Ten Braves' Stories
by Graham S. Johnson
"I guess it would have to have been when we were on our way to Orbonne, near the end of it all. The war was finally cooling down, but refugees were still everywhere. This was before Delita started rebuilding. I'm sure you remember it - buildings destroyed, the smell in the cities, and the people. They looked tired; I remember that."
"We'd been on the road and fighting for what seemed like forever. All I wanted to do was find someplace comfortable and safe and just relax. Not think about keeping the caravan going, or keeping my weapons and armor clean, or about how the supplies were holding up. Not worry about ambushes, or seeing my face on a wanted poster. Just to relax for a little while. I couldn't complain though. I'd only been with Ramza's company for a little under a year. Ramza and a couple of others had been on the run for over three years. Besides, my name and face were still intact; I could go back to the real world any time. Not that I had anywhere to go anymore..."
"As I said, we were on our way to Orbonne. We were camped a few miles west of the falls. A good spot; visibility was excellent and there was fresh water within walking distance. We'd camped there before. Anyway, it was turning dark and those who were eating were already done. It was pretty quiet around the camp. Orbonne was only 3 days away, and I think everyone was getting a little nervous. We knew what was coming up - we knew the next few days would decide things one way or the other. We'd already decided who was going to investigate Orbonne. Ramza, Reis, Cloud, Malak and Malice would be the only ones going in, so it wasn't like everyone was nervous about facing my father and whatever he brought with him. Still, we were all a little edgy. Well of course Worker 8 didn't care and who ever knew what Malak and Ogappon were thinking, but everyone else seemed a little down. I knew that they'd be facing my father, and I really didn't know what I wanted to happen with that. Beowulf was worried about Reis going without him, Mustadio about the Lucavi, and Agrias was always a little worried. I think even the hired hands felt it too, although I don't think they ever understood what was really going on."
"We were all sitting around the campfire, and no one was talking. It was completely silent except for the sound of the fire, and some of the pack animals. We all just sat there, going deeper and deeper into whatever personal gloom we were building for ourselves. Then Ramza gets up and heads for the supplies. No one pays much attention to him. He comes back after a couple of minutes and is carrying one of the big wine casks. He tells us to give him our cups and drink what he gives us. So we all go up and he gives each of us a full cup of unmixed wine. As we're doing this he proposes a game: we'll each tell a story, true or otherwise, and afterwards everyone has to take another drink, except for the person who told the best story."
"He made sure everyone got some wine, emptied his cup, and started. I don't really remember what story he told, but I remember it was the kind of story he usually told - kind of slow, kind of sad, and made you think a little. Mustadio was the next up, and I do remember his story. It was pretty good, about a vacation he supposedly once took with his father and a couple of other engineers. Beowulf went next, and he recited a beautiful poem that none of us had ever heard before. I think Beowulf won that round. I told a story I'd heard when I was training to be a Knight. I embellished a little, and made myself the protagonist, but I thought it came out pretty well. Cloud went after me. His would've been good except it was kind of strange and he doesn't know how to tell a good story. And so we made the rounds; everyone there told a story, even Worker 8 once it figured out what we wanted it to do. The hired hands joined in too, and their stories were no worse than anyone else's."
"I finally dropped out at about the tenth round or so. I wasn't counting, so I don't know exactly how long I lasted. I do know that I wasn't the first out, and I stayed in longer than Cloud. That seemed important at the time. I didn't ever win, but I thought I told some pretty good ones. Beowulf seemed to win the most, but I remember that Reis and Ramza both won once before I went to sleep. Malice told me the next day that it eventually became an endurance contest, and that Mustadio was the last one standing. Figures."
"But what I remember more than anything else was this: sitting back on my rock, and listening. Sometimes people would laugh, sometimes they'd joke about something or another, and sometimes they would just listen to the stories being told. The crackle of the fire, and the occasional smell of wine in the air. That's what I remember the most about that night."
"It doesn't really sound like much, and at the time I didn't think anything of it. In fact, I thought it was a real dumb idea the next morning. But looking back on it now, it just seems as though I belonged there more than anywhere else I've ever been."
"Kind of sad, I guess. Well, that's life, I suppose."
"I don't know. Or care."
"Ask someone else. Meliadoul's probably got a few theories, Beowulf could tell you what it should be, and Ramza might even be able to tell you what it is. But I'll be damned before I know."
"Listen, I don't think about that kind of stuff. I live my life as it comes, and keep my mind on the present. Maybe you should too."
"Fine. I take back what I said about not knowing. I lied; I do know. But I still can't tell you because it hasn't happened yet. And when it finally does I'll be so fucking happy I'll never want anything ever again. Now leave."
"...You don't go away until you're satisfied, huh. Well, I guess there is something I could tell you. I wouldn't call it happy, and it's not a beacon of light and truth or anything like that. It's just something I think about sometimes, that's all."
