Searching for Comfort
By Heather Rogerson
The Dragonship Destiny moved ever onward towards the holy city Pentagulia. Leo inhaled a lung full of the cool ocean breeze, rich with the smell of salt. Tonight, the Blue Star shone brightly in the sky but now, unlike the multitudes of times he had seen it before, the sight did not bring comfort or a sense of peace. As it had of late, it only brought the feeling of confusion. A light step behind him made him turn his head, slightly. His second in command saluted and waited patiently for his commander to acknowledge him. The White Knight of Althena let out the breath he had been holding in a short sigh. "What news?"
The subordinate soldier allowed his arm to drop back to his side, yet he did not lose his at-attention stance. "The engines are proceeding full speed, sir. The night watch is about to come on duty. Will you be taking to your cabin, my lord?" Leo didn't answer right away. Instead, he checked the many gauges at the helm and gently adjusted his grip on the wheel. The great ship veered a little more toward the left and he nodded to himself as the appropriate read-outs showed on the dials and the built-in compass.
"What of our...passengers? How are they fairing?" he asked at last. He didn't have to see the scorn curling the lip of the other man. No, the way the air between them suddenly reeked of aggression, it was obvious to tell how the Second felt about their extra "baggage."
"The little blonde girl wouldn't stop complaining about the state of her cabin. She insisted that there were mice on board, despite our word that there weren't. After we took the room apart for the second time, she finally calmed down enough to dismiss us from her sight as if we were servants on some sort of luxury cruise. The pink flying cat-thing ate ravenously during dinner tonight and the chef was half afraid he'd lose his fingers every time he set more fish before her."
"And the others?"
"Well, the boy was pretty quiet and retired early, taking his overstuffed pink pet with him. A few of the men talked the dancing girl into showing them a few of her moves." Here the man's voice grew uneasy. "Someone had stashed a few bottles of wine on board and before I knew it, there was a party going on. I tried to stop it but one thing led to another and that priest...!"
Leo adjusted his grip yet again, looking down at the dark ocean waters to hide his smile. "Yes, the priest?"
The Second sputtered. "He...he invited the men for a few games of chance. I could have told them all the dice were loaded. You simply cannot trust the honesty of such people as these."
"Hmm. You know what the Goddess has decreed regarding gambling, drinking, and dancing." Leo's tone was softly rebuking. The Second saluted again, holding it this time.
"Yes, sir, and I took the liberty of taking down all the names of those who were involved in those disgraceful activities. You can rest assured, my lord, that once they regain their wits after tomorrow's hangover, I will give them a severe dressing down."
This time Leo didn't bother to hide his grin. "Not too severe, I hope. We're only human, my friend, and we all face temptation at one time or another. Send the rowdier ones to peel potatoes for a while and the rest can swab the decks. We want to look our finest, after all, when we arrive in Pentagulia."
Somewhere on the ship, a bell tolled the hour. Glancing up again at the Blue Star, the White Knight felt all his good humor drain out of him once again. His voice hardened. "And what of the Destroyer, that girl whom they call Lucia?"
The Second's voice matched the graveness of his commander. "Of her I have seen little. Like the blonde one, I believe she stayed in her cabin for the majority of the time and is now asleep, like the others." Greatly daring, the man blurted, "Why did you hesitate in killing her, Lord Leo? Was not our mission to find this girl and end her life before she could wreak her terrible powers upon Lunar?"
...do not know. I wish I understood what it is that I am feeling. I have never wavered in my duty to Althena before, so why? Why did I not have the will to strike down the Destroyer when I had the chance? What am I afraid of?
Leo cleared his throat. "I follow the will of the Goddess, yet in this matter I believe there is some room for consideration. These people who have traveled with the Destroyer believe her to be innocent and as one of the four protectors of Althena, it is my sacred duty to defend and uphold justice wherever I go. If, by mistake, I slay this woman and she was indeed innocent, my crime against humanity and my own conscience would be too great to bear. I know that by bringing this woman to Pentagulia I am failing in my orders. However, as we allow the condemned a final request before the executioner's blade falls, so shall this Lucia be granted her audience with Althena. I trust in the wisdom of the Goddess and, if I have transgressed far greater than any forgiveness can allow, then I shall willingly accept her divine punishment."
