Misty Lear's hearing was tuned to the bedlamic cries of the dragons, so it wasn't hard to identify new company.
Her guest approached with light, almost inaudbile, footfalls, and a strange metallic creak. Someone human, but not entirely so. No doubt it was another of the foolish soldiers who had come to brave the Urssa Lava Caverns beyond, and to tame the legendary Marquis within.
And then she saw him, the slender youth who looked to be in his twenties. His raven hair was cut unevenly and tipped in blond at the bangs. He moved with aloof, catlike grace, his muscles well-defined in spite of his gaunt frame, and his expression betraying pride.
What caught Misty Lear's attention, however, was the silver attachment that replaced one of his arms. It was perfectly fused into flesh and bone, and its phalanges were razor claws. By the way he carried it as though it were his real arm, the transfusion must have been executed a long time ago. It was a very delicate procedure that promised intense pain . . .
A child of alchemy. A child of alchemy had come. How . . . interesting.
"And you are . . . ?"
His ruby eyes settled coldly on her, measuring her warily. "They call me Albel." A second's pause, then: "The Wicked."
"Have you come to tame the Marquis, then?"
"None of your business, maggot," came the frigid riposte.
"If I'm a maggot," she challenged, her mind stimulated by the presence of someone who could actually talk to her, unlike the little dragons that inhabited this region. "What are you, O Wicked One?"
"Tch." It was apparent that, though his features had an arrogant edge, self-hate raged in his icy glare. "I'm called Albel The Wicked of the Black Brigade, therefore I am. There is no need for further elaboration."
"You're no more human than I am," she went on. "Born of the flesh and blood of your parents. Even that arm of yours was created by men. Or am I wrong?"
He didn't respond, but the stigma of hatred grew ever so strongly. She was right, of course. But he'd be damned if he was going to admit it.
It had been nearly ten years of toiling and stepping on other people, just so he'd feel better about himself, so that he would gain the strength he lacked that day . . . How Albel scorned the weak--they reflected what he hated most in himself--weakness. Really, that was all to it.
"Shut up," he spat out. "You know nothing."
"I know that your artificial limb is a product of alchemy and symbology," she retorted, unrelenting. "I know that the operation involved excruciating agony on your part; connecting symbology-embed metals to your nerves must have been a highly unpleasant experience. But do you know the law of conservation, Albel of the Black Brigade?"
When he only raised his eyebrow, she explained, "The law of conservation of energy is the rule that governs us alchemists. It states that energy can neither be destroyed nor created, but it can be transformed. You can't lose anything without gaining something in return, and vice versa. When you lost your arm, you eventually gained a new one. Both are of equal weight."
"I lost my father." His tone was flat, impassive. "What did that get me?"
"Maybe you ought to consider what he gained when he lost his life," she suggested calmly.
The sharp flicker in his eyes and the clenching of his jaw were enough to give her the gist of what really happened.
"A life for a life," he muttered in a low, spiteful voice. "Damn."
She cleared her throat, feeling as though she owed him her story in exchange of his. "My daughter died not too long ago. I've been right here since then, trying to figure out a way to bring her back." Her ashen fingers rose to brush away stray strands of dark hair. "With much time and effort, I can probably recreate her body--but a soul is beyond the powers of alchemy, and without it nobody is truly human. I cannot bring my daughter back without bringing along her soul."
He smirked, concealing his relief that the topic had gone elsewhere. "Resurrection? That's impossible, woman. You live, you die--that's the way things are."
"Impossible is a word for those without dreams," Misty Lear remarked, a little miffed by his reaction. Most people would at least express their grievances before they mocked her ideals.
He saw his father die saving him, and lost his arm somewhere along the road, she reminded herself. And at least he dropped the 'maggot' act.
She then felt something smooth rest upon her palm. It was a strange stone that emitted a greenish glow. Startled, she looked questioningly up at her benefactor.
He shrugged his shoulders nonchalantly. "I found it in the caves. It's called a Spirit Stone, or something relatively similar." When she opened her mouth th reply, he broke in, rather hastily, with a touch of defensiveness: "Don't get the wrong idea. I merely find no use for it. And it's not like I believe in your overly utopian ambition to revive your daughter."
Her lips curled into a smile. "Thank you."
"Bah. It's just a rock."
"Perhaps," she acknowledged. "But it gives me hope."
He apparently did not know what to make of this, accustomed to being treated with fear and respect, because he ignored the statement and began a new one. "There's a workshop at Peterny. There are other inventors there who may be of use to you. They work for my companions--"
"Friends of yours?" she asked.
"Fools," he corrected, "who meddle too much in matters that are not theirs. If it weren't for them, I would not be in this pathetic quest to assist them in enlisting the Marquis' participation in the war."
"So, you have a workshop in Peterny, and you think that if I go there, I may get help?"
"Perhaps your little human mind isn't enough to fulfill your dream," he scoffed. "I just want to see if you'll succeed even with the aid of others." He glanced at the setting sun, sighing in feigned vexation, and promptly resuming his journey. "I've wasted too much time on the likes of you."
"Off to challenge the Marquis?" she called behind him.
"Off to win." he responded without bothering to stop or look back. His steel phalanges were curled tightly around his katana.
She found herself unable to read him. Was it anger that drove him now, or the need for retribution? Or was he just doing what was necessary?
He was an intriguing one, this man who called himself Albel the Wicked. He was obviously an experienced warrior, but he was still a child, trapped in that memory of his.
Misty Lear chuckled softly to herself. She would have much to tell her daughter . . . Her travels, her discoveries, her inventions--and the enigmatic warrior who came from Airyglyph's Black Brigade, and entrusted to her the Spirit Stone . . .