"We, Ramza's bunch I mean, were exploring this cave out in the East Burgross Sea. I forget what they call it, but there were some ruins of a lighthouse there. I think it was destroyed in the 50 years war. You ever heard of it? ...I didn't think so. We'd been down about a week. Me, Ogappon, Malice, and... uh. A couple of others were clearing out a path for the rest of the others and the supplies. Really, we just killed anything we came across. It was tiring work, though. The cave was pitch black. Torches didn't help - it was as if the air swallowed the light before it hit the ground. Ramza tried to explain why once, but I didn't really get it. The only way to..."
"...You don't look like you've ever seen real combat. Anyway, the cave was dark."
"The way it went down there was like this: We'd slowly make our way down and try to note any major obstacles, sources of water, possible campsites, stuff like that. After a while, we'd start to hear some noises. They would be kind of indistinct at first, and muffled; the cave tended to do that. They'd get louder and louder for a couple of minutes, and then stop. After that, there would be screaming. It'd be real loud, and usually last about half a minute. Then they'd attack."
"There were lots of wild things in that cave. Humans too. You know how human raiders will often train beasts and the inhumi to help them, right? We'd seen that sort of thing a lot. But I don't think that's how it was down there. I never once heard a human give orders to a beast or an inhumus in that place. Never heard them speak at all. Heh.. maybe there was something in the air."
"And I don't know why they'd scream at us. Beowulf thought they did it just to scare us. He said that's why lots of animals scream and roar. Maybe he was right. No one ever said anything, but I think it really got to Agrias and Reis. Probably the hired hands, too. But I don't think they did it to scare us. I think they did it to announce their presence, and their intentions. Sort of like a formal challenge."
"Normally when they'd scream at us, we'd just get ready for the attack. Get into formation, start basic battle preparations, stuff like that. But that day, when they started screaming at us, one of us screamed back. Pretty soon we all were. And then we charged."
"It was great.   No formations, no teamwork, just fighting. I can only remember bits and pieces of it now. Something tearing up my leg when I couldn't keep my barrier up; the wet crunching noise some mage made when I hit her with my staff; the flashes of illumination when I invoked Hellfire; nearly tripping over a dead behemoth. I felt unstoppable. Not immortal, or unkillable, or anything like that. More... elemental. Kind of like how a grain of sand must feel when it's picked up by a sandstorm."
"The fight was over pretty quickly, but we ended up nearly losing Cloud and Ogappon. No one had bothered to revive them. I was pissed. I still am, a little. I was more to blame than anyone - I should have remembered. It's simple. You revive people or they die. Damnit, I should fucking know that better than any of them."
"Ramza wasn't mad when he heard what happened."
"...I really hate him sometimes."
"He wasn't mad, but he did send the lot of us back up top to 'rest' for a few days. I heard later he started personally leading the scout group after that. Anyway, after a few days waiting on the island the rest of the group came back up. Seems they'd reached the bottom of the cave and dealt with Edlibdis or whoever it was down there. The next day we loaded up the ship, sailed back to Warjilis, and that was that."
"I still don't know why we screamed back at them and did what we did that day. Maybe we were just tired. Maybe savagery is infectious. Or... heh. Maybe there really was something in the air down there."
"It was when I was made a Holy Knight of the Imperial Guardian Knights of Lesalia."
"To be honest, it's not as happy a memory as it used to be. I used to smile every time I remembered it. Now, I just remember feeling happy at the time. Knowing what I know now, it just doesn't feel quite the same as it used to. It's funny how much a memory can change without changing at all."
"Well, I can't think of anything else off the top of my head, so I might as well tell you about my knighting."
"First of all, I am a commoner. A commoner that became a Holy Knight. That's important to remember, I think. Ramza always says that it's not what you are born as but what you make of yourself that is important. He's wrong. Rank does matter. I mean, maybe some people can really see others as who they are and not what, but... Well, for me my roots are very important."
"... Oh. Sorry, it was unintentional. You know what I mean."
"I was born in Goland. I was an only child, and my mother died when I was very young. My father was a manservant for a minor noble in Goland. Lord Ecin was his name. He was a good master to my father, and my father tried hard to be a good servant in return. My father would include Lord Ecin in his prayers every day, and used to make me do the same."
"My father died when I was nine. Lord Ecin was attacked by deserters from the eastern front, and my father died while defending him. I had no surviving relatives to speak of, so Lord Ecin pulled some strings and had me accepted to the Royal Military Academy of Lesalia."
"I still don't know why Lord Ecin sent me there. I was a nine year-old servant's daughter. I didn't want to go to a school full of young nobles and learn the arts of war. I would've been happier to stay and work as a servant-girl for Lord Ecin. And the Royal Academy is a very prestigious school. It can be difficult for poorer noble families to get their own children accepted. What Lord Ecin had to do to get me accepted I'll never know."
"But he sent me nonetheless. The first few years there were difficult. The kids seemed to know my rank the instant they looked at me, even though I was dressed no differently than they were. And being children, they did not go easy on me. The instructors were not much better; they didn't like me being there. They were more worried about the reputation of the school than anything, I think. Looking at it now, it all makes sense. Well, I didn't understand it at the time. All I knew was that they didn't like me. Those years hold no fond memories for me."
"I worked very hard at the Royal Academy. I had somehow gotten it into my head that I had to do very well, or else Lord Ecin and my father's shade would be shamed. I tried hard to be a model student in every way. I thought that if I did exactly what the school wanted me to, then maybe the other students would leave me alone."