Falling silent, Leo let the space after his words be filled with the gentle lapping of the water against the sides of the Destiny as it cut smoothly through the swells. He knew these waters like the back of his hand and could easily navigate them in the dark. His Second, however, was another matter entirely. He was not gifted with the enhanced senses that only a demi-human could possess. Lifting his right hand off the wheel, Leo grasped a lever and pulled backward. The Destiny slowly ground to a halt as the anchor hit the ocean floor. Turning around fully, he nodded to his Second. "Take the helm and have someone wake me two hours past first light."
"Aye, sir. May the Goddess grant you a restful slumber."
The White Knight briefly placed his hand on the man's shoulder in gratitude before heading on in. As he approached the stairs, he paused. "Tell me," he inquired. "How much did you lose to the priest?" The Second flushed.
"Lord Leo, you don't seriously think that I would be privy to such-" One slim eyebrow rose in cool warning. A lie was one thing that could get a man in serious trouble aboard the Destiny. The second in command swallowed before drawing himself up stiffly. "I lost two hundred silver to that varlet. Should this ship go down, and Althena bless that it won't, may his ill-gotten gain drag him to the bottom of the ocean." Leo's lips twitched into a small smirk. He shook his head. That Ronfar! Would he never tire of taking the gullible for granted? With such thoughts tugging at his weary mind, he began the somewhat lengthy walk to his cabin. First, though, there was a small matter to attend to.
The ship's chapel was situated to be the first thing anyone saw leaving or going up to the top deck. It wasn't a fancy affair, for they were soldiers and not given to much flippery. But it was pristinely kept at all times. The metal floor was almost clean enough to eat from, if one had the mind to, and a white glove on the softly glowing marble statue of the Goddess would reveal not a smidgen of dust. No minister of the Chosen attended to them here; for while they held the priests in the highest respect, they also had the underlying contempt that all warriors feel for those who flaunt power yet do not have the strength to defend it. Likewise, the Chosen often frowned down on the army as being nothing more than brutes, their only purpose being to protect the churches that had been erected throughout Lunar and to help maintain the unruly peasantry.
Kneeling before the statue, the White Knight clasped his hands together and rested his forehead against them. "Forgive me, my lady, for I have sinned," he whispered. No one would hear his words, he was sure of it, save his Goddess who carefully cradled the crescent moon in her arms. "This day, I have created a most grievous lapse in character. For the past few weeks, my mission has been to seek out and destroy the creature known as Lucia. You yourself told me that were I to fail in this task, our world and the souls of all who dwell here would be placed in mortal jeopardy. Filled with righteous indignation and confident in my abilities as your White Knight, I swore to end the life of the Destroyer, even if it meant sacrificing myself in the doing." He snorted, bitterly. "Yet I was a fool. I was blinded by the light of my own reputation and vainly considered no demon born to be a match for me or the power you saw fit to grant me via the White Dragon." His teeth clenched and his eyes closed tightly as he fought down a wave of self-loathing. "I am a coward."
The stone eyes did not look at him, the tender smile as she held the moon in her arms did not falter. But now, the tranquil air of the chapel seemed to close in on him, crushing his spirit like the weight of a mountain settled on his shoulders. This is it, he sighed mentally. This is the disapproval of Althena. "I know I have failed you, and have earned your disfavor. But I feel so lost! I know not which way to turn. I have served you loyally my entire life. I have always walked the path of goodness and justice no matter how hard it was. Where others have fallen by the wayside, I have persevered. If my faith in you ever wavered, you were there to reaffirm it. But in this instance, though it pains me, I must in good conscience question your judgment." Taking a deep breath, he rushed forward. "My dear friend Ronfar, who was once one of the Chosen, believes that this girl Lucia is not as dangerous as we were first led to believe. He and his companions have risked their lives in an attempt to dissuade my search for her and begged me to spare her life. Against my better judgment, I allowed them to speak. I listened to their words, and as I did, my resolve began to waver. Though I knew in my head what was required of me, my heart screamed out against it."
