfort him and looked gravely towards Keith. "Espers are horrific creatures who seek only to kill. Their rage in battle is unmatched. There are good and evil Espers, just as there are good and evil humans." The warrior looked down at the empty sheath at his side, sharing a wry smile with himself.

Ebot laughed at the other two reactions, clapping a hand on Phillip's back and smiling towards the scholar. "Oh, don't lissen' to 'em," he chuckled. "Espers are nothin' more than a wee bother. They destroy and we stop them, that is all. No more than every other monster which roams the land."

Keith nodded in gratitude for the descriptions as he walked back down the cabin to his own seat. The man was even more confused now than when he had started. The scholar pondered how three people could have three such different accounts of the exact same creature. Realizing there would be plenty of time to muse over such thoughts, Keith set his head back against the seat, letting a strange slumber befall him.

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