"When I was twelve I was selected to be trained as a Holy Knight. I didn't really know what that meant at the time. But that was the turning point in my career at the Royal Academy. Things slowly started to get better from then on. I was still known around school as the servant's daughter, but the students also knew I was to become a Holy Knight."
"The exercises, lessons, and prayer became much more difficult than they were before. I thought I had worked hard before but I was wrong. I changed a lot in those years. I finished the training in 5 years, which is about average by Academy standards."
"The knighting ceremony itself was to be held in the Royal throne room at noon on the summer equinox of 397. The King himself was to knight us, and I was petrified. For weeks and weeks I agonized over the ceremony. I practiced my part until I could almost do it in my sleep. I had dreams where I would do nothing but practice that ceremony. In fact, I had those dreams for years after I was knighted. I feared that even the tiniest hesitation or stumble on my part would bring lasting disgrace. Not just for me, but for the Royal Academy, my instructors, Lord Ecin, and everyone I had ever had any contact with."
"Even my father, though by that time I should have known better."
"Well, the day finally came. There were four of us being knighted that day. We spent 3 hours early that morning preparing and putting on our finest battle dress, and arranging what little regalia we had. Then we took a carriage to the Palace and waited for our audience."
"We only waited in the court for a few minutes. It seemed like forever. The court was full of high nobles, and it seemed they were all staring at us. I was sure they could tell I was a commoner. I... Well, eventually His Majesty's attendant told us to enter."
"That was the first time I had ever seen Royal throne room, and I was awed. Not so much by the splendor of the room; I didn't see very much of it since I kept my eyes forward for the entire ceremony. I was awed more by who it contained, and what it meant. It was where His Majesty ruled from. I was determined not to disgrace that room. I remember concentrating very hard on keeping in pace with the others. We made our way to before the King, and knelt. Then His Majesty called for one of us, I forget who, to come forward."
"His Majesty used formal names, with title and place of residence, when he called us. I had assumed His Majesty would address me as 'Agrias, daughter of Cotton Oaks,' or 'Agrias, of the estate of Lord Ecin of Goland,' or something along those lines. I had long since resigned myself to being named a commoner before the Royal family and everyone else in the Royal throne room."
"But when His Majesty called me forth, he called 'Agrias, daughter of Lord Oaks of Goland.' I was so surprised I nearly forgot to rise. I thought that perhaps His Majesty had somehow given my late father a title because of my work at the Royal Academy. Foolish, I know. But that was all I could think of as I rose."
"I rose, took the oath of fealty to the Royal family, and was knighted by the King's hand. I cannot tell you how I felt when His Majesty addressed me as 'Holy Knight Agrias.' It was as if... No, I really can't explain. But it was something I will not forget."
"The rest of the ceremony seemed to go quickly, and a few days later I was given my first assignment."
"A few months afterward I had the opportunity to speak with Lord Ecin. He said he had heard that I was made Holy Knight, but had been unable to attend the knighting. He congratulated me on my achievement. I told him all about the ceremony, and how His Majesty had addressed me as the daughter of 'Lord Oaks.' I said the King likely did that to avoid the embarrassment of being seen to make a Holy Knight out of a servant's daughter. Lord Ecin just laughed; he said it was more likely the King had been hastily briefed on our names and family and had simply assumed that my father was some minor noble from Goland."
"Then I told him about what I first thought when I heard His Majesty say 'Lord Oaks,' about how I thought perhaps His Majesty had seen it fit to make my father a Lord because of me. Lord Ecin told me that in a way I had been right. He said that there were many noble families who had neither riches nor estates, and only the knowledge that the Royal family thought them nobility. He said I had at least as much claim to nobility as they, for the King himself had publicly pronounced my father a Lord."
"I thanked him for his kind words, and took my leave shortly thereafter."
"That's the story of my knighting, my happiest memory."
"Ah, an excellent question. Only problem is, I can only give one answer. You see, when you've lived a life like mine, you've just got too many choices to choose from. Like the time I helped a machine confront its dark side, or the time I cloned myself using some wax, a little straw, and a roll of wire. Or when I summoned a man from beyond the sky, or helped reunite a dragon with her lover. Or one of several incidents which, considering the popularity of a certain King, I am not disposed to talk about."
"Of course, these are merely tales of high adventure and romance - not the sort of thing you'd be interested in. I think you want something with more of an emotional edge to it; something I cherish and hold close to my heart. So I guess I could tell you about a bet I won with my father concerning a certain nameless young lady, a wooden stool, and two cubits of rope. That one would tug on your heartstrings, I'm sure."
"I'm a simple man at heart - and simple of mind too. I don't look too deeply into myself. A friend once told me that if you look straight into yourself, that's the last thing you'll ever see straight. My friend is a philosopher, and one of the most well-respected drunks in Goug. I heed his advice like the word of God. That's not saying much now, I'm afraid."
"You want a serious answer, I can tell. Well, I'll keep it short then. Drawn-out tearful retellings are not my forte. My happiest memory is this: excavating mine number 73 with my father."