Shame burned in the pale cheeks. "What is wrong with me? Of all the times to lose faith in what I believe, why now? Have I slipped so far into the depths of depravity to accept their lies as truth? Has the very presence of the Destroyer corrupted my mind?" Licking dry lips, he continued in an almost inaudible voice. His words were tremulous and underneath, laced with fear. "But what if they are correct and this girl is guiltless? If so, then I almost made a terrible and irectifiable mistake. Part of my vow as your protector was never to spill the blood of the innocent. Yet, these latest events have given me much cause for thought. If Ronfar is correct about Lucia, then how many others have I slain who did not deserve it? How many lives were cut short in your name, simply because you willed it?" Closing his eyes again, Leo reached out his hands and touched the base of the statue. "Please, my lady, guide me through this so that I may know how to best serve your will. You are my last hope. I need a sign, something to help guide me in the direction that you wish me to proceed. I leave it in your hands."
The statue glowed brightly for an instant, sending warmth through his chilled body. The love of the Goddess was strong, of that he had no doubt, but as he rose somewhat painfully to his feet, he realized that it had not imparted any further insight to his dilemma. Besides feeling vaguely refreshed and slightly more at ease for having prayed, Leo was still on his own. Well, as he had stated, he would trust in his faith. Althena would help him through this, he was certain. The ship rocked gently from side to side as the waves rolled it but he had long ago grown accustomed to the movement and so he strode purposefully toward the lower deck where his cabin was located. On his way, he passed by the galley. A rumbling in his stomach reminded him that he had not eaten anything since breakfast and it would behoove him to have a quick snack.
The rows of tables were not empty of occupants. Many of his men were draped on, or sprawled over, or lying under them. His foot hit something glass, making a loud clang as it fell over. A few of the soldiers moaned and grumbled in their stupor at the sound but soon resumed snoring. The bottle rolled across the room and was stopped under a foot. Ronfar leaned down and retrieved it, setting it upright on the table he sat at. He had been so still, Leo had missed seeing him upon first glance. "Hey there, buddy," he greeted the White Knight with a broad grin. "Come to help me count my winnings?" Leo scowled but his eyes twinkled with merriment.
"May Althena have mercy on your soul, you brigand," he growled. "You should know better than to roll the bones on my ship."
"Aww, don't be such a stick in the mud, Leo," Ronfar whined playfully. "I didn't even use my special dice on these guys. They lost most of their money betting each other how long it would take their friends to lose to me. A few of them got on a lucky streak, to be sure, but the cards have always been my friend. It wasn't too hard to win everything back, and then some." He gestured to the stacks of silver on the table that he had apparently been organizing into columns of twenty. There were a lot of stacks and his money pouch was bulging more then usual. Leo resisted the urge to launch into a lecture on morality. His words wouldn't make a difference at this point. Ronfar knew them all by heart, having once said them himself before he gave into the temptation of wine, easy women, and money. That had been before...
"Did you and your friends leave anything for me to eat or shall I be forced to catch my meal?" Leo asked, changing the subject in an attempt to draw his mind away from the depression he was heading into. Ronfar shrugged.
"I think your chef said that there was some chowder left in the pot, but if you're looking for any more fish you're out of luck. Red devoured them down almost faster then your man could cook them. That pickled cactus relish he put over it was great." Leo nodded and proceeded to the kitchenette. A large silver pot rested on the stove, a ladle handle protruding from the inside. Opening one of the cabinets, he retrieved a clean bowl and touched the side of the pot with the tips of his fingers. It was a little cooler then what he would have liked, but he was hungry and it wasn't freezing, at least. Serving himself a generous helping of what was left, he snagged a clean spoon from a drawer and returned to where his friend sat. He had removed the silver from the table top to allow Leo a place to set his bowl. In his hand, he casually tossed his favorite dice up and down.
"There is still some left, if you'd like some," Leo commented as he sat, lifting a spoonful of food to his mouth. Ronfar shook his head, though.
"No thanks. I've already eaten. Besides, you look like you're hungry enough for the both of us." Leo looked down at his bowl, which had been full when he'd sat down. In the space of a few words, it was half empty. "You should take better care of yourself, my friend. You work too hard, you'll eventually pass out on your feet." The White Knight raised an eyebrow caustically.
"It's been a busy day. You guys aren't easy to track, you know."
Ronfar chuckled ruefully and rubbed the back of his neck. "Yeah, well, if you weren't such a persistent bastard..."
Leo chuckled and scraped the last of the soup into his spoon. "I try." Licking the utensil clean, he placed it back in the bowl and stretched. He noticed Ronfar giving him a strange, serious look. "What's wrong?"