"It was when I understood the extent of God's will. You could say that was when I found my faith. 'God is everything, and His will is Law.' I'd heard the maxim all my life, but it wasn't until I saw God's will myself that I began to understand. I was raised according to the doctrines of the Glabados church, and I always thought myself devout. Perhaps I was. But I did not really listen to what I was told. Perhaps it is the nature of humans to ignore good advice. Or perhaps it is merely the nature of wisdom; is it not said that wisdom is not learned, but discovered? For God is the source of all wisdom - and God, though omnipresent, cannot be seen unless one searches both within and without."
"It began when I was 17, and near the end of my training to become a Temple Knight of Lionel. I was travelling with a small group to Goug. There were but four of us - Knight Francis, Priest Johann, an acolyte named Lewis, and myself. It was the rainy season, so Knight Francis and Priest Johann decided we would detour around Zigolas swamp rather than attempt to cross it. Unfortunately, this proved more difficult than we expected. The swamps were extensively flooded, and we went much farther north than we originally intended. It quickly grew late, and Priest Johann decided we should seek shelter for the night. He knew of a small village nearby where we could likely stay the night. We soon found a marked trail, and made our way to the village."
"The village was named Knupod, and was typical of villages of the region. They were farmers mostly, and practiced both agriculture and husbandry. The village was built around a central church square, and was compactly built. It had a small but functional wall and was designed to be easily defensible from small groups of raiders, wild beasts, the inhumi and so forth. There were 3 large gates into the village, apparently to allow for fast ingress upon attack. There were also large pens inside the walls to hold the flocks and work animals during an attack. Around the village were the fields, pastures, and corrals. They were separated by large fortified fences, and organized around a number of wide roads into the village."
"We came into the village and asked to speak with the town priest. The villagers took us to him immediately. The priest seemed overly happy to see us, and we soon learned why - the village was cursed and the priest wished for us to remove the curse as well as drive out the responsible sorcerer. We inquired to the nature of this curse and were told that all the birthed animal for the last two seasons were 'abominations.' We were told that most did not survive, but those that did had proved so vicious they could not be kept with the rest of the flock. Several men had been injured trying to handle them."
"You may have heard of such cases before. They are not, as the villagers supposed, caused directly by a human, much less a malevolent sorcerer. They are simple demon-mischief. It is always a minor demon that has taken up residence in or around the affected area. Such demons are relatively weak, without the power even to manifest an animated corporeal form. As such, they are sedentary unless moved by an outside agent. They can sometimes cause minor phenomena - poltergeist effects and the like, although it is quite draining for them - and corrupt the early development of living organisms within their range. Mostly they can only influence plants and simple animals, and are responsible for a small number of ruined harvests each year. But occasionally they are crafty enough to corrupt higher animals and humans. The village priest told us of abominations among the animals, but it was highly likely that the human born were similarly affected. Whatever the case may have been, we neither saw nor heard any evidence of a corrupted human child."
"After hearing the town priest's request, Priest Johann asked to be shown the afflicted animals that he might confirm the nature of the town's curse. The rest of us were shown to our lodgings. Lewis told me that the demon-corrupted are easily identifiable through both appearance and behavior. The demons lack the strength to mold the developing beast at will; they can at best deform existing structures and induce certain atavisms. Likewise, the link made between demon and animal causes the afflicted to share and synchronize their responses. If the link is strong enough, the afflicted will act as one entity."
"Lewis said that although it is possible to knowingly summon such a demon and loose it upon one's enemies, such is rarely the case. Minor demons such as these are quite malevolent, and it requires a learned, powerful, and charismatic mage to control them well. Such mages have far more effective means at their disposal. He said it was more common for a child in innocence or adolescent in despair to call out to the spirit world. More often than not, it is a minor demon such as the one in that village that answers their summons. He said the experience was universally traumatic for such children, as they knew neither how to break the link between themselves and the demon nor how to protect themselves from it."
"When Priest Johann returned, he confirmed it was indeed caused of demon-mischief. He then instructed Lewis to set up both spirit-snares and wards around the village. I was told to assist Lewis. I did this gladly, because standard Temple Knight training did not include exorcism techniques and I wished to learn more about them. The setting of the snares was extremely simple, provided one had the necessary equipment. The warding was more complicated, and I learned a great deal watching Lewis. The entire process was somewhat time-consuming, as we set snares and wards all around the village and the appropriate corrals. As we did this, Lewis said that although we could immediately exorcise the demon if we located its physical aspect, it would be impractical to do so. The physical aspect of a minor demon like this one is usually quite inconspicuous, and it would likely take a few days to track down. He said it was much easier to use a simple spirit-snare to record the name of the demon. Once the demon's name was known, it would be a trivial matter to exorcise it using the central Lionel Cathedral facility."
"We returned to our lodging and found ourselves alone. Priest Johann had fallen soundly asleep after a hearty meal and much wine. Knight Francis was enjoying the company of a local girl and did not wish to be disturbed. Lewis and I ate our meals, and then proceeded to drink what wine was left. We talked of many things, and I counted myself to have found a new friend that evening."
"After it had grown late, and the bottles drained, Lewis and I devised a prank. A juvenile trick, born as much from our youth as our inebriation. We decided that Knight Francis and Priest Johann charged too steep a price for their services; the villagers deserved a real exorcism as well as a miracle for their trouble. We formed a plan - I would heal the afflicted animals and Lewis would devise a sorcerer to banish."
"My task was simple enough. I went to the largest corral - the village priest's - and made a break in the fence as is typical for a semi-intelligent beast to make. As is common practice among provincial farmers, there were a few trained guard beasts inside the corral with the rest of the flock. Of these I killed one, and set the others upon its body to mask the mark of my sword. I then allowed most of the flock to escape the corral, but took a number of appropriately aged hatchlings. With these, I went to the pen containing the corrupted animals, incapacitated them, and substituted the healthy hatchlings for the afflicted. Once the normal hatchlings were safely locked up, I took the afflicted animals away, slaughtered them, and disposed of the corpses. A very crude trick indeed, but my mind could come up with nothing better at the time."
"Shortly thereafter, Lewis arrived at the pen. He healed me of the injuries I sustained while dealing with the corrupted hatchlings, and told me of his doings. He had found an abandoned cottage, and filled it with the sort of diagrams, circles and writings such country folk would assume to be sorcery. He then left other markings to indicate a forced banishment. Finally, he scorched parts of the cottage with Holy Fire. This impressed me, as Holy Fire is rarely taught, and difficult to master from what I'd heard."
"I told him of my doings, and we congratulated ourselves on our little ruse. We then decided to add some finishing touches - Lewis put the mark of the Glabados Church on the 'healed' animals, and I spread bits of gore from the dead hatchlings about the sorcerer's cottage. It was quite late by this time, so we washed in a nearby stream, enjoyed a hearty laugh on the evening's activity, and sneaked back into the village."
"We left early the next morning, stopping only to record the demon's name from one of the spirit-snares. Lewis and I did not get to see the villager's reaction to our night's work. Which is just as well; neither Knight Francis nor Priest Johann would have been amused, I think. The rest of the journey was uneventful. We arrived in Goug two days later, after finally crossing Zigolas swamp."
"... Lewis died in a shipwreck later that year."
"When I was 18 and a Temple Knight of Lionel, albeit one of low standing, circumstance again placed me in Knupod village. The village priest of Knupod had been repeatedly seeking audience with the Cardinal, and I was sent there both to find out what he desired, as well as to placate him. This was a typical sort of task given to junior Temple Knights, and it served to hone both combat and persuasion skills."
"I arrived in Knupod without incident. The villagers recognized me nearly immediately. They greeted me with much fanfare, and a little awe. They also questioned me repeatedly of the fates of Johann, Francis, and Lewis. I made inquiries, and quickly found the villagers had completely fallen for our ruse, and believed all four of us to be miracle workers. This caused me some discomfort. I could not reveal the truth to them, so I merely told them that we all were but humble servants of the Church."
"I toured the village; it seemed in better repair than I remembered. The girl Francis had taken for pleasure had given birth. And although unwed, the girl suffered no stigma. In fact, the child was thought to be lucky. The girl desired to become a priest of the Church, and she spoke Glabados doctrine with both reason and passion. The village priest had sought audience with the Cardinal on her behalf. The villagers took me to the corral where the hatchlings had been supposedly healed. They had built a shrine upon the spot. Though it was small, it was well built and kept, and was wreathed with many flowers. I was told the shrine was known to heal small children and clear the mind of angry thoughts. The 'healed' animals were given their own pasture, and were regarded holy."
"All of this caused me great discomfort until I realized this: a miracle truly had taken place in Knupod. God had performed a miracle - Lewis and I had been acting out God's will, although we didn't know it at the time. We had done God's will because we can do nothing else."
"I stood there for some minutes as I realized the implications of my epiphany. All the teachings I had learned became real in a way they hadn't been before."
"Do you know how the secular sages answer the question 'why?' They go through a long chain of cause and effect, one circumstance preferentially leading to another, much like a rock falling down a hill. Reality for them is much like an eternal avalanche falling through time. The theologian's concept of causality is more simple: God causes all things. It is a chain of reason made of one link."
"I had once been told that both concepts were equally true. Not until that day did I begin to understand the wisdom in that."
"That was something of a turning point for me. I began to see that not everyone's intentions are or should be honorable - and that God's will would be performed in spite of all intentions. 'The best means don't always lead to the best ends' - these words are truer than most who speak them know. The Church often uses questionable of foolish means to achieve its ends, but I believe it is still a worthwhile institution and serves the people well."
"I see you find my position strange, considering my history with the Church and Ramza Beoulve. I can say but two things. One, the actions of an individual should not damn an entire group. Two, we as humans cannot predict the end of a given means with any great certainty. Such knowledge is God's alone. We humans must remember that, and that sometimes means are ends in and of themselves."
"... memories, eh? I've got plenty to spare, and I guess it wouldn't hurt to share one or two."
"You need to be careful in sharing memories. Sometimes, you'll see a reflection of yourself in another person's eyes when you do, and that can be a dangerous thing."