"Leo, I...that is, we never got the chance to really thank you for what you're doing for us. I know it must go against everything you stand for as one of Althena's four protectors. I just want to tell you that you made the right decision in allowing us to go with you to Pentagulia."
"It wasn't so much a willing decision than one I made out of necessity," was the suddenly chilly reply. "I know one way or another, the Destroyer and your friends would have found a means to enter the holy city. By doing this, I at least can keep an eye on that woman and make sure she doesn't try anything funny. You know what my orders were and I will carry them out if I deem it necessary."
But Ronfar made a negative sweep of hand. "Your orders were to kill her on sight, yet you didn't. You went against your orders. Why?" Leo shook his head, looking away. He couldn't meet his friend's eyes. A surprisingly soft hand reached out and gripped his forearm. "Hey, you okay?"
"Ronfar..." He couldn't say the words that burned in his mouth. They were simply too painful. Instead, he attempted to remove his arm from his friend's grasp. "It's nothing. Don't worry yourself on my account." But the gambling priest held on firmly.
"No, something is wrong. I can tell by your expression. Please, whatever it is, I'm here for you. You're my best friend in the world. Hell, I have you to thank for introducing me to Mauri. You know there isn't anything I wouldn't do for the two of you." He had seen Leo in many moods before, but it when those dark eyes finally sought out his, he audibly gasped. One thing he had never seen was fear in his friend, but there it was.
"I...I can't explain," was the strangled answer. "Please, just let it be..." Pulling away, the White Knight jumped to his feet and began to leave. Ronfar half started after him.
"Leo...wait..." The other man hesitated, though his whole being screamed of a wild animal ready to bolt at the first sign of trouble. The priest remained standing where he was, lest he inadvertently chase his friend off. "You're worried about what will happen when we reach Pentagulia. That's what this is all about, isn't it?" He was met with stony silence. "Isn't it?"
"Answer the question, Leo."
"Yes! All right?! Does that satisfy you?" Spinning on his heel he stormed back up into his friend's face. "You want to know how I feel? Fine! You said it yourself. I can see everything I once held so dearly crumbling around me. What if you are correct, and Lucia is not the Destroyer? Does that mean Althena is wrong? And if she is, has she been wrong in other things as well? Have I been wrong all this time, too? This ship, my very post as the White Knight, means everything in the world to me. My devotion to Althena is one based on complete servitude to her will. I have never once failed to complete a task she has assigned to me. I have never questioned her orders nor my faith in her wisdom. But now..." Taking a step back, he wrapped his arms around himself, turning his face to the side.
Ronfar completed that thought. "Now you're starting to wonder if perhaps the world is not a place made of black and white alone, but many shades of gray instead." He gave a small laugh and leaned against the edge of the table, rolling his dice in one hand. They made a "click-click" sound as they brushed together. "I hate to break it to you, buddy, but that's the way of the world. Things are never cut as clearly as we would have liked. There is sometimes good in the bad and bad in the good, or things that seem bad really aren't bad at all. That's part of the reason why I left the Chosen. I couldn't conform to an order that believes that they alone know what is best for the people. So I left and decided to see for myself if everything was as wrong as they church proclaimed it to be." The man laughed again, adjusting the weed he had perpetually clamped between his teeth. "Of course, it wasn't all for unselfish reasons, no sir! There are just some things that a man has to have to survive, and two of them are a fine champagne and a pretty girl to lick it off of."
Leo looked aghast at this statement. "Ronfar, how can you be so...so blithe about all of this? Don't you understand that my entire value system is being brought into question?" Sighing, he covered his eyes with one hand as he felt a tension headache forming. "Things were so much easier before that girl ever came. I just....I just with that Althena had given me some sort of sign to help me understand what it is I am supposed to do." He felt Ronfar's hands close on his shoulders and give him a gentle shake.
"I once heard a legend that told of how Althena, seeing that her children were becoming too dependent on her, chose to become a mortal and decided to be reborn on Lunar as an infant. She was raised in the home of a simple family of Burg along with their son, Alex. They had many adventures together and faced hardships that tested their faith, just as you are doing now. Then came the Magic Emperor, and the three sisters of the Vile Tribe, all seeking to restore the Goddess to her rightful form as the supreme deity of this world."