"I knew a man in the war, before you were born I'd wager, who had a family. Call him Ruon - O. H. Ruon. He was a soldier under my command during the 50 years war. He wasn't a brave man, but he was a good soldier. He was competent and fiercely loyal - on the battlefield. In private, he was something of a shy and timid man. I would have called him cowardly if I hadn't seen him risk his life numerous times in battle - usually to bring back one of the wounded. Ruon had a wife and child back in Lesalia, and had a small wooden engraving of the two he kept with him at all times. Sometimes he would take it out and talk about when he would return to his family. This is what he would say:
One of these days, this war will end. When it does, I'm going to go back to Lesalia. I'll take the canal road to the old church, and then cross the bridge at the square. Then I'll walk the long way along our road until I get to our house. I'll go up the steps, and knock on the door. I'll wait a few moments, and then my wife will open the door. She'll look at me for a few seconds before she recognizes me. Then she'll blink like she does when she realizes something. She'll jump into my arms and nearly knock me down. I'll tell her that it's really me, that I've really come back for good. Then we'll go inside, and I will meet my son."
"When Ruon would tell this story, he would get this far-away look in his eyes, as though he really saw it happening as he told it. He would tell that story a lot. He always told it the night before an important battle, or whenever the supplies got low. It was kind of irritating after a while, but no one in my command would ever stop him from telling his little story."
"I once asked him why he joined the military. He said he was just like anyone else, and fought to protect his homeland."
"One day it happened that my company found itself in a very difficult situation. We had broken through enemy lines and had hoped to destroy a rear supply camp. Unfortunately, when we got there we found reinforcements were passing through the camp, and outnumbered us at least 10 to 1. We retreated immediately, and they pursued. We had gained a little time on them initially through some diversionary tactics, but it seemed certain they would catch us before we reached the safety of the front lines again."
"The area we were passing through was a high grassy plain, and the ground was fairly dry. This was during the dry season, and we'd had little rain for the past few weeks. I had the idea of starting a grass fire to slow down our pursuers. The problem was that there was little wind, and the fires would not spread easily or quickly. I halted my company and told the men my idea. I told them we could either all spread out and light the fires, or one of us could volunteer to stay behind and light the fires while the rest continued to escape. I told them lighting the fires would cost valuable time, and that any time saved made our escape more likely."
"Ruon volunteered. As we packed his chocobo with flammable oil, he asked something of me. He asked me to swear I would look after his wife and child if he did not survive. I swore it. We soon turned to leave him, and as we left he shouted that I must teach his son to be an honorable man."
"We made it back to our lines safely. I assume Ruon died that day, since neither I nor his wife ever heard from him again."
"Ah, I nearly forgot the purpose of this story. You see, my happiest memory is that of Ruon coming home from the war, walking to his house, and reuniting with his family."
"My happiest memory? I... am not sure. I don't mean to sound conceited, but I've had a good life. Let me think..."
"Ah, yes. That would be it, wouldn't it? I'm afraid my tale requires a little background. It started around 10 years ago. Beowulf and I were engaged to be married... the time has passed, hasn't it?"
"Beowulf had received urgent summons from one of his colleagues, a Priest named Buremonda. I knew Buremonda very slightly, and found him boorish if truth be known. My love was to meet Buremonda at his church. I had gotten leave from my family, and was accompanying him. After he finished his official business we were to tour the southern coast of Lionel."
"When we arrived at Buremonda's church, we found him waiting for us. He greeted us cordially enough, but he seemed a little strained... Hah... well, I suppose he was."
"He took us around to the back of the church, and told us to sit down. Beowulf asked what this urgent summons was about. Buremonda just smiled. He told Beowulf he had 'found out.' He suggested that Beowulf leave Ivalice before the others 'found out' too... he said it wouldn't be long. My love asked him what he was talking about. Buremonda smiled again and said 'heresy.' At this my love became upset and demanded to know what was going on. Buremonda said he had solid evidence and was going to expose Beowulf. They started to argue. I don't really remember exactly what they said - I wasn't listening. The whole thing was like something out of a bad dream... But I remember Buremonda kept asking Beowulf why he'd brought me with him."
"Soon they were both shouting. Beowulf was standing next to me, and gestured a lot with his hands. Buremonda... was pacing back and forth with his hands behind his back, and kept glancing at me. That seemed to go on for a long time. Suddenly, Buremonda became very still. I remember what happened next very clearly: Buremonda muttered something like 'mine, you blue-blooded bastard, she's mine.' Then he screamed something, and raised his arms."
"I said before the scene was like something out of a bad dream. Perhaps, like in a dream, I knew what was going to happen from the very start... I don't know. I do know I moved in front of Beowulf before I had time to think about it. Then I felt a sharp shock and everything went black."
"I awoke as a dragon. Yes, a dragon - very large and very scaly. I was a dragon in both body and mind - I knew only the thoughts of a base beast. I was devoid of all reflection and worthwhile feelings. It was as if my mind itself were bound, and could not think certain things. But truth be known, it was not entirely unpleasant... being a human isn't always easy, and it can feel good to fall back upon baser lusts and hungers."
"I roamed as a dragon for a few seasons. I gather I built something of a reputation during that time. Hah... perhaps it is wrong to think so, but I'm a little proud of that reputation."
"Eventually, Beowulf found me. I don't think I recognized him, but perhaps I did at some level... For I tolerated his and his friends' presence when I tolerated no other humans'."
"They took me to a strange-smelling cave in the north. One of them gave me a stone that tasted of lightning and smelled of far-away screams. I took it and entered the cave - we dragons are vain creatures, and love to hoard pretty things. Hah... you may have already known this."
"When I entered the cave, something very strange happened. I had not gotten very far in when I fell asleep in mid-stride. I dreamed vividly... as I had never dreamed before and have not dreamed since. I dreamt I stood in a large room covered in strange lights and designs. Before me knelt a humanoid figure. It looked like a statue of a very tall human, but there were two differences... it had no eyes and its legs seemed to be connected to the floor at the ankles... Had it been not so alien, I think it would have been frightening."
"It asked me what I desired. I thought about its question, and as I did I became conscious that I lived as a beast. The more I thought about it, the more I became painfully aware of the depravity of beasts... to say nothing of their actions. I did not want to live the rest of my life as a dragon, believe me I did not. I answered I wanted my old mind and body back. Or, failing that, that I should never wake. It said that it is never possible to return to the past, but that it could largely remove the charm placed on me if I wished. I begged it to do so."
"I awoke as a human. I felt very strange - nothing felt or smelt right. Hah... I suppose it was to be expected. I stumbled my way to the cave entrance. Beowulf was waiting for me outside."
"I ran to him, and embraced him as soon as I could. It felt good to be held... better than I say, I assure you. In his arms I began to remember all the things I'd forgotten. Laughter, love, tenderness, friendship... I remembered them all. But more than that, I remembered... how to feel again. It was as though I had been reborn."
"I cried a little, and I laughed a little. I talked a lot, and I listened a lot. Until I started talking with people again, I didn't realize how lonely I had been. I'd missed people... I'd missed Beowulf. I appreciated his - and everyone else's - presence more than I ever had before."
"... a very fond memory indeed. Sometimes it takes the absence of a thing to appreciate its presence, don't you think?"
"I think it was the first evening after Ramza awoke."
"Oh, I'm sorry. I guess you don't really know what I'm talking about, do you? After we destroyed the Bloody Angel, he was unconscious for a pretty long time. We thought he had gone into a coma. It wouldn't have been surprising; we all had severe injuries after the explosion and crash. None of us would have survived if it weren't for Malak. He ended up saving all our lives. It's strange, though. He wasn't really even injured, just some burns and a hurt leg."
"After we had healed all our injuries, we started to look for a way out of... wherever we were. They told me Rofel had said he'd destroyed the only gate out. We didn't have any reason to believe him, but we weren't too hopeful of our chances either. We couldn't explore very quickly, since we had to carry supplies and Ramza. We searched for a few days, but didn't find anything useful. Plenty of interesting things, but nothing to get us out."
"Then the water ran out."
"Really, we didn't have all that much to start with. The only reason it lasted as long as it did was because we rationed it so carefully. I was sure we were going to die once the water ran out. I was thankfully wrong. Apparently Malice and Malak had been in this sort of situation before, and they knew how to... deal with it. I guess it was a learning experience for me, but I honestly hope I never have to go through that again."
"That was a very bad time for all of us. The euphoria of destroying the Lucavi and, well, saving the world I guess didn't last too long. There were just too many other stresses. The ruins were very involved and tedious to explore, Ramza was still unconscious and someone had to keep an eye on him, the water situation made us all sort of bad-tempered, and we still didn't really even know where we were. I tried my best to be cheerful and keep the other from getting down... it didn't work too well."
"I guess we went on maybe 3 or 4 days like that. We couldn't really tell. Wherever we were, it was hidden from day and night. I figured we were probably under the ground or the ocean - Murond was supposed to have sunk into the sea, after all. But we could have been anywhere. The legends say that those gates can lead anywhere, anywhere at all. Like behind the moon or out among the planets... that really scared me if I thought about it too much."
"Anyway, I went to sleep one 'night,' and woke up hitting the water. It was as though I had rolled over in my sleep, and fell into the ocean. The water wasn't much higher than my waist, and the shore was in sight. It was late afternoon. I was kind of dazed at first, but made it to the shore okay. Someone had already pulled in Ramza, and the supplies and equipment were starting to wash up on the beach."
"... I have no explanation."
"Once we'd convinced ourselves what we were seeing was real, it was really a huge relief to be out of that place. Old Murond - I guess that's a good a name for it as any - smelled dry and dead. Not dead as in putrescent or rotting, but dead as in devoid of life. It smelled like all the life there had dried up and died centuries ago. The smells of the ocean and the beach were wonderful by comparison."
"Reis was able to find some water fairly quickly, and that took care of our main discomfort. After we'd all had some water, we set about making camp and drying our things out."
"It was later that night that Ramza woke up. No one noticed at first - he was too weak to get our attention. But aside from dehydration - we'd done the best we could, but that still wasn't very good - he seemed to be okay. The rest of the evening was great. We talked about my captivity, what happened in Old Murond, the Lucavi, and lots of other things. I hadn't seen him in over a year, and we had lots to talk about."