Leo scoffed and tried to shake free. "Ronfar, you waste my time with children's stories!"
"Shut up and listen to me, Leo!" Ronfar ordered. "It's for your own good." The White Knight calmed and waited impatiently for his friend to get to the point. Such tales like this were pointless. He needed help, not a bedtime story! Ronfar continued, gazing sternly at the other man. "Even after the Goddess was reawakened to her true power, she chose not to remain that way and, instead, resumed her human form. She knew, as I think you do, that mankind must find their own paths to follow."
"What you have said has nothing to do with me!" Leo protested. Ronfar made a frustrated sound in his throat.
"By the Blue Star, Leo, can you try to be a little open minded for once in your life? Look, when Mauri was learning how to walk again, after the illness, did you hold her hand every step of the way?"
"Of course not! The sickness had weakened her muscles, not her spirit. I helped her at first but as she got stronger I was able to let her go more on her own. Soon she could walk by herself and no longer needed my support."
"Exactly. And that was the lesson Althena was trying to teach humanity. When you become dependent on another person to do your thinking for you, you lose the ability to do so on your own. It is only by taking those first painful steps by ourselves that we can eventually come to walk on our own, without her constant supervision."
"But Althena has given me no answer as to what I should do!"
"Maybe her silence is your answer, Leo. Maybe she is saying that you have a perfectly good, if sometimes dense, head on your shoulders and it's about time to start using it on your own." Smiling, Ronfar stepped back, letting his hands drop back to his sides. "Trust your heart on this one, Leo. That's the best advice I think that anyone can give you right now." Settling back down, the gambling priest closed his eyes. "I'm going to sleep now. I want to catch this lot bright an early to see if they are interested in losing any more silver to me. I suggest you get some rest too. I don't know what your men would do if you should suddenly collapse on us, but it probably involves sticking their swords into my tender parts and making Lucia walk the nearest plank."
Leo regarded Ronfar for a few seconds longer before turning and striding from the room. His spirits were at an all time low after their conversation and he felt doubly sure now, more then ever, that if his friend hadn't quit the Chosen, he would have made an excellent high priest. He was one hell of a speaker. The halls were empty and silent save for the slight hum of the lights and his footfalls on the metal floor as he wound his way through the tunnel-like atmosphere to his cabin. Dismissing the lone guard on duty to his quarters, Leo stepped into the well-furnished room and quickly took off his things before falling onto his bed. The steady movement of the ship helped to calm his turbulent thoughts somewhat, but did not ease his troubled soul. Ronfar's words kept coming back to him and he found that sleep, it seemed, was a long time from coming. Staring up into the seemingly endless darkness above his bed, he held his breath for a moment and listened. No sound reached him this far down in the belly of the Destiny, just as no help from his Goddess had reached him during his prayers. And yet, even as he thought about this, part of the conversation kept replaying in his mind.
Maybe her silence is your answer... Trust your heart on this one, Leo.
Suddenly, the White Knight sat up straight in his bed, his heart beating wildly, his breath coming short. "No, this isn't possible...is it?"
Maybe her silence is your answer...
Though I knew in my head what was required of me, my heart screamed out against it.
Trust your heart on this one, Leo.
"Can it be? Is this the sign that I prayed for?" Shaking so hard that he could barely move, Leo nearly fell as he leapt out of bed. Dropping to his knees, he placed his hands together and allowed a relieved, and somewhat unsteady breath to be exhaled from his lips. "Thank you Althena! I see now the path you have laid before me. I shall indeed follow my heart and bring Lucia to you in the holy city, there to await whatever fate you have in store for her. Though I doubted Ronfar's words at first, I now know that he spoke the truth. It is only by making our own choices that we can learn to walk by ourselves. And though at times we may stumble, we know you are there to help us if we need you. Of what use is a child who always clings dependently to their mother? So must we, your children, learn to let go of your guiding hand and venture out into the unknown." A pleased and infinitely more relaxed smile settled on his lips. "Your wisdom, as always, is flawless. Forgive me for questioning your judgment in this matter. I remain your faithful servant." With a lighter heart than he'd had in the past few days, the White Knight crawled into his bed and slept soundly, comforted by his own new understanding and the vision of Althena smiling.