"I really felt good when I went to sleep that night."
"You know what's strange about the whole episode? While we were in Old Murond, I prayed over and over for our escape and for Ramza to wake up. Not that I had much faith in God; I couldn't after what I had seen. I'd been touched by Ajora himself. I had felt his thoughts for a few moments... and if Ajora is truly a Child of God, then I renounce Him."
"... but I prayed anyway. I didn't believe, but I didn't know what else to do. So I prayed. And then my prayers were answered in a truly miraculous way. I can still call our escape from Old Murond nothing less than a gift from God."
"You know, the old Kildean pantheon had a couple of trickster gods. Sometimes I wonder if the One God of the Glabados Church, who is said to be infinitely greater than all other gods, might have a little trickster in Him too?"
"It was my first morning after we defeated Altima. Which was, from what I gather, nearly a week afterwards."
"I fell unconscious when Altima exploded. That's nothing to wonder at; I was amazed so many of us survived. We all made it except Cloud, and we never did find his body. The last thing I remember was the heat from the explosion. I also remember hoping the explosion would destroy the Holy Stones."
"While I was out, I had a very long, very strange dream. Not a pleasant dream at all. It was about the Holy Stones, Lucavi, and... other things. A very strange dream."
"When I woke I was lying near a campfire, and most of my clothes were drying on a nearby rock. I was intensely thirsty. I tried to get the attention of some of the others, but it took a little while before they saw I was awake. But when they did there was a big commotion. They all seemed genuinely happy to see me - even Malak, though he didn't say much. I was sorry to have made them worry, but it felt good to have been missed. Alma even cried a little once she'd made sure I was okay. You know, I think that's the only time I've ever seen her cry."
"They gave me some water and a little roasted game, and that was probably the single most delicious meal I've eaten in my entire life. Then Malice and Reis started to fill me in on what happened while I was out. Kind of a strange story, especially the sudden exit from Old Murond. While they were talking it finally hit me. We'd actually done it. We'd defeated the Bloody Angel, we'd gotten all the stones, we'd stopped the Lucavi! And Alma was safe. I felt that for the first time in a long time, I could really relax. I hadn't felt that at peace since father taught Delita and me to play the reed flute... I went to sleep that night without a single worry in my mind."
"Of course, the next morning I had to face reality. I was strong enough to travel, and we had things to do. We had to get away from Orbonne and find someplace to lay low for a while, we needed to get into contact with the rest of the group, we needed to restock our supplies, and I had a nearly full set of Holy Stones to think about... it was not going to be an easy day. Still, I couldn't help but smile as I got up - a new day was breaking, and I knew it."
"My coronation, of course."
"I'm sure you already know something of the celebrations, so I won't bore you with the details. I will say it was the largest celebration Ivalice had seen in 70 years. I made sure of that. Some of the nobles say I put on such festivities to satisfy my pride, but they lie through their teeth. I held the coronation ceremony for the peasants, and everyone damn well knows it. Especially the nobles. Why do you think I extended an open invitation to all the people of Ivalice, and then actually welcomed them to the ceremony with food and drink? You probably wouldn't believe how much food we gave away that day. The cost was nearly unthinkable, but well worth it. After all, I had to let the common man know on whose side I stood."
"All the nobles attended the coronation too, of course. Heh, heh heh... The looks on their arrogant faces may have been the best part of the whole ceremony. They all hated me. To them, I was some young upstart who had stolen the crown from beneath their noses. I'd stolen their crown, and they could not touch me. They could hear the roar of the crowd during my speech, and they could see the looks on the peasants' faces when I told them my plans for Ivalice. But more than that they could count the sheer numbers of commoners in the hall, in the courtyard, in the square, in the streets... the nobles could see the force I would wield if they dared cross me."
"The coronation meant something else, too. It meant I'd done what I'd set out to do, I'd climbed as high as I possibly could. In a way, I felt a kind of relief. Clawing your way to the throne is no easy task, you know. You have to constantly plan, calculate your moves and other people's reactions, and above all never ever relax. But when I finally got the crown on my head, I felt... at peace, I guess, in a way I hadn't since I was a child learning to play the reed flute."
"A king can't waste his time on sentimentality, though. I had, and I still have, a lot of things I mean to do with this country. I must help the commoners. They are my power base, and I intend to win their loyalty the honest way - by serving them. That is why the nobles truly fear me. But whatever my reasons, I will make this country great. With my coronation, a new day in the history of Ivalice began to break, remember that. I will make the late Queen herself proud of this country. More than that, I will make T..."
"... That's enough, I think. I hope I've answered your question satisfactorily. The guards by the door can show you the way out."
This is where I'd say my thanks to deserving people; however, fanfiction is thankless business so instead I'll give my apologies. Many apologies to:
Gene Wolfe and R. A. Lafferty, for obvious reasons.
Mary, for making Reis sound exactly like Beowulf.
Square, for blatantly infringing upon their copyright.
and the english language, for those god-awful names. Except Lewis. I like Lewis.